Chapter 3-Biloxi, 4 May 1922
Naval Reserve Park, West of Biloxi-4 May 1922
Walking up the rutted path, the boy could see what had to be a house, and the shoreline. As he watched from between the trees, the door opened and out walked three policemen.
With an air of disregard and a stare of suspicion, the policemen passed by the boy. He continued down the path to the shack the police had just left. Standing out in front of the weathered old shack was now an equally weathered old man. Momentarily ignoring the boy, he watched the police until they were out of sight.
Finally, the old man turned to the boy and asked, "What can I do for you"?
"Are you Mister Webster?" the young boy asked. It sounded to the boy much feebler than he had wanted.
The old man moved closer to the boy, "And just what if I am? Who're you, Cap?"
"Cap'n Woods sent me.” The boy’s voice sounded much stronger than he felt. Had he come to the right place? Was this the guy he was sent to meet, or had he made a wrong turn? Regardless of the answers, he plunged on, "He told me you might could use a hired hand."
"Woods sent you, eh? How's he know you?"
"He met my father in the Navy. He was also good friends with my uncle. I used to live with my uncle and he brought me see to Cap'n Woods a whole lot."
"You say you used to live. What happened?"
"Moved out yesterday, sir. Too crowded, not enough space."
"So you're needing a place to stay too?"
"Well... uh Cap'n Woods said you cold take care of that, too, sir."
"Cut out the 'sir'. Get in the skiff out back. If you can sail you got a job. I'll give you a place to lay your head, food for your belly, and wages determined by what we pull in. We'll discuss it in more detail in the boat."
Webster headed back inside while the boy headed for the skiff. Things were looking up now.
Webster pushed off from the small dock. The wind ruffled the sails, and then filled them as the boy adjusted them.
"My name's Clarence,” said the old man, ”What's your's?”
"Sail much before?"
"I used to sneak out with Cap'n Woods whenever I could. My uncle never cared for the water."
"Did Woods tell you what I do?"
"He only said you might need help. I guess your work has to do with the water, maybe even seafood, but other than that I haven't a clue."
"Well, a bit of fishing never hurt anyone and neither did anything else I do for a living. Woods sent you just in time, after we go check out a few crab traps, I gotta go get my new schooner from Diaz's. Head for the Sound."
Ladner pushed the handle of the tiller to port and the boat tacked to starboard. Woods smiled and nodded his head as he turned to look east toward the mouth of Back Bay. Things were looking good from his perspective, too.
Back Bay of Biloxi-4 May 1922
"Last pot here, Eugene. This one should be pretty heavy. You ready?"
The boy grabbed the buoy floating by and said, "Can't be any heavier than the last one we pulled up." Webster laughed.
For some reason this buoy had seemed to float lower in the water than the others they had been to so far. It was almost as if it were meant to be hidden. Both men started pulling on the rope attached to the buoy. Indeed, it was heavier.
When the pot broke the surface, Eugene saw that it was empty, and let it go. "What are you doing?" Webster snorted. "Oh, you saw that from here." He pointed at another ship on the horizon. It was flying a Coast Guard flag.
"You have good eyes. Woods picked a good one. What you are about to see is highly illegal. If you're not up for it, Woods wouldn't've sent you. I know him all to well." Webster continued to watch the boat. After a few minutes, it disappeared below the horizon. "Now pull it out again."
Eugene looked at Webster as if he was crazy, but pulled up the empty trap anyway. Once it was at the surface, Webster pulled it into the boat. Attached to the bottom was another rope. Webster started pulling on it.
At the other end of the rope was a burlap bag. Eugene pulled it in and put it on the floor. Webster grabbed a knife and cut open the bag. Inside were fifteen quart-sized bottles of a brown liquid.
“Throw these in the live well, but mind you don't bust any of 'em. Not all mine and Woods can't afford 'em all either. This is what he sent you to help me with.
"Woods sent you 'cause he knows ya and trusts ya. I didn't just hire you 'cause you needed a job; I needed a young trustworthy body."
While he talked, Webster prepared another burlap sack to replace the now empty one. He slipped a sealed bottle with a slip of paper in it into the bag, tied it up and attached it to the trap. "Do you know where Diaz's Packing House is?"
"We passed it on the way out right?"
"That's the one. Let's get there now and pick up my new boat.
"You see, Woods and I are about to do something big. It might be necessary for me to lay low for a time. If that happens, I'm gonna need you to take over my work. Somebody has to deliver the goods to the people. There's money to be made. A young boy like yourself can make a killing if he's careful. Not like that fool at Dukate's. You up for it?"
Eugene looked around the open waters of the Mississippi Sound, this was nice, and this was what it should all be about. Nothing else matters, not Biloxi, not Uncle Pat, not even the United States or the sometimes-binding Constitution, just man and nature. Over the course of ninety seconds, the young boy became a man, "Alright. But only if you teach me everything. I'm not up for learning what to not do after I've been caught."
Webster looked across the bouncing skiff. "You'll do just fine." He threw the trap and bag overboard, and said, "Before you start your first lesson, head for Diaz's. And for your first lesson, learn from the Cannette kid at Dukate's"
Though he was not quite sure, Eugene thought the old man meant the old Dunbar-Dukate factory on the front beach. Soon enough he found out that he had almost speculated correctly.
"The Cannette boy, William I think was his name. Just because you win a few, doesn't mean you'll always win. And just because you made a fortune, doesn't mean you won't go to jail a pauper if you foul up."
Eugene was not sure he got the whole point but there was no more conversation on board the skiff until the packing plant was in sight.
"There it is." Webster pointed at his new boat. "See it? At dock three? Pull up at the pier and let me out, then go around to the second dock. Someone'll throw down a sail bag, put in three bottles, and the spare sail. Then tie off and join me on the schooner."
Eugene skillfully maneuvered the boat alongside the pier. Webster climbed up the wooden ladder and headed towards the schooner. From across the big yard someone yelled, "Webster!" Henry Diaz could be seen huffing and puffing trying to intercept Webster before he could reach the boat. His lack of breath was not due to being overweight. On the contrary, Diaz was a well-proportioned hundred and eighty pounds, his breathing resulted from asthma. Usually it only flared up when he was mad.
Webster stopped at the boat and waited for Diaz to arrive. This complex had been built up from a minor seafood packing plant to a major processing plant. Diaz was also known to take big business risks. Henry probably only pulled them off because of his brother Luis. His latest effort was boat sales. Luis was working hard on making it pay off for the company.
Diaz arrived, and between pants asked, "What do you think, Clarence?"
Webster looked from bow to stern before looking Diaz in the eye and replying, "I think she better be ready. I'm here to take her."
The two walked across the gangplank, and Diaz continued, "I see you hired some help, finally."
"Woods sent him. He works pretty hard. You going to give me the papers or what?"
Diaz handed Webster a folder he had been carrying, "Last page, just sign on the bottom line next to the X."
Webster took the papers from Diaz's hand and pulled a pen from Diaz's shirt. He spun the plant owner around, shuffled through to the last page, and signed the papers on Diaz's back.
Diaz again faced Webster. "That takes care of that. She's all your's now. Get her off my dock!" Diaz playfully chided.
"You can't want her moved as bad as I want to move her. You'll bring the skiff back, right?"
Diaz turned to see Ladner walking up, "Yes, sure, Luis will bring it tonight. I'll be there for our discussion around six."
"I'll see you tonight then. Eugene, let's get this ship off to sailing." Ladner walked over the gangplank, waited for Diaz to return to the pier, and pulled it onboard.
While Webster unfurled the sails, Ladner untied the boat and pushed off. The sloop had begun its life under new ownership.
Naval Reserve Park, West of Biloxi-4 May 1922
By six o’clock that evening a crowd had arrived at Webster’s place. While the men inside argued the finer points, the boy outside watched the end of a fine day. The trees to the west shrouded the sunset, but the sky and the water still glowed with the fire of the setting sun. The temperature had finally regained a comfortable temperature.
Luis had not yet shown up, but all the rest of the evening's duties had been completed. The new boat gently rubbed the bumper guards the boy had put down. On the opposite side of the pier was Frank “Ben” Baker's twenty-foot launch. It was utilitarian in design. It had a retractable keel and did not draw much water so Baker could take it in very shallow water. Of all the new people Ladner had met that day, he liked Ben the most.
Ladner trudged toward the shed. He was really just walking around to have something to do so he decided to make a game of guessing which car belonged to whom.
There were four cars in the yard and he knew Webster's 1917 Model T as well as Woods’s 1921 Chevrolet Model 490 Touring car. He had ridden in that one several times. It had a self-starter and dismountable rims for the tires, what would they think of next?
Since Taconi had walked in at the same time as Desporte, Ladner assumed they had come together. Only two cars left. A Lincoln that looked almost brand new, and a Kissel that looked a bit worn. The Lincoln had to be Desporte's. Either Desporte or Diaz would have had enough money to buy it, but to Ladner, Diaz was more likely to be a cheapskate and drive his car until it quit on him. The emblem on the Kissel denoted it as a DeLuxe Phaeton. That had an un-American ring to it. Kissel sounded too close to German for his taste. The War to End All Wars was still too fresh on even someone as young as Eugene. He involuntarily began to get a bad impression of Diaz.
A noise on the water came to Ladner's ear. It was Luis and the skiff. He ran to the pier and waited for the boat to sail in. It seemed a bit different to the boy. Maybe he just was not used to it yet.
Luis Diaz lowered the sails and the skiff coasted into the pier. Ladner caught the boat and began tying it to the pier.
Luis began speaking, "Tell Mister Webster I'm sorry about the boat. Right before I left some crazy vet came barreling through the docks. When he saw the boat moving, he decided to ram it instead of just the docks. It only damaged the looks of Mister Webster's boat, but it finished the dingy the vet was in."
"Why would he do a thing like that?" Eugene asked as he walked over to the boat.
"My brother was never very popular with the vets. I think he insulted them when he was running for mayor or something like that. One comes around every so often to wreck the place a little. They usually only hurt themselves though." Luis pulled the boat closer to the pier and held it for Eugene to step on. Together they walked over to survey the cosmetic damage in the twilight of the evening.
Inside the house, Webster was talking, “Alright, now that the small talk’s out of the way, who's thirsty?" He walked over to the sink and turned it on, he filled a glass, but it did not look like potable water. "Whiskey's on the left, rum's on the right help yourself." After they all got a glass, he said, "Now on to business."
"The good Captain will be meetin' Paul tomorrow on Dog Island. By then he should have his own suggestions on how to handle the final details of acquisition." Desporte said.
"What are we going to go in? Has anyone taken care of that?" asked Taconi.
Diaz started, "I have ten sailors who'll work under the table to keep a boat hidden. They'll be a part of the crew when she sails, but they won't know what the cargo is. After the cargo's been brought back to shore, they’ll sink the boat."
"I'll be keeping the Creole just out of sight.” Said Taconi, “After the crew's subdued, you can signal me to come over, that way the liquor I'll be taking out to sea won't ever have to touch land.”
Diaz was particularly mistrustful of any black men, "I'll sail with you then, just until your boat's been loaded. Then I'll switch to my own boat, that way it will bring less suspicion then if I jump on while it's docked."
Desporte gave a perturbed look at the packer. It went unnoticed by the man, "Has anyone given thought to just how the hell we are going to get the stuff unloaded?"
Taconi put down his glass and started, "Ben and I have worked out some deals down toward Texas. We'll be using the same terrapin shell case technique that the fellow from Chicago hired Ben to use. The Creole will be gone about two months getting rid of all the booze we get. All that leaves is the local end of things."
"I've got that covered," began Woods. "What will be distributed will be distributed in low risk, high gain ventures best left known to only those few involved. Most will be stored in a safe area."
The ever-distrustful Diaz nearly leapt to the edge of his seat and spit out a reply, "How can you be sure? We'd best all go over those details, don't you think? Who said your plans were perfect?"
Woods slowly turned to face Diaz, and in as condescending a tone as any ex-Navy Captain could use said; "I guess you'll just have to content yourself by not knowing. The less you know, the less you can blab if any of us get caught."
Webster cleared his throat to break the tension, "That seems to take care of local matters, now back to the act. Any suggestions on the number of men we take?"
"Up in the New England States, thousand ton cargo boats are being pirated by as few as thirty men. That sounds like about what we'll need."
"But the less the better, isn't it?" asked Baker.
"Aha! But also, the more men involved, the more likely it is that someone will talk, or that we'll all get caught. The decision is, how many is enough?" Desporte added.
Each of the men in the room was good at what they did. Each brought different skill sets to the table with different motivations. But none could say definitively what the delicate balance between too few and too many looked like. Discussion on that point one way or the other went on until the meeting broke up.
The door on the shack opened and Baker came out. "I'd better get going, Henry won't be too pleased to find out what happened to the boat," Luis walked off.
Baker walked onto the pier, "Eugene?"
Ladner turned from tying the boat and faced the man, "Yes sir, what can I do for you?"
"I knew your father. He was a good man. We both served under Cap'n Woods together. I owe your father big, if there's ever anything you need, just let me know. If I can't get it, no one can."
"Well sir, right now everything seems to be under control. Clarence seems to be taking care of things just fine." It still seemed weird to the boy to be calling the man by his first name.
Baker chuckled, "Just don't let him take advantage of you. If you haven't made enough to buy your own boat in two months, come see me. I'll straighten him right up."
"I'll be sure to do that, sir."
Baker shook the boy's hand, then got onto the Cedar and prepared to sail off. Ladner began to get the seafood and sailbags out of the skiff. By the time they were all put away the Cedarwas gone, the sun was completely gone, and all but Woods and Webster had begun to head for their cars. Eugene had guessed right.
Only Woods and Webster were left in the shack as Ladner jumped from the pier to the schooner. Although the boat had three sleeping quarters, there was only one with bed dressings. He went to that one and stretched out. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, but not before thinking, that everything was going his way.