Table of Contents
ALSO BY C. J. BOX
In Plain Sight
Out of Range
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
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Copyright © 2008 by C. J. Box
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Box, C. J.
Blood trail / C. J. Box.
eISBN : 978-0-399-15488-1
1. Pickett, Joe (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Game wardens—Fiction.
3. Hunters—Crimes against—Fiction. 4. Wyoming—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
And Laurie, always
There is hunting in heaven—
Sleep safe till tomorrow.
—WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
It’s strange how often human beings die without any kind of style.
The Forgotten Soldier
I AM A HUNTER
, a bestower of dignity.
I am on the hunt.
As the sun raises its eyebrows over the eastern mountains I can see the track through the still grass meadow. It happens in an instant, the daily rebirth of the sun, a stunning miracle every twenty-four hours so rarely experienced these days by anyone except those who still live by the natural rhythm of the real world, where death is omnipresent and survival an unfair gift. This sudden blast of illumination won’t last long, but it reveals the direction and strategy of my prey as obviously as a flashing neon
sign. That is, if one knows where and how to see. Most people don’t
Let me tell you what I see:
The first shaft of buttery morning light pours through the timber and electrifies the light frost and dew on the grass. The track made less than an hour before announces itself not by prints or bent foliage but by the absence of dew. For less than twenty seconds, when the force and angle of the morning light is perfect, I can see how my prey hesitated for a few moments at the edge of the meadow to look and listen before proceeding.
The track boldly enters the clearing before stopping and veering back to the right toward the guarded shadows of the dark wall of pine, then continues along the edge of the meadow until it exits between two lodgepole pines, heading southeast.
I am a hunter.
As a hunter I’m an important tool of nature. I complete the circle of life while never forgetting I’m a participant as well. Without me, there is needless suffering, and death is slow, brutal, and without glory. The glory of death depends on whether one is the hunter or the prey. It can be either, depending on the circumstances.
I KNOW FROM SCOUTING
the area that for the past three mornings two dozen elk have been grazing on a sunlit hillside a mile from where I stand, and I know which way my prey is headed and therefore which way I will be going. The herd includes cows and calves mostly, and three young male spikes. I also saw a handsome five-by-five, a six-by-five, and a magnificent seven-point royal bull who lorded over the herd with cautious and stoic superiority. I followed the track through the meadow and the still-dark and dripping timber until it opened up on the rocky crest of a ridge that overlooks the grassy hillside.
I walk along the edge of the meadow, keeping the track of my prey to my right so I can read it with a simple downward glance like a driver checking a road map. But in this case, the route I am following—filled with rushes, pauses, and contemplation—takes me across the high wooded terrain of the eastern slope of the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. Like my prey, I stop often to listen, to look, to draw the pine and dust-scented air deep into my lungs and to taste it, savor it, let it enter me. I become a part of the whole, not a visitor.
In the timber I do my best to control my breathing to keep it soft and rhythmic. I don’t hike and climb too fast or too clumsily so I get out of
breath. In the dawn October chill, my breath is ephemeral, condensating into a cloud from my nose and mouth and whipping away into nothing-ness. If my prey suspects I am on it—if it hears my labored breathing—it might stop in the thick forest to wait and observe. If I blunder into him I might never get the shot, or get a poor shot that results in a wound. I don’t want that to happen.
I almost lose the track when the rising terrain turns rocky and becomes plates of granite. The sun has not yet entered this part of the forest, so the light is dull and fused. Morning mist hangs as if sleeping in the trees, making the rise of the terrain ahead of me seem as if I observe it through a smudged window. Although I know the general direction we are headed, I stop and observe, letting my breath return to a whisper, letting my senses drink in the scene and tell me things I can’t just see.
Slowly, slowly, as I stand there and make myself not look at the hillside or the trees or anything in particular, make the scene in front of me all peripheral, the story is revealed as if the ground itself provides the narration.
My prey paused where I pause, when it was even darker. It looked for a better route to the top of the rise so as not to have to scramble up the surface of solid granite, not only because of the slickness of the rock but because the surface is covered with dry pockets of pine needles and un-tethered stones, each of which, if stepped on directly or dislodged, would signal the presence of an intruder.
But it couldn’t see a better way, so it stepped up onto the ledge and continued on a few feet. I now see the disturbance caused by a tentative step in a pile of pine needles, where a quarter-sized spot of moisture has been revealed. The disturbed pine needles themselves, no more than a dozen of them, are scattered on the bare rock like a child’s pickup sticks. Ten feet to the right of the pocket of pine needles, a small egg-shaped stone lies upturned with clean white granite exposed to the
sky. I know the stone has been dislodged, turned upside down by an errant step or stumble, because the exposed side is too clean to have been there long.
Which means my prey realized scrambling up the rock face was too loud, so he doubled back and returned to where it started. I guess he would skirt the exposed granite to find a better, softer place to climb. I find where my prey stopped to urinate, leaving a dark stain in the soil. I find it by the smell, which is salty and pungent. Pulling off a glove, I touch the moist ground with the tips of my fingers and it is a few degrees warmer than the dirt or air. It is close. And I can see a clear track where it turned back again toward the southeast, toward the ridge.
On the other side of the ridge will be the elk. I will likely smell them before I see them. Elk have a particular odor—earthy, like potting soil laced with musk, especially in the morning when the sun warms and dries out their damp hides.
Quietly, deliberately, I put my glove back on and work the bolt on my rifle. I catch a glimpse of the bright, clean brass of the cartridge as it seats in the chamber. I ease the safety on, so when I am ready it will take no more than a thumb flick to be prepared to fire.
As I climb the hill the morning lightens. The trees disperse and more morning light filters through them to the pine-needle forest floor. I keep the rifle muzzle out in front of me but pointed slightly down. I can see where my prey stepped, and follow the track. My heart beats faster, and my breath is shallow. I feel a thin sheen of sweat prick through the pores of my skin and slick my entire body like a light coating of machine oil. My senses peak, pushed forward asserting themselves, as if ready to reach out to get a hold on whatever they can grasp and report back
I slow as I approach the top of the ridge. A slight morning breeze—icy, bracing, clean as snow—flows over the ridge and mists my eyes for a moment. I find my sunglasses and put them on. I can’t risk pulling up
over the top of the hill and having tears in my eyes so I can’t see clearly through the scope.