Chapter 16-Biloxi, 5 August 1922
Biloxi-6 August 1922
An empty cart with two oxen attached sat outside the store on Strawberry Lane as Taylor walked into the store. Shrill was there talking with someone he had not yet met. Both were speaking with a backwoods drawl. It was neither the typical Southern drawl nor was it quite the Cajun sound. Rather it was a lyrical sweet tang of linguistic parts that is prevalent in the area founded but never really controlled by the mishmash of European nations that had been here since the 17th century.
“Flames ‘uz shootin up higher’n the trees on the front beach. It wuz a helluva big ‘un,” Shrill was saying.
“Yeah ol DeJean says he can rebuild in two weeks. I say he’s crazy, take at least three,” the man said. He pronounced the name ‘Dee John’ and while Taylor had never met either of them, he was pretty sure that was not the right pronunciation.
She noticed Taylor and said, “Bossy, this here’s the Mistah Taylor we talked ‘bout. He’s looking to find some lumber to ship.”
The man turned and looked at Taylor. He was middle-aged and had a tough-skinned look to him. Clearly, this was a man who had spent his life outdoors working hard in the sun and wind. On the countertop in front of him was a 410 shotgun.
“Mr. Taylor,” Bossy extended his hand. “Shrill’s told me a lot about you. Said you want to ship some and use some to build hotels.”
He shook hands with the man. A strong grip, not overpowering but more firm than it needed to be. Rough palms proved he worked with his hands and was not scared to do what was needed. “It’s good to meet you, sir. I’ve been talking. . .”
Bossy interrupted, “I ‘preciate the respect, but if’n we’re gonna work together you can drop the sir.” He picked up the shotgun, “Not many men demanding ‘sirs’ go bird hunting before work and carry their guns in with ‘em.”
They both laughed, “It’s good to meet you, Bossy.” Taylor corrected himself, “Shrill here has said you are just the man to help me out. We’re looking to change this town from being known only for seafood.”
“Well, I’m sure there’s a highfalutin feller down on the beach that might have something to say ‘bout that. But I ain’t never shied away from fightin Desporte,” Bossy said as he laid the gun back down. “Pull up a stool and let’s chat.”
Taylor pulled up the offered stool and leaned on the counter, “It’s actually his son I’m working with, and for the shipping, we’re using his old company. We recently got out of the rumrunning business and have a whole slew of schooners waiting for cargo.”
Shrill slipped out from behind the counter and walked to the door while the men were talking. She disappeared as Bossy spoke, “Well Dantzler’s got most of my product. I’ll take you down there later and introduce you.” His drawl made it sound like he had said ‘entrydooce.’
“Well that is a good idea, maybe he’ll cut a deal if I come in with one of his suppliers. But I’d also like to get some wood to use for pilings, too. We’re working on a plan to build something big out on Dog Island.”
Bossy stroked his chin, he was clean shaven but had not shaved today. The stubble produced a scratching sound under his rough hands. “If’n ya build somethin out there, you gotta change the name of that. It might seem fun having a Cat and a Dog Island but it needs a better name, something like the Isle of Caprice.” He pronounced it ‘Isle of Cap-reece’ and laughed. “I might know just the stuff you need. I got my eye on some pine trees out on Graveline Bayou. Shrill’s working on buying the whole lot for me, not just the lumber rights.”
Shrill walked back in and stopped, ‘’Scuse me, but I gots some news for ya’ll.” Both men turned to look at her. “Well ‘parently the DeJean place wasn’t empty last night. They think it wuz uh ‘lectrical fire but somehow Old Man Desporte was inside it.”
Taylor’s heart stopped. He had never wished ill of the man. He had been a faithful employer and had always been fair to him. He would not say the same about others, Taylor himself had seen Desporte lie and cheat his way into and out of some big deals. After what they had done to him yesterday even Desporte would have needed a day or two to lick his wounds. What had he been doing in that factory after dark?
“Well he’ll be missed by somebody,” Bossy said. “But probly not too much by me.’ He stood and asked, “Shrill, you finish the deal on the bayou yet?”
She walked behind the counter again, “Almost, gotta file the papers is all. Gonna do that today, soon as you get them ox out the street,” she playfully said.
“Taylor, how ‘bout you an me go on out to look over the lumber in Graveline? It’s almost ours and I’d like to get it sold quick. I’ll tell you ‘bout the time my oxen got loose and wandered out to my in-law’s whiskey still.”
A fast friendship and a new business deal. Things were looking up for Taylor. Maybe moving to this country was not going to be so bad after all.
Biloxi-7 August 1922
A baseball game was in progress as Ernest Desporte walked up to the stands. It looked like the hastily thrown together ballpark it was but there were plans for a better field for next year on the old Naval Reserve Park. Once the field was moved there could be some thought about what might be built here at the corner of Lee and Division Street. The city would probably finish Division Street before worrying about that though.
The park was an expanse of property ripe for all kinds of development once the city shed the seafood only label his father and grandfather has fought so hard for. That change was one that would pick up steam quickly now thanks to their actions of the last few days.
The stands were wooden benches on wooden supports that wrapped around the bases from first to third getting taller in the middle. The crowd was larger than Desporte expected to see on a Monday. Then again, with DeJean’s closed for rebuilding maybe there was nothing for most of the crowd to be doing anyway.
With his back to the game, he scanned the crowd looking for Luis Diaz. It felt wrong to call this field a stadium even though there were three boxes near the top of the stands. The center box and the one headed toward first were half-filled. The box on the third base side was empty, except for Diaz.
As he entered the box Diaz stood and extended a handshake without taking his attention off the field. “Have a seat,” he offered.
“This guy pitching,” started Diaz, “Biloxi picked him up back on June 10th. Bob Sutherland, he pitched in Texas and a couple of other leagues. About two weeks after he got here, he helped Biloxi beat the Mobile Creamdales. That would’ve been a game to watch. The Creamdales were the fastest semi-pro team in Alabama.”
“And you missed it?” Desporte asked with a chuckle, “Why was that?”
Diaz gave a hard glance at Desporte, “My brother had me babysitting a boat.”
“We didn’t know about him just yet,” Desporte held up his hands. “Sorry you missed the game.”
“Yeah, well, I guess he showed his true colors now. He fooled me, I didn’t even know he had been working with your Pop.”
“I’d love to say we knew it and worked him the whole time but we didn’t. Near the end Woods thought he might flip on us, we just needed his help too much to cut him out.” Desporte waved at a peanut vendor walking up and down the aisles below the box. “It never occurred to us you’d be more critical to our plan than him anyway.”
The peanut vendor threw a bag which Diaz intercepted with one hand. The vendor nodded in respect for a nice catch as Desporte handed change out the window for another spectator to pass the for payment.
Handing over the bag he said, “They found Henry’s car not far from the DeJean place. Bills blamed him for the fire. Said he’d uncovered documents where Henry was claiming ownership of the place. But Bills called them void because it was an alcohol-related debt.”
A half-laugh came from Desporte’s peanut-filled mouth. Swallowing he said, “That was before they found Dad’s body. Bills was loyal to the end. More afraid of the old man then getting justice wrong.”
“I guess we all misjudged him. He’s gone now, no one knows where, and I never figured he’d ever leave Biloxi.” Diaz turned back to watch the game.
They watched in silence as the inning ended and Sutherland again took the mound.
“Looks like they could take both games of the doubleheader. They have never done that. And this New Orleans team is the best semi-pro team in all of Louisiana,” said Diaz.
“I didn’t know you were such a baseball fan, Luis.”
He shrugged, “Everybody’s got a hobby. What’s yours?”
Ernest watched as Sutherland threw a strike, “Well, some men like fishing. Some like fowling. Some men like to hear,” the pitcher threw another strike that was loud when it hit the catcher’s mitt. “Cannonballs roaring. Me? I like sleeping.”
Luis turned from the game to look at Ernest, “Sleeping?”
“Especially in my Molly’s chamber. Except now,” the pitcher struck out the batter. “I feel like I’m in prison. Here I am without the wife I thought I’d spend my life with.”
The next batter came up to the plate and took a practice swing as Diaz looked to his friend, “She tried to turn you over to your Dad, but it didn’t work. You won. Couldn’t you take her back?”
A foul tip headed into the stands near them. “And if your brother showed up, would you take him back?”
“Fair enough, but you gotta do something other than work, right?” Diaz asked.
He let the question hang in the air and they both went back to watching the ballgame.
“This is a great sport. The team leaves something to be desired. Ultimately though, I don’t really think it’ll grow here. These semi-pro teams mean the players are paid, just not as a part of the minor league farm system. The population base isn’t big enough to support much more,” said Diaz.
“Permanent population or temporary?” asked Desporte.
Diaz smiled as he answered, “I don’t know if your snowbirds will care about a sport played in spring and summer.”
“Some will be snowbirds, but some will be carpet baggers. Some snowbirds will come for the winter and stay for opportunities,” corrected Desporte. “It isn’t only the seasonal traveller we’re aiming for. We want them year round. Starting with the hotels and attractions but diversifying the jobs, too.”
On the field, the batter swung and connected with a line drive to right field that dropped down just enough to give him time to make it to first. “You aren’t asking me for my share to hire an extra shift, you talked about a different plan,” said Diaz.
Desporte paused before answering, “I’ve started shipping lumber. There’s a big demand for it in Europe. But that’s gonna pick up, and pay up, on its own. More men in the woods cutting trees is important but it pays off directly. The slow part, for now, is the hotels. Are you familiar with the Riviera?”
“It burned back in May, right?” asked Diaz.
“Yeah, but not all of it,” Desporte explained. “The fire department did a great job keeping it under control. There was still about $20,000 worth of damage done though. I talked with Apperson, the owner, he said it was insured but his plans for building back are huge. Next month we’ll tear down the east wing and build it back plus add a third story. We’re trying to get it all done for the winter season.”
“That’s what you need my money for?”
“Some of it. We’re also working on a new location. Closer to the lighthouse, it has a beautiful view out toward the gulf. And further out, Eugene had the idea of a resort on Dog Island. Trying to secure the property rights on that.”
Diaz watched the game in silent contemplation. The batter did a near perfect bunt as the runner advanced to second. Sutherland picked up the ball and got the second out of the inning. He intentionally walked the next two batters which brought the strongest hitter for New Orleans up to the plate. Sutherland never took his eyes off the guy. From the time the second batter headed to first he had shifted his gaze to stare down the slugger.
Something about the way Sutherland acted must have worked because he struck the guy out in five pitches to retire the side and end the game. The Biloxi dugout emptied as they swarmed the field to celebrate the doubleheader victory. “I think we can work something out,” started Diaz. “I’m in. A fantastic finish is good whether you set it up or it comes naturally.”
There was a lot of work left to go. Transforming a town was not for the faint of heart.