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A Dark Day in Baton Noir
By Tom Carnegie
I think it would be a safe bet to say that fewer than fifty people from the town of Baton Noir have ever been more than fifty miles from home. In general these folks are not worldly. Many people are excited though because it is as if the world is coming to visit them. The circus is coming to town!
Four-year-old Patsy Olson's pa works at the Model T garage. She is used to seeing her daddy with his skin blackened with grease from the cars he works on. Patsy is in town with her mother and sees a pair of the circus workers. She tugs on her mother's sleeve and asks,
"Mommy, why do those men have grease all over their faces?"
Her mother then explains to Patsy that just as some men have light hair or dark hair, these men's skin is naturally that way. Patsy has never seen men like this in Baton Noir.
It seems like a bad time for Chief Whistle and Sgt. Mc Gillivray to be away, but they are. They are both in Boise for some sort of police function and aren't due back for a bit. Harvey Shoehorn is sitting behind the desk at the police station as he sometimes does if both the Chief and the Sgt. are gone. There is a report that Mrs. Selby has been attacked. She was found unconscious in her home. She had apparently been bonked on the head by an intruder. Robberies rarely happen in Baton Noir, so this is big news.
All the would-be detectives in town, including Harvey, head down to the hospital to interview Mrs. Selby.
"She is drifting in and out of consciousness. It would be better if you could wait a little before you question her," says the doctor.
"We need to find out who did this right away or they might get away," says Harvey as he pushes his way past the doctor and up to Mrs. Selby's bedside.
"Who did this, Mrs. Selby?"
Mrs. Selby is barely coherent but mumbles something. "It was dark..."
"What did she say?"
"She said it was darkies," says Harvey. "You heard her say it. It was them darkies from the circus. Come on boys, let's go round 'em up."
The "boys" head out to the circus site and arrest two workers who admit that they had been to town. They bring them back to the police station and begin to question them. The workers say they came to town and went into the soda shop and then went right back to the circus site. Butch then corroborates their story.
"It's a little embarrassing," says Butch. I was in Brownlings Drug Store getting a Flapper Float for me and Bettie. I realized after the floats had been made that I didn't have enough money on me. One of these two fellas slipped me a quarter.
Butch continues his story but Harvey has quit listening as his train of thought is stuck on "Flapper Float". He has visions of dancing girls in long dresses bobbing in a pool. Unable to get this thought out of his head he asks Butch,
"What is a Flapper Float?"
"It is ginger-beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream."
Butch then continues his story.
"After me and Bettie finished our floats I went home, got a quarter and went out to the circus site to find the fellas to pay 'em back. I didn't find 'em though, but left the quarter with another fella who said that he'd get it to them."
It wasn't too long after Butch told his story that the general consensus was that the two circus workers were guilty based on the eye witness account by Mrs. Selby and the further corroboration of Butch not finding them at the circus site. It wasn't too long after this that the good folks decided justice needed to be done. A trial was quickly arranged. A verdict was quickly reached. It didn't seem to cross anyone's mind that they had no authority. The ends justify the means. Justice is the justification. The verdict is death by hanging. The good folks know that they have to move fast as Chief Whistle could be back any time and ruin all of their lynching fun. The sentence is to be carried out forthwith. The mob procures a couple of good stout ropes, which are thrown over a lamppost in the Courthouse Square. A local citizen kindly donates the use of his 1918 TT truck. The truck has a nice flatbed, which will make a jolly good platform for the hangin'. The truck is driven under the lamppost and two nooses are tied. Joseph Vant notices the activity up the street and walks over to see what is going on. He encounters Butch Dunsel and Jesse Olson on the way and they fill him in on the details. Joseph is horrified. He tries to get Butch and Jesse to stand up to the mob with him. They don't seem too excited to do this. Joseph says he is going to stop this mob-madness single-handedly if he has to. Jesse points out that there is room on the lamppost for a third rope. Joseph says that he doesn't care and marches on toward the mob, Butch follows. Jesse stays behind. Joseph notices that the train has pulled into town. His hope is that Chief Whistle is on it and will be by in a few minutes to put some sense back into the populace. Joseph thinks that all he has to do is stall for a short while and the situation will be diffused.
When Joseph arrives at the scene the two victims have ropes around their necks. The ropes have been pulled somewhat taut over the lamppost and they are standing on the balls of their feet on the deck of the Model T truck bed. They have rags around their eyes and their hands are bound behind their backs. A good citizen is giving a speech that is punctuated with words like "eradication, infiltration" and "peace and justice". The man finishes his speech as Joseph works his way to the front of the truck. The crowd clears away as someone cranks the motor up. Joseph stands in front of the truck and tries to talk to the crowd. A couple of the more astute people restate Jesse's earlier observation that the lamppost has room for another rope. Another kindly points out that it might not be too comfortable having a TT truck drive over you. Just then the motor coughs to a stop. A few people shove Joseph out of the way and someone begins turning over the motor, first by quarter pulls, then by vigorously spinning the hand crank. The motor will not start. Joseph now assumes that Chief Whistle wasn't on the train, as he should be here by now. Several people try various things to get the truck to go to no avail. The gas is checked in the tank and the supply is found to be adequate. The owner of the truck asserts that the valve on the tank had been turned on, so no one has re-checked this. In fact while Joseph was trying to reason with the crowd, Butch had slipped underneath the truck and turned the fuel valve off. The crowd is getting impatient and decide to just push the truck ahead. Joseph is ready to push the other way as hard as he can when shouting is heard up the street. It is Jesse Olson running fast as he can whilst yelling,
"Clear the streets, two lions have gotten loose from the circus and are heading this way!"
Participating in a lynching is one thing, but being eaten by a lion is quite another. The emboldened crowd suddenly reverts to its more natural state, that is, a bunch of individual cowards. They quickly disperse. Only a few folks are left, along with Joseph, Butch, Jesse and the two circus workers, still blindfolded and standing on their tip-toes on the back of the truck. Of course no lions are on the loose. As Joseph frees the circus workers Chief Whistle comes sauntering up the street.
"Where have you been?" asks Joseph from the back of the truck.
Chief Whistle shakes his head and makes a sound like his namesake.
"I had no idea this was going on. When I got off the train someone told me about Mrs. Selby. I went straight to the hospital to talk to her."
"How is she doing?" asks Butch.
"Oh she is much better. She said it was dark in her parlor and she must have tripped and hit her head on the end table. Nothing was missing and there were no intruders."
Without saying a word the two workers head back to the circus. The town of Baton Noir is a little more worldly than they were yesterday.