An excerpt of Iron Lake, the first in the Cork O’Connor detective mystery series by William Kent Krueger.
Part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor is the former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota—population 3,752. Embittered by his “former” status, and the marital meltdown that has separated him from his children, Cork gets by on heavy doses of caffeine, nicotine, and guilt. Once a cop on Chicago’s South Side, he’s found that there’s not much left in life that can shock him. But when the town’s judge, Robert Parrant, is brutally murdered, and Eagle Scout Paul LeBeau is reported missing, Cork takes on a mind-jolting case of conspiracy, corruption, and scandal.
Cork O’Connor first heard the story of the Windigo in the fall of 1965 when he hunted the big bear with Sam Winter Moon. He was fourteen and his father was dead a year.
Sam Winter Moon had set a bear trap that autumn along a deer trail that ran from the stream called Widow’s Creek to an old logged-over area full of blueberries. He’d found scat at the creek and along the trail and in the blueberry meadow when the berries were ripe. The trap was made as it had been in old times. Against a tree, Sam built a narrow enclosure of branches with a single opening. Over the entrance he suspended a heavy log secured to a spring pole. The trap was baited with a mash of cooked fish, fish oils, and a little maple syrup. It was the first time Sam had ever built a bear trap—a nearly lost Ojibwe tradition—and he’d invited Cork to help him with the process. Cork had no interest in it. Since his father’s death, nothing interested him. He figured Sam’s invitation had nothing to do with both of them learning the old ways together. It was just another good-intentioned effort to make him forget his grief, something Corcoran O’Connor didn’t want to do. In a way, he was afraid that to let go of the grieving would be to let go of his father forever. Still, out of politeness, he accepted Sam Winter Moon’s offer.
Late in the afternoon, they found the trap sprung, but the bear was not in it. They could see where the animal had fallen, slammed down by the weight of the great log, which, when they’d hauled and set it, Sam had calculated at over three hundred pounds. The log should have broken the bear’s back. Any normal black bear should have been there for them, pinned under the log, dead or almost dead. The trap was sprung. The log had fallen. But the bear had shrugged it off.
Sam Winter Moon turned to the boy gravely. “I expect it’s hurt,” he said. “I got to go after it.”
He looked away from Cork and didn’t say anything about the boy going.
“A bear like that,” Cork said, “a bear that can bounce a tree off his back, he’d be worth seeing.”
Sam Winter Moon knelt and ran his hand over the deep indentation the animal’s great paws had made in the soft ground. “Risky,” he said. He looked up at the boy. “If you come, you got to do exactly as I say.”
“I will,” Cork promised, feeling excited about something for the first time in a year. “Exactly.”
They fasted the rest of the day and breathed in the smoke of a cedar fire. At first light next morning, they blackened their faces with the cedar ash, a sign to the spirits of the deep woods that they had purified themselves. Sam tied back his long black-and-gray hair with a leather cord ornamented with a single eagle feather. They smoked tobacco and red willow leaves mixed with powdered aster root as a hunting charm, then covered themselves with tallow made of various animal fats to disguise their scent from the bear. In a small deer-hide sack that Sam hung on his back, he packed more tallow, matches, a whetstone, and a box of 180-grain cartridges for his rifle. He looked a little doubtfully at the cartridges. His was a .30-06 bolt-action Winchester. Fine for deer and small bears, he told Cork. But a bear like the one they were after, a bear that could shrug off a tree, that was something else. He gave Cork a canvas pack with bedrolls, cooking utensils, cooked wild rice, coffee, salt, and deer jerky. Finally he put in several long leather cords so that if they were given the bear, they could lash its body to a travois and cart it to a road where he could retrieve it with his truck. He hung his Green River hunting knife on his belt and slung his rifle over his shoulder.
At the sprung trap, they made a circle, looking for vegetation flattened in the bear’s passage. Sam found a sign, a clear line where the fallen birch leaves were pressed into the soft earth underneath, and they followed north, where the bear had gone.
Every fall Sam Winter Moon killed one bear. The smoked bear meat he shared with the other people on the Iron Lake Reservation, especially the elders who could not hunt or trap anymore but who still enjoyed the taste of the fat, richly flavored meat. He also shared the meat with Cork’s family. Cork’s mother was half Anishinaabe, and his father, although he was white, had been Sam’s friend for many years. The skins Sam sometimes sold for bounty, but more often he kept them for himself. He was grateful to the black bears for the meat they gave to him and the people of his band, but he told Cork, as they followed the trail that fall, that he would be grateful even for just a glimpse of this great animal who’d shrugged off the log trap as if it were no more than a small bothersome thing.
Bears, Sam cautioned him, were the most difficult animals of the woods to track and to kill. They had decent eyes, good ears, and the best nose of any animal alive. They were smart, too. And if they were hurt, there was nothing a man would ever go against that was more dangerous. He loved hunting the bears. He appreciated the ritual of the hunt that joined hunter and hunted together with the land that was the mother of both man and bear. He enjoyed the challenge of tracking, using his own knowledge of the animal and the woods instead of hunting with dogs the way white men did.
Sam stopped occasionally to look carefully at the soft earth or vegetation. Near noon, they found a stump where the bear had dug for grubs, and later a branch from an oak broken off to get the acorns.
The sky was clear blue, the air cool and still, the great woods full of the russet and gold of late fall. They moved quickly and Cork was filled with excitement. His stomach growled loudly from the fasting and he rustled the dry leaves as he walked. Sam said not to worry too much about the noise he made. A bear, especially a big one, would not be much concerned with sounds. The smell of a man, that was the thing to keep from a bear. Sam hoped they would be able to come at the animal from downwind. If not, he hoped the tallow would mask them.
They were led into the late afternoon. Cork realized he had no idea where they were in the great forest. He asked Sam if he knew these woods, and Sam said no. They’d passed out of reservation land and were now in what the white men called the Quetico-Superior Wilderness. This part of the forest Sam had never been through. But he didn’t seem worried. At sunset they stopped and built a fire at the edge of a stream. Sam heated the wild rice, which they ate with the deer jerky. When the sky turned black and full of stars and the chill of the fall night crept over them, he made coffee and poured it into tin cups for them to drink.
“Will the bear get away while we sleep?” Cork asked.
Sam settled the old coffeepot in the embers at the fire’s edge. He stirred the fire with a stick. “The bear’s got to sleep, too. We’ve been guided well today. I think that’s a good sign.” He paused while the flames sprang up around the end of the stick. “But, you know, I been thinking. This bear’s moving pretty good. Doesn’t seem like that log hurt it much after all. A bear like that, well—” He glanced at the boy. “I been thinking it’d be a shame to kill it. If we even could.”
“I’d like to see it,” Cork said.
“Me, too.” Sam smiled. “And I believe we will.”
Suddenly the old pot hopped and slid across the coals, startling Cork so that he jerked and spilled his coffee.
Sam Winter Moon looked around them, then up at the sky. His voice dropped to a whisper. “A Windigo’s passing close by.”
Cork wiped at his leg where the coffee had burned him through his jeans. “What’s a Windigo?”
In the firelight, Sam Winter Moon’s dark eyes were deadly serious and a little afraid.
“You don’t know about the Windigo?” he asked the boy. “You’ve lived in this country all your life and you don’t know about the Windigo?” He shook his head as if that were a dreadful thing.
Corcoran O’Connor sat on the far side of the campfire and stared at the blackened coffeepot that only moments before had jumped and rattled and moved across the coals without a human hand near it.
“I suppose,” Sam Winter Moon said, looking cautiously at the tin pot himself, “I should tell you, then. For your own good.” He carefully eyed the sky again and the stars, and he kept his voice low. “A Windigo’s a giant, an ogre with a heart of ice. A cannibal, a cold and hungry thing. It comes out of the woods to eat the flesh of men and women. Children, too. It doesn’t care.”
“Is it coming for us?” Cork scanned the shadows that jumped at the edges of the firelight.
“The way I understand it, a man pretty much knows when the Windigo’s coming for him.”
“Can you fight it?”
“Oh, sure. Can even kill it.”
“Well, the Windigo’s a powerful creature, and there’s only one way so far as I know.” The ritual ash of the morning had worn off the smooth parts of Sam’s face, but it still blackened every deep line and crevice, so that in the firelight he looked like a fractured man. “You got to become a Windigo, too. There’s a magic for that. Henry Meloux’d most likely know the magic. But you got to be careful, because even if you kill the Windigo, you’re still in danger.”
“Of staying a Windigo forever. Of being the ogre you killed. So you got to be prepared. You got to have help for what follows the killing of a Windigo. Someone’s got to be there with hot tallow ready for you to drink to melt the ice inside you, to melt you back down to the size of other men.”
“I hope I never meet the Windigo,” Cork said, eyeing the old tin pot.
“I hope so, too,” Sam agreed.
Cork was quiet a moment while the fire snapped and popped and sent smoke and glowing embers upward into the dark. “That’s just a story, right?”
Sam rolled a cigarette and considered while he sealed the paper with his tongue. “Maybe. But in these woods it’s best to believe in all possibilities. There’s more in these woods than a man can ever see with his eyes, a lot more than he can ever hope to understand.”
Although he was tired, Cork stayed awake by the fire a long time while Sam smoked and told stories about Cork’s father. Some of the stories made them both laugh. That night, as Cork lay in his bedroll, he thought about the bear they were after. He was glad Sam had changed his mind about killing the great animal, but he hoped they would at least see it. He thought about the Windigo, which was something he hoped he would not see. And he thought about his father, whom he would never see again. These were all elements of his life, and although they were separate things, they were now intertwined somehow like the roots of a tree. All his life he would remember the bear hunt with Sam Winter Moon. In some manner he didn’t quite understand, the hunt had opened a way in him for the grief to begin passing through. All his life he would be grateful to his father’s friend.
Almost thirty years would pass, however, before he would have cause to remember the Windigo. Thirty years before he heard it call his name.
For a week the feeling had been with him, and all week long young Paul LeBeau had been afraid. Of what exactly, he couldn’t say. Whenever he tried to put the finger of his thinking on it, it slipped away like a drop of mercury. But he knew that whatever was coming would be bad, because the feeling was exactly like the terrible waiting had been before his father disappeared. Each day he reached out into the air with all his senses, trying to touch what was coming. So that finally, on that morning in mid-December when the clouds rolled in thick and gray as smoke and the wind screamed over the pines and tamaracks and the snow began falling hard, Paul LeBeau looked out the window of his algebra class and thought hopefully, Maybe it’s only this.
Shortly after lunch, word of the school closing came down. Students quickly put on their coats and shouldered their book bags, and a few minutes later the yellow buses began to pull away, heading onto roads that threatened to disappear before them.
Paul left the Aurora Middle School and walked home, pushing into the force of the storm the whole way. He changed his clothes, put on his Sorel boots, took five dollars from the small cashbox on his dresser, and left his mother a note affixed with a butterfly magnet to the refrigerator door. Grabbing his canvas newspaper bag from its hook in the garage, he headed toward his drop box. By two-thirty he was loaded up and ready to go.
Paul had two paper routes covering nearly two and a half miles. He began with the small business district of Aurora and ended just at the town limits out on North Point Road. At fourteen, he was larger than most boys his age and very strong. If he hustled, he could finish in just under an hour and a half. But he knew this day would be different. The snow had been accumulating at a rate of more than an inch per hour and the bitter wind that swept down out of Canada drifted it fast and deep.
He took the routes in the time when his father was drinking heavily and his mother needed money. Delivering the papers, especially on days like this that seemed impossible, was a responsibility he took seriously. In truth, he loved the storms. The energy in the wind and the ceaseless force of the drifting snow thrilled him. Where another boy might see only the plodding task ahead of him, Paul saw challenge. He took pride in his ability to battle against these elements, trudging through the drifts, leaning hard into the wind in order to complete the job expected of him.
He was an Eagle Scout. Order of the Arrow. Member of Troop 135 out of St. Agnes Catholic Church. He had made himself capable in a hundred ways. He could start a fire with flint and steel; hit a bull’s-eye with a target arrow at thirty yards; tie a bowline, a sheepshank, a slip knot; lash together a bridge strong enough to bear the weight of several men. He knew how to treat someone for shock, drowning, cardiac arrest, and sunstroke. He believed seriously in the motto “Be Prepared,” and often as he walked his paper routes, he imagined scenarios of disaster in Aurora that would allow all his secret skills to shine.
By the time he neared the end of his deliveries, lights had been turned on in the houses along the way. He was tired. His shoulders ached from the weight of the papers and his legs felt leaden from wading through knee-deep drifts. The last house on his route stood at the very end of North Point Road, a pine-covered finger of land that jutted into Iron Lake and was lined with expensive homes. The last and most isolated of the houses belonged to Judge Robert Parrant.
The judge was an old man with a hard white face, bony hands, and sharp, watchful eyes. Out of fear Paul treated him with great deference. The judge’s paper was always placed securely between the storm door and the heavy wooden front door, safe from the elements. Whenever Paul came monthly to collect for his service, the judge rewarded him with a generous tip and more stories about politics than Paul cared to hear.
The judge’s house was almost dark, with only the flicker of a fireplace flame illuminating the living room curtains. With the last paper in hand, Paul threaded his way up the long walk between cedars laden with snow. He pulled the storm door open, plowing a little arc in the drift on the porch, and saw that the front door was slightly ajar. Cold air whistled into the house. As he reached out to draw the door closed, he heard the explosion from a heavy firearm discharged inside.
He edged the door back open. “Judge Parrant?” he called. “Are you all right?” He hesitated a moment, then stepped in.
Paul had been inside many times before at the judge’s request. He always hated it. The house was a vast two-story affair built of Minnesota sandstone. The interior walls were dark oak, the windows leaded glass. A huge stone fireplace dominated the living room, and the walls there were hung with hunting trophies—the heads of deer and antelope and bear whose sightless eyes seemed to follow Paul whenever the judge asked him in.
The house smelled of applewood smoke. The sudden pop of sap from a log burning in the fireplace made him jump.
“Judge Parrant?” he tried again.
He knew he should probably just leave and close the door behind him. But there had been the shot, and now he felt something in the stillness of the house from which he couldn’t turn, a kind of responsibility. As he stood with the door wide open at his back and the wind blowing through, he glanced down and watched tendrils of snow creep across the bare, polished floor and vine around his boots like something alive. He knew that a terrible thing had happened. He knew it absolutely.
He might still have turned away and run if he hadn’t seen the blood. It was a dark glistening on the polished hardwood floor at the bottom of the staircase. He walked slowly ahead, knelt, touched the small dark puddle with his fingertips, confirmed the color of it by the firelight. There was a bloody trail leading down the hallway to his left.
Pictures from the manual for his First Aid merit badge that showed arterial bleeding and how to apply direct pressure or a tourniquet came to his mind. He’d practiced these procedures a hundred times, but never really believing that he’d ever use them. He found himself hoping desperately the judge wasn’t badly hurt, and he panicked just a little at the thought that he might actually have to save a life.
The blood led him to a closed door where a dim light crept underneath.
“Judge Parrant?” he said cautiously, leaning close to the door.
He was reluctant to barge in, but when he finally turned the knob and stood in the threshold, he found a study lined with shelves of books. Along the far wall was a desk of dark wood with a lamp on it. The lamp was switched on but didn’t give much light and the room was heavy with shadows. On the wall directly back of the desk hung a map of Minnesota. Red lines like red rivers ran down the map from red splashes like red lakes. Behind the desk lay an overturned chair, and near the chair lay the judge.
Although fear reached way down inside him and made his legs go weak, he forced himself to move ahead. As he neared the desk and saw the judge more clearly, he forgot all about the procedures for a tourniquet. There was nowhere to put a tourniquet on a man who was missing most of his head.
For a moment he couldn’t move. He felt paralyzed, unable to think as he stared down at the raw pieces of the judge’s brain, pink as chunks of fresh watermelon. Paul didn’t even move when he heard the sound at his back, the soft shutting of the door. Finally he managed to turn away from the dead man just in time to see the second thing that night his Scout training could never have prepared him for.
Copyright © 1999 by William Kent Krueger
William Kent Krueger is the award-winning author of ten Cork O’Connor novels, including Heaven’s Keep and Vermilion Drift. All are available from Atria Books. He lives in the Twin Cities with his family. Visit his website at WilliamKentKrueger.com.