Read Savage Run Online

Authors: C. J. Box

Tags: #Conspiracies, #Mystery & Detective, #Environmentalists, #Wyoming, #Fiction, #Literary, #Pickett; Joe (Fictitious character), #Mystery Fiction, #Game wardens, #General, #Explosions

Savage Run (2 page)

BOOK: Savage Run
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Annabel nodded her head. One Globe. The ecological action group that used the logo of crossed monkey wrenches, in deference to late author Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. She recalled that One Globe had once dropped a shroud over Mount Rushmore right before the president was about to give a speech there. It had been on the nightly news.

"Stewie," she said happily "you are the real thing." Her eyes stayed on him as he drove in the spiral of spikes and moved to the next tree.

"When you are done with that tree, I want you," she said, her voice husky "Right here and right now, my sweet sweaty .. . husband."

Stewie turned and smiled at her. His face glistened and his muscles were bulging from swinging the sledgehammer. She slid her T-shirt over her head and stood waiting for him, her lips parted and her legs tense.

stewie slung His own PACK NOW and stopped spiking trees. Fat black thunderheads, pregnant with rain, nosed across the lateafternoon sky. They were hiking at a fast pace toward the peak, holding hands, with the hope of getting there and pitching camp before the ram started. Stewie said that after they hiked out of the forest tomorrow, they would get in the SUV and head southeast, toward the Bridger-Teton Forest.

When they walked into the herd of grazing cattle, Stewie felt a dark cloud of anger envelop him.

"Range maggots!" Stewie said, spitting. "If they're not letting the logging companies in to cut all the trees at taxpayer's expense, they're letting the local ranchers run their cows in here so they can eat all the grass and shit in all the streams."

"Can't we just go around them?" Annabel asked.

"It's not that, Annabel," he said patiently "Of course we can go around them. It's just the principle of the thing. Cows don't belong in the trees in the Bighorn Mountains--they're fouling up what is left of the natural ecosystem. You have so much to learn, darling."

"I know," she said, determined.

"These ranchers out here run their cows on public land--our land-at the expense of not only us taxpayers but of the wildlife as well. They pay something like four dollars an acre when they should be paying ten times that, even though it would be best if they were completely gone."

"But we need meat, don't we?" she asked. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?"

"Did you forget that cheeseburger I had for lunch in Cameron?" he said. "No, I'm not a vegetarian, although sometimes I -wish I had the will to be one."

"I tried it once and it made me lethargic," Annabel confessed.

"All these western cows produce only about five percent of the beef we eat in this whole country," Stewie said. "All the rest comes from down South, from Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, where there's plenty of grass and plenty of private land to graze them on."

Stewie picked up a pine cone threw it accurately through the trees, and struck a black baldy heifer on the snout. The cow bellowed in protest then turned and lumbered away The rest of the small herd, about a dozen head, followed it. They moved loudly, clumsily cracking branches and throwing up fist-sized pieces of black earth from their hooves,

"I wish I could chase them right back to the ranch they belong on," Stewie said, watching "Right up the ass of the rancher -who has lease rights for this part of the Bighorns."

One cow had not moved. It stood broadside and looked at them.

"What's wrong with that cow?" Stewie asked.

"Shoo!" Annabel shouted. "Shoo!"

Stewie stifled a smile at his new wife's shooing and slid out of his pack. The temperature had dropped about twenty degrees in the last ten minutes and ram was inevitable. The sky had darkened and black roiling clouds enveloped the peak. The sudden low pressure had

made the forest quieter, the sounds muffled and the smell of the cows stronger.

Stewie Woods walked straight toward the heifer, with Annabel several steps behind.

"Something's wrong with that cow;" Stewie said, trying to figure out what about it seemed amiss.

When Stewie was close enough he saw everything at once: the cow trying to run with the others but straining at the end of a tight nylon line; the heifer's wild white eyes; the misshapen profile of something strapped on its back that was large and square and didn't belong; the thin reed of an antenna that quivered from the package on the heifer's back.

"Annabel!" Stewie yelled, turning to reach out to her--but she had walked around him and was now squarely between Stewie and the cow

She absorbed the full, frontal blast when the heifer detonated, the explosion shattering the mountain stillness with the subtlety of a sledgehammer bludgeoning bone.

SOUR MILES AWAY, a fire lookout heard the guttural boom and ran to the railing of the lookout tower with binoculars. Over a red-rimmed plume of smoke and dirt, he could see a Douglas fir launch into the air like a rocket, where it turned, hung suspended for a moment, then crashed into the forest below

Shaking, he reached for his radio.

2

EiGHT MILES OUT OF SADDLE STRING Wyoming, Game Warden Joe Pickett was watching his wife, Marybeth, work their new Tobiano paint horse, Toby, when the call came from the Twelve Sleep County Sheriffs office.

It was early evening, the time when the setting sun ballooned and softened, defining the deep velvet folds and piercing tree-greens of Wolf Mountain. The normally dull and pastel colors of the weathered barn and the red-rock canyon behind the house suddenly looked as if they had been repainted in rich acrylics. Toby who was a big dark bay gelding swirled with brilliant white that ran over his haunches like thick paint that spilled upward, shone deep red in the evening light and looked especially striking. So did Marybeth, in Joe's opinion, in her worn Wranglers, sleeveless cotton shirt, her blonde hair in a

ponytail. There was no wind, and the only sound was the rhythmic thumping of Toby's hooves in the round pen as Marybeth waved the whip and encouraged the gelding to shift from a trot into a slow lope.

The Game and Fish Department considered the Saddlestring District a "two-horse district," meaning that the department would provide feed and tack for two mounts to be used for patrolling. Toby was their second horse.

Joe stood with his boot on the bottom rail of the fence and his arms folded over the top, his chin nestled between his forearms. He was still wearing his red cotton Game and Fish uniform shirt with the pronghorn antelope patch on the sleeve and his sweat-stained gray Stetson. He could feel the pounding of the earth as Toby passed in front of him, making a circle. He watched Marybeth stay in position in the center of the pen, shuffling her feet so she stayed on Toby's back flank. She talked to the horse in a soothing voice, urging him to gallop--something he clearly didn't want to do.

Marybeth stepped closer to Toby and commanded him to run. Marybeth still had a slight limp from when she had been shot nearly two years before, but she was nimble and quick. Toby pinned his ears back and twitched his tail but finally broke into a full-fledged gallop, raising the dust in the pen, his mane and tail snapping behind him like a flag in a stiff wind. After several rotations, Marybeth called "Whoa!" and Ibby hit the brakes, skidding to a quick stop where he stood breathing hard, his muscles swelled, his back shiny with sweat, smacking and licking his lips as if he were eating peanut butter. Marybeth approached him and patted him down, telling him what a good boy he was, and blowing gently into his nostrils to soothe him.

"He's a stubborn guy A lazy guy" she told Joe over her shoulder as she continued to pat Toby down. "He did not want to lope fast. Did you notice how he pinned his ears back and threw his head around?"

Joe said yup.

"That's how he was telling me he was mad about it. When he does that it means he's either going to break out of the circle and do

whatever he wants or he's going to do what I'm asking him to do. In this case he did what he was supposed to and went into the fast lope. He's finally learning that things will go a lot easier on him when he does what I ask him."

Joe smiled. "I know it works for me."

Marybeth crinkled her nose at Joe, then turned her attention back to Toby "See how he licks his lips? That's a sign of obedience. He's conceding that I am the boss."

Joe fought the urge to theatrically lick his lips when she looked over at him.

"Why did you blow in his nose like that?" he asked.

"Horses in the herd do that to each other to show affection. It's another way they bond with each other" Marybeth paused. "I know it sounds hokey, but blowing in his nose is kind of like giving him a hug. A horse hug."

Joe was fascinated by what Marybeth was doing. He had been around horses most of his life, and by now he had taken his buckskin mare Lizzie over most of the mountains in the Twelve Sleep Range of the Bighorns. But what Marybeth was doing with Toby, what she was getting out of him, was a different kind of thing. Joe was duly impressed.

A shout behind him pulled Joe from his thoughts. He turned toward the sound, and saw ten-year-old Sheridan, five-year-old Lucy, and their eight-year-old foster daughter April stream through the backyard gate and across the field toward Joe and Marybeth. Sheridan held the cordless phone out in front of her like an Olympic torch, and the other two girls followed.

"Dad, it's for you," Sheridan yelled. "A man says it's very important."

Joe and Marybeth exchanged looks and Joe took the telephone. It was County Sheriff O. R. "Bud" Barnum.

There had been a big explosion in the Bighorn National Forest, Barnum told Joe. A fire lookout had called it in, and reported that through his binoculars he could see fat dark forms littered on the ground

throughout the trees. They suspected a "shitload" of animals were dead, which was why he was calling Joe. Dead game animals were Joe's concern. They assumed at this point that they were game animals, Barnum said, but they might be cows. A couple of local ranchers had grazing leases up there. Barnum asked if Joe could meet him at the Winchester exit off of the interstate in twenty minutes. That way they could get to the scene before it was completely dark.

Joe handed the telephone back to Sheridan and looked over his shoulder at Marybeth.

"When will you be back?" she asked.

"Late," Joe told her. "There was an explosion in the mountains."

"You mean like a plane crash?"

"He didn't say that. The explosion was a few miles off of the Hazel ton Road in the mountains, in elk country Barnum thinks there may be some game animals down."

She looked at Joe for further explanation. He shrugged to indicate that was all he knew

"I'll save you some dinner."

JOE met the SHERIFF and Deputy McLanahan at the exit to Winchester and followed them through the small town. The three vehicle fleet--two county GMC Blazers and Joe's dark green Game and Fish pickup--entered and exited the tiny town within minutes. Even though it was still early in the evening, the only establishments open were two bars with identical red neon Coors signs in their windows and a convenience store. Winchester's lone public artwork, located on the front lawn of the branch bank, was an outsized and gruesome metal sculpture of a wounded grizzly bear straining at the end of a thick chain, its metal leg encased in a massive saw toothed bear trap. Joe did not find the sculpture lovely, but it captured the mood, style, and inbred frontier culture of the area as well as anything else could have.

deputy mclanahan led the way through the timber in the direction where the explosion had been reported and Joe walked behind him alongside Sheriff Barnum. Joe and McLanahan had acknowledged each other with curt nods and said nothing. Their relationship had been rocky ever since McLanahan had sprayed an outfitter's camp with shotgun blasts two years before and Joe had received a wayward pellet under his eye. He still had a scar to show for it.

Barnum's hangdog face grimaced as he limped alongside Joe through the underbrush. He complained about his hip. He complained about the distance from the road to the crime scene. He complained about McLanahan, and said to Joe, sotto voce, that he should have fired the deputy years before and would have if he weren't his nephew. Joe suspected, however, that Barnum also kept McLanahan around because the deputy's quick-draw reputation had added--however untrue and unlikely--an air of toughness to the Sheriff's Department that didn't hurt at election time.

While they had been walking, the sun had dropped below the top of the mountains, the peaks now no more than craggy black silhouettes. The light dimmed in the forest, fusing treetops and branches that had been discernible just moments before into a shadowy muddle. Joe reached back on his belt to make sure he had his flashlight. As he did so, he let his arm brush his .357 Smith & Wesson revolver to confirm it was there. He didn't want Barnum to notice the movement since Barnum still chided Joe about the time he lost his gun to a poacher he was arresting.

There was an unnatural silence in the woods, with the exception of Barnum's grumbling. The absence of normal woodland sounds--the chattering of squirrels sending a warning up the line, the panicked scrambling of deer, the airy winged drumbeat of flushed Spruce grouse--confirmed that something big had happened here. Something

so big it either cleared the wildlife out of the area or frightened them mute. Joe could feel that they were getting closer before he could see anything to confirm it. Whatever it was, it was just ahead.

McLanahan suddenly stopped and joe heard the sharp intake of his breath.

"Holy shit," McLanahan whispered in awe. "Holy shit."

The still-smoking crater was fifteen yards across. It was three feet deep at its center. A half-dozen trees had been blown out of the ground, and their shallow root pans were exposed like black outstretched hands. Eight or nine black baldy cattle were dead and still, strewn among the trunks of trees. The earth below the thick turf rim of the crater was dark and wet. Several large white roots, the size of leg bones, were pulled up from the ground by the explosion and now pointed at the sky Cordite from the explosives, pine from broken branches, and upturned mulch had combined in the air to produce a sickeningly sweet and heavy smell.

BOOK: Savage Run
10.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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