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Pontus, Missouri

Pontus, Missouri

Holly Harrison

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The diner was closed. The general store was open but empty. She tried the tavern—no luck, too early. There was little else to this little city. The church was, quite possibly, the most decrepit building she had ever seen, and the schoolhouse… Well.

She turned to look back at the car that delivered her. The driver still sat inside, leaning against the door, the top of his hat just out the window. He was reading. Some few strides back down Main Street would place her back in the vehicle, away from this.

She turned away from the temptation and saw something blow past. My God, she thought, was that a tumbleweed?

She turned away from the temptation and saw something blow past. My God, she thought, was that a tumbleweed?

Gazing—no, glaring—down the colorless, unmoving street, she almost lost her resolve. A house, then. She would try a house.

She click-clicked around the nearest corner—Main and Third Street—and onto the porch of the first house on her right. The shades were open, but the windows were too dirty to reveal much else of its interior. Knowing this was a good time for a deep breath, she took one. Three sharp knocks and some moments later, the front door opened.

Admittedly, she had hoped for no answer.

“Who’s that?” asked the man behind the door, his voice not as grizzled as his appearance. The parts of his face that were not obscured by shadow were hidden beneath gray hair and beard. She would not describe him as barbaric—it looked like he treated himself to a morning at the barber once or twice a year—but he was certainly unkempt.

The man stepped onto the porch, sniffing. “I said, who’s that?” He had reason to ask, judging by his milky, unmoving eyes.

“A reporter—”

“A woman!”

“A reporter,” she repeated, drawing herself up, “for the Kansas City Star. I’m interested in the unique history of Pontus, Missouri. For a story.”

“Bold,” he murmured, “for a woman to take this assignment.”

“It was self-assigned.” She gripped her pen and Steno Pad. They provided little reassurance.

“Mmm.” He considered her, if that was possible, before stepping backward and opening the door wider. “Come in, then. Your name?”

She looked from his face to the dingy house. She crossed the landing and replied, “Cagney.”

“Cagney…?”

Shortly, “Just Cagney.”

The man shut the door behind her, then stumped forward into the kitchen. “You like coffee, Cagney?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” She seated herself at the rickety table without invitation. The man opened the kitchen window, flooding the yellowed, peeling room with light. The sinks were empty, as were the countertops. An open cabinet against the wall housed a collection of miniature rocking horses in many colors and materials, all dusty. Cagney wondered, offhand, whether the lightbulb above her had burnt out years before. “I apologize for giving no notice. It’s just—I expected there to be people out and about.” He said nothing.

Flipping open her notepad and uncapping her pen, Cagney requested the old man’s name.

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He was busily adding sugar to his coffee, which surprised her, and a long moment passed before he responded. “Truman, though I would prefer if you didn’t cite me in this story of yours.”

She finished writing his name and answered, “Certainly.” She watched Truman stir his coffee with his index finger. He sat in the chair adjacent to her—it was the only other chair available—and took a drink. “Is it a fact, Mr. Truman, that no women live in Pontus?”

“Yes.” His face was turned toward her when he spoke, but she had trouble looking at it. Cagney waited, but Truman did not elaborate.

She drew a small circle on her Steno Pad and pressed, “Were there women here once?” She knew the answer, so when Truman responded in the affirmative, she wrote nothing. “How long ago?”

“Forty years,” said Truman, “fifty? A long time.”

“Did you reside in Pontus at the time they—” she searched for words, “—departed?” Truman nodded, furrowing his brow. “Any recollection of the month or season?”

“Early fall. September.” Cagney wrote this information down. “1907.”

“Did the women leave gradually, over a long period of time? All at once?”

“About a month.” Truman’s lips and nose disappeared behind the coffee cup again, then, “There weren’t many here to begin with.”

“And none of them have returned?” He shook his head. “No new families or single women have moved into town since?” He laughed.

“And none of them have returned?” He shook his head. “No new families or single women have moved into town since?” He laughed.

“What single man, protective husband, or sensible woman would choose to put down roots in a desperate place like this?” Truman smiled, perhaps bitterly. “Would you move here, Miss Cagney, to a dead town full of hairy-palmed men?”

Cagney finished transcribing his statement before replying, “You’ve made your point,” in a tone she hoped was light.

“I was going to be married that winter,” explained Truman. “Thisbe. A perfect name. She had hair like the sun—no, the sunset.” His lips twitched, and he fell silent.

Cagney prompted, “She left, too?”

“A day or two after her mother. A week before her sister.”

Cagney chewed her lip, wanting to get back to the point. “There have been rumors, of course, about the circumstances surrounding the women’s disappearance.” She waited for Truman to react, but he merely partook in more coffee. “If I shared some with you, would you confirm or refute them?”

“I know the rumors, Miss Cagney.” He set down his coffee cup a little too quickly. “Murders, curses—some of the theories propagated by the young men who grew up in this town wondering why their mothers really disappeared.” Truman hauled himself to his feet. She feared—or maybe hoped—for a moment that he was going to ask her to leave, but he instead refilled his coffee cup. “The possibility of mass murder has been investigated.” He sighed. “And we only wish it was a curse.”

Clouds were gathering outside, and Cagney was feeling nervous. “Could you shed any light on what it really was, then?”

“Generally,” Truman responded slowly, “we do not speak of it.” Cagney made a note about this. “But for a pretty young woman like yourself—” he smiled in her direction, and she did not wonder how those eyes learned her age or appearance, “—I can make an exception. I’m too old to be frightened, to be bitter.”

Cagney shifted in her seat, glancing at the window, then the door. “The women—” said Truman, “—ran away, you see.” He leaned against the counter, adding no sugar to his coffee this time. “So nobody would know.”

She readied herself for writing and for running. “If it hadn’t been…” he frowned deeply, face turned toward the window. “I would have been married a long time ago.”

“Sir,” said Cagney tentatively, “could you elaborate?”

Truman’s voice carried as he explained, “He came to town like a midwinter storm. He rode through the fields—so handsome and strong.” He paused for another sip of coffee. “His eyes was his tools, and his smile was his gun. But all he had come for was having some fun.”

Cagney sat forward, gripping her pen tightly. “Mr. Truman. Who?”

Truman turned toward her again, his face in shadow. “Cotton-Eye Joe.”

The Knight

The Knight