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.

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