Friday, March 04, 2011

The Odd Event at Mingus' Mill (Sometimes, unreality is not quite unreal.)

Walter had enjoyed the tour of the mill. The old clapboard sided, three story, plain white square building sat on the shore of Collier's Branch several miles up from Masson Creek where the two meet about ten miles upstream from the Oconnaluftee River. The mill was a mile from the main highway and a hundred years from the present. It set around the corner from the parking lot, in a quiet spot, without power lines or jets overhead or busy picnic grounds nearby. Just the mill, by itself, attached to a parking lot by a 100-yard graveled walkway that was once the main road to the mill.

The race cut across the horseshoe-bend in Collier's Branch to the back of the building so that the exhausted water short-circuited the loop in the creek. The two-story water column provided enough pressure to run two stones at one time, the tour guide said. The race was level with the first floor of the mill, where the tourists enter decided on this bend in Collier's Branch as the place to build because of the drop in the stream and its year-around flow. Now the mill was part of the park service, with volunteers operating it but, said the guide, it's also haunted by the ghost of Adolf Mingus.

The volunteer guides dressed for the period and acted their roles. The men wore beards and white shirts, night shirts that doubled as work shirts, leather breeches, short boots, spoke slightly southern and addressed each other with politeness and courtesy. The one woman at the mill, who greeted everyone at the door, graciously smiled and presented the mill to the public as a nice place to visit and each person was a welcome guest. When Walter and his family walked in the door the hosts purposely acted as if the visitors were from a different time and place.

"We came by car," said Alice, when asked. Walter's tiny wife, mother of their two daughters, Janie and Jamie, played into the volunteers' hands first try.

"What's a car?," they would politely ask. Or, "what is that device, we see a lot of those," pointing to the camera that Alice was handing to Walter. "You folks have such strange dress. We would not allow our legs to be bare."

Walter and his family, along with two other couples, listened intently to the miller explain the workings of turbines and belts and gears and chutes and conveyors.

"Mingus Mill is a working mill and sells corn meal for $4.00 a two-pound bag which is a fair and correct price," said the guide.

He wore the common blousy shirt, a night shirt tucked in his breeches, which were deerskin leather, white stockings and black, short boots. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Alice bought two bags.

"Mr. Mingus," said the miller, "the original owner and miller had been here for about ten years when his wife died of consumption. He courted the widow Anne Garant had lost her first husband at Stones River, but who was also being courted by Ravenor a large, wealthy but temperamental farmer. In 1873, in a dispute over the widow Garant, rumor has it that Ravenor picked a fight with Mingus and shot him dead in cold blood. Ravenor was never convicted because indisputable evidence showed he had been struck first. The evidence came in the form of testimony of Anne Garant who, although in love with Mingus, had formally announced her intentions to marry the murderer Ravenor. The men at the mill claimed that Anne Garant had not been there but the judge dismissed their testimony as prejudicial. How he described her testimony is not known. Further, a stranger at the mill who could have given independent testimony had disappeared. In any case, it was all rumor. Mr. Mingus's ghost still haunts the mill. Some nights we've worked late and when things ought to be quiet we can hear scraping alter all we are only servants and not much is expected from us."

The group climbed the stairs to the second floor where more volunteers, all men, explained how they sorted and graded the grain.

"We go through enough grain to keep the mill busy every day including Sundays. The loft is usually full and the farmers are good about collecting their grain and paying, as far as I know. Our job is primarily to grade and sort."

The big room was noisy from the constant drone of the overhead drives, the slapping of the leather belts, and the grinding of the sifters. The coarse and fine grades were separated and sacked in bleached cotton bags with the Mingus Mill logo on them. Up another flight of stairs was the warehouse loft.

"I'm Jonathon," explained the volunteer. The loft had no windows and only two screened-over portholes for ventilation in each gable. "I have to know how to read the marks, and names sometimes.

Everyone but Walter departed the hot and stuffy third floor for the second floor and then on down and out into the shaded glen next to mill. Walter started down the narrow stairs along the back side of the building when a wave of heat, noise, and dust swept up the stairs towards him. Walter turned his back on the dust, closing his eyes, as the dust and heat went by. He coughed once, and tried to wave the dust away. The dust smarted his eyes and he took out his handkerchief to wipe his eyes. The grain dust left a slight layer of powder on his shirt. He brushed most of it off stirring up little clouds of dust. Walter thought about taking pictures but instead asked Jonathon about his education.

"I can read, Sir," he said. Walter noticed Jonathon staring at him.

"Is this place really haunted?"

"Why I don't know why it should be."

"Well, the man on the first floor said that Mr. Mingus' ghost haunted here."

"Dear sir, I don't know why the Miller Mingus ought to have a ghost yet?"

Walter continued on down the steps towards the noise of the grading and sifting machinery. On the middle floor the grading machinery rumbled on without regard to Walter. One of the men saw him come down the stairs.

"Can we help you sir?", asked the bearded man attending the noisy grader. One other man joined the first. They looked at Walter.

"I'm with the tour."

"Tour, sir?" asked the second man.

"Yes. You know, the park service tour, where a group of people get together and visit some place. You folks do an awful nice job of showing us how it was."

"What 'was', sir? Do I know you?" The other men had stopped, open mouthed, gawked at Walter. Their rough coarse clothes blended into the dull wood and sacks of grain. The conveyor belt kept bringing up more grain and the grader clattered on without an operator. "I believe you should stay here, sir, until Mister Mingus or the sheriff might inquire with you about your being here."

The man moved toward Walter and seemed to motion him to stay where he was.

"Look," said Walter, "I've got to get back with my family down stairs . . . ."

"There's no one downstairs but Miller Mingus and Mister Ravenor, I can assure you.

Before the man could leave or Walter could object, their attention was diverted to the window by a series of loud shouts from below. The four men crowded to the window to see the miller, Mister Mingus and another, was that Ravenor?, arguing. They were near the front door of the mill, the sun beating down on them. Behind the other man, Ravenor, was a buckboard and team, ready to depart. The precise words Walter didn't quite catch but the tone was unmistakable. Someone was being accused of something serious. Both Mingus and Ravenor were wearing leather breeches, billowing cotton shirts, and short boots. Ravenor wore a light colored deerskin vest. Mingus had his shirt sleeves rolled up and was sweating from the work in the mill. Ravenor paced back forth stomping up little puffs of dust with each heavy step. He waved a finger in Mingus' face with each pass. Mingus took offense and shook his fist in reply. Walter watched the re-enactment with great enthusiasm. This was better than all the others they'd seen on the summer tour of the Smokies. Suddenly Ravenor lashed out at Mingus with a short stick, maybe a riding crop or a switch. Mingus ducked. Leading with his right, Walter noticed, but not stepping forward with his left foot, Mingus launched an immense fist at Ravenor connecting square on the chin. Ravenor staggered back, his face blank, startled. Blood seeped from the corner of his mouth. He put out his hands to balance himself. Mingus lurched back, his hand in great pain. He grasped his wrist and shook his hand in an attempt to ease the pain. His face tightened in agony. Ravenor regained his composure first and long enough to spin on his heel towards the waiting wagon. From underneath the seat, as if by magic, he drew a cap and ball revolver. In a smooth sequence of events he cocked it and fired.

Mingus, at first, was knocked back on his heels, grasped his chest, blood immediately beginning to spurt out between his fingers, then he fell to his knees without uttering a cry, and slowly fell forward like a big tree landing face down in the dirt. Dust kicked out from underneath him. His knees stayed bent and then, in the sudden silence of the forest, even the water seemed to cease rushing, his legs straightened out and the toes of his shoes banged into the hard-pan soil. The men rushed down the stairs and out into the open. Ravenor cocked the revolver again and held them off.

"You'll never catch me. He's taken me one last time and you know what I mean. She's all mine. Stand back, you men. Send the sheriff if you like but remember that he started all this and he hit me. Stand back, I said. If you want to die, then come on." Ravenor looked up and saw Walter at the window. Walter could see the anger in the man's eyes and could feel Ravenor's look pierce his brain.

The men backed against the building in a line directly below Walter's vantage point, while Ravenor mounted the seat of his wagon.

"I didn't want to shoot but you know the truth about him and his stealin' ways. For once the law will see my side and not his."

Laying down the pistol and taking up the reins he slapped the rumps of the team with the reins. Walter raised his camera and clicked off three, perhaps four exposures, as fast as the camera would reload, as the wagon bolted away. He hadn't bothered to focus and the shutter noise was lost in the background mill commotion. The men rushed to the body of Miller Mingus. One ran off behind the building while the others turned the body over leaving a mud puddle of blood. Walter aimed again and took several more pictures. The wagon was brought around in front of the mill in a moment. All of them loaded the body into the wagon.

Birds squawked somewhere off away. The mill still groaned but he was alone. Behind him the leather belts slapped on the pulleys. The sifters shuttled back and forth. The lumbering grinding wheels made the floor rumble. The water lapped over the edge of the race. The cascading of the creek returned to Walter's consciousness. Heat forged through the window carrying with it dirt and meal dust that swirled around Walter. He coughed heavily, nearly retching, and had to clamp shut his eyes against the dust. For several minutes the heat swirled around him. Walter felt a tap on his shoulder. He spun around. His watery eyes wide open.

"Walter, are you all right?" said Alice. "We're waiting for you outside and watched you through the window. Didn't you see us?"

"Dear, you won't believe what I just took pictures of. It was . . ."

"I saw you takin’ pictures, Walter."

". . . Mingus was killed by Ravenor and I can prove . . . "

"Walter, I'm sure they are going to be fine pictures and we'll show them to everyone back home. But we gotta go. OK? Wasn't this fun?"