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 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.”

Thrills and Spills

By Ed Staskus

   Two days after we got married in the Lithuanian Catholic church on Cleveland’s east side my wife and I drove over the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It used to be called the Honeymoon Bridge, but it collapsed in 1938. When the new one opened in 1941 a quote from the Book of Genesis about a “bow in the clouds” was engraved on the side of the bridge. Forty-eight years later the span was still standing.

   We must have looked happy as larks when we got to the other side of the crossing. After paying the toll, and showing the border patrol our driver’s licenses, we were told to join a line of cars off to the side. Ten minutes later German Shepherds and their handlers showed up, sniffing the cars up and down for drugs. One of the uniforms used a tactical mirror to inspect the underside of the cars. When it was over and done with and they told us we were free to go, I said, “Love is the drug, man.”

   The lawman at my driver’s side window didn’t like it and scowled but Rin Tin Tin gave me a forty-two-tooth smile. He was glad to be going back for grub. We were glad to be on the lip of the Honeymoon Capital of the World.

   After lunch we went to Goat Island, bought tickets, got outfitted in bright yellow ponchos, and were elevatored 18 stories down to the Niagara Gorge. The Cave of the Winds started life as a rock overhang that was like a cave. It was an overhanging ledge of Lockport Dolostone at the top of the gorge which stuck out more than 100 feet. The overhang wasn’t there anymore but the Hurricane Deck was. We followed a guide on a series of wood walkways to it, stopping standing staring at the thundering water 20 feet away. It sprayed us in the face. There was a rainbow right there. We could almost touch it.

   “Did you bring a camera?” my wife asked.

   “No,” I said.

   “That’s all right, better to remember it the way we want to,” she said.

   Since we were soggy as all get out, we decided to go to the Journey Behind the Falls. An elevator whooshed down 13 stories through bedrock to tunnels that led to the Cataract Portal and the Great Falls Portal. We walked to the Lower Observation Deck at the foot of the Falls and watched one-fifth of the world’s freshwater crash down at 40 MPH into the basin below. We left dripping freshwater.

   There was still some daylight left in the day, and waterlogged as we were with nothing to lose, we boarded the Maid of the Mist. The first boat in 1846 was called Maid of the Mist and the name had never changed although the ships had. The first ones were steam powered. Ours was a diesel-powered vessel put into service in 1955. It was two years after Marilyn Monroe cuckolded and tried to murder her husband Joseph Cotton in the movie “Niagara.”

   The first Maid of the Mist was a barge-like steamer that was more ferry than anything else. It was a 72-foot-long side-wheeler powered by a wood- and coal-fired boiler. The ferrying only lasted two years, when a suspension bridge opened and slashed the traffic. Not knowing what to do with the boat, the owners finally decided to make it a sightseeing wheeler.

   We took the Incline Railway from street level down to the boat dock. The new Maid was looking good, having replaced the old Maid in 1983. The old namesake was plying the Amazon River as a missionary ship under an assumed name. She had been a trooper in her day. In 1960 the Maid wheeled to the starboard and the crew rescued Roger Woodward, a seven-year-old who became the first person to survive going over the Horseshoe Falls wearing only a life jacket.

   Getting on the boat we were both handed blue ponchos and advised to wear them, or else.

   “Or else what?” I asked. 

   “You’re free to not wear it and soak in the experience,” the man said.

   We both put our blue ponchos on and cinched the hoods.

   The boat chugged to the base of the American Falls. It started to rock and roll. We kept our balance hanging on to a rail. I never knew water droplets could pummel or that half a million gallons of water pouring out of the faucet at once could be so loud. We should have worn flip flops. The Maid went on to the basin of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. We stood at the front of the boat on the upper level up close and personal. The captain took her closer and closer. We got as close as it gets. The waterfall was in our faces. We could barely keep our eyes open. It might as well have been raining, even though the sky was sunny and blue. When the boat turned to go back, she spun around in place, spray coming at us from every direction.

   There was a full moon that night. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”

   The next day we went high and dry. We were done with getting wet and took a helicopter ride. The chopper was an Enstrom, operated by Pan-Air. They had a “Chapel in the Sky” service although since we were freshly minted, there was no need for more vows. The helicopter sat six, but my wife and I and two Japanese men were the only ones on the flight. We sat in the front with the pilot and the Japs sat in back, where they took a million pictures. The front of the chopper was plexiglass. When I looked down the sky was right under our feet. Rainbows shot up at us from the rapids and falls.

   The ride was only ten or fifteen minutes long, but we got a bird’s eye eyeful. The view was nothing if not breath-taking. We saw the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Whirlpool Rapids, the Rainbow Bridge, and Queen Victoria Park.

   “Ooh-wee,” we both said when the helicopter landed. We got our land legs back and went back to the Howard Johnson’s for a nap and dinner.

   The next day we left Niagara Falls, messed around in Toronto, and drove to Ottawa in our VW Golf. The city is the capital of Canada, on the south bank of the Ottawa River, straddling the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It’s been there since 1826 and by 1989 was the fourth-largest city in the country. A big part of it burned down in 1900 and had to be re-built for the better. We stayed at a small motel near Pig Island. The drive to Byward Market, and Lower Town was a short one up Colonel By Dr. along the Rideau Canal. We discovered a Portuguese bakery in Lower Town and pigged out.

   We visited the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, Parliament Hill, the neo-Gothic home of the law of the land, checked out the Centennial Flame and the statue of Queen Victoria, took a stroll through Major’s Hill Park, and had dinner two nights at two terrific restaurants near Confederation Park, walking the food and drink off afterwards, tossing a Loonie in the fountain, the one-dollar coin introduced two years earlier.

   One afternoon we were standing on the Mackenzie King Bridge watching boats going to and from the locks when we noticed a houseboat coming our way. The canal was built starting in 1826. More than a thousand Irish, Scottish, and French laborers died of malaria digging it out. It opened in 1832. The idea behind the canal was a lifeline between Montreal and the naval base at Kingston in case Canada went to war with the United States. 

   The Pumper was the first steamboat to make the trip, carrying Colonel By and his family. John By was the man who made the canal happen. Canada and the USA never went to war and the canal became a major way for shipping grain, timber, and minerals from the hinterland to the east. Immigrants used it moving westward. After railroads appropriated the shipping trade, the canal was mostly used by pleasure craft.

   It was a pleasure watching the houseboat approach. A man was sitting in a folding chair at the bow. His legs were crossed, he was reading a newspaper, and smoking a cigar. A woman was standing at the stern with a long pole. She was slowly leaning into the pole and pushing the forty-foot flat bottomed houseboat forward. She kept her push pole lined up with the center line of the boat to keep it moving in a straight line. I could see they had an inboard motor but weren’t using it. Smoke from her husband’s cigar drifted back to her. She waved it away.

   “Take notes,” I told my new bride. 

   “That’ll be the day,” she grumbled.

   After we got home from our honeymoon, we often went back to Canada, to Montreal and Quebec City, up the St Lawrence River, and to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We never went back to Ottawa, not for any especial reason. One morning while I was looking out our living room window at yet another winter storm blowing through town, my wife asked me if I had seen the news about the protests in Ottawa. We didn’t have cable TV, never listened to the radio, but read the New York Times online. I flipped an iPad open and read the news. Sure enough, protests were roiling the capital.

   A convoy of truckers had descended on the city three weeks earlier protesting a regulation requiring drivers moving goods across the USA Canada border be vaccinated against the 19. Other truckers were blocking bridges between Windsor and Detroit and another bridge linking Alberta to North Dakota. The federal police had already arrested more than a dozen drivers out west and seized all their guns and ammo. They had been planning on ambushing and shooting down law enforcement officers.

   When the Ottawa camel train pulled into town to throw gasoline on the fire they rumbled straight to Wellington St. and Parliament Hill and surrounded it. Their $100 grand travel trailers, $150 grand recreational vehicles, and $200 grand heavy trucks brought traffic to a standstill. Businesses shut down for the duration. There wasn’t any money coming in, anyway. Flatbed trucks became stages. Organizers clapped themselves on the back and made misinformation speeches. DJ’s spun rap cranked up so everybody within miles could hear it. Bouncy castles were plopped down in the streets for kids playing hooky. Some drivers had brought their children with them. An inflatable hot tub was pumped up and set up for rest and recreation. They flew QAnon and Confederate flags, even though QAnon is a Whac-A-Mole, and Johnny Reb got his ass kicked a long time ago.

   Who flies slaveholder-or-die flags to prove how virtuous they are?

   Drivers put their air horns on autopilot 24/7. It didn’t take long for everybody living nearby to get sick of it. “You just got vehicles laying on their horns for hours and hours and hours at a time,” said Peter Simpson. “We don’t even live on Parliament Hill. It’s very difficult to work or relax or to do anything. All you can do is focus on calming yourself down.”

   The morning I read about the protests was the morning things were coming to a head. The police sat on their hands for weeks until the mayor got tired of it, fired the police chief, put a by the book man in charge, and a few days later the cops were showing up in force. “It’s horrific,” said Dagny Pawlak, a protestor spokeswoman. “It’s a dark moment in Canadian history. Never in my life would I have believed anyone if they told me that our own Prime Minister would refuse dialogue and choose violence against peaceful protesters instead.”

   When I was student at Cleveland State University, we went marching from our campus down Euclid Ave. to Public Square every spring to protest the Vietnam War. We never marched in wintertime because it was too cold and snowy. Nobody wanted to be plowed under by a snowplow. We wore buttons saying, “How ManyMore?” and “I’m a Viet Nam Dropout” and “Ship the GI’s Home Now!”  Most of the GI’s shooting it out with Charlie were true believers who volunteered, and the rest were unlucky trailer trash. We were college students with draft deferments and wanted to keep it that way.

   We carried banners and damp handkerchiefs in our pockets. Everybody wore sensible shoes. One springtime I noticed two coeds next to me wearing pumps with two-inch heels and straps that looked like they would snap at the slightest provocation.

   “You might want to change into flats,” I said. 

   “Why would we want to do that?” one of them asked.

   “In case you’ve got to run.”

   They giggled and skipped away. The last time I saw them they were skinning their knees trying to run and getting themselves easily arrested.

    When we got to the Sailors and Soldiers Monument, firebrands made fiery speeches, we chanted slogans, listened to more speeches about justice and freedom, half of us high on weed, and waited for the cops to show up. When they did and ordered us to disperse and we didn’t, they lobbed tear gas at us. We gave them the finger. They beat us with rubber batons. We threw cherry bombs at them. They sent in the mounted police. Nobody wanted to be trampled by a horse. We usually ran for the train station in the Terminal Tower trying to lose ourselves in the workaday crowd.

   I never went on a Civil Rights march. They had it worse. Vigilantes and police used whips, Billy clubs, guns, dogs, Cossack-style horses, fire hoses, and tear gas. When we were protesting the Vietnam War, we were white kids being corralled by white policemen. They didn’t like us but weren’t trying to kill us. Even Women’s Liberation had it rough when they started marching and demanding equal rights.

    The Freedom Convoy in Ottawa had plenty of banners and slogans. Reading them was like trying to find meaning in a bowl of alphabet soup. Mandate Freedom 4 All. He Will Not Divide. Hold the Line. Take Back Our Freedom. We Will Not Acquiesce. Were they trying to dam up Niagara Falls with toothpicks? One of the signs said they were willing to take a bullet for their country. What about taking a shot for your neighbors?

   Matthew Wall, an electrician from Manitoba, joined the Freedom Convoy after popping psychedelics and having a vision. “I’m here for the rights of our kids, for parents’ rights, for everyone’s rights,” he said. “It is so kids can live in a future where they don’t have to have something covering their face, lose emotion. You don’t have the human connection, don’t see them smile anymore. It’s dehumanizing. They’re taking away the love!”

   Many of Ottawa’s residents had their own slogan: Make Ottawa Boring Again!

   “I wonder what would be going on if it was the 1340s and 1350s?” I wondered aloud to my wife.

   “What do you mean?” she asked.

   “I mean, I wonder how long the lines would be to get vaccinated against the Bubonic Plague if it was the plague instead of the 19,” I said.

   Five years into the pandemic at the beginning of the Middle Ages almost 50 million Europeans were dead, more than half of the population. They called it the Great Pestilence. They didn’t have vaccines. They resorted to mixing tree resin, roots of white lilies, and human excrement into a porridge and slathering it all over themselves. If you caught the Black Death, your chances of making it back alive were almost zero. Nobody died peacefully in an ICU. There were no ICU’s. They got crazy feverish, their joints like a ten-alarm fire. They broke out in buboes, oozing pus and blood, vomiting non-stop, and got non-stop diarrhea. The suffering went on non-stop for a week-or-so. When it was over, they fell down dead in the streets, glad it was over.

   “I bet the spaghetti o’s with their portable spas in Ottawa would be the first ones pushing their way to the head of the vaccination line while crying there is a conspiracy to push them to the back. They would be going 100 MPH to get somewhere anywhere to snag a shot, not complaining about government overreach.”

   “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Thank goodness we’re on the far side of the Middle Ages.”

   “Hats off to that, sugar, although now and then when there’s a full moon it’s back to the Dark Ages,” I said.

Ed Staskus 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.”