That Incident at Connellsburg
by Ralph E. Shaffer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The message on Ilsa’s answering machine Wednesday afternoon confirmed her concern. The executive editor at Collins Media had called her to inquire about Rick’s absence from work. An aide had tried to reach Rick at home after he failed to show up for the weekly meeting of columnists on Tuesday, but the calls were always diverted to Rick’s answering machine.
When he failed to appear Wednesday and had not submitted his weekly column by the noon deadline, the editors were not only miffed but concerned for his safety. Rick was the youngest columnist on Collins’ staff, and several of the older members of the editorial board, both male and female, had taken a liking to this polite, astute opinion writer. It was in response to so many inquiries from Rick’s colleagues that the executive editor made the call to Ilsa, whose phone number was listed as the one to call in case of an emergency.
Ilsa returned the call, telling the editor that her last contact with Rick had been early Monday morning as both of them readied to leave for work. Rick had called her, which he normally didn’t do in the morning. His voice seemed a little hesitant, she told the editor, which was also unusual for Rick. What he said, in light of his disappearance, now made more sense.
“I thought he was being a little romantic, telling me how much knowing me had meant to him. Maybe he was telling me goodbye, and I didn’t realize it.”
“I’ve reported his absence to the Willowbrook police,” said the editor. “They won’t do anything until he’s been missing longer than forty-eight hours. That means nothing will happen until tomorrow. We did find his missing column, however. He had sent it to me through the office mail, which hadn’t arrived when we called you. So he’s off the hook on that one.”
Ilsa had an idea. “I’ll report him missing, too. It isn’t uncommon for the two of us not to talk, text or email for a couple of days, so I didn’t think anything of it when I didn’t hear from him yesterday or today. I would have expected him to call by tonight, or I would have called him. Anyway, I’ll contact the police, too.”
The Willowbrook police headquarters was located in a small building, reflecting the size of the town. One of many small towns on the eastern side of the mountain range, Willowbrook was the first one the commuter bus stopped at after leaving the hill country. Thus, the bus terminal, which was next door to the police station, was conveniently located for what Ilsa had in mind.
The sergeant who took her Missing Persons report was already familiar with the concern for Rick Blaine, as he had been the one who took the call from the editor at Collins. “Are you aware that we can’t do anything until the person has been missing forty-eight hours?”
“Yes, but you really don’t have to ‘do anything’ other than accompany me to the bus terminal next door at 7:30 tonight when the commuter bus arrives from Briarfield. We’ll ask if Rick was on the bus on Monday and did anyone talk with him.”
The sergeant was surprisingly agreeable to her suggestion, perhaps because he was young and she was both young and attractive. Just before the bus arrived the two met again and walked next door to the large parking lot where commuters parked before catching the bus. That was wen Ilsa saw Rick’s classic Studebaker, still on the lot.
“He must have left it here Monday morning and never returned. I think I know where he is, but let’s see what the bus passengers say.”
When the bus from Briarfield pulled in, the sergeant stepped aboard before those departing could leave. He blew his whistle, got the attention of the riders anxious to depart, and made his announcement.
“One of your regular passengers is missing. Rick Blaine, the columnist for Collins Media. He rode in with you Monday morning but he didn’t return that night. His car is still here in the lot. Do any of you know him, talk to him, have any idea where he might be?”
“He sits next to me usually,” came a voice from the middle of the bus. “But he wasn’t aboard yesterday or today. He had gotten off at Connellsburg on Friday. He got off there again Monday night. It might be of interest that he didn’t have a briefcase Monday night. Instead, he had a backpack full of food and clothes and a shoulder bag full of bottled water. But he didn’t say a word to me about what was up.”
No one else on board had anything to offer. The sergeant and Ilsa disembarked, along with most of the riders.
“I think I know where he is,” said Ilsa. “He’s still in Connellsburg. He’s not missing. He knows what he’s doing. Don’t start a search.”
* * *
When Rick left the bus at the Connellsburg intersection Monday night, he wasn’t in the hurry that had prompted his swift walk toward the settlement the previous Friday. He had asked Lisa if she would be here tonight, but he knew the chance of her reappearance was slim. She said she would like to be here, but she couldn’t promise. He knew there were no guarantees, but it was worth taking a chance. He’d wait all night if need be, and maybe all day Tuesday. Surely she would come, or send word some way.
As he neared the train station where the locomotive and cars had sat Friday evening, he noticed that the tracks were gone, there was no sign of a train, and the station was once again a ranger’s office. The light still burned brightly. Out of curiosity, he tried to dial Ilsa on his cell phone. He would tell her where he was. She would understand. The phone failed to find service. Friday night’s call to the editor had been a fluke.
While he stood in front of the ranger station, he suddenly became aware of a movement inside. Through a window, he could see someone coming to the door, lantern in hand. The ranger came outside and was startled to see Rick standing there.
“You looking for a campsite for the night?” the ranger asked, seeing Rick’s back pack and sack of bottled water.
“Actually, I’m expecting to meet someone up ahead. Thought I’d spend the night in a hay mound, if that’s all right.”
“Well, this is wilderness camping, and you can sleep most any place, but you can’t have an open fire. If you stay in a hay mound, watch out for mice. Meeting someone here? I haven’t heard or seen any other hiker pass by this afternoon. Maybe your friend’s a little late.”
“Perhaps you can answer a question for me.” Rick felt it a bit awkward asking about the shindig last Friday night, but he was dying to know what the ranger would say about it. Was Ilsa right, was it a reunion of old settlers’ families?
“Last Friday,” Rick began, “I got off the commuter bus because I had to make a phone call before seven and there was no cell service on the bus. I thought there would be a phone in Connellsburg or at least cell phone service. I did manage to make one short call before the phone failed, calling from right here in front of your station. When the cell stopped working, I wandered on into the settlement looking for a phone and found a barn dance in progress right up there.” He pointed to the large barn. “What group was that?”
The ranger’s expression made clear that he had no knowledge of the “shindig.”
“I wasn’t on duty here last week, but I think I would have known about a barn dance. We’d have to issue a permit. I don’t recall any being made out. There may not have been any ranger here Friday, certainly not Friday night. It’s possible the group just came in and took over the barn. That’s happened before. Groups secretly inform their members of an event here without telling us. They seem to know when rangers will be on duty, and they pick a day we’re all gone. That might have happened. What group was it?”
Rick was a bit reluctant to mention the Pioneers but, desperate to clear up what actually happened last Friday, he explained what he had seen and heard.
“Well, that makes sense,” said the ranger. “The pioneer families have indeed met here occasionally, dances and celebrations of a sort. None of them live here any more because the land has all reverted back to the government. They never owned it, only leased it starting right after the Civil War.
“When the conservationist movement became influential a century ago, one of the first areas to be retaken for wilderness was the Connellsburg region. Government bought out the farmers, paying compensation for their homes, but not for the land, since they had only leased it from Uncle Sam or the state, whichever it was. They all were gone by 1920.
“But from time to time the descendants — and there are a lot of them — come back to see where their ancestors lived. They dress like them, talk like them. Some of them act it out pretty good.”
So Ilsa was right. It had been a big charade. Relieved, but still wondering if Lisa would show up, Rick said farewell to the ranger and headed toward the barn. On the way, he passed some farm machinery that he had barely noticed Friday night. Looking at it more closely, he realized it was a display of equipment that had probably been used here in the nineteenth century.
One wagon in particular caught his eye. The label read: “Studebaker wagon.” On the label was a note of thanks to the donors, the Corman family, and a long list of first names followed. The final name on the list was Lisa.
If I could just connect to the Internet, Rick thought, mentally doing a Google search for Lisa Corman. There was no place of residence for the Cormans listed on the label. Someone in the wilderness office would surely know. But that would have to wait for another time. At the barn, he peeked through a dirty window in the door. It was too dark to see much, so he shined his flashlight through the glass. There was the ticket sellers’ table and, beyond it, his light picked up the straw-covered barn floor. Increasingly, he felt convinced that what he had witnessed Friday was not a time warp. Still, he found explanations by the ranger and Lisa a little too pat.
Behind the barn and through the bushes and trees stood the hay mound. That was real. Why hadn’t he just stayed there with Lisa that night? Whittier was right, he thought. The saddest words are “what might have been.”
Rick settled into the hay mound, ready for the night, hoping Lisa would come. She didn’t.
Early Tuesday morning, he went to the ranger station to see if he could get an address or other information about Lisa Corman. A sign on the door indicated the station would be unmanned after Monday. He then posted a sign — “Meet me at the hay mound. Rick” — in several places in what remained of the little settlement.
Most of Tuesday and Wednesday Rick half slept, almost in an hypnotic state. He kept telling himself over and over again that Lisa would come. Although he had brought sufficient food for several days, he hardly touched it. Bottled water, however, was frequently consumed. He heard, in his fitful sleep, no human sound either day. At one point it occurred to him, in a groggy thought, that Ilsa would figure out where he was and might come, looking for him. By dark on Wednesday evening he was asleep again.
Suddenly, Rick was alert, called to his senses by a bright light approaching from the direction of the barn. He couldn’t make out the figure of a person yet, but there was no doubt that someone was approaching with a flashlight. Lisa had come after all, he thought. His juvenile infatuation was being rewarded. She had not forgotten him.
Then a feminine voice that he couldn’t quite identify in his groggy condition called out: “I’ve come, Rick. Is there a spot in the hay for me?” And he saw a woman in an immaculate white dress, but not clearly enough to positively recognize her. Then a haunting question occurred to him, and he asked it aloud: “Are you Lisa... or Ilsa?”
Copyright © 2019 by Ralph E. Shaffer