By Ed Staskus
“Oy, where is it you are coming from,” William Murphy asked the scruffy pussycat going on tomcat at his feet. The half-pint was looking up at him. He had been in Thomas Spate’s coat pocket when Prince Albert’s hired gunman shot him. As the ferryman was falling and spitting out his last breath, he jumped out of his pocket and scurried to the side. He watched William Murphy roll push kick Tom Spate with his boot into the Stanley River. He floated face down into the New London Bay.
That was the end of Queen Victoria’s would-be assassin, at least until he sank. When he did bottom feeders like eels would chew on whatever was left of his decaying decomposing body. The cat had seen plenty of eels in his short time on Prince Edward Island. He knew what they were up to. It was why he never snacked on them.
The cat was gray, still small but on the stocky side. “The only true animal is a cat, and the only true cat is a gray cat,” Lucy Maud Montgomery said years later. She had two of them. “When people ask me why I want to keep two cats I tell them I keep them to do my resting for me.”
Snapper was a Scottish cat from Rear Settlement, on the west side of Settlement Rd. beside a tributary of the Montague River. Everything had gone wrong a month before when Ann Beaton, the woman who had given him his name and kept him fed dry and warm in bad weather, was murdered when somebody caved in the back of her head with a grubbing hoe.
Ann was 41 years old and unwed. She was lonely but had a year-old daughter. She lived with her brother Murdoch and his family. The night she was killed was the day she went visiting her neighbor who was weaving some cloth for her. They had tea after dinner and Ann started for home when it was near to sunset.
“What do you say, it’s getting awful dark, maybe you should stay overnight,” her neighbor said.
Ann said she knew the way back like the back of her hand and enjoyed walking in the dark. Her brother was away and one of his children was watching her girl. She wanted to get back so she could watch the girl herself. Ann was found the next day laying in a ditch at the back of her brother’s farm, blood everywhere dry and caked.
She was laid out in the barn. She was a mess. She had been stamped on and violated. Her body and dress were marked with the prints of a shod foot. Everybody from the community filing past the viewing laid a hand on her. There was a Scottish belief that if a murderer touched the body of his victim, blood would spring forth. At the end of the viewing everybody was in the clear. The killer was still on the loose.
Snapper stayed bushy-tailed as William Murphy walked back to North Rustico. He bounced up and down in the man’s coat pocket. The island’s pioneer days weren’t over, except where they were. Most folks still farmed and fished, but not all of them. Some made and sold farming implements while some built ships or worked in shipyards. Everybody needed lumber and many men worked at lumbering. There were sawmills and shingle mills. There were schools, churches, and post offices. There were some inns and hotels. There were plenty of distilleries.
Ann Beaton’s funeral was presided over by the Reverend Donald McDonald, a minister of the Church of Scotland. He had a large following of “kickers” and “jumpers.” They were known that way for the religious frenzy they fell into while being “under the works.”
The clergyman had emigrated from Scotland to Cape Breton and finally to Prince Edward Island. Everybody knew he drank too much when he was a Scotsman. When he became a Canadian, he tried to stay on the wagon. “Prince Edward Island is a dubious haven for a man fleeing demon rum,” one of his kinsmen said. There was plenty of strong drink on the island. A year before her death Ann attended several prayer meetings and while “under the works” knocked a Bible and a candle from Donald McDonald’s hands. She invertedly kicked the Bible. She purposely blew out the candle.
“They are both under her feet now and mark the end of that girl,” he said by way of a sour eulogy.
Snapper saw country folk going to Cavendish by horse and buggy to buy tea, salt, and sugar. If they had something extra in their pockets, they bought molasses and tobacco. They only bought clothes they couldn’t make themselves. They didn’t buy food as a rule. They grew and processed it themselves, picking and preserving berries, milking cows and churning cream for butter, and curing beef and pork after slaughtering the animals.
The grubbing hoe that killed Ann Beaton belonged to Archibald Matheson. He lived nearby on the Settlement Rd. with his wife and son. The three of them were arrested on suspicion of the crime. Some local women reported being molested by the farmer, but he and his family were soon released. Bad feelings among neighbors weren’t facts. He may have had a bad reputation, but so did Ann. There were rumors she had been killed by a jealous wife. A smutty ballad was written describing her as “light in her way.”
After the funeral Ann was buried in the Pioneer Graveyard. Her brother moved away nobody knew where. Nobody knew what happened to her baby, either. Nobody wanted to know. By the time Snapper was on his way to North Rustico everybody was doing their best to forget all about it.
The cat was sleeping in the back of a wagon almost a month after Ann’s death. He was sick and tired of nobody feeding him. Before he knew it the wagon was on its way. When he looked back, he didn’t see much worth going back to. He made himself snug comfortable and went with the flow. The flow was towards the northwest. The wagon stopped overnight at Saint Andrews and Covehead before getting to the Stanley River, where it rang for the ferry. Once they were across, and the wagoner was stretching his legs, Snapper stretched his legs, too. When he was done the wagon was long gone. Unlike wagoner’s hauling freight, Snapper wasn’t on a schedule. He was go-as-you-please footloose.
Tom Spate’s young wife took him in, poured him milk, and fed him scraps of white fish. He bulked up fast and stayed agile staying out of Tom Spate’s way. The ferryman had a bad temper and wasn’t above hitting his wife or trying to kick the cat. Snapper was fast and none of the ferryman’s kicks ever landed. Tom Spate’s wife wasn’t fast and had the black and blue evidence to prove it.
Snapper wasn’t overly dismayed to see the dead as a doornail Tom Spate floating away. William Murphy was his kind of man, gruff but not mean-hearted. “I have never known anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible,” is what the Irishman thought. Snapper stayed in his pocket, not jumping ship. Besides, he had already spotted foxes along the coastline. He would deal with them once he was grown up and ready for bear, but for the moment he kept his eyes open and his nose on high alert.
They walked past a house where it was wash day. Behind the house was a field of sunlit rapeseed. A woman was raising water from a well with a bucket and washing clothes on a wood washboard with home-made laundry soap. She pressed what clothes needed to pressed with an iron she heated on her kitchen stove. Snapper didn’t own or wear any clothes and thought it was all a lot of bother.
A traveling tailor was walking up the path to another house. He was going to stay for several days, maybe even a week, making wool coats for everybody. The lady of the house had already spun dyed and woven the cloth. What Snapper didn’t know was winters on the island were long and cold. He was going to find out soon enough. When he did, he was every single day going to sniff out wool so he could curl up into it.
When they got to North Rustico there was still plenty of daylight left in the day. Snapper ran behind the boarding house where William Murphy was staying and started messing with a beetle. He batted it one way and another way. The beetle looked for a tree to scurry up. The only beetles Snapper never messed with were lady bugs. He liked the way they went about their business and took lessons as they hunted for aphids. They were deadly killers of the pests.
Snapper slept at the foot of William Murphy’s bed that night. He made himself small and pressed himself against the man’s feet. He wasn’t a tosser and a turner, which suited the gray cat. He didn’t have to catnap with one eye open, ready to jump at any minute. He slept better that night than he had in many days.
Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.