Minutes passed and I began to feel uneasy on the aft deck by myself, peering off the stern at a light growing larger in the blackness. The sting of Jim's voice had put me on edge. I could hear our wives inside the galley, laughing. I wished they'd be quiet. Possibly it was another fishing boat, but that would be unusual, so far off the beaten track. These days, the Miami Herald was filled with stories of cocaine trafficking in remote areas of the Bahamas. American cruisers anchored in the wrong place had been attacked by Colombian drug smugglers; tourists were shot to death and thrown over the side. I tried to steady my imagination. But then the lights went off in the salon and then the anchor light went out. Everything was very quiet, but I could hear my beating heart and also the rumbling of an inboard engine idling closer.
Jim returned holding two automatic rifles. He slammed a clip into one and put it into my hands. I didn't know anything about shooting guns and the weapon felt heavy and forbidding. The girls were still laughing, but now they seemed miles away. My stomach knotted up. I was thinking, Put the guns away, Jim, before something terrible happens. His expression was entirely focused, but also he seemed to be relishing the moment, which alarmed me more than the approaching boat.
What the hell are you doing, man? I said, and Jim cut me off with a hand slammed against my mouth.
What are you doing, man? I repeated to myself. I was beginning to shake.
Not a sound, he ordered.
He didn't want to hear from me, not when the speedboat was only a hundred yards off and edging closer in the dark calm water. Now I could make out its narrow sleek hull. It was sliding right up to our stern.
Then a voice called from the boat in a heavy Spanish accent, Do you know where we are? What a preposterous question to ask in the middle of nowhere. How were we supposed to answer? The sleek boat kept edging forward and Jim motioned for me to get down on the deck. Once again, Do you know where we are? The man's voice was cloying with sweet innocence. It was disgusting.
Jim seemed to see something. He raised the gun fast, hesitated a beat, and he squeezed off three rounds.
In a second, two thousand horsepower was roaring and the speedboat wheeled on its haunches, throwing white water on us, and for a moment I saw the alarmed face of the man at the wheel staring back as the boat shot off into the darkness.
Did you see the other guy pointing a rifle from the companionway? Jim asked, lowering his own gun. I hadn't seen a second man. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. I was trying to pull my heart back into my chest.
Were they gonna kill us?
What do you think?
Are they coming back? What's gonna happen?
He shrugged. I still didn't get it. Was this for real or a paranoid fantasy that Jim was filling up with life? I had no idea if he'd hit the men or shot to scare them. I hadn't seen any rifles except our own.
We'll have to stand guard through the night, Jim said as though situations like these were normal in life. I tried to imagine how we'd hold them off. Where I fit in. I was a writer from New York, not the right guy to go into a gunfight. The rifle felt clammy and too heavy for me to hold up. Honestly, I wanted to hide down below.
He led me up the companionway and positioned us on opposite ends of a Boston Whaler on the top deck. He took my rifle and clicked off the safety so that I was ready to shoot.
Don't pull the trigger by accident, he said. I've seen that before.
I nodded, pulling my right hand away from the stock. Looking across the taut canvas cover, I could see two lights in the distance moving back and forth. No, three lights. What the hell was going on out there? I couldn't tell if they were coming closer or moving off. How could we defend ourselves against an armada of drug smugglers? But why were they coming for us?
Excerpted from The Dream Merchant by Fred Waitzkin. Copyright © 2013 by Fred Waitzkin. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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