Folks in No Hope, Kansas, were clannish.
Like many small rural towns across America, everyone knew everyone else’s business. The population had been on a decline for years, and now, in 1933, there was only 1236 residents on the county books.
It was a tough year for everyone. For the second year in a row the U.S. mint didn’t bother making nickels because circulation was so low. Strangers were always passing through town. Most were on their way to California, hoping to get jobs there.
The town mayor, who had gout so bad he sat most of the time, was “Big Bob” Carmody. He knew everyone, and where their skeletons were hidden. He always made a point of having the sheriff urge people to move on when they passed through.
No Hope, unlike other towns, discouraged visitors. It made no attempt at beautification and never held celebrations, regardless of the time of year. There were no children. Most of the people there were “getting on” in age.
Big Bob and the local sheriff, Orville Landletter, were the youngest people in town. Both were in their early 30s. They were the sons of lifetime residents who could trace their family history back to the town’s founding in 1833.
The two men were like brothers, having grown up together in No Hope. Orville’s tall and willowy frame stood in stark contrast to Big Bob’s girth and height. Some folks in town kidded them and said they looked a lot like Laura and Hardy.
There was nothing funny about a recent development in town that shook everyone to the core today however.
Murder. Old man Swenson was found with his neck slashed from ear-to-ear, in a rocking chair in his apartment.
Orville, who never had to deal with anything nearly this bad in his life, stumbled around the apartment looking for clues after the body was taken away. He was having trouble pushing that picture of the terrible wound from his mind. It looked like a hideous mockery of a smile.
There was a well-attended town hall meeting that night. Big Bob did his best to ease people’s fears while Orville stood silently at his side trying to look positive. Not counting himself and Big Bob, that left 1234 suspects.
The meeting lasted long into the night. It was daylight by the time everyone left. Grumbling and afraid.
Two days later, Mary Jane Watkins and her husband James were discovered hanging from the bell tower of the church. Their chests were cut open and still sticky blood soaked their clothing, congealing on the floor below.
Folks pulled out their old revolvers and shotguns and took to carrying them around town after that. Sheriff Orville deputized a half-dozen men and tasked them with finding the killer…or killers.
Three days later when Orville went to the saloon to grab an early stiffening shot of whiskey for the day, he found Sam the bartender laid out on the bar. His eyes were missing and his head was barely connected to his neck!
After that Big Bob warned everyone to travel in pairs and avoid being alone until the killer was caught. County marshals offered their help in investigating the case, but Sheriff Orville politely declined. He could take care of it, but appreciated their offer.
Privately, Big Bob and Orville were baffled. The murders were random. No clues were left behind. No citizen was able to provide any help in solving the senseless slaughters. Doors that were already locked, got padlocks added to them.
For most of his life Benjamin Bottoms was ignored by children and adults. He was born “slow,” folks said to strangers when they asked why he stood there drooling outside the barber shop. Benny was never quite right. He was short, on the stout side, moody, but generally sociable.
Who knows what goes through the mind of a man like Benny? What motivates them? What causes them to act violently? Maybe it was the death of his mother six months ago by natural causes. He was left alone because his father died many years ago when he was younger.
Folks came by to see if he needed anything since her passing. Benny was always grateful, but become reclusive. The visits had slowed down to a stop last month.
A powerful underflow of anger was coursing through Benny’s veins, and the neurons in his brain. Who knows how many days it took before Benny started acting out violently or when he began going into murderous trances?
One thing was for sure; Benny became another person who could kill and then cover it up, before reverting back to his normally placid self.
The murders might have gone on for years, but for a lucky break one night.
While on patrol, Orville saw Benny in the back alley of the general store and called out to him. Benny ignored him, and went inside the back door of the store. Something connected in Orville’s head and he ran toward the open door.
When Orville burst inside he saw the store owner Grant Livingston struggling with Benny who had a hunting knife in his hand! It was apparent old man Livingston was going to lose that battle, and Mrs. Livingston was on the floor unconscious.
Orville pulled out his service revolver, the one that once belonged to his grandfather, and shot Benny in the back twice. Old man Livingston sunk to the floor. Benny turned around and looked at Orville with surprise in his eyes.
He took a step towards Orville, who fired again.
The next day the townsfolk got together and agreed to bury Benny by his parents, even though he was a murderer. He was, after all, one of their own.
As It Stands, call it a case of tribalism gone bad.