Two people climb up the sides of Mount Coffin on a dusky-dark November morning, only a half-mile apart, though they don’t know about each other yet.
Baron Barker was once a Boy Scout, and being prepared, set his alarm last night before he started drinking. After he got drinking, he got bragging. Baron had poked a hole in the side of an elk cow—a sweet 450-yard shot with his .308 Winchester. And only then saw a colossal bull elk step out of dark spruces to sniff the blood seeping into crusted snow. Dammit. Rueful laugh. Lingering hunger left unspoken.
Zack Sanchez still looks like a Boy Scout, but his pickle-green uniform isn’t for playing around. His Glock isn’t for hunting wild game. Other hunters told him about this massive elk with his cows in the meadows north of Wyoming Peak. Zack needs to wait around anyway, to ride herd on the hunters leaving the woods now elk season’s over. Make sure no one’s camp trailer is buried in snow.
Baron, thinking of his buddies sleeping off their rum-and-Cokes, can’t believe his luck. Not ten minutes after the sun crests over the mountain’s convex lid, the magnificent bull stands silhouetted on a limestone outcrop across a precipitous draw, tawny cows spread in the drifted bowl of grass-heads. He pulls the rifle from his scabbard, aims and shoots, twice, and watches the bull pitch forward, tumble off the cliff.
Baron points his four-wheeler down through tangled deadfall. No one expects a person to carry a bull this big out on his back. He’ll just make a trail.
Zack hears shots, and cusses. Sun blinds him, and the mountain’s sharp ridges send echoes in circles so he can’t pinpoint a direction. He loves his job—most days.
At the sound of a four-wheeler starting, Zack turns. Through his binoculars he scans steep scree, and his nostrils strain for gas fumes. He smells faint iron of snow, cinnamon from sun-warmed lodgepole, dank duff where morning melt begins. A Steller’s jay, swinging indigo in the air, screeches.
Baron guts the bull, rank steam lifting from entrails direct to the beaky noses of ravens. He hears his mother’s voice harping on him, as always. How are they ever going to eat this much elk? Just the two of them in the house. His mother doesn’t understand him. She still darns her socks, for Chrissakes, and Baron’s cravings bug her. Nothing’s ever enough, she grumbles. Funny how she can’t say it often enough.
Being satisfied’s the same as being dead, he tries to tell her.
Zack sees ravens gathering. Hurrying, he slips in snow, but he’s agile, scrambling up to slip some more. He needs to get there before this renegade hauls his kill off the mountain. He tries not to lose elevation as he crosses the head of the drainage.
Baron straps the carcass’s bulk on the back of the four-wheeler, chandeliered head on front. He guns the engine to climb out of the brushy hole. The pitch is sharp. He feels the machine rearing up, and as he leans forward, antler tines poke at his eyes. He can’t throw his weight where he needs to. If only he had a bigger side-by-side machine. With more power.
The ATV flips and four tires spin skyward. Baron is pinned. Though the machine isn’t big enough, it’s more than he can budge. He flails against gravity. The elk’s loose legs crack into his cheekbones as if stomping him. The machine crushes his chest, and pain fills his lungs, his guts, his throat. His thighs are going numb. The remaining rum-and-Coke in his blood isn’t nearly sedative enough.
His mother’s repeated accusations grate through sawed-off nerve endings in his head. Risking an illegal kill, for nothing. For this. Pain screeches, rust-orange, through his eyes. His hands scrape for purchase. In his fingerbones, rage pulses. The rifle is in his hands, with the satin smoothness of its oiled walnut stock.
Zack is close. He isn’t sure the guy will be alive enough to sign the citation. Worse than having to write up a poacher—having to save the fuckhead from his own idiocy.
Baron thinks again of his mother, though he doesn’t call for her. His breath rises hot, an angry ghost in cold air. He knows enough now—enough agony, enough dissatisfaction. He wants his mother to appreciate his realization. So he has to get rid of this damn ranger, sliding downslope to rescue him.
Phone in hand, Julio stared across his gravel driveway at the trucks and cars parked at haphazard angles in the weedy, unfenced space between him and his neighbors’.
“Pakwasi County Dispatch—What’s your location?”
“2041 Lincoln, in Callisto.” Across Moon Valley’s farms and ranches, between cattle and unfathomable numbers of appaloosas and paints and quarter horses, people spread out. Except of course, right here, where his trailer hunched too close to the bulked-up family that claimed the high school’s current football star.
“How can I help you?”
“I’m reporting a party—disturbin’ the peace.” He glanced at the plastic wall clock, splattered with chorizo grease in a pattern resembling the Virgin Mary’s melancholy face. He thought to take a picture, but the weak kitchen light wouldn’t show it off enough to make money anyway. Ancho chile and cinnamon scents still saturated the air.
“In what way is the party bothering you, sir?”
“It’s fuckin’ after midnight? Some of us have to work in the morning.”
“I understand that sir. But what exactly is the complaint?”
“You need details?” He looked to the Virgin Mary for help, as if a grease stain could understand his frustration. “Their pinche musica knocked me outta bed, and there’s trucks parked all over my lawn.”
“We’ll have someone there right away, sir.”
“Damn well better.” The click came to Julio’s ear immediately before he finished talking.
Immediately afterward, his hounds struck up keening howls, despairing of their beauty sleep in the thumping bass. Julio considered five a.m. a hellacious time to meet up with a couple doughy white guys looking to shoot a trophy mountain lion. Steeling himself for the day was tough enough when he managed to sleep first. He liked hunting, but he wasn’t sure how much guiding money might make all the ass-kissin’ worth it.
Sirens off, flashing blue-and-white wigwags rolled to a stop in front of the house. Bare-footed, Julio stepped out on his porch to watch.
Despite the cold, several partiers visited privately over the open tailgates of two trucks. One blue-shirt strutted toward them. He began shaking hands in the yard, laughing at the witch decorations, flying brooms crashing into the side of a gray metal garage. The cop slapped the taller guy on a shoulder, then headed for the arched front door.
The other cop sauntered over to Julio’s trailer.
“Good evening sir, I’m Sargent Turner.” Backlit by still-strobing lights in the driveway, he paused on the lowest step, but loomed over Julio. The cop’s thick hand rested on a belted hip, near all the tools of his trade. Baton, tazer, pepper spray, Glock.
Julio’s back straightened, and he licked cracked lips. His eyes flickered toward the party house. Over the smell of spruce floated a burnt sugar stink. The door opened and a boisterous, familiar greeting drifted into the night. Julio shifted his weight onto his heels, splintered floorboards radiating cold.
With his clean-shaven chin, the cop gestured toward the dogs. “These your hounds?”
Julio didn’t answer. The voices of the hounds wailed, one higher, one deeper, as the music next door halted. The Catahoula’s ice-blue eyes followed two departing pickups and she lifted her nose again, singing them into the obsidian distance.
“Sir, I’ll need to take those dogs in for the night. We’ve received a complaint about their noise. You can collect them after 8 o’clock, along with the $150 fine on each of them.”
Julio turned, shrilled a whistle through his teeth. “No man, you’ve got it all wrong.” The blue tick male put his head down and wheeled, long-legged and smooth, toward his insulated dog house. Into the dust lifted by spinning truck tires, though, the Catahoula called defiance. Silver squad car headlights turned drifting dirt into angelic shapes. Through translucent, floating bodies, Julio saw the football star’s blond crewcut haloed by flickering flatscreen light. The kid—inscrutable, or just stupid—watched him.
Sargent Turner unclicked the dog run’s galvanized latch. Julio suddenly stood before the open gate, blocking his way. “I need these dogs to work. Early. You can’t take ‘em.”
Julio heard laughter from the crewcut’s open door. Before he could lift his arm to pull the gate closed, the second officer clamped a handcuff over his wrist. His elbow was twisted back, and pain surged, volcanic, through his shoulder. The moment, the motion, was inevitable. His left fist shot forward.
From the squad car’s windows, Julio watched his dogs pace, unsettled, soundless.