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Skeleton creek, p.4
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       Skeleton Creek, p.4

           Patrick Carman
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  That made me smile, even though I was still concerned. “What will you say?”

  “Bloody nose. I’ll tell her I got in a fight. I’ll say someone punched me.”

  “She’s not going to believe you.”

  “Cutting vegetables?”

  “You only cook pancakes.”

  “You worry too much.”

  It was a pleasant moment with my dad, like — I don’t know — intimate, I guess. It didn’t happen very often. He pushed his T-shirt up with a finger and scratched his bare shoulder. I caught sight of a little mark he had.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  “Tattoo. From a long time ago. You’ve seen it before.”

  “Can I see it again?”

  He hesitated. I’d only ever seen the tattoo about three times in my whole life. It was small, about the size of a nickel. He called it his little birdie.

  “It doesn’t look like a bird.”

  “It’s not a bird. I just call it that.”

  “What is it then?”

  “It’s nothing.”

  He pulled his sleeve back down and set me on the porch. The intimate moment had passed. I remember thinking I’d done something wrong.

  So it seems I remember a lot of things — even long strings of things that happened years ago. I just don’t recall all the details of the night when I fell. I guess that makes it a blackout, or in my case, a gray-out, since things keep creeping back that I don’t necessarily want to remember.

  I’m not surprised by what Sarah’s saying in the video, about the sound being there both nights. It was like I’ve already seen and heard this information through a dirty window, and now the window has been cleaned. Things I already knew have become a little clearer, that’s all.

  But I also think there’s something else. When Mom goes to work, I’ll be free to watch it again. I’ll listen more carefully this time.


  I’ve watched it now a dozen times. No, more than a dozen. And, yes, I might have discovered something. Not just in the visuals. But the sounds. Especially the sounds — over and over and over again with those sounds. The best way I can describe it is that listening to those sounds again and again is like feeling my memory come unstuck from skipping on an old record. The sound of the leg being dragged — dragged — dragged — and then ping! Something clicked forward in my memory. Something that wasn’t there before.

  I remember it was dark and I wanted to go home. I was looking at the rusted-over gears, trying to imagine how they could have moved. The flashlight felt clammy in my hand when I pointed it to a thick wooden beam that stood behind the machinery. Leaning over the biggest of the many gears, I peered down onto the hidden floorboards below. There was a little round mark, about the size of a nickel. I’d seen that mark before.

  The record started skipping again.

  It’s a birdie, it’s a birdie, it’s a birdie.

  After that I saw Old Joe Bush sloshing toward me in his wet boots, dragging his busted leg behind.

  What does it all mean?



  I talked to my dad.

  I’ll try to get it all down here.

  This is just like I heard it. I swear.

  I can remember what we said because I knew I’d have to remember it. It was almost like I recorded the conversation so I could write it down after.

  I started off by asking him, “Do you remember when I crashed my bike and you cleaned me up?”

  He looked at me a little strangely — this wasn’t what he was expecting me to say. But he went along with it.

  “I remember,” he said. “Your mother found the dishrag in the laundry. She asked if I’d killed a gopher.”

  “You never told me that.”

  He shrugged. “How’s the leg?” he asked.

  “It’s stiff until afternoon. Then it warms up and it’s not so bad.”

  “Henry gets in tomorrow morning. We’ll bring you outside and you can get some fresh air on the porch. You can watch me skewer him at cribbage. How’d that be?”

  I nodded so he knew I thought it was a fine idea. Then I just went right out and asked, “Did you ever meet Old Joe Bush?”

  He paused, sitting at the foot of the bed as he looked at my cast. He got up and left the room. I was sure I’d completely blown it. But when he returned, there was a picture in his hand. He handed it to me.

  “That’s Old Joe Bush right there.”

  It was a picture of a man standing before the gears on the dredge, the same gears I had stood in front of on the night of the accident. The gears weren’t rusted. They were black and greasy. The man wore work gloves and overalls and glasses. He was a big man, not the slightest bit photogenic. He had the dazed look of someone who had been bothered and wanted to be left alone. Had he been caught in the middle of something important?

  “He worked on the dredge, right?” I asked.

  My dad nodded almost imperceptibly. “He got careless.”

  “You mean he got killed?”

  He pointed to the picture.

  “Those gears pulled him right through and spit him down into the water. They say he drowned because every pocket he had was full of stolen gold. Old Joe Bush sank like his feet were in concrete, right to the bottom.”

  There was a long silence. My dad walked to the window and looked out, then back at me. And then I felt the sting of why he was talking to me.

  “Keep that picture. Let it be a warning. Old Joe Bush got pulled into those gears because he wasn’t careful. You nearly died doing something careless yourself. Don’t let it happen again.”

  Even though his message was clear, I figured I might as well ask him something he would probably think was stupid. With my father, moments like this — of true conversation — were pretty few and far between.

  “Did Joe Bush ever … come back?” I asked.

  From the look in his eye, I could see I was going to get an answer. My dad likes a good story, though I’ve never known him to write one down. He can tell one if one is needed. He likes the idea of myths and spirits. I think it’s part of why I write the things I do. We’re both storytellers in our own way and I didn’t fall too far from the tree.

  “There’s a legend that used to be told by some of the last guys who worked on that dredge,” he said. “They never talked about it openly, only among themselves. But word gets out.”

  My dad itched his shoulder where the birdie lay hidden under his shirt.

  “They said they could hear Old Joe Bush walking around at night, dragging that cursed leg of his. They could hear him rapping on the metal beams with that big wrench he used to carry around to work on the gears. Biggest wrench anyone ever saw. Tap. Tap. Tap. They’d hear it. Then it would stop. Something would fall mysteriously into the water — something important, like a special tool or a box of parts — but no one was going down into the black to find what went missing. They said Old Joe Bush had wet boots, like he’d crawled up out of the water beneath the dredge where he drowned and came back to claim what was his. Only he couldn’t find it.”

  “Claim what?”

  “Why, all the missing gold, of course. What else would he be looking for?”

  My dad laughed and said it was only a tall tale. Then he headed for the door.

  “Have you talked to Sarah?” he asked, and this time I was surprised by the suddenness of the question.

  “No, sir,” I said. Technically, this was true. We hadn’t actually talked. But still I was nervous — my dad had figured me out on lesser lies.

  “Let’s keep it that way,” he said.

  And then he was gone.


  Henry arrives tomorrow morning from New York. He hasn’t visited since last summer, so I’m very interested to talk with him. When Henry visits, he stays in the guest room downstairs. He and my dad are sort of like best friends, I
guess. They fly-fish, hike, play cards, and laugh a lot. My dad doesn’t usually laugh that much, so it’s very noticeable when Henry is around.

  I like Henry because, for starters, he’s talkative. It can be difficult to make him shut up, if you want to know the truth. I think it has something to do with the fact that everyone else is pretty quiet around here and he’s used to more noise in the city. Maybe the sound of his own voice is like the droning background noise he’s accustomed to.

  Henry wears rainbow-colored suspenders and a crisp white shirt wherever he goes, so you can see the good time coming from a long way off. He has muttonchops — and I don’t mean for dinner — really wide. Like, Elvis in the 70s sideburns.

  He has a reputation for throwing the most outrageous poker parties in Skeleton Creek during his visits. Playing cards with Henry is a little different than cards with normal people, because there’s always an unknown array of punishments for losing hands. You might be forced to wear oven mitts and keep playing. Or you could end up in a full-body wet suit, snorkel, and an underwater mask. And there are the ridiculous wigs, crank calls to wives and girlfriends, blocks of ice that need sitting on, and helium balloons to be inhaled with preposterous scripts to be read in chipmunk voices. A little bit of money changes hands, but mostly everyone hangs around and laughs really, really hard. Even my dad.

  Henry’s past in Skeleton Creek is complicated. A long time ago, when the dredge was still tearing up the woods, Henry used to visit more often. That’s because he was employed by New York Gold and Silver. He was in charge of what I now know were assets number 42, 43, and 44, all dredges scattered around the western states. That meant constant visits in order to assess progress, hire and fire workers, map the movements of the dredges, package and ship the gold, and basically oversee the operation of not one but three dredges. He was young then, a graduate of Georgetown looking to make his mark in the world. He’s changed a lot over the years.

  I’m hoping he can help me.

  Henry was born and raised in the big city, but I think there was something about Skeleton Creek that affected him from the very beginning. It probably happens to a lot of people from New York. They visit Yellowstone Park or Montana or Sun Valley and when they go back home they realize that skyscrapers are not the same as mountains, a hundred taxis are not the same as a hundred cows, and the subway doesn’t ride like a horse.

  I also think Henry feels guilty about working for a company that tore up the land, took all the riches, and left Skeleton Creek high and dry. People seem to like him around here — especially my dad — and there don’t seem to be any hard feelings. I think that’s because Henry genuinely loves Skeleton Creek and hates what happened to it. Maybe he’s doing penance for the work he did in his twenties, back when he didn’t know any better. He keeps coming back year after year, burning up all his vacation time on a dead-end town full of dead-end people. I guess that counts for something.

  This visit will be much more interesting than Henry’s past visits. He stays every fall for two or three weeks depending on how much vacation time he has saved up. He comes for the September steelhead run, for the poker, for the friendships. But this is the first fall when his arrival coincides with my great interest in the dredge. In the past I’ve spent all my time asking him either about New York or what punishments he has planned for poker night. I haven’t asked too many questions about the dredge, at least in part because my dad has always acted like it was a bad idea whenever I brought it up.

  But this time I’m going to get Henry alone and really grill him.


  Sarah has sent me another video already. Two in one day. She’s getting way too careless. I saw the email, but I’m going to wait another hour or two before watching the video so my parents are asleep. The videos are hard enough to watch without the added pressure of wondering whether or not my mom or dad are going to knock on my door. I can’t erase my tracks that quickly.

  I wonder what she wants.


  That was close. I barely hid my journal in time. If I’d been in the middle of a sentence, I probably would’ve been caught.

  My parents are getting too curious. They’re in my room all the time, asking a lot of questions. They keep pestering me about Sarah. Have I talked to her? Have I seen her? Did I know she drove by in the middle of the night?

  They came in together right after I finished my last entry.

  Dad said, “Don’t think just because Henry is coming we’re not going to be watching you as closely. We want you out of this bed tomorrow, downstairs or on the porch.”

  Mom said, “You need to start getting more fresh air. Let’s do that tomorrow, okay?”

  Then Dad said, “Let’s have a look at that computer.”

  It’s just dumb luck Sarah hadn’t sent me something in the previous hour, and that I’d already scribbled down the password from her previous email (which I’d already deleted). They’d have seen it before I did, before I could erase it. My nerves are shot and I’m really tired. I keep having to stay up late and get up early so I can work with Sarah without getting caught. I’m not sure how much longer I want to do this.

  But I can’t ignore the latest password.


  From The Cask of Amontillado — a terrible story about deception and revenge. I’m certain she’s never read it. Fortunado tricked and chained, the slow building of a wall to trap him underground. It’s a really awful story, not one of my favorites. Maybe if I told her the story, she’d stop picking such ghastly passwords.

  Tomorrow might get complicated. I better watch tonight, even though I can barely keep my eyes open.





  What was it that Sarah said?

  I’m starting to think everything is connected. The secret society, the dredge, New York Gold and Silver, Old Joe Bush — I think it’s all somehow linked together.

  But that’s not all. It’s not just some secret society, New York Gold and Silver, and Old Joe Bush. It’s Sarah. And me.

  And now this new wilderness ranger.

  Why did he ask Sarah if we saw anyone at the dredge?

  What does he know?

  Which is the same thing as asking:

  What don’t we know?

  I have to try to get some sleep.

  If I can.


  I have this very weird feeling that someone came in my room last night. I woke up but I was too afraid to look around. Plus, it was dark. I couldn’t shake the feeling. And then I started wondering if I’d deleted the history after I watched the last video. I reached under my pillow and felt for my journal. It was there. It doesn’t seem like it was moved.

  It’s crazy how paranoid I am.

  I’ve been lying in bed for an hour staring at the picture my dad left me and replaying his warning in my mind.

  Old Joe Bush got pulled into those gears because he wasn’t careful.You nearly died doing something careless yourself. Don’t let it happen again.

  After sixty-one minutes of contemplation, I’ve determined that what my father asked of me was stupid. Carelessness may not be a virtue, but it’s unavoidable, especially for someone my age. And besides, super-careful people are really boring. I know a girl at school who won’t drink out of the water fountain. She won’t eat food from the cafeteria. She has a note for gym class that allows her to sit out whenever we do something she feels is too dangerous. She barely has a pulse.

  Old Joe Bush doesn’t look like the careless type. If I had to say what he looks like in his picture, I’d say … well, I guess I’d say he looks single-minded. Probably he was pushed. Foul play, that’s what killed Old Joe Bush, not carelessness.

  It was really late when I watched Sarah’s video last night. I dreamt about it, so when I woke up I wasn’t sure if I’d wat
ched it at all. In my dream, Daryl Bonner the ranger and Gladys the librarian were walking in the woods. Gladys had her shotgun and then Old Joe Bush came out of the bushes dragging his leg and said, “Number forty-two is mine. Stay away from this place. I’m watching you.” Gladys fired buckshot into the air, and Old Joe Bush tried to run away, dragging his leg down the path toward the dredge. Gladys laughed and laughed, but Daryl Bonner went on ahead and helped Old Joe Bush step down into the black pond and disappear under the water. In my dream, the pond looked like a tar pit.

  The thing about dreams is that they sometimes mean something. I have dreams all the time, but I get this feeling about certain dreams that makes me think something important is hidden there. This was one of those dreams. The sticky goo of the tar pit hides things. I know it does.

  I don’t think Gladys is important. I think she’s just in there because I’d never gone through a door and found someone pointing a shotgun at me. She’s been appearing in a lot of dreams since. She’s like wallpaper. She’s just there.

  But Ranger Bonner — he’s new — and he’s helping Joe into the water or the tar. Why did I connect the two in my dream? My unconscious mind must see something in the video or the picture that my waking mind doesn’t. An hour of looking at the picture my dad gave me isn’t helping me see things clearer. I’m going to risk watching Sarah’s video again, but this time I’m going to keep the picture handy so I can look at it. It’s almost 7:30 and my mom usually comes in between 7:30 and 8:00.

  I better hurry.


  No sign of mom yet, and I’ve watched the video again. I scanned the picture of Old Joe Bush and sent it to Sarah. Dangerous move. If her parents open her email before she does, they’ll suspect I’ve sent it. Even though I used an account that doesn’t have my name on it and I didn’t say hardly anything.

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