The Haunting of Romney Wood, Part Two

The sheriff and state police were on the tracks, using old hand pump cars, within an hour.  And, by late afternoon, they stopped beside the burnt timbers and pile of stones that had been old Blackhill Station.

Shelby had told them about the wind and the scream and the noise in the tunnel, but the only information they took to heart was that the Witch was still up there.  They approached cautiously, guns drawn, taking the overgrown path up through the line of Oaks.  The dolls and the bottlecaps didn’t faze them – these boys had seen crazy lawn art before.  They moved towards the front door, lunging into defensive postures when their presence flushed out several animals.  Squirrels, birds, a raccoon, and a fox all came skittering through the door shortly before the sheriff stepped foot on the first step up to the porch.  Then the sheriff led his men up to the porch and they all stood, crowded around the wide open door, shocked at the charnel house horror within.

The sheriff quickly pulled himself together and moved into the entrance hall, stepping gingerly around the bodies.  He announced himself, regretting it as soon as the words left his lips.  His deputies and the state troopers all glanced at him as if he were crazy, then they spread out, checked the house, and called out all clears.  Upstairs, they found no sign of the Witch.

Her dress – that blue and white gingham that Shelby described – was floating in a dark pool of water that had flooded the unfinished basement.  It was filthy and looked old, a far cry from the pristine condition Shelby described.  There was no sign of a body in the water, though.

All in all, there were 47 separate human remains in the house.  The most recent was a 14 year old boy with a crushed skull.  Harrison Danvers of Bear Creek, who’d gone missing with his older brother while hunting in the eastern edge of Romney Wood five weeks prior. The oldest, according to the coroner, had been on the stained floor of the house for nearly 50 years. An unidentified male in his 40’s whose remains showed some sort of massive, crushing injury.

As for the Witch, there was no sign. The stained dress in the basement, according to later forensics, belonged to one of the recent female victims and had been in the basement for some time. The house had not been lived in.  There was no sign of the food or supplies that Shelby had been dropping off for all those years.  Except, of course, for the bottle cap tree.

The sheriff’s deputies pried off the bottle caps, the forensics experts collected all the dolls, dogs and mounted officers explored the woods for more bodies, or for signs of habitation.  Deputies enlisted volunteers and combed the meager ruins of Black Hill and the surrounding forest.

Back at the labs, several remains were identified.  Young and old, mixed gender, tourists and locals.  In the end, 22 were identified in the first year.  In the late 80’s, thanks to an Unsolved Mysteries episode, another four were ID’d.  DNA helped ID seven more in 2000.

The victims came from all walks of life.  Those who, today, remain unidentified could have been anyone.

The killings didn’t stop, though. From time to time, someone will go missing in Romney Wood.  After the rail bridge washed out in 85, and with Old Holland bricked up, you don’t see too many people crossing over.  There’s no good hunting, and those old towns like Black Hill are a dime a dozen throughout these hills.  Relic hunters have better pickings. The locals will tell you that there’s a reason Black Hill isn’t on the map. A tourist driving along wouldn’t see the old tracks or the tunnel even from their car if they were to look down at Blackhill Creek. Old Route 344 is pretty dead these days, anyway.  The Interstate came in around 1984.  A nice, straight path passing 40 miles north of Blackhill mountain, blasting through another mountain, simplifying the way to points west or east.

The locals know not to look too hard at the other side of Blackhill creek. Let the mountain live, let the forest keep its secrets.

Between 1985 and today, only five people have gone missing.  Two were tourists, enthusiasts of America’s old byways and highways, they said.  They followed 344, turned off onto a layby, and bounced their way down to Blackhill Creek.  Their car was found at the edge of the creek.  No trace of the tourists were ever found.  The sheriff, armed to the teeth, led a procession of deputies and hunters on ATV’s across the creek and up to the Witch’s house, but there was no sign of activity.

One recent case was a local boy.  Another child lost while hunting. Though, these days, the more commonly accepted explanation is that a bear got him.

The two most recent missing persons knew this story. They were that particular sort of ghoul who turn past murder and mayhem into a holiday.  We’re all guilty of that.  Touring graveyards and battlefields, snapping photos and touching bullet-riddled trees.

They arrived, stayed at the Black Hill B&B, then took off down 344 looking for the old government road.  This was shortly after the DNA tests in 2000 that, briefly, brought the story back into the local news.

Most likely, they were more the victims of Blackhill Creek than anything supernatural.  A storm hit the same afternoon they headed off, and their car was found washed into the bridgeworks of another rail trestle roughly 20 miles downstream.  The fools must have tried to cross.

The bodies were never recovered, but it’s all pretty wild out there.  Get lost in Romney Wood and, unless you have a sense of the woods in you, you’re doomed.  Big city folk and their SUV’s weren’t made for Romney Wood.

There was another sighting of the Witch after 1976, though.  For the sake of storytelling, we’ll say it was legit, but you can’t really trust the source.  Mabel Elliot, the 27 year old daughter of Russell and Patricia Elliot, was always a little touched in the head.  She’d been in and out of institutions, whenever Russell and Patricia could afford to do so.  More often than not, she was out and living with them in their double-wide.

Mabel rarely spoke, and the doctors said she was functioning on the level of a four year old child.  The older Russ and Patty got, the more Mabel would sneak away and run wild.  Usually into town, where the sheriff or a deputy would pick her up and ferry her back.  But once she vanished for three weeks, and everyone figured she was another victim of Romney Wood.

Franklin Hart was the one who found her.  Sunday morning, taking old Route 344 at dangerous speed, he nearly killed Mabel as she stumbled, naked, out of the woods beside Blackhill Creek.

Mabel had a sack with her, full of empty bottles of Coca Cola, and she was talking.  Talking more than she had her whole life.  Though talking is saying a bit much.  She still couldn’t communicate properly.  She was just reciting the same thing over and over again.  Seventy nine names.

Among the seventy nine were the names of the identified remains taken from the house in 76, and the names of the handful that had gone missing since, and she always ended with her own name.  Then she’d start over.  And over. And over until her voice cracked, and the doctors had to sedate her.  Whenever the sedatives wore off, she’d start saying the names again.

As far as anyone knows, she’s locked up in a state hospital still saying those names.  Only once, a month after they found her, did she break the pattern.  A fancy shrink from Harvard came down to interview her, and see if he could get more details.  She broke off when the shrink mentioned the supposed identity of the Witch – Amanda Atherton – and she looked him dead in the eye and said, “These are the things she done.”

Then she returned to the litany of names.

Poor Mabel.  One good thing that came of that was that a few of the unidentified remains were matched up to the names she was rattling off.  One was an earlier victim.  Missing since 1934, the son of a coal baron from two counties over.

He was identified just last week, his remains finally returned to his family.

And that, I suppose, is why you all are here.