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The Moose That Wasn't
Lorne Trumley had called dispatch to report a dead moose on his ranch. Since it was two weeks after the close of moose-hunting season in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, Joe Pickett had responded.
He slowed down and then stopped his green Ford F-150 pickup in front of the closed barbed-wire gate. Engine running, he limped out and approached it, all the while keeping his eye on several Black Angus cattle who had poked their heads out of a seven-foot stand of willows to stare dumbly at him. Even though he was moving slower than usual, Joe was able to open the gate, drive through, and close it again before the spark of a bovine thought-We can run out on the road!-slowly worked its way through the cows' brains. By the time they'd realize their escape was possible, it would be too late.
He grunted as he dropped the iron loop over the top of the gatepost and levered it closed. Most of the muscles in his body still hurt, and he had stitches in his back and thighs from an encounter with a wolverine.
He wished old Lorne Trumley would replace the ancient wire gate and install a cattle guard at the entrance to his place. It was unlikely, though. Lorne was in his eighties, and like a lot of longtime local ranchers, he only fixed things for good after they'd been repaired so many times there was nothing left of them. And the three-strand gate still worked, sort of.
Joe winced as he pulled himself back into the cab. His Labrador, Daisy, scooted toward him on the front seat and placed her heavy head on his lap, as if offering sympathy for his infirmities.
He patted Daisy's head and eased down the worn two-track road that would take him to Lorne's home.
"Thanks, old girl," he said to her.
As he drove by, the cattle finally leaped to action and charged past him toward the closed gate. Yup, too late.
Lorne Trumley's Crazy Z-Bar Ranch was a fourth-generation holding spread over lush, unique landscape six miles west of the town of Winchester. It was largely a glacial river bottom, and the north branch of the Twelve Sleep River did a series of lazy S-curves through it, providing a version of a natural irrigation ditch. Trumley raised cattle and grew hay, and because of the river branch there was plenty of water, which was a rarity in the valley. The water sustained thick, tall stands of willow and knotty brush that divided the ranch land as if by windrows. It was a geothermal area as well, with warm-water seeps and heated quicksand that steamed in the winter.
The name of the ranch had nothing to do with the ownership or history of the place. "Crazy Z-Bar" was just a description of the brand used on its cattle: the letter Z tilted forty-five degrees to the left over a single line.
Joe knew from experience that the Crazy Z-Bar was a good place not to get stuck. The first time he'd come out to talk to Trumley about a change in hunting regulations, he'd mired his pickup in quicksand and had to walk the rest of the way to the house. After delivering a lecture about the big-game biologists in Joe's agency knowing absolutely nothing about anything and any change in the hunting seasons would be foolish as hell, the rancher had followed Joe back to his pickup in a tractor and pulled him out.
It was a cool day and the sky was close. The summits of the Bighorn Mountains were shrouded with cloud cover. Joe looked at the digital temperature display on his dashboard: forty-two degrees.
For Joe, it felt good to go back to work that morning after lolling around his house for too many days. It felt right to him to pull on his red uniform shirt and pin on his badge and "j. pickett, game warden" nameplate. It even felt right to buckle on his holster and .40 Glock semiauto.
Marybeth had told him a strange story that morning. He pushed it to the back of his mind for now.
While recovering, he'd used part of his time to thoroughly clean out his pickup. He'd done a lot of the things he'd always promised to do "when he had the time". He'd repaired his equipment and repacked his extra clothing. His weapons were all cleaned and oiled, and the console box of maps, ticket books, notebooks, and agency bulletins had all been organized and replaced. He'd vacuumed Daisy's dog hair off his bench seat and power-washed the floor mats.
It was as if he were driving a new pickup, he thought. He wondered how long it would last.
Although he had the business about the moose to take care of first, Joe looked forward to seeing all of his girls together in their house for Thanksgiving. It would be strange, since the family had their history and memories in another state-owned home that had been burned to the ground and not at the newer, much nicer residence on the bank of the Twelve Sleep River. It was unfair to his girls, he thought, that there were now more rooms and more space than there'd ever been when the three of them were growing up.
Although Sheridan stopped by often-not often enough for her mother-April and Lucy had been to the new place infrequently, and separately, depending on their schedules. This wasn't really their home-it was the place where their parents now lived.
With Lucy bringing a friend along and the added presence of Liv Romanowski and her baby daughter, Kestrel, Marybeth was organizing a fairly large Thanksgiving meal and weekend. No doubt, she'd already determined who got which room to avoid conflict and how the seating at the table would be assigned. Joe's job, he knew, was simply to be available.
He was good at that.
Joe hoped Liv would have news about Nate Romanowski, her husband and Joe's longtime friend. Nate was away, following the trail of an outlaw falconer named Axel Soledad, who had beaten up Liv, threatened baby Kestrel, and stolen Nate's falcons. Nate had left in a black rage and Joe hoped he could recover his Air Force without leaving a body count. But Joe knew Nate all too well, and he feared for what could happen.
With so much on his mind that morning, he was grateful for the distraction when Lorne shambled out of his old house and waved hello. Joe pulled into the overgrown ranch yard and parked next to a muddy ATV bristling with irrigation shovels strapped down by bungee cords. The butt end of a lever-action carbine poked out of a leather saddle scabbard.
"Hey, Joe," Lorne said.
Trumley looked like a piece of jerky that happened to be wearing an oversized flannel shirt, a Carhartt vest, and baggy jeans cinched by a belt with a rodeo buckle so ancient and smoothed off, the engraving had vanished. His short-brimmed cowboy hat was stained and battered and it gave his appearance a comical framing.
He raised his arm and pointed vaguely over Joe's shoulder. "That way," he said. "Just look for the birds."
"When did you find the moose?" Joe asked.
"This morning. I was looking for a couple of missing heifers and I seen it across the swamp. It isn't very far from the edge of my property." He pronounced it prop-ity.
"Did you hear any shots?"
"I don't hear much of nothin' these days."
"Is it a bull or a cow? Could you tell?"
"I don't know. I just know it was black like a moose. Too dark for an elk and not one of my cows."
Joe asked, "Can I get there in my truck?"
"If you try, you'll get stuck again, would be my guess."
"Can I borrow your Ranger?" Joe asked, chinning toward the ATV. He had one back at his game warden station, but it would take a few hours to drive there, load it on a trailer, and return.
"Be careful with it," Trumley cautioned. "My other one's broke down."
"Just follow my tracks through the meadow and you should be okay."
Just look for the birds, Trumley had said. Joe understood. Predatory birds like ravens and crows were always the first on the scene of a carcass. Birds of prey, like eagles and falcons, would show up next. Larger predators would follow their lead, and scuttling armies of insects would later mop up.
Daisy loped alongside the ATV as he drove in Trumley's tracks across the meadow, through ditches, and via openings in the hedgerow brush. Several of the openings would have been too narrow for his pickup, and on either side of the high ground where Trumley had traveled was soft mud and hidden swamp. Daisy liked to splash through it, and she gave chase-for half a minute-to a pair of mallards she'd flushed.
Before leaving the ranch, Joe had secured his necropsy kit in the bed of the Ranger, plus his twelve-gauge Remington Wingmaster shotgun, which was primarily for safety if the poachers were still about. He'd also thrown in a heavy chain and nylon towrope.
After photographing the scene and looking for evidence like spent brass casings or boot prints, he would likely have to drag the carcass out behind the ATV to perform the necropsy and find out how it had been killed. If the animal had been shot, he'd attempt to locate the bullet. More often than not, the projectile would be located beneath the skin of the hide on the opposite side of the entry wound.
Moose season had closed. It was a special permit area, so he knew from experience that it was unlikely a moose hunter with a legitimate license had been involved in the poaching incident. The violator-if there was one-was probably an elk hunter who'd chosen the wrong species, or an out-and-out outlaw who wanted to kill a moose out of season. Which made his blood boil.
Even before he saw the birds gathering near a stand of thick willows up ahead, he caught the whiff of what smelled like burned pork. Daisy noticed it, too, and out of the corner of his eye he saw her stop and raise her snout in the air.
Joe rounded a knot of brush and saw a high-grass swamp between him and the birds. It was as far as Trumley had traveled that morning-the ATV tracks stopped short before attempting to cross the bog.
As Trumley had described, a dark and heavy form was on the ground beneath an overhang of thick brush on the other side of the swamp beyond the clearing. Parts of it appeared to be smoldering and wisps of steam or smoke rose from the upper part. Despite that, ravens covered it and fought off newcomers to the scene. Several let out shrill cries.
He stopped the ATV at the swamp edge and dug his binoculars out of his gear bag. Although the idling engine made his field of vision tremble, he zoomed in on the form and sharpened the focus.
The first thing he noticed made him draw a sharp intake of breath.
The body was black and charred and curled up beneath the overhang. Two rows of white teeth, human teeth, appeared bright and almost electrified from the lower part of the skull. The lips were either burned away or eaten off by the ravens.
An arm stuck out from the body as if reaching out for help that didn't come. Three of the five fingers had already been cleaned of flesh to the bone by the ravens. A fire-blackened silver wristwatch hung loosely from the carpal joints.
Joe felt his stomach clench and his body go cold.
It wasn't a moose that Lorne Trumley had found on the edge of his property.
Joe and the Body
"What do you mean, burned?" Sheriff Scott Tibbs asked Joe as they drove Trumley's Ranger from the ranch house on the same ATV tracks Joe had used earlier.
"I mean burned," Joe said over the sound of the engine. In order to hear each other, each man had to lean toward the other.
"Like he stepped in that thermal water?" Tibbs asked. "I heard there were hot springs out here."
"There are," Joe said. "But no, like he caught on fire."
"Well, I'll be a son of a bitch," Tibbs said, reaching up to clamp his hat tight on his head. "This I got to see."
It was an hour after Joe had discovered the body and called Tibbs directly on his cell phone. Tibbs had driven his own Twelve Sleep County SheriffÕs Department SUV to the Trumley ranch, followed by Deputy Ryan Steck and rookie officer Tom Bass. Joe had left Steck and Bass to mill around in the ranch yard with Trumley because the Ranger was the only vehicle they could use to access the crime scene. Forensics tech Gary Norwood was also on his way from town, as well as another deputy, who'd been ordered to tow a trailer with two additional ATVs chained on its bed.
Tibbs had been the sheriff for only a few months, after being talked out of retirement in Buffalo by the local county commissioners. He was portly and folksy with a thick white mustache, and jowls that trembled with the vibration of the Ranger. He still wasn't settled into his new job, and since he had started, events had come at him like water from a fire hose. First the mayhem in the Bighorn Mountains, and now this. Joe felt sorry for him, because there was no way Tibbs had had the time yet to get his bearings in the new county. Locals were already starting to question his competence and ability.
Joe was also well aware that most of the trouble Tibbs had encountered involved . . . Joe. He guessed that Tibbs had probably cringed when he saw who was calling, and Joe couldn't really blame him.
"Do you know who the victim is?" Tibbs asked. "Is he local? You know a hell of a lot more people around here than I do."
"I don't even know if it's a he," Joe replied. "I didn't get close enough to identify him or her."
"You didn't touch the body or tramp around the location, did you?"
"I didn't even cross the swamp. I called you as soon as I found it."
"That was the right decision," Tibbs said. "I know you have a reputation for inserting yourself into sheriff's department business where a game warden doesn't belong."
"Who told you that?" Joe asked.
"It's well known."
Joe didn't think it was the right time and occasion to defend himself, so he bit his tongue. Since he'd been assigned to the Saddlestring District nearly twenty years before, there had been exactly one good sheriff who'd done his job well: Mike Reed. He'd also been Joe's friend. All the other county sheriffs had been corrupt, incompetent, or both. The last one, Brendan Kapelow, had falsified his résumé and vanished when the lie was discovered. So of course Joe had involved himself in investigations even though he often wasn't wanted.
Tibbs shouted, “You described the body as ‘still smoldering’ when you found it."
"How long has it been there, do you think?"
"I don’t know but I’d guess just a few hours. The birds were just getting started."
"Are you sure he’s deceased?” Tibbs asked.
"Has to be,” Joe said. “There was absolutely no movement."
Despite his answer, though, the question felt like a knife thrust into his belly. He hadn’t even considered that the person could still be alive, The body was burned beyond recognition, being fed on by predator birds, but still, the thought of him leaving a suffering man was sickening. He wished he had checked on the victim before calling Tibbs, even though Tibbs would have chided him for contaminating the scene.
"I remember reading an article about how some people spontaneously combust," Tibbs said. "Do you believe something like that can actually happen? You’re walking along minding your own business and then ‘poof,’ you realize you’re on fire?"
"I don’t know," Joe said. He was still reeling from the fact that Tibbs had even assumed Joe was the kind of man to leave a victim to die. He prayed he hadn’t screwed up like that.
"Maybe it’s an accident of some kind," Tibbs said. "Or a suicide."
Joe didn’t respond.