While many store owners will do anything they can to catch and punish shoplifters, one man encountered a thief in the night that would call all of his deeply held beliefs into question and teach him that death is not the end of love.
Edlington, North Dakota is all but forgotten today, but in the 1920’s, it was a quite town in the middle of vast swaths of farm land. On the outskirts of the town was Cooke’s General Store, a respectably-sized establishment that served the entire county. Also it was the only store within 50 miles, Martin Cooke, the owner, kept prices as low as he could to eek out a meager living and insure that the hard working families of Edlington could afford what they needed.
One night, in 1929, Mr. Cooke was closing shop when he heard the bells chime at the front door. He looked up and saw what he described as a haggard-looking woman. Her skin white as a sheet and her black hair mussed and tangled, hanging in clumps over her face. Her eyes were inset and dim as though they had no sparkle to them. As she walked, she curiously made no noise even though it was almost impossible to move across the wood flooring without it creaking under every step.
Mr. Cooke was struck nearly speechless by the sight.
The woman didn’t look at him. She didn’t seem to look at anything. She stared off into nothingness as she made her way to the back of the store where she retrieved a single bottle of milk and then, without word or even an attempt to pay, walked slowly out of the general store and into the night.
Taken aback, it didn’t fully occur to Mr. Cooke what had happened until a moment later. He walked briskly to the door and stood there watching the mysterious woman slowly walk down the dirt road out of town.
Cooke was reputed to be a good man and reasoned to himself that the woman was probably transient and hungry. He actually chided himself for not trying to do more to help her, but in the long run, it was just one bottle of milk. It wouldn’t ruin him and obviously, the strange woman needed it more than he did. He locked up the store and went to bed upstairs.
The following night, after the last customer of the day was gone and the sun was long set, Cooke was climbing the stairs to turn in for the night when he heard the chimes at the storefront door. Strange as he distinctly remembered locking it.
He grabbed his shotgun and gingerly made his way downstairs only to see the same pale-skinned woman glide across the store floor, another bottle of milk in her hands. She crossed the threshold, exiting the general store, and Cooke decided it was time to give her a piece of his mind. Once was charity, but twice was theft. When he made it to the door to catch her, it was indeed locked. Without the keys in his hand, he could only watch as the mysterious woman disappeared into the murky darkness.
The third night, Cooke was ready. The sheriff and two other men, a couple of curious townfolk who had overheard Cooke’s story, waited for the woman to make her appearance and, a few minutes after the last rays of the sunset disappeared under the vast horizon, the storefront bells jingled and the woman entered. She walked past the four men as if they weren’t there and, as she had done the previous two nights, fetched a bottle of milk from the refrigerator and walked out the front door without a word or payment.
The men had decided ahead of time that they would see where she went and so, with a thin crescent moon above, they followed the woman down the dirt road out of town. If she knew the men were following her, she didn’t care. The speed of her walk never changed and she never looked at the men who followed only a few feet behind her in silence.
A mile down the road, it was becoming more and more obvious where they were headed.
The cemetery gates resolved out of the fog ahead of them and the black-haired white-skinned woman glided soundlessly through them. She made her way to a freshly dug grave and then, in plain view of the men, sank into the ground.
The sheriff gasped and dropped his lantern.
The grave belonged to a woman – Belinda DeWitt. She was reputed to have been a prostitute from Dickinson who become pregnant by a wealthy and married banker – at least that was the rumor. The sad reality was that she had died in childbirth and the infant had also not survived. The two had been buried together in the same coffin four days earlier.
The next morning, the sheriff ordered that the grave be exhumed. The men, including Mr. Cook, took shovels and set about the macabre task of unearthing the grave of Belinda DeWitt and her child. It was easy work as the earth was still loose and, within the hour, their shovels struck the wooden box.
When the coffin was opened, Belinda’s decaying corpse greeted them. Her black hair, tangled and matted and her skin as white as a sheet… just as she had appeared in the general store the last three nights. In her arms, however, there was movement. An infant… weak and cold, but alive. Mr. Cook retrieved the baby and wrapped it up. They must have made a mistake. Perhaps the baby was too weak to move when it was born and they only assumed it was dead. The men were speechless. The quiet was palpable… so much so that the subtle noise that emanated from the grave could be heard by all and sent chills down the spines of all who heard it… all who knew exactly what it was.
The tiny clinking of the three empty milk bottles in the casket that had been used to keep the buried infant alive.
Belinda DeWitt, her baby now safe, was never seen again.