Porcelain (Part 11)

The young girl had worked herself up into a really frenzy by the time Olivia’s mother picked her up, although it was all soon better following  some milk that was administered via a wet rag and a change of clothing.  As she rocked the infant back to sleep she closed her eyes and sighed deeply knowing that Olivia’s awakening, whenever it came, would bring another difficult moment.

sunlight courtesy photoforum.com

sunlight courtesy photoforum.com

The old woman slept fitfully in the chair for several hours, occasionally reaching over and placing her hand on the infant girl’s chest to sooth her or feel her breathing.  She also went twice to check on her daughter who remained peacefully asleep, the temperature of her forehead easing and the flush of her skin fading away.  Fully awake after the last check on Olivia, she sat in the chair wanting coffee but weary enough to keep putting off going to make it.  The sun slowly crept up, its light streaming in the kitchen window and slowly moving down the hallway toward the bedroom.  She watched its progress and when it had crossed the threshold of her room she rose and went to check on Olivia again.  Finding her still resting, she began to straighten up some of the remaining mess from the delivery and the events of the night before.   Several minutes later her daughter whispered a faint greeting.

“Good morning Olivia.  How are you feeling?”

Smacking her lips together and rubbing her throat, Olivia replied, “sore, very sore and so thirsty.  Is there water in the pitcher?”

Pouring a cup in response, the mother checked her daughter’s forehead as she drank.

“So much better.”

“Better than what?  And where is my baby?”

“You don’t remember?”

“I, well,” and then she paused, her face falling and a wail escaping her mouth.  “My baby, what happened?  Please tell me!”

“Shh, your daughter is well, she is well.  You don’t remember last night though?”

“Bring her to me mother.  I want to see her.  Where is she?”  With that, Olivia started to get out of bed, however her mother placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t stir from bed.  You had a difficult night even if you don’t remember it.  I will bring you the child.”

Olivia complied, although the eagerness in her face certainly meant she would not do so for long.  Realizing that there was no way to put off the revelation any longer, the old woman walked toward her room, thoughts running through her head.  Was there a way to lessen the pain from what Olivia was about to discover?  How would her daughter deal with what might be seen as a failure of a mother’s womb?  Should she tell her first or let her discover it for herself, as it certainly would not take long for that to happen?  Reaching the cradle she picked the infant up and spent several minutes putting it in fresh clothing and diaper, then wrapping her up in the blanket.  Finished, and with Olivia calling for her from the other room, asking what was taking so long, she took one more moment to hold the young girl close to her chest.

“You are a beautiful girl, you always will be,” she whispered softly and then wiped a tear from her cheek before heading toward Olivia’s room.   Her daughter’s eyes lit up when she entered and she stretched out her arms, her fingers waving the baby toward her.  Handing the infant over, the old woman settled into the chair.

Several minutes passed as Olivia nuzzled her newborn close to her face, and then spoke baby-talk as she brushed the infant’s cheeks with her right hand.  She turned toward her mother as she began to remove the blanket.

“Was the labor difficult mother?  I do have to admit that I do not remember much if it.  The doctor was here, I know that, and I hurt so badly when I felt I had to push.”

Olivia’s mother paused before replying, reflecting on the experience that her daughter had been part of but for which she possessed no recollection.  She would not say it aloud, however she did in fact believe that this did diminish the motherhood experience.  If this trend caught on, this need to remove yourself from life’s trials and pains with drugs, then she had some serious doubts about how the future might look for civilization.  For now though that was mostly water under the bridge and she responded to Olivia.

“It was no so bad daughter.  You were in some pain as you remember, however not much more than…,” and she paused, decided to skip the point and then continued, “ well, it wasn’t too terrible.  But then the doctor gave you that gas and, well you were pretty much gone after that.  The baby came after awhile and I cleaned her up.”

“You should have let the doctor do that mother, the doctor is supposed to check the baby once it’s born.”

“Olivia, I don’t know what you may have read or been told, but that man was most certainly not going to clean up a newborn baby.  He handed her to me the instant she was out and the cord cut and didn’t seem much concerned after that, not until I had her fixed up anyway.  He checked her breathing and, well a few other things and then he made sure you were well before trying to give me a lecture on caring for you.”

“You did listen to him?”

“I took care of you all last night Olivia, and it wasn’t good let me tell you, yet here you are, well and fit.  That’s enough said I believe.”

Her daughter ignored the comment about the struggles through the night.

“The doctor said she was well, yes?  All her parts, fingers and toes?  Healthy?”

Sighing deeply her mother responded.  “Well, she’s healthy certainly.  And she has all the fingers she can have.”

A blank look from Olivia was followed by her frantically tearing the blanket off the baby girl, who she soon discovered had no right arm.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 10)

belladonna courtesy biolibde

belladonna courtesy biolibde

The jar that she withdrew had been prepared several months ago, which she knew mean that it was now very potent, well past the minimum dose practices that homeopathy advocated.  Dr. Martin had told her to always have a belladonna solution prepared and ready, but to not let it sit for more than two months.  He regularly sent her new herbs with which to prepare tinctures and she was usually faithful about making new ones, allowing them to mature for several weeks and then discarding the older solutions.  During the last few months of Olivia’s pregnancy however she had skipped several of these rotations, believing that it may be necessary to have very strong medicines available as her daughter came to term.  She had seen some very rough births over her many years and was determined to have remedies that could aid her daughter regardless of Olivia’s personal beliefs about the matter.

She remembered the day that she had prepared this particular tincture, a stormy morning about three months ago.  During its preparation she had told Olivia the story of the last time she actually needed to use a belladonna solution.   It had been several years ago, the final time she had seen her brother Michael alive and shortly before she left Maine to follow Olivia to Hiawatha.  He had arrived at her house complaining of a headache and several days later this had worsened enough to confine him to the only bed in the house.  She had given this up to her brother after finding him writhing in pain on the floor of her sitting room. Up until that point he had been staying at the Price Hotel and visiting with his sister during the evenings, an arrangement that allowed him to prospect for business with the local Indian’s during the day.   Michael fashioned himself an Indian trader although he had little to show for it after years of chasing various tribes around the eastern seaboard.  Concerned about his increasing pain, and knowing that he frowned upon the medicine they had grown up with, Olivia’s mother had slipped the tincture into a cup of tea.  Relief had followed, although Michael voiced his suspicion before he left about how his cure had been affected.  She had hugged him goodbye and told him not to worry so much as he likely had just gotten over it by resting.  Olivia listened intently to the story, although she interrupted several times to lament the time her mother was wasting preparing remedies with little proven benefit.  Her mother had a lifetime of proof, some of it validated by cures affected on her daughter,  although that seemed to matter little to Olivia.  As she worked they alternated, the mother telling her story and the daughter lecturing on medical advances.

She had prepared the solution so many times that she hardly looked down as she worked.  Taking a belladonna plant from the rough cloth bag she kept them in, she placed the entire dried stalk into the mortar, several of its neatly tapered leaves and faded purple flowers peeking above the rim.  As she reached in and crushed it with her hand she could feel the brittle black berries as they broke off their stems.  Reaching for the pestle, she ground the plant for several seconds, just enough to ensure it was broken up sufficiently to release all of its medicinal qualities.  Once that was done, she placed the crushed pieces into a small jar and then filled it with grain alcohol, placing a small bolt of cheesecloth over the top before sealing it tightly with the lid.  After that it was placed into that far corner of the cupboard where it rested and gained potency until it was needed.

That time was certainly now, as Olivia’s cries continued and she could hear the bed banging on the floor as her daughter thrashed around.  Unsealing the jar, she quickly tied a string around the cheesecloth to keep it attached to the opening, then decanted several tablespoons of the liquid into a tea cup.  She was under no illusions that Olivia would drink a secret solution as her brother had, and the tincture was too strong for that in any event.  Carrying a teaspoon and the cup, Olivia’s mother returned to the bedroom where she found her daughter standing at the foot of the bed, naked now but wrapped in a sweat-soaked sheet and wailing.  No discernible words were being spoken, just anguished cries of pain.  Setting down the spoon and cup, she slowly went over and guided her back, where she slipped a fresh nightgown over Olivia’s head and then helped her sit down on the bed.  She waited a few minutes for her daughter to quiet down and then she recovered the cup and carefully scooped out a spoonful of the medicine.  As she turned back, the wailing started again, fear flashing in Olivia’s reddened eyes and she shouted a refusal to cooperate.  Her mother took advantage of her opened mouth, spilled the medicine under her tongue and then dropped the spoon so she could hold her daughter’s mouth closed with both hands.  A struggle followed, one that was won by the mother when Olivia reluctantly choked down the solution of belladonna.  Five minutes later she was much quieter and had stopped moaning, easing back onto her soaked pillow, which her mother quickly replaced.  Just as Olivia was falling back asleep another dose was tipped under her tongue, and then her mother was finally able to attend to the infant.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 7)

Olivia’s pregnancy progressed without much incident other than a sharp pain in her left side that was so intense that it kept her in bed for two days.  Her doctor, despite prodding and poking far in excess of what Olivia’s mother deemed appropriate, had been unable to determine if there was anything actually wrong with her, and in the end declared that the child must have a heel or elbow jammed up against her side.  That was nonsense, as Olivia knew exactly where her baby was at the time, however the doctor seemed content to believe it and the pain went away before much more of an argument could be made.  It had led to the one disagreement which occurred between Olivia and her mother during her pregnancy, one that started as soon as the doctor had made his pronouncement, closed up his bag and scuttled off down the street in his usual nervous way.

“You should be using Jeb Martin, he saw me through having you and all the rest of your brothers and sisters.”

“Mother, there is no way that I am going to have Dr. Martin anywhere near me or this baby.  You know he’s a homeopath and his type aren’t recognized anymore.”

“That is such nonsense Olivia and you know better than that too.  He’s taken care of you, well took care of you I guess, all through your years of growing up, and you certainly don’t have anything to complain about in regard to your health.”


“And he’s taken care of me too, through all of it, still does although just through letters, advice that I ask him for from time to time.  There is nothing wrong with the medicine he practices.”

Olivia looked away for a moment and rolled her eyes in an effort to restrain herself from being too blunt.

“He may or may not know what he is doing mother, and I won’t argue the point about whatever care he has given to you or me.  I guess I truly can’t complain about that.  These days though, all that homeopathic medicine just is not thought of very well, and good folk won’t have it around them.  I’m not going to have some doctor of ill repute pressing his hands on me and deciding what is right for me and this baby.”

“The only people giving doctors like Jeb Martin a reputation of ill repute are folk like yourself Olivia who take the time to believe it and spread the nonsense around.”

Olivia rolled her eyes again, however it was much less effective than before.  “It’s because we have new knowledge mother, not everything that used to be correct and proper still is.”

“Nor is everything that is currently thought of as correct and proper necessarily true either.”

“And it wouldn’t matter anyway as I seriously doubt that Doctor Martin can care for me properly from all these miles away.  Unless you’re suggesting that we haul him out here to do so?”

Olivia, who during most of this argument had been looking out the window toward the street, turned her eyes now to look directly into those of her mother, a look that seemed to convey that if nothing else was true that this last point was certainly well spoken.  Her mother remained silent for long minutes, her gaze locked with that of her daughter.  Finally she coughed slightly and spoke.

“Of course he won’t be coming out here Olivia, however it wouldn’t hurt to ask the man his opinion about this latest trouble you have been having.  Perhaps he has some idea of what it may be.”

“I said I won’t have it mother and I won’t.  Doctor Tyler said I will be fine and I expect that I will be.”

That had been the last word spoken about the matter of homeopathic doctors and although the idea of a second opinion would look good in retrospect it was a matter that was closed at that moment.

The pain had lessened on the second day and was gone by the morning of the third, leaving Olivia in a much better mood.  There had been no other issues and no other arguments and it was the Tuesday which marked just thirty days to her due date when her mother had presented her with the dress.  Although largely a matter of fact, no frills type of a woman, this particular occasion caused Olivia’s mother to spend a few extra moments setting up things to be memorable.  She had awoken Olivia at eight by bringing in a tray containing a light breakfast of fruit and toast along with a steaming cup of tea.  It had caught Olivia by surprise however she had held her tongue, finishing the meal and bringing the tray back out to the kitchen before going into the sitting room to join her mother.  Setting down her cup of tea, she took the seat on the sofa nearest to the old woman and then sat in silence, moments which seemed to be poignant to her mother.  The time had slipped by, Olivia sipping tea and her mother rocking slowly back and forth, humming under her breath and smiling gently.  Finally, when Olivia had drained the cup and placed it down with a sharp, empty click against its saucer, her mother had stood up and taken her hand, guiding her to the old straight back chair that looked out the front window.  After sitting her down and patting her hand, a gentle command to stay where she was, her mother had gone into her bedroom and returned with a small package wrapped in white linen.  Olivia had taken the offered gift and opened it slowly, finally drawing out a simple but well-made white dress.  It was cut full at the bottom and had a slightly drawn in waist along with frills on the shoulders and neck and lace on the cuffs.  A bonnet, which also had frills on the edges, was folded by itself within the package, as was a short note written in her mother’s exact handwriting.  The dress and bonnet and been enough to bring a few tears to Olivia’s eyes, however the note caused her to get up and embrace her mother, who offered an awkward but tight embrace in return.

“It’s simply wonderful mother, it must have taken you, well I know how long you have been working on it, but so much effort and skill must have gone into it.  The work is so fine and it is just beautiful.  My baby will look so perfect in it.”

“Your daughter my dear, your daughter will look perfect in it.  A perfect dress for a perfect daughter.”

“I do hope you are right.  I do want a daughter.”

Her mother had replied simply by patting her hand and then stroking the hair back from her face.

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 17)

Curses!  I actually said that in my head when Vann proclaimed this last fact.  It had seemed as though all of the possible side turns in this story and already been taken.  I did notice that Vann had perked back up, much more awake now and leaning forward.  I waved him on and he seemed to realize what I was thinking.

“I really wasn’t holding out on you.  We just hadn’t managed to get to this part of the story yet.”

I settled for waving him on again.

“Our historian collected it all, tagged it all, and made some good notes.  Then he boxed it all up and returned with the boat to Duluth after they hauled Castle off the sand bar and scuttled her in the deeper water.  He lived by himself in a room on one of the upper floors of the Duluth Opera house and that is where he kept all of the items.  In the short time that he had, in addition to the other research I already told you about, he also sent a few of the items in Tom’s collection off to friends he knew, or places of scientific study, people he thought might be able to assist in figuring out more about the pieces.”

duluth opera house courtesy duluth public library 5-3

duluth opera house courtesy duluth public library 5-3

I knew Vann wanted me to ask so I stayed silent.  He winked and continued.

“There were four items that his records say were sent.  The iron poles or bars, the ones with the strange writing on them, the Argand lamp, the uniform jacket and the zoetrope, which is the only item that had not been returned by the time of the fire.  The lamp, which was sent to a friend who actually collected lighting devices, came back with information that it had been made in England and was one of the earliest of models, probably being made around 1786.  There was unfortunately no way to tell when it came to the U.S. or how it managed to arrive in the Two Harbors area.  It did have an engraving on it, three letters, CSA, although there was nothing more to learn about that either.”

“Did Tom know about that engraving?”

“No idea.  It’s not mentioned but then there are missing parts to his records so he may have.   Interestingly, there is a slight connection between Argand lamps and light houses, although not directly to Split Rock.  Just a little history to study if you get a chance, a sideways  journey if you know what I mean.”

I gave a short laugh.  “Yes, I know what you mean.”

“So, that’s it for the lamp.”

Vann smiled at me and stood up, bending over to stretch out his back.  We both lapsed into silence with me swinging my arms around and then sitting down to take off my shoes and rub my toes again.  Vann finished up with his stretching and then sat back down also, zipping up his jacket as he did so.  His ability to get a little bit warmer just made my feet hurt more.  After a few swipes at his nose and a short coughing fit he continued.

“The iron poles, interestingly enough, came back with a statement from the university they had been sent to saying the writing was unknown.  However, from some of the descriptions I read of them, and a rough sketch in the historian’s notes, I think that those poles were struck with runes, possibly what would be called Viking runes, but more properly Younger Futhark.  Each pole had only one mark on it, and two of them I would say were the runes for sun and wealth.”

younger futhark runes - long branch and short twig versions 5-3

younger futhark runes – long branch and short twig versions 5-3

“This doesn’t lead to some conspiracy theory about the Vikings discovering America first does it?”

Vann rolled his eyes.  “That’s not such a conspiracy theory anymore, although I’m not saying anything about that anyway.  You know, there is some good evidence for Viking outposts on Baffin Island and in Newfoundland.”

“That’s a long damn way from Minnesota.”

“I’ll grant you that point.  But the drawings, not great ones I’ll admit, do look like those runes.”

“And the uniform?”

“Hang on, before we get to that one.  Even though the zoetrope did not have any additional info as it never came back, I did a little research of my own and found out a few odd facts.  The actual invention of the device happened in England in about 1835, although they gave it a different name.  It wasn’t called a zoetrope until around the 1860’s when it was manufactured in the U.S. by Milton Bradley and some other companies.  This particular one was traceable, mostly because of a few markings on the bottom of its spindle that the historian noted. It was a model made by Milton Bradley in 1868 and sold mostly on the east coast.  It didn’t have any useable strips left as the one which Tom mentioned having was ruined when it got wet on the boat.”

“Isn’t 1868 a little bit odd for when that thing was made.  I mean, Tom was already living on that land and I don’t see how it managed to get into his pit.  Did anyone ever clear that up?”

“Nobody knew about it.  Like I said, that item wasn’t returned before the fire.”

I obviously knew that already.  Maybe the cold was making my mind work more slowly.  “So, the uniform?”

soldier of 104th new brunswick regiment 5-3

soldier of 104th new brunswick regiment 5-3

“The best one yet.  It had the man’s name on the inside, and some diligent research, this time by the historian himself, determined it was indeed the uniform of an enlisted man in the British Army, in this case a member of the 104th New Brunswick Regiment during the War of 1812.   There is some info on this soldier’s family in the record up there also.”

“That is pretty interesting.  Was some part of that war fought in Minnesota, or I guess the area that would become Minnesota?”

Vann paused and replied with evident delight.  “No.”  Another pause and then he followed with “Ze-bam!”

…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.”


“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