The Bones Under The Oak

Part I
Ann Cro

It was late November and Keith Highsmith was returning home for Thanksgiving. He had hoped to leave the college earlier in the week, but a late scheduled exam and a term paper due before the holiday had caused him to delay his departure until the last minute. Anxious to shorten the distance between the college in North Carolina and his home in east Tennessee, Keith had decided for a route through the mountains rather than the longer interstate route. His car, a second-hand Nissan that had endured rough handling and much neglect at Keith’s hands, was never completely reliable. And, unfortunately, on this particular day, it decided to avenge itself. The problem started as the car began the steep climb over the mountains. The engine began to overheat and eventually even Keith, who had the accelerator pushed to the floor and was singing lustily along with the CD player, could not help but notice the smoke creeping out from under the hood. He pulled off to the side of the road and sat still for a moment, wondering what to do. Reluctantly he got out from behind the steering wheel and went around to the front of the car. Pulling out a bandanna from his rear pocket, he carefully raised the hood and then stood back as the white steam escaped with a hiss into the cool mountain air. Keith was no mechanic and he gazed around him in dismay, hoping that someone would pass by and offer him a hand. But it was late in the day and the mountain road was deserted.

Little rustlings from the woods told him that he was not completely alone. He looked around nervously, but saw nothing. The trees with their dead dry leaves were still and there was an earth smell that spoke of the cycle of death and decay common to old forests. Keith pulled his jacket close around him and tried to decide what to do. He extracted his cell phone from his jacket pocket but, as he feared, there was no reception here in the mountains. He put the phone away again and looked around helplessly. A shadowy something moved across the road and Keith hastily returned to the car and slammed the door. He stared hard at the place where he had seen movement but whatever he had seen was gone now. He looked at his wrist watch—almost 3:30 p.m. and night came early in the mountains at this time of year. He wondered once again if anyone would pass by but, remembering how deserted the road had been when he travelled it, he realized that he could not rely on such a thing happening. No, he must leave the car and go for help. A little ways back he had passed a small house. He would walk there and hope that they had a telephone or that they could give him a lift into the nearest town where there was a mechanic.

Keith set off at a brisk pace, spurred on by the waning light and the myriad small sounds that spoke of a rich and varied animal life in the woods. The road climbed at a steep rate and Keith found himself breathing heavily and sweating in spite of the chilly mountain air. He slowed down and tried to set a steady pace that would allow him to cover distance without becoming too exhausted. He tried to recall the location of the house—surely no more than a mile or two away at most. He remembered at the time that he had thought the place very lonely, surrounded by the darkening woods. He picked up his pace again. The road seemed to climb endlessly and then, suddenly, it descended, turning back on itself like a snake. Keith trotted along, keeping a careful lookout on both sides of the road for the wild animals that he felt sure menaced him from behind every bush and tree.

He had just made it to the big curve in the road when he heard the sound of a powerful motor and, through the trees that partially hid the road above, he saw a pickup truck approaching at full speed. Hastily Keith jumped out from the side of the road, waving both arms and shouting. The truck took the curve much too fast, veering over the yellow line into the lane of on-coming traffic, then swerving back again into the other lane. It flashed past, honking, and the driver leaned out the window to gesture and shout something obscene. Keith, caught by surprise, leaped out of the road, landed badly and fell hard, his ankle twisted under him. Stunned, he scrambled to his feet, and then gave a small cry of pain as he tried to put his weight on his right foot. He leaned heavily against a small tree on the side of the road and wondered how he was ever going to find help now.

He sat down on a fallen tree trunk and looked about him for inspiration. A dry branch appeared solid enough to hold his weight and, with difficulty, he got to his feet, and using the branch as a makeshift crutch, he hobbled along in the increasing darkness. Night was descending rapidly and the forest was full of sounds which made him uneasy. Just when he thought that he must have passed the house, a small light on the side of the hill indicated some sort of dwelling place.

From the road, it was difficult to make out the house. It was perched on the hillside, almost entirely hidden by trees. There appeared to be no driveway or, if there was one, it was too dark for him to make it out. Instead, with a sense of renewed hope, he scrambled up the side of the hill, clutching at small trees and wiry vines to help him along.

The climb was by no means easy. The hill, which appeared to be a gentle slope from below, became increasingly steep as he climbed. Exhausted, with his foot throbbing, he leaned back against the trunk of an oak tree that seemed as if it had been there since the first settlers put down roots in these hills. He was dead tired and afraid of the dark and of the forest, but he could not go on without a short rest. Gingerly, he lowered himself to the ground, resting his back against the oak tree. He laid down the branch that served him as a crutch, and closed his eyes and slept. How long he slept, he didn’t know. When he opened his eyes, the darkness was complete. He pulled his jacket collar up around his ears and felt for his stick. His hand brushed something smooth and hard and, thinking that it was his stick, he picked it up. At that moment, the moon cast its pallid rays through the tree branches, and Keith discovered to his horror that he was holding a bone.

He swallowed hard and stared in horror at the smooth, white thing in his hand. Then he flung it away from him and vigorously wiped his hand on his jeans. For a moment, the thought that he was alone in the dark forest with a real bone in his hand was too terrible to contemplate. Then he took hold of himself. So it was a bone. It didn’t mean that it was a human bone. The forest was full of animals. Perhaps it was a deer bone. Yes, he decided, it must be a deer bone. A leg bone. Keith was no naturalist. The truth of the matter was that he had never even seen a deer except in the zoo and had no idea if the bone belonged to a deer or not. But anything was preferable to the thought that he might have stumbled on a human bone. He felt around for his stick. As luck would have it, the moon that had revealed the horror of the bone, was abruptly hidden by a ragged little wisp of a cloud, leaving Keith to search for his stick in the dark.

He felt around in an increasing panic, when his hand struck something hard and rounded. At first, he thought it was a stone but it was smoother than any stone that nature had ever made. Carefully, Keith loosened the thing from the leaves and roots that held it. As the moon rode out from behind the cloud, Keith saw that he was holding a human skull. It was not a complete skull—the front of the head was crushed to bits—but it was still a skull and no amount of rationalizing could change the fact that it was human. Keith felt cold all over although his hands were sweaty. With great care he laid down the skull and, retrieving his stick, revealed plainly now by the moonlight, he pulled himself to his feet with the help of the tree trunk. His resting place, he realized, was the final resting place of someone else. His stomach heaved as he thought of how he had slept there, unaware of the hideous thing that slept beside him. He tried to regain control of himself. Surely, he reasoned, even if it was a human skull, it might be the skull of an Indian or a settler who had died hundreds of years ago. But, how then, had it remained hidden for so long? It wasn’t buried or anything. It was just lying there in the leaves. Surely hunters or hikers would have stumbled on it before now? And what about the people in the house? He strained his neck to see the house. The light was no longer burning and the house was only a darker shape in the midst of the shadows. What about the people in the house? Did they know about the skull? Could it be that they were watching him from the darkened windows of the house, plotting to do away with him before he could inform the authorities of what he had found? And then, a horrible thought assailed him. What if the police thought that he was the murderer? He had read enough murder mysteries when he was supposed to be studying to know that the one who found the body was always the criminal. How could he prove that it wasn’t him?

By now, Keith had worked himself up into a real sweat. Then, suddenly, the darkness of the woods was pierced by two bright lights like the yellow eyes of a prehistoric monster. Keith let out a yell and tried to run, but his sprained ankle didn’t allow him to do more than hobble a little ways away from the oak tree and into the path of the “monster” that turned out to be an old Chevy. It came to an abrupt halt with a grinding screech of its brakes and an old man got out from behind the wheel.

“Who’s there?” he asked in a quivering voice.

Keith stood very still and tried to not even breath.

“It won’t do you no good to hide,” the old man said. “I see you there near the tree. You come out into the headlights. What have you been up to?”

Keith hesitated for a minute and then resigned himself to the inevitable. He hobbled out into the light.

The passenger side door of the car opened and an elderly woman stepped out. “Oh my, Fred. It’s just a boy. And he’s hurt.”

Fred was unimpressed. “Probably got hurt tryin’ to break into the house!” he snapped.

“Oh, no, sir,” Keith gasped, shocked at the turn events were taking. “I wasn’t trying to break in anywhere. My car broke down a mile or so back and I was coming here to see if I could use your phone.”

“Humph,” Fred said, but the woman was less suspicious.

“You poor boy,” she crooned. “We don’t have a phone, but you come in and I’ll make you some coffee and then we’ll see what we can do to help you.”

Keith wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to enter the house of these two possible murder suspects, but under the circumstances, what else could he do? The old woman, who was apparently much stronger than appearances would suggest, took his arm in a firm grip—a grip of iron, Keith thought to himself, wincing—and supported him up the steps to the porch. Fred followed muttering to himself.

“Dear, dear,” the old lady said. “The porch light has burned out.”

“Probably broken by this here youngster so that he could hide his self while he tried to break in,” Fred said stubbornly.

“But I didn’t!” Keith insisted.

“Now, now. Of course you didn’t,” the old woman said, soothingly. “Do you have your flashlight?” she asked Fred.

Grumbling, the old man produced the flashlight and the house key and in a moment Keith found himself in a small, neat living room with a sofa and two chairs and a fireplace. The woman helped Keith to sit in one of the chairs and went off to the kitchen to make coffee. The old man sat down in the other chair and watched Keith.

Keith squirmed in embarrassment. After several uncomfortable minutes, the old lady returned with hot coffee and a plate of cookies that she put down on the sofa table. Keith, who had planned not to eat in case the food should be poisoned, sniffed the fragrant cookies hungrily. He hadn’t eaten since lunch and had had a particularly demanding day, so he thought that it couldn’t do any harm to drink a half cup of coffee and perhaps eat just one cookie. But everything was so good that he ended by drinking two cups of coffee and finishing off the plate of cookies.

“These are the best cookies I’ve ever eaten,” he told the old woman truthfully.

She looked pleased and Fred snorted. He hadn’t got to eat a second cookie because Keith had eaten them all.

While he was eating, Keith introduced himself and told the old couple about how he was going home for Thanksgiving when his car broke down and he didn’t know if it could be fixed and could they, perhaps, take him into town to a mechanic.

The old woman, who introduced herself and her husband as Mr. and Mrs. Tolliver, shook her head gently. “But, my dear, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Nothing will be open.”

“But,” Keith stuttered, “my parents. They’ll be worried sick. I’ve got to let them know what has happened.”

“Well,” Mrs. Tolliver said, “Fred is a pretty fair mechanic. Tomorrow morning he’ll have a look at your car and then, if it can’t be fixed right away, he’ll take you over to the State Police station and they can contact your folks. For tonight you better stay with us.”

This was not exactly what Keith had hoped for but he could hardly protest considering that he was a uninvited guest. Mrs. Tolliver helped him upstairs to a little bedroom under the roof and went off to get him one of Mr. Tolliver’s night shirts. Swathed in the long flannel night shirt and tucked in under two wool blankets and a quilt, Keith fell asleep almost immediately. He woke sometime during the night to the sound of voices holding a whispered conversation in the hall outside his door.

The woman spoke first. “Whatever are you doing, Fred?”

The man replied. “I’m locking that young rapscallion in his room tonight! Anybody can see he’s up to no good! Why he might murder us in our bed.”

“You can’t do that,” the woman said. “He’ll be awfully suspicious if he finds out. It’s safe enough. He can barely walk.”

“I don’t trust him,” the old man said sullenly. “He could be shamming.”

“No, he really has a sprained ankle,” the old woman said. “I twisted it when I was taking his socks off and he yelled.”

“Humph. I thought that I heard a shout. That was mighty smart thinking, Martha.”

Keith could almost imagine Martha simpering. He pressed his ear to the door and tried to hear more, but the Tollivers had moved away. He stood still on his one good foot and tried to think. It was clear to Keith that the Tollivers were criminals and had probably murdered the skeleton in the woods and buried him. At all costs he must get out of the house. He looked around for his clothes but they were no where to be found. Martha must have taken them away. Well, he decided, there was nothing for it. He would have to go in his night shirt.

He eased open the door and peered out into the hall. There was a light under the door of the Tollivers’ bedroom and he could hear the murmur of voices within. It would be necessary to wait. He withdrew back into his own bedroom and softly closed the door. Time passed slowly and Keith grew impatient. Whatever could the Tollivers be doing? Why didn’t they go to sleep? Perhaps, he thought hopefully, they were watching television. If so, then the noise of the program would cover any small sounds he might make. Finally, unable to control his impatience, Keith decided to take a risk. He carefully opened the door and crept out into the hall. He glanced anxiously at the closed door at the end of the hall, then got down on all fours and crawled to the stairs. When he got to the top of the staircase, he sat down on his rump and descended the stairs the way little children do. At the foot of the stairs, he pulled himself up to his feet and looked around for a pair of shoes. He could hardly go barefoot through the woods. He found a pair of rubber fishing boots in the living room closet and was about to put them on when he heard a door open upstairs. In a panic, he flung himself into the closet, still clutching the boots, and pulled the door shut after him. He heard someone descend the stairs and go into the kitchen. There was the sound of a door opening and closing, then Fred’s heavy footsteps clumped back up the stairs. Keith breathed a sigh of relief and tried to open the closet door. But the door stuck fast. Panic stricken, Keith twisted and turned the knob and pushed against the door. Nothing happened. Then, in the silence of the night, Keith heard another sound that made his blood run cold. From the other side of the door came the sound of scratching.

“Oh, God!” thought Keith, “there’s someone out there.”

He stood perfectly still and waited, but the sound was not repeated. Keith decided it was safe to try once more to open the door. He twisted the knob again and gave it a mighty tug. The door flew open inward, hitting him in the stomach and knocking the wind out of him. He wasted no time in getting out of the closet, but he was not safe yet. His bare foot made contact with something large and soft that turned a malevolent yellow eye in his direction. Keith breathed a sigh of relief. It was only a cat—a very large cat it was true, but still only a cat.

“Nice pussy,” Keith whispered fatuously. The “nice pussy” opened his mouth and displayed a set of fangs that would have done credit to a young lion. Keith took a step backwards. The cat, sensing Keith’s fear, advanced purposefully, growling ferociously, and sank his teeth in Keith’s bare ankle. Keith let out a little yelp and threw the rubber boots at the cat who gave vent to an unearthly howl that sounded as if all the demons in hell were holding court in the Tollivers’ living room. Upstairs a door opened. Keith gasped, snatched up the boots, and flinging open the front door, stumbled out into the yard. Clutching the boots to his chest, he took refuge in the bushes at the edge of the woods and waited for the sounds of pursuit. But there were none. After a few minutes, the front door opened and Fred appeared in the doorway and shoved the cat out onto the front porch.

“There now. If you can’t be quiet you can just spend the night outdoors!” He shut the door again, muttering, “Trust a woman to forget to lock the door!”

Keith breathed a sigh of relief and pulled on the fishing boots. The cat advanced daintily, tail high, to observe what new game this entertaining stranger was playing in the dark. Keith gave him a dirty look.

“Don’t pretend to be friendly now, when you almost gave the show away,” he told the cat, who with the perversity of the feline, was now rubbing himself up against Keith’s ankle and purring affectionately. Together the two set off down the hill, Keith limping and the cat making little dashes into the shadows to investigate the small night noises. At dawn, Keith was able to flag down a pickup truck heading into town with a load of turkeys. The driver, an elderly farmer, took pity on the exhausted young man dressed only in a flannel night shirt, and agreed to take him to the State Police headquarters, if he didn’t mind riding in the bed of the truck with the turkeys.

At State Police headquarters, Keith told his story to two frankly sceptical police officers.

“Are we talking about Fred and Martha Tolliver? Two of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” the sergeant told him. And the second officer nodded in agreement. But they found him a sweat suit that said “State Police” and called his parents to come and get him.

At eight o’clock, while Keith was sipping coffee at the lunch counter of the drugstore across the street from Police headquarters, he saw a blue Nissan driving sedately up the street of the town with Fred Tolliver behind the wheel, followed by Martha in the old Chevy. Keith hurried out of the drugstore and rushed across to the police station. He was just in time to hear Fred complaining angrily, “And then this ungrateful young whippersnapper made off in the middle of the night wearing my night shirt and rubber boots and taking with him my cat!”

And that was the end of Keith’s part in the adventure of “The Bones Under the Oak.” His parents came and got him and took him home to eat turkey and dressing and tease him about his misadventure. Keith laughed along with the others, but in the back of his mind he remembered that frightening moment in the dark woods when he first found the skull, and he wondered.

© 2009 Ann Cro. All rights reserved.

Return to Black Lantern Publishing, Volume I

About the Author

Ann Cro lives in Tennessee among the mountains and the dark and silent woods that she describes in her story. She holds a Master's degree from East Tennessee State University and is currently setting up a language school in sunny Italy with her husband of thirty-six years. This is the first part of a short series in The Bones Under the Oak.