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Authors: Charles Williams

Gulf Coast Girl

Gulf Coast Girl

by

Charles Williams

1955

There was something ghostly about it. The mate and the two ABs of the boarding party looked at each other, unable to believe what they saw.

There were no signs of violence or even sickness aboard, and the Gulf itself had been in a benign mood for weeks. Her sails were set and drawing gently in the faint airs of sunset, her tiller lashed, and she was gliding along with serene purpose on a southeasterly course which would have taken her into the Yucatan Strait. Her dinghy was still there, atop the cabin, and everything was shipshape and in order except that there was not a soul on board. She was as mysteriously deserted as the
Mary Celeste
.

She was well provisioned, and she had water. The two bunks were made and the cabin swept. Dungarees and some odds and ends of foul weather gear hung about the bulkheads, and in one of the bunks was the halter of a woman’s two-piece bathing suit. And subtly underlying the immemorial bilge and salt-water smells of sailing craft there still clung to the deserted cabin just the faintest suspicion of perfume. It would have gone unnoticed except that it was so completely out of place.

The table was not laid, as it had been on the
Mary Celeste,
but there were two mugs on it, and one of them was still full of coffee. When the hard-bitten old mate walked over and put his hand against the coffeepot sitting on one burner of the primus stove, it was slightly warm to the touch. There had been somebody here less than an hour ago.

He went over to the small table where the charts were and opened what he took to be the logbook, flipping hurriedly through to the past page on which anything was written. He studied it for a moment, and then shook his head. In forty years at sea he had never encountered a log entry quite like it.

. . . the blue, and that last, haunting flash of silver, gesturing as it died. It was beckoning. Toward the rapture. The rapture . . .

Before he closed the book he took something from between the pages and stared at it. It was a single long strand of ash-blond hair. He shook his head again.

“Holy Jesus, Mate, look at this!” one of the seamen exclaimed behind him.

The mate turned and the man was holding open a black satchel that had been lying on one of the settees. He stared. It was jammed with green blocks of American currency, paper-banded sheafs of twenties, fifties, and hundreds. What next? he thought.

“Salvage, man, salvage,” the AB said ecstatically. “Must be a hundred thousand—”

“You want to spend it now, or wait till the court counts it?” the mate asked. “You’re pretty far from a gin-mill out here, anyway.” He took the bag from the other’s hands and snapped it shut.

Sticking the logbook under his arm, he jerked his head for the two to follow him back on deck. He jabbed a forefinger toward the mast.

“See that big rag up there? It’s known as a sail. We used to drive ships with ‘em. So if you’ll start pulling it down and just sort of bundling it up, I’ll go back to the ship where I won’t have to torture myself by watching how you do it, and we’ll pass down a towline.”

A few yards away in the red sunset the master of the American tanker
Joseph H. Hallock
waited on her bridge while the mate pulled back alone. He saw the two sailors begin taking in the sloop’s mainsail and jib and, realizing what that meant, directed the bos’n to break out a line and start getting it over.

Outward bound from Tampico for Bayonne, they had come up behind the small craft on a converging course some half hour ago and had hauled up a point or two to pass astern of her. The mate, watching through the glasses, had noted there was no one on deck and that the helm was lashed, but had not been greatly concerned. In weather like this a man sailing alone could well have gone below to cook supper. But when no one had come on deck in answer to the bull-throated hail of the whistle, he had called the master.

Swinging, they had come back, easing up close aboard her to windward and blanketing her sails. When no one came on deck then, with the headway off her and the mainsail slatting idly as she came about, they had acknowledged there was something ominous about it. Backing down fast on the engines to remain there and hold her captive, they had put over the work boat to investigate. There was no need to launch a lifeboat. It had been flat calm for days, and the slight breeze which had sprung up in the afternoon was scarcely enough to ripple the gently heaving pastures of the Gulf.

Freya, of San Juan, P.R.,
it said under her stern, and the master of the tanker studied her curiously while he waited for the mate to come back to the bridge. She was a long way from home. He wondered what she was doing this far to the westward, in the Gulf of Mexico, and why a small boat from Spanish Puerto Rico should have been named after a Norse goddess.

The mate came up on the bridge carrying the big ledger and the satchel. “Sick?” the captain asked. “Or dead?”

“Gone,” the mate said, with the air of a man who has been talking to ghosts without believing in them. “Just gone. Like that. Remember the
Celeste?

“Two of ‘em, as near as I can figure it,” he went on, sketching it tersely. “A man and a woman. One or both of ‘em was there not over an hour ago.”

“Well, as soon as you get that line on her we’d better go back and see,” the captain said. “Anything in the log?”

“Gibberish,” the older man replied. He passed over the book, and then the satchel. “Take a gander in that, Cap. Whatever was botherin’ ‘em, it wasn’t financial trouble.”

The captain pursed his lips in a silent whistle as he opened the bag to stare briefly and incredulously at the bundles of currency. He looked outward at the
Freya,
where the men were making the towline fast, and frowned thoughtfully. Then he opened the big journal at the page the mate indicated and read the last entry.

He frowned again.

The rapture . . . the rapture.

Something nudged gently at his mind. He groped for it, and found it. He was a studious and reflective seafaring man who had read Conrad, and the thing which had struck him was the odd, reverse-English similarity to Kurtz’s agonized death cry in
The Heart of Darkness
. “The horror. The horror.”

Flipping back, he hurriedly read the last five or six pages of the handwritten journal. Then he closed it gently and walked to the wing of the bridge to stand looking down.

“When you get your men aboard,” he said slowly, “you can resume your course, Mr. Davidson.”

“We’re not going back?” the mate asked incredulously.

The captain shook his head. “There’s nothing to go back for.”

“But, Cap—That coffee was still warm. And she couldn’t have been logging over two knots. We might find ‘em.”

“No.” The captain gazed back over the flat surface of the sea that was red now in the afterglow. “No. You’d find nothing. Nothing at all.”

But in the end, of course, they did go back, with a lookout on the foremast with the big Navy glasses. They served the sea, and the sea demanded it. And they found nothing but the empty and darkening prairies of the Gulf.

When there was no longer any light at all and they had given up and resumed their course, the captain counted the money in the presence of two of the ship’s officers and locked it in the safe. It came to eighty-three thousand dollars. Then he sat down alone in his office and opened the journal again.

He pulled the long strand of ash-blond hair through his fingers and held it up to the light.
Freya,
he thought musingly;
Freya, the Viking goddess of love
. He wished now he had boarded the sloop himself. The mate was a superb sailor, and intelligent, with a sharp eye for detail and clues in a thing like this, but he wasn’t a particularly sensitive man.

Maybe he could have felt it if he had stood there in the cabin where it had been. The span of time it took a pot of coffee to cool was not a very long one, and whatever was there must have been powerful, and magnificent, and perhaps even terrifying. Emotion was intangible, of course, and should leave no traces after the people who had felt it were gone, but—who knew? Perhaps even now, eddying in lifeless air in the corners of that deserted cabin—

He opened the journal at the first page and began to read.

23.50 North, 88.45 West

   

It was a hot, Gulf Coast morning in early June. The barge was moored out on the T-head of the old Parker Mill dock near the west end of the waterway. Carter had gone to New Orleans to bid on a salvage job and I was living on board alone. I was checking over some diving gear on the forward deck when a car rolled out of the end of the shed and stopped beside mine. It was a couple of tons of shining Cadillac, and there was a girl in it.

Or maybe a better way of putting it would be to say a girl came out of the shed, wearing a Cadillac. You’d see her first.

She got out and closed the door and walked over to the edge of the pier with the unhurried smoothness of poured honey. “Good morning,” she said. “You’re Mr. Manning, I hope? The watchman out at the gate—”

I straightened. “That’s right,” I said, wondering what she wanted. It might be possible to look more out of place on a water-front than she did, but it wouldn’t be easy.

She looked me over quite deliberately, and I had an odd impression she was trying to size me up for something. There wasn’t any basis for it really except that she took a little too long at it and didn’t look like a woman who normally went around staring at people. I was suddenly conscious of the beat-up old dungarees and my hairy and sunburned nakedness from the waist up, and was a little burned at the same time because I was conscious of it. What the hell? I was at work, wasn’t I? What was this, a State Department tea?

“What can I do for you?” I asked curtly.

“Oh.” She was a little flustered for a moment. “I—I’d like to talk to you. Could I come aboard?”

I glanced at the spike heels and then at the ladder leaning against the pier, and shook my head. “You’d break your neck. I’ll come up.”

I did, and the minute I was up there facing her I was struck by the size of her. She was a cathedral of a girl. In the high heels she must have been close to six feet. I’m six two, and I could barely see over the top of the smooth ash-blond head.

Her hair was gathered in a roll very low on the back of her neck and she was wearing a short-sleeved summery dress the color of cinnamon which intensified the fairness of her skin and did her no harm at all in the other departments. Maybe by some bean-pole standards she didn’t save enough ground on the turns, but not by mine. I’d never seen any reason women had to look like boys.

Her face was wide at the cheekbones in a way that was suggestively Scandinavian, and her complexion matched it perfectly. She had the smoothest, clearest skin I’d ever seen. The mouth was a little wide, too, and full-lipped. It wasn’t a classic face at all, but still lovely to look at and perhaps a little sexy. No, that wasn’t it exactly. Just intensely female, like the rest of her. The eyes were large and gray, and very nice. And scared, I thought. It didn’t make sense, but she was afraid of something.

It was hot in the sun, and quite still, and I was a little uncomfortable, aware I was too damned conscious of her and that I’d been doing the same thing I’d been angry at her about. Staring. Maybe we could just stand here the rest of the morning and look at each other like a couple of idiots.

“What can I do for you?” I asked again.

“Perhaps I’d better introduce myself,” she said. “I’m Mrs. Wayne. Shannon Wayne. I wanted to talk to you about a job.”

We walked over in the shadow of the shed by her car and she opened the door and sat down on the end of the seat with a hand on the window frame. She wore no jewelry except the engagement and wedding rings and a thin gold watch that looked fragile and useless enough to cost a young fortune. Her fingers tapped nervously against the metal.

“What kind of job?” I asked.

She glanced at my face, and then away. “Recovering a shotgun that was lost out of a boat.”

“Where?”

“In a lake, about a hundred miles north of here—”

I shook my head. “It would cost you more than it’s worth.”

“But,” she protested, the gray eyes very near to pleading, “you wouldn’t have to take a diving suit and air pump and all that stuff. I thought perhaps you had one of those aqualung outfits.”

“We do,” I said. “In fact, I’ve got one of my own. But it would still be cheaper to buy a new shotgun.”

“No,” ‘she said. “Perhaps I’d better explain. It’s quite an expensive one. A single-barreled trap gun with a lot of engraving and a custom stock. I think it cost around seven hundred dollars.”

I whistled. “How’d a gun like that ever fall in a lake?”

“My husband was going out to the duckblind one morning and accidentally knocked it out of the skiff.”

I looked at her for a moment, not saying anything. There was something odd about it. What kind of fool would be silly enough to take a $700 trap gun into a duckblind? And even if he had money enough to buy them by the dozen, a single-barreled gun was a poor thing to hunt ducks with.

“How deep is the water?” I asked.

“Ten or twelve feet, I think.”

“Well, look. I’ll tell you how to get your gun back. Any neighborhood kid can do it, for five dollars. Get a pair of goggles, or a diving mask. You can buy them at any dime store. Go out and anchor your skiff where the gun went overboard and send the kid down to look for it. Take a piece of fishline to haul it up with when he locates it.”

“Don’t you want the job?” she asked. “Why?”

I wondered myself. I wasn’t doing anything, and I hated sitting around. It would be easy, and she didn’t mind paying for it, so why the reluctance?

I shrugged. “Well, it just seems silly to pay a professional diver all that travel time for something a kid could do in half an hour.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” she said. “You see, it’s about three hundred yards from the houseboat to where the duckblind is, and we’re not sure where it fell out.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It was early in the morning, and still dark.”

“Didn’t he hear it?”

“No. I think he said there was quite a wind blowing.”

It made a little more sense that way, but not much. I still hesitated. Maybe I only imagined it, but I could feel a tension inside her that she was trying to hide and it had to be caused by something more than a lost shotgun. And I was too damned aware of her. I could feel her, even when I wasn’t looking at her. I realized this was stupid, but it didn’t change the fact. Maybe I’d been living too long alone.

She turned her head a little then and I got those eyes full in the face. She said only one word. She said, “Please.”

If the shotgun had been under the Arctic ice pack it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. “When do you want to start?” I asked.

“Right now,” she said. “Unless you have another job.”

“No. I’m not doing anything.”

“That’s fine. We’ll go in my car, if it’s all right with you. Will your equipment fit in back?”

“Sure,” I said.

I went down the ladder to the barge and stowed away the gear I’d been working on, and got the aqualung and diving mask out of the storeroom. I set them on the dock and returned for some swimming trunks. While I was in my quarters I put on some lighter shoes and changed into white linen slacks and a sport shirt. I checked all the doors to be sure they were locked and went back up on the pier. She handed me the car keys and I put everything in the trunk.

“I think this is fun,” she said, smiling for the first time. “It’ll be fun watching you work.”

I shrugged, and said nothing. I wondered a little irritably if she really wanted that gun back, or if this was just her idea of a lark. After all, if it was lost during duck season it had been lying there for six months now. Maybe she had so much money and was so bored that hiring a diver came under the heading of entertainment, like ordering a clown for a children’s party.

Then I asked myself morosely why I was so intent on picking her to pieces. She hadn’t done anything, and so far as I knew there was no law against looking like a Norse goddess, even a slightly sexy one.

Norse? With a name like Shannon? It was odd, though, because she did look like a Swede.

I asked her to stop at the watchman’s shanty for a moment while I told him I’d be gone the rest of the day in case anybody called. The mill was abandoned now and the pier was seldom used for anything, but the place was still fenced and a bored watchman put in his hours reading in a little shack beside the gate.

As soon as we were out the gate she fumbled in her bag for a cigarette. I lit one for her, and another for myself. She drove well in traffic, but seemed to do an unnecessary amount of winding around to get out on the right highway. She kept checking the rearview mirror, too, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. I did it myself when I was driving. You never knew when some eager type might try to climb over your bumper.

When we were out on the highway at last she settled a little in the seat and unleashed a few more horses. We rolled smoothly along at 60. It was a fine machine, a 1954 hardtop convertible. I looked around the inside of it. She had beautiful legs. I looked back at the road.

“Bill Manning, isn’t it?” she asked. “That wouldn’t be William Stacey Manning, by any chance?”

I glanced quickly around. “How did you know?” Then I remembered. “Oh. You read that wheeze about me in the paper?”

It had appeared a few days ago, one of those interesting-character-around-the-water front sort of things, written by a rather intense girl who oozed her dedication to capital-J journalism all over the pier and was determined to pump me up into a glamorous figure for at least a column if it killed her. It had started over the fact I’d won a couple of races out at the yacht club, handling a friend’s boat for him. I wasn’t even a member; he was. But it had come out I’d deck-handed a couple of times on that run down to Bermuda and was a sailing nut; hence the story. Then she made the fact I’d gone to M.I.T. for three years before the war sound as if I were a South Seas beachcomber with a title. I didn’t get it myself. Maybe she thought divers ate with their feet. It was a good thing I hadn’t said anything about the four or five stories I’d sold. I’d have been Somerset Maugham, with flippers.

Then an odd thought struck me. I hadn’t used my middle name in that interview. I hadn’t used it, in fact, since I’d left New England.

She nodded. “Yes. I read it. And I was sure you must be the same Manning who’d written those sea stories. Why haven’t you done any more?”

“I wasn’t a very successful writer,” I said.

“But I thought they were awfully good.”

“Thank you.”

She was looking ahead at the road. “Are you married?”

“I was,” I said. “Divorced. Three years ago.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. I mean, I didn’t intend to pry—”

“It’s all right,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it.

It was just a mess, but it was over and finished. A lot of it had been my fault, and knowing it didn’t help much. We’d fought until we wore it out, and it takes two to do that. I’d owned the boat before Catherine and I were married, and I insisted on hanging onto it in spite of the fact she cared nothing about sailing and the upkeep on it was too much for a married man on the salary I was making in the steamship office where I worked. She wanted to give parties, and play office politics. None of the office brass sailed; they all played golf. I should sell the boat and join a country club. The hell with that, I’d said; I didn’t care what the brass did. I spent my leisure time sailing, and trying to write. I didn’t have any ambition, and I was antisocial and pigheaded. Who the hell did I think I was? Conrad? It folded.

We even fought over that, over money again. We sold the house and the boat at a big loss in an outburst of mutual savagery and split the whole thing up like two screaming kids in a tantrum. I had learned diving and salvage work in the Navy during the war, and after the wreckage settled I drifted back into it, moving around morosely from job to job and going farther south all the time. If you were going to dive you might as well do it in warm water. It was that aimless. I’d tried writing again, but nothing came out right any more and everything was rejected. I was 33 now with nothing much to look forward to and not much behind except an increasing list of “ex-’s”—ex-engineering student, ex-Navy lieutenant, ex-husband, and ex-aspiring writer.

She slowed going through a small town, and when we were on the open highway again she looked around at me, her face thoughtful, and said, “I gathered you’ve had lots of experience with boats?”

I nodded. “I was brought up around them. My father sailed, and belonged to a yacht club. I was sailing a dinghy by the time I started to school.”

“How about big ones, out in the ocean—what do they call it?”

“Offshore? Sure. After the war I did quite a bit of ocean yacht racing, as a crew member. And a friend and I cruised the Caribbean in an old yawl for about eight months in 1946.”

“I see,” she said thoughtfully. “Do you know navigation?”

“Yes,” I said. “Though I’m probably pretty rusty at it. I haven’t used it for a long time.”

I had an odd impression she was pumping me, for some reason. It didn’t make much sense. Why all this interest in boats? I couldn’t see what blue-water sailing and celestial navigation had to do with finding a shotgun lost overboard in some piddling lake.

We went through another small town stacked along the highway in the hot sun. A few miles beyond she turned off the pavement onto a dirt road going up over a hill between some cotton fields. She was watching the mirror again. I looked back, but there was nobody behind us. Then I asked myself abruptly what I cared if there were. This was only a job, wasn’t it? What the hell, her husband had just lost his shotgun in a lake—

Hadn’t he?

We passed a few dilapidated farmhouses at first, but then they began to thin out. It was desolate country, mostly sand and scrub pine, and we met no one else at all. After about four miles we turned off this onto a private road which was only a pair of ruts running off through the trees. I got out to open the gate. There was a sign nailed to it which read:
Posted. Keep Out
. Another car had been through recently, probably within a day or two, breaking the crust in the ruts.

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