In 1995, Nate Romanowski was in a Special Forces unit abroad when his commander, John Nemecek, did something terrible. Now the high-ranking government official and cold-blooded sociopath is determined to eliminate anyone who knows about it—like Nate, who’s hidden himself away in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. And he knows exactly how Nemecek will do it—by targeting Nate's friends to draw him out. That includes his friend, game warden Joe Pickett, and Pickett’s entire family. The only way to fight back is outside the law. Nate knows he can do it, but he isn't sure about his straight-arrow friend. And all their lives could depend on it.
ONE OF LIBRARY JOURNAL’S BEST MYSTERIES OF THE YEAR
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FORCE OF NATURE
ALSO BY C. J. BOX
THE JOE PICKETT NOVELS
Nowhere to Run
In Plain Sight
Out of Range
THE STAND-ALONE NOVELS
Back of Beyond
Three Weeks to Say Goodbye
FORCE OF NATURE
For Gordon Crawford, falconer
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Table of Contents
THE MORNING AFTER
HIS NAME WAS Dave Farkus, and he’d recently taken up fly-fishing as a way to meet girls. So far, it hadn’t worked out very well.
It was late October, one of those wild fall days containing a fifty-five-degree swing from dawn to dusk, and Farkus stood mid-thigh in waders in the Twelve Sleep River that coursed through the town of Saddlestring, Wyoming. River cottonwoods were so drunk with color the leaves hurt his eyes.
Farkus was short and wiry, with muttonchop sideburns and a slack expression on his face. He’d parked his pickup under the bridge and waded out into the river at mid-morning just as a late-fall Trico hatch created clouds of insects that billowed like terrestrial clouds along the surface of the water. A few trout were rising for them, slurping them down, but he hadn’t hooked one yet. Trico flies were not only tiny and hard to tie on his line, they were difficult to see on the water.
He was at wits’ end since he’d relocated to the Twelve Sleep Valley from southern Wyoming.
He’d landed in Saddlestring with no job, and he didn’t intend to look for one, except the damned natural-gas pipeline company was challenging his disability payments, claiming he’d never really been injured. And his ex-wife, Ardith, had contacted a lawyer about several missed alimony payments and was threatening to take him back to court.
FARKUS WAS intently aware of each car that sizzled by on the bridge over his shoulder. When he heard a car slow down to look at him, he made a long useless cast that, he hoped, looked practiced and elegant, as though he was Brad Pitt’s double in the movie A River Runs Through It. He wondered how long it would be before a pretty doe-eyed twentysomething tourist would come down to the river and ask for a lesson. But he was starting to believe it would never happen.
He tied on a new fly—something puffy and white that he could see on the water—and felt the power of the current push against his legs.
That’s when he heard, upriver, the distinctive hollow pock sound of a drift boat striking a rock.
He barely looked up, so intent was he on tying the nearly invisible thin tippet through the loop of his fly. Drift boats filled with fishermen were common on the river. There were several commercial guide operations in town, and it seemed like every other home in Saddle-string had a drift boat on a trailer parked in front of it. The river was shallow because it was late fall and water was at a premium, and it wasn’t unusual for guides to miscalculate and hit a rock.
But when he heard a series of mishaps—pock-pock-pock, rock-rock-rock—he glanced up from his knot.
The white fiberglass drift boat was coming right at him, sidewise, bumping along the river rocks in a shallow current. No one was at the oars. In fact, no one seemed to be in the boat at all.
Farkus squinted and cursed. If the boat continued on its path it would hit him, maybe knock him right off his feet. Farkus couldn’t swim, and if his waders filled with water and he was sucked into that deep pool under the bridge …
He uneasily shuffled a few steps back. The river rocks were slick and the current pushed steadily at his legs. The boat kept coming and seemed to pick up speed. He looked around at the bank, then at the bridge, hoping someone would be there to help. But no one was there.
At the last second, before the boat hit him from the side, Farkus cursed again and managed to turn toward it and brace himself with both feet. His fly rod dropped into the water at his side as he reached out with both hands—“Goddammit!” he cried out—to grasp the gunwales of the oncoming boat and stop its momentum.
The boat thumped heavily against his palms and he felt the soles of his boots slip and he was pushed a few feet backward. Somehow, though, his right boot wedged between two heavy rocks and stopped fast. So did the boat, although he could feel the pressure of it building, wanting to knock him down. He was sick about his lost fly rod, and thought that if nothing else he could wrestle the boat to shore and sell it for three or four grand, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to return it to the idiot who let it get away from him in the first place.
As he stood there in the river, straining against the pressure, he realized it was harder work than it should have been. There was real weight inside the boat, but he was at an angle, bent forward with his head down and his arms straining and outstretched, so he couldn’t rise up and look inside without losing his balance and his footing.
Over the next ten minutes, muscles trembling, he worked the boat downstream and closer to the bank. Finally, he stepped into a back eddy of calmer water with a sandy bottom and pulled the boat into it as well. Sweat coursed down his neck, and his thigh muscles twitched with pain.
Then he looked over the gunwale into the bottom of the boat and said, “Jesus Christ!”
He’d never seen so much blood.
THE EVENING BEFORE
NATE ROMANOWSKI approached the stand of willows from the north with a grim set to his face and a falcon on his fist. Something was going to die.
It was an hour until dusk in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, near the North Fork of the Twelve Sleep River. Storm clouds that had scudded across the big sky all day now bunched to the southeast as if they’d been herded, and they squeezed out intermittent waves of snow pellets that rattled across the dry grass and shivered the dead leaves. A slight breeze hung low to the ground and ferried both the scent of sage and the watery smell of the river through the lowland brush.
The peregrine falcon was blinded with a leather hood topped by a stiff white bristle of pronghorn antelope hair. The bird sat still and upright, secured to the falconer’s hand by thin leather jesses tied to its talons and looped through his gloved fingers. The falcon, Nate thought, was still and regal and hungry—tightly packed natural explosives encased by feathers, just waiting for a fuse to be lit.
Although slightly less than twenty-four inches tall, the female he held, once released, was the fastest species on the planet, capable of speeds during its hunting dive of more than two hundred miles an hour. When it balled its talons and struck a bird in flight with that velocity, the result was a concussive explosion of blood, bones, and feathers that still took Nate’s breath away.
The falcon, like all his raptors over the years, had no name. And every time he released one to hunt there was a chance she would fly away and simply never return.
He slowed his pace and listened as he approached the wall of willows. Through the brush was a shallow, spring-fed pond not more than three acres across. It was hard to see from the ground but was obvious from the air, and it was the only substantial body of water for miles around except for the river itself. Therefore, it attracted passing waterfowl. And when the breeze shifted he could hear them: the rhythmic, almost subsonic clucking of paddling ducks. The peregrine heard them, too, and responded with an instinctive tightening of her talons on his hand.
Nate raised the bird so he could whisper directly into her hood, “They’re here.”
NATE WAS TALL and ropy, with long limbs and icy blue eyes set in a hawklike wind-burned face. The hair he’d cut and dyed months before was growing back long and blond but hadn’t reached its customary ponytail length. He wore stained camo cargo pants, laced outfitter boots, a faded U.S. Air Force Academy hooded sweatshirt, and a thick canvas Carhartt vest. Strapped to his rib cage on his left side, between the sweatshirt and the vest, was a scoped five-shot .500 Wyoming Express revolver. A three-inch braid of jet-black human hair was attached to the thick muzzle by a leather string.
He reached across his body with his right hand and gently untied the falcon’s hood and slipped it off. The peregrine cocked her head at him for a moment, then returned to profile. The single eye he could see was black, piercing, and soulless—the amoral eye of a killer.
Nate opened his left hand to free the jesses, and raised her up. Her wings unfurled and stretched out for a moment, then her talons bunched and pushed off his glove. He turned his face away as he was pummeled with thumping blasts of air from her beating wings and brushes of her wingtips. The first moment of flight was ungainly; she dropped slightly and thrashed to the left, the jesses swinging through the air, her feet long and extended, until she found invisible purchase and began to rise. She cleared the tops of the willows ahead by inches.
The falcon climbed in circles that were tight at first and then larger as she rose above the treetops and found a current. Then, as if she’d burned through the first stage of a booster rocket, she catapulted into the sky.
THE PAST MONTH had been spent in a state of training and trepidation, ever since his longtime colleague Large Merle had shown up gutted at his front door. Nate had transported all seven feet and four hundred fifty pounds of Merle toward the town of Saddlestring in his Jeep, with his friend gasping for breath through chattering teeth. The last thing Large Merle had said before he collapsed was: “The Five. They’ve deployed.”
Nate knew exactly what that meant. The showdown he’d been anticipating for years was at hand, and Merle was the latest victim. Large Merle had died with a moaning death rattle five miles out of town, and Nate had flipped a U-turn and returned to his stone house on the banks of the North Fork. He’d said a few private words over the body and had it shipped via Freightliner to Merle’s only living relative, a sister in North Dakota. Then he began to prepare for visitors.
THE PEREGRINE FALCON was little more than a pinprick in the sky, a tiny black speck set against roiling thunderheads. Nate watched the bird circle in the ellipse of a lazy thermal spiral. The falcon was so high in the air it took a knowing eye to see it. But the ducks knew the falcon was there because none had attempted to fly.
Nate nodded to himself and tugged on the end of an empty burlap sack he’d tucked through his belt. He flipped the sack over his shoulder to keep it out of the way, and approached the willows in silence.
Before he entered the brush, he paused and looked over his shoulder and scanned the terrain. His small house was far below in the river valley, his Jeep parked next to it. The old structure was bordered by massive old river cottonwood trees with gnarled gray bark and skeletal limbs. Because most of the leaves were gone, he could see his clapboard mews for housing falcons, and an upturned flat-bottomed boat on the bank of the river he used for crossing. On the east side of the North Fork, a steep red wall rose sixty feet into the air. The top was flat and dotted with scrub. Beyond the flat the country rose at a gentle pitch in a series of waves and folds until it melded into the multicolor pockets of aspen and then the dark timber fringe of the mountains. Rounded peaks above the timberline were dusted with the fresh first snow of the fall.
To the west was an undulating treeless sagebrush flat that continued for miles. A single two-track road cut through the sagebrush and meandered its way through cuts and draws to the stone house. There was no other way in, and if someone was coming he could see them from miles away. On the sides of the sections of road out of his vision, he’d installed motion-detection sensors and hidden closed-circuit cameras that would broadcast images of visitors into his house well before he could see them with his naked eye or through his binoculars.
From his vantage point on the plateau where the willows hid the pond, Nate noted how the river had risen. Although there had been little rain and only a few bursts of fall snow, the thirst of the river cottonwoods for water had subsided as the trees withdrew their appetite and focused inward, preparing for winter. Without thousands of trees sucking water from the Twelve Sleep, the level of the river rose high enough to be navigable again.
All was quiet and still in every direction.
Nate turned back around, reached out and parted the stiff willow branches, and stepped inside.
AS THE BRUSH closed around him he could no longer see the peregrine, but he knew she was there by the nervous tittering of the ducks ahead. The ducks weren’t alarmed because of his presence or the noise he was making as he pushed through the willows, but because of the falcon in the sky.
He sensed an opening through the branches a moment before he was knee-deep in stagnant water. The bottom of the pond was silty beneath his boots but solid underneath, and with a few more steps he was waist-deep in the pond as mallard and teal ducks scattered in his path, motoring across the surface of the water and sending the alarm to the entire population of twenty or twenty-five ducks. The silt he’d disturbed underfoot plumed through the dark pond water and turned it the color of chocolate milk near his legs.
But not one of the ducks took flight. Nate smiled to himself as he beheld one of nature’s brilliant secrets.
For ducks, geese, and other waterfowl, the very silhouette of a peregrine falcon in the sky—even if they’d never encountered one before—was deeply imprinted into their collective psyche. They knew somehow the predator thousands of feet in the air would kill them in an instant if they became airborne, just like they somehow knew the falcon would not hit them on the ground or on the surface of the water. So as long as the ducks didn’t fly, they were safe. Their instinct was so ingrained that it superseded even his own intrusion into their world.
He waded across the pond with the burlap sack and gathered up four mallard drakes and dropped them inside as if selecting ripe zucchini. As he chose them, the others swam away and bunched against the reeds, practically climbing over one another to get away. Four was enough, he thought, for two good meals and duck soup later. He’d use the wings as lures for falconry exercises and the feathers as stuffing for training dummies.
Knotting the open end of the sack, Nate waded across the pond and grabbed a fat mallard hen from the flock. As he lifted the bird, her bright orange feet windmilled under her belly, as if she was trying to run through the air. Droplets of pond water beaded on her feathers.
He leaned back and looked up into the sky and held the duck out from his body in full view. Peregrines had incredible eyesight, and he could almost sense the falcon locking in on him and the object in his hand.
Nate drew the hen in close and said, “God bless you and thank you,” something he always said to wild creatures before he took an action that would result in their death, then hurled the duck into the air, where it had no option but to fly or drop back to the earth like a rock.
He called out: “For my hunting partner.”
The duck came alive with a burst of energy, and started to climb. It flew horizontal and fast, skirting the top of the brush in a mad dash toward the far river.
Hundreds of feet above, in a move made silent by its distance, the peregrine deftly shrugged out of the thermal, tucked its wings tight against its body, balled its talons so they resembled twin hammers, and began to drop headfirst through the sky.
Nate could hear it coming as it shot earthward like a missile. The sound was a kind of high-pitched whistle that increased in volume as it built up velocity.
He glanced over toward the retreating duck. The hen had cleared the willows and was aiming for the river valley, its wings beating so fast they were blurs. It didn’t fly in a straight line but seemed to know its only chance was to feint and zigzag through the air.
Somehow, while dropping through the sky at incredible speed, the peregrine homed in on the flying duck and was able to make microscopic flight adjustments in its stoop attack so that when the two objects intersected—with an audible whap sound and an explosion of feathers that seemed to fill the sky—Nate took a sharp intake of breath and almost fell back into the water from the sheer bloody beauty of it all.
AS HE MADE his way down the slope toward the river with the sack of wriggling mallards, he paused next to the peregrine. The falcon was eating the remains of the dead duck. Flesh, guts, bones, and feathers filled its gullet to the size of a billiard ball, and its hooked beak was shiny with bright red blood. The bird paused and looked up, their eyes locked, something was exchanged, then the falcon resumed eating.
Nate untied the sack and reached in and grasped a drake by its neck and pulled it out. He cinched the top to contain the others and stashed the sack of live ducks beneath a mountain ash tree and weighted it with a rock. He would have the duck for dinner. This completed the circle—hunt, kill, eat—and always reminded him he was of the natural world and not simply striding atop it.
KNEE-DEEP in the cold water, Nate wrung the neck of the duck with a sharp swing of his arm and held it out away from him as its wings beat in death throes. A full gust of wind roared up the river, roiling the surface of the water and shaking the trees. Golden spade-shaped cottonwood leaves fell into the water like upturned palms and bobbed and floated in the current.
He pushed both thumbs through the taut belly skin of the duck and worked them under its breastbone. The blood inside was hot, and the smell was metallic and pungent. With his left hand, he grasped the body of the duck and with his right he broke the entire breast away until it came free. After tossing the carcass toward the bank, he bent and dipped the breast into the water to clean and cool it. Spirals of dark blood snaked between his knees.
The gust of wind played out and silence returned and he thought he heard a sound. Nate looked up at his falcon to see she had stopped eating and was focusing on something upriver. He followed her gaze as the pointed snout of a drift boat emerged from around a grassy bank.
The wind had overridden the distinctive noises of an approaching boat—the slight lapping of the current on the sides of the fiberglass hull, the squeak of oars being dipped through oarlocks, the shuffle of boots on the boat deck, the scrape of a shallow river rock against the flat bottom.
He was caught, he thought. There was no way he could turn and splash toward the shore and find cover before he was seen. Warning jolts fired through his nerves.
His vest was open, and he reached up and slipped the thong loose that secured his .50 caliber weapon in its shoulder holster. Instinctively, he flexed his fingers in and out and stood up tall as the boat made the turn and came into full view. It was a low-profile open McKenzie-style Hyde drift boat, off-white in color, with a green-and-brown horizontal stripe on the side. There were three men in the boat—one standing behind the casting platform in front, one at the oars, and the third seated in the back. The man in back was slumped over and looked to be injured—or sleeping.
“There’s somebody,” the man standing in front said over his shoulder to his companions. Then: “Hey, mister. We’ve got a hurt man here. Can we pull over and call for some help?”
Nate didn’t answer. They certainly weren’t making any effort to sneak up on him. He made several quick determinations. First, the assassins sent for him in the past had been professionals and had come from out of state. These men looked like locals. Second, it was hunting season, and therefore not unusual to see hunters about. Third, he’d been spotted and would have to deal with them one way or the other.
“Hey,” the man in the front of the boat called out, standing and straining forward over the casting platform. “Did you hear me, mister? We need help. We’ve got a hurt man here. …”
Nate could see the boat and the occupants clearly now. The big man in the bow was thick and tall, with a full black beard and hair curling out from beneath an orange cap. Red hands grasped the top of the casting platform so he could lean over it. Dark eyes pierced out from beneath a flat, wide forehead. He wore a camo jacket and black jeans. The orange cap and the tip of the compound bow that jutted above the hull indicated he was a hunter, not a fisherman. Nate thought he’d seen him before and tried to place him.
Seated low in the center of the boat was a hunched younger man with a knob for a head and tiny hands that wrapped around the grips of the oars. He had a couple of fingers missing. Nate guessed the oarsman to be in his mid-twenties, but there was something shrunken and repellent about him. He had a wide nose that had been smashed flat against his face, high cheekbones, and large ears that ended in points: a gargoyle of sorts.
The slumped man in the back wore a thick jacket and a slouch hat, and his head was dropped forward so Nate couldn’t see his face.
“Man, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” the dark man in the front said to Nate, knowing his voice would carry through the quiet valley as if he were standing next to him. “We’ve been looking for someone—anyone—for a while now. We haven’t even seen a house anywhere.”
“There aren’t any,” Nate said.
“No shit,” the gargoyle spat, spinning the boat so the front of it faced the other bank. He began to pull the oars to propel the drift boat toward Nate.
Nate assumed the three men had put their boat in at a public access six miles upriver and had planned to float to another access closer to town. The route was used often in the summer fishing months but rarely in the fall or winter, when the level of the river dropped and the locals turned their attention from fishing to hunting. All of the river miles between the put-in and Nate’s stone house were through private ranch land owned by an out-of-state mogul. The mogul’s house was miles away from the river, tucked in a valley, and it wasn’t likely he would have been home, anyway, even if the men in the boat had gone there. Wyoming law allowed the public to float any river, but it was considered trespassing if the boaters got out or even anchored. The landowners were notorious for prosecuting anyone who pulled ashore, even if the reason was an emergency, so most fishermen chose to float much farther downriver toward Saddlestring, where there was more public land and the fishing was better.
“Do you have a phone we can use?” the man in front asked.
Nate had a satellite phone but ignored the question. He asked, “What’s the problem, anyway?”
“Old Paul,” the dark man said, pointing at the slumping man. “He’s got a bad heart and some kind of nerve condition. He just seized up about an hour ago and started jerking. Shit, he was even foaming at the mouth. He needs to see a doctor fast.”
“He’s my dad,” the gargoyle said with a nasal twang, “and I ain’t gonna lose him.”
Nate noted that Paul still hadn’t moved, and even the shift in the boat hadn’t caused him to lift his head.
As the gargoyle pulled back on the oars and moved the drift boat across the current toward Nate, the dark man in front said, “We seen a few deer but nothing to get excited about. Them damn things just stand in the river while we float right past ’em. We coulda killed a half dozen of them if we’d wanted to.” He laughed. “God, they’re stupid.”
“No,” Nate said, taking a long second look at the big man and seeing a dangerous idiot. “That’s just the way they are.”
Like ducks that wouldn’t fly when a peregrine was above, big-game animals—even during hunting season—didn’t perceive that a threat could come from the water. Nate had harvested deer on the banks or in the river from his own boat. He’d also encountered elk, bears, and moose on the river who watched him float silently by with a mixture of curiosity and familiarity.
“Are you the only one hunting?” Nate asked the dark man as the boat drew closer. The gargoyle and his father weren’t wearing blaze orange, and Nate couldn’t see additional compound bows or hunting rifles in the craft.
“Yeah,” the dark man said. “Stumpy ’n Paul wanted to come along to see a master at work.”
“Shit,” the gargoyle said in response, shaking his head and making a face.
“I know you,” Nate said to the dark man, recalling the circumstances.
“I don’t think so.” The dark man smiled. But his eyes showed sudden caution.
“You’re known as the Mad Archer,” Nate said. “My friend Joe Pickett put you in jail a few years back for shooting wildlife with your bow and leaving the meat.”
The time he’d encountered the Mad Archer, Nate was with the game warden Joe Pickett in northeastern Wyoming. Joe had handcuffed the man to the bumper of his own truck and called another game warden to come out and pick him up. The Mad Archer, Joe had said, was both evil and bloodthirsty. He was suspected of using his arrows to kill dogs and cats as well, and had wounded the dog Joe rescued, a Labrador/corgi mix named Tube. Nate had heard Joe use the Mad Archer’s real name, but he couldn’t remember it.
The man flushed. “That might have been,” he said, “but it was before I went straight. I play by the rules now, man,” he said, gesturing toward his orange hat. He patted his back pocket. “I even got my license back if you want to see it.”
“Show it to Joe,” Nate said as the bow of the boat came within reach. The gargoyle expected Nate to grasp the bow and pull the boat to the bank. Instead, Nate shoved it away and the boat swung back into the current. A redheaded duck had swum out of the reeds with ten little ducklings in tow in a straight line behind her, and she angled to her right to avoid the floating boat.
“Keep moving,” Nate said to them.
“Hey, what about my dad?” the gargoyle asked, his face contorted. He did several front-strokes on the oars to pull the boat back into the calm eddy. “You’re fuckin’ heartless.”
“I’ll call the clinic and have them send an ambulance to the take-out,” Nate said, stepping backward toward the bank, keeping the men and the boat in front of him. “They should be waiting when you get there. You’re not saving any time bringing him onshore now and calling them, anyhow. It would take them longer to get here than it will for you to float to the take-out.”
Nate didn’t want the Mad Archer anywhere near his house. If the man was as unstable as Joe claimed, his friends Paul and Stumpy were suspect as well. Men who hunted together shared certain characteristics and values, and this was guilt by association with the Mad Archer. Nate had never been troubled making judgments of this kind.
Plus, he’d been seen and the men would talk. Which meant the minute they were gone, he’d have to clear out.
The Mad Archer glared, his fists clenched at his side. As Nate neared the shore, his boot slipped off a river rock and he had to wheel and crow-hop to keep standing.
Then before Nate could look back over his shoulder at the boat and the three men to confirm they were floating downriver, he heard a single whispered word: “Now.”
Nate spun around in the river and reached across his chest for his weapon. The soles of his boots again slipped on the moss-covered rocks, and he stumbled to his left but not far enough. An arrow tipped with a razor broadhead sliced through the air and hit him between his left shoulder and clavicle.
The figures in the boat who had been still just a moment before were now a blur of motion. The gargoyle was sliding a pump shotgun out of a saddle scabbard that had been hidden beneath his boat seat. The old man Paul was awake and standing, and his long coat was open and he was swinging the muzzle of a military-style carbine toward Nate.
The Mad Archer cursed because his shot had been misplaced due to Nate’s stumble, and he was frantically fitting a second arrow into the nock of his bow before drawing the bowstring back again. Because both the old man and the Mad Archer were now standing, the boat pitched slightly from side to side.
Although his left shoulder screamed with pain, Nate pulled his big revolver out from its holster and cocked the hammer and leveled it with a single motion and fired.
The first bullet hit the Mad Archer in the right center of his wide forehead and blew his orange hat straight up into the air. His body collapsed forward across the casting platform.
Nate cocked the revolver on the down stroke from its tremendous kick and swung it left and shot the old man through the heart. Old Paul stiffened and sat straight back onto his swivel seat. His rifle fell into the water. Blood, bits of bone, and tissue pattered across the surface of the water behind him. He slumped forward into the same posture he’d assumed before.
Stumpy the Gargoyle nearly had his shotgun clear of the scabbard, and he looked up at Nate and their eyes met for an instant before he was hit under the right armpit with such great impact that it threw his body to the other side of the boat. The bullet exited clean and smacked the surface of the water a few inches from the other bank, nearly taking out the mother duck.
NATE STAGGERED onto the gravel bank. His ears rang from the three explosions, and the hum blocked out any natural sound. The entire left side of his body felt as if he was hooked up to pulsing electric cables. He holstered his weapon and touched the feathered end of the arrow that was buried in his body. He looked over his left shoulder and could see the bloody tip of the razor broadhead poking out. The arrow was stuck fast, but as far as he could tell it hadn’t pierced a major artery or broken bone. All that was destroyed was shoulder muscle.
Out on the river the drift boat turned slowly from left to right and rocked slightly from the fallen crashes of the three dead bodies that were crumpled within it. The still air smelled of acrid gunpowder and the metallic odor of pooling blood.
The mother duck and her ducklings continued downriver in an undulating line, speeding up to get as far away as they could from the disturbance.
On trembling legs, Nate approached one of the thick old cottonwoods that hugged the bank of the river. As he neared it he turned so he faced the water and his back was to the trunk. Slowly, he stepped backward until he felt a jolt of pain as the tip of the broadhead bit into the soft gray bark. Reaching up, he grasped the aluminum shaft with both hands to steady it and leaned back with all his weight, burying the arrow as far as he could into the wood and pinning himself to the tree.
Standing as still as possible, Nate stripped the fletching off the back end of the arrow until it was smooth. Then he took a breath, gritted his teeth, and walked forward, letting the arrow slide through his shoulder.
When it was clear, he glanced over his shoulder at the bloody shaft that remained embedded in the tree trunk. Hot blood coursed down his skin in both front and back, and his shirt was stained dark with it.
As he lurched toward his home for his medical kit, he noted that the boat had drifted away a few hundred yards downriver and was spinning slowly in the current.
He cursed himself. Like the deer and elk in the valley, he hadn’t anticipated the threat to come from the water. Or from locals.
THE NEXT MORNING, a Wyoming game warden swung his green Ford pickup and stock trailer into a pull-through site in Crazy Woman Campground in the Bighorns and shut off the motor. He glanced at his wristwatch—0900, a half hour before he was to meet the trainee—and checked for messages on his cell phone. There were none.
It was Monday, October 22, the heart of elk-hunting season in the mountains. Although opening day had been a week before, the lack of heavy snow meant the hunters wouldn’t be out in force yet because they couldn’t track the herds.
He got out and pulled his gray wool Filson vest over his red uniform shirt and buttoned it up. Over the right breast pocket of the vest was a two-inch brass pin that read joe pickett game warden. On his shoulder was a patch embroidered with a pronghorn antelope. His badge, pinned over his heart, indicated he was GF-48—number forty-eight of the fifty-two game wardens in the state, ranked by seniority. He had once been up to number twenty-four before being fired and later rehired. Unfortunately, when they sent him the replacement badge, he was relegated to starting in the numeric system again. He’d thought about contesting it, but when he considered going up against the thoughtless maw of the bureaucracy it didn’t seem worth the trouble.
Joe exhaled a small cloud of condensation. The morning had not yet warmed above freezing, and the sun hadn’t risen high enough to melt the scrim of frost on the pine tree boughs all around him or the frozen mat of grass. He loved the snap of a fall morning in the mountains.
The stock trailer door moaned as he opened it, and he led both geldings, the older paint Toby and sprightly young sorrel Rojo, out of the trailer and around the side of it and tied their halters to the barred windows. He saddled Rojo and slid his shotgun into the right saddle scabbard and a scoped Winchester .270 into the left. The saddlebags were already packed with maps, permits, gear, and lunch, and he lashed them to the skirt of the saddle. Toby pawed the ground and blew through his nostrils impatiently, wanting to get going.
“Soon,” Joe said to his wife’s horse. “Just chill.”
Joe Pickett was in his mid-forties, lean, and of medium height and build. He wore a battered gray Stetson and faded Wranglers over lace-up outfitter boots. His service weapon that he rarely drew, a .40 Glock 23, was on his hip, along with handcuffs and a long cylinder of bear spray. A citation book jutted from his back pocket.
With the hot engine block ticking behind him, Joe Pickett leaned against the grille of his unit and speed-dialed his daughter Sheridan, a freshman at the University of Wyoming. She’d been at school since late August.
Her phone rang five times before she picked up.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Sleeping in on your birthday?”
“No, Dad. I just got back to my room from the shower. I don’t have class until ten on Mondays.” Her voice was clear but she sounded tired, he thought. “Mom already called me, but I guess you know that.”
He smiled. Since Sheridan had been born at 6:15 a.m. nineteen years before, Marybeth always woke up her daughter at exactly that time on her birthday. It used to mean opening her bedroom door and rousting her. Now it was an early-morning call. He pictured her in her dormitory room in Laramie with wet hair, speaking in a low tone so she wouldn’t wake her roommate.
“You guys aren’t going to do that forever, are you?” Sheridan said softly but with a slight exasperated edge. “I mean, no one in their right mind is up at that hour here. Some people are just getting in.”
Joe chuckled. “How are things going, kiddo? Are you settling in? Making some friends?”
“Both, I guess,” she said. “The classes are the easy part. You know how that goes. I know a lot of kids here from high school, but everything’s different. I miss you guys …” she said, then caught herself.
“It’s okay,” Joe said. “We miss you. I miss you.”
“April doesn’t,” Sheridan said with a laugh. April was their sixteen-year-old foster daughter who had taken over Sheridan’s vacant room. Previously, she’d had to share it with fourteen-year-old Lucy. Marybeth, Joe’s wife, had discovered a bag of marijuana in April’s underwear drawer during the move. Battle lines had been drawn. April had been grounded and had one week left before she could go anywhere other than school, and they’d confiscated her cell phone. But having her at home all the time was no picnic for the rest of the family, either, because no one could darken a room like a sullen April. Lucy did her best to avoid April and all the drama by staying late at school for rehearsals and keeping her bedroom door closed at home.
“I just know she’s wearing all my clothes and using all my stuff without asking,” Sheridan said. Joe thought about it and recalled April wearing one of Sheridan’s sweaters just the day before. “She’ll stretch everything out with her big … chest.”
“No comment,” Joe said. Then: “What about friends?”
“A couple,” Sheridan said. “One girl in particular named Nadia. We’ve got a couple of classes together and we started hanging out. She’s pretty cool.”
“Where’s she from?”
“Maryland somewhere. She says she really likes Wyoming.”
“Wait to see what she says this winter,” Joe said. “There’s already some snow in the mountains here.” Then: “Hey—you’re coming home for Thanksgiving, right?”
“At this point, yes,” Sheridan said with hesitation.
Joe felt his ears get hot. “What do you mean, ‘At this point’?”
“Nadia asked me if I wanted to go east with her. I’ve never been east before. I’d like to see D.C.”
Joe tried to think of what to say.
“Her parents will cover the ticket,” Sheridan said quickly.
“It’s not that,” Joe said. “I think your mom and your sisters would like to see you. In fact, I know they would.”
“You’re making me feel guilty,” she said.
“That’s my job.”
He heard Sheridan chuckle again. “It might be cool coming home without having Grandmother Missy around.”
Joe nodded. Marybeth’s mother was supposedly on a world cruise, burning through some of the money she’d inherited from her former husband’s death. Joe had encouraged her never to come back.
“Talk to your mother about Thanksgiving,” Joe said.
As they talked, Joe looked up to see a banged-up green Game and Fish pickup with state plates turning into the campground off Hazelton Road. His trainee had arrived. Joe waved at the pickup, and it turned into the pull-through and swung around the stock trailer.
“Hey!” Joe shouted. “Watch those horses.”
The driver hit the brakes with his front bumper just eighteen inches from Rojo’s hock, then reversed so he could park in back of the trailer. The trainee looked fresh-faced and humiliated already.
“Where are you?” Sheridan asked.
“Up in the mountains. Area thirty-three and thirty-four—Middle Fork and the Upper South Fork Twelve Sleep River areas. It’s time I get out and check all the elk-hunting camps up here. Unfortunately, the department assigned me a trainee to tag along. He looks to be about your age but dumb, based on how he drives.”
Sheridan said, “You know, Dad, I miss going with you to do stuff like that.”
The statement caught him by surprise. “You do?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I miss the mountains, and our horses. I even miss Nate, even though he sort of hung me out there as far as our training goes.”
Sheridan had been an apprentice to the master falconer. At one point, she’d desperately wanted to fly her own falcon, but circumstances and Nate’s situation had prevented it.
“Maybe someday,” Joe said, doubting there would be a someday. “Sheridan, I’ve got to go before this trainee does something stupid. But happy birthday, kid.”
He closed the phone and dropped it into his vest pocket as the trainee appeared from around the horse trailer. He was short and stocky, with a thatch of brown hair with highlights in it. He had a square jaw and a nose that had been broken and a walk with an athletic spring in it. He seemed easygoing and eager to please, and he didn’t look much older than Sheridan. A good-looking kid, though, Joe thought.
“Joe Pickett?” the trainee asked.
“I’m Luke Brueggemann. I’m your trainee. Sorry about nearly hitting your horses.”
“You’d have had to answer to my wife if you had,” Joe said. “And believe me, it wouldn’t be pretty.”
Brueggemann nodded. He had a large duffel bag thrown over his shoulder. His red uniform shirt was fresh out of the box, as were his denims.
“Can I say, sir,” Brueggemann said, “it’s a real thrill for me to meet you. I’ve heard about you over the years.”
Joe took Brueggemann’s measure. He remembered being a trainee sixteen years before, when he was right out of college. His mentor had been a man named Vern Dunnegan, and it was in the days when game wardens often made their own law within their districts. He’d learned more from Dunnegan than he’d wanted to. But some of the legitimate skills and lessons from those years still stuck with him.
“I hope it was good,” Joe said.
“Most of it,” Brueggemann said, grinning and looking away.
“Are you from around here?”
The trainee nodded. “I grew up in Sundance,” he said. Sundance was located in Wyoming’s Black Hills country, in the northeast section of the square state. “Then I worked with my uncle as a commercial fisherman in Alaska to get money for college. When I came back, I did my four in Laramie and graduated with a wildlife biology degree.”
“Good for you,” Joe said.
“My daughter’s at UW now,” Joe said. “I was just talking to her.”
“Go, Pokes,” Brueggemann said, nodding in recognition.
“That’s Toby,” Joe said, gesturing toward the paint horse. “Do you know how to put on a saddle?”
By his expression, Joe could tell Brueggemann had never been this close to a horse before.
“Here’s what you need to know about horses: the front end bites and the back end kicks and the middle bucks you off,” Joe said. “Come on, I’ll show you. And after we get Toby saddled, you need to go through that big bag and figure out what you can tie behind the saddle, because that’s all the storage you’ll have.”
WITH BOTH HORSES saddled and ready, Joe spread a topographical map across the hood of his Ford and pointed at the eleven outfitter camps they would try to inspect over the next two days. Brueggemann paid close attention, and stubbed a finger near one of the first camp locations.
“Isn’t that a road that goes right to it?” he asked.
“Then why don’t we drive there?”
Joe looked at him. “Are you nervous about the horses?”
Brueggemann hesitated, but his answer was obvious: “A little.”
“I understand,” Joe said. “Always be cautious around horses. As soon as you start to count on them, they’ll stab you in the back.”
“Then why don’t we drive to the camps?” Brueggemann asked softly, not wanting to seem obstinate.
Joe said, “We could drive right to most of them. But they’d hear us coming miles away. And even though most of these guys are good hunters, there are a couple I don’t want to know we’re out there. So instead of driving right up on them and giving them a chance to hide or stash illegal carcasses away where we can’t see them, I’d rather approach them in silence. That way we can circle the camps up in the timber from all sides before we decide to ride in.”
Brueggemann sighed and nodded.
“If someone’s doing something illegal, like too many elk or dead cow elk in an antler-only area, they’ll likely hang the carcasses within walking distance of the camp but out of sight from the road. It works better to know what the situation is before we talk to the hunters.”
Joe continued, “I know most of these guys. Half of them are local, and three run guide operations, so they’ll have clients in the camps. Of the eleven camps, ten are familiar names. There’s only one new guy this year, and I want to find out who he is and what he’s up to.” He tapped his finger on Camp Five, which was four and a half miles away along the old logging road they’d soon be riding on.
Joe’s cell phone rang in his pocket. He grimaced as he pulled it out and looked at the display. It read twelve sleep county sheriff’s office.
“This is never good,” Joe mumbled out loud. Then: “Joe Pickett.”
“Joe, this is Sheriff McLanahan.”
Joe rolled his eyes. He and McLanahan had a long history, mostly bad.
“Joe,” McLanahan said, “a fisherman down in the river in the middle of town just called me in a panic. He saw what he thought was an empty drift boat floating toward him in the current. When he looked inside, he found three dead bodies.”
Joe felt his scalp crawl.
“I need you to come in and take a look at these guys,” the sheriff said. “I think they’re friends of yours.”
McLanahan hung up.
Joe looked to Brueggemann. “Now you’ll learn how to unsaddle a horse and lead it into the trailer. We’ve got a hitch in our plans,” he said.
JOE LOCATED the sheriff, the boat, and the bodies in the garage adjacent to the old county building in Saddlestring. On the way into town he’d listened to the chatter over the radio. Word of the triple homicide was rocketing across the state. Although nearly every resident had several guns at home and many carried weapons in public, there were only fifteen to twenty murders a year in Wyoming. So three at once was big news, and Joe understood the magnitude, just as he was puzzled by McLanahan’s mention of the victims as his “friends.” He had a dark premonition that one of the bodies might belong to Nate Romanowski, although the idea of anyone actually getting to Nate seemed incomprehensible.
As he entered town he was greeted with a new reelect our sheriff kyle mclanahan billboard. On it, the sheriff leaned out of his pickup window to offer a carrot to a horse. Joe shook his head.
Sheriff Kyle McLanahan had it in for him, and their professional relationship had gotten worse in the past few months. McLanahan had made it clear to his deputies that they wouldn’t be chastised for making Joe’s life miserable. They did it in subtle ways, such as not responding to help requests and losing or delaying paperwork Joe filed. He’d gotten around it somewhat by working directly with County Attorney Dulcie Schalk and bypassing the sheriff’s department.
As election day neared, McLanahan had spent a good deal more time than usual out of his office, meeting voters and playing up his persona of a western caricature. Joe had heard from a few residents that the sheriff cited him in particular as one of the biggest reasons why he’d been humiliated during the trial of Missy, Joe’s mother-in-law, who’d been accused of murdering her former husband. Up until the trial, McLanahan seemed to be cruising toward reelection. Not anymore.
JOE PARKED next to a sheriff’s department SUV outside the garage. Three other departmental vehicles were lined up on the other side of the open garage door, as was an ambulance and Sheriff McLanahan’s pickup. Dulcie Schalk’s red Subaru wagon was also out front. Dulcie was also stinging from the outcome of the trial and was still cool to Joe, but he thought he sensed a warming. Dulcie was young, tough, professional, and one of Marybeth’s friends. Their mutual love of horses and riding was strong enough that the trial hadn’t derailed their friendship.
Joe killed his motor and jumped out and took a deep breath before going inside.
“Hey,” Luke Brueggemann called out. He’d parked behind Joe’s pickup. “Should I tag along, or what?”
After all he’d been thinking and worrying about, Joe had forgotten about his trainee. Joe put his hands on his hips and thought about it.
“Well?” Brueggemann asked, stopping short of reaching Joe.
“Have you ever seen a dead body?” Joe asked.
“Sure,” Brueggemann said, hitching up his pants.
The trainee looked above and to the right of Joe. “My grandma. At her funeral.”
Joe smiled, despite the situation. “It’s up to you, Luke. I won’t force you, but I won’t keep you away.”
With that, Joe turned and headed for the garage. No footsteps sounded behind him.
“RON CONNELLY,” Joe said, as he fought to keep his stomach from churning, “He’s known as the Mad Archer. I arrested him twice. The other two are Stumpy and Paul Kelly. They have a shady outfitting business outside of Winchester. I’ve been trying to catch them poaching for years.”
The sheriff had arranged to have all of the county vehicles moved out of the big garage to make space. The three victims were laid out next to one another on thick plastic sheeting on the concrete floor. When Joe first saw them, he was reminded of Old West photos of dead outlaws on display. All three were stiffened into the unnatural positions in which they’d been found.
Joe asked, “Why didn’t you just pull their wallets to see who they were?”
Before McLanahan could answer, Dulcie Schalk said, “I told the sheriff not to touch the bodies again until the forensics people could get here.”
McLanahan made a face, obviously displeased that Schalk had taken over.
Joe looked around.
The boat they’d arrived in was on the concrete next to the bodies. It smelled of blood. Joe imagined there were gallons of it congealing inside, but he didn’t look to confirm it. He did note that the Mad Archer’s compound bow and a Savage twelve-gauge pump shotgun with a synthetic stock had been tagged and placed on a tarp.
“See?” Sheriff McLanahan said to Dulcie Schalk, who stood off to the side, holding her hand over her mouth in horror. “I told you he’d know ’em. They’re of his ilk.”
Joe ignored the comment and spoke directly to Schalk. “Ron Connelly killed dozens of game animals with his bow and arrows over the years. Down in southern Wyoming where I was stationed for a while, he took potshots at cows and horses, too. I know he wounded an eagle once, and that time I caught him and threw him in the clink. But the penalties for poaching and injuring animals are so weak he didn’t spend much time in jail.
“Our department has—I should say had—alerts out on him,” Joe said. “All the game wardens in the state kept a good eye out for this guy. He used to be a tweaker, but I’d heard he cleaned up his act. Apparently not well enough,” he said, nodding toward the body.
“The Kellys are real backwoods types,” Joe said. “Paul Kelly and his wife, Pam, run a few cows and lease out their stud horse, but other than that they survive off welfare payments and some kind of disability pension Paul got from an accident he’d had when he worked for the county road crew. The disability didn’t stop him from running illegal guided hunts, though. Both Paul and Stumpy got the boot from the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association a few years ago because of client complaints and their general lack of ethics. One client claimed they dropped him off up in the Savage Run country and forgot to come back and pick him up so he had to walk out for two days. I’ve had my eye on them for years, but they’re pretty slippery.”
He nodded toward the bodies. “Or they were, anyway. What doesn’t work for me is how the three of them got hooked up. The Mad Archer was too nuts to keep any friends, and the Kellys stayed completely to themselves.”
Two of McLanahan’s deputies bookended him. Both were young, muscle-bound, and menacing, and both wore large campaign buttons that read reelect our sheriff. Deputy Sollis smirked at Joe through heavy-lidded eyes. Sollis wore a uniform shirt that was a size too small, to show off his biceps and pectorals, and a black mock turtleneck underneath that didn’t fully hide the acne rash on his neck from steroid use. Behind the sheriff and his men was Deputy Mike Reed, McLanahan’s opponent in the election, who was older, rounder, and balding. Joe liked Reed, and tipped his hat brim to say hello. Reed nodded back.
The sheriff hadn’t gotten rid of Reed, which had surprised Joe before he learned the strategy behind it. Keeping him in the department showcased the sheriff’s good-guy credentials, but the idea had actually come after McLanahan watched The Godfather II and heard Michael Corleone say, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Although Reed was the senior investigator, McLanahan steadily undermined him in the eyes of voters and observers by assigning him to the most menial tasks, such as supervising random DUI roadblocks, overseeing county road cleanup crews, and in one case sending his deputy on a meth-house raid to the wrong address.
Joe asked the sheriff, “They were all in the same boat?”
“Literally,” McLanahan guffawed.
Joe shook his head. “Did they get into a tussle and start blasting at each other?”
Deputy Reed said, “We can’t say for sure, but we doubt it.”
The sheriff acted as if Reed hadn’t spoken.
Dulcie Schalk parted her fingers to talk. She was clearly nauseated by the scene in front of her, and likely the enormity of the crime itself. When she spoke, she bit off her words in a tight-mouthed way, as if trying to avoid breathing the fetid air. “Coroner Will Speer is on his way here to take them for autopsies, Joe, but from what we can tell they were all shot to death at the same time. It appears each was killed by a single fatal gunshot. From what the sheriff told me, the firearm used was … huge.”
Excerpted from "Force of Nature"
Copyright © 2013 C. J. Box.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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