|Now that every footstep brings
me closer, the madness of it still drives me on, in spite of the chill wind and the biting
sleet. Although it is but mid-afternoon, it feels like midnight. Only the
crunch of the snow beneath my feet breaks through the silence. Here on this dull
winter day of 1970, at last having found the courage to come this far, I cannot turn back
until I have satisfied the morbid curiosity that has nagged at me for nearly fifty years.
The unexpected layover of my westbound train in this small Indiana town that was
my boyhood home was the final impetus that sends me in furious pursuit of God himself
knows what. As I walk the lonely streets deserted by more prudent souls who have
sought the warm refuge of their homes, I am amazed to find how little the town has
My progress is slowed, hampered by the freezing slush, but restrained as
well by the weight of the years that have changed me from a callow youth to a man, now
nearly sixty years of age.
The obsession rooted in the last tragic year that I spent in this small
rural community, though dimmed by time and distance, has never left me completely.
Now, as I near the edge of town and draw ever closer to that damned and deserted place,
the primal scene marking all that came after, I feel the same fear and apprehension that
was my near-constant companion when I was but a seven-year-old child.
That fateful year was 1920, and it changed my life. Little did I
dream that my twelve-years-older brother Davis, in devising his foolish scheme for us to
steal a pumpkin from Neighbor Judson's field would have set us on a downward path that had
Always the weaker one, always afraid, I had wanted no part of Davis and
his daring plan. But once again, Davis won the upper hand, and I followed him,
shivering from both fear and the frigid wind that blew with unrelenting fervor across the
dark frosty fields.
Our subsequent flight from the field, pumpkins in hand, with Mr. Judson
close on our heels was what had led us into the tangled thicket that lay just outside the
cemetery fence. We had crouched in anxious concealment until Mr. Judson, brandishing
his shotgun, had finally given up in disgust.
I probably would have waited there all night, fearing Mr. Judson's
imminent return, but Davis, always more impatient, urged our return home. Chilled to
the bone, I was easily persuaded to follow. As I got to my feet, Davis, with glee
pointed out the damp piece of stone on which we had been kneeling.. The dull gray surface,
cut with crude lettering was now visible in a patch of misty moonlight.
He traced his fingers again and again over the rough-carved single word,
"WILLIS". He gave me an evil grin. "You know who this is, don't you, buried
here in disgrace, outside the cemetery?" he asked.
I hopped up quickly as if burned. "It's a grave?"
Davis laughed again with the dark lilt that I had noticed in his voice
the last year or so. "That's what it is, sissy!"
And I was out of that thicket like a shot!
I would probably have completely forgotten the incident, but for Davis
and his incessant taunting of me: how scared I'd looked and what a baby I was. I'd
certainly wanted to forget it--for I'd never heard of anyone named Willis--and I didn't
want to think about him or wonder why his grave was there. I knew, however, that it
was not normal for someone to be buried outside the cemetery proper. Mother's
relentless shaping our of spiritual lives was always high-lighted with weekly Sunday
church attendance. The hell and brimstone preaching was lavishly peppered with
references to sin and its consequences.
While I was still a faithful adherent to the regimen, Davis found more
and more excuses to attend less and less often. Mother's oft-expressed concerns fell on
deaf ears as Davis became more interested in his town friends and activities and less
willing to participate in our family routines.
It was not until a few weeks later, just before Christmas, that my
curiosity had been piqued by a bit a information overheard when Aunt Hattie, Mother's
sister, had visited us from out East.
I'd spend most of the cold, snowy evenings by the coal stove in the
kitchen, pretending to do my schoolwork, while Aunt Hattie and Mother chatted over their
chores. They'd talked mostly about family news and some about Davis spending too
much time away from the farm in "dubious" company. I paid little attention
to their conversations that mostly rehashed old stories that I'd heard many times.
But one night, a casual remark by my mother caused me to listen with
renewed interest. "Ach, Harry," Mother had said, her Germanic roots still
poking about the edges of her speech as she spoke intimately to her beloved younger
sister, "Old Mrs. Turner is finally gone; God rest her soul"
Aunt Hattie sniffed with disdain as she replied, "Died of a broken
heart, that's for sure."
Mother stopped kneading a oaf of bread and shook her head sadly.
"She held out 'till the very end, waiting, it seemed."
"The only one in Leesburg that still believed that boy innocent, no
doubt," Aunt Hattie agreed.
"She knew her boy was not a murderer or a thief," Mother
confirmed. "For over a year, she didn't hear a word from him."
"But when they found him dead last fall..." Aunt Hattie's
voice trailed off.
Mother had nodded. "She refused to believe he had taken his
own life, and she never got over it. Why, she declared until the day she died, that
Willis would somehow rise out of his grave, come back to her, and clear his name."
Just then, Mother must have realized how attentively I had been
listening, and with a knowing look to Aunt Hattie, changed the subject. But
I'd thought about their comments, long after they'd gone on to talk of other things.
The little town of Leesburg wouldn't seem so far away now, but then my
whole world encompassed only a few miles and I hadn't ever been there. I'd never
heard of a Mrs. Turner or her son Willis, but the emotion in my mother's voice and my
frightening experience with Davis had made an impression on me that did not soon pass.
That night, after Davis had come home, and we'd gone to bed in our
drafty attic room, I'd made the mistake of repeating to him what I'd overheard Mother
saying to Aunt Hattie.
He'd laughed and gave me a wicked leer as he shucked off his thick wool
pants, the legs stiff with frozen snow. I'd turned my head to avoid his breath that
smelled so strongly of spirits, but he'd not denied knowledge of Willis.
After that, it became his favorite subject for ridiculing me.
Whenever he was annoyed, which was often, he'd bring up Willis' name. I'd cover my
ears, but Davis would beat on me, until I gave up and took my hands away. Then he'd
whisper, "When Willis walks..."
The holidays came and went, and Aunt Hattie returned home. We had
a brief January thaw, and the afternoon air turned balmy, almost spring-like. I was
playing in the barn with one of the farm cats and her new litter of kittens.
The sun streaming in through the loose fitting wall boards cast beams of
warmth on the hay. I lay back in the scratchy softness and lazily watched the dust
motes floating in the sunshine, felt the kittens romping up and down on top of me and
heard the contented purr of their mother as she snuggled up against my arm. I must
have fallen asleep. I woke up to the sound of digging in the ground in one of the
stalls beneath me.
Carefully moving a bit of hay on the floor of the loft so that I could
see through a wide space in the boards, I saw Davis almost directly below me, shoveling
dirt from a corner of the empty stall. After he stopped digging, he hunched over,
and his back blocked my view of what he was doing. A few minutes later, I heard the
scattering sound of dirt being thrown, the clang of the shovel being set against the wall,
and the creak of the closing barn door.
I remained quiet for a few more minutes. Davis hadn't seen me, I
was sure, and I'd been avoiding him as much as possible. Finally, my curiosity got
the better of me, and gently unburdening myself of the clutch of kittens and their mother,
I hurried down the loft ladder.
The soil was soft and loosened now in the spot where he had been
digging, and it didn't take me long to brush it away to reveal a small metal box.
"Leesburg Bank," was embossed on the front. I rubbed my fingers over the
now gritty letters. Cautiously I opened the unsecured lid. Inside was a stack
of paper money and many coins.
A pang of fear went through me, and I quickly closed the box and
carefully re-buried it, replacing the covering of earth. I left the barn in a hurry;
I was terrified.
Why was Davis hiding all that money? From where had the box come?
From the Leesburg bank was the obvious answer, but the implications of that line of
thinking were almost beyond my young comprehension. I only knew that the connection
between this box, Davis, and Leesburg caused an aching deep in my stomach that wouldn't go
away. I tried to put the thought out of my mind, but it would come, unbidden,
whenever I let down my conscious guard.
One morning before school as I ate my bowl of oatmeal, Davis came in,
cold and out of sorts after doing the morning chores. He didn't speak to me at
first. He just poured a mugful of the deep, dark-brewed coffee that only he and
Father drank. He warmed his hands around the mug and finally looked across the table
at me. I was aware of his scrutiny, but I didn't look up to me his eyes.
"There's the little sissy," he began. "Want to go out and
look for Willis this afternoon? Want to go out by the graveyard?"
I didn't reply, and Mother's arrival in the kitchen effectively ended
the exchange. But late in the afternoon, when I had returned from school, Davis surprised
me in the barnyard as I struggled to use a saw of Father's to cut a bit of wood for a
carving project. Startled, I broke a tooth out of the saw.
Davis pounced in triumph. "Broke it, didn't you?
Well, I won't tell Father this time, if you'll come with me to visit Willis," he
For a moment I was frozen with indecision. I couldn't decide if I
was more afraid of incurring Father's wrath or going with Davis. Finally, I chose
what seemed to be the lesser of two evils, and I reluctantly dogged his heels. But
when we got to the edge of the fence row, I refused to enter the underbrush and clung
defiantly to a post of the cemetery fence.
"I'll bring him out to you," Davis taunted me and laughed as
he pushed back the branches and disappeared inside. Then there was silence. I
waited for what seemed a long, long time.
Then I called to him in a harsh whisper, "Davis? Davis, you
At last I got up enough courage to peer inside the tangled and shadowy
thicket. He was gone. A sharp rush of anger and shame swept over me. He
must have slipped out the other side, leaving me alone to scare me.
Twilight was streaking purple across the late winter sky as I hurried
off for home. Then I went about my own chores, silently fuming inside about the way
that Davis had tricked me. I dreaded thinking how he'd laugh when I saw him, only I
didn't see him again - ever.
Davis didn't return that afternoon. I didn't tell anyone where we had
gone, although I did confess to father that I had broken his cherished tool. But I
received only a brief reprimand, because that minor event had been eclipsed by a larger
worry. by the time Davis was missed a newly fallen snow had covered all the tracks
we had made, and there was no trace of our afternoon expedition.
Father was angry about Davis' absence, supposing that he'd gone into
town with some of his friends who were not welcome on our farm. And nobody thought
to ask me.
But the next day, when Davis still had not returned, Father himself went
to town, and learned that no one there had seen him lately. With the help of men
from the other farms, Father and the others had searched high and low for Davis, but they
never found anything.
I kept my mouth shut about the rest: Davis's taunts, the events of that
last afternoon, and the buried cash box in the barn. When I was finally able to slip
away to dig it up, I found that it, too, was missing. The soil had refilled the
vacated hole, and it was as if the box had never been there.
Life on our farm grew grimmer, as the realization of Davis's unexplained
disappearance settled over our family. Father made little comment, and Mother seemed sadly
resolved, but thoughts of Davis were never far from my mind.
They said Mother died of the influenza in the epidemic early the next
spring, but I was sure it was the worry over Davis that really killed her. I got the
same sickness myself, and was so weak, that Aunt Hattie who had come to care for Mother,
despaired of my recovery. The doctor had said that I lost consciousness due to my
high fever the day I fell ill, the day that Father brought to my room the new hired man
who was to take over the work that Davis had done.
"Just call me Willis," the man had said in a strange voice
when Father introduced him to me, and I fainted dead away.
Days later, when I was no longer delirious, they told me that Father had
collapsed a few days after I had, but that he never recovered. The new hired man had
taken care of the chores for a few weeks; but one day he just announced to Aunt Hattie
that he was leaving, and nobody ever saw him again. The farm, of course, was sold,
and just as quickly as things could be arranged, I went East to live with Aunt Hattie,
with never a backward glance.
And all these years, I've just kept waiting and wondering if I'd ever
hear from Davis again. But now that nearly fifty years have passed, and I've finally
gotten the chance and courage to return, I must find out the answer, although I fear I
already know. Yet, I must be certain, however much I dread the truth.
The sleet has softened now, into big fluffy flakes that fall gently to
the ground, obscuring the landscape with a chilling whiteness. The silence is deep,
and even my footfalls are without sound. I'm just outside the cemetery fence now,
and holding my breath, I push aside the snow filled thicket of branches.
I kneel and brush away the light covering of snow. The old square
stone is beneath my fingers as I trace the rough, carved letters to spell out what I
feared, yet knew it would: D A V I S...