Blight County Sheriff Bo Tully stood on snowshoes atop a knoll overlooking the Blight River. It was only the second week of December, and already the snow was nearly three feet deep. Tully stood six feet two inches and was a bit stout, appearing even more so in his faded red mackinaw and bulky black wool pants. A tiny icicle hung from the droopy tip of his thick, graying mustache. He peered at the dark forest across the river. The trees were filled with eagles, newly arrived from California to feed on the run of kokanee salmon in the lake and river. The eagles' dark feathers made them almost invisible against the background of the forest, but the topknots of their heads glowed like hundreds of white Christmas tree ornaments. He turned and yelled at a skinny old man, also on snowshoes. "Pap, get over here! I got something for you to see. You can be witness to the fact I haven't gone crazy in my old age!"
Pap waddled over in the peculiar gait of a man attached to a pair of bear-paw snowshoes. He wore a red plaid wool cap with loose earflaps, a red mackinaw, and laced leather boots halfway to his knees. His pant legs were tucked into the boots. "Whatcha find, Bo? I ain't got much reputation as a witness."
Pap Tully was the smartest man Tully knew, but he put on a pretense of being a normal resident of Blight County, where ignorance was prized as a virtue. A Blight County person who read anything except out of necessity was suspect and probably dangerous. Pap was approaching eighty now, an age when one is unlikely to be found traipsing about the mountains on snowshoes. But Tully was sure the old man could still raise the average IQ in any Blight County room merely by walking into it — the more crowded the room, the better. Pap was Tully's father.
Pap had been one of a long line of corrupt and deadly Blight County sheriffs. His son, Bo Tully, had been the first sheriff to break the mold, with a career in office marked by honesty, integrity, ingenuity, and effectiveness, not to mention sending most of the county's resident criminal life off to prison at one time or another. His father, Pap, now one of the wealthiest residents of the county, viewed him as the black sheep of the family, a man destined for relative poverty amid the riches of the state, all of which could be easy pickings for a sheriff adequately bright and sufficiently corrupt. It was enough to make a father sick to his stomach.
Pap and Bo had been out doing a survey of grouse killed by an unknown predator, a project they had taken on as a service to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "I just found another pile of grouse feathers next to a tree," Pap said, coming up beside Tully. "I don't reckon it was killed there and eaten raw by a human."
"I hope not," Tully said. "If so, I don't want to meet the human, although several possible suspects come to mind. Now look down there, Pap, at that island in the middle of the river."
The old man pulled down the bill of his cap and squinted at the island. It was covered with snow, the top layer fresh, probably having fallen in the last few days. In it he could see the clear outline of a large circle. "Weird," he said. "No doubt the work of some kids."
Tully nodded. "That's what I thought at first. But notice, there are no tracks going to or coming from the circle. Also, anyone making it would have had to wade out to the island or try to land a boat on it, a maneuver in those swift currents and shallow water on both sides that would make a landing mighty tricky. Also, the circle is perfectly round, as if drawn in the snow with a giant protractor. Can you make out that dark spot right in the middle, where the point of the protractor must have been stuck?"
"Yeah! Kind of spooky, ain't it? Had to have been done by somebody hanging over it, maybe from a helicopter."
"Couldn't be a helicopter," Tully said. "That would have blown all the snow off the island."
"Makes it even more spooky. That circle must be over six feet across. Maybe it was made by one of them flying saucers. I read somewhere they're suspected of making circles in wheat fields."
"Good point. I wouldn't write off flying saucers myself. I saw one once, you know."
Pap gave his son an uneasy glance. "I didn't know that."
"Yeah, I did. I was seventeen years old and working on that crew constructing a power line over the Cabinet Mountains. There had been quite a few saucer sightings reported around the country that summer, so I had been hoping I might see one. Because I was the youngest and most useless member of the crew, the foreman sent me back to our previous site to pick up a tool that had been left behind. When I returned with the tool, coming up around a steep curve on the mountain, I saw a huge saucer hanging almost over the crew, no higher than the tops of the fir trees nearby. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, glowing all silvery and perfectly still. It was huge, and its occupants were obviously interested in what our crew was up to. But all of the men were down on their knees bolting together the steel leg of a tower. Not one of them would look up. I couldn't believe they weren't astounded by the sight. I blurted out, 'What is that thing, anyway?' One guy down on the far end of the leg, without looking up, said, 'It's a weather balloon.' Well, I knew it wasn't a weather balloon, but I didn't want to be fired for standing around gawking at the thing, so I dropped down and started poking bolts in holes. When I looked up again, it was gone, vanished without a sound. No one on the crew ever mentioned it. I guess some folks just don't like to see things they don't believe in."
"That's right," Pap said. "I'm one of them."
"Well, you've seen this circle, and I need a witness to the fact, someone who can testify I'm not going crazy."
"What circle is that, Bo?"
Tully shook his head. "Let's get back to our grouse survey. How many signs of dead grouse have we found so far?"
Pap pulled a twisted wad of paper out of his pants pocket and checked it. "The last sign I spotted came to nine for this knoll alone. The predator keeps up this pace there won't be no grouse left at all. You think maybe the eagles are killing and eating them?"
Tully thought about this. "Naw, eagles are too big. They would crash and burn, flying into a tree to pick off a grouse. Has to be something smaller, maybe a chicken hawk."
"That's a red-tailed hawk," Pap said. "But they're small enough to zoom into a tree and pick off a grouse."
"Yeah," Tully said. "A red-tail seems about right. On the other hand, I'd rather keep a hawk around than a grouse any day. A grouse isn't much of a step up from a chicken when it comes to intelligence. A hawk is practically a genius compared to a grouse." He turned from the river and started tramping across the clearing behind him. Suddenly he stopped, noticing a flutter in the snow near the wood line. "Some feathers over there, Pap."
"Yeah, I just saw them myself. What the devil! I think that's the tip of an arrow sticking out of the snow!"
They plodded over to the object. "It's an arrow, all right," Tully said. He squatted down on his snowshoes and tugged on the tip of the shaft. The arrow didn't budge. "Must be stuck in a log. Step off your snowshoes, Pap, and use one of them to shovel out what it's stuck to."
Imitating a child's voice, Pap said, "I don't wanna, Bo."
Tully glared at him. "Oh, all right, I'll do it myself. Should've known better than to go out snowshoeing with a sissy."
He unfastened his snowshoes and stepped off, sinking into the snow halfway up to his hips. The grainy snow pushed up the legs of his long underwear and rasped against his skin. He bent down and used one of his snowshoes to fling away large scoops of snow.
Pap looked down on him as he worked. "Don't know how somebody could shoot an arrow into a log and have it stand straight up like that."
Tully stopped shoveling. "Good point, Pap. Maybe I should wait until I get one of the deputies up here. They enjoy all this grisly stuff." He began scooping the snow back with tiny motions. After a bit he stopped and looked up at the old man. "What we have here is a body, shot through the back with an arrow. I've investigated a few murders in my time, but this is the first to employ an arrow." He used the snowshoe to shovel out a space so he could squat down next to the body.
Pap looked down from his perch atop the snowshoes. "Could be an accident."
Tully shook his head. "Bow hunters don't do accidents. Rifle hunters are known to, but not bow hunters. When a hunter draws an arrow on something, he knows precisely what he's aiming at. It's a whole lot different from some idiot snapping off a quick shot with a rifle. We'd better get the medical examiner up here pronto." He stood up and pulled out his cell phone. "We have a murder on our hands."
Pap's shoulders sagged. "Tell Susan to bring along a carrier that scoots along on the surface of the snow. And for her crew to wear snowshoes, because I ain't helpin' with this job."
Tully frowned and spoke into the phone. "This is the sheriff, Ginny. Get me Susan, please."
"One second, Bo. She's out in the back room doing some stuff."
"Doing some stiff?" Tully said.
"No, Sheriff, not stiff! Stuff!"
"Oh, sorry. I never know what might be going on in that morgue of yours." He winked at Pap, who grinned back.
The medical examiner picked up. "What is it this time, Bo?"
"Looks like we've got a murder up here along the river, Susan. At least murder is my guess right now. I'll await your expert opinion. The body has an arrow going right through between the shoulder blades and probably all the way to the back of the breastplate. Doesn't strike me as a suicide."
"An arrow! Anybody you know?"
"Haven't seen the face and don't plan on doing so until you get up here. We're on the South River Road about a mile past Trapper Creek. You'll see my Explorer parked off to the side."
"Gotcha, Bo. Should be there with my crew in about an hour. See you then."
"The snow is deep here, Susan, so you'd better come prepared with snowshoes and a toboggan or something you can use to haul the body out over the snow."
"We'll come prepared. Don't mess with the body."
"There you go again, spoiling the little fun I get."
ully heard the sound of a vehicle pulling up and stopping. He turned and looked. It wasn't one of the ME's. It was a battered old black pickup truck with SILVER TIP MINER printed on the door of the cab in big white letters. A pudgy little man got out, threw down a pair of cross-country skis, and began gliding directly toward Tully. It was August Finn, the editor and only reporter for the Silver Tip Miner weekly newspaper. Augie was a major thorn in Tully's psyche. One of the people in the medical examiner's office must have tipped him off. Tully estimated that Augie had hundreds of tipsters scattered around the county. They no doubt were the reason he was able single-handedly to fill his newspaper each week. Tully actually enjoyed the paper, except when it featured him.
Augie glided up on his skis. Tully glared at him. "Who was it?"
Augie gave him his surprised look. "Who, Bo?"
"You know who. Who in the ME's office tipped you we have a murder out here?"
"A murder! What a stroke of luck! I just happened to be passing by and saw your rig parked alongside the road. Is that the body half-buried down there in the snow?"
Tully's shoulders sagged in surrender. "Yes, Augie, that's the body. Don't take another step closer to it. Otherwise, I will have to shoot you for disturbing a crime scene, not to mention I would simply enjoy it. So put that camera away."
The reporter laughed and slid the camera back inside his jacket. "I see you've got your father looking after you, Sheriff. How you doing, Pap?"
"Great, Augie! Nothing I like better than a good murder."
"Me neither. Okay, Bo, I'll wait until the ME gets here and takes over. She's much more flexible."
"It was Susan who tipped you to the murder, wasn't it?"
"Susan who, Bo?"
The medical examiner's white Suburban, emergency lights flashing, pulled up and stopped on the road. A black hearse pulled in behind it. Tully, Pap, and Augie stood next to the pile of snow by the hole, all three hunched over with their hands in their pockets. With great difficulty, Tully had managed to climb out of the hole and get his snowshoes back on. Three attendants and Susan got out of the van and strapped on snowshoes, the modern kind with aluminum frames and pink plastic in place of webbing. Neither Tully, Pap, nor Augie would have been caught dead wearing such contraptions, although they knew the modern devices were lighter and more maneuverable than what they were wearing, snowshoes of bent hickory frames and leather webbing, probably used by the first mountain men to hike over the Rockies. They were partially held together with bailing wire, not that there was anything wrong with that.
Susan and her assistants, Hap Rogers, Glenn Duncan, and Willy Sims, plodded over, none of them displaying any indication they had ever worn snowshoes before. Two of the assistants carried shovels and one pulled a long aluminum half shell apparently intended for hauling the body back to the hearse, the driver of which leaned against his vehicle smoking a cigarette as he watched the proceedings from a distance.
Susan stopped at the edge of the hole. With the snow Tully had flung out around its edges, it was now over four feet deep. She gazed down into it, a wisp of her blond hair drifting in the breeze. She pursed her lips. "This is my first arrow shooting."
"Mine, too," Tully said, glancing at Susan. She was extraordinarily pretty, particularly for a medical examiner. He wouldn't mind renewing his affair with her. So many women, so little time. Susan smiled at Augie. "As usual, I see the Silver Tip Miner is one of the first at the scene. How are you, Augie?" "Great, Susan. I just happened to be passing by when I saw Bo's rig parked out on the road."
Tully frowned. "You use this road often to get to town?"
"Oh yeah, Bo, maybe every other day. It does away with some of the monotony of driving the same old highway between Silver Tip and Blight City day after day."
Tully nodded. "So you don't mind that the South River Road is across the river from Silver Tip and you have to drive twenty extra miles just to hit the bridges."
Susan smiled, then said, "Glenn, you and Willy drop down in the hole and shovel the snow away on one side of the body, wide enough so we can get the shell in there next to it. Then I'll send Hap down. He can take the feet. Glenn and Will, each of you take a shoulder, and the three of you lift it straight up and lay it face down in the tub. Keep it as flat and straight as you can. I'm sure it's frozen solid, so that shouldn't be a problem. Don't mess with the arrow."
"We weren't about to," Glenn said. He and Willy took off their snowshoes and slid into the hole.
Interesting, Tully thought, the dead man has already become an "it."
A large crow flew over and landed on a treetop in the woods next to them. Bobbing back and forth, it began to caw furiously, staring down at the scene. Tully looked up at it and muttered, "Yeah yeah, I know, old fellow, you saw the whole thing go down. Too bad none of us speaks crow."
Apparently disgusted by lack of interest in its report, the crow flew off. Tully stared after it, tugging on the icy corner of his mustache. Birds were such strange creatures. Weird, actually.
A breeze had come up and the chill of it shot through Tully's mackinaw. He thrust his hands into his pockets and shivered as he watched the three young men work. He wished he had worn gloves. Pap had long ago taught him that gloves were for sissies, and he had never felt comfortable wearing them, particularly when Pap was in the vicinity. It now occurred to him that maybe Pap was simply too cheap to buy gloves for the family. He glanced at the old man. Pap was watching the activity in the hole with keen interest. Nothing aroused his father's interest more than a good murder.
Once the snow had been shoveled away, Susan slid the shell down and the three assistants lifted the corpse into it, the arrow sticking straight up. Tully and Pap pulled on ropes fastened to each end of the shell and the three assistants lifted and pushed from the bottom. Soon the aluminum carrier was sliding atop the piled snow.
Tully glanced around, looking for the Silver Tip newsman. He found him standing a ways back from the hole, furiously snapping photos. The urge came over him to walk over, rip the camera out of Augie's hands, and stomp it into the snow. It would have been immensely satisfying, except he would regret the action when he read about it on the front page of the Silver Tip Miner.