"He's down there.” Only twenty minutes earlier, Sven Johnson was walking toward the narrow trail that led to his duck blind on Kruller’s Pond, when he came across the body in a ditch off the road. Now he pointed at it as he shivered in the chilled autumn air, clapping his gloved hands together for warmth. He shifted from foot to foot, trying to quell the pressure building in his bladder.
State Trooper Jim Reed looked down the shallow embankment, his breath a white, hesitant mist. Mingled with an odor of goldenrod and charred pine was the faint smell of death. There was a body, all right. A dozen fat deer flies hummed excitedly over it. Reed spotted a trail, a shadow in the morning sun, of matted grass where the victim had presumably dragged himself or been dragged. It led into a thick wall of spruce cut back twenty feet from the side of the road.
Reed grimaced as he stepped gingerly down the slope of the ditch, the yellowing grass and weeds knee high and slippery with morning frost. His eyes focused immediately on the victim's hair. Long and bone white, it formed a rough, matted circle in the dying grass. A crude halo.
Reed squatted, waving away the flies, and touched the back of the victim's neck. Cold. "When did you find him?" Reed asked, sensing Sven behind him.
“I don’t know.” Sven looked away from the body, his eyes on the horizon. "About half an hour ago.”
"Did you touch him?"
"Naw. Scared the shit out of me, seeing him there."
Reed turned back to the body.
Shirtless. Tattered, mud-caked jeans. Reed took in a deep breath, wincing at the smell as he turned the body over. Native American, by the looks of him. Skin covered with sores and lesions, fingernails worn away to nubs clotted with dirt and dried blood. His mouth was open slightly and Reed noticed dirt embe dded in the gums, the front teeth and incisors chipped and worn like pieces of old chalk. The body was skeletally thin, the eyes open to small slits.
"What happened to him?" Sven asked.
"Looks like he starved to death."
"Could you move out of the light, please?" Reed took off his trooper's hat and ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. A semi hurtled by, spilling black acrid smoke from its pipes. The smell of exhaust was a welcome diversion.
Sven took two steps to the side, letting sunlight spill onto the victim’s face.
The pupils were small, dull pinpricks.
Shouldn't they be dilated?
Reed leaned closer, blowing in his hands to warm them. He reached out to pull back the man’s eyelids.
The eyes blinked.
"Jesus!" Reed tried to stand, but his foot slipped out from under him and he fell on his back.
Sven jumped back. "What?"
"He's alive.” Reed leaped to his feet. His hand fell to the side of his holster out of reflex.
"He's alive?" Sven shook his head. "No fuckin' way he's alive."
Reed forced himself to calm down. He knelt down next to the body and felt the neck. He didn’t feel a pulse, so he blew in his hands again, warming them against the cold. He tried again.
There. A slight tremor beneath the skin.
Sven shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He took a step back.
"Stay there," Reed said without looking up. He rubbed the man’s neck and arms. Where the hell was the ambulance?
"What do you want me to do?" Sven asked.
Reed said, "Come here. Keep rubbing his skin. Try to get the circulation going. I'll call for more help."
Sven hesitated at first, but took Reed's place, kneeling next to the body.
Reed took five giant steps up the embankment and grabbed the radio from the patrol car.
"Where's the ambulance?" he gasped. "We've got a live one here."
The dispatcher’s voice crackled over the radio. "It should be there any minute."
Reed slid back down the slope. He wiped the back of his hand across his nose.
Sven shook his head. "You sure he's alive?"
His question was answered when the man struggled to raise his head. At the sound of hair tearing away from the frost, the duck hunter sat back hard on his butt and tried to push himself away.
Reed's heart skipped a beat, but this time, he managed to remain calm even as white misty breath issued from the man’s mouth. He gnashed what remained of his teeth, as if chewing on air, chewing on something invisible as he clawed at Reed's jacket, desperately trying to pull himself up.
"I'm trying to help you," Reed said, gently but firmly pushing him back. When the sun glared in the man’s eyes, he became calm once again, became so still that Reed felt again for a pulse.
The ambulance arrived five minutes later.
Turned out the man wasn't a man at all, but a boy of only ten. His name was Michael Horsecapture, and of the five children and one adult who set out on a hike a month earlier, he was the only one they ever found.