On an early spring canoe trip, our hero, Ted, finds the body of Hughie, drowned in a mudhole on the portage trail. Because the electronic organizer Hughie always carried is missing, Ted wonders if someone killed him.
It was obvious Hughie was dead.
I eased the big pack off my back, and sat on the nearest log. And waited, looking back along the portage trail. The air seemed colder and the portage trail itself seemed to become the exposed back of an immense and tortured snake, winding through the early spring hardwoods.
It was just past eight in the morning and I had a tightness in my chest.
Worse yet, the log was wet, and soon began soaking my crotch.
After a couple of minutes, the tip of a canoe emerged from the thick fog, then Baker materialized, holding it over his head. I was supposed to go ahead and find a good way around the muddy patch, so he wasn't surprised to see me waiting on the log next to the mud.
He paused in front of me. I pointed at an oak with a good canoe branch. He grunted and wedged the front end of the canoe over the branch, then stepped out from under it.
"One of life's greatest pleasures is finding a good canoe branch," he said, straightening up slowly. Then he looked more carefully at me. "Unless you've got something to sit on, you're going to get a wet butt on that log," he observed.
I nodded, and pointed downhill, to the right.
The portage to Serpentine Lake had suffered from a couple of flooding creeks crossing it. We'd discovered that the day before, and so had made camp at Chapel Lake, at the start of the portage. The early-morning thunderstorm a few hours before hadn't helped. It was a slough of mud maybe ten meters wide. Somebody had named it the World's Biggest Mudhole.
Hughie's tangerine-colored canoe lay upside-down in that mud.
Baker angled down on the more solid ground towards the end of Hughie's canoe. Somewhere down there he finally saw Hughie's hand sticking out from under the canoe.
He looked at me. I nodded. He lifted the end of the canoe, inspected the body face-down in the mud, then let the canoe back down.
He sat down on the log beside me. Two short, bearded guys on a cold, wet log. But Baker always looked more like a troll than I did.
For minute we watched the forest in the fog. This early in spring the trees were bare, and after the night rain, the branches dripped. I was suddenly reminded of a picture of a primeval swamp. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a tyrannosaur step out of the woods. With a toque, of course; this was Canada, after all.
"That's Hughie?" Baker asked. He was breathing in quick, shallow breaths.
"That's his Rolex on that wrist," I observed.
"Cold," I said, "and stiff. I checked."
"It's a tough watch," he said. "Probably mudproof." Baker looked down. "Your crotch getting wet, too?"
"Always figured Hughie'd give someone crotch rot someday," Baker said. Never thought it would be us."
We sat on the log, our bottom ends soaking up water, and discussed the perils of crotch rot, neither of us sure such a thing existed, but dead certain that, if it did, we'd get it for sure while waiting for the others to get there. Hughie kindly lay dead under his canoe.
Lloyd and Peggy came out of the fog next, Lloyd carrying their stuff in a large pack, and Peggy following with their canoe. Lloyd, a big middle-aged man with a red face and a balding head, puffed steadily. Peggy propped the canoe in the same oak as Baker had used, then walked carefully towards us. She was a short, quiet woman, with light brown hair and glasses.
We explained the situation. Lloyd turned redder. Peggy went for a look, then came back.
About that time, Cam and Angeline arrived, Cam carrying both the canoe and a pack. Angeline followed, with a smaller pack.
Cam took it well. This, he said, was not a situation the canoeing magazines had dealt with.
Just as well, Baker pointed out. Hughie would have made fun of that one, too.
Cam frowned. At the campsite the night before, Hughie had mocked Cam for the various articles from Recreational Canoeist Cam had brought with him. Cam was happy to admit he was an amateur at the camping and canoeing business, but he intended to learn it. From making coffee to predicting changes in the weather, Cam had advice from books and magazines.
Hughie, of course, had "trained with an old friend from the SAS," the elite British commando force. It seemed Hughie had had old friends everywhere, but he certainly didn't have any at the campsite. He shouldn't have been invited, and he shouldn't have come on this canoe trip.
Anyway, Hughie hadn't needed any advice on anything.
Except, perhaps, how to swim in a mudhole with a pack and a canoe on his back.
I had just two questions in my mind. What to do now, and how Hughie had managed to wind up his days in the mud between Serpentine and Chapel lakes.
"What do we do now?" Peggy asked.
"I wonder what happened to Hughie," Angeline asked.
Angeline then sat down on Cam's canoe. Unlike the others, Cam had set his canoe on the ground. Tall, skinny, and above all, young, he had no problems getting his canoe up when the time came. Cam came over and put a hand on Angeline's head. She kept brushing a lock of her blonde hair from her face. She was almost eight years older than Cam, and Baker and I had wondered why she shared a canoe and tent with him.
Myself, I'd felt a bit sorry for Angeline. She was hanging around a guy so much younger than herself, and not likely to get much of a commitment out of him. Assuming that's what she wanted.
After dark, she'd gone down by the lake and played heartbreakingly sad songs on a harmonica, till the loons finally joined in. But she'd politely refused to play the instrument at the campfire. If she wanted to create a sense of mystery, she'd certainly succeeded. I noticed that Baker was silent when she was close.
"When did he leave camp?" Cam asked. "His tent was next to mine when we went to bed."
"I'm not surprised," Peggy said. "He made it pretty clear last night that he preferred to travel alone. 'A Lone Wolf,' he called himself at least twice. And if he left anytime around the thunderstorm, we wouldn't have heard him pack up."
"You probably wouldn't have heard him anyway," Lloyd said. "You probably didn't even hear the thunderstorm." It wasn't said unkindly; they'd obviously been married for twenty or twenty-five years. Both Peggy and Lloyd were in their mid or late forties. They paddled well together, and were easy to get along with.
Except, of course when Lloyd was drunk, like he'd been last night.
"Actually," Peggy offered, "I didn't hear it. But why would he leave camp if there was a thunderstorm coming?"
"I'd guess he had decided to go before dawn, and no iddy biddy thing like a big ol' thunderstorm was going to stop him," Baker said. "He wasn't afraid of much. Or so he said. Or maybe he took my hint about getting out of town before sunrise." Baker gave an evil grin, his white teeth stark against his bushy black beard.
"Not that it matters any more," Baker added into the silence. "He's rich, he's popular - at least in the city, he's handsome, he speaks four languages like the natives, and he's got a black belt in three martial arts." Baker paused for effect. "So what shall we do with him now that he's maggot food?"
Baker was one of my closest friends. He was very bright, very logical, and very sharp with his comments. He was right, most of the time, in what he said, but he often barbed his comments I was always amazed that people didn't take him down to the lake and hold his head under water every now and then.
We all looked at each other uncomfortably. Hughie hadn't won any popularity contests last night, but nobody actually'd wished him harm. Except maybe Cam, who he'd made fun of, or Lloyd, who'd almost got into a fight with him. Or Baker, who Hughie'd threatened to toss into the lake after one too many comments.
I started to wonder, right then. When guy makes himself as unpopular as Hughie did, then winds up dead, the rest of us can start looking over our shoulders.
I was no exception. I'd found him a reminder of all the easy successes and luck that seemed to fall to handsome, bright people back in "civilization." I come to the wilderness to get away from some things, and Hughie seemed to epitomize all of those things.
I admit it, I'd wished him somewhere else, and was glad when he said he would be gone when we got up.
"We can't leave him in the mud," Peggy said. She had her arms crossed tightly and her lips were tight.
I was glad someone had made a decision. I got up from the log, my back end cold and wet, and got a rope from my pack. Baker followed behind me as I got down to the end of Hughie's canoe. The one end, at least, was on reasonably dry ground.
I flipped the canoe off the body, and stepped in it carefully. When I got to the front end I grabbed his custom-made-in-Germany pack and tried to lift it enough to get his arms free. One strap came undone at once, which surprised me, but the other remained firmly attached. I had to raise his right arm enough to get the strap on that side down past his hand. Then I tied the end of the rope to the pack, and let Baker and Cam haul it to the edge of the mudhole.
When they passed the rope back to me, I had a problem. I couldn't tie it to Hughie's feet, because they were deep in the mud. The mud was close to being quickmud, which is like quicksand, but doesn't look as good on you. The World's Biggest Mudhole was full of the stuff.
I could have tied it around his neck. Being dead, I suspect he didn't care. But I just didn't like the idea. I never liked things tied around my neck myself - I'd once quit a good job rather than wear a tie - so it was either tie it to one arm or tie it around his chest.
By getting myself muddy up to my armpits (and some in my beard), I managed to pass the rope around the body, under his arms. Then, breathing heavily, I sat back in the canoe while the others pulled the former Hughie to what passed for dry ground in this dripping spring woods.
We put his body, face up, onto the ground, then I opened his pack and took out his Swiss-made 720-gram tent and covered him with it. Abruptly, he was just a "thing," lying on the ground, maybe twenty feet off the main portage trail, covered with a beautiful fluorescent orange cloth.
While I had the pack open, I rooted around trying to find his Blackberry. There had been a hard and fast rule for years that no cell phones or other electronic ties to the Evil Outside World would come with the group. Even Cam, loaded with shiny new camping equipment, hadn't wanted to carry a iPad. For that, I'd liked him. However, after a vote, we'd allowed one, as long as it was packed away for emergencies only. Hughie would have smuggled one into the camping trip anyway, so we let him bring the thing. A new tower had been built less than thirty miles away last month, and a connection was possible, even this far from the road.
I didn't find Hughie's electronic wonder, although I searched carefully through the pack. I did find a large collection of vitamins, the key to his car, and a picture of someone, presumably his mother. He wasn't going to need the keys any more, so I pocketed them, and laid the pack at his feet. We covered both with the canoe.
Then we held a conference.
Two things were apparent after a few minutes discussion. The first was that going ahead would get us to the cars faster than going back the way we'd come.
The second was that we weren't going to carry Hughie back to the cars. Carrying dead bodies out of the woods, Baker said, was the military's job. Or the police. Or somebody whose salary our taxes paid for. The rest didn't disagree with him. They seemed a bit relieved to put that burden onto someone else.
We left Hughie there, just off the trail, covered with his tangerine-colored canoe. If any other canoers looked under it, well they deserved what they'd get to see. It's a general rule not to mess with other people's canoes and packs, let alone their mortal remains, shuffed off in a mud bath.
It was almost ten by the time we got underway again, climbing uphill to get around the mud hole, then returning to the portage trail on the other side. The forest dripped and the trail was slippery. The fog was lifting, skulking away into the forest in a hundred little patches, like the ghosts of monstrous salamanders leaving for home after an all-night party.
A couple of things bothered me. The first was Hughie's death. We'd scouted the mudhole the night before, and even in the dark, Hughie should have been expecting it. And you can fall face-forward into the mud with a canoe on your shoulders and a pack on your back and still come up.
Then there was the Blackberry. It should have stayed in his shirt pocket, even with the fall. I'd checked the pack just in case he'd put it there.
Suddenly, this camping trip was a snake pit, and I got the feeling that I was walking deeper into it, rather than away.
I got the whiskey out of the pack, and took a good mouthful, although a small bit slithered down my chin. I passed the bottle to Baker. My friend. He took some without a word, and passed the bottle back. Then we hurried to catch up to the others.