None of Merrick Chelsworthy’s victims were ever recovered and that alone should be enough to make him the most memorable case I’ve ever had.
Those hunters came into the station with a story about a stone altar. And then they started in about all those faces carved into the trees; it made Archie and me wonder. So we went out there.
The first thing we noticed was all the faces.
In a circle around the clearing were a bunch of oaks; big old-growth trees several feet in diameter. There were, I think, seven or eight of them. Merrick carved likenesses of each of his victims into the trees. They were at heights of three to as high as seven feet from the ground, each looking in a different direction. All the faces were rendered in painstaking detail. They were so lifelike that we had no problems identifying each and every one. There were so many faces carved into the trees that one could never feel alone out there, and some even claimed they felt watched.
Each face had a different expression on it, as if Merrick was trying to capture the essence of the person it depicted. Young April Weatherby’s likeness was radiant and smiling. Mr. Gellor’s face was frozen in pain, like he had just polished off a glass of skunk urine. Ms. Meyer’s face was rendered with reading glasses slid down on her nose, a picture of inner calm.
There were so many faces. Dozens. Each represented a missing person report; the oldest went back over a decade.
There’s more. They convicted and sentenced him to death. The case took less than six months. He claimed he was collecting souls for a bid at immortality. I think the presiding judge had some distant relative involved in it, so the case was expedited. It happened, after all, in a small town.
There were no appeals and Merrick Chelsworthy had his turn in the chair seventeen months after we brought him in. It was marathon justice, but justice just the same. Merrick Chelsworthy was pronounced dead by an examiner right there in the chair and he was moved to the morgue for an overnight stay.
Thing is, he disappeared overnight. As you can see, everything about this case makes it extraordinary. But there’s more.
The trees were still a local attraction, maybe more so after Merrick was toast. A couple of high schoolers were playing tour guides during the weekend and raking it in from what I hear. They started reporting that another carving was showing up. Something began appearing on one of the trees that hadn’t been carved on before. The high schoolers were quiet about it at first.
It soon became apparent whose likeness was being carved into that tree, and it wasn’t just the face. In fact, carving seems to be the wrong term for it.
The bark of the tree began to take the shape of a man. Head to toe fully dressed in his brown canvas duster and sporting shoulder length hair was the likeness of Merrick Chelsworthy. Every day the bark seemed to stretch a little more, taking on Merrick’s every detail. If you stood there long enough, you could almost hear the bark creaking with the strain of it.
A week after Merrick’s death sentence was carried out, his likeness jutted out from that tree as if he were walking toward the stone altar that was in the clearing. I went up there with Archie again, using the ATV’s. I had to see the Merrick Tree for myself.
When we got there, I was floored at what I saw. We shut down the ATVs and walked over to the tree. It was just like Josh Benning had told us; Merrick seemed to be walking out of the tree. Even the coarse surface of the bark seemed stretched to accommodate Merrick’s likeness. After standing there a while, we heard it; the slow creak of wood being stressed.
I looked at Archie and he looked at me and neither of us said a word. Didn’t need to, it was there on our faces. After another moment of thought I went back to my ATV and took the netting from the rack. I had a ten gallon can of gas and a chain saw.
Archie said, “What’re you thinking, Sheriff?”
I told him I was going to do a little carving of my own and started up the chainsaw. Revving it to get it warmed up, I walked over to Merrick’s tree and considered it. It was really a good likeness.
I held the trigger down and went right for Merrick’s neck, figuring to decapitate what I thought was a statue. As soon as I got past the layer of bark, it got even easier. Where wood chips should have been flying and landing on the ground it was all blood and meat. I stopped when I got past his neck and into the wood of the tree.
Even though the chainsaw was still idling, it all seemed quiet in an eerie sort of way. I killed the chainsaw.
Merrick’s face had lost a measure of its ferocity. It actually appeared scared, if that’s possible. The cut line was higher on his right so that blood trickled down the left side, down the bark of the tree to the ground.
And then it began with a single voice.
Maybe it was the first victim. I’d like to think it was. The sound increased in pitch and volume as other voices joined it until every face carved into those trees—dozens of them—wailed in unison. In that deafening cry I could hear hope and release; I felt the sound resonate within me. The faces of all Merrick Chelsworthy’s victims had transformed into a chorus, crying for his damnation.
And then it stopped.
The faces were all gone.
And the Merrick Tree stands there to this day, leafless and barren.