Category Archives: Blood Lines

Bird on the Wing

By Ed Staskus

   Some men are good at farming. Other men are good at fishing. Tradesmen keep them in gear and goods. Most men are good for something, although some are good for nothing. William Murphy wasn’t a man good at doing nothing. He didn’t know fishing or farming but was experienced at raising horses. He was going to make a horse farm and make his way that way.

   He stayed on the cove where he had landed, building a house. He cut limbed sawed trees by hand and split blocks with an axe. The wood would be ready for a stove and fireplace next year. In the meantime, he bought a load of coal from a passing schooner. He found dampness nearby and looked for an underground spring. When he found it, he dug it out for drinking water, saving himself the work and expense of digging a well. Whenever he could he cleared land. It was one stump at a time, pulling them out with a team of draft horses. Sometimes it seemed like it was all he did.

   “The islander making a new farm cut down the trees as fast as possible until a few square yards of the blue sky could be seen above. Roots and branches lying on the ground were set on fire and sometimes the forest caught fire and hundreds of acres of timber were burned,” is how Walter Johnson, who came to Prince Edward Island to start Sunday schools, described it.

   Bill Murphy put enough salted cod away to feed a God-fearing family of Acadians. When the weather changed for the worse, he smoked read ate slept through the season, living in his union suit. The dead of winter arrived near the end of January and kept at it through February. The daytime high temperatures were below zero, and the overnight low temperatures were even lower. After spring arrived and the Prince Consort proved true to his word, his land grant signed sealed and delivered, he continued clearing land and building his house.

   He wasn’t a food growing man, but he had to eat. His first task was putting in a root garden of beets turnips carrots and potatoes. They would store well the next winter. He made sure there were onions. They added flavor to food and were a remedy to fight off colds. Whenever he started coughing or sneezing, he stripped and rubbed himself all over with goose grease, stuffing a handful of onions into his underwear. He always felt better afterwards. Corn peas beans could be dried and stored for soup. A bachelor might even live on the fare.

   Rhubarb was a perennial and one of the earliest to come up in the spring. After a long winter it was the first fresh produce. He planted plenty of it. The island had a short although rapid growing season. He woke up before sunrise and worked until dusk. He kept at it every day. The Sabbath meant nothing to him.

   The Prince of Wales visited Prince Edward Island that summer during his tour of British North America, arriving in a squadron consisting of the Nile, Flying Fish, and three more men-of-war. The Nile accidentally grounded trying to enter Charlottetown’s harbor. Once the tide lifted it, the unlucky boat sailed away towards Quebec. Spectators cheered Bertie’s progress to Government House on streets decorated with spruce arches. 

   “The town is a long straggling place, built almost entirely of wood, and presents few objects of interest,” he wrote home to his mother Queen Victoria.

   It was a cloudy afternoon, but when it cleared, he went horseback riding. That evening there was a dress dinner and ball at the Province Buildings. The Prince of Wales took a moment to step out onto a balcony. “Some Micmac Indians grouped themselves on the lawn, dressed in their gay attire, the headgear of the women recalling the tall caps of Normandy.”

   When the squadron ferrying the noble party embarked towards the mainland it was in a heavy rain. No one who didn’t need to be on deck wasn’t on deck. There were no spectators in the harbor waving hats and kerchiefs. Even the Indians stayed away.

   “Our visit it is to be hoped has done much good in drawing forth decided evidence of the loyalty of the colonists to the Queen.” Colonial loyalty and the Queen’s confidence in her colonists were soon to be tested. It was for another day, but Confederation was rearing its head. The Prince of Wales played cards and lost money on his way to Quebec.

   Bill Murphy didn’t bother making the long trip into town, having already gotten what he wanted from the royal family. The Prince of Wales was a playboy. There wasn’t anything he could do for him. He didn’t care whether Bill Murphy lived or died. When he was able to at last move into his house, he started on a horse barn. It would be large, large enough for stabling animals, milking cattle, and storing tools. The haymow would hold more than forty tons to feed his animals during the winter.

   At the same time, he started looking for a wife. He needed help indoors so he could work the outdoors. He needed help planting crops to feed himself and a family. He needed help clothing himself. Life without a woman on Prince Edward Island was a hard life. He found her the same time his work bee was finishing the barn.

   He met her in the cash provision store in Cavendish. Siobhan Regan was 19 years-old, a few years older than half his age. She wasn’t pretty or well off but looked sturdy and round bottomed. He was sure she could bear children without killing herself or the infant. She could read, although she seldom did, except for the Good Book. She was ruddy cheeked with big teeth and was a quiet woman, suiting him, who used the spoken word only for what it was worth.

   They were married and in their new house, home from the wedding in a buggy retrofitted with sleigh runners, the night before the last big snowfall in April. She got pregnant on Easter Sunday and stayed more-or-less pregnant for the next ten years, bearing six children, all of whom survived. Her husband refused the services of the village’s midwives, refused the services of the doctor, and delivered the children himself. He threw quacksalvers out the door with a curse and a kick. He trusted them as much as he trusted the Prince of Wales. They peddled tonics saturated with moonshine and opium. He had had some of both, enough to know they were no good for the sick or healthy, more likely to kill than not. He never drank port, punch, or whiskey, rather drinking his own homemade beer. He liked to wrap up the day with a pint.

   He knew cholera and typhus had something to do with uncleanliness, although he didn’t know what. He had seen enough of it on ships, where straw mattresses weren’t destroyed after somebody died from dysentery while laying on them. He ran a tight ship, keeping his house and grounds in working order. He didn’t let his livestock near the spring at the house, instead taking them downstream. He had seen the toll in towns where garbage was thrown into the street and left there for years. He and his wife were inoculated against smallpox, and as the children got on their feet, so were they. He brooked no objections.

   The Irishman wasn’t going to throw the dice with the lives of his children. Six of his ten brothers and sisters died before they reached adulthood in the Land of Saints and Scholars. Their overlords had something to do with it, famine had something to do with it, and their rude lives the rest of it, putting them in early graves. One of them died on the kitchen table where a barber was bleeding him. He bled to death. They buried him in cold sod.

   Siobhan Murphy took a breather from childbearing towards the end of the decade. Her husband and she went to Charlottetown twice that summer to see shows at St. Andrew’s Hall. They saw “Box and Cox” and “Fortune’s Frolic,” both directed by the eccentric Mrs. Wentworth Stevenson, an actress and music teacher trained in London who had formed the Charlottetown Amateur Dramatic Club. 

   They stayed at Mrs. Rankin’s Hotel, having breakfast and dinner there, walking about the city, stopping for tea when the occasion arose, and spent their otherwise not engaged hours making a new baby. When they were done, they went home. The children weren’t surprised months later that another one of them was on the way.   

   Every farm on Prince Edward had a stable of horses for work and transport. Most farmers used draft horses for hard labor, the nearly one-ton animals two in hand plowing fields, bringing in hay, and hauling manure. It was his good fortune to know horses inside and out, whether big and small. The carrying capacity of his land was well more than a hundred horses. He wasn’t planning on that many, but a hundred would suit him well enough if it came to that. He was going to grow most of his own food and sell horses for the rest of life’s essentials and pleasures.   

   By 1867 when Prince Edward Island rejected joining the Confederation, even though it hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 where it was first proposed, he was well on his way to making his horse farm a going concern. Confederation didn’t concern him, one way of the other. Many islanders wanted to stay part of Great Britain. Others wanted to be annexed by the United States. Some thought becoming a dominion on their own was best. He kept his eyes on the prize, his family and farm.

   John D. Macdonald, the country’s first Prime Minister, who was always worried about American expansionism, tried to coax the island into the union with incentives, but it wasn’t until they were faced with a financial crisis that its leaders reconsidered John D’s various offers. It was when they put themselves into a hole that his efforts paid off.

   A coastline-to-coastline railway-building plan gone bad put Prince Edward Island into debt. It spawned a banking crisis. Parliament Hill agreed to take over the debt and prop up the financing needed to resume railway construction. There was demand for year-round steamer service between the island and mainland. Parliament Hill agreed to the demand. The province wanted money to buy back land owned by absentee landlords. Parliament Hill agreed to that, too. In the event, the wrangling went on.

   Bill Murphy was better off than many people on the island. He had a small amount of hard cash while most islanders had no cash to speak of and bartered almost everything. When the chance arose to make a killing during the horse disease of 1872, he took it. The pandemic started in a pasture near Toronto. Inside a year it spread across Canada. Mules, donkeys, and horses got too sick to work. They coughed, ran a fever, and keeled over exhausted getting out of their barns and stables. Delivering lumber from sawmills or beer to saloons killed them outright. They died like flies.

   “There are not a hundred horses in the city free from the disease,” a newspaper editor in Ottawa wrote. Another editor in Montreal wrote, “We have very few horses unaffected.” The only place the pandemic didn’t touch was Prince Edward Island.

   “When the disease was raging in the other provinces, our navigation was closed, and our island entirely cut off, in the way of export or import from the mainland, which in fact must have been the reason it did not cross to our shores,” wrote the editor of The Patriot newspaper.

   Bill Murphy drove forty horses to Summerside where they were loaded on two ships for crossing the Northumberland Straight. Once on shore they were walked to the railhead in New Brunswick and shipped by railcar to Montreal, whose money for the horses was better than all others. After he was paid, he hid the money inside his shirt with his jacket buttoned up to the collar all the way home.

   In 1873 the island’s voters were given the option of accepting Confederation or going it alone and having their taxes raised substantially. Most voters finally chose Confederation, voting their pocketbooks. Prince Edward Island officially joined Canada on July 1, 1873. The weather that day was foul and then a storm rolled in. Thunderbolts lit up the low clouds, followed a split second later by sonic booms. It was like fireworks. The fox in the fields lay low in their foxholes. It wasn’t fit for man or beast.

   It was two years later, as lightning again slashed the sky, that the prize horse on Murphy land spooked and kicked him in the head, knocking an eye out, breaking his jaw, and fracturing his skull. Everything he knew about horses, as well as the money from the sale of them the year before, which he had secreted away behind the barn, flew out the window with his soul. The gates of the Underworld and Heaven both opened wide to admit him. He tossed the Devil’s invitation away.

   Flags flew everywhere on the island that August when George Coles died in Charlottetown. He had been the first premier of Prince Edward Island and one of the Fathers of Confederation, which didn’t keep him from dueling with Edward Palmer, another Father of Confederation. He was a feisty man. He was convicted of assault over the incident. He spent a month in custody while still in the provincial government. His twelve children visited him and brought him beer every day. He had been a distiller and brewer earlier in life.

   Siobhan Murphy folded her flag and buried it with her husband in the Catholic burying ground. After the interment, her children gathered around her, she looked out on the Atlantic Ocean from the top of Church Hill Road. Her husband had crossed the briny deep at peril to himself to make his fortune, no matter what it might be. He was gone now but the land was still theirs. She would never give it up. It would always be theirs. Her children’s children would bear fruit there.

   Siobhan wasn’t going anywhere, no matter whether it was Canada or the United States or anywhere else on the island. She couldn’t raise the dead, but she could raise her children on the farm her husband made. She was determined none of them would ever forget their father. Murphy’s Cove would stay what it was and where it was.

   She started the slow walk home with her sick at heart brood back up then down the red road to the cove and their farm. The smallest of them, a girl her pigtails flapping, pulled at her mother’s dress.

   “Mommy, I have a secret to tell you.”

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Rock Lobster

By Ed Staskus

   It wasn’t breaking news that Prince Edward Island was an island. It was old news that it hadn’t always been one. It was news to some folks who lived on the island, however. They weren’t overly concerned with the past. It wasn’t news to the lobsters who lived offshore. They had been around much longer than the fishermen, farmers, and townsfolk who plied their trade on sea and shore. The large crustaceans had seen it all.

   Lobsters didn’t have a trade or much else to do, other than eat anything and everything they could all day and night. They hated crabs and crabs hated them and it was the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s whenever the shellfish ran into each other. The lobsters were bigger badder more determined and three of their five pairs of legs were outfitted with claws. They usually carried the day. Might makes right.

   The land formed 250 million-some years ago, during the Permian period. Creeks and rivers deposited gravel, sand, and silt into what is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Before the last ice age, Prince Edward Island was connected to the mainland. After the glaciers melted it wasn’t connected anymore. It went its own way. The Northumberland Strait became what separates the island from the rest of Canada. 

   The number one rock ‘n’ roll band among the island’s lobsters was the B-52’s. They were the house band in their part of the world. Every lobster knew the lyrics to their ‘Rock Lobster’ song. The band had released it ten years earlier and when they did it shot up the shellfish charts, even though every single crab scorned it as gauche.

   “We were at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster!” 

   Whenever a crab heard the song, it spit sideways and cursed. They were happy to see the island’s fishing boats go after their country cousins every May. They showed up at every harbor for the blessing of the fleet on Setting Day and shouted “Godspeed!” when the boats broke the waves. There was no love lost between crabs and lobsters.

   Even though lobsters could be mean as bad neighbors, all they really wanted to do was eat and have some fun afterwards.

   “Havin’ fun, bakin’ potatoes.”

   Prince Edward Island was known as Spud Island. It was no small potatoes when it came to the tuber. It was the smallest province but the top potato producing province in the country.

   “Boys in bikinis, girls in surfboards, everybody’s rockin’, everybody’s fruggin’.”

   Lobsters couldn’t move fast enough to frug, but it didn’t matter. They got into the spirit of the song. They lived in concord among themselves ten months out of the year, except when one of them happened to eat another one of them. Two months of the year all bets were off. That’s when the island’s lobster boats went hunting for them. That’s when the angels sang. They didn’t like it but what could they do?

   There were about 1200 boats sailing out of 45 harbors. More than three dozen boats came out of the North Rustico harbor alone. Every one of them was out to get them. Once fishermen got them their fate was sealed. Every lobster knew it in its bones, even though all they had was an exoskeleton. Their inner selves had no bones. They were going to be boiled alive and there was nothing they could do about it.

   Traps have escape vents to let shorts leave while it is still on the bottom. The under-sized lobsters who overstayed their welcome were thrown back into the ocean. Egg-bearing females were also thrown back. The female carried her eggs inside of her for about a year and then for about another year attached to the swimmerets under her tail. When the eggs hatch, the larvae float near the surface for about a month. The few that survive eventually sink to the bottom and develop as full-fledged shellfish. For every 50,000 eggs generated two lobsters survive to grow up and go rocking.

   Some diners wearing bibs argued that lobsters didn’t have a brain and so they couldn’t feel pain. They had probably never seen their tails twitch like the mosh pit when they got thrown into a pot of boiling water. They weren’t twitching to the beat of the B-52’s. Their brains might not amount to much, but they had a nervous system. They reacted to pain physically and hormonally. The hormone they released when dying was the same one that human beings release when hurt. Cortisol is cortisol. They would have screamed if they could.

   “How about coming down here with the rest of us,” they wanted to scream from the red hot mosh pit.

   The Prince Edward Island seafood industry considered lobster to be their crown jewel. It was a gourmet delicacy known for its tender juicy meat. But that was like getting the Medal of Honor when you weren’t around anymore to bask in the glory. The only consolation lobsters had was that their harvesters took care to manage their resource carefully. They didn’t pull up over many of them in their traps and kept the surrounding waters clean.

   It was a small consolation though. It only meant the fishermen were in it for the long haul and weren’t going to change their minds about snatching them anytime soon. The only consolation a lobster ever got was when somebody reached for it and the lobster was able to get the outstretched hand in its crusher claw.

   “We were at a party, his earlobe fell in the deep, someone reached in and grabbed it, it was a rock lobster!”

   When that happened, there was no quarter given. The lobster was going to sell its life dear. The human hand was going to pay dear for sticking its nose where it didn’t belong. It should have stayed where it was before it ever came to the island. What lobsters didn’t know was that fishermen came from the same place they did way back when and weren’t ever going back, even if they knew how. The sooner they got that through their thick heads the better.

   “Lots of trouble, lots of bubble, rock rock, rock lobster.”

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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The End of the Marco Polo

By Ed Staskus

   William Murphy, Jr. was 21 years old the day the Marco Polo was run aground at Cavendish. She was a three-masted three-deck clipper ship built at Marsh Creek in Saint John, New Brunswick 32 years earlier. During its construction the frame got loose in a storm and was blown all over the shipyard when the wind kicked up. The skeleton had to be reassembled. After the shipbuilding was done the launch didn’t go well. The boat grazed the bank of the creek while sliding down the slipway, got stuck in a mudflat, and went over on her side. A week later a high tide lifted her up, but she got stuck in the mud again. Two weeks later she finally floated free and was fitted with rigging.

   The big boat carried emigrant men and women from England to Australia for many years. She set the world’s record for the fastest voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne, doing it in 76 days. More than fifty children died of measles on her maiden voyage and were buried at sea. Coming back, she carried a king’s ransom in gold dust and a 340-ounce gold nugget. It was a gift to Queen Victoria from the colonial government. Pulling into its home port, the ship unfurled a banner claiming it was the “Fastest Ship in the World.”

   The gold was delivered to the queen by a fast coach guarded by the King’s Men.

   During the gold rush the ship carried loads of standing room only men to Australia. Nobody died of measles, although some of them died of bad moonshine and fights. Fire is the test of gold. Many of the men died of typhus, what they called ship fever, burning up in their hammocks in the South Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Tasman Sea. Many of the original settlers laying claim to aboriginal land, the oldest, flattest, and driest inhabited continent with the least fertile soil anywhere, got there on the Marco Polo. 

   When she was retired from the passenger trade, she was refitted for the coal, timber, and bat shit trade. The hull was rotting and wasting away. Chains were wrapped around it and drawn tight trying to keep it together. A windmill-driven pump was installed to send leaks back where they came from.

   It was a late July morning, clear sunny warm after the storm that had driven the ship to Cavendish. Bill Murphy was in the dunes watching the crew wade ashore. They had been on the way from Montreal to England loaded with pine planks when they got caught in a gale. They plowed ahead but started to take on water. Two days later wind and waves were still pommeling them, and they were still taking on water. The ship was flooding from stem to stern and the hands couldn’t plug the leaks well enough or fast enough. The windmill blew away and the pumps gave a last gasp. Captain Bull decided to try saving the crew and cargo. He put the clipper into full sail and wheeled it straight at Cavendish’s sandy beaches.

   The closer they got the better their chances looked until, three hundred feet from shore, he ordered the rigging cut. The masts groaned wanting to snap and the bottom of the boat scraped the bottom. Everybody stayed where they were, staying awake all night, until dawn when the storm finally wore itself out and they rowed ashore. There were 25 of them, Norwegians Swedes Germans. They were tough men. There was a Tahitian, too. It was the beginning of only his second sea voyage. He was barely half-tough but looked tougher than he was. He was speckled with tattoos and wore his hair in long braids tied up at their ends with small shiny fishhooks.

   Lucy Maud Montgomery was a pale slim 8-year-old girl, her long crimson hair in braids with choppy bangs, when she and everybody else in Cavendish watched the crew abandon the boat. She wore a white flower hairpiece on one side of her head and took notes on scraps of paper. Nine years later her short story “The Wreck of the Marco Polo” was published. Sixteen years after that her book “Anne of Green Gables” was published.

   Bill Murphy was hired by the salvage company stripping the boat. It was welcome work before harvest time. As soon as they started on the grounded vessel, another storm rolled in. Bill was on the boat and had to stay where he was. Trying for the shore was too dangerous. They battened whatever hatches were still left and spent the night being battered. Captain Macleod from French River showed up the next morning. The wind beat him back the first time he tried to reach the Marco Polo, but he made it the second time, saving all the men except one. He and his shipmates got gold watches for their courage. Bill went home wet as a wet dog.

   He didn’t go home empty-handed, though. There were twin figureheads of Marco Polo, depicting the boat’s namesake, spearheading the boat. A man from Long River hauled one of them away and hung it in his barn. Bill hauled the other one away and hung it in his barn. It was the end of the road for the far-ranging ship.

   Bill was back on the boat two days later as the salvage work went apace. He was taking a break on the poop deck leaning against a gunwale above the captain’s cabin when a young dark-skinned man joined him.

   “I am Teva the Tahitian,” he said.

   “I am Bill the Murphy,” Bill said.

   Teva was the only one of the crew who signed on to help salvage the ship. The rest stayed in Cavendish drinking and chasing farmgirls. The Tahitian and the Irishman worked together for the rest of the week and into August. Teva told Bill he was putting his purse together to get to Maine and sign on as a whaler.

   “My grandfather Queequeg was a harpooner,” he said. “He was the best in the world. You could spit on the water, and he could split your floating spit from the deck with one throw. He shaved with his harpoon and smoked from a tomahawk. He was a cannibal, but his favorite food was clam chowder.”

   “He was a cannibal?” Bill asked, taken aback. 

   “Him, not me,” Teva said. “I never met him, but my father told me about him before he went whaling. He never came back, either.”

   “They both went to sea and never came back?”

   “Both, never. A friend of my grandfather’s stopped on our island when I was a boy and told us about what happened to him. He was a white man. He and grandfather sailed and slept together.”

   “In the morning his arm was thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner,” Ishmael said. “You had almost thought I had been his wife. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian, I always say.”

   Teva asked the white man what his grandfather had been like, what he was about.

   “There was no hair on his head, nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead, large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold. He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had a creditor. His bald purplish head looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. His body was checkered with tattoo squares. He seemed to have been in a war, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his legs were marked, as if dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms.”

   Teva lapped up water from a barrel with his hands and spat on the deck.

   “Grandfather saved Ishmael’s life when their ship was head-butted by a white whale they were hunting. The coffin they had built for him when he was dying during the hunt was thrown overboard and Ishmael hung on to it like a buoy. He was the only sailor who survived when Captain Ahab the crew my grandfather and the Pequod all sank to the bottom.”

   “Since your father and grandfather both went whaling and never came back, why are you going southways to take up whaling?” Bill asked

   “It’s in my blood,” Teva said. “There will be blood.”

   Every day when the day was fair and the sun shining families picnicked on the beach at Cavendish, watching launches with two-masted ketch rigs go back and forth, taking what they could to Alexander MacNeill’s for auction.

   It was a Sunday when Sinbad the Sailor walked up to Bill Murphy, looked him up and down, and meowed. “They say our boat had no rats the whole last year,” Teva said. “This cat drove them off and those who thought they could stand up to him, they disappeared.” Teva tossed a piece of salt pork at Sinbad, who snagged it midair and gulped it down.

   Sinbad was a two-tone Norwegian Forest cat.

   “One of the Vikings brought him aboard,” Teva said.

   Sinbad was a twenty-pound bruiser with long legs and a bushy tail. His coat was a thick, glossy, water-repellent top layer with a woolly undercoat. It was thickest at the legs, chest, and head. His ears were large, tufted, wide at the base, and high set.

   “He’s a good climber, very strong,” Teva said. “He can climb rocks and cliffs.” 

   When he leaned on Bill and reached up stretching flexing his front legs, his claws extended themselves slightly. They were sharp as razors. Bill rubbed Sinbad’s head. 

   “He’s big enough to be a man-eater,” Bill said. “What’s going to happen to him when our work is finished?”

   “I don’t know,” Teva said. “The Viking left him behind.”

   That evening, when Bill was walking back to the rude shelter he had thrown up for himself behind the dunes, Sinbad the Sailor followed him. Bill put a bowl of fresh water out for the cat but left breakfast lunch dinner up to him. He was sure Sinbad was not going to starve. He was a vole shrew deer mouse snowshoe hare red-bellied snake widow maker. Even racoons, coyotes, and foxes gave him a wide berth.

   Sinbad went back and forth to the boat with Bill the rest of the month and into August while the vessel decayed and fell apart piece by piece until a wild thunderstorm barreled up from the United States. It broke up along the coast, going down to the bottom of the sea, to Davy Jones’ Locker. It was the end of the Marco Polo. 

   When Bill packed up his bedroll and shelter and walked home, Sinbad walked beside him the five miles back to Murphy’s Cove and North Rustico. Biddy and Kate were shucking oysters on the porch, a pot at their feet. The oysters were from Malpeque Bay. Hundreds of boats were in the fishery there and at St. Peter’s Bay. Until the 1830s oysters were plentiful and few people ate them. They were spread over land as fertilizer. The shells were burned, too, for the lime they produced.

   After the Intercolonial Railway got rolling in 1876 new markets for Prince Edward Island oysters opened in Quebec and Ontario. But oyster stocks started to fall and kept falling as more boats joined the harvesting. Oysters fled for their lives. They didn’t like being eaten alive. Biddy and Kate didn’t know anything about overfishing or the deep-seated fears of shellfish, and didn’t much care, either, so long as they got their fair share.

   “Oh my gosh, what a beauty!” Kate exclaimed when Bill walked up to the porch with Sinbad the Sailor beside him. 

   “He landed here on the Marco Polo,” Bill explained. “The ship broke up yesterday in the storm and he needed a new home, so here he is.”

   Sinbad walked straight past the girls to the pot and started pulling oysters out, gulping them down without a single word of hello.

   “Hey, stop that,” Biddy scolded, covering the pot. “You’ll ruin your appetite, silly goose.”

   Sinbad’s ears pricked up. He had taken goose for dinner last Christmas, and it was delicious. He shot a look in all directions. He didn’t see any birds, but had no doubt there had to be one or two somewhere nearby. He was by nature a nomad, but as there was a pot full of oysters and silly slow geese to eat, he thought, I’ll stay for the time being.

   He was a back door man, but when the front door was wide open, that was the door he went through. God might or might not still believe in the garden path, but he was only a cat and didn’t know anything about the divine. When there was an easy way of doing things, that was always the way he took.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Good Ol’ Boy

By Ed Staskus

   Clyde Ferguson stumbled into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital mortuary room like he was seeing it for the first time, even though he had been the provincial pathologist for 11 years. He waited for the sharp stab in his left hip to go away. He felt unsteady. He steadied himself with one hand on the doorjamb. He was all right after a moment, as far as it went. His left heel wouldn’t flatten down to the floor. That leg had gotten shorter the past five years. He put his arms at his sides and breathed evenly.

   The hospital was practically new. It was still in its infancy. He was getting older by the minute, which bothered him. “Getting old is no problem,” is what Groucho Marx said. “You just have to live long enough.” But sometimes he didn’t feel like he was just getting old. He felt like he was getting old and getting crippled to boot.

   His hip hurt like hell and worse. He knew exactly what the matter was. It had finally gotten to be bone on bone. The day had always been coming. Walking and yoga and strong drink had forestalled the inevitable. But he had walked too much the past several days. When the weather had gotten better, he drove to Brackley Beach, and walked two miles back and forth three days in a row. That was a mistake. It wasn’t the same as his treadmill, which had arm rails he could support himself on. He had three months left before his retirement became official. When it was signed and sealed, he was getting an after-market hip the next day, going back to Tracadie, and staying there. He would break it in and in the evening cut up fillets rather than dead folks.

   He blinked in the fluorescent light, wondering why there were two tables set up for him. When he remembered the arm, he remembered he was going to have to do two post-mortems, one on the arm and one on the young woman who the arm belonged to.

   Her death was being treated as the result of criminal activity. If it was some place bigger than Charlottetown the post-mortem would have been performed by a forensic pathologist. They investigate deaths where there are legal implications, like a suspected murder. But it wasn’t some other place. It was Charlottetown, the smallest capital city of the smallest province in Canada. It would have to do, and he would have to do it.

   When he was suited up, Clyde stood over the dead woman and blinked his fly-belly blue eyes. She was on her back on a stainless-steel cadaver table. It was essentially a a body-sized slanted tray with raised edges to keep fluids from flowing onto the floor. There was running water to wash away the blood that is released during the procedure. The blood went down a drain.

   She hadn’t been shot or stabbed. Her face was a mess, though. It took him a minute to see what it was that had killed her. Her skull was fractured. Parts of the broken skull had pressed into the brain. It swelled and cut off access to blood by squeezing shut the arteries and blood vessels that supply it. As the brain swelled it grew larger than the skull that held it and begin to press outside of it into the nasal cavity, out of the ears, and through the fracture. After a minute it began to die. After five minutes, if she hadn’t called it a day, she would have suffered irreversible brain damage. One way or the other it was the end of her.

   He got down to the rest of his work, making a long incision down the front of the body to remove the internal organs and examine them. A single incision across the back of the head allowed the top of her skull to be removed so the brain could be examined. He saw what he expected to see. He examined everything carefully with the naked eye. If dissection had been necessary to look for any abnormalities, such as blood clots or tumors, he would have done it, but what was the point?

   After the examination he returned the organs and brain to the body. He sewed her back up. When he turned his attention to the arm, he saw clearly enough it had been chopped off with one clean blow. The axe, or whatever it was, must have been new or even newer. In any case, it was as sharp as could be. Her hand was clenched in a fist. He had to break her fingers to loosen it. When he did, he found a loonie in her palm. It was Canada’s one-dollar coin introduced two years earlier to replace paper dollar bills, which had become too expensive to print. Everybody called them loonies after the loon on the reverse side.

   Clyde looked at the spanking new coin smeared with old blood and older dirt. He put it in a plastic bag and labelled it. He recorded everything on a body diagram and verbally on a cassette tape. He put the loonie, diagram, and tape in a pouch and labelled it. When he was done, he washed up and decided to go eat. After that he would call it a day. The work had warmed him up and he wasn’t limping as much as he had earlier. He tested his hip, lifting his leg at the knee and rotating it. It felt reasonably ready to go. He would go to Chubby’s Roadhouse for lunch. They had the best burgers on the island.

   The phone rang. It was Pete Lambert, the Commanding Officer of the RCMP Queens detachment.

   “What have you found out, Clyde.”

   “I’m on my way out for a bite to eat. Meet me at Chubby’s. So long as the force pays, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

   “I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.” Chubby’s was 15 minutes from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and 20 minutes from the RCMP station. While he was driving Clyde thanked God it was 1989 and metallic hip replacements were as good as they had ever been. The first hip replacements dated back a hundred years to when ivory implants were used to replace the femoral head. Elephant tusks were cheap at the time and were thought to possess good biomechanical properties. That proved to not be the case. Men and women died right and left from infections and dislocations.

   Fifty years later an American surgeon performed the first metallic hip replacement. He designed a prosthesis with a large head made of something he called Vitallium. The implant was 12 inches in length and attached with bolts to the end of the femoral shaft. It worked like a charm. That same prosthesis is what he would be getting, except it was better and the implant would be inserted within the canal of the femur, where bone growth would lead to more permanent attachment. So long as he could wake up and walk upright first thing in the morning, instead of staggering and grabbing for support, he would be a happy man.

   Chubby’s Roadhouse and Bud’s Diner were next to each other in a pink and blue building on St. Peters Road in Dunstaffnage. They did brisk business. It was a popular pit stop for bikers on poker runs. It was why Pete Lambert had lunch or dinner there once a week, getting to know the riders. He kept his enemies close.

   “We serve burgers and fries and shakes, and fish and chips and clams and all that stuff,” Clarence Foster said. “But I think as far as the burger goes, the best, the one that everybody seems to like is called the Bud Burger.” Clarence was both the Chubby and the Bud.

   Dances were held in the back of the building with local bands. Haywire was a summer favorite. Teenagers with ice cream cones gathered around the pinball machines at the front. Drinkers stayed at the bar, drinking. The bikers ate their Bud Burgers outside during the day and drank inside during the night.

   “We have wedding receptions and things like that,” Clarence said. He told the bikers about them in advance, so that nobody ended up stepping on anybody else’s toes.

   The Spoke Wheel Car Museum was next door. Clarence and his father, Ray, shared an appreciation for old cars. They both liked to smoke but loved cars more. They gave up cigarettes to save money. Instead of going up in smoke their savings went toward buying heaps nobody else wanted and restoring them. They offered to buy Bernie Doiron’s VW Beetle, but he said, “It ain’t no antique.” By 1969, they had 13 cars, including a 1930 Ford Model A Coach that Clarence drove. It was how the roadhouse and diner came into being. 

   “People were coming to the museum and looking for a place to eat,” he said. “Since my dad was a cook in the army, we decided to build a little canteen and it just kept on growing.” 

   Clyde and Pete ate inside at a back table. It wasn’t the warmest day, although it was sunny. They had Bud Burgers and cold pints. There were only a handful pf people having a late lunch.

   “How’s the hip?” Pete asked.

   “Hellzapoppin’,” Clyde said.

   “Is that the official word?”

   “It’s how I feel. I’ve got two months and 29 days from now circled on my calendar.”

   They ate and small talked. “Find anything out?” Pete asked, finishing his burger and hand-cut fries. The food was good because the beef and potatoes came from the island. It would be a trifecta once islanders started up their own breweries.

   “It will be in my report tomorrow, but since you’re interested, I’ll summarize it. She died of a fractured skull. There was tissue not hers on her face and in her hair. I want to say she was hit by a fist that got scuffed up doing it. She had alfalfa on and in her clothes. More than a brush of silage, enough to make me think she was on a dairy farm long enough to roll around in it. She wasn’t killed on that field, although her arm was probably cut off there. The last cut there was in late August, so she was put in the ground sometime between then and no later than the end of October.”

   Thousands of acres of potatoes on the island the last fall were left in the ground. Heavy rain and cold temperatures put a damper on the harvest. There was too much rain and cold, freezing and thawing day after day, and it led to a deep frost.

   “Her arm was probably cut off by an axe, sharp as hell, clean as a whistle. Whoever did it, like the fist, is a strong man or woman. Why it was cut off, since she was already dead when it happened, is for you to find out. She had a loonie clenched in her missing hand. It was a 1988 issue. No prints other than hers on it.”

   “Are her prints in the report?”

   “Yes, what we could get, which wasn’t much of anything, but they will do.”

   It was shop talk. Pete knew everything and a batch of photographs would be part of the report.     

   “She wasn’t molested or abused. I don’t think she had eaten for several days. There wasn’t anything remarkable about her teeth, none missing, one filling. She was in her early twenties, five foot five, 118 pounds, green eyes, light brown hair, no moles, birthmarks, or tattoos. She was healthy as a horse.”

   “Anything else?”

   “One more thing. I think she might have poked somebody in the eye. There was retinal fluid and blood under the fingernails of the first two fingers on the cut-off arm. Her nails were 7 mm long and almond shaped, perfect for poking. It wasn’t her blood, either.”

   Blunt trauma to the eye can cause the retina to tear. It can lead to retinal detachment. It can require urgent surgery. The alternative is blindness.

   “If that happened, where would the eye have been treated?” Pete asked.

   “At a hospital or a large eye clinic.”

   “What happens if it’s not treated?”

   “Kiss goodbye to that eye.”

   “I see,” the police officer said, paying the bill when the waitress stopped at their table. What thin crowd there had been had cleared out. It was the middle of the afternoon. When the two men went out to their cars, they were the only two cars in the front lot. Pete was driving an unmarked police car, although it was clearly an official car. Clyde was driving a Buick Electra station wagon. He could lay a corpse out in the back if he had to. They shook hands and went their separate ways.

   Five hours later a biker riding a red motorcycle approached the roadhouse, swerving to avoid a fox. There was always more roadkill in the spring and fall. Skunks and raccoons were the most common, although foxes weren’t always as quick and slippery as their reputation. He pulled up, parked, and went inside. He left the key in the ignition. His Kawasaki Ninja had an inline four cylinder, 16 valve, liquid cooled engine with a top speed above 240 KPH. He had already made that speed and more. He knew nobody was going to mess with his bike because everybody at Chubby’s knew whose motorcycle it was. At the bar he ordered a Bud Burger and a cold pint.

   “How’s the eye?” the bartender asked. “It looks good. At least, no more pirate’s patch.”

   “Yeah, but I waited too long to get it fixed,” the biker said. “The doc says I’ll probably be more blind than not in that eye from here on. It doesn’t matter, I can still see enough out of the other one to take care of my business.”

   He ate fast and downed his beer. When he left, he paid cash with a new one-hundred-dollar bill.

   “Where do you keep finding these?” the bartender asked.

   “Pennies from heaven, my man, pennies from the main man” the biker said, leaving him a tip of a half dozen shiny loonies.

   Getting on his glam motorcycle in the dusk he thought, I’ve got to be more careful about that.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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On the Track

By Ed Staskus

  “Oy, where is it you are coming from?” William Murphy asked the 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 dead. As the ferryman was spitting out his last breath, the cat jumped out of his pocket and scurried to the side. He watched Bill Murphy roll push kick Tom Spate into the Stanley River. He floated face down into the New London Bay.

   That was the end of Queen Victoria’s would-be killer, 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 kitten was striped and 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 while writing about the Green Gables girl. 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 half-breed 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 smashed in the back of her head with a grubbing hoe.

   Ann was 41 years old and a spinster. She was lonely but had a one-year-old daughter. Nobody knew who had gotten Ann pregnant. She had a lot of explaining to do but kept it a secret. She called the bun in the oven her snapper. When she found the kitten, having wandered away from his litter, she called him Snapper. 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 and raisin pie 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 asked.

   Ann said she knew the way back like the back of her hand and besides, she 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 young one herself. Ann was found dead the next day laying in a ditch at the back of her brother’s farm, day-old blood 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 gush forth. At the end of the viewing everybody was in the clear. The killer was still on the loose.

   Snapper stayed alert as Bill 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 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,” the clergyman said by way of a sour eulogy.

   Snapper watched 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 she 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 had done their best to forget all about it.

   The kitten was sleeping in the back of a wagon one day 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 comfortable and went with the flow. The flow was towards the northwest. The wagon stopped overnight at Saint Andrews and the next night at 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, the kitten 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 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 bruises to prove it.

   He wasn’t overly distressed to see the dead as a doornail Tom Spate floating away. Bill Murphy was his kind of man, gruff but not mean-hearted. “I have never known anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible,” he thought. Snapper stayed where he was, 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.

   Snapper saw a lighthouse in the distance. It was weather-beaten. He was nearsighted and needed spectacles but saw well enough a few feet past his nose. He made good use of his nose and ears for everything closer. 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 washboard with home-made laundry soap. She pressed what clothes needed to pressed using an iron she heated on her kitchen stove. Snapper didn’t own or wear clothes and thought it was 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 Bill Murphy was staying and started pawing at 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 Bill Murphy’s bed that night. He made himself small and pressed himself against the man’s feet. The Irishman wasn’t a tosser and turner, which suited the 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 and nights.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Shock Wave

By Ed Staskus

   “When Britain is at war, Canada is at war,” Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier said in 1910. “There is no distinction.” Four years later when Britain entered World War One, Canada signed on, too.  In August 1914 the Governor-General of Canada vowed that “if unhappily war should ensue, the Canadian people will be united in a common resolve to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honor of our Empire”

   Empires are made by plundering and slaughtering. They are always sure of the rightness of their cause. They never go down without a fight. It doesn’t matter if there’s any honor in the fighting, or not. They plow straight ahead.

   The country had no air force, a navy fit for a bathtub, and an army of 3,000-some men.  By the end of the war more than 600,000 Canadians had enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight for King and Country and more than 400,000 of them served in Europe, out of a population of fewer than 8 million nationwide.

   “The Empire Needs Men” is what the posters said. “All answer the CALL! Helped by the YOUNG LIONS the OLD LION defies his foes. ENLIST NOW!”

   Everybody wanted in on the fight because everybody thought it would be over by Christmas. Canadians lined up to support the British Empire and collect steady pay of $1.10 a day. The harvest that year was bad, and unemployment was soaring. But machine guns fired ten times as many bullets a minute as they were paid pennies a day. Hundreds of thousands on all sides were slaughtered week by month by year by the rapid-firing weapons on the Western Front.

   At the beginning of the war, it was better to be killed than wounded. The wounded were taken off battlefields in horse-drawn wagons or on mules with baskets on their sides, the baskets soaked and dripping with men bleeding to death. There wasn’t any such thing as a dressing. If they made it to a train station, they were transported to hospitals. “One of those trains dumped about 500 badly wounded men and left them lying between the tracks in the rain, with no cover whatsoever,” said Harvey Cushing, the head of the Harvard Unit of volunteer doctors at the American Ambulance Hospital of Paris.

   Nearly 60,000 Canadians were killed, most of them the result of enemy action, and more than 170,000 of them were wounded. Almost 3.500 men and one woman had at least one arm or leg amputated. Private Curley Christian lost all four limbs but survived.

   During the Battle of Vimy Ridge he was unloading cargo from trucks when an artillery shell hit next to where he was, trapping him under debris for several days. When stretcher bearers tried to reach him, they were killed by more artillery. When he was finally rescued, he was transported to a military hospital and from there to London. His arms and legs had gone gangrenous and all four were sawed off.

   When he got back to Canada he was fitted with prosthetic limbs and married Cleopatra McPherson. He deigned his own prosthesis for writing. Cleo and he had a son who twenty years later served in World War Two.

   More than 7,000 Prince Edward Islander’s enlisted. Five hundred of them were killed and more than a 1,000 wounded. Tommy Murphy went overseas with a siege battery in 1915. Before he went, he got married to Freya O’Sullivan and got her pregnant. He got word of his son Danny’s birth by telegram while taking a break in an ankle-deep puddle of water sheltering in a trench during the Third Battle of Artois. 

   He had spent eight days at the front and was due for four days in a reserve trench and then four more days at a rest camp. When the bloodletting went on and on and the ranks thinned out, he never made it to the reserve trench much less the rest camp. It was that kind of a war. The Allied and Central Powers fought the same battles over and over.

   The British French and Canadians assembled seventeen infantry and two cavalry divisions for the offensive at Artois, backed by 630 field guns and 420 heavy artillery guns. During the fighting the field artillery fired 1.5 million rounds and the heavy artillery 250,000 rounds at the Germans defenses. Tommy Murphy barely slept for days. Whenever he took a break, he felt like his arms were going to fall off after loading shells until there weren’t any more to load. He knew he had sent his share of Germans to Hell even though he never saw one of them die.

   When the Allies tried to advance, they suffered 40% casualties. The battle went on from late September to mid-October when it ground to a halt in the middle of a never-ending autumn rainstorm and mutual exhaustion. By that time both sides were conserving ammunition because they were running out of it. They spent the rest of the month burying their dead, tending to their wounded, and withdrawing.

   Tommy was a cannon man because he was taller than five feet seven inches and burly enough to do the heavy work of feeding artillery. He didn’t have flat feet or bad eyesight, He didn’t have the greatest teeth, but explained he was enlisting to fight Germans, not bite them. He could have begged off the war because he was married, but he was patriotic and wanted to do his fair share. Money from the Canadian Patriotic Fund helped his wife keep the home fire burning.

   His battery had a lance corporal scout sniper attached to it. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow was an Aboriginal who could split a bullseye nobody else could even see. He had more than 300 kills to his name. He roamed No Man’s Land at night for them, seeking out enemy snipers and forward spotters. He always came back in the morning. The other side never made it back to their side.

   He wore moccasins instead of army boots, chewed dead twigs whenever he sensed danger, and always carried a medicine bag. “When I was at training camp on Lake Superior in 1914, some of us landed from our vessel to gather blueberries near an Ojibwa settlement,” he said. “An old Indian recognized me and gave me a tiny medicine bag to protect me, saying I would shortly go into great danger. The bag was of skin tightly bound with a leather throng. Sometimes it seemed to be hard as a rock, at other times it appeared to contain nothing. What was inside of the bag I do not know.”

   Tommy had signed up for short service and when 1915 was over and done and it was April 1916, he was done with his one year on the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His commanding officer tried to convince him to re-enlist, but he had a wife, a child, and a farm that needed him. He didn’t need to kill anymore Germans. He was sick of the butchery. Three men from North Rustico were already dead. He didn’t want to be next. He knew if he re-enlisted it was only a matter of time before he went home in a box to be buried on Church Hill Rd.

   He got out when the going was good. The next year enlistments dried up as men near and far began to realize the toll the new style combat on the Western Front was taking. Machine gun fire and shell fire was murderous. On top of that there was poison gas. The dead were left where they fell. They were left for the rats. In May 1917 the government announced conscription through the Military Service Act. The rats stood up and cheered.

   It was easier getting into the army than it was getting out. He finally found a ride on a troop transport from Calais to Dover, took a train to London, and spent the night at a whore house with a razzle dazzle girl. He took a steam bath the next morning and had lunch at a corner fish and chip shop eating cod with a splash of vinegar and a full pint at his elbow. He followed the first pint with a second pint and was happy for it. He had a ticket for passage to Halifax in his wallet, but it was a week away. His grandfather had come from Ireland, or so the family story went, and done something big for the Crown, who rewarded him with 400 acres of PEI shoreline. He unfolded a map and located Dublin. It was directly across the Irish Sea from Liverpool.

   He bought a train ticket to Liverpool and the next morning landed in Dublin. It was Easter Monday. The Easter Rising had happened yesterday. The Easter Rising was happening today. 

   After landing at the Dublin Port, he followed the River Liffey, making for Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His plan was to find a room for a few days and have dinner. He would explore the rest of the city after a good night’s sleep. He was wearing his Canadian Army uniform over a pair of Spring Needle underwear and carrying a rucksack. He had his toiletries, four pairs of clean socks, his rolled up military wool overcoat, and a paper bag full of Huntley & Palmer biscuits in it. The biscuits were so hard they would crack a man’s teeth at the first bite if not soaked in tea beforehand.

   His papers and money were in a travel wallet attached to his belt. He had his Colt New Service revolver on his belt, too, for what it was worth now that his war was over. An hour later he was glad he had it, after he got it back, although he wasn’t sure if he was going to need it to protect himself from the Irish or the British.

   Dublin Castle was in the middle of the old part of the city. The city got its name from the Black Pool, the ‘Dubh Linn,’ where the rivers Liffey and Poddle met. It was where the castle was. It had been a Gaelic ring fort in the beginning, a long time ago. Later, after the Vikings showed up, it was a Viking fort. For the past 700 years it had been a British fort, the seat of their rule in Ireland. 

   Tommy didn’t have anything against the British, but after a year of serving in their army, he thought the Irish might be better served ruling themselves. They couldn’t do worse. During the year he served on the Western Front three quarters of a million Jacks and John Bulls were killed. It made him sick to think of the men he had seen obeying orders to attack barbed wire and machines guns across open fields. Another few million men went wounded and missing. The broken might survive, but he didn’t think the missing were coming back anytime soon.

   He was glad to be out of it. It hadn’t ended by Christmas of 1914. It still wasn’t over by Christmas of 1915. The next Christmas was in eight months and the talk was it would take a half-dozen more holidays to either win or lose the war. He meant to say a prayer in St. Patrick’s Cathedral before dinner. 

   He didn’t get a chance to say a prayer, find a room, or have dinner. He lost his chance when he came across the bridge leading to Trinity College, turned the corner towards Dublin Castle, and found himself face to face with a Mauser semi-automatic pistol. He knew exactly what it was. He stood stock still exactly where he was. The hand on the firearm was a woman’s hand. She was wearing an old military hat and a yellow armband.

   “Hand’s up and on the wall, boyo,” she said, a second woman coming up behind him. The second woman was wearing a bandolier laden with a half dozen hand grenades. She had a revolver. It looked like it came from the Middle Ages. He did what she said. She patted him down and took his Colt.

   “Who are you and what are you doing here?” she asked.

   “Tommy Murphy, Canadian Army, from Prince Edward Island by way of a year in France,” he said. “I’m here to take in the sights before going home. Now that we’re talking, I thought Ireland was sitting the war out.”

   “We ask the questions,” the woman wearing the bandolier spit out.

   “Come on,” the woman with the Mauser said, poking him in the small of the back with the barrel of the gun.

   The streets leading to the city center were barricaded. When they got to the General Post Office, he saw there were two green flags flying in place of the Union Jack. They said “Irish Republic” in gold letters. He knew there was no such thing as an Irish Republic. 

   “What’s going on?”  

   “We’re rocking the casbah,” the grenade girl said.

   There was a man outside the post office reading from a broadsheet. It was the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic.” There were copies of it pasted on walls. Newsboys were handing them out to anybody who wanted one. Not everybody wanted one. Most of them didn’t understand what was happening. The grenade girl handed him a copy. “Read this,” she said. There were men with rifles and shotguns on the roofs of buildings overlooking bridges.

   “Who’s this?” said a man wearing a scrap of paper pinned to his breast. It said “Citizen Army.”

   “We found him down the street, Sean.”

   Sean was Sean Mac Duiarmada, one of Commander-in-Chief Patrick Pearce’s right-hand men.

   “He’s Canadian,” Sean said pointing to Tommy’s regimental badge and the “CANADA” title at the end of his shoulder straps.

   “We thought he was a Brit.”

   “They’ll be here soon enough,” Sean said.

   There were 1,200 rebels waiting for 20,000 British troops to arrive.

   A shot rang out in the distance and Margaret Keogh fell down dead. She was a 19-year-old nurse tending to a wounded Citizen Army man. She was the first person to die during the Rising of Easter Week.

   A team of Volunteers trotted past on their way to the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park. They took all the weapons and ammunition they could carry and blew up the rest. When the son of the fort’s commander tried to raise the alarm, he was shot dead. He was the second person to die.

   “You’re free to go,” Sean said to Tommy. “Best you leave Dublin all together.”

   “What about my sidearm?”

   Sean nodded to the grenade girl, and she handed Tommy’s Colt back to him.

   When a contingent of the Citizen’s Army approached Dublin Castle, the police sentry James O’Brien ordered them to halt. He was shot dead even though he was unarmed. He was the third person to die. When British troops showed up the rebels retreated to City Hall, stormed up to the roof, and fired down on the troops in the street. The man commanding the rebel contingent, Sean Connolly, was shot dead by a sniper, the first rebel and fourth person killed.

   Tommy carefully made his way back to the docklands and the port. He boarded the same boat he had come on. An hour later the boat was steaming into Dublin Bay on its way back to Liverpool. Eight hours later he was asleep in a room of a boarding house on the waterfront, not far from the Three Graces.

   The next morning was cold and damp. Women were out in the streets with their long-handled push brooms. They were called Sweepers. Others were in homes cleaning and scrubbing. They were called Dailies. Many more were at work in munitions factories. They were called Munitionettes. Liverpool’s men were on the Royal Navy’s battleships and in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. They were called Cannon Fodder.

   Tommy found a greasy spoon near the port and ordered breakfast, eggs back bacon sausage baked beans a fried tomato fried mushrooms fried bread and black pudding. The Liverpool Daily Post headline screamed “REBELLION!” There was no need for him to read about it. He thought he might have this same breakfast at midday and tonight. Somebody once said, “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.”

   He put the newspaper aside. Pushing himself away from the table, he checked his ticket for Canada. He tucked it securely away with his service revolver. Tommy Murphy was going to keep himself safe and sound until his boat sailed for home. Once he was out of the frying pan that was burning and smoking on another man’s stove, he was going to stay out of it.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

Theatre PEI

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Guardian Angel

By Ed Staskus

   The night Siobhan Murphy died in 1901 was the same night Queen Victoria died almost five thousand kilometers away. Siobhan was hit on the head when Father Georges Belcourt’s one-seater fell on her. The horseless carriage killed her just as fast as the horse who kicked her husband in the head many years before killed him. 

   Her last thought was of the day she first met William Murphy in Cavendish, of her first look at him. She knew in a flash what he was about when he looked at her and knew what her answer would be. After her last lightning-fast thought she went down into the darkness, taking her last breath.

   Siobhan lay dead under the steam-powered car in her barn all day before anybody noticed. She didn’t feel sorry for herself. She knew she wouldn’t be forgotten. Flies buzzed around her. Her cat wandered in and lay down beside her. There was nothing he could do except keep her company. The sun went from one end of the sky to the other. Queen Victoria died in Osborne House of a stroke in her sleep, in a palatial bed surrounded by her family, under a full moon.

   Father Belcourt bought the car that killed Siobhan from a man in New Jersey in 1866. It was unloaded at Charlottetown and pulled to the Farmer’s Bank in Rustico by a team of horses. Nobody except the priest knew how to work the self-propelled wagon. He had a letter explaining its operation. He was keeping it close to the vest in the meantime.

   “Be careful father,” one of his parishioners said pulling him aside. “The devil could be in that tank.”

   If he was, he was hunched over and hot as hell. The steam chamber was four feet high, and the motor was connected to the wheels by a chain. The car had no suspension, no windshield, and no roof. Father Belcourt kept it in a shed beside the bank. The Farmer’s Bank was organized soon after the priest arrived there in 1859. One of the first things that jumped out at him was the economic hardship of his flock. What he did was establish a Catholic Institute to bring parishioners together. Everybody had to agree to be teetotalers. The second thing he did was create the credit union to provide loans to farmers at Christian rates of interest. The third thing he did was buy the car to be able to get out to see the sick and homebound.

   The priest was from Quebec and had been in the business of saving souls for more than thirty years before arriving in Rustico. He led missions in Manitoba and North Dakota and fought it out with the Hudson’s Bay Company over their compensation to the natives who delivered furs to the trading company. But when he demanded the savages swear off liquor as he demanded for conversion, they were unwilling to give up their Hudson’s Bay Company-supplied booze.

   He didn’t give up working for them, working up a petition for redress of wrongs. When he got a thousand of the savages to sign the petition about the company’s selfishness and discrimination, a petition he meant to send to Queen Victoria, Earl Gray the Colonial Secretary threw it away and had Father Belcourt arrested for inciting discontent. The Archbishop of Quebec had to step into the fray. He got the charges retracted but sent the priest far away to Prince Edward Island. 

   Father Belcourt retired as the pastor of Rustico in 1869 and moved to Shediac, New Brunswick, but couldn’t get islands off his mind. He pled to pastor a parish on the Magdelen Islands. It wasn’t long before he was on a boat out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the Archbishop of Quebec’s expeditious blessing. Before he sailed, he asked Siobhan Murphy if he could store his steam-powered car on her farm. 

   “Of course,” she said.

   The horseless carriage had forgotten how to get up and go and had to be towed there by a team of horses.

   Siobhan had gotten into the habit of burying her money in a hole at the backside of the barn. When the bank got going, she dug it up and put it in the bank. She didn’t know it, but she was one of the biggest holders of the credit union. In 1893, a year before the bank closed, after her son Bill told her the bank would be closing soon, she withdrew all her money and buried it in the ground again. 

   She had raised six children on her farm outside North Rustico. She raised them by herself. Siobhan knew the value of a dollar better than most. She wasn’t a miser, but she was frugal. When the shipbuilding business in Atlantic Canada collapsed in the 1880s and her son Sean was thrown out of work, she paid for his passage to the United States, where he joined Michael, her youngest. 

   Half of the island’s economy disappeared when shipbuilding disappeared. Thousands of islanders migrated to the Boston States looking for work in factories and domestic service. By the time Siobhan died more than a third of everybody on the island was gone. She never saw Sean and Michael again. Her three daughters all married, one of them going to Summerside, one to Acadian land, while Biddy stayed nearby in Stanley Bridge. She married a fisherman who was good at getting eels. They had seven children by the turn of the century.

   In the mid-1880s, unhappy that their winter mail and passenger service was still relying on iceboats, islanders started demanding a fixed link to the mainland by way of a railway tunnel.

Siobhan rarely got mail and never left the island and didn’t care if there were iceboats tunnels or bridges. The tunnel never got built, no matter how many folks demanded it.

   In 1895 Robert Oulton and Charles Dalton become the first men on Prince Edward Island to successfully breed silver foxes in captivity. They brought a litter of foxes with a vein of silver in their fur to maturity near Tignish, on the far west end of the island. They did it by mating red and black foxes. After that the gold rush was on. They shared the secret of their success and breeding stock with a small circle and before long the small circle was getting rich. When word started to get out, the fox boom was on. When Bill Murphy heard about it, his ears pricked up. It was early fall 1900. When he told his mother about it, she dug up the family money buried behind the barn and laid it out on the kitchen table.

   She knew there was a livelihood and even a fortune to be made from fur. The explorer Samuel de Champlain was in the fur trade three hundred years earlier. Alexander Mackenzie, the first European to go cross-country and reach the Pacific Ocean, was in the fur trade. John McLaughlin, who built forts in Vancouver and established the Oregon territory, was in the fur trade.

   The Hudson’s Bay Company and North-West Company were in the business of hunting and killing bears, beaver, fox, deer, buffalo, mink, otter, and seal for their skins. Every Victorian woman in the Americas and Europe coveted a fur coat, but as the century raced to a close there weren’t enough wild animals left to answer the demand. Fur farms became the answer.

   “Charlie Dalton and another man have got a fur farm out on Cherry Island,” Bill said. “They’ve been raising foxes in pens and have somehow got it so that the females stay quiet. They sold two breeding pairs to Silas Rayner up in Kildare and he’s making it work, too. Bob Tuplin bought a breeding pair for $340.00 and has gone into a partnership with Jimmy Gordon at Black Banks.”

   “That is a bushel full of money,” Siohhan said.

   Farm hands on Prince Edward Island made about $25.00 a month. After a year they might have been able to buy one breeding fox, but it takes two to tango.

   Bill leaned across the table. “Charlie sold one of his pelts in London for almost two thousand dollars.”

   Siobhan was amazed and said so.

   “Charlie and the Raynor’s and some others are setting up what they call the Big Six Combine. They plan on keeping their secret a secret, not produce too many pelts, and keep the price sky high.”

   “What’s their secret?” Siobhan asked.

   “One of their secrets is the wire they use, which they import from England. The foxes don’t seem to mind it. Charlie builds his pens with it. The wire stays free of rust and shiny. They keep one breeding pair in one wire pen with a wooden kennel.”

   “How do they keep the foxes from climbing or digging their way out?”

  “They build sidewalls slanting in and add overhangs. To keep them from burrowing, they dig trenches and bury wire in the ground. They put catch boxes in corners and along the guard fences to trap any of them trying to escape.”

   “I would build a watchtower, valuable as the animals are.”

   “Charlie’s got watchtowers.”

   “It must be hard on him if a fox does escape.” 

   “He pays schoolboys to hunt them down on weekends. There might be a boy or two who ends up going to Saint Dunstan’s with that money.”

   “What does he feed the foxes?”

   “He mixes fowl livers, junk fish, raw horsemeat, tripe, and offal with water. They eat about the same as a cat does, about a half pound a day. If a vixen can’t make milk for her pups, he brings in a nursing cat. He keeps the pups in good health, making sure they don’t have mites or worms.”

   “How do they go about getting the pelts without damaging them?”

   “Charlie pokes poison into their chest cavities. I hear he might get a stunner from Norway, which kills the foxes on the spot. He’s got a fleshing machine that cuts the flesh from the pelt and sucks the fat into a tank. He cleans the pelt by putting it into a spinning drum filled with corn grit. Then he dries it on a wood board cut through with ventilation holes.”

   “Do you think you can make it work like Charlie’s done?”

   “Yes.”

   “How do you know all this about farming fox furs?” Siobhan asked.

   “It’s a secret,” Bill said.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

Theatre PEI

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Lost and Found

By Ed Staskus

   When the Chevy Silverado pick-up in front of him swerved suddenly to the left, JT Markunas pushed on the brake pedal of his police car, slowing down. The pick-up stopped on the shoulder on the left side of Route 6 just as JT saw what it was that had made the driver swerve. It was a woman in a house dress crossing the road, looking steadily ahead but not for approaching traffic. She looked unsteady. He pulled off and turned on his flashers.

   The pick-up driver was leading the woman by the elbow away from the road.

   “She almost walked right into my truck,” he said.

   “Do you know who she is?” 

   “No, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m making a delivery to French River, coming up from Stratford. I thought I would go along the coast. Christ, I almost hit a dog down by Oyster Bed Bridge and now this. Next time I’m taking the highway.”

   JT put the woman in the front seat of his car and called in that he was going to try to find out where she lived and get her back to her home.

   “How are you feeling?” he asked.

   “Good, but I’m cold,” the woman said.

   He turned the car’s heating on, directing the vents at her.

   “Where do you live? Here in South Rustico?” 

   She pointed up Route 243 in the direction of St. Augustine’s. He swung his police car around turning in a tight circle and drove slowly up the road. 

   “Along here?” he asked.   

   “No,” she said. “Up that way.”

   When they got to the church he stopped and asked again.

   “I don’t know,” she said. “Somewhere that way,” pointing to their left.

   “What color is your house?”

   The woman looked at the church, ignoring his question. “Everybody went to church back when I was a girl. Especially here in a small community like this. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming. My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky. Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”

   “You have a good memory,” JT said.

   “Oh, yes,” she said. “My school was run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Most of them came from the islands.” The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “There were four classrooms and eleven grades. The nuns were one hundred percent French. My French is fluid to this day.”

   South Rustico is where Route 6 and Church Road cross. There is a beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park. The Rustico lands were some of the oldest communities established in La Nouvelle Acadie after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. 

   “I once went to mass at St. Augustine’s twice in twelve hours,” said the woman’s husband from the grave. Archie was the woman’s dead husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning, they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I say, what, did I die? When I did, I thought, I got to be desperate for a girlfriend.”

   “You must have really liked me,” his sweetheart said.

   Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s was an old church when Ida Arsenault and Archie Thomson got married there in 1941. “Her foster mother hosted our dinner at the Charlottetown Hotel and the party afterwards was at their house,” said Archie. “The barn was behind the house, and they brewed homemade beer. Ida and I didn’t have five cents to rub together, but we were young and ready to go.”

   Ida Arsenault was born at home in 1917. She grew up in what became the Barachois Inn on the Church Road. A barachois is like a bayou, a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.

   “When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died the next day,” she said. “It was too much for her.”

   Her father, Jovite Arsenault, a farmer with nine children, owned a house behind the church and the croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Ida, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns.

   Ida and her sister, Elsy, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest end of the island. Ida became a ward of the Boucher’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, on the front side of the church. “It was just a few minutes away,” she said. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my new parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”

   The Boucher’s were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. They were childless. “I was spoiled rotten since I was their only child,” Ida said. “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a black Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once-in-a-while.”

   Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Ida. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”

   One of her aunts lived a few miles away in Cymbria on Route 242. She washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. There were thirteen children in the family. They didn’t have running water or electricity. “When I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up, there was meat and butter in the bucket. That was their refrigeration.”

   “When did they get power and plumbing?” JT asked.

   “In the 1950s when they moved across the street into an old schoolhouse,” Ida said.

   “Where were you going when I found you on the road?”

   “I don’t know,” Ida said. “Maybe I was going to visit my auntie, but I’m not sure.”

   Archie was born in Thorold, Ontario a year after Ida. “My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and that’s where we moved,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence River and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting on top of the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, anybody can watch cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level barely an arm’s length away.

   He enlisted with the Royal Canadian Navy on his twenty-first birthday. It was 1939. During World War Two Canada commanded the fifth largest navy in the world. Archie met Ida when she was in nursing school in Halifax, where he was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Ida. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” She and her friend enrolled, and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.

   After graduating, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Christie Street Veterans Hospital in Toronto. It was a Collegiate Gothic building originally built as the National Cash Register Company factory in 1913. “They gave us $45.00 a month to live on.” She and Archie dated long-distance by mail and phone. They got together when they could. When they did, they jumped into each other’s arms.

   “Whenever I got leave, I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit my parents in Thorold. That’s how I introduced her to my family.” At the same time, Ida was introducing Archie to Prince Edward Island. It was a long drive alone.

   “I took the S. S. Charlottetown across the strait when we were dating,” said Archie. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road. There would be a hundred cars full of frozen men inching along in the morning trying to get on the first ferry.”

   In the gray of winter, crossing the Northumberland Strait from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Archie stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching as the heavy boat broke through thick ice.

   “It would crunch blocks of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.

   One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to South Rustico, coming off the ferry in December and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road. “The road went down a valley and there was five feet of snow piled up,” Archie said. He reversed his 1935 Chrysler Airflow back to where the rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving. I shut it off and caught my breath.”

   Archie gave Ida a ring. She gave him a stack of books for his next sea voyage. They hardly saw each other after that as her man sailed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. In June the S. S. Charlottetown sank on her way to a dry dock in Saint John for an overhaul. The boat was four miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. The crew rowed to safety in their lifeboats. Two tugs tried to get to the vessel but turned around in the heavy fog. When she was finally refloated the flow of water into her couldn’t be stemmed.

   “We were in Lisbon when I got a message from Ida that she and my mother had decided on December 8th for our marriage,” Archie said. The executive order said to be ready. “I went to the radio communications on board and sent a telegraph confirming my agreement.” They were married the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.

   “Stay in the car, Ida,” JT said. “I’m going to the church for a minute.” He was hoping to find somebody who would know where she lived. But there was nobody to ask. All the doors were locked, and he didn’t see any parked cars anywhere. He went back to his police car.

   “That’s where I live,” Ida said pointing through the windshield at the Barachois Inn up the street from the church.

   “That’s a hotel,” JT said.

   “That’s where I live,” Ida repeated.

   When JT knocked on the door with Ida standing behind him, a woman wearing an apron answered.

   “Can I help you? she asked until she spotted Ida. “Where did you find her?”

   “Trying to cross Route 6,” he said.

   “Oh, dear.”

   “She said she lives here.”

   “She did when she was a child.”

   “Do you know where lives now.”

   “Yes,” the woman said, and gave him directions, describing the house. “She has a neighbor by the name of Bernie Doiron. He tries to keep an eye on her, but he’s a farmhand and works most days.”

   “Thanks for your help. If you don’t mind my asking, how old is this house?”

   “It was more than a hundred years old when we bought it,” the woman said. “It was built by a merchant back then, a man by the name of Joseph Gallant, so we call it the Gallant House. My husband and I had planned on living here, restoring it, which we still do, but we converted it into a bed and breakfast two years later.”

   Back in the car Ida said she was hungry.

   “We ate fish, mussels, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl. That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I got married, I never had Italian food. After I got married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee, what’s that?”

   JT found her house easily enough, helped get Ida inside, and boiled water for tea. He waited until she was resting easy in her easy chair before leaving. He shot her a two-finger salute off the brim of his cap.

   “Thank you, Mr. Policeman,” she said. “Can you come back soon and take me for another walk?”

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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Queen and Country

By Ed Staskus

   William Murphy was a shrewd careful man who knew how to get things done. It was why Prince Albert sent him to Prince Edward Island on the American-built clipper ship Antelope of Boston to kill the man who had tried to kill his wife. It didn’t matter that he was an Irishman sent to gun down an Englishman. When it came to killing each other the Irish and English were good at it.

   “Either bring the evil-minded blackguard back to be hung or put him in the ground where you find him and spare us the trouble,” the consort to Queen Victoria said.

   He nearly lost his chance when he stepped out of the long boat landing him on the north coast of the island too soon for comfort and almost drowned. The water was deeper near the shore of the cove than anyone thought. He sank to the bottom not knowing how to swim and only made it back up on the back of one of the sailors who knew how to at least dog paddle.

   The man he was after was Thomas Spate, a disgruntled veteran of the Crimean War. When he was awarded the Crimea Medal, he threw it away. When he was one of the first soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery in action during the Battle of Balaclava, he thought about throwing it away, too, but kept it. He wore it every day pinned on his coat over his heart.

   During the war Queen Victoria knitted woolens for the troops and inspected military hospitals, wearing a custom-made red army jacket. When the war ended, she threw a series of victory balls in her new ballroom. Tom Spate watched from outside, driving himself crazy. He was alone and down on his luck. He blamed everybody except himself for the bad things that happened to him. He walked incessantly, from one end of London to the other. He goose-stepped up and down Hyde Park. Small groups gathered to watch the performance. Queen Victoria saw him often enough to become familiar with him, although she never approached or spoke to him.

   During one of his walks around London he spied Queen Victoria and Prince Albert outside Cambridge House. As their carriage left, it came to a stop outside the gate. Tom Spate had taken to carrying two old-fashioned flintlock coat pocket pistols. They were always loaded. He walked up to the carriage and pulled them out of his coat. He straightened one arm and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He brought the other pistol to bear and pulled the trigger. It misfired. He had just enough time to strike his monarch on the head with the butt of one of the guns before Prince Albert lunged at him, shoving him away from the carriage. Men on the walk swarmed the would-be assassin and beat him almost to death.

   Queen Victoria stood up in her carriage and proclaimed in a firm voice, “I am not hurt,” even though she was gushing blood from a deep gash on her forehead. The blood was lit a violent red on her yellow crocheted shawl.

   Tom Spate was arrested imprisoned tried convicted and sentenced to transportation and twenty years hard labor in the penal colony on Tasmania. There was no appeal. There was no changing anybody’s mind.

   “I would have had the rascal drawn and quartered,” Prince Albert complained, speaking his mind.

   When he escaped his jailers and disappeared, Prince Albert summoned Bill Murphy, a mercenary who it was said always got his man. He told his monarch’s man as much. It took more than a year, but in the spring of 1859, he was making his way soaking wet up the hill from the cove to the village of North Rustico. He knew where Tom Spate was and knew he could take his time. He needed to get out of his sopping clothes. He needed a hot cider and dinner. He needed a good night’s sleep in a feather bed on dry land that didn’t heave-ho all night long. He found the only boarding house in North Rustico and took a room.

   Bill Murphy’s man was living on the far side of the Stanley River, nine miles northwest up the coast. The Irishman grew up calling miles chains. His man was 720 chains away. It would take him about three hours to walk there on the coastal footpath. He had no intention of dragging anybody back to England in chains. “Jesus and Mary chain,” he grumbled. He had every intention of collecting his bounty.

   Tom Spate lived in a rough-and-ready hut he had thrown together, living in it with his new wife and new baby. He had no land to farm and no craft to make his way. He made his way by operating a ferry service from one side of the Stanley River to the other. In the winter he closed it down when the water froze, and folks either walked or ice skated across. In January the ice got thick enough that horses and wagons could cross. He bought ice skates, carved sticks with a curve at the bottom, and made homemade pucks. His wife rented them to youngsters with eggs, butter, salt cod, and potatoes in hand in trade for playing shinny on the ice. It was a game of fast skating and trying to hit the puck between two sticks of wood marking the goal.

   Most of North Rustico was Acadian French, and Catholic like Bill Murphy. The north coast was the religious center for the church. St. Augustine’s had been built twenty years earlier. It boasted an 80-foot-high front tower. A man could see everything from the top of it. The harbor was filled with boats and the fishing was good. There were cattle and horses grazing and fields of turnip and cabbage.

   Piles of mud dotted the fronts of fields. On his way to make Tom Spate meet his maker, stopping to rest, he asked a passing man what it was.

   “It is mussel mud,” the man, a farmer, said. “The land needs lime to breathe new life into it. We use the mud from bays and riverbeds. It’s filled with oyster shells.”

   He didn’t ask why they called it mussel mud instead of oyster mud. “Do you dig it up?” he asked.

   “We go out in canoes at high tide and dam up a small space so we can dig it from the bottom. When we are full, we go back and unload it at low tide.”

   “It sounds like a great deal of work.”

   “It is, but without the mud we would starve on the farms, both man and beast. I couldn’t keep one horse but for it. Your cow needs at least a ton of hay to survive the winter. We have been doubling our harvests with the mud. We will have more of it soon.”

   “How’s that?” 

   “We have got a man engineering a mechanical digger to harvest the mud in the winter through holes in the ice and carry it across the island by sleigh. There’s talk that we will be able to increase our crops of hay five and ten times. And then there’s the ice besides. We cover it in sawdust and put it into an icehouse, and we can preserve foods that would go bad in the summer’s heat.”

   Bill Murphy parted with the farmer, shaking his hand. He liked what he heard about mussel mud. It was a sunny day and the uplands looked fine to him.

   When he got to the Stanley River, he rang a bell hanging from a post. Tom Spate’s face appeared at a window on the other side. He waved and the next minute was guiding his flatboat across the water, using a rope anchored to oak trees. He pushed with a pole along the riverbed. Bill Murphy paid him his two pennies and put his back to a pillar as Tom Spate pushed off.

   Near the middle of the river the Irishman felt for the sidearm in his pocket. He carried the new Beaumont-Adams percussion revolver. The cylinder held five rounds, just in case, although he knew he wasn’t going to miss his man with his first shot. He intended to be standing face to face with him when he dispatched the villain. He walked up to Tom Spate.

   “Thomas Spate, I have a message for you from your queen,” he said.

   Tom Spate’s face went white as a corpse when the barrel of the gun pressed into his chest, pressing against his Victoria Cross.

   “For God’s sake, I have a wife and child.”

   “For crown and country,” Bill Murphy said and pulled the trigger. The bullet rocketed out of the barrel, hitting and driving the medal into Tom Spate’s heart, ripping the spirit and strength out of it, and putting an end to the unhappy war veteran’s life.

   Bill Murphy stood over him and decided in a moment of keenness that he was going to stay on Prince Edward Island. There was nothing in Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom for him other than more killing and waiting for the day he would be the one killed. He had neither wife nor family. He would find a colleen here, he thought. He would have sons. He would raise horses fed with abundant hay grown in the good graces of mussel mud. He didn’t love his fellow man, but he loved horses. 

   He bent a knee and using both hands widened the hole in Tom Spate’s chest. He stuck his fingers into the man, feeling for the bullet and the medal. He couldn’t find the bullet at first but found the Victoria Cross easily enough. He yanked out the medal cast from the cascabels of two cannons captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopal. He searched some more for the bullet until he found it. He washed the blood on his hands off in the river water. He kicked the body off the ferry and into the river. It bobbed and started floating out to the ocean.

   He poled the ferry to the side he had come from and walked back to North Rustico. In his room he packaged the bullet the medal and a letter in a stout envelope. The letter didn’t have a word in it about what he had done, only asking for land on the shoreline where he had landed, and the right to name the cove “Murphy’s Cove.”

   He posted the letter in Charlottetown, paying an extra penny to make it a “Registered Letter.” It would sail on the Gazette to Liverpool the next week. He hoped to have a reply by the fall. In the meantime, he would start building a house on the western side of the cove. The land might already be owned by somebody, but it was nearly all forest. Whoever the landlord was, it was still waiting for a tenant, or the man in the moon. When and if he showed up, Bill Murphy was sure he could set him straight.

   He sat in his room and fired up his Meerschaum pipe. When he was young and poor, he smoked spone. It was coltsfoot mixed with wild rose petals. Now he carried good tobacco in his purse. The smoke curled up from his Irish clay. The kitten he had brought back with him from the no-contest on the Stanley River watched the smoke, avid and curious.

   “All the old haunts and the dear friends, all the things I used to do, the hopes and dreams of boyhood days, they all pass me in review.” It was a song they still sang in military barracks. He had been dragooned into the army while a lad after being plied with drink by a sergeant in a pub. He took the “Queen’s Shilling” and there was no going back, especially after he deserted and went to work for himself, plying his trade. 

   The only window of his room faced west. The setting sun slanted in, warming his face. When he was done with his pipe he would go downstairs for haddock, potatoes, and beer. Until then, he would smoke and let his plans unwind themselves in the back of his mind.

Queen Victoria and Prince Consort, 1859. Painting by George Houseman Thomas.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Girl in the Ground

By Ed Staskus

   The week started by raining Monday and Tuesday, harder the second day than the first day. The wind picked up, gusting fast by nightfall Monday. The rain turned into a thunderstorm and lightning crisscrossed the sky. Bernard Doiron had breakfast and lunch and took a nap. He did the same thing the next day. Wednesday morning it was in the low teens at sunrise. There were only scraps of cloud left in the sky. He had ham and eggs and coffee and fired up Conor Murphy’s Massey Ferguson tractor. It was more than twenty years old and clean. Conor took care of it personally, since his father bought it new and paid almost ten grand for it. It ran like a baby buggy.

   A good two-horse team could plow two acres a day back in the day. Bernie plowed with a five bottom in the fall and a 490 disc in the spring and could do 60 acres from one end of the day to the other end of it. He was going to start across the street from the white house, Sandy’s Surfside Inn, and work his way to the right. He would have his lunch at noon, since he was getting an early start.  

   The spring planting was running late because of rain and cold. Setting day for lobster was running late, too, because of the rain and cold. Fishermen were anxious to get out on the ocean. Lobsters were on the move. Farmers were anxious to get out on the land. Seeds were ready to sprout.

   Bernie steered the tractor to the road on the side of the ocean and up the far slope at a steady 15 KPH. It was nearing eleven o’clock when he saw the red fox. It was thirty-some meters ahead of him, sniffing and digging at something. He slowed the tractor and stopped where the fox was, who retreated, stretched, showed his teeth, and sprang into the nearby trees.

   He had plowed the field in the fall, straight furrows that stayed straight through November rainstorms and snow that buried the island from mid-December to mid-April. It wasn’t usually that snowy, but it had been a bad winter. He stayed snug in his small house on the far side of Anglo Rustico, opposite the North Rustico Harbor. The house was more than a hundred years old, built with island cut lumber and island made shingles. Birch bark was the insulation between the outer wall and the shingles. It cut the wind in a place where it was always windy. He had an oil furnace and a fireplace in the living room and the house kept itself cozy without even trying.

   There was some ground mist. Crows he couldn’t see cawed from nearby trees. He could see a briefcase on the ground on the other side of his front wheels. It was open and attached to something. He hopped off the tractor and walked around to it. The over-sized hard-sided briefcase was empty. The inside lining was torn. There was mud and dried red goo all over it.

   It was attached to a bony wrist grasping the handle. The wrist was wearing a watch and was attached to an arm that was half-buried in the ground. The watch band was gold-colored stainless steel.

   “Ce que ca?” Bernie whispered to himself.

   He knew the arm was attached to a dead man. He looked at the watch dangling loosely on the wrist again. The face of it was cracked. It read three-ten. He suspected he was done plowing for the day. He started walking back the way he had come, to the green house, a stone’s throw from the white house. He stopped and walked back. He looked at the arm and the briefcase again. The fox had ripped into what old flesh was left on the arm. He hadn’t imagined seeing it, not that he thought he had.

   Sandy had a phone, but could be deaf mornings, not answering the door no matter what. Conor didn’t have a live phone yet, but he always answered the door when he was at home and had a fast car to get to a phone fast. It was a 1987 Buick GNX, two years old. It wasn’t sleek or refined, but next to the twin-turbo Chevy Corvette it was the fastest car in North America. 

   Looking for sophistication? Don’t get the GNX. Looking for max boost? Get the GNX. Looking for a pool table ride? Go with the Corvette. It doesn’t matter whether your car bounces on potato roads like nuts and bolts in a blender? Go with the GNX. There were two of them on the lot at the first Chevy Buick dealership he saw in Burlington, Vermont the day he went shopping for a new car. One of them was silver and one of them was black.

   “Do you have any other colors, like red?” he asked the salesman.

   “You can have any color you want as long as it’s silver or black,” the salesman said.

   Bernie drove a 1965 VV Beetle. It was red accented with rust spots. It didn’t look like much and was only powered by forty aluminum-magnesium horses but ran like a charm.

   Conor drove to Shearer Chevy Buick down the street and found out they had the same colors on the lot, which were silver and black. 

   “How about red?” he asked.

   “Sorry, sir, it doesn’t come in red. GM hasn’t built many of them. When they’re gone, they’re gone for good. If you can’t decide, I can tell you the only one we have on the lot is silver and black both.” 

   “How long have you been in business?”

   “Since 1929, sir.”

   He bought it, trading in his 1977 Chevy Impala, which was losing oil and wheezing. When he reached an empty stretch of I-87 south of Champlain, he took the car up to 175 KPH. It was outfitted with a turbocharged V6 engine with horsepower to spare on top of a boatload of torque. It was an automatic but could do 0 to 95 KPH in less than five seconds. When he saw a car a kilometer-or-so ahead he backed off his one-man drag race.

   Bernie was wearing almost new insulated rubber boots. By the time he crossed the Gulf Shore Parkway they didn’t look almost new anymore, even though they still were. Standing on the shoulder of the road he stamped most of the mud off. The road didn’t look new anymore, either, but Bernie doubted the National Park was going to be doing anything about it anytime soon. When summer came tourists would be parking on the shoulders, leaving their cars behind to gape at the cliffs and walk along the undulating coastline. In the meantime, the natives would be slowing down, keeping an eye out for loose kids and happy-go-lucky dogs.

   They never should have laid it down with shoulders in the first place, he thought.

   The National Park on Prince Edward Island went back more than fifty years. It was a watercolor landscape of green over soft sandstone and shale, in the flesh. There were sand dunes and sandy beaches. There were salt marshes and barrier islands farther east. There were white spruce along exposed coastal spots. The Gulf Shore Parkway supplanted an older red dirt road along the coastline and cut through Murphy land, but the Murphy’s hadn’t sold any of the rest of their nearly four hundred acres to the National Park. The Ottawa men could appropriate land for the road, but they couldn’t take all of it with the wave of a pen. They were going to have to wait the Murphy’s out and try to buy it from a generation-or-two down the road. That was their plan, at least.

   Bernie banged on the back door of the house and waited.

   “What’s up?” Conor asked. “Did you run out of gas?”

   “No, nothing like that. Put some boots on and I’ll show you.”

   Conor was the only one living in what had been the Murphy family home. His parents were newly deceased, his mother dead by heart attack the day before Christmas followed by his father. After burying their mother, Conor and his sister and brothers watched their father giving up day after day until he gave up the ghost.

  He had been living in Montreal the past ten years, but after the funerals and burials moved back to Prince Edward Island. He moved into the green house, even though it was too big for him and needed work. He was the youngest of the five Murphy’s and didn’t know he had missed his birthplace until he returned to it. He made his old bedroom his new bedroom.

   Bernie and Conor walked across the road and up the slope. When they got to the tractor the fox was back. The animal glanced at them and snuck away. They stepped up to the briefcase and arm. It was nearly noon and warmer, breaking into the 20s. What clouds were left had scattered, and the sky was a robin’s egg blue.

   “Jesus Christ almighty,” Conor said. “How did this happen? I haven’t been up here since I came back. Would you have seen it if it was in the field then, when you did the fall plowing?”

   “I think so, but it’s hard to tell,” Bernie said.

   “It’s not anybody from around here, is it?”

   “We would know if it was.”

   “You stay here, watch nothing gets at it, and I’ll go phone the RCMP.”  

   “Should we dig it out?”

   “No, just stay here, and keep that fox away. I’ll drive over to Lorne’s.”

   He took his time driving to Rollings Pond, up then down Church Hill Road, past the graveyard and Stella Maris Catholic Church, to Lorne’s Snack Shop. He reckoned there was no need to hurry. He parked the GNX as far away from the nearest car as he could.

   “Whatta ya at?” one of the two Newfoundlanders behind the counter asked when he stepped inside Lorne’s. They ruled the roost spring summer and fall until they went home to Gros Morne. Lorne worked the shop winters. They made breakfasts and lunches in the small kitchen behind the counter, stocked and sold candy bars and cigarettes, rented out VCR movies in the back room, and cleaned whenever there was a need for cleaning. 

   “We’re finally getting some springtime.”

   “I know, I been rotten with the weather.”

   “I’ve got to use your phone”

   “You know where it is.”

   Conor dialed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were federal police, but the provincial police, too, the past 50-odd years. They watched over all the communities on the island except Summerside, Kensington, and Charlottetown. They patrolled most of the land and served most of the population.

   “I’ve got a dead man on my property,” he told 911.

   “Do you need an ambulance?”

   “No, not unless he comes back to life, which isn’t likely.”

   “Are you there?”

   “I will be in five minutes.”

   “Where is there?”

   He told the dispatcher and hung up. The younger of the red-cheeked Newfoundlanders threw him an inquiring look.

   “I was some stunned when I overheard what ya said on the phone.”

   “Yeah,” Conor said. “I’ll be back, tell you all about it.”

   Back at the house he parked his car in the barn, walked across the street and up the slope, joining Bernie. A flock of cormorants passed by overhead. They didn’t look down at the two men.

   “Do you have a smoke?” Conor asked.

   “I thought you gave it up.”

   “I did.”

   Bernie shook two smokes out of his pack of Player’s, lit his, and passed the matches to Conor.

   “You’re better off not smoking,” he said. “These things are getting crazy expensive. Ten years ago, a 25-pack cost a Loonie. Now they cost six dollars. I took another look at that watch, on the wrist, and I think it might be woman down there in the ground.”

   “It’s not good, whoever it is,” Conor said.

   They stood leaning against the tractor, smoking in silence, waiting for the gravel road cops.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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