Admiral Manuel Serrano and his Spanish treasure fleet sailed from Vera Cruz, Mexico, bound for a stop in Havana. The Cuban port was to be the last stop before departing on the treacherous passage to Spain. Nineteen ships gathered for the voyage, all heavily loaded with Chinese silk, cochineal, indigo, cocoa and over 3.6 million pesos in silver and gold.
Shortly after leaving port, a hurricane engulfed and destroyed the fleet.
The Nuestra Señora del Juncal sank eight leagues north of Bajo de las Areas. The Spanish never located the wreck.
The San Antonio, a large sailing vessel, with a high forecastle and poop, know as carrack, wrecked one league windward of the port of Tabasco. Two other merchant ships wrecked on the coast of Campeche. The king lost his ships and his gold.
Fourteen other ships traveling with this fleet vanished in the storm. They likely sunk at sea without survivors. One carrack, precariously sailing far forward of the fleet, made the turn north through the Florida Straights and dashed full speed ahead running from the deathly grip of the storm.
A paltry crew racked with scurvy and pox struggled to keep the sails full and properly trimmed. They had just escaped one hurricane and now battled the hounding winds flung out by a second hurricane as it rushed across the Atlantic with an insatiable urge to consume all in its path.
The frail captain could barely stand. His muscles were weak, and his joints ached. He gripped the rail and looked down at the puss oozing from encrusted sores that covered his arms and legs. He sucked a gulp of the heavy salt air into his congested lungs and coughed violently. He spat, wheezed, and then checked the ship’s position one more time.
With his sick and decrepit crew, the captain pressed ahead using his canvas to capture the heavy winds and push northward up the coast of Florida. He worked his crew to near death as they labored to outrun the ferocious gales that could rip his sails and the high seas that would break his hull.
The Spanish carrack rode the powerful currents of the Atlantic Gulf Stream forty miles off the coast of St. Augustine. The Captain thought they might make it; they might outrun the storm, but would this crew survive the remaining voyage home? Would he survive? At the ship’s current speed, the turn to move northeast and away from the danger of the storm was less than an hour away.
For weeks, they had sat idle floating on still waters and suffering the stifling heat off the shores of Central America. While they had waited with the Spanish fleet for their cargo, the virus, crud, and pox had festered aboard his ship. From wherever his men had contracted their diseases, the contagious crew had spread their ills to each other in quick order.
There was no time or sympathy for the sick crew. The fleet could not spare his ship, it was filled with precious cargo, and the King would not wait. After months at sea, every ship in the fleet reported a sparse crew, and no sailors could be allocated from other ships. He would be expected to deal with his own problems. Medical attention might be available for his crew in Spain, but only after the gold was delivered.
With his ship’s condition in dire straits, the fleet’s Admiral had granted a final concession. It was a risky decision, but the days were clearly numbered for the Captain and crew of this ship. They had been allowed to sail first, unguarded by the incontestable power of the fleet’s warships. The other captains held their ships well back for fear of contracting the pox and the curse that had been cast upon this vessel.
His ship was a powerful one when properly manned with a healthy crew. The carrack had an impressive battery of cannons and an acceptable quota of marines to fire from the rails and upper yards. But now, he was alone and weak on an agitated sea, a wounded fish and perfect prey for the shark-like pirates that cruised these waters.
They had to move fast. He had ordered all sails full but was worried that the increasing wind would rip one to shreds, or crack a mast. His order was dangerous, but it might be more dangerous to slow their speed. He had no choice but to gamble that his ship would serve him as she had always done.
The stays that tamed the sails were tight as bowstrings and singing a cautionary tune in the wind. Every sail bulged full reaching outward to the seas as if yearning to break its bonds. This ship seemed alive; she was tuned and trimmed for maximum headway, responding to commands that only her old familiar captain knew how to orchestrate. Every mast, spar, and plank of the ship protested with low frequency, reverberant creaks and clatters. Guttural groans emerged from the beams deep in the hull. The sounds were melodic, repetitive, almost comforting to the crew that knew the sea and the sounds of a good sailing ship.
The sky was yellow and green with low-hanging, swirling, gray clouds that threatened more rain. Waves crashed over the bow with each rise and fall of the ship. Bubbling froths of salty foam flew through the air. The blue water tossed about in chaotic uneven peaks that sporadically collided casting horizontal sprays into the wind. White water fizzled in the remnant mix.
A rope snapped, and the topsail on the mizzenmast flailed erratically, whipping, popping, out of control. Aloft went the last man with strength capable of climbing the rigging. To tame a large sail was a dangerous task in any wind, but in a wind like this, the mission was almost suicide. It must be done, the sail had to be controlled, or they were all surely doomed.
The weather had deteriorated and a dark night was approaching fast. As the rain fell in sheets, visibility dropped and made the going more perilous. A fog bank loomed in the distant.
The Captain strained to monitor his man aloft. Out of the oncoming fog, he saw a flash off the port bow. A fiery cannon ball whistled through the air on an accurate arc and shattered rigging on the foremast. As the ship’s crew scrambled to react to the attack, a second ball streaked to its mark and exploded amidships splintering wood, and shredding sailors in its path.
In the turmoil, the seasoned crew made the cannons ready and opened the gun ports. Marines trudged to their positions along the rails. Men laden with muskets and shot climbed rope ladders to the upper riggings. Many were weak and close to death. The violent lurching of the ship caused two men to lose their grip, fall through the shrouds and ratlines, bounce off the gunwale, and disappear into the sea.
Disease had an uncertain morbid grip on this crew, but death would be certain if they didn’t fight now. The remaining men held tight and continued the climb to their battle positions.
“Ready!” the captain yelled, and coughed harshly. The crew tugged heavy ropes through the blocks and heaved the cannons forward. “Aim.” Gunners adjusted the cannons for close range. “Fire.” Two volleys answered in quick succession, but the counter attack was too little, too late.
A third volley from the attacking ship sent a ball through the mizzenmast rigging, and another exploded against the rudder, destroying the ship’s steering. The attacking ship maneuvered into position and sent two more volleys at point blank range. The barrage blasted away the carrack’s portside gun ports, killing or wounding all that crewed the cannons.
A mighty swell rolled his ship and put his starboard side to the wind. Lead peppered the rigging and the deck. Pirates stormed over the sides of the damaged ship with smoking, sparkling fuses in their hair and blood in their eyes. In their blackened garb, they appeared as demons. Their leader raged and howled as the devil himself. The horde swarmed with an intense fury, savagely attacking with pistols, swords, pikes, and axes.
As the large devil-man led the pirate charge, a Spanish sailor stepped forward and thrust a long pike at his face. The sharp spear sliced across his cheek and cut out his eye. He fired a pistol shot into the forehead of the pike-wielding man and plunged a sword into the throat of the next man on the rail. The violent attack opened the first gap in the Spanish line of defense. With the break in the line, other sick sailors on the defensive front scattered, terrorized by the sight and tenacity of this maniacal beast.
Undaunted by his injury, adrenaline surged and the pirate slashed and cut his way to the ship’s captain. The attacking horde gave no quarter and the sickly crew that remained died a brutal, bloody death. Those who lay wounded, begging for help, were tossed overboard. The sharks would quickly take the unlucky men who survived the turmoil of the stormy sea.
The bloodied, one-eyed pirate leader, Captain Oxnard Bennett, stood at the helm, raised his hands, and roared to his men. They responded with barbaric shouts and screams in celebration of another victory and the capture of a fine prize. Lightning struck, sparked and ricocheted across the sky.
“Fast to it you laggards. Load the gold aboard our ship. We don’t have much time afore the storm takes us all.”
The pirate captain carried an English Crown letter of marque, but he was in Spanish territory. The Spanish king was not cordial to those who took his gold and damaged his ships. If caught, Bennett and his crew would be skinned alive. Their carcasses would be staked to crosses and made visible in the busiest ports as an example to any thief who had aspirations of stealing Spanish treasure. The captain was well aware of the risks. He was anxious to take his gold and move north to the more friendly seas of the Crown.
The captain was a big, strong, mean bastard, and the master of his sea. With this crew, he had defeated many well-manned ships, and none had yet proved his equal. He desired no prisoners from the prizes he took. No one survived to tell of his exploits. His ship was not known, and the unbridled surge of fury brought when he attacked was rarely anticipated. He liked it that way.
For the most part, the men of his crew were criminals. They were fiercely loyal to their Captain Ox. He had gathered them from over-crowded prisons at busy ports. They were debtors, thieves, rapists and murderers. He gave them a choice for life, freedom, and riches, and he helped the Crown reduce her prisons’ populations. These men had the credentials to join his crew for it was a hard and dangerous life. He needed hard and dangerous men.
In recent months, the admiralty court had proven corrupt and unappreciative of his efforts in support of His Majesty. He found they tended to keep most of the captured wealth for themselves. His cut seemed to grow smaller with each prize, so he had decided the time had come to keep the best. What the Crown didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. His crew was happy to fall in line because the Captain shared generously with those lucky enough to survive.
Captain Ox searched through the Spanish Captain’s quarters and discovered the Captain’s purse and the ship’s logs. The purse was a fine prize, but the navigational charts showing coastal depths and favored shipping lanes were like buckets of gold to his plans for future exploits. As he walked out the door, a sparkle caught his eye. On the dresser lay a golden disk with a large emerald embedded at its center. He snatched the jeweled pin and attached it to his lapel.
“Captain, three large chests of gold doubloons are in our ship’s hold, and we be hauling over the last of the three small boxes of silver,” his first mate, Bart, reported.
The captain placed a cloth patch across his empty eye socket, secured it with a leather strap tied diagonally around his head. He wiped blood from his sword, thrust it into is scabbard, and growled, “Load them quick, and scuttle this pestilent ship before another comes along to claim her.”
Fires were set fore, and aft, and the pirates scrambled back to their ship. They let the sails fly and set their trims. The ship rode the swells on a course plotted north to the Carolina coast. They watched the Spanish carrack sink by the stern. As flames whipped with the canvas in the wind, the bow rose high, then slowly sank, and finally disappeared in the peak of a swell. A puff of smoke signaled its demise.
As they sailed away, Bart reported the after-battle status. “We’re taking on water, Captain.”
“What’s the damage?” the Captain asked as he scanned the horizon.
“We took two cannon balls at the water line. We’ve draped, and secured canvas on the outside and the men are working to plug the holes, but the extra weight of the gold and the water rushing in are causing problems worse than Satin himself.”
“Put more men on the pumps and make sure we’ve full sails with the wind to our backs.”
The pirate ship plowed north-by-northwest as the crew pumped the rising water with every hand they could muster. By the next evening, the ship was plodding along two miles off the mouth of the Edisto River. Their position lay at a dubious point just a few miles north of the last Spanish settlement at Port Royal and a few miles south of Charleston in a sea claimed by many, but owned by none. The ship had slowed with the water line just below the deck. The captain judged one more breaking swell would sink them for sure.
“A sounding!” the captain shouted for a new measurement of the sea’s depth as they searched for the river channel.
“By the mark! Six fathoms, Sir.” The response came as the leadsman in the chains sighted his mark on the line. He retrieved the lead plummet and readied for another cast.
The captain sought to push them further up the river before they sank. The shallows would make the recovery of the gold a bit easier after the storm. He sought four fathoms or less as the perfect spot. The winds were fierce; the men were anxious. Captain Ox didn’t want to risk it all, but if his ship sank here, he would still have a chance to recover the gold.
He stowed the small boxes of silver into the long boat and called for two men to quietly lower the boat over the side. As the men turned upward from their task, he cut their throats with two quick swipes of his knife. The storm muffled the sounds as he pushed them off the stern.
With the rest of the crew focused on the rigging and the pumps, Captain Ox slipped overboard, set the small sail, and zipped away. He looked back as a huge wave rolled over the ship. He was amazed at the site with only the masts showing above the water line. The sails were still full, and it continued to move forward with the storm surge and the wind.
Bart had climbed the main mast to the crow’s-nest to get a bearing on the land and river passages they knew were near. He saw the small sloop streaking away. He yelled to his captain, and then was violently tossed forward as the ship ran aground. The ship bucked and lurched forward again on the next swell. The mizzenmast cracked with the stress of the unrelenting wind. The water surged and the keel scraped along the submerged sandbar.
The first mate recovered his footing and looked forward to Captain Ox as a large swell ran onto the shoal and curled high. The sloop with the captain flipped and disappeared under the giant wave. He searched the frothy water, but both were gone. The next swell turned the pirate ship, St. Barbara, on her side and she began to break apart. And the storm kept coming with its wind and its wrath.
Dead men tell no tales.
March 6, 1980
On Harlin Dodd’s tenth birthday his dad gave him his very own pair of white rubber boots; boots like all the real professional shrimpers wore. He prized the footwear and viewed the gift as a Mason candidate might consider a First Degree of Apprenticeship ceremony. The boots came up to his skinny knees and were a bit too big, but he didn’t care. He would grow into them as he learned to be a shrimper and follow the path of his dad and his granddad.
He had dreamed of a day he would be allowed to go out on the boat and then return home the hero with the bounty caught at sea. He received no Masonic-like ceremony for his entrance into this life, but he felt the blessing of the passage that was not so much a ceremony as plain hard work. No words, just action. Being a shrimper was all he had ever wanted to do.
That summer, after his tenth birthday, was his first shrimping season to work on the family’s boat. On his initial trip, the catch had weighed in at one thousand pounds, a half ton of shrimp from one night’s work. He was proud, beaming from ear to ear as he helped fill large plastic baskets, hook them to a line off the boom, and hoist them up, one by one, off the boat to a wheeled pallet on the dock.
Two dockhands and a handful of early-morning fishermen watched two men and a boy unload the respectable haul. The fishermen drank their coffee and loaded their boats with tackle and bait. Activity on the dock was picking up as the eastern sky turned gray with the first hint of sunrise.
“Got some good shrimps there, Captain.” An old local hollered to the men over the hum of the diesel engines that still pounded their rhythmic pump deep in the hull of the sixty-five foot Vada Belle. “Looks like they running good this year.”
“Sure do, Bubba. Captain put us on ‘em good. Gonna be a good supper tonight,” Joe offered a reply as he filled another basket.
Joe Ladson was a strong, sinewy, twenty-five-year-old man. He had worked as the first mate on the Vada Belle for ten years. Before Joe became a shrimper, his granddaddy had been the mate on the Dodd’s boat until he was too old to haul the massive nets over the gunwale. Like Harlin, Joe was a third generation shrimper. His dad had been a shrimper, too but got drafted into the Army, went to Vietnam, and never returned. A visit from an officer and a priest with a letter declaring him MIA was not a satisfying substitute, but it was all they got.
The Dodd family, together with the Ladson family, had been shrimping the waters off Charleston, and the Carolinas, for as long as anyone could recollect. They piloted their shrimp boats out of Shem Creek, a scenic coastal treasure that flowed with the tides in and out of a Mount Pleasant marsh, and into the Charleston Harbor.
“Let’s get with it, boys. Them shrimp ain’t getting no bigger sitting in that ice, and we ain’t going home till this boat here is spic and span,” shouted Harlin’s dad, Drayton Dodd.
Drayton was the Captain of the Vada Belle. He was a legend among Carolina shrimpers. A tough, steely-eyed Irishman with a love of the ocean and the salt marshes. He always drove a hard bargain, but he was fair to all especially his loyal crew. He and his dad had built the thriving Dodd Shrimping Company from nothing but hard work, a little luck, and the graces of the tides and the weather.
“Harlin, start hauling the fish. Throw em’ in the blue baskets,” Drayton ordered.
“Yes, sir, Captain,” came a hearty reply. Harlin had learned always to call his dad Captain while on the boat. It was the way, and he was learning the ways of a shrimper.
Harlin sorted and tossed the fish from the lower ice hold, filling basket after basket. The by-product catch was abundant as well; flounder, crabs, whiting, squid, a few black sea bass, and a variety of other species that brought a little extra money to the shrimp bounty.
“Let’s go, son, toss those baskets up here to Joe. I’m ready to go home. Your momma’s waiting,” the Captain shouted. He was in a good mood today. Shrimping was good, and the market was paying a premium for all they could catch.
He took off his weathered cap and wiped his brow. His thin white hair flipped about in the breeze. He looked down proudly at his boy working hard. He would not hand out any verbal encouragement, or a pat on the back today, not yet. The boy had a lot to learn before he reached status as a regular deckhand. He pushed his calloused fingers through his hair, put his cap back on, and went back to his work.
Carolina white shrimp and the big sweet browns were a prized catch to deliver to the U.S. seafood market. With growing skill and improved technology, they were now catching enough shrimp to sell into the wholesale market. During the season, their catch filled a refrigerated truck almost every day, and the demand continued to grow. Even at his young age, Harlin could foresee a prosperous future working the local waters in the family’s majestic shrimp boat.
For almost a eighty years over three generations, his family had bought their land and built their houses when the shrimp ran thick through the creeks, and on the sandy bottoms outside the harbor. They had sought shelter for their boats, survived, and rebuilt after each destructive storm hit the coast. They had lived off odd jobs, and mortgaged their boats during the bad seasons when the shrimp were hard to find in the creeks.
The family business had been good. They owned a well-respected operation that had grown up through the 1900’s from poor local fishermen to a multi-state enterprise. They sold to wholesalers who hauled their shrimp north, and west to states who did not enjoy the good fortune of fresh caught shrimp.
In Charleston, lucky locals could buy the sea’s harvest straight off the boat. Some fishermen and shrimpers who lived along the creeks and rivers would even cook it for you in a shack next to their dock. The seafood was good, cheap, and plentiful. The Dodd family was riding the wave of new technology and bountiful seas, and life was good.
Two women were popping heads off the portion of the catch held back to be sold over-the-counter at the Shem Creek Dock and to numerous restaurants that bought their product that way. Walk-in customers had a choice – heads on, or heads off. The Dodd Shrimp Company didn’t mind although they made more money per pound without heads.
These women wearing cloth aprons and straw hats could head a hundred pounds of shrimp in an hour, but they were going to need help with this day’s catch. In Joe’s community of Six Mile, there were women anxious to come into work for a little extra grocery money, and a few pounds of fresh caught shrimp. This catch required their services.
The Captain inspected the nets, the booms, winches, chains, and lines that would all need to be ready for the next trip. Joe climbed down into the hot engine compartment to check belts, oil levels, hoses, and the all-important bilge pumps. The boat was only five years old, a new twin-diesel beauty that was purchased to replace a much smaller, low-profile, single-engine boat Harlin’s daddy and granddaddy had struggled to keep running.
When she was new, Vada Belle was the talk of the fishing village around Mount Pleasant. Her sixty-five-foot length and fourteen-foot beam made her the envy and the pride of the Charleston shrimping fleet. For the last five years, Vada Belle had led the boat parade for the Blessing of the Fleet. The whole Dodd family assembled on deck to wave at the crowd gathered at Alhambra Hall on the banks of the Charleston Harbor. Captain Dodd’s grandma sat proudly at the bow of the trawler that bore her name.
“How’s your granddaddy doing, Joe?” Captain Dodd asked as they walked away from the dock. “You ain’t said a word ‘bout him the whole trip.”
“Well, sir, I was busy hauling in all that shrimp we caught last night,” Joe said with a smile. “But to tell you the truth, he ain’t lookin’ so good lately. He don’t complain none, but I know he ain’t his best.”
“We’re all getting old, Joe. None of us are our best ‘cept maybe you.”
“Ah, no, sir, I guess we ain’t. This here shrimp money gonna help. I’ll take him up to the doctor, see if we can get him something for the pain.”
“You do that. There’s a little extra bonus on top of your share today.”
“Well thank you, sir, I sure do appreciate that.”
“You earned it, Joe. I know my boy was more hindrance than he was help, but they got to learn sometime,” the Captain looked back at his boat. “As long as the ole Vada Belle can plow the waves, the Dodds can earn a good living, and so can you.”
“Yes, sir, you right ‘bout that.”
A swarming flock of seagulls swooped in as Harlin tossed a bucket of fish and shrimp parts into the creek. He picked up two red fish fingerlings, and tossed them, one at a time, to the two pelicans that sat waiting patiently on a dock railing. Each bird caught its treat with an expertise expected of successful bait predators. In a synchronous rhythm, each one dipped his head, and then tilted his long beak to the sky, and gulped the fish. They returned their attention to the boat’s bounty and waited for the next easy meal.
Harlin washed the last of the fish scales, slime, and ice slush through the gunwale ports and over the side. Crabs, small fish, and other creek scavengers circled the wash and took their share. Soapy water and thick bristled brushes scrubbed the dried scum and shrimp water from the decks.
Finally, the long night of shrimping and the weighing and sorting on the dock was almost over. Their muscles ached as they finished shoveling ice onto the catch. The concrete floor was slick with a mix of water from melting ice and slime off the shrimp. The smell of fish and shrimp permeated the processing area and the people who worked there.
March 6, 2015
Thirty-five years later, the shrimping industry had changed. The Dodd Shrimping Company had survived, but barely. Like the old days, they had to pull oysters, and bottom fish in the off-season to make enough money to keep the lights on.
Captain Harlin Dodd eased the ailing Vada Belle against the dock, careful not to put more force than necessary on her decaying hull. Joe tossed a heavy line to a dockhand. Harlin reversed the gears, and the engines guided the stern to the dock. The side of the boat groaned, and the fiberglass hull crinkled and splintered in spots as her weight settled against the large weathered truck tires hanging as dock fenders.
Harlin winced. The Vada Belle had a cancer; the underlying wood structure was slowly rotting and giving way. They made spot repairs at the end of each season, but repairs only delayed the inevitable.
Traditionally, shrimp boats were built of wood, and although fiberglass was not a new technology, it was not used on trawlers until late in 1960. In the early years of use, boat builders wrapped wooden framing structures with glass-fiber cloth and sprayed the cloth with resin to produce a sleek modern look with greater strength, and a smooth outer surface.
When the boatyard first struck her keel, the Vada Belle was considered a technical marvel to Carolina shrimpers. After the boat was powered by twin diesel engines and fitted with new booms and rigging, well, there was no finer boat in the Carolina fleet.
But now, after almost forty years, the structural defects, and the miscalculations of those once innovative nautical designs were raising their ugly heads. The fiberglass surfaces had a tendency to develop tiny cracks that allowed salt water to seep through, and in her core, the wood rotted. The moisture was slowly eating away at the underlying hull, beams, and keel.
“Captain, got another piece of wood floating in the bilge. A big one this time, big as my hand,” Joe sadly reported as he tossed the water-soaked wood on the deck.
Harlin had not replaced or overhauled the engines because he knew his family’s boat was dying; that and he had barely enough money to buy fuel.
For the last five years, the shrimping seasons had been sporadic and unpredictable. Bad weather, too many shrimpers, and more development along the precious estuaries of creeks and marshes had caused declines in the shrimp population and Harlin’s business.
But the biggest threat came from cheap frozen shrimp supplied by foreign competitors. Farm-raised shrimp from Southeast Asia flooded the market. The low prices were intended to take over a large market share and seemed unfair. The strategy was working, and local shrimpers felt the sting of competition.
Restaurants, especially those inland that had to pay extra for transport, had changed their seafood suppliers, and now imported the shrimp. Discriminating shrimp connoisseurs considered the frozen imports to be an inferior product, but the masses ate the cheaper varieties that were disguised by batter and sauces. After the shrimp had been fried and covered with hot sauce, most didn’t seem to know the difference.
The foreign shrimp influx decimated the Dodd family’s wholesale business. Some local restaurants and stores still offered fresh local seafood, but it was more expensive than the imports and sales declined.
A recent marketing campaign to support ‘buy local’ had helped, but it was expensive, and contributions to the shrimper’s cooperative marketing fund had declined dramatically. Many people supported local shrimpers, but now most purchases were made at their small stores at the dock. Selling a ton of shrimp is difficult when you sell it two or three pounds at a time.
To add insult to the industry’s injury, the authorities had delayed this season’s opening by six weeks. The cold winter had killed or stymied the growth of adolescent shrimp. The fisheries commission had decided to give the shrimp a fighting chance, but the shrimpers weren’t so lucky. The commission didn’t have such an easy solution for them.
“Captain, can I get some advance money today?”
“That’ll be tough, Joe. How much you need?” Harlin wanted to help his first mate, but there just wasn’t much money to offer.
“I need ‘bout five hundred, but I know that hard right now. I’ll work the store, and head the shrimp today to help pay it back.” Joe was looking down at his white shrimping boots.
“I don’t know if I got that much, Joe. You know how things have been.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I sure do.”
“Will something less do for you?”
“Well sir, I reckon whatever you can do. Cora Lee, she done had to go to the doctor again. Doctor said she needs some test, but I got to pay first. At least, I got to pay that five hundred before they run them test.”
“Well, hell, Joe, why didn’t you tell me. You tell that doctor to send that bill to me. We’ll figure out a way to pay.”
“Well, sir, that doctor say he want cash. Said shrimper credit ain’t no good this year.”
“Get me that doctor’s name and number. I’ll tell him about shrimper credit. You go ahead, and get Cora Lee scheduled for those tests, and let me know what else she’s gonna need,” Harlin said with anger rising. “Shrimper can’t get no credit. Let a fellow get down one year, and they turn on a good customer like that. Hell, it ain’t American to act that way.”
“Yes, sir. Well that doctor say it been like this for three, four year now, and he ain’t seeing it gettin’ any better, so he want his money,” Joe said and shook his head. “That Cora Lee, she my life, Captain. I been married to that woman nigh on forty-two year now. She a good woman. I can’t let nothin’ happen to her, no, sir.”
“Joe, we aren’t going to let anything happen to her. I’ll call the doctor soon as I get home,” Harlin promised.
“Thank you, Captain. Now, what can I do to earn that money back? Cause I don’t want to be no charity case, no sir.”
“Well, I tell you what. Why don’t you head the shrimp today? Hell. We didn’t get but two hundred pounds. I’ll pay you the full rate per pound. You could do that in a couple of hours.”
Joe could pop the heads off of shrimp faster than anyone Harlin had ever seen, even the women that did it every day. Joe used both hands. It was magic to watch.
“Yes, sir, and I do it again tomorrow, and the next day till I pay you back, or till we catch our good share, and I get some free-up money.”
“Joe you know you don’t have to promise me nothing. All you got to do is ask, and I’ll share what I got. I can spare a little. Here’s forty bucks. When you’re done headin’ the shrimp, take twenty pounds with you, and see if you can sell ‘em on the side of the road. Bet you can get six or seven dollars a pound if you’re lucky.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Go on Joe, you’ve earned it. You let me take care of that doctor.”
Harlin wasn’t sure what he would tell the doctor, but Joe and Cora Lee were like family, and well, he would do what he had to do.
They cleaned the boat, checked the nets, lines, and winches, and hauled the small catch to the shack to pack in ice. There were no extra dockhands to help, or fishermen to admire the catch. The family of persistent pelicans squawked and flew off hungry.
Marilyn had a fresh pot of decaf coffee ready when Harlin’s truck pulled up the gravel drive. They lived two blocks from Shem Creek in the Old Mount Pleasant Village. Their small white clapboard-sided house sat twenty-five feet above sea level on one of the highest points in town. Their land was an odd high ridge of sandy soil held firm by the roots of large live oaks that provided a complete canopy of shade. Ten-foot high azalea and gardenia bushes bordered the property on two sides of the house.
Before a developer bought the waterfront land on the east bank of Shem Creek and built giant four-story homes, the Dodd family could see their boat from the front porch.
Old southern-styled homes peppered the landscape of this quaint community on the north bank of Charleston’s harbor. The high ground on this side of the harbor was blessed with views of sunsets that painted the sky over the tip of the Charleston peninsula. The postcard view included the large historic homes that lined the city’s seawall, all sitting proudly at the convergence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers.
Many of the coveted old homes in the village were now renovated, and owned by a new breed of well-to-do families. These new residents were a mix of old Charlestonians and northern transplants who were all fortunate enough to acquire a piece of this unique southern experience.
Harlin could remember sitting on the porch swing with his grandma as they waited for the shrimp boats to come in. They were always anxious to see the catch, and welcome home their hardworking shrimpers. When the boats made the turn from the harbor channel into the creek entrance, the children, and their dogs would race to the docks.
The Dodd’s home needed painting, and the roof had a couple of leaks, but as the problems with the Vada Belle, they had little extra money for repairs. Painting would have to wait until next season if the meager nightly catch and their finances didn’t improve.
Marilyn kissed his shrimp-scented face as she grabbed her purse. “I’ve got the makings ready for a shrimp and mushroom omelet, but you’ll have to cook it. I’ve got to take Ashley to school before I go to work,” she said.
Long ago, she had grown accustomed to the shrimp smell. It was an aroma that she would miss if it were gone. Her father had been in the same business, and she was certain that all real workingmen smelled that way.
“Why do you have to take her to school? What’s wrong with the bus?” Harlin wasn’t pleased. “You don’t need that extra stress; you’ve got enough on your plate.” He opened the cupboard, grabbed a thick-rimmed mug, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Well, it really wasn’t her fault, this time, honey.” She looked down in the bottom of her purse as she fished for the car keys.
“What do you mean? She knows what she needs to do to make it to the bus,” Harlin said and looked up the stairs waiting for Ashley to come down. “She needs to have a little respect for others, she’s not a kid anymore, it’s time to step up.”
“You’re partially right about that. Don’t say anything.” She found the keys and looked up at Harlin. “She had her first period this morning, and it’s been pretty traumatic for her, and me too for that matter.” Marilyn glanced up the stairs, too. “Please don’t say anything when she comes down.”
“Holy crap! This can’t be happening, not my little girl.” Harlin turned back to the kitchen counter shaking his head.
“I know, right?” Marilyn whispered and hugged Harlin. “Parker teased her a little, and she bolted up the stairs crying.”
Harlin put his cup on the counter and stood upright. “Where’s the young man? I’ll straighten out his little smart-ass.”
“No, no. I made him apologize; he felt really bad afterward.”
“He knows better. It’s time for him to start growing up, too. I need to get him on the boat as soon as school gets out.” Harlin sipped his coffee and turned on the stove. “In fact, I could use some help this afternoon.”
“Did you forget? His baseball team has their final two games of the season today; a double-header, first game starts at three. It’ll last till almost ten or eleven tonight.”
“Damn. Can he get out of it? I need some help.”
“What about Joe?”
“Oh, that’s something we need to talk about. Cora Lee needs a couple of medical tests, and Joe can’t afford it. The doctor won’t extend him any credit, at least not the five hundred for the test.”
“Five hundred!” Marilyn frowned. “What’s he going to do?”
“I told him I’d call the doctor, and see what I could do. Hell, I don’t have it either.”
“What kind of test are they going to run?”
Harlin stopped and looked up at her. “He didn’t say, but he didn’t seem too concerned about it.”
“Well for that much money, it sounds pretty serious,” Marilyn said.
“He didn’t say, and I was so pissed about the doctor turning him down that I didn’t ask.” Harlin swirled some olive oil on the bottom of the hot pan and dumped in a handful of diced onions and mushrooms. He added a few shrimp to the mix. “I don’t have the money.”
“Geez, Harlin, this isn’t good. I’m stretching out all our payments where I can, and our credit cards are getting close to the limit.” She took off her glasses and looked at him as he completed an unsuccessful search for something in the refrigerator.
“Hell, I know it’s bad, but we’ve got to do something. I gave Joe a few pounds of shrimp to sell for a little extra cash, but when we’re only bringing back three or four hundred pounds a night, I can’t keep doing that. We need every penny.” Harlin sipped his coffee and poured the eggs in the pan. “So can’t Parker get out of the game tonight?”
“No, they’re playing Summerville High, he’s pitching one game, and this series will determine their ranking in the district tournament.”
“This weekend, and you know the college coaches are going to be watching. Coach said Clemson and Carolina were both sending scouts.”
“Yeah, yeah, the big show, it all sounds good, but nobody has stepped up with any offers yet, at least none I’ve heard. He’s got to start taking an interest in this shrimping business. Joe’s getting old, I’m getting old, and I’ve got to think about who’s gonna take it over.” Harlin slid the omelet from the pan and diced up a fresh tomato to top it off. He looked in the refrigerator again.
“Are we out of hot sauce?”
“Right in front of your nose.”
“Oh, okay.” Harlin pulled the bottle out of the side tray and sprinkled the sauce on top of his eggs. “I’m just a little frazzled. I need Parker’s help this summer.”
“Harlin, haven’t you been listening to him? He doesn’t want to shrimp.” She leaned back against the counter. “He wants to play baseball and study engineering at Clemson.”
“Yeah, well, I want to catch a ton of shrimp with every pull, and that don’t seem to be happening either.” He stuffed a fork full of the omelet in his mouth.
Ashley tiptoed down the steps and slipped to the back door with her head bent down. “I’m ready, Mom,” she whispered.
“Okay, honey, I’m coming.” She leaned over and gave Harlin another kiss on the forehead. “We’ll talk more tonight. I’ll come by the dock before you push off.”
Harlin rose and walked calmly to the door and gave Ashley a hug.
“I love you, baby. Have a good day.”
“Okay, I love you, too,” she mumbled.
Marilyn smiled at Harlin and followed Ashley to the car.