Steam curled from the campfire’s charcoal remains. Dank drizzle descended slowly from an overcast sky. Red and orange hues still blanketed the surrounding woods, but inclement weather had shorn much autumn foliage. To the southeast, Hebron Road appeared through a gap in the mist. John discerned the faint outline of a camp in the distance. Farther beyond, mountains, valleys, and lakes formed a picturesque landscape.
As John savored the view, a snuffling interrupted the silence as Wassataquoik inhaled enticing scents from the vacated campsite. John shucked his knapsack, readjusted his belt, and drank from his canteen. “How long since this group left, girl?” he asked, kneeling to stroke his dog’s floppy ears. “Half hour, you think?”
The beagle returned his gaze with doe eyes. She snorted in response and continued an endless search for a forgotten treat. John mopped his high forehead and close-cropped hair with a neckerchief and leaned down to stretch his back. “With the rain, they’re probably scrambling to the next campsite,” he spoke aloud. “I suppose we shouldn’t linger ourselves.”
For the third time this year, John and Wassataquoik began another trek. Four years earlier, nine Appalachian Trail hikers disappeared in the wilds of Maine. Despite numerous search parties, including planes and canines, they had found no trace of the backpackers. For the past three years, various search and rescue teams had retraced the 84-mile section of trail from the Town of Monson to the Golden Road junction. John and his dog had also joined those groups, but they preferred to comb the trails alone. With autumn waning, snow would soon cover remnant signs.
Although solitary hikers had gone missing before and never been found, the sheer number in this group was most unusual. Many people speculated, including ritual murder, cult suicide, and alien abduction. After researching local libraries, one of John’s associates found several references to an entity called, The Hebron Witch. John had chuckled at the outlandish idea. His own belief was the group went astray, wandered aimlessly, and died from hypothermia. Afterwards, ravens, coyotes, and black bears would have scavenged their remains leaving behind ragged garments and scattered bones. Since deer hunting was underway during that period, John didn’t discard the notion that the hikers encountered a deranged hunter. John shuddered and patted the revolver in his shoulder holster.
For John, the unending search was personal. His mother was one of those solitary backpackers, who had gone missing long ago when he was a teenager. Distraught and newly divorced, John’s mom had pursued a lifelong dream of hiking the 100-Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. Although she was an experienced hiker during her younger years, she was, at that time, in her late forties, a longtime smoker, and afflicted with health conditions. She had told no one when she loaded her car with rudimentary supplies and drove from New Hampshire to the Monson Trailhead in Maine.
After returning home from a weeklong outing with his dad, John discovered his mom’s note detailing her itinerary. Given the season, winter had arrived early and stymied rescuers, and even after subsequent searches, his mother was never found. After he left the Army, John moved to Maine and attended college. Eventually, he became a Forest Ranger giving him many opportunities to roam the trails. However, John had yet to find his mother. To this day, he felt great remorse about their last conversation, which ended with harsh words.
At the outset of another journey, John and Wassataquoik were full of vigor and maintained a brisk pace. With so many hikes over the past four years, they were in peak physical condition from the varied woodland terrain. Other than investigate a ghost trailhead or one of the beagle’s scent trails, they rarely stopped to rest or enjoy a scenic lookout. Given by a family member, John had an unwashed pillowcase that had belonged to one of the missing hikers. Every so often, John let his dog sniff and replenish her olfactory sense. Regrettably, so much time had passed, it was doubtful that a scent still lingered, but John held hope that nature had given his canine a sixth sense.
Since the campsite, John observed six unique pairs of tracks along the trail. Two sets were longer and wider indicating adult or teenage males, two others were shorter and narrower suggesting adult or teenage females, and two pairs were children of unknown gender.
So far this morning, John and Wassataquoik had forded the North Pond Outlet and were now rounding Bear Pond. Soon, they would steer north. To the east, John spied the crest of Scraggly Mountain, which was an unimpressive highland compared to countless hills and mountains in the vicinity. With no cliff fascia, it held no unobstructed view for hikers, and given steep terrain on its north and south faces, even woodcutters kept their distance. Instead, the mountain was as described by its moniker. Unkempt spruce tops poked above the summit. Patches of ledge peered through impenetrable trees and brush. With no discernable animal trail, it was an unappealing destination for the rare hiker with enough energy and interest to consider a detour.
As low clouds crept across the mountain, John deliberated. Having assumed the forlorn hikers had gone missing farther north, search parties had focused little on this locale. John didn’t recall spending appreciable time—if at all—near Scraggly Mountain. Abruptly, the beagle stopped snuffling and stood erect. She stared into the mist toward the summit. For the briefest moment, John imagined a faraway wailing from above, but if not for Wassataquoik’s low growling, he would have dismissed the sound.
“What’s that girl?” John whispered. “Do you hear something?”
The beagle grunted and paced back and forth. She yelped at some distant commotion that only she could hear. Soon, fog descended from gray skies and vanquished all sound. Drizzle continued unabated as droplets coalesced in the tree branches and cascaded to the forest floor. Wassataquoik settled and continued her ceaseless sniffing. John shuddered against the dank air. He registered the faint wailing in his mind.
Likely, we’re gaining ground on the hikers. Probably, kids making noise. The trail’s turning north just up ahead, but the sound carried from the mountain. Maybe an echo?
Soon enough, the trail veered left. However, there was no footfall ahead. In the leaf debris, a scuffling of dim tracks headed to the right. A haphazard arrangement of spindly trees lay across a faint animal path beyond. Although not unusual for trail tenders to block a ghost trailhead, this hiking party detoured and appeared to have floated across the barricade. John studied the ground and deduced that someone had redirected this group and covered their passing.
For John, there was no further calculation. Something was amiss, and he had to investigate. He unfastened his sleeping mat and bag, tent, and extraneous supplies, then hid his gear in the underbrush near the main trail. John checked his satellite phone, which showed no signal under the heavy rainclouds and woodland canopy. If necessary, he could acquire signal from a higher vantagepoint.
“Hopefully, it’s nothing,” John whispered, kneeling, and securing a retractable lead to his beagle. “Okay, girl, something isn’t right here, and I need you quiet, okay?”
After many trainings, Wassataquoik understood the directive. Eager to get underway, she strained against the tether. John cinched his knapsack in a way to offer quick access to his revolver. Although the path was faint, it provided unobstructed passage through the woods along Scraggly Mountain’s rising slope. Within a hundred yards, John came upon blue tape affixed to a tree along the path. Lying at the base of the trunk was a painted placard with a white backdrop. The sign read, Trail Hazard Ahead! Detour Right!
On the ground, two large boot prints emerged. So pristine, water had yet leached into their indentations. The distance between tracks was longer than the average man. The walker didn’t mask his footfall. John figured the hikers, and their follower were only several minutes ahead.
Suspicions realized, John untethered Wassataquoik and offered a handful of kibbles from his pocket. As she noisily consumed the treat, John activated and attached an emergency transponder to his body and unholstered his revolver. With his main backpack shed and hidden, he fastened a smaller butt pack filled with essentials, including his satellite phone around his waist. John placed three reloaders for his pistol in his jacket pocket.
John leashed his beagle again, and they resumed their hike. As the path ascended the mountain, it was now marked with blue tape at regular intervals. Impermeable spruce lined the path on both sides. Glacial boulders and gnarled roots made progress difficult. Many times, John had to untangle the beagle’s tether while maintaining a stealthy approach. Near the summit, the path turned and twisted. Often, Wassataquoik disappeared until John rounded subsequent bends.
At one severe curve, the lead jerked taut, followed by a yelp. The tether’s retractable handle almost flew from John’s hand. He held tight, leaning backward, and digging into the ground with his boots. In a clumsy maneuver, he holstered his revolver and grasped the leash handle with both hands, inching forward and allowing the line to play out. As he rounded an enormous boulder, John arrived at a chasm inches from his feet. The lead disappeared into a black void. Hauling hand over hand, the thin line dug into his fingers. John hoisted Wassataquoik from the opening suspended from her shoulder harness. On the ground, John looked her over until satisfied she wasn’t injured.
“Where the hell did that come from?” John muttered. “If you hadn’t been leashed, I could have fallen in my…”
“Help!” a muffled voice called from deep within the crevasse. “Is anyone there? Please help!”
Before he could reply, John observed coils of rope lying on the far edge, and beyond, a backpack and other gear, including a climbing belt and a clip of carabiners. Leaning against the cliff fascia was a pump shotgun. Suddenly, two lengths of rope began playing out, pulled by an unseen person farther up the path.
Someone led ’em here, and they fell in.
Adrenaline flowing, John led his beagle out of sight and knelt. He unzipped a nondescript pocket sewn into the dog’s harness. Inside was a stubby Sharpie and laminated card with his name, address, and phone number. On the other side he wrote, AT Killer! Scraggly Mtn! Send Game Wardens! John affixed a red felt strip to draw attention to the note.
He patted his canine’s head and whispered an unmistakable command, “Truck now.” With no hesitation, Wassataquoik ran back to the Spectacle Pond trailhead where she would await until discovered by someone.
Revolver unholstered, John crouched sideways on the path with his back against a cliff wall. Hidden amid stunted cedars, he had a view of the far path and his backtrail. John cradled the heavy pistol with both hands while resting his forearms on a rock shelf. He struggled to make spit and wet his dry throat. His vision narrowed. His pounding heart threatened to muffle all other sound. John breathed deep to calm his anxiety.
What now? Is there just one?
Someone approached from above. Small rocks tumbled. Around a sharp bend, a hulking man appeared. He wore dark work boots and wet jeans. A green poncho and accompanying rain hood blocked his face. He turned sideways to navigate the narrow path. Large hands and fingers clasped around surrounding trees and branches to keep from slipping.
At the chasm’s rim, the man crouched on his knees and called down in a deep rumbling voice, “Are you still there, pal?”
From far below, a man’s voice wailed and blubbered, “My family’s hurt bad! Can’t see a thing! It’s…terrible!”
“We’ll help you all right,” the man whispered, handling the rope. “I’m gonna pass down two lines.”
“…hurry…” the hiker pleaded, his voice faltering. “…a dog…”
The big man hesitated and asked, “What’s that you say?”
“Dog!” the man moaned. “…heard a dog.”
The man looked down the path past John’s position and asked, “Charlie, do you know about a dog?”
“I do, Frankie…a beagle!” a man’s disembodied voice answered. “Nearly ran right past me until I coaxed it over and bashed its fuckin’ head!”
Like a sledgehammer to the chest, John’s heart ceased its pounding. Calm anger replaced surging adrenaline. He wanted nothing more than find the man on his backtrail. However, John stayed still. The killers suspected his presence, but they didn’t know for sure, and they certainly didn’t know he was armed. For the moment, he sighted his revolver on Frankie, who was several steps from his own shotgun. Although Charlie was somewhere behind, John doubted the man had eyes on him. Various scenarios flitted through his mind. A standoff ensured as long seconds lapsed.
“Do you have eyes on its owner?”
“I do!” Bullshit, you do!
For an instant, Frankie appeared like he might run for his weapons cache but changed his mind and settled to his knees. “You there, stranger!” Frankie called. “How ’bout coming out, so we can talk?”
“What’s happening up there?” the hiker cried from the chasm. “Did you get more help?”
“Shaddup!” Frankie snapped. “Say another word, and I’ll roll a boulder down on you!”
“You did this!” the man groaned. “You mean to kill us…like those others!”
“Fast or slow…depends on you!” Frankie growled. “Now quiet!” I might not get ’em both, but Frankie’s dead for sure.
“Hey, friend!” Frankie repeated. “You gonna say something?”
Again, John remained motionless, never relaxing his aim, his revolver cocked with his right index finger on the trigger. Less than twenty-feet distant, Frankie was still on his knees with his wide torso exposed.
“We know you’re there, asshole!” Charlie growled. “Speak up!”
“Yeah, we’ll make quick work of it,” Frankie added, shifting uncomfortably. “Come on… I don’t have all day.”
A lengthy pause ensued as John kept silent, his aim true. He heard a shuffling from his backtrail. Presumably, the other man was seeking a better vantagepoint. John preferred his present position, which was camouflaged and protected on both sides. If he raised doubt about his presence, Charlie might reveal himself.
“Fucksake, Charlie! You got eyes on him, or what?”
“I know he’s there!” Charlie replied. “Ready to cap your ass if you make a sudden move!”
“So, you don’t actually see him!” Frankie said. “How do you know for sure?”
“Because there’s one set of man tracks goin’ in along with a set of dog tracks goin’ in and comin’ out.”
“Well, he’s sure as shit quiet enough about it!” Frankie sputtered, his face wincing from being on his knees for so long. “I mean… You killed his dog, and he’s just sittin’ there?”
“He’s probably one of those dumbass Mainers! You know the type. All standoffish…unreadable…!”
“Mainer or not, those fuckers like to hunt and know how to shoot!” Frankie opined. “This shit’s gettin’ old!”
“Shootin’ people’s a lot different than deer!” Charlie said. “He’ll freeze.”
“Well, swap places with me and see for yourself, why don’t yah?”
The men were not from Maine. John discerned a distinct dialect. Although he wasn’t adept with accents, he figured New Jersey or thereabouts.
“Hang tight for a minute!” Charlie shouted. “I’m gonna try somethin’!”
A fist-sized stone flew past and crashed nearby. Seconds later, another sailed past John and bounced off a nearby boulder. Within a minute, several more dropped from above. One careened off the ledge above sending down flecks of shale. Through a sheer force of will, John hadn’t flinched. He hoped the man would tire before long.
“Anything?” Charlie shouted. “My arm’s tired, and I’m outta rocks!”
“Nothing yet but keep telegraphing what you’re doing while you’re at it!”
“Fuck off!” Charlie spat. “If it wasn’t for you, we’d be having supper! You had to push our luck!”
“Hey, stranger, looks like we have a standoff!” Frankie admitted. “You might get me, but my buddy’s killed bigger assholes than you! You better hope he kills you outright, or he’s gonna do you real bad!”
Aligned on Frankie’s chest, John stared down the revolver’s rear and front sights knowing at any moment, the man would run for his guns. At that point, John would shoot twice and bolt down the backtrail prepared to fire at the first sign of the second man. If fast enough, perhaps, he would catch…
A commotion erupted from behind. Recognizing his beagle’s howl, John fired two shots. Before Frankie collapsed, John rose from his position. Instead of running, he stalked down the path with his weapon poised. Around a corner, John spied Charlie kicking and flailing while Wassataquoik lunged and parried. John took quick aim and fired twice more. The man fell to the path in a heap.
Pistol still readied, John knelt and whispered, “Here, girl.”
The beagle limped over. Blood soaked her skull and muzzle. She whimpered.
“That’s a good girl,” John sniffled, cradling his dog. “You did good. Rest here while I sort things out.” He coaxed her to a dry patch of ground beneath an overhang. John laid his jacket down and covered her head and body.
As he reloaded, John watched Charlie’s prone form draped over a jagged outcropping. He stuck an empty shell casing in each ear before firing a round into the back of the man’s head. Wassataquoik yelped from the percussion.
“It’s okay, girl. You stay put while I check the other one.”
At the chasm, Frankie was on his backside. Blood and spittle dribbled from his mouth. Struggling to breathe, he croaked. “He dead?”
“He is,” John replied. “My beagle wasn’t quite down and gave me chance.”
“Fuckin’ Charlie always did everything half-ass,” Frankie sputtered. “What now?”
“Tell me your plan, and maybe, I’ll get you help.”
“I’m near dead anyhow, so I’ll tell yah,” Frankie said, his eyes staring skyward. “Charlie and me killed those hikers a while back. Led ’em to this very spot. Ones didn’t die in the fall, we rappelled down and finished ’em off slow. Afterwards, we packed ’em down deep. Not even sure there’s a bottom.”
“Seems complicated, how you waited around and detoured your victims,” John offered. “How did you avoid another party showing up?”
“Not so hard actually,” Frankie answered. “We could see the campfire at Leeman Brook Campsite from our place. Early morning, we had plenty of time to get ready before they set out.”
“Likely, you would have gotten away with the first group,” John posed. “Why do it again?”
“Why the hell not?” Charlie countered, a smirk appearing on his ashen face. “Perfect setup here. Not like in New Jersey where we got caught before. We were gonna have a real good time…”
As the percussion reverberated down the mountainside, John pulled the shell casings from his ears, which still rang from before. He knelt and called below, “How are you doing, mister?”
“Are you the good one?” the man asked. “Did you kill them?”
“Not sure how to answer your first question, but they’re both…dead, and I’m here to help,” John replied. “Is anyone else conscious? How bad are you?”
“My wife and kids are answering,” he said. “Not sure about my brother and sister-in-law. I can’t see them.”
“Hold tight, and I’ll send down a lantern,” John said. “Once I call 911 on my satellite phone, I’ll come down to you!”
From the mountain’s southern slope, the sound of a vehicle horn carried from Hebron Road. John reinserted empty shell casings in his ears and retrieved Frankie’s shotgun. He fired three shells in succession. Seconds later, two shots sounded in response. John fired five more times until certain that searchers had a compass bearing on his position.
Long after sunset, rescue teams had removed the hikers from the chasm and carried them to Hebron Road. Despite many contusions and broken bones, all had survived. At the local veterinarian, Wassataquoik convalesced from a concussive injury. Days later, rescuers recovered the skeletal remains of the original missing hikers interred deep in the mountain. Searchers also discovered countless bones of unfortunate creatures, including animal and human, that had stumbled into the crevasse over the millennia. During later explorations, archeologists uncovered the desiccated corpse of a woman presumed to have fallen into chasm in recent decades. DNA results are pending…