A Mystery Novel
David and Fuller sat side by side on the wide cabin porch, their feet propped on the wooden railing, watching the day wear itself out. Beyond their boots, across the narrow gash of the valley, the pleated peaks of the main range of the San Juan Mountains rose abruptly into a series of pointed, stepped tiers spread out cross the horizon to the south.
David closed one eye, sighting over the toe of his boot and for a minute marked the slow, eastward progress of a bright cumulus cloud. When he could no longer keep the target centered, he inhaled deeply, breathing in the spicy fragrance of the sun-warmed spruce planking and, without lifting his head from the back of the chair, turned to face Fuller.
"I've got a better idea."
Without opening his eyes, Fuller shifted his weight slightly and recrossed his outstretched legs. "Better than what?"
"Better than a history of Henson County."
Ten seconds passed while David watched Fuller's face waiting for his response. Fuller stretched lazily, raised his head and squinted at David. "Well, do I have to guess ?"
David swung his feet down and leaned toward Fuller. "Alfred Hammit," he said, matter-of-factly.
"Some said he was."
"And you?" Fuller asked with a sidelong glance.
"He denied it."
Fuller turned on his elbow to face his friend. "But he was convicted, wasn't he?"
"He was convicted of murder, but he denied that too."
Seeing that David was determined to discuss it, Fuller reluctantly sat forward in his chair and folded his hands. "What brought this up?" he said, trying to be patient.
"The grave site, I think," David replied. "I was by there again last night on the way home from the lake. I mean," he paused, palms up, thinking, "it's the matter-of-factness of it, isn't it? Just those six white posts and just enough chain to connect them. It's obviously a grave, and one that's meant to be noticed. But one headstone for five men? None with even similar names? And no explanation why they might have all died on the same day or what else besides a grave they might have had in common?"
"But everyone knows the story. At least everyone around here."
"You mean the legend," David suggested.
"Okay, the legend."
"It is a legend. That's just my point," David said, inching forward in his chair. "No one really knows what happened. It's true that Hammit was convicted of murdering those men but he denied it, even on his death bed. As for the cannibalism, he was never convicted of that, except by those who need legends."
"Don't we all?" Fuller said with the hint of a smile."Okay," David nodded, "but you have to admit, it's a compelling story, isn't it?"
"There are so many loose ends," David said, gesturing again. "Even as a kid I was fascinated by it. I think it was my favorite story. I never got tired of hearing it and my father loved telling it. Every year when we came here on vacation we went to the grave site, sometimes more than once, and while we were there he would always repeat the story. He was a great story teller." David smiled, remembering. "He would walk dramatically around the grave site, his voice rising and falling with tension, recreating their last desperate day, as he called it. It was as if the whole scene were playing out there before us. As if we were actually watching it happen. I could almost see the glow of their campfire in those trees by the river. Smell the smoke. And, like Hammit, I could-I remember my father's exact words-just make out, there in the failing light, those five sleeping forms curled against the cold. And when he described Hammit coming back to the campsite, I could actually hear Hammit parting the brush before him, hear his breathing and," David recited fondly, "hear the snow crunch under his hesitant step ."
"And," Fuller said, indulging him, "did he kill them?"
"Well," David answered with a shrug, "my father always used Hammit's version. The story Hammit told at the trial. That he came back from hunting, luckless and empty-handed again, to find Shannon Bell crouched by the fire, roasting the flesh he had cut from the five men he had killed in their sleep. When Hammit surprised him, Bell lunged at Hammit with a hatchet and Hammit killed him in self-defense."
"But, the jury didn't buy that?"
"No. Not at either trial."
"Hammit's attorney appealed the verdict of the first trial, based on some complicated jurisdictional point of law. I can't recall the details. But the appeal was granted and he was retried a year or two later."
Fuller sat for a moment, thinking, the fingers of one hand to his lips, his face turned slightly away. "Why," he said, turning directly back to David, "was Hammit in this valley in the middle of the winter?"
"Actually, they were headed for Breckenridge. Heard there was a big gold strike there. They were part of a larger party, twenty-five or so, that made up in Provo. They didn't leave Utah till November and it was January before they reached the Indian camp on the Uncompahgre River. Near Delta. Chief Ouray advised them to wait out the winter because of the unusually heavy snow in the mountains but they couldn't contain their impatience to finally get at their Golden Fleece. In early February Hammit and the five others left the Indian camp, according to Hammit, headed for a government cow camp about where Gunther is now."
"That's seventy-five miles," Fuller acknowledged.
"Right," said David. "Ouray said it would take them seven suns to reach it. From the cow camp they planned to go on another seventy-five miles to the Indian Agency at Los Pinos, and then out over Coalbank Pass to the Antonio Valley and from there up to Breckenridge. They were last seen headed in a southeasterly direction into a wind-driven snow storm."
"They had one horse. At least, for one day they had a horse. A Tom Tracy went out with the other six for the first day. He helped pack them out with his horse but he turned back after about twenty miles when they reached the snow. That would have been somewhere between where Montrose and Cimarron are now. Hammit apparently intended to follow the Gunther River east to where the Los Alamos Creek entered it, then turn south up that river to the Indian Agency. It was snowing hard and Hammit said at his trial that the wind was sweeping the snow so deep in the gulches they had to follow the ridges. By keeping up on the ridges they may have become disoriented . . . that plus the poor visibility in the snow storm. When they came to the Lake Fork of the Gunther where it enters the main river I think Hammit thought it was the Los Alamos Creek and turned south one valley too soon. That led them into the Henson valley."
"In the wilderness there is no bad luck. Only bad judgment."
"Then you don't think Hammit led them up there to rob them," Fuller said.
"No. He was lost. I doubt Hammit, or anyone, would have risked his life for that. It was snowing constantly and they were freezing. They only had two blankets. They had run out of food. There was no game. I can't believe Hammit would have gone sixty miles out of the way in those conditions to rob them. If he had wanted that, he could have done it without coming all the way up into Henson valley."
"Mmmm," Fuller conceded.
"Next time you drive east along the Gunther River from Montrose, notice where the Lake Fork enters the main river. It looks almost identical to the place thirty miles farther on where the Los Alamos Creek enters. It would be easy to mistake the two, even in summer. I was out here one Christmas and hired a pilot from Gunther to fly me over the area so I could see what it looked like in the winter. Believe me, it's easy to see how they might have been confused in a blizzard. As a matter of fact, a group who set out from the Indian camp a few days after Hammit's group made the same mistake. They mistook the Lake Fork for the Alamos and went fifteen miles up the valley before they realized they had made the wrong turn."
"Why did Hammit keep going then?"
"I don't know, but he sure didn't seem to be enjoying the trip. According to his testimony, he seemed to think the Agency was nearby. The ridges they followed, trying to avoid the deep snow, took them higher and higher. When they turned south they were probably traveling along the high ground west of the Lake Fork, along the flank of Alpine Plateau. Even there the snow was so deep they had to take turns breaking a trail. They climbed to timberline where most of the snow had blown off. The traveling was easier but high up and exposed to the wind it was much colder. The only thing they could find to eat was rose hips and pine gum. By then they had been out sixteen days on a trip that was to have taken seven. They ate their moccasins. Burned the hair off and ate them. They craved salt. Hammit said they prayed and cried. At that point, they decided that they had to get down off of the mountain. Probably that was what's now called Red Cloud Peak. They went down to the spot where the bodies were eventually found."
"You pretty sure they came in from the north? Couldn't they have come in from the south, over Badger Pass or Alpine Pass?"
"Well," David nodded, "Hammit did say they came to a lake and, after crossing it, camped just below it. Crystal Lake is the only lake in the Henson valley and if they got to that first, they would have come in from the south. But the lake Hammit described was shallow. They tried to fish through the ice but there was only slime and mud. Doesn't sound like Crystal Lake. It's deep and over two miles long."
"Hmmm," Fuller agreed.
"They were probably camped where Acme Creek and the Lake Fork come together, at the upper end of the old Henson town site, near where the bodies were found. Settlers described beaver ponds in that area. Maybe Hammit's so-called lake was actually a beaver pond?"
"That means they may not have seen Crystal Lake at all."
" . . . and they didn't necessarily come in from the south," David finished.
"You have spent a lot of time on this, haven't you," Fuller said, somewhat surprised.
"I told you I liked trails," David said, smiling.
"And after the murders? How did Hammit go out after the murders?"
"He said he walked out to the west, over a mountain with a yellow mud slide. That has to be Slumgullion Slide. There's no place else like that in the valley and the slide area was just to the west of his campsite. It's a natural pass. From the summit he followed a stream, probably Los Alamos Creek, for thirty-five miles down to the Indian Agency. He said he tried every day to get over the pass but couldn't because the snow was too deep. Up to his armpits. It was April before sunny days and freezing nights made a crust he could travel on."
Fuller, arms folded, listened until David finished, then smiled, his hand to his mouth. It was a self-conscious gesture, a habit to hide teeth stained by the fluoride-rich water of his high plains ranch home. "Do you think Hammit murdered them?"
"Well," David said, "I'm not sure he killed them all. Maybe it did happen like Hammit said. But who knows? Maybe they were all in on it. Maybe they just killed off the weak ones, one at a time, and Hammit was the last?"
"Then he killed Bell?"
"And then he ate the bodies?"
David shrugged, smiling with mock innocence. "He was out for sixty-five days. He had to have eaten something. You can't live that long on moccasins and rose buds."
Fuller nodded knowingly then locked his fingers behind his head and looked out across the mountains. While they had been talking, the sun had moved over the peaks to the west and long shadows angled across the little valley below them and across Fuller's brown face, exaggerating the wrinkles around his eyes, as deep as scars. David watched Fuller as his companion sat thinking. He thought back how surprised he had been when they first met to see that Fuller, with his broad shoulders, flat butt and bandy legs, looked more like a cowboy than a college professor.
"Now that would be worth a story, wouldn't it?" David suggested.
Fuller lowered his hands and folded his arms across his chest. "You're right," he nodded, eyebrows arched slightly. "Actually, I'm surprised no one has done it before now."
"Am I convincing you?"
"You're beginning to."
"And we couldn't be in a better place for it. The transcript of the trial is still in the courthouse in Henson. I have seen it."
"It's still there?"