BLOOD RIVER (A Trask Brothers Murder Mystery), страница 1
C. E. NELSON
Cover by Dusan Arsenic
BLOOD RIVER. Copyright ©2017 by Charles E. Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner or format without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief excerpts for review.
The big buck stood with his head high, nose in the air, like the woodland royalty he was. He had stopped for a drink at the pool but now stood at attention, his nose sifting through the myriad of scents the breeze from the west was carrying his way. Not a wolf. He had fought a wolf before and could easily outrun it if he chose. Wolves were a danger, to be certain, but this was something more. His ears turned forward, joining the deer’s attempt to locate the danger, the hair on the back of his neck now bristled. He could hear nothing unusual but the scent grew stronger. The scent of death.
The Sentry did not see the buck bolt as he approached the pool above the rapids by following the trail made by the deer. He made little noise as he moved, but assumed with the wind at his back he would be known to any animals at the pool long before he arrived. He could have approached from another direction and taken the animal but today the deer was not what he hunted.
The water in the pool was clear, fed by an underground spring, and he kneeled to scoop water with his hand into his mouth. Unlike the water of the lake that it flowed into, the water of the stream was safe to drink, unaffected by the logging, mining, and other pollutants brought by the men that had chased his ancestors from the area. As he lifted his hand to his mouth he heard the sound of the motor. He moved quickly to the top of the rapids and crouched behind the trunk of a Norway pine as he watched a small boat with two men motor to the base of the rapids. The men shut off the motor and then quickly dropped lines over the side of the boat, each catching a fish in a short time, fish that should be his. The current carried them away from the rapids and soon they started the motor and pushed back up to the rapids to repeat the process.
The sun was high and a shadow moved across him as he watched the men fish. He looked up to see an eagle gliding in the breeze above, waiting for the men below to leave an injured fish or minnow floating on the surface. It was a sign. The time had come.
“One more time,” begged Pat Johnson, sitting in the front of the silver sixteen-foot Alumacraft, his chubby hand clutching the handle of a seven-foot fishing rod. A brightly colored jig with a squirming nightcrawler was hanging from a foot of line at the end of the rod.
“I’m hungry!” responded his fishing partner Mark Lau from the stern as he reeled in his line. Roughly the same height and age as the man in front, Johnson easily had fifty pounds on Lau, although neither looked like they were strangers to eating.
The two had been motoring up to the base of a small rapids all morning and then drifting downstream as they bounced quarter-ounce chartreuse jigs tipped with nightcrawlers and minnows on the bottom in search of their favorite eating fish, the walleye. The stringer that hung off the back showed there was good reason they had camped on the spot, with five fish from two to four pounds now their prisoners. They had caught and released several larger walleye too as well as one northern pike. Pat babied to the net that approached fifteen pounds.
“You’ll live. Who knows when we’ll ever be back here again?”
“Fine! But this is the last time!” Lau replied in mock anger. He started the motor and slowly pushed them up to the base of the rapids again. He had to admit to himself that it was hard to stop fishing even though his stomach had been growling ferociously for the last half-hour.
This was the next to last day of their trip and, up to this point, the weather and the fishing had been less than perfect. High winds and on-and-off showers had pretty much kept them confined to camp or the sheltered water nearby and their fishing success had been limited. Each member of their party had been severely questioning the wisdom of paying eight hundred dollars apiece to spend most of each day playing cards or napping.
But today had been a complete reversal. The skies had cleared, the winds had calmed, and early in the morning they had headed out to find the rapids marked on the map by the resort owner. Big Pine lake was over eleven thousand acres but the map, although hand-drawn, did the job. As their fifteen-horse Honda pushed them quietly toward their destination, they could not help but be awed by the beauty of this northeast Minnesota wilderness. Bald eagles floated far overhead while ravens squawked at the intruders from their perches on the towering pines that somehow had found foothold on the rocky ground. Twice they got a tail-slap from a beaver and they spooked one large doe that was quenching its thirst.
They caught and released two more fish each and then stowed their equipment. The owner had marked a shore lunch spot on a nearby island that he said had a sand beach for easy landing. Johnson perched in the bow watching for rocks as they cut slowly across the bay toward the strip of sand on the far shore. Lau kept the throttle just above idle as the storms had stirred up the water so the clarity was nowhere near the normal fifteen feet they had expected. The Canadian shield lakes were notorious for growing large prop-eating rocks in the middle of nowhere and the men had no desire to spend the afternoon paddling back to camp.
As they approached the beach Johnson directed their path as he looked for a clear lane between boulders lurking below the surface. Lau killed the motor and tilted it up so the prop was out of the water as they glided the last few feet to shore. Johnson jumped out holding the rope tied to the towing cleat. The boat ground through the sand as he dragged it onshore until he couldn’t move it any further. Lau walked carefully over their rods and tackle to the front of the boat and handed Johnson the cooler with their lunch and beverages before he hopped out.
The Sentry had anticipated where the men would go for lunch and watched them come into the bay and land their boat. His keen hearing had alerted him to their approach long before they cleared the point and turned into the bay. He was sure they hadn’t heard or seen him. He had been trained by his father and uncles to blend in with the land, almost disappear, and he was good at it. Besides, the men had been too busy looking for rocks in the shallow water.
A pressure built inside him as he watched the men cross the beach to a fire pit surrounded by boulders. His people had used this protected beach for centuries but had stopped coming when the white man had pushed them out and slaughtered them like so many other animals that had once populated the area in great numbers. The white men who had no place here.
The Sentry moved from his perch on the cliff to get a closer look at the men. Traveling parallel to the beach, he parted the thick brush and slipped through like the wind, stopping less than fifty yards from where the men sat. Crouched behind a boulder, he felt for the handle of the knife in the sheath on his hip. He could take them now, he wanted to take them now, but he waited. His ancestors were talking to him, telling him to be patient. He pulled back into the brush.
Both men sat on boulders in the sand and quickly downed a couple of beers each like college kids getting primed for a Friday night. But the college days were long gone and now the warm sun in combination with the beer made them sleepy and thinking of naps. Lau dropped his cap in the sand and wiped the sweat on his forehead off with his shirt. A circle of football-size rocks between them held the soggy charred remains of fires from prior groups. As they discussed their plans for the afternoon sandwiches and apples were quickly eaten. A cool breeze touched Johnson’s neck producing a shiver that caused him to stand and look at his surroundings for the first time.
The beach ran about seventy-five yards
A sand beach like this near Minneapolis in the summer would be packed. It seemed odd to Johnson that they were all alone. “Didn’t Smokey say there were Indian drawings on the rocks here?” asked Johnson.
Lau couldn’t remember if their camp owner had told them that or not and pulled the map out of his back pocket. “There’s nothing on the map but you may be right.”
“I’m going to go explore. You want to come?”
“I think I’ll just sit here and explore the cooler a bit more. Don’t take long, I hear a walleye calling my name.”
Another cool breeze touched Pat from behind as the sun moved behind a cloud. He watched Mark open another beer and thought about staying but knew he couldn’t back down now. He took a deep swallow of beer and said “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” as he started down the beach to an opening in the brush.
Angry birch and poplar protecting the path slapped Johnson as he pushed inland. He held his left hand in front of his face to provide some protection but his pants and shirt were soon wet from branches that still held the moisture of the recent rain. The trail was muddy and puddles had collected between ankle-turning exposed roots. As the bottom of his shoes became coated in slippery mud, jagged granite poking through the surface made a treacherous walk considerably more difficult.
Johnson kept his head down and slowed his pace as the trail moved uphill. He was not eager to fall on the uneven ground with sharp rock, and even less eager to run into any bear or wolf that had been this way in the recent past. He stopped; sure he had heard a sound in the brush, and wondered if the smell of the fish in their boat would attract an animal. Hearing nothing more he took a few more steps before stopping again to listen. Becoming uncertain that he could find his way back to the beach he was about to turn around when the brush gave way to a clearing.
The floor of the clearing was rough grey granite with narrow valleys, moss growing in the cracks. An occasional raspberry bush appeared with nearby evidence that bears had found this spot too. There were only black bear in this area, and the droppings did not look fresh, but Johnson was not anxious to meet one on his own. He kicked at a faded Pabst can from a past visitor and then surveyed the surroundings.
Worked at by nature over the centuries, roughly thirty yards ahead of him a tumble of sharp rock lay at the base of a forty-foot sheer cliff. With the open clearing in front, it reminded Johnson of evenings as a child spent at the drive-in movies. Fifty feet wide, this cliff had provided a mural for the people that had inhabited this land long ago. Drawn in a dull orange paint, a pictograph displayed an ancient warrior with bow, shooting his arrow at a running deer, while an eagle flew overhead. The figures in the scene looked like they could have been drawn by a child, but the shear scale of the drawing and the fact that it had somehow been drawn hundreds of years ago made him marvel at the sight. Starting several feet below the peak and nearly covering half the width of the wall, Pat wondered what ancient paint was used that could withstand the centuries of exposure, and wished he could find a paint like that for his house.
While one hand shielded his eyes and the other still held his beer, Johnson moved closer to get the sun out of his eyes. Now less than fifteen feet from the base of the cliff, and entirely in shadow, his damp clothes cooled quickly, providing a chill. As he drained the rest of his beer something moved blocking the light above the cliff.
Anger welled inside the Sentry as he watched the man in the clearing below. It was time. The ancient ones had spoken to him again. Their voices were loud and clear; he could feel them standing behind him.
The ancients talked to him more often now, almost daily. As a young boy he had listened to his grandfather complain about the men who took the land of his ancestors. With increasing frequency those words echoed in his head until they were joined by other voices, sometimes waking him at night. The Sentry hadn’t been sure what to make of this at first, but now took it as a sign that his ancestors were reaching out to him, that he had been chosen. His brothers were weak, kept like slaves to do the bidding of the white man, their hunting lands and the waters they fished practically given away. Now he would show the way.
The Sentry had been coming here since he was a child, every rock and tree known to him. He moved back from his perch at the top of the wall and then quickly down the hill to the clearing, his steps like a deer dancing between rocks and over fallen trees. He drew his blade as he reached the clearing. As he removed his blade from the sheath it scraped the edge of a boulder hidden by a shrub behind him, making the sound of a knife being sharpened on a stone. The man turned toward him. He was ready to run when he heard the voice. The time has come.
At the sound Johnson turned and stared hard at the woods, trying to penetrate the thick brush, but he saw nothing. He held his gaze in that direction for a moment before turning back to the cliff, backing up into the sunlight and shielding his eyes again, but there was nothing to see above the cliff but the sun and sky beyond. He scanned the clearing one more time; his senses keen to any sound. “Shit,” he muttered as he tried to stir his bravado, crushing the empty can and tossing it at the wall. “Damn Indians. Here’s what I think of their drawings.”
Johnson reached down and unzipped his trousers. He moved back into the shadows at the base of the wall, staring up at the drawing, as he worked to free his penis. His head was back as far as it could go now as his eyes searched for the eagle drawn high on the wall.
It’s doubtful he ever saw the razor-sharp blade that reached in front of him as a hand grabbed the hair on the back of his head. Johnson tried to yell but the blade had severed his trachea so quickly that only a slight rush of air escaped. His open eyes went blank as his head flopped momentarily against his chest. The body collapsed as his muscles gave way and blood poured from the wound, a red river flowing into the cracks in the rocks.
The two men sat side-by-side on the steps leading up to a cedar porch that spanned the front of the split log cabin behind them. Each held a sweating beer in their right hand even though it was only mid-morning. Twenty yards in front of them a dense wood had begun its efforts to retake the yard as birch and poplar stretched to find the sun while blackberry shoots mixed with the grass. They stared into the wood saying nothing. Their shirts stuck to their backs and a drop of sweat gained enough mass to fall undisturbed from the nose of the man on the right. Lumber and tools that sat in sawdust were scattered on the ground and on the deck. The silence that surrounded them was broken by a sound from the woods causing their heads to turn in unison as if attached to the same lever.
Forty yards to their left there was a break in the tree line. A pair of sand and gravel ruts, now mostly overgrown with grass, entered the property from the break in the trees and came to an end in front of a birch stump about ten yards from where the men sat. The noise grew louder and soon a late-model white Taurus nosed out of the woods and slowed to a stop at the stump causing the chipmunk perched there to scramble for his home at the base.
The single occupant of the vehicle seemed in no hurry to exit. He sat for a moment as the motor continued to run, the air conditioning blasting away, and stared out the driver-side window at the two men. The collar of his khaki shirt was stained with sweat and his small hands gripped the steering wheel as if he was using great effort to hold it in place. His brown eyes were set close to a thin nose that perched over a slightly pointed chin and a cap worn most of the day had flattened his wavy black hair. Finally he turned the engine off and opened his door, stepping outside but keeping the door between him and the men. A gun was in the holster on his right hip.
“Morning sher…..” The man’s jaw hung open and his eyes showed surprise and confusion. The two men continued to stare and say nothing, their faces blank.
The man on the left st
“What can I do for you Danny?” he asked.
The confused man standing by the car was Danny Meline, a deputy with the Lake County sheriff’s department for seven years. He had grown up in the area, getting his degree in law enforcement in Duluth, and then joining the Duluth police department after going through the academy. After two years in the city an opening had occurred in Lake County.
Those that were familiar with Danny were surprised to see him back and wearing a uniform. He had been in trouble more than once as a kid, one time accused of breaking into several cabins on Spider Lake, as well as spending more than one weekend of his senior year enjoying the vices of the “big city” of Duluth. Even now, locals whispered that he looked the other way when his old high school buddies ran off without paying for gas or took a joyride in someone else’s boat.
Although he had been addressed, Danny stood with his mouth open, staring at the men on the porch. Except for their clothing they were essentially identical. Each had a thin mustache and the stubble of a beard. Their eyes locked like lasers on the deputy.
Dave sensed the confusion. “Danny, this is my brother Don,” he said nodding at the sitting man. “Now, what is it you have to say?”
The deputy seemed to snap out of his trance at that point. “We’ve got some trouble out on Big Pine. We need you to come now.” Danny was a wiry five-nine, with just the beginnings of a belly. His face was hard and leathery for a man in his early thirties, with thinning black hair that he let grow long to take attention from his receding hairline, and because he thought it gave him a ‘rock star’ look. He knew everyone and everywhere in the county, making his home in a small place east of Lost Lake. Women had come and gone from his life, their company less frequent of late. Danny spent his off-duty hours hunting and fishing, occasionally taking an animal out of season or a fish outside of regulation limits if his freezer needed stocking.