The Castle Danger Story (Part 19)

“So, to finish?”


“That group kept the items, kept good track of them, poked around some more in the Two Harbors area and the place where Tom grounded the Castle.  As a matter of fact, they were up in that area, asking around and telling what parts of the story they knew when three men, Norwegian fishermen, decided to set up a small settlement on that land, the land Tom must have seen from his boat that morning.  They had set up for themselves in a small round hut built down close to the water.  The crew that scuttled the Castle had set up a warning marker on the sandbar, and those fishermen asked two men from the Old Settlers Association if they knew anything about it.  Of course they did, and that’s how the place got its name.”

shed castle danger courtesy jimmy magouirk 5-17

shed castle danger courtesy jimmy magouirk 5-17

I realized that the late hour and the cold had not completely dampened Vann’s efforts to test my patience.  I tried to wait him out but I was really tired.

“The name, what’s the name of the place?”

“Castle Danger.”

I was not sure if that was anti-climatic or amazing, so I just sat there thinking back over the entire story I had heard.  I had these amazing images in my head, all of the troubles Tom had been through, the railroad thugs, the murders, his strange pit and the unexplained disappearance after the boat grounded.  In some ways I felt as though I had been transported back to that time, gained some of the pioneer spirit Tom must have possessed, tasted the combination of the fresh wilderness air mixed with the creeping grimy intrusion of railroad smoke and coal dust.  I wanted to march back into his story and ask the questions that should have been asked, watch the moments that had not been observed for history, grab some part of Tom’s collection and hold onto it to be examined with today’s technology.  I suddenly felt even colder and realized that I had stretched out on the cold cement pad, laying back with my hands behind my head.  I rolled over on one side and saw Vann had adopted a similar position although he was still awake.

“Do you really think Tom died?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did.  They looked, the historian and those folks from the settlers association, but no real info ever turned up, none that was reliable anyway, which would indicate he survived.  I figure he swam for it and drown, body carried away before that first boat came by Castle.”

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.  No Elvis sightings then?”

Vann chuckled and then yawned.  “No, nothing like that.”

I yawned back, cracking my neck as I did so and realized that for now, we really were at the end.  “Thanks for the story.  It was pretty interesting.”

“Think nothing of it,” he replied with a poorly executed British accent.

I could feel sleep coming on quickly and realized I needed to get up and go to my truck before I passed out on the cement.  I was still thinking about it when I asked Vann another question.

“So, in the morning you just…wander on?”

“Yeah, I need to get moving.”

“Chandler or Oro Valley way?”

“No man, moving on…it’s been a year.”

But I hardly heard him as I was slipping off to sleep, trying to leave my headache behind.

When I awoke in the morning Vann was gone, although he had covered me at some point with his Army jacket.  I rolled over, painfully cramped, bitterly cold and still with a pounding headache.  My mouth tasted like sand and backwash although I quickly realized I still had those two pieces of gum, very stale now, in my mouth.  How I had managed not to swallow, or choke, on that during the night I never will figure out.  I also realized that as cold as I was, and had been, sleeping under that Army jacket, Vann must be far worse off than me without it.  I felt pretty badly about that as I stumbled over to my truck, managing to arrive only a few minutes before a county sheriff cruised by on the road.  I gave a half wave and hoped to look as though I had just stopped to check something out on my truck.  He drove on and I climbed in, wearily settling into the nicely padded seats.  I drove the short distance to a gas station, purchasing an absurd amount of food and water, some of which I wolfed down in my truck while writing down everything I could remember of Vann’s story.  I checked my phone, almost afraid that those pictures of the journal hadn’t saved, or that they would look terrible in the light of day.  They were not great, but they would do.  As I finished up writing and prepared to drive on and find a place to take a day long nap, I realized that questions remained, questions that had nothing to do with the story of Tom Sexton.

Who was Vann?  And how did he know so much about this story?

photo credit matt conwell

photo credit matt conwell

Author’s note:  There may be more of this story to tell, although for now I have to step away from Vann, Tom Sexton and all of the questions about Two Harbors and Castle Danger.  Other stories are calling.  Please check back next week for a preview of the upcoming “Spiritual Destruction of Anna Marie”

The Castle Danger 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?”


“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 - the rukh is third from left

shatranj pieces and modern chess pieces courtesy – 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

two harbors area nautical map courtesy

“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

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

Split Rock Lighthouse – courtesy of

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…