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An Archaeological Mystery

Skagway, Alaska, June 2002: Archaeologist Cassie Mitchell finds a human skeleton under a historic grocery store. It couldn't have been put there before or after June of 1902. Can she figure out who the guy was and who killed him based on the evidence in his grave?

Skagway, June 1902: Rip Travers thought his marshalling days were over when he helped run the Soapy Smith gang out  of Skagway in 1898. When his replacement as U.S. Deputy Marshal, John Snook comes by one raining morning in November 1902, he can't say no to putting on a badge just this one more time. After all, who can resist a cabin with a pool of blood in the middle of the floor and a message written on the wall, crying out "STRIKERS DIE!"  Not Rip Travers.

    Rip's next few weeks take him and his horse Buck up White Pass, through Dead Horse Gulch, and as far away as Victoria, British Columbia in search of not only suspects, but a body drained of blood, as well.  Can Rip solve a murder mystery without a murder victim, a conspiracy to commit murder when he doesn't even have a body?



By Cody Grant

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WEDNESDAY, JUNE 3, 1992. “Mowley,” I said as I glared.

Then I shut my mouth. The word brought the misshapen beast to his feet. Festooned in cotton strings, that simple action threatened disaster to eight hours of my painstaking work.

“Nice dog,” I crooned, replacing the fierce command that I started with a soothing, sing-song, why-don’t-you-just-lie-down-and-go-back-to-sleep-until-I-cut-off-those-string-lines tone. Instead, the slobbering monster started to wag his tail, catching up another line and pulling up a stake with it. I felt a growl vibrating in my throat.

What the hell was that dog doing in the middle of my dig site? I’m not usually given to swearing, not even in my thoughts, but that dog has a tendency to bring out the worst in me. Especially when he shows up right after I’d just spent a whole day setting up the excavation grid with stakes and string lines.

Calmly, I assessed the situation. Growling might just work. I knew better than to yell. He’d long ago done the damage. Bart, I’d yell at. Bart, Mowley’s cursed human partner in crime, would take the punishment, not a dog that had the misfortune to have acquired such a poor specimen of humanity as master in the first place. Bart, being an archaeologist himself, should know better than let a half basset, an animal that placed digging in the dirt as one of his Top Ten Favorite Things to Do, run around free. Not when our dig had started up in town. Whoo Boy, was Barty-Boy gonna’ pay.

“Down, Mowley, you wretched beast,” I growled, inching forward in a crouch to avoid hitting my head on the bottom of the floor joists under Verbauwhedes’ Confectionery and Grocery, a decrepit old building that some architect working for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park had jacked up just barely far enough for me to do my job.

I’d been working here in rain-soaked Skagway, Alaska for four days now, trying   to get this site thawed out and ready for my archaeological crew to start excavations, and I’d been running into more obstacles than usual. It all made me a teensy bit cranky. Archaeology always has its problems, especially when you’re eighty miles by dirt road from a city with any sized population, and that a Canadian one, reached by way of a dirt road and a customs post. ‘Course I could fly to Juneau, capital of Alaska, ninety miles and a hundred dollars away, but that makes even camera batteries expensive, and I’m a taxpayer, too. I sorta’ like being economical with the public’s money.

I mean, archaeology and problems just sort of go together. You never know what you’re going to run into from one day to the next, and what’s going to break down or what sort of gizmo you’ll need to fix it. That’s what’s so fun about the job. But dogs? Dogs you think you can control for, especially if their masters work for you.

Here, in the early 1990’s, Skagway has like eight hundred people living in it, but you can see as many as five thousand on a summer day when three cruise ships sit at the docks. They dump off tourists to gawk at glaciers and visit the grave of desperado Soapy Smith, whose gang was rounded up by U. S. Marshal Rip Travers back in 1898. God, I love Rip, he’s my one and only real-life hero. Some of the tourists ride the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad and buy curios, not hardware. The one little hardware store only carries one or two trowels a year, and sells only so many batteries and wooden stakes. If you’re doing anything but being a tourist, you sorta’ need to anticipate, something hard to do when you don’t know what mysterious treasures lay around under the ground.

So, when I stuck my head under this decrepit old building, one with rotting piers for foundations, now sitting on jacks about four feet above the ground at some architect’s concept of the perfect height to allow archaeologists under it, it should not have surprised me to see one more unexpected piece of trouble. This trouble was spelled “Mowley.” Pronounced “mow” as in “mow the grass,” not to rhyme with “cow.” Named after Farley Mowat, the guy who wrote that great book, Never Cry Wolf.  Don’t get me started on the permutations. It’s not pleasant. It’s sufficient to say that Mowley is half basset and half malamute. Even looking at him yells out trouble.

I debated what to do. Call the ugly beast to me? He’d drag that entire mess of string and wood with him, and possibly more of the still-intact grid system. Nope. Better go to him and see if I could cut him loose.

But hell, having to deal with this stupid dog before I’d even stuck a trowel in the ground just seemed like too much. I can usually handle this sort of crisis later on in a project, but I just hadn’t gotten into the routine yet. When I dropped down to crawl under Verbauwhedes’ store, I hadn’t even been thinking problems. I was still trying to warm up, my thirty-five year old body not moving very quickly on the cold ground. True, a whistle from the direction of the carpenter crew working on the historic building next door meant I still had something for them to appreciate. I had smirked as I disappeared under the building, feeling pretty good about myself. That lasted long enough to catch sight of Mowley tangled up with my stakes and string.

What an ugly mutt. A basset’s short legged body with shaggy gray and white fur. Droopy ears and eyes, and those mismatched, like his malamute dad. Mowley didn’t inherit any smarts from his father. He got all his brains from his basset mom. Anyone who owns a basset knows how few of those they possess. Thirty-five percent of the cranial matter is devoted to smelling and sixty-five percent to filling the stomach attached to the nose. Stupidly, not knowing I’d be dealing with Mowley on this day, I had no food on hand, not even a stick of chewing gum.

As I crawled towards the mutt, his tail, waving madly ever since I had poked my head under the building, tripled its beat. He stood up and did his usual in-place prance.

“Ah, no, Mowley,” I complained, wiping dog slobber onto my thighs and watching the string attached to the wooden stakes get more tangled around his humungous paws.

“Stay!” I barked, with what I meant as a commanding tone, silently begging him to, one, understand me, and two, obey.

“What’s up, Cassie?” Derek chirped, coming through the opening at the side of the building and obliterating what little light seeped through.

Derek Chavez was the reason doing archaeology in Skagway wasn’t more trouble that it could be. Seeing Derek took a great big huge puff of huffiness out of me. It always did. I’d never been able to explain it. He possesses this aura of ultimate calm in the middle of the storm that gives a crazy person like me something to hang on to long enough to remember what’s important. I’ve never been able to figure out how he does it. He makes doing archaeology in Skagway sane.

Because of Derek, the park historian, I’d never had much trouble getting my job done in Skagway, I mean more than the usual, being near creature comforts and amenities like hot showers and beds with springs in them. With Derek’s historical files we’d figured out that a Danish confectioner named Fritz Verbauwhedes had owned this particular old building. It originally sat on Paradise Alley, in the heart of the red light district behind the Pack Train Saloon. There Fritz had rented it out as a “crib” or a two-room brothel used as a place of business for a prostitute. A news clip dated June 2, 1902 reported that he moved the “house of ill-fame,” to its current site, two doors down from the Mascot Saloon. My dig under the rotting building would help us figure out its use at this site. Maybe some of the “soiled doves” moved as well, and I’d find a few bottles of laudanum, rouge containers, or antique sheep gut condoms.

I sure would have liked to dig up the crib’s original location in the red light district. Most likely, I’d find nothing but candy wrappers and cookie tins here. Boring. Oh well, a job’s a job. It pays the rent. We archaeologists like to say, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

“The question’s more like who’s in major trouble?” I grumbled.

With impeccable timing, Mowley asserted himself. He gave off one of those typical squeaky-toy whines, the kind of noises bassets make when no one’s feeding them.

“Uh, why’d you let Mowley in here?” Derek asked, a totally innocent look on his face.

I glared. “Because I haven’t figured out a way to kill him yet.”

“Piece of cake.” Before I could yell “No!” Derek produced a candy bar from his pocket. He didn’t even need to say the word “Food.” Mowley bounded forward joyfully, dragging the rest of my strings and stakes in that quadrant of the dig with him.

The nastiest of my language was about to erupt full force when I saw what, exactly, the dog had found so comfortable. Mowley had been lying on top of the worst of his misdeeds. Smooth, rounded, ivory-colored and clean as, well, a bone. That’s because it was a bone. A forehead bone. A skull.

No animal has a skull shaped like that. Mowley had uncovered a human skull.





TUESDAY, JUNE 3, 1902. Rip Travers, a broad-shouldered, middle-aged man with mussed, iron-gray hair sat hunched at the counter of his bicycle shop. He raised his bushy eyebrows when U. S. Marshal John Snook appeared in his doorway. A bushy mustache twitched as his upper lip twisted up in a grin.

“John. Fine morning. How’s the family?” Rip pushed the pile of hardware in front of him aside with relief. He hated counting nuts and bolts.

“Rip, it most definitely is not a fine morning. I can see why you left this job,” Snook grumbled as he shed his mackintosh. “I don’t have time to visit, but I’ll do it only long enough to down one of your God-awful cups of coffee. Thanks for offering.”

“Harry.” Snook nodded to Rip’s son at the counter along the opposite wall, where the boy worked on a bicycle. “Better go get Buck. Your Pop’s gonna’ need him.”

Harry glanced towards his dad. Rip raised his big, bushy eyebrows once again, wanting to shake his head and finding it impossible. What was it about the law that drew him, irresistibly, into business with which he should never get involved in the first place? Rip’s bad leg twitched, warning him to stay put, but his head paid absolutely no attention. Without another thought, he nodded towards Harry. The young man jumped up and dashed out the door to go fetch his dad’s horse.

Rip limped over to the gray graniteware coffee pot on the stove. He grabbed up a thick, chipped white cup, poured a dark, viscous stream, and limped back to the counter. Snook had perched himself on one of the three-legged stools he kept for the men who came in to shoot the bull. Rip favored his left leg. He’d broken it racing horses in Iowa back in 1883. His wife Florence claimed it proved he should give up both law and horses. Rip shot back that it only taught him how to sit on a horse more solidly. Skagway’s infernal cold, that leg, and his horse Buck, who couldn’t find browse for nine months of the year, what with all the snow, had driven him to give up his job as U. S. Deputy Marshal and run for city magistrate. The job only took a few hours a week, so he spent the rest of the time here at the bike and hardware shop. But he wouldn’t give up either the law or Buck, not by a long shot.

“Somethin’s on your mind, John, or you wouldn’t be pesterin’ me for such a rotten cup of coffee on such a fine Skagway morning,” Rip stated solemnly as he handed the chipped cup to the marshal, his tongue firmly imbedded in his cheek. The weather always started turning wretched about this time of year. When the rain wasn’t pouring down, like it was at the present time, the wind was blowing. Rip preferred the wind. Different folks in Skagway had their different ‘druthers.

“We got trouble, Rip,” Snook groaned after he took that first awful sip, screwing up his face and almost spitting it out. He swallowed it, though. Since he didn’t hawk it out, Rip figured he needed the fortification.

Rip groaned, secretly pleased. The townspeople always ended up coming to him when real trouble started brewing. They had from the day the king of the trouble-makers, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith had come to town and caused all that ruckus back in July of ninety eight. At that time they had begged Rip to head up their “Safety Committee,” the closest thing they had to a police department in the days before city incorporation. When Frank Reid, one of Rip’s confederates, and old Soapy shot each other to death on his brother-in-law’s wharf, all Rip could do was wipe up the mess afterwards. Judge Sehlbrede, from the federal court, slapped a deputy marshal’s badge on Rip, told him to round up the rest of Soapy’s gang, don’t let anyone else get killed, and then stepped back to watch Rip do his job.

Which he did, in four days. No one grumbled. Much. Sure, lots of noise and some pretty scared con men, but Rip got them to the jail in Sitka in one piece, all alive. ‘Course, some folks still argued about who it was really shot Soapy, Reid or one of the men standing next to him. Rip never would join in those arguments. All he knew was to keep wearing the badge until District Judge Brown down in Juneau let him quit a couple of months ago. Now, here was Snook, his replacement, back with more trouble.

“You know that cabin east of the railroad tracks in the old Tlingit village, the one old man Gressley built during the rush?”

Rip nodded. “George Gressley disappeared last winter. Folks say he went to Laramie, Wyoming. Couldn’t make a living cutting wood, not with Jim Irvine out there running him off every time he turned around. Irvine’s not a pleasant man. He’s gonna’ cause us all trouble one of these days. That whole Irvine clan will. You mark my words.”

“So, maybe he has already.” Snook lowered his chin and stared at Travers over the top of his wire-framed glasses before he lowered the front two legs of his stool to the floor.

“Grab your mackintosh, Rip, and that Colt of yours. Soon as Harry gets back with Buck, we’re takin’ a ride.”

He pulled out a deputy’s badge and slapped it down on the counter top.

“Ah, come on, John,” Rip protested. “You know I resigned when the good folks of this town elected me as city magistrate. Florence’ll have my hide.”

John Snook grinned at his former boss. “You know more about this stuff than I do, Rip, and I’m not going to lose this case.” Rip heard a clatter out in the street. Snook grinned. “Sounds like Harry’s here with Buck. Let’s mount up. I’ll fill you in on the way.”

* * *

            Rip thought he would be prepared for what he would see in that one-roomed cabin set below the ridge behind the railroad switches. He could hear the sound of a helper engine backing the train towards Moore’s Wharf, and a blast from a steam whistle on the S. S. Cutch, docked and waiting for passengers. But when he opened the door, the swarm of flies overpowered the racket from Skagway a quarter mile away, and a sweet, sticky odor stole his breath from his lungs. Rip’d never been a squeamish man, but he knew George Gressley didn’t take to painting his cabin walls with anything at all, much less some darkish color like red. All that garish decoration could only have one source: the pool of blood in the middle of the floor.

Snook took one look and backed out the door. Rip heard him gagging up breakfast in what passed as a front yard.

Rip stopped just inside the doorway, glad that John had declined to enter. He saw the footprints outlined clearly, even in the subdued light from the overcast day and the heavy curtains over the windows. Rip wanted to pull those drapes back, to let in a little more light, but he was afraid he’d step on some evidence.

“Better stay outside, John. I see footprints and splatters coming out the door. Did Milo say whether he walked around inside much?” Rip questioned.

“Drinich was like me, one look inside, and he lost his breakfast. Said he came straight to see me this morning after checking on the place like George asked him to.”

Travers pulled a lantern off Buck’s saddle, the one he’d brought so he could see inside a darkened cabin, and he now rummaged around inside one of the saddle bags. He drew out a slim wooden box, his investigation kit. He’d not had to use it in Skagway much. Most crimes committed within his jurisdiction had been pretty cut and dried, with lots of noise, witnesses, and gossip in the saloons and restaurants for months afterwards. This assignment would prove a challenge. If this case had come along nine months ago, Rip Travers would still be wearing his gold badge and one more sick bastard would be sitting in a cold cell at the federal penitentiary on Washington’s McNeil Island.

When Travers turned off his kerosene lantern and packed up his evidence case three hours later, he knew he had a murder on his hands. Six men had been walking around outside, it looked like. A big guy with size twelve boots had walked through the blood and stood at the front door before leaving. Two men had carried something dripping blood out the door, one with thin-soled shoes, a hole in the right one, and one wearing smooth-soled, medium-sized shoes. A fourth man wore lumberman boots shod with cone-headed nails. One man had moccasins, but he’d been there before anyone else. His tracks had gotten covered up by all the others. Then one guy had some deep treads on his galoshes. They’d be easy to find. One of those had to be from Drinich, the owner’s friend who’d called on Marshal Snook this morning. Rip could tell which tracks were Snook’s, so he discounted those altogether, and he hadn’t even bothered to inventory them.

Moccasins. A few Tlingit still camped out here at the old village in the summer time, when they could get seasonal work in Skagway. Rip would have to find out who was staying around. It probably didn’t mean anything. The tracks could be old. Rip didn’t know enough about tracking to be able to tell just how aged they might be.

Only the first three guys had walked out. The man with the shoes had come up the trail from Skagway with a mule, right past the switch tender down by the railroad depot. Rip and John would have to watch for those mule tracks on the way out and hope they hadn’t walked over the top of too many of them when they came up the trail. How many other folks have been up to the lakes today? Rip wondered.

He’d had Snook scour the moss and wood-chip covered yard for anything that looked out of place. The marshal came up with very little: a small, empty medicine bottle, clear, the kind Florence used for her monthly women’s complaints; a Quaker Maid bottle with a finger of whiskey left in it, lying next to the front door stoop, and four cigar stubs, like a man had waited for someone, filling his time smoking and drinking. Funny smelling whisky, with a faint scent of almonds.

Rip had lifted a few fingerprints, too. The courts didn’t think much of this new science using fingerprints, but many of the private detectives found them valuable. He thought he’d try them out. He had ordered a kit from the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago. He took several from slick surfaces in the cabin, a couple off the whiskey bottle, and some very good prints in blood off the wall.

And then there was all that blood. Aside from the big pool in the middle of the room and the bloody prints leading to the door, there were three sets of them, Rip found that trail of big drops trailing over the steps and off to where the mule had stood by the side of the cabin. No drag marks. At least two of the men had carried that body. Or carcass. Or whatever it was. Rip hoped it was an animal someone had butchered.

The most important clue, though, was also on the wall. Rip had seen a lot of bad things in his long life. He didn’t talk about most of them. He wasn’t sure he should blab this one about either. It would play straight into the hands of the killer. It said everything about motive.

“Did you tell Milo to keep his mouth shut about what he saw in this place?” Rip demanded of John as they swung up into their saddles.

“Drinich is no fool. While he looked like a ghost, I’ll bet you he’s more scared by what he saw on that wall than what was on the floor. He’ll keep it to himself,” Snook assured him.

Rip grunted an agreement with Snook’s assessment of one of the local labor boys. While he might be given to occasional loud-mouthed singing bouts, Rip had never known Milo Drinich to betray his fellow workers on the railroad. He’d clam up tight for a while. His buddies would wonder why, but they wouldn’t get a word out of him. Rip hadn’t realized that a strike was in the making, but it shouldn’t surprise him. The White Pass and Yukon Route railroad had been losing money ever since the Atlin boom died in March. Rumors that the Tanana gold country would take off seemed to be simply that, rumors. The railroad management on Broadway couldn’t be sleeping too well at night. Their investors’ reports to Victoria, Toronto, Chicago, New York, and London couldn’t be too easy to write.

“I’d better go have a chat with Milo as soon as we get back to town,” Travers commented as they mounted up, already planning his investigation.

“Glad you’re on my side, Rip,” Snook observed. “This is bigger than Skagway. It could be bigger than Alaska, you know.”

Rip took a great lungful of air. He let Buck find his own way along the path back to town, knowing the animal knew the way, grateful he could concentrate on thinking this problem through.

“Could be someone just butchered a pig,” Rip suggested, hopefully.

Snook snorted. “In the middle of Gressley’s cabin?”

Being a lawman, Rip knew he had to suspect the worse. “Guess we should put together a search party for a body or a grave, John. With this leg, I won’t be much good tramping through these woods.”

“No, I want you working on the case, not falling over downed trees and rocks,” Snook agreed. “Leave that to me.”

Rip shuddered, thinking again about what he’d seen on Gressley’s wall, about labor strikes and union busters. He knew the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as “The Wobblies,” were trying to organize in Skagway and that the British-owned White Pass Railroad wasn’t too happy with the prospect. Labor strikes had gotten brutal in other parts of the country, ending in the deaths of dozens of men from both sides of the argument. “Well, if it wasn’t a pig, you’re right, it’s probably bigger than Alaska.”

Hell, not just other parts. Why, only three years ago, Rip had barely averted a violent strike here in Skagway. He remembered cajoling each of the saloon owners into closing their doors so the construction workers wouldn’t have any place to spend their free time while they went on strike. When the men started going back to work, hoping to get the saloons reopened, labor leader Bob White took a mob of men up to Camp Number One, where they started breaking up the tents and throwing out men’s personal belongings. Rip stood in the glare of the headlights from two locomotive engines and called out White and his gang. He had to break the stock of his Winchester over the man’s back to stop him. Must have been a defective gunstock. White survived.

Nope, Rip Travers didn’t want to get involved with union troubles again, but it sure looked like he wouldn’t be able to avoid it. The words painted in blood stood out plain in his head.



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