Something about being spotlighted by armed federal guards inspires some serious thinking about how you got where you are.
I signed on for this though. It’s my job to draw their attention while my old pal Jerry crawls through marsh grass and river reeds toward a spot where he swears he’ll find a buried trove of the pirate Jean Lafitte’s two-hundred-year-old treasure. We’re down by a bend in the river not far outside the town where we both grew up. Out on the water are retired ships that make up part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. We’re not interested in their mothball fleet. But if the patrol boat heading my direction and sweeping a spotlight toward me is focused on me strolling along the bluffs, then they’re not paying attention to Jerry a couple hundred yards away, down in a pit he’s dug on the riverbank.
It’s pre-dawn, just a hint of early morning light. So it’s gray all around. Gray sky, gray river water. Gray ethical territory maybe.
Moments ago Jerry and I had debated whether the chain-link fence marked the perimeter of federally protected property or was there to keep people from falling off the crumbling bluffs.
“The ships they don’t want anyone near are way out across the water,” Jerry had said. “No, the fence is just because of the bluffs. I say if people are dumb enough to walk off a steep drop off, the species could use a little thinning of the herd, you know?”
Then he’d squirmed beneath an eroded section of fence, pulled a duffel bag of tools behind him, and headed toward a spot he’d been chased from on a couple of other occasions. Which was why he needed help. Yeah, that in spite of his insistence that the fence was simply a hedge against human stupidity. We both knew better—and frankly, there’s no hedging against human stupidity. Anyway, I’d walked on along the fence-line, up to a higher point on the bluffs where the rising morning light would silhouette me.
Now I’m trying to find the line between suspicious and outright criminal. I want the patrol boat to pay attention to me, but not open fire. As long as they’re watching me, Jerry can dig and occasionally flick on his flashlight, filtered and kept low to the ground, so it’s faint from outside of his hole. The patrol boat’s a few hundred feet from me. Trolling up smooth and quiet. Their spotlight scans the bluffs around me. I drag a hand along the fence so it clangs and rattles. I keep my back to the boat, but they’re coming up alongside and will soon move past so they’re looking into my face. They’re getting close enough that I can feel their motor’s hum.
Protected property or not, the authorities aren’t keen on anyone getting too close.
Then I hear the bird-call that Jerry taught me as our signal. I turn away from the fence and the river. From the corner of my eye I can make out Jerry’s shadowed shape scrambling out of his hole, crouch-running toward me, and slithering through the eroded spot in the fence. The patrol boat’s spotlight sweeps about. My elongated shadow stretches before me.
Then Jerry and I are side by side running away from the river and into a thicket of trees. We emerge to cross Old River Road, then a gas station, then a church parking lot.
As we haul ass to my car, Jerry a muddy mess, he laughs, gasps for breath, and says, “Jackpot. Got a bunch of old coins. Like real Spanish gold. Lafitte’s coins.”
We both howl like lunatics. It’s thrilling, what can I say? He might have found legitimate pirate treasure.
Problem is, I don’t know the first thing about selling discovered treasure. I’m certain it’s not simple. Because that’s just the way the world works.
Jerry’s decades-old beige Winnebago is parked among trucks with boat trailers in a large lot at Riverside Park. Across the park, crowds laugh and yell in the flashing lights of carnival rides and vendors. The town’s annual RiverFest with boat races and concerts and fireworks. We had to park my car blocks away on a neighborhood street and walk from there. Neither of us lives here any more. I’ve settled with my wife and daughter in Houston, an hour west. Jerry’s a drifter, although he calls himself an adventurer.
“The trick is to disappear among the chaos,” Jerry tells me.
Inside the Winnebago, he has charts and maps unfurled all over. Books strewn about. Histories of the pirate Jean Lafitte, pictures of old Spanish coins. He flips pages, scrolls his finger along the print. Studies a picture, then turns a page. An open laptop flickers.