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Deputy Mike Garrett and Sheriff Daryl Parsons hiked to the place where Charlene and Hugo showed them the skeleton earlier that day. The full moon’s bright light was obscured by the forest canopy, leaving a gloomy mix of dark shadow and ghostly glow.
When the men arrived, they took out large search lights and scanned the area from one point to the other, looking for anything that might explain what happened to the skeleton. Mike moved toward the spot where the skeleton had been resting against the tree. He squatted down and placed his lamp on a rock, aiming its beam at the ground in front of him.
“See anything?” the Sheriff asked.
“Nope. In fact, well, I mean, it’s hard to tell with just the lamp, but, if you ask me, it’s as if nothing’s ever been here before. Kinda weird.”
“How’d you mean?”
“I’d have to get a better look in daylight, but, from what I can see, nothing’s disturbed. Like, nothing was ever here. There’s no outline, or demarcation,” Mike’s thoughts trailed off. He stood up and looked at the Sheriff. “Nothin’. Something’s that been sittin’ here for a hundred years would leave an impression. After that much time, a really obvious impression.”
Sheriff Parson scanned the spot against the tree, moving the beam of his lamp up along the trunk and back again to the ground beneath.
“Hoax?” the Sheriff asked his Deputy.
“Maybe. Sure.” Mike replied.
The Sheriff chewed the inside of his lip a few times and frowned. “It sure did look like it had been sitting there forever and day, though,” he said.
“Yeah, I thought so, too,” Mike replied.
Parsons stared off into the darkness. “I think someone is having some fun with us.”
“Could be anybody. Someone from one the families. Someone from Hixon. Anybody with a screw loose who thinks all of it is some sort of joke.” The Sheriff shook his head, “I tell ya, Mike, I know this involves you and yours, and I’m sorry, but I just gotta say it: The feud over this land has always been a pain in my ass. No offence.”
“Oh, I get it. None taken.”
“I’ve not said anything to you before about it,” Sheriff Parson continued, “primarily because it’s such a sore spot, for everyone from Rocksberg, for that matter, but…” Parson paused. “Why the hell can’t you people agree to just sell this damn property and be done with it? Our family did just fine when my father sold the ridge back when. Maggie and I were even able to squirrel away a little nest egg. It was a lot of money back then and we’re just startin’ out. All of us. We’ve never regretted a day of it, and my family owned that parcel for years before Victor Samuels put in his claim for this land. ”
Parson looked at Garrett, waiting for an answer, but Mike did not respond.
“I mean, that is, I don’t mean to…Oh, forget it.” Sheriff Parson turned around, shaking his head, but then turned back to Mike. “What the hell is it with you people? I swear, I’ve never understood.”
Mike remained silent.
“Well, I’m drawing the line this time,” Sheriff Parson said. “Again, I know it’s part of your family’s history, and I respect how strongly everyone feels about the matter, but this time things have gone too far. Settin’ up a skeleton to look like it’s been there a hundred years, and then removing it? This exactly the kinda thing that ends up with somebody getting’ hurt. Or worse.”
Mike looked down at his shoes. “You sure it’s a hoax?” he asked.
“Yeah! I do! What d’hell else could it be? One minute the thing is here, then the next it’s gone like it wasn’t ever here in the first place? And the guns? Wasn’t there an old whiskey bottle as well? No. I know people got their reasons for scaring other people off wantin’ the land, but this is not the way to go ‘bout things. I got no time for clowns.” The Sheriff started down the trail. “C’mon. Let’s go. Enough of this shit.”
As the men made their way back down the slope, Sheriff Parsons continued, “Before you ask, ‘cause I know you’re going to, I’ll tell ya what I’m thinkin’: I’m going to drill that Hugo and Charlene, with Larry present, and question them why they really came back up here today, and what Hugo was really doing out here in the first place. I’ll keep at ’em, just like I would any other suspect. I bet you they’ll confess they set the whole thing up.”
“What do you think they’ll say?” Mike asked.
“Oh, I don’t know exactly. But, I bet’cha they’ll say something like, they were desperate to hold Hixon off, so they thought they’d set up some sort of, I don’t know, murder scene or something. But, they didn’t know about the old missing Victor Samuels story, and chickened out when we said we’d send for forensics. So they came back to take the skeleton away, and then made up a whole story about it going missing to cover their tracks. It looks like nothing was ever there because it wasn’t, until a couple or so days ago. I bet them finding you at Apple Alice’s was no coincidence, either. Just part of the plan.”
They continued down the trail in silence.
“Not like you to be so quiet,” Parson finally said. “Any thoughts?”
“Nope. Like you, just looking forward to putting this whole mess behind me. Us.”
They reached a steep, rocky spot they knew from the trip earlier that day to take slow in order to keep from losing their footing and pitching forward down the slope. Sheriff Parson indicated to Deputy Garrett to go first.
“No, no. Age before beauty.” Mike teased.
“Alright, alright, but hold my lamp. I need both hands to… grab on the…side of the ….” The Sheriff didn’t finish his sentence. He handed Mike his search light and started his descent.
“Hey, Mike,” he called back, “I can’t see a thing. Aim the light in front of me, will ya?” As he said this, he looked back just as both of Mike’s arms, in a perverse kind of golf swing, and holding both large search lamps in his hands, came down hard on him. The lamps smashed the Sheriff’s skull squarely between his eyes, knocking him off his balance and sending him down the ravine in a fast free fall.
Mike Garrett listened as Daryl Parson’s body tossed and tumbled over rocks and tree trunks like a rag doll, finally coming to a stop somewhere in the darkness below.