Excerpts for Blood of the Prodigal : An Ohio Amish Mystery


Blood of the Prodigal

An Ohio Amish Mystery
By P. L. Gaus

Ohio University Press

Copyright © 1999 P. L. Gaus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0821412779


Chapter One


Friday, May 22
4:30 A.M.


LIKE all Amish children of ten, Jeremiah Miller had known his share of sunrises. Morning chores had long since taken care of that. Every day brought the same duties. His grandfather had made it clear. Children were for working. Life was supposed to be hard. Generally, for Jeremiah, it was.

    But lately, Jeremiah had discovered something new and wonderful in his dawn chores. Something exhilarating. Also a bit frightening, because he suspected it was forbidden. It was so simple, he thought, who could object? If he arose before the others and slipped out quietly, he could be alone, drawn awake early by the allure of a solitary Ohio dawn.

    It had begun last winter. None of the other children had understood. After all, who would choose to be alone? So he kept it to himself, now. Even Grossdaddy didn't know. It was Jeremiah Miller's little secret. At so young an age, he had already discovered that the dawn could give him a sense of identity separate from the others. And this was his first act of nonconformity. Among the Gemie, that was considered evidence of pridefulness. And pride was surely the worst of sins. He worried that it could eventually brand him a rebel. Like his father.

    He'd dress quietly in the clothes his grandmother had made—clothes that were identical to those of other Amish children. Long underwear and denim trousers with a broadfall flap. A light-blue, long-sleeved shirt with no collar. A heavy denim jacket. Suspenders. And a dark blue knit skull cap. If he escaped the house before the others awakened, Jeremiah Miller was free.

    In the barns before sunrise, only the Coleman lantern kept him company, hissing softly as he drifted among the animals, in and out of the stalls. In winter, there was the enchanting, billowing steam his breath made in the crisp air. The delightful crunching of his boots in the snow. There was, especially, the peace and the solitude, and at only ten, Jeremiah Miller had come to reckon that dawn would always be his favorite part of the day.

    Today, late in May, it was nearing the end of a season still often raw and bleak, the usual for a northern Ohio spring. Some days were almost entirely awash in gray. Yesterday, there had been only the barest hint of a sunrise, delicate shades of pink as he had worked alone at morning chores. Then an afternoon drizzle had developed into a steady, all-night rain as a storm front moved in off the great lake, a hundred miles to the north.

    Jeremiah slipped out from under the quilts and sat, wrapped in his down comforter, on the edge of the bed. He listened there a while for sounds of his family stirring. Hearing nothing, he drew the ornate quilt around his waist, eased lightly across the plain wooden floor to the window, pulled back the long purple curtains, and peered out. Yesterday's rain had slackened to a cold drizzle. He saw no hint of sunlight at his window, but as he was about to release the curtains, the headlights of a rare car flashed on the foggy lane in front of his house. He briefly thought it strange, and then, hitching up the comforter, he let the curtains go slack.

    He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his shirt and denim trousers. He glided down the hall, the wooden floor cool beneath his stocking feet. He passed the other bedrooms carefully and crept down the stairs. He eased through the kitchen unerringly in the dark, lifted his jacket from its peg, pulled the heavy oak door open, and slipped through the storm door onto the back porch.

    There would be no supervisions on the rounds of his morning chores. No instructions if he worked alone. No corrections. No reminders to conform. The hours before dawn were his alone. The one time of each day when he owned himself entirely. Jeremiah had discovered that solitude was personal. More personal than anything else he had ever known.

    On the back porch, he stuffed his feet into his cold boots and laced them, hooked his suspenders to the buttons on his plain denim trousers, and closed the hooks on his short, denim waist jacket. Reaching down for the green Coleman lantern, he gave the pump several adept strokes and lit the silk mantle with a wooden match. Then he rolled his thin collar up and stepped off the porch into the rain.

    School would close soon for summer, he thought. He set the lantern on the muddy ground outside the massive sliding doors to the red bank barn. School wasn't so bad. And summers could be long. So why did Grossdaddy speak so bitterly of school?

    He set his weight against the sliding door and forced it heavily sideways on its rollers. Grandfather would like the teachers, if only he'd come to visit the school. It was just down the gravel lane, less than a mile. Teacher stayed late every day, and they could talk. If only Grandfather would. The other men thought well of teachers, so why didn't Grandfather? Jeremiah only knew that something had happened long ago. Something that would never be discussed. He suspected it had something to do with his father.

    A nervous black kitten launched itself through the crack between the sliding doors at his feet, and he sidestepped it superstitiously.

    "Kommen Sie," he called gently after the cat, momentarily curious. He whistled for it softly, shrugged, picked up the lantern, and squeezed through the narrow opening between the doors.

    The three-story bank barn was set into the side of a hill behind the big house. At the bottom of the hill, the sliding doors opened to the lowest level of the barn. The top of the hill gave access, on the other side of the barn, to the second level. There were nine stalls down the right side of the lower level, and eight down the left. The avenue down the middle was strewn with fresh straw. Five massive oak uprights stood in a line down the middle of the avenue, taking the weight of the roof. The crossbeams were made of walnut twelve-by-twelve's. The haylofts ran high above, on either side of the third level, planked out in rough-hewn maple and elm. Long runs of rope and chain looped through a large wooden block and tackle, which was hung from an iron wheel that ran high in the rafters on a rail the full length of the peak. Leather harnesses and collars hung in front of each of the stalls. At the far end, the rakes, mowers, and threshers stood silently in the wide avenue. Their iron wheels were easily a head taller than Jeremiah.

    Inside, Jeremiah climbed onto a stepstool to hang the lantern against one of the upright beams, and hopped down in front of the first stall. He scaled the slats of the gate and made a clicking sound with the inside of his cheek against his teeth. He balanced on his toes near the top of the gate and reached up to stroke the nose of the Belgian draft horse, light chestnut brown with a creamy white mane. As it thumped ponderously in the straw, Jeremiah rubbed at its wet nose and bristling hairs, then jumped down with a laugh and took the tasseled whip from its hook beside the stall.

    He snapped the black whip playfully overhead and grinned, mindful that his Grandfather's were the very finest of all the Belgians in Holmes County. That was good, not prideful, he thought. Not prideful to admire a good horse. After all, God had made them Himself. And hadn't Grandfather promised that his time would soon come to work a whip behind them? To learn to plow. To run a harrow. To handle a team of Belgians! A boy should not go to school forever, Grossdaddy had said. Why should a boy be smarter than a father?

    As he played with the whip, the unexpected aroma of tobacco drifted Jeremiah's way. Startled, he remembered the skittish cat and the weird headlights earlier on the lane. He stood tip-toe on the stepstool, took down the glowing lantern, held it high overhead, hesitated a fateful moment, and moved apprehensively toward the far end of the barn.


IN THE milky light of dawn, a small girl in a black bonnet stood on the elevated lawn in front of the Millers' white frame house. Her bonnet was tied close against her cheeks, with thin cloth strands under her chin. Her narrow shoulders were draped properly with a black shawl that was knotted loosely in front and covered her hands. In the delicate morning light, her long pleated skirt showed the barest hint of rich peacock blue. She was motionless except for her large, tranquil brown eyes as they followed the headlights of a car approaching on the lane.

    The hollow sound of slow tires crushing loose gravel ground to a halt as the car rolled up to a mailbox mounted on the white picket fence. The driver's window rolled down, revealing police insignias on the sleeve of a blue jacket. The driver reached out and flipped an envelope into the mailbox. As the girl watched silently, the car sped off, throwing gravel, its taillights disappearing into the lingering fog.


Chapter Two


Thursday, June 18
9:00 A.M.


ON A clear summer morning, Bishop Eli Miller drove his top buggy into town along little-used township roads. The buggy was a one-seater, a boxy, covered affair of the typical Ohio Amish style. The large wooden wheels carried iron rims, not rubber, as was proper among the bishop's sect of the Old Order. The roll curtains on the side windows were tied up, as was the curtained windshield over the wide dash. The hooves of the horse swung left and right in front of the rig, and struck a steady gait of hollow clicks in the gravel. The horse was well-lathered and had started to tire, but the bishop, in a somber mood, kept after him with an unrelenting whip.

    Bishop Miller was dressed in dark blue denim trousers with cloth suspenders, a long-sleeved white shirt, and a collarless black vest with hooks and eyes instead of buttons. He wore precisely the one type of white straw summer hat that was currently approved in his district. To the English who saw him that day, he seemed plain, Amish, nothing more. Certainly no different in dress and demeanor than any Amish man, on any particular day. In Bishop Miller's district, as for all Old Order Amish, that was the whole point. Look the same, live the same, stay the same. To live every day in tranquillity.

    Today, only a few would be any the wiser. Those who, studying his face closely, could have discerned the weeks of anguish in his reddened eyes. Little else betrayed him. Neither his dress nor the buggy. Perhaps only the horse's unusually brisk pace and heavy lather.

    The buggy was entirely flat black. It sported no frills. Nothing in the way of vain decorations, horns, mirrors, paint, shiny metal, or any other of the various ostentations of the more liberal Wayne County Amish congregations to the north. These, he thought, had compromised with the world. Surely in the north, the bishop mused, the Gemei had lost its way.

    The narrow wheels of the buggy cut wispy lines into the berm. Miller worked the horse with the reins, staying carefully to the right. A car roared by, shaking the rig in its backdraft. The horse skittered, and he whistled softly and worked the reins to steady him. Another auto blared its horn and sped around. The impatience surprised Miller. Rather, it puzzled him. "English," he whispered disapprovingly, as a pickup blared behind and passed abruptly. A day spent among them was a trial. "Remember," his wife had said, "you have not chosen this." Wise, he thought. And righteous. "Thank you, Lord, for the counsel of a Godly woman," he prayed.

    The deacons, too, had urged him. Use the pastor to approach the professor. If the professor wouldn't help, maybe the pastor would. Pastor Caleb "Cal" Troyer was known among the plain people. They would trust him, and Professor Branden, too, but no one else. Certainly not the law.

    His grip on the reins went limp as he shook his head, lost in thought and prayer. Little Jeremiah had been taken nearly four weeks ago. The burden of his chores had fallen to the other children. And lately the bishop had begun to doubt. The deacons had sensed these doubts in his prayers. He hadn't spoken of it outright, but still they knew. Doubts about his outcast son bedeviled him endlessly, now, almost as much as the loss of his grandson.

    It was the same for his wife, although she never spoke of it. He knew that she never would. That was their way. So it had always been. Es steht geschrieben—it stands written. So it shall always be. From this, he assured himself, they drew strength for the life of separation. For the one true path to salvation.

    Bishop Miller found himself staring down blankly at the reins. He forced himself upright and snapped the whip grimly. His son had been lost more than ten years ago. "Lord," he prayed today, "not my grandson too."

    He had started out before dawn, carefully traveling the remote gravel roads and township lanes in southern Holmes County, heading up out of his Old Order Amish district, toward the city, where greater prosperity had enticed the brethren into easier lives. Into compromises with the world. It was the city that had drawn too many of the brethren away from the paths of righteousness.

    Today was Thursday, a day for labor. He'd not normally have forsaken the chores of the farm for a journey into town. But the deacons had agreed. In point of fact, they had urged him to go.

    After days of prayer, he had relented. The child had shown promise with the Word. Jeremiah's gift was to speak of the Book. He'd surely be called, in his day, to be a Diener zum Buch—a preacher. An interpreter of God's character in the scriptures. And he must not be sacrificed to the world. Not for so much as a single summer.

    On the south edge of town, Bishop Miller watered his horse at the buckets set out in front of the Wal-Mart store and pulled the buggy into the parking lot of the Pizza Hut on the other side of the street. He stepped down and around to the back, lifted a faded green canvas feed bag out of the buggy, and walked to the front to hang the bag over the horse's ears. He tied the reins around a light pole next to a telephone booth, and then he ran his hand along the rump of the horse, reached up into the seat of the buggy, and lifted out his black metal lunch pail.

    As he lunched with the horse, a teenage girl came out of the Pizza Hut and sauntered over to the phone booth. She looked him over disdainfully, made a quick call, and then stood impatiently beside the phone until a rusty truck arrived, driven by an older man in a ragged tee-shirt. As she got in, he gunned the engine, popped the clutch, sprayed gravel toward the bishop's buggy, and drove away shouting vulgarly out the window.

    The bishop shook his head, took down the feed bag and carried it wearily around to the back. Then he tightened the lathered hip straps at the breeching, dried his calloused hands on his trousers, climbed back into the buggy, dropped the plain black curtains on the buggy's windows, and teased the horse into awkward back steps. Once clear of the phone booth, he snapped his whip, brought the horse to a determined pace, drove further north into town, and turned onto a side street in a working-class neighborhood. He traveled several steep blocks through the hills of Millersburg and pulled into the gravel parking lot of a white frame church. Out front there was a plain white sign that read: "Church of Christ, Christian. Pastor Caleb Troyer." It gave the times of the Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night services. A color poster planted on the lawn announced the details of this year's Vacation Bible School.

    The bishop entered a side door of the small church and remained inside for nearly an hour. When he emerged, he turned around on the steps of the church to study the pastor's face. Cal Troyer was a short man with a round, leathered face that marked him in those parts of Ohio as likely descended from the Amish. He had flowing white hair and a heavy, tangled white beard with no hint whatsoever of its original color. He was dressed in workman's blue jeans and a denim shirt. He had a carpenter's belt strapped to his waist. A ladder stood against the gutters of the church house, where he had been working earlier that morning.

    The bishop took his hand and shook it firmly, gratitude showing openly on his face. He gazed an extra moment into Pastor Troyer's eyes. With proper grooming, once shaved around the mouth, Cal Troyer would easily pass anywhere for Amish. Perhaps his hair was too long, but that was easily remedied. The deep tan on his face and the powerful muscles in his short arms had always brought him respect with the Gemei. Troyer was a preacher, but he earned his way in life as a carpenter. And the way the bishop figured things in these perverse times, that was not far at all from the true calling.

    In truth, it was Troyer the bishop had wanted, but he was resigned now to the fact that, with the preacher leaving in a few days for a missions conference, that wouldn't be possible. But Troyer had vouched solidly for the professor, and the bishop had taken him at his word. The deacons had agreed. They would place their trust in Professor Branden if Troyer would assure them that they could do so. If not for that, the Bishop would have driven home and closed his doors, resolved to ride it out alone, without the aid of any English at all.

    But, as he walked to his buggy, the bishop's hopefulness began to fade. Whatever else, wasn't Cal Troyer still one of de Hochen, the high ones, the "English"? Wasn't he of the proud people, not the plain? Not of our people, unser Leut. And if not plain, then perhaps not entirely trustworthy. He turned at his buggy and glanced back at Troyer on the steps of the small meeting house. A line from the Liedersammlung song book came to the bishop's mind. "Demut ist de schönste Tugend"; humility is the most beautiful virtue. He gazed a moment longer at Troyer and was reassured by what he saw. Cal Troyer was not schtolz, not proud. Rather, he was possessed of deep humility. Staring at Troyer from the seat of his buggy, Bishop Miller resolved finally to rest his hopes in the hands of Professor Michael Branden, on the word of this humble country preacher, the least prideful of all de Hochen the bishop had known—a fitting resolution of their dilemma, considering that all of their trials had begun, nine years ago, with the death of little Jeremiah's mother, the most profane of all de Hochen the bishop had ever known.


Chapter Three


Thursday, June 18
11:30 A.M.


A MILE or so south of Millersburg, in the wooded hill country sheltering the largest Amish settlements of Ohio, Cal Troyer eased his truck over the berm onto an isolated lane and dropped into a hidden glade near a long forgotten farm pond. Tranquil glens tucked away in nearly every corner of Holmes County hold spectacular bass ponds, made available to only a select few, and those few almost exclusively Amish. This particular pond, stocked years ago with fingerlings, had been fished by only Pastor Caleb Troyer and Professor Michael Branden.

    They had acquired the privilege while working for a farmer who could not otherwise have paid them. "Working a case," as the professor's wife Caroline liked to tease. It had concerned a chemical problem with fertilizers used on a nearby English farm, plus runoff disputes, and the EPA. Children had taken sick. Farmers in the valley had been blamed. The EPA, it developed, had been wrong, at the cost of several livelihoods.

    The bass pond had been Branden's idea. He and Cal Troyer would accept no fees. But, in return for their help, they would fish the pond for life. The land would never be sold without provision for this.

    Cal dropped the truck into low and chuckled, thinking it no surprise to find Mike Branden fishing here, today, working the far edges of the pond with a spinner bait. Troyer parked in tall weeds at the tree line, eased himself out of his rusty truck, and leaned back against the hood, watching, his short arms folded across his chest. His thoughts drifted to the first summer they had spent here, and his eyes turned up to the dilapidated farm house on the hill.

    Branden cast into the shallows at the opposite edge of the pond and retrieved the spinner quickly, churning its blade just beneath the surface. At a point where the color suggested deeper water, a surge erupted under the spinner, and the bait jerked sideways under the impact of a strike. He played the bass on his arching rod, brought it steadily to him, lipped it with his thumb and forefinger, and held it up for Troyer, who acknowledged it with a wave, as Branden extracted the hook with a quick twist and tossed the fish back into the pond.

    As Cal watched, Branden worked around the pond toward him, casting into each irregularity at the bank. He cast over weeds, tree roots, and stumps, the sport completely absorbing him. Here, nothing of Branden's academic life could reach into his mind. Neither the petty politics of academia nor the inflated egos of his colleagues. No pressure from the administration for speeches to rich alumni groups. No endowment headaches. No urgent phone calls from the dean. No manuscripts to review. No campus mail. No committees.

    Today, he had nearly managed to forget the Federal Express envelope that lay unopened on his desk. A phone call yesterday from a southern university had prepared him. He was to be offered an endowed chair in the history department. Prestige and money he'd never known. Reduced classroom duties. "An escape from the small college arena" was how they had worded it. Now Branden wondered if he was obliged even to open the envelope.

    To open it would, perhaps, prove altogether too complicated. Caroline was strong again. They had buried two children, now, each miscarried without warning, and he and Caroline had sunk their roots deep into Millersburg during their grieving. People like Cal Troyer and Sheriff Bruce Robertson, both childhood friends of Branden, had helped them carry their burden of sorrow and loss, and slowly the void in their lives had filled somewhat, and healed over. So the question for him wasn't about prestige and money, anymore. At one time it might have been. Not now. Still the offer lay on his desk, and sooner or later Caroline would hear of it. Then the question would be, would it matter to her?

    Branden glanced with a smile across the small pond at Cal Troyer. Branden knew that Cal would have his gear out soon. But not too soon. First Cal'd simply watch. See how they were hitting. Then, when he was ready, he'd have a go. They had fished summers together since they were boys, and, over the years, they had developed an abiding competition. Biggest bass. Most bass. First bass. Last bass. In this, at middle age, they were still precious little more than boys.

    How long till Cal noticed that the strikes were falling short today, Branden wondered. Short strikes that hit only the trailing skirts of his lures. The first hour had brought him no luck. Then he had solved the puzzle. The bass were on an early spawn and striking territorially, not feeding. So he had trimmed the skirts back, added a stinger hook, and scored half a dozen in as many minutes. As he worked toward Cal, he bagged two more and released them.

    At the pastor's truck, Branden leaned against the hood next to Cal. "I thought maybe you weren't coming," Branden said.

    "Just held up, is all," Cal replied. He studied Branden's lure with unconvincing disinterest, saw the trimmed skirt, tapped the hemostat clamped to Branden's vest, and asked, "Short strikes?" as if it'd be obvious to anyone.

    "Not at all," Branden said. Then he shrugged a smile and ambled over to the water.

    Troyer followed.

    "You're not fishing, yet," Branden offered. "I know you too well, Cal. Something's on your mind."

    Troyer picked up a stone from among the tall weeds that had overgrown the lane next to the pond. He tossed it absently into the water and answered, "It's a missing child."

    "How old?"

    "Ten."

    "How long?"

    "About a month."

    Branden wound slack line onto his reel. He thought for a moment and then said, "Police aren't involved?"

    "It's Old Order Amish," Cal said. "Bishop Eli Miller. One of the strictest in Holmes County, though his sect isn't the most backward in the county. His grandson has turned up missing. He knows who has the boy, just doesn't know where. He wants to meet you."

    "How would he know anything about me?"

    "I reckon word gets around."

    "I reckon you'll have told him something."

    "Told him you're a mostly harmless, absent-minded professor who has little better to do in summers than wet an occasional line."

    "He'll think me a shirker," Branden complained with a laugh.

    "He did say something about idle hands doing the devil's work. So I told him of the various people you've helped over the years."

    "We've helped."

    "All right, we've helped. I could have told him more, but he seemed satisfied."

    "I'm supposed to have used my summers to think deep thoughts, write papers, attend conferences, that sort of thing," Branden offered. Then he grinned, held up his pole, and said, "Tenure does have its benefits."

    "I leave Tuesday for the missions conference. I can help you get started locally, but that's about it." Cal shrugged and smiled apologetically.

    "A missing Amish boy?" Branden asked.

    "Kidnapped, essentially."

    "Old Order?"

    "Moderate Old Order. Weaver branch. One of the strictest bishops."

    Branden's gaze drifted to the long-deserted farmhouse on the hill. Gutters sagging, paint chipped, shutters fallen down. "Remember the summer we worked here, Cal?"

    Cal nodded silently.

    "That case was also tangled up with the Old Order."

    Cal held his silence, waited.

    Branden mulled it over. After a few minutes, he asked, "And I'm to talk with the bishop?"

    Cal nodded. "He'll be at Becks Mills. At the general store in the Doughty Valley, about an hour from now. I'm to bring you there, and then he'll want you to ride with him a spell. He said something cryptic like `in a month, none of this will matter,' so we've only got that much time to find the boy. But, still, the bishop will want to take some time to get to know you, sound you out. It may take a day or two, I don't know. He explained the whole thing to me as if time was short, but I gather he's already sat on his hands a good while, as it is."

    Branden thought about that while toying absently with the line on his pole.

    Cal explained a little further. "Look, Mike. We've known it was like this with the Old Order since we were kids. It's just the Amish, that's all. He came to me, but he'll accept you. And you know it's flat-out amazing that he's come into town to ask for anyone's help. So I imagine there's more to this case than he's told me. It'll take time before he trusts us enough to bring us all the way in. For now, we're going to have to handle this the Amish way. Say little. Listen a lot."

    "And what'll you do while I clatter around in his buggy?"

    Cal reached down to Branden's lure, lifted it on the tips of two short fingers, noted where the skirt had been cut, and then grinned and helped himself to the hemostat clipped to Branden's fishing vest.

Continues...


Excerpted from Blood of the Prodigal by P. L. Gaus Copyright © 1999 by P. L. Gaus. Excerpted by permission.
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