M.W. Gordon, Author of the Macduff Brooks Fly Fishing Mystery Novels

SEVERED HANDS

The 10th in the saga of Macduff Brooks

1
MID-APRIL AT THE SNAKE RIVER DRIFT BOAT LAUNCH AT WILSON, WYOMING

 
ICE WAS BREAKING UP, SNOW WAS MELTING, AND insect hatches were blossoming on the Snake River in Jackson Hole and bringing trout up from the bottom to feed. Drift boats were beginning to be seen on the five sections for floating between the Jackson Lake Dam and the South Park Bridge. The boats would disappear in a few weeks when the snow melt gathered silt and turned the river coffee and the rampaging water flows propelled the boats at treacherous speeds.
 
 Two unrelated people stood sipping morning coffee next to an old but carefully maintained fiberglass ClackaCraft drift boat on the northwest side of the Wilson Bridge spanning the Snake River a half-dozen miles outside Jackson. They had never met before. One was female; one was male.

The woman wore patched light-weight waders and scuffed felt-soled boots, a jacket with a shoulder patch noting “Simms Guide,” a cable-knit sweater, a fishing vest, and a long-brimmed cap that said “Driggs Drifters Outfitting Shop, Driggs, Idaho.” Long, light-brown hair ended in a ponytail thrust through the rear opening of the cap.

She was half-way between five and six feet tall, rail thin despite the bulky clothes, and had a perpetual smile. Her age? If asked, she’d be evasive. If guessed, probably early forties.

Her name was Janice Whittaker, and she lived in a small restored 1920s Victorian house a dozen-miles west over the Teton Pass in Driggs. Her occupation was a fly fishing guide. Any other guide on either side of the Grand Tetons―splitting Idaho from Wyoming―would say she was one of the dozen elite guides in the area and one of the most sought after to spend a long day fishing any section of the Snake. Or the Teton or Henry’s Fork or wade-fishing one of a few nearby less crowded rivers or creeks.

Janice had arrived five minutes earlier towing her drift boat and carrying two paper cups of coffee, one of which she handed to the only other person in the launching area, who walked over to her rig as soon as she parked.

“I’m Janice,” she said. “It’s chilly but will get warmer in a couple of hours.”

“I’m Jorge Castaneda,” the young man said, showing a strong Hispanic accent. A scar curved downward from his right earlobe to his chin, which made it hard for Janice not to stare. He was barely five feet and bore a young face. Dark hair showed around the worn front edge of his hood, topping a gray sweatshirt that needed washing. Tight jeans with ragged knee holes from use rather than design, and torn Nikes worn beyond any reasonable expiration date completed his outfit, which Janice viewed as both strange for fly fishing and a little lean for the chilly morning. But his expression warned her not to challenge him.

“If it rains―and that’s unlikely today―I have rain gear for both of us.”

“Can we get going?” he asked abruptly.

“Sit on that log by the boat and enjoy your coffee. I’ll put the boat into the river, park the SUV and trailer, and rig a rod for you. I see you didn’t bring a rod. We’ll be on the river in ten minutes.”

“I ain’t got a fishin’ rod. I never done this before.”

“That’s OK. I have extra rods. Have you ever used a fly rod?”

“No.”

“Before we get in the boat, I’ll work with you on the grass and show you the basic cast. It’s a lot easier fishing from a drift boat compared to standing in the river. As the boat floats downstream, so does your fly. You won’t have to cast as often.”

Castaneda didn’t respond, but not because he was looking elsewhere. He had stared at Janice lewdly―back and forth from head to toe―since she arrived, which was beginning to concern her.

After she launched the boat and parked her SUV and trailer, she walked him to the grass and made a few basic casts, explaining the needed principles. Castaneda took the rod, and each cast looked better. He had listened to her, and she felt relieved.

“You’re doing great. You’ve picked up the most important elements of a good cast. A day on the boat and you’ll be a pro.”

She thought she detected the slightest smile.

“I think we’re ready. Let’s hop in. Give me your gear bag; I can store it in the back. You sit in the front.”

“I keep the bag. It’s got warmer clothes than I got on.”

Janice held the boat while Jorge climbed aboard and sat in the bow seat. She gave the boat a shove and hopped on, settling in the middle guide seat. Where guides always row from and which has a perfect view of the person at the bow.

“We’re going to float about eleven miles, from here at Wilson Bridge downriver to South Park Bridge. It’s the only full stretch of what’s called the Upper Snake River that’s not totally regulated by state―meaning Wyoming―or federal agencies.

She wasn’t certain what to tie on his tippet; she thought a dry fly plus a nymph dropper trailing by about 18 inches might attract something, but she was concerned with the greater likelihood of wind knots or tangles with the two flies less than two feet apart. Nevertheless, she sensed that Jorge was good at taking instructions and that she should try the two-fly rig. Perhaps she would have him make his back cast land into the water to the side of the boat toward the center of the river and, when it straightened out, thrust the cast forward toward the bank.

She opened a box of flies and took out a #16 Royal Wulff for the floating fly. It had some bright color that she hoped might attract a trout. For the dropper nymph she chose a beadhead Prince, also #16.

After twenty minutes neither fly had gained a trout’s attention, and she changed to a smaller Adams on top and removed the nymph below. When Jorge took back the rod, he made a good cast, and the fly floated into an eddy behind a rock where the first trout of the day struck.

Janice was thankful that Jorge set the hook and reeled in and brought the trout to the boat where she netted it and handed the net to Jorge who sat dumbfounded staring at the rainbow’s colors. Janice pulled out a small camera and snapped a photo.

“No!” Jorge screamed, throwing the trout into the river.

“What’s wrong?” Janice asked.

“No one takes my picture. I don’t like being photographed.”

“I apologize. I’ll delete it. Do you want to see it first?”

“Yes,” he said taking the camera and looking at the photo. He touched the delete note and then abruptly threw the camera into the deeper water in the center of the river.

“Why did you do that?” Janice demanded loudly. “Deleting the photo was enough. That was a perfectly good camera. Not expensive, but it’s lasted me a half-dozen years, and there were a lot of photos on it I was about to transfer to my computer. I’ll have some disappointed clients I promised to send pictures. You had no right to throw it into the river.” Her stutter and quivering voice showed her irritation.

“I don’t give a damn about your clients. You shoulda asked me if I wanted a friggin’ picture.”

For the next half-hour neither said a word. Janet rowed as quietly as she could. Jorge sat motionless facing forward and holding his rod to let the fly drift at its will. He made no casts to improve his chances to catch something. Janice didn’t suggest he try.

“Do you want to stop for lunch on a bank with a good view? I brought sandwiches,” Janice said quietly a half-hour later.

“No. How much do we hafta go before I can get out and go home?”

“We can do the rest of the float in an hour.”

“What’s all this land we’re passing?”

“Private land; mostly agriculture or ranching. It’s pretty desolate.”

“Good,” Jorge said, without more.

Ten minutes later Jorge pulled his bag from the side and set it on the floor in front of him. Unseen by Janice, he reached inside and removed several pieces of clothing that were wrapped around something. He pulled the final piece off the thing and placed it in his lap. It was two feet long, in a worn leather case. The only part extruding from the case was a cracked, black plastic grip. Jorge tugged on the grip and slowly a blade pulled free. It was a well-used machete, and the brightness along the edge suggested it had recently been sharpened. Jorge knew it had; he had honed it himself over and over the previous evening.

“What are you doing, Jorge? Can I help?”

“You don’t help!” Jorge said as he turned around in his seat, the machete―free of the case―resting on his lap.

Janice was partly curious but mostly scared. “Why do you have a machete?”

“I always carry this. I like the feel of holding it and running my finger on the blade. It is very sharp,” he added, slowly moving his left palm along the blade and drawing blood.

“Why did you do that?” Janice asked anxiously.

“To show you how sharp it is. Have you ever seen a machete this beautiful?” he exclaimed holding the tip of the blade an inch from her face.

“Put it back in the case. Right n. . . .”

Before Janice could finish, Jorge lowered the machete and rested the point on the top of her fishing vest. He stood up, smiled, and used all his strength to thrust the blade through her.
 
A scream broke the silence of the afternoon, but it was not from Janice. A bald eagle circled above the boat and settled on a barren limb of a long dead cottonwood along the riverbank. The eagle glared at the boat as it passed and appeared to be flapping its wings in approval of a perfect kill.
 
Jorge leaned over for a moment, seemed to do something to the body, and then tossed the machete to the rear floor of the boat. He pushed Janice off, moved to her middle seat, and rowed to shore. Stepping out, he shoved the boat back into the current and watched it continue its journey downriver.
 
In a moment not Castaneda, nor the eagle, nor the boat carrying Janice’s body could be seen.
 
All had gone their own separate way.