While on his morning patrol of Trout Run, Police Chief Frank Bennett is flagged down by some hikers who report a seemingly lost young man behaving strangely on a trail in the Mt. Marcy wilderness. After summoning the forest rangers, Frank begins hiking up the trail to investigate….
Frank stumbled over a root and turned his ankle. “Godammit!” he protested. A good, loud shout always soothed an injury.
A weak voice answered him from somewhere further up the trail. “No…don’t…I’m trying.”
I’m trying? Or did he say, “I’m dying”?
“Hey! Stay where you are. I’m coming to help you.” Frank quickened his pace, but the trail grew rougher and he had to watch his step. “Where are you? Shout again.”
Frank pulled out his binoculars and scanned the dense forest looking for a human amid the trees.
Rocks…leaves…logs…movement. Just a flash.
He scanned back, adjusting the focus. A young man came into view. Crouched on his haunches, he held his head in his hands. His mud-caked clothes and limbs provided excellent camouflage.
Frank thrashed through the undergrowth to reach him.
The kid lifted his head, eyes round with fear, and raised his hands as if warding off an attack. “No, no—please. I’m trying.”
“Easy, son.” Frank slipped off his pack. “Let’s get you some water and food.” He held out a bottle of water to the hiker, but the young man edged away like a skittish stray dog. Frank unfurled the silver space blanket, and the hiker rose and staggered a few steps further away from the trail.
Then he swayed and collapsed in a heap.
Frank rushed to the hiker’s side. The kid’s lips were blue and his pulse rapid and thready. Frank covered him with the blanket and radioed Rusty. Luckily, the rangers were much faster hikers than Frank and were already just ten minutes down the trail.
Frank watched over the unconscious patient as he awaited their arrival. The kid didn’t have any obvious injuries. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, tall and thin with a scruffy, two-day growth of beard and matted auburn hair.
Soon Frank could hear the rangers on the trail and shouted to direct them to his location. First Rusty appeared, his bright orange hair like a beacon in the green and brown landscape. Two other rangers, a guy in his forties who Frank had met and an attractive young woman who must be new, were right behind him carrying all the rescue gear.
Rusty clapped Frank on the shoulder. “Thanks, man. You made this one easy.”
Easily the friendliest, most easy-going man that Frank knew, Rusty looked entirely disgusted as he watched the other two rangers tend to the hiker. “I don’t understand what possesses people to go into the wilderness totally unprepared. Look at his shoes. Look at his shirt.”
Frank’s gaze left the victim’s face and took in the rest of his body: a torn Grateful Dead t-shirt, cargo shorts, and Teva water sandals. His feet were filthy and his toes cracked and crusted with dried blood.
“How did you spot him?” Rusty asked.
“He just passed out a minute ago. Before he went down, he cried out. Good thing, or I would have passed right by.” Frank kept talking as the rangers loaded the hiker onto a stretcher. “The weird thing is, when I found him, he tried to run away from me, like he was scared of me.”
Frank had offered to help carry the stretcher down the trail, but the young woman ranger took that as a challenge to her competence. She was tremendously fit, and Frank reluctantly conceded to himself that she was far less likely to stumble under the load than he was.
As they reached the end of the trail, Frank could see the Trout Run EMT crew standing next to their ambulance. “Do you think they can handle this kid in Saranac, or will we need the chopper to take him to Plattsburgh?” The Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake was the nearest hospital, but it wasn’t a trauma center.
“There’s not a mark on him,” Rusty said. “So he must not have fallen. If he just passed out from dehydration, our boys can fix him up and transport him.”
A few moments later, the rescue party entered the clearing at the trailhead. The stretcher-bearers set down their patient and the medics sprang into action. Frank and Rusty watched as they started an IV line to give the young man fluids and checked his vital signs.
“Where’s the rest of his gear?” one of the medics asked.
Rusty dropped a small daypack on the ground and kicked it toward the ambulance. “Look at that! I wouldn’t send a kid to kindergarten with so little gear.”
“No layers, no wind or rain protection, ridiculous shoes—I mean, who hikes the High Peaks in sandals? And we found wrappers for two granola bars in his pack and one empty one-liter water bottle. That’s it. No phone. No compass. No map.”
“If those other hikers hadn’t flagged me down, this guy would be dead from exposure and dehydration by the end of the day,” Frank said.
The medics had draped the hiker with a blanket. As the bag of saline solution dripped into his vein, the young man on the stretcher began to stir. One medic dropped to his knees and rubbed the hiker’s hand between his own. “Hey, buddy—how you feeling? Can you open your eyes? Can you tell us your name?”
The hiker’s eyelids fluttered. He worked to open his mouth, but his lips were so dry they stuck together. The medic lifted the patient’s head and held a cup of water to his mouth. He drank eagerly, then coughed and choked.
“Easy there.” The medic pulled the cup away. “What’s your name?”
“Charlie,” he rasped.
“Charlie, good. You’re going to be okay, buddy. Can you tell us what day it is?”
Charlie shook his head.
Rusty ran his hand through his wiry red hair. “God knows how long he’s been lost.”
“Charlie, what month is it?” Frank watched as the medic tried to assess the patient’s mental acuity.
The hiker flopped back on the stretcher, his eyes glazed and blank.
The medic tried again. “Charlie, who’s the president of the United States?”
“Trump,” he whispered.
“That’s right. Now Charlie, are you in pain anywhere? Did you hit your head?”
Charlie squirmed on the stretcher. As he slowly came to consciousness, he started to realize he was strapped down. He struggled against the restraints.
“Easy there, Charlie. We’re going to move you onto this gurney and then put you in the ambulance for a trip to the Adirondack Medical Center. Now, can you tell me—“
“No!” The word shot out of him with surprising volume. Charlie twisted and thrashed against the stretcher. “I need to go back.” His voice sounded raw and cracked.
“You’re not in shape to go anywhere right now, Charlie.”
Rusty’s forehead creased in concern. “Could he have been with someone else?” Rusty stepped closer to the hiker. “Charlie, were you hiking alone, or with a friend?”
Now the hiker’s eyes were focused. He looked at all the people gazing down at him and his eyes widened in panic. “I need to go back. Let me go.”
“Charlie, did you get separated from a friend? Let us know and we’ll go back and search for him. Or her.”
“No! I need to go alone. I was so close. So close. Now it’s ruined.”
“What’s ruined?” Frank asked the group at large.
But no one had an answer.
Find out what further trouble is in store for this poor hiker in the new Frank Bennett mystery, coming in late summer, 2018. Read excerpts from all the published Frank Bennett mysteries by clicking on the “Books” tab at the top of this page.