I found him up the Elk's Fork Drainage with its red dirt and steaming sulphur, near the creek, hiding in the black and white aspens. As I approached he charged, face bloody from the kill. Fear fell on my rage but I fired and he dropped. I gathered his furs and rode out.
It was that simple. After days of searching, bodies laid to rest, and the white faces of motherless and fatherless children standing shoulder to shoulder in my dreams—there he was, naked, caked with mud and wilder than I imagined. When I fired he dropped quickly, in mid-pounce. He wasn't immortal—he was just a man—just as I knew him back then.
The only difference now is that his demons have gotten the better of him. Mine are locked up tight in a cage made of a futuristic material, a substance I imagine is harder than rock. I felt more disgust than pity that he couldn't keep his sanity. As I rode away, I looked back. His shape was sprawled out in the open, left to decompose under the Rocky Mountain sun. I had his furs, which are top-notch. A hell of a trapper, he was.
It was back in October when Sheriff Marquette contacted me. I stumbled out of the saloon, laughing at something Marianne was whispering in my ear and there he was, leaned up against a post next to my horse, Thunder, staring at me intently. He was waiting for me—for how long, I wondered? I straightened up and walked to him, leaving Marianne behind.
"Mr. Jesse Marsh, I hear you know your way around these hills", he said, pointing west.
Nodding, I replied, "Yes sir, I'd like to think so".
The sheriff explained, "We have a madman on the loose. He's killed for the third time last night and dragged one of my men off. The widow Lora Huckins who lives up Black Creek is the third victim. Strangled on her front step—and now two kids are without a mother." He shook his head and sighed. "I need someone like you to help us. I can promise you a good wage. We don't need him alive."
"Who is he?" I asked, looking back to see if Marianne was still there. She was gone. "Damn this sheriff," I thought.
I turned back to the sheriff to hear him say, " . . . a trapper, came out here from the north woods a few years back. Rarely comes to town. We were on his trail last night. He lives like an animal. He was up in a tree and jumped on Cal Jones as we passed and drug him off his horse and into the bush like a rabid animal. The other men won't go back", the Sheriff said, lowering his voice.
I raised my eyebrows. "Why me, just because I know the hills? What makes you think I want anything to do with this madman?"
"I've spoken to a few people about you. Weren't you a deputy in Blaine County?"
I paused and looked at the dust swirling by on the street. This was starting to head in a direction I'd rather not go.
Studying me, the sheriff came from another angle, "Mike Grayson says when that grizzly charged up on Bald Mountain, you killed it and you didn't even move an inch, even when its head hit your foot. Is that true?"
Thinking about that day, I recalled how that sow grizzly turned and charged without hesitation or fear. Her eyes were a smoldering green, wild and deadly. I don't remember feeling fear or concern, just amazement that she would make the mistake of charging me. I simply raised my rifle, waited until she was close, then fired. It's as if my body took over and my mind or my soul, was above, watching.
The entire incident was over in seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I could hear meadowlarks calling as she charged. When I turned to look for my horse, there was Mike, behind a tree stump, shivering like crazy. He told many people in town about it later and a few had mocked me at saloons, calling me "Grizzly Man".
The sheriff was in the middle of rattling off names. "Jim Long said that you—"
Stopping him, as I didn't need to hear anymore, I said "Listen, ok, stop. I'll find him. But I want to go alone. I don't want any of these townspeople trailing along, making matters worse."
Sheriff Marquette nodded. "I'll fill you in on the details of where he was last seen, and I'll outfit you with everything you'll need—follow me back to the jail".
Wishing these townspeople would just keep their mouths shut, and this sheriff would take care of this business himself, I reluctantly jumped up on Thunder and followed the sheriff. Marianne would have to wait.
After spending over an hour with the sheriff, learning that the trapper was near White Bluffs and was last seen dragging Cal Jones into thick timber, I headed home, to rest and to think. Before I fell asleep, I vowed I would find and kill him quickly. The search would begin first thing in the morning.
Early the next morning, the wind blew through my cracked window, beckoning me to get up. The pale gray room, so still, except for that thin stream of air. "I'm coming", I said to the spider running up the wall. Grabbing my Colt .44 revolver and Winchester .45-70 rifle, I saddled Thunder and began the ride in the direction of White Bluffs.
It was overcast and just a sliver of bright peach shone on the horizon. I climbed higher elevations as the grassy valley turned to sage and cedar and abundant mule deer peeked at me from behind pines. The fine hairs on my arms and neck stood on end. As I continued on a well-worn trail, I saw the tracks of the men who had searched before me. Remembering the sheriff said the trapper had been in the trees, like a cougar, I continually scanned above.
Continuing up the trail about two miles, I stopped when I saw the blood. Turning east I saw the path of whoever—or whatever—left the blood trail, there, towards White Bluffs. Dismounting, I led Thunder along the blood trail—noting the blood was a dark red and dry. This had to be Cal Jones's trail from the night before.
It became harder to follow the trail into the timber, but I continued, weaving Thunder around and over the deadfall. The blood sign thinned out against the dark dirt floor, until I came upon him. There, under the fine mossy branches of the pines was Cal. He was on his back, eyes open as if gazing at the moss that wisped like spider-web from the trees. His throat was mangled—it struck me immediately as a cougar kill and there was an attempt to cover the body as light branches and dirt covered his lower body.
This was the trapper's kill number four. The prior three were seemingly random—two men and the last, a woman in her home. Each brutal. Cal was a ranch hand and a father just trying to help the sheriff. I couldn't figure out why these people were murdered. None had any kind of past that I was aware of and the sheriff mentioned that they weren't robbed or even had any money or valuables that he knew of. "Damn this trapper. Stick to trapping, you crazy bastard," I thought.
I wanted to get to a higher elevation. In the dark timber I felt helpless and claustrophobic. If I were high I can see what's moving below and watch the animal behavior that may signal that a person is nearby. Getting comfortable with the way the ground sits—the lay of the land—has served me well in many situations. I navigated Thunder up the steep west side of White Bluffs. Once on top, I knew I'd be able to see for miles.
Thunder climbed effortlessly. Small trails of rock fell as we climbed higher. Now on top, I surveyed the land laid out before me. Sunlight Peak's white top shined and Blackberry Gulch was shadowed and craggy below it. The bowl of the valley blazed orange and yellow as autumn touched the land. I stayed for hours, watching. It wasn't until the sun was slipping past Sunlight Peak and shadows started to appear that I saw the mule deer on the side of a hill—near the old Jimmeston homestead. The does were snorting and stomping and looking back toward the timber they had just come from.
My eyes focused on the edges of that timber. Nothing at first. Then, just as the last of the sun slipped under the horizon, I saw him. Lying flat against the cool rock of the bluff, I watched as he walked, heading east. It had to be him. I saw him pause and crouch down behind some sage brush.
It was a long, long, time before he appeared again. My eyes were wide in the dusk, trying to absorb every last ray of light and staring intently at that bush. It was his head that slowly appeared over the top as if he were peeking—looking my way. An ice cold chill enveloped me. As my heart thudded, he was lost to the darkness. Inching my body backwards, away from the edge of the bluff, I exhaled loudly and said "Get ahold of yourself!"
Heading back to Thunder in the trees, I prepared to make camp. There wouldn't be a fire tonight, I'd have to endure the chill. Burrowed deep in my bed roll, I stared up at the stars between the pines. Drowsiness finally arrived along with five children, standing near the edge of the bluff, looking at me. "Hey! It's dangerous there! Get back", I yelled. They just stood there, white-faced, staring at me. Hearing a small sound from behind me, I jerked around to face the dark forest. It was a dull, barely discernable snap of a stick or a twig. As I reached for my Colt, two eyes shone at me from about twenty yards away—then he was on me in a flash. Lurching forward, I woke, covered in sweat. It was a dream.
I did not sleep for the rest of the night. As light finally arrived, I set off down the bluff and headed across the valley, to where I had seen him last night. As I came to the edge of the timber he had scared the mule deer does from, I saw his tracks. They led to the sage bush and there were his heel imprints, where he'd hesitated so long behind the sagebrush. There, next to the base of the bush, a shiny round object caught my eye. I picked it up and my head started swimming—I recognized it instantly—I could not believe my eyes.
It was Martha Montgomery's brooch. It was given to the sheriff of Blaine County—when I was his deputy—by Martha's daughter, Melinda. A flood of emotions washed over me. I saw Melinda's face—haggard and desperate. Her mother had disappeared and she gave the sheriff the brooch, pleading with us to find her mother. We followed her captors for weeks but they slipped away and we lost so much of ourselves on that journey. We came close to death from dehydration in the desert and we had to shoot our horses. It was an arduous trip home, on foot, me with a gunshot wound to the arm and the sheriff, delirious and inconsolable.
Melinda's face haunts me to this day. Now to see this brooch, lying here under this brush—completely out of time and place is a pain I didn't expect to feel—not here, not now. I put it in my pocket. Lost for a moment in the past, I quickly composed myself and jumped up from the ground scanning the landscape. Something was not right. Feeling extremely uneasy, I knew I had walked into an ambush. There! On the horizon! On the very bluff I had spent the night on, there he was, watching me. A shot rang out and I howled, "GODDAMMIT"! I jumped on Thunder and rode back towards White Bluffs, straight into zinging bullets and hell, for all I knew. "Who are you?!" I yelled. He was no longer visible on the horizon, on top of the bluffs.
I navigated a galloping Thunder in a wide circle to the back-side of White Bluffs with Martha's brooch burning in my pocket. This was someone I knew, otherwise they would not have left that brooch under the sage for me to find. The only person I knew of in possession of the brooch was the Sheriff of Blaine County. Surely this madman could not be Mack. Someone must have gotten ahold of the brooch and is playing a game with me.
"Where are you, you sonofabitch?" I said out loud. Charging toward the bluffs was an impulsive move on my part and I admonished myself as I slowed Thunder down to watch the bluff from any angle possible. My instincts told me he was in the thick timber flowing down the backside of the bluff. I wanted to stay out of the timber as much as I could to avoid walking into an ambush. I headed south to the river. I'd go around and cut him off, as he came out of the timber.
I followed Green River until I was at a vantage point where the timber started to taper off. Both the left and right of the swath of timber running down White Bluffs were visible. The only thing wrong with this location was the river. The sound of the river was unnerving to me. I needed to hear the wind, bird calls—the river muffled all of that. Despite this, I waited, hunkered down in the cottonwoods and at times only my eyes moved, rifle across my lap. No sign of him. I sighed and stretched my legs. It was going to be a long night.
I had to get away from the sound of the river. There is no way I was going to stay near it without hearing what is going on around me—especially in the dark. I walked Thunder to the south through the cool, damp floor of the cottonwood grove. When we got to the edge I climbed on Thunder and rode up to higher elevation. There was more pine tree cover than I liked, but light was waning and I wanted to get a good look around before dark. Finding a decent spot in a clearing surrounded by trees, I had a good view to the east and north. High in the evening sky, turkey vultures soared in lazy circles. I walked in each direction, scanning the country below. Nothing unusual, until I walked east. I heard them before I saw them.
Magpies chattered loudly. As I walked to the edge of the hill, I saw the black and white birds, eating an animal down in the draw, and flying back and forth across a carcass. It was a bobcat. I could see that from the tawny fur and spots. Walking down to get a closer look, the magpies scolded me. There, the bobcat laid, caught in a trap. The trapper! Letting good fur go to waste while he was off killing people. What a shame. "Sonofabitch", I seethed. I must be right in his backyard, I thought. Right in his circle. My eyes sharpened and I climbed up the hill back to Thunder and my camp.
That night the owls hooted, the moon was full and bright, and I didn't sleep at all. I was right on the trapper's trap line. Faces flew at me from the night. Who was this murderous trapper? How did he know me? It was years ago I left Blaine County up north and my life as a deputy, but here I was doing the same damn thing—chasing fugitives. I vowed to myself that when this is over I would take Marianne away from here and we could start new.
Just as dawn peeked through the trees, I walked over to the side of the hill, to relieve myself and stretch. As I approached the edge my eye caught something moving in the draw. Grizzly bear, I thought and froze. The sun was just starting to stream into the draw, and the light caught his face. It was him. The trapper. I didn't have either of my guns with me. He walked up to the bobcat and crouched down. I dropped to the ground and peered through the tall grass. He crouched, then he immediately stood up, his long hair revealing his face. I knew he had seen my tracks in the mud, next to the bobcat. He looked around quickly and snarled. Then, I knew. It was my sheriff from Blaine County: Mack Mills.
"Mack, what the hell are you doing?" I thought. Glancing in all directions, he ran back down the draw. I stayed in the grass for quite some time. Could I reason with him? I thought back to the time we spent together, especially looking for Martha. Martha was the love of his life, though not many people knew this. I had to practically drag him back home after our long search into the desert almost killed both of us. He was anguished. We were defeated. He blamed me for not finding Martha and that is mostly why I left Blaine County. She was taken by a band of bad outlaws and whatever became of her was most likely horrendous. Mack cursed me over and over for making him turn back.
"She is dead because of you", he told me coldly the last time I saw him.
I drew in a deep breath, lying there in the grass. "I'm going to have to reason with him—talk some sense into him", I whispered. I got up and walked up the hill, back to camp. I saddled Thunder and set off slowly down the draw. Cautiously, I rode Thunder down—he couldn't be too far. I scanned the trees and squinted ahead. When the trees thinned out, I could see the valley below.
There was something under a tree that looked out of place—like a human form. Quickly, I jumped off of Thunder and moved behind a tree with my pistol. I continued closer, and the form didn't move. Running now, I was only a few feet away and then I saw the blue. The blue of her dress. She was partially covered, her throat was torn. It was my Marianne. It's her hand that my mind replays over and over again. So white—it looked as if it were reaching for me. My throat closed up, I could hardly breathe. I turned and ran back to Thunder.
I charged down to the bottom of the drainage and that's when I saw it—his camp. I raced toward it with purposeful fury. Now, on foot, I would search every rock and every tree for him. My heart pumped hot acid, the morning sun shone, and the young aspens rustled. A wild laugh rang out and echoed across the valley.