At Lost Man’s Key

We took the sailing skiff. There was no wind. In the light of the moon, I rowed Papa upriver on the incoming tide and on past Possum Key to the eastern bays. In all that long journey, he never twitched, never uttered a sound, but sat there jutted up out of the stern like an old stump, silhouetted on the moonlit water. That black hat shaded his face from the moon, his eyes were hidden.

Some time after midnight, we went ashore on Onion Key and slept a little. I was exhausted when he woke me in the dark, and I asked why we had to leave there before daybreak. A hard low grunt of warning meant I was not to speak again.

It was cold before daybreak, with a cold mist on the water. I rowed hard to get warm. Descending Lost Man’s River, there was breeze, and I raised the sail. That old skiff slipped swiftly down the current in the early mists and on across the empty grayness of First Lost Man’s Bay, the dark bulk of him, still mute, hunched in the stern.

At first light, we slid the skiff into the mangroves and waded around to the sand point on the south end of the Key. Already afraid, I dared not ask why we were sneaking up on Bet and Wally when our intent was to run those Tuckers off the claim.

I guess I knew he had not come there to discuss things. In that first dawn of the new year, my teeth were chattering.

We slipped along through the low wood. Soon we could see between the trees the stretch of shore where their small sloop was moored off the Gulf beach. Their driftwood shack with palm-thatch roof was back up on the shell ridge, in thin shade. Like most Islanders, they rose at the first light, and Wally Tucker was already outside, perched on a driftwood log mending his galluses. He must have been expecting trouble, because his rifle was leaned against the log beside him.

Papa gave me a kind of a funny wince, like he had no choice about what he had to do. Then he moved forward out of the sea grape with his old double-barrel down along his leg, crossing the sand in stiff short steps, like a bristled-up male dog. He made no sound that I could hear, yet Wally, being extra wary, must have picked up some tiny pinching of the sand. His gallus strap and sail needle and twine fell from his hand as he whirled, reaching for his gun, but in that instant he stopped that hand and moved the other one out to the side before slowly raising both.

Tucker swallowed, as if sickened by the twin muzzle holes of that raised shotgun. Seeing no mercy in my father’s face, he did not ask for any. He held my eye for a long moment, as if there were something I could do. He spoke to me while he watched Papa, saying, “Please, Rob. Take care of poor Bet.” Perhaps he forgave me, perhaps he knew I was there against my will. Then he looked his executioner squarely in the eye, as if resigned to his fate. Papa knew better. Cursing, he swung the shotgun up in a quick snap as the man spun sideways toward his gun, and the scene exploded in red haze as Wally, blown clean over that log, fell twisted to the sand.

A voice screamed. “Oh Christ Jesus no!” It was not Bet, as I first thought, but me.

Bet ran outside, holding a pot, and she screamed, too, at the sight of her beloved, kicking and shuddering on the red sand. Surely they had expected something, for she kept her head and did not run toward her young husband. She dropped her pot and lit out for the woods, very fast for any woman close to term. I see her still, her white shift, sailing over that pale sand like a departing spirit.