Joe Pickett always liked Butch Roberson—a hardworking local business-owner whose daughter is friends with his own. Little does he know that when Butch says he is heading into the mountains to scout elk, he is actually going on the run.
Two EPA employees have been murdered, and all signs point to Butch as the killer. Soon, Joe hears of the land Butch and his wife had bought to retire on—until they are told the EPA declared it a wetland—and the penalties they charged Butch until the family was torn apart by debt. Finally, it seems, the man just cracked.
It’s an awful story. But is it the whole story? The more Joe investigates, the more he begins to wonder—and the more he finds himself in the middle of a war in which he must choose sides.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Also by C. J. Box
ONE WEEK AFTER
Afterword and Acknowledgments
ON AN EARLY MORNING IN MID-AUGUST, EPA SPECIAL Agents Tim Singewald and Lenox Baker left the Region 8 Environmental Protection Agency building at 1595 Wynkoop Street in downtown Denver in a Chevrolet Malibu SA hybrid sedan they’d checked out from the motor pool. Singewald was at the wheel, and he maneuvered through shadows cast by tall buildings while Baker fired up the dash-mounted GPS.
“Acquiring satellites,” Baker said, repeating the voice command from the unit.
“Wait until we get out of downtown,” Singewald said. “The buildings block the satellite feed. There’ll be plenty of time to program the address. Besides, I know where we’re going. I’ve been there, remember?”
“Yeah,” Baker said, settling back in his seat. “I know. I was just wondering how long it would take.”
“Forever,” Singewald said, and sighed, taking the turn on Speer that would lead them to I-25 North. “Wyoming is a big-ass state.”
The GPS chirped that it had connected with the sky. Baker punched in an address and waited for a moment and said with a groan, “Four hundred and twenty-two miles. Six hours, twenty-seven minutes. Jesus.”
Said Singewald, “Not counting the guy we need to pick up along the way in Cheyenne. Still, we ought to make it before five, easy.”
“Where are we staying? Do they have any good places to eat up there?”
Singewald emitted a single harsh bark and shook his head. “The Holiday Inn has a government rate, but the bar sucks. There are a couple good bars in town, though, if you don’t mind country music.”
“I hate it.”
“Six and a half hours,” Baker said as Singewald eased the Chevy onto the on-ramp and joined the flow of traffic north.
IT WAS A CLEAR summer morning in mid-August. The mountains to the west shimmered through early-hour smog that would lift and dissipate when the temperature rose into the seventies. Both men wore ties and sport coats, and in the backseat was a valise containing the legal documents they were to deliver. Both had packed a single change of clothing for the drive back the next day.
Tim Singewald had thin sandy hair, small eyes, a sallow complexion, and a translucent mustache. Lenox Baker was fifteen years younger. Singewald didn’t know him well at all, although his impression of his colleague was that he was overeager. Baker was dark and compact and exhibited nervous energy and a wide-eyed expression he displayed when talking with a senior staffer that said, Keep me in mind when promotions or transfers come along.
Singewald noticed that Baker wore a wedding band, but he’d never heard the wife’s name. Singewald had been divorced for six years.
All he knew about Baker was, like thousands of others across the country, he was new to the agency and he was gung-ho to get into some kind of action.
Baker was an EPA Special Agent (Grade 12), one of 350-plus and growing. He pulled in $93,539 a year in salary plus benefits and hoped to move up to Grade 15, where Singewald resided. Singewald made $154,615 per year, plus benefits.
As they cleared Metro Denver into Broomfield, Singewald reached up with his left hand and loosened the knot on his tie and then pulled it free and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. When Baker saw him do it, he reached up and did the same.
“Ties stand out where we’re going,” Singewald said.
“What do they wear? Clip-ons? String ties?”
“They don’t wear ties,” Singewald said. “They wear jeans with belts that say ‘Hoss.’”
Baker laughed. Then: “Who is this guy we have to pick up in Cheyenne?”
“Somebody with the U.S. Corps of Engineers,” Singewald said, shrugging. “I don’t know him.”
“Why is he coming along?”
“I don’t know,” Singewald said. “I don’t ask.”
“The secret to a long career,” Baker said.
“You got it.”
“Are there other secrets?” Baker asked, grinning a schoolboy grin.
“Yes,” Singewald said, and said no more.
THE AGENTS DROVE another hour north and crossed the border into Wyoming. Instantly, the car was buffeted by gusts of wind.
“Where are the trees?” Baker asked.
“They blew away,” Singewald said.
AS SINGEWALD WHEELED into the parking lot of the Federal Building in Cheyenne, he saw an older man in a windbreaker and sunglasses standing near the vestibule entrance. The man was conspicuously checking his watch and glancing toward them as they found an empty spot.
“Gotta be him,” Singewald said.
“What was his name again?”
“Love. That’s all I know about him.”
The man who might be Love pushed himself off the brick wall and walked slowly to their car. Singewald powered down his window.
“You EPA?” the man asked.
“Agents Singewald and Baker.”
“I’m Kim Love,” the man said. “I guess we’re going to the same place today.”
Singewald chinned toward the backseat. “Do you have anything you need to put in the trunk before we leave?”
Love rocked back on his heels and hooked his thumbs through his belt loops. He shook his head.
“I’ll follow you up,” Love said. “I’ve got my own car.”
“Sure you don’t want to come with us?” Singewald asked Love.
“Suit yourself. Do you know where we’re going?”
Singewald didn’t react. Instead, he reached inside his jacket pocket and handed Love an official EPA business card.
“My cell phone number is on there. Give me a call when we get going so I have yours, so we can keep in touch if we get separated.”
Love sighed and shook his head. “What, you think you’re entering No Man’s Land?”
“Yes,” Baker whispered, sotto voce.
“Maybe we can stop in Casper for lunch,” Love said. “I know a place there.”
“We’ll follow you,” Singewald said with a shrug.
When Love walked away to climb into his own sedan with U.S. Government plates, Baker said to Singewald, “What’s his problem?”
Singewald shrugged. “Don’t know and don’t care,” he said. “He’s just another working stiff. Like us.”
BAKER WAS PRACTICALLY SPUTTERING two and a half hours later when the brake lights of Love’s sedan flashed and the Corps of Engineers car took the Second Street exit in Casper and turned in at a truck stop.
“He’s yanking our chain,” Baker said, leaning forward in his seat to look around. A long line of side-by-side tractor-trailers idled in a cacophony on the south side of the huge parking lot. A trucker emerged from the restaurant and convenience-store doors holding a half-gallon soft-drink container to take back to his truck cab.
“Maybe this Love knows something,” Singewald said. “Maybe this place is, you know, a jewel in the rough.”
“It’s a truck stop.”
“We might as well be friendly, since we’re stuck with him,” Singewald said, and turned off the motor.
Baker sighed. “Maybe I’ll just stay in here. I can feel my arteries clogging up just looking at this place and the people coming out of it.”
“You don’t have to come in,” Singewald said, handing Baker the keys. “If you want to listen to the radio or something.”
Baker waved him off. “Believe me, there’s probably nothing worth listening to here. I’m not a big fan of Buck Owens.”
Singewald pocketed the keys.
“Oh, all right,” Baker said with a groan, opening his door to get out.
THEY SAT around a Formica table in a high-backed booth; Kim Love on one side and Singewald and Baker on the other. All of the other tables and booths were occupied by truck drivers and rough-looking locals who appeared as if they’d driven into town from building sites or oil rigs. Even with their ties removed, Singewald thought the three of them stood out. Singewald thought Love seemed distant, and maybe a little hostile to them. He chalked it up to interagency rivalry and didn’t let it bother him. There was no reason to make friends, he thought. He’d never met Love before, and after their joint operation later that afternoon, he doubted he’d ever see him again.
Beside him, Lenox Baker studied the plastic menu and sighed.
“Do you recommend anything in particular?” Baker asked Love.
“The chicken-fried steak sandwich,” Love said without even looking at his menu. “Best in Central Wyoming. I’m from Texas, and I’m particular about chicken-fried steak. They do it right here: no pre-breaded bullshit.”
Singewald ordered the sandwich as well, and Baker asked the waitress if the lettuce of the chef salad had any preservatives sprayed on it. Without a smile and with a quick glance toward her other busy tables, she said, “I wouldn’t know that, hon.”
“Can you ask the chef?”
“We don’t have a chef. I’ll ask the cook,” she said, and spun on her heels toward the kitchen.
“Those chemicals give me diarrhea,” Baker explained to Singewald.
“Can’t have that,” he replied.
AFTER THEY PUSHED their empty plates away and sat back—Baker had picked at his salad and claimed he was full—Love looked squarely at Singewald and said, “I can’t say I like what we’re doing today.”
Singewald shrugged. “We’re just the messengers.”
“We didn’t make the decision,” Singewald said. “We’re just delivering the verdict.”
“Yeah,” Love said, shaking his head and taking a swipe at his balled-up paper napkin like a bear cub, “I read it. In fact, I read it twice and didn’t like it any better the second time.”
“I don’t read ’em,” Singewald said, looking over Baker’s head in an attempt to signal the waitress. “I just deliver ’em. Reading ’em is above my pay grade.”
“I hear he’s a hardheaded man,” Love said.
“I get the impression he’s not going to just roll over.”
Baker opened his jacket and interjected, “That’s why we carry these,” indicating the butt of his holstered semiautomatic .40 Sig Sauer.
Love’s mouth dropped open, and he turned to Singewald. “You guys carry guns?”
“We’re trained and authorized,” Singewald said softly.
“You should see what we have in the trunk,” Baker said. Singewald thought of the combat shotguns and scoped semiautomatic rifles nestled in their cases.
Love’s eyebrows arched when he said, “So you’re prepared to shoot it out with him if necessary?”
“If necessary,” Baker said, narrowing his eyes.
“I try not to predict these things,” Singewald said, almost apologetically. He didn’t want to continue this conversation. He wished Baker wasn’t so overtly gung-ho. Then he raised his hand and waved at the waitress. He began to think she was ignoring him.
“Have you met this guy we’re serving the order on?” Love asked Singewald.
“Nope,” Singewald said, wondering if he should snap his fingers to get her attention. “I wasn’t there the first time he was given the word. From what I understand, he was confused, mainly. I don’t think he’s the sharpest knife in the drawer, so to speak.”
“But he sure as hell understands now,” Love said, shaking his head. “Things like this . . . it makes me wonder just what the hell we’re doing. It isn’t the kind of thing I signed up for, that’s for sure.”
“What’s the problem?” Baker said suddenly to Love, his tone incredulous. “The guy obviously screwed up big-time or we wouldn’t be going up there. I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
Love leaned forward on the table and balled his fists together. “Do you know him?”
“Of course not,” Baker said, defensive.
“Do you know anything about him?”
“Just his address.”
“Did you even read the documents we’re taking up there?”
“No,” Baker said, looking away from Love to Singewald.
The waitress intervened and slapped the bill down on the table as she rushed by.
“Ma’am,” Singewald said.
She turned toward him.
“We’ll need separate checks. One for him and me,” he said, gesturing to Baker, “and one for him,” he nodded toward Love. “And receipts, please.”
“Separate checks and receipts,” she repeated with a dead-eyed stare.
“It’ll be a minute,” she said through gritted teeth.
“It’s okay,” Singewald said, sliding out of the booth. “I can get it taken care of at the front counter.”
Baker was right behind him as he walked up to the cashier, pulling out his U.S. government Visa card. When he glanced back, Kim Love was still sitting in the booth.
AN HOUR LATER, sixty-seven miles north of Casper, Love caught up with them near Kaycee, Wyoming. Singewald looked up and saw the Corps sedan in his rearview mirror.
Baker saw him do it and turned his head toward the back. “Oh, good,” he said. “Our buddy.”
“What is his problem, anyway?”
“I guess he doesn’t like what we’re doing.”
“Why does he even care?”
“You’d have to ask him.”
“I think you should mention this in our report,” Baker said.
THE TERRAIN CHANGED as they drove north. Blue humpback mountains had emerged from the prairie to the west. Lines of high white snow veined down from the summits and melded into dark timber.
Baker pointed at a cluster of vivid brown-and-white dots placed on the slow-waving high grass out his window. “Are those pronghorns?”
Singewald said they were.
“And they just stand there like that? There must be a hundred of them.”
“I’ve heard there are more pronghorn antelope than people in this part of the state,” Singewald said.
“Well, at least there’s something good about it,” Baker said.
“THE TETONS?” BAKER ASKED, pointing toward the mountains.
“Bighorns,” Singewald said. “Those are the Bighorns.”
“So that’s where we’re going,” Baker said, looking at the GPS display, and then his watch.
“We should be able to get this done in time to check in to the hotel by five,” Baker said. “We won’t even have to do any overtime.”
“That’s the plan,” Singewald said.
“I hope we can find someplace decent to eat,” Baker said. “I’m starving.”
“First things first,” Singewald said as they took the first exit near the town of Saddlestring. The bypass would link them up with a two-lane state highway into the mountains, toward Aspen Highlands, a subdivision near Dull Knife Reservoir.
When he checked his mirror, Love’s sedan was no longer there.
“Call Love and see what’s happened to him,” Singewald said, handing Baker his cell phone.
Baker scrolled through his recent calls and pressed SEND. After a moment, he said, “This is Agent Baker and we’re on our way up the mountain. We were kind of wondering if you planned to join us.”
When he punched off, he said, “Straight to voicemail. Either we lost him or he decided to go into town and check in to his hotel.”
Singewald hadn’t noticed whether Love had continued on I-25.
“I guess we’ll do this ourselves,” he said.
“That asshole,” Baker said. “For sure, this will go into our report, right?”
AN HOUR LATER, Tim Singewald writhed in the grass on his back, choking on his blood. Although his legs were convulsing, causing his heels to thump against the ground uncontrollably, he couldn’t feel them. He was able to roll clumsily to his right side.
Lenox Baker was also on his back just a few feet away. Baker’s eyes were open, as if he were staring at the late-afternoon clouds. A bullet hole, like a third eye, looked out from his left eyebrow. He wasn’t breathing.
Singewald knew he wouldn’t last much longer, either. The first two bullets, he suspected, had collapsed his lungs. He couldn’t draw breath, no matter how hard he tried, and he was drowning in his own blood. He gurgled when he tried to speak.
Baker’s weapon lay in the dirt between them. Singewald hadn’t drawn his before he was cut down.
In the distance, he heard shouting. Then a tractor started up.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON ON THE LONG WESTERN SLOPE of the Bighorn Range, where the sage and grass met the first lone scouts of pine preceding the army of dense timber descending from the mountain, game warden Joe Pickett encountered Butch Roberson. By the way Butch looked back at him, Joe knew something was seriously wrong.
The mid-August afternoon was uncharacteristically sun-splashed and soft under the massive blue sky, which was cloudless and clear except for a single fading vapor trail miles above. The warm air was still and perfumed with juniper, sage, pine, and mountain wildflowers: Indian paintbrush and columbine. Insects hummed at grass level, and Joe was so far away from the distant state highway he couldn’t hear traffic sounds from the occasional passing vehicles.
Joe was riding Toby, his fourteen-year-old Tobiano paint. The day and the surroundings brought a bounce to the gelding’s step, and the horse had trouble focusing on the task. There was rich grass on both sides of the narrow trail, and Joe had to be constantly alert so Toby wouldn’t dip his head to grab a bite. Joe’s one-and-a-half-year-old yellow Labrador, Daisy, loped alongside or drifted behind so she could hoover up Toby’s droppings, even though Joe hollered at her to stop. The new dog had joined Tube, their less-than-ambulatory corgi-Lab cross, in the Pickett household. The new dog had been dropped off at the local veterinarian’s office by disgusted Pennsylvania bird hunters the winter before. They claimed she was useless. Joe knew that all year-old Labs were useless, and took her home to mature. She seemed to be settling down, now that every shoe in the house had been destroyed. And so far on this ride he’d been impressed with her, except for eating the horse droppings.
It was a rare and perfect day; so perfect, in fact, that after the year he’d had and the things that had happened, the day seemed cheap and false and somehow unearned. As he rode the Forest Service boundary, which was marked by a three-strand fence line of barbed wire, Joe had to keep reminding himself he had nothing to feel guilty about. He told himself he should just enjoy the moment because they came so few and far between. It was sunny, dry, warm, cloudless, and calm. After all, there he was in the Bighorn Mountains on a sunny day with his horse and his dog, and he was doing the job he loved in the place he loved. The opening days for hunting seasons in his district were weeks away, and he’d spent the summer recuperating his left hand from when he’d broken it pulling it out of his own handcuffs the October before. Except for the shot-up body of a pronghorn antelope found south of Winchester, he had no other pending investigations. The crime bothered him for its viciousness, though: the buck had been practically cut in two by the number of bullets, and whoever had done it had also fired several close-range shots to the head after the animal was obviously down. That kind of bloodthirsty crime was a window into the soul of the perpetrator, and Joe wanted to find whoever had done it and jack him up as much as possible. There was little to go on, though. Several rounds had been caught beneath the tough hide, and he’d sent the bullets in for analysis. But there were no shell casings, footprints, or citizen’s reports of the crime. Joe could only hope whoever had done it would talk and word would get back to him.
Additionally, he had time to do preliminary elk counts in the mountains, verify the licenses of fishermen, check the water guzzlers, and actually be home for dinner with his wife, Marybeth, and his three girls. It was as if he were a character in a movie and the scene was being shot in soft focus.
Despite the setting, he found himself scanning the horizon for the ferocious snouts of thunderheads and sweeping his eyes over the ocean of trees for gusts or one-hundred-mile-an-hour microbursts or some other kind of trouble.
He thought later he should have gone with his premonition that something was coming and it wouldn’t be good.
BEFORE HE RAN into Butch Roberson, he rode parallel to the western border of Big Stream Ranch, which was owned by a longtime local named Frank Zeller. It was one of the few of the big historic ranches in northern Wyoming still owned by the original family. Frank Zeller was a solid if taciturn man who managed the ranch with care. He ran huge herds of Angus cattle and pastured hundreds of saddle horses for guest ranches throughout Wyoming and Montana. He’d convinced the owners to allow the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to install water guzzlers near the forest boundary to help sustain the elk and mule deer herds not only because he cared for the wildlife, but also because he feared the spread of the brucella bacteria from the wildlife to the cattle if they mixed too much near the big creek on the valley floor.
Water guzzlers were shallow depressions in the ground covered with polyethylene fabric that captured rainwater and surface runoff—as much as five hundred to eight hundred gallons in each guzzler. The money for the guzzlers had come from an EPA grant Joe had applied for several years before, and the agency had sent an engineer up from Denver to help Joe design them. The guzzlers seemed to work. Parched herds from the mountains came down during drought years to drink, and pronghorns and mourning doves came up from the valley as well. His work, once a year, was to ride along the series of guzzlers to make sure the fabric was still intact and hadn’t been blown into shreds by the vicious winter winds, and to check that the depressions hadn’t been filled in with dirt or fouled by decaying carcasses.
Because water itself was rare and precious in a state that averaged less than thirteen inches of precipitation in a year—mostly snow—the wildlife literally flocked to it. As he approached each guzzler, he anticipated an explosion of doves and grouse that got Daisy excited, as well as deer bounding away through the sagebrush and elk crashing up into the timber. Once, the year before, he’d startled a black bear feeding on a deer carcass. The bear woofed at him and caused Toby to crow-hop and nearly dump Joe out of the saddle. But by the time he’d wheeled Toby around with a one-rein stop, the bear had run into the trees with startling speed and power, and it hadn’t come back.
HE’D RECEIVED PERMISSION from Zeller to access the ranch. After checking in at ranch headquarters and having breakfast with Zeller and his four Mexican ranch hands, because the foreman insisted he eat, Joe parked his green Game and Fish pickup and horse trailer two miles below the line of guzzlers near a head gate.
Still, parking so far from the Forest Service boundary was a pain in the neck, Joe thought, and a fairly recent one. When they’d installed the guzzlers, the two-track ranch road had joined with a Forest Service road on the other side of the fence. They’d been able to bring their gear and equipment close to the fence so they wouldn’t have to carry it across the folding foothills terrain. But two years before, the Forest Service had decided to prohibit through traffic. They’d fortified the gate, chained it, and locked it with a combination lock. Then, behind the gate, on the Forest Service side, they’d brought in a backhoe to scoop a deep hole into the road and use the dirt as a berm to prevent vehicles from using it. The coup de grâce was a small rectangular brown metal sign that read ROAD CLOSED.
He’d saddled his horse and checked seven of nine guzzlers throughout the day. Number three had required some dirt work, but it didn’t take long, because he’d packed along a shovel with the handle shoved down into his empty saddle scabbard.
JOE WAS RIDING between the seventh and eighth water guzzlers, through a stand of thigh-high aspen with their still, spadelike leaves, when he saw to his left that the three strands of barbed wire on the fence had been severed. Each wire was now curled back, leaving a gaping hole in the Forest Service fence. He clucked his tongue and turned his horse and rode Toby up through the small trees to the damaged fencing.
He swung down and grunted when his boots thumped on the ground. His knees ached from being wrapped around Toby’s belly. He tied Toby to a midsize pine tree with enough slack in the rope that his horse could graze, and walked off his aches to the fence.
As he limped, he resisted saying, Getting too old for this.
Joe Pickett wore his red uniform shirt with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department pronghorn patch on the shoulder, thin leather gloves, worn Wranglers, scuffed cowboy boots, and his sweat-stained gray Stetson. His duty belt with his cuffs, pepper spray, and .40 Glock was in the right saddlebag because it was uncomfortable to wear when riding. His radio, citation book, uneaten lunch, and notepad were in the left.
He thought for a moment that he should retrieve his weapon before checking out the fence, but decided against it. Joe despised his weapon, not because of its properties but because he really couldn’t hit anything with it. If it weren’t for a softhearted range officer, there were several times over the last few years when he shouldn’t have officially qualified. Although he was comfortable and fairly accurate with a rifle and deadly at close range with a shotgun, he considered his Glock more for show and always convinced himself that he’d never pull it again for the rest of his career if he could avoid it.
The strands of barbed wire had been snipped cleanly and very recently by a sharp tool, probably a pair of wire cutters. The end of the cut was still shiny and the edges sharp. He visualized each strand snapping back as it was severed, and imagined the pop and the sound of singing wire.
Joe let the wire drop back to the grass and looked around. The nearest road was where Joe had parked his truck and trailer, nearly two and a half miles away. There were no other vehicles parked at that location. Whoever had cut the wire had either walked a long way from the highway—probably six to seven miles, he guessed, and across the muddy pastures and serpentine creek—or had come down from the National Forest above. The vandal had been on horseback or on foot because there were no tire tracks. But if he didn’t drive a vehicle through the opening, what was the point of cutting the fence? Joe wondered.
He photographed the damage with his digital camera and took several close-in shots of the cut tips of the wire, and noted the time and location in his notebook. Then he dug his cell phone out of his breast pocket and opened it, thinking he would call Frank Zeller. Although the fence itself was the property of the U.S. Forest Service, Joe knew from experience it would take them weeks or even months to repair it due to the bureaucracy involved. Reports would have to be made and sent through channels, requests for proposal for repair of the fence would be published, bids would be taken or not from private contractors, and in the end a small army of federal employees would make their way up the mountain with newly requisitioned coils of barbed wire—probably as the first winter storm hit.
Rather, he would tell Frank Zeller, and Frank would send up his crew before nightfall so the cattle and horses belonging to the Big Stream wouldn’t wander through the hole into the public forest. Frank could sort out the repercussions later, Joe thought.
But there was no cell-phone signal, which wasn’t unusual this far out. He closed the phone and dug out his handheld radio from the saddlebag. The static over the air made it impossible to establish communication with the dispatcher in Cheyenne 310 miles away. He squelched it down but still couldn’t find a clear channel. There were squawks and snippets of conversation going on, but he couldn’t determine the subject matter or the agencies of the law enforcement personnel doing the talking. He sighed and turned off the unit. He vowed to replace the batteries when he got home and request a new radio that worked better. This one, he thought, was shot.
HE WAS LATER ASKED why he hadn’t simply ridden down the mountain to his pickup and used the radio inside the cab to report the fence and request assistance. But at the time, he hadn’t even considered it because he couldn’t have known with foresight what he’d find. Cutting a fence was a nuisance and a misdemeanor but not a major crime requiring backup. Plus, he was a Wyoming game warden, one of fifty-four in the entire huge state. He patrolled his five-thousand-square-mile district alone, and it was normal to be so far away from other law enforcement that it was pointless to call them. He was used to dealing with armed citizens in the outback on his own, and he routinely handled situations that would require backup procedure in urban settings.
What he said when asked was, “It was just a cut fence.”
SO HE WALKED Toby through the middle of the gap into the timber, from private land into public land, with Daisy trailing.
The lodgepole pine forest was close, and the trunks closely packed. The canopy was open only in spots where there was rampant pine-beetle kill and the needles had dried, curled, and dropped from the branches to create a three-inch cushion of rust-colored carpet on the forest floor. The pine-beetle infestation had occurred slowly and predictably over the past fifteen years, sweeping from north to south along the Rocky Mountains. From New Mexico to British Columbia, the tiny insects burrowed into lodgepoles and deposited the larva and fungus that eventually killed the trees while they stood. Joe had read estimates that more than three million acres of trees in Wyoming were infested, and he’d seen entire mountainsides colored burnished red from dead standing timber. The only way to stop the invasion, he’d heard, was if the temperature dropped to thirty or forty below for several days in a row during the winter, which would kill the larvae. Either that or spraying the trees with insecticide when they began to show signs of infestation. The weather hadn’t cooperated, and forestry officials had been too paralyzed by budgets and bureaucracy to seriously mount a defense. Now it was too late, and there were tens of millions of acres of dead standing trees like so many unlit cigarettes . . . just waiting for a match.
Joe didn’t even want to think of what it would be like when the fires started. When they did, the Forest Service would be blamed for letting it happen. Joe didn’t think that was entirely fair, even though he was jaded enough to know that even if the service was blamed there would likely be no firings of employees or officials, because that rarely ever happened in the federal system. Nature was nature, he thought, and it was bigger than any regional forester or forest supervisor, even if he wasn’t sure they’d agree with that assessment.
As he was contemplating Armageddon as the result of fires stretching from Canada to Mexico, he smelled wood smoke. It hung thin and acrid in the mountain air.
Joe turned Toby’s head slightly to the northeast in the direction of the breath of wind that carried the smoke. The smoke was too thin and close to be from a forest fire, he thought. Daisy had noted it, too, and Joe assumed by the string of drool from her mouth to the pine needle carpet that there must be an accompanying food smell too faint for him to notice.
WHEN THE DRY CAMP came into view, Joe shouted, “Good afternoon.”
Although it looked like he could have gotten closer before speaking, he wanted the occupant of the camp to know he was coming. There was nothing worse than startling a likely armed man in his own camp, Joe knew.
In the clearing ahead, Joe could see a man wearing bulky camo clothing and squatting over a small fire with his back to him. A bulging pack hung on the branch of a dead pine, but there was no tent, horse, or ATV that Joe could see.
At the sound of Joe’s greeting, the man wheeled around and shifted his weight toward the pack. That’s when Joe saw the scoped rifle leaning against the dead tree.
“How’re things going?” Joe asked in a friendly tone. As he did, he pressured Toby’s right ribs with his leg so the horse would sidestep slightly and put a couple of trees between him and the man in the camp. That was another thing he’d learned long before: never approach a stranger head-on. Always come a little from the side so the scene was off-balance.
The man stood up slowly and turned toward Joe. His posture was tense, as if he were coiled up. Smoke from the small fire outlined his body.
Joe recognized him.
Butch Roberson looked to be equal measures startled, aggressive, and somehow regretful. As if he were resigned to what he would have to do next.
Butch was stocky and barrel-chested, with deep-set brown eyes, a three-day growth of heavy beard, and a wide bony jaw that made his head seem even larger than it was. He had black hair flecked with gray and a once broken nose that made him look like a fighter. He had a way of standing bent slightly forward with his arms stiff at his sides that suggested he would launch into an attack at any provocation. Until he opened his mouth, that is, and his soft-spoken tone belied the package.
Butch owned Meadowlark Construction in Saddlestring, a small company that built a few houses but mainly did renovations. He was Joe’s age, mid-to-late forties, and Joe knew him because Butch was the father of Hannah, Joe’s youngest daughter’s best friend on earth. He’d seen Butch mainly at Lucy’s plays and concerts, and the two had chatted at school functions and when one or the other was sent to pick up his daughter at the Pickett or Roberson home. But since Hannah had obtained her special learner’s permit and could drive a beat-up old sedan to the Pickett house herself, he’d seen less of her parents the past year.
Joe liked Hannah, and so did Marybeth. Hannah had recently expressed an interest in horses, and Marybeth was thrilled to have some help feeding and grooming in the corral behind their house.
Joe knew Butch to be a hard worker, a devoted husband and father, and an outdoorsman who lived to hunt and fish. In that respect, he wasn’t unusual at all in Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming.
Because the only times they’d talked were at social functions related to their daughters, Joe found it awkward to find Butch hunched over a fire miles from the road.
Butch seemed to find it unsettling as well, Joe thought, because the look on his face was one Joe had never seen before.
Joe said, “What brings you up here?”
Butch seemed to be searching for the answer, and Joe noted the quick flick of his eyes in the direction of the rifle. Joe hoped it had been involuntary. Men confronted by game wardens in the wild often displayed tics and gestures that were uncharacteristic in the normal day-to-day. The innocent ones, the men who hunted and fished within the regulations and took pride in their ethics and sportsmanship, often displayed signs of nervousness and anxiety because they were disturbed at the possibility of being under suspicion. It was the boastful, overly friendly and outwardly confident backslappers, Joe had found, who were more likely guilty of something.
“Just scouting elk,” Butch said, finally.
Joe nodded. “Nothing wrong with that. Did you find ’em?”
Butch chinned over his left shoulder in a vague westerly direction. “Six-by-six and a six-by-seven and a dozen cows and calves,” he said, meaning bulls with six and seven points on their antlers.
“That’s encouraging,” Joe said, climbing down. “I need to get up here and do an elk trend count soon. But it’s good to hear that you found some.”
Butch nodded, but his eyes stayed hard on Joe’s face, like he was expecting another shoe to drop.
Joe grunted again as he stood on the ground. His lower back joined his knees and thighs in the pain parade. But he thought it important to dismount, get on Butch’s level, so he wouldn’t seem imperious by talking down to him.
“I didn’t see your rig anywhere on the Big Stream,” Joe said. “What did you do, walk here through the National Forest?”
“From the road,” Butch said, peering up and over Joe’s shoulder.
“That’s quite a hike.”
“It wasn’t so bad.”
“Seven, eight miles?”
“I do twenty a day when I’m hunting,” Butch said without a hint of boastfulness. He was stating a fact. That was something Joe had noticed before when he talked to Butch, whether it was about hunting, or the snowpack, or roads that were still open into the mountains and break lands, or their daughters—no humor, no nuance. Butch was a serious man who didn’t use many words and who seemed to regard small talk as a waste of time and calories. In that regard, Joe found him a kindred soul.
Joe led Toby twenty feet toward Butch and tied the horse to a live tree. While he did, Daisy bounded forward, tail stiffly wagging from side to side, and snuffled Butch’s camo trousers. There was an etiquette about entering another man’s camp, and that was to keep a distance until invited inside. Daisy had broken the rule.
“Daisy,” Joe warned, dropping his voice.
“It’s fine. I like dogs. She hunt?”
“We’ll see,” Joe said. “I’m working with her until bird season, and then I’ll give her a go. Don’t let her eat what you’re cooking.”
“Just heating up coffee,” Butch said. “I already had lunch. You hungry?”
“No, but thanks for asking.”
“I know I’m not supposed to have a fire.”
Joe nodded. There had been an official fire ban since early that summer, placed there by the Forest Service due to the dead trees. The rule was hated by campers and hikers. Dozens of campsites had been closed in the area, and dozens more were rumored to be closed. Joe hadn’t said anything because the fire ban was federally enforced and not in his purview.
When Joe didn’t respond, Butch nodded, then stood there expectantly. Joe wanted to tell him to relax. Instead, he tried for common ground.
“When I left this morning, Hannah and Lucy were still asleep on the living room floor. They like to get out sleeping bags and watch movies, but I think they talk more than they watch,” Joe said. Lucy and Hannah were both entering the ninth grade at Saddlestring Middle School. They’d been friends since grade school and shared the same interests in drama, choir, and dance. Lucy never hesitated to tell Joe and Marybeth that she envied Hannah, who lived in town and could ride her bike everywhere. Unlike her, who was stuck in a state-owned Game and Fish Department house eight miles away from the action on a gravel road.
“Teenagers can sleep,” Butch said.
Joe laughed. “I’ve got three of ’em. Three girls, that is. You’re right—they can sleep.”
“That’s what they seem to do best,” Butch said, his face suddenly wistful. Then: “Hannah used to be my little buddy. I’d get her up before dawn and we’d go out and scout game or go fishing. She kind of lost interest in that when . . .”
Joe looked up, waiting for the rest. But Butch had flushed and looked away. And Joe realized the rest of the sentence might have had to do with Lucy.
“Never mind,” Butch grumbled.
Joe let it go. He knew the feeling. His oldest daughter, Sheridan, had accompanied him often into the field when she was growing up. She’d announced once that she wanted to be a game warden herself, or a master falconer, or a horse trainer. That was before Sheridan had completed her first year at the University of Wyoming, though she had yet to declare a major. She could sleep, too, and that’s all she did on the days she wasn’t working as a waitress at the Burg-O-Pardner to earn money over the summer before starting her second year.
April, their seventeen-year-old ward, worked part-time at a western-wear store in retail between bouts of being grounded. And when she was home and grounded . . . she slept.
“When did she get there?” Butch asked.
“Last night some time,” Joe said. “I saw her car parked out front.”
Butch nodded. Then, without preamble: “I hope you don’t mind if I ask you what you’re doing up here.”
Joe explained the line of water guzzlers, then finding the cut fence. As he did, he watched Butch carefully.
There was a slight reaction, a twitch on the corners of Butch’s mouth.
“You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” Joe asked breezily.
Butch shook his head and said, “They don’t need to put up fences like that and close the roads. We hunted up here for a hundred years on what is supposed to be public land. Now they berm the access roads so we can’t get in. Tell me what’s public about that?”
Joe didn’t bite, and it wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. Butch had strong feelings and opinions when it came to access to hunting areas. That wasn’t unusual, either. Citizens in the area and the state took natural-resource decisions personally, and often railed against the public-lands managers who made decisions. Joe had heard the argument countless times, and sympathized to some degree. And because he was a state and not a federal employee, he often found himself in the middle. Which was why he hadn’t brought up the illegal campfire.
Joe looked up and said, “I haven’t called it in yet. No one knows about it except you and me. But I would guess that if a guy went down there with a stretcher and a fencing tool, he could fix it so no one would ever even know it was down. It’s not like the Feds send out line riders to check it.”
Butch looked away. He grumbled, “I hear you.”
“So the only reason you’re up here is those guzzler things?”
The question took Joe by surprise. “Why else?”
Butch shrugged. “Sure you don’t want some coffee before I kick the fire out and move on?”
With that, Butch tossed the last of his tin cup of coffee onto the forest floor.
“You need to borrow a stretcher?” Joe asked.
“Naw. I built fence all through high school. I know how to fix a fence.”
“Take it easy, Butch.”
“You too, Joe.”
Joe turned, puzzled by the whole exchange, and untied the reins of his horse and called Daisy back.
As he pulled himself into the saddle, Butch said something Joe didn’t catch.
“What’s that, Butch?”
“I said, thanks for watching over Hannah.”
“It’s Marybeth mostly,” Joe said.
“I guess so,” Butch said, as he shouldered into his heavy pack.
Joe noted how big and heavy the pack seemed to be for a day of scouting.
AFTER CHECKING the last two guzzlers—they were full and operational—Joe rode Toby slowly down the mountain toward his pickup. Daisy lagged behind, exhausted, her tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth. It was hot, mid-eighties, and Joe felt sweat run down his spine and into his Wranglers. Dense cream lather worked out between the saddle and Toby’s sweaty back. As Joe cleared the trees he turned in his saddle to look at the top of the mountain where it went bald above the tree line. There was still snow up there, even in August.
He sighed and settled back into the slow gait of the horse. The previous October, during the first heavy snow of the season, he’d been on top of the summit in his department pickup and had gotten it stuck in a snowfield he never should have tried to drive across. The reason he was up there was to try and assist his friend Nate Romanowski, an outlaw falconer and federal fugitive, who was in trouble. In the process, Joe had broken his hand and watched as a wounded Nate drove away. Joe hadn’t heard from Nate since, and given the circumstances and the body count that resulted, Joe didn’t mind. He’d needed the ten months since to heal in body and mind.
Twice he’d ridden with a local tow-truck operator to the top to attempt to retrieve the pickup. Twice they’d been turned back by heavy drifts. The agency had sent up another pickup that should have been sold off because of its condition and the 190,000 miles on the odometer, but until Joe could get his new pickup out, he was stuck with the old one. The situation was the object of jokes and asides at headquarters in Cheyenne because of Joe’s track record with state vehicles. It would be any day now, Joe thought, that a new Game and Fish director would be named by the governor and review his record and give him a call. He hoped to have his pickup out by then, but he wasn’t sure he could make that happen.
JOE HEARD his old replacement pickup from a distance. The speaker outfit on the hood was patched to the radio inside and broadcast chatter from the mutual-aid law enforcement channel. It was set up like that so a game warden could be kept in communication when he was out of his truck, but Joe couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.
As he rode closer, he was surprised by the number of transmissions, and the frequency of them, even though he couldn’t yet make out the words. That happened only when something of significance occurred—a high-speed chase on the highway, a hot pursuit in the county, or a felony in progress.
He hoped whatever it was wouldn’t involve him. He wanted to get home for dinner with Marybeth and his daughters.
Then he reined up for Toby to pause, and he turned in the saddle and looked far up into the timber on the mountain, where he’d last seen Butch Roberson.
MARYBETH PICKETT WAS GIVING AN INFORMAL TOUR of the historic Saddlestring Hotel building to her friend and county prosecutor Dulcie Schalk when she heard sirens race up Main Street directly outside. In mid-sentence, she checked her cell phone to see if there were any texts or messages from Joe. When there weren’t, she dropped the phone back into the pocket of her summer dress.
“You do that automatically,” Dulcie said.
“I guess I do,” Marybeth said. “That’s what happens when your law enforcement husband is out there somewhere by himself and you hear sirens.”
“I understand,” Dulcie said.
Marybeth brushed a strand of hair out of her face and wiped her hands on a cloth to remove the dust that covered everything inside. It was hard to stay clean just walking through the old place, and she didn’t want to show up for her afternoon shift at the Twelve Sleep County Library smudged with grime. Dulcie had the same concern with her severe dark business suit.
Dulcie was slim, fit, dark-haired, and tightly wound. Joe considered her a tough prosecutor and too rigid in her approach, but he liked her. Marybeth had never worked with her—or against her—but they shared a mutual interest in western dressage and simply being around horses. When Dulcie’s stable had closed, Marybeth had offered space for Dulcie’s horse at their place, and now they saw each other twice a day when Dulcie drove out to feed Poke, her aging gelding. Dulcie was single and the subject of local barroom speculation about her availability and sexual preferences, though Marybeth knew her friend was straight—but cautious. And in Twelve Sleep County, pickings were slim.
Marybeth’s secret plan was to find a man for Dulcie and set a romance in motion. She was considering possibilities when Dulcie said, “Back to the tour.”
“Yes, where were we?”
MATT DONNELL, a local realtor, had approached Marybeth two months before at the library and told her he had just purchased the Saddlestring Hotel structure at a foreclosure auction in Cheyenne. It had once been the finest hotel in the county and the place where anyone of note stayed in the area. President Calvin Coolidge, Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne had all stopped there during its heyday, although it was now hard to believe, given the condition of the building. It was a shambling three-level structure built of knotty pine, with a steep roof and gabled windows, a wide portico where rocking chairs had once lined up, and it gave off an overall impression of faded frontier elegance. It had also been vacant and hulking for ten years.
Donnell’s idea, since home sales were slow and he and Marybeth were dedicated to historic renovation, was to figure out a use for the building that would benefit the community and restore an eyesore into something useful. He also wanted to make some money. He told Marybeth he’d always admired her business sense and entrepreneurship, and asked her if she’d like to become a twenty-five percent partner in his new venture. Since she’d once helmed a small-business consulting firm and had contacts and experience, he said he’d thought of her first.
She’d been surprised by the offer but intrigued by the possibilities. Her current schedule consisted of being the mother of three teenage girls, running the household, taking care of her two horses, and acting as unpaid research assistant, receptionist, scheduler, and sounding board for Joe. Only the library stint helped pay the bills, and family finances were tighter than ever. She knew from experience that uneven partnerships often resulted in tension and angst, but she had no capital to put into the deal. Sheridan was about to start her second year at the University of Wyoming, and both April and Lucy were on deck. Marybeth’s part-time salary at the library was small, and Joe’s game warden salary was hostage to an agency-wide freeze. Because of all that, though, Marybeth was frustrated with their situation—living in the battered state-owned home, scrapping for a better life—and wanted to break out of it. And she wanted to show her daughters that rewards could come by hard work and risk, especially since the only person of wealth they had known was Marybeth’s mother, Missy, who’d acquired a fortune by trading up husbands for richer and richer men.
She told Donnell she’d consider it, and he said he’d get the paperwork going for the Saddlestring Hotel Development Limited Liability Company.
Joe and Marybeth stayed up late that night, and the more she thought about it and they talked about it, the more excited she got. Donnell’s role was finance, compliance, permits, and materials, and her role would be restoration, recruiting, and administration. She loved the idea.
The deal wasn’t in place yet, and Marybeth wanted the advice of her friend before she proceeded, which is why she’d invited Dulcie to tour the building.
“So do you know what the sirens were about?” she asked Dulcie.
“Not yet. If it’s something important, they’ll call me.”
Marybeth slipped a rubber band off a roll of blueprints to show Dulcie the plans.
Dulcie smiled. “If I was married to Joe Pickett, I’d probably be hyperalert as well.”
“Tell me about it.”
“IF WE DO THIS, we’d have to gut all the old rooms and knock down half of the walls between them,” Marybeth said, tracing with her finger on the blueprints, which were spread over an old door propped up by sawhorses.
“The last owners turned the place into a flophouse for transients and day workers,” she said. “We want to restore it to its old glory.”
What People are Saying About This
“An explosive thriller that careens from one unpredictable twist to another.” —South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“It’s the best installment yet in an already rich series. Grade: A.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“An exceptionally well-told story that will entertain, thrill and maybe even outrage its readers.”—USA Today
“Will raise the hair on your neck and chill you to the bone.”—Bookreporter.com
“Thrilling wilderness chases, chilling stories of the abuse of power, and Pickett’s indomitable frontier spirit power this explosive novel.”—Publishers Weekly
“Fans of this series will burn through the pages…Another must-read.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Its basis in a real-life conflict makes Joe’s thirteenth case one of his most tendentious, but it’s Box who makes it one of his most exciting.”—Kirkus Reviews