The Young Hardware Clerk
We found the young hardware clerk from Tilson’s Store in the Water Moccasin Slough about two miles up Big Saffron Creek. Those of us who knew this weird, narrow, and sometimes deep stream, would’ve had trouble, despite our familiarity with the countryside, locating Joseph P. Casson, had it not been for some duck hunters. Bold adventurers they were, meriting admiration.
In the first place the immediate vicinity of the sluggish yellow stream was practically untenanted of human beings — but the ground was fairly littered with wild creatures, and the water — aye, there was something for you. Predatory fowl, mud turtles, pertinacious moccasins and, incidentally, some of the biggest catfish you ever saw, inhabited Big Saffron. Stunted trees, some cypress and some dwarfed swamp oak, gave it almost a perpetual shade; and if the sun ever shone on the creek or on Water Moccasin Slough (the latter being one of the principal tributaries of Big Saffron), it was never surprised doing it. Along the banks were decayed tree-stumps like you find rotten teeth in the gums of some negligent old person. Vines clung to the sodden earth, with horseweeds and rank, colorless grass growths. Occasionally a predaceous fowl flapped away with a live fish wriggling in its back, or an unseen, furtive animal crushed dry sticks in flight. Or summer ducks fled tree high.
Nobody ever understood Big Saffron, but that was because nobody ever went to the trouble of exploring it. That is — not in late years. The creek began on Lafe Martin’s three hundred acre farm, six miles due south of Mason City; it ended somewhere in the Mississippi River, as though it hadn’t been meant to travel very far, and had only a sinister purpose to serve in this world. It was like a river in Hades, or as this writer would imagine such a river to be — one drink of its water would kill a normal human being — a one way river, fit only for the devil’s navigation. The stench on this humid, sticky day was so sharp as to draw tears from your eyes; the smell of gumbo, rotting weeds, decomposed fish and animals, and above all, the bitter acrid stink of deteriorated human flesh. Southeast Mississippi sweltered under a flatiron heat.
There was small wonder that buzzards soared over us, their long, featherless necks craned out full length, their projectile shaped bodies making dark blurs through the open branches of those Satanic trees. But the funniest part of it was the way the dead man’s bier was a mound of burlap bags completely covered with rat poison.
“Why didn’t they throw him into the creek?” asked little Sheriff Homer Custard. “Why go to all the trouble of piling those gunny-sacks under the body?”
“At least they took precaution to see the corpse was protected from beasts and buzzards,” I said. “But — let’s get out of here as soon as possible.”
Squire Pete Grately, the richest banker in Mason City, lashed his mud besmeared plaid breeches with a looped horseweed.
“What killed him?” he grunted.
I could understand his wheezing and grunting. He was fat, tall, and his bay window always made me think of the legendary or mythical Paul Bunyan’s enormous chest. Forty eight inches of belly. Close-cropped irongray hair, a jutting chin, a short, red, corpulent neck; dark copper spotted skin, bags under the eyes. It seemed his head had outgrown his skin, and his body had crowded nature’s suit to the bursting point. He was in his shirt sleeves; his blatant plaid coat was folded over his left arm. A black Homburg had been pushed to the back of his cranium.
“Cause of death?” I peered up at him, stuck the point of a red pencil (which I afterward threw away) against a blue hole in the back of Casson’s head.
“A 22-rifle in the hands of a slow, deliberate killer.”
“There goes that damned FBI stuff again,” Grately admonished, turning to the skinny little sheriff. “Why don’t you stop sending Indian George to them criminology schools?”
Sheriff Custard grinned. “Because this county want to keep up with the new methods the FBI schools are inaugurating to make murder a lot more unprofitable than it’s ever been before.”
The acrimony in Custard’s voice belied the expansive grin on his face.
The banker coughed.
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A Strange Whistling Sound
Suddenly I heard a strange whistling sound, not exactly a whistle, not a tune, but a whistler who was imitating something like a creaking wheel. It puzzled me. and I guess it puzzled the banker. I saw him cant his head to listen.
The sheriff whipped round, stared off through the trees. However, I knew nothing but blue haze met his probing eyes.
“Never heard anything like that before,” Custard said. “Must be a strange bird. You recollect the duck hunters said they heard someone whistling just before they found Joe Casson? I wonder — “
“Sure, but they didn’t see who it was,” I said.
Sweat gleamed on Grately’s face.
“Let’s be moving,” he said uneasily. “Let’s be getting out of here. You want to stay here all day? Indian George has looked around for footprints and other clues, without finding anything. Doesn’t this about wind us up?”
The sheriff turned to me, blinked his blue eyes and said, “See if you can locate the bird that done that whistling. Then come on over to Lafe Martin’s. We’ll truck the body over there for the inquest.
Silently I faded off into the blue gloom.
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Looking for Signs
But I didn’t find the whistler.
Nor did I hear the sound again.
“That’s a weird bird,” I said to myself. I thought I’d heard all the birds that frequented our country, but that was a new one — if it was a bird. I bent over, kept my eyes on the soggy earth. No prints. There wasn’t a solitary footprint —
Oh but there was, too. I saw definitely where the weight of a body on solid leather heels had crushed twigs an inch in diameter into the slush of mud. Encouraged, I bent my best efforts to the task, found other signs barely visible to the naked eye. Someone had stood here and moved about, and over beyond the footprints I observed thin wheel tracks, the width of the steel tires were less than those of a common lumber wagon, yet they weren’t buggy tracks. Maybe a buckboard.
Well, here was one for the books. Knowing Big Saffron was shunned by the neighboring farmers, that only rarely did a duck hunter venture here on his way to Giant Lake a mile west, the wheel marks and footprints bothered me. I wasn’t quite sure there wasn’t a whistler, that the duck hunters were fooled by the sound. But as carefully as I searched I was unable to follow the trail of the phantom vehicle beyond a narrow rutted lane at least half a mile from Big Saffron.
And when a Sioux Indian can’t find such evidence, I can tell you right now it can’t be found. And that’s another one for the books.
I thought of young Joseph Casson, how he’d come back from the war to inherit his father’s estate, after being given up for dead in the Pacific. Lafe Martin’s rural empire wasn’t Lafe Martin’s any more. It belonged to Joseph Casson, junior; and now it belonged to the young man’s heirs.
The latter had been a money-maker, but his father had been a better one. Young Joe had been thrifty, but not as thrifty as his father had been. Young Joe had hired out to Tilson’s as a hardware clerk. Lafe Martin, unable to pay Joe what he’d owed his dad, was now preparing to move off the farm. Joe had held the mortgage which was worth more than the little empire, including all the livestock and implements, and the last rich grain crop.
There was something — yeah, for the books. Lafe Martin’s sixty thousand dollar farm might’ve spelled young Joe’s doom. Had the boy been out here looking around, meandered down to Big Saffron and Water Moccasin Slough, and been ambushed? Certainly nature had never provided a better ambuscade.
Slowly, through the suffocating heat, I headed for a narrow dirt road, came to a stake-and-rider fence, paused to look this way and that. My eyes fell upon my leather boots, saw the muck, and with a handful of grass I wiped the boots clean. This mud was of a different hue and texture, and you could tell at a glance it had come from the spongy bogs around Big Saffron — if you knew anything about Big Saffron.
I felt of the gun on my right hip, set my hat firmly on my head and headed for Lafe Martin’s farm. A man was coming along the lane between the wooden fences, and he stopped when he saw me. I knew him. His name was Clare Muff, and he was a recluse who lived in a small shack on the Martin farm and sometimes worked for the former owner of the land.
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Been a Killing
I knew, too, that he never talked to anyone, never even exchanged a greeting with anyone. He’d write his grocery order down and present it to the merchant from whom he’d make the purchases without a single word; and no merchant who knew him would speak to him. Tragically different from any character I’d ever known, Clare Muff seemed harmless enough. His unorthodox nature was revealed, too, in his skinny, long neck his uncommonly long arms, his pale, bony face, his colorless deep set eyes, his unkempt sandy hair, his sharply pointed chin. He just shuffled along, a battered straw hat going to seed on his head, a topknot of hair sticking out through a hole in the crown. And he was barefooted, his overalls cut off about to the knee.
He stared at me, and I let him pass without a word. I felt sorry for the damned fool. He was no dunce, he was just a clever actor. But he wasn’t getting any fun out of living, if I knew what I was talking about. He padded on away, not looking back, going toward Big Saffron. And I watched him leave the road, take to a field, disappear away down there in the blue gloom.
The I heard the rattle of a spring wagon. Horses were pulled to a stop. It was Lafe Martin who held the reins.
“Are you goin’ over to my place, George?”
“Yes,” I nodded, clambered aboard the rig and he touched the rumps of the horses with a switch.
“Been a killing. Over on Water Moccasin,” I said.
He didn’t answer for a moment. The warped wheels of the rig creaked dolefully, like they were lamenting about something. Then Lafe said heavily, “Jest the kind of a place you’d expect it to happen in, George. Who got killed?”
“This will floor you,” I said amiably. The big red headed fellow was sort of likeable. His green eyes were like green safety lamps. But he had a stubborn, reddish stubbled jaw. He wore a hickory shirt and a broadbrimmed black, shapeless hat. “Yeah, it’ll floor you, Lafe — bein’ the victim’s little Joe Casson — “
His explosion of amazement cut off my speech like he’d snipped it in two with wire clippers. “Jo-ey — Oh. My Lawd!”
But I saw the sweat smelling giant spat sedately upon the wagon-tongue, and the tobacco quid stuck there.
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“Joe say he was coming out here?” I asked, after a polite pause. “Did he say he was coming to see about your — well, your little deal?”
“He’s been out here twice already,” Lafe Martin said. “I don’t think he’s missed a foot of the three hundred acres. He didn’t miss an ear of corn in the cribs either.”
“That was like him,” I agreed. “He was an ambitious youth. When was he out here the last time?”
“Yistiddy,” Martin said, switching the horses again. He seemed to have it in for the corpulent bay mare on the right. He put it on her rump harder than he did the little roan “He was out here yistiddy morning.”
“Yessir,” I said. “Long about then he was killed. It’s been hot, rained some but rained fire and brimstone, and the body’s right bad off. What time did Joe leave your place, and which direction did he follow, Lafe?”
“He walked right down this road about ten in the morning. He had a brand new .22 rifle with him.”
“He what?” I swallowed hard, grabbed my hat. Well, there was one for the books. I began to fan myself vigorously.
“‘Said he was takln’ a right smart interest in target shootin’,” Lafe said indolently. “He was walkin’. I wanted to haul him to town. He said he’d pick up a ride. I reckon maybe he did, too — ride with someone that had it In for him, good and heavylike.”
I rode in silence, the sound of the thin wheels reminding me of a muted flute.
“Where you keen, Lafe?” I asked suddenly, skewing round on the hard teat.
“Been?” His green eyes flashed coldly, like surgical steel. I thought I saw red glints in them. Green lights turn to red, you know. “Why — dang it, I been over to the No’th sixth. Is that any skin offen your shins, George?”
I didn’t get mad, because there wasn’t the right amount of animosity in his voice.
“Nope,” I said. “Just inquirin’. Of course you’ll be asked a lot of questions by Sheriff Custard, Lafe. I’m not so danged sure you won’t be directly accused of shootin’ Joe Casson in the back of the head with a .22 rifle — the brand new one you say he was packing. Bein’ as how you’re about the only one who could profit by the dastardly deed.”
He didn’t get mad either. He sat there scrooged up like a frog on a log or a bug on a shimmering leaf; but obviously he was ready to hop off if given reasonable provocation.
“I reckon,” he said. “I reckon so, George. But when you come right down to it, how could I profit? He was going to let me stay on and work for him. He said I could stay as long as I pleased. It was my home, he said. I could have it for grain rent. Where else could I go? What else could I do? I been a farmer all my life. This has been home sweet home to me. My father farmed it before me. I was brought up on the place. Now — with Joe Casson a goner, why I’ll have to look around for another place to go, and it’s not going to be easy finding one.
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The Face of the Thing
The barns and other outbuildings were in better state of preservation than the one-story unpainted house Lafe Martin lived in. It had thick, native lumber clapboards, a rickety front porch. Behind the biggest barn where they’d taken the body (having hauled the cadaver up from the creek in a small flat truck) was an apple orchard. And standing in the barnlot, with a raft of morningglories twining around a board fence behind it was the freakiest-looking scarecrow I had ever seen. It was a direct effigy of Banker Squire Grately, even to the protruding belly, the sporty Homburg and the garish plaid clothes Grately always wore when he dressed up.
The face of the thing — danged if it didn’t resemble the squire if you didn’t look at it close enough to see it had been painted on a board with a small brush and barn paints of variegated hues. The clothes were a castoff suit of the squire’s, too, Lafe told me when I asked him.
“He gave me the suit when we was friends, George,” the farmer explained. “He said I could have it made over for my nephew who is now off at college learning to be a doctor.”
“When you were friends?” I snapped, picking up this lead.
“What you mean?”
We’d stopped at the windmill for a drink. Lafe sent the gourd to the bottom of the galvanized pail, brought it up dripping with cold water and handed it to me.
“We fell out when Grately began crowding me. He was looking after old man Casson’s business, and Grately’s a hard one to deal with. I’d been rained out five years in succession. The high water got up, everything went wrong. He jest won’t give me a reasonable chance. I told young Joe about it when he came back from the war, and it made the boy mad. But I don’t know what he ever done about it.”
“When the squire sees that dummy,” I said, barely able to control my mirth but without my face showing how tickled I was, “he’ll blow a fuse.”
“Maybe he will. I sure hope he does. I got it ready a long time ago, so when he came out to drive me off the farm he’d see what I thought of him.” It didn’t make rhyme or reason, but it was kind of smart, so to speak. And as I always say — there was one for the books.
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The Same Weird Whistle
I gazed into the crowd, found the sheriff and told him what I’d gleaned from Lafe Martin. I knew skinny little Homer Custard didn’t have his heart in it when he said he’d have to arrest Lafe for Joe Casson’s murder, if he couldn’t find an out for himself. He meant an alibi.
The barn was jammed with curious neighbors. You take a killing in the country and a crowd always gathers as if pouring out of the skies. I reckon the party lines got busy and all the receivers came down at once.
The squire kept urging Sheriff Custard to take immediate action against Lafe Martin.
“Of course you’ll say I’m prejudiced,” he declaimed, “but my aim isn’t to cause an innocent person trouble. I feel that Lafe Martin’s the power behind all this sinister stuff. Furthermore, the dummy isn’t as harmless as it appears to be. It would seem on the face of it that Martin’s idea was merely to make me a laughing stock. His real motive for erecting the effigy can’t be seen with the naked eye. You’ll find out, Homer. You’ll find out.”
“You’ve no proof of Martin’s implication in Casson’s murder,” the sheriff averred. “We’ve got no grounds to arrest him, at least none that would stand up in court.”
“At the proper time I’ll show my hand,” Squire Grately said. “Right now I want to delve a little deeper into this thing. But — mark my word, Homer — if you don’t arrest him, you’ll be sorry!”
Then we heard someone whistling. Again the banker canted his head. Again sweat gleamed on his face too thick to run, and it adhered to his eyebrows like little specks of flour dough. The front of the old man’s shirt didn’t appear to have a single dry spot on it. He looked around, up and down the yard, but none of us could ferrit out the whistler because the sound had ceased to be, and only its echo remained.
The sheriff looked at me and I looked at him. Then we both looked at the garishly clad scarecrow. Clouds scudded over the sun. There was a distant rumble of thunder. Abruptly a cool breeze came across the level fields to dispel the killing humidity.
“It’s the same sound we heard out by Water Moccasin Slough,” I said. “The same whistler. You can’t fool me on the sound. What does it remind you of?” I asked bluntly.
“Squeaking wheels,” Sheriff Custard said. “Dry squeaking sheets — “
The squire was mopping sweat. “Well, damn it, let’s get the work done. Have the coroner call his jurors. Pick out six men and put the facts before them. I’ll be one — “
“I reckon the corner selects his own jury,” the little sheriff said. “We’ll see.”
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We marched across the porch into the front room of the bedraggled frame house. The parlor was full of stale air. I saw a few horse-hair upholstered fixtures, a huge writing desk, a standtable bearing a stereoscope and several boxes of slides, a heavy family Bible, and a thick album with a mirror in the cover. The coroner sat down at the desk, picked out his six men. Banker Grately was included. Chairs were brought for them and lined up against the wall.
“I allow the verdict should be the victim met death at the hands of a person or persons unknown,” I said to the sheriff.
“I’m not so sure,” Homer Custard said. “I’m not sure what’s goin’ to happen here before we can get away, George.”
The first witnesses were called. These were the duck hunters. They described how they’d found the body on the pile of burlap sacks, and the rat poison that was sprinkled around the corpse so that the animals and buzzards had let it alone.
Then Lafe Martin was called for. But he wasn’t in the house. The sheriff told me to stay there, he’d find Lafe.
Banker Grately moved up from the jury box.
“If it pleases you, sire,” he said to the coroner, “I’ve changed my mind. I’d like to be excused from jury duty. I know it’s late for that. But I’ve just thought of something. I have some testimony I’d like to present to the court — some light to shed on the tragedy. I suggest you let me talk before they find Lafe Martin —
The coroner muled this over in his mind. He was a slow, deliberate person. He said, finally, he’d make allowance for that. And a man was chosen to take Grately’s place in the box. They started all over again. A neighboring farmer was called to the stand, and he told what amounted to an accusation against the absent Martin. The farmer was a shy, modest person. He rubbed his pants with his sweaty, nervous hands. He related how Joe Casson had been contemplating moving Lafe Martin off the place. When asked how he knew this, how he’d found it out, the man said, “My banker told me.”
“Who is your banker?” the coroner asked.
“Squire Grately,” the farmer said. “Joe Casson transacted all his business with Squire Grately, and so did Joe’s father. That’s why Lafe Martin made the scarecrow, jest to humiliate the Squire if the Squire ever should come out to force a sale or anything “
The scarecrow was proving absolutely demolishing to Lafe Martin’s best interests. It had begun to rain. I said to myself, “That dummy out there will sure send Lafe Martin to jail. Why did he do such a damnation crazy thing?
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We suddenly heard someone in vicinity of the barn behind the house pounding on steel, like maybe he was changing a tire on an automobile. Squire Grately was called to the chair.
The squire spoke calmly.
“I’ve handled their business twenty years,” he began. “Old Joe Casson was my best friend. He didn’t like Lafe Martin. Lafe was always making excuses for not paying him, first one crazy reason and then another. Old Joe said for me to make sure his son got what Lafe Martin owed him or the farm one, it didn’t matter which. That’s what I meant to do. Joe came home from the war and we had a serious talk. At first he was reluctant to foreclose on Lafe, but he changed his mind when I told him his father had insisted on making Lafe Martin pay in full. Young Joe said he’d have it out with Lafe; he did, and Lafe who was already sore at me, got killing mad. He made that dummy out there, and tried to pass it off as a joke. But every time I got close to the dummy it chilled my blood. There’s something more sinister about it than can be seen with the eye. Lafe Martin killed Joe, but he — “
His lips smacked as he puffed at a burnt out cigar.
The vicious pounding of steel on steel suddenly stopped. From close to the house came that eerie whistling, the same we’d heard near Big Saffron and from around the barn.
And Squire Grately jumped; he gave an awful shriek, dropped the cigar from his twitching lips and fell forward in a half stumble from his chair. He groped, with his arms above his head, lunged, then made a jerking dive for the open door. It was then that he collided with Sheriff Custard who’d just emerged from the languid shadows of the porch. There was a solid thump as their heads came together.
But it was the squire who was up and away before Sheriff Custard recovered his equilibrium. His boots stomped in a run across the planking of the porch; his lurching shadow spurted across the yard.
But upon reaching the door, with excited men piling around me and scuffing the floor with harsh boots, the sight that met my eyes was so startling, I just stood and gulped. Under one of the ancient cottonwoods, locked in a desperate struggle was the squire and the scarecrowish figure of weird Clare Muff. He was trying to stick a knife in the banker’s breast, but the latter had both pudgy hands clasped around the hobgobblin’s wrist so he couldn’t push the blade in. I tore out, yelling at Clare, and reached them just as they both fell to the ground. The lithe, smaller man had wrested himself free, and now his heels flashed upward, to catch me in the chest, as I bent over to grab him. Naked, calloused heels.
I was sent hard against the tree and showered cotton down upon the grass. A gun ground out a jangling crash, and the scarecrow of a man jumped, struck against me and slid to the ground. He was clutching madly at his shirt. Buttons were scattered in every direction. He kicked, flailed with his feet and even after I’d grabbed him and got myself covered with blood, he continued the struggle. Homer Custard put his smoking gun in his pockets and seized Clare Muff, pinning him on the ground.
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“He was hiding behind the tree to warn Lafe if you started out to look for him. Lafe was trying to get a tire on his car so he could escape. I recognized Clare’s whistling signals as the same we’d heard before, and got too mad to sit still and wait any longer when I doped out what was going on. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Clare Muff whistle like that when we three were riding in Lafe’s spring wagon; he was always trying to imitate the dry grinding of the rattling wheels.”
“You mean Lafe killed Joe Casson?” I demanded aggressively.
“No, not with his own hands,” the squire said. “They meant to get me, not Joe. Lafe figured I stood in the way and if he could rid the community of my presence for good, he’d be able to pull the wool over Joe Casson’s eyes. I met Joe coming from this place yesterday morning. We’d been discussing cutting a road through the swamp, and putting a bridge across Big Saffron to save distance to Mason City. I told Joe it was a good time to look the situation over and we drove down to the road bridge in my car and walked up to Water Moccasin Slough. Just as the ambusher fired the gun Joe moved into the path of the bullet. I ran, knowing it was me they were after, that they’d made a horrible mistake.
“Why didn’t you tell us about it?” Sheriff Custard asked.
“I wanted to do my own detective work, figured you’d doubt me. When Lafe slipped away from the house, I knew he was trying to make his escape, that he’d failed to convince you of his innocence.”
“Come on out to the scarecrow in the barnlot,” Sheriff Custard said. “I want to look that thing over. I’ve got Lafe bound hand and foot in the barn. I think he’ll be willing to talk now, with Clare Muff dead.”
We trudged out to the hobgobblin and Homer Custard and I took it down. It lay on the straw and wheat chaff of the barnlot, looking almost like the squire, even to his bay window. It surprised me how heavy the thing was when I tried to lift it. Homer removed the coat while I held it off the ground. He slit the fancy shirt open, and drew the flaps back. Then I got a jolt, believe me.
The dummy was full of bullet holes. Somebody had been using it for a target. And those slugs had been stopped by a thick mattress like padding, and every damned one of the leaden ball was in the scarecrow. No wonder it was so heavy.
When Homer cut it open with his jackknife we began to pluck those bullets out of the dummy. And I’m not lying to you when I say we counted five hundred and sixty three twenty-two slugs as we piled them on the earth beside the hobgoblin.
“Everytime he put a slug into the belly of the effigy he was getting the same satisfaction he would’ve experienced from murdering me — almost,” the squire said.
But we got another surprise. When Lafe Martin confessed he said Clare Muff had done the shooting. He’d hired Clare to kill the squire and had seen to it that he was a crack shot before he let him make the venture. Besides, the reason he’d dressed the dummy in Squire Grately’s old clothes was to make sure when the little weird guy fired from ambush he got the right man.
As I say — there’s one for the books.