A Burning Cold Morning (Part 4)

There is not any conclusive evidence as to when Leo first started to experiment with changing his name.  He would use several aliases throughout his criminal career and it is likely that he began the practice before he left New Munich for the first time.  There are a few records, old and difficult to accurately assess, that seem to indicate that he used the name Lee O’Dare (a play on his first name) at some point in the mid-1910’s while he was still in school.  These references are on documents from the Sauk Center and Meier Grove areas where he may have been picking up work in the summer.  It would appear from the records available in New Munich that he was still going officially by Hombert when he graduated from Saint Boniface Catholic School in 1918.  After that the trail of the name Hombert stays in New Munich with his family while that of Leo starts to go in a different direction.  Soon after his graduation, Leo enlisted in the United States Army under the name Humbert and served in the Quartermaster Corps until 1920.  During that service he ended up in Hawaii and it is there that he began to commit more serious crimes and where he also met a man with whom he would cross paths again in later years.  That man, Robert F. Lester, would in fact try to kill Leo in the late 1920’s, although they started out as true brothers-in-crime.

The Valley of the Giants poster

The Valley of the Giants poster

It was the beginning of 1920, January 12th, when Leo first met Robert in the mess hall of the Army fort where they were both stationed.  The fort was a large one and the mess hall was always busy, with seating hard to come by during the peak breakfast and dinner hours.  You pretty much had to grab an open space wherever you could find one and on this day Robert did just that, grabbing a open spot next to Leo just after a sergeant stood up to leave.  After a few minutes of silent eating, Robert asked Leo if he was going to attend the movie that night in the airplane hanger.  He was met with silence, which did not discourage him as he was one of those overly-talkative kinds of people who seem impervious to social signals telling them to leave people alone.  Robert launched into a monologue on his opinion about the movie, The Valley of the Giants, which he had seen four times already and which he thought was a terrible film.  He did seem to think that Grace Darmond was quite excellent as Shirley Summer but the rest of the cast “stunk it up.”  Leo did not reply to any of it although a few others at the table jumped into the conversation, most of them agreeing about the general quality of the movie and wondering why the Army insisted on showing it to them every few months.  Somewhere during that discussion Leo slipped away, his tray neatly returned to the kitchen wash line before Robert noticed the vacant seat across the table, one that was then immediately filled by another man.  Ten days later he passed Leo in the courtyard outside the supply office and tried to speak with him again.

“Hey there, you remember me?”

Leo looked over his way, seeing a tall, olive skinned man with jet-black hair and a wide, open face approaching.  The man walked with a small limp and had arms that swung too much as he walked.  Leo shook his head and kept walking.

“Hey there, quiet man, I’m talking to you!” the tall man called out, “you there, stop for a minute.”  By then the man was walking abreast of Leo and pulling at his sleeve.

“What do you want?”

“I’m just trying to talk to you for a minute.  Don’t you remember me?  From the other day in the mess hall?  We were talking about movies and I,”

“Yes, I certainly do,” Leo interrupted, “and I’m hoping to not get another dose of it right now.”

“How about you there, you’re not a very nice egg are you?”

“I’m plenty nice but not to every random person I meet.”

“It don’t hurt you none to talk to people, does it?”  The tall man patted his pockets quickly then continued.  “Butt me, will ya? I’m out.”

Reluctantly Leo reached into his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes, offering one to the man with a look of displeasure.

“See there, you’re not so bad after all.  Robert Lester by the way.”  He stuck out his hand, which Leo took without offering his name in reply.  He started to step away but the man grabbed his arm.

“No rush, what could it be?  Nothing around this place these days needs that much of a hurry attached to it.  Why don’t you smoke with me?”

“Why would I?”

“Well, it’s the friendly thing to do and I might have something interesting to say.”

“Judging from the last time I would doubt that,” Leo replied, although he did have a slight smile on his face now, which Robert picked up on.

“See there, you’re better already.  Now, let’s talk about making a few clams together.”

It was there, in the courtyard of an Army fort, that Robert Lester outlined in a low voice to Leo Humbert a scheme that would ultimately land them both in prison, although it would also make them a good amount of money for a short amount of time.  Robert was a truck driver in the motor pool, a man who drove large delivery vehicles all over the island on a daily basis.  Leo was a part of the quartermaster’s department, and had access to quite a large amount of inventory.  Those items were desired by various groups and organizations out in town and also at ports around the islands, and people were ready to pay for them.  Robert knew those people and could facilitate the deals.  All he needed was a partner on the inside of the quartermaster department.  Leo, who had been glancing around nervously as Robert spoke, shook his head slowly when he finished.

“I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too dangerous.  Besides, you don’t strike me as the safest person to do business with anyway.  You talk too much and too openly.  I mean, look at where we are right now.”

“No one can hear us, there isn’t anyone else here.  Trust me, I know my onions on this, we can make good money.”

“Why ask me anyway?  I could just as easily turn you in.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re already selling supplies yourself, you’re just not very good at it.”

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 3)

Kodak Folding Camera

Kodak Folding Camera

The photographer had arrived late and the practice was wrapping up as he set up his Kodak Folding Pocket camera.  The team was tired and sweaty so Charlie told them all to take a few minutes to get cleaned up as he chatted with his brother.   During this conversation they spoke about the receipts from the last game, which Charlie had forgotten to put into the bank, a fact that he laughed off although his brother seemed less amused by it.  The receipt can was apparently stashed in the tool box of the car that Michael often used, a Peerless Touring model.  Sitting on the ground a few feet away was young Leo, drawing circles in the dirt with a stick.

The Peerless Touring car

The Peerless Touring car

The men returned to the field area and Michael grabbed the handles of his brothers wheelchair and started pushing him across the field, waving at the men to follow him toward the outfield fence.  As they did so, Leo got up and wandered away toward the small dirt circle where the Peerless was parked.  He looked behind himself several times, stopping to lean up against a broken fence post when he saw a few of the players looking in his direction.  Several moments later, with all of the men staring at the camera, Leo slipped around the side of the car, opened the toolbox and dumped the contents of the receipt can into his pocket.  It was all loose change which made a noticeable bulge, so he untucked his shirt on that side to cover it and softly walked away, the vehicle shielding him from the team’s view. His father could not find him when he walked off the field after the picture was taken and, after looking around for a few minutes, left to go back home.  Leo appeared about an hour later, stating he had went for a walk in the woods.  The theft had already been discovered by that point and by eight a.m. the next morning it was the talk of the small town.

It came to light that there had been a very small window of opportunity for this crime to have occurred.  Charlie had actually seen the can in the toolbox about ten minutes prior to the photographer arriving.  A player had found a rough spot on a bat and asked Charlie for the piece of sandpaper he was known to have in the toolbox for these occasions.  Getting to it involved moving the receipt can, so Charlie knew it had not been empty when he gave the sandpaper to the player.  Both of them had stayed by the side of the car as the player fixed his bat and the sandpaper had gone directly back into the toolbox after he was finished.  Charlie had wheeled himself back toward the field at that point.  Michael had been back at the car about two minutes after the photo was taken, and then had driven him and Charlie home.  Several minutes after arriving and wheeling his brother into the kitchen, Michael had gone out to get the receipt can, intending to give it to Charlie with a stern reminder that he needed to get to the bank the next day.   Discovering the money gone, the police had been alerted and the investigation had begun.

The Hombert residence was just on the outskirts of New Munich and the news had not traveled there the prior evening.  The very small police force had taken the brother’s statements and spoken to a few of the players who lived nearer to town.  The police did get to the outskirts the next morning, although Ben had already left for the day to work at another farm after tending to his own very early in the day.  Leo was also gone, having told his mother after breakfast was finished that he was going fishing.  The policeman asked Lizzie a few questions and then went to find Ben out in the fields.  He answered their questions and went back to work, slightly disturbed by the fact that anyone would steal money from the team.  Meanwhile, Lizzie had told her son Jospeh to keep an eye on the other children and went in search of Leo.

They say that mother’s know their children well and Lizzie, despite many prayers and an abundance of wishful thinking, knew that her son Leo did not have the moral character of her other children.  She also knew that he was not very fond of fishing.  His statement earlier in the day had struck her as odd although she had been too busy to do more than frown at Leo before telling him to be back by lunchtime.  Now she felt that perhaps something else was going on, a slight ball of nausea and worry forming in her stomach.

the diner

the diner

It took almost an hour but she did find him, sitting at the counter of the diner downtown, sipping on what appeared to be at least his third ice cream soda.  He did not see her come into the diner and when she grabbed him arm he yelped in surprise, knocking over the glass and spilling it onto the floor.  The diner grew quiet as Lizzie stood there, her son’s arm held tightly, watery ice cream dripping off the edge of the table and her face turning red from the attention she was receiving from the other patrons. Leo had recovered quickly and was now smirking at his mother’s embarrassment.  A few long moments passed and then a waitress came to the table with a rag.  She spoke in a low voice to Lizzie, telling her she could just take the boy and go, that the ice cream was already paid for, and then began cleaning up the mess.  Before she could act, Leo twisted his arm loose and ran out of the diner, his mother following quickly after and calling to him to stop which he did not do.  When she arrived back at their house Leo was sitting on his bed and his mother let him remain there until Ben came home.  The decision he reached that night after a long discussion with his wife was one they both would grow to regret.  Although neither of them had any proof, Lizzie was certain that Leo was the one who had stolen the receipts and there was no other explanation as to why he had any money at all to use on ice cream.  Ben went up and asked his son about this, to which Leo issued a single denial and then stopped talking.  They chose to punish the boy severely at home, a lashing that left blood seeping through the boy’s shirt, and hoped that would send the proper message to their son without having to admit to the community what Leo had done.  This would happen several more times in the following years, a pattern that was the main reason Leo managed to stay out of trouble with the law until he was almost twenty one years old.  It was also one which Ben and Lizzie later realized was part of the reason he progressed from a troubled and incorrigible boy into an adult criminal.  By the time of his first arrest their son had been gone from their house for several years and was living under a different, but similar, name.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 2)

I am sure that convicts, even dying ones, tell lies all the time.  I do not think that sets them too far apart from the rest of humanity.  Truthfulness may not be our strongest virtue.  Researching things as frequently and as in detail as I often do has also made it obvious that there are all kinds of false leads, apocryphal stories, urban legends and misreported facts about every imaginable historical event.  So, some random journal entry about a generally insignificant criminal’s death is not exactly a eureka moment.  I have always given a little extra weight to “dying utterances” though and it did seem likely from the info in the journal that Leo probably knew his time was up when he pulled that guard in close for those last words.  It struck me as interesting and worth a second look so I dove in and, well, that was a long time ago.  The story that unfolded from my research is truly an interesting one, a hidden tale of Minneapolis and the surrounding area that includes all of the usual trigger words; criminals, murder, deceit, gangsters and explosions.  It also includes things that will give you more hope, things such as bravery, courage, forgiveness and redemption.  And I definitely found out that Leo Humbert was not as insignificant as he seemed to be at first.  For now, let’s step back into time a ways and onto the baseball field in New Munich, Minnesota on July 6th, 1910.

new munich mn 2017

new munich mn 2017

 

It was, and still is, a very small town, although between 1900 and 1910 it had gone through one of its two large population booms.  A forty percent increase had left New Munich with one hundred and ninety residents by 1910 and that growth would continue for another decade, ending in 1920 when the population was three hundred and twenty five.  Since that time, things have pretty much stayed the same.  The Hombert’s (for that was Leo’s last name at birth) had been in the area for awhile by the time this growth started, having moved to the area in 1891 after getting married in Ohio.  The patriarch, Benjamin Hombert, a man with sloping shoulders, blue eyes and thick brown hair, was a farmer and occasionally picked up extra work as a day laborer.  He and his wife Lizzie produced a large family of four girls and four boys, of whom Leo was the third youngest of all, and the most junior boy.

part of 1910 census hombert family only

part of 1910 census hombert family only

As a child Leo was wiry and “all angles and edges” as his mother wrote in her diary several times, and he had the sharp features which he would carry with him through most of his life.  They all helped their father on the farm and the family was generally known as honest and hard-working.  The Hombert’s took good care of their children and seven of them became solid parts of the Stearns County community.  Leo, however, would do little to ever repay or appreciate the nurturing and safety they provided.

Ben Hombert’s  great passion, other than his family, was baseball and he played on the local team, a collection of energetic and scrappy men, all much younger than him.  The team was known for getting into fights on the field, although Leo’s father never participated and was know as “Softy” because of it.  He played mostly in the outfield and could still catch up to a fly ball pretty well although his arm was “not the force it used to be,” as he would say.  Ben encouraged his children to come and watch his games and practices, hoping to give them insight into his own love of baseball.  He had not been greatly successful in this though, and although his daughter Olivia though it was a grand game, Ben had hoped one of his son’s might pick up the sport and play alongside him.  Leo seemed to be his last chance for this and he often would take the boy, protesting or not, along with him.  It probably was not the best way to encourage a youngster to like something, and young Leo would usually misbehave in some way as his father was on the field.  This usually amounted to pranks or general mischief but this particular day would mark what could later be identified as the beginning of a long criminal career for Leo Hombert.

It was a Wednesday, their usual practice day, and the team was trying to get in a practice session before the rain, which was threatening in the eastern sky, started to fall in earnest.  A game was coming up against a good Saint Cloud club and every man on the team wanted to beat them.  Light, intermittent showers had been falling throughout the day but there was a break in the weather around two p.m.  Although on many occasions only a few of the players made it, this session was fully attended as the local newspaper was sending a photographer to take the team’s picture.

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

Whether they would admit it or not, all of the men were looking forward to cutting that page out of the edition in which it appeared, or buying a few extra copies to keep around and show off.  There were not many opportunities for celebrity in New Munich.

The team manager was Charlie Amsden, a man born in Sauk Centre who had moved over to New Munich to work in a bank owned by his brother Michael, who was also the owner of the local baseball club.  While Michael was tall and imposing, Charlie had been crippled by an accident in his early teens and years of limited mobility had left him frail and thin.  He often looked like he was wearing clothing that was several sizes too big, usually because he just could not find items to fit his very thin frame.  The move to New Munich though had seemed to energize him and his brother had purchased a top of the line wheelchair for Charlie.  After that he was often seen zipping down the aptly named Main Street of the town and the residents liked his quick smile and dry sense of humor, especially when he applied it to himself.  He also had taken on the task of managing his brother’s baseball club and found great enjoyment in the camaraderie of the team.  As they were all assembled that day, circled around their proud owner in front of the chicken wire outfield fence of the field, Leo began his life of crime with a crippled man as his victim.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 1)

humbert at time of death

Humbert at time of death

Leo Humbert was an old man when he gave up his last secret, the one he had kept over all the years and even through all of the rather abrupt revelations about his life.  Those had started the moment he was arrested in Denver on September 23, 1967 for the robbery of two state banks in Minnesota; Grey Eagle and Loretto. Both of those robberies had happened earlier in that same year and the arrest exposed a man who had successfully hidden a long and interesting criminal past from his wife of twenty-three years, their daughter and everyone else with whom they associated.  They knew him as the simple, very successful and soft-spoken traveling salesman who lived with them on 39th Avenue Northeast in Saint Anthony, Minnesota, accompanying them to church at Victory Lutheran every Sunday.  Leo was an average looking man, five foot nine and around one hundred and sixty pounds with thinning brown hair that formed a stark window’s peak on his pale forehead.  His features were sharp, with his blue eyes piercing you when he was serious and lighting up when he laughed.  He was diligent, kind and caring, although often absent due to his work and sometimes a little too distracted by newspapers.  When he was home, his early morning walk down to the newsstand was mandatory, regardless of wind, rain, snow or any other inconvenience or obligation.  He would return to the house to read them in detail at the kitchen table, drinking repeated cups of dark, thick coffee and nibbling on saltine crackers.  That was about all they knew of him until the call he made from the Denver jail on September 25th, informing his wife Amanda that he needed to explain a few things.

He had not told her everything, supposing I think that his version would be the only one she might hear.  That turned out not to be true at all, especially as the agents of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension did an excellent job of questioning her in detail about his life.  Even though she had not known him until 1943 they seemed intent on figuring out if she happened to know about anything he may have done before that, and they had plenty of questions about what he had been up to since.  Her answers had been simple and straight-forward; she knew nothing, could not imagine him doing anything like robbing a bank, and certainly did not think he had committed any other crimes.  The investigators eventually left her alone but not before much more of her husband’s story had become obvious to Amanda.

Leo Humbert picture

Leo Humbert

Leo Humbert was born on March 7th, 1901 and managed to stay out of any significant trouble with the law for exactly twenty years and two hundred twenty-five days.  His arrest on that morning, October 18, 1921, for an embezzlement scheme that netted him four years in prison, set off a long run of crime and punishment that occupied the next twenty-two years of his life.  Along the way he stole cars, forged documents, trafficked in stolen goods and ultimately began robbing banks.  His most notorious known robbery was of the Meire Grove bank, which he held up twice in the space of five weeks, along the way picking up an accomplice by the name of John Williams.

humbert and williams wanted poster

Humbert and Williams wanted poster

The two of them also managed an escape from the Stearns County jail and spent time on the run with a two hundred dollar bounty on their head.  Eventually they were caught and Leo received a life sentence in 1929, which he began serving at Stillwater State Prison.  Things went well enough for him there that he received parole in 1937 but he only made it a few months before being returned due to violations of his release.  After that he stayed there until 1943, when he received another chance at parole and began the life with which Amanda thought she was familiar.

humbert at parole 1943

Humbert at parole 1943

He had kept his past a complete secret from her and she had been devastated by the revelations of the agents as well as what she started reading in the newspapers.  Reporters, along with detailing the sordid details of Leo’s crimes, had dug up the fact that he had married a stripper from the Gay 90’s nightclub in downtown Minneapolis.   That marriage had taken place in Albuquerque just the year before his arrest, on what Amanda had believed to be one of Leo’s business trips.  This revelation had been enough for her, and she had taken her daughter and moved away into obscurity and sorrow.  Those reporters had also managed to find an entry in the Who’s Who of Commerce and Industry that listed the high school drop-out and career criminal Leo Humbert as a doctoral graduate from Duke University and a retired Army colonel.  That entry still remains a mystery.

His story is interesting of course, and certainly caught my attention for a few long hours of research one Sunday.  It would have ended there except for the fact that I also turned up a journal entry from a guard at the Hennepin County Jail.  Leo had been transported back to Minnesota by the US Marshal’s service after his arrest in Denver and he was housed in that county jail, awaiting a hearing on the bank robberies.  This guard had been on duty the night of Sunday, October 22nd 1967, the night that Leo was reportedly found unresponsive in his cell.  He would die that night, just a few hours later,  and the official reporting has always referenced insulin shock as a possible cause of death.  That seemed plausible as, although no medical history supported it, Leo had told Hennepin County officials during his admitting process to the jail that he was a diabetic.  This guard’s journal entry seemed to tell a different story:

10/22/67

On duty today at jail – the usual for most of the shift.  Around 7 pm I took my break and left Chaz (the new kid) at the gate.  When I got back, he stated that a doctor had come to check on Humbert (a bankrobber brought in from Denver for a stick-up job in Grey Eagle).  Stupid kid – no medical visits that late at night except for emergencies and there weren’t none of those.  Went to check on the guy but it was too late – eyes were rolling back in his head.  I got to him just before he passed out.  He grabbed my collar and said something but I couldn’t hear it.  He said it again – still not sure but I think it was ‘that hotel fire, 1940, murder, look up the clock-maker.’  Weird stuff – might have been 1914 he said but the rest I’m pretty sure about.  Covered for the kid of course (he hadn’t even made the faker sign the book so wasn’t much to it).  They’re saying it’s a diabetes thing – here’s hoping to that sticking.

…to be continued

A Faraway Song (Part 30)

That is where I left it all of those years ago, taking with me a head full of questions, a real feeling of having left things unresolved and that little toy car as a memento of my adventure.  I had left reluctantly but also had sensed the danger I was in, a strange feeling that I would have thought impossible to experience in the civilized world.  On my long drive back to my regular life I had vowed to go back at some point and keep seeking answers, much more brave as the distance between myself and Clyde Forks increased.  I never did of course, life taking over and the pressing need to solve the mystery fading softly away.  I would go back to it occasionally, usually triggered by some other event in my life, but it always seemed very distant and remote, all the burning questions consumed by time.  I would dream about Clyde Forks sometimes, or some member of the cast of characters I had met, or stay up an extra few minutes wondering about my experience up there.  Most of the time I found it hard to believe I had been so wrapped up in it, or so convinced of a great conspiracy.  It was a just an innocent small town, weird for sure, but innocent.

That was right where I was with it when I happened upon that podcast.  That program detailed the disappearance of a young boy from an area near Calabogie.

article courtesy re cbc.ca

A good, quick summary is also available here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disappearance_of_Adrien_McNaughton

Listening to that podcast brought everything back in a wave of memory and those old events suddenly seemed much clearer than before.  That led me to digging through a pile of old boxes until I found the journal I had kept on that trip.  Sitting down and reading it left me with those questions I posed at the beginning of this story.  How could I have just left and stopped looking into what happened up there?  And, what did it all have to do with this missing boy?

The End…for now

A Faraway Song (Part 29)

I heard a faint sound to my left and realized that Mabel was speaking, much too lowly for me to hear.  I knelt down by the side of her chair, trying to catch what she was saying.  She had a sad but defiant look on her face and was staring not at me, but at the reverend.  I think she realized I had not heard her as she cleared her throat and resumed speaking a little more loudly, more like a loud whisper now.

“Children are precious, and important.  And in some places they are rare.  They are what brings light and joy.”
“I think we can all agree to that,” stated the reverend.

I waited for her to continue, to finish, but nothing happened.

“So, you are going to be part of this cover-up too?” I asked her.  “Why did you bother to help me then, to give me the clue about the red crow?  That’s a big part of what got me tangled up in this in the first place.  Why?”

I got no answer and tried again but she remained silent.  Finally the reverend took me gently by the arm.  I stood up slowly.

“Listen, it’s really time for you to go.  Like Mabel said earlier, we got you a few answers, not many and not all of them that you wanted I know, but a few.  That’s all you’re likely to get.  You have to leave.”

“I guess you got your answers and that’s good enough then?” I snapped back at him.

“That’s unkind,” he replied, although he looked just a little bit guilty.

I stood there, feeling unfulfilled, and staring out through the window into the church parking lot.  This little bit of information only seemed to make the remaining questions seem even more important, more urgent.  I really believed that a child was being hidden in this community but at the same time I had no definitive reason to believe that anything illegal had taken place. Who was this child, and to whom did it belong? What was the exact nature of this supposed evil presence in the area?  Was it real or the fantasy of a heartbroken old man?  Or was it something else? There did not seem to be anyone willing to help me figure these things out.  And then there were a bunch of other questions, much smaller and less important, but they still made me feel crazy to think of them going unanswered.  Maybe this place really did just have a much different way of living, of acting and of protecting its children.  Perhaps the evil did not exist at all, or was just an exaggerated myth. It could be that I had managed to stumble into the quirkiest place in the world.  It just all seemed so strange and weird.

I had to try one more time.

“Reverend, what else do you know about this place.  You claim to know nothing but then you seem to have some information.  You tell me that you just got here, even Otto called you a, I think it was a placeholder, but then you knew to come and rescue me today.  You make vague allusions to other things you might know.”  I made sure he was looking at me before I finished.  “What are you really doing here?”

He smiled at me.  “I’m an outsider here, just like Otto said.  I might know a few things, information passed down from the religious men who were here before me, but mostly I’m just observant. That and curious.”  He winked at me and gave a very small laugh.

“I am too, and I just want to figure this whole thing out.  What’s the difference?”

“I belong here, or at least I am part of the fabric and culture of this place.   They expect one temporary religious man to always be present.  You’re not part of it, and there is nothing that can change that.  I’m sure you’re not satisfied but it really is time to go.  If it makes you feel better, remember this though as you leave.  This talk today, it helped me too, gave me a little closure on my own experience at the mine.  I guess her spirit must still be there.  I think that is going to help me a lot.  So thank you for that.  Now, go and forget about this place, and please don’t talk about it.  Give this place it’s peace.  I’ll watch the kaleidoscope up here for you.”  He made the twisting motion with his hands and opened the door.   “You’ll be safe getting to your truck.  Otto might be mad at you but he’ll be watching and won’t let any harm come to you.”

“I, listen, I just,”

“Son, your little temporary adventure is over.  It’s time to go.”  His voice conveyed a feeling of finality and also of warning.  I shook my head but stepped out the door.  It  had just about closed behind me when I pushed it back with my hand.  I peered inside and spoke to Mabel.

“What was her name, that girl that went missing down in the mine.”

“Her name was Melody.”

…to be continued

A Faraway Song (Part 28)

That brought me to a stop for several seconds but then I recovered.  “You mean, like, more than one?”

“Yes,” Otto replied.

“So, when I was talking to him he said that six people had gone missing, or maybe it was seven.”  I stopped and tried going back in my memory, sticking up my fingers as I recounted the individuals in my head.  Then I continued.  “Ok, well, I think he said six, but then it was seven, and well, either way, there was always one that he didn’t want to talk about.”

A look passed between Mabel and Otto, one which both the reverend and I caught.  Neither of them spoke so I went on.

“So, are those the people that were his relatives? All of them?”

Otto seemed to be considering whether he would answer and Mabel whispered, “Go ahead” to him, which got her a glare in reply.  He did speak though.

“Well, I don’t know exactly what he told you about but it was probably mostly about them people he was related to.  Some miner was the first, his brother, just vanished one day right as they were closing up the camp around the mine.  Then another couple of miners, or laborers maybe, one of them was his uncle.  And crazy Hattie of course, that was his sister.”

“Crazy Hattie?”

“Bat-shit crazy woman who used to wander around this area, muttering to herself, stripping off clothes and setting them on fire, walking around naked after that.  Your friend from the house was forever bringing her clothes but she’d just end up burning them again a few days later or tearing them to shreds.  I never did figure out how she ever survived a winter, but she did, quite a few actually.  But then one day he found her campsite abandoned, no trace of her around, then or ever.”

“Maybe she lived in his house in the winter?”  Mabel asked but Otto did not reply.

“So those three?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“What about the rest of the people he talked about?  I think it was a boy and a old woman?”

“I answered your question, isn’t that enough?” Otto snarled back, a little bit of spittle jumping out of his  mouth.

“I’m just wondering about the others.  Did those other people really go missing?”

Mabel reached over and touched my arm, giving Otto a cautionary look as she did so.  “More people than that have turned up missing, and I’m sure they included those other ones you mentioned.  I think Otto was just telling you that there were three relatives that disappeared and that is what started the whole evil presence thing.”

“What about the one that he refused to talk about?  I tried a couple of times but he never told me.  Do you know about that person?”

Otto stood up quickly.  “Enough of this!  I answered his question reverend, now keep your promise and make him go away!”

“I’m not leaving until I get more answers!” I shouted back.

Otto turned, about to storm off I suppose, but the reverend spoke up.

“Please, let’s just get this done with, okay?  I don’t think that a little more information here is going to hurt.  Please.”

Silence followed and then Otto returned to his seat.  He wiped the side of his mouth with one pale finger and then spoke.

“It was a girl, one that was living with him.  A relative had dropped the child off one day and then never came back.  She was…’” he went silent without finishing, a faraway look in his eyes.

I wanted to press him but something about that look kept me silent.  He resumed speaking.

“She was ours, all of ours.  He couldn’t take care of her right, well not right exactly, just completely, like she should have been taken care of.  He was too old.  So we all helped look after her.  She was ours, a child for this place.  Ours.”

I did not think he was finished, and he did continue several moments later.  “Then, one day, she was gone.  Not a sign of her anywhere except this doll she played with, a golden-haired doll with a pink dress.”  Otto clenched his eyes closed, tightly, and shook his head.  I glanced over at Mabel, who was not hiding her tears.  The reverend was wide-eyed and staring intently at Otto and I.

“That doll, they found it on the path to the mine.  And that’s all I know and all you need to know.  Now leave!”  Which is what Otto did, slamming the office door behind him.

The reverend leaned back and let out a very large sigh.  “Well, I can’t say I expected any of that.  What a story.  Is it true?”  He asked this while looking at Mabel, who had still not bothered to clean up her face.

“Yes, it is,” she whispered back.

We all sat there in silence for almost five minutes, then I spoke up.

“You know, I still don’t know about the real mystery around here.”

“You got some answers, isn’t that enough?” the reverend replied.

“Not really. I’m sorry, but it isn’t.  The thing I really want to know is who lives in that house with, well, the guy I call Brown Suit?”

“I’m not sure anyone does son.  Maybe it’s just your imagination, maybe you are a little too wrapped up in this whole thing that you see as such a mystery.  Don’t you think that you might just be making that part up?”

“No, I don’t.  I felt like someone else was there when I was in the  house, and I heard it later with my own ears.  I heard a child, right here, right on that street back there,” I replied while pointing back in the direction of Cemetery Road.  “What is the big secret here?”

…to be continued

A Faraway Song (Part 27)

He remained silent, staring at the reverend who stared right back at him, one eyebrow raised.  Otto breathed heavily, grunted and then spoke.

“Yes.  But that’s got nothing to do with any of the matter you are so worked up about.  She was just a missing girl and I saw her in a car.”

“Are you sure it was her?  The report I read,”

Mabel cut me off.  “Listen, it’s not relevant as Otto already said.  We’ll get you a few answers, but it will likely be a very few and you shouldn’t waste them on that Wilson girl.  Otto here is a good man but protective of this place.”  She had a kind look on her face but the tone in her voice was less friendly, much more matter-of-fact. I took her suggestion to heart and spent a minute trying to compose my thoughts.

“So, are you part of this whole thing also?”  I asked her.

“I live here, so yes, I am part of this community.  Still, I’m trying to help you out a little, ok?”

“Are you really going to help me, really answer my questions?” I directed that inquiry at Otto.

He looked over at the reverend, then at me and then at the floor before answering.  “I’ll answer, maybe.  You need to leave here, that’s what I think, just leave now and don’t bother us again.  These two seem to think otherwise, like we owe you something.  If it’ll get rid of you, I’ll answer…maybe.  Why do you think we should help him anyway, reverend?”

The reverend leaned forward.  “Because I’m sure we don’t want to have anything unfortunate happen here and I think if you give him a few simple answers, well that will be enough to satisfy his curiosity.  Then he can go in peace and we all go back to our regular lives.”

“And he won’t go telling others and bringing more trouble up here?”

“I’m sure that if we answer his questions honestly that he won’t feel the need to tell anyone about anything because there won’t be anything to tell.”

I was not too sure of the truth of that statement but did my best to look like I might be able to be convinced.  The reverend urged Otto to cooperate again.

He seemed unconvinced, his face closed and hard.  He grunted and glared at me.  “Well, boy?”

“Who lives with Brown Suit?”  All I received was a blank look.  I was about to get angry when I realized that my nicknames for these people were known only to me.  “Ok, listen, nobody around here will tell me their name, or at least most people won’t.  I don’t know why, but it seems to be a thing.  I just figured her name out when the reverend said it.”  Mabel looked back at me but did not offer to add anything.  “So, I have nicknames for people.  That guy at the end of the road, the house with the big tree down in the yard?”

Otto nodded in reply, so I figured that meant he understood who I was talking about.  He, of course, did not offer me a name to use, so I went back to nicknames.  “I call him Brown Suit.  So, who lives with him?”
Otto did not answer nor did anyone else in the room.  I threw up my hands.

“This is not going to work.  I’m going back to my truck.”  I stood up but the reverend waved me back down.  “Take it easy.  Remember that this information you want, well it really isn’t any of your business although you seem to have made it that way.  I’m trying to get you a few answers but you need to be patient.  Maybe start with something else?”

I really felt like it still was not going to be very useful but I began again.

“Do people really disappear from around here?”

“What do you mean?” replied Otto.

“I mean, Brown Suit told me that a bunch of people have disappeared from this area.  He believes that the mine is haunted by some evil thing, a presence that, well, I guess he believes it lives in this area.  He thinks it travels around and he follows it, trying to feed this thing his rabbits.”  I was met with silence which I thought meant they did not understand what I was saying so I added, “you know, so that the evil thing eats the rabbits instead of people.  He thinks it feeds on life energy or something like that and that he can substitute rabbits for people because all life has this energy.”  More silence followed that, which is when I realized that it was because I was not telling them anything they did not already know.  It was just the silence of people listening to a well-known story.

“So, then, people do go missing from here?”

Otto looked over at me, waited a few moments and then spoke.  “A few people went missing, sure they did.  People go missing from all over.  That’s not what’s making him believe in evil things.  He believes in that because of who goes missing.”

I shook my head in confusion.  “What? You said it wasn’t the people then you said it was?”

“I said who it was.”

Before I could ask again, the reverend interjected.  “I think it would be more clear to say that he believes in this evil because of exactly which people it is that go missing.”

That helped.  “Oh, so which exact people are going missing?”

“His relatives,” Otto answered and then added, “a few of them anyway.”

…to be continued

A Faraway Song (Part 26)

That shocked me but also seemed to release all the tension from my body and a wave of extreme weariness came over me.  I stopped walking and swayed a little bit, at which point the reverend grabbed my other arm and propelled me forward.

“Let’s just keep moving for now, come on.”

Several minutes later I was sitting in the church office once again, this time with Eyebrows in a chair across from me, fanning herself with a copy of a religious magazine.  I felt very tired and was fighting to keep my attention on the moment as a long nap sounded like a much better option. The reverend stayed near the door, staring out the window for five minutes before joining us.  He sat down heavily in his chair and rubbed his hand across his forehead.  Eyebrows got up immediately, casting a hard look his way and muttering, “we all need something to drink, don’t you think?” under her breath.  She returned with a tray full of glasses and a pitcher of ice water, pouring one for each of us.  I had just started to drink when a sharp knock sounded from the door, startling me enough to make me choke.  Eyebrows looked at the reverend who had stood up so he could see out the small window.

“It’s Otto.  I wondered if he might show up.  It’ll be okay.”  He gave us both a small, reassuring smile and then let the man in.  I turned to look and my weariness left me.  It was Window Man.

Up close he still looked pale but not grey, which had been my initial impression of him.  His skin was actually almost translucent and waxy in appearance.  When I had run past him earlier I had caught a closer glimpse of his eyes which seemed to be shiny and less green than I had first thought them to be.  Now I saw that they were actually green with gold flecks that made them glow even in the subdued light of the church office.  He was not wearing his hat but had on a grey vest with a red feather partially sticking out of the watch pocket.  He spoke through thin, dark lips.

“I’m here to give you a simple message young man, not from those people down the road as I figure you got their message loud and clear.  This one is just from me.  You need to leave before you do some real harm to this community, or something happens to you.  Do you understand me?”  His voice was high-pitched and raspy.

I had recovered most of my wits and all of my stubbornness as he spoke, my resolution bolstered by a desire to make up for the fear I had shown earlier.

“I’m not here to harm anyone.  I just came here to check out a stupid old abandoned mine and got tangled up in all of this weirdness you have around here.  I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“This place may seem strange to you, but it’s just outside of your life experience.  Things here are just as normal for us as they have always been.”  As he finished he looked over at the reverend, then waved at Eyebrows.  “It figures you two would be the ones to come save this fella.  You two outsiders…” His voice trailed off, but then it came back, in the middle of a sentence which had obviously started in his head.  “…understand a damn thing about this place.”

Eyebrows snorted before replying.  “Don’t you be telling me who’s an outsider, Otto Clements.  I’ve been here plenty long enough to see very clearly what this place is, its beauty and its flaws.  Plenty of both, don’t ya think?”

“You’re still an outsider.  Marrying Tony never changed that.”

“Please, this isn’t getting us anywhere,” the reverend interjected.  Otto turned on him in response.

“You got nothing to say about who should or shouldn’t know things about this place.  You’re just another damn religious place-holder doing your turn in the woods.  Stay out of what you don’t understand.”

“I’m really trying to help you Otto, help you save your community as I think you just put it.  I know that you are the only one I have ever seen around here, other than Mabel,” and here he gestured toward Eyebrows, “that has shown any kindness to strangers that have passed through Clyde Forks.  That’s why I thought you might show up after what just happened out there.  And I also know that you aren’t a violent man and don’t want to see any kind of mob action take place here in this community that you care about so much.  So, let me help you get this young man on his way.”

Otto scowled back, then replied.  “You sure that you can convince this boy to leave here before something happens that can’t be undone?”

I spoke up before the reverend could reply.  “You think all these missing people are just normal?  You think that hiding children is some kind of innocent weirdness that I don’t understand?  I’m going to get some answers or.”  I stopped before finishing, as “die trying” seemed like a very bad choice of words given the earlier events.  “Well, I’m going to figure it out.”  I finished with that instead.

The reverend stood up and motioned to Eyebrows.  “Mabel, can you get a chair from the foyer please?”

She nodded and left the room as the reverend turned to Window Man.  “Otto, I know you mean well and that’s why I thought you might follow us here.  You know as well as I, honestly much better than I, that there are things about this place which would probably strike any rational person as strange.  At least, anyone who did not come from here.  A lot of those things have simple explanations that are much more innocent than they might appear.  I think we can clear up this matter a little bit for this young man and then get him safely on his way.  Can you help me with that?”

As Otto silently considered that, my brain was trying to figure out why his name sounded familiar.  Eyebrows, or Mabel as I now knew her to be, returned and set a chair directly behind him.  He was sitting down when it came to me.

“Otto Clements?  Is that you?  Are you the guy who reported the two-tone Dodge to the police when they were looking for Jenny Wilson?”

 

…to be continued

Faraway Song (Part 25)

I eyed each person as I approached them, my stomach turning in nervous anticipation of unknown possibilities, looking for any sign of immediate danger.  The first person I passed I had not seen before, a stocky, dark-haired man with a fat face and thick forearms that stuck out of the torn-off sleeves on a faded plaid shirt.  He grunted with every breath, his nostrils flaring and sweat running down his forehead.  Then came a couple I was also unfamiliar with, both of whom glowered at me from behind identical pairs of horn-rimmed glasses.  Than Mr. Overalls and a short, thin woman with a ruddy face and poorly dyed, but very bright red hair.  He stomped a foot down as I approached, causing me to jump, which seemed to amused Red Hair.  Another man, greasy and grimy from top to bottom, emerged from the auto parts garage behind them and spat in my direction.  A few more steps up the road stood what I figured to be my real threat.  Shotgun and the man standing with him.  It could not have been his father, as I had learned he was dead, but maybe an uncle or other close relative.  They looked remarkably similar, and equally threatening.

I have to admit that I almost lost my nerve at that point, almost turned and ran back toward Brown Suit, back down the gauntlet of people who seemed like friends compared to what I now expected to encounter.  A brief wave of nausea passed over me and I clenched my mouth, purposely biting my tongue to give me something else to think about.  The billowing colors up near Clyde Forks Road caught my eye again and now I could see that it was Eyebrows who was standing with the reverend.  Would she really let something happen to me?  Would these people actually do something terrible to me with those two watching them?  Were the reverend and Eyebrows even on my side, or were they simply the final part of this community action? I was not sure but thought it a bad sign that neither her nor the reverend seemed willing to walk down the road to be with me.

I resumed walking, a quiver in my knees, taking four steps before Shotgun moved the weapon from its resting place in his arms and leveled it at the ground off to my right.  It did not move from there as I approached him and the man who was with him did not move either.  Both sets of their eyes locked with mine and the message was clear.  Don’t come down this road again.  As I passed them, Shotgun starting swinging the weapon, keeping it aimed at the road just a little bit behind me.  I could feel my stomach clenching and I was soaked in sweat by the time I had moved twenty feet further.  Finally the weapon stopped tracking my progress and a  wave of relief swept over me.  I paused, bending over to rest my hands on my knees.  Before I could think about it, I promptly threw up in the road, my mind taking that moment to be worried about what kind of impression that was leaving on these people.  Wiping my mouth, I glanced back and saw the man next to Shotgun start to move the weapon off of his hip.  I took off running immediately and did not stop the rest of the way, passing about ten other people at whom I did not even look.  As I approached the sinking brick house, the last one on the road, I noticed that Window Man was there, leaning on his mail box but seemingly noncommittal about being involved in delivering the community’s message to me.  He settled for a short nod in my direction and then turned back toward his house.  Ten feet later I staggered to a stop in front of the reverend and Eyebrows and sunk to the ground, breathing heavily.

The two of them were silent as I recovered, my breathing finally settling down although a tremor remained in my body, some residual effect of the fear I had felt coming up Cemetery Road.  Finally, about three minutes after I had collapsed, Eyebrows reached down and took my arm, a gust of wind swirling her multi-colored shawl around my face.  With a little extra effort I managed to stand up and she kept hold of me, guiding me out of the intersection and east toward the church.  I could hear the reverend a few paces behind us, his shoes crunching against the road gravel.  I started to protest.

“My truck, let me get my truck.”  I pulled my arm but Eyebrows tightened her grip.

“We need to get you away from here.  I will come back and get it in a minute, once we have you inside,” the reverend replied, his voice soft but insistent.

“Just let me, well, ok, I guess.”  It did seem like a good idea to get inside somewhere safe.  “What the hell, sorry, heck, was that all about anyway?”

“I would call it a fast application of my warning to you,” the reverend answered while patting my back, “a very fast application.”

“You mean about the evil thing, the kaleidoscope?”

“Yes, that.”

We were almost out of the intersection of the two roads, and I turned my head quickly to look at my tormentors one more time.  The shawl was still swirling in the breeze and I had to reach up with my left hand and push it away.  I felt better, just a little bit defiant, making up for my fear I suppose, and I thought about flipping the bird to the people who had made me feel that way.  As I pulled the shawl down, ready to face them, I was surprised to see that Cemetery Road was empty.

 

…to be continued