THE SHARP EDGE OF A KNIFE
By D.N. Giles
A cool February breeze blew over the desert and swirled around me as my assailant slashed my scarf into strips with his knife. He tied each piece of cloth together end to end and then bound my hands behind me with the largest piece. He then shoved the remainder of it into my mouth and tied the ends around the back of my head.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “So sorry to do this to you.” Then, with a piece of fencing wire he found lying on the ground nearby, he bound my feet.
Most people would have panicked, sitting bound and gagged on a boulder in the middle of the desert as I was, but for some reason, I didn’t. A strange kind of reassurance washed over me from somewhere deep within. Whether it was peace that I’d go quickly, or comfort that I was being protected, I wasn’t sure.
“We hate to do this to you,” the man said. His voice dripped with guilt, and he would not look me in the eye. “I’m real sorry to do this to you.” I could see a portion of the car—light blue on the bottom, white on top—around one of the boulders near the entrance to the enclosure. The engine revved, making a loud growling sound that reverberated in my ears and made my heart wallop against my chest. My assailant glanced at me again, his expression a mixture of desperation and fear. Again he said, “I’m sorry. Really sorry.”
All the panic and dread I’d been holding inside me collided in that moment. I closed my eyes and waited for the end to come.
CHAPTER ONE: HITCHHIKERS
Friday, February 7, 1958
I locked the door behind me and hurried toward the driveway, trying to ignore the way my breath turned the air in front of my face white. Not a soul stirred in the entire neighborhood as I piled my supplies in the back seat and turned the car on, revved the engine, and then got out to scrape the ice off the windshield. But then, I would’ve been surprised if someone had been outside in our sleepy, mountain town at this hour of the morning. Especially given the current cold snap.
I glanced at the wristwatch given to me by my wife, Jeneal. The jewels in the face reflected the light from the front porch. A quarter to six was a bit earlier than usual, but leaving at this time would allow me a much needed stop to visit my folks in
after my meetings. I revved the engine again, hoping to speed the warm up along, and smiled to myself because it was Friday. No matter how much a man loves his job, he’s always happy when the weekend rolls around. Especially when there is good news to be celebrated. Joseph City
My family was about to grow again.
Jeneal insisted the baby would be a girl. When I asked her how she knew, a radiant smile bloomed across her lovely face as she spoke in a quiet voice. “I just know.” To which I replied, “I only hope he or she is born healthy.” But secretly, I held onto the hope that Jeneal was right. We already had three boys, and I had a soft spot for our two little girls. A third would round things out nicely.
Once the cold knocking of the engine calmed to a rumble, indicating that the car was sufficiently warm, I cranked the heater up to high. By then I was able to take off my gloves and shove them into the pocket of my coat, which I pulled off and tossed in the back seat.
With my foot pressed hard on the clutch, I fought the lever until it slid into gear with a loud clank, and—stopping for a second to glance back at the house where my family slept—headed for route 66, toward Holbrook, Arizona. My fingers grazed the radio knob instinctively, and I considered turning on some music to keep me company, but didn’t turn the dial. Instead, I took advantage of the morning quiet to think over the topics I’d be discussing in meetings with the Seminary teachers in the northern territory.
A few miles out of Flagstaff, two figures—shadowed in the early morning light—shuffled along the shoulder of the road ahead of me. I slowed the car, wondering if I might be of assistance. Surely no one in his right mind would chose to travel in the cold at this hour of the morning. I approached the men with caution, noting the billows of white fog issuing from their mouths as they breathed the cool air. Only one wore a topcoat, the other not even that much, and rubbed the sides of his shirtsleeves with his hands to warm himself as he walked. The young man in the coat must have seen me coming and, after breathing into his fists, stuck out his thumb.
Having worked with youth for many years, I took stock of the boys. They appeared to be clean-cut, perhaps students of the nearby Arizona State College, looking for a way to get home to visit family for the weekend. Knowing that the Lord would expect me to help, I decided to see if I might be of some assistance to them.
I tapped the brakes, pulling to a stop on the shoulder, and opened my window. “Hello there,” I said. “Where are you boys headed?”
,” replied a gravelly voice. The man who answered was of average height and build, with sandy hair, and a light beard broken by a jagged scar running from the corner of his eye and two inches down his left cheek. His clothing was reminiscent of a low budget, much like many of the students in my Institute classes—simple trousers the color of a rusted nail, stark white shirt, and olive drab topcoat. My brain made an easy connection, drawing a picture of him sitting in a room full of other students while I lectured about the doctrine of religion, though he wasn’t really a student of mine. Oklahoma
I winked, wondering how they intended to cover such a long distance on foot. “Heading home for a visit?”
The young man smiled and shrugged as if he’d been caught playing hooky from school.
“I’m going north to Holbrook,” I said, chuckling under my breath. “If you’d like a ride, I can take you that far.” The first man nodded at his friend, who stood behind and to the left of him, and walked around the front of the car to take the passenger seat.
“I’m Conrad,” he said. I accepted his outstretched hand, noticing a good deal of strength in his grip. The musky spice of cologne poured off of him, which, in my opinion, was applied much too liberally, another thing college age kids tended to do in my experience.
“Melvin Petersen,” I replied. “But please, call me Mel.”
Conrad’s friend hesitated, and then took the seat directly behind me, offering his hand to shake over the middle headrest. “Gayle,” he said.
Gayle had a much more youthful appearance than his travel companion. He might even have passed for a high school student, with just the slightest bit of fat in his cheeks and around his mouth, although his style of dress was more grown up than most teens. He was a little taller and heavier than Conrad, with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, and the thin, fuzzy beard of a youngster feeling proud of his newly discovered manhood. His hair—closer to blond than brown—was parted in a straight line on the right side, and combed carefully, held together with some type of styling grease. His wrinkled, blue striped shirt gave the appearance of having been slept in. His gray wool slacks were soiled at the cuffs—probably from walking in the mud and snow—and matched similar stains on his splattered black shoes.
Right away, a picture conjured in my head of a college student working diligently at a part-time job to pay his tuition and get the education that would help him forge a better future. I’d been there myself not so long ago.
“Chilly morning,” I said, easing the car onto the highway. “You boys must have some serious motivation to be walking in this icy wind.”
The one in front, Conrad, gave a curt nod, and I took the hint to move on to other subjects. “Do you boys have family in Oklahoma?”
“Yeah,” said Gayle, his voice thick with a southern accent. “Family.” Conrad stared at the redwoods buzzing by on either side of us and said nothing. “What about you?” Gayle continued. “You’re out mighty early. You got family in Holbrook?”
“No,” I answered, aiming my thumb over my shoulder toward the town behind us. “Not in Holbrook. We live in
. Although my folks live in Flagstaff , which isn’t far from Holbrook. I’m planning to stop and see them this afternoon.” Joseph City
.” In the rearview, I saw him turn to peer out the back window. “Nice, quiet place. You married? Leaving behind a wife?” Flagstaff
I nodded, a lock of dark hair falling over my eyes. “Yes, and our children as well. But I’ll be back tonight by dinner time.”
“Kids, you got yourself some kids?”
“Oh yes. We have five.”
“Five children?” Gayle’s blue eyes widened. “You have five children?”
“Yes sir, five children.” My chest swelled with pride. “Three boys and two girls, so far. Although, the scale will either even out or tip in a few months when my Jeneal gives birth to our sixth.”
“Six children.” Gayle shook his head, his eyes widening in amazement. “That’s…wow. That’s something else, all right. You must be proud.”
I smiled into the mirror at Gayle. “I sure am.”
He relaxed into the seat. “If your family lives back in
, what takes you to Holbrook?” Flagstaff
“Work,” I said, rubbing at my clean-shaven chin. “I have some meetings there.”
“What do you sell?”
“Oh no.” I waved a hand in the air. “No selling for me. I’d make a terrible salesman, I’m afraid. My job is far more enjoyable that that. I’m in charge of religious seminaries and institutes for my church. We work with the high school and college youth who wish to learn more about the teachings of our gospel. The instructors in Holbrook and I try to meet every other Friday morning.” I nodded at the stack of books and papers under my coat on the backseat next to Gayle.
“So…what?” Conrad spoke up, his finger absently stroking the scar on his cheek. “You’re like, a priest or something?”
“Actually,” I said, pushing the hair off my forehead. “I’m a professor of religion. I oversee the instruction of religious classes for the youth in the Northern Arizona region including Institute classes at the college.”
“Say what?” Gayle asked. He seemed genuinely confused, so I tried my explanation again.
“My church offers religion classes to our youth starting in the ninth grade and continuing all the way through college. It’s my job to coordinate those classes and make sure the instructors are following curriculum.”
“Lemme get this straight.” Gayle squirmed in his seat, his forehead scrunching as he frowned. “You leaders force kids to go to church every day? Instead of regular school?”
“Oh, no,” I said, holding back a chuckle. “No one is forced to take the classes and definitely not in place of regular schooling. We merely offer a choice for those who want to learn more about religion—in addition to their regular studies. Many great men have dedicated their entire lives to deciphering the scriptures, and we want to give our children the opportunity to discover for themselves what they believe.”
“Wait a minute,” said Conrad. He turned and peered at the papers stacked on the seat next to Gayle. My scriptures sat at the top of the pile. “Are you one of those Mormons?”
I nodded, preparing myself for the inevitable questions about polygamy. Fortunately, they didn’t come.
“Is it true that you folks don’t believe in the Bible? Didn’t a kid from
write your Bible?” Though Conrad hadn’t participated much in our conversation up to this point, he took the lead now. New York
“We absolutely believe in the Bible. But we also believe in another book of scripture called The Book of Mormon, which was translated—not written—by Joseph Smith.”
“That’s it,” Conrad said, snapping his fingers. “That’s the one written by that conniving kid who wanted to start his own religion. I heard about him and how he stole some gold to print a new bible.”
“Joseph Smith was a prophet of God,” I said, feeling suddenly defensive. “And he was no thief.” I decided the gold plates had no place in this conversation, that topic would only confuse matters more. “He didn’t start his own church; he restored Jesus Christ’s church. The Book of Mormon is like the bible, only tells the stories of Christ’s visit to the Americas after His resurrection. It’s a wonderful, inspiring book.”
“Humph.” Conrad rolled his eyes. “You’ve been brainwashed, I tell you what. What I don’t understand is how you can actually believe the crazy stories your priests tell you.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“You don’t?” Gayle said.
“I don’t just believe it,” I said. “I know it. I know through prayer, faith, and personal experience that the Book of Mormon is scripture. When I read that book, I can’t deny that it is anything but absolute truth.
“It has led me through life. If my Heavenly Father wanted for me to be anywhere other than where I am, he would never have spent so much time leading me here. So, no, gentlemen, I don’t just believe I the Book of Mormon is truth, I know it.”
Neither of the young men had a response to my testimony. I decided they had heard enough of my religion for the duration of the ride.
The silence grew uncomfortable. Something at the back of my mind nagged, tugging at me like a puppet on a string whose puppeteer was trying desperately to pull me off the stage. Though I had learned to trust my instincts, it would have been rude to put the men out of my car and leave them stranded on the side of the highway after promising them a ride. I loosened my tie, suddenly aware of its tightness around my throat.
Conrad watched the horizon as though he were looking for something. With his arm slung across the back of the seat, he turned his head back and forth slowly, his eyes never leaving the rugged mountainous terrain and seeming to look far beyond—at everything and nothing. That look disturbed me.
The nagging at the back of my mind turned into a lump and fell into the pit of my stomach as I realized that something was not right about this pair. What was I doing, picking up strangers? In all our conversation, I knew nothing about the men riding with me, and my trepidation grew as I searched for something—anything—to say.
Finally I came up with, “Are you boys students of the Arizona State College?”
They answered in unison, “No.” “Yes.”
Conrad shot a hard look at Gayle. “No, we don’t go to your college there, but yes, we are students.”
Neither of them said anything more for quite some time, so I cleared my throat and tried again. “Tell me about your families. Are either of you married?”
Conrad’s dark eyes went cold and he turned them toward me as he held up his naked, calloused left hand. “Do you see a wedding ring here, Padre? Does it look like I’m married?”
Careful to keep my eyes on the highway I answered, “No sir.” I shook my head, attempting to chuckle, but it came out sounding more like a croak. “Don’t know how I didn’t see that. Though, these days not everyone can afford a—” I trailed off, not wanting to offend either of them. But I couldn’t sit in silence anymore, so I continued spouting useless chatter, occasionally receiving a noncommittal answer to go with the uncomfortable glares.
We passed through the towns of Winona and Two Guns with little conversation. I continued my attempt to make small talk, and Conrad and Gayle persisted in evading any questions, for the most part refusing to speak at all. As we passed the turnoff for Meteor Crater I asked the boys if either of them had ever seen it.
“No,” replied Gayle, apparently taking pity on me. “Can’t say I have. Bet it’d be interesting though.”
Conrad grunted and shook his head no. Swearing crudely, he said, “Padre, why would anyone care a wit about a giant hole in the ground? Government’s way of making more money off curious folks, that’s all.”
A knot formed in my throat and I struggled to swallow it down, determining to be rid of these two as soon as possible. I sighed in relief as we neared Winslow, thinking perhaps I could offer to buy the boys a meal and leave them to eat. Maybe I could ask them to find alternate transportation, since I had a meeting and really must be on my way.
The deafening silence grew inexorably the closer we came to town, seeming to suck the air out of the car. “Would you boys like to listen to a little music?” I asked. “I’m sure we could find something on the radio.”
“Uh, sh…sure,” Gayle stammered. “Music would be nice.”
Conrad continued to watch out the window, his square jaw set in a hard line. Every so often he would unconsciously reach up and stroke the scar on his face. My hand quivered as I reached for the knob. I couldn’t shake the awful dread telling me something wasn’t right. Before I could turn on the radio, a strong hand clasped my left shoulder and a sharp object stung the side of my throat. “Stop the car,” Gayle barked in my ear.
I kept driving. The steering wheel shook as I clutched it so tightly my knuckles turned white. Was that a knife? It couldn’t be. They hadn’t pulled a knife on me. If they were going to pull a knife on me they would have done it when I first picked them up. Wouldn’t they?
The hand gripping my shoulder clenched, holding me tighter against the back of the seat. “I said, pull over,” Gayle demanded. “I’ve used this knife before, and I will not hesitate to use it again.”
The knife poked my neck as I depressed the brake and eased the car to the shoulder, praying that I’d find a means of escape. Gayle climbed out of the backseat and back in again through the driver’s side door, sandwiching me between him and Conrad on the bench seat. He took the wheel and handed Conrad the knife. “Sorry, Mister,” Gayle said with a gruff voice. Then he put the car in gear and pulled onto the highway while Conrad took his turn holding the knife to my throat.
I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength to endure whatever my captors had in mind for me, and for the knowledge, words and actions that would bring me safely home to my family.
“We’re coming up on a town.” Conrad growled, his voice taking on a deep baritone. “We’re going to drive through, real calm—like everything’s all a-okay and nice and normal.” His eyes turned frosty and he removed the knife from my throat, drawing it level with my stomach and digging the tip of the blade into my side. “If you see anyone you know,” Conrad said pressing the blade against my abdomen, “act like there is nothing wrong. You got that? Just smile and wave, and we’re going to drive right on by.”
Unable to speak over the lump in my throat, unable to breathe through the fear in my veins, I nodded.
“You got that?” Conrad said, shoving the knife at me more forcefully.
“Yes,” I croaked, fighting to keep my voice from shaking. Helpless, I watched the familiar sights and buildings hurry by. We continued through Winslow, and on toward
, where my parents lived. None of us spoke a word between Winslow and Joseph, and all during the time, Gayle carefully kept the speed just under the thirty-five mile an hour speed limit in town, and fifty on the highway. Joseph City
As we passed through
, my eyes ached for the sight of a familiar face, someone who would recognize me and realize that there was something very wrong going on inside my car. I scanned the streets, looking desperately at every face, and every person we passed, but there was no one I immediately recognized. Gayle drove right past my parents’ home, while I remained silent and powerless, a captive in my own car. A wave of longing rolled over me and—like a lost child—I nearly called out to my folks, wishing they would look outside and see my car passing by. Seeing their empty window, with the lace curtains unmoved, the realization hit that I was in definite and immediate danger for my well being, and even possibly my life. Joseph City
I felt no older than a five-year-old, aching for my parents because I was distressed, and truly, truly afraid. Not that I hadn’t been praying from the first moment I felt the prick of the knife on my throat; I surely had. But since I now saw no reason why I couldn’t close my eyes for a few seconds, I bowed my head and sent another plea to my Heavenly Father, begging for deliverance from my captors.