Wickford Tales

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When Saunderstown, five miles south of Wickford, had its only baggage communication with the outside world through Wickford, and when the LaFarges had come there to live, Mrs. Grant LaFarge, a most charming gentlewoman, had occasion to ask Mr. Weaver to hold a trunk till she could send for it. She wrote him a courteous note, signing it “Florence LaFarge.” Mr. Weaver, not to be outdone, wrote her he would hold the trunk, and signed himself “Clarence LaWeaver.”

The train, after leaving the landing and stopping at Wickford, proceeded at leisure, stopping twice more before it reached Wickford Junction.

George Cranston lived not far from the junction and on his shopping days would wait to leave his house to catch the train till he heard the whistle at the Swamptown Crossing. Then he would leg it up the road—he was always in a hurry—his hat firmly on his head, dressed in his red flannel underdrawers, with his coat and shirt on unbuttoned, and his trousers streaming out behind, held to him by his suspenders around his neck. He would button himself up en route, and the men aboard the train, my father among them, would help him along by screaming down the road, “Hurry up, George! We’re going!” Then someone would blow the whistle. Sometimes the conductor would start the train and pretend to go.

George would add speed and always made it. He would put on his trousers on the back platform, pull his hat on more firmly, then come into the car with the air of a Chesterfield, bowing and shaking hands with all the ladies and passing the time of day in a most courtly manner.

It was George who always told me the news of the town when I had been away. I had just returned from honeymooning in Europe when he told me of Willis Fratus’ wedding and of the second railroad station fire. Both happened when I was gone. I remember thinking, as he told me, how tame Europe was—just one big hotel after another—compared to Wickford, where something was always going on.

Willis Fratus was quite a character. For many years he had had a sick wife to whom he was very kind, but he did get bored and he had a roving eye and a great way with the ladies. His conquests were legion, and many a father would gladly have shot him, but Willis was safe—everyone knew of sick Mamie.

Miss Micham, the primary-school teacher, was young and very pretty, and smart, too. Willis fell for her like a ton of bricks, but she would have none of him. Willis was sick with longing. George said he looked and acted worse than Mamie.

Just then poor Mamie died. She had many friends, and George Cranston said he gave her his best funeral as a recompense for her years of suffering.

To everyone’s surprise, Willis, the chief mourner, came to the funeral in a new light grey suit and the biggest, whitest kid gloves George said he had ever seen. Usually his clothes were plain and conservative. That day he seemed very conscious of his gloves and held his hands stiffly, as if he were anxious to keep his gloves clean, which was, of course, just the case.

He wore the same suit and gloves two days later when he married Miss Micham. They were very happy.

George said that the fire at the railroad station started at night too, and, as usual, no one knew the cause. George had just retired as fire chief, and at the meeting a few days before, Sam Brown had been elected to succeed him.

All the firemen came to the fire with the beautiful new chemical engine which the town had just bought. Just as they got to the fire, Sam Brown, George’s successor, cried out, “Wait, boys, I forgot my chief’s helmet!” He rushed home, and when he returned with it the station was in ruins. The boys had waited.

THREE MURDERS

Cedar Spring Farm, where my family has always lived, is known as the only place in Wickford where there have been three murders.

The first took place when my father was a little boy, just before the Civil War. Our big hay barn with its great wide doors was formerly used as a clam-bake house, and after a good bake and plenty of cider the men used to pitch horseshoes and bet on their prowess. Sometimes, after the womenfolk left or if it was a stag affair, they would fight gamecocks. Cider seemed to make very ugly drunks, and many fights would ensue.

One beautiful Sunday in September, after a gay bake, a man named Perkins was accused of cheating by pushing his horseshoe nearer the stake.

“Let’s lynch him!” they cried.

He ran away from them, and that was the last anyone saw of him for more than a month. Then one day he was found shot to death high up in the crotch of a great oak tree. He must have climbed the tree after his assailant shot him, for his wounds were such that he could not have been shot at that distance from the ground. Who did it, no one ever knew; but the enormous white oak, still standing, has been called “Dead Man’s Oak” ever since.

Dead Man’s Oak is a quarter of a mile down the lane from Cedar Spring itself, and the house and barn, near which the murder must have taken place, are on a hill just above it. The spring never fails, and the water is pure and cold and rushes out of the ground at about fifty gallons a minute. The Indians identified the spring by the cedar grove surrounding it, hence its name. The little stream from it flows into the saltwater cove nearby.