When a good friend and fellow warden kills himself, Joe Pickett is chosen to temporarily run his Teton district. But Jackson, Wyoming, is a far cry from Joe's hometown of Saddlestring—and it doesn't help that now Joe feels compelled to investigate the circumstances surrounding his friend's suicide. But as he comes closer to the truth, the more his own life spirals out of control—and he realizes if he isn't careful, he may be Jackson's next victim...
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Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable, and distinctly more ignorant.
The Practice of the Wild: Essays
Moving the keelboat and pirogues upriver required a tremendous effort from each man; consequently they ate prodigiously. In comparison with beef, the venison and elk were lean, even at this season. Each soldier consumed up to nine pounds of meat per day, along with whatever fruit the area afforded and some cornmeal, and still felt hungry.
Stephen E. Ambrose,
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis,
Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening
of the American West
Before going outside to his pickup for his gun, the Wyoming game warden cooked and ate four and a half pounds of meat.
He’d begun his meal with pronghorn antelope steaks, butterflied, floured, and browned in olive oil. Then an elk chop, pan-fried with salt and pepper, adding minced garlic to the cast-iron skillet. His first drink, sipped while he was cooking the antelope, was a glass of Yukon Jack and water on the rocks. By the time he broiled a half dozen mourning dove breasts, he no longer bothered with the ice or the water. As he sat down late in the evening with an elk tenderloin so rare that blood pooled around it on his plate, he no longer used the glass, but drank straight from the bottle.
He ate no vegetables; unless one counted the sautéed onions he had slathered on a grass-fed Hereford beef T-bone, or the minced garlic. Just meat.
He needed air, and stood up.
His mind swam, the room rotated, his heavy boots clunked across the floor. He paused at the jamb, using it to brace himself upright. He stared at a flyspeck on the wall, tried to will the quadruple images he was seeing down to a more manageable two.
Finally, he opened the door. It was dark except for a blue streetlight on the northern corner of the block. A full moon lit up the crags of the mountains, casting them in dim blue-gray. The chill of the fall was already a guest. He stumbled down the broken sidewalk toward his truck. As he approached, his pickup seemed to swell and deflate, as if it were breathing.
“Something smells good inside,” a voice said. It startled the game warden, and he squinted toward it, trying to concentrate, to hear it over the mild roar in his ears. A neighbor wearing a tam on his head was walking a poodle down the middle of the street.
“Meat,” Will Jensen said abruptly, almost shouting. It was sometimes hard these days to hear his own voice above the roar.
“See you,” the neighbor called as he walked down the street. “Bon appétit!”
These people here, Will thought. A goddamned poodle and a tam.
HIS .44 MAGNUM, his bear gun, was on the truck’s bench seat where he had left it. Will drew it out of the holster. Holding it loosely in his right hand, he turned back for the house, tripped over his own boots, and fell in the gravel. A red finger of alarm probed into his brain, concern about accidentally discharging the weapon in his fall. Then he snorted a laugh, thinking, Who cares?
HE DIDN’T KNOW how much later it was when he stirred awake. He was still sitting at the table, but had passed out face forward into his plate. Crisp grouse skin stuck to his cheek, and he pawed at it clumsily until it fluttered to the floor.
Angry, he swept the table clear with his arm. Grease smeared across the Formica. The dirty plate cracked in half when it hit the wall.
Where was his .44?
He found it on his bed, where he had tossed it earlier. Along with the weapon, he grabbed a framed photo of his family from the bedside table. He took them both back into the kitchen.
Forlorn was a word he had come to like in recent months. It was a word that sounded like what it described. “Forlorn,” he said aloud to himself, “I feel forlorn. I am a forlorn man.” Something about the word soothed him, because it defined him, made him admit what he was.
What in the hell was wrong with him? Why did he feel this way, after so many years of balancing on the beam?
The roar in his ears was now so faint that it reminded him of a soft breeze in the treetops. His eyes filled with unexpected, stinging tears, and he drank a long pull from the bottle. He cocked the .44, watched the cylinder rotate. He opened his mouth and pressed the muzzle against the top of his palate. There was a burning, acrid taste. When was the last time he cleaned it?
Why did that matter now?
He stared at the photo he’d propped up on the table. It swam. He closed his eyes so tightly that he saw orange fireworks on the inside of his eyelids. He tried to concentrate on the .44 in his fist and the muzzle in his mouth. His stomach was on fire; he tried to fight the urge to get violently sick. He tasted the bitter whiskey a second time.
Concentrate . . .
The wedding of Bud Longbrake and Missy Vankueren took place at noon, on a sun-filled Saturday in September, on the front lawn of the Longbrake Ranch, twenty miles from town. Everyone was there.
The governor and his wife, most of the state senate, where Bud served as majority leader, the state’s lone congressman, and what seemed like half of Saddlestring filled 250 metal folding chairs and spilled over into the lawn. Both U.S. senators had sent their regrets. The crisp blue shoulders of the Bighorn Mountains framed the wedding party. The day smelled of just-cut grass and wood smoke from the barbecue pit behind the house, where a prime Longbrake steer and a 4-H pig were roasting. It was a still, windless morning. A single cloud grazed lazily along the peaks. The only sounds were from car doors slamming as more guests arrived, pulling into the shorn hay meadow that served as a parking lot in the back, and occasional mewls from cattle in a distant holding corral.
Joe Pickett sat in the second row. He wore a jacket and tie, dark slacks, and polished black cowboy boots. He was in his mid-thirties, lean, medium height. His thirteen-year-old daughter, Sheridan, sat next to him in a new blue dress. She shone brightly, he thought; long blond hair still streaked with summer highlights, a touch of pink lipstick, open, attractive face, eyes that took in everything. She watched intently as her mother, Marybeth, and eight-year-old sister, Lucy, took part in the ceremony. Lucy was the flower girl, wearing white taffeta. Marybeth, the matron of honor, stood on a riser next to Dale Longbrake and the rest of the wedding party. The men wore black western-cut tuxedos and black Stetsons.
Joe and his wife exchanged glances, and he could tell from her eyes that she was exasperated. Her mother, Missy Vankueren, was an experienced wedding planner, having been the featured bride in three previous ceremonies. Missy had been designing the event for over a year with the intensity and precision of a general implementing a major ground offensive, Joe thought, and she had enlisted a reluctant Marybeth as her second lieutenant. Endless discussions and phone calls had finally resulted in this day, which Marybeth had come to refer to as “Operation Massive Ranch Wedding.”
Joe nodded toward the mountains and whispered to Sheridan, “See that cloud?”
Sheridan looked. “Yes.”
“I would wager that by Wedding Five, Missy will have figured out how to get rid of it.”
“Dad!” she whispered fiercely. But the corners of her mouth tugged with a conspiratorial grin. He winked at her, and she rolled her eyes, turning back to the wedding that was about to begin.
There was a growing murmur as the bride appeared, on cue, beneath an arch of pink and white flowers. Joe and Sheridan rose to their feet with the rest of the crowd. Applause rippled from the front to the back as Missy appeared, glowing, wide-eyed, looking demurely at the throng she had turned out.
“I can’t believe that’s my grandmother,” Sheridan said to Joe. “She looks . . .”
“Stunning,” Joe said, finishing the sentence for her. Missy looked thirty, not sixty, he thought. She was a slim brunette, her face and hair perfect, her eyes glistening in a too-large head that always looked great in photos. She held a bouquet of pink and white flowers against her shimmering plum dress.
Joe heard Bud Longbrake say, in a reverent tone of appreciation he usually reserved for great cutting horses or seed bulls: “There’s my girl.”
THE RECEPTION WAS held behind the huge log home, under hundred-year-old cottonwoods. A swing band from Billings played on a stage, and couples spun on a hardwood floor that had been moved to the ranch just for the occasion from a vacated mid-forties dance hall in Winchester. The floor was unique in that it was mounted on carriage springs and had been used for Saturday night dances when big bands used to stop over in Wyoming en route to real paying gigs on the east or west coasts.
Joe ushered Sheridan through the reception line, shaking hands. Bud Longbrake slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Welcome to the family.”
I’ve got a family, Joe thought.
Missy reached for Joe, and pulled his head down next to hers. He felt the bouquet she still clutched crush into his hair. “Never thought I’d pull this one off, did you?” she whispered.
Surprised, he pulled away. She grinned slyly at him, and despite himself, he grinned back. She was a substantial adversary, he thought. He’d hate to meet her in a dark alley.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Bud is a fine man.”
“Oh, I think I got the best of the deal,” Bud said, wrapping his arm around Missy’s slim waist.
“You did,” she said, flashing her wide smile.
And her name is already on the ranch deed, Joe thought. She owns half of everything we see as far as we can see it. She pulled it off, all right.
Marybeth was next, and had been carefully watching the exchange that took place a moment before.
“You look wonderful,” he said.
Thank God it’s over, she mouthed. He nodded back, agreeing with her.
“Welcome to the family,” Bud was telling Sheridan.
Joe shot him a look.
“JOE, ARE YOU sure she said that?” Marybeth asked later, as they sat at a table under the trees with their plates of appetizers. Joe had waited for Sheridan and Lucy to find their friends before he told Marybeth about her mother.
Marybeth shook her head, looking hard at Joe to see if he was joking. She obviously determined he wasn’t. “She’s something else, isn’t she?”
“Always has been,” Joe said. “What I can’t figure out is how you survived.”
Marybeth smiled and patted his hand. “Neither can I, at times.”
Joe sipped from a bottle of beer that had been offered to him from a stock tank full of ice.
“You two have a very strange relationship,” Marybeth said, looking across the lawn at her mother.
“I didn’t think we had one at all.”
Missy had never made a secret of the fact that she felt Marybeth had married beneath herself. Instead of the doctor, real estate magnate, or U.S. senator Marybeth should have chosen, Missy thought, her most promising daughter wound up with Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden with a salary that capped out at $36,000 a year. Marybeth’s career as a corporate lawyer or a politician’s wife, in Missy’s view, had been unfulfilled. Rather, Marybeth stayed with Joe as he moved from place to place in their early years together, before Joe was named game warden to the Saddlestring District. Then Sheridan came along, followed by Lucy, and in Missy’s eyes it was all but over for her daughter. Because of incidents relating to Joe Pickett and his job, Marybeth had been injured and could have no more children. Then a foster daughter had been lost. It was frustrating for Missy, Joe thought. There she was, providing a living example of how to keep trading up—casting off husbands in exchange for newer, wealthier, and shinier models—and her daughter just didn’t get it. Missy literally tried to show Marybeth how it could be done by marrying Bud Longbrake right in front of her, Joe thought.
Marybeth still had fire, intelligence, beauty, and ambition, Joe and Missy both knew. She also had a growing melancholy, which she tried hard to overcome.
“Look at Bud’s kids,” Marybeth said, nodding toward a table set as far away from the others as possible while still being in the shade. “They just don’t look happy. Don’t stare at them, though.”
Joe shifted in his chair. Bud had a son and a daughter from his previous marriage. The son, Bud Jr., had flown in for the wedding from Missoula, where he was a street musician and a professional student at UM. Bud Jr. wore billowy cargo shorts, leather sandals, a T-shirt, and a sour expression. Missy had told Joe and Marybeth that although Bud Jr. had never wanted anything to do with the ranch while growing up, he was content to wait things out, wait for Bud to pass along or sell the ranch. Even after taxes, Bud Jr. stood to gain a huge inheritance. It was the same with Sally, Bud’s daughter. Thrice married (like her new stepmother, who had just surpassed her in the race), Sally lived in Portland, Oregon, and was currently between husbands. Sally was attractive in a wounded, Bohemian way, Joe thought. He had heard she was an artist, specializing in wrought iron.
Joe turned back. “No, they don’t look happy.”
“They don’t like it that Bud made Missy cosignatory on all of this,” Marybeth said, waving her hand to indicate literally all they could see. “Bud Jr. got hammered at the dress rehearsal last night and shouted some things at his father before he passed out in the bushes. Sally was there last night for about a half an hour, before she disappeared with one of Bud’s ranch hands.”
“Welcome to the family,” Joe said to his wife.
THE NEW TWELVE Sleep County sheriff, Kyle McLanahan, stood in front of Joe and Marybeth in the food line. The piquant smell of barbecued pork and beef hung heavy in the light mountain air.
“Kyle,” Joe said, nodding.
“Joe. Marybeth. Congratulations are in order, I guess.”
“I guess,” Joe said.
“Same to you,” Marybeth said coolly. “I haven’t seen you since the election.”
McLanahan nodded, hitched up his pants. Looked toward the mountains. Squinted. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“Yup,” Joe said.
Kyle McLanahan had been the longtime chief deputy for local legend O. R. “Bud” Barnum, who had been sheriff for twenty-eight years. Barnum had owned the county in a sense, having a hand in just about every aspect of it. His downfall came over the past five years, as his reputation eroded, then rotted and tumbled in on itself. That Barnum’s decline coincided with Joe’s arrival in Saddlestring was no coincidence. The Outfitter Murders, mishandled by Barnum, had begun the slide. Barnum’s shadowy involvement with the Stockman’s Trust continued it. The ex-sheriff’s complicity with Melinda Strickland in her raid on the Sovereign compound started the local gossip that Barnum had lost his commitment to the community and was looking out only for himself. The sheriff’s deception during the cattle mutilations had turned the weekly Saddlestring Roundup against him. Joe had been in the middle of everything, one way or another. Seeing the writing on the wall (and in the newspaper), Barnum withdrew from the running two weeks before the election. Instead, McLanahan had stepped into the race, as had Deputy Mike Reed. In Joe’s opinion, Reed was an honest cop and McLanahan was McLanahan—volatile, thickheaded, a throwback to the Barnum style of politics and corruption. McLanahan won 80 percent of the vote.
“Have you been listening to your radio this morning?” Sheriff McLanahan asked Joe. “I saw your truck in the parking lot.”
Joe shook his head. “I’m off duty.”
Because Marybeth and Lucy were in the wedding, they had left the Picketts’ small state-owned home early that morning in Marybeth’s van. Joe had brought Sheridan in his green Ford Game and Fish pickup after breakfast, but he hadn’t turned on his radio during the drive.
“Then you haven’t heard that they found a game warden dead over in Jackson,” McLanahan said.
Joe felt a shiver run through him. “What?”
SHERIDAN HAD QUICKLY become bored with Lucy and her friends in the play area that had been put up far enough away from the reception that the children wouldn’t bother the adults. The placement had Missy’s stamp all over it, Sheridan thought. A swing set had been erected, as well as smaller-sized tables and chairs complete with plastic tea sets.
She wandered away from the play area and the reception into the makeshift parking lot. It was tough being thirteen. Too old to play, too young to be considered one of the adults. Her parents were fine, she thought, they never treated her with disrespect, although her mother was starting to bug her in ways she couldn’t yet say. In a situation like this, with adults all around, she was patronized. She climbed into her dad’s pickup truck and looked at herself in the rearview mirror. At least she finally had contact lenses and didn’t look so much like a geek, she thought.
Absently, she clicked on the radio. It was set to the channel reserved for game wardens and brand inspectors. She sometimes liked to listen to the interplay between the men and the dispatchers, usually women, at the headquarters in Cheyenne. There was a surprising amount of activity on the radio for a Saturday morning in early September.
“THE JACKSON GAME warden,” McLanahan said, following Joe and Marybeth to their table. “Found him dead this morning in his house.”
“Murdered?” Joe asked. He felt Marybeth tense up.
“Naw. Ate his own gun.”
“Forty-four Magnum,” McLanahan said. “Not much left of his head, is what I hear.”
Joe was out of his chair and three inches from McLanahan’s face. He hissed, “That’ll be enough with the details right now in front of my wife.”
McLanahan feigned hurt and surprise. “Sorry, Joe. I thought you’d want to know.”
The new sheriff turned and left, heading for his table on the other side of the yard.
“Joe, was he talking about Will Jensen?” Marybeth asked.
“No,” Joe said, confused. “It couldn’t have been. He must have his information about half-right, as usual.”
Marybeth shook her head. “I remember when we met Will and Susan. Remember their kids? Sheridan and their son tore around their house while you and Will talked at their kitchen table.”
It made no sense to Joe. Jensen was a rock, a larger-than-life man who was considered one of the best there ever was within the department. Will Jensen was what game wardens wanted to be, the kind of man Joe aspired to be.
“I remember thinking,” Marybeth continued, looking up at Joe, “I remember thinking how much they were like us.”
Joe sat back down, shaken. “Let’s hold off on this until we find out what the situation really is. Remember, all the information we’ve got at this point is from Deputy McLanahan.”
“Sheriff McLanahan,” Marybeth corrected gently.
Joe looked up, saw Sheridan running toward them from the cars, her blue dress flapping.
“All I know is that Will Jensen did not commit suicide,” Joe said bluntly. “That’s not possible.”
“Joe . . .”
“Dad!” Sheridan gushed, stopping in front of them, breathing hard from her run. “Guess what I just heard on the radio?”
The drive back to their home from the wedding took place in the soft light of pre-dusk that deepened the greens of the meadows and blazed the muffin-shaped haystacks with bronze, as if they were lit from within. The ranch country rolled toward the mountains like swells in the ocean, shadows darkening in the folds of the terrain. Joe had noticed the soft bite of approaching fall, and now he could see that a few cottonwoods in the river valley were beginning to turn.
Sheridan was silent and sleepy in the passenger seat. Marybeth followed Joe in her van, giving him plenty of distance on the dirt road so that the dust his pickup kicked up would settle back down.
“It’s pretty,” Sheridan said. “This should be my favorite time of year.”
“It’s the best time, I think.”
“Maybe someday I’ll agree with you,” she said. “But I’ve got the blues.”
Joe knew what Sheridan meant. His daughter had begun junior high the week before, which meant a new school, a new schedule, and many more students. Her load of homework had tripled from the year before. And she was trying out for the volleyball team. Because Lucy and Sheridan now had different school schedules, Marybeth spent much more time driving them from place to place, delivering them or picking them up after school or activities. Joe had been taking Sheridan to school, and she put on a brave face for him, but he knew she was nervous and emotional about the change.
Joe loved the fall, even though it meant that big-game hunting seasons would soon be under way and he’d be in the field checking licenses and hunters from before sunrise until well after dark for nearly two and a half months. It was his busiest time as a game warden, and often exhausting. But, as always, he would throw himself into it, establish his rhythm. And, as always, he would find himself a little disappointed when it was over and fall surrendered to winter. He loved working hard, being outside, feeling his senses tingle as he approached a hunting camp not knowing who or what to expect. For two months, nearly every single human he encountered would be armed. These were men who lived their lives solely for the reward in the fall of their one-week or two-week hunt. They wanted to drink hard, eat like soldiers after a year-long march, hunt a pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, or moose, and burn out all of the primal energy and desire that they’d stored up during the previous year of humiliation and frustration. Sometimes, he encountered men in the field who didn’t want to meet a game warden that day. That’s when things got interesting.
Now, though, Joe was tired; he had eaten and drunk too much, even danced a few dances with Marybeth, Sheridan, and Lucy. Missy, flushed with wine, had dragged him from their table to the springy dance floor. As it turned out, it was her next-to-last dance before she joined Bud in his black Suburban and headed for the tiny Saddlestring airport. The newlyweds would take the seventeen-passenger commuter plane to Denver, then fly to Italy for their honeymoon. They would be gone for ten days. Bud would be back in time for the fall roundup when they moved their cattle from the mountain grass to the valley floor.
But as he drove, Joe could not stop thinking about Will Jensen, wondering what the circumstances could have been that made him kill himself. It didn’t make sense to him. Will had been tough, levelheaded. Devoted to his family and his job. Or at least that’s what Joe had thought.
THE PICKETTS LIVED in a small two-story house eight miles from Saddlestring on the Bighorn Road. The house was owned by the state, and had been their home for six years. It sat back from the road behind a recently painted white fence. There was a detached garage that housed Joe’s snowmobile and the family van, and a loafing shed and corral in back for their two horses. The Saddlestring District was considered a “two-horse” district, meaning that the department budgeted for at least two horses, tack, and feed. From the front yard, the southern face of Wolf Mountain dominated the view. Between the house and the mountain, the East Fork of the Twelve Sleep River serpentined through a willow-choked meadow toward the main river and town.
As Joe entered the house, he glanced through the open door of his tiny office near the mudroom and saw that the message light was blinking on his answering machine. At this time of the year, Joe got a lot of calls. Hunters, fishers, ranchers, outfitters, and citizens called any time of the day or night. Most assumed Joe worked out of an office in some kind of Game and Fish Department building. The reality was that his office was a tiny room in his own house. Marybeth and Sheridan served as unpaid receptionists and assistants, and even Lucy answered the phone or the door at times. In a state and community where men greeted each other on the street during the fall by asking, “Got your elk yet?” the game warden played a prominent role.
He sat down at his desk and loosened his tie, watching as Marybeth and Lucy passed by his open door. Both were carrying huge bouquets of flowers from the wedding that Missy had insisted they take with them. Joe’s office filled with the scent of flowers.
There were three messages. The first one was from Herman Klein, a rancher on the other side of Wolf Mountain. Klein reported that the elk were already moving down out of the timber and eating his hay. Since he had requested more elk fence be constructed around his stacks the previous year, he was hoping that contract crews would be out soon, before winter. Joe cursed and made a note on his pad to call his fence contractor in the morning and follow up with Herman Klein. One of the few responsibilities that had become easier for Joe since he started was that he no longer had to construct elk fence himself, but could contract locally for it. Unfortunately, the local contractor was unreliable.
The second call was strange. Joe could hear a man’s labored breathing and faint, tinny music in the background, but no words were spoken. It went on like that until the time allotted for the message ran out. Joe looked at the telephone handset with puzzlement, then erased the message. It was the third such call in the past month. That was too many calls to assume a mistake or a misdial. But there was nothing he could do about it.
The last message was from Trey Crump, Joe’s supervisor in Cody.
“Joe, it’s Trey. I assume you’ve heard by now that Will Jensen took his own life over in Jackson.”
Joe sat up in his chair. Now it was absolutely confirmed.
“We still don’t know all of the details yet,” Trey continued, sounding weary and sad, “but the ME in Teton County ruled out any foul play. The method of death was obvious, I guess.”
There was a long pause. Then: “The Teton District isn’t a district we can allow to be vacant for even a few days. The elk season opens up at the end of next week, two weeks before yours does. There’s way too much action over there, and too much crap going on to leave it go.”
Joe’s heart jumped. The year before, he had put in a request to be considered for a new district. Twelve Sleep County seemed like a slowly closing vise. Too much had happened there. Although Joe still loved the Bighorns, and his district, he knew that in order to advance within the department he might have to move. If nothing else, he and Marybeth had discussed relocating to a place with more opportunities.
“The director called me this morning and asked me for a recommendation for a temporary game warden. I recommended you,” Trey said, laughing tiredly. “I thought he was going to shit right there. But I told him there are only two men I could recommend for an area as hot as Teton. One of them is you. The other, God bless him, was Will.”
Joe looked up. Marybeth leaned against the doorjamb, trying to read his expression.
Trey said, “I already talked to Phil Kiner in Laramie. He’s got a trainee with him so he can break loose and come up to Twelve Sleep in a couple of weeks for the deer and elk openers. He trained up there when he first started out, so he knows the country in a general way. He’s not you, but he’ll get along okay. But I’d like to ask you to get over to Jackson as soon as you can. Can you do it? Call me as soon as possible, let me know.”
Joe cradled the phone.
“Was that Trey?” Marybeth asked.
“Is it true about Will Jensen?”
She shook her head. “I just can’t understand it.”
Joe shrugged at her in a “what can I say?” gesture.
“Did he ask you to transfer?”
Joe tried to read her face. It was impassive, but her eyes sparkled and gave her away. She was intrigued.
“Are you going to do it?”
“What do you think about that?”
“When would you start?”
“I’d leave Monday. The elk opener is next week.”
“In two days?”
She folded her arms, eyes locked with Joe.
SHERIDAN HAD CHANGED into a sweatshirt and jeans and brought her world history assignment into the living room so she could spread it out on the coffee table. She noticed that her mother’s back filled the office door, and by her posture Sheridan could tell that her parents were having a serious discussion. Sheridan had assigned levels to her parents’ discussions, and shared them with Lucy.
Level One was simply banter, but sometimes with an edge. During Level One, her parents moved freely around the house, talking as if Sheridan and Lucy couldn’t hear them or didn’t exist. Level Two was when her father was in his office and her mother blocked the door. They could still be overheard, but they didn’t necessarily want to be.
Sheridan watched as her mother stepped into the office and shut the door behind her. As she did, Lucy came down the hall still wearing her flower girl’s dress. That was a difference between Sheridan and Lucy: Sheridan couldn’t wait to change when she got home.
“We’re at Level Three,” Sheridan whispered to Lucy.
“Something about Jackson,” Sheridan said, still whispering. “I didn’t get it all.”
“I’D BE MORE excited if I could go with you,” Marybeth said. “But with school just starting, and all of the shuttling I need to do with the girls, I can’t.” Not to mention Marybeth’s still-fledgling office management business, Joe thought. Marybeth did the accounting and inventory management for the local pharmacy, a new art gallery, and Wolf Mountain Taxidermy.
“Maybe I can call Trey and pass on it,” Joe said.
“Don’t you dare,” she said quickly. “This could be an opportunity. And obviously, Trey thinks highly enough of you to offer you this.”
“I don’t know how long it will last, or if it’ll lead to anything.”
“And we don’t know that it won’t,” she said. “Jackson Hole is about as high profile as you can get in this state.”
Joe knew that Will Jensen had shunned a high profile, but it came with the territory. The department sometimes sent press clippings out when game wardens made the news or were featured in local press. There were twice as many stories about Will Jensen than any other employee.
“Jackson is different,” Joe said lamely. “It’s a whole different animal than Saddlestring.”
Marybeth walked over and sat on his desk. “Are you saying you don’t want to do it?”
“No, I’m not saying that. But now isn’t a very good time to leave you and the girls, even if it’s for a couple of weeks.”
She laughed. There was an edge of bitterness in the laugh that bothered him. “Joe, once hunting season starts, we don’t even see you anyway. It’s not like you’re around to . . .”
“Do my share?” he finished for her, feeling his face get hot.
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
Joe was stung. “For the last two years, I made just about every one of Sheridan’s games,” he said. “I went to Lucy’s Christmas play last year.”
Marybeth smiled, showing she didn’t want to argue. “And you missed everything else,” she said gently. “Teacher conferences, Lucy’s choir, back-to-school night, Sheridan’s play, the school carnival . . .”
“Only in September and October,” he said defensively.
“And November,” Marybeth said. “But Joe, my point is that you’ll be gone anyway. So if you’re gone here or you’re gone there, it won’t burden us very much. We’re three strong women, you know.”
His neck still burned. Being a good father and husband meant everything to him. He sincerely tried to make up for his absences in the other months, and had started taking Sheridan on patrol with him when he could to make up for the time he was away. He planned to do the same with Lucy as she got older.
“Trey said Phil Kiner can come up in a couple of weeks to fill in,” Joe said grumpily. “So you won’t need to worry about that.”
“We’ll still get the phone calls, though,” she said. “And the drunken hunters who stop by. And a mad rancher every once in a while. That’s just the way it is.”
“Man . . .”
She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. “There’s no doubt that we’re best when we’re working as partners, Joe. No doubt. Things are still a little . . . fragile around here.”
He turned his head away, but stroked her thigh, listening.
“But if we’re ever going to provide better for our girls, we’ve got to be willing to take some risks. If this leads to a better job or a better salary for you, it’s something we need to do.”
“You’ll be okay, then?”
She smiled down at him. “For a while, sure. I just hope it doesn’t drag on too long. If it does, you’ll have to come get us and take us with you.”
“You think you’d like Jackson?”
Marybeth shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s got better restaurants. There’s definitely more to do. But I’m not sure I’d want to raise our kids there.”
“I’m not sure either,” he said.
“But you can scout it out for us while you’re there. You can check out the schools, the atmosphere. Then let me know what you think.”
He shook his head. “That’s a decision we’d make together, like everything else.”
“That’s what I mean about being better as partners,” she said.
“I’ll call Trey and tell him I’m in,” Joe said.
OUTSIDE THE DOOR, Sheridan and Lucy exchanged glances.
“The kids from Jackson are the snottiest kids in the state,” Sheridan whispered. “When we play them we try to destroy them, but we never do. You should see their bus. It’s the best bus there is.”
“But don’t they have skiing?” Lucy asked, wide-eyed. “And a Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not museum?”
The door opened suddenly, filled with their dad.
“Show’s over, girls,” he said. “Don’t you have homework?”
HE WENT OUT to feed the horses. A single pole lamp threw ghostly blue-white light across the corral. The horses, the paint Toby and young sorrel Doc, nickered when they saw him coming, knowing it was time to eat. Joe tossed them hay and watched them eat, a foot on the rail. The profile of Wolf Mountain was black against a dark sky smeared with stars.
He would miss Wolf Mountain, he thought. And Crazy Woman Creek. And the view he got from his favorite breaklands perch, where he could see the curvature of the earth.
He rubbed his eyes. He was getting ahead of himself here, he thought. It was much too soon to start thinking about things like that. There was plenty to do before he left for Jackson.
As he walked back to the house, he thought about the second call. The one where a man simply breathed until the message ran out. It was likely a crank, or a mistake. But since Joe identified himself on the voice mail, the man had to know whom he was calling. Joe’s number was in the slim Twelve Sleep County telephone book. The caller could be anyone: a hunter Joe had cited, a rancher he had tangled with, even a state or federal employee Joe had been on the opposite side of a land use issue with. Whomever, it was likely someone harmless.
But if he was going to be out of town for a couple of weeks, Joe didn’t want to chance anything when it came to Marybeth and his daughters. He’d need to ask for some help.
After church on Sunday, Joe and Marybeth planned to spend the rest of the afternoon getting him packed so he could leave early Monday. For some reason, both assumed that it would take much longer than it actually did. Joe found himself feeling oddly disappointed that they had completed their task within an hour. He had a duffel bag of red uniform shirts and blue Wranglers, underwear, his Filson vest, coats, heavy parka, and boots. All of the gear he would need was already in his pickup, the place he spent most of his day anyway. Joe roamed the house and the barn, trying to find things he couldn’t do without while he was in Jackson. There was little. He topped off the duffel with a few books he’d not yet read, and a small framed family photo from his desktop that he wished was more recent.
ABSENTLY LISTENING TO a broadcast of the first week of NFL football on the radio, Joe drove down the two-lane highway that paralleled the river en route to Nate Romanowski’s place and did a mental inventory of items in his truck.
His standard-issue weaponry consisted of the .308 carbine secured under the bench seat, a .270 Winchester rifle in the gun rack behind his head, and his 12-gauge Remington Wingmaster shotgun that was wedged into the coil springs behind his seat. He also had a .22 pistol with cracker shells that was used for spooking elk out of hay meadows.
In a locked metal box in the bed of his pickup were tire chains, tow ropes, tools, an evidence kit, a necropsy kit, emergency food and blankets, blood-spatter and bullet-caliber guides and charts, flares, and a rucksack for foot patrolling. Taped to the lid of the box was a new addition: Joe’s Last Will and Testament. He had written it out the night before. Not even Marybeth knew about it yet. He wondered idly if Will Jensen had thought to draw one up.
NATE ROMANOWSKI LIVED in a small stone house on the banks of the Twelve Sleep River, six miles off the highway. Romanowski was a falconer with three birds—a peregrine, a red tail, and a fledgling prairie falcon—in his mews. But when Joe drove onto his property, Nate was saddling a buffalo. Joe noticed that Nate was sporting two black eyes, and that his nose was swollen like a bulb.
A few months before, Nate had told Joe about his new-found fascination with bison. It had sprung from reading an article in an old newspaper he had dug out of a crack in the walls of his home. The article was a first-person account from a correspondent who had just returned from the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo after witnessing an event called “Women’s Buffalo Riding.” Apparently, women contestants mounted wild bison and were turned loose in an arena to see who could stay on the longest. There was a grainy photo of a cowgirl in a dress and baggy pantaloons astride a massive bull. In the photo, though, the bull looked docile. This account fascinated Nate, he said, because he had never thought a human could ride a buffalo around. Then he asked himself, Why not me? The idea quickly became an obsession. Sheridan, who received falconry lessons from Nate on Friday afternoons, had mentioned to Joe that Nate had bought a buffalo from a rancher near Clearmont. And here it was.
Joe parked his pickup beside Nate’s battered Jeep and got out. The afternoon was clear and warm, and Joe could hear the hushed liquid flow of the river.
“I couldn’t use a regular saddle,” Nate said by way of a greeting. “The cinches were two to three feet too short. So I had to make my own cinches in order to make this work.”
Romanowski had appeared in Saddlestring three years before. He was tall, rangy, and rawboned, with long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. He had a hawk’s beak nose and piercing, stone-cold blue eyes. Most of the people in the county feared him, and several had seriously questioned the basis of Joe’s friendship with a man who openly carried a .454 Casull, an extremely powerful handgun. Nate had come from Montana, leaving a set of suspicious circumstances involving the deaths of two federal agents, and Joe had almost inadvertently proved Nate’s innocence for another murder. Upon his release from prison, Nate had pledged his loyalty to Joe and the Pickett family, and had not wavered in his blind commitment. There were rumors involving Nate’s background that included years in covert operations for a secret branch of the defense department. While he didn’t know the specifics, Joe knew this to be true. He also knew that Nate was capable of precision violence, and well connected to questionable people and groups throughout the country and the world. Joe had no clear explanation as to Nate’s means of support. All he knew was that he sometimes vanished for weeks (always calling ahead to cancel Sheridan’s falconry lesson) and that he sometimes cautioned Joe about coming out to his place at certain times when, Joe guessed, certain visitors were there. It was something they never talked about, although a few times Nate had offered tidbits. Joe didn’t want to hear them.
The buffalo stood in the center of a newly constructed four-rail corral. The corral was built solidly, but the east side of it was pitched out a little, most likely from the buffalo leaning against it or trying to push his head through. Joe wondered if the corral would contain the animal if it really wanted out.
Joe draped his arms over the top post and set a boot on the bottom rail. He was impressed, as always, by the sheer size and presence of a buffalo. The bison was a giant brown-black wedge, front-loaded with heavily muscled shoulders and a woolly, blunt head. Bison, he knew, were pure front-wheel-drive creatures, with the ability to accelerate to forty miles per hour from a standing start. Conical pointed horns curled back from its skull. Marble-black eyes glowed from beneath thick, dirty curls.
Nate tightened the cinch and the buffalo flinched. Joe prepared for a violent explosion, and he found himself stepping back involuntarily. The buffalo turned his head and stared at Nate.
“This is as far as I got last week,” Nate said, looking over.
“What happened to you?”
Nate touched his eye. “He didn’t like the saddle at first.”
“But he does now?”
Nate shrugged. “Not really. But he finally understands what I’m up to, and he seems resigned to the fact. I’ve tried to persuade him it will be fun.”
Joe nodded. Nate communicated with animals on a base level, in a wholly mysterious way. He didn’t train them, or break them, but using cues and gestures he somehow connected with them. It was a methodology learned from working with falcons, who, after all, had the option (rarely acted upon) to simply fly away anytime they were released to the sky.
“Your saddle in the back of your truck,” Nate said, sliding a halter ever so slowly over the head of the buffalo. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Jackson,” Joe said. “The game warden there committed suicide. They’ve assigned me there, temporarily.”
Nate looked up, obviously trying to read Joe’s face.
“What?” Joe asked.
Nate said, “Things are different in Jackson. I’ve got some acquaintances over there. I’ve spent some time there myself.”
Joe waited for the rest, but it didn’t come.
“Do you have a point?” Joe asked.
He shrugged. “My point is things are different in Jackson.”
“Thanks for that,” Joe said, leaning on the fence.
For the next few minutes, Nate soothed the big bull, running his hands over him, speaking nonsense soothingly. Joe could see the buffalo relax, which was confirmed by a long sigh. He could smell the bison’s grassy, hot breath. Nate gracefully launched himself up on the saddle.
“This is the first time he’s let me on,” Nate said quietly.
“He seems to be okay with it,” Joe said, although they could both see the buffalo’s ears twitch nervously. “Does he buck?”
“See my face?” Nate said. “Yes, he can buck.”
Joe waited for something to happen. Nothing did. Nate just sat there.
“Now I’ve got to get him to move and turn,” Nate said. “It’ll take some time.”
Joe had a vision of Nate Romanowski, wearing his shoulder holster, riding the buffalo through the streets of Saddlestring in the anemic Fourth of July parade. The thought made him snort.
“HOW MANY OF these calls have you received?” Nate asked later, over coffee in his stone house. The buffalo had been unsaddled and turned out to pasture.
“Three in the last month.”
“Could it just be a misdial?”
Joe nodded. “Sure. But how likely is that?”
“Can’t you get somebody to trace the call? Or get Caller ID?”
“I ordered it this morning. The next time there’s a call, we should be able to figure out who it is. Then maybe we’ll know why.”
“I’ll check in with Marybeth while you’re gone,” Nate said.
“I’d appreciate that. Things get a little wild at times during hunting season. She’s more than capable of handling anything, as you know, but it makes me feel better to know you’ll keep an eye out.”
“A deal is a deal,” Nate said.
Joe wanted to say more. To remind Nate that the “deal” about protecting Joe and his family was one Nate had come up with, something Joe never proposed or really accepted. Being allies with a man like Nate made Joe uncomfortable at times because it went against his instincts. Nate was a strange man, a frightening man. But at times like these, he needed a guy like Nate, who was always a man of his word and didn’t care about appearances, constraints, or even the law.
“Thanks for the coffee,” Joe said, standing.
“Don’t go crazy over in Jackson,” Nate cautioned.
“This from a man who is trying to ride a buffalo around.” Joe smiled.
“If you need help, call me.”
Joe stopped at the door and looked back. “And vice versa.”
THAT NIGHT, JOE sat at his desk and made a list of ongoing projects and the status of each to email to Phil Kiner in Laramie. Maxine sat curled at his feet, knowing, like dogs always knew, that she would be abandoned soon and making him feel as guilty as possible for it by staring at him with her big brown eyes. The whole evening had been that way.
It had started at dinner with a melancholy pot roast and vegetables Sheridan complained were undercooked. Joe recognized her attitude for what it was: She was at an age where if she was angry with her father or mad at the world in general she took it out on her mother, who was the disciplinarian in the family. Lucy’s way of showing her disapproval for his leaving was to ignore him and pretend he wasn’t there, which to Joe was even worse.
He looked over his long email message. He knew he would forget things, and there was no way he could provide the background necessary on specific hunters Phil may have a problem with, or the idiosyncrasies of individual landowners. It was strange, Joe thought, not knowing for sure if he was coming back to his district.
A traveler going from east to west over the Bighorn Mountains has three choices of routes: U.S. 16 through Ten Sleep Canyon and Worland, U.S. 14 descending through Shell Canyon and Greybull, and U.S. 14-A, via the Medicine Wheel Passage and on to Lovell. Joe chose 14-A not only for the challenge of its switchbacks but for the view he would get when he broke over the top of the range and saw the vista of the Bighorn Basin laid out flat, brown, and endless. He chewed gum to help his ears pop as they clouded with elevation, and looked over frequently to check on Maxine, his Labrador, who he’d left at home until he could scope out his new district. Fine, gritty snow peppered his windshield at the ten-thousand-foot summit, the snow appearing from a virtually cloudless light blue sky.
His feelings were decidedly mixed. The memory of the morning with his young family stayed with him. Sheridan and Lucy had been dressed for school and scrambling along the countertop in the kitchen, assembling their lunches. Marybeth was preparing for a day of bookkeeping at the pharmacy. She wore khaki slacks and a sweater, her blond hair cut shorter than she had ever worn it. He liked it but still wasn’t used to it. Joe had stood stupidly near the mudroom entrance, watching them. Their good-byes had been a little frantic because they could all hear the school bus lumbering down Bighorn Road. After the girls were on the bus and the doors were shut, Joe and Marybeth walked to his pickup, which was fully packed and ready to go.
“Call me often,” she had said.
“As often as I can,” he said, kissing her.
“In fact, call me when you get there. So I know you made it all right.”
The scene was less than dramatic. So why did he feel that something seminal had happened? Why did he feel both guilty and elated?
AS HE DESCENDED the western slope, the snow vanished as suddenly as it had appeared and the temperature began to rise quickly. By the time he hit the flats, heat was shimmering on the old asphalt highway and roses were growing in boxes in downtown Lovell, which he left in his rearview mirror.
A squawk from his radio interrupted Joe’s thoughts. He picked up the handset. It was dispatch calling with a message from Trey. The meeting place that morning would need to be changed. There was a bear problem.
TREY CRUMP WAS waiting for Joe in his pickup, which was parked in the trees at the culmination of a rugged two-track road, four miles from Dead Indian Pass. After Joe pulled up next to Trey’s pickup, his supervisor got out of his truck and climbed in with Joe. Joe grasped the big man’s hand.