The Reluctant Witness by Dick Moomey
1942. Bullfrog hunting in the river with his friend Bucky, twelve year old Lee Richards witnesses a fight between two men on the caboose of a passing railroad freight train. Promises of ball games, cops and robbers and building a camp in the woods behind his home, soon leave his mind, when one of the men falls into the river, only feet from the two boys. Dead.
Lee’s memory of the second man and how he looked will never leave him but he also realizes the killer will never forget Lee either. Evidence reveals the man is a German espionage agent sent on a mission to sabotage certain areas on the St. Lawrence River. Obsessed with catching up with Lee and eliminating him as a witness to the murder, the Abwehr-trained spy places Lee in the crosshairs…
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How could you ever forget it? The sound echoed across the cow pastures before bouncing off the buildings clustered around the double railroad track with the mile-long siding. Certain nights brought an almost frightening, haunting sound, which made even the staunchest of the town’s citizen’s fight off goose bumps. Other nights the same sounds were like music, prancing across the rails and down Main Street. Some folks were known to even dance, as the evening milk train went by, tooting some downright sweet melodies. ‘Course, most had been in Brownie’s Bar and Grille.
The year was 1942, and with most of the town’s eligible males off to take up the fight for freedom, the village of Lawrence struggled against a mountain of trials. The one constant was the railroad, which ran east and west with trains sometimes stopped at the station. Others passed through with the prerequisite haunting whistle of the steam engine. Despite the war, things could have been worse. So most folks lived their daily lives waiting for the return of their young men, but still loving, hating and sometimes fighting. However, when push came to shove in their daily lives, they were always family. Family counted.
Only twelve, with my older brother off with the Navy somewhere in the South Pacific, war, for me, meant only that we couldn’t always get in the car and travel the five miles to the nearest movie house. Oh, and some days Mom couldn’t get the meat she liked or had to put off baking until she’d saved enough coupons for sugar and flour. Me, most days, I still played baseball with the five or six of us young guys or worked on building our special hangout in the woods. Cops and robbers occupied the number one spot on our daily, endless hours of games.
When the weather was warm, the sun high, and the water clear and cool, me and Bucky, my closest friend, usually snuck over to the Deer River. We hoped Dad or one of the railroad men didn’t see us, `cause the water under the railroad bridge was said to be especially treacherous and strictly off limits to us town boys. Dad, being the railroad agent and entrusted with a wide assortment of job descriptions, was most kind, but when it came to my safety, he became downright adamant.
“Lee, you know I love you, and want the very best for everything you do in life, but I’m also the guardian of your life and mean to abide by that responsibility. Number one, you are never to go near the water under the railroad bridge. Never, do you understand?”
“Yes sir.” I really didn’t understand everything about being a guardian, but I guessed it meant he was my guardian angel or something like that. “I’ll try to remember what you’ve said.” ‘Course, Dad didn’t know the conductor and engineer of the morning and evening milk trains had, for some time now, paid us 25 cents for a large bouquet of water lilies and an equal amount for each large bull frog we could corral. Naturally, these two items were only abundant in the area of the river which ran beneath the bridge. We knew about the rapids, but also knew the lilies and bull frogs would never be found in the fast stream but only in little inlets which ran along the shore.
Soooo, off we went, hoping the real guardian angel Reverend Stockton told us about would look after us. It helped that we’d done this exact same thing for some time now, and the season on water lilies wasn’t exactly long. Wearing our swim trunks under our pants, my brother’s fishingnet tucked in one of my pants leg we started our round-about trip to the river. Strangely, I never gave it a thought that I must have looked like some peg-legged pirate as we passed across Main Street and behind Brownie’s, the only real bar and grill in town.
During the summer, every day is the same to a youngster in our town. Except Sunday of course, which was strictly observed in every possible way. I wasn’t sure which of the other six days this was, until I read the paper later on. Made no big difference to us, ‘cause we had a large order to fill. Flowers and frogs coming up!
Bucky and I’d often wondered what frog legs tasted like, and I even asked my mom once.
“Back when I was a girl,” she said, “we had them often. Lee, they tasted better than the best fried chicken. I sometimes wish we could have some here one of these days.”
I figured we’d have to believe her, for the conductor and engineer to pay the steep price of 25 cents for each one of the critters they had to be good.
Once we reached the bank of the Deer River, Bucky and I waded through the cat-tails and bulrushes which lined the shore and out into the shallow water. Normally, we’d manage to collect our bounty without having to go in all the way. Maybe up to our bellies, but no further. The frogs had to be first on the list because they would be harder to catch once we roiled up the water. We left our old sneakers out since neither of us relished the idea of bare-footing it through the oozy mud. Bucky pulled a large burlap bag out from under his shirt, and I managed to release the fishnet from my pant leg, although I almost lost the trousers in my efforts.
Creeping through the shallow river water, we looked for the tell-tale bubbles which indicated some creature would be under there, and we were pretty sure it would be a frog, hopefully a real big one. After all, we were experienced frog hunters with two seasons under our belts. Being a real good catching day, it didn’t take long to net six beauties, after throwing back some undersized guys. Get them next season.
Since the cat-tails and bull rushes camouflaged us, we were pretty sure it would be difficult for anyone to spot us. The railroad track and bridge were quite close, but up in the air some ways.
Frog hunting over, Bucky had a bit of a fit with their hopping inside the burlap, which he’d pushed back inside his shirt. I always laughed seeing this freckle-faced, tow-headed friend of mine, with his shirt dancing the heebie-jeebies and his bright blue eyes sparkling with mischief. Late afternoon seemed the best time for our harvest. Still, we had to keep our frogs alive and flowers fresh for the milk train’s evening run about an hour after we’d finish.
“Bucky, pull those critters out of your shirt. We can’t go water lily gathering with them making such a fuss. Tie the bag to that willow over there and let it hang free in the water so our jumping friends will stay nice and fresh. Okay?”
“No need to tell me, Lee. It’s just like we always do, right?” Bucky gave that cocked eyebrow look of his, probably amused as always by how much we looked alike. Some folks swore we were twins. “These buggers are more lively than usual, so it’ll be good to get rid of them.”
While Bucky undertook his chore, I heard the sound of the late afternoon freight train approaching from the Malone area, on its way to all points west on the Rutland Railroad. Most freight trains had over a hundred cars, which meant they traveled quite slow while passing through any residential areas. We were both railroad buffs, and I had even learned Morse code from my dad, which prompted Bucky, on occasion, to drop by my house hoping to learn some code and transmission techniques.
More or less focused on the train rumbling past almost above our heads, maybe thirty or forty feet up, we counted the cars and even the types, which seemed more varied than usual. From our position, not quite under the bridge, we could clearly see each car while the long freighter passed. I pushed aside some of the tall cat-tails, enabling me to have a less obstructed view.
Time passes quickly when you’re interested in what’s going on around you. Before we realized it, the bright red caboose began its trip across the span. Then, I quickly made out the figures of two men, obviously fighting. One of them raised his hand and repeatedly brought it down onto the body of the second man. Half way across the bridge, the one being hit, tumbled from the rear platform of the caboose. Almost in slow motion, the body, with arms flailing and a long wail of a scream, plummeted toward the river and landed not more than a couple feet from where Bucky and I were standing.
The splash and sudden arrival of this man into our hiding place sure did shock me. I couldn’t help but look up toward where the second man stood on the caboose platform, hands holding onto the black railing and staring down directly first at the body, and finally on me. Our eyes connected, and the image of this individual etched itself in my mind forever. The man was wearing a floppy baseball cap, had black scraggly hair, and an equally black and thick moustache, which seemed to partially cover a jagged scar across his face. Believe me, his large blue eyes—people always remarked on my exceptional eyesight, even called me “Hawk” sometimes, so even at that distance, I was quite certain they were blue—never left my face, as the train completed its trip across the river and on the way to the west.
Looking toward the figure in the water, I found the area colored blood-red, spreading in an ever widening circle. The man was on his back, with the handle of a large knife sticking out of his chest. I almost shit my pants. From the smell, it was clear Bucky had actually accomplished that feat. Lying in the water, the man didn’t seem to be breathing or moving. He was a stranger to me. I’d never forget the face of his killer. Ever. Suddenly, I realized he would probably never forget mine, either.