The Haunting of Bowen Corners
The day started off ordinarily enough. That is, until a bevy of teen-aged girls stampeded into the kitchen of High Sheriff Loren Kregs' farmhouse. One of them, Swanna Wendler, belied her incredible announcement by her calm demeanor.
"We saw a ghost in the cemetery!" she coolly declared. However, the other girls appeared terrified.
When the girls burst into the house, Loren's wife, Verony, almost dropped the cake she was icing. Loren would have felt its loss. Due to the World War II sugar shortage, the cake condemned him to weeks of bitter coffee substitute. Tomorrow, the first Sunday of June, 1944, decked with creamy frosting, it would grace a dessert table at the annual church dinner. What a time for an intrusion; just when he was about to lick the icing bowl.
Summer workers from the Jarvan farm, the intruders walked past the sheriff's home most Saturday nights, hiking the two miles to Collins for a movie and soda. Always returning in darkness, they used his veranda as a halfway rest stop. Some ten minutes earlier, after walking home in company with the boys from the farm the couple's only child, sixteen-year-old Marty "Butch" Kregs, had announced his arrival with his customary slam of the screen door. He then scaled the steps to his bedroom two at a time. Drawn back down by the excited voices, he now stood on the bottom landing, observing the girls mob his father's strapping frame.
Retaining vestiges of the blithe, college, football hero he once was, fortyish Loren was informal to a fault. A stickler that his deputies be fully uniformed and armed, he hardly ever conformed to his own code. He went without a tie and sidearm, wore various combinations of official and civilian garb, kept his sleeves rolled to above the elbows, and almost never observed protocol; nevertheless, his badge always was prominently displayed, the only visible proof of his office.
Despite these quirks, he held the deep respect of his constituency, especially that of his deputies. Now, however, the brawny, six-foot-three sheriff seemed like a befuddled giant besieged by Lilliputians. His perplexity at being pressed by the budding girls was decoded by his sonsy wife, who noticed his long fingers combing through his receding ash blond hair. Removing her apron, she sauntered to the group.
"Quiet!" The girls turned in astonishment. Even Loren's baby-blue eyes expressed shock.
"Wait in the parlor!" Meekly, the visitors filed from the kitchen, followed by Butch.
Amused, Verony teased, "Your rescued, sheriff. Grab some glasses. I'll get refreshments."
The girls flopped on an enormous oriental rug that centered the spacious parlor. Delegating the glasses to Butch, Loren eased himself into the flowery patterns of a deeply cushioned sofa. When Verony was settled next to him, he asked, "What happened?"
The response exploded from Swanna, "Are you deaf, Mr. Kregs? I told you! There's a ghost in the cemetery!"
"Whoa! Watch your tongue!"
"I'll speak as I wish, Mr. Kregs!" Swanna's searing stare would have curdled the milk of an entire dairy herd. Her nose wrinkled, as though Loren had halitosis.
Loren turned to the others. "Maybe what you saw was a dog or a . . ."
"Don't ignore me, Mr. Kregs! It was a ghost! Do something about it!"
Verony saw Loren's jaws clench. Her touch checked him. "Please listen, Swanna," she requested.
"Owls hunt in the cemetery." Loren continued, "They . . ."
"I said it was a ghost, Mr. Kregs; all in white! Do something!"
Loren threw up his hands. Discretion advised him to close the interview before he did something that might end his career. He nudged Butch, who was sitting on a sofa arm, infatuation for Swanna etched on his face. "Did you boys pull a prank?"
Embarrassed at being caught with a puppy-dog look on his face, Butch only shook his head.
"Okay, girls. Butch'll drive you home."
"It really was a ghost, Mrs. Kregs," one of the girls whimpered.
"The sheriff will check into it, Debbie. Won't you dear?"
Verony's hazel eyes telegraphed the response she expected. Loren's were eyes were saturnine. He nodded.
"Why would you blame Butch, Mr. Kregs?" Swanna asked.
"Into the truck, Swanna."
"I'll walk, Mr. Kregs."
"Get in now!"
"You needn't shout! I'm going!"
Friendly, outgoing Loren Kregs was born on his parents 200 hundred acre farm, one-quarter mile from the intersection of Bowen and Versailles roads; Bowen Corners. He loved the place; nonetheless, after earning an advanced degree in criminology, he entered law enforcement and then married, Verony, his high school sweetheart. When Loren inherited the farm, they moved into its rambling house and, with the outbreak of war, the land was rented to Dwain and Ken, the eldest sons of Loren's alter ego, Roger Jarvan.
In renting the acreage, the Jarvans were complying with the government's request for increased farm production. By renting Loren's land more than doubled the yield of their farm. However, the war had caused a farm labor shortage. Planting the added acreage was tinged by the concern of finding enough workers for the harvest. So like other farmers, each spring the Jarvans recruited city women with teen-age children to gather crops, trucking them, together with furnishings, to hastily built, farm shanty communities. There they lived while they gathered crops until the beginning of the next school year.
In addition to his law enforcement duties, Loran served as a member of the local draft board, a position that often impacted his attitude toward the youth. Throughout his long tenure as sheriff, he always was markedly tolerant with kids, often to the exasperation of the victims of their high-spirited monkeyshines. Now, the war made him more so. The front windows of several Cayuga County homes displayed gold stars, indicating a member killed in action. A lump filled his throat whenever he saw one; he knew most of the boys those stars represented.
The death of Daniel Mancione, the county's first gold star casualty, especially devastated Loren. Not waiting to be drafted, after high school, Marcione enlisted in the Air Force. A mathematics wiz he trained as a navigator, received his wings and an officer's commission, then was sent to England. Not long after, while returning from a mission, his bomber attempted a landing with two engines in flames. It exploded, killing its entire crew.
Before the war, the high-spirited, prankish Marcione often served "The Kregs Alternative," a program of the Sheriff's Department. Subscribed to by all of the county justices and the district attorney, it permitted kids to make restitution and perform community service, in lieu of the more serious consequences that could result from their inoffensive pranks, inadvertently gone awry. Thus their records remained unblemished.
There were other things Loren recalled about Danny Marcione: he never was disrespectful to his elders. He always accepted his discipline without complaint, never denying that he deserved it. Moreover, he fulfilled his Alternative assignments to the best of his ability. Yes, Danny was a high-spirited kid, who loved to play pranks. Yet, they always were done in a spirit of innocent fun. And if he was caught, he accepted the consequences with a good-natured grin.
Swanna, though, was a new experience for Loren: it was the first time during his service as sheriff that any kid ever defied him. As he now watched through the screen door, he noticed only she was occupied the wide truck cab with Butch. He understood the boy's infatuation. The girl was gorgeous. Too bad her attitude didn't match.
Loren was sure it was an animal the girls had seen. It also was possible they were victims of heightened imaginations. What did city kids know of dim roads rimmed by swaying shadows, or of nocturnal animals prowling dark fields in search of a meal, or of a muted moon shadowed by wind-swayed trees? They easily could have been fooled.
"Investigate a ghost!" he bellowed to Verony, "I'll be put in a loony bin if I go to a cemetery searching for a ghost!
Verony was amused. "I'll go with you, honey, so you won't be alone in your loony bin."
"You think it's funny!" Loren sullenly responded. We'll see how funny it is come Election Day and I'm laughed out of office!"
"Honey, how did we get all the way from girls who were frightened by a boys' prank, to your loosing the election for checking out a complaint about the old cemetery?" Verony chided.
Loren assumed a hangdog look. "If rudeness was a crime, Swanna'd get life in Alcatraz!" he muttered, "Okay, let's go,"
As usual on Tuesday mornings, the large, round table at the rear of Frank's Country Kitchen was surrounded by an informal gathering of farmers and other locals, including Loren and the Jarvans.
Word of Loren's graveyard investigation was the current topic and he was the butt of good-natured teasing. Before Loren entered, Frank - the eatery's corpulent proprietor - and Bob Stroggen, whose large dairy farm straddled Versailles road concocted a prank. Frank waited until Loren and his friends were served, then, poured himself a cup of coffee and joined them.
Assuming a deadpan demeanor, he asked, "Say, sheriff what's this about a ghost in your house? I hear you're investigating it. I didn't know you believed in ghosts!"
"Frank, I've taken enough ribbing this morning. Some boys played pranks on some city girls, who told me they saw ghosts in that old graveyard at Bowen Corners. That's all!"
Grimacing, Loren paused before adding "There aren't any ghosts."
Apparently taken aback by Loren's declaration, Frank responded, "You don't believe in ghosts, but I sure do! My grandmother used to get rid of them by casting holy spells. She taught me how."
Bob Stroggen listened attentively. Sensing this was the moment to pull the joke, he called out, "Just a minute, Loren, I've been listening to Frank toot his horn about knowing those spells. Let him prove it."
Loren hand fanned the air. "I haven't time for this garbage."
"Come on. Let's call Frank's bluff."
After tossing a graphic gesture, Loren left.
Loren had dropped by Jarven's office for a chat. Roger's son, Mark, also was there, consulting his father on family affairs. "Well, the girls on your place won't see any more ghosts, no matter what Swanna claims. My problems with her are over."
"But not ours," Roger responded.
Sporting the logo of a farm machine company, the cap on Roger's head, when compared to his studious features, was a study in contrast. A homburg would have better suited the public accountant.
Unlike Loren, Roger enjoyed working the family farm; however, selecting the most prestigious scholarship offer his brilliant scholastic achievements had brought him, his parents enrolled him in a university at Boston. He earned a summa cum laude master degree in accounting, and was offered a teaching fellowship by the college. Instead, he chose to open an accounting practice in Collins and married Marcy. Farmers and agribusinesses throughout the state sought Roger's services. He established numerous branch offices, developing into the state's foremost authority on farm economics.
Nowadays, sadness hounded the Jarvans. Early last year, a congenital cardiac defect claimed Marcy. Somewhat simultaneously, Tommy, Roger's youngest son, was severely wounded while serving as a naval officer in the South Pacific. His wounds prompted the Navy to delay informing him of his mother's death, until he was approved for furlough. Home on leave now, tormented by a profound melancholy, he blamed himself for his mother's death.
Loren realized the last thing the Jarvans needed were added problems from a spoiled city brat. His brows knitted. "Why isn't your problem with Swanna over?"
"The mothers asked us to drive the girls from town every Saturday. Swanna said she'd rather walk. Now all the girls want to walk. Their mothers are fuming!" Mark explained.
"You mean the girls won't ride the truck without Swanna?"
Receiving a dejected nod, Loren combed his fingers through his hair, and then asked, "Tell me what you know about her."
Given to three-piece, pin-striped suits, and always one to assume a posture of hauteur superiority toward others, Mr. Wendler was putty in Swanna's hands; he doted on her. An only child, she was tutored at home by the best teachers his millions could hire. Knowing mostly the company of snobbish adults, she acquired the demeanor of one who viewed those outside her social standing as one views a cockroach needing extermination. Manure-smelling boots had a better chance of acceptance by Swanna, than someone she disliked!
The girl's demeanor was that of one much older than her sixteen years; even so, she was badly spoiled. Like those of her father, her dealings with the household staff were tyrannical and haughty. Outside of the family's ear-shot, the staff referred to her as, "Miss Bully-Two-Shoes."
Indeed, Swanna was in defacto control of the Wendler household. Her every whim was granted by her misguided, over-indulgent, snob of a father, in whose opinion Swanna could do no wrong. So Mrs. Wendler didn't stand a snowball's chance in Hades when Miss Bully-Two-Shoes decreed that her loyalty to her country required that she and her mother harvest crops for the war effort.
"Our boys are fighting for our country," she announced to her father, "They need food! My tutor said there's a shortage of harvest workers. Some of his students will pick crops for the war effort. I think Mother and I should help, too."
Her features haunted by an inner anxiety, Mrs. Wendler gave her husband a smile of mute appeal. "We don't have the ability for that kind of work. We can help our boys by working for the Red Cross or helping out at a U.S.O. canteen. That way . . ."
Swanna went spastic! Raking her mother with a keep-your-mouth-shut glare, she stamped her feet, hysterically shrieking, at the highest octave she could manage. "I want to pick crops! You're a traitor!"
Swanna put her arms around her father, lowering her tone to a pitiable whimper. Through pouty lips, she pleaded, "Daddy, make mommy go to a farm with me this summer. I want so much to help the war effort."
Mr. Wendler stared adoringly at Swanna, then, fixed cold eyes on his wife. "See how you've upset the poor dear? All she wants is help our servicemen. It's wonderful she's willing to pick crops."
With a backhanded gesture of disgust, Mr. Wendler declared, "Well, you're going! The country air will do you both worlds of good! I'll visit you from time to time. My secretary will make arrangements."
That did it! Mrs. Wendler's summer fate was sealed.
Mrs. Wendler soon became overwhelmed by the grueling harvest schedule. After one week, she phoned home, telling her husband that a limousine be sent to take her home.
"Does Swanna want to leave?" he asked.
"What difference does that make? I want to leave," Mrs. Wendler shot back. "I'm all aches and pains. Send a car right away."
"Let me speak with Swanna."
"She's in town."
"Does she want to leave?"
"I'm the mother; I want to leave!"
"If Swanna wants to come home, I'll send a car. Otherwise, you stay. Goodbye." With that, a telephonic replaced his voice.
In the wake of that call, Mrs. Wendler resigned herself to her summer in purgatory. Though she loved Swanna, she noticed an increasing sense of ambivalence toward her.
Swanna was keenly aware of her assets. When she joined the teens on Saturday night hikes, boys besieged her for dates. She never accepted, choosing instead to keep them in limbo. Toward other girls she behaved as a Cleopatra among handmaidens. Woe to the girl who didn't kowtow to her.
"She tries to control everyone. Even us"
Loren stood to leave. "I know the feeling."
"Please do us a small favor, Loren," Roger requested.
Moving toward the door, Loren listened dubiously. "That's some small favor!" he exclaimed, dourly. "Why not ask me to do something simple, like arrest Hitler or blow up the Japanese navy?"
Heading for his office, he jaywalked across Main Street against the light, berating himself for not having the guts to say no to Roger's favor. "The things I do for my friends!"
For over a century, the graveyard at Bowen Corners had huddled next to an ancient edifice, as though consoling its occupants, by embracing the abandoned relic that once was their church. A grove butted the building's opposite side, edging Versailles road, and then fronting on Bowen. Not even the brightness of the waxing, gibbous moon revealed the green and white patrol car camouflaged by the prolific vegetation. The officers in the car could think of things they'd rather be doing than this Saturday night, graveyard surveillance. Nonetheless, Loren had promised the Jarvans, and he always kept his word, even when it made him feel as ridiculous as he did now.
With him was Chief Deputy Billy Greenoak. Cayuga County salvaged the cemetery from oblivion by granting Marcy's request that it be her final abode. Her white, marble monument was flanked by a matching bench where visitors could pray and meditate, while reflecting on eternal mysteries.
Tonight, such enigmas occupied neither man's mind. Hunched behind the steering wheel, Greenoak sighed wearily. Each time his cigarette rose, its glow illuminated gaunt features strikingly appropriate to the vicinity. Then, like a spooked firefly, it drifted downward.
"I hear them. What's the time?" Loren asked.
Again, the glow braved Greenoak's features. Retreating to his wrist watch, it then expired between a thumb and forefinger. "Almost ten."
The lawmen positioned themselves behind some shrubbery. The moonlight revealed a troop of boys joshing their way across the intersection. Loren knew the one turning onto Versailles road was Chris Stroggen, heading for home. The boys passed the officers, their rowdiness cresting for several seconds, and then waning.
Singing feminine voices came into earshot. Soon, some twenty girls approached, their songs subsiding as they neared the Corners. By the time they crossed, they were pressing away from the cemetery, to the far side of the road. Not until they again were invisible, did their singing resume.
Loren stood. He was about to return to the car, when Billy leaped up, exclaiming incredulously, "What's that?"
Close to where the girls had faded, a barely visible white apparition emerged! "Where'd that come from?" Loren asked, disbelievingly.
Billy's lips formed a silent pucker. Brows lifted, hands extended, he slowly shook his head. The hobbling figure turned suddenly, seemed to drift over the near culvert and disappeared.
Billy gasped! "See that?" he blurted, "It floated right over the ditch! They're right! It's a ghost!"
"Don't you go yelling ghost! Get in the car; let's get down there!"
When they reached the spot where the figure vanished, Loren dissolved into sidesplitting laughter. On either side of the road wide, heavy crossovers bridged the culverts. "No crossovers at your place, Billy? Do you just over the ditches?"
Noting Billy's chagrin, he promised, "I won't tell anyone, Billy. Let's go; I've got a hunch!"
Flashlight darkened, Greenoak tracking close behind, Loren silently moved past the rear of the old church. At the edge of the graveyard, he scanned the headstones. The mysterious figure was seated on Marcy's bench, its mournful voice wafting on the night breeze. Realizing that his suspicion was confirmed, Loren felt like a sinner profaning a benediction. His instant about-face caused a collision with Greenoak, generating loud grunts that brought the figure to its feet.
"Loren Kregs and Billy Greenoak. Sorry we disturbed you."
Hobbling closer, the figure stopped, leaning heavily on a cane. It was Tommy Jarvan, wearing the white, summer uniform of a naval Commander. This was only the second time Loren had seen him since his homecoming: if the first time could be considered seeing him. Tommy had retreated to his room when Loren and his family stopped by to visit him. Though he still seemed distant, it was he who broke the awkward silence. "Checking the girls' story, Loren?"
"I was the one they saw."
"Why didn't you say so?"
"You know I'm Dad's black sheep." Tommy's deep voice betrayed an inner agony.
Loren hesitated, before firmly responding. "He asked you to forgive him. I read the letter. You didn't answer; so, what more do you expect from him, Tommy?"
When Tommy gasped, Loren worried he'd gone too far. But Roger and he always were like second fathers to each other's kids. Roger and he were so close, Marcy once observed, that when one felt pain, the other winced. Loren considered Tommy's remarks unfair to Roger.
The exchange also startled Greenoak, leaving the taciturn deputy uncertain of how to react. "Your Mom sure was proud of you, Tommy."
The words ignited an explosion from the officer. "Why, for killing her by joining the Navy?"
"That's enough!" Loren's stern tone brought Tommy up short, slack jawed.
Loren's tone softened. "You didn't kill your mother, Tommy. It's true she wanted you to continue college, but she had heart problems from the time she was a kid. Your Dad knew it. At first she refused to marry him even though she loved him. But he told her that her illness didn't change his love for her; he wouldn't marry anyone else. It took some persuasion on his part, but she finally consented and lived lots longer than the doctors predicted. I think her love for your Dad and you kids kept her going; she didn't want leave him with motherless children, so she held on until you all were grown. That took loads of love, Tommy."
Moonlight reflected from the wetness flowing down the cheeks of the young officer. He declined Loren's offer to drive him home. The lawmen drove most of the way back to town in silence. Arriving at the outskirts, Greenoak observed. "Well, Loren, the mystery's solved."
"Seems so, Billy; seems so."
Tommy Jarven inherited his father's prodigious intellect, without his ties to Collins. He wasn't yet twenty when he completed college with a summa cum laude, master degree in pharmacology, his passion. His parents wanted him to enter the doctoral program; however, a year before Pearl Harbor, he devastated Marcy and enraged Roger by enlisting in the Navy.
When Roger rebuffed him on his first leave, family contact became limited to correspondence with Marcy. After his graduation from Officers Candidate School, he was commissioned as a pharmaceutical officer. With the outbreak of war, he saw action aboard an aircraft carrier during the Battle of Midway. Shortly thereafter, he slogged ashore at Guadalcanal in command of combat corpsmen attached to the Marines.
For several months he endured Guadalcanal's nerve-shattering, jungle combat conditions. Then, while crawling under heavy fire, to rescue three Marines being raked by an enemy pillbox, he sustained near fatal wounds. Only the quick action of his own corpsmen saved him. Nonetheless, from hip to toes, his right side suffered the permanent loss of all sensation. It required months of excruciating therapy for him to finally hobble from the hospital, using a cane.
In March of 1944, he returned home on convalescent leave. Tormented by the belief that his rebellion killed his mother, he rejected his father's explanation that a congenital heart defect had taken her. His graveyard encounter with Loren now prompted him to read her letters, long stashed unopened. Trailing in the wake of his battles, they at last had caught up with him a few days before his leave. In his grief, he had refused to read them.
Just as Loren had said, there was his father's letter asking for his forgiveness. It was mailed just before the landing at Guadalcanal. Reading Marcy's final letters, he noticed the glowing pride Greenoak mentioned. And he detected something else: the subtle confirmation that what he'd been told about her death was true. Under combat conditions, it would have been easy to miss. Yet, there it was, between the lines; her very subtle message, telling him of her chronic tiredness and her desire for a quick end to the war so that they could be together again, but avoiding any mention that an imperfectly formed heart soon would claim her.
"No mother could hope for a better son. I've always been so proud of you. And I'm so very, very proud of the job you're doing in the Navy, helping to save the lives of so many of our servicemen, so they can return to their families.
"I'll love you throughout eternity, my wonderful, darling son. And I know that God will reunite us in His own time," her last letter concluded. By the time Tommy finished reading it, his tears again were flowing, wetting the pages.
That night, he revisited Marcy's grave, together with Roger, to inform her of their reconciliation. Standing beside her grave with his father, he told her, "I love you, Mom. I'm finally home."
The next morning, while the pickers waited at the shanties for Mark to arrive with the truck, Tommy drove up with Roger and Loren. Swanna alone rejected his explanation about the ghost.
"Another stupid story, Mr. Kregs?" she fumed, "It was a ghost, not this silly Sea Scout . . ."
Mrs. Wendler's forceful shove sent Swanna stumbling backward, until she solidly rear-ended the ground. Face flushed with anger, the mother glared down at her daughter. A pang of guilt plagued Loren when Swanna's gawk of disbelief, enhanced by her blushing embarrassment, increased his estimate of her mother.
Mrs. Wendler's voice dripped with indignation. Stand up right! Apologize this instant!"
The command came through a furious tone. But Swanna was afraid to stand. She just stared up at her who now appeared so formidable. Even Loren calculated that wisdom decreed nonintervention.
"On your feet!" The order was enforced by a forward step. Swanna took several backward pushes with her heels, and scrambled up.
"I told you to apologize!" The mother took another step, and Swanna whimpered a hurried, "I'm sorry."
"For what? Use their names!"
"I'm sorry for what I said, Mr. Kregs."
"He's High Sheriff Kregs!"
Swanna repeated the title, then blubbered, "What do I call the other one?"
"He is Commander Jarvan!"
"I'm sorry for what I said, Commander Jarvan!"
"Now go to the shanty. Stay inside, until I say you may leave!"
Swanna hurled through the crowd and rounded a row of shanties. Vibrating the crisp, morning air, the furious slam of a screen door announced her compliance with her mother's demand.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen," Mrs. Wendler apologized, struggling to regain her composure.
"It's not your fault," Tommy said.
With an insipid smile, Loren nodded, then headed for his car. He was accelerating when a blue stake truck barreled over the crest in the road. Mark flagged him to a crawl. "How'd it go, Loren?"
"Don't ask. You wouldn't believe it."
Strawberry season blended into bean picking time. Though Swanna constantly yammered to return home, a belated try at discipline by her father continued her demonstration of patriotism. The girls avoided her now. And Loren noticed an intense hatred consuming her eyes whenever she saw him. Tommy also mentioned being fixed by that malevolent stare.
The night before, accompanied by Loren, Roger drove him to the Niagara Falls Air Base, where Tommy piggybacked a ride on a plane bound for Seattle. No longer eligible for overseas duty because of his severe disability, he was assigned as Chief Pharmaceutical Officer of the Seattle Veterans Hospital. He now wore the eagles of a Navy captain.
Roger and Loren returned to Collins during in a soaking rainstorm. The stifling mugginess that followed permeated this second Saturday of August, until it was conquered by the evening breezes.
Enjoying the change, Loren sat with Verony on the front veranda, listening to approaching male voices. Bantering their way from town, the boys from the Jarvan farm entered the circular glow radiating from the Kregs' driveway lights. Not seeing his son, Loren called out, "Where's Butch?"
"Still at Guggin's."
The group's voices receded and Loren dozed. The sudden silence of the night creatures woke him. Their calls had been replaced by another sound.
Verony moved to the lawn. "Are those screams?"
"Yes, Girls' screams!"
Growing louder, the cries echoed from the direction of Bowen Corners. "Wait here!" Loren ordered.
"Oh, no! I'm going, too!"
Loren and Verony hadn't driven far when the headlights revealed three girls, waving frantically. They got out and more girls bolted from the darkness. Moseying calmly behind came Swanna.
Surrounded by the nearly incoherent girls, Verony demanded to know what had happened. Usually timid Debbie managed to stammer, "In gra graveyard. Two ga ga ghosts. Ca Carrie in di ditch."
A sickening apprehension stabbed Loren's gut. "You mean the culvert?"
"Yes, near the church."
A glacial freeze encased Loren's heart. Near the Corners, the culverts deepened to pass under the intersection. After a storm, even large animals occasionally drowned in them. The girl could be dead!
"Get going, Loren!" Verony demanded, her voice quavering. "I'll take the girls home in the truck."
"First radio Greenoak and phone Doc. Tell them to watch for my lights. Come with me, Debbie."
The beam from Loren's spotlights skimmed the shoulder of the road. They were nearing the cemetery when Debbie yelled, "She's there! Over there! She didn't fall in!"
Her finger directed Loren's gaze to what appeared to be a discarded bundle. Inching the car forward, he illuminated the place with the car's two spotlights. Then, handing the keys to Debbie, he instructed her to bring the medical kit from the car trunk.
Hurried to Carrie, he found 111 her unconscious, legs dangling over the ditch. Had she revived alone in the dark, the waters would have claimed her. Of that, he was sure. Not until he drew her away from the brink did his heart thaw.
The smelling salts from the kit worked instantly. Bolting upright with a snort and a saucer-eyed stare, Carrie immediately recognized Loren on his heels next to her. Clamping his neck in a chokehold, she toppled him into a sitting position, ending up in his lap. Even with Debbie's help, he couldn't break free.
And that's when Greenoak arrived, followed by Doc Krastil and his assistant, Glen. They found Cayuga County's High Sheriff sitting on the shoulder of Bowen Road. His patrol car illuminated his futile struggles to free himself from the firm embrace of a pretty girl cuddled in his lap. As though vying for his attention, a second girl assisted his efforts. Seeing the three men practically doubled over from gales of convulsive laughter, Loren bellowed, "Don't just stand there laughing through your teeth! Get her off!"
Carrie's hysteria was obvious, prompting Doc to ask what had happened. A string of roaring profanities spewed from the enraged High Sheriff. "Stop asking your stupid questions! Get me loose, she's choking me!"
It required a sedative before Glen could pry loose Carrie's grip. Doc found her physically unharmed and prescribed she rest until he ordered otherwise. Then Glen drove both girls home.
Billy and Doc turned to Loren in silent expectancy. Now that his ordeal was over, he stared back with an affected grin. "Okay, I'll tell you."
Sheepishly, he apologized for his outrage, explaining what happened. "But she really was strangling me," he rationalized.
"You rescued her, Loren. You're her hero." Doc teased.
Loren's hands fanned the air in disgust. "I should know better than to tell you anything."
"It seems you needed protection, chief," Billy quipped, "Two ghosts now, huh?"
Loren entered his car. "More like two boys in sheets."
Billy left with Doc. As Loren pulled away, he fervently hoped tonight's humiliating fiasco was only a horrible nightmare.
Loren sat in his office, glumly drumming his fingers on his desk. Having gotten wind of the incident at Bowen Corners, his political opponents dubbed him, "Lover Boy Kregs." Even the media capitalized on the smear. What had gotten into Butch and Chris? The prank could have cost Carrie her life, not to mention ruin their own. He pushed the thought away. What a mess.
Initially, both boys denied involvement in the prank. But when Verony returned home from driving the girls to the shanties, she noticed Butch's muddy shoes by the side steps. He was sitting in the kitchen, nonchalantly munching a sandwich. The muddy shoes and his forced smile roused her suspicions, so she quizzed him. He claimed his shoes were muddied as and Chris roughhoused.
Loren checked the cemetery the next day and found irrefutable evidence. One set of muddy tracks led from the graveyard, gradually disappearing in the direction of the Stroggen farm. Another set slowly faded in the direction of the Kregs' home; still, Butch and Chris clung to their story; until Bob Stroggen discovered the clincher.
At first, Bob was amused by the prank. But his learned of Carrie's close brush with death changed that. His wife's puzzlement over two missing sheets prompted him to investigate. He found them deeply buried in one of his haylofts. When confronted, the boys confessed.
The possibility that Butch or Chris might someday be serving The Alternative never before occurred to Loren. Greenoak paced those on the program, working them three hours a day, five days a week. Butch and Chris began their three months the next day by washing the windows of the county courthouse. The day after that, they loaded a trailer-truck with scrap metal destined for the war effort. Then they loaded another truck with old newspapers for the paper drive.
Hearing his stomach grumble, Loren stood to leave for Frank's, when his secretary ushered in two visitors. The Army officer was Major Kremple, Chief Military Inspector of Cayuga's food processing plants. The civilian with him was a stranger. His summer striped suit and paisley bow tie fought vainly to overcome the anonymity of his nondescript features.
"Afternoon, Sheriff. Meet Agent Euler of the FBI."
Loren's eyebrows shot up. He extended his hand, indicated a brown leather sofa, and eased himself into a matching chair.
"How may I help Hoover?"
"Sheriff, there's sabotage in your county." Euler's monotone was reminiscent of an auctioneer's chant.
Loren gagged. "What! Where!"
Kremple took over. "The cannery's getting rocks in bean sacks from the Jarvan farm. The conveyer system was damaged two weeks ago. You heard?"
Receiving a nod, Kremple continued. "Before arriving, Agent Euler sent me a code to secretly mark each worker's sacks, as they came in. The rocks come from a Mrs. Wendler."
Loren blinked. "Know her?" Euler asked.
"We've met. Must be her daughter."
Loren softly snorted. "Agent Euler, meet Swanna. You'll learn why."
Noticing Euler's puzzlement, he added, "Play along with me. We just might pry the truth from her. I'm sure the Jarvans'll help."
The next morning, a astonishing motorcade of six sheriff's cars, three Army Jeeps, a paddy wagon, an Army sedan, all with wailing sirens and flashing strobe-lights, naked their way along the dirt road that led to the bean field, astonishing the Jarven bean pickers. Several Military Police dismounted, assuming a parade rest stance in front of the weighing area. At the edge of the field, Loren's deputies faced the workers in a similar stance.
Fully attired in his gray, summer dress uniform, High Sheriff Loren Kregs now advanced. Dark aviator lenses shaded his eyes. On each shoulder, four gold stars indicated his rank as the High Sheriff of Cayuga County. A trooper's hat adorned his head. The braided, gold cord around its crown matched a similar frog looped over his left shoulder. Beneath his badge, rows of service ribbons decorated his chest. Jodhpur pants, ribboned with gold side stripes, were tucked into spit-polished, police boots. From a black troopers belt hung a glistening holster. While his left hand rested on his hip, the other fingered the pistol. Even the MPs snapped to attention at his approach.
"Assemble your workers, Mr. Jarven!" Loren's command carried across the field. Mark immediately complied.
The occupants of the sedan stepped out, an Army officer and a civilian. "Keep alert, sergeant!" the officer commanded.
"Is a Mrs. Wendler here?" he shouted.
Heads turned toward an eye-catching, petite woman wearing a white, long-sleeved camise, tucked into a blue, ankle-length, peasant skirt. Blond hair peeked from under an enormous straw hat that shaded eyes already protected by sunglasses. Her fidgety hands covered by gardening gloves signaled alarm. Appearing equally dismayed, the pretty girl at her side gracefully reached for the woman's arm.
"I'm Mrs. Wendler, gentlemen."
"Please come here, Mrs. Wendler," the civilian ordered, "I'm F.B.I. Special Agent Euler." Showing his credentials, he added, "I'm placing you under federal arrest for treason. Cuff her."
On seeing Mrs. Wendler in handcuffs, the girl uttered a strangled cry, ending in a hysterical wail. Mrs. Wendler blanched. Noticing her legs gradually folding, Greenoak reacted instantly. Sweeping the distraught woman into his arms, he sat her on the weighing table and dampened her face from a dipper of water offered by the sergeant.
Loren introduced Swanna. "Agent Euler, Major Kremple, meet Swanna, Mrs. Wendler's daughter. Swanna had nothing to do with her mother sabotaging the canning factory."
Swanna's carefully-cultivated tan seemed to lighten by several shades.
Indeed, Loren expected a volley of shrieks. Instead, she stuttered, "Sab . . . sab . . .," and fell silent.
"I'm so sorry you learned of your mother's sabotage this way, Miss Wendler," Euler said. His remark was overheard by Mrs. Wendler. Her reaction was ear-splitting!
"Sabotage! I did no such thing!"
"It's you, Mrs. Wendler! The cannery found rocks in your sacks," Kremple responded, "Put her in the paddy wagon!"
"Nooooooooo! I did it! I did it!" Like a broken record, Swanna repeated herself, winding down to a whimper.
"Swanna, how could you?" Mrs. Wendler wailed.
Slumped on empty sacks, Swanna pressed her face into her hands. When she looked up, cheeks and forehead smeared by the soiled wetness of her palms, she blubbered, "I'm sorry. I was getting even because Commander Jarven made me look stupid."
The Jarvens were flabbergasted. Seeing Dwain's lips purse with anger, Loren put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm okay, Loren," he muttered.
"But why the rocks?" Kremple asked.
"So the cannery wouldn't take their beans," Swanna informed him in a despairing voice.
"Hogwash," Loren scoffed, with a wink toward Euler, "She's protecting her mother."
"I really did it, Sheriff Kregs," Swanna wailed, "Butch and Chris helped me carry rocks from the creek. Then Chris would drive me to where I'd be picking and leave them there."
"She's lying; those boys would never hurt us," Dwain answered.
"They didn't know what I was doing. Anyhow, they're not angels. When I promised to date them, they scared the girls for me when Carrie fainted."
"So you're responsible for that, too!" Loren's declared genuinely furious. "Carrie could've drowned! If Agent Euler to arrest you for sabotage, I'll take you in for attempted manslaughter! You'll spend time in a reform school!"
Terrified, Swanna wailed. "But I only wanted to prove there was a ghost!"
"Please don't arrest her. She just a baby," Mrs. Wendler pleaded.
Euler drew Loren and Kremple aside. "Well, we did it."
His anger assuaged, Loren responded, "Yep, she confessed. She's plenty scared. But, she would let her mother take the blame. Maybe there's some good in everyone, after all. What now?"
"I'll take their statements. Unless you press charges, they'll be free to go."
"No charges. She's scared enough," agree Loren.
When Euler ordered Swanna into a patrol car, Mrs. Wendler clasped her tightly. "Please don't put her in jail. She learned her lesson."
The lament moved Loren's heart. To prevent his tall frame from overwhelming the diminutive woman, he stooped to face her directly. Gently he explained, "Mrs. Wendler, you and Swanna will be free to go after you give Agent Euler your statements."
Euler nodded. "But you must reimburse the cannery for the damage Swanna inflicted."
"Oh, yes, I'll write a check, immediately. If someone would drive me there, I'll reimburse the factory."
"Ill be happy to drive you there, Mrs. Wendler," Kremples offered. The women apologized to the Jarvens, informing them that she and Swanna would return home to their mansion after she paid the cannery. When she and Swanna entered a car with the Major Kremples, the procession of vehicles left the bean field, with the MP jeeps bringing up the rear.
High Sheriff Loren Kregs was a contented man. Three cases had been solved; a badly spoiled girl was taught an important lesson; the Jarvens' sacks now contained only beans.
But what of the probability of more ghosts at Bowen Corners?
That remains to be seen!