The Skipper Fell in Love
Bella thought she had everything but Lake Erie’s weather under control. When the storm was over she learned the truth
FRED K. JASPERSON
WHEN Bella Mooney hired Turk Roarty to skipper the Hubert M, she did so for special reasons. His cocksure blue eyes reminded her of her husband, Hub Mooney, who had drowned fifteen years ago. Bella had thought when she hired Turk that she could vent on him all the orders she had wanted to give to Hub.
But before long she began to realize that Turk wasn’t the prize in the popcorn. The* older men at the dock warned her. “Bella, that Roarty’s goin’ to get you into trouble. You see. Those returned fellahs ’re all the same. They think Lake Erie’s just a duckpond.” Turk had done air rescue in the North Sea.
It couldn’t go on. Either she’d be boss and direct operations or she’d fire Turk and the others.
Perhaps it would be better if she did fire them and close out the fishing business for good. After all, Lucy was twenty now and with a job in Toronto. There was no need for Bella to delay her dream of a ladylike life, to submerge her personality in the fish business any longer.
Looking out, one day in April, from her cottage on the hill above the harbor into a raging sou’-
wester, she saw the Hubert M, a ghostlike shadow driving through a welter of foam, heading for port. Bella snatched Hub’s old blue cap from the wall. She set the bulldog plea tings of her mouth and scorched down to the dock.
Surging in to the quiet water of the harbor, the Hubert M swung in a big arc up to the dock. Before she had made fast, Bella was aboard. “Roarty, this tomfool’ry’s gotta stop.”
“What tomfool’ry, Mrs. Mooney?”
“Takin’ the Hubert M out ’n these gales.”
“You call this a gale? Little breeze of wind like this? Bah! You don’t know what a gale is. If I hadn’t gone out, the shoals would have torn the nets to ribbons.”
“Who put the nets out in the first place?” demanded Bella. “You shouldn’t ’a put ’em out.” “Well, I brought ’em in, didn’t I?”
Already, Bella could feel her argument fading. There was no getting the last word with him, no more than there had been with Hub. She scowled at the boxes of nets. They were all intact. And the trays were full of fish as nice a catch of pickerel as you’d ever see. The price would be good, too, because the Hubert M was the only gill-netter to go out. Her share would be $500 at least and $150 each for Turk and Roddy and Harry. Certainly it was no time to be firing anybody with the pickerel beginning to run like that. Deflated, she stomped back to her cottage.
APRIL passed and May came with popcorn . clouds riding the sky. The dandelions grew thick on the hill, the yellow forsythia vivid against the blue lake. Then, one morning, Lucy arrived home as fresh as the breath of May itself.
“Hi! Mum,” and she flung her hat into a chair.
“What brought you home?” Bella was surprised that Lucy had not told her she was coming.
“Lonesome. Just lonesome to see you. And the city—I’m sick of it.”
Bella wasn’t convinced. “You must ’a got lonesome and sick awful sudden. Why didn’t you write?”
“It was sudden,” answered Lucy. “Yesterday morning when I got up I said, ‘I’m going home to see Mum.’ Mmmmm,” she thrilled, drawing air into her lungs, “it’s good to smell the lake again— that fresh, new smell of May and tar.”
Bella was puzzled and a little disturbed that Lucy found it good to smell the lake again. The one thing she had wanted through all the years of struggle was to make enough money so Lucy could get away from the lake and lead a life free from the smell of fish and tar. Bella felt as if her whole struggle were suddenly threatened.
She searched Lucy’s face. Definitely there was something new in it. Her lips had become redder. The litheness of her body, the black burning eyes slanting up ever so slightly from her high cheekbones were all things no man could escape noticing.
That evening Turk came to the house to tell Bella that one of the Hubert M’s plates had sprung a leak.
“I’m not surprised,” she said tartly.
“Will we get Lawrence to weld her?” asked Turk.
“What you askin’ me that for? Course we’ll get Lawrence to weld her! What else can we do? You don’t gener’lly ask me for orders. And now you’re askin’ me a stupid question.”
“I was considering the expense, Mrs. Mooney,” Turk said. “I thought I should let you know.”
“If it’s expense that’s botherin’ you, you’d better
stand it yourself, then, and your conscience’ll be tricar. It’s all your fault anyways, for rammin’ the Hubert M too hard through the waves. One of these days you’ll be sendin’ her straight to the bottom,” she said.
Turk gave her an ingratiating smile. “My life, Mrs. Mooney, is your guarantee against such a heavy item of expense as that.”
Lucy came in from the parlor. Bella noticed the sudden light in Turk’s face as he stood up.
“I’ll be through in a minute, Lucy,” said Bella sharply. “I’m talkin’ to one of the crew.”
She had hoped Lucy would return to the parlor, but Lucy didn’t go.
“Well! This must be Miss Lucy!” said Turk.
Lucy smiled a very captivating admission that she was.
“I’ve heard a lot about you!”
Somehow, Bella thought their talk was too easy, almost as though they had met betöre. Like all situations beyond her, Bella brought it abruptly to an end.
“Good night, Mr. Roarty, and see you’re no longer than tomorrow with that weldin’ job, either.”
“Good night, Mr. Roarty,” said Lucy.
“Everything don’t meet the eye all at once,” answered Bella brusquely.
When Turk had gone Lucy said, “What a nice young man ! He seems so conscientious.”
IN THE morning, when Bella went down to the harhor to inspect the welding job, she found Lucy already there, chatting with the crew, watching the sparks fly out from the incandescent flame
as it hit the steel plate. Lucy was laughing and so was Turk.
Bella scowled, issued a few sharp orders to Turk and the crew and stomped up the dock to the shanty to see if the nets were being dried properly on the spools. She found that they were. In fact, everything in the shanty was in order - floats, trays, boxes, buoys, oilskins and ropes. There was nothing about which she could complain. She walked back to the Hubert M.
“Come, Lucy, we must be going back.”
All the way up the hill it troubled her to think that Lucy had looked so completely happy, watching the welder at work, chatting with Turk and the crew. A gull careened with a wild cry overhead. Bella looked up and swore at the gull.
“Aren’t they doing the job right?” asked Lucy, a worried frown puckering her brows.
“It’s not that, child,” exploded Bella. “Hobnobbin’ wit h fishermen is not exactly what a young lady should be doin’. They’re rough characters.
Anyways, I thought you came home because you were lonesome to see me.”
But before she had reached the top of the hill, Bella was remorseful. She had put her mood down to age, her long embitterment. Then she felt Lucy’s arm under hers and her heart melted. No, she would not be cranky again.
But when Lucy had gone back to Toronto, Bella’s spleen returned. A remark from Turk gave her an opportunity to vent. it.
“You have a very lovely daughter, Mrs. Mooney. At her age you must have been a great deal like her.”
Bella fastened her sharp old eyes on him. “When I want to be told I have a lovely daughter, Mr. Roarty, I’ll let you know. And in case you got any queer ideas, fishin’ for me doesn’t bring you into t he fam’ly. It don’t include throwin’ a hawser at Lucy.”
Turk laughed. “All I meant was to pay you a
compliment, Mrs. Mooney.”
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“Don’t allays be tollin’ me what you meant,” snapped Bella, “I can get things the first time. I understand English.”
“Okay,” answered Turk with a shrug.
“And don’t be talkin’ intimate ’bout me or my fam’ly, any more.”
“An’ don’t be okayin’ me all the time, either.”
ALL THAT summer she lived in moods that were quite unpredictable, even to herself. And always they broke on Turk. Why she didn’t fire him she didn’t know, unless it was because she had grown too tired to break in a new skipper.
Jn September the fishing turned poor and she tied the Hubert M up for a month, telling the crew to take a holiday. She asked each of them to leave an address so she could call them back sooner if needed.
“Mine is Toronto,” said Turk.
“Now, isn’t that nice and definite,” answered Bella. “Toronto!”
Then, suddenly, suspicion swarmed into her thoughts. But after Turk had explained that he was to be there only a few days with some of his old pals from the Air Force, her suspicion vanished.
With the crew away, Bella began to check up on her assets. Something told her that the day for selling was not too far off. With pad and blunt-nosed pencil, she started on the gear in the shanty—400 pounds of lead sinkers. 2,000 cork floats, one set of scales . . . Three days later when she was counting the squares of nets she found, crumpled in among them, Turk’s old Air Force jacket with a letter in the pocket from Lucy.
Her heart beat wildly as she read the letter.
“Dearest Turk . . .” There was a lot of fancy language about the stars and the lake. If only she could be there with him. But soon she would be looking after dearest Bella’s business with him. How wonderful it had been of Bella to hang onto the business. How beautifully it was all going to work out. Never had she thought when she was writing to him in England that, things would work out so perfectly. “Oh, Turk Roarty, I can hardly wait.”
The firmament above Bella splintered. So they had known each other all along! Probably Lucy had sent him to her for a job. Panic seized her. She must act. She must act at once. But she knew there was no use flying into a rage. This was something that rage couldn’t handle.
The first thing she did was to send telegrams to the crew, saying the fish had begun suddenly to run.
She sent Turk’s in care of Lucy. But when Turk came back, nothing was said.
Bella formed her plan silently. She went to Erieau, some seventy miles down the lake, made a deal, then came back and told Turk she wouldn’t be needing him after December 15. His last job would be to deliver the Hubert M to Erieau on that date.
And that, she figured, would fix him. With the business sold, he’d feel different about Lucy. All that romancing about stars would collapse like ft pticked balloon. But above all, shè must keep them apart until after December 15. Her intention was to write Lucy around the 13th, telling her that she was feeling poorly, would like her to come home. Then, with Turk at Erieau, she'd have it out with Lucy. This w'as the way to handle it.
All through October, Turk tried to
talk to Bella but she always made certain never to be alone with him. Several times he called at the house, but she never answered his knock. Lucy wrote asking Bella to come to Toronto for a visit, but Bella answered that she was too busy to go. Then it seemed that Turk began to grow indifferent; Lucy was no longer concerned about Bella coming to Toronto. Bella thought, “It’s beginning to break up.”
She set out to be bright and agreeable to Turk, meeting the Hubert M solicitously each afternoon whan she docked.
“I don’t know what you’re up to, Mrs. Mooney,” said Turk, “but one thing I do know—you’re too old to be changin’ your spots. And as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter.”
It all confirmed Bella’s belief. The affair was breaking up.
In December a white fringe of ice formed along the shore. Snow flurries came. Thin cakes of ice began to drift in the lake. Other fishermen, recognizing the signs of an early freeze-up, brought in their nets and laid up their boats, but not Bella.
The men at the dock shook their heads. “What’s got into you, Bella? Ain’t you got enough money without tryin’ to get the last fish outta the lake?” They said she’d lose all her gear and maybe the Hubert M as well.
Bella growled at them. “You chicken-hearted lubbers ’a forgot what it is to take chances. The only thing that interests any of you is a sure thing. What’s a little breeze of wind with some snow?”
“That’s Roarty’s talk. It ain’t you talkin’, Bella. Yer just tryin’ to keep up with that loony crew of yours,” they said.
On the afternoon of December 14 the Hubert M, ice-bearded like a viking, made harbor with all her nets and buoys. Ominous slate-colored clouds were banking in the west. Already a cold wind had begun to blow. A few sharp flecks of snow scudded down out of the sky.
Quickly, Turk and the crew lugged the heavy boxes of fish into the shanty and began icing them down into the smaller fifty-pound boxes. Fishermen crowded the doorway, watching with greedy eyes.
The commission agent came up now, and for all to hear offered Bella ninety cents a pound. Mouths gaped open. It was the highest price that had ever been paid for whitefish on the dock.
“Nope,” said Bella. “Ninety-five. It’s the last fish you’ll get this year and you know it. Ninety-five or no sale.”
The mouths gaped wider.
The commission agent protested, but Bella was adamant. She would ice the fish down and keep them before she’d sell for a cent less. Finally, the agent handed her a cheque for $2,500 and the boxes were loaded on the waiting truck.
One by one the watching fishermen dispersed in silence.
Bella stayed on in the shanty with Turk, Roddy, Harry and Frankie. Outside, the wind was blowing harder. The board walls weaved and creaked. For a while no one spoke, each one of the crew busily putting gear away. Then Bella broke the silence.
“What time you aimin’ to leave in the morning? The wind’s gettin’ up,” she asked.” ! -
“You needn’t worry,” answered Turk. “I’ll get her there. I’ll get her there if I gotta go down through China to do it. I got special reasons for getting her there.”
Bella noticed Harry and Roddy and Frankie grin, as if Turk’s statement held hidden significance.
Silence fell again in the room. She watched them work. The excitement of the day was still driving them but under it she could see their great weariness.
“You’d better call it,” she said, “and go home for some rest.”
“When things are straightened round we will,” answered Turk. “It’s not my habit to leave things in a mess. When I finish a job I leave everything on its hook.”
“Maybe you do,” replied Bella, “but this is all work somebody else can do. I order every one of you to go home and get some rest. The trip tomorrow is goin’ to be tough.”
• Turk looked at her. Something in his eyes disturbed her. It was like the look Hub used to give her when calling her bluff. Turk answered. “Very well, Mrs. Mooney,” then to the crew, “come on, gang, let’s go.”
They picked up their jackets and dinner pails and started out of the shanty. Bella’s heart twisted as she saw them go. They’d been a good crew. They’d been faithful to her. And she hadn’t even thanked them. She sat on alone, listening to the wind. Tomorrow, the Hubert M would be gone. Her life as a fisherman would be over. The future stretched out before her now as lonely and desolate as the wind.
Later, climbing the hill, the sentimental thought came to her that on her last trip she should be with the Hubert M. It seemed disrespectful to the memory of Hub to turn the boat which bore his name over to a stranger to deliver. Her thanks to the crew, also, needed tidying up. True, Lucy was coming in the morning, but she could leave a note telling where she had gone . . . By the time she had reached the cottage, her decision was made. She would go.
SHE wrote the note to Lucy, pinning it to the cloth on the dining room table, and dug up her old oilskin pants, coat and sou’wester before getting ready for bed. In the éxcitement of preparation, everything in the world seemed suddenly right again; her problem with Lucy and Turk no problem at all. With her cracked old voice she began to hum and she winked at Hub on the wall.
At nine she put on her flannel, pinkflowered nightgown and tried to sleep but her sleep was fitful. At threethirty she could sleep no longer and got up and dressed. She fried herself bacon and eggs, then started down to the dock. Her plan was to be there before the crew, to have the stove stoked up and blazing, the ship warm before they came.
Walking down the hill, she sniffed the wind. Somewhere there was a blizzard. Naked light bulbs above the shanties shone down on the lonesome, deserted dock. All the ghosts of the lake seemed to be perched, huddled in every shadowed cranny. Out on the pier the green guide light flashed on and off. Waves crashed against the dock, spray leaping wildly and thudding heavily across it, freezing into a crackle as it hit. Above the howl of the wind she could hear the boats of the fleet creaking dockside as they rose and fell.
She plunged in under the tarpaulin of the Hubert M. turned on the lights, went aft and began splitting wood for the stove. Soon she had it blazing, sending up sparks and flame through the stack and before long the cabin was snug and warm, the Diesel engine warming up leisurely.
Outside, now, she heard excited
voices, the canvas tarpaulin scuff open.
In the half shadow she saw Turk, then
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Roddy, Harry and Frankie, each
carrying a suitcase. Turk stood staring
Bella spoke. “Just thought I’d get here early and warm things up for you.”
Turk continued to stare. “You aimin’ to come with us?” His voice was deliberate, measured.
“Why not? I ain’t deliverin’ the Hubert M without gettin’ the cash for her, right in my own mitt.”
“You’re cornin’ for more than that.”
“What if I am? Is it any of your business? I guess I don’t have to ask if I can ride on my own boat.”
Roddy, Harry and Frankie shifted uneasily. Angry lights flickered in Turk’s eyes.
“I can’t keep you off the boat, but be clear about this, Mrs. Mooney, no petticoat’s tellin’ me what to do today. I’m still the skipper. If that’s not understood I’m not movin’ a hawser.”
“Stuff an’ nonsense,” snorted Bella. “As if I’d interfere. Moreover, I ain’t got no petticoat on. I got pants on.”
“Very well,” answered Turk. “But if 1 had a nose as long as yours I’d do something about it.”
Her temper flared but she checked it. She wanted the Hubert M to leave the dock. She went to the wheelhouse, sat down on a stool and folded her arms. A gust of wind lunged hard and drove the Hubert M scraping and squeaking against the dock.
They cast off and nosed their way through the soggy floe ice. Then, suddenly, clear of the harbor mouth, they crashed into the mountainous waves.
The course was south, south by east, to clear the lee side of the Pelee Passage Light.
Spray soon froze on the windows making them opaque. Turk propped one of them open and a bitter wind swirled in. Hunched forward hugely, her arms still folded, Bella peered into the raging dark.
The Diesel thrummed steadily. Its power and vibration were good to hear and feel. But by the end of the first hour it was clear that the Hubert M was icing up. Her rise and fall had grown loggy, her roll lazy.
Bella began to shiver. Her teeth chattered, but she knew it was from more than the cold. Through the open window, as Turk flashed on his torch, she saw the thick coating of ice. Why didn’t they rig up the hose line and try to thaw it off? She was about to say it but clamped her jaws shut.
Finally, unable to sit longer in silence, she went aft, joining Roddy and Frankie and Harry. Holding her hands out to the warm belly of the stove, she glanced at each in turn. Their faces were glum, apprehensive. Waves lunged and crashed at the covered doorways. Water trickled in | through the hawsepipes, freezing as it j ran.
“Any tea in that pot?” asked Bella.
Reaching up to the cupboard on the engine-room wall, she brought down a mug, poured it full of the dark-brown liquid and buried her nose in the steam.
At that moment the Hubert M lifted, tilting up at a breath-taking angle, then lunged down, tumbling \ teapot to the deck, sending fish boxes crashing into the cabin.
Bella waited for the bow to come back but it didn’t come.
“She’s under a wave!”
Water gushed in through the forward door battens. Roddy and Harry and Frankie stood tense, waiting, waiting for the lift. Slowly, ever so slowly.
the bow began to lift. Quickly, Bella placed her mug in the rack and groped back to the wheelhouse.
“Gimme that wheel!” she shouted. “I know this old crate better’n you.” Turk didn’t answer.
“GIMME THAT WHEEL!” Bella grabbed the spokes. “We’re turnin’ back. If we gotta go under, I’d rather be close to home.”
Suddenly, Turk let go the spokes and Bella stepped in.
A COMBER caught them broadside.
The boat lurched sickeningly. Another wave like that and they’d be over. Frantically, Bella spun the wheel hard right. The Hubert M responded and came up snout on to the next wave.
Bella realized now it was folly to have turned. Wind and snow swirled into the wheelhouse. The window had to be closed to keep the water from pouring in. If the snow didn’t stop they’d never be able to see the range lights at the harbor. That is if they got that far. Sweat broke out on her forehead. Fear clamped tighter around her throat. She glanced back at Turk. He seemed amused.
Bucking head on into the seas the spray was greater. The Hubert M grew noticeably heavier. Bella cut the throttle lower and lower until they were scarcely making any headway at all. In fact, they had begun to drift back.
Suddenly, she was frozen to the wheel. They had drifted crosswise to a wave and were buried again. In a flash Turk was at the wheel, his hard body jolting her against the door. Panting, fear-stricken, her sou’wester askew, Bella watched. With a roar of power from the engine they swung.
The next minute they were running downwind again.
“I’ve another jolt for you, too,” shouted Turk. “And I might as well give it to you now. You’ve had your own way for the last time. I’m marrying Lucy—today.”
Bella’s mouth dropped open but she had no voice. She felt suddenly dizzy. She clung to the door stanchion for support. Then her brain cleared and she was able to speak.
“No, it can’t be. Lucy’s coming home today.”
“She was,” answered Turk, “but not now. I’m marrying her in Erieau, today. I’ve got the license right here in my pocket.”
Bella’s eyes narrowed to hard, flaming points. “You skunk—you schemin’, double-dealin’ skunk.”
His face aflame, Turk turned. “Go aft, Mrs. Mooney— or I’ll order the crew to put you aft. You’ve interfered here long enough.”
In a momentary quiet, Bella drew fresh breath. “Don’t you realize I’m sellin’ the business? That there’ll be nothin’ if you marry Lucy?”
“What’s that got to do with it? I’m marrying Lucy, not the business.”
She had failed. She had misjudged him. She had misjudged him completely. Her anger mounted higher. “Are you goin’ aft?” roared Turk.
It was clear he meant to put her aft, by force, if necessary. Limp, she stepped down to the gangway.
Spreading her arms for support she weaved aft and sat down heavily on a fish box, moaning. With each lurch of the boat her stomach rose higher. There was no doubt now; the ignominy of seasickness was on her.
Overcome with weakness, she dropped back on a coil of rope and
closed her eyes. The whole world had turned against her. Deception, treachery, ungratefulness had finally tracked her down . . . She felt someone place a pillow under her head.
THE Hubert M struggled on. From time to time, as Bella opened her eyes, she could tell from the grim faces of Roddy and Frankie and Harry, from the sharp commands of Turk, that the struggle might still end against them.
They had reached the shoal water off the Pelee Passage Light now and there could be no changing course because of the rocks. Huge whitemaned waves drove at them broadside. The Hubert M creaked and groaned and banged and trembled, staggering under the thundering tons. Only a masterful handling would get them through the raging cauldron. And yet, Bella felt that Turk would do it. After all, he was fighting the storm for Lucy. Each time it seemed they had rolled over to stay, that the storm had won, Turk managed by an instant timing of power from the engine, to swing back and out of the smothering welter.
Then suddenly the crisis was over. They were clear of the shoal.
Changing course, they ran in behind the lee of Point Pelee. Daylight had begun to break. The snow had stopped. Bella heard Turk order Roddy and Frankie forward with the steam line to clear the ice, Harry to take the wheel. The next minute, Turk was standing over her.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
Bella turned a baleful eye up to him. “Everything’s okay now, Mrs. Mooney. The storm’s blowin’ itself out. The rest of the trip will be a cruise. Now we can fix you up.”
He poured hot tea into a mug which he handed to her, “Drink it down— fast.”
She looked into Turk’s face, at his freckles and red hair, his strong jaw and eyes. Somehow she didn’t mind having him give her orders. It was the kind of face that ordered, that stood staunchly against odds and won. “Better?” he asked.
Bella grimaced and nodded. Definitely, she was feeling better. She sat up propping herself against the rope. Turk sat down on a fish box beside her.
“I came back, Mrs. Mooney, because I don’t want things to end with that row in the wheelhouse. After all, you’ve been mighty good to Lucy. We would have talked to you before, but you seemed so dead against us. But believe me, I love Lucy more’n any guy ever loved a girl.”
It was as if Hub were telling the story of long ago, of how it had all happened between herself and him. She knew now it was Lucy who had sent Turk to her for a job. But that was in the past. Bella’s thoughts went racing on. A modern fish business could be built, with refrigerating plant to beat the commission agents, a new office . . . and there’d be Turk and Lucy and their children. And she, Bella, would still be close to all this. She didn’t hear everything that Turk said because her own thoughts had gone leaping far ahead of him. But, when he finished, there was a queer tight feeling in her throat.
Suddenly, she placed her hand over her gaping mouth. “But I’ve sold the business! Perhaps I can get it back. Maybe, if I give the old coot a thousand he’ll call it off.”
“It won’t be necessary, Mrs. Mooney,” grinned Turk, “because I’m the one who has really bought it.” “Well, now— can you beat that?” And Bella began to laugh. ★