But the searchlights on the Coast Guard cutter were unrelenting. They dissected my father's boat, burned red circles into his eyes, turned the waves a sandy green and robbed them of all their mystery, illuminating the bait fish and stingrays that toppled out of the crests. The boat's hull pounded across the water, the liquor bottles shaking violently under the tarp, the searchlights spearing through the pilothouse windows far out into the darkness. All the while the moored boats that lay between my father and the safety of the coastline waited, their cabin windows glowing now, their engines silent.
My father leaned close to Ciro's ear. "You going right into them agents," he said.
"Mr. Julian taken care of them people," Ciro said.
"Mr. Julian taken care of Mr. Julian," my father said.
"I don't want to hear it, Aldous."
Suddenly the boats of the state liquor agents came to life, lurching out over the waves, their own searchlights now vectoring Ciro and my father. Ciro swung the wheel hard to starboard, veering around a sandbar, moving over shallow water, the bow hammering against the outgoing tide.
Up ahead was the mouth of the Atchafalaya River. My father watched the coastline draw nearer, the moss straightening on the dead cypress trunks, the flooded willows and gum trees and sawgrass denting and swaying in the wind. The tarp on the cases of whiskey and rum tore loose and flapped back against the pilothouse, blocking any view out the front window. My father cut the other ropes on the tarp and peeled it off the stacked cases of liquor and heaved it over the gunnel. When he looked at the shore again, he saw a series of sandbars ridging out of the bay like the backs of misplaced whales.
"Oh, Ciro, what you gone and did?" he said.
The boat rocketed between two sandbars, just as someone began firing an automatic weapon in short bursts from one of the state boats. Whiskey and rum and broken glass fountained in the air, then a tracer round landed on the deck like a phosphorus match and a huge handkerchief of flame enveloped the pilothouse.
But Ciro never cut the throttle, never considered giving up. The glass in the windows blackened and snapped in half; blue and yellow and red fire streamed off the deck into the water.
"Head into them leafs!" my father yelled, and pointed at a cove whose surface was layered with dead leaves.
The boat's bow crashed into the trees, setting the canopy aflame. Then my father and Ciro were overboard, splashing through the swamp, their bodies marbled with firelight.
They ran and trudged and stumbled for two miles through chest-deep water, sloughs, air vines, and sand bogs that were black with insects feeding off cows or wild animals that had suffocated or starved in them.
Three hours later the two of them sat on a dry levee and watched the light go out of the sky and the moon fade into a thin white wafer. Ciro's left ankle was the size of a cantaloupe.
"I'm gonna get my car. Then we ain't touching the liquor bidness again," my father said.
"We ain't got a boat to touch it wit'," Ciro said.
"T'ank you for telling me that. The next time I work for Mr. Julian LaSalle, go buy a gun and shoot me."
"He paid my daughter's hospital bills. You too hard on people, Aldous," Ciro said.
"He gonna pay for our boat?"
My father walked five miles to the grove of swamp maples where he had parked his automobile. When he returned to pick Ciro up, the sky was blue, the wildflowers blooming along the levee, the air bright with the smell of salt. He came around a stand of willows and stared through the windshield at the scene he had blundered into.
Three men in fedora hats and ill-fitting suits, two of them carrying Browning automatic rifles, were escorting Ciro in wrist manacles to the back of a caged wagon, one with iron plates in the floor. The wagon was hooked to the back of a state truck and two Negroes who worked for Julian LaSalle were already sitting inside it.
Copyright © 2002 by James Lee Burke
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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