Prologue Popp’s Ferry
The last trip of the day had been made. The last wagon off the ferry ambled down the dirt path cut between the trees toward the front beach and from there it could go either way. Both of the nearest cities were still miles away. Even Popp himself cared not one bit about if one would some day become large enough to encompass the small tracts of land on both sides of the bay that was now known as Popp’s Ferry. Tonight there were to be bigger worries. Prohibition had come to Mississippi long before it was fashionable in the rest of the country and the Gulf Coast became a location to practice ways around it.
Whoever had come during the wee hours of this morning would be back. Popp and his son had heard their boat. They watched the shadows made by the ethereal light of the cloud- covered moon. They were the only witnesses to where the strange men had gone, and what they had done.
At dawn, Popp and his boy had gone to the spot the men had visited. Whoever it was knew what went on at the causeway. Though it was easy to spot from five feet away, the loot was hidden a good hundred yards from the route the ferry usually took. In other words, it had to be looked for. The men had not bothered hiding it better, because to them there had been no need.
Other than Popp, no other boat would come this far into the bay. To the west of the jetty that marked the ferry's northern landing was Big Lake, a seemingly childish name, but appropriate. Little of the seafood wanted in Biloxi lived in fresh water. They preferred the salty Gulf, or even the brackish waters to the east of the jetty in Back Bay. Gulfport did not reach to the Lake, and many thought the town never would. The only people sailing into the lake would be going to the river, and with the recent lack of rain, the river was not much of a destination either. In other words, only Popp would be sailing these waters, and under normal circumstances, even Popp would not be sailing here, except that he had seen the men, and wondered.
The marsh grass the men had covered their prize with was still alive. It would not take long under the southern Mississippi sun to remedy that, and when that happened the hiding spot would be very visible. For that reason, Popp knew the men would return tonight. Under the grass was what appeared to be a small rowboat. It had been anchored as well as beached on the soft, mushy ground that comprised the pseudo-islands of the bay. Even without the beaching and the anchor, the boat would not have gone far, except to sink. It was so loaded down that there was a good deal of water in the boat. Perhaps the men had tried to sink it first.
The burlap sacks that made up the load were a mystery to Popp. He had never seen bootleg alcohol before. In his curiosity, he opened one. It contained six unopened bottles of gin. Popp liked what he saw, enough so that he decided then and there to keep what he had found. He re-covered the boat with marsh grass and headed back for the landing, deeply engrossed in his thoughts, his eyes occasionally wandering to where he had stashed the six bottles on his own boat.
Now, with his last customer safely out of sight, Popp could begin. He returned to the spot, and without even bothering to remove the now dead marsh grass, tied the rowboat to his. Once again on dry land, Popp proceeded to unload the boat. He hid the liquor in the marsh outside his house. Not wanting to waste something as precious as a boat, Popp towed the boat out and swamped it, after he tied on an old buoy from a crab pot. He returned to his home, and started his all night vigil.
The years had been nice to Popp, but try as he might they had come upon him anyway. He was no longer a young man, and should really have not been surprised when he was rudely awakened in the night. His all night vigil had been shortened by the Sandman.
Despite his age, Popp’s senses were keen. Despite having only just been woken from a sound sleep, he could sum up the situation quickly and accurately. His gun was in someone else's hands, pointed at him. The man who held Popp’s weapon also held the lantern. Three other men held their own weapons at Popp, and a fifth held a pistol to Popp’s son Curtis' head.
One of the men stepped forward and lowered his gun, "All we want is our liquor. Give it to us now."
Never much of a bluffer, Popp decided if ever there was a time to try, now would be it, "Huh? What the hell're you talkin' 'bout? Ah don't know nuthin 'bout no liker. Ah jus' run tha ferry."
The man knelt down to Popp’s level. He held his face inches from Popp’s. "I don't care about no damn ferry. I know you know what the hell I'm talkin about. That alcohol was taken at gunpoint," he cocked his pistol and pointed it at the old man's head, "we ain't against usin' guns to git it back."
After a moment of reflection Popp said, "I ain't no interlectuall person, but Ah think Ah unnerstan whatcha mean. If'n ya could jes help me to ma feet." Popp fumbled as he tried to get to his feet. The man with the pistol lowered it and held out his hand. Popp grabbed it and pulled with all his might. He shoved the man toward the gunman holding his son, and leaped at the lantern at the same time.
The lantern hit the ground before the man could, but not before the butt of a rifle could find its way to the back of Popp head. Quicker than it had started, it was over.
"Wait!" Curtis yelled. "Don't hurt 'em! I'll help ya. I know where it is! Don't hurt 'em, please."
The man with the pistol at Curtis' head whispered, "Well, git on with it, then." He added a shove to prod Curtis into submission.
Popp rubbed his head as he and Curtis watched the small catboat containing the bottles and the men glided away from the landing. As the motor started, and they headed east, Popp glanced across the water. The boat almost hit the crab pot buoy, but none of the men had ever mentioned the boat. He may have a knot on his head, but the day had not been a total loss.
The old man turned to his son and commented, "Ah never has unerstood what wus so dadburned importan 'bout alkerhol anyway. Make a note, Curtis, the further ya keep from it, the less prolems you'll have, in da long run."
West End, Biloxi-1919
The rain pattered against the canvas roof. No one in the vehicle talked. A mother and her two daughters waited inside for James to return.
James and another rain soaked man stood beside the car. James knocked on the windshield. Clara opened the top pane of the Model T's windshield.
"Honey, I need four of Genine's, please."
Clara turned to look at her younger daughter. Genine reached underneath her skirt to remove the last four bottles she had hidden there and gave them to her mother.
"That's all I have, Mom."
"Here, James. She's all out. Now can we go home?"
"Just a minute." James turned and handed the bottles to the other man. Nonchalantly the man handed James an envelope. "Until next week then Charley?"
The man grunted something unintelligible as he shuffled off. James sprinted around to the driver's side of the car and got in. Another lucrative night’s work was done.
James smiled as he put the car in gear. "Clara, just a few more drives like this and we can do something bigger. I've put a lot of thought into this and I'm thinking a funeral parlor. Putting the bottles in the coffins, having a speakeasy in the back, kind of a permanent Irish wake. Maybe even hire someone who can actually run a parlor, and have some legal money to go with the rest."
"This is it, James. No more. The girls and I are leaving. If you insist on continuing this line of work, you'll be by yourself."
A stunned James stopped the car. "But Clara, Just a little while longer and I promise we can get out of this sleepy little town. We can go back to our dreams. I'll never do anything like this again, if we can just get out of this hole."
Clara looked straight out the window. "We'll go stay with my mother. When you are through with your foolishness, you can join us."
The rest of the trip was made in silence. Just James and his thoughts. How much trouble was bootlegging worth to him? Enough to risk his family? Definitely something to think about while he finished his funeral parlor plans.