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Portlandtown: A Tale of the Oregon Wyldesby Rob Deborde
In his dream, Joseph Wylde wakes to the sound of a baby crying—his baby, his daughter. Its steady, in distress, and not alone. Also crying, softer, but in sync with his sister, is a baby boy. Joseph has a son and a daughter. Twins.
Before Joseph can rise from his bed, pain screams from behind his eyes. His hands instinctively reach for his face, but stop short. He knows what to expect but is still surprised to find a cloth about his head, laid over his eyes. Someone has seen fit to bandage him, or perhaps to cover that which should not be seen. Joseph is blind, has been for five days, thanks to—
Your children are crying, Joseph.
Joseph stands, steadying himself against a wall he knows he cant see—but he can. This is his room, the small corner bedroom on the second floor of the marshals home. He can feel the loose floorboard just beyond the edge of the bed, hear the wood groan as he steps off—was it ever so loud? To his left theres a small nightstand, and then, three paces, a door. He searches for the handle, but finds none. Its open. He knows he cant see this—but he can.
In the hallway, the crying is louder and theres something else: creaking, back and forth. Someone is sitting in his father-in-laws old rocking chair, the one Joseph repaired after Kate cracked one of the legs. She was going to give birth to a giant, hed teased her, a bear of a child. Kate said there would be two. She had known, even then.
The crying keeps time with the old wood, as if in motion, closer and then farther away. Joseph is halfway down the stairs before realizing hes begun the descent. He opens his mouth, not entirely sure what will come out.
Joseph hears the shallow gasp as it catches in his wifes throat. The creaking doesnt stop. He reaches the landing.
The stench of the man hits Josephs nostrils, a mixture of sweat, worn leather, and gun oil. Stronger still is the scent of blood—not of the man, but other men … dead men.
In his dream, Joseph hears the sound of metal slide across leather as the Hanged Man draws the red-handled gun from its holster. His eyes dont see the bastard set the barrel of the pistol across his daughters skin—but he can see it.
* * *
The smell of salt brought Joseph back to the present. It was faint, just a hint in the air, but getting stronger. They were almost there.
Joseph stood at the port rail of the steamer Alberta, having left Portland at eleven minutes past eight that morning en route to Astoria. By his estimation, it was now midafternoon. Theyd made good time. Not a surprise considering the boat was traveling with the current, but whether that would remain an advantage was yet to be seen. Thanks to the nearly twenty pounds of refined Oregon firestone allotted for the burn upriver, the captain had promised Joseph would see some real speed on the voyage home.
Joseph smiled at the thought.
He couldnt see, of course, in any traditional sense. That didnt stop him from keeping one eye open—the right—to maintain appearances. It gathered no information, but since the scarring was less obvious, hed trained the otherwise useless organ to deliver the proper cultural signals—blink, squint, stare, etc. It was Josephs experience that people were more comfortable when they could look a man in the eye and receive the same in return.
His left eye was covered by a worn leather patch that hid what most found difficult to look at. Kate claimed the milky-white iris added another layer of complexity to her husbands handsome face. Joseph thought he was complicated enough. Despite the damage, the eye still picked up faint, undefined light and shadow, which Joseph found mostly a distraction. He was blind by any modern medical standard, and had been for more than a decade.
In that time, Joseph had discovered those same standards suggested that other senses could be developed to make up for the loss of his sight. Hed found numerous cases where the blind were able to use sounds, vibrations, even smells, to create a picture of the world around them. Such studies were generally considered scientifically dubious, but Joseph didnt doubt them. After all, he was blind and had read the documents himself.
Joseph closed his eye.
He could see the river rushing by below, waves peeling away from the hull toward a shore that was closer on the port side of the ship than the starboard.
He could see the chubby man standing twenty feet to his right, puffing on a cigar and tugging his three-sizes-too-small coat tighter around his belly.
He could see the blue sky, puffy clouds, and, most important, the sun. Such a treat was not to be missed, even in May, which was why Joseph had spent so much of the journey standing at the rail, letting the light warm his face.
And now he could see his son, Samuel, staring up at him, wondering if his father was still lost in the dark memory that had invaded his waking thoughts so often in recent weeks. Joseph knew the boy had been standing at the rail for only a moment, but his approach had been nearly silent. He was becoming every bit as stealthy as his mother, which was a source of both pride and concern for Joseph.
“Hello, Kick,” he said, using the nickname Kate had given her son while he was still inside her.
“Hello,” the boy replied. Kick, whod turned eleven the week before, watched his fathers face for a sign. Joseph had never actually seen him through his own eyes, but he knew his son had wavy auburn hair, a slightly square jaw, and bright green eyes, just like his mother. The oversize ears and nose had been gifts from his father, which Kick had yet to grow into.
Joseph tilted his head to his son, giving him what he wanted.
“Im fine,” he said.
“Okay. Maddie said I should check.”
“Your sister worries too much. Im fine.”
Kick turned his attention to the river. He couldnt smell the salt in the air, but knew they were close because the river was wider. He leaned over the rail, letting the spray cool his face.
“Careful,” said Joseph. “Youll have to swim the rest of the way if you fall in.”
“I wont fall. Plus Im a good swimmer.”
“Im better,” said Maddie, already leaning over the rail on Josephs right. He hadnt noticed her approach at all. Hed thought only Kate could do that, and now both his children had effectively snuck up on him in broad daylight—not that the day or light made a difference. Theyd been practicing.
“Hello, Madeline. I didnt see you there.”
Maddie beamed, unable to help herself. The hair and freckles she shared with her brother, but the smile was all her own.
“Did I scare you?”
“No, but I am surprised you were able to hang over the edge with what must be a very full tummy. Did you leave any of the sugar rolls for your brother?”
Maddie dropped back onto the deck. She licked her lips, tasting both cinnamon and sugar. Joseph could have told her it was on her fingers as well.
“Kick ate some, too.”
“Only one! I only had one.”
“Thats fine, Kick. But was that before or after the engineer chased you out of the steam room?”
Kick blinked, and then eyed his sister. She shook her head—she hadnt told. Kick raised his right hand, flicked his wrist twice, and made a looping motion with his first two fingers. Maddie returned the gesture, adding a jab and several more loops to the message, none of which was particularly friendly.
Joseph smiled. The hand signals had replaced a form of gibberish the twins used to communicate when they didnt want their parents to know what they were saying. Between them, Joseph and his wife had picked up enough of the language to listen in, which was when the kids switched to the hand signals. They generally tried to hide them from Kate, but assumed their father wasnt going to decipher the visual language anytime soon. Joseph did sometimes have trouble following the speedy hand motions, which is why hed long since given up trying. There was no point, as both kids wore so many of their emotions on their faces.
“Well be in port soon,” Joseph said, letting the kids off the hook. “Go grab your things, and meet me up above.”
Kick hopped onto the lower rail and off again before following his sister into the main compartment of the steamer.
Joseph closed his senses, letting some of the emotion hed felt earlier creep back into his waking mind. Kick and Maddie were born the day hed lost his sight. He was more than a hundred miles away at the time, and it had taken him four days to stumble home in the endless dark. After sleeping most of the fifth, hed awakened to an uninvited guest and the first inkling that a new light might be available to him. That had been exactly eleven years ago to the day.
Joseph felt the boat rumble beneath his feet as it turned slightly to the south. Astoria would appear shortly on the Oregon side of the river, with its fishing boats, ore merchants, and colorful houses on the hill. With only a little effort, Joseph pushed the past away and opened his senses to what lay ahead.
* * *
“I see Mr. Hendricks!” Maddie said, pointing to a short man waving from the dock.
He was not alone. At least a dozen locals stood waiting for passengers, many of whom were waving alongside Joseph and the twins. The Port of Astoria was bustling with activity. In addition to the Alberta, a second, much larger steamer was docked alongside, having arrived from San Francisco a few hours earlier. The passengers had departed, but the holds of the ship continued to be unloaded by an ore-powered mechanical arm. Two smaller barges were also docked nearby, both weighted down to the waterline by mounds of what appeared to be gray slate. Neither was in the process of being loaded or unloaded, but a dozen men with guns stood along the docks on either side of the boats.
After disembarking, the Wyldes were met by Charlie Hendricks, owner and operator of Astorias oldest store, Hendricks Dry Goods. Charlie was short, round, and bald, but had a generous personality that he claimed made up for the physical “gifts” God had seen fit to give him. He knew everyone in town and had made it his business to meet their extended families. As a result, he was always up on the latest gossip, local and otherwise.
Joseph offered his hand. “Hello, Mr. Hendricks. Thanks for coming.”
“Well met, as always,” Charlie said, glancing past Joseph to the boat. “Wheres Katherine? Dont tell me she didnt make the trip.”
“She and her father disagree on the specifics of the relocation,” Joseph said, hoping his tone and arching eyebrow were enough for Charlie to move on to another subject.
“Oh,” Charlie said, glancing at the twins. “Well, Im sure hell be happy to see you. Afraid Im not much in the way of company. And my cooking is even worse.”
“Im sure its fine,” Joseph said, following Charlie up the pier. “Lot of activity about.”
“Its the ore. They found another vein above Paulsen Creek. Big one, Im told. The barges come in almost daily, now.”
Kick climbed onto a pile of ropes to get a better look at the nearest barge.
“Is that it? I thought it was orange,” he said, mildly disappointed.
“It is, once its been refined,” said Charlie. “Thats mostly shale. The good stuff is locked inside in little-bitty pieces. Theyre actually building a refinery across the river so they dont have to transport so much unusable material.”
“Across the river?”
Charlie frowned. “They say its because the north side gets more sun—more sun! You believe that? Politics is what it is.”
“Im sure,” Joseph said. He slowed his pace, adding space between them and the twins. “I appreciate you looking out for the marshal.”
“Happy to do it.”
“Hows his mood?”
Joseph nodded. “He can be a hard man to like.”
“Hes always been friendly to me, but he is on his own. Has been for … eight years?”
“I know you and Kate have been to visit—more than some families, to be sure—and he has friends here, acquaintances and such, but a man of his experiences, of his fame…” Charlie hesitated, and then added, “Frankly, Im not surprised he got a little confused. It happens at his age.”
Joseph nodded, but the truth was that it did surprise him. Hed heard the details of his father-in-laws “confusion” from the Astoria constable, whod held him for a day before releasing him to Charlie. It just didnt feel right. The man had slowed down in recent years, perhaps become more forgetful, but a sudden breakdown seemed unlikely. Jim Kleberg was a hard man, but he was still his own man. Joseph would not believe otherwise until he spoke to the marshal.
He owed him that much.
* * *
“Oh, its you,” said the marshal, frowning over a smile before it could begin. Hed come quickly to the top of the stairs but now descended without enthusiasm.
“Hello, Marshal,” said Joseph.
He was sixty-four years old, ten of them retired, but Jim Kleberg still appreciated being addressed as “Marshal.” The job was who he was and always would be. The man standing at the bottom of the stairs was smart enough to know that.
“Wheres the clan?” he asked, offering a hand to Joseph, who shook it.
“I sent Kick and Maddie up to the house to get started. Kate didnt come.”
The marshal looked Joseph up and down, lingering over the mans right eye.
Charlie came through the door behind Joseph. “Hello, Marshal. Alls well I assume. Did you find the sandwiches I left?”
The marshal nodded. “Wasnt hungry, but thanks.”
“Oh, all right,” Charlie said. He stood for a moment, waiting for one of the other two men to say something. Finally, he did. “Well, perhaps I should check in on my roses, let you two catch up.”
Charlie walked though the kitchen to the back door. The marshal waited to hear the latch before turning to Joseph.
“Your idea to set me up here?”
“Figured as much,” the marshal said, rubbing his hands together. “Treats me like a damn baby, always following me around, watching, asking questions.”
“Hes just worried. We all were.”
“I aint no invalid. Offered to do some gardening, but Charlie hid all the shovels. Afraid Id dig up his prize roses or somethin. Damn things looked dead anyway.”
Joseph waited for the man to say more, but instead the marshal walked into the living room and sat down in an oversize chair facing a large picture window. Joseph followed, stepping around the chair to stand next to the fireplace, where a mound of embers still radiated warmth.
“Well, its good to see ya, I guess. How long you stayin?”
“The steamers running back tomorrow afternoon,” Joseph said. “Should be enough time to get things in order, I think.”
“Not much of a visit.”
Joseph looked at the marshal.
“Marshal, you know why were here. Youre coming to live with us in Portland. Im sure you remember—”
“You think I dont remember?”
“I didnt say that.”
The marshal leveled a long, bony finger at the younger man. “But thats what you think.”
Joseph wasnt ready for this conversation—had, in fact, little desire to have it at all. It dawned on him that his wife had not come for this very reason.
“I know this isnt what you wanted, Marshal.”
“Damn right it isnt!” the marshal said, and was up from his chair and out the front door before Joseph could stop him.
* * *
Joseph found the marshal on the porch, leaning against a weathered railing. Astoria spilled out below the house, the glow of a few street lamps already visible in the predusk light.
“Im sorry, Marshal. I know this isnt easy, but its for the best.”
The marshal took a deep breath and let it out.
“What if I aint?”
“Well, Im sure once youre in Portland this will make more sense. You always said you wanted to be closer to your grandkids.”
“Thats not what I mean.” The marshal rubbed his forehead, trying to dislodge the thought that had been there since hed agreed to the move four days earlier. “What if Im not supposed to leave?”
Joseph shook his head. “The house will be fine. And were not going to sell it, if thats what youre worried about.”
“No, I … I dont know.”
Joseph measured his words carefully. “Its all right, Marshal. It happens to everybody as they get older.”
“You really want to have this conversation?”
Joseph closed his eye. The world didnt look any different, but the gesture wasnt for him.
“Maybe we should head up to the house,” he said. “Weve got a lot to do.”
“What? You think I wont be a son of a bitch around the granchilds?”
“No, but I thought youd want to supervise while a pair of eleven-year-olds packed all your worldly possessions.”
The marshal was unable to suppress a grin this time. A small laugh escaped, as well.
“Eleven?” The marshal turned the number over in his head. “Eleven years ago last week, right? Wednesday?”
“See? I aint lost all my faculties yet.” The marshal took another long look at the hill that rose up behind Astoria. He could see his house and the cemetery beyond, its fence reflecting the last rays of sunlight. “Startin to forget the rest, though.”
“Come to Portland,” Joseph said, and put on a hand on the mans shoulder. “In a weeks time, this will feel right, youll see.”
“Ill see, huh?” The marshal returned his gaze to the town. “Says the man with one good eye.”
“I see well enough. I see a man who helped me once—saved me.”
“I dont need saving, Joseph.”
“I know.” Joseph could feel the anger slip from the marshal as he gently applied pressure to the older mans shoulder.
“I forgot some things, is all.” The marshal smiled again. “Course, last time I remembered anything I wound up covered in mud and splinters.”
“Dont worry. I told Maddie to hide all the shovels.”
* * *
Maddie pushed open the curtains on the front window, letting in what little daylight remained, before turning back to the room. To say that the marshals home was sparsely decorated would be generous. The only furniture on the first floor consisted of a well-traveled trunk, three mismatched chairs, a small square table, and an old rocker pushed into the corner next to a fireplace that otherwise dominated the space.
“Not much to pack,” Kick said.
“I think theres more upstairs,” Maddie said, not really sure if it was true. Theyd stayed at the house at least a dozen times, but she couldnt recall it ever being so empty. Maybe it would seem different with more people inside.
Kick took a seat in the rocking chair. “I always liked this chair,” he said, pushing hard off the floor. Soon he was trying to see how far he could rock without tipping over, each swing squealing a little louder on the bare wood floor.
“Kick, stop it. Mother said no furniture.”
“Too bad,” Kick said, gracefully hopping out of the chair. “Im going upstairs. You coming?”
“Ill be up in a minute.”
Kick stared at his sister for a beat and then jogged up the stairs.
Maddie glanced about the room, her eyes lingering on the rocking chair. She was glad they werent taking the furniture.
* * *
A few minutes later, Maddie found her brother lying on the marshals bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Done packing already?”
“Look,” Kick said, pointing straight up. Maddie followed the direction of his finger to the uneven brown mark on the ceiling.
“What is it?”
“A leak. I mean, it was a leak—its dried up, now. But it must have been a good one to leave that big of a stain.”
“We should tell Granpa, make sure he knows.”
“He knows,” Kick said, smiling. “Its right above his head. I bet it dripped on him while he was sleeping.” Kick tapped his forehead several times with a finger. He then stood up on the bed, never taking his eyes off the watermark on the ceiling, and spun to look at it from different angles.
“Looks like a witch from this side. Or maybe a cat.”
Maddie frowned. “Youre not supposed to stand on the bed.”
“I took off my shoes.”
Maddie stared at her brother, trying to mimic the glare shed seen her mother use on more than one occasion.
“You aint Ma,” he said and dropped into a sitting position on the edge of the mattress, which instantly propelled him into the air again and onto his feet directly in front of his sister. “Mas got crazy eyes.”
Maddie tilted her head down slightly. She was taller than Kick, just barely, but enough that when they met eye-to-eye he had to look up slightly.
“Youre supposed to do what I say,” she said.
“Its implied. Im the oldest.”
“By three minutes.”
Maddie turned and walked away. “Not my fault you were born lazy.”
Kick stared after his sister. He could chase after her, try to come up with a witty retort, which Maddie would no doubt knock back at him, smarter and sharper … or he could see what else was hidden in the watermark above the marshals bed. Kick went limp and fell backward onto the bed.
“Hey, from this angle, it looks like a wolf.”
* * *
Joseph and the marshal arrived at the house to find few things packed. Kick had thoughtfully cataloged all the leaks, which he described for his grandfather in great detail. Maddie had managed to organize the kitchen, although she was quick to point out there was little in the way of edible food. Joseph had expected this, which was why hed brought a few provisions from home. To the marshal, who had subsisted on Charlies cooking for half a week, day-old stew had never tasted so good.
The next morning, all were up with the sun to organize and pack the marshals belongings. Hed decided to bring only a few boxes of clothes, books, papers, and other artifacts of his years as a United States marshal. The rest would be stored in the attic. Anything too big to fit up the narrow staircase would stay where it was.
It was while his grandfather picked through an upstairs closet that Kick decided to ask the question that had been buzzing around his brain all morning.
“Did you really dig up a grave?”
The marshal popped his head out of the closet and stared at Kick, wondering if hed heard the question right. The wide-eyed look on Maddies face suggested he had.
“Well, yes, I suppose I did.”
The marshal wondered who had told the kids, before deciding no one had. It was more likely one of them had overheard a conversation not intended for his or her ears, probably hers. Maddie would have told her brother, of course, and Kick simply wanted to know more. Who wouldnt?
“Yup,” he said. “Several, in fact. Cracked open the coffins with an ax. Wasnt hard; most of em were rotted through.”
Maddie was just as shocked as her brother, which was how the question escaped her mouth before she could stop it: “Why?”
The marshal hesitated. “I dont know. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The marshal turned back to his search, leaving Maddie and Kick to work out a follow-up. Kick made a gesture with his hand, suggesting they should press a little more. Maddie shook her head.
“Of course,” said the marshal, poking his head out of the closet. “Probably best not to talk about it, least not around your folks. It makes your pa uncomfortable—ghosts and such.”
Both kids nodded.
“How about you get up to the attic, see if theres anything worth rescuing fore we fill it up with the rest of this junk.”
“Sure,” said Kick, bolting up the narrow staircase on the right side of the closet. Maddie lingered for a moment and then followed her brother up.
The marshal waited until he could hear both kids moving around above before allowing a wave of anxiety to wash over him. He was forgetting something again, something important. It was closer this time. He thought the answer was in the house. Hed find it.
* * *
Joseph twisted the rocking chair around the turn at the top of the stairs and placed it in the corner where it fit snuggly against the sloping roof. With barely five feet of clearance at its highest point, the attic was also a tight fit for Joseph. Despite his superior senses, hed already banged his head twice on the same overhead beam. If Kate found out—and she would—hed never hear the end of it. Joseph started back down the stairs, but stopped on the second step, where his six-foot frame could stand without hunching over. He rubbed the back of his head.
“Still hurt?” asked Maddie.
“A little. How goes the search? Find anything interesting?”
“Theres a very nice saddle, but I assume thats going to stay.”
“Everything else is old, broken, or both,” Maddie said, flipping open a large chest. “Its too bad these dresses werent stored better, because some of them are very pretty.” Maddie held up a long yellow dress. The color was still vibrant, but the edges were frayed and the fringe had been eaten away.
“Those must have belonged to Martha,” Joseph said.
“I thought so.”
The twins had never met their grandmother. Joseph had known the marshals wife only briefly before she died, and at the time he was not the kind of man most mothers sought for their daughters. Still, shed treated him fairly, some might say generously. Joseph hoped hed paid her back in kind.
“How about you,” Joseph said, turning to look directly at a stack of boxes. Kick popped up from his hiding spot, a mischievous grin on his face.
“I found some more leaks. Oh, and this…” Kick picked up a small wooden box about eighteen inches wide and twelve inches deep. The top had decorative vines carved around the edges with a rose in the center.
“What is it?” Joseph asked.
“Its a box.”
“Yes, I mean whats inside it?”
“Oh,” Kick said. He flipped open the lid, revealing a cloth-covered interior but nothing else. “Its empty.”
“Bring it here.”
Kick stepped over the clutter and passed the box to his father. It was heavy, probably too heavy for an empty box. Joseph ran his fingers across the lid, letting the carvings tell their story. Hed never encountered the box before, but knew right away that the marshal had made it. He recognized the cuts in the wood as coming from the same hand as had made the mirror frame hanging above Kates dresser. Joseph raised the lid. Most of the aromatic information stored within had been released the first time Kick opened the box, but Joseph could still pick out a single, earthy scent beneath the musty wood, and maybe one more—the ocean.
“See? Empty,” said Kick. “If the marshal doesnt want it, can I have it?”
Joseph closed the lid and handed the box back to his son.
* * *
The marshal stared at the box in his lap. He didnt have to open it to know what was inside.
“Im sorry, Kick, but I cant let you have this. Belonged to your grandmother, and I think your ma might want it.”
“She used to keep seashells in it. I dont know what happened to them.”
Kicks eyes lit up. “I do! Theres a pile of shells up in the attic.”
“Well, why dont you go collect em. If you see one you like, keep it. Maddie, too.”
“Thanks, Granpa,” Kick said, and darted back up the stairs.
The marshal turned his attention back to the box. He opened the lid and ran a hand along the cloth until he felt it give a little. There he pushed down, releasing the hidden latch that held the false bottom in place. The second lid lifted slightly, revealing a dark compartment. The marshal knew what lay inside. He hadnt forgotten.
The marshal pressed the bottom back into place and closed the lid. He then unspooled the belt from his waist and wrapped it around the box, securing it tightly. It would come with him to Portland and he would never open it again.
* * *
Charlie arrived just before one oclock with a horse-drawn cart and a basket of biscuits from which everyone sampled, but no one returned for seconds. They loaded up a half-dozen boxes and the saddle the marshal had refused to leave behind despite Josephs protests. The Wyldes didnt have a horse, but the marshal felt that was a poor argument against owning a quality saddle.
A few neighbors stopped by to wish the marshal well, none of whom mentioned the business in the graveyard. Walter Peterson even returned the shovel and ax, which Joseph placed in the shed without comment.
An hour later, the marshal stood at the rail of the Alberta, watching Astoria fade in the distance. As the last hillside home vanished from sight, he felt a weight lift from his heart. It was as if the top button of his shirt had loosened, his belt unbuckled, and his boots kicked off—all at the same time. He felt good, relaxed, happy.
Joseph leaned on the rail next to his father-in-law.
“Youll be back.”
The marshal shook his head. “No, I dont think I will. But its all right. I should have done this a long time ago.”
Joseph smiled. “Im glad to hear you say that.”
“So am I.”
The two men stood silently at the rail for a time, enjoying the sun on their faces, the brisk air, and the sound of the river churning in the wake of the boat.
* * *
Were you to ask any resident of Astoria about May 17, 1887, he or she would have told you it was lovely. The sun shone brightly, hinting at the drier-than-usual summer to come. The fishing was excellent, the best itd been in weeks. The Second Bank of Astoria opened for business, founded largely on “amber” gold. In short, it was a good day to be in Astoria.
It was a good day for all but one longtime resident who suddenly felt a huge weight fall upon him without warning. This man, a fellow of barely seventeen years, had never known such a feeling, had never felt such anxiety. With it came a memory of a day long since buried in the deep recesses of his mind.
And he remembered everything.
Copyright © 2012 by Rob DeBorde
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