Dirty Faces

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Chapter 31: Missing

The little boy's feet didn't come close to touching the floor. Instead, his legs swung idly back and forth off the edge of the examination table. He was inspecting the newly-placed splint on his right wrist when the Priest asked, "So, Bud, what's the moral of this story?"

The little boy looked up at the Priest, then at his mother, seated in the corner. When he didn't answer, she said, "Bud, the doctor asked you a question." He looked at the Priest once more and shrugged.

The Priest frowned. "No running when there's ice on the ground. That could have been a lot worse than just a sprain."

The boy nodded. "Yes, sir."

The Priest turned to the boy's mother. "I think that about does it, Mrs. Higgins. Just try to keep that wrist elevated as much as possible. Take advantage of this snow on the ground and ice it when you can. Bring him back in a week or so and I'll have another look at. If anything pops up before then, let me know, but I think he'll do just fine."

She stood, putting her purse on her shoulder. The little boy hopped off the examination table and took his mother's hand. "Thank you very much, doctor," said Mrs. Higgins as the Priest walked them to the door.

"My pleasure."

She stopped when they reached the front door and looked down at her son. "Bud, what do you say to Dr. Riley?"

The little boy looked up at the Priest. "Can I have a sucker?"

"Bud!" Mrs. Higgins hissed, clearly embarrassed. "Don't be rude!"

"What? Dr. Clark always gave me a sucker."

The Priest found himself frowning at the boy once again. He'd thought of keeping treats on hand for the children, and with the store just around the corner, he didn't have any excuse for having not done so. "I'm sorry," he replied. "I'm afraid I don't have any candy."

The boy's brows knitted together and his mouth dropped open, but before he could speak, his mother asserted, "That's perfectly fine, doctor. Bud doesn't need any candy today." She glared at her son and his mouth snapped shut. "Thank you again," she said to the Priest as she dragged the boy out the door. "Boy, you just wait 'til I get you home," he heard her say as she continued dragging the boy across the partially snow-covered yard and toward the gravel drive.

Poor Bud, thought the Priest. A sprained wrist, no sucker, and now surely a whipping awaiting him when he got home. This wasn't turning out to be his day.

The snow had been on the ground now for a week and was just beginning to melt. As always, the old timers had been right. The year had started out cold, and a month in and three snowfalls later, the winter was still proving to be quite a formidable foe to the town.

The Priest stood at the door, watching the mother and son as they neared the end of the drive, and letting the cold air drift inside. He was about to close the door when a black automobile turned down the drive. It stopped and the driver spoke to Mrs. Higgins, who pointed back toward the boarding house before continuing on her way. Then the car continued up the driveway and parked to the side of the house.

A man wearing a vest and tie beneath his coat got out and adjusted his bone-colored buckskin fedora before approaching the house. "Good afternoon," he greeted when he caught sight of the Priest standing on the porch. "I'm looking for a Dr. Francis Riley. Might that be you?"

"It is indeed," replied the Priest, pushing open the screen door for his unexpected guest.

The man stopped at the bottom of the porch steps and extended a hand. "Sheriff Jeremiah Mabry. Nice to meet ya."

The Priest's brows raised as he shook the sheriff's hand. "Mabry? As in..."

"Yes," he answered sheepishly. "Those Mabrys."

"Ah. And what brings you out this way, Sheriff?"

"Please, call me Jerry." He glanced at the Priest's collar. "And, is it 'Doctor', or 'Reverend', or 'Father', or...."

"Frank is fine."

The lawman nodded and removed his hat. He looked rather young to be sheriff, but perhaps the privileged life of a Mabry had enabled him to grow old slower than most in those parts. "Well, Frank, I'm here on official business, as you might've guessed. A missing persons case, of all things."

"I see. And how can I be of assistance in your investigation?"

"Well, the missing man was a traveling miner. I spoke with the mine manager and he told me he most likely would have been staying here at the boarding house. I just wanted to see what you could tell me about him, maybe see if we could figure out when exactly it was he was last seen."

"Of course. Won't you come in? I can check my records and you can get in out of this cold."

"Thank ya, sir. Appreciate that."

The Priest led him inside and took his coat and hat, placing them on the coat rack by the front door, then took him into the parlor. "Have a seat, if you'd like. Could I offer you anything to drink? Coffee? Tea?"

"No, thank you. I'm fine."

"Very well. I'll just be a moment getting my ledger."

The Priest walked casually to his bedroom and picked up the ledger off the top of the chest of drawers. His jaw clenched as he passed the nightstand; the bottle of whiskey stashed in its drawer would certainly be of interest to the lawman sitting in his parlor.

He took a moment to gather himself for his performance before returning to the parlor. His mouth was dry and his pulse was faster than he would have liked, but he was confident the sheriff believed every word he spoke.

When he got back to the parlor, he found the sheriff seated on a sofa, elbows resting on his knees and hands clasped. The Priest sat down beside the man whom he had now decided was indeed quite young and said, "So, about what time frame are you thinking this man went missing?"

"The last day his time card was punched was New Year's Eve."

"Alright, then. This shouldn't be too difficult, seeing as the number of boarders has declined somewhat these past few months." He opened the book to where it was currently marked and flipped back a few pages. "I believe I did have someone check out around that time, if memory serves me right." Running his index finger down the column on the right side of the page, he came to a stop on a box dated December 31. "Yes, here it is," he said, handing the ledger to Sheriff Mabry.

"That's him, alright," said the sheriff. "Checked in...fourth of December, looks like. Do ya remember anything about him?"

The Priest stared at the signature for a moment, his lips forming a thin, straight line. "You know, no, not a whole lot. He was quiet, kept to himself for the most part. I never had any trouble out of him. The only thing that really stands out in my memory is that his room was remarkably clean when he left."

"His room. Could I have a look around the room?"

"I suppose so. Someone else is staying in it presently, but he's a nice enough fellow. I doubt he'd mind."

"Oh. No, I won't do that. But tell me, did ya find anything that might've suggested where he was heading when he left? Did he say anything to ya?"

"No, as a matter of fact he hardly ever said anything at all."

"Did he seem nervous when he checked out?"

"No, nothing out of the ordinary, as I recall."

"Do ya remember about what time he left?"

"Yes. It wasn't long after supper. Maybe seven in the evening."

Sheriff Mabry bit his lower lip. He stared off into space, as if the answers to his questions were floating around the room. Finally, he spoke again. "The mine manager said when he came into work the morning of the second, there was a letter of resignation slid under his office door. He said it was from the foreman, your neighbor. And it appears he and his family have completely vacated the house next door. He seemed to think this fella might have been in cahoots with the foreman. Maybe they both had cause to get out of town because they were partnering on something...not so legal..."

The Priest could hear the blood pounding in his ear. "No, I don't think that could be the case. My neighbors were good people, not the type to be involved in anything illegal."

"But definitely the type to just slip away unannounced?"

The Priest shrugged. "I think he had a good opportunity offered to him and he jumped on it. What better time to start fresh than the beginning of a new year?"

Sheriff Mabry frowned, shaking his head.

"Is there something the matter?" asked the Priest.

He sighed. "I'd just hoped driving across that mountain would've given me more information than I started with."

"Well, you at least know when he was last seen. I really am sorry. I wish I could tell you more."

"It's not your fault, Frank. I really don't even know how this case fell to me. The man's not even from around here. The family just doesn't hear from him for a while and the last place he was supposed to have been was working in the mines. So suddenly, it's my problem." He shook his head again. "And this is foreign territory for me, ya know?"

"You mean working a missing persons case?"

Sheriff Mabry stood to leave. "That. And even being here. I never have any reason to cross the mountain because the coal company does a fine enough job of policing this place, if ya know what I mean."

The Priest nodded and stood to accompany him to the door. Before heading back out, the young sheriff reached into his coat pocket and removed a small pad of paper and a pen. He quickly scribbled a number onto the pad, tore off the piece of paper, and handed it to the Priest. "As I understand it, there's a telephone in the mine manager's office. If you remember anything else, no matter how small, give me a call."

"I will most certainly do that," said the Priest.

"Thank you for your time, Frank. Good day to ya."

"Good day."

The Priest shut the door as soon as the sheriff was back in his car. He pulled back the curtain and watched as the black car went back out the long gravel drive and turned onto the street. Pulling the curtain to, he turned and walked to his room.

He opened the drawer of the nightstand and dug through the clean socks and underwear until his hand found the glass bottle. He removed it and shut the drawer, then left the bedroom and walked dully to the kitchen. Setting the bottle on the counter, he reached into the cabinet and pulled out the whiskey glass.

That sheriff was a nice fellow, and the Priest really wished he could help him, but there were a lot of things he just didn't need to know. He didn't need to know about anything that happened the night of New Year's Eve. He didn't need to know that the missing man had never actually checked out of his room at the boarding house. And he didn't need to know that the night after his neighbors left, the Priest slipped through the back door of the foreman's house and scrubbed up the blood in that bedroom floor, patched the bullet hole in the ceiling, and painted over it.

The Priest poured the whiskey glass half full, put it to his lips, and turned it bottoms-up. Whoever heard his next confession was going to be getting an earful.

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