The Beacon

October 8, 2008
By , Seekonk, MA
The Beacon

The darkness of the approaching night was falling like an ebony sheet upon the northern plains. The rustling of centuries of failed crops was barely audible over the freezing gusts of wind. Late November was not an ideal time to be wandering on a clandestine dirt road, miles away from civilization. However, this fate which befell to the man walking these desolate lanes is one that was gladly taken in light of the situation he found himself in.

Law and order tends to be handled more barbarically the farther away you get from structured society. So was the case for the man who found himself in the shadowy depths of exile, on a road to nowhere. The plain around him spoke a tune of nineteenth century expectation, and the shattered dreams which followed. Such dreams found no reality for the hundreds who tried to tame these wild lands. These failed attempts could be found in the form of abandoned tractors, reapers, and cow skeletons. Like the town of Pompeii after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the lands on the outskirts of town seemed to be frozen in the time in which they were abandoned. Doors wide open, firewood stacked in pyramids of timber, even clothes left out to dry more than a century before could be seen. The eeriness of this sight only added to the archaic nostalgia of the region which seemed more prehistoric than modern.

Since the incorporation of the town of Edmunds, North Dakota in 1831, there have been only two people ever banished. The first was in 1861 where a man named Clyde Garrison was found guilty of conspiring with a group of local Blackfoot Indians. Ironically enough, the man was later clubbed and scalped by another local tribe warring with the Blackfoot. The town went nearly 150 years without another banishment until the spring a 1980. It was an unusually humid night for late April when the revered pastor of the town’s one and only church came stumbling in through the creaky corral doors. He had multiple stab wounds to his chest, back, and head. With only seconds to live and the attention of every patron in the bar, the pastor mouthed two whispered words. They were as follows, “Gutierrez…... Alonso”.

Alonso Gutierrez was a Spanish migrant worker who came to North Dakota to fulfill the need for laborers to work the wheat fields. He had left a family back in Spain and was saving up money to pay for their way to the states. The stark contrast in both climate and culture was a shock to Alonso that he wrote home about quite frequently. The small village he called home was situated at the foothills of the Pyrenees. The people there thought of him as some kind of great explorer like a regular day Columbus. To his fellow villagers and his family he was in every way a hero. This was not the kind of man that would commit such a hanis crime, especially since he was a religious man himself.

With those few fleeting words, the pastor went silent as the bar patrons looked on in mourning disbelief. At that moment, the drunk, sober, intelligent, dimwitted, and all those in between understood what was to happen next. The town of Edmunds did indeed have a gallows, however they were strictly for intimidation purposes. This is the way the Jesuit priests that founded Edmunds wanted it. Instead they sought an alterior means of punishment, perhaps more tortuous than death by hanging. The Jesuits knew all too well how harsh and unforgiving the land around Edmunds could be. To even get to the town required a Herculean effort of hiking, canoeing, and riding on horseback. Out of sight, out of mind was the mindset behind this statute. Exile provided a guilt free way of execution that did not violate their centuries old moral principles.

The bartender of the main street tavern realizing it was time to do something that he prayed he would never have to do. With the crowed still gawking over the death of their beloved pastor, the bartender slipped out the main gallery to the back lobby where he entered the closet. The racks in the bar’s only closet were racked with the musty long lost jackets of customers past. The bartender lights a match and scans it over the back of the closet. He is looking for a handle to a hidden door that was put in place during the initial construction of the building itself. He scanned his fingers over the back wall under he felt a slight gap which he followed down to a discreet wooden handle. The bartender pulled on the handle and climbed into the small crawlspace it revealed. After crawling for eight or so feet in complete and utter darkness he reached the spiral staircase which led to the old watchtower.

One hundred and fifty years of termite damage had taken a heavy toll on the staircase. The floorboards creek as the bartender apprehensively climbed one step at a time to the top. Which each step he exhaled a labored, nervous breath of anxiety. A wide assortment of rodents from bats to mice had also found a home in the seldom used tower. Swatting away the pesky rodents, the bartender finally reached the top with matches in hand. The century old gunpowder in the copper basin felt grainy to the touch which made him wonder whether it would light at all. It took a couple of shaky attempts but eventually the bartender got one lit and flicked the match into the basin. The instantaneous conflagration of flames and fumes put to rest any doubts that the gunpowder had deteriorated.

Soon the fire was burning bright and illuminating the old watchtower in an orange haze. The doors and windows of the citizens of Edmunds began opening, revealing the fatigued and sullen expressions of those inside. Those citizens too young to understand the meaning of the signal fire thought they were seeing a building going up in flames. So was the case for most of the town’s 1,347 residents. This was not the case however for four of the five town elders, the fifth being our friend the bartender. Each came from every level and occupation of society, bartenders, lawyers, doctors, policemen , and farmers alike. Their positions were handed down through the generations rather than from a democratic election. Each of these men had learned the charter by heart and knew what must happen next.

The designated meeting place of the elders for situations like this was town square in front of the clock tower. Nearly a half an hour passed before the five men could assemble and await the coming crowd. It didn’t take very long for the town’s few residents to file into the square. The murmurs and whispers soon grew into a wild uproar as the tense and perplexed residents waited for answers. Like Moses at the Red Sea, the crowd began to part as the suspect was brought through the crowd followed by a posse of the toughest looking men in town. Alonso was still in his nightwear as he was brought up to the parapet overlooking the crowd. As stones and obscenities began to fly, the elders took charge and settled down the restless crowd.

“Today, as some of you may know, we lost a cherished member of our community, Pastor Horatio Higgins”, spoke the first elder. The crowd once again, burst into frenzied chaos and was quelled almost as quickly. The bartender’s inconsolable sobs were the only sound remaining. “As many of you do not know, there are certain procedures for handling such events.” “Now we in this town have been fortunate enough to not have had to deal with a crime such as this. Such is a testament to the hardworking and law abiding lineage of the good people of Edmunds. However, when there is an intrusion to our peaceful, social ecosystem and murder just happens to take place for the first time in nearly 150 years, one must assume the culprit to be that intruder.” This statement was like a cold, steely dagger to the heart of Alonso. Here he was standing, in humiliating fashion in front of the whole town, being accused and racially profiled over a crime he didn’t even commit.

“We are not killers in this here town. There are certain ways we handle things around here. As good Christians, we must adhere to the rules and regulations our fore fathers set down. After, uh… “thorough” deliberation, it has been decided that Mr. Gutierrez be henceforth banished from the town of Edmunds, forever.” The townspeople erupted into wild applause as if they just witnessed a once and a lifetime event, like the passing of some mystical comet. “Mi dios, qué tienen yo hecho para merecer esto” Alonso stated in his native tongue of Spanish. “Furthermore,” the elder spoke, “Mr. Gutierrez will be given five minutes to pack his belongings before being transported to the town lines where he will be left. In light of these circumstances, there will be armed sentries at every road and entry point leading into and out of town. No one will assist or aid Mr. Gutierrez in any way, shape, or form or else be put in prison.”

With the bartender still sobbing over the loss of Pastor Higgins, the other three elders led Alonso to an awaiting horse that would take him to his home on the outskirts of town. After a long and bumpy ride through the town’s cobblestone streets, the convoy reached Alonso’s rocky and winding driveway, ending at his doorstep. The ropes binding his arms are untied and he is given the five minutes allotted to him to collect as many of his belongings as he can. Since his minimum wage salary didn’t provide many luxuries for him in the first place, Alonso is able to pack most of his belongings into a small handbag, made by the children of his old village. Along with his clothes, personal trinkets, money, and a small amount of food, Alonso also packs his hatchet and six shooter which he stowes away in the inner pocket of his trench coat.

With the five minutes up, Alonso is led out of his hut and immediately has a sack thrown over his head, not allowing him to get one last glance at his beloved homestead. He is helped up and heaved onto the horse’s saddle. Alonso and his escort begin at a trot and slowly increase speed until they’re at a full fledged gallop. Alonso was using every muscle in his body to stay on the galloping bronco. It soon became quite obvious why they were racing toward the town line, as Alonso got nailed in the head with a rock. The townspeople, the same people whom he’s worked and lived side by side with since he came to this country were stoning him. Usually a punishment only reserved for the scum of society was being purveyed to one of the hardest working, mild mannered people in the county.

Just as if the situation couldn’t get any worse, it began to pour as Alonso was being raced towards the city limits. The sack on his head was becoming wet and heavy with saturation. Alonso was doing everything he could to keep the sack from suffocating him and bringing him to an early demise. The combination of stress, the thrill of the chase, and the suffocating properties of the sack were making Alonso quite light headed. He was on the verge of totally blacking out and falling off the racing steed. Alonso knew that this would mean making himself at the mercy of a mob of over a thousand angry and violent citizens. By a sheer stroke of luck, a strong gust of wind blew at the convoy and nearly blew Alonso off his horse. The gust was strong enough to blow off the suffocating sack. His blurry vision began to clear and he got a chance to look at his surroundings.

They were entering the wheat fields which stretched to the horizon. The dim light of the approaching sunrise was illuminating the horizon. The gates of the town checkpoint were now in sight as well as the armed guards awaiting Alonso and his escort. The checkpoint was in sight, however as Alonso craned his neck to look behind him he saw a startling sight. They were being pursued by two trucks filled with armed members of the posse which took him forcefully to the hearing at town square. Only the angriest and most committed to seeing the Spaniard killed remained. They ranged in ages from 16 to 60, some carrying shotguns, others carrying crossbows, and all looking for vengeance.

The V-8 engines of the pursuing trucks roared as the posse gained on the exhausted horses and their passengers. The checkpoint was less than a half mile away, but the trucks now were just 10 feet away and getting ready to pull along side Alonso and deliver their deadly payload. The lead rider took defensive action and spurred on the side of horse making the animal lurch forward and increase speed. It wasn’t enough however because the mob had about 500 horsepower on them to their one. Alonso’s escort tugged on the reins and the horse shifted its course, they were now racing along the side of a row of wheat crop. As the trucks turned off the road to match them, one lost control and with a thundering crack, flipped over and was lost in the 10 foot high rows of wheat. Only one truck remained now and it looked like nothing would stop it short of a cement wall.

With the checkpoint just merely feet away and the truck on their heels, the escort did the only thing he could do. He tugged as hard as he could on the reigns, grabbed the collar of Alonso’s jacket, and threw him off of the horse and into the sanctuary of the wheat field. The guards at the checkpoint opened fire on the human missile and sprayed bullets at the rows of crops. Wheat stalks were bursting and falling all around the frightened prisoner as he got as low as possible to evade the fire. He could hear the horseman pleading with the guards to stop shooting. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the truck pulled up and the posse piled out. Even though Alonso was still technically just feet from the border, there was still the matter of the barbed wired and electrified fence to get around. Luckily enough for Alonso, a stray bullet had just moments before shorted out the circuit which supplied power to the fence.

The firing went on for a good five minutes while Alonso made his way inch by inch towards the fence. Upon reaching the fence, he began to dig furiously, flinging dirt in the air and wearing his fingernails down to the bone. All this activity alerted the posse to his position once again. Two of the posse members were ordered into the field to kill the alleged murderer once and for all. Alonso was making slow and arduous progress on the escape hole while the two armed posse members were stalking their scared and nervous prey. The digging ceased as Alonso heard the snap of a twig in the distance. After a minute of close listening, he resumed digging. The digging stopped once again as he heard the crumpling of leaves, this time much closer. Alonso pulled out his revolver and crouched along side the fence, listening for any more sounds. He could see the tops of wheat stalks being pulled over in the distance as if to indicate the approaching of some great and mythical being. Alonso lowered and aimed the revolver at the space in the crop most likely to reveal his pursuers. As the posse members slowly neared, he pulled back the firing pin and got ready to fire.

The murmuring of the silhouettes stopped as both hunters and hunted stared eye to eye, each with their guns drawn. Alonso steadied his nervous hand, aligned the sight on the revolver and fired. The 44 Caliber bullet found its mark in the forehead of the first posse member, blowing him backwards onto the soil. The second posse member then charged at Alonso and was hit in the shoulder, the hand, and then the gut, refusing to stop. Like a bull moose in heat, the adrenaline filled man was possessed with rage and fury. As he swung the butt of his rifle, he was promptly met with the steely side of Alonso’s 44. This proved to be the death blow for the posse member who keeled over against the fence and died there, propped up in a humiliating fashion.

The shock of the firefight began to settle on Alonso as the man who had been through so much to this point broke down and wept. The steady streams of tears were absorbed into the already saturated soil. This however was no such time for self pity for there were still four more armed men on the road ready to advance. If the previously vanquished posse member’s actions were any indicator, the next four challengers would be harder to kill than the first two. And so the digging continued as the men at the truck called out to their fallen comrades. With the hole finally dug and time running out, the small built Spaniard climb out through his newly dug hole, and ran at a sprint as fast as he could into the desolate countryside. Once out of the protection of the tall wheat stalks, the bullets began whizzing and smacking the ground all around Alonso. The shouts and orders of the sentries at the checkpoint were shrill against the frigid, rushing air of late November.

The Spanish immigrant from the town of Baraguas, Spain raced towards the horizon with but one goal in mind, to get as far away as possible from the town of Edmunds, North Dakota as humanly possible. The recent events which seemed to have been cultivated over a series of years rather than hours, were weighing on Alonso as morning turned to dusk over the northern plains. It was already below freezing and likely to get much colder. Alonso was in need of shelter fast or he would surely freeze to death where he stood. With nothing but a flimsy trench coat to protect him the elements, Alonso trudged on in search of shelter. He remembered seeing on his trips in and out of town abandoned homes scattered about the plains. However, he had no idea how far apart these homes were or even if they were being occupied by people just like him, outcasts of society.

He would deal with such circumstances if they should arise, for now though, Alonso was just occupied with finding one of those homes and getting out of the bone chilling cold. Five minutes turned to fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes turned to thirty minutes, and thirty minutes eventually turned to forty five minutes without any sign of shelter. The distant howls of lone coyotes could be heard along with a cacophony of other mysterious sounds foreign to the European. Just when he found himself ready to settle down and try to wait out until morning which would be a nearly suicidal act, something caught Alonso’s eye. It was the flickering of a light far off in the distance. Perhaps a godsend, perhaps an omen but either way it was something to go on.

Alonso for the first time, left the safety of the dirt road, and trudged off into the thick underbrush. Step by step Alonso carefully made his way toward the mysterious beacon, making sure where he stepped didn’t hide any unwanted surprises, he had had enough of those for one day. After what seemed like hours rather than twenty or so minutes, Alonso reached the source of the light. It was coming from the second story window of an old 19th century colonial. It seemed abandoned, but Alonso was taking no chances. He drew his revolver and slowly inched toward the door, listening for any signs of life, human or animal. The full moon which had just appeared in the cloudy night sky illuminated the front parlor in a streak of white light. One foot at a time, Alonso followed the moon lit path into the Victorian Era homestead. The house was covered in a thick coat of hundred year old dust and grime. The paintings on the walls of long forgotten relatives seemed to follow Alonso with every step, keeping a ghostly eye on their unwanted guest.

If not for the decades of filth covering everything in sight, the house for the most part was as it was when it was abandoned. There was the occasional crooked painting or turned over cabinet, perhaps from looters. It was hard to imagine why anyone would bother to steal any of these dilapidated artifacts. Perhaps at one time they did hold a value more wealthy than sentimental. Whatever the case, Alonso was not here for feeble possessions; he was here to find what was making that light flicker like it did. He passed from the parlor and into the kitchen where the remnants from a meal never eaten were laid out, never to be enjoyed. Beyond the kitchen was the library filled with books from a simpler time, a time not mired in political upheaval or technological dependence. The same time which brought about the pioneer spirit in all those who tried to tame these barren plains, only to come up short time and time again.

The library was one of the only rooms in the house not looted or ravaged, not surprising since most looters are more interested in fine china than hundred year old novels about progressive era politics. It was at this point while walking through the library that Alonso sighted the staircase, situated at the far end of a narrow corridor. The pale fluorescent light from the ghostly beacon was visible as it cascaded down the stairwell, waning between dull and bright. The bulbs glass filaments were expiring, and soon there would be no more light to go by. Having no matches or sources of illumination, Alonso made a mad dash for the source. Not caring who or what might be waiting up there for him, he hurdled up the stairs, covering two steps at a time. On the final step, his weight gave way to the flimsy, rotted out beams that were supporting his weight. He quickly pulled himself out, not realizing that he had lost one of his boots, and continued onward.
There were four rooms all together on the top floor, two on the left and two on the right. It was at the room on the far left of the upstairs corridor which emanated the glow Alonso was pursuing. Every step creaked with labored anticipation as Alonso made his way towards the door. He was breathing harder than ever now as the moment of truth grew nearer and nearer. The flickering grew in intensity as a strong draft of arctic air coursed its way down the upstairs hallway, ruffling the old tattered wallpaper that encompassed the walls around him. The time had come to face the light, the same light which saved his life, and now held his hopes, fears, and imminent survival. He put a hand on the doorpost and turned the corner.
The room was similar to other rooms in the house, same style of furniture, same types of paintings, and the same tattered wallpaper. The light as it turned out was from a lone light bulb, situated on the ceiling in the room’s center. It was operated by a long chain which reached down almost to the floor. It was what was grasping this chain that stopped Alonso in his tracks. Clinging onto the chain was a skeleton, with its back up against the wall, curled into the final position the person that died there could muster. As the wind blew through the room’s only window, the chain snagged on the skeleton’s bony fingers, switching the light on and off. It was the final cry for help that got answered far too late. Staring death in the face, this person did the only thing they could do in a place where no matter how loud you yell or how many people may be looking for you, out here, the desolation overwhelms everything. What it couldn’t overwhelm however was a little light bulb which should have died out years ago. Was it a clever prank by bunch a meddling kids from town, or was it something more substantial, more divinely complex than we can ever hope to understand?
These were questions running through Alonso’s head as he noticed something being gripped in the skeleton’s right hand. It was a journal taken during the person’s last minutes on this earth. It was a fine leather backed ledger with nearly every page written on. It was when Alonso flipped to the back page of the book when he found the final entry. It was dated October 13, 1861, “The frost which I held at bay last night with the last of the kerosene will soon be sending me to my icy grave. With little food or water left, I also suffer from an insatiable hunger, oh what I would give for one final meal. My badly injured knee has also become gangrenous to add insult to injury. For me to lament on why such fate should befall me would only prove to further hasten my pathetic demise. I do have but one regret however, and that is for not raising a family. I can see how they could exile me, after all, who would miss me. Who would rush to my aide, or fight for justice on my behalf. I will be remembered back there as an introvert and a criminal, but here in these pages, I am as written. That is a good and decent man in search of peace and solitude in a world that harkens war and famine to its people. And so I will sit here and signal for help in vain, for the cavalry that will never come, and towards the town that ended it all for me. Godspeed.”
It all made sense now, the skeleton of the man he was staring at was none other than that of Clyde Garrison, the same man who was the first to be banished 121 years ago. Two different men from two entirely different backgrounds and continents were now reunited under a common fate. It now became clear what Alonso must do, not only for himself, but for Clyde as well. After traveling over five thousand miles, across six time zones, and working countless hours of hard labor, Alonso arrived at his destination point; his journey was at an end. To run would mean a futile and selfish attempt at salvation at the hands of the same countrymen who attempted to take his life. Staying with the remains of the only man he ever had anything in common with in America would mean almost certain death as well. Alonso’s destiny was here and there was nothing that was going to change that, certain death or not. So he grabbed the reigns and began the process, light on, light off, the process repeated once again.

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