I gotta confess, Granddad has a great set of lungs. Even with manky chewing gum stuffed in both ears, I could hear him bellow halfway cross the water. I tugged a sticky wad from my left ear.
“James Cornelius Tucker, you stay right where you are!!”
Have you ever run into the term “armada”? It’s Spanish for “armed naval fleet.” The reason I’m getting into a vocabulary lesson here is because I want you to know what I was facing.
From what I could make out through the searchlights, I reckoned there were about a hundred boats bearing down on me, all lit up like Christmas trees.
In the lead was the Lady Jane I, with Granddad hanging off the pot hauler like some kinda whacko squid. Right next to her was the Lady Jane II, with Pepper and Da.
Behind them was the Harbormaster. And Danny. And all ages of Garrets in all sizes of vessels.
And last, but not least, the Coast Guard.
Towing the Rita Anne!
“What in the blazes were you thinking about?”
Granddad’s pretty spry for an old guy. He was up on that bell buoy and grabbing me by the arm quicker than I might have hoped.
I pulled the remaining bit of gum out of my right ear and stuffed it in my pocket. “I wanted to go fishing.”
“Jim! Thank God in heaven!”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Da so worried. He had looked pretty bad when he learned about the bug spray down the wishing well, but this was ten times worse. He was white.
Pepper nudged the Lady Jane II up to the bell buoy and Granddad helped me down onto the deck.
“I almost lost you.” Da hugged me so tight I could feel my ribs crack. I’m not ashamed to say it, I hugged him right back.
As soon as he let me go, Pepper swept me up into another bone-bashing clinch. “Told you I’d hear you whistle,” she whispered.
“All right, give the boy some breathing room.” Granddad thumped himself down on the deck. “And take that oilskin off him,” he added. “He’s got freezer burn.”
Da whipped the lifejacket and the oilskin off me and wrapped me in one of those first aid blankets that looks like tinfoil.
“You,” he said, rubbing my hands to get them warm, “are,” rub, rub, rub, “going to be,” rub, rub, rub, “the death of me.”
“Here,” Pepper passed me a thermos. “Have some hot chocolate.”
I tell you true, at that precise moment it was the sweetest drink on the planet.
Once my insides had warmed up to 32° Fah-ren-heit, I got round to wondering why they’d taken so long to get there.
“How did you find me?”
“Well, first there was four hours combing the town,” started Da.
“Then there was the call from Jerry Block,” said Granddad.
“Then there was the truck drive to Peterborough Harbor to watch for you coming through the Bass River,” added Da.
“Then there was Danny Garret rocking up at Folly Cove and saying you were headed for Haul About Point,” interrupted Pepper. “When as far as I knew I’d left you safe and snug at Hog Island.”
“Then there was the call from Pepper,” said Granddad.
“And the APB from the Coast Guard,” Da stated.
“And the drive back to Fisher to fetch the Lady Janes,” Pepper explained.
“And the run down the river at Mach 10,” Granddad noted.
“And the search in the rainstorm,” inserted Da.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, “I kinda got around.”
“You ain’t kidding,” said Pepper.
“IS THAT STUPID EFFING KID ALIVE?”
Everybody, including Granddad, jumped. Pepper grabbed hold of the radio receiver and pressed it to speaker. “Fisher Harbormaster, this is the Lady Jane II. I’m pleased to say Jim Tucker is alive and well. Over.”
“No thanks to his idiotic Neanderthal shenanigans!”
Da jumped up and snatched the receiver from Pepper’s hand. “Hey, watch your mouth, mister, that’s my son you’re talking about!”
“You tell him, Pete!”
That was Mud shouting.
“I don’t care if he’s the…”
Pepper switched off the radio. “I think we’ve got the gist.”
“Where did you think you were going?” demanded Granddad.
“I was looking for stripers.”
It was sorta the truth.
Da sighed and knelt down next to me. “Jim. I’m sorry I didn’t take you out this morning like I said I would. But I’m responsible for your safety. So promise me something. Next time you get it into your head to go fishing, would you talk to me first?”
I nodded. I wanted to explain to him about wolves and bait buckets and lighthouses and stars, and talks with Gunpowder Davey and Captain Oates, and the way that your heart can finally start to breathe again if you give it some time on a river, but the whole thing seemed kinda tough to squish into one sentence. And I was pretty sure I was the only one who would know what it meant.
“What’s gonna happen to me?”
“Well, first off, you’re in deep doodoo. You’re grounded for the whole month…”
“… you’re writing a dictionary about why you’re sorry…” Granddad interrupted.
“… and you’ll be spending July and August cleaning the Coast Guard vessels. Including the heads.”
I peered back at the Coastie boat. There were a lot of guys on that deck. Which meant a lot of toilets.
“Are they gonna give us back the Rita Anne?”
“They might,” said Da. “It depends on how well you scrub.”
“What about the Fisher Harbormaster?”
Da shot a look at Granddad. “The Tuckers will take care of him.”
“Anybody else you toss in the drink?” asked Granddad.
“No,” I said. “But I did lie to Pepper.”
Da turned to Pepper. “He did, did he?”
Pepper frowned. “Yeah, he did.”
“Alright, Jim. Then Pepper gets to name her punishment.”
I swallowed. Pepper can work her crews pretty hard when she wants to.
Pepper crinkled up her eye wrinkles and squinted at me. “Dad’s back has been troubling him, so he’ll need a stern hand for the summer. You any good at banding?”
“I think so.”
“I think so, Captain,” Pepper said.
“I think so, Captain.”
“Good. Then we’re square on my end.” She reached for the key to her engine and then stopped with her hand on the ignition. “Oh, but wait.”
Shucks, I thought, she’s changing her mind. I’d almost been looking forward to that part of my punishment.
“If you’re gonna be out on the Lady Jane I, you need to know the product inside out.”
“The lobsters, Jim, the lobsters.”
“Don’t you agree, Pete?”
Da scratched the stubble on his chin. “He’s really made a fried hash of things this time. I dunno.”
“Well, I do!” blasted Granddad. “I’ve been out all day. I could eat a herd of bison with or without the hot sauce. Didn’t you say you had a birthday party happening at Folly Cove?”
“Sure do,” said Pepper. “Hot steamed lobsters as soon as me and my Dad hit the beach.”
“Then D-Day is here. Let’s take the beach.”
“I haven’t eaten anything since noon,” I said kinda mournfully. “And my stomach is making pretty awful noises.”
Da shrugged. “Okay, I give up. I can’t fight three of you.”
“Good,” Pepper said, turning the radio back on. “Because I want my birthday cake.”
“Coast Guard, this is the Lady Jane II. We’re taking the fugitive in for a debriefing. He’ll be reporting for duty Monday at 15:30 sharp. You’re welcome to join us at Folly Cove. Over and out.”
Then she revved up her engine and honked her air horn twice. Most of the armada slewed sideways to follow the path of the stars towards Cape Mary. It was gonna be a good night after all—not too cold, not too hot.
Granddad sat down on the side rail and smacked his lips. “You know what I’m looking forward to? Frosting. Lots and lots of frosting.”
“You’ll have to arm wrestle my Dad for it,” Pepper called back. “He’s got dibs on the sugar roses.”
Da wasn’t saying much. He was just watching Pepper with this funny kinda expression. Like he had con-sti-pation or something.
I jerked on his jacket. Truth be told, I was trying to figure out how to say I loved him. Then, now, and always.
For a boy from the Fisher, it’s trickier than you might suppose.
“What is it?”
I decided to slide into the words. “I’m really sorry about borrowing the Rita Anne.”
Tuckers don’t talk a lot in general, so I wasn’t sure whether Da knew how serious I was.
“And all the other stuff. The Coast Guard deserves a lot better. I’ll do a bang-up job on the heads.”
I took a deep breath. I get a lot of practice saying sorry, but not much with gushy stuff. “So, anyway, thanks for coming to find me.”
“No problem.” He paused. “And, Jim, about those stripers…”
Da looked up at the sky.
“You busy tomorrow?”