Table of Contents
Praise for Hell Is Empty
About the Author
Also by Craig Johnson
Excerpt from As The Crow Flies
For Joe Drabyak (1950–2010), who has died so many literary deaths and continues to live on in so many well-read hearts.
Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, act I, scene 2
Ch’i’ non averei creduto
che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.
I should not have thought that death could ever have unmade so many.
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto 3, lines 56–57
Hell Is Empty could be the most challenging novel I’ve attempted so far and, like Dante, I would’ve found it difficult to make such an effort without my own guides into the nether regions. In my part of the country, the one thing you don’t do is argue with your Indian scouts.
When I first signed with my agent, Gail Hochman, I didn’t know what trustworthy hands I was placing myself in, but over the years it has become quite evident. The first person she delivered me to in the wilderness of the publishing world was Kathryn Court, my editor extraordinaire and president of Penguin USA. Second in command of my books, and the person to whom I must bid a fond farewell, is Alexis Washam, who has since moved on, but was a guiding hand in the writing of this book as well.
In the many rings of publishing, you hope for a head of publicity like Maureen Donnelly, a senior publicist such as Ben Petrone, a publicist like Gabrielle Gantz, and, of course, we all hope for an all-purpose angel who turned out to be Tara Singh.
My good friend and counsel, Susan Fain, continues to be an inspiration and assistant in the realms of higher literature, and without her help some of the more apocryphal and obscure aspects of Inferno might’ve escaped me.
Marcus Red Thunder has long been the influence for Henry Standing Bear and the guardian of all things Cheyenne and Crow in my books. Without him I would be the one lost.
Thanks to Bill Matteson for accompanying me on numerous trips into the Bighorn Mountains, including visits to the top of Cloud Peak, the only spot on the mountains with crystal clear cell phone reception.
A great big thanks to wilderness ranger Robert “Bob” Thuesen out of the Bighorn National Forest Powder River Ranger District for the times above tree line and my endless conversations that always started with, “What if... ?”
These are my guardian angels, the people who enable me to do what it is that I do, but there’s one who supersedes them all. Thank you, Judy, the one who shares my life and all my love.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full?”
I tried to focus on one of my favorite skies—the silverdollar one with the peach-colored banding that seriates into a paler frosty blue the old-timers said was an omen of bad times ahead—as I stuffed a third of a bacon cheeseburger into Marcel Popp’s mouth in an attempt to silence the most recent of his promises that he was, indeed, going to kill me.
At last count he’d made this statement twenty-seven times to me, eight to other members of the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, and seventeen to Santiago “Sancho” Saizarbitoria, who was dragging a few french fries through his ketchup as his eyes stayed trained on a paperback in his left hand.
I looked at Sancho. “That was twenty-eight.”
The sun reflected through the western window and struck my face like a ray gun. I was tempted to close my eyes and soak in the warmth of the early afternoon, but I couldn’t afford the luxury. I hadn’t allowed any silverware at the table and Marcel Popp was manacled, but I still warned him that if he bit either Sancho or me he’d go without food.
The Basquo tilted his head from the book. “Do dirty looks count?”
Popp glanced at Santiago, who was watching the other two convicts quietly eating their lunches, and we could only guess what his words would’ve been as he chewed.
“No.” I placed the rest of the convict’s burger on his plate and looked back out the window as the sunshine took another dying shot at my face.
Sancho and I had been amusing ourselves by keeping score, and even though the Basquo was down by eleven, he had made a fourth-quarter comeback with a tirade he’d received as we’d unloaded the transported prisoners at South Fork Lodge in the heart of the Bighorn Mountains. The Basquo’d apologized for handling Marcel’s head into the top of the door while getting him out of the vehicle; I still wasn’t sure if it had been entirely innocent.
I glanced at Santiago and then risked closing my eyes for just a second. Even with present company, I had enjoyed my own Absaroka burger and fries. South Fork was my favorite of the lodges, with the best menu and a river-stone fireplace in the dining room that owners Holli and Wayne Jones kept roaring when the temperature was under fifty degrees. It was a year-round, full-service lodge nestled away in one of the southside canyons, with snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, trout fishing, and hunting in season.
It was early May, and the summer crowds hadn’t arrived yet. With the outside temperature in the high thirties not including windchill, I was afraid we still had a few shots of winter left.
Despite the weather, there was a comfortable, close quality to the lodge, and I fantasized about reserving one of the rustic cabins by the partially ice-covered creek and calling Victoria Moretti, another of my deputies, to see what she was up to this weekend. Vic had just bought a new house, and she’d invited me and my best friend, Henry Standing Bear, over for dinner tonight. I was still thinking about the cabin when Popp spoke again.
“I’m going to kill every single one of you motherfuckers.”
It was a general statement, but he’d been looking at me. “Twenty-nine.”
Currently, Marcel wasn’t a happy camper. I hadn’t released either him or the other two murderers from their traveling chains in order to eat. Marcel had already killed two Winnemucca, Nevada, city policemen and a South Dakota highway patrolman in an attempt to escape a year back. That and his limited vocabulary had endeared him to the entire Absaroka County staff. We would be just as happy to be rid of him when we met up with the Big Horn and Washakie counties’ sheriff’s departments, the FBI, and the Ameri-Trans van near Meadowlark Lodge in less than an hour.
Ameri-Trans was a private firm that contracted with law enforcement to transport prisoners, but they had no contract with us; I didn’t like the fact that they had a record high percentage of escapees and wouldn’t allow them in my jurisdiction, so we’d made a little jaunt into the mountains this afternoon with the prisoners.
I’d asked the FBI agent in charge over the phone what all this was about but had been told that the details would be made clear when we delivered the convicts to the multiagency task force that awaited us a little farther up the road. I didn’t like his answer, but for now that was my problem.
I glanced at Raynaud Shade, the prisoner who worried me most, the one who continued to look at his plate as he chewed. I didn’t know why the Crow-adopted Canadian Indian was being transported but would be just as glad when he was no longer my responsibility. He hardly ever spoke, but in my estimation it was the quiet ones you really had to worry about. I’d been distracted by my thoughts for only a second, but when I paid attention again his pale eyes were studying me from under the dark hair. He had this unnerving ability that whenever you refocused your eyes on him, he was there with you—like a cat in a cage.
“I’m going to kill you, you little Basque prick. I’m gonna kill your big boss here—I’m gonna fuckin’ kill all of you.”
I picked up the rest of the burger and pushed another third into Marcel’s mouth.
Sancho stuffed the paperback under his arm, looked at the stack of books at his elbow, and smiled a wayward, electric smile that made the women in the county give him that second look, or even a third. “That was a triple.”
“Almost an in-the-park home run.” I frowned at him. “That was one for you, one for me, and a general score we can share.”
I tallied it up. “Thirty to nineteen.”
He sighed and resumed reading Dante’s Inferno as I reached over and slid Les Misérables off the top of the pile to reveal Les Trois Mousquetaires—both in the original French. The Basquo, regretting a stint in higher education devoted almost exclusively to criminal justice, was attempting to fill in some of the literary gaps. We had all made lists for him, including Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee from Henry and, of all things, Concrete Charlie: The Story of Philatelphia Football Legend Chuck Bednarik from Vic, but my dispatcher Ruby’s list, which included Crime and Punishment and The Pilgrim’s Progress as well as the Inferno, had been the most daunting, so the Basquo had started with it. I, taking pity on the poor kid, had included To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, and the aforesaid Musketeers.
“How’s it going, troop?”
He peeled a thumb against the sides of the prodigious paperbacks, especially Inferno. “Slow.”
“Hey, I am God-damned starving here.”
Popp was a monster, just the kind of obstacle you didn’t want to meet in a dark or otherwise illuminated alley. Roughly my size, he was already in shape when he’d gone into the South Dakota Maximum Security Facility in Sioux Falls, and four hours of weight lifting a day over the last year hadn’t allowed him to exactly winnow away.
“And fucking dying of thirst, you assholes.”
Or improved his vocabulary.
Hector Otero, the third of our terrible trio, smiled at the latest of Popp’s outbursts, and I wondered what wrong turns had resulted in the scam artist killing two people on Houston’s south side. The ever-smiling Latino had been shocked when Santiago had spoken to him in fluent Spanish. I’d understood only a percentage of the conversation, but the Basquo had rolled his eyes afterward, putting the street hood’s intelligence in question. “Who wrote that anyway?”
Sancho regarded the Latino with one eye. “What?”
The gangbanger seemed actually interested, his eyes like drips of crude oil flicking between Sancho and me. “That book, that Dante’s Inferno; who wrote that?”
The Basquo and I traded a look, and I waited to see how my deputy was going to play it.
“Hector, do you know who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”
Saizarbitoria went back to his Penguin Classic. “Didn’t think so. Just be glad we’re letting you eat at the big-person table.”
Otero, aware that he was being made the butt of a joke, clicked his eyes to me so I’d know that he wasn’t up to anything and then raised in his chair just enough to see the other titles in Saizarbitoria’s pile. “Yeah, well, at least I’m not reading a book by Alexander Dumb-ass.”
Hector was grinning when Raynaud Shade sucked the air out of the room.
“Shut up, Hector.”
If anybody had ever said that to Hector Otero in the outside world, they might’ve gotten more than a couple of ounces of lead in response, but not Shade. The smaller man looked at the Indian but said nothing.
When I looked at Shade, he was staring at me again.
His features were flat, his nose spread across his face like a battering ram had been used one time too many, the bones of his brow and cheeks prominent. He was an average height, but his chest, shoulders, and bull neck let you know that if something were to start, Raynaud Shade would get his share. You wouldn’t have thought him capable at twenty-seven of the rap sheet he carried—but when you looked into his outlandish eyes, it was all there. His irises were the same washed-out blue as the winter Wyoming sky and just as cold.
At least one was. Raynaud’s left eye was a replacement, and whoever had done the work had failed to capture the exact color. The shade, no pun intended, was an elusive one reflecting an altitude where humanity could not survive.
I’d read about him—he must have been the one the Feds were really interested in. He was on the express back to Draper, Utah, to either a lethal injection or a firing squad, which meant that he was a dead man walking and, as long as he walked in my county, he would walk in chains.
He looked at me through the hood his dark hair formed and spoke in an empty, halting voice. “Thank you.”
It was the sixth time he’d communicated since we’d been responsible for him, coming up on seventy-two hours. “For?”
His eye stayed with mine for a second—it was as if he was half paying attention—then panned around the café like a searchlight. “For allowing us to eat in a restaurant.” He smiled as though he didn’t know how, and I figured it was the only one he had—the one with a lot of teeth and no warmth. “I imagine this will be my last time to do something normal.”
He spoke in the cadence of the Yukon Territory where he’d been born, and his voice carried—one of those you could hear from a hundred feet away even when he was whispering. His eye went back to his plate, and his hair fell forward, again covering his face. “I gotta go to the john.”
I studied him. “In a minute.”
He nodded and raised his cuffed hands, putting the fingertips on the table at its edge, his thumbs underneath. I watched as the fingers bent backward with the pressure of his grip.
“Me too, I gotta take a fucking piss.”
Popp made a clicking noise as he spoke, and I could tell he was thinking of spitting again. He’d spit on Sancho as we were unloading him, at which point I’d grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled his face in close to mine, making it clear that if he spat again he’d go without lunch. My fingerprints were still on his neck; I was feeling bad about that.
“I’ve been here before.”
I turned back to Shade. “Excuse me?”
“First kill outside of my family.”
He said it like they didn’t count.
“I gave one of his bones to two other men who sent it back to me in the mail in an attempt to get some money I have put away—that’s why they’re meeting us.”
He had finished his meal and carefully pushed his plate back a couple of inches, his thumbs still under the table, his hair still covering his face. “There is an FBI psychologist that I’ve been seeing; her name is Pfaff. I told her about where the body is buried.” He was suddenly silent, aware that everyone had been listening to him, but then stared directly at me. “I just thought you might be curious.”
The waitress interrupted the little breakthrough and squelched my hopes of extending Shade’s confession. “Would you like some more coffee, Sheriff?”
It took me a second to come back; Shade’s dead eye was like that—it drew you into the cold.
I caught her looking at the convicts and figured it was to be expected. If they’re lucky, most people in the private sector never get to meet someone like Marcel Popp, Hector Otero, or especially Raynaud Shade, but with our little road show of recidivism, prurient curiosity was to be expected.
She poured in a distracted manner. “Do you get the check?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I looked at her. “I don’t know you, do I?”
Her eyes slid away. “No, I’m new.”
“Hi, New. I’m Walt Longmire.”
I held out my hand, and she took it as she held the coffee urn out of the way. “Beatrice, Beatrice Linwood.”
I listened to the way she rounded her vowels. “Minnesota?”
She nodded without enthusiasm and took a second to respond. “Yah, Wacouta.”
I smiled. “Well, you don’t have to be ashamed about it. What’s that near?”
“Where they make the work boots?”
I sipped my coffee in appreciation and studied her for a moment; midforties, she was too thin and a little mousy, but it was a nice smile. Something else there, though, something that reminded me of my late wife. Her hair was thin, and she looked like she might’ve undergone some form of chemotherapy recently.
“What brings you out this way this time of year?”
She shrugged and pushed her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose, and I noticed her rubbing her finger where a wedding ring might’ve once been.
I should’ve figured. Most of the flatlanders got tired of doing a hundred miles an hour on the ice of the ten thousand lakes and eventually wanted to try their hand at the mountain trails. A lot of them ended up buried in the snow or running into trees. I’d tried the power sport once with the Ferg, my part-time deputy, but didn’t like the noise or the sensation that my crotch was on fire.
“Holli and Wayne treating you well?”
She glanced toward the opening where the smiling head of flamboyant chef Alfredo Coda had appeared from the kitchen, and then turned back to me. “Yah, they’ve all been great.”
“I don’t mean to break up old home week, but could I get something to fucking eat and drink?”
I tipped my fawn-colored hat back and looked at Marcel, but Saizarbitoria was faster. Holding a portion of The Divine Comedy in one hand and picking up the remainder of the prisoner’s burger in the other, he gave him the last bite. I noticed Sancho was even less gentle than I’d been, and his voice was a little irritated. “Anything to shut you up.”
I reached over to take the coffeepot from Beatrice so that she wouldn’t have to get in arm’s reach of the prisoners. “Here, I’ll take that.”
She pulled away, just slightly. “No, I’ll get it.”
I took the coffeepot anyway and tested the temperature. “That’s all right.” To a desperate man, anything was a weapon. I poured a round for the chain gang and one for the Basquo. “Can’t be too careful.”
She smiled up at me. “They don’t look all that dangerous.”
“Well.” I stood and returned the pot to her. “I’ll take that check now.”
She put it facedown alongside my empty plate.
“Shade? Let’s go.” I glanced at Sancho, making sure we made eye contact, and left him with the other two.
The convict stood and then rounded the table toward me. I glanced at Saizarbitoria one more time. He rested the paperback on the table and nodded. I took Shade’s arm, and he began a shuffling, manacled gait past the front counter, through the gift shop, and around the corner to the communal sink and the two doors that led to the bathrooms.
Shade paused. “Do you need to come in with me?”
I glanced into the small stall that said BUCKS and noted the only egress was a seven-inch vent in the ceiling. “Not unless you’re planning on turning into a field mouse and crawling up that pipe.”
“No.” He stared at me. “Not a mouse.”
“Leave the door ajar.”
He did as I asked, and as he busied himself I remembered how he had stumbled in the dining room as we’d gone past the last table where they had been rolling silverware, bumping it with his hip and pausing for only an instant.
There were small alarms going off in my head as he came out a few moments later, turned his back to me, and began washing his hands. After a few seconds he raised his head, and the eye studied me in the mirror. “I’m sorry if I seem preoccupied, but it is difficult to see you.”
Aware of his disability, I nodded as he lifted his cuffed hands with the traveling chains that led to the manacles at his feet and tore a paper towel from the dispenser. “It’s the snow.” He tossed the towel into a trash can in the corner and stepped toward me. “It’s difficult to see you because of the snow; surely I’m not the first one to tell you that?”
I stared back at him and dropped my hand to the Colt at my hip. “Snow.”
His face was impassive, and he gestured with one hand, the other along for the ride. “There is the outline of you, but inside is only snow—like an old TV.”
I watched as the one hand dragged the other over his shoulder. “You mean static?”
“Yes, but not exactly like that. It’s as if you carry the snow within you.” The pupil in the live eye stretched open while the dead one remained still. “When did this happen?”
I stood there for a long moment, studying him and trying to get a read on whether it was an act or if he was truly insane. I’d been around crazy people before, but none with the dedicated malice that this man seemed to exude. “We should get back to the others.”
He leaned in and whispered as his hands dropped and shifted to his side. “I didn’t have to go to the bathroom but wanted to speak to you alone about the snow and the voices.”
I didn’t say anything, and he stepped in closer.
“You see them and hear them, too.”
I countered and casually brought the large-frame Colt up, holding it loose at my hip. “Shade, you wouldn’t have palmed the steak knife from that table in the dining room?”
He said nothing, but the one eye slit. There was a slight twitch as his motor response was to try for it, but then he smiled with his wide, even-set teeth and brought the knife out, wrapped inside a fist.
I turned so that he could see that the Colt was cocked and the safety was off. “Give it to me.”
He held back and regarded me for a long moment, letting the words settle between us like ash. “You don’t believe that they are near, do you?”
I didn’t move, didn’t even breathe. “Give me the knife.”
His other hand folded around it in a two-fisted grip, the blade pointed directly toward me. “The Seldom Seen; they are with you, but you pretend that they aren’t.”
I still didn’t move.
“When did they first become known to you?” I could feel my breath becoming short as he continued. “They spoke to me infrequently after my first kill, but now it’s constant—they talk to me night and day, many voices as one.” He shifted his shoulders the way you would if you were preparing to move. “Many voices as one.”
I raised the Colt and pointed it at the center of his chest.
“You have also killed, and they speak with you—we have something in common, Sheriff.”
I raised the sight to his head. “The knife.”
“We are pawns to these spirits, souls they play with for their own satisfaction like hand games.” He didn’t move, and we both knew that the next threatening shift, no matter how slight, would result in his death. He continued to show me his teeth. “It will be interesting to see how they respond to your disbelief, who it is that they will send for you.”
The tension went out of his body as he lowered the knife, and he drew back. Keeping the .45 trained on his face, I reached over with my other hand and took the knife, handle out.
Handle out—I’d never seen him flip it.
I got my breath back and thought about the ghosts slamming about in the particular machine in front of me as I reholstered my sidearm and put the knife in my back pocket. “Let’s go.”
I guided him back through the gift shop, past the counter where Beatrice Linwood watched us.
Shade said nothing more as I seated him at the table, but he looked back up at me and stared as if we had shared something important. I stood there thinking about what he had said, then straightened and found my deputy studying me.
“You all right? ”
It took a second for me to respond. “Yep.” I glanced back at Shade and shot another look at Sancho, who closed his book again, gave me an almost imperceptible nod, and turned to look at the prisoners like a red-tailed hawk regarded field mice. I picked up the check and crossed the twelve steps back to the cash register, peeled off three twenties, and asked Beatrice for a receipt.
She held the money and glanced back as Holli entered behind her through the swinging door that led from the kitchen. The owner/operator paused at the register and looked past me toward the seated men. “What did they do?”
I thought about whether I really wanted to tell her, finally deciding that if she didn’t want to know, she wouldn’t have asked. “They’re murderers, all of them.” I waited a moment to see if the two women wanted me to continue, and they did. “The little guy with all the tattoos, his name is Hector Otero. He’s a credit card hustler and gangbanger from Houston. The big guy with the mouth is Marcel Popp, a methadonian who . . .”
Holli looked puzzled. “A Methodist?”
I cleared my throat. “Sorry, it’s kind of an inside joke—heroin users who use methadone clinics to get high.”
Beatrice stiffened a little. “I don’t think that’s very funny.”
I thought of telling her about the dead officers and Popp’s girlfriend, whom he’d strangled to death with an electrical cord, and how none of them had thought their situation very humorous, either.
I looked at the woman behind the counter. “Yes, ma’am.”
As I turned to go, her whisper came after me. “And that one?”
I stopped and stuffed a portion of the change into a tip jar and the receipt into my wallet without looking back at her. “Beatrice, you don’t want to know.”
Our combined breath billowed like steam in a rail yard as our little group made its way out the door and onto the porch of South Fork Lodge. A familiar custom Suburban had parked beside the borrowed Department of Corrections van, and a dapper-looking individual in a full-length lambskin coat with intricate Lakota beading and a 20X black hat with a sterling silver band bearing chunks of turquoise that must’ve taken wheelbarrows to get out of the mines of New Mexico looked up and grinned through his blond Vandyke. But for his height you would’ve thought it was George Armstrong Custer.
“Hey, if it ain’t the long arm of the law.” He glanced at the prisoners in their orange jumpsuits. “You fellas providing taxi service?”
Saizarbitoria held Marcel by the arm as I motioned for Hector and Raynaud to stand by the van. I unlocked it with a chirp from the remote. “Hey, Omar.”
The millionaire big-game hunter rounded the front of his SUV and leaned on the hood. “What’re you doin’ up here, Sheriff?”
I gestured toward the prisoners as they complained about the cold and climbed in. “Federal deal at the county line. What about you?”
He smiled an ingratiating smile and, straightening his collar as if he were in court, glanced up at the colorful sky. “Hoping to get snowed in. I’ve got a few commissioned pieces that I’ve got to get done, and I’m doing the work up at my cabin.”
Omar Rhoades sometimes deigned to do taxidermy for struggling concerns like the Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, and the Autry. I nodded and took my gloves from my coat pocket and pulled them on. “You’ve got a cabin up here?” I could only imagine what Omar would classify as a cabin.
He threw a thumb over his shoulder. “Up on West Tensleep, past 24, near Bear Lake.” I nodded and waited; evidently he had something on his mind. “Hey, I heard Jules Beldon got twenty-one days of community service for that thing at the Rainbow Bar over in Sheridan.”
That thing at the Rainbow Bar that Omar was referring to was an incident in which the jackleg carpenter and cowboy Jules Beldon had tried to climb through the bathroom window in an attempt to evade his tab and had kicked the sink loose, which had then flooded the area near the pool table. Judge Stu “Hang-’em-High” Healy had ordered Beldon to repair the damage and then had sentenced him to three weeks of community service.
“Well, he was going to do some work for me out at the ranch.”
I looked at my boots, smiled, and looked up at Omar—the condensation from his breath had begun to freeze in his mustache.
“I’m going to need somebody to do some landscaping, Walt, and with the methane stuff, nobody wants to handle a mattock and a shovel around here anymore.”
I thought about it. “You’re not going to do that till June, right?”
He stepped in a little closer. “Yeah, but I want to get somebody lined out to . . .”
“You’re not just trying to get Jules out of his community service, are you?” Omar and Jules were cowboys, and the locals had their own mafia.
“No. No, no.”
I folded my arms and waited as Saizarbitoria finished loading the prisoners and stood on the other side of the passenger door.
The millionaire smoothed his mustache and wiped his gloves on his black jeans. “All right, you got me.” He took another breath. “He’s seventy-four years old, and you know what it means if he’s doin’ his community service in May; he’ll be out there shoveling every parking lot in town with that cheap, plastic snow shovel he’s got.”
“Well, he was spry enough to try and climb out the bathroom window of the Rainbow Bar.”
“He didn’t make it.”
“It wasn’t for lack of trying.” We stood there looking at each other, and I thawed a little, knowing the big-game hunter was right. “Throw Stu a letter and mention my name—say I said it’d be all right to suspend Jules’s sentence till the end of May so that he can help you out at your place.”
He offered his hand, and I took it. “Thanks, Walt.”
“Keep him out of those bars in Sheridan; they aren’t as forgiving as we are.”
Omar mounted the steps, and I assisted Sancho in securing the ankle manacles on Hector, Shade, and Marcel Popp to the floor of the van. The three knew the drill and leaned forward as I made sure the chains going through the iron floor loops were secure and the padlock was shut. Next I attached the handcuffs to the locks on the seat, but as I started to stand, Shade leaned forward and murmured in my ear, “Who will they send for you, Sheriff?”
I stood up the rest of the way, my hand on the sliding door as Saizarbitoria started around to the driver’s side. I inclined my head to get a clear look into the prisoner’s eye. “Raynaud, you do know that anything you say to me is admissible evidence?”
“Yes, I understand that, but do you understand me?” His lips compressed, but he spoke through them, his powerful hands firmly clasped, his neck muscles bunched. “They have spoken to me since the first one, which is how I knew my mission was the only way to stop them.”
I started to slide the door closed. “Uh huh.”
His voice stopped me. “Do you think you’re a good man, Sheriff?”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, especially within context, so I just nodded and fell back on the lessons my mother had taught me. “I hope so.”
He grew still, and his eyes looked like nails driven into his face.
I stood there studying him for a second. “Don’t test me again.”
“But I will, Sheriff—I will.” He continued to regard me with the one eye, and his breath traced across a corner of his mouth like a wisp of steam escaping from a kettle.
I closed the door. Normally I drove, but the Basquo got bored riding, so I had given him the option when we’d left Durant and he’d taken it. As I got in the passenger side, I remembered I’d put Shade’s stolen blade in my pocket.
Sancho started the used van and glanced at me. “Route 422 toward Baby Wagon?”
I pulled the errant steak knife from my jeans and threw it onto the dash. “Yep.” The Basquo, more than a little curious, looked at the knife and then me. I pointed toward the road ahead. “Good thing this piece of crap is full-time two-wheel drive . . .”
Twenty miles down the road there was a gravel cutoff that led to the right and a slight upgrade. There were two black Chevy Suburbans with government plates, what looked to be about a half-dozen Feds, a heavily armored Ameri-Trans van with two men seated inside, one uniformed man on the outside, a Big Horn County Sheriff’s Department truck, and another from Washakie County—it was a regular cop convention. Sancho wheeled the van in among the parked vehicles next to the large cluster of men.
Before I could get my seat belt off, Joseph Iron Cloud, the Arapaho sheriff of Washakie County, banged on my door. “Hey, hey, we got too many cops out here; you got any bad guys in there?”
Joe was newly elected in the county west of us. A handsome veteran from the first Gulf War, he had model good looks only slightly reduced by a scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to his hairline. He was about Saizarbitoria’s age and cut quite a swath at the Wyoming Sheriff’s Association meetings.
He hung a couple of fingers on the handle as I cracked the door open. “We got three; is that going to be enough?”
He grinned, revealing the small space between his two front teeth as he kicked his chewing gum to the other side of his mouth. “I don’t know. How bad are they?”
I buttoned my sheepskin jacket and flipped up my collar. “Pretty bad.”
Sancho joined us at the door and shook hands with Joe. They were a lot alike, and I had a feeling I was getting a glimpse of the future of Wyoming law enforcement. Saizarbitoria gripped Iron Cloud’s shoulder in his gloved hand as Troy Old Man, another Arapaho and one of Joe’s deputies, joined us.
Sancho smiled. “Jesus, Indians.”
Joe nodded in faux seriousness—he was still working his gum. “Yeah, they brought us in to counterbalance the influx of ETA terrorists from the other side of the mountain.” He turned the grin on me. “Hey, how come you didn’t bring that other deputy, the good-looking one?”
Joe was smitten by my undersheriff, Vic. “I left the womenfolk behind. We heard there were Indians.”
The three younger men followed me over to the larger group that leaned against one of the Suburbans as Joe continued to have fun introducing us to the assembled manpower. I stuck a hand out to Tommy Wayman, who was Rosey’s cousin and the sheriff of Big Horn County, as Joe kept talking. “You guys know Grumpy.” Vic had tagged him with the nickname, and everyone used it, but only she and Joe used it to his face.
Wayman shook my hand, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Walt.”
I’d heard that he had planned to retire last cycle, but then I’d also heard that about myself. He was a rough cob and most of the state didn’t care for his my-way-or-the-highway style of management, but he was one of the few sheriffs as old as I was, so I liked keeping him around—if for nothing more than comparative purposes. “Tommy.”
I shook hands with Wayman’s deputy, but his name escaped me in the gusts of wind. I figured it didn’t matter since we would be parting company soon.
The next couple of individuals were probably the reason for the sheriff of Big Horn County’s bad mood. They were Feds, and a number of years back Tommy had accidentally become a national figure when he’d challenged, in court, the rights of federal agents to operate within the confines of his county without proper authorization from him.
It must’ve been a pretty important deal for these two organizations to come together, and I had a feeling it had to do with our proximity to the Bighorn National Forest.
A crew-cut man in Ray-Bans and black insulated coveralls extended his hand. “Special Agent in Charge Mike McGroder, Salt Lake Division.”
I nodded as a few more gusts buffeted against us. “Enjoying the weather?”
“I hear this is classified as a fine spring afternoon in Wyoming.” He turned to the young woman standing beside him. “This is Special Agent Pfaff out of DC.” The lean blonde with the athletic build and direct chambray-colored eyes shook my hand and then Saizarbitoria’s. “And Tom Benton from the Federal Marshal’s office in Denver.”
Benton was a tall redhead, with a black ball cap to match his own noir ensemble, including the tactical shotgun slung to his chest. He smiled but only as a professional courtesy. “Hello.”
There were a few other men in coveralls who were holding close-range weapons and who approached and shook hands, introducing themselves as Marshal Jon Mooney and Agent Bob Belmont. There were three more men in the transport company’s uniforms, but I supposed they weren’t worthy of introduction.
I glanced at the two individuals in the back of the Ameri-Trans van just to make sure they were, indeed, prisoners. One was studying his hands and rocking back and forth with more energy than remaining seated and manacled would allow. The other man pasted his nose against the back window like a child. He had long hair that covered most of his face but, unlike his friend, he had taken the time to stare at us newcomers.
“You know, there’s gotta be a reason why all the good guys are standing out here in the cold and all the bad guys are in the vans with the heaters running.”
McGroder smiled. “You’d think, wouldn’t you?” He folded his arms over his chest, and I wondered at the perfection of his government-issue, close-cropped crew cut; with no cap, it must have been a little breezy for the current temperature. “Sheriff, do you mind if we transfer two of your prisoners and talk with the other?”
“Be my guest.” I nodded at Saizarbitoria and handed him the keys to the prisoners’ shackles and watched as he, two of the armed federal men, two of the Ameri-Trans men, and Troy Old Man headed over. “Do you really want to talk to him in our van?”
McGroder looked at Pfaff, and she was the one to speak. “Yes, but I’ll wait till the other two have been transferred so that I can speak with him alone.”
I looked at the assembled group. “It’s your party.”
McGroder glanced at Tommy Wayman and then back at me. “Thank you, Sheriff.”
We stood there a few minutes more and then watched as Marcel Popp and Hector Otero were switched into the Ameri-Trans van. Once this was accomplished, the Salt Lake agent nodded and moved toward the vehicle with Pfaff and Benton in tow. Saizarbitoria passed them on the way, but they said nothing to him.
We local boys stood there and looked at one another, none of us aware of what the others knew. I didn’t know much of anything other than what was in the reports I’d read, so I asked, “What the heck is going on?”
Tommy sighed. “Oh, the usual horseshit.”
Joe laughed and stared at his insulated boots, making patterned footsteps in the compacted snow with short, fancy dance steps. “They haven’t told us anything, Walt. I guess we’re just the transport.”
“Three counties’ worth?”
The Arapaho spit his gum out into a wrapper and tucked it into his coat pocket. “Yeah, but I gotta tell you that knowing what I know about this Shade fellow, I’d just as soon drag him out, shoot him in the head, and charge the Feds for my time and ammo.”
I glanced at the agents in the van and the three standing between the two vehicles. “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but within a half mile of this location we can be in Big Horn, Washakie, and Absaroka counties, not to mention the national forest.”
“Oh, it’s got to be a jurisdictional deal. It’s just that they don’t know where they are or what the hell they’re doing—per usual.” Tommy sighed deeply again.
Joe’s dark eyes shifted, and his edgy features reminded me of my buddy, Northern Cheyenne Henry Standing Bear. Tonight he and I were going to discuss the planning of my daughter’s wedding to Michael, who was Vic’s younger brother. Cady wanted to have the ceremony performed up on the Rez this summer, and the Cheyenne Nation was my go-to guy.
Joe’s voice broke up my thoughts as we all turned toward the van. “Maybe that’s what they’re finding out.”
We were about to adjourn the meeting and climb in somebody’s vehicle when McGroder and Pfaff exited, leaving Benton seated behind Shade.
The Salt Lake City agent immediately approached Joe. “Thank you, Sheriff Iron Cloud. We won’t be needing you.”
Joe kicked his face sideways with a grin. “Excuse me?”
McGroder repeated himself.
Iron Cloud stood there for a minute more, then shrugged and turned toward the rest of us. “Hey, hey, must be north of here, boys. But then again, these federal agents have a long-standing dislike of us Indians since Pine Ridge.”
Knowing better than to hang around when he wasn’t needed, Joe shook all hands and started off toward his vehicle with his deputy. As he passed Saizarbitoria, he pulled out a pack of gum and offered the Basquo a piece, which he took. Joe spoke in my deputy’s ear.
Sancho laughed and then unwrapped the gum, stuffed it in his mouth, and began chewing.
McGroder stuck his hands in his coveralls as the Washakie County truck pulled away and then considered me. “I’m sorry, Sheriff Longmire. It’s Longmire, right?”
He continued to study me like a multiple-choice question. “You’ll have to come with us, Sheriff—it appears that our plans have changed.”
It was a short distance on a snow-covered gravel road until we reached the corrals at the junction of 422 and the spur of 419 that straddled the line between Tommy Wayman’s county and mine; both portions were overlapped by the Bighorn National Forest.
Raynaud Shade sat in the middle seat of our van with McGroder on one side, Pfaff on the other, Benton still behind him; the agents were talking in low voices as Saizarbitoria drove.
When we got to the corner, the prisoner spoke. “Here.”
The Basquo slowed and even went so far as to put on his turn signal for the Suburban that followed us; the other federal vehicles and the Ameri-Trans transport with Otero and Popp had gone ahead to Meadowlark Lodge.
Pfaff was talking to Raynaud Shade with the familiarity that a doctor had with a patient. “You’re sure? It was a while ago.”
I could see the reflection of his one eye getting the lay of the land. “I’m sure.”
The road got bumpier as we left the loop and headed north toward Baby Wagon Creek. We got to a turn where I’d remembered a Basque sheep wagon being parked during a fly-fishing trip with Henry and the Ferg. It was going to get a lot rougher from here on in, and I was relieved when Shade spoke again.
Saizarbitoria eased the van to a stop, and it shifted a little down the incline toward the creek.
I turned in my seat. Agent Pfaff stared at the side of the prisoner’s face, and McGroder, holding a plastic-sealed quad sheet for comparison, read the LED display on a handheld global tracking device. “It’s within a hundred yards of where he said.”
Shade looked past me through the windshield. “We can walk from here.”
I turned to look up the creek bed and could see a number of rock outcroppings sticking up through the snow before the dark shadows of the fir trees blocked everything out. It was getting late, and up this high the shadows were long.
We unlocked Shade from the floor, threw a blanket over him, and he walked with one of the Feds on either side. Pfaff followed, and McGroder, Saizarbitoria, Sheriff Wayman, Marshal Benton, and another of the field agents pulled up the drags.
McGroder continued to read the GPS with the assistance of the map but surprised me by speaking as we trudged through the snow. “So, did he say anything while he was in your custody, Sheriff?”
I thought about the things Shade had uttered over the last day, most of it indiscernible. “He said that two men had sent him a bone in the mail—about wanting the money.”
The agent’s eyes slipped up to mine. “Is that all he said?”
I thought about it some more. “He also said something about voices and testing me, but I think that was mostly guff.”
Up ahead, Shade turned, the heavy wool blanket forming a makeshift hood that shadowed his dark face and, like a malevolent monk, he looked directly at me. “Here.”
The group assembled around a slab of moss rock about the size of a door. “I buried him here.”
McGroder checked the GPS one last time and looked at his map before turning to look at Tommy. “Thank you for your help, Sheriff Wayman. I’ll have one of my men drive you back down to your vehicle.”
He turned to me.
“Not your lucky day, Longmire.”
The temperature had shifted to slightly above forty degrees, and the booming in the distant, dark clouds promised a freezing rain if we weren’t lucky. We continued to watch as the younger agents and Saizarbitoria, under the attentive eye of Special Agent Pfaff, excavated the snow from around the boulder.
McGroder and I were too old for that kind of foolishness and were sharing a thermos of really good coffee in the cab of one of the Suburbans. “And those’re the two other convicts who were in the Ameri-Trans van?”
“Yes.” He blew into his stainless travel mug—even it was black. “I’m sorry about all the cloak-and-dagger stuff, but we’re on a need-to-know basis and, until I could verify which county we were dealing with, I had to keep my cards close to the vest.”
He drank from his mug. “I was just as happy to not have it be Sheriff Iron Cloud’s jurisdiction.”
“The victim is Native American.” I looked at him as he continued to sip his coffee. “Crow, to be exact; taken from a vehicle parked at a bar/bait shop near Hardin, Montana. Shade ID’d the victim, even though the child was never reported missing.”
There was a long pause, and while I thought that one over, I heard a few frigid drops of sleet, sounding like pebbles, hit the top of the Chevrolet. I gestured toward the other Suburban.
“And those two?”
“Just your garden variety psychotic scumbags; Calvin ‘Fingers’ Moser is the one with the stringy hair, and Freddie ‘Junk-food Junkie’ Borland is the one who can’t keep still. A couple of fun-loving drug abusers from Arizona who liked to get high, kill people, and then sell the body parts.”
“Isn’t it though? Through Shade they had a medical connection in Mexico to which they gave a running supply of kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts, and eyes. Years back, on some PCP-induced binge, they killed an elderly couple near Sedona and buried their bodies out in the desert. Borland was working at a livestock dismemberment plant when Shade turned them on to the guys in Central America. They pretty much drove around killing people and selling the parts.” He sipped his coffee some more and then waxed financial. “You can get forty to fifty thousand dollars for a healthy kidney on the open market. Some guy had one for sale on eBay.”
I interrupted, mostly so that I wouldn’t have to hear more. “Is that your specialty, organ trafficking?”
“No.” We continued to watch as the working class finished shoveling around the boulder, and we were faced with the eventuality of getting out of the SUV. “Pfaff’s the specialist—psychotic schizophrenia—and Ray ‘No’ Shade is the textbook for psy-schiz. No-Shade’s first American homicide was this Native American child abduction across state lines; then there’s the supposed missing 1.4 million dollars . . .” He grew silent but finally spoke again. “You pull up the file?”
“Only part of it. What I did read sounds like a horror movie.”
He finished off his coffee and placed the travel mug back in the holder. “That it does.”
I swallowed the rest from my thermos top and did the same, closing the doors behind us and tromping across the trampled snow to where the crew was working. They had produced a pry bar, were laboring around the edges of the rock to unfreeze it from its surroundings, and had connected a tow strap to the back of one of the Suburbans as well. There was a nudging sound, and with one more spot of leverage the boulder broke free and shifted a few inches.
“That’s enough.” McGroder produced a Maglite from his breast pocket and, shining the beam behind the rock, slipped between the other men. “Difficult to see; we’re going to have to move it further.”
A large man in one of the tactical uniforms moved to one side of the rock while another went to the opposite side. They braced themselves and heaved mightily as the tires of the Suburban spun and the distant thunder echoed off the surrounding peaks.
With a quick estimation, I figured the boulder weighed close to five thousand pounds.
They tried again but with the same results.
I glanced at McGroder. “Shade supposedly moved this by himself?” I spoke to the nearest agent. “Climb up on top and push with your legs, and I’ll try this side.” I stepped past the Fed on the left, planted a foot against the embankment, and worked my hands behind the cold surface of the rock as the agent braced his boots against it. “On three. One. Two. Three.”
I looked up at McGroder’s arched eyebrow. “Well, even Atlas shrugged.”