by Phyllis Martens
The woman entered his store, dragging the child with her. She nodded curtly at Klaas. "Got some Alpen Kreuter?"
Without hurrying, Klaas got down a tall square bottle filled with dark liquid. "Always plenty Alpen Kreuter. Whose girl you got there, Mrs. Penner?"
"Elsie's girl from California. They're visiting." She examined the bottle closely, reading the label. The girl stood sucking the tip of a finger, her nose pressed to the glass of the display case.
"Looks like Elsie," Klaas commented.
Mrs. Penner opened the bottle and sniffed. "You got anything stronger than this? My husband crippled himself digging the garden. Hire somebody, I told him, but he's stubborn as two mules. Serves him right, but still I got to take care of him. Julie, hurry up and choose something."
Klaas handed Mrs. Penner several tins of ointment. She opened and smelled them, smeared samples on her arm, and frowned. "Let me see that other bottle--no, the one in the back. Oh goodness, that's hair tonic. Well, I don't know. You say this is good?" holding up one of the tins.
Ben Hoekema said it foxed him...hurt his back carrying stoves at the hardware." Klaas turned his attention to the child. "What can I get for you, young lady?"
The girl pointed to the ropes of red and black licorice. Mrs. Penner looked up. "Oh, my goodness no, you'll mess up your dress," she objected. "Klaas give her something that isn't messy." She turned back to the medicines, frowning. "I'll take this one and the Alpen Kreuter--if one doesn't work, maybe the other one will. Hurry up, Julie, we got to get home."
"Children get things done faster if you don't rush them," Klaas observed mildly. He put the medicines in a sack and set it on the counter.
"For goodness sake, give her some lemon drops and be done with it," Mrs. Penner snapped, opening her purse.
"I hate lemon drops," the child said crossly.
"Raspberry all right, then?" Klaas asked her. "But next time wear an old dress." He put the candy in a small paper bag. "Not messy," he assured Mrs. Penner.
She sniffed and was counting out money when the door was pushed open by a young man carrying a bundle of huge cardboard posters. "Mrs. Penner! Good morning!" He propped the posters up against the wall.
"Have a care, Deet!" she retorted. "You nearly poked me in the eye. What are you up to now, advertising yourself as the Most Wanted Man in the county?"
Deet grinned. His color was high, as if he had been walking fast in the wind. "Something like it. I'm running for town council. Can I put one of these in your window, Klaas?"
Klaas walked around from behind the show case and read the poster. "Dietrich Regehr will, if elected, serve in the best interests of Windamer. He will support the building of a gravel road to the lake, etc. etc."
"You'll vote for me?" Deet addressed both of them.
Klaas shook his head. "Why should I? I want somebody to build a nice comfortable Old Folks Home for mamma and me to retire to some day. What do I care about your gravel road to the lake?"
"All you council men think of is spending other people's money," Mrs. Penner said tartly.
Deet grinned. "Better theirs than mine."
"The day you get on the town council, Deet Regehr, the wrong crowd will get in jail," she retorted. "The trouble your pa had with you!"
"They say wild foals grow up into good horses," Klaas observed.
"Only if somebody breaks them!" She picked up her parcel and looked about for Julie.
"Sharpest tongue i town," Deet said, nodding approval. "How about if I put you in charge of our road crew, you and Grace Krahn--then we'd get some work done."
Mrs. Penner glared t him and was about to answer when their attention was drawn to a commotion on the street. Two boys were dashing pell-mell down the sidewalk toward the store, arms flailing. A moment later they flung themselves through the door. They both began screaming at once. "Uncle Klaas! The Watkins man hunged himself in the lumber yard!"
Klaas looked at one boy, then the other. "What?"
They danced about him in the excitement and importance of the news. "He hunged himself on one of the hook things on the wall," one said. The other added, brown eyes blazing. "His face looks awful, all purple, his eyes are bugging way out and his tongue...."
"Did you see him? When was this?" Deet asked sharply.
"We just come from there. He's laying on the floor, the rope's still around his neck where they cut it off. We're going to the elevator to tell our dads." They started for the door.
"Wait, stop!" Klaas commanded. "You say the Watkins man? Mr. Lilla?"
"Yeah, him," one of the boys said. "We went to buy some nail for my dad and he was laying there. He's awful dead all right." They stood poised to run.
"I'd better go see," Deet said and hurried out.
The girl Julie stood staring, clutching her sack of candy. Mrs. Penner began to say something but Klaas interrupted. "Boys, listen. This is a terrible thing. Don't go running around town telling everybody. Go tell your dads. Let them take care of it. You hear? Just tell your dads, nobody else. This might be a police matter--they'll probably want to investigate, best thing you two can do is not say a word, not to anybody. Understand?"
The boys looked impressed. "Yeah--okay, we won't say nothin'." They pushed through the door and raced away in the direction of the grain elevators.
The warning had come too late. People were already hurrying toward the lumberyard. Two of the clerks at the hardware store came out, hesitated, then ran down the street. At the corner Stoesz was talking to some farmers, gesturing and pointing, his grocery apron still on.
"Finally got what's coming to him," Mrs. Penner snapped, "fooling around on the road leaving his poor wife to shift for herself. Heard tell he spent the company money on gambling, and worse."
Klaas turned around slowly. "Mr. Lilla was an honest man."
"Honest or not, he'll go to hell for sure now. Come on, Julie, we're late." she herded the speechless, wide-eyed child out the door.
Klaas took a step toward them, then stopped and watched them go. I have to call Martin, he thought, and walked on unsteady legs to the back room where the telephone was. Martin did not answer. Klaas returned to the shop and sat down.
In a moment Deet returned. "It was Lilla, all right. Abrams found him about half an hour ago in a back corner behind a stack of boards. He used one of those iron hooks they hang rope on. Must have done it during the night or early this morning. They can't figure out how he got in."
"Poor man, poor man," Klaas mumbled. He passed a trembling hand over his eyes.
"I guess everything got too much for him," Deet said.
"Who's going to tell his wife? Irma...she used to come in here when she was a little thing in pigtails. What's she going to do? They have five kids.
Deet shook his head.
"He used to come down from Le Seuer," Klaas went on. "Mamma-my wife--always bought from him, real nice guy she said. He had some kind of trouble years ago before they moved down here...Martin used to talk with him."
"It's bad...I'll go see if I can help them with something," Deet siad. he went out, leaving his posters stacked against the wall.
Klaas watched the people on the street talking in little knots, gesticulating, looking toward the lumberyard. A tall man in gray coveralls ran in. "Have you heard about Lilla? They're taking him to Corny's want to get him out of sight as quick as they can. Half the town's out there gawking."
"I was trying to call you," Klaas said. "What about his wife...Irma? Is anybody going down there?"
Stoesz is going with several ladies that know her--they're probably on their way right now," Martin told him.
"Martha's working at the hospital today, she'd want to go, if it's all right," Klaas said. "I can go tell her."
"Corny's out in Gessel on a funeral, I'm supposed to catch him before he comes back. You have a Gessel phone book? I met Deet--he said he'd see about a cemetery lot." Martin went into the back room, where he spent some time making calls.
He returned looking discouraged. "Corny said to take him in, he won't embalm him though unless somebody's going to pay for it. Might be he'll have to be buried tomorrow. Which church do you suppose would take the funeral? Did he ever join one?"
Klaas shook his head. "Maybe--I don' think so. They'll have to ask Irma. But listen, you don't have to arrange all that...it's for the family to do."
Martin frowned, gazing out the window at the street, where a group of people had gathered in front of the hardware store. "What family? There's only Irma. His brothers left Le Seuer years ago, anyway they didn't want anything to do with him--he was the black sheep of the family, apparently. That's what he told me. I feel a little responsible because I work over there...and we used to talk. But you're right. I can go over to the house and find out what Irma wants."
After Martin left, Klaas walked over to his shelves and began poking about, taking bottles down, putting them back. "Why did you do it?" he asked out loud. "You should have asked. You could have said something. Maybe we could have helped you." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
(To be continued)