"Cabins in the Mist" excerpt
What follows is the first part of a novel by A.C. Haeffner of Odessa, set on Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac, and dealing with a legend there. The legend maintains that famed gangster John Dillinger, reputedly gunned down in 1934 by the FBI in Chicago, hid on the island in a trio of cabins in the deep woods not long before his death -- during a period after he had undergone plastic surgery to alter his looks. He was still, the legend goes, wearing facial bandages while his surgical scars healed. The novel was written in two sections, Book One and Book Two. This is the first part of Book One.
The Lair of the Gangster
He heard the sound of gunfire through the trees as he approached on the narrow dirt track that served as a road.
Small-arms fire, he concluded; muted cracks, obscured by the thick forest growth and the sound of his engine.
He parked his car up the road, out of sight on a pull-off, caution forcing itself on him by the simple fact of his customer's identity.
He got out, opened the back door, leaned in, secured a knapsack loaded with canned goods the customer and his associates had ordered, and pulled it from the car. After slinging it on his back, he reached in the vehicle and grabbed another, larger canvas sack; it was heavier, full of cheeses and meats ... and ammunition they had requested. A third sack he was most careful with, for it contained something he knew the customer would want intact: Island whiskey, distilled at a little operation in a clearing near the north shore.
Carrying the second and third sacks low at his side, he made his way back to the road and along it until the first of the three log cabins came into view; it was the only one clearly visible from the road, though a second one to the right could be seen if the light was right. The third cabin was obscured by brush and down a slight incline twenty-five yards to the left.
The gunshots rang louder now, though with less regularity, as though the shooters were tiring of their sport or perhaps marshaling their dwindling supply of bullets. He would shortly remedy that problem; he had brought them dozens of boxes with hundreds of cartridges.
As he neared the first cabin, he saw no sign of the men, and figured they were probably down in the shallow, gently sloped ravine at the rear of the cabins. He was right.
"Hey, you Smitty?" a voice called out from that vicinity.
He had reached the side of the cabin and put down the two canvas sacks.
"Yeah," he said. "Brought what you needed."
He then wrestled free of the backpack and set it on the ground with the others.
"Well, we're down here. Come on down ... and bring some bullets," the voice called out again.
"Right, right," said Smitty. "I'll be right down."
He knelt, dug in the pack that held the ammunition, grabbed a couple of boxes of .45-caliber shells and trotted down the hill in the direction of the voice. He still hadn't seen any figures clearly; just a brief movement of white through the trees.
When he reached the bottom of the ravine and rounded a bush, he saw them there: four men, all with shoulder holsters, gun butts showing. Two of the men were leaning against trees and one was sitting on a fallen log, while the fourth was coming toward him, smiling, arm extended in greeting. And he realized that the white he had seen had been on this man. The three others were dressed casually in dark clothes, but this man was wearing a white dress shirt, open at the collar, above tan slacks. His shoes were also white -- or almost so; they were canvas, from the look of them, but discolored by the soil of the forest.
But most striking was the white that the man was wearing on his face: bandages that were wrapped around his head, a cocoon with eye-holes and with holes to let him breathe. The wrapping started just below his hairline and extended to his chin. His hair, Smitty noted, was greased and combed back neatly.
"Glad to meet you, Smitty," the man in white said as he grabbed the newcomer's hand. "Did the captain fill you in on us?"
Smitty nodded. The man was referring to the ferryboat skipper who had transported the group across from the mainland.
"Yes, sir," he said, looking up. The man in white was not particularly tall, but stood a good three inches higher than Smitty. The size difference alone was a little intimidating.
"So you're aware of the need for secrecy, right?" the man asked.
Smitty swallowed. He was having trouble producing saliva. What if these guys didn't like him, or thought him untrustworthy? Their reputation indicated swift retribution, if it suited them.
He nodded again.
"Absolutely. I wouldn't tell a soul ... really."
The bandaged man laughed, and clapped Smitty on the shoulder.
"Don't worry, I believe you," he said. "So ... let's have those bullets, shall we, and we can get back to our practice. You brought all we ordered, right?"
Smitty handed over the pair of boxes he'd extracted from the canvas sack.
"There's three dozen boxes, less these, up by the cabin."
"Good, good ... I'll let you know if we need more. It depends on how long we stay."
"Okay ... sure."
"Tell me, Smitty," said the bandaged man. "Have you ever shot?"
Smitty drew a mental blank.
"You mean a person?" he asked.
The man laughed, and his companions joined in. Smitty blushed.
"No, no, just a gun," said the bandaged man.
"Ummmm, rifle," Smitty said. "I hunt."
"Never a pistol?"
"No, can't say I have."
"Well, my friend, it's time that changed," said the man in white, and he reached out and took Smitty by the arm and pulled him in the direction of the others. "Let's give you a little lesson in the fine art of the .45."
The track that Smitty traveled out to the cabins is slightly wider now, these many decades later. It cuts across Bois Blanc Island from south to north, and though composed of dirt and gravel, is one of the better roads the island offers.
It is best traveled by traffic single file, though there is room -- at a substantially slowed rate of speed -- if an oncoming vehicle should appear. Any imprudence will put either driver off the road, though, and into the trees that mark its perimeter.
There is nothing but woods on either side of the road -- thousands of acres of state-owned forest of pine and birch and tamarack and the like that has sat implacably for decades since humankind first established civilization on the Island. These woods and this road rarely see visitors, save for an occasional vehicle making its way to the north shore or to one of the small homesteads dotting the interior where the state grudgingly let loose its hold on some of the land years ago.
Bois Blanc is still -- at this writing in the year 2000 -- a remote, largely ignored island, and its roads reflect it: none are paved, some are extremely narrow, and all create swirling, clinging dust. The few dozen inhabitants on the Island's main thoroughfare -- a fairly wide east-west dirt track that meanders along the southern shore -- have exhibited the natives' flair for adaptability by adjusting to the dust through installation of sprinkler heads every few yards on the roadside; the sprinklers come on periodically, keeping at bay the pesky clouds that would otherwise be kicked up by passing cars and pickups. The water is drawn from the Straits of Mackinac, which surrounds the island between the two Great Lakes of Huron and Michigan.
There is a legend that has circulated among these hardy residents -- and to a lesser degree among visitors who have sampled the charms of the island's rental properties and campground -- about a famous gangster who used the Island back in the 1930s as a hideout. He found it conducive, the story goes, to his recovery from plastic surgery he underwent to help him avoid the federal agents and other law enforcement personnel who wanted him ... dead or alive.
The recovery period from such surgery back then is unclear, but the story has this notorious outlaw -- white bandages on his face -- inhabiting with members of his gang three cabins off the interior road described here, a track known as the Fire Tower Road for a tower that once stood sentry over the woods, but exists no more. If you look hard, I'm told, you can find the tower's cement footings and nothing else.
This was back in the period when the Island -- a five-by-twelve-mile piece of land -- had perhaps three dozen year-round inhabitants and a summer population in the low hundreds. The number of permanent residents has climbed slightly in recent years to about 60, while the summer population has swelled to 2,500 - though they are not all there at one time and, in truth, are mostly hidden in the deep woods that dominate the landscape.
The Island is still a hideaway; a break from civilization's usual madness.
In that it hasn't changed.
In fact, if he were alive today and in need of a hideout again, it would probably serve the white-bandaged man equally as well as it reputedly did in the 1930s -- though he would require fresher quarters.
The cabins in which he stayed are falling down now; they were abandoned long ago, and the last few winters have not been kind to them. The roofs have caved in and rotted away, and none of the walls is more than seven logs high. A tree has fallen across the cabin to the left, and new growth in the form of small trees and tough bushes have staked claims in the one to the right.
Nobody seems to know who owns them, or owned them; perhaps several people have. Legend has it that old John Bible -- an island farmer with a prodigious beard -- was one of only three people who met the gangster during his visit, so the thought occurred that perhaps the cabins were on some property Bible owned, though his farm was located miles to the northwest.
It matters little, though, for the cabins are not without identity. They may not have an ownership tag like the Palmer Place or the Hoover Cottage -- two appellations of residences along the south shore -- but they have earned a name from that long-ago visit by the man in white. The cabins have kept the name all these years, and wear it now, even in the throes of disintegration.
"Have you ever heard of Dillinger's Cabins?" I asked a gentleman at a weekly Fun Night gathering at the Coast Guard Chapel on the Island's east end one cool summer evening. The chapel was once a boathouse used by the Coast Guard along the eastern shore; it was moved and turned into a religious and social center after the Coast Guard pulled out.
The gentleman I was asking was a logical target for the question, for he was known on the island as something of an historian; was in fact one of the members of the Island's Historical Society Museum.
"Well, yes sure," he said. "What do you want to know?"
As a fairly recent island aficionado -- I summered there as a child, but had resumed annual visits just five years earlier -- I had heard rumblings about bank robber and famed Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger once holing up on the Island. But the rumblings seemed muted, as though something to be kept secret. Or perhaps the whole thing was just unsubstantiated legend, and as such looked upon with some circumspection.
Or maybe it's just the nature of the Island folks, who value their privacy. Even six-plus decades after the fact (or fiction) of Dillinger's Bois Blanc stay, and despite his widely reported subsequent shooting death at the hand of federal agents in Chicago, the residents' attitude might reflect their long-held belief that their business is their business; and so, they might reason still, Dillinger's business was Dillinger's business.
But historians like to pass along what they know, and this gentleman at Fun Night was no different. Dillinger's business, I'm sure he would say, is history's business and hence the business of historians.
And so he told me what he could -- though it was clearly lacking
in a hearty supply of specifics.
I had not at that point.
"Well, they're not hard to find. You go out past the turnoff to the Twin Lakes maybe a half-mile and keep your eyes open. They're on the left, not too far in; down a slope and in the woods."
The Historical Society, in fact, was planning to place a numbered marker near the cabins -- one of two-dozen it was placing around the Island to direct residents and visitors to points of interest. Maps with the numbered locales on them would be available from the Historical Society.
"Uh, huh," I said. "And it was definitely Dillinger?"
The man shrugged.
"That's what they say. Only three people supposedly saw him: old John Bible, and the ferry captain back then, and one other local who took them supplies. Name of Smitty. His son is still around, and used to tell about his father going out there and getting pistol lessons from Dillinger."
I've used that alias -- Smitty -- for the gentleman who reputedly delivered the food, bullets and whiskey for the simple reason that another Island resident told me that Smitty's son -- while quite open about the episode for decades -- had been reticent to speak of it in recent years. A couple of Dillinger biographers, the account goes, had called Smitty's son -- in his 80s at this writing -- to verify Dillinger's Bois Blanc stay, but he would not speak to them.
And so for his sake, we'll just say his business is his business, and leave him anonymous.
The Island folk, as noted, have streaks of independence and self-reliance, both quite essential to residence on Bois Blanc. While summer weather is generally pleasant, they must know how to deal with denizens of that season -- such as bats (often hordes of them) and rattlesnakes. And for those who stay into the autumn, there must be a knowledge at hand for warding off alternate windstorms, snow squalls and Indian summers, for the weather racing eastward from Lake Michigan is frightfully fickle.
Those hardy souls who populate the Island year-round must understand winter survival to combat the mounds of snow, howling winds and frigid temperatures that afflict them, and know how to deal with emergency situations; toward that end they have established their own fire department and emergency-response system on limited budgets. They have also managed to keep open a two-room schoolhouse (grades K-8) that has consistently been attended by few students -- as few as one -- in the face of state legislative moves to close it. These folks know a good fight when they see one, and are more than likely to engage rather than retreat.
It is perhaps instructive, as well, that the Islanders do not shy from discussing the bootlegging days in which some of their forebears rather openly participated. Moonshine production during Prohibition, while generally conceded to be a risky venture, was minimally so on Bois Blanc, where any arrival of, say, federal agents would be known virtually instantly -- and where, truth to tell, an agent in search of a still might waste the better part of his life seeking it in the lush overgrowth that spreads for miles from shore to shore.
There is, in the Historical Society Museum and Bois Blanc library -- a joint operation in the former Department of Natural Resources building along the main road in the Island community of Pointe aux Pins (or The Pines) -- a collection of tape recordings of Island old-timers recounting their many decades on Bois Blanc. One tape in particular caught my attention: a former postmaster telling how her grandfather had operated a still back in Prohibition days and was quite proud of the quality of whiskey he produced.
"A lot of it went to Mackinac Island," she said, adding rather happily that some also went to the mainland and all the way to Chicago and the bootlegging empire of Al Capone.
It is this pride in independence -- damn a reviled law and its enforcement -- that lends another possible layer to the locals' general silence regarding Dillinger. His violent tendencies aside, maybe (the thought goes) they have ... have always had ... much in common with him. Self-reliance tends to respect self-reliance.
Which brings us back to Dillinger's choice of hideout.
Why there in particular? There were probably structures hidden deeper in the woods, where even bloodhounds couldn't go; safer refuges.
One resident familiar with the story and willing to comment on it had this theory:
"A spring runs through there," he said. "That takes care of a lot of needs."
My first visit to the cabins was with my son David, who -- recently having obtained a driver's license -- jumped at the chance to chauffeur me to the Island's interior in our van the week after my chat with the historian. This came late in the afternoon of a weekday, when the sun had started its downward sweep and the shadows in the woods were starting to thicken.
When we had passed the turnoff to the inland Twin Lakes -- ostensibly two bodies of water, though connected by a wide channel that effectively makes them one -- I urged David to slow down (though "slow" is relative on Bois Blanc, where speed limits don't top 30; anything faster is a recipe for vehicular suicide).
"It's up here just a little way," I cautioned. "On the left."
Just then a motion on the right caught my eye, and I turned to see a deer -- his rear end toward us, and his head swiveled around -- peering at us from among the trees.
"Fearless," I muttered. "They just don't spook."
"They know it isn't hunting season," said David, and that was likely the truth. Hunters would not be out for months, and the deer were taking a breather from their annual terror.
A couple hundred yards farther, and I saw one of the cabins; we had almost passed by, it was so obscured in the fading light.
"There," I said. "Just down the rise there. Pull over and leave your flashers on. There probably won't be anyone coming by, though."
As indeed there wasn't.
We toured the site for fifteen minutes, trying to imagine the buildings as they once were, back when they had more than seven logs stacked high; back when each log -- cut at the end -- fit companion logs at right angles; back when a roof and windows and some rudimentary furnishings and implements were present. There was no sign of such things now; just the ruins and the woods that were taking them over. Between the two cabins on the right, in a hollow, was a campfire site, with old broken bottles and bits of metal populating it.
The shallow ravine at the rear of the cabins was overgrown, and any thought of looking for spent shells or other evidence of Dillinger's presence seemed futile. While not a popular tourism stop, the grounds had no doubt been visited and revisited many times by locals and an occasional tourist over the years; so the likelihood of any collectible lying about was remote. The ravine, I presumed, was also where the spring might be in evidence, though I failed in a perfunctory inspection to spot any movement of water. A recent drought may have had an impact on the amount of water on the surface and in plain view, I surmised.
"Pretty run-down place," said David, inspecting the cabin ruins; it was one of the few sentences uttered while we were there. An almost chapel-like quality hung in the air, requiring our silence. Religion through mobsterism, I thought; but then changed my assessment. No ... there was something more here, though I couldn't quite identify it; it was almost as though someone -- or something -- was watching, though it didn't have the feel of flesh and blood, or of the here and now.
"Let's go," I said softly, and we retraced our steps atop the soft earth, moving toward our vehicle. I looked back a couple of times, trying to imprint the scene on my brain; and then, as we reached the road and David was crossing, I glanced back a third time and saw it: something wavering there, a disturbance in the shadows, a subtle shift in the reality of the cabins.
For a moment -- a brief moment -- I could see the two cabins on the right as complete structures, with roofing and windows and, I suspected, with furnishings and implements inside. And I thought -- though I couldn't swear to any of this -- that I saw some movement in the shrubbery beyond, just as the terrain dips toward the ravine.
I thought I saw a flash of white -- of some kind of cloth or covering on a moving figure. But just as quickly it was gone, and the cabins returned to their run-down state.
At that moment, a crow called from a nearby treetop.
I looked up, seeking him out, but couldn't find him in the gloaming. I heard him again, though, and felt certain for no reason that he was communicating with me; or at least trying to.
"What?" I whispered. "What are you saying?"
The answer came not from the bird, but from my son.
"Let's go, Dad. This place is creeping me out."
And so, with some reluctance, I climbed in the passenger seat and we drove off, found a forest track a few hundred feet ahead that enabled us to pull in and turn around, and headed back toward civilization, Bois Blanc-style.
As we passed the cabins again, I looked at them closely.
There was no shift in perception this time; no white in the brush.
But I vowed to return; to find if my eyes had deceived me
or if, in fact, there were forces at work out there that defied
my perception of time and logic.
The Three-Week Gap
John Dillinger was, by all accounts, a bully growing up and a brutal grownup who liked guns and women and bank robbing.
He was, for his era, something of a folk hero, since banks
were despised by a large portion of the Depression populace for
their tendency to foreclose on helpless citizens caught in the
economic snare of the times. Anyone who paid the banks back in
kind -- withdrew money at gunpoint -- attained a kind of soft
public-relations glow, accompanying mayhem and murder notwithstanding.
But Capone-sized or not, Dillinger found great fame, and with it found life increasingly perilous. One by one, members of his gangs (he formed a couple in fairly short succession) were caught or killed, and the federal effort to track him down, too, intensified.
Two doctors, William Loeser and Harold Cassidy, performed the famed Dillinger plastic surgery late in May 1934. The procedure occurred at the Chicago home of an acquaintance of the gangster's.
Accounts vary as to the impulse that led Dillinger to the surgery. Some say it was to help him elude authorities -- that they couldn't find him if they couldn't recognize him. Others say it was vanity that drove him -- that he simply improved imperfections like his pug nose and cleft chin. But whatever the cause, the surgery was very nearly deadly; he stopped breathing shortly after the anesthesia was applied, and was revived only with frantic effort.
And so we come to the Bois Blanc legend.
It was at this point that Dillinger was supposed to have gone to the Island and hidden in the cabins while recovering. While some historians would likely say there is no evidence of merit -- that the account is confused with another hideout Dillinger used earlier on Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- it is of interest to note a period of nearly three weeks starting in early June 1934 when Dillinger's whereabouts are not specifically catalogued.
A voluminous, almost day-by-day account I possess of his movements over the final year of his life indicates the surgery on May 28, an attempt by one of the doctors to remove Dillinger's fingerprints with acid the next day, the removal of the first bandages and application of their replacements on May 31, and an appearance by Dillinger at a nightclub on one of the next two evenings.
Then ... nothing.
He seems to have disappeared.
It is that huge gap that intrigues ... and convinced me that something indeed had happened all those years ago out in the woods off the Fire Tower Road.
And so, entranced by the legend, enthralled by the violent superstar life of John Dillinger, and at a loss to explain the vision I had seen on my first visit to the cabins, I decided to go back at the next available opportunity -- preferably at about the same time of day. I had a hunch that the twilight hour might hold the key to whatever it was I had seen wavering in the shadows -- that it had either played tricks on my eyes with its fading light, or held some role in a greater mystery that awaited me. The only way to find out ... was to go and find out.
I intended to drive out there the next day, but a heavy rainstorm -- one of the few of the season -- moved through, and so I waited another 24 hours, hunkering down in the cottage my wife and I were renting in Pointe aux Pins. Then -- 48 hours after my first cabin visit -- I returned to the Fire Tower Road, this time alone. David had no interest in going, and my wife had other Island plans. I was actually relieved at the solitary nature of my approach, for I felt strongly that if anything was out there, it was delicately balanced between what is and what might be -- between the Island of today and the Island of yesteryear. The connection required solitude, I decided, for that is the nature of the Island; its solitude is its one constant.
Humans come and go on the Island, and the trees grow and fall, but the solitude is never changing. If there was a connecting link -- if indeed I had caught a glimpse of the man in white on my last visit -- then I felt the solitude was that link. It might logically be argued that my very presence could tilt the balance against me -- that the presence of even one human might negate the concept of the forest's primeval solitude -- but I could only tell myself that I had, indeed, seen something. And the only way to determine if the vision was more than hallucination was to be there again.
And so, just before twilight, I once again approached Dillinger's Cabins.
My wife, Susan, having read this account to this point, urged me to stop. "It's a perfect place," she said. "Anyone who reads it will go 'Huh? What happened next?' It's a great place to leave it; leave the mystery. Of course ... that's just me."
And so I am tempted ... but will forge ahead; take it to a point of even greater mystery and then leave it, with this proviso: There is no earthly way I can validate what follows; I can only say I experienced it.
I reached the cabins just before twilight, and stood at the edge of the road for a few minutes, just looking. Then I decided to tour the grounds again, but saw nothing new of note except for the top of an antique coffeepot wedged in the ground over near the old, cold campfire site. I couldn't tell its age; it was tin-plated, and corroded by the years and the earth's moisture. I imagined for a moment the hands of John Dillinger lifting it from its base, but the thought was fleeting, replaced with the suspicion that it was used in some more recent year by a camper or cabin-dweller with no ties to the gangster or his violent world.
Setting it back down, I wandered to the ravine and looked among the shrubs and trees for some sign -- I don't know of what, exactly. I guess I was hoping the woods would yield an indication of what happened out there in 1934 ... some clear evidence of Dillinger's visit.
But there was nothing. The forest had reclaimed this turf years ago, and seemed unwilling to give up its secrets. It was silent on the matter -- the hush of deep woods broken only by my footfalls and by a breeze that I noticed starting in the upper branches of the trees. It was issuing a gentle whistle as it caressed the leaves on its way by.
Finally giving up -- deciding that there was nothing of significance or mystery awaiting me there -- I started in the direction of the road, looking back as I had on my previous visit, but not as before to implant the scene on my memory. No, I was hoping against hope that like last time, there might be a glimpse of something beyond the reality of the cabins; that there might be a break in the fabric of time that would show me how this place used to be.
I reached the road before it happened.
It was signaled this time not by a crow, but by an increase in the singing of the wind in the trees. The wind, as had the crow, was talking to me, though not in a language of nations; it was in a language of the heart and the soul. And it was saying welcome.
It gradually took on a flute-like quality that had me first looking skyward and then -- knowing what I would see -- peering back toward the remains of Dillinger's Cabins.
The scene before me was shifting, as it had only vaguely on my first trip; the old cabin ruins were once again forming into something complete, with full interlocking walls, with windows and with roofs. The forest was thinning around the cabins, and the light in the woods was brightening perceptibly. This time, the image was solidifying; was beyond spectral.
And there was something else.
There was the unmistakable sound of gunfire coming from the ravine.
While digesting the significance of the sights and sounds in front of me, I noticed peripherally to my left a motion, and froze; I did not, under the strange circumstances, want to be seen. The motion was that of a man walking; he was carrying a knapsack on his back, and his arms were weighted down with two other canvas bags. He was just stepping off the road and angling toward the cabins, his head down with the effort. It was perhaps the concentration he was putting into the task that kept my presence from him, for I was not at all hidden by trees or brush. Or perhaps, I thought, I couldn't be seen; wasn't a physical, visible part of the tableau. I wasn't sure. But I did not feel like calling out to find the answer; this was, if lore had it right, the hideout of John Dillinger and his men, a crew of well-documented violence. A sudden loud sound -- or, for that matter, the presence of someone not expected -- could produce an unwanted result.
And so I kept quiet, and watched -- rooted to my spot -- as the man with the sacks reached the first cabin and started to set down his heavy cargo.
"Hey, you Smitty?" I heard a voice call out from the ravine.
"Yeah," the man called back. "Brought what you needed."
"Well, we're down here. Come on down ... and bring some
bullets," yelled the voice in the ravine.
He reached in one of the sacks at his feet and extracted a couple of small boxes, and then went to the edge of the ravine and disappeared from my sight.
Only then did I dare move.
I edged toward the nearest cabin -- the one farthest from the ravine, in point of fact, and thus offering the maximum protection -- and carefully peered around it. I could hear a muted exchange involving several male voices in the ravine, and thought I heard the words "Come on, try it! It's a gas," followed by a single gunshot, and then a second shot moments later. And then I heard the voice I recognized as Smitty's say "Wow!" and then a chorus of laughter followed by two more gunshots.
I smiled; whoever was down there was giving him shooting lessons.
And then I stopped smiling, and for the same reason: They
were giving him shooting lessons.
"Just go," I whispered to myself, but my conscious mind wasn't controlling my actions. My body, I discovered with some despair, was moving along the side of the cabin facing the road, toward the entrance in the far corner. It seemed, I realized despite mental resistance, that I was going to invade the lair of the nation's Number One gangster -- if indeed Dillinger's was among the voices in the ravine and this was his cabin. Somehow, though, I knew it was him. And I knew that he -- a man with a history of showing off, calling attention to himself even in dangerous situations that begged discretion -- would have picked this, the most prominent of the three lodgings by virtue of its proximity to the road.
When I reached the door, I listened carefully, heard more
gunshots in the ravine, pushed down on the door latch and shoved
gently. The door gave easily and silently, but at the halfway
point of its inward swing the bottom caught on a warped floorboard
and created a horrible shriek. I froze, terror besting me for
a moment, alert for any sound that might signal the gangster's
My eyes adjusted to the interior, dark save for the muted light from the doorway, from two small windows and from a single kerosene lantern hanging in the far corner. It was a spare existence, I could see -- a single room with a blanket-topped cot in one corner, a square wooden table with chairs in the center, a wood stove against the far wall, and a pump, sink and icebox along the back wall.
The only other furniture was a makeshift chest of drawers against the front wall, and it was to there that I was drawn -- to what looked like a book lying atop it.
I was right. Picking it up -- a hardcover tome about an inch thick and maybe five by seven inches, with a faded red cover and no title -- and opening it, I discovered pages with handwriting.
"A diary," I muttered, and then froze again, for the shooting outside had stopped. I looked around for a hiding place -- the cot and table offered the only shelter, and feeble at that -- but relaxed when I heard the gunshots resume. The men had probably been reloading.
I thought it best to leave, but again my body refused my brain's instructions, and my hands opened the book to the first page. "Too dark," I realized, and moved to the lantern and tilted the page up toward the light. Alas, the writing was difficult to decipher -- poor light and poor penmanship make for poor written communication -- and so I started flipping through the pages, hoping to find one that was easier to read.
A couple of dozen pages in, there was a change from handwriting to hand printing, and suddenly I could decipher the writer's diary thoughts. "Probably changed so he could read it, too," I thought, and chuckled.
But the chuckle caught in my throat and turned to a gurgle, for I found something that was, in a word, surprising -- so surprising that it drew my entire attention, my total focus to the diary. And with the effort, I failed to notice footsteps approaching or the menacing figure soon standing just inside the cabin entrance, leaning casually against the door that I had left open.
"Find what you need?" he asked.
And I dropped the diary.
Author's note: This book, along with Haeffner's Island Nights and The Islander (Books One and Two of The White Woods Chronicles), are available at J.W. Brace Books, 211 N. Franklin St., Watkins Glen, NY 14891.
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869