Two Rivers Anthology
BOOK 2: THE MYSTERY OF THE SAINTS
By H.A. Silliman
Part 1: Matters of Fact
He wanted to be buried in a plain pine box, so Jake the Carpenter built one on the Tuesday Renwick died. As word got out in Two Rivers, the bedroom gradually filled with friends, who gathered in whispers and melancholy.
“Guess it’s my time,” he said, a few evenings previous when I had visited.
He’d only gone down hard on Thursday. Didn’t want to go for coffee, so his housekeeper Marnie called me about noon, very worried.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “He was his usual self yesterday.”
“Maybe he’s been feeling iffy for a while and kept it to himself,” I said.
That Sunday, in fact, Rennie told me he wanted to be laid to rest in the old church yard and had an envelope for me. “These instructions are for the gravesite,” he said. He clasped my arm, stared me straight in the eye and added, “Do the right thing.”
I took the envelope, but thought it rather gruesome to dig that hole—I’d have the plumbers Nick and Noel do it. They were used to getting dirty.
The over-grown cemetery of the little Church of Peter and Paul, circa 1888, sat on Blue Jay Knoll above town—a pretty spot, where no one had been buried in ages. His wife and son, who’d died years before—and whose ashes rested in urns on the bedroom mantel piece—would join him there.
On the morning of the service, Marnie’s kids, Jazmine and Jake, swept up the acorns and pine needles inside the long-neglected, vacant church. Principal Ben and boys from the high school shifted in a load of folding chairs and tables from the cafeteria. Folks started arriving before noon, bringing in casserole dishes and desserts, drinks and whatnot.
The service was classy because it was simple—a make-do affair between bouts of rain that pattered down. Not much for complicated words, Rev. Gagnon, standing on a large rock, kept his remarks short. Even so, I got lost in memories.
Around Two Rivers, Rennie accomplished what few could do or think of doing. When the town needed to replace an old firetruck, he made a few phone calls, and had one brought up from the valley; he acquired donations of hundreds of books when our brave, little library got flooded out in ’77.
1976—that’s when I first encountered Renwick Gold Selleck, my first year as a reporter for the Two Rivers Ledger. Rennie had just bought out his partner in the little phone company that served the town and surrounding settlements.
If you wanted to talk to Rennie in those days—you didn’t phone him—you just walked down Main Street and then up a steep hill to the exchange. He’d be found usually round the back, checking the circuits, or outside on the little lunch patio that overlooked town.
He greeted me like I was already a friend: “Hey ya fella. Hear your Babe’s new reporter. Told me to be on the lookout for you for an interview.”
So we went to the patio carved into the mountainside, a trellis of blooming lilac and jasmine. “My little oasis,” he called it. “Great place to have a think.”
The spot had a pretty little view of the town in the ravines below where the Empire and Rancheria rivers met. You could see Main Street and Battery Street, the American House Hotel, the Pick & Pan Saloon and other landmarks. On the hill opposite, stood the church; its steeple peeked out from a deep green bank of cedars, pines and oaks. This was Rennie’s world, and I guessed he liked keeping an eye on things.
Chatting for two hours, I peppered him with questions as if he were a candidate running for office. He parried them away gracefully—or with quips. His age: “I must be 150 by now—give or take a century.” His politics: “I’m a proud died-in-the-wool Whig.”
Babe red-lined those jests with a snort. Other light-hearted comments remained: “When I got here, the business was just tin cans and string,” he laughed. “Two cans for Two Rivers!”
Rennie had arrived after World War II. Since he was a radio and telephone specialist for the Navy, Mr. Briggs, the old owner, signed him on.
“That’s how I met my ever-loved Julia, who was the telephone operator. I got lucky—her marrying me, a line jockey with no future. You could say she restarted my life.”
Later, Mr. Briggs asked Rennie to become a minor partner. “As years went on, I acquired more of the company. We expanded our service. Went places Ma Bell was scared to—deep into the upper hinterlands. I learned how to use a trencher and a chainsaw!”
As these were skills I never acquired, I was impressed. My dad had been the school’s football coach and math teacher. Our home was in town, nearby, up on Constellation Street. I didn’t have much woodsman sense—but I sure could run the 220 like lighting!
Since I liked Two Rivers enough, years later I came back to start a second round as the Ledger editor, with Babe as publisher. He was a good boss—a cherished employer. After my dad passed, Rennie, though, became my mentor. Signed me up to the Kiwanis Club, made me volunteer at the school. I joined the Alumni Boosters—spent most of my time selling hotdogs and pop at the home football games for Buffalo High, gazing into the end zone, running our senior year’s winning plays over in my mind.
One summer day, Babe sent me to see Rennie, so I walked up to the exchange. He wasn’t on the patio, but behind his desk, a place I wasn’t accustomed to seeing him. Something was fishy.
Part 2: The Stage Is Set
Behind his desk, Renwick Selleck became more straight forward than his usual off-hand self.
“Got a proposal for you,” he said. “Babe is selling the Ledger and wants you to buy. I will become an investor, lend the money. You put in, too. We become partners, and Babe doesn’t sell to that chain in the valley. We can keep our newspaper local.”
The word I like to use now is “gob-smacked” to describe my first reaction to the idea, as if taking a hard tackle midriff.
He loosened up, smiled. “Gotcha, boy! You ready for some real responsibility?” His question hinted at past conversations, his gentle prodding that I should start thinking of myself as more than “Coach’s Kid.” Even after my dad was gone, around town I was still “Coach’s Kid.”
So I threw in all of my meager savings, and the deal was done. At 32, I was the Editor and Publisher of the Ledger. My mom lived a few years longer and visited Wednesday nights when we “put the paper to bed,” as they say, running out the 3,000 copies on a small, ancient flatbed press. She’d bring a big bowl of spaghetti and salad for the little crew, and homemade pie.
With her gone now, I keep the tradition going, and can still see her smiling at the end of the circulation table, handing out apple pie after the mailing labels were done. Some memories aren’t memories—but visions wavering in distant mists of grief and joy. Looking back that day at Renwick’s graveside, my grief sprung from loss of a mentor and business partner, loss of my youth, and for seeing a town so saddened.
After the burial, the mourners regrouped inside. The church, now warming, smelled of musty wood, acorns and pine needles. Most of us ate standing, easier that way to dodge the rain dripping in from the ceiling.
On a table, Marnie had set out a few photos of Rennie—shots of him in the Navy, the wedding with Julia—that kind of thing. Alone, I studied them and then went to a front window, and stared through murky panes, across the ravine. The town lay below, and opposite were the telephone office, its patio trellis and picnic table quite distinct—and quite empty. My tears mixed with the raindrops from the ceiling—good thing my back was to the crowd.
A tap on the shoulder, and Marnie was beside me, offering apple pie—my favorite. She saw my eyes, so gave me a sideways hug, leaned her head in.
She said, “I never thought he’d go. He was so determined and focused on what came next—the daily things. When he felt tired, he rested. Never mentioned pain. I hardly knew he was getting weaker.”
“Me neither,” I offered. “Age didn’t matter. He didn’t consider himself a senior citizen.”
She laughed. “How he hated that label.”
I nibbled at the pie, dodged a raindrop, and we both turned to take in the scene—the eating and chatting—the spread of food—a buffet bountiful. Someone had brought a few kerosene lanterns, glowing now, as evening drew forth. The rain outside picked up from a drizzle to a downpour. Marnie and I both looked up at the ceiling’s handsome tongue-and-grove woodwork, bowing here and there from water damage. The wood still shimmered from an old varnishing.
“A pity this building is going to rack-and-ruin,” I said. “It should be saved.”
While we continued staring upward, Rev. Gagnon approached. “I’m heart-broken,” he told Marnie. “I can only imagine how you feel.”
She said, “I’m still too stunned to feel anything more than ‘what-the-heck-just-happened.’ ”
Rev. Gagnon touched her arm. “Exactly how I’m thinking. Just wow!”
A moment like this would compel another person to proffer sentiment. I just looked back at them with eyes brimming. They smiled and nodded their heads. The three of us stood silently, just letting things be, and then Marnie asked, “Why doesn’t the parish restore the church. You could use it for something—maybe weddings?”
He laughed. “It’s not our building, that’s why. We don’t own it. Never did.”
“Who’s is it?” Marnie asked.
Rev. Gagnon shrugged his shoulders and said, with a wry glance and tilt of his head toward outdoors, “He knew.”
Marnie burst out laughing.
“I should think the County Recorder would know something,” I offered. As Lindy, however, had left earlier, we couldn’t ask her directly.
“I wonder,” Marnie said, “if that’s what Rennie meant when he had me find that old ammo box that was his Rainy Day fund. He said it was for the hall. I thought he meant food and beverages, but he said I’d know when I got there.”
“Well, it can’t get much rainier than when it’s coming down inside,” chuckled Rev. Gagnon.
Standing there, the three of us, under drops from rain and grief, in sudden dawning looked at each other, and Marnie spoke it aloud: “I have a great idea!”
Part 3—A Visit Most Mysterious
The night after the service for Renwick Selleck, I heard that a few folks had gathered at Jeremy’s River Eats café. Since I wasn’t there, Jeremy later related details to me. They first saluted Rennie with several rounds of Rolling Rock beer, a taste he acquired during the war.
“Nick Norbert stopped by briefly,” Jeremy added, “but got called away on a plumbing emergency. Noel filled in for him—including drinking his brother’s share of the beer. A very merry group.”
The thought must have been in the air—Marnie’s “great idea” voiced at the service: Fix up the church to keep it from falling down.
Noel recalled helping his grandfather, Howard, part of a crew in the early ‘60s that patched up the building. “Everyone just pitched in,” Noel had said. “It was just painting mostly.”
Over more beers, they plotted a rescue mission and haggled, too, over who should be responsible. Nursery owner Carole Chukar nailed the sentiment: Everyone would pitch in, no matter if the church were Catholic or Protestant.
Then, the next day, Saturday morning, Rev. Gagnon called me. “I have an inspiration,” he said. “We should find out who exactly built the church back in 1888. Can you check the newspaper’s archives?”
The Ledger, like most newspapers, binds each year’s issues into a big volume—like a hard cover book. There was a small room in our office, where they were stored. I said sure! The reverend also said Marnie had phoned to say she’d counted $1,870 in Rennie’s ammo box for the repairs. He added, “This is a project that Rennie would get behind. Community service was his compulsion.”
I agreed, remembering how Rennie constantly prodded me to get involved with this or that cause—as if running a newspaper wasn’t enough service to the community.
“One last thing,” Rev. Gagnon said, “The ad hoc group forming wants the repair work done now. They’re asking the contractor Rex Jenner to help.”
This was typical Two Rivers’ community spirit, essential when people live a long drive down a winding road: Chip in, get things done—and quickly. I love our town for that. For my part, I asked our newspaper intern, Cara Lavitch, to interview the County Recorder and then check the back volumes, starting with 1887.
Any other young reporter would be crest-fallen at an assignment that’s not “news” but “history,” but Cara latched onto the idea.
“Sort of like a Nancy Drew Mystery,” she said. “This is way cool.”
Cara had proven herself a dogged reporter and pursuer of facts. Recently, she had chronicled the story of an insurance salesman who found a fair amount of gold on his property and planned to dig a gold mine. The story generated a lot of reader interest and had legs—with newspapers around the country and across the world picking it up. She hinted that the saga wasn’t over—as she had stumbled onto new information and was waiting to for further developments. Her favorite phrase is “Truth always comes out.” One had to be careful around her!
About that time, Babe called and asked me to stop by. In his early 90s now, my former publisher was still lucid, though hobbled by bad knees—ancient gridiron injuries from Buffalo High. In the rain, I walked to his beautiful A-Frame house set above the town. His wife, Marie, had coffee and hot biscuits waiting. Babe seemed preoccupied; something was amiss.
“Yesterday,” he began, with an exhale, “Jeri Lynn came by. She’s had a story she’s wanted to get off her chest for ages, but felt it had to wait until, well, Rennie was out of the scene.”
“This can’t be good,” I said, feeling queasy. Rennie’s reputation was solid gold. For that matter, Jeri Lynn, a retired land broker in her ‘80s, was true-blue, too.
“Well, it’s not too bad,” Babe assured. “Just weird—puzzling.”
The tale—and I have to say that’s how I heard it—as a tale, was this: In 1889, Jeri Lynn’s grandmother, Esmerelda Watts, 18 at the time, met a young man, a newcomer named Patrick. He was peddling a tonic called The Electric Elixir. They became sweet on each other, but after a bit, Patrick suddenly left town—no word why or word from him later.
Fast forward a half century, and it’s 1945, late October. The grandma, who is about 74 now, is living in her dotage with Jeri Lynn’s parents. One day the phone needs fixing and up shows the repairman, young Renwick Gold Selleck, fresh out of the war and new to town. He comes in the house, and while talking to Jeri Lynn, the grandmother overhears, hobbles in and gets suddenly and violently hysterical, calling out, Patrick! Patrick! Patrick! She collapses. Rennie bolts from the house. Later, after Esmerelda recovered from the shock, she takes Jeri Lynn into her confidence and swears that Rennie is Patrick come back from the grave to take her to home!
Babe paused in the story here, and then said, “The grandmother never quite recovered from the shock, and died soon after—which is one of the reason’s Jeri Lynn kept the story quiet all these years. She didn’t want to cause Rennie grief or hurt his reputation over what was obviously a case of mistaken identity.”
Up to this point, I had been silent, but blurted out, “The old lady was off her rocker. Bet her eyesight was pretty poor by then—being over 70.”
“True,” Babe said, and then he opened an envelope and, rather dramatically, slid over an old picture. He went on, “Esmerelda had kept this photo taken at the old Serlin Studio. She showed it to Jeri Lynn after Rennie had left that day.”
I looked down at what was obviously a portrait from over a century ago. There stood a young woman and young man: she in a long, dark, high-collared dress; he dapper in a long coat and handle bar mustache. I was gob-smacked: It was the spitting image of a young Rennie.
Part 4: A Century-Old Puzzle
I continued staring at the photo taken over a century ago that appeared to be a young Renwick Gold Selleck.
“Wait, "I said, disbelieving, grasping for a logical explanation. “Everyone has a doppelganger—you’ve heard of them—an almost twin. Rennie’s look-a-like was just living in a different century.”
Babe shrugged his shoulders, took a second gander at the picture. “Kind of looks like Rennie when he was young. I remember when he swept into town, his black hair combed back, wearing a long, dark coat. He cut quite the figure. Set the girls a-twitter. He stole Julia from me, but then I got sweet on Marie—thank God! The thing is, I never knew anything about his family, or where he came from. He always joked about how old he was, too. Like when he told you he was 150 and a member of the Whig Party! Maybe Frank at the Historical Society knows more about him.”
“What was Patrick’s last name?” I asked.
Babe stopped and thought. “I think Jeri Lynn said Esmerelda called him Patrick Church.”
Later that day, I phoned our Historical Society president, Frank Aliberti, to see what he knew about Renwick.
Frank chuckled. “There’s not too much to tell. Rennie was a cypher about that stuff. I did a piece on the centennial of the Two Rivers Telephone & Telegraph and interviewed him. Standard Q&A we do for recording the town’s history. When the questions turned personal, he dodged about. Said it was ancient history and pointless to the present. I thought maybe he was a black sheep of the family. I let it go. By then, of course, he was one of Two Rivers’ leading citizens. And a nice guy, to boot!”
“What about the war—did he talk about that?”
“The war? Yes, a lot! Loved the Navy. His unit had get-togethers on and off over the years. A few were held in town, right at the American House Hotel. He served in the South Pacific, out in the Hebrides. I met some of the guys, once. They said they were actually interviewed by—guess who—James Michener!—who’d been sent to those itty-bitty atolls to find out why the boys didn’t want to come home after the war.”
“So, Rennie arrives in 1945, but before that you don’t know anything.”
“Pretty much,” Frank said. “He got here, eventually met Julia and that was that! He told me she completely turned his life around. Made him a new man. I guess a good woman will do that for you.”
When a journalist stumbles onto a sensational story, the best thing to do is sit on the information and see what develops. That’s exactly what I did. Certainly, I couldn’t write a story based upon the memories of long-dead Esmerelda. What would be the point? Who’d believe it—even with the alleged photographic evidence. Meanwhile, that week our newspaper intern completed her first article on the church:
A Puzzle: Who Owns The Church of Peter & Paul?
By Cara Lavitch, Ledger Intern
Amid raindrops punctuating Renwick Selleck’s recent service inside the Church of Peter and Paul, town folks realized the building needed repair—but who exactly owns it—or the land?
“Not the Presbyters,” said Rev. Gagnon, a similar statement repeated across the board by other faith groups, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist—not even the Buddhists.
While the building’s provenance needs solving, the land ownership should be easily determind: Just ask County Recorder Lindy Case, right?
Uh, not so fast.
Sitting among musty property records in the county’s own historic building, Case flipped opened the pages for Township 17 in the year 1888.
“Here it is,” she exclaimed. “The land owner was recorded as Peter and Paul Church!”
Case explained that since churches don’t pay property taxes, county recorders don’t pay much attention to them unless there’s a disputed ownership.
“Nothing for this land has arisen in my 30 years on this job,” she added, noting, “When the town got flooded in ’77, a lot of the modern records from 1900 onward were destroyed. I’d have to dig into the earlier files to see if I can find when title might have changed. I mean, it can’t still be the same.”
So, a mystery solved? The church, itself, owned the land. But that begs the question: Who owns the neglected church?
The Two Rivers Ledger is on the case…
When I first read the article, I mistakenly thought that Peter and Paul Church could be actual people—which would be a remarkable coincidence, given that I just learned about the appearance of a Patrick Church in the same era.
I wanted to dig more into this, but the news turned to the weather: The rain did not relent, and that gets the attention of residents living at the junction of two rivers. My cousin, Deputy Sheriff Jack, was keeping an eye on an old impound dam on a tributary, upriver. The century-old concrete structure, which contained mine tailings, had recently developed cracks. The slurry was growing soggier while waters slowly rose in the nearby creeks and rivers. Folks made ready the sandbags.
Part 5: A Cryptic Telegram
While Ledger intern Cara Lavitch tracked down more of the church history, efforts to preserve the building remained afoot. As a rule, folks in town pretty well get along with each other. If there’s rivalry, it’s for who can make the best pie for the fair, or build the wildest raft for RiversFest—the kind of goofiness found in a Disney movie about a small town. Rounding up volunteers for the church rescue came easy: The usual suspects stepped forward. People who didn’t normally participate, eagerly chipped in, too, and for good reason: The building shows up prominently in postcards of the town, so saving the church meant saving a beloved landmark.
Dodging raindrops and storms, Rex completed the roof repairs, allowing interior work to start, with Carpenter Jake and Carole doing woodwork. Rev. Gagnon asked me to help him paint the inside when the time came. Some high school students, too, volunteered eagerly.
Soon thereafter, Marnie called about cleaning out Rennie’s bedroom. His house, a sprawling 1872 clapboard contraption, sat on a hillside above town. His bedroom took up the second floor under the main dormer.
“I just can’t go in there yet and rummage around. His clothes need sorting. The best to go to the pet rescue society. Can you help?”
I went over one morning, and she sat me down for fresh-baked blueberry muffins and coffee and gave me a puzzled look.
“I’m also searching for paperwork—not the will, Paul Bartley, the attorney, has that—but birth and death records, old photos. Julia’s sister, Betsie, asked about that. I checked downstairs. There’s nothing. Be on the lookout.”
Her kids came in just then—Jazmine and Jake—and volunteered to help. Marnie looked doubtful, but I said I would appreciate their company. They brought boxes and garbage bags. Marnie said toss the linens, towels, and medicine chest items. That easy task I set the youngsters on.
I went to start on the closet, and inside I found another small door—tucked under the roof line. Curious, I tugged on the knob. The door held fast. I had to pull extra hard—it hadn’t been touched in years. This dusty cubby hole contained just a shelf with a small box. Inside, were a few old letters to Rennie from Julia and, in a small envelope, a telegram and an old photograph.
I examined the photo closely. There were three young men, smartly dressed in cloaks, who all looked alike—two were obvious twins. The other was the same fellow as in Esmerelda’s photo—a dead ringer for young Renwick Selleck! I was gob-smacked. My hands started shaking. I set the photo aside and read the ancient telegram, its date illegible, its message cryptic: “God awaits a stone throw from the saints.” It was addressed to R. Sellick from The Deacons.
Not knowing what to make of that, I put everything in my coat pocket for safekeeping. We finished cleaning out the room—and notably—did not find any records. Not even letters from other relatives.
That night, it came to pass that intern Cara had spent a few hours searching the newspaper archives. She hit gold rather quickly, rushing over to my home with a bound volume the next morning as I prepared breakfast. This is verbatim what she found in the May 12, 1887, edition:
New Place of Worship Set
Messrs. Peter and Paul Church propose the construction of a modern house of worship on Blue Jay Knoll. The two brothers, who arrived in Two Rivers of late, and whose visage upon first encounter by a stranger evokes the realization they are exact twins, seek support for construction herewith of a 30 x 80 foot structure with steeple. They provided the Ledger with an informal drawing that can be viewed in this office, upon inquiry. The deacons subscribe to the Dr. Finial Scientific Practice of God and The Universe, with the latest methods for preparing sustenance. They also profess to be trained in telegraphy and propose installing the invention in the building proper to permit direct communication with the Almighty. A meeting to familiarize interested parties with Dr. Finial’s practices will be announced in the future. The proposed structure, which they said, God has led them to name as the Church of Peter and Paul, is being sited adjacent to the old Gooseneck Mine, on the stage road to Sheep Ranch Junction.
A good reporter, Cara had questions, “Can we do an interpretive story?” she asked. “Examine the facts, investigate. I bet people thought The Church of Peter and Paul was named after the saints. Turns out, it’s two telegraph operators. That’s weird, huh?”
I considered for a moment. “Let’s not do that yet. Our readers are intelligent. They’ll have the same questions. Let the story unfold.”
The morning of publication, in fact, Babe called—it was always a treat to hear from him.
“That article on the Churches jogged my mind,” he said. “Years and years ago, Rennie used to come and spend time in the archives. Said he wanted information on the phone company. But just now I got to wonder if he was digging into his own past for some reason. Check it out.” He hung up.
Admittedly, Cara’s article sent alarm bells ringing in my head. Peter and Paul Church were real people, after all—and they were twins, just like the two men in the photo from Rennie’s closet, a photo that also shows a man who looked remarkably like young Rennie. Could these twins be related to him?
Part 6: The Tangled Cords of History
Indeed, I had to let the story unfold, as covering the efforts to sandbag the town needed editorial attention. People were really worrying about the rising rivers. The Ledger office, fortunately, sat on a back alley above Main Street, an elevation high enough to avoid the worst of disasters. That meant I could focus on the storm coverage. Yet on Monday, I got distracted when our intern Cara came rushing out of the newspaper’s archives.
“You have got to see this!” She pushed a volume at me. “It’s the article from June 14, 1888.”
I glanced at the modest headline, “New Church Opens”
Messrs. Peter and Paul Church celebrated the completion of their new sanctuary on Blue Jay Knoll, Sunday last. The feasting afterward featured a number of unique items offered by the deacons in the way of tonics that subscribe to Dr. Finial’s proprietary methods. The Messrs. Churches affirm that a charge of electricity is used in their preparation. Deacon Paul Church told our correspondent that Low Voltage current stimulates the atoms, which thereby increases the efficacy and potency of minerals and vitamins and promotes the general well-being of body and mind. Those in attendance are reported to have sampled such items as The Better Beet Root Juice For Stimulating Blood, Dr. Finial’s Daily Dose for Energy, and The Electric Elixir for Happiness, Health and Longevity. It was a lively affair, and all agreed the church is an attractive addition to our town.
A hard stop in my reading: That last concoction caught me up. I blurted out an expletive. Cara stared at me. “What’s the matter,” she asked. “You look funny.”
“Nothing,” I said. “The electricity thing is odd.”
“Frankly,” Cara confided, “it sounds like snake oil to me.”
I shook my head. Was this a weird coincidence? Esmerelda’s beau, also named Church, selling The Electric Elixir, and now, here in black-and-white, an historical record of where it might have come from? Another oddity, too: There was no mention of a Patrick Church in the article.
Years ago, before I came back to town, I wrote for a suburban daily. One night, covering the police beat, I stumbled onto a bizarre story of a van full of kids plunging into a reservoir. Seven died. I interviewed friends, and found one boy who claimed he was actually in the van, but miraculously escaped harm. I felt I had a tiger by the tail and wrote up the account.
The editor questioned me closely to see if I was sure about the source. I was positive. We went to press. As it turned out, the boy lied. He later confessed that he wanted to be part of something “big.” I learned my lesson and since have been extremely cautious about the reliability of sources—or source material. So there, reading from the archives of a newspaper I now owned, I felt, again, I had a tiger by the tail, and the source seemingly impeachable—my own publication!
By and by, the spring storms kept us on edge: a hard rain one day, partly cloudy the next, followed by hours of showers, and then blue sky—and back to rain again. That’s why the imperiled impound dam above Two Rivers continued to worry everyone.
Between one set of storms, I finally found a ride there. Carole drove me in her World War II jeep. The lower road to the mine was an unpaved quagmire—almost a mini-Jeepers Jamboree experience, with the amount of mud she sent flying. I held onto the roll bar for dear life while Carole laughed and laughed and laughed, careening the vehicle about.
Some guys from town had arrived and wanted to bring up their tractors and start pushing dirt around but were told to wait because state inspectors and consultants were rumored to be on their way. What they could do, was anyone’s guess. With the photos and a description of the hairy trip up there and back, I had a Page One story, “Dam Cracks Threaten Town,” for the next edition—if the town survived!
Then, the day for painting the interior of the church—white with gold trim—arrived. Rev. Gagnon with the high school crew and myself (armed with carafes of Sally’s Deli coffee) arrived in a deluge on a Saturday morning. The ceiling was already fixed—no leaks!—and varnished. Even in clouded light of storm, the wood glowed. The high school kids were a merry bunch—they had a fun service project to help them earn credits to graduate. Huddling with steaming mugs in hand, we assigned tasks.
Working by myself, I chose the vestibule entry—rather interesting because of the shelves that made it look like an apothecary, and that obviously warranted my investigation. I could envision the scene as folks filed out after a Sunday service a century ago: one of the Church boys selling the elixirs, tipping his hat, saying “God bless you m’am,” and pocketing a silver dollar.
Pharmacist Pete’s girl, Emily, and high school quarterback—Nick’s kid—Ansel, went to the back of the church, behind short wing walls. Rev. Gagnon chose the pulpit, and two boys went with him. All started well. Someone had rock ‘n roll oldies playing on a radio. The fresh paint peppered the musty-wood air, and the air hummed with that conviviality of community spirit—folks pitching in. I love that! Then a while on, a girl’s scream rang out, followed by a sickening thud. We rushed to the disturbance and found an alarming spectacle: Emily and Ansel had vanished!
Part 7: A Town Awash In Events
Even an old journalist as myself—trained in observation, recording detail and dialogue—remembering what happened next in the proper order is admittedly tricky. But here’s what I have: The painting crew hurried to where we last saw Emily and Ansel. We found only a paint can and brush. Below, we heard a murmur, groans and then rising cries: “Help! Help us! Help!”
Rev. Gagnon dashed outside to search for a crawl space entry.
Becky Jenner pounded on the floor. “We hear you,” she said. “We’re going to get you out.”
“Is there a trap door?” Jimmy Kelly asked. He knelt down, and using his fingernails, began searching for a seam on the floorboards.
Another kid, I think it was Harold Johnson, exclaimed, “Maybe they tripped a secret lever in the wall!” He began scratching along the recently chipped paint.
In disbelief, I watched the scene unfold: The mad dash outside, people frantically scratching at the floor and walls, the cries for help: How do you lose people in a church?
Suddenly, there was a loud click; the floor began to pivot. Just in time, Jimmy grabbed Harold’s arms before he tilted into darkness. The trap door remained open. Below, we could see the surprised faces of Emily and Ansel staring upward from the bottom of a steep staircase. We lifted them out. They were shaken and bruised, but thankfully, suffered no greater injury. They were dusting themselves off when, at the front of the church, came a clatter. Deputy Jack strode in, with a warning: The impound dam might fail at any time!
Immediately, I returned to newspaper office. Grabbing my camera, I dashed off for the dam, using the much longer, but paved, upper mine road. A newly arrived confab—engineer corps, county and state officials and other lookie-loos—were on scene when I pulled up. They milled around above the dam, peering into muddy waters. They were a well-dressed, expensive-looking lot, and you could almost hear their consulting fee clocks ticking away. The dam sure looked iffy. Water spurted from a multitude of cracks, spraying out as if from a fire hose. A collapse could send a slurry down river and wreak havoc along Main and Battery streets.
Cousin Jack, who had driven back, came up to me, “We’re going to evacuate the lower portions of Two Rivers. Get back and spread the word.”
“Where should people go?” I asked. The rain had been falling steadily now for a day.
“Let’s open up the Church of Peter and Paul,” he said. “It’s dry now, and we can get more lights and heaters there. It’s a good, safe spot.”
“We just started painting inside today,” I said. “But it’s ready to go.”
“Let’s do it,” said Deputy Jack.
After snapping photos of the feckless officials with the failing dam behind them, I left. Back at the office, I started making phone calls, and asked friends to do the same. I called Carole, and she and I would drive around to alert folks in low-lying areas. Sally from the deli and Jeremy from the café agreed to organize food and head up to the church.
By the time I got done four hours later, the church was surrounded by cars and trucks. Light glowed warmly from the windows. Rain kept streaming down, but inside, the building was snug as bug—cozy, dry and warm. Folks—about 85 of them—were unrolling sleeping bags and talking in little groups. A food line was set up. Bread and bowls of steaming chicken soup were handed out. Shivering, I found a spot next to a heater to dry out. Jeremy brought me soup.
“I have the café surrounded by sandbags,” he said. “I pray they work.”
“The dam hasn’t cracked yet,” I replied. “Let’s have hope!”
He nodded, pointed out the coffee urn, and went back to the soup line. What a guy, I thought, helping folks while his own business is in peril. Guess that’s why I like Two Rivers, how people think of others in times like this.
After drying off and finishing the soup by myself, I got coffee and sat down at an empty table. That’s when Ansel came up to me. It felt like a year since I’d seen the boy—but it was only that morning we were painting.
“I never did tell you what I saw underneath,” he said, looking around cautiously. “There were dozens of little bottles, like for medicine. A bit farther down a tunnel, I saw a broken-up treasure chest and maybe gold coins scattered on the ground. I couldn’t see clearly, it was dark.”
He looked at me closely, for I must have appeared incredulous. I assured him that I believed his account.
“Do you want to go back there now and investigate?” he asked.
“Have you told anyone else?”
“I think we’d rouse suspicion if we went now,” I said. “We’ll explore after everyone leaves—in a few days.”
He shook his head eagerly. “That will be fun! I won’t tell anyone!”
Part 8: Another Disappearance And An Old Crime
After taking more photos and doing interviews for the evacuation story, I left for the office and found Cara waiting when I arrived. She thrust sheets of paper at me.
“It’s from the archives,” she exclaimed. “I condensed the articles I found so far about the church.”
Reading the story, though, had to wait as I batted out a news account of the day’s events—the headline, “No Dam Help—Residents Flee.” That one would certainly empty out the newsstands! Later that evening in the quiet at home, I sat down in front of the fire. The rain had eased to a drizzle, so maybe the town would catch a break and wouldn’t flood. I hoped so, for those refugees in the church would have to leave before I could return to investigate! I delved into Cara’s account:
Aug. 2, 1888—Peter and Paul Church offered a display of the Power of God, with a telegraph message from Him that people need to pay heed to their health, and partake of daily supplements like The Better Beet Root Juice.
Nov. 15, 1888—An Advertisement: New Stocks of The Electric Elixir and Dr. Finial’s Daily Dose are now on hand at The Church of Peter and Paul. Buy the tonics in lots of six and save. Satisfaction guaranteed.
May 2, 1889—More town residents this past spring have reported becoming ill after partaking of Dr. Finial’s Daily Dose, the special elixir promoted by Peter and Paul Church during their religious services. All have recovered, but Mrs. Pander is much weakened.
June 6, 1889—An angry mob of residents marched up to Blue Jay Knoll, seeking Peter and Paul Church, two evenings previous. Our correspondent witnessed the crowd calling for the brothers to show themselves and answer for the reports of illness among those who imbibed Dr. Finial’s tonic water. Among reports of people taken ill are those who drank an entire bottle in one dose. The crowd remained outside for an hour, but the Messrs. Churches did not appear. Our correspondent reported he, himself, had sampled each tonic previously and suffered no malady, and a rheumatism in his shoulder disappeared after a week’s daily dose of The Electric Elixir.
June 13, 1889—Messrs. Peter and Paul Church have not been seen hereabout for several weeks. No services have been held at the church since the last Sunday in May. The rooms in the church and living annex were searched by Constable Myatt, with interested parties. It appeared as if the Messrs. Churches had vacated quickly some weeks hence, leaving many possessions behind and food in the larder. Vestibule shelves were yet lined with the now disgraced tonic waters.
July 11, 1889—Correspondent G. Dahl reports that Peter and Paul Church have yet to return to Two Rivers. The search for them has been postponed as the town is much taken now with the stage robbery on the road to Sheep Ranch Junction, a week previous. A strongbox of gold coin worth $100,000 is described by the Overland co. as having been onboard for deposit in the Sacramento National Bank. The whereabouts of the two thieves is unknown at this time, according to Constable Myatt.
Aug. 8, 1889—Constable Myatt has taken possession of the Church of Peter and Paul, since the mysterious disappearance of the namesake brothers two months previous. Judge Anderson has declared the building abandoned and proclaims the holding to be a commonwealth property for the use by the citizens of Two Rivers. The town’s Benevolent Society was assigned caretaker status, under leadership of Messr. G. Turner.
Dec. 12, 1889—From our correspondent in Sheep Ranch Junction arrives the report that two bodies were discovered nearby after a recent rainstorm and local flood. The bodies, which are male, are believed to be those of missing Peter and Paul Church, late of Two Rivers, and church deacons. However, the condition of the corpses is so deteriorated as to prevent identification that can be ascertained with any measurable assurance, nor the manner of death. The skulls show much damage—whether by accident or foul play. The bodies, clothed in the long cloaks which the Messrs. Churches were known to wear.
Feb. 13, 1890--Sheriff R. Tucker has arrived in town from Joplin, Missouri, seeking information and the whereabouts of the brothers Peter and Paul Church. The Sheriff has traced the men to Two Rivers, but the trail seems to stop here. The men are wanted for confidence schemes and for larceny. Readers of this newspaper may remember Messrs. Churches built a church on Blue Jay Knoll a few years back and began selling tonic waters that promised happiness, health and longevity. When these elixirs made people ill, the two “Deacons” as they called themselves left town abruptly, not to be heard from since. Months afterward, two bodies found near Sheep Ranch Junction were assumed to be the brothers Church, though exact indentification was never established.
Wow! What an account Cara had compiled. Here, seemingly in tidy fashion, she had solved the mystery of the church ownership. It had long belonged to town residents, via the Benevolent Society. I admit that I’d never heard of that group and figured the Historical Society must have some information. But now, it was the stagecoach robbery that had me enthralled. Had Constable Myatt missed a connection between the sudden departure of Peter and Paul Church and the heist? Of course, he hadn’t known what I knew: A strongbox and gold coins were sitting under the church!
Part 9: Secrets Under The Floorboards
A stagecoach robbery. Gold coins under the church. Two mysterious deaths. These facts still swum in my head when clearing weather, finally, brought relief for the town. River levels inched downward, and the impound dam, according to Deputy Jack, remained stable. He said the cracks were actually helping by letting water drain away.
With the danger passed, folks finally decamped from the church. That gave me a few days leeway before painting resumed for me to search underneath. What a headline that would make: “Old Stagecoach Robbery Solved!” And the inference, too, that the Churches were likely highway men. What a grand spectacle!
I set Thursday night to explore. In the gloaming, I found the church graveyard eerie, so quickly moved inside through the unlocked door. With a small flashlight, I located the secret latch. When it clicked, I was careful not to fall into darkness.
The space below, I discovered, was cleverly concealed behind the foundation of the church. Anyone finding their way underneath, wouldn’t see this hidden room. It was lined with shelves of tonic bottles, The Electric Elixir for Happiness, Health, and Longevity—their yellowed labels peeling.
Inside a nearby old trunk were two long, ratty coats. The musty smell over-powered me. In the pocket of one, I found a very old and crumbling Overland Stage schedule. In the breast pocket of the other, were two printed calling cards: R A Selleck and P R Church, in elegant type. I kept the items.
The space then opened into an obvious mine tunnel, and right there, lay the remains of the strongbox Ansel had seen. It was dashed apart, gold coins were scattered on the ground, as if someone had beem in a hurry. Continuing on, I came to a larger space. My flashlight revealed rusty, opened tin cans and a campfire ring made of limestone. Someone had been living here a long time ago.
Farther along, looming out of darkness, was a contraption that could only be an alcohol still. Its size flat-out startled me. Pipes coiled out from all directions. Tonic bottles were lying around. Evidently, the elixirs contained high-grade booze! No wonder why folks who drank an entire bottle had taken ill! On the ground, a bit of tattered cloth—a crumbling handkerchief—caught my attention. This I pocketed.
Finding nothing more, I backtracked and went home. Exhausted, I showered and slept. The next morning, rejuvenated and exuberant after my discoveries—yes, I took the coins and a few bottles of elixir—I walked to Jeremy’s River Eats café. The usual gang was in place at the front window table, kibitzing over coffee and doughnuts, Carole’s laughs ringing out. I shouted down another round of doughnuts for all, and since there didn’t seem to be any room at their table, found a booth nearby, sat down and tried to make sense of the swirl of facts. My thoughts were a jumble. Be logical, I told myself. List what’s known.
Reaching into my coat pocket for pad and pen, I felt the handkerchief from the night before, the stage schedule and the calling cards. First unfolding the cloth, I studied it in the light of day. The material had yellowed and was marked with faded smudges. Small round holes peppered the cloth, as if something had eaten through. In the corner, I noticed a faded monogram in flowery typescript. The letters, in bad shape, appeared to be ROS. Perhaps the R was really a B. There was no mistaking the S. Refolding the handkerchief and lost in my reverie, I didn’t see Marnie approach until she slid into the opposite seat.
“Thanks for the doughnut!”
I looked up. She smiled. “I got the last old-fashioned glazed!” And then seeing the cloth, she asked, “What’s that? It looks like one of Rennie’s.”
Unfolding it again, I smoothed the handkerchief on the table. “I doubt that, look at the monogram, “BOS or ROS.”
She shook her head firmly. “Oh, no, it’s one of his. That’s not an O, it’s a G. I’d recognize the monogram anywhere. “Where did you get it?”
And here, I couldn’t lie to her. That would be so wrong, so I told the truth. “Found it near the church. I’m doing a photo feature.”
She picked up the handkerchief, rubbed the cloth. “I just threw a bunch of them away. They actually belonged to his father. I wonder how it ended up there. It sure got to be in bad shape quickly. Don’t remember seeing one so tattered.”
“This was his father’s handkerchief,” I stammered
“Yes,” she said. “Rennie had them as keepsakes.”
I was gob-smacked at that news. That meant his father might actually have been in Two Rivers.
“Would you like it?”
“Oh, goodness no, what’s to be done with it? Frame it in a shadow box to hang on the wall, like some museum piece?”
“I’ll take a photo for the feature spread I do,” I offered quickly, my mind reeling from Marnie’s revelation. “An historical find at the old church. Fitting, too, since that’s where he rests.”
With that comment, I could see Marnie sag a bit, in grief. A doughnut was no antidote, so I distracted her with a question: Did Rennie ever talk about family history?
Marnie knew very little. He told her once that his family had all passed away before Pearl Harbor and that his father had been in Two Rivers briefly as a youth and liked it a lot.
“I never asked questions beyond that,” she said.
“Have you ever heard of an R.A. Selleck? Did Rennie mention any relatives’ names?
“No, not at all—just that his dad was also named Renwick Gold Selleck.”
Part 10: A Stone Throw From The Saints
I sat there sipping coffee, pondering the facts—the evidence on hand: Rennie’s dad had been in Two Rivers as a youth; his handkerchief in the tunnel; calling cards for R.A. Selleck and P.R. Church; ancient trench coats; a photo of three men—probably brothers, one the same fellow in Esmerelda’s photo; Esmerelda’s incredible story about a runaway boyfriend named Patrick Church—maybe who was now probably Rennie’s dad; bottles of The Electric Elixir, the same tonic that Patrick peddled; a stagecoach schedule; a stagecoach robbery, gold coins and a strongbox.
Undoubtedly, I forgot one or two bits. The big question: Where is the gold from the heist? That’s when I suddenly recalled that telegram from “The Deacons” in Rennie’s closet: “God awaits a stone throw from the saints.”
Maybe, it wasn’t God waiting, maybe, it was gold! Peter and Paul had actually robbed the stage and buried the treasure in a spot later easy to get to, but, just in case, sent that telegram to Rennie’s dad, who had already fled town, hoping he could decipher it.
If only there had been an actual map which the brothers had sent. In this whole kerfuffle, though, the only map I knew were instructions for Rennie’s grave. Nick Norbert, who dug the hole, was still up front in the cafe, finishing his coffee and doughnut, so on a hunch, I walked over, and got his attention.
“You know, I’m doing an article on the Church of Peter and Paul and whatnot,” I explained. “Do you still have the map, or instructions?”
“Nope,” Nick said. “Tossed it. Why keep the thing?”
“Any issues digging Rennie’s grave? Find anything?”
He thought a second. “The exact spot Rennie indicated had some large stones. He must have meant the plot adjacent, so that’s where we dug it, to the right of the rocks.”
I remembered the rocks now: blue limestone like the church foundation. Rev. Gagnon had stood on one for the eulogy. Thanking Nick, I went back to my seat and speculated, letting things ferment in my mind—and suddenly came to a conclusion most startling: Rennie had given those instructions to me—had wanted me to dig the grave. Maybe he had deciphered the telegram, after all, and knew all about the gold. That meant, I needed to go back there and dig!
Well-armed with tools, I went the same evening, The pine trees screened a rising moon—so I had to hurry, because let’s face it, the sight of a silhouette digging in a cemetery at night would certainly raise suspicion. Deputy Jack would likely show up. What would I say to him? “Hey cuz, I’m going fishing, and I’m looking for worms.” That would be tacky.
At the west corner of the church, I located Rennie’s grave—and right beside lay three fairly large, squarish stones. I got it then! The telegram! A stone’s throw from the Church of Peter and Paul—a stone throw from the saints!
I got to work immediately. Fortunately, the pry bar I brought was hefty enough to move the rocks. Then, I began shoveling and went down three feet fairly quickly—and suddenly a dull thunk: Wood!
When I cleared away enough soil, I sprung the lid from a rotting crate. Even in muted moonlight, the coins—hundreds of them—shimmered like sunlight on water. Gold! Digging my hands in, I fairly couldn’t help myself as the deep coolness of metal overwhelmed. I raised a handful toward the moon, in thanks. Oh, God, GOLD!
In the adrenaline rush and excitement, I forget the details of getting home, but waking the next morning to sunlight and birdsong, I was still stunned at my discovery—and suddenly indecisive: What should I do now? Write up the mystery for the Ledger? Inform authorities? And just who owned gold? Maybe an insurance company could lay claim after all these years. That’s happened with old shipwrecks.
A lot of questions. A lot of mystery. A lot of puzzles: This called for coffee. I made and drank an entire pot, but the java didn’t jar my gold-induced stupor. Then inspiration! I remembered I had The Electric Elixir for Happiness, Health, and Longevity. What could it hurt?
I uncorked a bottle and poured some into my mug. I added two fingers of whiskey. The concoction fairly sizzled. The scents of cinnamon and sarsaparilla tickled my nose. I threw the tonic back—like one takes shots of Jagermeister on a Friday night binge.
What a wow! My eyes flickered wider. My pulse quickened. My nostrils cleared. My mined sharpened to a pointed focus acute: A lot of questions still to answer. Yes! A lot of mystery to solve. Yes! Puzzles aplenty! Yes! Was Rennie’s father really Patrick Church? Did Patrick know his brothers had robbed the stage? Had Rennie figured everything out? If so, why didn’t he go for the gold?
What did that matter! I had all that money, and sipping a drink that promised long life—I had all the time in the world to figure it out!
A glorious feeling this freedom: That’s what I was thinking, sipping the elixir, when came a knock at the door. Answering with my drink in hand, I found Deputy Jack and another sheriff had come calling.
“Hey cuz,” I said with much bonhomie. “How’s it going? Care for a nip this morning?”
But Deputy Jack just said, “Were you looking for worms last night?”
Copyright 2020. A version of this story appeared in The (Downieville) Mountain Messenger, Nov. 2020-Jan. 2021. All characters mentioned are fictional or fictionally portrayed.
Cover by Diana Rich
Cover by Diana Rich