Wickford Tales

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My father inherited Cedar Spring Farm from some uncles. “Inherited” isn’t exactly the word: he assumed the mortgage. No money changed hands, for no one had any. He brought my mother there as a bride and she loved it, as did her children and grandchildren.

The second murder took place after the First World War, in the early days of Prohibition. Both Cedar Spring and our summer place on Narragansett Bay, Whale Rock Point, were involved. During that period we were kept on the jump by bootleggers and highjackers. Whale Rock Point, which juts into the ocean, was a “natural,” the bootleggers said. They would run their high-powered speedboats—progenitors of the PT boats of the Second World War—out to the big vessels carrying the liquor three miles offshore, then make a dash for Narrow River where trucks were waiting, unload in faster than fast time, and off they’d go. Of course they didn’t come every night, but on foggy or rainy nights we knew enough to stay indoors and to see or hear nothing.

The bootleggers were mostly high-class men who felt they were in a legitimate business and would not shoot unless forced to. But the highj ackers were daredevils with nothing to lose. Their only investments were guns and high-powered automobiles.

We have a good road that runs right through our place down to the ocean. How the automobiles on a foggy night would whiz by!

One time my mother was ill and I was staying with her at Cedar Spring Farm. About eight o’clock one morning, Ed Standeven, who had worked for Mother for forty-two years, first as farmhand, then as chauffeur, came into her room while we were breakfasting and said, with a white face, “One of those highjackers is sitting dead against the big sycamore tree up the road—shot through the head!”

Mother asked, “Are you sure he’s dead?”

“Yes,” answered Ed. “He’s stiff.”

Mother never said another word. She reached for the telephone and told Mamie Rice, the telephone girl, to get John Fowler, one of the biggest bootleggers in town.

Then after a minute—Hello, John—is that you? This is Mrs. Baker. Come this minute and take your corpse off my place. How dare you do such a thing to me!”

In less than half an hour the corpse was gone. How Mother knew who had put him there, I never discovered.

The third murder makes me so unhappy that even after all these years, I hate to write about it.

Pete Freeman, who worked on our place, always played the drum in the Memorial Day parade. Memorial Day was and still is the biggest day of the year in Wickford. The parade starts early and marches two miles to the Elm Grove cemetery, where the graves are decorated and there are speeches and a band concert. Then it marches back. Anyone can march, but only a chosen few play in the band.

As I see it now, Pete was lonely, especially during that winter and spring, when Mother was in Europe visiting my sister Gladys and the house was closed. And because he was lonely, he began to drink.

Ed Standeven, the caretaker, was an awful tease when he had time on his hands, and to scare Pete from drinking, he told him that if he didn’t stop he couldn’t play the drum in the Memorial Day parade.

This preyed on Pete’s mind. When Mother got home late in May—just the day before the parade-she found Pete half-seas over. She got the cook to give him plenty of black coffee and told Ed not to tease him any more.

But the next morning, when Pete went with his drum to march in the parade, he was told that he was drunk, that he would have to go home. It broke his heart. He had played in the parade every year for forty years.

Slouching back he came, got his gun, and then came up to the big house. Mother was alone, for everyone else had gone to the parade. He mumbled something to her about shooting Ed. He blamed Ed for not helping him and taking his side at the parade. Almost everyone liquored up for the occasion and Pete was probably no worse than many; but Ed, to prove his point and stop Pete’s drinking, had told the marshal that Pete was unfit to play his drum in the band.

 

Pete was crazy mad, and when Mother looked at him she realized that he was and that he would shoot either Ed or himself. It never entered her mind that he might shoot her.

She begged him to give her the gun, but he wouldn’t and said that he was going to wait at the gate and shoot Ed as he came in.

Mother didn’t know what to do. There was no way to warn Ed or get the gun from Pete, so she called up the state police and told them the story.

They sent a splendid young trooper on a motorcycle right away. When Pete saw him coming he ran down to his house and sat in his door with his gun across his knees.

Mother warned the trooper, telling him to stay with her till Ed got back; then Ed and the trooper could get the gun away from Pete.

The trooper smiled and said he could manage Pete, and although Mother held onto his arm and begged him to wait, he went ahead.

Pete put a small stick across the narrow path about twenty-five feet from his door, and as the trooper approached, he said, “If you step across that stick I shoot you.”