The Names of Our Tears
An Amish-Country Mystery
Ruth Zook returns home to Holmes County, Ohio, carrying a heavy suitcase and a heavier heart. Coerced into becoming a drug mule, Ruth retaliates by destroying her illicit burden and pays for it with her life. When Fannie Helmuth confesses that she was similarly coerced, Sheriff Bruce Robertson realizes that the drug dealers’ operation reaches all the way to Florida’s Pinecraft Amish community. He immediately moves the investigation South, where more innocent lives are in jeopardy.
Like the bestselling books in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, The Names of Our Tears is a riveting mystery loaded with the page-turning thrills and suspense that readers love.
Monday, April 4
It was Coblentz chocolate that had Mervin Byler awake so early that morning—fine Coblentz chocolate, and the artful widow Stutzman who made it. This would be his seventh trip this spring up to the heights at Walnut Creek, and he knew the best gossips in the valley would be making sport of him again today.
What could draw old Mervin out so early, they’d be asking each other so delicately. Was it really the Coblentz chocolate? Was he just a retired old farmer out for a drive? Maybe he just liked to show off his high-stepping racehorse. Or could it be the widow Stutzman?
Oh, how they’d sure be buzzing today, Mervin thought. Why yes—he smiled—it looks as if he’s washed his best Sunday rig again.
Mervin stepped out into the cold air in a new Amish-blue denim suit and stood on the front porch of his white clapboard Daadihaus, set back twenty paces from the wide gravel drive that curled around the back of the big house. A cool breeze tugged at his white chin whiskers, and a gust caught under the wide brim of his black felt hat, nearly lifting it from his head. He settled the warm hat back into place and stood to enjoy the familiar sounds of the farm—all the family, parents and kids alike, at work since well before dawn.
In the woodshop behind the barn, that was his oldest son Daniel he heard, running lumber through the tabletop saw. Lowing as they nipped at the hay in the feeders, the milking cows were back on the hillside pastures beyond. The youngest kids were bringing baskets of eggs out of the henhouse. And beside the big house, an older grandson was starting a gasoline generator, charging the marine batteries for the several electric appliances the family kept—a phone in a little shed out by the road, a secret radio for severe weather, half a dozen lightbulbs where safety called for something other than kerosene lanterns, and an electric butter churn that Mervin had brought home on a whim from Lehman’s hardware in Kidron.
Standing on his front porch, Mervin listened with satisfaction to the familiar sounds of morning chores, the rhythms of family life on the farm. In his day, when the farm had been theirs, he and his Leona had been accustomed to early rising, too. They had owned the farm for forty years, and then they had lived together for seven more happy years in their little Daadihaus, watching Daniel and Becky raise their own, in the same home where Mervin and Leona Byler had raised their twelve. It’s fitting, Mervin thought. The old move aside for the young, who in turn honor their parents with the gift of a new home.
Byler sighed and thought about Leona, gone for nearly three years. So fine a woman; so many good years. Now their little Daadihaus was a lonely place for him, and Mervin had fallen into slack habits. Most would say it was shameful, the way he ignored the chores. He slept in, and he got up when it suited him. Mervin Byler figured he had earned his rest.
Truth be told, Leona might say it was a bit much. When they had retired, she had insisted that they rise with the others and tend to their share of the chores, too. But now Mervin gladly let the sons plant and harvest the crops, tend to the livestock, handle all the duties on the farm. Mervin Byler was retired, and he had fun and suitable places to be, never mind what the gossips might say about the widow Stutzman. He felt young again, and he knew with the wisdom of age that that feeling was not to be squandered.
With great satisfaction over his prospects for the morning, Byler noted that the stiff breeze was snatching a thin gray line of smoke from the chimney of Becky’s kitchen stove, at the back of the big house. The fire is still going, he thought. As late as it was, there would still be hot coffee in her pot. Maybe he could take some of Becky’s biscuits, too. Wrap them in a towel for the trip. Byler considered it briefly.
But his best mare was already hitched and waiting on the drive, shuddering from the energy bottled up in her limbs. Just like Mervin, she was eager to begin.
Mervin clipped down the wooden steps on his new leather soles and climbed into his Sunday buggy, laughing at himself. Thinking that he could already hear the chatter. Knowing what the valley gossips would say if they ever got a look inside his cupboards, stuffed full to bursting with Coblentz chocolates of every kind. They would be asking themselves why an old man needed to be driving back to Walnut Creek again when his cupboards were already shamefully overstocked with more sweets than any sensible man could eat.
For the fun of it, he ought to drop a hint somewhere along the line. Put it out there among the talkers that he didn’t really like chocolate that much. Truth be told, he favored salty chips more than sweets. Wonderful, crunchy, salty chips of every kind.
Just tell one of them, he thought, and soon they’d all be a-chatter. He’d make a few trips into Walmart for a dozen bags of Ruffles, and that news would be singing like electric in the wires. Why, don’t you know? Mervin doesn’t really like sweets at all. Then he could enjoy the sparks. He couldn’t remember a time when he had felt so young.
But don’t kid yourself, Mervin smiled. Today I’ll just tap the glass. See if she’ll come around to the tourists’ gallery for a chat. Maybe he could visit on Sunday with the North Walnut Creek Lehmans, and stay after services for the social. Then his valley would sure be all a-buzz. Was it the Coblentz chocolates or the widow Stutzman? A Sunday visit in old Ben Lehman’s district would settle it for sure. They’d all be talking for over a month.
Mervin climbed up, took the reins, and walked his buggy out to the lane in front of the big house. He turned right to follow Township Lane 166 toward the north, thinking that maybe she’d give him a look today. Something to help him make up his mind. But hadn’t she done that already the last time he had visited? Mervin wasn’t sure. Was it a look, or was it a smile? Maybe it was just a glance.
Yes, at the time, he had thought it was just a glance. Now it seemed to him that it might have been more than that. Was it really encouragement for a suitor, or was she mocking an old fool?
Never mind, he told himself. I’ll tap on the glass today. Then she’ll give me one look or the other look, and I’ll know if I should bother with any more chocolates from the Coblentz store. Not that there’s room in my cupboards.
He set a good pace for his horse and took the reins in his left hand. With his right, he fished his money roll out of the side pocket of his denim trousers. It was a suitable sum, he thought. Four hundred and eighty-seven dollars, most of it in tens and twenties. He wouldn’t need nearly that much. Still a man ought to be prepared. Maybe after he stopped in Walnut Creek, he’d run up Route 39 to the Walmart in Millersburg. That’d put him home after dark. Smiling broadly, he thought how that news would spread itself around among the folk. Up to Walnut Creek for the widow Stutzman and way over to Millersburg just for chips? There’d be no end of the talk.
At the intersection with Township 165, Byler turned left and took the gravel lane where it cut a gap in the remote southeastern corner of Holmes County. Exhausted from a brutal winter, most fields lay bare on the rolling hills, but some had been plowed already, their tidy rows of newly turned earth looking eagerly dark and moist for planting.
On the slope to his left, he saw the new shoots of winter wheat promising the harvest in July. Ahead on his right stood the stubble of feed corn cut last autumn, the arching rows of blunted shafts curving gracefully over the crest.
Take the back roads today, Byler thought. No sense getting out on SR 39, where the traffic is so crazy. When had the tourists discovered Walnut Creek? Twenty years ago, there hadn’t been anything at all in the little town. Now it was overbuilt for commerce, and the traffic was incessant, with out-of-state plates and buses from all the big cities.
Mervin frowned. He gave the reins a determined slap. Back roads will take longer, he told himself, but the trip will be safer, and you’ll get there in one piece, you old fool. So stick to the backmost roads.
The narrow wheels of his buggy cut fine, wavy lines into the gravel and mud of the lane, and he gave the reins another slap to encourage his horse. The whisper music of his buggy wheels running in the wet gravel and the clipping rhythm of his horse’s hooves spoke peacefulness to him. Coblentz chocolate and the widow Stutzman. Who could ask for a better morning?
Following the creek that was fed by the spring on the Yoder farm, he traveled generally north and west, and made the sharp right turn where the road curved to the north. The glade that lay ahead to his left was lined by sycamores whose old roots sank deep into the rocky cut of the creek. A stand of barren maples beside the road sheltered the little glade from view at fi rst, but soon he reached the clearing beside the road, where the Yoders maintained a service road for an oil well. Behind the low knoll, Byler could see the top of the wellhead where the Yoders took off their natural gas feed, and beside that stood a green tank for the oil that was being pumped slowly out of the ground.
As he skirted the glade, however, Byler saw a horse and buggy standing at the back of the clearing, beside the bend in the service road. The horse was tethered to a sapling, and it was bucking wildly in its harness, its head popping up and down and back and forth as it whipped the leather reins that were tied to the tree.
Byler stopped, climbed down from his rig, and circled around through tangled brush to reach the front of the horse, not wanting to agitate it any further by coming up on its rear. As he approached, he called out to the horse, “Hey there! Hey, big fella! Whoa!”
But as he pushed through the brambles, his feet crunching twigs and fallen branches, the horse bucked and danced all the more, its hooves striking strangely to the right and left, as if it were trying to sidestep a rattlesnake. As if it couldn’t bear to let its footfalls touch the ground.
And that’s when Byler first saw the girl lying underneath the rear hooves of the horse. An Amish girl in a forest-green dress, wearing the black denim jacket of a man. Sprawled under the hooves of the frantic horse. Trampled facedown in the mud beside the spring. Clothes caked with bloodied mud, arms and legs sprawled to the sides like broken twigs. The hair at the back of her head matted with blood from a gaping hole in her skull. The frightened horse pounding out its terror on her back.
Byler stepped up to the sapling and drew his pocketknife. He cut once at the reins wrapped around the trunk, but failed to sever the hold. He cut again with more force, and the leather gave way, but still held. Then he slashed with his blade a third time, and the reins snapped free, sending the horse bolting off to the side, dragging the wheels of the buggy sideways over the body of the girl, flipping her onto her back. The horse and buggy disappeared around the curve of the lane. Staring down at the trampled body of the girl, Byler could hear the plaintive cries of the horse as it struggled to free itself from the harness. He knelt to brush mud from her face and felt a round wound in her forehead.
* * *
Each time the buggy bounced out of a chuckhole, it seemed to Byler that it actually flew. He whipped the horse again and tried to keep his seat as he raced back home to the phone booth beside the road. Thirty yards out, he started slowing the horse, but he overshot the phone. Not bothering to steady or tether the horse, Byler hopped down beside the picket fence in front of Daniel’s house, let the horse pace forward to stop on its own, dashed into the phone booth, pulled the receiver to his ear, and tried to turn the dial. His fingers were shaking badly, and it took him three tries to swing the dial around to get 911.
Groaning as he waited for an answer, Mervin’s feet marched out a manic step in place, inside the tight confines of the little shed. When the operator answered, he shouted, “Dead girl!” as loud as he could, and repeated it, saying, “I found a dead girl!”
He dropped the receiver, pushed back through the door, and ran for the house, shouting, “Daniel! Becky! Get help!”
Then he remembered the phone and ran back to the booth. When he picked up the receiver, the operator started asking him questions, and he answered them as best he could.
“Beside the Yoders’ spring.
“Yes, it’s Holmes County. At the big bend of Township 165 and 166.
“She’s dead, I tell you. Get the sheriff!
“Because I felt a hole in her forehead! When I tried to brush the mud out of her eyes.”
Then, with his thoughts muddled by adrenaline, Mervin answered several more questions, while Daniel and Becky stood outside the phone booth with anxious questions in their eyes.
Mervin finished his call, laid the handset back on its cradle, and stood alone inside, trying to understand how he could manage to do what the man on the phone had asked him to do—to go back, to wait there, and to talk with the deputies when they arrived.
He turned in place, opened the door, and stepped outside to tell Daniel and Becky what he had seen. But several of the children had gathered with their parents, so he drew Daniel aside to whisper.
As he did so, Mervin Byler couldn’t remember a time when he had felt so old.
Monday, April 4
Detective Sergeant Ricky Niell followed a circuitous route to meet Mervin Byler. When the call had come in, he had been in Berlin, to the north, taking a statement from a local who had been knocked down by an impatient tourist hurrying to park his car in a prized spot at the curb. The injured man was sitting on a bench in front of the old Boyd and Wurthmann Restaurant while paramedics splinted his ankle. All around him flowed the early morning circus of a society gone hideously commercial, with English tourists thronging the sidewalks, cars and tour buses clogging the main road and all of the side streets, and garish music playing from loudspeakers outside the trinket establishments that so many English folk considered to be authentic country treasures.
Frustrated by the spectacle, Niell left Berlin abruptly. He followed SR 39 south and east out of town, dropped down off the crest at Walnut Creek, pushed around the long, sweeping curve, and turned south on TR 420. He needed to hurry, but the country lanes were narrow, pitched steeply, and curved dangerously. With mounting urgency, he forced his cruiser around a series of sharp turns and switchbacks, traveling deeper into the secluded hillside pasturelands north of Baltic. TR 420 to County 140, then TR 141, TR 164, County 70, back onto TR 164, and finally left and south again on TR 165, driving ever slower as the lanes constricted and turned to gravel and mud.
After another tortuous quarter mile of frustration, Niell stopped, punched up a wider view on his GPS display, and studied it to see how deeply into the isolated countryside he had managed to penetrate. Once he had confirmed his location, he rolled his cruiser forward with guarded satisfaction, came over a rise, and dropped into a pocket between the hills.
Directly ahead he saw a black buggy parked on the road, with a short, round, white-haired Amishman holding the bridle of his horse. The man waved to him somberly, and Niell rolled forward and stopped ten paces from the nose of the horse. Then Niell called in his location on his radio and got out of his cruiser, zipping up his duty jacket out of a habit grown to ritual after a long and hard winter. But once out of his cruiser, he realized that the cold spring breezes that were stirring over the high grounds at Berlin and Walnut Creek weren’t reaching into the deep draw where he had parked, so he unzipped his jacket, took it off, and tossed it onto the front seat.
As fastidious as ever, Niell was dressed in designer slacks, with a coat and tie. He had his badge clipped to his belt in front. His black hair was longer than he liked and parted on the right, the way his wife, Ellie, preferred. His mustache was still black and pencil thin. Otherwise, he was clean-shaven. His shoes were polished and fashionable, and unsuited to the terrain, so he sat on the edge of the driver’s seat to change into a pair of work boots.
As he did that, Mervin Byler marched forward and offered his hand. “I’m Mervin Byler and I called about the girl,” he said in a rush and pointed into the clearing where the body lay.
Niell stood up, shook hands, and walked over with Byler to stand between the buggy rig and the glade. “Did you move the body, Mr. Byler?” he asked.
“No,” Byler said nervously. “No, I just turned her head a little.”
“So, really, you did move her.”
“I just turned her head, Deputy, to see if I could help. Other than that, she’s right where I found her.”
Niell studied the glen and judged the clearing to be thirty yards wide and forty yards deep. It sloped back to a stand of tall, barren trees, where a creek coursed over jagged rocks, showing patches of ice and snow in the shaded crevices.
To Niell’s right there was a small knoll, around which a service road curved and disappeared. Beyond the top of the knoll, he could see the round metal dome of an oil tank.
Between the creek and the road to his left was a field of tangled weeds, dead shoots, and wild grasses. Half a dozen saplings stood as a boundary between the grasses and the clearing where the girl lay. Frowning at the body, Niell pulled a new spiral notebook out of his hip pocket.
As he sketched the scene in his notebook, Niell heard voices behind him. He stepped around the rear of the buggy and looked up the rise to the crest of the hill beside the lane. There he saw a half-dozen Amish kids and half as many adults, standing out in the wind on the high pasture, watching from a height of thirty feet.
Niell shook his head, annoyed by the curiosity of the locals. Death, it seemed, was a draw for them. He shrugged, thinking it a shame that they had gathered so quickly. But it had always been like this, even in the most peaceful, quiet corners of the county.
But there was nothing he could do about it, so he turned to Byler, flipped to a new page in his spiral notebook, and asked, “Has anyone gone after the horse, or is everyone up there—you know—just watching us?”
Niell felt awkwardly tall beside Byler, and he quickly regretted his sharp tone. He was constitutionally even tempered, but the onlookers on the high pasture behind him had touched a sensitive nerve. It was not that long ago that a similarly annoying crowd had gathered outside the ranch home of Darba Winters to watch the investigation into the murder of an Amish neighbor south of Fredericksburg, and then the curiosity of the crowd had bothered him equally. Not as much as it apparently had bothered the gruff Sheriff Robertson, but enough all the same. Then, with her husband dead, Darba Winters had disappeared, raising the sheriff’s ire all the more. And while it often had fallen to Niell to smooth over the ruffled feathers left in Sheriff Robertson’s powerful wake, Ricky was now a detective, and he figured that he had advanced enough in rank and seniority to let the other deputies worry about Robertson’s short-fused insistence.
So today, with the locals already gathering to watch, Niell didn’t much care to think about Robertson’s eventual appearance at the scene. Truth be told, the sheriff didn’t always help. Besides, Niell mused, we have a detective bureau, now, and the sheriff really isn’t needed here. Let Captain Newell manage the details for once, Niell thought. Let the detectives run this investigation.
The detectives in the bureau consisted so far only of Ricky Niell and Corporal Pat Lance, she with air force training in detective work, and he with only one more state certification still to earn. Bobby Newell had come out of retirement to serve as captain of detectives, and Robertson had promised to appoint another deputy to detective status. More to the point, he had promised to let the captain and his detectives take the lead on murder investigations.
Niell pulled himself away from his thoughts, reprimanded himself for the distraction, studied the little man beside him, and asked again about recovering the horse. But Byler didn’t respond. Perhaps he hadn’t heard. He was staring intently at the body of the girl, and Niell had to tap his shoulder to get his attention. “Mr. Byler, has someone gone after her horse and buggy?”
Absently, Byler answered, “I sent one of my grandsons after it.”
“Because I need to see them both,” Niell added. “I wouldn’t want the horse unhitched before I got a look.”
Byler nodded and marched back around the rear of his buggy. Niell followed. Byler called out to one of the lads standing on the high pasture, and the boy scrambled down the slope directly. Then Byler instructed the boy using the authoritative Dietsch dialect of the region, and the boy ran down the road, heading north.
Byler nodded his satisfaction and said to Niell, “He’ll catch up. They’ll leave the horse hitched when they bring it back here.”
Niell studied his position in the deep pocket between the hills. “You can’t see anything down in here, Mr. Byler. How will they know where the horse is?”
“Oh, it’s probably just over that hill behind the creek. Horses don’t like running much on their own. The lads will track it down.”
“Will this new fellow get there in time to tell your grandson not to unhitch the horse?”
Byler shrugged and smiled weakly. “We’ll have to wait and see. They are brothers.”
Niell considered that, walked back to stand between Byler’s buggy and the glen, and asked, “Mr. Byler, do you know who she is?”
As Niell spoke, another cruiser came around the curve and rolled to a stop behind Byler’s rig. Corporal Stan Armbruster got out with a camera, and walked up to Niell and Byler. He was in a trim-fitting uniform, with a duty belt loaded heavily with gear. His black hair was military short, and his round face showed a fair complexion and a ready smile. As he came forward, he said, “I came in through Farmerstown, but I took a wrong turn. Should have gotten here fi rst.”
“I haven’t been here very long,” Niell said. “Is Lance on her way?”
“She’s coming down from Mt. Hope. Might be a minute, yet.”
“OK,” Niell said, “I’m sketching the scene, so you walk a circuit around it, taking pictures from a distance. We’ll go in closer when Pat gets here.”
Armbruster nodded and started walking a wide circumference around the glade, taking pictures from various angles. Niell called out, “Be sure to get shots from up on that little knoll,” and Armbruster nodded.
Turning back to Byler, Niell asked, “Do you recognize her, Mr. Byler?”
Byler shrugged. “I didn’t get much of a look, since her face was so muddy. But I think she’s a Zook. I think she works at a bed-and-breakfast over on 557, just this side of Charm.”
“But are you certain?”
“No,” Byler said. “But I think she’s one of the Zooks from out that way.”
Niell called Armbruster back and said, “Stan, let me take the camera. I need you to check at a B and B on 557.”
Niell turned to question Byler, and Byler offered, “It’s the Maple Valley B and B. If she’s a Zook from over there, she lives across the road, and down about a quarter mile.”
“But we’re not sure,” Niell said to Armbruster. “So just go over and ask at the B and B. See if a Zook girl is working this morning, or if she’s supposed to be but hasn’t showed up. Call me when you get an answer, but don’t say anything about this murder.”
Armbruster nodded, climbed back into his cruiser, backed up, backed around in a wide patch of road to head out, and drove away, swinging over to the right to let Pat Lance’s cruiser pass by on his left, coming in.
Lance parked behind Byler’s rig and got out. She was a blond, Germanic woman with close-cropped hair. She had large, round blue eyes, set far apart. A strong nose and prominent chin mixed with her determined attitude about law enforcement, causing some to conclude that she was too formal, perhaps somewhat too severe. As she walked up to Niell and Byler, she asked, “Where’s Stan going?”
Niell handed the camera to her and said, “He’s gonna check at the B and B where Mervin, here, thinks this girl worked,” and then he introduced Lance to Byler.
Lance offered her hand, but Byler hesitated to take it. She held it out farther, smiling, and eventually Byler took it bashfully. Then Lance leaned in to study Niell’s notepad and said, “You’ve been sketching?”
Niell nodded. “I’ve got the clearing sketched, but we’ll need measurements of everything, once we go in closer. I’ve also got these tracks sketched.”
Lance took the notebook, compared Niell’s sketch with the tracks on the ground, and handed the notebook back to Niell.
Niell said, “OK. We’ve got the track of one buggy wheel, going in first. Then these tire tracks overlie that, and must have covered over the track of her second buggy wheel. Then another buggy circled around over all of the other tracks.”
Byler offered,“That’ll be where I swung my rig around, to go back to the telephone.”
“The tire tracks go in, curving right,” Lance said, “and back out, curving left. Someone drove in behind her, and then came out to head back north, the way they came.”
“You recognize the tires?” Niell asked Lance.
“I saw a lot of those in the air force. It’s a Humvee.”
“That’s what I thought,” Niell said.
“Excuse me,” Byler said, “but what’s a Humvee?”
“It’s a military vehicle, Mr. Byler,” Niell said. “But probably a civilian version.”
“Like a Jeep?” Byler asked.
“Bigger,” Lance said.
Nervously, Byler asked, “What was an Amish girl doing with a soldier?”
“It might not have been a soldier,” Niell said. “They make Humvees for civilians, now, too.”
“But why would anybody want one?” Byler asked.
“They’re big,” Niell said. “And powerful. It’s a status thing.”
Byler shook his head. “I can’t stay if there are going to be soldiers.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t a soldier,” Lance said, intending reassurance.
But Byler ignored her, shifting nervously from foot to foot, disturbed very deeply by this new revelation. He studied the tragic scene in front of him and tried to reconcile himself to soldiers. He thought it so very sad that he had already reconciled himself too easily to violent death.
The dead girl still lay where he had left her, faceup with the mud swiped across her brow from when he had tried to clear her eyes. He had tried to get a look at her face. To see if she was still alive.
From the edge of the clearing, he could see the hole that he had felt in her forehead. Her dead eyes stared an accusation back at him, as if his disturbing her had been a sin. At his feet, the big, knobby tire tracks curved back out onto the gravel lane. He hadn’t noticed them before. A soldier? Military? War. It all washed through him as a nervous flush of sorrow, and he realized he had stayed too long.
Looking up, he saw his grandsons in the distance beyond the barren trees, leading the horse and buggy over the saddle between two hills. He pointed them out to Niell and said, “I can’t stay here anymore.”
Niell asked, “Where will you be, Mr. Byler?”
“Third farm around there,” Byler said, pointing back down the lane. “After you hit 166.” He paused and then said—thinking of it as a confession—“We’ve got a white shed out by the road, with a telephone in it.”
“You’ll be at the house?” Niell asked.
“In the little Daadihaus at the back.”
Sorry for the man’s distress, Niell asked,“What are you going to do, Mervin? I will need to talk with you again.”
“I’m going to sit with some chocolates,” Byler said as he climbed up to his buggy seat. “Sweets will have to do, Deputy. Because”—he hesitated sadly—“today I’m just fresh out of chips.”
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