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The sleek golden projectile exploded into the thin mountain air at eight thousand feet per second. It was long and heavy with a precise pointed tip and a boat-tail design tapering from the back shank, and it twisted at over three hundred and fifty thousand rotations per minute.
Designed by ballistic engineers and weighing one hundred and eighty grains, or slightly less than half an ounce, the bullet was entirely jacketed by a smooth gilding of ninety-five percent copper and five percent zinc, with a wall-thickness variation of near zero. The pointed red ballistic tip of the nose also served as a heat shield. The projectile was engineered to withstand the extreme aerodynamic heating effects produced by the speed of its trajectory.
Inside the jacketed round was a soft lead core. Upon impact and deep penetration, the ballistic tip would drive backward into the lead core and expand the projectile into a mushroom shape in order to create a large wound cavity.
It sliced through the windless evening in absolute silence. But far behind it, two distinct sounds rang out: the report of the shot itself and the sharp crack in the air as the bullet broke the sound barrier.
The rocky rise and the sagebrush-encrusted foothills of the Bighorn Mountains receded from view until they blended into the layered landscape.
The crowns of river cottonwood trees passed far below, as did the lazy S-curves of the Twelve Sleep River. Two distant drift boats hugged the eastern bank as fishers cast to deep pools and holes darker in color than the rest of the river. As if in bas-relief, fishing guides manned the oars and pointed out rising trout for their clients.
Below, a V of geese held in a frozen pattern over the river as they glided toward a field to the south. Above, a red-tailed hawk hovered motionless in a thermal current as it scoured the landscape for rabbits and gophers.
One point five seconds.
A cow moose and her two calves pushed through the willows without stealth or grace to splash into the river ahead, out of view of the angling boats. A river otter slipped into the current without a ripple. Bald eagles on dead branches studied the current below them and didn't look up as the bullet zipped by hundreds of feet above.
The cow moose flinched and raised her head at the sound of the crack.
An ocher spoor of dust trailed a combine equipped to gather up large round hay bales in an irrigated field on the other side of the river. The dust was infused with the last blast of sunlight from the summit of the western mountains and the combine produced an outsized impression on the bronze terrain.
The backs of Black Angus cattle covered the pasture like cartoon balloons, each animal tethered to its own long shadow.
The red roof of a barn shot by below, and ravens circled the fresh kill of a jackrabbit hit by a motorist on a black ribbon of highway.
Two point five seconds.
Almost imperceptibly, the bullet began to drop and slow and drift slightly to the left, a motion called the aerodynamic jump. Because it was flying east to west through the air, its course was altered slightly by the gravitational force of the rotation of the earth known as the Eštvšs effect.
The fourteenth and fifteenth fairways of a golf course scrolled by below, the turf freckled with the gold leaves of fall. A small herd of mule deer grazed on the grass near the clubhouse, unaware that interlopers-white-tailed deer from outside the area-were flanking the mulies in a raid that would play out in minutes.
A large band of pronghorn antelope, their backs lit up by the shaft of light, flowed like liquid across a sagebrush flat on the other side of a service road beyond the golf course.
A series of expensive homes constructed of gray rocks and heavy dark wood backed up to the fifteenth fairway. Covered lawn furniture and dormant barbecue grills sat on flat-rock patios. Two of the homes were occupied, but only one had lights on.
The home with the lights was dead ahead, and a large plate-glass window illuminated from within formed a yellow rectangle.
Beyond the glass, inside, a small dark man sat behind a dining room table. He was staring intently in the direction of the mule deer. The table was set with a bottle of wine and two glasses, and place settings that glinted in the reflection of an overhead elk-antler chandelier.
The window and the face of the man inside got larger.
Three point five seconds.
The man at the table announced something and gestured with his hand as he did so, accidentally scattering the silverware beside his plate. He leaned to his side to retrieve an errant spoon at the exact second the bullet punched through the glass.
The void left by the man was suddenly filled by the figure of a woman just behind him. She was entering the dining room from the kitchen, carrying a platter of pork chops aloft in both hands.
The top button of her blouse enlarged exponentially and then there was a high impact and an explosion of red and black.
Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett was in an unfamiliar saddle on the wide back of an unfamiliar horse when the call came for him to return to his Saddlestring District immediately, "if not sooner."
He was eight miles from the trailhead in the Teton Wilderness with three other riders, all on stout mountain quarter horses. Snow had dusted the treeless tops of the Gros Ventre and Teton Ranges during the night and it was cold enough that clouds of condensation haloed their heads.
They'd saddled up in the parking lot of the Forest Service campground before dawn using headlamps to see. The leather of the saddles, reins, and latigos had been stiff with the fall morning cold, and it had taken a full two hours of riding in the light of the sun before the frost in the grass melted away and Joe's tack thawed out enough to be supple.
They'd assembled and left so early for a grim reason: to locate the mauled and likely dead body of a local elk-hunting guide who'd been attacked the evening before by a grizzly bear. Or at least that's what his client, a hunter from Boca Grande, Florida, had claimed.
Joe rode with his twelve-gauge shotgun out of its scabbard and crosswise over the pommel of his saddle. He'd loaded it with alternating rounds of slugs and double-aught buckshot. His bear spray was on his belt and he'd made a point to unhook the safety strap that held the canister tight in its holster.
Over his shoulder was a semiautomatic Smith & Wesson M&P rifle chambered in .308 Winchester with a bipod and red dot scope and a twenty-round magazine. Two of the other riders carried the same weapon because it had recently replaced M14 carbines in the arsenal of the department's newly formed Predator Attack Team-a heavily armed, specially trained SWAT team created for bear incidents-to which Joe had recently been named.
His senses were on high alert for the sight, sound, or smell of a rogue six-hundred-pound bear. To Joe, every noise-whether it was the click of a hoof on a rock or the chatter of a squirrel in the branches of the trees-seemed magnified. He was jumpy and his mouth was dry. The coffee and jerky they'd eaten for breakfast that morning on the drive out to the campground roiled in his stomach.
Although he'd been on many similar horseback expeditions, this one felt oddly different. With all three of his daughters out of the house and Marybeth alone at home, Joe couldn't help but feel he was getting too old for this kind of thing. He did his best to repress the thought and concentrate on the task at hand, although he couldn't deny that he missed his wife and he wished she were closer.
Joe rode third in the string of horses, and his mount seemed to be most comfortable in that configuration. There was always a learning curve when it came to riding someone else's horse, and he didn't know the pecking order of the herd or the characteristics of the mount beforehand. Joe wished he were riding Toby, his wife's well-trained horse, or Rojo, his gelding. Even a sure-footed and bomb-proof mule would do.
A Jackson biologist named Eddie Smith, also a member of the Predator Attack Team, rode last on a bay gelding. Like Joe, Smith had a Smith & Wesson M&P semiautomatic rifle chambered in .308 across the pommel of his saddle. The weapon had a twenty-round magazine and a red dot scope. His job was to cover the riders in front of him and to be the first to bail off his horse and confront trouble if it happened.
Joe had had no idea when he'd driven over the mountains to Jackson Hole the previous afternoon that he'd be pressed into helping find the mangled body of a local guide.
Or that he'd be given a gelding named Peaches to do it.
Jackson Hole game warden Mike Martin led the search and recovery operation. Martin had been hired by the agency the year before Joe, and Martin was badge number eighteen of fifty in terms of seniority. Joe had badge number nineteen, meaning there were eighteen game wardens with more seniority on the job and thirty-one with less.
Like Joe, Martin had bounced around all over the state of Wyoming in his career. He'd lived in half a dozen state-owned homes-called fistations"-and he'd been responsible for enforcing the Game and Fish regulations in high mountains, arid deserts, and vast sagebrush-covered steppes. Since the districts in Wyoming ranged from two thousand to more than five thousand square miles, Martin had spent a lot of his life in pickup trucks, on ATVs and boats, or on the backs of horses.
Martin had a battered cowboy hat, a thick gunfighter mustache, jowls, and round wire-framed glasses that made him look like a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt. His middle had thickened substantially over the years and strained the buttons of his red uniform shirt, but he was still surprisingly strong and agile and a better horseman than Joe.
Joe and Martin had worked together a few times over the years on cases that spanned both of their districts, and they got along well. Martin was brusque and flinty and proud of how out of step he looked when he was in a room with wealthy, sophisticated Jackson Hole resort elites. He'd become more curmudgeonly and cantankerous by the year, Joe thought. Martin was a fish out of water, a throwback, and it didn't seem to bother him at all.
Joe could tell that Martin was also subtly suspicious of the man riding second and at times side by side with him: the Florida hunter.
"You're sure this is the trail you took going in and coming out?" Martin asked the man, whose name was Julius Talbot. Talbot was dressed in high-tech camo hunting clothing that must have cost more than two thousand dollars from boots to cap. He had prematurely silver hair, a nice tan, pale blue eyes, and a jawline that made him look arrogant, whether he was or not. The only thing that marred his outfit were the floral-like splashes of dark blood on his pants and sleeves from the day before. The blood, he claimed, had come from the guide, not the elk he'd shot.
"I'm pretty sure it is," Talbot said.
"Sure or pretty sure?"
"Sure enough," Talbot said. "And it's not much farther, I don't think."
"Our horses will let us know," Martin said, extending his hand to pat his mount on the neck.
"They didn't yesterday," Talbot said.
Martin grunted in response. When Talbot turned his head away from the game warden, Martin looked over his shoulder at Joe and rolled his eyes. Joe nodded back. He didn't know what to think of Talbot and he had his own doubts that the attack had taken place exactly as he had described it.
Talbot said, "I hope we can get in and out of here fast. I have a meeting in Boca tomorrow I can't miss."
"You might just have to," Martin said without looking at Talbot. Joe could sense the tightness in Martin's tone, as if the man were speaking through clenched teeth. "If what you say is true, there's a dead man up ahead who was working for you. He has a wife and three kids at home. You might just have to postpone that meeting of yours."
Julius Talbot sighed. He seemed to Joe to be quite put out by Martin's insistence that he come into the timber with them to point out the site of the attack. It was odd behavior, Joe thought, although not shocking.
In too many instances, out-of-state hunters used to being catered to by underlings in all the other phases of their executive lives expected the same kind of subservient behavior from guides and outfitters in the field.
That wasn't the right way to do things in the Mountain West, where wealth and class didn't mean as much to the locals as it might in other places. The best thing someone could say about a newcomer was that he was a "good guy." Not a rich guy, a good one.
Joe found Talbot's attitude as annoying as Martin seemed to.
Although it was in the midst of fall big-game hunting season throughout the state, Joe had agreed to drive over the mountains from his own district to Jackson Hole. He'd slipped away without telling anyone other than Marybeth about it, because he didn't want word to get out to local miscreants in the Saddlestring District that he wouldn't be on patrol.
The call had come to Joe from Rick Ewig, the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Cheyenne. Ewig worked in the Katelyn Hamm Building, newly named after the game warden who had recently lost her life while on duty. Ewig was a former game warden himself, and he'd asked Joe to meet up with Martin so the two of them could assess the effectiveness of a new piece of technology for finding lost people in the mountains. If the technology worked as well as or better than the FLIR (forward-looking infrared) camera equipment currently used by the Wyoming Civil Air Patrol, Ewig said he might add a couple of the devices to his annual budget request.
Skiers in Jackson Hole were buried every year by avalanches, and hunters frefluently became disoriented and lost in the dense alpine terrain. Finding them diverted manpower and resources, so any technology that could speed up searches would save not only money and time-but their very lives. The experimental system known as a Lifeseeker supposedly worked because it could home in on individual cell phones even in remote areas with no cell service-provided the lost person's phone was turned on. A local philanthropist in Jackson had donated one of the $100,000 Lifeseeker boxes to the Teton County Search and Rescue team for which Martin was a liaison.