Wednesday, March 23
Bulldog Purvis wasn’t a small man. He had the body of a middle weight prize fighter and a face punished by adversity, but he was dwarfed by the man standing beside him on the dock. The man stood six and a half feet by Harry’s reckoning with shoulders so broad he could only fit through a door sideways.
Bulldog introduced him. “This is Walter Charles. Everyone calls him Nit.”
“Why?” Harry asked.
“I don’t know. They just do.”
Harry looked at the new man like livestock at auction. “He’s big enough, I’ll give you that, but can he hand, reef and steer?”
“I can speak for myself,” the man said with a voice like wooden casks rolling across a cellar floor.
“The mountain speaks,” Harry said. “And what does it say for itself?”
“I learned to sail in the junior’s program at the Seattle Yacht Club.”
Harry hoisted an eyebrow. “The yacht club?”
“His mother married into money off the reservation,” Bulldog said. “She believed in cultural enrichment. Yacht clubs, the symphony, the Burke Museum—that kind of shit. Until he began to grow. A giant Indian isn’t as cute as a kid. When he didn’t fit into Seattle society, they sent him back to the rez. He’s Klallam.”
“A dinghy is a far cry from sailing a schooner,” Harry said.
Nit shrugged. “The principle’s the same, just more sails.”
“I can’t argue with that. You know this isn’t a milk run? We get caught, we go to jail. We get across, we make a lot of money. You good with that?”
“How much money?” Nit said.
“Enough to pay your rent for a year and buy a new car. There’s more where that came from if things work out.”
“I’m good with that,” Nit said.
“Welcome onboard. Stow your gear in the boat.”
Nit only had the clothes he stood in but Bulldog carried an old Army duffle bag stuffed full. When he dropped it into the long boat’s bilge there was the sound of clashing metal.
“You never did travel light, Bulldog.”
In less than half an hour the sail covers were removed, halyards rigged, sheets run aft, and the decks cleared. When Harry turned the ignition key the diesel groaned and coughed and stuttered but failed to start. He preheated the ignition chamber longer and tried again and again the engine shuddered and coughed and failed to start. By the third attempt the battery was weakening and the engine turned more slowly but suddenly belched black smoke, stuttered then steadied, rumbling in its dark hole beneath his feet.
“No worries,” Harry called to the crew. “Reliable as a rock. Standby to weigh anchor.” Nit had already hauled the anchor rode hand over hand, pulling the schooner forward until the rode was straight up and down. “Just pull the damn thing up,” Harry conceded.
In the lee of Ediz Hook they hoisted sail—main and fores’l, jib and stays’l. The sails were frayed along luff and leech and patched like a coat of many colors. They sheeted home for a close reach across the Strait to Vancouver Island. Harry let the engine idle to recharge the starting batteries and run the electric bilge pump. They left a thin stain of oily water in their wake.
They made good speed for an old, sodden schooner. Half way across the Strait, as the sun was drowning on the western horizon, the engine choked and gasped and died convulsively. Harry spent 30 minutes trying to revive it, flattening the batteries with the effort.
“How we going to get in and out of port without an engine?” Bulldog asked.
“We’re sailors,” Harry said, rummaging in the cockpit locker for the kerosene running lights. “We sail. Now hang these lights and start pumping. The old girl leaks like a syphilitic whore.”
They arrived later than expected. The breeze held, they rounded Whiffin Spit on a beam reach, then beat up the bay to Sooke Harbor. Their destination was a dilapidated pier on the shore of East Sooke directly downwind. Harry had them lower the main and jib, sailing only on the fore and stays’l. He walked them through the sequence of events. “It will happen quickly. Everyone needs to do their part.” Bulldog looked dubious.
As they approached the dock on starboard tack the stays’l hung limp in the wind shadow of the larger sail. Bulldog rigged a preventer to the boom to keep the fores’l from swinging across the deck when they gybed, carrying the wind across their stern. Nit sheeted the stays’l home to starboard, then stood by the anchor.
Harry steered directly for the pier where several men were loafing around a cargo van. The schooner was still making good speed despite her reduced sail. White water foamed at her bow. A gibbous moon among broken clouds illuminated the schooner ghosting across the dark water of Sooke Sound.
The men on the pier began to fidget. Nit threw nervous looks over his shoulder. Bulldog closed his eyes and swallowed. Harry didn’t falter.
Nit was close enough to see the eyes of the men on the pier widen and their jaws drop. They bolted, abandoning their truck, at the same time Harry put the schooner’s helm hard over. The waterlogged schooner hesitated for a moment and then gybed, rolling onto her side as she turned sharply into the wind. The fores’l, held in place by the preventer, and the stays’l, sheeted to windward, were back winded and acted as huge air brakes. The schooner quickly lost headway. When she was dead in the water Harry shouted for Nit to let go the anchor. It splashed into the water followed by the chain rattling through the hawse pipe.
The schooner began gathering sternway. Harry steered for the wharf. “Let the sheets run,” he shouted. “Luff all.” Nit and Bulldog released the staysail sheet and the preventer. “Set the anchor.” Nit applied the brake to the freewheeling windlass. The stern of the Spike Africa came to a stop within a foot of the pier. Harry stepped onto the pier head with the stern line.
“Gentlemen, we’re here for our cargo.”
His dramatic entrance was wasted. There was no one to welcome him. They were all half way down the pier to the shore. They returned peevishly.
The gang boss was a man with a round body and a round head. Harry had seen his like in a hundred backwater ports. He was a Weeble. Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, mostly because they were so close to the ground you couldn’t tell the difference.
“You’re late,” the Weeble said.
“We’re here now,” Harry said. “We need to be gone before first light. Can your men start loading?”
“We’re here to offload the crates, not load them onto your boat,” the Weeble said. “That’s your problem.”
Harry paused. “My problem is Dietrich Hoffer’s problem. I don’t think you want to make Dietrich Hoffer your problem.”
“I don’t work for Hoffer. I don’t give a damn for his problems.”
Nit had unobtrusively taken up a position behind the Weeble. He was tapping a crow bar in the palm of his hand. His hands were so large the crow bar looked like a screw driver.
“Maybe so,” Harry said, “but my problem is you and I don’t give a damn how I solve it. A dead whale or a stove boat. Your choice.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“My man here is ready to split your skull like a Halloween pumpkin. Your men might be able to overwhelm us eventually, but you’ll be the first one to hit the deck. And you won’t be getting up. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”
The Weeble turned and looked at Nit who was standing so close he had to crane his neck to see the whole of him. “Don’t get your dander up. Boys,” he shouted to his crew, “get the crates off the truck and into the boat.”
The crates were stowed in the hold in a few hours. The gang boss departed with an obscene gesture. “A wasted opportunity for a good curse,” was all Harry said.
They hoisted all plain sail while the schooner was still at dock. Nit hauled the anchor rode hand over hand and made fast. They sheeted home the main and fores’l and backwinded the jib. As the bow fell off the wind, the anchor pulled free of the bottom., and Nit hauled it onboard. The schooner began to gain way, close hauled on port tack. They clawed off the lee shore and into deeper water.
Harry broke out a bottle of Pusser’s rum he had saved for some special occasion and poured them all a liberal dose in traditional round-bottomed glasses. The glasses rolled with the schooner’s motion like drunken sailors. He raised his glass in a toast. “’With laughing hearts, waist deep in rum, these times will we remember!’” he toasted. “Now let’s start pumping to keep this petulant bitch afloat.”
In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.
@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.