Iowa Writes

PATRICIA BRYAN AND THOMAS WOLF
An excerpt from Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartland (nonfiction)


On the last day of his life, John Hossack rose before daybreak and woke his youngest son, Ivan. The boy pushed back his quilt and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Hossack urged him to hurry. He wanted Ivan to come with him to the coal bank, an exposed vein of soft coal located a few miles to the east of their family farm.


The two ate breakfast in the kitchen. When they finished, they put on heavy coats and went outside to get the wagon ready. It was just about 8 a.m.


No longer the robust young man he had been in 1867 when he purchased his farm in Warren County, Iowa, Hossack was now fifty-nine years old. He had his share of ailments—heart trouble, stomach problems, and what some called "nerves"—but he was a solid 160 pounds and physically fit for his age, still capable of handling livestock and working alongside his sons in the fields. Years of strenuous labor had claimed some of his stamina, but he had never stopped believing that hard work had its rewards. He raised corn, longhorn cattle, and red hogs, devoting most of his time and physical energy to the crops and animals. He kept a close eye on his fences, buildings, and tools, which required constant attention and frequent repair.

On the last day of his life, John Hossack rose before daybreak and woke his youngest son, Ivan. The boy pushed back his quilt and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Hossack urged him to hurry. He wanted Ivan to come with him to the coal bank, an exposed vein of soft coal located a few miles to the east of their family farm.


The two ate breakfast in the kitchen. When they finished, they put on heavy coats and went outside to get the wagon ready. It was just about 8 a.m.


No longer the robust young man he had been in 1867 when he purchased his farm in Warren County, Iowa, Hossack was now fifty-nine years old. He had his share of ailments—heart trouble, stomach problems, and what some called "nerves"—but he was a solid 160 pounds and physically fit for his age, still capable of handling livestock and working alongside his sons in the fields. Years of strenuous labor had claimed some of his stamina, but he had never stopped believing that hard work had its rewards. He raised corn, longhorn cattle, and red hogs, devoting most of his time and physical energy to the crops and animals. He kept a close eye on his fences, buildings, and tools, which required constant attention and frequent repair.


[. . .] It was Saturday, the first of December, just two days after Thanksgiving. That morning Hossack wasn't feeling well, and he feared a storm might be approaching. The weather had turned cold and gray, with the temperature hovering near freezing. It wouldn't be long before the full force of winter pressed down on the farm like a heavy weight. Already the day s had shortened to the point where most of the evening chores were done in the dark. The last of the leaves had blown off the trees, and the fields had long since turned brown. From a distance the barn and buildings and animals appeared ghostly in the gray-white light of early winter. Soon snow would come—a foot deep at first, then two feet and more—and the prairie winds would whip across the frozen land like a punishment. The cold and snow would last for months, keeping the family mostly inside, crowded around the coal stove in the sitting room.


Hossack looked up at the sky. He snapped the reins and the wagon rattled down the road.


[. . .] John Hossack had finished his supper, but he continued to sit at the kitchen table reading the newspapers he had picked up in Medora. When he heard Will [his oldest son] mention the woodpile, he asked whether the boys had put the ax away that afternoon when they finished chopping the wood. The air felt heavy to him, like a snowfall was possible that night, and he didn't want the ax covered up and difficult to find the next day.


Will stepped out on the porch and called to Ivan. "Pa thinks it will snow tonight. Get the ax at the woodpile and put it away."


After he finished in the privy, Ivan trudged across the yard to the woodpile. He put the ax away and carried Will's coat with him back to the house. With eight older siblings, Ivan was used to obeying orders.


[. . .] Eventually Hossack put down the paper and played a game with Ivan, waving a whip back and forth on the floor so that Ivan could jump over it. Hossack laughed and joked as he watched his son. Will and Jimmie joined in the game, and then the three boys moved to the sitting room, where the stove was burning, to throw a cushion back and forth. Their father followed them and took up his newspapers again.


Cassie and May helped their mother clean up, and then the three went to sit with the others. The girls worked on sewing projects while Margaret mended clothes. Later, May recalled that the evening had been "harmonious" and that her "father and mother were in unusual good spirits."


[. . .] Outside it was quiet and peaceful and the sky had cleared. The stars were out. The moon was nearly full, casting its light across the yard.


As was her habit before going to bed, May wound the clock. It was just after 9 p.m.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


PATRICIA BRYAN AND THOMAS WOLF

Patricia Bryan is a professor of law at the University of North Carolina. She is the author of Stories in Fiction and in Fact: Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers" and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack. Thomas Wolf received his MFA in creative writing from The Iowa Writers' Workshop; he is now a writing consultant for the Association of American Medical Colleges.


Established in 1969 and housed in the historic Kuhl House, the oldest house still standing in Iowa City, the University of Iowa Press publishes scholarly books and a wide variety of titles that will appeal to general readers. As the only university press in the state, it is dedicated to preserving the literature, history, culture, wildlife, and natural areas of the region.


(University of Iowa press link: http://www.uiowapress.org/)

University of Iowa Press

This page was first displayed
on January 26, 2009

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