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Cause of Death

By Richard Willis

Well now, mister, if you’re looking for a cup of coffee, you just walk on down the street here to where you see that sign for Meredith’s Drugs. They generally have what you’d call fair coffee in there. I wouldn’t trust that greasy spoon across the street, though. Pretty much of a ptomaine tavern, if you ask me. The Greyhound bus stops down there at Meredith’s Drugs, too, so if you’re waiting for the bus to Chicago, that’ll be convenient for you. Let’s see, it’s just past noon now. That bus won’t be along for about two hours, I’d say. It’s due in at 2:05, but it could be anywhere up to an hour behind time.

Now, I’ll tell you what. If you want a really good cup of coffee, you just take a seat in that lawn chair over there, and I’ll get some for the two of us. No bother at all. How can that be any bother? All I have to do is wave to my son, Rufus, there in the front window of the house. He knows that’s my signal for coffee. Only instead of one finger, I’ll hold up two, simple as that. He’ll make it up, and bring it out here to us. No bother in that now, is there? You’re going to have to make some allowance for Rufus, though. He’s not what you’d call just right. Oh, he’s harmless. He just ain’t good for much.

Well, now that you ask about my business, I ran the funeral home here, until I got to feeling I was a little too old to work – I’m damn near ninety right now - and I just up and quit. That’s what this great big house was all about. Have you ever noticed how some of the best looking old houses in these little towns get turned into funeral homes? Ain’t this one a dandy? Oh, I was coroner here for quite a while, too, before they changed the law so you have to be a doctor now to do that kind of work.

Oh my, yes. I may not have been the last person they wanted to see, but I was sure as hell the last one who saw them! Yes, indeed. I stuffed them all in the ground, and they didn’t have a word to say about it, either. I generally had them fixed up so that they looked nice enough. Some of them better than they’d looked for years, I can tell you that much.

Walters, you say your name is? Well, Mr. Walters, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. My name happens to be Huff, but most people just call me Dad. Anybody in town will tell you where you can find Dad Huff, right here in the old funeral home at the top of the hill. I did business more than fifty years in this town. That’s right!

They used to call this place Pin Hook, you know, because of the wood pins they made here. That was about the only thing they made here in those days, and it’s a lot more than they make here now, when you get right down to it. Used those wood pins in barns. Pounded them into the beams to hang harness on. But then, somebody came through here, about a hundred years back, and set up a college, and folks decided that Pin Hook wasn’t much of a name for a town with a college in it, so they chewed it all over, and they come up with Mount Vernon. For the dignity of the thing, you know, the same name as the home of General George Washington, and all. Plus it’s on account of this hill you sitting on right now. Now, you take a name like Mount Vernon. Just look at all there is in it. You’ve got your green trees, and you’ve got your hill, and along with that you’ve got your explanation for the name of the town. And you know, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, they think that’s just what’s called for, having to explain the name of a town because it’s got a college in it. You couldn’t ask to have it better than that, and they’ll tell you so, too.

Yeah, now I spend my time sitting up here alongside of the Lincoln Highway, which is what they used to call Number 30 down there. It’s no more than a brick-paved street through this little town now, but it was the first cross-country road in the US of A, running all the way from New York to California, 3,000 miles or better. Not doing much of anything these days, I’m here, looking down at old Number 30, watching the world go by. The thing is, though, nobody hardly ever stops. Only once in a great while somebody like yourself may sit down here, and pass the time of day with me, but that’s about it, anymore. As far as the people who live here are concerned, you can believe me, I see them all come and go. Or, at least, I see them go. Most all of them were people I’d known, with now and then a stranger thrown in to make it more interesting.

I had a fella in here some years back when I was still in business. He was a stranger. They’d found him laying dead alongside the Northwestern tracks about a quarter of a mile west of town. Nobody knew who he was. Didn’t have a scrap of identification about him. No marks on his body to show how he’d died. And you know, the thing dragged on and on. We couldn’t find out anything to explain him, and nobody had any idea about who was going to pay for having him buried. Finally I ran an ad in the Chicago papers, and it wasn’t long before a woman showed up here, said she’d read the ad, and wanted to have a look at him. Thought he might be her husband. Nice looking lady, too. Dressed to kill, you might say, except that would be misleading. There never was any kind of hint that she might have had him done away with. And she no sooner got one look at that corpse than she said, “That’s my husband. No mistake about it,” and she was dead set (if you’ll pardon that expression) on getting him buried right.

Well, she’d identified him, and we were standing there in the cold room talking about final arrangements, and all of a sudden this guy’s jaw dropped open. Rigor mortis had worn off long before, and when his mouth opened, you could see he had some gold teeth. My, but that lady was upset. She had a regular conniption fit right there in the cold room. She turns on me like it was my doing, and she yells, “Why, that’s not my husband! My husband didn’t have a gold tooth in his head!” And she storms out, screaming about how she’s going to sue me, and the town, and the county, too, for good measure. Well, there certainly wasn’t much I could do about it, but I did resent it a little bit, considering all the trouble I’d been through. I walked over to where he was laying on the slab, clopped him under the chin, and I told him, “You damned fool, if you’d kept your mouth shut, you’d have had a decent burial!” Have you ever noticed how there’s a kind of people talk too much, you know, when they don’t really have anything to say at all? But I guess that foxy lady must have got over it. We never heard any more from her.

Rufus, put that coffee down on the table there, and don’t you bother this gentleman. Him and me are having a little talk here. Just go along back inside the house and smoke a cigarette or the like. And don’t you make me have to fuss at you about it, either!

Old Rufus is all right, but he can be a damned nuisance, you know. If he didn’t live here, it’d be easy for me to forget we’re related at all. When I die, I don’t know what’s going to become of him. By that time, it probably won’t matter to him anyway. I don’t think he knows too much about what’s going on, as it is.

Yeah, you’d have to live around here to believe all that goes on in this quiet countryside. ‘Way back when Hector was a pup, and I was just starting out in business, I had a place over east of Iowa City, a little bit of a dump they call Cedar Grove. It’s right beside a big swamp, place name of Swisher Lake. There’s acres and acres of soggy ground there, with this lake in the middle, most of it too marshy to farm, overgrown with cattails and blackberry vines and a little scrub timber. Hell wouldn’t have it, you know. Oh, it’s a bad stretch, not the least doubt about that. Most of it so wet you couldn’t get through there riding on a goose, and there was no way you could fence it, so back then people farming around that part of the country pretty much let their hogs and cattle run wild in there. They’d have a general idea of which belonged to who, and they’d grab off one of them to butcher, or round up a few to send off to market when they had to, but it was all on an informal, catch-as-catch-can kind of arrangement.

About that same time, we had a tough kind of a timber rat, a no-good named Jake Fowler, living back in the brush there, only coming out now and then to steal something, grab a hog or a few chickens from some farm or other. Or, if he was feeling real mean, and wanted some cash money, he’d walk into a farm, one that was more off by itself than the others, and he’d bully those people until they paid him off to make him go away. Now and then somebody new would get the notion they weren’t going to be pushed around, but it never turned out to be a very good idea. Next thing you knew, that farmer was going to find one of his calves hanging over a stump with its throat slashed. And that would keep up until he didn’t have any calves left. Or his chickens would begin to disappear, a dozen or so at a time, or even a barn would burn down in the middle of the night. It wasn’t any use calling the law, either. There never was a sheriff around who would go back into the brush looking for Fowler. I think they were mostly scared of him, but they all claimed that there wasn’t any proof it that Fowler was doing it, whatever it was, at the time.

The worst was what happened to a couple named Jenkins. They’d moved into the neighborhood from out west of the Missouri River, Jenkins and his wife. Let me tell you, she was a good-looking woman. Jake Fowler must have thought so too, because one night he showed up, and knocked Jenkins over the head and tied him to a chair while he was unconscious. Mrs. Jenkins was too scared to do anything in the way of putting up a fight. Fowler waited until Jenkins came to, and then he slapped the woman around pretty hard, just for the fun of it, and he pulled her clothes off of her, and raped her right there where Jenkins could get a clear view of what was going on. And he didn’t stop with just one round, either. He kept at it off and on all night long, having a few drinks and roughing up that man and his wife in between sessions, and then just about daylight he lit out of there saying he’d come back and kill them both in a fancy way, and take his time about the way he did it, too, if they so much as breathed a word to anybody about what had happened. Well, both the Jenkins’s were in bad shape from what Fowler had done to them, and too scared to go to the law for help, which didn’t matter a lot because no law was going to help them anyway, but somehow the word leaked out, and pretty soon everybody in the county knew all about it. Still, nobody lifted a finger to do anything.

It might have been as much as a year later, a couple of kids were out hunting around Swisher Lake, when they came across a body hanging from a branch of a big cottonwood tree. The sheriff wasn’t the least bit interested, wouldn’t so much as turn his hand to see what was going on, but I was the coroner, and they called me to look into it. And I went, even though I wasn’t any too keen on the idea myself.

The boys who discovered the corpse, they led me out to the tree where this thing was hanging. It was the body of a man with an old feed sack pulled over his face. He was wearing an Army-style raincoat, all buttoned up the front, except his arms weren’t in the sleeves. They were inside the coat, you see, and when I got the coat and the sack off of him, here he was tied up tight, arms behind his back, and his feet and legs tied together. Of course, it was Jake Fowler. He’d been hanging for God knows how long, and he wasn’t exactly pretty, turned black as the ace of spades, and blown up like a balloon, you know.

Now you might have thought that hanging him up by the neck would have done for him well enough. But his body was full of holes, too. Looked to me like they was from buckshot, the right pattern and size and all. No doubt about it, somebody had wanted him dead pretty bad, and they weren’t taking any chance that he might accidentally pull through.

Now, don’t forget, I had my coroner’s report to write. Him hanging from a tree limb looked at first like it was suicide, but there was the matter of his being buttoned up inside that raincoat with his arms and legs tied. I had the feeling it probably wasn’t going to pass as anything that simple and convenient. But while I was studying that corpse full of buckshot, it come to me I already had the answer, clean as a whistle. So I wrote up my report, and for cause of death, I put in just one single word: hemorrhage. Never heard any complaints about it, either.

Say, by gosh, there’s your bus to Chicago! Just about on time, too. There’s no need for you to rush. He’ll sit there at Meredith’s drugstore for another ten minutes, or so. OK, Mr. Walters, it’s been real nice talking to you. You take care of yourself now!