When a small town tragedy unfolds, two friends toil to prevent added insult to injury.
I guess me and Charlie dug most of the graves in this here cemetery. But I don’t dig many now. They ain’t so many buried out here no more and since Pete Branser got that backhoe, he digs most of ‘em if he ain’t busy on a job somewheres. That’s why he ain’t diggin’ this grave here. He’s away down to Cranberry Flats puttin’ in a sewage system for that fella on the ranch along the river there. Big fella with a loud laugh. I seen him lots of times, but his name just slips me.
Yeah. Yeah. Holfeld. That’s it. Well, I still get a grave to dig ever’ so often, but I ain’t so fussy about it no more. It was okay when Charlie was along, but he’s laying over there for quite a while now. Six years last May since he died. I dug his grave all by myself. You know, me and Charlie useta joke about it. About which one of us would be diggin’ the other one’s grave, I mean. Guess I won, but I don’t get no pleasure out of it.
His grave is further down the slope, but you can see it from here all right. It’s only got a wooden marker on it. Just past that one with the row of tin cans on it. Them cans had plants growin’ in them once, but they all dried up and the cans is all rusted. Harry Blackthorne’s missus put them there just before they moved out. That’s where their oldest boy is. Got took with appendix durin’ one January cold spell. Forty below and snow drifts was ten, twelve feet deep in places. Harry and his misses is living out in BC now. Their other boy was killed in the war. It’s their place that Johnny Mason is farmin’ now.
The oldest one is dated 1898 and that makes her easy the oldest cemetery in these parts. You see, they was homesteaders in here long before they was a province of Saskatchewan, and they had to have ‘em a church, so they built one out here. They was no towns around here then. Ridpath didn’t get started until the railroad come through here in eleven. The church stood right over there in the corner till they moved it into Ridpath and built onto it in there.
So this is by rights an Anglican churchyard and this is concentrated ground we’re diggin’. It’s all wrote down in the parish records. There’s a map too of the whole cemetery showing all the plots and some other papers what says how one of the bishops came up here in the early days from Regina or someplace to say his prayers and he concentrated the whole kaboodle – church and grounds – the cemetery and everything.
So she’s concentrated all right. But she ain’t no different to dig through. Me and Charlie done lots of diggin’. Cisterns and wells and cesspools and we know what the ground is like all through this country. This here ain’t bad for digging’ right now, bein’ it’s a wet year, but it’s a real bugger when it’s bin dry for a long spell. And she’s like cement when she’s froze. Just hand me that pick axe for a sec willya?
Charlie was real good to have on the job. Real smart fella and not scared to bend his back neither. Work sure went good when Charlie was in on it. He liked his booze more’n some mebbe, but that was his business, and it didn’t make him no worse than some who never touched a drop. Fella couldn’t want no better friend than Charlie.
That big one right along the fence? Yeah, she’s some headstone all right. A real dandy. Me and Charlie set that one up for Eliot Windthorst. It came all the way from Winnipeg and it cost him a pile of money. Mebbe five - six hundred. But I guess a few hundred didn’t hurt Eliot none. He likely figured his wife wouldn’t stay down if she didn’t have the biggest stone in the cemetery.
Oh Eliot was well fixed all right. His hardware made money in the early days and he’s hung onto it. He ain’t never had to pinch. Not him. Always did drive a big car and kept help in the house for his wife too. The girls they had would never stay long though, because his missus was always real hard to work for. Awful hard. The girls was always pickin’ up and leavin’– except only one. One thing about diggin’ here is that they ain’t many rocks. They’s places we would have throwed out a dozen by now. Big ones too.
Where? Yeah. That’s a grave all right. Me and Charlie dug that one too. A girl from back in the hills is buried there. One of Miz Windthorst’s girls. Blondest girl I ever seen. Couldn’t of been more’n seventeen when she came to work for Miz Windthorst and that was a long time ago now. Her hair was sort of thin and real white. Just like a dandelion gone to seed. Finns, her people were and they farmed back there in the Paswegin Hills someplace. Lots of Finns back in there. A big settlement. Lucky buggers some o’ them. Always got some rain, even in the dry years. Fifteen - twenty bushel crop when nobody else didn’t even get his seed back. But they ain’t all rich. Some o’ them is just scratching away, as bad off as anybody else.
Yeah, there’s lots of them fair skinned and white headed, but this girl, Lempi was unusual so. Could of bin good lookin’ enough, but a little too pale for most. Myself, I like ‘em with a little more color. And then, besides, she had that birthmark.
Bad enough, I guess. A big red splotch about the size of your hand. It came from about here down to the corner of her mouth, and then down like this to just under her jaw. You couldn’t see it from one side and she looked pretty nice till she turned her head and that would give you a start unless you was used to it. But she was real quiet and a good worker. They say she did all the housework for Miz Windthorst while she was there.
Miz Windthorst, you know, was a pretty busy woman. You know the kind. Eliot run his business and the town council and his missus ran ever’thing else in town.
She was real quiet, this Lempi was. Sort of ‘shamed I guess about that birthmark and she didn’t go out hardly at all. And that was the way Miz Windthorst wanted it. To church on a Sunday night mebbe, and that was about it. You see, she prob’ly didn’t talk nothing but Finn until she started school likely. They’s all Finns back in there through them hills and in those days none of ‘em would’ve talked much else. Her English was sort of broken like. None of the young fellas took any interest in her and she didn’t encourage ‘em none.
It must of bin pretty lonesome for her I guess. She got sort of cut off from her own people too. Her mother had died and the dad lost his homestead after that. Then he went away to Ontario to work in the bush. Lots of them Finns is bush workers. Cut pulpwood and stuff like that.
Lempi? Oh she stayed on at Windthorsts for a long time. Ten years anyways I guess. Don’t think she went out with a fella even once in all that time. So it was a real surprise when she got married, ‘specially all at once like she did. What’s that? No. Not Lempi. There was nobody messin’ around with her.
A funny thing, you know. It was in pretty hard times and they was lots of tramps on the move. Young fellas riding the rods and folks got used to ‘em and so’s they didn’t pay ‘em much attention. But that didn’t stop half the women in town from getting high-sterical when this fella showed up. He was wanderin’ around the streets an’ lookin’ at houses and starin’ at any women who was out in their yard. Nobody saw him blow in. Guess he must’ve hiked in or mebbe got off of a freight or somethin’.
He didn’t do nothing but just walked around the streets gawkin’. The women folks was buzzin’ and gagglin’ over him and callin’ their kids in off the street and finally, Miz Windthorst made Eliot phone the Mounties over at Poplar Lake. The police didn’t come or nothin’. The corp’ral told Eliot that there wasn’t no escaped convicts loose that he knew of and he wasn’t going to drive no thirty-six miles to introdoose him to no tramp.
I’ll say he didn’t. Eliot was awful closed-mouthed, and he wouldn’t tell nothin’ on hisself anyways. Mabel Gordon – that’s Harry Gordon’s missus - Mabel Watson she was then – she was working in the telephone office and she heard it all … She don’t work there no more, ‘cept unless somebody took sick or somethin’. But she sure didn’t keep no official secrets as well as she might of while she was on the switchboard, let me tell you. Real good operator though. She could put you through to Saskatoon or Regina in just a few minutes. Almost as fast as you could think about it.
After a while this fella went over and sat by the side of the Pool elevator. He just sat there. A few times he’d get up and hike down the track a ways in one direction or the other, but not far, and he always come back to the elevator. I’ll bet if Miz Windthorst had of knew what was goin’ to happen she would of done somethin’ more to try to run him out of town. She didn’t know though, and when she found out, it was too late.
It was the kids who was most curious. Guess, besides, they was a little bolder than the older folks. Anyways, some boys crossed over the tracks to talk to the fella. Turned out he was just ordinary and there was nothing suspicious about him at all. It was near suppertime and he had took his pack out from a pile of ties where he had stashed it away when he first come. The pack was open and he was havin’ something to eat. A hunk of bread the kids said and a sausage as big as his boot that he was chewin’ on and a tin can that he had filled with water from the CNR pump. Bygod, that reminds me I’m thirsty. We better try what’s in that mickey.
They say age improves it, but I think this stuff must be growed up by now. Makes the world more cheerful don’t it? It’s pretty fair brew but it ain’t nothing like what Charlie useta make. They’d drive all the way over from Poplar Lake to buy his stuff. He sure ran a good still. Me and Charlie sure drank a pile of it and we buried quite a few empties out here, let me tell you. You’d be surprised at the straight-laced old ladies what’s gut an empty bottle tucked in with him. I stuck a full one in behind Charlie’s rough box. The old bugger woke up thirsty more often than not.
But he would of done the same for me. They was lots of times he left me the tag end of a bottle and told me to keep her till morning.
Yeah. The kids tried talking to this fella, but they couldn’t get very far. He couldn’t talk much English. A few words, you know, but real broken and hard to understand. But they was there for a while talkin’ away, with the kids mebbe mockin’ him and getting a little sassy. And then Pete Rychenko showed up. Pete was the section foreman here then and he was on his way home for supper. He seen these kids and went over to see what was going on. Well, it turned out that him and this fella talked the same whatever-it-is kind of jabbersloovian lingo, and the first thing you know, this guy was jabberin’ away for all he was worth.
Well, Pete took him along home with him. Him and his big pack. And I guess it wasn’t long before Pete knew all about him. Hell, the whole town knew all about him before the supper dishes was done.
You know, I think you better take a little bit outta that corner there. She’s gettin’ a little out of square.
Them Rychenko kids could hardly have et their supper before they was over town tellin’ their friends. It went just like a prairie fire. Ever’one was tellin’ ever’one else that this tramp had come to marry Lempi.
You bet that’s right. He figgered on gettin’ married. It seems they got to writing to each other somehow, through a magazine mebbe or some kind of lonely hearts club. He must of had somebody put his letters into English for him and read Lempi’s letters to I s’pose. Anyways, he had decided it was time to come and see her and make his offer face to face.
Guess Lempi was just about the last person in town to find out that he was here. Miz Windthorst was real mortified. Someone had run over right off to tell her so she knew what was up. Likely she seen that she might lose the only hired girl she ever had who’d take all the dirt she dished out and not kick back. She stomped and scuttled around as cross as a mink with young’uns and then she lit into Lempi. I guess she ripped into her up and down and crossways. My missus happened to be over there. She had scrubbed out the church and had went over to Miz Windthorst to get paid. She heard a lot of what Miz Windthorst said. Lempi wasn’t sayin’ much, but she wasn’t exactly runnin’ scared neither.
Well, it wasn’t long before the fella – Nick his name was – showed up at Windthorst’s house askin’ for Lempi. Rychenko must’ve told him where Lempi lived. Pretty well ever’body in town knew that Miz Windthorst wouldn’t like this fella comin’ round there, but Rychenko and his missus wouldn’t care nothing about that. His wife was a big stout woman who was all day hoein’ her cabbages or splittin’ ties for firewood. She sure as hell didn’t worry none about Miz Windthorst and her hoity-toity crew. No garlic snapper like her would ever of got invited to one of their tea parties anyways.
Let’s have another pull from that bottle. This diggin’ don’t get no easier.
Anyways, Miz Windthorst wouldn’t let this Nick fella inta the house when he got there, and she told Lempi that if she wanted to talk to him she’d hafta do it outside. So Lempi couldn’t do nothin’ else but go outside with him. They walked around the block a couple o’ times but they had half the people in town out on the streets to have a look at ‘em, so they went down to the railroad and walked up and down the tracks almost until dark.
That was all it took. They decided to get hitched.
No. No. He wasn’t no tramp at all. Ever’body figured at first that he was, but he wasn’t. He’d been in Canada for two -three years workin’ on the railroad extra gang. Saving his money. Y’ see, he was a shoemaker by trade and he figgered to get hisself a shoe repair shop. A wife who could talk English would be a big help to him. I don’t know how he explained his proposition to her, but it must’ve sounded all right to Lempi ‘cause she took him up on it.
About nine o’clock, she went back to Windthorst’s and told ‘em she was gettin’ hitched. Miz Windthorst just laughed at her at first. She acted as if it was just a joke. Like I said Lempi didn’t have no friends and nobody took ‘em serious at all.
Me and Charlie wasn’t no better than nobody else. Maybe we was worse. We hee-hawed and cracked just as many jokes as the next fella. That Charlie was real comical if he wanted to be. Just let him get to feeling good and there was no stoppin’ him. Real light on his feet too. Nobody could touch him at either dancing or fightin’. Real smooth he was. Exceptional so for such a big man.
But me and Charlie was just having fun. We didn’t mean no harm. Not like some.
Miz Windthorst got pretty miserable and tried to raise all the hell she could to make Lempi change her mind. But Lempi showed more dang spunk than anyone ever figgered she had and she wouldn’t give into nothin’ Miz Windthorst said. Guess Miz Windthorst stewed and badgered at her all the next day, but Lempi stuck right to her guns. Then, when Miz Windthorst seen she couldn’t make Lempi change her mind, she kicked her out. Paid her off and kicked her out right then and there. Said she was a disgrace and that there was no place for her under a respectable roof.
Well, Lempi packed what little she had and moved down to the hotel. And it was a pretty rough place that old Bill Griffin was runnin’ in them days. No place for a girl to stay at all.
Things was movin’ a mite too fast for Nick, of course. He didn’t know nothin’ about this country you know. Green as grass and Lempi was just about as bad. Most folks was laughin’ and jokin’ about ‘em and some was even tryin’ to pull their leg. Some was worse than others. They’d sit around in the beer parlour and get lots of great ideas. You know how it is.
You figger on savin’ that tiger’s milk for another day?
Well, they couldn’t get hitched in Ridpath right away anyways. The Anglican preacher, Wilding, was away on holidays. They was away back east visiting his wife’s folks and they wasn’t no other preacher right around here. So they didn’t know what to do and nobody was bein’ very helpful neither. They was all too busy laughin’. Even me and Charlie.
I guess though, if we had of knew what them fellas was up to, we wouldn’t have let them do it. But they kept the dirty part of their plan secret, and they fooled ever’one. They was sure set on provin’ how smart they was.
It was Bill Wentworth and George Alworthy. Wentworth was one o’ them goddamn remittance men. His folks in England was rich and they sent him money regular just so’s he’d stay away. Them two never showed their faces around here for a long time after it was all over let me tell you. Just once was all. And then Charlie tackled them both. Offered to lick’em both – either separate or both together. They knew he could do it too. Charlie useta pick up a curling rock with one hand and turn it over to look at the bottom. If it needed cleaning’, he’d just rub it on his chest, sorta absent-minded like, as if that curling’ rock didn’t weigh no more’n his mitts. I sure did like to see him do that.
Them bastards really planned it out. They made Lempi and Nick believe that they was tryin’ to help and they drove them to Saskatoon so’s they could get hitched up there right away that day. And you know they put on a mock weddin’ just to fool those two. They rounded up some of their pals and got one of them to pertend to be the preacher and they made Nick and Lempi think that they was hitched all legal and proper. They had even printed up a phony certificate – a kind of a jokin’ one it was. Nick showed it to me afterward. They sure did it up brown let me tell you. Then they put them on the afternoon train and sent them back to Ridpath.
Oh they fooled ever’body all right. While they was gone, Mabel Gordon, that’s Harry Gordon’s wife – Mabel Watson she was then - got the notion of havin’ them a party. So she got to phonin’ and making arrangements. She’s pretty good-hearted even if she ain’t too good at keepin’ secrets, and she likes a good time too. Anyways they hadn’t been a dance in town in quite a long while. So she got this party going. They was a bunch met ‘em at the train last night and took ‘em over to the hall and they was dancing and so on. Gents paid two bits to pay the hall rent and the ladies brought lunch. Whoever had a fiddle or a accordeen brought it along and played for free. They was a lot of people there considerin’ that some of the womenfolk didn’t want to get on the bad side of Miz Windthorst. It wasn’t no big splash, mind you, but they was lots o’ young folks. They took up a collection and got a few dollars to give ‘em. They wasn’t many of the high mucky mucks there but you could tell that nobody ever had a better party. And Nick and Lempi was really su’prised. I don’t s’pose that either of them had ever had any kind of party before and they were sure tickled. It’s too bad it all ended the way it did. Ever’ thin’ looked there for awhile as if it could go real good for ‘em.
No. They didn’t go away. They stayed right there in Ridpath. Like I said, this Nick was a shoemaker. He had a little money saved up – Lempi might’ve had some too I guess – and they was going to set up shop somewheres. Well, they was a vacant store building right there on the main street. It’s burned down now, but it stood empty for two, three years, ever since Chet Nelson went broke in ‘er. Living quarters upstairs. All she needed was cleaning out and a little fixin’ up. And the districk sure needed a shoemaker. Farmers were still using lots of horses in them days and they had lots of harness to repair. Harness and binder canvas, besides all the shoes. Lots of work to keep the shoemaker real busy.
Y’know ever’body ‘cept Miz Windthorst and her crew got to singing a different tune. People started pitching in to help. Mebbe some was doing it just to spite Miz Windthorst who hadn’t been able to get another hired girl and was still well pretty up in the air about it. But it wasn’t long until Nick and Lempi was settled right in. It was easy done. And them days you didn’t need much to start out. A bed, a table and a stove. Not like now. Young folks now figger they got to start out at where their old folks left off.
They had threw a pa’tition across the big front room. Nick’s workshop was in back, and the front they had fixed up real slick. They had some boots and fancy bridles. Stuff all for sale. Pom-poms and other things for decoratin’ up a team of horses. All neat an’ orderly just like a reg’lar store – not a dang scrummage o’ junk like most shoemaker shops.
They started doin’ real good in there too, considerin’ ever’thing. O’course in them times, most folks couldn’t afford to buy new stuff. It seems that fix and mend was all that anybody ever did. Nick was real busy. They was both busy ‘cause Lempi spent as much time in the shop as Nick did. He’ do the hard stuff that took a real shoemaker and she’d clean and polish and help anywhere she could.
Lempi mebbe wasn’t no shoemaker, but she sure helped to draw the trade. The day they started business, they stuck a pair of Charlie’s old boots in the window. Right there out in front. Old boots they was. One was so twisted and chewed up and worn out you’da thought it had gone through a thrashing machine. The other was all fixed up. New half-sole. New heel. Stitched the uppers all up. All oiled and polished. Then laced ‘er up partway with new rawhide laces. She looks as good as new. And right beside it sat the other one looking like it belonged on the trash heap. That was Lempi’s idea. She had a head on her, let me tell you. And she didn’t seem to give a damn no more about that birthmark. She acted just like she had forgot she had it.
I’ll say something happened. It sure did. When it blew up, it blew up all at once, and then it was all over. It was mostly Miz Windthorst’s fault. And of course Wentworth and Alworthy. But I s’pose ever’body was some to blame. Or if she’d of had someone ... But sometimes people don’t make no kind of sense at all.
You see, I suppose it was bound to happen that word would get out that there hadn’t been no real wedding. It got whispered around town, but nobody was up to tellin’ Nick or Lempi. And with the first bit o’ talk, Miz Windthorst made it her business to find out. So o’ course she found out that there hadn’t been no license issued and there wasn’t no record of such a weddin’. That was all it took.
Miz Windthorst got all dressed up one afternoon – Friday it was, just before train time – all dressed up with her white gloves on and collected a couple of her fat-assed sidekicks and they went marchin’ into Nick and Lempi’s place. Lempi was there alone. Nick had gone to the train station to pick up some express. So Lempi was there like she usually was and Miz Windthorst just ripped into her all over again, only worse. Told her that she was a stupid blockhead and that she was livin’ in sin but wasn’t fooling nobody. That she was just a joke and that the whole town was laughin’ at her. It took Lempi a little while to get the whole drift of what they was sayin’, but I guess the women wasn’t shy of helping her to understand.
When finally Lempi unnerstood what all they was gettin’ at, she took it awful hard. She broke right down and ran upstairs to hide. You see she believed the whole town was in on the joke and that she was a reg’lar laughing stock. She wouldn’t talk to nobody, she was so ashamed. I guess all she could think of was to get away anywhere she could. Trouble was, there was no place for her to go.
So she took gopher poison. Fulla strick-nyne that stuff. Throws ya inta convulsions. They said she was awful sick before she died.
Pretty well the whole town was squabblin’ over her funeral. Youda thought Miz Windthorst would of bin satisfied, but she wasn’t, not even then. It was about a burial place you see. Miz Windthorst claimed that the cemetery was concentrated ground and that it’s never allowed that no suicide should be buried in concentrated ground. So me and Charlie got instructions to dig Lempi’s grave outside the fence. Right alongside was okay, but it had to be on the other side.
Me and Charlie just couldn’t see that. ‘Specially Charlie. He spoke right out agin it. He figgered the town had done her enough wrong without doing that besides. He felt real sorry about it and so did I, but they had give us our orders.
I guess though, in the end, me and Charlie did the best we could. We didn’t know what to do at first, so we got out the plan of the cemetery to see how many feet we had to the road allowance. And we looked up to see who was buried where so Lempi wouldn’t have to lie beside some mean-tempered old bat. Then Charlie saw what to do. And as soon as he explained it to me, I didn’t need no coaxin’.
Folks figgered we was awful slow diggin’ Lempi’s grave. We barely had it ready before it was time to use it. Y’ see nobody knew that we had worked right through the night movin’ that dang fence around the cemetery. We spread the dirt from the postholes so’s it wouldn’t be noticed and we piled the tumbleweed agin the fence just like it was before.
You see, along the south side there where Lempi is buried, we moved the fence in a few feet. And along the north side there, we moved ‘er a few feet out.
Yep. Lempi is laying outside the fence, but she’s still in concentrated ground. And up there at the north end, Miz Windthorst is inside the fence, but she ain’t in no concentrated ground. She’s really in Baldy Wickup’s pasture. And Baldy never gave it no blessin’. There’s some alkali through there and it don’t hardly grow enough grass for a billygoat. Just foxtail.
Looks like this is another dead soldier. Guess we can throw away the cork.