Read an Excerpt
The tires of Joe Pickett’s green Ford Wyoming Game
and Fish Department pickup thumped rhythmically
across the one-car bridge that spanned the Twelve
Sleep River. Ahead was the Crazy Z Bar Ranch. Joe was there
to deliver bad news to the ranch manager.
It was Saturday in early September during the two-week period
between the end of summer in the high country and preceding
hunting season openers. The morning had started off
with the bite of fall but had warmed by the hour. The groves of
aspens in the mountains were already turning gold, although
the cottonwoods flanking both sides of the river still held green
and full. The river was down but still floatable, and upriver in
the distance he caught a glimpse of a low-profile McKenzie-style
drift boat rounding a bend. The guide manned the oars, and
fly-fishermen clients cast from the front and back of the boat,
long sweeps of fly-line catching the sun, toward a deep seam
near the far bank.
He held his breath as he did every time he drove across. There
were gaps between the two-by-eights that made up the surface
of the bridge and he could see glimpses of the river flash by
through his open driver’s-side window. The bridge itself was
over forty-five years old and constructed of steel girders held
together by bolts. Auburn tears of rust flowed down the surface
of the steel and pooled in the channels of the I-beams, which
had long ago inspired a local fishing guide to deem it “the
Bridge of Cries.” It stuck.
Out of view beneath the bridge hung a large metal hand-
THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY
FISHERMEN, STAY IN YOUR BOAT
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED
BY THE CRAZY Z BAR RANCH
Joe knew from experience they weren’t kidding. Even that
time in high water when a raft filled with Boy Scouts capsized
on the swells and rocks. Eight sodden but uninjured Scouts and
their two Scoutmasters—one with a broken arm—had found
the ranch headquarters at dusk. The former manager, following
standing orders from the owner, loaded them all into the bed of
his three-quarter-ton pickup and drove them to the Saddlestring
jail to press charges.
The absentee owner of the ranch, Lamar Dietrich of St.
Louis, had the signs put up when he bought the ranch. He
meant what he said and played for keeps. And he wouldn’t be
happy at all, Joe knew, to hear why Joe had come.
Daisy, Joe’s two-year-old Labrador, raised her head from
where she slept on the passenger seat to stare at the Angus cattle
that grazed on the side of the dirt road. She was fascinated with
cows, and Joe wondered if in Daisy’s mind cows appeared to her
as very large black dogs. A tremulous whine came from deep in
“Settle down,” Joe said, navigating a turn and plunging his
truck through a thin spring creek that crossed the road. “Don’t
even think about chasing them.”
Daisy looked over at him with a puzzled expression.
“Chasing Dietrich’s cattle is a death sentence. He’s had dogs
shot for it. I want to keep you around for a while.”
Daisy lowered her head.
“He’s got a big binder he calls The Book of Rules that sits on a
table in the foreman’s house,” Joe said to Daisy. “I’ve seen it, and
it’s thick. He expects every one of his ranch managers to memorize
it, and he has tabs for every conceivable circumstance and
how they’re supposed to deal with it. He’s got tabs on trespassing
and road improvement and cattle management and fifty or
so other tabs on everything he can think of. If the ranch manager
makes a decision that isn’t covered in The Book of Rules,
that manager doesn’t stay around very long. There’s a tab on
stray dogs. They’re to be shot on sight so they don’t run his
“So keep your head down, especially if Dietrich is around,”
Joe said. “He’s just plain mean.”
Joe had met Dietrich two times over the years, and both
encounters were unpleasant. The old man was in his late seventies
and appeared shorter than he actually was because his back
was stooped and his shoulders slumped forward. Because of the
deformity, his head was always down and when he looked up
his eyes appeared menacing. His voice was a low soft growl and
he didn’t waste words. He had no time or respect for local officials,
state game wardens, or incompetent ranch foremen.
Joe had heard that Dietrich had amassed his fortune by
negotiating cutthroat deals with urban governments for waste
management services. There were thousands of distinctive red-
and-yellow Dietrich Waste Management trucks throughout the
inner cities of the Rust Belt and the northeastern states. He’d
taken on local political machines and organized crime families
to secure long-term contracts. Then, like so many extremely
wealthy men in America, he had looked around for a safe haven
for his cash and opted to sink some of it in real estate and had
chosen to buy massive ranches in the West, including this one
in Wyoming. The Crazy Z Bar, with tens of thousands of acres
of mountainous terrain, pastureland, sagebrush flats, and fifteen
premium miles of the Twelve Sleep River snaking through
it. The purchase price, Joe had heard, was $22.5 million.
The first time Joe met Dietrich was when the then-foreman
of the ranch, under orders from the owner, had strung bar bed
wire across the river to stop the passage of local fishing
guides and recreational floaters. Joe had explained that state law
allowed access to all navigable waters, that the land itself was
private—even the river bottom itself—but the water was public.
As long as the boaters didn’t anchor or step out of their boat,
they could legally cross the ranch. Dietrich exploded and ordered
his then-foreman to beat up Joe right there and then. The
foreman refused, and was fired. Joe filed charges against Dietrich
for threatening him, but dropped them when Dietrich
agreed to remove his barbed-wire fence.
The second time, just two months ago, Joe was at a hearing
before the Game and Fish Commission on a plan Dietrich proposed
to convert two thousand acres of his ranch into a wild
game hunting operation. Dietrich’s idea was to import water
buffalo, gazelles, kudu, blackbuck, and scimitar-horned oryx
from Africa to be hunted by his friends. Since Joe was the local
game warden, he was asked to testify, and he testified against
the plan. Exotic, non-native species were a threat to the antelope,
deer, and elk populations, he had said, and there was no
way for Dietrich to guarantee the animals would never escape or
pass along diseases that could decimate local wildlife. Dietrich
appeared briefly at the hearing and extended a crooked finger at
Joe and called him “a no-account tinhorn jackbooted thug.”
Joe said: “I’ve never been called that before.”
Because the atmosphere in the hearing room was so poisonous,
the commission chose to take the decision under advisement
and issue a ruling at a future date.
That date had arrived. They had voted no. And Joe was
tasked with delivering the verdict to the new ranch manager of
the Crazy Z Bar, the Dietrich employee who had drafted and
presented the proposal, Kyle Sandford.
Poor Kyle, Joe thought.
Although Lamar Dietrich’s magnificent empty home—
built of native stone and sheets of glass so heavy and large that
they’d been delivered by a cargo helicopter—was set into the
side of the mountain that overlooked the river bottom, the manager’s
house was humble and in need of paint and new shingles.
It was located on a sagebrush shelf with a cluster of outbuildings
including a metal barn, corrals, and a Quonset hut for housing
vehicles and machinery.
There was never any need to knock on the doors of ranch
homes, and no way to sneak onto a ranch. Daisy perked up
again when a gaggle of motley ranch dogs boiled out from pools
of shade and streaked toward Joe’s pickup. They formed yipping,
tumbling knots on both sides and accompanied him as he
drove into the ranch yard, nipping at the tires and fenders, the
cacophony signaling the arrival of a stranger.
“You stay,” Joe said to Daisy over the racket.
The three members of the Sandford family appeared from
three different places in the ranch yard as if joining each other
on a stage: Joleen came from the ranch house itself, drying her
hands on a dish towel; Kyle Sr. looked out from the Quonset,
gripping a Crescent wrench with an oily hand; and Kyle Jr.
strolled from a pocket of willows that marked the bank of the
river, his fly rod poking nine feet into the air.
Joe was most familiar with Kyle Jr., who was seventeen and
ran in the same circle as his ward, April. He was a quiet ranch
kid who had boarded the same bus as other ranch kids until
he could drive himself, but hadn’t been in the valley long
enough—and wasn’t an outstanding athlete, scholar, or leader—
to belong firmly to a pack. He seemed like a floater, the kind of
boy who hung back and to the side, keeping his mouth shut,
occasionally surprising others with a good quip or an observation,
but was never missed when he didn’t show up and never
mentioned when groups were forming to attend games, go out
on Friday nights, or plan a party. Joe recalled April reviewing
digital photos of her friends at a football game, pointing out
characters and laughing about things they’d done or said. When
she came across a photo of Kyle Sandford Jr., she shook her head
and said, “I don’t remember him being there, but I guess he was.”
Kyle Jr. was wiry and dark with a prominent Adam’s apple
and wispy sideburns. Joe had never seen the boy smile, but he
had eyes that seemed to carefully take everything in.
Kyle Sr. nodded a reserved hello to Joe and Joe nodded back.
Joleen withdrew into the house but stood behind the screen,
watching carefully. Kyle Sr. tossed his wrench into a bucket of
tools behind him, clamped on a dirty short-brimmed Stetson
Rancher, and greeted Joe by saying, “Joe.”
“Did you bring me some good news?”
Joe paused. “Nope.”
Kyle Sr. took a deep breath and stood still. His face betrayed
nothing, but Joe saw Joleen shake her head behind the screen
and turn away.
“It was unanimous,” Joe said. “The commission voted to not
allow a game farm. They said it would be a bad precedent, even
if your owner did all the security fencing and inoculations he
said he would.”
Kyle Sr. said nothing. He just stared at Joe and his mouth got
Finally, in a thin voice, he said, “Is there anything we can do
Joe was puzzled. Was Kyle Sr. offering a bribe?
“Make another run at ’em, maybe. Adjust the proposal so
they’re happy about it this time, you know?”
Joe shook his head. “They’ll meet again in a month, but I
can’t see them changing their minds.”
Kyle Sr. dropped his head and stared at the top of his boots.
“You know what’s going to happen then, right?” he asked.
“I’m guessing Lamar Dietrich won’t be too happy,” Joe said.
Kyle Sr. snorted and said, “You got that right. But you know
what else will happen?”
Joe said he didn’t.
“Come with me,” Kyle Sr. said, gesturing with his chin toward
the house. “I’ll show you something.”
Joe started forward and remembered Kyle Jr. He looked over
at the boy as he passed by. “Any luck?” he asked.
“They’re hitting on prince nymphs and scuds.”
“Any size to ’em?”
“Eighteen, nineteen inches,” Kyle Jr. said. “I broke off one
that was bigger than that.”
“Nice fish,” Joe said, impressed.
“Yeah,” Kyle Jr. said, his eyes worried, “they were.”
Inside, Kyle Sr. pointed toward The Book of Rules and Joe
knew then what was coming. The man slid the binder across
the counter and used a greasy thumb to find the right tab. Joe
read it: local political influence.
Kyle Sr. folded back the tab to the first page of the section,
“ ‘As Ranch Manager of the Crazy Z Bar, an important part of
your responsibilities is to develop influential working relationships
with officials on the county and state level. The purpose of
these relationships is to further the goals of the property and implement
projects deemed important by the owner. Failure to secure
beneficial results and decisions may result in termination.’ ”
Joe contemplated that.
Kyle Sr. said, “Mr. Dietrich thinks anything is possible if
you’ve got the right relationships with the powers that be. That’s
how he got to be such a rich man. He thinks all his managers
need to have that same ability. I guess I don’t.”
“It’s not that,” Joe said. “I was at the hearing, remember?”
“And you testified against us.”
“Yes, I did. But it wasn’t because the proposal was sloppy or
you weren’t a good man making a strong bid. The game farm
was rejected on its merits. It would have been the only game
farm in the whole state, and policy was against you from the
start. I think we have a lot of stupid policies, but that isn’t one of
them. No one wants to be out elk hunting and run into a water
buffalo. Simple as that.”
“I know,” Kyle Sr. said softly. “But that won’t matter to Mr.
Dietrich. He’ll see it as me being a piss-poor influencer of
mucky-mucks. He won’t look at the big picture and see how I’ve
made our cattle operation go into the black or how I’ve sold
more hay than any other manager here over the years. He’ll look
at this tab and cut me loose.”
Joe said, “He can’t be that unreasonable.”
“You don’t know him like I do,” Kyle Sr. said, shaking his
head. “If someone doesn’t do the job he wants, he cuts ’em loose.
Haven’t you ever wondered why this place has gone through six
managers in fifteen years? I’ve stuck the longest—going on four
years. But he’ll find out about this decision and—”
Joe looked up when Kyle Sr. suddenly stopped talking to see
what had stopped him. He followed the man’s eyes to the outside
screen door, where Kyle Jr. stood on the porch.
Joe understood. No father wanted his son to think of him as
a failure, whether the circumstances were fair or not.
“We’re talking,” Kyle Sr. said to Kyle Jr.
“Are we gonna have to move again?” the boy asked.
Kyle Sr. raised his voice and said, “I said we’re talking in here,
son. I don’t need you standing there listening in. You go get the
company truck and gas it up. You can take it into town.”
Kyle Jr. looked back, uncomprehending. “Why?” he asked.
“Because Mr. Dietrich is coming for his quarterly visit. You
can pick him up and bring him out here.”
“Why me?” Kyle Jr. asked, pain in his eyes.
“Because your mother and me need to start packing up,”
Kyle Sr. said.
From the living room, out of sight, Joe heard Joleen gasp.
To her, Kyle Sr. said, “You’ll be getting what you always
She responded with a choked mewl.
To Joe, he said as an aside, “She never liked this place, anyhow.
She’s scared of Dietrich and she’d like to be closer to her
people in Idaho. Maybe we’ll end up there now.”
“What about Kyle Junior?” Joe asked, after the boy had left
“He loves this place,” he said with a heavy sigh. “He thought
we’d finally found a place for him where we could stay awhile.
He’s made some friends and he’s finally getting settled in. Now
we’re going to jerk him out of high school and hit the road
Joe shook his head.
“He ain’t never stayed in a place for more than a year or two,”
Kyle Sr. said. “He’s like an army brat, I guess. But for some reason
he thought this one would take. He finally let his guard
down and started making connections. He told us he really likes
it—the town, the school, even his teachers. Now . . .” He didn’t
finish the sentence.
As Joe opened the door to go back out to his pickup, Kyle Sr.
said, “Old man Dietrich couldn’t have better timing. He’s showing
up on the day we find out about the game farm decision. He
won’t even have a chance to cool off before he fires me. He likes
doing it face-to-face. He says that’s the only way to fire a man:
face-to-face. It’s in The Book of Rules.”
“How’s he getting here?” Joe asked.
“Kyle Junior is picking him up.”
“No, I meant to Saddlestring?”
“Private plane,” Kyle Sr. said. “He must have brought the jet
or he’d land on our own strip.”
“How many planes does he have?”
“Three that I know of.”
Joe said, “Maybe I’ll meet him at the airport along with Kyle
Junior. I’ll tell him the news and make sure he knows it had
nothing to do with you. Maybe that will help.”
Kyle Sr. smiled bitterly. “Worth a try, I guess.” But Joe could
tell he wasn’t optimistic.
As Joe descended the stairs on the porch, he heard Kyle Sr.
say to Joleen: “I’ll hitch up the horse trailer and back it up to the
front door. You start gathering our personal stuff. Mr. Dietrich
has been known to give folks an hour to clean out. We might
need more than that . . .”
Joe swung into the truck and said to Daisy, “Man oh man.”
Daisy lowered her head between her big paws on the seat. Joe
reached for his keys as Kyle Jr. drove through the ranch yard in
the Crazy Z Bar’s Ford F-350. Joe got a glimpse of the boy’s
face. He looked stricken.
As Joe crossed the one-car bridge and drove toward Saddlestring
in the lingering dust spoor of the F-350, he thought of
the ranches in the Twelve Sleep River valley. There were twenty
or more big holdings, most owned by out-of-state executives.
But beyond that fact, each was mightily different from the
In his experience, each ranch was a world of its own: teeming
with intrigue, agendas, and characters. Each was a fiefdom with
its own peculiarities and practices, its own set of rules and expectations.
Ranch managers were itinerants in cowboy hats who
did the bidding of their owners but, unlike the owners, had to
interact with the locals. They hired cooks, wranglers, cowboys,
and hands who specialized in construction, fixing fences, and
wildlife management. Their employees gossiped about them,
and sometimes switched ranches for better deals or benefits.
There was lots of interbreeding, and relationships formed between
employees of one ranch and employees of others. Even for
Joe, who was out among them day after day, it was hard to keep
it all straight.
Despite telephones, email, and the Internet, most of the
information and rumors from ranch to ranch were communicated
daily through snippets of information relayed to the ranch
communities by those who kept an old-fashioned circuit of
visits, like brand inspectors, cattle buyers, large-animal veterinarians,
and the almost legendary mail lady named Sandra “Asperger”
Hamburger, who had delivered the mail in the rural
areas on an ironclad timetable that had not wavered more than
five minutes each day for fifteen years. Hamburger was unmarried
and in her mid-sixties, and favored brightly colored cowboy
shirts, jeans, short gray hair, and steel-framed cat-eye glasses
she’d worn for so many years they were in fashion again. She
was a tightly wrapped eccentric with mild autism—hence her
nickname—who drove an ancient mud-spattered Dodge Power
Wagon. She could be counted on to arrive at each rural mailbox
on schedule, every day, despite the conditions. To her, the U.S.
Postal Service was an all-powerful god and she didn’t want to
let it down. When she was running late by even a few minutes,
she was a terror. When Joe saw Hamburger’s truck barreling
down a two-track road, raising dust behind her, he simply pulled
over and let her pass. Otherwise, he was taking his life in his
But if Joe needed information or intel on any of the ranch
managers or their employees, Sandra Asperger Hamburger was
who he sought out. She knew all the names, most of their backgrounds,
and most of their likes and dislikes based on what they
sent or received in the mail. Often and intuitively, she knew of
management shake-ups before anyone else in the valley. She
wasn’t a gossip, but she made it her business to know what was
going on. Otherwise, she apparently reasoned, it might make
her less efficient.
Some ranch managers fit right in, some contributed to the
general welfare, and some were out-and-out bastards who used
their positions as perches of power. A few of the ranch managers
in the area were incompetent in every aspect of ranching other
than being obsequious to the owner and his family when they
arrived annually or semiannually, and that seemed to be enough
to keep their jobs. Others were hardheaded cowmen who challenged
their owners over budgets and priorities as if their roles
were reversed. They didn’t last long.
Kyle Sandford Sr., it seemed to Joe, was one of the good ones.
He kept to himself—too much, apparently, for his own good—
and honored local traditions and idiosyncrasies, or at least as
much as The Book of Rules would let him. He was a member of
the local Lions Club and he attended school activities with
Joleen. Sandford managed the ranch as if it were his own, and
he drove hard but fair bargains with cattle buyers, shippers, and
local businesses. He didn’t make dubious wildlife damage claims
like some of the managers did, and he looked the other way
when old-timers hunted or fished on private land they’d used
Poor Kyle Sr., Joe thought. And poor Kyle Jr.
The Saddlestring Municipal Airport was located on a
high plateau south of town. There were two commercial flights
daily—both to Denver—and most of the activity at the airfield
was as a fixed-base operator for private aircraft. The ranch Ford
was parked in front of the small FBO building, and Joe swung
into the lot and parked beside it. As he did, he heard the whine
of a small plane accelerate in volume in the sky as it descended.
Joe swung out and patted Daisy on the head and pulled on
his hat. Between two massive cumulus clouds to the east there
was a glint of reflected light and it didn’t take long for the speck
to grow wings and wheels.
Inside the airport, Kyle Jr. sat on a molded plastic chair and
stared out the windows at the tarmac. He wore a gray Saddlestring
High School hoodie, worn jeans, cowboy boots, and a
Wyoming Cowboys baseball cap. It was the official uniform of
every teenage boy in town, Joe thought, except for the Goths
and the druggies. Kyle Jr.’s hands rested on the tops of his thighs
and his head was tilted slightly to the side, as if holding it erect
took too much energy.
“Are you okay?” Joe asked.
Kyle Jr. started to respond, then apparently thought better of it.
“I know this must be tough. You kind of like it here, don’t
Kyle Jr. nodded his head.
“It’s a good place,” Joe said. “I know my girls would hate to
leave it now that they’re in high school. But maybe it won’t come
The boy looked up with hope in his eyes. “My dad didn’t
seem to think so.”
Joe nodded. “I’m going to talk to Mr. Dietrich. Your dad is a
hell of a hand. He would have a hard time replacing him. I can’t
believe he’d let him go because of something that was completely
out of his control. I’ll let him blame me.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Kyle Jr. said, letting his eyes linger on Joe
for a second before looking away.
The sleek Piaggio Avanti II twin-engine turboprop sliced
out of the wide blue sky and touched down on the single runway
with the grace of a raptor snagging a fish. It turned and
roared and wheeled straight toward the FBO, then performed
a quick half-turn so the door faced the building. Joe could see
the outlines of two pilots wearing peaked caps in the cockpit,
and once the aircraft was stopped one of the heads disappeared
and ducked toward the back.
A sliding door whooshed to the side and steel stairs telescoped
to the surface. The copilot filled the open hatch for a moment,
looking out as if to assess any threats, then retreated back inside.
“Here he comes,” Kyle Jr. said solemnly.
Lamar Dietrich, wearing a battered wide-brimmed hat and
an oversized jacket, made his way slowly down the stairs. At the
bottom he paused and reached back without turning his head,
and the copilot scrambled down behind him and handed him
a metal cane with three stubby feet on the bottom. Dietrich
nodded toward the FBO but didn’t move. The pilot danced
around the old man and jogged toward a golf cart, then drove it
out so Dietrich wouldn’t have to walk.
The old man seemed even smaller than Joe remembered him,
as if he’d folded over even more on himself. His shoulders
seemed narrower although the large jacket disguised how frail
he’d become. He wore lizard-skin boots that poked out from
baggy khakis and he braced the walker over his thighs as the
copilot delivered him to the building. Joe caught a glimpse of an
overlarge gargoyle-like head, swinging jowls, and a large, sharp
nose when Dietrich glanced up to see where they were going.
The electric cart made no sound as it approached the metal
door of the FBO, but it obviously took a long moment for Dietrich
to climb out. The copilot stepped inside sharply and held
the door open for him.
Joe stood and jammed his hands in the front pockets of his
jeans and braced himself.
Dietrich entered slowly and bent forward, using the walker
with each step. He had bowed legs, which made him even
shorter, Joe thought. He wondered how tall Dietrich was if he
could be stretched out.
The old man paused and looked up, literally tilting his head
until the back brim of his hat brushed his hunched shoulders.
His eyes were hooded, and they took in Kyle Jr. still sitting in
his chair and then Joe. When he recognized the game warden as
the man who had testified at the hearing, his face hardened.
“You,” Dietrich said. “I remember you. What the hell are you
“Came to say howdy and welcome back,” Joe said. “I was hoping
I could have a minute of your time before you head out to
“I don’t have time for you,” Dietrich said. He spoke in a hard
and flat Midwestern tone that seemed like steel balls being
dropped on concrete, Joe thought. Then, looking around the
room, Dietrich said, “Where’s Sandford?”
“I’m Kyle Junior,” the boy said, leaping up. “My dad asked
me to give you a ride to the ranch.”
Dietrich’s eyes got larger as he assessed Kyle Jr. He obviously
didn’t like what he saw.
“How old are you?”
“Sandford sent a seventeen-year-old boy to pick me up?”
“I’m a good driver,” Kyle Jr. said. “I’ve been driving since I
“This is unacceptable,” Dietrich said. “I said I wanted Sand-
ford here. Not his boy.”
Kyle Jr. obviously didn’t know what to say, and his face
Joe stepped in and touched Dietrich on the shoulder. “Please,
I’d like a minute if I could.” Then to Kyle Jr.: “Why don’t you
step outside, Kyle?”
The boy was out the front door immediately, and Dietrich
looked angrily to Joe for an explanation.
“Look,” Joe said, “I know about you. You can’t be as mean as
you come off. You run a tight ship and you’re a success in business,
and I admire that. I disagree with your idea of building a
game farm, but I admire your success and you’ve got a good
ranch manager in Kyle Sandford. The decision on the game
farm went against you. It wouldn’t have mattered—”
Dietrich interrupted to say, “What a man does with his private
property is his business. This isn’t Communist China—yet.
No bunch of bureaucrats have the right to tell me I can’t do
with my own property what I want to do.”
“Actually, they do,” Joe said. “And it isn’t about what you do
on your property, it’s what happens if those exotic species get off
your property. But that’s only partially why I’m here—to tell
you their decision face-to-face. I also need to let you know that
the decision of the commission had nothing to do with Kyle.
They liked him, and they thought the proposal he presented
was as well done as any man could do. It was all based on the
merits, not on the proposal.”
Dietrich stared into Joe’s eyes so long, Joe thought he’d have
to blink first. And he did.
Dietrich said, “Merits. Merits. Do you realize how many
times I’ve heard bullshit reasons like merits in my life? Nothing
has to do with merits. Every decision has to do with respect and
a little bit of fear.”
Dietrich held up a thin bony hand and slowly clenched it.
“Merits melt away when there’s a fist behind the proposal. Anything
is possible if you know how to play the game. That’s the
way of the world. Always has been, always will be. I need men
who know how to play the game. I’d trade a thousand Kyle
Sandfords for one Lamar Dietrich.”
Joe said, “Maybe there is only one Lamar Dietrich. Did you
ever think of that?”
Dietrich beheld Joe and for a moment Joe thought the old
man might smile. Instead, he quickly shook his head, as if purging
an unpleasant thought.
“I need men I can trust and who can get the job done. I surround
myself with winners. That’s my secret. I don’t have time
or sympathy for losers.
“And I don’t have time for you,” Dietrich said, dismissing Joe
with a wave of his hand.
“Just give him some time to make it right,” Joe said to Dietrich’s
shuffling back. “He’s putting roots down here and his
son is in high school. It’s not Kyle’s fault you want something
impossible to happen. Give him a reasonable project and he’ll
get it done. He’s a good man.”
“Losers stay losers,” Dietrich said over his shoulder. “They
don’t ever make it right. Now where’s that stupid boy?”
Joe stood in silence. He was played out. He watched Dietrich
exit the building, wave his walker at Kyle Jr., and climb in the
He heard about the accident over the mutual aid channel
of his truck’s radio. A pickup had plunged into the Twelve
Sleep River off the one-car bridge at the Crazy Z Bar Ranch.
There was one, and possibly two, fatalities. Joe tossed the sandwich
he was eating out the driver’s-side window and put his
pickup into gear. He roared up the hill and past the airport and
hit his emergency flashers when he cleared town.
The scene at the bridge told him most of what he wanted
to know: The Ford F-350 was on its side in the river and the
current flowed around and through it, cables on the right side
of the bridge had been snapped by the impact and dangled from
the I-beams, a sheriff’s department SUV was parked haphazardly
on Joe’s side of the bridge, Kyle Sr.’s personal pickup was
parked on the other, and in the middle of the bridge itself was
Sandra Hamburger’s Dodge Power Wagon.
“Jesus, help us,” Joe whispered to Daisy.
Deputy Justin Woods climbed out of his SUV as Joe pulled
up behind it. His uniform was wet from the shoulders down
and his eyes looked haunted.
“You gotta help me, Joe,” he said. “I was able to pull the boy
out of the truck but I can’t find the passenger down there.”
“Is the boy okay?” Joe asked, swinging out of the pickup, followed
“He says he is,” Woods said, nodding toward a bundled figure
in the backseat. “He says Lamar Dietrich was in the truck
with him. Fuckin’ Lamar Dietrich.”
As they descended through the brush toward the river, Joe
looked across. Joleen and Kyle Sr. stood near their pickup. Joleen
was consoling a wailing Sandra Hamburger, trying to hug her
to calm her down. Kyle Sr. stood with his hands on his hips and
a terrified look on his face.
“Kyle Junior’s okay!” Joe shouted.
“Thank God,” Kyle Sr. replied, his shoulders suddenly relaxing
“So what did he say happened here?” Joe asked Woods.
“He said he picked up old man Dietrich at the airport and he
was bringing him out here. He said he was crossing the bridge
when he looked up and saw Sandra Hamburger coming straight
at him, going fast. It was either hit her head-on or take it off the
bridge, and he took it off the bridge.”
Joe winced. Sandra’s wails cut through the rushing sounds of
“I cut him out of his seat belt,” Woods said, “but I guess
the old man wasn’t wearing his.”
Joe nodded and they plunged into the river together. The
current was strong and pushed at his legs, and the river rocks
were round and slick. He slipped and fell to his knees and recovered.
The water was surprisingly cold.
“Maybe Dietrich is pinned under the truck,” Woods said. “I
The windshield glass was broken out of the cab when they
got there, and Joe confirmed that Dietrich wasn’t inside. The
current flowed through the smashed-out rear window and
through the open windshield. Anything inside would have been
Joe balanced himself against the crumpled metal hood of
the pickup and gazed down the river.
“There he is,” Joe said. Twenty yards downstream, beneath
the surface, Dietrich’s overlarge jacket rippled underwater in the
current. His body had been sucked under and was wedged in
the river rocks. At a distance downstream where the river made
a rightward bend, his large straw hat was caught at the base of
By the time they dragged the surprisingly light body to the
bank, three more sheriff’s department vehicles had arrived along
with an ambulance. Sheriff Reed dispatched his men to take
measurements and photographs of the bridge and the vehicles,
and statements from Kyle Jr. and Sandra Hamburger.
Joe leaned against his pickup with a fleece blanket over
his shoulders, next to Kyle Sr.
“Sheriff Reed hasn’t said anything about any charges,” Kyle
Sr. said. “I don’t know if he’s gonna file on Sandra, or Kyle Junior,
or neither. It was a damn accident, plain as day. Anybody can
“That poor Sandra, you know how she is. If she’s running
late there isn’t anything she’ll let slow her down. I don’t even
know if she saw Kyle Junior coming across the bridge. I asked
her but she just keeps blubbering about her schedule being
Kyle Sr. sighed heavily. “That son of mine—I hope he’s okay
after this. It’s a hell of a thing that happened.”
“Yup,” Joe said, looking over at Kyle Jr. in the back of the
SUV. When he did, the boy quickly looked away.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” Kyle Sr. said,
nodding toward the ranch. “I don’t know if he had heirs or what.”
“Whatever happens will take awhile,” Joe said. “You might as
well hunker down and see where it goes.”
“It might take years to straighten out,” Joe said. “These
things take time to sort out.”
Kyle Sr. looked over and closed one eye. “What are you getting
“Kyle Junior will be able to stick around. He might even
“He’d like that.”
“Yup,” Joe said.
Later that night, after dinner, Joe told his wife, Marybeth,
about the accident and the death. April listened in as well, and
wondered aloud if Kyle would be in school on Monday.
After April left the table, Marybeth looked hard at Joe and
said, “What’s wrong? Something is bugging you.”
He was astonished, as always, how she could read his mind.
He said, “I don’t know for sure, I keep thinking about Kyle
Junior. He’s an observer, you know? He kind of hangs back and
just tracks everything around him.”
Marybeth nodded her head, then gestured for him to go on.
“He saw Sandra on her rounds on his way to the airport, just
like I did,” Joe said. “He knows her schedule. He knows the
rhythm of that ranch and when Sandra Hamburger is going to
show up every day. And he knows how she is. He also knew old
man Dietrich didn’t buckle his seat belt when he got in the
Marybeth sat back and covered her mouth with her hand.
“Joe, are you saying . . .”
“I’m not saying anything. But it sure was unique timing for
him to just happen to be on that bridge going one way when
Sandra was on it coming the other, driving like her hair was
“My God,” Marybeth whispered.
“No way to prove a thing,” Joe said. “Not unless Kyle Junior
decides to break down and confess, and no one is accusing him
of anything. Heck, they might not even believe him if he did.”
After a long pause, Marybeth asked, “Are you going to mention
this to the sheriff?”
Joe shook his head. “Nope.”