Off the Grid, p.1C. J. Box
ALSO BY C. J. BOX
THE JOE PICKETT NOVELS
Force of Nature
Nowhere to Run
In Plain Sight
Out of Range
THE STAND-ALONE NOVELS
Back of Beyond
Three Weeks to Say Goodbye
Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett Country
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Copyright © 2016 by C. J. Box
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eBook ISBN 978-0-698-41005-3
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.
To Laurie, always
Also by C. J. Box
PART ONE | ENCAMPMENT Chapter 1
PART TWO | RUNAWAY BEAR Chapter 6
PART THREE | THE RED DESERT Chapter 11
PART FOUR | THE RANCH Chapter 15
PART FIVE | A HORSE WITH NO NAME Chapter 19
PART SIX | THE NEW MONKEY WRENCH GANG Chapter 22
PART SEVEN | UTAH DATA CENTER Chapter 25
PART EIGHT | DESERT SOLITAIRE Chapter 31
About the Author
All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage.
—CORMAC MCCARTHY, Blood Meridian
—— PART ONE ——
To live outside the law, you must be honest.
—BOB DYLAN, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”
Nate Romanowski knew trouble was on the way when he saw the falcon’s wings suddenly flare in the distance. Something beyond his eyesight was coming fast. It was cool and crisp in the desert and the light dawn breeze smelled of dust and the rotting carcasses of dead wild horses who had drunk at a poisoned spring.
The rising sun bathed the eastern sky ocher and silhouetted the rock haystacks and hoodoos into a dark snaggletoothed horizon. It was the best time of day, he thought: the anticipatory moment before the morning light lifted the curtain on the landscape to reveal the reds, pinks, oranges, and beiges of the striations in the bone-dry rock formations and revealed the rugged, broken terrain. The desert was made up of canyons, arroyos, and vast sheets of hard-packed clay that had been sculpted through history first by magma, then water, now wind.
Nate had learned that in the morning the desert didn’t wake up. Instead, it shut down. Herds of pronghorns moved from the sparse grassy bottoms where they’d been grazing through the night to the high-desert plateaus where they could be seen for miles—and they could be on the lookout for predators. Herds of wild horses, with their cracked hooves and woolly jug heads, trotted across openings, headed for the shade of wind-formed rock oddities that looked in the right light like Doric columns that remained from ancient ruins.
It was the early-morning hours when cottontails retreated to their dens and upland game birds moved from feeding on seeds and grass to structure and safety.
That was why Nate chose this time to hunt.
But he wasn’t the only predator in the area.
• • •
THE GYRFALCON, the largest and most formidable of the species, was a horizontal hunter. Unlike the prairie falcon, which struck its prey fast and low from a perch or promontory, or the peregrine, which screamed down from the heavens at two hundred miles an hour with balled talons and intercepted its target in a midflight explosion of meat and feathers, the huge gyr cruised silent and white above the desert floor. When the gyrfalcon sighted its prey—a rabbit, sage grouse, or gopher—it maneuvered its profile into the sun, then simply dropped down on it as if from the sun itself and pinned its prey to the ground. The gyr then used its weight and the powerful grip of its talons to crush the life out of its meal. If the prey continued to struggle or wouldn’t die fast enough, the gyr bent over and severed the spinal cord with its hooked, razor-sharp beak.
• • •
NATE WASN’T SURE how long he’d been hunting with the new gyrfalcon. There were gaps in his memory. All he knew was that the big bird was his partner and had arrived as some kind of gift from the Arctic, where it thrived, and now he was hunting with it.
The falcon was stocky and thick the first time Nate lifted it up on his glove, and it weighed more than any raptor he’d ever flown. It was smaller than a golden or bald eagle but not by much, maybe a pound or two less. When it was in the air, its five-foot wingspan and mottled white coloring reminded Nate of a flying white wolf. In the dawn of the desert, when the first shafts of the sun lit up the gyrfalcon in flight, its coloring made it look twice as big as it actually was. The gyrfalcon was a formidable weapon. If a peregrine was a cruise missile, Nate thought, then the gyr was a stealth bomber.
In ancient times, gyrfalcons had been reserved for royalty. Commoners couldn’t fly them. It was a miracle that the big white bird had shown up. She was a big female, almost silver in color, and females of the species were larger than the males. He enjoyed simply staring at her when she was on the glove, and she seemed to enjoy—and expect—his admiration.
Because his new bird had no natural predators except the occasional golden eagle, it flew and hunted with impunity.
So when it flared sharply upward a mile and a half away and immediately started climbing, when its long wings blurred with effort as they worked hard and fast to ascend from the threat, Nate knew the raptor had encountered something deadly and unusual.
• • •
WHATEVER WAS APPROACHING also attracted the attention of a small herd of pronghorns to his right. He hadn’t previously seen the creat
Then Nate felt a vibration through the ground itself. It was remarkable in the desert how he could feel something coming before he could see or hear it.
A motley herd of twelve or thirteen shaggy horses thundered over the wide northern horizon. One by one they appeared, manes flying and nostrils flared. The rhythm of their hoofbeats increased in volume and they were far enough away that the sound was disconnected from their movement.
Something was driving them, he knew. Something had spooked them into running straight at him.
• • •
THE HORSES CAME TOWARD Nate over the hardpan, kicking up a spoor of dust that hung in the air behind them. They were getting close enough now—maybe a hundred and fifty yards away—so that the sound of their pounding hooves started to sync with their movement.
He wondered if the herd was going to run right over the top of him.
Nate raised both of his hands in the air and waved his arms. The herd kept coming.
Not until they were twenty-five yards away did the animals part and run by him on both sides. The ground shook. Before he closed his eyes against the dust, he caught glimpses of white-tinged eyes, matted manes, and scabbed-over wounds on their flanks. They were sorrels, mostly, but the lead stallion was black with a single white sock. Their smell lingered after they’d gone, a heavy musk that was part dried sweat, part caked mud.
They continued to thunder south.
• • •
WHEN NATE OPENED HIS EYES, he saw a pair of headlights, like pinpricks, poke through the hanging dust where the horses had appeared on the horizon.
Nate squinted, trying to see better. The vehicle, like the horses, was coming right at him.
He turned and scanned the cloudless sky. The gyrfalcon was a tiny white speck against the powder blue. Nate knew the difference between a falcon rising in a thermal current for a better hunting lane or circling for an angle of attack and when it was flying away.
The gyrfalcon was flying away. He knew in his heart he’d never see it again.
He’d had the experience before. Sometimes falcons that he’d spent years feeding, training, and hunting with simply flew away. Each time it happened, it opened a hole inside of him that could only be filled by a new raptor. But this time he didn’t feel loss as much as a sense of betrayal. His thought was:
The bitch set me up.
• • •
NATE TURNED to the oncoming vehicle and was surprised to find it had divided into three parts. What he’d initially assumed to be a single four-wheel-drive unit was now three, and he realized that what he’d first seen was the lead truck in a small convoy of pickups. The two trucks behind the lead vehicle had flared out to its flanks and they were coming at Nate in an arrowhead formation trailed by plumes of dust that lit up orange in the morning sun.
Three pickups coming fast.
He could now hear the sounds of their motors revving and their tires crunching volcanic silica on the desert surface.
Within a minute, he could see that, in addition to the drivers, there were men in the backs of the trucks. As the vehicles approached, the men in back rose warily, trying to keep their balance as the trucks got closer. They steadied themselves one-handed on the sidewalls or roofs of the pickups and held long guns in their other hand.
The lead pickup had something large, black, and bloody attached to the top of the hood. Nate caught a glimpse of long yellow teeth and blood-matted hair . . .
He glanced down. There were revolvers holstered under each of his arms, curved grips out. The weapon under his right arm was a five-shot single-action .454 Casull. The weapon under his left was a .500 Wyoming Express, also a single-action manufactured by Freedom Arms, and with five big rounds in the chamber.
He couldn’t remember when he’d started sporting two guns, but he didn’t question his decision. Just like he couldn’t recall the circumstances of the gyrfalcon making itself available to him.
Or why he was in the desert.
He looked over his shoulder. He thought he’d driven there in his Yarak, Inc., white panel van, but he was surprised to find out it had turned into his ancient Jeep CJ-5. The Jeep was parked a quarter of a mile away, under a rock formation that resembled an umbrella: a ten-ton slab of sandstone balanced somehow on a single narrow column of rock.
He scanned the outcropping for a sign of his friend Joe Pickett. Nate wasn’t sure why, but he thought Joe would be there backing him up. Not that Joe could hit anything, but he meant well and he could be surprisingly ferocious when he thought he was in the right.
But was he in the right? Were either of them? It was confusing.
Nate doubted he could turn and run to the Jeep and get it started before the three pickups converged on him. Plus, he refused to be run down like a dog or shot in the back.
So he set his feet into a shooting stance and squared his shoulders. Tiny beads of volcanic silica crunched under his boots as he got ready.
He knew what he had to do. He had no choice.
• • •
NATE DID THE MATH. Three drivers, three or four armed passengers in the back of each pickup. Actually, the lead truck had four in the back and two in the cab, he now saw. So as many as eighteen armed men.
He had ten live rounds before he had to reload. And by then, they’d be on top of him.
He reached across his body with both hands and pulled his weapons. With the muzzles pointed down, he thumbed back the hammers.
The trucks were now fifty yards away and closing fast. The morning air was filled with the sound of shouting men—Nate recognized the language and what they were yelling—and the snapping metal-on-metal snicks of semiautomatic rifles being armed.
The sun lit up their olive-colored faces and electrified the barrels of their weapons. Most wore black beards. He knew the driver of the lead pickup, and he thought he shouldn’t have been surprised it was him.
Nate awoke with a start and a shout and sat bolt upright in bed. His eyes were wide and his bare skin was beaded with sweat. Strands of his long blond hair stuck to his neck and shoulders.
Olivia Brannan turned around from where she’d been packing a suitcase that was sitting on an old pine dresser. She’d chosen not to turn on the light so as not to disturb him while he slept, and she’d been using the ambient light from the hallway to see.
“Are you okay, babe?” she asked, arching her eyebrows.
“I had a bad dream,” Nate said, his heart still racing. He realized that both of his fists were clenched around imaginary pistol grips under the covers. He stretched his fingers out and placed his hands on his knees.
“Obviously. Are you better now?”
“Dandy,” he lied.
“Doesn’t sound like it,” she said.
Liv Brannan spoke with a soft Louisiana cadence that always seemed to wrap him in a warm blanket. Sometimes he asked her questions to which he knew the answers. She was the only woman he’d ever been with whom he encouraged to keep speaking.
“What was it that happened in your dream?” she asked. “You really yelled there. It about scared me half to death.”
“What did I yell?”
Her smile was bright in the dark room. It contrasted with her mocha-colored skin. “Something about ‘Now you’re going to die!’ You know, your usual morning pleasantry.”
Nate rubbed his face with both hands and grunted.
“You haven’t done that for a few months,” she said, concerned. “I thought you were getting past all that.”
She turned and put her hands on her slim hips and said, “Tell me about it.”
• • •
WHEN HE WAS THROUGH recounting the dream, she said, “Damn. That’s crazy.”
“What were they shouting at you? The men in the pickups?”
She paused. “‘God is great.’ So this dream of yours took place in the Middle East?”
“Seems like it,” Nate said. They’d discussed his experiences in Afghanistan when he was a special operator and had been sent to a falconry hunting camp in the desert in 1999. She’d been fascinated to hear about the time he’d had a throwaway discussion with a man in the desert he later learned was Osama bin Laden. Osama was an aficionado of American Western movies and television series. He’d apparently grown up watching them. Nate told her they’d talked about several specific episodes of the Western television show Gunsmoke that they’d both seen in their youth.
“What brought all that back, I wonder?” Liv asked.
Nate shook his head. “It looked and felt like Afghanistan, but it wasn’t Afghanistan. There aren’t any pronghorn antelope or wild horses running around in Afghanistan that I know of. The only wildlife I saw when I was over there were the bustards we were hunting with the royal falcons.”
Bustards are large terrestrial game birds that thrive in the high desert. There’s no similar species in North America. The elaborate desert camp was set up with Bedouin-style tents, luxury SUVs, electric generators, and in the distance a fleet of custom 737s that had delivered the falconers from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Outside each tent were several tall perches for hooded birds. Although Osama bin Laden wasn’t a falconer himself, he had business with the members of the Saudi royal family who were camped there.
Off the Grid by C. J. Box / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes