An American Story (Part 18)

At this point I suppose his revelation should not have surprised me.  I let out a deep breath, watching the faint mist of my breath condensing in the night air.  I shrugged up my shoulders, shivered rather more violently than I was expecting,  and then starting rubbing my feet again.

“Ok, so that’s all the info on those pieces?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“So, when did this fire happen?”

“Well, at about two o’clock in the morning on January 29th of 1889 a fire started in the basement of the opera house and spread fairly quickly.  It consumed the entire building and also burned down the  post office next door.  Almost everyone got out alive, except for our historian, who’s body was found early the next morning as they sifted through what was left of the building.  Part of it, the entire front almost, had actually collapsed into the street and caused the evacuation of the hotel across the way.   The rest of the building was still standing though, and they found his crispy remains curled up in bed.”

“And all of these items, including your candlesticks there, survived this fire?”

“You bet they did.  He kept all of it in several heavy chests and they managed to withstand the heat and the water from the fire brigade.  They might even have been lost after that, however rather fortunately another  resident at the opera house was one of only three members at the time of a group that called themselves the Old Settlers Association of the Head of Lake Superior.  A lofty name huh?”  Vann gave me a raised eyebrow and I agreed silently with a nod and he continued.

“I don’t think that group quite knew what they were all about, just judging from a few documents I dug up, but they were definitely interested in the history of the area and were familiar with the work the historian had been doing.  They claimed most of the non-personal items in his rooms, including some having nothing to do with Tom Sexton, for themselves as part of their historical research.  The authorities apparently let them get away with that, although the how or why of that is lost to history as far as I could tell.  Anyway, the settlers association group recorded every item as part of their society collection a few days later.  After that, years later, the items passed on into the hands of the St. Louis county historical society up there and later to the one for Lake County, which is where Two Harbors is located.”

“And so it just sits there today, in their collection?”

“Pretty much.  Like I said, it’s not like it is on display or anything. It’s all boxed up and kept on one of the many shelves in this small building that suffices I guess for their idea of a historical society.  They don’t have much of an appreciation for the history behind the story.”

“I guess not.  So, if I wanted to, I could go up there and check this stuff out?”

Vann whistled softly. “Well, it wouldn’t be that easy.  It took me a bit of time to get access to it just because they aren’t necessarily really friendly to strangers wanting to poke around in their collection.”

“I wonder why that might be?”  I answered, throwing a knowing look his way.

“Yeah, sure whatever.  I get it that I probably proved their point in a way.  Still, I don’t think they really want people poking around.  They seem to think they know what they have and what they think should be out on display and that’s it.  But, if you work on them long enough I guess they warm up to you.”

“Or they might not, at least not now.”

Vann snorted.  “I really don’t think they know that anything is even missing.”

I stood up and wandered off into the darkness, a little bit apprehensive about the coyotes I had heard earlier, although everything had been dark and still out there for quite some time.  When I returned Vann was standing up and walking around in circles.

“Getting cold?”  I felt slightly bad about the fact that my voice betrayed a slight edge of satisfaction.

“Not hardly.  I’m trying to stay awake,” he answered, just a little bit gruffly.  I’m usually out by now, I have to get moving early in the morning you know.  That’s when the early bird cops cruise around looking for what might be called vagrants.”

I held up my hands.  “Sorry man, I know I’m keeping you up.  We have to be near the end though, don’t we?”

“Not looking for anymore side-tracking?”

“Hardly.  I mean, I’m interested in this whole thing really but I am seriously wiped out too.  I’ve got this headache that keeps creeping back on me and I feel like I could drink about three gallons of water.  You don’t have anymore of that gum do you?”

Vann handed me two pieces and I slammed them into my mouth, this time shoving the wrappers into my pant pockets.   I offered my thanks but he just waved it off.

…to be continued

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 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

An American Story (Part 12)

I guess that I was not exactly surprised when he said that, although the concept of stealing an exhibit or any items kept by a historical society of any kind would not have been something I could have done.  Maybe it was just my own reverential viewpoint on history, its facts and tales, the lessons it can teach us, that would have kept me from doing such a thing.  Or perhaps it would have been my belief in karma that would have stopped me.  Vann apparently had no such limitations even though he did seem to share my historical bent.  That was a lesson for me on the relative inconsistencies of how people’s similar beliefs or interests translate in the real world.  At least I could clarify that.

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really.  I spent a lot of time in the area and I used some of their resources when I was picking through this story, trying to put it together.  I guess that I feel badly that I went behind old Jim Stover’s back to take them, but overall it doesn’t bother me.  I don’t think they really understood the magnificence of this tale, or the real impact it could have on framing the history of that area.  The candlesticks were just random items collected up in a box and labeled ‘Tom Sexton Property Box 3’.  There is no appreciation in that.  I looked at every item in all of those boxes, read the notes on how they were found, checked the provenance details.  I gave them some much needed attention, and those candlesticks, well they just seemed to draw me in, so I kept them.”  He paused for a moment then held up his hand as I started to form a question.  “And before you ask, Jim Stover is the curator of the society.”  I took a deep breath and asked the actual question I had been beginning when he interrupted.

“Don’t you think that you could have helped them understand it?  You seem to have done quite a bit of research.  Maybe they just never got around to all of this info on Tom Sexton.”

Vann scoffed.  “They never got around to the details of the life of what was basically the main pioneer of the area?  Shabby if you ask me, a shabby excuse.”

“I’m sure there is much to tell about the area, and really how big is this historical society anyway?  It doesn’t exactly sound like a major population area.  It’s probably two guys working out of their garage.”

“True, close to correct actually, but still, shabby.”

I waved that argument off and prompted a return to the story.

“So, he actually ended up in a shipwreck?  Was that in the same boat he had purchased after the railroad had all of his land except for those four acres?”

Vann winked at me and got up, starting to walk off into the night again, muttering, “such an impatient one,” over his shoulder as he went.  I did jumping jacks until he returned to warm back up and when he did we both sat down.

“Yes, getting back to the story.  Once Tom saw that blood on his cuffs, and considering that those two murdered women were most definitely dead and mutilated on his property, he knew that he had to act fast. I guess some people might say that he should have stuck around and fought it, should have kept standing up to the railroad, but I just don’t think he had one ounce of energy left for that.  Plus, he had to have been in a state of some shock and panic, and it certainly had been a rough couple of weeks since that terrible beating he took that almost killed him.  Now, Tom did leave info on how he found things when he got to the cabin, however he never wrote anything about exactly what he did at the point when he realized it was over for him in Two Harbors.  A few things can be surmised.  The dog was never found and it wasn’t not on the boat so either Tom put it down or, as unlikely as it may be, it jumped off the boat when it wrecked and sank or swam from memory.  Also, the bodies of both women were found inside the cabin, lying next to each other on the floor and each covered with a blanket.  The fire never touched either of them although pretty much everything else was at least charred.  He must have spent at least a few minutes gathering up items he wanted to take, personal items and the things from the pit that were found with the wreck.  The boat was pretty well provisioned when it was searched, one of the reasons some people, including me, think he had been planning to take off anyway.  Still, I don’t think he ever got to the point where he really thought he was going to be forced to leave, especially not on his own terms, so he must have had some last minute gathering to do.   And then, of course he set fire to his shack, imperfectly as it turned out.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“It’s hard to tell for sure, and he never left a clue about it.  It may have been to try to disguise what happened to those women, maybe to burn the bodies so they wouldn’t be seen in such a horrible state.  Maybe it was panic.  Or spite, to make sure that he left them nothing he couldn’t take with him.  He obviously did it in a rush, as at that point he probably figured the railroad had sent someone out to innocently discover what a terrible crime he had committed and arrest him.  And they must have shown up not long after he left because the first reports are dated that same day.”

two harbors shoreline courtesy city-data.com

two harbors shoreline courtesy city-data.com

“Yeah, I guess it’s hard to tell at this distance from the whole thing.  So, he takes off on the boat and?”

Vann held up a hand. “One more thing, and I tell you only in the interest of providing the complete information.  There is an Ojibwa tale that says Mashkikiikwe met him down by the water and asked him to stay, to come back with her to her tribal area and live there. He refused her,  saying that he had to go and make his place in a totally new area.  It’s hard to know if that is true or not of course.”

“And then he left?”

“Yep.  He walked down to the part of his property that touched the lake and cast off in Castle, headed out into the water and away from Two Harbors.”

“Castle is the boat?”

“Yes, I guess I forgot to tell that part of the story.  He named it…,” but I interrupted him, smiling as I did so.

“He thought it was a safe place?”

Vann of course was irritated but played along.  “No.”

“It looked like a castle?” That was out of my mouth before I could stop it.  Vann at least let it go without comment.  I had to pause to think and then continued with, “because he thought he was the king of Two Harbors?”

“No.”

“Damn. Well, how about it was because it was something he had wished for?  Dreamed about?  You know, the whole castle in the air thing?”

“No.”

“Fine.  Then what?”

“It was a chess reference, to the rook.”  He of course left it momentarily at that, probably as some twisted punishment for my impatience.  I dug into my mind to figure out what he meant but five minutes later had nothing but was not about to admit it.  Vann finally had mercy.

“It’s not anymore complicated than that.  He was a keen student of chess and named his boat after the rook.  Actually, if you ask me he probably thought its name was Rook, however the folks that found the shipwreck obviously did not appreciate the game of chess.”

I gave Vann my best ‘what the hell are you talking about face’ and waited for him to stop blowing his nose into some rag he had pulled from inside the Army coat.

“There wasn’t a name painted on the boat.  Just a drawn picture of a chess piece, the rook.”

…to be continued