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.”

“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 14)

Authors Note:  Vann did allow me to take a photo of the pages he gave me although we had to do so with the light of some trash we briefly lit on fire- I transcribed them here as the writing is somewhat difficult to read.  My notes are included below in italics.

first page tom sexton last entry

first page tom sexton last entry

Friday October 16, 1885

Current position off-shore Agate Bay – taking on water

Not a pleasant day.  I awoke in town, at the Acre, painfully hung over and unable to recall some of the details from the previous night.  Before I had even cleared the edge of the village I heard an animal howling and thought it might be Allie, although that would be a long way to hear him from.  I was not quite myself so I walked slowly for a bit, however the howling continued and I became convinced it was him which put a hurry in my steps.  Even at that it took me over an hour to reach my property and it was horror when I did.

(there seems to be a break in the writing here, possibly attributable to his next comment and also due to the lightly sketched pictures that appear underneath)

I find it hard to write about this however I think I must as it is the only record anyone will have other than whatever my tormentors come up with.  The horror on arrival began with a woman hung up by the neck in the maple tree, face contorted, clothing ripped and dirty and her entrails strewn out in a pile on the ground beneath her.   Allie looked as though he may have been nosing around that pile, however when I arrived he was sitting about thirty feet away and almost hoarse from howling.  It may have been that the swarm of insects drove him away.  I was ill immediately and then I hauled that poor boy away and tied him up by the door post.  I went inside to get some tools however found another, and if possible, more wretched scene.  Another woman, one I recognized, her name might be Jenny from the Acre, was trussed up to my chair.  She had been violated in ways that I really cannot bring myself to write, other than that she was burned and cut.  The smell inside was terrible, death and blood, and I became ill again and continued in that way for some minutes.   I closed my eyes but the scene would not leave me.  Even as I write this it is still there.  I am certain it always will be.

In that poor condition I continued, eventually I must have stood up because when I next was aware of myself I was outside, cursing and shouting.  It may have been fifteen minutes and I realized I had been pacing between the two bodies. Finally Allie stopped howling, which snapped me out of my despair, and I realized I needed to take action.  When I took off my jacket to begin, I knew that this crime was not only terrible but one that was intended to be traced back to me.  My cuffs were stiff and rough, covered in blood, as was a portion of my jacket front and collar.  It gave me a moment of pause, did I do this?, before I knew the truth.  Up to that moment, perhaps naively, I had not thought of what was obvious now – I had to leave Agate Bay forever and very quickly.

I cast off mid-afternoon and headed out onto the lake, regret still in my mind for leaving behind such a chapter in my life.  I am proud of what I did there.  The light was just starting to fade as it does this time of year and I hoped that the darkness would come before anyone set off after me. I need to have a good lead on any pursuit.  What will I do if I am caught?

(there seems to be another break in writing here and the page has some water damage on it.) 

I will protest my innocence until the last, however in present circumstances, and among the present company in this area, I fear that may to be no avail.

I am headed north.  I need to get away from Duluth, Agate Bay, Burlington, all of this burgeoning population, up toward the more empty parts of this great wilderness.  I made good progress for perhaps twenty minutes before I noticed that my vessel was riding lower than I expected her to.  At first I gave this no more than a passing thought as I had loaded some additional items before I left.  It was not long however before my curiosity got the better of me and I poked around below, only to discover that I was in fact taking on some water.  Improbable or impossible I thought, as this vessel has been tight and worthy so far, however it was a fact not to be driven away by these beliefs.  I bailed, keeping up pace and working on the problem, hoping for a quick repair.  It was however not to be, as several times I believed I had achieved success only to find more water leaking in soon after.  I was still just within sight of land, although thankfully far enough from my property to not be visible, and the darkness was coming now which I knew would cover me.

A night on the water does not appeal to me, however I seem to have no choice.  I am tired and distraught, full of anger, sorrow and pain and may not be in the best mind to solve my problem.    It is 2330 now by my watch and I believe I can keep bail all night and maintain through to morning when a better solution may present itself.

0015 – maintaining well, almost feel asleep while on a break from the work, however slipped and bumped my head which was good luck I suppose

0200 – all well although the leak does seem to be increasing.  I am bailing about five minutes out of every fifteen.

0410 – I bailed like the devil to catch myself a break – as dry as it can be down here for the moment.  My back rests against the two trunks that I filled with my collection.   That, my provisions and the personal items (journals, letters, the photograph I had taken in 1859, father’s razor and my camp kit and gun), are all that remain to me.  I started with less in Agate Bay.  As far as what I have brought from my collection,  I believe this list is complete:

– the three pointed iron poles (only the ones with the runes / other script on them – I had to leave the others).

– Wooden handled cutters

– Uniform jacket found with the skeleton in grave one (I remain certain it is British enlisted from the war)

– My rescued candlesticks (my only set now, so I guess I shall have to use them much as it dismays me).

– The zoetrope and the only remaining good strip (with the horses –  I broke it off its spindle trying to load it…however it still intrigues me).

– Argand lamp

– Tombstone shako cap (all three were in very poor condition, I took the best one).

– Fishing lures and birch box (which to date I still cannot determine origin – Indians ? or Frenchmen?)

– Wooden box carved with ‘Abigail 1792’

– fifteen silver coins

– Indian birch bark basket  (has scratch art on it…beautiful)

– a round earthen vessel (the larger one with what appears to be the inlaid colors)

These are all I could safely carry away with me.  I left the pit as it was as I had no time to cover or conceal it – I suppose it may provide someone a few odd moments trying to determine its nature.  The items from my known and unknown lists I did bury separately, with the lists themselves included as inventory.

The water rises again and I have written too long.  Thankfully morning comes soon.

The entry ends there and Vann would continue his story after I was done reading.  The condition of the pages left me skeptical in regard to how much longer he was going to be able to keep them safe in his bag, regardless of what protection he had around them.  In some ways I was tempted to ask him if I could take them with me, however I thought better of that in the end.   Later I did some research into just what some of these items were and what they looked like.  I have included some pictures here as a reference.  

tombstone shako cap courtesy history.army.mil

tombstone shako cap courtesy history.army.mil

Ojibwe scratchwork courtesy richard and dorothy nelson collection

Ojibwe scratchwork courtesy richard and dorothy nelson collection

british enlisted coat war 1812 courtesy cape ann museum rob bibelhauser

british enlisted coat war 1812 courtesy cape ann museum rob bibelhauser

argand lamp courtesy english-heritage.org

argand lamp courtesy english-heritage.org

…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

An American Story (Part 11)

Vann remained silent after stretching and I refused to look his way, knowing that I would betray my impatience.  Finally he looked at me with approval and continued.

“Tom’s out there, digging up that skeleton, which is what he found out it was after just a few minutes of shoveling, and he starts seeing other things come up with his shovelfuls of dirt.  He cataloged some of it, like these candlesticks, a rotten leather bag with fifteen silver coins, two pair of boots, a sextant, some other bones that did not look human.  He kept some detailed lists the first few times he was out there, but after that it is just phrases like ‘more items found’, ‘another of the long metal rods recovered’, ‘an item that was marked with strange letters or markings’ and the like.  I found a few notations that make me think he was still keeping a list but that it was somewhere else, somewhere that I never found.  Still, he kept at it for all those years and by the time he fled that area it wasn’t a hole, it was more like an excavation, and one that he kept hidden with a series of evergreen screens he constructed.  They were cleverly done and you would not have been able to see the site until you were right on it.  Once he was gone, the railroad sent a crew out to level the cabin and start setting the land up for their use.  The crew leader, named Ben Boga, reported back to them a few days later about what he called ‘a hidden area, which we did not see when first walking the land, which was found to contain a large pit with artifacts in it on the north side of the property.’  That report actually got the president of the railroad out to look at the place however the pressures of the moment, making money and all, must have won out, because once he left they just filled the whole thing back in without ceremony.  Pretty much without notice or record either except for a few things I found in Boga’s work journal.  Those are cryptic though as they lack a frame of reference, mostly just short lists of things and poorly described at that.  The only good list is the one he made the day they arrived, probably right along with when he was filing that report back to the railroad.”

“Weird that they just plowed it under like that, unless maybe it wasn’t so remarkable after all.  Sounds like a couple old graves and what, maybe the scattered leftovers of an old explorer camp?”

Vann nodded back and replied, “I kind of thought so also at first reading.  It was weird enough but like you said, maybe not remarkable.  Then I went back over my notes from the whole thing and found a few things that struck me as really weird.  Tom’s lists of what he found may have been lacking in many ways but the details of how far he had dug were fairly specific.  Like I said, it turned into an excavation, but it was a fairly shallow one.  Wide and not that deep, so what was found should all have been from around the same time frame.  The area was also relatively small, at least on a historical scale, and you would not have expected to find a large mix of items.  The list of recovered objects that I was able to assemble though, some of those things really should not have been found together.  From the few details that I found of Tom’s, and Ben Boga’s one good list, it looks like it was all a mixture of Indian, French and English goods and remains, all in the same area and but some of it not likely to be from the same time in history.  Also, Tom’s notes make it clear that Mashkikiikwe was with him at times while he was digging and it doesn’t quite fit that she would be involved in digging up Indian graves, of which at least three for sure were clearly found.  And then, some of the the items that are described by Boga just, well are really strange sounding, foreign.”

“If you say alien artifacts, I’m leaving.”

He waved me off. “No, not that, just odd descriptions that’s all.  Read ‘em yourself if you ever go there, it’s in the archive.”

“Hmm, maybe.”  Vann had gone quiet and I contemplated some of what he had just told me.  Some parts of it sounded like a bad conspiracy book, the kind I refuse to read, and other parts tugged at my mind and left me incredibly curious.  Other things needed an explanation.

“How do you know that these candlesticks of yours are the ones that Tom had?  I mean, are they really that old?  They hardly look it.”

“They are in pretty good shape, I agree with you there, and especially considering their history.  But they truly are that old, standard three-piece mold candlesticks, which was how they were making them in the 1800’s.  Tom noted his find of these really well as it was one of the first things he dug up near the grave.  He noted them as being found six feet from the north side of the grave, tucked inside one of those pair of boots I told you about before.  He figured all of it belonged to the same person at the time, and if he ever changed that opinion he never made mention of it.  He kept them with him once he found them, and he took them with him when he fled.”

“How do you know that?”

“He made a list of everything he took.”

I could not keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “He stopped to make a list before he fled from the scene of a horrible murder.  Please.”

“Not before my friend.  He ended up having to stop for several hours fairly soon after he left and when he did he wrote an entry in his journal, his last one actually. It included a list of what he had taken with him from the shack.  Those candlesticks were on it.”

I picked both of them up.  “These were on his list?  You know, these are not exactly notable in any way.  I will just accept your statement that they are old, but they’re just plain glass.  There are, or were, probably a lot of candlesticks just like these back then.  For all you know he had other sets of his own and these are just ordinary candlesticks with no story behind them at all.”

Having said that I looked down at Vann, whose face showed a mixture of shock and anger.  His voice sounded like he was scolding a child.

“Has it sounded to you like I don’t know how to research things?  Like I would somehow miss a detail like that?  Tom did have only one set of glass candlesticks, a fact noted in his last journal entry in fact.  It says quite specifically ‘my rescued candlesticks, my only set now, so I guess I will have to use them much as it dismays me’.  Additionally, when he first found them he noted a flaw in the glass of both, ‘three air bubbles in one, and the other with one oval air bubble trapped inside another.  So, if you care to…”  I was already holding them up to the starlit sky and saw the telltale bubbles almost immediately.  I lowered them and handed them back to Vann.

“Point made.  Sorry.”

“Quite alright I suppose.  It’s good to question if what you are being told is true, especially if it is a wild story like this one.  I spent plenty of my time when I was looking into this questioning all of it myself.  One more point of fact.  When the shipwreck was searched they made specific note of items recovered and these were on it.  And from there, even though they changed hands a few times, the provenance is pretty clear, right up to the point they were turned over to the historical society.  These are the same candlesticks.”  He finished with a grin which I thought was going to be followed with ‘Ze-bam’, however I was disappointed in that as he just kept smiling.

There was still an unanswered question.

“So, how did you end up with them?”

Vann did not miss a beat.  “I stole them of course.”

…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