Murder on a Foggy Spring Portage

I've wrote a five-part murder mystery with a canoeing theme, for Bushwhacker magazine (available in most outdoors stores in Ontario).

It's best to print the thing, staple it together, and put it into the bathroom to read one bit at a time.

 

Part 1: Death in the Mud

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-coloured 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.

"He’s dead?"

"Cold," I said, "and stiff. I checked."

"It’s a tough watch," he said. "Probably mudproof." Baker looked down. "Your crotch getting wet, too?"

I nodded.

"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 Bushwhacker 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 Bushwhacker 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 Bushwhacker.

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 gone, 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 electronic organizer. I knew it had a telephone link with internet built into it, and there was a possibility we could somehow email for a helicopter or something. It was a long shot, this far off the highway, but the new cellular telephone tower had been built less than thirty miles away last month, and a connection was possible.

We had no communications gear. Even Cam, loaded with shiny new camping equipment, hadn’t wanted to carry a cell phone. For that, I’d liked him.

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-coloured 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 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 organizer. 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. Then 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.

Part 2: Happy Trails to You

Sometimes a portage starts bad, and just gets worse.

You'll know the kind, if you've ever done a spring trip that didn't work out.

The kind of portage where the leaves underfoot are slippery and you learn a few dance steps that you didn't know when you started the trip. The kind where you wish you were the one carrying the canoe, so at least the dripping trees wouldn't drip on your head.

And the person carrying the canoe wishes he were carrying the pack, because it's hard to dance in wet leaves with a canoe on your head, and it's even harder to leap boggy areas without thinking you're in training to become part of the Olympic Synchronized Canoehead Team.

And someone in your group has died face down in the World's Biggest Mudhole.

The portage to Serpentine Lake was as bad as all of that, and then some, and our little group of six snaked along the soggy path in silence for a while. We should have been talking about Hughie's death, but there was a strong tension in the air. It was as if we no longer trusted each other.

The first part of the trail was along the side of a hill. A number of little gullies, probably dry in mosquito season, were soggy with last night's rain. What remained of the trail was full of ruts and squishy sections and bad angles for walking. Several trees had blown over the trail, some of them undoubtedly from the early morning thunderstorm.

It was slow going, and the group steadily spread out, with the more sure-footed people passing and moving ahead of those who were cautious. People carrying only packs had an easier time getting over trees and leaping rivulets of water.

I guessed we weren't in a good mood. An unexplained death can do that to a group. I figured it would make a good sociological study. But nobody seems to study canoeing groups.

Eventually, I found myself resting on another wet log, this time beside Peggy. She and Lloyd, had started out together, at the first of our column, but she'd fallen behind. I guess it's easier to leap a creek with a pack than with a canoe, so Lloyd had kept the lead, increasing the distance between them. She'd finally set the canoe down to give herself a rest.

The pack I was carrying was heavy, and I was ready for a rest, too.

For a moment I looked up at the trees. A white-throated sparrow called its Sweet Sweet Canada Canada Canada mating song over and over again. The brown leaves of an oak made a sound in the wind, like an anaconda in long grass. The tightness in my chest had increased, and my head throbbed.

"I think maybe someone killed him." I said, abruptly. Peggy, a short stocky woman with light brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, turned suddenly. She was normally a quiet person, letting her husband, Lloyd, do the talking.

Peggy'd remained silent last night at the fire, as Lloyd had taken out his frustration with life on Hughie. Hughie'd been lucky in life. The gods had given him brains and looks. His parents had left him money. Lloyd, on the other hand, had had only struggle, bad luck, and, last night, a half-bottle of whiskey. We'd wondered if there would be a physical conflict, but Hughie had just leaned over and whispered something to Lloyd. Lloyd had abruptly turned quiet and gone to bed.

"I wondered about that," she answered. I could see she was thinking back to the time, three hours before, when we'd found Hughie dead in the mudhole.

"I mean," I continued, "well, it seems a little strange for him to just wander into all that mud and water. After all -" I turned to look at her "we all looked at that part of the trail the day before. That's why we made camp, where we did, after all."

"It was dark..." Peggy began. It had been three or four in the morning when Hughie had packed up his tent and shouldered his canoe and disappeared into the darkness in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I started to get annoyed. "Several people told me Hughie could have climbed a mountain in the dark, even with a canoe in front of his eyes. And no matter how much he was drinking at the campsite."

My bottom end was getting wet again from log-sitting, but I paused another moment. "Who would do it?" I asked Peggy. "Who would want to actually kill Hughie?"

"Try Angeline, for one," Peggy said, calmly.

"Angeline?" That stopped me just as I was adjusting the pack. I couldn't imagine the blonde killing someone. Even quieter than Peggy, she'd said little around the campfire. Of course, us men have this in-built belief that cute blondes don't go around killing people. "How well did she know him?"

"She's his sister." Peggy started loading the canoe, lifting one end, and walking under it until she had the yoke on her shoulders. "Or his half-sister, anyway. Among other relationships." She turned to look out from under the canoe. "If I were her, I'd have killed him a long time ago." Then she added. "If you were a woman, you'd understand."

I wasn't a woman, and I wasn't absolutely sure I'd understand, so I said nothing.

We caught up with the other four people, at the next washout. The rain had turned a ten-meter wide gully into a swamp. You could see where there had been a few logs thrown into a damp section by last year's portagers, but all that was mostly submerged in mud with a thin layer of water on top of it. It looked as inviting as yesterday's porridge.

Going uphill was possible, but difficult because of the steepness of the slope. And downhill the gully quickly joined a permanent swamp. Lloyd was just coming back from a bio-break up behind a white cedar when we got there. I needed to go, too, but thought I'd wait a bit; people never adequately mark where they've been, behind such bushes.

It was about noon. The fog was gone, and sun shone fuzzily through a light layer of clouds. A chilly wind started to move the tops of the trees. I shivered.

"I think we have a problem," Cam said, waving a page obviously torn from Bushwhacker. We all turned to look at him. "The wind's been switching counterclockwise in the last half hour. And look at those clouds." We did. Patches of dark, low clouds were just starting to lizard their way across the sky. "If this article's right, we're in for a storm, fairly soon."

I just nodded. I'd had a minor migraine headache since the thunderstorm the night before, and it was getting worse by the minute. Something nasty was sliding its way into the lake country of Ontario. In early spring sudden changes of weather are not a canoeist's friends.

"How are we going to get across," Lloyd asked, looking around at the mud.

"Someone go get Hughie," Baker said. Into the appalled silence that followed, he added, "Hey, Hughie and mud sort of go together."

Angeline, Cam's girlfriend, had a better idea. She slid one canoe into the mud and water, then pushed a second one past it. Using all three canoes, we walked carefully across on an improvised pontoon bridge. I came across last, helping drag the canoes to the far side using a couple of ropes.

By the time I'd got ready to continue, the rest of the group, except for Baker, was disappearing along the trail. He was strapping a paddle to the inside of the canoe with a piece of masking tape.

I called to Baker as he was about to load the canoe onto his short frame. I needed to ask him a few questions. That's what friends are for.

"Do you think," I asked slowly, "that Hughie might have been killed by someone?"

Baker laughed. "I didn't do it! I was watching a movie at the time. I was doing my laundry. Practicing differential calculus. Whatever. Maybe he died because I willed him dead." He looked up at the fast-moving sky. "But if that's the case, it sure took long enough."

I wasn't pleased. I'm an antisocial cuss at best, and hadn't really wanted to come on a group trip in the first place, and Baker had really had to plead for company on this three-day trip. I most certainly didn't care about feuds between people who should have been enjoying wilderness, not waiting to off each other in the dark.

I prefer a solitary canoe trip. When I do go with someone else, most of the time I go with Baker. Way down on my list of choices is a group trip, but I'd never dreamed of ending up on a trip like this one. Last night had been a circus, with Baker needling Hughie and Hughie getting under Lloyd's skin.

The alcohol hadn't helped. I've never figured out why drinking and camping seem to go together so easily, but last night's campfire had been an object lesson in the advantages of sobriety.

But I had to find out about a few things. I had a feeling attempting to remain in a primordial state of ignorance might get dangerous in the next day or so. T

he sky was filled with circling birds and bare trees reached towards a roof of clouds. It seemed to me that I'd come to the church, somewhere south of Bancroft only to find a nest of vipers behind the altar.

"And why do you seem to dislike Hughie so much?" I glowered at him. "You bugged him last night until I thought he was going to shove you into the lake. I'm surprised he didn't. Then you've acted today like you're glad he's dead. Well, I couldn't stand the arrogant bastard, and I hardly knew him. But I didn't wish him dead. And I didn't make jokes about him after he was dead." Well, only a few, I thought.

Baker, looking even more like a renegade troll than usual, set the canoe down and sat on it. "You know what I think, Ted ol' buddy" he said. "I think it's very, very strange that Hughie drowned in a mudhole. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out that someone shoved him into it, and sat on him afterwards. I just wish I knew who did it, so I could present a medal to whoever did it.

"I grew up with Hughie," Baker said, looking into the woods. "We went to school together."

"You had a falling out?" I asked, backing the pack against a maple tree for support.

Baker laughed again. "We were never friends. We shared a classroom in South Ganaraska Elementary School. He'd corner me at recess and beat the crap out of me. For no particular reason, except it amused him. He was always tough, and strong, and fast, and smart and nasty. But the teachers always liked him. Like I said, smart. I was always getting blamed for things he started."

I didn't say a thing. I'm good at that. Sometimes.

"He used to take his shoes off and kick me with his sock feet. Didn't leave marks, that way. I'd give him any money I had and he'd throw it into the woods behind the school. I used to go looking for it on the weekends."

"Angeline is his sister," I said. 'Or so I was told."

Baker suddenly shut up, got up, and shouldered the canoe. "Let's not talk about Angeline," he said. "You and I are still friends." Just before he got going, he said, "I hope the last thing he saw was Angeline's boot coming at him."

"You think that was the way it happened?" I pulled on a pair of gloves in the growing chill and started on the trail behind him..

"Nah," he yelled from under the canoe. "She probably got her tentmate Cam to do it for her. Or maybe Lloyd was afraid Hughie would tell Peggy about him and his secretary."

Who? I wondered. Whose secretary?

Then Baker stopped again, and turned to me. "You know what I think?" he asked me. "I thing Hughie figured the mudhole was a test of his manhood, like he'd trained for, and he was sure he could walk through it in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm with a canoe and a pack on his back. I think he tripped on a tree root and drowned himself. That's what I think."

I might have thought so, too, if Hughie's pocket organizer, an expensive electronic gizmo, had been in his shirt pocket when I found him. If that pack strap hadn't been undone when we hauled him out of the mud.

But I didn't say that to Baker.

We scuttled off along the trail, trying to catch up to the others. T

he sky was covered with scudding clouds, coiling across the sky. The bare spring treetops were singing in the wind. The first few snowflakes came down, and settled on Baker's moving green canoe. The world was returning to the crypt.

I felt a cold dread at the pit of my stomach as we hurried to catch up to the others.

 

Part 3: Cozy isn’t the Word

Well, it wasn’t one of the greatest canoe trips I’d been on.

The six of us stood silent at the end of the portage, at the north end of Serpentine Lake. Canoes and packs lay on the ground, in the early spring mud. It was snowing steadily, and a north wind was already turning the lake into sawteeth.

It was just after noon, and back home, I could have been cleaning out the crawl space or peeling onions or something halfway worthwhile.

We kept our heads down. We shuffled our feet in the cold wind. We looked at the water, breaking cold on the rocks just ahead of us.

A half-mile behind us, Hughie lay dead under a canoe. He’d died in a mud bath on the portage the night before, with nobody watching. Unless someone had helped him into the mud in the pre-dawn hours.

Myself, I was watching my feet and thinking thoughts you really couldn’t put into print.

Angeline, her blonde hair in front of her eyes once again, sat down on Cam’s canoe and began playing something utterly sad on her harmonica.

Lloyd, even more red-faced than usual in the cold wind, was conferring with his wife. They looked up, and he spoke. "That water’s a bit too cold and rough for us. Peggy thinks we should camp here."

"I’ve got to agree with that." Cam said, getting a couple of pairs of gloves from his pack. He left a pair beside Angeline, who had launched into "Danny Boy" on the harmonica. That’s what is sounded like, anyway.

There was a long groupish pause, then Baker spoke up, his dark beard collecting large flakes of snow. "On the map," he said, waving a topographical in the air, "there’s a cabin of some sort a quarter kilometer south."

I’ve camped in the snow before. I’ve camped in the wind before. I even once camped in both before. That’s why I picked up the pack and grabbed the map from Baker and headed south. Even if we couldn’t get into the cabin, the ground around it was bound to be drier than the cedar swamp we were standing in at the end of the portage.

Baker was right on my heels, and Lloyd and Peggy were close after. Cam and Angeline followed our damp footprints a bit further behind.

The snow lightened a bit when we got to the cabin, although the wind was getting worse. We were in luck; it was a hunter’s cabin. And it was open. Enough, anyway. Hunters’ cabins are sometimes left accessible, and this one was.

Within an hour we had the old iron stove going, and since it looked like we were going to spend the night there, we unrolled our sleeping bags onto the bunks.

Then I went out into the snow with Cam to get wood. There was enough wood stacked behind the cabin, but it’s a decent thing to do to replace what you use. Besides, I wanted to have a conversation with Cam.

So we walked away from the cabin into the sound of wind in the bare spring treetops. Cam had a fold-up saw and we found a dead oak a planet or two away.

I was holding the end of a branch, and Cam was sawing through it, when, he spoke, his voice calm above the sound of the saw. "I heard someone say you think maybe somebody killed Hughie."

I raised my eyebrows. A small brown bird landed on a nearby twig and inspected us with one eye, then the other, as if waiting for my answer.

I just laughed. "I seems possible. So I figured you as the prime candidate."

He stopped. The bird took off for friendlier trees. "Me? Why would I want to kill Hughie? He may have made fun of my lack of camping experience, but you don’t kill a person for that."

I didn’t like the way he waved the saw, but I went on. "For Angeline, I guess. Baker thinks she had reason to hate her brother."

"Oh no doubt, but killing Hughie wouldn’t get her her money back."

Money? That was news. "Money?" I asked.

He started picking up pieces of oak. "Didn’t know about that, eh? Try asking Baker. He can tell you about it. Let’s get back to the cabin." He turned and marched away, leaving footprints in the new-fallen snow.

I picked up the rest of the wood we’d cut and followed him.

I liked this less and less. My friend, Baker had had a reason, going back to his childhood, for doing Hughie in, as had Hughie’s half-sister, Angeline. But that implied years of waiting, then a sudden murderous impulse.

Baker had thought it possible that Angeline had talked her younger tent-mate, Cam, into doing the job. That seemed unlikely: Cam seemed too cool to do murder.

And what about Lloyd? Was his resentment at Hughie’s success and luck in life enough to prompt murder? Or had Baker been serious in hinting that Lloyd and Hughie’s secretary were doing things that Lloyd’s wife, Peggy didn’t know about?

At that point I suddenly wondered why Hughie’s secretary wasn’t on this trip. Everybody else in this evil little game was here!

I’d had enough. Before I was going to spend a night in a tiny cabin with the I-used-to-hate-Hughie-but-now-he’s-dead gang, one of whom may have killed Hughie, I wanted some answers. I wanted a lot of answers.

I stood at the doorway of the cabin while Cam stacked wood beside the stove. "Baker!" I yelled. The windows rattled. "I wanna talk to you. Now!" There was dead silence in the cabin.

Baker silently got up, put his coat and hat on, stuffed gloves into his pockets, and went to his pack, where he retrieved his hunting knife. He unsheathed the eight-inch blade, and came at me with a truly evil gleam in his eyes. "You’re dogfood," he grunted through his bushy black beard.

I stepped back. Baker slammed the door behind him, put the knife back into its sheath, and threw one arm over my shoulder. "What’s up, ol’ buddy?" he asked. "You seem a bit upset about something." We angled into the cedar woods before the door opened again.

"Well," I said, "let’s start at the beginning. Did you kill Hughie?" He unwrapped his arm from my shoulder, stood back, and looked at me.

"That’s the second time you mentioned that. Is there some reason you think I might have?"

"You had the opportunity," said. "You and I are the only ones who slept alone last night."

"And you’re sure you didn’t do it?" Baker asked.

"Fairly sure," I said.

He looked at me with a big smile. "I’m obviously guilty. Let’s get on with the hanging." He tilted his head to the side and stuck his tongue out.

"Seriously," I said, continuing to tramp up a hillside.. Somewhere behind us people were calling our names. "Any idea how he might have been killed?"

"I’d like you to answer that question," Baker said The snow had almost stopped, and the sky was beginning to clear.

"Picture this, then," I said "There it is, three or four in the morning. Hughie’s got his pack on his back, his canoe over his head, and a flashlight in his hand. He’s standing at the edge of the mudhole thinking about how to get around it. It’s in the middle of a thunderstorm, and rain is pouring down.

"Now someone comes up behind him," I went on, "grabs the back of his canoe, turns it so Hughie faces towards the nastiest part of the mud hole on the trail, and pushes. Someone could run Hughie right into the mud before he’d know what was happening.

"He’d trip, of course," I said, "and fall face forward into the mud. He’d have let go of the canoe, so the person grabs it, rolls it over so it’s floating in the mud. The killer gets in the canoe, runs along till they’re beside him. Then that person puts a foot on his head, and leaves it there till he stops moving."

Baker turned to me and raised one eyebrow.

"Either a man or a woman could have done it," I said.

"Yup."

By this time we were on a hill overlooking the lake. It was late afternoon, but dark because of the storm clouds. We were only five hours paddling and a couple of portages from the cars, but it was obvious, from the whitecaps on the lake, that we’d be in the cabin for the night. Both of us stood in silence for a moment, watching the clouds stampeding across the sky like the ghosts of all the elephants that ever died.

"Why," I said, my coat flapping in the wind, "did anyone invite Hughie on this trip? None of you could stand him."

Baker laughed. "We didn’t. Hughie found out about the trip, and invited himself along." To my unanswered question, he added, "He never believed anyone could hate him. Peeved at him for a couple of moments, maybe, but no more than that.

"And, I suppose, we figured he’d go on ahead pretty soon. Which he did."

We turned our backs to the lake, the wind, and the clouds, and began to make our way down the hill.

"I was talking to Cam," I said, "and he said to ask you about some money that Angeline wouldn’t get by killing Hughie." We slid down the hillside in the dead wet leaves, slowing our passage by grabbing small trees.

Baker came to a dead halt, hanging on to a maple. ‘Geez. He’s right. With Hughie dead, that money might be lost forever."

I grabbed a matching tree and waited.

"When Hughie’s mother died, she left her son the company business, a chain of water softener stores. It was making lots of money. She left her stepdaughter, Angeline, an agreement that gave her a good portion of the profits from the chain and a senior executive position with a good salary.

"Angeline didn’t last long as an executive. Too many conflicts with Hughie, as you might expect. But she got the money regularly from the company. For a couple of years. "Then the money dried up."

"What went wrong?"

"I couldn’t tell. Angeline hired an accountant, but Hughie wouldn’t let her near the place. One of his competitors tried to buy him out, but Hughie turned him down. Now there’s just enough money to let Hughie live comfortably. Profits seem to have vanished."

"You think Hughie was stealing it?" I asked.

"I certainly never met anybody who doubted that," Baker said, starting downhill again. But nobody knew where it was going. I always figured it was on its way to some overseas bank."

"Now that Hughie’s dead, can’t someone find the money?"

"If it’s under his bed, or invested in banking stocks, yes. If it’s in a numbered account – which is what the accountant figured – not likely. She says you’d need the account number and the password. And a death certificate. That’s three things. Only one of those seems to be available. Anyone who wanted the money wouldn’t kill Hughie until he had all three of them."

By now we were within sight of the cabin. A trail of white smoke came from the smokestack, only to be hurried into the woods by the wind. There didn’t seem to be anybody outside.

We stood and shuffled our feet for a few moments.

"Do you think Hughie kept something like the account number or the password on his electronic organizer?" I asked. Hughie had carried a pocket electronic friend with him. It was about the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes.

"You didn’t find it, I guess," Baker said, looking at me with one raised eyebrow, his bushy gnome face turned up and a few last flakes of snow settling onto his beard. It wasn’t really a question.

"That’s been bothering me," I said, "ever since I found him. He usually kept it in his shirt pocket, on the left side." I patted my own shirt pocket.

"You think it’s in the mud now?"

I shook my head. "When I went to pull Hughie out of the mud, the packsack strap that crosses that pocket was undone. I think someone undid the buckle, but wasn’t able to get it done up again in the mud. I think that person took the gizmo."

Baker nodded. "I always knew computers would kill. So someone in that cabin has it, maybe." He didn’t need to say the rest. That that person probably pushed ol’ Hughie into the mud and stood on him till he stopped showing signs of life. I felt cold, and opened the door to the cabin.

For a while nobody spoke to us. But eventually they forgave us our strange sense of humor, and conversation continued.

Not that there was much conversation. It was obvious that the next day we’d get to the cars, phone somebody in authority, and wait for instructions.

So we cooked supper on the old iron stove and waited for dark.

There was no light in the cabin other than the candles we were carrying, so when the sun set, we mostly sat around looking at the candles flicker and watching the spiders come out from hibernation.

I did get a chance to speak to Baker again, just after dark, when we were outside just past the cedars for a bio-break.

"See Hughie’s gizmo?" I asked.

"Nope. I watched pretty close, but if it’s hidden, it’s really well hidden. I can rule out Cam, I think. He doesn’t pack very well and has to take everything out to get his cooking gear."

"Same with Lloyd," I said. "When I asked him for a pill for my headache, he pretty well took his pack apart looking for it."

"That just leaves Angeline and Peggy," Baker said. "And you and me." He grinned. "And you’ll never figure out I’ve got the thing hidden in my anal orifice."

"No way," I said, stumbling through the dark. "It’d fall out too easy."

I must say, we did our best. I searched Baker’s pack, and he searched mine. Quietly, of course. And we pretty well got to look through the women’s packs, using one excuse or another. Not completely, of course, but it was a start.

By ten we let the fire in the stove burn down, and there was silence in the cabin. Once or twice in the night somebody got up and went outside carrying a flashlight. I slept fitfully, listening to Peggy and Baker snore, and finally fell asleep sometime after three.

When I woke in the morning, the sun was just brightening the day, and Baker was pouring a coffee.

"Gawd, you snore," Baker said.

I was just sitting up, sipping my coffee when I realized Baker was still standing there, waiting.

"Something up?" I asked.

"Angeline and Peggy," Baker said. "It looks like they’re gone."

 

Part 4: A Lot of Running

It took me a few minutes to get Baker’s message straight. I looked around the bare hunter’s cabin, still more asleep than awake. Cam, tall, young and redheaded, was looking out the window at the early morning sun, probably wondering where his blonde girlfriend, Angeline, had gone. Baker was holding out a cup of coffee for me, his beady little eyes fixed on me and a crumb of bread caught in his bushy black beard.

I took a sip of the coffee. I’ve had worse, but I was a lot younger then. Someday someone will kill Baker for his bad coffee, and no jury would convict the person who did it.

"Where’s Lloyd," I asked when I’d recovered from the first sip.

From across the small room, Cam answered. "He said he might have an idea where the two women went. He left about twenty minutes ago, Ted."

I struggled into my boots. "You’re telling me Angeline and Peggy took off in the middle of the night?"

"According to Lloyd, Peggy said something about visiting the outhouse sometime in the night," Baker explained, "and Angeline went with her. When we woke up this morning they still weren’t back."

"Did they take anything?" I asked.

"What?"

"Their packs," I said. "Did they take their packs?"

Cam poked around. "Peggy’s pack is here, but Angeline’s is gone I think." He looked at the bunk beds. "Their sleeping bags are still here."

"They couldn’t have got lost on the way to the outhouse," Cam said. I’ve never seen a man so confused.

‘Come on." I grabbed my coat and went out to the outhouse, with Baker and Cam following. The sun shone brightly through the bare spring trees, and the previous day’s snow was already vanishing.

Even with all the footprints in the snow it was obvious that no one had gone past the outhouse into the woods. "Let’s go see if they went to the canoes," Baker suggested.

Sounded like a good idea to me. But Baker stopped at the cabin to get my pack. "I’t always best to carry a map and some food," he said. Maybe he had a premonition or something.

The end of the portage trail was about a quarter-kilometer from the cabin, and it took us a few minutes to get there. But it was obviously the right direction. We could see the women’s footprints in the snowy patches, and Lloyd’s on top of them.

"They came this way," Cam said, as if it were one of the great discoveries of all time. Baker just rolled his eyes and kept walking.

When we reached the canoes, where the portage trail met Serpentine Lake, there was one thing obvious right away: Cam’s canoe was gone. I waited for him to point out the fact, but he was speechless. There’s something about being in the middle of a canoe trip with no canoe that makes a man speechless. He stood there in the early morning light, a warming breeze blowing his messy red hair, his mouth open, looking out over the lake. So young, so easily unsettled.

"Whatdya think?" Baker said, scratching his lower regions in the offhand way of an older guy. "Frightened women fleeing males who kill and grunt in primeval wilderness?"

"Dunno," I said. "Maybe deadly females of the new millenium slaughtering the men who have wronged them as the tide of a thousand centuries is turned against patriarchal civilization?"

"I wonder," Baker said. "I wonder if they really left for the glories of civilized life, escaping this Garden of Eden, slamming the gate on the snake’s tail as they went." He turned instead back up the portage trail, away from the lake and began walking.

A hundred meters up the trail, he pointed to the ground. Footprints led into the bush. "Great stuff, snow," Baker said. "Hard to hide things when it snows. He angled over a small rise and pointed. When we caught up we saw Cam’s canoe there, just out of sight of the portage.

"They’ve gone back to the place Hughie died!" Cam whispered.

"Seems like it," Baker said, starting down the portage trail towards the World’s Biggest Mudhole.

"Why?" Cam looked down at us short gnomelike canoers as we walked.

Baker turned to look at me. I spoke up, skipping over a fallen log.

"Hughie’s stupid silly-ass little electronic gizmo." I said. "We think they’re after that."

"You’re kidding," Cam said. "What do they want to do with it; call for help?"

"I doubt it," Baker said. "We think there’s a clue to an overseas bank account Hughie was funneling money into." He looked up at Cam, who had shortened his long stride to match ours. "A password or account number, maybe."

Cam shook his head. "That makes sense. Angeline figured Hughie was ripping her off." We danced around another muddy section of the trail. "I guess she wants to make sure she gets what’s hers from her brother." Cam found a way back to the portage trail. "May he rot in hell," he added.

"We think they’re wasting their time, if that’s what they’re after," I said. "As far as we know, you’d need a password and an account number to access the money, once you figure out where it is. It’s not likely both those will be on the gizmo."

There were, I suddenly thought, a lot of things that weren’t on Hughie’s damn gizmo. Peace, and happiness and blue skies, maybe. The white-throated sparrow singing to its mate. The snow melting under a warm spring sun.

So when we finally got to the edge of the World’s Biggest Mudhole. I wasn’t in the best of moods. We made the long climb around the hole with me getting worked up and waving my arms a lot as I expanded on my thoughts.

On the other side of the mudhole, there was Hughie’s canoe, with Angeline and Peggy sitting on it. I walked up to them, cursing electronic gizmos and electronic things of all sorts right down to digital watches, and especially people who brought such evil machines into a wilderness when people like me went canoeing to get away from that sort of stuff.

I yelled, I threw things, and I kicked trees and stumps.

Cam stood there with eyes popping out, but Baker took a seat on the canoe, and waited.

Abruptly, I wore out, and leaned back against a tree, hyperventilating.

Baker turned to the two women sharing a canoe with him. They were caked in mud, and looked totally discouraged. "Ted doesn’t think it’s in the mud," he said. "He thinks somebody took it."

Peggy looked up, rubbing some mud off her forehead, but didn’t say anything.

Pointing to the canoe he was sitting on, Baker said, "You looked though Hughie’s stuff, of course." Hughie was under the canoe, cold and stiff by now.

Peggy nodded.

I told them about finding Hughie’s pack strap undone. "I figure someone took the organizer gizmo out of his shirt pocket after killing him."

"Well," Angeline said, looking at me, "It sure doesn’t seem like you’re the one to go for electronic devices."

"And," Baker said, "we’re pretty sure you two didn’t do it. Or you’ve got a real thing for mud wrestling."

We all looked at Cam, then Baker.

"Cam didn’t get up in the night," Angeline said. Obviously a young prostate gland in the kid. I’d been up twice in the same night.

We all looked at Baker. Baker, like me, slept in his own tent, and could have easily got up when Hughie left the campsite early in the morning.

Baker rolled his eyes. "Has anybody seen Lloyd lately?"

We looked at Peggy, who stood up. Lloyd was her husband, and we hadn’t seen him since we left the cabin. "He didn’t come here."

"But I thought we saw his footprints coming this way," I protested.

Abruptly, Baker cussed, and jumped up. "Follow me."

The four of us made our way back up the hill and around the mudhole. We got back down to the portage trail. By now I’d lost my affection for that trail. Baker kept up a steady pace for a hundred yards, then turned off the trail and headed uphill near a second mudhole.

In behind a stand of cedars, we caught up to Baker. He was sitting on the ground, looking at a disturbed bit of ground, a small hole in the oak leaves dark against the dusting of snow.

He looked at me and came out with some turns of phrases that I really hadn’t heard before.

"Pardon," Peggy said.

"Yesterday," said Baker. "At this spot."

"Lloyd went to have a pee up here," Angeline said. "I remember that."

"I think," said Baker that he went up here to bury something."

We all stood around for a moment, looking at the hole, and the trees and the sky. Peggy had to say something: Lloyd was her husband.

"Let’s get this straight," Peggy said. "You think my husband stole Hughie’s organizer."

"It’s gone. He’s gone," I said. "Looks pretty suspicious." Somewhere in the trees above, a whole flock of birds were starting to sing.

Peggy sighed. "I wonder if he killed Hughie." She shouldered the backpack. "Let’s go find the miserable son-of-a-bitch." She started down the hill and strode off along the portage trail.

We followed her back down the trail to Serpentine Lake.

Baker and I, being shorter and older, were soon behind the rest. "What do you think?" Baker asked. "

"I seems pretty obvious that Lloyd was hiding behind the trees when we passed this morning. And that he got the damned gizmo."

"So now he’s probably ahead of us somewhere." Baker looked down the trail. Angeline, Cam, and Peggy were just disappearing around the bend.

"I don’t care, you know," I said. "I don’t care if Lloyd gets all of Hughie’s money. And his blue suede shoes as well."

Baker walked a bit in silence. "Angeline deserves that money," he said grimly. I want to make sure she gets it."

Sometimes I wondered about Baker. "Okay," I said, "what would his next move be?"

"He’s got to get to that account before we can report him to the police," Baker said. "That means he’d want to be at least a day ahead of us, maybe two."

"But we’re no more than an hour behind him," I protested.

"At the moment we are," Baker said grimly. "At the moment."

"Actually," I noted, "Lloyd wouldn’t have to worry if the rest of us died in an accident."

Baker just grunted. He headed towards the others, who were stopped beside the lake.

Lloyd’s canoe, of course, was gone.

And the canoe Baker and I had been using was gone as well.

Interesting, I thought. Five people standing on the shores of Serpentine Lake at ten in the morning. The sun was shining, but the wind was picking up again, warm, springlike, and quickly melting the snow. It was obviously a great day to be alive.

And not a canoe in sight.

I mentioned this to the others. They didn’t seem to be impressed.

"It’s a long swim." Baker commented.

"I’ll go back and see if he found my canoe," Cam said. He and Angeline went back down the trail.

"Just why did you hide the canoe," I asked Peggy.

She shrugged. "Angeline said there was a chance you’d think we’d gone. All it would have taken is a bit more snow, or a bit of rain to cover the tracks."

In a couple of minutes Cam and Angeline were back, Cam carrying the canoe. "I guess he missed it," Angeline said.

When Cam set the canoe down, we all looked at it. It was a big canoe, and could carry three, but we were five.

Baker took out a coin, and flipped it. "Your call," he said.

"Tails," I said. I looked at the coin. "Damn." Taking off my jacket, I started back down the portage trail to get Hughie’s canoe. He wasn’t using it, being dead and all.

I hadn’t gone very far when I heard footsteps behind me. "I figured I’d better come with you," Baker said. "You’d probably get lost on the way or something. Or drown in the mud."

It took about half an hour to get back to the World’s Biggest Portage Mudhole, scout it for hippopotami, say hello to Hughie (he refused to answer) and get back to the lake.

It would have been faster, if we hadn’t spent the entire time discovering new and interesting ways to describe our feelings towards the trail.

It would have been a more pleasant ending to the hike if the others were still at the launch site when we got to the lake.

Baker looked across the lake, and said, "You know, Ted, I wish they’d waited for us. I got a real bad feeling about this. Real bad."

Part 5: Escaping Our Past

I stood at the end of the portage trail, on the shores of Serpentine Lake, and scratched. I scratched every part of my body I could reach. I itched all over.

Baker stood by, and looked over the lake. He had a grim expression on his bearded face.

First Lloyd had got away, taking two canoes. Then Cam, Angeline, and Peggy had gone, crowded into a single canoe. Perhaps they were trying to catch Lloyd.

"They left without us," I said.

Baker looked at me, then rolled his eyes heavenward. "Thank you, Lord," he said, "for people who need to state the obvious."

I ignored him, dropped the pack into the canoe, and shoved the front of the canoe into the water. "Maybe they figured we could catch up."

It was getting on to mid-afternoon. "It’s getting on to mid-afternoon," I added, getting into the front of the canoe. "Grab a paddle; you’ll need it. You can get into the back. Watch the water; it’s cold."

We shuffed the rest of Hughie’s canoe into Serpentine Lake and started paddling into the sunlight dancing on the wavetips. It was beautiful.

"Ain’t it lovely out?" Baker asked.

"No," I said. "My head hurts, the light makes it worse, and I’m paddling after a set of maniacs who are paddling after Aladdin’s magic lamp. If I had any brains, I’d stay on the shore and wait for somebody sensible to show up."

"Sensible?"

"Someone," I added, "who is more concerned with the redwing blackbirds along the shore than playing snakes and ladders with people’s lives and numbered bank accounts."

"You know," Baker said. "Keep up that attitude, and we’ll be sorry we invited you on this trip. Which way do we go now?"

We were out of the bay, and into a stretch of islands and headlands. "You didn’t happen to throw the map in my pack, I suppose," I asked.

"Might have," Baker said, leaning forward to root through the pack. "Yup. Here it is." He pondered a minute. "Left, past that island."

We got past a sunken log that looked like the head of an alligator at the base of a rock. "I hope the others didn’t get lost," I muttered.

"Oh, they went this way, for sure," Baker said. "Peggy and Lloyd have taken this trip before. Besides," he added, "isn’t that the canoe they took, floating empty over there?"

I looked. It was. There were two paddles in it, but no sign of Peggy, Cam, or Angeline. It gave me a sinking feeling. This was cold water.

"Over there," Baker said, after he’d tied the other canoe to the one we were paddling. I turned around he was pointing to the right.

"I squinted into the sunlight, and saw a bit of colour on an island.

When we got closer, I could see Peggy waving at us. Cam was sitting on a rock. Then I saw Angeline coming from the woods behind them.

"Are we glad to see you!" Cam said, when we got to the shore. "We stopped on the island to have a break, and the canoe somehow got loose."

My head hurt worse every moment. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired.

Baker reached into my pack, and came out with five energy bars. We ate as we launched. "Aren’t you glad I made you bring this pack?" Baker asked. "And that I was thoughtful enough to put some food in it?" He looked very smug in the back of the canoe.

I took the canoe into the lake without a word. Peggy, Cam, and Angeline followed in the other canoe.

We got to the end Serpentine Lake late in the afternoon, with no sign of Lloyd.

"How far do you think he’s ahead of us?" I asked at the portage to South Lake.

"Beats me," Cam said, after a moment. "At least two hours, maybe three."

"How far to Toronto, from the landing point?"

"Maybe two hours, depending on traffic."

"I can’t see it," I said. "Unless he had an escape plan in advance, there’s no way he can get on a plane out of the country or anything like that."

"Probably right," Cam said. We continued down the portage to South Lake.

About that time, Peggy turned an ankle on a root and fell. Although she wasn’t badly hurt, it slowed us down somewhat.

By six our two canoes had crossed South Lake and were approaching the landing on the west shore of the lake.

"There’s Lloyd’s canoe," I noted. We slid over the muddy bay and up onto the muddy shore. The other canoe followed.

The early evening sunlight fell on the water, turning it into diamonds. It sifted through the bare spring trees, and dappled the roofs of three cars parked at the landing. It fell across five very tired people getting out of canoes.

Actually, as I was the first to note, it fell across the form of Lloyd, lying in the middle of the landing.

Peggy ran forward, followed closely by Cam.

The rest of us sort of edged forwards.

Peggy stopped shaking Lloyd long enough for Cam to inspect him.

"Dead," Cam said, looking up at us.

"His heart," Peggy said, shakily. ""He was on medication for it."

I turned around. Baker was sitting on a stump, his head in his hands. He was saying words his sainted mother wouldn’t have approved of. Cam was looking stunned. Angeline was trying to comfort Peggy.

This had been a rough trip all around.

You know, I thought suddenly, I don’t go off to the wilderness to rough it; things are rough enough in the city. I go there to smooth it.

I go there to dream again the dreamtime, to do walkabout or canoeabout and say hello to the crazy wonderful Being that first conceived of the idea of madcap monkeys populating the planet.

There are three things you must not being on a canoe trip: electronic devices, pet anacondas, or people who will die on the trip.

Baker whistled, loudly. We turned to watch him walk unsteadily to the canoe he and I had been paddling. He took my pack from the canoe, waited to see that we were watching, and unzipped a side pouch. An object fell out. Baker scooped it from the ground and tossed it to me.

I caught it. It was, of course, Hughie’s little electronic notebook.

I turned to throw it as far into the lake as I could, but Cam grabbed it from my hand.

I shrugged, and walked to Hughie’s red BMW. I opened the trunk with the key I’d taken from his body in the morning, and picked up the cell phone inside.

It, fortunately, did not need a password to use. I got through to the police, eventually. I explained that we had a dead guy at the South Lake landing and another inland a few miles.

They promised a police car in a half hour or so, and an ambulance in about the same time.

There was still an hour or more of daylight left. I pointed at Baker. "You and I," I said, "are going for a little walk."

When Baker started towards me, so did Cam. I waved Cam back.

First, I unlocked my car, then fished out cans of cola, fruit, and a couple of big bags of chips from the trunk. I passed everything around except a couple of cans of cola and a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips.

I held them in my arms as Baker and I started down the muddy road that wound its way back towards civilization.

"You know," Baker said, "I sure could use a drink. And a handful of chips."

I kept walking.

"A couple more minutes and I’ll be trying to eat the inner bark of the white pine," he added. I opened the bag, stuffed a handful of chips into my mouth, and washed it all down with a swig of the cola.

"You know," I said, "I never really figured I was the one who killed Hughie, at least not until you found that gizmo in my pack." I had some more chips and drink. "A guy as mean as I am sure isn’t the type to share with a decent guy like you."

Baker shook his fuzzy face. "You didn’t do it."

I held the cola out to him. He grabbed it, but I didn’t let go. "Lloyd killed Hughie," Baker said. I let him have the cola. He took a big drink.

"It was an accident, more or less," Baker added. I held out the bag of chips, and he took a handful.

"Lloyd figured he’d push Hughie into the mud," Baker went on. "then steal the gizmo while he was helping Hughie out. Or something like that. If he had to, he could get it and pass it to one of us before Hughie could catch him and break a few of his bones."

Baker wolfed down a few more chips. I wolfed some too, before they all disappeared down his throat in one lump, like a garter snake swallowing an egg.

"I guess none of us knew how deep that mudhole was, and Lloyd didn’t expect ol’ Hughie to die like that, before he could get out of there."

"You all knew about this?" I asked, as polite as an undertaker. "All of you?"

"It’s why we wanted Hughie on this trip," Baker said, examining the empty chip bag. I squashed the bag into the pocket of my jacket. We continued down the road, avoiding the bigger patches of water. "Except Angeline, of course," Baker added.

"I wondered about that," I said. It explained a lot. "So why did Peggy go with her back to the World’s Biggest Mudhole?"

"Oh, Angeline asked her to come. And Peggy couldn’t very well tell her the gizmo wasn’t there. Anyway, it helped to give Lloyd as much of a head start as possible."

I turned toward him. "Just where did Lloyd think he was going, anyway? He didn’t think he could get away, did he?" I jumped a small creek that ran over the road in spring.

Baker shook his bushy head. "We didn’t think it likely, but we wanted him to have the chance. He had a passport and access to a bit of money." Baker shrugged. The further ahead he got, the better chance he had. And the longer it took to find him, the better our chances that Cam could get the account number off the pocket computer. And then get that money back for Angeline."

He looked at me sideways. "As long as everybody thought Lloyd had the gizmo, they wouldn’t be looking for it."

I still had a problem with that. "Even if you get the account number for an overseas account, I still think you need an account password."

"Oh, Lloyd got that from Hughie’s secretary. She’d always figured Hughie was slipping money from the company, and felt sorry for Angeline." Baker smiled. "A lot of people thought she and Lloyd were having an affair, but they weren’t. But it made a good story in the two months it took to figure out that password."

"And then all you needed was the account number."

"Which," Baker pointed out, "we figured out was on the pocket gizmo Hughie always carried with him. Cam’s pretty sure he can get it off there, even without knowing the logon password for the gizmo."

It was time to go back. We’d stopped to look over a beaver pond and a beaver slapped its tail with a bang and disappeared underwater.

"Unless," I said.

"Of course unless." Baker said.

"If the police seize the gizmo," I noted, "Angeline would eventually get it back."

"By that time, her mother’s company might be bankrupt."

"You want me to be an accessory to murder," I said.

Baker said nothing. We walked a long ways back towards the car. The ambulance passed us in the dusk; we stood among some birches.

"If the police start asking questions, Angeline will point out that the gizmo was found in my packsack," I noted. I was getting angry.

"You had no motive. I’d admit that I found it and put it there. I’d say I took it from Lloyd’s packsack without him knowing."

But that wasn’t good enough for me. "I’m not sure I like the position you put me in."

Baker sighed. "It’s a mess. Nothing went as planned on this whole trip."

"But you’re still going to blame Lloyd for the murder."

"Only if you insist it’s a murder. It could still be the accident Lloyd wanted it to be. Sure would be cleaner."

Behind us, we could hear a vehicle. It was the police. We stepped aside to let it pass. It was getting dark.

While the others gave statements to the police, and the ambulance took Lloyd’s body away, I looked out over the lake. Eventually, the cop came over to take my statement. He said they’d try to get a helicopter in the following day. Then he took my statement.

I gave him most of the facts, as I knew them, leaving out a few details. Like the undone strap on Hughie’s pack, and the disappearance of the gizmo.

"Why do you think Lloyd went so far ahead?" the cop asked.

I shrugged. "Either he got spooked, or he killed Hughie."

The cop squinted at me. "The others say he was spooked. Do you have any reason to…." He paused. "I have a feeling this one will never get to court, now that the Lloyd’s dead. Unless you all got together and killed your friend?"

‘No," I said, "I barely knew the guy."

The cop just grunted and walked back to his car. "Let me know if you want to add anything to your statement," he said before he closed the door.

When he was gone, Angeline and Cam and Peggy left for Bancroft for the night, their headlights lighting trees along the road. The next day they’d drive to the start point, fifty miles by car, to get Peggy’s car.

Baker and I stood on the edge of the lake. "What now?" he asked, gripping the keys to my car.

"Most of my gear’s still in the hunter’s cabin." I pointed out into the growing darkness. "I think I’ll spend the night there. I can help guide the helicopter in the morning."

"It’s a three-hour trip in the daylight," he pointed out. "Longer at night. And easy to get lost among the islands. And it’s pretty cold at night."

I pointed out the rising moon. "I remember the way good enough to get there. I’ll get the spare sweater and jacket from the car."

"Are you sure you don’t want company?" Baker asked after he’d got me the clothes.

"Oh yes. Very, very sure," I said. "I think I’ll be in the best company I’ve had for quite a while." I pushed Hughie’s canoe into the dark waters, leaving Baker behind me. As the sky deepened to indigo, I leaned on the paddle, and moved away, in silence, from the shore towards the golden moon.

 

 

END 

 

 

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