Tuesday, December 01, 2009

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 14

July 4, 1902 Parade down main street in Pembina, ND (courtesy of State Archives of North Dakota collection)

When the steamer Cheyenne arrived at Fort Pembina on July l, Army paymaster Reese and his accompanying guards disembarked. Since the troops had not been paid for three months, they were anxiously awaiting money to celebrate the approaching Fourth of July. Expectations were high, since a gala parade was planned, sponsored by the three border towns of Pembina, Emerson and St. Vincent. The parade of bands and floats was to make an entire circle of the three villages. Lieutenant Reese, assisted by Sergeant Heidelberg, completed paying the men by noon the following day.

That evening, after the retreat formation, many of the troops headed for the saloons and fleshpots of Pembina and Emerson. Only essential personnel were to be left on the post for the coming Independence Day.

Late that evening Privates Eberhard and Close, after imbibing at several of the saloons, decided to visit Rosie's house. The nefarious brothel was located in a double-storied cabin only four blocks west of the Pembina River crossing. When near the house, Close paused to relieve himself. The inebriated Eberhard continued along the trail alone. A stealthy figure carrying a club stepped from behind a bush and dealt Eberhard a smashing blow to the head. The robber then knelt over the unconscious man and began going through his pockets.

Approaching in the semi-darkness, Close saw a large man kneeling over a man on the ground. Confused, but apprehensive, he shouted and broke into a run, charging the thief. Well aware of his approach, the robber drew a long knife from his boot and stood to meet the attack. When Close reached the thief, he felt a sharp blow in his lower abdomen, and then the fiery burning as the knife was ripped upward. He dropped in instant shock and was dead within seconds.

The murderer calmly wiped his knife on Close's uniform and reinserted it into the top of his boot. Retrieving his club, he ruthlessly crushed Eberhard's skull with well- directed blows. Lifting Eberhard to his shoulder, he carried the body to the nearby blacksmith's corral. Returning to the scene, he picked up Close's body and dropped it alongside Eberhard. Entering McCarvel's forge shop by the open rear door, he lit matches until he found a shovel. Returning with a short-handled spade, he slipped between the lower bars of the pole fence. At the far side of the corral he began digging a hole to hide the bodies. The several horses in the enclosure snorted and danced nervously, standing well away as he dug. The digging was comparatively easy; the deep layer of decaying horse manure having kept the ground moist.

Time dictated the necessity of a shallow grave, and it was only minutes before the murderer considered it adequate. After searching the bodies thoroughly, he dragged them beneath the lower fence rail and rolled them into the hole. As he covered over the grave, he carefully packed the earth solidly with his boots. Briefly studying the remaining pile of dirt, he carefully spread it thinly around the interior of the corral, just a few feet inside the fence line. He then scraped manure over the freshly covered grave. Finally satisfied, he wiped the blade of the shovel with his boot, and then returned it to its original location. Returning to the inside of the circular corral, he proceeded to herd the horses silently around and around for several minutes, obliterating all signs of the digging. His headache was now easing as it always did when his brother's orders were fulfilled. Disjointed thoughts came to him. I should have stopped him from doing this, but I like to watch.

His work completed, the murderer began the walk back to St. Vincent. He planned to wash his clothes when he waded the river. If anyone asked, he would tell them he was drunk and fell while crossing the river. It had been a profitable night; neither of the soldiers had spent much of their pay.

Common practice dictated that after the ferry closed down for the night, the men returning to St. Vincent waded the Red River, holding their clothing over their heads. The river was only chest deep that July.

Reveille formation at Fort Pembina the following morning disclosed Privates Eberhard and Close, from Company I, AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). Their friends exchanged worried queries, for although many had accompanied the two men to town, no one could remember seeing them after midnight. One soldier remembered seeing Close in the Ragged Edge Saloon earlier in the evening. He also remembered Close remarking that he might visit Rosie's establishment.

That afternoon Captain Collins sent Lieutenants Ralston and Kirkpatrick to search for the missing men. Both enlisted men were well thought of and it was considered unlikely that they would desert. Their friends were adamant; Eberhard and Close were not defectors.

Kirkpatrick was optimistic. "They probably went to Emerson and found some girls. More than likely they got drunk and are sleeping it off."

"You may be right, Shawn, but they've never done anything like this before. I know Close was going to enlist for another five years, he told me so. His enlistment will be up this fall. Let's look up Charley Brown and ask his help. He'd be our best bet."

They found the sheriff in front of the Pioneer Hotel, near the steamboat landing. He was in a discussion with Mrs. Fisk, the hotel owner. The woman's final petulant words came to their ears as she turned away from Charley. "I want you to find the thief who is stealing my chickens!"

Charley smiled at the officers as the door closed behind the woman. After Kirby and Shawn dismounted, he explained the situation. "I looked at her damned chicken house and fence. It's plain to me that a skunk is taking an occasional bird. She blames the kids or bums, but there's a hole at the end of the fence where the critter has dug under it. I even showed her the black hairs sticking to the wire and told her to fill the hole with broken glass." He shrugged, "What the hell, the polecat has to live too!"

Noting the sober faces, Charley added, "Must be something mighty important to drag you two into town in this heat." He removed a kerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead.

"It is darned hot, isn't it?" Kirby said agreeably. "We're actually in town to look for Eberhard and Close. They both missed muster this morning; it's not like them."

"Well, I've been prowling the town and haven't seen either of them, and I know them well. Matter of fact, I don't remember seeing them last night. The town was pretty wild. It must have been payday; there was a lot of money floating around."

Kirby nodded. "The gang'll be in town again tonight, and all day on the fourth. That is, all those who haven't already blown their pay."

Shawn interjected, "Close was seen at the Ragged Edge Saloon last night, sometime before midnight. He told one of the men he might stop at Rosie's."

The sheriff looked across the street. "C'mon!" He angled across to the north side of the street toward the Ragged Edge. Kirby and Shawn exchanged puzzled glances, then followed, leading their horses.

Stopping momentarily at the hitch rack, the officers tied their mounts, and then the three stepped up to the open door of the saloon. A swamper was sweeping the rough plank floor, chasing a cloud of dust. The foul odor that greeted them was overpowering, compounded by myriads of buzzing, clinging flies.

"Where's Johnson?" Charley was curt.

The swamper eyed him casually and raised a hand limply over his shoulder. "He's asleep, back of the kitchen."

"Get him out here!"

"He ain't going to like to be awoken."

"Just get him out here! Now!"

The man disappeared momentarily. Then a loud belligerent voice was heard.

A squat, fat man appeared; he was barefoot, and was stretching suspenders over bare, hairy shoulders. When he saw the sheriff and the two officers, he seemed unconcerned. "Well?" he grunted.

"We're looking for two soldiers, Eberhard and Close. Were they here last night?"

"Close was in here about 10 o'clock, but he didn't stay long. The place was so packed I didn't notice Eberhard."

"That's all you know of them?"

"Hell, yes! Check Rosie's, or maybe that whorehouse in West Lynne. They might have gone over there and got loaded."

"Thanks, Ole. Sorry we disturbed your nap." Charley winked to Kirby and Shawn. It was obvious that Charley cared little about waking up the saloon owner.

Leading the way out of the bar, he stopped briefly by the horses. "We should split up. Kirby, why don't you and Shawn check the business places? I'll take the saloons and Rosie's house. We can meet at my store in an hour or so to compare notes."

When they met later that afternoon, they found little news to share. All felt frustrated. Finally Charley rounded the end of the bar to draw them three beers. Turning, he said, "If those men don't make reveille tomorrow, let me know. I'll go to Emerson and check with Jack Bell. He's the constable over there and a good friend. I agree that something's wrong; I just hope it isn't serious. With so many railroad workers about, anything could happen; but if they've met with foul play, we should eventually find them. Even bodies tossed in the river rise to the surface after a few days."

The morning of July 4 the two men were again listed as AWOL, and Captain Collins sent Kirby to accompany the sheriff to Emerson. Kirby welcomed the order, for it presented an opportunity to visit Mary. He suggested to Charley, "Mind stopping at McLaren's on the way home from Emerson? We can return on the east side of the river -- might have luck on dinner there."

"Kirby, Kirby." Charley chastened, "Sure we'll stop so you can visit with your future bride." He began to chuckle.

"I wish!" Kirby had a gloomy look on his face. "She's evasive."

"Give her time, man. She's pretty young."

"Seventeen now. Anyway, I'm working on it."

Charley glanced at Kirby and saw the gloomy look slowly turn to one of complacency.

Heading north out of town, they approached Huron City at the International Boundary. In spite of land speculators' wild claims as to the town's grand future, only a few cabins and a small hotel were in existence. Charley knew that the hotel held the reputation of being the local brothel. Crossing the boundary line, they came to the road between West Lynne and Emerson. The hot, humid afternoon seemed to wrap the two men closely.

Not a word was shared until they reached the ferry, when Charley said, "We'd better help pull on the rope. It'll save time." Kirby complied silently, grasping the manila line and working it hand over hand to assist in propelling the heavy barge to the east shore. When he remounted his horse, he could feel the perspiration running down his back and under his arms. He particularly disliked the sticky sensation and the dark stains that formed under his armpits. Still it was far worse when they wore winter uniforms of wool. He hated the itch!

Charley and Kirby found constable Jack Bell at Kenneth McRae's blacksmith shop, a building often used as the town jail. Bell was a big man with a paunch that sagged over his belt; dewlaps were forming on his cheeks. He looked content as he sat in the shade of an elm tree while watching McRae work at his outdoor forge. A dribble of brown juice ran down one cheek as his chaw leaked. Rubbing his wet chin with the back of his hand, he remarked, "Kenny, we've got company."

McRae ceased pounding the weld on the tire rim and turned to face the approaching men.

"Hello, Charley! Hello, Lieutenant! What honor do you bring us today? You after someone?" Bell smiled ingratiatingly.

"Yup," Charley answered as he and Kirby dismounted. "Looking for two of Kirby's men from Company I. Wondered if they came over here a couple of nights ago?"

Bell shook his head slowly. "You've wasted a ride unless you've come to join our parade." He winked to Kirby. "They're forming the band and floats at the school right now, and are to leave for Pembina at eleven o'clock. It’s going to take some time to get everyone across on the ferry though. What's the fort military doing for the occasion?"

"The band and both companies are parading, but I'm not involved in the parade. I understand it's to start in Pembina, then move to St. Vincent, then circle back over here to Emerson."

"Jack, is it true you're getting a new jail? I heard a rumor." Charley was curious.

"Not until next year. The town fathers are planning for a new jail; it's to be of solid oak logs with steel barred windows." Bell looked toward the blacksmith. "Kenny's shed is too easy to break out of, but it's served its purpose from time to time."

"We need a new lock-up in Pembina too. There's talk of building a new brick courthouse and jail soon. We could sure use it."

"Then you haven't seen any soldiers over here?" Kirby was anxious to move on.

"Like I said, Lieutenant. I haven't seen a soldier from the fort for days. 'Course they could have been over to Miss Stone's house on the other side of the river." He winked suggestively, "its good business for me to stay clear of there unless there's trouble. Kind of figured the troopers were all broke." He looked at Kirby shrewdly, "Are the men you're looking for deserters? If so, they're safe over here."

"Sure, I know I can't touch them in Canada, but that's not the problem. They've disappeared and I'm beginning to suspect foul play."

"Well, as long as you're here, how about a snort?" Bell stood up to rub his rump, then sat down again.

Charley was agreeable, but with reservations. "One wouldn't be remiss, but it won't cool us any. Can't stay long, though; have another stop to make." He smiled at Kirby.

McRae disappeared momentarily, returning with a gallon jug. "Have a lick," he said, as he passed it to Kirby. Kirby smiled apologetically as he passed the flask to Charley. "No, thanks, I'm still on duty. Too early for me anyway."

Running a forefinger through the handle, the sheriff questioned Bell. "Anything further on that young Indian girl who was strangled last winter?"

"Nothing. It had to be one of those railroad men though. I questioned them all and got nothing. They all claimed they were drinking and that no one left the shack except to piss." He spit out his chew as he accepted the jug from Charley. "It sure as hell wasn't the breeds at the Crossing that killed her."

Leaving the blacksmith shop, the two men rode to the C.P.R. roadbed east of town. Charley rolled a cigarette while they stopped to watch the bustle of men laying ties for the sidetracks. It seemed the tie crew was barely keeping ahead of the crew laying and anchoring the steel. Following the tie layers a man on horseback pulled forward a four-wheeled, short flat car loaded with rails. Men working from each side of the car seized rails to lay them on the ties. After four rails were in place, the car was rolled forward and the process repeated. Gaugers and bolters then set the rails, and gandy dancers spiked the steel to the ties. When the car was empty of rails, it was tipped from the tracks and another loaded car was pulled forward to take its place. The tipped car was again placed on the tracks and moved to the rear to be reloaded. The work went on with methodical precision, prompting Kirby to say to a bystander, "Looks like they'll have the line done soon."

"Naw." The man shook his head. "The crews north of here are having trouble. The ground is swampy and saturated. Wouldn't be surprised if they have to wait until freeze-up to finish. It's said Jim Hill is sending up an engine and some bridging to help as soon as they get this part of the line hooked up to his."

Drawing rein, they turned south and dismounted at McLaren's. While Charley stood by the horses, Kirby approached the door. He noted the new screen door, not yet painted. A slotted strip of oilcloth had been tacked to the upper edge to discourage the entrance of flies. The inner door stood open.

"Hello there!"

Maggy appeared at the door, hastily buttoning the upper part of her dress. Kirby guessed that she had been nursing the baby.

"Come in, Kirby." Then she saw Charley standing by the horses. "Oh, you've brought a friend. Invite him in." She stepped back as Kirby beckoned to Charley. The screen door made a protesting screech and slap as Kirby entered the house. He noted that Maggy appeared to be alone. "Is Mary around?"

"She's with Jerold and Knute. They are picking saskatoons just east of the railroad grade, the place the town has picked to be the future cemetery. We'll be moving to St. Vincent as soon as our new house is completed.

Charley entered at that moment and Kirby made the introduction. "Charley, I'd like you to meet Mrs. McLaren. You'd better call her Maggy or she'll be angry."

Maggy looked questioningly at Charley. "So you're the sheriff Ian talks about."

"All good, I hope." Charley smiled.

"Well, he seems to set store by you." She began to smile as she turned to the stove. "What will it be, tea or coffee? There are oatmeal cookies, too. Mary made a batch yesterday. It's a wonder there are any left, though; she must have hidden them from the boys. There'll be rhubarb pie, also, if you care to wait. I'm just starting to put dinner on the stove."

Kirby noted that Maggy had a particular grace and beauty even though her hands appeared rough and chapped. Instinctively, he knew that Mary's beauty would hold up as had her mother's.

When they settled for tea, Maggy was voluble, obviously glad to see Kirby. She was impressed by the clean-cut appearance of the sheriff, immediately judging him too old for her daughter. She shook her head in frustration, thinking, I'm getting to be an old, greedy matchmaker. But Kirby is just right, he's the one.

After a few minutes of conversation, it was apparent to both Maggy and Charley that Kirby was becoming restless. He finally turned to his friend. "If you don't mind riding back to Pembina alone, I think I'll look up Mary." He turned to Maggy. "What time is the parade scheduled to reach here this afternoon?"

"Not until three o'clock. Why don't you run along? The sheriff and I can visit a bit longer."

Maggy and Charley exchanged amused glances as Kirby hastily left the house. Their discussion turned to Charley's mission to Emerson and of the missing men.

Kirby crossed the railroad grading and caught a glimpse of Mary's white bonnet bobbing along the edge of the trees. She turned to smile as he approached. Holding her basket toward him, she teased, "You're almost too late to help me pick berries. We've already filled three big pails, and the boys and I are just finishing our baskets."

Kirby slipped from the saddle just as Jerold and Knute appeared from behind some bushes. "Hello, Kirby!" greeted Jerold, "Come over to view the parade with Mary?"

Seeing Jerold standing beside his sister was an eye opener. Kirby had never seen a boy grow as fast and mature so quickly. He would not like to see this boy angered. He knew this brother of Mary's, although young and inexperienced, would be a tough contender someday. What a man he'll be by the time he's twenty-one! His eyes turned to Knute. The boy was smiling, but silent. Knowing Knute's lack of English, Kirby attempted to draw him out. "Lots of berries, Knute?"

The boy answered seriously, "Yah, lots of berries to pick."

Jerold's liking and approval of Kirby was obvious. He volunteered, "Knute and I'll take the pails home. You two can finish filling Mary's basket." He winked at Mary; she responded with a gay smile.

"Tell Mother we'll be home for dinner in a few minutes. We'll have plenty of time to watch the parade this afternoon."

Picking berries was the furthest thing from Kirby's mind when the boys left. Removing the basket from her arm he took both of Mary's hands in his, and then drew her close. She offered no objection, but studied his face with a rapt expression.

"Now, no interruptions. I'm going to say my piece and you're going to listen. I love you and want you to marry me. I know the Army isn't any bed of roses for a woman, but it's the life I've chosen."

A flood of raw emotion overcame Mary as sudden realization came. Her prior fears vanished and she knew she truly loved this man, and only this man. She uttered a sharp cry, "Oh, Kirby," as she threw her arms about his neck, accepting with relish his mouth as it covered hers. It was a hunger she had never anticipated, born of months of emptiness since Robert's betrayal. Their embrace was almost savage and she could feel Kirby's hands roaming over her intimately; then her hands began to do the same to him. A reckless feeling of sheer joy came over her and unbidden sensations seemed to float through her body as his lips closed with hers again and again, soft at first, then hard. She felt her bonnet being slid back and the pins being removed from her hair. As the glossy hair fell loose to spread down over his hand Kirby lifted the folds and buried his face into them. She could feel his intensity matching hers, and her worries about responding to his touch vanished at that instant. As his hand cupped her breast, she felt her limbs seemed to turn to water. Then she realized a sudden embarrassment and pulled away from him to regain control.

Gathering her composure, she teasingly scolded him. "Enough is enough for now. I'll marry you the day I turn eighteen, on March 31, next spring." She hesitated, "Will you wait that long?"

Smiling, he said, "I'll respect your wishes, but you just wait. I'll be there the day you turn eighteen."

She touched his lips with her fingers. "Don't say more now. You'll make me feel guilty."

Although it was not yet noon, the sun burned on her cheeks and she pulled her bonnet back into place. Taking the draw ribbons from her hands, Kirby attempted to tie them under her chin. He dropped them without completing his task, for kissing her suddenly became more important. Again the overwhelming feeling of desire swept over her and she felt almost unable to resist. She knew she was vulnerable; the sensations she was experiencing in his arms were overwhelming. However, she also knew that a successful marriage must be based upon a knowledge of each other, and not just a biological feeling or impressive looks or beauty.

Gently breaking their embrace, she looked into his eyes, knowing she must never let him know how much she suddenly wanted him. Her eyes sparkled as she said softly, "I take it we're formally betrothed now."

His arms tightened around her again. "You bet we are, and don't you forget it! You'll have the ring tomorrow." He sought her mouth again.

Laughingly she pushed him away. "Kirby, we've got to be sensible. It's nearly noon and I've got to get back. At least you can stay for dinner, can't you?" Then with a puzzled look, she asked, "Just what are you doing over here on a workday? I didn't know they gave soldiers the day off." She shook her head. "Oh, what's the matter with me? You've got me so excited and confused. Of course! It's the fourth of July!"

He released her and walked to his horse to gather up the reins. Returning, he said, "It's a long story, too long for now. Sweetheart, do you want to ride, or shall we walk?"

Slipping her arm through his, she pressed tightly against him. "Let's walk. This long skirt isn't made for riding."

As they walked hand in hand, they became aware of the fragrances emerging from the bushes and wild flowers. They watched two blackbirds pursue a crow that had ventured too close to their nest. A soaring hawk provided more enticement to the birds and they took turns harassing it, chasing it nearly a half mile before returning to the thicket. Their only interest was each other and they stopped frequently to grasp, hug and kiss.

Somehow it all seemed strange and new to Mary. She had put Kirby off for a year, feeling no desire. Now, strangely, she found she could hardly keep her hands from him.

Nearing the back door of the house, she asked, "Should we tell them now?"

"Why not?" He dropped the reins of his horse and smiled. "Unless you want to change your mind."

She grasped his upper arms and buried her face in his chest. "Never!"

"Then let's do it!"

Maggy immediately detected the aura of happiness that emanated from the two as they entered. She instinctively knew her fondest wish had been fulfilled.

"We're engaged, Mother!" Mary's arm was around Kirby's waist as they entered the kitchen, her excitement obvious.

Congratulations, Kirby!" Charley stood and reached across the table to take his friend's hand. "I envy your happiness."

Jerold rose to congratulate Kirby as Maggy hugged Mary excitedly. Knute remained sitting at the table, an embarrassed smile on his face. He had hidden his feelings for Mary, and felt a sudden dismay.

Mike stood nonplused, not knowing what to do or say. Finally he caught Kirby's attention. "Are you taking Mary away from us?"

Kirby immediately perceived the boy's concern. "No, Mike. It's more like I'm joining up with you all. I'd never take Mary from her family."

Mike looked relieved. "Then I guess it's all right."

The group smiled at his answer.