The scent of smoke grew stronger.
Chris Jacobs strode through the woods, occasionally stopping to sniff the air and adjust his course. Ice cracked and crunched under his boots. Last night’s storm had covered the previous day’s foot of snowfall with a solid layer of ice. He stomped as he walked, breaking the thick crust, watching his boots sink deep into the snow, and wished his son, Brian, could experience the fun. He blew out a breath and the steam floated away. The air was still and silent. Dense gray clouds hovered at the peaks of the tall firs, blocking the treetops from his view.
More snow was expected at any minute.
He stopped and inhaled deeply through his nose. The smoke is definitely getting thicker. Beside him Oro paused and mimicked his master’s scenting of the air. The skinny yellow dog didn’t seem to mind the cold under his paws and walked lightly on top of the ice. He didn’t leave Chris’s side to investigate the brush or run ahead to check for squirrels as usual. He stuck close. Chris rubbed the dog’s ears and wondered if he felt the tension in the woods. Chris had a sense of dread pressing against his forehead that made him want to go back to his isolated cabin, stoke the fire, and read a book. An intelligent brown gaze met his, and the dog whined in the back of his throat.
“Yeah. Me too, Oro.”
The dog raised his nose and sniffed again.
“We’ll find it.”
Chris was accustomed to smelling smoke on his hikes through the foothills of the Cascade Range. Isolated cabins dotted the forest, and smoke from their wood stoves often crossed his path. This was different. The odor had invaded his cabin and awoken him this morning before dawn. He’d made himself wait until daylight and then headed out to find the source. Intermittent pleasant wood smoke was normal; this nonstop dirty-smelling smoke was not.
He’d bought the cabin eighteen months ago, looking for an occasional retreat from his home in the Portland suburbs. It’d been a calm spot in the constantly moving river that was now his life. During the summer it was a deliciously shady and quiet refuge; during the winter it was a secluded snowbound hideaway.
In other words, perfect year-round.
The cabin’s heat came from wood and its water from a spring. Chris had spent the first month of ownership increasing the insulation and improving the pipes. No electrical wires and no cell service. He’d viewed the absence of both as a benefit. Even though his financial means were dependent upon the Internet, he loved to unplug from everything for long periods. His closest neighbor was at least a mile away. Maybe more. It was in that direction that he was currently hiking.
A half hour ago he’d eyed the thick blanket of ice and decided to walk instead of possibly getting his truck stuck in the snow. Depending on the weather, he usually hiked or ran several miles each day, purposefully avoiding the other cabins. Today was a hike. Each slow step required concentration and extra muscle. He always wore orange, because some people didn’t abide by the hunting season’s laws and dates.
He stepped out of the tall firs and into a small clearing. He froze and then retreated backward into the dark of the woods, his gaze rapidly processing the scene. In the open space the smoke hung thick, trapped by low clouds that were heavy with snow. At the center of the clearing was a burned-out shell of a cabin, its walls smoking and steaming in the cold air. Black soot scorched the walls above the windows where the heat had broken out the glass. Several jagged holes had been torn in the shingled roof where the fire had burst through but failed to take hold. At one point the roof must have been covered in snow. Now frozen puddles circled the cabin, black icy cinders staining the white snow.
It was silent.
Chris moved cautiously into the clearing with Oro pressing against his leg. The dog’s ears lay back against his head; his tail was tucked close. Chris understood. The black shell and burned odors made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The cabin was similar to his own. One big rectangle that housed the living space and kitchen, with a loft overhead for sleeping quarters. The loft had sold him on his own cabin. One look at the glee on Brian’s face as he’d climbed the ladder and Chris had known the place belonged to the two of them.
Brian should have come with him to the mountains for the week. Instead he’d gone to Disneyland with his grandparents. Chris’s mother had pleaded with Chris to accompany them, but the thought of dense crowds and noise eliminated that possibility. Brian had wavered, uncertain about leaving his father, but Chris had assured him he wouldn’t be lonely. Most ten-year-old kids wouldn’t have dreamed of skipping a Disneyland trip, but Brian was different. Up until two years ago, Chris had been his whole life. Now he had grandparents, an aunt, an uncle, and a school full of friends.
His son had bloomed under the attention, making Chris almost regret he’d hidden the boy from society for eight years.
Please be empty.
Chances were good that this cabin was empty. The woods had been silent for three days while Chris had decompressed in his wilderness retreat. He’d caught a glimpse of the taillights of one vehicle during that time, but no people. Tourists flocked to the Oregon cabins during the summer; not so much during the winter. He started to circle around the smoking, steaming shell, thankful the trees stood back far enough that they hadn’t been singed. The fire would have had a completely different result if it had happened during the summer.
He spotted an SUV with snow up to its bumpers about fifty feet away from the cabin as he came around to its front side. The windows were foggy and streaked with interior steam.