First Chapter Book Award Finalist: Trail Ride by Jean Lauzier

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Trail Ride by Jean Lauzier is a Finalist in the Mystery/Thriller category of Works in Progress for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

Award-Winning First Chapter

“Shhh…. We don’t want to wake everyone.” It’d been a while since we’d gone for a ride and Sterling was eager to be off. I held him to a swift walk until the edge of the pines, then gave him his head. He broke in to a canter. The pine needles muffled his hoof beats, his breath visible before him. The rhythm of his canter rocked away the stress of the past week. Too soon, the trees thinned and Sterling slowed to a trot. At the edge of a highline right of way, he jerked to a halt.

“What’s the matter, fella?” I nudged him with my heels. He tossed his head, crab-stepped into the clearing, and came to another halt. He snorted; ears pricked forward, tips almost touching.

“What is it, big guy? Smell something nasty?” Probably that skunk I ran off last night. He took a step backward, mouthing the bit.

Jean Lauzier
Jean Lauzier

Buzzards rose from nearby bushes and circled. Black against the grey dawn.

“Great, something dead.” A deer most likely. One that had been shot but managed to get away. Scanning the clearing, I saw the body by a power pole. It wasn’t a deer.

I slid from the saddle and wrapped the reins around a low limb. “Stay here, and be quiet.”

The buzzards settled back on their perches and squabbled among themselves. Nothing else stirred. I sprinted across the clearing, knelt next to the body.

“What happened to you?” He’d been dead for a while and the scavengers had already started on him. Blood soaked his ripped and shredded hunting fatigues along with the ground where he lay. In one hand, he clutched a rifle. Grass lay in clumps and claw marks showed in the bare dirt. I stared at the scrapes. What the hell had made those? I gazed back at the body. “What were you doing out here, and were you alone?” He didn’t answer.

Sterling snorted and raked the ground with a hoof. I glanced around the clearing. A small rabbit darted between several pines then back into the brush. A buzzard landed nearby, hissed, then hopped toward me. Time to call Jack.

Uncle Jack’s desk at City Hall was number one on my speed dial, his home phone number two. After checking my watch, I picked number two. Waiting for the call to go through gave me time to study the victim.

He appeared to be in his late fifties and ready for a day of hunting. I circled the body, studying the ground. Only scrapes and claw marks. As I halted at the hunter’s feet, the buzzards took to the sky. My gaze rested on Sterling. He stared wide-eyed in my direction, snorted, tried to rear. He jerked his head. Pulled the reins from the limb. I turned to see what bothered him.

“Oh sh…. Go away!” I waved my arms. Yelled again. It took a step toward me so I pulled Betsy and sent a warning shot over its head.

It stood on his hind legs and roared. I fired again, this time aiming for the chest. It dropped to all-fours, lowered its head, and charged. Aiming for his face, I squeezed the trigger. The pounding of his feet and throaty growl blocked out the sounds of bullets impacting flesh, but blood spray let me know I was hitting him. My magazine emptied and the trigger clicked uselessly. It stumbled and slowed. Continued to close in. I took a step backward reaching for a second magazine. He stumbled again. Collapsed. Tried to stagger to his feet. He gave a shudder then was still. Black beady eyes stared up at me, his last breath hissed from an open wound to his chest.

I reloaded Betsy while watching the bear. He looked dead, but I nudged his foot with my boot to make sure. Yep, dead. At least the mystery of what happened to the hunter had been solved. That didn’t explain how the bear got here in the first place. Someone called my name. My phone lay in the grass nearby. I picked it up.

“Jack, Jack.” It took a moment to get his attention. “I’m okay. Honest. But I need an ambulance and a game warden.”

Sterling stood off a ways tossing his head. “It’s okay, fella. Come here.” He snorted but remained at the edge of the clearing. I headed toward him. “Honest Jack, I’m fine. I’ll give you directions when you’re ready.”

*

“You can’t stay out of trouble, can you?” Uncle Jack stared at the bear and ran a hand through his greying hair.

“Not my fault this time.” I shrugged. Most of the grey had probably been caused by me. Normally the DryLake Marshal’s job involved traffic tickets and the occasional drunken brawl but lately, it’d been stressful.

“What the hell was a bear doing here, Jack?”

“He’s a big one. What do you think, almost six foot nose to tail?” He nudged it with a scuffed boot. “Maybe three hundred pounds.”

“He looked huge coming at me. I thought he’d never go down.”

“You were lucky.” He nodded toward the hunter. “That guy, not so much.”

While waiting for the Game Warden to arrive, Jack and I processed the body. Our victim had no wallet or anything in his pockets so we did fingerprints on a ten card. Jack walked the area while I took photos. Right as I finished, Jack called my name. He stood about 100 yards away, just before the right of way turned to the left. He waved a hand for me to join him. I hurried to where he stood.

“I know how the bear got here.”

“How?”

He nodded over his shoulder. We strode around the curve, and I got my answer. A large metal cage sat in the middle of the clearing. He’d been brought here. Brought to be killed and put in someone’s trophy room. While I took more photos, Jack retrieved the crime scene kit and brought his truck.

I managed to pull a couple clean prints from the cage but didn’t hold much hope in matching them with anyone. Maybe we’d get lucky though. We loaded the cage in Jack’s truck and returned to the bodies.

I knelt next to the bear, stroked his head. “Sorry, fella. I’ll get the bastard that did this to you.” A Hummer pulled into the clearing and parked next to Jack’s truck. Nate Parker stepped from the driver’s side. A blonde female in a Game Warden’s uniform fell into step with him. Jack and I waited for them to join us.

“Damn. When you said bear, I thought you were pulling my leg.” He shook hands with Jack then hugged me. “How you doing, Annie?”

“Better now.” I’d met Nate soon after he’d graduated Game Warden training. His first assignment had been checking deer tags. I was seven and just made my first kill. He’d been calling me Annie Oakley ever since.

He nodded toward the female that stood off to his side. “This is Regina Shaw. She recently graduated. Shaw, this is DryLake Marshal, Jack Heatherly and Deputy Marshal, Cande Hernandez.”

She shook hands with Jack and did the nice-to-meet-you routine. When she shook my hand, she squeezed harder than necessary then released it as if my touch burned. “You killed the bear?”

I shrugged. “He tried to kill me, so it seemed fair.”

“You know Black Bear are endangered. Killing them is illegal.” Shaw pulled a citation pad and pen from her pocket. “You won’t go to jail, but there’s a big fine.”

“Seriously? You’re going to write me a ticket?”

Nate cleared his throat. “That won’t be necessary, Shaw.”

“But sir, she killed an endangered species. It’s our job to protect the animals. Even from cops.”

“I said, that won’t be necessary.” Nate glared at Shaw until she lowered her eyes. “Go get a tape measure and camera so we can document everything.”

“Yes, sir.”

We watched her stomp toward the Hummer.

“Sorry, Annie. She’s a bit over enthusiastic. Now, tell me what happened.”

By the time Shaw returned, I’d filled him in. They measured the bear and were taking photos when an ambulance arrived. Once the EMT’s had left with the hunter’s body, we helped Nate roll the bear onto a tarp and load it in the Hummer. I glanced at Shaw who glared back.

“Hey, Nate. How do I go about getting that hide? I want to put it in my foyer and walk on it every day.”

Nate laughed as he strolled to the driver’s door. “You take care, Annie. I’ll give you a call in a day or two.”

Shaw stood with one foot in the hummer, a hand on her hip. She nodded and patted her citation book. “This isn’t over yet.”

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