By Carol Sheldon
The blizzard was obliterating the road. With the snow already a foot deep, and no town lights in sight, it was almost impossible for Jorie to steer a steady course with the buggy. He brushed his lashes for the hundredth time.
The sun had disappeared over the horizon of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, leaving the sky dark, but not yet black. With no lantern, Jorie knew he’d be lost in this white oblivion if he didn’t see some sign of civilization soon. One wrong move and the gelding could slip into a ditch and break a leg. Aiming for a mid-point between the trees on either side of the road was the best he could do.
I need to get to the sheriff’s. I need to get there soon, or I’ll never get there at all.
Like silent, moving pictures in a kinetoscope, the snow made its presence devoid of sound. Autumn leaves, still blushing red, commingled with the falling snow.
Recent memory bubbled up. Take my arm, Mother, and you won’t slip. A gust of wind, spinning the snow into a vortex around him brought him back sharply. He must keep his wits about him if he was to get out of this alive; he dare not spend a moment on what lay behind. Not now.
But for the plaintive cry of a wolf, the night fell into a terrible silence. The lap robe did little to comfort him, as spasms of cold ricocheted through his body.
Where was he, how far from Hancock? Had he passed the big turn in the road yet? The otherworldliness of the situation left him without feeling for time or place.
Finally, downdrafts of smoke from the towering stack of the Keweenaw Mining Company reached his nostrils. He was nearing town! Tears of relief turned icy before they’d run their course. Acrid odors of blasting powder filtered downwind from the smelting plant. Soon the exhaust of the Portage Copper Mining Company joined that of the Keweenaw, its fiery red glow throwing sparks from her lofty chimney. At last he’d reached Hancock!
Alone he crossed the silent streets of town. As the sight of gas streetlamps beckoned him, he felt the loosening of his muscles; his hands relaxed their grip on the reins. Then his stomach balled into an even tighter knot: In only minutes, he’d have to inform the sheriff. About his mother.
Peering through the tumbling snow at rows of ghostly houses, he wasn’t sure which house belonged to the sheriff. He couldn’t tell one from another.
He drew up to one that might be the Fosters’, tied up the gelding and opened the gate. Trudging through the ever-rising snow took every last bit of energy. Was this even the right house? White against white. But as he got closer he could see it had two gables, and a porch across the front. It looked like the right place. At least there was a light on in the window.
He was so stiff with cold when he reached the door, he could barely grasp the knocker.
Cora Foster peered out into the blizzard. “Who is it?”
The rounded woman stood back staring at the white apparition before her, blowing wisps of faded brown hair from her face. At last she found her voice. “Jorie Radcliff! What are you doing out in such a misery?”
“I need to see—”
“Come in, come in.” She stood back in amazement. “Just look at you, like a ghost from the other side! Lordy, I hardly know you.”
She brought him in and closed the door. Unmindful of the snow he was bringing in, Jorie followed her dumbly into the parlor, where Mrs. Foster seated him by the fire and draped an afghan over his knees.
She poked at the coals, and added more wood. “Who’d have thought, such a storm, and it not even November?” she said, although October snowfalls in these parts were not unusual.
Waves of heat bathed him in warmth. Pain replaced numbness as he began to thaw, and a terrible quaking shook his whole body.
Jorie pushed his painful thoughts aside, focused on the sounds: the rasp of metal against metal, the fall of cinders, and the thud of new wood placed on the grate. Cora Foster was making up the fire. He had been in this home many times; he would be all right now.
From the kitchen, he heard, “Who is it, Cora?”
“It’s the Radcliff boy, Earl.”
Jorie heard the sheriff’s chair pushed back from the kitchen table. Mr. Foster came into the parlor, a large blue napkin tucked under his chin and extending over his broad chest. Earl Foster was a barrel-chested man, not tall, but making up for it in strength. With a mustache that complimented a full head of brown hair, Sheriff Foster was noticeable if not handsome. He was proud of his mustache and spent considerable time keeping it properly pruned. Not an ostentatious one, like the judge his poker buddy had, which curled at the ends and extended beyond the parameters of his face. Earl Foster’s was modest, befitting his station, which the sheriff believed gave him more visibility. With visibility came authority, he believed. Or at least the feeling that it did, which in itself was worth something.
“What brings you here, lad?” Earl Foster pulled off his bib, wiped it roughly across his mouth.
Whether it was his chattering teeth or the emotional shock, Jorie could barely speak.
“In the forest . . .” He couldn’t finish.
“What about the forest?”
It seemed that Mr. Foster was looming over him like Goliath. Jorie stared at the man’s trousers and noticed that a button on his fly was missing.
“It started sn-owing.”
“Let the lad catch his breath, Earl. He’s half froze. I’ll fix something to warm him up.”
Mrs. Foster disappeared into the kitchen, beckoning her husband to follow.
As he sat alone, scenes in the snow played around the edges of Jorie’s mind, but he couldn’t keep them in focus. He descended into a kind of mental numbness, only to be startled back to the present, as Mrs. Foster placed a tray on his lap. When he finished the fish chowder, the chill began to wear off. He put his spoon down and let his lids fall.
Mrs. Foster collected the bowl, and Mr. Foster returned to the room and sat down.
“Start at the beginning and tell me what happened.”
Jorie opened his eyes. Mr. Foster’s eyebrows caught and held his attention. He’d known they were bushy, but he’d never noticed before that the left one had several hairs an inch long curling up toward his brow.
“What happened in the forest?”
Jorie forced his thoughts to go where they least wanted to be. “It started out a sunny day. I took my m-mother . . .”
“Your mother? Where is she?”
Jorie wet his lips. “I took her for a ride in the buggy, and a walk in the woods.”
“In this storm? What the hell did you do that for?” The sheriff was on his feet again.
“It was sunny. It wasn’t snowing when we started out!” Jorie buried his head in his hands.
Earl Foster let out a long breath.
“It was sunny, and then it started. . . ”
The sheriff was pacing. And he was scratching a sore spot on his arm. If only he’d stay put, Jorie figured he could get his thoughts corralled.
“It started snowing hard. It turned into a blizzard, and we got lost. She, she kept slipping in the snow.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Then she fell—”
Earl Foster leaned closer. “How’s that? I didn’t hear you.”
“She fell— her ankle. She couldn’t walk.”
It was difficult to keep focused. He was listening to the pendulum and the cinders falling. Anything, to avoid remembering. But he had to remember. He had to tell Mr. Foster.
“She told me to find the trail and come back for her.” There was a catch in his breath. “I tried to make her comfortable.”
Jorie swallowed a few times. Earl Foster was looking very agitated, blotting a little blood from the sore he’d been scratching.
“I, I left her.” He clamped his mouth shut hard to stop the quivering of his lips. Finally, he continued. “And tried to find my way out. By the time I got back to the road, I was losing the light. I was afraid I’d never find her. I didn’t even have a lantern.”
“You didn’t have one in the buggy?”
“No, sir.” Jorie hung his head.
“I, I didn’t expect to be out after dark.”
“What did you do then?”
“When you found the road, but had no lamp!” The sheriff was losing patience.
“Oh.” Squinting painfully Jorie tried to remember. “I started down the road, trying to find a house. I ran into a fellow in a wagon. I asked him if he’d help me. He had a lantern, and the two of us backtracked down the trail.”
“The trail you’d just come off of.”
“Yes, sir. But the snow had already covered my footprints. We searched for about an hour. It was getting dark.” Jorie’s voice broke. “The man said he had to be getting home, and I’d better follow him out of the woods.”
“So you left her there.” The sheriff took a deep breath. “And she’s still there.”
Jorie was shaking. Tears were running down his face and he couldn’t stop them. “I couldn’t help her. I told her I’d come back for her. I didn’t see how I could help her by staying. I had to find someone—l ” He swallowed. “Can you do something, Mr. Foster?”
“We’ll get to that.” The sheriff paced again before sitting down. “Let me get this straight. You took your mother for a scenic walk in the forest with a blizzard on the way?”
“It was beautiful when we started out.”
“What time was that?”
“I thought you were working at the newspaper.”
“I set type, midnight to eight.”
“You didn’t hear any forecast about the storm?”
“What was the man’s name— the man with the lantern?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’d he live?”
“He didn’t say. We just tried to find my m-mother.”
“Why didn’t you carry her out with you? She can’t weigh more than a hundred ten pounds.”
“We were lost. I had to find the trail first. Then I was going to—”
“Come back and get her, yes.”
“Had it started to snow when you went for your walk?”
“No, sir.” Why did the sheriff keep asking the same questions?
Earl poked around on his desk for his writing tablet, fussed with the nib of his pen. Finally he said, “October 22, 1900.” He looked up. “Is that right, Jorie?”
“I don’t know. I think so, sir.”
He wrote down the date. “Catherine—what was her middle name? Some goddess or other.”
“Isis. She uses her maiden name now.”
Earl Foster wrote her full name on the paper. “Catherine Isis MacGaurin Radcliff. Do you know her age? Thirty-five, is it?”
“Thirty-six.” Dimly Jorie wondered how Mr. Foster knew so much about his mother.
“And how old are you, Jorie?”
“I just turned eighteen.”
“When was that?”
“Two weeks ago.”
The sheriff picked some fuzz off the nib of his pen. “Didn’t I hear you moved out of the house awhile back, after a rough patch with your mother?”
“Yes, for about a month.”
“When you had that scuffle with her in your sister’s room?”
God, had she told him about that? He wiped the perspiration with his sleeve. “Yes, sir.”
“Why did you move back?”
“My sister— Eliza, needed me. She’s only four.”
Jorie watched the sheriff snap a rubber band on his wrist. “What did you do last night?”
“We played Flinch.”
“My mother and I, after Eliza went to bed.”
“Did you have any arguments?”
“After the game, what happened?”
“My mother turned in.”
“And then what did you do?”
“I took a walk down by the lake.”
“I just wanted to think.”
Jorie turned toward the window, listening to the scraping of the frozen birch tree branch as it clawed the window pane.
“I can’t remember.”
“Where’s your sister now?”
“Oh, my God!”
He hadn’t thought about Eliza since he’d left home with his mother.
“She’s with the neighbors. I’m supposed to pick her up at suppertime.”
“Why wasn’t she included on this outing?”
“She was playing with her friend. Mother said to leave her there ‘til we got home.”
Jorie’s eye caught the grandfather clock. The movement and sound of Mr. Foster’s chair, he noticed, was almost but not quite synchronized with the pendulum. If he could just get them together, or stay with the pendulum.
“Can you do something, Mr. Foster? Send some men to find her?”
“In this blizzard? It would take hours to get up there, and even with lanterns, finding her in the dark when you’re not even sure where you left her—” The sheriff paused. “I’m sorry, son. We’ll send a search party out in the morning.”
There was something ominously final about that statement. There was no way she could survive the night, with temperatures plummeting below freezing.
Pictures started playing in Jorie’s head in jerky slow motion, like the ones in the penny arcade. He and his mother were walking through the woods and the snow was coming down in huge unstoppable flakes. It rose to their knees, then up to their necks. They tried to swim through it, but soon it was burying them both in its cold, merciless resolve. They lay clutching each other beneath it, looking up through the small air space their breath had reclaimed from the snow.
No, no! It wasn’t like that, he knew it wasn’t.
At the same time his body was acting up. A tightening feeling in his throat spiraled down to his belly, turned around and spiraled back up, bringing the contents with it.
He dashed for the front door.
Minutes later he stumbled back into the room and collapsed on the floor in a crumpled heap of sobbing flesh. Long tortured wails broke their dam and poured forth in wave after wave of unarticulated grief.
He felt something laid over him, maybe the afghan. The only sound that reached his ears was the steady tock of the pendulum. He deliberately focused on its comforting predictability.
Finally, he heard the sheriff say something about his sister.
“What are you going to do about Eliza?”
He sat up and blew his nose. “I have to get her.”
“Will she be in school tomorrow?”
He shook his head. “She’s only four.” He pulled himself together and got off the floor.
“You’d better make arrangements for her then. Be here by ten. Let’s hope the road crew has rolled the road by then. You’ll show us where to look.”
Jorie’s stomach lurched. He knew it was perfectly reasonable for the sheriff to ask him to help in the search, but he hadn’t anticipated it.
The thought of coming upon his mother’s stiff body brought up more waves of nausea.
Earl Foster drank his third cup of coffee while he waited for the men he’d rounded up to search for Catherine’s body. Kurt Wheeler was coming with his sleigh, and two others would join them. He hadn’t slept well last night, couldn’t get over what had happened to his old friend. He’d known Catherine since schooldays up in Red Jacket, when the Scottish lass had captured his heart.
Then in Hancock he’d become poker buddies with her husband, Thomas, the engineer for the Portage mine. Catherine had married a widower more than twice her age with two grown sons and a younger one who’d only lived with them a few years. He wasn’t sure why, but when the boy was about twelve, he’d been sent away.
Earl remembered how awkward it had been at first to go to the big house on the hill and encounter the girl he’d longed to make his own. As the years passed he became more comfortable with Catherine; when there was an opportunity to talk, it was usually about Jorie. He had watched the boy grow up in that house. On poker nights he remembered the kid asking him riddles until his pa shooed him away.
And the lad had worked for him a couple summers back, gardening. Nice boy. Bright, too.
The last time he’d seen Catherine she was as attractive as ever. Who’d have thought she’d end up this way, dead at thirty-six?
He couldn’t help wondering if it was really an accident. No, it couldn’t possibly have been otherwise. Still, there were nagging thoughts. There had been serious trouble between the boy and his mother. Catherine had come to him about that, even shown him a bruise on her arm.
“Do you want me to bring him in, Catherine?”
“No. But I want it put down, for the record,” she’d said.
And he’d been called to the house once to witness a locked door Jorie had busted down, before he bolted. She’d asked him to wait for Jorie to return, because she was afraid.
“Promise to protect me, Earl,” she’d beseeched. “With Thomas gone, I feel so vulnerable.”
Whether it was his sense of duty or her imploring green eyes which still mesmerized him, he didn’t know. “I’ll do what I can.”
“He’s turned so violent,” she said.
But this was the same boy who’d nursed an injured wolf back to health when he was twelve. The same young man whose essays and poetry had occasionally graced the pages of The Copper Country Evening News.
He slipped a rubber band over his hand. He did some of his best thinking when he snapped it against his wrist.
Jorie and the men arrived more or less on time, and started off in the sleigh. There’d been about a thirteen inch fall, all told. The road workers with their huge rollers and teams of draft horses had not yet compacted the snow on the road leading north. The men in the sleigh found it slow going.
No one else was about, and only the plodding sound of the horses’ hooves and their occasional snorts broke the stillness. At least it had stopped snowing; in fact, the sun was out today.
Jorie thought the whole landscape had taken on an ethereal look, as unreal as the previous day’s events. Streams had been silenced overnight. Circling wind eddies had made whimsical sculptures of snow banks. Branches heavy with pristine snow caught the sunlight, transforming them into dazzling crystalline figures.
He’d awakened this morning with Eliza jumping on his bed. “Isn’t it grand, Jorie, staying all night at Henna’s?”
It had taken him a moment to realize where he was and why. Then as yesterday invaded with the full force of another tempest an unvoiced groan descended from his mind to his bowels. He’d brought Eliza to the house of their former housekeeper and nanny the night before. There was nowhere else he would leave her.
He’d had to tell Helena what had happened.
“Oh, Jorie, no! Herself couldn’t survive the night in such—” After a pause she asked, “Sweet muther of Christ, is she. . . dead, then?” She clutched her apron with her chapped and chubby hands.
He felt the tears sting his eyes. He could only look away.
“Faith, how could the likes of this have happened?” She crossed herself, then saw the look on his face. “Oh, forgive me, lad, I should’na said nothing ‘bout it.”
“Can you keep Eliza for awhile?”
“It’s blessed, I’d be. Daniel and me will take good care of her.”
Jorie was brought back by the sheriff’s question.
“Which road was it you turned off on?”
He glanced at the other men. No one was talking much. Only Kurt spoke, and mostly to his horses, encouraging them to forge through the snow.
“Getyup, Bess. Getyup, Tess. There you go now. It’s not a Sunday outing we’re after. Could you make it a bit faster, so’s we could get there before the sun sets?”
They turned down Tamarack Road, and Earl Foster was quick to ask, “Where to now, Jorie?”
“We turned in at the old lumbering road.”
“About forty rods on.”
There were no wagon tracks to show the way, no sign of human life in the eerie white silence. The only thing he could hear was the pounding of his own heart.
The lumbering road could not be seen, but they turned in where the trees had been felled.
“Where did you stop the buggy, son?” the sheriff wanted to know.
Jorie shook his head. “I don’t know for sure. It doesn’t look like we were ever here.”
“Don’t look like nobody was ever here,” Kurt agreed.
The occasional absence of trees suggested various trails, leading off in different directions.
“Are you sure this is the right lumbering road?” Earl asked.
“No. But I think it is.”
“Did you pass any others before the one you turned off on?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, let’s get started.”
Earl jumped out of the sleigh, and the others followed.
“Mr. Foster, from wherever I was, I know we started off to the left from the road.”
“All right, then,” said Earl, “let’s all start off this way. You said the trail split?”
“A number of times.”
The four of them worked their way through the snow. Only Kurt and Earl had brought snowshoes, although the brush was so overgrown, they found them cumbersome to use.
“You didn’t leave any breadcrumbs, Hansel?” Kurt asked.
Jorie looked away. “No, sir.” |
They came to a split where there were two trails.
“You and Kurt go that way. We’ll carry on here.”
Jorie followed Earl down the trace. The reprimand of two squirrels disturbed the stillness. Other denizens of the forest peered above their warrens of safety, as the intruders tromped through their habitat.
How different it all looked today. Bright sunshine made the woods appear welcoming, friendly. Chunks of snow fell from the branches of hemlock, as the wind stirred the trees.
Somehow, just maybe she’d managed to survive. It was too soon to give up hope. Perhaps she’d found some sort of shelter, or some kindly soul had found her. He looked for recent footprints, sniffed for chimney smoke. Once, in the distance, he heard the sound of branches breaking underfoot.
“Mother!” he called out.
Earl turned to look at him, but said nothing. The second time Jorie called out the sheriff put a hand on his sleeve. “It’s a doe, son. Just a deer.”
Nothing looked familiar to Jorie, not the hill they climbed or the split of paths. They turned back, regrouped with the others, and set off in different directions.
“Give a whistle if you find . . . anything,” Earl called after them.
They didn’t, and finally gave up on their search for the day, as the spare sun waned. The sheriff decided he’d need more men for the search.
On the way home, Earl said, “You sure you don’t know the man’s name that helped you? What’d he look like?”
“He was big. Cornish accent.”
Cornish. With all the transplanted miners from Cornwall, Earl thought, that narrows it down like saying a man you met in France was French.
They rode in silence the rest of the way, until Earl dropped Jorie off. “You’ll have to help us until we find your ma. Be here at nine tomorrow.”
Cora didn’t allow any form of alcoholic beverage to cross her threshold, and Earl seldom desired it, but after a miserable day searching for the body of his old friend, he decided he was entitled to some refreshment. Besides, he couldn’t sit still.
He headed across Franklin and down to Tezcuco Street. This pulsing hub of Hancock sloped steeply down to the long and narrow pollywog-shaped Portage Lake, leading to the shipping and railway companies spawned by the mining business. The larger bulk of the lake lay to the east before it joined Lake Superior. Here, between Hancock and her sister city Houghton, it ran as narrow as a river. Ships plying the Great Lakes would bring in supplies and leave with copper and iron ore along shipping routes from Detroit, Chicago or Duluth.
Along Tezcuco Street a myriad of saloons staked their claims amidst the finest hotel, the busiest Chinese laundries, public bathhouses, banks and barbershops. On this and nearby streets there were saloons for the Irish, the German, the Cousin Jacks from Cornwall, the Croatians and almost every nationality in the world.
He passed lampposts bearing the ordinances he’d posted, prohibiting disorderly persons, drunkards, fortune tellers, vagrants, prostitutes. Puppet shows, wire-rope dancing or other idle acts and feats were also forbidden. Already weather-worn by the storm, they needed replacing. The sheriff considered most of these laws a load of bollix, but he didn’t write them— only tried to enforce them. It wasn’t easy keeping the lid on a mining town. Too many folks in these parts thought they were north of the law, and said as much.
As usual, the blast of the six o’clock quitting whistles at the Keweenaw and Portage Mines signaled the saloon keepers to ready-up for the onslaught of thirsty customers. The pubs were the second shift for the miners and they took it as seriously as the first.
Those who frequented these watering holes had three passions—booze, bawds and brawls—in that order. And here you could learn what had happened up top that day. Long after other establishments had buttoned up for the night, gas street lamps lured the working men into the open arms of the saloons. Not that they needed any encouragement.
The Bear Claw was such an establishment. Like many others in most ways, its distinguishing mark was the great bar hand-crafted in Italy a long time ago, and sent all the way to America. The Italian saloons coveted it, but Stout, the owner wouldn’t think of selling it. “My Italian sweetheart,” he called it.
Miners swarmed in, stamping the snow off their boots, and blowing on their hands. The smells of tobacco mingled with the hard-won sweat from the fiery pits below. The patrons didn’t mind. Years of working in the foul-smelling depths, where, like moles, they were accustomed to darkness—the overlay of fog in the saloon, made yellow by the gas lamps and smoke, did nothing to dampen their spirits.
The news that evening caused the din in The Bear Claw to rise to an even greater pitch than usual. Everybody in there had something to say.
Stout, the saloon keeper, had made sure to get all the scoop he could while the miners were still below grass. His congregation, as he called them, would expect as much.
“What happened to her, Stout?” Red Topper asked.
“Her son took her out to the woods on a joy ride,” Flem Crocker said.
Hardy cut in. “He’s either plum loony, or he was puttin’ his ma away. Ain’t that right, Stout?”
“You talk to the sheriff?” Gums asked.
“Nope. Heard all about it from Kurt.” Stout spoke with authority as he transferred the dirty glasses from the tub of soapy water to the rinse basin. “He took the kid and a posse out there to find the body this morning.”
Stout could afford to be generous with his information and his drafts. The Bear Claw would make a lot of money tonight.
“They find her?”
A hush fell as the door opened and the wind ushered in the sheriff. Heads turned.
Earl mounted a stool. A babble of questions greeted him as Stout placed a whiskey before him.
“Mrs. Radcliff, she’s dead?” Red Topper wanted to know.
“Don’t see how she could be alive.” Earl was sorry he’d come.
“Her son took her out there with a storm comin’ in?”
Gums O’Mallory moistened his lips. “And just left her there to freeze to death?”
“What’s that look like to you, Sheriff?” Flem Crocker asked.
Earl waved off the questions, and took his drink to a table in the back. And just in time, too, he thought. He wasn’t in any mood for the brawling Groden brothers and their lumberjack rabble-rousers. Riding into town, busting up bars and tearing up the place, their cleated boots had left several faces in Copperdom permanently pocked, and more than one young lady a soiled dove. “Butt-cuts of original sin,” Earl called them.
Fortunately, they stayed near the front at the bar. But the sheriff had a grandstand seat and could hear the rumble from where he sat.
The Grodens, always sporting for a fight or some way to stir up trouble, stated as fact that Jorie Radcliff had as much as murdered his mother.
“Hey, now, wait a minute. That Radcliff boy is a good kid—”
They quickly stilled the voices of those who defended Jorie or weren’t so sure.
In a way it was odd, Earl thought, that there was such a to-do about Catherine Radcliff’s death. Plenty of barroom fights, some leading to death, broke out among men who only saw the light of day at night, and the night all day long.
Mine accidents, from explosions and collapses to men falling down mile-deep shafts, had all taken their toll in this community. A woman didn’t know when she sent her husband off with his lunch pail if she’d ever see him again. Murder was not that unusual either, in this brawling mining town, where a couple of pints of forty-rod at his favorite saloon was more important than a man’s religion. But the thought of a man taking the life of the one who’d given him life was beyond their understanding.
Earl was finishing his drink and about to leave when a young man approached him, pulled up a chair and sat down.
Earl appraised the man. “Catherine Radcliff’s step-son?”
“Ball in the pocket.”
Earl looked for a resemblance between the young man and his father, but couldn’t detect any. Must look like his mother. His facial features were unattractive, though he possessed a fine physique. Most miners did, he mused, until the work broke them.
“What can I do for you?”
“I knew there was trouble between Jorie and his ma, so what happened out there in the blizzard—” he tipped his chair back— “Well, there’s no great surprise there, is there?”
“You got your mind all made up?”
Walter laughed. “You think it was an accident, do you, Sheriff?”
“I’m gathering information about the family,” Earl said. “Would you mind stopping by my office tomorrow evening?”
Walter shook his head. “I’m heading back to Red Jacket in the morning.” He surveyed the surroundings. “Strikes me this is as good an office as any.”
Radcliff signaled Stout to bring another round to the table and leaned forward. “Watcha wanna know, Sheriff?”
Earl didn’t like the man’s attitude and he didn’t like the venue for this interview, but he remembered something about a bird in hand.
“How old were you when your pa married Miss MacGaurin?”
“’Bout six, I reckon.”
“How did you and your step-ma get on?”
“There was no love between us. I won’t pretend there was.”
“Why is that?”
Earl heard the young man’s feet shuffle on the other side of the table.
“She was crazy about her own kid. Didn’t want to be bothered with somebody else’s brat.”
“You must have stored up some resentment about that.”
Walter shot his wad of chewing tobacco several feet into the spittoon, looked up with a smile, expecting praise. “Yeah, but I wasn’t out in the woods playing ‘Hide or Die’, was I?”
He took the drink from Stout’s hand before it was on the table, and poured it down his throat. “My half brother deliberately left his ma out there in the storm. Some would call that murder, sheriff.”
Earl didn’t like his cockiness. “What leads you to that conclusion?”
“I saw ‘em go—the two of ‘em heading into that storm. Only him came back.”
“And what grandstand seat did you have to watch these comings and goings?”
“I was over to Peabody’s. Could see it all from his front window.”
“Ain’t that enough?”
“What are you doing in Hancock? Heard you worked up in Red Jacket.”
“Came down to get the horses. Somebody’s gotta take care of them. Jorie ‘pears to have taken off.”
“Are you or your brothers married?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“We’ll be looking for a home for Eliza.”
“The deceased’s little daughter.”
“Her custody is uncertain at this point. The aunt would prefer not—”
“That girl is no kin to me or my brothers.”
“Pardon me, but I believe she is your half-sister.”
“I don’t even know her. And my older brothers barely knew who the deceased was. They was all grown by the time I got stuck with a new ma.” He chewed on this awhile. “Why can’t Jorie take her? Oh, yeah, he’s prob’ly going to hang.”
Earl shook his head. “Not in this state. Michigan was the first in the union to do away with capital punishment.”
“More’s the pity.” Walter rose. “Well, you think on what I said, Sheriff.” He tipped his cap and took his leave.
Earl watched the young man swagger out. Walter’s ‘proof’ wasn’t worth a fart in the wind.
He would check on Walter’s story, but the only thing it would prove is whether he was the consummate liar Earl conjectured he was.
As he tossed in bed that night, Earl wondered about the man who Jorie said had helped him. He would put something in the paper asking this man to come forth. Seemed a damn shame that Jorie knew neither the name of the man with the lantern nor his whereabouts. And how inconvenient that the falling snow showed no footprints to prove or disprove Jorie’s story.
The next day on their way out of town, Earl had the search party stop at Orville Peabody’s place on the main road north. Orville lived by himself in an old logger’s cabin on the road leading north out of town. Confined to a wheelchair at twenty years old after an accident in the mine, he managed to keep house by himself except for a half-breed who came in once a week to help.
Earl rapped on the door, knocked the snow off his boots and let himself in. Orville looked up from the porridge he was eating.
Earl smiled. Sorry to intrude, sir, and so early.”
The wounded veterans of the underground were afforded respect by the community at large, if not by the owners of the mine.
“I like visitors—any time of the day. Watcha got on yer mind, old man? Are you hungry?”
Earl shook his head. “Orville, have you seen anything of Walter Radcliff lately? Has he been by?”
“When was that?”
“He brought over some newspapers, all about his stepmother’s death. He seemed quite pleased about it.”
“Did you see him the day of the storm?”
“Naw, not ‘til the next afternoon. I saw Jorie Radcliff that day, though. Riding north with his ma.”
“What was the weather like then?”
“Still sunny. Didn’t see him come back, though. In the blizzard I couldn’t see that bush by the window.”
Volunteers came every day to help with the search, even the coroner, Lester Meisel.
After the fourth day, Earl said to Jorie, “Are you sure it was in Michigan you left her?”
But on the fifth, the coroner, with a team of dogs, found the body of Catherine Radcliff lying on her face. Animals had discovered her, torn open her pristine grave of snow. Folding her carefully in a blanket, Lester whistled to the others that the search was over.
When Earl joined him, he shook his head. “We must have walked right by her the first day.”
Lester Meisel looked up from the document he’d just signed. “Mrs. Radcliff had a broken ankle, sustained in her fall, I suspect. Apparently, she went willingly with her son.”
“What do you make of her lying on her face?”
“Reckon she crawled some from where he left her, trying to save herself.” He looked up. “Sad thing, indeed. She died like a wolf cub in the storm, with her back to the wind.” He pushed the rug on his pate closer to his left ear.
Lester had a way with words, Earl thought. Some said he should have been a poet.
The coroner capped the ink bottle and blotted the paper. “Here’s the certificate.”
Earl read it. “Cause of death: Exposure to cold.”
“Did you find any bruises or signs of force?”
“Didn’t see any.” He paused. “It won’t be possible to have a viewing of the body, Earl. Animals—”
“That’s enough.” Earl didn’t want to pursue that line. He said only, “Will you be wanting an inquest, Lester?”
“I think we can dispense with that, Sheriff.”
Earl Foster dreaded going to the service. He knew he’d be barraged by questions before and after.
He deliberately arrived late. When he entered the Radcliff home he could hear those assembled singing a hymn in the parlor. He winced when he saw that the manner in which it was set up provided no way to slip in inconspicuously. The doorway to the back parlor was at the front of the room where the minister stood.
Earl bowed slightly to the reverend and stood to the side, feeling all eyes upon him. Several more people arrived after he did, and the quartet had to pick up their music stands and move to the next room.
No coffin. A photo of Catherine taken on her wedding day graced a small table with flowers.
Standing at the side of the room gave him a certain advantage. He could see who was there, and recognized most of them. There were his poker buddies—the Five Aces, they’d called themselves, when Thomas Radcliffe was one of them. Now they were four, but the name stayed the same.” Four aces?” the judge had said. “Well, that sounds all too banal.”
He was here now—George McKinney, and so was Buck Boyce, the prosecuting attorney. But he didn’t see Doc Johnson, the other Ace. They had met in this house for so many years to play cards, along with Radcliff. He spotted Toby Wilson, the Radcliffs’ lawyer. The few he didn’t know he supposed were relatives from out of town, or busybodies.
Where was Jorie? Even when he stretched his neck he could see no sign of him.
The pastor, whose job it was to comfort the living and bury the dead, droned on about the rewards in heaven, and then turned his attention to the virtues of the deceased.
“I can only describe the deceased in laudatory terms. There are many here who can testify to the goodness of Mrs. Radcliff. A more upright and charitable soul would be hard to find.”
Earl remembered hearing those exact words spoken at other services—all vague generalities. He didn’t believe Catherine had attended the Congregational Church in years, doubted this young minister even knew her.
The back parlor, though dusted and aired for special occasions, appeared eternally funereal to Earl. He looked around at the mourners. Any tears? He heard the stifled sobs of a woman in the second row—the housekeeper, he thought. But where was Jorie?
When the service ended, he spotted the smoke haloes coming from the judge’s cigar in the next room. George McKinney was one of those folks whom nature had endowed with a perennial red face, always appearing to have just spent a day in the sun. Spared from the labors that aged younger men in the mines, at sixty-eight the judge still possessed a commanding presence and a fine physique. McKinney was well aware of the effect he had on others, and thoroughly enjoyed his standing in the community.
As Earl approached he heard the prosecuting attorney ask the judge, “Going to run for another term, George?”
The judge appeared to be studying his cigar. “Well, you’ll be glad to know, I’ve been thinking of retiring, Buck.”
“You can’t do that, George — you’re an institution!”
“And one that’s due for a rest. I guess that opens the gate for you.” McKinney turned to wink at Earl.
Buck Boyce pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow as though he hadn’t thought of this before.
“Possibly. Possibly, George.”
Possibly, indeed! Buck Boyce had been gnawing on that gate for years.
At only forty-seven the prosecuting attorney had already gained in girth what he couldn’t attain in stature. But for his featureless face which gave him the undefined look of youth, he appeared to be a much older man. Earl thought him a fop, pulling out his gold watch and chain at any provocation.
Earl spoke to George. “Have you seen Jorie?”
The judge could see over everyone’s head. His eyes swept the room. “No, no,
Earl wished George would dump his ashes before they dropped to the floor. McKinney was always doing that. There was a crack about how you could always tell where the judge had been— he left a trail of cigar crumbs behind.
As he walked away, George reminded him, “Five Aces tomorrow night.”
Earl scanned the remaining first floor rooms, then bounded up the stairs and called. When he got no response he came back, waved off questions and went out on the veranda to look for Jorie.
It was possible he’d gone up in the hills, to his old haunts, but Earl had another thought.
The two-seater privy was built behind the house where the land rose sharply forming the base of the steep hill behind the house.
He knocked. “You in there, Jorie?”
The shuffle of feet was his answer.
“Mind if I join you?”
He heard the occupant fumble with the latch.
With a deep sigh, Earl lowered himself onto the second hole. “I’ve been waiting to do this all day.”
Jorie was silent, elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. A dozen flies, still clinging to life, crawled around them.
Earl swatted at a horse fly landing on his thigh. “Someday they’ll invent something to cover up the stink in these places.”
When he got no response, he said the obvious. “Didn’t see you inside.”
“Any special reason for that?”
“Have to mourn in my own way, not in front of a lot of long nosers, with their own ideas about why she died.”
Earl nodded. “I have to think about that too, Jorie.”
“Yeah.” The young man lifted his tear stained face.
“Anything more you want to tell me, lad?”
“Where will you be staying?”
“We’ll be at the O’Laertys. Helena offered to take care of Eliza for awhile.”
“Then I’ll expect to find you there, if I need you.”
He gave the sheriff the address.
Earl couldn’t get it out of his mind that Jorie must have had some terrible falling out with his mother. Still, he didn’t have to resort to murder; he could have just left town. If it was murder, it didn’t appear to be a crime of passion. It was well thought out, pre-meditated.
And that would be the worse for Jorie.