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Start Reading “Power Wagon” by C.J. Box from The Highway Kind

Oct 10, 2016 in Excerpts, Short Stories

The Highway KindNext week we publish a short story collection called The Highway Kind, an anthology edited by Patrick Millikin with a unique premise: the world’s bestselling and critically acclaimed writers share thrilling crime stories about cars, driving, and the road. We’ve got new stories by Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Diana Gabaldon, and C.J. Box, who contributed the story “Power Wagon” excerpted below.

A single headlight strobed through a copse of ten-foot willows on the other side of the overgrown horse pasture. Marissa unconsciously laced her fingers over her pregnant belly and said, “Brandon, there’s somebody out there.”

“What?” Brandon said. He was at the head of an old kitchen table that had once fed a half dozen ranch hands breakfast and dinner. A thick ledger book was open in front of him and Brandon had moved a lamp from the family room next to the table so he could read.

“I said, somebody is out there. A car or something. I saw a headlight.”

“Just one?”

“Just one.”

Brandon placed his index finger on an entry in the ledger book so he wouldn’t lose his place. He looked up.

“Don’t get freaked out. It’s probably a hunter or somebody who’s lost.”

“What if they come to the house?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess we help them out.”

“Maybe I should shut off the lights,” she said.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said. “They probably won’t even come here. They’re probably just passing through.”

“But to where?” she asked.

She had a point, he conceded. The old two-track beyond the willows was a private road, part of the ranch, and it led to a series of four vast mountain meadows and the foothills of the Wyoming range. Then it trailed off in the sagebrush.

“I saw it again,” she said.

He could tell she was scared even though there really wasn’t any reason to be, he thought. But saying “Calm down” or “Don’t worry” wouldn’t help the situation, he knew. If she was scared, she was scared. She wasn’t used to being so isolated—she’d grown up in Chicago and Seattle—and he couldn’t blame her.

Brandon found a pencil on the table and starred the entry he was on to mark where he’d stopped and pushed back his chair. The feet of it scraped the old linoleum with a discordant note.

He joined her at the window and put his hand on her shoulder. When he looked out, though, all he could see was utter darkness. He’d forgotten how dark it could be outside when the only ambient light was from stars and the moon. Unfortunately, storm clouds masked both.

“Maybe he’s gone,” she said, “whoever it was.”

A log snapped in the fireplace and in the silent house it sounded like a gunshot. Brandon felt Marissa jump at the sound.

“You’re tense,” he said.

“Of course I am,” she responded. There was anger in her voice. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere without phone or Internet and somebody’s out there driving around. Trespassing. They probably don’t even know we’re here, so what are they doing?”

He leaned forward until his nose was a few inches from the glass. He could see snowflakes on the other side. There was enough of a breeze that it was snowing horizontally. The uncut grass in the yard was spotted white, and the horse meadow had turned from dull yellow to gray in the starlight.

Then a willow was illuminated and a lone headlight curled around it. The light lit up the horizontal snow as it ghosted through the brush and the bare cottonwood trees. Snowflakes looked like errant sparks in the beam. The light snow appeared as low-hanging smoke against the stand of willows.

“He’s coming this way,” she said. She pressed into him.

“I’ll take care of it,” Brandon said. “I’ll see what he wants and send him packing.”

She looked up at him with scared eyes and rubbed her belly. He knew she did that when she was nervous. The baby was their first and she was unsure and overprotective about the pregnancy.

During the day, while he’d pored over the records inside, she’d wandered through the house, the corrals, and the outbuildings and had come back and declared the place “officially creepy, like a mausoleum.” The only bright spot in her day, she said, was discovering a nest of day-old naked baby mice that she’d brought back to the house in a rusty metal box. She said she wanted to save them if she could figure out how.

Brandon knew baby mice in the house was a bad idea, but he welcomed the distraction. Marissa was feeling maternal, even about mice.

“Don’t forget,” he said, “I grew up in this house.”

The old man hadn’t died at the ranch but at a senior center in Big Piney, population 552, which was eighteen miles away. He’d gone into town for lunch at the center because he never missed it when they served fish and chips and he died after returning to his table from the buffet. He’d slumped forward into his meal. The attendants had to wipe tartar sauce from his cheek before wheeling him into the room where they kept the defibrillator. But it was too late.

Two days later, Brandon’s sister, Sally, called him in Denver at the accounting firm where he worked.

“That’s impossible,” Brandon said when he heard the news. “He was too mean to die.”

Sally told Brandon it wasn’t a nice thing to say even if it was true.

“He left the ranch to us kids,” she said. “I’ve talked to Will and Trent and of course nobody wants it. But because you’re the accountant, we decided you should go up there and inventory everything in the house and outbuildings so we can do a big farm auction. Then we can talk about selling the ranch. Trent thinks McMiller might buy it.”

Jake McMiller was the owner of the neighboring ranch and he’d always made it clear he wanted to expand his holdings. The old man had said, “Over my dead body will that son of a bitch get my place.”

So . . .

“Do I get a say in this or is it already decided?” Brandon had asked Sally.

“It’s already decided.”

“Nothing ever changes, does it?” Brandon asked.

“I guess not,” she said, not without sympathy.

Will and Trent were Brandon’s older brothers. They were fraternal twins. Both had left home the day they turned eighteen. Will was now a state employee for Wyoming in Cheyenne, and Trent owned a bar in Jackson Hole. Both were divorced and neither had been back to the ranch in over twenty-five years. Sally, the third oldest, had left as well, although she did come in from South Florida to visit the place every few years. After she’d been there, she’d send out a group letter to her brothers confirming the same basic points:

The old man was as mean and bitter as ever.

He was still feuding with his neighbor Jake McMiller in court over water rights and road access.

He was spending way too much time drinking and carousing in town with his hired man Dwayne Pingston, who was a well-known petty criminal.

As far as the old man was concerned, he had no sons, and he still planned to will them the ranch in revenge for their leaving it.

The brothers had been so traumatized by their childhood they rarely spoke to each other about it. Sally was the intermediary in all family business because when the brothers talked on the phone or were in the presence of each other, strong, dark feelings came back.

Like the time the old man had left Will and Trent on top of a mountain in the snow because they weren’t cutting firewood into the right-size lengths. Or when the old man “slipped” and branded Trent on his left thigh with a red-hot iron.

Or the nightmare night when Will, Trent, Sally, Brandon, and their mother huddled in the front yard in a blinding snowstorm while the old man berated them from the front porch with his rifle out, accusing one or all of them of drinking his Ancient Age bourbon. He knew it, he said, because he’d marked the level in the bottle the night before. He railed at them most of the night while sucking down three-quarters of a quart of Jim Beam he’d hidden in the garage. When he finally passed out, the family had to step over his body on the way back into the house. Brandon still remembered how terrified he was stepping over the old man’s legs. He was afraid the man would regain his wits at that moment and pull him down.

The next day, Will and Trent turned eighteen and left before breakfast.

When their mother started complaining of sharp abdominal pains, the old man refused to take her into town to see the doctor he considered a quack. She died two days later of what turned out to be a burst appendix.

When the Department of Family Services people arrived on the ranch after that, the old man pointed at Sally and Brandon and said, “Take ’em. Get ’em out of my hair.”

Brandon had not been back to the ranch since that day.

“It’s a car with one headlight out,” Brandon said to Marissa. “You stay in here and I’ll go and deal with it.”

“Take a gun,” she said.

He started to argue with her but thought better of it. Everyone in Sublette County was armed, so he had to presume the driver of the approaching car was too.

“I wish the phone worked,” she said as he strode through the living room to the old man’s den.

“Me too,” he said.

Apparently, as they’d discovered when they arrived that morning, the old man hadn’t paid his phone bill and had never installed a wireless Internet router. The electricity was still on, although Brandon found three months of unpaid bills from the local power co-op. There was no cell service this far out.

Brandon fought back long- buried emotions as he entered the den and flipped on the light. It was exactly as he remembered it: mounted elk and deer heads, black-and-white photos of the old man when he was a young man, shelves of unread books, a lariat and a pair of ancient spurs on the wall. The calendar behind the desk was three years old.

He could see a half a dozen rifles and shotguns behind the glass of the gun cabinet. Pistols inside were hung upside down by pegs through their trigger guards. He recognized a 1911 Colt .45. It was the old man’s favorite handgun and he always
kept it loaded.

But the cabinet was locked. Brandon was surprised. Since when did the old man lock his gun cabinet? He quickly searched the top of the desk. No keys. He threw open the desk
drawers. There was a huge amount of junk crammed into them and he didn’t have time to root through it all.

He could break the glass, he thought.

That’s when Marissa said, “They’re getting out of the car, Brandon. There’s a bunch of them.” Her tone was panicked.

What happens next? Pick up a copy of The Highway Kind on October 18th for the rest of the story!

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