OLD PETEY AND MR PEABODY
It was in the winter of 1875 I first met old Petey, as he was known in the neighbourhood. He was always a bit of a hobo. If anyone had the temerity to address him, either they would be totally ignored or if they persisted in trying to get his attention, he would just grunt at them something, which may have sounded like a greeting but was lost in translation. Never liking company, he always kept his own counsel, and no-one knew exactly where he came from.
He just appeared one day at the store to buy provisions. Fortunately he had a list which he passed to Mr Hewitt, the manager, so he would not need to make any explanation, although as the latter later told the local gossip, Mrs Tilston, it was hard to decipher what was actually written on the scrap of paper he had been handed by old Petey. Mr Hewitt said that for some items he had to make a calculated guess and hope for the best. After he had presented everything he thought was on the list, old Petey appeared satisfied and paid in cash - which, given his down-at-heel appearance came as a surprise to Mr Hewitt, and was gratefully received. Old Petey’s visits to the store happened at regular intervals. Not a word was exchanged between the two - occasionally, an acknowledgement of the existence of the other by a raised hand or a slight bow of the head but that was all! Mr Hewitt had to be content in knowing very little about his faithful customer. He did look outside and saw old Petey’s horse and wagon, the former appearing to be well-looked after. When old Petey rode away from his store, Mr Hewitt always waved goodbye, but his customer never once turned round. It was almost as though now he had his provisions, that was all that mattered.
We lived in Little Creek for over forty years, ever since my father and his new bride, who was pregnant with me, arrived in a somewhat battered buggy unannounced at the only hotel in town. When I later quizzed the proprietor, Sam Davis, he told them they looked as though they had ridden for weeks and were exhausted and looked half-starved. He never did fathom why they chose this god-forsaken place as their final destination.
My father found a boarding-house where they could stay, paying rent for one room, but having to share all the facilities with the riff-raff as it turned out. Sam reckoned they had come from refined society, although he couldn’t prove it, and gradually they lost their airs and graces as they blended into the atmosphere of Little Creek, which was at that time still a frontier town. Occasionally we would see a detachment of cavalry from the local garrison at Fort Duchesne. They would ride through to show the townspeople they were committed to their security, should the need arise. So far, there had only been minor incidents of drunkenness and occasional shootings but no Indian tribes had marauded this district. Were we living in a fool’s paradise? Were the cavalry enough protection?
My father eventually discovered he had a talent for making money and went into the lumber business, which turned out to be fairly lucrative. As a result he built himself a mansion on the outskirts of town - as a symbol of his acquired wealth. After all he was living the American dream. Our family expanded with two more siblings for me - a boy and a girl. I haven’t told you our name yet. It was Burns. I am Jeff, and my brother was five years younger than I and called Stevie, and Pat was our little sister. Being the baby of the family an and a bit of a tomboy, she was spoiled rotten by everyone. My mother hoped she would make a good match, but she was never relieved of her doubts on the subject. By that year of 1875 all three of us had grown into our late teens and were helping out in the business in some way - at times with more willingness than others.
One day, old Petey turned up with his horse and wagon. He went up to my father, who just happened to be waiting outside the factory, and, without a word being exchanged between them, just as in the case of Mr Hewitt, handed him a list of items he wished to purchase - written on a similarly dirty scrap of paper in a barely legible style. My father had to second-guess what was required, because he knew he wouldn’t get any further instructions from old Petey, who remained on his wagon, impassively staring at him.
We saw large beams being stacked on the wagon, and began to imagine their use. Was old Petey rebuilding his house? We all thought he lived deep in the forest in a log cabin, which he had constructed himself with his bare hands. Sometimes I thought of following him at a safe distance to see where exactly he did live.
I talked with Stevie and Pat about my plan. They readily agreed to it, provided we said nothing to our parents, who would only worry about us and try and stop us. We decided the next time old Petey came into town, we would hitch up the buggy and ride out in the direction from which he had come. Stevie was a good tracker, so even if we lost sight of the wagon, we could follow the tracks hopefully, provided there were no storms, of which we had many during that season, in which we had planned our adventure.
I remember the date that we took action. It was Monday, 10th December 1875. We made the mistake of going through with it, despite the fact it was snowing hard and any tracks there might have been would now be covered by fresh falls of the white stuff. So we decided to attempt to keep old Petey in sight if we could, without drawing attention to ourselves. Fortunately he did not look behind, since he was probably more concerned in reaching his home as the weather deteriorated. We were too thrilled by the chase to pay attention to the warning signs, as our vision became more and more restricted as the cloud cover closed in. We could just about make out old Petey’s wagon up ahead - it was not too far away! Then suddenly it disappeared.
We got to the brow of a hill and stared into the distance but saw nothing. The three of us began a heated discussion in whispers as to the wisdom or otherwise of going on such a reckless pursuit, and anyhow, whose crazy idea was it? We all accused each other, and got nowhere. We had the choice of returning home - which might not be so easy to accomplish - or of carrying on with our journey, with the possibility of never locating the cabin.
The sensible thing would have been to go back home. However we were the offspring of a proud family, determined not to be defeated. Stevie and I were not to be thought of as cowards. Pat, despite being the youngest and the tomboy, suddenly introduced a note of caution into our discussion. It did not take the two boys long to hush her.
So we progressed through what was rapidly becoming a whiteout. If you have ever experienced one of those, you will know that in such an eventuality you are completely disorientated - everything, including sky and ground becomes one colour in all directions. You can hardly move, because you do not know whether you are going forward or backward.
I have no idea how long we were caught in this situation. I am aware that I was beginning to get desperate, and sensed the other two felt the same way. Time seemed to have stood still. It was too late to regret this journey. We were here and had to take responsibility for our stupidity.
And then we all three saw it. Slightly to our left and in front, it was a faint red light. So we trudged our way through the snow drifts towards the light, which grew in strength, as it guided us. Somehow we managed to drag the horse and buggy along with us. We decided we would have to ask for shelter, whether it was old Petey or someone else. We had no choice. As we got closer, we realized this must be the place. It was a log cabin, which had been built on substantial foundations, and could weather most storms. There was light inside, and a column of smoke rose from the chimney stack.
We arrived on the veranda front-step, chattering with the freezing cold and utterly exhausted. I decided to be our spokesman. So I knocked on the door. For some time there was no movement inside. We waited. Then a curtain moved and a face appeared at the window. I think I saw a smile, or was it a grimace? Some moments of silence. We clapped our hands to try and get them warm.
Then the door opened, and before I could say anything, old Petey took each one of us inside and closed it behind us. He looked at us, and it did not take him long to recognize who we were. We were his guests, certainly unbidden. I could almost see him working out in his mind how he was going to resolve this awkward situation. So far, no-one had spoken a word. He just stared at us, while our gaze was directed at the floor. We felt ashamed, as though we had been caught out on some misdemeanour.
“Well, what have we here?” I had never before heard him speak. He had a commanding, authoritative voice that compelled your attention. “Let me see. You are Mike, and you Stevie and you are little Pat, the tomboy. Am I right?” We all nodded in agreement. We were struck dumb with fright.
Then a strange thing began to happen. He laughed. I saw tears roll down his cheeks. He was beside himself with raucous guffawing. And we nervously joined in, wondering where all this would lead us. This went on for a good five minutes, with him helpless as a baby, and us paralysed to the spot.
Suddenly he stopped. “Take those wet things off and sit down over there, all of you.” He pointed to a couple of chairs, which were positioned near a roaring fire in the grate. So there all three of us were, waiting for his questions.
He got into what was obviously his favourite chair and lit his pipe slowly, as he eyed us all, and smiled, knowing he had the advantage over us. “So my young friends, what brings you all to this neck of the woods - and in this kind of weather?”
There it was - THE question we had to answer sometime in a way which would satisfy his curiosity but not offend him. The other two turned to me, as if to say: “Well, you got us here. You, be the one to put your neck on the line!” I cleared my throat to get myself ready to answer as convincingly as I hoped I could sound. I explained all three of us were out because we wanted to experience an adventure in the snow. He smiled, and waved me on, implying that that was a good start but not everything I was to tell him. I then said we all knew he lived here and we were trying to locate his cabin, because we wanted to say hi. Well, that was almost completely true. I did not go into our motives for making the journey. However, he seemed happy with my account, and went into the kitchen area.
“Are you young folks hungry?” All three of us without hesitation nodded. He had turned round, so he saw us and grinned. He was in control of the situation, and was relishing the fact. As we waited for our food, we sat in almost complete silence, barring a few whispered asides about our predicament and the prospect of our leaving this place in one piece. Did we mean - alive?
Eventually after a while old Petey came in and ushered us to the table where he produced an amazing meal for us all. It turned out we were more hungry than we thought, and it was not long before we emptied our plates of every morsel of food. I decided yet again to be our spokesman and thanked old Petey for the food and for being so kind in looking after us. Now he sat down with us at the table, and the countenance on his face now changed. He was no longer smiling. He told us that in his opinion it was a stroke luck that we had found his cabin, because we could have frozen to death out there in the wilderness.
He then drew up his chair closer to us. He informed us he had some vital information he wanted us to pass on to our parents. He believed it was no accident we had found ourselves at his cabin. He told us he now felt more vulnerable than any time in his life. There were signs all around the forest of activity, with which he was only too familiar from his previous experience as an army tracker. We had no idea of this news, and he must have heard our gasps of astonishment. However, it explained why he seemed so adept at living in these surroundings - away from civilisation.
“I have some bad news for you and the town. There are Indians in the area. I have seen their tracks and burnt out fires. I am not sure which tribe they belong to and whether they are hostile or not. I am going to investigate and use my skills to track them from a safe distance. I need to find out what weapons they have. With rifles, they can be more difficult to deal with. Once I have further news, I will be coming into town and telling the mayor, despite the fact I can’t stand the man. He is a pompous idiot.”
We did not admit we readily agreed with old Petey about Mr Peabody, who was just a useless rag, and should be shipped back East as soon as possible. He would sooner fly the white flag than fight our corner, even if it meant the massacre of the entire population of Little Creek. He would have escaped with his own life intact somehow. Everyone suspected him of potential treachery.
“You can stay the night here, if need be, until the weather blows over. It is up to you.” We agreed it would be foolish to go back unless it was safe to do so. However, the prospect of a possible Indian attack did not make things any easier for us. We were practically defenceless. Only old Petey had a weapon - a fairly ancient shotgun, which he probably used to kill venison.
All of us had a restless night. We became light sleepers. Any sound we heard made us jittery and nervous as kittens. Old Petey snored like a trooper through it all. It is strange how slow the hours of night can go, when you long for the light to dawn, and you can see if there have been any changes in your surroundings. Eventually we looked through the window, and studied the landscape to see if anything unusual had altered its appearance. Of course, we could never be quite sure.
Fortunately the snow showers had ceased and there was now a thick white covering over the whole area. So we could leave and return home. We bade farewell to old Petey, not realising this was the last time we would ever again see him alive. He promised to be in town sometime over the next week to let the town know of what he found out about the Indians.
Our faithful horse had been waiting for us all night just outside the porch. Old Petey must have gone out to feed the mare, and hitched up the buggy for us. We immediately got onboard and waved goodbye to him. This time he reciprocated. We had developed a kind of bond with him. He had become our friend, because he had trusted us enough to share his information, which he wanted others to know.
It did not take us long to get back home, and to some hard questioning from our parents, who were besides themselves with anxiety as to where we had been. When we explained everything to them, they were relieved nothing had befallen us during our adventure, but anxious about the consequences of the information with which old Petey had entrusted us.
Straightaway it was decided we should all go to the mayor’s office and report to him. We failed to convince Mr Peabody in the urgency of the matter, and he gave us a flippant comment about being bothered with the ravings of a madman. We were right in our assessment of him as a useless individual who was ill-suited to his position in the community. As it turned out, we were eventually to be proved disastrously correct. He was more than a coward.
My father decided that, since we had got no satisfaction from that quarter, he would go himself to see the commanding officer of the detachment of cavalry at Fort Duchesne. It was an unusual step for a civilian to bypass the authorities, but my father felt he had no choice. He was summoned in the officer’s quarters, where he gave an account of the situation. He was informed no action would or could be taken unless there was hard evidence of such activity as he had described. He replied to the officer this would soon be forthcoming. My father left the fort in a pensive, almost despondent mood.
He began to realize it was now up to our family to take action, since no-one else considered the circumstances urgent enough to do so. He also began to think old Petey’s skills as a tracker were no guarantee of his safety.
My father returned home and explained to us two boys what he planned for us to do. He knew the three of us were crack shots, and so he gave us all rifles and pistols - as he said, for self-defence purposes only, or if the life of any of us was in danger - including that of old Petey. We saddled our horses, which were fresh for the ride into the white wilderness.
My mother stood on the threshold of our house. Pat was holding her hand, fuming she could not come with us. They did not wave us goodbye. They just stared. Holding back any emotion they might have about us leaving for such a dangerous assignment.
“Well, goodbye, mother!” My father said to his wife, who just gave him a wan smile in response.
Since my father did not know the way, we two boys took the lead. We sometimes had to stop in order to get our bearings, because the snow had altered the landscape here and there, so we had to locate specific landmarks, which would point us in the right direction. We moved further and further into the forest, so gradually the sunlight was filtered by the overhanging trees.
Suddenly Stevie stopped in his tracks and pointed ahead of him. We searched the horizon and saw what had drawn his attention. The cabin was precisely in the position where it had stood, but was now a smouldering wreck with its roof caved in and open to the elements. All of us began to feel an awful sense of dread fall over us, as we approached the ruin. At first we could see nothing else which would indicate foul play.
We dismounted and it was then we saw old Petey. He lay just by his front-door. He had clearly put up a fight against what seemed at first glance to be impossible odds. He was like a pincushion with arrows protruding from his body in all directions. Beside him lay his shotgun, which had served no useful purpose in his defence, with its spent cartridges scattered around him. My father broke the silence. “Either this is indeed an Indian attack or it is meant to look like one?” To us boys it seemed too obvious. We were terrified to think they may be lurking in the shadows. We decided it would be too risky for one of us to return to the town with the other two vulnerable to attack at any time.
It was a crime scene, and normally everything would be left as it was, so the men from the Pinkerton detective agency could examine the evidence. And yet my father was unwilling to leave poor old Petey unburied, with the possibility of wolves or other detestable creatures disposing of the body. We eventually decided to give him a Christian burial then and there, and face the consequences of what some would consider a precipitate action on our part.
As we rode back, my father continued to voice his opinion this act of murder was not what it seemed. When we reached Little Creek and the mayor was informed of our discovery, he sent out a hastily formed posse of men to scour the countryside for the Indian tribe or tribes which had done this dastardly deed. For four days they searched and searched and found not a sign of anything remotely to do with what he wanted to find.
Unfortunately the case went cold, and was left unsolved, until about some ten years later, when I was in a different city and had managed to study for the law and been engaged at Hirst and Sons, employed as a junior clerk, with good prospects to go further in the legal profession. I had left Little Creek some while back to seek my fortune, because I considered the place a backwater, and I wanted to progress in a field of learning more akin to my abilities.
Now that I was happily settled in my new position, I began to take a look at the case of old Petey, after hearing evidence from various independent sources, which cast fresh light. I found out some revealing facts about Mr Peabody and old Petey which linked them together on several occasions over crucial times in their careers. Mr Peabody had at one time been living in Charleston, South Carolina, at a time, when the Act of Secession was passed in December 1860, and also when the first shots had been fired on Fort Sumter the following year, but he was detached from the unfolding events which would eventually lead to the bloodiest war on American soil. He was playing a game as a Confederate spy in the pay of Jefferson Davis directly, so that no-one else but the President knew of what he was really doing.
Mr Peabody had been a reporter, working for a Virginian newspaper, and was well known for his Southern sympathies, upon which he freely expounded in the local taverns, given half a chance. No-one took him very seriously, because his thoughts were so outrageous in their exposition, even to the point of suggesting Abraham Lincoln should be assassinated before any war was declared.
However, Mr Peabody was also working for the Federal government as a secret agent, with the sole purpose of infiltrating the top echelons of the Confederate administration, and it appears from the report submitted to the Department of the Interior at the end of hostilities that he succeeded in his covert operations in undermining the will of the South by various subtle means, which were never disclosed, but for which the Federal administration was duly grateful.
Mr Peabody nevertheless felt he had not been sufficiently rewarded for his hard work, and thus began the slow transformation in his mind from that of a patriot to one of being a rebel to the core. He set out to make life difficult for as many people as possible. He allied himself with disaffected Confederate officers and gave them sustenance in the form of guns and ammunition, illegally requisitioned from Federal stores.
He also set about fomenting unrest in the Indian territories, by supplying the tribes with the same weaponry as the Confederate rebels, many of whom were now joining forces with the former in an unholy alliance.
Mr Peabody applied for and was appointed as an administrator in the Indian Territories in Wyoming with the sole purpose of promoting his nefarious schemes. In that area of the country there were indeed friends of his, just waiting for the signal to rise up against the Union again.
Mr Peabody knew of shipments which were being transported from fort to fort, so he would inform his Confederate compatriots, who would then dress up as members of the local Indian tribe, and attack a convoy, killing every soldier except one - deliberately! He would then raise the alarm about an Indian uprising. Before troops could be mustered, the guns and ammunition would already be in the hands of the Indians and the rebels, who were waiting to engage in a skirmish of their choosing, so that the maximum number of casualties on the Federal side would be taken at little cost to themselves. The ruse was successful each time, until Pinkerton’s man became involved.
I had been reading this information with my eyes wide open with astonishment, when I suddenly came across a name and a photo to match it, and realized I was coming to the conclusion of the case. There in front of me was a photo of my friend, old Petey, but as a younger man, fit and confident. His name was given as Mr Peter Saunders, of Haskins Detective Agency, who had been hired out to Pinkertons in this complex and politically sensitive case. He was well-known, it seems, for his expertise in solving crime and detection methods, which some people considered unorthodox but which achieved the desired results.
On July 20th 1868 Mr Peabody finished his duty at the office of the Federal Building in Sioux Valley and took his coat from the stand. He was somewhat tired from the day’s business but at the same time elated he was being given another chance to strike a blow at his employers, whom he loathed with an intense passion which he knew would never be extinguished in his lifetime.
He was about to leave, when it was opened by a tall, young man, who introduced himself as he offered Mr Peabody his card. The latter was a bit perplexed as to the reason for the man’s visit, because he never stated why he was there, except for the reason of wanting to make his acquaintance. Mr Peabody gave his apologies, saying he had an urgent engagement which he had to fulfill. The man was effusive in his reply, saying he was sorry to come here unannounced and would certainly make another appointment at a time when Mr Peabody was available. The man stated he had some business which he wished to discuss but it could wait for a short while longer.
Both men left the building and went their separate ways. As it so happened, the man never did make the appointment or return to see Mr Peabody, and the latter thought no more of it, until he found out through various channels that this man was a detective, who often worked for the government. However, Mr Peabody did not take any precautions by covering his tracks. When he discussed this with some of his co-conspirators, they informed him about Peter Saunders’ record. It did not seem to register with him he was now a marked man.
It was no coincidence the next operation was a complete disaster with members of the clandestine group either killed or arrested and awaiting their trial for treason and probable execution. Somehow Mr Peabody had managed to escape through the net.
I need to explain that the latter was not the name he used during this time. He went by another one, which I have been advised to keep secret by the Federal authorities. For some reason they do not want the scandal leaking out into the public domain.
Then I began to ask myself the question: How was it that both Mr Peabody and old Petey ended up in or near the same town? How come Mr Peabody became the mayor of such an out-of-the-way place as Little Creek? Perhaps that was the whole point. No-one in the town would know of his past, and if he played his cards right and pulled all the appropriate strings - in other words, became friendly with those who mattered in the town - then he could be voted to any position in the town he wanted.
I think it was after a while that old Petey showed up, and this event put all of Mr Peabody’s plans into jeopardy. The former’s presence was a threat to his standing in the town. He had built up a good reputation which he was determined to maintain, even if it meant using his erstwhile colleagues to do this final act of cover-up for him. Not all had been caught in the Federal trap. And some, who still sympathized with the Confederate cause, were added to their number, and of these a few were willing to help Mr Peabody out of his predicament. Clearly this illusive cabal hatched up a plan, the results of which we three had witnessed at the log cabin, and once they had dealt with old Petey, they vanished back into the wilderness, never to emerge except as anonymous names and faces within the crowd.
I am now in a dilemma. I have all the evidence before me - which is enough to convict Mr Peabody, whom I know lives just around the corner from me, but he has now become senile, being looked after by a nurse twenty-four hours a day without respite. What am I to do? I have decided I would seek the advice of a senior judge with whom I am well acquainted and who happens to be a member of the Supreme Court. He has been a good friend, who has always given me wise counsel at crucial times in my career. I hope he can do the same thing this time.
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