Tag Archives: Prince Edward Island

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 mattered little that he was an Irishman sent to dispatch an Englishman.

   “Either bring the little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal 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 almost lost his chance when he stepped out of the long boat landing him on the north coast of the island too soon and nearly 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 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 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. Crowds 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 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 the monarch on the head with the butt of one of the guns before Prince Albert lunged at him, shoving him away from the carriage. Several men on the walk swarmed 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. It was lit a violent red on her yellow crocheted shawl.

   Thomas Spate was imprisoned tried convicted and sentenced to transportation and twenty years hard labor in the penal colony on Tasmania.

   “I would have had the blackguard drawn and quartered,” Prince Albert grumbled.

   When he escaped his jailers and disappeared, Prince Albert summoned William Murphy, a mercenary who it was said always got his man. He told his monarch’s right-hand 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 beer 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 less than three hours to walk there on the coastal footpath. He had no intention of dragging him back to England in chains. He had every intention of collecting his bounty.

   Tom Spate lived alone in a winter log hut he threw together, living in it in all seasons. 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. He rented them to youngsters with eggs, butter, salt cod, and potatoes to 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. From it a man could see everything. 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. 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.”

   Bill Murphy didn’t ask why they called it mussel 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, too.”

   “How’s that?” 

   “We have got a man developing 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 5 and 10 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 capital 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 in 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 Bill Murphy 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 him to his maker. He walked up to Tom Spate.

   “Thomas Spate, I have a message for you from our majesty,” 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 Queen and country,” Bill Murphy said and pulled the trigger. The bullet rocketed out of the barrel, hitting and propelling the medal into Tom Spate’s heart, tearing the spirit and strength out of it, and putting an end to the unhappy assassin’s life.

   Bill Murphy stood over him and decided in a moment of keenness 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 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 but found the Victoria Cross. He yanked the medal cast from the cascabels of two cannons captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopal out of him, wiping the blood on his hands off on the man’s pants. He rolled the body off the ferry and into the river. It bobbed and started floating out to the ocean.

   He poled the ferry back to the side he had come from and walked back to North Rustico. In his room he packaged the medal and a letter in a stout envelope. The letter didn’t have a word about the medal in it, 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,” sailing 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 edge of the cove. The land might already be owned by somebody, but it was nearly all forest. Whoever it was, was still waiting for a tenant. When and if he showed up, Bill Murphy was sure he could set him straight.

   He sat in his room and lit his Meerschaum pipe. When he was young and poor, he smoked spone, coltsfoot mixed with wild rose petals. Now he smoked good tobacco. He watched the smoke curling up from his pipe of Irish clay.

   “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 sang in barracks. He had enlisted in 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. 

   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 slowly smoke and let his plans unwind themselves somewhere in the back of his mind.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Dead End

By Ed Staskus

   The week started by raining for two days, harder the second day than the first. The wind picked up, gusting hard by nightfall of the first day. 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 new sky. He had ham and eggs and coffee and fired up Conor Murphy’s Ford 3000 tractor. It was blue and more than twenty years old. Conor took care of it personally, since his father bought it new and paid almost ten grand for it, and 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, Cavendish way. 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 fishermen was running late, too, because of the cold, rain, and high winds. They were anxious to get out on the ocean. Lobsters were on the move in the warming water. Farmers were anxious to get out on the land. Seeds were getting ready to sprout.

   He steered the tractor down the slope to the road on the edge of the ocean and back up at a steady 15 KPH. It was nearing eleven o’clock when he saw the red fox. It was forty or fifty 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.

   Bernie had plowed the field in the fall, straight furrows that stayed straight through November rainstorms and snow that swamped the island from mid-December to mid-April. It wasn’t usually that snowy, but it had been one of those winters. He stayed snug in his small house on the far side of Anglo Rustico, opposite the North Rustico Harbour. 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 on an island where it was always windy. He had an oil furnace and a fireplace in the living room and the house kept itself snug at room temperature 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 was attached to something. He hopped off the tractor and walked around to it. The 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 by a pair of handcuffs. The wrist was wearing a watch and was attached to a arm that was half-buried in the ground. The bracelet was gold-colored stainless steel.

   “Ce que ca?” Bernie whispered to himself.

   He knew the arm was attached to a dead man, or a woman. 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 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 phone yet, but he always answered the door when he was at home, and he 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. After max boost? Buy the GNX, was the way Conor looked at it. Looking for a pool table ride? Go with the Corvette. Doesn’t matter whether your car bounces on back roads like nuts and bolts in a blender? Buy the Buick 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.

   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 has only built 500 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 wheezing on its last legs. When he reached an empty stretch of I-87 south of Champlain, he took the car up to 175 KPH. The GNX was fitted 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 solitary drag race.

   Bernie Doiron 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, an in the flesh watercolor landscape of green over soft sandstone and shale. 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 the rest 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 of them 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.”

   He 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 soon followed by his father. After burying their mother, Conor, his sister and brothers, watched their father giving up day after day until he finally gave up the ghost.

  Conor had been living in Montreal the past ten years, but after the funerals 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. 

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

   “Jesus Christ,” Conor said. “How did this happen? I haven’t been up here since I came back. Would you have known 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 chunky Newfoundlanders behind the counter asked when he stepped inside Lorne’s. They ruled the roost spring summer and fall when 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 the candy bars and cigarettes, rented out the 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 policed all the communities on the island except Summerside, Kensington, and Charlottetown. They patrolled most of the island’s land mass 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 two 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 then.”

   Back at the house he parked the Buick in the barn, walked across the street and up the slope, joining Bernie. A flock of cormorants passed by overhead.

   “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. And I took another look at that watch, on the wrist, and I think it might be woman down there in the dirt.”

   “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 the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”