Nearly two-hundred men stood in a line stretching through the town, shuffling their feet, their arms crossed to keep warm, their breath visible in the October air as they awaited the signal. When the morning light touched them, those standing near Gideon Bowman felt nervous excitement as he raised his gun and fired, the sound echoing through the valley. They moved slowly, beating the brush, looking beneath deadfalls, in hollow trees, under sandstone outcroppings, each of them praying they would find Charity Gribble alive.
Charity, the daughter of Septimus and Maria Gribble, had always loved to walk in the forest—in 1813 there was little else—singing hymns as she picked wildflowers. Neighbors called her “touched” or “troubled.” Sometimes they referred to her as “Mad Charity.” When darkness had fallen the night before and Charity had not returned, her father walked next door, awakening his close friend, Levi Hassencleaver.
Had Charity stopped at their house? Septimus asked.
Septimus and Levi roused other neighbors. Through the night, men, women, and children searched the dark shadows of the town. An hour before dawn, Castoreum College professor Gideon Bowman had arrived, quickly taking charge and assembling the town leaders at Sotty Hoff’s Tavern. Men waiting outside felt relief; Bowman would know what to do.
As he led the search that morning, Gideon Bowman felt sickened by a fear he remembered too well. Only a year earlier, his young wife Aedre had slipped from his hands, disappearing forever into the waters of the Little Rindle. Four days later Bowman had announced the recovery and burial of her battered body. Now, he would do anything to spare Charity’s family the sorrow that filled his days and haunted his nights.
Through the morning Bowman led the sinuous line of men, stretching from ridge to ridge, up the valley of Sanderling’s run. At 10 o’clock someone found footprints. In a wicked twist of fate, it seemed that Charity had stopped to rest near Aedre Bowman’s grave before continuing on her way. Hope surged as the line moved forward again, but the tracks soon ended.
Twelve hours later, the weary men staggered home, driven by dangerous winds, scattered by rain that pelted windows and angered Sanderling’s Run. The temperature dropped and morning revealed the town in frosty white as men lined up again, their sense of duty having outlasted their hope. Through the second day they trudged, reaching Castor by evening. After a hot meal provided by the faculty, they slept at the college, knowing the search was over. Only the Gribbles would continue. For three weeks they walked the woods, embracing an irrational hope that reason could not provide. Neighbors took care of their chores.
No one saw Charity Gribble again. She vanished as if she had never lived, and her disappearance remains as mysterious today as on that bleak October morning two centuries ago. In 1814 the Gribbles erected a memorial in the burying ground. Though it has weathered for two centuries, the inscription remains crisp:
In memory of Charity Gribble, 1796-1813. God alone knows where her body lies.