The Hendersons gathered on the porch of their rented two story farmhouse on that hot, late summer afternoon as was their want. It was much cooler here than in the house, what with the slight breeze coming through the oaks and shake from the same. It was a habit passed down from many generations and a good one at that. It not only helped with the heat, but gave everyone a reason to get together and discuss the farm, work, pleasure or just the weather. Today they also shared a bushel of corn that needed shucking. A pile of discarded shucks lay between them on the floor of the porch waiting to be taken to the hog pen.
Jack, the youngest of the men, looked up from his ear of corn and noticed a movement down in the cow lane leading up to the barn from the back pasture.
"We expecting company?" he asked to no one in particular.
"Not that I know of," said Ben, Mary's husband.
"Well, I thought I saw old man Johnson coming across the pasture. Least it looked like him from here." Mr. Johnson was an older gentleman that lived on the farm that backed up to the Henderson's. He would drop by once in a while to visit or borrow some flour or sugar. Any excuse to have someone to talk to. His wife of 56 years had died last spring and he got awfully lonely by himself, with his two girls grown and gone.
The pasture was in full view as was the front and back of the barn, from where they were sitting. The cow lane was a fenced funnel, if you will, into which the cows were herded into the barn, twice a day for milking. Though, truth be known, they no longer had to physically herd the cows, they just wandered in at meal time by themselves. The most you had to do was whistle a couple of times and here they came.
If someone approached from the back pasture, they would naturally have to go through the barn to get to the house. And the only time they would be out of sight was during their passage through the barn.
"Well, wonder where he is?" Ben asked to no one in particular. Mr Johnson, if that was who it was, had entered the back of the barn, but had not emerged from the front. Since there were no doors on the other side he should have come out by now.
"Well, nothing to do but go see what happened" said Jack. "Hope he's okay. Hate to have something happen to him, he is getting old and he's not been himself since his wife passed.
"Well," said Ma Henderson, "you boys go fetch him on in. Supper's almost ready and we've plenty for one more." It was well known in the community that the Hendersons never turned away company from the table, no matter what was on the stove. And it was always something good. All the Henderson women were good cooks.
Jack and Ben sauntered, in no hurry, down the drive to the barn. They really weren't concerned about Mr. Johnson getting hurt. He probably just stopped to relieve himself out of sight of the house.
As they approached, Jack noticed that the barn sounded awefully quiet. Matter of fact, there seemed to be no sound coming from the baarn or the grounds surrounding it. The air seemed heavy, too. Like a storm was bearing down. He looked up, not a cloud in the sky.
But not a sound! The chickens were even quiet. No sound of the rooster raising a ruckus or even the hens singing. Strange.
Ben noticed all this as well. He really didn't like the barn, not since the experience he'd had last winter when he had come out to milk. ('Morning at the Barn') But Jack and the rest of the family knew nothing about that and he wasn't about to tell them now.
"Mr. Johnson?" Jack called as they entered the front of the barn."Mr. Johnson, can you hear us?"
They moved from the glaring light of the midafternoon sun into the dim, cool gloom of the hallway. You could smell the musky fragrance of the hay that lay on the hard clay floor, mixed with cow manure that, by spring, would yeild some great fertilizer for the garden and the flower beds.
They continued into down the hall, looking into each stall they passed, beginning to be concerned. After all, Mr. Johnson wasn't young and people did die from heart attacks and such.
They opened the tack room and Ben searched it. This was his favorite area, since it held all the hanes and harnesses used with the mule. Traces were hung on the wall along with girths and headstalls. The collars had their own section since they needed to be cleaned and oiled more often than the rest. The smell of leather permeated every inch of the room.
He looked under and behind everything in the room, but no old man.
"Jack, you see anything?"
"Nope, nothing. But I know I saw him come in here. And there wasn't anywhere for him to go without someone seeing him."
"Think maybe we should check the loft?" Ben asked.
"Might as well, though I doubt he would go up there. No reason to."
They scrambled up the ladder to the loft where they stored the winter's supply of hay. When the cold hit, the grass would die and the cows and mule had to have something to eat.
The two young men searched high and low. They left no bale of hay unturned, so to speak. But could find no sign that the old man had been there.
"Well," Jack said, "he ain't in the barn. Danged if I know where he went, but he's not here."
Last but not least, they went to the rear entrance to see if, maybe, he had fallen or something before he actually got into the barn. Here they found footprints in the soft manure leading in, but none going out!
They got back to the house just as Ma and the girls were setting supper on the table and advised them of their unsuccessful search. No one had any answers and, after much discussion around the table, the subject was dropped for talk of chores that must be done prior to winter coming on. The mystery was put aside. Untill the next day, when word came of the passing of Mr. Johnson. Seems he had died in his sleep the night before. Strange thing was, there was dried cow manure on his boots. That was strange, since it seems that he had been bedridden for nearly a week according to his niece who had come to stay for a few days. And she had cleaned his boots two days before.