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.
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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