Knot guilty

Caleb Goodman was half Oneida Nation and half White American. He was proud of his Iroquois heritage and treasured his Oneida name, Black Badger. He was a fit, fifty-year-old owner of the Courtland Lumber Yard when his life fell apart. Life had been good to him. He had worked for Dieter Marx at the lumber yard from the time he left school.  Dieter was good to him and when he lost his one hand in an accident at work, Dieter created the job of lumber manager for him. Caleb lost his hand when he was cutting some lumber on the circular saw. Dieter shouted something to him, distracted him and the next thing his hand was on the floor and there was blood everywhere. At the Courtland Hospital the bleeding was staunched, but there was no surgeon available to re-attach his hand.

Nobody in Courtland was surprised to find that when Dieter died, he had left his business to Caleb. It seemed a reasonable thing to do as he, Dieter, had no family, and he was the cause of Caleb’s lack of a hand. Caleb was thirty years old and unmarried at the time he inherited the business. He put all his effort into the business, and it flourished. It was only at weekends that Caleb relaxed and indulged in his favorite pastime, fishing. In summer he fished Oneida lake for his favorite fish, the walleye, and in winter he set up his ice shanty on the same lake as soon as the ice was safely thick enough and fished for walleye through a hole in the ice. He lived in a modest cottage on the shoreline of Lake Oneida.

Every weekday Caleb stopped for his breakfast at the Chevy Diner. Day in and day out he had his cup of joe and a donut with chocolate and sprinkles topping. He nursed his coffee until just before it was time to cross the street and open the lumber yard. One day Caleb was aware of a new face behind the counter at the diner. It belonged to a startling blonde in her early thirties. She was maximizing her assets, wearing a uniform at least two sizes too small for her. Caleb was so floored by the blonde beauty in front of him that he forgot to order his usual donut. Caleb took to getting up a quarter of an hour earlier in order to prolong his stop at the diner. After two months of gazing at Gracie, he summoned up his Iroquois bravery and asked her out. He was shocked when she accepted his proposal. That Saturday he took Gracie to the movies in Syracuse. The next week Caleb and Gracie went to the Turning Stone Casino where the pair gambled recklessly with Caleb’s money and amazingly ended the visit with winnings of ten thousand odd dollars. Caleb insisted on giving Gracie half the money.

Gracie came from a poor, drink bedeviled Syracuse family. One-handed Caleb was no prize suitor, but he had two assets that offset his age and one handedness: he was relatively wealthy and adored her. Previous romantic interludes had not gone well for her, so when Caleb proposed, she said yes. The couple honeymooned on The Thousand Islands and returned to a life, if not of bliss, at least of happy companionship. Gracie insisted that she continue working at the diner. Life for Caleb was good. A pretty wife at his side in church every Sunday, did a lot for his image in the town. Gracie had no complaints. Caleb’s demands in the matrimonial department were not great and she had a brand-new Chev Corvette to drive slowly down Courtland Main Street. Things would have been fine in the Goodman household if a new football coach had not been appointed at the Courtland High School.

Gene Cooper was thirty, tall and well built. He was single and soon became the target of the unattached young women in the town. Gene sampled the affections of a few young women until he went to the diner. Gracie squeezed into a waitress uniform, was irresistible to Gene. It was not long before Gracie and Gene were very firm friends. Their chances to express their friendship were limited so they were forced to get together about once a week after Gene was finished at school football practice and before Caleb got home from the lumber yard. Gene and Gracie’s expressions of friendship took place in Caleb and Gracie’s bed. Things went smoothly for several months into the winter until one day. It was snowing and cold and there were no customers in the lumber yard. Caleb closed his business early.

When Caleb turned off Lake Road into his driveway, he saw Gracie’s Corvette but did not see Gene’s truck parked round the corner in Lake Road. Caleb also did not notice the shoe tracks leading to his front door almost filled in with snow. Caleb walked into the house and heard laughter coming from the main bedroom. He burst into the room in time to see his wife and a stranger occupied in bedroom calisthenics. He said nothing but walked out of the room, put on his heavy coat, boots and gloves and walked down to the lake shore. He crossed the ice to his ice shanty where he lit the small wood stove and sat on a cement block and sank into deep thought. Hours later Caleb returned to the cottage. Gracie was sitting in the sitting room crying. She tried to apologize but Caleb ignored her and went to bed.

The following day Caleb went to work at the yard. He phoned a friend and managed to get Gene’s phone number. When Gene answered, Caleb, talking very calmly, told him that they needed to talk. He told Gene to join him on the following day, Sunday, at the ice shanty. He instructed Gene not to contact Gracie until they had sorted out the mess. Gene agreed. Caleb ignored Gracie when he went home and went out on the ice to his shanty. He lifted the wooden lid off the hole in the ice. It was a larger hole than most people made in the ice, almost eighteen inches across. He pulled in his two fishing lines and landed two good size walleyes which he dispatched with a wooden club. Back in the cottage, Caleb made himself a burger and went to bed in the spare room. He said nothing to Gracie.

On the Sunday Gene arrived at the Caleb’s ice shanty just after dark. Caleb waved him in and told him to sit on a cement block. Gene did so nervously. Caleb wasted no time in saying that he was prepared to let Gracie go if Gene promised to look after her. Gene laughed and told Caleb that Gracie was just a bit of fun and he would just move on to pastures new. A red mist descended over Caleb’s eyes. He picked up the fish stunning club and hit Gene on the side of his skull. Gene fell unconscious. Caleb sat for a few minutes and thought carefully. He took a piece of rope hanging from the wall of the shanty and tied one end to the cement block on which Gene had been sitting. The other end of the rope he tied round Gene’s chest. With some difficulty he forced the body in front of him down through the hole in the ice. He was about to drop the cement block into the hole in the ice when he remembered Gene’s car. He took the car keys from Gene’s jacket pocket and dropped the block into the hole in the ice.

Caleb baited two fishing lines and dropped them after the block. He found Gene’s car in Lake Road. He drove it quietly away to forest a few miles away. He locked it and threw the keys away into a snowbank. It took him nearly an hour to walk home where he found that Gracie had gone to bed and was sobbing quietly in their marital bed. Caleb ignored her. The following day, Monday, Caleb went to the lumber yard as usual.

Logan Stortlemeyer was sheriff of Courtland. He was well into his sixties, fat and slow moving. He had been sheriff for over thirty years and ran what he called a ‘clean’ town. He had realized long ago that he couldn’t stop all crime, so he took a liberal approach to minor crime but a different approach to serious crime. Minor infractions within the town’s limits were usually punished with unpleasant hours of community service picking up dog poop in the town’s park or along its streets. Serious crime was a different matter. When drug dealers from Syracuse tried to peddle their wares in the town, they were taken beyond the town limits and badly beaten by one or both of Stortlemeyer’s two deputies. Their broken bodies would then be deposited on the doorstep of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse. Few dealers came back.

Stortlemeyer got a call from the principal of the high school on the Monday. Gene Cooper had not reported for work. He was not at the room he rented. Stortlemeyer told the principal that he would make enquiries, but it was likely that a dalliance with one of Gene’s lady friends had gone into overtime. The Sheriff instigated a low-key investigation into the apparent disappearance of Mr. Cooper. It was only when Gene’s car was found that his disappearance was taken seriously. Stortlemeyer and his deputies interviewed every female friend of Gene’s and where appropriate, their husbands. The sheriff was surprised when Gracie turned out to be an associate of the football coach. He interviewed both Caleb and Gracie without getting any useful information. Gracie admitted to having an affair with Gene but said that it was long over. Caleb claimed to know about the affair but said he had forgiven Gracie and blamed himself for neglecting her.

 The search for Gene made no progress. It was only in late spring that Gene’s body or what remained of it was discovered. The ice on Oneida Lake had melted. A motorboat’s propeller had seized. Investigation showed a rope wrapped round the propeller. On one end of the rope were human remains and clothing. On the other end was a cement block. The remains were identified as Gene’s. Stortlemeyer had the rope and the cement block photographed and stored. He was inclined to suspect that Caleb was involved in Gene’s death but had no evidence other than the body was found in the lake not far from Caleb’s cottage. The cement block was indistinguishable from thousands of others available in several stores in town. There were no fingerprints in the car except Gene’s but people wore gloves in winter.

Several months passed and no clues as to who had dealt with Gene emerged. On impulse Stortlemeyer had another look at the Cooper file. He paused, looking at the photograph of the rope and the block. He noted for the first time that the knot that attached the rope to the cementblock was unusual. He went to his computer and looked up knots. It was not difficult to identify the knot as a bowline, a knot mainly used by the sailing fraternity. This discovery set Stortlemeyer off on a chase to find out how many of his suspects had sailing experience. This narrowed his pool of suspects to four including Caleb. He interviewed the four men again. Again, he made no progress. He put the Cooper file aside. Another winter came Oneida Lake froze again.

One dark winter evening the Sheriff was at the school hall watching a quiz competition between the Courtland School and a school from Rochester. A question came up,what knot used in sailing, can be easily tied with one hand? When the answer came up, bowline, the critical piece in the Cooper killing puzzle fell into place. Stortlemeyer drove straight to Caleb’s cottage. Gracie was there on her own. She told him that Caleb was in his ice shanty fishing. Stortlemeyer slipped his way across the ice to the wooden structure and noted that Caleb’s name was painted on the outside in three-inch letters as required in the Oneida Lake bylaws. He entered the shack. Caleb was sitting on a cement block. “I know you did it, Caleb, and I have the proof”, said the Sheriff.

“What proof?” said Caleb.

“The knot. You tied the rope to the cement block with a bowline!” said Stortlemeyer.

“Of course, I did. It’s the only knot I can tie with one hand” Caleb retorted.

“We have other evidence even if its circumstantial. I understand why you did it and it is not for me to judge you. I could also put pressure on Gracie to tell the truth, “the sheriff continued.

Caleb hung his head and said quietly. “She was my Gracie, and he took her from me just to use. I did what I had to do.”

“I know,” said Stortlemeyer gently. After a pause, he continued,  

“I am going to wait for you at the cottage, Caleb. I suggest you pull up your fishing lines and store your equipment. Don’t be too long”, said the Sheriff.

Caleb’s body was only found the next spring. Gracie sold the lumber yard and bought a house in the town. She carried on working at the diner. Stortlemeyer was having a double hamburger there one evening. He noted that Gracie still looked good in her tight waitress uniform and wondered if he should make a play for her. He decided against it as  he wasn’t prepared to take a chance on dying for her.