by Ellen Denton
The young people living in Rose County had never seen Tom Crow on account of him living as a hermit somewhere up in the wooded hills. Everyone knew of him though; he was a legend in my growing-up time. The rumors were that he lived somewhere northeast of Culver’s Pass.
When I was 12, Robby Lee and I decided to go hiking up that way and try to find his cabin, maybe get a glimpse of him, maybe steal something as a souvenir. That would sure enough give us bragging rights, that is, if anyone would believe we really did it.
“What if he doesn’t even really exist and our folks just told us those stories about him to scare us into behaving, or what if he’s dead now? No ones seen him for 20 years that I know of.” Robby had stopped walking to take a swig of water from his canteen. I could tell he was getting tired and ready to pitch camp for the day, when it wasn’t even nigh two hours to sunset.
“Well, I know he’s a real person, or was, because my pa said so. He doesn’t make stuff like that up. I even heard Pastor John mention him several times to people. A pastor isn’t going to tell a lie, especially when he’s standing right there in church no less. And even if Tom Crow is dead now, his cabin would likely still be there, so we go find that and have a look inside.”
“What if he is still alive and the stories about him are true? What if he comes after us with a meat cleaver or something?”
“There never was enough evidence to show he was the one who did the murders. He was never even tried for them. And there weren’t any wounds like that. No one ever figured out how those kids were killed.”
But what if he did kill them?
Robby Lee had a point there, and for a moment, the dense, surrounding woods seemed overly warm and close. I shook off the feeling quick though.
“We’ll just be careful, okay? When we get up around Culver’s Pass, we’ll take it real slow and watch and listen good. I’ll bet you, if he is there somewhere, he’s just a nice old guy who left because of all the crazy rumors about him. And it’s not like we’re gonna go striding up to his cabin in plain sight when we find it and go busting in. We’ll hide first, watch for a while, and then approach it slow-like from down below the windows. Anyway, there’s still plenty of daylight; lets walk on some more.”
Robby Lee turned to look at the dim, weed-choked path in front of us, darkened early because of the trees leaning close in over it on each side. “Why don’t we build a fire and just pitch camp now. I’m getting kind of hungry.”
The next morning, we got an early start and reached Culver’s pass by 10:00 a.m. We stood at the top of a ridge and scanned the surrounding landscape.
“Hey, Robby, look! There’s someone pointing a rifle at us!”
He dropped to his knees and grabbed my arm, tugging me down beside him. “Where? Do you think he saw us?”
“Nowhere. I was just screwing with your head.”
“You jerk!” He punched my shoulder and stood back up.
I grinned at him, looked around again, and pointed. “I think we should walk that way, toward that stand of pines. See that stream down there heading northeast right into it? If you’re gonna live in the woods, you need a nearby water source. My money is on his cabin lying somewhere along that waterway.”
We slipped our backpacks on and started down toward the place I had pointed to.
We followed along that stream for the next four hours, going deeper and deeper into the woods, stopping only for brief rests or to chew on some elk jerky we packed for the trip. Robby was starting to complain about the heat, the bugs, and the mistake of making the trip in the first place.
I myself was starting to wonder if we were on a wild goose chase, or looking in the wrong area altogether, when a steeply down-sloping trail we’d been following suddenly veered sharp to the right. When we made the turn, there it was. I could see a cabin about fifty yards away in a clearing hewed out of the dense woods, just barely visible through a curtain of trees.
“Do you think that’s it?”
“Ssshhhh! Sound carries in these woods.”
Robby nodded his understanding and stood quietly looking at what was visible of the rustic structure.
I leaned over to whisper to him. “It must be. No normal person would have a cabin in such a hidden, out-of-the-way place.”
“What should we do?”
“See the way it backs up to those woods? Let’s go part-way down this slope to the left, then all the way around through the trees and come up behind it. That way we can stay out of sight and check out the scene close up.”
“What if he has a dog?”
“A dog would have already been barking.”
Moving slowly and cautiously, we made our way along a round-about path to the wooded area in back of the cabin. We crouched behind some brush that concealed us right well, but also gave us a view of the area when we moved some to the left or right.
The cabin was small, but solidly built, with nary a chink in the wood that would leave it open to the weather, at least that I could see from where I sat, and the clearing was free of leaves and other forest debris that would have drifted into it over time.
Robby tugged on my shirt hard and leaned in close to my ear. “Look! There’s a stack of firewood to the right there, and a fire-pit with a pan!”
We looked at each other and I sensed he felt the same thrill of danger run down his spine as I did just then. It was obvious that Tom Crow, or somebody, was living there and may even be in the cabin right at that moment.
We watched and waited for another hour, hearing nothing and seeing no signs of movement, so decided to take a chance and creep around to the front to peak through one of the windows.
A minute later, we were crouched down below one, and I could see bare-faced fear on Robby’s face. I was scared too, but I hid it right good, because I knew if he saw that on me, he would probably change his mind about what we were doing and go scurrying back into the woods.
I swallowed hard and raised my head up just enough to look through the bottom part of the window. The cabin was only one large room, so I could see right away that no one was inside just then. I stood up and waved for Robby to do the same.
There wasn’t much to see—a bed, a rough hewn table and chair, some shelves, boxes of I didn’t know what, some kitchenware, tools, and a fireplace.
I walked to the front door and pulled on it—it was unlocked.
Robby looked around nervously at the surrounding woods, and then back at me with almost a begging in his eyes.
Staying alert—its owner really could return at any moment—I pushed the door back the way I’d found it, put a finger to my lips, and gestured for him to follow me back into the trees behind the cabin.
“I want to go inside and look around, but I’m thinking maybe he’s out hunting. With sunset coming, he could be back any minute. Let’s get some distance from here and find a place to camp out for the night where we won’t be seen or heard. We can come back during daylight early and go inside once we know the coast is clear.”
Robby looked relieved and grabbed up his backpack like he couldn’t get away from there soon enough.
We decided to go back around the way we came since we were already familiar with that route. I didn’t want to risk running into some impassable brush or deadfall we didn’t know about.
We soon made our way through the surrounding woods, up onto the trail, and were almost back to the right hand turn that would lead us out of view of the cabin, when I had the thought that we might need to stop at the stream. I had enough water in my canteen to easy get through the night, but Robby drank a lot more than I did that day.
“How much water you got left?” I turned to him as I asked, because I wanted to still keep my voice low until we were further away, and when I did, I felt like I’d been jolted with a cattle prod. He wasn’t there.
He’d been walking close behind me most of the way back—I could hear his shoe crack a twig now and then—so it set my heart pounding when I saw he was gone. I wondered if he stopped to rest, but I knew, with him being on edge as he was about Tom Crow showing up, he wouldn’t have done that without telling me to wait up for him.
“Robby!” I whispered as loud as I dared to, then walked a ways back along the path and called out to him again. It was a straight view in front of me to the belt of trees, the clearing, and the cabin. The only place he could have gone was back that way, or off the path to the right into the brush and trees. Or grabbed and dragged off into the brush or trees, with someone’s hand clamped over his mouth hard.
I shook off the crazy thoughts—told myself they were crazy thoughts. If something had really happened to him, I would sure enough have heard some ruckus behind me. I figured he was playing a joke on me.
I sat on a big rock by the side of the trail and decided to wait there for him to return from wherever he dashed off to.
Twenty minutes later, I was still waiting on that rock. The sun was setting, and I was so scared I felt like throwing up.
I stood up and looked in the direction of the cabin, then back the other way from where we’d come, and then all around at the surrounding, darkening forest, not knowing what to do. My friend was missing, maybe hurt or even killed. I needed to go for help, but it was a good two days hike back and night was creeping up.
I looked toward the cabin again, the one that maybe belonged to a multi-murderer, and felt cold and sickly. Then I saw a man come through the trees at the far end of the clearing in front of it.
Fear stung me all over and I wanted to turn and run, but knew that in the silence of the woods, the sounds would carry. I had to wait until he went inside so that I could creep away quietly.
I watched him move toward the door of the cabin through the spaces between the trees and strained to see if there was anything of Robby’s with him. I shifted enough to finally tell that he was carrying a rifle slung over his shoulder, a small knapsack, and a brace of rabbits.
He stopped before he got to the door and looked down at the ground and then around the clearing. I jerked without meaning to when I realized he saw our footprints by the window and door. He then stood very still in the failing light for a long time, like he was just listening, but finally went inside.
I exhaled deep as though I’d been holding my breath all that time; I knew I hadn’t been, but it felt that way. I needed to now find a safe place to hole up for the night, then make double time at first light to get back and get help.
My feet wouldn’t turn to move in the direction they needed to go though. I kept thinking about Robby, my best friend since always. He wasn’t with Tom Crow, so he was out in the woods somewhere, scared and alone, maybe in pain, maybe dying. I kept standing there looking at the cabin, and a light came on and showed through the window—low, like from a lantern.
I made a decision then that would end up changing me for the rest of my life. I guess if I could pick one day for when I turned from a boy into a man, it would be that one—that moment—and what happened afterwards, because I never looked at people, life, or even the big old universe the same way again.
Before I’d taken even five steps into the clearing at the end of the trail, the cabin door swung open and the man who stood in it, pale against the backdrop of the low light behind him, was pointing a rifle at me.
I raised my arms slowly with my hands wide open, swallowed, and took a few more steps toward him.
“Sir, Mr. Crow? I need help. My friend is missing.”
Inside the cabin, the man who stood staring at me was old—like maybe a hundred—with snow-white hair, deep lines dug into his face, and narrow, cold blue eyes, but he moved with the litheness and snap of a mountain lion. I could see that outside when he walked up to me quick-like with his rifle and looked down sharp and steady into my eyes.
He was now leaning up against the unlit stone fire-place, his arms crossed over his chest, and interrupted not a once while I spilled out the whole story beginning to end.
When I mentioned the part about how Robby and I came to get a souvenir because we thought he was maybe a famous murderer, a quick shadow twitched across his face. I didn’t know if it was a twitch of anger, or the flick of a mean smile someone has when they’re about to enjoy killing something, but once I started talking, the words kept tumbling out.
When I got to the end part about Robby disappearing, he then asked a lot of strange questions about anything I could remember from right before that. Did I see bright lights flashing on and off? Did I hear high-pitched sounds or voices screaming in another language? Did I feel waves of heat and cold right before? Weird stuff like that. So weird that he began to scare me the way being alone with a crazy person might scare you, and also because of the serious-hard look in his eyes when he was asking.
There wasn’t anything like what he asked about that happened, and when I said so, he just stared at me for a long time, and that kind of shook me up too, because he looked like maybe he didn’t believe me. I thought he was going to say something else, but he finally just nodded, picked up one of the dead rabbits he’d brought to the cabin and a knife from off a shelf, and brought them both over to me.
“You know how to skin and gut a rabbit boy?”
“Yes, … yes sir.”
“Do it. And light a fire under that kettle.” He was talking about a big pot full of water hanging from a hook over the logs. “When the water boils, put the rabbit in. I’m going out to look for your friend.”
Despite my trying to choke them back, girly-tears came up to my eyes because he would maybe find Robby. I looked down and waited for them to fall back inside my head so that he wouldn’t see, and so that I could thank him with my voice steady, but he had already taken up his rifle and stepped out into the moonlit darkness.
I by-and-by got the rabbit ready and into the pot, then paced back and forth with edginess wondering if Robby was okay. I don’t know how much time passed after that, because I fell asleep with my head down on the wooden table. I got woke by muffled sounds at the door of the cabin.
I jumped up as the door was pushed open. It was Tom Crow, his rifle slung over his shoulder, holding Robby Lee high up by one arm like he was practically lifting him. I saw right away it was because Robby was limping bad and could hardly put his right foot down hard to the floor. He also had blood dried and crusted on his face, but he smiled big when he saw me.
Tom dropped him down into the chair, then went over to the simmering kettle and used a stick to lower a clean rag into the water, while I hovered over Robby.
“What happened to you? Where’d you go?”
Before Robby even had a chance to say a word, Tom brought the dripping rag over and handed me the stick.
“When that cools off, use it to clean up that cut on your friends head, then wipe the blood off his face. When that’s done, I’ll give you a clean, dry one to wrap his head up in.
“Thank you Mr. Crow. Thank you so much. I—”
“Crow? That’s Tom Crow? He never said his name, even when I asked. Said he was a local hunter. Is he—”
“Robby, shut up. Just tell me what happened.”
I quickly glanced at Tom, who caught my eye, and I realized he held his name back deliberate so as not to scare Robby when they were walking back through the dark woods.
By-and-by, Robby told me about his accident. There was a place where the stream rolled close, below to where we’d been walking, so close, it was roaring loud for that part of the trail. That’s in fact what got me thinking about filling Robby’s canteen.
He had stopped a moment to look at a deer the other side of a ravine, but stood too near to the soft dirt on the edge and it gave way. He went tumbling down the hill through some brush, with not much more close-by noise than some twigs cracking, on account of the water sound.
Right when his feet went out, before he could even shout, his head hit a rock hard and it knocked him out. When he woke up, it was dark, his ankle was twisted bad, and he couldn’t get back up the hill to the trail without help. It wasn’t much after that when Tom Crow showed up.
“Mr. Crow, how did you know he was at the bottom, at that very spot, with all that brush in the way?”
“Footprints of his hiking boots stopped there.
“I reckon that bed is big enough for both of you. In the morning, I’ll bind up his ankle and you can make for home.”
Robby was out like a light, but I stayed up awhile because I wanted to talk with Tom, needed to talk with him. The few things he said that night were in short, rough sentences, like his voice was rusty or needed to be found from where it had disappeared to over the years. I reckon that’s on account of I was maybe the first person he spoke to since he went to live away from other people. There was only one chair, which he sat on, while I sat on a box.
“Mr. Crow, I want to say how sorry I am that we thought you were a murderer. Ever since I was little I heard stories about you murdering some children, the ones out at the Keppler farm, and the Wilkens boy too. I know now that’s just silly gossip talk, and I intend to set the record straight.
Tom then sat up stiff, stretched out his arms, and placed his hands flat on the table, like he was pushing against it. He looked at me for what seemed practically forever. He kept staring, like he had a question to ask but couldn’t bring it up to his tongue.
“Well, I don’t know about that. Never did. I knew those boys. Saw them dead on the ground in my field. Always wondered about that. Always wondered if—”
Tom was silent again. I could see his tongue moving in his mouth like he was trying to make that question come.
“You never heard or saw anything strange right before your friend fell? Didn’t feel waves of heat and cold? Nothing like that since you been in this cabin either?”
“No, … No sir. Not a once.” I wanted to ask him what he was talking about, but something made me hold my tongue.
The next morning, Robby’s ankle was bound up good, and with his stiff hiking boots laced tight around, he was able to walk pretty fair. We left, and several days later, made it home.
That was more years ago than I care to mention. Tom Crow didn’t say much more that night, but from the little he did, I got an inkling of what happened. And now, sometimes when I look up at the vast sky of nighttime stars, and think about all the worlds out there, and about all the things that I don’t know, I have a hunch. But I don’t much talk about things like that.
I don’t know if he did or didn’t murder those kids, but see, that was the thing—neither did he.
Tom Crow saw and heard things—brilliant flashes of light that made him feel like his skin was on fire—strange, high voices that ran together like braids of water in a stream, and what he thought must be comets that stopped dead in the sky, then slowly came strait down into the fields of his farm. Tom thought he was getting touched in the head, the way dogs with the rabies sickness do. It was around that time boys started showing up dead. I don’t think he ever gave much thought to how big around the universe is and to all the other planets that must be in it.
What I do know from that one night we talked is that he took himself far away from other people for good, thinking time and aloneness would carry away the demons he figured must be around and inside him. It was the only way he knew for sure to keep other people safe.
And what I know from that, is that deep down, people are basically good, even the killing ones.
Tom Crow is long dead now. I went back there years later. There were generations of fallen leaves, pinecones, and brush blown into the clearing by the winds of many late season storms.
I walked into the empty cabin, once a sanctuary at the center of a dark forest, remembered him saving my friend, and again felt safe in the embrace of its sturdy walls.
Ellen Denton’s Bio: Published in Wicked Words, Robot and Raygun, Another Realm, Body Parts, Insight, a White Cat Publication, Underground Voices, Perihelion Science Fiction, Horror Garage, SpecLit, Transformation, Horror on the Installment Plan, Bards and Sages quarterly, Binnacle, Literary hatchet, Kid’s Ark, Fiction 365, You and Me, Things Japanese, Guardian Angel Publishing, Words about work, Greenprints, Animal Wellness, Country Extra, and Vampires2 magazines, in a Third Flat Iron Press, Gothic City Press, Suddenly Lost in Words, Nameless(print edition), Dark Moon books, Spark, Spruce Mountain Press, Publishing Syndicate, Zharmae Publishing Press, See Spot Run, and a Treasures Beyond Measure anthology; Honorable mention in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest, 1st place in On the Premises contest, winner of Enchanted Spark contest, 4th place in Echoes of the Right to God essay contest, honorable mention in Reading Writers suspense fiction contest, finalist for Smories short story contest, PK Poetry competition, and Scinti story contest.