Blow knew immediately the clap wasn't right. It didn't follow any lightning, at least none he saw, and all of the thunder he'd heard up to then had been the low rumbling kind. This was the sharp, bone-jarring crack that comes almost simultaneously with a strike so near it scares you out of your wits. Its distance precluded such a visceral effect, but made it the more unsettling.
“Shit,” muttered Rust, “shotgun.” He was staring inland where nothing could be seen beyond various intensities of black. Soon the howling started. It sounded at first like the baying of a wolf followed by a coyote's yips. The second time, as the wind paused for a gasp, the howl rose in volume and pitch until it had become a shriek, sustained maddeningly until the next wailing surge of wind shattered it into fragments. The men looked at each other.
“Tha' were a man,” said Rust, his eyes bulging white under the yellow hood of his oilskin coat.
The three had gotten Rust's boat uprighted and tied it to a stump on shore. It had been easier than Blow imagined. His first concern was for Salzwedel, who soon made his presence known by pounding on the deck after the boat flipped on top of him.
“I never let go, and I nearly sliced my hands off,” he told them. Rust had gone under when they heard the pounding, and pulled the teacher out. Blow had sliced his hands too. Rust tore strips from a rag he found in the boat. He helped his two passengers bind their hands to stop the bleeding.
“We ain't far from shore,” he said then. He led the way, sloshing through the shallow water, pulling the tow line while Blow and Salzwedel pushed. “Better this way, boys. Mighta hit tha' pier if we come in at it.” They weren't far from the crude, stubby pier, Blow saw in another lightning flash. He also saw two boats tied there. Rust noticed it, as well.
“That's ol' Pete Brown's skiff, but he ain't here. Ol' Pete's laid up wit' a broke leg.” Rust said this as he wound the rope around the stump. They were silent then. Rust climbed back into his boat. He pulled an old concrete-filled gallon can from under the rear seat. A chain brown with rust trailed from the can, evidently secured to the deck. The chain rattled against the aluminum gunwale as he fed it out until the can rested on the sandbar. Then he clipped the remaining chain to something on the deck and moved back toward the bow. “Keep her from swingin' 'round. This storm she ain't up full yet.” He was climbing out to join the others on shore when they heard what Rust identified as a gunshot.
They were headed inland now. Their progress seemed even more arduous than it had been offshore. The wind had gotten stronger and the rain it carried lashed their exposed skin like a million tiny cats-o'-nine-tails. And while the water reached ankle high instead of to their waists their footing was less sure than it had been on the sandbar—mud deep and dense enough to confiscate their boots interspersed with stone-hard knots of marsh grass roots that seemed determined to trip and topple them at every other step.
With Rust in the lead Blow found he could avoid vertigo by keeping his eyes on the older man's yellow slicker. Even that was barely visible more than half a dozen steps away. More than a second or two without that yellow patch in sight left Blow at the indifferent mercy of the blackness surrounding him, perverting his spatial senses to a fear they'd guide him face down into the sucking muck out of range of any caring eyes or ears.
After a couple of dozen steps inland Rust pulled a small plastic-encased LED lantern out of the satchel he'd taken from the boat. He turned it on just long enough to see that Blow and Salzwedel were still with him. He turned it off when he saw it was useless for navigation, as the driving rain dispersed and reflected its beam to a silvery sheet.
“Stay nearby to me now. We doh wanna be here when the tide comes in, oh boy. There's a little road off to the left. My grampaw put it in. A'rster shells. We get on that we be OK. Lead us right to the big house. Where I lived as a boy. Grampaw's daddy built it. Where that shot come from.”
The howl, now more of a wail, reached them again as if cued by Rust's comment. Before they continued slogging through the treacherous marsh toward higher ground, Rust turned his head toward the cry of distress. He patted the satchel. “I got sump'm here he'p us when we get there.”