(My tentative pub date for this as an ebook is June 5)
Jake glanced through the truck’s dirty back window toward the motorhome. Bugs of apprehension crawled up his spine, tempering his Hollywood high.
Should he call Dave out here and let him know they might be in the company of a madman? Possibly the killer of the three people on the trail to Paradox Falls? Those three had been killed with arrows. Could those arrows have come from Jerry’s crossbow? Bolts, Jake believed crossbow arrows were called. One of his uncles had been an archery fanatic...not mention a drunken asshole.
Beside the point.
How many folks traveled with crossbows on the Paradox Falls trail? The odds were pretty good, Jake worried, that Jerry was the killer.
“Shit,” Jake said. “Shit, shit, shit.”
He jumped with a start when the motorhome’s engine was fired up. Dave revved the engine and then pulled away from the pumps with a little squeal of his back tires, black smoke spewing from the exhaust pipe. He made a swing around the far end of the parking lot and turned the big, roaring rig toward Jake still crouched over Jerry’s front seat.
Still holding the camo-painted fiberglass crossbow that may or may not be the weapon that was used to kill three people last week on the Paradox Falls trail...
Jake jumped as David blew his horn three times. The horn echoed loudly, causing Jake’s heart to lurch and anger to burn across the back of his neck.
“Fuckin’ idiot,” he snapped as he shoved the crossbow back into the duffel bag and zipped the bag as far as the zipper would close, which wasn’t far.
“Come on, Jack London!” David yelled from his cab window, beckoning. “We’re burnin’ daylight!”
Jake slung the duffel over his shoulder and slammed the truck door. He froze when the RV’s coach door opened, and Jerry yelled, “Grab my extra quiver, will ya, partner? It’s hangin’ from the gun rack! And bring that .30-.30 for me, too!”
Quarter-sized raindrops were coming down hard and fast. They felt like ice chunks slamming on Jake’s head, neck, shoulders, and back. Jerry crouched in the rig’s open door, wincing against the rain and glancing warily at the sky.
“Christ!” Jake grabbed the quiver hanging from the gun rack, and slung it over his shoulder. Then he grabbed the .30-.30. He wrote westerns, and he’d spent enough of his life around hunters, to know his guns.
Great—I’m arming the enemy, he thought, and then slammed the truck door once more.
He ran over to the motorhome. Jerry stepped back as Jake climbed inside and pulled the door closed behind him.
“Thanks, partner!” Jerry said, patting Jake’s shoulder. “Just for that, I’ll buy ya a boiler maker!”
Dave said testily and with phony politeness, grinning into his visor mirror, “Everyone have a seat, please!”
Jake dropped the duffel bag, set the rifle down on top of it, and sat in the chair across from the dinette. The driver’s boot lay to his right. Jerry sat down in Jake’s old place across from Ashley, who was kicked back on her side of the dinette, leaning her head and shoulders against the RV’s outside wall and window.
Otis was curled up on her bare thighs, sound asleep.
“What took you so long, Jake? Jerry’s got a date!” She snorted a laugh and lifted her can of Hamms to Jake in salute. Her eyes were bleary. So were Jerry’s. They were really into it—Hamms, bourbon, and marijuana.
David hustled the motorhome out to the main highway, turning and breaking too sharply and then, once they were out on the road, gunning it too quickly. Jake almost fell out of his chair.
Ashley cuffed the back of David’s neck. “Slow down, Evel Knievel! You damn near made me spill my beer on Otis!”
“Wouldn’t want you to do that,” David said as the big rig rocked from side to side as it flew down the highway.
Rain hammered the roof loudly. Lightning flashed over the White Pine Mountains, and thunder rumbled.
Jake looked at Jerry who was holding his beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other hand. The old-timer leaned out and forward of the dinette to look at the sky through the windshield. “We got a humdinger there in that one! Gonna get wet!” He laughed as though nothing thrilled him more than a summer storm in the mountains.
Otis lifted his head, looked around then rested his chin again on Ashley’s knee. She was caressing the fur at the back of the heeler’s neck, a dreamy look on her face. The caress seemed to be making Otis dreamy, as well. Or maybe it was the marijuana smoke hanging heavy in the air, along with the smoke from Jerry’s cigarette.
Jake couldn’t just sit there in his chair and keep quiet about the armory their passenger was carrying in his old Army duffel.
“So, Jerry,” he said, “what’s with the crossbow?”
David glanced over his shoulder as the rig rumbled on down the wet highway between steep, pine-carpeted ridges. “Crossbow?”
“Yeah, a crossbow,” Jake said, keeping his eyes on Jerry. “The same sorta weapon that those three hikers were killed with last week.”
“Crossbow?” Ashley said, frowning at Jake and then turning her puzzled gaze to Jerry. She laughed. “Jerry, you’re not a killer, are you?”
“All depends, darlin’,” Jerry said, winking at her. “All depends on what you call a man who is forced to avenge his own.”
Jake and Ashley shared a look. Ashley’s eyes acquired a skeptical cast.
“Could you chop that up a little finer?” Jake asked Jerry. It was an expression the old salts had used in the Old West, one that Jake often had his characters spout in his western novels. Vaguely, he was pleased to have found a way to use it in actual conversation though he wished the situation had been a little less disconcerting.
He really wanted stay alive long enough to spend at least a couple of those six figures Roger Goldstein had promised.
“You look like you could use a drink,” Jerry said. He glanced at the ice chest. “Help yourself. A bottle in there, as well.”
“I’m fine,” Jake said testily.
“Have a drink, Jake,” Ashley said. “Jerry’s not a killer.” She looked at Jerry. “Jerry, you wouldn’t kill us, would you?”
“Ma’am,” Jerry said, lifting her hand to his lips and gently planting a kiss on it, “I wouldn’t harm one hair on your beautiful head.” He cut his eyes menacingly between Jake and David. “Now, the men-folk you keep company with might be another matter!”
He winked at her. Ashley beamed and waved a dismissive hand at David and Jake. “Oh, them...” She frowned. “Oh, come on, Jake—lighten up. We’re out here to have a good time.” She glanced behind her at David driving in sullen silence. “You, too, hon. Lighten up! We’re on vacation!”
“I’d like to hear about the crossbow,” David said, glancing into the visor mirror at Jerry.
Jerry looked down at the duffel bag. He raked a hand across his unshaven jaws across which his leathery skin was drawn taut. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” He took a long pull from his bourbon-laced Hamms.
Jake and David shared a glance.
Ashley said, “What does that mean, Jerry?”
“You know them three people that was killed last week—on the Paradox Falls trail?”
“Not personally,” David said.
Jake wanted to smack the back of his head.
“Ignore him, Jerry,” Ashley said, giving David a cool look. “Please continue. What about those people?”
“One was my nephew, Todd. He was guiding the other two. They were a couple of rich kids from back East somewheres. Todd guides hunters every year into the mountains to shoot elk and moose an’ such. One of them fellas he guides every year asked Todd if he’d guide his daughter and her boyfriend, er, fiance—they were gonna be married next month—on a pre-honeymoon hike in the White Pines. Them two were green as willow saplings, ignorant about the mountains, probably didn’t know how to build a campfire. The girl’s old man, president of some fancy school back East, wanted her and her future husband to acquire an appreciation for the mountains. Felt it was a hole in their lives, not seein’ much outside of Boston or Philly, or wherever the hell they was from.
“Anyway,” Jerry continued after he’d taken another pull from the Hamms, “Todd was one of them three that was killed. And I am going up there to stalk and kill his killer with extreme prejudice.” He raised his beer can to Jake, David, and Ashley. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.”
“I think he meant that he’d handle it,” David said into the visor mirror.
“Good Christ, Jerry,” Ashley said, “do you think the killer’s still up there?”
“I do indeed.”
“Why?” Jake asked.
“Because I know who the son of a bitch is.” Again, Jerry drank, took a deep drag off his cigarette, lidding his eyes. When he exhaled the smoke, his eyes nearly crossed in their deep, craggy sockets. He was deep into his story.
“Okay, you got me goin’ now, Jerry,” David said. “Who is it? Who’s the killer?”
Jerry pondered this. He stared out the window at the falling rain, which was lightening some now, the sun beginning to show between the parting clouds. Jerry was like an actor, building the tension.
Jerry turned back to his audience, all three waiting with bated breath. At least, Jake’s breath was bated...
“His name is Anton Woode. W-o-o-d-e but pronounced ‘woody,’ Jerry added, leering at Ashley. “As in what I get every time I look at those pretty legs of yours, Chiquita.”
“Jerry!” Ashley said, giving him a fake look of admonishing and recrossing her legs on the dinette seat beneath Otis. She was blushing. She liked this old goat, Jake noticed. Either that or she liked making David jealous.
“Take your eyes off my wife’s legs and continue, please, Jerry,” David said.
Jerry winked at Ashley, and tapped cigarette ashes into an empty beer can. “He’s been up there in them mountains for the past fifteen years, searching for gold that supposedly some old prospector cached up there and then died before he could haul it down and spend it.”
“Did you tell the cops about this Mr. Woode?” David asked.
Rocks began knocking against the underside of the motorhome. Jake looked ahead to see that they’d left the paved part of the highway. The road now was rougher, narrower, the mountainsides closer, the ridges steeper. Once you left the blacktop, there were eight more miles to the Sweet Nelly campground, supposedly named after the old prospector’s, Paradox’s, mule.
The last mile was a bitch—merely a two-track trail that wound up a narrow canyon. Some years, after a hard winter or an especially wet spring, the road was not motorhome-friendly, and they had to park alongside the road and hike the last mile to the campground and the trailhead.
The sun had come out, sparkling like liquid gold on the weeds along the road, dripping from the firs and pines. Small waterfalls cascaded down the rocky ridges coated in lime-green moss and ferns. Wet robins hopped around in the evergreen boughs, piping.
“Why didn’t you tell the cops, Jerry?” Jake asked, pulling a Hamms out of Jerry’s ice chest. He felt better now. As crazy it was, he believed the old man’s story. Jerry was crazy enough, cowboy enough to try doing just what he’d said he was going to do.
Jerry handed Jake the Fighting Cock. Jake took a deep sip of the Hamms and added a healthy portion of bourbon.
“Law enforcement wouldn’t believe me,” Jerry said. “They think he’s dead. Some years ago, they found a body downstream after the spring floods had receded. They deemed the body that of Anton Woode. I knew back then it wasn’t ole Anton. He wasn’t one to get caught in high water. He wanted folks to believe it was him, so they wouldn’t think he was out here anymore. He dressed up some poor fella to make it look like him, and he let the creek do the rest.” Jerry shook his head. “But it wasn’t him.”
“How do you know so much about this Anton Woode?” David asked. The road was rougher now, and they were getting bounced around. Wet gravel rattled against the underside of the RV, and mud splashed up against the windows.
Jerry said, “About twenty years ago, I got throwed by a green-broke colt, and broke my back. I hired Anton to work for me through the fall and winter. I got a little spread out by Mount Sullivan. Not much—just what was left after my old man, that cocksucker—uh, pardon my French, Chiquita--parceled off most of the range and sold it. I just needed someone to feed the cattle and horses, do repairs, move snow around, keep the pipes thawed--that sort of thing.
“Anton lived out in a trailer me and my first wife had lived in. Seemed all right at first, but kept to himself, didn’t say much. Shit, I was bedridden most of that winter, so I couldn’t keep an eye on him. But what I noticed was that my dogs disappeared one by one. Cats, too. I had a mess of cats for mousers. When I managed to stumble outside and over to Anton’s, I smelled somethin’ awful comin’ out from under that trailer. I was too stove up to investigate, but I knew what was under there.”
“Oh, god!” Ashley cried, looking as though she might vomit.
“I went back and got a rifle, and I ran Anton Woode off my place. I told him if he ever showed his ugly face again on my land—or anywhere near my land—I’d blow a thirty-ought-six round through his fuckin’ heart!”
“What then?” Jake asked, riveted. He wished he had a notebook handy. Jerry was a walking, talking novel.
“Didn’t see him for nearly two years. When I was out elk huntin’ one fall, I saw his old VW bus parked in a canyon near where we’re headed now. It was covered with pine boughs and brush. You couldn’t mistake Anton’s old VW—it was all painted up hippy-like. You know—flowers an’ rainbows an’ such. Then I knew what he was up to—he was livin’ out here, lookin’ for that old prospector’s gold. I knew from the few times we talked he was obsessed with the idea of all that gold up there, somewhere between the falls and that old ghost town. Now I’m thinkin’ he’s done gone crazier than he even was when he was workin’ for me, butcherin’ my animals. He’s taken to killin’ folks to keep ‘em from findin’ his gold before he does.”
Jerry shook his head, red-faced with fury. “Goddamnit, I’m gonna pop a bolt...or two or three...right through that crazy bastard’s ticker--and the Devil be my witness!”
He slapped the table so loudly that Otis awoke on Ashley’s lap with a yelp.
“I don’t know about you two,” David said as the RV rumbled into the campground, “but I for one feel a whole lot safer knowing Jerry’s going to be up there with a crossbow!”