Tales

Lore: The Devil and Sergeant Christianson’s Cannon

Foreword

Often times, a historian digs through the rubble of texts and finds a gem that leads them down a rabbit hole.  The story of a poor soul, known to us as Private Tumbleweed, and his dealings with the devil, have certainly raised an eyebrow in our historical section.  The story follows below.

The Tale

It’s a story that is told down near the border area, where the Arsenal shore faces Sylvan Island across the slough and pool.  It is said that on a dark night, one can gaze across the water and see patches of greenish-blue light passing amidst the growth and timber on the old abandoned island.  Occasionally, one or another near-panic observer has reported that when this occurs, it is accompanied by the long mournful howl of a wolf, and yet something in the sound suggests that there is something more than a wolf that is making that soulless wail.  Some of the more superstitious claim that it comes from a poor lost creature from beyond, who is seeking vainly to find some memorable piece of machinery or someone he knew when the Republic Steel works was in full operation.  Those who know better, of course, claim that wolves and their like have not been in this area for over a hundred years.  Besides, they argue, a wolf is not likely to be in the area where the smell of sulphur is so strong on those nights that it floats down river as far as Credit Island.

Sergeant Christianson is dead now, or it is claimed that some old timers, now themselves gone, claimed that they saw him buried and that it took two dozen men to carry him to the grave site.  Incidentally, he was buried, so it is rumored, at a spot where there were no other graves.  Folklore has it that he had a head as big as a huge bull, shoulders as broad as an elephant, and hands that could load a wagon after just two scoops of earth.  When he spoke, it is reported, that the earth shook for a good distance in all directions, and to this day it is said that if you should stumble upon his grave in the dead of night, a voice like rumbling thunder will be heard to say: “Halt! Who goes there? How fares the Arsenal?”  Then you had better come forth with your name and state … “The Arsenal stands as she stood, bedrocked and solid as her citizenry, one and inseparable with the Union which she serves …,” or with a mighty rush of wind, a giant hand will spring upward and pull you beneath the sod.

As the story goes, Sergeant Christianson was in charge of the guard detail one dark dreary night at about the time the Clock Tower’s foundation was beginning to take shape.  It so happened that this was “liberty” night for the other’s of the small group of soldiers that made up the garrison, and it was a special time of vigilance for the Sergeant because of Private Tumbleweed, who was notorious for his love of “Rock Island and Davenport dew.”

Now Private Tumbleweed, aside from his intemperence on occasion, was a likable fellow who had known no equivalent to a father after reaching the age of ten.  His simple backwoods mind therefore had conjured up an image of such an esteemed being and personified it in the person of the strict but sensitive Sergeant Christianson.  The Sergeant, in return, had accepted the role of mentor and Christian guide for the wayward Private.  It had been on a night such as this, during the previous week, that Private Tumbleweed confessed, naturally after returning from Sadie’s Bar in Rock Island, that he was in dire need of advice and protection, for none other than the Devil himself was out to collect an overdue debt.  Sergeant Christianson listened in awe, for he was not given to disregarding the tales his elders had told about a flickering hearth as dark shadows danced against the cabin walls.

According to Private Tumbleweed, he had spent some time as a cavalryman in the West before coming to this area.  It was during an expedition against the Apaches that he became separated from his troop and wandered into the desert, where he soon exhausted his supply of water, and after a day or so, gave up much hope of rescue.

While half delirious, he vowed that he would swear off hard drink in favor of water for the rest of his life in pain of eternal fire if he could be saved.  No sooner had he uttered these words before the wind began to howl and the sky began to turn a foul black – – the smell of fire and brimstone were overpowering.  Just before terror allowed him to lapse into oblivion, Private Tumbleweed claimed that a hollow voice from everywhere, yet nowhere, said, “So be it.”

When he awoke, he lay in a pool of water at the foot of his horse, who was content in savoring this apparent favor from heaven.  The now saved soldier was aware of a burning sensation on his wrist, which upon inspection, revealed a scratch that evidently had been made by a foul-smelling goose-point quill that lay nearby.  His superstitious mind immediately renewed all of the tales of the terrors of Satan.  He was so numbed with fear, that upon being found wandering aimlessly by a patrol, he was confined to an aid station where he babbled incoherently about a year’s contract with the Devil and a rider named “Scratch,” who had led him within sight of the searching party.

Upon his release from the hospital, Private Tumbleweed soon fell back into his intemperent habits.  From time to time, his sojourns were all the worse, for on occasion, he would glance up from the bar to meet the soul-piercing eyes of a stranger at his side.  The evil smile and the smell of Sulphur were enough to cause the purchase of several more quaffs, both at his and the stranger’s expense.  The most recent occasion had resulted in his confidence in the good Sergeant.

On this particular night, while Sergeant Christianson was in charge of the guard, Tumbleweed had been up to his usual alcoholic adventures, and had again found himself in the company of the gleaming-eyed stranger.  After several hours of malingering at the bar, the half-sober Private announced that it was getting late, and that midnight was the deadline for his leave.  His fears were most oppressing this particular evening.

“Indeed it is late,” said the stranger as a smile split his face from ear-to-ear, baring for the first time that Tumbleweed could remember, a vicious-looking set of eye teeth that extended well below pointed fangs between.

“Your year is up,” continued the stranger, “Do you remember?”  And with that, he grasped the soldier’s wrist with a hand that burned unmercifully.

“Are you ready to go, for a bargain is a bargain, you know?”  With this last utterance in his ears, Tumbleweed let out a howl of despair, shook himself loose – – leaving a singed portion of his uniform in the stranger’s grasp – – and fled out the door.  In record time, he crossed the wagon bridge to the Island and dashed into the arms of the Sergeant, where he half collapsed.

“Help me, help me!” he cried.  “Please, he can’t be far behind!”

With all the determination that his training had given him, the Sergeant managed to assure Tumbleweed that none but the Eternal Maker himself would harm him as long as he stayed within the Sergeants protective presence.

Hardly had the Sergeant pronounced these words before the camp fire nearby grew in intensity, and then retreated to a blue-white flame that pierced the darkness – – from which stepped the stranger.

“Ah, my dear Sergeant,” he cackled, “you do drive a hard wedge between my property and myself.”

For the first time in his life, the Sergeant felt a twinge of fear, for here was what appeared to be an enemy such as he had never faced.  Nevertheless, he was a soldier to the core, so if fear were part of the bargain, so be it.  He drew himself up to his full height, causing the stranger to tilt his head back in order to see the tip of his chin, which was barely within reach.

Sergeant Christinson’s voice boomed like thunder as he said, “I take it you be Mr. Scratch!”

The stranger nodded in accord and replied, “Some call me that, but I have other names.”  With that he placed his finger along the side of his pointed nose and continued, “Names are not important, and I am not here to discuss that anyway.”

The fire flicked lower, and then shot up again to an intense brilliance that showed the full outline of the Sergeant.

“My, you are a fine figure!” remarked the stranger.  “Perhaps we can come to some agreement, or otherwise I shall have that pitiful wretch and begone.”  With that he pointed a long-nailed finger at Private Tumbleweed, who let out a shriek and near fell into the fire save for the quick action of the Sergeant who caught him.

By now the Sergeant realized what bargain the stranger had in mind, and the sweat stood out on his forehead like giant drops of blood and water.

“By heaven, Sir,” he roared, for he felt that Mr. Scratch did hold some rank or authority, “even if you be Satan himself, you shall not touch one thread of this uniform nor that of this man beside me!”  With that, he pointed to the ground to which Tumbleweed had slipped, having lost his grasp on the Sergeant’s belt, and where he lay in a swoon with his eyes rolled back in his head.

“I see that you have my true identity,” the stranger countered.  “Yes, I have had considerable difficulty with that uniform in the past, but . . . !”

Without warning, he made a lunge for the prostrate figure of Private Tumbleweed.  His smile had faded into the most horrible animal-man counterance that one could imagine.  His well soled shoes in a puff had become cloven hooves, and the back of his jacket split open as large bat-like wings sprung forth as if to waft him away.

Although he moved with the swiftness of an elk, the Sergeant moved even faster, and caught him by the back of his hairy neck with which he held him high in the air and shook him violently.

“Ouch, ouch!” he screamed.  “Ye Gods man, if you’ll excuse the expression, you’re hurting me!”  And he began to plead and beg, promising that he meant no harm to either man, and that he was willing to compromise.  Without ceremony, he was deposited on the ground with a thud.

The Sergeant by now was in a rage, and his great hands were clenched like twin granite mounds.  WIth an obvious warning of dire things possible, he half hissed, “Now, I’ll listen to anything within reason, but mind you, you shall not touch one button on this uniform . . . Sir!”

By now, Mr. Scratch, or the “stranger,” if you please, had gained some of his composure, and brushing back an obviously damaged wing, he smiled and pointed a crooked finger at the darkness beyond the two men.  THe one, of course, was still on the ground.
“I believe,” chuckled Mr. Scratch, for he began to feel somewhat brave again, “that Private Tumbleweed was supposed to lower the flag before he went on . . . eh . . . ‘liberty,’ is that not so?”

The Sergeant grunted in the affirmative, half fearing what was to come next.

“Well now,” continued Mr. Scratch, “I’ll just take that flag, which was not lowered, as ordered, with me as a token of, shall we say, ‘compromise’?”

Well, if the Sergeant felt rage before, he now passed into an unspeakable frenzy.

“What . . .?” he sputtered in a roar like thunder, “what, what, what . . . ?” for he could not make himself believe what had been said.

Mr. Scratch had recoiled slightly at this outburst, but, since it is held true that the Devil must have his due, he fancied that even under these circumstances, a token at least must fall his way.

“Well Sergeant,” he half begged, “maybe just a piece of it will do!”

The Sergeant staggered back, still in half disbelief, while he sought support on the muzzle of a cannon that, for some unknown reason, had been delivered along with some building material.  His voice that sounded like thunder before, now belched forth like the roar of a volcano.

“By all the forks and spears of Hell, you will not touch one thread Sir,. . . Not one thread, do you hear me?”

“But it is only a piece of cloth . . . ” replied Mr. Scratch.  “You certainly can hold little value in that.”

Sergeant Christianson tightened his grip on the cannon’s mouth, and his temples appeared ready to burst as his words rushed out in a torrent of defiant rage.

“That Sir, that flag is the symbol of our national unity in spite of our different opinions.  IT is the spirit of devotion and all of God’s best in us.  It represents man’s most noble of dreams for which generation’s have aspired.  In its folds are Hancock, Franklin, Washington, Paul Revere, Thomas Payne.  By all that’s holy, I have had visions of tomorrow, of far away islands and that flag being lofted in the breeze.  Yes, and I have tossed in my sleep in visions of it flying even over fields in France.  No Sir, you may by some measure unholy take the best of me, but you shall not, even if the angels of Heaven do not come to my aid, so much as touch one single blessed star of it.”

As everyone knows, the Devil claims any nationality, including “American,” if it suits his purpose, and though he was half swayed, evidenced by a barely susceptible tear in one eye, he insisted in pursuit of his claim.

“I too am an American, and no-one can lay better claim to this proud land than I.  Yes, although I wore a different uniform, I sat in on the bargain for the proposed capture of West Point, and I rode with Quantrill in Kansas and I expect I shall meet him shortly in Kentucky.  Oh, by the way, I now have some dealings with a Mr. John Wilkes Booth, but you wouldn’t know him although his name will soon become associated with your President.  Now, the President, there’s a man that I could never hope to make a deal with.  Why one time, many years ago, he took a swing at me with an axe.”

Without a dissipation in rage within, the Sergeant had to chuckle a little as he retorted. . . “That’s because he’s honest and has earned his title as ‘Honest Abe,’ and ‘honesty’ is something that you know precious little about.”
The chuckle emitted by the Sergeant sharpened the keen sense of his tormentor, who by now had been forced to seek any weakness – – no matter how trivial.

Mr. Scratch smiled wickedly, declaring in his misled judgement that the Sergeant also was not an honest man, for his obvious bit of humor indicated that he had been bluffing with a show of rage and uttered threats.  With further bravado, he stated that he was through talking, that he would have all of the flag, and, maybe if he felt like it, would return with a legion or two to claim both the Sergeant and Private Tumbleweed.  Private Tumbleweed had recovered just in time to hear these last statements, and again, he left out a shriek and dropped his head back to the ground in oblivion.

The action of Tumbleweed distracted the burly Sergeant’s attention for an instant – – an almost fatal instant, for with the turning of the Sergeant’s attention, Mr. Scratch made a bat-like effort to pass both men and streak for the flag pole.  Still clutching the cannon’s mouth with one hand, the Sergeant reacted with lightening speed with his free palm.  There was a resounding ‘thud,’ as Mr. Scratch met the free swing of the Sergeant in mid-air, causing a complete reversal in his direction which was followed with a sickening crash of bone on ground.

Now there were two enraged combatents, for with the loss of his cunning, Mr. Scratch too had been forced to act in violence.  Cursing, he leaped to his feet, and assumed the pose of a animal about to seize its prey.  With a leap, he charged in the direction of the Sergeant, whose super human strength had multiplied thrice in his rage.

With one hand still around the muzzle of the cannon, he grasped the ‘lift ring’ on the opposite end of the weapon with his other hand and raised the entire tube from its carriage.  This obvious agressive action caused Mr. Scratch to terminate his flight in mid-air, and take to the ground on which he scampered away with a screech of fear.  But he was not fast enough to escape the rim of the cannon, which had been hurled in a high arch that terminated on one heel of the fleeting phantom.
A cry of anguish was followed by a resounding but commanding thud as the weapon burried itself, nose first, in the ground.

The earth had no sooner stopped its trembling before a cock began to crow and the faint rays of an early dawn began to light the sky.  Both men were now fully conscious of what had transpired – – well, at least one was.  For the first time, and in spite of all his combat experience, the Sergeant was visibly shaken, for he had made the best of an enemy who would have recognized no exchange.  The Sergeant had saved the souls of two men, and the flag of the Union still waved in the light of the dawn over Arsenal Island – – one and inseparable.  “Let’s go to chow,” said the Sergeant.

Yes, the Sergeant accomplished more than he was to realize – – locally that is, for no report of the Devil himself visiting the Island has ever been made since then – – not even by the Arsenal Guard force.  Of course, this does not hold true for Sylvan Island, of which we had something to say previously.  Perhaps the latter piece of land is a point of departure for an occasional scounting party to find a weakness in the structure of the Arsenal’s foundation or its citizens thereon.  But all know that such effort is doomed to failure for all eternity.

Some old timers, now gone to greater glory with the Sergeant, claimed that his ghost holds eternal vigilance here, and that at one time came to grips with the fiery scount legions of the Devil.  This they said accounted for the great fire of 1903 in which the storehouse behind Shop A was destroyed.

“Sonny,” one old timer said to me, “you never in your born days heard such a battle.  In the midst of all the yellin’ and screamin’ one could faintly hear the sound of fifes playing “Yankee Doodle,” and the sky was lightened up by red and white stripes through which one would plainly see a field of blue with dazzling white stars.  When the screamin’ and hollerin’ died down, I swear there were far away voices singin’ ‘The Battle Hymn of the Repuiblic.'”  Some of the old fire fighters, with furtive glances at each other, did not lend credit to this story, but neither did they denounce it as wholly untrue as they suddenly found some task they had forgotten and which required their immediate presence elsewhere.

What about the cannon?  Oh yes, it is still there as it has been for decades at the junction of Rodman and Rock Island Avenues.  The only difference today is that it is painted with yellow and black stripes to ward off traffic at the “V” where the avenues join beyond the main gate.

Some say that the reason the Devil himself never visits the Island is because the muzzle of the weapon below ground will belch forth a red, white, and blue cannonball if he ever does and will destroy his domain below.  I still insist that its just a half-buried cannon, but then, what was that soft gentle sound on the breeze one summer’s evening – – like a flag so gently waving?  And was it just imagination, or did I hear a voice fading away at dawn saying, “All’s well”?