An American Story (Part 16)

Vann had leaned back completely against the support post and closed his eyes.  I gave him a few minutes of rest as I ran through the part of the story I had just been told.  I had to admit that I had been pulled into this tale completely and had a persistent tick in my mind driving me down a road filled with unanswered questions.  I glanced over and could tell Vann was starting to breath more quietly, drifting off, which I just could not allow for the moment.  I spoke more loudly than I had previously, just to be sure I pulled him back.

“Did anyone actually ever look for Tom?  Or did they just assume he was dead?  When they went to scuttle the boat, is that when they pulled all the stuff off of it, all of those items you said you saw?  How long did it take the railroad to take his land?  What about the ….”  Vann, eyes still closed, held up his hand.

boat being scuttled courtesy dailymail.co.uk 4-26

boat being scuttled courtesy dailymail.co.uk 4-26

“Easy, my friend, easy.”  He breathed a deep sigh and then rubbed his face roughly, shaking himself awake I supposed. After another sigh he continued.

“Yes, when they went to scuttle the boat they did take the items off although that was not really part of the usual process.  Mostly they would have taken off anything of real value, and maybe in some cases the personal effects if they knew someone to give them to, next of kin or whatever.  In this case they had no information as to whom Tom might want any of his effects to go to.  The first search of the boat had given them a pretty good idea of what valuables might be aboard, and they surely intended to take those.   They had aboard a local Duluth man though who was a bit of a history buff.  He had spent much of his time in the area researching just how that part of the territory had been explored and settled.  He was curious when the first reports had come back and intrigued by what he heard about Tom’s strange collection, and managed to get himself aboard for the return trip.  By the time they arrived at the wreck he had convinced the captain of the boat that they needed to remove all of the items aboard so he could keep them, use them for his research.”

“And the captain agreed to that?  Aren’t there salvage rights to the captain and wouldn’t he have wanted some of that stuff for himself?”

“He did, I think anyway, I mean that’s part of the payment for doing work like that.  But in the end the historian bought him off with the fifteen silver coins.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, that and a few pieces of the boat the captain wanted, the sail and stuff like that.  But yes, basically just the fifteen coins.  He was a fairly persuasive man I guess.  He wrote about it later, some of the things he surmised had happened, a few random details that he came up with along the way.  He was fairly passionate about it, however he died before he could really get too much into the story.”

The sound of coyotes howling started up right then, off somewhere in the distance, a usual sound in Arizona but slightly unnerving when you are outside the usual security of city and home.  When I turned back Vann was drifting off again.

“Why did they have to scuttle the boat anyway?  It was just grounded so I figure they could have fixed it up?”

“Not really.  Apparently the damage that Tom couldn’t fix had become considerably worse in the few days it had sat on the sand bar.  They determined it just couldn’t be saved, or wasn’t worth the cost.”

“Did this historian guy ever figure anything else out?”

Vann shook himself awake again.  “A few more things.  He goes on for a bit in one of his papers about the picture of the chess piece on the side of the boat.  It was after reading what he thought and learned about that I ended up going off on my own little side journey into the history and meaning of chess pieces.  It’s quite a trip,” and here Vann shook one of his bony fingers at me, “and I suggest you avoid it.  I don’t think that it has anything to do with, well anything really.”

In my own mind I still thought that this was a rather large loose end but I realized that Vann was unlikely to be swayed in his thoughts on the matter.

“That’s it?”

“More, yes there is more.  He did some of the preliminary research on Tom’s background in the area and left some good notes on that.  He also searched for Tom, actually trekked up to the northern parts of that area and asked around, visited a few Indian tribes, even tried to track down Mashkikiikwe but no luck.  He did find John Beargrease who apparently claimed he knew nothing about Tom at all, which would have been unlikely, so read what you want to into that.”

“Did he keep all of that stuff he took off the boat?”

“Yes.  That’s where the inventory came from and he kept really good track of it, which is part of the reason the provenance is so good on the items.”

“Who was this guy?”

Vann’s eyes settled on me for a moment and then he smiled, just the same way he had when he finished brushing his teeth, then he shrugged and waved his hand loosely in the air.

“I can’t quite remember.  You could find it out pretty easily though.”

I kicked my foot against the ground, a little frustrated with that answer.  After tapping it a few more times I asked him about the railroad’s seizure of Tom’s land.

“They took it all almost right away.  It was before the story about his stranded boat even made it back to the area.  They were already in the process of leveling everything on his property when they received that information.  I figure it just served as another justification for the land seizure.  They kicked off all the tenants, except the Acre like I told you before, and got busy building.”

I remembered something Vann had said near the beginning of his story.

“So, that’s how these candlesticks survived a murder, a shipwreck and a fire all in the space of a year.”

“No.”

“That’s what you said, that was their big story I thought.”

“It is, but that fire at Tom’s wasn’t the one I was talking about.”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 15)

After I had finished reading, and we had managed to take the photos (which was quite the theater of the absurd, with Vann dancing around lighting collected scraps of trash on fire and me trying to snap photos at just the right moments, when the fire would catch enough to flare up briefly), I handed the pages back to Vann.  He took them and then ran his fingers down the edge of each page, stopping at the bottom to rub the corner of the paper quickly through his fingers.  That at least explained why every one of those pages had a torn, wrinkled or rolled up edge, the pencil-written last word on the page scuffed out and hard to read.  I almost spoke up, wanting to mention the overall importance of preserving historical documents, however by then Vann was sliding the pages carefully back into his presentation folder.  I settled for rolling my eyes at the contradiction.  After returning the folder to his backpack, he withdrew a toothbrush from a jacket pocket and a large tube of toothpaste from a side pocket of the pack.  Stepping off to the edge of the cement he began to brush his teeth, which I observed silently, teaching myself another lesson about never making assumptions.  Finally he was done, finishing by running his tongue around his teeth with his mouth open and then flashing me an exaggerated smile.  If he was trying to prove a point, he managed it quite well as his teeth were straight, clean and all present.

As he sat back down he muttered, “just about time for sleeping I figure.”

“What?  No way, you have to finish this story up.”

“I’m tired and hell, it’s late my friend.  We can finish up in the morning.”

“You can’t leave me hanging like that, and besides,” I paused to look around at the unknown dark wilderness that surrounded the water tower, “I don’t plan on being here in the morning.   Just tell me the rest.”

Vann eyed me closely for several minutes, a look of considered scorn on his face, then he yawned and moved over a few feet so he could lean back against one of the support posts.

“Ok, then, I’ll tell you the rest, some of which is just speculation. As I had said, that journal entry is the last thing that Tom left in the way of information about what happened to him.  Several days later another boat spotted Castle off-shore about ten miles or so north of Tom’s property.  It appeared to have grounded and been abandoned.  That first boat did not do anything more than check to see if anyone was aboard.  They reported it at their next stop, which happened to be Duluth, and two other boats were dispatched to look into the matter.  When they arrived they did a pretty thorough investigation, and fortunately the record of that survived.”

“Anything interesting in it?”

Vann looked at me with his usual dismay at my impatience.  “A few things for sure.  When they went aboard, the boat was filled with water as much as it could be given its grounded state.  They initially believed that the boat had hit hard enough to cause the leak, however after they had examined what they found on the boat, including Tom’s journal, they realized that was not correct.  Eventually they concluded that the boat had continued to take on water, Tom had not been able to repair it and that the boat had grounded because it was riding lower in the water than Tom realized or took into account.  He did know the area, however there were not any actual charts ever found on the Castle, so they figured he just miscalculated, got stuck and then couldn’t get the boat off again to try to make it to land.  There were no signs of a rushed exit or any panic.  As far as they could tell, everything that Tom had put on the boat was still there, including his personal items, the collection he listed in the journal and all of the provisions.  Much later I turned up the fact that Tom had a leather bag he always carried with him, and that was not found on the boat, so I believe he must have packed up just a few things, like maybe a few food items that could take getting wet, left the boat to get to land, and then for some reason never returned.”

“How far off-shore was he?”

“Not far at all actually, maybe five hundred yards.  The report stated there was a sandbar there that shifted sometimes, and as far as I could tell, is not even there anymore at all.”

“So he swam it?”

“He must have.  It was not a large boat and nothing in the way of a smaller craft aboard that he could have used to make land.  He probably thought he was close enough to make it.”

“But he didn’t?”

“Well, no one ever heard from him again.”

“Did the railroad people from Two Harbors ever figure out what happened?  Did they come to look at the wreck?”

“They never sent anyone at all.  All they really needed was for him to clear out of town, and for there to be enough reason for them to confiscate his land, which of course the murder provided for them.  Those two dead women were quite the scandal and the railroad played it up as much as possible, really tarnished Tom’s reputation.”

“Too bad that fire didn’t take and burn the whole place down.  Maybe they never would have been able to pin that on him.”

“With two charred skeletons in his burned down cabin and Tom disappeared?”

I had to offer a short laugh at my own foolishness.  “Yeah, I guess that wouldn’t have worked.  So, they never knew?”

“Oh, they heard about it of course, word got around especially after  one of the boats doing the investigation pulled into Agate Bay about a week later. It had been sent back to pull the wreck off and scuttle it.  The word got around once the crew made it to the saloon.”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 14)

Authors Note:  Vann did allow me to take a photo of the pages he gave me although we had to do so with the light of some trash we briefly lit on fire- I transcribed them here as the writing is somewhat difficult to read.  My notes are included below in italics.

first page tom sexton last entry

first page tom sexton last entry

Friday October 16, 1885

Current position off-shore Agate Bay – taking on water

Not a pleasant day.  I awoke in town, at the Acre, painfully hung over and unable to recall some of the details from the previous night.  Before I had even cleared the edge of the village I heard an animal howling and thought it might be Allie, although that would be a long way to hear him from.  I was not quite myself so I walked slowly for a bit, however the howling continued and I became convinced it was him which put a hurry in my steps.  Even at that it took me over an hour to reach my property and it was horror when I did.

(there seems to be a break in the writing here, possibly attributable to his next comment and also due to the lightly sketched pictures that appear underneath)

I find it hard to write about this however I think I must as it is the only record anyone will have other than whatever my tormentors come up with.  The horror on arrival began with a woman hung up by the neck in the maple tree, face contorted, clothing ripped and dirty and her entrails strewn out in a pile on the ground beneath her.   Allie looked as though he may have been nosing around that pile, however when I arrived he was sitting about thirty feet away and almost hoarse from howling.  It may have been that the swarm of insects drove him away.  I was ill immediately and then I hauled that poor boy away and tied him up by the door post.  I went inside to get some tools however found another, and if possible, more wretched scene.  Another woman, one I recognized, her name might be Jenny from the Acre, was trussed up to my chair.  She had been violated in ways that I really cannot bring myself to write, other than that she was burned and cut.  The smell inside was terrible, death and blood, and I became ill again and continued in that way for some minutes.   I closed my eyes but the scene would not leave me.  Even as I write this it is still there.  I am certain it always will be.

In that poor condition I continued, eventually I must have stood up because when I next was aware of myself I was outside, cursing and shouting.  It may have been fifteen minutes and I realized I had been pacing between the two bodies. Finally Allie stopped howling, which snapped me out of my despair, and I realized I needed to take action.  When I took off my jacket to begin, I knew that this crime was not only terrible but one that was intended to be traced back to me.  My cuffs were stiff and rough, covered in blood, as was a portion of my jacket front and collar.  It gave me a moment of pause, did I do this?, before I knew the truth.  Up to that moment, perhaps naively, I had not thought of what was obvious now – I had to leave Agate Bay forever and very quickly.

I cast off mid-afternoon and headed out onto the lake, regret still in my mind for leaving behind such a chapter in my life.  I am proud of what I did there.  The light was just starting to fade as it does this time of year and I hoped that the darkness would come before anyone set off after me. I need to have a good lead on any pursuit.  What will I do if I am caught?

(there seems to be another break in writing here and the page has some water damage on it.) 

I will protest my innocence until the last, however in present circumstances, and among the present company in this area, I fear that may to be no avail.

I am headed north.  I need to get away from Duluth, Agate Bay, Burlington, all of this burgeoning population, up toward the more empty parts of this great wilderness.  I made good progress for perhaps twenty minutes before I noticed that my vessel was riding lower than I expected her to.  At first I gave this no more than a passing thought as I had loaded some additional items before I left.  It was not long however before my curiosity got the better of me and I poked around below, only to discover that I was in fact taking on some water.  Improbable or impossible I thought, as this vessel has been tight and worthy so far, however it was a fact not to be driven away by these beliefs.  I bailed, keeping up pace and working on the problem, hoping for a quick repair.  It was however not to be, as several times I believed I had achieved success only to find more water leaking in soon after.  I was still just within sight of land, although thankfully far enough from my property to not be visible, and the darkness was coming now which I knew would cover me.

A night on the water does not appeal to me, however I seem to have no choice.  I am tired and distraught, full of anger, sorrow and pain and may not be in the best mind to solve my problem.    It is 2330 now by my watch and I believe I can keep bail all night and maintain through to morning when a better solution may present itself.

0015 – maintaining well, almost feel asleep while on a break from the work, however slipped and bumped my head which was good luck I suppose

0200 – all well although the leak does seem to be increasing.  I am bailing about five minutes out of every fifteen.

0410 – I bailed like the devil to catch myself a break – as dry as it can be down here for the moment.  My back rests against the two trunks that I filled with my collection.   That, my provisions and the personal items (journals, letters, the photograph I had taken in 1859, father’s razor and my camp kit and gun), are all that remain to me.  I started with less in Agate Bay.  As far as what I have brought from my collection,  I believe this list is complete:

– the three pointed iron poles (only the ones with the runes / other script on them – I had to leave the others).

– Wooden handled cutters

– Uniform jacket found with the skeleton in grave one (I remain certain it is British enlisted from the war)

– My rescued candlesticks (my only set now, so I guess I shall have to use them much as it dismays me).

– The zoetrope and the only remaining good strip (with the horses –  I broke it off its spindle trying to load it…however it still intrigues me).

– Argand lamp

– Tombstone shako cap (all three were in very poor condition, I took the best one).

– Fishing lures and birch box (which to date I still cannot determine origin – Indians ? or Frenchmen?)

– Wooden box carved with ‘Abigail 1792’

– fifteen silver coins

– Indian birch bark basket  (has scratch art on it…beautiful)

– a round earthen vessel (the larger one with what appears to be the inlaid colors)

These are all I could safely carry away with me.  I left the pit as it was as I had no time to cover or conceal it – I suppose it may provide someone a few odd moments trying to determine its nature.  The items from my known and unknown lists I did bury separately, with the lists themselves included as inventory.

The water rises again and I have written too long.  Thankfully morning comes soon.

The entry ends there and Vann would continue his story after I was done reading.  The condition of the pages left me skeptical in regard to how much longer he was going to be able to keep them safe in his bag, regardless of what protection he had around them.  In some ways I was tempted to ask him if I could take them with me, however I thought better of that in the end.   Later I did some research into just what some of these items were and what they looked like.  I have included some pictures here as a reference.  

tombstone shako cap courtesy history.army.mil

tombstone shako cap courtesy history.army.mil

Ojibwe scratchwork courtesy richard and dorothy nelson collection

Ojibwe scratchwork courtesy richard and dorothy nelson collection

british enlisted coat war 1812 courtesy cape ann museum rob bibelhauser

british enlisted coat war 1812 courtesy cape ann museum rob bibelhauser

argand lamp courtesy english-heritage.org

argand lamp courtesy english-heritage.org

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 13)

“Do you suppose he meant anything by that?  Was it a symbol of something?”

Vann had  a faraway look in his eyes, reliving his research I supposed.  “You know, I thought about that too, a lot really.  At the time, I guess I was trying to derive some bigger meaning from it.  Did he see himself as part of a game?  Was there some kind of meaning to him about his relative power in the area?”

“Power?”

“It’s a chess piece value thing.  You know, how folks that play rate the value of one piece against another?”  Vann’s hands were waving in front of his crossed legs, moving invisible chess pieces around in the air.  Although I knew how to play, or supposed I did, I had no idea what he was talking about.

“This get complicated, huh?”

“A bit, not too much, but you probably don’t want to hear a gaming lecture from me.”  His eyes twinkled a bit at that, and I took it that he would have been happy to give me one.

“Not really.  Let’s just leave it at my understanding that people have values attached to them.”

“Ok then.”  He sighed and reluctantly continued.  “So, maybe it was a value thing, or any of another whole mess of potential analogies relating to even more obscure chess information.  The history of the pieces and such.  A person could get, did get in my case, lost in that for a bit.”

More details I was ignorant of no doubt.  “You researched the history of chess pieces?”

shatranj pieces and modern chess pieces courtesy ancientchess.com - the rukh is third from left

shatranj pieces and modern chess pieces courtesy ancientchess.com – the rukh is third from left

“Yes, kind of fascinating actually.  You know, in ancient versions that piece, the one we call a rook, was actually a chariot.  Or in some other cases berserker warriors.  Plenty of room there to put meaning into the name of Tom’s boat, but in the end I just decided he liked playing chess.”

I was quiet for a moment and Vann seemed content to take a break from the story.  It did not seem logical to me that this piece of information meant so little.  After all, Tom had not named his boat in the usual way but had instead chosen to put a picture of a chess piece as a nameplate.

“That seems like one hell of a loose end you left there, I mean there has to be more to that than the fact that he liked to play chess.  Did he really actually play?”

My question snapped Vann out of what, from his facial contortions anyway, seemed to have been a troubled reverie.

“Ah, yes, at least it seems so.  It’s mentioned quite a few times in his journals and a set was recovered from the boat.”

“Why did you decide to leave that one alone?”  My query sounded harsher than I meant it to.  Perhaps the night air was adding malice to my words.

“Leave what?”  He replied quickly but with an undertone of understanding.

“Leave this idea of what or how he named that boat with such a lame explanation.  You dug up plenty of other information and certainly drew plenty of critical conclusions, but then you leave this with your, ‘liked to play,’ chess solution?”

Vann was still sitting cross-legged and now propped his chin up on his hand, elbow resting on his right knee, the thinker pose I thought.

“Well, somethings aren’t for me to figure out I guess.”  Several seconds of silence and then he began again.

“Tom left and cruised off into the fading light.  His journal mentions that he didn’t think anyone would follow him into the darkness, giving him at least a little bit of a lead on his likely pursuers.”

two harbors area nautical map courtesy noaa.gov

two harbors area nautical map courtesy noaa.gov

“I’m no sailor but isn’t travel on the water fairly dangerous at night?”

“Of course it is, but Tom knew that area really well and figured he could disappear safely.  Although this boat was new to him, he had spent plenty of time on that water in others ones.”

“Did he have a plan, some place that he was going?”

“He definitely planned to go north, although how far initially is hard to say.  Me myself, I probably would have given some consideration to the group of islands that is across the bay from where Tom left, might have been a good place to disappear.  Not Tom though, his journal states, ‘need to head away from Duluth, up toward the more empty parts of this great wilderness.’  He had enough supplies, like I said before the boat was well provisioned, enough to survive for a good amount of time on his own.  I think maybe he just planned to head north and see what happened, maybe find another place like what Agate Bay had been when he first arrived.  Pristine and empty, ya know?”

I nodded and shook my head, wishing that I had some water as the after effects of the Thunderbird were starting to hit me, leaving me with a rapidly approaching headache and a tacky feeling in my mouth.  I looked at Vann’s bag, hoping this somehow alerted him to my condition, however he was still just starting at me after his last sentence.  I decided it was not that important.

“Yeah, I guess he liked places like that.  So he headed north.  How far did he get?”

“Not far actually, although he certainly wanted to.  After about thirty minutes on the lake he started to notice that the boat was taking on some water, not quickly but steadily, enough that he decided he did not want to be any further off shore than he was.  He had turned north almost right after leaving and was out of sight of his cabin, so I figure he took some small comfort from that anyway.  It was not dark when he discovered this problem so he spent some anxious hours, bailing, trying to stem the flow of water and waiting for the light to fade.  A few times he thought he had it fixed up, however within a few minutes the water would start to accumulate again.  Once night fell, he kept bailing and hoped he would be able to fix the problem once the sun came back up.”

“That couldn’t have been a fun night.”

“I doubt it was, however the situation did not require him to work constantly.  He did have time to write his final journal entry.”

“And that’s the last thing we know about him?”

“It is certainly the last bit of information that he provided.  Everything else is speculation.”

I could not take it any longer.

“Do you have any water in there?” I said, pointing at Vann’s bag.

He grinned back.  “No way.  But I have this,” and he reached into a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a pack of gum.  That was going to have to do at this point.  I took it gratefully and popped it into my mouth, tossing aside the wrapper which Vann reached over and picked up, giving me a look of admonishment.  I waved an apology and asked a question.

“Is this journal in the archive up there?  Is it something a person could go look at and read?”

“Interested, huh?”

“Well, it’s a long way to Minnesota from here but who knows…and yes, it’s interesting. Do you know what else it said?”

“Of course I do.”

“So,” and I made the come-on motion, feeling as though I were dragging information out of an uncooperative prisoner.

“Calm down. It’s easier to just read it.”

“I will, hopefully I guess, someday.  Just tell me what it said.”

“Read it for yourself.”

My headache was stronger now and my patience was even less than usual.

“Seriously, just,” at which point I stopped because Vann had reached into his bag and produced a black presentation folder, the kind that people use to keep certificates or award letters. He opened it to reveal a plastic bag that enclosed a yellowed set of pages.

“I don’t even believe this.  You stole the journal too?”

Vann looked offended.  “Just the last entry.  Here, read it for yourself.”

…to be continued