The long road back
fiction by Ellen Denton
As often happens in small towns and rural areas, a tidbit of vague news about some odd occurrence, passed from neighbor to neighbor, over time can take on the mantle of a legend, and so it was with the story about the man who disappeared years ago in Potabella county.
The event, in the absence of any real information, accrued stories and speculations like nails to a magnet. Older brothers, escorting impressionable younger siblings home through dark woods, would often turn it into a boogie-man type tale, telling their wide-eyed sister or brother how the man was hacked into little pieces by a deranged serial killer, stuffed into a potato sack, and thrown into the river.
Around the time of the disappearance, one of the young girls who lived out at the Keppler farm had run off, leaving a note that she was going to Hollywood to seek a career as an actress. This led many of the older people to gossip about how the two must have run off together.
Most folks in the area, though, figure that if he was ever there at all, the dang fool, unfamiliar with the area, had probably wandered off into the woods for a walk, got so turned around he couldn’t find his way out, and eventually fell pray to a mountain lion, or met with some other such mishap.
Virgil Danes never thought about any of these touted tales, and at the moment, all his attention was single-mindedly riveted onto the task at hand. It had been 60 years since he had made his way down what used to be a wide path cut through the woods. Farmers hauling wood in horse-drawn carts had long since ceased using it, and now, overgrown with weeds and generations of falling leaves, even the faint outlines showing what had once been there had been swallowed up by time. That didn’t matter though. Virgil could practically have found his way blindfolded; over the years, he had made this journey over and over in restless, troubled dreams.
Of necessity, he had to progress slowly, leaning heavily on his cane with one hand while he held a shovel with the other. He winced from the pain in his hip with each step. He had put off making this trip many times and had not planned on doing it today, but his physical condition had declined to a point where he knew that if he didn’t do this now, he may never get another chance.
Purple twilight deepened, the trees pressed closer inwards overhead, and the ground dipped so much in spots that Virgil had to periodically set down the shovel and hang onto tree trunks to keep from falling as he maneuvered along the more precipitous parts of the darkening path. The last time he had been here, he was only 12 years old, and could have fairly flown the entire way.
“Come on boy! Move it!”
He hurried to the back of the wagon so he could help his father lift out the unwieldy bundle. They carried it far away from the path, deep into the woods, and set it down near a rock. His father then sent him running back to the wagon for the two shovels and the gun.
They did not speak while they dug, but as they worked, their deep, heaving breaths rasped jaggedly in the crisp air. He could not get the awful picture out of his mind of his father standing over the body, shotgun in hand. He himself had just stood there, stunned and shaking, until his father had gruffly barked out orders to him. Like an automaton, he mechanically went through the motions of hitching the mule to the wagon, bringing it up to the front door, and helping his father load the murdered man into the back. He knew even then that the memory of this day would haunt him throughout his entire life.
They rolled the body into the hole. His father then laid the shotgun on top of it and they threw back in the shovelfuls of dirt to cover it all up. His father spread leaves and brush over it until it looked of a piece with the surrounding area.
“You never come here again, boy, you understand that? You don’t even set foot on this path again, and you never talk about this, not even to me. You got that, boy?”
Virgil stared at his father a moment and swallowed hard. His father had no truck with “girly weakness and whinin’” as he called it, so he pulled in on himself hard to keep tears from reaching his eyes while his father was watching.
They did a fair job of covering up their tracks as they returned to the wagon. When they emerged onto the path, the mule turned and looked at Virgil. To this day, he could still remember the intelligent look in the mule’s eyes, forcing him to lower his own and turn away.
The man had been a traveling salesman. After he had gone missing, the county sheriff made some inquiries at the local farms on behest of the man’s family, who knew this was part of his regular route. The matter was soon enough dropped, though.
Many years later, his father lay on his deathbed and Father McKinley came to the house to give last rites. Virgil sat in a corner in the old, strait-backed, wooden chair where his father used to sit each morning to pull on his work boots. As the priest leaned in close over the bed, Virgil waited with a mixture of fear and relief, thinking his father would now at last tell about the murder, but he died before he could.
Virgil arrived at the spot near the rock where the man was buried. He ignored the grinding pain in his hip while he dug. The closer he got to what he sought, like an exhausted swimmer from a sunken boat who, upon seeing the shore in sight gains a final burst of energy, the faster he was able to go.
After so many years, there was little left but bone, the gun, now half metal and half rust, and unidentifiable shreds of other things. He used his cane and the shovel to poke around in the remains and lift out as many objects as he could find. Among them was a small, metal case. He knew what this was and forced himself to open it; there was an I.D. inside, almost faded to illegibility. He lit a match and peered at as much of the name as could be made out: Jo– W–li-ms. There was also a faded photo of a young girl; a wife? A sister? Virgil’s breath caught in his throat. He had never known the man’s name, and once again, the reality that this had been a living person with a family hit home to him.
He left the shovel at the grave; it had served its purpose. He made his way slowly back through the dark, and eventually arrived at a paved road where his car was parked. He drove the short distance home and, exhausted, collapsed into bed. When he awoke the next morning, he could not recall the last time he’d had such deep and peaceful sleep.
When he was shown into the Sheriff’s office later that day, he carefully laid the gun and other objects recovered from the grave onto the man’s desk. There was the metal case with the photo and still partially readable I.D., some keys on a metal keychain shaped like a four-leaf clover, and an engraved pocket watch.
“Sheriff, there was a killing 60 years ago. This here’s the man’s effects, and that’s the gun that killed him. He may still have family left somewhere who might like to know what happened to him. I’ll tell you the whole story.”
In preparation, the Sheriff pulled out a pad and pen from his desk and asked Virgil if he’d like some coffee. While he was out of the room getting it, Virgil, as he had so many times through his life, replayed the events of that terrible day over again in his mind.
The man, a farm machinery salesman, had been there twice before. The other times his father had not been home. That day he was, but he was out in the barn. The way the man always touched Virgil was not right. He’d heard about things like this, and it just wasn’t right.
The gunshot sounded deafening in the small kitchen and made him reel backwards with shock. He was then so hypnotized by the bizarre sight of a geyser of blood spurting from the place where the man’s head used to be that he didn’t even hear his father come up behind him. He only registered his presence and turned his head to look at him when his father reached around and gently, protectively, took the gun out of Virgil’s hands.
Ellen is a freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two demonic cats that wreak havoc and hell (the cats, not the husband).
This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.