Tag Archives: Bloodlines

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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