A Burning Cold Morning (Part 27)

“Leo, we have to leave, right now!”

Closing the book he was reading Leo looked with slight confusion at Veronica.  “What’s wrong with you?  And what the hell are you talking about?”

“The police, you know Cromwell, that desk officer we’re paying off?  He just found me at Plumb’s and told me.  He said that the Seattle police nicked one of our driver’s and he gave the whole thing up.  Apparently he had some other trouble up there already, some old charges or something, and he gave us up to make it easier on himself.  They’re getting warrants for us now.  We have to go!”  She was a little out of breath as she finished and placed her hand on her chest as she attempted to recover.

Leo rubbed his head slowly then stood up.  Taking her arm and directing her toward a chair he replied.  “Settle down, will ya?  You’re looking like a scared rabbit right now.  Are you sure this information is good?  What if Cromwell is trying to spook us?  Maybe he’s working a plan for the police here to get us to make a hasty move.”

Veronica, who had her breathing under control, stood back up.  “I am not waiting around here to get picked up, no way that happens.  I’ve worked with Cromwell before, same deal as we have with him now. His info has been good and I know him enough, he’s not playing their side.  We need to leave!”

“I can’t go so fast, I have to get some things together.  At the least we have to get the money so we can split it up.  We’ll need it for traveling.  Plus, I’ve got a few things out there that need finishing.  If you’re in such a rush, go on and go then.  I’ll get out of here soon enough.”

Veronica stomped her foot down and put her hands on her hips.  “I’ve already got the damn cash,” she said as she patted the money belt under her dress.  “Don’t you think for a minute that I am trusting you to stay back here while I go.  You’re far too weak to face the police and not give me up, you’ll crumble like a cookie if they get you in cuffs.  You are going with me, and we are going now.”

“I would not!” Leo shouted back, angry now as his criminal toughness was being questioned.  “I’m no rat, I wouldn’t say anything about you.  Besides, I’m not going to get picked up.  They can’t just get a warrant and be here in a few hours, it takes longer than that.  I’ll be long gone by morning.  Give me my cut and then you can go if you want to.”

“Again the fool.”  Veronica reached out and grabbed Leo’s right  arm, squeezing hard and looking right into her eyes.  Speaking slowly and deliberately she said, “When I said they are getting warrants, I meant they are getting them signed right now.  And they are not going to wait.  Cromwell said they already have a couple of officers waiting to head over here on those fancy motorcycles.”

olympia pd

Leo shook his arm loose but now looked troubled.  He had to admit that he really did not know how long it would take the police to show up if they did, in fact, already have warrants waiting to be signed.  He blew out a deep breath.

“Damn then, let’s go.”

After ten minutes of quick but methodical packing by Leo the two of them exited the Angelus and then went around the back where Veronica had stashed her own suitcase and a small additional bag.  Once they had them in hand Veronica turned to Leo.

“Now what?  We never have come up with a plan to get out of here, we probably should have.  Here we are, two of us with our luggage in hand and out in the street.  How are we going to get out of here Leo?”

He seemed to have something else on his mind and appeared to be nowhere near as panicked as Veronica.  He did have a slight jittery feeling in his chest, a sense that danger was coming, but he was much more under control that his partner.  He paused, looking north with a furrowed brow.  He had just shook his head and turned to look south when Veronica spoke.

“What are you so damn calm for?  Can’t you tell we need to get going?  Let’s go!”

Leo picked up his bag and stepped off, saying, “Yes indeed, let’s get moving.”  Veronica did not know it but Leo was more prepared for this situation than she was, privy to information he had never shared with her.  It did not, however, include these exact circumstances and he had needed a few moments to evaluate what to do next.  He could tell that Veronica was not is a state of mind that was going to be of help in their situation and it would be up to him to get them out of Olympia safely.  He knew they could not be on the street looking like wanderers for long as someone was sure to take notice.  He did not want anyone to be able to say they saw the duo headed in any particular direction.  He also knew that once the police did not find them at the Angelus a full-scale effort would likely be made to look for them on the streets and in places they frequently visited in town.  Getting off the streets was the first priority.  Motioning with his head, Leo headed onto Columbia Way toward the rail line.  Veronica hurried to catch up.

1925 Ford Track Inspection Car courtesy owlshead

Three minutes after the two of them stepped off down Columbia two police motorcycles pulled up in front of the Angelus and the officers began the process of looking for them.  It took nine minutes for them to determine that neither Leo nor Veronica was present in their rooms or nearby, at which point the hunt was on, just as Leo had predicted.  By this time he was already in the process of stealing the track inspection car from the side rails by the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot down at Capitol Lake.  Veronica thought he was crazy to even try it, and she said, “Besides, how are we going to get away in that?  We’ll be trapped on the tracks!”  Leo, however, kept working and soon had the odd looking vehicle running, at which point he grabbed Veronica’s bags and tossed them onto the back seats.

“You wanted out, this is how we are getting out.  They are going to be looking on every street for us but no one will imagine that we would be rolling down the tracks.  We’ll look like workers out to inspect the line.”

“Seriously, you…” She stopped talking there though and reluctantly climbed in, at which point Leo handed her his hat.

“Put this on so you at least look sort of like a man.  I’m not so sure they have many women working for the railroad.”

“And what if they report this thing stolen Leo?  What then?”

“That’ll take awhile to get back to the police.  By then I plan to be far enough away that it won’t matter.”  Leo squinted into the sun as he got the vehicle moving down the tracks.  It was an odd thing to drive and it took him a minute to get the hang of it, but he did and was able to stop successfully as they came to the merge with the main line that ran through Olympia.  Jumping out, he pulled the lever that switched the track so he could travel onto it, and then he got back in and they continued on.  Veronica had covered her face with her hands but put them back in her lap once they were traveling south on the rails.

“How did you even think about this plan anyway?” she asked him.

Leo grinned before replying.  “All that reading, well, it just paid off.  Part of it was about railroads.”

She was silent for a few minutes but then had another question.  “And what happens when we get away?  We can’t stay in this thing for long. You know they are going to come after us as soon as it gets reported as stolen.”

Leo just grinned again but did not reply.

“Well?  What’s the next part of your plan Leo?”

“Don’t worry, I already have it set up.  I stashed a car, two actually, one north and one south, just in case we needed them someday.  Should be there in about fifteen minutes.   Then we can go wherever we want to.”

More silence followed until Veronica thought of a more pressing question.

“What if there’s a train coming?”

Leo, who was too happy about the fact that he was getting them out of town, that his plan was working, kept grinning as he replied.  “I guess we are just going to have to trust to luck.”

Veronica covered her face again and they continued on down the tracks.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 25)

The trip itself, which should have been full of wonder and awe for the young girl, at least that was what the doctor had been expecting, passed instead in almost complete silence.  Although she would occasionally indicate that she was thirsty or needed to relieve herself, she asked no questions about the wonders of the large locomotive, spent no minutes wandering the cars of the train to admire the rich collection of persons aboard, and spent little time wide-eyed at the windows as the scenery flashed by their compartment.  Quiet and somber, Claudia sat with her hands in her lap, singing songs under her breath or staring at the floor.  When she slept, she did so curled up in her seat, drifting off without even a quiet goodnight to the doctor.  After exhausting what limited repertoire that he had for eliciting responses from children, and consulting quietly with himself in his head on how to get Claudia into better spirits, all to no avail, he turned to reading newspapers and smoking his pipe.  As the train pulled up in Denver, and the doctor assembled the young girl’s limited belonging and the packer trunk, he caught her looking at him with intensely curious eyes.

“What is it Claudia?”

Instead of responding, she pointed to his medical bag which was stashed underneath his seat.

“That?  I always bring it with me dear.  You never know when someone is going to need a doctor.”

“No.”

“No?  People need doctor’s all the time.”

“No.  Why you didn’t help her?”

Unable to give any answer that he felt would mean anything, he instead just shook his head and replied, “Let’s get you off this train.”

Although she returned to silence as they walked, she kept her eyes turned toward the doctor, a look that provided enough guilt for the doctor to remember the moment for the rest of his life.  Emerging out onto the station platform, he shaded his eyes from the sun and looked around.  Having been briefed only generally on what to look for, a tall man and he says he will be wearing a brown bowler is all Harriet had been able to provide, the doctor expected there to be several minutes of searching.  Instead, a tall man man with long sandy hair and a tan, weather-worn face approached them immediately with his hand out.

“Doctor Warren, I take it?”

“Indeed.  You are Wyatt Coburn then, good to find you so quickly!”

The two men quickly shook hands and then Wyatt knelt down to Claudia’s eye level.

“Hello Claudia.  I suppose that your grandmother has told you about me.  I’m your great-uncle Wyatt.  Did you enjoy the trip?”

denver map courtesy davidrumsey.com

denver map courtesy davidrumsey.com

Claudia’s silence caused him to glance up at the doctor who said, “Same way with me all the way out.  Hardly a word spoken.  I think she’s having a pretty hard time with what happened to her mother.  That and leaving Harriet, quite a bit of shock for such a young girl.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” Standing up, he continued, “Well, thank you doctor for seeing her out here safely.  I hope your return trip is safe.”

Reaching out he grabbed Claudia’s hand and they walked away.  After about fifteen steps though, she pulled away and ran back, grabbing the doctor’s leg in a tight hug.  After a long moment, during which he stood there, slightly embarrassed and entirely unsure how to react, she let go, ran back to Wyatt and never looked back after that.

hansom cab courtesy getty images

hansom cab courtesy getty images

 

As they walked along, her great-uncle pointed out some of the sights along the platform as they waited for a hansom to bring them back to Wyatt’s house.  Having come in at the Denver and Rio Grande Depot near 19th and Wazee St., a busy place at almost every time of the day, there was a considerable crowd of people looking for transportation and the wait stretched out past thirty minutes.  Finally, with her great-uncle agitated by the delay and mutterings curses under his breath, Claudia was helped up onto the seat and they took off toward her new, although temporary home.  The transient nature of her current situation was made apparent as soon as they arrived at Wyatt’s house, after he had paid the driver through the trap-door in the roof without a thank-you or a good-day to you being offered in either direction.  As they stepped through the entry, Isaac appeared out of the study.

“So this then is your little burden from your sister.  She hardly looks sturdy enough to survive our journey but I will leave that up to your attention and worry.  Don’t bother settling her in too much as there won’t be time for feeling at home.  We leave in only six weeks.”

“Yes, I suppose we do,” Wyatt replied to the empty space where his son had stood, Isaac having turned on his heels immediately and retuned to the study.  “Come along Claudia.”

Dinner was called a short time later, Wyatt going to get the young girl who had remained sitting on the small bed he had purchased from a second-hand store for her use.  Her truck remained unpacked on the floor and the only concession she had made to having arrived was the removal of her bonnet.  Offering his hand, which the girl took, Wyatt escorted her to the table where she took her seat next to Isaac’s son Ambrose.  Lydia Coburn was at her insincere and ungracious worst right from the beginning.

“What a beautiful little girl you have brought us Wyatt.  It’s a good thing that Isaac was able to find that old chair in the shed or she would be sitting on the floor for her supper.  How are you dear?”

Met with only a stare as a reply Lydia muttered, “charming, a mute,” before stroking her son’s head and saying, “You be sure to play nice with this little girl Ambrose.”

Wyatt remained standing behind Claudia’s chair as the meal was served and then went reluctantly to his place at the head of the table as Isaac also took his seat.  As usual the meal was filled with silence, although this one was interrupted several times by Ambrose poking at the empty spot where Claudia’s arm was missing in her dress and laughing in his high-pitched manner.  As the boy received only half-hearted admonitions from his parents to stop, and with the young girl not eating and in silent tears, Wyatt finally slammed his hand down on the coarse wood table loud enough to make Ambrose squeak in startled response.

“Enough boy!  Leave her along and eat your meal.  There will be no more of this tormenting you so enjoy!”

“It’s going to be a tough run for that girl if all it takes to get her to tears is a few pokes,” Isaac replied before they all returned to silence and then finished the meal overshadowed by tension.

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 10)

I remained troubled by the severity of the crime.

“It sure seems like they went way overboard in killing those women.  I mean it’s a bit extreme to be torturing them, flaying their skin, all of that.  I don’t get it.”

“I felt the same way, however as it turned out all of that happened after they were dead, at least as far as the doctor who examined them could tell.  On their death certificates he listed the cause of death as strangulation and all of the other wounds, except some bruising and scratches on both of them, as postmortem.  The rest of it was staged, probably to terrify old Tom.”

I had a baffled look on my face and asked, “How did that work to frame Tom for the murder then?”

“Ahh, yes, well it may have been that the railroad was not in control of this doctor, however they did manage to get hold of those certificates and they never saw the light of day, at least not in any timeframe that mattered to Tom’s story.  And that doctor never said a word either, maybe they got to him after all.  By the time that anyone with an outside interest managed to read those certificates, Tom was dead, the railroad had their land, and well, it didn’t really matter.”

I nodded my agreement at that just as the second set of candles went out, almost in perfect synchrony.  There was just enough light from the stars to allow me to see Vann snapping his fingers next to the wicks a few times, for no real purpose that I could tell, and then he picked up one of the candlesticks.  After taking a penknife out of his jacket pocket, and starting to remove the wax with measured cuts, he returned to the story.

“Now I have to step sideways on you again my friend because I just realized that you are missing some information.  I kind of got caught up in telling that murder tale, however do you remember the boat?

“Yep, the one you thought he might have been planning to leave in?”

“Indeed. And these?”  He held up the candlestick he was working on.  I nodded and waited.

“Like I had told you, these here were part of the reason Tom stuck around through all that abuse.  I admit, he was as stubborn and tough as they come, however I think even he would have left way before it ever came to murder except for what he had found on his property.  And that,” and here Vann held up up his hand to stop my question, “was something or somethings, that I never did really get complete info on.  If I ever get back that way I am going to make it a mission to get the rest of the details, however here is what I do know.”  He put the candlestick down after wiping off the small amount of remaining wax with his untucked shirt, and then placed the other, uncleaned one next to it.  He waved his hands around for a few moments, silently voicing some incantation I imagined, and then picked them both up.

jack pine stand northern Minnesota

jack pine stand northern Minnesota

“These he found on his property, off in a clearing that lay within the woods that surrounded his cabin, in an area he had dug up, and had been working on, for what had been a considerable amount of time.  Some part of his notes remain in a local archive there and the first mention of what would lead him to that clearing is dated for 1856, a detail about one of his dogs coming home with a tattered rag in its mouth.  Unremarkable right?  Tom even wrote that he was about to toss it into the fire when he realized it had something embroidered on it.  The design was too soiled and torn up to identify, however it sparked his interest and he went out the next day looking for where it had come from.  He found nothing for a week, even after letting his dogs loose and trying to follow them, just to see is they went back to wherever the one had found that cloth in the first place.  Eventually though, he found the small clearing, closely ringed by jack pines, and a shallow hole near the eastern edge with a few other articles of clothing sticking up from the ground.  It was a grave of course, an old one, and Tom wrote that he felt pretty bad that his dogs had disturbed the eternal rest of whomever it was that lay there.  He figured to rebury the fella, for it was a man as far as Tom could tell from the clothing, and after getting a shovel he started on the project.  Along the way though, he started digging up other stuff, including these.”  Vann placed the candlesticks back on the ground, took up his penknife again and began cleaning up the remaining one with wax on it.  He was deliberate enough about it that I realized he was testing me, waiting to see if I cut in with another impatient question.  I remained quiet and started moving around, cold again and realizing that Vann’s story had made me forget it for a few minutes.  When I looked his way again he had stopped working on the candlestick and was grinning at me.

“Pretty cold huh?”

“Damn yes, how the hell are you staying warm anyway.  I mean, you at least have some other stuff to wear but man, it’s pretty chilly and you hardly even seem to care.  You didn’t even zip up that jacket.”

He winked at me, said, “practice, my friend,” and then finished up with the second candlestick.  He placed them both on the ground, then picked them up and changed their positions, repeating that several times in a way that reminded me of maneuvering chess pieces.  Finally he seemed to believe they were in whatever cosmic alignment he needed them to be in and he leaned back to stretch.  I stared out into the night, catching a small moving shadow at the edge of my vision and wondering if it was a coyote come in to ask me just what the hell I was still doing under the water tower with the strange homeless person.

map two harbors area around 1880

map two harbors area around 1880

…to be continued

An American 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

An American 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

An American 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

An American 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

An American 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