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Out of range, p.12
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       Out of Range, p.12

           C. J. Box
 
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  It was after midnight when Joe went out to Will's truck and unlocked it to look for the notebook. The cab was a rat's nest of equipment, maps, clothing, and paperwork. It looked like Joe's own truck. Unlike the house or his office, this was where Will had really lived and worked. It felt as though he had just stepped out and locked up for the night; there was a sense of unfinished business inside, just like Will's desk at the building. Will hadn't even sealed up a bag of sunflower seeds that sat open on the console. Joe searched the cab thoroughly, even shoving his hand between the seats, where he found a half-empty pint of vodka. But no notebook.

  As he searched the truck, his mind kept returning to his earlier encounter with Stella Ennis. He could still feel the ZING that had shot through him when he'd grasped her hand, although it had now receded into a warm, lingering buzz. That particular thing, that electric shock, had happened to him only twice before in his life. The first time was in the eighth grade, when Jo Ellen Meese whispered to him what time she changed into her nightgown and that her bedroom window was unlocked. The second time was when he saw Marybeth, in the middle of a group of girls, hurrying to class on a snowy day at the University of Wyoming. Marybeth had looked back, their eyes locked, and he knew she was the one.

  Both experiences had resulted in something profound; his first time and, he thought, his true love.

  Now it had happened with a married woman with blood on her hands on the side of a two-lane highway.

  BACK INSIDE THE house, Joe walked through all the rooms. In addition to the master bedroom, there was a small bedroom with a set of box springs and no mattress. Despite the work of the cleaners, he could see crayon marks on the floor. This was the boys' room, he guessed. Across the hallway was a bathroom with a shower/tub, a stained toilet, and an empty medicine cabinet. They hadn't even left a towel. The utility room was empty and looked like it had been empty for months. Susan must have taken the washer and dryer, Joe assumed, and Will never got them replaced. The floor of the utility room was covered with dust and mouse droppings.

  The refrigerator was empty except for an open box of baking soda in the back and a single can of beer. Joe popped the top of the beer and took a long drink. It was sour, and he gagged and spit it into the sink. He filled a lone plastic drinking glass from the cupboard with water from the refrigerator tap and tried to wash the taste out of his mouth.

  The only real proof that Will Jensen had lived and died in the house, other than the old pair of boots and the hole in the ceiling, was in the freezer. The cleaners must have forgotten about it, Joe thought.

  The freezer was still filled with packages of meat.

  AT 3:30 A.M., Joe suddenly awoke and wasn't sure where he was. His head spinning, he reached out for a lamp on his bedside table at home but, catching air, lost his balance, tumbled out of bed, taking his sleeping bag with him, and landed hard on the floor, crying, "Jesus!" The thump his knees made was loud, like a muffled shot, and it reverberated through the empty house, causing what he at first thought was the sound of a bird spooking and flushing somewhere in the dark.

  He wasn't sure how long he remained motionless on the floor on his hands and knees, his head hanging, trying to focus his mind. Had he hit his head in the fall? he wondered. He didn't remember doing so. But he practically swooned as he sat back on the floor, dizziness returning. Slumping to the side, he slid out of the bag and lay on the floor, his bare skin on cold wood, his eyes open, until he finally started to get his bearings.

  Joe stood up shakily, padded to the doorjamb and hit the light switch beside it. The bedroom flooded with harsh light. He stood there, naked, rubbing his eyes but not able to clear the cobwebs from his vision.

  Still not entirely lucid, he looked around the room and remembered where he was. His sleeping bag was a tangle on the floor, his pillow on the mattress but puckered with sweat. Had he dreamed about flushing a bird? Where had that come from?

  As he pulled on his Wranglers and a T-shirt, he recalled the sound. It had a rapid, thumping cadence, like a pheasant breaking wildly from the brush. Or, he thought, feeling the hair prick up on his arms, like the sound of someone running away.

  Joe looked around, trying to recall where he had put his weapon before going to bed. He slipped his .40 Beretta out of its holster and tiptoed down the hallway. Methodically, he checked out each room, opening closet doors, peering around corners, but the house was empty, the doors bolted, the windows locked. His head was still feeling thick and fuzzy, as if a terrific bout of the flu was coming on.

  Assured that he was alone, Joe sat in a chair at the table and put his Beretta on the tabletop. He rubbed his eyes and face, debating whether he should try to wake up fully or go back to sleep. He felt somewhere in the middle of both.

  Maybe it was simple exhaustion, he thought. He hadn't slept well for almost a week. He was out of his home territory, out of his routine. He missed Marybeth and his daughters. He let his head flop back and found himself staring at the bullet hole in the ceiling.

  "This is where Will sat," Joe said aloud, "right here in this chair."

  He glanced involuntarily at the Beretta on the table, then at the urn, instantly recognizing the action for all of the cinematic melodrama it held. He stood and shook his head, trying to shake the fog away. Maybe it was that sour beer, or the heavy odor of disinfectant in the house that was making him feel so strange.

  Joe unlocked the front door and stood barefoot on the porch. A light frost the color of the moon sparkled on the grass. He filled his lungs with needles of icy air and felt better. His head began to clear. He stood on the porch and breathed until he started to shiver from the cold, then went back inside. He was beginning to remove his clothing and crawl back into the sleeping bag when he thought of something. Pulling on his boots and grabbing his flashlight from his day-pack and the Beretta from the table, Joe went through the utility room and unbolted the back door and stepped out into the tiny backyard. The umbrella-like canopy of cottonwoods closed off the sky. He snapped on his flashlight and panned it across the grass until the beam stopped at the cluster of footprints in the frost beneath his bedroom window and the indents made by boots, widely spaced, where the man he had startled by falling out of bed had run away.

  Part Three

  You stare through the plastic at the red smear of meat in the supermarket. What's this it says there? Mighty Good? Tastee? Quality, Premium, and Government Inspected? Soon enough, the blood is on your hands. It's inescapable.

  Thomas McGuane, An Outside Chance

  We cannot pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected ... if I were to live in a wilderness, I should become ... a fisher and hunter in earnest.

  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

  SIXTEEN

  The town of Jackson was dark and still in the predawn of Sunday morning. Joe was groggy. He had been unable to sleep after being woken up and falling out of bed, and had spent the rest of the early morning hours going through Will's boxes, searching in vain for the missing notebook or anything else that would give him a better idea of what happened. He dressed, showered, and drove downtown, his thoughts sluggish and opaque. As his head cleared slightly, he realized he was hungry. He found a restaurant called The Sportsman's Cafe that would open at 5:30 A.M., according to the sign on the door, so for the next half hour he walked around the town square, his boots clumping on the frosted wooden sidewalks, his breath condensating in translucent white puffs. He studied the elk antler arches at the corners of the square, the antlers themselves turning white with age.

  The stores facing the square were designer clothes shops, specialty outlets, art galleries, fly-fishing stores, The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, which boasted saddles instead of bar stools, and restaurants that would explode his state per diem like a charge of C-4. He stopped briefly at

  Wildwater Photography, the business Birdy owned, and looked at the displays in the window. There were photos of happily screaming families bou
nd up in life vests, smashing through rolls of whitewater, and another display of action shots of individual skiers. All of the subjects, Joe thought, looked like they were having the time of their lives.

  He wished he were. He could not account for the slight residue of fog that still hung in his brain and hoped it was simply a combination of lack of sleep, hunger, and simple disorientation. Somehow, though, it felt like more than that. He tried not to let it alarm him. There hadn't been enough time to adjust, and he couldn't wallow in his loneliness. A game warden was dead, and Trey had given him an assignment. But first what he really needed was a big breakfast.

  HE ENTERED THE restaurant as soon as the proprietor unlocked the door and opened it. The man stood to the side to let Joe in and said, "Usual table, Will?"

  "I'm not Will," Joe said.

  The proprietor was short and thick with a bristly salt-and-pepper beard, a potato-shaped nose, and a toothpick in his mouth. He wore a stained apron over a Henley shirt and held a coffee mug. He looked dumbfounded.

  "Of course you aren't," the man said after a long moment, his face flushing. "I don't know you at all."

  "Joe Pickett. I'm the new guy."

  "Ed," the man said, putting his coffee on an empty table so he could shake Joe's hand. "I own this place, at least for now."

  Joe shook Ed's hand and chose a table by a steamed-over window near the batwing kitchen door. "I'm really hungry, Ed."

  "Then you'll want the Sportsman's Special," he said. "Country fried steak with gravy, three eggs, hash browns, toast. How do you like your meat and eggs?"

  "Medium rare and over-easy," Joe said. "And coffee."

  "Of course."

  Joe sat and unbuttoned his green Game and Fish jacket, sipped ice water and coffee, and listened as Ed cooked and filled the silence with the angry sound of sizzling food. A radio in the kitchen played scratchy country music. The Sportsman's Cafe seemed out of place among the art galleries and specialty shops Joe had looked into earlier. The inside was steamy and dark, with the wall nearest the rest-rooms covered with flyers for local horse sales and team penning events. A feed store calendar was tacked up behind the counter. The heads of elk, deer, antelope, and a pre-Endangered Species Act grizzly bear stared out from the walls. The menu, printed on a single laminated page, consisted of traditional American big breakfast fare— eggs, pancakes, waffles, patty sausages.

  Joe looked up from the menu as Ed came by to refill his coffee. "You won't find any blintzes on it," the older man said, "or anything with sprouts. There's nothing on that menu with hollandaise or béarnaise sauce either. The only sauce I make is God's own sauce—gravy."

  "Gotcha." Joe smiled in solidarity.

  After Joe had downed a cup and a half of strong coffee, Ed brought out the platter. Joe ate with barely controlled aggression, and sat back only after swiping the plate clean with toast. There was nothing special about the food, except that it was perfect, Joe thought.

  "I'm sorry about earlier," Ed said as he brought the coffeepot and the bill to the table. "Will Jensen used to be the first guy in the door about three days a week. I saw the cowboy hat and the jacket, and, well..."

  Joe smiled. "I understand."

  Ed arched his eyebrows. "You even chose his table."

  At first, that disturbed Joe. Then he thought about it, and it made sense. The table he'd chosen was nearest the kitchen, so he would know who was behind him and also be able to see who entered the restaurant. Through the window, he could note the license plates of the vehicles that arrived in the sliver of a parking lot, and would be able to check vehicles that were likely hunting rigs. That Joe had chosen the table without thinking about it seemed natural, as it probably had for Will. Still, though ...

  "Will was a big fan of the Sportsman's Special," Ed said, beaming. "He even took his eggs and meat the same way."

  "I'll be darned," Joe said, with a pang of disquietude.

  "There will be quite a few hunters in here any minute," Ed said. "We're the only place open this early."

  Joe looked at the bill. Breakfast cost more than it would have in Saddlestring, but it wasn't as expensive as he'd feared.

  "You said something about owning this place for now," Joe asked. "What did you mean by that?"

  Ed made change from a bulging pocket on his apron. "The lot is worth five times what the business is worth because I'm close to the square and I've been here a long time. I'm proud to say we've fed thousands of hunters and fishermen over the years—men who want big breakfasts. But the offers have been coming for the last ten years, the price is right. Some guy from Seattle wants to open up an Indonesian restaurant in Jackson, and he likes the location."

  "Indonesian?" Joe asked. "Where's a guy going to get breakfast?"

  Ed shrugged. "Don't know. Besides, this place doesn't fit anymore, and neither do I."

  WHEN JOE STEPPED out of the Sportsman's Cafe, he saw Smoke Van Horn coming up the wooden sidewalk with three other men. It was obvious to Joe from the look of them—heavy winter coats, crisp jeans, massive high-tech boots, an odd assortment of headgear—that they were Smoke's hunting clients.

  "It's the FNG!" Smoke boomed, forging ahead of his customers and extending his bear-like hand to Joe. "How're you doing this great morning?"

  "Fine, Smoke."

  One of Smoke's clients, a tall man with a thin mustache and a three-day growth of beard he must have started before he left home, asked, "FNG?"

  Joe knew what was coming.

  "Fucking new guy." Smoke laughed. "Meet my com-padres, Joe. Everybody's from Georgia."

  Smoke introduced the three men to Joe and they all took turns crushing his hand.

  "Go on inside and grab a table," Smoke told them. "I'll be right behind you after I talk to the game warden. In fact, I brung you something."

  Smoke dug into his coat and handed Joe a copy of the book he had written, How the Pricks Deny Me a Living.

  "It's signed," Smoke said.

  Joe flipped to the title page. Smoke had inscribed "Don't be a prick" in childish longhand, followed by his signature. Joe had to smile. Then he looked up at the hunters, asking, "Everybody's got licenses and wildlife stamps, right?"

  The men looked guiltily at one another for an instant.

  "Of course they do," Smoke said.

  "Let's make sure," Joe said, keeping his tone light. He stood by until all of the hunters had dug into their wallets and showed Joe their licenses and stamps while Smoke glowered. Joe knew that the hunters would likely spend $5,000 to $6,000 each with Smoke, maybe more for the opportunity to get a trophy elk with the famous outfitter. There would be dozens of other clients arriving throughout the season.

  "Thanks, gentlemen," Joe said. "The Sportsman's Special comes recommended."

  After the three hunters had gone inside, Smoke turned to Joe. "What kind of outfit do you think I'm running?"

  "From what I've heard, you run the most efficient hunting operation in terms of success ratio in this valley," Joe said.

  "So why are you checking my clients' licenses like I'm some kind of peckerwood?"

  Joe buttoned up his jacket against the cold, which had dropped the temperature a few degrees as dawn broke. "So they know I can," Joe said, "and so you know I will."

  Smoke shook his head. "We're not going to have trouble working together, are we?"

  "I hope not," Joe said. "But I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that there are quite a few notes in Will Jensen's records about you. He thought you might be salting to bring in all of those big elk for your shooters."

  Smoke's face darkened. He stepped close to Joe, towering over him.

  "Will never proved a goddamned thing and you know it," he said, his voice low. "D'you think salting is what accounts for my success?"

  "I didn't say that."

  "Do you have any fucking idea what you're saying?" Smoke growled. "You just got here."

  "Yup," Joe said, "but I didn't just fall off the cattle truck. We'll get along fine as long as
you operate as clean and legal as you say you do." He glanced down, saw that Smoke's fists were balled.

  "In that case, mister," Smoke said, "you've got nothing to worry about."

  "That's good," Joe said, reaching out, waiting for Smoke to unclench his fist and shake his hand, which he did, although with more force than was necessary.

  "I'll be seeing you around," Joe said pleasantly. "Thank you for the book."

  "Read it, you'll learn something," Smoke said. "So when are you headed up?" meaning into the backcountry, where his camp was located.

  "Don't know," Joe said. "I've got a lot of business to attend to here first."

  I like that answer, Smoke seemed to say with his eyes. His face softened. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help you get oriented to this country. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows it better than I do. I've been over every inch of these mountains, and been in the middle of everything. I know where the bodies are buried, if you know what I mean."

  Joe nodded, smiled.

  "Don't be fooled by all the rich bastards who live here now," Smoke said. "This is still the wildest fucking place in the Lower Forty-eight."

  "That's what everyone keeps telling me," Joe said.

  "For once, everybody's right."

  "Have a good breakfast, Smoke," Joe said as he tipped his hat and walked away.

  AT HIS PICKUP, Joe thought about what Smoke had asked him. They had just played out a bout of "Where Will the Game Warden Be?" Joe had been sincere regarding his plans. But now that Smoke had tipped his hand, questioning him about when he'd go into the backcountry, seeming pleased to hear it wouldn't be soon, Joe made up his mind to get himself into the mountains and the elk camps as quickly as he could.

  BEFORE GOING TO the office, Joe stopped by his temporary home. He skirted through the bushes at the side of the house, found an old gate, and went into the backyard. The early morning sun had melted the frost, and even the grass, which he hoped would still be trampled, had recovered. There was no longer any hard evidence that someone had stood outside his window at three in the morning, or had run away.

 
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