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Rhinos, wild horses, politics — and dead bodies — set a frenetic pace from D.C. to Kenya

The first chapter of "Killing Godiva's Horse" plants the seeds of eventually converging storylines in author J.M. Mitchell's thriller

J.M. (Jerry) Mitchell had a long career with the National Park Service, retiring as chief of the agency’s Biological Resource Management Division, after having worked in Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, Washington, D.C. and Fort Collins, Colorado.

He and his wife, Cassy, split their time between Littleton and their ranch on Colorado’s Western Slope.

The following is an excerpt from his novel “Killing Godiva’s Horse.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Thriller

Chapter 1

The ranger turned onto a dirt track and saw it. Reflection off tail lights. A Land Cruiser. No light or movement. Not a good sign. 

He slowed, then turned off his headlights.

Only a hint of morning invaded the dark. 

Eying the other vehicle’s dark silhouette, he brought his to a stop, took hold of his rifle, and slipped out. His partner moved the opposite direction. If what they feared, they did not want to walk into a trap.

A few feet into the bush, the ranger stopped, held his breath, and listened. Nothing.

Author J.M. Mitchell.

He inched forward. Closer to the vehicle, further from the road. Again, he stopped and listened. Nothing.

Working his way around, he crept deeper into the bush, both hands on his rifle. 

He edged past an acacia. On the ground, darkened outlines. He approached, knowing. Rhinoceros. He stopped alongside and saw the stump. Horn, gone. Sawn off. Clotted blood covered the ground. He touched the carcass. Cool. This happened hours ago.

He clicked on his flashlight, stepped past two other carcasses—a cow and her calf—and headed straight for the Land Cruiser.

There he found them. Two rangers, one a scientist, both on the ground in front of the vehicle, dead, cold, one bullet each, straight through the heart.

HOURS EARLIER…

Gabriel Kagunda finished writing an entry. Enough for today. He picked up his quadrat of PVC pipe and cotton string and disassembled it. Turning away from the setting sun, he let his eyes wander across the savanna as he stuffed the pieces away. He threw on his pack and began the walk to the vehicle. There, another ranger waited.

He approached, and the ranger—David Ole Nalangu, in camo uniform and brown beret—stood staring to the left, his service AK-47 hanging from his neck by its strap, his arms folded over it.

Gabriel turned to see what he was watching.

Black rhino—a bull following a cow that picked at leaves in the brush, a two year old calf at her side.

He stopped beside Nalangu and leaned against the grill of the Land Cruiser. He took in the view. The rhinoceros. The long stretch of horizon. The shadows of fever trees, sent reaching across the savannah.

“Killing Godiva’s Horse” by J.M. Mitchell.

He smiled to himself. “David, this is the reason I am so happy to be home.”

Nalangu nodded, his eyes still on the rhino. “Even with the ministry trying to stop your research?”

“The minister will learn that he needs it,” Gabriel muttered. “You have no idea how much I have missed being here.”

“You were not happy at university?”

“I was happy. Oxford was a privilege, but it was time away, years committed to study so far from home. I carried a void for this place. All I could do was remind myself I would someday bring everything I learned back to Kenya, to benefit my home and my heritage.”

David nodded. “Are we finished for today?”

“Yes. Let me enjoy this view a few moments more.”

“Of course. Your wife and son…did they enjoy England?”

“Njoki endured. She’s happy now, knowing our son will grow up here, as we did. We have so much to show him.” He paused, watching the young calf. So good to be home. “Our son will …” 

Something whizzed past. He heard a dull thunk. Nalangu slumped to the ground.

Eyes wide, Gabriel Kagunda could not make himself move. Then, he heard the same dull thunk and felt the bullet dig into his chest.

With the click of a mouse, a page began to print. A letter, without letterhead, dropped into the tray.

Just a little request. My wife is pestering me to support her favorite cause. (What is it with women and horses?) Enclosed is information on something she’s worked up about. Feds being stupid, saying they’re protecting wildlife when they’re really wanting to shoot horses somewhere in New Mexico. Your involvement would help. Though not really a priority to me, it is for my wife, so I’d appreciate you doing something to give this organization some traction. That’ll go a long way toward making the little lady happy and getting her off my back. My man will be in touch. You can count on my support when you need it. Keep up the good work.

The page was laid alongside another, the top of which held the banner, “Action Alert, Wild Horse and Burro Babes,” and below it, “Stop the killing of wild horses in Piedras Coloradas National Monument.” With an illegible flourish of a signature on the first page, both were folded, then stuffed into an envelope, marked personal, and addressed to an occupant of the Hart Senate Office Building, Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C.

DAYS LATER. CANNON HOUSE OFFICE BUILDING, INDEPENDENCE AVENUE, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Congressman Brett Hoff closed the file on his latest polling numbers. Not bad. Not bad at all. If advisors are correct, they’ll get even better. 

Coat off, he sat back and ran his fingers through blond, wavy hair. The numbers supported everything advisors had told him so far. He opened a second file, and read  the list of issues projected to get him through the primaries to secure the party’s nomination. After that, the general election, and the rules would change. For now, the focus had to be on this list. At the top: perceived government overreach.

Hoff heard a knock at the door. He looked up from the page.

“How was your trip?” asked an aide, standing in the darkened hallway, loosening his tie. 

“Productive. What’s up?”

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“We’re getting emails, Congressman.” He stepped inside and gave a stroke to his beard, pulling at the dark brown lines framing his chin. “Constituents. Well … not constituents, donors. Major donors. Unfortunately, I don’t like the issue. It could be trouble.”

 “How so?” Hoff dropped his eyes back to the list.

“They want us involved in an issue in New Mexico. It concerns a rancher grazing on public land, refusing to pay his fees. He says he doesn’t recognize the authority of the Bureau of Land Management, or any fed, for that matter. Suffice it to say, the agency claims his cattle are in trespass. Courts agree. BLM plans a round-up, intending to sell his cattle at auction to cover fees and fines. Meanwhile, this guy’s being called a hero for standing up to the feds.”

Hoff closed the file and pushed it aside. “Interesting.”

“Yeah, but it’s complicated. By horses. Wild ones, which BLM wants to shoot or capture. That has horse lovers up in arms, pointing at the rancher, saying get rid of his cattle, that everything would be fine if his cattle were gone.”

Hoff smiled. “So why do you think it’d be trouble?”

“First, the rancher hasn’t paid grazing fees in years. He makes lots of noise, justifying his actions, but bottom line, suffice it to say … he’s a freeloader. Other ranchers pay their fees. He doesn’t. Second, the agency’s caught in the middle, between horse lovers and this Manson character. Third, it’s not your state. You’d be sticking your nose in another delegation’s business.”

“Interesting take on things, Alex.” Hoff sat back and rested his hands behind his head. “Are you aware the Senate may take up legislation on this issue?”

“To do what?”

“Make horses priority.” Hoff shook his head in disgust. “Someone’s calling in favors. Pulling strings. The little guy loses.” Hoff turned and stared out the window, first at the capitol dome, then at the marble-clad wing of the Senate. “I won’t bore you with my usual diatribe, but this country has problems. Real ones. Across the way, the Senate’s playing games, messing with horses.”

“You’re sure?”

“I heard it this morning. Chatter before conference committee. Talk of putting staff on it.” He leaned over his hands. “This rancher …. Manson. He may need our help.”

“That’s not a good idea, Brent. He’s everything you’ve worked against, your whole legislative career. He’s a welfare case.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Making him a hero might serve the greater good. We might need a poster boy to drive the upcoming election. At least for our base.”

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“He’d be a distraction, Brent. I can’t risk letting you crash and burn over something that could turn into an ugly fight.” He sighed. “You’ve got too much to offer. I can’t let you jeopardize your chances. Not on this. If a partisan fight, hell, I’d push you to do it, but that’s not what this is.”

“Do not worry.”

“Horse lovers … they’re passionate. In a mud fight it’s hard not to get dirty.”

Hoff laughed, and set his hands on his cherry wood desk. “Alex, let’s talk horses. Metaphorically speaking.” He waved his aide to a chair.

Alex Trasker sat, his lanky frame sprawled in the chair. A cocky smile grew on his face, as if he knew which story he was about to hear.

“Remember Lady Godiva?” Hoff waited for a nod. “Her horse did the work. Carried her all over town, but who remembers the nag’s name? Do you?” He paused and awaited a response. Seeing none, he continued. “Thought so. That’s because Godiva took the risks. Not the horse. Godiva. She was the one with the cause.” Hoff paused and drummed his fingers on the desk. “Not a criticism, Alex, just a metaphor. You are my most trusted aide. Like Godiva’s horse, you do the work. All of it on some issues. But like Godiva, I’m the one with the cause. The one who moves causes forward. Important causes. To do that, I have to be willing to take some risks.”

Trasker sighed and stroked his beard. “But, this cause is…”

The congressman cut him off. “Alex … remember, I’m taking the risks. I’m Godiva. You’re Godiva’s horse.”

Buy “Killing Godiva’s Horse” at BookBar

Interview with “Killing Godiva’s Horse” author J.M. Mitchell


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