March 7, 1927
Two hours before dawn, a fishing boat loaded with illegal rum slipped quietly into the mouth of a fog shrouded cove on the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. A prearranged signal, from the vessel of two red lanterns hung from hooks on the lee side of the deck cabin, was acknowledged by the pulsing of headlights from the hidden shore and the boat motored slowly to a wharf that emerged from the mist.
After securing the lines of the boat to the dock, the two boatmen on board, one the captain and the other the first mate, both draped in oilskins, came ashore and were met by three men at the end of the dock. Two of the three men were rough in appearance, with the no-nonsense look of longshoremen, short on patience and long on violence. The third man was not of that sort. A long, thick wool coat and a stylish fedora served notice of his rank and his accent spoke of his Chicago roots.
The captain wasted little time. He spoke quickly to the gentleman in the fedora, who, in turn, signaled to his two companions. A delivery truck was backed out on to the dock and the two longshoremen removed the rear canvas cover, lowered the gate and attached a cable winch to the metal rails welded to the bed of the truck. Then, barrel by barrel, the boat's cargo of prohibition-era liquor was off loaded from the hold of the ship and onto the truck whose destination was to the speakeasies of Chicago. An hour of steady labor and the task was done. A final count confirmed delivery of goods as promised and the Fedora removed a small satchel from the cab of the truck. The captain counted the money and handshakes around confirmed the day's success.
The first mate jumped off the dock and onto the deck of the boat to prepare for departure. He walked to the deck cabin, started the boat's engine and waited for the captain who remained on the dock, talking to the man in the long coat.
While the men spoke, the two longshoremen took off the winch and stashed it amongst the barrels of rum. They then secured the rear gate, tied down the canvas cover and moved towards the cab of the truck, eager to be on their way and gone from the stink of the salt marsh and the infernal hum of the bastard mosquito.
The longshoremen reached to open the doors of the truck cab, but both men suddenly stopped cold in their tracks and stared down the gangplank of the pier as it disappeared into the thick fog that blanketed the shore. They had not heard any noise as it was deathly quiet save for the soft lapping of the bay tide against the pilings, the boat and the shoreline. But these men were professionals, well-trained Chicago gangsters, who were able to sense trouble before they could see it. There was danger afoot. Both men could feel it, the premonition being strong, but for them it was too late.
From out of the fog and the darkness and up the worn planks of the dock walked the boots of five hard men, three armed with shotguns and two carrying Thompson .45 caliber machineguns.
The killing was done quick.
The longshoremen died where they stood next to the truck, both gutted at point blank range by dual blasts of 12 gauge buckshot. One of the men holding the Thompson then opened fire, instantly killing the man standing beside the captain, warm in his coat and stylish hat, while cutting down the boat captain himself in the same stream of bullets, satchel of money still in his hand.
Only the first mate who was cornered on the deck of the boat lived long enough to see the faces of his executioners, vile men who lived hard and killed easily. The group of assassins lined the edge of the dock and pointed their weapons at the last surviving smuggler.
“You shouldn’t be here, waterman," says one of the men holding the shotgun. “ya friggin’ made a big mistake and now yer gonna pay.”
The man on the boat stared back with eyes that have seen hell on the high seas a hundred times over. “I’m already payin’, seein’ as I gotta watch my brother bleed to death on this stinkin’ dock. Let me get this boat out of here, take my brother home and give him a proper burial. I won’t be back. I’m a Mathews waterman. You have my word. I don’t need this stinkin’ rum or the trouble it brings.”
“Trouble for you, Bub,” said the man holding the smoking Thompson, "is that you chose to sell your liquor to the Capone's instead of dealing with us Baltimore boys. And, we just can’t cotton to your kind, sailing into our waters and doing business with the enemy, so to speak. Now, if we let you go, what kind of message would that send to Capone and his gang? That we Marylanders are a soft touch and ripe for the pickin’? No, Mr. Mathews waterman, you are not going home today.”
Hearing his fate foretold by the same gangster who had mortally wounded his brother, the first mate moved quickly. Pulling a pistol from beneath his oilskins, he blasted two rounds into the machine gunner's chest and then dove for cover behind the deck cabin, grabbing the sawed-off shotgun his brother stowed just inside the doorway.
The return fire from the four killers that remained standing on the dock was without mercy and their onslaught of double aught buckshot and full metal jacket ammo blasted the wheel house to pieces with shards of wood and glass whipping through the air like daggers.
With his pistol in one hand and his brothers sawed-off in the other, the first mate fired away with both weapons, shooting as many times as he could until he could shoot no more. Out of ammunition, his guns dropped from his hands and the waterman collapsed on the deck, as the roar of shotguns and the staccato rumble of automatic weapons fire from the men on the dock pierced the night air.
Bleeding steady and fast from wounds in his legs and chest, the mate lifted his head and gazed over at his brother who, though horribly gutted by machine gun fire, was somehow still alive, begging God not to let him die while his hands grasped feverishly at his intestines that splayed out on the boards of a dock previously stained with the blood of fish.
For the first mate, the sight of his dying sibling was more than he could bear and he rolled over onto his back and fixed his eyes instead on the stars that had penetrated the foggy darkness before dawn’s light. It would soon be over.
But fate's work was unfinished that night and even though his own dying breath was well assured and just moments away, the mate suddenly ratcheted to attention. His head rose from his collapsed body like an antenna. His senses were on fire.
He had heard a sound so alien to this hell but so imbedded in his soul that it easily distracted him from the event of his own violent death. His face, once contorted by indescribable pain now bore a look of utter fear, not for his own life or for the life of his brother, but for something far more precious than the lives of two smugglers who had reached the end of days.
Something was terribly wrong and he knew instantly what it was.
His pulse began to hammer as shock and disbelief surged through his veins. How could this have happened? He checked the boat before he and his brother left the dock. The boy wasn't on it, he was certain of it. And he had told him he couldn't come this time. He needed to stay home and help his mother. But oh, how good he was at their game. Hide and seek. It was his favorite. Coils of rope, bundles of nets, sacks of sailcloth and barrels of rum. He could hide for hours amongst it all. Took pride in it, he did. And the youngster loved being on the boat. Couldn't keep him off it. "I'm a waterman, too!" he'd say. And so he was, always by his father's side. Wanting to do man's work. Wanting to be like him.
The mate rolled over to his side and, numbed to the bullet wounds by emotion far stronger than any pain that could be caused by rogue killers, he crawled along the blood covered deck to the open hatchway leading down to the darkened hold of the deadrise.
There, sprawled on the deck, his head resting on the hatch cover, the mate again recognized the sound unheard by the ears of gangsters keen only to the noise of their guns.
It was the crying of his nine year-old son.
The mate lowered his head into the hatchway and saw the child directly beneath him, raked with fear and shaking against the ladder. He held his blood stained hand out to the boy and with strength that should have long been expired, said "Son, the sea giveth and the sea taketh away. Remember that and remember who you are. I love you."
And with that, the waterman's body could do no more. Rum and bullets finally did what hurricanes and typhoons couldn't during his thirty years at sea. He died with his eyes open, gazing at the child who held his massive lifeless hand with trembling fingers. The boy who wanted to be like him now stared upward through the hatchway, his dead fathers face outlined by the night sky and by the gathering figures of men with guns.