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Tugboat Annie's hot cargo.


Under a full Pacific moon the little Inland Passage harbor of Port Chilkat was the scene of tranquil beauty, disturbed only by the splash of a fish, a chugging purse seiner, the faint nostalgic wail and beat of a shore dance band, and the raucous hawking of Capt. Horatio Bullwinkle, master and owner of the big salvage tug Salamander, as he leaned over the fantail rail and spat in the eye of an inquisitive crab.

"Sore?" he rasped angrily as he stared again into the flabby, impassive face of Jake, the vessel's paunchy mate. "Why wouldn't I be sore? Look!"--and he pointed to another powerful deep-water tug alongside the fuel-oil wharf across the slip. "There's the Narcissus, all fueled up and ready to sail when that fat old witch of a Tugboat Annie gets through stompin' holes in the dancehall floor!"

"So what?" said Jake sardonically. "Just because she's got a towin' job ya wish you had, ya're poppin' yer skull."

"That one job ain't the point, stupid! It's who it's for--that new Williwaw Island Atomic Power Plant! Look at the installation the government's puttin' in there! Heavy-construction stuff! That means big-time towin'. There's only two tugs up here big enough to handle it--us and the Narcissus. And Annie tears up here from Secoma with her tail afire and grabs it--right out from under me nose!"

"How long a nose you got?" asked Jake. "When ya first heard o' this deal she was already halfway up here. So relax!"

"Yeah--relax. I'll relax when I figger a way to skunk--" He stopped suddenly, then leaned forward. "Look, Jake, if Annie fouled up this first job, them atomic-plant boys might get mad and start lookin' for somebody else to do their towin'. Right?"

"Meanin' us, o' course. But how the devil could she foul it up?" Jake said derisively. "Way I heard it, all she's gotta do is hook onto a loaded barge alongside their dock, tow it across the passage an' out through Totem-pole Pass, then dump it off soundings. Where's the trick in that?"

"I ain't sure, yet." Thoughtfully Mr. Bullwinkle scratched his ginger-bristled skull. "All I know is, when them oil-dock boys finished fillin' the Narcissus' tanks this evenin', I heard old Fatso Annie say she had to pick up her Williwaw Island tow in time to hit the start o' the ebb tide at Totem-pole Pass, an' ride it through. That means she'd reach the pass about 2 a.m."

"If you're plannin' to snatch that tow tonight," Jake said, "forget it! It's quite a trip out the pass an' back. That's why Annie filled her tanks. But we just got in from Secoma--remember? We ain't got oil enough left even to take to Williwaw, an' no way to get any till mornin'. So what would ya run the Salamander on--beer an' belches?"

"I'll figger it," said Mr. Bullwinkle confidently. "An' when--"

He broke off, suddenly tense and watchful, as the Narcissus' messroom door opened and Shiftless, a deck hand, stepped out and stood by the rail, head uptilted, while draining a pint flask. Then he faced townward, listening as the faint dance music swelled and waned, flung the empty bottle violently, rebelliously overside and lurched back into the messroom.

"Get that, Jake?" Mr. Bullwinkle asked softly. "Shiftless is sizzlin' because he has to mind ship while the others are up at that dance. It ain't right! It ain't fair!"

Jake said nothing; and for a time there was silence, over which, on a vagrant breeze, the lilting brass of the band carried a message of fun ashore. Then, "I feel sorry fer him," Mr. Bullwinkle said.

"Sorry fer who?" Jake asked, nonplused.

"Fer pore ol' Shiftless, ya silly jerk! Gettin' stinkin' over there all alone!" said Mr. Bullwinkle, nobly indignant. "So we're gonna visit him and cheer him up. Go get that fifth o' bait I seen ya sneak under yer bunk when I walked in on ya today."

"Wha-at?" yelped Jake.

"Go get it," said Mr. Bullwinkle severely, "afore I fetch ya a kick in the rudder."

In sharp contrast to the peaceful water front was the jiving cacophony of the Port Chilkat Cannery Workers' Monthly Ball, for the building shook, and dust puffs arose from under the pounding feet and cavorting limbs of the swirling, merrymaking crowd. And second to none in energetic enjoyment was Tugboat Annie Brennan, master of the Narcissus and senior skipper of Secoma's Deep-Sea Towing and Salvage Company fleet, with blowzy hair flying wild, face shining with sweat and bliss, blue eyes sparkling, and massive frame bounding and prancing in the resentful grip of a giant Dutch Harbor whaling captain.

"Wow-e-e-e!" she chortled as she manhandled her dizzy partner into carefree collision with a crowd of jolly neighbors. "Ain't nothin' like bein' swang in the arms o' Twerpsichord! Sa-ay, Cap'n--yer nose is bleedin'! Don't ye feel good?"

"Ya butted me that last round, ya gallopin' hippo!" snarled her gallant partner. "An' climb down offa me left foot. It's toted ya round this floor five times now!"

"Pooh!" said Annie complacently. "I ain't even began hoofin' yet. Hey--there's Peter! I gotta talk wid him!" And inexorably she cantered him through the doorway, from which Peter, the Narcissus' mate, urgently had been beckoning her.

"Come on, Annie. It's near 11 o'clock," he told her hurriedly. "We gotta get back to the tug an' under way."

"OK, OK," she said, resignedly, and mopped her streaming face. "Scrape the boys together. Them what can't walk we'll carry!"

Presently the crew of the Narcissus was streaming back to their wharf with Annie, her energy only whetted, waddling happily ahead of the others.

But when she had dropped from the wharf's stringpiece to the deck of the tug she stopped abruptly and stared. "Hey," she said, puzzled, "ain't that Shif'less lyin' under the towin' drum?"

Big Sam, the engineer, investigated. "Sure is!" he reported, and dragged the sleeper forth. "Drunk as a skunk too."

"He can't be!" Annie protested, hastening aft. "I shook him down good afore we left. An' what he had in his bottle wouldn't give him no more glow than a firefly's starn! But by gollies"--she bent over the supine, heavily snoring Shiftless--"ye're right, Sam! He's passed out! An'--Oh-oh!"

Stooping quickly, she picked up an empty fifth and sniffed it. "H'm'm-mph! 'Ol' Faithful,' Sam!" and instantly her glance shot across the slip to the dark and silent Salamander. "They's on'y two bellies I know of what kin hold this stuff widout corrodin' their backbone!"

"Ya mean Bullwinkle gave it to him?" Big Sam shook his head. "I doubt it. He wouldn't give ya the time os day without collectin' ten seconds interest."

Annie nodded. "Ye're right, Sam. Shif'less probably snuck over there and stole it. Well, you an' Peter throw him in his bunk, an' we'll git under way."

Minutes later the Narcissus surged away, her running lights gleaming like jewels in the clear, starry night; and within the hour, after checking identification with the Navy picket boat that patrolled the restricted waters of Williwaw Island, she was gliding alongside the atomic power company's sentry-guarded, floodlighted wharf.

Waiting to greet Annie when she stepped ashore was a burly, pleasant-faced United States Navy officer who introduced himself as Cmdr. Owen Beam, and the tall, ascetic-looking civilian with him as Professor Langley, the physicist in charge of the plant.

"Pleased to meetcha!" said Annie affably, then stared at Langley with unabashed interest. "So you're one o' these eggshell perfessers I bin hearin' about," she said, impressed. "Well, well! It's a small world! But where's yer lead suit?"

"Oh, we--er--eggshells only wear that when we're working," he said, eyes twinkling. "But let's look your tow over, captain, while Commander Beam briefs you--" and he led the way on board a nearby barge.

It was a specially designed, steel, pontoon type with a decked-over hold and heavy, protected hatch covers clamped down and locked, and a compressed-air dumping mechanism under a small housing. One turn of a valve handle, Beam explained, caused the divided hold bottom to swing down and out and void its contents; and a reversed twist closed it again and pumped out any sea water, ready for another load.

"So all you do," Beam concluded as they returned to the Narcissus, "is take her offshore over the thousand-fathom depth, drop the cargo and close the hold. And if you follow instructions exactly, there should be no risk."

"What's she carryin'?" Annie asked curiously. "Platonic bums?"

Smiling, Langley explained. The cargo was a number of metal containers, each 6 by 21 feet and weighing more than one ton apiece, filled with "hot" sodium--the radioactive waste left over from construction, in the plant, of atomic units for nuclear-powered government vessels and submarines.

"Every container," he told her, "is rigged to explode when it hits sea bottom, and the sodium is carried harmlessly away. But any accident in dumping them," he warned, "can be extremely dangerous!"

"Accident?" Annie replied. "What kinda accident?"

"Anything that might punch a hole in a container if it's improperly dropped. Because the second that water reaches that sodium it might explode. And--" He stopped, looked at Beam.

"And you, and everybody else within quite an area, captain," Beam finished for him soberly, "will have had it! But with common-sense precaution, that's not likely to happen. And now"0-he shook hands--"goodbye and good luck!"

Two hours later, with the barge latched securely alongside, the Narcissus plowed steadily across the smoothly heaving, island-studded waters toward Totem-pole Pass, a wide, deep, gently curving channel between high, densely forested hills. Along the 20-mile length of the channel were scattered totem poles of unknown antiquity, abandoned Indian villages, and decayed funeral platforms built up in the trees.

The moon was gone now, the night brilliant with stars; and as Annie left her cabin to relieve Peter at the wheel, automatically her practiced glance swept sea and sky, noting, just a few miles ahead, the flash of the Totem-pole Pass entrace beacon, and astern the running lights of a following vessel, while close abeam was the rugged shore of Squaw Island. Then, drinking in the pure, fresh sea air, and filled with happy energy, she joined Peter.

"Looks kinda dark out now wi' the moon down," she joined Peter.

"Looks kinda dark out now wi' the moon down," he commented.

"Yeah. But they's plenty o' starlight. Know what my old ma used to call the stars when I was little, Peter? The bright, laughin' eyes o' God's children. Ain't that sweet?"

"Sure is, Annie." He added, as she poured herself a mug of steaming coffee from the carafe, "Bullwinkle still followin' us?"

Annie choked, spraying coffee. "What-what's that?" she demanded.

"You heerd me," said Peter calmly. "Hank spotted him skulkin' behind Cedar Point back along Squaw Island there, near an hour ago. After we passed and he took out after us--an' don't tell me he ain't tailin' us, Annie, because when I change speed he does too."

"Jingle Big Sam fer more revs!" snapped Annie; and as the engine-room signal sounded she dashed outside and stared astern, while the propeller beat sharply increased. Then, almost at once, it decreased and, after a rumbling flurry, ceased altogether.

"We're stoppin'!" Peter yelled. "What goes on, here?"

But already Annie was pounding down the ladder to the engine room, where she collided with Big Sam, who was hastening topside.

"Don't blame me, Annie!" he blurted, red-faced and sweating. "Them bunkers was full when we went up to that dance!"

"Blame ye fer what? Why have we stopped?"

"We're plumb out o' fuel oil! And I can't figure why! The oil-dock boys even stayed late to give us all we needed! I remember that because Bullwinkle yelled at them to bunker him before they quit, and they told him he'd hafta wait till mornin'!"

"Bullwinkle!" Instantly Annie had the answer. "Him wid no fuel--an' he's way out here--astarn of us--right now! O-oh brother!"

Before Big Sam could answer, they were deafened by the hoarse roar of the Salamander's siren. Pushing a huge bow wave, she surged up close alongside and stopped, while Mr. Bullwinkle, stepping from his wheelhouse, swaggered to the rail and calmly surveyed the helpless Narcissus and her tow. Then, "Ah, there, Fatso!" he cried. "Fancy seein' you here! What happened--yer bottom rot out?"

"Ye know dang well what happened, ye thief!" Annie roared furiously. "Gittin' Shif'less drunk, then pumpin' our fuel oil into yer Salamander--"

"Try an' prove that!" he jeered.

"--an' leavin' just enough so's we'd have a breakdown an' you could take over our tow! Of all the crawlin', creepin'--"

"Well, now ya mention it, I might just do that. Because--let's face it, dear--who else can? So ya better quit steamin' and start thinkin'!"

"He's right, Annie," Big Sam muttered. "Anythin' happens to that barge wi' the cargo she's got, we'll be in muck up to here! Ya better let him have it an' settle in court later!"

But Annie, blind with rage, violently refused until, suddenly spying Shiftless hovering nervously in the background, dealt him a flying kick that shot him clear up to the fantail; and, with pent-up feelings thus discharged, she gloweringly consented to deal with the perfidious and grinning Mr. Bullwinkle, while Peter and the others got the anchor down.

"That's my girl--always agreeable if ya have to be," her rival commented calmly after he boarded the Narcissus and followed Annie to the messroom. "Got any cold beer?"

"Yeah, I do have," she answered, stony-eyed. "Why?"

"Nothin'! Skip it, ye nasty-tempered old dugong!" he rasped.

"That," said Annie grimly, "is more like yer ugly self. Now, then--what's yer terms--the usual take-it-an'-like-it bit?"

This, he agreed, was exactly it. So he demanded, and Annie bitterly had to concede to him, the barge job, including towing fee and a like sum in lieu of salvage which, he cheerfully admitted, no admiralty court in its right mind would ever award him. Also--which gagged her most--he must be proclaimed innocent in the matter of the peregrinating fuel oil. "Furthermore," Mr. Bullwinkle stipulated as he got up to go, "ya gotta stay away from them atomic-power-plant guys and leave their towin' jobs to me!"

"Git goin'!" Annie snapped, "afore I sock ye one an' bounce ye on yer brains!"

Flashlight in hand, she took him to the barge and parroted Professor Langley's instructions. But Mr. Bullwinkle, anxious now to be under way, paid scant attention and hustled back to his tug. Then, with one leg over the rail, he turned back to her.

"But say, pal," he said, with elaborate concern, "what about the Narcissus? Where yore anchored here is poor holdin' ground; an' when the tide comes tearin' back outta the pass tomorra ya'll drag your hook fer sure! But look!" he pointed to nearby Squaw Island. "About three, four mile along there is Deep Cove, with a dock where some big fish-liver-oil storage tanks is. You know--the fishermen discharges their oil into 'em for transshipment--"

"How come you know these waters so well?" Annie interrupted.

"There's a drug-manufacturin' company in Secoma uses the oil in makin' vitamin pills, an' I towed a few tank-barge loads down to 'em from here coupla years ago. Well, I could tow ya to the cove--it's on the way to the pass--an' pick ya up tomorra an' take ya back to Port Chilkat--"

"An' all it'll cost me is a extra 500 bucks! Is that it?" Annie demanded wrathfully. "Well, I wouldn't take a tow from you if I had to stick a fedder in me tail an' fly back!"

Belligerently she watched his hasty retreat along the deck; for he knew from past experience how far he could goad her without actual physical retaliation. Then she returned to the Narcissus and, after setting a deck watch and ordering Clem, the radio operator, to raise Port Chilkat and arrange for dispatch of a refueling barge in the morning, Annie trudged dispiritedly to her cabin.

Less than an hour after she was startled awake by frantic banging on her door and Clem's urgent voice. "Annie! Annie! Wake up! The Salamander's in trouble!"
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Raine, Norman Reilly
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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