Author’s Note: This story is inspired by events which happened June 9th-10th, 1912. Historical accuracy has been attempted, but artistic license was also implemented. All errors are my own, be they historical or grammatical.
A rooster crowed from a backyard coop somewhere down the dusty lane in the moments before the first rays of dawn sought to touch the morning sky.
The man paused. He listened to the fowl’s alarm then closed the door, quietly. With the key he had taken from the keyring hanging on the peg beside the bolted front door, he locked the back entrance.
He stood for a moment on the porch. A cool breeze faltered in greeting, already yielding to the heat percolating in wait.
The man looked at his hands, flexed his fingers, balled them into fists. What blood remained, the crimson smudges which stained them, the smears which would not wash off, was black in the slow advance of grey light rising from the edge of the world.
He slipped the house key into the bib pocket of his overalls and started in a friendly gait to the woods. On the other side of the cluster of trees was the railroad track that had brought him to this town. Right on time, a steam whistle blew in the East, coming straight on with the morning.
As he had done so many times, he would jump aboard a rattling car as it clacked past.
He would toss the stolen house key somewhere down the line.
Fellowship time with light refreshments was held after the final event of the Children’s Day Program. Sarah Moore had helped to organize this as well. After all the hustle and bustle, and headache, of corralling and herding and directing the children of Villisca’s Presbyterian Church, Sarah was relieved when it all came to an end.
It was ten o’clock and her husband, Josiah, waited on the lawn. Patient as ever, his hands in his pockets, he was surrounded by their stair-step children: Herman, Mary, Arthur, and Paul. Ina and Lena Stillinger, friends of their ten-year-old Mary, concluded the throng. “They can! They can!” Mary had exalted when her parents had given approval for an overnight stay. Sarah liked the idea of not being outnumbered by the male of the species for a change.
“Ready, dear?” Josiah smiled as she strolled, exhausted, from the church doors.
“I hope I don’t fall asleep on the way,” she said.
The children ran ahead, playing, (kindly) teasing each other.
Josiah said, brightly, “If you do, I’ll sweep you up like I used to do.”
She looped her arm into his.
“Or,” Josiah thought aloud, “I could the boys back with a horse and wagon for you. Toss you in the back and cart you home.”
“You’re too romantic, Mr. Moore. Too romantic.”
He laughed, the hearty sound lost in the excited chatter of the six children as they jostled down the sidewalk.
Josiah looked around them. “This is somewhat like the walks we used to take. In our courting days.”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “I seem to remember being given bouquets of flowers on those walks.”
“Really?” Josiah feigned surprise.
“Indeed. I recollect, also, very often you on my family’s doorstep bearing gifts of chocolates, trinkets-”
“It was me? You’re certain?” Josiah asked her.
Sarah squeezed his arm tighter as she laughed. Josiah enjoyed the melody of her mirth, maybe more than the sound of their children’s enjoyment.
They continued their merry, albeit tired, journey with the streets all to themselves. Very few of the Moores’ neighbors or fellow townsfolk were to be found out on the street. A horse-drawn carriage clattered here, the lowly blast of a train whistled there. The occasional warm light dotted a window, the random shadow passed a doorway. Mostly, Villisca was deep into dreams or was preparing for repose, abandoning the summer night to the katydids and scant clouds that harried the moon.
Sarah couldn’t restrain a sigh when she saw the whitewash of their house, stark in the ghost pale nighttime. Her feet had throbbed in her tight-laced heeled shoes, more and more, with each step home.
Herman raced his brothers to the front entrance. He naturally won. From the street, Josiah and Sarah heard their eldest son’s boots bounding across the parlor boards.
“He will scuff my floors,” Sarah said.
Arthur and Paul rushed inside. The first lantern was lit to shine the way for the girls and the adults.
“Straight to bed, the lot of you,” Josiah ordered calmly, but firmly, as he entered the house. “Wild Indians have stressed your mother’s nerves today.”
“Wild Indians?” Paul craned his head from the shadows of the kitchen. “But she’s been with us all day.”
“The wildest of the wild,” Josiah said. “Up you go.”
“You two ladies-” Sarah guided Ina and Lena, with a candle, courtesy of Arthur, to the guest room off the parlor “-will sleep here. I have it all made for you.”
Sarah placed the candle on the dresser. Two nightgowns were stretched across the bed. “Those are Mary’s, but they should fit you well enough for tonight.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Moore,” the young girls replied.
Sarah left their door ajar.
Josiah waited in the kitchen at the stairs. Sarah stood beside him and listened to the sounds of their children above. Footsteps to and fro, murmurs, laughter, squeals, the squeak of bed springs.
When silence prevailed, Sarah followed Josiah up the claustrophobic stairs which opened to their bedroom. While Sarah removed her tortuous shoes and dressed for bed, her husband looked in on their children in the adjoining room.
“Sleeping,” Josiah reported to his wife.
Sarah was in bed, under the thin cover of a sheet. She was asleep.
He jumped the train before it pulled into the station. A hard tumble down the embankment and he was on his feet. He was surrounded by trees and the tall evening phantoms they cast across the ground. Sweat adhered dirt and grit in the grooves of his neck which made him itch. He tried to wipe away the annoyance as he followed the trees.
The clamor of life guided him, a town going about it’s daily Sunday business the other side of the woods. He heard church bells toll, the strike of horse hooves, the jitter of wheels. The houses he saw through the bush were the same as he’d seen from Baltimore to Chicago to Kansas City and back.
The people, the towns, were all the same.
A train screamed past in the distance.
He walked to the tree line. Ordinary houses (copies of copies he’s seen from coast to coast in dreamy little towns just like this one, or worse) dotted a nondescript street.
He chose the house with the red barn behind it.
He used the outhouse beside the barn before entering it. The loft was adequate, but he decided to station himself at the front window. The horses, in their stalls, did not complain.
He watched out the window. No one saw him, he saw no one. He observed the house, the curtains flit and flap lazily in the open windows as the wind dared to stir. He saw lace, white linen, flashes of woodwork, but no people, no man, no woman, no child. No creature lurked other than him. Even the house next door remained quiet.
Near dusk, he gave up the sweltering barn. In the corner across from where he kept vigil was an ax. This fine implement, crafted with the highest quality, he took with him.
The back door of the chosen house was unlocked. He had learned in his journeys from one border of the country to the other that most doors were always open. What need did sheep have for locks or rats for bolts? Sheep had no fear or worry of wolves, their faith taught them their shepherd kept the predators at bay. Rats didn’t know horror until they felt the cat’s claws.
The rear entrance let into the kitchen. The faint, dulled aroma of fried grease clung to the air. A bowl on the counter held a mountainous stack of red apples.
His stomach growled. He grabbed an apple to feed it.
The parlor, like the kitchen, was tidy, properly organized. The upstairs would be the same, he knew. Whoever lived here, the woman (for it smacked of a woman’s touch and technique, a female’s intricate detail and design), valued the home and the family within.
In the blue room off the parlor, two pressed nightgowns were laid across the bed. He rubbed the fabric between his fingers. Blood, like sooty streaks, marred the virgin white.
He found the stairs in the kitchen. The twisting stairwell was a tight fit for his broad frame. He squeezed up the winding stairway, eating, greedily, the apple he had snatched from the kitchen. The ax dangled loosely in his other hand, it banged against the steps as he ascended.
At the top of the stairs was the master bedroom. The low, slanted ceiling made him aware of his size. He felt like a giant in a land of miniatures, like the funhouse room at a carnival he once walked through in San Francisco.
Off from this room was another bedroom filled with two beds and a crib. The covers of the beds were sharply tucked, the pillows ivory mountains at the headboard just as in the adjoining room. Toys lined a bureau, wooden blocks were stacked in a corner.
This was a children’s room.
Stepping back into the master bedroom, he stepped forward, down a step into an alcove. To either side was minimal storage space, in the center was a door.
He opened it.
Heat billowed from the attic.
He entered and closed the door.
A chair was nestled in a far corner. He pulled it to the window, propped the ax to the wall.
In the diminishing light, he searched trunks and a wardrobe lined among the ordered clutter. He removed coats, blankets, old aprons, quilts. He piled his findings beneath the dusty window.
When he finished his apple, he stuffed the browning core into a front pocket.
He heard the family in the street, the clatter of shoes on the hardwood floors below. Their voices mumbled through the woodwork.
The family, the kids, scattered throughout the house. They scurried like burning rats. They ran room to room, they hollered, scuffled, laughed.
Buoyant steps resounded up the stairs, across the floor of the master bedroom to the room of toys, of dolls, of wooden blocks, of diminutive clothes for smaller bodies, of larger garments for growing ones.
The lively rats’ commotion settled. Adolescent forms slid into beds, safe beneath blankets. Learning minds, precious souls, began to drift toward dreams.
More steps on the stairs.
These steps were slower. These steps plodded, tired. The adults.
Soon, quiet repossessed the house.
Time ticked by in his head. He heard snores on the other side of the attic door.
He rolled a cigarette and struck a match in the inferno of the attic. His thoughts were entangled in the shifting swirls of blue smoke in languid moonlight. Formless faces drifted, existed for a moment, then vanished among the wooden beams.
He heard the church bells toll midnight long ago.
It was near to the Devil’s hour now.
He bent the wick of an oil lamp stored in the attic before he lit it. The light was dull and just low enough to see his surroundings beyond the pale illumination of the moon.
He smoked a second cigarette before he took the ax in hand.
The attic floor did not sound an alarm, neither did the door when he opened it.
The man and woman did not stir.
He looked into the adjoining room. A girl and small boy slept in one bed against the far wall, two older boys in the bed on the opposite side of the room.
He grabbed the blanket from the attic and set the oil lamp on the bureau in the master bedroom.
He would have to move quickly. Speed, despite his size, had never been a problem. His musculature was attuned and precise.
He let the blanket dangle open. In a swift motion, he tossed it over the sleeping parents and brought the ax, blunt side, down on the head of the husband and then the wife.
Quick, efficient. They didn’t cry or scream, only gave the smallest of grunts. The thud of the impacts traveled from his hands to his wrists, up his arms. He felt it in his shoulders.
For good measure he hit them each twice more.
There was no excitement in it for him. His pulse did not race. No sweat broke upon his brow. This was just another thing to be done.
The man and woman did not move.
Clothes were draped over the rail of the empty crib in the children’s room. He fetched shirts from those in wait after he placed the lamp on the dresser lined with toys.
Here, with greater numbers, he would have to move quicker.
Lightly he laid shirts at the foot of the first bed. As fast as possible he spread shirts over the girl and small boy.
Down he brought the blunt side. Their heads split like ripe melons.
Deftly, more gracious than a predatory feline, he scooped up the other shirts. They fluttered open as he turned and came to rest like swaying feathers over the upper bodies of the older boys.
The ax came down.
At the head of the stairs, he watched the low respirations of the man. The blanket rising, falling, so subtle as not to move at all.
At the bedside he reared the ax back, his foot kicked a shoe and blood slopped out. The blade struck the wall behind him. He bashed the blanket and the man’s head beneath. He flipped to the blade and continued to batter.
His heart did race now, his pulse did throb with the thrill of it all. Yet, like always, the excitement was short lived.
From the attic he retrieved two coats then descended the stairs. The lamp provided the minimum light to keep him from breaking his neck.
In the guest bedroom the two girls still slept soundly. He towered over their fragile slumbering forms. If he lingered long enough, their twin breathing, melodious, an angelic duet, would lull him into a peaceful stupor.
He covered their faces with the coats.
He used the ax to end their song.
Finished, he made his way to the kitchen.
A pan of water had been drawn. It waited on the table, but the family no longer had need of it. He washed his slick hands and the ax as the lamp whispered in the dark.
As clean as he could make himself, he went window to window, locked them, drew the curtains.
The icebox and cupboards were full. He piled a plate with biscuits and chops. Thinking ahead, he wrapped a slab of bacon in a towel, it would do him good down the line.
His meal and thoughts of travel were disturbed when he heard a whimper. He followed it through the parlor to the guest room.
One of the little girls, Lena, though he would never know her name, was crosswise on the bed.
She still had some life in her.
In her struggles (he didn’t know where she thought she could escape to) in the nearing dawn, her dress had scrunched up around her waist. He grabbed at the dress hem, but the girl fussed at his hands. Her words were garbled nonsense.
He pulled at her. His hand latched hold of her underwear and he yanked, but the garment came down in a tangle around her hips. He pulled them off her as he pulled the child toward him. He kicked them under the bed. She swatted at him. The coat she had removed, he draped over her face once more.
As the ax descended, she raised her arm. The blow glanced off.
She didn’t raise her arm a second time.
Upstairs, by lamplight, he covered the mirrors with the garments he had scavenged from the attic and with whatever was at hand. He took the keys on the parents’ bedside table and put them in his bib pocket. Then, for his own amusement, he used the ax to destroy what he could of the heads of these rats.
Downstairs, he did the same.
When he was done, he rested the ax against the wall. It had been good to him.
He looked out the front windows. The sun was rising.
He locked the front door.
With the keys he had taken, he locked the back door upon his exit.
It wasn’t until he was in the woods, well on his way to places unknown, that he realized he didn’t have his bacon. He couldn’t remember where he left it in the house. Had he had it in hand when the girl interrupted him?
It didn’t really matter.
He didn’t have to wait long for a train. The station was up the line and when one got to him (presumably right on time) it hadn’t reached full speed. He had no difficulty hoisting himself into a car.
The sun was clear in a blue sky.
He would toss the keys somewhere down the tracks, as always.