Chapter 16 - Tracking Ghosts
The day had started at five AM, Sheriff Wheeler was in a buzz about the news of hunter that was killed out by Hathford Hill. Mark, being a city boy at heart growing up in the suburbs of Detriot but eventually moving to Pennbrooke when he was a Junior high school learned to love the country free of the bustle. His family is well off and had him in private schools since the day he was born, life had seemed a cage for him. After making the adjustment to the more relaxed life of the open meadows and thick forests, he knew that he could never go back. The only thing that had irked him, drudging through hot sticky underbrush and mosquito infested country during the hot summers. Spring, fall and winter were his best friends, summer and annoyance that has had him over the years wondering if shouldn't move to a state that isn't as bug friendly. This day was going to suck and Mark was sure of it, looking for the bastard that has disturbed the peace in his county and requiring him to go on a wild goose chase that will mean nothing but sweat and lots of itch relief spray when he got home. If things could be worse, he had to deal with Dr. Baker, the town physician who thinks he is some kind of forensic investigator, regardless, the started out crappy from the git go.
"Get on with it, you're wasting daylight and I can imagine that you will be wishing for more of it before the day is out." Wheeler had made a couple of quick notes on the note pad in front of him and then yells towards the door just as the deputy exits the office, "Hey, aren't you forgetting something?"
Deputy Otto stops for a second to consider the question.
Shaking his head, Wheeler points to the feet of the chair that the deputy just got out of. "That plastic bag?"
"Oh shit" the murmured statement unintentionally slipping from Mark as he realized that he needed that piece of cloth taken from the dead man in order for the blood hounds to pick up a specific scent.
"Yeah, you forgot it yesterday when you had left. It has been sitting there ever since."
Feeling a bit ashamed, the deputy retrieves the vital piece of evidence and exits the office.
"You have to get moving Mark, those press idiots are going to be here bright and early this morning looking for their story. Someone in town got the news out about the killing and this went national last night." Wheeler tosses that statement at Mark trying to get his ass out the door before he has a following of reporters that can muck up the scene of the crime. "Old man Johnson called about ten minutes ago that he is heading out with the dogs and you know him, don't keep 'em waiting."
"Lars! Where is that list of hunters I asked for two days ago? Lars?" Sheriff Wheeler blares from behind his desk.
Stepping to his right, to the weapons cabinet which is out of sight from those standing in front of the counter, Deputy Otto opens the left door which is unlocked every morning by Lisa and pulls a short barreled, dull black 12 gage assault gun from the rack. Ammo is stacked below each of the guns corresponding to the gun racked above it. He grabs two boxes of twenty shells feeling that he wouldn't need one shell much less both boxes, fairly denying the fact that the killer could still be around after four days and countless visits of the Sheriff's department and media to the site.
Rushing out the door, the tires could be heard screeching as Deputy Otto attempts to make a half way timely arrival at the trailhead parking area about a mile from where the murder took place.
Arriving as the last of the three, Mark cusses under his breath. It has always been a point of his to be on time regardless of the occasion. Being the one who is to lead this party, he tries to convince himself that the more important person has the right to be bit later than the others but was sorely unsuccessful.
The dogs already out and howling up a storm with that horrid blood hound curdle they are known to have, it was a whirl of energy that kept Mr. Johnson on his toes with the untangling of leashes as he pulls up next to the two other parked vehicles.
"Deputy, nice to see that you have found the time to join us." The doctor taunts with a bit of arrogance.
"Well doc, nice to see that you could join us. Surely your overwhelming experience in such matters will help us solve this crime all the quicker." Already in a bad mood, the deputy wasn't about to let the doctor get the overhand as he always tries to do. "May we get this party on the road?"
The time of year is working in their favor and the Mark doesn't know this area at all, he can see far enough ahead to keep some sense of his bearings. With Johnson in the lead and fighting to keep the dogs under control, Mark offered his help to take two of the six. Taking his offer Johnson gave him two of his less energetic pups which was in no way evident to the deputy. The dogs wanted to be up with their siblings and pulled him through every bush trying to find short cuts which would allow them to catch up. The shot gun slung over his shoulder disagreed most with the paths the blood hounds were taking and seemed to get caught on every branch that even pretended to be close to him. It was all he could do to keep them four legged critters inline. Not one further word was lost between the three as they worked their way deeper into the wilderness.
Sweating they arrive at the site of the crime, easily noticeable by the yellow police tape that had been stretched out around the perimeter of low brush that enclosed the bloody scene. Arriving downwind of the crime as could be seen by the behavior of the dogs.
"Doc, you have fifteen minutes to take your pictures and inspect the scene then we need to move on." The deputy tried not to sneer at the man that thought he was so much better than those around him.
"You are joking right? You guys needed days to inspect the sight to get as far as you have and you expect me to get what I need in fifteen minutes?" The man was obviously sore and held back using more choice words so as to try and win a bit more time.
"No Sir, I am not joking. If you need more information than you can gather in the next fourteen minutes then you will have to ask the Sheriff about access to the records that he has already compiled." Mark was feeling good about himself being able to trump the man who loves to impose himself on others.
"Mr. Johnson, how do you suggest that we proceed once the doctor has his little investigation?" The deputy has only been on a couple of wild goose chases and none of them have ever involved hounds before or dead people for that matter.
"That, young man, will depen' on what the dawgs find. We have no piece of clothing from the suspect, nothin' personal at all. Once they cetch scent of the scene, they may end up trackin' the hunters scent back the way he came, if there is still one to find. If we're lucky, they'll find the animal that done all this. Once we follow 'em a ways, we should find signs to let us know if we're on the right track. One things for sure, the way we came up isn't any good anymore."
Looking back in the direction that they come, Mark couldn't see really any signs or tracks of anyone except right near the bushes that had surrounded the dead body.
"That's right, too many people been up this way and around them there bushes. We'll have to try further out in a circle and see what we can pick up." The old man's arm swings out pointing beyond the brush heading downhill. "I suspect that is where we will have our best luck. Most predators will try to hide and find shelter from onlookers after a kill so they can rest in peace to digest their food, that is if this was the work of an animal at all? If it was a man, well that would still be the most likely place he would head towards. Not easy going for him there but not for us neither."
"Hey Doc, How are things coming along in there?" Marks, sense of urgency kicking in. He doesn't want to be caught out here at night if it could be helped at all. Not that he was scared but that he didn't think that the three of them would have a chance at night with a killer bear or a killer man on the prowl.
Dr. Baker emerges from between some branches some minutes after his time was up, a look of disgust on his face. "We are here way too late anyway. Everything has been trampled to hell in there. The only thing that has really been left untouched has been the torn cloth, blood and bits of tissue found up in the branches. If you ask me, the perpetrator had to be over six feet tall and the strength of an ox."
"That's just about how the report reads that we have written up." The deputy not confirming the Docs findings but rather throwing it in his face and letting him know that they are not just a bunch of hicks up here. "Let's move now, okay?"
The doc, for once, hardly noticed the contempt in the deputy's voice. His thoughts were on the crime scene. He had heard of horrific mutilations before and even studied the physical and psychological theory behind such murders, both by animal and human assailants but to be knee deep in the results of such an attack had him feeling more than just a little out of place.
"Lead the way Mr. Johnson, let's see where the dogs take us." Mark pulled the tip of his hat down to shade his eyes from the sun. Being in the general vicinity of this ghastly site made him realize that it may have been more prudent to have grabbed a few more boxes of guns shells this morning before leaving the office, perhaps even a second gun for the doc to carry might have been a good idea.
Old Johnson took all of the dogs and led them away from the crime scene this time trying to stay up wind. When they had gone about two hundred yards down the side of the hill the old man turns to the Deputy, "Do you have somethin' from that poor bastard for the dogs to cetch scent from?"
"Sure, give me a second. I've got it in my pocket."
"Hey there Haws, where do you think your goin'?" Johnson eyes the doc with a bit of concern.
"Yeah doc, what the hell do you think you are doing? Get back behind us like you have been told." The Deputy getting quite upset.
"What the hell are the both of you nagging at?"
Johnson has become a bit more patient in the last couple decades. A young whipper snapper like the doc may have caught a hand up against the side of his head for his insolence had he been but a few years younger. "You're gonna put the dawgs off if you go walking down that hill in front of us. Unless you want these guys onto your scent and have them gnawing at your bones then you can go right 'head and spoil the trail."
Dr. Baker looked at the both in disgust mumbling something under his breath that wasn't coherent but was an unmistakable cursing from the tone of his voice.
Pulling the plastic bag finally from his pocket and handing to old Johnson the deputy turns to the veterinarian, "You know doc, I didn't want out here in the first place. You may be good at what you do back in your office but out here you are dead weight for me, worse than that, you are an annoying dead weight and I tell you, I will shoot you myself if you keep holding us up or screw up this search in anyway,"
Caught off guard, and with a look of surprise and words of detest forming on his lips Mark cuts him off, "One word Doc that doesn't have directly something to do with today's job and you will find some lead flying in your direction. Do you understand that? Am I in anyway unclear?"
An answer was not forthcoming and just as Mark was ready to put some more emphasis to his questions the barking and howling of the dogs rose from the otherwise surrounding silence. They each had the rag held under their noses and understood exactly what they were now to do, with all the energy of their breed they began to shoot off in all directions nearly toppling old Johnson from his feet. With the experience of an old tracker he yanks on the leash of his strongest hound, Max, pulling him down the hill in the direction that he wants to have looked at first. The dog looks at his master and with zeal takes off down the hill, the others following the lead.
The doc, pissed about being treated like a bag of shit, holds back as the team spreads out. If he isn't wanted then he will do his own investigating while the others follow the lead of dogs.
Johnson guides the bounding bundle of squirming canines into a semi-circle just above the brush line at the lower edge of the valley and sure enough, turning on a dime Max makes a B line for a small gap in the underbrush. Seeing the dogs hit on a scent, old Johnsons pulls them in one by one to unleash them. Knowing his biggest dog Max to be too quick on his feet for his own good, Johnson lets his best sniffer, Lucy go second. She is a couple years older and only about three quarters the size of Max but she is much more reliable when tracking. The occasional raccoon or deer that might avert Max's attention won't keep her from the trail. And should Max deviate, he isn't gone long once he finds that he is no longer in the lead. He had to fight his way to be leader of the pack and no other dog will take that from him.
The rest follow in a flash, all noses close to the ground, as each heads straight into that gap. He kept only one dog with him, still leashed, his beloved old dog Timber. The dog was thin and had long lanky legs. His eye sight was already nearly gone but during his youth he had been the best tracking hound that Johnson had ever owned or known of. Timbers nose was still the best of the pack and keeping Timber at his side ensures that, should the pack get out of hearing distance, they can still follow their scent and hopefully catch up.
Just as Mr. Johnson had predicted, the going was rough. They often had to stoop to hands and knees to follow the dogs and every branch, every twine in that insect infested brush was out to get them, grabbing at their clothes trying to hinder them from their pursuit. The rising sun soon had all three sweating profusely as they followed the howling pack of mutts and the gnats too were now on the prowl.
"I'll be damned if that hunter come this way. Who'd want to put so much effort into hunting anyways?" Mr. Johnson was complaining a little, his old bones no longer used to crawling on the ground. "That is unless he was tracking something that he had shot." He then mutters under his breath. "But then we'd have to of seen some kin'a of sign of a wounded animal because they were moving in the other direction. Not sure what this means."
Soon they noticed that they were coming up on a stream that followed the lay of the valley. A welcome sound because it meant that they could exit the brush and follow the stream up the valley in the direction of the dogs and maybe make some better time, and keep a bit more cool as well. It wasn't long when they came up on a clearing and stopped to catch their breath. The sound of barking and howling wasn't too far off and seemed to the old man that the pack had something possibly cornered.
"Well, the dogs ain't movin' off anymore and from the barking I'd say that they found something. Normally though, the pitch of their howls is much higher when they find what they been lookin' for." Timber laps at the water from the cool stream as old Johnson wipes his forehead with a handkerchief pulled from his rear pocket. "Where'd that doctor get to now?"
Looking around behind him, where the Dr. Baker had kept a bit of distance the whole time, Deputy Otto could see nothing of him. Spitting with anger, Mark trudges up the slight embankment onto the grassy opening. "Fuck him, we'll wait a couple minutes then we move on. I knew we should have left him at the parking lot."
"What 'bout that animal that's out there?" Mr. Johnson showing just a bit of concern as he too gets onto dry land.
"Serves him right if you ask me. That arrogant son of a bitch needs to learn a lesson and if it means the hard way, then be it as it may."
About that time old Timber catches wiff of something along the edge of small trees outlining the clearing and he begins pulling at the leash in Johnsons hand.
"Timber is on to somethin'" Mr. Johnson lets the dog take the lead and within ten paces Timber has his nose stuck in the bushes where a bit of yellow and red something is blinking back at them.
A crashing in the brush beyond the trees at the point furthest from the water and not fifteen from where Johnson is standing has the dog jump two foot in the air. The sound so scared Mark that he too jumped, whipping the muzzle of his gun over his shoulder and into the direction of the sound, he lands in a stance similar to that a martial artist might have, feet wide spread, knees bent and his body presenting the least amount of target to that which he is facing. His reaction wasn't because of training, it was instinct and his spine went cold at the thought of what was coming at them.
"Git outa that brush doc, ya gonna scare the shit outa every living thing if yas crawling around and making all that noise." Old man knew that the dogs have long since scared everything living in the area into hiding but it bothered him that the doc was just another factor he had to figure in while concentrating on what they might find.
Johnson's eyes return to the find of cloth and bends over to pull what looks to be a child's jacket from the thicket.
Deputy Otto, rigid in his stance, didn't relax until the sight of the docs sweating face appeared from behind the branches. "You son of a bitch, I almost shot your,…" He never completed the sentence because of the excited interruption of the doc as he rose from the ground.
"I found something important I think." He had some four or five books in his hands that looked to be in pretty bad shape. "I'm not sure what this find means but I don't think that it is good this far away from town." The doc's voice was full of concern.
Mark noted the books and the jacket, certainly an odd find and he couldn't make heads or tails of how these children's items might be linked with the killing. "It might be nothing at all." He thinks to himself.
"Mr. Johnson, the dogs. We need to see what is going on." Mark presses for the search to move forward.
Once pushed in the direction of the barking, old Timber made a B line as well as might on leash towards the sounds of his comrades, the humans behind him fighting bramble and bush to keep up.
It was but a couple of minutes and the trio stumbled into an open area next the creek. The five dogs were barking and growling, heads to the ground then up in the air, all running in what looked like circles trying to catch a scent.
Johnson was the first in the midst of the hounds and being the more experienced the first to find a partial track in the mud next to the moving water. "Here!" he yells at the others.
Pushing the dogs back so that they wouldn't disturb what he had found, the old man points at the partial foot print. Water had already entered the print and the dogs had trampled on side of it but it was still readable, it looked just like the prints of the dogs running around them but huge and sunk inches into the ground, a paw print the size of a large man's open hand.
"I don't know what to make of this." Johnson states as he traces the outside of the track with a shaky index finger. "I thought these pups was tracking the dead hunter but seems they found somethin' else here."
Mark's radio, the microphone clipped to the shoulder of his uniform had been silent most of the morning and into the afternoon but at once began to come to life. So far from his vehicle where the signal is transferred, he couldn't decipher but a couple of words "Deputy Otto, return,… office,…. Now."
"10-4" was the only reply by Mark into the mic. "Doc, get your pictures, we are heading home immediately."