Killian, Ohio. August 1961
The Murray brothers, Phil and Gary, bolted out the screen door of their ranch-style suburban home on the outskirts of Killian, Ohio, looking for adventure. The early afternoon was moist and oppressive after days of heavy rain and storms. They dressed alike: white cotton pullovers with blue stripes, shorts, and Keds sneakers.
“Make sure you are home by supper,” their mom yelled. “Philip, do you have your watch?”
“Yes, mom,” he said as he held his arm up, the Mickey Mouse watch tight around his wrist as they raced out of the backyard towards the meadow.
Phil, fifteen and the older of the two by one year, taunted his younger sibling.
“Hurry up. I’ll beat you to the fort and won’t let you in.”
Gary, skinnier and less athletic, struggled to keep up.
“No fair, Phil,” he whined.
Phil shrugged his shoulders and stopped.
“I won’t leave you behind. Nobody should ever be left behind.”
The brothers strolled out of their neighborhood past an old collapsed barn into a lush meadow, disturbing red-wing blackbirds as they made their way alongside a wide creek. The creek and its banks were scoured from the rain. Tumbled rock and debris jammed the once-flowing waters.
An old dirt logging road ran parallel to it and up into the forest, where their fort, a haphazard bundle of cut limbs and branches, nestled in a grove of pine.
They paused after a half-hour of climbing and looked down at their neighborhood of matchbox houses all lined up in rows and semi-circles. The subdivision, built after the war, grew as returning GIs came home looking for work in the city of Killian. New businesses sprung up as some of the older ones faded away. Their parents would talk about how tough it was during the Depression, how people couldn’t find jobs, and that there was trouble in some of the local factories. The boys thought that was ancient history. All they cared about was the here and now.
“Phil, I gotta pee.”
“Geez, Gary. Didn’t I tell you to go before we left?”
Gary stepped off the logging road and walked to a large pine tree that had been uprooted from the rain and the storm. As he did his business, his eyes settled on the earth that the fallen tree’s roots had disturbed.
“Phil! Come quick!”
Phil came running over to his brother.
“Look, Phil,” as the boy pointed to the upturned earth and the half-buried skull.
They sprinted home, slammed through the screen door, and jabbered at the same time. Their mother, trying to make sense of what they were saying, stopped them in mid-sentence.
“One at a time, boys; now tell me what you are all excited about.”
Again, they talked over each other.
She held her hand up, the universal signal to shut up.
“Philip, suppose you tell me what is going on.”
Gary, dejected at not being called on, sulked and turned away.
Phil pulled his brother back.
“We found a skull in the woods on the way to the fort.”
“What kind of skull?” said their mother, thinking a deer or a bear skull.
“A human skull, mom,” said Gary, breaking in.
The boys were so intense that their mom thought it would be prudent to call the county sheriff.
“Well, I don’t know, Sheriff Deighton. They are fairly sure of what they saw. Yes, we will be here.”
After a half-hour, Sheriff Deighton arrived at the Murray’s house. Mrs. Murray welcomed him into the living room, where the boys told him what they saw.
“Are you sure it was human?” he asked.
“I took biology. I’m sure,” said Phil.
“Boys, I need you to take me to where you found this skull.”
The sheriff turned to Mrs. Murray.
“It could be an Indian skull. Lots of tribes around here hunted in those woods. But I still need to check it out. Let’s go, boys.”
Sheriff Deighton went to his patrol car, pulled out some tools and a flashlight, and started the long hike through the meadow and up the logging trail.
When they got to the spot, the boys showed him where the skull protruded from the ground.
“Stay back, boys, as I look this over. Might be a crime scene, might not.”
The sheriff carefully used a small pickaxe and a brush to clear away soil from the skull that was damaged, like it was struck. He soon found it was attached to a spinal cord and ribcages. The remains didn’t look that old to him. As he continued, the remnants of cloth and a metal button lodged in the left rib cage were revealed, and he knew this wasn’t an Indian warrior who lay here.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. July 1937
Pittsburgh was in the throes of the Depression as Billy Hart walked to the office of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, or SWOC, on Grant Street. He passed a soup line that stretched for blocks. The people, beaten down and haggard, shuffled along. Some had been in and out of work as companies pitted workers against each other to drive wages down. President Roosevelt had promised much with his New Deal, but people were still out of work and hungry. Many were desperate and anger boiled out in protests and riots. A strike wave had broken out as industries that hadn’t shut down were fighting off union organizing as workers complained of speed-ups, arbitrary firings, stagnant wages, and long working hours. Cops and company goons battled workers, and casualties mounted on both sides. In 1937, SWOC called a strike at the steel companies and 67,000 workers hit the picket lines. The steel companies escalated their war on the union and fought tooth and nail to keep their factories union free. And if it meant killing people, so be it.
Billy came out of one of those fights and the union, seeing potential in the twenty-three-year-old, hired him as an organizer.
The crowded office on the sixth floor offered no respite from the heat. Billy went in and over to his boss, organizing director Hal Johnson. Hal had come into SWOC after years of experience on picket lines and union fights, first in the Industrial Workers of the World before the government smashed them during the Great War, and then with the American Federation of Labor. He joined the fledgling Congress of Industrial Unions in 1935, eager to organize the Steel companies. He had a husky build with short blonde hair and a vivid scar on his forehead.
“Morning, Billy. Have a seat. Got an assignment for you.”
“Hope it’s somewhere cool, Hal,” he said with a grin.
“Don’t count on it. But anyhow, we’re sending you to Killian, Ohio, about three hours by train. We got a letter from a guy who says their forge is ripe for organizing. We need you to check it out and see if there are people willing to step up to the plate and form a committee. Gets us a rundown on the company and who the people are that might oppose us. As usual, keep a low profile until you get the lay of the land. You leave tomorrow. Here’s your train ticket and his address. I registered you at the Killian Hotel as a salesman. We sent a plain letter to your contact that you would visit him tomorrow night.”
“I was hoping I could start working on the Steel company campaigns,” Billy said dejectedly.
“You will son, we need you to get a feel for things on your own with these smaller campaigns. And Billy, these shops are just as important. We need to organize everything that touches the industry.”
“Got it. How long do you want me there?”
“Just stay overnight and if it looks promising, we will send you back.” Hal stood up and shook Billy’s hand. “And be careful, you know it’s open season on unions and organizers.”
Forest and farmland changed to buildings as Billy looked through the train window. The conductor walked down the aisle and announced they were pulling into Killian. Suitcase in hand, he left the train, walked through the small brick station and onto Main Street in Killian. A newsboy in raggedy cut off pants, grey cotton shirt, and his cap at an angle was hawking his paper.
Billy called him over.
“Hey, boy. Where is the Killian Hotel?”
“You want a tour guide, it’ll cost you a dime, mister.”
“Smart little bugger, ain’t ya? OK, here is a dime for the directions and a nickel for the paper.”
The boy took the fifteen cents, handed him the Killian Herald and started to run off.
“Hey, where’s the hotel?”
The kid pointed down the street to a large modest building with a sign, Killian Hotel.
“Right there, mister, you can’t miss it unless you’re blind.”
The newsboy laughed, pocketed his coins and ran off.
Billy walked down Main Street to the hotel. A few businesses were closed permanently, but it didn’t look as bad as other cities. The radio store, with its Zenith and RCA radios in the front showcase, had more people looking in through the large window than buying. There was a church with a soup kitchen advertised, but no long line had formed, just a handful of people who looked like they could use a meal or two.
The Killian Hotel had seen better days and the lobby, while clean, was empty.
The desk clerk welcomed him.
“Yes sir, can I help you?”
“I have a reservation. The name is William Hart.”
“Yes, we have it right here. A salesman, hmm. You only have one suitcase? No wares?”
Thinking quickly Billy said, “I have our catalog and order forms in my suitcase.”
“Very well Mr. Hart. Take the stairs to room 301. Have a pleasant stay.”
As Billy walked away the desk clerk put a checkmark next to Billy’s name and picked up the phone.
That night after dinner in the hotel, Billy took his now empty suitcase from his room, walked through the lobby, and into the early night. The directions to his contact’s house in Killian were clear and specific. Billy walked down Main Street, past the Post Office, down Conklin Street to Jackson and at number 21 he would find Calvin Kirby. Billy would announce himself as a salesman from Pittsburg and Kirby would let him in.
Calvin Kirby greeted Billy with a hearty “Yes, I would like to see what you have in your catalog. Come on in.”
Calvin showed Billy into the living room. It reminded him of his parents’ house with well-worn sofas and chairs, a Philco tombstone radio on a stand.
“Would you like some lemonade, Mr. Hart?”
“That would be fine. And call me Billy.”
“Lizzy,” he called out. “Can you bring us a few lemonades?”
A young girl of about fourteen with straw-colored hair and violet-blue eyes walked out of the kitchen, into the room, and placed the drinks near the men.
“Thank you, honey.”
She went over to a chair where a book lay and read, ignoring the adults.
“Is your wife at home, Mr. Kirby?”
“No, Billy. She passed a few years ago. Tuberculosis.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kirby.”
Calvin nodded his head.
Lizzy looked up from her book to Billy and then back down. She couldn’t help but notice his chestnut-colored eyes, his light brown wavy hair, and his fine, smooth face, seemingly untouched by hardship. But in these times, she knew people hid that. Her father did.
“So, Calvin, we got your letter at the union office. What can you tell me about the situation here? Do many workers at the plant feel the same way you do?”
“This is a company town, Billy. The same family has run the Roberts Forging Company for fifty years. The original owner, Nathanial Roberts, passed away ten years ago, and his son, James, took control. He is nothing like his father. James has contempt for the workers. Thinks we are his slaves. When we speak up, he calls us a bunch of reds and commies. The mayor and the newspaper publisher are good friends of Roberts, and a cousin, Lawrence Stone, is the police chief. Roberts even owns the hotels.”
“And your co-workers? How many?”
“There’s a little over a hundred, not counting foreman and supervisors. A lot of them are for a union, but they are scared. Sure, Roosevelt says we have a right to organize, but he ain’t here in Killian, and Killian is run by the Roberts family, and they got muscle. All we want, Billy, is to be treated fairly and respected. We want a union and a contract.” Calvin leaned into Billy. “I can barely hang onto this place with the wages they give me,” he whispered.
Billy looked over at Lizzy, still reading and hopefully unaware of her father’s troubles. “We got muscle too, Calvin. With all the workers sticking together, we can win you a union and a contract. Maybe even organize the other places here, too. Make it a union town.”
Calvin Kirby looked into Billy’s eyes and saw confidence.
“Ok, Billy. What do you need me to do?”
“I need a list of workers who are for a union. Start small and only contact people you trust. We don’t want Roberts getting wind of any union activity until we are ready. A small meeting someplace outside of town where there are no prying eyes and then see where we go.”
“I can do that. There is a diner on the outskirts of town that caters to truck drivers. We can meet there.”
“Alright. I will report back to the union and will be back in touch. Where is the factory?”
Calvin gave Billy the directions.
Billy stood up to leave, shook Calvin’s hand, and turned to Lizzy.
“Goodbye, Lizzy. Thank you for the lemonade.”
Lizzy smiled; her heart fluttered.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Hart.”
Calvin Kirby closed the door as Billy left.
“Isn’t he gorgeous, father?”
“Hush, girl. He is twice your age. Go back to your book.”
Billy went back to the hotel, through the lobby, and to the stairs to his floor. A man in a chair by a large potted palm tree peered over his newspaper and watched Billy amble by.
Early the next morning, Billy walked to where Roberts Forge was located. Chimneys bellowed smoke from the coal-fired furnaces. He watched the workers stream in under the watchful eyes of the guards that stood near two main entrances. Billy made a mental note of their positions and locations where union leaflets could be distributed to the men as they went in.
Having talked to Kirby and mapped out the location of the factory, he returned to the hotel and checked out, taking the noon train back to Pittsburgh.
The desk clerk noted his departure.
Once back in Pittsburgh, Billy reported back to the union office and Hal Johnson.
“So how did it go in Killian?”
Billy gave him a rundown on his meeting, the layout of the forge, who the movers and shakers were, and the instructions he gave Kirby.
“Right, Billy. I’ll recommend sending you back in two weeks. Let’s give Kirby some time to get things together. If it doesn’t look like we can do anything, tell Kirby we will still keep in contact with him.”
Over the next two weeks, Billy helped other organizers in the region with house calls to prospective union supporters and handed out flyers at various sites a drive was going on. While this kept him busy, he was itching to get back to Killian.
Billy reported back to Hal Johnson.
He was on the phone and agitated.
“Damn, Ericson. How many? OK, call me back when you have more information.”
It took Hal a minute before he saw Billy, his mind elsewhere.
“What happened, Hal?”
“The police attacked our union office in Massillon last night. They opened fire on strikers and supporters who came to the office for a party. Hell, they were dancing in the street to a fiddle player when the cops opened fire. Three dead. We don’t know how many wounded.”
“When does it end, Hal?”
Hal slammed his hand on his desk. “When the owners of Republic Steel and all the rest of those steel barons come to their senses, stop killing their workers, and sign a union contract!”
Hal regained his composure.
“Sorry. Anyhow, Billy. You’re approved to go back to Killian. You leave on Friday. Here’s your train ticket and again, you are staying at the Killian Hotel.”
Hal Johnson stood up.
“Good luck, Billy. Keep your wits about you. Take the union button off. We don’t want to give anything away just yet.”
Billy took the metal Steel Workers Organizing Committee button off and put it in the inside pocket of his suit coat.
“Hey, Hal. You got an extra button I can have?”
“Loads, Billy.” He reached into a desk drawer where scores of buttons nestled. “Here you go.”
On Friday night, Billy knocked on Calvin Kirby’s door.
Lizzy opened it, winked, and said, “Why yes, come in. My father wondered why his order didn’t come.”
“Smart girl, Lizzy. You know the score, don’t ya? By the way, here is a union button for you. But you can’t wear it yet. Hide it away for the right time.”
Lizzy smiled. “You bet!”
Calvin came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel, and greeted Billy.
“Got your letter, Billy. I have a list and a few of us can meet at the Junction Diner tomorrow night if that is what you want.”
“That’s fine, Calvin. Set it up with the men. Does someone have a car to pick me up?”
“There will be five of us. Two cars. I will get Frank Holecek to pick me up and we will meet you at the corner of Main and Prospect at 8 pm.”
The next day, Billy walked down Main Street towards Prospect. A Killian police car sat back on a side street. The driver watched Billy walk by. He wasn’t alone. Another man sat in the front and one in the back.
At the corner of Prospect and Main, a 1932 black DeSoto pulled up and Billy, recognizing Calvin, got into the back seat. They drove to the Junction Diner with the driver looking in the rear-view mirror.
“I don’t see anyone, Calvin.”
“Good, just drive the speed limit if you please, Frank.”
Frank pulled up next to a grey chevy coupe and parked. A few tractor-trailers were in the lot, but it was still early for the long haulers who usually stopped in at midnight to get a jolt of java in their system before they made their final run.
The men went into the diner and sat at a table in the back, where two others waited. Calvin introduced Billy to the other men, Ken and Samuel.
A waitress came over for their orders.
“Coffee all around, Ginny.”
“I would like some apple pie if you have it,” said Billy.
“You got it, hon. Be right back, fellas.”
Once the coffee and pie were set on the table, Calvin explained to the others that Billy was from the steelworkers and that the union was going to help the men organize.
They talked for two hours. All the men were certain that Roberts would not give in easily. Billy gave them instructions on mapping out the inside of the forge, what the departments were and who they could trust in every department.
“Ok, fellas. You know what you need to do. I’ll be back with more help.”
The men left the diner and walked to their cars.
Thomas Murray came home in the early evening, having clocked out at his job as a salesman at Sears and Roebuck, and called out to his wife.
She came to the foyer and kissed him.
“It’s quiet. Where are the boys?” said Thomas.
“They’re with the sheriff.”
“Well, they went up to that fort of theirs and along the way, they found a skeleton.”
“A human skeleton?”
“That’s what they said. It was a skull.”
“The sheriff thought it might be an Indian grave. They’ve been gone for a while. Should be back soon. Let’s hold off supper until they get back.”
It was a half-hour later when the sheriff brought the boys back home.
“Why hello, Mr. Murray. Got your boys back safe and sound.”
He turned to Phil and Gary.
“Why don’t you two go out back for a bit. I want to talk to your parents in private. Police business, you know.” He winked at the boys.
“Ok, Sheriff Deighton,” said Phil.
“Come on, Gary.”
Gary didn’t budge.
“Come on!” Phil said as he pulled his reluctant brother along. Once out the back door, they silently stood by it, listening.
Once they left, the sheriff told the Murrays what he found.
“It ain’t no Indian brave. Modern clothes… and this.” He held out the metal button. “I washed it off in the creek.”
The pitted button spelled out: Steel Workers Organizing Committee.
Mrs. Murray sobbed and put her face in her hands. Her violet-blue eyes filled with tears.
“Oh my God,” she cried.
“Lizzy, what’s wrong,” said Tom.
Lizzy’s voice choked. “I’ll be right back,” she said as she rushed upstairs to their bedroom.
The two men stood dumbfounded.
She went in, caught her breath as memories flooded back to her, and went to her jewelry case. Inside were mementos and trinkets. She saw the pin right away. Lizzy went downstairs to the two men and held out her shaking hand. The pin was identical to the one Sheriff Deighton had.
“I think I know whose body is in the pine grove,” she said.
“We’ll let you off at the same spot we picked you up, Billy, not the hotel. Secrecy, ya know.”
“Right, Calvin. You guys gave me a good report. I think I can convince the union to set up funds and field staff for an organizing drive here. Get to work lining up more people and I will be back in touch with you all.”
After they dropped him off, Billy walked down the dark tree-lined street back to his hotel. It was late, no one was out. They had talked for hours. He was aware of the car that pulled out of the side street and didn’t notice it was a police car until it pulled up alongside him. Police Chief Lawrence Stone got out as well as two other men. One carried a club.
Billy stopped and waited. The chief, tall and sinewy, stood in front of him, the others behind. He kept his cool.
“Evening, officer. What can I do for you?”
“Out kind of late, aren’t you, Mr. Hart?”
“You know my name?”
“Of course, Mr. Hart. It’s my job. I don’t believe you’re selling wares, no sir. I believe you are one of them commie union agitators stirring up trouble in my town.”
“You got me wrong, officer.”
“And that meeting with Calvin Kirby and others? You selling them pots and pans?”
The sheriff laughed, and the others laughed along with him.
“Yep, that’s what I was doing.”
The punch to Billy’s stomach came fast and hard.
Billy bent over, vomiting the coffee and pie from the diner.
“Now, don’t mess with me, son. We aren’t going to let you and your kind in Killian… ever. Got it? You’re getting back on the train tomorrow.”
“You got that, boy,” said the man with the club as he poked Billy in the back.
Billy’s temper got the best of him, and he lashed at the man.
The man with the club slammed it down on Billy’s head. Not once, but two hard blows. Billy dropped to the sidewalk like a discarded rag doll. The night was still as Billy passed into the void.
“Simpson, you damn fool! You killed him.”
“I didn’t mean to, but he attacked me.” Simpson walked around in a circle and threw his hands up. “Now what?”
“Put him in my trunk. We’ll get rid of the body. Shit, his head is bleeding all over. Grab that blanket in the trunk and wrap his head. Fuller, we’re going to your place and get that pickup of yours and head out to the old logging road.” The police chief shook his head in disgust and glared at Simpson. “Now I have a fine mess to clean up. You can bet I will tell Mr. Roberts what went down.”
Simpson, his face worried, said, “Why don’t we say he was mugged?”
“And have an investigation and those union agitators coming here pointing their fingers? No way. He will check out of the hotel tomorrow, get on the train and head back to Pittsburgh.”
“How is a dead man going to do that?”
“Leave that to me, Fuller. Now get your truck and don’t forget the shovels. And Simpson, get rid of that club.”
At 11 pm, the chief in his car, closely followed by Fuller in his pickup, drove five miles out of town, past the abandoned Krenshaw farm, to a pasture along a creek and a logging road that went out of use twenty years earlier. It was still passable, and the pickup truck could easily make the climb to the pine forest above.
“Alright Simpson, you and Fuller take this guy up into the pine grove and bury him deep. We don’t need him coming back to haunt us.” Chief Stone gave Simpson a hard stare. “Do we, Simpson?”
Fuller kept the gears low and drove the 1934 Ford pickup truck up the incline and into a wooded area. The two men grabbed their shovels and dug among the trees. After about four feet, Fuller gave up.
“Hell, Simpson, too many roots here. It’s deep enough.”
“Take that blanket off his head and throw it in the bottom. Let’s dump this guy and get out of here. Spread a bunch of pine needles and brush on top.”
Billy Hart lay in his shallow grave. His closed chestnut-colored eyes could not see the beauty of the star-filled night. He would not smell the fresh earth or the scent of pine. He would lie here beneath it all, left behind, silent, and unknowing.
The police chief called James Roberts early in the morning to explain the situation.
“Hell, Lawrence! What kind of idiots do you have working with you? Clean it up! Between us? You never called me, right?”
The heavy click of the disconnected phone reverberated in Chief Stones ear.
He then went to the desk clerk of the Killian Hotel and demanded the key to Billy Hart’s room. The Police chief came back down with Billy’s suitcase and walked over to the desk clerk.
“Mr. Hart has checked out and gone back to Pittsburgh.”
The clerk looked at the sheriff askance. “But… “
“You get paid by Mr. Roberts, the owner of this hotel, right?”
The clerk nodded.
“Mr. Roberts says this is the way it is. I don’t have to call him, do I?”
Chief Stone went to his car, threw the suitcase into the trunk, and drove away.
Lizzy Murray told her husband and the sheriff of the visits by a young union man named Billy Hart in the summer of 1937.
“My father got a letter from the union three weeks after Billy left saying a union official was coming to meet him. Dad thought it was about starting the union organizing at the forge. When the man came to our house, Hal Johnson was his name, I think. His first question was when we last saw Billy. Dad told him the last time was when they dropped him off after their meeting at the diner. Dad assumed he went back to Pittsburgh the following day. Mr. Johnson looked at my father with pained eyes and said Billy never came back and no one, not even his family, has heard from him.”
Lizzy lowered her head and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“He seemed like such a nice young man,” remembering the first time they met.
“We’ll know more in the next few days after the coroner gets up there and exhumes the body.”
On the following Saturday, Sheriff Deighton visited the Murray’s.
“You were right, Mrs. Murray. Although it was in bad shape, there was a wallet, and it held a union card. You could barely make it out, but the name is William Hart.”
Lizzy let out a sigh. “Now what, sheriff?”
“I suppose a call to the Steelworkers union in Pittsburgh. Doubt if there is anyone there that remembers him, but I think someone would like to know and tell us where he should be buried… again, that is.”
It took several days, but after Sheriff Deighton called the Steelworker’s headquarters and after being passed from one person to another, a union rep said he would ask around and call him back.
The return call to the sheriff wasn’t from the union rep he talked to but a retired official. It was Hal Johnson.
“This is hard news, sheriff but a relief to know Billy has been found. Any ideas what happened?”
“Well, Mr. Johnson, it’s clear to me he was murdered. His head was caved in from a blunt instrument, according to the coroner. And, of course, he was buried in the woods outside of Killian. We didn’t know who he was until Lizzy Murray recognized the union pin that was buried with him. She said you visited her and her father Calvin Kirby when Billy didn’t come back.”
“Isn’t that something? I remember Calvin. He helped on the campaign when we finally won a union at Killian Forge after the war. And Lizzy too.”
There was a sigh on the other end of the phone. “Poor Billy.” Johnson’s voice was barely audible. “Of course, after all these years, probably no suspects to arrest, but plenty to suspect. After I met the Kirby’s I went to the hotel and asked about Billy. The desk clerk said he checked out and took the train back to Pittsburgh. Lying son of a bitch. If you can find him, he would be worth talking to. You are too young to remember, but it was a war getting places unionized in the thirties. Lots of violence…” his voice trailed off.
“All before my time, Mr. Johnson. But I need to know what to do with the body. Does he have any family that would claim him?”
“Not that I know of. He was an only child, and his parents are long gone.”
“Ok, Mr. Johnson, I will ask around. I am sure we can do something here.”
“Sheriff Deighton, please keep me informed of any service you have. I want to say goodbye to Billy.”
Lizzy contacted her dad’s workmates at the forge. Some had passed on as her father did. In 1958 a heart attack claimed him. Others died in the war, but Frank Holecek the only other one that met Billy was still around. He was a former union president at the forge and told Lizzy not to worry, the union would pay for the burial and a headstone.
In early September, Billy was buried at the Haven Memorial Cemetery. Steelworkers Local 1210 paid for the internment and a headstone that had Billy’s name and date of death as 1937. On it a simple inscription: Union Brother.
The gathering of people included the Murray family, Frank Holecek, union officials from the forge and forge workers who were just learning about the murder of Billy.
Hal Johnson drove from Pittsburgh for the burial and met the Murrays at the cemetery. Lizzy saw the elderly man walking towards them. Tears welled up as she walked towards him.
“Mr. Johnson, I’m Lizzy.”
They hugged, and he stood back.
Hal’s voice was shaky. “Well, now we know, don’t we?”
“Let me introduce you to my boys. They are the ones that found him. We sat them down, and I told them everything and how he had gone missing. Frank Holecek filled in some of the things I didn’t know. The boys are a little disturbed with what they stumbled upon.”
Gary and Phil were standing next to their father. All dressed in their Sunday finest, here to say goodbye to someone they never met. Their eyes were downcast. What started as an adventure on an August morning turned into mystery and murder. They weren’t sure how they felt.
Lizzy walked up to her family.
“Tom, boys, this is Mr. Johnson. He was a friend of Mr. Hart and worked with him so many years ago.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Johnson,” said Tom.
“Call me Hal.”
Hal shook the boy’s hands.
“Phil and Gary, right?”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison.
A hearse pulled into the cemetery carrying the remains of Billy. The large crowd parted as it drove up to the burial site. A reporter from the Killian Herald stood off to the side, jotting down notes. The news of Billy had made the rounds of the town only days before, igniting controversy, speculation and mystery. Six members of the union local went over and each grabbed part of the two rails on the side of the coffin and walked it over to his final resting place. A minister stood by. No one knew if Billy was religious or not, but the minister said the words anyway.
Before the casket was lowered, Hal asked Lizzy if he could say a few words.
Hal cleared his throat.
“Union brothers… and sister,” he said as he looked at Lizzy, “Almost 25 years ago, I said goodbye to Billy Hart as I sent him here to Killian. I didn’t know at that time I would be here now, in 1961, saying goodbye to him again.” Hal choked up; his voice strained. “For all these years, we didn’t know where Billy was or what had happened to him. We knew he didn’t run away. He wasn’t that kind. Thanks to these two boys, Phil and Gary Murray, who found Billy, and to their mother Lizzy, who, because of a pin I had given Billy before he left, we were able to determine it was him. And like the good union man he was, he always had his union card with him. We might never know who murdered him, but we know what forces killed him, don’t we?”
Hal looked at all the people assembled. Heads nodded and grim faces looked back at him.
“So, Billy, sleep peacefully now. Friends have found you and a proper resting place has been prepared by your union brothers and sisters. You will not be forgotten.”
Hal wiped his eyes and stepped back as the coffin was lowered. Someone in the back started singing the union hymn Solidarity Forever. Everyone joined in, then silence and sounds of weeping.
“Mr. Johnson, would you like to come back to the house for some lunch or coffee before you head back to Pennsylvania?”
“I would like that, Lizzy. It’ll give me a chance to tell the boys about the Billy I knew.”
The gathering at the cemetery broke up and people moved to their cars. Lizzy and Hal looked back one more time, both with their private thoughts, and said goodbye to Billy one last time.
About the Author:
Lee Conrad lives in upstate New York with his longtime love and their three rescue cats. His stories have appeared in Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Ariel Chart, Sundial Magazine, The London Reader, Books ‘N Pieces, Written Tales and Blood and Bourbon.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/leefrederickconrad/
[Editor: Lee has had other stories published by Books & Pieces in the past.]