The young man, Corey Anderson, backpacked two days into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and spent the last afternoon fly-fishing the South Fork of the Flathead River. He had no luck, set up camp, and warmed up rice and beans. The sun descended beneath the snow-patched peaks of the surrounding mountains. Its dull rays shined faintly across a grey and cloudy sky.
While eating, Corey was visited by an older couple on horseback, George and Jane Winston. It was early in the season still--late May-- and these two were the first people he’d seen.
“Looks like it’s gonna rain,” said George.
“It does,” said Corey.
“Mind if we set up camp near you?”
“Not at all.”
That evening the couple invited Corey to visit around a campfire, and he accepted. He found their company enjoyable. Their creased faces, the color of wheat, glowed behind the flames as they spoke of their ranching days. Then, the conversation took a more serious turn.
“Did you hear about that madman who escaped the prison?” George said. “Last tip they got was from someone in Kalispell.”
“Oh, I might have heard of it,” Corey said.
“He’s a real ugly brute,” Jane said. “That picture they keep showing—just ugly as can be. And to kill a family in cold blood like he did, found but few dollars in the home, trashed it, and took off. Mother and father killed, and a beautiful son and daughter, so young each of them...” She stared into the fire and shook her head. “God bless those poor souls. It’s just awful. Just awful,” She trailed off.
George pulled his pack chair close to her, rubbed her back, and turned to Corey once more.
“Well, you know…they set up roadblocks for him and have officers scouring this side of the state. I don’t know where he could have gone, but they’ll find him. They’ll find him and put him to justice, Jane. Don’t you worry.”
A cold breeze blew into the valley followed by light rain.
“Guess that means it time for me to turn in,” Corey said. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
“Pleasure was ours,” George said. “If you need anything before we head outta here, stop back by. We had a pretty long ride the last couple days and will probably take it easy tomorrow. Take our time in the morning. How’s that sound, Jane?”
“Sounds good to me,” Jane responded. “Have a good a night.”
Corey retreated to his tent and fitfully turned in his sleeping bag as the wind picked up, then blew in great gusts and battered the tent’s walls with sheets of rain. Around him, the beetle-scarred lodge poles creaked without pause, and at one point, as he was drifting off, he was startled awake by an owl—its loud hoot and beat of wings flying past. Bear grass cracked around him, and he reached for his handgun and clutched it close to his chest. His heart thumped wildly as he recalled his girlfriend’s words.
“Better not go back there alone! What if a bear gets you?” She said.
Corey thought that was stupid.
“What if that madman gets you?” She said.
Corey thought that was even stupider. Now, he wasn’t so sure, and after a long while, he finally settled into uneasy dreams.
The morning, though, brought peace. Two miles from the site, he found a languid stretch of river. Elsewhere the water was running quick from the snow-melt, but here, as it rounded a bend, it carved out a cut bank and slowed. Fog rolled off the river and hung below the mountains, and everything looked a paradisal blue and green. How quick, Corey thought, the moods of the woods could change, from a menacing night to an awe-inspired day.
He assembled his rod’s four pieces, tightened down his reel, and strung the line, careful to run it through each eyelet. Then, his small fly box opened, he selected a Royal Wulf.
About 10 feet into the river, a boulder sat within casting distance of the cut bank. Corey removed his boots, rolled up his pants, and waded in barefoot to his knees. A chill ran up his spine. When he reached the boulder, he pulled out a thick pair of wool socks he’d stuffed into his belt and put them on, unhooked his fly from an eyelet and roll cast it out.
Again he thought of his girlfriend’s words and again they seemed as ridiculous as he once believed. He concentrated on the fly and allowed his mind to drift into the meditative rhythm of his cast. Back one, two, hold one, forward one. Back one, two, hold one, forward one. It was just then, mid-cast, he caught something from the corner of his eye—a shadowy figure leap from the bushes, and with a flash, snatch all his gear on shore. Corey stood there holding his rod in a state of disbelief. He looked over each shoulder, appealed to the sky. Nothing. Then, the panic set in. Everything was in there: his map, his food, his boots… his gun.
He leapt from the boulder, still in wool socks, and raced through the river, slipping once, falling in and soaking half his shirt.
“Wait,” he called, “wait!”
He scrambled up the shoreline and ran towards the brush where he saw the figure disappear, raced further forward and stopped. He has my gun, my gun, my gun...the phrase reverberated in his mind. Stumbling back to the shore, he circled about pulling his hair and kicking rocks until he finally told himself, “breathe.” He breathed in deeply, exhaled slowly, and repeated.
“Okay,” he said and resolved to find the older couple. They said they’d get a late start and could still be meandering around their camp, breaking it down. Maybe, he could catch them before they left.
Corey slowly stalked back down the trail, the whole time weary of the potential threat whoever stole the pack might pose. But little could he have guessed just how big that threat really was. The madman had tied George and Jane Winston up, taken their horses, and after rummaging through poor Corey’s pack, got the wild idea he might eliminate the chance they’d ever reveal where he was, or what more he’d done.
Not a mile back down the trail, Corey heard gunshots—two of them, and not so far away. His knees went weak, and he dropped to the ground, trying to regain control of his breath once more. Maybe, the guy (he didn’t dare say the madman) was just testing the gun out, he thought. Maybe, I’ll just lie here a while, give it some time…everything will be okay.
Then, loud crashing in the brush, something large quickly approaching, a horse, broken free and frightened from the gun’s bang.
“Holy _____,” Corey nearly shouted unable to contain himself. “That’s George’s horse….George!”
Corey broke out in a cold sweat, and lump so large he could barely swallow formed in his throat. The horse ran about twenty more yards down the trail then slowed. Corey gathered his wits, stood up and went after it, thinking he’d gallop his way out of there. And that’s what he started to do. He galloped full speed, and he galloped even faster when he saw the madman (a word he’d now admit) galloping behind him.
He made it three whole miles, and the worst happened. The horse tripped over itself, an inexperienced rider at the reigns trying to push him too far. The animal rolled over Corey, left him lying on the ground reeling in pain, and took off.
The madman dismounted. He ambled over to Corey grinning his gapped and yellow-toothed grin. Sweaty, oily, stinky, he leaned over Corey.
“This the mug you expected to see out here?” he said. “Bet the troopers wouldn’t anyway.” He laughed a devilish laugh, and he fired.
Detective John Mackey, or “Big Mack” as the boys at the station called him, led Corey’s girlfriend from each spot in the scene, and finally, to where they’d found Corey’s body. Until that point, she’d remained calm and stoic, but there she broke down in sobs then in a fit that brought her to her knees.