It must have been around this time of year– late winter for sure, but equally clear that springtime was not just around the bend, as the good people of Montmorenci Falls had developed a well-honed and hard-earned sense of disbelief as to the likelihood of the season coming early, inured as they were to the odd March snowstorm, which came replete with gales which divorced shingles from rooftops and ripped rails from fences, all of which needed to be fixed in bone-numbing cold, and all the while one eye fixed to the sky for the next storm waiting to unfold and undo work sloppily done.
It was one of those days– the Kinzua Creek all ice, temperatures no better than the teens all week, no snow as of yet, although the wind, persistent and easterly, was testament to the likelihood of ten, maybe twelve inches on the ground by morning. Jess Van Raalt stood at the front-room window, head tucked just under the frame, staring up toward the sky– perhaps in the hope that if he stared at the clouds long enough, they would tell a different, happier story–as his daughter, readying herself for her shift at Loder’s General Store, bundled herself up in the vain hope that she could keep herself from freezing on the two-mile walk to town. Be more or less snowbound by nightfall, I reckon, he’d said, which (as he was taciturn to a fault) was tantamount to a speech on his part. He knew as sure as he knew his own name that Oscar Loder was sure as hell not planning on leaving a warm fire to open up shop so he could pay someone to do nothing with nothing to be done (not to mention that Oscar hadn’t gotten around to getting a phone, as he was not a man to spend a nickel he didn’t have to, nor did he cotton to folks listening in on his business on a party line) and he knew his daughter, once she reached town, would be faced with a dark and empty store and little else to do but turn around and make the long walk back home. His daughter headed for the door, giving her father a quick hug and answering his unease with a shrug which seemed to say Boss holds the trump card, and he can play it pretty much anytime he wants; hard luck, but facts are facts. He had known, sure as death, that she’d go in, of course; his stubbornness had not skipped a generation in her case, but that didn’t prevent him from grumping under his breath, No reason to be out, man nor beast.
Her absence come sunrise was no real cause for concern, as she had kin and in-laws littering the Klondike Road all the way into town (as Virgil Kiffin like to say, ‘Round these parts, you can’t turn around without knockin’ two or three Van Raalts to the ground), but noontime came and went and there was still no sign no sign of the girl, and so old Jess was forced to act upon the vague fear that, just perhaps, she had not stopped at some familiar front door where the light had left on to guide some wandering friend or relation who had been plumb fool enough to be out on a night which was well nigh to a blizzard. So Jess went tromping off toward town, his head and his heart taking up residence in that nook located between disquiet and dread.
By late afternoon an ad hoc search party had been organized for the girl– folks from town, friends from church, some two score of her kin. What they finally found was enough to rob Jess of speech or the ability to make any sound whatsoever. The wreckage of Bettina Van Raalt was found in some underbrush on the banks of the Kinzua Creek, tossed there with no more care than a broken, tarnished doll a child would toss in a garbage can. Her legs were black and blue, her cheeks and nose cut and scraped, and she was in a state of undress and general disrepair which told the tale of her final moments in a manner that no father would address on his darkest day or worst nightmare.
It took only a hour or so for shock to devolve into anger; a couple of the searchers noticed that a stranger– a drifter, most likely– had taken up residence at the Montmorenci House a couple of days ago, and it wasn’t long before several members of the assemblage, in that hastily formed and sketchily expounded manner which is the singular province of the mob, decided they would investigate the matter more fully with the gentleman in question and, if they thought it best, go about the process of saving the taxpayers the expense of a trial. Somehow, Sheriff Bauer– the antithesis of the normal rural sheriff, a bespectacled, indeed almost bookish man, whose abilities to almost anticipate events and efficiently dispense patronage had let him to be re-elected several times despite the fact that no one actually seemed to like him much–got wind of what was to take place, and went to the stranger’s room at the hotel to prevent any extra-legal shenanigans. He found the man in his room soaked to the bone– he claimed he was wet and freezing from walking around town in search of headache powders, which was at least plausible–and, dispensing with any niceties in terms of formal charges, the sheriff whisked him away to the county jail down at Ridgway.
The drifter’s story was run-of-the-mill, small-timer stuff. Leroy Hill was one of those unhappy souls who was nicked in the balls from the very start, starting life as an unwelcome bit part in a brief, unhappy drama whose stars were a gruff, burly roustabout in the oil fields up near Bradford who strongly preferred bars to changing diapers and a confused unwed teen who, presented with a choice between the impractical and unthinkable, took her infant son with her to a lunch counter in Lantz Corners where she skipped out on both the bill and the child. Left to a combination of official neglect and his own devices, he went a familiar path– vandalism, petty theft, and eventually (since the one thing his father bequeathed him was a large, sturdy frame) doing strong-arm work for bootleggers and small-time gangsters working in equally small-time towns from Buffalo to Pittsburgh. He was, if not exactly comfortable, certainly familiar with the surroundings when he was brought into a small, poorly-lighted and sparsely-furnished interrogation room where he sat facing Sheriff Bauer and a huge florid-faced man who was the sheriff’s polar opposite in appearance and conduct. The District Attorney, who, although looking for all the world like some archetypal big-city Irish pol, went by the name Tom Marzotti, spoke first. Hill, you’ve crossed the line this time. Usually, garbage like you oozes into town, we just take you to the county line and tell you to get on your way. But not this time, pal. You’re gonna stay here a long time, and most of it is going to be on the wrong side of the sod. Not surprisingly, that statement made Leroy Hill a little uncomfortable– but, as the interview rolled on over several hours, Hill (gifted with the combination of a sixth sense and survival instinct the minor con develops over time) knew that the sheriff and the DA were going to do things by the book, and that they had nothing in particular that tied him to this girl they kept prattling on about. At last, after saying little if anything, Leroy finally piped up– You boys plannin’ on missin’ your supper to keep this up? ‘Cause I know and you know that I’d already have rope marks on my neck if you had anything on me. I don’t know nothin’ about no dead girl, save that you can’t pin it on me no way no how. After that, he leaned back as much as a body could while cuffed to a chair, knowing he had Bauer and Marzotti pretty well beat, although a part of him couldn’t help noticing that they didn’t look particularly whipped. Hill was, in fact, correct in the notion that they had nothing to tie him to the crime, and without some hard evidence, the county judge–a man who despised Marzotti for his tendency for bombast and theatrics, as well as the knowledge that he was the judge’s main rival for any opening on the district Court of Appeals– would in no way, shape, or form participate in the railroading of Hill to the chair.
What Hill did not know, however, was that Bettina Van Raalt was simply half of a matching set.
Bertha and Bettina Van Raalt were not the type of twins that were so much alike in every way as to confuse even their parents as to who was who; even if they would have dressed exactly alike (which they never would have), anyone who knew them could ascertain their correct identities in mere moments. Bettina was very much her father’s daughter– she was imbued with his stubbornness, work ethic, and disdain for anything not tactile or tangible. Bertha was certainly not the spitting image of her father, nor her mother, really– Not of this world at all, Jess would say (sometimes in wonder, more often in sheer exasperation). It was not so much that she was flighty as much as she was, as Pastor Benner had said on more than one occasion, ethereal–indeed, while her sister was a more regular and enthusiastic member of their church, the attraction for her was the solidity of the hymnals and the pews, the camaraderie of the youth group, the visible effects of the charitable works, for Bertha (whose attendance at services was, at best. sporadic) church was strictly a spiritual experience. That girl is looking for something, the pastor once told his wife, but I don’t think it exists on this earth. The almost total indifference Bertha showed toward the affairs of the everyday world made it a given that, when their mother died in the girls’ late teens, it would be her sister that would go off to town to get work.
The District Attorney’s plan was the very essence of simplicity itself, and carrying it out proved to be equally simple. He dressed Bertha up in grease-paint of a sufficiently pale shade and white flowing robes. Marzotti took her to the county jail in the wee hours of the morning, had the jailer on duty make a sufficient racket to wake Hill up, and paraded the manufactured spectre back and forth past the intended audience several times. To her credit, the surviving twin played her part capably, even stopping in front of the cell once or twice to mutely point an accusing finger in Hill’s direction. The problem was that the audience of this impromptu performance refused to respond as hoped. Leroy was duly pop-eyed and pale– but only for a minute. He watched almost disinterestedly as Bertha Van Raalt passed by his cell two or three times and, instead of dropping to his knees and confessing to Bettina’s murder and anything else he’d cared to admit to, Hill simply returned to his cot, turned his face to wall, and went back to sleep. The next morning, Leroy Hill carried on pretty much as normal, save for telling the daytime guard at the county lockup Folks who believe in ghosts ain’t much bothered by them. You see enough of ‘em, ‘taint no big deal.
They had to release Hill, of course. There was nothing to hold him on, and the District Attorney couldn’t help but notice that the county judge had seemed almost pleased when he called to inquire how much longer he planned on having some no-account vacationing in the county seat on the taxpayer’s dime. Not long after the DA hung up with the judge, Sheriff Bauer showed up at the door to Hill’s cell and said Git on your feet, drifter. The sheriff led Hill to one of the county trucks, and the men rode wordlessly until they reached the Elk County line. Bauer pulled Leroy out of the cab, and shoved him against the hood. I will say this once, and once only, the sheriff began. You rest assured that if I ever see your worthless hide again, I will forget all the oaths I’ve sworn to the laws and constitution of this state, and I will shoot you dead and drag your ass up into the hills and let the bears eat your carcass and shit you out. You understand me, boy? Hill began to walk away, but after a few steps he turned and smiled, saying Jes’ like a dog, hay, Sheriff? Bauer thought a moment, and said deliberately No, Hill. I like dogs, and he said it in a tone that made Leroy Hill consider that it might not be a bad thing to make sure his personal or professional business did not lead him back to this particular neck of the woods.
Leroy Hill continued his career, such as it was, as a thug and hired goon, but the minor gangsters who employed him found him increasingly unstable and reckless, prone to sudden and inexplicable bursts of unsanctioned and unproductive violence that made him bad for business. He slowly but inexorably made the transition from thug to bum, and, when he was found on the streets of Hornell, New York– covered in his own shit and piss, all but barking like a whipped dog– he ended up at the normal destination for the poor and tormented, in this case a small, haphazardly operated state asylum in the nearby town of Angelica. He was plagued by hallucinations and sundry other phantoms–sometimes in small groups, sometimes in veritable armies. Finally, driven past the point of no return, he began smashing his head violently against the metal headboard of his bed. The two night attendants were carrying on a relationship that neither of their spouses sanctioned, so by the time they discovered the bloody, pulpy mess that remained, Hill’s problems had been solved without the tender mercies of psychiatric therapy. When word filtered back to Tom Marzotti that Hill had died, he called the facility to ask if he had ever mentioned Bettina Van Raalt. I don’t remember the man ever mentioning anyone in particular, the asylum’s director said, and then he chuckled slightly, Of course, when you carry around that many voices in your head, I suspect you don’t bother cataloguing them.
Once Spring came for real and to stay, they had to bury the girl; Jess Van Raalt had insisted, with a stubbornness bordering on fury, that there would be neither calling hours or any memorial service. Still, they had to bury the girl, and there was no way–no proper one, anyway–to keep people away from the graveside services. So Jess Van Raalt stood, in his best and only suit, on an open hillside on Bootjack Hill while the new priest (the Spanish Flu had taken Pastor Brenner to his reward only two weeks earlier), who had never met the girl he was returning to the Lord’s care, spoke the usual borrowed chants and tossed a ceremonial handful of dirt onto Bettina’s casket. She’s a child of God, Daddy, and she’s going back home, Bertha said, patting her father’s arm. Jess simply looked at her, and fairly spat Girl, lotta nights when you were little ones, ‘n after your mom died, I called on Him, seemed loud and clear to me, and not a word. Now He wants her?