The first novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series featuring Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett—the book that launched one of the biggest, most reliable, and fastest growing franchises in commercial fiction!
Joe Pickett is the new game warden in Twelve Sleep, Wyoming, a town where nearly everyone hunts and the game warden—especially one like Joe who won't take bribes or look the other way—is far from popular. When he finds a local hunting outfitter dead, splayed out on the woodpile behind his state-owned home, he takes it personally. Even after the discovery of two more bodies, and the resolution of the case by local police, Joe continues to investigate.
As Joe digs deeper into the murders, he soon discovers that the outfitter brought more than death to his backdoor: he brought Joe an endangered species, thought to be extinct, which is now living in his woodpile. But if word of this rare species gets out, it will destroy any chance of InterWest, a multi-national natural gas company, building an oil pipeline through the mountains and forests of Twelve Sleep. The closer Joe comes to the truth behind the outfitter murders, the endangered species, and InterWest, the closer he comes to losing everything he holds dear.
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Joe lived, but it wasn't something he was particularly proud of. It was now fall and Sunday morning dawned slate gray and cold. He was making pancakes for his girls when he first heard of the bloody beast who had come down from the mountains and tried to enter the house during the night.
Seven-year-old Sheridan Pickett related her dream aloud to the stuffed bear that served as her confidant. Lucy, three and horrified, listened in. The television set was on even though the reception from the vintage satellite dish was snowy and poor, as usual.
The monster, Sheridan said, had come down from the mountains through the dark, steep canyon behind the house very late last night. She watched it through a slit in the curtain on her window, just a few inches from the top bunk of her bed. The canyon was where Sheridan had always suspected a monster would come from, and she felt proud, if a bit fearful, that she had been right. The only light had been the moon through the dried leaves of the cottonwood tree. The monster had rattled the back gate before figuring out the latch and had then lurched clumsily (sort of like mummies in old movies) across the yard to the back door. Its eyes and teeth glinted yellow, and for a second, Sheridan felt an electric bolt jolt through her as the monster's head swiveled around and seemed to looked directly at her before it fled. The monster was hairy and shiny, as if covered with liquid. Twigs and leaves were stuck to it. There was something white, a large sack or box, swinging from the monster's hand.
"Sheridan, stop talking about monsters," Joe called out. The dream disturbed him because the details were so precise. Sheridan's dreams were usually more fantastic, inhabited by talking pets or magical things that flew. "You're going to scare your little sister."
"I'm already scared," Lucy declared, pulling her blanket to her mouth.
"Then the man walked slowly away across the yard through the gate toward the woodpile where he fell down into a big shadow. And he's still out there," Sheridan finished, widening her eyes toward her sister to deliver the complete effect.
"Hold it, Sheridan," Joe said abruptly, entering the room with a spatula in his hand. Joe was wearing his threadbare terry-cloth bathrobe he had purchased on a lark in Jackson Hole on his and Marybeth's honeymoon ten years before. He shuffled in fleece slippers that were a size too large. "You said 'man.' You didn't say 'monster.' You said 'man.'"
Sheridan looked up quizzically, her big eyes wide. "Maybe it was a man. Maybe it wasn't a dream after all."
Joe heard a vehicle outside, racing up the gravel Bighorn Road much too fast, but by the time he crossed the living room and parted the faded drapes of the front picture window, the car or truck was gone. Dust rolled lazily down the road where it had been.
Beyond the window was the front yard, still green from summer and littered with plastic toys. Then there was the white fence, recently painted, paralleled by the gravel road. Farther, beyond the road, the landscape dipped into a willow-choked saddle where the Twelve Sleep River branched out into six fingers clogged with beaver ponds and brackish mosquito-heaven eddies and paused for a breath before its muscular rush through and past the town of Saddlestring. Beyond were the folds of the valley as it arched and suddenly climbed to form a precipitous mountain-face known as Wolf Mountain, a peak in the Twelve Sleep Range.
With Wolf Mountain in front of them and the foothills and canyon in back, the Pickett family, eight miles from town in their house, lived a life of deep and casting shadows.
The front door opened and Maxine burst in, followed by Marybeth. Marybeth's cheeks were flushed-either from the brisk cold air or her long walk with the dog, Joe wasn't sure which-and she looked annoyed. She wore her winter walking uniform of lightweight hiking boots, chinos, anorak, and wool hat. The anorak was stretched tight across her pregnant belly.
"It's cold out there," Marybeth said, peeling the hat off so her blond hair tumbled onto her shoulders. "Did you see that truck tear by here? That was Sheriff Barnum's truck going too fast on that road up to the mountains."
"Barnum?" Joe said, genuinely puzzled.
"And your dog was going nuts when we got back to the house. She nearly took my arm off just a minute ago." Marybeth unclipped Maxine's leash from her collar, and Maxine padded to her water dish and drank sloppily.
Joe had a blank expression on his face while he was thinking. The expression sometimes annoyed Marybeth, who was afraid people would think him simple. It was the same expression, in a photograph, that had been transmitted throughout the region via the Associated Press when Joe, while still a trainee, had arrested a tall man-who turned out to be the new governor of Wyoming-for fishing without a license.
"Where did Maxine want to go?" he asked.
"She wanted to go out back," she said. "Toward the woodpile."
Joe turned around. Sheridan and Lucy had paused at breakfast and were looking to him. Lucy looked away and resumed eating. Sheridan held his gaze, and she nodded triumphantly.
"Better take your gun," Sheridan said.
Joe managed a grin. "Eat your breakfast," he said.
"What's this all about?" Marybeth asked.
"Bloody monsters," Sheridan said, her eyes wide. "There's a bloody monster in the woodpile."
Suddenly, there was the roar of motors coming up Bighorn Road from Saddlestring. Joe was thinking exactly what Marybeth said next: "Something's going on. I wonder why nobody called here?"
Joe lifted the telephone receiver to make sure it was working; the dial tone echoed clearly into his ear.
"Maybe it's because you're the new guy. People here still can't get used to the fact that Vern Dunnegan isn't around anymore," Marybeth said, and Joe knew instantly she wished she could take it back.
"Dad, about that monster?" Sheridan said from the table, almost apologetic.
Joe buckled his holster over his bathrobe, clamped on his black Stetson, and stepped outside onto the back porch. He was surprised how cool and crisp it was this early in the fall. When he saw the large spatters of dried blood between his oversized fleece slippers, the chill suddenly became more pronounced. Joe pulled his revolver and broke the cylinder to make sure it loaded. Then he glanced over his shoulder.
Framed in the dining room window were Sheridan and Lucy. Marybeth stood behind them and off to the side. His three girls in the window were various stages of the same painfully beautiful blond and willowy female. Their green eyes were on him, and their faces were wide open. He knew how silly he must look. He couldn't tell if they could see what he could: splashes of blood on the ancient concrete walkway that halved the yard and crushed frozen grass where it appeared that someone-or something-had rolled. It looked almost like the night nesting place of a large deer or elk the way the grass and crisp autumn leaves had been flattened.
Grasping the pistol in front of him with both hands, Joe skirted a young pine and stepped through the open gate of the weathered fence to the place where the woodpile was.
Joe sucked in his breath and involuntarily stepped back, his ears filled with the whumping sound of his own heart beating.
A big, bearded man was sprawled across the woodpile, both of his large hands folded across his belly, palms down, and one leg cocked over a stump. The man's head rested on a log, his mouth parted just enough to show two rows of yellow teeth that looked like corn on the cob. His eyelids weren't completely shut, and where there should have been a moist reflection from his eyes there was instead a dull, dry membrane that looked like crinkled cellophane. His long hair and full beard was matted by blood into crude dreadlocks. The man wore a thick beige chamois shirt and jeans, and broad stripes of dark blood had coursed down both. It was Ote Keeley, and Ote looked dead.
Joe reached out and touched Ote's meaty, pale white hand. The skin was cold and did not give to the touch. Except for the dried blood in his hair and on his clothes and his waxy skin, Ote looked to be very comfortable. He could have been reclining in his La-Z-Boy, having a beer and watching the Broncos game on television.
Clutched in one of Ote Keeley's hands was the handle of a small plastic cooler minus the lid. Joe kneeled down and looked into the cooler, which was empty except for a scatter of small teardrop-shaped animal excrement. The inside walls of the cooler were scratched and scarred, as if clawed. Whatever had been in there had been manic about getting out, and it had succeeded.
Joe stood and saw the extra buckskin horse standing near the corral. The horse was saddled, and the reins hung down from the bridle. The horse had been ridden hard and had lost enough weight that the cinch slipped and the saddle hung loose and upside down.
Joe stared at Ote's blank face, recalling that day in June when Ote had pointed Joe's own pistol at his face and cocked the hammer. Even though Ote had thought better of it and had sighed theatrically and spun the weapon around butt-first with his finger in the trigger guard like the Lone Ranger, Joe had never quite been the same. He had been expecting to die at that moment, and for all practical purposes he deserved to die, having given up his weapon so stupidly. But it hadn't happened. Joe had holstered his revolver with his hands shaking so badly that the barrel of the revolver rattled around the mouth of the holster. His knees had been so weak that he backed up against his pickup to brace himself so he wouldn't collapse. Ote had simply watched him with a bemused expression on his face. Without a word, Joe had written out the citation for poaching in a shaking scrawl and handed the ticket to Ote Keeley, who took it and stuffed it in his pocket without even looking at it.
"I won't say nothin' if you don't about what just happened," Ote had said.
Joe hadn't acknowledged the offer, but he hadn't arrested Ote either. The deal had been struck: Ote's silence in exchange for Joe's life and career. It was a deal Joe agonized over later, usually late at night. Ote Keeley had taken something from him that he could never get back. In a way, Ote Keeley had killed Joe, just a little bit. Joe hated him for that, although he never said a word to anyone except Marybeth. What made it worse was when word of the incident filtered out anyway.
During the summer Ote had gotten drunk and told everyone at the bar what had happened. The story about the new game warden losing his weapon to a local outfitter had joyously made the rounds, and it even appeared in the wicked anonymous column "Ranch Gossip" that ran in the weekly Saddlestring Roundup. It was the kind of story the locals loved. In the latest version, Joe had lost control of his sphincter and had begged Ote for the gun back. Joe's supervisor in Cheyenne heard the rumors and had called Joe. Joe confirmed what had actually happened. In spite of Joe's explanation, the supervisor sent Joe a reprimand that would stay in his personnel file forever. An investigation was still possible.
Keeley's poaching trial date had been set to take place in two weeks, but obviously Ote wouldn't be appearing.
Ote Keeley was the first dead person Joe had ever seen except in a coffin at a funeral. There was nothing alive or real about Ote's expression. He did not look happy, puzzled, sad, or in pain. The look on his face-frozen by death and for several hours-told Joe nothing about what Ote was thinking or feeling when he died. Joe fought an urge to reach up and close Ote's eyes and mouth, to make him look more like he was sleeping. Joe had seen a lot of dead big game animals, but only the stillness and the salt-ripe odor was the same. When he saw dead animals, he had many different emotions, depending on the circumstances-from indifference to pity and sometimes to quiet rage aimed at careless hunters. This was different, Joe thought, because the dead body was human and could be him. Joe made himself stop staring.
Joe stood up. There had been a monster.
He heard something and turned around.
The back door slammed shut, and Sheridan was coming out in her nightgown, skipping down the walk with her hands in the air to see what he had found.
"Get BACK into that house!" Joe commanded with such unexpected force that Sheridan spun on her bare feet and flew right back inside.
On his way through the house and to the phone, Joe told Marybeth who the dead man was.
Of course, County Sheriff O. R. "Bud" Barnum wasn't in when Joe called the dispatch center in Saddlestring. According to the dispatcher-a chain-smoking conspiracy buff named Wendy-neither was Deputy McLanahan. Both, she said, had responded to an emergency that morning in a Forest Service campground in the mountains.
"Some campers reported seeing a wounded man on horseback ride straight through their camp last night," Wendy told Joe. "They said the suspect allegedly rode his horse right through their camp while displaying a weapon and threatening the campers with said weapon."
Joe could tell that Wendy loved this situation, loved being in the center of the action, loved telling Joe about it, loved saying things like "allegedly" and "said weapon." She did not get a chance to use those words often in Twelve Sleep County.
"I called out the entire sheriff's office and both emergency medical vehicles at seven-twelve a.m. this morning to respond."
"Did you get a description of the man on horseback?" Joe asked.
Wendy paused on the telephone, then read from the report: "Late thirties, wearing a beard, bloody shirt. A big man. Crazy eyes, they said. The suspect was allegedly swinging some kind of plastic box or cooler around."
Joe leaned his chair back so he could see out of the small room near the front door that served as his office. Both girls were still lined up at the back window, looking out. Marybeth hovered behind them, trying to draw their attention away by rattling a box of pretzels the same way she would shake dog biscuits at Maxine to get her to come into the house.