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Copper River (Cork O'Connor Mysteries)by William Ken Krueger
Henry Meloux, the old Ojibwe Mide, might tell the story this way.
He might begin by saying that the earth is alive, that all things on it — water, air, plants, rocks, even dead trees — have spirit. In the absence of wind, the grass still trembles. On days when the clouds are dense as gray wool, flowers still understand how to track the sun. Trees, when they bend, whisper to one another. In such a community of spirits, nothing goes unnoticed. Would not the forest, therefore, know that a child is about to die?
She is fourteen years, nine months, twenty-seven days old. She has never had a period, never had a boyfriend, never even had a real date. She has never eaten in a restaurant more formal than McDonald's. She has never seen a city larger than Marquette, Michigan.
She cannot remember a night when she wasn't awakened by nightmares, some dreamed, many horribly real. She cannot remember a day she was happy, although she has always been hopeful that she might find happiness, discover it like a diamond in the dust at her feet. Through all the horror of her life, she has, miraculously, held to that hope.
Now, though she is only fourteen, she is about to die. And she knows it.
Somewhere among the trees below her, the man she calls Scorpio is coming for her.
She cringes behind a pile of brush in the middle of a clear-cut hillside studded with stumps like gravestones. The morning sun has just climbed above the tops of the poplar trees that outline the clearing. The chill bite of autumn is in the air. From where she crouches high on the hill, she can see the gleam of Lake Superior miles to the north. The great inland sea beckons, and she imagines sailing away on all that empty blue, alone on a boat taking her toward a place where someone waits for her and worries, a place she has never been.
She shivers violently. Before fleeing, she grabbed a thin brown blanket, which she wrapped around her shoulders. Her feet are bare, gone numb in the long, cold night. They bleed, wounded during her flight through the woods, but she no longer feels any pain. They've become stones at the end of her ankles.
In the trees far below, a dog barks, cracking the morning calm. The girl focuses on a place two hundred yards distant where, half an hour earlier, she'd emerged from the forest and started to climb the logged-over hillside. An hour after dawn, Scorpio's dog had begun baying. When she heard the hungry sound, she knew he'd got hold of her scent. What little hope she'd held to melted instantly. After that, it was a frantic run trying to stay ahead.
Scorpio steps from the shadow of the trees. He's like a whip, thin and cruel and electric in the sunlight. She can see the glint off the blue barrel of the rifle he cradles. Snatch, his black and tan German shepherd, pads before him, nose to the earth, tracking her through the graveyard of stumps. Scorpio scans the hillside above. She thinks she can see him smile, a gash of white.
There is no sense in hiding now. In a few minutes, Scorpio will be on her. Grasshopper quick, she pops from the blind of brush and sprints toward the hilltop. Her senseless feet thud against the hard earth. She lets the blanket fall to the ground, leaves it behind her. Starved for sunlight, the skin of her face and arms looks bleached. Beneath her thin, dirty T-shirt her breasts are barely formed, but the small, fleshy mounds rise and fall dramatically as she sucks air in desperate gasps. Behind her, the dog begins a furious barking. He has seen the prey.
She crests the hill and comes to a dead end. Before her the ground falls away, a sheer drop two hundred feet to a river that's a rush of white water between jagged rocks. There is no place left to run. She casts a frenzied eye back. Scorpio lopes toward her with Snatch in the lead. To her left and right, there is only the ragged lip of the cut across the hill.
Only one way for her to go now: down.
The face of the cliff below is a rugged profile offering handholds and small ledges. There are also tufts of brush that cling tenaciously to the stone, rooted in tiny fissures. She spies a shelf ten feet below, barely wider than her foot, but it is enough. She kneels and lowers herself over the edge. Clinging to the brush and the rough knobs of stone that punctuate the cliff, she begins her descent.
The rock scrapes her skin, leaves her arms bleeding. Her toes stretch for a foothold but, numbed, feel almost nothing. Weakened by an ordeal that has gone on longer than she can remember, her strength threatens to fail her, but she does not give up. She has never given up. Whatever the horror in front of her, she has always faced it and pushed ahead. This moment is no different. She wills a place to stand. Her feet find support, a few inches of flat rock on which she eases herself down.
"Come on, sweet thing. Come on back up."
Scorpio's voice is reasonable, almost comforting. She lifts her face. He's smiling, bone-white teeth between thin, bloodless lips. Beside him, the dog snarls and snaps, foam dripping from his purple gums.
"Hush!" Scorpio orders. "Sit."
"Come on, now. Time to end this foolishness."
He lays down his rifle, bends low, and offers his hand.
In the quiet while she considers, she presses herself to the cliff where the stone still holds the cold of night. She can hear far below the hiss and roiling of the white water.
"We'll go back to the cabin," Scorpio says. "Have a little breakfast. Bet you're hungry. Now, doesn't that sound better than running over these woods, ruining those pretty little feet, freezing your ass off?"
He bends lower. His outstretched hand pushes nearer, a hand that has offered only humiliation and pain. On his wrist is a tattoo, a large black scorpion, the reason for the name she has given him in her thinking. She eyes his hairy knuckles, then looks into his face, which at the moment appears deceptively human.
"Think about it. You find a place to perch on that cliff, then what? It's not so bad out here right now. Sun's up, air's calm. But tonight it'll be close to freezing. That means you, too. You want to freeze to death? Hell, it doesn't matter anyway. I'll just leave old Snatch here to make sure you don't climb back up, go get me some rope, and come down there to get you. But I guarantee if I have to do that, I won't be in a forgiving mood. So what do you say?"
Not taking her eyes off him, she seeks a foothold farther down, somewhere out of his reach, but she cannot feel her toes. Finally, she risks a glance below her. In that instant, Scorpio's hand locks around her wrist.
He's strong, his grip powerful. He drags her kicking up the face of the rock. She struggles, screams as he wraps his arms around her. The dog dances back from the edge, barking crazily. Scorpio's breath smells of tobacco and coffee, but there's another smell coming off him, familiar and revolting. The musk odor of his sex.
"Oh, little darling," he croons, "am I going to make you pay."
She puts all her desperation, all her remaining strength, into one last effort, a violent twist that breaks her loose, sends her tumbling backward over the cliff.
The world spins. First there is blue sky, then white water, then blue sky again. She closes her eyes and spreads her arms. Suddenly she isn't falling but flying. The wind streams across her skin. Her held breath fills her like a smooth balloon. She is weightless.
For one glorious moment in her short, unhappy life, she is absolutely free.
* * *
Meloux would finish gently, pointing out, perhaps, that the fall of the smallest robin is known to the spirits of the earth, that no death goes unnoticed or unmourned, that the river has simply been waiting, and like a mother she has opened wide her arms.
Copyright © 2006 by William Kent Krueger
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