Game warden Mike Bowditch returns home one evening to find an alarming voice from the past on his answering machine: his father Jack, a hard drinking womanizer who makes his living poaching illegal game. An even more frightening call comes the next morning from the police: they are searching for the man who killed a beloved local cop the night beforeand his father is their prime suspect. Jack has escaped from police custody, and only Mike believes that his tormented father might not be guilty.
Now, alienated from the woman he loves, shunned by colleagues who have no sympathy for the suspected cop-killer, Mike must come to terms with his haunted past. He knows firsthand Jack's brutality, but is the man capable of murder? Desperate and alone, he strikes up an uneasy alliance with a retired warden pilot, and together the two men journey deep into the Maine wilderness in search of a runaway fugitive. But the only way for Mike to save his father is to find the real killerwhich could mean putting everyone he loves in the line of fire.
The Poacher's Son is a sterling debut of literary suspense. Taut and engrossing, it represents the first in a series featuring Mike Bowditch.
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The Poacher's Son
By Paul Doiron
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Paul Doiron
All rights reserved.
A black bear had gotten into a pigpen out on the Beechwood Road, and it had run off with a pig. There were bear tracks in the mud outside the broken fence and drag marks that led through the weeds into the second-growth timber behind the farm. The man who owned the pig stood behind me as I shined my flashlight on the empty pen. He had called me out of bed to drive over here, and his voice over the phone had been thin and breathless, as if he'd just run up a hill.
"Warden Bowditch," he said, "I never seen nothing like it."
His graying hair was wet from the rain that had just stopped falling. He wore an old undershirt stretched tight over his swollen belly and a pair of wash-faded jeans that hugged his hips and exposed an inch of white skin above the waistband. He carried a .22 caliber rifle over his shoulder, and he was holding a sixteen-ounce can of Miller High Life. His eyes were as red as a couple of smashed grapes.
It was a hot, humid night in early August. The thunderstorm that had just finished drenching midcoast Maine, five hours north of Boston, was moving quickly out to sea. A quarter moon kept appearing and disappearing behind raggedy, fast-moving clouds that trailed behind the storm like the tail of a kite. Crickets chirruped by the hundreds from the wet grass, and far off in the pines I heard a great horned owl.
The bear had clawed apart the plank fence as if it were a dollhouse, leaving a pile of splintered boards where the gate had been.
"Tell me what happened, Mr. Thompson," I said, moving the beam of the flashlight over the puddled ground.
"Call me Bud."
"What happened, Bud?"
"That bear just scooped him up like he was a rag doll."
I shined the light against the farmhouse. It was a clapboard frame building with a broken-backed barn that looked about to collapse and a chicken coop and toolshed out back. Behind the house was a dense stand of second-growth birch and alder with pine woods beyond. The bear had only to cross thirty feet of open field to get to the pigpen.
"You said you saw the bear attack him?"
"Heard it first. I was inside watching the TV when Pork Chop started screaming. I mean squealing. But you know it sounded like screaming." He slapped a mosquito on his neck. "Anyhow, I looked out the window, but it was raining, and I couldn't see a damned thing on account of how dark it was. Then I heard wood snapping and Pork Chop screaming and I grabbed my gun and came running out here in the rain. That's when I seen it."
Now that I was close to him I could smell the heavy surge of beer on his breath. "Go on."
"Well, it was a bear. A big one. I didn't know there were bears that big around here. It was reaching over the fence with its paw, leaning on the fence, and the boards were just snapping under its weight. And poor Pork Chop was back in the corner, trying to get away, but it wasn't any use. The bear just hooked him with its claws and pulled him in."
"How come you didn't shoot it?"
"That's the thing of it. I did, but I must have forgot to load the gun." He rubbed his hand across his wet eyes and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "It wouldn't have really attacked me, would it?"
"I doubt it." There are no recorded reports of fatal black bear attacks on humans in the state of Maine, but I'd read of fatalities in Ontario and Quebec, and it was probably only a matter of time until something happened here. "You were right not to provoke it, though. If you'd shot the bear with a .22 you probably wouldn't have killed it, and there's nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal."
Except a drunk with a gun, said a voice in my head.
"I loved that pig." He swung the rifle off his shoulder and held it up by the strap. "I wish I'd shot that son of a bitch."
"You shouldn't handle a firearm when you've been drinking, Bud."
"He was the smartest pig I ever had!"
I raised my flashlight so the beam caught him in the eyes. "Do you live alone here?"
Whether it was the light or the question that sobered him I don't know, but he blinked and ran his tongue along his cracked lower lip and looked at me with renewed attention.
"My wife's moved out for a while," he said. "But she'll be back before too long." His expression turned pleading. "You don't need to talk to her, do you?"
"No. I just wondered if anyone else saw what happened."
He scratched the mosquito bite on his neck. "I got an old dog inside. But he's deaf and just about blind."
"I meant another person. You said you hadn't seen the bear around here before. Is that right?"
"I didn't even know there were bears this near the coast. You don't think it'll come back here, do you?"
"Probably not, since you don't have another pig. But I see you keep some hens." I gestured with my flashlight toward the chicken coop, using the beam to draw his attention. "The bear might come back for the hens, although I doubt it will. Why don't you go inside and put that gun away. I want to take a look in the woods."
He glanced at the trees and shivered. "Be careful!"
I watched him shuffle away into the house, head hanging, beer in hand. No wonder his wife left him, I thought. Then I remembered my own empty bed back home and I stopped feeling so superior. Sarah had been gone exactly fifty-five days. Earlier, I'd gone to bed thinking that it would be fifty-six days when I woke up, but that was before Thompson called. So here it was fifty-five days again.
I got to work measuring the paw prints in the mud. They resembled the tracks a barefoot person might leave walking along a beach. Judging by the distance between the front and hind feet, I figured it was a medium-sized bear, two hundred pounds or so.
I followed the drag marks through the field, and the rainwater that clung to the weeds soaked through my pants legs. The trail disappeared into the low bushes—scrub birch and speckled alder and sumac—that grew along the edge of the forest. I directed my light into the wet mass of leaves, half-expecting to see the beam reflected back by the eye shine of the bear's retinas.
Thompson's description suggested a curious young bear expanding its diet from berries and beechnuts to the other white meat. Probably the animal was miles away by now, having gorged itself on Thompson's beloved pig. Still, I found myself listening for anything to indicate the bear might be nearby. A mosquito whined in my ear. Ahead of me and all around, I heard trees dripping in the darkness. Switching the flashlight from my right hand to my left, I reached down to touch the grip of my sidearm. It was a heavy SIG SAUER P226 .357 Magnum that I had never fired except at a practice range.
I pushed my way into the forest. Beaded rainwater spilled off the leaves onto my shoulders and face. I was drenched in an instant.
After a few steps, I was through the green wall of bushes and saplings at the edge of the wood. Beneath the trees the air was still and heavy with the smell of growing things—as humid as a hothouse. I made an arc with the bull's-eyed flashlight beam along the forest floor, looking for drag marks. But the soft carpet of moss and pine needles had absorbed all traces of the bear's passing, and I saw no more blood drops. I wandered deeper into the woods, searching.
I found the pig a hundred yards in.
It lay on its side in a puddle of congealing blood. Its throat had been torn out, and its haunches had been chewed to a red pulp. The bear had not attempted to bury the carcass or cover it with leaves. It was possible it had heard me coming.
I switched off the flashlight and stood under the dripping trees, listening. I knew retired game wardens and ancient trappers who could hear the rustle a buck made passing through alders across a stream. Men who were so at one with the woods that they didn't fully exist among other human beings but were only truly themselves outdoors. Maybe someday I'd be one of those old woodsmen. But for the moment I was still a twenty-four-year-old rookie, less than a year on the job, and my senses told me nothing about where the bear was.
I turned the flashlight back on. Then I went up to the house to tell poor Bud Thompson what I had found.
By the time I got home it was well past midnight. I'd left the light on outside the screen door and moths were swirling about, butting themselves stupidly against the glass.
As I stepped inside, I was surprised again by my empty house. Sarah had taken most of the furniture with her when she moved out. It always startled me, coming home, to see how little I actually owned. Stacks of books and newspapers, a steel gun cabinet, fallen antlers I had collected in the snow.
Moonlight shined in through the windows, bright enough to see by, so I left the lights off as I moved through the house, shedding my damp shirt and boots as I went. I unbuckled my gun belt and put it away, then wandered into the kitchen. Frosty light spilled out of the refrigerator when I swung the door open. I found a bottle of beer and pressed it against my forehead as I made my way out into the living room.
I cracked open the beer and toasted Bud Thompson and Mike Bowditch—two womenless men dousing our loneliness with alcohol. Except that unlike Thompson, I had chosen to be alone. An empty house was what I'd wanted all along, even if it had taken Sarah years to realize it.
She'd hung in there with me from Colby College, where we'd met, through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and the Advanced Warden Academy and my long weeks of field training. She'd toughed it out, thinking it was a phase I was going through, that eventually I'd go to law school like we'd talked about and become a prosecutor and maybe someday a judge. But it wasn't a phase, and it was only after I had gotten posted in coastal Knox County that she realized that being a game warden was a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week way of life, and for reasons neither of us fully understood, I'd chosen it over her.
So she left.
And I missed her—and counted the days since she'd gone away. But I was relieved, too. Relieved that I no longer had to justify my emotions to anyone else. I could spend the night alone in the woods searching for a dead pig and be content in a way that made absolutely no sense to anyone who wasn't a game warden. With Sarah gone, I could love this solitary and morbid profession without excuses and not have to look too deeply into the dark of myself.
That was when I noticed a small blinking light across the room.
It hadn't occurred to me to check my answering machine. I'd been gone only an hour and a half, and most everyone I knew had my pager number if they needed to get a hold of me. My first thought was that it had something to do with the bear. Maybe someone else had seen it outside their house, or maybe it had gotten into another pigpen.
When I pushed play there was the raspy sound of breathing on the other end for a while before a man finally spoke: "Mike? Hello? Pick up if you're there." There was a long pause. Then, in the background, came a woman's voice: "Is he there?" The man said: "No, goddamn it! He's not home!" Followed by a disconnect.
I didn't recognize the woman, but the other voice was deep and monotone, just like mine, and hearing it again after two years was enough to start my pulse racing. Why was my father calling after all this time? What could he possibly want from me now?
I stood still in the dark while the tape rewound.CHAPTER 2
My father made his living in the Maine North Woods. In the cold-weather months he cut birches and maples for logging companies, snapped the boughs off fir trees to make Christmas wreaths, and ran a trap line for beaver, muskrat, and mink. In the spring and summer he did some guiding for a hunting and fishing camp up at Rum Pond near the Canadian border. All told, I doubted he earned more than twenty grand a year—not counting whatever he brought in poaching. But it was the life he'd chosen for himself and, ultimately, none of my business.
He'd grown up in the remote logging town of Flagstaff, the son of a U.S. Border Patrol agent and his Quebec-born wife, and from what I heard he was a gifted student and promising athlete. Vietnam changed all that. After boot camp, he joined the Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment and did two tours in the jungle with a long-range recon patrol unit. Then an NVA grenade sent him home with shrapnel scars across his back and shoulders. In Maine, the Purple Heart qualified him as a hero, but people in Flagstaff said they no longer recognized him as the same sweet and shy Jack Bowditch he'd once been.
After the war he held down jobs at paper mills and trucking companies, never for very long, but long enough to convince my mother he had prospects he never really had. She left him after nine on-and-off years of marriage, moved south with me in tow, and got remarried to a better man than my father could ever be.
What her leaving did to him, I can only guess. For years he'd functioned more or less as part of society, but after my grandparents died and my mom left, his drinking got worse and his impatience with the failings of other human beings hardened into something like contempt. Now he tended to live as far from people as possible, wherever the trees were thick.
The last time I saw him, I got my face smashed in a backwoods bar fight.
It was the summer after Colby. My dad didn't show up for graduation, which was just as well, because I knew there'd be an argument if my stepfather was around, and I didn't want them making a scene. But a few weeks later Sarah and I decided to drive to Rangeley to do some fly-fishing. She'd always wanted to meet my dad, and since he was living at Rum Pond, which was more or less on the way, I couldn't think of a way to squirm out of it. So I gave him a call, and we arranged to get together for beers at a place called the Dead River Inn near Flagstaff.
It turned out to be a northwoodsy sort of tavern—cedar logs, deer heads—attached to an old hotel. It wasn't as seedy as most of my father's watering holes, but it was a Saturday night, there were a dozen motorcycles outside, and the stares that followed Sarah through the door made me think of broken bottles and bloody fists.
My father sat at the end of the bar with a shot of whiskey and a long-necked beer in front of him. He wore a flannel shirt and Carhartt work pants, and his boots were caked with mud. His thickly muscled body—a solid fifty pounds heavier than my own—seemed too big for the stool on which he was balanced. As always, his hair and beard were wild as if they never knew a comb. But every woman I knew seemed to find him dashingly handsome.
"Dad," I said. "This is Sarah Harris."
The way he looked her up and down, it was as if he were trying to breathe her in. Not that I could blame him. Sarah was wearing a sleeveless top and hiking shorts that showed off her tanned legs. Her short blond hair was swept back behind her ears, and her heartshaped face was shining from days in the sun.
"Mike's told me a lot about you," she lied.
"Don't believe a word of it," he said, taking her small hand in his rough paws.
We found a seat at a round oak table in a dark corner of the bar. There was a little oil lamp in the center with a dancing flame that gave all our faces a golden cast. My father ordered us beers and another shot of Jim Beam for himself.
"You want one?" he asked.
He snorted. He didn't think it was much of an excuse.
Sarah glanced back and forth between us with a big smile. "I see where Mike gets his blue eyes."
"I guess the kid turned out OK," he said with a wink. "But he didn't get all his old man's best parts."
"Mike says you work at a sporting lodge," she said.
"I do some guiding over to Rum Pond. I don't suppose you like to fish."
"We're headed over to Rangeley tonight," I said.
"Yeah?" He looked over my head into the crowd.
"We're going to start at the Kennebago and then fish the Magalloway."
"Sounds good," he said absently.
Sarah and I turned around in our seats to see what he was looking at. At the bar a stumpy man with a shaved head and a bushy black goatee was staring at us. He wore a camouflage T-shirt stretched tight across his thick chest. There was a strange smile—almost a smirk—on his face. He raised a glass of beer in our direction.
Excerpted from The Poacher's Son by Paul Doiron. Copyright © 2010 Paul Doiron. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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