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Big Lige

The Cypress-laden swamp of the black water Ohoopee River basin in Georgia once was home to many hidden moonshine stills where rough, swamp men in overalls would regularly gather to socialize. These men, believing they were smarter than their womenfolk, would leave their homes very early in the mornings, telling their brides that they were going hunting or fishing. Being more intelligent than the men, as is usually the case, the women knew very well that they were being lied to. No matter—as long as the men were out of the house, the women were happy enough. Raising children was hard enough without taking care of the men who were far more challenging to raise. Some things will always remain the same.

Most of the men at these gatherings were fine, upstanding church folks who would never think of taking a drink for any other purpose except to ward off an ailment. The trouble was that there seemed to be many illnesses lurking around in that dark, damp swamp back in those days, and it took quite a bit of the White Lightning elixir to keep a man healthy. While there were always a few heathen, hard-drinking, poker-playing types in the gathered crowds, it was almost always the upstanding folks who seemed to cause a ruckus.

Just as men gathered in groups have always done and will do forever, these fine, upstanding men would begin sharing stories amongst themselves. As the night wore on and more elixir was applied, tongues would loosen and lies would start to slip into the stories. Inevitably at some point, the storyteller would tuck his thumbs into the galluses of his tattered overalls, cock his head back, and just plain get loud. Some of the more experienced orators would even begin to let a sort of cadence creep into their words as they spoke. This was a definite sign that the story had morphed into a tale, as all the truth had trickled out and lies taken over. This in itself wouldn’t have been a problem, but for the inexplicable fact that drunken men always insist that their lies are to be believed. This condition is born out of that manly virtue of always having to be right.

A tale in itself isn’t really a problem, not even on the ‘Hoopee. The problem is that at some point, a tale morphs into an argument. The following is an account of one such argument that broke out not far from Mule Pen Creek, down on the Ohoopee backwaters back in 1962.

In the words of Cletus T. Wilson, “Some folks gets plum sweet when drinking ‘shine, but mosts ‘round here gets ornery as a dad-gummed rattlesnake in a puddle of turpentine.” Well, old Delmont Thompson of Mule Pen Creek was one of the rattlesnake variety, and on this particular evening, he was “preachin’ on the hill by the still,” as Cletus told it.

Delmont was telling the fellows how it was that The Ohoopee River got its name. Already red-faced and slurring his drawl, Delmont was laying it on thick. With his thumbs already tucked securely into the galluses of his overalls, he blurted out, “Them Injun’s word, ‘Ohoopee,’ means Land of the Cypress Knees. I know it to be the truth because my own pappy tolt me so hisself right-chur by this same ole still when I was a youngun.”

He went on to say, “My sainted mother, what never tolt a lie in her life said it were a fact, what Pappy tolt me. Grandpappy growed up with them danged old injuns and learnt their language better’n they knowed it.”

With each new claim, Delmont would repeat, “My sainted mother, what never tolt a lie in her life said it were fact.”

Most of them good ole boys around the still would make a comment now and then to let ole Delmont know that they were listening. None dared to dispute his story. They all were afraid of Delmont, and for a good reason, too. That rascal was as mean as a snake and didn’t think nothing about drawing a gun on anyone who provoked him. There was no telling what minor thing might set him off; he had a short fuse. Simply put, he was a trigger-happy nut. Nobody liked Delmont, but nobody had been brave or foolish enough to confront him up until this day.

Lige Frederick was half Indian, a dark-skinned, gentle man whose soul seemed to spread its light out in all directions. He spent long hours in the swamp, gathering flowers and mimicking various birds. Nothing ever seemed to bother Lige at all. He just minded his own business and seemed to live in his own little, peaceful world among the birds and other critters. None of the men gathered around that still could recall ever hearing Lige speak a single word. Some believed that he couldn’t speak at all. Rumor had it, though, that he had once sung beautiful hymns as a child before the unfortunate incident that had taken his mom, who was a Creek Indian princess.

Because he tended to speak in bird language, some called him a “strange bird,” but never in earshot of Big Lige. Nobody dared hurt this gentle soul’s feelings. Lige was 6’ 9” tall and as strong as an ox. He had once picked up Phillip Spearman’s horse, threw her across his shoulders, and carried her four miles through the swamp after she sprained her fore-ankle. Men like Lige didn’t need to do a lot of talking, and if they liked picking flowers and singing like the birds, well, that was just fine.

On the other hand, Delmont was a pale, little, wiry fellow with a foul mouth and an authority on everything. He had once shot his own horse when it awakened him during a cold winter’s night. It was a rare occasion when Delmont wasn’t running his fool and foul mouth. He was continually trying to pick a fight whenever he was talking, and he was always jabbering about something or someone.

In the flickering darkness of the campfire, Lige sat quietly and looked intently into Delmont’s beady eyes the entire time that he was going on about those Indians and the Ohoopee. Lige would just nod every now and then and take another sip of whiskey. Once in a while, in a rare silence between Delmont’s words, Lige would suddenly issue forth the repeated call of the whippoorwill. This wasn’t strange at all to those of us who knew Big Lige. After Lige gave forth one of his bird calls, the swamp would soon be filled with birdsong.

I will let Cletus tell you the rest of the story because he was there:

“So ‘bout halfway through Delmont’s tale, I begins to notice a red tinge come over ole Lige’s face, but he just sat there like a knot on a log, lookin’ at Delmont talkin’. That’s when Delmont commenced saying something else about how them Injuns done named the river, The Land of the Cypress Tree, except for this time Delmont called them Injuns, ‘stupid savages.’ He finished up with ‘It’s the truth as sure as my dad’s name was Jeremiah L. Thompson. My ole mom who never tolt a lie done said so.’"

According to Cletus, “Right then’s when Big Lige commenced to standing up. Now big Lige was a gentle giant of a man, and Delmont weren’t but 5.5’ tall at most but made up the rest in meanness and mouth. He wasn’t knowed for backin’ down.”

Cletus continued, “Well, Lige was so dang big that he had to stand up in sections, but when he got all the way up, his old face was redder than the fire under that still. To everyone’s surprise, Big Lige bellowed out in a most savagely deep voice anyone had ever heard, ‘Delmont Thompson, if’n you believe that hogwash that ya mama tolt you about Jeremiah Thompson bein ya pappy, it’s a no wonder ya believe that lie old Jeremiah tolt you about them danged old Injuns! If’n they was naming a river, why in the heck would they name it The LAND of anythang? Any danged fool knows a river is made of water, not land, and every dad-burned-body up and down this here river knows yer lying mama ain’t never had no idea who might be yer pappy. If’n anybody here is stupid and savage, it is you Delmont!’

"The entire forest went quiet except for Lige’s words that now echoing across the ‘Hoopee. The birds stopped their singin’, and all us fellows eased off into the woods. We ain’t had no idea that Big Lige could even talk at all, and we shore wasn’t expecting what we’d just witnessed. We knowed, however, they were fixin’ to be trouble.”

Cletus went on with the story, “It don’t make for good tellin’, what happened next, and ain’t none of us really sure, cause we was all trying to skedaddle afore the trouble commenced. Yes, I’m shamed to admit it, but I was a running away, too. Then something tolt me I should stay. I ducked in behind an old Cypress stump and hunkered down. The rest of ‘em high tailed it toward the old logging road that led out of the swamp. I stuck my fool head out from behind that stump just in time to see Delmont aim his old pistol at Big Lige’s head. I yelled for Lige to look out as I got to my feet and run toward them two fellers. That’s when I slipped in the black ‘Hoopee mud.

As I was falling, I heard the calls of what seemed like a million birds. Then the report of Delmont’s pistol followed my more birds. Right then, my head struck an old Cypress knee, and I went out like a light. Least I think I heard them things afore my ole head got smashed in. When I come to, it was barely still daylight, there weren’t a soul around. They was a bunch of feathers a laying all over the ground. I called out to Lige and Delmont but got no answer. From the blackness that was now devouring the swamp, I heard the call of a lone whippoorwill.

Don’t ask me how that it is that I knowed it, but I did. I wasn’t ever going to see neither of them two boys again. The swamp had taken one away and taken the other’n in. Something told me that Big Lige was okay, and I was okay with knowing that little Delmont probably wasn’t. He never had been okay, and nobody was ever really okay with him. Weren’t no bodies ever found. Both them boys just up and vanished into that old swamp.”

Cletus gave me his account of these events over six years ago. They supposedly occurred over 56 years ago; I only recently wrote them down. I wasn’t so sure that Cletus himself wasn’t just telling tales, as he was half lit when he told it to me. To be truthful, I had almost forgotten about this story altogether until I returned to the Ohoopee when old Cletus passed. On my way out of town after the funeral, I decided to fish a spell.

I was about a mile off the highway where I had followed an old logging road down to the river. The shadows were already creeping down the banks of the river as I sat down on an old cypress stump. That’s when I first heard it. To begin with, I thought it was merely bird’s singing in the distance, but straining my ears, I was sure that I could hear a hauntingly beautiful and familiar hymn emanating from somewhere in the swamp. Yes, I was sure of it. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” I could barely make out the angelic singing, but it was there. Straining to hear the beautiful music that I was now convinced was emanating from the old church down the road, I cast my line out. My cork struck a tree with a loud gunshot-like pop, and simultaneously the distant music seemed to die out. My red and white cork splashed down into a little pocket of black water at the base of the tree. Subtle waves cascaded out from my cork, disturbing the water’s stillness and slowly making their way to the far bank of the river. My gaze followed the wavelets as they bounced toward the distant shoreline.

I was startled to spot a very tall, ghostly figure of an old man standing along the far bank, waving in my direction. Birdsong filled the air as the figure faded into the forest. An uncanny feeling that I was being watched struck something deep within me. Fear drove me to get out of that swamp immediately. I wanted to run, but my legs failed to cooperate. A cold sweat enveloped my soul as I slowly walked to my truck. I was too scared to run, lest I might fall and be overtaken.

I was relieved when I finally reached my truck and even more so when it cranked on the first try. Already, horror movie scenarios were running through my fear-addled brain. I made my way out of the swamp, traversing that old logging road. Directly, I came to the church from which I thought the music had originated. There wasn’t a soul there, and the building wasn’t lit.

Curiosity got the best of me as I drove into the dirt parking lot, stopping just in front of the stairs at the church’s entrance. Aided by the remaining ambient light, I could see that the old stairs were rotted away. The church had obviously been abandoned for years. Where had that beautiful music come from? There was no other church nor dwelling within 10 miles.

As I shifted into reverse to leave, a bird flew just over my truck and swooped up onto the cross of the church’s steeple. I rolled down my window to get a better look just as the lone whippoorwill now perched on the church steeple began its enchantingly melodic repetition. In the distance, back toward the swamp, the faint, sweet hymn resumed accompanied by choruses of birdsong. The lone whippoorwill flew back into the swamp from which it had come. As the night settled itself comfortably into a bed of darkness, the tension drained from my body. The moon began to rise from behind the trees, a gentle giant spreading its iridescence out in all directions. Big Lige had just confided in me; this story was no tale but the truth.

– Mike Braswell

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