Saturday, February 18, 2012

"For Rent by Owner" by Walt Staples

Sam Driver was just drawing another bead on the culprit. The fact that this was his fourth shot did not speak well for the Gull Dunes police chief’s marksmanship. At that moment, the screen door’s rusted spring made its sprong! as someone pulled it open. Sam quickly hid the evidence of his idleness among the other rubber bands on the station house desk as his target buzzed off to another part of the room. The Reverend Ron Quimby stopped in front of the desk. Sam looked up at the Methodist minister and smiled. “Hi, Reverend Ron. What can I do for you this fine morning?”

The clergyman set down his briefcase, produced a handkerchief and, tipping his hat to the side, ran it over his bald pate. “You know, Sam, it’s well you’re one of Father Mike’s. Were you one of my flock, after a whopper like that, I’d have to institute the rite of Confession.”

Sam grinned. “Well, that rules out an attempt at conversion. Like I said, what can I do for you?”

“Got a problem with Snake Levi,” he said as he ran the cloth around the sweatband of the hat.

Sam raised his eyebrows and leaned forward. “What has our errant native son done this time?” He pointed to the chair beside the desk with an open hand.

Reverend Ron settled into it with a grunt. “Actually, not him. One of his forebears.”

“Oh? What did the dinosaur do?”

The minister chuckled. “Not quite that far back, Sam. A few years later, 1587 to be exact.”

The police chief did a double take. “1587?”

The other settled himself like one preparing to tell a long story. “In the year of our Lord, 1587, a Spanish ship dropped anchor in the bay, having come through Opoccacho Inlet. The crew was apparently a mixed lot — Dutch Captain, Spanish, Italian, and French sailors, and one German of questionable religion — Snake’s ancestor. The short of it is the Europeans bought the land from the resident Indian tribe, the Opoccachos.”

“How much land and what did they pay for it?”

Reverend Ron grinned as he popped the punch line, “Only the entire Delmarva Peninsula. Seems they used their firearms to turn back some Susquehannock who were down for their annual summer massacre.”

Sam leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Yeah, right.”

The Methodist shook his head. “I kid you not. Apparently, the Opoccachos figured they didn’t have that much to lose. If the Susquehannocks weren’t beating up on them, the Assateagues and the Naticokes were. Heck, even the Powhatans came over from the mainland occasionally to lean on them. Anyway, the agreement allowed the Opoccachos to stay.

“Then the ship and its crew sailed to Havana where the agreement was registered and granted by the Royal Governor. They were sailing back to take possession when they tried to shoot the inlet during a storm. The captain apparently panicked and started giving orders in Dutch to the Spanish and Italian helmsmen and she ran aground on the point.”

Sam hooked a thumb to the right. “You mean…?”

“Yep. Six blocks down the street. About where Gunny’s got his shooting gallery.

“Snake’s ancestor and a Frenchman were the only ones to get ashore. Shortly after, the Frenchman died.”

The police chief nodded. “If Snake’s kinsman was anything like the present model, the Frenchman probably had help.”

Reverend Ron smiled sourly. “Would not surprise me greatly. Levi Schwartz, the ancestor, was the last surviving member so he inherited.”

Sam cocked his head and looked at the other. “How do you know all of this, Reverend?”

“Remember when the Opoccacho material was returned under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act year before last?”

“What? The basket and the arrow heads?” Sam nodded. “Yeah, I remember that stink.”

The minister also nodded. “Three things weren’t returned. A skeleton, a 16th century bottle, and a gold Magan David.”

“A who?”

“Star of David.” Reverend Ron scratched his ear. “Seems Levi Schwartz was a little less than dutiful about his Catholicism. But can you blame him, the way Jews were treated back then? And yes, the skeleton was his, which is why it didn’t have to be given back. His Opoccacho wife or their children, yes. But not old Levi. The Smithsonian got to keep him. They also got to keep the bottle, but not what was in it.” He opened his briefcase and drew out an aluminum tube. Unscrewing the cap on one end, he slid a rolled coffee-with-cream-colored parchment out and spread it on the desk. He smiled as he said, “This had to come back because it belongs to Levi’s Indian descendants.”

Sam looked at the ornate calligraphy and the numerous seals attached to the darkened sheet. While he could figure which was the top and bottom, the words meant nothing to him. “And this is?”

“It’s the royal charter approved and signed by the Royal Governor of Havana, Garcia y Vega de Frumales in the name of Philip II.” He flipped it over, showing on the back faint writing in letters not even vaguely familiar to Sam. “And this is the side on which Levi wrote the story of the wreck.”

“What kind of writing is that?”

Reverend Ron grinned. “Hebrew. Like I said, Levi was a questionable Catholic. That’s how I became involved. A friend at the Smithsonian remembered I used to be pretty good at medieval and renaissance Hebrew and asked me to take a look. The fact that I’m from Watsitooya County was just so much gravy. Between the two of us, we managed to chase the genealogy down to the last living relative - Snake.”

Sam frowned. “So what? This is U.S. territory now.”

The minister raised an index finger. “Ah, but in the past, the government has respected royal charters and land grants from the Spanish crown. A number of large ranches in the U.S. Southwest got their start from Spanish land grants handed down through families. I had a couple of other friends at Georgetown look it over. They’re of the opinion that it will hold up in court.”

Sam squinted at him. “So you’re telling me that my house it sitting on Snake Levi’s land?”

“Not just your house, Sam.” Reverend Ron spread his hands. “Everything on the Delmarva Peninsula. We all owe him rent.”

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