Winterkill (Joe Pickett Series #3)by C. J. Box
Joe Pickett's pursuit of a killer through the rugged mountains of Wyoming takes a horrifying turn when his beloved foster daughter is kidnapped. Now it's personal.
"Winterkill proves that Box...is one of the best new voices in the mystery game. [It's] a full-fledged thriller, Wyoming style."—Rocky Mountain News
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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...
Joe 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 that an entire herd of elk had exposed themselves above him in a clearing. Joe sat in his pickup in silence and waited.
With 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 three 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 sidearm 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.
There 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.
Gardiner shook his head slowly, hot tears welling in his eyes. With a trembling hand, he patted his right shirt pocket. "Bullets," he said. Then he patted his left. "Marlboros. I guess I got them mixed up."
Joe grimaced. Watching Lamar Gardiner fall apart was not something he enjoyed. "I guess you did, Lamar."
"You aren't really going to arrest me, are you, Joe?" Gardiner said. "That would mean my career. Carrie might leave me and take my daughter if that happened."
Joe eased the hammer down on his Beretta and lowered it. Over the years he had certainly cited people he knew, but this was different. Gardiner was a public official, someone who made rules and regulations for the citizens of the valley from behind a big oak desk. He wasn't someone who broke the law, or, to Joe's knowledge, even bent it. Gardiner would lose his job, all right, although Joe didn't know his family situation well enough to predict what Carrie Gardiner would do. Lamar was a career federal bureaucrat, and highly paid compared to most residents of Saddlestring. He probably wasn't many years away from retirement and all of the benefits that went with it.
The bleating of the wounded calf, however, brought Joe back to the scene in the meadow. The calf, its spine broken by a bullet, pawed the ground furiously, trying to stand. His back legs were splayed behind him on the grass like a frog's, and they wouldn't respond. Past him, steam rose from the ballooning, exposed entrails of a cow elk that had been gut-shot.
Joe leveled his gaze at Gardiner's unfocused eyes. "I'm arresting you for at least a half-dozen counts of wanton destruction, which carries a fine of a thousand dollars per animal as well as possible jail time, Lamar. You may also lose your equipment and all hunting privileges. There may be other charges as well. Given how I usually treat slob hunters like yourself, you're getting off real easy."
Gardiner burst into tears and dropped to his knees with a wail that chilled Joe to his soul.
And just like that, the snow began to fall. The barrage had begun.
Walking through the heavy snowfall in the meadow with his .270 rifle and his camera, Joe Pickett killed the calf with a point-blank head shot and moved on to the other wounded animals. Afterward, he photographed all of the carcasses. Lamar Gardiner, who now sat weeping in Joe's pickup, had shot seven elk: two bulls, three cows, and two calves.
Joe had locked Gardiner's rifle in the metal evidence box in the back of his truck, and he'd taken Gardiner's keys. In the bronze pickup were a half-empty bottle of tequila on the front seat and several empty Coors Light beer cans on the floor. The cab reeked of the sweet smell of tequila.
Although he had heard of worse incidents, this was as bad as anything Joe had personally witnessed. Usually when too many game animals were shot, there were several hunters shooting into a herd and none of them counting. Although it was technically illegal for a hunter to down any game other than his or her own, "party" hunting was fairly common. But for one man to open up indiscriminately on an entire herd...this was remarkable and disturbing.
The carnage was sickening. The damage a high-powered rifle bullet could do when badly placed was awful.
Equally tragic, in Joe's mind, was the fact that there were too many animals for him to load into his pickup to take back to town. The elk averaged more than 400 pounds, and even with Gardiner's help, they could only load two of the carcasses at most into the back of his vehicle. That meant that most of them would be left for at least one night, and could be scavenged by predators. He hated to see so much meat-more than 2,000 pounds-go to waste when it could be delivered to the halfway house, the county jail for prisoners, or to people on the list of the county's needy families that his wife Marybeth had compiled. Despite the number of dead elk to take care of, the sudden onslaught of the storm meant one thing: get off the mountain.
By the time he got back to his pickup and Lamar Gardiner, Joe was seriously out of sorts.
"How bad is it?" Gardiner asked.
Joe glared. Gardiner seemed to be asking about something he wasn't directly involved in.
"Bad," Joe said, swinging into the cab of the pickup. Maxine, who had been with Joe and was near-delirious from sniffing the musky scents of the downed elk, jumped reluctantly into the back of the pickup, her regular seat occupied by Lamar Gardiner.
"Help me field-dress and load two of these elk," Joe said, starting the motor.
"That'll take about an hour, if you'll help. Maybe less if you'll just stay the hell out of the way. Then I'm taking you in, Lamar."
Gardiner grunted as if he'd been punched in the stomach, and his head flopped back in despair. --from Winterkill: A Novel by C. J. Box, copyright © 2003 C. J. Box, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
What People are saying about this
"Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett strides in big boots over the ruggedly gorgeous landscape of C.J. Box's outdoor mysteries." —New York Times Book Reviews
"Winterkill proves that Box...is one of the best new voices in the mystery game. [It's] a full-fledged thriller, Wyoming style."—Rocky Mountain News
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