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Murder and Thwarted Love – Potomac River Oyster Wars
Diane Scott Lewis
Colonial Beach, Virginia 1956
Luke questioned his sanity as he and his crewmates rushed to slip the dredges over the sides of the high-powered motorboat. The scoops splashed into the river; their cables squeaked along the rollers amidships. The vessel rocked beneath his feet and he widened his stance. With a grating sound, the dredges started to drag over the oyster bed. The chains and iron teeth of the basket-like scoop raked the bed as it scraped up oysters like a greedy shark. The peril of illegal actions.
The Potomac’s spray dampened Luke’s face and hair. Frigid October wind seeped under his coat collar, and he fought a shiver. River current sucked against Monroe Sally’s hull as the boat hovered like a predator in the black night.
He grimaced. This was the first season that he’d performed this nocturnal activity—but many watermen had been forced into it to survive, and to defy.
He should have stayed with the legal tonging. But dredging did in one hour what tonging did in eight—though the scraping ruined the beds. Luke needed the money; he had a wife and his little boy to support. A week in, he’d admitted the criminal work to Lena, yet never told her that his father had urged him to ‘break the rules,’ saying it was his duty as a Virginian. “Do you want your family to starve?” his pa had accused.
“Old man’s full of crap,” Luke muttered. He should have told him where to go. Not that he didn’t love him, but he had to stop letting his father intimidate him.
The boat creaked as it slowly bobbed. The teeth scraped and tore at the beds.
His wife often said the same about his pa, and Luke had to be the man of his own house.
A crack in the distance echoed over the water. A rifle shot. Luke’s neck muscles tensed. The Maryland oyster police, who held jurisdiction over the Potomac, must be after a dredger.
“Hope we’re not next,” Ernie said with his goofy laugh, but his shoulders hunched.
“Don’t ask for trouble.” Luke swiped his arm across his face to stifle a more agitated reply. With the way sounds carried over the river, the police could be a couple of miles away.
Luke and Ernie scrutinized the marker in the water: an inner tube in an upside-down bushel basket with a kerosine lantern inside that showed a weak flicker. Captain Jim Spenser had pinpointed the bed with this light, and they circled it as they dredged.
At the familiar tug of the cable and the boat’s shudder, Captain Jim sped up the winder engine. Luke and his mates engaged the winder clutches to reel aboard the catch.
Ernie and Luke manned one dredge. Ernie’s younger brother Bobby and a colored man named Silas Hawes toiled close by at the other. Their grumbles and curses thickened the air. The stink of sour sweat poured off them. Luke’s muscles strained from shoulder to fingers.
As the pocket-like net bag swung over the side, its frame banging the rail, nearly forty pounds of muddy shells clattered onto the work deck. Captain Jim brought the boat around again and, with a “heave ho,” they slid the equipment back into the water.
Their rubber-gloved hands culled through the oysters. Each rattle of shells cut into Luke’s brain as he hurried. The stink of the sea and slime filled his nose.
Suddenly a spotlight illuminated Sally and the crew stared into the light, shading their eyes. Captain Jim gunned the stern’s Johnson motor and the boat rumbled and jerked. The winder engine kicked in again. The men hoisted up the dredgers as the police boat nosed its way through the mist to block their escape.
“Damn it all.” Luke jerked his dredger across the deck. His body tightened at the dangerous possibility of arrest. How would he protect his family from jail?
“Stop!” the Maryland officials shouted. A whip sounded as they tried to lash a line across their vessel’s bow. Monroe Sally bumped alongside the police boat. A shot exploded from beside him. The police captain staggered and grabbed his shoulder. The officers aimed their rifles and shots whistled across Luke’s head and right shoulder. He cringed and ducked down among broken oyster shells and mud. Would this be his last night on the earth?
Their boat retreated into the fog at full speed, hugged the shore, then slipped into a cove. Captain Jim cut her engine. Lights off. The crew stayed crouched and held their breath, listening for the growl of a pursuing motor. Silence enveloped them. Frogs grunted in the rushes. Luke cursed to himself at whatever idiot on Sally had fired first.
* * *
Dawn light crept through the flimsy bedroom curtains. Yelena wriggled her toes under the covers and stared at the creeping shadows on the ceiling. Luke should be at Monroe Harbor by now, delivering their catch to Land Curley. Her heart constricted. How she hated these long nights, the dangers out on the Potomac since Luke had joined the illicit dredgers.
Extra cash during hard times—the long fading of Colonial Beach as a pleasure place after the war—except for the flashy casinos—and defying Maryland’s ownership of the river, drove the Virginians to anger and desperation.
The old-timers grumbled constantly about these issues, especially the beleaguered watermen. Yelena struggled between pity for her town, and the graver apprehension for Luke’s safety.
Her life always seemed teetering on the edge, never advancing to something better. She chased around like clanging pinballs what solutions she had the power to initiate. The strength to raise her family into a securer, more comfortable environment. Perhaps she could find a job, bring in income? Or was that a foolish idea?
Seger banged a toy truck on his bedroom floor, in the tiny room across from hers. It came like shots through the thin walls of their ramshackle cottage. She winced at the sound, though the toy didn’t matter. She had bought the thing second-hand, rusty and scratched. After a moment, the child appeared in her doorway, rumpled in his Mighty Mouse pajamas.
“You’re up awful early,” she said softly.
“Where’s Daddy? Not home yet?” he asked, but sounded more a demand. He padded barefoot across creaking floorboards to the window and peeked out. Standing on tiptoe, he trailed his fingers over the glass. She tried not to mind the smudged fingerprints that would remain there until she cleaned.
“He’ll be here soon, Champ. The boat should be in dock.” She smiled as the boy crawled in beside her and snuggled into the bed. His fresh child smell. Her Seger, four and a half years old, and full of mischief. Still, she resented that name. A sweet, cherub-faced child called Seger—it didn’t fit to her reasoning. She had wanted something more poetic, but Luke said they should honor his father. Whiskey would have been a more appropriate testimonial. Luke’s cantankerous old man delighted in swilling alcohol and ordering people about, rather than caring about his kin.
She kissed her son’s warm forehead under blond curls and thought how she used to dislike her own name. Yelena. Named for a great-grandmother she’d never seen who had lived and toiled in some Siberian hovel. She’d been curious to look up Siberia at the library when old enough to read: a Russian wasteland where temperatures plummeted to frigid depths. Many of her childhood friends had teased her over this odd appellation. They’d chided her for a prissy name unworthy of a true Virginian. But now, at twenty-four, she believed it gave her a mysterious distinction.
A key scraped in the front door lock. Seger wriggled from under the covers and scampered into the hallway. Yelena pulled the blanket snug to her chin and waited as the door opened and boots tramped in.
“Daddy, ’bout time you came home,” Seger announced.
“Hey, Spat, why’re you up now?” Luke asked when he reached their bedroom door. He pulled off his wool cap and swung Seger into his arms. Her husband’s medium frame was slender but muscled, his light brown hair tousled as he stood in the shadows. That fishy odor that clung to his clothes clouded in, and after all these years she still noticed even if she’d stopped wrinkling her nose.
“I’m awake.” Yelena forced a smile over her qualms. When Luke trudged farther in, she refrained from complaining about his filthy boots. “Did it go well tonight?”
Luke smirked, but it didn’t change the troubled expression in his eyes. He shifted the child on his hip. “Spat, you go play in your room.”
“Ain’t no baby oyster.” Seger poked his father’s chest, his bottom lip stuck out. “I ain’t no spat.”
She sighed and despaired of breaking her son from saying ‘ain’t.’
Luke carried the protesting boy across the hall. Then he shut their bedroom door and looked down at his boots. “Sorry, I mussed up the rug. I’ll go back outside and—”
“Is everything all right?” She sat up, her breathing shallow. She sensed the anxiety that bristled off of him.
The sun brightened through the curtains. A bird chirped, then another.
Luke’s body seemed to sag, as if his bones had gone to rubber. His hazel eyes held too much distraction. “Nothing, it’s nothing. I’m just tired.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do this anymore. I don’t know why you had to join in.” She’d made that statement too many times to count since oyster season began. But this morning the increased tension in her husband quickened her pulse.
He sank into a nearby chair and unlaced his boots. “Lena, do you think I’d be doing it if I had something better? Money’s tight enough.” He spoke so harshly, she clung to the hope he regretted his choice, that soon he’d quit.
“If not this season, absolutely next season…you can stop.” She wouldn’t know until then what he’d choose, how much she could still influence him.
There was a loud knock on their bedroom door. Seger squeaked it open and peered in, his plump mouth pouting. “Don’t wanna play in my room no more.”
“The hell you say.” Luke laughed at his son’s bold statement. “We’ll just have to see ’bout that.”
“Luke, please, no profanity in front of him. We’ve talked about that.” She rose from the bed and shivered in the chilly room. Slipping on her robe, she then pushed her feet into scuffed slippers.
“I’m hungry.” Seger opened the door a few inches wider and stretched to his full height—as if that would impress his parents
“Sorry, forgot the danged Queen was here.” Luke glanced at her, shaking his head. “Where good ole swearin’ becomes ‘profanity.’”
His irritation unsettled her. A queen, was she? A royal Russian empress living in a shack. “I’m just trying to do what’s best. You should get out of those damp clothes.”
Seger squeezed through the door opening and tiptoed in, as if no one would notice.
Luke hopped to his feet and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll wash and try an’ get some sleep.”
Yelena put her arms around her husband. The smell of the river oozed from his clothes; his cheek felt like ice. Now she’d smell fishy. Was she trying to find solace? “Would you like some hot chocolate to warm up first?”
“Nope. I just gotta grab a little thief.” He kissed her quickly on the lips, then turned and scooped up the child, who squealed, and swung him in the air. “Come on, boy, help me fill my bath.” He tramped back out into the hall with Seger under his arm like a bushel of oysters.
As she watched him go, she felt only a remnant of that soft twisting in her abdomen. The feeling she’d had that first day she’d laid eyes on Lukas Trowbridge at Colonial Beach High School. It had faded, their expectations moving apart. Her once secure anchor pulled free from its mooring. She clutched her robe close. The idea frightened her.
Luke gripped the sheets, the bed wavering beneath him like the bob of a boat. He came fully awake in the dark-paneled bedroom. He’d done oyster work since fourteen, yet it never seemed to matter—the movement of the river swayed in his dreams. Generations of oystermen fished in his blood, the rugged watermen were his family.
The house was quiet. Lena must have gone out with their boy. She was annoyed with him. Disappointed more like it; he saw it deeper in her eyes each day. The pretty blonde-haired girl he’d always struggled to impress. A girl who’d won a math award in their senior year. Math!
He left the warm blankets and pulled on his jeans and a sweatshirt. In the kitchen he heated water in a pot on the stove and scooped the instant coffee into a mug. When the water boiled, he poured it over the grounds, making a muddy liquid. A quick stir and sip. He frowned at the grainy taste, an off-brand. The higher-paid people drank Nescafe. His wife should be here, percolating a good brew.
He glanced at the clock on the wall. Almost noon. He’d have to make his own lunch, too.
Luke stared out the kitchen window to the marsh, the drying rushes. The last of the season’s mosquitos waited in hunger for the dip of the sun. An inlet off the bay on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the land was a peninsula between the Potomac River and Monroe Bay. His entire world, nearly seventy miles south of Washington, D.C.. A place he’d never visited.
Lena wanted to take Seger to the capitol, teach him about history, government. The boy wasn’t even in school yet. There was plenty of history right here at the Beach. Hell, George Washington was born not far from there.
Luke’s battleground was here, stretching from the bridge where busy route 301 crossed the Potomac into Maryland, then twenty-five miles downriver to the Chesapeake.
Fingers gripped on the mug handle, he should tell Lena about the shooting incident. That news would get back to her sooner or later, but he hated to worry her more. She had to understand this was business and for now he must make a bigger profit. Packing house owner Land Curley paid well for the larger catch.
It did bother him to ruin the beds. The oysters not being able to reproduce would eventually destroy their livelihood. His mama had once explained it to him. His mama… Dammit, he was caught in a terrible position.
He glanced down and touched rough splinters. The window needed repairs, the wood rotting on the frame. Saltwater air did that to a house. He’d have to fix it. The landlord would take forever. Another sip of coffee tasted bitter down his throat.
He jerked open the fridge that hummed louder than a wasps’ nest. Peanut butter and jelly seemed his best choice for a sandwich. Where was his wife?
His heart bunched like a fist. How could he fix things with Lena? Put a smile back on her face, the brightness in her eyes that first attracted him. He needed her gentle presence.
Luke smacked the fridge door. Other sinister activities were happening out on the Potomac; stuff he could never tell her about. Crimes he was repulsed to believe.
* * *
Pam moved ponderously around her tiny kitchen, cleaning up the lunch dishes of tuna sandwiches. Huge and pregnant with number four, her swollen ankles bulged over worn slippers. “Look exhausted, Lena. You getting no sleep?”
“I’m up too early. You’ll be the one needing the sleep, sis. Are you trying to start a fishing crew of your own?” Yelena smiled to distract the question and sipped coffee at the table with its torn plastic yellow cover.
“Think if I had my druthers I’d be doing it again? Probably. Matt likes his women full-bodied.” Pam peered into the front room. “You kids get off the sofa with your shoes! And no jumping.” She sat at the table with a thud.
“My Seger keeps me running enough. I guess I haven’t gotten loads of sleep lately.” Yelena absently stirred the sugar around in Pam’s chipped green sugar bowl. Agitation kept her off balance, as if she should be doing something important, but exactly what she needed to figure out. The job idea kept repeating in her head.
“Anything the matter? Things all right with you and Luke?” Pam bent over as far as her belly would allow and tossed a piece of Moon Pie at the dog. Chocolate and graham cracker crumbs scattered around her feet. The matted-haired terrier gobbled the pastry in loud snuffles. “Fool dog eats whatever you throw in his face.”
“Dogs usually do. The chocolate might make it sick.” Yelena averted her eyes as the mutt nosed the crumbs, combining them with other debris on her sister’s floor. “Me and Luke? I still love him, care about him. His eyes always make him look sad, vulnerable. But I…I just can’t understand what I’m about lately.”
Luke’s gazes once tied her up tight inside, with a crooked smile that quickened her breath. Now, she couldn’t describe the hollow feeling that crept up on her of late. Did she love him as much as in the beginning? She wanted more, but how to explain that to Pam.
“Vulnerable? Where do you get your fancy words? Baby sis, you love to talk above us rank and file. Too much book reading if you ask me.” Pam put both elbows on the table, her mug of coffee between her hands. Her dark blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. “And your year at college.”
“For what good it did me.” Yelena wished she could take that statement back. She’d attended the business college in Fredericksburg, an hour away, until she discovered she was pregnant with Seger. She and Luke had married, as they’d always intended, but not so quickly. “Not that I regret my beautiful son.”
“You’re a good mom. But you’ve got your head in the clouds. You get that from Daddy. I know you love your man, but your life isn’t what you expected.” Pam sat back and studied Yelena with her round green eyes above puffy cheeks. “Don’t frown at me, it’s the truth.”
“I don’t think I’m so above anyone. At least I try not to behave that way.” Yelena had been voted most popular girl in her senior year and graduated with straight A’s. But what had she accomplished in her life? She’d hoped to be a bookkeeper; she was good at math. She might still find something like that to help out her family.
The sound of wrestling came from the front room; children’s laughter and shouts, bumps against the wall.
“Settle down in there,” Pam warned. “I got cookies for good little kids.”
Seger ran in, cheeks flushed. “Mama, I want a cookie.” He grabbed her hand and she twirled him then squeezed him close, feeling his warmth and energy. He laughed.
“Sweetie, not yet, and please behave.” She caressed his plump cheek. He blew her a kiss and ran back to where his cousins played.
“Your boy always behaves the best.” Pam rubbed her mound of a belly. “You could use more cookies; you’re too skinny.”
“I’m trim, that’s all.” Yelena gazed at the dusty kitchen window with its jars of wildflowers on the sill. A sprig of lavender would sweeten the air. She turned back to her sister. “You enjoy being the world’s mama, don’t you?”
“Our mama couldn’t be bothered so much. She was too distracted. So someone had to do it.” Pam cocked her head; the earth mother—warm and comfortable like a well-worn sweater. “Say, you been out to visit them lately?”
“Don’t be so hard on Mama. She had…problems later on. It wasn’t her fault.” Yelena twinged with guilt at her neglect. She glanced again at the floor, but resisted the urge to ask her sister where she kept her dust broom and pan. “I haven’t been out for a while.”
A Slinky flew into the room and boinged into the cupboards. The dog ran out with a yelp.
Pam rose, moaned, and waddled to the cupboard where she kicked the toy out of the way. “Knock it off in there!” She sighed. “We have a crazy mama, all right. Except she doesn’t run screaming down the street trying to stab people like a proper lunatic. She hides in her house and won’t come out for hell or high water. A cowering mouse. That’s why Daddy’s gotten so quiet. He’s turning into her.”
“Don’t be harsh. I pity them. Everyone has issues. Is your life so perfect? Don’t tell me, it is, isn’t it?” Yelena finished her coffee in one probably too-dainty a sip. “Luke called me the Queen this morning. Is that what you all think, I put on airs?”
“You expect too much, that’s all. You married Luke for fevered passion, but nothing stays fevered.” Pam winked as she brought out a cookie jar shaped with the pink face of Porky Pig. “Then you dig in for the long haul.”
“You do know me better than anyone.” Yelena wanted to steer the long haul in a better direction. She stood and smiled at her sister. A person she’d always counted on, five years her senior. She shouldered her basket, an item she’d bought at a flea market. She enjoyed the idea of shopping like a colonial. Another ‘air’ of hers, she supposed. “Thanks for lunch. I better get to the grocers.”
Pam fetched several Oreos from the jar, leaving dark crumbs on her Formica counter. “Reminds me, have you heard from Nancy?”
“Not for a few weeks. Why?” Yelena thought of their wild, red-haired cousin. Loud and crazy and fun.
“She came by the other day.” Pam laid the sweet-scented cookies on a plate. “She says her Jerry is dredging out on the river, dodging the Oyster Police. They’re getting shot at.”
Yelena froze, her mind tumbling. “Shot at, are you sure?”
Pam shrugged. “You know how she exaggerates. Luke isn’t involved, is he?”
“Of course not.” She regretted lying to Pam. Was her husband being fired on, too? Or knew others that were? Chills rippled along her neck. “Can Seger stay and play till I’m through shopping?”
“Sure he can.” Pam’s eyes sharpened for a second as if she read minds. Yelena suspected she did. “You okay? You look pale.”
Yelena turned her face away. “I’m fine, stop mothering.”
“You’ll tell me later.” Pam moved close and grinned. Her cheeks ballooned out further. “When are you having another? Seger needs a brother or sister.”
Yelena stared at her sister’s wide hips in gray maternity pants and her bloated bosom. She squeezed her close, a pillow of flesh against her. “One is quite enough for now. I won’t be long.” She couldn’t bring another child into her uncertain world.
* * *
The Potomac Riverfront of Colonial Beach was tumbled down and weathered by years of rough river, winds, and neglect. Hurricane Hazel, two years before, had badly damaged the boardwalk and it was just now getting back to normal. The old Colonial Beach Hotel with its two grand balconies, up on a slight, grassy hill, anchored the area. Ice cream shops and other concessions that would thrive with people in the summer were boarded up. The small amusement park sat quiet to the right.
As a little girl, Yelena had found a wild, rustic ambiance here that she couldn’t have explained to anyone. The Potomac appeared wide enough to be an ocean that stretched to Europe, and she’d felt on the edge of the world—an exciting and daunting prospect. She missed that childhood fantasy.
Now she thought of the river as the place where her husband defied the Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission and every night risked arrest. Shot at? She shivered. It was October, barely weeks into the season, and she dreaded the long months ahead.
She continued to walk and glared at the casinos situated on the wide piers over the Potomac: “Little Reno,” “Monte Carlo,” “Jackpot” and “Little Steel Pier.” These garish places awaited the crush of summer tourists eager to gamble. The gaming dens did little to help the local economy. All taxes were paid to Maryland, who had jurisdiction over the Potomac. Colonial Beach had to provide food and lodging, which garnered some revenue. But they also had to increase their police force to tame the drunken sore losers or celebrating winners who poured from the clubs. Avaricious Maryland snatched everything in profit.
A seagull screeched as if disapproving of her dark thoughts. The smell of brine and fish filtered through the air. She watched the water slurp around the pier pilings. The river swept along the shore as the Potomac rushed toward the huge Chesapeake Bay that flowed into the Atlantic Ocean—surging free.
Yelena blew out her breath, crossed the street, and entered Denson’s market on Colonial Avenue. The grocery store had just expanded into a larger place. Picking among the fruits and vegetables, she pondered her other talk with Pam. She loved her husband, even if the passion had dimmed, as Pam said it would. But she always counted on him to give up being a waterman, to do more with his life.
Five years from now would she be as frowsy as her sister—content to breed while expanding to grotesque proportions? No, she shouldn’t think that way about Pam.
She dropped potatoes into her basket. The beets looked fresh, but Seger wouldn’t eat them. She sorted through the long green beans.
Yelena glanced down at her crisp white blouse. She hadn’t gained too much weight with Seger and lost most of it afterwards. She tried to style her pale blonde hair appealingly, iron her clothes so she was always presentable. The men appraised her as she took walks around town.
She bypassed an expensive ham and sirloin steaks and derided herself for such vain thoughts. But she was never a flirt. She probably inherited that caution from her poor mama.
And beleaguered Ruth Morrison was a decent, God-fearing woman. Was it her fault her nerves were never in good order? Pam shouldn’t scorn her like she did. Yelena sighed as she studied a half-priced bruised apple, because she was just as critical of Luke’s father. Family could be so exhausting, she mused with a shake of her head.
She read the advertisement on the wall for Twinkle Copper Cleaner. Quick-as-a-wink with Twinkle. The cartoon woman held up a sparkling pan, as if this was the crowning achievement of her life.
Yelena wedged a box of Cheerios in her basket. The basket did give her limitations on what could be easily transported.
Larry, the pimply-faced store clerk, gave her his usual sloppy grin when she paid for her purchases. She stepped outside onto the crumbling sidewalk. The area along Colonial Avenue was an unattractive mixture of small homes and seedy storefronts. She went to cross the street when a turquoise and white Bel Air screeched around the corner and pulled up to the sidewalk, cutting her off.
Yelena backed to the curb and bristled with irritation as the car’s door opened. “The audacity of these out-of-towners,” she said to herself.
A tall man with broad shoulders stepped out. He appeared to be in his thirties. With his piercing blue eyes and full-lipped mouth in a frown, he looked a little menacing.
“You shouldn’t race down the streets like that, Mister. It’s dangerous.”
“I am sorry, Miss. Fast driving is a bad habit of mine.” He stared her up and down in a way she found invasive. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” His speech was crisp, with a foreign inflection. He removed his fedora hat, revealing straight yellow hair, and made a curt bow. “Please accept my apology.”
She stiffened and wondered if he ridiculed her. “It’s just unsafe, your driving so fast, when children play around here.” She shifted her basket of groceries from one arm to the other. “I hope you’ll be more careful next time.”
“I will from now on, with your advice. My name is Mr. Sachs. I’m new to the area.” He smiled and, to her surprise, it brought warmth to his face. “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with, Miss?”
“Mrs. Luke Trowbridge.” She disliked her defensive tone of voice, but still moved back a step. “So nice to meet you, Mr. Sachs.” His formal, smooth way of speaking unnerved her, though she wasn’t certain why. He seemed out of a movie, a Nazi intimidating a female, who turns agent. She almost laughed at that idea. She would prefer being Grace Kelly, who since April of this year was an actual princess—if not a queen. “Excuse me, I must be on my way now.”
“You are a proud married woman, I see. What does your husband do, Mrs. Trowbridge?” Sachs’ penetrating gaze took her in once more. “In such a small town, he is either a fisherman or works for tourism?”
Why did he want to know? His question appeared more than nonchalant. “He is an oysterman.” Her words sounded too revealing, as if by this admission she exposed Luke’s nightly shenanigans on the river. She clenched her fingers around the rough basket handle. “Good afternoon, sir.”
He smiled again and tipped his hat in a suave manner. “I hope we may meet again.”
She strode the remainder of the way across the street toward the corner, her blue skirt swinging with each step. “Good gracious, what a nosey immigrant,” she whispered under her breath. She chided herself. Now she sounded like Pam!
Her chin lifted like a queen, she was about to turn toward Lafayette Street and her sister’s home to retrieve her son and hurry home to demand the truth from Luke about gunfire. And look in the want ads under employment? Only then did she glance back, and Mr. Sachs still stood there, watching her.
The river’s current swished along Monroe Sally’s hull; a night bird called in the rushes. Luke stared down into the murky water, listening to the dredger’s teeth scrape over the oyster bed accompanied by the boat engine’s low growl. Visibility was next to nothing. The chilly air frosted his nerves and flesh under his oilskin, the weather unusually cold for this early in the season.
He bit back a grunt. A few quick runs, a good payoff, and he’d inform Jim that he wanted no more to do with it. The hell with his father’s nagging. And Lena tonight, asking about any shootings. He’d denied it since no one shot at them. Silas was the one who fired on the police, but that was their secret.
“Luke, take the wheel for a minute,” Captain Jim called. The older man opened his oilskin, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and fumbled several times to light one. In his forties, Jim Spenser was weathered, sturdy, and column-shaped, like a pier piling. “A damn shame we have to function this way on what should be our own river. Virginia watermen shouldn’t be taxed and not Maryland, too. Ain’t fair.”
The captain had spoken this like a litany since January when Maryland re-enforced their export tax on all Virginia Potomac oystermen. Ruthless Maryland had even acquired a seaplane to chase down offenders, which forced angry Virginia watermen like them to come out at night to dredge. Jim was a man who risked much for the funds to keep a son in college.
“Maybe Richmond should fight a little harder for us.” Luke declined the offer of a cigarette. He steered the boat around the marker as the dredges clawed. His pa and grandpa, and farther back, had worked this river, and he hated to be scared off by Maryland’s bullying tactics. Even Virginia had marine police who were supposed to stop the illegal dredgers, but they often ignored Virginia boats. Most Virginians thought of it as protecting their livelihood rather than spiting the oyster police, as Luke’s father had proclaimed.
Semi-retired because of back problems, his pa disdained the tonging, the long-scissored shafts with metal rakes on the ends which gently plucked up the oysters. The dredger machines his old man supported, though more successful, scraped the beds too low. Then silt deposited making it difficult for the oysters to attach themselves and reproduce. Lena had read such stories to their boy. Luke’s guilt resurfaced.
Captain Jim took back the wheel and sped up the winder engine. The crew reeled up the equipment and clumps of oysters spilled over the work deck. Luke and Ernie culled through their batch. In sharp clicks, they broke off dead oysters from live ones with their culling hammers. They then pushed oysters too small to keep, empty shells, beer bottles and other fishy-smelling debris in a clatter off the deck and back into the river.
Far off their port side, an engine rumbled. A spotlight beam hit the water in the distance. Another dredging boat lit up in the mist. The light bent in a weird refraction in the stew, the other ship a ghostly glowing shape.
Luke fisted his hammer. The oyster police!
“Christ, it looks like the Little Craig’s been spotted!” Jim groused.
Monroe Sally’s wary crew watched the spotlight move closer to the highlighted fifty-foot former German Navy powerboat, and heard a crash that reverberated off the water. This was followed by shouting, then the Craig’s powerful engine roared.
“We’re outta here.” Jim gunned Sally’s engine as the Little Craig sped by. Her wake knocked them about, their gunwales almost colliding. Shots fired from the police boat—the sound snapped over the river. Captain Jim ordered his crew to secure everything and they rumbled off, out of the way of the on-coming marine police. Bullets buzzed over their boat. Ernie cried out and grabbed his upper arm.
Luke sucked in his breath and pulled his friend into the low cabin as their boat heaved and splashed down the Potomac.
Bobby tumbled in to see how his brother was doing. “Don’t die on me, Ern. The police’s engine’s stalled,” he said with a nervous wink. “They can’t chase no one now. Bastards.”
“How long before we’re all shot,” Luke whispered after Bobby hurried back out on deck to help Jim and Silas. Luke removed his glove and pressed it to the wound. Blood and torn flesh, his nausea rose up.
“Dang, that hurts!” Ernie jerked and groaned. “This is more real than I care for.”
Eventually, Sally caught up with the Little Craig in a secluded cove where her captain, Wilson ‘Bozo’ Atwell was laughing. At twenty-nine, Atwell was tall and rangy and fearless.
“Hey, Jim,” Atwell called out, loud enough for Luke to hear. “I took a hatchet to the lines when they tried to lash our boat. Then the stupid police captain was fired on and injured by his own mate, so one of the crew shouted. They act like we’re kidnappers or something, for fishing our waters.”
“Crazy times, Bozo. We got an injured man here,” Jim replied. “I’ll see you over at Curley’s.”
“Aye, aye.” Bozo gunned his six cylinder Hall Scott engine again and roared off.
“That Bozo’s insane. He’ll ruin it for the rest of us.” Luke checked Ernie’s arm below the shoulder in the cramped cabin that smelled like coffee and bacon—and now the iron stink of blood. Luke’s glove was smudged with red.
“Yeah, remember when the police chased Bozo up a creek, and he pulled out his hunting rifle and threatened to kill ’em until they backed off? And they did.” Ernie gave a weak, sputtering laugh, but his tension leaked through. He and his brother had fished the river since able to walk, according to Ernie. Same as all the men in his family. “It’s a scary life.”
The wind picked up, howling around the boat, rocking her further. Rain splattered the cabin.
“If Maryland don’t let up, you wonder how much longer we’ll get away with this,” Luke said as Monroe Sally’s engine revved and their boat left the cove. He shed his glove and retrieved a cloth to press it on Ernie’s upper arm. Warm blood dampened under his fingers through the cloth then stopped. Until tonight, Luke tried not to think of the dire consequences of this venture. His jaw clenched. Staying alive should be more important than bringing in extra money.
* * *
Yelena opened the back door to let out the cook smoke. The mist had cleared and the bay beyond their marsh rippled with the reflection of the rising full moon wavering on its surface. How innocent the water looked. She shut the door, the air too cold, and stabbed at the potatoes frying in the pan. They’d be burnt to a black mess by the time Luke got up. But he’d gotten home so late that morning, she hadn’t yet awakened him. His mood decidedly gloomy, they had spoken little, yet she suspected there must have been trouble out on the river.
Before he’d left for the boat, he insisted there’d been no gunfire. Was he lying to her?
She waved smoke from her face. The exhaust fan on the wall above the stove had cut out minutes ago. The cottage was falling apart.
She bit her lip, angry at herself for worrying. He was a grown man and capable of handling himself. Still, she couldn’t help but think Old Man Trowbridge had influenced his son to go along with this ‘night’ business. And a bullet cared little about a man’s strength of purpose.
The fillets of fish sat in a pool of butter on low heat. After another stir of the potatoes through the melted lard, the greasy fried smell sharp, she stopped to listen for her husband and boy.
Seger played with his building blocks in the front room, quietly, to her surprise, as she’d requested. How could Luke allow any danger to come near their precious child?
She must look for work, to supplement their income, even if Luke would object. The want ads in the local paper had yielded nothing so far.
A heavy footfall from the hall broke apart her thoughts. She snapped off the gas burners, slid the iron skillet to a cold burner, and wiped her hands on her threadbare apron. When Luke walked in, expression glum, her breath stilled, but she tried not to act concerned. Seger scampered in at the same time, his plump mouth in a grin.
“Daddy, you’re up. ’Bout time.” He ran to his father, who gathered him into his arms. Then Luke put his arm around his wife and hugged her tightly.
They stayed like that for a moment. He smelled of the soap he’d used to wash before he went to sleep.
“Are you feeling all right, honey?” She rubbed her cheek against his shirt, then drew away. Here she was, acting the good little wife—for the moment. “Sit, your supper’s ready. I’ll fetch you a beer.”
“Why’d you let me sleep so long?” he asked in a sleepy drawl, rubbing a hand through his hair.
“I thought you needed the extra rest.” She fought the urge to caress the dark circles that had formed under his eyes. He’d already turned away from her.
“Yeah, maybe I did.” Luke sank down in his chair at the table, their boy on his lap.
“I want beer.” Seger thrust out his chest.
“You get milk, young man.” Yelena opened the refrigerator and withdrew a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, popped the cap, and set it on the table before her husband. “So, how did it go last night?” She tried to keep it casual as she busied herself serving the greasy potatoes and fried croaker along with boiled green beans.
“I’m starved, thanks. Too bad I slept away the day.” Luke shoveled food into his mouth.
Her heart twinged at his avoidance of her question. “The exhaust fan is broken.”
Luke nodded and continued eating.
Seger wiggled to be free, but his father picked up a crispy potato slice and poked it in his mouth. The child giggled as grease dribbled over his lips.
Yelena set down his Mighty Mouse cup of milk and the matching plate with his supper.
“I thought there might have been a problem with the boat, since you were so late.” She softened her speech to matter-of-fact as she made a plate for herself.
Luke took another bite, then stared hard at her. “We’ll talk about it later. I’d like to eat.”
“Seger, sit at your own plate.” Her appetite now faded, she scrubbed the messy stove with a Brillo soap pad, throwing potato peels into a can with a sharp clink.
“I wanna sit with Daddy.” The boy squirmed on his father’s knee. When she wiped her hands then attempted to clean his chin with a dish cloth, he pushed her hands away. “Don’t need a napnik.”
“Do as your Mama says.” Luke picked up the child and put him in the chair beside him. “Please sit down, Lena.”
She sat across from her husband finally, and they ate in silence, forks scraping across plates. The food churned in her stomach.
Twenty minutes later, after she cleared away the supper things, Luke offered to put Seger in his bath. He was obviously avoiding more conversation.
Luke came back out twenty minutes later, the front of his shirt wet. “He’ll play a while, but I washed him down good.”
“Tell me what’s wrong, Luke.” She said it tenderly, moving up close to him. These actions had always worked before. “I know something is bothering you. You shouldn’t hide things from me.”
His eyes searched hers, his sigh deep. “They fired on us. Ern caught it this time. Damn!” He hugged her against him, his shirt dampening her breasts.
“What? Are you serious?” Her stomach clenched. Her worst fears. “I can’t believe—”
“Shhh, don’t scare the boy. Let’s not talk about this now.” Luke tried to kiss her, but she pulled back.
“Maamaa!” Seger’s voice echoed from the bathroom. “Come see!”
“In a minute,” she called, then back to her husband, “Was Ernie hurt badly?”
“Mostly a flesh wound. We ran him over to Doc Baker’s.”
“I want you to stop this. Please.” She clung to his shoulders, almost pinching them. “I’d like to work, to help out. I’ll ask Pam’s husband about jobs on the navy base. You go back to tonging. You did it before this mess with Maryland started again. Why did you decide to take up this illegal business?”
“Enough, Lena. You got our boy to care for. You don’t need a job.” His order was a low grumble and he moved away from her. “I want more for us, that’s my job. The truck needs fixin’. And I ain’t no coward from the fish police.”
“No one said you were.” Her voice quivered with frustration. She’d seek employment and not tell him until she had it. “Isn’t Maryland just trying to keep the natural resources that protects the beds? You once believed in that.” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “But to shoot people—that’s going too far. My cousin Nancy’s husband said they were fired on.”
“Jerry? He talks too much. Go see to our boy.” He walked away, his shoulders bunched, chin down like a bull, and she knew his hackles were up.
She nearly choked on her accusation that his father had something to do with Luke’s jump into dredging. An ornery man who should be ignored. Luke was becoming a little like him. Her skin prickled.
Once Seger was in bed, she joined Luke on the sofa where he drank a second beer. She sipped an RC Cola, slowly; the sweet beverage fizzed in her stomach. The silence spread out, pushing at the wooden walls, though The Lone Ranger blared with cowboys and Indians on the television in front of them.
She fidgeted on the worn cushion, her questions bubbling up. “Luke, if we could—”
“Give me some peace, Lena.” He said it gently, his voice tired. “It will all work out.”
She forced a smile. “I hope so.” She trailed her fingers along his arm, wanting him to listen. “I knew you were a good man when I first met you. I believe all this bothers you, too.” Her anger at his evasion circled around her fears that he could be injured. “It’s the hard times that make people dishonest. And now shooting?”
“If I was so danged good, I’d quit now, tonight. But I can’t, not yet. You and Seger should have nicer stuff. We need things. No more arguing, okay?” He faced her and kissed the protest from her lips. He tasted of grease and beer. Easing back, Luke studied her. “Ain’t ashamed to say I won the prize in you, Lena. The prettiest girl I ever saw, still are. And probably too smart for me.”
“Don’t ever think that.” She touched his mouth, remembering the attraction that had lured her in high school. Her mother warned her she was marrying beneath her, but she’d ignored her. “I want you safe. Have you ever thought of changing your—?”
“Let’s put these problems to bed...before I have to go out again.” He rose and pulled her into his arms.
After inserting her diaphragm, she joined him in the confining bedroom where the lumpy bed took up most of the space. Luke peeled off her clothes, his hands eager on her flesh. She unbuttoned his shirt, sliding her fingers down his lean, muscled chest. His caresses sent her skin simmering; his kisses consumed her.
Her breath rasped, yet it was over before she had time to explode in sparks. She clung to him, trying to entice him to stay. But her husband was dressed and gone while she stared at the ceiling. She wondered if it was her anxiety for him—or her determination to find ways to rescue her family—that made her feel so dissatisfied.
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Great beginning. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Enjoyed the bookReplyDelete
Thanks for posting the excerpt!ReplyDelete