The dying light of the warm September sun glinted off the metal head of the scythe as James swung it across his body, clearing the last line of wheat in the field. He set the tool down and wiped his brow with a smile. Seeing the fruitful gains of the past months’ work, arduous though it was, always rejuvenated his spirits and brought him—he hoped—one step closer to inner peace. He piled the stalks onto the blanket and made his way back to the farmstead. It had been a long day and he felt it with every step of his dirt-covered boots and dust-caked overalls. Reaching the barn, he dropped the blanket with a thud and took a moment to catch his breath and enjoy the sounds ushering in nightfall—chirping crickets, owls hooting off in the distance. It brought him back to watching the girls stumble around the yard trying to catch lightning bugs while Elizabeth would curse at them for getting their dresses dirty. The remembrance was bittersweet. Suddenly, he was snatched from the memory by the sound of a footstep on the freshly cut stems behind him. Without hesitation, he turned to confront whatever made the sound. He held his breath as his eyes darted back and forth across the field. A minute passed...two...he stood deathly still and listenened...waited. Nothing stirred. Damned rabbits, he thought and relaxed. Even after all this time and all those miles trekked, he never could shake the feeling that the horrors he tried to escape followed him here.
Pushing out those thoughts and focusing on the idea of rabbit stew, James went back to collect the scythe. Approaching the tool, he noticed a small object draped across the blade. It was a white piece of cloth frayed at the edges and stained with crimson. A sense of panic flooded his being. He scanned the tree-line, but night had fallen and the moonlight barely broke through the first few rows making it impossible to see any further. “Who’s there.” He called out. “Show yerself!” A gust of wind was the only response. “This is my property. You come on it ‘gain, I’ll shoot you dead.” Nothing stirred. With heart pounding in his chest, he bent down and picked up the cloth, shoved it in his pocket, and grabbed the scythe, never taking his eyes off the trees. After what seemed like an eternity, he slowly backed up towards the farmstead, only turning when he was halfway to the barn, and even then kept glancing over his shoulder. He planned on threshing the wheat berries that night, but decided against it after getting spooked. Instead, he locked up the barn and made his way to the house, bringing with him the scythe. After a supper of pea soup and cutlets—that were hardly touched—he lit a candle, plunked down in a chair facing the front door with his ’73 Winchester Repeater laid across his lap, and twirled the cloth he found earlier in his fingers. There he kept watch until his eyes betrayed him and fell into a restless sleep.
When he opened his eyes he was standing over a bed looking down at the two little figures lying in it. They were dressed in matching white cotton nightgowns with ruffles across the neckline, their arms at their sides, and hands folded over their chest. They were beautiful; like a painting of angels in peaceful slumber. He wished nothing more than to hold them in his arms, hug them tight, and tell them how much he loved them. Before he could do anything, though, a pool of crimson appeared behind their heads and spread until the sheets and nightgowns were painted the color. The air became thick and warm accompanied by the sharp smell of rotten eggs causing James to cough. He looked on helplessly as the girls—like marionettes being pulled by unseen strings—slowly sat up in their bed and turned towards him. Their eyes shot open and fixated on him with a cold stare that turned the blood in his veins to ice water. Their gaze moved down to his hand where he found an ax coated in gore. He looked back to the girls and watched in horror as a small cut appeared on both their faces. It began at the hairline, slithered down the forehead, over the nose, and ended just below the bottom lip. The cut unfurled into a large gash that parted like the red sea, revealing a vast network of cartilage, sinews, muscles, and slivers of white skull. Blood poured from the wound just as the girls’ mouths dropped open filling the room with shrieks of terror.
James snapped awake nearly falling out of his chair. He gasped for breath as he regained his composure—the screams still ringing in his ears. It was the same nightmare that plagued his sleep ever since the day he returned home from a business trip to find his family slaughtered in their beds. After seeing the carnage, he collapsed onto the floor and was beside himself with grief. It had taken him hours before he could muster enough strength to rise to his feet and inform the neighbors to send for help. The authorities quickly put together an investigation that discovered little evidence, no witnesses, and no murder weapon that they concluded to be a workman’s ax. Some theories ranged from a man in town who courted Elizabeth before her marriage—a jilted lover’s revenge—to a deranged vagabond traveling on the rail. The former was accounted for by his family and townsfolk on the night in question while the latter was considered preposterous. That left James himself as the primary suspect. Fear and panic grew within the community. With each passing day that authorities were unable to apprehend the killer, pressure came to close the case as quickly as possible. They arrested and charged James, but were unable to convict him with only circumstantial evidence brought forth and witness testimonies that put him in Richmond at the time of the murders.
This did little in the way of quelling the suspicions and accusations that surrounded him. He was fired from his job and not a soul in town would give him work or help to compensate his living. He tried to sell the house to no avail, and hardly slept inside, choosing instead to camp in the yard where his girls used to play. Despite having been acquitted of the crime and perhaps on account of the constant guilt that was thrown his way since the murders, James blamed himself for their deaths. He wasn’t the one who broke the lock that night, entered the house, crept up the stairs, and buried the ax into the faces of his wife and daughters. He wasn't the sadist who entered the kitchen after the murders and fixed himself a meal of bacon and a glass of milk, as the authorities claimed. However, the failure to protect his family haunted his conscience resulting in two unsuccessful attempts at the rope. With even death not seeming to be the way out, he left town and headed west for Iowa where his father had homesteaded before the war and where he hoped to spend the rest of his days in solitude and repentance...
...It was still night. The candle had melted down to its base and burnt out. A cold breeze hit his face bringing with it a terrible odor that he recalled immediately. Rotten eggs. His heart skipped a beat as he looked towards the front of the house where a square patch of moonlight had crept in.
The door was open.
He glanced around the room. No one. His eyes landed on the place where he’d left the scythe. It was gone. A sense of dread washed over James. Clutching the rifle with a death grip, he slowly raised himself out of the chair and moved towards the door making as little sound as possible. His heart was racing as he stepped outside into the night. All was calm. Nothing stirred.
Odd, he thought, not a star in the sky...
The blade struck him above the clavicle and buried itself deep within his ribcage. He didn’t scream. He didn’t cry out for help. A broken sigh was all that escaped his lips as he let go of the gun and crumpled to the ground. The blade was removed causing warm blood to pour from his open neck. With each beat of his heart, pain pumped to every corner of his body, but dulled away when he began to slip under. The pain was soon replaced with relief as his eyelids fluttered, flashing images of his wife and daughters smiling down at him—beckoning him to join them. A faint smile crossed his face. He felt weightless as if the guilt he had borne for so many years had now been lifted off his shoulders. He was finally at peace.
Folks around the area knew little about the man who kept to himself on the outskirts of town with the nearest neighbor being five miles away. A full week passed before the body was discovered. A local pastor went to check on James after he had failed to show up to Sunday worship, which was peculiar seeing that he hadn’t missed a single service in the years since his arrival. Approaching the house, the pastor heard a buzzing and noted a strange odor in the air that grew stronger as he neared the front door. He noticed a large gray stain outside the entrance with an abundance of flies circling above and withdrew back into town to get the sheriff. A posse was rounded up and returned to the farmstead. They entered the house, handkerchiefs held to their face to combat the unbearable stench, and found James posed on the floor with arms at his side, hands folded over his chest, and—oddly—two white pieces of cloth draped over his eyes. They searched the property but found neither the killer nor the weapon that was used. However, some disturbing elements of the investigation were noted; a meal on the table, the condition of the bed, and the warmth of the fireplace, all suggested that whoever killed him had remained in the house with the body for days after the act. Many suspects were brought in for questioning, but no one was ever charged.