A Body to Recover

Some dogs like to cuddle, some dogs like to fetch, some dogs like to bury bones, and other dogs like to find them. The search for a body comes naturally to the last group of dogs, much more so than to their human handlers. In the minds of Fred Percival and his Search And Rescue colleagues, a search was far more motivating when there was the prospect, however slight, of bringing a happy end to some missing person’s ordeal. Hunting for a cadaver, however, was a grim business–technically simpler for canine noses–especially in the hot months or as the duration of a search ran long.

An empty leash swung from Fred’s weathered, swollen knuckles. He had released Oskar, his lab/husky mix, to range freely ahead of him, along and to the sides of the forest trail. Since the hiker had disappeared six days ago, some searchers nursed the hope of finding the young man alive, but Fred was not among the optimists.

Oskar stopped–nose elevated to sample the air–and commenced an intensive, appraising sniff. Inhaling through his nostrils and exhaling through his mouth, the dog apparently filtered, tasted and sorted as he went. His white tail awoke and attempted a halfhearted wag before brushing the rocky earth once more.

They continued on uncertainly.

Descending a wooded trail, they skirted the base of a high, rocky promontory on their left. To their right, they were hemmed in by a dense expanse of second growth forest–old enough to be tall, and tall enough to leave just a ribbon of October sky above them. Fred squinted into the canopy; the leaves would soon be turning. His radio squawked, a brief silence ensued and was then broken by more squawking.

“Damn,” he muttered, causing Oskar to look back toward his master; some development was taking place and Fred was missing it in the mountain’s radio shadow. Oskar stopped again and closed his eyes, breathing–tasting. His tail swung to vertical now; Fred saw a more confident wag setting up.

The pair inchwormed down the hillside, Oskar running ahead and waiting, Fred catching up and then ordering his companion on. The radio squawked again and again, until, as they made a turn north, a voice came through the static:

Ssshhk–co-ord–five seven–sshhk.” Oskar’s tail wagged wildly as he urged Fred forward.

“Easy Oskar, easy,” Fred said, trying to keep the pace reasonable. His fifty-two year old knees groaned in protest of the downhill pounding while in pursuit of Oskar, hot after the new scent. Search and rescue dogs were either trailing dogs which sniffed the ground or air sniffers who followed a windborne scent from the wide base of a cone of dispersal, to its apex–the source. Oskar’s air scenting abilities were renowned amongst Fred’s S.A.R. pals; he had become a valued player on cold trails or after rain.

Radio chatter burst through clearly and Fred recognized the speaker: it was Tara Sawyer: the lady with whom he had started his search that morning. They had split up to investigate both sides of the promontory with the plan of meeting at the bottom. Fred put Oskar back on his leash. Either they were close to Tara’s position or creeping towards an unknown, rank smell. Fred followed the path around farther to the left until, as he rounded a small clump of short pines, Tara and her chocolate lab, Geronimo, popped into sight. Fred had known Tara since his days as a ranch hand, back in the eighties. She and her husband had run a cattle ranch, sold fortuitously, and were now comfortably retired. Geronimo barked to announce Fred and Oskar.

“Freddy, it took you a while.”

“I heard your calls going out.” Fred replied before suddenly catching the ponderous stench of old death.

Tara looked down at the hiker. She was an inscrutable, taciturn woman at the best of times, but the sight of the dead boy in front of her imbued her silence with sadness– perceived perhaps more than felt. Fred also regarded the hiker: a fly-encrusted, mottled-gray body folded backwards over a medium sized rock. His right leg was shattered–the foot torqued continually around to an unnatural orientation. The rock–itself a victim–had its natural, granite beauty both marred and concealed by a cake of blackened, dried blood below the man’s lifeless head.

“A pity, I wonder if there was any way to have found him in time. Probably not.” Fred said. No matter the number of times he had come into contact with accident victims, he had never hardened to the point where he couldn’t see the body as a person, forever lost. Tara surprised him:

“It’s probably better this way. He would’ve taken forever to fix up and he’s probably got no health insurance.”

A moment of silence ensued as Fred grappled with possible responses. He had never before heard someone pronounced better off dead. He settled for:

“You knew him?”

“Yeah, he is one of the Addis boys–worked at the bike shop down the road from the new mall–liked the outdoors but not much sense. Looks like he gave free climbing a shot.” Tara took a long glance up the bluff.

Fred was disgusted to hear the dead man disparaged right over his cold corpse.

“Have a little decency. Besides, do you really mean that the uninsured aren’t worthy of some compassion?”

Tara returned his outraged stare quite unapologetically. Oskar and Geronimo sensed the tension between their owners and their tails stopped wagging.

“What was this kid’s age?” Fred asked.

“Twenty two, I think. Twenty-two or twenty-three.”

“Poor guy.”

*

En route home from the search, Fred weighed the commendable industry of returning to work at his engraving business against the temptation of a late lunch out. He was part way into an order of high school football trophies that must be delivered as promised–he had never yet missed a deadline. But in the end, lunch at Rebecca’s New Roadside Diner won out, even against the indistinct threat of working past six o’clock.

“What will you have sweetie?” Rebecca asked as he slid into a stool at the counter.

“The usual,” Fred replied, smiling at the culture of waitresses, all across the country, who would maternally address a man thirty years their senior as sweetie. Rebecca’s was small but offered good fare and bustled around meal times when it was a reliable source of questionable local news.

“I guess you heard about the jailbreak.” Rebecca drawled, her slender fingers dropping gluten-free bread into the toaster for Fred’s sandwich. Fred admired her youthful efficiency behind the counter: slicing turkey and avocado while stirring up talk.

“I didn’t,” he replied.

“Two convicts bust out of the state pen last night; they caught one, but the other’s still on the loose.”

“That’s a good distance from here,” Fred said, “he won’t get far.”

“Who says it’s a he?” Rebecca grinned, “Women can be very dangerous.” Her smile was infectious and Fred could feel the pull from his ears working toward the corners of his mouth, but her grin gave way at the sound of a car pulling up outside. Looking through the front window Fred recognized the waxed luster of his sister’s ex-husband’s black Mercedes.

“Oh, here comes Ted.” Fred said quietly and flexed his sore leash hand.

“Yeah, his life’s an open book,” said Rebecca. The front door chimed open, and with a deep-sea swagger, in Ted came.

“Well look who it is; I heard someone broke out of prison last night!”

“Hello Ted.” Fred replied, as Rebecca placed his sandwich in front of him.

“How’s business?” Ted asked.

“Oh, still scratching out a living,”

“You should try to get into the insurance game. I’m crushing it.”

“Really, I…..”

“Say Becky,” Ted continued, “I need a coffee, double sugar, double cream, to go, pronto.” He spiked the countertop with his forefinger where he expected the coffee to land.

“Coming to you in a hot second,” Rebecca replied. Fred bit into his sandwich, and the gluten free toast cracked sending a chunk tumbling to his plate.

“What the hell you eating? That bread made of sawdust ‘r something?” Ted asked.

“Gluten free,” Fred mumbled while chewing, “you’ve heard of it.”

“Why don’t you eat something real? Get a hamburger. You are thinner every time I see you.” Fred knew that some refuge might be found in a shunning silence but instead gave way to provocation:

“Doctor’s orders Ted.”

“Are you still seeing that quack on the east side of town?–Hey darlin’, throw an extra sugar in that coffee. Is it ready yet?–You should get signed up for some good coverage and get a real doctor to straighten you out,” Ted said, dizzying both listeners. Rebecca snapped a lid on Ted’s coffee and he dropped a dollar-fifty on the counter.

“Gotta roll. Great to see you Fred. Swing by the office sometime, I’ll hook you up with a good plan.” The door chimed as it swung shut and Fred returned to his crumbly sandwich.

“He’s always got all the answers,” he said to Rebecca before taking a small bite.

“Sorry about the toast. How’s the diet going though? Any good news when you last saw your doc.?” Rebecca asked.

“The good news is: I still have a little money, so she said she will see me again,” Fred smiled, “but really she’s very good and the diet has been helping with the arthritis. Supplements are expensive though.”

“Your insurance doesn’t cover them?”

“Insurance won’t cover this stuff; besides, you heard Ted: I haven’t had insurance for several years. Rate hikes were crazy, coverage kept getting smaller, and I was too broke to see a doctor after paying the premiums. If I kept going that way I would’ve had to give up Oskar and the other good things in my life, just to feed the meter.”

“I hear you. I’ve got to deal with it next year.”

“Did you just give your age away?” Fred asked.

“Oh come on, you know how old I am.”

Fred grinned. “I’ve got Oskar in the truck; he did a great job today. Can you make me a few pieces of bacon for a doggie bag?”

*

Late in the day, a little more than two weeks later, the pleasant brrriing of Fred’s remote telephone bell transcended the rasping hum of his engraving machine. He stepped into his office cubicle and picked up on his landline.

“Percival’s Engraving, Fred speaking.”

“Hi Fred, it’s Jill Watkins from the Sheriff’s Department.” Jill was one of the local S.A.R. coordinators.

“Jill, what can I do for you?”

“Say Fred, we’re initiating a new search: looking for that runner from the state pen. I was wondering if you could bring Oskar’s nose into the game.”

Fred cast an eye towards his engraving machine, mentally shuffling his workload. “I could… isn’t this a US Marshals kind of job? Tommy Lee Jones and the boys?”

“For a live escapee, yes: but with the subfreezing nights lately they’ve just declared their man dead and they want to close out the search before we get snow. The trouble now is personnel; with the number of days that have passed, the potential search area is huge.”

“Where should I show up?”

“Incident Command will be at Pines State Park-main gate on Highway 41. We’ll have a briefing at 0700 tomorrow to assign sectors and teams. US Marshals will be taking the most likely sectors; they would like to make the find.”

*

Jazzed dogs fogged vehicle windshields at the Incident Command Post the next morning. They had observed all of the usual preparations and knew that they had come to work. Inside, at the briefing, Fred was assigned a retired timber agent, Luther Blondheim to accompany him and Oskar. Luther was a dogless ground pounder–someone who showed up to support the K-9 teams. At last the dogs were introduced to their target with a good whiff of decayed medical waste, and so the search began.

The sunlit colors of the forest were magnificent in places, but had generally faded to russet, foreshadowing a final act. Fred and Luther worked a shallow zigzag traverse of the mountainside, down into the valley so as to meet the rising warm air. Shortly after ten o’clock, the sun’s warmth penetrated the fading canopy, dissolving the frost on the forest floor. Fred could feel Luther falling behind and decided it was time for a halt. With a little difficulty, he shrugged off his pack beside a fallen aspen trunk and whistled for Oskar. Drawing out a bottle, he poured water into a collapsible bowl for his pooch, and was pouring himself ginger tea from a thermos when Luther slumped aboard the log.

“Hanging in there Luther?” Fred asked.

“To be honest I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to keep going down this hillside. I had my left knee replaced in September,” Luther replied as he poured himself coffee.

“I thought I hadn’t seen you in a while. It might be a bit too soon to torture test that knee.”

“Yeah, after a little break I think I’m going to have to head back up. Therapy was going great, but downhill with the pack is another world.”

“Best to go back,” Fred said, “you don’t want to suffer through all that pain and expense again.” The two men sipped at hot drinks quietly as Fred rubbed his own stiff knees.

“Would you mind telling me what a new knee goes for nowadays?” He asked.

Luther shrugged, “Oh who knows? Who cares? I’d tell you if I knew, but I have no idea. My wife’s got a great plan through work; it covers just about everything.”

“Did you ask how much it would be?”

“I could have, but it’s not like you’re at Best Buy: no one can tell you beforehand. Doctors haggle it out with the different insurers to get paid, sometimes it takes months. The running joke at the doctor’s office is: that you will recover from knee surgery just in time to handle defibrillation when the bill arrives. That is, if you’re paying yourself.”

“Uh-hunh. That’s a good one.” Fred said. “You’ll be okay on your own going back up the mountain?”

“I’ve got all day and my radio.”

*

On their feet again, Fred and Oskar marched quietly for a couple of hours, covering swaths of remote mountainside without a twitch from Oskar’s nose, until at mid day Fred’s radio crackled to life.

“I think I’m onto something!” It was Arlen James. Arlen was an excitable man with almost as much prey drive as his shepherd Charlie. “Charlie’s tail’s a’goin’, I’ll keep you posted.”

Thank goodness Arlen had cleared the channel, Fred thought. In earlier searches the man had sometimes drained his batteries with incessant, needless disclosure of his actions and whereabouts. But this could be an interesting development; Arlen was in the valley immediately below him, perhaps only a couple of miles away. If he made the find, it might be possible to get home in time to do a couple of hours of work. They carried on quietly–Oskar periodically identifying a new scent and then discarding it as he realized it was an enthusiasm rather than the work he was tasked with. Arlen broke the silence a second time.

“Well, it might’ve all been nothing. Charlie lost the scent by Forked Creek. We crossed, but he still can’t find it. I will keep you posted.” Someone had clearly discussed radio etiquette with Arlen, Fred mused.

*

It was well after three o’clock and Fred was considering his turnaround when Oskar picked up the scent. He ranged above and below the line that Fred was travelling but then suddenly picked the direction of downhill, through sparse forest. The grade wasn’t very steep but the mountain showed damp, rugged stone patched with shallow, mossy earth here and there. Oskar negotiated the terrain easily on four nimble legs whereas Fred had to pick the route carefully on his rusty pair.

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” Fred said aloud as he considered the consequences of a twisted ankle. He persevered nonetheless. To his great relief they emerged from the trees onto a flat, scoured rock expanse that rolled around the mountain. As Oskar led them along to the right, trees enfolded them once again in a shade more complete, and they began passing the ends of dark fissures rising into the hillside–fractures from some ancient upheaval. Oskar’s tail began twirling in small windmills: a sure sign that they were approaching something. Fred suppressed the dread of discovery.

He put Oskar back on his lead. The dog pulled Fred left and then right, crossed Fred again and sniffed around some trees near the edge of another steep decline in the mountainside. A smell wafted up to Fred, faint but recognizable. Old urine. Oskar lifted his leg on a tree when he had completed his cataloguing of the odor, and when they moved on again, he pulled forward without deviation to a fissure wide enough to walk into. Fred drew him in.

“You’re sure?” He ruffled Oskar’s neck fur. “Of course you’re sure. Good boy.” He showered praise on the dog, rubbing his head and ears until Oskar positively glowed. Hitching him to a sturdy little tree, Fred steeled himself to walk into the dark fissure. A blackish-gray lichen grew toward the outside of the cleft, but the rock inside was bare in the absence of light. Fred donned his headlamp and squidged onward through damp, alluvial footing. The passage held a remarkable chill. Air was dropping into the crack from above, washing gently against Fred’s chest, and carrying an oppressively acrid stink that hooked into his airways. He pulled a bandanna from his pocket to cover his mouth and nose. At a point about five yards in, water oozed from the fissure’s slick walls, intensifying the cold. Once he had passed that, however, he reached dry footing and his headlamp beam revealed what he dreaded: the form of a ragged, emaciated human partially covered in leaves. His urge was to back out. Is there any point to further examination? I found him, isn’t that enough? It was not enough, he decided, and leaned down over the body: the tortured entirety of a mother’s great hope–squandered. The man had covered himself in leaves but they had resettled off of his lower torso and legs. Fred reached out to the pile and began sweeping the form clear. The pants were torn down one leg revealing a bloated limb encrusted in old blood and filth. He wanted to find some distinctive mark, if possible, to confirm the identity.

“Nnnhh.” Fred heard a noise and jumped back from the thing, bumping off of the fissure wall with his pack. What was that? He hadn’t moved the body. He knew that gases sometimes pushed through vocal cords, mimicking voice when the recently dead were disturbed. Shots of adrenaline surged through his veins, and with a shaky hand he reached down to sweep the right arm clear. Managing his revulsion, he sought out the wrist. It was cold but supple and after a little probing he detected a weak pulse.

“My God.” He said to himself stuffing his bandanna into a jacket pocket. In rapid strokes he uncovered the face of a man roughly his own age. By gently pulling aside a lock of graying hair Fred revealed a stained collection of teeth framed in bearded, chapped lips. He twisted the man’s ear lobe and was rewarded with a small eye flutter.

“Can you hear me?”

“Mnnnh.”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Fred said. “I have to go call for help but I’ll be right back.”

In a few moments he returned and succeeded in bringing the man to a sitting position against the crevice wall. Poor fellow’s far gone- very far. In his role as a rescuer he had forgotten that the poor, aged waif before him had been considered antisocial enough to put in a cage.

A helicopter had been dispatched and Fred estimated that the clearing he and Oskar had come from would suffice for a landing site, although it may be an hour before they were located. In the interim he focused on some basic first aid: he draped a sleeping bag around the man, succeeded in making eye contact, and eventually got several spoonfuls of ginger tea down his throat. Feeling encouraged, Fred was bringing the spoon to the convict’s lips and absentmindedly thinking of offering some raisins, when the man caught Fred’s wrist in a surprisingly solid grip. He twisted, grinding inflamed tissue against minor bone spurs, and Fred dropped the spoon onto the convict’s chest.

“Hhaa!” The criminal wheezed, a brief feral gleam flashing in his eyes, “I…could… always spot… weaknesss.” The man’s grip faltered and Fred jerked free at a painful cost to his arthritic wrist and elbow. A shallow cut from the convict’s dirty, sharpened thumbnail began to sting his palm.

Anger coursed through Fred in two directions; his first impulse was to make a fist of his swollen, painful knuckles so as to hammer them into the convict’s nose, but if he betrayed his function thus, he would be bitterly disappointed with himself. And yet if he didn’t, he knew he would be left with the question of whether he had refrained because he was becoming older and weaker. He drew back and poured some ginger tea over the slight wound.

“What’s your name?” He asked the man.

“Slade,” filtered through the chapped lips.

“Well Slade, help should arrive within the hour. I’m going to wait outside for them.” Retreating, he nursed a wounded pride, telling himself he would be available to guide the helicopter crew in.

*

Oskar not only possessed the keenest of noses but superior hearing as well. Facing the hillside, his ears twitched forward until Fred picked up the percussive whirr of rotors coming over the hilltop. In short order, three US marshals arrived at the entrance to the fissure– two bearing a stretcher.

“He’s in there,” Fred gestured, “he still has a little fight in him–cut me with his thumbnail. He’s got a bad wound on his leg; it stinks like it might be gangrenous.” The stretcher bearers set down their burden and their boots squelched into the mouth of the fissure. The third agent brought conversation.

“I am Special Agent Greg Finston,” he said, gloved hand extended.

“Fred Percival.”

“Great work finding this guy; we were sure he was a goner.”

“He looks pretty close as it is.”

“Well, the world wouldn’t miss him much. He has killed twice and paralyzed a guard during his escape, but it’s our duty to collect him.”

“Are you taking him straight back to the pen?”

“Probably a trip to the hospital first, and then the infirmary at the pen–depending on outcomes.”

The shade had melded into an early darkness below the hill. As the marshals withdrew Slade from the fissure, conversation ended abruptly. Finston shook Fred’s hand a second time, saying:

“We are on the move. Our pilot would like to be landed by dusk. Thanks for your service.” And then almost as suddenly as they had appeared they were swallowed into the deeper darkness behind an imperfect curtain of trees. Fred poured out some small amount of kibble and water for Oskar who gobbled it up and then promptly curled up on a small patch of moss. Soon after reporting to Incident Command, and giving an ETA for his return, Fred heard the accelerating thump of the helicopter taking off, whining, thrashing the air it required to hold it aloft. He watched the aircraft rise above the treetops and then the sound followed it out of sight, diminished by half, and then continuously halved itself again and again, but never seemed to be completely silent.

Stretching one leg at a time, Fred loosened his tightening tendons, re-stuffed his pack and prepared for the long hike out. “Let’s go home Oskar,” he said, but the tired dog didn’t shift.

“Come on Oskar, you lazy bones, up you get; that’s the last chopper out for today. They’re not sending one for us.”

A final stray echo of rotor blades rebounded off a distant hillside, and once again the woods conveyed a brooding impression of peace.