Footsteps in Treetops by Bennett Cole by Bennett Cole - Read Online

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Summary

Murdered! Yes, murdered! Her body left lying on the Wildwood Trail.In Radnor, a small Virginia mountain town, twelve-year-old Marvin McKenzie and his Junior Commando gang attempt to lead normal lives on the homefront as WWII rages on. But their peace is fractured when one of the gang finds the body on the Wildwood Trail, the kids' favorite haunt.When the older brother of one of the gang's members is erroneously charged with the murder, the Commandos resolve to try to "crack the case." But the intrusion in Marvin's life caused by an "older" (fourteen) precocious neighborhood girl, her alcoholic father and her terminally ill and demented grandmother, coupled with various Commando escapades, temporarily sidetrack Marvin and his cohorts.They nevertheless persist in their sleuthing, and in a spine-tingling conclusion as the murderer chases Marvin through the Wildwood forest at night, he falls through space and... Genre: Historical Fiction /Mystery / Mainstream
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781603134439
List price: $3.99
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Footsteps in Treetops - Bennett Cole

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encouragement.~~

Chapter 1

When people ask me why I walk with a slight limp, I explain that when I was very young, I broke my hip; that even though it healed satisfactorily in a few weeks, the injury bequeathed me some minor nerve damage. On my rare visits back home, my childhood friend Curtis and I often reminisce about my accident and the circumstances that conspired to bring it about.

We disagree on one point: Curtis insists that it all began in the summer of 1941, but I say it was in the early summer of 1942. I know I’m right because it was the very same summer that two other unforgettable events happened. First, my brother Arnold, who had joined the Air Corps and had arrived overseas late in May, promptly got shot down over Germany and became a prisoner of war. Second, several days later—in spite of the gloom that pervaded our home—I was feted with a surprise party by my parents to celebrate my eleventh birthday. The near-conjunction of those two so radically dissimilar happenings etched itself indelibly on my young memory, and so it is that I have always been able to pinpoint the commencement of the events that precipitated my accident.

My birthday party was a memorable occasion in itself. For one thing, it was the very first time every single one of my best friends were all together at the same time. There were Curtis, Ronnie Dean, Carlisle, Bobbie Jo and her little sister Annie, plus several others whose vague and shadowy semblances still haunt some hidden recess of my mind, but whose names have long since paled beyond recall.

But the main reason I remember my party so clearly is something that happened that day, namely that Ronnie Dean and Carlisle disagreed on who was rightfully entitled to the last piece of my birthday cake, and in the subsequent melee, Ronnie Dean bloodied Carlisle’s nose. There was bright crimson blood spattered all over the place—on Carlisle’s white Sunday suit, on the floor of our front porch—everywhere. Some even spattered on my mom’s best white linen tablecloth that she had so proudly displayed for the occasion. As you might suspect, she got extremely angry over that. Later, the disputants’ moms had a big fight over the phone about the incident and, according to reports from Curtis, they still have never spoken to each other to this very day, even though the two boys quickly forgot the whole matter.

While I considered Ronnie Dean, Carlisle, and Curtis all to be equally good friends of mine—and so were Bobbie Jo and Annie—Curtis is the one I have maintained the closest contact with through the years since I left Radnor. It was his discovery a day or two after my party that ushered in the somber cloud of suspicion that hung over our town for months to come.

Curtis’s family lived in a new housing development built for defense plant workers up on a big hill several blocks behind our house, a place called Jefferson Terrace, but usually everyone just called it the Terrace. Down the slope a ways on the opposite side of the hill stood a big field of grass that used to grow waist-high in summer. Through that field ran a path that led down the hill through a thick patch of woods, in the middle of which sat the remains of an old shack so old that nobody in town remembered who last lived there, or even why it was ever built in such a deserted place. From there, the path continued on down to a little valley called Wildwood, and because the trail ended there, we kids always just called it the Wildwood Trail.

We were clearly justified in naming it and in claiming it as our trail. Not once had any of us ever spied an adult there. Sometimes we would spend a whole Saturday hiking along the trail and playing in the woods, and during summer vacation, any ol’ day was a likely opportunity for an outing there. Whenever we entered the woods, imagination always superseded objective perception. Any shadow could turn into an Indian lying in ambush, the old shack easily became the headquarters of a ring of German saboteurs, and at times, Yankee sharpshooters simply materialized out of nowhere. And so it was that the name Wildwood soon became, for us, synonymous with entry into a dimension limited neither by parental constraint nor by our own budding powers of reason.

If you continued on down the trail, as we sometimes did on really hot days when we decided to go for a swim, you would reach a cliff overlooking Wildwood Valley, in which flowed Ingalls Run. It was on Ingalls Run that the town swimming pool sat, also called Wildwood. There, most of the kids in town spent their idle summer hours, and that was in spite of a notable drawback of the locale: the pool was nestled so deep between the hills that the sunlight never struck it until almost noon, and then, in only an hour or so, the shade began to overtake the water again. For that reason, swimming in the Wildwood pool was commonly compared by the townsfolk to taking a bath in ice water. And it was an apt comparison, for even on the hottest July day, a quick dip in that pool could keep you chilled to the marrow of your bone all the way to suppertime.

It was to swim at Wildwood that Curtis was headed on a hot June day when the peace in our town was shattered. Even though it took place so many years ago, I can relate it to you exactly like Curtis told it to me, because he and I have rehearsed that scene and all the others related to it so many times in the years subsequent to that eventful day.

He was hiking down the path all by himself, and he hadn’t gotten very far from his house when he glimpsed something lying off to his left in the tall grass. He was walking so fast he had to back up a few steps to take a better look, and when he did—as Curtis later said—he almost wished he hadn’t, for there was a woman, a young woman, lying there face down. He was puzzled at first; he just wondered why anyone would take a nap in such a strange place. He crept through the tall grass and slowly inched up a little closer, but not too close.

Uh, miss? he whispered.

No answer.

Miss, you all right?

Still no answer.

Well, she most definitely was not all right, for as it turned out, she was deader ’n a doornail, as we kids later phrased it, only Curtis didn’t know it right then. He just stood there looking at her pretty gingham dress and noticing that it was all dirty and torn, and that her face was turned to one side, her eyes closed. She didn’t move a muscle, so he drew a little nearer and bent down real close.

Miss, are you sick? Can I do sump’n for you?

No sooner did he hear his own voice than he realized how silly he sounded, for at that very moment he noticed the bluishness of her face, that she wasn’t breathing at all, and how one arm was raised ever so slightly with nothing supporting it, as if frozen in the air. It dawned on him that she couldn’t hear a thing and never would again.

Momma, Momma! he howled as he burst into a sprint.

Now Curtis was the slowest kid in the sixth grade in foot races because he was considerably on the chubby side and had real stubby little legs, but the way I pictured it when Curtis described it later, he must have broken all track records known to humankind that day.

Momma, Momma! he shrieked over and over again as he darted homeward.

He ran right up his front steps, stumbled on the last one, and collapsed gasping on the porch as his momma came out.

Curtis, what’s the matter with you, child? Why, you could wake up the dead screaming like that!

I don’t think so, Momma, he panted, else she’d already be awake!

Whatever are you talking about, son? Please try to make some sense to Momma!

Momma, as sure as I’m laying here, there’s a dead girl down yonder in the tall grass! Honest! He turned and pointed down the slope. Leastwise, he gulped, she looks dead to me. I tried to wake her up, but she wouldn’t move; she just laid there.

Very well, Curtis, Momma said, I’ll go see about her. Whoever she is, she’s probably just fainted with this heat and all. You stay here and try to catch your breath.

So Momma went to see, and what she saw was that the girl was indeed dead—stone-cold dead. Momma scampered back up to the house and called the police. First they came, and then an ambulance came, and after they took the girl’s body away, the police asked Curtis all about it. That same night, Mr. Carruthers, owner and editor of the Evening Star, called and interviewed Curtis. When the Saturday newspaper came out, Curtis’s name was in it, and kids all over town were talking about it. And that was how Curtis got to be a celebrity of sorts in our town—at least for a little while.

Now if you know anything at all about small towns and small-town kids, you can easily imagine what the next few days were like. Half the boys in town, even some he scarcely knew, claimed to be friends of Curtis’s just so they could have the curious pleasure of introducing him to other kids and their parents by saying things like, This here’s my friend Curtis. He’s the one that found the dead girl. And then great embellishments, as my daddy labeled them, usually got added to the actual facts by the kids.

Of course, the grown-ups in town engaged in a lot of inventions and rumors, too, only they glibly referred to them as speculations.

But the cold, hard facts reported by our trusted Evening Star were these: The dead girl was Mary Lou Sheppard, twenty years old and the daughter of the meanest man in town, ol’ man Sheppard as everyone called him, only the paper didn’t say anything about his meanness, of course. Nor did it mention that they lived way out in the west end of town in a section jokingly called Tombstone on account of its reputation as such a rough and rowdy neighborhood, where tempers frequently flared on Saturday nights under the influence of alcohol. But in spite of that reputation, I had never heard of anything more violent than an occasional drunken brawl at Trixie’s Tavern or a domestic dispute turned physical taking place there. The Star did report, however, that she had been dead for about ten to twelve hours according to the town coroner, and had not been sexually assaulted, although I didn’t know what that meant and consequently made a spectacular fool of myself by asking one of my mom’s lady friends when she stopped to chat one day.

When I thought about it a little more, I remembered seeing Mary Lou at the Wildwood pool a few times and also at the Virginian Theater downtown lots of times. Bobbie Jo and Annie said they knew her because their dad was her supervisor at the shirt factory, where she had been working to earn money in order to take beautician lessons at La Belle Academy in nearby Roanoke.

But the most disturbing part of the newspaper report was that Mary Lou had been murdered, choked to death, and the police had absolutely no idea who had done it and no leads. Yes, murdered, and right there in our Radnor, the peaceful gem city of New River Valley!

One thing was certain: for several weeks after that, none of us kids stayed out after dark to play the way we usually did on summer nights, and we also stopped taking the Wildwood Trail through the woods for a long while after that. Every night, all the parents in town checked and double-checked to see if all the doors and windows were locked up good and tight before they settled down for the night. And as for me, every night when I went to bed, I pulled the counterpane up over my head, squinched my eyes shut extra-tight so as not to see the willowy shadows of the trees stealing like phantoms across my windows, and drifted off to sleep wondering who did it and why.

Chapter 2

A week or so passed by, during which Mary Lou Sheppard’s funeral was held, but the whole town was still buzzing about her murder. Some folks thought this and others thought that, and if you didn’t think anything at all, folks looked at you kind of curiously. The most interesting opinion I heard, however, was voiced by Miss Lydia Radnor. She was my sixth-grade teacher in the school year just concluded, as well as a distant cousin of my daddy’s.

Miss Lydia and my mom were good friends, and in the summertime she was accustomed to coming to visit sometimes of an evening. The two of them would sit on the glider on our front porch as it grew dark and talk endlessly about this and that, but their favorite topic was the great times they’d had when they were school chums years before at Radnor High. Usually on such occasions I would find some way to be absent or busy myself with other things, such as building model planes or reading comic books.

One night, however, while I was upstairs next to my bedroom window carving a model of a B-26 bomber, their voices wafted up to my window. I heard them mention that Sheppard girl and then lower their voices to mere whispers. Now hushed tones were always a sure sign they were talking about something worth listening to, so I sneaked down the stairs, wiggled across the slick hardwood living room floor on my belly, stretched out under the window that opened onto the porch, and lay very still, my ears straining.

Honest, Louella, Miss Lydia was proclaiming, you just don’t know what that Sheppard bunch is like. And that ol’ man Sheppard, he used to beat that girl unmercifully when she was a student of mine in the sixth grade. I know, because she came to school all black and blue more than once, and that’s a fact. Yes, ma’am!

Mercy me, Lydia, that’s awful! Mom exclaimed. Why do you suppose he did that?

"Goodness sake, Louella, that ol’ man is so mean, he didn’t need a reason. Why, he used to slap her around for any little thing that displeased him—the way she washed the dishes, coming home a few minutes late—almost anything. And all that, mind you, in spite of the fact that her mother died when she was just a little tyke and she practically had to run the household all by herself after that. And another thing, he never allowed her to go out on dates until she graduated from high school, and even then he questioned her about everything when she came home from a date—where they went, what they did, who else was there, and so on. It’s one thing to be protective, but he was insanely protective, he was, Louella. Hmph! Wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was the one who did it, maybe in one of his fits of rage."

Her slow and deliberate intonation of those last words raised the hair on the back of my neck.

Miss Lydia had spoken, and when she spoke, most folks listened. At least I always did, for she was a woman of integrity and well-reasoned opinions, as folks were wont to put it. But most important of all in our community, she had been blessed with what was commonly called Family Background.

The Radnors had lived in Radnor since time immemorial, so folks used to exaggeratedly claim. And it was a fact that they had been there since 1737. In that year, James B. Radnor and his scouting party came west over the mountains from where there was already a small settlement. When they reached New River, he paused to admire the scenic beauty, the cliffs and all across the river just where it makes a horseshoe bend, and decided right then and there, upon the advice of his renegade Ohio Indian guide, to build a cabin on the river bottomland for summer hunting and trapping. Later, more settlers began to come and settle in the vicinity, and when he saw that others were simply passing through to proceed westward and on down through the Cumberland Gap, he perceived an economic opportunity. He moved to the cabin from the Lynchburg settlement with his wife and small children to live year round there. As soon as possible, he enlarged the cabin into a real house and established a ferry there to haul the pioneers and their wagons across—for a profitable fee, of course. The road—it was called the Valley Road—passed through and crossed the river right at that very spot where his house was located. Now James Radnor, so a chronicler later recorded, was as hardy and bold a frontiersman and Indian fighter as ever inhabited these parts, but he also had a shrewd head for a profit, so he erected an inn at the ferry landing. There, travelers could rest their weary bodies and partake of one or more of Mrs. Radnor’s succulent frontier concoctions before continuing their westward trek on into the virtual unknown.

As you might imagine, the Indians didn’t take too kindly to all this encroachment by the pioneers, so every year in the spring they would form raiding parties up north, come down and attack the settlement, killing men and taking women and children captives when they could. Pretty soon the pioneers built a fort there, and all the settlers would gather in it every summer whenever they suspected or heard that the Indians were in the region. There they stayed as long as necessary, or until the weather grew too cold for the Indians to come off on those long forays from their Indian nation in Ohio territory.

I should explain, perhaps, that my extensive knowledge of Radnor’s origins is entirely attributable to none other than Miss Lydia herself. All the kids in town practically grew up on this story; in fact, it was a required part of our studies in sixth grade, and there was no way one could reach the seventh without knowing it in detail. We loved the story, but not simply because it was exciting. Since many of us were descendants of the Radnors or other hardy New River pioneers of that era, and since it took place right where we lived, a firm but never spoken belief made itself known among us: that we were simply latter-day actors in that continuing saga.

Miss Lydia could tell her ancestral story as if she were living it herself. It was so exciting to hear her tell it in class; it was far better than any cowboy and Indian movie I had ever seen at the Virginian, even the ones with Randolph Scott or Buster Crabbe, my favorites. The way I had it figured, James Radnor was probably Miss Lydia’s great, great, great-grandfather. But what was almost certain—but not actually verifiable—was that in the direct line of descent between him and her, there had never been one single scoundrel