I’m inspired by a story started by tnkerr-Writing Prompts & Practices. Below is the fifth part of Victor & Hugo (to start from the beginning, Click Here:
Rocksberg, Idaho Territory, September 1878
The boy was thin and bony as a starved horse. His skin was as pale as death and his eyes were sunken pools of an unmistakable blackness. The only recognizable features on him Apple Alice could make out was his jet-black hair and Victor’s height.
“We’re sorry, Mizz Garrett, we cain’t take care of your boy no more,” Mr. Anderson flatly stated. “I appreciate you have ‘im whens we thought we ain’t gonna have no kids ‘our own, but we gots a passel of ‘em now and I cain’t feeds ‘em all. ‘Sides,” Mr. Anderson continued, “boy’s old enough to start making his own way. Me and the missus reckoned he be a help to you here, now he’s grown.”
And with that Mr. Anderson bid Alice a good day, and walked out of the saloon. The boy did not acknowledge Mr. Anderson, nor seem to realize the man who he’d called father was leaving him with a woman he did not know.
Alice and Finnian Garrett stared at each other for a long time before Alice finally broke their silence.
“So, you found out the Anderson’s weren’t your Ma and Pa.”
“Yeah. They says you’re my Ma and that my last name’s Garrett now, not Anderson.”
“I like your first name. They give you that?”
“ ‘Spose so.”
“I goes by ‘Fin’.”
“Well, Fin, I never thought in a million years I’d see your like again, but here you are. Follow me. I’ll take you upstairs and, well, I guess, get you settled in.”
Sawtooth region, Idaho, July 25 1996
Larry left the office and headed home as soon as he picked up his cousin’s message. He wanted to return his call in privacy.
“Jesus Mike, you guys really think it’s old Vic?” Larry asked Deputy Garrett.
Deputy Garrett laughed, “Wouldn’t it be a helluva thing if it was? Shit.” He continued, “Of course we won’t know for sure until forensics does the voodoo they do so well, but damn. Ya know?”
First cousins through their mothers, Larry and Mike were as close as two people could be. They were born ten days apart and grew up just a couple of blocks of each other. People always said they were more like twin brothers than cousins. It was clear their bond was a river that ran very deep.
Larry was the “pip-squeak,” as he was sometimes called as a kid, routinely bullied by the boys at school. Mike was the athlete and hung with the popular kids, but he would never let anybody get away with harming a hair on Larry’s head.
Mike stayed put, leaving for Boise only for the the time required to get his law enforcement training, while Larry went to college in Pullman, and then graduate school at University of Washington, before returning to the Sawtooth. When Larry came home with his wife and new baby, and this crazy idea to start an environmental preservation nonprofit, Mike was the first of both their families to contribute money and help organize fundraisers. Larry’s nonprofit grew and did well, but his marriage did not. Mike was the only one who came around to bolster him up when his wife won full custody of their children and moved to Seattle. Larry returned the support in-kind when Mike’s middle child was hospitalized with a mysterious malady and it looked like the little guy wouldn’t pull through. Larry stayed by his cousin’s side through the whole ordeal, helping to wrangle doctors, nurses, untangle the tangled web of HMO policies, and the hospital’s administration. There was nothing these two men faced in their lives that the other was not there to help see through. In between, they shared a lot of laughs and tons of time fishing, as well as some hunting.
“How do they check DNA on a century-old skeleton?” Larry asked Mike.
“Oh, well,” Mike sighed, “all they need is DNA samples from living relatives. Then they check against any DNA they can scrape from the bones, and bingo! It matches, or it don’t.”
“From 100-plus year-old bones.”
“Jesus Mike,” Larry repeated, “what kind of shit storm will that turn out to be?”
“You’re tellin’ me. Well, at least you and yours will get what you went lookin’ to find.”
“Yeah. I suppose. I don’t know. ”
The last thing Larry wanted was his organization, for which he’d sacrificed everything he ever had to keep afloat, including the his wife and kids, to get embroiled in a legal fight over the oldest and most contentious conflict his hometown Old Rocksberg had ever known. In the 125 years since Catherine Samuels told the first man from the Territory Council he could go straight to hell, the battle for Victor Samuels land had never once let up. The argument over the ownership of the land defined Larry’s family, Mike’s family, Mike’s wife’s family and all the Samuels, Davenports and Barretts for two hundred miles around. The fabled Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on them.
Larry was afraid getting his organization anywhere near the long contentious issue would compromise its hard-won position as a region-wide leader in environmental advocacy for the inland Northwest. He had tons of eager and hardworking volunteers, college interns, as well as the support of most local politicians, conservative and liberal alike. But, with only Charlene and Hugo on staff to supervise and direct things, there’d be no way he could juggle the old family fight, and keep fighting the ever-present champions of commercial land development.
But, Larry couldn’t help but wonder what any of the families would do with the land, now that it looked like the ownership matter was finally going to be settled. Depending who ultimately ended up with Ol’ Vic’s claim, what would happen to it could be anything between a gift from the heavens, or a complete disaster for the Sawtooth region.
If Larry’s and Mike’s wife’s family, the Samuels, ended up with the ownership, then Larry knew he’d have a hard fight in front of him to establish the place as a preserve. His family had never been all that supportive of his endeavors. They’d think of him as nothing short of a traitor for even considering turning the land into a refuge, or turning it over to the National Park program. From Catherine and her son Thomas on down to the current generation, all the Samuels ever wanted was to be able to move back onto the land and use its resources to provide the family with an income.
If the Garretts end up with it…well, that prospect had always been hard to imagine. Their claim was always a bit dicey. But, if Mike was right, and the forensic people can do this DNA test, then it could be proved once and for all whether the Garretts are related to Old Vic or not. With the exception of Mike, Larry wasn’t sure any of the Garretts ever thought much of doing anything with the land, other than to have a stake in a claim they believed to be rightfully theirs.
And then there were the Davenports. Most of them had moved out of the area long ago, but they still let their presence be known. God, Larry thought. They’ll probably want to turn the place into a goddamned Disneyland north; some sort of sprawling resort to rival Sun Valley, or some such atrocity.
But, first things first, he thought. When Charlene and Hugo get in the next morning, he’d have to let them in on his little secret; that Victor Samuels was his ancestor, and that he is among all the other Samuels in direct line to inherit the property, should it come to pass. From there on out, he’d just have to take it one step at a time.
Hugo sat in Charlene’s office, arms crossed with his chin down on his chest. Charlene was slouched in her chair, staring out the window. The pistol that was by the skeleton lay on the desk between them.
Hugo raised his head and looked at his boss. This woman, who he genuinely admired, and for whom, he had to admit, he had a bit of a crush; this wonderful woman had shocked and disappointed him.
“I’m just gonna say it,” he said. “I don’t understand what made you to take the gun.”
Charlene shrugged. “Neither do I.”
“Were you going to show Larry? I mean, why show me? What are you going to do with it? I…” Hugo paused, “Fuck. I don’t know.”
“Oh, c’mon! Don’t be angry,” Charlene pleaded. “Yes, it was stupid, but it’s not like I tampered with a murder scene, or something.”
Hugo put up a hand as he stood up, “Hey, you know, whatever. All I gotta say is, it’s a good thing Larry isn’t here.” He started to make his way to the door, but stopped. “I just don’t…Charlene, I don’t want you to get in trouble, is all.”
“Nobody’s getting in trouble.”
“You don’t know that,” Hugo cautioned. He let out a loud sigh and started again for the door.
“Hey, now wait,” Charlene said, suddenly desperate to stop Hugo from walking out on her. Charlene considered Hugo one of the hard-to-find, good guys in the world. She hated herself for letting him down.
“OK, you’re right,” she said. “You’re absolutely right. I should go back up there and put it back.”
Hugo nodded, “Agreed.”
“OK. I’ll put it back. Of course,” she said. “But, can this stay just between us?” she hesitantly asked.
“Sure. You bet,” Hugo quickly replied. “I still don’t get why you took it in the first place, but sure. I won’t say a thing to anyone.”
“Right. OK, then. Thanks. I appreciate it. And I’ll put it back,” Charlene concluded. “I’ll take it with me tonight and on my way in tomorrow, I’ll go back up there and put it back exactly where I found it.”
Hugo smiled. “Better yet,” he said, looking at his watch, “it won’t be sunset for a couple or more hours, so if we leave now, we can make it there and back before it gets too dark. C’mon. We’ll take my truck.” Charlene agreed. She was grateful Hugo had so quickly forgiven her.
They drove for a while lost in their own thoughts before Charlene opened up. “Ya know, Hugo, I don’t think we will be able to use finding this old skeleton for our purposes.”
Hugo was confused with the sudden switch. “Why not?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s smart to get the organization all wrapped up in some long, drawn out legal whateverness. I know Larry’d agree with me.”
“But, isn’t that the point? I mean, if they prove the skeleton is that man who had the title way back when, and they go to court, and it’s this long legal battle like the Sheriff said, doesn’t that keep Hixon from going ahead with their plans for the mine?”
“Yes, but, it’s not the ideal way to go for us. It’d be better if we came up with something lasting, that can’t be contested, like we originally planned. We really ought to keep with the endangered or threatened species angle.”
“OK, I mean, it’s yours and Larry’s call, but it seems like time’s running out.”
“Well, then we better hope that skeleton turns out to be Ol’ Vic Samuels, ‘cause that’ll buy us some time.”
Hugo shook his head. “I don’t know. If that is Ol’ Vic, and if they all end up in court duking it out, you can bet none of them are going to allow folks like us, or anyone else for that matter, up there pokin’ around.” Hugo paused. “We’d just be going up against the owners instead of Hixon, is all.”
Hug0 turned to look at Charlene, who was gazing at him with a big smile. He blushed a bit and quickly returned his attention to the road to hide his own smile.
“So,” Charlene said, “let’s not waste any time! Let’s get back to the original plan, take advantage while we can of this limbo over who owns the land, and hope we find something we can use before anything else happens.”
Hugo nodded. Then he said, “What are you going to tell Larry?”
“Nothing. We agreed this was just between us,” Charlene cautioned.
“Not about that. No, I mean about what you said about the skeleton not being the thing that’ll work for us.”
Charlene thought a moment. “Well, he was pretty skeptical to begin with. Anyway, there’s nothing really to tell him, except that we’re moving ahead as originally planned. Let the old families worry about the skeleton and we’ll just do our own thing.”
Hugo drove farther up the old logging road than he had the day before, and past where Deputy Garrett had parked that morning, figuring they could shave some time off their hike if he parked his truck as close as possible to the little pile of rocks he made to mark where to head up the foothill. When he and Charlene agreed to drive out here before sundown, it seemed like a good idea. But since then, Hugo felt anxious about their decision. Hikers and climbers with far more experience than they had gotten themselves lost in these woods before, and neither he nor Charlene could be considered anything more than a couple of outdoor enthusiasts. Furthermore, neither of them was wearing warm clothes, or was equipped with anything other than a couple of standard-issue flashlights. So, the quicker they completed their mission, the better. If they kept up a good pace on the way there and back, and kept their focus on task at hand and didn’t dink-around, they’d have just enough sunlight to make it back to the truck before it turned to dusk.
As they hiked up the foothill, Charlene became increasingly aware of the weight of the gun in her backpack. Had she not gone and done this stupid thing in the first place, they’d not be in this situation, working against waning sunlight, trying to put things right with the hopes no one would ever know what she had done. More importantly, she would not have damaged Hugo’s good opinion of her. She liked him, perhaps more than a boss should an employee. He’d been quick to forgive her, but she hoped her poor judgement had not ultimately changed the dynamic between them. Regardless, she was glad she was doing the right thing by putting the pistol back, and getting them back on track of their original plan to find a rare species of flora or fauna, and especially glad she was close to putting this whole day behind her.
As they came to the final crest that looked out over the clearing where Hugo found the skeleton resting against the tree, they abruptly stopped, just as they had that morning with the Sheriff and the Deputy. Only, this time it was because they didn’t see the skeleton, nor the rifle or the whiskey bottle. None of it was there.
They flew into a panic. “Check your coordinates,” Charlene snapped, “are you sure we’re in the right spot?!”
“Yes, yes! Totally sure! I know this is the place. Has to be!” Hugo looked around. “I mean, it’s gotta be! Look,” he said pointing over to their left, “there’s that old mother log,” and, pointing a little to their right, “there’s that boulder.” Hugo walked over to the boulder to peer around it. “Exactly! There’s a little drop-off right on the other side.”
He walked back to Charlene, who stood dumbfounded, wildly casting her eyes all over the clearing.
“Do you think someone came back here and took everything already? You know, to examine it?” Charlene asked.
“I don’t know. That seems awfully fast. Sheriff didn’t say anything about who they’d call, but I don’t think there’s anyone in this county qualified to do a proper forensic investigation. They’d have to call up to Boise, or Spokane,” Hugo thought aloud. “I mean, usually, when someone is found dead, it seems like I usually read in the paper that the Sheriff’s office brings in one of the city investigation teams.”
Charlene’s eyes were wide and desperate, “But you are absolutely sure we’re in the right spot. We couldn’t have veered off one way or the other. Maybe we should go a little ways over there,” she said pointing back left, “just to make sure.”
“I’m really sure we’re in the right spot. I know I saw that log and this boulder,” Hugo stated reassuringly.
“These are the coordinates on the GPS.”
If Hugo was absolutely sure they were in the right place, then none of it made any sense. Who would take the skeleton? The Deputy said something about his wife being part of one of the families contesting the land ownership. Maybe he came back this afternoon and cleared everything out so no one could prove who the skeleton was. But, why the hell do that? Would he be so brazen as to deny it was ever here; that any of the rest of them had actually seen the skeleton?
She looked up at the sky. The sun was low, but still high enough. “Let’s take a moment to look around, just here, in the immediate area, see what we might be able to find.”
“What are we looking for?” Hugo asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Something. Anything that indicates the skeleton was here, I guess.”
“And what do we do with the pistol?”
“I don’t know. I can’t think. Just…help me look.”
They started wandering around the site, their eyes focused on the ground and the spot against the tree where Hugo found the skeleton. The dirt, pine needles, pine cones and bits of grass looked strangely undisturbed.
Hugo looked at the section of the tree where the rifle had been propped up. Trees are curious things. If a foreign object gets in its way as it grows, like a big rock, or a knife that someone stabbed into the trunk and left there because they couldn’t get it back out, the tree will simply grow around the object, incorporate it as part of itself, as if it was slowly trying to swallow it.
For a rifle to have been leaning up against a tree for over 100 years and not fall over while the tree grew, meant there would have to be some clear evidence that some of the trunk had grown around at least part of it. Hugo looked all around the base of the tree, but the bark bore no special marks, cracks or breaks exposing the wood underneath, as it would if something had been ripped from it.
He then moved to the spot where he’d seen the whisky bottle. That bit of ground surely would have grass burn, or be free of forest floor debris. It definitely would be teaming with bugs, and the soil would be a damp from decades of trapped water under the bottle. But he found nothing. No obvious evidence that something, anything had been lying there for 100 years.
“Charlene, it’s getting too dark,” Hugo said, his voice strained with stress. “These rinky-dink flashlights I had in the truck aren’t going to do a helluva lot of good on our way back. We’ve got to go before it gets any darker.”
“Yeah, OK.” Charlene hesitated. “What the fuck do I do with the pistol?”
“Leave it. Just set it down by the tree,” Hugo urged. “Let’s wipe in down, just in case, and…”
“No! That’ll make it even more obvious, if we remove a century’s worth of dirt and whatever else would be on it!”
Hugo stepped right into Charlene’s face and took a firm grasp on her arm. “I’m just going to say this. You already saw to it when you decided to take the gun in the first place. You’ve probably shaken all that residue off already, putting it in and out of your backpack.” He kept his gaze steady on her. Charlene was too startled by Hugo’s sudden command to reply.
Sensing her anxiety, Hugo backed off a bit. “Please, Charlene, I’m feeling very, very uneasy about all of this. The fact that the skeleton is gone, that there’s absolutely no evidence it was here in the first place, that it’s already too dark to make it all the way to back to the truck with any hope there’ll still be some twilight to help us find our way….Please, wipe the damn thing off or not, whatever, but please, please, just leave it by the tree and let’s get the fuck out of here. Now. We can discuss what to do next on the drive back.”
Read the story thus far