Early Winter, 2008
Sandra Putman handed the bouquet of roses to Ellie Riddles and leaned in to give the elderly woman a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Quietly, so only the two of them could hear, the governor of Alaska murmured, “You’re my role model, Ellie. I’ve always admired you.”
The governor watched as Ellie stepped toward the microphone, and shook her head in wonder at the old woman’s mobility and strength. Almost eighty, thought Putman. I’m hope I’m that active when I’m that age.
She barely listened as Ellie thanked the crowd for the Alaskan Volunteer of the Year award. She’d helped Ellie practice the acceptance speech and could have recited it herself. Ellie wasn’t much for public speaking. She preferred anonymity and marched to her own internal music as she volunteered for numerous projects around the state.
She drove herself here from Moose Pass, thought Putman. And those blue eyes of hers can cut right through you if you dare to suggest she shouldn’t live by herself anymore. More than one reporter has felt the daggers in that gaze when interviewing the old woman.
Ellie finished her acceptance speech, and the crowd rose to applaud her. Governor Putman put her arm around Ellie’s shoulders and said, “Ellie, my husband will take you to the airport any time you’re ready to leave.”
“And my car?”
“Travis has the keys and will park it at our house until you return. It’ll be safe there.”
The Next Day
Trooper Rick Reilly sat in a chair next to Sgt. Mark Chapman’s desk and prepared himself for an “I told you so” lecture. He fiddled with his uniform hat while he waited for Chapman to finish his phone call.
Chapman put the phone receiver back on the hook and looked at the young trooper fidgeting in the chair. Stupid hats, thought Chapman. Make us look like Smokey the Bear. Chapman messed with a few papers on his desk, letting the kid stew a bit longer, and trying to keep his mouth from revealing the laughter that was inside. Finally, he looked at Reilly.
“Sergeant, you were right…..” Reilly began.
“Mark. Call me Mark when it’s just us in the office. Use my rank when we’re in public. Now, just how do you mean I was right?”
“Well, I talked with the county sheriff down in Oklahoma. Like you said, he’s the son of the former sheriff who knew a little about the Wells family. The sheriff said they’d checked around after you began your inquiries ten years ago, and they haven’t discovered anything new. He also said there was no way the Oklahoma courts would allow anyone to drain the Chickasaw marsh to look for an old cellar that may or may not be there.
“Further, the contractor who did the dirt work died a long time ago, and according to the sanctuary people, he was supposed to have removed every bit of the farmhouse. The sheriff said no one remembers exactly where the farmhouse stood, and since they flooded it for waterfowl habitat and new trees have grown up around it, no one recognizes the site anymore.”
“Did you talk about the woman who used to own the farm?
“Yes, he said she inherited the farm after her parents were killed in an auto accident. She was only sixteen at the time, but she continued to home school herself and got her high school diploma. As far as the sheriff knew, she had a Swiss farmhand around for several years, but he took off to work the oil patch in Texas sometime around 1953 or ’54. After he left, Ms. Wells sold about a hundred acres of her grassland to a big cattle conglomerate, then donated the remaining sixty acres to the Migratory Bird Sanctuary people.”
“Yeah, we found out,” said Chapman, “that our Ellie married Kyle Riddles in 1975, then moved with him to Alaska. I was there, you know, the night Kyle died.”
“Didn’t know that, Mark. I mean, I knew he was dead, but what happened?”
“It was in 1999, about a year after she first came in my office to ‘confess.’ I was on patrol, and there was a nasty snowstorm blowing through with white-out conditions. Dispatch radioed that Ellie had called nine-one-one, saying Kyle had collapsed. I got to her driveway the same time as the EMS people from Moose Pass arrived. The wind had filled the drive with three feet of snow, and we had to wade all the way back to their cabin. When we got there, Kyle was dead in Ellie’s arms. And she was… Well, she was pretty emotional.”
“What’d he die of?”
“Ruptured aortic aneurysm. They knew he had it, that it could burst at any time, but….well, that time came sooner than anyone imagined. Pretty sad scene, I’ll tell you. Kyle was the love of her life. Everyone should be so lucky…” Chapman paused to blink his eyes and clear his throat. “Wish we could all have a relationship like theirs.”
“Mark, I’m sorry I wasted so much time just retracing your steps,” said Reilly.
“It’s okay, Rick. I know it was your first big case. But, Ellie’s been coming in here every couple years, trying to confess to a murder that no one can substantiate. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing to back up her story of locking some guy in a storm cellar. Some guy who beat her terribly. Seems she runs across a key every so often, and that triggers these memories. No way to tell if they’re true, or just her mind playing tricks on her.”
“I guess I had to learn this one the hard way. Thanks for letting me try. I appreciate the experience. You know, Ellie’s the last one I’d expect to make up stories and she didn’t even do a good job with this one.”
“Well, she didn’t even get the name right. Ellie says her name then was Eleanor Wells, but the girl who lived on the farm was Nora—Nora Wells.”
“Did you say ‘Nora?’” came a voice from across the room.
Chapman and Reilly turned to look at Connie Conners, their part-time clerk.
“Yeah, ‘Nora’. Why?” asked Reilly.
“Because Nora is another nickname for Eleanor,” said Connie. “Just like Ellie.”
Reilly looked at his supervisor, and began to smile. He reached for the case file on Chapman’s desk.
“Leave it,” said Chapman.
“Just leave it. The Eleanor Riddles file is closed. Mark it ‘unsubstantiated.’ And let Ellie… No, never mind. I’ll let her know myself.”
“You don’t want me to…”
“No, I don’t. Ellie’s almost eighty. She probably has some dementia going on, and she’s suffered a lot in her early life. Whatever she did, IF she did anything, I think she’s made up for it since. You see her on TV last night? That award?”
Reilly nodded. “I did. What a gal. She’s done a lot of good around this state, for sure.”
“I’ll tell you something, Rick, something we could all take a lesson from. Ellie told me she figured out at an early age that the key to life isn’t about just weathering the storms. She discovered it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Early Winter, 2008
The taxi pulled into the parking lot at the Chickasaw Migratory Waterfowl Refuge and drew up next to a bronze sign. I read the plaque for the first time: “This refuge was made possible by the gift of sixty acres of land donated by Nora Wells
“Tom, would you mind staying in the car? I’ll only be a few minutes,” I said to the cab driver. For some reason, he was treating me like I was his mother, hovering about, taking my arm, not letting me lift my own suitcase. Really. He must think I’m some old woman.
He nodded, though I could tell he didn’t like it.
“It’s a mite chilly out there, Miss Ellie, when the wind blows like this.”
“I’m fine, Tom. Really. I live in Alaska, after all. But I’ll stay in sight, if that will reassure you.”
Tom smiled, and I got out of the cab.
I didn’t recognize anything It had changed so much. Even the small hill where I used to play as a child was gone. But the marsh—the marsh was beautiful with its green grasses bowing before the breeze. Wild water birds of every kind were splashing and paddling and puttering about. Then, I finally saw them—the great gray Sandhill cranes with their red heads. They weren’t even supposed to be in this part of the country, and when a pair took up residence in the small pond by the farm house, I fell in love with them.
I’m glad I gave the land to the sanctuary people. I walked slowly down to the shoreline, taking care not to startle any birds that were there. I stood for a few minutes, drinking in the view, and then I said what I’d come to say.
“You wanted the farm for yourself, Gunter. I knew that all along. When you couldn’t talk me into marrying you, you decided to beat me into it, and when you were drunk, you didn’t know how badly you were hurting me.
“I knew you’d kill me when you found out I’d poured out your whiskey and filled the bottle with vinegar. I don’t know why I did it. I guess I was afraid. But after I did it, I realized you’d beat me even worse.
“That’s why I locked you in the storm cellar. I knew you’d kill me.
“”I found a good man in Kyle, but I could never have children because of how badly you’d beaten me.
“You always wanted the farm for yourself, and you’ve had it to yourself for fifty-five years.”
I reached into my pocket and closed my hand around a small object. Withdrawing it, I looked again at the brass key, its intricate scrolls and the word “Best” on it. I smiled, drew my hand back as far as an arthritic shoulder would allow and threw the key into the water.
“Here’s the key, Gunter. Let yourself out if you want.”