Thursday, May 20, 2010

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 22

Engraving of interior of immigrant train leaving St. Paul depot, artist unknown, circa 1880 (Minnesota Historical Society)The ice on the Red River went out in late March, and on April 10 Jerold and Knute began their spring plans. When the new ground warmed enough for cultivation, they planned to plow all the remaining acreage they could, and seed it to a first crop. Necessity demanded a second breaking plow, which Jerold purchased in St. Vincent for twenty dollars.

A new teacher had taken over the Emerson school this past winter, and Mike had completed his first book when school was dismissed for the summer. Both Jerold and Knute had completed their fourth book and had made no plans for their further education.

Their neighbor, Mr. Trail, stopped by to inform Patrick that he had 600 acres he was going to seed to wheat. At the time, Patrick and Maggy were seriously thinking of starting a dairy. They now had 35 head of cattle, and although many were calves, the amount of milk they were getting forced them to churn cream every other day. Each week they sold 20 lbs. of butter for 35 cents a pound each. In addition, they sold a large quantity of milk for 10¢ a quart. Patrick changed his mind about going into the dairy business when the railroad offered him a watchman job at the station. His pay was to be $48 a month.

A heavy influx of settlers began coming through on the northbound trains, nearly 1500 each week. Most were from Europe, but many were from the Canadian province of Ontario. All seemed bound for the land in Western Canada. Freight shipments became heavy, with ten to twelve engines arriving in the yard each day. Five trains left daily for Winnipeg, at least two of which were heavily loaded with anxious immigrants.

Ian, Susan and Maggy planted a huge garden in late April and early May, seeding 20 bushels of cut seed potatoes in addition to a good quantity of necessary vegetables. Ian discussed the future storage of them with Jerold. "We'll have to dig a new frost-proof pit this fall. It'll have to be huge, with a good straw cover. Why, just the potatoes alone should yield 500 bushels."

Patrick ordered five apple trees from a seed house in St. Paul, knowing that it would probably be years before they ever bore fruit. He missed the apples grown back in Ontario and determined to have his own orchard. Apples were available in the stores each fall, but the shipping charges made them dear.

Wild fowl and game were plentiful, so numerous that it took only minutes to shoot a dozen birds. Ducks again covered the lake, and during the brief migration of geese to the north, the boys shot several. Elk were seldom seen now, having been thinned by hunters, although they were still being found in the eastern sloughs, as were many moose. Deer although abundant, were seldom shot nowadays, since beef and pork were plentiful and cheap. Maggy often said, "I'm not crazy about the strong taste of deer."

By May the condition of the newly laid railroad track on each side of the International Boundary was causing deep concern. Rains had turned the earthen roadbed to a quagmire. The rails and cross ties sank alarmingly as each train passed, causing squishing of mud and water to reach up and strike the under side of the engine and coaches. In fact, it seemed the trains were constantly climbing uphill. The road speed limit was 20 miles per hour, a speed trains seldom reached. Often the engines were forced to stop at creeks for water, or by bushes where wood could be found to raise steam. The train crew, including the engineer himself and any willing male passengers, would get out with axes and crosscut saws to haul in enough fuel to reach the next wood yard. Schedules fell apart when this happened. It was apparent that coal was the answer. A load of coal could carry an engine all day. At the time, the engines were American Standard wood burners, 4-4-0, with large funnel-shaped stacks. The tender had double-truck wheels and the cab, glassed-in sliding windows.

Section crews were busy building sidetracks to bypass trains, and it became apparent that gravel was needed to firm up the roadbed before derailments became commonplace. On the Canadian side of the border a temporary line was constructed to the gravel pits at the ridge, a town site called Ridgeville. Gravel hauling and firming of the roadbed on both sides of the border became a constant chore.

Ian's efforts to improve his position resulted in a five-dollar raise in January. He had been promoted to fireman at the roundhouse. To him, it seemed almost a blessing, thinking back on his boring night job. He soon found that keeping the fires fed and banked in five standby locomotives involved far more work than he had anticipated.

The huge building in which the engines were housed created a problem. When winter arrived the large doors were kept closed, confining both the coal gas and wood smoke, often making him gasp for breath. There were times when he was so sick from the fumes he was forced to slip outside to vomit. Fortunately, when spring came the doors were again left open, alleviating most of the gaseous problem.

Necessity required a rotation of the three shifts: daylight, swing and midnight. When Ian was on the daylight or swing shift, Susan seldom visited, the house and garden taking up most of her time. The evening Ian worked his first midnight shift he received a surprise visit from her. She brought coffee and sandwiches. That night they had their first argument, he deeming it unsafe for her to be out alone after dark. He knew the only night security the Railroad provided was the watchman stationed at the depot, several hundred yards from the roundhouse. Susan pooh-poohed his fear. "Who would bother me in St. Vincent? I know everyone in the town; no one would harm me. Just because I'm three months into my pregnancy, you're babying me."

"Yes, but there are still a lot of strangers carousing in the saloons, especially on Saturday nights. Honey, every payday the railroad pays out to a thousand workers. Why, we have over 100 men working in this yard alone! A drunk has little conscience, and you know it!"

"But I can take the back trail from our house to the roundhouse. That way I won't have to pass the taverns. Oh, Ian, I want to see you every minute possible. We have so little time together when you're working." Her voice held a beseeching quality.

"All right, we'll try it; but at the first sign of danger, you'll stop."

The arrangement worked well that winter, since her visits were brief, only long enough to steal a hug and kiss. When spring came, her after-midnight visits extended to a half hour and they sat tightly intertwined.

Neither Ian nor Susan knew that Pete also disapproved of Susan's midnight visits to the roundhouse. He thought it risky, and on weekends when the saloons were especially busy, he followed Susan surreptitiously to see to her safety. Remaining out of sight, he waited, and then followed her home.

It was the second Saturday night in May when his vigilance was rewarded. As Susan passed the section car shack, she suddenly disappeared from sight. Puzzled, he hurried toward the building to hear sounds of a struggle coming from within. Then he detected Susan's frantic pleading, the sounds being gradually muffled. A section handcar with tools stood at the edge of the building. Hastily grasping a pick, Pete slid the oak handle free. His moccasins enabled him to enter the open-sided building silently. A glance told him a man had Susan pinned backward over the edge of a work car. He was tearing at her clothing.

Approaching from behind, Pete swung the handle viciously at the man's head. The impact made a sickening, crunching sound. Discarding the handle, Pete grasped Susan's assailant by the jacket collar and flung him to the ground. Susan was gasping for breath when he raised her to a sitting position. Then she began to fight him.

"Ne to nish, [daughter] it's No tah. [Father] You are safe." Her struggles ceased when she realized who was holding her. Then she pushed away in an attempt to cover her breasts.

Helping her to her feet, he led her to the open side of the building facing the track. "We go home now."

"No!" Her voice became shrill. "I've got to see Ian. I have his lunch." The emotional shock of what had nearly happened was overwhelming her. The pitch of her voice indicated that she was becoming hysterical. Pete took her in his arms and held her tightly in an effort to forestall her collapse.

After long moments her body began an involuntary trembling. Tears began to form.

"Did the man hurt you?" Pete was smoothing her hair in an effort to comfort her.

"No, no!" She clutched him tightly. Then she realized what he had first said. He had finally admitted to being her father. She and Marguerite had often wondered about their parentage, suspecting Pete and not Joseph was their true father. They had noticed the nuances in conversation between Pete and their mother over the years, yet they puzzled over the fact that Joseph allowed Pete to live in the same house with them. Now she knew why he had been so protective and concerned over Marguerite's and her welfare these past years. Why had their mother kept this secret from them? Why?

"We go home and you clean up. Then you see Ian, but say nothing. Have courage; take great care."

"What will you do with this man?"

"He is not hurt bad."

They searched briefly outside the section house and found Ian's lunch and coffee bottle. Susan fought determinedly to regain control of her nerves. Although she had never personally been subjected to brutality, she had frequently seen it in the streets, especially among drunken whites and Indians. She wondered how her father happened along at just the right moment.

Tugging at her hand, Pete hurried her down the dark alley. When they reached Susan and Ian's new home, he by-passed it, saying, "We go to your old home to get the mule."

They slipped quietly in the rear shed door and Pete lighted the lamp in the kitchen. While Susan hurriedly pinned her dress, Pete removed Joseph's bottle from behind the stove. Raising it to his lips, he took a long pull, then he slipped it into his pocket.

Putting out the lamp, they left the house and entered the barn. Pete quickly bridled the mule and grasped a small coil of rope. Returning to the section house, he stopped to whisper, "Now go see Ian. Say nothing. Go!"

While Susan continued on to the roundhouse, Pete loaded the assailant's body on the mule. After tying the hands and feet together under the animal's belly he quietly led the mule northeast toward the railroad turn-around.

Susan was afraid she would be unable to retain her composure when she saw Ian. She feared she would disclose her father's secret. She knew he was attempting to allay her fears by saying the man was alive. He was dead, for she would have heard him breathing in the stillness of the building. She also knew he intended to dispose of the body; why else would he have brought the mule?

Ian was waiting on the turntable platform as she arrived.

"You're late tonight."

"I overslept." She hated to lie to him, but it seemed the only plausible excuse. She was grateful for the dim moonlight; it did much to conceal her anxiety and tenseness.

When Ian gathered her into his arms for a kiss, he became aware of her nervous twitching. He also felt the dampness on her cheeks.

"What's wrong? You're shaking and your cheeks are wet. Is something amiss?"

"Just glad to see you. It's chilly." She nervously squeezed tightly to him, hoping to gain some of his warmth and strength. She didn't want conversation; she just wanted to be held tightly.

Ian sank his face into her hair. "After we get our crop off this fall, I'm quitting the railroad for good."

Susan felt relieved that she had been able to control her feelings. Ian had no idea of the danger she had been in. She dreaded going back to the house, knowing she would be unable to sleep. She also knew she would probably suffer nightmares in the weeks to come.
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"Sonofabitch!" Pete muttered, wondering how he would dispose of the body. His first impulse had been to contact the sheriff in Pembina and report the attack upon Susan. Then he thought of the embarrassment to his daughter and Ian. He distrusted the white man's justice, deciding it only worked to the benefit of the white man. Then he thought of leaving the body in the section house, or perhaps in the river, where other bodies had been found. No! That was a poor choice, too. Bodies, even weighted down, sometimes came to the surface. And if they arose downriver, the steamboats were likely to find them.

Under the gibbous moon he followed the edge of the bush, leading the mule east to where the railroad tracks curved through heavy brush. He knew it was customary for the morning train to turn into the Y, then reverse and back into the depot at St. Vincent. He also knew that because the engineer was forced to back in blind, the body would never be seen until the entire train had passed over it.

Sliding the corpse from the mule's back, he laid it across the rails. In the dim light he looked the man over carefully. The body was heavy, over 200 pounds. The face was clean-shaven, so recently that the skin was pasty-white in color. To Pete the abnormal pallor indicated the recent removal of a heavy facial beard. Could the man have been attempting to conceal his identity? Pete grunted with satisfaction when he suddenly realized the man was Eck Murphy. Where had he come from? How long had he been in the vicinity without being recognized? He hadn't been seen for some time, and why had he come back now?

Reason told Pete that no one would ever suspect that the heavy-drinking Murphy had done anything other than goes to sleep on the tracks. To insure probability, he removed Grant's bottle from his pocket and, after taking a final swig, poured the remainder of the whiskey over Murphy's face, neck and chest. Tossing the empty bottle aside, he felt relieved. He knew the early morning train would do the rest.
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George McCune had been forcibly ejected from Fri's Saloon in St. Vincent that night and was on his way back to Emerson. Tired and punchy, he decided to take a short nap. Bedding down just inside the edge of the brush, alongside the rails -- he dozed off. A few hours later he awoke with a compelling thirst. His mouth and throat felt like dried leather. Sitting up, he fumbled for his flask. The sudden approach of scraping footsteps alerted him to someone close by. Instinctively, he hid his bottle, having no intention of sharing the little Scotch he had left.

He watched silently as a tall man leading an animal passed by only a few feet away. In the dim light he saw the long ears on the animal. It's a mule -- by golly! Something was slung over the mule's back. He puzzled over the identity of the man, then, mystified and tired, gave up. He lay back and slept.
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A courier hastily dispatched by the railroad depot agent in St. Vincent reached the sheriff's quarters in Pembina shortly before 7:30 the following morning. The messenger, a young lad, was excited to be carrying the startling news. "Sheriff, a man got his head and feet cut off by the train! He must have been drunk and went to sleep on the rails. The depot agent wants you to come right away."

"O.K., son. I'll be over to view the accident as soon as I can ready up. Thank's for coming over to inform me."

"Sure, Mr. Brown."

Charley could see the lad was proud to have been selected to carry the news. His friends would envy him for days.

Saddling his bay at Mason's new, rebuilt stable, the sheriff rode east into a sun already well up in the sky. There was no breeze, and all signs indicated another warm, dry day. He felt lucky to find the ferry tied to the Dakota side of the river. After a ten-minute delay, he was free to approach the St. Vincent depot. While passing by the ice-house, he noted the huge pile of chicken crates on the edge of the platform. Further on, the stationmaster stood by the door of the telegraph office.

Drawing rein, Charley called, "Hello, C.J. A young lad told me you've got trouble."

"Yah! The brakeman from the early morning train hoofed it in from the Y a short while ago. He says some drunk went to sleep on the tracks and the train backed over him. He's located on this side of the Y, in the heavy bush. The conductor has been holding the train to clear with the law. He's anxious to get going."

Swinging his horse around, the sheriff called over his shoulder, "Thanks, I'll find the place."

Gazing up at the bright, hot sun and clear sky he thought it best to have the body picked up as quickly as possible. Also, an autopsy would have to be done at the fort. Heading north along St. Vincent's main street he stopped momentarily at Dorf's livery to order a wagon sent to the Y.

When he arrived at the scene of the accident, several passengers from the train had gathered around the body, including the engineer and conductor. The latter greeted him anxiously.

"Sheriff, when we cleared the switch into St. Vincent, we backed over this man. He must have been sleeping across the rails." The official was holding his watch in his hand. "We're nearly two hours late. Can we proceed into St. Vincent?"

"Don't see why not, but let me take a quick look-see first."

When Charley first bent over the body, he failed to recognize the man. Although the size of the man was impressive and the face was clean-shaven, the sheriff doubted ever seeing him before. Searching the pockets brought no identification, but then his eye caught sight of the shaft of a knife partially covered by a trouser cuff. Drawing the blade from the sheaf, he noted the carving on the wooden handle. Eck M. It was then Charley realized the change Murphy had created by shaving off his beard. The boots further substantiated his identification for they were huge -- at least a size 12 or 14. It had to be Murphy, but what was he doing back in St. Vincent? He must have been planning some devilment, but what?

The fact that Murphy was dead was suspicious. He sensed something wrong with the scene. The youngster's report had been accurate; the body had been decapitated and the legs severed at the boot tops. He caught the pungent odor of booze as he bent over Murphy. Reaching under the victim's shirt he found the skin and underclothes damp. Smelling his fingers, he detected the raw smell of liquor; just outside the rail laid an unbroken bottle.

The cork was lying to the side, the bottle empty. Picking up the flask he examined the label: Old Crow.

Casually he slid the container into his pocket as he mused to himself whether or not the doctor at the fort would be able to tell him anything of Murphy's condition. Somehow, he doubted any man, drunk or sober, would pick a spot between the railroad rails to sleep.1

While onlookers watched, puzzled by his action, Charley seated himself between the rails and assumed the dead man's position. He propped his neck on one rail and his legs across the other -- mighty uncomfortable! Then he rested the back of his head on the rail. Not bad this way, he thought. Would the man have his head severed at the neck if the back of his head rested on the rail? Charley was almost sure that Murphy's body had been placed on the rails to cover the crime of murder. Rising, he beckoned to a nearby man to help him lift the torso from the track. Then he turned and motioned to the conductor to move the train. He stayed only long enough to supervise the loading of the body parts into Dorf's wagon and instruct the driver: "Take the body to Doc. Appel out at the fort. He'll have to do the autopsy."

1 - You might be surprised...my own great grandfather died drunk, run over by a train, head decapitated and the rest of him ground to pieces...