He'd taken three bucks from this stand. The county road foreman, who'd been cleaning ditches in preparation for the snow months, told him that a twelve-pointer had moved into the neighborhood during the summer. The foreman had seen him cutting down this way, across the middle of the swamp toward this very tree. Not more than two weeks ago.
The chairman clambered into the stand fifteen feet up the tree, and settled into the bench with his back to the oak. The stand looked like a suburban deck, built of preservative-treated two-by-sixes, with a two-by-four railing that served as a gun rest. The chairman slipped off his pack, hung it from a spike to his right, and pulled the rifle up with the parachute cord.
The cartridges were still warm from his pocket as he loaded the rifle. That wouldn't last long. Temperatures were in the teens, with an icy wind cutting at exposed skin. Later in the day, it would warm up, maybe into the upper thirties, but sitting up here, early, exposed, it would get real damn cold. Freeze the ass off that fuckin' O'Dell. O'Dell always made out that she was impervious to cold; but this day would get to her.
The chairman, wrapped in nylon and Thinsulate, was still a little too warm from the hike in, and he half dozed as he sat in the tree, waiting for first light. He woke once more to the sound of a deer walking through the dried oak leaves, apparently following a game trail down to the swamp. The animal settled on the hillside behind him.
Now that was interesting.
Forty or fifty yards away, no more. Still up the ridge, but it should be visible after sunrise, if it moved again. If it didn't, he'd kick it out on the way back to the cabin.
He sat waiting, listening to the wind. Most of the oaks still carried their leaves, dead brown, but hanging on. When he closed his eyes, their movement sounded like a crackling of a small, intimate wood fire.
The chairman sighed: so much to do.
THE KILLER WAS dressed in blaze orange and was moving quietly and quickly along the track. Dawn was not far away and the window of opportunity could be measured in minutes:
Here: now twenty-four steps down the track. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight ... twenty-three, twenty-four. A tree here to the left ... Wish I could use a light.
The oak tree was there, its bark rough against the fingertips. And just to the right, a little hollow in the ground behind a fallen aspen.
Just get down here ... quietly, quietly! Did he hear me? These leaves. . didn't think about the leaves yesterday, now it sounds like I'm walking on cornflakes ... Where's that log, must be right here, must be ... ah!
From the nest in the ground, the fallen aspen was at exactly the right height for a rifle rest. A quick glance through the scope: nothing but a dark disc.
What time? My God, my watch has stopped No. Six-seventeen. Okay. There's time. Settle down. And listen! If anybody comes, may have to shoot ... Now what time? Six-eighteen. Only two minutes gone? Can't remember ... two minutes, I think.
There'd be only one run at this. There were other people nearby, and they were armed. If someone else came stumbling along the track, and saw the orange coat crouched in the hole ...
If they came while it was dark, maybe I could run, hide. But maybe, if they thought I was a deer, they'd shoot at me. What then? No. If someone comes, I take the shot then, whoever it is. Two shots are okay. I can take two. It wouldn't look like an accident anymore, but at least there wouldn't he a witness.
What's that? Who's there? Somebody?
The killer sat in the hole and strained to hear: but the only sounds were the dry leaves that still hung from the trees, shaking in the wind; the scraping of branches; and the cool wind itself. Check the watch.
Copyright © 1998 John Sandford
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