Old and Homeless

 It was fall again, and the deep-throated staccato notes of Johnny Hanson's motorcycle ricocheted off the nearby wooden homes and canyon walls.  A familiar sound now, but the first time he heard that racket he was frightened and ran away to hide behind old man Three Bears' barn but that particular barn happened to be Johnny's destination that afternoon.  How could he have known?  This time, like before, Johnny's girlfriend Debbie Crenshaw was riding on the back.  They were probably going back to the barn again, he decided, and this time there would be no running away or going near them. 

They had quite a time, romping in the hay and horse blankets, they never knew he was watching them.  It was interesting to see but not twice.  The last time he had left his lunch out in the open and when he got back it was gone.  No more of that, getting food that he could chew was difficult enough at his age and he had better things to do at the moment.  For one thing, it was almost sundown and he needed a place to sleep for the night. With a full belly from the day before, he wasn't at all hungry for a change.  All alone, no friends, no family, no home, no possessions, he had four priorities in life: food, water, sleep, and survival. 

He still missed his mom, even at now.  He stayed with her until she died of old age, long after his sibling's left to make their mark on the world.  His father had disappeared years prior and Mom insisted that Pappy had been killed, murdered by the no-account Kelly boys that lived near the edge of town.  He was two years old when it happened but always enjoyed hearing his mom's recollections of Pappy.  The night she went to sleep and he couldn't wake her up the next day remained etched in his mind like a mortal wound.  She was a good mother.  Whenever he or his siblings got out of hand, her punishment was swift, just and final; their tomfoolery was over and done with often before they knew what hit them. 

With no education other than what his mom taught him, he always lacked the confidence to strike out in the cold, unfamiliar world but now there was no choice.  Even the good times, like hunting and fishing with his older sister, Osa, had blurred with the years.  Sure, he still fished occasionally but he lacked the zeal, not to mention the patience.   He missed Osa, she made him feel good, too.  She said that he was the biggest and strongest of the family, so he had nothing to fear from others.  It did little good, however, he was big and strong but he was also clumsy and frightening.  His anxiety lasted throughout youth. 

It was, therefore, ironic that age had stolen his fear along with his teeth, stamina and patience.  He would have gladly given up fear years ago, as it had prevented him from doing what he should have done to help his mother in her old age.  Unfortunately, there was a distinct drawback to this loss of caution, it had been replaced by a crabby, almost reckless attitude.  He couldn't help but wonder if others called him 'old crabby' behind his back; curiosity, nothing more, what people thought of him was academic. 

Others didn't, in fact, call him anything except old Spook.  The long silver-gray hair of his old age had taken many years to mix in with the brown hair of his youth.  It was badly matted now; his personal hygiene left a lot to be desired, not that he cared about that either.  With all that hair, it was no wonder he had trouble tolerating the hot summers in his old age and he smelled bad, too, but that was not entirely his fault.  Apparently that began when he was in his prime and some say, given the way he lives, it was unavoidable. 

There were a select few that thought he presented a proud, brave image in his old age and therefore a majestic quality surrounded him.  Those that stuck up for him regardless of his habits and aloofness were clearly in the local minority.

Most of the people in town feared him as much or more than he did them.  Some were afraid of his size and strength, never mind his age.  Others questioned his low IQ and went so far as to indicate he was unstable or worse.  The majority linked the two and warned that, because he didn't know his own might and had the mind of a four-year-old kid, one day he would hurt somebody.  They also talked about how no one ever saw him, except by accident, and the mere sight of him was enough to want to run away as fast as possible' thus his nickname, old Spook. 

Sending old Spook away, to some other place, was also problematic; no one else wanted him around either.  The Kelly boys threatened to kill him but that was clearly against the law and if they were caught they would be prosecuted.  Thankfully, no one except the Kelly boys had that bent.  Besides, they had to be drunk to summon the courage and the inebriated Kelly boys couldn't hit city hall with a hand full of rocks if they stood across the street from it.  Those miscreants were into drugs, too, and where they got all that money from in this small farming town was an enigma. 

It was dark now and he had found a nice soft place to sleep that couldn't be seen from the road.  He had slept there before but he learned the hard way never to sleep in the same place two nights in a row.  That way he couldn't be found, tormented or injured.  The grass next to the old machine shop was still warm and dry from the sun and partially protected by a canopy, not that a rainstorm would bother him.  If he could read, he might have noticed that the property belonged to those same Kelly boys and that would have angered him. 

He still remembered his mother's theory about Pappy.  Then again, he was exhausted and sleep was as important as any of his basic needs.  Tomorrow, he would have to find food and that was no small task anymore.  Old age wasn't easy and being alone and homeless didn't help.

At that moment and true to their form, the Kelly boys were at the Silver Dollar Bar drinking heavily and trying to either start a fight or get the women's attention.  Those two priorities depended entirely upon the customer base.  By two a.m., lurching along in their badly dented and fiercely dirty pickup, hollering and drinking all the way home, they woke everyone within earshot of the road.  By some strange coincidence, they were never seen again.

The Kelly boy's absence was noticed after a few days of relative peace and quite around town and the sheriff was notified.  A brief, cursory investigation followed, that was the law, but the results were inconclusive.  Some say the drug people killed them for all the money they owed and never paid.  Others say they wandered off in a drunken stupor, fell into the river that ran behind their house and someday their bodies would be found miles downstream.  In any case, they wouldn't be missed much, except by the owner of the Silver Dollar Bar and no one was certain of that.

With no apparent heirs, the Kelly property was soon sold to the county.  There were plans to build a new equipment service yard there, but the county didn't have the money.  The buildings and grounds rapidly fell into a dreadful state of deterioration and disrepair and became an eyesore to passersby.  Fall was near, and the traffic from the deer hunters would soon double on the nearby road.  The property quickly became an ad hoc rifle range for those who wished to test their weapons.  This only added to its unsightliness.  It also added to its seclusion.  No one, except old Spook, perhaps, wished to venture there day or night.

Johnny Hanson's glands didn't care that hunting season had arrived, nor did Debbie Crenshaw's.  It was time for their weekend ride on Johnny's vintage Matchless 500 cc one-lunger.  Old man Three Bears' barn, on the outskirts of town not far from the Kelly boy's place, was their destination for another roll in the hay.  The undulations in the long dirt road to that farm provided ample foreplay for Miss Crenshaw, as she straddled the narrow, leather seat, sliding back and forth and wrapping her arms around her high school sweetheart.

It was not, however, an auspicious rendezvous.  They, too, were never seen nor heard from again.  Had Debbie's eyes been open, she may have seen her killer in time to scream but it would not have prevented the inevitable.  They must have been closed, in one final moment of ecstasy, as no one heard anything.  Johnny's motorcycle was identified by his parents two days later and Debbie's purse was the singular clue that she had accompanied him to the barn.  Old man Three Bears, stoic and silent even though it happened in his barn, offered no insight.  He simply shrugged his shoulders and hobbled back to his house mumbling something about trespassing.

Nonetheless, it was tragic.  Two young people dying like that and happening as it did so soon after the Kelly boys' disappearance, the sheriff's office was deluged with cries of outraged indignation.  A mad man was on the loose.  Something must be done to stop him.  The sheriff pleaded with the State to assist him in his efforts to catch this elusive serial murderer and eventually the Governor's Office stepped in.  Two uniformed highway patrolmen were assigned full time to assist.

Hunting season was always dangerous in Bitterroot County, people shot at each other, at horses, cows, tree stumps' anything that moved or faintly resembled a four-footed creature with or without antlers was fair, pardon the pun, game.  Old Spook knew all that from past experience, he wasn't stupid, that's why he never went where the hunters were likely to go.  When he was young he avoided them by retreating to the safety of his birthplace in the next county.  For some reason, the hunters never ventured there but he never understood why.  Now his legs were old and since his walking distance had shrunken as a result, hunting season only complicated and secluded his life but there were no acceptable alternatives to survival.

The sheriff didn't have one iota of evidence with which to begin a manhunt. Knowing this, the patrolmen retraced the previous haphazard investigations and they came up empty as well.  Desperate for a lead of any kind, the two men decided to follow the riverbank.  They hiked downstream of the Kelly property, one man on each side of the river, but found nothing out of the ordinary.  Then they walked the river upstream and into town. 

Patrolman Schmidt, walking along the bank farthest from the road, found what he thought to be a suspicious trail.  It was visible, occasionally, indicating the suspect was intentionally walking in the cobbled river bottom and going on shore only when absolutely necessary.  Now and then the river was crossed by a section of barbed wire fence, such as the one delineating the property line of old man Three Bears' farm.  There, the trail was unmistakable, but a few feet later, again it disappeared into the river bottom.

By nightfall, the two patrolmen had reached a small farm belonging to Janice Berks, a widow with twenty-one head of Black Angus, two horses, countless chickens, dogs, cats and who knows what else.  When queried, she was adamant that she had seen no one along the river and nothing had scared her animals since the train derailed two years ago and one of the cars exploded. That was on the other side of town, and hers weren't the only animals that panicked that day. 

But the next morning produced one less Black Angus calf in Janice Berks' herd.  It was unusual for a calf that young and small to stray, she thought, it can't be far away.  When she attempted to search for it, Skippy, her faithful horse of ten years, refused to leave the stable and was uncharacteristically skittish.  Later, on foot, she found a small trail of blood that led to an abandoned building on the far side of the river.  It once belonged to the local blacksmith, back when a blacksmith could make a living, that is.  Fortunately for the authorities tasked with entering this building, it was found to be quite empty.  The skull of the calf had been wedged deeply into a gap in the rotting wooden floor.  None of the men could pry it loose.

The ensuing consternation on behalf of the townspeople influenced the sheriff to narrow the focus of their search.  He was up for reelection next year, and lacking other viable suspects, old Spook was a likely candidate.  It had to be him, no one else had that kind of strength and no one else was that crazy.  He was guilty, ipso facto, and the sheriff planned to save the county the cost of a trial.  Perhaps the voters would remember that next fall.

They closed hunting season early that year and combed the foothills and mountains for miles around but they did not look in or near town and they never found old Spook. 

After three weeks of intensive searching, most people had reached the same conclusion.  Old Spook was gone, predictably' he had vanished.  How else did he earn the name Spook?  The search was declared over and finished.  Most of the town people had already begun preparations for Thanksgiving dinner, a happy time of year, and they didn't need the morbid distraction.

The first dusting of snow came in late November that year, but it wasn't enough to stay on the ground all day, much less get the plows fired up.  Old man Three Bears had not slept well that night.  Sudden changes in the weather always bothered his knee and he had given up on getting any more rest.  At dawn, he rose and yanked open the window in his second floor bedroom to breathe the fresh, crisp autumn air and survey his slowly decaying farm.  He immediately recognized the huge tracks in the fresh snow near the barn.