Authors: C. J. Box
Tags: #Conspiracies, #Mystery & Detective, #Environmentalists, #Wyoming, #Fiction, #Literary, #Pickett; Joe (Fictitious character), #Mystery Fiction, #Game wardens, #General, #Explosions
He wished he could get a handle on the uncharacteristic hatred he felt toward hobby rancher lawyer Jim Finotta. But he sure wanted to get that son of a bitch.
% Three days later, Joe Pickett sat idly sipping coffee and waiting for Marybeth to return with the newspaper from her morning walk. She walked every day even through horizontal snowstorms in the winter, and was strong enough now that she could pitch fifty-pound bales of hay from the stack in her barn. The exercise, she said, had helped her recover her balance and strength after her shooting injury, and she never missed a morning. She was proud of the fact that she could now handle all of the duties at the stables, where she worked part time including tacking up fifteen-hand horses and working them in the round pen. Marybeth often went to her other part-time job at the Twelve Sleep County Municipal Library smelling of horses. It was a good smell, Joe thought, and was pleased that Marybeth wasn't
ashamed of it. The two jobs offered enough flexibility that she was able to see her children off to school in the morning and be there when they returned.
"Why didn't you tell me that the man killed in the mountains was Stewie Woods?" Marybeth fired at Joe as she came into the kitchen. The Saddlestring Roundup was clutched in her fist.
Joe was raising a mug of coffee to his mouth. Sheridan, Lucy, and April were still bleary-eyed, in their pajamas, and were distractedly eating bowls of breakfast cereal. Everyone's eyes were on Marybeth; Joe thought the girls all looked as if they had been caught in the act of committing a crime.
"How could you not tell me, Joe Pickett?" she asked angrily her voice getting louder with each word. Joe had not moved. The coffee cup was still poised for a sip. He knew that whatever he said now would not be the right thing to say
"Barnum called and said the victim was named Allan Stewart Woods," Joe said lamely "I didn't make the connection at the time to Stewie Woods." She glared at him with eyes that could melt ice.
"Besides," Joe said, "why is it so important?"
Suddenly, Marybeth gave an angry little cry, threw the newspaper onto a chair, and stormed up the stairs to the bedroom, where she slammed the door and noisily threw the lock.
Joe and the girls stared dumbly at the space Marybeth had just occupied.
"What's wrong with mom?" Sheridan asked.
"She's just upset," Joe answered. "Everything's fine."
"Who is Stewie Woods?" Lucy asked Sheridan.
Sheridan shrugged, and turned back to her breakfast, giving Lucy a "please be quiet" glare.
"You girls need to finish up and get dressed for school," Joe said gruffly
he WALKED THEM to the bus, kissed them good-bye, and said hello and good morning to the driver, and then went back in to read the newspaper. Joe knew from experience that when Marybeth was upset she would need some time, and he would give her that time.
The front-page story was more accurate than usual and Sheriff Barnum was quoted throughout. While the woman who was killed at the scene was yet to be officially identified (although Joe knew that they had found her Rhode Island driver's license in a fanny pack at the scene and had been as yet unable to connect with relatives), the man was tentatively identified as environmental activist Stewie Woods. A wallet with his driver's license, credit cards, and One Globe membership card (he was Member number 1) had been found in an abandoned Subaru near the trailhead. Woods's shoes, backpack, and famous red bandana had been found at the crime scene. A carpenter's pouch, filled with sixty-penny spikes, was recovered as well as a small sledgehammer covered with fingerprints. Forest Service officials confirmed that trees had been spiked near the crime scene and that there was a discernible "trail" of spiked trees leading from the road to the crater. Forensics results had not yet come back from Cheyenne as yet, but all of the circumstantial evidence suggested the vaporized dead man was Woods.
Joe had talked with Sheriff Barnum the day before, when they had met on the same two-track gravel road. Each had eased to the shoulder so that their vehicles were parallel, and they rolled down their windows and had a "cowboy conference" in the middle of the sagebrush prair
Barnum divulged his theory that Woods was attaching explosives to a heifer as a spectacular publicity stunt. Stewie Woods and One Globe were known, after all, for this kind of thing. Blowing up cows that were grazing on public land was just a short step up from spiking trees, disabling the machinery and heavy equipment used for forest road building, or other "direct actions" that One Globe claimed credit for. Blowing up cows would be an escalation in ecoterrorism.
Barnum doubted that Woods or his cronies had the training or expertise required to use C-4 explosives in a safe manner. Barnum's guess was that Woods and his companion were in the process of attaching the explosive to the animal when it went off
Afterward, Joe had followed Barnum to his office. "I like my investigations the way I like my women and my eggs," Barnum said to Joe, "I like 'em over easy"
Joe had heard Barnum say that more than once in the past two years and he still thought it was ridiculous.
Barnum showed Joe a sheaf of faxes that had come into the Twelve Sleep County Sheriffs Department over the past two days, most filled with newspaper clippings of Stewie Woods's and One Globe's past monkey-wrenching activities. Joe read several of them. Woods and his colleagues had attracted a good deal of attention just a few years ago when they unfurled a massive canvas banner from the catwalk of a Colorado dam that made it look like the $800 million structure had a huge crack in it. They had done this behind the U.S. Secretary of Interior as the secretary gave a speech about hydroelectric power. The stunt was caught on videotape and broadcast throughout the country and around the world.
"Blowing up cows is just another form of monkey wrenching," Barnum said. "Some dead writer made up the term to promote sabotage in the name of the environment."
"Edward Abbey" Joe said, "it was Edward Abbey He wrote a book called The Monkey wrench Gang"
Barnum looked blankly at Joe. "Whatever," he said dismissively.
Then Joe paused. "Any chance somebody tipped off Finotta about the explosion before I talked to him?
Barnum's eyes narrowed. "Why? What did he say?"
"It wasn't what he said .. . it's what he didn't say" Joe continued. "It's what he didn't ask. About the victims, for example. When I thought about it later, I realized he hadn't shown much interest in who died. Like he might have already known."
"Did you ask him about it?"
Barnum sighed, then shrugged. "Finotta has lots of contacts, so it's possible. Maybe he heard about it over a scanner or something. I don't see where it much matters, to be honest with you. The death of an environmental whacko probably wasn't very high on his priority list. Or mine."
Joe put the newspaper down and drained the last of his coffee. He hadn't had a chance to tell Marybeth about the conversation when he got home the night before, other than to say that the victims had been identified and that they weren't local. Joe wondered why the name of the dead man had affected Marybeth the way it had. Or was it the fact that he had forgotten to tell her?
Joe was aware that within the town of Saddlestring, Stewie Woods's death -was already turning into something of a joke. He guessed that it was the same throughout the west in the logging communities, the mining towns, and the farm and ranch centers, where Stewie Woods and One Globe were known and despised. One Globe was one of the most extreme of the environmental groups, a media darling, and one of the few organizations that openly advocated direct action. They hated cattle, they hated the practice of grazing on public land, they hated the ranchers who had or applied for leases, and they hated the politicians and bureaucrats who continued to allow the practice.
Barnum had speculated that Woods was hoping for headlines like "Cow Explodes In National Forest"--something that would focus attention on the grazing debate--when something went horribly wrong.
An interesting angle raised in the newspaper, and previously unknown to Joe, was the fact that Stewie Woods was a local boy born and reared in Winchester. He had attended high school in Saddle string and had played middle linebacker for the football team with a
recklessness that made him All-State. Then, according to his coaches and neighbors, he had gone to the University of Colorado in Boulder and instead of playing football for the Golden Buffaloes, he hooked up with the wrong people and went crazy
Joe wondered about the embarrassing legacy Woods's death would leave. Like an overweight Mama Cass, who died from choking on a sandwich, or Elvis Presley, who died on the toilet, or fitness author Jim Fixx, who died while running, Stewie Woods would forever be remembered as the environmental activist blown up by a cow. Despite the stunts, the publicity the best-selling biography written by Hayden Powell, and the attention Woods had garnered through the years, Stewie Woods would always be linked with a cow explosion. Joe knew there were ranchers, loggers, and politicians who would find this all very amusing.
Joe raked a hand through his hair. What he still didn't know was why Marybeth was so upset by the news. But he knew she would tell him when she felt she was ready Since her shooting injury and the loss of their baby, Marybeth readily admitted that she was more prone to quick mood swings and tremendous bouts of strong emotion--mostly sentimental ones. Sometimes she couldn't identify exactly what it was that triggered the tears. He had learned not to press her, not to make her give him a definitive answer right away because sometimes she simply didn't have one. It bothered her more than it bothered Joe, for she was a woman who had no room or time for baseless theatrics.
So whatever it was, Joe knew he would find out what was bothering her when Marybeth was good and ready to tell him.
He waited half an hour and finished his coffee. When she didn't come downstairs, he pulled on his hat, called Maxine, and walked outside to his pickup to go to work.
JOE CALLED IT "PERCHING." Perching was patrolling in the break lands in the foothills of the Bighorns, where the sagebrush gave way to pines, driving his truck up rough two-tracks to promontories and buttes where, with his Redfield spotting scope mounted to the side window, he could scope flats, meadows, and timber blow downs for game, hunters, hikers, and fishers. After two years on the job, he was still locating new adequate perches throughout his district, which consisted of 1,500 square miles of high plains steppe, sagebrush flats, craggy break lands, and mountains. These raised vantage points, where he could "sit and glass," generally had some kind of road to the top that had been established over the years by ranchers, surveyors, or hunters. Perching is what Joe had done for the past few days, since Marybeth's outburst. He had left early, stayed late, and filled the hours
between with routine patrolling of his district in the strange season between hunting and fishing activity Even if he patrolled every working hour, Joe knew he could never adequately cover his 1,500square mile district. But it was an important part of his job.
At night, he had worked late in his small office near the mudroom at home, updating logs and reports, writing out a comprehensive purchase request from headquarters for the goods and equipment he would need in the coming fiscal year (saddles, tack, new tires, roof repair,
) and waiting for Marybeth to come to him and explain what had happened that morning. They still needed to talk and clear the air. Every time he heard her walk by his door, he paused, hoping she would enter and close the door behind her and say "About the other morning .. ." He didn't push her, either, although the incident hung around the house like an unwelcome relative. Several times, he wanted to go to her, but he talked himself out of it. The guilt he felt about her injury and the subsequent loss of their child, was like a blade, ever poised, near his heart.
That morning, after the girls had left for school and the silence between them seemed to approach white noise, he told her about his encounter with Jim Finotta. She listened, and seemed grateful to be discussing anything except what he wanted to discuss. Her eyes probed his while he talked.
"Joe, are you sure this is something you want to pursue?" she asked.
"He poached an elk. He's no better than any other criminal. If fact, he's worse."
"But you can't prove it, can you?"
She stared at a spot behind Joe's head. "Joe, we're within sight of getting our debts paid for the first time since we've been married. I'm working Two jobs. Is this the time you want to go after a man like Jim Finotta?"
Her question surprised him, although it shouldn't have, and it momentarily put him off balance. Marybeth was nothing if not a pragmatist, especially when it came to her family
"I've got to check it out," Joe said, his resolve weakened. "You know that."
A slow, resigned smile formed on her face. "I know you do, Joe. I just don't want you to get in trouble again."
And for a moment, he could see in her expression that she wanted to add more. But she didn't.
it was rare to find many people about in the mountains in the late spring and early summer, when unpredictable squalls could sweep down from the Continental Divide in buffeting waves of wet snow, and when the snowmelt runoff was still too foamy cloudy, and violent to fish or swim in. Crusty drifts of snow still lay in draws and swales, but had retreated and regrouped from the grass and sagebrush into the safe harbor of thick wooded stands.
Maxine slept on the passenger seat, her head resting on her forepaws, her brow crinkled with concern from whatever peril she was dreaming about.
Hazelton Road, the route to the site of the cow explosion, cut upward through the timber to the west and there was a small streamside campground, empty except for a single vehicle that was partially obscured by trees. Near the vehicle was a light green dome tent. Joe zoomed in on the tent and the campsite with the spotting scope, feeling like a voyeur. Through a shimmer caused by the distance and warmth, he could see people sitting at a picnic table. Two stout women, one with a mass of thick brown hair and the other with short straight hair, sat on opposite sides of the table. Between them, on the tabletop, were pieces of equipment Joe couldn't identify from this distance. Their heads were bent over whatever they were doing, so Joe could not see the face of either woman.