Under the Sassafras
A Bon Amie Novel – Book 1
Nestled between the Atchafalaya Basin and Sugar Island lies Bon Amie, a friendly, quiet town, where nothing exciting ever happens. Until Joelette Benoit’s two sons find a man washed up in the murky water at the edge of the swamp.
Joelette Benoit, a widowed single mother, has sworn to never believe the promises of another sweet talking man. Fiercely independent and determined, she’s hidden away her heart, while struggling to provide for her two sons and lively mother-in-law. She swears the stranger will stay one night, and one night only, until she discovers he has no memory. Now duty-bound to aid him, Joelette decides to offer him a place to heal in exchange for his labor.
Against the colorful backdrop of life on the bayou, she watches as he immerses himself not only in her family but also in her town. She can do little to prevent her sons from bonding with the only man they’ve come to trust since the death of their father. Though she, too, is drawn to his kindness and vulnerability, she will not risk the heart of her family because without a past, this man cannot promise a future. But when his memory returns and he realizes he has blood on his hands, he knows he has unfinished business to attend to before he can claim the family he has grown to love.
* finalist in Valley Forge RWA Sheila contest
* finalist in Tampa Area TARA contest
Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana
Joelette Benoit’s footsteps made little noise on the soft ground moss as she gathered herbs in the morning light. She stopped, closed her eyes for a moment taking in the smells; wild hyacinth, warm earth, even the decaying fallen trees had their own odor. She loved this swamp in the morning.
The sound of a bull gator bellowing for a mate forced laughter from her. “If you’re smart you’ll swim the other way old gal. Men are never worth the trouble.” Everything was peaceful and calm, until the voices of her two sons told a different story.
She listened, as her two son’s voices grew louder.
“He’s dead, right?” Ozamae asked.
“Not yet,” T-Boy answered his little brother. “Mama, you better hurry, this is important.” His voice, normally so even-toned sounded tense and frightened.
Joelette froze. She straightened from a bent position, fresh sassafras root in her hand. “Are you or your brother hurt?”
Joelette dropped her morning’s collection and raced toward the sound of her sons’ voices. “T-Boy, answer me.” When he didn’t answer immediately panic rose in her throat, sharp and painful.
“No mama, we’re okay, but we found something big,” T-Boy called back.
“He’s really big, mama,” Ozamae, her youngest added. “I think he’s dead.”
“It’s a man, mama,” T-Boy said. “See, he’s not dead, he’s breathing.“
“Get back! Both of you, don’t touch him,” Joelette yelled between short gasps of breath. Her heart raced as she ran on legs the consistency of mush. Willing them to move faster she cleared the space between the levee and where her boys stood. There at the edge of the bayou lay a body, his bottom half covered in the murky swamp.
An eruption of splashing water startled her as a flock of pouldeaus skittered across the water. Peace and control shattered.
“Look what you did, Ozamae You scared the birds away. You’re such a baby,” T Boy said.
“I’m not a baby. MaeMae said that those are stupid ducks and have the grace of an elephant when they fly. Right, mama?”
She finally reached her boys and took in the sight of them. Neither were hurt. Relief washed over her. She sucked in air, filling her lungs, then breathing it out slowly. “I told you two to step back.” She grabbed both of the boys and pushed them behind her, away from the man.
Joelette carefully approached the man, then reached down and felt for a pulse. It was amazingly strong. Her foot slipped and sank into the soft muck at the edge of the swamp. She caught herself, then continued her study of the man. His eyes were closed and his face was pale with a tinge of blue. His lips were held together in a tight line caked with mud. More mud caked his hair and a large portion of his forehead. Nothing on him moved.
“He’s not dead, is he mama?” Ozamae asked, his voice quivering with the promise of tears.
She straightened and looked at her sons. Ozamae was shaking so she pulled him into a tight hug. “No baby, he’s not dead, but he is hurt. But we have a lot of work to do to keep him alive.” She took a deep breath, then looked at her oldest son. “T-Boy, run back to the truck, and get a jug of water and one of the towels wrapped around the herbs,” Joelette instructed. “Hurry now.”
Checking her surroundings, she turned her attention to the soft ground around the man, it yielded nothing. No footprints, no tire tracks, no sign of a struggle. What kind of man wandered around the swamp? And at night, no less? Not a local, that’s for sure. A local knew enough to fear the swamp when you couldn’t see where to walk. Where had he come from? How did he get here?
She squeezed her hands into fist to keep them from shaking. Her nails dug into her palms as she continued to stare at the man before her. The breeze she felt earlier was gone as were the sounds of the swamp. Even the constant chatter of her young son with his many questions had fallen silent.
It was as if everyone and everything waited for her. Waited for her to take charge and make things right. This poor man presented her with just one more thing she had to take responsibility for. Taking another deep breath she shrugged her shoulders, such was life. Her life anyway.
One thing her mother-in-law, MaeMae, had taught her was everything hurt deserved help. Even this man. Of course with MaeMae, things were different. She had the calling. The gift of a healer, but more important, she was a woman that never judged and forgave with a drop of a hat. Joelette, on the other hand, thought of herself as more careful and cautious.
Joelette sighed, bent down and with knowing hands felt along his limbs for broken bones and checked his abdomen for indications of internal bleeding. She sniffed his breathe for signs of drink. “That’s a plus he didn’t pass out drunk,” she muttered.
She closed her eyes, and could still smell the liquor on her late husband’s breath. It seemed he had stumbled into bed every night smelling like the bottle. Even three years after his death, the scent still lingered in her mind.
“Is he okay, mama? What’s wrong with him? I think we need to keep him and make sure he’s okay, don’t you?” Ozamae’s questions once again filled the air.
“Slow down hon, give me a moment to think.”
T-Boy returned with water and the towel. She inhaled, absorbing the smell of wild rosemary that clung to the towel as she soaked it in water, then wrung it out and wiped the dark sticky mud from the man’s closed eyes. Insect bites and cuts covered every visible part of his body.
She sat on her heels and stared down at the man, wishing
the cool damp towel would wake him. Yet hoping it wouldn’t. His face bore no resemblance to anyone she knew or anyone she’d seen in town. If he woke now would he be a danger to them? She shuddered at the thought, and to think, she was about to bring him where they lived. What a mess.
“Mom, can we keep him?” Ozamae asked stretching his little body as tall as his small frame would allow.
“No!” T-Boy yelled. “Let’s throw him back in the swamp. I think he’s a bad man. Or a swamp creature.”
“He’s not a swamp creature. And we don’t know what kind of man he is,” Joelette replied to T-Boy’s concerns. Was he a bad man? She drew in a deep breath. Keeping her family safe was the most important thing in her life. No more hurt, she vowed, her sons had been through enough.
“No, please mama, we found him,” Ozamae begged. She heard the hopefulness in Ozamae’s voice.
It took everything she had to keep her voice steady, and not show her concern to her sons. “Boys, listen to you. No, Ozamae, we’re not keeping this man.”
Looking up into the sad eyes of her youngest son, she softened her reply. “I’m sure he belongs to someone. Besides you don’t find a stranger in the swamp and make him a member of your family, I’m sure he has a family of his own.”
“See I told you,” T-Boy said, and then proceeded to poke his tongue out at his brother. He looked up at his mother. “Please throw him back,” he pleaded in a whisper.
As she looked at her older son, only nine years old, pleading to not keep this man, her heart raced. “T-Boy, I’m surprised at you. You are never this unkind. Of course we’re not throwing him back. We’ll get him into the truck, and see what MaeMae can do, it’s the right thing to do.”
MaeMae would know what to do. Then this man could return to his life and they could return to theirs. He would be no different than any other of their patients. If MaeMae could not help him, they could call Dr. Adams in Lafayette.
She smiled at T-Boy. “Everything will be okay and he’ll wake up soon. Stop worrying.” Pulling Ozamae to her, she gave him a squeeze. “As soon as he’s awake, or when MaeMae says, he’ll be on his way, understand?”
And not a moment more.
Joelette didn’t need to take care of another useless man. This man had already interfered in her daily routine, she’d dropped her herbs when she’d come running and now they’d probably blown into the swamp. Thankfully when people healed they could live on their own, else he’d be stuck in their back yard like the rest of Ozamae’s rescued animals.
“Okay boys, let’s get him into the bed of the truck. I’ll move it as close as I can without bogging down.” She pointed to the top of the levee. “Sit over there, and remember keep your distance in case he comes to.”
She ran back to the truck, the sound of her boys arguing rang in her ears. She’d have to work twice as hard tomorrow to make up for lost time. Gathering roots and herbs served two purposes, one for MaeMae’s treatments, the other for Joelette’s small business she was trying to grow. She made teas for a multiple array of health and beauty issues. Here lately the teas were beginning to get attention, and she was beginning to have a small profit.
Joelette guided the truck through the trees. Backing-up a vehicle was second nature, her dad had taught her well. With six brothers, she’d sure had enough practice. They’d preferred to sit in the boat, and direct her in backing up the trailer into the canal. Joelette shook her head; she couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t taking care of a man one-way or other.
T-Boy and Ozamae sat on the levee still arguing. She set the brake on the truck. The truck’s bed sat a little lower than the small levee.
“Let’s go boys. You’ve got to help me get him in the truck. Both of you put your hands under his right arm I’ll get the left. Then we’ll slide him down into the bed.” She glanced sadly at her two small sons; they should be chasing bullfrogs instead of helping a wounded stranger. Then again, this would sure teach them compassion. “Try to be careful,” she added.
Together they inched the unconscious man to the top of the levee, then onto the truck bed. Sweat dripped down her back and she blew a puff of air up to her forehead. Joelette pillowed the man’s head on the burlap sacks filled with herbs. His feet and legs hung out the back, preventing her from closing the tailgate. She’d have to drive real slowly to make sure he didn’t slide right out onto the road.
She climbed up and then stood on the hood and pulled low hanging Spanish moss out of the trees. “Take this and put it on the back of the truck,” Joelette said as she grabbed another arm full. Then, using the moss, she padded his body hoping it would cushion him against the bumps of the road.
“T-Boy, ride here.” Joelette patted the passenger side of the truck. She adjusted the side mirror. “Watch here,” she tapped on the glass, “to see if he starts to fall out or wake up.” Ozamae crawled in between them and they were off.
Ozamae scooted over closer to Joelette. She could feel the warmth of his body as he molded it to fit hers. “He’s big, huh, Mom?”
“That he is, baby.”
“I wish we could keep him, he would make a big daddy.”
His words hung as an iron weight around her heart. He had such longing and hopefulness for such a young child. He’d been only two when Otis died and he didn’t remember much about his dad, but his little heart had always yearned for one. “Ozamae, we do not need another daddy. We do all right without one. We take care of each other, like a family should. Okay, buddy?”
“Someone needs to keep him.” He replied matter of fact. Ozamae’s head turned and looked at her face. “Are you mad at him?”
Joelette sighed. “No, I’m not mad at him sweetie, I don’t even know him.” Glancing at the concerned look on Ozamae’s face, she patted his leg. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. Let’s see what MaeMae thinks of his injuries and then I’ll take him to see Dr. Adams in Lafayette.”
“MaeMae will make him better, you’ll see. He won’t have to go to the hospital,” Ozamae said.
“Mom, stop the truck! Something fell out the back.” T-Boy yelled.
Joelette slammed the breaks. Her legs all but buckled as she jumped out. She was relieved to see it was only a fallen sack of herbs in the road. As she replaced the sack on the truck she bent over and felt the man’s pulse. “Still alive.” She gently moved a lock of his mud-and-blood-caked hair off his face. She tucked the Spanish moss snug under his body.
She bent closer and whispered, “I don’t know where you came from or why you were placed in our hands today, but you have caused an uproar. You’ve made me miss a good day’s work, scared my oldest son, but most of all you have stolen my baby’s heart. Just know if you hurt either of them, I will throw you back in the bayou myself, dead or alive.”