July 30, 1988
The swaying of the small wooden boat rocked the dead man’s head back and forth on indifferent shoulders. His blue eyes bulged from their sockets in his mottled face. His thick tongue hung halfway out of his mouth.
“Turn this damn ride off!” Sheriff Cletus Butane shouted before spitting thick brown tobacco juice onto the dying grass.
A carnival worker scurried to the control panel of the Love Moat amusement ride and hit the off switch. With the power cut, the corpse stopped rocking. His ride was over.
Joni didn’t even think about what she was doing. The auto rewinder whizzed as she took picture after picture with her Nikon 35mm camera.
Sheriff Butane narrowed his eyes and glared at her. Joni ignored him. As the sole reporter and photographer for The Ogallala Gazette, Joni felt that she’d taken more than her share of photographs of prize pumpkins and toddler beauty-pageant winners. Now, at last, a news story.
“Joni, you do know I could confiscate that camera, don’t ya?”
This did get her attention. She jerked her head up and stared at the huge bulk of a sheriff. On this July morning in Ogallala, Missouri, the thermometer read 95 degrees with humidity to match. At nine in the morning, the sheriff was already drenched in sweat. Dark circles underneath the arms of his uniform gave testimony as to why Sheriff Butane spent most of his work day in his air-conditioned office.
“Freedom of the press, Sheriff,” Joni answered.
“Un, huh. We’ll just see about that, missy. Earl! Where the hell is the coroner?”
“On his way, Sheriff,” said the lone deputy, Earl Tatum. Everybody, except the sheriff, called him Tator because his head was shaped like, well, a potato.
A crowd began to gather around the carnival ride. Early morning fairgoers mingled with the carnival workers who huddled around their boss, Ben Boggs. He explained to the sheriff what he’d found this morning when he arrived at the Love Moat ride.
“I knew something was wrong, Sheriff, when I counted the boats and saw two were missing,” Boggs said. “I thought maybe one of my workers forgot them inside the ride, so I turned it on, and sure enough, here come the boats. But that came too,” he said, pointing at the corpse.
“I want to talk to the carny who closed down this ride last night.”
“That’d be José. Go get him,” Boggs barked.
One of the workers left the crowd and ran toward the lot full of old campers and Army surplus tents where the workers lived during the 10-day event.
The sheriff swiped the sweat from his face one more time before yelling, “Move the hell back, people. Mercy! I can’t breathe. Earl!”
“Right here, sheriff.”
“Get on the horn and find out where the coroner is.”
Joni continued to circle the boat where the dead man lay, snapping pictures. Bringing her camera down, she saw a multi-colored 2-foot long piece of thin nylon rope encircling the dead man’s neck. She stepped closer and took a picture of it. Then Joni stepped back and snapped a frontal picture of the corpse.
“You know Jerry won’t run that picture on the front page of the Gazette, don’t ya’, Joni?” the sheriff asked.
She looked up at the him. Son of a biscuit! Butane was right. Jerry wouldn’t.
“Un, huh. Just sinking in, is it?” the sheriff asked. “You may be the college graduate, but I’m the one who knows how things work in Ogallala.” He accentuated this last word with a splash of the tobacco juice near her tennis shoe. “So go on. Take all the pictures you want. I think that’s a fine idea. It saves me the money of having someone else do it. And then, after we get this John Doe on a stretcher and covered with a clean white sheet, I’ll stand next to him, and you can take my picture. ‘Cause that’s the one Jerry’s gonna print on the front page, and we both know it. Don’t we, Joni?”
“Sheriff, Doc Moreland just got here,” Tator yelled.
The crowd parted, and an ancient thin stooped man with glasses perched on his forehead ambled onto the scene. Behind him, two local ambulance volunteers pushed and pulled a stretcher through the same parting of the crowd.
“Sheriff,” the coroner said in greeting.
“Doc,” the sheriff answered. “Sure is nice of you to join us this morning. Damn sorry we had to interrupt your golf game.”
The coroner glowered at the sheriff before he growled, “I was making rounds at the hospital, Butane, and you know it. Well, what have we here?”
Joni watched as the deputy and the ambulance workers pulled the boat into the concrete docking area and lifted the corpse out. They laid him on the ground, and the coroner, on creaking arthritic knee, bent down to examine him. After donning white latex gloves, the coroner began his cursory inspection. The multicolored string Joni had noticed earlier was embedded deep into the skin of his neck.
The coroner gently unwrapped the cord from the man’s neck. A thin maroon-colored line marked its success.
“Well, shouldn’t be too difficult to determine the cause of death,” he said, looking up at the sheriff. “That only leaves the question of who this is and more importantly, why he died.”