Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sheriff Charley Brown: Chapter XV

It was nearing the end of January when Dr. Appel, the physician at Fort Pembina, became concerned about the wife of Frank LaRose. LaRose, who lived just nine miles south, had come to Dr. Appel's office on a Monday morning. Knowing of the man's reputation, the doctor was skeptical and noted with distaste his whiskey breath and dirty, unshaven face. The thought came to mind: Doesn't this man ever wash? I'll make short thrift of him!

"Is it possible that you might be going south today, Doc? My wife is mighty poorly and sickly. She can't do much."

"What seems to be her problem? What are her symptoms?"

LaRose looked perplexed. "Can't say, she just acts funny."

Appel looked at his assistant. "Are we tied up this afternoon, Ira?"

"No, we should have everything finished by noon. This afternoon I'll care for the two men in the infirmary."

The doctor was brief, "LaRose, I'll do my best to get out there this afternoon. The weather seems fair; I should make it by three o'clock."

"Thanks, I'd feel better if you checked her over."

As he left the office Appel's assistant jokingly pinched his nose, he was smiling. "That man stinks to the high heaven."

"He does, doesn't he? However, it isn't too cold outside and it'll be a nice change to go out in a sleigh this afternoon."

Using a cutter from the barn, Appel and his driver attended Mrs. LaRose that afternoon. Except for the furtive and cringing looks the woman gave her husband, who stood nearby, his examination proved fruitless. His only concern was that she was very thin.

"Have you any pain, my dear?

"None to speak of, just a sore throat and a slight cough."

"Let's have a listen to your lungs and heart." After thoroughly checking her over for long minutes, he thumped her back, listening for ominous sounds. He was puzzled, her heartbeat was strong and regular, and her lungs seemed clear of any congestion. Noting the bruises on her arms and her scraped cheekbone, he turned to her husband scornfully. "Treat her with kindness and treat her well!"

The obsequious look LaRose returned fooled Appel not one bit. He realized LaRose was both a heavy drinker and a wife-beater. When he returned to his sleigh, the final look LaRose gave him was of pure hatred. The man's demeanor had changed dramatically, and he said caustically, "She's a lazy bitch, wants to sleep all the time."

Appel was succinct. "Your wife is badly run down physically. She needs good food and rest. Her cure should be on your conscience. I can find nothing life threatening or debilitating about her."

The next afternoon a teamster came in from the south with news that Mrs. LaRose had passed away during the night. Stricken with remorse, Dr. Appel pondered on how he had failed her. Still, many bizarre things had happened in his lifetime. Remembering the strange action of her husband, of his asking for the examination of his wife, and his remarks, Appel became suspicious. Two days later he could no longer restrain his feelings; he decided to approach Captain Collins and relate his misgivings.

The captain listened attentively to Dr. Appel's concern, but was puzzled because of his lack of authority over civilians. "I have no legal power to pursue the matter, but something must be done; the consequences are just too gross to contemplate." He summoned Lt. Walker to his office. "I want you to contact the sheriff at Pembina and request he come to the fort immediately. I'm not sure if Sheriff Brown has returned from Detroit as yet, but he no doubt has appointed a deputy to be in charge."

After a long hunt Walker finally tracked down deputy Bill Moorhead at the St. Vincent elevator.

"I've been looking everywhere for you, Bill. Judas, you're a hard man to find! Captain Collins has a problem and wants you to contact him as soon as possible. I don't know what's going on, but it concerns Dr. Appel."

Moorhead tugged out his watch. "It's nearly four o'clock. Tell the captain I'll be there before supper." He smiled, "Maybe I can bum a meal from your mess."

Walker grinned, "Heck, Bill, you'll be welcome -- that is, if you can stand the grub."

It was after 5 p.m. when Moorhead arrived at the fort. The Officer of the Day immediately had the Charge of Quarters summon both the captain and Dr. Appel to the orderly room. An incensed Appel briefly explained the circumstances, and then asked, "Mr. Moorhead, what action can you take?"

"Well, I know he's a scoundrel and it's suspected he did away with a young girl some years ago, but there was no proof. I'll arrest him tomorrow morning and charge him with the murder of the LeRoque girl. Then I'll consult with the county commissioners to find out what action they want to take." Inwardly, Bill was smiling, knowing it would be his opportunity to work on LaRose.

"I guess that's as far as we can carry it at present," Collins said.

"I think we should carry it even further," Appel said firmly. "Mr. Moorhead, would you advise the county commissioners that I recommend Mrs. LaRose's body be exhumed for an examination at our fort hospital. I am at a loss to explain her sudden demise. Something is wrong!"

"I can contact two of the commissioners tonight, also Kneeshaw, our coroner. One of the commission members lives out of town so that'll take time. It's too late in the day now, so I'll pick LaRose up in the morning."

At 8 a.m. the following morning, Moorhead, accompanied by a backup officer, confronted LaRose at his home. "You're under arrest Frank, better come along to Pembina peacefully."

"Arrested for what?"

"You know darn well. Killing that LeRoque girl in '73."

"That's all bullshit and you know it! Her body was never found. She just wandered away -- probable got herself eaten by wolves. You've got no proof. 'Sides that, you bastards you have no authority over me!"

"I'm serving as sheriff while Brown's away -- you got something to hide?" His voice hardened, "You can come the easy way or the hard way! We'll accompany you inside your house to get your clothes, and then you're going to Pembina with us. Make up your mind, we're both armed."

"All right! I'll go back with you, but you're wasting your time, you'll just have to turn me loose. You have no proof of anything."

Two hours later they arrived in Pembina where the barber, Captain Bob, was roused to build a fire to heat the jail. He also was assigned to stand guard over the prisoner until relieved by a night man.

When Moorhead contacted the county commissioners, it was decided that the responsibility for the investigation rested with Coroner Kneeshaw. Kneeshaw immediately ordered Moorhead to have the body exhumed and delivered to the Fort Pembina hospital for examination by Dr. Appel. Captain Collins cooperated by sending an ambulance, together with a detail of soldiers to fetch the body. Fortunately it had not been interred due to the frozen ground. The men brought the crude wooden coffin to the fort in the early afternoon.

After the retreat formation, and the sunset cannon had been fired, Captain Collins entered the dispensary. He found the surgeon consulting a reference book as he prepared some chemical agents.

"Are you equipped for an autopsy?"

"Yes, I'm just preparing for some tests tomorrow afternoon. Mrs. LaRose's body is frozen solid. I doubt we will be able to proceed with the autopsy until late tomorrow, perhaps even the next day. I'll need one of your officers present as a witness in addition to my assistant. Once we get started it shouldn't take long to determine what caused her death. Frankly, I suspect she ingested some sort of poison. If so, the tests shouldn't take long. The stomach, liver and kidneys will tell the story. There is a remote chance of a heart problem, but I doubt that. When I examined her, she seemed quite normal. The only hitch as I see it, is whether she was subjected to a poison, or if she took something voluntarily. LaRose mentioned she had been taking medication provided by the drugstore in Pembina. We might run into some embarrassment."

"Truthfully, her death doesn't fall into the realm of my command, but since you are the only doctor in the area, I guess we can cover it. Let the chips fall where they may." Collins seemed resigned.

Late, on the second day, after the body had thawed, the doctor, his helper and Lt. Walker were shocked to see the many bruises on Mrs. LaRose's body that had been concealed by her dress. Ira, the doctor's assistant, expressed his disgust. "I've heard he was a son-of-a-bitch, but what sort of a man would beat his wife like this?"

Appel hissed vehemently, "He's not just one of a kind. Many heavy drinkers are wife beaters. Some men don't drink -- they're just mean as hell! We'll start by examining the stomach; I doubt we'll have to go much further." He questioned Ira. "What common poisons do you know? Mind you, there are only a few available to civilians in the area."

Ira's face lit up. "How about arsenic? Cripes, you can get that anywhere. Most farmers use it to kill wolves."

"It's quite possible. It is a metal whose salts are poisonous, yet it can be applied medicinally. It's odorless, but it has a metallic taste. However, there's also strychnine. It's readily available to all. The sheriff will have to look for any witnesses who may have been present at her death."

"Why so?"

"To find out if she had convulsive fits when she died. I'm guessing strychnine was used. Large doses of it cause convulsive fits and a tightening of the muscles, accompanied by a feeling of suffocation. If that's what killed her we'll find it in her kidneys."

After an hour of methodically testing the contents of her stomach, liver and kidneys, the doctor turned to Ira and Lt. Walker with a grim look. "I guessed right! She's loaded with strychnine, enough to kill more than one. How did he get it into her, or did she take it herself?"

"She could have committed suicide," Ira concluded. "Living with that scoundrel may have led to it."

Appel shrugged, "I saw her only days ago and she did show a definite fear of her husband. Somehow, I suspect he tricked her into taking it. As I said, it has no smell but a bitter taste that could have been concealed as a medicinal application. It's a shame that trappers use it so freely, because it turns in a deadly cycle. When a predator is poisoned, other birds and animals feeding on the carcass will die from the same poison. It repeats itself. In fact it's almost the same as arsenic in that respect.”

"Ira, pack her organs with ice and fill her abdomen with cotton batten, then sew her up. I'll walk over and give the captain my report if he's around."

Appel found the captain in the orderly room involved in a conversation with the 1st Sergeant. After being apprised of the situation, Captain Collins advised, "Let's store the body in the warehouse, but keep your findings a secret. We'll pretend we're puzzled until we can notify the sheriff and county commissioners. You say you've retained the stomach and other organs for future reference?"

"Yes, I've had Ira store them on ice. We'll have to await the commissioner's decision as to their wishes. I imagine they'll arrange a coroner's jury, with the aid of the county coroner."