The terror of Breakwater ended in May of 1893. Jep Cieley and Sheriff Flannerly arrested Jericho Riley, which surprised everyone. For three long years we were not allowed to play outside after dusk. We all knew the stories about Mr. Dark, so we had named him, and his skulking around Sweet Grass County at night, taking lives.
It started with a girl named Naomi Welling. A ranch hand found her on a riverbank, stripped and blue. Our parents had kept the most horrible details of the slaying from us, but we knew what the word murder meant. In school, at the beginning of each year, Mrs. Cranberry made us take turns reading the Ten Commandments. She once asked me to stand and read Commandment number six: thou shalt not kill. The archaic law was an easy enough concept to understand. Once a man decides to take the life from a creature, he can’t give it back. The process is irreversible. There is no restitution for such an act.
None of us knew Naomi Welling, so her murder felt removed. Mr. Dark existed as a chilling story, ripe for speculation. Most thought a drifter must have slain the girl. I suppose it’s difficult to accept that someone you know—perhaps even the man next door—could be capable of such an act. It’s easier to remove oneself from the evils that men are capable of. As it turned out, Mr. Dark was not a drifter.
A year passed before Mr. Dark struck again. A postman found Marcus Quigley, a 14-year-old, dead in the forest just outside of Missoula. He had been stabbed repeatedly with a short-bladed knife. His shirt had been torn off, and his skin had been slapped hundreds of times with an open palm. With Markus’s murder, the legend of Mr. Dark blazed afresh. Sheriff Flannerly reinstated the curfew; we could no longer play after sundown. With Markus’s murder, the drifter theory faded; Mr. Dark had to be one of our own.
Mr. Dark struck again and again over the three years leading up to May of 1893. He had killed three young men, six girls, and one elderly woman before Flannerly finally caught him. Mr. Dark turned out to be Jericho Riley, a 24-year-old redhead with perfect teeth and a clear complexion. Jericho lived in Breakwater. I didn’t know him personally, but my father had gone to school with Tim Riley, Jericho’s father. I sat up at the top of the stairs one night and overheard him talking to my mother about Jericho. My father said Jericho’s father grew up hard, always in trouble with the law. Tim had married young and abused his poor wife with brutal beatings and even more brutal words. My father knew about Tim’s son, Jericho, and had felt sympathy for the young man. “I knew he would go nowhere,” I heard my father say to my mother as I sat at the top of the stairs, “but I never imagined he could kill.”
I walked to school with Chad Philbin, one of my best friends. I asked him about the case; his father sat on the jury. Chad wanted the case to end so his father would stop snapping at him for little things and grounding him for being out at the creek after dusk. Chad told me that his father didn’t talk much about the case, but he could see the weight in his father’s eyes.
We all wondered if the jury would hang Jericho. To me, even at 11 years old, it seemed obvious; Jericho had killed at least three people. It seemed only fitting that he be punished in the same way he had tortured his victims. If I had been on that jury, I would have walked lockstep with the 11 others, because that is exactly what they determined. After 25 minutes of talking it over in a private room, Chad’s dad and the rest of the jurors decided that Jericho should die for what he had done. Only thing was, Jericho, mass murderer or not, grew up in Breakwater. When it came down to it, none of the adults could bare the thought of aiming a hunting rifle at the boy’s heart or putting a noose around his tallowy neck.Return to Table of Contents