Delta Ghosts

by Terry Hodges

From Season 3 of the Warden Force series

3,791 Words, Approx. 14 minute read

The tiny canoe surged ahead as yet another powerful gust of wind struck it from behind. In the stern seat, Warden James Halber leaned into his paddle-stroke, the first feelings of dread beginning to gnaw at the pit of his stomach.

Most of Grizzly Bay, a great bight of Delta waters over four miles across, still lay ahead. Should I call it off? Halber considered the danger. A large body of water was no place to be caught in a canoe in a strong wind. If he acted now, he could still abort the operation and radio the skiff to pick them up. He started to reach for the radio, but changed his mind and hunkered a little lower on the seat as he paddled on.

In the bow, Warden Carl Jochums paddled with a steady rhythm that Halber matched, stroke for stroke. They had become a team, the two of them often prowling the Delta waters by canoe on the darkest nights, in silent search of the most elusive of the Delta outlaws.

Halber glanced to the west. The sun had sunk beyond the Carquinas Strait, and its last glow was fading fast. They were right on schedule. About three miles ahead, on the tule-choked southeastern shore of Grizzly Bay lay the tiny, protected inlet known among the wardens as Rat Catcher Cut. The cut, with its ramshackle collection of a dozen or so wooden shacks built on stilts, was miles from anything and had served as a haven for outlaws for decades.

The outlaws in this case were gillnetters who knew that Grizzly Bay was a natural fish trap. They knew that king salmon, migrating by tens of thousands up the combined waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, were often fooled on a flood tide into entering the bay where they were highly vulnerable to the illegal practice of gillnetting.

Rat Catcher Cut was a problem for the wardens. Not only did it lie in a remote part of the Delta, but it was difficult to approach. It was all but inaccessible by vehicle during the winter, and because sound carried so remarkably well over the bay itself, it was difficult to approach undetected by motorized boat. Plus, the outlaws had many allies, and when the wardens launched boats or traversed the usual approaches to Grizzly Bay, telephones would ring. But the perimeter of the bay itself, except for Rat Catcher Cut, was uninhabited, a fact that the wardens now intended to exploit.

The plan was simple: Halber and Jochums would cross Grizzly Bay by canoe from the north side, just before dark. They would land and hide the canoe a half-mile or so west of Rat Catcher Cut. They would then proceed through the dense tules to some point from which they could watch the mouth of Rat Catcher Cut.

Hopefully, sometime during the night, outlaws would leave by boat and set a net. The wardens would then wait until the outlaws returned to pull the net, at which time they would call in the two wardens in the skiff who would race in and pounce on the outlaws when their boat was full of incriminating evidence. It was a reasonable plan, one that had worked elsewhere, and Jim Wictum, the highly respected captain of the Delta Squad, had endorsed it and committed six wardens to the operation, including himself.

They had met for a briefing in midafternoon, then launched the skiff at a remote ramp far to the northeast of their destination. Next came the nine-mile run by skiff down Montezuma Slough, hauling the canoe with its bow actually lashed on top of the skiff 's transom, its stern trailing in the water. They reached Grizzly Bay at sunset. They hurriedly piled gear into the canoe and Halber and Jochums carefully climbed aboard and set out.

It had been smooth going at first, the breeze only moderate, but conditions began to change fast. They were no sooner well committed when the wind freshened considerably, and now it was gusting a light gale. Fortunately for the wardens the wind was right at their backs, propelling them along in exactly the direction they wanted to go. The problem, however, was the increasing size of the wind-driven waves coming from behind. The waves were now reaching alarming heights and would have been dangerous even for the skiff.

Halber paddled grimly on, for there was now no other choice. He eyed the life jackets lying uselessly at his feet. He and Jochums had known from experience that to wear them during the long, hard labor at the paddles would leave their bodies and inner garments soaked with sweat, a poor condition in which to begin a chilling winter night in the marsh. So they had chosen to ignore their safety gear, a decision Halber was beginning to regret.

The waves had now grown high enough that the canoe was being caught up by them and would slide down the faces of waves like a surfboard. It was all Halber could do to keep the craft going straight, a condition on which their lives now depended.

A wave would catch them and begin to turn them broadside to it, a turn which if unchecked would result in instant disaster. Halber would dig deep with the paddle and muscle the canoe straight again until its bow dug into the wave ahead and the process would begin anew. But while Halber was fighting a desperate battle for their lives, Jochums had to admit that he was enjoying one of the better rides of his life.

The wardens were being flung along in the dwindling light through a vast expanse of white-capped waves, but now, barely visible ahead, loomed the dark band of tule flats that was their destination. Visible as well were the roofs of the shanties at Rat Catcher Cut. Maybe we'll make it yet, thought Halber, and during the minutes that followed he became more and more confident that he could keep the canoe upright until they reached shore. But he knew that even if they reached the wave-battered shore, their landing wouldn't be pretty. At best, they and their gear would get a good soaking.

The last quarter-mile was the worst, the canoe tossed by waves growing yet higher as Halber, nearing exhaustion, noted the shoreline racing toward them at an alarming rate. Just when a wreck seemed inevitable, he spotted a tiny cove almost dead ahead. Making a slight course adjustment, he skinned a narrow point jutting out into the bay and veered into the few yards of protected water beyond. He then skidded the canoe broadside, its momentum sliding it neatly up onto the shore. He and Jochums stepped out without even getting their feet wet.

"Wow! That was great! " said Jochums as they dragged the canoe back into the tules.

"Yeah, great," said Halber without conviction. He was not yet ready to tell Jochums how many times he had nearly lost control of the canoe during the crossing, how very close they had come to capsizing which would almost certainly have resulted in their deaths by drowning or hypothermia.

Halber advised Wictum of their safe arrival, then he and Jochums grabbed their gear and set off on foot in the direction of Rat Catcher Cut. By keeping to the water's edge and dodging the incoming waves, they were able to avoid the thick tules and make good time. They reached their destination in the last dim light of day.

Amid the driftwood and debris they found a wooden shipping crate that had washed ashore during some high tide. It was large enough to provide them a place to sit, and it offered a good view of the entrance to Rat Catcher Cut, a hundred yards to the east. They had no sooner settled in to wait, when Jochums suddenly froze, listening hard.

"I hear a boat," he said. Halber strained his ears, but could hear nothing but wind and waves. He didn't doubt for a moment that Jochums had heard an engine, for Jochums, Halber had learned, had remarkable powers of sight and hearing. "It's like he has radar," Halber was fond of saying about his friend.

The wardens no sooner got their binoculars to their eyes when a boat appeared, leaving Rat Catcher Cut. It was about an 18-footer with a small cabin and covered wheelhouse. It pitched and bobbed in the rough water and traveled no more than a hundred yards offshore before it slowed. Its occupants then engaged in some kind of activity near the stern of the boat.

"They're puttin' out a net," said Jochums.

Halber strained his eyes, but could see little more than the dark shape of the boat against the water. He knew, however, that there was no other reason for people to be out at dark under such conditions. Sure enough, after only about eight minutes, the boat returned to Rat Catcher Cut. Jochums now studied with a starlight scope the water where the boat had been.

"I see at least one float," he said, knowing that there would be floats strung along the top of a gillnet, some more visible than others. Halber radioed the information to Captain Wictum.

"Now we wait," said Halber.

With the coming of darkness, the wind subsided somewhat, but grew colder, and the wardens pulled on gloves and down parkas. Knowing that the outlaws would allow the net to fish at least through the flood tide and slack water, a matter of several hours, the wardens had time to relax for a while. They chatted quietly concerning the promise of their situation, the prospects for making a really good arrest, and they planned for every contingency. Would the outlaws run? Would they beach their boat and attempt to escape into the dense tules? Would they fight? Whatever happened, the wardens would be prepared.

Halber turned to Jochums. "If you were half a man, you'd swim out to 'em when they pull the net, like Gene Durney did."

This was in reference to a celebrated exploit of one of the tougher of their predecessors some 25 years earlier. Warden Gene Durney had indeed swum a hundred yards one dark Delta night, clambered aboard a net boat and captured two astonished gillnetters.

"No thanks," said Jochums. "But I'll hold your coat while you do it."

This led to a discussion of other of their predecessors who had worked the Delta and distinguished themselves in the gillnetter wars—tough, dedicated men like Ken Hooker and Artie Brown, particularly effective wardens, and Charlie Sibeck on the old patrol boat, Rainbow. Sibeck had even teamed up a few times with "0l' Sabertooth," Gene Mercer, with great success. But a few wardens had not survived their struggles with gillnetters. Edward Raynard was beaten to death by outlaw fishermen. Alan Curry died by shotgun blast. Richard Squires and Ray Hecock had been found shot to death, adrift in their boat.

"I wonder how that happened?" said Jochums, in reference to the mystery deaths of Squires and Hecock.

"I don't know," said Halber, grimly. "But I wish I'd been there." The discussion now turned to the most famous of all of the Delta wardens, or fish-patrolmen as they were known in the early days. He was a man who had left a legacy bigger than life.

Jack London, the famous author, as a young man early in the 1890s, had served two harrowing, adventure-packed years in what was then known as the Fish Patrol. He had plied San Francisco Bay and the lower Delta in his boat, Reindeer, a swift little gaff-rigged sloop, and had hounded the oyster pirates, the shrimp draggers and the outlaw gillnetters. Many of the outlaws of his day were in fact the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the same men Halber and Jochums now pursued in the same waters.

London had written about his experiences in his book, Tales of the Fish Patrol, which Halber had read several times. Halber, in particular, felt a kinship to London and often pictured him aboard Reindeer, in the ancient days before power boats, his hand on the tiller, racing across Grizzly Bay before a stiff breeze.

Hours passed. The discussion continued, despite the damp cold of the marsh which began to take its toll on the wardens. At one point, in reference to the packing crate on which they sat, Jochums said, "This would be a good place to hide a gillnet." He had then reached behind them, into the open end of the box, and explored its interior with his hand. To his astonishment, he found a gillnet.

"You're kidding!" said Halber, scrambling around to take a look with a tiny pen light. He studied for a moment the pile of nylon mesh and floats inside the box. He and Jochums had searched often for nets, and they had found a couple, but it was a rare thing. And now they found that they had been literally sitting on one for the last few hours. "Well, at least this one will never fish again."

When it was time for vigilance again, the wardens began standing half -hour watches. One would huddle down, bundled in a Space Blanket, while the other would peer through the night-vision scope, alert for the return of the net boat. And so it went, hour after teeth-chattering hour until about 4:30 a.m. when Jochums nudged Halber and announced, "They're comin' out!"

Halber reached for his radio and made the call to alert Wictum and the skiff crew. Lieutenant Jim Dixon and Warden Bill Slawson, the skiff crew, had spent the night at a deserted waterfront cabin on a tiny island near Buckner Point. Slawson, during the night, had assumed a prone position on the dock in front of the cabin, scanning Grizzly Bay with his night-vision scope rested atop a rolled life vest.

Unfortunately, his new handset radio slipped from his coat pocket at one point and somehow was knocked into the water. Without hesitation, Slawson, who had been a paratrooper during World War II and was still tough as a combat boot, stripped off his clothes and dove into the frigid water to recover the radio. Despite his valiant effort, he emerged empty-handed, tight jawed, and a delicate shade of blue. But he was ready for action when Halber called, and he and Dixon immediately jumped into the skiff and made a quiet departure.

Following the south shoreline of Grizzly Bay, they proceeded at low speed in the direction of Rat Catcher Cut, two miles to the northeast. They had gone but a short distance, however, when Dixon groaned and began fiddling with wiring behind the instrument panel. The engine warning light had suddenly appeared, a brilliant red, and soon thereafter, the engine began to miss.

"Pretty bad timing," said Slawson. Dixon just shook his head in frustration.

Salvador Carboni, one hand on the throttle, the other on the wheel, aimed his outboard-powered net boat at the white marker-float he could barely see tossing in the pre-dawn darkness on the still-troubled waters of Grizzly Bay. As he brought the float alongside, his nephew, Anthony, hooked it neatly with a boat hook and began pulling in the gillnet to which it was attached.

It was immediately apparent that the net hung heavy with fish, and as Anthony dragged the first one aboard, a shiny, 18-pound male, fresh from the ocean, a third man on the boat, Nicholas Baldo, went into action with a small, gaff-like tool called a fish pick. He grabbed the fish's head with one hand and with the fish pick in the other he raked the nylon mesh entangling the fish. By doing so he was able to draw the fish on through the net. This single fish, he noted, would sell for over $60 at the going price.

Baldo, like his friend Carboni, had gillnetted salmon most of the 60-some years of his life. He had learned the trade from his father prior to 1957 when gillnetting was still legal. Like Carboni, and many other descendants of the original immigrants who had begun gillnetting the Delta long before 1900, they had defied the law, unable to resist the high profits. But there was a price to be paid. Both Baldo and Carboni had been been caught several times and had lost their boats and expensive nets.

But the profits were worth the risks, and a $5,000 fine could often be paid off with the profits from as few as two nights of gillnetting. The fines and the cost of seized boats and nets were therefore considered simply the price of doing business. One after another the big fish slid aboard and were pulled from the net and tossed onto the deck. Soon the deck was covered with fish and it became difficult for the men to walk, but still the fish were hauled in. At one point they pulled a five-foot sturgeon aboard and soon thereafter a large striped bass, but the take was mainly salmon, dozens of them. The boat settled lower and lower under the weight of the illegal catch.

Then it was over. The last of the net snaked aboard and Baldo removed the last fish. Carboni swung the boat around and added power, but he didn't head for Rat Catcher Cut. Instead, he paralleled the shoreline, in the direction of Buckner Point. The fish and the nets would be stashed elsewhere.

"They're comin' your way," said Halber, radioing the skiff crew.

"We'll do what we can, but we're still havin' engine problems," answered Slawson. Dixon had managed to keep the skiff running, and they were not far from Rat Catcher Cut. But it was touch and go. He now held his thumb over the engine warning light to prevent it from being seen by the outlaws.

To Halber and Jochums, unsure of the location of the skiff, it appeared as if the suspects and their load of fish and gillnet had a good chance of escaping unchallenged. They were absolutely beside themselves with anxiety as they watched the net boat pass in front of them in the darkness and continue on. But then, inexplicably, it turned shoreward.

"They're comin' in," said Halber. "Let's go!"

Sure enough, the net boat was indeed heading for shore, and it appeared that it would land at a point within reach of the wardens. In fact, it appeared to be heading for the little cove where the wardens had stashed the canoe. Both wardens were now at full sprint, crashing through the tules in a mad dash to get there first. But they didn't make it. The driver of the boat drove its bow up onto the beach, and others aboard began offloading burlap sacks containing panels of gillnet.

Fortunately, due to the noise of the wind and the waves pounding the shoreline, the outlaws didn't hear the wardens coming.

Upon spotting the boat beached dead ahead, Jochums continued directly for it. Halber, however, who expected one or more of the outlaws to bolt into the dense tules to escape, veered away from the shoreline, still at a run, and crashed through the tules to a position where he could deny them this option.

Halber, still at a run, bellowed, "STATE GAME WARDENS! DON'T MOVE!" almost simultaneously with Jochums' shouted, "STATE OFFICERS! YOU'RE UNDER ARREST!" The reaction of Carboni and his nephew was instant flight. They leaped off the boat and dashed into the jungle of 10-foot-tall tules. Jochums, however, grabbed the nephew before he could go far, and Carboni, upon hearing a shout ahead of him and what sounded like a rhino coming his way, crouched and hid. About this time the skiff nosed ashore next to the net boat, and Slawson leaped off.

"One went that way!" said Jochums, pointing out the direction Carboni had taken. Slawson hurried in pursuit, casting the beam of his flashlight ahead of him, following a trail of freshly disturbed tules. Jochums escorted the nephew, Anthony, back to the net boat where Nicholas Baldo sat quietly in the boat, his days of running from wardens long past. Slawson hadn't gone far when he spotted a splash of bright red ahead. Investigating further, he found it to be Salvador Carboni hunkered down in a red and white sweater.

"You should wear green when you're gonna hide in the marsh," said Slawson helpfully, as he marched the man back to the others.

Halber now strode out of the tules and took in the scene of the three suspects standing dejectedly near their boat with Jochums and Slawson. He then peered into the boat for his first look at the illegal catch that would later be determined to consist of 67 salmon weighing a total of 1,288 pounds, plus one striped bass and a sturgeon.

With the arrests made, the real work began. The fish had to be counted, sacked and tagged, the gillnet panels inventoried, a trailer found on which to haul the seized net boat and motor, and a stake-bed truck arranged for to haul three-quarters of a ton of evidence. And the suspects had to be transported to Contra Costa County Jail.

On top of that, there was a disabled skiff which ultimately was towed in by the seized net boat. It was early afternoon by the time the wardens were finished, and they were exhausted. It had been a long, bitter-cold all-nighter, and they were all in serious need of sleep. Halber, in fact, could not trust himself behind the wheel, and upon being returned to his patrol car he crawled in, rolled his parka into a pillow and lay his head down upon it on the seat.

As he closed his eyes, he reflected again on the events of the previous night, of their near brush with disaster, of the outlaws and the huge catch of salmon and the tiny chapter he and the others had written in a continuing story that had begun nearly a century earlier. And as he drifted off, his thoughts turned again to the brave wardens who had preceded him in the Delta, of the sacrifices they had made. Then sleep was upon him like a warm blanket.

But all at once he was there again, on the gale-torn waters of Grizzly Bay, this time aboard a trim little gaff-rigged sloop heeled sharply over, her sails billowing, her rigging singing in the wind. A tousle-haired young man, half-drenched with spray, leaned into the tiller, his sharp eyes alight with excitement. And Raynard was there, and Curry and Squires and Hecock, all peering ahead and poised for action.

On they sailed, into the night, bound for adventure.

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