The insidious sounds of my phone alarm only rang louder than the jack hammer pounding in my head. It must have been a good night, I thought and I’m sure the girls that run the bar will tell me all about it when I get in this afternoon.
The last month or so had just been a pure hell, my wife had left. I came home to find she had just packed up while I was gone, no note, no trace. She had always paid all the bills, managed what little bit of money we had and kept the rent, electric and water paid up. She must have planned it for months, hiding evection notices, moving savings, hording the Tarpon season money, and timing it when I had just made our nut for the year. When she left, they changed the locks and I had 3 garbage bags of my stuff sitting on the front porch. She did leave a note for me, it said “enjoy your life, loser”. Jess never understood how I survived with so little ambition; I often wondered how she survived with so much of it! I am just content to have my little charter business and live a fairly uncomplicated and simple life. The fact was, she was gone, she left me alone and penniless, but I didn’t really care, we weren’t peas and carrots. Anyway, I had my truck and poling skiff paid off, and a half dozen trips lined up throughout the dog days of what was left of this relentless summer.
My friends all have families and kids, I knew I could stay on a couch for a night or two but really didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. I had a shower at Sandy’s so if figured on sleeping a night or two in my truck and see how it shakes out, Sandy’s is a upscale dive bar with ok oysters and a really good Philly cheese steak, cold beer and a great crowd. It’s on a small peninsula and has a bay side pier and a small lagoon marina in the back. I keep my skiff on a lift there. Jack named the bar after his wife; she fell ill with cancer and died at 22 years old, 2 years after they married. Jack crawled into a bottle and came out five months later; he took the insurance money and went to rehab, got straightened out, and bought this old bar. It was their hangout, it was close and cheap for a young couple. That was 20 years ago. He still does not drink liquor, but he drinks his beer.
I had made a deal with Jack, to sleep in the unused office he built off to the side of the property by the banyan tree. It is a one room cracker shack; it has a/c, cable a kitchenette. Kinda reminds me of the Jimmy Buffett song “this hotel room”. Once I got on my feet I told Jack, I’ll be out, he said we’d just see how it shook out. My 13 year old yellow lab Cornbread (pronounced slowly with a southern almost ethnic draw, the r drawn-out as if there were several of them quick n and a harsh stop on the D should come out like this: Cone breaD) Jack loved my old dog and said he could stay too and he would help me with him while I was out on trips. Jack loves to fish reds with a long rod, key word is fish, he’s really rather clumsy with a fly rod and less than graceful, but he got his first red on fly with me and he enjoys the stalk as much as I do. He gets it.
I had planned to fish solo, a soul needed cleansing and a briny flat and a crimson fish with an ice blue tail usually works for me. As I rounded the last bend of the river and shot through a narrow cut in the mangroves, I felt like I was shot lout of a cannon, the process had begun. The bay was slick and the sun was just breaching the horizon the sky looked like an inferno reflecting on the still waters. The clean salt air and smell of a fresh day and I knew my soul was home.
There had been a small school of reds tailing on the high tide in the spartina grass, both are strange as our redfish tail on low tide here, and that may well be the only patch of spartina grass in the entire bay. My plan was to scout it out today and pay my rent tomorrow with the Jack. I brought the boat off plane and settled into the motionless flat , as the sun gained momentum, I sat on the deck in only raggedy shorts, August in Florida , 90 degrees at daybreak, with 100% humidity just existing makes you sweat. Cornbread made his way up to the deck and sat beside me, licked the sweat off my shoulder as I sat with my feet dangling. I scratched my buddy behind the ear as we watched the horizon be defeated by the sun. , I took a long deep breath. I almost reached a meditative state, this has become a ritual for me and my morning clients usually enjoy a moment of sheer beauty. Sometimes you have to take a break from life, to live it.
I pushed forward and my skiff “Occupational Hazard” came to life she ran fast and smooth almost like she was over the water, not in it. I neared the grass, trolled into position and staked off the boat, found a nice spot on the cooler, cracked open a cold beer, switched from the ball cap to the straw hat. Even though I am on the water nearly every day, I still burn. Making a living on the water has its own set of occupational hazards this is just one of em. I had spent the last 10 years guiding, and the last 5 living solely off that income. The suit and tie life wasn’t for me, neither was the labor. I wanted to enjoy thoroughly my career, because in the end, that is what people remember, you are what you do, and I fish! My skin has a permanent deep tan, I shave maybe once a week, but really just use the beard trimmers ‘cause I hate how my face feels clean shaven. I let my hair grow, never knew it was that curly and it has become bleached by the sun.
The fish began pushing, I watched how they moved, where they went when the tails dropped, I slowly got on the poling platform and pushed towards the fish, they didn’t move. I raised the pole high they were buried to their eyeballs, these fish would eat. I made several false casts to knock off the rust before I got close to the fish. I eased over the side and trudged over to where the flags were flying. I actually made the cast perfectly, a roll cast, then I had to mend the line as it moved with the current for a moment I felt as if I was trout fishing a north Georgia stream, the tail dropped in a loud silence breaking swirl and my line came tight. At this point landing the fish is kinda a no brainer, it was the take that purged my soul, and while releasing the fish I felt the stresses of life escape me, dissipate into the water and flush out with the new moon tide.
200 years too late
Fridays at Sandy’s are usually hoppin’ and as the tradition goes, Jack sets up a temporary Tikki bar at the end of the dock, for one minute on each side of the predicted sunset time all shots are a buck and draft beer is free. Rain or shine. it’s really a pretty cool deal, every bartender gets her Friday on rotation and Jack lets the girls have all the cash made at the end of the night. We call it “burn to a cinder Friday’s”
It has been said “Interesting things happen at the bar as opposed to grabbing a table”. This is where I met Hank. At 6’6″ he’s kinda imposing, but once he speaks in his soft voice he puts you at ease quickly. I knew I had seen him around town and he asked if I was Reese, I said I was. Hank is eccentric , he has very large features and looks very much like a Cro-Magnon man, he’s the guy going in the liquor store at 8ish in the morning and I seem to recall he rides around in his suburban with a stuffed ape that looks just like him, kind of weird but interesting. Hank wanted me to take to the Hatteras to the Bahamas and dock it at his rather gawky mansion. He had clients coming over on puddle jumpers and needed me for a month. He was conducting some sort of business there. He would arrange to have a mount for my skiff installed so we can stalk the ever wary bonefish and permit on the sandy flats on the days in-between. He did not go into details, and I didn’t ask but I was to run the boat for these business deals and guide him on fly and keep my mouth shut….I threw out a rather large number, he bit and I had a gig lined up, and a little funds in reserve. Hell the 25% deposit was more than I made in the last month, all said and done I would be like having another Tarpon season. Evening things out a bit since Jess had left with all our cash.
Busying myself with the task of gathering provisions and some fly tying material around town I almost forgot to grab some cigars. I stopped off at the local shop and spent the rest of the allotted money from the deposit on some Fuente’s. I had felt odd all morning, Not sure what it was but I just had a kind of pang in my stomach one not from hunger. I walked in a said slangy and excitedly “Cone bread”! Nothing. I said it louder, in his old age he only seems to hear dog food or a Froot Loop hit the floor but that’s about it. His eyes are glazed over; I often wonder if he wonders why it’s so foggy all the time. I looked around the corner and he was lying on my cot sleeping, like always, the only thing that dog ever guarded was the spot he ate and the spot he slept, the rest was up for grabs in his eyes, except me he guarded me too, one time.
I leaned against the wall, I felt like I needed it, I looked at him and thought about that one time.
I had just started guiding, I was out scouting, Cornbread went he always did he balanced the boat well while I poled. The dog had a way of spotting tailing redfish and finning tarpon, he would point them like a bird dog points a quail or pheasant, sometimes he’d point a mullet. I think he was either fooled for a second or messing with me. I have never heard a dog laugh, I’ve seen a few smile, but never laugh, though I have to think they do have a sense of humor, albeit a very dry one.
After a morning of poling therapy and locating some good fish I eased up to the dock my buddy grabbed the dock line tied to the grab rail in his mouth hopped on the dock and took the line around the pole and gave me the free end. Cornbread stood guard over the skiff (forgot about guarding the skiff, he loves that boat)while I went and grabbed the truck and trailer, once loaded and making all the straps and such fast another captain walked up, this guy was new to the business too and had spent his first couple years burning a lot of bridges. Reminds me of something I once read.” It’s a long road to wisdom, but a short one to being ignored”. Let’s just say he took the short road. He started off with small talk, I didn’t really care much for him, but I try to get along with the competition and keep things friendly. It’s only fishing! Anyway I see him at the dock often. He began his typical negative bullshit I began tuning him out, until the comment about me following him to the fish. I told him, I was born here and I was fishing these waters while you were battling winters in some godforsaken northern state, by now things were getting louder. Any way I said, why do you think you own whatever part of the bay you are in? I noticed his weight shift onto his back foot, I heard Cornbread on the deck of the boat behind me begin a quiet growl, I remember thinking I have never heard him growl. I told him, I am done with you, I turned my back on him, he grabbed my shoulder and began to try and turn me, I went low, as he swung high, I felt something on my back for an instant, as I righted myself I saw Cornbread had jumped from the deck and sprang off my back, he had the perpetrator pinned to the ground, his mouth slobbery and large canines on soft neck ready to clamp down and to death. I quickly called for him to drop; he did, and came to my side. I never heard him growl again. Ever.
Come to think of it I never heard that guide talk shit again either. In fact, I rarely saw him after that, I’m sure he dwindled away like the majority of them do. Full time or part timers no matter, if it’s in your blood you last. Many are looking to have a “cool” job, and can’t hack the business. Living a laid back life style is a lot of work, it’s a tough business and you have to be tough to handle the work side of it and smart to handle the business end, things have a way of sorting themselves out though, he has been sorted for some time now it’s the outing that is taking a while.
That was the end of my dog attacking humans days and the end of my caring what people think and petty drama days.
“ConebreaD” I yelled and dropped some food on the floor, he didn’t stir. I knew it. I could feel in in my gut, He had died. I spent the next 10 minutes or 2 hours not really sure, sitting there petting him and talking to him like he was a human and understood, like I always did and he always did. I like to think he got the gist of it. I buried him under the mango tree that evening on Dog Island just after we watched the sun sink softly into the horizon. My buddy was gone, I had a shot of Patron and a cold beer raised my drink and toasted the best dog and friend I have ever had. It was a lonely ride back to the dock
Change of plans Cap’n, Hank said as I answered the phone trying to shake the fog of a deep REM sleep. Huh? What? Who, who is this I said stumbling through the words. It’s Hank, Wake up Reese, you’re on your own, Ray is going to take you and the skiff to the other coast he said. You’re not going? I asked. Hank had explained he had some issue to deal with and that he was going to fly over and meet me at the Althea Estate. Ray works as a bouncer and caretaker at Sandy’s, one drunken night he was saddled with the nick name, Razor, a little later that same night Raisin came out, and both have stuck. He’s short and stocky Italian looking guy very soft-spoken and he fly’s under the radar. He has a way of getting guys to leave the bar without causing a scene, the rather large and drunken ones too. He was in the Special Forces and a lone survivor of some battle. Jack had said that was all he knew about his past, and Jack didn’t really much care about that, they have known each other for 10 years and Ray had never given him a reason to not trust him. That was good enough for me, I trusted Jack and Ray didn’t toss me out when I gave him the Raisin nickname, Ray was going to ride across the state with me and launch the boat and bring my truck and tailor back after helping me get settled.
Once we made it to the marina and found a ramp I brought the boat around and got her situated nicely on the lift Hank had installed. The guy at the marina was super helpful and friendly. Hank, I found out, had arranged for him to be around to help me out. I went through the checklist and made sure all alarms and buzzers were in working order, along with some minor provisions for the short trip. I triple checked all the bilges to make sure they were working properly, one bad experience can spook you for the rest of your life, but you have to repress that and know that you survived and learned a valuable lesson. Everything was in working order, I was going to sleep on the boat and head out in the morning, one night of R&R then off to the vacation land for a month of putting around in the Hatteras and poling the skiff. Hanks boat was christened with the name “two cents worth”. I called and told him the float plan, and that all was fueled and ready to ride the tide tomorrow. I was really curious about how he got the name so, I asked. He had heavily invested with a firm in New York, his advisor called one day asked Hank if he trusted him, Hank said the amount of money we have made on your hunches, absolutely. He told Hank to pull out now. He had a hunch the stock was going to tank and he told Hank, pull out, retire and buy that Hatteras you always wanted, that’s my two cents worth. So he did.
The sun was setting behind me as I eased through the small harborage and out into the intercostal and through the inlet. I was going to sleep on the boat just not in the marina. I needed to put some horizon behind me. I was ready to leave!
The way the nearly gone sun was illuminating the masts of the sailboats nestled into the basin made me think of the things that slipped away from me lately. Cornbread and Jess, were both haunting me. I pressed on another hour or so and decided I would stop for the night. The unfiltered stars are comforting. The sweet sizzle of raw meat against grill grate was nice music and the rain freshened air and now cooking flesh made for a nice aroma. I kept thinking about Jess, how she once was singing along with the radio while washing dishes, not knowing I was watching her. She was singing the song “Hallelujah”, as I neared I could see she was watching something outside and singing, as if the song was a theme to what was happening. She leaned over the sink in her yellow flowered sun dress to open the blinds; her bright blue eyes became almost transparent in the late day sun as I came closer. I remember what she was looking at and I know that what she was singing was a song of beauty, innocence and purity. I decided then that was how I wanted her to look at me, and I would not complain about her dog and its silly name again, what kind of name is Cornbread for a big goofy lab anyway? I wanted to see her look at me like that. I treated the dog so good trying to get the look from Jess that the dog took to me and never gave Jess the time of day, she never looked at him like that again, and she never looked at me like that ….period. I chased the beef and memories with cold beers until I began to feel numb and made my way to the rack for the night.
Something made me wake up but not move or open my eyes and then I heard it. Something was on the boat. I opened my eyes into darkness and laid there until they adjusted a little to the dark night. I looked through the portholes and saw nothing, I went slowly about maneuvering in the dark on an unknown vessel, checked the skiff on the front; it was fine nothing loose or banging. As I headed to the stern, I saw a flash of blinding light, felt a sharp pain in the back of the head. As if it were in slow motion the lights began to dim in time with the deep cracking noise echoing in my head. Everything was draining into a tiny spec of faraway light and then, it went out.
Slowly I began to become aware of myself and my predicament. Thinking back to what happened I was pretty sure of all of it up to the flash of light. I could hear water slapping the hull and judging by the purr of the motor I knew we were underway. My hands were bound with some kind of makeshift rope handcuffs with a length of about 2 feet apart the middle draped over some kind of pipe. I felt something on the side of my face and tasted a salty crusty glob of something I figured to be blood. The head was pounding, I was on the floor. My world was dark. Moments, seconds, hours or days later awoke to a door slamming open and a light illuminating my dark world, then it was dark again, I was being checked on and taken captive by the unknown. I had to figure out how many captors and a way out of this. I heard my heart pounding in the chest and felt a rush of adrenaline. I focused myself on getting out of this alive.
Sometimes, when you least expect it, life throws you a bone, literally. I heard the creaking of the door behind me and heard something hit the floor. I struggled to reach it and finally made my leg stretch far enough to touch it with the big toe, and slowly move it towards me. It was dinner. Apparently grilled pork chops was the meat of choice, bone in. I gnawed what was left of the meat off the bone, and used the edge of a metal something to sharpen it enough to cut through the rope that bound my wrists. I was free. Feeling fairly certain that there were only 2 of them by the voices I heard above me I felt good about my odds. There were no other options; I would wait for the next one to come check on me to flip the light switch. The advantage was mine, but he had to go down quietly.
One was coming, the door creaked open again, I watched a dark hand reach for the switch. It didn’t work, as I loosened the bulb, as he reached up to check it he was venerable, I took the bone and stuck it deep into the flesh of the neck as my other hand crushed the larynx. One down, I grabbed his pistol and stuck it behind my back in the waist band, I slung the beat up AK over my shoulder, only taking a second to pause and think of what I had done. I had to keep moving or I would begin thinking instead of reacting.
Bare feet made for a stealthy approach as I looked for number 2. He was taking a leak over the side of the boat, only took a solid shove to knock him off balance. I heard deep thud and a second later I heard him splash into the abyss of the Atlantic in the dark night. Checking the vessels GPS, I figured I was about 100 miles south of the Bahamas, judging by the bearing we were heading towards Cuba. Pirates had captured me and I beat them off!
The boat was in neutral idling and suddenly there was a crash and a jerking motion of the hull. I switched off the lights and grabbed the pistol from my waist band. Making my way to the stern, I saw the bow of the “Two Cents Worth” it had been in tow. The damage was devastating for my newly acquired ride, water was pouring in. Figuring I had about 20 minutes or so before she got real heavy with water, I jumped on the “Two Cents Worth” and checked her over for any stowaways. There were none. My skiff was still situated on the deck. Pillaging for supplies I found a small arsenal and grabbed a blanket loaded up the pistols, rifles and ammunition on to it and drug it to the “Two Cents Worth”. One last check and I saw a hundred dollar bill sticking out from under a seat, opened the seat and found 3 duffle bags packed with 50’s and 100’s, so those went too. I cut loose the tow line and watched a boat sink and the sun come up. I waited until noon to be sure the boat would float up, it didn’t and I turned on the sonar and could see her sitting on the bottom neatly. I marked the spot on the GPS then began the trek back to Hanks place, but not before grabbing a wooden plank off the deck that had been floating, not sure at the time why I grabbed it but I did. I had some time to think of how I would explain what happened to Hanks vessel and I could just say the bags were mine that would be believable. The damage looked superficial, scratched gel coat and thin cracks, nothing structural; anyhow, there are 3 bags of cash to cover repairs. I remembered Hank talking about how he had rammed the dock right after he got his boat, and how he beat up the bow, he had told me he had it reinforced so if he did it again it would not cause as much damage.
I would be there in the morning and needed a story to explain my tardiness that reminded me I still needed to figure out how long I was out. According to the GPS It was Friday and Hank wasn’t due in until Sunday. Maybe all I would need to explain is the damage up front. I was out if it for 2 days. I washed off the caked on blood from my head, I guessed they banged me in the head with a bat or something. The headache was gone, the boat underway to her destination. A tall cold beer and a shot of something clear were overdue. I breathed deeply and recounted the day’s events in disbelief while decompressing in the shower as the water ran over the back of my head and the blood washed off and swirled down the drain. A fresh pair of cargo shorts and a thin T shirt made me feel like a new man.
Hank was a drinker and he stocked the bar with some odd brands of gin, whiskey, tequila, moonshine and rum. Rummaging around through his stash I found some patron silver, poured a tall shot and slugged down an ice cold beer while fresh meat was sizzling the grill.
Leaning back and stretching in the captain’s chair steering with my feet I was enjoying one of the Cuban cigars that was found in a pelican case aboard the now defunct hijacker’s vessel. I wondered if anyone would come after me. I felt pretty confident that I was in the clear. No one knew I left early and unless they had radioed ahead no one knew that anything had happened.
Part V can be foound in the pages of www.onshoreoffshore.com febuary issue page 8