Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Entering Skidmore -- based on a true, if bizarre, story
Fiction by Steve Johnston and read 6/02/04
“Wish you’d interviewed me back when I was still 13,” I joshed her. “My memory hasn’t improved any in 22 years. That’s about how long it’s been.”
“Heck, it’s 2004, and I’m not yet 15”, she asserted pleasantly. “Anyway, I took up editing the school newspaper cuz I might want to be a reporter some day.”
I couldn’t resist. “You think your father just might give you a job down at his newspaper, do you? (pause) I saw your mother yesterday. Was it she who gave you my name? (pause) Well, I’ll bet that’s what happened.”
“Please go on, Mr. Huber.”
”Let me think now. Skidmore was a lot smaller than it is now. Two hundred eighty-six decent folk and that one misfit. By that I mean Ken Rex McElroy was a bully and a menace. World-class, you might say today. Psychopath that he was, he did quite a bit of lawbreaking throughout the county. Felonies that included burglary, assault, a possible rape, at least one attempted murder, and intimidating witnesses repeatedly. You couldn’t get a charge into court without a key witness changing his story. McElroy had the Devil for a lawyer; the way that fellow delayed justice at every opportunity was criminal in itself. The justice system had broken down something awful.
“Is this the sort of thing you were asking about, Mary Beth?”
“Yeah. But you might describe the guy. Was he hated by practically everyone?”
“McElroy was bigger than average, having been a muscular farm boy. It wasn’t all that difficult to intimidate others -- that’s what I supposed. Had brown hair, a tattoo of a dragon on his left arm, I think. I don’t know how to describe his face, except I remember it was ugly. Eyes that could drill into a person.
“Folks certainly were passionate in their hatred for him. He was the topic of conversation in just about every household and business. Yeah, I’d have to say ‘hate’ was the consensus throughout _____ County.”
“Well, who exactly did it?”
“Never you mind, Mary Beth. I’m not telling any secrets here. Besides, I wasn’t a witness. All the kids like me who should have been in class that day, were. I can tell you few of the facts, because that’s all I know. That’ll have to satisfy you.
“It was a rather hot day for mid-September. Ordinary in every other way, though, as I recall. That afternoon McElroy came into town--”
“Can you back up a bit? He worked, didn’t he? What did he do?”
“After dropping out of high school, he continued working on his father’s farm -- 320 acres, maybe. Even managed it after his father got laid up by a tractor accident; old Mr. McElroy never did work again. After a time, his father’s death gave McElroy the farm, debt-free, as an inheritance. No will was found. Seeing as how his daughter -- McElroy’s only sibling -- had up and moved away about 1965 and never returned, she hadn’t claimed anything.”
“Wasn’t McElroy middle-aged by the time of his death?”
“Well, someone your age might have thought so. I guess he was pretty near 40, give or take a little.”
“Give me just a sec to catch up on my notes, okay? I’m anxious to hear the rest of the story.”
“There isn’t a lot more to tell -- no secrets, remember. McElroy came into town in early afternoon on that ordinary day. He stopped in at the tavern, and that proved fatal. Out of the townspeople emerged some vigilantes, and McElroy was through trying to push someone around. When McElroy came out of the tavern and got behind the wheel of his truck, someone put two rifle slugs in him, through the back window. The first one no doubt killed him, but the lead from the second was wasted in a worthy cause.
“There were witnesses, of course. It happened in broad daylight. But then, I think of it as kind of a public execution. Indeed, so little information did the townspeople give the state authorities and even the FBI ( all outsiders), the ‘someone’ might as well have been wearing a black hood. No one admitted to seeing the shooter; no one confessed to being him either. The sheriff probably could have done more. But everyone seemed to agree no one should go to prison for vigilante justice like that. There were suspects, but in the end, no arrests were ever made. In due time the McElroy farm was sold at auction for back taxes.”
“Anything else, Mr. Huber?”
I made eye contact. “Well, now, wouldn’t it be a scoop if I told you I did it,” I laughed heartily. “Actually, I was in class, as I said.”
“You had me going there, for a heartbeat.”
“I did want to tell you about the sign, the one on Route 17 just at the township limits. It read: Entering Skidmore Pop. 287. Hardly ever was a town so relieved as when that number shrank by one. Maybe it was a bit of mischief on my part, but I took a paintbrush to the sign -- could of been a week later. I crossed out the number and beside it wrote ‘286’. Before the month was over, though, Amy Stone your aunt had healthy twin girls. So I went back and made the ‘6’ into an ‘8’.
Life in Skidmore went on -- a normalcy it hadn’t known in over a decade returned.