As panicked as the bird, the girl swerved, jamming the boat’s broad nose into the hairy roots of a mangrove. She lashed frantically with her paddle, trying to get free. She slapped at the water, the reeds—everything and anything to get unstuck from those roots. The boat swayed this way and that, like a trapped manatee trying to escape the sharp blades of a propeller.
Engines suddenly roared somewhere behind her, and Marie, who was no more than thirteen, stifled a cry then dug deep into the water to finally break free. She back-paddled a few strokes then shot forward, her fear-powered arms making the leaky old boat fly across the lake’s surface like a water skimmer chased by wide-mouthed bass.
The engine roar grew louder and the girl paddled harder, but this time she didn’t panic. Drawing on all her strength, she fought for calm, concentrating on her task. She was a strong little girl—a shrimper’s daughter—and her small hands were calloused and sure from four years at her mother’s side, fixing nets and cleaning shrimp. She kept the dugout straight and true, even though the paddle’s edges were as rough as the old gutting knife her brother put under his bed at night to fend off the tough men who came around to take an honest shrimper’s earnings.
The shore was just ahead, beckoning with its muddy banks and thick tropical foliage that could hide a child like Marie from her pursuers.
Then the airboat crashed out of the reed thicket behind her, riding high and fast over the swamp grass that had tangled her paddle. There was a tough young Latina steering the airboat, and when she spotted Marie she shouted at her boyfriend, a scrawny, sunburned Florida cracker:
“There she is, Tampa.”
Tampa, whose eyes were much sharper than his wits, swiveled his ropy neck, low forehead furrowed under sweat-streaked hair, until he finally fixed on the dugout and the girl.
“Got ‘er, Bonita. Pour it on, honey.”
Bonita poured it on, feeding so much Texaco joy juice to those twin Chevy engines that they lifted the airboat right out of the water and sent it surging after the girl.