Actæon schoons, taking a hard northwesterly blow on her starboard quarter. I’ve been at the helm for a day and two nights.
We were caught in a blinding snowstorm rounding Cape Cod. Running hard, decks awash. This morning the Gulf Stream is beginning to melt a thick crust of ice high into her rigging. We took a single tack from Race Point. Gibed away from the coast finally. Now Actæon glistens, wet-black below a sharp, angled straight-edged cut, marking where the water had scoured the topsides clean on that other tack.
Scanning the horizon at dawn as we crossed the New York shipping lanes There were no ships in sight. Well of the New Jersey shore the hard grip of winter cold has started to ease. Hints of Florida in the milder air….
I sit with my back pressed against the pine bulkhead. My berth just below the after-companionway. I’ve got an ear tuned to the sounds on deck, as always. The sounds of a schooner at sea: waves cresting and tumbling, the wind rustling in the sails, whistling in the rigging as the crew goes about their work. My log-book is open on my knee. Indigo ink stains my fingers.
My old hand pokes his head down the hatch, extending a mug in silence, An offering. I nod to let him know it’s alright to come down. He drops noiselessly onto the sole. Taking the mug I turn my attention back to my log. He wants to talk, Nothing doing! Giving up old Skilly pulls himself up the steep companionway steps. He hoists his skinny body skyward, hanging from his long, bony arms, leaving me to sulk in the gloom while he returns to the glorious day topside.
I drink half the coffee, Should get some rest. With a shrug I gulp down the rest. Reach for my smokes and a match, “No sleep for me.”
Joe had arranged a big transfer. A contact-boat was set to arrive around midnight. A big one. Sixty-foot chine-job. Three converted Liberty aircraft engines. Carry a thousand cases. Joe will go ashore with the shipment.
It’s not like it was…. The Coast Guard’s gotten trigger-happy. Hassles with contact-boats, with other rum-runners down the line…. It used to be live-and-let-live. Easy money. Adventure. A Lark! Get in trouble with the law? Spend a night in jail. A bribe in the right hands and a fellow would be back in business inside a week.
There’s a forty-five is in my pocket. A fifty-cal machine gun planted on the cabin-top. A nasty thing. Heavy. Dull gunmetal glistening with Cosmoline. Its long barrel pokes out of a thick, perforated cooling shroud. That fat muzzle…, a black hole. Like having death itself perched at chest level. Set on a tripod, the heavy-jointed legs of a giant bug. Metal feet dig into the canvas on the house-top. The gun weighs a hundred pounds. The base? Another fifty. Shells the length of your hand. Slugs as big as a finger, heavy. Lead heavy. A wooden crate packed with belts of rounds coiled away in a corner of the cabin. It takes two men to carry the damn thing. Lead and brass shells belted together. Joe brought the damn thing on board on our second trip together. He insisted, “Stop trouble before it starts. You’ll see.”
Yea, we’ll see….
Trouble arrived that same evening. It was last summer. We’d just finished eating. Lazing in the cockpit. Me, Joe, Skilly, and a couple of Joe’s men. Three black Bahamian crewmen resting off-watch in the fo’c’sle.
Joe had brought steaks. Came out in a speed-boat rafted alongside. Everybody relaxed. The trip winding down. We had made some money, planning the next haul. The schooner just drifting. No wind. Mild. The last rays of the setting sun kissing my face. The cool rising off the water a relief after another hot, muggy, August afternoon.
Clouds massed high on the landward horizon. One of those perfect times afloat. The kind of evening you’re pleased to get off New England in the summertime. The kind of day that makes all the rest of it seem worth while. Actæon magnificent. The boys passing a bottle. Me and Joe stoking fat Bahamian cigars.
I noticed a movement about a mile to the East. I said in passing, “Must be whales.” Joe and his boys got excited. They’d never seen any before. Skilly picked out a line of tall black dorsal fins, stout cylindrical black and white bodies broaching clear of the water and yelled out, “Devilfish! A school of Devils!”
He kept shouting, pointing. Perched high up on the cabin-top, dancing on his skinny legs, jumping around like a mad scarecrow. He relished scaring the landlubbers, “Devil Fish! Scourge of the seas! Seen a school of these fellers attack a big Right Whale. Vish-us! All the the oth’a whales know they’ah kill’ahs! Whale Kill’ahs! That Right Whale just gave up. Sixty tons! Just rolled over an’ stuck out his great, big, fat tongue!”
Still pointing at the pod, “Those devils! Just circlin’ ’round. Took turns tearin’ great bites out o’ that tongue! Chunks the size of a man! Poor old whale layin’ there. Takin’ it! Kept at it till t’wasn’t anything left. Right Whale bled to death an’ they just swam off! Like they was laughin’ ‘bout it! Like they been to some fancy rest’rant! Snacked on a fine deli-cacy! Makin’ off down the street! Prett’ay as you please!”
The whales ranged closer. Maybe thirty of them, coursing like a troop of cavalry. Two rode out front. The rest followed. Some stragglers trailed behind. The biggest dorsal fins looked as tall as a man, taller.
Skilly’s story chilled those tough city-boys to the bone. The whales’ size, their speed made an impression. The younger one, Eddy, got worked up. Hoppin’ around, running up and down the deck. Joe got quiet. Never did like anything about the ocean.
Skilly kept at it, insisting that Devil Fish will swamp boats and play with their victims, “Throw ’em around like seals tossing a rubber-ball at a carny-val show!”
The boys took it all in. I have to say I enjoyed it! Sick of Eddy bragging about how tough he was. How many guys he’d beat up, hinting at worse. Stan always play-acting a gangster in a movie, Let them be fish out of water for once!
The whales were off our starboard side. Maybe 500 yards off. A good ways away.
Looking at them we heard an explosive spout behind us. We all turned, surprised to see a whale spy-hopping not more than ten yards from us. His head completely above the water. The bulk of its body seemed to levitate out of the water. It paddled easy, pectoral fins just skimming, as if it were treading water like a person. Its dorsal fin thrashed back and forth, throwing spray as it spun around. It made a slow revolution to get a better view. The look in its eye really got to them. Leveled right at them. The size of a saucer, gleaming, Smart.
Eddy yelled. Stan cried out, “Jee-sus!” Joe went for his revolver.
Having set his charge Skilly lit the fuse. He pointed with his long bony finger, “That Devil’s gonna get us!” He ran for the companionway. A blur of flapping arms and legs disappeared below deck. This was the last straw for those North-End boys. Stan pulled out his revolver, waving it at the whale.
Another one popped-up. Even closer on the other side. Condensation from its spout fell on us. Enveloping us in the foul odor of rotten fish. Its snot splatted the smooth, undulating surface alongside. After diving the whale resurfaced with a tremendous, WHOOSH! Right behind Eddy.
A look of terror spread across Joe’s face. Eddy turned to stare. The fifty-cal was right there. Eddy jumped for it. Before anyone could react he shot its bolt and opened fire.
The sound was terrific! A slow, heavy, pounding. Clanging spent cases flying all around. The ammo belt disintegrates out the other side of the breech. Links and empty brass-casings ping and rattle off the housetop. A thunderous sound echoed off the slack sails. Reverberated through the hull. I could feel it through my feet.
It shot out tongues of flame, the color of the setting sun. The black and white skin of the nearest whale torn sending out deep-red geysers of blood. Eddy let off burst after burst. The whale spun around and slipped under the water without a sound.
Must be dead. I thought. Eddy kept firing, egged on by the gun’s power and his fear. Gouts of spray drew a lazy figure-eight over the spot where it had disappeared. The rest? Some were swimming away. I could see some young ones, miniatures of the adults. Their mothers kept their bodies between them and the schooner. A few of the bigger whales charged towards the wounded one. It all looked so deliberate.
Eddy took aim at another whale. He shot wild. Scattered bursts of fire going everywhere. A line of tall splashes walked out towards an approaching whale, rising and falling. The bullets struck the water in an arc as he swung the barrel. He shot at one whale and then another.
The noise wouldn’t stop! Eddy kept yelling. All of them. Joe and Stan sent potshots after Eddy’s volleys. Skilly popped out of the companionway with his sawed-off twelve-gauge. Its barrels angled down, broken at the stock. He fumbled to load cartridges.
I grabbed the shotgun from him. Clicked the barrels home and raised it. A foot from Eddy’s head, BOOM! The blast peppered his face with muzzle-flash. Singed his cheek. He jumped clear, scrambling to get away.
There was a cavernous silence. I yelled into it, “STOP IT! Stop!” Joe and Stan were still waving their revolvers. I swung the shotgun. Leveled it at them in turn, “I Said, HOLD IT!”
Joe laughed. Tucked his gun back in his waist band, “OK boys, that’s enough! Y’a heard what he said! Put ’em away!”
I turned the shotgun on Stan. Then back towards Eddy, holding his burned face, breathing hard. Joe laughed, “Jeesus! You see that! Those bastards can take it!”
I broke the gun’s barrels. Dropped an empty and a full cartridge onto the deck. Handed the shotgun to Skilly and turned and went below. I couldn’t trust myself with a loaded piece. God Damn it! I threw myself down on my bunk. Closed my eyes. All I could see were those hits blooming across the taut skin of that whale. That powerful, perfect creature defaced and destroyed. For nothing.
I was ashamed I was awestruck by what the machine gun could do. It had an awesome, terrible power. That mist of blood exploding from perfectly round holes. The whale’s life’s-blood welling-up, ebbing away. Everything bathed in that heavenly light of a perfect August sunset at sea.
It was dark as I crossed the main cabin to the foot of the ladder. I heard voices, laughing, joking, “Put those damn Devilfish away. Those Killers won’t kill again! No, We showed ’em!” The bragging stopped as I stepped out of the hatch. They swallowed their smirks and sat there sheepish in the lantern light.
I went up to my fat little partner, “I’m done. You and your boys go. Now. Get ready and go. We’re off for Nassau.”
“OK Mac. Send me a telegram when you get to Frederick Street.” That was all he said.
The last two trips Joe never mentioned it again. To him shooting a couple of fish didn’t mean anything. That next time he brought Stan and Eddy. A fresh patch of dark freckles across the side of Eddy’s face. I tattooed him. Permanent? I hope so! Let that bastard take that reminder to his grave.
The next trip Joe brought two new goons. I never asked after the old ones.
This whole business…. Yea, it’s illegal. Played for keeps. I thought I could get away with it. Build a nest egg. Make back the money pissed away after the war. Keep Actæon. I thought I could… be my own man.
The automatic in my pocket. The fifty on the housetop. Always on the look-out. Joe and his goons…. I don’t belong here.
There’s no way out.
Stuck dealing with people I never wanted to know. Even Skilly gets on my nerves. Broken-down old fool. And I’ll be another! If I manage to live that long….
The schooner? Just another burden. Why did I put so much stock in this thing?
These schooners… this one, Actæon… So well-fitted to her world. All of them. So well matched to what they were built to do!
Never been to Europe. Never seen a grand cathedral. Something so well made. All the spirit, all the effort of all those people…. They must have a real presence. Took centuries to build. Stone, glass. Monumental. Permanent.
Schooners? They’ve never been part of anybody’s grand scheme! No pope or king ever gave them any thought! Just another tool of a miserable little industry. Out of sight. Used hard. Worn out. Wrecked or abandoned. Burned on the beach for their iron.
Still! They’re special, dammit! I know it! I can see it. Feel it in my bones. Actæon moves under me. She moves! No cathedral can do that!
Fool! Nobody gives a damn! Fishermen don’t care. Her old crew? They were excited to move on to a dragger. No more hassles: sailing, tending trawl from a dory. A warm focs’le and nets full of fish. The steady drone of a Diesel under the wheelhouse, pushing them along in any direction at any time at a constant speed. No worries over calms or squalls. That’s what they want! Back-coves up and down the coast littered with derelict schooners. Tide running up and down inside rotting carcasses twice a day…. Nobody cares.
Phillips cared. Seemed to anyway. Still, he was mighty relieved to pass her along for all his fine appreciation! His model. His mythology!
Maybe that’s enough for him?
Why do this? Even if it doesn’t kill me? Waste my life in this racket, chasing something-for-nothing….
To keep the schooner? Sure.
There’s always some angle. A scheme. A quick, easy dash. Where does that leave what I admired about Actæon in the first place?
All I have left is the thrill, the danger, tapping into self-preservation. The adrenaline! Gives me a focus. A kind of clarity at least in a narrow, tactical sphere. When a baboon spots a leopard he doesn’t worry about whether the leopard has been the cause all his misery? No, but he finds it impossible to ignore…. And so much fun to holler at!
The smell of danger, jumping into action. Instinct. React or die! Its followed by a release. At least for a moment before the dread comes rushing back. For a while at least there’s no need to deliberate, modulate, adjust. Take responsibility….
Am I courting disaster? Is this where I want to be?
There were always warning signs. Sure! But now it’s all part of the thrill. Playing with how far I can let things go. I’ve managed so far to stay this side of real trouble. Tragedy-averted.
Gott’a take steps before things get totally out of hand….
But I keep raising the stakes….
Joe made his usual arrangements. He brought three new goons this time. One’s older, pasty-faced. An ex-con by the look of him. Doesn’t look like much. Skinny. Tubercular? A hollow chest, a dry cough. Something about him…. A deadness behind the eyes. Seems to just exist to do Joe’s bidding. He’d do anything Joe asks. Anything….
Andy. Such an innocent name. Somebody’s buddy, “Andy.”
Joe might say, “Hey Andy, give me a light.” Or, just as easily, “Hey Andy, kill that guy.”
The other two are younger versions of Stan and Eddy. If that’s even possible! Younger? Harder. Kids get tough quicker and quicker. The blush has worn off. Violence so much more routine. Always a new post opening up. The toughest guys get field promotions early, Like in the War.
Tonight should be fairly routine. A contact-boat is due around midnight. They’ve got it tough! The Coast Guard…. Gott’a stay away from that damned destroyer prowling the line. Feds made a big splash about them in the papers. Left over from the War. Now the world’s been made Safe for Democracy they figure it’s time to Rid the Country of Evil!
War surplus. They’ve been preserved, cocooned, moored in rows and rafts of rows along the Hudson, down in the Chesapeake…. An entire ghost fleet. They call it the moth-ball Fleet. The surplus and overflow of that shining spigot of industry! The Engine of Victory! Useless now with the peace. Now that war is Unthinkable it’s time for a New Crusade.
USS Paulding, based in Cork during The War. Let loose to hound after U-boats on the Western Approaches. Herd fleets of merchantmen crossing the wild North Atlantic to keep Great Britain fed and pour men and materiel onto the Western Front. Her dazzle camouflage’s been painted over an even, light-gray. She patrols the Boston approaches. Gone from guarding men and cargo to blockading against Sin!
Long and lean. Not much beamier than Actæon. Three times as long. Four, skinny funnels.
Something oversized and feverish about it all. Like seeing a tank rumbling down the street doing a police car’s work. Something magical too, in a way. A symbol let loose on the world. Like a radio-drama super-hero: The Green Hornet, The Shadow. A creature with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Sent out to fight crime without limits. No constraints. No restraint. Capable…, in a way. But so far over the line in the civilian, day-to-day world. Beyond any ordinary, mortal policemen. They carry an aura, The cavalry riding to the rescue.
Something of the police-dog to them: racing in over the horizon, latching on to a contact-boat’s scent, or a schooner, some little freighter feigning innocence, cowering. Police dogs. Like those German shepherds from The War, pulling at their chains. Always ready to join their masters in some unspeakable horror. That was before we liberated them from the dreaded Hun. Naturalized now they’re loyal servants to our lawmen. Ready to further the fight for Justice and the American Way….
I’ve evaded Paulding, so far. More luck than skill. Lots of supply boats around. Small boat, big ocean.
The sun set in a gathering gloom, darkness closing in from the East behind a low, February overcast. A smudge of oil-fired smoke made a faint scrawl against the northern horizon.
We held a northerly course all afternoon. Tacked once it was dark. Ran back south towards the broken waters off Race Point.
With any luck, Paulding will be busy on the direct line into Boston. Her skipper leery of entering these shoal waters at night. I’m counting on it. It’s why I insisted Joe set this rendezvous so close to the tip of Cape Cod.
It felt clean to face ragged these shoals for a change instead of playing hide and seek with the Coast Guard. Yea, it’s a quibble, sure. Plenty of man-made danger even here. The Race complicates things. Adds the risk of running aground and drowning us all to the rest of my worries.
Rumrunners used to line-up just outside the three-mile limit. Lit our masthead lights and waited for customers. Played the legal loopholes, pitting one arbitrary law against another. Everybody just lined up. A motley mix: schooners, steamers, a few yachts; their owners on a lark or stolen….
Joe and his boys make sure customers approach us one at a time. The cash comes in before any bottles go out. I run the schooner, navigate, and carry the proceeds below to my “office” at the chart table in the aft cabin. I keep a tally of money coming in and bottles going out. I stuff bulging wads of cash in a metal ammo-crate I keep in the bilges, under the cabin sole.
In the old days it felt like a business. Like running one of those new park-way restaurants. Customers pulled-up. Bottles changed hands. The money just rolled-in. Unless the Coast Guard actually saw a transaction take place they couldn’t do much to us. They spent their time chasing loaded contact-boats well inside the three-mile limit.
Saw some running gun-battles at a distance. A seventy-five-footer, the Coast Guard’s standard patrol back then, chasing a fast cabin cruiser. We’d watch like it was a pantomime: lights flickering on the horizon, flashes, echoes of gunshots, streaking tracers arcing across the sky, the booming blast of a one-pounder fired across someone’s bow. It was all somehow vague. Like watching a movie.
Things got tougher. Not just with the Coast Guard. Hijackers started turning up, looking to pilfer a load, or worse. That’s Joe’s worry. He never lets more than one boat alongside at a time. He stands by the rail, behind the rigging. His hand on his pistol. His eyes on their crew. One of his goons transfers a load of bottles sewn into burlap sacks. Hams, we call ’em. A dozen bottles in each sack passed over the side. Eager hands reach up to take them.
The lights help, thinking of the floodlights at our mastheads. Light-up the contact-boat. Leave our deck in shadow. Joe can see them. They can’t see him.
Anything suspicious and Joe’s likely to shoot. Put a shot through their windshield. Show ’em who’s boss. That usually puts and end to it. His boy cuts their lines. Too bad if they don’t have what they paid for. It’s what they get for messing with Joe.
Heard of some nasty fights. A small freighter once was cast adrift, her crew missing, their cargo ransacked. And the Coast Guard’s gotten more aggressive, defending a new twelve-mile limit. They’ll come after us supply boats now. Tow ’em in. Guys do real prison-time unless they’re well connected. It’s not a breezy lark anymore. All pretty grim.
The harder it gets the more powerful the syndicates become. They have to get bigger. Use some of their profits to spread more graft money around. The tougher the syndicates the harder the G-men fight to drive ‘em out of business. And around and around it goes….
It’s quiet. Almost midnight. Cold.
A sharp squall arrives out of nowhere and coats the deck and rig in wet snow. Getting rougher. Sea-ice forming on the bowsprit, encrusting our great Bank’s anchor hanging from the catheads and lashed tight to the bulwarks. Race Point Light sweeps its beam across rough water. A dim flicker through the spray shows us where Wood End lies to the southard. Tide-rips and sandbars block the way to leeward. I’ve set Actæon jogging along under reduced sail. Tacked Northwest. Then East to stay where we need to be. Keep us off those wicked shoals….
Joe’s arranged it with the skipper of a powerful contact-boat. Nothing less would be able to handle these conditions and make the mainland over by Scituate or Hull, just south of Boston, in time before day-break.
We’re a target if anybody’s got word about the transfer. Out here alone, away from the line where some “bystander” might get foolish and try to interfere with a hijack.
I imagined I smelled a whiff of gasoline and exhaust, borne on the wind. Torn away again.
Hard to spot a boat determined to sneak up on us. Hard to catch a surprise attack before it’s too late. Left word with Skilly to start the generator. We’ll turn on the masthead lights at midnight to give them a beacon to ride in on. Light up any other boats lurking around. If the Coast Guard’s anywhere within fifteen miles they’ll see our lights, or hijackers…. Just waiting to pick their moment. There’s always risks….
Waiting below, smoking and drinking in my captain’s chair with my feet propped against the guard for the potbellied stove. Skilly’s roaming around. Andy stands in the shadows out of the swinging lantern light. Close enough if Joe needs him. I don’t know or care where the other two are. Joe’s been quiet, not looking to shoot the breeze. I’ve ordered the Bahamians to stay below. It’s not their fight.
Five minutes to twelve. Skilly brings me another mug of coffee. Asks about the lights. I nod. Once Joe hears the generator he’ll get his boys together. Get into position.
All routine so far.
A cold wind and a steady roll.
Almost one. The bow-wave of a fast powerboat carves out of darkness to the West. I can barely make it out in all the crashing foam. A light flashes, The signal. It’s the contact-boat. They’re late. No surprise with it this rough. These seas would have slowed them to half what they could do in flat water.
Had the crew set out fender-board before dark. A row of old truck tires lashed amidships to port and spanned by a long oaken timber. Seas crash through this contraption, bouncing the heavy plank against the hull. It’s hell on the schooner’s topsides. It’ll settle down once they’ve tied up alongside.
He motors into full view just abaft our beam. Turns parallel and ranges slowly alongside about ten yards off. Me and Skilly stand ready to take their lines. I signal the man at the wheel with arm gestures. It’s too loud to be heard over the noise of the waves and their engines.
He accelerates and runs ahead instead of circling away to port. The cocky-bastard circles to starboard, forging to pass in front of us. The schooner’s bowsprit reaches high into the blackness, chomps down, slicing the water, and rears back up and then down again. He could get slammed or skewered….
Hope the son-of-a-bitch doesn’t screw-up. It looks worse from here…. Still, He’s got guts.
I watch the helmsman. The boat arcs around us, He’s competent. Makes the awkward turn downwind and down-waves look easy. He gooses the throttles. Eases-up at the right moment so as not to get caught broadside by a wave. Then runs slowly down our starboard side, inspecting us as he goes by. Lays his eyes on the fifty. He stares at it for a beat before turning to look over his shoulder to judge the waves rolling in from behind him. Picking his moment he jumps our quarter-wave. Turns broadside to round our stern. With a final burst of power, the roar of those high-performance engines crossing the water in scraps of sound torn away by the wind; swallowed by the rush of our passing; he closes the distance.
He times it nicely. Runs up and over our port quarter-wave. Nestles alongside in a trough. Shoves his bow hard against the flailing fender-board until their hull presses tight against the schooner’s side.
A hand clambers onto their foredeck. Tosses a line to Skilly. One of Joe’s boys helps him drag a loop up and over our massive, double Samson-posts. The helmsman spins his wheel. Backs down with his port engine, shoving his stern against the fender, pressing the tires, setting them groaning against the schooner and then steps back from the wheel, holding a breast-line in a slack coil ready to pass it to me to wrap around a main shroud.
Joe’s at his usual spot. “What took you so long?” He trades quips with their skipper across the gap. Their engines settle into a low rumbling idle. Looks like they know each other.
Joe’s goon helps Skilly and then heads aft around the house to man the fifty. The other one staggers over to Joe ready to transfer Hams. Andy’s aft by our lashed wheel. Oblivious to the wind and wet. One hand on the bill of his cap. The other resting against the butt of his revolver holstered at his hip.
Everything’s in order. I leave Joe to conduct his business. Make a quick scan and cross the deck to starboard. Grabbing the main shrouds I pull myself up onto the rail-cap about ten feet from the fifty. The view’s good all around from here. As good as I’ll get.
There’s no sign of the destroyer. Not that we’d get much warning. A searing searchlight cutting through the darkness suddenly raking our deck. The crack of a one-pounder. Or worse, the Boom of their four-inch main battery. A shell whizzing over our heads to explode in a geyser of foam just off our bow. The next shot would be lethal if we didn’t surrender fast enough…. Well, it’s a nasty night. Crammed in here close to Race Point. Those shoals are our best defense. Let the destroyer stay to the North….
Our masthead lights blaze. They’ve been advertising our presence for over an hour. Anyone in the area can see the contact-boat alongside. The glare makes it hard for me to see anything out beyond it. If we shut down the generator Joe and his boys lose their advantage. It would give Joe a long scary moment before his night vision returns. Just enough time for our guests to pull some funny-business if the contact-boat’s skipper is up to no good.
Joe knows the skipper. His goons cover them just the same. A double-cross can come from anywhere. The only one Joe trusts is Andy.
Skilly helps transfer Hams from a stockpile by the main-hatch. I wave him over, “Cut the lights for thirty-seconds. Then put ’em back on. Understand? Don’t shut down the generator. Just pull the switches. Count to thirty. Slow, like I taught you. Then throw them again. If there’s any shooting throw the switches right away and go get your sawed-off. Understand?” Skilly nods and heads forward.
He’ll do what he’s told…..
Joe watches us talk out of the corner of his eye. I give him a little flicker of a wave and look up at the lights. Make a cutthroat gesture. Joe blinks. He understands. We’ve pulled this trick before. It balances the risks. Anybody out there just might fall for it. Close in while the lights are out. Then we’ll spot ’em. Know they’re hostile.
It’s all been smooth so far. Joe’s not suspicious of the contact-boat, OK, I’ll risk it.
Skilly slips forward. Watches for my signal. I nod and close my eyes. Count to fifteen against that first blinding shock of darkness. I concentrate on the sounds around me. Swing my head around. Listen. My face turned down. I pull the automatic from my waist band. Tug its slide to chamber a round.
The goon on the fifty yells out, “The lights!” Joe spits, “Shut up!” He crouches behind the bulwark, shifting aft a few feet. I smile. Joe steps closer to the boat’s cockpit. He’s not where the guys on the boat last saw him. They’ll be nervous. Worried about his motives. We might be hijacking them!
No unusual sounds. I count, “Twelve potato, thirteen potato, fourteen potato…Fifteen potato.” And open my eyes to scan a broad circle, swinging from the backstay. I can see the waves rolling in from off our starboard bow. Dirty white foam tumbles down breaking crests; visible much farther out without the glare. Waves march towards us in rows. Faint in the distance, materializing out of the blackness. The lighthouses stab at us beneath the low overcast to the South. They disappear, Another squall on its way. Snow and heavy wind arriving any time now.
That’s not my biggest worry.
I swing around a second time. Turn half way around a third time, “What’s that?” Knowing better than to look directly I scan the whole quadrant off our starboard bow. Slow. Don’t focus on anything, “There it is again.” A cascade of broken water maybe two hundred yards off. A wave crest breaks funny. There, again, “Three times in the same spot? No.” It’s gotta be a boat, stern to the waves, pointing straight at us. The seas parting around them and tumbling past…, “Has to be….”
A shadow crosses the faint glow of a tumble of white foam where a cresting wave rolls in from behind whatever is blocking it.
The lights come back on.
The goon on the fifty squawks. Stops himself before Joe snaps at him again. The masthead lights blaze across the water, shutting out the far distance like a wall. The deck is in darkness. I lock my eyes on my target. Jump down behind the bulwark. My pistol braced against the rail-cap.
There it is. A low, dark hull. Squat and fat. Foreshortened. Its bow just farther away from me than our stern. The lights pick out its stem glistening wet, buried in a trough. The stern riding high on a crest running up behind. I’ve got a clear view. There’s no windshield. No house. No cabin or superstructure. Just a flat deck running aft to a steering-well about a third of the way back. I can make out a figure. No more than a dark watch-cap visible above the low coaming. A dark gloved hand grips the wheel. Behind him is the engine compartment. Behind that another open well with two more men crouching low.
I take my time, Joe ’ll notice. Take care of the contact-boat. He’ll be ready when I need him. No rush. No sense opening fire until I can be sure of hitting somebody. Not just give away my position.
Skilly jogs past me in his funny, low, crouching-run. He keeps the bulwark between him and the approaching boat, Good. I can hear Joe call across to the contact-boat, “All right, Fred. Hold it. You guys stand where I can see you.” He lines their crew up in the middle of their cockpit. Andy covers them from his perch aft.
With his eyes glued on the contact-boat Joe calls out over his shoulder, “Tito, come back here!” Motioning for him to take his place.
Joe yells across to the guy on the fifty, “Franky! Take it easy! Relax!” If Franky opens up, shoots wild…..
Skilly crosses behind Franky and pats the him on the shoulder. The kid’s got a too-tight grip on the fifty. He swings around. Joe yells, “FRANKY! RELAX!” And runs across the deck.
Franky notices me crouched behind the rail. He keeps turning. Sees the hijacker throttling up to make his final dash.
The fifty’s pointed in the wrong direction, Lucky. He can’t swing it all the way around.
I’ve got enough to do. Let Joe handle him. I can see their driver crouched behind the wheel clearly now. The gleam off two rifle barrels poking up over the after-coaming. They open up. Muzzle flashes. The sound reaches me. Now I can see three long-guns aft all firing at once. Rounds hit the bulwarks. Bury themselves in thick oak, “Tommy guns.”
These sub-machine guns rake the schooner. They’re firing blind. They don’t see where we are. No one hit so far as I can tell.
The highjacker’s just one wave away. Twenty yards off, heading for our stern. Their skipper desperate to close the distance.
I start shooting. The 45 kicks. Spent shells bounce off the bulwarks, ringing against the deck. I shift my feet to settle into position. I concentrate my fire on the figure behind the wheel.
The boat’s foredeck splinters. The low coaming disintegrates in front of him.
The guys aft hesitate. They’re slow to return fire now that we’re shooting at them.
A Tommy-gun burst explodes against the mainmast. Shots rips through the try-sail over my head. Joe crouches at the rail a few feet away. He takes slow, deliberate aim. Places single shots into the aft-well of the oncoming boat.
Five, six, seven. I keep count of my shots. I don’t see anybody at the wheel. The boat keeps coming at full throttle. With no one to correct its course a wave shoves its stern aside. Swings the bow around. The stem bites into a trough sending them veering. Headed straight for me. The boat strikes a glancing blow against the schooner’s topsides between me and the fifty. I catch sight of a dark mass slumped against the bulkhead in the steering well, The helmsman.
Joe must have hit at least one of the Tommy-gunners. I see a body sprawled across the after-well. Just one of is still firing in spasmodic bursts. Shooting forward then aft. Shooting blind.
One round left….
I see the third gunmen crouching in the footwell. He’s wounded. Drops his gun. Raises his hands. Tugs at his companion’s arm, begging him to surrender. Joe yells, “Drop it! Drop it NOW!” His pistol leveled at the holdout. His partner pleads, “Do what he says! Do what he SAYS!” He tugs at the other man’s sleeve, slobbering, “Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot,”
The remaining gunman stops. Stands up. Stiffens and drops his gun. Joe encouraging him, “OK. Nice an’ easy. That’s it.”
Two shots ring out from behind me. The first hits the last gunmen in the head. Drops him. The second lands square in the middle of his partner’s chest.
I spin around already knowing what I’ll see, Andy up on the rail aft by the boom-gallows. One arm wrapped around a heavy pipe-stanchion as he holsters his pistol.
Pop! Joe puts a round into the third Tommy-gunner. Moves closer to the rail. Puts another into the figure slumped behind the wheel.
Joe stands there squat and square with a broad grin on his face. Pleased at a job well done.
The derelict hijacker’s engines are still revved at full power. The boat bounces along our side. Its bow pressed against our hull, Bump, Bump, Bump it passes astern. Races on in a tight curve. I can tell it’s heading right for the contact-boat.
I step over to the abandoned fifty and open fire. In the dark the gun’s even more terrifying. A prodigious muzzle-flash spits flames a foot long. Tracer rounds pulse outwards, sending out streaks of incandescent phosphor. Shots hit the water, sending up mini-geysers. The first rounds miss. I walk hits up onto the side of the careening hull. Hold a concentrated fire near its transom. Pour in a long burst. Clattering spent shells bounce off the cabin top all around me.
The stern of the boat dissolves into long splinters. Probing for its gas tank…. A lick of blue-white flame, almost invisible among all the bright flashes, BOOM! Its stern is enveloped in a roiling explosion. Bright orange light and a shocking heat hit my face and wash over everything around us. Then darkness.
Its broken stem taps the contact-boat’s stern and sinks from sight.
Joe is back at his post. His gun trained on the contact-boat. Andy is back to his usual perch.
These guys aren’t about to try anything.
I drop the fifty and step back. The gun’s barrel ticks and pings as the hot metal cools after those long bursts.
I step back and look around. Skilly pops-up with his double-barrel shotgun, poking his head over the companionway.
I step back. Something soft squishes against my heel. I hear a groan. Franky. Sprawled behind me. Propped against the bulwark, holding his side. His feet splayed out in a broad vee. Legs out flat. Toes pointing straight up. His coat…, not his, it was Skilly’s old watch coat lent to him when they came out. A heavy yellow paraffin-treated canvas duck with toggle buttons and a fur collar. A dark stain spreads across his shirt where he’s pulled the coat away. He holds his side, pressing with a grim determination, desperate to hold his life in. His face shines pale in the darkness. A wan, thin moon of a face.
I call out, “Joe, Skilly!” They can’t see Franky but they can tell something’s up by the look on my face, the tone of my voice.
Skilly tries to open his coat wide. Franky won’t let him. Joe barks, “Let the guy see! Will ya!” Franky slumps in surrender. Lets Skilly work. He’s careful, gentle. Looking off into space Skilly examines Franky with his hands. His shirt is soaked in blood looking black in the dim light. It sticks to the skin of his hands and arms. Skilly finds three ragged holes running at an angle across his side from his hip to his rib-cage. Skilly turns to me with a blank, neutral stare.
I’ve seen enough, “Joe, get this kid off my boat. Ride in on the contact-boat. Get him to a hospital…” He knows what I mean, “I don’t want a stiff on my boat!” He calls out, “Tito!”
Tito runs aft at a trot. Taken aback by the sight of Franky bleeding out on the deck he helps Skilly lift him by his knees and shoulders. Franky just lays back accepting what they do to him with a blank stare like it’s all happening to somebody else. They struggle to carry his dead-weight across the heaving deck.
The contact-boat’s crew don’t want any part of Franky. Squeamish, the bastards. Oh, they’re all tough behind a gun. Got no stomach for the aftermath.
Andy gestures to them with his pistol. They don’t argue. They reluctantly assist Skilly and Tito as they lay Franky in the cockpit leaning against the forward bulkhead.
I send Skilly forward to drop their bowline. Joe spits out, “Wait a minute! We’re not done.” He motions towards the pile of Hams left to be loaded.
“OK, Joe. Finish. When you’re done get yourself and your boys on that boat.”
Twenty long minutes later the contact-boat drops astern. I can see Franky still slumped against the bulkhead of the open wheelhouse. Skilly’s ruined coat pulled up around his ears. Joe is chumming it with the skipper, chuckling over some joke. His shoulders working up and down, He always laughs at his own jokes. Andy is aft. Tito holds onto the coaming beside him already looking sea-sick. The contact-boat’s crew must be below. A dark stain spreads out from under Franky. It’s the last thing I notice before I lose sight of them as the boat gains speed, crashing through the seas heading Northwest.
I imagine they might go a mile or two before they toss Franky overboard.
I must have dozed off…. It’s dark. Balmy. Warm air flows down the companionway, “Where are we?”
All I can tell from here is that we’re heading out of winter into an early southern Spring.