The Castle Danger Story (Part 9)

“So, what did Tom do?  Follow them in?”  I gave Vann a leering smile and raised my eyebrows.

“No, not at all.  Actually he just sat there.  I figure that the effects were already starting to set in, but of course it’s hard to tell since he never mentioned the details of that himself.”

“The details of what?  And effects of what?”

Vann shrugged his shoulders up and then cracked his neck, a sigh of satisfaction escaping his lips as he did so.  He rubbed his nose and continued.

“Now part of what I’m about to tell you is partly my own speculation, from what I learned and putting some things together in my head.  Anyway, what is known for sure is this.  Those railroad boys came back out with the girls about thirty minutes later and Tom Sexton was throwing up, violently, in the corner by the wood stove.  He had stood up about three minutes before that, knocked over a couple of chairs with a staggering lurch once he was on his feet, and then stumbled over to the corner.  My opinion, well I think that bar owner, who was the one pouring drinks that night, I think he slipped something into Tom’s whiskey.  I think he was working with the railroad or doing them a favor.  Maybe they blackmailed him, scared him, who knows?  But I definitely think he slipped Tom something.”

“Just because he got sick?  Maybe he shouldn’t have been up and about so soon?”

“Maybe true, maybe but,” and here Vann paused with his index finger held up in the air, “I do know that two weeks after the murders that owner had enough extra money to fix up the inside of the Half-Acre and his was also the only business allowed to stay open after the railroad took over the land.”

“So, they did end up with all the land.”

Vann looked up at me with his exasperated look as I was obviously skipping ahead in the story.  He did however give me this one.  “They did, and kicked everyone out so they could build over it, everyone except the Half-Acre which was allowed to stay open for another six months to service the crew building the coal storage buildings.  They kept a few of the buildings actually, moved them to other places in the town, but the land, they took it over.”

The railroad operation in Two Harbors, MN - courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The railroad operation in Two Harbors, MN – courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

“Interesting.  So, then Tom was sick and…?”  I figured I had better get back to the correct place in the story after being allowed this skip ahead moment.

“Yes, very ill, and like I said I believe that was done by the owner of the Acre, and that Tom had probably been starting to feel its effects earlier in the night.  So, out come the ladies with their customers and Tom is spewing in the corner.  The owner tells Jenny and Mary to carry him to one of the rooms in the back and put him into bed until he felt better.  Those two were pretty tough ladies and they hauled him up like the proverbial sack of potatoes and took him back.  Along the way Tom managed to throw up right at the feet of one of those railroad boys, which I guess may have been the only revenge he ever exacted on them.  Back he went with the girls and they disappeared into the rooms behind the bar.  And that was the last time those two ladies were ever seen alive by the way.  Last seen alive with Tom Sexton. “

I had returned to tapping my feet up and down to try to get some additional blood flowing into them as my toes were right at that point where they are so cold they begin to hurt.  As it was not working very well I took off my Melvin’s and began massaging my feet.   After a few minutes I looked back at Vann, who had paused when my shoes came off, and asked, “They never came back out of the rooms?”

Ella G Stone at Ore Dock in Two Harbors, MN courtesy C. Patrick Labadie Collections, Duluth, MN

Ella G Stone at Ore Dock in Two Harbors, MN courtesy C. Patrick Labadie Collections, Duluth, MN

“They did not, at least not that anyone saw.  As soon as they were out of sight those two railroad thugs departed, the taller one cursing the owner for the vomit on his boots, and then they walked out the front door.  The owner did not think much of Jenny and Mary not coming right back, and by the time he did all he found was Tom passed out in one of the beds and the girls gone.  He looked around a little for them, didn’t find them and then turned to other things as both girls were prone to disappearing without notice anyway.”

At this point I wanted to guess what happened next, however I held my tongue and waited for the story to continue.

“Nobody thinks much of any of this in the moment of course.  It may have been weird for Tom to be sick and passed out, however as things went at the Acre, it wasn’t that unusual.  So Tom wakes up the next morning, not remembering the last few minutes before he blacked out, in fact not one hundred percent sure how he even ended up in the bed.  He also in not feeling much better but also is not throwing up anymore, so he starts walking home.  Almost right away he hears a dog howling in the distance and thinks it might be his, however he also knows that his dog never howls unless something is wrong or really bothering it.  As he gets closer he realizes it is his dog and he starts running, not sure what may have set it off.  He finds the dog sitting under the maple tree on the east side of his shack, almost directly under the strung up and gutted body of Mary Flynn.  That gets him to throwing up again, and then he hauls the dog away and ties it up at the front door.  Inside he finds Jenny, tied up to a chair and her throat slit, horrible marks of torture on her body, burn marks, a skinned left forearm, nasty stuff.”  Vann looked away toward the night and shuddered.  I had my own sense of revulsion at his description and the story paused for several long moments.  I could hear an insect that I could not readily identify making clicking sounds in the cold night and off to the west the occasional hum of a vehicle on the highway gave a little background noise to the darkness.  Finally Vann turned back.

“I’m not sure that Tom realized exactly what had happened to him in those first few moments.  He was horrified of course by the condition of the girls and he paced around aimlessly for almost ten minutes, going back and forth between the two bodies. It was when he finally decided to take some action that he realized the true depth of the problem.  He took off his jacket, which he had slept in at the bar, and when he did that, he realized that the cuffs were soaked in blood and there was additional blood on the front.   The implication was obvious to him.  He knows that he doesn’t remember a few things about the night before but also knows he would never have killed Jenny and Mary.  And that’s when he knows he has been set up.

“He didn’t realize his coat had blood all over it?”

“I figure he was pretty hazy from the whiskey and whatever else they gave him, probably had that blurry headed nonchalance you get after a good night out ya know?  That after-buzz that makes the details of the following morning a little less important?”

I had to admit I knew all about that so I nodded and asked another question.  “The blood was probably dry too, huh?  Makes it less noticeable especially if the cuffs were that soaked.”

Vann nodded back at me and rubbed his nose on his jacket again before speaking.  “Interesting side fact by the way, nobody saw those railroad boys for a few days and when they did, the tall one had twenty-five stitches across his cheek from a deep cut and the other one had his hand wrapped up.”

“Those ladies must have put up quite a fight.  I mean, you are saying that the railroad guys are the ones that really killed Jenny and Mary right?”

“Indeed, indeed on both my friend.”

…to be continued

The Castle Danger 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

The Castle Danger 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

The Castle Danger 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

The Castle Danger Story (Part 5)

That seemed serious and Vann had stated it with authority.

“Really? Interesting start, go on.”

He winked at me, then punched his right arm forward and said “Ze-bam!”  He had done this a few times previously and I had eventually worked out that it was his statement of excitement and accomplishment.  Then he continued.

“Like I was saying, Tom Sexton owned a bunch of the land up in Two Harbors, including down by the lake.  There was an iron company in the area at the time, Northwoods Iron, and they wanted all of that land Tom had, both for mining and for allowing their railroad to run in and out of the bay area.  It was real important to them if you know what I mean?”

“I’m guessing that means they didn’t take no for an answer?”

“That’s what I’m saying.  Tom sold them those first few plats, just figuring I guess that it was some extra money.  Plus, there weren’t a whole lot of people up there at the very beginning.  He just didn’t see the harm in it.”  Vann paused for a moment.  “You want any more of this?”  He stretched his hand up toward me, fingers wrapped around that emerald green bottle.  I waved it off but had a question.

“I’m liking this story, but how do you know so much about Tom Sexton anyway?”

“I read things, read them while I was there, asked around, did research man, real research.  And…well forget that.  So, he sold them some land and it was no big deal.  But they kept coming back around his shack wanting to buy more.  Always the same two guys, big as lumberjacks but dressed nicer, politely dressed I guess is what they used to call it. They would just be there when Tom walked back in from the woods or from fishing.  For awhile it was all nice conversation ya know, good day Mr. Sexton, what’s the trapping like this year Mr. Sexton.  It didn’t last long that way, not once Tom kept saying that he would just as soon keep his land.  He had two dogs, brothers, black and tan setters which were pretty rare in the states at the time.  He woke up one morning to the howl of one of them, sounding like it was hurt bad.  He found it about ninety feet outside his door caught up in a bear trap.  There wasn’t much to do except put it down.”  Vann looked up at me.

“So, the bear trap…”

“That’s what I’m saying, the trap wasn’t his, he didn’t have any worries about bears himself and he sure wouldn’t have put one where his dogs could come across it so near to his shack.”

“And that’s what made him sell his land to the pretty lumberjacks?”

“No, no, hardly that, not yet anyway.  It’s just how it started.  They did things to him, took away things, spread rumors, all that stuff.  They wanted to intimidate him because they wanted that land.”

Two Harbors - showing construction of the ore docks  photo courtesy of collections.mnhs.org/

Two Harbors – showing construction of the ore docks
photo courtesy of collections.mnhs.org

“Yeah, I get that. So how long did it take for them to get him to sell all of his land?”

“Twenty years.”

I had to laugh at that and I did.  “Well, they weren’t very good at it I guess.”

“That’s not it.  They didn’t really start to put the pressure on until the last three years or so.  That was when the work on the railroad was really heating up.  Tom took some pretty thorough beatings before he gave in but in the end he did.  By 1883 they had all of his land expect four lousy acres that he ended up renting out to merchants who wanted to sell things to the workers putting in the railroad.  It turned into a real bad place, Whiskey Town it was called.”

“And then they somehow took that from him too?”

“You bet.  Ze-bam!”

…to be continued

The Castle Danger Story (Part 4)

It turned out that Castle Danger was neither a castle nor in any immediate peril.  As Vann took a deep breath and a short tug of the little remaining Thunderbird he also told me that I probably was not going to believe what he was about to tell me.  Not much of a storyteller I guess…never lead with that.  Anyway, I wrote his tale down the next day as soon as I got back to my truck and I think I have it right, although maybe some of the spellings in regard to names are wrong.

Vann began with, “these candles survived a fire, a shipwreck and a murder, all in the space of about one year.”

“Hmmm, well you may be right about my disbelief, they don’t look that old or experienced.”  I laughed a little with myself at that clever line.

“Just listen.  There’s a place up in Minnesota, way up, by the pointy part of it.  It’s called Two Harbors.  Not a big place now but it had its moments back in the late 1800’s when the railroad was expanding and they had just struck iron ore in the area.  First of all, I gotta tell you that the beauty of this place is breathtaking.  It’s right by the shore of Lake Superior and has this amazing shoreline. Cold brown and grey cliffs, stacks of boulders towering up right from the water.  You can sit back at a distance, up by one of the grassy tops or hills that surround those cliffs and watch the water crashing up against those stone walls, tongues of heavy white water and misty spray falling back just out of your sight, back to the lake.  Ya ever seen a postcard man, one of a lighthouse on a cliff?”

Split Rock Lighthouse - courtesy of http://www.fhwa.dot.gov

Split Rock Lighthouse – courtesy of http://www.fhwa.dot.gov

It took me a few seconds to answer as I had been absorbed both by the intensity with which Vann was telling his story and by this lingering image I had of him as a disheveled university professor, lecturing on American geography and talking just as much with his hands as with his mouth. He had pulled them back after asking me the question, taking a moment to rip a hangnail off his thumb with his teeth.

“Yeah sure, I’ve seen some.”

“I’m telling ya, it’s probably of this one in, well near, Castle Danger.  Split Rock it’s called.  It just sits up there, teetering on the point of a cliff.”

“Sounds pretty…”

But he had cut me off. “Irrelevant here though, it wasn’t built at the time I’m trying to tell you about.” I made the ‘go-on’ motion with my hand but it was hardly needed. “There was a man, Tom Sexton, who owned pretty much all of the land in that area as he had lived there since about 1850.  It was called Agate Bay back then, but it’s the same place as now. He had started out in a simple house, one of those frontier shacks, and pretty much just lived a simple life until the railroad started busting through up there.  You know about the railroads?”

I looked behind Vann to where the modern dual-track ran alongside the water tower.  Did I know about railroads? “Yes, I think I know about the railroads.”

Now it was his turn to look askance at me. “I’m not talking about the tracks, I mean the people who owned them, the companies that built them.” “Well, I guess not much.  You know, the regular history stuff you learn, maybe a documentary, why?”

“They were ruthless man, really bad.  Didn’t care about much except building their tracks and depots where it suited them best.  They did dirty deals, lied, bullied, killed people.”

“They killed people?”

“They killed Tom Sexton.”

…to be continued

The Castle Danger Story (Part 3)

I offered him back my name and thanked him for the offer to sit in his little hide-away, although he did not seem especially impressed by either one of these actions.  Some time passed, awkward to me at first as I continued to resist itching at my eyes, although Vann seemed perfectly at ease.  I guess it was his world I was inhabiting after all so I probably deserved to feel out of place. The wind whistled and blew for about another ninety minutes and then the gentle desert calm returned although the air still had a grainy texture. I figured it was a good time to get moving on however a hand on my elbow stopped me as I was about to stand up.

“Ya want something to drink?”

I considered that offer for a few seconds, envisioning the proffering of a bottle of Thunderbird if I said yes, however my throat was scratchy and my tongue felt like sandpaper.

“Sure…please.”  And I was rewarded with the Thunderbird, as warm and as edgy as I remembered it to always have been. I coughed down a couple of swallows and handed it back. “Thanks.  You must come this way often, I mean, you had that whole eye of the storm thing figured out.”

Vann waved one of his bony, tanned fingers back and forth above his head. “This stretch, I’ve been walking up and down it for about a year now.  Chandler to Oro Valley and back again.  Ya can’t get too far into those big cities or they really start to hassle ya.”

I had no frame of reference for that.  “How did you….I mean, do you like this…thing you do?  Drifting around?”

He drummed his fingers against his chest which was covered by a ratted out t-shirt, although I think it was one of those deliberately distressed items, new but looking old.  It had some faded lettering that seemed to reference car parts.

“I did when I started, then I hated it, loved it, hated it…ha!  Who knows, I guess I’m used to it.  I actually spent a year once in Alaska.”

“As a… I mean, homeless?”

Vann seemed amused by my hesitation, his green eyes sparkling again.  “As a hobo, bum, no good vagrant?  Yes I did.”

Alaska interested me so I sat back down again and somewhere over the next three hours and a second bottle of T-bird I discovered that Vann may have been one of the most interesting people I had ever met.  His thoughts were not always logical, he had a poor view of things in society he did not know much about and his opinion of himself raged between pride and despair.  He had stories though, and true ones as far as I could tell.  It was late though, very late considering I had only stopped for a quick stretch and to shake the weariness of the road.  I stood to go however Vann reached into his pack and pulled out two candlesticks.  Unexpected to be sure.

“Here man, come and check these out.”  He placed them carefully on the cement and then, even more to my amazement, produced two candles from within his jacket.

“Ahh, what are you doing with candles?  Seems a bit weird for a traveling hobo to keep those around.”

He lit the candles with a classic Zippo, nicely polished from what I could tell. “I keep them because of the story.”

“These things have a story?”  They looked like thrift store pick-ups to me.

“They do, come on, just listen to it, it’s the last one.” Somehow I felt an obligation to hear him out.  That and the Thunderbird had rendered me mostly useless for driving anyway.  Where did I think I was going to go? So, as the flames flickered and cast a muted glow against the worn out supports of that water tower Vann told me the story of Castle Danger.

The candlesticks that Vann fished from his backpack

The candlesticks that Vann fished from his backpack

to be continued…

The Castle Danger Story (Part 2)

I stood there for a few minutes looking back at him and he held my gaze which , quite frankly, was more than I expected.  Neither of us talked and that seemed somehow appropriate.  The wind kicked up a little bit from the west, stirring up some of that fine top layer of sand that sits around in the desert just waiting to be lifted up into a dust cyclone.  The guy in the Army jacket sniffed and rubbed his nose, then gave me a last look and turned, walking over toward the water tower.   I felt incredibly awkward, like I owed something more to the moment.  As the dust stirred around my feet I glanced over at my truck and thought what I guess would be the ‘usual thing’…namely that I did not want anything to do with homeless people.  Not that I knew for certain that this stranger met that criteria, but it was what I assumed based on my own preconceptions.  Going with my initial thought I took about twenty steps back in the direction of my truck, thoughts nagging at me the entire time.  Enough was finally enough, and I realized I had to do something different, so I veered my course back toward the water tower.  As I did I looked over and realized he was looking right at me again.  Now I really had no choice.

It only took me a few minutes to reach the tower however by then the wind was really blowing and the sand, caught up in the air, was cutting unpleasantly against my skin. I looked past the tower and saw a tidy little dust cyclone that was dancing around, caught for the moment in the same place.

small dust cyclone near Red Rock, AZ

small dust cyclone near Red Rock, AZ

So, I arrived at the tower, stepping onto the concrete pad and extending an enthusiastic “Hello!” in the man’s direction.  I sounded more pleasant than I felt, a fact not helped much by the lack of reply I received.  So now I was stuck occupying a weathered concrete pad underneath a defunct water tower with someone I did not know and who apparently was not going to be much of a conversationalist.  I considered that a challenge.

“How ya doing?”

More silence, although he did shift around a bit from where he was sitting.

“Lots of dust coming this way.”  Sometimes I love to state the obvious.  I let that gem hang in the air and returned to looking out toward the west.  I promptly received two eyes full of sand and ducked my head down, turning away from the wind and rubbing to get it out.

“Here…sit down here.”  He had spoken, apparently out of pity for me, and was indicating a spot near where he had his back propped up against one of the tower’s support legs. I eyeballed my truck again but decided that the wind and dust were blowing hard enough to make that journey seem like much less than a lot of fun.  As I sat down, the wind ceased completely and the dust disappeared.  This was apparently the perfect place to sit.  After blinking my eyes repeatedly, and just as often resisting the urge to gouge at them with my dusty fingers, I managed to clear up my vision.  I looked over at the man who spoke his name while holding out his hand.

“Vann…with two n’s,” and his eyes twinkled when he said it, as though it were some incredibly funny joke that I should understand.  Which, as you know, I did not.  The man had a name with two n’s when he only needed one.

to be continued…

The Castle Danger Story (Part 1)

The Water Tower at Red Rock

The Water Tower at Red Rock

The Old (or new?) Dads Root Beer bottle

The Old (or new?) Dads Root Beer bottle

I had pulled my truck over on the side of a road that runs along I-10 in Arizona.  Not sure of the name of that road but it would not be hard to find again.  So, this all started in Red Rock, which is a place I would have picked anyway given the chance.  In fact, if this had started in some place with a ‘plain-Jane’ name I might have just written that it started in Red Rock anyway.  You would never know anyway as you were not there.  By luck or fortune it really did start in Red Rock, so from there I guess the next thing to explain is how I ever went from a pit stop to a rather cold night huddled up under the water tower with a worn-down hobo with two ‘n’s’ on a name that only needs one.

It certainly was not my intention. I had been driving for seven hours and just needed a break to stretch.  That part of Arizona, just a little bit north of Tucson, has some really great scenery.  Picacho Peak looms in the sky and the scrappy foothills around it abound with cacti, the cool kind that you think about when you imagine a cactus.  Tall and prickly with cool arms and an occasionally disfigured top.  You would think I would have taken a picture of that, but well, I did not.  I was fascinated by this damn water tower which seems to scream “old western town”, and carries just enough rustic decay to appeal to me.  I seem to enjoy these broken parts of America.  They talk about the dream and the demise while still seeming noble and proud.  So, I always have to take pictures.  Lots and lots of pictures.  After taking my fill of these around the tower itself I wandered off down the train tracks that run alongside and started poking around the fringes of the railway grade.

The usual detritus was found, although that is a minor misuse of that word as I am referring more to the scraps and refuse of our modern lives instead of decayed organic matter.  Somehow and someway a Dad’s root beer bottle that seemed to be from a long time ago had managed to find its way to rest beside a scrubby desert bush.  It looked old anyway, but these days who knows…maybe it was just one of those vintage re-creations that allow the rest of us to feel like we are experiencing the ‘olden-days’.  While I was looking at it I heard a noise off in the scrub to the east and looked up, mostly expecting nothing or a road-runner.  Instead I saw a man, taller than me and very tan with washed-out brown hair, several days growth of a dark beard and a glint in his green eyes that seemed to register me as a prize.  I thought the day was warm, but this man had on an old regulation Army issue coat, a pair of woolen gloves with the fingertips cut off and a very blue pair of blue jeans.  Your typical homeless guy I guess, but incredibly interesting close-up.

to be continued…