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Authors: C. J. Box

Winterkill

BOOK: Winterkill
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Winterkill

 

A
Berkley Prim Crime
Book / published by arrangement with the author

 

All rights reserved.

Copyright ©
2003
by
C. J. Box

This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.

For information address:

The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is
http://www.penguinputnam.com

 

ISBN:
978-1-1012-0459-7

 

A
BERKLEY PRIME CRIME
BOOK®

Berkley Prime Crime
Books first published by The Berkley Prim Crime Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

BERKLEY PRIME CRIME
and the “
BERKLEY PRIME CRIME DESIGN
” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

 

Electronic edition: July, 2004

Other titles by C. J. Box

SAVAGE RUN

OPEN SEASON

WINTERKILL

For Morris and Joanna Meese and for Laurie, always

winterkill
['win•ter•kil]
vt
to kill (as a plant or animal) by, or to die as a result of,
exposure to winter weather conditions

One
Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming

A
storm was
coming to the Bighorn Mountains.

It was late December, four days before Christmas, the last week of the elk hunting season. Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett was in his green four-wheel drive pickup, parked just below the tree line in the southern Wolf range. The terrain he was patrolling was an enormous wooded bowl, and Joe was just below the eastern rim. The sea of dark pines in the bowl was interspersed with ancient clear-cuts and mountain meadows, and set off by knuckle-like granite ridges that defined each small drainage. Beyond the rim to the west was Battle Mountain, separated from the Wolf range by Crazy Woman Creek, which flowed, eventually, into the Twelve Sleep River.

It was two hours away from nightfall, but the sky was leaden, dark, and threatening snow. The temperature had dropped during the afternoon as a bank of clouds moved over the sky and shut out the sun. It was now twenty-nine degrees with a slightly moist, icy breeze. The first severe winter storm warning of the season had been issued for northern Wyoming and southern Montana for that night and the following day, with another big Canadian front forming behind it. Beneath the high ceiling, clouds approached in tight formation, looking heavy and ominous.

Joe felt like a soldier at a remote outpost, listening to the distant rumble and clank of enemy artillery pieces being moved into place before an opening barrage.

For most of the afternoon, he had been watching a herd of twenty elk move cautiously from black timber into a windswept meadow to graze. He had watched the elk, then watched the sky, then turned back to the elk again.

On the seat next to Joe was a sheaf of papers his wife Marybeth had gathered for him that had been brought home from school by his daughters. Now that all three girls were in school—eleven-year-old Sheridan in fifth grade, six-year-old Lucy in kindergarten, and their nine-year-old foster daughter April in third grade—their small state-owned house seemed awash in paper. He smiled as he looked through the stack. Lucy consistently garnered smiley-face stamps from her teacher for her cartoon drawings. April wasn’t doing quite so well in rudimentary multiplication—she had trouble with 5’s, 8’s, and 3’s. But the teacher had sent notes home recently praising her improvement.

Sheridan’s writing assignment had been to describe what her father did for a living.

MY DAD THE GAME WARDEN
BY SHERIDAN PICKETT
MRS. BARRON’S CLASS, 5TH GRADE
.

My Dad is the game warden for all of the mountains as far around as you can see. He works hard during hunting season and gets home late at night and leaves early in the morning. His job is to make sure hunters are responsible and that they obey the law. It can be a scary job, but he’s good at it. We have lived in Saddlestring for 3 and one-half years, and this is all he has done. Sometimes, he saves animals from danger. My mom is home but she works at a stable and at the library . . .

J
oe
knew he wasn’t alone on the mountain. Earlier, he had seen a late-model bronze-colored GMC pickup below him in the bowl. Swinging his window-mounted Redfield spotting
scope toward it, he caught a quick look at the back window of the pickup—driver only, no passenger, gun rack with scoped rifle, Wyoming plates with the buckaroo on them—and an empty truck bed, indicating that the hunter hadn’t yet gotten his elk. He tried to read the plate number before the truck entered the trees, but he couldn’t. Instead, he jotted down the description of the truck in his console notebook. It was the only vehicle he had seen all day in the area.

Twenty-five minutes later, the last of the elk sniffed the wind and moved into the clearing, joining the rest of the herd. The elk seemed to know about the storm warning, and they wanted to use the last hours of daylight to load up on food in the grassy meadow before it was covered with snow. Joe thought that if the lone hunter in the bronze pickup could see the meadow there would be a wide choice of targets. It would be interesting to see how the scenario would unfold, if it unfolded at all. There was just as much chance that the hunter would simply drive by, deep in the trees, road-hunting like 90 percent of all hunters, and never know that an entire herd of elk had exposed themselves above him in a clearing. Joe sat in his pickup in silence and waited.

W
ith
a sharp crack, then three more, the calm was shattered. The shots sounded like rocks thrown against sheet metal in rapid succession. From the sound, Joe registered at least three hits, but because it often took more than a single bullet to bring down a big bull elk, he couldn’t be sure how many animals had been shot. Maxine, his yellow Labrador, sprang up from where she had been sleeping on the pickup seat as if she’d gotten an electric shock.

Below, the herd had come alive at once and was now running across the meadow. Joe could see that three brown dots remained behind in the tall grass and sagebrush.

One hunter, three elk down. Two more than legal.

Joe felt a rush of anger, and of anxiety. Game violations weren’t uncommon during hunting season, and he had ticketed scores of hunters over the years for taking too many animals, not tagging carcasses, having improper licenses, hunting in closed areas, and other infractions. In many cases, the violators turned themselves in because they were
honorable men who had lived and hunted in the area for years. Often, he found violations as he did random checks of hunting camps. Sometimes, other hunters reported the crimes. Joe Pickett’s district took up more than 1,500 square miles, and in four years, he had almost never actually been present as a violation occurred.

Snatching the radio transmitter from its cradle, Joe called in his position over a roar of static. Distance and terrain prohibited a clear signal. The dispatcher repeated his words back to him, Joe confirmed them, and he described the bronze pickup and advised that he was going to approach it immediately. The answer was a high-pitched howl of static he was unable to squelch. At least, he thought, they knew where he was. That, unfortunately, hadn’t always been the case.

“Here we go, Maxine,” Joe said tersely. He started the motor, snapped the toggle switch to engage the four-wheel drive, and plunged down the mountain into the dark woods. Despite the freezing air, he opened the windows so he could hear if there were more shots. His breath came in puffs of condensation that whipped out of the window.

Another shot cracked, followed by three more. The hunter had obviously reloaded, because no legal hunting rifle had more than a five-shot capacity. The lead bull elk in the herd tumbled, as did a cow and her calf. Rather than rush into the trees, the rest of the herd inexplicably changed direction just shy of the far wall of trees in a looping liquid turn and raced downhill through the meadow, offering themselves broadside to the shooter.

“Damn it!” Joe hissed. “Why’d they turn?”

Two more shots brought down two more elk.

“This guy is
nuts
!” Joe said to Maxine, betraying the fear he was beginning to feel. A man who could calmly execute six or seven terrified elk might just as easily turn his weapon on a lone game warden. Joe did a quick mental inventory of his own weapons: the .308 carbine was secured under the bench seat, a .270 Winchester rifle was in the gun rack behind his head, his twelve-gauge Remington WingMaster shotgun was wedged into the coil springs behind his seat . . . none of them easily accessible while he drove. His side arm was a newly
issued .40 Beretta to replace the .357 Magnum that had been destroyed the previous summer in an explosion. He had barely qualified with the Beretta because he was such a poor pistol shot to begin with, and he had little confidence in the piece or his ability to hit anything with it.

Using a ridge line as a road, he found an old set of tire tracks to follow as he descended. Although the forest was criss-crossed with old logging roads, he didn’t know of one that could take him directly to where he needed to be. Plus there was the fairly recent problem of the local U.S. Forest Service closing a number of the old roads by digging ditches like tank traps across them or blocking access with locked chains, and Joe wasn’t sure which ones were closed. The track was rough, strewn with football-sized boulders, and he held the wheel tightly as the front tires jounced and bucked. A rock he had dislodged clanged from beneath his undercarriage. But even over the whining of his engine he could hear still more shots, closer now. The old road was still open.

T
here
was an immediate presence in the timber and a dozen elk—all that was left of the herd—broke through the trees around him. He slammed on his brakes as the animals surged around his truck, Maxine barking at them, Joe getting glimpses of wild white eyes, lolling tongues, thick brown fur. One panicked bull ran so close to the truck that a tine from his heavy spread of antlers struck the pickup’s hood with a sharp
ping,
leaving a puckered dent in the hood. A cow elk staggered by on three legs, the right foreleg blown off, the limb bouncing along in the dirt, held only by exposed tendons and a strip of hide.

When they had passed him, Joe accelerated, throwing Maxine back against the seat, and drove through the stand of trees much too quickly. The passenger-side mirror smacked a tree trunk and shattered, bent back against the door.

Then the trees opened and he was on the shooter.

Joe stopped the truck, unsure of how to proceed. The hunter was bent over slightly, his back to Joe, concentrating on something in front of him, as if he hadn’t heard Joe’s approach, smashed mirror and all. The man wore a heavy canvas
coat, a blaze-orange hunting vest, and hiking boots. Spent brass cartridges winked from the grass near his feet, and the air smelled of gunshots.

Out in front of the shooter, elk carcasses littered the slope of the meadow. A calf bawled, his pelvis shattered, as he tried to pull himself erect without the use of his back limbs.

Joe opened his door, slid out of the pickup, and unsnapped his holster. Gripping the Beretta and ready to draw it if the shooter turned around, Joe walked to the back and right of the man, so that if he wheeled with his rifle he’d have to do an awkward full turn to set himself and aim at Joe.

When Joe saw it, he couldn’t believe what the shooter was doing. Despite violent trembling, the man was trying to reload his bolt-action rifle with cigarettes instead of cartridges. Dry tobacco and strips of cigarette paper were jammed in the magazine, which didn’t stop the man from crushing another cigarette into the chamber. He seemed to be completely unaware that Joe was even there.

Joe drew the Beretta and racked the slide, hoping the sound would register with the hunter.

“Drop the weapon,” Joe barked, centering his pistol on the hunter’s upper torso. “DROP IT NOW, then turn around slowly,”

Joe hoped that when the hunter turned he wouldn’t notice Joe’s hands shaking. He gripped the Beretta harder, trying to still it.

Instead of complying, the man attempted to load another cigarette into the rifle.

Was he deaf? Joe wondered, or crazy? Or was it all a trick to get Joe to drop his guard? Despite the cold, Joe felt prickling sweat beneath his shirt and jacket. His legs felt unsteady, as if he had been running and had just stopped for breath.

“DROP THE WEAPON AND TURN AROUND!”

Nothing. Shredded tobacco floated to the ground. The mortally wounded elk calf bleated in the meadow.

Joe pointed the Beretta into the air and fired. The concussion was surprisingly loud, and for the first time the hunter seemed to wake up, shaking his head, as if to clear it after a hard blow. Then he turned.

And Joe looked into the pale, twitching, frightened face of
Lamar Gardiner, the district supervisor for Twelve Sleep National Forest. A week before, the Gardiners and the Picketts had sat side by side and watched their daughters perform in the school Christmas play. Lamar Gardiner was considered a dim, affable, weak-kneed bureaucrat. He wore a wispy, sandy-colored mustache over thin lips. He had practically no chin, which gave him the appearance of someone just about to cry. Locals, behind his back, referred to him as “Elmer Fedd.”

“Lamar,” Joe yelled, “What in the
hell
are you doing? There are dead elk all over the place.
Have you lost your mind
?”

“Oh, my God, Joe . . .” Gardiner whispered, as if coming out of shock. “I didn’t do it.”

Joe stared at Lamar Gardiner. Gardiner’s eyes were unfocused, and tiny muscles in his neck twitched. Even without a breeze, Joe could smell alcohol on his breath. “What? Are you insane?
Of course
you did it, Lamar,” Joe said, not quite believing the situation he was in. “I heard the shots. There are spent casings all over the ground. Your barrel’s so hot I can see heat coming off of it.”

In what appeared to be a case of dawning realization, Gardiner looked down at the spent cartridges at his feet, then up at the dead and dying elk in the meadow. The connection between the two was being made.

“Oh, my God,” Gardiner squeaked. “I can’t believe it.”

“Now drop the rifle,” Joe ordered.

Gardiner dropped his gun as if it had suddenly been electrified, then stepped back away from it. His expression was a mixture of horror and unspeakable sadness.

“Why were you putting cigarettes into your rifle?” Joe asked.

BOOK: Winterkill
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