The Old Apple Tree
Lester stood under the old apple tree, one of a small grove his grandmother had planted near the family house. He was in his early thirties neatly dressed in dark slacks and an open-necked dress shirt under a cardigan sweater. The only unattractive thing about his attire was the well-used army boots he was wearing. A slight breeze rustled the deep green leaves still glistening with dew on the branches of the apple trees behind him. He didn’t notice that one of the tree limbs directly over his head was dead - gnarled, with twisted twigs and only a few leaves.
In front of him, the hillside dropped steeply to a valley still partially hidden by the morning fog. As the sun was struggling to stab its rays through the fog, in the distance, he could just begin to make out the taller buildings of the small Pennsylvania village he had lived in all his life.
In front of him, almost at his feet, a small ditch had been dug in the wet, loamy soil through the use of a noisy, undersized back hoe that had departed half an hour ago. The machine had been replaced by a couple of deputies who had carefully dug slightly deeper to reveal all of the grey and dirt encrusted bones of a human skeleton. This part of the state had finally escaped from three days of heavy rainfall and now; with sunshine a-plenty, two boys hiking over the hill the afternoon before had discovered the bones appearing through the eroding soil. They’d run home and told their parents who had raised the alarm that resulted in the bustling police presence now milling around the area. At the moment the only person in the ditch was a forensic expert of some kind in a blue cover-all. He was on his knees examining the bones as he carefully brushed dirt from them.
At the crest of the hill in back of him, behind a long stretch of yellow tape fastened to the apple trees, were a bunch of deputies and the local Sheriff together with a few members of the media. Facing him, two figures stood on the other side of the ditch. One was a stocky, older man dressed in an expensive custom made suit that was woefully unsuccessful in hiding his obesity. With a glower on his face and the breeze ruffling his white but sparse circle of hair he was watching the forensic specialist in the ditch with desperate attention. Next to him stood a tall, slim younger man dressed in patterned golfing pants and a cardigan sweater over a blue, open-neck shirt. Whereas the older one’s demeanor exuded confidence and power, the younger one was the picture of boredom and disinterest, The older was Lester’s uncle, Theodore Beckwith, Chairman of Beckwith Investments, Ltd and the young one his cousin, Jeffry.
When the forensic investigator was finished he waved at the deputies and two of them with the Sheriff came down carrying a body bag into which they placed the bones. The deputies then headed back to the top of the hill while the Sheriff walked up behind Lester. The investigator meanwhile had stepped out of the ditch and approached them. “It’s a woman,” he said to the Sheriff, “About five two and very elderly, possibly in her nineties at time of death. I’ll know more about her when I get her into the morgue but my guess is she died and was buried at least twenty years ago. One thing for sure – she was killed by physical trauma to the head; a terrific blow to the back of the head with a large, heavy object; something like a coal miner’s shovel. She had severe skull fractures. It’s murder, Sheriff, no doubt about it. Oh, I found this on the right hand of the old lady,” and he handed the Sheriff something.
The Sheriff turned to Lester and said, “Do you recognize this?” as he handed him a ring. It was gold with a central dark red ruby surrounded with smaller aquamarine gems of some kind. As Lester took it from him he could feel the tears coming.
“Yes,” he answered in a choked voice. “It was my grandmother’s.”
“Well, I guess we’ve finally found her - your grandmother; after all these years, I’m so sorry, Lester. We will get whoever did this, rest assured. No matter how long it takes; we will get him.”
“Thank you John, I know you will,” answered Lester as he turned back to look across the valley. In doing so his eyes rested for a moment on his uncle and he noted him staring at them. Old Beckwith had heard the exchange and knew what the object was that Lester was holding. For a short instant Lester saw a small smile appear on his uncle’s face and then immediately disappear behind the usual grumpy facade.
“Oh yes, I know you will”, Lester repeated, “We all know who did this, don’t we?”. John didn’t reply; He just nodded his head.
Lester’s grandparents had owned the small coal mine that they were standing atop on the hillside. Their house, now long gone, had stood a short distance in back of him at the hilltop on the other side of the orchard. It was his grandmother who had planted the apple trees he now stood under. When the mine had run out of ore they had moved to the nearby town and his grandfather had invested in one of the first natural gas pipe lines in that part of the state. The business had thrived and grown over the years as it expanded to other investments into utilities and additional natural resources. His father and uncle had helped his grandmother in running it after the grandfather died. They had kept possession of the property the mine was located on and continued to use it as a private preserve for camping, picnicking, and grouse and pheasant hunting. Lester had enjoyed his childhood years running all over the hill with occasional adventures into the mine that catacombed the hillside beneath his feet.
Shortly after he had started grade school his father and mother were killed in an auto accident and he’d lived with his grandmother but, when he reached high school age, his uncle had talked his grandmother into enrolling him in a military academy. She had been reluctant but he told her, “You're just getting too old. I can tell you he’s going to be a handful. Not like my son who's already shown himself to be hard-working and serious."
The discipline required of the academy had been a hard thing for Lester to get used to. But it and the camaraderie of his new environment finally replaced the terrible loss of his parents as did the love for his grandmother with whom he kept in constant touch and visited at every opportunity. During one of those visits, while he was a senior and graduation was nearing, she had said to him, “Keep in mind, Lester, I want you to have a good education so start thinking about the college that you want to go to. Someday you’re going to be taking over the family business. Your uncle is doing well in handling it but you're going to be the heir. He keeps telling me that Jeffrey is a good kid but there are some things that have happened that have led me to believe your cousin isn't all that trustworthy. Your father and grandfather worked too long and too hard to build it into the business that it is today. I'm seeing to it that, if anything happens to me, you will have to take over.”
Well, that's not how things turned out. Shortly before his graduation, his grandmother disappeared. A huge and lengthy search failed to find any trace of her. Lester was devastated. In his depression he decided that college was not for him and, instead, he enlisted in the Army. Following a year of basic and advanced infantry training he was deployed to Vietnam and, while there, his uncle, with the help of a team of lawyers, was able to take legal possession of the business. Lester didn't care. A billion-dollar business was of no interest to him. He knew his cousin Jeffrey would eventually end up with everything anyway. That satisfied his uncle immensely because, what Lester didn’t know until later, his uncle’s legal manipulations had been unable to remove a clause in his grandmother’s will that made Lester an “heir” in perpetuity. But, the uncle had reached the logical decision – why take the risk of removing this barrier in similar fashion as he had done with others if it wasn’t necessary
When he came home from Vietnam and received a medical discharge because of the wounds he’d suffered he settled back in his hometown and got a job at a local auto dealership. Evenings he spent at the extension University facility in town with the help of the G.I. Bill that was to lead to a BS degree. By then his uncle had retired and his cousin had taken over. But, many of the employees he met off and on during the course of the day had tales to tell of how poorly the business was being run, how unhappy everybody was, and how his cousin Jeffrey had turned into a spendthrift and was wasting the company's money for his personal misuse in gambling and living a high and wild life.
Except for the rustling of the apple trees’ leaves and the low murmur of conversation in back of him, his meandering thoughts and recollections did little to relieve the grief Lester was feeling. The Sheriff had stepped back to join the others at the top of the hill in back of him and Lester had also started to turn when he suddenly heard a dull, muted rumble and something seemed to shift under his feet. It felt really weird – as though the earth under him was starting to move. The rumble increased to a roar and he realized the entire hillside was sliding out from under him. He had to get to firm ground but it was too late! In desperation he looked up and saw a dead limb of the nearest apple tree hanging a few feet directly over his head. He jumped straight upward as hard as he could but the earth beneath his feet had already started its slide and he lost his upward momentum. As he realized he was going to fall back he felt a group of the small branches at the end of the dead limb brush his outstretched hand. He gripped them as hard as he could but they seemed frail and slippery. For an instance he glimpsed his uncle and cousin, both with their mouths stretched in the rictus of silent screams that could not be heard over the roar of the moving hill.
Below him a good three feet of the hillside slid down and cascaded into the valley while he desperately held on to the branches. Finally the strength in his hand gave out and his fingers slipped off. To his thankful surprise he dropped only a few feet and felt solid and unmoving earth beneath his boots. As he caught his balance he looked up and saw the limb flip upward to its original position.
The rumbling and roar of the descending hillside finally stopped and, in the resulting silence, he heard the Sheriff yell, “Holy cow! What the hell happened? Are you OK?” as he and the troopers rushed down to help him. There they stood silently staring at the bare, exposed hill with a large swath cut from its surface and deposited in the valley. It looked like someone had taken a knife and scraped a few feet of dirt from the hill in the shape of a large triangle with its apex at the ditch. In places open log-lined corridors like trenches had been revealed and they realized they were looking at some of the tunnels that had made up the mine. The Beckwiths, both uncle and cousin, were gone.
The Sheriff, pointing at the mounds of dirt that had been piled up at the bottom of the hill from the land slide, said, “Looks like your Uncle and cousin are buried somewhere in that mess.” And then, to Lester’s surprise, he continued, “Good riddance! If it were up to me, I’d just leave them there but I suppose the county is going to have to find them and dig them up.” He put his arm across Lester’s shoulder and said, “You were one lucky son-of-a-gun.”
“Yeah, I guess I was, John,” he responded. Then he looked up at the dead branch on the apple tree and said under his breath, “Thanks grandma!” He repeated that a few days later when his family lawyer told him about the clause in the will and that he was now the sole owner of the family business and a billionaire.