The two men walked into the ranger station accompanied by mountains of pristine equipment.
A sure sign of trouble Troy thought as he studied them.
â€śWhat can I do for you folks?â€ť
â€śWeâ€™re heading into the woods and we would like a trail map.â€ť
â€śThe only trail map we have covers a very small region of the park.â€ť He pulled one from a slot not two feet from the manâ€™s head. â€śI strongly suggest you stick to the designated paths. Thereâ€™s a lot of territory out there and itâ€™s late in the season for hiking.â€ť
â€śWeâ€™ll be fine,â€ť he replied curtly. Troy stood at the window and watched them go.
Early October is no time to be hiking in Montana but I canâ€™t stop them. He shook his head and logged the visit in his record book.
â€śMaybe we shouldnâ€™t be out here.â€ť Roger shifted the weight of the heavy pack on his back.
â€śWeâ€™ll be fine,â€ť Dan snapped. â€śItâ€™s that stupid rangerâ€™s job to give us the blah blah blah about safety and shit.â€ť Roger glanced back at their SUV one last time before they both plunged into the cool, dense national forest.
â€śWhat in the heck is going on?â€ť Troy asked as he wandered into the standing-room only crowd in the ranger station. He had gotten the emergency responder call on his day off.
â€śRemember those two guys a few weeks back? Wife reported one missing. Theyâ€™re overdue by a few days. Halloweenâ€™s in less than a week and the overnight lowsâ€¦â€ť
â€śSay no more,â€ť Troy said with a sigh. â€śIâ€™ll get the dogs.â€ť
â€śLookâ€¦ youâ€™re the best tracker we have,â€ť Doug said. The gravity in his tone told Troy more than he needed to hear. â€śWinterâ€™s coming fast.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll do my best. Get the chopper out. Bet they didnâ€™t realize GPS doesnâ€™t work out here. Any sign of smoke at all?â€ť Doug shook his head.
â€śNo, but the SUV is parked deep. You donâ€™t think they bought into that stupid story do you?â€ť â€śThatâ€™s exactly what I think.â€ť Less than ten minutes later, Troy had his two search and rescue dogs ready. Carrying only the basics, he drove as far as he could.
â€śCome on ladiesâ€¦ letâ€™s do your thing,â€ť he said as the dogs bounded out of the truck. There was little chance of finding a scent trail this far out, but Troy hoped the dogs would pick up something as they closed in the location.
How many fools have listened to that old tale? Come after gold that doesnâ€™t exist? The trees absorbed the sound of his thoughts. Hours passed and the first shadows began to creep across the forest floor. He made camp and at first light, he continued his trek. Every now and then, he heard the helicopter searching for a campfire.
They wonâ€™t find anything. They never do. This was Troyâ€™s third time on this very same path. He shuddered at the memory of his first experience. He had been only 18 years old, long before he started working for the forest service.
Stop it. Donâ€™t get the spooks out here. You know better.
Days later, the dogs suddenly jerked to attention. With their noses on the ground, Troy let them guide him. They burst out into a small clearing and even with years of training, the two German Sheppards refused to go any farther.
â€śCome on girls. Donâ€™t quit on me now.â€ť They backed away whimpering. â€śI knowâ€¦ I knowâ€¦ I feel the same way.â€ť Leaving the dogs at the edge of the clearing, he carefully picked his way around the three dilapidated shacks. After years of research, Troy still had little clue as to why the camp was here. Local legend said it was a long deserted mining camp, but this area had no rich veins. The wind whistled through the trees and the wooden structures groaned in protest.
â€śHello? Anyone here? Dan? Roger? Can you hear me?â€ť His flashlight arched through the darkness and dust. â€śWhat the?â€ť The beam caught movement. â€śOh my god.â€ť The manâ€™s eyes were white with fear as he huddled in the corner. â€śIâ€™m not gonna hurt you.â€ť He approached slowly. The man shrunk away and started clawing wildly as Troy reached for him. He backed away. â€śWater,â€ť he said as he handed him a canteen. â€śItâ€™s ok. Weâ€™re gonna get out of here. Whereâ€™s your friend?â€ť The wind howled in response. Noâ€¦ not tonight. Troy grabbed his phone. It was Halloween night. His birthday. Troy dumped his pack and coaxed the dogs into the hut. It was the only one with a roof for shelter. Once safely inside, they fell back on their training and circled the man in the corner to keep him warm. The darkness enveloped them. Troy could hearâ€¦ voicesâ€¦ just under the shrieking wind. Outside, he fired a flare, but it couldnâ€™t penetrate the oppressive night.
â€śHuh? What? What happened?â€ť
â€śHey take it easy,â€ť Doug said. â€śWe saw your flares. Whereâ€™s the other guy? Dan?â€ť Troy shook the fog from his head.
â€śIâ€¦ donâ€™tâ€¦ I donâ€™t know. I found him here alone.â€ť Roger was wrapped in a blanket surrounded by EMTs. â€śIs he ok?â€ť
â€śYeahâ€¦ the cold held off and the dogs kept him warm. The snowâ€™s due in though so weâ€™re gonna have to call off the search.â€ť Doug stood up and looked around. â€śThey always think thereâ€™s something here. Just an empty clearing the woods.â€ť
â€śYeah,â€ť Troy mumbled as he stood up. â€śNothing here.â€ť
It was here. I know it was. Iâ€™ve seen it. I know Iâ€™m not the only one. What does it want? His thoughts were drowned out by the roar of the helicopter.
Troy crossed off the date on the calendar. Almost Halloween.
â€śIâ€™m heading home Doug.â€ť
â€śHey have a good week off. Donâ€™t do anything I wouldnâ€™t do.â€ť Doug grinned and Troy nodded.
Youâ€™ve come backâ€¦ we missed youâ€¦ weâ€™ve been waitingâ€¦
â€śIâ€™ve come back,â€ť Troy said as he walked into the dilapidated hut.