Brianna Ryan couldn't fathom the horror, trauma and sadness that Walern Nowak had to be experiencing. Walern never spoke about what happened and most of the information Brianna learned about the incident came from her mother and some of the kids at school.
Brianna was eleven years old that cold day after Thanksgiving in 1935 when news came of the killing of the Nowak family who lived on the farm next to hers in South County.
Brianna didn't know the Nowak family well – Walern was a year ahead of her at school, a quiet kid who spoke with a noticeable Polish accent when he spoke at all, and his kid brother Rajmund who was year behind her – he was more outgoing with a sense of humor.
There was also an older sister – Aleska – who Brianna had met a few times at various community functions. She was a very pretty sixteen year old and Brianna was awed by her beauty and friendliness.
Like most families in South County, the Nowaks were hard working, well-respected, decent people. They were church-going dairy farmers whose income came from sending the milk their herd produced to the local dairy as well as generating profits from their summer crops.
Brianna thought she lived in the most peaceful and beautiful area anywhere to be found. Sure, there was a hard depression going on but people supported each other through the hard times to keep food on the table and people generally got along.
What happened to the Nowak family on that terrible day after Thanksgiving in 1935 sent shock waves through Blue County. Walern's father Josef told twelve-year old Walern to take their horse Scout to the far pasture for some grazing and when the boy walked back to the farmhouse, he stumbled upon a horror-show. His mother, Marja, lay in front of the kitchen stove in a pool of blood. Sixteen year old Aleska was crumbled in a corner a few feet away, also dead.
Walern ran to the barn where he found his father and younger brother Rajmund also slain. All four family members had been stabbed to death. The coroner later estimated that the four victims had been stabbed more than thirty times total.
Walden ran to the Ryan farm a half mile away, bursting into the kitchen where Brianna was helping her mother make Turkey soup from the previous day's Thanksgiving leftovers. She never forgot the look on Walern's face.
Brianna's mother Caitlin summed her husband Sean who tried to get some sort of information out of the boy who was clearly in shock. Sean told his wife to call the Sheriff, piled Walern into his pickup truck, and raced back to the Nowak farm.
The phone didn't stop ringing after that and Brianna could see how visibly shaken and upset her mother was, although she wouldn't tell her daughter the gory details of what had happened.
News spread fast and the brutal homicide of nearly an entire family on a quiet farm created a sensation. The crime made headlines across the country and remained one of the most notorious local crimes for years to come.
Brianna's father brought Walern home that night with a couple of suitcases and all that was said to Brianna was that Walern would be staying with them for a while.
There was a funeral Mass for the four family members that Tuesday at St. Stanislaus Parish, the first time Brianna had been in another Catholic Church besides her own St. Mary's. To see four caskets at the foot of the altar was a sight she never forgot. She also never forgot the stoic appearance of Walern through it all. It was the saddest experience of her life. The family was buried in a plot at the county cemetery a few miles out of town.
The local farmers split the Nowak family's dairy herd. Scout the Horse came to the Ryan farm to live with Walern. Farmers divvied up the Nowak fields for planting. Profits helped offset the taxes on the property, including the farm house that remained empty for years.
The county Sheriff had little experience investigating brutal quadruple violent homicides of the 1930s. Little evidence was found and Walern and Brianna's father's initial intrusions upon the crime scene didn't help.
The Sheriff was convinced that it had to be an outsider responsible for the crime because it was impossible to believe that a local friend or neighbor could be guilty of such a gruesome horrible multiple murder.
"It must have been a crazed, murderous stranger," Brianna heard her father say to her mother at one point.
With little evidence or clues, the crime remained unsolved and locals were nervous for months, unsure if there was a murderer in their mists. It bothered Brianna that justice was elusive for Walern's mother, father, sister, and little brother who died such brutal deaths. It saddened her that this quiet family met such a bloody and terrifying end and that poor Walern was left a lonely orphan as well as having been obviously devastated by the carnage he saw that day. Brianna also worried about her Dad who had also seen the crime scene and all that blood.
Christmas was strange that first year. Brianna knew that Walern was miserably lonely and sad on the festive holiday celebrating family. Brianna's mom did her best to include Walern in the family festivities but, as usual, he was his same old stoic self, even with the Christmas Carols and Midnight Mass.
Brianna wasn't sure how she was supposed to treat Walern. As a sibling? As a family member? As a friend? The kid rarely talked and he acted more like a farm hand than he did an adoptive member of the family. She barely knew him any better now than she had when he first moved in.
Walern helped Brianna's father with the farm responsibilities but he kept to himself when he wasn't busy with chores. Sometimes he'd join the family in the living room in the evenings to listen to the radio but he rarely contributed to the conversation or laughed at the comedy shows.
Sugaring to make maple syrup was the main winter occupation to generate money for the family. There was a maple sugaring house behind the barn with an ancient evaporator inside. Brianna's father had already stacked the wood needed for the winter project and Walern helped him drag out the hundreds of pails stacked in the sugar house and tap the many trees in the area.
The sap began to flow in mid-winter from the roots of the trees, rising on warm days and halting with the cold returned. Brianna's father boiled down the sap to create the maple syrup which they sold to the local stores, customers and at the Blue County Country Fair. Brianna and her mother helped with the canning process so it was truly a family business.
"Maple sugaring season excites me every time the sap starts to flow," Brianna told Walern one winter's day as they trudged through the snow to get to the trees. "There's a sort of romance to the entire process."
Walern didn't respond, of course, so Brianna continued.
"We're in it for the love of it," she explained. "The strong connection to the land, the magic of mother nature, and working together as a family creates a bond that I'll always remember."
Walern focused on detaching the pails from the trees and placing them on the sled they had dragged with them.
"Did you know it takes as much as forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup?" Brianna asked. "That's a lot of sitting around stoking the fire and tending the evaporator." She peered at him. "I don't think you'd be good at that. How can you stand around an evaporator for ten hours and not say anything? Our sugar house is the local gathering place to catch up, swap stories, talk about the weather, and gossip a little when we're sugaring," she laughed.
There was also the Ryan's herd of milking Durham cows to be tended to each and every day and Walern was usually the first one up each morning to tend to that before the start of school. There were eggs to gather in the chicken house (Brianna's usual chore) and of course the horses.
The school was a forty year old brick building. On nice days, Walern walked the two plus miles and sometimes he still beat the bus that Brianna rode. The bus had thankfully replaced the horse driven wagons of the previous generation. The bus was basically a wooden bodied truck with wooden seats bolted to the flatbed body and canvas stretched across the open top.
"It's not the most comfortable form of transportation but it beats walking," Brianna told Walern.
During the cold New England winter months, heating stones covered in cloth were placed under the benches to keep the children warm. Eventually, vehicles designed specifically for student transportation with enclosed wooden bodied buses arrived in South County, but Walern still walked to school most days.
Brianna got used to her one sided conversations with Walern. She didn't mind. Before he moved in, she talked to the chickens and hens and rabbits and cows without much of a response so she was perfectly willing to talk to Walern without much of a response either.
Brianna's mother, still nervous and concerned about what happened to Walern's family, was glad to have an older boy around to protect and watch over Brianna, especially during outings to the movies or some other Saturday afternoon adventure.
Brianna's father occasionally took the family to Sunday dinner at a restaurant in Greenville for fifty cents each meal.
"Not exactly gourmet cuisine but it gives Mom a break from cooking," Brianna told Walern.
Mrs. Ryan was kind enough to cut Walern's hair to save the agony of the barber's hand clippers and the twenty-five cent charge. Mrs. Ryan also cut Brianna's hair although as she got older she was allowed to grow it longer because of its unique fullness and color.
"You're a Colleen," Brianna's father would tell her. "An Irish lass."
Brianna was hopeful that she would be as pretty at sixteen as Walern's sister Aleska had been.
Sometimes on a Saturday night, Brianna's father would take them to see the Legion Drum Corps, a military band, and a municipal band that played summer concerts on the Blue County Courthouse lawn in Greenville. There were a couple of local dance halls and Brianna wasn't allowed in them, although her parents occasionally went out dancing on a Saturday night, leaving Brianna and Walern home alone. Unfortunately for Brianna, Walern wasn't interested in doing anything differently than he did when Brianna's parents were home.
"No offense, Walern, but you're a bore," Brianna complained one night when she sat on the front porch watching Walern listening to a Boston Red Sox – or was it a Boston Braves? – game reenactment on the scratchy radio.
But she really didn't mind being with him. He was a good looking Polish boy with a hook nose and a thin face. He was muscular because of the farm work and he sort of reminded him of Sammy, the family's Collie dog who was loyal and present, undemanding and hardly a problem.