I started THE RUM RUNNER’S BOY, a YA novel in June. My grandfather George was a rum-runner along Lake Erie and the Detroit River. There are few stories I’ve come across regarding the actual rum-runners, however, plenty on what they did. I thought it would be interesting to write about a teenager caught up in the business. The area I’ve chosen is also different- Pelee Island which is the southernmost land in Canada and almost in the middle of Lake Erie, the warmest of the Great Lakes. These chapter are about 3rd drafts so still a bit rough. Anyhow, here goes. Comments on the story, not grammar are appreciated.
THE RUM-RUNNER’S BOY
Jarrod George Hooker knelt on the deck of a wooden boat and swatted the air with a rag, all his attention on replacing a spark plug in an outboard engine. Bugs circled around his bare torso eager to taste his sweat. Tied up to the four wooden docks were three other boats, rentals from the bait shop up on the bank. The boat he’d be going in tonight was further down the shoreline in a small cove docked with several others who take the whiskey and rum over to Pelee Island.
He had little choice but to step up and get the job done for his father.
“Hey Jarrod!” Lucy Tippens made her way down the wooden steps, her heavy boots clunking.
She wore a pair of dungarees and a man’s checked shirt. Her smile revealed clean white teeth accentuated by her tanned face and mousy blond hair tied back in a pert pony tail. The Tippens family lived on the farm next to Jarrod’s family property. The Hooker’s weren’t farmers like the Tippens; they leased their small section to tobacco growers.
Jarrod looked up from his work and sat on the boat’s bench seat. He smiled at her as she stepped onto the wooden dock. “Hi Lucy, you didn’t have to dress up to come see me.”
She lifted a corner of her mouth and curtsied as if she wore an evening gown. “It’s harvest time and us gals have to do our share. I was going over to the auction house and checking on tobacco prices and got to wonderin’ where you been lately.”
He stood to answer and she admired his slim build. Last year he was shorter and almost doughy, this year he was truly beginning to look like a man. She tossed a thermos of water at him and he deftly caught it.
“Thanks, mine’s empty already. Sure is hot for mid-September.” He uncapped the top and drank deeply.
“Everyone at school’s wonderin’ what happened to you. You comin’ back? Thought you liked school.”
“Well, it’s kind of complicated.” He studied the boat motor for a moment before looking over at her. “I do like school and I do have a knack for fixin’ these finicky motors. I learn in school, but school don’t pay, so…”Lucy nodded and sat on the edge of the dock. She took her boots off and set her feet in the water, swishing them back and forth.
“I was sorry to hear about your dad getting hurt,” she said.
Jarrod nodded. “That Lucy, is another reason I decided not to go to school. Heck, I got my Grade ten. Most boys around here don’t even have Grade eight.”
“They don’t give diplomas for that. Thought you wanted to be a college boy. You are smarter than you look,” she said, in a playful manner.
He tossed his sweaty rag at her and was rewarded with a grin before turning back to his work. He leaned down and replaced the cover on the motor. “Ray Halpernin doesn’t know much about motors. This one just had water in the fuel. Won’t be telling him that though, or I won’t be making any money. I’ll tell him it needed a plug and he’ll be happy.”
“Sounds like you’d do fine as a Flim-Flam man or maybe you could work for the Gypsies when they come back around here.” She tossed the rag back at him.
He caught it and rubbed grease from his hands with it. “Aw, Lucy, I can’t be doing this for free. Anyhow a spark plug don’t cost much.” He stepped out of the boat onto the dock. “Don’t know why Ray wouldn’t just buy a new motor, this one must have been used in the wars seen better days.”
A door slammed on the bait shop atop the bank, attracting their attention for a moment as someone stepped out. Beside the bait shop was an expansive, lean-to shed, an old horse stable. The building was partitioned off into stalls, where rum and whiskey crates would be stored under its long, corrugated tin roof before transport. Already a few of the bays were filled chest high.
“Since Ray owes me a couple hundred dollars for that spark plug, I do believe I can afford to buy you a cola, Lucy.”
She chuckled and lifted her feet from the water. “Cream soda, please.” She picked up her boots as Jarrod took her free hand and led her barefoot along the dock and up the wooden stairs to the bait shop. Jarrod held open the wooden screen door for her, causing the bell above to announce their entry with a dingle. The shop smelled like seaweed and wet dirt from worms and minnows. He walked over to the cooler while she eyed up dry good merchandise on the walls.
“Jarrod Hooker, looks like your girlfriend’s a bit thirsty,” said Mr. Lester Monihan, the old proprietor. He’d owned the bait shop for as long as anyone could remember. When you bought a dozen nightcrawlers or a pail of minnows, you also got some fishing advice, depending on how busy he was, and a fish tale to boot.
“Good afternoon Miss Lucy. How’s your daddy?”
Jarrod turned away from them and hunched over the cooler trying to hide his red face. He knew he shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed at being with Lucy, but his father and hers did not see eye to eye on any number of issues. His father advised him to stay away from the three Tippens sisters, said they were flirtatious and can break a boy’s heart.
Lucy was the middle sister, a clever girl, and known to be argumentative. Adele, the oldest at 19, was tall and curvy and attracted men twice her age. Her alluring manner and looks made men weak at the knees like a woman of the Sirens in Greek mythology. She had a reputation as a real heart breaker, treating men like boy toys. Patricia the youngest at fourteen, didn’t attract men, she went after them like a fish to bait. The sisters were beauties, taking after their departed mother who died in some type of farm accident. They all had the same mousy blond hair and sharp features with high cheekbones accentuated with rouge. Needless to say, with three daughters like that, Mr. Tippens had his hands full beating off men who came sniffing around them.
Lucy strolled along the shop as she spoke. “My daddy is fretting as usual this time of year, you know over prices. Almost ready to harvest. I see you already got some whiskey out there ready to take across.”
Monihan nodded and stepped over to the window looking out at his large lean-to. “Yup, but things are changin’. Things are getting a bit rough with the Americans. The G-men are putting on more pressure over there. Some say Prohibition will end soon and they’re gonna want to make hay while the sun still shines. Lot of people getting shot now.”
Jarrod opened two bottles, the ‘phht’ sound filling the room and walked over to Lucy. She took the bottle of Royal Crown cola and said,” I find it difficult to believe how one day you’re driving a beer truck, going about your business, and the next day you’re a criminal.”
“Strange but true,” Monihan said.
Jarrod dropped some coins on the counter. “If you see Ray, tell him his boat’s ready to go.”
“I certainly will.” He slid the coins off the counter into his hand and rang in the sale on the shiny chrome cash register. “And good luck tonite.”
Lucy and Jarrod exchanged looks. She turned her attention back to the wall and a poster there for the Fall Harvest Fair.
5th Annual Essex County Harvest Fair
Music, crafts, ag produce, and dance music by the Tobacco Roadsters
Jarrod came up beside her and handed her the bottle of cream soda. She thanked him, running her fingers down the sweating glass bottle.
“Doesn’t seem that 1933 was so long ago.”
“I guess, yeah, time flies when you’re not paying attention.”
“Are you paying attention?” She meant the dance.
He nodded. “Yeah, my mom died that Christmas, five years ago. She taught me to dance at the first fair.”
“That’s so sad,” she said, the corners of her mouth drooping.
“Too much iron in her blood and filled up her liver. Just me and my dad, now.”
He beckoned her to the door with his bottle of root beer. They walked over to Jarrod’s beat up old 1927 International farm truck. Mud and straw stuck to the wheel wheels and the underside of the narrow running board. He reached in for his shirt and raised each arm as he put it on. Lucy admired his flat stomach and the farm boy cowlick he couldn’t control, no matter how much slick he put in his dark hair. They walked over to her farm truck and leaned against the tailgate, drinking. Her top shirt button was undone, revealing the tanned V above and milky white below. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. She held the cold glass bottle against it for a long moment.
“What did he mean by saying ‘good luck’?” She set the bottle down on the tailgate and slipped on her boots.
Jarrod swatted at a fly and couldn’t think about anything else except Mr. Monihan calling Lucy his girlfriend. And why he reacted the way he did to it. Plenty of guys had girlfriends and they dated, mostly seeing movies in Leamington. Maybe it was his dad’s advice, or suggestion, or disapproval, of the Tippens family. Jarrod looked at her and decided having her as a girlfriend would be A-O-K. She wasn’t nothing like an alabaster skinned city girl; she was a hard-working, hard-nosed farm girl who would soon be a woman looking for a man. With any luck, he’d be that man. She stood and smiled, her blue eyes matching the sky and face aglow with vibrance.
She laughed. “Jarrod, you do sometimes go off into the clouds. I asked you about tonite.”
“I have to make a rum run tonight. My dad can’t because of his broken leg. If I don’t, he’ll lose his spot. Lots of guys want the job, heck they’d do it for half the pay.”
Her body stiffened and her glow faded. “Mr. Monihan said it’s getting dangerous…”
“Haven’t heard anything bad so far. Should be easy–take that Mex boat across to Pelee Island and unload. It’s all on the Canadian side. My dad said the Yanks meet us on the island, load up, and hand over the cash. They take the risk with the coast guard and all the Lakers crossing Erie at night.”
“So what should I tell them at school tomorrow? You’re a rumrunner? They’ll think you’re working for Al Capone and all those hoods over there.”
“Aw Lucy, don’t tell them that…say I uh, took a job fixing boat motors. Which is a partial truth.”
She looked at him sadly for a moment and then stared up at the gulls circling above the dock.
“It’ll be okay, Lucy. I’m going with Ace Hendriks and Bill Wainwright.”
She flinched. “Ace Hendriks was a killer and–”
Jarrod held out a hand. “Whoah, everyone in the war was a killer.”
“I don’t like the way he looks at me, or my sisters, running his eyes over us like we’re farm animals at Orton’s Auction.” She said it with a huff. “And in church, too, of all places.”
There were a lot of stories about Ace and his exploits in the Great War. One in particular as a spy, he’d infiltrated German trenches and pretended to shoot at his own troops. During a vicious artillery attack, as they were all hunkered down, Ace handed out cigarettes to the Krauts. As they reached for one, he cut their throats
“I have no choice who I’m stuck in the boat with. And Bill Wainwright my dad says–”
Lucy stepped up to him. “Is a known thief and drunk who will probably try and pay you peanuts!”
Jarrod sighed and horse pawed the dirt with his foot, not wanting to dwell on tonight’s task. “How come you know so much about the rum-running business?”
“My uncle Orrin slings beer at the Empire Hotel in town. A few whiskies turns them all into braggarts, he says.”
Jarrod nodded knowingly. Changing the subject seemed like a good idea. “You know what Mr. Monihan said about you being my girlfriend, and all?”
Her composure softened. “There was no all that I recall.”
“Aw Lucy, can’t you just…hear me out for once instead of jumpin’ down on on me like you tend to do?”
She dropped her head and bit down on her lip. “Sorry, Jarrod, really. I can’t help it. But you go ahead.” She stepped back.
“Huh?” He loved that look, like an injured puppy he tended to once.
“Go ahead, that ‘girlfriend’ comment, Mr. Monihan made,” she said.
He reached for her arm to bring her closer. The action surprised her, but she yielded.
He cleared his throat. “Well…I know you might have a boyfriend…and there’s–”
“Please, Jarrod, if you don’t want me to be around…” She swiveled away, one hand dropping the bottle down in the truck bed and the other resting on the door handle.
“Oh no, Lucy, I didn’t mean anything by–”
She felt his gentle hand on her shoulder and stopped, smiling to herself. She turned around and regarded him critically. “What is it exactly you want to say?”
He ran his shirt sleeve along his sweaty brow, gathering his composure. “When I come back we could…maybe go see a movie.”
“Like on a date?”
The corners of his mouth rose slightly. “Yeah, like on a date.”
“Should I tell my boyfriend?” she asked, coyly, her eyes studying the sky.
The corners of his mouth fell into an upside-down smile. “Well, then I’d expect…I sure wouldn’t want any guy coming–”
She laughed, the brightness of it carrying deeply into him, at once pleased and confused.
“I don’t have a boyfriend. Yes, Jarrod. A date would be A-O-K.”
He drew in a long breath and nodded appreciatively.
“I better get to the auction house before it closes. I hear the weather should be fine for harvesting–and rumrunning. You be careful tonite.” She placed a hand lightly on his forearm.
Her touch sent a fire through him and he immediately knew why boys only a bit older than him married. And thrilled with the thought of being together and alone with Lucy.
She hopped inside, started the engine, and flashed him a smile, leaving him alone in a cloud of dust and blue exhaust.
Alone in the suddenly empty space, the trepidation of what would unfold this night, lay heavily on his mind.
Jarrod tossed a few food items in his duffle bag for the overnight trip and stepped into the kitchen. He set down the bag, and pumped the handle on the hand pump next to the sink. He filled a glass with cool well water and stood by the window gazing over the corn field to the distant brown roof of the Tippens’ barn. What was Lucy was doing tonight? The Essex County Harvest Fair was only two weeks away and he was thinking of asking her.
When it came to dancing he had two left feet. And they needed decent shoes. His shoes were limited to work boots and rubber galoushes. The Chinaman in town could press his white shirt and he’d have to buy a pair of church pants, too. He knew if his mother was alive, she’d be making him go–Lucy or not. By now he’d be a real good dancer because she loved to dance She’d also be teaching him the proper society ways; manners and treating a gal good. He didn’t want to be laughed at as a lot of the county boys would be there looking for gals.
Noise from the other room got his attention. His father, Lawrence, limped into the kitchen and took a chair, a pained expression squeezing his face. His tawny forearms swelled with blue veins.
Jarrod was taken aback by his sallow complexion. He hadn’t seen his father out of his dim room in a few days. “You shouldn’t be standing, Dad.”
“I should have this here broken leg either.” He sighed, pulling his sweaty sleeveless shirt away from his damp torso. “I should be out there looking after that field of corn.”
“I can get Lucy’s dad maybe to harvest it.”
His dad, ran a hand through his dark hair and shook his head. “They’re busy enough right about now. They’ve got one of the largest spreads around here. You get back you can see to getting a harvester for an afternoon–the Robert’s are good that way.” He set his cane against the table and gestured to the duffle bag on the floor. “You be careful tonite. It’s an easy run but you got to watch those two men.”
“If it’s so easy why should I have to watch out for them?” Jarrod leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms.
“I’ve done this a few times already and they short-changed me the last time. I have to pay for using that Mex boat and fuel. When they hand you the cash you make sure you get a bigger share.” Lawrence indicted a cloth on the counter. “Take it.”
Jarrod lifted the cloth and revealed a buck knife in a leather scabbard, one his father always carried. Under it was an envelope. “You aren’t telling me everything, Dad. Why didn’t you get your share?” He ran a thumb along its keen blade, a thin line of blood appearing.
“You follow those instructions how to get to Pelee Island tonight.” Lawrence looked down at his leg. He pushed down on the table to stand up, but stumbled and fell. He stifled a scream.
Jarrod stepped over and helped his dad up. “Doctor said to stay down.” His father smelled of sweat and tobacco smoke and something else. “It should be healing good by now, Dad. Something’s not right.”
Jarrod went to one knee beside him. He noticed the tightness of the pants around the one thigh and knew where the odd smell emanated. His other leg was normal, sort of skinny, and somewhere in the baggy confines of the coveralls.
“What’aya doin’?” Lawrence tried to push him away, sweat beading across his forehead, his hair wet around the edges.
Jarrod lightly rested a hand on his father’s thigh.
Lawrence whimpered and his brow exploded in sweat. “Leave it the hell alone, Jarrod.”
But Jarrod, the buck knife in hand, took the pointed end of the blade and deftly sliced his father’s pant leg. “Dad!” He gasped.
The thigh was swelled out of proportion, the capillaries webbed close to the surface along with black ones. Pus and a thick ooze of fluid wept from the stitches were.”
“Leave it be!”
“We got to get you to a hospital, Dad. I’m no doctor but when Billy Masters lost his arm from a coyote bite his arm smelled like that. Smells like rotten meat!” Jarrod stood and looked down at his father who could only stare at the wound. “I’ll get the truck.”
“No! That old rattletrap will never make it. It’s too far away. You’ll miss the run. We’ll lose our spot.”
“I’ll lose you if you don’t go.” Jarrod’s concern was replaced by anger. And fear. His father was the only family he had. Losing the only member of his family was unthinkable couldn’t understand why his father couldn’t see how bad it was. “Then, I’m calling for someone to take you.”
“You can’t just call anybody, they’re all in the fields.”
Jarrod went to the wall phone and rotated the crank a few times to power it up. “Operator can you connect me to the Tippens?”
“Just one moment,” replied the nasally operator.
Lawrence shook his head. “Geez, not the Tippens, I owe the man some money, he won’t come,” pleaded Lawrence.
It was in poker game two years ago when Tippens said Lawrence was cheating. Indignant at the accusation, the two pushed and shoved but the scuffle was broken up and Lawrence walked out.
Lawrence tried to get up again, shuffling his chair in the direction of the wall phone intending to grab awaythe phone and hang it up.
Jarrod gave him a warning glare.
“Hello, Tippens residence.”
“Uh hello, is Mr. Tippens there?”
There was a long pause and some background noise. “Well, sometimes we go for days on end without speaking to each other and here we are–twice in one day,” said Lucy
“Hi Lucy, I got to speak with your dad, it’s an emergency–”
“No it’s not!” shouted Lawrence.
Jarrod placed his hand over the mouthpiece to muffle his father’s comments.
“What is goin’ on there, Jarrod? My father’s out in the field and us girls are fixing dinner.”
“Yeah, I truly am sorry for disturbing you but…” He explained the situation and hung up. “Lucy says she’s going out to get her dad off the field. They will be here shortly. Come on, I’ll help you up.”
“And If I don’t want to go?”
“That’s stupid, Dad. You don’t go, then I don’t go.”
Lawrence drew in a long breath and yielded. Jarrod help him to his feet and outside to a bench out on the porch in the late afternoon sun. Jarrod sat on steps threading the leather knife scabbard through the belt loops of his dungarees. The two didn’t speak until the sound of a truck out on the road made it way to them.
“Up Dad.” Jarrod helped his father to his feet and down the steps. The truck appeared, a comet tail of dust in its wake. It was the Tippens newer truck a ’36 Ford, fire engine red. It made the Hooker’s old beast look positively ancient. It had the big fenders, long sturdy running boards, and fatter tires.
The truck turned in and made its way to the house along a winding driveway. It turned in front of them and braked to a halt.
Two females sat in the cab, expressions of concern mixed with sweat and some streaks of dirt on their faces.
“Prettiest ambulance medics I ever saw,” said Lawrence as he leaned against the porch pillar, wincing, all his weight on his good leg.
Lucy smiled at Jarrod and acknowledged Lawrence with a curt nod. Her sister, older sister Adele opened the door and stepped out. She was dressed better, a blue checkered rag wiping at her pretty face, and wore a red printed dress. She smiled at Jarrod.
She had a certain way about her, every nuance that Jarrod realized would attract men in droves.
Lawrence looked over at his son and said, “See, I told you he wouldn’t come.”
Jarrod noted the same dungarees and old shirt on Lucy and remarked to himself how good she still looked.
“Hello, Mr. Hooker. Adele will take you to the hospital. I’m not licensed yet. I don’t let driving in the city anyhow,” said Lucy, and joined Jarrod in assisting Lawrence to the truck.
“I’m grateful, Lucy,” said Jarrod.
“That what neighbors…and friends, are for,” she replied, guiding in his father.
Adele closed the door behind her and stood in front of it blocking it. “The hospital is a long way Mr. Hooker. I’d like to see if the trip will be worth it.”
Jarrod frowned. “He broke his leg, a compound fracture. The bone stuck through the skin.”
“The doctor set the bone and stitched the gash. It’s not healing well,” said Lawrence.
“I helped out at the hospital all last summer and have some medical training. I’d like to have a look.” She glanced at Jarrod then back to his father.
Lawrence sighed. “Look all you want.”
Adele walked over and knelt down before him. She ripped the dungarees more, exposing his white thigh and the damage. Immediately, she put a hand to her nose and stood. “Oh My, it’s very bad. It’s gangrene. We should get him there fast.”
“It’s this here leg, Lucy, be careful,” said Lawrence, putting his weight on his good leg.
“How did you bust your leg Mr. Hooker?” said Adele, heading back to the truck.
Lawrence gave her a warning look. No one else caught it. Jarrod helped his father to the truck. Adele arranged a blanket across the seat. Lawrence set in his bad leg as Jarrod lifted him onto the seat.
Lawrence winced and stifled a cry. “That’s good, kid, that’s good.”
Adele went around and got in behind the wheel. She brushed her blonde hair away from her face and started the truck. “Try not to worry Jarrod. They are good people at the hospital.”
Lucy took Jarrod a few steps away. “Going to the harvest dance?”
Lawrence interrupted. “Jarrod, Bill is a drunk, he’ll be stewed on the dock. Don’t let him drive the boat. Do not trust Ace.”
Lucy turned to her sister and held up a finger and turned her attention back to Jarrod.
“Yeah, my mom taught me to dance at the first one,” he said. “It was fun.”
“Well, it’s nice to know you won’t be stepping on my toes, not like some other clods around here.”
“If you could I’d like you to–”
Adele beeped the horn, startling the two.
“Bye Jarrod,” she said and hopped into the bed of the truck and sat down.
“Keep the knife handy, son. Be tough son. You get to the boat first and drive it or no one goes.”
Jarrod rested his hand on the buck knife hanging from his belt in a leather scabbard. The envelope tucked in his pocket felt oddly heavy and demanding.