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Bootleggers

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Cain's got a rumrunner - Editor

Bootleggers

by Dale Phillips

The line of bums looked like scarecrows in the rain, and I had to laugh. Here I was, smoking a cigarette, warm and dry in my car, while they waited for a handout bowl of soup. Since the stock market crash, a lot of guys couldn't find work or enough to eat. But not me, I was smart and doing better than ever. Because I was a bootlegger, running illegal hooch to anybody who could pay. And the tougher the times, the more people drank to forget their troubles.

Business was so good, in fact, that I needed some extra help with a new job. I'd picked Davy Donaldson to be my new sucker. He had a good strong back and he could run a boat. He'd been fishing these coastal Maine waters for over ten years, before the bank foreclosed on him. That was why he was out here with the other bums.

The First National Bank in Rockport had sent Sheriff Powell and his deputy to throw Donaldson off his own boat, but Donaldson had thrown them off instead, right into the harbor. Then he went down to Rockport and slugged that banker, so they gave him six months in jail, and took everything he had. I'd have been smarter, and sapped the guy in an alley, with no witnesses. Since Prohibition created competitors, I also needed someone who wouldn't go all to pieces if we got shot at. You couldn't be too careful in this business, and I always carried a pistol, just in case. Donaldson had served with Black Jack Pershing in the Argonne Forest, so I knew he had some guts.

I adjusted my cap, got out, and went up to him in the line.

"Take a walk with me Donaldson. Got something to talk to you about."

His shoulders were hunched, his head down against the weather. He couldn't look at me.

"I'm kind of hungry, Billy."

Him and his damned soup. I didn't like to ask twice.

"Don't you worry about that. Come on, let's go."

He gave a look at the church door, then followed me back to my black Model T. Maybe it had a headlight missing and looked like a falling-down chicken coop on wheels, but it was all mine, and I wasn't waiting in the rain for a handout.

I drove us to Neptune's Landing. Before things went bad, everybody had eaten there, but now it was just for smart guys like me, the ones with money. I lit another cigarette while Donaldson looked around as if it was all new.

"Order anything you want," I said. "Anything at all." I smiled. "You don't even have to get the fish."

He had a steak and a big pile of fried potatoes. I could eat steak any damn time I wanted, so I just had a hamburger sandwich. Before I was even halfway done, he'd polished off that big plate of food. I had the waitress bring him a thick wedge of fresh apple pie and some coffee, so he'd see what a sport I was. The first good meal he'd had in some time, and he owed it all to me.

Some color came back into his face, and he was quiet. He was ready for my pitch.

"That was pretty bad when they took your boat away, Davy. Bankers don't fish, what do they need with a fishing boat? What was her name again?"

"The Mimi," he said.

"Ah, yeah. That's it. Who's Mimi?"

"A girl I liked in France."

I knew the kind of woman a soldier met over there, but I didn't say anything. No reason to rile him up.

"Well your luck's about to change, Davy boy. I'm going to do you a big favor."

I lit up another cigarette, and even offered him one, like I was his friend.

"You know that Cain guy, the one from away? Bought that big old Harrington place down by the shore?"

He nodded. "That house was in their family for four generations. They got foreclosed on, too."

I waved my hand, dismissing his words.

"Yeah, well, it's his now."

"Nobody has anything nice to say about him. Some kind of crook, isn't he?"

"You may not like the guy or what he does, but he pays in cash money. Want some?"

"For what?"

"For helping me bring in a few cases of whiskey for him.”

“He likes whiskey that much?”

“He likes money that much." I shook my head. "We resell it.”

He smiled, kind of sad.

"I'm no bootlegger. Why me?”

I blew a ring of smoke. “You know every inch of this coast for twenty miles each way. You could probably run it blind." I said. "And you ain't got no family to ask questions about when you work or what you do.”

While Donaldson was fighting in the War, we got that big storm. Bodies and wrecked boats washed up on the shore for weeks. His people were fishermen, and all the men old enough to work a boat were gone in that one night. If I'd been dumb enough to settle for that life, I'd have been gone as well.

After he returned, the Influenza epidemic took the rest of his family. So he got a loan for the Mimi and spent ten years fishing these waters, all by himself. He could disappear tonight and nobody would come looking for him.

"The pay's good, real good," I said. "We take a short boat ride at night, grab the stuff and unload it at Cain's.”

He didn't say anything, just turned the thick china mug in his hands. He had big hands, scarred from working a fishing boat. Only suckers work that hard.

“What about the Coast Guard?” He finally said.

I laughed. “Cain's got a rumrunner built by Will Frost."

He finally looked interested, and I knew I had him hooked at last. Frost was called "The Wizard of Beals," and every fisherman on this coast wanted to helm one of his creations.

"She's got a flat aft and a torpedo stern. Cuts the water like it was air. They'll never get near us."

He thought it over some more. "I guess I've got nothing else."

"That's right," I said. "Right as rain. This is your big chance. You listen to me, and you can do okay. I’ll take you by tomorrow, so he can look you over."

#

The next afternoon I picked him up at his shack and drove us out to the Seaside Meadows Country Club. I chuckled at the look on his face. This place was for swells. They didn’t let guys like us on the grounds, unless we were mowing the grass. But someday I was gonna belong here, and then all these monkeys could line up to bow down to me.

I breezed over to the guy in charge and told him to take me to Cain. He personally escorted us over. Cain was walking to the clubhouse with some big-britches friend. I took off my cap and nudged Donaldson to do the same. Cain saw us and tossed his golf club to the side, and it was funny to see his caddy scramble to grab it before it hit the ground.

Cain had black hair that was slicked back, and a triangular face and pointed little chin that reminded me of a weasel. He looked Donaldson up and down and took the cigar out of his mouth.

“This is the guy, eh, Billy?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Cain. He’s strong, and he knows how to keep his mouth shut.”

Cain flicked ash off his cigar and studied the stub. “But is he tough, Billy? I need a tough guy.”

I shrugged. "Pershing gave him a medal."

Cain stepped in close to Donaldson, just as a couple of women came over from the clubhouse. I recognized Cain's wife, who was at least thirty years younger than him and a real looker. Too bad, I didn't want them to see what came next.

“Are you a tough guy?” I heard Cain say.

“Tough enough,” Donaldson replied.

Cain half turned away, and then swung his arm in a punch that caught Donaldson full in the gut. Donaldson just grunted and stood there. Cain nodded and looked at me. “He’ll do. Let’s talk.”

I stepped to the side with him as Mrs. Cain went over to Donaldson, looking concerned. Cain gave me some instructions for the next day, but I barely heard him, afraid that dumb fisherman would say something to ruin the deal. She walked away with a sour look on her face. When Cain had finished, I ran over to Donaldson.

"What'd she say to you?" I asked him.

"She wanted to know why her husband hit me. I told her it was to see how I’d react, so he'd know whether or not to hire me. Then she asked me why I'd work for a man like that.”

"What'd you say?" I hoped he hadn't given any lip against Cain.

“I told her for the money."

"Dizzy dame. Of course it's for the money. That's why she married him, right?"

"I guess."

“Hey, Donaldson, lemme give you some advice. Don’t mess up the job mooning over a pretty face.”

“Don’t worry. She’s not my type.”

#

I picked Donaldson up at ten the next night and drove us to Cain's place. All my runs up until now had been on land, but we were trying something new. I took us down to the private dock where Taft, Cain's hired gun, was waiting for us. I didn't like Taft, and I don't think anyone else did, either. Looking at him reminded me of the jagged black rocks in shallow water, the kind that rip the bottom out of your boat before you know it. Even his voice was dangerous, and too smooth, like a snake with human speech.

There was an electric light on a pole, and I could see Taft's eyes as he looked at Donaldson. I hoped there wouldn't be trouble. Taft liked to be the big dog.

"So this is the new guy, huh?" Taft smiled like a wolf seeing a big, juicy rabbit. He stepped in close to poke a finger in Donaldson's chest.

"You remember this,” Taft said. “You follow orders and keep your mouth shut. You got that?"

Donaldson was smart enough to say nothing, and just nodded.

"Good. 'Cause the last guy didn't end up so good when he forgot that."

I shuddered, not wanting to know any more. Elias Norwell had been helping me make some runs around town, but he got to sampling some of the stuff and started shooting his mouth off about how he made his money. Nobody had seen him for over a week now.

We followed Taft down to a 24-foot white motor launch, with an enclosed cabin in front. Donaldson looked like a kid at Christmas. He took the wheel and fired up the big twin diesel engines, and they made a nice rumble. This little beauty had some speed and handled well, taking the roll of the waves smoothly.

It was clear and the stars were out, so we could see where we were going. Taft told Donaldson to go around back of Little Seal Island, just past the three-mile limit. We passed Caswell Point, Federal Cove, and Pine Inlet, and before long were between Big Seal and Little Seal Islands. Donaldson kept to the deep part of the channel and eased around the headland to the back of Little Seal.

In a sheltered lee was a cutter that Taft said was the Dangereuse. He flashed a signal, two times, two times, and once more. He got a response and told Donaldson to cut the engines. We drifted in silence, waves lapping at the side of the launch.

A voice came through the night. “It’s on the beach.” The beam of a searchlight cut a path from the cutter to the shore of Little Seal. I saw a stack of crates on the tiny strip of land.

Taft chuckled. “Sounds like they don’t trust us. Go ahead, take us in.”

Donaldson turned the engines on and nudged us toward the beach. We stopped a few yards out and gently drifted in until the bow of the launch scraped on the gravel. Donaldson jumped down, his sea boots splashing, and pulled us closer.

Taft handed him the lantern, and Donaldson went over to the pile. I could see the official maple leaf mark stamped on the side of the crates.

He set down the lantern and hefted the first one. He brought it back slow, walking carefully across the slippery gravel. He passed the first case aboard. We were real careful not to drop it.

We got the rest of the cases stowed, and after the last one, Taft handed Donaldson a burlap sack.

“Put it on the beach.”

I itched to know just how much money was in that bag. Donaldson set it on the gravel and returned with the lantern. He pushed us off the beach and jumped aboard.

Taft growled to us in a low voice.

“Wait.”

We stayed there bobbing up and down, and a dinghy passed us, the oars dipping and splashing. They grounded on the beach. Someone jumped out, retrieved the sack, and got back in. They rowed past us again, toward the cutter, without a word. Once the dinghy had made it back to the cutter, Taft gave the word, and Donaldson fired up the engines. We chugged out of the lee into the channel, and I let out my breath.

We motored through the night back to the house. As we came up to the dock, I saw someone watching us from the upstairs window. The light went out when Cain came down to the dock in a coat, rubbing his hands. He looked at Taft.

“Any problems?”

“Milk run. Easy, just like you said.”

“Excellent. You boys bring those cases up. And be careful with them.”

Taft and me carried one case between us, and each trip Donaldson got one by himself. Cain took us around back to a cellar door, and we stacked them against a wall.

When we were done, Taft gave me the envelopes. Donaldson's cut was fifty bucks, but I took ten for my fee and handed him the rest. It was more money than he'd seen in awhile, and I thought he was going to faint. And he owed it all to me for making him a bootlegger.

#

We made more runs, with only slight changes. After the Canadians on the cutter had seen us a few times, they dropped the beach nonsense. They didn’t want to do any more work than they had to. Instead, they had us pull up alongside, and Donaldson would board the cutter and go below to bring up the cases. They got more relaxed with every run, and we saw fewer guns each time.

Things went well until the night of the storm. Donaldson had said we shouldn’t go, but when Cain wanted whiskey brought in, you didn't argue.

So there we were, chugging along as the launch rocked every which way, and the waves threatened to broadside us. When we reached the cutter, I saw the storm was knocking her around as well. The crew was hanging on to whatever they could. It was damned hard loading the cases with everything soaked and slippery, and the deck pitching from side to side.

Once out of the protection of Little Seal, the wind hit us hard. There was no way we were going to survive that run across the open water, so Donaldson turned the launch to hug the shore of Big Seal. We set out the sea anchors in a cove and waited it out.

It was a wet, rough night, and a cold one. Taft and I stayed in the cabin, drinking from our flasks, while Donaldson kept watch until dawn. We finally made our way through the chop back to Cain’s. The light was in the sky and Cain stood outside as we pulled up. He stormed down to the dock, looking furious.

“Damnit, Taft, where the hell were you?”

“Storm. We’d a sunk if we’d tried before now.”

“We have to get that whiskey out now. Hurry up, before someone sees.”

We sweated and slipped as we loaded the crates from the launch into two shiny new Packards. Donaldson must have caught a chill in the night, because he was all white. Twice he almost dropped a case. Cain looked at him and shook his head, then looked at me.

“Come with us.”

I jerked my head at Donaldson, who looked barely able to stand. “What about him?”

“He can wait here until we get back.”

I didn't give him another thought. I guess that's where the trouble started.

#

Donaldson came down sick from that night, and I went to check on him to see if he could still work. My heart just about stopped when I saw Cain's wife leaving his place.

Inside, Donaldson was in bed. He looked like holy hell, but he was smiling.

I started yelling. "You stupid jerk! What the hell are you doing? What was she doing here?"

"Serena?"

"Who? Oh, God, no. Are you trying to get killed? If Cain finds out—"

"Then he better not find out."

"Dammit, Donaldson, you know in a hick town like this there's no secrets. What if someone tells him?" I hoped to God no one would be stupid enough. I sat down and made him tell me the whole damn story.

When we'd left him at Cain's, the missus saw him standing outside and took pity on him, like you would a wet dog, I suppose. Of course she took him in and let him warm up. They talked for a long time, he said. I held my head in my hands. Donaldson didn't know much about women, and here he'd gone and fallen for the wrong dame.

"Donaldson, you gotta tell her she can't ever come back here. It ain't safe. He'll kill you."

Donaldson was quiet, staring up at the ceiling.

"Everything I've ever loved has been taken away from me." He rolled away to face the wall. He hadn't heard a word I'd said.

#

It was all going to hell. We got word that some other gang was trying to muscle in on our action, so we kept a spare pistol and a shotgun stashed in oilcloth in the cabin, and packed sandbags inside in case there was shooting. I tried to get Donaldson to carry a gun, but he was too much of a dope. Said he'd killed enough people in the war.

Then one night when we went to pick up Taft, Cain and his wife were yelling at each other. We were standing inside, by the kitchen door. She ran in and Cain came after her, still yelling, even when he saw us. He grabbed her wrist, and when she tried to pull away, he slapped her. Donaldson started to move, but Taft stood in his way with his hand inside his coat.

“You don’t want to do anything stupid.”

“You better not do that again,” Donaldson said to Cain.

“WHAT?” Cain bellowed. “You dare speak to me like that? You work for me! You’re just the hired help.” Cain panted and wiped his sleeve across his mouth. His eyes glinted as he looked at Taft.

“Get him out of here. Take care of this.”

“Mr. Cain,” said Taft. “I see no reason why we can't make our run tonight. I can move things up a bit.”

Cain actually smiled. That was when I got worried.

“Yeah, good. Get it done tonight, then.”

I hustled Donaldson out of there. Suddenly I didn't feel so smart.

A fog was coming in, and Donaldson put the running lights on. I was thinking about what Cain and Taft had said, and my stomach hurt. After what he'd said, I knew Donaldson wasn't coming back from this trip, but I didn't know if I would be, either.

My teeth were chattering as we cruised out to Little Seal and made it to the cutter. Taft made me go get the shotgun, telling me there was going to be trouble. Hands shaking, I got the gun and made sure it was loaded, and tucked it under my coat.

We pulled up alongside. Donaldson secured the launch and went aboard the cutter. Taft stepped on board and offered up his flask.

Next thing I knew, the shooting started. One of the cutter's crew looked at me and reached for something, but I got the shotgun out first and fired at him. He tumbled back, but a bullet hit my leg. It felt like someone had smacked me with a baseball bat. I fell to the deck and saw someone else fire at me. I let loose with the other barrel and he disappeared.

Then there was silence.

"Donaldson," I groaned, trying to hold my blood in with my hands. He came to the cutter's rail and returned to the launch. He had blood all over him and some bad-looking wounds.

"What happened?" I said.

"Taft. He just pulled out his gun and started shooting. The other guy jumped me. He knifed me, but I got him down. Taft shot the last guy in the stomach. He had his hands up, but Taft shot him anyway."

Donaldson started tying a bandage around my leg, which was hurting like hell. I thought I heard the sound of an engine somewhere out in the fog, which had closed in around us like a gray blanket.

A muffled shot came from belowdecks on the cutter. A minute later Taft came up to the rail above us, a leather satchel in his hands.

"Where's the other guy?" Donaldson asked.

"Didn't need him after he opened the safe." Taft held up the satchel. "Know how much is in here? More than you two will ever make in your life."

I figured that was especially true right about now. Here we were out on the deck, with nowhere to go. I was hoping Taft would shoot Donaldson first, so I might be able to pull my gun.

Taft had the satchel in one hand, and his pistol in the other. He looked like he was about to speak, when the night erupted in explosions. Taft jerked like a marionette, the satchel and pistol falling onto the launch. Taft sprawled against the rail of the cutter, his mouth working soundlessly.

A ghostly voice came from the fog on the other side of the cutter.

“Anybody left?”

We said nothing and Donaldson untied the line, pushing us away.

“I think they’re all dead,” came another voice, deeper than the first.

“Let's make sure, then we can go finish off Cain.”

“I never burned a place before.”

“Yeah, well, boss wants to send a message.”

“What about the boat here?”

“It ain’t going nowhere in this fog. We’ll make sure and come back for it tomorrow.”

We had the cutter between us and them. Since we were near the rocks, Donaldson started the engines. They roared to life, and he pushed on the throttle to get us out of there, heading for the channel.

I didn’t know what they had for a boat, but it must have been as fast as ours. We heard them coming after us, and they started shooting. A series of dull thuds smacked into the launch. Splinters ripped through the air, and one sliced my cheek open.

I thought they had us, but the fog threw them off. I could hear them motoring around, and they fired more shots, but no more came near.

"Get me a doctor." I said. My head was swimming.

"We have to get to Serena first."

"Donaldson, no, we gotta—"

"I have to. They're going there to kill them. I have to get her out of there."

I tried to argue, but blacked out. When I came to, the boat wasn't moving, and Donaldson didn't answer when I called. I didn't know how long I'd been out. I pulled myself up and saw that we were at Cain's dock. If that other crew got here, I'd be a dead man. I picked up the shotgun and used it to push myself up to stand on my good leg. Gritting my teeth, I could get along with the shotgun as a crutch.

The fog had thinned some, and I saw the lights from the house. I started for them, and almost tripped over the satchel Taft had dropped. That fool Donaldson had thought more of the dame than the money. I was no fool, and took it with me. It wasn't easy, but I wasn't about to leave it behind.

Inside the house I heard voices arguing, and I called out for Donaldson. I followed the sound, and found the three of them all standing in a room like they didn't know what to do.

Donaldson had a gun on Cain. He looked dangerous, and I wondered if he'd had that same look when he was fighting the Germans.

I collapsed into a chair, dropping the shotgun, but holding on to the money. My leg was bleeding again, and Cain looked blurry as he stood by his desk.

“You won't shoot me in cold blood. And that guy looks dead already.”

Donaldson turned to look at me. I saw Cain reach inside a drawer and come up with a pistol. There was a hellishly loud sound in the room. Cain fell back against the wall and there was a scream. I blacked out with the shot still ringing in my ears.

#

I woke up in a hospital bed after they'd removed the bullet from my leg. Donaldson had called the cops before he took me to the doctor, and they'd shown up at Cain's with an armed posse. They'd caught the other gang just after they'd set fire to the house, and that was it for our competition, all four of them shot down like dogs. There was no trace of Donaldson, Mrs. Cain, or the satchel of money, but one of Cain's Packards had gone missing.

They sent me to jail, and about a year later I got a letter from somewhere down in Mexico, it didn't say where. Donaldson and the widow Cain had bought a small fishing boat, and a little house close to the shore.

I held the letter and looked out through the bars to the open sky beyond. I guess he was the smart one after all.

©2010

 

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