The Lusty Beg
August 1907: Young Jack McCloskey is getting some first-hand experience in the family business. His father is one of the biggest smugglers on the Canadian shores downriver from Detroit.
"I'm gonna win at the track today."
Pete's confidence could be an inspiration at times but not that morning because I was in a mood. I let him talk while I continued working what was to become a new patch of garden behind the house.
"No you're not," I said.
"But anyone can win at horses."
"No, only the men who know the winners win at horses."
"What do you mean?"
"The win's fixed."
"Not at the Driving Park."
"Especially at the Driving Park."
"How do they know the winner?"
"Jesus, Pete, they make the winner."
"But I'm feeling lucky today, Jack."
"And I'm telling you luck's got nothing to do with it. You probably play those church raffles too. You ever won?"
"No. But that's not the point of church raffles."
"Really? Then what is?"
Me and Pete were the same age - just twelve - and grew up in the same soggy corner of the county and went to the same one-room school house but I was still always having to educate him on things and was getting a little tired of it.
"Where are you going?"
Pete turned while he was walking and said,
"To the track."
"Well," I said to his back, "good luck to you then."
He had enough of me and whatever it was I was trying to tell him and I guess I couldn't blame him. As soon as he was gone I heard my father coming around to check on my progress. Before I could stop myself, I was talking big again. I think I had reached my limit.
“I been turning soil since Friday,” I said. ”You told me we’d go fishing this weekend. Well, it’s Sunday and I ain’t turning any more soil until we go fishing.”
I raised the spade high in the air and thrust it in the ground like I was fixing to split the earth in two. My father stood in front of me with his thumbs in his belt, chewing on the remains of a cheap cigar.
“You're full of brass, boy. Maybe you’d like to spend the rest of the day in the fruit cellar.”
“That’s a paper bag. Suppose I just take the Lusty Beg out myself.”
Without taking his eyes off me, he turned his head slightly so he could better hear a pair of horses make their way down the path. When the horses stopped, there were footsteps on the gravel. It sounded like business. Blaise Dumouchelle and Nick Meloche came around the side of the house.
“ ‘Morning, boys,” said my father. “On your way home from church?”
One of my father's little jokes.
“No. We come to tell you something.”
It was Blaise did the talking. Nick stood at his side and back a step.
“I’m listening,” said my father.
“Your cut’s too big.”
“Really? It works for me.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“You come to my house on a Sunday morning, my boy at my side, and you want to negotiate terms?”
“We’re not negotiating. We’re here for the money from the job the other night, and the clock.”
“You heard me,” said Blaise.
Not only was my day of rest so far full of hard labour, but it was becoming awful complicated.
“I’ll go turn the soil out front now, pa.”
“You do that, boy.”
I went around the corner, stopping where I was out of sight but still close enough to hear the conversation. It went something like this:
“I think you and Nick should go on home and give this some more thought.”
“We’re done thinking. You’re out of the picture, Frank. I’m running things now.”
“You discussed this with the other fellas?”
“More or less. But it’s no matter to you now.”
I stole a peek and saw Nick patting the bulge in his jacket with the flat of his hand.
“So that’s how it is,” said my father.
“Yeah,” said Blaise, “that’s how it is.”
I had heard enough and went in the house.
“What the hell was that?” shouted Blaise.
Good. The quick, ugly bashing noises got their attention. I kicked the kitchen screen door open and went out with my gunny sack over one shoulder and my baseball bat rested on the other. I walked over to these men and dropped the gunny sack at their feet. It made a clinking sound.
“Here’s your clock, mister. I cleaned it for you.”
Blaise picked up the bag and looked inside.
"You’re brass, kid.”
“Yeah, people tell me that.”
“Guess you got nothing to sell any more,” said my father.
Blaise dropped the sack.
“Guess I don’t. But there’s still a matter of the money.”
“Go home, Blaise. Or I’ll have my boy do to you what he did to that clock.”
Blaise glanced over at the river. A couple fishing boats were riding the current to the lake. I wished I was on one of them.
“No,” Blaise finally said, “I want the money right now.”
Nick reached in his jacket for his pistol but my father surprised him with a quick jab to his face, just sharp enough to bring him to his senses.
“Like I said, why don’t you both go on home and give this some more thought.”
Nick regained his footing, touched his lip and checked his fingertips for blood. I thought he took it well, all things considered.
“All right,” said Blaise, “but this ain’t over.”
Blaise and Nick retraced their steps back to the wagon. My father and I stood motionless until we heard their horses turn up onto the main road, and then my father bent down and looked in the sack.
“That was quick thinking, boy.”
“I hoped you wouldn’t mind.”
“I don’t mind, but your mother might. It was a wedding gift from your Aunt Esther.”
“I was worried Blaise might not believe it was the real thing.”
“They all look the same when they’re in pieces like this." And then he straightened up and said, "I’m going to go look in on your mother.”
He crossed the corner of the yard and paused at the kitchen door.
“And then me and you are going to see King Thaddeus.”
King Thaddeus was the fellow my father went to when he had something to move State-side, and my father was the one King Thaddeus came to whenever King Thaddeus had something to move in the Dominion. For us it could be anything: guns, liquor, machine parts, or Chinese. Thasseus's stuff always seem slightly less interesting.
Chug chug chug.
Billows of thick black smoke came puffing out the stack of the Lusty Beg, our diesel-powered 30-footer. She had a mast near the bow and an open-ended steering cabin at the stern. I was told she looked pretty at one time. All I knew was when she was loaded down and taking water, I had to go below and bring up buckets before the engine choked. My father was at the wheel and I was sitting Indian-style on the bow with the clock in front of me. Like my Aunt Esther’s, you could see the works through the glass dome. But this one was different: it sparkled and it was heavier. I could tell it was worth something.
Ours was a small parish, but even the smallest parish had its patrons. Langlois bought his family their pew and their place in heaven with thick envelopes dropped in the Sunday collection. He made his money furnishing houses in Walkerville and Detroit with fine stuff, mostly from Quebec. Last month he became the first person in the parish to own an automobile.
The caper had been simple: one of my father’s partners did some plumbing work for Langlois and mapped everything out. One night while Langlois and his wife were dining with a client in Detroit, my father and the rest of the fellas relieved their home of some cash and a few trinkets - like the clock. My father had said Langlois wouldn’t miss any of it; the place looked like a museum.
We crossed the Detroit River and were making our way up the Rouge - another quarter mile to go. A flush of ducks took up over the river and a shotgun blast echoed behind me. It brought my gaze in line with the steering cabin. I remember my father looking deep in thought. Blaise aside, he had a lot to think about, the whereabouts of my younger brother for one (he disappeared again the night before), and my mother’s health for another. Now that was something King was good for: Dr. Chase’s Nerve Pills. We always had trouble getting them on this side of the border.
“Come here, boy.”
My father was waving me over. I picked up the clock with both hands and walked it carefully across the deck, wedging it into a corner of the steering cabin. I leaned over the side and watched the river turn to marsh. It was a wet spring and the water was high. We passed through dark water, parting lily pads and bulrush until we finally came to a rotting dock covered in fish flies.
“I want you to wait here.”
“Give a shout if you see anything suspicious. I’ll only be a couple minutes.”
My father picked up the clock, stepped down and tied us to the dock. I watched him walk between the soft dunes and tufts of tall grass towards the house. It was perched on bit of a hill some forty feet up from shore.
The sun was strong and the bugs were bad so I decided to go below deck and check on the engine. There was an opening at the front of the steering cabin. I put my hand on the crossbeam so as not to bump my head.
It was a small space with hardly any air. I opened a couple vents near the engine. I was occupied with rubbing grease off the gauges when the sound of footsteps on the dock got my attention. It was my father – and Blaise. I could see them through the portside vent. That son of a bitch Blaise had gone straight to King Thaddeus.
They continued talking as they boarded the Lusty Beg, the conversation sounding even less friendly than the earlier one. I remember wondering, where's Nick? I elected to stay put and out of sight, perching myself on an overturned bucket.
Chug chug chug.
Now I couldn’t hear anything but the engine.
When we got going on the open water, I started feeling a bit woozy from the heat and the fumes. At what I speculated was the half-way point, the Lusty Beg lurched starboard and I fell off my bucket and tumbled, landing dangerously close to the engine works. The noise and my yelp got the attention of Blaise. His shotgun-toting silhouette appeared in the doorway.
“I didn’t know your ship had rats, Frank.”
He grabbed my arm and dragged me up on deck. My father’s nose was bleeding and there was some redness on his cheek. He gave me a look that said, 'don’t do anything stupid.'
Like he probably did? I guessed he had tried to overtake Blaise and Blaise got the better of him, Blaise and his shotgun, that is. I was sent to the bow and told to stay there. Blaise took up a position behind my father.
The Canadian shore was coming sharply into view. I had an awful feeling Nick Meloche was at the house. I looked back at the steering cabin. My father just kept staring ahead, his face like a mask. Without stopping to think what I was doing, I ducked and darted toward the steering cabin. I paused for a moment and then inched around the side. My hand fell on the length of pipe we used to prop open the hatch. I grabbed it with both hands, turned the corner, swung and made sharp contact with the back of Blaise’s thighs. His legs folded under him and my father spun around, trying to get control of his weapon.
I took the wheel and the two of them tumbled down the stairs into the hull. I heard another shot and a rush of water. I waited. Then Blaise came up. He looked like he had used his face to break his fall. My father was right behind him, pressing the shotgun into Blaise's back.
“We’re taking water, son. Better start bailing or we won’t make shore. But first,” my father pulled some folding money out of Blaise’s breast pocket – what I took to be the money for the clock, “I want you to tie Blaise to the mast.”
Blaise’s face went white. I had a sneaking suspicion he couldn’t swim.
“You gotta be kidding,” he said.
My father had a real flair. It’s one of the things I admired about him. He gave Blaise a shove towards the bow before taking the wheel from me.
I followed Blaise as he made his way uneasily towards the mast, like he was walking a gangplank. He didn’t argue. He just leaned his back against the mast and let me tie his wrists behind him.
Down below, the water was already shin-deep. I found a second bucket and carried them both up, spilling theeir contents over the side. After a couple trips I looked towards the shore. I could see the clarly house now. I wondered who else might be there besides Nick. I also wondered how my mother was coping.
And then the engine started sputtering.
“Pa, I can’t keep up.”
Blaise started moaning and then I noticed my father was taking us upriver against the current, forcing the engine to give us all she had. I knew what he was doing: if the engine gave out, he could let the current carry the Lusty Beg and still steer us to shore.
The engine finally did give out. Wanting to avoid a collision with the dock, my father instead ran us aground on the soft beach. She landed with a slight pitch to her and I remember hearing some complaints from the bow.
“You keep your mouth shut or I’ll have my boy come back and knock your teeth out with a spade. He’s good with a spade.”
My father dropped anchor so she wouldn’t drift away and then we jumped off the deck and waded onto shore, him with his shotgun and me following close behind.
We could see Blaise's horses and wagon parked on the path but there was still no sign of anyone about. We entered through the kitchen door real quiet.
Nothing in the kitchen, but there were murmurs in the front room. My mother was sitting in her favorite chair, teary, wringing her apron in her hands. Nick was standing with one hand on her shoulder and the other holding a pistol. His forehead was creased and he had a fat lip from the jab my father gave him earlier.
“He’s tied up.”
“You want to tell me what’s going on here, Nick?”
“The Misses wasn’t much help so we started poking around. Sorry for the mess.”
“Ma, are you okay?”
She didn’t say anything.
“We’re here for the cash, McCloskey. And your weapons. You’re done.”
“Yeah, people keep telling me that.”
“Put your family first for once, McCloskey. Do you really want to drag your wife and your boys any deeper into this?”
I noticed my father loosen his grip on the shotgun.
“Yeah, I said ‘boys.’ ”
Billy must have come home while we were out on the river.
“He’s outside with Garvey.”
My father stepped over to the window. Without disturbing the lace curtain he could see Billy dangling his feet over the edge of the front porch and Garvey standing over him. Two burly fellows were up near the road looking bored. No one seemed too concerned about the local constabulary. That was a bad sign.
“Why don’t we work out a deal, Nick?”
Nick shifted his feet again, his little feet.
“What kind of deal?” he asked.
“You pocket half the cash and we become partners in a new gang and leave Blaise out in the cold. And the guns – which I don’t remember Blaise ever mentioning – no matter, you can have them. Guns only seem to bring me trouble.”
“That’s because you don’t know how to use them. You know, you can be a little naïve sometimes, Frank.”
“I always thought of myself as a generous soul.”
“What makes you think I wouldn’t have pocketed half the cash anyway?”
“You got me. What about that partnership then?”
Nick paused for a moment.
“I’d need to sell the boys on that.”
“Just tell them how you and me make a good team. Blaise is all bluster, not a thinker like you, Nick. Listen - I got stuff in the works and I can still bring a lot to the table.”
“C’mon, Nick, when have you known me not to have more than a couple irons in the fire? Listen - I’ve got a lead on some gramophones coming down from Montreal. They’ll be coming through the Canadian Pacific depot in Windsor next week.”
I remember my pa saying with a smile,
“He’s tied to the mast of the Lusty Beg.”
“You could see this coming, couldn’t you?”
“Yeah,” said Nick.
My father lowered his shotgun.
“Nick, put the gun down and step away from Mrs. McCloskey.”
“Where’s the cash?”
My father turned to me.
“You know where it is, boy.”
I ran down to the fruit cellar. I had discovered my father’s hiding place one afternoon while I was doing time for shooting crows in the churchyard and took out a stained-glass window. Anyway, the jar was nestled in the wall behind some preserves. I don’t know how much money was in it, but in its day it held a lot of peaches.
My father took the jar from my hand and unscrewed the lid. The bills were in rolls, presumably the same amount in each. He gave Nick half of them and Nick stuffed them in his pockets.
“And now for the guns.”
“The guns are in the cabin near the shore. I don’t keep them in the house. Now put your weapon down and step away from Mrs. McCloskey.”
Nick did just that and I thought my ma would collapse. Instead she scurried upstairs to her room.
“Should we go untie Blaise?” asked Nick.
“Call the boys around so they can see him first. Then tell them you got the cash and they can fetch the guns from the cabin.”
Nick went to the front door and mumbled something to Garvey and then Garvey shouted something to the two burly fellows. They came around the side of the house and we gathered at the edge of the shore near the bow of the Lusty Beg. Blaise looked ragged, but when he saw the other members of the gang, he straightened up.
My father used the anchor’s chain to climb up onto the deck. I followed. As he untied Blaise, he leaned into his ear and I was standing close enough to hear him say,
“Blaise, I think it’s only fair to tell you that Nick’s in charge now. He says you don’t have the brains to run the operation and you’re out. The other fellas are in agreement. I know; took me by surprise too. Nothing I could do about it. Nick also insisted I keep half the money. He thinks he can buy me off. I told him if you weren’t in, I was out.”
If anyone looked fit to be tied right now, it was Blaise Dumouchelle. He was regaining his colour. And he wasn’t so interested in me and my father anymore. He had his sights set on Nick.
“I don’t know what he told you, Blaise," said Nick, "but it’s not like that.”
Blaise jumped down off the deck.
“Tell me then, Nick, what is it like?”
Nick took a step back. The other fellas just watched.
My brother was getting bored with it all. I caught him out of the corner of my eye throwing rocks at a squirrel in the black oak hanging over us.
“I guess we’re not going fishing.”
“No, not until we patch that boat,” said my father.
“You mean until I patch the boat. What about Billy? Can’t he help?”
“I can’t find him anywhere.”
“Figures." I sat myself on a mound of freshly-turned soil. "How’s ma?”
“She’ll be all right. She’s resting. Aunt Esther is coming over to stay the night.”
I paused for a moment before telling my father,
“I don’t think Aunt Esther likes me.”
“That so? Well, she hates me. But she’s good for settling your mother’s nerves. If she asks about the clock, tell her it’s being fixed.”
He was walking away from me.
I stood up and was brushing the seat of my overalls.
I picked up the spade and headed for the front garden. The shadows were getting long but I knew I still had a couple good hours.
“Jack! Hey, Jack!”
Pete was running down the path, waving a slip of paper in his hand. I was standing still but he almost ran right into me.
"Undertow - she came in!"
copyright Michael Januska, 2011