Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror


The Back-Forty Monstrosity

(Part 2)

By Talbot Pratt

"I've got a question for you, Lionel." Haversham and his brother were seated at supper, the air murky with the rich scents of steak, potatoes and pumpkin pie.

"Mmm?" Lionel nodded, his mouth full and working.

Haversham paused a moment, marshalling his thoughts, then said, "I want your thoughts on something. Tell me what you think. You see...that is..." He faltered, realizing there was no easy way to go at this. Taking another run at it, he began again. "What I mean to say is... suppose someone died...and...suppose they couldn't be buried properly...they couldn't be buried in a Christian grave like they would have wanted." Lionel had finally finished his bite and was now all ears and eyes, rapt with attention. "You see what I'm driving at?"

Lionel nodded doubtfully. "Sure. What about it?"

"Well, suppose this guy was buried somewhere else, say, in something else..."

"Something else?" Lionel frowned. "I don't get you. What do you mean 'something else'?"

"Well, for argument's sake, suppose he was buried in a hollow tree --"

"A hollow tree!" Lionel exploded with laughter, slapping the table and making the plates jump. "Why would anyone want to bury someone in a hollow tree? That's a pretty strange place!"

Scowling, Haversham forged ahead. "That's right, in a hollow tree. But that's not the point. The point is...what I was wondering was..." He paused, swallowing, knowing he didn't want to even voice what was on his mind. Finally, he managed: "Do you suppose his ghost might...possess that tree?"

Now Lionel stopped laughing and his brows furrowed doubtfully, almost as if he thought Henry was playing a joke on him. "What do you mean? You mean, he'd haunt the tree? You mean, people would see his ghost from time to time when they were walking by that tree? Well, sure, I guess that might --"

"No!" Haversham shot the word across the table, his tone sharper than he had intended. It made Lionel jerk. He inhaled quickly, regaining control. "No," he said again. "No. I mean, could his ghost possess that tree, take it over. Could that tree come to life and...and..."

He faltered again, seeing how his brother was regarding him -- as if he'd lost his mind.

"Oh, never mind," he said quickly, bitterly forking up another bite of potato. "It was only a notion. Forget it."

"Now, wait, Henry." Lionel was obviously anxious to help, even if he didn't entirely understand the nature of the question. "I guess so. I guess...well, they say a person will haunt a place if he wasn't properly buried, so, sure, maybe if he was buried in a hollow tree, then his ghost might possess that tree, at least until someone buried him right. But I don't really see what harm he could do though. I mean, with the roots and all, a tree can't really do anything, can it?" He burst out laughing again and gave the table another swift slap. "I mean, not unless it could pull up its roots and walk!"

And that final comment certainly didn't help the situation. No, not one damn bit.

The next morning, a third sheep turned up dead. But that wasn't the worst part. That wasn't what sent Haversham into Penny Bridge, into the Widow's Walk where he ordered a good stiff whiskey and leave the bottle, thank you very much.

Like the previous two, the third sheep had been crushed to death, practically every bone in its body broken. It was a ghastly sight but, by now, both Haversham and his brother were hardened to it. Again, Haversham found acorns scattered around the carcass, acorns which shouldn't have been there because the only oak trees on the farm were way over on the back- forty. But it wasn't that either that drove Haversham to the bottle. Rather it was a little fact which hadn't become clear until now, a little pattern.

First off, there was a second hole in the fence, about twenty feet over from the first hole. As with that first hole, the wood had all been scattered on the side of the fence toward the house, as if a truck had plowed through. It was while studying that hole that Haversham first realized a pattern was developing.

The first sheep killed had been found on the other side of the fence, away from the house, closer to the back-forty. The second sheep had turned up on the side of the fence nearer the house. Whatever had done the killing had had to break through the fence to catch the animal. Now, the third sheep also lay on that same side of the fence, only this sheep was even closer to the farm house than the other two.

And that was the pattern Haversham saw. And that was why he found himself in the Widow's Walk nursing a bottle and telling himself it was all in his head. It was all pure hogwash.

But he couldn't deny that pattern. No, even drunk, he couldn't.

For, with each attack, whatever was killing the sheep was coming closer and closer to the house...

It was nearly evening by the time Henry Haversham, drinking in the Widow's Walk, managed to gather up enough courage to do what he knew he had to do. Dutch courage it might be, but right now Haversham would take it any way he could get it.

He set off for the farm in his Ford pick-up, weaving dangerously and taking the shoulder once or twice. The sky was swaddled with pillowy, black clouds bursting with rain, the wind steadily rising and beating the trees along the roadway into dervishes. A storm was headed this way, and it was going to be a bastard.

All the way home, Haversham cursed again and again under his breath. "Damn you, Donald Baker. Damn you. You're dead and there's no way you can come back. No way in hell." But he knew it wasn't enough to say it, he had to see for himself. He had to face that giant oak tree on the back-forty, to check for himself that the old man was still snug and tight in that hollow trunk and that the oak tree was still firmly rooted in the soil.

He had to know for sure.

When he reached the farm house, he was surprised to find the place deserted -- until he remembered that Lionel had gone to spend a few days with a friend over in Shillelagh. Haversham had the place to himself. For some reason, he didn't find that a comfort.

He was still muttering to himself as he set off across the fields, the wind a torrent, the sky getting darker and darker. "Baker is dead and dead men don't possess trees and, even if they could, a tree couldn't walk because it has roots and such, so that's all there is to it. That's all needs to be said about that."

And then, finally, he reached the copse of oak trees and he stopped. In the gathering gloom, it took a moment for him to pick out the big oak in which he had hidden the old man's body. Then he had to step closer, his eyes straining to make out the nearly black soil at the base of the shaggy trunk, trying to see if that soil had been disturbed. He winced as a scent wafted to his nostrils, the odour of something dead and rotting. Oh, yeah, Baker was still there, all right. And he was getting mighty ripe.

But the soil was still packed down. In the darkness, he couldn't be absolutely sure it hadn't been disturbed but the oak's roots were still safely planted. Suddenly, he found himself giggling, nearly hysterical with relief, realizing how ridiculous it was he could have even thought a tree might pull up its roots and start walking. Crazy! Just plain lunatic!

And he kept right on laughing -- right up until the moment he looked up.

Then the laughter died in his throat. In the thick tangle of branches high above his head, pale white blossoms stood out ghostily against the stormy sky. For just a moment, his mind struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. Blossoms? Oak trees didn't have white blossoms. What could they be? Then, suddenly, he knew. It was sheep's wool. Lots of it. The wool was caught amongst the branches in glowing white tufts, teased by the wind, all over the tree almost to the top...

Haversham barely knew what he did after that. He went kind of mad. The next thing, he found himself dragging the body of old man Baker out of the hollow trunk. He was laughing hysterically, sometimes shouting at the corpse. As the smell had told him, the cadaver was ripe by this time; the weather had been unseasonably hot and the body had decayed accordingly. But Haversham hardly noticed. Fear had taken hold of him, terrible mind-numbing fear that left little room for concerns about rotted corpses. Nor did he care if anyone happened to see him as he dragged the old man's body across the fields.

It was pure luck then that no one happened by as he heaved the corpse into the back of the pick-up within plain view of the road. Then, grabbing a shovel from the shed, he drove like a bat out of hell all the way to Lakeview Cemetery in Penny Bridge. There he buried Donald Baker at last -- buried him in an unmarked grave, true, but at least it was hallowed ground.

Haversham was a long time getting to sleep that night. Partly, it was the storm that kept him up. The wind battered the shutters and howled like a wolf and lightning broke up the darkness with snaky bolts that crashed and boomed. Partly it was that that kept him tossing and turning in his bed.

But partly it was the memory of Baker's rotted corpse, the memory of how it had felt to handle soft bloated flesh, the decayed-fruit smell still lingering long after he had thought he had washed it off. But at least the job was done at last. He had buried the old man properly, so that was the end of the thing. No more ghosts.

And, with that thought, he finally fell asleep...

Only to wake up a short time later. A glance at the clock showed him it was just after midnight. The storm still boomed and bellowed outside the window. For a moment, he sat there in the dark, wondering what had woken him. Then he heard it.

For just a moment, the storm fell quiet and through that breathless hush, from so far off he could barely catch it, came the brittle crash of wood shattering. Instantly, Haversham knew what it was, what it must be. The far fence -- something had broken another hole through the fence.

Something was coming this way.

In an instant, terror set Haversham's heart pounding, sweat beading his forehead; he could hardly breathe. He snatched up his covers to his chin, eyes bright coins in the dark -- and he listened. Oh, how he listened. He knew what he was listening for but, even so, when it came, it still brought a moan to his lips. A second crash, but louder than the first -- a whole lot louder. Whatever was coming had just blasted a hole in the second fence, the fence near the farm house.

It was still coming, then. Coming closer.

Damn you, Baker, his mind yammered fearfully. I buried you like you wanted. I buried you in the cemetery. Why can't you leave me alone? Why can't you stay dead? What do you want?

Now he could hear another sound, a strangely ordinary sound, a soothing sound which, under other circumstances, would have hardly been worth noticing, but which here and now was the most frightening sound in the world. And as Haversham heard it, and as it grew louder and louder, and closer and closer, he began to whimper and then, pretty soon, he began to scream.

There were no trees near the house on that side, none at all. But, through the roar of the storm, he could clearly make out the sound of branches rattling and tossing in the wild, screaming gusts...

Constable Pullman surveyed the damage and grimly shook his head. "Hell of a thing," he commented to his partner, Constable Bryce. "I was just talking to Haversham the other day, then to have him get killed like this...hell of a thing."

"Yeah, well, the tree was hollow," Bryce returned fatalistically. "It was just waiting for a storm to blow it over."

Pullman shrugged. "Maybe -- just too bad the wind had to be blowing toward the house instead of away from it. He didn't even have time to get out of bed. Damn thing just toppled and crashed through his bedroom."

Suddenly, they both looked up. A third constable, Lewis, had been poking around the ruins of the toppled oak and now he hurried over to them carrying something in his hands. He passed it to Pullman.

It was a small box wrapped with wax paper.

"I found this in the hollow of the tree," Lewis explained. "What do you make of it?"

Pullman handled the box a moment, then frowned as he read the label pasted on the top. It read: "Nero".

"That's strange," he said. "It's the ashes of Don Baker's dog Nero. The dog died last week, poisoned, so Baker claimed, and the old man had it cremated. I wonder how it came to be in the tree."

The three men studied the storm-toppled oak a moment in silence, the great branches buried like a hatchet in the side of the farm house.

With a nervous laugh, Bryce ventured, "Maybe he was carrying it in his pocket and dropped it."

Pullman glanced at him sharply, his features serious. "In a tree?"

Bryce shrugged.

Blowing out, Pullman looked down at the box in his hands and his voice grew a trifle sad. "Anyway, too bad about that dog, though. From what I heard, it loved old man Baker something fierce."

"Yeah," Bryce agreed, straightening his cap and starting for the cruiser. "Just too bad he couldn't teach it to stop chasing sheep."

The End.

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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!)