The Night I Was Murdered
A Very Small Room
Indiana, probably July, 1981
The gravel road wound uphill. A peeling billboard announced we were arriving in Jordan, Indiana, with a possibly exaggerated population estimate in the low three figures. Jordan’s town center consisted of a two-pump gas station/store set along an ill-defined pull-off somewhat wider than the crossing gravel roads that led in and out of town. I hitched Murphy in the shade of an ancient tree and wandered the store aisles to select something appetizing or just edible, some coffee, treats like liverwurst and ice cream for Country and a couple of boxes of Cheerios and Kiks for Murphy. I went back to sit near Murphy to lunch. Country investigated the gas station while the short dozen folks in town that midday politely ignored us from the store’s rickety wooden porch.
A contentious medium-sized yellow dog was less hospitable. He stomped up the middle of the road toward Country with some serious questions about whose town this had been, was now, and was going to be later that afternoon. Country turned away from his ice cream to watch the sharp-nosed hometown boy approach, stiff-legged, offering hotly rising barking and snarling. Country stood his ground until the thug launched the assault he had been describing to Country in increasingly hostile terms from half a short block away.
The yellow dog leaped at Country with pinned ears and open jaws, a move no dog should make against a Boxer, for the breed is well named. Country socked the dog to the side with a firm right roundhouse. The yellow dog snapped back into a fighting stance and the two dogs rose snarling on their hind legs, chest to chest. Country encircled his rival’s neck and shoulders with his forelegs, twisted left, and slapped him onto his side with a thud that raised a cloud of road dust.
The yellow dog lay with his legs flailing as Country stood with one paw stiff on his ribs and the other grinding the dog’s nose into the road dust. Country twisted an ear and a few folds of the loose skin around the attacker’s throat. The yellow dog’s snarls turned to whimpers and he soon lay tensely with his feathered tail sweeping the dust in grudging repentance. Country released the fold of neck skin he had been twisting tight and barked and growled a grim sermon directly into the thug’s ear canal. When the yellow dog got to the “Amen, Brother!! Praise Jesus!!” chorus, Country released the new believer, turned his back on him, and came over to make his regrets to me for the brief but uncivil disturbance.
The crowd of half a dozen who had come out of the store to watch was interested in but unperturbed by the dog fight. Were those a few green bills I saw change hands?
The yellow dog slunk toward a young fellow in overalls and worn boots lounging in the doorway of the store. The kid looked the dog over shortly, as if he had seen enough dog fights to know this had been a sideshow rather than a shoot-out. I stepped toward him and started to apologize for Country, although he had not been the one to start the fight. The kid spat in the dirt and shrugged.
“Well, he shouldn’ta started what he kain’t finish, I’d say. No harm done.”
So we returned to our luncheon and the crowd dissipated. After a short rest, I was tightening Murphy’s girth when an old man, also overalled and booted, approached us.
“You traveling through?” he inquired.
“You the lady heading for California?”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Glad t’meet ya. Now, I’d be pleased to have you come stay at my place tonight, if you don’t have other plans. It’s a few miles west of here, got a stall for your horse, too. Set you on your road good tomorrow. I’d be honored if you would.”
“Well, thanks,” I agreed. “I’d be pleased. Can you give me directions to get to your place?” I figured I could always not make it if I decided against this invitation for some reason. God knows the chances were high for me to get honestly lost.
“No need. I was heading home now, anyway. Just come on along.”
“Alright, then,” I agreed.
We swung in beside this man who looked maybe in his mid-sixties and claimed “about eighty three years of age, maybe eighty five”. I expected to follow him to his car and that he would drive slowly enough for us to keep up or wait at any of the intersections requiring a turn. As he continued walking straight out of town, no car came in sight. Apparently he had walked into town, so I assumed he didn’t live far. We walked a good eight miles at a clip that Murphy seldom undertook voluntarily.
I calculated that Country, Murphy, and my ages combined totaled less than half of the Old Fellow’s span of years. I felt guilty about riding while this elderly fellow strided beside us. I offered him a lift on Murphy if he wanted. He didn’t.
Whistling a concert with the birds hidden in the woods, the Old Fellow’s swinging homeward-bound strides bespoke a Tom Sawyer grown old without growing up too much. He would have been the envy of suburban mall power walkers who grimly pace off their requisite yards. Few of them seem to be of a mood to whistle.
He kept up his enchanting whistle between chattering about how glad he was to have us visit. While his place maybe wasn’t anything too special, he was happy to have a guest. His blind old Morgan (maybe) stallion might glad of a visitor, too.
The Old Fellow turned in at a rutted, overgrown driveway leading to a house and barn that looked barely able to support their own weight. A few windows looked broken long ago, all rooflines sagged, a good deal of roofing paper was bare of shingles and the porch was no more than a disordered checkerboard of broken planks. He led us behind the barn, through a creaking gate into a flimsily fenced paddock, and on into a stall in the barn.
A rough-coated chestnut with a tangled mane trumpeted his presence from his dim stall, huffed at Murphy a few times through the chewed and intermittent planks between the stalls, and turned back to searching his stall floor for wisps of hay.
The Old Fellow helped untack Murphy with a practiced hand, examining with interest the rigging for the shoulder packs, tent, and bedroll that constituted my travel gear. His comments on the kinds of gear he had used when packing horseback on hunting trips led to stories of relinquishing Jack back in Virginia, of Murphy’s subsequent promotion from pack horse to saddle horse, and of events along the trail so far. His robust health, attentive hospitality, unapologetic welcome to his disastrous surroundings, and engaging questions revealed a curious and keen personality at odds with such distressed conditions.
“Let me show you around,” he offered. He led me behind the barn to a long, low, whitewashed concrete block building in discordantly good repair. A broad concrete pad sloped up to a wide door that slid smoothly to the side. We stepped up into a spacious room with a workman-like arrangement of the kind of hand tools top craftsmen wax nostalgic over and antique dealers bid into easy retirement on wall displays.
Hickory wood handles gleamed as if recently varnished and all blades shone with keen edges. Oversized saws and axes, chains and pulleys, spoke of days when tools were powered only by muscle and skill regardless of the size of the job. An overhead track hung below trusses fixed into hand-hewn oak roof beams an urban architect would have killed for to add that touch of country life so desired by their better class of clients.
The overhead track ran from the tool room through a wide, doorless entrance into a long, high-ceilinged workspace. The track ran above the middle of a heavy-timbered, blade-scarred, narrow wooden table stretching the length of the room. A drainage trough slanted down the middle of the table to an outlet through the far wall. Wide platforms about ankle-high off the smooth concrete floor ran the length of both sides of the work table.
“We’d dress them out in here, all the folks lined up along the table like an assembly line.” I clicked back in to what the Old Fellow was saying. “Bleed them and scald them and scrape the hide outside on the pad, hang ‘em up and move them along the track up there. First folks doing shoulders, lower the chain a bit so the next pair could do the ribs, then haunches, and so forth. One lady, she’d be boiling the heads in a big cauldron outside, make a head cheese famous through the two counties, although I thought it had too much sage, myself.
“We got a way worked out like this, we could butcher about everything the folks here needed for the winter in a week or so in the fall. Used every scrap, too, except the teeth, maybe. Might as well. Not that it was all prime eatins’, but pig snout’s OK to stretch a stew if you have the wood ready to cook it all day. And I do mean all day.”
The Old Fellow was idly pulling some clanking chains that drew a block and tackle along the overhead track as we walked along the work table to the end of the room, Country padding along with us. The wheels rolled so smoothly in the track it might have been oiled last week. He recalled just as smoothly the years when the township gathered at his place on autumn days to stock up for winter. I was talking to an early Henry Ford of abattoirs.
“I gotta admit we did a few horses, too, and mules. I didn’t like it, but there isn’t much sense in wasting an old or lame one. People all said they used them for dog meat, but, well, some of us was pretty poor back then. I bought a few of them in the yard here, if I thought I could doctor them, but mostly they were ready to go.
“Some folks, ladies mostly, would be makin’ up the turkeys and chickens and geese out here in front, and I tell you, they could get more poultry ready than the dogs’d even bother to fight over. Made lard and soap here, too, with the kids. We went on along all day long to get it all done, but ever’one helped with what they did best. The black folk, they’d lead the music, evenin’s, and we’d have a good time. People helped out more, then. Got along more because of it, I’d say.
“Government shut me down some time back. I guess they figured they knew more about it all than regular folks. Well, that’s true now they made it so.
“I had a big smokehouse over there, you can see the flat spot there with a low spot in the middle. Folks’d bring some hickory logs, and smoke their poultry and hams in there. Now that was good eatin’! Speaking of, let’s go up to the house. I got some cans of something, although cooking doesn’t interest me much now.”
If the outside of the Old Fellow’s house was tired-looking, the inside was downright decayed. The Old Fellow hunted up a battered and burnt saucepan from the floor near the stove, opened a few cans of corn, tomatoes and maybe beans, dumped them all in the pot after scraping at its bottom a bit and set in on the stove. It was getting dark before he switched on a table lamp whose shade might once have been red, the only light I saw in the house, and served up dinner.
I have a flexible standard when it comes to accommodations and food, but I was seriously considering begging off on this meal. Midwest manners, however, prevented insulting the genial Old Fellow’s hospitality. I figured that if he had made it to his age as healthy as he was for as long as he had probably been living in such deterioration, I would probably not get seriously ill from one meal with less than sparkling plate ware. I choked down a portion of the scant bowl the Old Fellow served me, while he spooned his scantier portion directly from the saucepan. Hygienically speaking, it was probably no worse than Spam roasted over a campfire on a stick, with which I was getting thoroughly bored.
“It is getting late,” he concluded as he sipped the warm liquid remaining in the pan as if from a large cup. “I’ll show you to your room, if you don’t mind. I’m up early, see.”
Although I have slept in barns and swampy fields and on the rotting leaves of the forest floor, I faltered at the thought of what ‘your room’ might mean that night. I planned to sneak out of the house to my tent as soon as I thought he had fallen asleep. However, the Old Fellow led me back outside to the old butcher house. We passed through the central tool room to a small, windowless room on the right which I had not noticed during our earlier tour. He reached around the door to snap on a bare overhead bulb.
There stood on display a lovely brass bed with three mattresses and a pile of pastel soft blankets, although no sheets or pillows were obvious. He wished us a pleasant night and returned to his house, whistling.
Stacks of old National Geographic’s lounged against the far wall. Like a starving man grabs a bowl of sweet white rice, I snatched at the first interesting reading material I had come across in weeks. I paged through an entire magazine, previewing the delights of other travelers’ stories. I hoped to stay awake long enough to read all of that issue and maybe another one, too. Country and I sprawled across the ample bed and blankets, and I started a swan dive through the glossy pages into some far away land.
But a cloudy thought tugged at the back of my mind. A vague unease, restlessness, a low disquiet disturbed my usual concentrated reading. As a curtain sweeps open on a stage, the bothersome notion solidified into a sharp personal vision overlaying the sharp travel photos before me: a flayed young human female swinging from the track over the work table in the room next to us, a bulging-eyed corpse bound with a heavy chain around its heels, streaked with glistening white tendons, dripping gobbets of red gore into the drainage trough in the table below. Shiny coagulating rivulets of blood seeped along the trough like crimson molasses.
I know why rabbits and deer freeze in the on-rushing headlights.
I was blinded red with visions of cleavers. Machetes. Skinning knives. Chains and blocks and tackles and an overhead track just right for dressing out carcasses of beef…and equally suitable for a young stranger who rode into a town accustomed to dog fights, a stranger no one expected to hear from regularly and whose disappearance would cause no local notice at all.
I had been sent to sleep in a warm, clean, comfortable bed clashingly unlike anything else I had seen here so far. I was in a concrete block room with no windows, one light switch near the exit…the one and only exit. That exit was also an entrance leading from a large room stocked with the only well-kept things I had seen on the place: butchering equipment. The only exit from the room I was sitting in was through a complete butcher facility in singularly tip-top shape for having been shut down decades ago.
I was reasonably sure the Old Fellow knew, or could gather from our conversations, that no one knew exactly where I might be, that I was expected nowhere at any particular time. No one would think to start asking about me for weeks, perhaps months, and would have no easy way to trace me to this particular county. Much less to this town. Or to this desolate farm. A few folks in town might have noticed I went off with the Old Fellow, but there would be no reason for them to recall that for strangers asking questions months later.
Shivering, I considered my options. I couldn’t believe in my heart the Old Fellow was anything but an outgoing pensioner who had long pursued a perfectly ordinary trade once highly valued in any community. It happened to involve the kind of slaughter most people make daily use of but are sheltered from these days…but, well, who knew?
One obvious plan was to leave, if I could ever unfreeze the ice that locked my very veins.
Paralyzed, I plotted in my mind the track back to Murphy in the barn. If my equipment was gone, I’d take off bareback. But if the equipment was gone, what made me think I’d ever get to Murphy at all? If my gear was there, could I pack fast enough in the dark? I’d get him bridled, then saddled, and then packed as much as I could. The idea of first Country, and then me, being struck down in a dark and filthy barn with Murphy half-tacked paralyzed me further.
Grabbing Country and a few blankets and knives at hand and staying in woods better known to the Old Fellow than to me seemed to be an equal invitation for a surprise attack. Short of carrying, undetected, every last saw, knife, auger, ax, sledgehammer, crowbar, hook, pick, hoe, and chain to the barn or the woods with me, or taking the time to hide them, I did not see how I could expect to get safely away on Murphy, if the Old Fellow did not mean for us to leave. Besides, he could have another stash of butcher tools somewhere.
There was only one way to ensure that I would be as well-armed as he and would not be taken by surprise.
Summoning the total allotment of courage granted to me at birth and spending the last ounce of nerve I will ever have, I went out to the tool room, gathered every single tool from there and stashed them under the far side of the bed. I left a lethal-looking cleaver, a long knife like a blunt-tipped slender sword, and two double-sided knives as keen as razors near at hand under a blanket. I tested each of them against my arm, checking how much pressure was needed to make flesh start to tear. It wasn’t much. I set Country on guard at the door and prepared to stay awake until dawn, listening.
The evening was deeply quiet until the night creatures stirred and Country started snoring. I shook him awake and put him on guard again. Tensely alert for a time, looking and listening and sniffing for something to guard me against, he eventually relaxed and was soon snoring again. I heaved him up on the bed where I could see him, and poked him awake every time he shut his eyes or laid his chin on his paws.
I paged distractedly through three years of National Geographic, part of me tracking the pitch and rhythm of the night noises for variations that might mean a person approaching the slaughterhouse was disturbing the woods’ dark theater. A moment of full quiet brought me to trembling attention. When the cicadas had gathered their breath and resumed their rising calls and no footstep whispered on the doorstep, I breathed again. Frogs croaking like twanged rubber bands kicked my heart into a pounding that rushed blood through my ears like ocean waves. An owl screeched and I shuddered like a mouse.
The air was thinning with the approach of dawn when I heard booted footsteps on the concrete pad outside. Country heard them, too, and was growling toward the door. “Good boy,” I whispered. “Watch him! Watch him!” Country’s growls deepened until I could feel them through the mattress. He lips snaked back to bare his teeth. I heard the clink of metal on metal in the next room and lost my breath entirely. I rose to my knees, clinging to Country’s collar with one hand, slipping the other under the blanket to grip the handle of the longest knife.
“Awake already?” the Old Fellow remarked in a whisper as he stepped quietly through the door from the dim tool room into our still brightly lit room. “Just brought some breakf…whoops!” I swept the blade from under the blanket and gripped it tightly behind my back as he snatched a steak knife out of mid-air as it slipped off the cookie sheet on which he carried a plate of thin and scorched pancakes, a bowl of pasty Cream of Wheat, and a plastic cup of milk. “Hope it’s still hot!” He set the tray on the corner of the mattress, his eyes politely averted. “Coffee’ll be ready when you come up to the house. G’morning to you!”
I breathed again, hoping the Old Fellow had not noticed that his entire collection of lovingly tended antique tools was missing from the dawn-dimmed room he had just walked through twice. Sighing with relief and chagrin, I offered the pancakes to Country. He rolled over and grabbed a few of the winks he had been robbed of during the longest night of my life.
With an early start behind us and an ample, if not gourmet, breakfast in us all, we rode pretty hard the next day. I’d say we covered forty or fifty miles, although the roads in this area seemed more likely than usual to turn back the way we came rather than take the firmer track west I had already come to expect from the early Midwest. As I was starting to look for a campsite in the late afternoon, the gravel road wound uphill, and suddenly felt bizarrely familiar. I looked up to see, as if in an episode of The Twilight Zone, the peeling billboard announcing we were arriving in Jordan, Indiana. Exhausted as I was, I turned and rode back another ten or fifteen miles into the sunset, quite unwilling to show myself again in little Jordan, Indiana.