The Bones Under the Oak

Part III
Ann Cro
The old blue van with the rusty fender groaned and trembled as Dr. Jack Campbell struggled with the unfamiliar stick shift. The passengers, four girls and two boys, who had been singing an Appalachian folk song about a girl from Knoxville who was beaten to death by her boyfriend and her body thrown into the river, stopped singing and watched Dr. Campbell anxiously. Already the trip had produced a couple of uncomfortable moments—once when Dr. Campbell had taken a curve too wide and almost hit an old Chevy in the opposite lane and, again, when a pickup truck had attempted to pass the van on a blind curve and had almost forced it into the ditch. The moment of trouble passed, however, and the young people began singing again.

The boys and girls were all students at Burney Christian College in Tennessee. Each year their English professor, Dr. Jack Campbell, took a group of students into the mountains to study Appalachian folklore and commune with nature. Campbell normally taught Medieval English Literature at Burney College and considered himself a scholar in the field even though he had never published anything on the subject; but when Middleton State University, just forty miles down the road, inaugurated a program in “Appalachian Studies”, Burney College was not to be left behind. Campbell, as Jackson Snipe Chair of English, an honorary title bestowed upon him in recognition of his years of service to the College, was placed in charge of the program.

Classes were held at Indian Lodge, the summer cabin of J. Francis Talbert, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the College. It was a large cabin with four bedrooms to accommodate the professors who accompanied the group. In addition to Dr. Campbell there were Eddie and Vivian Lucas, former Burney College students who scratched out a meager living by singing Appalachian folksongs in the local clubs. They taught the students folk songs that they had composed themselves and showed them how to whittle a slingshot. Already the students had broken two windows in the cabin, practicing with the slingshots. Roger Erskine, a former Burney College professor who had left the College to start a pig farm, lectured on the plants and trees of Appalachia and took the group bird watching; and Helen Coulter Browne, retired, taught “Indian Legends and Myths”. The students camped in tents around the Lodge except for a two-day camping trip into the hills, led by Dr. Campbell. This year Campbell had hired a young Cherokee Indian, a former student, who worked as a waiter in a local Mexican restaurant, to act as guide.

Josh Mullins was not a full-fledged Cherokee. His father was descended from those Irish trappers and traders who were among the earliest white men to explore these silent and lonely mountains. But Josh had inherited the dark eyes and hair and the warm bronze skin tone of his mother’s people. He had graduated from Burney College two years before with a degree in Business but, so far, it had yielded few results, except for a brief stint as a construction worker in a company that went bankrupt and the job in the Mexican restaurant. He had been pleased to be chosen as a guide by Dr. Campbell, whom he liked, and had looked forward to the trip into the mountains as a way of escape, however brief, from the drudgery of the restaurant.

Dr. Campbell steered the van off on the side of the road and, heaving a sigh of relief that the trip had been completed successfully, extricated himself from under the steering wheel. Josh got out and slid open the van door. The six young people clambered out and stared around them curiously. Josh followed Dr. Campbell to the rear of the van and helped him unload the students’ backpacks. The students shouldered the backpacks and the group set off up the trail.

The day was hot and still and oppressive. No breeze stirred the leafy branches overhead. The hikers’ footsteps were muffled by the thick carpet of pine needles that covered the trail. Campbell prattled along happily about the beauties of nature and, at first, the students joked and laughed. But eventually the silence of the forest impressed itself upon even the most unaware of the students and, gradually, conversation died away. Josh found himself listening intently to the silence, conscious of something amiss that he could not quite identify. Then, suddenly, a shot rang out, breaking the silence and causing the leaves to rustle as dozens of birds suddenly took flight. The students gasped and one of the girls screamed. The others hastily shushed her, closing in around Campbell like frightened children. Campbell turned to Josh in alarm.

“I didn’t think hunting season began this early,” he said in a trembling voice.

“It doesn’t,” Josh told him quietly. It was someone hunting out of season on federal lands—a poacher. He was particularly dangerous because he could not afford to be seen or he risked a large fine and a possible jail term. Josh took a deep breath. “Okay, everybody,” he said, with all the confidence he could muster, “let’s get going. Stay together and let’s sing something.”

The students stared at him open-mouthed. “But he’ll hear us,” one of the girls protested in a whisper.

“I sincerely hope so,” Josh told her. If they made enough noise the hunter would go away, he hoped.

The students didn’t look convinced but Campbell, perhaps sensing Josh’s strategy, backed him up.

“Josh is right. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We just want the hunter to realize we are here. Now what shall we sing?”

There was a long moment of silence and then one of the girls suggested in a shaky voice, “What about ‘That Ole Time Religion’?”

“Good choice!” Campbell approved. “Let’s all sing out! ‘Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion…’” Campbell sang out in a lusty but slightly off-key voice and eventually the students joined in. Josh led them up the trail, keeping a close look-out on the woods on either side of the trail.

When the second shot came, it was much closer. Josh took a deep breath and signalled the group to halt.

“What shall we do?” Campbell asked in a low voice.

Josh hesitated. Then he said reluctantly, “I think we better turn back. He’s not far away and if he’s willing to continue hunting, even knowing that we are here, then the best thing that we can do is get away back to the van and warn the Forest Rangers.”

Campbell nodded his agreement and the group turned back and followed the trail back to where the van was parked. They had not gone far when a flash of color caught Josh’s eye. He moved to one side of the trail, positioning himself between the students and the silent watcher. The students moved clumsily in a bunch, like confused and frightened sheep. But Josh sensed that in spite of their fear, they were also excited.

“What’s wrong,” Campbell asked, moving up beside him.

“He’s watching us,” Josh told him. “Don’t look. Just keep moving. Pretend we haven’t seen him.”

“I haven’t,” Campbell said with a little nervous laugh. But he kept going, encouraging the students to keep moving.

“Professor,” called out Nadine, “I think I saw something over there in the bushes.”

Josh stared at her in horror. Why in the world did she have to open her big mouth? Didn’t she realize the trouble they were in?

Campbell was quick to move in on her. “No, Nadine,” he said soothingly, “there’s nothing there.”

“But there is,” the girl protested stubbornly. “I saw it.”

Josh wanted to grab the girl and put his hand over her mouth, but Campbell only said firmly, “An animal perhaps. Maybe a fox. Let’s keep going.”

Then one of the boys piped in. “A fox? Really? I’d like to get a picture of that!”

“No,” Campbell said, “no photos now, Harley. We need to get back to the van.”

But it was too late. The boy, his camera ready, seemed to have forgotten his earlier fear and was already heading toward the spot where the poacher was hidden. A moment later the bushes parted and a tall man in a faded work shirt and jeans, holding a rifle, stepped out onto the trail. Harley fell back with a startled cry and almost dropped his camera. Josh moved forward, pushing the boy back behind him. “Put that damned camera away,” he said through clenched teeth. Then, to the stranger, “Good morning. We are a student group from Burney Christian College on a nature hike. This is the professor and I am the guide. We were just returning to our van.”

The man said nothing for a long minute, then, to Harley, “You want a picture of me boy?”

“N-no, sir,” Harley stammered, backing away hurriedly.

“No,” Josh assured him, “he doesn’t take pictures of people, only wildlife. Birds and animals. He thought he saw a fox.”

“There’s no fox in there,” the man said, pointing to the little thicket from which he had emerged. “Only me.”

“Yes,” Josh agreed amiably. “That’s why he didn’t take any picture. Right, Harley?”

“That’s right,” Harley said hastily. “I didn’t take any picture.”

“So now,” Josh told the stranger, “we better be getting back to our van. It’s a pretty hot day and we want to get back to the school.”

The man nodded slowly. “Yep, it’s mighty hot in the woods today. Specially for the little girls. Pretty little girls. Best be going back to your school.”

“Yes,” Josh agreed. “We’re heading back now. You have a good day.” He motioned to Campbell to get the students moving. This time it took little persuasion. They almost ran back to the van. Once everyone was settled inside, Campbell turned to Josh. “Well, I guess that’s the end of our camping trip.”

Josh thought for a moment. Then he said, “It doesn’t have to be. I know a place where we can camp safely. It’s a nice spot, shady with a little creek close by. I know the people who own the land. Their name is Tolliver. They’re friends of my family. They’ve lived here in these hills for years. In fact, I was going to go there to use the telephone and call the rangers.”

He directed Campbell to the Tolliver’s house and, when they arrived, he left the others in the van and went to the front door to ask the Tollivers for permission to camp out in the land below the house. He was some time returning and when he did he brought Fred Tolliver back with him and introduced him to Dr. Campbell.

The old man shook hands with Campbell and expressed his regret for what had happened. “It’s a darned shame that somebody would go about frightening honest folks that aren’t doing no harm to anybody,” he said. But he had no idea of who the man might be and could only promise to notify the Rangers of the incident. But he gave Campbell his permission for the group to camp out on his land and so the students set up their tents and began preparing the evening meal of canned beans and hot dogs.

As evening settled in and the stars came out, the night became cooler. Janet brought out her guitar and she and Annabelle and Nadine sang folksongs. Harley was on the trail of wildlife to photograph and Hannah and Adam had disappeared entirely. Josh, drinking coffee with Dr. Campbell, leaned back against the trunk of a small dogwood tree and wondered why so many of the folk ballads were so sad. As far as he was concerned, these mountains were the most beautiful place in the world. Someday, he thought, he would have enough money to buy a little piece of land up here and he would build himself a house just like the Tolliver’s. He would plant his own garden, hunt and fish. Maybe he could make a little money taking people out hunting. He was dreaming happily when a wild scream split the air. Josh and Dr. Campbell leaped to their feet and looked about them. There was the sound of thundering footsteps and a girl’s voice screaming hysterically. Then Hannah burst into camp, her open mouth a black cavern from which she emitted scream after scream. She was followed by Adam, his shirt open and holding up his jeans with one hand.

“I never touched her,” he insisted. “And she wanted it. She begged me. But I didn’t do it! She can’t say anything different.”

Campbell looked shocked and the other girls crowded around Hannah, trying to console her. But she continued to scream until Josh, remembering Hollywood films he had seen, filled a cup with cold water and threw it in her face. Gasping and choking, she stopped screaming and glared at him.

Campbell took charge. “Hannah, I want you to tell us what happened. Adam, you stay over there and don’t say anything else. Now Hannah.”

Hannah took a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak but all that came out was a gurgling noise that no one could understand. The other girls patted her shoulders and glared at Adam.

“Don’t look at me like that!” he protested. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Hannah,” Dr. Campbell said firmly, “I am afraid you really must tell us what frightened you. Did Adam, uh, er, touch you?”

“I never did!” Adam insisted.

Hannah swallowed hard and looked at Josh suspiciously, as if she thought he was going to throw more water on her. Then she turned to Dr. Campbell. “It wasn’t Adam,” she said with dignity. “It was the bone!”

Dr. Campbell stared at her open-mouthed. “What bone?” he managed to get out. “Do you know what she’s talking about Adam?”

Adam shook his head, relieved that he was no longer a suspect. Hannah took a deep breath and tried to explain.

“Well, it was like this. You see, Adam and I decided to take a little walk after supper and there was this big tree and it was so nice and cool under it and so Adam and I decided to sit down and to, uh, well, to talk, you know. We were just talking but it was getting dark and the stars were so pretty and I wanted to see them better and so, well, I said, maybe we should lay down and look up at them and Adam was showing me the different stars and I, uh, well, I sort of reached out my hand and then I touched it.”

“Touched what?” demanded Campbell sternly.

“The bone,” Hannah said in a horrified whisper.

“The bone,” Campbell looked at her suspiciously. “And where was this bone? Can you show us?”

“I couldn’t possibly,” Hannah said with a shudder. “It was too awful!”

“I can show you,” said the voice of Harley. The group turned around startled. Harley was carrying his camera and wearing a smirk that aroused Josh’s worst suspicions.

“You all stay here,” Campbell directed. “Harley, I want you to show me where the bone was. You come with me, Hannah.”

Josh sat back down, his back resting against the tree, and watched them go thoughtfully. It was getting darker by the minute and he doubted that either Harley or Hannah would be able to find any bone, if it had ever existed at all. But he strongly suspected that Harley knew what Hannah and Adam had been up to and that he had preserved the memory for them with his camera. He wondered if the pictures would come out or not.
© 2010 Ann Cro. All rights reserved.

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 third installment in her short series, The Bones Under the Oak.

Miss part of the series? Read Part I and Part II now!

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