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I was up on the cabin roof. Trull was in the cabin, had been fiddling with the Loran again, then the radar, which didn’t bother me until I saw that boat and knew what he’d been plotting against me. He came up top with me. “Listen,” he said, “I want you to know that Mai has not gotten me into this. She has tried to get me out of it. She’s happy living on my disability. It’s a huge improvement on her old life. You can’t imagine what her old life was like. But I can’t stand it; can’t stand the limits of it; can’t live the rest of my life on the Navy’s pittance; they owe me ... you know what they owe me. She has no idea what I’m dealing with here.”
“Neither do I,” I told him. The boat, a trawler the same size as the one on which I used to work, three times the length of the Widowmaker, steel-hulled and untouched by paint in what looked like years, was idling, edging up to us. It was only a couple of hundred yards away when Trullinger finished explaining life to me.
“You’re okay,” he told me. “Just do what I tell you. All we want you to do is lead us into the river.” Several boats had disappeared at sea, gone entirely missing, in those times. Some said insurance; those were difficult days to make a living fishing. Some said drug deals gone bad. Nobody ever heard from survivors, so nobody knew any answers. I didn’t trust Trullinger when he said I was all right.
I considered gunning right out of there. I’d been under fire before. It would be easy to outrun the lumbering old trawler, and unlikely it had guns accurate enough to stop me. But Trullinger read the thought and revealed a pistol in a shoulder holster. I didn’t deem it smart to fight him, one-armed as he was, with that boat now so near. If nothing else, while we fought for his pistol the trawler would be able to get us under whatever guns it had.
We lay together all that night, about 100 yards apart, not a word, either shouted or by radio, ever exchanged between boats. The plan, whatever it was, had obviously already been made. Whenever the trawler lifted on a swell, I could see two men on deck and outlined against the little light in the sky behind them, not necessarily armed, but always watching us.
We ran toward the river all the next day, keeping our speed down so the trawler could stay within what seemed to be its prescribed worry distance, like a wild animal. If we got more than 200 yards ahead, we were arm-waved back by the two men now watching us from the bow. I always obeyed, idling back until they loomed almost over us, then throttling up again.
We held up 20 miles off the river mouth, waited for dark. When it became clear that Trullinger planned to have me lead them over the bar and into the river early in the night, I told him we’d be crossing the bar on the ebb tide.
“That’s their problem,” he said, as if we wouldn’t be crossing it in front of them in a much smaller boat. I knew we’d be fine; that dory design would bob and dance, but it would not go over or under. I didn’t know about the other boat, which was big enough to have no trouble if its skipper knew what he was doing. I appreciated Trullinger’s dilemma: he needed enough night left, after we got over the bar and into the river, to get that boat upriver to wherever he was going to take it before daylight, so he had to cross early, during the ebb. I still had no idea what his plans might predict for my own future.
When it became dark enough to make our run, Trullinger rigged a variant on the trick that lost him an arm in Viet Nam: he put a flashlight in a bucket, set the bucket on its side on top of the engine box so the flashlight would shine over the stern rail, and held it so the light was visible only over the stern, where his friends, if they were that, would be able to see it, follow it in, but it would show from no other direction. It was so black on the bar that I knew all I’d need to do was toss the bucket and its light overboard, run out of there, leave those guys to founder on the bar. But Trullinger wasn’t likely to give up whatever he expected to get, this close to his expectation of getting it, without using his pistol.
We got bounced around fiercely, but that trawler bulled its way through it, and we both emerged on the river side of the bar without overtaxing the bilge pumps. Then we idled in the calmness of the river. Though there were no other boats, only buoys, showing on the radar screen, I kept thinking about those two guys who’d questioned me at the dock, and I felt somehow surrounded.
The other boat pulled in tight against us, and the two outlines on its deck turned into personalities, looked like thugs, which is clearly what they were. They threw lines over and I put out bumpers, tied us off alongside. I knew this was the moment of most danger, but they didn’t come aboard as I expected. Trullinger stood awkwardly on our rail, climbed and was lifted up into the bigger boat. There was a quick conference, then he came back to the rail.
“These guys aren’t into planning like you are,” he told me. “We need that gas over here,” and I understood by the “we” that he had abruptly became them.
Mai kept to the cabin. I unbolted the barrel of gas, used its tie-down straps to form a cradle on the deck, tipped the barrel over into it, and they dropped the hook of their trawl gear to lift it off my boat and onto theirs. I kneeled to make the hookup, and while down there got out my Leatherman tool, flicked open its handy pliers, took a quick twist at the barrel plug, unscrewed it just enough of a turn that I could smell fumes leaking. I hooked the cables up and they hoisted the barrel away.
The two thugs got busy tying the barrel to the deck. Trull went into the cabin of the trawler. I went into action. I threw the lines off, ran into the cabin, and gunned the Widowmaker back toward the violence of the bar. I threw Mai to the floor and told her to stay there, hunched over the wheel and waited for fire, was surprised, shocked, relieved, drained as distance grew and we weren’t shot at. They knew that muzzle flashes on the river would be certain to draw scrutiny if they were seen. And they, like me, might have felt watched.
I got onto the tossed bar, and felt safer on it than I had since I’d first seen that other boat edging up to us out on the tuna grounds. Mai got up, stood next to me, had to hold on to the cabin dash with both hands to keep her feet. I let the waves throw us around for half an hour, until I knew I could creep off the bar far enough away to not be seen. When we came back onto the river, I flicked on the radar, saw the same few buoys and the blip of a single departing boat. Trull and his now partners were well into the broad river, heading toward Astoria, with plenty of time to get well upstream of it before day dawned. I assumed that he’d already explored up there, plotted out where he wanted to take his cargo ashore.
I had no idea what else to do, so edged off into some shallows and dropped the hook to wait for morning and inspiration, whichever might come first. Mai came out of the cabin and we leaned against the rail, not even near each other, not knowing how to talk about what had happened, me wondering what part of what had happened had been hers. It occurred to me that we’d never talked. She’d just been abandoned, it seemed, by her husband, if that’s what he was, and if they had plans to get back together I had no way to know it. Trullinger hadn’t said a word to her before driving off. So I just stood silent at the rail and watched up the river toward where that old beaten boat had gone, wondering what might happen.
A terrific fireball rose high into the night sky, backlit the bridge that crosses the Columbia right in front of Astoria. What seemed a long time later a detonation reached across the river to us. That was all there was to it. The fire died almost instantly. Whatever plans or futures there might have been between Trull and Mai obviously died down with that fire.
In the morning Mai and I brought up the anchor, motored up the river, tied the Widowmaker up at her slip, waited for doom to arrive.
Nobody ever came.
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