“Backtrack” by Paul Doiron: An Exclusive Short Story
Enjoy “Backtrack”—an original, brand new, Criminal Element-exclusive short story from Edgar Award finalist Paul Doiron, author of the bestselling Mike Bowditch series.
When a visiting hunter goes missing in the middle of a snowstorm, a young Charley Stevens (later the mentor to game warden Mike Bowditch) sets off to rescue him—but begins to suspect the man may not want to be found.
There were four doctors staying at the hunting camp. Two of them were brothers, and they owned all the land for a mile in every direction. I had tramped around those woods when I got assigned to the district, the year before, and I remember some nice stands of oak and beech and a couple of cedar swamps where the deer could yard up when the snow got heavy. It was a pretty sweet spot.
Then one of the doctors didn’t show up after a day of hunting.
Ora was putting dinner on the table when the phone rang. Thanksgiving leftovers. There’s nothing better.
“The man who’s lost is Dr. Phillip Stoddard,” the dispatcher told me. His friends had been searching for him since nightfall. They were worried he might be injured.
“How old is he, do you know?”
At the time, I was only twenty-eight, understand. Sixty-eight made the man a Methuselah in my eyes.
“One of them will meet you outside the Crossroads Variety Store,” the dispatcher said. “His name is Dr. James Honig, the man I spoke with just now.”
“And how I will be able to pick out Dr. Honig from the crowd?”
“Well, gee, I’m not sure.”
The dispatcher never appreciated my cock-eyed sense of humor. Crossroads was halfway up the backside of nowhere. I wondered how a business could stay open in such a God-forgotten place. And in fact it closed soon after.
Ora gave me a hug, awkward on account of her pregnant belly. “You find that poor man, Charley. Don’t you come home until you do.”
“Whatever you say, Boss.”
“I hate your calling me that. Just be careful, all right?”
“Ten-four, my love.”
It hadn’t started to snow yet, but I could smell snow on the air. There was already a foot of it on the ground from the last storm. Everything seemed beautifully reversed. The earth was pale and the sky was dark. Not so much as a glimmer of moon.
* * *
The variety had closed by the time I arrived forty minutes later. The lights were all extinguished, the gas pumps nonfunctional. I saw a sedan with Massachusetts plates parked at the edge of the plowed lot. Dr. Honig was inside, running the car to stay warm. I could tell from how the exhaust slunk away from the tailpipe that the air pressure was falling.
The hunter jumped out of that fancy automobile as soon as he saw me roll up. He was wearing one of those head-to-toe jumpsuits. Plus a blaze-orange cap. Only a blind man could have mistaken him for a deer, dressed as he was in all that fluorescence.
“Are you the game warden?” he asked.
“If not, I’ve got everyone fooled.”
I don’t know why I always had to be a cut-up. The man was worried about his lost pal.
“You need to follow me! We have a man missing, my colleague, Dr. Phil Stoddard. We were supposed to meet back at the cabin after hunting, but he didn’t return. He’s the best woodsman among us, no question. We’re terribly concerned he might have had an accident.”
“Does Dr. Stoddard have any health problems you know about?”
“Health problems! I hope I’m in as good a shape as Phil is when I’m that age. We’ve been firing shots for him to hear, hoping he’d reply, but we haven’t heard a thing. Please, there’s no time to waste.”
Some wardens would have resented the assignment. Locate some old doctor from Boston who didn’t belong in the Maine woods in the first place. But my stomach told me I was going to find this Stoddard feller and deliver him to safety and maybe even get my name in the papers.
So I followed Dr. Honig’s sedan back onto the Hornbeam Road with an excited optimism, I guess you could call it. We took a turn, then another, and then we were headed off into the williwags. The first flakes appeared in my headlights after we left the paved road.
It was coming down pretty hard by the time we reached the cabin. There was already an inch on the other Mercedes parked in the dooryard. The heavy air was pushing smoke from the chimney down among the trunks of the trees all the way to the snowpack.
The two other doctors came outside when they heard us drive up. One was the twin of Dr. James Honig, whip thin and balding. This was his brother Sam. The other was a bantam rooster named Dr. David Dinsmore. Dr. Stoddard seemed to have been some kind of mentor to the younger men. They threw a lot of information at me until finally I had to slow them down.
“Where and when was Dr. Stoddard last seen?”
“Here at lunch,” said the first Dr. Honig. “We all came back from hunting, as was our practice. Afterwards, Phil and I decided to go back out and try our luck again while Sam and Dave played cribbage. That must have been around twelve thirty.”
“Closer to one o’clock,” Dinsmore said. The liquor on his breath nearly knocked me down.
“Did he say where he was going to hunt?”
“He was going to follow the stream to the cedar swamp,” said James Honig. “He spooked a big buck there this morning.”
“Is that the same brook we passed on the way in?”
“How familiar would you say he was with the country around here?”
“Very familiar. Phil’s hunted with us the past three years, ever since he retired.”
“Can you tell me what he was wearing?”
“What difference does it make what clothes he has on?” said Dinsmore. “He’s the only one out there.”
Dr. Sam Honig put his hand on his little friend’s shoulder. “Dave, I think the warden means is Phil adequately dressed to survive the night outdoors.”
“Why didn’t he just say so?” The banty-legged man hugged himself against the chill. “Can’t we have this conversation inside?”
“I’d rather not get warm and then have to go back into the cold again, Dr. Dinsmore.”
Sam jumped in to make peace. “Phil is dressed in a wool coat and a knit cap. His pants are also made of wool, I’m fairly certain. And he has on some pack boots from L.L.Bean he bought last night on the drive up here. Underneath everything, he’s wearing one of those union suits with the buttons down the front and the flap behind. We were joking about it this morning.”
“Does he have a compass? Does he know how to use one?”
Dinsmore raised his chin at me again. “Because we’re professionals from Boston, we don’t know anything about the woods. That’s what you think. But Phil was a Marine in the South Pacific. He knows how to use a goddamned compass. Better than you, probably.”
I was irked that Dinsmore had been able to peer inside my skull and see my prejudices writhing around. But I was more angry at him for reading my mind than I was properly ashamed.
“What kind of rifle does he have with him?”
“An M1 Garand thirty-aught-six,” James said. “The same rifle he used in the Philippines.”
“What else might he have with him? Food? Water? A map? A flashlight?”
They looked around at one another’s blank expressions.
“How would you describe his state of mind?” I asked. “Was anything troubling him?”
“Are you suggesting he was suicidal?” said Dinsmore. I could have warmed my hands off the glow from his face.
“That’s not what the warden asked,” said Sam the diplomat. “Phil seemed in good spirits, relaxed, laughing at lunch. He didn’t have anything to drink, in case you were wondering. It’s a rule here: no alcohol until you’re done hunting for the day. How would you describe his state of mind, Jim?”
“He seemed a lot happier than last night when we arrived.”
That caught my attention. “What happened last night?”
“He was just quiet in the car riding up. Phil rode with me, and Sam brought Dave.”
“Dr. Honig, you said he is in excellent condition. How about his health history? Does he have any old war wounds?”
“None that I know of. Phil never talked about the war.”
I understood that impulse well enough. Ora had stopped asking me about Vietnam after our third date. Not once had she prompted me to tell her how I got all my scars.
“Phil Stoddard is the strongest man I ever met,” said Dinsmore. “The guy is as solid as the Cliffs of Dover.”
I could guess from the glance that passed between the Brothers Honig that they weren’t going to inform their friend that those English cliffs are made of crumbling chalk.
“One last question. Did you hear any gunshots this afternoon—even something faint in the distance?”
They wanted to help me with the search, of course. Dinsmore being the most ardent to do so. Drunk as he was, he realized his crack about taking shelter from the snow had made it sound like he cared more for his personal comfort than for his missing friend’s welfare.
“Four of us searching is better than one man alone,” he said. “We have a responsibility to Phil’s family to do everything in our power.”
The last thing I needed was to lose another of those city men in the snowbound woods.
Sam Honig rescued me from saying something impolite.
“The warden is a professional at finding lost persons, Dave. We all want to help, but the best thing is for us to stay behind and let him do his work. Maybe Phil will show up at the cabin on his own.”
“I’ll find your friend for you, Dr. Dinsmore. You sit tight and I’ll be back with Dr. Stoddard in no time. You have my word on that.”
* * *
I fetched my sled from the truck. It was an old toboggan I’d repurposed with ropes and tie-downs for hauling deer out of the woods. I got a lot of teasing from my colleagues about that kiddie sled, but it did the job and then some.
Pulling the sled behind me, I picked up Dr. Stoddard’s tracks even before I reached the stream. The new snow was starting to fill up the boot-shaped indents. It wouldn’t be long until they were vague depressions, near impossible to see.
Now a lost person, being confused and panicked, will often make errors in judgment.
Some walk in circles.
Others will climb a hill or even shimmy up a tree to gain perspective on their dire situation.
Most will follow a stream downhill, thinking there’s civilization at the bottom when it’s just as likely to be a cedar swamp or a frozen-over beaver flowage.
Very few stay put and wait to be rescued. They keep on moving because they are embarrassed at being lost and overwhelmed by the need to do something to save themselves.
My suspicion was that Dr. Stoddard wasn’t lost but had, more likely, twisted an ankle or even broken a leg. Worse case, he had hit his head on a rock when he fell. The doctor didn’t sound like a candidate for a heart attack, but you can never tell about that muscle.
I worried about his state of mind, though. Getting turned around in the dark can drive many a confident man to lose his nerve.
Dr. Stoddard’s tracks showed a long, determined stride. Not what you’d expect from a hunter hoping to creep up on a buck. Could have been he was in a hurry to shoot a deer before the snow started and the darkness closed in.
Whenever I made a search for a missing person, I wore a whistle on a leather strip around my neck. I stuck the blowing part between my teeth and kept it clenched there. Every hundred yards or so I would give it a sharp blast.
The only answer was the wind.
Then, about half a mile down the ice-crusted stream, I came to what looked like a deer bed. Took me a minute to realize the depression had been left by a man, sitting down and stretching out his long legs.
Now, no hunter I had ever met would plop his ass down in the snow. Not unless he wanted his butt cheeks to go numb.
Dr. Stoddard seemingly had sat there for a spell. Maybe he had felt dizzy or just needed a breather. But whatever he’d felt hadn’t caused him to turn around for the cabin.
His tracks continued up the side of the little gully through which the stream flowed. The direction puzzled me. I couldn’t figure out why he would move off the trail.
By this time the snow was falling slantwise, and the tip of my nose was tingling. My flashlight beam bounced right off those fat flakes.
I decided to fire three shots from my revolver. The gun was a .357 Magnum and had quite the retort. The sound carried for miles, even in branch-bending wind.
After I fired the last time, I cupped my hands around my ears and turned this way and that. I listened for five whole minutes.
I won’t lie. I was getting anxious, mostly for Dr. Stoddard, but also because I couldn’t stomach the thought of failing in my duty.
Once they were clear of the ravine, the pattern of the tracks underwent a change. Now they showed signs of stopping and pausing, as if the doctor really had lost his way. The prints zigzagged back and forth through the trees in a slalomlike fashion. They ranged off in an oxbow loop than returned to the original path after a lazy detour.
The overall course might indicate a confused man wandering. Hypothermia can prompt a kind of delirium. Some sufferers even throw off their clothes and go naked through the woods.
As I rounded a cluster of balsams, pulling my toboggan on a rope over my shoulder, a buck exploded out of the powder at my feet. He was big brute of a deer, let me tell you, a twelve-pointer, with a ridge of snow down his back like a white crest. He disappeared before I could get my flashlight on him. The gray ghost left behind a secret bed, the snow melted from the heat of his body, tufts of gray hair trembling in the wind before they got snatched away.
Being spooked by that buck got to me. I couldn’t say why, but I felt as if the missing man was toying with me. I spat out the whistle, reached for my pistol, and fired three more angry rounds into the blackness above.
After the echoes had been pushed aside on the wind, I did my ear-cupping trick. Again with no happy result. By now the weather had erased all signs of the hunter’s passage. I would have had an easier time following that trophy deer than locating Dr. Stoddard.
It was only the sharp crack of a branch breaking that saved me from turning tail. The sound came from a place to my left and slightly ahead. Nor did I reckon it was the wind.
Another branch broke, this one not as loud. I set off into the thicker cover in pursuit. The trees were mostly pines of various widths and heights. And under one of the biggest, oldest pines was an impression like the one I’d found before: the outline of a man’s bottom, legs, and boot heels. I bit off my mitten, passed my palm over the melted snow, and felt the same lingering warmth I had felt in the deer’s bed.
Fresh tracks showed where the doctor had jumped up and fled into the forest.
What else could I do but chase down the poor delusional man before he injured himself or eluded me for good?
He’d tried to walk backward in his own prints, the way a child might hope to fool another child, but I recognized the gambit for what it was. I switched off my flashlight and let night vision take over.
I found him crouched behind a cabin-sized boulder, one of those erratics the glaciers had left behind on their retreat north ten thousands year past. He held his military rifle at waist height, pointed at where he thought his pursuer might appear, coming around the rock.
“You don’t need that rifle, Doc,” I said. “I’m one of the good guys.”
His mouth had gone blue. And he was shivering so hard, the snow was dropping off him like it would from a wind-shaken pine. Hypothermia had addled his brain, I could tell.
“Warden Charley Stevens. Your friends were worried when you didn’t return to the cabin. They asked me to come find you.”
“I’m not lost!”
If you asked a child to draw an angry face, his would have been the result.
“There’s no shame in a man losing his way. Hell! It happens to me at least once a month.”
His dead lips couldn’t spit out more than a few words at a time. “I know. What I’m doing. Please! Leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that, Doc. I can’t abandon you out in this miserableness.”
“How. Did you. Find me?”
“I am a Maine game warden. That’s what we do.”
I shouldn’t have grinned.
“Cocksure! Son of a bitch. Someday you’ll realize. The horrible mistake you made.”
“I’m dying. Damn you! Cancer. Pancreatic. I’ll be dead. In months.”
He might as well have slapped all that smugness off my face. My cheeks burned, but not from the wind or cold. It was from the brutal chastisement of his words.
“I am truly sorry to hear that.” And I was.
“No one knows. My family. My friends. Only my doctors.”
I was a young man. What did I know of delicate considerations? “Maybe if you shared the news—”
“My family can’t know!”
I saw his plan now as if it was typed out on paper with a spotlight shining on the page. He hadn’t come to Maine to hunt. His secret intention had been to sit down in the snow, go to sleep, and let the cold carry away his soul. His family would believe that he had gotten lost in the woods and died of exposure. It would be hard, but they would be spared watching the cannibal cancer eat him from the inside out.
“Only way,” he said. “If they suspect. Insurance company will. Screw my family.”
I chewed that one over for a minute. I was scared but didn’t know why. I’d done my job and found the lost man. Baffled by my fear, I grew short-tempered with him.
“You have hypothermia, sir. I can’t be sure that you’re thinking clearly.”
His mouth seemed to be loosening up from the exertion. “Do you understand? In physical pain every minute. Every hour. You’re not saving me. Condemning me to torture.”
“I couldn’t live with my conscience if I left you to die.”
“Why is your conscience more important than my life?”
The cold went right through me then. I might as well have been a ghost.
“I’m not here to pass judgment on you, Dr. Stoddard. I am the last person to claim that right. If it were up to me, I would let everyone choose their own ending.”
“You have that choice! It’s one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.”
“Come back to the cabin with me, Doc. Things will look different in the morning.”
He wobbled, seemed about to collapse. “So tired. Just want to sleep.”
“I can help you.”
“You could. But you won’t.”
“Things will look different.”
I reached out my paw. He let me take his rifle and sling it over my shoulder. He had no energy to fight me. He barely had enough to sit down on my sled, even with his self-anointed savior supporting his weight.
As I towed him out of that winter wonderland, I kept thinking how he was heavier than he should have been.
I kept my word and said nothing about his illness. When I left them all, the sick man was sitting silently beside the wood stove. There was a blanket draped over his slumped shoulders and color was returning to his tearstained cheeks. The other doctors had decided to leave the next morning, before the next storm was forecast to hit.
Dinsmore sloppily offered him a glass of Irish whisky. “You gave us a real fright there, Phil. I hope you’re not getting too old to be left alone without adult supervision. Ha-ha.”
Dr. Stoddard gulped down the expensive alcohol. He thrust out the empty mug for a refill. The Honigs were sober enough to notice how the rescued man burned me with his glare.
“We were frightened for you, Phil,” said Sam. He still sounded frightened. Maybe more than he’d been before.
“We’re just relieved to have you back,” said James. “Promise you’ll never do that again.”
Stoddard held out his empty cup.
* * *
About six weeks later, after the holidays had come and gone, I got word from the Marblehead Massachusetts Police Department. Dr. Philip Stoddard has shot himself in his study. He’d called the cops before he took his life and told them what he was going to do and what to expect when they arrived. This time he wouldn’t let an officer argue him out of the decision. He apologized in advance for putting them through the traumatic experience. To the end he was a conscientious man.
But it was his teenage granddaughter who found him. She’d come over to the house, after school, as a surprise.
* * *
You asked me about regrets.
I suppose I have as many as men my age. Fewer than most, probably. I guess the Almighty gave me extra credit for effort.
But dragging that sick doctor back to the cabin is something I would reverse.
Now that I’m an old man myself, I understand what he was trying to tell me that night. The truth I was too young to hear.
I should have left him in the woods, is what I’m saying. Should have hiked back to the cabin and told his friends I had lost his tracks in the snow. We would begin the search at first light, I should have said.
Then in the morning I could have pretended to find the lost doctor, and he would have been dead and all his earthly problems gone. Maybe his friends would have blamed me and leveled accusations of negligence. Maybe some of my cohorts in the Warden Service would have thought less of me as a tracker. But I would have had the comfort of my conscience over the past forty years.
Funny how the mind works. You’d think I would have a memory of Dr. Stoddard’s face glaring me. But that’s not what I see. Instead, the image is of a man like myself sitting motionless in the morning sun. His back is propped against a big pine. He’s got a rifle resting across his legs. And his entire body is wrapped in a cocoon of white snow.
It’s a pretty picture. But a damned dangerous folly.
Copyright © 2019 Paul Doiron.
About Almost Midnight:
In this thrilling entry in Edgar Award finalist Paul Doiron’s bestselling series, a deadly attack on one of Maine’s last wild wolves leads Game Warden Mike Bowditch to an even bigger criminal conspiracy.
While on vacation, Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch receives a strange summons from Billy Cronk, one of his oldest friends and a man he had to reluctantly put behind bars for murder. Billy wants him to investigate a new female prison guard with a mysterious past, and Mike feels honor-bound to help his friend. But when the guard becomes the victim in a brutal attack at the prison, he realizes there may be a darker cover-up at play―and that Billy and his family might be at risk.
Then Mike receives a second call for help, this time from a distant mountain valley where Shadow, a wolf-hybrid he once cared for, has been found shot by an arrow and clinging to life. He searches for the identity of the bowman, but his investigation is blocked at every turn by the increasingly hostile community. And when Billy’s wife and children are threatened, Mike finds himself tested like never before. How can he possibly keep the family safe when he has enemies of his own on his trail?
Torn between loyalties, Mike Bowditch must respond in the only way he knows how: by bending every law and breaking every rule to keep his loved ones safe and the true predators at bay.