by Kaye George
Elk Island was original published in Jack Hardway’s Mystery Magazine.
Adele was picky, that’s how her friends thought of it. She herself thought she was discerning. Both she and her friends knew it was hard for her to make decisions. When the washing machine broke down, Jem took their clothes to the laundromat for six months while she examined every feature of every machine in every appliance store, comparing costs and taking notes. Then she started researching every model she could find on the internet. Meanwhile, the twins often wore the same shirt to school two days in a row, sometimes three.
Jem had to wonder how she had decided to marry him. He told her, almost every week, even after ten years of marriage, that he was glad she’d made her mind up quickly that time.
Her latest project was the front hallway. She had, after five months, picked a hat stand. She wanted to change the wallpaper, though, and had looked at books for much longer without making a decision. Picking a vacation spot was easy for her, though. She let Jem do it. This year, he wanted to hike in the Rockies after school let out.
“We need to go as early as we can,” he said. “Before it gets too crowded.”
“When does it get too crowded? Would early June be good?” The boys, still in grade school, got out of school at the end of May. His family had vacationed there often when he was young, so she trusted that he knew these things.
“June should be okay. It’ll still be chilly, but we’ll have a better chance of seeing wildlife. The elk and bighorn mountain sheep vanish by July.”
“What about buffalos?” asked Nathan.
Logan answered before Jem could. “They’re not buffalos, they’re bisons.”
“Bison,” corrected Adele, absently, reading the online description of the lodge Jem had booked.
As the date of departure arrived, Adele felt more and more anxious. She got out her medium-sized suitcase and started laying out potential clothing on the chest at the foot of their bed. The pile got bigger and bigger. She got out the large suitcase. She went through the pile. She took out some clothes and added some.
This went on for a few weeks. She read and re-read the material on the park Jem had picked, Grand Tetons. It was rustic, except for the Jenny Lake Lodge where Jem had booked a dinner for their last night. It looked fairly upscale. The Colter Bay Cabins, however, were actual log cabins. She would need mostly jeans, she decided, and hiking shoes. The night before they left she stuck in two more sweaters and extra socks for the boys. She envisioned wet, cold feet since there was a lake near their cabin.
As the plane neared the Jackson Hole Airport, the pilot turned on the speaker. “Hang on, back there. This is a steep landing and we’ll have to brake hard when we get down. The runway is long enough for our plane, but there’s no extra room. I advise bracing yourself against the seat in front of you.”
He wasn’t kidding. The plane descended like an eagle swooping for a fish. As soon as it bumped down, Adele was thrown forward. She stuck her arms out to the seat back as the pilot had suggested and looked at the twin sitting with her. He stuck his feet out and grinned up at his mom. He thought it was fun.
Jem got the rental car and they drove into the park as it began to get dark. The boys were agog at the height of the mountaintops. Adele had to admit the snow-capped peaks were gorgeous. They lay against the darkening sky so pointed and perfect, they almost didn’t look real. They all stayed in the car while Jem checked them in, then he parked near the cabin and they lugged their suitcases inside.
Adele was dismayed. The place was even more rustic than she had expected. The cabin was constructed of actual round logs. Something that looked like cement filled the spaces between the logs, except for the places it had fallen out.
He had already opened his suitcase and started putting his clothes in the dresser drawer. He looked around. “What’s wrong with this one? It’s close to the restaurant for breakfast.”
“Look at the holes in the walls.” She pointed to the biggest unfilled gap, almost a half an inch wide.
“It’s supposed to be rustic, hon, that’s part of the charm.”
She shuddered. “So you’re not going to change cabins?”
“They’re all like this. Look.” He pointed to the heater in the wall. “We’ll turn this on. It’ll be nice and warm at night.”
Meanwhile, the boys, having dumped their suitcases beside the bunk beds, were outside picking up pinecones and throwing them at each other.
Adele lay awake hearing thumps and screeches in the woods, and vague rustling noises that seemed to be inside the cabin. She gulped, and then froze when she felt something brush her cheek. She shook Jem.
“There’s something in here.”
He rolled onto this back and listened for a few seconds.
“Hear that?” she said as the rustling sound repeated.
“Probably a bat.”
“We probably don’t. They’ve lived here longer than people have, I imagine.”
She shook his shoulder. “Go to the office. Tell them there are bats in here. I’m not sleeping with bats.”
The cabin was so dark she couldn’t see his face, but she could imagine the look he gave her.
She made him switch on the overhead light before he left. The ceiling came to a point at each end. The light didn’t extend to the topmost rafters, so she couldn’t be sure, but it looked like a small, dark form huddled at the peak.
Jem soon returned with someone from the office. The man brought a ladder, a large long-handled net, and a towel. When he stared at Adele she realized she was sitting up in a nightgown that made her nipples too apparent in the cold air. She pulled the blanket up, indignant. A nasty sneer flitted past the man’s fleshy lips. He turned his back, climbed the ladder to the top corner of the ceiling and positioned the net over the dark form. In a flash, he swooped up the creature and stuffed the towel on top of it.
As he descended the ladder, Adele stared at the little animal. It gave off a high-pitched squeal of distress. One wing was caught outstretched as it struggled against its captivity. She almost felt sorry for it. Then she remembered tales of bats getting tangled in people’s hair, and other stories of bats carrying rabies.
Jem followed the man outside, helping him with the ladder. When he returned, she asked what he had done with the bat.
“He turned it loose outside.”
“Where? Right here?”
“A little ways up the road.”
“Look at those cracks! What’s to stop it from coming back inside?”
After the lights were again out and Jem was back in bed, it wasn’t long before Adele heard the fluttering again. She kept the blanket over her head the rest of the night.
The next night, she was so tired from hiking to Cascade Canyon and Hidden Falls, she slept like one of the logs that made up the cabin walls. The valley, nestled high in the mountains, was accessible only by a steep upward climb, but the destination was worth the effort. They had hiked around Jenny Lake to get to the foot of the trail, but there was a shuttle boat to take them back and cut off a few miles on the return trip.
On the way to breakfast the next day, Adele got a shivery feeling in her spine. The twins had run ahead on the path and Jem was trying to catch up to them while she trailed behind. She looked into the woods beside the path. A chipmunk scurried through the undergrowth. Then she looked behind her.
The man with the large, loose lips, the one who had captured the bat, stood twenty feet behind her, staring. When she spotted him, a slow smile crept across his face. Her insides clenched and she hurried to join her family.
The various restaurants in the park served good, solid, filling meals. They all ate enormous amounts after being in the open air most of the day. Adele slept soundly every night, as did Jem and their boys. By the end of the week, Adele was enjoying herself. She kept watching for the creepy man when they were around the cabins and the Colter Bay Restaurant, but she didn’t see him again.
Their last day, Jem had planned an excursion in the morning. That night they would dine at the Jenny Lake Lodge. The early morning treat was a boat ride through crisp, cold air, to Elk Island. The sun gilded the peaks around Jackson Lake. Adele snapped photo after photo of the pristine mountains from the boat. Once on the island, even the boys ate the trout that was cooking over an open fire. Jem piled sausage and potatoes on his paper plate and Adele had a stack of pancakes, all cooked right there, outdoors. They sat at wooden picnic tables covered in plastic red-checked tablecloths.
After eating, there was some free time. Adele and Jem both got second cups of the rich, dark coffee, brewed cowboy style in an enamelware pot suspended over the fire while the boys played tag in the dewy meadow nearby. Adele turned her face to the morning sun and closed her eyes. She hadn’t felt this peaceful for a long time. She hadn’t made a hard decision–or any decision–for days.
People began to meander toward the tour boat that would take the two dozen tourists back to shore.
“Have you seen the boys?” Jem asked.
Adele roused herself. “They were right over there.” She walked to the edge of the meadow. It was empty. Jem called their names. No answer. He shouted more loudly.
“Where could they be?” Adele was puzzled.
“Maybe they’re already on the boat,” said Jem.
“You go look and I’ll stay here in case they show up.”
“You sure?” He wasn’t used to her taking charge.
Something told her they hadn’t gone to the boat.
Jem ran toward the dock. It was down a hill, out of sight of the meadow. Adele acted on a sudden instinct. She walked through the small meadow to the woods at the other side. Her shoes were wet from the grass, glistening with a heavy morning dew. A path, barely visible, led into the trees. Small, wet prints from sneakers led onward. They were here, in the woods. She would hike in to get them and bring them back.
Resolutely, she strode along the path, pushing branches out of her face, softly calling their names.
“Logan, Nathan. We have to leave now. Come on out!”
The sneaker prints in the damp dirt led farther into the trees until the growth thinned and she spotted the water ahead. She must have crossed to the other side of the island. She walked to the edge of the slope that led down to the water.
The creepy man stood beside a beached rowboat, leering up at her. Her boys, bound and gagged with duct tape, squirmed on the ground between them.
For a moment, she couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Then she dashed to the boys and knelt beside Nathan to take the tape off them.
“Stop right there.” His voice, close behind her, was calm.
Her neck hairs prickled. She saw a flash in the sun and then the blade of his knife was on Logan’s throat. His other arm was around the boy’s waist, holding him up.
“What are you doing? What do you want?” She rose slowly, knowing she couldn’t make any sudden movements. “My husband will be here any minute.” Her mind raced. What could she do? What could she say? “Everyone on the tour is looking for them. They’ll all be here soon.”
“I don’t believe that. Anyway, we’ll be gone by then.”
“Where are you going?”
It was the easiest decision she had ever made in her life. “I’ll go with you. Let go of him.”
“Not until you get into the boat.”
Did she have any options? She could shove the boat out into the water and escape in it. And leave her boys? She would have to go with him. She walked, as slowly as she could, to the boat.
“Don’t try anything funny. I wouldn’t mind slicing up the kid.”
Logan whimpered behind the tape covering his mouth. What if his nose started running and it stuffed up and he couldn’t breathe? “Take the tape off his mouth,” she said. “He’ll suffocate. Nathan’s, too.”
“As soon as you’re in the boat.”
She climbed in, almost tripping on a large fishing net at the bottom. “Now, free them.”
“Not so fast.” He shoved the boat into the water and jumped in.
“Take that tape off!”
“They’ll be okay.” He had pushed the boat hard enough that it drifted away from the shore. He pointed the knife at her. “Start rowing.”
She had to do something. She had to get back to the boys, she had to find a weapon.
“I said, start rowing.”
He was still standing. She sat and grabbed the oars. They were heavy. Was she strong enough? She had to be. She pushed down and tilted them up as if she were going to take a stroke. She dropped the left one. Used two hands to wrench the right one from the oarlock. Swung it at him like a baseball bat. Hard.
It hit his face and knocked him into the icy water.
He surfaced in a second and started toward shore. The water was deep enough that he had to swim. She had to keep him away from her boys. She dropped the oar into the boat and picked up the huge net. She threw it over his head and shoulders. Picked the oar up again, bopped him over the head with it. Again. And again.
“Adele!” Jem burst from the woods.
“Get the boys,” she yelled.
Jem was followed by the cowboys who had cooked breakfast and the tour boat captain. They swarmed down to the water, waded out to retrieve the boat and Adele. One of them braved the frigid water and swam to get the abductor.
The tour boat captain was quick with blankets for the two cowboys and even for the creep.
He winked at Adele. “Have to keep him alive for his trial.” He told Jem that two women had disappeared in the last year and he was sure the police would want to talk to him about them, too.
The park authorities took their statements when they got to the mainland and said they would call if they had further questions. The young man assigned to the boys was gentle and kind. The boys sat around the cabin wide-eyed for an hour or so, and then Jem got up a rousing game of Go Fish and soon they were laughing. Adele was glad for their youth and their resilience.
Adele had stopped shivering by the time they entered the glittering dining room of Jenny Lake Lodge. The floor and walls were wooden, but the tables were covered with linen and held china, crystal, and were soon laden with fillet mignon, elk, and elegant soups and salads. The boys loved the elk chop and even the wild mushroom fondue.
On the plane going home, she nestled next to Jem while the twins sat together across the aisle. They wanted to play more games of Go Fish.
“I’ve decided on the new wallpaper in the entryway,” she said.
Jem gave her a doubtful look.
“No, I’m not going to dither. I know exactly what I want. I saw it last week, just before we came here. I want the one with a pattern of pine branches and pine cones.”
“You’re sure? You’re not going to change your mind?”
“No. That’s what I want.”
Jem grinned and kissed the tip of her nose.
“And one more thing,” she said.
He gave her another doubtful look.
“I want to come back here next year.”
“Do you want to do the Elk Island breakfast?”
“Maybe not. I’ll have to think about that.”
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