A killer is on the loose in this small, rural community.

On Friday, a final attempt to indict him failed. A special grand jury, which called some of the townspeople two and three times, adjourned without handing down any indictments.

"I think it stinks," said Harold Hoyt, one of the victim's brothers-in-law. But, except for the relatives, nobody seems to care.

There weren't too many people in the tiny farm town of Skidmore who weren't afraid of Ken Rex McElroy. He'd been accused of shooting a farmer for no good reason. He'd shot the town grocer, and the week after he'd been found guilty he was out on bond and back in town with a carbine with a bayonet on the end, threatening to finish the job.

The town marshal had resigned on account of him. The Christian minister, threatened, had taken to carrying a pistol, and never, in his house, kept his gun more than six steps away.

People asked for help from the law, but the law just didn't seem to have much effect on McElroy. "Just keep an eye on him," the county sheriff had advised not too long ago, when things were at their worst.

Then, during the summer, something odd happened. McElroy drove into town, and walked into a bar. Instead of the usual reaction, patrons filing out quietly, he was suddenly surrounded by townspeople. They were laughing, buying each other drinks, slapping each other on the back, and ignoring McElroy.call the sheriff?' Next thing I know I was looking down the barrel of a double-barreled shotgun." Bowencamp was shot, but not killed.

The case went to trial, but not until a year later. It was delayed, in one case, because one of McElroy's attorneys was serving in the state senate.

But even before Bowencamp had been released from the hospital or a trial date was set, more trouble began.

The minister of the Christian Church, Tim Warren, 27, whose first ministry was Skidmore, came home from a routine visit to Bowencamp to receive an anonymous telephone call that told him "not to go see old man Bowencamp." More calls followed.

"I went over to see Lois Bowencamp one afternoon, in a buddy's truck, and 10 minutes later I'd get a call saying, 'We know you went over there and we told you to stay away.' Or a man's voice, very soft, saying they were gonna take my wife, and rape her in front of me, and slice her to her neck."

Town Marshal David Dunbar, who was due to testify in McElroy's case, also found himself in trouble.

"It was during the Punkin Show," says Dunbar, 25, who had no background in police work and had only run for town marshal in a bet with a buddy for a case of beer. He'd heard, he says, one bunch of brothers was going to "whip up on" another.

"All of a sudden McElroy pulls a gun on me. He says, 'I believe in killing any sonofabitch that tries to put me in prison the rest of my life.' He held a gun on me 20 minutes. I believe he would have killed me, too, if not for there being so many people around."

Shortly after, Dunbar resigned. He had never been very happy about the fact that he'd had to buy his own gun for the job ("The town said, 'You buy the gun, we'll buy the ammunition.' ") He was also upset to see what little power he had. In case of serious trouble, he could only call the county sheriff's office, and the sheriff, he claims, in the case of Ken Rex McElroy, always got there very late. The town had a special meeting to elect a new marshal, but nobody wanted to run.

McElroy went to trial almost a year after shooting Bowencamp and, after a two-day trial, was found guilty. It was a conviction that stunned and enraged him.

"I've been fighting the law since I was 13, and I'm damn near 50," he was saying around town.

He did not go to jail. He had 45 days to appeal, and was out on $40,000 bond. He spent that time, Skidmore residents say, making threats. One day, when Pete Ward and his sons, Wesley and Wilson, and Gary Dowling were in the bar, McElroy walked into the D&G with a carbine with a bayonet attached.

"Everybody see this gun," he said, "I'm gonna shoot Bowencamp with this, then turn him over and stick this bayonet right through him."

Pete Ward, according to town legend, spoke up then.

"You better forget that, mister," he said, "You're gonna get in trouble if you try that again."

"Who the hell's side you on?" McElroy said.

"Not yours, that's for sure," Ward said.

With his sons and Dowling, Ward went to District Attorney David Baird and signed a complaint: McElroy had violated the terms of his bond, they said.

A hearing was set for the morning of July 10, in nearby Bethany County. In a show of solidarity--harassment against the Wards and Dowling had already begun--the farmers from around Skidmore planned to meet at the VFW Hall. But, as they were meeting, word came that that the hearing had been delayed. They would have to put up with McElroy for 10 more days.

No one knew quite what to do. They called for Sheriff Danny Estes, from the county seat in Maryville, 13 miles away. The sheriff, according to Romaine Henry, who attended the meeting, said there was little they could do, other than keep an eye on him.

If there was talk of blood, Henry insists, he did not hear it.

"It wasn't a bloodthirsty crowd," he says.

Then, with the meeting in progress, word came that McElroy was in town, at the D&G. "Let's keep an eye on him, like the sheriff said, somebody said, and let's harass him."

The meeting broke up. Some people went to the D&G. Romaine Henry got in his truck and left town.

"I wasn't that thirsty," he said, "And I had kind of a funny feeling inside."

A small crowd entered the D&G, where McElroy was with his wife. Trina McElroy says that, looking at the crowd, she knew something was up.

"I said, 'They musta had a meeting here,' " she says she told her husband. "We walked on out. There was people in the front staring at us, just starin' at us.

"That's when I seen him. He walked around and we got into the pickup and then he started shootin'. I turned around and they shot him in the back of the neck and in the head, and another shot went off, too. They told me they was gonna shoot me too. Then they took me to the bank where the women were, and I seen all them women lookin' out. I told them they didn't have to do him like that, and they told me they didn't have no choice, 'cause they couldn't do anything with him . . . . "

She claims no one would call an ambulance or the police, and that when her sister finally came up to get her, the roads were blocked. Her lawyer, Richard McFadin, repeats what he tells everyone: his client's constitutional rights were violated; a murder was committed; there has been "a breakdown of law and order."

But in Mom's Cafe and in the D&G, they see it differently. They talk about how peculiar it was that nobody did see that murder, out in the light of day, and laugh.

"Everybody's saying that when they heard the shots go off, they jumped under the pool table and didn't see a thing," says Red Smith, the bartender at the D&G. "Now the joke is that Skidmore has the biggest pool table in Nodaway County--40 people can get under it."

And even where there aren't jokes, say on Romaine Henry's farm, where they pride themselves on being Christians, there is, with the death of McElroy, a feeling that justice has been done.