Authors: C. J. Box
Tags: #Conspiracies, #Mystery & Detective, #Environmentalists, #Wyoming, #Fiction, #Literary, #Pickett; Joe (Fictitious character), #Mystery Fiction, #Game wardens, #General, #Explosions
Rs they opened THE DOORS of the pickup, the interior light came on. The Old Man looked at Charlie, and Charlie looked back. The harsh light emphasized their facial characteristics. They were both weathered, and aging. They shared a smile.
"Step one in winning back the west," the Old Man said.
Charlie drove while the Old Man stared through the windshield. Their tires ground on the gravel road.
When they hit the pavement, Charlie turned the pickup northwest. They were headed to Washington state.
MORNING SUNLIGHT POURED over the jagged horizon as Joe Pickett turned his pickup off of the state highway onto the Vee Bar U Ranch's gravel road, which led to Jim Finotta's house. Maxine, the Pickett's yellow Labrador, sat in the passenger seat looking alert, as if helping Joe to navigate the turns. Joe drove the truck beneath the ancient elk antler arches and wound through hundred-year-old cottonwoods. This was the first time Joe had ever had a reason to visit. He wished the reason for the call wasn't to tell Mr. Finotta that ten of his cattle had been found dead and at least one of them had been blown up.
Finotta's ranch, the Vee Bar U, was, by all standards, huge. Counting both deeded and leased land, it stretched from the highway all the way to the top of the distant Bighorn Mountains. The ranch held the
second water right on the Twelve Sleep River, and leased more than forty thousand acres of spectacularly scenic and remote national forest land, including a geological wonder of a canyon known as Savage Run.
Joe had heard a couple of stories about how local lawyer Jim Finotta acquired the ranch, and he wasn't certain which one was true. One version was that Mac "Rowdy" McBride, a fourth generation McBride, was a notorious drinker and carouser and had simply run the ranch into the ground. McBride could still be found from noon on perched on his corner stool at the Stockman Bar, or the booth closest to the bar at the Rustic Tavern. Finotta, fresh off of a string of personal injury cases with multimillion-dollar settlements, had purchased the ranch at a time when cattle prices were low and Rowdy McBride was too. But there was another theory on how Finotta had come to own and control the Vee Bar U. The other version, which Joe had had whispered to him by an inebriated fishing guide at the Stockman Bar, was much more sinister. According to the fishing guide, Finotta had represented Rowdy McBride in a dispute when environmentalists were trying to persuade the federal government to proclaim the rugged, spectacular, and remote Savage Run canyon as a national monument. McBride, of course, was against it. Finotta persuaded McBride to take his claim all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though virtually all legal scholars who studied the case opined that he had no case, and Rowdy McBride had already lost on state and district levels. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, which left McBride with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills at a time when beef prices had plummeted to record lows.
Finotta settled for the ranch in payment, and the suspicion of the fishing guide and his friends was that obtaining the historic ranch was Finotta's plan all along--that Finotta had fueled McBride's anger at the Peds and confidently assured the rancher of an eventual win or settlement, knowing all along that it was virtually impossible. Once he
had taken over the ranch, Finotta had used his personal political contacts (of which he had many) to stall the canyon's national monument designation, which was finally forgotten by a new administration.
Ranching to Finotta, according to the fishing guide, was a hobby and a means of dispensing power and influence in a state where ranchers occupied an exalted status. When moneyed entrepreneurs sought the ultimate cocktail-party aside, they now talked about their ranches in Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho. Joe didn't know Finotta well, although they nodded at each other when they happened to see each other, usually at the courthouse or occasionally at the post office. Finotta was a man known for his personal and political connections and for not being humble about them. He was a personal friend of the governor and was listed among the largest in-state contributors to the U.S. senators and the lone congressman for Wyoming. He treated local law enforcement officials well, and had half and quarter beefs sent to their homes at Christmas. Sheriff Barnum often had morning coffee with Finotta, as did the county attorney and chief of police.
So when Jim Finotta decided to create a subdivision--officially renamed Elkhorn Ranches--he had no trouble financing it or having it approved by the county. Elkhorn Ranches was a topic of conversation among the local coffee drinkers in the morning and the beer drinkers at night--a land scheme involving three-acre lots on three hundred acres of Finotta's property nearest to the highway The streets, curbs, gutters, and cul-de-sacs were already surveyed and poured in concrete. The sales effort was international. Three-hundredandfifty-thousand dollar homes were being constructed on the prime lots, usually on the top of every hill. Only a few homes had been completed and purchased.
lips TRPFS PARTeD, and the huge gabled stone house came into view, and so did a ranch hand on a four-wheel ATV who was racing up the road as if intent on having a head-on collision with Joe's pickup.
Joe braked to a stop and the ranch hand swung around the grill of the pickup and slammed on his brakes adjacent to Joe's door, a roll of dust following and settling over them both.
The ranch hand was wiry and dark with a pockmarked and deeply tanned face. He wore a T-shirt that said "I Know Jack Shit" and a feed store cap turned backward. He squinted against the roll of dust and the bright morning sun and rose in his seat with his fists on the handlebars until he could look Joe square in the eye.
"Name's Buster," the ranch hand said. "State your business." Only then did Joe notice the holster and sidearm that was tucked into Buster's jeans.
"I'm Joe Pickett. I'm here on business to see Mr. Finotta. I'm with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department."
"I can see that from your truck and your shirt," Buster said, raising himself a little more so he could see into the cab of Joe's truck. Maxine, always kind to strangers, lolled out her tongue and panted.
"What do you need to see Mr. Finotta about?"
Joe masked his irritation. No need to antagonize a hand. He said simply, "Ten dead cows."
This concerned the ranch hand. "Were they ours?"
"Yup," Joe said, and offered no more. Buster was puzzled in thought for a moment. Then he told Joe to wait in his truck while he went to tell Mr. Finotta.
Joe winced at the racketing sound of the ATV as Buster revved it and spun around the back of Joe's pickup and on to the house. Disobeying Buster, Joe drove toward the house and parked against a hitching rack next to Finotta's black Suburban.
The house was impressive and daunting. It looked to be constructed at a time when ranchers thought of themselves as feudal lords of a wild new land, and built accordingly There were three sharp gables on the red slate roof and a two-story stone turret on the front corner. The building was constructed of massive rounded stones, probably from the bottom of the river, in the days when dredging didn't require a
permit. Huge windows made up of hundreds of tiny panes looked out over the ranch yard and beyond to the mountains.
When Buster opened the front door, Joe half expected the hand to bow and say something like "Mr. Finotta will see you now." Instead, Buster nodded toward the interior of the house and told Joe to go inside. Which he did.
The foyer was decorated in pure mid-fifties ranch gothic. The chairs and couches were upholstered with dark Hereford red-and-white hides. The chandelier, suspended from the high ceiling by a thick logging chain, was a wagon wheel with 50-watt bulbs on each spoke. The dominating wall was covered with the brands of local ranches burned into the barn wood paneling, with tiny brass plaques under each brand naming the ranch.
Joe stopped here. He was taken aback by the fact that he had surveyed the room without taking notice of a small seated figure in the corner of it, shaded from the window by a bushy Asian evergreen tree.
"Can I get you something?" Her voice was scratchy and high. Now Joe could see her clearly. He was embarrassed by the fact that he had missed her when he entered because she was so still and he was so unobservant. She was bent and small and still, seated in a wheelchair. Her back was curved so that it thrust her head forward, chin out. She held her face at a forty-five degree angle, her eyes large but blank, her airy light-brown hair molded into a helmet shape by spray One stunted arm lay along the armrest of her chair like a strand of rope and the other was curled on her lap out of view He guessed her age as at least seventy but it was hard to tell. "I'm sorry I didn't see you there." Joe said, removing his hat. "Thanks for the offer but I'm fine."
"You thought I was a piece of furniture, didn't you?" she asked in a high voice.
Joe knew he flushed red. That's exactly what he was thinking.
"Don't deny it," she chided, letting out a bubble of laughter like a hiccup. "If I were a snake I could have bitten you."
Joe introduced himself. She said her name was Ginger. Joe had hoped for more than a name. He couldn't be sure whether Ginger was Jim Finotta's wife or mother. Or someone else. And he didn't know how to ask.
Jim Finotta, a small man, appeared in the foyer. Finotta wore casual pleated slacks and a short-sleeved polo shirt. Finotta was slight and dark; his full head of hair moussed back from his high forehead. His face was dour and pinched, foreshadowing the tendency of his mouth to curl downward into an expression that said "no." Finotta earned himself with an air of impatient self-importance.
His $800 ostrich-skin boots glided over the hardwood flooring, but he stopped at the opposite wall under what appeared to be an original Charles Russell painting and spoke without meeting Joe's eye. He nodded kindly to Ginger and asked her if she minded if he met with the "local game warden" for a minute in his office. Ginger hummed her assent, and Finotta smiled at her. With a nod of his head he indicated for Joe to follow him.
Finotta's office -was a manly classic English den with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled primarily with legal volumes. A framed fox hunting print hung behind the massive mahogany desk and a green-shaded lamp provided most of the light. A massive bull elk head was mounted on the wall in the shadows above the door. Finotta walked briskly around the desk and sat in his chair, clasped his small hands together, and looked up expectantly at Joe. He did not offer Joe a seat.
"You run cattle in the Bighorns near Hazelton Road?" Joe asked, feeling awkward and out of place in Finotta's study
"I run two thousand head practically the entire length of the Bighorns in both Twelve Sleep and Johnson County" Finotta answered crisply "We also feed another eleven hundred on our pastures for the summer months. Now how can I help you?" Finotta made no attempt to hide the impatience that colored his voice.
"Well," Joe said his voice sounding weak even to himself, "there are at least ten of them dead. And there may be a human victim as well."
Finotta showed no reaction except to arch his eyebrows in a "tell me more" look. Joe quickly explained what they had found the evening before.
When he was done, Finotta spoke with a forced smile. "The cows are mine but we aren't missing any employees, so I can't help you there. As for the cattle, those are--were--first generation baldy heifers worth at least $1,200 each. So I guess someone owes me $12,000. Would that be the Wyoming Game and Fish Department?"
Finotta's question caught Joe by complete surprise. He hadn't known how Finotta would react to the news that ten of his cows exploded--anger, confusion maybe--but Joe would never have guessed he'd respond this way The state did pay ranchers for damages to property and livestock if those losses were the result of wild game, such as elk herds eating haystacks meant for cattle or moose crashing through fences. But he could not see how the department would be liable for the loss of ten cows in a freak explosion.
As Joe stood there, trying to think of a way to explain this, Finotta was drumming his fingers on his desk. The sound both irritated and distracted Joe.
"Joe Pickett .. ." Finotta said, as if searching his mind for more information. "I've heard your name. Aren't you the same fellow who arrested the governor a couple of years ago for fishing without a license?"
Joe flushed red again.
"The same warden who had his gun taken off of him by a local outfitter and was suspended for it? The same game warden who shot my good friend Vern Dunnegan in the hip with a shotgun?"
Joe glared at Finotta but said nothing. He admitted to himself that he was not handling the situation well. He was off balance and defensive.
"I came here to tell you about your cows," Joe said, his voice cracking. "The sheriff asked me to come here because he was busy at the crime scene. This doesn't involve me or the department."
"Doesn't it?" Finotta asked facetiously, sitting back in his leather
chair. "It seems to me that a case could be made that because of the policies of both the U.S. Forest Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department we have in our state an overabundance of game animals. And because of that overabundance, there is an exaggerated sense that the 'wild' and 'natural' creatures are being crowded out of their rightful forage by cattle. Therefore, environmentalists are targeting cattle and ranchers, and poachers are targeting wild game. Which creates a state of affairs where this kind of violence can happen.
"I think we could win that one before a jury of my peers," Finotta said, smiling. Finotta's peers would be local ranchers. This kind of jury stacking had happened before in the county "And we would be talking about the loss of my cows plus legal expenses plus punitive damages." He let this sink in. "Or Game and Fish could save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands and simply pay the damage claim. That could happen very cleanly if the local warden made the argument in his report." Joe was flummoxed, angry and completely off his stride. Joe could see himself taking three quick steps and knocking the smirk off of Finotta's face. It would give him immediate satisfaction, but would also result in termination and, given Finotta's obvious penchant for going to court, prosecution.