Thursday, August 02, 2007

Sheriff Charley Brown: Chapter X

Chapter 10

On December 14 as Charley plodded through last night's heavy fall of snow he realized that any sudden strong wind could whip up a raging blizzard. He judged it time to check with Marguerite on their plans to attend the fort Christmas ball. Another ball was planned at Geroux's Hotel, but Charley, because of his many army friends, favored attending the party at the fort. He found Marguerite in the hotel dining room, placing cutlery on tables, preparing for the evening meal.

She seemed surprised to see him, exclaiming, "You look half frozen! Take off your overcoat and sit down. I'll bring hot coffee."

"Can't stay long, just wanted to settle our plans for the Christmas Eve party at the fort."

Marguerite suspected that Charley's mother wouldn't attend the fort social, since most of the town folks had little contact with the military. Locals would attend the gathering at Geroux's hotel where all were welcome. She decided to press, knowing she was risking an argument with Charley. Returning with the coffee, she said, "Let's go to the social here. I'm helping with the decorations, and Mrs. Geroux will be disappointed if we don't show up. In fact, she made a point of asking if we are coming." Marguerite looked at him anxiously.

"Well, I'd prefer going to the fort ball, still, if you'd rather attend the ball here, I agree. It should be fun."

Instinctively, Charley realized her intent, and was amused at her boldness. What the heck? He knew his mother would no doubt be invited to attend the hotel ball by Mrs. Geroux. He also knew his association with Marguerite couldn't be kept a secret from his mother forever. On previous occasions he had felt no guilt or embarrassment while escorting Marguerite. Why should he now? He knew his mother would find out sooner or later about their relationship, perhaps she already had. He smiled to himself, wondering what her reaction would be when she saw them together at the party.

Marguerite gave him an inquisitive look. "What are you thinking?"

"Sure we'll go, but which ball are Ian and Susan planning to attend?"

"Oh, Ian's just like you. He'll want to go to the fort ball, but I'll work on Susan. We're invited to their home for Christmas Eve supper, so it makes sense for the four of us to spend the evening together. We're all well known in town and there won't be any embarrassment -- at least not from my point of view." She sounded determined, "If some of those old English biddies give me dirty looks, they can go to perdition!"

Charley changed the subject. "Have you heard from Kirby and Mary? Is he still stationed at Fort Leavenworth?" Mary was Ian's younger sister, now married to Lt. Kirby Ralston, a lieutenant from Fort Pembina. When Kirby had been ordered to staff school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the previous spring, Mary had surprised him by boarding the same train he was taking to Kansas. They had stopped briefly in Minneapolis to be married.

"Kirby is to graduate in March. He expects to be posted somewhere in the Southwest. If so, Mary will come home until he finds quarters for her." Marguerite seemed concerned. "Isn't it quite a dangerous and desolate country out there?"

"You bet it is! When it's hot, it's hot; and when it's cold, it's mighty cold! I was stationed in Texas and we chased the Comanche for months. Then they moved us further west to tangle with Apaches. We never were able to catch up with them! Thank the Lord they moved us up here in '70! It was the little things that aggravated me, mostly the heat and constantly blowing sand."

He hesitated momentarily to sip his coffee. "Has Mary visited Kirby's folks in Washington. I understood his father has something to do with railroads."

"She mentioned she might visit them just before rejoining Kirby. I'm told his family is well to do. Kirby's father is an owner-manager of a railroad according to Mary."

"Well, why don't you talk it over with Susan. You can expect a mob here at the hotel. The Emerson coronet band is playing, and I've heard they've picked up some string instruments to form a sort of orchestra. Let's make plans for the New Year's do too. We can take in the fort party then. I'll see Kirby about a invitation."

The blizzard Charley anticipated struck just four days later, on Tuesday, December 16, followed by a northern blast that stopped all stage lines and the railroad for days. He realized the exceptionally high winds would leave little snow on the open prairie, but pile deep drifts in bush areas and in the town. During the storm the temperature dropped to a minus 40 degrees. The tremendous northwest winds finally diminished on the fourth afternoon when merchants with stores facing to the north and west found their front windows almost completely covered by deep drifts, cutting off nearly all outside light.

On the first morning of the storm Charley waded in waist-deep snow from his staircase to the door of the saloon, a matter of only a few feet. The snow level outside the door was already above the doorknob, forcing him to rake snow away from the keyhole. Unable to close the door because of the pressing blanket of snow necessitated his shoveling out the door area, all the while besieged by a howling, turbulent, snow-laden wind.

Because of the storm Charley knew that John, who lived just two blocks to the south, would not venture out of his house. Still, the two stoves must be fed often to keep heat in the building. After adding coal and checking the stove dampers, Charley decided to lock up and return upstairs. A sudden vigorous pounding preceded the opening of the door. As it swung inward, a cold blast of flakes swirled into the room, followed by a tall apparition covered with snow. It was heavily bearded Bill Moorhead, clad in a long buffalo coat. He was wearing snowshoes, which clattered on the floor as he entered.

"Bill! What in heaven's name are you doing out in this storm -- and wearing snowshoes?"

Moorhead tugged off his scarf and fur hat, shaking them out, tossing snow in all directions. "Why ask me? How come your bar is open? Mine is locked up."

"It's not open, I was about to go upstairs after adding coal to the stoves. Since you're here, you might as well grab a chair by the stove and take off those paddles. I'll mix us both a hot rum."

Seated near the stove Moorhead busied himself loosening the rawhide ties of his snowshoes. Finally finished, he looked up at Charley. "They've got Jackson locked up in Grand Forks -- the man we couldn't find last year. He's been sentenced to four and a half years at hard labor. They want you to deliver him to the federal prison in Detroit."

"Where did you hear this?"

"Nelson at the telegraph office told me last night."

"Heck! I'll lose another two weeks!" Charley looked disgusted. "It takes nearly that long to make the trip."

"Look at the bright side; maybe it'll be warmer in Michigan. 'Sides, you won't be leaving for a few days. The railroad tracks are blocked for miles on this side of St. Cloud, maybe all the way to Crookston -- at least that's what Nelson told me. His telegraph was still working. Anyway, it's so cold; I doubt a locomotive could even keep a head of steam. At the telegraph office Nelson said his mercury thermometer froze at minus 40 degrees, but his alcohol gauge showed 54 below yesterday morning."

"Bill, I'm not about to pick up Jackson until January. I've made my plans for the remainder of the month."

"By the way, did your cousin Gene get that quarter of land east of Hamilton?"

"Yup, it was open to homestead, just as Jud said. Also he's bought that house at the corner of 2nd and Chippewa. Says he's going to build a shed out behind in the spring."

"Charley, what do you know about that daughter of Nancy LeRoque, the girl who disappeared some years ago?"

"Not a thing. It happened before I became sheriff. Weren't you the acting sheriff at the time?"

"That I was! LeRoque's missing girl bothered me plenty. I'm sure LaRose took her, used her, then disposed of her body. My search party worked for days, but never found a sign of her. We checked every abandoned well and piece of bushland inch by inch, but had no luck. LaRose is a womanizer, and he was seen talking to the girl the afternoon she disappeared. Also he had been boozing that day."

Charley said, "It would be hard to prove him guilty, even if the remains of her body are found. I know her mother swears he's the guilty one, but how to prove it?"

"I'd like to arrest him, then work him over. I believe I could make him confess, 'cause I know that under all that bluster he's a coward. Why don't you pinch him, put him in jail, then leave town for a couple of days?"

"Bill, you know I can't do that! Oh, I know a lot of others would agree with you, but it's against the law. We have a strict court system now."

Moorhead tipped up his drink, and then turned to look out the window. "Guess I might as well go home; the wind outside is not letting up a bit." He began to re-lace his snowshoes. "Think it over, Charley. It might work. I've kicked my rear I didn't do it when I had the chance."

The following three days were spent keeping the fires going and shoveling snow back from the front windows of the building. Almost zero visibility precluded any travel, so for all purposes the town was dead. At noon on the fourth day the wind began to diminish and apprehensive storekeepers returned with shovels to clear snow. By the next afternoon most storefronts had narrow walkways shoveled through deep drifts, bringing life back to the town. Teams with drags packed the snow on the streets while buggies and wagons were set aside for sleighs and bobsleds. Gradually business picked up, but at a much slower pace. The daily passenger train finally arrived in St. Vincent on December 21, five days late.