What would you do if you had a strange old man move into your neighborhood who was thought to have murdered his wife with an ax? You are in junior high school and the rumors are flying around about Owen Crestwell, murderer. But then stories start to circulate a lost girl who is found safe and sound. What if Crestwell is not the monster you thought he was? What if one day he ends up saving your life? Here is a story about not believing everything you hear about strange people.
Where did Owen Crestwell Come From?
Where did Owen Crestwell come from? Besides being an enigma, he was a complete recluse who lived in the old Tanner house where there was a horrible murder twenty years before I was born. We were standing in the gymnasium waiting for Mr. Penrod to show up to begin PE class at Hester Hayden Middle School. Huddled together we were discussing his sudden appearance in Willett Grove, Kansas.
My name is Horace Butler and I’ve lived in this one-horse town my entire life. Up until now, this was the dullest place on the planet, but when Owen Crestwell moved into the old Tanner place, this gave us all something to talk about. Looking back on it now, I realize how juvenile we were and how rumors often spread like wildfire in the dry August grass.
“He’s gonna end up murderin’ a bunch of folks.” Sam Green predicted as we talked about Mr. Crestwell’s sudden appearance in our neighborhood. Sam Green had been my best friend since kindergarten and would remain until he enlisted in the army right after high school graduation. During middle school, Sam was a bit portly and sometimes his gym t-shirt did not cover his entire belly.
“I don’t know why nobody didn’t tear it down to begin with.” Ryan Dorritt sat cross-legged on the gym floor, playing some game with the dust bunnies that collected on the highly waxed surface.
“Beats me.” I shrugged. I wished they had after overhearing some of the things adults talked about at cocktail parties we used to have on the weekends. Mr. Fournette knew the family that had been murdered telling anyone who would listen that he used to sleep over at Paul Tanner’s house when he was our age now. Paul was killed while he slept when the murderer snuck into their house. I did not want to hear the rest, because I had trouble enough getting to sleep sometimes as it was.
“Alright class!” Mr. Penrod blew his whistle, “Dodgeball.”
We all liked dodgeball so he tossed the balls out and we quickly got into our teams. Sam and I were on the same team which was good, because Sam was one of the biggest kids in the seventh grade and it was easy to hide out behind him.
Later on the bus, Sam and I would sit together because he lived a few doors down from my house. Just before we’d come to our housing development, the bus would pass the Tanner house. You would think the house was still vacant, because Owen Crestwell was never anywhere to be seen.
“He’s a vampire.” I heard one of the girls say.
“Could be a zombie.” The girl sitting next to her shook her head.
“I think he’s planning to murder someone.” Sam whispered to me.
“Why?” I was hoping he was dead wrong.
“One of the guys told me that all he does is sharpen axes and saws.” Sam nodded.
“He was in the looney bin.” Peggy Moore turned and added to our speculation.
“Makes sense.” Sam agreed.
“Killed his wife with an ax.” Peggy said as if this was common knowledge. “Chopped her head off.”
I could barely swallow as the image of the headless Mrs. Crestwell swam through my head.
Shadows were long when mom called me in for dinner. Sam and I were playing basketball with a backboard and a hoop attached that my dad put up on the shed. With some of my sister’s chalk I had drawn a free throw line on the paved driveway. My dad worked at the bank, but Sam’s dad had disappeared shortly after he was born. His mom was a cashier down at the grocery store. She would come over to complain about how rough it was being a single mom raising a kid like Sam which is why Sam ate dinner over at our house a lot.
It was a few weeks before summer break when we heard about the news of Shanti Wyatt’s disappearance. She was just four years old and her sister Abbie was in our class. Abbie was absent the next day and the rumors were flying all around the school that Owen Crestwell had claimed his first victim. There were all kinds of policemen with bloodhounds searching the hallows and down around the river where we’d play hockey once the river froze over. Mom and dad went with the others in our neighborhood to help out in the search effort. Everyone was worried that she might have gone into the river because the weather was getting warm. There were places where we used to go swimming, but you had to stay close to the shore on account of the strong current in some places.
I remember the policeman with the flashlight and the bloodhound named Officer Larry. He let Sam and me tag along. We went to the river where folks were pulling out dead tree limbs thinking she might have gotten caught up in it. A few years ago one of the high school kids went skinny dipping and drowned when his leg got caught up in a branch. The sun was going down and it was getting dark. Let me tell you, it gets mighty dark down there, too.
For some reason, none of the police were going to Mr. Crestwell’s house to check there.
“Has anybody checked Mr. Crestwell’s house?” I asked Officer Larry.
“Nope.” He was standing about waist deep in the muddy river.
“Why not?” I asked as he handed me one of the branches he pulled out of the river.
“No reason to.” He shook his head. The dog sniffed along the banks.
“Seems suspicious to me.” I put my hands in my jeans pockets.
“He’s a harmless old coot.” Officer Larry smiled as he pulled another piece of deadwood from the water. “More of a chance we might find that poor child around here.”
No one was quite sure what happened, but Shanti Wyatt showed up that evening at home and straight into the arms of her bereaved mother. She said a man had found her.
“I got lost, mama and I hid in this small cave. He come and took my hand and led me home.” She explained.
“What man?” She asked, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“I don’t know. He was nice.” She shrugged.
“Now who do you think found her?” Sam asked the next evening when we were shooting hoops.
“Hard to say. There were a lot of people looking for her. Could have been anyone.” I took a full court shot that came up more than a few feet short. The headline of the Gazette, our local newspaper, lacked quite a few details and focused on the fact that the little girl was found safe and sound.
“I heard he used to be a big shot until he had a breakdown.” Peggy informed us on the ride home the next day.
“What kind of big shot?” Sam asked dubious of any information Peggy might have.
“I heard he worked on a top secret project for the government.” She looked at Donna sitting next to her and winked. “But then he lost all his marbles.”
Sam smiled, but it was the smile he used when he thought you were full of baloney.
No one had the nerve to talk to Abbie who just sat there staring out the window until she came to her stop. She got off the bus without saying a word even when Jerry the bus driver told her to have a nice day. There were still a lot of cars parked around her house. She made it quite clear that she did not wish to talk about her younger sister’s disappearance. My parents were also tight lipped about the whole thing and when I dared to ask a question, my mom told me to eat my dinner.
I happened to be in the hallway when Abbie had her own breakdown. Perhaps it was not as big as Mr. Crestwell’s breakdown, but she had to go talk to our school counselor. After her meeting, word spread that we were not allowed to talk to her about the whole incident.
“Top secret.” Sam nudged me at PE just before the dodgeballs filled the air once again.
In our roundhouse discussions, someone brought up some information on the Tanners. Robert Tanner was a mechanic who worked out of his own garage. As more people with cars moved into Willett, he was forced to hire someone named Herchel Maddox. From what was said, Herschel lived with his mother over across the river in a trailer. While Herchel was a skilled mechanic, he was also curious about their seventeen year old daughter Darla. His interest became more intense until they had a romantic rendezvous. When Mr. Tanner found out about it, he fired Herschel. Later, angry at being sacked, Herschel came armed with a gun and shot all six of them one by one while they slept. The police tracked him down to a cave in Montana and when it was over, Herschel Maddox had been shot to death.
“Over a hundred bullets hit him.” Donald Guthrie claimed, but Donald was a bold-faced liar most of the time, so no one believed him. But once again my fertile imagination conjured up an image of Herschel lying dead in a cave with a hundred bullet holes in him.
“And after that nobody dared live in that house. It was vacant until Mr. Crestwell moved in a few months ago. Twenty years.” Mickey Skoals shook his head. Now we believed him since his dad was a real estate agent and many in Willett thought he might be the smartest man in town. It was no surprise to any of us that Mickey was one of the top students at Hester Hayden Middle School.
Sometimes a side trip to the water fountain can reveal some information that no one else knows. This happened to me after lunch when Mrs. Howell, our school counselor and Mrs. Lambert, my math teacher, were having a chat near the teacher’s lounge which happened to be near the fountain. The fountain was around the corner from the lounge so I could eavesdrop without being seen.
“It was Owen Crestwell.” Mrs. Howell said in a hushed voice. She wore her hair in a bun and had old-lady glasses perched on the edge of her nose. Immediately, my ears perked up as I continued to drink more water than I had first intended.
“He found the child?” Mrs. Lambert questioned.
“According to Abbie, he brought her to the front door, tipped his hat and said where he had found her.” Mr. Howell explained. “And just left, leaving everyone absolutely befuddled.”
“Imagine that. I heard he had been in a psychiatric hospital.” Mrs. Lambert sounded unconvinced.
My only concern was if I returned to the cafeteria, they would see me and knew I had been eavesdropping. So, I had to stay there until I was sure they had both gone.
“So, Crestwell found the girl?” Sam appeared perplexed before taking a shot that went into the basket with a swoosh. “I’ll bet he kidnapped her.”
“I dunno.” I took a shot, but came up a few feet short as usual.
The next day in PE class, Ryan said he did not believe the story either as he sat on the floor like he always did.
“He’s a pervert.” Ryan concluded after giving it some thought. Who could argue with that after all?
Eighth grade was going to be a blast since we would be moving onto high school the following year. Sam wanted to play football and I wanted to join the hockey team which had won a conference title a few years ago. We had forgotten all about Mr. Crestwell by the time we returned to school in the fall. Ryan’s dad got a job in Topeka and did not return. I missed him, because he would play hockey with us once the river had frozen over around the first part of December just before Christmas Break. Having the break meant we could bring our skates out to the river after breakfast and stay out there all day. We would break off a few dead tree branches and construct makeshift goals. I couldn’t wait, because this year I would wear new skates and I got a new hockey stick for my birthday.
We were going over all the exciting details when I saw someone standing in the front yard of the old Tanner place. It was Mr. Crestwell. None of us had actually seen him, but there was no doubt when we passed that that steel gray face belonged to an ax murderer. He wore a long coat that ended at the top of his boots. On his head, he wore a Stetson cowboy hat, but it was the statuesque stone expression on his face that confirmed he was indeed, Mr. Owen Crestwell, ax murderer.
“God, he is so creepy looking.” Peggy said as the bus passed the house. She managed to say what the rest of us were thinking.
“Crap, it was him.” Sam acknowledged.
“Who did you think it was?” Peggy rolled her brown eyes like he was a moron.
There was a cold snap in November and the river froze solid two weeks earlier than normal. I still had some Halloween candy stashed in my closet when I pulled out my skates and called Sam.
“Are you sure the river is sturdy enough for your big bodies?” My mom asked as she peeled some carrots for dinner.
“Yeah, Sam went down and walked all the way across the river where we play.” I slung my skates across my shoulders and grabbed my stick.
“Just be careful.” She called after me as I went through the garage. In little less than five minutes Sam and I were sitting on a downed log putting on our skates.
“The others will be along any minute.” He sniffed as his nose had already turned red in the icy air. “Last year we weren’t able to come out here until after break.”
“Yeah, I was so bummed out.” I confessed as I laced my other skate as Sam was already on the ice. He was working on skating backwards like a good defenseman should.
“This ice is solid.” He announced. I could see four of our guys walking toward us with their skates and sticks.
Within ten minutes we had a three on three scrimmage. We were laughing and taking wild shots on a makeshift goal.
“Score!” I yelled holding my stick in the air.
“Are you sure this river is sturdy?” Blaine asked, “I couldda swore I heard some ice cracking.”
“Just play, duffus.” Sam shook his head. Blaine wound up and took a shot, but Sam blocked it easily.
“A little rusty.” He said discouraged.
“Rusty is your middle name.” Sam laughed.
It was the last thing I remember before hearing the crack and falling into the ice cold river water. When I came to the surface, much to my horror, I saw all six of us treading water.
“It’s so cold!” Blaine managed to say as the river water filled his mouth.
Sam floundered before going under. I reached out to grab the ice, but it gave way as soon as I put some weight on it.
“Help!” I yelled, feeling my wet jacket pulling me under. The water was brown and I could feel my lungs hurting. More yelling followed.
I do not remember much except a force pulling me out of the icy grip of the river. For the next five minutes I choked up the river water I had swallowed as I writhe on the riverbank in the dusting of snow that covered the ground. I heard Sam gasp, but when I saw him lying next to me, I felt relief. Blaine was next, but he was bawling like a baby. When I sat up there were five of us sitting on the river bank. I heard a splash.
“What happened?” Sam coughed.
“I dunno.” Blaine wiped the tears from his eyes.
Benny Duncan was the last to be pulled from the river.
“You boys should know better.” An adult voice admonished us.
“Who?” Sam cleared his eyes.
“Get on home, all of ya!” The same voice demanded.
It was him, Owen Crestwell, still wearing his long coat and boots, but his cowboy hat lay on the ground near the place where the ice had split open. He was shivering along with the rest of us.
“Too early to be out on this river.” He shook his head, picked up his hat and walked away without saying another word, leaving the rest of us speechless.
“He saved our lives.” Sam shivered.
“I wanna go home.” Blaine began to shiver and cry. Slowly we all made our way back to our houses. Sam followed me, because his mother was taking an extra shift for the upcoming holidays and he was going to eat dinner with us.
A few weeks later, I walked to the old Tanner house where Owen Crestwell lived. I could see smoke rising from his chimney, so I knew he was home. I taped the card to his door and knocked softly before turning and walking back home. I turned my head for a quick moment. He was standing there reading the card I had left him. Inside I had written, “Thank you, Mr. Crestwell, Horace.” It was the first time I had ever seen him smile.