DEATH IN THE REDWOODS
By Dave Stancliff
Rick knew something was wrong when Rafter didn’t show up for the morning sweat. He was over an hour late. Not like Rafter. It was a special sweat, too. Lenny’s first, and he needed Rafter’s guidance. After smoking a joint with Lenny, Rick shared his concerns and they agreed to go to Smiley’s house and see what was going on.
Once Rafter was in a heavily forested spot surrounding with brush he stopped crawling through the old growth redwood. He leaned his head back against a tree and looked up and thought he saw infinity before passing out from loss of blood.
Jenny cautiously led Sundance out of the hideout and toward Rick’s ranch. She didn’t know where else to go. They’d gone a short way when she noticed something strange; bloody drag marks on the ground. She was no woodsman, but after several years of walking around these hills she had learned to recognize animal sign. And blood trails!
All her senses went into overdrive as she carefully followed the blood-speckled drag marks. Minutes passed before she found Rafter. A shaft of sunlight broke through the canopy overhead and illuminated his pale face. She feared she was too late and had to fight back tears as she knelt down and felt his neck for a pulse.
He was alive, but barely. Then she saw the gunshot wound to his thigh. The lower half of his body was soaked with his lifeblood. She felt his thigh until she found a gaping hole still seeping blood. She tore pieces of cloth from his t-shirt to tie above the wounded area to staunch the bleeding, and to plug the hole.
Sundance watched with wide eyes and softly called out Rafter’s name. Tears ran down his chubby cheeks as he watched Jenny work. He loved Rafter. He knew his Mommy did too. Rafter had to be okay. If only he would wake up!
Smokey walked slowly. His whole body hurt and it pissed him off. He had just finished drinking a six pack of Budweiser to keep his buzz going. It was daylight outside and time to finish off this little drama. He would have to get the safe key before he killed Jenny, and thought he could manage that by threatening Sundance. What chance did a woman and a child have against him?
They couldn’t have gone far. He expected to find them soon. He cradled the shotgun in one arm like the hunters he saw on TV. Maybe he’d take up hunting after he resettled in Mexico. Of course, it would never be as pleasurable as this hunting expedition. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No doubt about. He probably should take pictures of the dead to prove he was a bad ass dude, so when he got older and his memory wasn’t as sharp, he could look at them.
That made him chuckle. He entered the forest. He’d had time to think about it. This was the way to the ranch where their crazy friend Rick lived and he knew Jenny would try to get help. He knew the way. He’d gone with Smiley and Rafter to visit the crazy coot several times. A crude trail wound through the hills right to Rick’ s house. Even a city boy like Smokey could find it again.
There was one other important thing Smokey knew. A concealed bunker he had discovered in his wanderings. One day he saw Smiley disappear into a thicket with a bag and return shortly thereafter empty handed. Being clever and curious, Smokey investigated and, after hours of looking he discovered the bunkers location. He had kept that knowledge to himself.
Now, as he walked through the forest he grew serious and listened closely. They were out here somewhere and he was going to find them. There was still a lot for him to do. He had to dispose of all the bodies for starters. He went to the bunker first. They weren’t there.
It was almost anti-climatic when he found them. Jenny was tending to Rafter’s wound when he stepped off the trail at the sound of Sundance’s voice. He was surprised to see Rafter after shooting him under the house. Apparently he hadn’t finished the job. What kind of man killer was he, anyway?
“Well, look what we have here.” He mocked them casually waving the 12- gauge. “Two star-crossed lovers. Looks like lover boy has had it, but I can’t write him off yet. He’s a durable bastard. I’ll take care of him shortly. You and I have some talking to do first. Where’s your key to the safe?”
“Who said I have one?” Jenny stalled.
“Don’t try that with me, girlie. Playing stupid is going to get your son hurt.”
He reached out, grabbed Sundance’s arm, and pulled him away from her. Sundance cried out in terror. At the same time Rafter opened his eyes and weakly called out Sundance’s name!
“It’s time for ‘The Price Is Right’ Jenny and if you don’t give me that key your brat is dead!”
“No! Stop! Here it is!” she cried.
She pulled a golden chain from her neck with the key dangling from it.
“Please! Here!” she pleaded and threw it to him.
He lowered the shotgun and Sundance,deftly catching the chain and key in mid air.Sundance took the opportunity to scamper to Jenny and clutch her leg.
“That was sure easy, Jenny. Just to show my appreciation, I’ll kill you before I kill your brat. You know, so you won’t have to see me make cottage cheese out of him! This really has been a great experience but…”
The zing of a Winchester is recognizable to gun aficionados. One barked three times and Smokey staggered around like a puppet whose strings had been cut loose. Blood blossomed on his back and he clutched his chest. The shotgun slipped from his nerveless fingers to the forest floor and he sunk down groaning.
Smiley spit a gob of phlegm at Smokey’s still twitching body and stood there with his Winchester. His left arm hung loosely by his side. He watched Smokey die,gurgling in his own blood,with contempt.
In the distance they heard the roar of Rick’s Jeep. As it came closer, they could hear Lenny calling Rafter’s name. Rafter, whose head was nestled in Jenny’s lap, looked up at Smiley and weakly asked,
“What took you so long to get here, bro?”
It fell on Jenny to care for the two wounded men. She managed to get them into the back seats of the crew-cab with help from Rick and Lenny. She put Sundance’s in the front. Mogli rode between them. It was a bumpy road and the men groaned in spite of themselves.
Sundance was silent. Something unusual for him. Normally a chatter box, he had trouble saying what was going on in his head. He’d seen a man die violently. His world had changed. It was no longer safe and he was afraid. Mogli, who normally would have been yapping playfully, seemed to pick up the mood and lay quietly on the seat.
Jenny’s true character came to the fore as she took charge and maintained her calm.
“We need a story,” she said.
Smiley agreed out loud, but Rafter merely nodded, drifting in and out of consciousness.
“How about a hunting accident?” Smiley ventured.
“How would that work?” Jenny asked.
“We can say that while deer hunting Rafter and I were directly across from each other at one point - by accident of course - and both shot at the same buck.”
“I don’t know. You have a .30-30 Winchester and Rafter was hit by a 12-gage shotgun. There’s a big difference in the wounds.”
“We can say I had the shotgun and Rafter had the Winchester.”
“What about your wound? You were hit by a shotgun too.”
“We both had shotguns?”
“For hunting deer?”
“Well hell Jenny, I’m trying…”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to give you a hard time Smiley, but we need a plausible story for the authorities. Hospitals always report gun wounds.”
“Wait a minute? Why go to a hospital? Nothing but questions there. I know a doctor in Garberville who has his own practice. He’s a friend. A fellow Nam vet. I bet he’d help us out.”
“Okay…where does he live?”
It was light outside when they pulled up in front of a small house in a tree-lined neighborhood off the main drag of Garberville. A sign hung on a stand in the middle of the well-trimmed lawn, “Dr. Harold West.” That was all the information on it. No hours or days. The dark green letters stood out sharply on the white backround.
Jenny reached back and gently shook Rafter, who had dozed off. Smiley stared at the front door of the house, his expression unreadable.
“I’ll take it from here,” he said.
The loss of blood was taking it’s toll. Smiley had trouble standing after he got out of the truck. He tried to clear his head and recall all he knew about Dr. Harold West. He was content to have a small practice with one secretary. He was secretive and had few friends. Smiley was lucky to be one of the chosen few.
He had been a Marine, stationed in a hospital in De Nang. During the 1968 Tet Offensive. Viet Cong fighters broke into the hospital and slaughtered 18 bed-ridden men. He personally helped fight off the attackers and killed two of them.
Smiley met him at a friend’s house, a grower, and they hit it off. Harold, whose soft voice was soothing, was the complete opposite of Smiley, whose voice reverberated loudly in any room. Rumors were that Harold often treated people outside of the law. He gave “private practice” a new meaning by never advertising and seldom taking regular patients.
Smiley steadied himself against the wood door frame and knocked. Noticing a buzzer, he pushed it too. He heard a rustling inside and suddenly the front door opened. Harold asked,
“What happened Smiley?
“Need help. My friend too. Bad scene. No cops.”
Harold’s eyes, wide with surprise, suddenly blinked. His expression became guarded. Then he looked at Smiley’s side and all the blood. A silent decision was made.
“Get in here quick. I don’t have any patients today. What about your friend?”
“Outside in the pickup truck.”
“Go into the bathroom and wait for me. I’ll be right back.”
Outside Harold saw the pickup and its three occupants. Not just one friend in need. He broke out in a sweat and walked up to the driver’s side.
“Smiley said someone else is hurt,” he said without an introduction.
Jenny gave him a weak smile and opened the door.
“In the back seat.”
Harold looked in on Rafter and saw blood from the waist down. His head hung low, chin on chest, and his breathing was rapid and irregular.
“Can you help me get him inside?”
Together they got Rafter to his feet. He came to, blinked his eyes and groaned in pain. Despite his misery, he was aware of a new person in the picture and a strange house. They managed to hold him up, and they struggled inside. Jenny went back to fetch Sundance and Mogli.
Rick and Lenny worked silently and steadily, deepening the hole which would receive Smokey’s remains. Lenny felt as though he had stepped into a horror movie. Part of his brain screamed,
“I’m burying a dead man! A bloody and bloated dead man! How can this be happening?”
When the hole reached a depth of four feet, they stopped. They lifted the body and tossed it into the grave. They took a break for a few minutes before filling in the hole. Violent death was a new experience for Lenny. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and stared down at the crumpled body. Rick, who’d seen the handiwork of war, was unfazed by the deadly turn of events.
Suddenly Rick spoke,
“This asshole is why you have to be careful,” he warned.
Lenny was surprised at Rick’s outburst and nodded his head, timidly agreeing to whatever Rick meant.
“It was a bad call, bringing that shifty-eyed bastard on to help. I was surprised when Smiley told me about him. He hardly knew the jerk! I predicted trouble. I sure hate it when I’m right like this,” Rick said.
Without another word, Rick picked up a shovel and tossed it to Lenny, who was regretting his involvement in the cover up. They filled the hole with dark rich earth and tamped it down with their boots. Then they picked up nearby leaves and twigs and scattered them over the earth. Rick relieved himself on the grave site in a final show of distain.
As they drove back to Rick’s place, both men were silent, buried in their thoughts. Rick’s normal paranoia grew with every mile. Visions of law enforcement officers searching the mountain for Smokey danced through his fevered brain like imps in hell. How far would they look? Would they come looking for him at all?
Lenny tried to re-normalize his world. It was shaken badly. He had become accessory to murder when he helped bury Smokey. The thought tortured him. He didn’t mind being on the other side of the law when it came to selling pot, but this new development was more than he ever bargained for. He glanced at Rick lean face. A blank slate. Whatever was going on behind those dark eyes was carefully concealed.
When they finally pulled up the house, Rick broke the silence.
“Just how fast can you move my pot?”
Coming May 28th - THE FINAL CHAPTER - Chapter 10 - FINAL ACTS