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the little disturbances of men

cross field

I was an eleven year old boy the first time someone left me alone with Father Thatcher. St Louis in 1850 was a rough place. If diseases didn't claim you, there were plenty of unscrupulous people waiting for you to show a sign of weakness. So the way of the time, was to never to do so. While Pop had died while I was young, at least he'd taught me never to look down at my shoes, never show a sign of weaker character. The moment you do, someone like Thatcher, or worse, would prey on you like a wolf in the wild. My pop called them 'the little disturbances of men' - that as we moved out in the frontier, that men's basic instincts would be to show their worst far earlier, knowing that fear is a powerful weapon over most folk.

As if to prove his lessons to me, Pop died that year. He'd gotten pneumonia and worked sick through the planting season - and he was dead by harvest. Ma did the best she could, wrestling what little money they had. Without him, she simply had to get to work. We had moved to St. Louis from Montreal with barely a houseful of belongings a year prior. We spoke French, instead of Prairie English - so my words came to me slowly. What was my Mother to do but find somewhere I could take refuge, somewhere I could find some peace from other farm boys, for whom I was quick pickings. They’d learned from his schoolhouse how brutal his cane could be, so I would go to Thatcher's rectory after school and wait for my mother to come get me.

Father Thatcher was not your stereotypical Catholic priest. He was the type of man you’d imagine fighting on the streets of New York or working the docks of Baltimore or Boston. He was a barrel of a man. It was if he'd cut trees like a lumberjack and one day, decided God was a stronger calling. It's forty years ago now - but I can still remember the first time he gave me that unusually strong hug one dark fall evening. It didn’t end quickly and socially like all the others before it. I realized he was aroused under his trousers. Fearing what was coming next, I began trying to wriggle away.

I screamed out at him, "I'll tell someone."

"Go ahead and tell, boy. Nobody will believe you.”, he said, calmly breathing hot against my neck. He knew the impact that truth had on me.

I thought in that moment, the fire and fury this man would have met if my father was still alive. How it would have cut through my Father's faith in everything, God at the very least. I think that it would have destroyed my father - but in turn, he would have rose up and destroyed the bully towering over me in the rectory. But that is another boy's story - this one is mine.

Instead Mother had slapped me off my feet when I told her, “You don’t you dare lie about a priest like that.", she said, visibly disgusted.

I was no dummy. You beat me once for something, I’m not going to come back again and get beat again. So I didn’t tell anyone else.

She sent me back to him the next morning for counseling. Right back to the man who had license to rape me.

While I was under his influence he would bribe me with extra food to take home to the family or have a box of cookies or chocolates for my Mother. I think that was the worst part of it, was that not only did he have me, but I watched him manipulate my Mother into making me spend more and more time around him with equal precision and mastery. If I relented to his needs, my Mother would hear what a good Catholic boy I was turning out to be, otherwise, he'd tell her he was worried there was sin growing in me, and that only prayer and service to the Church would solve my continuing troubles. I'd see him during services give that look he'd given me once - to another boy in the choir or that almost imperceptible pause in front of another altar boy during services. As gross as it sounds, at the time, I did nothing to warn others.

His power in that rectory was absolute - whether he was rapping your knuckles in class or insistently rubbing his sweaty crotch against your face. There was simply nobody there that would understand. It was such a dark secret I didn't even dare talk about it with the other boys my age, who might share a similar fate left in his care or advice. The way things turned out, I never had an adult conversation with her about it. I never had a chance to ask her how she could let it happen to the child she was sworn to protect. I still wonder if she did know, but felt powerless. Because once someone knows, it falls on them, too. They become responsible, and for some people that's too much to handle. I don't blame her. Here she was on the edges of the frontier, alone. She was left with so few real choices.


the bell would ring

The first breezes of fall fell upon our small town like a salve. The collective sigh of relief was palpable, as the summer had been hot, even brutal. I was eager to trade in my hard worn harvest boots for a pair of oxfords, and a return to the single room schoolhouse. I'd been unable to hide my eagerness to return from my brothers, who would spend the winter haying hogs and cows.
"That boy just sees things differently," my Pop was fond of saying, and not always complimentary. He was a farmer. A farmer sees the soil as the great connector of lives, ultimately the source and destination of all. The Healer. Restorer and Resurrector. So to see me turn to knowledge as my own soil to turn, my Pop and I learned to accept that we were of different philosophers, but were still kin. He would learn to see his stubbornness in the high expectations in my classroom, his wit in my letters to congressmen and the St Louis newspapers, his attention-to-detail in lads he'd hire for the harvest after spending a year in my classroom. He'd never outright admit so, but he was proud of the man I'd turned into.
A single room with a stove in the corner and bookshelves on every available wall. Unlike other teachers - each student kept a personal chalkboard. My brother had helped me craft them one fall, and they'd changed our room. Whether battling long division - or drawing out plants, the small little boards were a source of pride for every child who owned one.
I would teach them writing, 'rithmetic and try and expose them to new ideas and stories and adventures from around the world. Many of the kids I saw in the fall had never been but fifty miles square from the little brick building we stayed in together.
They couldn't grasp 100 miles - leave alone 1000 - or thousands of miles. They'd been raised in the working shadow of the farm and field. Chores had been learned before language. Contributing to the family - and keeping everyone safe was a language they spoke long before anything else. They understood simple ideas like 'A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?'
My kinders would learn simple spelling - my juniors the history of our brave new country - and my seniors, the ways of business, and what opportunities are out there for the right determined mind. The next spring, the first kids would move on after seven years in my room for the winter. I polished my oxfords, quietly pulled on my wool pants and starched shirt and tie. Soon the bell would ring and a new winter dedicated to exploring would begin.

completely intact


It wasn't something I'd chosen intentionally - the current of the exploration simply swept me up on it's way westward. Once word got back to St. Charles that the wagon train that had left the following spring had reached the Oregon Territory pretty much intact, it passed from the realm of fantasy into something that felt accomplishable. The west presented something new for everyone. It presented a way out. It was an escape from the lure of the city, a strike out at the unknown.

Just as the prairies beyond Missouri were storied to be vast - so were the imaginations of what we all thought we'd find there and who we might become. For me it was a chance to get some space - both literally and figuratively - between me and this life so far. I naively thought that if I could draw out a thousand miles behind me, that life would finally let me free. They never warn when you are out there on the frontier - any fear you packed along with you becomes amplified, the silence gets filled by whatever you bring with you. It's true that a lot of did come through the other side of it, but not even the strongest amongst us came through it completely intact.


About death


I had a good business there on the waning ends of the Missouri, teaching would-be-wagoners about death. Here in the young city of Saint Charles, we were an odd mix of union soldiers, families and grey-coats who were looking to erase their lives and start over. We all had reasons for wanting to head west. Mormons were convinced that a promised land lay out there past the horizon. Some figuring that if gold sat in streams in California - it figured to do so in streams all up that coast. Some folks saw a path to an entirely new way of life, trying to leave as much of the young country to the east behind them as possible. At least until it inevitably caught back up with them.

Many folks that came to me had never held a weapon, leave alone fired one. That was something to be thankful for. That there were men and women that didn't wear the stain of death on their character. If rumors were true - there were men and beasts between here and Oregon that had nothing but our deaths on their minds. That was something to be taken very seriously. Between Bison, Cheyenne, Bears, Wolves and the Pawnee, there was plenty to fear. All of them had the advantage, knowing the land you were crossing. Knowing it's secrets; knowing where to catch you by surprise. I had to teach people how to react under stress, how to be able to pull their gun and use it. There'd be time to think about the consequences afterwards.

"Always fire with the intent to kill or don't bother picking up a weapon in the first place."

During the war, he'd done so many times. No time to worry about whose family you were rendering fatherless when you fired, because if you hesitated, you'd be dead. The war had been ugly - with great losses for both sides. While it was over, the feelings of distrust, the feelings and the filth of warfare - still remained in all of us. It was a matter of fact.

"Aim to kill, with certainty. Make a bullet count or what you are shootin'at is liable to kill you first."

The line of trainees brought their weapons up pointing down range, kachink, pow. zing. kachink, pow. zing.

"Man or beast, nothing likes being shot in the arm or the leg. Shoot for the heart and the head, make it quick, bring down your target."

kachink, pow. zing. A Winchester level action could shoot two shots a second if it had to. It was meant to be fired from a standing position, not crouched and prone like a sniper gun. This was not a now-that-I-have-your-attention gun, this was a weapon meant to kill it's target. By the looks of today's crop, some might not even make it as far as Wyoming. Some would turn back when the horizon fell out so far that the big country would send them back to Missouri in a panic. Some would disappear into the grasses, never to be seen again.

Well alone


It had been weeks now since sharing the bed had gone from necessity against the night's cold towards an air of embrace. We had both surrendered to the truth that we really wanted to be there together. Neither of us had a word for what was happening between us. I would wake up some mornings and he had been watching me sleep. I could feel against my hip that doing so pleased him a great deal. We would both remember these first few nights in our snowed in escape.

"I love you," I said rather suddenly and softly. The morning sunrise struck through the window onto his face, his sweaty chest hair in rivulets down his stomach. His beard wet and soft.

"You need to be careful where and when you say that, " he said stopping me, touching my bottom lip, "You and I are the only ones in the woods who will understand this." he said adding weight to his erectness and body next to me. " 'n, nobody else should be expected to. and blurting out a word like that could get all this destroyed. 'er worse things. its warmin' up out and with it brings all kinds a'trouble with it."

An immediate and palpable silence fell between us. He could see his words frightened me.

There will lay under skin rug blankets we'd hunted and made together. Layed bare in a pool of each other's sweat, tasting ourselves on each other. Tears had begun to pool in my eyes as he thrust himself down on me pouring kisses in my mouth, licking my tears away. We were both quite lost to what was happening between us.

Later that day as we were about to head out to work and feed the sheep and horses, I stopped him. I understood how important it was that another soul never suspect was happening in our shared hollow, how any risk could be the last one we took.

We'd build a secnd cabin - and make sure that by all appearances, we were sheep herders helping settlers find the next valley. If these weeks were turning into a life together up in these woods, we'd have to protect it from all predators - most importantly our inquisitive settlers. Appearances would have to made - efforts to get the hounds off our scent, if you would. The thaw would bring more wagons and travelers to the region. The full creeks and rivers would bring with a flow of folks, still fresh with the scent of the puritan country some 1200 miles to the east on their clothes and wagons. Fresh bibles kept at the ready to share with an unsuspecting traveler. Faith branched across the continent into Mormonism, Calvinism and old world's Protestants and Catholics. The First Nations - the Algonquin, the Iroqui and the Abenaki were whispers on the voice of history. Puritan religion had seen to that quite matter-of-factily.

The Umatilla of these parts were friends of Lewis and Clark; but also understood how important it was to hide up high in the mountains away from the white man's judgmental stare. Imagine living on a land for generations only to have another race of people sweep in and take it. The First Nations had seen this before from warring nations, but never on the scale of the white man. Europeans fought with cruelty and a sense of righteousness, the fruit of the Puritan seeds planted into the ground so many years before by their Fathers. Strange how a country can form itself upon fleeing religious persecution learns so very little from it's humble beginnings, resorting to the worst side of themselves when things really counted. A few of us had hoped that jumping up on a horse and riding it for as far as we could go, that the world would not catch up. We were quickly proven wrong. We would start saying that spring, but never quite saying, you are welcome here but please don't stay. Stories of brighter sunrises, deeper valleys and wider expanses ahead, kept most folks moving on. If we could appeal to their sense of manifest destiny - they would leave him and me. They would leave him and me well alone.