Chapter 9-Dog Key Pass, 29 July 1922
Back Bay of Biloxi-29 July 1922
The William Tell slipped silently along heading out of Old Fort Bayou towards Fort Point where it opened into Back Bay. Luis Diaz watched as a sailor came down from the foremast and glanced at the top of the mainmast. The light there was now off in favor of the recently turned on foremast light. The sails would block the view at times, especially for a ship to the stern but masking the size of the ship was as important as her silent running.
Sounds carried far on the open water and once Fort Point had passed silently to port Luis heard the cutter. The Coast Guard Station was in the Old Naval Reserve Park. It had not been an ideal location since the Caillavet Bridge had been built twenty years ago but the government was cheap. They would probably hold on to the park property and use it no matter how little sense it made.
The cutter was passing between Big Island and Biloxi but that was too close for Luis. If he continued on his planned path he would either beat them or meet them at the L&N Railroad Bridge which was a problem. The light only worked for subterfuge from a distance, the closer they got to one another the more obvious the deception would appear. He could kill the lights all together but that was more dangerous in the tight waters here, plus moving without lights would attract more attention anyway.
He whistled and motioned across his neck to the sailor who nodded and headed back up to cut the lights. He touched the arm of the sailor to his left and said, “Strike the sails,” then turned to the pilot and said, “Drift to starboard until the current catches us, then drop anchor and wait.” Without waiting to see his orders carried out he headed toward the cabin.
The cutter cleared Big Island and increased the throttle. Luis reached the radio shack just as the Coast Guard called to keep the drawbridge open. He held two fingers for the radio operator to see.
The operator keyed the mike twice and spun the dial to change the frequency. Luis picked up the microphone and waited ten seconds, “The iceman cuts it fast.” There was no time for a better signal.
Three squelch breaks came on the air. Message received. Twenty seconds later a second set of three squelch breaks followed. The operator keyed once then turned back to the first channel.
Luis looked out the window towards the cutter. Warning sent and received, but what would this do to the timeline.
On board the cutter the First Officer poked the Captain, “Sir, I think there was a ship across the way.”
The annoyed Captain looked to port across the dark waters of the bay. “Might be, Sean, but we have our orders. Get where we’re going. Unless it’s an emergency we’re not to stop.” He looked forward and focused on the railroad bridge.
Sean shifted uneasily, “But, sir. There were lights, a mast and side markers. They blinked out just as we rounded the island.”
The Captain exhaled hard, “Suspicious is not emergency. Carry on with the orders. We have a tight timeframe we’re have to meet.”
The cutter’s pilot glanced at Sean who nodded back. He returned his glaze to the bridge and judged the distance to the channel markers.
Dog Keys Pass-29 July 1922
Cuevas looked out over the Mississippi Sound, the dark water lapped against the hull. The partly cloudy sky made alternating shadows over the deck. The barrel covered light illuminated the deck without providing much of a warning to other ships, but the only ships that should be anywhere near the Sea Glen would be those coming in for the big event.
“Martin!” he yelled for his First Officer.
The deck was lightly manned and the few men were near the spots the guns were hidden. Martin turned and headed in the direction of Cuevas. Climbing the ladder to the quarter deck where the wheel and the Captain were he called, “Yes sir!”
Cuevas glanced across the water before speaking, “I’m headed into town. You stay here with the ship. We’re here ahead of schedule so no one’s headed here yet to buy from us.” The wind died down but the waves kept lapping, but something didn’t seem right. “I’ll take the tender in with one man. . .”
His voice trailed off as he heard it. Whipping his head in the direction of the sound he squinted his eyes shut. A sweeping white light circled the mast of a boat that was still too far away to identify. The men on deck were oblivious until Cuevas gave a loud whistle. One note. Half the men scurried below, the other half crouched or knelt scanning the horizon for the tell tale sign of a ship. Without a word one man began to climb the mainmast.
The ship kept on coming. As the hull broke the horizon two faint lights appeared. Both a red and a green light. It was not headed straight for the Sea Glen, but it would not miss it by much.
Atop the mast, the sailor doused the light and peered through binoculars. It took only a few seconds before he knocked on the mast and whistled back, two long, low whistles. Coast Guard.
“Cap’n! Ship ahoy, ten degrees off port,” the Coast Guard Sailor reported.
The First Officer pulled up his looking glasses. “I see it. Wait. They doused their lights.” Sean scanned slowly to no avail. The water and the sky were just too dark. “Lost ‘em. Good news is we were headed right toward them. One of two things is going on, either they’re broken down or they’re up to no good. Either way, we’re on to ‘em.”
Staring straight ahead the Captain ordered, “Leave them. Maintain your course.”
“Sir?” questioned Sean. “Just before the light blinked out I saw what was the unmistakeable masking rumrunners use. This is what we’re out here to find.”
The Captain cut him off. “I said maintain course. No detours, no side missions.”
Sean put down the binoculars, “But sir?” uncertainty caused his voice to waver.
As he turned to face his First Officer the anger in the Captain’s face was evident, “Sean, I just had my ass handed to me by my superior officer because I stayed in port an extra day. I even reported that we needed to get the new prop installed and that just made the Admiral yell louder. Our orders are to get this ship to Evansville, Indiana. I don’t have the foggiest idea what the hell an ocean going cutter has to do in land locked Indiana but I know how to take and give an order. If you don’t you can be relieved. Any questions?”
A chastised Sean hung his head. “No, sir. Continue on course,” he directed the navigator.
Biloxi-29 July 1922
In an oak desk drawer a phone rang. Theodore opened it and picked it up.
“Late, but they’re out. Strict orders not to stop anywhere, look anywhere, or investigate anything until they get to the Ohio,” a voice on the phone says.
A smile crossed the elder Desporte’s lips, “Thank you, Admiral. I’m sure you’ll find plenty for the cutter to do in Indiana.”
A click passed through the line as the Admiral hung up his end of the line. Technically there was nothing wrong with what he did. There were no crimes he knew of that the ship was avoiding, and there was a need for more Coasties in Evansville. But the arrangement felt one-sided. Like making a deal with the devil.
Dog Keys Pass-29 July 1922
The wind blew warm and slow across the deck of the Sea Glen as the Coast Guard Cutter passed less than two hundred feet to port. The hushed sounds of a crew at night passed over the gulf between the two ships but nothing else. Without realizing it Cuevas had been holding his breath.
Martin turned to watch the cutter pass into the blackness of the night. A close call. Too close, but they were still safe.
“As I was saying,” Cuevas said in a hushed voice, “You know what to do if someone comes up. All hands primed for action. You take my place on the quarter deck overseeing operations. Shouldn’t be a problem, but I have to get in to. . . “
His voice trailed off as another ship appeared out of the darkness. Like the Sea Glen, this one had no lights on. It was too late to bail out now. The time had come.
Mississippi Sound-29 July 1922
The wind blew hot across Luis Diaz’s neck as the William Tell made her way through the dark Sound. Once the cutter ignored them in Back Bay he had realized the Coast Guard had a different mission in mind. Just in case, he still ran with the lights off. After the cutter had rounded Deer Island they went full speed on engines. Diaz was content to stay on sail power until there was a five mile gap between them.
It was less risky to the south of Deer Island because the shallow sandy waters deepened. He was no longer confined to the narrow channels and paths through the muddy Back Bay of Biloxi. Two men were on the bow and one up on the mast looking for other ships since they dared not turn on the lights, even the false lights they had intended to use. Turning on the Tell’s engines was far risky enough.
Diaz held his watch close to his face trying to make out the time in the dim starlight, he was early but Cuevas should have left by now. There had been no sign of another ship though and once he was away from the Sea Glen there was no need for hiding. His ship should have been in the open.
The pilot grabbed Diaz’s upper arm then pointed. A shape loomed in the night just off to starboard. It was between them and the Coast Guard ship still plowing through the water with reckless abandon and nearly over the horizon. Showtime.
The crossing from Havana had been its own adventure. The seas had been calm and the breeze steady but travlling with as heavy a load as she had was stressful on all the crew. Once they rounded Dog Island and weighed anchor they had all breathed a sign of relief. When Cuevas opened bottles and offered the crew a break they all took him up on the offer and let their hair down.
All except Martin.
John Martin had not become the heir apparent to the captain of the most successful ship in the TransGulf fleet by taking risks. Raymond Cuevas was a smart man and one worthy of emulating, but ever since Havana Martin had become suspicious of him and his last run. It had started with the ship loading. Three crew had deserted when they hit Cuba and another two while they completed the load out, but Cuevas had not even so much as shrugged. He just waved more hams on board and even put some in the men’s now empty bunks.
There was not any specific instance on the journey that Martin could put his finger on but rather just the whole trip made him feel uneasy. Their speed had been a little faster than he would have liked, their tacks a little shorter, especially with the excess cargo, and they had not slacked up even at night. Yet something did not sit right in the nautical gut of the soon to be captain.
Dousing the lights as the Coast Guard neared had been a textbook safe play. The crew left on deck was smaller than it should be, even for a night of revelry there should have been more deckhands. With Cuevas preparing to leave, Martin planned on reversing that decision. Even while conducting illegal rumrunning operations it was better to be safe. He could never overrule the Captain while Cuevas was still on board. Question yes, not overrule.
Martin turned and watched the red light on the port side of the Coast Guard Cutter dip below the horizon. The mast light was still visible but fading fast. He turned back to the captain and that was when he noticed it.
The other ship was closing fast, but Cuevas had not said a thing. No warning, not even so much as a touch on the shoulder. Before Cuevas had a chance to notice Martin shifted his head back to the port side gunwales while keeping his peripheral vision on the Captain. Stepping forward he headed to the rail around the quarter deck to go down. Where were the armed hands? The main deck was nearly empty.
“John,” Cuevas said.
Turning Marin saw Cuevas pointing towards the ship. Now the Captain comes to action, thought Martin. “We’re low on men. I’ll get the crew back up.” He headed directly to the ladder, heart pumping.
“No, I’ll get them,” Cuevas had moved to cut him off. “You stay, I shoulda been gone by now and you’d be the one doing the deal. Might as well go on now.” Leaning over the rail Cuevas leaned out and whistled.
Below the sole deckhand looked up and noticed the Captain waving. He nodded and went into the door under the quarter deck and shouted. Cuevas stood back up and turned around. Smiling he walked back to Martin’s side. “All good, they’re on the way out.”
A sinking feeling entered Martin’s stomach. Most of the men had been given the night off after the stressful passage. Even the skeleton crew that was left had been given their own bottle of celebratory alcohol. They were two days ahead of schedule and no one was supposed to be around. Desporte’s plan to increase prices was supposed to have emptied the Sound of all traffic. That was why no panic set in when the Coast Guard showed up.
He glanced at the incoming ship. Dark, silent, and less than a hundred yards away. Cuevas was looking at the foredeck but none of the sailors had come up from below yet. Martin reached in to the cubby next to the pilot’s station for the binoculars.
Still no sense of urgency or crew appearing from below. Martin took one more look at Cuevas before putting the binoculars to his face. No markings on the sails or the bow of the boat. That was not odd or out of place, the life of a rumrunner made things that were otherwise odd seemingly ordinary. He heard the Captain move and pulled down the binoculars. Cuevas was paused at the ladder, clearly about to head down.
“I’ll see what’s the holdup.” Cuevas said as he started down the portside ladder.
Looking back at the ship it took a second to focus again but Martin could see men standing on the deck. They did not look friendly. Dressed in dark colors it was hard to tell how many there were, one blending into the other. Each man had a gun, club, or a pistol in their hands. This was not going to be a friendly visit. “Trouble!” Martin called after the Captain.
Halfway down the ladder Cuevas had stopped and began kicking the top of the door next to the ladder. Across the deck three unarmed sailors rushed out of the hatch and headed for the barrels that hid the weapons. A thud below startled Martin. He walked to the edge of the quarter deck and looked down. A board had fallen down and wedged itself between the ladders to either side of the door to belowdecks, blocking it from being open. Cuevas was now moving much faster down the ladder.
Martin handed the pilot the binoculars and hastily rushed to the second ladder and started down. The board had slipped behind the ladder on this side but stopped at the support. Cuevas had reached the bottom of the board and was lifting it up off the lower ladder support on his side. Martin tried to push but now the door was as open as it could get and had wedged the board tight against the ladder.
He glanced over his shoulder to the approaching ship, they only had a few seconds. Cuevas yelled at the sailors to back up. As they did the door closed and Martin could feel the board move.
Together they threw the board to port as the door popped open and ten men ran out. They headed for positions on the starboard rail some with whatever makeshift weapons they could find below, a few others made a dash for the weapons barrels.
Martin scrambled back up to the quarter deck and touched his concealed sidearm. He must give the appearance of no fear but his heart was pounding hard and he could feel himself begin to panic.
Turning around he saw the ship was here. Pulled alongside starboard side to starboard side facing in opposite directions. Their gunwale was lined with men, at least twenty compared to the dozen on the Sea Glen. If this was going to be a fight it would be a one-sided affair.
Neither side threw a line out. Distrust on both ships. At least that was going right. Then from behind the men on the other ship a line did appear. Thrown over their heads with a treble hook attached. It sailed easily over the short distance between the two ships and landed on the deck of the Sea Glen. While a man ran to it the men who had thrown it pulled raking the hook across the deck until it caught on the side of the ship. Another hook came over further down the deck. Now the two were locked together.
Some of the men on the other ship pulled while the rest stood on the rail ready to pounce when the gap between the ships had closed. There was nothing to be done about it except get ready. Cuevas reappeared at the top of the ladder. “This doesn’t look good, John.”
The understatement of the night. Martin watched as another six crewmen appeared on the far side of the deck but that was the moment the ships were close enough for the other crew to hop on.
Martin gripped the top of the rail of the quarter deck and leaned down to see the men fighting hand to hand. As he stood back up and turned he saw a fist headed to his head. No time to duck, Cuevas connected with Martin’s jaw and the lights went out.