An Excerpt from Murder on the Middle Fork
Copyright © 2005 Bridge House Books. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Middle Fork of the Salmon River, November 1917
Frieda concentrated with all she had in the desperate hope that the mother elk would pick up on her silent warning. Go. Lead your young’in away— now. Please, please go.
Trying to hold the rifle steady on the rock, she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking. The elk and her calf just continued grazing on the patch of dry grass.
Jack leaned close to her ear and hissed through his teeth, “Hold it still, goddammit.” The river’s clamor and splash covered the sound.
“I'm tryin’, Jack. I’m tryin’.” She had watched the band of elk many times and knew this particular cow was a very attentive mother. The calf wasn’t weaned yet.
Jack stayed at her ear. “Shoot the cow. Do it!”
My God, the calf’d starve. I can’t . . . She squeezed her eyes shut and jerked her finger back on the trigger. The rifle’s loud report sent the cow and calf bounding into the dark shadows of the trees. Frieda sagged with relief.
Snatching the rifle, Jack yanked her to her feet, grabbed her chin, and forced her to look him in the eye. “Happy, are ya? That much meat coulda fed us for a damn month!” He threw her chin aside.
“I know, Jack, I—”
The flat of his hand came out of the dark and stunned her with a slap that made her ears ring. She staggered to stay on her feet, putting a hand on her burning cheek.
“Life up here’s a bitch, woman, and your soft little heart could starve us out. What’s gonna happen if I break a leg, huh? Or come down real sick? You think you got it in you to take up the slack?”
He made that loud bark of disgust in his chest, then yelled in her face, “WORTHLESS FEMALE!” The words echoed repeatedly off the canyon walls.
As always when he struck her, her insides quivered and she seemed to lose her ability to think. “I—I’m sorry. I’ll fix us a nice supper tonight.”
“What’s this ‘us’ shit, Frieda. You’ll fix it good as you know how, then watch me eat. You don’t deserve any!” He prodded her with the rifle barrel. “Now git on back home. Long as I’m out a’ bed, I’ll hunt up somethin’ for supper. Gonna be a bitch now that every four-legged critter from here to Salmon City’s hightailed it.”
When she had gone some distance away from him, Frieda breathed in deeply the chill air of the early morning. The fragrance of sage and pine restored her ability to think. It opened her to the clean freshness of these mountains, free from the way Jack was. But with him up and about, she probably wouldn’t have time to watch the sun come down the canyon wall.
She returned to the stale-smelling half-cave, half-cabin just long enough to start a fire in the makeshift stove, then took the bucket and walked down the path to the little eddy behind a boulder at the edge of the river. The warm old fleece-lined coat that she wore had belonged to Jack. It was loose fitting in the shoulders, which made the sleeves too long even though she was as tall as her husband. She pulled up the right sleeve to keep it from getting wet as she dipped her bucket into the river. A wet sleeve would freeze in an instant and be a nuisance.
Her sensitive nose picked up the scent of elk lingering in the air. Seeing the shadows of tracks she set the bucket down and felt the depressions in the coarse sand. Some of the band of elk that was spending the cold season in her part of the canyon had recently come here for a drink, maybe when she’d had that bead on the cow. The cow and calf belonged to them, and Frieda smiled to think of the cow’s friends stealing a drink right in front of the dugout while Jack and Frieda were out. Of course by now they’d be far away, maybe telling each other what had happened, maybe joking about it. Jack had killed elk from this band before, and he would again. It was nature’s way. People needed meat. She liked meat too, but just couldn’t make herself do the killing. Jack was probably right when he said something wasn’t right with her head.