Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chapter Twenty Four - Jack Conroy, Detective

On the day that I finally left town, I did so with much fanfare. I was sleeping off an evening of penny poker and beer not nearly so dear. My head seemed as stuffy as the room, and it rang like church bell for the funeral of a bishop. So the knock on the door, no matter how enthusiastic, no matter how important,t was not welcome.

"Go 'way," I croaked.

"Jack, get up. The Leatherman's on Indian Hill and he's heading to the river," it was the voice of Jim Burke, the livery boy.

I rose to my feet quickly with his words but regretted my sudden elevation and had to make my way to my knees and the chamber pot where I emptied my stomach of the night's excesses.

"Jack, do you hear me?" he asked excitedly.

"I hear you Jim. Pack the mule, I'll be down in a few minutes," I shouted before erupting again.

I heard his boots fly down the hall before I passed out on the braided rug by my bed.
I'm not sure how much time passed before I awoke again, now to a flood of water directed at my face from the ceramic water which was a mismatch for the basin in the room. It was McDonough's voice.

"Get up, Jack. You'll miss him," it was McDonough. His face was cloudy, but I could read his anger and anxiety through the fog.

"I'm getting McDonough, give me room," I answered, attempting to get to my feet, but flopping on my mattress.

"I know I shouldn't have trusted you to be responsible enough to be prepared for this moment, McDonough huffed as he pulled my shirt over my head, and replaced it with another. I felt him jerk my trousers on, snapping the suspenders hard for effect. And as he paused to mop his brow, Jacqueline, one of the girls from the theatre approached, fastened a mug of steaming coffee to my fist and pulled a comb through my hair.

"Just let me go, McDonough. I don't need to be gussied up to chase a smelly old tramp. I'm going down the road, not up on stage," I protested.

"That's only what you think, my boy. Half the town is waiting to see the great bounty hunter off on his trip," he announced loudly to small gathering in my tiny room.
"You've got to look the part, so that while you're away hunting the beast, they'll have the correct picture of a great American hero planted in their heads."

"I'm not a great American hero," I protested again.

"You will be by the time I get finished with you," he said.

Jacqueline attacked me with a fist of pomade, and urged me to drink the black brew. I obliged and burnt the skin off the roof of my mouth in the process. In a matter of minutes they had me in boots, waistcoat, string tie, bowler, and greatcoat. I was carrying a bullwhip large enough to drive a sulfur team out of the great desert.

"I've got to spew," I announced, and headed back for the chamber pot as they were marching me out the door.

"Swallow hard, Jack. You're a hero," McDonough said as he spun me around and marched me through the rooming house and out onto the street.

Though "half the town" had been the kind of exaggeration McDonough was famous for, there was indeed a crowd of about fifty people, mostly children, older men and a few young women, huddled around my mule. I worked my way through the crowd and inspected the mule that Jim had packed for me. Before this, I had imagined pictures of me riding out of town, explorer's hat pulled low over my eyes, surveying the horizon for sign of old man Leather, and pulling my collar high against the wind.

Instead, I found I packed so many provisions that the mule would have to struggle with them. I would become the burden that destroyed him if I climbed on. As to searching the horizon, the morning sun was still very bright, and my eyes were barely able to adjust to the glare. I found myself wiping tears from my cheek every time I looked to the East.

The crowd parted easily when I led the mule out to the street and Southeast, into the hills that hung over the Connecticut.

McDonough pounded me on the shoulder and pressed a small canvas sack into my palm, which I was later to find, contained six twenty-dollar gold pieces. He walked to the edge of the crowd with me, six or eight steps, and turned to embrace me. It was a stage performance. And with much to do, he reached behind his great torso, and pulled, from somewhere, a great gleaming Colt pistol.

I had never before shot a pistol. Had no idea about their operation, except to know that they could cause devastating destruction. I stepped back, reluctant at first to accept the dubious gift, and then took it timidly, to the delight of the crowd who broke into applause. McDonough was a master showman.

I was surprised by the weight of the piece. I doubted that I could hold it steadily at arms length. And fearful of touching the wrong lever, I decided that I would wait to explore it's operation until I was clearly out of sight, and far enough away not to embarrass myself, or do damage to anybody else.

`"Go with God," McDonough said in his best stage delivery. "But come back with the Leatherman."

Once again the crowd applauded. I wondered if McDonough ever did anything that was not a measured attempt to generate applause.

I felt like spewing, and not much like talking, and so my oral recitation at parting was brief.

"I'll see you soon, McDonough," I shook his hand and walked to the edge of town before turning. My head pounded like a gandy dancer's hammer.

Within an hour I made my way over the first set of hills that rose above the river to the south of Middletown. I passed, at a distance, and with a surprising longing, the fancy set of brick buildings that made up the Insane Asylum. I saw a crew working the field, and felt sure that I could recognize some of my workmates in the distance. I saw Pierson, definitely. His rigid stance and his authoritative gait marked him as a brutal force of nature.

The road skirted the foot of the higher hills behind the hospital, on the river side. It was a well-maintained road that ran about sixty yards above the Saybrook-to-Hartford railroad tracks.

Within three hours of my departure from Middletown I caught up with the Leatherman. I saw him, by chance, walking along the railbed below me. His pace was steady, but slow, and for the first time I began to think about how I was to track him, how I would approach him, and eventually how I would communicate McDonough's offer to him.

He looked like a big brown animal lumbering through the forest. I knew that he knew that I was watching, and for this reason, I could not slow, because he would know that I was tracking him.

I decided to keep my pace and to stop several miles down the road, hoping that he did not detour somewhere along the way. With the river on his left, and the road on his right, and a steep hill above that, and with now house or barn between, I was sure my assumption about his moves were correct.

I waited for over an hour without a sign of the tramp. Though I covered just over two miles, I was certain that even at his slow pace he would reach me soon. I waited another forty minutes and knew that I was mistaken. He had turned off the rail bed somewhere along the way. I turned the mule around and headed back along the path.

Both sides of the road were a hopeless tangle of wild rose, and raspberry prickers. They seemed impassable to me. And the dropoff on the river side, and the steep rise on the opposite did not seem to me to make inviting travel. I moved quickly back up the road all the way to the place where I had last seen the Leatherman, and upon reaching that point realized that I must turn again and make a more thorough examination of the brambles that I had so recently passed.

I retraced my footsteps, slowly this time, examining each thicket for a sign of footpath or broken branch. I wondered what the Indian trackers, who were celebrated in the newspapers, looked for when they were tracking man or animal. I didn't move forward until I checked each side of the road for sign of human passage.

I surprised myself when I found the path. And once I saw it, it looked as wide and obvious as a coachway.

It was, in truth, a narrow path that led beneath two large overhanging hemlock branches, and between a cleft in a large grey boulder that sparkled with the feldspar so readily found in the area. The dirt in the cleft was tamped down by many passages, and a well-defined forest trail led up the steep face of the hill. There was no sign of the Leatherman.

I took a few step in, pulling the mule behind.

"C'mon mule," I coaxed. And when that didn't work I shouted.

The mule wouldn't move, and when he wouldn't I tried desperately to remember his name Jimmy had told me and now I couldn't recall it. Chester? Charley? It was a man's name, I was sure. And a fairly common one. Jake? Johnny? Clyde? Bob? Jeb? Andy? He wasn't responding to anything when I remembered.

"Abe, now. Up you go," I called.

And up he went, a short distance. I yelled and pulled again, but the path was steep, Abe was reluctant, and the moss and lichen fell beneath his hooves and thwarted his footing at every step. I looked up the and realized how impossible my task was.

I remembered that there was a small community of farmers and fishermen who lived on the hills that hung behind the asylum. Sometimes we'd see them pass as we worked the field. We always called to them but they rarely answered. They only responded by clucking their horse to carry the wagon further and faster.

It was about supper time now and I wondered if the Leatherman would be moving toward one of those houses to beg a meal.

With an almost greater difficulty than I had pulling him up the slope, I backed Abe down, backwards through the cleft and to the road. He whinnied and screamed the entire length of our journey.

We backtracked several miles, but within the hour we were once again on the west side of the hill, on a road, headed for the river community.

A narrow road lead through thick woods to a row of old houses that lined a narrow valley. Behind all the houses, sheer cliffs hung catching the rays of sunlight that were pushing their last fingers through the thick green growth. The fields these people worked stretched back to the head of the road I had entered to get into the valley, and the other end of the road seemed to drop down the hill leading to the river.

As I made my way up the path I saw women at work in washtubs, and children running dogs through cleared yards. I saw one man hauling a yoke with two full buckets from a stream that ran behind his house. A dog broke across the road ahead of Abe, with a young boy following. He stopped when he saw me.

"Who're you?" he asked.

"My name's Jack.”

"What'cha want?"

"I'm looking for somebody that might be around here," I answered my interrogator.

"You the sheriff?"

I laughed in reply to this question.

"No, I don't carry a badge. I'm just looking for an old man who might have walked through here," I explained.

"Plenty of coots around here," he said straightforwardly. "Which one you want. I'll fetch him for a penny."

"Well, I don't know his name rightly. But I call him old man Leather because he dre..."

"You mean Cartwright's bum?" he asked.

"Cartwright's bum?" I asked right back.

"Yeah. Old tramp comes once a month and bums a supper off of old man Cartwright. Cartwright's blind and he don't know what a mess this old bum looks like. But somehow, the bum lets him know when he's here. He don't talk, you know. And Cartwright feeds him for free."

"That's my man," I smiled.

"He's at Cartwright's all right," the boy said.

"Where's that?" I asked.

He directed me down into what was the deepest point of this hidden valley in the Middletown hills. There was a rudely constructed house and barn, with a corral filled with noisy spotted hogs. In the front of the house, where most people would have a yard, this man had planted a small patch of corn where the sun most brightly penetrated this shadowed valley.

There was a small clearing and a plank table. Sitting there in front of a large platter of what I could see was steaming corn on the cob, bread and a roasted meat of some kind was the old Leatherman, and another man I took to be Cartwright.

Both of them moved amongst the platters in a strange rhythm. Cartwright reached and grabbed confidently for a man without sight. The Leatherman ate in silence, but occasionally moved a crust, or cob within the blind man's reach.

I stood at a distance besides a large boulder that had altered the path of the narrow dirt road. Out of sight of the clearing. I knew I could not let the Leatherman see me twice in a day, or I'd surely alarm him into avoiding me whenever I was spotted.

I watched for a moment more then pulled Abe back around and headed up the road again wondering what my next move would be.

I was startled out of my ruminations by the boy who had directed me to the house in the first place.

"Find him?" he asked.


"Well, you going to arrest him?" he asked again.

"I'm not the sheriff. I thought I told you that," I answered.

"Well, my pa told me never to believe anyone right off," he declared. "Said it would get me in trouble in the long run."

"Well, he's probably right. But I'm not going to harm you. I've got one more question before I leave. Where's the Leatherman stay at night after he stops at Cartwrights.?”

The boy looked at me for a full minute before he began to answer again.

"You're asking a lot of questions for someone who's not the sheriff," he shot back.

It was at this moment that I began devising the story that I would tell to each person I questioned about the Leatherman.

I was discovering, at this moment. what was to become more clear as the days crawled by. Though most people saw the Leatherman as a tramp, or a beggar, he seemed to carry a halo of benevolence. Many people believed the Leatherman carried good luck. These people saw their lives grow strong and happy over the many years that he had passed, and so, they were out to protect that luck from anything that might interrupt it.

Others saw him as some kind of mystery. Because he was silent, and without a story, they felt free to wrap him in tales of their own invention. And even though some of those stories were bloody and murderous, they treated him with care, because, as you know, people love to scare themselves, and they love a good outlaw tale. Others saw him as a means of working out penance, or doing a good Christain deed. The meal they passed him, or the blanket they lent him were the means by which their souls would make it to heaven.

And so all of them, whatever their reason, needed to protect the Leatherman from any harm that might befall him. And that harm included me.

"I'm a writer from a New York paper. I'm following him to tell his story," I said to the boy.

He looked at me again. He was protecting the old Leatherman like he'd protect any of his chums. Out of pure loyalty.

"Which paper?" he asked.

"The New York Daily Channel," I answered without blinking.

"Well, why would a New York paper be so interested in some old tramp?"

"Human interest," I guessed. "Human interest," I asserted.

Thoroughly convinced of my innocent intentions, my young friend directed me to a rock shelter not twenty yards from the back wall of Cartwright's cabin. There was no way I could get there easily now, and I asked the youngster if there was another route. Finding none, I decided to move back down the road and camp by the edge of the field, then at daybreak, walk back and try to make an upward approach to his rocky home, as I had done outside of Singsing.

I made camp, and tethered Abe in some brush.

I dropped my gear and, I lit off for the hills behind the small community. I moved off the road about halfway down its length to the houses. The going was difficult and after a few hundred yards my arms were filled with the scratches and bites one would expect crossing such uninviting territory.
I was moving roughly north when the sun tipped below the horizon, but I found an incline headed East, toward the river, and started an ascent.

I found a path close enough to the edge of the rocky outcrop below from which I could spot the houses when they came into view, but not too close so that a misstep would spell my ruin.

As I approached the small settlement, I slowed down until I picked Cartwright's house out from the others.

A bright fire was burning in a pit in the front yard and Cartwright sat close to the flames. If he was sighted I would have guessed that he was staring into the campfire. Beside him the Leatherman sat. If either spoke, I wouldn't know it. They hardly moved at all.

The only motion was the Leatherman's arm as he moved a pipe back and forth from his mouth, and the slow rising cloud of tobacco smoke that drifted from his head, in a pillar, through the halo of the campfire, to where the smoke disappeared in the darkness.

They sat like this for hours. I dozed, and awoke, and still they sat.

I slept as the fire burned out, and the Leatherman and Cartwright left their spots to bed for the night. I woke to utter darkness below, the sky lit brilliantly with a dense packing of stars, and a whispered song.

I couldn't make out the words, but I now knew that the Leatherman had a voice.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chapter 23 - THE LEATHERMAN'S JOURNAL – October 14, 1875

At the Fisher Farm
today my emotions overtook me.

I approached the farm from over the hills in Middlefield. I saw some activity in the small grass plot in front of the large house. The house sat close to the edge of the wide stage road called Washington Street since, I am told, thought I don’t ask, General Washington marched his troops down the wide corridor. A path off the road led to a shelter I had on the mountain that looked, to the West, over Meriden.

As I approached, I saw that the husband was back from the fields, the grown children, four boys, as well, and the wife, and some of the other hands stood in a group talking, or lolled on the porch that skirted the front and side of the house.

For a moment I thought they were waiting for me, and I was prepared to turn away, and rely on what I carried away from breakfast in my pack instead of facing the crowd. And as I thought this, I saw all attention was focused upon me, and slowly the crowd dispersed, leaving only the husband and wife, another woman, and a child. As I moved closer, I peered from under the brim of my hat and saw someone I recognized.

I knew her name was Emma, and I had not seen her for many years, though the exact number of years is cloudy in my thoughts. She was a negro servant when I knew her, in her teens, moving into womanhood, and was treated as a member of the family in the Fisher household. One of her jobs was to feed me.

I grew to love her, in a fashion. For she never served me without speaking to me, without stopping a one-sided conversation, from the time she set the food down, until the time I mopped the last bit of gravy from my plate. After which she would always wrap me a thick sandwich made from bread heels and meat scraps.

She spoke with irreverence, and in this she reminded me of my Marie. No thought to age, class, or status. She spoke her mind. Told me I was dirty. She told me once that I stank, and so from that point, before each visit, I soaked in a creek when the weather was warm. She told me all about the family that she lived with, and she told me the gossip of the house, the town, the state, and the country.

Mrs. Fisher taught her to read, and so she kept up on events by reading the newspapers, and kept up on the gossip by keeping her sharp ears open, and her mouth closed, except when she was with me. I believed I was the only one she spoke to this way, because she knew I would not reveal a single secret.

She told me of her ambitions. She told me how she would love to study inside Wesleyan's walls, but feared that she would never have the chance. She told me she wanted a family, because she missed her own. They lived in a town called Oakley, in a place she only referred to as the South.

And she told me that she understood how I felt to be someone wandering on the outskirts of a society that was not mine to call my own, for she felt the same way.

And finally, she told me when she was leaving, to be married to a young farmer named Sanders. And she wept copiously. As I did walking away from the Fisher farm that last time I saw her.

Here was Emma standing, waiting, hands resting on hips cocked to the left. A huge grin illuminating the face of this girl with a woman's figure. And before her, a child, skin a lustrous cocoa, hair raven, and beaming the way her mother beamed. I felt my eyes must be lying to me.

As I got closer, I knew my eyes were telling the truth. It was not a vision. This was Emma, my Emma, and what must be her daughter.

"Why old man," I heard her laugh. "In all these years you never learned to walk any faster. Aren't you glad to see your Emma."

I don't know if I smiled. My heart smiled. My soul smiled. My face could do nothing but follow, but I forgot what a smile could feel like, and so I was not sure what contortion my face had taken upon itself to perform.

"Well, look here," she laughed again. "You learned something, didn't you? You're smiling."

I turned my face to the earth, ashamed at the betrayal of my own vows, but I had to admit, sinfully it seemed, that I felt more joy in this moment than I had felt in many years.

When I reached the small knot of people, Mr. and Mrs. Fisher backed off, leaving me looking at the earth, and at the feet of Emma. As if she had glided there on a sheet of ice, the little girl slid into my view. She looked up at a face that I knew contained the lie of a grimace.

"Old man leather," she said, pointing.

"I tell her about you all the time," Emma said.

I looked up furtively, not wanting the secrets of my soul to be discovered. She was smiling, gently, with an understanding that didn't need explanation.

"She's almost four. Her name's Alice."

"Alice Sanders," the girl corrected.

I knelt, and put my pack and stick on the ground and reached out slowly toward Alice. I was unsure of myself. I had not reached out for another person in a longer time than I had smiled last. She seemed timid at my faltering reach. But when I placed my hands on her shoulders, though my fingers trembled under the weight of years of abandoned emotion. She relaxed, and seemed to spread her confidence through my fingers.

She smiled a smile I will never forget. It came quickly, from nowhere, like a swallow on the hunt, and it was as broad as the rivers I couldn't cross, and it carried the warmth of the summer sun, though there were gaps where her small children's teeth had fallen victim to a piece of taffy, or an apple. She smiled, and looked at me with a child's innocent coyness. And I thought of my meals with Emma, and I thought of Marie. And I pulled the child to me and held her tight, and wept as I heard the lighter than air laughter escape from her perfect mouth. And I wept like a man who had lost his mother.

The little girl pulled away, and I let her run. I folded my face into my hands and tried to hide my sorrow from those few who had gathered. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and having gained my composure, I looked up to see Emma smiling back at me.

"It's all right," she said. "It'll be all right."

With this reassurance, I almost fled. It is the course I have learned to take. No longer a predator in life. I was now scavenger, and sometimes prey. It meant that I could not show vulnerability. Could not afford to expose any weaknesses to those who might see them as excuses for abandoning their kind treatment of me. I knew that to survive I had to run when threatened. I was compelled to run.

But at this moment. The first such moment in many years, I knew I did not have to run, did not want to run, and in the end, would not run. I would stand and share these small emotions with this woman who shared her’s with me so many times, and share with these people who shared their labors, and the food from the table with me for so many years.

Emma took me by the arm and led me toward the porch. Mrs. Fisher hurried ahead. And Alice ran ahead with Mr. Fisher. Emma spoke softly to me, but she could not resist speaking.

"Any man with a life as hard as your own deserves to weep a river of tears. I've wept them myself, I know. A lot has happened since we met last. Mr. Sanders, my husband, Ernest, has taken a job with the New Haven railroad. We own a piece of land near Bridgeport. And I've learned to read."

She spoke to me thus, through my meal, and for the hour it took for me to reach the hill that lead up to the Insane Asylum. And we both wept when we parted again.

Chapter Twenty One, addendum

(Last week I neglected to add the final two pages to chapter Twenty One. These are the missing pages.)

Burke lay his head back on an uncased pillow, piping dark with the sweat from his head. His eyes closed, and I stood and watched for a minute, thinking that he might have fallen asleep again. I scraped my soles on the gritty floor, and he stirred again.

"You still here?" he asked.

"Do you still track people for Barnum?" I asked.

"Fish for freaks?" he laughed a laugh which avalanched into a phlegmy cough. "Barum fired me months ago when I made a set of Siamese twins pregnant on the trip back from the Ukraine. I told him they'd be an even bigger attraction. He made me bring them back to their country. I sailed for Europe, but I sold them to a circus in Milan. The Circus de Santo Paulo."

He laughed again.

"How do you track people, people like that?"

"Freaks. Sideshow freaks, kid. Don't be afraid to call them what they are. They know what they are. Freaks of nature," with this his head fell with a greasy flop to his pillow again. This last pronouncement seemed to drain him of the last of his energy.

I waited to see if he would raise his head again of his own volition, and when he did not, I opened my mouth once more.

"How do you convince them to come with you?" I asked.

He looked up, as he did before, and I was sure he was going to ask again if I was still here, but he grunted and gave me a look that begged the same answer.

"Money brings lots of them. Promise of money. Most of these freaks are poor. Stone poor. So money gets them most of the time. Money in their own pockets, or money in the pockets of starving parents. They give up these kids because they know they'd never make it in their own world. They take their money and buy some chickens, or a cow, or a plot of land, and make life better for the rest of the little wogs. Everybody's happy."

I looked at him hard, not saying a word, but he knew he hadn't given me a complete answer. And for a moment, his head swung on his neck like a cowbird on the end of a cattail, I thought he would drop to the pillow once more to evade a response.

"The rest we take. If they're good. A live, two-headed animal, or some extremely small dwarve. We take them. We always leave the money. Hell, with Barnum, the money's never a problem, but sometimes the owner just won't give up what rightfully don't belong to him alone. 'Belongs to the world,' Mr. Barnum says. And I say he's right.

"So we take them in the name of the rest of the world. It's only fair. It's only right. Do you think that old dog-faced boy ought to be kept from the world? Course you don't. So we got the right to take them. We do. And, besides, we always leave the money."

This time I lost him to the pillow. His collapse sent a storm of dust motes through a shaft of sunlight that burned through the morning haze and lit the room in all its impoverished despair. I left.

McDonough won his case, and he seemed to sense this when I returned to give him the news that I would be leaving the next day to track down the Leatherman.

"Why leave?" he asked. "He'll show up in town someday soon, just follow him once he gets here.”

"What am I supposed to offer him? A salary. Clean bedding, food, what?" I asked.

McDonough outlined a plan of compensation that put my own to shame. He obviously envisioned the Leatherman as a big attraction for the theatre. He was prepared to offer him a salary of fifteen dollars a week, a room at the Riverview Hotel, and one meal a day in the hotel dining room, for as long as the engagement drew people.

"I know this won't be an easy job," McDonough advised. "So, you take as long as you like. Don't force him into anything. Make sure we meet his needs. Take as long as you like, but bring him back alive, Jack."

I wouldn't have it any other way," I insisted.

I spent the next two days puting together provisions for my tracking. I knew I'd be following old man Leather from town to town, and so the need for victuals each day was diminished. But I did buy myself a good mule, a sleeping role, a waxed canvas ground sheet, and an umbrella. It was early September, so I also bought a new woolen union suit, a thick wool parka, and two pairs of Levi Strauss dungarees.

This along with a knife, hatchet and cook set was all I needed. I
packed it in bags attached to my mule. Miverva was her name, and she was kept at the ready at a livery two doors down from the Palace. Word was out I wanted to know the first someone spotted old man Leather in or around town.

I settled in to wait.

And it was a waiting game. Though I hadn't been officially dismissed from the theatre staff, or from the cast of McDonough's shows, for that matter, I didn't turn up at the theatre every day. I stayed out of McDonough's way. I found a place on a bench in front of the sundries store that VanRediger owned on Main St. Though I knew old man Leather never passed this close to civilization, I also knew that the latest word of gossip, of any kind, was dropped as thoughtlessly and unkindly as a road apple at the crossroads in front of VanRedigers.

I held court with the old men, who told me tales of old man Leather from when they were youngsters, twenty years before. Though they were all past fourscore years, youth appeared in the haze of their memory as only twenty years distant.

They told me of his regularity. They told me his name, or I should say names: LeClerc, and Bonhomme, and Poitin, and Bourglay and Tournoir.

But they took the greatest joy in telling me of his crimes. Of the farmer's wives he had seduced, of the farm children he had abducted, and eventually eaten, of the farmhouses he had plundered, and of the farm animals that he is reputed to have rustled, killed, maimed and buggered, though not all four to any one animal.

I listened with a certain dispassionate interest, for I knew, that these men, like the reporter for The Middletown Herald, gathered all of their information by staying in one place, and awaiting for it to arrive on their doorstep like the mail. I knew the truth didn't arrive in the mail.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chapter Twenty Two - Bring Me the Leatherman

Six months. We were opened six month before the sheriff showed up. And McDonough was ready.

"Jack, fetch me Flynn, now," McDonough whispered to me as he spotted the sheriff and his men entering the stage door.

I ran past the men, who smelled of whiskey and sweat. They saw me, and would likely have stopped me, but I was mighty quick. I heard one yell, "The kid" as the door slammed behind me. I was turning the corner at the end of the alley before the door even began to open again.

I was never to Flynn's office before, but I knew where it was. He had the entire front of the second floor over Pearl's, the men's clothier. His offices faced Main Street, and though I never met the man, I knew his flaming red hair, his flamboyant handlebar moustache, and his cigar, which never seemed new. I knew all this because when he thought or spoke he paced in front of those windows. I remember standing across the wide Main Street in front of the Belle Tavern, just watching as this great man paced and shouted, paced and thought. I feared for the man that sat opposite him when he spoke. On that day I saw him, he was not happy.

I didn't know what mood he'd be in today, but McDonough was adamant, even in his whispered offer. I ran into Flynn's office breathless.

His clerk looked like he was about to chase me away.

"McDonough needs Mr. Flynn right away," I pleaded.

"Mr. Flynn is busy. Get lost," the clerk was back at his work and didn't even look up as he spoke to me.

I stepped up to his desk and cleared my throat. He didn't move his pencil from the paper.

"I said, M. McDonough has asked that Mr. Lynn come down to the Palace right away."

"And I said get lost."

"Listen, you little puking bastard. Mr. McDonough pays Mr. Flynn good money to represent him. He pays him that money when all Flynn does is to strut back and forth in those Main Street windows," as my argument commenced the volume of my voice increased proportionately. "Now if you don't move your skinny rump off that chair and walk in there and inform Mr. Flynn that he's wanted, I'm going to climb over this desk, push your face into the ash bin and do it myself."

Though the clerk's face grew noticeably redder as I spoke, he stared at me unblinkingly, almost if his eyes were lidless, like a frog’s, until the last fleck of my spittle rested on his lapel.

"Get lost you little beggar before I call the polieeee..."

Truth is, I didn't allow him to finish his sentence. Truth is, his face drained of all the color it which had risen to his cheeks when I stepped onto his desk and he saw my mucky boots soiling the neat legal papers theree. And I'm not lying when I write that he screamed, loudly, rather girlishly in my opinion, as I pushed his oak chair over with a loud commotion and began to drag him toward the ash bin by his collar.

By the time Flynn got to me, with a firm hand on my shoulder, shaking to stir me from my trance of anger, I already pulled the clerks's stiff starched collar and suspenders completely off. When I finally realized that Flynn was counseling me to leave the frightened clerk alone, I dropped the clerk to the floor, where he lay motionless for the entire length of my short conversation with Flynn.

"I couldn't help but teach your clerk a lesson," I explained.

"I heard everything," Flynn said. "Where’s McDonough?"

"The Palace," I answered.

He grabbed my arm as an indication that we should go and until we moved onto Main Street he didn't ask me another question.

"What's the trouble?" Flynn asked.

"The sheriff's inside, probably trying to close the place down again," I shouted through my lack of breath.

"We'll see about that," Flynn said as he picked up speed and strode ahead of me.

I had to run to keep up.

We arrived to the sight of McDonough and the sheriff on stage, surrounded by dancers. The sheriff and his men had their guns drawn, and McDonough was back behind a stage model of the three Egyptian pyramids. We weren't sure whether the audience knew that this real-life drama was part of the show, or not, because every time McDonough, or the sheriff spoke, the audience reacted appropriately.

"You aren't going to close this place again," McDonough shouted, his blood peppering his cheeks with blotches of red.

The audience applauded wildly.

"This is an indecent show," the sheriff shouted back.

The audience again applauded wildly.

"And I'm closing it down," the sheriff continued.

Suddenly the hall was filled with hisses and boos. The sheriff, looking dismayed, waved his gun toward the audience and brought about the silence he desired.

"Just because you've got a gun and some hired goons, I refuse to let you interrupt the fine entertainment I assemble for the good people of this town."

Wild applause again. McDonough smiled and took a slight, almost humble, bow.

Now Flynn stepped in.

“Do you have a complaint,” he asked the sheriff.

“Indecent display,” the sheriff replied.

Once again the audience broke into applause.

“I’m putting McDonough under arrest,” the sheriff concluded.

Booes and hisses again.

“Not without a sworn warrant,” Flynn shot back. “See the judge, and then come back.”

The sheriff took a step forward, stoked his unruly moustache, and then hesitated. He turned to his men.

“Okay boys, let’s go,” he said. The crowd stood and cheered.

“But we’ll be back,” he shouted over the applause.

McDonough hissed at the orchestra leader, made some wild motions with his arms, and the curtain fell heavily between us and the audience.

“Better find another way to make audiences happy,” Flynn warned as he strode away.

Two days later, McDonough called me into his office.

“Jack, look at this,” he insisted, pointing at a Penny Press story with the headline, “Old Leatherman a Cuckolded Husband: Wife Murdered By Lover.”
McDonough proceeded to read the story to me.

It was about a tanner from Greenwich whose name was LeClerc. LeClerk’s wife Violette abandoned her husband for a new lover, Guillaume Blanchette.

Furthermore it was described how Blanchette had abandoned the woman and headed for the port of Boston town. Violette took to the road to follow him.

LeClerc followed their trail, learning that his wife underwent some of the terrible abuses of the road, and that she finally caught up to Blanchette in the small town of Terryville, adjacent to Plainville in Connecticut. Here the two stayed at a small boarding house for a few days.

One morning when the couple did not rise for breakfast, the landlady visited their room to determine if they left the premises without settling their debts. She found Violette LeClerc on the bed with a dagger plunged through her heart.

That afternoon, Simon LeClerc arrived at the boarding house to be told that his wife was murdered.

LeClerc went mad at the news and pursued the murderer after putting his wife to rest in a small family plot donated to him by a Terryville resident.

According to an anonymous source in Terryville, LeClerc never caught his wife's murderer. The murderer is said to have put to sea on a clipper headed for the Azores.

LeClerc returned to Terryville where he is said to have worked for some time as a plumber, often exhibiting signs of his mental instability. Town folk said he spoke to himself loudly, or he refused to speak for weeks at a time. After several weeks he began to wear rags and scraps, although he was making a good working wage, and staying in a lean-to shack in the wooded hills near town.

At some point, no one in the town can remember exactly when, the man began to appear only in leather, and then to disappear, only to return at regular intervals.

It can be assumed that it was during this period that LeClerc, known only as the Leatherman to those outside of Terryville, began to wander from town to town throughout Connecticut.

During this time he also ceased speaking to anyone, begging meals from farmwives and splitting wood for pennies.

His hunt for his wife's murderer is said to have taken place nearly twenty years ago, and to this day, the lonely Leatherman can be seen wandering the hills still searching for the man who murdered his wife.
“Sell story, eh Jack?” McDonough asked.

Well, I knew for sure that this reporter had written his report from the comfort of his desk. I saw old man Leather as far away from Terryville as the Hudson River put him, and the story of the murder sounded chancy even to naive reader like me.

"Jack," McDonough said. "I know just the act to save our theatre."

I didn't now the theatre was in trouble. In fact, I knew it was not in trouble. But somehow this seed of disaster had impregnated a troubled mind, and now we needed an act to pull us from desperation.

I didn't ask. But he told me.

"We'll get him," McDonough said shaking the Middletown Herald in my face.

I knew full well who "he" was, but I refused to get excited about a ridiculous, perhaps even cruel, proposition.

"You with me Jack?" McDonough asked. "We'll get Simon LeClerc. We'll get the Leatherman."

"What do you mean, get, McDonough? Stalk him like Barnum's hunters stalk lions and apes? Capture him with a net? Display him in a cage?" I asked, sparing him no sarcasm.

"What I mean is we go after him. I don't know. Talk to him. Pay him. Convince him to come and live here. We'll take care of him. Give him all he could ever want to eat. A bed to lie in."

¬ "He doesn't speak." I nodded.

"He doesn't sp..... He won't have to speak. I'll tell the story. We'll create vignettes of his life. He'll just have to walk on the stage, and walk off. Just like he does now. Only he'll get paid." McDonough's enthusiasm was growing, but was hardly contagious.

"Suppose he doesn't want to get paid. Doesn't want the food, or bed," I asked.

"Jack, what man doesn't want security. Hell, we'll get him a woman. What man doesn't want a woman. We'll get him all right." McDonough punctuated his enthusiasm with a sharp clap of the hands. "We'll get him all right."

"You know him, don't you?" he asked me.
"Know him? No."

"I mean you've seen him, haven't you?"

"Yes, everybody has."

"But everybody doesn't work for me, you're going, Jack," McDonough said, clapping me on the back.

"No I'm not."


"I said I'm not going," I glared at him with an authority beyond my years.

"All right," he agreed amiably. "I can understand your reluctance."

I was flabbergasted at my ability to dissuade McDonough from what I thought was a powerfully bad idea. I knew he had grown to trust me more, but I didn't realize that he had grown to respect my opinion.

"I realize you might be afraid to approach him. It is rumored that he's murdered some children," McDonough said triumphantly. "But I believe those are only rumors."

I knew his game. I knew what he wanted me to say. But I would not say it. I would not tell him I was not afraid. I would not say that I was only concerned for the Old Leatherman's welfare. He knew all this. I stood my ground. I stood silent.

"Do you know where James Burke lives?" he asked me.

I told him I did.

"He's the one who worked for Barnum in China. Is he not."

McDonough was taking another tack and I willed myself not to respond to this one either. McDonough, himself was beginning to feel a bit of the frustration.

"He did some scouting for Barnum," I said cooly.

"Do you think he'd take four hundred dollars to capture the Leatherman and bring him back here?" McDonough asked.

"I think he'd laugh in your face," I sassed.

"Well, then, Jack. Why don't you fetch him here for me and see if he’s game.
McDonough turned and strode up the wide corridor that lead to the theatre lobby. I surprised myself by thinking that he was incredibly graceful for a man of his size.

I left for Burke’s room.

James Burke was drunk. He was polluted and stank of alcohol the way a tavern's floor does. His eyes were rheumy and yellow where read lines didn't blot the whites. At first he didn't answer the door when I knocked. I heard a grunt from within and tried the latch. I found him sprawled on his bead in a stained and tattered union suit. His hair looked as if it was the product of a stick of dynamite, instead of a comb.

"Who're you?" he muttered, staring at me with unfocused eyes.

"Jack Conroy, you James Burke?" I asked.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chapter Twenty One - The Leatherman's Journal, June 4 1875

My friend Pierre warned me. In this he knew my own father better than I.

"He will not let you have this woman as a wife."

I, of course, told him that he was mad. Everyday I saw my father working with people below his station. He always treated them with respect and dignity. He never condescended. He always made them feel as if they were worthwhile.

"It's business," Pierre said. "He must do that because of his business."

"Pierre, this is my father we're talking about. He has raised me. I have lived with him for twenty-four years. I know he will love Marie. He has met her before. He is charmed by her."

"I fear that you're wrong, my friend. If she was your lover. Your paramour, even if you were married to someone else, he would overlook it. But your wife. The woman who will carry his heir? Never."

I could not listen to him. Would not. Marie was beautiful. She was intelligent and caring. And in the course of six months we knew we were in love. I wanted to propose to her, but I felt I must tell my own father before I approached hers to ask for her hand.

"Jules. Love her until you stop, but why marry?" Pierre asked. "She will only bring you the sorrow of a man without a family."

"I will speak with my father today," I declared. " And be able to call you a fool."

"Why have you not spoken to your father before?" he asked.

This was a question I asked myself before, often. By now I had reasoned out an answer.

"A young man may speak of his love to a mother. But you know, Pierre, a father is much harder to speak to."

"Your father will be impossible to speak to about this love, my friend."

Sad to say, my friend Pierre was more right than I imagined he could be. My father was happy to hear that I had fallen in love. Was delighted to be able to celebrate a wedding until he heard who my betrothed would be.

"The skinner? Even his skins are second rate."

"Father, you've always bought from him. He is well off. She is an educated girl."

"He is a worker. They are common and unclean. If she knows the alphabet and can count you may say she is educated. Beyond that it is impossible that she knows life's finer things."

"She reads, Father," I protested. "She knows the great authors of this country and others. Her mother was a teacher. Father, I love her."

"What is love," he shouted. "Think of our reputation. There are thousands of girls in Lyon you can love. Hundreds whose station in life matches your own. I won't have you marrying a skinner's daughter."

"What are you?" I countered. "But a skinner. A skinner in a bigger housed, but a skinner nonetheless. Is the money you have any more valuable than his? is your life any more important? Is it what you know? Who you know? Or simply how long you've known it."

"You won't marry her and be my son," my father shouted.

"Then I am not your son," I said. I marched from the room noisily, tears welling in my eyes. My mind set, refusing to let them fall. I wanted to turn around and apologize. I wanted to run to my father and embrace him and beg him to understand. But I could not.

I wished that my mother were still alive. I wanted her to intervene. To negotiate. To say the right words and caress the heated temple.

I wanted my father to understand and he would not. And now, because I was my father's son, I would not bend to his will either.

I stayed with Pierre for nearly a month. Not once in that time did my father send for me, inquire about me, or walk by Pierre's house, though he must have known where I was, for I had no where else to go.

"Did you know," I asked Pierre one night at a supper of coffee, bread, cheese, fish and a white wine from the mountains. "That life is illusory."

"What?" he asked, mouth stuffed with bread.

"A teacher I once had. An old man. A wise man who knew the Hindu religion, said that this life is illusory. Everything we have is useless. This life is a dream, and there is another life, the real life to come."

"Christ said the same," Pierre reminded me. "It will be as hard for a wealthy man to reach the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle."

"So he did. Do you think I should leave my father's business?"

¬ "Are you mad, Jules. You are set for life. You must work, surely, but your father has a business that he has prepared for you to inherit. The leather business is one you know. You've grown up with it. It comes naturally to you. Why seek something else?" he asked plainly enough.

"Perhaps I should seek poverty," I wondered aloud.

"You need not seek poverty. It can find you easily enough. It has found many a man who was seeking its opposite. Live here another month and poverty may come to board with you."

I laughed, but I knew it was true that I must re-establish my ties with my father. Not for want of money, for I felt that he would never let me suffer want, no matter how separated our opinions were. I missed him, I truly missed him.

In the time I was gone I saw Marie only three times. I thought, when I was with her, how it would be should I lose her, and it convinced me ever more that I could not. That I must convince my father that she is worthy of my love. Worthy of his love.

Ha. What a word, “worthy,” for the truth was that neither of us was worthy of her love. We were the ones who would be left deserving.

I met her one night for a walk after dinner. She had to be home each night to cook for her father. And though he did not scorn me as my father scorned her, he did not feel completely comfortable, completely at home with me at table. So I stayed away.

But after supper I waited at her door. Half the town seemed to be out on this balmy night moving down toward the river where the whisper of a sea breeze could be felt. Marie appeared at the door. She smiled and the evening lit like a taper.

"My aunt, we must stop at her door," Marie reminded.

By now I was accustomed to our perennial companion. Her name was Agetthe, a widower whom had borne six of her own who were now far flung across the face of France. She lived close by Marie and her father. They were her guardian and companion. As she now was ours. She always walked several paces behind us, bestowing upon us a strange privacy that she would not betray even when we tried to engage her in conversation.

Tonight she came to the kitchen door.

"Go," she said stiffly with a brush of her hand. "Go."

"Aunt, do you not wish to take the night air with us?" Marie asked.

Aunt Agetthe smiled pushed her head out thedoor and took a deep breath.

"If your father asks, I have taken the night air with you. It is sweet, but young people must taste what's sweeter."

I was quite surprised, but Marie seemed not at all taken aback at the turn of events.

"Perhaps Agette is ill," I said to Marie.

"She is not ill. She is feeling quite well, I would say. And you Jules, are you feeling ill at ease?”

I answered that of course I was not. When in fact, I seemed a little lost without Aunt Agetthe in tow. As long as she was there, our boundaries were drawn. The barricades were up. How we could behave was proscribed.

"I know a path through the park that is secluded," Marie purred.

I was, of course, a man of the world. I had been seduced by a teenage girl before I left Persia. but it was so long ago, and I wasn't really aware of what she did or why. Of course I knew what she did, but that is not what was planned for this evening. I'd kissed women before, of course, but none who had my heart so sewn up in her apron.

The path we took was not as secluded as I had imagined. It was filled with couples. Some sat on shawls thrown carelessly on the ground, some sat on boulders, others reclined on the bare earth. All were embraced passionately and did not care a whit that we passed them in the dark.

"Here is a spot," Marie said, indicating what was indeed a "spot." It was a warm patch of turf, with unruly cowlicks poking from between the roots of an enormous plane tree. Marie sat on the ground and pulled me with her. She looked me squarely in the eyes and smiled.

"Alone for the first time. You have not kissed me yet."

She was this abrupt, and I felt my heart pound and a wave of heat move up my chest and over my face. My hands trembled slightly."

"Jules," she repeated. "Don't you want to kiss me?"

"Yes," I cried as I lunged for her and kissed her hard on the mouth. It felt very good to me. She seemed to enjoy it too.

"That was fine. For our first kiss," she said, rather coldly. "But it will not do forever. I will have swollen lips."

"Am I that unskilled?"

"Have you kissed a woman before?" Marie asked kindly.

"Many," I answered as ruthlessly as I could.

"They may have been stronger woman than I, Jules. I need tenderness. Let me show you."

We kissed again. Marie led me this time. Her kiss was soft. A caress that sent a cold current through my veins that bewilderingly heated me as if I were placed in an oven. I felt her lips move, and mine moved with them. Her lips acted as gentle levers and parted my lips and suddenly I felt the warmth of her tongue against mine. I was lost. We may have kissed like that for an hour or a minute. I lost all track of time. I felt lost in her soul. Lost in her kiss. I was hers. I surrendered.

She pulled from my embrace.

"You see?" Marie asked.

"Yes, you are right. Teach me more."

She stood and dusted her dress, straightening the pleats that ran from her slim waist to the dusty earth.

"Father will be waiting," she warned. "We must be home."

"One more kiss," I begged.

"There will be a thousand nights, and a thousand walks. And the river will flow, and never change. And you will kiss me on each of those nights, and each of those walks. There will be a thousand nights together, my Jules."

"But none like this first," I said, standing and wrapping my arms around her.

She kissed me again. First soft, and then deeply, as before, stealing my breath away.

"If we don't hurry home, there will be no others."