Jeff Marr eased his car off onto the shoulder of the road where the Appalachian Trail crossed the highway and twisted around to look at his two young sons in the back seat. “Well guys, we’re here,” he said.
The two boys, Bobby seven and Mickey five, cheered excitedly. They had been looking forward to this camping trip with their father for weeks. The boys lived in North Carolina with their mother and her parents and spent little time with their father, who lived in Texas with his new wife. He was in every sense a stranger to them who they saw only a few weeks out of the year. When he had proposed the camping trip, their mother had been doubtful. She was a city girl, like her parents, who believed that nature was confined to the neat parks and playgrounds of her home town. Their father had been born and raised in east Tennessee where his father had taken him hunting and fishing from the time he was Mickey’s age. Her sons’ eagerness for the adventure had surprised and hurt her a little. She tried not to show it but it felt like a betrayal of all that she stood for—order, security, civilization. She agreed to the excursion reluctantly. For Jeff it was an opportunity to re-connect with his sons and to introduce them to the world of his childhood, to the forests and lakes that he had visited as a boy, enchanted places that he remembered with nostalgia even though it had been many years since he had been back.
“Well, here’s the plan,” Jeff told the boys. “We’re going to take our camping gear and head a little ways up the trail. We’ll find a nice spot and make camp for the night.” He did not tell the boys that he had already picked a camping spot that had been recommended by his father who knew the area well.
“I’ve arranged for you to camp in the woods down from the Tolliver place,” his father had told him when they talked on the telephone. “You remember Fred Tolliver who used to act as guide when we went hunting?”
Jeff had nodded, remembering the kindly middle-aged man who had told him stories of the Indians that had once populated the hills and the mountain men who had first explored them, stories that he was now planning to pass on to his sons over a cheerful campfire.
His father continued, “Well, Fred and his wife have a little cabin up in the hills not too far from the trail and they have agreed to let you set up your camp in the woods below the cabin. It’s a nice spot with a big oak tree. The boys will love it.”
So Jeff got out of the car and released his sons. “You boys stay on this side of the car, away from the road,” he told them. He opened the trunk and began unloading the camping equipment. The little boys looked around them curiously. So far, the trip had been disappointingly uneventful. They had breakfasted at an IHOP pancake restaurant and eaten lunch at McDonald’s. The movement of the car and the noise of the motor had lulled them to sleep a couple of times and they were a little stiff but eager for the adventure to begin. The road was bounded by woods and they remembered stories that Grandfather Peck had told them about the big bad wolf that ate the three little pigs and the three bears that terrorized Goldilocks. But everything was quiet and the only animal that they saw was a squirrel who watched them curiously from a branch overhead.
Their father shouldered his back pack and helped his sons to put on their smaller packs and they set off up the trail. At first the going was relatively easy, their footsteps silent on the thick carpet of pine needles that covered the forest floor. The little boys began to relax and even to run a little ahead of their father, calling out to each other when they spotted a chipmunk or a squirrel. Jeff followed, contented to let his sons make their own discoveries. The woods seemed very quiet after the noise of Dallas. The hum of cicadas was hushed in the warmth of late afternoon. The sunlight filtered through the leafy branches of the trees. A little breeze stirred the leaves in the treetops, but along the trail all was still. Funny, he thought, he hadn’t remembered how very silent the woods were. He thought of the generations of pioneers who had travelled these trails, advancing cautiously and wondering if the thick trunks of the trees hid hostile Indians. He shivered a little. Life was difficult in those days, never knowing where you would find food or water. Things hadn’t changed a whole lot, he reflected. His own salary, stretched to support two households, often left him tight at the end of the month. Carol, his present wife, had been wonderful about everything. She had worked to help supplement their income until the baby came and, all in all, they had managed fairly well. But now, with only one salary, things were difficult and the baby was sickly and needed his mother’s care. There would have been no vacation at all with Bobby and Mickey if their mother had not agreed to the camping trip and Jeff’s father had not supplied most of the camping gear.
He walked on, trying to get himself into the mood for the adventure so as not to disappoint the boys. But he kept thinking about Carol and wondering how little Evan was doing and so answered absently his sons’ eager questions:
“Daddy, Daddy, what’s that big bug?” “Daddy, are there bears in the woods?” “What’s that bird?” “Is that a lake? Can we go swimming?” The little boys bubbled over with excitement. Jeff gave himself a mental shake and applied himself to the boys’ questions. “Yes, that was a lake and, yes, they would go swimming. But the boys must stay close to the shore because it was deep further out.”
They followed a narrow footpath down the hillside to the small lake, which was actually an inlet of a larger lake formed when the dam was built during the ’30s. It must have been hard work for the men who had built that dam, Jeff thought. They had come from all over, living in tents, and working long hours in the heat and the insects as they hacked their way through the dense vegetation, slogging along muddy mountain trails where not even a cart could pass. The water of the lake looked cool and refreshing and Jeff helped his sons take off their shirts and shorts and, after repeating his warning to stay close to shore where the water was shallow, settled down on the pebble-strewn beach with his back to a large pine tree, to keep watch. The little boys were soon splashing happily, calling to their father to come in with them. But Jeff was content to sit where he was and to listen to the drowsy hum of the insects and watch the dragonflies with their glistening wings hovering over the water. After a few minutes his head fell forward on his chest and he dozed. A bird call from overhead, sharp and clear in the stillness of the afternoon, startled him into wakefulness and he looked anxiously around for his sons. With a sigh of relief, he saw that they were still playing at the water’s edge, trying to build castles out of the muddy soil. In the distance, Jeff heard the sound of a motor. He stood up, shielding his eyes with his hand to see better. A small motorboat rounded the point where a crooked little scrub oak clung precariously to life on the rocky shore. Jeff moved protectively toward his two sons. The boat put in on the sandy shore and an older man and a teenage boy jumped off and hauled the boat out of the water. A second man sat on the boat, gazing vacantly around him. Jeff thought that he seemed to be hurt and wondered vaguely if he should offer to help, but decided that the other two could manage the injured man and, after all, his first duty was to his sons.
The first man walked back into the woods and, for the first time, Jeff realized that there must be a boat ramp there. He heard the sound of a truck engine starting up and a few minutes later an old pickup with a rusty boat trailer behind backed its way down to the water’s edge. The boy clambered up into the boat and steered it onto the boat trailer while the other man made it fast. Then they climbed into the cab of the truck and started slowly up the ramp. Suddenly, another pickup truck roared into the parking area, blocking the exit of the first truck and trailer. A tall, bearded man in a torn shirt jumped out of the cab and approached the other truck, yelling obscenities at the top of his lungs. Alarmed, Jeff grabbed the arms of his sons and drew them back from the water’s edge into the shadows of the trees lining the shore. The little boys stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed, clinging to their father’s hands. The enraged man approached the boat where the silent man sat. He pulled himself up onto the boat and punched the other man repeatedly. Blood spurted from the man’s mouth and nose but he made no move to defend himself. Jeff gasped in horror and pulled his sons further back into the sheltering woods. He silently prayed that the infuriated man would go away without realizing that there were witnesses to his violence. The attack stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The man swung down out of the boat and returned to his truck, started the engine and, backing it around, roared out of the lot into the narrow dirt road that climbed up into the hills. The others approached the victim. He had removed his blood-stained undershirt and was trying to staunch the flow of blood that ran from his nose and down his chin. None of the three spoke. The man and the boy watched apathetically and offered no help. After a few minutes they returned to the cab of the truck, started the engine and pulled the boat out of the water and headed slowly up the dirt road in the opposite direction that the other pickup had taken. The injured man sat in the boat, holding his shirt to his face, and staring blankly at nothing at all.
Jeff breathed a sigh of relief when the sound of the motor died away in the distance. Hastily he led his sons back to the spot where they had left their shorts and tennis shoes. To their frightened questions, he answered as briefly as possible and hurried the two boys away from the lakeshore as quickly as they could gather together their belongings. Only when they had regained the trail did he feel safe. No longer did the shadowy woods seem frightening. Instead, they were a refuge, a place of safety, and he slowed his steps so that the little boys could recover their breath. But the horror of what they had seen had made its impact on the two and Mickey and Bobby stayed close beside their father and no longer ran ahead. Jeff decided that it would be best to go directly to the campsite his father had selected for him and to set up the tent before it became too dark. He whistled cheerfully to encourage his sons, but he kept a sharp lookout on either side of the trail just in case the crazy man should reappear. But they arrived at the campsite without incident.
Jeff recognized the spot immediately because it was a place where he and his brother had first camped out when they were only a few years older than Mickey and Bobby. The huge oak stretched out sheltering arms over the hill and under its branches was a flat grassy plot that was perfect to set up a camp. He set to work with a will, encouraging the little boys to help him as much as possible so that they would not dwell on the terrors of the afternoon. Soon everyone was busy preparing a simple supper of canned beans and sausages. Afterwards, they sat around the campfire and Jeff told the boys stories about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. The little boys sat as close to the fire as possible and regarded the dark woodlands with concern. It was Bobby who first noticed the light on the hillside and pointed it out to his father and brother.
“Is that where the bad man lives?” he asked his father fearfully. But Jeff only laughed and shook his head.
“No Bobby,” he said, “the people who live there are good friends of my father, your grandfather Marr. They have given us permission to sleep here under this big tree.”
“Oh,” Bobby said, a little doubtfully. “Why don’t we sleep at their house then?”
“But then we wouldn’t be camping out. Isn’t this much more fun than sleeping in a house?”
The little boys agreed a little uncertainly and went unwilling to their sleeping bags. Jeff feared that they might have nightmares, but the unaccustomed activity of the day took its toll on the two little boys who fell asleep almost immediately. Jeff remained by the fireside, drinking coffee, and thinking about the silent man on the boat and wondering how anyone could have borne such an attack without defending himself. He sat up long after the boys fell asleep and then, when the fire had died down, rolled himself up in his sleeping bag and lay for a long time looking up at the sky full of stars whose silvery light glittered coldly against the black sky.
Jeff was awakened early the next morning by his two sons vigorously shaking him and calling his name. He opened his eyes to the cold gray dawn and looked at the two little boys who were bending over him, trembling with cold and fear. He sat up at once and put his arms around the two children. “What is it?” he asked gently. “Did you have a bad dream?”
The boys shook their heads vigorously. Then Bobby said, “Mickey woke me up because he had to go to the bathroom and so we did what you told us to do and went a little ways away from the tent and then we found something awful!”
“What did you find?” Jeff asked, looking around uneasily.
The boys indicated that he should bend down so that they could whisper in his ear. “Bones!” they said in a hushed voice.
“Bones?” Jeff repeated doubtfully.
The little boys nodded solemnly. Then Bobby said, “I bet they’re the bones of that man on the boat. The bad man came back and killed him and buried him under this tree!”
Jeff shook his head quickly. “No, no, Bobby! That’s impossible.” Then an idea came to him. “I bet they’re deer bones!”
Bobby looked unconvinced but Mickey was excited. “A real deer?”
“Well, yes,” Jeff said. “It could be. Let’s go and have a look.” He took the two boys by the hands and they led him around behind the tree and indicated several long white bones half hidden by the dead leaves that covered the ground under the tree. Jeff knelt down and picked up one of the bones with a feeling of relief. It must be a deer bone. It couldn’t be anything else. Mickey was fascinated but Bobby turned away and started slowly back to the tent. All of a sudden he let out a tremendous yell and came rushing back to his father. Startled and alarmed, Jeff clutched the little boy to his chest, his mind full of poisonous snakes or rabid animals. He made a hasty examination of Bobby’s legs and ankles, but saw nothing but a few mosquito bites and a scraped knee from riding his tricycle at his mother’s house. Finally, unable to get an explanation from the scared little boy, Jeff sat him down on a rotting stump and re-traced his son’s footsteps. It was then that he saw the skull.
It lay there half hidden by the leaves, its smooth surface cracked and broken as if it had endured a tremendous blow. The skull was incomplete because the top part was crushed and part of the jawbone broken away, but it was recognizable as a skull and a human one at that. Shakily, Jeff picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It was stained by the weather and picked clean by the dozens of predators that made their home in the woods. He had no idea how long it had lain there. But it could not have gotten there by accident. He thought of the TV shows about unsolved murders and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine. He looked up the hill toward the Tolliver cabin and wondered if he should go there to call the police. Then he remembered his frightened sons were waiting for him by themselves and that he was a stranger in these hills and would be looked upon with suspicion by the authorities. He remembered reading somewhere that the police always suspected the person who discovered the body and, after all, these bones and the skull were human remains. For in his own mind, he had decided that the bones and skull must belong together. He heard his sons calling him and, after a moment’s hesitation, he flung the skull away from him and, wiping his hands on his jeans, as if he would remove something unclean, he returned to the boys.
He reassured them that the bones probably belonged to an Indian from long ago and promised them that he would call the university archeology department as soon as he had taken them home. They hastily dismantled the tent and repacked their backpacks and retraced their steps to the car. The little boys were not completely cheerful until they had regained the safety of the vehicle and were slowly negotiating the hairpin curves that skirted the mountain. When they reached the little mountain town of Harpersville, Mickey cried out from the back seat, “I’m hungry! Can we go to McDonald’s?” There was no MacDonald’s but Jeff pulled off into the parking lot of a little diner with geraniums planted in window boxes, and the three went inside to eat pancakes. While they were eating, Bobby demanded, “Tell us about the Indians, Daddy. You promised.” And Mickey demanded, “When are we going camping again?” Jeff laughed, relieved that his sons seemed to have gotten over their fright, but in his own heart he knew that he would never again return to the haunted woods of east Tennessee.
© 2009 Ann Cro. All rights reserved.
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 second part of a short series in The Bones Under the Oak. Read Part I here.