Tuesday, April 27, 2010

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 20

It was dark when Knute's mind began to function. A sickening, sweet, cloying odor seemed to be invading his senses. It seemed he was having a bad dream from which he could not awaken. His throat felt dry and raspy. He wanted water, yet his throat refused to function and he could utter no sound. Fantasies of his childhood and memories of his Stepmother came. He remembered having been told of his mother's murder at Lake Shetek by the Indians and of his being found as a baby, hidden in reeds along the lake. His mother, prior to her murder had evidently concealed him. He had no personal memories until reaching nearly four years of age, having been passed from one family to another, always grudgingly accepted. Then his father remarried. His new mother was the widow of a man killed by Indians during the attack upon New Ulm. She had three sons, all older than him. They spoke no Norwegian, for his stepmother was of German extraction. Arguments became frequent between his father and stepmother. To make matters worse, he was teased and bullied by the older boys, forced to do most of the demeaning work. Last spring he had left home with an itinerant peddler and worked his way to St. Vincent.

Aware of a light somewhere in the room, he willed his eyes to move. Someone was seated at the foot of the bed, and he realized it was Jerold. Attempting to gain attention, he was finally able to force a guttural sound from his throat. Jerold was instantly alert, rising and moving to bend over him. Further attempts to tell Jerold his need for water were futile, but his pathetic facial expressions told of his suffering. Jerold sensed his plight, and, dipping a washcloth in the pitcher by the washbasin, applied it to Knute's lips. Knute immediately sipped desperately at the wet cloth.

"I'll raise your head and give you a small sip. The doctor warned me not to give you too much water -- said you'll get sick. I'll get a glass and be right back." Moments later he returned and raised Knute's head, enabling him to get a bit. Lowering Knute's head, he said, "You can have more water after you are fully awake. Try to relax and sleep. I'll be here with you all night and Susan will come over in the morning."

When Susan arrived at the hotel the following morning, it was already past 9 o'clock. Even before she knocked on the door of the doctor's room, she noted the strong smell of chemicals. One glance inside told her that Knute was fully awake; his head turned to her as she entered. She smiled brightly. "Awake and bushy-tailed this morning?"

The look on his face expressed his feelings. He croaked, "I feel sore all over, but mostly sore about losing my foot. Cripes! My toes are itching and they're not even there!"

Susan was grateful for his levity. She had worried during the night about his reaction and frame of mind. "Has the doctor been in to see you this morning?"

"Here and gone," Jerold answered as he groggily eased himself from a chair. "He said we can take Knute home tomorrow. Said there was no sign of infection. He actually seemed proud of his work -- said he would drive to St. Vincent this afternoon to see Mary." He snorted, "I think he's more interested in getting his room back. I'm going to the cafe and grab some breakfast." He looked down at Knute. "What do you want me to bring back?"

Moving to the side of the bed Susan sat carefully on the edge. Reaching over, she smoothed the hair from Knute's forehead. The surface skin felt warn and she detected a fever.

When Knute failed to answer, she coaxed, "How about it? You must still have an appetite."

"Coffee would be fine. Can you prop me up so I won't spill? Say, how is Mary?"

"She's sore, stiff, and angry, but otherwise fine. It'll be a few days before she's up and about; she has some cracked ribs. Now, lets get you raised up," She noted that his bandaged leg was propped up on a pillow. Carefully sliding the folded blanket at the foot of the bed from under the pillow, she raised his shoulders, using the tightly folded blanket for support. "I brought you a book to read, Gulliver's Travels, by Swift. Have you read it?

"No, but I'm not much in the mood to read just now."

"Then I'll read to you. You rest easy until Jerold returns with the coffee."

Jerold had just ordered breakfast when the Emerson constable entered the cafe. Jerold noted the grim, tired look on Bell's face as he approached the table and eased himself into a chair.

"You're not going to believe this, son. I had to turn those two scoundrels loose a few minutes ago. Somehow, their friends got a lawyer and they're out. They both deny any involvement in the incident, and I couldn't find the youngster Ian saw across from the saloon, the one who saw them throw the explosive." He looked frustrated. "The boy must have come into town with some of the railroaders or with a visiting family. I checked from door to door but no one seems to know the lad."

"You mean you turned them both loose?" Jerold was flabbergasted.

"I had no choice. Their lawyer pointed that out. There's no firm evidence against them and no witnesses, even though I’m sure they're guilty."

Although angry and frustrated, Jerold considered the ramifications. Suddenly he blurted, "They better make themselves scarce. We'll get to them somehow."

Bell looked glum. "If you do, find them in St. Vincent or Pembina. I'm stuck to uphold the law here. Charley Brown will probably be a little more forgiving." He lifted his ponderous weight from the chair. "Tell Ian I'm sorry about the outcome. Personally, if it were my choice, I'd use a horsewhip on them. Incidentally, I told both of them to get out of Emerson and not come back -- told them I'd hound the hell out of them if they did." He offered objectively, "They'll probably cross the line to the States or move to Winnipeg. It's good riddance, but watch out for them. They're real trouble!"

His breakfast over, Jerold headed back to the room with coffee and toast for Knute and Susan. Entering, he found Susan reading to her patient. She took the tray from Jerold and, leveling it on her lap, and then poured coffee for Knute.

Jerold studied them for moments, then said, "I'll ride Ian's horse home and leave the buggy. I'll be back tonight after chores."

Susan looked up; "Ian and I did your chores this morning. I actually milked six of the fourteen cows." She flexed her fingers. "My fingers are stiff. Gosh, I haven't milked a cow since Ian and I got married."

"Pretty good for a greenhorn," Knute muttered.

"Sure is! Thanks!" Jerold was smiling. He turned to Knute. "When I come back tonight, is there anything you need?"

"Not if you take me home tomorrow. I'll feel better there, but I'll need crutches to get about, also a pair of trousers.”

"No problem. We'll face things as they come."

Susan glanced over the edge of the book she was reading and realized Knute had fallen asleep. She had expected it, knowing of his fever. The few associations she had had with Knute had been fleeting, but she realized the McLaren family had practically adopted him, and with good reason. He was a handsome boy, about sixteen years of age, she guessed. He was not overly talkative, but through Ian and Jerold she had gathered bits of his childhood.

She knew much about the Minnesota River and the Indian uprising of l862, for her mother had lived at the Yellow Medicine Agency when the trouble began. In fact, she, herself, had been born at the agency the previous summer.

Gazing at the bandaged leg gave her a sudden idea. Could Mike Ryan, the boot maker, make a boot to replace Knute's missing foot? Knute still had most of his calf left below the knee. The more she thought of it the more likely it seemed. Slipping quietly out the door, she walked the block to Ryan's Bootery. She knew Mike well because he often fished in the Red River just below their house in St. Vincent. Only last year he had caught a huge sturgeon at the mouth of the Pembina River, and often on Sundays he stopped by on his way to the river. He was still eager to catch another of the huge, shovel-nosed fish.

The odor of freshly tanned hides and the earthy smell of oils permeated the small shop as she entered. The short, hunch-backed cobbler was busy trimming a new sole he had just attached to a boot. His eyes lit up in anticipation as he turned. A sly grin came to his face and he bowed repeatedly, "The newest and latest Mrs. McLaren, I do believe!"

"Yes, Mike, it's me." Susan could hardly contain her excitement. "You've heard that Knute had his foot amputated yesterday, haven't you?"

"Yup, by gor, a terrible thing!" The shoemaker was sincere. "Tar and featherins' too good for those two. They're no good, nothing but trouble."

"Can you come over to the hotel to see Knute? He's asleep, but I think you can make a boot to fit his missing limb. It's mainly the foot that's gone."

Mike gazed out the front window in thought, then said, "It can be done; they do it in the cities." He hesitated momentarily, and then he said, "No! No sense seeing him now. Let the leg heal first. It shouldn't be difficult to make a pair of matching high lace boots. I can stiffen the one and even hinge the ankle for movement. Let me think on it. I'll make an excuse to visit Patrick and Maggy in a couple of weeks. Then I can talk with the boy."

Upon Knute's return back from Emerson, Patrick hurriedly made a pair of crutches, for after his second day at home, Knute flatly refused to stay in bed. The fourth morning he was in the barn helping with the milking. As promised, Mike Ryan visited with the family and suggested that Knute allow him to measure his leg for a boot. The boy was skeptical, but Maggy was determined. "You're shaking the house to pieces with all that hopping about. Let Mike help you."

"Laddie, I can make a boot that you can lace to the calf of your leg. It will take some weeks for your stub to toughen for everyday walking, but it can be padded with sheep's wool. It might take some adjusting, because the muscles in the calf may shrink a bit. Still, I think you'll be back on both feet before you expect."

"Anything is better than this," Knute said hopefully, "If you can make a boot that will allow me to climb into the loft to throw down hay, or even carry a feed bucket, I'll be ever grateful."

Two weeks later Mike reappeared with the newly made boots. From appearances, they were identical; except that the right boot was of stiffer leather and had a cup-like interior to support Knute's stub leg. At first the boy was ecstatic, for although he was a bit nervous and wobbly, he could walk quite well. Frustration came within minutes when the stump quickly became tender from the chafing and pressure. It was another two weeks before his stump toughened enough to allow him an hour or two on his feet.

By mid-December Mary had nearly recovered, but she felt occasional twinges when she stretched or reached out. Kirby had been an attentive suitor, obviously worried about her condition. He appeared whenever he could get off duty, usually soon after the sound of the fort evening retreat cannon.

When Mary finally could be propped up in bed they played whist together, usually against Knute and Jerold.

Two weekends in late December were special. Kirby arrived with horse and sleigh to take her on long rides.

Once they went to Pembina, and the following Sunday to Emerson. Each time he solicitously assisted her into the sleigh, carefully tucking the buffalo robes around her. Patrick and Maggy were amused as they watched from a window. "Pat, you were never that gallant to me."

Patrick grinned, "You never gave me a chance. You were too aggressive. You never waited to be helped. You just jumped into the rig . . . even wanted to drive the horse."

At first Mary was flattered with all the attention Kirby showered upon her. Then it became too much. She scolded, "For heaven's sake, Kirby, ease up! I'm not made of glass. I won't break!"

"That's why I'm tucking you in. You've already been broken enough." He was smiling.

Their relationship grew intense as his remaining days at the fort dwindled. They began making plans for their wedding.

"Why don't we get married at Fort Leavenworth at Easter time? You'll be of age by then, and I'm sure of two or three days off. Hopefully I can arrange to have Father and Mother meet us there for the wedding." He smiled as he raised her chin and added, "Unless you'll change your mind and marry me now."

"Easter time will be soon enough, and it will be a wonderful time for our wedding." Her voice was firm, but loving.

"I'm scheduled to leave on Wednesday, the first day of January. School starts the following Monday. I'll arrive at the fort on Saturday, but it'll probably take me a couple of days to settle down in quarters."

"I'll ask Mom if she and Dad will take me there on the train cars. If they can't get away, I'll just have to manage by myself."

When Christmas arrived, Mary and Kirby decided against attending the fort ball, deciding instead, to attend the Presbyterian Church's special Christmas Eve Service. The entire family participated. The next day Patrick and Maggy hosted a lavish dinner for the family, with gifts and favors for all. During the morning everyone exchanged presents; that evening Jerold accompanied the singing of carols with his violin.

At bedtime Maggy expressed her thoughts to Patrick, "Remember the hard times back in Orillia? We've much to be thankful for. Knute has almost forgotten his accident and he hasn't had an epileptic attack for months. It's marvelous how he has recovered in such a short time. Ian and Susan are well matched and happy. Perhaps we'll be grandparents before we know it. Soon Mary and Kirby will be wedded. We'll have to make plans to accompany her to Kansas in late March.

"Yes, we've a lot to be thankful for. Thank the Lord we searched for, and found this wonderful country that has allowed us a future. We owe a lot for our prosperity and freedom."

Maggy looked at her husband quizzically as he bent slowly to remove his shoes. "Pat, are we growing old?"

He leaned down to plant a kiss. "Yup! And wiser!"

Two days before Kirby's train was scheduled to leave for Minneapolis, Mary approached her father and mother in the kitchen. She had spent a sleepless night, beset by worries and recriminations. A sense of loneliness came that was too compelling to be denied. "Dad, will you go to the depot and get me a railroad ticket to Fort Leavenworth? A ticket the same as Kirby's?"

Maggy's face lit up. "You mean you've decided to go with Kirby." Then a look of chagrin came. "Why didn't you two get married at Christmas time?"

"I can't explain, Mother, but I've decided to go with him. We can get married in Minneapolis, or after we arrive in Leavenworth, Kansas. I just can't bear to wait another four months. Something could happen to spoil our happiness."

"I'll get you the ticket, but does Kirby know of your decision?" Patrick was apprehensive.

"No, and I don't want him to know. I'm going to surprise him. When he boards the train on Wednesday, I'll go into the car to say goodbye. Then I'll sit down and hand him my ticket."

"What about your baggage? How will you get it aboard?" Maggy apparently approved the prank.

"I'll have Ian or Jerold slip it into the baggage car," Mary answered. "Most of the heavy trunks go there anyway."

Patrick began to grin. "It'll sure knock him for a loop. Suppose he blows up?"

Mary smiled, "He won't. He's been after me every evening to marry him."

"It will start your life with a bang, but I don't know." Maggy was suddenly skeptical.

When the secret was passed to the boys, they endorsed the idea wholeheartedly. Ian and Susan were to see that her packed trunk and carpetbag would be placed with the baggage on the Wednesday train.

Kirby arrived for breakfast with the McLaren family early on the morning of his departure. His gelding was left in Mary's charge and for her use. At 8:45 A.M. the entire family walked the few blocks to the depot to see him off. When Kirby boarded the train, Mary accompanied him into the car for a supposed last kiss and talk. As Kirby remained standing by a seat, Mary pushed by and sat down next to the window. "Let's sit down and talk. It's much easier than standing."

Kirby seemed confused. "Mary, you'll have to get off soon. The conductor is standing in the vestibule scowling at us."

"Well, then, show him this." Smiling, she stood up and removed her coat. Tossing it over the back of the seat, she took an envelope from her pocket and handed it to Kirby.

Puzzled, he quickly opened the envelope to find Mary's ticket through to Leavenworth, Kansas. Glancing at the destination a second time, he suddenly realized her mischievous prank. "You minx! Do you really mean it? You're coming with me?" Elated, he grasped her shoulders.

She beamed and nodded. "I wanted it to be a surprise. I changed my mind two days ago."

"It is a surprise, and what a surprise! My darling, we can stop over a day in Minneapolis and get married."

The conductor approached. "The young lady must leave now. We have a schedule to keep."

Kirby displayed Mary's ticket. "This young lady will accompany me. We're getting married as soon as we arrive in Minneapolis."

A broad smile appeared on the conductor's face. "Congratulations to you both. Now we can finally pull out." He stepped out to the vestibule to signal the engineer.

While the train backed out of the station toward the Y, Mary and Kirby waved to her family. The smiles on their faces told Kirby that they were all involved in the mischief. Mary saw her mother holding a handkerchief to her face; her father had his arm around her waist. He was smiling.

Slowly clearing the switch at the Y, the train headed south and soon reached the track speed limit.

"We won't be in the Twin Cities until around 9 o'clock tomorrow morning." Kirby murmured. "This won't be any comfort trip. It's too bad that Jim Hill hasn't put on any of the new sleeping cars built by George Pullman."

Mary reached for her coat to cover them; the stove in the end of the car was providing minimal heat. "Then we'll make the best of it. Your shoulder seems a good pillow." She burrowed closely to his chest, smiling with contentment.

Kirby moved his legs diagonally across the facing seat and shifted his body to snug her to him. "I'm perfectly satisfied with things as they are." He ran one hand alongside her neck, running his fingers through her heavy fall of hair.

Mary sighed, "I am, too." Under her coat, which covered them both, she unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt and inserted her hand.

Kirby glanced around at the other passengers guiltily. All were dozing, watching the snowy countryside pass by, or they were reading. He pressed the seeking hand tightly to his chest. Nuzzling his face into her hair, he whispered, "It'll be a long time until tomorrow night."

She smiled as she turned to bury her face into his neck. "Only a few hours."

It was nearly noon on Friday morning, January 10, when Mike entered the back door excitedly waving a letter. "It's from Mary, Ma. She's written us a letter!"

Thrilled, Maggy sat at the kitchen table and read the message aloud to Mike.
Monday, January 6

Leavenworth, Kansas.

Dear Father, Mother and Boys,

Kirby and I were married last Thursday afternoon in Minneapolis. We hurriedly shopped for a wedding ring and found only one problem. May the Lord forgive me; I had to fib and say I was eighteen years of age.

We arrived here late Saturday evening and are staying at this plush hotel. Kirby reported to the fort on Sunday and had no problems. He is at school now and this afternoon I will house-hunt for us. Not having furniture, we hope to find something already furnished. Kirby was informed at the fort that there should be no problem finding at least furnished rooms, with kitchen privileges.

It's actually like spring here, with only occasional patches of snow on the ground. In fact the sun is out and I'm anxious to get outdoors. I'll get a newspaper and scan the ads. Kirby is to check the vacancy listings at the fort.

This hotel is quite new and has modern plumbing with a bathroom adjoining each room. Kirby says there is no hurry to leave here, but I'd feel better in our own place.

The boys are to use his horse for riding. Perhaps Mike can use it while herding the cows this summer.

I really have no other news at present, but after all, we've only been here two days. We are newlyweds, and Kirby is my love! I'm very happy!

Love, Your Mary.