We'll Never Tell(6)

By: Jannine Gallant

We weren’t to blame.

“Isn’t this where Max knocked you on your butt when he was still a puppy?”

She tamped down the memories and glanced over at Ethan. His lips tilted upward, and a sparkle lit his eyes.

“You looked so indignant, and you didn’t hesitate to put me in my place. It made me notice you as someone other than Wyatt Beaumont’s little sister.”

“I was twelve and flat-chested. I doubt you gave me a second thought.”

He laughed, and she smiled in response.

“Maybe not immediately…” He broke off and frowned. “What’s wrong, Sadie?”

The dog had stopped fifty yards ahead and stared down into a shallow ravine.

“Do you suppose she’s found our hiker?”

“They would have located him last night if he was this close.” Ethan ran up the hill and paused beside the dog. “Barry Rutledge, are you down there?” he shouted.

The descent wasn’t steep, but the hillside was thick with white fir and ponderosa pine trees. Water flowed across the trail and trickled down the embankment to a stream below. Nothing stirred but a hint of breeze through the trees. Overhead, a raven circled and cawed.

Sam crossed her arms over her chest and shivered though it wasn’t really cold. “He could have fallen and knocked himself out.”

“We’ll check to make sure. Sadie doesn’t go on alert over a squirrel.”

Following Ethan, Sam carefully picked her way down the hill. Boulders and uprooted saplings littered the stream bed as they neared the bottom.

“Looks like a flash flood came through here recently,” she said.

He glanced back at her. “We had thunderstorms a couple nights ago.” Turning, he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Barry Rutledge,” he shouted. The words faded into the trees.

“If he’s down here, he must be unconscious.” She didn’t want to consider the alternative.

“Sadie’s found something.” Ethan maneuvered upstream, avoiding the worst of the debris. The dog stood still, ears perked, body quivering. He stopped. “Jesus.”

“Oh, no.” Sam hurried to reach him. “Is it the hiker?”

“Not the one we’re looking for.”

She stood beside him, and the breath squeezed out of her lungs. The rounded top of a skull was visible in the rubble below. Rib bones protruded from the earth. Spots danced in front of her eyes, and she forced herself to breathe before she spoke. “Not Barry Rutledge, but the remains look human.”

“Back, Sadie,” Ethan said, and the dog obediently retreated a few paces. He lowered himself the last few yards into the narrow crevice between the rocks, staying clear of the remains. “The flash flood must have uncovered her.”

Sam’s feet slipped in the loose soil, and she landed on her knees. “A woman?” Her gaze flew to the exposed bones. “What makes you say that?”

He squatted beside her and pointed. “See the bit of material showing through the loose rock. Looks like some kind of synthetic fabric, maybe from a jacket.”

Sam stared at the dirty piece of material. A hint of color was visible under the grime. “Pink,” she whispered.

“Most men don’t wear pink jackets.”

She barely heard his words through the roaring in her ears. The woman stood in front of a crackling fire, the light giving her hair a rosy glow, arms crossed over her bright pink jacket…Time and the elements had faded the cheerful color. Not the same jacket. It can’t be the same one.

She moaned, a tiny whimper of sound.

“Sam, are you okay?” Ethan put an arm around her waist. “You aren’t going to pass out on me, are you?”

She leaned against him. Closing her eyes tight, she forced the image away. “I’m fine.”

He didn’t release her. “You look pale. I would have thought you’d seen a lot worse than this in your line of work. Whoever the person was, she died some time ago. I’m sure the coroner will be able to narrow it down.”

Sam took a breath and stood. “I wasn’t expecting to find a body, just a hiker with a broken leg or some other repairable problem.”

“I know what you mean. Seeing those bones threw me, too. We’d better call it in.”

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