Jane Pilton was luckier than most.
She reminded herself that every day that she woke up, sometime just after the first morning alarm would sound off. Her home was modest. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, and a bathroom with one of those fancy standing bathtubs that you could really soak in after a long day’s work. It was her first major purchase after she moved in. The only real ‘modern’ part of her country home.
The sun had just begun to creep into her home through her bedroom blinds. It always took a little longer for daylight to make its way in. This close to the waterfront the surrounding hills and mountains kept the residents of Beryl Lake cloaked in cool shade while the sky roared in tones of bright orange and blue. It made everyone in town sleep in a little later. Everyone but Jane.
She was always an early riser. Part of it came from her old job. It was the reason she kept her brunette curls on the shorter side. Easier to pull up into a ponytail. Plus, she thought it looked better with a uniform.
Once the second alarm went off it was time for business. Tying on a thick robe she would go about preparing to start her day. Set the coffee maker on. Lay out her clothing. Check the shortwave radio. Crank up the electric stove and cook a couple of eggs. Maybe bacon, if she felt like she needed the boost.
It wasn’t something she took for granted. She knew most towns weren’t as lucky. Beryl Lake wasn’t a very important blip on the map. Highway 47 was an hour north, and the closest Federation outpost was three hours away -- before abandoned cars and bandits made travel a dangerous endeavor. Surrounded by a mix of wooded hills and flat farmland, it was only thanks to its namesake that Beryl Lake thrived while the rest of the world buckled under the collapse of the Federation.
Only a few miles away was Beryl Dam. Fed water from man-made reservoirs the dam was just close enough to provide power to the small town. The residents of the dam did what they could to provide the surrounding area with electricity in exchange for food, supplies, and protection. Beryl Lake, Anvil, and Open Sky Reservation were the only populated regions in the state lucky enough to be able to keep the lights on at night.
Most of the world lived in the dark, but Jane’s small home had power. More importantly, she had purpose.
“Hello? Sheriff?” There was a soft knocking at the front door, heralded by a woman’s voice; loud but clearly timid. Someone afraid of intruding.
“One minute!” Jane said, checking to make sure she was presentable before turning off the stove.
She recognized the voice right away. It was hard not to. Everyone knew who everyone was in a small town like this. Still, she checked the peephole before unlocking and opening the door. You could never be too careful.
“Good morning Barbara. What brings you around this early?”
Barbara Kline was a small woman. Nervous and anxious in social spaces, Jane never saw her around town often. Even less so since the Federation dissolved. Her husband had a keen eye for hunting and several years of mechanical know-how. It made him a popular man, which left most of the housekeeping and caretaking to Barbara.
“Nothing. I mean, ah....” Barbara spoke softly, though her voice sound strained. “Can we talk?”
It was a cool day outside, but the way Barbara buried herself within her heavy coat it was easy to think that winter had settled in. Jane nodded and stepped aside to let her pass before closing and locking the door.
“I’ve got a pot brewing if you’re interested.” said Jane, walking back to the kitchen.
“Uh. Yes, thanks.”
There was a moment of strained tension while Jane poured drinks into a pair of mismatched sports mugs. Barbara stood in the den looking unsure what to do with herself. Jane did everything she could to be an accommodating host. She mentioned the weather (cool, but sunny). Showed off her favorite art piece in the house (a painting of a beachside house in watercolor, given to her from a friend). Made a bad joke about running out of her favorite breakfast cereal (Sugar Barks).
She also quietly took note of the things that didn’t seem quite right.
Barbara kept her jacket wrapped tightly around her, but below the knee the silk of her pink and white pajama bottoms were showing. Her hair was pulled into a hasty bun, with strands left to sit wildly between her scalp and the hair elastic. Her eyes were red with exhaustion, like she had spent too long crying or rubbing them vigorously. Her voice seemed strained, despite its hushed tone. Perhaps she had been yelling, or had come from a lengthy conversation.
“So, I take it this isn’t a social visit?” said Jane, smiling across from her coffee.
“I, ah. Listen, Sheriff-”
“Please, just Jane is fine. I’m not a Sheriff anymore.”
“Jane. I know things aren’t...normal.” Barbara set down her coffee, leaning in to talk. “But everyone knows you. You were supposed to be Sheriff, right? Hilkins says you solved the Silkie Murders a few years back. And you helped find that lost boy a few months ago.”
“It wasn’t a bad gig, but things are different now.” Jane smiled, taking a sip. “We voted on who would take care of security around here. Andy and Sophia’s kids can handle it. ”
“But they wanted you to have the job first. Because you have experience.”
“It’s more than a one-woman job. Those kids will do fine. Good at hunting. Brian ain’t bad to look at either.” she chuckled.
“I...that’s not what I mean.” Barbara’s voice seemed to fade away. “Lynn’s gone missing.”
Of the three of Barbara’s daughters, Lynn was the oldest by a couple years. Maybe more, it was hard to keep track. She was tall, vibrant, with long hair that settled somewhere near her hip. Jane always wondered how long it took to keep it straight. It seemed like such a hassle, but it certainly made her easy to pick out of a crowd.
“How long has she been gone for?” Jane asked.
“A day now. She went to her boyfriend’s place, but never came back.” said Barbara, wringing her hands. “She normally calls if she’s going to stay longer.”
“Who’s she dating?”
“He’s...ah, he lives on the reserve. You know...”
Jane frowned. She knew where this was going. In small towns like Beryl Lake you were either involved in the local gossip, or you quickly became a source of negative attention. The Indigenous residents of Open Sky often found themselves on the latter. She had lost count over the number of complaints she received over the months prior that had escalated from petty accusations to outright lies.
Stolen animals, broken electronics, antagonizing citizens. Those were the easy ones to take care of. Most of the time she would follow up with a phone call to investigate and the charges were already dropped. It was easy to accuse anyone with anything, but to prove it required a lot of work. Drunken rambling in a small town was rarely given real credibility. Plus, if you’re ever proven wrong about something, you end up looking like a troublemaker. No one wanted to risk that.
“So have you tried calling his house? Landlines still work.” Jane took another sip from her coffee.
“What? No. She always calls me, always. Sheriff--” Barbara took a moment to regain her composure. “Jane. I know her. I know she would have called. Even if her phone didn’t work, she would have found another. They must have done something to her.”
“Does she have any enemies?”
“No one that would want to see her hurt? A jealous ex?”
“Lynn’s a good girl. Smart. Keeps her nose out of trouble. Or she did until she met him.”
“This a bad kid?”
“He’s typical.” snorted Barbara. The loudest sound Jane had heard her make all morning. “I told her not to get mixed up with his type. Those people. Always talking about travel and seeing the world, whatever that means. No plans. No job security. Just goddamn daydreams.”
“Well, you know how kids can be.”
“Lynn doesn’t need that shit in her life. She’s a good kid. Works hard. My girl. Now she’s gone. I know she is, and I know they did something to her.” Barbara’s quiet facade began to crack under the weight of her stress. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Jane passed her a box of tissues, then took another sip from her mug. Barbara was trying hard to hold her composure. They sat in silence while she slowly regained control of her shivering hand. Clutching the tissue box close Barbara turned her eyes away from Jane, looking elsewhere in the apartment while she spoke. Jane wondered if it was easier for her to pretend she was talking to herself.
“John wants to gather up a group to go and search for her. Talks about getting his gun and fucking doing something about it. About them, Sheriff. But if he goes out there and gets shot in the back by some native...if I lose them both...I can’t. I can’t.”
“You want me to go looking for her.”
“You have a history with them, right?
“A history? Yeah, you could say that.” Jane said into her mug before draining it at last.
“You have a better chance than anyone else. If the men go...you know how they are. God knows who will start shooting first. But we’re outsiders. I heard from Tom Hurdan that you lived there for a while. They trust you, don’t they?”
The question hung in the air for a moment before Jane placed her mug on the coffee table between them. She turned the drink carefully, rotating its logo in thought.
“I served this town for five years until things fell apart.” Jane mused, leaning back into her couch. “Before that I worked in Las Vegas. Pre-Federation, do you know what the crime rate was? About one in a hundred. Even when they started bringing in officers with ‘abilities’, it took some time to really hone in on the problem.”
“I don’t understand.”
“People. People are like a natural disaster. Sometimes you can predict it. You see the signs and can act accordingly. But now and then you can see the signs, make all the right choices, and you’re still not prepared for what’s ahead.”
“What...what did you do?”
“Education and intervention, Mrs. Kline.” Jane slapped her hands down on her knees, using them to push herself up to her feet with a groan. “We taught people that there’s always a better way. When they wouldn’t listen, we stepped in to show them”
“I...will you help?” Barbara stood as well, still holding the box of tissues nervously.
“I can’t promise I’ll find her. Maybe she went to the reserve. Maybe she went elsewhere. But I’ll see what they have to say.”
Barbara Kline broke into tears. Jane did what she could to comfort her, offering a hug and soft words of heartfelt consolation. Standing by the front door she tried to glean as much information as possible about the day Lynn left. She was wearing a yellow summer dress. She rode a red bicycle. She always carried a worn-down looking jean backpack when making a trip.
Escorting the weary mother from her home Jane worried what the girl’s disappearance meant for the community. They survived by working together. If Lynn Kline was taken by an outsider things would be difficult, but manageable. If someone, anyone, from their small cluster of towns was responsible, it wouldn’t take long for their peace to fall apart.
Jane spent the rest of the morning moving with purpose. Digging through her closet she pushed past her old officer’s uniform, opting instead for jeans and a comfortable shirt. Pulling her hair into a ponytail she took a peek outside the kitchen window to see if the rest of Beryl Lake had already begun to stir awake. Fastening her gun holster she watched them gather to socialize in the town’s single main road before getting into the morning’s chores.
Word spread quickly in a small town like this. They already looked tense. John Kline stood in the center of them, arms folded, caught in a heated discussion with the group.
Jane stepped out into the morning sun with a stretch, well aware that all eyes were on her. Each home of Beryl Lake was scattered across the waterfront, with little in the way of vegetation between. It was undoubtedly scenic. One of the reasons she moved here, in fact. But for once Jane wished she had a little bit of cover.
“Morning gentlemen.” she nodded, fixing her baseball hat to help cover against the glare of the sun.
“Mornin’ Jane.” one man nodded with a smile. Several others echoed the sentiment, tipping hats or waving hello.
She quietly unlocked the door to her jeep and stepped inside. Turning the ignition and backing out of her driveway she saw the group of men had already begun to step onto the off-road dirt. Lowering her window she gently slid to a stop between them.
“You boys keep out of trouble today.” Jane said, eyeing the lot.
“Last I checked, you ain’t Sheriff no more.” John Kline’s deep voice boomed from the crowd.
“Nope. I ain’t. But I still know a thing or two about not acting like an idiot.” she smiled. “Just the beginner’s course though.”
John pushed his way to her jeep, placing a hand on the roof of the vehicle to lean in close. Jane sat quietly, looking up at the man.
“You really think you gonna find somethin? Ain’t much detective work here, way I see it.” he said.
“Maybe. Maybe not. If you’re right, I should be back in a day.”
“If they did anything to her. To my girl...”
Jane reached out and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. His expression was calm, but she could see the tears in his eyes, held in place by years of practice.
“I promise you John, I’ll do everything I can to find the truth.” Jane said as quietly as she could manage.
She let her hand linger for a moment, until the weight of her words seemed to take root. He nodded thankfully, and Jane pulled her hand away.
“Then you got one day Bear Lady.” he spoke loudly, patting her car door with a faux affection. “You bring my girl home.”
Jane smiled. She always liked that nickname. It was meant as an insult at first, of course, but the people of Beryl Lake grew to have immense respect for Sheriff Jane Pilton. As she pulled away from their small town and toward the back roads leading to the reserve, they knew only one of two things would happen.
Either Jane would catch the one responsible for Lynn Kline’s disappearance; or her kidnapper would run, and die tired.
The drive to Open Sky Reservation was an easy one. Few turns across a flat open land left plenty of scenic horizon for a bored traveller to take in. Flecks of green shrubbery dotted the desert landscape, giving you a full view of the world for miles in any direction. Far into the distance the earth crested like a wave of dirt and stone.
Large rock formations dotted the horizon, which came in handy when you were trying to make a long drive a little less boring. You could keep an eye on unique looking mountains, pillars, or the occasional jutting slope, keeping track of how far you’ve travelled based on the next stone landmark. The really interesting ones were tourist traps. People were bound to show up where sediment and volcanic rock formed in a way that looked like an angel, or pizza slice.
Jane had a few landmarks she followed when travelling north, to help her pass the time. A rock she thought looked like a rabbit. She named it Theo, after her favorite cereal mascot. Long drives made her nervous, but once she hit Theo she knew it wasn’t far to her next destination.
Unfortunately, Open Sky Reservation was to the west. It was a drive she was familiar with, but one devoid of landmarks. Dry, open space slowly gave way to scattered pine and prickly bushes. It made for a slightly more interesting landscape until hitting farmland, where everything became a uniform green.
Corn and wheat fields were the last major destination on American soil before officially entering reserve territory. Its close proximity to the Open Sky had blended the municipality’s culture over the years. Many young men and women living on the reserve that were looking for a way out made easy roots here. Homes weren’t cheap, but there was plenty of work for eager farmhands.
The cultural exchange went so deep that the locals had even voted to change its name from Flincher’s Park to the more humble Elk’s Rest. Jane had been there for the occasion and she was relatively impressed. Those kinds of exchanges often dissolved into pointless arguments. She guessed the non-Indigenous locals must have really thought the name was cute.
Despite feeling anxious Jane kept a close eye on the road. There were few homes in the area. Even fewer side roads. If Lynn Kline had taken the trip on bicycle she would have stuck to the main highway. Skid marks or tire treads could point to signs of an accident. If Jane couldn’t find any reliable information on the reserve she would need to stop by these farms along the way back. It was always better to be thorough.
With fuel becoming a precious commodity there weren’t many cars on the road. Electric-only vehicles like hers were a rarity. Even still, there were signs of normalcy here. Harvest was soon. Long stretches of corn and wheat were occasionally interrupted by farmers working in small groups, inspecting crops or repairing fences. Some were armed, and gave Jane’s vehicle careful consideration as she drove by. Theft from desperate outsiders had become commonplace over the past few months.
Jane watched a group of teenagers working together to pull up a scarecrow. She always wondered how effective those things were. It was probably more busywork for the kids than it was anything else. In a few days they’d be swarming with crows looking for a place to rest if they didn’t go the extra mile to find some bright colored clothing to flap around in the wind.
Most of her farming experience had come from her mother’s side. Alejandra Pilton could do it all. Baking, gardening, fixing a plow, sculpting clay, setting a broken leg; even coaxing a nervous animal on a stormy night. No one ever knew how she managed to accomplish so much in a single day. On Jane’s quinceañera she converted their barn into a lavish dance hall, complete with twinkling stars that would swing above guests.
Jane only ever absorbed a small portion of it. Mostly the baking. She could make a mean pretzel bun. Her father spoiled her with all the really fun lessons.
He was a modern hunter, if such a thing could truly exist. Jane followed his every step both figuratively and literally. Summers would be spent taking outings once a month, where they would look up at the stars while recounting their favorite birds and constellations. In the winter he would hide paper-wrapped gifts in the woods for her to find. He was the kind of man who thrived under pressure. Graduating from her academy training made him so proud he cried for an entire week. Any time it was mentioned.
They used to target practice on scarecrows for fun. Ten points for the bucket head. Twenty if you could knock a hole in a glove. Those were good memories. It brought a smile to her lips. How strange it is, the things that make us return to the past.
The sign for Open Sky Reservation was large, beautifully painted and carved from several treated and stained planks of wood. It was well maintained and taken care of. A keen observer could fall in love with the small details carved into the wood. Rushing waters and strong trees. This attention to detail was a pride not often shared so openly by small communities.
In remarkable contrast to the reserve’s sign the well-maintained highway pavement suddenly came to an end, giving way to a rougher looking, more worn down highway. The road was smooth, but had clearly seen better days. You could travel past the reserve’s sign for miles and encounter several branching routes. Some marked, others left unnamed. Private driveways and dirt shortcuts made with time and enough off-roading.
Before all that, the social center. An impressive building that reminded Jane of a fancy modern art exhibit. Curved walls and high windows let plenty of light pour into the building from almost any angle. There was something unusual about the brownish coloring that made the building seem old. Maybe older than it was. It was designed to be a place to gather for a number of social events. Weddings, birthdays, celebrations, pow wows and holidays.
Normally Jane would stop by and say hello, but the gathering of trucks and absence of music or outdoor stands suggested an important meeting was being held. She didn’t have enough time to get caught up in a politics talk today. Instead she gave a friendly smile and wave to a group of older men standing guard near the road. Patio chairs gathered just outside of a weathered RV, they reciprocate the gesture, rifles kept at rest.
“Just you?” an older man called out as she drove past slowly. He looked buried under a wide-brimmed hat, barely able to see.
“Just me, a quick visit.” she tipped her cap back in thanks as they waved her by.
Her destination from there was a modest home, by country standards. Breaking away from open farmland the land was claimed almost entirely by pine trees, standing tall and proud. It was an hour drive down a winding dirt road, lush and green from a more than ample rainy season. There, tucked far in the woods, was what Jane affectionately called The Den.
She pulled up to the home slowly, not wanting to move too quick for the black lab that had sauntered up to meet her vehicle. The Den was a two story home with a large patio. Jane loved it. It looked warm and welcoming. Shade from an oversized oak tree kept much of the driveway cool. A set of swings hung from the largest branch, sitting just beside a comfortable looking hammock draped in a colorful blanket.
It was the most comfortable looking place to rest, but certainly not the only place. From a distance it looked as though the home had vomited out a stream of chairs of all shapes and sizes. Some had clearly seen better days, but most were in good condition. The Den had gained a reputation over the years for being a place to meet. All of the chairs had been brought and left behind by others. Most were claimed. Jane knew for a fact that it took around half an hour to bring them all outside -- which was important to do because you never knew who would show up.
Stepping out the front door was a woman in her early thirties. Tan worn from years spent working under the sun, she cradled a box filled with pipes under one arm while taking a sip from a water bottle. Her worn shirt and faded jeans were stained with bright paints and dark oil. Workers clothing that fit her as naturally as a uniform. A smile crept across the woman’s face as she watched Jane’s jeep make its way to the front of her home.
“¡Mira quién es!” she laughed as Jane parked just beyond the gathering of chairs. “Tu asiento no está listo todavía.”
“No te preocupes por eso.” Jane smiled. “I won’t be long, Dawn.”
Dawn set her box aside to give Jane a warm embrace. Jane gave an audible sigh, closing her eyes with relief.
“It’s been too long.” she said, pointing over to the swings. “Have time for a chat?”
“I’ve got a few visitors once the town hall is over. Give me a hand with these and we’ll have a drink.”
Together the pair got to work organizing chairs into place. Jane had been to plenty of these before. Family meetings. Friendly gatherings. Less frequent during the harvest season and stormy weather, it was a chance for everyone to share stories about their day. Not just any stories, really. Only the best. The most memorable stories would move from week to week, creating a competition within the community to come up with the best tale. One that could dethrone the king.
Funny stories usually lasted the longest, and while the pair idly worked Dawn filled her in on a few new ones that were bound to become classics. They both had to stop working to laugh over a retelling of the Yazzie twins switching places on a date with the daughter of a family friend. When they were done outside the pair took their conversation indoors. While Dawn made tea, Jane took a moment to appreciate her art.
There may have been better painters in the world, but there was something special about Dawn’s work. Jane wasn’t well-versed enough in the art world to describe it. The living room was like a cathedral of color, off-white walls mostly hidden behind a collection of murals, watercolor portraits, and half-finished landscapes still resting on easels. Jane couldn’t help but be drawn to the works in progress, waiting to be finished.
“Is this the rec center?” she paused at what appeared to be the start of an unusually shaped oval.
“Yeah!” Dawn yelled from the kitchen after poking her head around the corner. “I was thinking about making a map. Start with the entrance to the reserve. Maybe block out some property lines.”
“I like it. Maybe if we can ever get a printer up and running we can scan and make a few copies.”
“That’ll be expensive.” said Dawn, passing a steaming mug to Jane. “Plus, don’t you have Sheriff Duty?”
“Mmm.” Jane admired another portrait of a desert landscape, black clouds rolling across a bright blue sky. “Yes and no. That’s why I’m here actually.”
Walking slowly through Dawn’s impromptu gallery Jane filled her in on the disappearance of Lynn Kline. Her red bicycle, the yellow dress, the unusual circumstances of her vanishing. While other locals may have held some reservations in speaking with an outsider, Jane knew that Dawn would be honest with her.
“I’m sorry to hear about the girl, but I don’t think I can help you on this one.” said Dawn with a frown. “I’ve seen her around too, but not in the past few days. Pretty girl.”
“What about the boyfriend?”
“Uh, John River. He’s a skinny kid. Kind of lanky. If you ask around, ask for ‘Creek’.”
“Creek.” Jane flipped open a small writing pad and jotted down a note. “Any idea of where he is?”
“You getting all tough cop on me, Officer Pilton?”
“I’m not afraid to break out the nightstick on this one.” Jane grinned.
“Almost everyone’s working the farmland these days. Either that or watching the main road.” Dawn sat down on a reclining chair, stirring her cup with a spoon. “You see the post on the way in?”
“Some. A big gathering at the rec center?”
“No, that’s no gathering. That’s the way it is. Had a few raids a week back and we decided it’s time to close borders.”
“Raids? On what?” concern fell across Jane’s expression. Things had always been tense since the Federation fell, but the dam’s need for labor and supplies had kept everyone working toward a common goal. “Who would risk starting a fight?”
Dawn paused for a moment, letting Jane take a seat before speaking further.
“About a year back we were approached by a Federation representative. It was part of that reparation initiative they started. Guy flies in with a fancy suit, asks to speak with our Chief.”
“I heard about that. They did that for a lot of tribes didn’t they?”
“All of em. Everyone got the same treatment. They offered to bring the entire reservation ‘up to speed’. Pave new roads, update our medical facilities, assist with housing, electrical, you name it. Said that we were ‘long past due for being treated like citizens of the twenty first century.’”
“For free.” Dawn snorted a laugh. “Said there were no terms, no conditions. Just good will. We could ever put together a list of things we needed, to see if they could manage anything extra.”
“What? Why?” Jane’s confused expression made Dawn shake her head in reply.
“That’s exactly what we said. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Feds were nice. They always seem to be. Just seemed too good to be true.” Dawn sighed. “We said no. But they tried again. Two more times. Then we wake up one day and find a few dozen crates left outside the reserve, right under our sign.”
Jane had heard about this from the locals. It had stirred up quite a controversy at the time. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical equipment, left unattended for the Indigenous residents of Open Sky to receive. Most of it came with replacement parts and contact information regarding further inquiries.
Most who were aware of the drop off knew they needed it, but it had caused a tremendous rift in the community. The offer, soon after known as the Indigenous Reparation Initiative, was an effort to bring these more isolated communities up to date with Federation standards. It was meant to be a balancing act. Many saw it as favoritism.
Explaining life here to outsiders was always tricky. Jane knew the frustration well. She wasn’t born here, but she considered Open Sky to be a part of her family. There was a lot of pride in every Indigenous community. Dawn’s great, great grandfather had built The Den. Since then, every generation had added a little more. A second floor, a shed, a garage. Dawn had taken it upon herself to fully restore the home. No one wanted, or expected handouts. Where self reliance was valued most, it was equal parts embarrassing and infuriating to be assumed lazy or selfish.
“These people...” Dawn trailed with a sigh. “They kept trying to give us things, ya know? Stuff. As if it just fixes everything.”
“Maybe in this case it’s better late than never. Equipment like that can go a long way.”
“We just want to be left alone.” Dawn leaned back in her recliner, cradling the drink close. “Sometimes it feels like no one gets that.”
“You ever think that just humoring them would have made it stop?”
“The government? C’mon Jane, you should know better. You can’t compromise with suits. The second they want something they just figure out how to take it. People think we’re just complainers. That we’re still crying about something done to our people hundreds of years ago. But till the very end, they kept trying to take and take. Pipelines through our land. Farmers relocated. Industrial spills that bled into our rivers --”
“Well I don’t think that will be a problem anymore.” Jane spoke loudly, not wanting to interrupt but know full well when a rant was coming. It’s not that she disagreed. Normally she would be all ears, but there was still a girl missing.
“Every day I think about it. Maybe the collapse was the best thing to happen to us.” Dawn shrugged. “Now we just need to worry about our neighbors stealing food. We can manage that.”
“I’ll try to find a lead on that for you. I just can’t imagine who would be that stupid.”
“Try looking in your own backyard.”
Jane opened her mouth to retort, but paused. Dawn held a hand across her mouth, eyes glossy with tears.
“I’m sorry Jane. I’m so, so sorry.” Dawn’s voice was muffled but full of strain.
“Hey,” Jane got up quickly, and the two women embraced in a hug. It was easy to feel her friend’s restrained sobbing through the jump of her shoulders. “I get it. Really, I understand. Things are tough on everyone, but we can make it work.”
“I know. I know.” Dawn sniffled, regaining her composure. “And I know you’re not like them. I do.” She took a step back, wiping the tears from her eyes. “You’re always welcome here. Everyone agrees. We don’t get why you’re so bent on staying at Beryl.”
“Well, someone’s gotta give them some perspective right? Education and intervention.” said Jane with a grin. “I’ve got a nice lakeside view, too.”
“Kenny didn’t deserve you. My brother really fucked your marriage with his bullshit.” Dawn stifled a laugh. “I wish I said something before you got together.”
“He was an idiot.” Jane nodded. “But I was too. We were young. After the first few months I just told myself I was in it for the family perks. I shoulda kept the surname though. Jane Thundering Bear had such a nice ring to it.”
“Well, you’ve got that nickname out of the deal.”
“Yeah. There were a couple of those in the running. I remember hearing ‘Bear Fucker’ was popular with the boys when I was working the strip.” Jane frowned, recalling the experience.
“Well let’s be glad Bear Lady won out. That’s the kind of name that really ages well.”
“I picture an old woman surrounded by furs. Maybe with an oversized shotgun.”
“And one of those hats with the flaps. You know. Whatever it’s called!” laughed Dawn, holding up a hand to her ears as an example.
They talked for another hour. About funny hats, tea, movies and men. It was a good distraction from the hard times they lived in, and Jane knew that she had always been luckier than most. The least she could do was spend some time sharing a laugh with a good friend.
Jane would have probably stayed longer but she still had work to do. Dawn walked with her outside, promising to let her know if she learned anything about Lynn that would help her investigation. At the very least, she would come visit.
A small caravan of vehicles had just begun to make their way down the dirt road just as she was stepping into the driver’s seat. Jane recognized a couple of faces. She waved as they started to pull in, lowering her window while she waited for them to park.
“Bear Lady! You bringin' us good news?” one shouted while pulling his truck beside her.
She laughed, greeting each with a cheerful hello as they started to fill in for the planned gathering. Most were still dressed from their work in the fields, with exception to who she assumed were the Yazzie twins. They both wore leather bomber jackets with a unique letter embroidered on each arm, an B and a J -- gifts probably forced on them after one too many teenage pranks.
No one had any information about Lynn. They’d seen her around and knew she dated this ‘Creek’. He worked night shifts at the dam, but otherwise he was a good kid. Knew a lot about electrical wiring. No one had seen him for the past day but that alone wasn’t too unusual. You could go a week without seeing a neighbor in these parts.
But he was scheduled to work night shifts all this month. If Creek was going to be anywhere, Beryl Dam would be the place to find him.
Driving away from The Den she checked her rear view mirror for as long as she could, wanting to soak in as much of the home as she could possibly hold in her memory. It was still early in the afternoon, but the ride to the dam would take a few hours. Leaving the reservation she passed a new set of men on guard. Armed, attentive, and happy to wave goodbye while she drove off toward the main highway.
With another long ride ahead of her Jane tried to think about how she would confront the boyfriend. If he wasn’t at his job then she would have wasted hours trying to get in touch with him. It would have been smarter to go visit his home while she was on the reserve. Maybe press the locals harder. She had assumed she knew better, but the truth was anyone was capable of murder.
She knew right then she was making a mistake. If she turned around now then she could still visit his home, then the dam without wasting much time. Maybe a half hour lost, if she drove fast.
Quickly she pulled her jeep into a U-turn, checking both lanes of the farm-surrounded road to make sure there was no oncoming traffic. She was just about to complete the maneuver when something bright red caught her eye in the drainage ditch. Pulling to a stop Jane stepped out to look down into the dirt spillway.
A red bicycle, twisted and mangled. Its bright red somewhat tarnished with dirt and grime, the bike looked like it was well taken care of, at one point. There were several sets of footprints in the dirt, some treads and some barefoot. Drag marks. Some corn stalks, broken at the stem. It was a clear sign of a struggle if she’d ever seen one.
Jane checked her surroundings, hand reflexively moving toward her revolver. In the distance she could see the other side of the farmland where she had drove in earlier. The scarecrows were all up. There was no yelling, none of the unusual loudness that comes from working in the outdoors. Everything seemed strangely quiet.
For a moment she eyed the field of corn, playing with the idea of following the trail of confusing footprints. It was always dangerous to enter a field of crops. You never knew what machinery could be working, and the way everyone had been on edge at the reserve there was a good chance these farmers would be equally dangerous. It was always best to avoid spooking an armed homeowner.
Realizing that she needed a better vantage point Jane drew her pistol and strode into the crops, moving past the obvious trail of struggle to the direction of a nearby scarecrow post instead. Those things were fairly sturdy. If it could hold her weight then there would be a much better view of --
Blood. So much blood. The post was soaked in it. Dried from too much exposure to air and sunlight, but thick enough to leave the ground crusted in a foul smelling red.
The scarecrow was nowhere to be found. In its place were ragged scraps of torn leather and faded denim. All of it was covered in a thick red sludge, save for a single tattered strand of yellow cloth. The squelching of wet soil underfoot told her whatever happened here wasn’t that long ago. It may not even be finished.
Gun raised, Jane doubled back and found the trail of footprints in the dirt. Walking low, trying hard to reduce the telltale sound of shifting corn, she followed the signs of struggle deep into the unknown.
Stalking through the cornfield Jane had deduced the footprints belonged to two people: One who she believed to be Lynn Kline, and the other who was likely was her kidnapper. Complete sneaker treads were rarely left in the earth. She had been dragged, kicking, struggling, for at least several dozen feet into the cornfield before finally going limp.
Her attacker was strong. Strong enough to drag a young woman without any signs of difficulty. The footprints in the earth were unwavering. Never a slow in step or stride. Most likely a man. Maybe six feet tall. Possibly over two-hundred pounds. Hopefully unarmed, but Jane knew better than to assume the best case scenario.
Jane recited these facts to herself while following the trail. Blindly following the footprints made it impossible to know what direction she was going. The sun still hung overhead, giving her a clear sign of the attacker’s unpredictable tracks, but the rows of corn made it difficult to see much further than an arm’s length ahead. She kept herself moving low and slow, ready to spring aside at the first hint of danger.
Crops had begun to thin and Jane saw she was approaching the farmhouse somewhere between the backyard and the eastern side of the home. At a glance everything looked normal. Patio furniture, a swing set, and an abundance of toys made Jane wary someone would be inside. Families didn’t stray far from safety these days, and few places were safer than an armed farmhouse.
The drag marks left the cornfield, then continued on in the dirt for about a foot before disappearing into a healthy, green lawn. Stepping out into the open would be a sure way to expose her presence, but she knew her options were running low. If the killer was here she wanted every advantage possible.
She crouched, hidden, waiting to see if there was anyone home. Exploring the perimeter from the safety of the cornfield she searched for signs of movement. A light, a shifting curtain, a shadow -- anything.
It was the cellar that caught her eye. Its two wooden doors were faded red from years of sun exposure, but a chain sitting in the grass seemed out of place. At a glance she thought the lock was still on the chain. She paused, weighing her options until she noticed the lock was smashed. Crushed, like it was hit with a rock or hammer.
With no one in sight, Jane risked moving from the safety of the cornfield. Dashing across the lawn she pressed herself close against the backyard wall. Pressing an ear to the cellar door she listened for any sound of a disturbance below. Leaning with her body craned against the wood her eye took note of the dried blood smearing the door’s handle.
Slowly, carefully, she pulled the cellar open with one hand. She grimaced through the low pitched whine its hinges made, keeping her revolver raised and ready. Something inside smelled of heat and decay, and she turned her head reflexively to keep from gagging. Thumbing back the weapon’s hammer she paused a moment to gather her courage before peeking downstairs.
Dirt and dried mud caked the basement floor, marking a clear trail of footsteps where Lynn had likely been dragged. The stairs down were steep slabs of uneven pavement. Without a source of light it was impossible to see too far below. After a quick scan of her surroundings Jane reached for the keyring in her back pocket. Unclipping a miniature flashlight she gave it a quick click into her palm to make sure the battery was still strong.
Praying she hadn’t already given her arrival away Jane stepped down the stairs, guiding her approach with a thin beam of light. Ducking her head to avoid the low ceiling she performed a quick scan, facing her back to the nearest wall the moment she felt it was safe. The pitch darkness of the basement made it difficult to take in her surroundings. She relied heavily on the flashlight while adjusting to the dark, resisting the urge to pull the lamp light chain she spotted nearby.
The basement was dusty, but normal for all intents and purposes. Her back was to a very well organized tool bench that stretched across the entire far wall. Basements weren’t common around these parts, and she guessed the home must had been built within the last year or so. There was only a single wooden staircase leading up, obscured by several metal shelves. It seemed completely ordinary, so long as your gaze never settled on the floor.
Following the drag marks along the ground she could see where the footsteps became muddled and impossible to read. The concrete floor was stained in layers of dark red. A lack of blood splatter meant whatever happened had been without a struggle. At first Jane thought there had been a stabbing or puncture resulting in massive blood loss. Bringing her flashlight’s beam across the ground she realized it was clearly beyond her expertise.
Chunks of flesh had been left pulped so thoroughly into the ground she wasn’t sure where the meat had come from. Small bundles of paper and cloth lay strewn about the floor as though someone had made an effort to clean. It only added to the confusion, making it difficult to tell what was definitively human and what was simply stained with gore.
Any doubt of Lynn Kline’s fate was silenced by the clear remnants of a once-yellow dress. Now torn apart and left unceremoniously on the ground, its lace pattern looked more like a bloodied doily than clothing. Questions bubbled through Jane’s mind.
Where was the body? Where were the bones? Organs? If all she could see was pulped meat and shredded skin she had to wonder where the rest of Lynn had gone.
Footsteps sounded off above her. Jane heard it after the heavy slam of the farmhouse front door. A single pair, moving about the house. They walked directly above her, then moved elsewhere before finally settling with a hard thump.
Jane turned her light away, glad to finally have something else to take her mind off the scene on the ground. Giving the murder scene a wide berth she kept her weapon trained on the stairway. Placing a foot at the base of the stairs she tested her weight on it, wincing slightly as it give a slight creak under the pressure of her foot.
Somewhere above footsteps began again. She aimed her weapon at the door, working hard to steady her breathing as someone walked past. A faucet turned on somewhere above, rattling pipes with the squeak of water pressure. Jane took the opportunity to move up the stairs, turning off her flashlight so she could take hold of the doorknob.
With a twist and push she slowly stepped into the farmhouse hallway to find herself poised somewhere between the front door, den, and kitchen. Family portraits hung on cream colored walls; a collection of the farm’s workers over the years. The furniture looked like hand carved wood, save for a cloth sectional couch which dominated the living room. It looked ordinary. A family home.
She took a step. Weapon raised, Jane carefully took a peek around the corner into the kitchen. A single dining room table. A long row of cabinets stretching across the wall. A double sink, and modern-looking island burner. Rinsing his hands in the sink was a heavy-set man in his late forties. Black hair that sat straight down to his shoulders and darker complexion gave away his heritage. He was dressed as though he spent a day in the field, but Jane didn’t recognize him in the slightest. Not like that meant much. He could have been anything from someone’s distant cousin to a representative from another tribe.
Jane eyed the boots at the door, covered in mud. Maybe it was a coincidence, but it was one she couldn’t afford to take.
“Hands up!” Jane yelled with authority, revolver pointed at the man while she used the corner of the wall for partial cover.
Startled, the man turned, wide eyed with his hands still in the sink. He seemed frightened at first. Then, narrowing his eyes down at Jane his fear turned to anger.
“You breakin in, bitch? Here to steal from my family?” his voice sounded hoarse. Scratched from too many years of smoking and yelling.
“My name’s Jane Pilton. I’m the law around here.” she spoke clearly, and with authority. “Now I’m not gonna hurt you unless you give me cause. Understand?”
The man blinked for a moment, considering her words, then nodded.
“What’s your name?”
“You got a last name, Tom?”
“Yazzie. Tom Yazzie.”
“Alright. Tom, I’m going to need you to step away from the sink now. Hands up. Nice and slow.”
“And then what?” Tom asked, turning his body slightly to get a better look at Jane.
“We take a step outside and have a conversation.” her voice was steady, calm.
Neither made a move. Tom’s hands still soaking in the sink. Jane steadily training her weapon on him. It seemed like he was ready to speak again when a heavy slam made them both jump in shock. Jane turned to see the wind had caught the screen door, suddenly pushing it shut. When she looked back at Tom it was just in time to duck against the wall as something round and metal was tossed her way.
Raising her weapon she fired once in a clumsy flinch. A miss. Tom Yazzie was much faster than she had anticipated. Kitchen knife in one hand he swung at her revolver with a dinner plate in the other. She fired a second shot, but was off balance, stepping back to try and put distance between her and her attacker. Again her bullet flew too wide. The plate exploded into ceramic shards, but only after the gun was knocked from her grasp and across the hall into the living room.
“You wanna steal from me? Thief!” Tom screamed in defiance, bearing down on her.
Tom twisted the knife in his hand, getting a better grip to stab down at Jane’s smaller figure. Knowing that another step would put her closer to the basement Jane kicked out, catching the man square in the gut. Doubling over with a spray of coughing spit he stumbled backwards. It was all the opening she needed.
Pulling a picture frame from the wall with two hands she swung hard at her attacker, catching him across the jaw. Wood and glass cracked violently sending him reeling backwards. The knife dropped to the floor as he fought to keep his balance. Face bloodied and only somewhat aware of his surroundings Tom stumbled backwards down the hall.
“Help!” Tom yelled as loud as he could. His voice cracked with pain as he held his jaw in one hand. “Stop! Please!”
Jane tossed the ruined picture frame aside, boots crunching on glass as she walked over to him, triumphant.
“Oh so now you want to fucking talk? I’ll bet.” Jane fought hard to control her adrenaline, wringing her hands together to keep them from shaking.
The front door kicked open without warning, startling Jane for the second time while almost clipping the back of Tom’s head. She recognized the leather jacket before she saw the face. Ben Yazzie knelt down without hesitation, trying to help Tom up before Jane could protest.
“Don’t you touch him!” she scanned around the room for her revolver, unsure where it landed.
“I...I heard gunshot! I came as fast as I--” Ben started explain, raising his hands in self defense.
“--She’s fucking crazy! This bitch tried to kill me!” Tom yelled, his voice labored from trying to sit up. “She’s trying to rob us!”
“T-the sheriff?” Ben gestured to Jane. “What?”
“Either of you boys move another finger and I swear on my mother I will beat you so far into the ground they won’t need to bother digging a grave.” Jane said, her eye finally catching the glint of metal underneath the couch. “You’re both under arrest. Or whatever we’re calling it.”
“Arrest? For what?” Tom spat. “I didn’t do shit.”
“I ain’t even begun to start--” Jane had started to step towards the living room when Ben lurched back.
“--HURGPH...” Ben tried to speak but only a rolling wave of blood burst from his mouth. Jutting from his chest, puncturing his jacket and out his shirt, was a sleek sharpened point of bone stained a deep red.
Standing behind Ben was a figure that made Jane’s blood run cold.
It stood tall despite a severe hunch, but looked thin and frail. Like a man wasted away from months of starvation. Ragged jeans hung loose around stilted legs, stuffed into oversized boots. A thick brown raincoat, worn down with holes from the passage of time, made the creature almost look human. Despite its lopsided appearance, it may have even passed as a man from behind. Facing it directly the illusion was completely shattered.
As the creature continued to lift Ben off the ground Tom scrambled on all fours, partly covered in Ben’s blood. Underneath the brown raincoat was a mess of human parts. Kidneys, lungs, and a single liver were all twisted and tied together into a slick, wet mass, held in place by a wrap of intestine. A beating heart pumped a sludge-like blood through the semi-transparent organs. The stress and force of each beat sent what looked like wet mud out from ventricles that were no longer connected to a human circulatory system.
It reminded her of a scarecrow, and Jane immediately knew what she had to do.
Jane didn’t watch what happened next. She couldn’t see the scarecrow’s face under its hood; a human skull, stripped of all but a few tattered strips of flesh, opened its mouth wide. There was only a single eye in its left socket that seemed to hang in place, as though suspended from something within. The scarecrow slipped Ben onto the ground, pushing from its left arm which had no hand. Insead the bone was sharpened at the wrist to create a spear of bone. Jane had dove under the couch and was reaching for her weapon.
The flow of blood from Ben’s mouth became a panicked gargle as the teenager went into shock. Mismatched fingers on a skeletal hand reached down with delicate precision. This time it was Tom’s turn to look away. Scrambling to his feet, he ran to the back of the house while the scarecrow slowly plucked a right eye from a screaming, struggling teenager.
With four shots left Jane knew she had to make each one count. She watched the scarecrow struggle to fit the eye into its empty socket, gently lowering it into the hole while holding back its hood with its arm-spear. Ben Yazzie lay still on the ground, a growing pool of blood spreading out from around his form.
Not waiting for the scarecrow to finish its task, she took aim and fired once. It staggered, head snapping back as her shot connected. An eruption of black sludge splashed across the wall. Then it tilted its attention to Jane, skull locked in a skeletal grin. Its newly installed eye rolled in its head, sagging within the socket in a way that suggested it had yet to be properly assimilated. A reddish black sludge crept out the bullet hole, slowly flowing down its face.
Clicking its teeth in a chatter the scarecrow shambled toward Jane, off balance but ready to strike. She fired another shot into its face that cracked the skull along the right side, sending a flood of black paste down onto the wood floor. It took another staggered step and she fired the third into its heart. The organ squelched, leaking black pus, but it stood undeterred.
Jane hesitated, unsure where to place her last shot. Nothing seemed to have any real effect. Missing most of its head and with no discernible weakness in its vitals she realized there was only one option left.
She broke into a sprint, trying to dash past the scarecrow only to find a horrific pain tear through her arm. The creature had lunged faster than she had anticipated, impaling her bicep with its bone-spear. Body twisted mid-run she turned frantically, trying to pull herself free while it quietly began to drag her back. She screamed in pain and fear and anger. It sounded like an explosion of force sounded off somewhere nearby, then suddenly she was on the ground, free.
“You killed him, you son of a bitch!” Tom pumped the shotgun in his hand and fired again.
While Tom sprayed the scarecrow with another shell Jane staggered to her feet, her right arm limp at her side. Each new round of pellets shredded away more of the scarecrow’s clothing, revealing its hanging organs tied loosely to its skeletal frame. One lung was deflated, leaking a sickly-looking goo. It only had a small collection of ribs that were in no discernible order. There were too many vertebrae on the spine.
“It’s just...parts.” Jane said quietly. She took her last shot at the scarecrow’s exposed kneecap, watching it tumble over. “It’s just parts!” she screamed at Tom, who nodded in recognition.
Sticking its bone-spear into the wood floor the scarecrow immediately began to drag itself, weathering another round of Tom’s shotgun to make a clattering scramble toward Jane. Afraid she was too slow to run, Jane dove into the kitchen. The THUNK of sharpened bone sounded behind her as the scarecrow moved closer. Her good hand managed to grab hold of the pan Tom had thrown earlier. A desperate swing managed to knock aside the spear’s next jab.
A mismatched collection of skeletal fingers gripped down on her leg, and Jane swung her pan down on the scarecrow’s wrist in response. She felt the pressure from its grip immediately cease as the joint snapped. Jane knew she had made a fatal mistake.
The scarecrow lurched up on its spear. One leg crippled, its arm severed, leaving a trail of tattered organs and chipped bone along the hall, it pushed off the ground for a single downward swing. With her good arm crippled there was no way to move in time to escape.
Cracking bone and a hollow thud rang through the home. Tom, using the shotgun as a bat, swung as hard as he could at the scarecrow’s head. Its jaw shattered, teeth scattering across the room. The force of the blow was enough to roll the creature’s lopsided body over and away from Jane. Gripping her pan Jane dragged herself up while Tom swung down.
Together they did everything they could to break it apart, piece by piece. They crushed its arms, splintering bone and removing its only remaining weapon. And yet it moved, so Jane pulverized its skull with her pan. Tom’s shotgun broke apart after its sixth swing, which shattered the discs in its spine. And yet it moved, so they continued to rip at its organs until only a thin slippery paste slipped through their fingers.
The pair stepped away from it, exhausted, in agony. Tom had cuts all over his body from the struggle in melee. There was a terrible cut across his chest where it must have raked him with a bony limb. Jane’s arm felt dead at her side.
“Did you see that?” Tom whispered, eyes wide, staring at the piled remains of the creature. “Did it move?
Jane watched, waited, before she finally spoke.
“Let’s burn it.”
“What? The monster?”
“No.” Jane shook her head. “Everything.”
The fire that consumed the farm attracted attention for miles. When help had arrived to control the blaze they came across Jane and Tom, covered in blood and gore. Both had decided it was best to leave Ben inside when they set the fire. Tom had taken the young man’s leather jacket to pass on to his immediate family. It was a small gesture, but one that provided a little closure to Ben’s violent end.
Neither took their eyes off the flames. Their wounds were treated as they watched the farmhouse burn to the ground. Jane fell asleep watching the heat bubble and pop away any trace of horror from the waking world.
She woke up in her home, surrounded by the locals of Beryl Lake, community leaders from Elk’s Rest, and Open Sky Reservation’s tribal council. Dawn was there with a box of her favorite cereal as a gift. Tom Yazzie was waiting in her living room. Strangely, she found his presence especially comforting.
Word spread fast. It took some time to come to terms with what she had to report. The creature, its nature, and the fate of both Lynn Kline and Ben Yazzie were hard to describe. There was skepticism when she was done, but Tom’s testimony and their injuries helped to lend some weight to the truth. Something had hidden itself within their community. No one knew how many other travellers had gone missing during its stay.
Jane would recover over the next few months with assistance from Dawn, who was happy to visit and break the monotony of bedrest. Every now and then rumors would circulate within Beryl Lake of something gone wrong at a local farm, or of someone acting unusually at the reservation. More supplies than normal. Strange weather. Selfish behavior. To their credit the Klines spoke up against such accusations, whenever they arouse. They never forgot it was thanks to ‘those people’ that their daughter’s killer was brought to justice.
It was only once that Jane saw everyone band together as equals to a common cause.
Despite her certainty that the creature was slain, a rally was held to help reassure everyone that their land was safe from similar threats. Hundreds of men and women gathered from every corner of their community. They moved from farm to farm in small groups, investigating every home, barn, and bale of hay. Each had their own method of searching for monsters, but there was one precaution that was unanimously agreed upon:
They burned every scarecrow on every farm, without hesitation.