Catskillby John R. Hayes
"On a pleasant summer evening in Chicken Corners, three men with rifles - two in their twenties, another in his midthirties - take firing positions on a wooded hillside overlooking a dilapidated farmhouse. The building is packed with immigrant Jewish families - refugees from Eastern Europe who have been given a weekend in the country as a respite from the city's heat… See more details below
"On a pleasant summer evening in Chicken Corners, three men with rifles - two in their twenties, another in his midthirties - take firing positions on a wooded hillside overlooking a dilapidated farmhouse. The building is packed with immigrant Jewish families - refugees from Eastern Europe who have been given a weekend in the country as a respite from the city's heat and teeming streets." As the sun begins to set, the men begin firing carefully into the farmhouse, aiming harmlessly high to frighten the unwanted visitors away. They do not aim to kill, but before the evening is over, a local widow, whose presence in the farmhouse cannot be explained, lies dead.
- St. Martin's Press
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Early in the summer of 1926, Martin Collins, who was always called Judge by his family, invited Sister Thecla Marie, the Revered Mother Superior of the Sisters of St. Paul, to spend a week's holiday at Collins House on Lake Repose, eight miles north of the village of Chicken Corners in Sullivan County, New York.
The invitation was extended at the urging of Martin's widowed daughter-in-law, Mary.
"She will be sixty-five in November, Judge," Mary had insisted. "Next year, whoever takes her place may not let her go."
"It's not how old she is that worries me," Martin replied. "It's how she looks. We've never had nuns at Collins House before."
"She looks the way a nun is supposed to look," said Mary, tightening her lips. Martin softened quickly whenever Mary seemed upset. She knew he worried about her.
"There are some very jittery people up there, Mary. Someone looking like that could really stir them up."
"It would be you and her together to talk old times again," she said teasingly. He smiled. She felt herself winning.
"You said two others with her. Where would we put them?"
"The rules won't let her travel alone. We can manage," said Mary. "Can she come? Please, Judge!"
* * *
Sister Thecla had stayed Patricia Dillon until she completed her Paulinas' novitiate in 1879 at age eighteen. Before that, from 1867 to 1875, she had been Martin's classmate at Immaculate Heart Elementary in the east sixties in Manhattan. He had been called Master Martin Collins then.
Young Martin had worshiped young Patricia long into his teens, but she had gone away at sixteen, and over time his feelings had leveled down. The order had returned her to New York six years later, a third-grade teacher and a fully habited nun.
The Paulina habit was based on a sixteenth-century Milanese fashion derived from a Muslim court costume that had been popular in Cordoba a hundred years earlier.
"I wouldn't have known you," Martin said shyly when he saw her in veil and wimple the first time. "You've changed."
"Good thing," she replied curtly. "When we don't, we're dead."
Years later, he questioned her again about the ancient habit.
"It's a discipline," she explained. "It structures our lives. It reminds us we are different."
"Looking different is one thing, Patricia," Martin said, unpersuaded. "Looking queer is another."
Sister Thecla knew what looking queer meant. At age thirty, as acting principal at an elementary school in Ithaca, New York, she had fought her way through a cordon of angry policemen to pull a second-grader through a burning doorway just as a supporting wall caved in. She lost her left arm.
* * *
Collins House was a mid-Victorian country house built on a 1,200-acre tract in the northwestern Catskills in 1871. It was cedar clapboard painted white with a half-screened porch wrapped around both sides. Blue-and-white striped awnings shaded every window on all three floors. The house faced south, overlooking the lake, a hundred yards from a secondary town road.
Most of the Collins tract was still wild. Much of it was still covered with remains of the virgin hemlock forest that had blanketed the region before the bark strippers, working for the tanners, came and killed it. In the 1870s, Martin's father, Matthew, a sachem of Tammany Hall, had cleared seventy almost-level acres on the bluff overlooking the lake, creating a plateau of gentle fields and meadows that were occasionally scythed but never farmed or grazed. The paths through the tall grass followed the wanderings of deer, bears, and children. Martin's wife, Clara, with his parents and grandparents, was buried on the highest meadow in a sunlit corner that was enclosed by a cast-iron fence to keep large animals away. A visiting bishop from the city had consecrated the plot.
From the very beginning Catholic priests of all ranks had been frequent guests at Collins House. They hiked the trails, sailed the lake, often fished and hunted with members of the family. They dozed in the parlors and on the great open porch. With their collars off, wearing flannel shirts or striped blazers or oilskins, they passed for ordinary men.
But inviting nuns to Collins House was a different matter indeed.
* * *
Martin and Mary picked up the three nuns at eight on a Saturday morning in front of the main entrance to Mary Immaculate Convent on East Sixty-ninth Street in Manhattan. Martin was behind the wheel of the 1925 Duesenberg touring car. Mary sat beside him. Sister Thecla and Sisters Innocent Marie, sixty-one, and Margaret Marie, forty-four, rode in back.
They made a brief stop for lunch and would have arrived at Chicken Corners by late afternoon if Sister Margaret had not become carsick, and if they had not had a flat rear tire.
* * *
Martin was trying to decipher the greasy accordion jack and Mary's shaky reading of the manufacturer's instructions when an ancient green-and-yellow bus, not much larger than a delivery wagon, pulled up on the grass shoulder behind them. A canvas sign, hand-lettered Kaufmann Tours, was tacked on the right side.
The door opposite the driver opened with a kick, and a dark-haired, heavy-eyebrowed young man in his early twenties, the bus's only occupant, climbed out. He was dressed in blue cotton pants and shirt and was wearing heavy brown shoes with high sides and thick soles.
He took the tire iron and jack from Martin's hand, and said, "Please allow me. I am August Kaufman. K-a-u-f-m-a-n."
He very carefully rolled up his sleeves, chocked the wheels, checked the hand brake, jacked the car up, and changed the tire. Then he smiled for the first time, returned to his bus, and drove away. But not before Martin had requested his addressKaufmann Tours, 280 Third Street, east of Broadway below Cooper Unionand promised he would be in touch.
* * *
Nearing Chicken Corners in the late afternoon, Sister Margaret felt queasy again. As they rolled into the village center Martin slowed to five miles an hour and coasted to a stop in front of the war memorial.
The memorial was a small triangle of grass, brightened with summer flowers and shaded by chestnut trees. It was furnished with two concrete-and-oak benches, a small brown howitzer, a flagpole and flag, and a bronze plaque attached to a large block of sparkling granite. The plaque listed the names of the twenty-three Chicken Corner residents who had died meritoriously in the last three American wars. Near the top of the list was the name of Martin's only child, Captain Edmund Collins, missing in action, France, 1918.
Behind the memorial the village sloped to the southeast, where it spread out at the base of a glacier-scoured ramp to a six-mile stretch of deep blue water named Lake Repose. The lake was bordered east and north and partially on the west by steep cliffs. The cliffs were indented by coves that cut deeply into the main shoreline. The Collins tract began at the high bluffs at the north end.
Sister Margaret sat on one of the benches breathing deeply. Sister Innocent inspected the howitzer. Mary waited in the car.
Sister Thecla and Martin studied the four lines of type impressed in capital letters at the top of the memorial plaque. Sister Thecla read them aloud:
GREATER LOVE THAN THIS
HATH NO MAN
THAN THAT HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE
FOR HIS FRIEND
Three men, seated in straight-backed chairs, watched this tableau from the ground-level porch of Rudy's Country Store, across the road from the memorial. The crucifix on Sister Thecla's breast bounced light at them like a jewel in the declining sun. In all their long lives, the three men had never witnessed anything like it before.
* * *
Collins House had nine bedrooms, seven upstairs and two down, and sleeping quarters for a staff of three. Mary set three bedrooms aside for the nuns, partitioning them from the rest of the house but determined to make them feel at home.
"They put their shoes on just like we do, one at a time," she told the assembled staff. "I don't want you treating them like they just stepped out of seashells."
The routine at Collins House was lax and lazy. The sisters got up when they wanted and meandered as they pleased. They stayed up way past their usual bedtime. The summer days were warm and dry. They walked, read, rested, and played croquet on the side lawn. They tried badminton, but found it difficult wearing veils. They did not swim in the lake, but they did take off their shoes and stockings to wade in the rock-bottomed pool below the small waterfall that was the entrance to the ravine behind Collins House.
* * *
Radio reception was unreliable, so at night everyone came to the main parlor to play cards. Mary had arranged two lion-footed oak tables in front of the double bay windows, and starting Saturday night they began with every card game that Martin, Mary, and Mary's two sons, Robert, thirteen, and Ted, eight, could remember. By Wednesday, their fifth day, they had graduated from Go Fish and Old Maid through three kinds of rummy to poker. Because only Martin, Robert, and Sister Thecla played poker well, Martin invited Jarvis Evans, an antiques dealer from Chicken Corners who served as town historian, to join the game Thursday night.
Martin, Mary, Sister Thecla, and Sister Margaret sat at the table on the left. Jarvis, Robert, Ted, and Sister Innocent were at the table on the right. The temperature had dropped into the midsixties from a day's high of eighty-two. The cicadas and bullfrogs were singing in a circle all around, the katydids were calling back and forth.
Martin glanced down at the five cards in his right hand, then brought them in tight against his chest.
"I'll take three," he said.
Sister Thecla smiled knowingly. Three meant she had dealt him nothing better than a pair. He thumbed his three discards out blind, watching her watch him. She slid his three replacements across the table.
"Dealer takes one," she said crisply, adding, "Don't misplace those openers, Martin. Your bet."
Ted, the younger grandson, moved from his place at the second table to stand behind his grandfather's chair.
"Two big ones," said Martin. "No peeking, Ted." He separated two pebbles from the pile in front of him and pushed them forward with his left hand.
Sister Thecla came back at him without a pause. "See your two and raise you ten."
"She's bluffing, Judge," said Robert from the other table. "Raise her back."
"When they take just one, that's sometimes to fill a straight or a flush," Mary said softly.
"Sister Thecla doesn't bluff," said Ted.
"Ganging up on me, are you?" Martin muttered.
"Or a full house," said Robert.
"Or a straight flush," said Ted. "Jimminy! Can't I look?"
"At hers if she'll let you," said Martin, "not mine. But don't tell me anything."
She nodded her approval.
Ted scampered around to the other side of the table. The players at the adjoining table halted their game and turned to watch the action.
"What do you think, Robert?" Martin asked his grandson. "She got me beat?" He still kept his hand covered.
"Maybe it's a royal flush."
Martin shook his head in mock despair. "A few minutes ago, you said she was bluffing."
Sister Thecla smiled sweetly.
"Are you in or out?" she asked.
Before Martin could respond, a glow of light appeared on the front lawn. The curved windows filled magically with little explosions of color that quickly filled out into the plumed tips of a dozen torches spaced out along the edge of the road. In front of the torches a tall cross began to burn, upward from the grass. As their eyes adjusted, the cardplayers could see beside and between the torches and behind the cross a motionless row of figures clothed head to toe in white.
"Well, would you look at that," Martin said. He knew right away what it was. "Are all the dogs in?"
Mary whispered, "Yes, Judge."
"Just sit still," he said. "It'll be all right."
With the cross fully ignited, it was a splendid scene. The torches flickered, the grass glowed, the pure white hoods and robes shimmered beneath a halo of light that pressed up against the dark. The cardplayers sat frozen in expectation, as if they were supposed to know what would happen next but had for the moment forgotten.
Martin turned his cards facedown, moved his brandy glass to the middle of the table, and rose from his chair. He was wearing a finely striped red-and-white shirt with an open white collar, white duck trousers, and soft buckskin shoes. The outfit complemented his graying mustache and snow white hair.
"I need to find out what they want," he said, almost apologetically. "Please, all of you, wait here."
He pushed the screen door open and crossed the porch, pausing with arms folded at the top of the steps. Sister Thecla followed, moving smoothly to his left side, as he knew she would. The door swung closed behind them. As if on cue, five of the hooded figures came forward, lining up before the cross. The one in the center stepped two paces forward. He had red chevrons on his peaked hood and on his sleeves, and he was bent over below the shoulders, as if something was wrong with his back. The two on the ends held torches above their heads.
"You certainly know how to stage an entertainment, Martin," Sister Thecla murmured, as if this was his doing. She spoke without moving her lips and with her eyes forward.
"Now, Patricia, be gracious," Martin replied. "These folks have gone to a lot of trouble."
"Who are they?"
"A few of the neighbors. Come to pay their respects."
"Are they dangerous?"
"They could be, I suppose. Let's not let it spoil the evening."
They locked arms, his left in her right, and together they walked down the six wooden steps and across the flagstone path. They were the same height. As they approached the five figures, she disengaged and moved ahead of him. For an instant Martin was startled. Then, because he knew her so well and trusted her completely, and because it felt right, he accepted her lead and fell slightly behind.
She walked to the figure in the center, smiling and holding out her hand. For a long moment it stayed there, suspended. Then the robe parted and a man's hand slid out slowly and took hers.
"I'm Sister Thecla Marie. Thank you so very much," she said in a loud, clear voice. "The cross is beautiful."
She shook his hand gently. When he tried to pull it free she squeezed harder. He could not disengage without making a scene.
Martin moved quietly to her side, thinking this was one for the books, trying to guess who was under the hoods. He thought the leader, the bent-over one with the red chevrons, was Fletcher Washington, a retired Fredericktown selectman with an arthritic spine. The tall figure standing protectively behind Fletcher had to be Fletcher's son, Potter, an intense young man who supervised the post office substation in Chicken Corners.
"Allow me to present Mr. Fletcher Washington," Martin said to Sister Thecla very formally. "An old and distinguished friend."
Sister Thecla's grip tightened.
"That is you, isn't it, Fletcher?" Martin continued in a friendly tone. "Fletcher, this is Sister Thecla Marie, the Revered Mother Superior of the Sisters of St. Paul."
Fletcher moved his head slightly, a kind of greeting, but did not speak. Sister Thecla released his hand and moved behind him to shake hands with the other four. Martin followed along.
"Sister Thecla Marie," she said to each of them in turn. "Thank you so much. It's beautiful."
They accepted her hand but did not reply.
Behind them the screen door banged shut again, and the other cardplayers arranged themselves on the porch steps. After a moment, Robert came down the steps to take a place at his grandfather's side.
With Robert standing at attention, face stern, arms rigid, the tall figure behind Fletcher suddenly leaned forward, pushed his hood up above his forehead, and raised his right hand in appreciative salute. Robert hesitated, then saluted back. Martin, annoyed, stepped between them, and almost immediately the hooded figures behind the cross began retreating to the edge of the lawn.
The man with the red chevrons nodded again, first to Martin, then to Sister Thecla, lastly to Robert. He signaled the others with a wave of his right hand and a roll of his shoulders, turned abruptly, and walked briskly down the path. On the road, near the edge of the Wild Garden, he swung to the right like a drum major. With a torchbearer on either side he led the string of two dozen Klansmen away and finally out of sight.
They left the burning cross behind.
* * *
Back in the parlor, Sister Innocent took her seat at the table on the right and stared down at the backs of her cards. The others remained standing.
Robert broke the silence. "Who was the one who showed his face?" he asked.
"That was Potter Washington, Fletcher's boy," Jarvis Evans replied, bristling. "Lucky for him Charlie wasn't here."
"Who is Charlie'?" asked Sister Thecla.
"My son, Sister. He wouldn't have put up with that."
"He and those Kluxers don't get along."
"What would he have done?" asked Robert.
"You never can tell with Charlie," said Jarvis. "He's half Algonquin, a Delaware."
"Wow!" said Ted.
"Charlie's mother was Wolf clan. He quarterbacked three years straight for Fredericktown High.
"How wonderful," said Sister Margaret.
"Being an Indian?" asked Ted.
"Being a quarterback," Sister Margaret replied.
"Weren't you frightened out there, Judge?" asked Mary.
"Tell the truth, I was a little uneasy. But when the Revered Mother stepped up front, I thought to myself, My oh my, those fellers are in for it now."
"Oh, hush up," said Sister Thecla.
"How did you think what to do, Sister?" asked Mary.
"I suppose I'm used to it," she replied. Her fingertips touched her empty left sleeve.
"It's ritual, young lady," said Sister Innocent. "No one does it better than Catholics. Vestments. Candies. The altar. The cross. When the time comes, you just go. You're carried along."
"The strength comes from inside," Margaret. "It's knowing God is on your side."
* * *
Throughout the twenties there were dependably good times to be had at Lake Repose, and if the decade did not exactly roar above the lawns at Collins House there was a steady stream of song and laughter. But entering the thirties, a succession of events that had started with the loss of Edmund in France began to wear Martin Collins down. His wife, Clara, died of diphtheria and grief in 1921. Sister Thecla, his first love, died of cancer in 1928. Tammany no longer needed a man his age in his position, and a series of careless investments, made throughout the twenties, gravely undermined the Collins fortune.
For the first time in his life, Martin found himself facing debts he could not easily pay. With few people of his own generation left to engage him, he felt isolated and alone. He came to believe that he, the Judge, had somehow let the family down. And so, early in the Great Depression, unnoticed at first, Martin began to retire periodically to his book-lined study in Manhattan or to his den at Lake Repose with an ample supply of Irish whiskey to confront the demons of his failure face-to-face.
The sounds in the cellar, a series of spaced scrapings and grindings, wood on stone and metal on metal, woke Martin slowly. They seemed to be centered directly below his cot. He held himself motionless and opened one eye warily, wanting to be certain there was no one sitting by his side, watching while he slept. The drapes were drawn. The hooded desk lamp cast a faint glow at the far end of the room. The door was closed and bolted. The wooden side chair was still jammed tight under the doorknob where he had set it Saturday night before he began the drinking. The desk clock said 2:30, probably Monday afternoon, he guessed. He was alone.
He sat up gingerly, not sure what kind of shape he was in, whether it was safe to move at all. He turned his head carefully side to side. Not bad, not good. It hurt. The air in the room was hot and stale. His mouth was dry. His hands were shaking. He could smell himself. He fumbled for one of the bottles on the floor at the foot of the cot, pulled the cork loose, and took a long swallow, not bothering to use the glass, something he ordinarily tried not to do.
He had known right away what had made the sounds: first, the wooden gun box sliding off the stone foundation ledge where he had stored it in 1921; after that, one-inch nails screeching as someone pulled them through the metal strapping that held the gun-box lid in place. His older grandson, Robert, had been with him the day he had stored it, so proud to be helping. The boy had been quiet and respectful. Martin could recall the cobwebs, the musty odors, the mouse droppings, the waxy surface of the heavy box. Memories of things that had happened years ago were as sharp as ever.
The box had been very heavy. He had used a farmer's hand truck, a plank, and a rope to get it down the stairs and inside. It was made of rock maple, nicely dovetailed and bound with strap iron, one of a hundred cases designed by the regimental armorer for senior members of the Regimental Honor Guard. Inside were six Springfield rifles, thickly coated with protective grease and wrapped in waxed paper, six leather slings, six cleaning rods, six cans of cleaning fluid, six cans of gun oil, and a hundred twenty rounds of .30-caliber ammunition. "Property of U.S. Army" was stenciled on the lid.
"Why do we need all these guns, Judge?" his grandson had asked him.
It had been a fair question, but Martin had no answer that would make sense to an eight-year-old. He could not tell him, "To keep them from the veterans, to prevent a working-class rebellion," which was the truth, the reason why Edmund's regiment had presented six hundred of its surplus rifles to one hundred reliable New York men for safekeeping.
"Because there wasn't enough room for them at the armory when the war ended," he told Robert. "We're just minding them for the colonel." That was true enough.
He had almost forgotten they were there. No one had ever asked about them. Now, seventeen years later, someone had dragged the box down off the ledge and opened it. He tried to think why someone might do something like that, but he soon gave up and went back to sleep.
* * *
At seven o'clock on Tuesday morning the sound of distant gunfire woke him abruptly. He sat up with a start. A sliver of daylight was shining through an opening in the heavy window drapes, illuminating a gold-framed painting of Lake Repose that hung on the opposite wall.
Excerpted from Catskill by John R. Hayes. Copyright © 2001 by John R. Hayes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Being the patriarch of his family, Martin Collins inherits the title Judge from his deceased father and his grandfather before that. Over the years, Martin had a good life until at the age of sixty-eight the stock market crash of ¿29 left him fiscally crippled. He fled Manhattan for his long time summer home in Fredericktown in the Catskill Mountains. In 1938, deputy sheriff Potter Washington and Martin¿s two grandsons Robert and Ted systematically fire six bullets each at a farmhouse containing over fifty Jews. Potter wants to drive the lower class ¿Kikes¿ out of his area by scaring them but has no plans of hurting anyone. However, something goes wrong and Potter learns that his cousin Marjorie Bingham was killed during the assault. Sheriff Evans quickly learns that the murder of Marjorie was an inside job camouflaged by the outside onslaught. He and the Judge begin an investigation to learn who killed the victim and who attacked the Jews. CATSKILLS starts slowly as author John R Hayes tries to establish the credentials of Martin through the history of his ancestors though why is hard to say. However, once the Potter led assailing occurs, the combination police procedural-amateur sleuth story line picks up at rapid speed and never slows down for a paragraph. The tale provides intense insight into the resort area during a period of change while not neglecting the who-done-it. Fans of historical who-done-its will fully enjoy Mr. Hayes¿ tale. Harriet Klausner