Friday, May 07, 2010

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 21

January turned cold and blustery, with nagging winds and a heavy depth of snow. Drifts to the south created rail delays and often a day or two went by without the arrival of a train. When the trains did get through, the clanking and rumbling as cars were coupled or uncoupled became commonplace. On the calm, frigid, below-zero nights, the mournful whistle of engines carried for miles.

Patrick realized the firewood was going fast and was thankful for the huge pile remaining near the barn. The railroad had recently begun to haul in coal from Duluth, selling it for six dollars a ton. In Duluth it cost only two dollars.

Bob Wilson, the sutler at the fort, visited the McLarens occasionally. He reported that many soldiers at the fort were suffering from frozen fingers, toes and ears, an indication that the wool uniforms provided by the military were inadequate for the frigid Dakota winters. Most soldiers bought toques and sheep-lined mittens from the merchants in town and covered their winter boots with layers of oversize socks. The officers disregarded the strange uniforms that appeared whenever the men worked out-of-doors. Every effort was made by Captain Collins to purchase potatoes, cabbages, onions and other vegetables to prevent an outbreak of scurvy.

Jerold and Knute formed a partnership and purchased a half-section of land a few miles to the east, adjoining the railroad. The previous owner had become drunk in St. Vincent, and lost his way home. He was found the next day, frozen to death. His wife, left with three children to support, was glad to sell and return to Minneapolis.

In addition to his employment with the railroad, Ian again began to purchase furs. Long buying trips were out of the question, greatly reducing his profit. Even so, when he finally turned the furs over to the Abram's representative from St. Paul, he found he had realized three times more than his original investment.

With the many cattle on hand, most of the short winter days were spent feeding, milking and cleaning the barn. The coats on the horses and mules were heavy, nature's way of protecting them from the cold. When mild weather came during the first days of February, Patrick, Jerold and Knute began cutting oak timber for their next winter's firewood.

It became obvious to Patrick that Maggy missed Mary's company, for she often took baby Kate and visited Susan, sometimes spending the entire afternoon. When he teased her about it, Maggy excused herself. "I've been helping Susan paint the interior of the house. The carpenter left all the decorating for her to do."

Toward the end of February Susan realized she was finally pregnant. She laughingly conspired with Maggy. "I think I've beaten Mary to it. Our new addition should arrive about the end of October, give or take a few days."

"Oh, my gosh! Have you told Ian yet?" Maggy was instantly excited.

"No, but I think he suspects something is wrong. He looked at me strangely when I had to leave the breakfast table this morning." She looked sheepish. "I darn near threw up the oatmeal on the table.” Rising to get the kettle from the stove, she added, "I've felt squeamish this past week, but I’m sure now. I'll tell him tonight. He wants a boy, and so do I. Still, a girl would be nice." She laughed lightly, "Guess we'll settle for whatever we get."

The evenings were quiet and lonely, for the boys were often out, visiting neighbors or at house parties. Ice-skating became popular, as clamp-on skates were cheap and could be mounted on any shoe or boot. Patrick often sat near the parlor stove while he carved wood duck decoys. Maggy spent her evenings in her rocking chair, either crocheting or knitting for Susan's baby. Frequently she tutored Mike in his first book. He was having trouble memorizing his multiplication tables. Light from the lone kerosene lamp was augmented somewhat by the parlor stove, which had isinglass windows in the door. The flickering flame seemed to add a warm, cozy glow to the room.

It was in late February when Patrick and Maggy received a surprise visit from Charley Brown. They were about to eat dinner when they heard a knock on the back door. When Jerold arose to open the door, he was surprised to see the sheriff. "Just in time for dinner, Sheriff! What are you doing out on this cold day?"

Charley stepped by Jerold and began taking off his heavy coat. Turning to Patrick, he dropped his bombshell. "I bring good news in a way, if you can call Brogan good news. He won't bother anyone any more. He's dead!"

Excited questions flew until Charley held up his hand. "He and another man showed up in Pembina last night and got pretty well oiled. Somehow they got to St. Vincent, and then decided to go to Emerson. Not having a ride, they stole a section hand car from the yard. Nearing Emerson, they were struck by a C.P.R. engine backing from the St. Vincent junction to Emerson. As you know, the C.P.R. locomotives don't have a light on the rear of their engines as ours do. I guess that with the noise of the north wind they were bucking, they never heard the engine approaching them from behind. Charley added wryly, "Booze probably had something to do with it, too. At any rate, the man facing south on the handcar saw the engine in time to jump clear, but Brogan didn't. He was badly mangled1 and the handcar was destroyed. I just came from Emerson where I viewed the body. It's Brogan, without a doubt. Incidentally, I stopped to tell Ian about it. He's going over to see the corpse -- just why, I don't know -- said he could hardly believe the man is dead."

Maggy murmured aloud, "I disliked the man, but I wouldn't wish death on anyone. The Lord does work in mysterious ways though."

Ian had one purpose in mind when he rode to Emerson. He wanted peace of mind -- to know if the crooked-necked Brogan was really the man who attempted to rape his sister. Brogan had been on his mind ever since Mary had told of being accosted by a heavily bearded man after leaving Mrs. Traynor’s store the previous winter.

Entering the warming room of the Emerson Railroad Depot, he found the stationmaster engaged in a card game with three other men. Because the huge waiting room was difficult to heat, the players were huddled near the potbelly stove. Ian spoke to the stationmaster. "Frank, where did they put Brogan's body?"

He looked up. "Come to pick it up?"

"No, just wanted to see if it's really him."

"It's him all right, we all know the bastard. He finally got what was coming to him." He nodded, "He's in cold storage -- in the north freight room. If you want to see the body I'll have to come with you -- railroad rules. I hope you're the last to ask for a glimpse. Hell, I've already had to open up for Jack Bell and that sheriff from Pembina."

It was obvious to Ian that Frank was reluctant to accompany him to the freight room, seeing the great to-do he made of putting on his heavy coat and overboots. Ian waited patiently while the stationmaster unlocked the storage room, then he stepped forward to assist him in sliding the heavy door open. The inside of the huge room was stacked with crates and barrels, but a lone four-wheeled baggage cart stood near the door. Moving to the cart, the depot agent grasped the edge of a tarp and flung it back.

Even in the dim light Ian's stomach nearly revolted. The body was in pieces, but the head was still connected to a remaining portion of chest. Forcing himself, he examined Brogan's neck, but could see no sign of any external damage or scar. The head still held the same unnatural angle that it had when the man was alive. Ian decided it must have been a congenital deformity. One of the severed legs had a dangling shoe still attached. It was a huge shoe, easily a size 12 or larger, but it was old, with rounded edges and a run down heel. Ian realized it would not match the boot prints Pete had found in his wheat field. Satisfied, he tugged the tarp back over the corpse and faced the agent. "I've seen enough, Frank. Thanks for allowing me to look him over."

Both men grasped the door to slide it shut, the stationmaster quickly affixing the padlock. He abruptly turned without another word and hurried back to his card game. When Ian mounted his horse, he was momentarily confused. Although he had examined Brogan closely, he had no positive way of knowing whether or not he was the man who had attacked Mary at the bridge. Perhaps the man's neck had healed without leaving a scar. While tightening the scarf around his coat collar, he decided to see Charley in Pembina. Perhaps the sheriff could cast more light on the situation. He might even be able to get the Canadian authorities to do an autopsy on the body. Then he realized the unlikelihood of this, since it was an accident, cut and dried.

Entering Kabernagle and Brown's saloon an hour later, he found Charley the only occupant. He was behind the bar washing the previous night's glassware. As Ian removed his cap and coat, the sheriff tossed him a towel. "You wipe, and when we're done, I'll beat you in a game of pool."

While Ian wiped beer glasses, he related his problem. His evasiveness in skirting Mary's involvement drew Charley's suspicion.

"Level with me, Ian; it'll go no farther."

Ian went so far as to tell Charley that Mary had been attacked near their home in Orillia, and that he had struck the guilty man with a track splice-plate, thinking he had killed him. "When Dad and I returned the next morning, we found a pool of blood, but no body. The thing that has bothered me this past year is that Brogan's head was canted to the left, and he might have been the man I struck. Then, too, I had heard he arrived here from Eastern Canada shortly after we did. I examined his neck but could see no scar. Also, although his one remaining boot was large, it was badly worn. It wouldn't have matched the prints we found in my wheat field last fall."

For moments Charley seemed lost in thought, and then he said, "We know that he and Murphy were close, as were those other three men. Incidentally, Bell is attempting to find the names of the three. When I saw Mike Ryan last fall, he mentioned making a new pair of boots for Murphy -- even said Murphy still owed on them." He mused, "New boots would have left sharp outlines like the ones we found in your field. Murphy's boots were practically new at the time. There are a couple of other things that also fit. Murphy was at Roseau Crossing when that Indian child was abused and strangled. Also, Rosie informed me that Murphy mistreated one of her girls. I've heard that he acts weird at times and often talks to himself. He could be demented."

Ian suddenly recalled the day he and Susan had dropped Marguerite off on the hill leading down to the ferry and he had seen the heavily bearded, fully dressed man washing in the river. He mentioned it to Charley.

"It could have been Murphy. You say he was a big man with a full beard? Maybe he's the man with the scar and is hiding it. Yet, why would he hide it unless he suspects someone from the Orillia area would put two and two together?" Charley suddenly stared at Ian. "You suppose he knows or suspects your sister is the one he attacked and that she might recognize him, and that either you or your father might have been the one who struck him? If so, you and your family are in danger."

Ian's mind began to race. "Last year, in December, Mary was stopped at dusk on the Emerson sidewalk by a huge, bearded man. He said to her, "I know you from somewhere." Do you suppose it could have been Murphy?"

"I'll just bet it was; now to find him! The problem still remains; we have no firm evidence. We’ve a lot of guesses, but all are circumstantial. Still, it's beginning to fit together. I'll get telegrams out and see if we can locate him. He's probably somewhere along the railroad line in Minnesota, or maybe in St. Paul or Minneapolis. The problem as I see it is that the demand for labor is such that he could be working anywhere.

"Ian, the more I think of it, the more I believe he's the man who attacked your sister. Why my horse was damaged and finally destroyed in the fire, I can't justify. No doubt it is related to the whipping I gave Brogan. They were probably helping each other. Then, there are the missing two soldiers. I believe they're dead, probably murdered for their pay. I've been told Murphy didn't have employment at the time. He might have needed money badly, and those soldiers had just signed the Army payroll. You be watchful and tell your family to be on guard. That man might be vengeful enough to return."

Mary made it a policy to write her father, mother and the boys each Sunday. It was the letter that arrived in mid-April that really excited the family.
Easter Sunday.

Dear Father, Mother and all,

Two days ago I heard a knock on our door and found a well-dressed couple smiling at me. I was puzzled until the woman said, "You've got to be Mary. Kirby has described you in every detail."

I felt like a fool, for the few moments it took me to realize these folks were Kirby's father and mother. Although our house is small, thank goodness it was clean. At first, after inviting them in, I was tongue-tied, but after a short while I realized they were down to earth people like you and father. They were charming and instantly made me feel that I was one of them. They told me they were staying in the railroad yard, and it wasn't until a few minutes later that I realized they had arrived at Leavenworth in a private railroad car. Kirby had said his parents were well off, but he had never been explicit. To put it mildly, I felt like an idiot.

They are lovely, sincere people, and seem to like me. When I suggested tea, Kirby's mother countered by asking me to accompany them back to their railroad car. "We can have tea there," she said, "and what is more important, our daughter Laura is anxious to meet you." I knew Kirby wouldn't be home until suppertime so I left a note telling where I would be, and then Kirby's father added a postscript to my message.

Laura, an attractive brown-haired girl, met us just outside the car. She is Kirby's younger sister and I liked her from the moment we met. She is single and two years older than me.

I had been apprehensive about Easter, knowing Kirby's folks were coming to visit us. I no longer have any qualms; they have accepted me as Kirby's wife. Mr. Ralston seems much interested in our life in Minnesota, and in Jim Hill's railroad. It seems he is the director or manager of a railroad operating out of Washington.

Kirby's older sister, Marlene, is married and has two children, a boy and girl. They live in Richmond, Virginia.

The Ralston's railroad car has a living room with a rear, outdoor vestibule. Then to the front, what they call a dinette, then several small cubicles for bedrooms. It seems like a magnificent hotel suite outfitted with crystal lamps, polished brass fittings and several lovely paintings, which Mrs. Ralston said she purchased in Paris. They have an elderly couple that prepare meals and serve the family needs. They are treated more like members of the family, than servants. Kirby made a special fuss over them when he arrived just before the supper hour.

The Ralston’s have been here the past two days and will leave for home the day after tomorrow. They have invited me to accompany them to their home for a visit, but I won't leave Kirby alone. Poor little me -- a farm girl -- mixing with the wealthy! At any rate, we will continue to live on Kirby's pay -- he insists upon that! His father's pride in him is evident. They have been so kind to me. Now I really feel accepted!

That first night after their arrival, when Kirby and I went to bed, he remarked, "They've taken to you like a duck takes to water! I knew they'd love you!"

I am so happy!

Love to all, Mary Ralston.

P.S. I like my new name!
1 - My great grandfather died in a similar fashion, i.e., drunk and run over by a train. The details, as given by the newspapers of the time in 1913, went like this: Mr. Fitzgerald was known to be a man of intemperate means. Having visited Emerson, it was assumed when coming back across the border on foot, he stumbled into or lay down unto the tracks, whereupon the next train ran him over. The accounts were vivid (or gruesome, depending on how you read it) in their descriptions, stating that his body was decapitated, and his remains had to gathered up in a bag. An American coroner that was called stated he had no jurisdiction because in his opinion the accident took place on the Canadian side of the border. Searches made by the author years later in all possible provinces and states has yet to yield a death certificate...