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       Blood Trail, p.1

           C. J. Box
 
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Blood Trail


  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Acknowledgements

  ALSO BY C. J. BOX

  Blue Heaven

  Free Fire

  In Plain Sight

  Out of Range

  Trophy Hunt

  Winterkill

  Savage Run

  Open Season

  G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS

  Publishers Since 1838

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York

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  Copyright © 2008 by C. J. Box

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned,

  or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do

  not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation

  of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Box, C. J.

  Blood trail / C. J. Box.

  p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-1-429-57822-6

  1. Pickett, Joe (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Game wardens—Fiction.

  3. Hunters—Crimes against—Fiction. 4. Wyoming—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3552.087658B

  813É.54—dc22

  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.

  http://us.penguingroup.com

  For Roxanne...

  And Laurie, always

  Sleep!

  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.

  —GUY SAJER, The Forgotten Soldier

  1

  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 OPEN 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.

  I drop to my knees and elbows and baby-crawl the rest of the way. Elk have a special ability to note movement of any kind on the horizon, and if they see me pop over the crest it will likely spook them. I make sure to have the crown of a pine from the slope I just climbed up behind me, so my silhouette is not framed against the blue-white sky. As I crawl, I smell the damp soil and the slight rotten odor of decomposing leaves and pine needles.

  There are three park-like meadows below me on the saddle slope and the elk are there. The closest bunch, three cows, two calves, and a spike, are no more than 150 yards away. The sun lights their red-brown hides and tan rumps. They are close enough that I can see the highlights of their black eyes as they graze and hear the click of their hooves against stones as they move. To their right, in another park, is a group of eight including the five-by-five. He looks up and his antlers catch the sun and for a moment I hold my breath for fear I’ve been detected. But the big bull lowers his head and continues to chew, stalks of grass bouncing up and down out of the sides of his mouth like cigarettes.

  I let my breath out.

  The big seven-point is at the edge of the third park, at least three hundred yards away. He is half in the sun and half in shadow from the pine trees that border the meadow. His rack of antlers is so big and wide I wonder, as I always do, how it is possible for him even to raise his head, much less run through tight, dark timber. The big bull seems aware of the rest of the herd without actually looking at them. When a calf moves too close to him he woofs without even stopping his meal and the little one wheels and runs back as if stung by a bee.

  The breeze is in my face, so I doubt the elk can smell me. The stalk has been perfect. I revel in the hunt itself, knowing this feeling of silent and pagan celebration is as ancient as man himself but simply not known to anyone who doesn’t hunt. Is there any kind of feeling similar in the world of cities and streets? In movies or the Internet or video games? I don’t think so, because this is real.

  Before pulling the stock of the rifle to my cheek and fitting my eye to the scope, I inch forward and look down the slope just below me that has been previously out of my field of vision. The sensation is like that of sliding the cover off a steaming pot to see what is inside. I can feel my insides clench and my heart beat faster.

  There he is. I see the broad back of his coat clearly, as well as his blaze-orange hat. He is sighting the elk through his rifle scope. He is hidden behind a stand of thick red buckbrush so the elk can’t see him. He’s been tracking the big bull since an hour before dawn through the meadow, up the slope, over the ridge. Those were his tracks I’ve been following. He is crouched behind the brush, a dark green nylon daypack near his feet. He is fifty yards away.

  I settle to the ground, wriggling my legs and groin so I am in full contact. The coldness of the ground seeps through my clothes and I can feel it steady me, comfort me, cool me down. I thumb the safety off my rifle and pull the hard varnished stock against my cheek and lean into the scope with both eyes open.

  The side of his face fills the scope, the crosshairs on his graying temple. He still has the remains of what were once mutton-chop sideburns. His face and hands are older than I recall, wrinkled some, mottled with age spots. The wedding band he once wore is no longer there, but I see where it has created a permanent trough in the skin around his finger. He is still big, tall, and wide. If he laughs I would see, once again, the oversized teeth with the glint of gold crowns in the back of his mouth and the way his eyes narrow into slits, as if he couldn’t look and laugh at the same time.

  I keep the crosshairs on his temple. He seems to sense that something is wrong. His face twitches, and for a moment he sits back and looks to his right and left to see if he can see what, or who, is watching him. This has happened before with the others. They seem to know but at the same time they won’t concede. When he sits back I lower the crosshairs to his heart. He never looks directly at me, so I don’t have to fire.

  I wait until he apparently concludes that it was just a strange feeling, and leans forward into his scope again, waiting for the seven-point bull to turn just right so he offers a clean, full-body shot. My aim moves with him.

  I raise the crosshairs from his heart to his neck just below his jawbone and squeeze the trigger.

  There is a moment when a shot is fired by a high-powered hunting rifle when the view through the scope is nothing more than a flash of deep orange and the barrel kicks up. For that moment, you don’t know if you hit what you were aiming at or what you will see when you look back down the rifle at your target. The gunpowder smell is sharp and pungent and the boom of the shot itself rockets through the timber and finally rolls back in echo form like a clap of thunder. There is the woofing and startled grunts of a herd of elk as they panic as one and run toward the trees. The seven-by-seven is simply gone. From the blan
ket of trees, birds fly out like shooting sparks.

  Here’s what I know:

  I am a hunter, a bestower of dignity.

  2

  JOE PICKET T was stranded on the roof of his new home. It was the first Saturday in October, and he was up there to fix dozens of T-Lock shingles that had blown loose during a seventy-five-mile-per-hour windstorm that had also knocked down most of his back fence and sandblasted the paint off his shutters. The windstorm had come rocketing down the eastern slope of the mountains during the middle of the night and hit town like an airborne tsunami, snapping off the branches of hoary cottonwoods onto power lines and rolling cattle semitrucks off the highway and across the sagebrush flats like empty beer cans. For the past month since the night of the windstorm, the edges of loosened shingles flapped on the top of his house with a sound like a deck of playing cards being shuffled. Or that’s how his wife, Marybeth, described it since Joe had rarely been home to hear it and hadn’t had a day off to repair the damage since it happened. Until today.

  He had awakened his sixteen-year-old daughter, Sheridan, a sophomore at Saddlestring High, and asked her to hold the rickety wooden ladder steady while he ascended to the roof. It had bent and shivered as he climbed, and he feared his trip down. Since it was just nine in the morning, Sheridan hadn’t been fully awake and his last glimpse of her when he looked down was of her yawning with tangles of blond hair in her eyes. She stayed below while he went up and he couldn’t see her. He assumed she’d gone back inside.

  There had been a time when Sheridan was his constant companion, his assistant, his tool-pusher, when it came to chores and repairs. She was his little buddy, and she knew the difference between a socket and a crescent wrench. She kept up a constant patter of questions and observations while he worked, even though she sometimes distracted him. It was silent now. He’d foolishly thought she’d be eager to help him since he’d been gone so much, forgetting she was a teenager with her own interests and a priority list where “helping Dad” had dropped very low. That she’d come outside to hold the ladder was a conscious acknowledgment of those old days, and that she’d gone back into the house was a statement of how it was now. It made him feel sad, made him miss how it once had been.

 
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