Issue 144, Fall 1997
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.
Your father—our father—murdered Wally in cold blood. I never knew till he had done it that this was his intention even before we departed Chatham Bend. And perhaps he hadn’t really known it either, for his face looked unimaginably sad and weary, as if the last of his life anger had drained out of him. He seemed bewildered, like someone arrived in a dark realm of no return. In that moment-for all took place while the ghostly form of that young girl was still crossing the beach ridge into the trees -what struck me as most strange was his quiet demeanor, that unnatural and horrifying calm.
“You see that, boy? He tried to kill me,” Papa said dully.
Leaning his shotgun on the driftwood where Wally himself had perched moments before, he eased himself down, seating himself, and planted his hands upon his knees, his boots not two feet from the body, which was still shuddering like a felled steer. Then he reached into his coat and took out his revolver, extending it butt first. In my crazed state, I imagined he was inviting me to execute him, and I took the gun and pointed it at his blue eyes. I was gagging and choking, knowing there would be no future, that my life was finished. I think I might have pulled the trigger if he had not smiled. I stared at him, and my arm lowered. Then he pointed at the sea wood, saying, “I forgot to bring a dog. If she gets too deep into the brush, we just might lose her.” And he mentioned the families down on South Lost Man’s Beach who might come to investigate the shot. We could not lose much time hunting her down.
I stood stupidly, unable to take in what he was saying.
Patiently he explained that Bet was a witness. I must go after her at once. “We cannot stay here,” he repeated gently. And still I did not move. “You came this far, Rob. You better finish it.”
I gasped, teeth chattering, whole body shuddering. I was fighting with all my might not to be sick. I yelled, “You finish it!” He gazed where she had gone. “I would take care of it myself,” he said, “but I’d never catch her. It is up to you.”
I starred yelling. Shooting these poor young people in cold blood was something terrible and crazy, we would burn in hell! He was losing patience now, although still calm. He folded his arms upon his chest and said, “Well, Rob, that’s possible.
But meanwhile, if she gets away, we are going to hang.”
I would not listen. I couldn’t look at Wally’s body without retching, so how could I run down his poor Bet and point a gun at her and take her life? I wept. “Don’t make me do it, Papa! I can’t do it!”
“Why, sure you can, Son, and you best jump to it, because you are an accomplice,” Papa told me. “It’s your life or hers, look at it that way.”
“You told me we were coming here to settle up our claim!”
“That’s what we did,” he said. He stood up then and turned his back to me, looking out toward the Gulf horizon. “Too late to talk about it now,” he said.
I was running. I was screaming the whole way. Whether that scream was heard there on that lonely river or whether it was only in my heart I do not know.
Being so cumbersome, poor Bet had not run far. In that thick tangle, there was no place to run to. I found sand scuffs where she had fallen to her knees and crawled in under a big sea grape. Panting like a doe, she lay big-bellied on her side, wide-eyed in shock. I stopped at a little distance. Seeing me, she whimpered, just a little. “Oh Rob,” she murmured. “We did you no harm.”
I called out, “Please, Bet, please don’t look! I beg of you!”
I crept up then and knelt beside her, and she breathed my name again just once, oh so softly, as if trying to imagine such a person.
I never expected death to be so ... intimate? That white skin pulsing at her temple, the sun-filled hair and small pink ear, clean and transparent as a seashell in the morning light so full of life! Her eyes were open and she seemed to pray, her parted lips yearning for salvation like a thirsting creature.
She never looked into my eyes nor spoke another word on earth, just stared away toward the bright morning sea.
Raging at myself to be merciful and quick, I grasped my wrist to steady my gun hand. Even so, it shook as I raised the revolver. Already steps were coming up behind, crushing the sand, and hearing them, her eyes flew wider. Before she could shriek, I placed the muzzle to her ear, forcing my breath into my gut to steel myself and crying aloud as I pulled back on the trigger, pulled her life out of her. My head exploded with red noise. Spattered crimson with her life, I fainted.
For a while after I became aware, I lay there in the morning dance of sea grape leaves reflected on the sand. Light and branches, sky and turquoise water—all was calm, as in a dream of heaven.
I forced open my eyes. I yelled in terror. She was gone.
Closing my eyes again, I prayed for sleep. I prayed that nothing had taken place, that the dream of trees and sky and water might not end.
The murderer came and leaned and shook my shoulder.
Gently, he said, “Come along now, Son, it’s time to go.”
He had already hauled the bodies out into the river. Alive and unharmed in the warm womb of its mother, the unborn kicked in its blind premonitions beneath the sunny riffles of the current.
I struggled to stand up but I could not. The weakness and frustration broke me, and I sobbed. I saw the boot prints and the sand kicked over the dark bloodstain, like a fatal wound and shadow on the earth.
He leaned and took me underneath one arm and lifted me easily onto my feet. He used a brush of leaves and twigs to scrape the brains and bloody skull bits from my breast, for I had fallen down across her body. Never before had this man touched me with such kindness, nor taken care of me in this strong loving way. I actually thought, What took so long? After all these years, he loves me! But his compassion—if that is what it was—had come too late. My life was destroyed beyond the last hope of redemption. What had happened here had bound me like a shroud. I was a dead man from that day forward, forever and ever and amen.
I retched and fought away from him but fell, too weak to run. He bent again and lifted me, half-carried me toward the skiff.
With hard short strokes he rowed upriver, against the ebb tide. His heavy coat lay on the thwart beside me. He himself seemed stunned, half-dead, he had forgotten the revolver.
My hand found the gun furtively, over and over, whenever he turned to see the course ahead. I wanted to take it, cover it with my shin, but I felt too shaken and afraid. In that long noon, ascending Lost Man’s River, I realized I should have killed him when he first gave me that gun, to spare Bet and her unborn. Instead I had taken those two lives and lost my own.