The greatest show I ever saw him put on was about daybreak one morning at the Dry Tortugas. Hem and Waldo Pierce, the big bearded painter, and I had rented Bra's boat to go down to these westernmost islets of the string of coral islands that make up the Florida Keys. We'd made the long choppy trip across the banks hoping to catch up with one of the schools of big king mackerel that move east and north out of the Gulf of Mexico in the spring. We hadn't caught many big fish.
Waldo set up his easel at one of the embrasures of the vast brick fort and painted. I had my cot and notebook in another shady nook. The sun was hot and the trade wind cool. The place was enormous and entirely empty. No sound but the querulous shrieking of the terns. The water was incredibly clear, delicious for swimming. We saw no shark or barracuda, only a variety of reef fish: yellowtails, angelfish, sea robins, all sorts of tiny jewellike creatures we didn't know the names of that swarmed their way here and there under the coral heads. A couple of days went by; it was one of the times I understood the meaning of the word halcyon.
Ernest had brought along the editor of a slickpaper magazine from Chicago. The man was in a trance. It was a world he'd never dreamed of. He was mosquito-bitten, half seasick, scorched with sunburn, astonished, half scared, half pleased. It was as much fun to see Ernest play an editor as to see him play a marlin. The man never took his fascinated eyes off Old Hem. Hem would reel in gently, letting his prey have plenty of line. By the time the editor was hooked he was so fascinated he didn't know which side was up. Sure he would print anything Hemingway cared to let him have at a thousand dollars a whack. (In those days it never occurred to us anyone got paid more than that. We lived outside of the world of agents and big-time New York lunches.) Ernest was practicing up on skills he'd later apply to high literary finance. He got that editor so tame he even sold him a few pieces of mine for good measure.
Bra meanwhile was spending his time dredging up conchs. He'd discovered to his amazement that people would buy the great rosy scalloped shells. He had the whole bow of the boat piled up with them. The night before we started back to Key West he made us one of the best conch chowders I ever ate. That with fried yellowtail seasoned with a brine and lime concoction he called Old Sour made a royal feast. We washed it down with a little too much Bacardi rum.
We were tied to a little pier across from the fort. While we were eating and drinking, a couple of Cuban smacks that had been fishing in deep water for red snapper came alongside. They were a ragged sunbaked friendly crew. We handed around tin cups of Bacardi. Hem's Spanish became remarkably fluent. From out of his beard Waldo produced that mixture of French, Italian and bastard Castilian that had carried him for years through the Mediterranean countries. Bra, who disdained foreign tongues, made himself friendly with shrugs and grunts. The editor sat speechless and goggle-eyed while we climbed around each other's boats jabbering like a band of monkeys.
There were feats of strength, tales of huge blue marlin hooked and lost, of crocodiles sighted in the Gulf and rattlesnakes 20 feet long seen swimming out to sea. Night fell absolutely windless. There was no moon. Our friends pushed their boats off, anchored a few hundred feet out and turned in. We moved out from the pier to catch what breeze there was. The stars looked big as Christmas-tree ornaments, clustered overhead and reflected in the sea. The three small craft seemed suspended in the midst of an enormous star-studded indigo sphere.
It was hot in the cabin. Weighed down with heat and Bacardi we lay sweating in the narrow bunks. Sleep came in a glare of heat.
We were awakened by a knocking on the deck. It was the elderly grizzled man who was skipper of one of the smacks. "Amigos, para despedirnos." Red-eyed, with heads like lumps of lead, we scrambled on deck. He pointed. Against the first violet streak in the east we could see a man on the bow of the smack shaking some liquid in a large glass carboy. They were sailing for Havana with the first breeze. They wanted to honor us with a farewell drink before they left. Everybody climbed up on the narrow planking of the pier. Of course there was no ice. It was a warm eggnog made with a kind of cheap aguardiente that tasted like wood alcohol. Obediently we brought out our tin cups. We were hung over. We felt squeamish. It made us retch. Couldn't insult our amigos. We expected to die but they were our amigos and we drank it.
It was then that Ernest brought out his rifle and started to shoot. By this time it was silvery gloaming. You could feel the sun burning under the horizon. He shot a baked-bean can floating halfway to the shore. We threw up more cans for him. He shot bits of paper the Cubans spread out on wooden chips from their skiff. He shot several terns. He shot through a pole at the end of the pier. Anything we'd point at he would hit. He shot sitting. He shot standing. He shot lying on his belly. He shot backwards, with the rifle held between his legs.
So far as we could see he never missed. Finally he ran out of ammunition. We drank down the last of the fishermen's punch. The amigos shook hands. The amigos waved. They weighed anchor and hoisted the grimy sails on their smacks and steered close-hauled into the south-east as the first breath of the trade lightened the heavy air.