This is a short story set on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay in the 1920s. It appeared in Eastern Shore Savvy Magazine.
Bill Tolliver’s Last Run
By John Reisinger
“You’re figuring on going out on a run tonight, aren’t you?”
Bill Tolliver stood up from the boat engine he had been working on and saw his wife looming above him on the rickety gray pier. The long sleek white hull of the boat rocked slightly with the shift in his weight. The name of the boat, painted in black letters on the stern, was Gerty. A calendar hanging on the attached shed showed the date as 1927.
“Sam has some stuff he needs to get to the Western Shore tonight. It shouldn’t take long.”
Helen sniffed. “Sam again; out on the point cooking up his bootleg corn liquor as if the Prohibition law doesn’t exist. It’s bad enough he’s going to end up in jail, but now he wants to take you with him. I’ll wind up the youngest widow in Cambridge.”
Bill wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
“Now, Helen. I know how you feel about running….er…product at night, but the work is easy and it pays a lot better than ‘arsterin’. Besides, we could use the money.”
“We don’t need the money that bad. Bill, please promise me this will be your last run.”
“I mean it, Bill. What good does money do us with you sittin’ in a jail in Baltimore?”
Bill shrugged. “Look; I’ll tell you what. Sam said he had a big shipment. Maybe if I make enough, I can hold off for a while”
Helen softened somewhat. “Bill, Prohibition is a bad law, but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore it. I worry about you.”
Bill stepped on to the dock and put his arm around her. “Now, don’t you worry. I’ll be back before the Coast Guard gets away from the dock.”
“Oh yes,” she whispered. “The Coast Guard.”
After some more reassurances to Helen, Bill Tolliver eased Gerty away from the pier and out towards the Choptank and the inlet where Sam would be waiting. As he left, he looked back and saw the diminishing figure of his wife still watching him go.
The sky was streaked with red as Bill made his way through the marshes to the wooded island that Sam called home. The air was close, hot and smelled of rotting vegetation and mudflats. Bill slapped a mosquito. How Sam stood the place was anyone’s guess, but it kept the Prohibition agents away. Finally, Sam’s pier came into view, a surprisingly sturdy construction by a sun blistered house and several barns. Bill cut the engine and drifted Gerty up to the pier.
“Hey, Bill,” came the voice of Sam, emerging from a shed. “Right on time. Let me get that stern line for you.”
Sam looked Gerty up and down. “Bill, I always say you just can’t beat these Hooper Island Draketails for running bootleg. They’re pretty fast and they’re low to the water so they’re hard to spot at night.”
“Yeah, well, I also use it for arsterin’. What have you got for me?”
Sam motioned towards a shed. “Thirty five cases of my finest. Biggest payday yet. I got this speakeasy in D.C. that can’t get enough of it. They got lots of local ‘shiners, but they prefer the Eastern Shore variety. Maybe it’s the corn we make it from.”
“Hold a minute, Sam. I’m not running Gerty up the Potomac into D.C.”
“No; of course not. Your drop off point is a pier on Carr’s Creek on the north side of Deal, just across the bay. I got a chart here. Here’s the pier. It will have a small blue light on it. They’ll have three guys waiting to unload so you’ll be out of there in five minutes. You just have to get it there. They got a couple of boys with fast cars to get it the rest of the way.”
Bill frowned at the chart. “Looks like a run of twenty miles or so each way. Sounds simple enough, I suppose.”
Sam grinned. “That’s the spirit. Well, come on, Bill. These cases ain’t gonna load themselves.”
At the Coast Guard station south of Baltimore, Chief Warren Vorhees drew himself another mug of coffee from the station pot. The chief always had a mug of coffee in his hand, but few could remember actually seeing him drink it. He strolled towards the dock and the long gray form of the patrol boat with CG-22 painted in large white letters near the bow. Several crew members were on the boat preparing for the night’s patrol. The radioman appeared.
“Hey, chief. The 22’s all set to go; gassed up and running like a top. Where are we patrolling tonight? Maybe around Annapolis?”
“Oh, I thought we’d take a little look-see down around the Choptank.”
The CG-22’s engines idled with a deep throated rumble. Stepping on to the bridge, Chief Vorhees felt the vibration beneath his feet and smiled.
“Everything on board and properly stowed?” he asked the watch officer.
“Everything, chief,” came the answer. “Including extra ammunition for the .50 caliber. We’re ready for anything. I feel sorry for anyone running bootleg on the bay tonight.”
The chief looked at his watch. “Prepare to get under way.”
Bill Tolliver was damp with sweat and lumpy with mosquito bites by the time the crates were loaded on Gerty. You never appreciate how much a bottle of liquid weighs until you have to move a bunch of them. But the cartons were finally stowed and Gerty was slightly lower in the water. When Bill caught his breath, he prepared to leave.
“Any word on the patrols?” he asked.
Sam looked thoughtful. “Word is they been mostly concentratin’ around Crisfield and the south, but they jump around a lot. You never know where they’ll pop up. The water’s fairly calm, maybe a chop of two feet or so, so you should be able to run flat out.”
Bill shook his head. “Too noisy at full throttle. I run a little slower. It’s quieter and harder to detect.”
Sam shrugged as he cast off the lines. “Well, suit yourself. Any way you can get it there is fine by me.”
Getting back would be nice, too, Bill thought as he maneuvered Gerty through the marshlands and out towards the Chesapeake Bay.
Soon Gerty was gently rising and falling with the waters on the bay. Bill set a course for the Western Shore and began the long, nervous business of watching the horizon. Each minute he got farther from shore and farther from any place to hide. This is the part that kept Helen up at night, and it was just as nerve wracking as she imagined it. He started at every noise, and every splash of the waves. Reflections looked like boats coming at him from all directions.
A little farther to the north, the CG-22 cut through the water, plowing its way down the bay. Twin wakes of white foam boiled in a straight line behind them. They passed the lights of Annapolis off of their starboard side as Chief Vorhees stood looking into the darkness ahead.
“Do you think we’ll get a runner tonight, chief?” said the watch officer.
“I’d say we’re due for one,” said Vorhees, “but there’s a lot of luck involved. Sometimes they’re under our nose and sometimes we see them right in front of us.”
“Lookout reports a contact dead ahead!” came an excited voice.
The chief swung the binoculars up and saw a faint silhouette.
“Well, well. Now who could that be out on the bay after dark with no running lights? All ahead full. Boarding stations and man the searchlight!”
The bow of the CG-22 rose slightly as the boat picked up speed. One sailor stood by the searchlight and another manned the .50 caliber machine gun as the chief trained his binoculars ahead. In a few minutes the boat came in view, a white workboat throwing spray as it beat towards the west.
“Hit them with the light,” Voorhees commanded. The searchlight lit up the night and the boat ahead stood out plainly. The man behind the wheel of the boat looked back at them dumbfounded.
Vorhees shouted through a megaphone.
“This is the United States Coast Guard. Heave to and prepare to be boarded!”
The boat slowed and was soon bobbing lazily in the waves. The CG-22 pulled alongside and two men nimbly jumped on to the workboat.
“Good evening, sir,” said one of the Coast Guardsmen. “Out a little late, aren’t you?”
“I was visiting my brother and I guess I stayed a little late. I’m heading home now. My running lights are shorted out.”
“I see. Well, let us see your papers and we’ll have a little look around.”
Bill Tolliver raised his binoculars at the light to the north and saw it was the Coast Guard boarding another boat similar to his. That was too close. In another few minutes, they’d have been on top of him. He checked the chart by a dim lamp in the tiny cabin. He was only about halfway across the bay, at least a half hour from his destination on the Western Shore. The Coast Guard cutter could cut him off easily if they found out he was there. The cutter must have been coming down from Baltimore, and if it resumed the same southerly course after stopping the other boat, it would probably intersect Gerty.
Bill adjusted his course slightly to avoid the course he thought the cutter would take, but he would have to go faster to be sure.
He looked behind him at the crates of Sam’s liquor. They were too big to hide and too numerous to throw overboard if he was spotted. There was nothing to do but push on on his new course and hope he wasn’t seen or heard. He decided to increase his speed and take a chance on the noise. The rhythm of Gerty’s engine and the motion of how she rode the waves changed to a more frantic pace as she surged ahead. The bow had been gently rising and falling; now it slammed aggressively into each incoming wave.
The Western Shore seemed a long way off.
Chief Vorhees still stood on the bridge with a full mug of coffee when they picked up the boarding party.
“He’s clean, chief. Nothing on the boat but some crab shells.”
“Very well. Release them.”
The work boat roared off, its captain anxious to get home.
The chief tried to hide his disappointment.
“Shall we resume course and speed, chief?”
“Make it so. There’s plenty more fish in the bay. I want everyone on their toes. That was just a warm up.”
The CG-22 resumed its course southward into the blackness of the night.
Gerty was running flat out and approaching the Western Shore. Bill could now see lights from Deal in the evening haze off to his left. He calculated that his new course and speed had taken him out of the cutter’s path…at least, he hoped so.
After pushing farther south, the CG-22 cut its engines, then rocked slowly in the water with waves sloshing against her hull. The men on board stood quietly, straining their ears to hear any sound of engines above the wind.
“I hear something,” someone said. “Off the starboard bow.”
“I hear it, too. Sounds like a boat and it sounds like he’s in a big hurry.”
The chief heard it as well. “Come right to course 265. All ahead full.”
The channel leading into Carr’s Creek was still somewhere ahead in the darkness. There was still no sign of the cutter. Not yet. Bill Tolliver knew he was getting closer. The darkness of the land mass dotted with lights could be clearly seen, but where was the entrance to Carr’s Creek? And more to the point, where was the Coast Guard boat? With each minute he knew he was closer to Carr’s Creek, but maybe closer to capture as well.
The men on the CG-22 felt they were also getting closer.
“Looks like our runner is heading towards Deal or thereabouts,” said the chief, peering into the darkness ahead. “Maybe one of the creeks around there.”
“We should be there before too long,” said the officer of the watch. “Then anything going in or out of those creeks will be in our sights. We’ll have the place sewed up tight.”
Chief Vorhees nodded. “And that’s going to be very bad news for somebody.”
Back in Cambridge, Helen Tolliver sat up in her parlor trying to read the paper. She read the same article several times and still didn’t know what she read. She could never sleep on nights when Bill was out on the bay, even when the Coast Guard wasn’t looking for him. It just didn’t seem right to be comfortable in bed when Bill might need her. Not that there was much she could do, of course, nothing but pray…and wait. Maybe this would be Bill’s last run. Maybe he wouldn’t have to do it any more.
She tried to force her mind back to the paper, but failed. What if he’s caught? What if he runs aground and the Coast Guard finds him? What if….”
She looked at the clock for the hundredth time. With any luck, Bill should be on his way home by now. As long as nothing went wrong, that is.
As long as nothing went wrong.
A dozen pairs of eyes on the CG-22 scanned the shoreline above Deal. They heard a boat engine, but were too close to shore to be certain where it was coming from.
“I see him!” someone called out. “Starboard side near the entrance to Carr’s Creek.”
Vorhees saw it too. “Helmsman, steer a course to intercept. Boarding stations!”
On Gerty, Bill was suddenly bathed in the harsh beam of the searchlight.
“This is the Coast Guard. Heave to and prepare for boarding!”
Bill Tolliver cut the engine and Gerty slowed to a stop. He sat wearily on a gunwale and exhaled slowly as the gray hull of the CG-22 appeared and the boarding party stepped down on to his boat. It had been a long night.
Helen Tolliver awoke with a start.
But Bill was not there.
“I must have dozed off after all. What time is it?”
The clock showed it was well after midnight. Bill should have been back at least an hour ago. She felt a rising panic. Bill was somewhere out there and couldn’t get home. He might be on his way to a jail cell at that very moment. Why had she let him go? She should have insisted. She wanted this to be his last run, and to her horror, she realized that it would be.
She fought back panic. Maybe he had had engine trouble or run into a storm. Maybe he was just delayed. Not knowing what else to do, she made her way down to the pier to wait for him. That way she would see Gerty as she approached. She looked out at the black water of the Choptank but saw no boat lights.
Oh, my God, she thought. He’s not coming back. He’s not…
Gerty was tied up to the dock. She must have come in while Helen was asleep.
“Hey, Helen. I’m home,” came the voice of Bill, tidying up some things on deck. “I have just finished my last run.”
“Bill; what happened? Why are you so late?”
“I had a little meeting with the Coast Guard boys over near my drop off point outside of Deal. They boarded me and searched the boat.”
“And what? They didn’t find anything, so they sent me on my way.”
“But if you were on your way to the drop off point, why didn’t they find anything?”
He stepped on to the pier and kissed her on the cheek.
“Because, my dear, I was not on my way to the drop off point, I was on my way from it. The stuff had just been unloaded. Say, is there anything to eat? I’m starving.”