It was late summer in 1959. The little town of Bristol hummed along as if held in a time warp while major world events seemed light years away from this Indiana hamlet.
The Ketterman boys, Paul and Greg, had adopted an unlikely new friend since their close friend, Margaret, had left town with her family the year before. Ona was not a friend of Margaret’s caliber to the boys but since she had moved to town the previous year her home’s proximity to Paul’s and Greg’s cast them into an uneasy friendship.
Ona had come to town, supposedly to live with Guardians. Her parents had both passed in an accident while traveling on a bus in their home state of Michigan. Ona’s dark hair and complexion were on par with her Indian ancestry.
Being different in any school setting placed a child up for derision and ridicule – but the fact she was born missing the little finger on her right hand only made her increasingly subject to the barbs of her schoolmates.
But Ona, in spite of her being different, was an opportunity for the boys to find a replacement – as different as she was – for the blond haired, hazel-eyed Margaret. It might have been their Christian upbringing that also gave them an element of compassion for the eleven-year-old.
While the boys did not give her a great deal of attention at school it was after school and as the summer recess began that the three began to associate more freely.
The boys took Ona to some of their stomping grounds bordering the Little Elkhart River and into the woods beyond. But it was in August, with just three weeks before the school year was to begin anew, that they took Ona across Route 15 and into the deep woods north of town.
Some of the leaves on the trees were already beginning a hued chorus of oranges and reds and the leaves coating the ground gave off a continuous crunching sound as their feet stirred the ground cover.
It was after twelve o’clock as the trip took them deeper, to a place the boys wanted to show her. Before even reaching their destination, Ona halted and stood stock-still.
Two steps ahead of the girl the boys stopped and turned to see why she had halted. Her face showed a sight of being far off in thought but her eyes stared straight ahead.
Paul and Greg only looked at one another, not being able to decipher her behavior.
“These are my people” Ona silently whispered.
Suddenly as if breaking her trance, Ona looked at the boys and fell into step behind them. After another twenty minutes the group halted.
There, about forty feet ahead, was a mound, roughly thirty feet around, about six feet in height and totally covered with grass and forest debris.
“This it, Ona,” Greg announced, “This is an Indian Mound. Maybe your ancestors made it a long time ago.”
Ona again took on a trance-like appearance and slowly moved closer to the earthen structure made many years ago.
“These are my people” she repeated in a whisper.
Ona moved within six feet of the mound and stared. After a moment she went to her knees and stayed transfixed.
Paul and Greg gave each other knowing looks. It was just before their friend Margaret had moved west that she was brave enough to tell them of her meeting an Indian Spirit in the woods north of Bristol.
Ona sat back on her haunches and continued her whispered words about “my people”. The boys circumnavigated the Mound, commenting to each other about its size and how many years ago Indians had placed their dead inside.
Having now shared their secret with Ona they politely let her remain in her position, staring at the mound. Occasionally she would whisper words so softly the boys could not tell what she was saying.
But after a while the experience of bringing someone new to view one of their secret places had worn thin. With a little coaxing they got Ona to her feet and made their way back to town, Ona turning several times to look back.
On the way Ona told the boys she was from the Potawatomi Tribe and her ancestors had occupied that part of the country many years before white men had set foot there.
It was after she shared this information with Paul and Greg they relayed the story told to them by Margaret the year before. Ona did not comment, only shaking her head as if she knew and understood what they were saying.
It was roughly ten in the morning on the following day that the Ketterman household heard an urgent knocking on their front door. It was Ona’s Guardian, Mrs. Warner. She had walked there from where Ona now lived on East Elkhart Street. The boy’s Mom answered the door then called Paul and Greg to the door.
Mrs. Warner appeared worried and explained to the Kettermans she had no idea of her whereabouts. She had driven through some of the town seeking the young girl but now asked the boys if they might know where she was as they had befriended her young charge.
Paul and Greg looked at each other, remembering the events of the day before.
“Well,’ said Paul hesitantly, “We did take her out to the old Indian Mounds past the ‘Crik’. Maybe she went back there ‘cause she acted kinda strange when we were there.”
“Please, boys,” implored Mrs. Warner, “Can you please go there and if she is there bring her back home? I’m so worried because she did not take her parents death well at all.”
“I don’t think that would be a problem,” Mrs. Ketterman said. “Boy’s get your hiking boots on and go see if you can find Ona.”
The boys agreed and were soon off to the woods across Route 15 so they could get to the north side of the Little Elkhart River – a stream sometimes very small at parts and commonly referred to by the locals as “The Crik” – a derivation of Creek.
The late-morning sun dappled the forest floor as Paul and Greg dutifully marched to the part of the woods where the Indian Mounds were. A pattern of disturbed leaves along the way was evidence of the trip the day before.
They fully expected to find Ona once they reached the Mound but Ona was nowhere in site. Using Boy Scout skills they searched for signs of her walking away from the Mound, perhaps deeper into the woods but found nothing.
The boys worried about what they would tell Mrs. Warner.
“Why did she act so weird yesterday?” Greg queried his older brother on the return trip.
“Dunno,” Paul replied, “except now we don’t know where she is and maybe she is lost.”
They debated telling Mrs. Warner of Ona’s strange behavior at the Mound the day previous but agreed to just keep quiet about it.
Mrs. Warner and Mrs. Ketterman were sharing coffee in the Ketterman kitchen when the boys returned and informed them they had no idea as to Ona’s whereabouts. Immediately Mrs. Warner asked to use the Ketterman’s phone and called the Sheriff’s office.
Within a half hour Sheriff Will, as they called him, stood in the Ketterman kitchen listening to Mrs. Warner’s concerns about the 12 year-old. The Sheriff questioned the boys about the trip to the Mound the day before and the boys willingly shared that story – but did not elaborate on Ona’s actions while there.
By afternoon half the small town was alerted to look out for the young girl and call the Sheriff right away if they spotted her. In a small town like Bristol, numbering less than a thousand souls, it wasn’t long before the Women’s Guild and the School Principal had organized rudimentary search parties to scour the town.
But by nightfall no one had located Ona.
Sheriff Will made some calls to outside the town and said they would be bringing in bloodhounds from the Elkhart County Sheriff’s office the following morning.
Early the next morning a team of bloodhounds and their handlers, along with some of the town dignitaries and a County Indian Affairs Agent were gathered at the small police station in town.
Sheriff Will had a few Elkhart City deputies at his disposal and instructed them to keep snooping townsfolk at a distance so as not to interfere with the search.
They departed en masse to the Warner residence where the hounds were introduced to the scent of Ona’s clothing. With that the two hounds immediately started for Vistula Street where the Ketterman’s lived, crossed the street and eagerly made their way through the Ketterman’s yard, down the hill by the Creek and across Route 15.
Due to their involvement the Sheriff directed Paul and Greg to accompany the small team. Some in the group carried picks and shovels. Among them was the Bristol’s town Doctor and Elkhart’s Coroner.
The bloodhounds easily traced the path the boys and Ona had taken two days earlier. The group of humans followed at a quick pace. To Paul and Greg they were merely copying the same route they themselves had taken two days running.
Within a short time Paul and Greg knew the group was nearing the Mound. The guttural sounds coming from the two dogs seemed to express their excitement. Just as two days before the Mound came into sight of the boys.
Here the handlers unleashed the two canine detectives. The two ran up to the edge of the Mound, whining and pawing anxiously at the Mound’s edge.
The group approached the Mound, witnessing the hound’s actions. At the Sheriff’s direction the hounds were leashed and moved away from the Mound. Sheriff Will, some other Deputies and the official from Indian Affairs slowly circled the Mound.
“I don’t see any signs of this Mound being disturbed, do you Charlie?” he said, addressing one of the Police Officers from Elkhart.
“I don’t either,” the Officer replied, “but you have to admit the dogs hit on this Mound. Seems like the dogs think the little girl is buried here.”
Sheriff Will got on his Walkie-Talkie and spoke with someone at the Police Station then addressed the group.
“Got another bloodhound over Middlebury way. They said they’d be happy to let their pooch give us a second opinion. The handler and dog should be at Mrs. Warner’s within two hours, so we just wait.”
With that, the original bloodhounds and their handlers, along with one of the cops out of Elkhart, made their way back into town. Some had brought coffee thermoses so they were able to have some steamy refreshment while they waited.
The Sheriff and others had mentioned the name Flanagan, a ne’er do well inhabitant of Bristol’s outskirts. He had experienced run-ins with law enforcement before and was generally cited for strange behavior, one time scaring kids in the woods a couple years back.
It was during the wait that Sheriff Will pulled Paul and Greg aside, motioning them to a fallen tree where the three of them took seats.
“Is there anything you boys may have forgotten to tell me about Ona? Maybe something that might have slipped your minds?”
After Paul and Greg looked at each other it seemed the Sheriff could tell they had held something back and his voice became terse in demanding anything they might know about the girl.
It was Paul that first opened up to the girl’s actions and words the day he and Greg had brought her for the first time to the Mound.
“She was just actin’ kinda weird!” Greg added, as if to clear himself and his brother of any suspected misdeeds.
After an hour passed a dog’s baying could be heard in the distance and everyone guessed that another bloodhound was destined to arrive where the group waited.
In less than a half hour the bloodhound’s baying could be heard loud and clear. A short time after a bloodhound and Police handler were spotted coming through the trees about a hundred feet away. They witnessed the Handler unleash his trained animal – the animal quickly racing toward the group, then passing them and running straight to the edge of the mound, whimpering and pawing on the lower portion.
“Okay, Terry, thank you.” The Sheriff said to the handler, indicating his work had finished.
The Sheriff then motioned that the officials in the group gather around him. He first instructed a Deputy to get rid of the small group of townsfolk whose curiosity had led them to the scene.
The group slowly circled the Mound, desperately seeking any signs of the ground there being disturbed recently, with some of the group slowly moving their heads side-to-side as if being frustrated that no evidence of any dirt or covering having been moved, dug up, replaced or even changed at all.
Then the group clustered together again. Paul and Greg could hear some of the conversation among them but the words were not clear enough for the boys to distinguish.
At one time the boys could tell there was a somewhat heated exchange between the Sheriff and the Indian Affairs Agent. The voices eventually calmed and the boys noticed the Indian Affairs official nodding his disappointed assent about something.
The boys watched in surprise as some of the men began to dig at the Mounds edge. Because of all they had learned as Boy Scouts they had learned that this was a sacred site to Indians and was not to be desecrated in any way.
The Sheriff radioed the station ordering food to be brought out to the team and some for Paul and Greg. For two hours the team took turns at the shovels, carefully piling the dirt to the side with the intent to restore the Mound to its original condition once their task was complete.
Then a cry went up from one of the diggers and all work halted. The group gathered to look at what had been discovered. The group huddled over the area that had been uncovered and spoke in low tones.
Some of the men moved away leaving only the Doctor, the Coroner and the Indian Affairs Agent to work on the Mound.
For another hour, as the shadows of the trees lengthened, the trio slowly and gently moved soil away from whatever they had uncovered.
Then with solemnity the entire group gathered at the Mound. Paul and Greg were only too anxious to hear what they were saying so slowly crept closer to the Mound – or what was left of it.
They spoke in low voices, leaning over and occasionally pointing at something apparently unearthed. The group then stood upright and Sheriff Will heard what the three had to say.
“There’s three skeletons here, Sheriff,” the Coroner stated softly. “One adult male, one adult female and one female, maybe adolescent, early teens perhaps. The two adult skeletons are in a sitting position but the girl is sitting back as if on her haunches.”
“The funny thing, Will,” the Doctor said, “the adult skeletons show signs of being there for maybe two hundred years, but, but the adolescent skeleton could have been buried there yesterday”
“And I need to point out, Sheriff,” added the Indian Agent, “the right hand of the younger skeleton has no bone for the small finger on the right hand. As if it was not cut off or bitten off by an animal, but as if she had been born without that finger.”
Paul and Greg only looked at each other in shock. What seemed forever the foursome was silent. Then, some time later, Sheriff Will ordered the Mound to be restored as closely as it could to its original condition, the Indian Agent nodding his agreement.
While the work began, Sheriff Will approached Paul and Greg.
“Boys,” he said, pushing his hat back on his head. “I’m asking you two to grow up today.”
The boys could only stare back at him.
“Boys, I’m asking you, as Sheriff and friend of your Mom and Dad, to say nothing about what just happened here? Do you understand me?”
The boys could only gulp but each boy took an oath to never share what they had witnessed this day.
“As far as you are to remember, we found nothing here today but some old Indian skeletons. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sir” the two boys said in harmony.
“And,” he intoned seriously, “You are to say nothing other than that to anyone, especially Mr and Mrs Warner. Agreed?”
Again the boys echoed, “Yes, Sir”
The Sheriff then directed one of the Deputies to take the boys home with instructions they were to not speak to anyone, including their own parents about the day’s happenings except as per the Sheriff’s instructions.
Paul and Greg left with the Deputy and as promised said nothing to Ona’s Guardians or their parents – only to say the Sheriff insisting they would get in trouble for “making things up.”
As time went on the case of the missing girl was closed as unsolved. But as Paul and Greg grew older and encountered some of the people that had been in the woods that day – they gave each other a knowing look – a look that acknowledged no one would ever know what had been revealed that day.
It is only now that I, the teller of this story, can relay that which has revealed to me by Paul and Greg, being that they each are aged and insist the story to be told.