“Want some more coffee, hon?” asked Hilda, the red-haired waitress, as she filled my cup without waiting for a reply. But I did want some more, so I smiled and thanked her. I was in a corner booth at the Broken Bow Diner. I was heading west across Nebraska when the boredom of driving Interstate 80 led me off onto the side roads. Highway 2 would lead me to the Nebraska National Forest and the famous Sand Hills beyond. For now it had led me to the little farm town of Broken Bow and the only coffee stop in town. It was mid-morning, well past the breakfast-crowd time, so the place was pretty empty. There was an older couple at another table, a younger couple with two toddlers, probably travelers too, over by the window, and a man on the end stool at the counter. I’d guess he was in his late twenties at least, but there was something about him that just spoke “old”. His clothes somehow reminded you of an old-west photograph. He even looked kind of dusty. Thoughts of cowboys on the old television shows “Gunsmoke” or “Bonanza” came to mind. I even looked closely but I couldn’t see a six-gun on his hip. But then I was in Nebraska, not quite the wild-west, but close to it.
I went back to perusing the local paper, noting that Charley Hamilton’s son Brett had been in a vehicle accident. He failed to negotiate a curve the paper said. Treated and released, but the vehicle was totaled. “Guess kids do that everywhere,” I said to myself. There was a little blurb in the “Today In History” section that noted this was the 130th anniversary of the ill-fated raid the James boys made on Northfield, Minnesota. I looked back over at the old guy on the stool. I could only see a little of his profile, mostly the back of his head, but he could have been one of the James gang. I craned my neck to look again for the gun belt.
Well you can only drag coffee and a doughnut out so long, so I took one last gulp of coffee, dumped some change on the table for Hilda, the waitress, and headed for the register to pay the tab. As I passed the end of the counter, the guy on the stool looked up and we nodded a mutual hello. Then he disappeared! Yep, disappeared, just faded away. No puff of smoke, no bolt of lightning. One minute he was there on the stool nodding hello. The next instant he was gone. I shut my eyes, then opened them again, half expecting that he would be back on the stool, but no such luck. He was gone. I looked around to see if anyone else seemed to have noticed what just happened, but apparently no one did.
I laid my check and a five dollar bill on the counter while I waited for someone to come to the register. Another woman, “Mary” it said on her uniform, came out of the kitchen and over to the register. She reminded me of Sara Lee on the donut box. She, along with Hilda, seemed to be the entire wait staff of the Broken Bow Diner. “How was everything?” she asked in the time-honored tradition of restaurant folk everywhere. “Just fine” I replied, in the time-honored tradition of satisfied customers. As she gave me my change, I casually asked, “Did you see the man on the end stool a while ago?”
“I did,” Mary said. “He’s been here a while. Had about four cups of coffee. He’s probably in the restroom. You know him?”
“Oh no,” I replied, probably too quickly. “He just looked like an interesting character, that’s all. Is he one of your regulars?”
“Don’t think I’ve ever seen him before,” Mary said, scrunching up her face as she tried to recall.
Curiosity was not abating. I had to go and find out, so off to the men’s room I headed. The door was partly open so I knew there was no one in the tiny “one holer” that passed for a restroom here at the Broken Bow Diner. I pushed it open farther and peeked in anyway, but nobody was home.
If Mary hadn’t admitted to seeing him too, I would have thought I’d just imagined him. But I guessed I’d just have to live with the mystery, so I zipped up my jacket and headed out to the parking lot to my car. I thought no more about him as the many other comings and goings on the highway west took most of my attention.
Three nights later I was in a motel in Sand Point, Idaho, flipping through the TV channels with the remote. When I got to the PBS channel, there he was – the fellow from the diner. The program was a documentary about Jesse James and his band of outlaws. There were three of them in the old photograph on the screen, the one on the right was definitely the man I had seen. The narrator didn’t identify the men in the picture, but he did say that the one on the right had been killed the day the James boys raided Northfield, Minnesota. Maybe I was mistaken, or had I really seen a dead man at the diner? I watched the rest of the program, without learning anything more of interest.
The next morning, I headed right to the town library to see what references I could find. There are lots of stories about the James gang, most of them mostly vague romantic notions about the life of a bank robber. Frank and Jesse James – everybody knows their names. But the rest of the “gang” were no better known to the average Joe than were the horses they rode. I browsed a pile of history books before I amazingly came across the same photograph that I had seen on the PBS program. The librarian was kind enough to make me a very good copy of that photograph. I tucked it away in my suitcase, and on my way back east the following week I went way out of my way to return to Broken Bow. By now it had been a good while, and although the man in the picture sort of looked like the man who had been in the diner that day, the girls weren’t ready to swear to it. Mary was sure that he hadn’t paid for his coffee though, so that alone made her squint at the picture pretty hard. “When
was this picture taken?” she asked. After a brief pause, I answered, “1875.” Now Mary may not have been the most learned lady in the valley, but she had made a lot of change in her time, and she could do mental math pretty quickly. “That’s 131 years ago!”
From then on I had one mission in life, and that was to find out who that man was and as much about him as I could. When I got home I spent a lot of time at our local libraries and on the internet. I did stop by the local newspaper, and talked to my friend Bob McGibbon, one of the reporters. I told him I was researching the James gang, and asked if he knew anyone in town who might know something about that period of American history. “Have you talked to Don Doteworthy?” he asked. “He’s a retired history professor from Juniata College, lives on Mountain Avenue.” I made a note and headed on home.
Don Doteworthy was a gold mine. Turns out his doctoral thesis had been on the effects of the Northfield raid on the banking practices of the Midwest. As soon as I showed him the picture, he named them all. “The one in the middle is Jesse James. The man on the left is Bob Younger. The man on the right was shot dead in the Northfield raid. His name is Clell Miller. He was one of the notorious James gang. The Younger gang and the James gang had teamed up together to do the raid in Northfield. ”
“Dr. Doteworthy, I’ve only just now met you,” I started, “so I don’t know what you’ll think about what I’m going to say, but I saw Clell Miller two weeks ago in a diner in Nebraska.” Dr. Doteworthy just smiled. “Hmmmmm,” he sounded, “I’m not a bit surprised.”
When he said that, I would have fallen off my chair, if I had been sitting on a chair. “What does that mean?” I stammered. “Have other people seen him too?”
“Well I never have,“ Don Doteworthy was quick to say, “but there have been several reported sightings over the years. You know they say that if someone suffers a violent death, their spirit, or ghost if you will, will linger here on earth until it finds some kind of resolution. The literature tells of Clell Miller being seen in several places around the mid-west over the years, probably places he knew when he lived.”
This was stunning information. I am not a person who is big on ghosts, and yet I truly believe that one’s spirit can remain after bodily death in some instances. I’ve even lived in houses that seemed to be occupied by a strange presence or two. “I’ve heard of that sort of thing,” I replied to Dr. Doteworthy, “but isn’t it a pretty big stretch to think that the spirit of Clell Miller was looking for resolution in a diner in Nebraska? Do spirits drink coffee? Four cups?”
“I don’t profess to be a para-psychologist or anything like that. I’m not even sure I personally believe in this spirit after-life thing or not, so I can’t begin to explain how or why. Are you absolutely sure that the man in the picture was the one you saw at the diner?”
I thought long and hard about that. I had mostly seen the guy from behind, and even though that big cowboy hat was pushed back a little, I had only a profile look at his face. I had another short look, my best look, when we nodded to each other just before he disappeared. I looked again at the photograph. “Yep,” I finally answered, “that’s the guy!”
“Clell Miller wasn’t famous in his own time, like Frank and Jesse James. The first reported time he was seen was two years after the raid – September 7, 1878. Just like you, the person who saw him didn’t know who he was, but he wrote about it to the local paper. If you called a newspaper today to report seeing a ghost, they’d most likely laugh and hang up on you, but this was big news for a small town paper in those years. That was in Minnesota, a little south of Northfield. Over the next twenty years, a similar looking man was seen several more times, always a little further south or west than before. I’ll bet there were a lot more sightings that didn’t get reported. My grandfather was a news reporter, with an interest in history. He saw Clell Miller in 1932 in Yankton, South Dakota. His interest was peaked, and he started digging, eventually coming up with several reports, some only verbal, of past sightings. They always occurred on the anniversary of the date he was killed in Minnesota.”
“So how many sightings did your grandfather find out about?” I asked. “Were any of the others in restaurants?”
“He documented seventeen times that a man generally matching the same description was seen, usually by more than one person each time. On at least nine of those occasions he was drinking coffee. Usually the reports said that he just “faded away” when anyone looked too closely, just like he did when you saw him.”
Professor Doteworthy continued, “That diner in Broken Bow, Nebraska, is on the site of an old bank that was robbed by the Younger gang. Clell Miller was shot in the leg during that robbery. Maybe that’s why he was hanging out there. The place my grandfather saw him in Yankton was on the site of a Wells Fargo office that was robbed. Miller had his horse shot and fell and broke his arm during that stick up. I don’t know if the other sightings have been at places where he was hurt or not – sure would make for some interesting research.”
“If that is true, I wonder how often he’s returned to those places?” I asked out loud. “Your information only seems to include one sighting at each place. Where was Clell Miller born? Where is he buried – on boot hill in Northfield?” My questions were coming a mile a minute.
“Good questions you ask,” said Doteworthy. “Sounds like your interest makes you the person to find out some of these things. There must be a book in there somewhere.”
A year and a little bit later, I know a whole lot more about Clell Miller’s life. Unfortunately, as a minor desperado in a time when more famous ones were plentiful, details are sketchy. Even the stories of the famous ones – the James and Younger boys, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill himself – are full of contradictions and legendary rumor. I did find that Clell (Clelland was his full name) was born in Clay County, Missouri, on December 15, 1849. He would have been only twenty-seven when he died in Northfield. He had ridden with the Confederate Quantrill’s Raiders as a teenager during the Civil War. The man that I and others reported seeing years later looked older. Being a desperado aged a fellow I guess.
I talked to the mayor of Northfield, Minnesota, a nice lady by the name of Marge. I asked her if Clell Miller, of the Northfield raid, was buried in a cemetery in her town. She thought so, but didn’t really know – promised to get back to me. She never did, but that’s all right, because Clell is buried in the Muddy Fork Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri, just a few miles from where he was born.
I did find one other reported sighting. This was in a McDonald’s restaurant in Croydon, Iowa, sight of the former Ocobock Brothers Bank, another place held up by the James boys. Whether he was having coffee or a Big Mac nobody recalled. I guess I’ll always wonder why it was that I got to see him that day in Nebraska. Maybe he just wanted someone to figure out his story.