He swore, one day the old bag would nag him to death. Every day with the same shit, fix the porch, you're making too much noise, cooking bacon stinks up the house, and on and on. And then he'd brought Rufus home and everything had gone up a level. Poor Rufus. He knew his daddy loved him and didn't understand why mommy didn't follow suit. It wasn't the beagle puppy's fault that his father was a bored retiree and that his mother was a bitter old hag.
Matthew Barnett had used to fill his afternoons with golf. It got him out of the house for a while, and they both appreciated the break. Now he spent his afternoons tromping all over King County. Sometimes he drove Rufus up into the city and they'd both flirt with pretty girls at the University of Washington campus. Most of the time, though, Matthew just drove around backroads until he found a small park or a nature trail and he and Rufus would be off.
Today he'd found a doozie. He'd found a scenic outlook by a small, quiet lake in Auburn, out past all the developments that were mushrooming up. He'd just planned to let Rufus take a dip in the lake and call it a day, but at the edge of the gravel outlook, which was barely more than a widened shoulder on the road, Rufus had found a trail. Or at least what was left of one. The entrance had been grown over, but once you got past that, it was wide open, all the way to the top of a nearby hill. Up there was another great view of the same lake, and beyond it, in the distance, of course the damn highway. Still and all, it was a nice trail, not too hard to climb, lots of exciting smells for Rufus, and not too far from home.
He whistled and the dog burst out of the underbrush with a “Yarp!”
He hunkered down, wincing at the crepitus in his knees. “You like it here, boy? Me, too! I think we'll come back, what do you think?” The dog lapped his face affectionately until the old man laughed and then the dog tore off into the bushes again.
Barnett found a fallen log that wasn't too rotten and sat down. He opened the leather satchel he carried and pulled out a water bottle. His doctor was always after him to drink more water, and after that climb he could not deny a drink sounded like a hell of an idea. With a view like that, a toast seemed almost more appropriate. He held his bottle out to the lake for a moment in salute and then took a pull. He smacked his lips. That his the spot.
Rufus appeared again, yipping around something in his mouth. He ran up to Barnett, excited with his find.
“Drop it,” Barnett said immediately, concerned that the dog had picked up something that could hurt him.
The dog, though still young, was well trained, whatever his wife might say. The beagle immediately dropped what he was carrying and whined, looking up at Barnett, wondering if he was in trouble.
What Barnett saw was so random that he had to keep staring at it to identify it. It wasn't something he was used to seeing out of context or at this angle. He didn't want to touch it, so he nudged it over with the toe of his hiking boot. It was as he'd thought. Strangely enough, Rufus had brought him a jawbone. It surely looked human to him as well, but that hardly seemed likely, did it? Something nagged in the back of his head as he kept staring at it. He nudged it again with his toe and then it sank in. Fillings. There were two silver filling in the molars on one side. It was, without a doubt, a human jawbone.
The flesh crawled on Barnett's neck as he stood up from the log and backed away, as if afraid the jaw would attack him. His breathing grew ragged and he looked away. Rufus now stood at his feet, head down, ass in the air, front paws extended. Dog for “follow me”.
Barnett followed the dog off the trail, taking high steps to keep from getting caught on brush and fern. His stomach was sour. He wasn't thinking of what he would see, but only of what he had seen. Was it a coincidence? He felt a sense of relief as he told himself it was a pioneer or Indian grave with a nice view, but that relief melted away before the realization that the metal fillings meant it was a recent body. A recent death. Where the hell could it have come from.
As Rufus led him to the top of a small rise, he knew where the jawbone had come from before he saw it. He could smell the death. He hadn't seen a lot of it, but there'd been times in what they'd called Indochina back then that he'd been exposed to the same scent. Not as old as this smell, there was more moss and mold and decay about it, but the sickly sweet rotted meat scent was the same. Corpses, he was sure of it.
His morbid curiosity was not enough to revisit traumas more than 40 years gone. He called Rufus back and the dog returned, mercifully unburdened this time.
The dog followed Barnett as he walked down the hill with twice the single-mindedness with which he'd ascended it. The dog sensed that this was not the time to run and explore. Once he reached his old Oldsmobile 88, Barnett reached for his cellular phone. He'd never been more glad of the damn electronic leash in his life.