The talking stopped, and all heads turned down hill as the mysterious figure slowly emerged from the car. The scene was playing out like a movie, one slow moment after another. The story of Ken Rex McElroy was a movie without a resolution, and it still stirred up a lot of people and emotions around here, some predictable, some not. McElroy left many children, and some of them were extremely unhappy with the way their father was killed and the way he was portrayed in my book In Broad Daylight. Although, to be fair, I’ve not heard a hostile word from any of them. His many friends, a lot of whom rode with him on his twenty-year crime spree, have also largely kept silent over the years. The friends of Del Clement, the man who opened up on McElroy with a 30.30 a few feet from where we’re standing that July morning thirty years ago, were another matter. They’re none too happy about my description of him as a short, hot-tempered drunk in the book, or my blog in which I raise the possibility that Del was a coward for shooting McElroy in the back. There were a couple of semi-threatening e-mails a year back. His mother had suggested that maybe Del looked short to me because I was so tall, and urged that I just leave the story alone, now, after so long. She denied that her son was a drunk or had died from sclerosis of the liver.
I had several encounters with Del in my days in Skidmore. The first was at the Clement ranch a few miles outside of town. The Clements and their friends were cowboys; they wore cowboy hats, rode horses, and carried rifles in racks in the rear windows of their pick-ups. They also rodeoed. The Clements had constructed a professional ring on their ranch, with chutes for calves, steers and horses to shoot out of when the rope dropped.
In the summer of my second year in Skidmore, the Clements held a rodeo in their ring. Word of the event went out all over northwest Missouri, and cowboys and cowgirls from as far away as Kansas City came with their ropes and horses to compete for modest prizes.
A few days earlier, I had spotted a flier for the event in the Skidmore grocery store, still doggedly run by Lois Bowenkamp. I thought long and hard about going. I had no reason to think Del or his brother, Greg, sometimes mentioned as the second shooter, on a .22, would talk to me. In fact, I had reason to think that Del, at least, would be overtly hostile. He was hot tempered, a drinker, and there would be guns around. But I would have to confront him sooner or later. You can’t write a book about a killing and not at least try to interview the man widely believed to be the killer. If I called, he would certainly hang up on me. On the other hand, I didn’t relish showing up at his ranch, alone and uninvited. I had been to enough ranches and farmhouses in the area to know that the inhabitants generally spotted you long before your got to the door. The Clements had to know who I was and what I was doing. Maybe it was best to approach Del in a familiar setting with lots of people around.
I showed up for the rodeo, the grounds outside the house were filled with pick-ups and horse trailers. The rodeo was in full flourish: calves sprinted out of the chute, and cowboys on horses galloped after them, ropes spinning overhead. I leaned up against the fence with other spectators and watched. In not too long, Del rode out in a fury and spun his rope and it slipped off the calf’s head and dropped to the ground. He sat on his horse, and swore as he twirled up his rope. I watched him leave the ring, dismount his horse, and tie him to a post. I had practiced my approach: I was going to introduce myself, and say I was doing some research on the killing that occurred here a few years earlier. I wouldn’t mention McElroy’s name. Not that it would fool him.
I took a step in his direction, and then a cowboy appeared at his side, and then another, and they appeared to be reliving his failed attempt to rope the calf. He shook his head, tipped his white hat back, and wiped his forehead. (The hat, I noticed, gave him, at least four inches. I would never see him without it on.) I didn’t want to approach him in a group. I waited.
I was about to leave when Del separated himself from others and walked in the direction of a small barn about thirty yards away. I watched as he disappeared in the door. I began walking toward the building, reciting my opening line, sweating a little. I entered the door. Hay bales were stacked in one corner. Bridles items hung from a wall. Del was kneeling down, fooling with something on the floor. I said his name. He stood and turned in one motion. He looked at me. He was a good-looking man, with a steady, direct gaze. I introduced myself, and said I was a writer from Denver, Colorado, doing a little research into the killing in Skidmore.
“You need to get off the ranch,” he said, eyes hardening on me.
“I’m not really trying to solve the killing or figure out who the killer was. I’m trying to tell the story from the town’s perspective. I. . .”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” he interrupted. “If I was you, I’d get off the ranch, right now.”
I thought of trying another line, but his eyes and the rising color in his face persuaded me otherwise. It was a mistake, I saw, to come on his ranch. It was an invasion of his privacy. Things could go bad real quick.
“OK,” I said. “I’m leaving.” I backed up the few steps to the door, turned, and began walking across the property a hundred yards to where my car was parked. It was a damn long walk. I hadn’t seen a gun, he wasn’t drunk, as far as I could tell, yet he was clearly pissed. I was certainly an inviting target as I made my way through the rows of vehicles. Easy enough for a high-powered rifle. I kept walking. I reached my car; the handle was burning hot. I looked back; Del was nowhere to be seen.
The door opened the rest of the way and the figure stepped out. I thought I recognized the broad shoulders and heavy chest. The man had on a pair of aviator sunglasses, and his blonde hair was combed up and back. It was the man I had first met some twenty years ago, in the airport in Kansas City. Older and a little heavier, but the same man. He wore a goatee and gold chain. He had on white pants and a salmon-and-white shirt. He cut quite a figure. It was Ken McElroy’s lost son, Jeffrey.
I relaxed. The others standing at the rail did not. I had told them McElroy’s second-oldest son might be joining us for the commemoration of the killing, but I wasn’t sure they took me seriously, and if he did show up I think they were a little concerned about what he would be like. A lot of McElroys still lived in the area—both siblings and children—but most of them had steered a path far away from Skidmore after the killing. The youngest of the siblings, Tim, a gentle man and avid coon hunter like his brother, worked in a pizza parlor in a small town not far from Skidmore. Liked by most of the townspeople, he still lived in the house a couple of hundred yards down the road from the house where Ken and his women and children had lived. People passed him on the road from time to time. He ignored their waves at first, but in recent years, he had been lifting a hand from the steering wheel in return. He never came into Skidmore, or even drove through it, as far as the locals knew. It was Tim that an hysterical Trena, splattered in blood, had called from the bank the morning of the shooting; it was Tim that had come to the bank to get her and take her back to the McElroy home. It was Tim who had to tell Mabel, the elderly matriarch of the family, that her that her son, Ken, was dead.
“Hey, Jeffery,” I called out to the figure standing by the car door. He took a couple of steps toward me, and said my name. The passenger’s door opened, and out stepped a young black woman. As far as I knew, a black person had not lived in Skidmore for a long, long time. In my book, I had written of the lynching in 1930 of Ray Gunn, a black man, in Maryville, about fourteen miles away. Accused of raping a white woman, he was spread-eagled on a schoolhouse roof in Maryville and set on fire, while authorities looked the other way. I had spoken to several men who had witnessed the burning as a children at their father’s side.
So now, it was the son of Ken McElroy coming into town on the 30th day of his father’s murder, accompanied by a young, attractive black woman. It was hard to imagine a stranger scene.
Jeffrey took off his glasses. I was struck, as I was every time I saw him, by the cold glare of his eyes, and how smile or joke or laugh as he might, it never went away. When you talked with him, you were held in it, like a bug stuck to a board. For years I had heard from friends and foes of Ken McElroy alike about the look in his eyes; how he could scare you to death saying nothing at all. How he could clear out a pool hall in minutes with a glance. I had not seen it in his other children, but I saw it now. It was as close to Ken McElroy as I was ever going to get. The others, behind me, stirred and mumbled. They saw it, too. Jeffrey smiled, and we shook hands. He introduced me to his companion, and we walked over to meet the others.