It may surprise you to know that some of the early residents of Musselshell County eventually left our prairie paradise. Their reasons were legion; their counsel most often their own. Many were laboring men of little skill or motivation and thus cursed to blow where the whims of the wind would take them; some were families ill-suited to the demands of these Montana plains or beset by misfortune; and others, though few, were lone women sadly adrift without benefit of father, brother, or husband.
In this appendix we account for what we know of their adventures, surprises, misfortunes, talents, loves, eccentricities, and failures. Our hope is that in knowing what was you might ready yourself to meet and master what will be. Don’t you agree that only a true accounting can help us understand our rightful portion? That it is our history that tells us who we are?
Then take heed!
Sad and strange as these stories may be, there is, for the discerning reader, instruction in them. There is in them something to be gained. This we promise.
OLE AASGAARD came to Delphia from No Name, Illinois, in 1911. Some years later he left to pick cherries in Washington state. He never came back. He worked mostly odd jobs around town and, as folks rarely ever heard him utter a word, was thought by many to be mute. But when the first and only spring rain of 1919 dropped less than a tenth of an inch, he said, quite clearly, “Well, that’s it.” This comment, overheard by a handful of gentlemen taking their dinner at the Bismarck Inn, was the front-page headline of The Oracle1 the very next day.
ABLE APPLETON returned from the Great War to find that the millinery he’d managed had closed and that his sweetheart had left him for a dashing young rancher named Wade Kincheloe. Able proved a man unable to forgive: he moved to Melstone, a crossroads town down the Milwaukee Railroad, and for the next fifty years made it his business to make sure Melstone, rather than Delphia, remained the principal railstop in east-central Montana. Though now that the Milwaukee Rail Company has pulled up its tracks altogether, Melstone too is not as lively as it once was.
MR. ASHLEY was a fair-haired, slender man. A beauty, really. Though his slightness and demure demeanor suited neither the country nor the notions of the time. Folks with gray hair and fallen faces even now smile to say his name, as they remember his slim waist and shoulders, the clean line of his jaw, those blue-sky eyes. And they remember as well how his hands slipped through the air as he spoke; his hands were said, by both men and women alike, to be exquisite. He came to town alone in the late winter of 1919 and stayed for a few months in the Bismarck Inn; registering only as “Ashley,” he was known as “Mr. Ashley” around town, and he was, for the most part, polite and well thought of. Then he took up with Olivia Candelora, an impetuous, dark-eyed, heavy-chested girl of fifteen. In August of the same year, some month or so after his affair with the Candelora girl began, Mr. Ashley was found killed, shot clean through the heart, out near a dry basin on the Clausen homestead. Though there were plenty of theories proposed and ideas offered, no conviction was ever handed down.
THAD BASSETT was a Welshman and coal miner who tried his hand at homesteading out on Bascom Creek. He failed. He called Musselshell County home for only a season before jumping a Milwaukee Line boxcar for somewhere farther west. Though it is a fact that he was fond of brains and eggs at the Bismarck Inn, he is remembered mostly for singing a duet with Olivia Candelora at a boy’s funeral.2 Throughout the county, Olivia, young as she was, was known already as an accomplished vocalist, sought after for formal programs, dinners, and the like. And truly, many still say her voice was like blown glass—bright and clear and crystal. So that day Mr. Bassett’s singing was the surprise; his voice seemed to rise up from the very bowels of the earth. Together, they were more than most could stand. Women wept like babes. Men sucked at the very air of the room. Some, Irma Newman among them,3 remember that as the song rose, and fell, and rose again, that little clapboard church began to fill, strangely, with the olfaction of fruits: wild plums, fresh limes, cider apples. When Olivia Candelora and Mr. Bassett finished, the congregants sat stone silent for half a breath before breaking into a wild and very un-funereal applause.
MARILYN BLESSING ran the dry goods store in Delphia for a number of years. She was bought out by John Bomgaar in 1922 and subsequently moved to Billings, where she spent her dotage alone, as she never married. She was a thick woman, very broad in the shoulders, with a face like a ham, and she always gave as good as she got to all the bilious homesteaders looking to extend their line of credit. It is widely remembered as well that she had Mr. Ashley filling orders and stocking shelves for a bit that summer he was in town. Ms. Blessing and Ashley took to each other and were often seen going about and laughing together.4
ROBERT BOSTON was a cloud-seeder, a man who for a fee promised to farm rain from the sky. During the wet years, roughly 1912-1918, he made his most permanent home in the Bismarck Inn, but traveled widely across eastern Montana, seeding clouds and selling rain. Every man, woman, and child in some little town of blowing dust would pitch in to raise his fee—and then he’d farm away. If rain came, it came, and word of his skill spread. If not, he most of the time needed just a few more days and a bit more cash to plant again.5 Of course, in early 1919, once the sky went white and the rivers dried, he packed up and left this country for good.
VINCENT CANDELORA hauled his family of seven—six skinny kids, Giulio, Carlo, Jacopo, Berengario, Edvidge, and Olivia, along with Giuseppina, his ample wife—out to the north half of section 17, where he homesteaded one of the driest stretches of prairie in the county, a place where the plains wind stacked bits of weeds on the windowsills, blew dust beneath every closed door. Vincent’s first field of wheat was short and spotty. His second the same. His third never came up at all. That was 1919, the year his only daughter, Olivia, began her legendary rebellion: she tightened the bodice of her calico dress; she stole bottles of communion wine from Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church; she sashayed past Blessing’s Dry Goods, her dark eyes on Mr. Ashley. It is said Olivia opened her mouth and laughed out loud, that she let the wind muss her long hair, that the skin of her throat shone like prairie earth in the setting sun. Reports filtered through town of Olivia and Ashley racing Vincent’s farm horses out on the Comanche Flats, of their dancing all one evening at some saloon over in Melstone, of unsupervised picnics at the basin, that one wet place in so many dry miles. The townsfolk grumbled and hawed. For her part, Marilyn Blessing spoke to Mr. Ashley, telling him Olivia was too young and too fast for a gentleman like him.6 And then one evening Olivia was seen, quite clearly, leaning out Velma Clausen’s window smoking long, thin cigarettes—and that was it, or so the townsfolk thought: the incident was reported to Mr. Candelora by Hoyt Stokes, the town marshal at the time. But Vincent, beaten down as he was by the worsening drought and the overdue notices from Newt Ingersoll’s Buffalo Grass Savings Bank, felt that if God himself, on hearing Olivia’s song each Sunday Mass, did not reach down and turn her heart, she was beyond hope. He said nothing to his daughter; he forbade his wife to say anything; and the day after they found Mr. Ashley’s body, Vincent sold his horses and packed his family up—sans Olivia, of course—and headed West once again.7
BILLY CHRISTMAS, though he spent at most only a month of days in Musselshell County selling subscriptions to his fruit-of-the-month club, is remembered rather well, as it was he who found Mr. Ashley’s body out by the basin. Longtime Delphia resident, Hazel Hougen, offered this remembrance of Christmas: “Green eyes. And a trim little mustache. Not a good looking man, but serious. That’s why no one questioned his story. Because he was so serious. Even the part about the smile. About Mr. Ashley dying with a smile.”
CHARLIE CHURCH and his pretty wife settled north of Delphia. Young and tall and strong as Mr. Church was, folks thought they’d make it. But they didn’t even last through the wet years. In the winter of 1917, Mrs. Church began seeing angels. In even the coldest of winds she’d throw the door wide and run from their sod house. Always she was set on testifying at the train station, where she stood on a bench and told all who would listen that the angels came to her. She claimed the angels too were lonely out on the far prairie, that they opened their unnaturally wide mouths and whispered to her all kinds of secrets. Little Mrs. Church said the angels told her that Charlie was trying to kill her, and then counseled her to get him first, to slip something in his soup. After a number of such testimonies, Sheriff Stokes took Charlie aside and had a talk with him, and soon Charlie Church packed up and moved his little wife back to mild Iowa.
KENNETH CLAUSEN homesteaded with his sister, Velma Clausen, out on the south half of section 17, which wasn’t nearly so dry as the north half, as it contained the spring-fed basin we now call Deadman’s. Kenneth built a sod house against a low hill to spend their first winter in, that of 1910, and began, after the wheat crop sold, a great home of pine. But he never finished. Each summer he added new rooms—a formal dining room, an informal dining room, a library, a great room, a sitting room, a mud room, a linen room, a boudoir, etc.—but he could never close his first three walls with a fourth. He kept building and building, his once fine home a twisting growth of ten-penny nails and pine boards. Then, suddenly, he was gone; he simply disappeared. Though people disappear around here rather often, especially during dry years, poor as they are they usually leave very little to clean up. This was different. No one knew what to do with Mr. Clausen’s monstrous house. His sister had recently left Delphia for San Francisco8 and his sister’s young charge, Olivia Candelora, had fled town with the notorious Rattlesnake Jake. So, the county eventually reclaimed the land; yet they did nothing about the house. It remained; it weathered. Dust storms stripped the paint, the shingles. Hail cracked the windows. Swallows daubed mudnests into the eaves. Skunks and badgers roamed the kitchen. And, most famously, or infamously, of all, hobos and wanderers were said to set up their tents in the front room. We hear tell that for many years Kenneth Clausen’s mess of a mansion was known coast-to-coast as a sanctuary for itinerants. Finally, just a few years ago now, Bobbie Newman cleaned it out9 and carted away much of the lumber and built a hog barn with it. Now, all that remains is a strange indentation in the prairie earth.
VELMA CLAUSEN homesteaded with her brother, Kenneth Clausen, out on the south half of section 17.10 However, Velma abandoned her brother out on the prairie after that first winter and took an apartment in town, the one above the south half of Bomgaar’s Hardware, which, back in 1913, nestled over the Prairie Pearl Saloon. Many blue stories are told of Velma Clausen: it is said she drank more than a lady should; it is said she wore men’s trousers and cuffs; it is said she read poetry. We cannot corroborate all of this. Yet we do know she smoked cigarettes imported from Paris, as a number of dusty packages from her last order are still on display in the glass case by the cash register at the hardware store. We do know she once leaned out her second floor window and threw a chamber pot of nightsoils on Martin Ames, the Congregational Preacher, who was witnessing in the middle of Main Street, calling the Sunday champagne party Velma was throwing an especial abomination.11 And we know as well that Velma took in young Olivia Candelora during her troubles and was as good as a woman of her predilections could be to a young girl. When Olivia was at her lowest in God’s and the community’s eyes, when not one believed her to be innocent, Velma, despite the woman she was, cared for that girl like she was both father and mother to her.
WILLIE CROW was a dandy and drifter. He wore a pork pie hat cocked back on his head, a thin little mustache, and gloves white as snow. Yet for his fine appearance, he had little money of his own. Once Velma Clausen barred him from her parties—a disagreement, we understand, over how Willie spoke to Olivia one evening—rumor has it that he squatted for a week or two in an abandoned shack out near the claim of Alma and Mary Williams, the spinster sisters, who would later die in a terrific fire.12
MASTER DOMINGO paid a gaggle of local boys to set up his tents south of town every summer. Then, in the evenings, decked out in a black top hat and purple cape, Master Domingo would perform feats of magic. He was, however, a poor practitioner of illusion: he dropped his coins, he squished the bananas hidden in the seat of his pants, from somewhere deep inside the old boxcar he banged and banged and pleaded for help. Of course, after the trouble with the boxcar, Domingo never came back, as that incident occurred in the early ‘20s, and the appetite for failure, funny or otherwise, had changed considerably.
MYRNA DONOVAN was a Protestant Irishwoman. The young widow of an English lord, she had come to the plains for her health—she was a terribly weedy thing—and became smitten with the fine-boned boy stocking shelves at Blessing’s Dry Goods. “For his beauty,” she was heard exclaiming once, in the presence of a much younger Eleanor Kincheloe, “he could be royalty. He has the delicate face of a duchess!”13 This, of course, was Mr. Ashley. As has been noted, Ashley turned the head of many, but only Myrna Donovan and Olivia Candelora had the impertinence to pursue him. Mr. Ashley chose Olivia, and Myrna, having offered a life of privilege and delectation beyond measure, became enraged. To his face she called Mr. Ashley a woman-hearted coward and all manner of other sordid monikers. Ms. Blessing was forced to bodily remove her from the dry goods store and, English title or no, Sheriff Hoyt Stokes threatened to have her jailed.
JOE DOZE, a great lumbering bear of a man, homesteaded south of Delphia. He was rather simple and is remarkable only for his arsonistic tendencies. He was always delighted beyond measure in the festivities of the Independence Day celebration, gasping and clapping at each shower of colored sparks like some bewhiskered child, and he more than once tried to set fire in the stable straw back of the Prairie Pearl. Anyway, he disappeared in 1919, just as the dust began to lift and blow. No one knows what happened to him.
LOVEY FAIRE ran a string of girls out of the Prairie Pearl Saloon. We know from various official forms and registers, she was a member of the Delphia Chamber of Commerce and regularly attended Methodist church services. From a number of anonymous remembrances we also know that her red hair was always done up in scarves and combs, that her skirts were piebald and bright, that her skin was white as milk soap. And, certainly, as the incident was later investigated by Sheriff Stokes, we know that she and her girls were finally run out of town by a Newt Ingersoll’s Keepers of a Christian Community.
REV. NAVIE FRANKS preached the funeral of Mr. Ashley, as Martin Ames refused, claiming not even filthy John the Baptist would attend such a sordid affair. A handsome black woman, Rev. Franks stayed a few weeks at a time in a shanty out back of the Bismarck Inn and was left mostly to her own affairs. Accordingly, little is known about her, beyond that she worked as a traveling preacher and had marked socialist sympathies.14 The day of the funeral was hot; it was late summer of 1919, hell’s own season, yet Rev. Franks preached from the Beatitudes: “Mr. Ashley,” she finished, “meek and gentle, young and beautiful and dead, has had his small measure of this mean earth. Let us pray his portion of Heaven is fuller.” At the conclusion of the sermon, as the townsfolk dabbed at their eyes and assented—“How sad! He knew so little of life! Short and sad are the days of man born of woman!”—Olivia Candelora stood, threw back her shimmering black veil, and, her eyes afire, shouted, “My love knew more of life than most of you will ever know! Our days were short but far from sad!”15 Sheriff Stokes, who, along with Rattlesnake Jake, had accompanied Olivia to the service, took her up even as she screamed and hauled her back to the county jail.
TONY FRANZEL lost his homestead16 in late 1919, but he didn’t leave the county until well into the 1950s. He is included here, in the list of those who left before the dirty 30s, as he more or less removed himself from the community following Marilyn Blessing’s sale of the dry goods store in 1922 to John Bomgaar. He was fond of Ms. Blessing, some even said they were sweethearts, but it seemed to most that they were more like pals: they went fishing at the basin; they sometimes took lunch at the Bismarck Inn. When Ms. Blessing hired Mr. Ashley, Mr. Franzel took to him as well. It was Franzel, out of some inheritance left to him by an aunt back east, who paid for Ashley’s plot and gravestone. In fact, Franzel took up care of the county cemetery altogether and for his work was accorded a small wage, which he always left uncollected.17 Strange as he may have been, Mr. Franzel took meticulous care of the cemetery. He planted Russian Olives around the perimeter and flax—blooming each spring blue as creek water—along the curving road through the stones. And he took special care of Mr. Ashley’s grave, pruning back the lilac, tending to the thirsty ways of the rose bramble, and, curiously, leaving arranged bowls of fresh fruit there each Sunday.
BISHOP HE-DOES-IT claimed it was Willie Crow who killed Mr. Ashley. He said he saw the whole thing; he said he was having a sweat18 out by the basin when he saw two figures tussling. One brandished a snub-nose pistol and fired it into the chest of the other. Bishop claimed he caught sight of the killer’s face as he ran through the moonlight. Of course, no one believed him. Yet Sheriff Stokes heard Bishop out, even did a little investigating, though everyone in town knew it was a dead end.19 “He shot himself,” they said. “It was that Italian girl,” they said. Bishop shook his head. “It was that man with pin feathers and gristle in his teeth.”
MISTER HELLO was a shoe-shiner who stayed in the Bismarck Inn and set up shop each morning outside the train station. It was thought he was of Bulgarian extraction, yet no one was quite sure, as the only two words of English he could pronounce clearly were “Mister” and “Hello”. It is remembered that he did a good business during the wet years.
NEWT INGERSOLL came to Musselshell County in 1908, financing most of the original storefronts on Main Street, publishing The Oracle, serving for a number of years as both mayor of Delphia and county treasurer, and managing a branch of the Buffalo Grass Savings Bank until 1929, the year the bank folded and Mayor Ingersoll left town. Though he never married, he was a respected and leading member of the community and is most often remembered for his passionate and convincing editorial concerning Olivia Candelora’s guilt in the matter of Mr. Ashley’s death. He is also remembered for organizing, as an activity designed to build morale and fellow feeling in the wake of the drought, the weekly rabbit drives of 1919. Ingersoll’s rabbit drives took place Sundays, after church let out, and were attended by most everyone around. All the town’s men and boys, and even a few women and stout-hearted girls, would form a great circle out on the prairie and slowly walk in toward some center, driving all the rabbits before them into a single tight, trembling mass. Then they’d pull out iron bars, pitchforks, canes, tree limbs, and what-have-you and commence to beat the rabbits to death.20 Though 1917 and 1918 had been dry, 1919 was biblical in its dustiness and thirst. The good people of Musselshell County watched through their new glass windows—bought on bank credit and the promise of a good wheat crop, of course—as a dry, interminable wind blew the dust of their fields all over creation. They were forced to sell off livestock, machinery, automobiles, new stoves, family heirlooms, and the like. Many lost their homesteads; most were far past desperate; and almost all were going hungry, pickling thistles and boiling tumbleweeds to make it through. Under Ingersoll’s influence and editorial cheerleading, the town began to blame—rather than the tilling of thin topsoil, the very abilities of the land, the capriciousness of their Western venture—those nibbling rabbits for the failure of the crops. They found a way to blame something outside of themselves, and with this, they could then survive.21
RATTLESNAKE JAKE, an infamous gambler and gunslinger, is included here as he is said to have stayed, with his nauseously well-named partner, Boogerface Shaw, and other similarly notorious personages for weeks at a time in Kenneth Clausen’s abandoned mansion. This was during the 20’s, as Jake’s infamy rose right along with his laundry list of felonies and misdemeanors: he was suspected of robbing a bank in Billings, accused of stealing horses out on the Big Dry, spotted urinating on the front steps of the Catholic Cathedral in Belgrade. Yet despite his fearsome persona and incredible physical stature, Jake was said to be a weeper. The sight of a pretty woman or a puppy chewing a shoe would reduce the man to tears. It is no wonder, then, that having heard about her troubles Jake grieved so for Olivia Candelora. He rode right into town after she was jailed and volunteered to serve without pay as her official bodyguard during the hullabaloo surrounding her trial. Sheriff Stokes even briefly deputized him. Though records show no white woman was ever lynched in Musselshell County, Ms. Candelora came precious close to being the first. Only the enormous, be-pistoled figure of Rattlesnake Jake, along with Hoyt Stokes’s calm and careful words concerning the nature of justice, kept Newt Ingersoll and his Keepers of a Christian Community from hauling young Olivia from her stone cell and out into the loud night.
BETTY LASTYEAR set up her tents each year in a field of weeds and gravel near Blessing’s Dry Goods. She was a gypsy and fancied herself a fortune teller, a seer. It is said she pointed her bony finger at the good people of Delphia and claimed many a prophetic vision: the dust of the fields lifting and blowing; a beautiful song at the funeral of a boy froze to death in the Bull Mountains; a graveyard filling up and a town emptying out. Yet—save in broken, mendacious stories told as the sun goes down—we can corroborate none of this.22
BABE MCDONALD was a native of old Virginia whose well-to-do family sided with the Union. The McDonald family was driven out of their fine home by their Confederate neighbors and then looked upon with suspicion throughout the war by their Yankee benefactors. They tried to escape it all by heading West. Yet Montana especially was full of fleeing Confederate farmers and gloating Yankee businessmen. In such a shifting, uncertain world, Mr. McDonald grew into a measured and thoughtful man; he was appointed magistrate of Musselshell County by the governor, and his first case was the trial of Olivia Candelora in the murder of Mr. Ashley. It turned into quite an affair: the only eyewitness an Indian and so barred by law from testifying; the prosecution bringing attestant after attestant to the stand, all swearing to the accused’s harlotry and penchant for loose-living; the defense relying only on the word of Velma Clausen, a kind of Cyprian in her own right, who claimed Olivia was sound asleep in her bed on the night in question; defiant Olivia still wearing her black veil; Billy Christmas avowing up and down about that dying smile; and in the dramatic final moments of the trial, Sheriff Stokes taking the stand, wiping a sheen of sweat from his furrowed brow, and blaming the orchestration and enactment of the murder of Mr. Ashley on none other than his good friend and fellow town-founder Newt Ingersoll and the itinerant Willie Crow, respectively. The courtroom erupted. Judge McDonald, that too sensible Virginian, banged and banged his gavel, but it was too late for order. Ingersoll and his supporters shouted and began to throw the sandwiches and fruits they had brought for their lunches. Sheriff Stokes hurried Judge McDonald out the back door, and Rattlesnake Jake wrapped Olivia in one great arm and shoved his way out the front door with the other. Judge McDonald never recovered from the fiasco; he left the bench via resignation to the governor later that year.
COTTON PINKERTON did odd jobs—gathering firewood, mucking out corrals, fixing fences—for homesteaders in the Delphia area. He often worked for the Williams sisters, as they were alone out on their patch of prairie with no man around. He was skinny and sour looking and left town after the fire. No one much remembers him.23
BOOGERFACE SHAW was partner to Rattlesnake Jake and a true outlaw. An ill-mannered and slovenly man, he was known by a variety of monikers and epithets until that fateful day Newt Ingersoll shouted “Boogerface” at him as he stood with Sheriff Stokes and Rattlesnake Jake out front of the Delphia jail. Boogerface proved Shaw’s most enduring nicknames. It also proved to be the one Shaw liked least. Longtime Delphia resident Hazel Hougen remembers: “Jake and Stokes quieted the crowd. But Shaw just stared at Ingersoll. He was like to bore a hole through the man.” The outlaw said nothing to Ingersoll on that day, but some years later Boogerface Shaw shot Newt Ingersoll dead in the streets of Billings.
HOYT STOKES was the first Sheriff of Musselshell County. He was sworn in by Newt Ingersoll on New Year’s Day of 1908, the day of Delphia’s founding, and defeated in a special election in November of 1919—after Olivia Candelora disappeared with Jake and Stokes’ case against Ingersoll and Crow in the murder of Mr. Ashley fell apart.24 Sheriff Stokes is included here as, after his defeat at the polls, he left town determined to solve the mystery of Mr. Ashley’s death on his own.25
ALMA and MARY WILLIAMS, sisters, perished in a terrific fire in the spring of 1919.26
EZRA YOTHERS was an old, washed-up cowboy when he rode into Delphia looking for work. A relic, an anachronism even fifty years ago, there is little to say about Mr. Yothers: he was here for a while and then he was gone.
- The Oracle, which was then our daily paper, is now defunct.
- Strangely enough, we don’t know who the boy was. In fact, we don’t even know if the deceased was a boy at all. No newspaper records a name of any kind, and the county coroner’s record for the month reads: “June 1919: 1 youth, dead of exposure; 2 spinster sisters, Alma and Mary Williams, burnt to death in their shack.” So, sadly, the records are of no use to us here. Yet the story has it that it was a boy’s funeral, and though as historians we are full aware of the many bent springs and slipped gears of memory-cum-story, we will, with your permission, defer here—and here only, dear reader; you must trust us—to hearsay.
- And there are none more honest than our Irma.
- What a pair they must have been: a stout-legged, irascible woman and a white-cheeked, kindly young man. What would two such as these have shared? It certainly makes us wonder.
- We have tried, here, to be fair to Mr. Boston. We at the Musselshell County Historical Society do understand that overweening wish to command what comes, yet we temper that desire, and advise you to do the same, with the certainty that a careful study of the past is the quickest way to a better future.
- Though we should perhaps ignore this kind of thing, it is said around—the way things are said around—that rather than disagree with Ms. Blessing, Mr. Ashley quit on the spot.
- Vincent’s land, dry and windswept as it was, lay fallow for many years. Clay Kincheloe, Wade’s oldest boy, and one of Boyd’s grandsons, has recently begun using Mediterranean Creek, a dry wash on the western edge of the spread, as a boneyard.
- On poor terms, mind you.
- He found little of value, save, in a tightly closed closet in the second floor, a beautiful black veil.
- We realize that allowing a woman, who in this case ought to rightly be connected with the man of her life—her brother—her own notation here in our appendix is unorthodox. Yet the siblings in question occupy such differing places in our history that we feel we must separate them. Please bear with us.
- We apologize. We hope you will not think this kind of thing is common out here on the prairie. We are, in fact, loathe to even give pen to an event as insalubrious as this and thought more than once about simply excising it, but the original incident report is still on file at the sheriff’s office, and so, even in our embarrassment and vexation, we will be thorough.
- Though we question their veracity, and caution you, dear reader, to do the same, some stories have it that his name was never Crow to begin with, that he earned the moniker out at the abandoned shack, roasting carrion birds to keep from starving.
- Though it is sadly true that Eleanor is now in the throes of deep dementia, she was for many years a pillar of the Delphia community and a generous supporter of our work here at The Musselshell County Historical Society. And we feel we must explain that we were privy to this particular tale long before Eleanor’s decline, and though we admit to perhaps some few mis-remembered words, we feel we have successfully captured the emotional truth of Eleanor’s remembrance.
- In those days, socialists were, while still rare, somewhat more common and accepted. Isn’t it a wonder? Such foolishness even out here in God’s country, where folks should know better.
- Here, we will admit, we have done something we should perhaps have not. From reports first published in The Oracle, we have reconstructed this dialogue. We apologize. We are a bit taken, it seems, with the flame and drama of it all.
- His failure was no great surprise, as he was a balding, slope-shouldered man, more given to reading novels in the evenings than plowing in the mornings.
- So, it was subsequently put back into the town’s rainy day fund and has since been used to finance various ventures, including many of the pamphlets and tracts published here at the Musselshell County Historical Society.
- A kind of religious ceremony practiced by Indian peoples hereabouts.
- Some townsfolk, many an honest Christian among them, whispered that it might have been Bishop himself, as part of one of his barbarous rituals, that committed the murder. Some still whisper it.
- You shudder at such brutality. You wonder what could possibly occasion such behavior. We will try to explain.
- You shake your head. You are offended still. We do not know what to say. We doubt that even the true history can help you here. For, though we have strayed a bit above, this here, in all its retch and gore, is it. We wonder at this impasse. Maybe it is a matter of having seen the dust blow and having many nights lain in our own beds listening to the wind and wondering at each slow step, the balanced and lovely heft of a thick juniper limb, the complete, if only momentary, unburdening? Maybe it was simply the times, the way things were done back then? Maybe it was a jilted Myrna Donovan, a vengeful Willie Crow, an unhinged Olivia Candelora who killed Mr. Ashley? We prefer not to think he took his own life. We prefer not to think about what might have driven a man with the name of Ashley to such an act. We try not to imagine the slow moment after the last rabbit went still.
- So she guessed and got a few things right. We call that stumbling luck. We know that a clear look back is the best look forward, that those who keep their eyes on the far, fickle horizon are pleasantly false at best and maliciously deceptive at worst. We will have none of it. Many are gone, but we are still here. Neither summer’s dust nor winter’s freeze got us. Good riddance, Ms. Lastyear.
- We mention him here only for purposes of thoroughness, of compendium. We know that young Pinkerton is far from interesting. Yet we feel we have perhaps skipped over already some we shouldn’t have, we feel we are perhaps again too caught up with thoughts of Ingersoll and Stokes, Olivia and Ashley, so we discipline ourselves with this Pinkerton. For didn’t we say it is the true facts of history, no matter how small, that matter? Didn’t we? The true facts?
- Though we do not care for controversy, it must be said that Stokes is a controversial figure in the history of Musselshell County. Even today folks come down on two sides about him. Some, mostly those who left for Billings or other far flung places, say he was as close to a hero as we’ve ever seen in this far part of the country. They point to his crackdown on cattle rustlers, his prosecution of fence-cutting cowboys. They point to his stand against mob rule, his principled search for Rattlesnake Jake and Olivia Candelora. They say it was a shame we got rid of him, that his defeat hastened the end of the good times in Delphia, that the thieving and violence of the hungry 20’s and dirty 30’s could have been abated with Sheriff Stokes around, that the worn-out town you see today got everything it deserved. But others, primarily those who toughed it out and stayed, disagree. They say that even for his early successes as a lawman, Sheriff Stokes was the one who truly broke the spirit of the community: accusing a fellow town-founder of murder, putting a stop to the rabbit drives, taking up for bandits and radicals and loose women. They say he forgot which side he was on. They say his name and spit. And so what are we to do here? We at the Musselshell County Historical Society did not foresee this. We did not plan for anything like this.
- What Stokes found, if anything, is only rumor, only bits whispered by Tony Franzel, by Betty Lastyear, by Marilyn Blessing: there is the one about finding Willie Crow dining on sparrows back of a flophouse in Minneapolis; there is one about Velma Clausen and a love affair gone bad in San Francisco; there is one about Olivia herself living in the dry hills with a pack of bandits. There are stories. Too many stories. And we are not pleased with the uncertainty they engender. We hope our earlier promises were not hasty. We hope you are not disappointed. We must admit we know no more. We are left with twisted anecdotes, broken images, the taste of burnt feathers on our tongues.
- Who knows how it started? We only know that when the embers went dark two women were dead. This we know. Flame is sure. Death, too, is sure. There is ash, there are charred teeth. We do not mean to be coarse. We do not mean to upset. Or perhaps we do. We are upset. We thought through history to know, to illuminate. But we have darkened. These stories have traveled the windblown, weedy roads to our hearts, they have put a too-hot flush in our cheeks, they have, in a word, unmanned us. What do we tell ourselves about ourselves now? Are we those that drove a fine-boned, beautiful youth to put a gun to his own chest? Are we those that prosecuted a young girl for laughing out loud? Are we those that broke the slender spines of rabbits with clubs of pine? Or are we none of these? Do flames merely rise up with the wind? Does an idiot’s match blossom singularly in his fat hand? We gaze on God, we point because we know no names, we are children: please tell us who we are.