Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 15


It was only a week after Patrick and Maggy moved into their new house in St. Vincent that Susan made the suggestion of a housewarming party.

"Ian, your folks have moved into the new house and no one has arranged a housewarming for them. Why don't we do it? It would be a wonderful surprise for your family and an opportunity for them to meet their neighbors. Don't the Irish and Scots do such a thing?"

He began to grin. "They sure do -- weddings, wakes and all; but to most of them it's just an excuse for a drunken party." Mulling it over in his mind, he finally said, "They'd like it, but how do we go about it? I'd have to make excuses to Pa and it would have to be planned for a Sunday. Even after his shift as foreman for the railroad he plows every Sunday to give the rest of us a break. We're trying to get 480 acres ready to seed next year."

Susan nodded. "Let's get Mary in on the plan. Between us we can do the invitations. We'll ask friends from Emerson and the local St. Vincent folks. Perhaps Kirby can extend invitations to some of the officers and men from the fort that know your folks. Could you see Reverend Scott? A lot of the Presbyterian congregation will want to be invited."

"That's no problem. How about food?"

"Silly, that's no concern. Everyone brings food to a housewarming. Besides, Marguerite and I can cook up a turkey and a couple of hams. We'll get Mary to do the baking." She hesitated a moment, then said, "No, that's not a good idea. Your mother will know something's up."

"How about some beer?" Ian said slyly.

Susan pointed her finger. "You can get a keg from the brewery, but only beer. No hard liquor, hear?"

He laughed, "I'll hide it behind the woodpile."

She snuggled close to him. "It seems something other than lemonade is always welcome at a party. Remember, nothing stronger though."

Susan consulted with Mary, and for the rest of the week they were busy with invitations and arrangements for food.

Ian informed Charley Brown of the proposed party and enlisted him to invite the most prominent citizens of Pembina.

When Patrick and Maggy returned home from the Presbyterian Church service the following Sunday, they found the street in the vicinity of their home crowded with buggies. "Oh, my gosh!" Maggie exclaimed. "Someone has been hurt!" She grasped Patrick's arm. "Could it be a fire?"

Gradually, as they grew closer to their home, Patrick heard the clopping sound of horses behind them. Turning, he recognized several of his fellow parishioners from the church -- they seemed to be following his buggy. "Don't know, Maggie. Looks like some sort of gathering." He was puzzled.

A spot in front of their house had been left vacant, enabling him to turn his horse into the yard. As they made the turn, a crowd of men and women surged forward, shouting, "Surprise! Surprise!"

Ian, Susan, Kirby and Mary, accompanied by the boys, approached the buggy as Patrick stepped down and took the baby from Maggy's arms. Ian stepped forward to help his mother dismount. Immediately the crowd gathered around to express their congratulations. Mary took Kathleen from her father's arms, saying, "You both must come with me. This is your official housewarming party from the folks of the community."

Maggy turned to Patrick and dug her elbow into his ribs. "Did you plan all this, you scalawag?"

Baffled, Patrick began to grin. "No, but I'm going along with it, and so are you."

Susan joined Mary and they escorted Maggy to the back of the house where a long table had been set up to hold the food. Maggy was amazed to see a huge turkey, hams, roasts, vegetables, pickles, jellies and a gigantic pot of steaming mashed potatoes, all covered by a strip of cheesecloth. She glanced around to see Kirby and the sheriff escorting her husband toward the woodpile near the partially completed barn. Turning to Susan, she demanded, "Where are they taking Pat?"

Ian, who had followed his mother, laughed. "Just off to prime the pump, Ma."

The shock of the surprise wore off and Maggy began to laugh. "Well, since it's a party for our family, I'm going to enjoy it." She looked at Ian coyly. "I'll even try one glass of beer, son. At least I hope its only beer you have."

Susan took Maggy's hand, "There's more. We have another table you must see." The table she referred to was covered with wrapped packages, household gifts from the guests.

While Maggy hesitated in awe, Reverend Scott chided, "You must open the gifts before we partake of the food. I'll round up Patrick to assist you."

While Patrick stood by, Maggie opened gift after gift to find they yielded a wealth of necessary items, many of which she already had: pots, pans, a huge roaster, plates, cups, saucers, towels, an embroidered tablecloth, even a wool-covered soapstone for warming their bed at night.

When the gifts were all displayed, Mary called out, "Time to eat, everyone!" She and Susan lifted the cheesecloth covering from the long table while Patrick escorted his wife to the end where the plates and utensils were stacked. A long line of guests began to form behind them. While Reverend Scott offered grace, Jerold made a trip into the house to get Maggy's rocking chair and the high-backed chair for his father. Ian and Kirby had previously brought all the other chairs from the house, but because of the huge crowd, many of the guests were forced to sit on the grass.

Word spread among the men of the keg behind the woodpile and the traffic became noticeable. While no woman would brave the passage, Maggy noted that several of the men returned with cups for their wives.

When the supply of lemonade ran low, Ian and Charley procured ice from the icehouse and made more in the kitchen. Patrick noticed that Jerald and Knute were surrounded by several of the local girls. It appeared the two boys had overcome their bashfulness. Still, although Knute seemed to bask in their attention, Jerold appeared to be on the defensive.

By 3 o'clock several of the crowd had left for their homes and, an hour later, all were gone. A final family group surrounded Patrick and Maggy. Susan nudged Ian surreptitiously when she saw Charley Brown slip away with her sister.

The day had gone well and Maggy was pleased. She had met many people and all were pleasant and kind. Not a thing had happened to mar the day. She expressed her thanks succinctly. "It's been a wonderful day and you've all been so kind to plan this party for Pat and me." She looked around the circle. "I only hope the day will come when we can do the same for you."

Mary began to clap her hands softly, and everyone joined in.
___________

By mid-July the early wheat crop was fully headed and ripening. Jerold judged that by July 20 they would begin cutting.

"You sure you've plowed good firebreaks around each of the fields, Jerold?"

"Best as we can, Pa. There have been so many prairie fires lately, and it's been so dry, that Knute and I plowed a few extra strips."

Ian was incensed. "All the prairie fires we've had so far this summer have been set by humans. We haven't had any bad storms with lightning since the middle of June. I hear the Pembina County Commissioners are offering a $100 reward for anyone who reports an arsonist. Just the other day Mr. Forsyth, who lives west of Pembina, returned home in time to see his haystack and rack burning. He saw the man who set the fire running for the border. Forsyth tried to fight the fire but lost the stack and his hay wagon. If he hadn't stopped to fight the fire, he might have caught the arsonist. The man was either crazy or had a monstrous grudge."

It was a day later when Frank Webb, a farmer who owned land bordering Ian's, appeared at Patrick's door. From the grim expression on his face Patrick knew something was wrong.

"Is Ian around, Pat? We've got trouble."

"Come in for coffee, Frank. Ian went over to Grant's to see Susan. They plan to marry in the future." Pat led the way into the kitchen.

"I've heard that. I don't know her well, but she is certainly a looker." He hesitated. "Does Ian know someone tried to burn his wheat field last night, the one that adjoins mine?

Patrick was startled. "What do you mean tried?”

"Someone damn well tried to burn his field last night. The only thing that saved it was the dew and the lack of a wind. I never noticed the fire, just spotted the burn area as I came past on my way to town this morning. Who would do such a thing? My God, if his field had gone up in smoke, it might have taken my wheat, too. I would have lost maybe $4000 or more."

"Judas! Thanks for telling me. I'll round up Ian and Jerold and have a look." He shook his head. "Do you suppose the scoundrel will try it again?"

"Don't know, but I'm going to plow a firebreak, too." Frank looked troubled. "Should have done it long ago, but it's a lot of extra work. Got to now, I guess." His voice hardened, "If I see anyone who doesn't belong out there, I'll dust him with my shotgun. I guess the only thing that saved Ian's field was the fact that it was done at night. Golly, during the hot part of the day, and with a wind, it would have gone like a flash."

By the time Patrick found the boys and they reached Ian's land, it was nearly noon. It was apparent little damage had been done, for only a narrow strip along the north edge of the wheat had been burned. Patrick and Jerold watched from the buggy as Ian walked the burned portion. They saw Ian bend over to pick up an object. When he returned to the buggy, he was twisting a long wire into a coil. "Whoever it was must have tied a rag at the end of this line, soaked it with coal oil, and then dragged the wire behind him." He looked up to his father and Jerold.

"Bet it was that Brogan. I've never done any hurt to him, but for some reason he dislikes me. I'll see Charley Brown. Maybe he can check on Brogan's whereabouts last night."

"It'll be difficult to prove; might have been someone else -- it's hard to say," Patrick mused. "There are those that have nothing and are jealous of anyone who has. We should keep it quiet and see who says anything. Webb says he is going to start a firebreak alongside your land and I don't blame him. He would have lost heavily, too."

Late that afternoon Ian found the sheriff at his saloon in Pembina. He was involved in a pool game with Deputy Bill Moorhead. Charley noted the grim expression on Ian's face as he entered the door and grinned at Moorhead. "Ian looks fit to kill, doesn't he?" He laughed, "Come looking for trouble, or have you already found it?"

"Darn near it, Charley. Someone tried to burn my wheat field last night. I think Brogan is behind it!"

Charley and his deputy exchanged startled glances.

"You mean that 60 acres Jerold cropped for you?"

Ian nodded. "I was lucky this time, only lost about a quarter acre. It was done last night. If there had been a little wind, blooey!"

"You're probably right, Ian. But it'll be darn hard to prove. I'll snoop around and try to find where Brogan was last night; but even if he has no alibi, it's little proof."

Moorhead spoke up. "Maybe we should pass the word around town that you're hot on the trail of an arsonist. It might make whoever it is think twice about trying it again.”

"Look for tracks, Ian?" Charley leaned over the pool table and sank an easy shot.

"There weren't any in the field that I could see. If there were, the ashes from the burned grain would have hidden them."

Moorhead interrupted. "How careful did you check the road, son? The man had to be either afoot or horseback." He turned to Charley. "Let's go out and have a look. We can pick up Pete at Grant's. He can track a flea in a hailstorm."

"I never thought of Pete." Ian suddenly realized how little he actually knew of Pete's abilities. He felt foolish, remembering how Pete had never gotten them lost even during the worst of the winter storms. His instinct had seemed almost uncanny.

"Let's finish this game first. We have plenty of time until dark. Ian, do me a favor. Go to Mason's stable and ask him to hitch up my buggy. No, best ask for a two-seater."

Later, at Ian's wheat field, the three men watched as Pete walked the burned portion, kneeling occasionally to carefully brush away-blackened particles. At the end of the torched strip he shook his head. Straightening up, he cut across to the road and walked slowly back toward them. Suddenly he knelt down, and then looked up; he was smiling.

As they approached, he held out his arms to protect something on the ground. There, partially covered with tufts of grass was an imprint of a large boot.

Charley said grimly, "If that's the guilty man's print, he has big feet, it's over a foot in length, way over. It must be at least a size 12 or 14 boot. Doesn't tell us much, but it would eliminate some. Still, a lot of the Norwegians working on the railroad are big men."

Moorhead spoke up. "Sure, but what would they be doing way out here? There's nothing around but prairie and grain fields." He gazed down at Pete. "Look further along the trail toward town and see if you can find any more tracks."

More footprints of the same man were found, but the boot soles left no clue. There were no identifiable cuts or breaks in the leather. It was apparent to the men that the boots were nearly new for the sole imprints were sharp and not rounded.

"Might as well go back to town," Charley said morosely. All we've learned is that he has big feet."

Moorhead laughed, "Guess we'll all be looking for big feet in town. I'd rather look at the small feet of the ladies."

"Thought you were too old for that." Charley grinned.

"Never! When that happens, bury me."

Murphy's job of wrestling ties for the C.P.R. roadbed ended at 6 P.M. After eating supper, he caught a ride to St. Vincent. The next hours were spent in Fri's bar. His alter-ego had come back, needling him about Brogan. He's a damn coward, afraid to kill. I'm not! I'll show him how to get even. I'll fix that damned sheriff!

He felt like a caged tiger. Why, honesty and responsibility were the morals of fools. Why worry about remorse and uncertainty? He had occasional pulsing memories of things he had done: they came and left in flashes. I'll never be caught. I'm too smart!

His head began to throb again. The voice was pushing, pushing. There was something missing. Ah, again it was Brogan's reluctance; he was afraid of the sheriff. Well, he ought to be after the beating he took. A sudden recollection came of digging in the corral in Pembina. Did I do that? Yes, I did! I remember now.

Then came a brief memory of the bridge at Orillia. He had slept in the hobo jungle for days and watched the girl cross the bridge many times before he was able to trap and catch her. It's said that McLaren family came from east of Orillia . . . then something happened that hurt me. Yes, and I had to hide for days, but she's the one! Maybe I can get that young snippet, even that McLaren's breed girl friend. I'll fix them in more ways than one if I can get my hands on them! A fanatical gleam came to his eyes. The strange feeling crept over him again and his recollections faded. He felt his head nearly exploding. Rubbing it forcefully, he tried to massage the pain away.

The owner of the saloon, George Fri, had been noting Murphy's strange behavior. "Are you sick, man? If you're going to puke, go outside."

Murphy glared at him, then finally stood and left the saloon. His stomach was rolling, and leaning against the building, he vomited repeatedly onto the wooden sidewalk. Puzzling in the darkness, he decided what he would do. His hidden brother's voice came encouragingly as he set out for Pembina. We'll never be caught. We'll never be caught.

He found the ferry closed for the night as he expected. Removing his clothes and boots, he waded the river. Thirty minutes later he slipped into the rear of Mason's livery.

He left the stable limping and in a temper. He was massaging his thigh where the horse had landed a wicked kick. The burning ache from the hoof incensed him even more. I'll be back and burn that whole damned stable next time. A sudden feeling of pleasure overwhelmed him as he imagined the massive flames and roar of the fire. Watching a big fire was almost as good as having a woman. But he'd not hang around to watch, that would be dangerous. Too bad! His brother's words came encouragingly, "Do it! Do it!" He nodded and vowed, Next week, for sure!

At 7 a.m. the following morning, two days after the arsonist's unsuccessful attempt to burn Ian's wheat field, the sheriff was seated in Captain Bob's barbershop having his morning shave. After applying several hot towels to Charley’s face, Bob brushed on the final lather, and then began to strop his razor.

At that moment the hostler from Mason's livery barn burst excitedly into the shop.

"Sheriff, Mr. Mason wants you to come to the stable right away. You'll have to decide what to do about your horse."

Charley waved Bob's hand away. "Which horse? What's wrong?"

"It's your black, your buggy horse. He wants you now."

"What's wrong with Blacky?"

"All cut to hell, that's what!"

Charley bolted upright in the chair. "Is this some sort of joke? It's not April Fool's day."

"I don't fool about a cut horse. Some bastard tied a feed sack around the muzzle of your animal and cut the hell out of her hide."

"Gimme a rag, Bob!" Then, without waiting, the sheriff wiped his face with the apron covering him. Grimly he stepped from the chair and said to the hostler, "Let's go!"

It was only a block to the stable, but Charley's long legs left Mason's man far behind. Entering the large open door of the barn, he found three men standing around his black mare. Mason was dabbing a pad at the blood running from long cuts on the horse's loins and back, evidently trying to stem the flow.

Charley stood stunned and speechless. Then he felt sick. His first clear thought was, Oh, Lord, I'll have to have her put down.

Mason turned, "Charley, I don't know when it happened. Joe has been here all night, but he's been in the office most of the time. He says he didn't hear a thing, and I guess he's right. Look what I found tied around the head of your mare," he added, pointing to a grain sack and several feet of twine that lay on the floor. "I heard a strange flapping noise when I came in through the back door just a few minutes ago." He pointed to Charley's horse.

"She was pawing and shaking her head, trying to get the sack off. I never heard of anyone doing this to an animal before. You've got someone who must hate you like hell, to pull a stunt like this!"

Charley's mind was like a smoldering fuse attached to sticks of dynamite. That damned Brogan! It's his way of getting back at me. His mind turned to Ian's fire. At least Brogan wasn't guilty of that, seeing he was working 30 miles north of Emerson at the time. He couldn't have covered those miles and gotten back the same night. He's got friends though. Damn his friends! It had to be one or more of them that did this.

Mason broke in, breaking his trend of thought. "I've sent for Porteous, the veterinary. It's my stable and my responsibility. I'll bear any costs, even if we have to dispose of her."

Charley stepped to the mare's head and began stroking her gently. She was shivering steadily, and periodically she shuddered. Her glossy coat was blotted, wet and sticky.

"No need, Bob. She's my horse, and if someone did this to spite me, I'll take the loss."

At that moment, the veterinarian arrived. As he walked toward the group, his eyes took in the horse. He exploded, "Lord Almighty! Who did this to that fine animal?"

Mason answered, "We don't know; but whoever he is, he's a devil!"

"Devil my foot! He has to be inhuman and out of his skull!" Porteous, the veterinary, was shocked.

"What can you do with her?" Charley was skeptical that anything could be done.

"I'll try to sew her up, but I'll need help to hold her. She's in bad shape; she may not pull through. We've got to stop the bleeding and warm her up. She's pretty weak. I'll dose her with laudanum and maybe she'll stop shaking. At least it will kill the pain.”

Mason suggested, "Charley, why don't you go about your business? We'll help Doc. It's a damn shame, and an onus on me to have it happen in my stable. Doc knows his job; leave it to us."

Charley felt close to tears. He was attached to his two horses. "Don't treat her roughly, Doc." He turned suddenly and left the barn. Head hanging, he walked to his store to unlock the door for the day's business. His thoughts turned to the boot prints found near Ian's field. He had inquired at the three bootmakers in Emerson and the solitary one in Pembina. Also he had inquired at every store that sold shoes and boots. His list totaled 17 suspects who were known to wear size 12 or larger boots. The trouble is, he thought morosely, there are nearly 1500 transients working on the Minnesota side of the river, all working on the railroad. Lordy, probably another 50 of them wear size 12's or larger.

When his partner John Kabernagle arrived, Charley briefed him on the horse. "Hold down the fort today, will you, John? I'm going to try and make some sense out of this."

John noted the hard look on Charley's face. "Not to worry, Charley. Take all the time you want. Find that son-of-a-bitch. We'll arrange a little party for him, with hot tar and plenty of feathers!"

Charley spent the rest of the morning contacting the tavern owners for information as to who their late customers were the previous evening. His last contact was at Rosie's, where he was invited in for coffee. He had no quarrel with her, knowing the town fathers closed their eyes to her operation.

She was concerned. "The churches after me again, Charley? I know that bunch of women are jealous. They take my money, but they hate me, the damned hypocrites!"

"No, it's not that." Then he explained about his horse

“It must have taken a twisted mind to do that!”

He knew her sympathy was real, as she kept a two-seater buggy which she used almost daily. When she took her girls for an airing in her smart rig, the more respectable women of town turned their heads away. Charley suspected she did it more to irritate the holier-than-thou's than to advertise her girls.

"Anyone come in late last night?"

"A few, mostly regulars. In the past I've had some sick sons-of-bitches who were rough with the girls, but not often. I put the run to them if the girls complain."

"Can you give me some names, Rosie?"

She looked at him grimly, "I'll do better than that. I'll talk to the girls and send you a list this afternoon. Where'll you be? I might as well warn you, the list will be a long one. We've had biters, slappers and sluggers of all types. Cripes, Ethyl had one of her nipples bitten off by that bastard Eck Murphy. It got infected and she had a hell of a time. He's a cruel, sadistic bastard. It happened last winter when he was working at the fort. He dasn't come near here now, I ran him off with a gun, probably should have shot him!" She began to smile. "Business has been good because of the railroad, but I hear I've got competition over in South Pembina."

Charley nodded. "I've heard of her. Can't do much about it, though, unless she causes trouble." He placed his empty coffee cup on the table, and then arose. "Don't forget the list; it may help."

Rosie walked to the door with him. "I hope Porteous can save your horse. The girls and I have admired it."

Returning to Mason's stable, he checked on the mare. She stood, head hanging with eyes closed, as if asleep. He judged she had been well dosed with morphine. Bandages covered her rump and shoulders, some already soaked through with blood. She was no longer shivering -- a good omen he thought. The raw smell of creosote and carbolic acid disinfectants created a stench in the stable. Observing the mare quietly, Charley wondered if she would ever again be able to wear the light buggy harness. If she can't, he thought, I'll put her to pasture. Perhaps, in a few months she can be bred for a colt. She's the finest trotter I've ever had. I'll never be able to replace her.

Walking down the passageway, he stopped to check his riding horse, a bay gelding. The animal was unharmed and its glossy coat shone, a tribute to the care Mason gave all animals left in his charge. He was puzzled. Why didn't the man cut this horse, too? Then he realized that the bay stood alongside three other nearly identical bays. His glossy-black trotter stood out like a sore thumb.

Walking over to the jail, Charley unlocked the door and entered. He opened his lower desk drawer and withdrew a gunbelt. Buckling it around his waist, he practiced drawing the gun several times. Satisfied, he left for his saloon after locking the door behind him.

When Kabernagle glanced up to see Charley entering the door and wearing the gun, he commented, "That bad, Charley?"

"Yes, it's that bad, John." Sitting in his chair near the wall, he suddenly felt limp and exhausted. His contacts with the saloon owners and Rosie had been fruitless. No one had seen Brogan or his friends recently.

While his partner washed glassware behind the bar, Charley studied the particles of tobacco on the green felt of the nearest pool table. Got to brush it, he thought. Lazily, he reached into his pocket for the lists provided by the shoemakers. Perusing them, he saw nothing of note until he re-examined Mike Ryan's list from Emerson. The writing was almost illegible and the shoemaker's penmanship and spelling poor. One name puzzled the sheriff. Realization came that what he had thought looked like Humphrey, could possibly be Murphy. The longer he studied the scrawed word, the more it looked like Murphy.

Rising, Charley headed toward the door. "John, I'm going over to Emerson. I'll be back as soon as I can. Anything you need from there?"

"No. Take your time. It'll be slow until tonight."

On the ride to Emerson, Charley puzzled over Murphy. Just what do I know about him? Bell, the constable at Emerson, said that Murphy was one of the ten men bunking at Roseau Crossing at the time of the girl's murder. Soon after that he got the job at the fort. Then Captain Collins fired him after he was involved in the hanging of the two breeds. Even if he's the one on Ryan's list, it doesn't prove anything. I'll have to keep my eye on him. Maybe he's involved with Brogan.

His stop at Ryan's paid off. The little stoop-shouldered Irish cobbler was angry. "That's Murphy! That's his name right there." His finger repeatedly stabbed the paper viciously. "He's a big bastard, has a full beard and is mean as hell. He still owes me two dollars for the boots I sold him last month."

After thanking Ryan for the information, Charley walked to Northgrave's jewelry store. He knew Marguerite loved jewelry and he determined to find something that would please her.

Upon his return to Pembina his partner handed him a note. "Rosie's handyman dropped this off for you." The names Murphy and Brogan were both included in the list provided by Rosie and her girls.