Beyond the Western
I was on a special detail at the reconstruction site of America's first iron works in my hometown of Saugus, Massachusetts. Regularly I'm a Saugus cop, but I get what extra work I can. None of it was ever like this day's work, back in 1952, more than half a century ago. I was sharp as a tack then, kept my eye and ears open, loved new edges.
At one moment I had my eye on 72-year old Napoleon deMars, an earth surgeon with one glass eye and one wooden leg, but a steady machine with a shovel in his hands. I swore I could sense some curiosity and sudden coldness when his long-handled shovel painstakingly pried up a buried object.
I saw, as quickly as he did, that it was disinterment! White of bone came up at him, right from the grave. It was a human skull, opened at a wedge in the frontal lobe, and he and I knew it most likely had been murder. The skull, and apparently some of its bones holding on to the last known form, lay at the end of his half day’s work, a trench at the First iron Works, a mere dozen miles from Boston’s Freedom Trail. The site was being excavated for and from history. It was September of 1952. Excavation had been under way since 1948, on a small scale, but steadily. Not a single piece of diesel-driven power equipment had been allowed in there as yet. It was a pick and shovel site, a whiskbroom site, toothpick and cotton swab country.
Now it was a graveyard and I was a new guard on duty, with old crime on my rounds.
Napoleon, for all his years, for all his toted calamities, felt nauseous.
Three people of varying importance were at the Iron Works site when the grisly discovery was made that day: Napoleon deMars, the seventy-two year old, one-eyed, one-legged earth surgeon; Dr. Roland Wells Robbins, site archeologist who had found the ruins of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond a few years earlier, now in charge of unearthing the site of the very first iron works which had brought to America all the experience Europe was able to muster back in the 1600’s; and me, Silas Tully, police officer of the town, on the force only a matter of six years after my service in the Marine Corps in the once-noisy Pacific.
On that high-blue September day, clouds lain over someplace else, the faintest breath of salt coming off the river, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Napoleon deMars put down his shovel. It was a half-hour to lunchtime and he never stopped work, he never cursed his place in life, he never gave cause to any boss. Here, at the Iron Works, at $2.35 an hour and the best wage he had ever gotten, where he often thought that he could shovel until he was eighty, he put his work aside.
He looked out over the First Iron Works in America, up off the banks of the Saugus River on the North Shore above Boston. The site was a conglomeration of excavations, mounds, slag piles, marked stone walls which had been retrieved from history, a half dozen trenches cutting across a small piece of Saugus, each one crooked as lightning, ragged as crossword puzzles, and the scattered piles of artifacts yet to be catalogued and put away.
Napoleon, I saw clearly, and yet oddly for him, walked away from his assignment and up the site with the marked limp he had carried with him for more than half a century. The broad band of a suspender hooked over one shoulder and slipped into his belt line where, down inside his pants' leg, it connected to the crude wooden leg he had worn for so long. In reality, this one was his third, and no lighter than the first. Around the site he looked for Rollie Robbins, boss man, a little prissy Napoleon had often thought and voiced, but more knowledgeable than any man in town on this kind of an excavation. Often enough he’d seen the light go on in Rollie’s eyes when a new discovery was made, when a ditch gave up clues or artifacts, when the 17th Century struggled up out of a pile of dirt or the bottom of a hole like a woodchuck checking the lay of the land.
Now, Napoleon had found this new discovery. With effort he tried to reach back into history the way Rollie did. Long had he marveled at how much Rollie could pull out of a small find, the way a rock sat on its neighbor or what it was made of or how the demarcation in a trench of the natural soil line could tell time as good as a calendar.
Napoleon used his head to signal Rollie, as if giving signals to his dog, and nodded to his current digging spot.
Roland Wells Robbins, dark-haired, round faced, handsome in his ruddy outdoors way, just now beginning to widen at the belt line a bit, tipped dark-rimmed glasses off his face and looked at Napoleon. From long standing I knew he admired the old man, who kept his shovel moving more industriously than any two of the other laborers. Napoleon was also a good luck talisman for Rollie, his charm piece. He told me he remembered the day he had hired the old man, who began methodically shoveling his way through three hundred years of fill. His single eye was a marvelously good organ. A cannon ball popped off his shovel that first day; a half dozen clay pipe remnants (with one bowl intact) turned up an hour later, on the second day the crusted remains of a matchlock pistol were held in the air just as the crew broke for lunch. For that one moment Rollie the archeologist had palmed devilish antiquity.
“What is it, Napoleon? he asked of the old man. Sweat, I noted as usual, was a dark stain on Napoleon’s shirt under the one-strap suspender. An off-yellow color it was, almost like an old tobacco stain, and made me think of my grandfather for the first time in many years.
Napoleon, trying not to be too excited, said, “Where I’m digging, boss. Down where you sent me yesterday to trench out. There’s a skeleton.” The old man’s one eye had remoteness in it. “It’s in the fill. It’s in some clay. I don’t think I hit it with my shovel, but the front of the skull has been crushed. I didn’t tell any of the others. It must have been a nasty death.” A story wagged deep behind his one eye, his brow leaning darkly over his one useful orb.
Rollie looked at his watch, smiled at Napoleon, looked around at the other laborers, some attracted by Napoleon's move, his hidden words. Care, I saw, and took over his mien, his attitude, his softening voice. “Thanks, Napoleon. Tell the others they can go for lunch. I’ll check it out myself.” Down the slope Rollie’s gait was deliberate, drawing other eyes including mine.
Down into the trench Napoleon had cut Rollie eased himself. Neatness came at him immediately; the floor of the trench was level; the five-foot sides were cut down as if they had been carved or sculpted out of the sand and gravel and blue-gray hardpan. The pile thrown out humped a long mound stretching away from the trench. The neat trench itself was about eighteen feet long.
In behind Rollie I crowded myself, like a dog at tail, even though history was all around us in piles of dirt, hidden walls below ground, some crossing over each other, and artifacts by the piled hundreds and hundreds.
Beneath him Rollie and I saw the bones of the skeleton Napoleon had unearthed. The skull indeed was crushed in at the forehead. Arm bones and torso bones had been exposed. A quick little chill seemed to spin through on Rollie’s skin and danced off someplace. Never before in any of his digs had he seen this, he admitted later on. There’d been pots and pans and rocks and stones and clay pipes and glass bottles of every sort and pieces of wood with enough left of their grain that stories could still be extracted from them. But never the hard remains of a human being; just the subtle remains, the storied remains, never the boned and final remains.
And I was the cop on the job; it shook me up tough I had seen too many dead men in my own time in the Pacific campaign, on an odd dozen islands if my count was right.
The other workers thought it odd that Rollie and Napoleon during lunch had quickly set up a canvas tent over the trench. They hadn’t seen a tent on-site in almost a year. That time it too loomed a secret. It was, obviously, now out of bounds for them. It was apparent nobody had told them they had to stay away; it could have been Kidd's treasure, an odd lot of gold, silver from a legendary theft ... or death in the center of bones fleshless bones.
On detail I was a third party on the scene, but for a long time a daily visitor to the site, me, Officer Silas Tully of the Saugus Police Department. For a couple of years, I had watched as Rollie Robbins pieced together so much of the original site from piles of rock and slag heaps and baskets full of artifacts, and now wondered what a tent signified. Curious, I had made my way down to the tent, stepping over trenches with his long legs, jumping over small piles of slag or rocks, avoiding larger holes and pits. Rollie and I had become, if not friends, at least daily conversationalists on the topic of excavation. Each of us loved the way details and mysteries worked on them and each found in the other a sense of mirror. I had seen great scenes of destruction in the war and began a measurement of destruction and reconstruction ... and the pitfalls on the way. The particulars of each calling worked resolutely.
Later, still curious, I slipped aside the canvas door flap of the tent and stepped inside. Rollie looked up at me from the bottom of the trench, a nonplused look on his face as if a policeman was absolutely the last person he wanted on site. With some effort Rollie climbed the ladder out of the trench. Touching the blue sleeve of my shirt, a pained look, as if he had been surprised at the cookie jar or caught peeking in the girl’s bathroom, flooded his face. In the hanging light of a Coleman lamp, buzzing its ignition as noisy as bees, his face reddened deeply.
“Si, we just can’t let too many people in on this until we find out what it’s all about!” His eyes affected beseeching. “They’ll trample the hell out of this place, newsmen, TV people, police of various responsibilities. It’d take us months to recover. We can’t let strangers in here.”
“Find out what’s what all about?” I said, and then, as swiftly directed, I looked along the length of Rollie’s arm pointing at the skull in the bottom of the trench, its forehead obviously crushed at an unknown time and point of history.
Six years on the force and this was my first skull and, moreover, my first skeleton. Bodies I’d seen, that’s for sure, in the islands, on the turnpike at crash scenes, laid out on the median strips more times than I cared to remember. This, though, was a new mystery to me; an unknown, a victim how long in the historic grave no one knew or might never know. Something told me that Rollie had made assessments, that one or more leads had already surfaced, that this gruesome crime would be solved. It was second nature to the archeologist. This could be most interesting, a bizarre and intriguing find at the archeological site, more than history unfurling itself.
I spoke again. “It’s my town, Rollie, and it’s murder clear as a bell, and I’ve got to report it. You know that. No matter how old it is.” As a former Marine, a military man, early in this new episode, I could see lines being crossed, basic command structure being aborted.
Rollie had seen the quizzical light in my eyes before. Again, he touched me on the arm. This time it was as if he were drawing me into a strictest confidence; the secret of King Tut’s tomb, a hidden room beneath the Sphinx, a new Rosetta Stone unearthed in old Yankee Saugus. Consciously he must have decided not to tell me of the other waiting discovery; there were stars to be earned! Treach the pirate, perhaps, had paved the way.
Rollie stood beside the trench looking down at the skeleton, down where history was always telling him stories. A storyteller at that precise moment might have been reciting the sad and gruesome tale to him, a tale of love turned sour, of madness, a tale of clandestine deeds performed or perpetrated under cover of darkness. In the air I bet he could feel hatred, and despair. A man, he most likely thought, a seaman perhaps, had come home from the high angry seas only to find more trouble at the hearth. Did his mind keep telling him it had a will of its own, despite the training, the years of experience? Mystery, I knew, came at him in odd ways because of the way he talked about it. But he had often espoused, with some eagerness," I live on mysteries."
Robby still held me by the arm, working on the mystery, the love of details in the life of a policeman, which make his own life go ‘round. “I’m going to get Professor Hartley out here from Harvard. Loves this place he does and he’ll love this challenge. I can see him marshaling the forces at Harvard, getting his cronies in the labs to do us a few favors. His forensic friends will have a small busman’s holiday on this, their own little murder to play with. They’ll love it, the boys of the old school, in a deep, dark secret, rolling up their pant legs and getting down and dirty. They’ll give us the answer to every question we can come up with, you and I. Then, with it all laid out, you can go to the chief or the State or whoever else and lay a clean solved case right on the blotter.” There was affirmation in his eyes, in his voice.
He squeezed my arm. We were standing there on the edge of history. It could have been The Valley of Kings under our feet, or Chitzen-itsa or a Ming Dynasty tomb somewhere in China. Again, he squeezed my arm, brothers of the mystery.
Early Sunday morning two station wagons rolled into the parking area of the Iron Works. Rollie and I met Professor D’Jana K. Hartley, tall, effectively studious-looking in his tweed sport coat with leathered elbows, but not in a boring way. His cohorts from the ivy halls were with him; two more archeologists, a forensic expert and his young sidekick with blond hair and extremely bright eyes, a professor of Humanities who looked to be the most intelligent of all, a man who carried from the trunk of one car a canvas bag of assorted gear, and a young good looking woman wearing denim, boots and a yellow blouse fitting her so well that most others would not believe she was from Harvard. None of the site diggers, that’s for sure, noted how compelling yellow was.
I watched with absolute care the whole scene, and registered my own thoughts: Napoleon deMars watched them approach. Leaning on his shovel near the tent, he was still on the clock, still at $2.35 an hour, and no one, not one soul, had entered the tent since he’d received his orders from Rollie. Perhaps the victim was as old as he was, perhaps a person he had known in his youth. His mind went skipping back through the years for a noted loss. Nothing came to mind. Napoleon watched the Harvards at work and admired the deftness of their hands with the small trowels and brushes they employed, yet was certain the soft leather boots they wore must have cost a week’s pay. He surely tried to hear the whispers and small asides that connected them, made them such outlanders down in the hole he had cut into the earth, but there he was, in the "lab" with the big boys of mystery.
Professor D’Jana Hartley’s people, I knew, were crack specialists. Quietly they went their turn back into the minor history of the skeleton in the trench of the Iron Works. Small talk amongst them, as much whisper as anything could be, as if covering a trail of a known confidant, had scanned a series of possibilities: an indentured servant, probably a Scot, a slag toter or bog digger or barrow pusher, who had fallen astray, perhaps with another slave’s woman or the Iron Master’s wife, and they tittered at a remark about a new ax of Cane manufactured on the very spot and which had done the improbable deed; a late visitor to the site, pocketbook or pouch laden with crown coin or Spanish gold pieces, fallen under the swing of a metal bar, come slowly as an ingot of first life out of the very furnace whose ruins lay at their backs, in the hands of another indentured servant waiting to buy his way out of contract.
The possibilities hit me with rapidity, arcane or not.
I kept watching, listening, understanding some of my sense acquisitions. Now and then a giggle caught itself on the tall air. Napoleon, intently watching every move, hearing every sound, might have been thinking of his grandchildren at the cookie jar, smiling at the likeness of things. He’d work till ninety if they let him, and if the other leg would hold its own, here in this affable cradle of history. On the way home, on the far edge of Lily Pond, I believed he’d probably buy a box of cookies for the cookie jar at Burke's Store next door to Jack Winters' ghostly house, just around the corner from where Major Appleton from Ipswich, after delivering a sermon on the mount against the Colonial Governor, had to hide in a woman's oven when Loyalist troops came searching for him; it was a fair swap, the cookies, because history was all around us..
The dig, though, was a Chinese checkerboard of ups and downs, holes and trenches and piles and mounds of earth, almost a battle zone of sorts. The slag pile looked like it might have oozed out of the place where Rollie had said the furnace originally was. It was twenty feet high or thereabouts and ran towards the river for ninety or more feet. When the sun caught a slick side of slag, like a shiny piece of coal with an enamel surface, one would think of a semaphore signal leaping from darkness. The land sloped away from the Iron Master’s House on the high point to where the salt water reached at high tide, a good two miles and a half up the Saugus River from the Atlantic Ocean, itself a trove of history. Legend had it that a pirate captain, Treach or Langton or Kidd perhaps, had brought his ship a good way up the river and then landed a long boat further up, a boat which had carried much of his plunder to be buried in Dungeon Rock, now a huge hole 135 feet down in solid rock and bare miles away in the Lynn Woods Reservation.
At this same time, I was not standing still. A minor conviction had told me that the skeleton was not too old; at least, not of Colonial age. This conviction I accepted as coming from intelligence and a feel for things that I had cultivated while on the job and while in the military. Immediately I had gone to a retired postman, a neighbor of his for years, who was a veritable historian of the town, gossip or rumor or fact. From him I had discovered that the stagecoach road from Boston to Newburyport had, at one time, run right past the backside of the Iron Works. That, too, was on what was now Central Street. That Central Street, still clear in my mind, had once swept right on by the front of the Iron Works. Somewhere in town, a long time ago, but not as long as some might think it, a person had disappeared, or had been murdered, or had been buried in the lap of history. I made up my mind up that I was going to solve this case, that I would find out whose bones had been buried at the Iron Works.
The weekly Saugus Advertiser and the Lynn Daily Evening Item seemed to be his best choices and I began a one-man search for a person who had suddenly gone unaccounted for. Through reams and reams of old copies I labored. To old time reporters and editors, I talked and in turn haunted the cracker barrels and barroom back rooms and sundry other locations they had directed me to.
These were places where history walked, where history talked, where the tongues of history carried on the legends and the lineage that might never make its way into print. Over-the-fence stuff. Dark alley stuff. Stories I'd never heard before surfaced, debris riding up on the tide, swollen drains dumping pieces of the town into the river, silt of lives streaming away. Old copies of Saugus Gazette and Saugus Herald and Lynn Transcript, Lynn being the next being town over, to the east, brought nothing to light. No headlines, no want ads for a lost person, no
missing person with no single accounting. No melodramas in the local library of a missing girl or boy or a triangle affair gone haywire.
But I was resolute.
It was Ars Veritas that brought things into focus, after Rollie found a coin at the dig site.
An informal, unsigned, handwritten report came to Rollie Robbins a mere three days after the Harvard entourage had first hit the Iron Works. He shared with me, line by line, item by item, and we considered the information set forth:
The subject is male, thirty-one years of age, dead of a savage blow to the frontal lobe of the skull. Death was immediate. It is estimated that he has been covered (Rollie almost giggled at the word) since mid year of 1905. His watch stopped at 2:17 of a day, in the AM we would assume, and was German, a Gersplank, very limited in production and rarely seen this side of the Atlantic. He carried a small sum of coin. One leg, the right, was 3/4 inch shorter than the other. He had been an accident victim prior to his demise, his hip and thigh bone both having been fractured, the right side, and most likely about two years prior to his end. He was perhaps in military uniform at the time of his death, as determined by tunic buttons found at the site, an officer of a captain’s rank, United States Cavalry, 22nd Regiment Massachusetts. No military identification was found on-site, which we find questionable and suspicious in nature, inasmuch as his pouch was neither emptied nor removed. Two bones in right index and right middle finger were broken which we assume to have happened at or close to the scene of discovery, at time of death, meaning struggle. A length of chain had been dropped or had fallen onto the body and was found, remains of it, rusted solid on top of the spinal column. No other objects or material were found in proximity of the remains except for a small figure of jade of unknown origin discovered a mere two feet from the left hand, the figure tending towards Chinese but not yet confirmed, but probably pre-Ming if Chinese.
In summation we offer the following: Victim was a 31-year-old professional military man with healed bone fractures of hip and leg and was probably in uniform at death but must have been on a limited duty roster; did struggle at time of death as evidenced by broken fingers but was mortally wounded and died immediately from severe trauma to forehead. May have had Chinese or Far East connection, if indeed the jade piece found nearby does not prove to be Incan or pre-Incan. Our camp is exactly halved on this last point.
The lack of any evidence of fabric, other than his pouch, gathers suspicion the more we have thought about it, especially concerning tunic buttons and no tunic residue of note. It is possible that his uniform was biodegradable and has passed on, but we doubt that. Therefore, we think he may have been nude (stripped under duress) and pushed bodily into a hole. If he was nude, the evidence of tunic buttons indicates they may have been placed there to mislead any subsequent authority inquest, and we must ask why. Certainly, the person who committed this deed did not expect it to be discovered in the foreseeable future, but was covering tracks for any discovery some years down the road. It therefore causes us to think he was known to the victim, was himself in the military, tried to put sand in the gears (so to speak) (Rollie giggled), or, as D’Jana Hartley said on last resort, it was a military man who killed a civilian and tried to thwart any future identification by throwing in the tunic buttons, like the proverbial hand of gravel as in dust unto dust, probably off his own shirt, a kindly killer who took the shirt off his own back.
We have a world-wide network working on the jade figure and feel that it was indeed a portion of loot from some local robbery. We shall keep you advised as to all incoming information or any changes in our collective thinking. In close proximity to the remains was found a 1903 one cent piece, but we do not know if this coin was interred with the remains or had later fallen into the hole during excavation from some point higher up in the dig area.
Archeologist Rollie Robbins, giggling at much of the report, finding the humor effective, the conclusions as palpable as his own, and, for the most part, told me with sincerity that he felt the mystery had deepened.
As a Saugus patrolman, and armchair detective when I had to be or needed to be, I received the report and the information on the 1903 cent, found a new starting point and went right to it. For no reason apparent, I gave a grace year to the passage of time, skipped 1904 and went right to 1905. 1905, it appeared, after much scrutinizing of papers and books and magazines and other information almanacs, was the year of the Russias, or, as I quipped to myself, the year the Russias didn’t do too well. The Japanese whipped their butt all over hell in their war; they lost 200,000 warriors in the Mukden battle alone, had their naval fleet destroyed in the Strait of Tsushima, lost Sakhalin Island outright, got badly overrun in Manchuria, and a number of other places. Crewmen of the great battleship Potemkin mutinied and eventually turned the ship over to Rumanian authorities. The Russian Grand Duke, Sergei Aleksandrovich, the uncle of Czar Nicholas II, was assassinated by a bomb thrown into his lap by a revolutionary. The Russian pot certainly was stirring and much of the world was in turmoil, and, of course, I realized, being on this side of the information trail, one could presumably see to where a lot of all this was leading.
A few other events of the year attracted my attention, disparate events, no obvious ties between them, but events that rode on top of tidal debris, like cheese boxes or pieces of flotsam, bobbing to be noticed: the Cullinan Diamond, all 3,106 carats of it, was discovered in Transvaal and insurance underwritten by a U.S. company; the body of American Naval hero John Paul Jones was found in a cemetery in Paris and was moved to the United States, perhaps in a cask of rum or like container for a further preservation attempt; the Russian-Japanese War was ended by a pact signed practically in Saugus’ own back yard, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after a key role was played by the old stick-swinger himself, President Teddie Roosevelt, and closer to home, just a few miles away, the palatial home of W. Putnam Wesley, on the Saugus-Wakefield line in what had become the Breakheart Reservation, a park of the Commonwealth, was robbed in the dead of night by an unknown male who threatened three servants with bodily harm or death if they tried to escape from a pantry they had been locked into, chopping off a butler’s finger with an old sword to prove his vow.
That night I went to sleep after chewing all these things over in my mind, locked in on all the international stuff, and knew I was way out of my element, my precinct. But down deep something fervent told me I was going along for the whole ride. All the way. And a bare thread of light, the thinnest lisle possible, gossamer at best, seemed to be pulling at these disparate events. Upon W. Putnam Wesley I settled for my first stepping stone towards a solution. Filthy rich to say the least, much of it come by way of his grandfather from the California gold fields and parlayed by his father, Wesley had various shades of darkness sitting around him. He had journeyed far and wide, especially in Europe and the Far East, often with a large entourage. His interest included, after money, artifacts of historical intrigue (such as dueling swords or dueling pistols from famous encounters), objects d’art tending to explicit sex of any selection, gems so special that there might not have been a match with another, all things Chinese that might be described by one or more of the aforementioned. He had had four wives, three of which died in the midst of a long trip or voyage. I found one report of his fourth wife having taken a shot at him, in jest as they declared. I figured the threat of that single shot to have saved her life.
Wesley was called Puttee from his earliest days, both from his middle name and from his adventurous youthful habit, when playing soldier games, of wearing strips of cloth which circled his legs from ankle to knee, much in the manner of real soldiers. His name he wore well.
The sixth sense was working overtime for me a few days later when I sat with Rollie under a tarp at the Iron Works site. We discussed our points of view and all the data of the Ars Veritas report.
“It’s a crime of passion,” Rollie finally affirmed, his voice steady, convincing in its stoic way, his dark serious eyes looking out over the site and seeing, oblivious to me, what the site would eventually look like. His baby, Rollie’s baby, eventually put to bed regardless of murder.
“A marriage is involved,” he continued, “a triangle affair. I think we must look to those Hawkridges. Powerful, money by the handfuls, owners of the site for a long time, their papers still scattered throughout the Iron Master’s house like they’ve just gone away for the weekend and will be back on Monday to square things away.” He could make me laugh at will and I thought there might be a dash of truth found in humor.
Rollie seemed to mull over his own words before he added, “Perhaps the Hawkridges were so powerful that the absence of one of the family could easily be explained.”
“You’ve found something?” I said, turning to face Rollie as we sat on a fence rail. The light in his eyes was amber, obvious. From day one of our acquaintance, I knew that Rollie’s bent was to the romantic, to the clandestine, Rollie’s eye having that other light in them.
“Yes,” he said. “One of the Hawkridges, Carlton Theophus Hawkridge. About thirty years of age that I know of. Went off on a trip somewhere around 1905, perhaps a bit later, and was never heard from again.”
“How do you know that?”
“From a few letters I found in a box in the upper rooms. Went off supposedly very quickly on a trip for his health. Not the most likable fellow, not from what I gather, but family.”
“Do you think the family did him in?” My eyes were deep with question, his scowl like punctuation.
“I really don’t know that, but we scrambled at the beginning of all this to go a lot further back than we thought we could. “What have you come up with?”
As though he expected no reply, Rollie looked away from me, seeing the sun catch on the water of the river, an angular slicing of light in the late afternoon, sometimes gold, sometimes blue, that leaped across the river and onto Vinegar Hill where he just knew Treach’s treasure was buried. The hole being dug he could picture, the chest being lowered, the rocks being piled up. He could see the descent of the crew back down to the longboat, could see their soft and easy float down the river to the ship shifting slightly at anchor. He knew where his next job was coming from. And if the skeleton in the trench was one, or could safely assume to be so, Carlton Theophus Hawkridge knew the move to the next dig would be a cinch. So much depended on the me, a young policeman sitting beside him. Spoon feeding me would be a challenge. Subtle as a snake it would need to be.
I gave nothing away. Not even the fact that I knew he was not a rank amateur, that knots in spite of all appearances were being slowly tied, that the gossamer thread would come to rope. If Roland Robbins had his blind romance, I had my own.
“I just keep poking along, Rollie, trying to tie things together. It’s all so far away, as if never touching us with reality.”
“If it’s Hawkridge, Si, I can see a spread in the Boston papers for you. Perhaps a magazine article. You could turn this old Yankee town right up on its ear! They’ll be beating a path to your door. You couldn’t beat them off.” His smile was broader than a shovel blade. And the shovel blade was slicing deep into a pile of manure.
“The Japanese tried that, Rollie. It didn’t work for them either.” There was a declaration I hoped Rollie understood. Edging off the fence rail, I waved slightly, almost half-heartedly. “I’ll keep you posted, Rollie. You do the same.”
As I walked off, looking back over my shoulder, Rollie was looking out over the site, where a glancing shaft of light leaped off the river and leaped up to the crest of Vinegar Hill. Captain Treach just knew Rollie was coming after him! Bet on it!
The gossamer thickened indeed later that week for me. An article in an old issue of a discontinued Boston paper, about Old Ironsides and the Charlestown Navy Yard, tied together John Paul Jones and W. Putnam “Puttee” Wesley. It was a single line implying that the container bringing home the body of the hero was used to illegally convey some priceless artifacts. And Puttee Wesley was accompanying the body home, a service he so graciously volunteered to perform, inasmuch as he was in Paris and on his way home. President Theodore Roosevelt accepted the offer. The thin line of gossamer, with a little more body to it, seemed to fall like a shadow of netting on the piece of jade that had lain so long in the earth beside another body.
I came to abrupt attention, as if the old Commander-in-Chief himself had walked in on me. Life was full of little pieces of goodness. Find them, that’s all you had to do. They were at your feet, in your back pocket, around the corner.
Puttee Wesley, I decided from all that I ingested of him, was not afraid of playing either the pirate or the brigand or the smuggler to get any of the items his heart desired. If money wouldn’t buy them, he’d get them one way or another. In 1919 he had died suddenly, unprotected by his money or his treasures, from a bout with influenza. The family then, as many families do under pressure, had scattered, their fortunes wasted, and little evidence of Puttee Wesley’s existence hung on. Breakheart had become pond and forest and a scattering of trails, the huge mansion gone to ground, a bare bit of stone foundation thrusting out of brush. But to me there came echoes repeating themselves like gunshots down between canyon walls, the continuing onslaught of the same notion...all these things, Jones and Puttee and the jade piece and the skeleton, were caught up in the same web, the same gossamer spinning out of my mind, spinning out of the twist of all the years.
Rollie Robbins had tried to plumb my mind a number of times, tried to steer me to the Hawkridges, but fell short with each attempt. My stubbornness, that of a young policeman, though a craggy veteran, bothered him more than he let on.
Captain Treach had waited this long, but he might not wait forever. Even in death the pirate might be a most rambunctious ghost. Ghostly figures surely danced about in the history about us.
It took a strange turn of events to swing matters to the correct direction, the kind of luck that I knew would come of endless scratching, endless probing, endless digging, my own l’affair archeology. If my French were any better, I'd be able to spell it correctly, say it with conviction.
It was a naval clerk at the Pentagon who remembered my numerous inquiries about the John Paul Jones transfer, who had seen my letter concerning the suspicions surrounding the hero’s remains being brought home, who a long time earlier in his current assignment had begun reading old documents in the Navy archives as a hobby.
Seaman First Class Peter J. Leone, as a result, wrote the following to me, Officer Silas Tully of the Saugus Police Department:
This is not an official document and is only sent to you on a personal basis because of the interest you have excited in me about the Admiral John Paul Jones situation. I have come across a number of old documents and communiqués concerning the Admiral’s coming home to where he should have been. If there is anything else, I might furnish, I will try, but I think you will be interested in what has caught my eye in the files. The president at the time, Theo. Roosevelt, was advised of certain shady deals that might be attached to the movement of the Admiral’s remains. The information came in a letter to him from a Bruce Jacob Bellbend, a captain in British intelligence, who had accidentally come on the information while on a separate assignment. It did mention illegal movement of precious artifacts that had been taken from unknown sources. The president assigned a personal representative, Captain Arthur G. Savage, U.S. Navy, to proceed to Paris and accompany the remains home and to investigate and report to him any and all findings he might come across. None of the captain’s reports are in file, but I did find the following information about him: he was from Grand Hawk, Minnesota, was a graduate of the Naval Academy, was captain of the U.S.S. Standish at one time, did suffer a serious accident aboard ship that required medical leave (hip and leg injury in a fall, right side), had a deep scar on his left cheek of unknown cause, was a gutsy and devoted leader of men, and loved nothing better than his country. He was reported as being missing in July of 1905 and nothing more is known of him, as though he had gone off the face of the Earth.
I brought his case to rest, though it lay at my feet for a few days, being stepped on, turned over, and cemented back into place. I could see Puttee Wesley or one of his henchmen knock the captain on the head, take him under cover of darkness to where Central Street was being filled in, dropping him in the hole, throwing on top of his bare body the buttons of some army tunic to throw leads elsewhere in case the body might be discovered. The jade piece, still unidentified, was sacrificed to help the scattering of leads. The remnants of chain continued to be nothing more than a corrosive coil in his mind. The precious artifacts put away for the time being.
I told it all to my wife Phyllis and none of it to Rollie Robbins, waiting for the proper time.
Napoleon deMars, with the help of two grandchildren and two sons-in-law, held sway over the tent for another week until the remains of the unknown body, as it was officially treated, were laid quietly to further rest in a shaded area of Riverside Cemetery, just outside of Saugus Center, alongside the railroad tracks no longer in use.
One evening thereafter, Rollie Robbins, maverick archeologist, ramrod of stones and bones, continued to watch the late afternoon sun glance off the river with surprising richness. Flares of light flew like spears; shy sparks reigned as though diamonds had been loosed from chest or pouch. Gallant red wing blackbirds from both sides of the river flew across and through shafts of late light like arrows onto their targets. Dusk, as part of shadow, settled itself softly, a dust, atop the colonial town. Vinegar Hill and Round Hill and Hemlock Hill and Indian Slide and dark passages of Breakheart Reservation shifted into the shadows that history continually lends to its constituents. Captain Treach had such a night, I was sure. And he was out there, his subtle remains, waiting for him in those shadows.
And one night a few weeks later, when all was quiet, the sky a dark canopy, a policeman always, a Marine forever, a patriot feeling the pains of wounds I had long forgotten, my eyes raw with sadness, thinking of the admiral and the captain and the president and the seaman at the Pentagon, knowing the town I loved would cement the ultimate resolve, affixed above that single grave at the Veteran’s Section of Riverside Cemetery a wooden sign I had carved for one whole and long night filled with the deepest of thoughts. It read: ARTHUR G. SAVAGE, CAPTAIN U.S. NAVY, WHO DIED IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY.
There would be no fanfare, I knew, no clarions or trumpets or drums. No gunfire. The captain would sift into the past, along with all the other veterans from all the other wars, all the warriors the town had ceded to history. I’d have a flag affixed atop his grave on Memorial Day, put there by the veterans and Boy Scouts and intrepid volunteers. The breeze and the sunlight would catch at it, flapping it about. Children would wave back. A few seniors, offering up their own kinds of parades, would offer serious nods. The wind would come back again and again, a rapture of touch, a salute of sorts. Nights would accept the continual and primal silence abounding in Riverside Cemetery.
I believed that I could give Captain Arthur Savage nothing more precious than that.
When I told my wife, she loved me all over again.