Chapter 10-Mississippi Sound, Morning of 30 July 1922
Middle Ground-30 July 1922
The heat came before the light, but the light just intensified the heat. The pain in his jaw was gone, but the anger in his gut continued to grow. Martin wiggled his hands, they had been bound behind him to the post that held the wheel. He could not stand straight up, but by jumping up and turning he could shift his view.
From where he had passed out from exhaustion leaning against the console he could only see the quarter deck. Craning his neck to the right he could look down the rail opening and see the main deck. The remaining crew had long since stopped banging on the barricaded doors but a new sound reached his ears.
The sharp retort of iron hitting wood. It became a rhythmic, repetitious sound then suddenly a sharper zing and the rhythm stopped.
The sound resumed, but was slightly more hollow followed by a distinct splintering wood sound. Barreling on deck was a husky sailor from below. Martin recognized Mack Alexander, the Cargo Master. He stumbled out into the bright South Mississippi sunshine while his eyes adjusted from the dark of belowdeck.
“Up here!” Martin called.
Alexander stopped and looked in the direction of Martin. A split second after he focused on the quarter deck he took off in a sprint to the ladder. The big man squatted and began working on the ropes while Martin started asking questions.
“How many men left below?”
Pausing his work Alexander replied, “Seven, barely enough to get her going and we won’t be heading out again. They took all the stuff.”
As his hands were untied Martin stood. Rubbing his wrists he looked around the ship. Horn Island was to the south but they were not drifting. He walked over to the side rail and looked down. Middle Ground. They had run aground on the shallow waters of Middle Ground just north of Horn Island. Looking straight north all he could see was water to the horizon but he knew the marshes of the Pascagoula River were there, but that was not where he would head.
The other men had followed Alexander from below and were adjusting to the sun. Several had opened their shirts to take in the breeze. It was hot in the July sun but no doubt the wind felt better than the stale air that was below.
“You ever been pirated before?” Martin asked.
“Yeah, Bad thing. It was offa Freeport, we was still operating from Nassau and running new stuff the Scots had dropped off.” Alexander was checking out the equipment on the wheelhouse. “Much worse than what we have here. Those bastards cut the sails, the wheel lines, and did a real number on the engine. Took us two days of work to get her back underway. Found out later it was the Chicago group. No respect for the boat, they just wanted the booze.”
Martin glanced at the masts. The sails had been furled but not struck. From here they looked in tact but they would really only know when they hoisted them.
“Wheel’s good,” Alexander offered. “I’ll check out the engine.” He walked toward the ladder. Martin followed him to the edge. “Looks like everyone’s out, let’s talk a second first.”
Alexander just nodded as he crawled down the ladder. The worst part was over, now to get back to it.
Deer Island-30 July 1922
The sun was dangerously high for Taconi as they finished unloading the Creole. With as much product as the Sea Glen had been loaded with there was no safe way to transport it on only one ship. After the crew was subdued or recruited he had come alongside and loaded a hefty amount before heading back to Deer Island. The William Tell was still at sea with most of it but Taconi and Baker had unloaded their share in the terrapin yard. The Baker boys were still shifting turtle shells over the well covered hams. Tonight they would be busy hiding the bottles in the shells to sell to the Chicago crowd that was due in later in the day.
A customer from up north would be by with their own ships to load both the terrapin shells and a load of terrapin meat in two days. Just enough time for the boys to insert and hide the bottles. It was not the most efficient way to transport alcohol but according to the buyers, none of the shipments had been lost despite most of them being inspected.
Taconi could smell the seafood plants of the mainland. The Blessing of the Fleet that was the traditional start to shrimp season had been a week before and already the smell of dead shrimp was pervasive. It lay as a subtle undertone to the humid air that was to be found in Biloxi in the summer. The piles of shells and removed shrimp heads were slowly beginning to grow but he wanted to leave before more ships arrived to add to the mix.
As dangerous as it was moving product in the daylight it was twice as dangerous for the William Tell sitting still waiting for Taconi to return to unload more. The Sea Glen, unless Martin had moved it, was still near Dog Island to the south-southwest but Diaz would take most of the product east towards Alabama waters so he had gone just far enough to not be seen from Dog Island and waited to the south-southeast of Taconi. Daylight was wasting and danger was waiting. With one final glance north and west he waved to the crew to push off. He headed to the rendezvous.
Mississippi Sound- 30 July 1922
A ship captain feels less like a captain when they stand on someone else’s ship and that fish out of water today was Cuevas. He had gone with Diaz before sunrise but shifted to theCreole when Taconi arrived. Now they both plowed toward Henderson’s Point well to the west.
Taconi quietly stood beside the pilot, content to let someone else man the wheel for now. Cuevas was on the other side, both men looking for other ships. A few shrimpers went by, but for the most part it was a quiet day on the water. Perfect weather for sailing yet neither could relax yet. To the north a fast moving ship appeared above the horizon to warrant their fears.
“Steady,” Taconi directed to the pilot. The Coast Guard colors could be seen now but there was nowhere to run, no place to hide. Acting as if nothing were out of the ordinary was the best defense.
The Coast Guard made an abrupt change of course. Intercept course. There were no flashing lights or sirens, but Taconi knew what was about to happen. The radio squawked, “Vessel ahead, this is the Coast Guard. Strike your sails, cut your engine, and prepare to be boarded.”
The pilot glanced at Taconi who nodded. The well oiled machine that was the crew reacted to the non-spoken order. The pilot turned into the wind which keyed the sail master to strike the sails. While the sails were being taken down other crewmen scurried across the deck further executing the full stop on the water.
Before the two ships pulled together an Ensign jumped from one to the other. His uniform was too clean, too white, and too creased without being wrinkled. The rest of his boarding crew waited until the ships were secured together before boarding. By then the Ensign had gotten halfway to the quarterdeck and turned to see where they were. He stopped and put his hands on his hips before waving at them to follow.
Cuevas held out a hand to Taconi, “Hang tight when this squid gets here. We may not be sunk yet.”
The Ensign seemed to forget he was headed for the captain and instead began directing the reluctant search team. They took off once they hit the deck but the arrogant young officer put his hands back on his hips and waited. A full minute later he realized he was still by himself and looked to the helm where the two captains stood. As he waved them down the first Coastie returned with a ham in each hand.
“Whose boat is this?” the Ensign yelled as Taconi and Cuevas approached. Neither sped up their walk even when the Ensign snatched a ham from the searcher’s hand. “Whose boat?” he repeated.
A calm Taconi replied, “First off, it’s a ship not a boat and second of all, it’s mine. I own her outright.”
The Ensign reached down and cut open the ham with his pocketknife which sent the bottles sprawling over the deck. “What’s the meaning of this? The whole boat is full of alcohol!” He shook with excitement.
“Petty Officer!” the Ensign yelled at the nearby sailor. The Petty Officer walked over. The smiling Ensign spoke normally, “This is my first bust bu these two will fry!” He turned and pointed directing more sailors to come aboard.
“Ship, and Desporte,” Taconi said calmly.
The exuberant Ensign stopped and faced the two captains again, “What did you say?”
“I said Desporte,” Taconi repeated.
The Petty Officer leaned in to whisper in the Ensign’s ear.
The Ensign shifted his feet, “A-are you saying you’re working for Desporte?” He tugged at his collar as he looked between the two men. “Are you Cuevas?”
Cuevas answered, “I am. It’s his ship, but he doesn’t always sail on it.”
The Ensign had started to sweat. “Stop!” he yelled at the sailors. “Leave it be! Back on our boat, now!”
The confused Coast Guard sailors looked at the Ensign then each other before setting the hams down and slowly walking back to where they’d crossed from ship to ship.
“You should’ve said it earlier. We’re not out here to get you, it’s the others we’re here for. Haven’t you heard the whole Coast has been shut down. The Old Man is waiting for you,” the Ensign reported.
Taconi glanced at Cuevas as they all three headed back for where the inspection had started.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble. If Desporte talks to you, I wasn’t here. I don’t need a black mark to be the first mark in my folder.” The Ensign spoke faster and faster the closer he got to the gunwale. The others had already jumped back he climbed up and stood on the rails of both ships. “I just didn’t know,” he said.
The two ships started drifting apart while Taconi glared and Cuevas just stood stone-faced. The Ensign almost slipped instead of jumped back on his boat. “Full=steam ahead! Get out of here!” he shouted at his own pilot.
The two captains stood there and watched as the ships separated. Without turning Cuevas said, “You turning me in now? Protection from the Coasties ain’t cheap.”
Taconi looked at Cuevas, “I never said which Desporte.”
On the Rocks
Mississippi Sound, 30 July 1922
The WilliamTell had not gone far before Diaz could tell they were riding too low in the water. With this much cargo on board there was no way to reach the drop-off point. As he climbed the ladder to the pilothouse he said a quick prayer of thanks for the calm, cloudless night and crossed himself.
Diaz had not dared to turn on the engines yet because the sound would carry further than could be seen and that would be a tip-off to anyone else out on the water. No other ships could be seen but that did not mean much when he had been running without lights most of the night. Both the Sea Glen they just left and Taconi’s ship the Creole were out here running with lights off and on intermittently. He glanced down at the sails. The light breeze filled them nicely but he could only sail before the wind because the boat was too loaded down. When he had tried a broad reach the slight waves washed over the gunwales. It had not been enough to cause a problem but prolonged sailing at that point would change that fast enough.
Squinting he peered into the night craning for any sign of the Creole. The plan had been to sail to the south of Ship and Horn Islands but the wave action there was increased so he kept to leeward. The Coast Guard cutter had been too close before the heist so it had to still be in the area and that made radio communication risky. Down on the deck he could see some of the extra crew they had been hired for the transfer. Each of them kept alternating between watching the cargo stored on deck and the water. The way they shuffled around and shifted from one foot to the other he could tell the crew was nervous, too.
As Diaz went back to scanning the horizon he heard a splash. He whipped his head down to the deck near where the noise had come from. Another splash, this time he saw a crewman throw a crate full of demijohns overboard. The demijohn crates were heavier than the hams and held much more. The crewmen was dragging another crate to the side. Diaz looked to the nearest deck opening, three more crew were emerging from below and headed to the panicked crewman. Joe Giminez was in front and sprinted when he heard the splash.
As a third crate hit the water, Joe reached the crates. Joe shouted something in Spanish and swung at the first man who ducked and ran behind a row of crates. There had not been time or the room to properly stow the crates which made for a mess on deck.
Joe waved the other two crew to fan out. They circled around the crates while he cautiously moved forward. The frightened crewman yelled something else in Spanish. Joe responded likewise, calming words as he peered into the shadows between crates where the man had disappeared.
Suddenly, the scared man ran full speed at Joe. Caught off balance, Joe stumbled backwards hitting the rail but the momentum was too much. Both men plunged over into the dark water.
“Man overboard!” Diaz yelled. One of the two men helping Joe ran for a life preserver affixed to the mast while the second rushed to the side and peered down. His job was to keep the men in sight until the ship could turn. Only this ship was too heavy to turn quick enough to help the men in the water. “Get the tender!” Diaz pointed aft where two sailors had perked up at the sounds and stood by just watching. They scrambled to get the tender free of the lines holding it on deck while Diaz sped down the ladder to the deck.
The life preserver was now free of its berth but the man who held it, Juan Perez, stood helplessly next to the spotter at the rail. “They haven’t come up,” he said as Diaz approached. They both stared into the water searching for the men.
“What did he say, Juan?” asked Diaz.
Without looking up Juan answered, “The ship is too heavy. That’s why he started throwing things overboard. He feared we would sink and he can’t swim.”
The tender had been lowered but not released. “Hop in the tender, both of you. We can’t stop. If you find them you can catch up to us or I’ll send word for another ship to get you. It’s too dark to see Ship Island over there,” he waved to port opposite the side the men had fallen, “But it’s there.”
Juan darted off to where the tender waited with the spotter. Diaz walked slowly back to the ladder and up to the pilothouse. Once inside he went straight to the table with charts. There had to be a closer place to unload some of this cargo.
Cat Island, 30 July 1922
It had been given a name long before Diaz sailed into it, but the William Tell was at anchor in Smuggler’s Cove on the south side of Cat Island. He had been heading west and after the crew mishap had turned south to enter the Gulf of Mexico briefly before cutting back to Cat Island. They had underestimated the amount Cuevas had been able to haul but there was no way Diaz would risk an open water crossing with so much.
The highest point on the island was not more than 3 feet above sea level but it had a nice beach and plenty of tall pines. No one from the mainland could see it, and even if they could they were on the Gulf side of the island providing more cover. Diaz had chosen to hid the cargo on a peninsula which had enough vegetation and variation of terrain in those three feet to make plenty of hiding places and Diaz knew them all.
Six men had come with him to stash the liquor on the island but they had left plenty on board the William Tell. The sun was racing them to the beach but as both arrived the men could see she was riding in the water where she should have been all along. The others made ready the launches to return while Diaz turned around for one last look. He was off script, none of the others knew where he was or what he had done.
He stepped onto the launch and signaled the men to return. There was not much time to get back to the plan and daylight was burning.
Biloxi, 30 July 1922
Theodore Desporte walked down the street spryly. The cool of the morning would burn off quickly in the South Mississippi summer and the humidity would only get thicker. Nothing was bothering the 73 year old as he made his way through the city he loved to his office.
Listening to the birds chirp and sing high in the live oak trees just off the road Theodore paused and breathed in, a deep draft of salted, moist air. The faint hint of dead seafood came through but that was the smell of money in this town.
On the other side of the street were two young boys headed towards Back Bay. The front beach was closer but judging from their age it was elementary school they were skipping and there were unwritten rules to follow. Only high school aged kids got to swim in the Sound, until then Back Bay was the place for truant youngsters to go.
From around the corner the sound of a delivery truck heading this way overpowered the birds. He started walking again and as the truck rounded the corner, squeaking and creaking, he could see the logo. Barq’s Root Beer, on Yeager Street. What was the world coming to?
He crossed behind the truck and skipped a step before rounding the corner himself. Now the front beach stretched out in front of him. Row upon row of wharves, piers, boats of all sizes, and a narrow paved trail that ambled parallel to the beach. Further down he could see the top of the Biloxi Yacht Club in the middle of the pier but before that was the Elmer Building where his office was located. On the top floor of course, four stories up, all by stairs, but the joy Theodore felt as he opened the door made his way light and easy.
Entering his outer office he hung his hat and cane from the oaken hatrack and went into his inner office. Neat, clean, not a thing out of place. All oak and all powerful. As he rounded the desk he could hear the muffled ring of the phone in its drawer. He smiled, Cuevas would be arriving with his shipload soon. The drought was over and the law of supply and demand would make this a very profitable day for Theodore. He reached down to open the drawer while looking out the window and feeling for the chair. It was probably some well paid informant letting him know the Sea Glen was already here. Really, he was going to have to tell someone to be more discreet about this kind of information.
“Desporte,” he said brusquely into the phone. No need to let the caller think he was happy. Happier than he had been for quite some time.
“Sir, overnight reports coming in,” Ed Argulles worked on the Point as a night watchman for
Dukate Packing but he kept his finger on the pulse of everything coming and going. The stipend he got from Desporte helped feed his own vices. “Coast Guard Cutter went out. They was in a hurry, so much they didn’t even notice they was followed. Couldn’t see it clear, it was running without lights but I got a glimpse of part the name, something Tell. Checking my other watchmen nobody knew where it came from.”
Desporte knew. “Is that it? Ed, that could not have taken more than ten minutes. Why do I pay you for the whole evening?” He sounded gruff but he was really satisfied. Diaz told him about the William Tell, officially off dredging oysters. He was probably moving it to a better hiding spot.
“Yes sir, Mista Despaht. Da other stuff was just shrimpers going out, and that wasn’t til this morning just ‘fore sunup. It was a real quiet night.”
Sitting down in his chair he leaned back and smiled, “OK, Ed, I believe you. Come on by after you get off. I’ll make sure the doorman has an envelope for you.”
“Thank you sir, you’re too kind. I’ll be talking to you again real soon.”
Before he hung up Desporte chirped, “Ed! By the way, keep a close look tonight. I’m expecting a big shipment to come in and it should be here tonight.”
“Yes, sir. Sure thing, sir. We’ll see you soon,” Ed said.
Desporte replaced the receiver in the cradle but left the drawer open. He squinted his eyes and looked out the window. The morning breeze was making the trees on Deer Island wave back and forth. He stood and walked to the window to open it before the day made the room too warm. Deep in thought as it opened, the salt air rushed in and a realization hit him.
Rushing back to the desk he hit his shin on the open drawer but did not feel it. Yanking the receiver up he waited for the operator. “Diaz Packing.” A series of clicks were followed by ringing. More ringing. He glanced at his watch while it rang again. He waited a full minute then slammed the receiver down. A sinking feeling began to enter his stomach.
Information moved slow, correct information moved slower, but Desporte had not gotten to where he was without information and he had not gotten here slowly either. He turned to walk out of his office again without closing the window. Sara would get it when she showed up in an hour anyway. He grabbed his hat and walked out.
The docks were back to calm after the bustle of early morning departures. The shrimp boats that had returned the day before to drop off their catches were the last to leave, after the day fishers. The ice delivery trucks would come in to refill the tanks but the real news would only come in as the first boats drifted in later in the morning to drop off their loads or to refill their ice. Desporte left the docks and headed for the marina restaurant.
A few people sat around enjoying a leisurely breakfast but the conversation was subdued in the restaurant. Most of the patrons wore a suit, like Desporte. The workers had cleared out, time to change the clientele. Desporte, feeling a bit off, sat by a window to the south. The morning breeze was still cool and not hot.
The restaurant was a single story but it was built on pilings to sit a few feet off the ground. Deer Island sat just to the east but the cloudless day was almost clear enough to see the other Barrier Islands. Almost, but Horn, Ship, and Cat lay just out of sight. He ordered breakfast with a Barq’s and sat back listening to the hushed conversations around him and watching the water.
A now restless Desporte walked back into his office. He had read the morning paper, heard what passed for interesting news in person, and had scanned the waterfront. The knot in his gut had only grown bigger.
Sara had come in and everything was in its place. The plants were watered, the fans were on aimed where they maximized air flow but not on the desk tops. As he rounded his desk he saw the Clarion Ledger delivery boy walk in. The newspaper from the capital might take his mind off the situation. Especially since he had yet to be able to put a finger on what was wrong. He went back into the outer office.
Tossing the boy a nickel from his pocket, Desporte picked up the paper from Sara’s desk just as her phone rang. He glanced at her as she answered and walked back to his door.
“Sir?” Sara held the receiver on her shoulder while she looked in his direction. Catching his eye she continued, “It’s Mr. Herbert Necaise.”
“Patch him through,” Desporte said picking up his pace as he headed to his desk. By the time he sat and opened the drawer with the phone the Necaise, the Gulfport Harbormaster, had been transferred. “Herbert. What do you know good?”
Necaise cleared his throat, “I just got word myself, but I called right away because I knew you’d want to know. Captain Cuevas is here.”
Pausing before he answered he asked, “In Gulfport?” That was odd, early was one thing but showing up on land was another. To be in the despised town to the west was a bad omen in itself. “Well, uh. . . Not now. He, he left uh, an hour or so ago, but, but I just found out. Just now” Necaise stammered.
“When did he get there?” Desporte leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. “Around 8, maybe 8:30 this morning. He got dropped off, no ship, he’s alone.”
Desporte’s stomach felt like it had dropped onto the floor, he could feel his blood pressure rising, “Alone!” he roared.
Silence was his answer. “I don’t know, I just know what I was told. He showed up, very abnormal. Don’t know who dropped him off but he walked down the dock, talked to a couple other captains before getting into a car and heading east.” Necaise was talking fast, as if reporting bad news would sound better in a rush. “That’s all I know. I knew you’d want to know it because we haven’t heard from him in at least a month. He still works for you, right?”
He glanced at the clock on the wall over the door, “Yeah. He still works for me. As of 10 o’clock.” It was 10:15 by the wall clock. “Check back with me at noon.” Without waiting for a reply Desporte hung up.
“Sara! Get me Bills!” Desporte yelled through the door as he spun the chair to look out the window. Light traffic flowed up and down Spanish Trail. He had been working with his contacts in the legislature to get it designated a US Highway so the feds would help pay for the upgrades.
For now it was a two lanes stretching from Pass Christian to Biloxi. It was paved with asphalt on an oyster shell base from Beauvoir to the Point. The Davis family had left Beauvoir to the Daughters of the Confederacy who had turned the regal last home of Jefferson Davis into an old soldiers home for Confederate veterans. The road went past the Methodist Retirement Camp then finally reached the cemetery and the city limits. It went north of the lighthouse before passing the harbor and Elmer Building going on down past the Church of the Redeemer, St. Michaels, then ended at Point Cadet. Desporte owned the land on the Point where it terminated for now. Eventually his plan was a bridge from there to Ocean Springs but until he sold the land for a profit to build that, he would rake in the money from seafood packers.
Sara connected the phones so it rang to interrupt his musings. Time to piece it all together.
The joyous mood of the morning wore off faster than the day had heated up. Cuevas never showed up. Diaz never answered or called back. The day sailors and daily fish boats were returning to the harbor as Desporte walked down to the marina again.
A crowd was gathering at the Port Authority Building so he headed there. Over the top of the heads he could see the Harbormaster talking to another man. As the man turned Desporte saw his face. John Martin locked eyes and nodded.
Pushing his way through the crowd Desporte made his way to the steps of the building as Martin held the door. Together they walked into the Harbormaster’s Office but now Martin was only talking to Desporte telling him what had happened. One thing was certain. Without a doubt this was one hell of a bad seventy-third birthday.