Breaking Wild, page 1
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Copyright © 2016 by Diane Les Becquets.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-41161-6
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Les Becquets, Diane.
Breaking wild / Diane Les Becquets.—First edition.
ISBN 978-0-425-28378-3 (hardback)
1. Missing persons—Fiction. 2. Wilderness areas—Fiction. 3. Suspense fiction. I. Title.
FIRST EDITION: February 2016
Cover photograph © Madlen / Shutterstock.
Cover design by Rita Frangie.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For the town of Meeker, Colorado,
In memory of my big little sister,
Carol Houck Smith
There are people who are kind and good and smart and loyal. And there are gifts we cannot name, the kind that take root and change who we become. The community and the land of northwestern Colorado where I lived for almost fourteen years will always be a deep reservoir within me from which I draw. And so it is to the people of that community that this book is dedicated and whom I wish to acknowledge with all the gratitude in the world.
This book is also dedicated in memory of Carol Houck Smith, mentor and publishing legend, a mighty force whose spirit clung to the land and open skies and the people of the West, and who worked with me on the earliest ideas and drafts of this novel. You are loved and you are missed.
I wish to thank the following people and institutions for their kindness and support:
Michelle Brower, agent extraordinaire, who inspired and edited and saw the things I could not see. Sometimes a writer stops writing. When I met Michelle, I started writing again. You were the magic.
Kendra Harpster, my dream editor, always positive, always enthusiastic. You made this whole process effortless. A strong woman and such an astute editor. Some things are just meant to be.
To Leslie Gelbman, publisher of Berkley, and to her amazing team. I give thanks for you all every day.
My deep gratitude to those who assisted me with the research: Judy Eskelson, Susan Berthelson, Mike Washburn, Mike Joos, Dudley Gardner, Dale Atkins, Dee Lehman, Shannon Young, Ashton Robinson, Kris Hjelle, Nikki Stout, Mike Selle, Don Wade, Martin Lammers, Marvin Hansen, and Brad Merrill. And to Glade Hadden, the greatest archaeologist of man and story that I know. As both author and novel evolved, you’ve been a constant.
To Jim and Sue, for their friendship and lodging during my research trips.
To Deb and Bob, for offering me their hunting camp off the grid, where without electricity, plumbing, cell service, and Internet, I was able to stay until I finished the manuscript.
To all those who provided feedback, support, and editorial assistance: Bob Begiebing, Rick Carey, Dolly Viscardi, Alison Taylor-Brown, Nate Boesch, Julia Rohm-Ensing, Jordan Mazzola, Robin Barletta, Annie Hwang, Ann Hood, Suzanne Strempek-Shea, Clint McCown, Michael White, and Jack Scovil. I wouldn’t be where I am today with anything less.
To the woman who provided everything and more and read countless drafts, my mom, Sandra Kyne.
To my colleagues at Southern New Hampshire University, my friends and students in the MFA program, and my dean, Karen Erickson.
I am also grateful for the support SNHU has provided me through summer grants, a sabbatical, and professional development.
For my late husband, Shaun Hathaway, lost and then found, you were my giant.
For all of my friends, and all of my family, especially my three sons, Nate, Seth (Joseph), and Jake, and for my best friend, partner, and husband, Gregg Mazzola.
BEAR Amy Raye
DEER Amy Raye
We can never break free from the dark and degrading past.
Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel
as a meadow over which women and horses wander.
—MAXINE KUMIN, “Women and Horses”
It was snowing already, in early November, after days of hot, clear fall weather. The flakes landed on her tent like slow rain. She lay still, aware of every small, square inch around her, and in that stillness imagined changing her mind, sleeping almost warm for a few more hours, and after daybreak and coffee, packing up with the others and driving home.
Earlier that night, Kenny had asked her, “Do you still love him?” They’d been sitting by the fire. Aaron had already turned in.
She felt sorrow pass over her face when Kenny asked her this, and she knew Kenny had felt it, too, because he reached over to her chair, laid his hand on top of hers like something protective. He then moved his chair closer, lifted his arm, wrapped it around her shoulder, pulled her against him. It was an uncomfortable position, but she did not tell him that. He took his other arm, encircled her with it. He kissed the top of her head, pressed his face into her hair.
“You smell good,” he said.
“No, I smell you.”
“What do I smell like?”
“Like something tangy and salty and sweet, like something I’ve never smelled before.”
And then her breathing and his became lost in the sound of the fire and the weight of moisture accumulating in the air. As brief as a moment, she felt a deep sense of the place, folding the days back to summer and wild rose columbine and life as pure as a mountain stream over a rocky bed.
“I’m going out in the morning,” Amy Raye said. “I wasn’t going to say anything. Yesterday I found a tree stand up on the mesa. It’s a good spot. There’s fresh sign.”
“Do you want me to go with you? I want to go with you.”
“You shouldn’t go alone.”
“Kenny.” She said his name like she used to say that of her dog back home when Saddle was about to do something wrong. And then, “Don’t tell Aaron,” she said.
There were three of them—Kenny and Aaron and Amy Raye. Kenny and Aaron hunted with rifles. Aaron had filled his tag on the first day, taking down a four-point bull elk they’d come upon at a watering hole. Kenny had filled his tag for a cow elk the next, from a small herd grazing in a meadow, making a clean shot at about two hundred yards. They’d quartered the carcasses and hung the quarters from a two-by-four that they’d nailed between two trees alongside the camp. But Amy Raye didn’t hunt with a rifle. She hunted with a compound bow, which meant getting within twenty to thirty yards of an elk. Harvesting an elk with a bow during rifle season was legal but hardly heard of. Amy Raye knew if she was to have any chance, she’d have to head out by herself and find where the elk had scattered. Just the day before she’d broken off on her own, had hiked miles into the area, where she’d discovered excellent sign—elk urine, rubbings in the nearby trees, trails that crisscrossed, and fresh tracks. And in the grasses nearby she’d glassed smooth indentions of elk bedding. She’d come upon a tree stand tucked about fifteen feet high in a pinyon, with tree steps still in place. Hunters were supposed to remove their stands at the end of a season. The screw-in tree steps looked like they had been set for a while, a residue of dust and rain deposits coating the brown-tempered steel. Amy Raye had navigated a trail for herself away from the stand, and set several reflector tags on trees on her way out.
That evening before dinner, before she and Kenny had sat by the fire and Aaron had turned in, she’d walked through the woods to a shallow stream, barely three feet wide and six inches deep. She’d removed her clothes and squatted, her buttocks resting against her ankles, the water so cold it was painful. She’d rushed through the ritual, running a nylon brush over her skin. But she hadn’t washed her hair. And now, lying in her tent, she wished she had, hoping her scent wouldn’t keep the elk away.
She turned on her flashlight and reached for her phone to check the time. Three thirty. There was a text from her husband. Hey, are you having a good night? I’m getting stuff done. It’s good. Miss you like skin. She wrote back, I am blessed to have you, but I am seriously going to try harder.
Still bundled in her sleeping bag, she shed her long underwear, then crawled out of the bag and unzipped the opening flap of the tent, the air not more than twenty degrees, she was sure. Snow was now falling in sporadic flakes, melting almost as soon as it hit the ground. Next to her tent was a plastic container where she’d packed a set of clothes for each day, each item having been washed clean of grocery store detergents and perfumes and her own perspiration. Moving quietly so as not to wake Kenny or Aaron, she pulled on a fresh layer of thermals, wool socks, camouflage pants, a camouflage fleece jacket, her green hiking boots, and her brown fleece hat. She switched out her flashlight for her headlamp, which she secured over her hat. Carrying a roll of toilet paper, she walked toward the woods behind the tent.
Less than five feet from the back wall of the tent was a divot in the ground carved out by the fresh claw marks of a bear, a mother, most likely, digging for bugs for her young. Amy Raye calculated the distance again. Less than two of her own strides. Tired, cold, and fully aware of just how close the bear had been to her while she’d slept, something like déjà vu grazed her heart, as if she had already stood here a half-dozen times, and if she had, some other living being had stood here within breathing room of her a half-dozen times, too.
Aaron’s tent was across from hers, about fifty feet. If she stood still, she could hear his snores muffled beneath the covers. Kenny’s tent was farther away, south of the fire pit and cookstove.
She walked about thirty yards north of the camp to Aaron’s truck, lowered the tailgate for a table, and made coffee, every move calculated so that she wouldn’t wake the others, so that they wouldn’t insist on going with her. Aaron, whose breath smelled of cigarette smoke, and whose body labored when he walked, especially when climbing uphill. Or Kenny, sweet Kenny, who reminded her of a quarter horse stallion in the middle of summer, of Tennessee and hollers and hay trucks and alfalfa, and all those places she missed too often but knew she would never go back to.
The snow had stopped falling, but its moisture still coated the air. She drank a large cup of coffee, then poured another, more for the warmth than the caffeine. Silence hovered over her like a tarpaulin. The wilderness wasn’t asleep. She knew it had awoken with her first stirring, was waiting for her next move, watching her. Its stillness was a sure sign. Sitting on the tailgate, her legs folded underneath her, she eased herself into the silence, becoming the same wilderness. The caffeine began to take effect and burned in her stomach with the anticipation she thrived from.
Amy Raye had hunted since she was a girl, going out with her grandfather. She didn’t hunt elk then, nor did she hunt with a bow. Bow hunting came later. She hunted whitetail deer with a .243 Winchester rifle, and later a .280 Remington. While other girls turned sweet sixteen, she learned how to field-dress a deer.
Amy Raye’s husband, Farrell, didn’t hunt. He’d never even held a gun. It was after he and Amy Raye had met that she’d switched to bow hunting. Farrell didn’t want guns in the house, especially with his daughter, Julia, who was four years old at the time and living with him. He was a man who hated violence of any kind, including harming the dreams of another. And it was that very nature of him that would have never let him stand in the way of his wife having the opportunity to make a trip like this. He would tell her that he loved the immensity of her and that this was part of that immensity.
Amy Raye finished her coffee and packed water bottles and food, enough for a full day. She sprayed herself with elk estrus as if it were perfume—her neck, under her arms, the soles of her boots. The warning labels on the bottle said not to spray the estrus on one’s body or clothing. It was to be sprayed on the ground for the purpose of luring elk to a certain area, while the hunter hid away from the spot. Most hunters didn’t adhere to those warning labels. The serious hunters didn’t care if they smelled of elk urine; they became the female elk, mastered her call, a high-pitched mewing, much like the cry of a young cat. It wasn’t just a bull elk that might mistake the hunter for a female. It was the mountain lion, as well.
Amy Raye stepped into the tree stand harness she’d stowed in her pack, pulled the harness straps over her shoulders, and tightened the leg and waist buckles. She set her bow, quiver, and packing frame in the extra cab of the truck, and then climbed into the driver’s side. Aaron had left the keys on the floorboard, Amy Raye knew. She picked up the keys and closed the door, shifted the truck into neutral, and let it roll down the slow decline toward the road, her foot pressing intermittently on the brake, the wet earth and rock turning beneath her.
The morning Colm stopped by was no different from most others. I was sitting on the porch having my coffee, a quilt pulled snug around my shoulders. Kona lay curled in a tight circle at my feet, and just beyond
I work for the Bureau of Land Management as an archaeological law enforcement ranger, with the only certified search-and-rescue dog in the county. Because I’m a ranger, I do a little bit of everything, especially during hunting season. My job falls under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. I enforce the laws against archaeological looting. I survey for disturbance, walk sacred ground. I’m a guardian of sorts, a police for the past.
I’ve been a morning person for as long as I can remember, craving the solitude when I awake as much as a strong cup of coffee. Most mornings I will read. On days when I know I’ll be in the office and not in the field, I’ll take Kona on a run with me. That morning I watched the sky, listened to the river, thought about starting a load of laundry. I still had another hour or so before Joseph would be getting up for school. Joseph is a beautiful blue-eyed boy with hair the color of sun-bleached hay. “Pet me,” he used to say, when he was competing for attention with the border collie we used to have. And so I would stroke his hair and kiss his cheeks, salty from play and the outdoors. “How much does Mama love you?” I’d say. “Big much,” he’d say, holding his arms out wide. Then I would take him to me like a mother bear with her cub.
But these days Joseph is taller than I. He’s been driving for over a month now. I try to tell myself his getting his license is a good thing, that he is growing up. But still there’s something else. Something I can’t put a name on. Something that happened so fast, I never saw it coming.