Actæon schoons. A hard northwesterly blow on her starboard quarter. At the helm for a day and two nights.
A blinding snowstorm rounding Cape Cod. Sailing, decks awash. The Gulf Stream beginning to dissolve a crust of ice. The port rail clear. A thick coating reaches far up her starboard side. Ice high into her rigging. One tack all the way from Race Point. Gibed away from the coast. Now Actæon glistens, wet-black below a sharp, angled straight-edged cut. The waterline on the other tack.
Scanned the horizon at dawn, crossing the New York shipping lanes. No ships. Grip of winter cold easing. Hints of Florida in the air.
Back pressed against the pine bulkhead at the foot of my berth. Just below the after-companionway. An ear tuned to the deck, as always. Listening to the sounds of a schooner at sea: waves cresting, wind in the sails, the crew going about their work. Log-book open on my knee. Indigo ink stains my fingers.
Old hand pokes his head down the hatch, extending a mug in silence. An offering. Nod to let him know it’s alright to come down. Drops noiselessly onto the sole. Take the mug . Get back to this log. Skilly wants to talk. Nothing doing. Pulls himself up the steep companionway hanging from long, bony arms. Hoists his skinny body skyward. Leaving me in the gloom, he returns to the glorious day above.
Drink half the coffee. Should get some rest. With a shrug I gulp down the rest. Reach for smokes and a match, “No sleep for me.”
Joe arranged a big transfer. A contact-boat 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.
Not like it was…. Coast Guard’s trigger-happy. Hassles with contact-boats. Other rum-runners down the line…. 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. Back in business inside a week.
Forty-five in my pocket. A fifty-cal on the cabin-top. Nasty thing. Heavy. Dull gunmetal glistening with Cosmoline. Long barrel poking from a thick, perforated cooling shroud. That fat muzzle. A black hole. Death itself at chest level. Tripod, the heavy-jointed legs of a giant bug. Metal feet dig into the canvas on the house-top. 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 on the sole in the cabin. Two men to carry it. Lead and brass belted together. A cold snake coiled away. Joe brought the damn thing on our second trip together. Insisted. “Stop trouble before it starts. You’ll see.”
Yea, we’ll see….
Trouble started that same evening. Last summer. Just finished dinner. 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 brought steaks. Came out in a speed-boat rafted alongside. Everybody relaxed. Trip winding down. Made some money. Planning the next haul. Schooner drifting. No wind. Mild. Last rays of the sun kissing my face. A relief after another hot, muggy, August afternoon.
Clouds massed high on the landward horizon. Gonna be a fiery sunset. One of those perfect times afloat. Kind of evening you get off New England in the summertime. Kind of day makes the rest of it all seem worth while. Aboard Actæon, the boys passing a bottle. Me and Joe stoking a couple of fat Bahamian cigars.
Noticed movement about a mile to the East. Said, “Must be whales.” Joe and his boys got excited. 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. Yelled out, “Devilfish! A school of Devils!”
Kept shouting, pointing. Perched high up on the cabin-top, dancing on his skinny legs, jumping around like a mad scarecrow. Loved to scare 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 blead 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!”
Whales ranged closer. Maybe thirty, coursing like a troop of cavalry. Two out front, the rest followed. Some stragglers. The biggest dorsal fins as tall as a man, taller.
Skilly’s story chilled those tough-guys to the bone. The whales size, their speed. The younger one, Eddy, got worked up. Hoppin’ around, running up and down the deck. Joe was quiet. Never did like anything about the ocean. They were all spooked.
Skilly kept at it: How Devil Fish swamp boats and play with their victims, “Throw ’em around like seals tossing rubber-balls at a carny-val show!”
The boys took it all in. Was sick of Eddy always bragging about how tough he was. How many guys he’s beat up, hinting at worse. Stan always play-acting a gangster in a movie, Let them be fish out of water for once!
Whales all over on the starboard side. Maybe 500 yards off. A good ways away.
An explosive spout behind us. The boys turned. A whale spy-hopped ten yards from us. Head completely out of the water. Bulk of its body levitated above the surface, paddling easy, pectoral fins just skimming, treading water like a person. Dorsal fin thrashed back and forth, throwing spray as it spun around. Made a slow revolution to get a better view. What really scared them was the look in its eye. 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. Pointed with his long bony finger, “That Devil’s gonna get us!” Ran for the companionway. A blur of arms and legs disappeared below deck. 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. Smelled of rancid fish-oil. Splattered across the water’s smooth, undulating surface. Came up with a tremendous, WHOOSH! Right behind Eddy.
Terror spread across Joe’s face. Eddy turned to stare. The fifty-cal was right there. He jumped for it. Before anyone could react Eddy shot its bolt and opened fire.
The sound! Terrific. A slow, heavy, pounding. Clanging spent cases flying all around. The ammo belt disintegrated coming out the other side of the breech. Links and empty brass-casings pinging and rattling off the housetop. A thundering sound. Echoed off slack sails. Reverberated through the hull. Feel it through our feet.
Tongues of flame. Color of the setting sun. Black and white skin blossomed with deep-red geysers of blood. Purple wounds tearing into it in time with the firing. Eddy let off burst after burst. The whale spun around and slipped under the water.
Must be dead. Eddy kept shooting. Egged on by the gun’s power. His fear. casting gouts of spray in a lazy figure-eight over the spot where it disappeared. The rest? Some swam away. Young ones, miniature adults. Mothers kept their bodies between them and the schooner. Some of the bigger whales charged towards the wounded one. Deliberate. No sense of panic.
Eddy took aim at another whale closing in. Shot wild. Scattered bursts of fire. Sent a line of tall splashes walking out towards it, rising and falling. Arcing around in a curve as he swung the barrel. One whale then another.
Noise wouldn’t stop. Eddy 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. Barrels angled down, broken at the stock. Fumbled to load cartridges.
Grabbed the shotgun. Clicked the barrels home and raised it straight up. A foot from Eddy’s head, BOOM! Peppered his face with muzzle-flash. Singed his cheek. He jumped clear, scrambling to get away.
A cavernous silence. Yelled into it, “STOP IT! Stop!” Joe and Stan waving their revolvers. Swung the shotgun. Leveled it at them in turn, “Said HOLD IT!”
Joe laughed. Put his gun back in his waist band, “OK boys, that’s enough! Y’a heard what he said! Put ’em away!”
Turned the shotgun on Stan. Then Eddy, holding his burned face, breathing hard. Joe laughed, “Jeesus! You see that! Those bastards can take it!”
Broke the gun’s barrels. Dropped an empty and a full cartridge onto the deck. Handed the gun to Skilly. Turned and went below. Couldn’t trust myself with a loaded piece. God Damn it! Lay down on my bunk. Closed my eyes. Saw those hits blooming across the taut skin of that whale. That powerful, perfect creature defaced and destroyed. For nothing.
Ashamed. Awestruck, must admit. An awesome, terrible beauty in those pounding slugs. 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.
Dark. Crossed the main cabin to the foot of the ladder. Voices, laughing. Joking, “Put those damn Devilfish away. Those Killers won’t kill again! No, We showed ’em!”
Bragging stopped when I stepped out of the hatch. Swallowed their smirks. Sat there sheepish in the lantern light.
Went up to my fat little partner, “I’m done. You and your boys go. Now. Get ready and go. Sailing for Nassau in ten minutes.”
“OK Mac. Send me a telegram when you get to Frederick Street.” Was all he said.
Two more trips since. Joe never mentioned it again. To him shooting a couple of fish didn’t mean anything. Brought Stan and Eddy the next time. A fresh patch of dark freckles across the side of Eddy’s face. Guess I tattooed him. Permanent? Hope so. Let that bastard take that reminder to his grave.
The next trip Joe brought two new goons. Never asked after the old ones.
This whole business…. Yea. Illegal. Played for keeps. Thought I could get away with it. Build a nest egg. Make back the money pissed away after the war. Keep Actæon. Thought I could… be my own man.
Automatic in my pocket. Fifty on the housetop. Always on look-out. Joe and his goons…. Don’t belong here.
No way out.
Stuck 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? Beauty?
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. Must have a presence. Centuries to build. Stone, glass. Monumental, permanent.
Schooners? Not in anybody’s grand scheme! No pope or king ever gave them any thought! Just another tool for 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! 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? 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, 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. Always some angle. A scheme. A quick, easy dash. Where does that leave what I admired about Actæon in the first place?
Only comfort left comes from the danger, tapping into self-preservation. Adrenaline! A temporary focus. Sort of clarity in a narrow, tactical sphere. A baboon spots a leopard. Did the leopard cause all his misery? No, but it’s impossible to ignore…. And so much fun to holler at!
The smell of danger, jumping into action. Instinct. React or die! Followed by a release. No need to deliberate, modulate, adjust. Take responsibility.
Courting disaster? Is this where I want to be?
Warning signs? Sure! But it’s all part of the thrill. Playing with how far I can let things go. Managed so far to stay this side of real trouble. Tragedy-averted. Gott’a take steps before things get totally out of hand….
Keep raising the stakes….
Joe made his usual arrangements. Three new goons. One’s older, pasty-faced. An ex-con by the look of him. Don’t look like much. Skinny. Tubercular? Hollow chest, a dry cough. Something about him. Deadness behind the eyes. No life in him. Just exists to do what Joe tells him. Do anything Joe asks. Anything.
Andy. Such an innocent name. Somebody’s buddy, “Andy.” Joe might say, “Hey Andy, get me a light.” Or, just as easily, “Hey Andy, kill him.”
Other two are younger versions of Stan and Eddy – if that’s even possible. Younger. Harder. Kids get tough quicker and quicker. The blush worn off. Violence so much more routine. Always a new post opening up. The wildest guys get field promotions early. Like in the War.
Tonight should be fairly routine. Contact-boat due around midnight. They’ve got it tough! The Coast Guard…. Stay away from that damned destroyer they’ve got prowling the line. Feds made a big splash about them in the papers. Leased. Left over from the War. Now the world’s been made Safe for Democracy. Time to rid the country of evil.
War surplus. Preserved, cocooned, moored in rows and rafts of rows. An entire ghost fleet. Moth-ball Fleet they call it. Overflow from the spigot of industry. The Engine of Victory. Useless now with the peace. Now that war is Unthinkable. Time for a New Crusade.
USS Paulding, based in Cork during The War, hounding U-boats on the Western Approaches. Herding fleets of merchantmen to keep Great Britain fed and pour men and materiel onto the Western Front. Dazzle camouflage been painted over an even, light-gray. Patroling the Boston approaches. From guarding stuff to blockading Sin!
Long and lean. Not much beamier than Actæon. Three times as long. Four, skinny funnels.
Something oversized and feverish about it all. Like a tank rumbling down the street doing a police car’s work. Magical too, in a way.
A symbol let loose. Radio-drama super-hero: The Green Hornet, The Shadow. Powers beyond mere mortals. Fight crime without limits. No constraints. No restraint. Capable. In a way. But so far beyond over the line in a civilian, day-to-day world. Beyond ordinary, mortal policemen. An aura. The cavalry riding to the rescue.
Something of the police-dog in 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. Loyal servants to our lawmen. Ready to help in the fight for Justice and the American Way.
Eluded Paulding so far. More luck than skill. Lots of supply boats around. Small boat, big ocean.
Sun set in a gathering gloom, darkness closing in from the East behind a low, February overcast. A smudge of oil-fired smoke in a faint scrawl against the northern horizon.
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’s busy on the direct line into Boston. Skipper leery of these shoals at night. Counting on it. Why I told Joe to set up this rendezvous so close to the tip of Cape Cod.
Felt clean to face ragged shoals instead of pitting us against the Coast Guard. A quibble, sure. Plenty of man-made danger. Complicates things. Adds the risk of running aground 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 legal loopholes, one arbitrary law pitted against another. Everybody lined up. A motley mix. A few yachts. Owners on a lark or stolen. Only a few purpose-built contact-boats back then.
Joe and his boys make sure the customers approach one at a time. Cash comes in before the bottles go out. I navigate and carry the proceeds below to my office at the chart table in the aft cabin. Keep a tally, money and bottles. Bulging wads of cash stuffed in a metal ammo-crate under the cabin sole.
In the old days it was like running one of those new park-way restaurants. Customers drove-up. Bottles changed hands. Money rolled-in. Unless the Coast Guard saw a transaction themselves they couldn’t do much. Concentrated on catching laden contact-boats inside the three-mile limit.
Running gun-battles. A seventy-five-footer, the Coast Guard’s standard patrol back then, chasing down a cabin cruiser. A pantomime: lights in the distance, flashes, echoes of gunshots, streaking tracers, the booming blast of a one-pounder fired across someone’s bow. Distant, vague. Like watching a movie.
Things got tougher. Not just the Coast Guard. Hijackers, looking to steal a load or worse. That’s Joe’s worry. Never lets more than one boat alongside at a time. Stands by the rail behind the rigging. Hand on his pistol. Eyes never leave the boat’s crew. One of his goons transfers bottles sewn into burlap sacks. Hams, we call ’em. A dozen bottles each. Goons pass them over the side. Eager hands reach up to take them.
Lights help. Light-up the contact-boat. Our deck in shadow. Joe can see them. They can’t see him.
Anything suspicious Joe’s likely to shoot. A shot through a windshield. Show ’em who’s boss. Usually stops ’em. His goons cut the lines. Too bad if they don’t have what they paid for. What they get for messing with Joe.
Some nasty gun battles. A small freighter, cast adrift, crew missing, cargo ransacked. The Coast Guard’s more aggressive. A twelve-mile limit. Come after us supply boats. Tow ’em in. Guys do real prison-time unless they’re well connected. Not a breezy lark anymore. Grim.
Harder it gets the stronger the syndicates. Bigger their profits the more money they spread around in graft. The tougher the syndicates the harder the G-men fight to drive ’em out of business. Around and around it goes….
Quiet. Almost midnight. Cold.
Sharp squall out of nowhere coats the boat and rig in wet snow. Rougher. Sea-ice on the bowsprit, encrusting our Bank’s anchor hanging from the catheads lashed tight to the bulwarks. Race Point Light sweeps the water. A dimmer light shows at Wood End. A feeble twinkle over a tumble of sea. Tide-rips and sandbars to leeward. Set Actæon jogging under reduced sail. Tacked Northwest. Then East to stay where we need to be. Not swept onto those shoals.
A big, powerful contact-boat. Nothing less would handle these conditions and make the mainland near Scituate or Hull, just south of Boston, before day-break.
A target, if anybody got word about the transfer. Alone, away from the line where somebody might get foolish and try to interfere with a hijack.
Imagined a whiff of gasoline and exhaust, borne on the wind. Torn away again.
Hard to spot a boat determined to sneak up on us. Catch a surprise attack before it’s too late. Left word with Skilly to start the generator. Turn on the masthead lights at midnight. Give our contact-boat a beacon. Light up any other boats around. If the Coast Guard’s within fifteen miles they’ll see our lights. Hijackers. Pick their moment. Always risks…
Below, smoking and drinking by the potbellied stove. Skilly keeps roaming around. Andy in the shadows out of the swinging lantern light. Close enough if Joe needs him. Don’t know or care where the other two are. Joe’s quiet, not looking to shoot the breeze. Ordered the foc’sle hands to stay below. Not their fight.
Five to. Skilly brings a mug of coffee. Asks if he should get the lights working. I nod. Once Joe hears the generator he’ll get his boys together. Get into position.
Routine so far.
A cold wind and a steady roll.
Almost one. The bow-wave of a fast powerboat carved out of darkness to the West. Barely make it out in all the crashing foam. A light. Flashing. The signal. Contact-boat. They’re late. No surprise. This rough. Slow them by half what they can do in flat water.
Set out a row of old truck tires before dark. Lashed amidships to port. Spanned with a fender-board. Seas crash through this contraption, bouncing the heavy plank against the hull. Hell on the schooner’s topsides. Settle down once they’ve tied up alongside.
Motors into full view just abaft our beam. Turns parallel and ranges slowly alongside about ten yards off. Me and Skilly ready to take their lines. Signal the man at the wheel with arm gestures. 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 chomping up and down, smacking the seas, reaching high into the blackness. Get slammed or skewered….
Hope the son-of-a-bitch doesn’t screw-up. Looks worse from here…. Still, he’s got guts.
Watch the helmsman. The boat swings around us. Competent. Makes the awkward turn downwind and down-waves look easy. Gooses the throttles. Eases-up at the right moment so as not to get caught broadside by a wave. Runs slowly down our starboard side, inspecting us. Lays his eyes on the fifty. Stares at it a beat before turning to look over his shoulder to judge the waves rolling in from behind. Picks his moment. Jumps our quarter-wave. Turns broadside again to round our stern. With a final burst of power, the roar of those high-performance engines reaches me in scraps torn away by the wind swallowed by the rush of our passing. He closes the distance.
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 into the schooner’s side.
A hand clambers onto their foredeck. Tosses a line to Skilly. One of Joe’s goons helps him put a loop over our massive, double Samson-posts. Helmsman spins his wheel. Backs down with his port engine, shoving his stern against the fender, pressing the tires, groaning against the schooner. Steps back from the wheel. Holds a breast-line for me to wrap around the main shroud.
Joe’s at his usual spot. Trades quips with their skipper across the gap. Engines settle-down to a low rumbling idle. Know each other. That’s good. Joe’s goon helps Skilly. Heads aft around the house to man his post on the fifty. The other one staggers over to Joe ready to transfer Hams. Andy stands aft by our lashed wheel. Oblivious to the wind and wet. One hand on the bill of his cap. The other against the butt of his revolver at his hip.
Everything in order. Leave Joe to conduct business. A quick scan. Cross the deck to starboard. Grab the main shrouds. Pull myself up onto the rail-cap about ten feet from the fifty. A good view all around. As good as I’ll get.
No sign of the destroyer. Not that we’d get much warning. Searchlight cutting through the darkness lights up our deck. The crack of a one-pounder. Or the boom of their four-inch main battery. A shell whizzing over our heads to explode just off our bow. The next shot lethal if we don’t surrender right away. A nasty night. Close to Race Point. Shoals our best defense. Let the destroyer stay to the North….
Masthead lights ablaze. Advertise our presence. Over an hour now. Anyone around can see the contact-boat. Glare makes it hard to see. If Skilly shuts down the generator Joe and his boys lose their advantage. A long scary moment before they get their night vision. Just enough time to pull some fuunt-business if the contact-boat’s up to no good.
Joe seems to know the skipper. His goons cover ’em just the same. A double-cross can come from anywhere. The only one Joe trusts is Andy.
Skilly helps transfer Hams from stacks stockpiled by the main-hatch. Wave him over. Skilly jogs to my side, “Cut the lights. Thirty-seconds. Put ’em back on. Understand? Don’t shut down the generator. Pull the switch. Count to thirty. Slow, like I taught you. Throw the switch again. If there’s any shooting throw the switch right away. Get your sawed-off. Understand?” Skilly nods and heads forward.
Do what he’s told, but…..
Joe watches us out of the corner of his eye. A little flicker of a wave. I look up at the lights. A cutthroat gesture. Joe blinks. Understands. Done this trick before. Balances the risks. Anybody out there might fall for it. Close in while the lights are out. We’ll spot ’em. Know they’re hostile.
Smooth so far. Joe’s not suspicious of the contact-boat. Risk it.
Skilly slips forward. Watches for my signal by the hand-sized open-fork electrical switches. I nod and close my eyes. Count to fifteen against that first blinding shock of darkness. Concentrate on the sounds around me. Swing my head around. Listen. Face turned down. Pull the automatic from my waist band. Tug its slide to chamber a round.
Goon on the fifty yells out, “The lights!” Joe spits, “Shut up!” Crouches behind the bulwark, shifting aft a few feet. I smile. Joe steps closer to the boat’s cockpit. 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. Count, “Twelve potato, thirteen potato, fourteen potato…Fifteen potato.” Open my eyes. Scan a broad circle, swinging from the backstay, hanging by my free hand. Waves roll in from off our starboard bow. Dirty-white foam tumbles down breaking crests visible much farther out without the glare. Marching towards us in rows. Faint in the distance. Lost in the blackness. Lighthouses stab at us under the overcast to the South. Closed-in again. Another squall on its way. Snow and heavy wind. Any time now.
Not my worry.
Swing around a second time. Half way around a third time, “What’s that?” Know better than to look directly. Pan 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?” The same spot? “No.” A boat, stern to the waves, pointing straight at us. Waves break around them. Tumble past. “Has to be….”
A shadow blocks white foam on a cresting wave behind it.
The lights come back on.
Goon on the fifty squawks. Stops himself before Joe has to chime in. Masthead lights blaze across the water, shutting out the far distance. A wall. A curtain drop. The deck dark. Lock on my target. Jump behind the bulwark. Pistol braced against the rail-cap.
There it is. A low, dark hull. Squat and fat. Foreshortened. Bow just farther than our stern. Lights pick out its stem. Buried in a trough. Stern high on a crest, running up behind. A clear view. No windshield. No house. No cabin or superstructure. A flat deck runs aft to a steering-well about a third of the way back. A figure. A dark watch-cap above the low coaming. Gloved hand grips the wheel. Engine compartment. Behind that another open well. Two more men.
Take my time. Joe ’ll notice. Take care of business with the contact-boat. Ready when I need him. No rush. No sense opening fire until I can be sure of hitting a target. Not just give away my position.
Skilly jogs past in his funny, low, crouching-run. Keeps the bulwark between him and the approaching boat. Joe calls across to the contact-boat’, “All right, Fred. Hold it. You guys stand where I can see you.” Lines their crew in the middle of their cockpit. Andy covers from his perch aft.
Over his shoulder Joe hollers, “Tito, come back here!” Motioning for his other goon to take his place.
Joe yells across to the guy on the fifty, “Franky! Take it easy! Relax!” If he opens up. Shoots wild…..
Skilly passes behind Franky. Pats the kid on the shoulder. A too-tight grip on the fifty. Swings it around. Joe yells, “FRANKY! RELAX!” Runs across the deck.
Franky spots me at the rail. Keeps turning. Sees the hijacker throttling up to make his final dash.
Fifty’s pointed in the wrong direction. Lucky. Can’t swing it all the way around.
Enough to do. Let Joe handle him. Their driver crouches behind the wheel. Two rifle barrels gleam over the after-coaming. Muzzle flashes. Three long-guns aft. Rounds hit the bulwarks. Bury themselves in thick oak, “Tommy guns.”
Sub-machine guns rake the schooner. Firing blind. Don’t see us. No one hit. Far as I can tell.
Just one wave away. Twenty yards off, heading for our stern. Desperate to close the distance.
Start shooting. The 45 kicks. Spent shells bounce off the bulwarks, ringing against the deck. Shift my feet. Concentrate fire at the figure behind the wheel.
The boat’s foredeck splinters. The low coaming disintegrates in front of him.
The guys aft hesitate. Slow to return fire. Want to stay hidden.
A Tommy-gun burst explodes against the mainmast. Rips through the try-sail over my head. Joe crouches at the rail a few feet away. Takes slow, deliberate aim. Places single shots into the aft-well of the oncoming boat.
Five, six, seven shots. Keep count. Nobody at the wheel. The boat keeps coming. Full throttle. A wave catches its stern. Swings the bow around. It bites into a trough, sending them veering off course. Headed straight for me. The boat strikes a glancing blow against the schooner’s topsides between me and the fifty. A dark mass slumped against the bulkhead in the steering well, the helmsman.
Joe must have hit at least one of the Tommy-gunners. A body sprawls across the after-well. Just one of the three still firing. Spasmodic bursts. Forward then aft. Shooting blind.
One round left….
The third gunmen crouches in the footwell, wounded. Drops his gun. Raises his hands. Tugs at his companion’s arm, begging him to surrender. Joe yells, “Drop it! Drop it NOW!” Pistol leveled at the holdout. His partner pleads, “Do what he says! Do what he SAYS!” Tugs at the other man’s sleeve, slobbering. Muttering, “Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot,”
The last gunman stops. Stands straight. Stiffens and drops his gun. Joe says, “OK. Nice an’ easy. That’s it.”
Two shots behind me. The first hits the last gunmen in the head. Drops him. The second square in the middle of his partner’s chest.
Spin around. Already know what I’ll see. Andy. On the rail aft by the boom-gallows. One arm wrapped around a heavy pipe-stanchion, holstering 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. A broad grin on his face. A job well done.
The derelict hijacker bounces along our side. Engines revved at full power. No-one at the wheel. Bow shoves against our hull, Bump, Bump, Bump. Passes astern. Races on in a tight curve. Heading right for the contact-boat.
Step over to the abandoned fifty. In the dark the gun’s even more terrifying. A prodigious muzzle-flash spits flames a foot long. Tracer rounds pulse outwards, streaks of incandescent phosphor curving away. Shots hit the water, sending up mini-geysers. The first rounds miss. 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.
The stern of the boat dissolves into long splinters. Probing for its gas tank…. A lick of blue-white flame. Almost invisible in all the flashes. BOOM! Its stern enveloped. A roiling explosion. Bright orange light bathes everything. Then darkness.
Its stem taps the contact-boat’s stern and sinks.
Joe. Back at his post. Gun trained on the contact-boat. Andy back at his usual perch.
These guys aren’t about to try anything.
Drop the fifty. Step back. The gun’s barrel ticks. Hot metal pinging after those long bursts.
Step back. Look around. Skilly pops-up, holding his double-barrel shotgun, poking his head over the companionway.
Back another step. Something soft on the deck squishes against my heel. A groan. Franky. Propped against the bulwark. Holding his side. Feet splayed out in a vee. Legs out flat. Toes point straight up. His coat – Not his. Skilly’s old watch coat. Heavy yellow parafin-treated canvas. A dark splotch spreads across his shirt from where he holds his side. Pressing with a grim determination, holding his life in. Face shines. Pale in the darkness. A wan, thin moon of a face.
“Joe, Skilly!” They can’t see Franky. Tell by the look on my face. Tone of my voice. Something’s wrong.
Franky won’t let Skilly open his coat. Joe barks at him, “Let the guy see! Will ya!” Franky slumps in surrender. Lets Skilly work. Opens the coat. Careful. Looks off into space. Examines Franky with his hands. Shirt soaked in black-blood. Sticks to his skin. Three ragged holes run at an angle across his side from his hip to his rib-cage. Skilly turns to me with a blank stare.
“OK. Joe. Get this kid off my boat. Ride in on the contact-boat. Get him to a hospital…” Joe knows what I mean, “Don’t want a stiff on my boat!” Calls, “Tito!”
Tito runs aft at a trot. Helps Skilly take hold of Franky by his knees and shoulders. Franky just lays back. Accepts what they do to him. A blank stare. Like it’s all happening to somebody else. They carry his dead-weight across the deck.
Contact-boat’s crew don’t want anything to do with Franky. Squeamish. Tough behind a gun. No stomach for the aftermath.
Andy gestures with his pistol. They know to do what he says. Lay Franky against the bulkhead. Gently.
Send Skilly forward to drop their bowline. Joe spits out, “Wait a minute! We’re not done.” 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.”
Contact-boat drops astern. Franky slumps against the bulkhead of the open wheelhouse. Skilly’s ruined coat up around his ears. Joe chats with the skipper, shoulders working up and down. Laughing at his own jokes. Andy stands aft. Tito beside him. The boat’s crew must be below. A dark stain spreads under Franky. The boat gains speed to the Northwest.
Might go a mile or two before they toss Franky overboard.
Must have dozed off. Dark. Balmy. Warm air flows down the companionway, “Where am I?”
Out of winter into an early southern Spring.