If you walk west of town and into the woods there’s a scarecrow. A steward of the forest instead of the field. He’s nailed to repurposed railroad ties. The cross obstructs a cart-sized hole in a cottonwood tree. The scarecrow is a cadaver wrapped in potato sacks. His exposed hands are leathered. Critters’ve nibbled fingers to pointed bone. Bit through boot, sock, and honed his toes. The face is not a face. It’s a middle-meeting seam gracelessly sewn. He has no hat.
In a small box tucked on a metal shelf at the Shady Grove Historical Society, there’s a linen postcard that depicts two men driving a buckboard wagon through the cottonwood. One man has an ax on his lap. The other holds the reins. The wagon is stacked with bodies. A lifeless hand over the cart’s edge grips a cap with the initials W.O.R.R.—Wide Oak Railroad. Writ on the postcard in cursive unkind to the eye: “October 1911.”
The trestle bridge caught fire in 1911. Crisped from existence, right as a locomotive crossed. The train dropped. The ravine caught it. There’s that banjo tune from back then, something about bone and coal and iron and souls. Sad song about a sad day and fairly accurate. It has a verse about the corn, too.
The corn doesn’t make sense. Didn’t then. Doesn’t now.
The postcard shows it. You got the wagon, the forest around it, and where the trees don’t stand, tall-corn does. Corn can grow in a forest, but this corn didn’t grow. It appeared, and only near the carved-out cottonwood. Salvage workers told the Shady Grove Gazette the road to the ravine was cob-empty on their way to the wreck. Traveling home, they passed a crop full grown. Corn’s been there over a hundred years. Never dies. Wouldn’t eat it, were I you.
That saltire scarecrow? It’s the man with the reins. Hours after the photo, when angry folks were liquored and sad folks pretended they could sleep, a mob dragged Zelman Shippski from Bleet’s Boardinghouse. They accused him of starting the trestle bridge fire. Blamed him for the train fall and its haul of thirty-seven deaths, eleven amputations, two blindings, and the mis-delivering of a woodstove. Shippski owned the salvage wagons. Shippski stood to profit. Didn’t matter Shippski said he didn’t set the fire. That he loaned the wagons no charge in cases of calamity. That he’d pulled the gasping and the gone from the rubble long enough his leather gloves burned and hands blistered. Sometimes, folks settle with a fast answer instead of a full truth.
The mob didn’t think of itself as a mob. Nevertheless, they tied Shippski’s wrists. They spat. They shouted. They didn’t let him speak. With a noose around his neck, they dragged Shippski to the sheriff, a woman of gray hair whose son was among the thirty-seven.
Stars refused to illuminate the brutality below.
Torch-lit with brow knit, the sheriff searched Shippski’s face.
“Where were you when the bridge caught fire?” She had two pistols and a hand on each. Her mind was immovable from her son— fifteen and not yet found, screaming in an iron fire at the bottom of a ravine.
“In town,” Shippski said and looked her in the eye.
Shippski looked at a nickel in the dirt.
The mob, some of which knew Shippski, some of which worked with Shippski, hissed.
Shippski had proof. Shippski spent the morning in bed with his best friend, Hawks Shelter. The man holding the ax in the postcard. Hawks was married to the sheriff. There was a rationale for why Hawks didn’t leave her, but that’s his business and hers. Shippski wouldn’t step into their story for the sake of self-justification.
The sheriff didn’t arrest Shippski. She didn’t assert his innocence. She aimed an indifferent hand waggle at the mob and went inside. She didn’t notice Hawks wasn’t home. She sat at a wood table with a tintype of her son. You can see it. It’s in the same box as the postcard at the historical society.
Hawks would’ve fought for Shippski, but Hawks was at Outgate Acres digging graves to ground those found that day. It was late. He had a lantern. Digging meant he didn’t have to see what he saw when he closed his eyes, which was parts instead of people. Hawks got there when he could, which was too late.
The mob painted Shippski in tar. Wrapped him in potato sacks. A burlap hood blocked his sight. They marched him to the corn and cottonwood. They spiked two railroad ties together. They nailed Shippski to the ties. They hoisted the cross and secured it to the cottonwood.
Elsewhere, a railroad tycoon submitted an insurance claim.
The mob became people and each left for home.
Zelman Shippski died on that cross. Could’ve been the cold. Or suffocation. But he lasted till morning light, and even heard Hawks come to him. Didn’t see Hawks’s long, black veil.
Hawks’s head was on Shippski’s chest at his last breath. Then Hawks slit his own throat and sat down to die. Where the blood spilled, the corn grew high. Don’t ask how come. People got their reasons. Corn, too.
It ain’t a famous story. It ain’t a finished story. It’s an old story. Possibly, it’s not a true story, but if you find yourself in the woods, past the oak, ash, and elm, at the oldest of the elder cottonwoods, there’ll be a burlap man on a saltire and a veil tangled in bones at his feet.
Nowadays, offerings are left there. People don’t know why they do it except that it feels like the thing to do. You can’t walk wordless by a wrong without serving its song. They leave what they have, which isn’t much because finding the burlap man’s an accident not a pilgrimage. There’s a lot of nickels shining in the cottonwood’s corn.