"Winterkill proves that Box...is one of the best new voices in the mystery game. [It's] a full-fledged thriller, Wyoming style."—Rocky Mountain News
Joe Pickett's pursuit of a killer through the rugged mountains of Wyoming takes a horrifying turn when his beloved foster daughter is kidnapped. Now it's personal. See more details below
Joe Pickett's pursuit of a killer through the rugged mountains of Wyoming takes a horrifying turn when his beloved foster daughter is kidnapped. Now it's personal.
"Winterkill proves that Box...is one of the best new voices in the mystery game. [It's] a full-fledged thriller, Wyoming style."—Rocky Mountain News
winterkill ['win•ter•kil] vt
to kill (as a plant or animal) by, or to die as a result of,
exposure to winter weather conditions
Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming
A storm was coming to the Bighorn Mountains.
It was late December, four days before Christmas, the last week of the elk hunting season. Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett was in his green four-wheel drive pickup, parked just below the tree line in the southern Wolf range. The terrain he was patrolling was an enormous wooded bowl, and Joe was just below the eastern rim. The sea of dark pines in the bowl was interspersed with ancient clear-cuts and mountain meadows, and set off by knuckle-like granite ridges that defined each small drainage. Beyond the rim to the west was Battle Mountain, separated from the Wolf range by Crazy Woman Creek, which flowed, eventually, into the Twelve Sleep River.
It was two hours away from nightfall, but the sky was leaden, dark, and threatening snow. The temperature had dropped during the afternoon as a bank of clouds moved over the sky and shut out the sun. It was now twenty-nine degrees with a slightly moist, icy breeze. The first severe winter storm warning of the season had been issued for northern Wyoming and southern Montana for that night and the following day, with another big Canadian front forming behind it. Beneath the high ceiling, clouds approached in tight formation, looking heavy and ominous.
Joe felt like a soldier at a remote outpost, listening to the distant rumble and clank of enemy artillery pieces being moved into place before an opening barrage.
For most of the afternoon, he had been watching a herd of twenty elk move cautiously from black timber into a windswept meadow to graze. He had watched the elk, then watched the sky, then turned back to the elk again.
On the seat next to Joe was a sheaf of papers his wife Marybeth had gathered for him that had been brought home from school by his daughters. Now that all three girls were in school—eleven-year-old Sheridan in fifth grade, six-year-old Lucy in kindergarten, and their nine-year-old foster daughter April in third grade—their small state-owned house seemed awash in paper. He smiled as he looked through the stack. Lucy consistently garnered smiley-face stamps from her teacher for her cartoon drawings. April wasn’t doing quite so well in rudimentary multiplication—she had trouble with 5’s, 8’s, and 3’s. But the teacher had sent notes home recently praising her improvement.
Sheridan’s writing assignment had been to describe what her father did for a living.
MY DAD THE GAME WARDEN
BY SHERIDAN PICKETT
MRS. BARRON’S CLASS, 5TH GRADE.
My Dad is the game warden for all of the mountains as far around as you can see. He works hard during hunting season and gets home late at night and leaves early in the morning. His job is to make sure hunters are responsible and that they obey the law. It can be a scary job, but he’s good at it. We have lived in Saddlestring for 3 and one-half years, and this is all he has done. Sometimes, he saves animals from danger. My mom is home but she works at a stable and at the library . . .
Joe knew he wasn’t alone on the mountain. Earlier, he had seen a late-model bronze-colored GMC pickup below him in the bowl. Swinging his window-mounted Redfield spotting scope toward it, he caught a quick look at the back window of the pickup—driver only, no passenger, gun rack with scoped rifle, Wyoming plates with the buckaroo on them—and an empty truck bed, indicating that the hunter hadn’t yet gotten his elk. He tried to read the plate number before the truck entered the trees, but he couldn’t. Instead, he jotted down the description of the truck in his console notebook. It was the only vehicle he had seen all day in the area.
Twenty-five minutes later, the last of the elk sniffed the wind and moved into the clearing, joining the rest of the herd. The elk seemed to know about the storm warning, and they wanted to use the last hours of daylight to load up on food in the grassy meadow before it was covered with snow. Joe thought that if the lone hunter in the bronze pickup could see the meadow there would be a wide choice of targets. It would be interesting to see how the scenario would unfold, if it unfolded at all. There was just as much chance that the hunter would simply drive by, deep in the trees, road-hunting like 90 percent of all hunters, and never know that an entire herd of elk had exposed themselves above him in a clearing. Joe sat in his pickup in silence and waited.
With a sharp crack, then three more, the calm was shattered. The shots sounded like rocks thrown against sheet metal in rapid succession. From the sound, Joe registered at least three hits, but because it often took more than a single bullet to bring down a big bull elk, he couldn’t be sure how many animals had been shot. Maxine, his yellow Labrador, sprang up from where she had been sleeping on the pickup seat as if she’d gotten an electric shock.
Below, the herd had come alive at once and was now running across the meadow. Joe could see that three brown dots remained behind in the tall grass and sagebrush.
One hunter, three elk down. Two more than legal.
Joe felt a rush of anger, and of anxiety. Game violations weren’t uncommon during hunting season, and he had ticketed scores of hunters over the years for taking too many animals, not tagging carcasses, having improper licenses, hunting in closed areas, and other infractions. In many cases, the violators turned themselves in because they were honorable men who had lived and hunted in the area for years. Often, he found violations as he did random checks of hunting camps. Sometimes, other hunters reported the crimes. Joe Pickett’s district took up more than 1,500 square miles, and in four years, he had almost never actually been present as a violation occurred.
Snatching the radio transmitter from its cradle, Joe called in his position over a roar of static. Distance and terrain prohibited a clear signal. The dispatcher repeated his words back to him, Joe confirmed them, and he described the bronze pickup and advised that he was going to approach it immediately. The answer was a high-pitched howl of static he was unable to squelch. At least, he thought, they knew where he was. That, unfortunately, hadn’t always been the case.
“Here we go, Maxine,” Joe said tersely. He started the motor, snapped the toggle switch to engage the four-wheel drive, and plunged down the mountain into the dark woods. Despite the freezing air, he opened the windows so he could hear if there were more shots. His breath came in puffs of condensation that whipped out of the window.
Another shot cracked, followed by three more. The hunter had obviously reloaded, because no legal hunting rifle had more than a five-shot capacity. The lead bull elk in the herd tumbled, as did a cow and her calf. Rather than rush into the trees, the rest of the herd inexplicably changed direction just shy of the far wall of trees in a looping liquid turn and raced downhill through the meadow, offering themselves broadside to the shooter.
“Damn it!” Joe hissed. “Why’d they turn?”
Two more shots brought down two more elk.
“This guy is nuts!” Joe said to Maxine, betraying the fear he was beginning to feel. A man who could calmly execute six or seven terrified elk might just as easily turn his weapon on a lone game warden. Joe did a quick mental inventory of his own weapons: the .308 carbine was secured under the bench seat, a .270 Winchester rifle was in the gun rack behind his head, his twelve-gauge Remington WingMaster shotgun was wedged into the coil springs behind his seat . . . none of them easily accessible while he drove. His side arm was a newly issued .40 Beretta to replace the .357 Magnum that had been destroyed the previous summer in an explosion. He had barely qualified with the Beretta because he was such a poor pistol shot to begin with, and he had little confidence in the piece or his ability to hit anything with it.
Using a ridge line as a road, he found an old set of tire tracks to follow as he descended. Although the forest was criss-crossed with old logging roads, he didn’t know of one that could take him directly to where he needed to be. Plus there was the fairly recent problem of the local U.S. Forest Service closing a number of the old roads by digging ditches like tank traps across them or blocking access with locked chains, and Joe wasn’t sure which ones were closed. The track was rough, strewn with football-sized boulders, and he held the wheel tightly as the front tires jounced and bucked. A rock he had dislodged clanged from beneath his undercarriage. But even over the whining of his engine he could hear still more shots, closer now. The old road was still open.
There was an immediate presence in the timber and a dozen elk—all that was left of the herd—broke through the trees around him. He slammed on his brakes as the animals surged around his truck, Maxine barking at them, Joe getting glimpses of wild white eyes, lolling tongues, thick brown fur. One panicked bull ran so close to the truck that a tine from his heavy spread of antlers struck the pickup’s hood with a sharp ping, leaving a puckered dent in the hood. A cow elk staggered by on three legs, the right foreleg blown off, the limb bouncing along in the dirt, held only by exposed tendons and a strip of hide.
When they had passed him, Joe accelerated, throwing Maxine back against the seat, and drove through the stand of trees much too quickly. The passenger-side mirror smacked a tree trunk and shattered, bent back against the door.
Then the trees opened and he was on the shooter.
Joe stopped the truck, unsure of how to proceed. The hunter was bent over slightly, his back to Joe, concentrating on something in front of him, as if he hadn’t heard Joe’s approach, smashed mirror and all. The man wore a heavy canvas coat, a blaze-orange hunting vest, and hiking boots. Spent brass cartridges winked from the grass near his feet, and the air smelled of gunshots.
Out in front of the shooter, elk carcasses littered the slope of the meadow. A calf bawled, his pelvis shattered, as he tried to pull himself erect without the use of his back limbs.
Joe opened his door, slid out of the pickup, and unsnapped his holster. Gripping the Beretta and ready to draw it if the shooter turned around, Joe walked to the back and right of the man, so that if he wheeled with his rifle he’d have to do an awkward full turn to set himself and aim at Joe.
When Joe saw it, he couldn’t believe what the shooter was doing. Despite violent trembling, the man was trying to reload his bolt-action rifle with cigarettes instead of cartridges. Dry tobacco and strips of cigarette paper were jammed in the magazine, which didn’t stop the man from crushing another cigarette into the chamber. He seemed to be completely unaware that Joe was even there.
Joe drew the Beretta and racked the slide, hoping the sound would register with the hunter.
“Drop the weapon,” Joe barked, centering his pistol on the hunter’s upper torso. “DROP IT NOW, then turn around slowly,”
Joe hoped that when the hunter turned he wouldn’t notice Joe’s hands shaking. He gripped the Beretta harder, trying to still it.
Instead of complying, the man attempted to load another cigarette into the rifle.
Was he deaf? Joe wondered, or crazy? Or was it all a trick to get Joe to drop his guard? Despite the cold, Joe felt prickling sweat beneath his shirt and jacket. His legs felt unsteady, as if he had been running and had just stopped for breath.
“DROP THE WEAPON AND TURN AROUND!”
Nothing. Shredded tobacco floated to the ground. The mortally wounded elk calf bleated in the meadow.
Joe pointed the Beretta into the air and fired. The concussion was surprisingly loud, and for the first time the hunter seemed to wake up, shaking his head, as if to clear it after a hard blow. Then he turned.
And Joe looked into the pale, twitching, frightened face of Lamar Gardiner, the district supervisor for Twelve Sleep National Forest. A week before, the Gardiners and the Picketts had sat side by side and watched their daughters perform in the school Christmas play. Lamar Gardiner was considered a dim, affable, weak-kneed bureaucrat. He wore a wispy, sandy-colored mustache over thin lips. He had practically no chin, which gave him the appearance of someone just about to cry. Locals, behind his back, referred to him as “Elmer Fedd.”
“Lamar,” Joe yelled, “What in the hell are you doing? There are dead elk all over the place. Have you lost your mind?”
“Oh, my God, Joe . . .” Gardiner whispered, as if coming out of shock. “I didn’t do it.”
Joe stared at Lamar Gardiner. Gardiner’s eyes were unfocused, and tiny muscles in his neck twitched. Even without a breeze, Joe could smell alcohol on his breath. “What? Are you insane? Of course you did it, Lamar,” Joe said, not quite believing the situation he was in. “I heard the shots. There are spent casings all over the ground. Your barrel’s so hot I can see heat coming off of it.”
In what appeared to be a case of dawning realization, Gardiner looked down at the spent cartridges at his feet, then up at the dead and dying elk in the meadow. The connection between the two was being made.
“Oh, my God,” Gardiner squeaked. “I can’t believe it.”
“Now drop the rifle,” Joe ordered.
Gardiner dropped his gun as if it had suddenly been electrified, then stepped back away from it. His expression was a mixture of horror and unspeakable sadness.
“Why were you putting cigarettes into your rifle?” Joe asked.
Gardiner shook his head slowly, hot tears welling in his eyes. With a trembling hand, he patted his right shirt pocket. “Bullets,” he said. Then he patted his left. “Marlboros. I guess I got them mixed up.”
Joe grimaced. Watching Lamar Gardiner fall apart was not something he enjoyed. “I guess you did, Lamar.”
“You aren’t really going to arrest me, are you, Joe?” Gardiner said. “That would mean my career. Carrie might leave me and take my daughter if that happened.”
Joe eased the hammer down on his Beretta and lowered it. Over the years he had certainly cited people he knew, but this was different. Gardiner was a public official, someone who made rules and regulations for the citizens of the valley from behind a big oak desk. He wasn’t someone who broke the law, or, to Joe’s knowledge, even bent it. Gardiner would lose his job, all right, although Joe didn’t know his family situation well enough to predict what Carrie Gardiner would do. Lamar was a career federal bureaucrat, and highly paid compared to most residents of Saddlestring. He probably wasn’t many years away from retirement and all of the benefits that went with it.
The bleating of the wounded calf, however, brought Joe back to the scene in the meadow. The calf, its spine broken by a bullet, pawed the ground furiously, trying to stand. His back legs were splayed behind him on the grass like a frog’s, and they wouldn’t respond. Past him, steam rose from the ballooning, exposed entrails of a cow elk that had been gut-shot.
Joe leveled his gaze at Gardiner’s unfocused eyes. “I’m arresting you for at least a half-dozen counts of wanton destruction, which carries a fine of a thousand dollars per animal as well as possible jail time, Lamar. You may also lose your equipment and all hunting privileges. There may be other charges as well. Given how I usually treat slob hunters like yourself, you’re getting off real easy.”
Gardiner burst into tears and dropped to his knees with a wail that chilled Joe to his soul.
And just like that, the snow began to fall. The barrage had begun.
Walking through the heavy snowfall in the meadow with his .270 rifle and his camera, Joe Pickett killed the calf with a point-blank head shot and moved on to the other wounded animals. Afterward, he photographed all of the carcasses. Lamar Gardiner, who now sat weeping in Joe’s pickup, had shot seven elk: two bulls, three cows, and two calves.
Joe had locked Gardiner’s rifle in the metal evidence box in the back of his truck, and he’d taken Gardiner’s keys. In the bronze pickup were a half-empty bottle of tequila on the front seat and several empty Coors Light beer cans on the floor. The cab reeked of the sweet smell of tequila.
Although he had heard of worse incidents, this was as bad as anything Joe had personally witnessed. Usually when too many game animals were shot, there were several hunters shooting into a herd and none of them counting. Although it was technically illegal for a hunter to down any game other than his or her own, “party” hunting was fairly common. But for one man to open up indiscriminately on an entire herd . . . this was remarkable and disturbing.
The carnage was sickening. The damage a high-powered rifle bullet could do when badly placed was awful.
Equally tragic, in Joe’s mind, was the fact that there were too many animals for him to load into his pickup to take back to town. The elk averaged more than 400 pounds, and even with Gardiner’s help, they could only load two of the carcasses at most into the back of his vehicle. That meant that most of them would be left for at least one night, and could be scavenged by predators. He hated to see so much meat—more than 2,000 pounds—go to waste when it could be delivered to the halfway house, the county jail for prisoners, or to people on the list of the county’s needy families that his wife Marybeth had compiled. Despite the number of dead elk to take care of, the sudden onslaught of the storm meant one thing: get off the mountain.
By the time he got back to his pickup and Lamar Gardiner, Joe was seriously out of sorts.
“How bad is it?” Gardiner asked.
Joe glared. Gardiner seemed to be asking about something he wasn’t directly involved in.
“Bad,” Joe said, swinging into the cab of the pickup. Maxine, who had been with Joe and was near-delirious from sniffing the musky scents of the downed elk, jumped reluctantly into the back of the pickup, her regular seat occupied by Lamar Gardiner.
“Help me field-dress and load two of these elk,” Joe said, starting the motor. “That’ll take about an hour, if you’ll help. Maybe less if you’ll just stay the hell out of the way. Then I’m taking you in, Lamar.”
Gardiner grunted as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and his head flopped back in despair.
Joe’s hands were stained red with elk blood and gore, and he scrubbed them with handfuls of snow to clean them. Even with Lamar’s help, field-dressing the elk had taken over an hour. The snow was coming down even harder now. Joe climbed back in the truck and drove slowly out of the meadow toward the logging road Gardiner had used earlier. Joe tried to connect with the dispatcher on his radio, but again all he got was static. There was nothing for him to do but try again when he reached the summit.
Joe was acutely aware of his situation, and of how unique it was in law enforcement. Unlike the police or sheriff’s department, who had squad cars or SUVs with back doors that wouldn’t open from the inside and cage-wire separating prisoners in the backseat from the driver, Joe was forced to transport violators in his pickup, sitting right next to him in the passenger seat. Although Lamar hadn’t threatened Joe in any way, Joe was acutely aware of his proximity within the cab of the truck.
“I just can’t get over what I’ve done,” Gardiner moaned. “It’s like something took over my brain and turned me into some kind of a maniac. A mindless killer . . . I’ve never done anything like that before in my life!”
Gardiner said he had hunted elk for sixteen years, first in Montana and then as long as he had been stationed in Wyoming. He whined that when he saw the herd of elk in broad daylight, something inside him just snapped. This was the first year he’d actually got one, and he guessed he was frustrated.
“Lamar, are you drunk?” Joe asked, trying to sound understanding. “I saw the bottle and the empty beer cans in your truck.”
Gardiner thought about it before answering. “Maybe a little,” he said. “But I’m sort of over that now. You know, I see elk all the time when I’m not hunting.” It was a familiar complaint. “But when I’m hunting I can’t ever seem to find the bastards.”
“Until today,” Joe said.
Gardiner rubbed his face and shook his head. “Until today,” he echoed. “My life is ruined.”
Maybe so, Joe thought. Lamar would certainly lose his job with the forest service, and Joe doubted he’d find another in town. If he did, it would most likely offer only a fraction of the salary and benefits that cushioned a longtime federal employee. On top of that, Joe knew Saddlestring’s local newspaper and the breakfast coffee gossips would tear Lamar Gardiner apart. Never popular, he’d now be a pariah. Unlike other crimes and criminals, there was no patience—and virtually no compassion—for game violators. The elk herds in the Bighorns were considered a community resource, and their health was a matter of much concern and debate. A large number of local residents endured Twelve Sleep County’s low-paying jobs and dead-end prospects primarily for the lifestyle it offered—which in large part meant the good hunting opportunities. Nothing provoked more vitriol than potential damage to the health and welfare of the big game habitat and population. While it was perfectly permissible—even encouraged—for hunters to harvest an elk each year, the stupid slaughter of seven of them by one man would be an absolute outrage. Especially when the guy at fault was the federal bureaucrat who was in charge of closing roads and denying grazing and logging leases.
Joe couldn’t comprehend what could have come over Lamar Gardiner. If that kind of rage lurked under the surface of a Milquetoast like Gardiner, the mountains were a more dangerous place than Joe had ever imagined.
The two-track road to the summit was rugged and steep, and the buffeting waves of snow made it hard to see it clearly. The pickup fishtailed several times on the wet surfaces. It might be difficult to get back into the bowl even tomorrow if the snow continued like this, Joe thought They were grinding through a thick stand of trees when Joe remembered Maxine in the back with the elk. In his mirror, he could see her hunkered against the cab, snow packed into her coat and ice crystals around her mouth.
“You mind if we stop and let my dog in?” Joe asked, pulling over on a short level stretch that led to another steep climb.
Gardiner made a face as if this were the last straw, and sighed theatrically.
“Everything in my life is completely and totally destroyed,” he cried. “So I might as well let a stinking wet dog sit on me.”
Joe bit his tongue. Looking at Gardiner, with his tear-streaked face, bloodshot eyes, and chinless profile, he couldn’t remember anyone quite so pathetic.
When Gardiner turned to open his door to let Maxine in, his knee accidentally hit the button for the glove box and the latch opened, spilling the contents—binoculars, gloves, old spare handcuffs, maps, mail—all over the floor. Maxine chose that moment to bound into the truck, tangling with Gardiner as he bent to pick up the debris.
Gardiner cried out and pushed the dog roughly into the center of the bench seat.
“Calm down,” Joe said, as much to Maxine as to Gardiner. Shivering, Maxine was ecstatic to be let in. Her wet-dog smell filled the cab.
“I’m soaked, my God!” Gardiner said, holding his hands out in front of him, his voice arcing into hysteria: “Goddamn it, Goddamn YOU! This is the worst day of my entire life!” His hands swooped like just-released birds and he screeched: “I’m cracking up!”
“CALM DOWN,” Joe commanded.
The human desperation that filled the cab of the pickup, Joe thought, contrasted bizarrely with the utter and complete silence of the mountains in the midst of a heavy snowfall.
For a moment, Joe felt sorry for Lamar Gardiner. That moment passed when Gardiner leaned across Maxine and snapped one of the handcuffs on Joe’s wrist and the other on the steering wheel in a movement as quick as it was unexpected. Then Gardiner threw open the passenger door, leaped out, and was still running with his arms flapping wildly about him when he vanished into the trees.
The handcuffs had been an old set that required a smaller type of key than the set he now used. Joe tore through the glove box, his floor console, and a half-dozen other places where he might have put the keys, but he couldn’t find them. Like every game warden he knew, Joe practically lived in his vehicle, and it was packed with equipment, clothing, tools, documents . . . stuff. But not the right key for the old handcuffs.
It took twenty minutes and his Leatherman tool to pry the cap off the steering wheel and loosen the bolts that held it to the shaft. Maxine laid her wet head on his lap while he worked, looking sympathetic. Thick falling snow from the still-open passenger door settled on the edge of the bench seat and the floorboard. A hacksaw would have cut through the wheel, or through the chain of the cuffs and freed him, but he didn’t have one.
Seething, Joe strode through the timber in the storm. He carried his shotgun in his left hand while the steering wheel, still attached by the handcuffs, swung from his right.
“Lamar, damn you, you’re going to die in this storm if you don’t come back!” Joe hollered. The storm and the trees hushed his voice, and it sounded tinny and hollow even to him.
Joe stopped and listened. He thought he had heard the distant rumble of a motor a few minutes before, and possibly a truck door slamming. He guessed that whoever drove the vehicle was doing what he himself should be doing—retreating to a lower elevation. The sound may have come from beyond the stand of trees, but the noises were muffled, and Joe wasn’t sure.
Tracking down Lamar Gardiner should go quickly, he thought. He listened for branches snapping, or Gardiner moaning or sobbing. There was no sound but the storm.
He sized up the situation he was in, and cursed to himself. Lamar Gardiner wasn’t the only one having a miserable day. Joe’s prisoner had escaped, he was out of radio contact, it had already snowed six inches, there was only an hour until dark, and he had a steering wheel chained to his wrist.
He thought bitterly that when he found Gardiner he would have the choice of hauling him back to the truck or shooting him dead with the shotgun. For a moment, he leaned toward the latter.
“Lamar, YOU’RE GOING TO DIE OUT HERE IF YOU DON’T COME BACK!”
Gardiner’s tracks weren’t hard to follow, although they were filling with snow by the minute. Gardiner had taken a number of turns in the trees and had been stymied several times by deadfall, then changed direction. He didn’t seem to have a destination in mind, other than away from Joe.
The footing was deteriorating. Under the layer of snow were crosshatched branches slick with moisture, and roots snatched at Joe’s boots. Gardiner had fallen several times, leaving churned-up snow and earth.
If he’s trying to get back to his own vehicle, Joe thought, he’s going the wrong way. And what was the chance that he had a spare set of keys with him, anyway?
A snow-covered dead branch caught the steering wheel as Joe walked, jerking him to a stop. Again he cursed, and stepped back to pull the wheel free. Standing still, Joe wiped melting snow from his face and shook snow from his jacket and Stetson. He listened again, not believing that Gardiner had suddenly learned how to move stealthily through the woods while Joe crashed and grunted after him.
He looked down and saw how fresh Gardiner’s tracks had become. Any minute now, he should be on him.
Joe racked the pump on the shotgun. That noise alone, he hoped, would at least make Gardiner think.
The trees became less dense, and Joe followed the track through them. He looked ahead, squinting against the snow. Gardiner’s track zigzagged from tree to tree, then stopped at the trunk of a massive spruce. Joe couldn’t see any more tracks.
“Okay, Lamar,” he shouted. “You can come out now.”
There was no movement from behind the tree, and no sound.
“If we’re going to get to town before dark, we’ve got to leave NOW.”
Snorting, Joe shouldered the shotgun and looped around the spruce so he could approach from the other side. As he shuffled through the snow, he could see one of Gardiner’s shoulders, then a boot, from behind the trunk. Steam wafted from Gardiner’s body, no doubt because he had worked up a sweat in the freezing cold.
“Come out NOW!” Joe ordered.
But Lamar Gardiner couldn’t, and when Joe walked up to him he saw why.
Joe heard himself gasp, and the shotgun nearly dropped out of his hand.
Gardiner was pinned to the trunk of the tree by two arrows that had gone completely through his chest and into the wood, pinning him upright against the tree. His chin rested on his chest, and Joe could see blood spreading down from his neck. His throat had been cut. The snow around the tree had been tramped by boots.
The front of Gardiner’s clothing was a sheet of gore. Blood pooled and steamed near Gardiner’s feet, melting the snow in a heart-shaped pattern, the edges taking on the color of a raspberry Sno-Cone. Joe was overwhelmed by the pungent, salty smell of hot blood.
His heart now whumping in his chest, Joe slowly turned to face the direction where the murderer must have been, praying that the killer was not drawing back the bowstring with a bead on him.
. . . His job is to make sure hunters are responsible and that they obey the law. It can be a scary job, but he’s good at it. We have lived in Saddlestring for 3 and one-half years, and this is all he has done. Sometimes, he saves animals from danger . . .
Sheridan Pickett, eleven years old, slung her backpack over her shoulder and joined the stream of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders out through the double doors of Saddlestring Elementary School into the snowstorm. It was the last day of school before the two-week Christmas break. That, coupled with the storm, seemed to supercharge everyone, including the teachers, who had dealt with the students’ growing euphoria by simply showing movies all day and watching the clock until the bell rang for dismissal at three-thirty P.M.
A dozen fifth-grade boys, her classmates, surged through the throng. They hooted and ran, then squatted in the playground to try and gather up the winter’s first good snowballs to throw. But the snow was too fluffy for packing, so they kicked it at the other students instead. Sheridan did her best to ignore the boys, and she turned her head away when they kicked snow in her direction. It was snowing hard, and there was already several inches of it on the ground. The sky was so close and the snow so heavy that it would be difficult, she thought, to convince a stranger to the area that there really were mountains out there, and that the humped backs of the Bighorn mountain range really did dominate the western horizon. She guessed it was snowing even harder up there.
Free of the crowd, she turned on the sidewalk at the end of a chain-link fence and walked along the side of the redbrick building toward the other wing of the school. It was a part of the school building she knew well. Saddlestring Elementary was shaped like an H, with one wing consisting of kindergarten through third grade and the other fourth through sixth, two classes of each. The offices, gym, and lunchroom separated the two wings. Sheridan had moved into what was known as the “Big Wing” the previous year, and had once again been in the youngest group of the crowd. At the time, she thought fifth graders were especially obnoxious; they formed cliques designed solely, it seemed, to torment the fourth graders. Now she was in fifth grade, but she still thought it was true. Fifth grade, she thought, was just no good. There was no point to fifth grade. It was just in the middle.
The sixth graders, to Sheridan, seemed distant and mature, and had already, at least socially, left elementary school behind them. The sixth-grade girls were the tallest students in school, having shot up in height past all but a few of the boys, and some were wearing heavy makeup, and tight clothing to show off their budding breasts. The sixth-grade boys, meanwhile, had morphed into gangly, honking, ridiculous creatures who lived to snap bra straps and considered a fart the single funniest sound they had ever heard. Unfortunately, the fifth-grade boys were beginning to emulate them.
As she had done after school every afternoon since September, Sheridan went to meet her sisters when they emerged from the “Little Wing” and wait with them for the bus to arrive. She was torn when it came to her sisters and this particular duty. On one hand, she resented having to leave her friends and their conversations to make the daily trek to a part of the school building that she should have been free of forever. On the other, she felt protective of April and Lucy and wanted to be there if anyone picked on them. Twice this year she had chased away bullies—once male, once female—who were giving her two younger sisters a hard time. Six-year-old Lucy, especially, was a target because she was so . . . cute. In both instances, Sheridan had chased the bullies away by setting her jaw, narrowing her eyes, and speaking calmly and deliberately, so low that she could barely be heard. She told them to “get away from my sisters or you’ll find out what trouble really is.”
The first time, Sheridan had been mildly surprised that it worked so well. Not that she wasn’t prepared to fight, if necessary, but she wasn’t sure she was a good fighter. When it worked the second time, she realized that she could project the determination and strength that she often felt inside, and that it unnerved the bullies. It also thrilled Lucy and April.
While she waited for the doors of the Little Wing to open, Sheridan tried to find a direction to stand where the snow wouldn’t hit her and melt on her glasses. Because the snowflakes were so large and light and swirly, she had no luck. Sheridan hated her glasses, but especially in the winter. Snow smeared them, and they fogged when she went indoors. She planned to lobby her parents even harder for contact lenses. Her mom had said that once she was in junior high they could discuss it. But the seventh grade seemed like a long time to wait, and her parents seemed overly cautious and more than a little old-fashioned. There were girls in her class who not only had contacts, but had asked for pierced navels for Christmas, for Pete’s sake. Two girls had announced that their goals, upon entering seventh grade, were to get tattoos on their butts!
Sheridan searched the curb for her mother’s car or her dad’s green pickup, hoping against hope that they would be there to pick her up, but they weren’t there. Sometimes, her dad surprised them by appearing in his green Wyoming Fish and Game Department pickup truck. Although it was tight quarters inside with all three girls and Maxine, it was always fun to get a ride home with her dad, who would sometimes turn on his flashing lights or whoop the siren when they cleared Saddlestring and drove up the county road. Generally, he would have to go back to work after unloading them all at home. At least, she thought, her mom would be home from her part-time jobs at the library and the stables when the three girls got off of the bus. Arriving home in this storm, on the last day of school for the calendar year, had a special, magical appeal. She hoped her mom would be baking something.
The street where the bus parked beside Saddlestring Elementary was also marked as a secondary truck route through town. It shot straight through town, merged with Bighorn Road, and, eventually, curled into the mountains. So the heavy rumble of motors and vehicles on the street wasn’t, in itself, unusual enough for Sheridan to look up.
But when she did, tilting her head to avoid falling snow, she recognized that this was something strange: a slow but impressive column of rag-tag vehicles.
They passed her one by one. There were battered recreational vehicles, old vans, trucks pulling camping trailers, and school buses that didn’t look right because they were full of cardboard boxes. Four-wheel-drives pulled trailers piled high with crates, and the arms and legs of furniture poked out from water-beaded plastic tarps. It was as if a small neighborhood’s residents had gathered their possessions before a coming threat and fled. Sheridan thought of the word she had learned in social studies. Yes, the caravan reminded her of refugees. But in Wyoming?
The license plates were from all over: Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, North Dakota, Georgia, Michigan, and more. This in itself was odd, especially in the winter, when most people avoided traveling long distances because of the weather. Many of the drivers seemed rough and woolly; the men had big beards and they were bundled in heavy coats. Some of them looked at her, others looked away. One bearded man rolled down his window while he passed and shouted something about “government schools.” He didn’t say it in a nice way, and she instinctively stepped back toward the building and the chain-link fence. There were more men than women in the vehicles, and Sheridan saw only a few children, their hands and faces pressed against the windows as they passed. It was then that she noticed Lucy and April. They were standing on each side of her in their coats, hats, and mittens, watching the transient convoy rumble by. Under her coat, Lucy wore a dress and shiny shoes, fashionable as always. She was undeniably cute. April wore more practical corduroy bib overalls, the legs of which poked out from a hand-me-down parka that used to be Sheridan’s.
Sheridan noticed the regal, dignified profile of a big man at the wheel of a newer-model Suburban. The man turned his head as he passed, and he smiled. For a moment, their eyes locked. There was something kindly about him, and Sheridan picked him as the leader of the group simply by the way he sat up straight. He had confidence.
“Where’s our bus?” Lucy asked.
“Probably behind all of these cars and trucks,” Sheridan answered, looking for the end of the procession to see if the familiar yellow bus was there. She couldn’t see beyond the end of the block through the snow, and her wet glasses didn’t help.
“Who are all these people?” Lucy again.
“I don’t know,” Sheridan said, reaching back for Lucy’s and April’s hands. “One of them shouted at me.”
“If they yell again, let’s go in and tell the principal!” April said with some force, gripping Sheridan’s hand in its red cotton glove.
The three girls stood and waited while the parade slowly passed. They all had blond hair and green eyes. It would take a discerning observer to notice that April didn’t share Lucy’s and Sheridan’s rounded features and big eyes. April’s face was angular, and her demeanor stoic and inscrutable.
A battered blue Dodge pickup, the last of the caravan, swerved slightly and slowed as it approached. The back was piled high with bulky shapes covered by a soaked canvas tarp. Behind the pickup, Sheridan could see the red lights of the bus approaching, and Lucy pointed at it and yelled “Yay! Here it comes . . .”
But the Dodge stopped in the street directly in front of the three girls. Sheridan watched as a water-streaked window rolled down. A tiny, pinched-faced woman looked out at them. Her hair was mousy brown and had blond streaks in it, and her eyes were piercing and flinty. A cigarette hung from her lips, and it bobbed as she rolled the window down all the way.
Sheridan stared back, scared, squeezing tighter on her sisters’ hands. The woman’s look was meaningful, hard, and predatory. It took a moment for Sheridan to realize that the woman was not looking back at her, but lower and to the side. She was staring at April.
The truck started to roll again and the woman swung her head inside and barked something at the driver. Again, the pickup stopped. The school bus was now right behind it, crowding the blue Dodge, the bus driver gesturing at the stopped vehicle in front of him and the faces of children filling the windows to see what the problem was.
The woman continued to look at the three girls. Slowly, she reached up, pulled the cigarette from her mouth, and tapped the ashes into the snow. Her eyes were slits behind the curl of cigarette smoke.
The bus driver hit his horn, and the moment was over. The pickup lurched forward and the window rolled up. The woman had turned her head to yell at the driver. The blue Dodge raced off to join the rest of the caravan, and the big school bus turned into the bus stop.
As the accordion doors wheezed open, Sheridan could hear the raucous voices of children from inside the bus, and feel a blast of warm air.
“That was creepy,” Sheridan said, leading Lucy and April toward the door.
“I’m scared,” Lucy whined, burrowing her face into Sheridan’s coat. “That lady scared me.”
April stood still, and Sheridan tugged on her arm, then turned. She found April pale and shaking, her eyes wide. Sheridan pulled harder, and April seemed to awaken and follow.
On the bus, April sat next to Sheridan instead of Lucy, which had never happened before. She stared straight ahead at the back of the seat in front of her. She was still shivering. The bus driver had finally stopped complaining about the “gol-danged gypsy hoboes” who had blocked his route all the way into town.
“Where in the heck is that group headed?” the driver asked no one in particular. “No one in their right mind camps in our mountains in the middle of the gol-danged winter.”
“Are you cold?” Sheridan asked April. “You’re still shaking.”
April shook her head no. The bus pulled onto the road. Long windshield wipers, out of sync, painted rainbows across the front windows against the snow.
“Then what is it?” Sheridan asked, putting her arm around her foster sister. April didn’t shrug the arm away, which was unusual in itself. Only recently had April started to show, or willingly receive, real affection.
“I think that was my mom,” April whispered, looking up at Sheridan. “I mean, the mom who went away.”
With the storm moving in, Joe found himself with no backup, no ability to communicate, and a dead district supervisor of the Twelve Sleep National Forest. Standing in the timber with Gardiner’s body pinned to the tree and fresh snow quickly covering their tracks back to his pickup, Joe needed to make some decisions and he needed to make them now.
He had just returned from the stand of trees where he assumed the arrows had been fired, assured that the killer was gone. Enough snow had fallen that the tracks left by the killer, or killers, were already filling in.
Joe looked skyward into the swirl of falling snow. He wasn’t sure what to do. Of course he should leave a crime scene undisturbed.
Suddenly, Gardiner’s body shivered and a fresh hot gout of blood coursed down his chest between the arrows. Joe leaped back involuntarily, his eyes wide and his breath shallow. He pulled off a glove and felt Gardiner’s neck for a pulse. Amazingly, there was a tiny flutter beneath the cooling skin. Joe shook his head. He hadn’t even considered, given the wounds, that the man could still be alive.
Joe tried to pull one of the arrows out. He grunted with effort, but it was stuck fast. He tried to break off the back end of the arrow, but the graphite shaft was too strong. Finally, he lifted Gardiner from beneath the arms, Joe’s face pressing into Gardiner’s bloody parka, and pulled him free, sliding his body up and over the arrows’ fletching.
Fueled by adrenaline and desperation, Joe heaved the body over his shoulder, still dragging the steering wheel at the end of the handcuffs. He turned clumsily and started back toward the truck. Snow fell into his eyes as he walked, melting into rivulets that ran down his collar. He realized belatedly that moving Lamar this way might do more damage than good, but he didn’t see an alternative.
Despite his own heavy breathing, Joe tried to listen for signs of life from Gardiner. Instead, as Joe staggered through a stand of shadowed saplings, he heard the sound of death. A deep fluttery rattle came from Gardiner’s throat, and Joe felt—or thought he felt—a release of tension in the body. Now Joe had no doubt that Lamar Gardiner was dead.
Joe finally reached his truck on the road. A layer of snow had already covered the roof and hood. Leaning Gardiner’s body against the front wheel with as much dignity as he could, Joe opened the passenger door. He dragged the body around the open door, then tried to lift it into the passenger seat, but Lamar’s long legs had stiffened with cold and death and would not bend. The body maintained the posture it had assumed over Joe’s shoulder, with Gardiner’s outstretched arms parallel to his legs and his head turned slightly to the side, as if sniffing an armpit.
For a brief, horrifying second, Joe pictured himself as if from above, struggling to bend or break a body to make it fit into the cab of his truck while the heavy snow swirled around him.
Joe gave up, and dragged Gardiner’s body to the back of the truck and unlatched the tailgate. To make room, he hauled one of the still-warm elk carcasses out of the back, and it fell heavily to the ground. Then he lifted Gardiner’s body into the back of the truck next to the remaining carcass. Gardiner’s eyes were wide open, his mouth pursed.
Joe’s muscles quivered and burned with the effort. The steam of his sweat curled up from his collar, head, and cuffs. He closed the tailgate. He covered the body as well as he could with two blankets and a sleeping bag. He searched through the toolbox in the bed of his pickup. Finding a set of bolt cutters he wished he had thought of earlier, he severed the chain between the handcuffs. Then he reattached the steering wheel to the column. Finally, utterly exhausted, he sank back against the driver’s seat and started the engine.
By the time he got to the summit, it was dark. He drove down the mountain with the body of Gardiner and the remaining elk carcass in the back of the pickup, stopping several times to scout the road ahead. In the back, blood and ice from both Gardiner’s body and the elk had melted and mixed and had filled the channels of the truck bed. The reddish liquid spilled from under the tailgate to spatter the snow each time he stopped.
As he drove, he thought of Mrs. Gardiner—how she might feel if her husband’s body had been simply left where it was for the night. The forest was home to coyotes, wolves, ravens, raptors, and other predators who could have found the body and fed on it. This is best, he thought, despite the gruesome circumstances of carrying the body out.
The storm obscured the outside view as he labored to stay on the road. The swirling snow, lit up in his lights, was mesmerizing. Beyond the illuminated flakes, he could see nothing beyond. With no posts or road markers to guide him, Joe turned off his lights, extinguishing the pinwheel of snowy fireworks, and drove by feel. When he felt the dry crunch of sagebrush under his tires, he would search again for the road, saying a prayer each time his wheels again found the two-track.
Normally, in the distance, he could have seen the lights of Saddlestring in the river valley, looking like sequins flung across black felt. But he could see nothing. He could hear the fluid sloshing against the cab now that he was driving downhill.
The situation he was in was maddening, and frightening. For the first time, he realized that he still wore one blood-soaked glove and that his bare, thawing hand was red with dried gore.
“Damn you, Lamar,” he said aloud, “damn you.” Maxine looked to him with her condolences.
Now that he should be within radio range, Joe reached for the mike and tried to put together the words he would use to report what had happened.
O.R. “Bud” Barnum, Twelve Sleep County’s longtime sheriff and a man Joe had tangled with before, was livid when Joe brought Lamar’s body to the hospital.
As Joe backed into the lighted alcove of the hospital emergency entrance, Barnum stepped out of the well-lit lobby through the double doors and angrily tossed a half-smoked cigarette in the direction of the gutter. Two of his deputies, Mike Reed and Kyle McLanahan, followed Barnum. Joe and McLanahan went back four years, ever since McLanahan had carelessly wounded Joe with a poorly aimed shotgun blast.
“Tell me, Warden Pickett,” Barnum drawled, his voice hard, “why is it that every time someone gets murdered in my county, you’re right in the middle of it? And how are we supposed to investigate this murder when you’ve destroyed the crime scene by bringing Lamar down in the back of your truck?”
Barnum had obviously been rehearsing his opening remarks for the benefit of his deputies.
Joe climbed out and glared at Barnum, who was harshly lit by overhead alcove lights that made his aging face and deep-set eyes look even more severe than they really were. Barnum glared back, and Joe saw Barnum’s eyes narrow at the sight of Joe’s appearance.
“He was alive when I found him,” Joe said. “He died as I carried him back to my truck.”
Barnum harrumphed, not apologizing, and shined his Maglite flashlight into the back of the truck. “I see a big elk,” he said, and then the ring of the beam settled on the snow-covered blanket. Barnum reached in and peeled back the fabric.
“Jesus, somebody butchered him,” Barnum said.
Joe nodded. The gaping wound on Lamar’s neck looked savage and black in the harsh white light of Barnum’s flashlight.
Deputy Reed told Joe that the county coroner was on his way, fighting through the snowdrifts on the road to the hospital.
Joe and the sheriff’s team stepped aside as hospital orderlies pulled Gardiner’s body from the back of Joe’s pickup and strapped him onto a gurney. The four of them followed the gurney into the building, then waited in the admissions area. As the orderlies rolled the body down the hallway, McLanahan said it reminded him of the elk he had brought down from the mountains during hunting season.
“Seven-point royal,” McLanahan boasted. “Just shy of the Boone and Crockett record book. We had to quarter him just to get him to fit into the back of the truck.”
At this, Barnum turned, smirking, toward Joe. “Well, Warden Pickett,” he said, “I’m surprised you didn’t gut Lamar before you brought him in.”
Joe drove to the Gardiner house to break the news to Mrs. Carrie Gardiner. He had volunteered for the job, tough as it would be. He was grateful to get away from Barnum and McLanahan. Even in the cold, his cheeks burned. He stung from Barnum’s comments, and fought his welling anger at them. As he drove, however, thoughts of what had happened that afternoon, and what he was going to tell Carrie, crowded out Barnum’s words. He still couldn’t believe Gardiner had used the handcuffs—or that Gardiner had gone on his shooting rampage in the first place. Or that he had been randomly murdered in the middle of a forest during a snowstorm.
As Joe pulled up in front of the Gardiner’s house, the realization of what he was about to do hit him, and he sat in the truck for a moment, working up his courage before pushing himself out into the cold and up the front steps of the house. When Lamar Gardiner’s daughter opened the door in her nightgown, Joe felt even worse than he had before.
“Is your mom home?” Joe asked, his voice stronger than he expected.
“You’re Lucy’s daddy, right?” the girl asked. She had sung next to Lucy at the Christmas play. Joe couldn’t remember her name. He wished he were anywhere other than where he was at the moment, and felt ashamed of his wish.
Carrie Gardiner emerged from the kitchen wiping her hands in a towel. She was a heavy woman with an attractive, alert face and short dark hair.
“Let Mr. Pickett in and close the door, honey,” she said. Joe stepped in and removed his Stetson, which was soaked through and heavy.
The door closed, and both Carrie Gardiner and her daughter waited for him to speak. The fact that he didn’t, but simply looked at Mrs. Gardiner, said enough.
Her eyes moistened and flashed.
“Go watch TV, honey,” she told her daughter in a voice that would be obeyed.
Joe waited until the girl had left the room and took a deep breath. “There is no way to tell you this other than to tell it straight out,” he said. “Your husband Lamar was murdered in the mountains while he was elk hunting. I found his body and brought him down.”
Carrie Gardiner looked both stunned and angry, and she almost lost her balance. Joe stepped forward to steady her but she refused his hand. She let out a yelp, and threw the hand towel she was clutching at his boots.
“I’m so sorry,” Joe said.
She waved him away, excusing him as the bearer of bad news. Then she turned and walked back into the kitchen.
“Please call me or my wife if there is anything we can do at all,” Joe said after her.
She came back into the living room.
“How did he die?”
“Somebody shot two arrows into him.” He chose not to mention the cut throat.
“Do you know who did it?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Joe admitted.
“Will you find him?”
“I think so. The sheriff is in charge.”
“Is that Lamar’s blood on you?”
“Yes,” Joe said, flushing, suddenly aware that his coat was blackened with blood, and profoundly angry with himself for not realizing it earlier. He should have taken it off in the truck before he knocked on the door. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I . . .”
She shook him off, bent and picked up the towel, and touched her face with it.
“I was afraid something like this would happen,” she said, and again walked away. She didn’t elaborate, and Joe didn’t follow up.
Joe let himself out and stood on the porch for a moment. Inside, a wail began and grew louder and louder. It was awful.
At the sheriff’s office, Barnum was already giving assignments for the coming day. Joe stood uncomfortably in the back of the briefing room. He had been asked to give a statement earlier, but had insisted on going to the Gardiner house first, promising to return later. Barnum told his deputies to forget whatever they were doing and to focus entirely on Lamar Gardiner’s murder. He explained that he’d already called the state Division of Criminal Investigation, and notified the Forest Service. As soon as they could, he said, they would follow Joe Pickett to the crime scene to retrieve the arrows and any other kind of evidence they could find. Gardiner’s staff would be questioned, as would his wife and friends, “ . . . if he had any.” This brought a muffled guffaw from someone. Gardiner’s office would be searched, with the goal of gathering credible evidence of threats or conflicts. The records and sign-in sheets of the public meetings Gardiner had recently held about road closures, lease extensions, and other access issues would be gathered. Barnum wanted the names of everyone in Twelve Sleep Valley who had confronted Gardiner or expressed disagreement over public-policy decisions that had been made by the forest service. Joe had attended the meetings, and he knew that Barnum was likely to end up with a lot more names than he wanted.
“I want this investigation to proceed quickly and I want somebody rotting in my jail by Christmas,” Barnum barked. “Pickett, we need your statement.”
The deputies in the room, many wearing the sloppy civilian clothes they’d had on when they were abruptly called into the department, turned and looked at Joe, seeing him back there for the first time.
“You’re a damn mess,” one of them said, and somebody else laughed.
It was two-thirty in the morning before Joe got home, and he drove by his house twice before seeing the yellow smudge of the porch light that looked like an erasure in the storm. The wind had come up, turning a heavy but gentle snowfall into a maelstrom.
After bucking a three-foot snowdrift that blocked the driveway and sent him fishtailing toward the garage, he turned off the motor and woke Maxine. The Labrador bounded beside him through the front lawn, leaping over drifts. Joe didn’t have the energy to hop, so he plowed through, feeling snow pack into the cuffs of his Wranglers and into his boot-tops for the second time that day. Snow swirled around the porch light like smoke. Christmas decorations, made by the girls in school, were taped inside the front window, and Joe smiled at the Santa drawing that Sheridan had done the previous year. Unnoticed by most, Sheridan had added a familiar patch, with a pronghorn antelope profile and the words WYOMING GAME AND FISH DEPARTMENT, to Santa’s red coat-sleeve.
The small house had two storeys, with two small bedrooms, a detached garage, and a loafing shed barn in the back. Forty years old, the house had been the home and office of the two previous game wardens and their families. Across Bighorn Road was Wolf Mountain, which dominated the view. In back, beyond rugged sandstone foothills, was the northwest slope of the Bighorn range. He could see none of it in the dark and through the snow.
The people he met in the field were mostly hunters, fishermen, ranchers, poachers, environmentalists, and others Joe lumped into a category he called “outdoorsmen”—but his home was filled with four blond, green-eyed females. Females who were verbal. Females who were emotional. He often smiled and thought of this place as a “House of Feelings.” If the expression of feelings produced a physical by-product, Joe could imagine his house filled with hundreds of gallons of an emotional goo that sometimes spilled out of the windows and doors and seeped from the vents. But his family was everything to him; this place was his refuge, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
He shut out the storm as he closed the door, and he clumsily peeled off his first layer of clothing in the tiny mud room. He hung his bloody parka on a peg and unbuttoned his green wool Filson vest. He stamped packed snow out of his trouser legs, then left the Sorel pak boots on a bench to dry. His wet black Stetson went crown-down on an upper shelf.
Sighing, wondering why Marybeth still had her light on, he entered the living room in the dark, banged his shin on the foot of the fold-out couch bed, and fell on top of his sleeping mother-in-law. She woke up thrashing, and Joe scrambled to his feet.
“What are you doing, Joe?” she asked, her tone accusatory.
Up the stairs, another light came on. Marybeth had heard the commotion, Joe hoped.
“I didn’t want to turn on a light,” Joe answered, sheepishly. Not adding: I forgot Marybeth told me you’d be here.
When Joe had called home earlier from the sheriff’s office, Marybeth had said that her mother, Missy Vankueren, might be staying with them tonight. Apparently, Missy had been flying to Jackson Hole to go skiing with her third husband, a wealthy and politically connected Arizona real estate baron, when the weather diverted the plane to Billings. So Missy had rented a car, driven the two hours to Saddlestring, and arrived just as the storm moved in. Mr. Vankueren was to meet her in a couple of days, after some important meetings in Phoenix. And now Joe Pickett, the man her favorite daughter had chosen despite Marybeth’s incredible potential and promise, had just awakened her in a half-dressed state by falling on her bed.
“Hi, Missy,” Joe grunted. “Nice to see you.” Missy clutched her blankets to her chin and peered over them at him. Without the expertly applied mask of makeup she usually wore, she looked all of her sixty-two years. Joe knew she hated being seen when she wasn’t prepped and ready.
Marybeth came down the stairs tying her bathrobe, instantly sized up the situation between her mother and her husband, and forced a smile. Joe wanted to mouth help me, save me, but he didn’t dare for fear Missy would see. The small front room was filled not only with the length of the couch bed but the seasonal addition of the Christmas tree that stood silent and dark in the corner. Floor space was at a minimum, and Joe had to scuttle sidewise like a crab to cross the room.
“Sorry, Mom,” Marybeth said, tucking the disturbed sheet corners back under the mattress. “Joe’s had a very bad day.”
“And I’m having a bad night,” Missy said, averting her gaze from Joe. “I’m supposed to be in our condo in Jackson Hole.”
“But instead you’re on our crummy couch bed in our lousy living room,” Joe finished for her, deadpan as he headed for the stairs. Marybeth shot him a look over her shoulder as she finished re-tucking her mother. He listened as Marybeth calmed Missy, told her that it was still snowing, asked her if she was warm enough, asked her . . . something else, which he didn’t pay attention to.
Missy Vankueren was the last person Joe wanted to see in his home right now. The day had been a nightmare. Now this, he thought, as he slowly climbed the stairs.
Marybeth looked tired and worn out, but she had listened in wide-eyed silence as he told her everything. When he came to how he had found the body, she had pressed her hands to her mouth and winced.
“Are you going to be okay?” she asked in a whisper when he was through talking.
“Yes,” Joe said, but really wasn’t sure about that.
Marybeth held him and looked him over. “I think you should take a shower, Joe.” He nodded dumbly.
In the shower, he wanted to see blood wash down the drain so he could feel clean. But the blood from Lamar Gardiner had been on his coat and clothes, and it had not seeped through to his skin.
Joe dried and slid into bed next to Marybeth. Her bed lamp was still on, and he asked her about it.
“It’s been a bad day for the girls and me as well,” she said, turning to him. “Jeannie Keeley is back in town.”
Joe ran a hand over his face and rubbed his eyes. Now he understood why Marybeth looked so drawn and tired. He had originally thought she had been worried about him, or because of the unexpected visit by her mother. It was those things, he realized, and more.
Marybeth told Joe what the girls had seen after school—the procession of vehicles and particularly the one that stopped. She said April had described the woman who stared as “the mom who went away.”
“Joe, why do you think Jeannie Keeley is back?” Marybeth asked.
"Winterkill proves that Box...is one of the best new voices in the mystery game. [It's] a full-fledged thriller, Wyoming style."—Rocky Mountain News
C. J. Box is the author of five Joe Pickett novels, and has won the Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe, and Barry awards. He has also been an Edgar Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. A Wyoming native, Box serves on the board of directors for Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.
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