What if you woke up lying in the middle of the street in the infamous town of Fort Pratt, Montana, where thirty young Native boys perished in a tragic 1896 boarding-school fire? What if every person you encountered in that endless night was dead? What if you were covered in blood and missing a bullet from the gun holstered on your hip? What if there was something out there in the yellowed skies, along with the deceased and the smell of ash and dust, something the Northern Cheyenne refer to as the Éveohtsé-heómėse, the Wandering Without, the Taker of Souls? What if the only way you know who you are is because your name is printed in the leather sweatband of your cowboy hat, and what if it says your name is Walt Longmire . . . but you don’t remember him?
In Hell and Back, the eighteenth installment of the Longmire series, author Craig Johnson takes the beloved sheriff to the very limits of his sanity to do battle with the most dangerous adversary he’s ever faced: himself.
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There was the sound of bells and then the silence-the kind of quiet that only comes with snow, capturing the soundwaves of life and smothering them before they can cry out. I couldn't open my eyes, like something was weighing them down, so I brought my hand up to my face and brushed the snow away. My eyes worked now, so I tried to sit up, feeling something strike my chest, something small and metallic, a couple of somethings.
Snow, a lot of it, falling in static sheets. Fat flakes covered everything, silenced everything, as they cascaded from the yellowish-black sky.
I was lying in the middle of the street.
I started to stand but discovered that part of my sheepskin coat was frozen to the ground. Leaning over to one side, I noticed that there were two silver dollars in my lap, so I pulled a glove off with my teeth. I picked up one of the coins that were old ones but looked remarkably unsullied. I glanced around again, couldn't see anybody else on the street, so figured finderskeepers. Scooping up the other one, I deposited them both into my pocket and then pulled the glove back on, tugging the tiny red-beaded ends on the straps to snug it. I reached behind me and pulled my coat loose from the ice-I had at least been lying there long enough for it to freeze to the ground.
Raising myself to a kneeling position, I felt something around my neck and pulled the material up to find a red scarf. It didn't particularly look like a man's scarf-silky, with a fringed end-but with current weather conditions I figured I didn't have a lot of options.
Momentarily distracted, I saw a lump of snow beside me and reached over to find it was a pinch-front cowboy hat. I slapped it against my knee to knock it clean. Figuring it was also mine, I lifted it and tugged it over my head. It felt a little tight but that was probably from being as frozen as it was.
I stood the rest of the way and shook off the accumulated snow from my coat like a dog. I was at the top of a hill, which looked down a winding two-lane road that dropped off into a small town about a mile away. Turning, I could see the top of the hill was covered with tiny crosses encircled by a wrought-iron fence where, a little farther off, the corner of a stone building still stood, shedding rubble into the snow, a large lump of which was centered on some sort of platform.
Above a gate I saw an arch with the words Fort Pratt Industrial Indian Boarding School. There was some movement at the apogee of the arch, and I watched as a great horned owl slowly swiveled his head from back to front to look at me, golden eyes shining like twin harvest moons.
He continued to observe me with all the patience of the world.
"Well, at least you didn't ask who." Sighing, I turned back toward the town, thinking I might get a little more conversation in that direction. Starting off down the two-lane, I lumbered through the snow for a while eventually passing a few of the buildings on the outskirts-a house or two, a library, and what looked to be an old Catholic church.
There were buildings on either side of the road, the type of single-story storefronts seen in many small towns scattered across the Rocky Mountain West. Plastic wreathes hung from the dozen or so lampposts with a red electric candle in each that flickered yellow and then, one at a time, slowly dimmed.
I couldn't really tell if it was night or day with the skies colored a strange yellowish cast and with the inclement weather, the surrounding distance was darkened to an ocean of obscurity. There were a few lit buildings, a two-story grand vintage structure to my left, the Baker Hotel, and a movie theater down on the corner, with a yellow and green neon marquee that read Support Your Local Sheriff.
I had a mild headache and could smell something burning, as if there were a forest fire not too far away, and I felt strangely detached for a guy who had been left lying in the street. With a deep sigh, I took a few more steps, trudging toward the side of the road, amazed that I hadn't been scraped up by a snowplow. My back hurt and my limbs and head felt heavy-I must've been lying out there for a while.
There were no cars or trucks parked on the street as far as I could see. I stepped onto the curb and sidewalk. There was a cafŽ at the other end of the block, and I decided to walk in that direction even though it appeared to be leading west and out of town. Booths lined the glass front of the place, and the condensation on the inside of the windows promised warmth. A woman with strawberry blond hair was wiping the counter, but no patrons, and I was worried the tiny restaurant might be closed.
I was relieved when I pushed on the wooden bar and the glass door swung open, a bell jingling just above my head.
Appearing to be in her early thirties, the blonde was stunningly beautiful. Dressed in a waitress uniform, she looked up at me, and there was something about her that stuck the words in my throat. I swallowed. "I'm sorry, are you closed?"
She looked up to a clock on the wall that advertised the Red Lodge Soda Company; it was 8:17 p.m. "Not for another forty-three minutes, but I was thinking of closing with the blizzard and all." She looked back at me. "But can I help you?"
I slipped off my hat and stared through the fogged windows back onto the street. "Is it a blizzard?"
She laughed; a silvery, melodic sound that made me turn back to her and smile. "Storm of the century. What, you don't read the papers?"
"Not recently." I walked over, sat on a stool in front of her, and placed my hat on the one next to me. "You know what? I think I need a cup of coffee."
"You got it." She smiled, her hazel eyes sparkling. "The co-op says they aren't going to get the power back on for thirty-one hours." I watched as she plucked a Buffalo China mug from under the counter, walked to the coffee maker, and pulled the pot out by its plastic handle.
I glanced around the well-lit space. "How is it you still have electricity?"
"Municipal generator system on the hill outside of town near the old boarding school. I guess back in the day the power went out all the time." She rested the mug on the counter. "Are you new around here?"
"Yep." I looked back into the street. "At least I think so."
She laughed at the absurdity of my response. "You're not sure?"
I pulled the red scarf from my neck, stuffing it into my hat, and unbuttoned my heavy coat. "Well, to be honest, I just woke up out there in the road a moment ago."
She stared at me as I sat down at the counter. "Are you drunk?"
"I don't think so-drunk feels better than this." I pulled off my gloves, tucking them into my pocket, and sipped my coffee as she studied me.
"You look familiar."
I nodded and smiled. "You know, it's funny, but when I came in here, I was thinking the same thing about you." The coffee tasted hot, rich, and life-affirming. "What's your name?"
I sat there looking at her and thinking that of all the names in the world I could've chosen for her-but that one was perfect. "Just Martha?"
She nodded, stepping back guardedly. "Just Martha, for now."
"That's a great name." I started to stick out my hand to shake hers but then stopped.
She glanced at my hand as I lowered it but then went back to studying my face. "Something wrong?"
"Um . . . I don't want to panic you or anything, but I can't seem to remember my own name."
Her eyes sharpened, and she folded her arms. "Your name is Walt Longmire."
"So, we do know each other."
"Then how do you know my name?"
"It's on the liner of your hat."
I reached over and picked the thing up, removing the scarf and reading the barely legible gold lettering on the sweatband-this hat belongs to walt longmire: a gift from the grateful people of absaroka county, wyoming. I looked up at her. "Is this Absaroka County?"
She moved closer, staring at me, pressing the palms of her hands against the edge of the counter. "Not even Wyoming-welcome to Fort Pratt, Montana, Walt Longmire."
I inspected the hat a bit more. "That is, if it's mine."
"Where did you get it?"
"It was lying on the road there beside me, out at the edge of town, up on the hill to the east."
"Does it fit?"
I placed it on my head, where, after warming up, it fit, if not like a proverbial glove, at least like a custom-made hat. "Yep."
"Honestly?" She looked over my shoulder. "You really were just lying out there in the road?"
"Evidently for a while." I turned and looked outside into the darkness, took my hat off again, and resettled it and the scarf beside me. "Has there been any traffic lately?"
"No, the plow went through about an hour ago, but since then, nothing-I think they gave up." She smiled the warm smile. "You sure you don't want something to eat?"
"Now that you mention it, I am hungry, but I don't want to put you out."
"It's your lucky day, the special is a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup."
"Is that 'the usual' too?"
She stared at me for a long moment with an unsure expression. "What an odd thing to say . . . Why would you say that?"
"I don't know."
She looked at me a little uncertainly. "One special, coming up." She swung through the doors into the tiny kitchen, where I could watch her busy herself.
Sipping my coffee again, I plucked a menu from the condiment stand to see the name of the place-The Night Owl CafŽ, Fort Pratt.
She called through the opening of the pickup window. "I guess when that gust went through a couple of hours ago it took five poles out." A moment passed. "You want fries?"
"I don't want to be a bother . . ."
"None at all . . . I just need to get them out of the freezer in the back."
Another door opened and closed in the depths of the kitchen. I sat there listening to the ticking of the Red Lodge Soda clock on the wall and tried to remember who I was. What the hell? Had I fallen out of a vehicle, been hit by one? Was she right and I had been drunk and was out there sleeping it off?
With my hands thawed out, I reached up and probed my head. I found a lot of knots and bumps, with one that felt reasonably new but not so recent as to be responsible for how I felt. If I could just find somebody who knew me.
I was about ready to take off my coat when the front door opened behind me and a giant of a man stepped in, strangely dressed, and carrying a long native war staff.
Seven feet tall if he was an inch, his hood was pulled up to cover most of his face. He ducked his head to clear the top of the doorway and stepped into the light where I got a better look at him.
He wasn't just tall, he was big too. He unbuttoned his great fur coat with its grizzly bear hood, which revealed buckskin clothing indicative of the Mountain Crow tribe. What really unnerved me, though, was that staff in his hand, a wooden lance about six feet in length with a large, chipped obsidian spearhead on one end and red-painted coyote skulls on the other, along with horsehair tails, bells, beads, jawbones, and cloven hooves.
He stood there in the doorway and then walked past me with a curt nod, which I returned with a smile, somewhat amused by his seriousness. Sitting at the far end of the counter, he rested the spear against the edge and with little effort straddled a stool, dropping the hood with both hands and staring straight ahead.
He had scars on his face and strong Native features. His dark hair was streaked with more than a touch of gray and flowed down over his shoulders as he sat there motionless.
"How are you doing?"
He said nothing, continuing to look straight ahead.
Figuring he was a regular, I thought it best that I explain. "She went into the freezer to get me some fries, but she'll be right back." There was some noise coming from the kitchen, and I unbuttoned my coat the rest of the way before turning back to him. "You're lucky-she was going to close."
He still sat there, unmoving.
"Excuse me, but are you from around here?"
Shrugging, I turned forward as the woman, Martha, appeared in the opening. "You say something?"
"No, no . . ." I gestured, nodding my head down the counter as she couldn't see the colossus from her perspective.
She smiled and disappeared again, finally resting a plate and bowl in the opening and ringing a small bell in comic effect. "Order up." She then appeared through the swinging doors and picked up my meal, turning and placing it before me. "More coffee?"
She pivoted back to the coffee maker and refilled my mug before setting it down. "Anything else?"
"No, no I'm fine." I once again nodded my head toward the strangely dressed man at the end of the counter.
She stared at me. "What?"
I gestured again.
She looked in his direction and then back at me. "Is there something wrong?"
"No, I just thought you might want to-" I turned my head to look at the man and discovered he was now looking directly at me.
My voice caught in my throat as he slowly raised a finger, placing it against his lips. "Shhhhhhhh . . ." His breath fogged the front of his face with the freezing air still in his lungs that he must've brought in with him. "Sometimes . . ." He stared at me for a moment more. "It is better to sleep than to awaken."