As a grandchild and great grand child of men and women who settled my hometown, I always wondered what it was like for them and their families to pull up stakes and move hundreds of miles to a new country and start over. It wasn't that long before they came to Minnesota that their parents or grandparents had come to Canada from Ireland, but here they were again moving on to find an even better life.
Well, I have a better idea of what it might have been like after reading the story that starts below. It's another book by Charles Walker, or Chuck as he likes to be called. We recently finished serializing Sheriff Charley Brown here, and Chuck has been kind enough to share this next book with us. (By the way, if you want to buy a copy of this book, he tells me it was just accepted for publication recently. I will be sure and share where and how you can buy it when I get the details...)
Read on, and you'll see how Chuck puts flesh and bone on the skeletons of history, making it come alive. He's a real local treasure1, and I'm proud to know him...
A Novel by
Charles H. Walker
This novel of pioneer life in the latter nineteenth century, along the Dakota, Minnesota and Canadian borders, is based upon history preserved by a local family. Parts of the plot are fiction, others are of real life. But historical needs place many actual names of participants in the story.
The three towns involved in the setting are Emerson, Manitoba, St. Vincent, Minnesota and Pembina, Dakota Territory, (according to local newspapers at the time) were troubled by many heinous crimes committed in the immediate area.
Construction of the railroad between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, attracted over 2000 workers, many of whom were ne'er-do-wells, or opportunists. Others were persons seeking anonymity. This horde of men lacking female companionship, but were well supplied with liquor, provided the stimulus resulting in every type of crime. This fact should not cast aspersions upon the brave and competent men who eventually brought about law and order.
While sitting on the back doorstep of his home on the outskirts of Orillia, Ontario, Canada, Daniel McLaren recalled the hardships he and Kate had endured long years ago when they made the move from Ireland to Canada. Gradual starvation after the great potato blight of l845 had forced the Irish emigration, and of those who remained in Ireland, it was said that over one million died of starvation.
Here, in Canada, living was fair -- at least for him and Kate. They were both weavers and the demand for their cloth provided them with an adequate living. Not so for Patrick and Maggy, their son and daughter-in-law. Patrick's small, rented farm, although well managed, barely kept their family afloat. They were discouraged and could see little prospect in the future. This spring of l877 found his son in a desperate situation. Due to high land rent and ruinous crop prices, Patrick and Maggy were contemplating moving to the free farmland of Minnesota, in the United States.
Daniel's thoughts turned to his grandchildren, Patrick and Maggy's four children. The oldest, Ian, now nineteen years, worked for a local blacksmith and contributed one- half of his earnings to his father. He was a tall, lanky lad with an easy disposition and a wide, sensual mouth; yet he was leather tough. A perpetual grin seemed glued to his deeply tanned face, emphasized by thick, raven brows. His brown eyes reflected intelligence. Even the English girls were aware of his magnetism.
Their only daughter, Mary, now sixteen, was bright and attractive. She was a tall girl, lithe and athletic, with an oval face dominated by flashing blue eyes and delicate, high cheekbones. Her flying dark hair, full lips and creamy complexion were beginning to cause concern for her parents. She was naturally inquisitive, excelled in mathematics, and seemed to have a natural aptitude for teaching.
At thirteen years of age, Jerold appeared over-large for his age. He was competent to keep the stove supplied with wood, milk the cows, and do the easier farm chores. A bookworm, he was often blamed for the lack of candles in the house, since he was an avid reader. He perused every book that came to his hand.
The precocious one was Mike, now four years of age. He blithely wandered among the horses and mules that disdained kicking at him as they might have at an adult. He seemed always underfoot, but could carry on an intelligent conversation with his mother, with nothing of her brogue. To his delight Mary was teaching him his letters and he could already write his full name, although with a childish scrawl.
Daniel's reverie was broken when he heard footsteps approaching the door. As it opened, he heard his granddaughter's soft voice. "Room for one more beside you, Gramps?" asked Mary.
A smile came to his face. "'Tis true, just enough room for a bonny lass beside me." Sliding over, he made room for Mary who sat down, carefully bunching her long skirt tightly to her ankles.
"Past time you were on your way home, lass. 'Twill be dark soon."
She protested, "It's only a league down the tracks. Besides, it's time Ian was along; I'll walk home with him."
"Yes, that'd be best -- there are too many strangers about this month of May; there's been much stealing lately." He frowned, "I don't trust the bums that follow the rails."
With a teasing tone, Mary asked, "Gramps, will you play a tune if I fetch your fiddle?"
He noted the beseeching look on her face, and then brightened. "I'll play a jig or two, but only a few. Then, if Ian doesn't appear, off you must go for home!"
Smiling delightedly, she arose and disappeared into the house, reappearing within seconds with his violin case.
Removing the fiddle and bow, he stood, walked slowly away from the steps, and then turned to face her. As he tucked the violin under his chin and checked the strings, he queried, "What tune will it be?"
Clapping her hands happily, she implored, "A jig! A jig, of course! Any jig!"
Abruptly he broke into a fast, rollicking tune and Mary jumped up and began to dance around him. Just then her grandmother appeared at the door; Kate's face broke into a smile as she watched the dancing girl and instinctively she began to clap her hands in time to the music.
Kate proudly watched Mary's nimble feet as she danced to the tune, turning and jerking her skirt this way and that, often spinning rapidly, causing her gown to balloon out exposing shapely calves. Finally Daniel brought the music to a close with a dramatic flourish of his bow.
"Time to go home, youngster! It's nearly dark and no sign of Ian. I'll walk you partway to see you safe."
"No need, Gramps; it's not necessary." Running to him she quickly gave him a peck on the cheek, and then gave her Grandmother a fleeting hug. In seconds she scampered out of the yard and was up the grade to the railroad tracks.
Walking backward, she waved gaily and cried, "Tell Ian I couldn't wait any longer!" Then she turned and began skipping toward home.
On the farm Patrick and Jerold had just finished the evening chores and each carried pails of frothy milk to the homemade cooler. Upon opening the ice door, Patrick remarked, "Jerold, we're nearly out of ice. Will you fetch another block?"
As Jerold obediently turned toward the icehouse, Maggy came from the kitchen door and put her hand upon her husband's shoulder. "Pat, I worry about him."
"You work him too hard. He's just a boy and has little time to play."
"Maggy, darlin', the way things are going, none of us has time to sport. Lord knows, if it weren't for the bit Ian brings in, we'd go under."
"That's why I've overcome my misgivings about moving to the West. We're throwing good money after bad trying to keep this place. Since the crash of '73 we've not gotten ahead. We've too few acres and the rent is much too high.
Let's make the move!" Her look was grim. She had often been curious as to why the Scots and Irish were shunned by the English-Canadians. Canadians in truth? Why, they had been here only a few years before the newer immigrants, yet they acted as if they owned this land. Indeed, they carried their long noses in the air and spoke in guttural sounds.
Patrick turned and hugged her. "Luv', it isn't only the money; Canada is dead on its feet! Here, everything is British; the attitude here is that of a Crown Colony. People without property have no vote; there's little opportunity for advancement; the government is corrupt; the Tories run everything. This damned British mentality is pressing on me! I'm tired of our youngsters being called dirty trash and having clods thrown at them by the English brats. It's best we leave, but we can't until I find a buyer for our extra belongings."
"Have you seen Ben Thompson lately?"
"He offered to buy all at $475, but it's far too little."
"I've nearly $200 put by with my egg and butter money," Kate said softly.
The grim look left his face and he leaned to kiss her.
"Holding out on me, eh?"
"Didn't want you spending it at the pub." She was teasing; he seldom touched a drop.
The squeaking of the wheelbarrow announced Jerold's arrival with the ice. Patrick urged, "Bring it closer to the door." Then, eyeing the huge block, he questioned, "How on earth did you load that immense block by yourself?"
"Slid it up a plank, then washed it off in the barrow," Jerold said proudly.
Patrick looked to his wife and winked. "Looks like he inherited your brains."
"Ah, Pa!" The praise embarrassed Jerold.
Lifting together, using iron tongs, they hoisted the heavy block into the upper part of the cooler, and then stored the wood buckets of warm milk below. After a day or two the cream would raise to the top; Maggy or Mary would then skim it off and churn it into butter. The remaining milk, after they'd removed enough for their personal use, would be fed to the chickens and young pigs.
After supper, as Maggy began washing the dishes, Patrick turned to Jerold. "I'm going over to Thompson's. Want to come along?"
The boy grinned his acceptance and arose from the table.
"Me, too! Me too!" Young Mike chimed in.
Patrick bent to ruffle the boy's hair. "Mind your tongue, lad. You're the man of the house tonight. Someone has to stay and take care of your Mother."
Maggy felt a glow of pride at the closeness between her husband and sons. She visualized that Jerold would eventually be a huge man, since at thirteen years his shoulders were wide and his bone structure heavy. He was tall for his age, but he would never be an athlete for he was all hands and feet. Already he was stockier than any of his schoolmates.
It was almost dark when Patrick and Jerold returned. "Thompson's made his final offer, so he says. It’s $550 for all of the farm tools, the mules and harness. I think we should take it."
"If we sell the cows, pigs and sheep, we should have well over $1000. Can we start anew with that?" Maggy sounded doubtful.
"The railroad agent says the land out west can be bought on payments. We'll just have to make do."
"Pat, it's nearly dark and Mary hasn't come back from visiting your folks." She was suddenly worried.
"Worry wart!" Patrick smiled. "She'll be along soon. She's probably waited to walk home with Ian."
"Yes, but its Saturday night and he may be late. He's been seeing that Quinn girl, you know."
Jerold volunteered, "Ma, I'll walk down the track to meet her."
"Wait a few more minutes," said Patrick. "Then we'll both walk as far as the bridge." He seemed unworried.
As the sky darkened, Mary's sandals made dry scraping sounds on the rough-cut ties. She felt the evening dampness permeating the air, the sudden coolness of it bringing goose bumps. Extending her arms, she stepped to a steel rail and walked for some time, carefully concentrating on her balance. Just ahead, at the trestle spanning the creek, she thought she detected a movement at the edge of the bridge. A sudden chill seemed to tighten her scalp, then chased up and down her spine. Shaking her head forcefully, she put it from her mind. She knew groundhogs and young foxes were plentiful along the coulee. Also she knew that the bridge was a dropping off spot for the hobos who traveled the rails; trains slowed here in preparation for wooding and watering. The tramps seemed a friendly lot, mostly poor Irish, and she occasionally spoke with them. The so-called jungle where they camped was in the heavy brush upstream. She had noted that the vagrants seldom loitered near the tracks and then only when they were boarding or dropping from the slow-moving freights.
The spacing of the timbers and near darkness required concentration, and as Mary walked near the outside edge of the bridge, something forcefully seized her ankle. Unable to regain her balance, she fell heavily to the ties, nearly falling over the edge. Stunned by the impact and growing pain, she slowly regained her wits. She struggled to regain her feet, only to find herself pinned to the trestle by strong arms. A foul odor of sour sweat and tobacco enveloped her as a huge hand closed brutally over her mouth. An arm curled around her waist, jerking her body tight, squeezing the breath from her. She heard the low-grunted words, "Make a sound and I'll kill you!" Then she became aware she was being carried down under the bridge.
In stark horror, Mary realized the man's intent. Her heart pounded wildly and she felt a bitter taste in her mouth as her stomach partially revolted. Feeling her strength fading and realizing her attempts to free herself were futile, she attempted to bite the grimy fingers covering her mouth.
Slamming her brutally to the ground, her assailant grasped the neckline of her dress, savagely ripping it to her waist. Now he was hurting her breasts, his heavy weight almost crushing her. Hands fumbled at her waist, and then wet lips and wiry whiskers ground into her face. Final revulsion came as she became aware of the cold air enclosing her entire body. A frenzied lunge enabled her to bite into flesh, freeing her mouth for one desperate scream. Frantically she scratched at her assailant's face, and then a hammer-like blow struck her temple. Her head seemed to explode in a series of bright, colored flashes that faded into blackness as she became unconscious.
When Ian arrived at his Grandfather's, the elderly man was engrossed in playing an old Scottish ballad. Seeing Ian, he rested his bow. "Been girling again, lad?"
"I stayed a bit to walk Aggy Quinn home."
"Ah, yes, that's the colleen with the wealthy Father who owns the big hotel."
"Gramps, you've got a sneaky mind!" Ian grinned at his Grandfather's allusion.
Kate burst into laughter. "Yes, he's always looking for filthy lucre. It's that Scottish upbringing?"
Daniel winked at his grandson. "Scots are lusty men, too." Then he looked contritely at his wife, who smiled back at him.
Kate quipped, "I believe when the Hanoverians took away the Scots' kilts and forced them to wear trousers, they were warmed overmuch! That bragging sounds like blarney to me."
After the general laughter in which even Daniel took a part, she turned to Ian. "Mary left only minutes ago. She waited awhile; you can probably catch her."
"Not likely, but I'll not be delayin'. See you Monday." Ian turned and headed toward the tracks.
He found the sunset fading rapidly, so much so that it was becoming difficult to see the wooden ties as he approached the bridge. Suddenly he heard a scream pierce the near darkness; he instantly knew it was Mary's voice. Panicking, he ran with a burst of speed, only to trip and fall heavily between the rails. Momentarily stunned, he wasted seconds to gather his strength. Then, switching to the outside of the rails, he broke into a limping run.
Just as he reached the bridge, he detected gasping sounds from underneath the span. Sensing that someone was hurting his sister, he frantically sought a weapon. Then he remembered the spare rails and splice plates that hung just off the end of the bridge. Seizing the end of a plate, he attempted to wrench it loose from the bundle, only to find it securely wired. Putting his foot against the pack, he wrenched furiously, managing to free one end. Twisting the angle, Ian broke the remaining wire. Creeping cautiously down the creek bank toward the sound his foot caught on a protruding stone. As he recovered his balance the slight sound must have warned his adversary.
In the semi-darkness a man's shadow suddenly loomed up before him. Judging the distance, Ian stepped forward and swung the heavy iron with all his strength. Its solid strike made a dull, meaty sound, and the man he struck dropped almost soundlessly. Throwing the weapon aside, Ian fell to his knees to find Mary's assailant lying across her body. In the dim light he frantically rolled the man aside.
"Mary! Mary! It's me! It's Ian! Everything is fine. I'm here -- you're safe now!" Putting his arm around her shoulders, he raised her to a sitting position. For seconds he feared she was dead, but then he felt a convulsive shudder and detected her attempts to breathe. As she slowly regained consciousness, her body movements became more perceptible.
"It's me, Ian, you're safe now!"
The sound of his voice, as well as the effect of his raising her to a sitting position, served to bring her slowly to her senses. At first she was confused, but little by little normalcy returned and she realized this was her brother. She was sobbing and gasping, seemingly unable to gain a full breath. Then she seized his neck tightly with both arms, squeezing him fiercely. As seconds passed, awareness came to her that she was naked. She felt the warmth of Ian's chest and arms, but the rest of her body seemed almost frigid.
Ian, sensing her uneasiness, nervously released her. "Just a minute, I'll give you my shirt." Removing his work-stained shirt, he draped it over her shoulders and helped her find the sleeves. As he was attempting to button it, she began wildly groping on the ground.
"Hold still! What's the matter?"
"I've got to find my clothes; I can't go home like this!" Hunting feverishly, she found her dress, only to discover it badly torn. Trying to stand, she was suddenly conscious that her trembling legs would hardly respond to her effort. She finally managed to step into the torn skirt and, using the remnants, made a crude belt.
"Did he . . . well, you know . . .”
She began sobbing again. "No! Thank God! No! But he was trying! The scut!"
In the dim light she became aware of the form lying near her feet. "What about him? What did you do to him? Is he dead?"
"Leave the bastard!"
"What about the law?"
"What about it? Do you want everyone to know about this?"
She shuddered, "No! Love of God, no! Let's get out of here."
Together they clambered up the bank to the tracks, and, with Ian’s arm supporting her, they began the final mile home.
Suddenly she stopped to clasp him fiercely, "Ian, you saved me!"
Breaking away, he said, "Let's get home. Pa and Ma will be worried sick about you."
"What will we tell them?"
"The truth. What else?" Then he worried aloud. "I think that tramp is dead. I wonder what Pa will say?
Mary's appearance created near havoc when they entered the house. Even Ian was shocked when he saw his sister's face in the lamplight. One of her eyes was nearly swollen shut and her face was discolored, dirty and bloody. Even the hair on the back of her head was impregnated with mud.
As Maggy rushed to Mary, she screamed, "Lord in heaven, what has happened?"
Ian attempted to explain while Mary tearfully added details of the attack. Hurriedly, Maggy placed Mary in a chair and ordered Jerold to chip a pan of ice. Moments later she tenderly wiped the filth from Mary's face and applied cold cloths to reduce the swelling.
Patrick was upset, and began to berate Mary. "Lass, you were warned again and again about hoboes and being out after dark!"
Maggy turned to him angrily. "Enough of that talk, Pat. It's lucky we are that she's alive. God in his mercy sent our son to her. Let's not cry over spilt milk."
Her words and fierce manner served to calm him and he hugged the sobbing Mary. "No more tears darlin'. It's glad I am that you're home safe." Turning to his wife, he said grimly, "All the more reason to leave this damned place."
Mary shrugged from her Father's arms. "I've got to bathe; I'm filthy and I feel dirty all over."
Maggy looked at her sympathetically, and then turned to Jerold. "Fetch the washtub. You, Ian, heat water for her bath."
Minutes later Maggy shooed the men from the kitchen so Mary could undress.
Upon leaving the kitchen, Patrick questioned Ian carefully. "Are you sure you killed that scum?"
"I believe so Pa. I hit him as hard as I could; he sure didn't move afterward."
"Good! Then he'll still be there in the morning. No sense getting the neighbors up over it. Early tomorrow morning we'll have a look. Then I'll notify the magistrate in town. There shouldn't be any trouble about it, except for the possibility of an investigation. Also there may be talk . . . " Then a grim look appeared on his face. "And to hell with them that talk, I say!"
Mary felt her pain subside as she sank into the warm water of the wooden tub. Leaning back, her confidence and poise began to return. She closed her eyes and wiled away the horror of the past hour.
"Some men act like rutting beasts with women," her Mother broke in, "but some, like your Father, are gentle and kind. Don't attach too much importance to the act of that horrible man. Rather, take it as a warning to be more careful in the future. You're getting to be a young lady now. Someday you'll become a woman, a beautiful woman. But it's the beauty in your heart that's important. You already have that."
It was true. Mary had filled out this past winter from a coltish girl to an almost mature woman. Her thin, angular arms and legs had rounded, and no longer did she have the beanpole look. Her breasts had budded to fullness and were especially accentuated by her small waist.
Mary's voice was partially muffled from under the cold washcloth she was holding to her face. "I was really scared when that man grabbed me. Ma, I may seem naive, but I'm not simpleminded! Thank the Lord Ian was close behind me. I believe the man would have killed me. Now that I'm home with you and Pa, I'm not afraid anymore." Inwardly, she was content to relax, and she leaned forward as her Mother rinsed her hair. The fright of her experience seemed to be drifting away. Now, it seemed like a bad dream.
As Maggy knelt by the tub rinsing Mary's hair, she found herself almost breathless. She had bitten her lip and could taste the blood. How dare that filth attack my daughter! It's well Ian killed him. She could barely control her emotion when she thought of her daughter's narrow escape. She had no doubt the man would have disposed of Mary after using her. How am I to explain to Mary that this mustn't make a difference in her life? It's going to be a long time before she'll trust another man to put a hand upon her. Her thoughts turned to her own wedding night when Pat had introduced her to the carnal delights. She had been naive and bashful at first, then a willing and enthusiastic partner. For weeks it had bothered her that Pat had been experienced; later, she was almost grateful that he had been masterful, as he had never frightened her.
Maggy remembered nothing of her own mother because she had died before Maggy was old enough to remember, but her thoughts often returned to the years spent with her father. She remembered the harsh demands and rebukes, and the paltry meals due to his impoverished parish. Also the many hours she was forced to memorize biblical passages, from St. Matthew, the Psalms, and the Proverbs. She recalled her father's entreaty: "Remember them all, Margaret: they will lead you to the right path." A fire and brimstone preacher, he had been a strict disciplinarian. He had disapproved of her marriage to Pat, and she had not seen or heard from him these past twenty years.
Pat's plan to move west met with her full approval, and she had little fear of the future. After all, weren't both she and Pat fit and able to work? Their children were all healthy and hardy, needing no mollycoddling.
A smile of pride crept over Maggy's face as she toweled Mary's heavy mop of hair. Her daughter had turned into a beauty this past year, far surpassing her own plainness. She handed Mary a towel and said, "Dry yourself quickly. The kitchen is getting chilly. I'll fetch a robe for you."
There was little sleep that night. Maggy had moved in with Mary to give her a feeling of security; Pat found himself sleeping alone.
When the sun broke over the horizon the next morning, it seemed to dispel the horror of the past night. Before the rest of the family awoke, Patrick and Ian were up and Pat quickly made coffee. Ian watched silently as his father approached the closet and removed his shotgun. As he carefully loaded it and placed a cap on each nipple, he glanced at his son, who rose and walked expectantly to the door. Quietly they left the house and headed for the bridge.
Stopping in the middle of the span, Ian pointed. "He's over there."
"Where is he?"
"Well, he was there last night."
"We'll go down and have a look."
Crossing the span they cautiously descended to the edge of the creek. There, imprinted in the soft mud, were unmistakable signs showing the outline of a man's body. There was also a copious amount of congealed and dried blood by the shoulder imprint.
"The bastard must be alive!" Patrick muttered.
"Or someone carried him off!"
Squatting down, Patrick pointed, "No, those are his hand prints where he raised himself up. See, also the marks of his knees." Turning, he said, "You go back to the farm. I'll go into town and see the law."
There was no church for the McLaren family that Sunday morning, for Mary's swollen face required Maggy's full attention. Patrick failed to return until it was nearly the supper hour; he was tired and discouraged. "When I spoke with the police they immediately began a search, but with no luck. They think he caught one of the freight trains. They're still hopeful of catching him."
1 - Charles H. Walker remained in the Army Reserve after serving in World War II. He spent ten exciting years as a bush pilot in Ontario, Canada, before returning to the United States and serving for twelve years as a county commissioner. Now retired, Walker concentrates on writing historically accurate stories about the military and pioneering. He lives in Pembina, North Dakota. - From About Author on page about Chuck's Combat Officer memoir, also highly recommended...