(Author’s note: This whimsical little tale first appeared on the back page of Saltwater Sportsman magazine, and won 1st Place in Outdoor Fiction Writing that year in the TOWA annual Excellence in Craft writing contest)
The stretch of land between the mouth of the “New” Brazos River and the outlet of the San Bernard River below Freeport, Texas can technically be called an island. This is because it has the Gulf of Mexico on the south, and is cut off from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway on its northern boundary. The beach along its roughly two mile length is usually strewn with driftwood that floated down the Brazos, then was carried up the surf by the channel running parallel to shore. This timbered bounty ranges in size from mere twigs to huge tree trunks. In seasons of extreme flood conditions, a dead cow or two may also come to rest in this isolated habitat. A shallow marsh lake joins the Gulf via a lagoon which varies in size and depth from season to season, depending on tidal surges and surf deposited sand. The normal inhabitants – other than mosquitoes and horseflies – are rattlesnakes, coyotes, shorebirds, sand crabs, a few range cows, and the old man.
My regular deckhand, Jack, “Six Pack” Pierce, and I had waited for a calm day to run the boat close to the beach so I could wade ashore and conclude my business while Six Pack circled back out past the breakers and pretended to drift for tarpon. We were trying not to draw the attention of passing boats, and risk giving away the location of the old man’s “sand castle”. Not that anyone could find it if he didn’t want them to. Neither could I, for that matter, even after several visits over the past year. Although I knew full well that the primitive habitation was somewhere in the sand and driftwood tangle close to the juncture of the lagoon and “Lost Lake”, I couldn’t get my eyes to pick it out in the afternoon light. I didn’t see the old man, either, until he spoke to me.
“Are you gonna stay out here in the sun all day, or can we go inside for a drink?”
These sudden appearances can be spooky, but he makes his entrance pretty much the same way each time. Once he led me to the entrance it was much easier to trace the outline of the shelter he’d made from sand piled on top of brush, materials scavenged off the beach, and old plastic tarps I’d provided months ago. It was braced on the inside and disguised without by driftwood timbers bleached nearly white by the harsh coastal sun and frequent saltwater immersions. Inside, the place was fairly spacious, cool from the insulating properties of many feet of sand, and almost dry. The coals from the cook fire (in cold weather it was also his only source of heat, so it was almost never extinguished) smoldered in one corner, with the small amount of smoke produced pulled out by a cross breeze through a pipe embedded in the sand that emerged back in the dunes and down the beach a bit. Furniture was sparse, and either crudely fashioned from cast off materials or driftwood, except for the bedding and some cushions he’d grudgingly allowed me to donate.
If I had to hide out from someone, this would be the place I’d pick,
I passed the bottle, plastic glasses, and the small insulated bag of ice cubes across and waited until my drink was given back to hand over the ritual cigar for inspection and approval. There were more smokes in the knapsack I’d brought, as well as another bottle and some canned goods, matches, antacids, and the latest issue of several magazines. After a sip of the sour mash and a puff on the Cuban seed chairman, he nodded and passed me a folded piece of paper. The old man had been a Gulf shrimper and sometimes commercial fisherman, among other things. In return for the goodies I brought, he dredged up old LORAN numbers of “hangs” and other worthwhile fishing spots from his steel trap of a mind. All I’d tried so far had paid off for me.
“Good stuff, both the sippin’ whiskey and the seegar. Swappin’ material, for sure. That spot I just gave you is a hang we tore up a good net on, barely ten miles off the beach. Always had a few good sow snapper on it. Just don’t you be tryin’ to load the boat for your tourist customers! Always leave a few for brood stock. ‘Course it may not be worth it to you to keep swapping for all my old numbers, with what I read about the crazy snapper laws in these magazines you keep bringin’.”
“Maybe I’ll just give all that up, become an outlaw commercial and sell my catch in beer joint parking lots.”
“Naw. If you wuz gonna be illegal, you ought to go piratin’ with me, like I keep askin’ you to. That ol’ 31 Bertram would make a fine pirate vessel, all black and sleek – and already flyin’ the flag. Just need to prop her right. Gotta find a better crew, though. That big ol’ deckhand of yours is probably sleepin’ off the afternoon beer already!”
“Six Pack can be a man of leisure at times, but you need to get that pirate stuff out of your head.” I knew he had a small boat hidden somewhere on the island, and when we first met he was supplementing his existence with occasional night raids on camps along the San Bernard, maybe the Brazos, too, – just helping himself to a few unguarded beers, maybe some basic fishing tackle – and a little food. In his mind this pilfering put him in a class with Blackbeard.
I had first seen his fire on the beach from the other side of the Brazos, while we were both surf fishing on several long fall nights. Knowing no one could be over there without a boat, I assumed the red glow came from a daytime lunch fire someone forgot to put out that had been fanned to life by the sea breeze. I used to let my imagination tell me that the small blaze was mosquito smoke tended by the ghost of some long departed shark fisherman, watching over my activities – a kindred spirit, pardon the pun. As it worked out, I was almost right, except my ghost wasn’t quite in the afterlife yet. I guess he had been watching back, because he let me approach, first by small boat, then on foot, and soon became another in a long line of offbeat friends it has been my good fortune to get to know in my often misspent lifetime.
Well, what’re you gonna do to make money with the boat, if they keep closin’ fishin’ seasons an’ puttin’ limits on everything so tight that yer charters don’t think it’s worth the price to go out no more?”
“Six Pack’s got some good ideas. Burials at sea, porpoise watching trips. Bird watching. Booze cruises down the ditch and around the harbor. Maybe start a little passenger shuttle between here and somewhere. He’s got a thought about weight-loss and sun-tanning cruises for, shall we say, ‘full-figured women’”.
“THAT, I’d like to see! A bunch of big ol’ gals barfin’ over the side and getting’ sunburnt on their backsides – an’ payin’ you for it, too! That boy may not be as useless as I thought! Ha!”
“Not sure those sort of things would work for me, though. Laughs are fine, but to make an honest living with the boat I’ve got to fish for something. I’m thinking about heading south, trying Mexico or the islands. Somewhere with deep water and big fish close to shore, less regulation – or need for it – and more pretty girls. Speaking of fishing, you really need to go out with us sometime, help me find some of those holes you gave me. I’m not sure the LORAN TD’s calculated correctly into Lat/Long on some of them. If I had your eyes on the bottom machine it would sure help me to pick them out.”
The old man shook his head. “Nope. I caint do it no more. That’s pretty much why I’m shore bound now. If I get out there, I’m just gonna want to go and keep goin’. That’s why my damn kids sold the shrimp boat out from under me years ago, but this time on the beach has made me realize they wuz probably right. A Viking funeral might be what I come to in the end, but I’m not really ready to let loose of life just yet. Even if I caint trust myself to be on the water anymore, I can get by here just bein’ beside it all the time. Never bein’ out of earshot of the sound of the surf, or out of range of the smell of salt keeps me goin’ better than any medicines or machines them damn doctors could hook me up to. Naw, I’ll be alright as long as I can stay by the water, and to do that I got to stay hid out. Those daughters of mine are just like their mother was – if they ever find out where I’m at, and that I’m still alive an’ fishin’, they’ll likely send the National Guard over here to root me out.”
He took a long draw on the cigar, finished his drink, and pushed the cup to me for a refill. “Listen, I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’. If you ever get to where people an’ things is closin’ in on you, like they wuz with me, an’ you think you might end up hurtin’ somebody if you don’t get some relief from the pressure, you’re welcome to come bunk here for awhile. Livin’ on a diet of crabs, rattlesnakes, fish, an’ bird eggs might even do you good, long as you ain’t too picky about how – or if – yer food is cooked. We could have the fat boy come by an’ bring us booze an’ seegars. I could show you some bull red holes down the beach that would make it worth your while, an’ if I had some help, I could take a shot at them big ol’ sharks I keep seein’ cruisin’ the inshore gut on moonlit nights. Even if there are regulations and laws that apply to this here island, they don’t affect me that I can tell! No women or tax collectors, either!”
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn grow old and retire to the beach.
“You never know. I might take you up on that. Got to get back to the boat now, though, before the tide turns and we have to shove her off the second bar getting out. I’ll be back when it seems like you’d be getting anxious for a smoke and a drink.”
The old man walked me back to the beach, shook my hand, and thanked me for the provisions. I was almost to the surf line when I heard him speak again.
“Tell you what, Cap’n. If you ever do decide to head south, I’d think I’d like to crew for you. These little Texas winters are startin’ to get damn uncomfortable for my old bones, down here by the water.”
When I turned around to answer, he was gone. His skin is so weathered and the old khaki shorts so faded that he blends into the driftwood and sand like a human chameleon. I could no longer see the sand castle, either, – just sea oats and blowing sand and whitened sticks and logs. It’s been the same after each visit, a complete and total disappearance. Sometimes I wonder if the old hermit and his crude hut even exist, or if I just dream the whole thing after too much offshore sun and beer, like Six pack thinks.
At other times I wonder if this is just a vision my mind cooked up to hang onto its sanity, or maybe a sign that it is already too late for that. Wading back out to the boat, I decide it doesn’t much matter either way.