Concealing the body at Bates' Place and then returning after dark to move it with Ann's help sounds more likely but, as Foster West points out, that raises the problem of rigor mortis, which may have made it impossible to bend Laura's knees enough to squeeze her into that tiny four-foot grave. Frances Casstevens, author of Death in North Carolina's Piedmont, claims Laura's legs were broken to fit her in the grave, but no other account mentions this, and I take it to be a little gratuitous cruelty slipped into the story for its shock value alone.
Foster West speculates that Tom may have met Laura at Bates' Place early in the day, given her a jug of moonshine to keep herself entertained, and persuaded her to wait for him there until nightfall. He would have returned either before or after supper - perhaps with Ann in tow - and killed Laura then.
This would at least allow Tom and Ann to transport the body in relative safety, and bury her before rigor mortis set in. But it takes a bit of believing to think a wild girl like Laura would have meekly waited in the woods all day while her lover was off doing God knows what. Far from helping matters, I'd have thought the moonshine would just make her more volatile.
Tom returned to the Meltons' cabin on Saturday morning, telling Pauline he'd come to collect his fiddle and get his shoes repaired by James. He spent half an hour talking quietly with Ann and then, when Pauline said she thought he'd run off with Laura, laughed and said: "I have no use for Laura Foster".
Later that morning, Ann told Pauline that she'd gone out during the night and that neither Pauline nor Thomas, who'd shared Pauline's bed that night, had missed her. "She'd done what she said," Pauline later claimed Ann had told her. "She'd killed Laura Foster."
When the news got out about Laura's disappearance, many people assumed, like Pauline, that she and Tom had run off together. As soon as they realised Tom was still in Elkville, gossip started to spread that he must have murdered her, and neighbours noted his refusal to join the search parties. By June 22, nearly a month after Laura's death, a local family called Hendricks was openly telling everyone around them that Tom had killed Laura. When James reported this gossip to Tom, he laughed again and said "They will have to prove it. And perhaps take a beating besides!"
Two days later, calls for Tom's arrest were circulating, and Happy Valley's citizens organised their biggest search party yet. This was led by a man called Winkler, who formed everyone up into a long line and told them to walk slowly up the ridge from Mary Dula's house towards the north, examining the ground as they went. Arriving at Bates' Place, they found a piece of rope tied to a dogwood tree, which had been chewed through at its dangling end and which matched the rope Wilson's mare had trailed home.
They found a couple of piles of horse dung nearby too, showing the mare had stood there for some time, and also a discoloured patch of ground which they decided had been stained by Laura's blood. "The discolouration of the ground at this spot extended the width of my hand," Winkler later explained. "The smell of the earth was offensive, and different from that of the surrounding earth."
Next day, Tom went to confront the Hendricks family, and then called at the Meltons' place around nightfall. He spoke privately to Ann outside - Pauline could see that they were both weeping - and then came back in to retrieve a knife Ann had hidden for him under one of the cabin's bedheads. When Pauline asked what was wrong, Tom said the Hendricks clan was telling lies about him, falsely claiming that he'd killed Laura, and that meant he was going to have to get out of Wilkes County. He'd be back at Christmas to collect his mother and Ann, he promised, and then the three of them would find somewhere safer to live.
After a final tearful embrace between himself and Ann, Tom told her goodbye and left. He stopped in Watauga County for a few days, probably staying with relatives there, gave himself the new name of Tom Hall, and then walked on towards Tennessee.
Tom had already been in Watauga for three days when William Hix, the Wilkes County sheriff, received a warrant from Elkville's Justice of the Peace, Pickens Carter. This ordered Hix to arrest Tom, Ann and two of Tom's second cousins on suspicion of murdering Laura. All but Tom were quickly rounded up, and brought to Carter's June 29 hearing at Cowles Store, where he found the three of them not guilty. Carter also dispatched two Elkville deputies, Jack Adkins and Ben Ferguson, to track Tom down and bring him home.
Tom spent the best part of a week walking through the mountains into Tennessee, arriving at a town called Trade, about ten miles south east of Mountain City, on July 2. He pitched up at a farm owned by Colonel James Grayson, a former soldier who now sat in Tennessee's state legislature, and got himself a job there as one of Grayson's field hands. He worked there for about a week - long enough to earn what he needed to replace his ruined boots - and then walked off west towards Johnson City.
Carter's two deputies arrived at Grayson's farm a few days after Tom had left, and Grayson realised that the man they were describing was the field hand he'd known as Tom Hall. According to James Rucker's article in the Winter 2008 issue of Appalachian Heritage, Grayson rode off with Adkins and Ferguson to find Watauga County's sheriff, knowing they'd need his authority to arrest Tom outside their own North Carolina jurisdiction. Discovering the sheriff was away on official business, the three men decided to ride on after Tom themselves.
They found him camped by a creek at Pandora, about nine miles west of Mountain City. Grayson dismounted, told Tom he was under arrest and Tom, seeing that Grayson carried a gun, surrendered. Rucker adds that Adkins and Ferguson were both keen to hang Tom on the spot, and says it was only Grayson's insistence on due process that stopped them.
Grayson mounted Tom behind him on his horse, tying his feet beneath its belly to keep him there, and the four men rode off back to Trade. Arriving at Grayson's farm, they locked Tom in a corn crib overnight and sent Grayson's 12-year-old son out to guard the door. Next day, they made the trip back to Wilkesboro - foiling at least one escape attempt by Tom en route - and locked him in the jail cell there which tourists still visit today. With no corpse yet found, the police still had no firm proof a murder had even been committed, but no-one seemed to think that was worth worrying about.
Hearing of Tom's capture on July 14, Pauline fled from Elkville across the county border back into Watauga. Ann followed her there a few days later with Pauline's brother Sam, explained forcefully that Pauline's flight was just making them all look guilty, and bullied her into accompanying them back home.
Even with Pauline back in the fold, though, Ann was still worried. She approached Pauline in tears one day in early August, said she was afraid Tom might hang, and urged Pauline to help her ensure no further evidence against him came to light. "I want to show you Laura's grave," she said. "I want to see whether it looks suspicious."