There at the dried-up river bed on Bracket Ridge I saw it. Twisted. Dead. Half hidden by autumn debris. I wanted to believe it was something else but in my heart I knew it was real. I hesitated to disturb it. No good could come from bothering the mummified remains of a discarded human being. Whatever measure of peace it had bartered with its long-forgotten surroundings would surely deteriorate with my crude meddling.
Using a stick, I gently brushed aside a brittle layer of leaves and twigs camouflaging the corpse. Flash-flood waters had carried this abandoned soul downstream from points unknown. By the appearance of things, it had been abruptly deposited there during the last big Spring run-off. The rest of the year, the riverbed was as dry as a desert.
About the only thing left of the decayed flesh was its dehydrated skin, stretched over jutting bones and a few scraps of dry-rotted clothing. Lifeless, shriveled eyes stared back at me through sunken sockets. If the leathery remains could speak, what would they tell me? I wondered how it came to be there. From examining the cadaver, there was no obvious cause of death. I also assumed there would be no personal answers forthcoming from it either. At least I hoped not. It was one mystery I was better off not learning the answer to from the source.
I marked the spot so I could lead the authorities back to the remains. With any luck, the victim’s family would get some needed closure. I dubbed this person-who-once-was, as a ‘victim’ because even if they died of natural causes, it was no place to die alone. I looked back at the makeshift grave marker one last time before losing sight of it. At the time I didn’t realize how important it was.
The winding path down the ridge was a familiar one. I knew the way from countless past excursions. Deer and squirrels scampered about in nervous agitation. Occasionally a snake would slither under its bed of leaves. I had plenty of time to think about what I would say to the deputy about the mystery I had uncovered in the creek. At the station however, my statement was less smooth than I had practiced.
The detective I spoke with asked if I would help lead his team to the site. Naturally I agreed but it was almost sunset. Because of the rugged terrain and difficulty of investigating a potential crime scene at night, they elected to wait until first light. That night, a heavy storm fell upon the area. The mountain creek bed was surely flooded with cascading rainfall.
Even so, it never occurred to me that the remains might be disturbed. It had been washed to the edge of the creek bed for quite some time. I didn’t expect for a thunderstorm to dislodge it but when we arrived, only my marker was still there. The flash flood on the mountain had washed away all evidence of the unidentified body. Immediately the investigators began tracking it downstream. The water level was still very high and they had to be careful and not get swept away too.
The raging torrent of water coursed over the rounded stones and around the various bends in sight. For all we knew, it might have floated ten miles downstream, or just around the next corner. That lingering doubt made the detectives continue for a long time. After witnessing the renewed fury of the river, I wasn’t convinced they would ever recover the missing body again. In various places, the creek would split off into different forks and then rejoin itself further downstream. The remains could be anywhere along those twisting miles of rushing waterways.
About midway down the mountain, the stream ran alongside a hermit’s rustic log cabin. Ordinarily, no one bothered the old man because he preferred to be left alone but this was a special circumstance. The deputies wanted to make sure he knew they were scouring the area for the lost body. Advance warnings helped to avoid misunderstandings. The sort of misunderstandings that involved firearms and shootouts.
The old man didn’t answer their repeated shouts from the porch so they had no choice but to knock on his fortified door. Again there was no response. I watched the whole thing from a safe distance. Everyone in town knew about the old man’s volatile temper. He was legendary for flying off the handle when people ‘trespassed’ on his property. The deputies were already on high alert as they waited on him to answer.
After numerous attempts were made, they had no choice but to enter the premises to perform a wellness check. Luckily, they didn’t have to break down the door. It was unlocked and no one was at home. Once his absence was established, the team searched the portion of the creek that ran through his property. On a high cluster of river stones within eyeshot of his cabin they located the human remains which I had brought them to see. Police tape was strung around the area to insure no more contamination of evidence.
“Old Willie is sure going to be agitated when he comes home and sees that we’ve been in his cabin and cordoned off part of his land.”; One of the detectives commented nervously. “I bet he’ll go straight for his shotgun. We’d better form a search party to find him and explain before he finds us.”
“I doubt we’ll have any more trouble out of Willie.”; The lead investigator grinned. “I’m pretty sure these human remains are his. We will need the forensics team to confirm the identity officially but I recognize the scraps of clothes hanging on the skeleton. I don’t know what he was doing upstream but his corpse must have used the flash flood to return home one last time. He sure loved this place and hated other people. At least we won’t have a shootout on our hands.”