Chapter One Silent WitnessCaleb removed his ranger hat and squinted against the mid-morning sun, certain he'd heard the rustling of an animal moving toward him. He lifted his chin and inhaled through his nose, it wasn't a mountain cat. He straightened his shoulders adjusted his pack and veered down a lesser used trail. A yellow lab ripe with energy bounded in his direction. The dog bore a red and black vest that indicated he was a guide dog. Caleb scratched the pup’s ears and ordered him to sit. He scanned the area, but saw no evidence of the owner in sight. That's not good. He clicked his tongue, tapped his leg and continued down the trail with the dog at his side.
A sharp whistle pierced the morning serenade and the dog bolted from Caleb's side down a path he may have otherwise overlooked. He followed the rustling of leaves and the joyous barks and yips until he laid eyes on the owner. She wore two french braids and a face full of freckles that reminded him of Laura on Little House on the Prairie. She looked much too young to be out wandering the trails alone. Her faded denim overalls hung a size to large over a baby pink shirt with a butterfly collar. She was definitely someone's little girl.
“Are you lost?” He stopped his approach and waited for her response.
She continued to play with her dog until, Caleb took a step forward. The dog faced him and a low rumbled warning jarred from within. She placed her hand on the dog's collar and turned her attention toward Caleb.
“Do you need some help?” He lowered his pack to the ground and offered his hand toward the dog to smell.
She chewed her bottom lip, and from the looks of it, this was probably a long time nervous habit. She stood silent and stoic as Caleb came closer.
“Dog's aren't permitted on the Colter Bay Trails.” He checked the log that morning and there was nothing noted of her or the dog.
She reached into the front pocket of her pack, withdrew some papers and timidly placed them in his hands. Her hands trembled as she relinquished the papers and reinstated her hold on the dog's collar.
“You're okay, you're not in trouble.” He didn't like the thought that his presence provoked fear into this little waif.
Deaf, according to the papers this girl, woman actually, this twenty three year old woman, was both deaf and mute. Hilary Ross, the name tickled his memory, but he couldn't place her. He raised his eyes, she had already backed away from him, donned her pack, and prepared for a hasty departure.
He lifted his hands and signed good morning. It had been a long while since he'd used sign, but the basic's he still recalled. She did not return his gesture, just continued to stare in a petrified trance. Caleb logged her in on his IPAD and returned her papers. He was not making this girl's day, and she obviously didn't need him. He ensured he held her attention and pointed toward the trail-head. Her paper work ear-marked her as an advanced outdoors-man, but to look at her, you'd never draw that conclusion.
He signed again, but she remained motionless. Her grip tightened against the dog's collar as he picked up his pack.
He made his way back toward the main trail with one thought on his mind, do deaf people whistle? The encounter kept his attention him well after he reached the ranger station and docked his radio. That name, he uploaded the information from his IPAD to his desktop and ran a search. That named plagued him with familiarity, he knew it, but why he knew it was just beyond his memory.
“Dad!” A towhead boy with curls pasted to his sun scorched forehead threw opened the door, dashed across the room and tossed his school bag in the corner. “Matt and I are climbing West Ridge, where's my stuff?”
“What about your homework?” Caleb stood in his path as he tried to bolt out the door.
“Dad, we're wasting daylight. The weather's turning and you know it. I can do homework later.” Scout turned his emerald eyes in his direction and for a moment he could see Carrie through him.
“Alright, but I want you back here before five, we still have to go to the daycare and pick up Seth.” Caleb sighed and relinquished his grip from Scout's shoulder.
“I catch a ride home with Matt, I'll see you at six I promise.” Scout adjusted his pack and grabbed two water bottles from the refrigerator.
“I said be here at five.”
“Come on Dad! Let me do this.”
“You're wasting daylight; be back here at five.” Caleb walked him to the door and watched his son run across the parking lot toward the trail head.
Matt waved once Scout reached him and both boys disappeared into the wood-line.
“Caleb, everything alright?” Brileigh met him at the door.
“Yeah, just a little distracted.” Caleb returned to his computer and scrolled through the search results under Hilary Ross's name. “Oh my word, I don't believe this.”
“What?” Brileigh docked his radio and hung up his pack.
“Do you remember the name Hilary Ross?” Caleb turned from his computer and faced his co-worker.
“Not off hand. Should I?” Brileigh poured himself some coffee and brought a cup to Caleb.
“Carrie's father, the plane crash, Verchante Distributers....you worked the case after I left.”
“That was like ten, maybe fifteen years ago, and as I recall you'd already done most of the work, all I had to do was close it up for you.” Brileigh settled in a nearby chair and unlaced his boots.
Caleb turned back toward the screen. Ghosts from his past tickled his spine as he reread the articles. Maybe he was the only one left that remembered the case, the one that cost the life of his father in law, and Walter Ross the loss of his six year old twins.
“Is it important?”
“I don't know yet, maybe.”
He wiped his face and tapped the keys of the computer. Maybe he should just leave well enough alone. Caleb pushed away from his computer and paced the station. The case was too close, to personal, for him. Not only did his wife lose her father, but as a result of the crash she miscarried their first child. Ghosts, he shivered as he lifted his coffee to his lips. Gregg Darme, the twins, Carrie, all of them gone, and it wasn't like him to dig up bones.
“Would Padraic know who she was?” Brileigh's voice brought him back to the present.
“Maybe, but like you said, it was a long time ago.”
“If it had something to do with the Darme family, Padraic would remember.”
Caleb nodded his head in agreement. He sat down at his computer and re-looked at the articles about the Ross Twins and debated calling Padraic. The whole thing would open old wounds, he tapped his fingers on his phone. She hasn't done anything wrong. God why can't I just let this go?
Caleb tried to redirect his thoughts but nothing could detour him from the fact that Hillary Ross wandered the Colter Bay trails alone. Her inability to look at him as he tried to communicate with her, bothered him, but truly the question that plagued his mind was; where did she get those bruises? The length of her arms her face, her neck, he managed to hold his tongue and not stare in her presence, but here in the afterthought, he felt compelled to help her.
Caleb dialed Padraic's number and released his breath when he received his voice-mail. He didn't bother to leave a message. Padraic seldom answered his phone and the times he checked his messages were even less than that.
Two days later Caleb paced the floor of Range Control. His concern premature, but nonetheless his conscience couldn't bear the burden of his mind. His first instinct was to scour the area himself and try to find her, but time was not in his favor and he had his two boys to consider. There was only one person in Colter Bay that could track her down out without a hitch. Padraic practically raised himself in those mountains and knew all the places on and off trail that offered refuge.
“There's something wrong with her.” Caleb added some medical supplies to Padraic's pack and finished a radio check.
“You wouldn't have called me if there wasn't.” Padraic hoisted the frame onto his back and secured his radio.
“I'm serious, remember what I told you. I don't want you to approach her, she hasn't done anything wrong. She hasn't really even been gone long enough to warrant a search. My gut just tells me something is up. It's like if the demons didn't get her, then the wolves probably did.” Caleb followed him out to the trail-head.
“Let's hope that premonition is premature too.” Padraic pushed his silky black hair away from his face and glanced at the rising sun.
“Looked like she's already wrestled a few grizzlies from the bruises she on her.” Caleb sighed looking toward the majestic falls.
“She's deaf, has a dog with her and was headed toward Wilderness Fall. You always give me the most interesting assignments Caleb.”
“Don't want you to get bored.” Caleb stepped away as Padraic adjusted his pack and started up the trail.
“I wouldn't mind a little boredom once in a while.”