CHAPTER NINE

“Permission to come aboard?”

Pepper always asks that before she gets into someone else’s boat.

“Permission granted.”

Pepper plunked a Danforth anchor on the deck and a box on the forward seat. While she did what Da should have done—tie the anchor to the boat—I loosened the nut on the filter unit. Then we sat down beside each other and peered at the gunky mixture coating the folds.

“Your Da left his filter this way?”

I nodded.

The freckles on her nose twitched.

“Something about this doesn’t seem right.”

I began to get a queasy kinda feeling in my stomach. Pepper didn’t know I was thinking of taking the Rita Anne into the Bay. Or that I was out here without Da’s permission. Or that the Coast Guard was on the hunt.

And I wasn’t planning on telling her.

“I guess he’s been pre-occ-u-pied. Lot of stuff on his mind.”

I picked up the fuel filter and gave it a good hard blow. Pieces of river goo went flying into Pepper’s sunglasses. She gave them a wipe and took another look at the filter.

“You know, I think I can hook you up with a new one of these.” She handed me a box. “Here, check in the Box of Useful Things.”

I love Pepper’s Box of Useful Things. I want one just like it when I get bigger. It’s full of pieces and parts that other fishermen have given her over the years. Spark plugs. Bolts. Drill bits. Brass couplers. I rummaged around for a minute and came up smiling.

Then I frowned. Pepper was trying to inspect the outboard.

“I’d like to take a closer look at this…”

“No, it’s fine. Really. I’m gonna put this new filter in,” I stepped in front of her and rammed the filter home. “Screw it back on, tighten the nut, and we’re done, see?” I picked up her box and handed it to her. “Thanks for the help and the story and all that. I’m gonna drop anchor, find me a striper, and then head on back. Da said he needed me home in the afternoon.”

By this time, I was babbling like a banshee. The lines across Pepper’s forehead got awful deep.

“You sure?”

“Sure, I’m sure.”

“Well.” She tipped her cap back. “I guess you’re smart enough to take care of yourself. But humor an old lady and run that engine for me, will you?”

I would’ve done a back flip if it meant Pepper would get off my case. I wiped my forehead, gave the starter rope a firm yank, and—thank the mechanical gods—it ran like a dream.

“See? I got an anchor, I got lifejackets, I got an engine that’s working…”

“Well, then, I guess you’re set. You need any food?”

“Nah.” I pointed to the shopping bag with the loaf of bread and lemonade. “Got heaps.” I was getting real nervous. The more questions Pepper asked, the more I felt like she was gonna stay. At least Mom knew how to give a man some room.

“Okay, then I’ll be off. You can return that anchor when your Da gets a new one.”

“Will do.” My voice must have been higher than a strangled parakeet.

Pepper grabbed hold of her Box of Useful Things, clambered back on to the Lady Jane II, and loosened the lines.

“Take care of yourself, Jim.”

“Sure.”

“And remember, if you get stuck, just whistle. I’ll hear ya.”

That’s another thing Pepper likes to say. She once told my Granddad she could hear a man whistle a mile away. Granddad told her she was nuts.

I waited a few minutes for the Lady Jane II to get clear. Then I took the Rita Anne on a stroll over to my favorite fishing spot.

Course by now, it was the worst time of day for stripers. If there were any around, they’d be tucked up under the ledges, waiting for the shadows to fall. I wasn’t gonna waste my time dawdling at Hog Island.

But I had to do something. Pepper was still only thirty yards off the port bow. She was obviously hanging around to make sure me and the engine weren’t gonna expire. I couldn’t head off into the Bay with her staring at me like an iguana. I’d have to find a way to fake her out.

To stall for time, I pretended to check my reel. It’s a spinning reel—I had a kiddie spincast reel back when I was little, but it wasn’t meaty enough to handle stripers.

This one’s got a twenty-pound monofilament line. That means twenty pounds is about how much the line can handle before it breaks.

And that ain’t all. It’s also got a big barrel swivel, which keeps the line from twisting, and a fifty-pound monofilament leader. The leader is where the sinker and the hook are attached. The sinker keeps the line down in the water, instead of skimming round the surface, and the hook—well, you know what the hook is.

I favor a number 7 or number 8 circle hook, but each to his own. As long as the hook is sharp and the bait is nice and chummy, you’ve got a fighting chance.

Course, I might have been fiddling with that reel all day if it hadn’t been for Pepper’s Dad. While I was waiting there, not doing much of anything, the Lady Jane I came chugging up the river. I wanted to plant a kiss on its topsides.

It drew up near the Lady Jane II and Old Man McGill appeared. I like Pepper’s Dad. He was a fighter pilot for the Navy and stands up straighter than a fence post. Sometimes I get to talking to him when he’s buzzing his hair on Pepper’s porch. He says a man should keep his sideburns short and his trousers long.

From this distance, it was hard to hear what the two of them were saying. I caught a piece of “second inning” and some mumblings about “total disaster” before the breeze erased the rest.

Eventually, Pepper got a sentence in edgewise and pointed me out. The Old Man looked over and gave me the thumbs up. Then he started shooing Pepper back into the cabin of the Lady Jane II. At that point, I wanted to kiss him too.

In a minute, the two Lady Janes swung round and moseyed up river. As soon as they were out of sight, I gunned the engine and headed the Rita Anne round the north tip of Hog Island. We were only ten minutes from the mouth of the Bay!

 

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Fisher Jim: Chapter Nine