Arguably the best of Earl B. Pilgrim’s works, Curse of the Red Cross Ring was first published in the year 2000 and has been praised as a “tour de force” (Atlantic Books Today) and “the greatest Newfoundland story ever told” (The Downhomer). An epic tale of betrayal set in outport Newfoundland in the 1920s, Curse of the Red Cross Ring is more than just a murder story: it is a masterfully crafted saga that is the Newfoundland character defined. Azariah Roberts, the author’s grandfather, was a respected fishing captain and community leader in the small town of L’Anse au Pigeon. Living in a remote community on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, “Uncle Az” and his loved ones were unprepared when a murderer came to town. Sod Mugford, whose name resonates with infamy throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, had perpetrated a heinous crime in 1928. And it was only a precursor to the horrific events that were to follow.
The sun looked boldly through its bloodshot eye as it peeked over the boiling ocean, and the breath of the toiling men mixed with the salty spray to give a pinkish hue as they hauled the huge cod trap. Giant swells slammed into the solid granite only a few hundred feet away. Soundings were made, and it was determined that the trap was full of codfish, about three hundred barrels—enough to load all the boats around the trap, and more.
“Look, Skipper,” said one of the crew. “There’s undertow coming right out to the doorways of the trap.”
“Sure enough, I see it,” Az said.
He then looked around at the men in the boats surrounding the bloated cod trap. If enough undertow were to start boiling, combined with the heavy sea that was rolling in, it could sweep away the whole cod trap, its moorings and contents.
“Listen, men,” said Az, “you’d better start dipping the fish in right away, and make sure the cuts are wrapped tightly around the pins. Don’t let the boat get too far away from the doorways. Hey,” he yelled from the top of the engine house, “tie up that span line and don’t let her go out any further. Hold everything fast; I’ll watch the swells.”
“Okay,” said Sod Mugford, who was holding onto the span line.
Then the skipper yelled at the top of his voice, “Tie everything on solid, and hold her fast. There’s a huge breaker out there and it’s coming straight at us.”
Everyone saw it and froze for a moment, holding onto the part of the trap where they were. They held their breath as the great breaker rolled in under them, lifting everything as it passed. There was a fourteen-year-old boy with them, helping to haul the trap and keep the net in the boat. He wasn’t fully prepared when the wave lifted the boats and their contents.
As the wave rolled in, the huge bag of fish was slow to rise with the wave, causing the boat to dip low in the water, as if it were going to roll over. With this sudden movement, the part of the trap that was on board started to get pulled out. The young boy saw it and started to panic; he grabbed it with his arms, and before he knew anything the trap twisted around the buttons of his rubber coat. It started to drag him out of the boat.
The men in the other boats saw what was happening and started yelling. The skipper, who was standing on the engine house, heard them yelling and saw them pointing.
Then he saw the young boy.
“My Great God,” he whispered, and leaped from the engine house. The young boy was just going over the side of the boat, entangled in the cod trap, when the skipper grabbed him and tried in vain to pull him in. Then Az saw what had happened; the buttons on the boy’s coat had hooked in the linnet. He reached down into the water and started to untangle the buttons while someone held onto the boy’s legs.
“Get a knife! Get a knife and cut off the buttons,” Az screamed.
Sod Mugford reached into the engine house and grabbed a knife. As quick as a flash, he cut the collar at the neck of the boy’s oilskins and ripped the coat down the back. He then pulled the young boy back into the boat.
Before anyone could say a word, Sod heard another scream from the men around him. “The skipper’s got his hand caught in the linnet!”
Az realized with mounting horror what had happened. He was wearing the Red Cross ring on his index finger, and while trying to unhook the buttons of the rubber coat, the ring had become caught in the linnet. He was helpless, and he knew he had only a few seconds before he would be pulled under.
Sod jumped to the skipper’s aid. He grabbed the skipper’s arm and gave a pull with all his strength. Az felt as though his fingers were being pulled from his hand, and the next thing he knew, he landed in the bottom of the boat with a terrible pain in his arm.
Az looked at his hand and saw blood coming from his fingers. He noticed that the ring was missing. “My ring is gone,” he said. “Listen boys, my Red Cross ring is gone. Has anyone seen it?”
The men looked at him and shook their heads.
“Your ring is gone, all right, Skipper,” said Sod. “I saw it come off your finger and pop right out into the trap. You should consider yourself lucky that your hand isn’t gone, or that you never went under yourself.”
Az couldn’t believe it. He felt his finger—it was cut to the bone.
Sod watched the skipper put his handkerchief around his finger. Az was nearly in tears. “My ring, my Red Cross ring,” he moaned, as he held his arm and looked out into the trap.
“Skipper,” said Sod, “you shouldn’t worry about that old ring. There’s lots of them where that one came from.”
Az gave Sod a sour look. “Listen, Sod, there are twenty-two fathoms of water down there where my ring went, and if you make one more remark like that I’ll make you go down and pick it up.”
Azariah Roberts climbed back onto the engine house and shook his head. “My ring,” he said, “is gone forever.”
The greatest Newfoundland story ever told.-- Downhomer --
Pilgrim’s fourth tour de force … gives the reader an idea of how isolated communities that have no police force attempt to maintain law and order, not always successfully, and sometimes with tragic results.
-- Atlantic Books Today --
Pilgrim weaves [a] fascinating tale ... sharply visual and amazing. It’s extremely readable, because what he has is a voice, knowledgeable and authentic.-- J. M. Sullivan, The Telegram --
Curse of the Red Cross Ring is full of mystery, murder and twisting plots.-- The Nor’wester --
A job well done.-- The Northern Pen --
Pilgrim's Curse of the Red Cross Ring is a vivid, accurate, detailed description of how social justice and control were exerted back in the days when visits from distant authorities were few and far between.-- Newfoundland Studies --