Short Story | The Matagorda Beach Club By T. R. Schaefer
It was near the end of civil twilight with the last thin glow of the sun fading just below the horizon after a spectacular late spring sunset. It was not totally dark yet, but with no moon it would be dark as the inside of a bat cave in a matter of minutes. Dinner was long past and the campfire was roaring amply supplied by dry drift wood collected earlier in the day. They were on day four of their week long mission still trying to settle in to the routine and adjust to their deserted island environment parked at the waters’ edge on lovely Matagorda Island. Two of the four men in the team were always “on –watch” while the other two could occupy themselves as desired with sleep, fishing, exploring or whatever other activity could be conjured up. As it was just then they were all up and alert, but not alert enough. Three of the team members were sitting around the fire watching the flames flicker creating nearby shadows as the night grew darker and darker. Garcia, the fourth man, was in one of the tents checking the radio and getting set up for the night watch. Garcia was diligent, liked to be organized and didn’t like surprises.
As if they rose straight out of the ground like ghosts from the Karankawa Indian tribe that once inhabited the island, four men appeared just outside the camp. They were difficult to see at first mostly just the outline of their forms, but as they walked deliberately toward the fire their visages became clearer. Two in the center and one on each wing as if they were walking in to the gunfight at the O.K. corral. The tall, big man was in the center group and seemed to be setting the pace of the approach. Their positioning was no accident and was a good tactical deployment providing the best options to deal with a rapidly escalating situation. They could move fast and be deadly like cougars circling their prey ready to cut off any possible escape route.
McDonald, the team leader, sitting on the other side of the fire with his back to the water saw them first. His right hand instinctively, but slowly moved to the small of his back and his fingers wrapped around the grooved pistol grip of his government issue Colt .45 automatic. The handgun felt cold and powerful, but he knew in his head that if he had to pull that weapon there was no telling what the outcome would be or who would be left breathing. His heart pounded and he could feel his hands getting moist. He turned his body to the right a bit to face them in profile. He knew his guys were all carrying their weapons as he was at Condition I – fully loaded with one in the chamber, max capacity. He had two additional magazines in his jacket pocket, but his jacket was draped over the log just out of reach. Bad planning he thought, but not relevant anyway since he knew if something happened it would all be over before he had to go for the extra magazines. Breathe deeply he thought and see this in your mind’s eye as ending as quietly as it had begun. No biggy – just like a walk in the park!
He said to the other two men quickly under his breath “We’ve got company – stay cool”. Higgins and Luger, looked over at him with surprised looks, but felt the urgency in his voice, and then followed his wide eyed stare to the vector where the four men approached. His next thought was that Garcia probably didn’t hear his whispered warning. He hoped Garcia stayed in the tent and made no sudden moves or commotion coming out of the tent. If he came pouring out oblivious to the new arrivals his action might be mis-interpreted by the welcoming party. Their response might be ugly and irrevocable. The other important factor was that Garcia had the shotgun in the tent and Garcia was the “excitable” type. He really needed Garcia to stay quiet and not do anything sudden, but what if Garcia got spooked? McDonald wanted to warn him. He felt a sudden stab of guilt – he did not see these intruders approach – no sounds, no lights and no vehicle. “Where did they come from?” he thought as he realized that their stealth arrival was no accident. How long had they been out there watching us and waiting for the sun to go down? This welcoming party was good, they certainly knew their business and now they had the initiative. They had caught his team by surprise and the next five minutes could decide whether there would be a short or long future for all of them. His next random thought was that he was glad that they had decided to rig the spider looking UHF radio antenna inside the tent out of view. Had to play it cool, calm and collected. They were just here on a fishing trip – first time out here on the island or so their not so well rehearsed story was supposed to go.
The big man stopped about ten yards from the fire. When he stopped the two men on the wings moved a few more paces further out on the wing and then stopped like a well practiced football play. The quarterback in the middle would be calling the plays. They were wearing jeans, dark knit caps and what looked like denim barn coats with deep front pockets. Their hands were not visible buried deep in those pockets. Three of them appeared to be Caucasian, but the fourth one might be Hispanic. The “quarterback” spoke first with a slight south Texas drawl in his voice. He looked to be about forty, was heavy-set with a weather beaten face that had been in the sun a long time.
“How ya doin’?” He said in a casual and mock friendly way.
McDonald stood and replied in a loud steady voice his hand still gripped tightly on his .45, “Doin alright. Can I help you?” The others stayed seated. In the tent Garcia heard the exchange and reached for the shotgun and stumbled over a small cooler. His heart started pounding. What was going on? He hated that he could hear the voices, but couldn’t see anything. What should he do? As he gripped the loaded shotgun in his hands as he cursed himself for closing the zipper all the way down on the tent door. No way to get out fast. Need to get that zipper open. He lay down on the tent floor and crawled toward the door. He slowly started working the zipper upward with a wire clothes hangar while his other hand gripped the shotgun. The halting conversation outside near the fire continued.
The big man said, “Just saw your fire and wondered who was out here. Don’t get many folks beach camping on this island.”
McDonald moved a step closer still with his body turned. “My friends and I are doing a little fishing out here – emphasis on little I ‘m afraid. Not catching much so far.” He gestured toward the small metal rowboat with the outboard engine on it beached at the waters’ edge a short distance away. Just as McDonald began speaking Higgins and Luger both stood and faced toward the four strangers. Higgins faced a little more to the left and Luger a little more to the right. The big man calling the plays for the welcoming party noticed. He only saw these three men. Where was the fourth man?
The big man said, “How long you plan to be out here?”
McDonald said, “About a week I think or as long as the beer holds out if we don’t start catching something”. No one laughed.
Higgins broke the silence and suddenly said, “What about you guys – what are you doing out here?”
The big man shifted his weight a bit and looked right at Higgins perhaps a little surprised at the query. Higgins was also a big man and did not look to be easily intimidated. He gave a little smirky smile at Higgins and said coldly, “We are hunting”. There was a long silence then he added, punctuating the threat “Deer hunting.”
Higgins had had enough of this one sided interrogation and pressed on with another pointed question, “You don’t happen to have a white pickup truck do you? Saw one the other day at the end of the runway.”
The big man accepted this new challenge. He smiled again then said, “Nope. Vehicles are not allowed on this island. Where did it go?”
Shaking his head Higgins replied slowly, “Not sure really – it just seemed to disappear. Seemed kind of odd to us”.
McDonald was happy Higgins went on the offensive, but he wanted to defuse the confrontation and soon. He kept his hand on his pistol grip even though his arm was aching. As his mind raced McDonald thought of the irony of the situation since this mission almost didn’t happen because of the weapons issue. His unit often conducted routine coastal surveillance missions, and he had conducted drug interdiction operations at sea with the Coast Guard, but this was their first counter-drug operation ashore. The mission was for his team to function as “spotters” for federal law enforcement agencies so they could conduct interdictions. In the case of Matagorda Island it was “spotting” small aircraft making unauthorized landings on the old airfield. Presumably they were low flyers from Mexico or someplace in Central America. He didn’t like being on a deserted island with nothing more to defend themselves than a Swiss army knife. In the end authority was granted for all weapons qualified personnel on the surveillance team to carry concealed weapons. While pleased with this outcome McDonald remembered the words of caution at the pre-mission briefing concerning deployment of weapons. The stern warning was seemingly unambiguous – “no display or employment of weapons” except in the extreme case of self –defense. The surveillance team had no authority to detain or arrest individuals – suspected drug smugglers or not. Their job was to “observe and report” – end of story. Was this night that extreme case? He did not see any weapons yet and there had been no threatening moves by the approaching men. Except he thought – they are getting very close and I cannot see their hands. “What the hell were they doing here if they were not drug smugglers?” Was there some other plausible explanation? Not likely. The pre-mission briefing stated that there was no one living or working on the island, no vehicles allowed and the runways at the old airfield were all officially closed. Only legit way on or off was by boat. Well, in their first couple of days “on island” they had seen plenty of unauthorized activity already! On day two they had spotted a white pickup truck far off in the distance that just seemed to disappear. Later that day just before dark a single engine Cessna 172 aircraft came in low and floated down the long runway. The team had reported the aircraft type, color and its “N” number over the radio, but did nothing else. Near the end of the long runway the plane disappeared from view and that was it. Observe and report they had been told. Yeah there was some strange stuff going on at Matagorda Island.
Their camp was set about a half a mile from the south end of the long 8,000 ft. runway – the sweet spot to catch the “N” numbers on the side of the small planes as they made their final approach to the runway. The “N” numbers were the required registration numbers for private aircraft, but some aircraft they had seen had missing or painted over numbers. Then there was the broken wreckage of a small plane on the side of the old runway – the one that didn’t quite make it. Before their time, but probably tried to come in at night without any lights and the pilot misjudged his approach resulting in a crash landing on the hard pavement. The wreckage was empty, but hadn’t burned. Did the occupants walk away from that one or were they carried away in body bags? Either way – who took them away and where did they go?
Garcia got the door zipper up halfway so he could get out of the tent in a hurry if need be. For the moment he just stayed on the floor in the darkness with the barrel of the shotgun pointing out the door. He thought about the easy days earlier in the week fishing, reading and exploring their temporary home base. There was a lot of drift wood around so they collected it for the fire and then someone got the idea to use the wood to make things. This led to some cobbled together tables, a makeshift toilet stand and the sign. The sign was the masterpiece. They used the hatchet to carve the words in to the large plank of weathered gray wood. The letters read sardonically, “The Matagorda Beach Club”. They had erected the sign on two long poles and officially christened the entrance to their new club. Garcia smiled as he thought about their creative antics then frowned as his grip on the shotgun brought him back to reality. He waited wondering how it would go down? The DEA agents were back on the mainland on their confiscated yacht having a grand old time. If something happened and he could reach them by radio it would be twenty minutes at best before they could respond. In this situation those guys might as well be on the moon. He started to run through his plan in his head as he gripped the shotgun harder. He was pretty sure McDonald or Higgins would give him a sign or a cue about when to act. He just had to be ready when the time came. He wasn’t sure how many bad guys were out there, but they were close, very close. He was sure they were in range of his shotgun.
McDonald changed his tone and in a friendly manner said, “You guys want a cold beer or something? We got plenty!” To his left Higgins coughed and seemed to tense up even more.
This time the big man in the middle laughed. Then he looked over at his two men on the wings. Looking back toward McDonald he said, “Thanks for the offer, but we need to be moving on. Good luck with your fishing and watch out for the rattlers around here. They own more of this island than any of us!”
As the welcoming party closed ranks and started to move off in to the darkness like ghosts disappearing after a visitation McDonald released his right hand from the pistol grip, raised his aching arm and waved. He said, “Thanks for the tip”.
Garcia let out a long breath and realized he was sweating profusely in the cold night air. He wanted to stand up, but his body wouldn’t respond. He laid the shotgun on the floor of the tent and used both hands to push himself up to unzip the rest of the tent door. He stepped out in to the night and saw his team mates standing around the blazing fire. Accept for the fire it was so dark you couldn’t see a thing – only the fire and the boat on the beach.
McDonald said, “Garcia you okay?” He replied in a low voice, “I’m okay now. What was that?” He moved closer to the fire.
McDonald said quietly in case the ghosts were still listening, “That was a probe and perhaps a little test. They know who we are and we know who they are so the game is on. Garcia, you and Luger have the night watch. Check in on the radio. Stay alert – I won’t be surprised if a darkened plane comes in tonight. Remember – observe and report.”
Garcia moved back toward the radio in the tent to make the report. The three men at the fire each grabbed a beer from the cooler and settled in. No one at the Matagorda Beach Club would be sleeping much that night.