– Excerpt –
CHAPTER ONE: Henry’s demise
November 29th, 1965
The sun was low in the sky on another perfect New Hampshire day. Henry Smith had just washed and brushed his favorite horse, Fiona, just inside the old red barn. He led her back to her stall and made sure there was plenty of hay to munch on, and then tossed the bucket of soapy water outside into a patch of lawn. The work day was over. Farming was not nearly as stressful as his previous job as a banker, but it was much more physical. Because of the daily exercise on the horse farm, he hadn’t had a night of insomnia since the day he and Annette moved in, and his heart was on the mend to boot.
Things were different here, in a good way. The air, the noise, and the way time passed were off the clock; life was much simpler away from the city. The animals all had their timely needs, like food and water and sleep, and they, along with the sun, did the timekeeping for you. It was remarkable how accurate their body clocks were. If by chance you tried to sleep in, the geese would show up at the front door honking at 7 A.M. sharp looking for their breakfast.
Every minute on the farm was about working together. In a little more than a week he would take Fiona to Concord to be auctioned off. His little horse breeding hobby had taken off; he was beginning to gain a reputation not only around the town but also the state as a competent, up and coming horse breeder. This hobby had become more than enough to pay for their happy lives in Sanborn, without even tapping into the banking nest egg of their previous life.
He shook the excess soap and water off of his hands, and wiped them on the back of his jeans. It was getting close to dinnertime so he headed for the side door to the house. Just before he turned the knob, something caught his eye…something out beyond the pond, way out in the field. He let go of the knob and walked toward the front of the house…maybe it was nothing. He stood there for a few seconds, scanning the tree line where he thought he might have seen her.
It had looked to Henry like the woman they would see from time to time at the corner of the property, cutting across the field into the woods. Dusk was an odd time of day for a walk for anyone, never mind someone that could not possibly live nearby. The closest neighbors were more than a mile away. Henry knew them, and this woman did not look familiar.
Henry and his wife Annette had even speculated that the woman could be a friend or relative of…well, somebody nearby, but they really didn’t know; they were grasping at straws looking for answers. The truth was there was no explanation why the woman made frequent appearances way out here for the past few years. All of the neighbors had their own meadows full of wild grapes and blueberries, not to mention pumpkins. Why come here? It would be a heck of a walk home.
Tonight was a cool November evening, just after Thanksgiving, and they had all enjoyed a nice family weekend together, all in all. Both kids (and their spouses) were able to make it to New Hampshire for the holiday. Now that the extended family had eaten their fill of farm fresh vegetables and free-range turkey and gone back home, it was time to select the annual Christmas tree; Annette had even reminded him to keep an eye out for one just yesterday. Now, as he stood staring at the field and the forest, he thought: Why not kill two birds with one stone?
Henry went back to the barn, grabbed the hatchet and set off down the front lawn past the stone wall and the pond, headed out toward the far left corner of the field. Just past the now seasonally bygone garden, was the meadow…and beyond that, the woods. The horses grazed out here for about half of every day. As he walked across their beautiful piece of property he reflected on how fortunate they were to have it, and to live here. One hundred yards later he turned left into the forest.
He had known about the overgrown grove since they bought the place, but he was still enamored by it. Damn shame. If this grove had been tended to over the years I’d have my tree already. I’d have my pick. I’d just saw it right down, and after a relatively short drag back to the house, I’d be done. I could even sell a few to the neighbors and the townspeople.
The grove was an abandoned Christmas tree farm that started about thirty yards into the wild forest, fully on Smith property. The Christmas trees gone wild had become towering spruce and of course, too far gone for holiday use. They were all at least forty feet tall, more or less, and grew in perfect symmetrical rows.
In and around the grove in odd spots were random wild spruce that could pass for Christmas trees if you looked hard enough. The ones in the middle of the aisles were so out of place it was obvious. The ones just outside the grove were slightly harder to spot because of the chaos of Mother Nature. Trees could be in clumps, and therefore hard to inspect from all sides, and nobody wanted a Christmas tree that looked uneven, like it had been in a windstorm.
Henry made his way through the first few yards of the wild forest and as always, all at once the chaos of random trees ended and the grove opened up in front of his eyes. He was fond of this place. It gave him a chill for no particular reason. It was hidden, and then it was in your face. And if you were here, it was yours and yours alone to enjoy, kind of like being lost in the hallways of an empty mansion. It was peaceful and quiet. He rarely had the time to make it out here, however. Who had time for leisure walks on a fully-functioning farm?
He angled his path to cut through the twenty to twenty-five rows of grove moving diagonally to the right, deeper into the woods. Where was she? She was making better time than he was…probably because he was doing double duty trying to find a suitable tree to please Annette. Maybe he could meet the trespasser some other day; the tree was more important given the coming sunset.
He passed more rows than planned, and before he knew it he could see the man-made symmetry coming to an end at the border of the congested wild forest. More and more rogue trees had claimed odd spots in the last rows; it was a near-even mixture of man and nature. At the edge of the grove began wild plants such as scrub brush, briars, poison ivy and several species of vines. The forest floor here wasn’t just spruce needles like the rest of the grove; leaves from all sorts of trees had drifted over the years, leaving piles of natural mulch.
The briars were thick, and behind them, undisturbed forest. Nestled inside the briars and brush were two high mounds of leaves that had collected for years, perhaps decades. They seemed artificially high, as if they covered something. At first Henry thought it might be a section of stone wall, but the stone wall in this forest also happened to be the property line, and he was sure he was still a ways from that.
The sun was sinking, ticking down the last minutes of the day, and Henry had to squint his eyes to choose a pathway through them to the mounds in the brambles. He chose carefully, albeit slowly, making his way forward, folding over the bases of the closest thorns with his boots to disarm the long gangly arms. He wished he’d brought his gloves, but it was too late for that now.
As he closed in, he realized the two piles were each nearly waist-high. A section of gray stone peered out from under twisting vines that had caught years of falling leaves, revealing something several shades lighter than anything naturally occurring out here.