Sunday, June 21, 2009
Chapter 28 - The Mail Must Go Through
Nearly a month had passed since I began following the old Leatherman, and I had failed to get any closer to him. I stood at a distance and watched him eat with dozens of families. Each had its own ritual for his arrival. Each fed him with a differing amounts of attention or indifference. I met boys who followed him to his rock shelter and watched him, and sat with him, and I had heard tales of other boys who kicked apart his teepee of drying firewood, and upset his drying tin cans, as boys will, and of mothers who ordered those boys to return to those rock shelters and make them as orderly as they had found them. I heard theories about murder, robbery, adultery, religion, magic, the devil and about God himself. None of these I believed, but all I absorbed to with great interest.
I traveled with him through Connecticut, down the length of the shoreline of Long Island Sound, and then turning North, with him, into New York state. We walked near or through Norwalk, New Canaan, and Wilton, then West into Purdy Station, a stop on the Harlem Railroad. Then through Kensico, Croton Falls, Doansville and through Peeksill, Yorktown and Scrub Oak Plains. Our last stop in New York was a rock shelter high on a hill in the Saw Mill Valley. In Connecticut we passed through Balls's Pond, New Fairfield, New Milford, Bridgewater, Roxbury, Waterbury and Watertown. We zigged and zagged North and South, until I sat, watching him prepare an evening fire in a cave overlooking the Housatonic near Waterbury.
I have not moved closer than one hundred yards from where he sleeps, for I have found on nights when I have tried to, I've awakened in the morning and he is gone.
What lie would I tell McDonough? How could I explain that the Old Leatherman was like a watchful, wily and frightened wild animal, never admitting me into a circle close enough to engage him.
Of course, I'd tell him McDonough that I was slowly winning the Leatherman's confidence, and that given enough time, maybe another circuit with him, or two, he'd be mine.
McDonough would never believe me.
This day I followed him through the lightly populated center of a small town called Thomaston. On the map it sat between Plymouth and Watertown like a piece of apple pie with a good thick crust.
He headed onto the porch of an inn called "The Quiet House" and sat at a table. I entered the inn and took a plate of stew and a mug of beer across the street, promising to return the tableware.
I watched the Leatherman wait. lifelessly staring at the wall of a feed store as a woman in a starched white apron served him a meal that was larger than any I had seen him eat so far.
As he ate, a chambermaid came out and began hanging bedsheets on a clothesline strong across the porch. It's the kind of clothesline that New England women on a strict schedule used on a rainy day when the soaking would otherwise foul their plan for the week.
With two sheets up, she stopped hanging and went back inside. Now the Leatherman no longer faced the feed store wall, but instead sat looking at the two large sheets that completely obliterated his view of the narrow alley.
From out of the stable came a thin man in a suit and bowler, carrying what looked like a cigar box attached to the top of a surveyor's tripod. In a moment I knew it was a photograph machine. They called them cameras, and the man was a photographer. He had a young assistant who set the camera atop the tripod.
I once viewed a photographer take a view of Middletown from the hill in front of the Insane Asylum. And there were three photographers at the hanging in Sing Sing, each with a demeanor more serious than the hangman himself.
They didn't want the Leatherman to see their preparations. He sat unawares as I ate and watched them scamper to balance the wooden box on the sticks.
The man with the bowler was now joined by another boy in shortpants and cap. The three worked together to spread the legs of the tripod, then they fastened the box to the a plate on the legs with as set of screw clamps. With the camera upright, the boys ran off to a carriage and returned with a large piece of dark canvas and what looked like a thin trough on a pole of about four feet - the flashpan.
At the same time, the photographer paced off the distance between the camera and the porch where the Leatherman sat, and then spent several minutes adjusting a bellows that held the boxy camera together. It looked something like my melodeon. Then he spent several minutes more glancing up into the sky, taking the measure of his own shadow, and making an adjustment to the gleaming gears and levers at the front of the camera.
With the camera at the ready, he carried a keg from the carriage to the camera and carefully measure a load of powder into the flash pan, which he ordered one of the boys to hold carefully at arms length. Then he crawled beneath the canvas, which had been draped over the back of the camera, and bent over so that his head was at a level of the camera. He fidget under there for a minute or two and the boy with the flash pan began to show signs of strain holding the pan at arm's length.
The photographer now ran to the sheet and stuck a collar pin in it, and ran back to hide beneath the sheet.
"Can't focus on a plain white sheet," he shouted at the steadfast, but fading boy.
Then he shouted "NOW." And from above, the other boy dropped the sheet and the alley was filled with a flash that was as bright as a sheet of lightning at midnight. From my vantage I could see that the boy had fallen from the porch roof, grasping his eyes, and the Leatherman, who was caught completely by surprise, managed to grab his things, and in the process upturned the table he was sitting at, and was stumbling out of the alley, leaning on the feed store wall. I stayed only long enough to see the photographer pull something from the back of the camera, and run quickly to the darkness of the horse barn.
I followed the Leatherman as he lurched, more quickly than I had seen him move in all the weeks that I followed him. And he moved with a rapidity that belied his sense of direction. For he didn't stumble once, but six or eight times, in the time it took him to make it to the edge of town. He tripped in ruts. He stopped shortly as a dog ran running in front of him, and he fell over an imaginary dog while the real one had already taken flight and was now safe in the shadows beneath a large house at the end of the main street.
With Abe in tow I didn't catch up wth the Leatherman until we had reached the foothills above a wooden bridge that crossed a tributary of the Housatonic, at the shalllows. A well-used ridge road ran close by a rock overhang beneath which the Leatherman hung deeply in the shadows. He did not build a fire this night. I'm not quite sure that he slept. I know that I did.
The Leatherman's face was now, for the first time I must believe, frozen in time, and recorded for history. Some folks don't like photography, or because they believe it steals a minute of your life. Having witnessed the "taking" of this portrait, I was now convinced that it was, at the very least, a frightening experience.
I wished never to have my portrait taken, nor hoped the Leatherman would have to suffer the indignity of another such surprise.
The next morning I woke to the sound of the Leatherman moving out of his camp and off down the hillside. It was the squeaking of his clothes, a fearsome rustling, like a hundred saddles of the calvary, that put me awake. I sat up and saw the movement at my feet. It was a snake, a copperhead as thick as the handle of a bullwhip. I considered this as cruel run of bad luck and in one of those momentary flashes that strike you at just the wrong time, I realized how practical a thick leather suit of clothes can be in this Yankee wilderness.
I couldn’t believe my dumb luck. Faced with another copperhead. They must like the smell of my pomade.
I was frozen, but the snake was awake and moving up the side of my leg toward my torso, where my arm now quaked unsteadily an awkward position of support for my cantilevered upper body.
It was a moment of great decision when I decided that I was as quick as the Leatherman and could reach down and grab the snake with the same kind of bold stroke.
I was not as quick as my copperheaded bed mate and when I reached, probably with a some slight hesitation, he struck me in the wrist and I screamed for all I was worth.
I didn't feel lightheaded as I shook him off my arm and began to run down the hill, stumbling on the exposed noses of boulders, and in the thick brambles, but I knew I was lightheaded when I saw the Leatherman turning back on his trail and heading for me.
"I've been bit by a copperhead," I shouted. "I'm dying. Save me."
His stony face may have registered some concern, but if it did I did not see it as clouds seemed to fill my head and I fell at his feet.
I awoke and asked the woman attending me the day. For I was a veteran at losing days to unconsciousness.
It was two days after the one on which I had been bitten. Another gap in my history. I passed out, then woke again.
I was in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar bed, with an unfamiliar woman sleeping in a chair beside me. I ached all over, but my arm, in particular throbbed like it had detached, skewered, boiled and then reattached to my poor aching body. I tried to move, but couldn't.
I grunted and the woman beside me stirred. She opened her eyes groggily, and when she saw that I was staring at her, she started and yelped.
"Don't move," she shouted at me, standing abruptly.
"Don't worry," I mumbled.
"Doctor," she yelled. "He's awake, agin."
"So he is," I heard the voice before I saw the face. The voice was as kindly and calm and reassuring as the face was not. He had red eyes, a three-days growth of beard, baggage for an overseas trip under his eyes and breath like a sulfur pit.
"I told you you wouldn't die," he smiled and revealed a mouth full of teeth as grey as headstones, and spaces were several had been kicked over.
I remembered no promises about living or dying made to me.
I opened my mouth to talk, but he hushed me.
"Don't use up your energy before you've had some nourishment. Nellie, bring him some scrambled eggs, and a cup of milk. I think he's going to be fine,” and he smiled his horrible smile again.
"We found you on the steps of the post office," it was another voice, and then another face that came into view. "I'm Chauncey Hotchkiss," it said, extending a hand that was slapped away by the doctor. "The Postmaster of Forestville."
I opened my mouth to ask a question, and the doctor covered it.
"And some beef bullion," he called through an open door.
"You've been bitten by a snake," he reassured me, as if I didn't know.
We don't want you to move. You'll spread the poison through your system."
At that point the nurse came in with the eggs and broth and I ate and drank greedily.
"Let me show you," the doctor said, obviously proud of pulling me from the brink of death. "Copperheads usually don't have enough poison top make a grown man but a bit sick. But he got you right in a vein that spread the poison through you right quick."
He began to unwrap what I supposed was a thick padding of bandages, but when he finished the unveiling in such quick order, I realized the padding was not bandages, but my arm, which was as swollen as a dead possum lying in the sun.
I tried to move it, but found it was useless.
"You are a headstrong boy," the doctor scolded. "You won't be moving that arm for weeks, if you don't lose it."
His last phrase, which must have been unintentional by the look on his face, shocked me as much as a bucket of spring water upended on me would've.
I didn't have to ask him more, only look at the round ugly sore where the snake struck. The flesh had sloughed off in a perfect circle, leaving a red, open, weeping sore. The rest of the arm looked like it had been decorated by a careless painter. Purple red and blue in blotches closest to the wound, and yellow, pink and blotches of frightening white up the length of the arm. It was so large and misshapen that I imagined it belonged to someone else.
"It looks better today," the nurse chirped happily.
"I think so too," Hotchkiss agreed.
I couldn't imagine.
They left me then to languish. The soup, milk and eggs had given a boost to my senses and I began to remember what landed me here. The pursuit of the Leatherman, the snake, the snakebite, and my headlong tumble down the hillside.
I also had some slight recall of faces hovering over mine, and nighttime conversations, but none of these was clear enough for me to make any sense of them.
I slept again and was awakened by the nurse, who carried a tray of minced food, and was accompanied by Hotchkiss.
"The doctor says you can start eating some solid foods as long as you don't overdo it, and you eat slowly," the nurse instructed.
With the help of Hotchkiss they lifted me in the bed, not without a rather sharp and steady pain that emanated from my arm and then spread through the rest of my body. It seemed to lift me forcefully from myself. When I was upright and ready to eat, the nurse mopped my brow, which was wet from the strain, and encouraged me to help myself.
I ignored my visitors and ate steadily, not wanting to discourage the nurse who might grab the tray away early. I ate until there was not a crumb of food on my tray. I hadn't yet spoken a word, and they did not speak to me. Only watched me finish the food. The nurse took the tray with a motherly grin and left me alone in the room with Hotchkiss.
He watched me for a moment before speaking.
"So you have a curiosity about the Leatherman, too," he began.
I tested my throat and croaked a "Pardon?"
"I say, you have followed the Leatherman?"
I looked at him as if to ask what it was about my appearance that would have allowed him to come to that conclusion.
"When we found you, you were on the steps of my Post Office. In Forestville. Your donkey was tied to the post, and you were lying unconscious on the ground. We didn't know who you were. We didn't know where you came from. We didn't know what happened to you until we found this note pinned to your vest."
He unballed a wrinkled piece of paper. A piece of paper from my own journal and held it up so I could see. In a careful, but cribbed hand were lettered the words SNAKE BITE. They were made from letters about an inch high and doubled and bolded by running a pencil over and over the letters.
"So we called the doctor, and you've here for almost four days, unconscious," he smiled the smile of a snake-oil salesman.
"Where's here?" I asked, my voice as jagged as a horse shoe rasp.
"Above the post-office."
"Where are my things?" I asked.
"Your mule is at the livery stable. Delisle has him. He's in good hands. Your belongs are in my office downstairs."
"What do you know about the Leatherman?" I asked.
"My research shows that he travels through Connecticut and New York, and travels about ten miles a day. He makes a great loop so that he visits the same town about once a month."
"How did you find these things out?"
"I followed him."
I didn't believe him.
"Coincidentally, I sold my story to the Hartford Courant just after you arrived, see."
He held up another piece of paper for me to read. This was the front page of the Hartford Daily Courant and it contained a woodcut of the Leatherman with a piece of bread lifted to his mouth. It was the scene on the porch of the Quiet House.
The headline read "THE OLD LEATHER MAN - The Strange Life of An Old Man Entirely Clad in Leather - ROAMING THE STATE FOR 2 YEARS - Living in Huts, Harming Nothing and Refusing Gifts of Charity."
Now, I would not be the only one interested in pursuing the leather clad wanderer.
Under the picture the story began:
"Above is the picture of a man whose peculiarities make him an object of curiosity and wonder to a large number of people in this state, and some in New York. For 2 years past he has come and gone over the same route, visiting each place with a regularity and preciseness which would lead one to suppose that he was traveling on an exact schedule of time laid out by him, and from which he must never vary."
The story went on to describe the Leatherman and his route. A route which I had very recently discovered the hard way. In fact, the story recounted the places and names of the people who had fed him when I followed, and only those names, no other. The details of his journey recounted in the newspaper were very similar to those that I had taken note of in my journal. If his regularity is such as was recounted by the story, the similarity is of no note.
The story continued by relating the history of Mr. Hotchkiss, whom it said, had a lifetime curiosity about the old man, and who fed him when he stopped in Forestvillle. Mr. Hotchkis "discovered" the route of the Leatherman's circuit through correspondence with people in towns along his route, and by speaking with people in Bristol and Southington. Using this epistulary method, Hotchkiss was able to pinpoint the old tramp's arrival and departure from the very towns I had visited.
Finally, the story gave the Leatherman a name, Zachariah Bouvelliat. A man in Bristol is said to have spoken to the Leatherman in French and discovered that he is wandering to due penance for some sin long forgotten.
"Some prodigious research," I said to Hotchkiss, who stood over my bed proudly grinning. "How did you manage to guess where he went from here when you never followed him."
"Deduction, my son," Hotchkiss said.
"And you corresponded with all of these people?"
"Why, yes," he said with some hesitation.
"And yet, this newspaper account mentions nothing about the Leatherman's dog."
"The Leatherman's dog?"
"Of course. You know, the mutt he adopted and carries under his coat in the rain from Harlem Station to Croton Falls," I answered.
"Oh that dog," Hotchkis replied weakly.
"It's the only object of his affection," I laughed.
"Of course it is. The Leatherman's dog. Many people have written to me about it."
"Why, uh Croton Falls, and Harlem Station, of course."
"Amazing how the dog returns to Harlem Station," I reflected.
"Quite a journey for a dog," he replied.
"And by way of Manhattan," I said, with as much seriousness as I could summon.
"You hadn't heard," I asked, incredulous.
"I'm afraid that part of the story didn't make it to me.”
"Well, in Croton Falls, the Leatherman drops the dog at the train station and the conductor lets the dog travel in baggage all the way into Manhattan. And in Manhattan, another conductor brings him to Croton Falls where he lives the month with a Civil War widow," I explained.
"Amazing isn't it," Hotchkiss said, beginning to pace.
"The most amazing thing is the way he melts like a frost in June when he sees that dog. He doesn't react to anybody, or anything else, but when he sees that dog he's like a child. Dog hopping and barking and wagging his tail, and Leatherman grinning like an idiot."
"What's his name?"
"Well, as you can guess, the Leatherman doesn't call him anything in public. He just kind of clucks his tongue, but one of the old gaffers who talk to him in French says he calls him Perry. The conductors call him Harlem. And the old Civil War widow calls him Jeff Davis."
As I finished my tale, Hotchkiss could barely be contained. He was a mess of fidgets, hand wringing, knuckle popping, head scratching and paces and pirouettes.
"You'll excuse me," he apologized. "I've got to go. The mail. The mail just won't wait."
I waited, and it took a few days, but my hunch played out. Three days later I took the Hartford Courant from the nurse, and saw the story. It was billed as a new item, and a continuation of the weird tale of the Leatherman.
"THE LEATHERMAN'S DOG," the headline read. "Perry the Terrier, Leatherman's One Friend."
¬ "He's a fraud," I said aloud.
"Who?" the nurse asked.
"You're a fraud," I said to Hotchkiss when he entered the room with the newpaper rolled uner his arm. "You didn't do any research, you read my notes and made up that story about the Leatherman."
"I did plenty of research, and I may have glanced at your notes, but they were incomplete," he stammered.
"There's no Leatherman's dog," I smiled.
I saw him raise his fist, and I saw it come down toward my swollen arm, but I don't remember the blow landing.
Night fell again.