Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#37



Henry Haversham finds that you reap what you sow...especially when you plant a corpse...

The Back-forty Monstrosity

By Talbot Pratt


"Damn you, Haversham, you killed my dog!"

There was no warning. No, none at all. The voice simply came out of nowhere, a sudden furious clap of irate thunder that took Henry Haversham entirely by surprise as he worked with his axe chopping up branches downed by the recent storm.

Here on the back-forty, far from the traffic of the concession road, far from the farm house and the cattle and the sheep and the hens, everything was calm and peaceful, only the wind murmuring silkenly through the sprawling branches of the oaks clustered in a copse on the property's edge. And then, out of that long, soothing hush came that startling shout, the old man's voice breaking on the final word "dog", breaking in a way which would have touched any other man's heart -- any other man but Henry Haversham, that is. For Haversham knew it was true.

And he wasn't a bit sorry.

He turned slowly, resting the axe on his shoulder, the blade gleaming at the sky, turned and fixed on the old man with white dishevelled hair and tears streaking his weathered cheeks. Haversham didn't deny the charge. He knew he didn't have to. They were alone out here on the back-forty, just the two of them. In the distance, a couple of fences over, he could see his brother, Lionel, working the field with the plow. Lionel couldn't hear them. No one could.

"What of it, Baker?" Haversham snarled back. "That dumb mutt's been after my sheep again. I told you before, if I caught him after my sheep, I'd do something. That's what I told you, and that's what I did."

For a moment, Donald Baker faltered in his attack. He obviously hadn't expected Haversham to admit to the crime so readily. He sputtered, his eyes wide. Haversham guessed the old man had been bending the elbow before coming here. Working up his courage, no doubt. He felt disgusted to see the man in this state. Then, abruptly, the old man's anger melted away leaving only teary-eyed grief. Haversham was even more disgusted to see that. Wretchedly shaking his head, Baker sobbed, "Why'd you have to poison my poor Nero? Why'd you have to do that? He only wanted to play with your damned sheep. He wouldn't have hurt them."

"A dog's a dog," Haversham shot back. "You know it was only a matter of time. I told you to keep that mutt chained up, but you wouldn't listen. Well, now you see where that got you."

"I told you, Nero didn't like being cooped up. It would have killed him."

Haversham laughed at that, laughed in a terrible mocking way. "I'd say it couldn't have killed him any more than not chaining him up!" Then he laughed some more. It just seemed funny to him, funny to think of this sad old geezer getting all teary-eyed over some dumb animal. And the more he thought about it, the more he couldn't stop laughing, not to save his life -- which, if he'd been a little more observant, was about the state of things.

All the while that he laughed, Baker stared at him, a slow transformation shaping his aged features, his squinted eyes steadily kindling, his false teeth grinding.

"Stop that laughing, damn your eyes," he growled softly, sounding much like a dog himself. But the thought of that just made Haversham laugh all the harder. Now tears were rolling down his cheeks and he had to bend a little at the waist just to keep his feet, the axe still balanced against his shoulder, blade gleaming in the sun.

"Stop that I tell you. Stop that laughing about my poor Nero!"

Bent double, with his face downturned, Haversham didn't see the moment when the old man finally snapped. But he heard it in Baker's voice. There was a sudden change, an instant when all the grief and all the sorrow was just swept away, washed on a tide of fiery, uncontrolled rage.

"Stop it, damn you!"

The change stopped Haversham's laughter cold, and he raised his head in surprise. What he saw when he looked up was the last thing in the world he had expected to see. Old man Baker was charging at him across the rough stony ground, charging with murder in his eyes. True, Baker was about forty years older than Haversham, and true, as well, he was about half Haversham's size, but still just the sight of those blazing eyes, that curling lip, those clawed hands, the whole parcel bounding at him like a charging bull -- Haversham reacted without thinking. He lashed out, forgetting what it was he was holding in his hands, lashed out with a single swift blow.

But that was all it took.

Donald Baker never knew what hit him. The axe took him square in the head, halting him in an instant, splitting his skull like a melon and fixing there a moment while he just stood, not moving, arms dropping down his sides. Then he folded to the ground and the axe came free with a ghastly wet suction, still clutched in Haversham's shaking hands.

For a time, Haversham couldn't move, still holding the bloody axe. He stared at Baker's corpse, eyes bulging, unable to believe what he had done to the old man -- only slowly coming to realize what it was he had done. He had killed him. Christ Almighty, killed him with an axe! How as he going to explain this to the police? The old man didn't have a weapon and he was certainly no threat with his bare hands. Haversham had reacted instinctively, but how could he convince the police of that? Everyone knew the bad blood that existed between the two of them. Worse, everyone knew how Haversham had been after Baker to sell his farm to him, and how Baker had sworn he would go to his grave before he'd sell to a man like Haversham. Now this? Even with his thoughts whirling as they were, Haversham knew -- it did not look good, not good at all.

But then, a voice way down deep inside, the same voice which had said, "Poison the mutt," now that voice told him, "Don't lose your nerve, boy. Pull yourself together. It's not too late. It's never too late. After all, no one knows you killed him, do they. And no one needs to know."

In the space of a heartbeat, Haversham had an idea. His eyes did a quick scan of the distance, making sure no one had seen what had happened. Lionel was still plowing the field, completely unaware of the grisly drama being played out on the back-forty. There was no one else in sight. Good.

The voice inside said, "Hide it, boy. Hide the body quick, where no one'll ever find it."

Hurriedly, Haversham cast around. The ground here was stony and, anyway, he didn't have a shovel. There was no way to bury the body. Then his gaze fastened on the massive shaggy trunk of an old oak tree. A look came into his eyes, a look out of keeping with a man fighting for his life. He smiled, grinned like an ape, in fact. Oh, yes, he thought. That oughta just about do it.

He had to work fast, though. At any moment, Lionel might chance to look over. He grabbed the corpse of the old man by the arms and hauled it over to the oak tree. He tried not to notice the brains visible through the crack in the old man's skull. The trunk of the oak was split with a deep hollow in the vee. He remembered he and Lionel used to hide in there as kids. There was more than enough room to fit an old man's corpse. True it would smell in time, but no one ever came back here and, even if they did, they'd just think some animal had died. No one would think twice about it.

Carefully, he packed Baker into the hollow trunk. It was a tight squeeze, but somehow he managed. And when he was done, he went back to the house and cleaned off the axe.

***
The next morning, Haversham woke abruptly, startled out of a deep and surprisingly blissful sleep by the frantic shouting of his brother Lionel. Lionel stood in the bedroom doorway, out of breath and goggle-eyed. He'd obviously run some distance and now could barely get his message out.

"Get up, Henry!" he gasped. "Oh, come quick! You've got to see this! Christ on a crutch, you've just got to come see!"

Haversham knew better than to press his brother for details. Lionel was only borderline coherent at the best of times and, when excited like he was now, you'd have had a better chance of getting sense out of a cow. But, whatever it was, it was obviously important, so Haversham wasted no time. He tumbled out of bed and dragged on some clothes, then followed Lionel downstairs and out into the early morning sun. The whole way his brother kept up a constant stream of breathless pleas. "You're not going to believe it, Henry. Not unless you see it for yourself. I hardly believed it myself!"

With Lionel a good distance out in front, Haversham followed his wildly gesturing brother, out through the back gate, then across the grassy field, then over the farther fence, and then across another field. Finally Lionel stopped, having reached his destination and, a few seconds later, Haversham came up with him. A single glance told him what all the excitement was about.

One of their sheep lay dead in the grass.

Crows were already at work on the carcass, clustered thickly, and they scattered reluctantly as the two men approached. But it wasn't the mere death of the sheep that had obviously upset Lionel. Rather it was the way that sheep had died.

"Christ," Haversham muttered, rubbing his cheek in disbelief. "What the hell did that, do you suppose?"

There could be no doubt. There wasn't a drop of blood to be found in the surrounding grass. There were no claw marks nor teeth marks. Instead, the animal had been crushed, literally crushed to death, its spine shattered hideously.

"More to the point, how did they do it?" Lionel asked, staring in horror. "I mean, just look at that thing. Look at it, Henry. Its spine has been snapped in two, its whole back is broken. No animal around here could do something like that. It looks like it was hit by a truck!"

Haversham had had the same thought. But they were a long way from the concession road and, though the ground here was hard, car tracks would have shown up. There were none. Still, thinking along those lines, thinking maybe someone had hit the sheep out on the road then carried the carcass here, Haversham started looking around for footprints. Apart from Lionel's tracks, though, he couldn't find a single one.

He returned to the grisly corpse. He studied the sheep with its broken spine and crushed ribs, his eyes burning slits, chewing pensively on his bottom lip. A person had done this, he had no doubt on that score. Lionel was right about that. There was no animal that could do that to a sheep except maybe a bear, and there were certainly no bears in this part of Ontario.

Then, abruptly, his eyes shifted, fixing on something beside the sheep, something nearly hidden in the grass. His brows furrowed in a puzzled scowl and he grunted. Then he stepped around the corpse and bent, carefully plucking something from the ground.

"Hey, what's that you found?" Lionel asked, peering curiously. "A clue? What is it?" At that moment, Haversham raised his eyes from the thing in his hand. To Lionel it seemed his brother's face had gotten suddenly very pale and, for a heartbeat, he noticed Henry's gaze shot to the copse of trees way over there on the back-forty. Then, just a suddenly, Henry flicked his look back to the thing in his hand. He laughed and tossed it away.

"Nothing," he told Lionel, beating his hand on his pants. "Just an acorn, that's all."

"An acorn?" Lionel's brows arched in mild surprise. "Strange to find an acorn way over here, isn't it? The only oak trees we've got are those ones on the back-forty. How do you suppose it got here?"

"I was cutting wood back there yesterday. On my way to the house, I came this way. I must have tracked it on my boots."

"Oh, yeah, that must be it." Lionel seemed satisfied by the explanation and left it at that. Haversham knew it was a good answer and could even have been the case except for one slight problem.

He hadn't come this way yesterday. He hadn't even come close.

***
The next day, Constable Pat Pullman, of the Ontario Provincial Police detachment over in Penny Bridge, dropped by, but not about the dead sheep.

"We're worried about old Don Baker," the constable explained, cap in hand like a confessor in a church. "It's probably nothing, but he usually picks up his mail on Friday and yesterday he didn't show up. I stopped by his place, but there was nobody home. He may have just gone to visit with relatives or something, but..." He shrugged apologetically. "...he's not a young man, you know. I just wondered if you'd heard anything."

Heard anything? Haversham thought. Oh, yeah, Constable. I heard something. Something like chunk!

Suppressing a shiver, he said, "Well, I don't recall him saying anything about going away, but, you know, we weren't the closest of neighbours. Have you tried his sister? I think she lives over in Kingston. She teaches at the university."

"Yeah," Constable Pullman nodded. "I've got a call in to her. I guess we'll see what that turns up -- before we call out the dogs, I mean." He laughed at this last part, but the laugh was thin and strained. It wore itself out a little too quickly and, for a moment, he fidgeted, obviously wanting to say something, but not knowing quite how to start.

"Something else on your mind, Constable?"

The constable looked up, surprised that he should be so transparent. "Nothing important," he shrugged, scratching his neck. "Just that...well, I understand Baker's dog died a couple days ago. Bill Wilkes, the vet, said the dog was poisoned. Later, Baker was drinking pretty good at the Widow's Walk and he started telling folks how he thought you'd done it, killed his dog, I mean."

For a moment, Haversham didn't say a word. He just eyed the constable and chewed pensively on his bottom lip. Finally, in a careful tone, he asked, "Did Baker put in a complaint with you boys at the O.P.P.?"

"Well, no. Not exactly."

"So this is -- what? Just a friendly enquiry?"

"You might say that."

Haversham let out his breath and chuckled. "Well, I'll tell you this, Constable. That dog kept getting into my sheep, so I told Baker, if it ever happened again, I'd do something. But it was just words. I didn't mean it. So, no, I didn't kill his dumb dog."

Now it was the constable's turn to exhale, blowing out in relief as he slapped his cap back on his head. "No, I didn't think you would have. Still, I felt I had to ask." He turned to go, then had another thought, pausing in the open doorway. "Listen, I heard you lost one of your sheep last night."

Haversham stiffened, the smile frozen on his face. "That's right. We think it must have been hit by a car. What about it?"

"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking what a coincidence that should be." To Haversham's questioning look, he explained: "It seems, when Baker was drinking and telling everyone you had killed his dog, he also did quite a bit of cursing those sheep of yours. He said maybe he'd kill them himself, just to let you know how it felt." Suddenly his voice took on a sombre tone and his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "You don't suppose..."

Haversham laughed and shook his head. "That old man Baker did in my sheep? I don't think so, Constable. Whoever did it, must have dragged the sheep a good ways onto my property after hitting it on the road. I don't think Baker could have done that, do you?"

"No," the constable conceded. "Suppose not."

A moment later, Haversham watched the constable slide into his cruiser and drift on down the driveway to the concession road. As the cruiser vanished in a coil of dust, Haversham found himself thinking back upon Pullman's last words. So, he thought, Baker said he was going to kill my sheep, did he? Guess I put the tin lid on that little notion.

Guess I did, at that.

***
The next morning, Haversham was already up and pulling on his over-alls when he heard Lionel's anxious shout from out in the front yard. Right away, something in his brother's voice, in the falsetto urgency, something told him as clear as day -- another sheep.

Sure enough, when he hurried out the back door, he found Lionel standing over by the fence. When Lionel saw his brother, he gestured once, a wide beckoning sweep of his arm, then spun and started off across the grassy field. Sober-eyed, Haversham followed and, a few minutes later, came upon the sheep, dead like the other one, and in the same grisly manner, too. Its bones had been shattered, its spine crushed. Nothing but a car or truck could have done that much damage, Haversham told himself as he grimly appraised the carcass. But there were no tracks and no footprints either. So how had it got here?

"And that's not the only thing," Lionel informed him breathlessly. "Not by a long chalk." When Haversham looked up, Lionel jerked a thumb over his own shoulder. "Look back there. What do you suppose did that?"

Haversham's eyes travelled in the direction indicated by his brother -- and his breath caught. A short distance away, another fence cut across the property. It was a wooden fence, just put in last year. Now there was a massive hole in it. The wooden boards had just been blasted clean apart leaving a gaping breach, a good six feet from ragged end to ragged end. The cracked and broken boards lay scattered about in the grass, and, to Haversham, it looked almost as if a hurricane had taken that fence apart.

For a long space, he studied the hole in the fence. He didn't say a word. Lionel was quiet too, for a time, but, finally, there was a limit to how long he could go without speaking.

"Well?" he asked, and his voice was uncharacteristically muted. "What do you thing, Henry? I've never heard of anything like this, have you? I mean, look at the way that wood is strewn about. It's all on this side of the fence. It looks like a truck just plowed through there and hit the sheep, doesn't it? But there aren't any tire tracks, I've looked."

Still Haversham didn't respond. Instead, he dropped his eyes and began scanning the grassy ground around the carcass of the sheep. He tried to tell himself it was a silly thing to do, that he wouldn't find anything and that it was pretty dumb to even think of that.

But then he saw it. And, dumb or not, silly or not, he gulped.

There was another acorn in the grass. And, a second later, he turned up three more. Four acorns where there shouldn't even be one. Four acorns. How had they gotten here?

Slowly, Haversham raised his eyes again, fixing on the blasted hole in the fence, a hole that looked for all the world like a truck had crashed through. Then, he focused on what lay in the distance beyond that hole. He felt a chill ripple up his back.

He was looking at a copse of oak trees way over on the back-forty...

Part 2: Conclusion








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The Back-forty Monstrosity is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)