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.
“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