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  I almost spoke up, wanting to mention the overall importance of preserving historical documents, however by then Vann was sliding the pages carefully back into his presentation folder.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

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