The East Fork of the Ruby River tumbles out of the Big Buffalo Mountains and races through narrow, boulder-strewn gorges and wide, steep-walled canyons until it joins other watery allies and eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean.
Tamarack County Sheriff Ben Miller always thought — if a guy was going to get all philosophical about it — that the river’s journey was similar to that of a human being. Only sometimes the end of life was unexpected, truncated — nothing like that gradual, inevitable and totally chartable decline into darkness enjoyed by the once-rushing waters of the Ruby.
Case in point: Connie Huntsman, 22; waitress at the Black Bear Café; singer in the local Methodist church choir; devoted friend to Colin, her 9-year-old Maine Coon cat; lover of Sunday crossword puzzles and Fred Astaire movies; and, now — the sheriff hated the sound of this word, always had — corpse.
“Better keep those folks back out of the way, Stan,” the sheriff said to his deputy while gesturing toward a small group of curious onlookers. “Let Molly finish up so she can take young Connie here over to the morgue at Junction City.”
The coroner looked up from her work and said, “Yeah, well, I’m done here, Ben. Give me a minute to touch up my notes and then help me get her into the bag.”
The sheriff lit a cigarette, took in the smoke and held it in his lungs before exhaling slowly through his nose.
“I remember when she and my daughter were just little kids,” the sheriff said, reaching down to brush a lock of the dead woman’s wet, matted hair out of her closed eyes. “She and Becky did everything together. Absolutely everything. But that was a long time ago, I guess.”
Molly stopped writing and fitted her notebook into a black utility bag.
“You should go visit your daughter, Ben,” Molly said. “She’ll need to know what happened here.”
The sheriff nodded, averting Molly’s gaze, knowing what was coming next.
“And, Ben, you need to patch things up with Becky,” Molly said. “She’s your little girl, for heaven’s sake.”
The sheriff nodded again, but ever so slightly. He was looking at the river.
He had fished the East Fork all his life. And when Becky was young, he would lead her along the stream in search of deep, clear pools that formed behind big rocks — home to keen-eyed rainbows and brook trout. Much of the river was too narrow and the shore too tangled with brush to do any real work with a fly rod. Still, there were places where it was possible to get to some of those nice pools and gently flick a line so the fly would land neatly on the water’s surface.
If luck was with them, a fat trout might angle up out of the depths, break the surface and lip the fly — sometimes sensing the hook, spitting it out and heading for cover; other times hitting the fly hard, making a sharp turn back toward the bottom and consequently setting the hook securely in its mouth.
Now and then, a fish would break free, but more often it would eventually tire and Ben would lead the fish to shore and lift it, flopping and silently gasping for breath, onto the rocks. When he had enough fish, he would build a fire and cook dinner for the two of them.
He remembered now that when Becky was about seven years old she had slipped on a rock and fallen into the river. If Ben had been further away from his daughter, she could have easily been swept away to her death. But he had, thankfully, gotten to her in time.
And now, all these years later, Becky was nearly lost to him again. Molly was right: He needed to fix things with his daughter. In reality, after three years of estrangement, he really could not remember what had caused the fissure in their relationship. But at its heart, he knew, was a toxic psychological cocktail driven by an overprotective father and a daughter longing for independence.
The sheriff and his deputy carried the body bag and placed it in the back of the coroner’s station wagon. Then Molly pulled him aside and said: “We may have a situation here, Ben. I need to take a closer look and do a complete autopsy, but there are suspicious marks on her neck. She may have been strangled.”
Now, in the rapidly failing light of late afternoon, the coroner drove down the narrow logging road and the few people who had stopped to see what was going on returned to their cars and disappeared. Then it was just the sheriff and his deputy.
“Molly says that Connie might have been strangled,” the sheriff said. “We’re going to have to look this area over real good first thing tomorrow. Probably get some state guys to help us. Too late to do anything now. It’ll be dark soon.”
Back in town, Ben sat at his office desk and eyed the big black telephone sitting in front of him.
“Paperwork’s done, sheriff,” the deputy said. “I’ve made some calls. We can have six officers from state help us work that area up the East Fork. Want to walk on down to the Black Bear and get some dinner?”
“You go on ahead, Stan,” the sheriff said. “I’ll see you there in a little while.”
Alone, now, the sheriff picked up the telephone, dialed a number and listened as it rang for what seemed a very long time. Then, just as he was ready to hang up, a familiar voice came on the other end of the line and he felt something tighten in his stomach.
And then in his mind’s eye he saw his daughter as a little girl nearly lost forever in the cold waters of the East Fork.
“Becky,” he said, sitting up straight in his chair and clearing his throat. “This is your daddy.”
Tim Hanson lives in South Carolina with his wife and two children.