byâ€™s Florida Sto r I ri ill
Illustration by Alexander Key
Volume 1 ~ Number 1 ~1~
LETTER FROM THE WRITER
elcome to these Florida stories.
I’ve always loved a good story and am blessed to have been born into a family of fine storytellers. When I was a boy, an anecdote of the day was expected of every one at our family’s dinner table. My mother, an artist, delighted in literature. She preferred stories that illuminate, replete with colorful characters and fascinating twists of fate, and read aloud masterfully to my sister, brothers and me. Whether it was Dickens at the fireside, or Stevenson’s Treasure Island beneath a great oak in our backyard, there were stories for all seasons. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were as familiar to us as our classmates. Marjorie Rawlings’ characters really were our neighbors. And our heroes soon included those come to life in the chivalric tales of Sir Walter Scott: Ivanhoe and Rob Roy were my favorites. The years spreading as thistledown, I’ve been fortunate to travel rather widely from beneath that oak. I’ve explored the old countries of Europe from which many of our most endearing folk tales and stories have migrated. As a young man, I followed many of these to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I lived and studied there among some of best “folktellers” in the country. I reveled in the authentic and found even the most fallacious of tales entertaining. Yet, through all my literary travels and various sabbaticals, I have discovered, as Dorothy incanted from the Land of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” Florida, with its rich history of adventurers, dreamers and schemers, is never without plunder for another good story. Somewhere beyond its hillocks and hammocks, deep within the tall pines or across salt grasses to a cove shrouded in palms, there’s always a story. There, where a sloop is tied to a rustic dock or down the beach where footprints disappear in the water washing up and sliding back across sundrenched sand, a story goes. I go where the stories go and write as well as I can from findings of fact as well as my own imaginings. I have a degree in History, but I’m not writing as a historian. I’ve worked as a private investigator, but I’m more akin in craft to the fictional Travis McGee than any of the FBI. In any case, here are five stories, selected by their relative popularity among my magazine and newspaper readers over the last year. I hope that you enjoy this quarterly collection and find them worth the time of your reading. I’m writing more. Plus Ultra is the motto found on certain Spanish treasure coins found in Florida waters, and so I’ve adopted it as my own: “More Beyond.”
Will. STAFF PUBLISHER/ CREATIVE Adbiz, Inc. www.adbiz.com
EDITOR Kendal Norris
WRITER Will Irby
Levy Publishing P.O. Box 2990 Chiefland, FL 32644
Table of Contents
4 7 11 14 18
FAST TRAIN for FLORIDA
THE NUMBERS SWEET LIAR
OLD JOE, CREEPY and MA A BOTTLE of RAIN
FAST TRAIN for FLORIDA
lbert Lodge was a wiry little fellow, and looked smaller still beside the enormous locomotive engine 111 on the Plant System line. Under the lamplight illuminating the Tampa train yard, the feisty engineer climbed to the cab. Unbeknownst to anyone (including himself), Lodge was about to do something no man had done before. It was early in the morning of March 1, 1901. Up in Savannah, Georgia, a railroad fireman was stoking the boilers of another locomotive on the Plant line. This was a sister of the 111, the 107. Engineer Ned Leake checked his gauges and kept an anxious eye on his pocket watch. He had a 3:00 a.m. departure on a very important run down to Jacksonville, Florida. After the Civil War, Connecticut entrepreneur Henry B. Plant had built a network of railroads through southern Georgia, across northern Florida, and down the Gulf Coast. Purchased in a foreclosure sale, the Savannah, Florida & Western Railway had become a key link in the Plant System. It now had a chance to substantially increase its profitability by winning a lucrative U.S. Postal contract. Over on the Seaboard Air Line tracks, a massive locomotive was firing up for the same run. At this turn of the century juncture, the Spanish-American War had ended, but U.S. troops still occupied Cuba. Post Office Department officials, intending faster mail service, were prepared to award the contract to the line that could make the fastest delivery. The race was on, though the odds favored Seaboard which had the more direct route. The Plant road detoured over 30 miles from Savannah to Waycross, then on to Jacksonville where a steamship waited for the mail to Havana. Each line was assigned four mail cars each and both trains left Union Station in Savannah at precisely 3:00 a.m. In the 12-mile straightaway, they ran neck and neck, and then the Plant 107 began to take the lead. She was running hard â€“ hard and fast â€“ so she was running hot. Too hot. Just before the veer for Waycross north of Flemming, the driving box on the 107
began its meltdown. The big Seaboard engine roared past, its crew flailing their arms out the windows, gesturing, hooting and hollering, certain of victory those few miles out. The 107 struggled into Flemming before seizing up. An attempted repair to the engine failed. The crestfallen crew huddled together in the little depot to think how possibly to stay in the race. That’s when the schedule board caught the eye of Flemming’s dispatcher and he jumped to his feet. The 111 on its routine run out of Tampa was due any minute. Better yet, Albert Lodge was at the throttle and Lodge was known to be an engineer among engineers. He was the best around, as Henry Plant used to say, at “highballing” a train. The stationers and 107 crew piled out onto the platform to wave Lodge in. Before he could make a full stop beneath the water tank, Ned Leake and the rest were shouting up to him about their dire circumstances. Albert Lodge and the 111 were the chance they had. The crusty little engineer didn’t so much as blink at the worsening odds against them; he just took charge. The freight cars were sidetracked in whirlwind time, and the 111 was watered and turned. She backed and coupled to the mail train. They’d cooked the engine in the 107 and burned an hour in the race, but Albert Lodge had his hand back on the throttle of the 111 and she was southbound, building steam.
Lodge shouted out to the telegraph operator to send word on down the line: “Clear the track! Set the switches and lock’em!” Another veteran engineer, James “Uncle Jimmy” Ambrose, stood in as copilot to Lodge. Charlie Johnson would shovel the coal. Plant System executive S.S. McClellan had squeezed in with his gold pocket watch for the revived race. Lodge pushed his railroader’s cap back on his head and began to nudge the throttle of the 111 with the touch and finesse of a worldclass jockey. He soon had those big wheels driving ever harder in a whirling great roar, building speeds of 60, 70, 80 miles per hour. By the time the 111 flashed through Jessup, she was approaching 100 mph. Onlookers scattered from the tracks, so horrifying was the screaming of her wheels. The cab began to vibrate at that velocity. Uncle Jimmy cut his eyes at McClellan and remarked dryly, “This train’s going awfully fast.” A wide-eyed McClellan fumbled for his timing watch just before the 69 mile post. Uncle Jimmy pulled his, too. They timed from the 69 to the 74 mile post at Satilla. Each looked up at the other in disbelief because each had exactly the same time. Albert Lodge and the 111 had just been clocked at 120 miles per hour! These were railroad men; they knew the record. The 1893 speed of 112.5 miles per hour made by the New York Central No.
999 had already been commemorated on a postage stamp. Plant’s 111 had just busted that record wide open. Station and line crew all down the line verified it. No train had ever traveled faster than the 111. And then there was the big curve that banked out beyond Satilla. Charlie Johnson was feeding the coal to the burn box as if it were a fire-eating dragon. McClellan struggled to loosen his tie. He was sweating more than Johnson the fireman. A younger fellow passing coal to Johnson asked if he didn’t think Lodge would slow for the curve. “Naw,” Johnson said, “he’s just goin’ good now.” As the 111 whirled into the curve, Lodge brought the throttle in three notches. At the screaming of the wheel flange on the rails, McClellan muttered, “Well, we’ll take that curve or take the woods.” That’s when Albert Lodge suddenly kicked the throttle out five notches faster. They hit the curve, McClellan hit Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Jimmy latched onto the hot iron pipes on the boiler head. It didn’t matter. As Uncle Jimmy would later relate, those pipes felt “rather cool” just then. Lodge stood stoically, as if made of solid brass. The rest steadied themselves and looked back to see the fellow in the coal car laying flat, face down, holding on for dear life. Johnson’s laughter was louder than the wail of the train. The 111 hit the St. Mary’s trestle into Florida like a lightning bolt. By the time
they flashed through Callahan 20 miles out from Jacksonville, she was being clocked at 120 again. Nothing more than a cinder would be left on the track behind them. They might not win, but Lodge and the 111 were going to give everything they had. And that is exactly what they did until the tenacious engineer began to slow as they entered the Jacksonville terminal. To their astonishment, the 111 was being greeted in apparent celebration by raucous cheers from wellwishers and railroad officials rushing forward. It took some moments for the 111 crew to comprehend such jubilation and accept it as authentic. As they soon learned in an amazing twist of fate, the Seaboard train had not yet arrived! It seemed there’d been something of a “tortoise and the hare” turn of events. The overconfident Seaboard engine had slowed its pace, thinking the Plant Line was entirely out of the race. Some time later, as it’s told, the Seaboard train pulled in smugly on the other side of the yard. By then, the victorious Plant crew was in the station restaurant eating breakfast. Shortly thereafter, in walked the Seaboard conductor – a bull of a man – who unsuspectingly asked loudly: “That broken down Plant engine been heard from yet?” Riotous laughter erupted from crowded tables, while the confused conductor looked about for the reason why.
The Numbers S
porty Rey was not his real name, but it’s a name close enough, and this is told true enough that some folks around Tampa will find the man familiar. He was a lean, clean-cut little fellow who drove a black ’49 Buick with a front grill brandishing a big chrome smirk. Though the sedan was secondhand, it was immaculate and waxed with a shine as fine the day as he first drove it up to his red brick bungalow off Swan Avenue. Appearances mattered to Sporty. He was smartly dressed, neatly pressed and precise in knotting his tie. There was just enough flash to make neighbors wonder if he was really an insurance man. Maybe the cocky way he wore his panama hat or those two-toned shoes raised suspicions that he might be a “wise guy,” one of the Tampa underworld. Maybe he was connected with Charlie Wall, dean of Tampa’s crime bosses, because some of Charlie’s minions drove cars and dressed like that. Wall, a Tampa native, had lorded over a rampant crime syndicate for decades. He operated out of Ybor, a working class Cuban neighborhood dominated by cigar workers. Wall bootlegged liquor, ran brothels and virtually monopolized the bolita games in the area. His organization was expansive, extending eventually into what was called the “Cracker Mafia,” with operations spanning central Florida. Then there were the Italian Mafiosi, the Trafficante family who were steadily encroaching on Wall’s Tampa turf. Days of reckoning and nights of retribution were already common in Tampa where from 1928 to 1959 (known locally as the Era of Blood), more than 25 gangland figures were gunned down. Perhaps as many more became “food for the fishes.” So there were plenty of gangsters around Tampa in the early 1950s, but this Sporty Rey, he was
an insurance man, and that’s all he was. He was just a guy with a pencil-thin mustache, a debit book, and a pretty wife shy to the point of being misperceived by the neighbors as conceited or snobbish. She wasn’t. Sporty wasn’t in the rackets either, at least not yet. Weekdays Sporty would slide into his shiny Buick and disappear up Swan, turn on Nebraska and then go who knows where. Folks out in Temple Terrace and Brandon knew where. See, Sporty worked the small towns and mostly poorer neighborhoods in the area – the groves, the turpentine woods, some of the cattle ranches or sawmills. In the towns, he’d park up a narrow street in the shade and walk door-to-door collecting on small insurance policies he’d sold. Most were burial premiums, so maybe he collected a dollar or so a month at each stop. It wasa volume business, and Sporty stayed on the move.
cab disappeared behind a line of hedge. There’d been no argument, no indiscretion discovered, and no note. At least that’s what Sporty told Emma. Emma offered Sporty comfort while her own beloved husband lay gasping with each labored breath in the dark heat of the house behind them. The next month, Sporty got around to telling Emma he now had more than insurance to sell. Bolita tickets were stashed in his account book. Emma eyed Sporty with caution and then she had a confession of her
But there was an older black woman over in Brandon who was one of his favorites. A large, moon-faced lady with an easy laugh, she shared her deep, abiding faith whenever she spoke. Sipping a glass of sweet tea on her front porch was about as close to church as Sporty Rey ever got. They were friends. They never said so, but they were. Her name was Emma Jakes. Emma was the first person Sporty informed that his wife had left him. On a recent spring morning, while a neighbor leaned into his push mower, Ilene Rey stood very erect out on her front porch in a black, sleeveless dress and a small suitcase at her feet. When the neighbor looked up again, she was gone. The roof of a yellow
own. With her husband out of work and her own health failing, hard labor was impossible. She couldn’t continue to make the insurance payment on her husband’s policy. As for buying a bolita ticket, “Nobody really wins but them bolita bankers,” Emma sighed, “and the devil, he’s the biggest banker of them all.” Months passed. Sporty never missed his regular visit with Emma. They talked. It was a game between them to forecast the next rain. It hadn’t rained in a long time. They never again spoke of insurance or the numbers, though. And this was probably a good thing. In the basic bolita game, 100 small numbered balls were placed into a bag and mixed thoroughly. Bets were taken on which number would be drawn. There were many variations on this theme and many different games. Bets were typically small and sometimes sold well in advance. Fact is, most games were rigged. Sometimes extra balls of a given number were included. Sometimes certain balls weren’t in the bag at all. Some games cheated by including balls filled with lead that sank to the bottom of the bag, improving the odds on those numbers. Sometimes selected balls were iced beforehand, so they were cold and easy for the selector to find by touch. Anyway, there have always been as many tricks as games. In Sporty’s time, the biggest game was out of Cuba. Somewhere in Havana was a rack of one hundred ivory balls, each with a number laid sequentially in a mahogany rack. All the numbers were there to see. The balls were then gathered out of the rack and dropped into a black velvet bag. The bag was shaken vigorously and flung about until tossed finally
to a “catcher,” one of the onlookers. The catcher would isolate a single ball and, with the aid of a knife, slit the bag to extract the ball bearing the winning number. Across the Florida Straits, some five hundred miles away in a small cabin on a lake out in the orange groves, Sporty and a bespectacled associate, Ambrose Endecott, hovered around a short-wave radio. Endecott was a locally respected man with a large grove and small grocery on the highway, but he’d fallen on hard times and desperate measures. Together they listened to a broadcast of the Cuban National Lottery. The winning number would soon be announced, and Rey would translate. It was Endecott’s task to check the “hit” or winning number against the tickets purchased for that game. A bolita operation took four individuals, each performing a particular function: the “operator” or banker who financed the operation; the “writer” who sold the tickets; the “pick-up” man who brought the tickets in from the writers. He’d put them in a paper bag and drop them off at a designated spot made known to the “checker.” Each Saturday afternoon Endecott would retrieve the bag of tickets from above the false ceiling in the privy behind his store. On this hot August evening, Sporty and Endecott leaned toward the short wave listening for the winning numbers. The two men didn’t know it, but elsewhere Charlie Wall’s wife had just come home to find Charlie dead on the floor of their bedroom, his throat slashed, skull fractured and his face a bloody pulp.
As the short wave crackled, the door to the isolated cabin suddenly crashed in. Down in Havana the catcher had not made the slit in the bag before machine gun blasts riddled the interior of the cabin. Then it was quiet. Even the screeching of startled cranes rising from the lake outside was short-lived. Some days later, a burly man with a crew cut ambled up the front steps of Emma Jakes’ place. It was about the same time of day Sporty usually came by. Emma watched the stranger through the screened door. He was sweating profusely and mopping his head with a handkerchief. “Mrs. Jakes,” he said, “I’m the fellow took Sporty Jakes’ place.” She remained secluded behind the screen door and didn’t speak.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Jakes, on your husband. I brung you his death benefit.” He extended an envelope from his shirt pocket. “I didn’t pay that. Had to drop it,” she replied softly. “No’um it was paid in full, 100%, Mrs. Jakes. This here check is yours. This one, too,” he said while extracting a second envelope from the same pocket. “What would that be?” she asked with a tremulous voice. “Sporty Rey’s, Mrs. Jakes. It’s a good bit more than the other; I didn’t know if you knew you was named? ” Just then it began to rain.
awoke to the rain ending abruptly and lay a while watching the water pearling up in heavy beads along the eve of the upper story. It dripped drop by drop down from the peeling paint to banana leaves in a nook between the chimney and screened back porch. I enjoyed that sound, the drum thud of the rain drops, until suddenly I was overcome by the clickity-clack of the first streetcar out on the avenue that morning. It was April 1946. The streetcars would not run in Tampa any more after August of that year. I didn’t know that then – didn’t know that was ending, too. My grandmother came to my room that morning festooned in the style of spring, though the style of her dress and broad hat were not the style of the day. She laid out a suit too small, or nearly so. It was the best I had and it would do. The tie she liked – this one, not that one – had been my father’s before the war. I was reminded again of the importance of shined shoes and straightness in the part of my hair. A young gentleman’s attention to such detail, she said, was as admirable as brave deeds. One’s appearance, insofar as one was neat and orderly and made the best of what one had, was by her reckoning an outward manifestation of the soul within. That was how we now lived in the afterglow of the life her father had made. The house was as he had left things. I knotted my
tie thinking her ignorance – this ignoring of the decay about us – to be more her bliss than folly. Outside my window the dense shade of old oaks obscured the new cracks in our foundation, the peeling paint, and the buckled roof shingles above. Yet we lived on in that great house as my grandmother dreamed and fanned its last glowing embers. It was true as she said, “We must look our best with what we have, or lose all. We must be seen.” There was a man we would see that day. Not the usual sort of man, but a poet. She said he would see my folio and something may come of it. A very important prospect, she kept saying. Very important, indeed. With the money I had saved lifeguarding at the city pool, I’d bought a six-year-old Speed Graphic camera with a large flash attachment, a camera most common and prized of all the “press” cameras at the time. Grandmother had already shown and sold a few of my photographs. These were of other men, men with traction in downtown businesses, the chiefs of police and fire, politicians, as well as men who made their money trafficking bootleg liquor and running racquets. Money and politics still mingled more by habit than gain in our parlor, and it spilled out into the walled garden behind the house where deals got made over whiskey and cigars. I had done their portraits, many of these men. My grandmother ushered them before the dusty velvet drape we’d drug down to the
parlor from an unused upstairs room. Some of these would become men of means far greater than ever my great grandfather was. Some went to prison. Some did both. The photographs I took reflected their best days, taken ironically in a place that had known its best days. The man we would see that day would become famous. He wasn’t yet, but had come to town for a reading from his new book. My grandmother was very much impressed and somehow managed a meeting. So we boarded the streetcar to Ybor City where a popular little restaurant served dark Cuban coffee and sweet rolls ladled with sugary icing and sprinkled with crushed nuts. She was a sweet liar, my Grandmother. She did not know this man nearly as well as she had said. I could see that in his dark eyes. She sensed his skepticism as we came near, but smiled her magical smile, raised her bosom and lifted wonderful red hair with great regal bearing. It didn’t matter that she was not all she might have been; she strutted who she was. In refuge and revenge she lived as well as she could. She prided herself in me and pushed me forward. We came to where he was waiting at a table in a darkened corner, this thick-browed, railthin man in tweed. He stood, mustachioed and gaunt in his heavy, ill-fitting suit and waited until her hand was extended before he offered his. We were introduced. “Yes, yes,” was all he said without quite looking at me.
My grandmother talked incessantly, even before we sat. Neither he nor I had inclination or opportunity to interject. She ordered coffee and sweet rolls without slowing the pace of her promotions. Her effervescence was effortless. There was no heavy lifting for her in this, nothing to unwrap or bind up. She laid out immediately her insistence that collaboration between this author and me would be prominent and profitable. There would be good fortune for this man who looked like death, but as he leafed lazily through my folio, I sensed none of it would waft my way. When she let him talk at last, he said in a slow, elongated drawl, “Well, yes. Yes.” And that was all he said, as if nothing more need be said. And of course, yes was nothing less than what Grandmother required. So after it had rained again for the last time that morning and we stood on the wet pavement, he said finally, “Yes, Thank you. Yes.” Then with a slight bow, he went back up the street taking his long shadow with him. On the streetcar, the poet’s yesssssss seemed to sound in the sprinklers coming on in sunlit sprays over the already wet lawns along the avenue. Grandmother sat with her purse on her knees smiling with satisfaction at a future she imagined while we returned to the past. Yes was “No.”
Yes that morning meant everything my grandmother wanted to hear. It meant nothing, exactly as the poet meant to say. At seventeen, I already knew that his yes was little more than sugar disappearing in a cup of hot coffee. It was like that. So distant did that day become that in the last of her years, my grandmother spoke of the proposed collaboration as if it had actually occurred. She would introduce me over again to her oldest friends and speak of “the book” as if it were an object that could actually be taken from a shelf in the parlor. If only she had been able and not by then so frail, she would have gone to the parlor that moment to show off the beautiful, leather-bound book with gold leaf and opened it to my exquisite photographs illustrating the now celebrated poems of the once famous poet. But it wasn’t there. It never was. So it had come to that. And thus it lingered in her dementia until the summer’s eve when a dazzling moon rested its gentle beams upon her window’s ledge. She died in the gauzy dark where jeweled shadows reflected the massive posts of her bed: a Yes forming – fixed then, firm and crisp as starched lace upon her aged, lifeless lips. Yes was what she wanted. It was the way she went.
Old Joe, Creepy and Ma
ate in the fall of 1934, a couple of suits walked into the Jacksonville office of the FBI. They were G-men down from Chicago with a rather odd assignment: they were looking for an alligator. It was a big one somewhere in north central Florida that locals called “Old Joe.” In this period near the apex of America’s Prohibition gangster era, the country was obsessed with dramatic radio announcements of new crimes and newspapers splashed gory details across their front pages. Magazines profiled the mobsters and their molls like movie stars. With the stock market crash and resultant Depression, these rampant criminal sprees provided gruesome entertainment at a time when little else was affordable. The crime wave was rolling to its machine-gunned crest. Notorious characters such as John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd,” “Baby Face” Nelson and “Machine Gun” Kelly sometimes enhanced their bank robbing popularity by destroying mortgage and loan records. Self-styled “Robin Hoods,” they said they we helping the “little guys” on whom the banks were foreclosing.
FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover and his increasingly powerful agency were not amused. Hoover had his highly mobile “flying squads” landing on top of promising tips about gangster hangouts and hideouts all around the country. At this atmosphere of flaming gun-glee, the Karpis-Barker Gang had become one of the most formidable ones rolling. Reportedly, they didn’t hesitate to kill. The indiscriminate spray of their Tommy guns took out intended targets and bystanders alike. They robbed banks, hijacked the mail and cashed in on brazen kidnappings of the rich. Despite specific instructions for how they wanted the money, they figured they’d launder it down in Cuba. Karpis was cunning, good looking, and was said to have a photographic memory, though his fiendish smile “gave people the creeps” according to contemporary reports. That’s how he got the nickname, ‘Creepy Karpis.’ As for the Barker boys, it was their mother Kate who was sharing the spotlight with the ring leader Karpis and becoming the legendary ‘Ma’ Barker. The Hoover public relations machine made Ma out to be, if not chief strategist, certainly the fierce catalyst for crime among her own offspring. Ma wanted wealth and influence that she could wield through her sons’ prowess in the underworld. That ambition would become the movie version, anyway. But Karpis didn’t tell it
like that. After all, with Machine Gun Kelly dead, it was he whom the FBI made heir to the notorious title, Public Enemy Number One. Things heated up with the kidnappings and the gang spread out. It was about this time that Karpis and his young girl friend, Deloris Delaney, checked into the El Commodoro Hotel down in Miami. The manager, Joe Adams, was a “pal.” They registered under aliases and Adams provided luxurious cover. But the ubiquitous Hoover flying teams had Karpis on edge. So the next day the pair checked out and caught a flight to Havana, Cuba. Havana was already a hot spot for gangsters and high rollers, its opulent hotels and casinos their smoky domains. The casinos particularly, with an array of international banks around, were good places to launder kidnap money. Karpis and Delaney checked into the plush Park View Hotel, presenting the manager there with a card from Joe Adams. It read simply: “This man is alright.” That was enough for the hotel manager who soon had Karpis and Delaney secreted away in a palm-shrouded villa on nearby Veradero Beach – one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in the Caribbean. The fugitive guests maintained a sleepy concealment by day.
Nights rolled round like the black marble on a roulette wheel. There was music, gaming and raucous champagne laughter in the casinos and clubs, the most famous of which was the Copacabana. Then one night somebody in the press snapped a celebrity table photo. When the print popped up in newspapers, Karpis knew the Feds would spot his infamous mug. That ended the Caribbean holiday. Karpis packed Delaney, now pregnant, in her pin curls and beaded sack dress back to Florida. In Miami they learned from Joe Adams that Ma and her favorite son Freddie had checked into the El Commodoro earlier under assumed names. Adams, however, had already arranged other, more obscure accommodations for the Barkers up at a friend’s isolated lake place on Lake Weir near the settlement of Ocklawaha in Marion County. Maybe Creepy Karpis could hold up over there on his way north and let Delaney rest a day or two on Lake Weir. The trouble was (or would be), that’s where the G-men were headed. This particular location near Ocala was within the hand-drawn circle on a map found in the apartment of another
of Ma’s boys, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker. Doc had been cuffed in Chicago not long after he’d returned from a stay on the lake with Ma and Freddie. Doc had been boasting about his fishing and told associates about a big alligator everybody thereabouts called “Old Joe.” Another gang member arrested at the same time didn’t remember the name of the lake, but he did recall the name of the alligator. The way he’d heard it, Ma was still down there with Freddie, who sometimes drunkenly stalked Old Joe with his Tommy gun from the bow of a fishing boat. That was enough information to get the two G-men on a plane to Florida. In the predawn of January 15th, a dark line of government sedans whisked down the sand road toward the two-story lake house. When the FBI officers had the place surrounded, the lead agent, Connelly, called for the Barkers to surrender. There was no reply. Tear gas canisters lobbed against the windows elicited something audible from an upstairs window. Maybe it was Ma’s voice shouting something like, “Go ahead!” The confusion as to whether the Barkers were
about to surrender or commence firing was momentary. A sudden burst of automatic weapons fire from the house was answer enough. For the next two hours, there was what local folk described as a war going on. Then it stopped. After a brief spell of quiet, the caretaker was convinced to go into the house and check things out. The poor fellow was terrified, but went in to find the floors of the house littered with spent cartridges and empty shell caissons. He wasn’t there long before he motioned the law men in. The ones who entered through the kitchen found biscuits ready for the oven. Upstairs, others found Freddie sprawled lifelessly in a pool of his own blood. Ma was dead a few feet away. Reportedly, the same hands that had patted the biscuits were now lifelessly frozen to a Tommy gun, its barrel still hot. They found cash in Ma’s purse – lots of it. There was correspondence scattered around providing good information, and evidently some receipts indicating that Creepy Karpis had been through, perhaps only hours before. News of the bloody shootout traveled fast and caught Karpis like a shotgun blast. He and Delaney were high-tailing it for Atlantic City. Having yet again slipped the sure grip of the G-men, the press now called him ‘Magic Karpis.’ Meanwhile back at the lake, so many gawkers and morbid curiosity seekers had descended on the war-ravaged house that its owner was busy charging admission. Just imagine that big gator, Old Joe, surfacing slowly offshore, wondering behind the blinking lump of his amber eye what all the fuss was about.
A Bottle of Rain
Based on True Levy County Lives Part One
rom far across the burnt pasture at dusk she saw the lean figure of a man coming, him and the mule, a single plodding silhouette against the distant purple tree line. He held his hat to his head against the crisp wind that snatched and popped the bed sheets she was taking from a line. A younger sister was helping. When she saw the boy turning down the lane to the old house in the barren field, she ran inside to announce that someone was coming to call.
A young man, not much more than a boy, tied his reins to the handrail and mounted the steps soberly to the uneven porch. Her father was waiting behind the screened door in his undershirt, faded suspenders hanging loose off his shoulders. Her mother came up next with the younger sisters wedging in. The boy spoke first, his hat in his hand: “Mr. Colbern,” he said as deeply as he could, “I’m Enoch Leighton. I believe you know me. I’ve got a job at the Grove sawmill, four acres and a house standing on the Waccasassa. I come to ask you, I come about marrin’ Lani to be my wife.” Colbern didn’t speak immediately. He studied the boy as if to adjust his vision to see not a boy before him, but a man. His wife put her hand on her husband’s thick shoulder and the three girls, tow-headed as their older sister, looked at each other as if the caller had just spoken in a foreign language. Lani had come up behind with the wash basket in her arms, listening. Her expression was, as Enoch would later describe it, “…like a gal somewhere between falling and landing.” Enoch Leighton and Lani Colbern had only met at the camp meeting when Pastor Garvey came to the hillock of oaks at Mossy Pond each month. Some meetings went for a week and as many as several hundred might gather for services and baptisms. In the recent year, neither the Colbern nor Leighton families had missed a meeting. Somehow Enoch always seemed to end up close by Lani. He was standing next to her on a Sunday when the senator’s daughter said to Lani, “You wear that same dress every meeting. Is that the only
one you got?” Enoch wanted to bust the girl, but stood in for Lani by replying, “She wears that dress ‘cause I like it, and it’s a perfectly fine dress and she’s a sight prettier in it than you are.” The other girl turned in her petticoats and marched off in a snit. Then one day the two came to be the last ones sitting on a low growing oak limb that served as a gathering place for the younger folk at the meetings. Enoch slid closer and though there’d not been any encouragement from Lani, he reached out and put his hand atop hers. As if by reflex the girl snatched her frail arm away, and then in the next instant put it back without looking at Enoch at all. They sat like that for a long time listening to the singing before either spoke. To Enoch’s surprise and relief, it was Lani who spoke first: “I think my hand’s goin’ to sleep.” “Mine too, Enoch said, “but I don’t want’er move it.” They both laughed aloud and it was the first time they had laughed together from their hearts. So this was how their courtship began, and to the day Enoch stood before Lani’s father, it was as intimately as they had ever touched. In May of that year, Lani climbed on the back of the mule behind Enoch. She had the whole of her personal possessions in a flour sack tote. Among these were two sheets and two pillowcases. Her mother had embroidered on each a leafy line of purple morning glories, her favorite flower. In the pocket of Lani’s plain cotton dress was a small leather pouch with a five-dollar gold piece from her father.
They rode out the lane then, Lani looking back but once to see her mother and three sisters watching, waving from the rickety porch. The couple turned back to the south on the sand road and the sturdy mule bore them down toward Bronson. When they got to the courthouse in town, Enoch watered and tied the mule and they went inside to be married by the judge. He wasn’t there, the judge’s secretary told them. In fact, he was in Gainesville where he might be for the rest of the week holding court for an ailing judge. In exasperation Enoch explained their purpose. The secretary put down her pen and looked squarely at the rawboned, plain folk before her, each clear-eyed and earnest. Seeing that the two were more frightened of not being married than they were of the matrimonial for which they’d come, she asked that they wait. They sat on a long bench in the cool corridor outside the judge’s office, Enoch’s hand over Lani’s as it had been that day on the oak limb. After a while Enoch said, “If we don’t get married, I reckon I’ll have to take you back to your daddy ‘til we can.” Lani looked at him silently. Her eyes were wet and she turned her hand under his until their fingers entwined. Presently the secretary returned with an old man bent with age wearing a rumpled suit and leather slippers. This was Estes Cribs who had a small newspaper office and print shop across the street. He was also a justice of the peace, the secretary explained. So in the judge’s chambers, with the secretary as witness, Estes Cribs married Enoch Leighton and Lani Colburn, pronouncing them before
God by the power vested in him by the State of Florida, man and wife. Hours later when they came to the gate of Enoch’s place on the Waccasassa, Lani saw morning glory vines growing on the lightered gatepost. She told him then about her favorite flowers and the bed linens that were their wedding gift. “Seems like that ‘orter be a good sign,” Enoch announced, helping his wife down from the sweating mule. “I believe in things like that myself.” They surveyed the place together from the gate. The small, unpainted house in which his grandmother had died was weathered gray. It had a rock chimney and an irregular thatch of mossy, cypress shingles over the roof. Out from the house was a weedy field of almost two acres framed, along with the house and sandy yard, by the rick-rack of a rail fence. Lani followed Enoch out into the field. “Were going to plant here,” Enoch said wistfully. “See this is good land here, good for growing. I done talked to Mr. McNulty at the store across from the mill. He told me okra.” “Okra?” Lani asked plaintively. “I don’t care none for okra.” “Me neither,” Enoch reassured her, “but it’s harder to come by and pays best by the bushel come summer. Don’t anybody want to mess with it really.” Lani kept her total dread of okra to herself, and turned back toward the house. Enoch showed how he had washed and scrubbed the floor planking and swept
the walls. Inside she saw a wood stove and a steamer trunk in which Enoch kept his clothes. Sunlight lay in pin stripes over the sparse furnishings. Near the washbasin on a flat timber counter was a pie safe with a tin front. There was a table with three chairs. Enoch showed her then where the additional room (an alcove really) had been added and he pulled back the drape to reveal a metal bed.
“Me, too,” Enoch replied, settling down beside her. “I’m sure ‘nuff glad. I don’t know why I didn’t say it out right before. I think I didn’t know just how.” The scent of something sweet, honeysuckle perhaps, wafted by. “I do – love you, Lani,” he whispered with his lips brushing her hollow cheek, his hand resting on her rawboned hip, “and I’m proud I do.”
That night they fried bacon and sliced potatoes garnished with canned tomatoes. Used to cooking for himself, Enoch helped Lani at the stove. This seemed odd to Lani whose father had never cooked or tended the kitchen or any other household affairs. They sat across from each other for their humble wedding feast. Enoch said a blessing, as they’d been taught.
The next morning, Enoch was up before daylight and made coffee. Lani, a sheet wrapped around her, found him resting his shoulder against one of the squared timber columns out on the porch. He smiled softly, almost shyly. With the suffuse glory of first light had come the dawning of an irrevocable bond formed during the night before. Lani rested her head against his other shoulder.
After dinner they fussed about making what they could of their household, then each went separately to bed. Lani had gone first, slipping modestly behind the drape to slide under the sheets in her flannel nightshirt. Then Enoch came and lay in his underwear beneath the sheet beside her, looking up into the dark for what seemed to each a long time. Then Enoch’s hand found hers. After a while, Lani asked softly, “Have you never said out right to a girl that you love her?” Enoch lay quietly. Squeezing her hand gently, he answered haltingly, “Have you – to anybody?” “I love my husband,” Lani said quickly. “I’m your husband!” Enoch exclaimed, sitting upright in the bed. “I know,” she said. “I’m glad.”
A few moments later there was the sound of wagons coming up the road. Men were talking in the early dawn as they passed outside their gate. One wagon was loaded with black men, the other with big barrels, with a rider on a pale horse trailing behind them. When the rider got to their gate, he stopped and turned his horse toward the porch – a gaunt looking man, dressed in dark clothing, wearing a campaign hat as men had worn in the Great War. Lani could see that his swarthy face was pocked and marred. He sat motionless, leaning on his saddle horn leering at them both. Then he sat up straight, the horse snorted and he touched the brim of his hat with two fingers. “Day to you!” he called out in a deep rasp of voice. Enoch didn’t answer. Lani, who had obscured herself behind her husband as the
A Bottle of Rain – Part Two Rain one day would come down out of the northwest and sweep through the tall pines at night to make a day brusque and fair, but not yet. Late into the fall, a heavy heat lingered yet over Gulf Hammock where Enoch and Lani Leighton’s home was growing more and more lived-in.
rider turned, whispered, “Who is he?” The rider’s face tightened and he spat as he rode on after the men in the wagons. When all were out of sight, their voices lost in the vast terrain pineland over the rise, she asked again. “They call him Captain Agner,” Enoch said, tossing the last of his coffee to the calla lilies by the steps. “Them is turpentiners. He runs that crew for Mr. Mulray. Mulray owns all that pineland yonder near back to Bronson. He’s a bad man, that Captain Agner, Lani. Bad as they come. I don’t never, ever want him near you.” The sun broke through the trees then and Lani saw in the low mist the blush of morning glories, full and lush over the gatepost. “Look,” she said, “there they are, like purple angels guarding our gate.”
Rock-ribbed and rough-cut, Enoch possessed the clear-eyed integrity of a boy made a man in full by hard work and willing responsibility before the age of twenty. Lani, younger yet, might have appeared frail but for the brightness of her eyes, framed by thick flaxen curls of tousled hair prone to catch any light. Since their marriage they’d worked the feral homestead his grandparents had first wrestled from the wild in their own generation. If daylight remained on his return from work at the saw mill, Enoch cut and chopped to restore the cleared ground out from the ramshackle house and barn. He and Lani had worked by lamplight to stuff and caulk the cracks in the walls. Still, they did not have a mirror, and when she got up with Enoch before daylight to stir-up a breakfast, Lani brushed her hair in the lamp-lit reflection of the window glass. Enoch would ride out the gate on his mule while the moonlight lay low in the blue haze through the pine and cypress where the river made a bend. After that, the road ran along a
sandy bluff down to the Grove Sawmill where he worked, piling and burning slats. For some weeks, Enoch would select from the better slats and bring these back on a sled behind his mule. These he’d rip and nail as baton strips on the sides of the house, his craft with a saw showing in precise strips of new wood over the silvered sideboards of the old house. Lani’s days were not as productive, though it was not out of laziness that less got done. She kept the house swept and scrubbed, but there was only so much of that to do. When there was brush that Enoch had cut from the cleared land, she’d have that piled before noon. Sometimes while she was pulling brush, she’d hear the voices of the turpentiners working off in the piney woods. She rarely saw them, although she sometimes saw in dark silhouette a sole rider up from the field – his light gray horse pawing at the crest of the hill, the shape of his hat that of the foreman, Captain Agner about whom Enoch had cautioned. He would be gone then, as suddenly as he had appeared. Lani thought to tell Enoch immediately of his haunting presence, and then she thought not. In the heat of the afternoon Lani would go down the lower path to the river where the water ran dark with tannin. There, before the bend beneath the high bank lay a crescent of sand that was cool and pleasant by the water in the shade of great cypresses. It was here that she took up her afternoon occupation of building sand castles. Some weeks after Lani had begun to perfect her sandcastle construction with coffee canshaped turrets topped with swirls of with drizzled sand, she heard something or someone
coming from the other side of the river. She crept back to the bank and pulled her bare feet up under her skirt and lay back in the blind of tree roots down the high bank behind her. Sounds of the approach came nearer and she thought she heard a low snort as a horse may make, and then she was more certain that it was hoof prints on the dry leaves over the mossy path to the river’s bank opposite her. Then there it stood, the great black horse fitted, saddled and ridden by a woman Lani thought so strikingly beautiful that she had ridden out of the same fairy tale inspiring the castle she’d been building. “Good afternoon,” the woman called out to Lani who was pitifully obscured by the tangle of tree roots. “I’ve been admiring your beautiful castle.” Lani came forward and stood, brushing the sand from her skirt and hands. “Yes’um,” she said shyly. The woman on the horse seemed increasingly surprised by Lani’s appearance. She’d expected a child, and thought at first it was a child indeed who gazed up from the sand, her hair lucent with sun. But then she saw that child become more womanly in the light, her doe-like eyes skittish and uncertain. The horse snorted and stamped. “Do you live near?” she asked pleasantly. “Right up yonder,” Lani said, pointing back toward the Leighton place. “Me and my husband.” “Oh my,” the woman replied. “You’re married?”
“Yes, ma’am I am. Enoch Leighton is “You may be sure, Lani, that there are those my husband.” who see my time on horseback as no more useful than your fanciful construction. But For a moment the woman looked perplexed, as I love to ride. I simply must. My husband is if the Leighton name was somehow familiar. away at the mill most days, so I have horses She dismounted and tied off the reins of her to keep me company and this is my favorite,” horse to a nearby sapling. She wore high she said, turning to pat his thick neck. “This riding boots and jodhpurs and turned back to is Hero.” Lani, tightening the dark knot of loose braid she’d made at the nape of her neck. “Well, I “My husband works at the mill, too,” Lani must say,” she said wistfully, “I had imagined chimed. quite differently who might be making such a fine sandcastle as you have there. I’m Drusilla “Does he?” Wayne,” she added quickly with apology in “Yes ma’am. He keeps the slat pile. It’s big as her voice. “I should have already said.” a mountain sometimes, is what he says.” “Lani Colbern,” the younger woman answered “My, that does sound like a big job.” haltingly. “Lani Leighton; was Colburn.” “What about your husband, Mrs. Wayne? “Yes. Leighton, you said,” Drusilla Wayne replied. “So tell me, just what on earth inspired “Drusilla, Lani. Please. He, my husband, in you such a beautiful creation as this castle Royce Wayne, manages the mill. of yours? I’ve been admiring it on my rides, “He does?” but I’m usually by much earlier than this.” “Yes. So our husbands work together, don’t “I don’t know. Just somethin’ I seen in a picture they? book one time. I don’t guess you think much of a married woman down here playin’ in the “I reckon.” sand like a young’un,” Lani offered. “Yes, of course they do. And we play “Well, I think I see it as more than that. Some together.” women couchette, or knit and may think their time well spent. I don’t care for handwork “I don’t know… if you say so.” myself.” “Well I do. I’m pleased to meet you Lani “But them is useful things, I reckon. I just have Leighton,” Drusilla Wayne declared taking up her reins. “And I hope to see you again no threads or needles like you need.” very soon. We must be friends.” “Be sure, Lani – may I call you, Lani?” “I reckon,” Lani answered back, astonished “Yes-um,” she nodded. that one quite so graceful had appeared
before her on horseback, much less invited her friendship. After a long pause, she said gradually, “I think that would be fine.” “Wonderful,” Drusilla Wayne called back over her shoulder as she rode up the river to where the trail turned back along a ridge of pine, making its way then to a far pasture that bent round a cypress dome. After that the pasture lay acres wide, though dotted with cypress domes and ponds up to the Wayne barns and two-story white house. At home that evening Enoch remained resolute in his plan for a spring planting of okra that would yield “good cash money” at the commissary across from the mill. They could get by, payday to payday with what he earned, but this cash crop of his was going to pay for improvement to the house and maybe get a good start on improves to the old barn. Once he had the brush cut and rooted racked, they’d burn the piles on cold winter nights. By early spring he’d be breaking ground. He’d plow at night too, and was already devising a contraption to light his way by attaching a lantern to the hames of his mule’s plow collar. Sometimes Lani thought his fancy for that row crop exceeded even what he felt for her. While Enoch wiped his dinner plate clean of molasses with the last bit of a corn pone, Lani asked, “My word, Enoch, don’tcha think of nothin’ else but that okra? I never liked okra to begin with, and we ain’t ever got it in the ground and I’m near sick to death of it.” “No, that ain’t all I think about. Now let me see,” Enoch said playfully, “what’d you say your name was?”
On a day soon after, Lani was sweeping off the front porch when she saw the head of a rider appear above the fennels across the field. It was Drusilla Wayne who had forded at the shallows up river and ridden back down to where she expected to find the Leighton place. Lani waved silently and Drusilla called out as she rode nearer, “Good morning! The little princess wasn’t to be found at her castle this morning, so I came looking.” “You won’t find much here; for goodness sakes, Mrs. Wayne,” Lani answered from the porch. They visited out on the steps, and Drusilla learned all about Enoch’s dream of a prosperous okra crop. She thought it was a fine idea, though they both laughed aloud at Drusilla’s insistence that she didn’t care a whit for the prickly little pods herself. “Me neither, Drusilla!” Lani assured, surprising herself at the ease after laughter with which she had called the older woman by her given name. After that, Drusilla’s visits to the Leighton place became frequent when she did not find Lani tending her sandcastle down by the river. They visited as neighbors and friends, speaking of things in ways that evoked an inspiring sense of commonality, though the world from which Drusilla Wayne had come was not that of Lani’s whatsoever. Lani Leighton, though some years Drusilla’s junior, slowly became a special friend whose company she valued despite their difference
in age and social station. The older woman’s husband was often away in his work as the manager of the Grove Mill who had frequent business in Jacksonville or Tampa. Lani’s husband, Enoch, was a dependable and earnest employee, even if he was saddled with one of the most menial jobs. Enoch piled and burned the barked slats cast aside by the sawyers.
portion. All the while, Drusilla regaled him with yet another tale of squirrel hunting, smoking bees out a “tree holler” for their wild honey or “cutting a cabbage” beneath the towering canopy of the river swamp.
That their husbands operated at opposite ends of the mill hierarchy made no difference to the two women. They were amiable in their companionship, and Drusilla most ardently avoided any conversation that might set her above her young friend. Besides, they each had things to learn from the other. Lani had learned from Drusilla such intricate and ornate stitchery as was often displayed in the tailoring of clothing worn by more refined women. She shared with Lani her talent for arranging flowers and offered leather bound books of poetry and chivalric tales from her own library. On the other hand, Lani taught her new friend about the bounty found in the forest between their vastly dissimilar homes. Amusingly, Mr. Wayne had become increasingly fond of the fried squirrel smothered in thick scallion gravy his wife now served on their best china. As for the swamp cabbage, he’d deceptively stirred that about his plate when first introduced to the mushy, boiled hearts of palm. But Wayne came to like the dish better when Drusilla yielded to Lani’s true recipe that called for ample seasoning with smoked fatback from the Leighton smokehouse. After that and a good measure of ground black pepper, Royce Wayne was generally game for a second
A Bottle of Rain – Conclusion One day Drusilla Wayne came riding up the sodden path out of the Waccasassa River swamp, then down along the hedge of briar to where the Leighton place stood. The homestead was severely weathered, though weeded now and made orderly and clean, despite the red, dry rust on the tin roofs of its house and barn. But stopping for a moment, she did not find Lani and this disturbed her. She rode the property back down to the
river before returning. Tying Hero at the gate, Drusilla went up to the house while her horse stirred nervously behind her. Hero began to blow, lifted his head and neighed. There was a faint whinny in reply, or maybe an echo out of the river swamp, she thought. After mounting the porch stairs in her riding boots, she tapped at the front door. Drusilla called out, but did not hear a reply. When she took her gloved hand from the doorknob, the latch clacked and the door creaked open, widening with a slow screech. Drusilla stepped into the darkened room redolent with the scent of aged fabrics and the remnant of lard and wood smoke. The back door stood open. Suddenly there was a sound of pounding hooves outside. An animal dark and large was crashing through the underbrush past the barn toward the road. Hero snatched at his reins and neighed after it in a deafening trumpet. In that instant Drusilla saw slumped upon the bed the gal-young’un Lani, pallid and ashen, her tattered cotton dress soiled and drenched, matted as her flaxen hair with her own sweat and earth. “What is it, Lani! What’s the matter?” Drusilla called out. No word formed on Lani’s lips. Her eyes rolled vaguely in the direction of her friend. Drusilla went to her immediately and saw then the blood in rivulets beneath a stocking wrapped and knotted about her slender calf. Her lace-up shoes were off. Her other stocking was wrung tight and knotted above the first and between these was a large swollen mass, a bulbous knot
of inflamed flesh where a distinct puncture oozed with blood tinged by some viscous fluid. Drusilla climbed onto the bed to better see the extent of her injury. “Who or what has done this, Lani?” A startling, razor-sharp voice sliced the dark heat of the small room. “I done that,” Captain Agner snapped from where he now stood in the back door, his right hand obscured by the door jamb. This was the man about whom Enoch had warned his wife. Drusilla Wayne, too, knew his rough reputation. Her eyes fixed on him in the darkened doorway. There he stood, lean, pock-faced, dressed in heavy black with his shirt buttoned at the neck, his cavalry-style hat without braid set back on his oily head. His voice cracked like a whip: “I done the bandage. This done the damage,” he announced producing the vile, lifeless body of a diamondback rattler fully five feet in length. The snake with its distinctive pattern over waxen scales was draped by half in Agner’s thick, bare hand. He tossed it then to the yard. In astonishment, Drusilla looked back to Lani who nodded slightly, her eyes dimming, her grasp faint in her friend’s hand. “My horse run off,” Agner said blandly. “Didn’t take time to tie him.” He spoke more comfortably now. Lani’s nod had reassured him that he would not be accused of being untoward. “I ought to go find some milk thistle. That’ll help. She didn’t get bit like she might have. That thistle’ll help purge the liver while it takes on that poison. I brought many of my men through bit worse.” Agner spat. “Course she’s a tiny little thing.”
Drusilla reassured Lani in a hoarse whisper.
“Pray,” Lani managed to shape with her parched lips.
Drusilla looked up to see his face as the young man flushed, his eyes blue with flame. “He may well have saved Lani’s life, Enoch.”
Drusilla prayed. It was an awkward, anxious prayer, but Lani squeezed her friend’s hand in gratitude. By late afternoon, Enoch had returned from the mill. That Hero was tied at his gate and had apparently been there for some time presented a curiosity he brought through the front door. The scent of milkweed boiled down for its extract greeted him first, and then Drusilla’s voice calling to him from the alcove where Lani lay in her perspiration and delirium. “My God, what’s the matter Lani?” Enoch cried out as he all but stumbled toward her. Drusilla, just then wiping Lani’s brow with a wet rag replied, “Enoch, a rattler has struck her. A large one, but it did not manage to hit her squarely. She’ll make it through.” “Lord, Lord,” Enoch gasped from the bedside. “It can’t be!” “Captain Agner is the one that found her,” Drusilla offered carefully.
Later Lani would gain enough strength to tell most of what she remembered. What she did not tell was that she had seen Agner on the hill in the pines, watching as she had been tilting water from her bucket to the tiny okra settings. These had been long dry weeks and each day she’d been working row upon row with her enameled, dented bucket scooping water from the tanninstained trickle in the river bottom. She did as she always did upon spotting Agner up in the pines – she went inside. She did not worry Enoch with this detail, but said that when the snake struck from the briar beside the path, Agner must have been passing. He was there instantly it seemed and had killed the snake in a single shot with a pistol kept in his boot. He used her stockings then to make tourniquets above and below the bite. Inexplicably, only one fang had fully penetrated. Enoch cringed more when Lani told of Agner’s having drawn on the
poisoned bite with his mouth than he did at his wife’s telling of the lightning strike of the diamondback. “Didn’t it rattle at you, Lani? Didn’t you get no warning?” he asked pitifully. “I don’t know,” she said in puzzlement. “I just know I was …was in a hurry, I reckon.” Late on the third day, Drusilla briefly left Lani and later returned with her husband in their Packard. They had brought with them Doctor Osborne from the mill. Royce Wayne offered buoyant encouragement while the old doctor made his owlish examination. When he was finished, the doctor assured Enoch that what could be done had been done. Drinking water now would be important to keep Lani hydrated and flush her system of the snake’s poison. But she would survive. Wayne drove the doctor back to his apartment behind the office and small ward the mill provided. They had not been gone long when the headlights of Wayne’s car lit the Leighton’s gate again. An astonishing discovery had been made. Captain Agner was not more than a hundred yards down the road, dead, his neck broken. The ground about him was churned by the hooves of the frightened horse seen in the dense thicket nearby with its saddle askew. When Dr. Osborne had been told of the sequence of preceding events, he fashioned a theory that made sense according to Royce Wayne. The horse had run off when Agner had gone to retrieve the rattler to rectify any suspicion about his presence in the Leighton house. Osborne himself had once been on
horseback when the mere scent of a rattler startled his mount. So he speculated that when Agner walked down to his horse and set about to mount him, the animal was panicked by the musty, dank scent of the snake still on his hands. It was as good a theory as any. In any case, Captain Agner was dead. On the Monday following, the turpentiners came up the dusty road in the arid dawn. There was not so much as a considerate glance to where Agner had fallen by any one of them. The newly assigned foreman rode before them, a spry little fellow with the hum of an Irish jig under his breath. They passed the Leighton place as usual, though the sand was so dry the wheels of their heavy wagon burrowed as the mules labored ahead. It did not rain that week or the next while Lani lay recovering in the dry, stale heat of her bedroom. Sometimes she would still feel nauseous and a spell of delirium would return with night sweats and a slow, irreconcilable recollection of Agner’s menacing approach. She would hear something like the sound of a winch breaking way with the cable whirling from its spooling before the mallet-like strike against her calf, then the sting of it, the sound of gunfire, the sky suffused with the light of a fiery sunset deep into the well of the serpent’s eye. Then she remembered Agner defending her, tossing the heavy snake aside, its head severed from its body. There had not been a day that Drusilla did not come to care for Lani and help her with her personal needs and bedding, cleaning
and redressing her wound as Dr Osborne had instructed. Enoch was attentive, too, but appreciated the “womanly” assistance. Drusilla read to Lani, and sometimes Enoch would also listen from the cool floor beside his wife’s bed. One day as Drusilla was leaving, Enoch came up from watering the okra plants and said, “I keep thinkin’ about something, Miz Drusilla.” Drusillia waited on the porch for him to form his question. “Captain Agner,” he said finally, “how do you reckon he come to be so close as to kill that rattler, quick as he did? Seems like he had to be right there.” Drusilla smiled thoughtfully. “We don’t know the answer to that, Enoch. We won’t ever know. But Captain Agner, well, there are those like him who are as the poets speak of the sea. The same sea that may rage and thrash the sailor against the rocks is the same that may bring one safely to port.” “I reckon so,” Enoch pondered. “This time we can thank God for the calm he stood.” “Yes,” Drusilla continued, “and now Dr. Osborne tells Royce the weather service is reporting a hurricane out in the Gulf. Perhaps we will only receive a glancing blow with just the rain we need.” “That would sure be welcome,” Enoch said after her at the gate.
On the day after, the first that Lani had been able to sit at their table, Enoch adjusted her chair and fitted a light shawl about her shoulders while an erratic wind tossed in the trees outside. It was then that a sudden drumfire of rain raced over the tin roof. Enoch went immediately to the front porch and looked out over the parched okra patch in the gloaming. There was another rush of rain shower, and then it came in a steady downpour that pocked and then drenched the dry sand of the yard. Where there was a gash-like dent in the roof tin, the rainwater poured as if from a spout. Enoch went to a small shelf by the door and took up a clear bottle used for drinking while working in the field. He held it where the water poured out and filled it until brimming over, silken and cool over his rough hand. When he came back into the house, Lani was smiling tearfully. He put the bottle on the table in the lamp light between them and sat across from her, firmly taking up each of her outstretched hands. “You think that hurricane is gonna get us now?” Lani asked. “Maybe just enough to get this okra in,” Enoch said as bravely as he could. He nodded humbly toward the bottle of rain. “There’s hope right there.” “It don’t matter,” Lani said. “We’ll survive it.” “Yes,” Enoch answered, managing a smile to match his wife’s. “We surely will.”
byâ€™s Florida Sto ri
Illustration by Alexander Key
Published on Dec 30, 2011