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.
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.
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