A few days past, Wild Bill came back to town. We've talked of Wild Bill before though that's been many years back. His boat is the Creek Runner out of Inglis where Bill and Katie live. Bill's had the boat about twenty years. The Creek Runner was a shrimper that Bill converted to a sponger. And later, he reconverted it to a shrimper that could be used for sponging, or maybe the other way around. No matter. It's now used only as a sponge boat.
The Creek Runner, along with several other sponge boats from Tarpon Springs came often to Cedar Key in the past. Cedar Key had a reputation for being a frontier town with a back door system of justice reminiscent of the frontier towns of the old days. The sponge boats tied up to the Big Dock, the old dock made of wood the way most of us remember it.
Bill had long dark hair, a scruffy beard, a deep tan and piercing blue eyes set back into his face. His eyes could by themselves disarm you. He was bulky and strong with calloused hands that could tear your face with a forehand slap. People pretty much left him alone unless he wanted it else wise. The spongers were a rough lot. The sea, ropes, wind, sun and diving could do that to you. It had, to Wild Bill.
He had a dog, Brown they called him, whom he loved and who loved him. The Captain's Table was a rough and tumble place, especially downstairs. Don held court at the Captain's Table, sometimes even during off hours. The doors were always open to Dock Street and to the deck behind. Spongers hung out there. Brown, always at Bill's side, was welcome too. Anne and I were there often.
One night, Anne and I and Luke and Bill were on the back deck, a thunderstorm approaching from the west. The wind quickened to gale force. The lightening, red and pink in the salt air, criss-crossed cloud-to-cloud lighting up the sky, sometimes jumping to the open sea. The thunder was seconds behind. We could smell ozone in the air.
At the same time, all of us went "whoa." Anne's hair flared out. Bill's long locks raised up. He tried to no avail to smooth them down. Luke's short, kinky curls stood straight on end, reminiscent of the long flat tops of the NBA. And mine? Well... We dropped to knuckles and knees and crawled inside the door just as the blinding flash and the sharp crack thundered a few feet away. That was a close one.
Another evening, a different time, walking up Dock Street, we saw Bill sitting on the wooden steps to the Big Dock, elbows on knees head in hands. He was holding his face together after a razor slashing from behind. Someone didn't like Wild Bill too much. The Creek Runner stayed in port a couple days longer than intended while Bill's face healed a bit, looking like a newly stitched baseball. Then Bill and the Creek Runner left port. Bill pulled the surgical clamps and stitches out at sea.
So Bill was back in town. He couldn't tie up to the new Big Dock - wonder why - so he anchored off the outside ramp. The Boat's driveline had a bum seal. He had backed the Creek Runner into Cedar Key from somewhere in the Gulf. And his mate, Katie, now his wife, had a toothache that needed fixing.
Bill has changed. Katie has tamed old Wild Bill. He's lost about eighty pounds, no longer drinks or smokes and eats lots of fruits and vegetables. The same with Kate. Bill now does most of the clean up details and drives the boat. He's the man on top. Kate now does the diving. She walks the bottom hunting sponge.
It was good to visit with Kate and Bill, good to remember the old, wooden Big Dock, good to revisit the Captain's Table, and friends and past times. And it was good to catch up.
While here, Kate and Bill had a minor altercation with a Coast Guard boarding party "looking for dead bodies." The coast Guard left embarrassed and empty handed after a thrashing from the eyes and tongue of Wild Bill of old for trashing his boat.
By the time you read this, the Creek Runner will have headed back into the Gulf, Bill at the helm, Kate at the ready, to resume their hunt for sponge.
And until next time we talk, look for me out there in that continuing search for Trouble in Cedar Key.