The higher they traipsed, the denser the forest canopy became. Little sunlight intruded into this shaded domain, but Gash knew that would change. When the timber jocks swept through here the sun would stream in like molten gold, recasting the face of the terrain for decades to come.
Alerted to the unexpected intrusion, a pair of pudge rabbits ran for deeper cover, and dozens of dwarf tree lizards scampered across bark that was dappled with gray-green moss. There were more of the tiny reptiles than he'd seen at lower elevations.
He held back a moment and turned to his left while Cayenne and Eamon kept going. He'd spotted an odd patch of growth around one old giant and wanted to examine it. He hadn't seen anything quite like it before, and guessed it might be something that only grew this high up.
When he got closer, he saw it wasn't as odd as it looked. Just a grouping of vines that had curled around the base of the trunk. With his eyes adjusting to the light in the pale shadows, he saw several other trees with the same kind of vines strung around their trunks, some climbing higher than others. He bent down over one of the vines and fingered a fat thorn. He'd tell Ramos to pass the word. They'd have to be careful around those. They looked like they were sharp enough, sturdy enough, to pierce even timber gloves.
Cayenne and the turtle were way ahead of him and starting to spread out. He didn't want the turtle to get lost, so he halted their march.
"Hold up there." He caught up with them. "We've gone four hundred yards, wouldn't you say, Cayenne?"
"If you say so," she responded.
"Looks to me like there's plenty of good timber up this way, not that there's a bare acre anywhere up here. Mostly clear ground, not too many boulders, brush isn't too bad, either--though it's a mighty steep slope. Even so, I don't see any reason they can't move up here if that's what they want. What do you think?"
Gash took one last look around. He saw the kid had wandered off a ways but was still within sight. No reason they shouldn't go back. Evening was coming, and the TJs would be calling it a day by the time they reached the lake. Gash was already thinking about lighting up and enveloping himself in peaceful blue haze.
He motioned to Cayenne, turned downhill, and called to Eamon, "Come on, kid, we're going back down." He had only gone a half-dozen paces when the turtle yelled.
"There's something here!"
"What is it?"
"Come here and look."
"He's probably found a shiny pebble or something," Cayenne mocked.
"It's a--" Eamon didn't finish.
Gash didn't know what it was, but something had the turtle excited. There was even a hint of fright in his voice. He guessed he'd have to trudge on over and see what it was.
He smelled it before he saw it. It was a human hand and part of an arm, poking out from under the scrap of on forest floor.
"Jesus," said Cayenne, covering her mouth and nose.
Gash brushed away the thin blanket of dirt and needles, enough to reveal there was an entire body. At least, what was left of it. It had been there for some time--weeks, he guessed--not quite buried and fit snugly into a depression around the base of a sapling like so much mulch.
"What's that on the shoulder?" asked Eamon.
"It looks like ... it's a tattoo," Gash said. He could barely make out the illustration--a T-shaped tree being split open by a jagged, J-shaped streak of lightning. Most of the dyed skin had decomposed. "It's a TJ bolt."
"It's Conklin," Cayenne stated flatly.
"How do you know? There must be fifty TJs with that same tattoo." Gash had one himself.
"Look under the tree." Cayenne brushed the black, nutrient-rich soil from the dead arm. "You can still see two of the three Cs--Conklin's initials. I remember, 'cause when he got drunk one night he was telling us his real name--Charles Chester or some such shit. But I remember the three Cs. Besides, they never found his body. It has to be him."
"What happened to him?" Eamon asked, his face turned away from the rotting remains.
"Drowned," answered Cayenne, "about a month ago. Somebody saw him fall in, drunk as usual, but they never did find his body."
"If it's Conklin," Gash said, standing, "then how the hell did he get all the way up here?"