We never had no trouble from Mister Watson, and from what we seen, he never caused none, not amongst his neighbors. All his trouble come to him from the outside.
E. J. Watson turned up at Half Way Creek back in 1892, worked on the produce farms awhile, worked in the cane. Hard worker, too, but it don’t seem like he hoed cane for the money, it was more like he wanted a feel for our community. Strong, good-looking feller in his thirties, dark red hair, well made, thick through the shoulders but no fat on him, not in them days. Close to six foot and carried himself well, folks noticed him straight off and no one fooled with him. First time you seen the man you wanted him to like you—he was that kind. Wore a broad black hat and a black frock coat with big pockets, made him look bulky. Times we was cutting buttonwood with ax and hand saw, two-three cords a day—that’s hot, hard, humid work, case you ain’t done it—Ed Watson never changed that outfit. Kept that coat on over his denim coveralls, he said, cause he never knew when he might expect some company from up north. Might smile a little when he said that but never give no explanation.
Folks didn’t know where this stranger come from and nobody asked. You didn’t ask a man hard questions, not in the Ten Thousand Islands, not in them days. Folks will tell you different today, but back then there weren’t too many in our section that wasn’t on the run from someplace else. Who would come to these rain-rotted islands with not hardly enough high ground to build a outhouse, and so many miskeeters plaguing you in the bad summers you thought you’d took the wrong turn straight to Hell?
Old Man William Brown was cutting cane, and he listened to them men opining how this Watson feller was so able and so friendly. Old Man William took him a slow drink of water, give a sigh. Willie Brown said, “Well, now, Papa, is that sigh a warnin?” And his daddy said, “I feel somethin, is all. Same way I feel the damp.” They all respected Old Man William, but there weren’t one man in the cane that day that took him serious.
All the same, we noticed quick, you drawed too close to E. J. Watson, he eased out sideways like a crab, gave himself room. One time, my half-uncle Tant Jenkins come up on him letting his water, and Mister Watson come around so fast Tant Jenkins thought this feller aimed to piss on him. By the time Tant seen it weren’t his pecker he had in his hand, that gun was halfway back into them coveralls, but not so fast he could not be sure of what he seen.
Being brash as well as nervous, Tant says, “Well, now, Mister Watson! Still es-pectin company from the North?” And Watson says, very agreeable, “Any company that shows up unexpected will find me ready with a nice warm welcome.”
Ed Watson had money in his pocket when he come to Half Way Creek, which ain’t none of my business, but in all the years I knew him, right up till near the end, he always come up with money when he had to. We never knew till later he was on the dodge, but Half Way Creek was too handy to the lawmen for his liking. Ain’t nothing much out there today but a few old cisterns, but Half Way Creek had near a dozen families then, more than Everglade or Chokoloskee. Course back in them days there weren’t hardly a hundred souls in that whole hundred mile of coast south to Cape Sable.
Mister Watson weren’t at Half Way Creek but a few days when he paid cash money for William Brown’s old schooner. Ain’t many would buy a sixty-foot schooner that didn’t know nothing about boats. Time he was done, Ed Watson was one of the best boatmen on this coast.
Mister Watson and me cut buttonwood all around Bay Sunday, run it over to Key West, three dollars a cord. I seen straight off that Ed. J. Watson meant
Excerpted from Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend
by Peter Matthiessen
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