Saturday, September 27, 2014

First Shot (57)

The sun was low in the sky when they found the old faded blue Chevy pickup. Frank Rust was first to see the orange flash bouncing back from behind a derelict shanty near the pier. Rust had parked his pickup at the edge of the gravel apron between the pier and the road end, and Blow pulled in behind him. By the time he and Salzwedel had gotten out of Homer's car Rust was already scoping the vicinity.
They heard his gnarled voice coming from behind the lean-to, a neglected arrangement of weather-tortured blackened planks drooping to oblivion in a maw of climbing weeds. “She's here, boys. This here's Cy's truck.”
The truck was hidden in more weeds under the limbs of a nearby live oak. Rust stood back, between the tree and the shed, implying by his caution he was afraid of what might be inside the truck. “She's a good girl.” His voice was low and solemn. “But there's times...she...just goes off and does things.”

Insatiably hungry gulls began appearing out of the gathering dusk into an ad hoc bevy that swooped, squealing and squalling, back and forth overhead. Occasionally one or more of the sleek white scavengers would perch on nearby pilings for a moment and pretend to be staring at anything but the newcomers before launching again into their haphazard searching patterns.
The increasingly aggressive gusts of chilling wind were inadequate to quell the stink of decay that hung along the waterline where the pale fragments of fish and crab corpses floated in with the tides and rotted on the soggy banks among discarded motor oil cans and other scattered trash. Blow and Salzwedel walked gingerly through a stretch of crabgrass and crushed oyster shells toward the tree. They paused within several feet of Frank Rust, instinctively deferring to his seniority as a friend of the family and to his experience in the environs.
Helen Kellam had enlisted Rust, the man Blow saw in the front room when he and Salzwedel entered the house, after Lucas insisted he knew where his sister had gone. Rust was a stocky man with a full-fleshed ruddy face and light-blue eyes under a scalp saved from baldness by a small patch of neatly trimmed snowy hair. Blow had found it hard at first to follow the older man's odd way of speaking—dropped syllables and a sort of Cockney way of relying more on vowels to convey meaning. That's Turtle Island came out “A' Tur'l Oyl'n,” to explain the unique dialect, spoken through a friendly, gap-toothed grin.
It seemed to Blow the dialect became easier to understand the more they conversed. He wondered if this was because his ear was growing more accustomed to it or if maybe Rust was letting up some, using a more public voice. Possibly, too, it was a result of all three men trying to communicate better in light of the crisis they faced.
Rust explained that he was born and raised on the island, which then was inhabited by two extended families. The men worked “on the water”, crabbing and catching fish in the York River and tributaries surrounding the land. Some of the women did seasonal work at a seafood processing plant on the mainland. Turtle Island was about three-square miles of mostly marshland, which flooded frequently in storms. The families lived in a small cluster of houses protected by trees on a rise about three feet above sea level. Small boats provided the only access to and from the mainland, about a mile distant.
I got off the Island when I was about sixteen. I'm not sayin' the Island didn't give me a good life as a youngster. But there weren't no electricity. We had no ice box or television, none o' that. In the winter we had to get up early to go to school. Way before sunup. And take a boat to Monroe's Wharf where the school bus picked us up.
My daddy's cousin Freddie Kingsley, he run a scallop boat outta there. He put me on his crew then, and I lived in his house for a right while after that.”
Rust said he'd gotten to know Cyrus Kellam in high school, and they'd been friends ever since.
Turtle Island's entire population moved to the mainland for good in 1993 after a powerful winter storm flooded the entire land mass, including the knoll. Rust said the waters at high tide rose halfway up the walls on the first floor of “the big house” that his grandfather had built “right after World War I.” He said a private foundation eventually bought the island and deeded it to The Nature Conservancy, after which it became a favorite stop for kayaking tours and naturalists.
Sarah, Dahlin'? You OK, Dahlin?” Rust had leaned forward toward the hidden pickup and made a megaphone with his hands. His voice was surprisingly loud in contrast with his soft-spoken conversational manner. He called several more times.
Sarah? Hello, Dahlin'! It's ol' Frank Rust. Heah to make sure you OK. Mr. Salzwedel's with me, and that young lawyer, Mr. Stone. We want to help you, Dahlin'.”
Rust look back at the others and shook his head. He shrugged, and turned back to face the truck.
You think maybe she brought a gun with her?” Blow said this, almost wishing he hadn't put words to what he knew he and Salzwedel were thinking in the back of their minds. When Rust didn't answer, he added, “I saw a rifle in her closet, a .22. Mrs. Kellam said Sarah and her brother had liked to go hunting with their grandfather.”
Rust turned back and said softly, “Cy always kept a shotgun in the truck. An old Remington pump, in a rack behind him.” He started toward the truck, walking slowly, carefully. Blow and Salzwedel followed. Rust was facing them when they stepped under the canopy of oak limbs.
No' there,” he said, voice weary.
The shotgun?”
A' gon'.”

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