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The orchardist, p.34
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       The Orchardist, p.34

           Amanda Coplin
 

  She had not anticipated this. He wanted her to escape! Through her confusion—and utter surprise—she of course recognized the blinding opportunity he was offering her. She hesitated, despite herself. She did not want to leave Michaelson, but—what was this other way?

  What was this other way? And then she thought, looking out over the water, there was no other way. This seeming escape would only lead her farther away from Michaelson, and therefore she could not accept it. She dimly appreciated what the old man was trying to do—and the girl had helped, he said, which piqued her interest—but ultimately what Talmadge wanted did not matter. She had made up her mind. She knew what she—Della, herself—wanted to do.

  The guard who approached her on the boat could have been rough with her, but he was not. He was distant, and even respectful, as he drew her across the deck. When they neared the gangplank, he called to another officer—I’ve got her!—and Della saw Frederick standing near the bow, looking out over the water. Their eyes met, and then she looked away. He would think the escape was her idea, and judge her a coward for it.

  The officers led them off the boat. The man beside her was nervous, excited: he had caught a prisoner. He had been calm enough in the beginning, but the reality of what he had just accomplished had begun to sink in. He was going to be recognized, his name was going to be in the papers. He would be a hero.

  As they approached the crowd—what had happened? Had somebody been shot?—Della saw at once, when he moved only slightly: Clee.

  In her sudden uprising of emotion—and what was this emotion?—she raised her hand to him, and he widened his eyes, shook his head, and the young officer at her side yanked her arm. Hey! barked Talmadge, and Della, startled, turned to him and said, It’s all right, but Talmadge lumbered into the man. He didn’t know what he was doing, thought Della. The man embraced Talmadge in a rough bear hug, trying to calm him, but Talmadge, in one sudden movement, pushed away from him. The officer stumbled back and Talmadge was several feet away from him now, hatless, his hair mussed. Why was he wearing only an undershirt? she thought, before she remembered that she wore his jacket; and he had removed his shirt to wrap around her handcuffs as well. As he stood, now, breathing heavily, there was an unreadable expression in his eyes. People yelled and moved around them. He was like a child, she thought. A child who suddenly did not know where he was at.

  She felt herself moving toward him.

  Della! Frederick called, somewhere behind her. But she did not turn around.

  Della!

  And a gunshot. She felt a bite just above her right elbow—which soon spread to coldness. She twisted her posture to look at the back of her arm: blood-soaked canvas. But she was all right, she thought, her heart pounding furiously. The bullet had just grazed her.

  And then—how could she have not noticed this before?—Talmadge had fallen in the space before her. Two guards—one was Frederick—ran to him. Leaned over him.

  She stepped forward; but someone caught her from behind, pulled her sharply backward.

  Talmadge! she yelled, and tried to get out of the grip. Talmadge!

  And then a person—a young woman—hurried from the crowd, drew to Talmadge and the guards. Frederick held out his arm to keep her away. When the woman came forward again, Frederick shook her off—she had gripped his arm—and touched her chest with the back of his hand, pushed her. Rebuffed, she tried once more to reach Talmadge, ducking under Frederick’s arm. But Frederick snatched her back with one arm, flung her to the side. Get back! he yelled generally, to them all. Get back! The girl held her hands in front of her—gripped, beseeching—as if she were praying. And then she let her hands drop.

  The girl—it was Angelene—turned her head left and right, slow but frantic, searching for help; Della saw she was sobbing.

  She is mine, Jane had said. But she is also yours. We are the same. Our children are the same.

  Let me go! shouted Della. She realized she was screaming. Let me go!

  Clee was shouldering toward Talmadge and Angelene now, grim-mouthed, alarmed—but was caught by the elbow before he reached them, pulled toward the platform.

  Do something! Della screamed. Do something! Angelene!

  The girl turned in her direction, puzzled; their eyes met briefly, before Della was hauled, twisting and kicking, up the platform steps.

  Talmadge had told Angelene to stay at the boardinghouse, and she had told him with a straight face, and not a glint of hesitation in her voice, that she would do it. It would not make a difference if she argued with him—she determined that was useless after the first night, when he had been so angry and shaken by her arrival. And so she stayed out of his way, even assisted him, as much as she was able without leaving the boardinghouse, the day of Della’s escape. Anything so that he, Talmadge, would ignore her, Angelene, and not lend thought at all to the possibility that she might betray his wish that she remain indoors.

  But how could she stay at the boardinghouse with all that was going to happen on the beach? Of course she would not stay there.

  She dressed in a cream muslin dress, her good boots, a small straw hat—she must have been suffering fever when she bought that other one, she thought again—and moved with the calm of one who has invested fully in disobedience, down the staircase.

  Going out, are we? the landlady asked politely—but also a bit chidingly, Angelene thought—when Angelene reached the front entrance.

  Yes, said Angelene, and exited without another word.

  She had waited that afternoon, sitting on her bed, and then drawing to the window—pacing—for forty minutes or so after Talmadge left to fetch Della. She had been sharply anxious before, in the confines of the boardinghouse, but now she was filled with a strange, airy exaltation as she moved down the street. There was little to no chance—unless something had gone wrong—that she would cross paths with Talmadge and Della. As she neared the platform above the lake, her body hummed with excitement; her heartbeat filled her.

  She stood on the platform and looked out at the water. The beautiful, massive, sparkling body. The wind rose and pulled at her hat. She placed one hand on top of her head, reflexively, to keep it in place.

  What was it, she asked herself, she wanted to see?

  She wanted to see the plan executed successfully. And she wanted most of all to witness Talmadge come out of it all unharmed.

  A crack of gunfire startled her. A group of three women standing near her turned their heads in the same direction—away from Angelene—down the beach. And then one of the women looked back at Angelene, a conspiratorial grin on her face. What on earth was that? said the woman. Angelene, in response, tried to smile. Her mouth was dry. She was not able to hold the expression for long; the corners of her mouth drooped. She thought, even, she was going to be sick. The other woman turned politely away, embarrassed. Angelene walked to the platform railing—it was wood, and wet, almost spongy beneath her palm—and gripped it. Closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Tried to calm herself.

  When she opened her eyes, she saw a tide of people moving down the beach.

  She studied the crowd, but could not pick out Talmadge or Della. And then she saw, very far down the beach—in the opposite direction everyone was heading—three figures: a guard, she guessed from the khaki uniform he wore, and then Talmadge and Della moving slightly behind him. And then, as they continued down the beach, the distance between them—the guard, and Talmadge and Della—increased. That was part of the plan, thought Angelene. That was part of it.

  She walked, too, kept pace with them along the platform, trying to hold them in her gaze. And then, when she looked away for a moment, to navigate an uneven section of the platform, she lost them; they had melded into the crowd.

  She stopped, and watched everything below. She still could not find them. It must be happening, she thought. Talmadge was leading Della onto the boat.

 
Now down below her—she had resumed walking for a moment, and then halted—a great knot of people had formed on the beach. Was this what Talmadge wanted? Was everything still going according to plan? She hesitated. Should she watch from above? Should she try to pick out Clee? Maybe, she thought, she had seen enough. But still she stood, rooted. Waited for something to happen.

  How much time passed? A new wave of fear seized her, rendered time meaningless.

  And then the crowd began to part—rather dramatically, when seen from above—and Angelene realized, without believing it—without feeling it—what it meant: that Talmadge and Della were being escorted—led—by officers roughly in the direction of the knot of spectators on the beach. She started. Of course something had gone wrong. Almost without realizing what she was doing, she began to descend the platform steps. Soon she was level with the crowd: moved into it.

  When the next gunshot came, she jumped. Covered her ears with her hands. When people ducked around her, she saw, not fifteen feet in front of her, Della’s back. Della twisting to see something on her shoulder. She lifted her arm, twisted again to inspect it. Was she shot? Angelene wondered. Her body became weightless with fear. She pushed forward. And then there was a quietness—those rare moments of deficit that sometimes pass through loud crowds—and she could hear individual voices now, waving like loose threads, murmuring women: Is he shot? And then, louder: I think he’s shot!

  And then all at once people scattered—including Della, who was wrenched to the side by a guard—and Angelene saw Talmadge in a surplus of space, by himself, on his knees. His hand over his heart as if he were pledging something. His lips moving.

  She moved toward him. For a moment he was obscured by the crowd, and she could not see him. She fought her way through bodies. And then saw him again, facedown on the ground.

  Talmadge! she screamed.

  She pressed forward again, but a guard moved and blocked her way. She clung to his arm.

  Please—

  He shook her off. Get back! he yelled, over her head. Everybody get back!

  She moved stiffly beneath the guard’s arm. She was almost kneeling, to put her face down close to Talmadge—she saw her hands flutter toward him—and then she was pulled back by her waist so sharply that she lost her breath: her teeth snapped shut. She had bit her tongue. She was crying, tasting blood.

  What did I say? said the guard. What did I say?

  She looked right, and left, for help.

  And then she heard someone call her name. It was an oddly familiar voice. But who did she know, besides Talmadge and Caroline Middey, who was able to strike that chord in her? Maybe it was a person from Peshastin, she thought, who had recognized her. Someone who would help her now. As she frantically searched for the owner of the voice, she saw Della being half carried up the platform steps. Della struggled; and when she turned her head to find Angelene again, her jaw was set; her eyes sparkled. For a moment Della’s face—her anguish, but also her resolve—was all Angelene could see. And then—all at once—she was gone.

  There were no witnesses but the officer who took the action, who said that Della had reached for her weapon. Never mind that she was unarmed. The officer had reason to believe, said his lawyer, that Miss Michaelson could have been provided with a firearm during the time she was outside police custody. The officers in training, of which this officer was one, had heard about Della’s predilection for violence, and thought the likelihood of her being armed was very great, said the lawyer. The officer, breathless from running down the platform stairs, shot a bullet that grazed Della’s elbow and lodged ultimately in Talmadge’s shoulder. The officer had forgotten, the lawyer admitted, the rule he had recently learned in training, about firing into crowds; and he was sorry for that lapse in judgment. But, the lawyer said afterward, quickly, wasn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

  The warden explained to the courtroom that to the best of their knowledge, Clee and the other native man had been meant as a diversion for Della Michaelson’s escape. The man on the ground, or perhaps Clee, had fired a gun into the air, and then Clee had hovered over the other man, attracting attention. Meanwhile, Della had attempted to hide herself on the boat, which was set to leave for Stehekin minutes after she boarded it.

  Della was reincarcerated, and Clee was taken into custody. Talmadge, who was recovering at the hospital, was also under arrest. The police were searching for the man who had feigned unconsciousness and who had disappeared in the confusion and noise after Talmadge was shot, who so far had not been found.

  After the trial Talmadge was sentenced to three years in prison. But he was examined afterward, and after much argument on his behalf by legal counsel, he was deemed in too poor health to undergo the sentence. They should not overlook the fact also, his counsel argued, that he was sole guardian of a minor. Finally, after being in the jail for two weeks, his prison sentence was shortened to fourteen months.

  Clee’s sentence was two years. He had been the only one of the conspiracy who was armed, and he would not tell who his partner—the man feigning unconsciousness—had been, and so he was uncooperative as well.

  Della, on the other hand, was finally brought to trial for her other crimes. The initial man she had stabbed—had claimed to have killed—had not died, and did not at first wish to press charges. But then his family and the other workers persuaded him otherwise.

  No one believed that Della had not been a part of the conspiracy of her own escape, and so she was given an even harsher sentence. She was to be transferred to the prison in Walla Walla, and serve a ten-year sentence for assault—the stabbing—and attempted escape from a penal institution.

  Some of the newspapers noted that the minor in question, mentioned at times during the trials, was a Miss Angelene Michaelson (in some instances Talmadge), aged fourteen years, of Peshastin, Washington. The Leavenworth Echo described her as “tall, slight of build, with strong likeness to her aunt, long dark hair not done up in the style of the young ladies of the day but kept in twin braids down her back, like a schoolgirl.” In some accounts, Angelene was crying in the second row of the courthouse gallery while Talmadge was questioned; in others she simply stared ahead. In all cases she was accompanied by Miss Caroline Middey, a family friend from Peshastin, who was also acquainted with Mr. Talmadge and the older Miss Michaelson.

  There was an effort on the part of the jail administration to keep certain details of the case confidential, mainly those details pertaining to James Michaelson, or Robert De Quincey. These details had no bearing on the case, the warden insisted, but weakly. Perhaps it was even him, frustrated by the whole debacle, who had first set the reporters on that particular trail. Who would ever know? Once the salacious details of Michaelson’s business—or former business, since he was reformed, or so he stated—and his relationship to Della were disclosed, the press exploded. Talmadge, who had been seen by some as a reckless, selfish parent hell-bent on loosing his dangerous criminal daughter to the world, no matter the cost or consequences, was now viewed as heroic; a gentle, unassuming orchardist from the mountains who had risked everything, even his own freedom and life, to save a woman who was not in fact his daughter but whom he loved regardless, and was attempting, after all, to give her a chance at life that she had never been given, that her fate and society had firmly denied her over and over again. Did he have a choice? some journalists asked, incredulous. What would you have done, dear reader? It was an argument that no doubt affected the court’s decision to amend Talmadge’s original sentence, to let him return eventually to the orchard.

  The newspapers contradicted each other. When, for instance, Talmadge was formally questioned after being taken into custody. For some newspapers, it was Tuesday afternoon. Others, Wednesday morning. A reporter wrote that Talmadge was stone-faced during the interview, though there were no reporters let into the room where it took place. It had to be, then, one of the guards who descri
bed him that way. But why was the guard, who was most likely young and flattered to be asked, to be believed? If another account was to claim that Talmadge was crying, or complained of chest pain, would that be any more believable? Angelene would not, after this time, when she saw blatant falsities published without a second thought, put her trust in what others called the record, the truth. She would learn to trust only what she saw with her own eyes, what she experienced firsthand. And even then this was problematic, for the tricks memory played. But that was another lesson a long time in coming. For now she was simply shocked and dismayed by what she read; her faith in the outside world diminished rapidly in a matter of weeks.

  It was Caroline Middey and not Talmadge who finally told the Judge, Emil Marsden, about Jane’s suicide in the orchard. The Judge had, incredibly enough, not known about it before the trial. No one knew about it, except of course Talmadge and Caroline Middey and, only recently at that point, Angelene—though not as many details as she would soon learn. Caroline Middey wanted to tell the Judge about Jane because, she argued, it would help them all in their cases. If the jurors knew that Della’s sister had killed herself out of fear of the same man with whom Della had been so recently incarcerated, they might better understand Della’s fear of him. Or they might better understand her impulse to hurt him, and thus understand also Talmadge’s desire to free her, his desire to liberate her from such an impulse. He wanted to free her so that she wouldn’t murder a man who, if she was forced to live with, she would be compelled to murder. Because she could not help herself.

 
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