An American Story (Part 8)

I guess I should have seen that coming.  I let Vann’s comment hang in the air while I looked past the shadowy supports of the water tower.  It was darker now, past twilight and right at the cusp of the true night.  A thin fraction of light remained, just enough to provide a murky contrast in my surroundings.  The sky itself was brilliant as we were far enough from the city lights for the stars to be displayed in all their numbers, Orion hanging directly in my view as I looked west.  I felt the need to relieve myself so I shuffled off into the darkness, trying to judge the proper distance for privacy in a situation like this.  As I walked away I heard Vann get up and when I looked back I could see that he too was making his way into the night.  Hopefully he had not been waiting for me.  When I returned he was just sitting down again, after which he pulled out a black watch cap and put it on with the sides pulled down low over his ears.  I was getting fairly cold also, however had little additional clothing to put on so I tucked my hands in my armpits and spoke.

“Your story gets more fantastic as it goes.  How did the police ever make someone kill two women?”

possible photo of John Beargrease Robert N. Dennis collection photographed by B.F. Childs

possible photo of John Beargrease
Robert N. Dennis collection photographed by B.F. Childs

“Well, it began on the night that Tom Sexton finally was able to get up and walk around again, having recovered as much as he was going to from that last beating he took.  There was a doctor in the town who told him that he should stay in bed, however Tom had also been being seen by Mashkikiikwe, an Ojibway medicine woman who lived with Mok-qua Bennete.  Mok-qua was also called John Beargrease by the way in case you ever want to look him up…it’s an interesting story.  But anyway, Tom had more faith in the medicine woman and she told him that he was as healed as he was going to get, so he went out, walking all the way down to Whiskey Town.   There’s a local legend that Mashkikiikwe followed him down there in secret, trailing behind him to see that he made it, keep him safe you know?”  Vann’s arms had been moving again and were in full rhythm by the time he finished this part of the story.  He tucked them under his legs as I began to pace around the area under the tower. My feet, barely protected by my favorite Melvin’s,  were starting to get fairly cold at this point.  I also had a question.

“Why the hell would she do that?  I thought you said that she told him he was ok?”

“You’re getting pretty cold, huh my friend?  Wish I had something to offer you.  Maybe you should head off now, or go to your truck over there.  It would be warmer.”

“I’ll be fine, I’ve got the blood flowing.  So why?”

Vann was giving me a look, one of pity I guess and that made me feel ridiculous.  Why was I not going to my truck?  I shot him back my best ‘get on with the damn story’ look, which he accepted with a shake of his head.

“Hard to say.  It’s all just legend but some people believe that there was more going on between Tom and the woman than spiritual healing.”

“You mean more than the usual amount of spiritual healing?”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.  So she followed him, and then what?”  I stopped pacing as the tight circle I made was making me a little bit dizzy.

“I don’t know if she followed him, it’s just a local story.”

“Ok, ok, so then?”

Vann held up his hand.  Apparently my impatience was wearing on him again.  I watched with amusement crossed with fury as he removed a blue comb from his pack, took off the watch cap and carefully smoothed his ratty brown hair back, following each stroke with a look up at me.  After placing the cap back on, and the comb into it’s pocket on the outside of the pack, he pulled another candle out to replace the one which had gone out some time ago.  Once the flame was properly set he continued on.

“Tom had been out of commission like I said for ten days and really felt like showing his face in the town again.  He never had been one to back down and I guess figured that he wanted the railroad to see that he was back in action.  So, he walked all that way and once he was there wandered over to the Half Acre looking for a tug of whiskey.  He knew the owner of course and liked checking up on things, sad as they were, in the businesses on what little remained of his property.  Walked in, took a look around and sure enough, ze-bam!, those railroad thugs were sitting next to the bar just like they had been expecting him.”

I offered a muted chuckle and said, “go figure.”

“Indeed, indeed my friend.  Tom hardly faltered a step, just walked up to the bar and asked for some whiskey.  Then he sat down at a table and looked around at what was pretty much the usual scene.  Small groups of men playing cards, telling dirty jokes and funny stories, women sitting on a lap or leaned up against a fella in the corner, a few odd lonely ducks tucked into dark spaces by themselves, muttering and rubbing their faces.  He tapped his empty glass to get more whiskey and then stared hard at those railroad boys.  I don’t know what might have been running around in Tom’s mind but he could not have felt good on the inside.  He  might be stubborn and brave but I don’t think he imagined he was going to survive another beating.  But he waited, ordering a few more tugs and staring right at those boys.  Finally, they both got up and went over to the bar, walking past Tom on the way but not looking at him.  Both men stood at the bar and took out silver dollars, spinning them on the bar top and letting them ring down as they finished.  This was a well-known custom at the Half Acre, a call for a girl if you will, and it brought several of them over to the bar quickly.  They picked two and headed back behind the bar.”

“Jenny and Mary?”

“Who else my friend, who else?”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 7)

What Vann had said surprised me a little bit as I guess I prefer to envision a more just society, or at least one a little bit more fair.  It was fairly quiet for a few minutes as I contemplated the idea that the railroad would have had enough authority, and little enough oversight, to have been able to consolidate so much power.  As I forced myself to take a step back from ‘modern-life’ and look at an older picture of the country, Vann seemed content to flick at the small pebbles which littered the concrete pad under the water tower.  Occasionally he would score a hit on one of the support legs and his delight was comical. Sadly comical anyway.  Finally I figured I had most of the picture and asked a question.

“Was it at least a separate, I don’t know, like a separate thing from the railroad?  It was more like the railroad controlled the police?”

Vann shook his head slowly and the wispy ends of his hair breezed on and off his face.

“No man, it was like I said.  They were the police.  Their office was in the back of the railroad manager’s lot.”

So that certainly seemed unfair, but so it had been and I crossed my arms and waited.

The iron highway, a historical and still vital part of our economy.

The iron highway, a historical and still vital part of our economy.

“They needed to get rid of him and they decided it really didn’t matter so much in the end whether Tom ever sold them the land.  What they really needed was for him to go away, and to stay away.  When I was doing all my research I came across an old letter from the railroad manager, one that he had written to the head of the company back in St. Paul.  It took me a bit to figure out what it said, it was old ya know?  The paper was really brittle and the writing was faded, not to mention basically a lean scrawl that seemed to have little regard for the margins.  Anyway, I figured it out and it was a revelation of a kind.  Here’s a direct quote: ‘It appears that being delicate has not been successful so we will need to become more direct.’  Can you imagine it man?  They thought they had been easy on him up that point!”

It did seem shocking given what Vann had told me about the beatings and other pressure Tom Sexton had endured.  I gave him a look of agreement and he went on.

“So, now we have to jump sideways for a minute, into Whiskey Town.  Can you follow me friend?”  He looked at me with mischievous eyes.

“Yes, I suppose I can.”

“Excellent! So, on the piece of land nearest to the lake there was a watering hole, a saloon I guess, that was one of the original tenants of the area.  The building had survived the fire of 1884, when quite a few of the places around it had burned to the ground.  It was called Hell’s Half Acre but after it survived that fire the owner renamed it Hell’s Lucky Half Acre.”  Vann snorted before he even had all of those words out and he ended up rubbing his nose into the sleeve of his jacket to clean himself up.  I mouthed a small chuckle and smiled.

“The place was interesting, a bit different than some others you might have heard about in the movies and such.  In those films the girls always take the men upstairs to provide their services.  Not at the Half Acre though, it was a single-story building, lots of them in the town were.  So, the ladies had to take the boys to some rooms that were located behind the bar, and the slats in the walls between the bar and the bedrooms, well some parts of them just weren’t sealed up too tightly.  It was a well known game of fun to have a running commentary going along the bar about what was happening, and visible, on the other side of those walls.  It of course,” and here Vann assumed a pose, and a tone, that for some reason reminded of the blue caterpillar in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, “made the establishment rather famous.”  He completed the thought by puffing on what I could only believe was an imaginary hookah.  Had I really read him that well?  The possibility was a little bit scary.  Thunderbird was, after all, not known for its powers in bringing clarity.  I hoped that it had been a fluke.

“Sounds like a dive, but I guess that’s to be expected.”

“It’s all they had man, all the places were like that.”

“Yeah, I get that.  So, why are we taking this story to the Half Acre anyway?”

“Ah yes, it is because of Jenny Totts and Mary Flynn.  These two ladies were probably some of the best known service girls in Whiskey Town.  They both are even mentioned in some of the local papers of the time, more than once.  They were a bit notorious if you will, and not just for what happened behind the bar at the Half Acre.  Both of them were well-known to fight at the drop of the proverbial hat and Mary had stood trial once for killing a man she said tried to rape her.  She took a knitting needle to his back, at least that’s what the papers said she did. And was in such a fury about it that she drove the other end of the needle clear through her own hand and kept on going after the guy, holding the back end of the needle with her uninjured hand so she could keep driving it into him.  There is a police report that says when they arrived she was pulling the needle back through her hand like it was nothing.  ‘Ms. Flynn was pale and covered in blood but showed no emotion, she seemed unaware of where she was’, that’s how the police report read.  Some kind of a woman huh?”

Vann looked at me as though he really thought I was going to answer that in the affirmative.  I settled for, “mad woman,” and hoped he would go on, which he did after another round between his nose and the sleeve of his jacket.

“So, I’m telling you about these two ladies because they both ended up dead, really dead.”

“They killed each other finally in some kind of jealous fit about who was the nastiest chick in town?”

“Ha!  I like that, but no.  The police arranged it so that Tom Sexton killed them.”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 6)

I had to take a few minutes to stretch my legs before he went on, so I held up my hand and stepped out from the cover of the water tower.  Walking out to the road I realized that it really was getting very late and I was in some way contemplating the need to spend the rest of the  night in this strange desert refuge.  The air was cooling quickly and although it was not exactly comfortable it was a big difference from the heat of the day.  As I turned to walk back, the crisp white of the tower against the darkening blue sky stopped me for a moment as it had a kind of magnificence about it.  After several long moments I nodded at the sky, a thank you I guess, and wandered back to Vann who greeted me with a question.

red rock water tower july 2013

“Ya know what that Whiskey Town was all about?”

“Well, I guess I’m not completely sure but four acres of merchant-ville surrounded by a bunch of guys busting their ass all day probably means bars and prostitutes.  Isn’t that the way it usually goes?”

“Ha!  I guess you know about that then, that was indeed what it was, gambling too and other things but I guess you know what I’m talking about.”

I nodded my agreement and arched an eyebrow to get him to move the story along, which he did after a pause to scratch his legs vigorously through his jeans.

“So, like I said, it was four acres of all that but still owned by Tom.  He collected lease money and made a few attempts to make it better but it was pretty much a lost cause.  He was still getting a regular treatment from the railroad thugs but holding up against it to keep his land.  Right about the time that the row really started to get bad, Tom purchased a new boat for himself.  Some of the local history would tell you it was because he planned to make a serious go at commercial fishing, and the boat was built to be rigged for that, for sure it was.  Other stories say he was planning on leaving and just figured that was a good way to go.  Some evidence would later support that also.  I guess that’s one mystery we might never solve.”

“So, you seem to have read a lot about it, what do you think?”

“Considering what…,” and here Vann paused and stared off into the twilight.  He blinked and was back.  “I always think I have an answer for that, but then you ask me and ze-bam! It’s all confusion again.  I guess, I think he was leaving.”

“Considering what?”

“What about considering what?”

“You, you started to say considering what before you went all ze-bam.”  As I said that I realized what a passion Vann had for his catch phrase.  Coming out of my mouth it truly sounded lame.

“Oh, well I was saying considering what they found later, I think he was leaving.”

“What did they find?”

In his eyes I actually saw exasperation.  “Won’t you let me tell my story?”

“Sure, sorry, go on.”

He took a moment to close his eyes and breath deeply, calming himself I guess from my impatience.

“Anyway, Tom up held good like I said, until they turned their final trick on him.”

I was curious about a man who would bother to take so much abuse especially in a cause that had to be easy to see as lost by then.  “Did you ever figure out why he stuck it out?  I mean other than just stubbornness, or maybe that was the reason?”

“Oh, there was a reason and it will be obvious in a bit, just let me get to that part ok?”  Exasperation again.

“Ok, go ahead.”  I made the zip-my-lip motion and threw away the key.

“So by this time it is 1885, getting on toward fall and the railroad really wants that final piece of land.  By that time they had expanded every part of their operation, including branching out into shipping and they had a need to build a large coal storage and shipment facility on the lake.  Of course, the only place left was Whiskey Row and the little bit of land Tom still had for himself to live on, the same place he had lived the whole time.  Once those rail thugs beat him so badly that he spent ten days basically at death’s door, but he pulled through and still refused to sell it.  So, realizing that they were not going to get rid of him that way, they came up with a different idea.”

I raised my hand, partially in a jest about my lips being sealed, but I did have a question to ask and waited for Vann to look at me, which he did and said, “go ahead,” with a wistful smile.

“What was the police situation there at the time?  Or whatever law enforcement there was at the time up there?  It seems like all of these beating might have registered with them, or that Tom would have complained about it to them?”

“Ahh, you see, that’s where you have to understand the way it was there at the time.”

“And how was it?”

“The railroad, well they were the police.”

…to be continued