I was on my way out of the Food Star shopping center, groceries in hand, when I noticed the boat, a wide-bottom aluminum boat, painted white, and maybe twenty feet long. It had an outboard motor hung on its stern, a trolling motor on a long handle lying along the port gunwale, a steering console, and a kingly chair amidships. And it had a name—“Uncle Willie”—painted near the bow. I had once been a devoted fisherman, living, as I did, near a lake in the north of Bright County. But I had given up much of that to teach history at Brightown High School and coach its baseball team.
Of course, the boat wasn’t sitting on the asphalt. It was mounted on a trailer attached to a silver Dodge Ram—a full-size pickup truck. I thought the man sitting in the right-front seat was the owner. He had neatly trimmed gray hair and a matching mustache and wore a white hat with a nautical symbol—a rope and anchor—just above the bill. Anyway, I stopped and spoke to him.
“How’s the bass fishing this time of year,” I asked, the year being still in its winter phase.
He gazed at me wide-eyed for a moment and then got out of the truck. “Don’t do much fishing here—mostly farther south.”
That was an odd reply. Why would he be hauling a boat in this part of the country if he didn’t fish here? I didn’t mention the inconsistency, but I did ask about the outboard motor.
“Ninety horsepower?” I said, pointing to the motor.
“Oh, yeah,” he replied.
Actually, the motor was a fifty-horsepower Mercury Outboard. We exchanged a few more words on fishing, and I walked on toward home. I was halfway there, when the truck, trailer and boat rolled past me. A man I hadn’t seen before was driving. His baseball cap was dark, and so was the scowl on his face. The truck and it burdens climbed the next rise and sank down the reverse slope.
And I thought that was that. But I hadn’t figured on fate, or whatever it is that guides trouble to the doors of the blissfully uninvolved. I had got home to my little house, a rectangular bungalow at the top of the very rise where I last saw the boat, and had just put my groceries away, when I heard that knock on the door. And when I answered, I found a most interesting sight—an attractive woman with long, dark hair streaked with gray. She was animated and breathing deeply, but smiled as she spoke.
“Sir—did you see a boat come by here?”
“Yes, I did—about half-an-hour ago.”
“Were you talking to the driver of that truck—down yonder?” She pointed toward the Food Star market. “Folks told me you were Mr. Hanson.”
“Yes, I’m David Hanson—people know me. I teach school. I didn’t speak to the driver, just someone with him.”
“There were two of them?”
“Yes—why do you ask?”
“They stole my boat”
“Really?—how did they do that?”
“They just hooked up the trailer and drove away.”
“Professional thieves, I’m sure. How did you know they came this way?”
“I followed their tracks a ways—asked some folks along the road.”
“I hope you alerted the police—the sheriff.”
“Of course—but they ain’t found the boat.”
“Well—good luck in your search, ma’am.” I said, finally, wanting her to leave. Her good looks were making me uncomfortable. I was still getting over my divorce from a transcendent bitch, who ran around and still took a pile of my assets.
“Thank you—good-bye,” she said, looking disappointed.
Well, anyway, I was happy to get rid of the distraction. But the following spring, as I was coaching third base at one of our baseball games, I saw two familiar faces among the crowd of spectators. We had bused fifty miles south for the game—to a spot near the Pee Dee River. I wore a team uniform and didn’t think they recognized me—but I recognized them. They were the two men hauling that stolen boat.
The game ended, and we did win, but it was a close thing, a two-run victory made possible by a long double by our clean-up hitter. After the game we stopped at a shop in Wadesboro for celebratory ice-cream creations and then bused back to Brightown. And yet, I wondered about those faces in the crowd. They had taken that boat from that pretty lady. Were they near the Pee Dee River to steal another boat?—or did they live there?
Anyway, life went on, the high-school baseball season ended, and summer vacation began. It had been another frustrating school year, what with suspensions, accusations of racism by the school board—but with the satisfaction of having taught the students willing to learn. Coaching the baseball team was the one activity that gave me consistent sense of accomplishment. The team won many more games than it lost, and the young athletes cooperated in the quest for victories.
But school ended in May, and the same week, I went to North Lake in upper Bright County to hike the trails and enjoy the fresh green of the surrounding countryside. I had bought a modest recreation vehicle and was having a good time of it. One day, a black bear greeted me as I peered out the side door. And that same day, where the trail came close to the lakeshore, I saw a familiar face and figure. It was that pretty lady who lost her boat to those thieves.
She was meant to wear shorts—long in the leg and sound of body. She waved to me from the narrow beach, and of course, I was happy to stop and talk.
“Do you come here often,” she asked.
“During the summer months—I usually need a peaceful interlude after the school year.”
“I’m Laura Middleton—and you’re David?”
“I never did find my boat.”
“Well—I can tell you something about that.”
“I spotted the two thieves. They were watching a baseball game in Anson County—near the Pee Dee River.”
“Yeah—there’s a big lake down there. How well do you know that area?”
“I’ve been through there twice.”
“Maybe you can ride down there with me.”
Ride down there with her? The thought overwhelmed me. But I tried not to be impressed. “That would take me out of my way. Maybe you should alert the county sheriff.”
“No—I’ll talk to the law, when I know what I’m talking about. You can identify those two thieves.”
A forceful woman—the kind that could wear a man out. And I was already pretty well worn out. But she did have charm—and looks. Of course, she was aware of this—I never met an attractive woman who didn’t know she was attractive.
“You know where I live,” I said, and waved good-bye.
“Good-bye,” she mumbled, again looking disappointed.
When I got back to my bungalow in Brightown, I proceeded as though Laura Middleton would be stopping by—I parked my nifty little RV in the driveway and covered it with a huge tarpaulin, got my clothes in order for fast packing, and asked my neighbors, whose kids I taught in school, to keep an eye on my house and the RV. And just as I figured, after I had waited a few days at home, a blue pick-up truck arrived, driven by the aforementioned Laura.
“Are you ready to roll?” she said, when I opened the door.
“So—you’re determined to go chasing after your boat.”
“That’s right—let’s go.”
“O.K.—I’m pretty well ready.”
Right or wrong, I packed the essentials, put my cell phone in my pocket, and she and I took off in her pickup truck. Whatever lay ahead, I was free for the summer and traveling with an attractive woman.
“Well, here we go,” she said, when we were already a mile away, and I had begun to wonder what I was doing there.
“We should be in Anson County in a couple of hours. We need to check the lake east of Wadesboro—and ask around town and along the river.”
“Uh-huh—I’ll know the boat when I see it.”
“Well—they may have painted over the name and number.”
“There are a few little things I know about—things they might have missed. How come you ain’t married?”
“What was that?”
“You ain’t married. I was just wondering why.”
“I was once—that was enough.”
“You must not like women.”
“I like them, but I just find it hard to trust them.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“Maybe you just like being with a pretty girl.”
“Yes—I guess I do at that.
She laughed and then remained quiet as she steered us along the two-lane highway toward Sanford and points south. When we reached the Pee Dee and the Blewett dam, I began searching either side of the road, looking for boats or maybe a silver Dodge Ram. We rode along the river and the lake, passing among the longleaf pine, reaching Wadesboro in time for dinner at a small motel and restaurant. Some good-old boys sat at the counter, talking back and forth.
“What’s this county like?—anything interesting?” Laura asked one of the more talkative men.
“It’s a swamp,” he replied with a laugh.
“There must be lots of boats around here.”
“Lots of chicken farms. Some boats over yonder.”
I said little, but marveled at the friendly ways of these good people. After dinner, I left Laura of the Long Legs to her conversations and got myself a room. I stayed up to read Tolstoy and, later, a Henry Adams book of American history. I had brought the books with me, intending to persist in my daily reading. But I was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was, of course, Laura, whose figure was now hidden under a quilted robe.
“How are you doing?” she asked. “Are you sorry you came?”
“Not really—let’s start our search in Ansonville. It was near there that I spotted those two gentlemen.”
“Fine with me—let’s go there in the morning.”
“Say—you are a nice-looking man.”
“Yes, I know—it runs in the family.”
She left without another word, for which I was grateful. I needed another woman in my life like I needed bursitis. I had sworn off—no more, damn it. But then again, what was I doing here? Maybe I simply liked a good mystery and wanted to see those two clowns—the boat thieves—get what they deserved. Who knows?
Anyway, I was up at five the next morning. I showered and shaved and headed out the door in search of breakfast. The motel’s diner was open, and just as I came round the corner, two men with familiar faces left the place. I ducked back behind the building and watched as they drove away in their silver Dodge Ram. When I called Laura at her room and told her about the two thieves, she wanted to chase after them. But I really didn’t know where they were going. She arrived at the diner as I was about to eat a breakfast feast—scrambled eggs, country ham, grits, gravy, and biscuits and honey. We asked for Styrofoam trays and shared the feast as we drove northward. We arrived at the small town of Ansonville, stopped for gas, and asked the station owner if he had seen any white aluminum boats. He said he hadn’t recently, and as we rode around the town, I was beginning to think I had underestimated the task of finding the boat. Were we looking for a needle in a haystack?
We proceeded to the smaller town of Cedar Hill, where the Rocky River Meets the Pee Dee. We searched the quiet streets and eventually came upon a wooden bungalow painted light blue, standing in a grassy yard among a scattering of small trees. And in the driveway was a white metal boat on the trailer made for it, now reattached to the silver Dodge Ram. Laura pulled over quickly, and we hurried up the driveway. The first thing I noticed was the rectangular blob of white paint that covered what could have been “Uncle Willie.”
“What about the registration number?”
“Mine was NC-1338-RS. Lookee here—this one’s NC-1883-RS.
“An easy number to alter—both here and on the registration certificate.”
Laura got very close to the boat, searching for those telltale dents and marks that only she could know about and explain. She was looking over the white hull, when she stopped abruptly on the port side.
“Hah—there’s that dent. We hit a pine stump, just brushed it going full tilt.”
She touched the dent tenderly and continued her inspection, pausing this time at the starboard bow. “And lookee here—these dents and scratches. Little Johnny was at the tiller and he ran the boat aground without hardly slowing down.”
“What about the trailer?” I asked.
“It looks like mine. Wait—let me look under here.” She looked under one of the frames. “Here it is—“Uncle Willie”—right where little Johnny wrote it.”
“Well, yes,” I said, bending to look.
I was about to call the law, having brought my cell phone. But just then, the side door of the house swung open, and out stepped the man in the dark hat—the driver of that silver truck. He had a hard face, the skin pulled tight over strong bones, and the meanest stare I had ever seen.
“Can I help y’all?” he said, in a low buzz of a voice.
“We’re just looking at the boat,” I said.
“No harm in looking, I reckon—I just sold it.
“Can we make an offer?” Laura asked.
“It’s already been sold,” he said with greater emphasis.
Under the circumstances, his tone was especially annoying. Should I accuse him of larceny? I detested real-life drama. I liked being calm and happy, able to keep a level head, as I taught and coached and lived my life. But this was more than I could bear without anger.
“I was just wondering, sir—how did you come by this boat?”
“That ain’t none of your business.”
“Is it possible you stole it?”
“Like from me, maybe?” Laura added, looking ready to fight.
“Now y’all lookee here—that kind of talk could get you into trouble. I think y’all best leave right now.”
I thought that over—after all, it was his front yard. I took her by the arm. “Let’s go, Laura. We’d better leave—for now.”
“All right—but I ain’t through with him yet.”
Once inside her blue pickup, I keyed emergency and got the Anson County Sheriff’s dispatcher. But while I was trying to explain the situation, I heard the Dodge Ram start and saw it pull out of the driveway, still hauling the boat. It stopped beside our pickup, and the man in the black hat climbed out. He approached us, carrying a substantial handgun.
“Now, I want two things from you,” he hissed. “The key to this truck and that cell phone.”
“You’re interfering with an emergency call,” I said.
“You’re damn right I am. Now, do I get the key and the phone? Or do I haul you both off and shoot you?”
My guess was that the threat was real. I looked at Laura, and she took the single key from the ignition and handed it through the open window. I did the same with my cell phone. He took the items and gave us a menacing look. Then he got into that silver beast of a truck, and trundled away with the white boat in tow. We watched as the boat disappeared around the next bend.
“I’ve got a spare key around my neck,” Laura said. “Do we follow that guy?”
“Not unarmed—I don’t think that gun was just a prop. Let’s go to the county courthouse. I want to talk to the sheriff.”
“We may miss that cell phone.”
“I can buy one at any convenience store.”
We reached the county courthouse in less than an hour. It was a compact brick building, and the sheriff’s office was on the first floor. When I spoke to the deputy at the front desk, explaining our situation, he personally went to the sheriff’s inner office.
“You can talk to the sheriff,” he said when he returned.
Laura and I shook hands with Sheriff Emory Brooks. He was a short man, but wore his tan uniform well and seemed to exude toughness—he was a former Marine. We explained our quest for the lost boat, where we found it—and about our encounter with the armed thief and his flight with the boat.
“Yes,” he said, after some thought. “I’m not surprised. That house in Cedar Hill belongs to a couple of real beauties. The mean one’s named Roderick Ames. They’ve both done time for stealing generators, compressors, and lights from construction sites—just drove up, hooked them up to the truck, hauled them off. Now, I guess they’re stealing boats the same way.”
“Any chance of finding mine?” Laura asked.
“I’ll alert my deputies. If we find it, we’ll hold it for you to identify. I’ll need a complete description—manufacturer, model, color, length, width, registration number. Did you leave the registration certificate on board?”
“Yes, sir,” Laura said, “It’s in a dry-bag inside the console.” She recited a full description of the boat and the trailer, including the dents and scratches, and the painted-over name. The sheriff took careful notes.
“We’ll assist in the search,” I said.
“That’s fine—but if you see it again, notify this office immediately. Don’t approach those two men.”
Laura and I thanked Sheriff Brooks and returned to our separate motel rooms. A little later, we met for lunch, after which I bought a no-contract cell phone that worked. Then we went for another drive. Once again, we reached that small house in Cedar Hill, but now there was no boat, no trailer, no truck, and no sign of life. We rode back toward the river and along Blewett Falls Lake. There were a few metal boats on ramps or in the water, but all were dull green or decorated with camouflage markings.
“Those thieves moved out in no time.” I said at one point.
“They may be long gone.”
“People do a lot of night fishing at the lake and along the river—for catfish.”
“You think they might show up there?”
“Maybe—nighttime’s a good time for thievery.”
“Well—I reckon we could mosey along the river after dark. Kind of romantic, don’t you think?”
“Well, yes—don’t you have a boyfriend you could call?”
“None I want to call. Are you a little—uh, odd?”
“No—not in the sense you mean.”
“Or maybe you had one of those real bad war wounds.”
“I’m in the National Guard. Never saw a shot fired in anger—that is, not until some malcontent began throwing lead at the Wal-Mart.”
By that time, we were close to our temporary home. Before parting, we agreed to meet later and have a look at the night-fishing scene. When I finally got back to my room, I read until it was nearly dark and then dressed for rough work and walked back to Laura’s pickup truck. When I reached it, I found Laura talking to another man, which had a curious effect on me—was I jealous? Anyway, he turned out to be an off-duty sheriff’s deputy. He was giving Laura a lecture on fishing for catfish at night. Such fish grew to fifty pounds in the nearby waters.
“Well, David, we better git,” she said, as the deputy strolled away.
I felt better, hearing that—for some reason. “O.K., let’s git.”
We set out for Blewett Falls Lake, moving north as we skirted the shore. We stopped at intervals to peer through the trees at lantern-lit boats. By now, the sky was clear and dark with stars twinkling and a crescent moon shining. There were miles of shoreline to cover, and I was once again beginning to consider our task impossible. But then, at one our stops, I noticed something unusual—an unlit boat moving north on the lake, much faster than appropriate for night navigating. It appeared to be a light color—could it be the boat we were after? Perhaps it was heading for some obscure part of the lake, some hidden harbor.
“I wonder why that boat’s in such a hurry,” I said. “It’s scaring the fish.”
“Think maybe it’s mine?”
“Could be—maybe we’ll find out.”
“Say—were you bothered by my talking to that deputy?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I thought you were jealous.”
“Now why would I be jealous?”
“Don’t be mean.”
“All right—yes, I was jealous.”
Our conversation was interrupted by sounds of gunfire—to the north, but not far away. We moved on foot toward the sounds and arrived at an indentation in the shore that formed a small cove. And in its confines sat the boat we had likely seen speeding across the lake. It appeared to be a white boat, and someone on board was moving back and forth. The motor had stopped, but it suddenly restarted and the boat headed toward the mainstream. Then I saw someone jump from the boat into the water. And then came an explosion—a huge orange plume spanning the boat and an enormous report.
“If that’s my boat, it’s in bad shape.” Laura said.
I had my cell phone and used it to call the county sheriff, and the first patrolling deputy arrived ten minutes later—a relief, since I had trouble explaining our exact location. He drove onto a nearby access road and shined his searchlight across the water. When the boat sank, it was still in a shallow area. Its bow was visible above the surface. Other deputies arrived, and they searched the nearby shoreline, but found only footprints and a few broken branches among the saplings that lined the shore.
When Laura saw the sunken boat revealed, she shook her head. “That ain’t my boat. The bow’s too narrow.”
But when the sheriff’s people pulled the sunken boat ashore, they discovered a corpse tied to one of its chairs. As it happened, it was the body of that man I spoke to in the Food Star parking lot. The boat’s registration eventually led to its true owner, a man in South Carolina, who had reported it stolen. As for the dead man in the sunken boat’s chair—he was shot several times before the boat was dynamited.
But why did he meet such an end? He and his partner had a falling out, of course—but over what? And what had any of this to do with Laura’s boat? That the thieves were riding in another boat could have meant they no longer possessed hers. But then again, they could have simply hidden it.
The next morning, we had breakfast and then were back on the road.
“Let’s go farther north,” I said, as we began another tour. “I’d like to see Lake Tillery.”
And so, we headed up toward that other big lake, this one in Stanly County. We rode along the water, past boat houses and ramps, finally crossing the Lake Tillery Bridge and heading south through a vast wooded area and then down the east side of Blewett Falls Lake. It was just after we turned back toward Wadesboro that we passed a cleared field. There were boats scattered over the field, some on trailers, some sitting on dry land. And as we cruised past this assortment, something caught Laura’s eye.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” she said as she pulled over. “I want to look at this.”
I said nothing and merely tagged along as Laura left the truck and moved among the boats, heading toward a white boat on a trailer.
“My Lord—there it is,” she said.
“There’s the phony number.”
“Here’s the dent—and the scratches.
“Let’s call the law.”
I was attempting to do this, when an odd sight appeared before us, quite human, but hard to accept as such. His hair was long enough to touch his shoulders, but rescued by a rubber band that produced a ponytail. His face was scruffy and his eyes were hidden by dark glasses of good quality. He wore faded jeans and a soiled T-shirt.
“What is it you want?” he drawled.
“This here’s my boat,” Laura said, quickly and with force.
“Can you prove that?”
“Yes, I can.”
“I’ll explain that to the sheriff.”
“Well—I reckon you’ll be laughed at. These boats all belong to people I know. They park their boats here and I keep an eye on them—for a small fee.”
“Is it possible that some of these boats were stolen?” I said.
“I doubt it—they belong to friends of mine.”
“Do you know Roderick Ames?”
“Well, yes—this here’s his boat.”
“Uh-huh,” Laura responded.
“Did you ever see another man with him?” I asked. “A man with gray hair, always wore a white cap?”
“Yeah—that’s old Jim Gormley. A good guy—likes to drink some.”
“Has he ever stored boats here?”
“Yeah—two or three since I’ve been here.”
“Well,” Laura interjected, “Jim’s done gone to his reward.”
“The sheriff’s looking for Roderick Ames,” I said.
“Well—uh, I don’t know what to do. I reckon the boat may be evidence and subject to seizure by the law.”
“True enough” I said. “Let me call the law.”
This I did, and the deputies arrived, this time accompanied by Sheriff Brooks. He asked to see the registration certificate, and Laura got her copy from the truck.
“The copy I kept in the console—it may still be there.”
A deputy found the boat copy, and the Sheriff compared them and smiled.
“Well—they’re identical. Those two boys didn’t get around to changing the copy on the boat.” He thought for a minute and then continued. “We’ll keep the boat—to check it for physical evidence.”
“Then can I have it back?” Laura asked.
“We’ll release it as soon as we can.”
Well—I thought our task was now simply to wait until Laura got her boat. But that evening, after our dinner at the motel diner, she stopped to talk with the good old boys at the counter. They were all laughing about a man going after catfish with a net—just an ordinary net with a handle, the kind used to retrieve a hooked fish. From what I gathered, the man was up to his neck in the water.
“Where was this?” she asked.
“At Blewett Falls Lake—late last night,” one of the men replied.
“On the west shore?” I asked.
I said good-night to everyone, returned to my room, and just sat and thought for a while. Then I picked up the phone and called Laura’s room. The phone rang and rang—was she still talking to those old boys? But she finally answered, slightly out of breath.
“Laura—I need to borrow your truck tonight?”
“Why?—you got a date?”
“No, I just want to go back to the lake—back to where that boat sank.”
“If you’re going there, I’m going, too.”
“I’m not sure what we’d encounter.”
“Let’s find out.”
And so, nightfall found us riding once more toward Blewett Falls Lake. When we approached our exact destination, I pointed toward the water.
“Pull over here,” I said. “We can walk the rest of the way.”
She steered onto an access road and stopped near the shore. We walked along the shore inside the tree line, and when we reached that little cove, we sat beside a pine tree and waited. An hour went by, but the only thing we saw was a passing rowboat, lit by a lantern, with two men on board, fishing for catfish.
Anyway, sitting there, slapping an occasional mosquito, I was more and more aware of Laura’s presence—as a woman. Even in the dim light from the stars and a quarter moon, her outlines were quite feminine and her voice, soft and sultry in that Southern way. Finally, I leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“What’s that for?” she said with a smile.
“I though you didn’t want romance.”
“Well—you are a likeable girl.”
“You ain’t a woman-hater after all.”
“Maybe it’s the moonlight.”
Just then, there was a thrashing among the trees—farther north along the shore. A man emerged from the tree line. He was carrying a fish net by its handle, and walked toward, then into the water until he was neck deep. Then he ducked under the surface for a surprisingly long time, before his head reappeared. He repeated this exercise several times and then waded ashore, threw the net down, and re-entered the water. This time he stayed under water for too long a time. He came up gasping and coughing, and when he returned to the shore, he staggered and collapsed on the sand.
This was a good time to call the sheriff—while our old friend, Roderick Ames, lay exhausted on the beach. When the deputies arrived, they took charge of Roderick, calling for an ambulance to take him away. The next day, the Sheriff sent divers to explore the floor of the lake in and around that little cove. They found what Roderick was looking for—not catfish, but a dry-bag stuffed with money and even a gold watch.
Well, I had guessed correctly about that nighttime net-wielder. As it happened, Roderick was on the lake with an unsuspecting Jim Gormley. The former had already decided to dissolve the partnership—the hard way. Jim would be eliminated and their joint resources would then be Roderick’s alone. But in his hurry to get off the boat before the dynamite blew, he lost his bag of assets. And of course, his crude attempts at retrieval were his final undoing.
Anyway, Laura and I rode back to Brightown, towing her boat on its trailer. Now the only problem was my growing affection for Laura Middleton. Despite my belief that I was at my best when unattached, she and I became close friends. I’ve even thought of proposing marriage. There’s something to be said for women, especially when they’re attractive and a bit on the saucy side.