| Damn, he sure likes to show it off. Deputy Silas Anderson liked to remind everyone he was in charge. No, more like he felt like he had to remind everyone. Silas never was much good at anything he tried, except screwing up. But he was Chad’s best friend since they were little boys running in the North Alabama pines; fishing in the Red Oak Creek. When Chad Murdock became Stone County Sheriff, he’d promised to make Silas a deputy.
But damn, he always felt the need to show off his authority. Currently at this moment he was harassing the Baines kid in the Dairy Kreme parking lot. Even with his brown and tan uniform, brown felt cowboy style hat, and large black gun belt, Silas had trouble commanding respect. The Baines kid was refusing to let Silas open his vehicle and Murdock could see the frustration building in Silas’s demeanor.
“Silas, c’mon is all this really necessary?” Chad Murdock asked.
“The kids have been drinking. It’s public drunkenness at the least, Chazz,” Silas replied.
Murdock shot him a quick glance with a flash of anger at the use of his childhood nickname.
“Uh---I mean---Sheriff. I need to search the car. Steve here is obviously in the bag. And under age to boot.”
Steve Caster was drunk, any fool, including Silas could see that. The Baines kid though didn’t show any apparent signs of intoxication and had never been much of a trouble maker.
“You ain’t got no probable cause Silas. I’m not opening my car for you to rummage around in.” said Baines.
“That’s Deputy to you and this here badge gives me all the probable cause I need!” Silas exclaimed.
“This is bull---Sheriff?”
Murdock had had enough of this and didn’t want to deal with the paper work or the parents on a Thursday night. He and Silas would have enough crap on their plate come the weekend. “What’s the plan tonight Baines? You and Steve are headed home, right?”
“Yeah Sheriff. A couple of girls coming over and we’re going to watch wrestling, maybe a movie.”
“All right, get then. And I don’t want to see you out on the roads later, OK?”
“Sure thing Sheriff.” Baines said. Then he and Steve jumped in Baines’ red Mustang, one of those newer models with the retro look, pulled out of the Dairy Kreme parking lot and headed east on Olive Street.
“Damn it Chazz, uh---Sheriff, these kids are never going to respect me or the badge if you keep pulling that stuff.” Silas said.
“Well writing tickets to every jaywalker isn’t going to get you respect either. Besides, badge or not, you can’t be poking around in someone’s car for no reason. There is that fourth and fifth amendment thing.”
“What the hell are you babbling about, Chazz?”
Murdock laughed. “The Constitution Si, read it sometime. After you finish your rounds in town, swing through the Maple Leaf Apartments.” Murdock got into his white and tan Stone County sheriff’s cruiser and squalled out of the parking lot. He headed west on Olive, which turned into Highway 18. If you followed it out of Junction City, it would eventually take you to Middleton on the west end of the county. There had been recent reports of dog fighting out that way on county highway P and lately Murdock had been making the rounds out that way.
Stone County was nestled in northwest Alabama and Murdock had been sheriff just shy of a year. Mostly rural, with some semblance of a farming community hanging on despite the ever growing corporate farms. The biggest city---if you could call it that---Junction City had the bustling population of forty eight hundred and seventy three. He had grown up here. Went to high school, played on the football team, went through all the regular small town rituals before going to college and then on to law school. He and Silas still spend as much time canoeing, hiking and fishing as time will allow in the Black Bear National Forest.
The Black Bear Forest, or just simply “The Forest”. The land of a thousand waterfalls. The Forest covers over one hundred eighty thousand acres that reach into three counties: Lincoln, Benton and Stone. Some of Murdock’s fondest memories are taking his little sis Samantha on hikes; pointing out ancient rock carvings and Indian drawings. It’s amazing to ponder, eighty five miles north of Birmingham and seventy or so miles south of Huntsville is a vast wilderness monument with limestone bluffs and swift streams. One had to be careful, take a few paces off the official hiking trails and he’d be organizing a search party for your city ass. A person rarely realizes, whether he lives in Huntsville, Atlanta, or Chicago, in most regions of this country it only takes a couple of hours drive to find a place you can get lost in. Not just figuratively; lost in the moment taking in the scenery; but literally can’t find your ass with both hands, call out the troops---lost.
Such was the case earlier this year just before Spring, when the days may be warm, but the nights could still be exceedingly chilly. Murdock was just a few months on the job at the time when a family on a day hike became disoriented when an early evening fog rolled in. A six mile hike around Mount Baker turned into a frightening, frosty night in the woods for the husband, wife and their two young teenage kids without warm cloths or food . They were lucky. No serious injuries other than the dad’s somewhat wounded pride. People tend to either over estimate their ability or under estimate how physically demanding or challenging the wilderness can be.
Murdock was surprised to find out the number of times rescue personnel have to be called out for lost hikers. According to the data, the incidents have been on the rise in the last several years. Going through some of the old files back at the office, his curiosity was peaked to find several unexplained and unsolved disappearances linked to The Forest over the past several decades. Family members reporting loved ones gone, last seen in The Forest. Murdock believed it was quite possible over the last fifty or sixty years that some campers or fishermen were taken by the deep canyons, high cliffs, and towering hemlocks of The Forest. But Murdock also believed that several of those vanishings were no more than a guy telling his nagging wife he’s going fishing for the weekend and like the Bruce Springsteen song says:
Got a wife and kids in Baltimore jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
But still those old reports did lend more credence to those childhood spook stories about The Forest, and the legend of Aunt Jenny Brooks. Stories that scared the bejesus out of you when you were twelve; and stories you could use to scare the pants of the girls when you were seventeen.
Murdock was about eight miles east of Middleton when his phone chirped. He pulled it out of his front pocket and saw it was his younger sister Samantha. “Hey Sis, how are you?”
“Chad, you got to help!” Samantha practically yelled into the phone. Murdock could hear the fear in his sister’s voice causing a quick involuntary rise of panic and dread in Murdock.
“Something’s happened to Jim. Something’s going on---I don’t know---,”
“Hey, hey now. Calm down now Sam and tell me.” Jim said trying to sooth his sister.
“Jim, he just called. And then we were disconnected, but I could hear him screaming!”
That involuntary panic and dread now began to recede in Murdock now realizing that whatever was going on, Sam was safe. “Screaming? Sam, what did he say? Was he driving…do you think it was an accident?”
Sam relayed the story to her brother about Jim saying he saw a naked woman on the side of the road out in The Forest and then phone cut off.
“If he said he was that close, then he should be on the south end of Highway 246 coming towards town. I’ll radio Silas to go check it out.”
“No Chad, you go! Please!”
“Look Sam, I’m not in Junction City. Silas is closer. He’ll check it out, see if there was some kind of accident. But you know Jim, he’s probably pulling your chain.”
“I don’t think so Chad,” Sam said with some of the panic leaving her voice. “I’m kind of freaking out. It all just sounded so---weird.”
Murdock replied with his best big brother “it’s going to be OK” tone, “I’m sure that’s exactly what he wanted, to freak you out. Let me get off here, and I’ll send Silas. You call if Jim shows up at your place or calls back, all right?”
“All right, thanks big bro.”