“Are you sure?” Merle was pointing down a dry stream bed with his walking staff. Or perhaps “up the stream bed”, since the direction went against the flow of water. The path looked torturous and I couldn’t imagine anyone trying their luck there, least of all Brad.
“I’ve been doing this since before you were born.”
“I don’t know, Steve. I guess we have to trust him,” Val said.
I nodded and let Merle lead us into the gulch.
It was more difficult than I imagined. Though mostly dry, there was still some water and a few deep pools, but it was the boulders and the downed trees that were the worst.
I paused after scrambling over a log about 30 minutes in.
“This is next to impossible,” I said.
“If he took an easy path, they would have found him by now,” Merle said. He shrugged. “If he really wanted to be found he should have just sat it out.”
“From what we heard, he had a little too much to drink,” Val said. “He most likely wondered around aimlessly before deciding to find a fast track back. Wouldn’t following a stream bed make more sense than walking in circles in the woods?”
“Ah-yep, I guess it might. Though he did seem to take the wrong direction. Going downstream not only would have been easier, it would have brought him right to the road in no time at all. You sure he wants to be found?”
“Don’t see why he wouldn’t,” I said. “As far as I know he doesn’t have the skills or material to survive for long on his own.”
Val glanced at me, worry in her eye. I hoped that if Merle saw it that he thought she was worried about Brad. I knew that she was worried that the old tracker wasn’t buying our story.
Brad had been camping with his friend Mike in the deep wilderness. Mike woke up one morning to find that Brad had vanished. Valarie and I were staying at a little hotel in a nearby town. When Mike came to us, we immediately went to the law.
Brad is my older brother. He’s not the smartest fellow on Earth. Far from it. We had purposefully timed our vacation to be close.
With a local Deputy in tow, Mike brought us out to the campsite. He said they had been drinking. He believed Brad had gone out to relieve himself, but he wasn’t sure. There were no signs that he’d returned to the camp after Mike left on his run into town.
A search party was formed, but they come up with nothing.
I told the sheriff that I was willing to give up and stretch their resources any farther.
That’s when we were approached by Merle.
He guaranteed he could find anybody. For a price.
The sheriff agreed that Merle was our only hope of finding Brad. He told us we need to get started right away before the trail was cold. We felt that we had no choice.
A few hours later we came to a place where Brad had obviously stopped for a while. There was a small firepit, which means he took matches. There was also signs that he had food.
“He must ‘ave stay here a spell,” Merle said. “Looks like he left this morning.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yep. As I’ve said a thousand times, I’ve been tracking since before you were in diapers.”
“So we’re getting close.”
“Yep. He was much more prepared than you thought. Good news, no?”
“Yeah,” Val said. “Good news.” I could tell that her smile was fake.
A little later we hit a major hiking trail.
“He went this way,” Merle said.
“You sure? Unless I got totally turned around I thought that way was back towards town. Where does this go?”
“Well, your brother might have gotten turned around, though I doubt it. This goes to the top of Mount Krestlin and then continues on to a trailhead just outside of Smithsville. That’s about 20 miles on.”
I shrugged. Mount Krestlin was too small and far out to be a major hiking destination and Smithsville was just a dot on the map to me. We were about as deep into the wilderness as it was possible to be, an area that saw very few visitors.
“Well, I guess we have no choice but to go on,” I said.
We followed Merle on the track up towards the small mountain.
We were getting close to the summit when Merle stopped.
“Looks like he left the trail here.”
Merle shrugged. “Can’t rightly say. It is getting late. Perhaps he wanted to find a place to camp for the night. He left and didn’t come back.”
After ten minutes of scrambling over boulders we came out at the top of a high cliff.
“Looks like the end of the track,” Merle said.
There was a noise behind us.
Brad came out from behind a large boulder. He had a gun. We turned to Merle. He was holding his heavy walking staff like a baseball bat.
“So my brave brother Steve has come to the rescue,” Brad said. “I know what you think of me, but in my opinion, you’re the stupid one. That’s why Mom and Dad wrote you out of the will and left everything to me.”
“No, it isn’t what you think,” I said.
He laughed. “You are an evil bastard, Steve, and Val is no better. I knew what you had planned ever since you talked me into going camping with that hit-man friend of yours, Michael. Lost in the woods. Right. My dead body to be found days, perhaps weeks or months, later. You’d get everything then, wouldn’t you? You’d finally be able to pay for that lifestyle Valarie created for you and perhaps get out of some of that debt you put yourself in to do it.”
“No, it isn’t like that, not at all,” I said.
“I told you it was a stupid idea,” Val said.
Brad laughed again. “You guys could never get your story straight, could you? Well, you couldn’t then either, so I planned ahead. I’ve done a lot of hiking with Merle here and he decided to help. Sure, he’ll be rewarded. Why not?”
“Why you freaking bastard,” Val said, taking a step towards Brad.
Merle swung his staff, hitting Val in the chest. This threw her off balance. She took a few awkward steps before tripping and going over the cliff. She didn’t scream. I guessed it was because she had the wind knocked out of her by Merle’s blow. I did hear some noises as she struck the rocks at the bottom. It was along way down.
“You know, sheriff,” Merle said. “Those two city slickers got mad at me when I tried to get them on the right track. They screamed and headed out in the wrong direction. Don’t rightly know where they went.”
“But you’re the best tracker in the area,” I said. “How would he believe that you couldn’t find us?”
“Don’t you worry about me, he’ll believe it. We’re good friends, don;t you know? I’ll do just fine.”
“Enough talk,” Brad said. “This ends now.”
Merle took the staff and pushed me towards the edge.
I closed my eyes. I know I will feel Merle’s staff any second now….
Written for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge.
Yeah, the end took me by surprise too ;)