IN TWELVE-YEAR-OLD SHERIDAN Pickett’s dream, she was in the Bighorn Mountains in the timber at the edge of a clearing. She was alone. Behind her, the forest was achingly silent. Before her, a quiet wind rippled through the long meadow grass in the clearing.
Then the clouds came, dark and imposing, roiling over the top of the mountains in a wall. Soon the sky was completely covered, a lid placed on a pot. In the center of the clouds was a lighter cloud that seemed to be lit from within. It grew bigger and closer, as if lowering itself to the earth. Black spoors of smoke snaked down in tendrils from the cloud, dropping into the trees. In moments, the smoke became ground-hugging mist that coursed through the tree trunks like soundless, rushing water. Then it seeped into the ground to rest, or to hide.
As quickly as the clouds had come, the sky cleared.
In her dream, she knew the mist stayed for a reason. The purpose, though, was beyond her understanding. When would it emerge, and why? Those were questions she couldn’t answer.
Sheridan awoke with a start, and it took a few terrifying moments to realize that the darkness surrounding her was actually her bedroom, and that the breathy windlike stirring she heard was her little sister Lucy, asleep on the bunk beneath her bed.
Sheridan found her glasses where she had propped them on her headboard, and swung her bare feet out from beneath the covers. She dropped to the cold floor with her nightgown ballooning around her.
Parting the curtain, she looked at the night sky. Hard white stars, like blue pinpricks, stared back. There were no clouds, either dark or glowing.
IT HAD BEEN A GOOD DAY of fly-fishing until Joe Pickett and his daughters encountered a massive bull moose that appeared to be grinning at them.
Until then, Joe, Sheridan, and seven-year-old Lucy had spent the entire afternoon working their way upstream on Crazy Woman Creek on a brilliant, early-September day. Maxine, their yellow Labrador, was with them. The tall streamside grass hummed with insects, hoppers mainly, and a high breeze swayed the crowns of the musky lodgepole pine forest.
They fished methodically, overtaking each other in wide loops away from the water, passing silently while the person they were passing cast at a pool or promising riffle. The water was lower than usual—it was a drought year—but the stream was clear and still very cold. Joe was in his late thirties, lean and of average height. His face and the backs of his hands were sunburned from being outside at altitude.
Hopscotching over dry river rocks, Joe had crossed the stream so he could keep a better eye on his girls as they worked the other side with their fly rods. Maxine shadowed Joe, as she always did, fighting her natural instinct to plunge into the water and retrieve fly casts.
Sheridan stood waist deep in brush upstream and was momentarily still, concentrating on tying a new hopper pattern to her tippet. Her glasses glinted in the afternoon sun, so Joe couldn’t tell if she was watching him observe her. She wore her new fishing vest (a recent birthday present) over a T-shirt, baggy shorts, and water sandals for wading. A sweat-stained Wyoming Game and Fish Department cap—one of Joe’s old ones—was pulled down tightly on her head. Her bare arms and legs were crosshatched with fresh scratches from thorns and branches she had crashed through to get closer to the water. She was a serious fly-fisher, and a serious girl overall.
But while Sheridan was the fisher, Lucy seemed to be catching most of the fish, much to Sheridan’s consternation. Lucy did not share her older sister’s passion for fishing. She came because Joe insisted, and because he had promised her a good lunch. She wore a sundress and white sandals, her shiny blond hair tied in a ponytail.
With each fish Lucy caught, Sheridan’s glare toward her little sister intensified, and she moved farther upstream away from her. It’s not fair, Joe knew she was thinking.
“Dad, come here and look at this,” Sheridan called, breaking into his rumination. He pulled the slack tight on his rod and looped his line through his fingers before walking up the bank toward her. She was pointing down at something in the water beneath her feet.
It was a dead trout, white belly up, lodged between two exposed stones. The fish bobbed in a natural cul-de-sac dark with pine needles and sheaths of algae that had washed down with the current. He could tell from the wet, vinyl-like sheen on the fish’s pale underside and the still-bright twin slashes of red beneath its gills that it hadn’t been dead very long.
“That’s a nice fish,” Sheridan said to Joe. “A cutthroat. How big do you think it is”
“Thirteen, fourteen inches,” Joe replied. “It’s a dandy.’ Instinctively, he reached down for Maxine’s collar. He could feel her trembling under her skin through her coat, anxious to retrieve the dead fish.
“What do you think happened to it” she asked. “Do you think somebody caught it and threw it back after it was dead”
Joe shrugged, “Don’t know.” On a previous trip, Joe had instructed Sheridan how to properly release a fish back into the water after he caught it. He had shown her how to cradle it under its belly and lower it slowly into the water so that the natural current would revive it, and how to let the fish dart away under its own power once it was fit to do so.
She had asked him about the ethics of eating caught fish versus releasing them, and he told her that fish were for eating but that there was no reason to be greedy, and that keeping dead fish in a hot creel all day and throwing them away later because they were ruined was an ethical problem, if not a legal one. He knew this is what she was thinking about when she pointed out the dead fish.
It wasn’t long before Sheridan pointed out another dead fish. It hadn’t been dead as long as the other one, Joe noted, because it floated on its side, flaunting the rainbow colors that gave the fish its name. It had not yet turned belly-up. This fish was not as large as the first, but still impressive.
Sheridan was righteously indignant.
“Something is killing these fish, and it makes me mad,” she said, her eyes flashing. Joe didn’t like it either but was impressed by her outrage, although he didn’t know whether her anger came from her outdoor ethics or if she was angry because someone was killing fish she felt she deserved to catch.
“Can you tell what’s killing them?” she asked.
This time, he let Maxine retrieve the rainbow. The Lab unnecessarily launched herself into the water with a splash that soaked both of them, and came back with the trout in her mouth. Joe pried it loose from Maxine’s jaws and turned it over in his palm. He could see nothing unusual about the fish.
“This isn’t like finding a dead deer or elk, where I can check for bullets,” he told Sheridan. “I can’t see any wounds, or disease on this fish. They may have been overstressed after being caught by someone.”
Sheridan huffed with disappointment, and strode upstream. Joe tossed the fish into a stand of willows behind him.
While he waited for Lucy to mosey her way closer, he reached behind him and felt the heavy sag of his .40 Beretta semiautomatic, his service weapon, hidden away in the large back pocket creel of his fishing vest. He also affirmed that his wallet-badge was there, as well as several strands of Flexcuffs. Although he wasn’t working, he was still the game warden, and still charged with enforcing regulations.
That morning, as he packed, he had taken the unusual step of adding another item to his fishing-vest arsenal: bear spray. He strummed his fingers over the large aerosol can through the fabric of his vest. The bear spray was wicked stuff, ten times more powerful than the pepper spray used for disabling humans. A whiff of the spray, even at a distance, brought men to their knees. Joe thought about the series of reports and cryptic e-mails he’d received regarding a rogue 400-pound male grizzly that was causing havoc in Northwestern Wyoming. For the past month, the bear had damaged cars, campsites, and cabins, but as yet there had been no human-bear encounters. The bear had originally been located near the east entrance of Yellowstone Park through a weakening signal from its radio collar, but he had not yet been sighted. When the “bear guys”“a team of Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bear specialists—tried to cut it off, the bear eluded them and they lost the signal. Joe couldn’t recall a runaway bear incident quite like this before. It was like the wilderness version of an escaped convict. He blamed the drought, as the biologists did, and the need for the grizzly to cover new ground in search of something, anything, to eat. It had not been lost on him that the damage reports indicated that the grizzly was moving to the east, through the Shoshone National Forest. If the bear kept up his march, he would enter the Bighorn Mountains, where grizzlies had not roamed for eighty years.
Joe disliked bringing his weapon and badge with him on his day off. He felt oddly ashamed that his daughters were seeing his day-to-day equipment as they caught fish and he cooked them over an open fire for lunch. It was different when he was out in the field, in his red chamois Game and Fish shirt and driving his green pickup, checking hunters and fishers. Now, he just wanted to be Dad.
Working their way upstream, they stumbled upon another party. Sheridan saw them first and stopped, looking back for Joe. He could see flashes of color through the trees upstream, and he heard a cough.
Joe noticed a strange odor in the air when the wind shifted. The odor was sickly sweet and metallic, and he winced when a particularly strong waft of it blew through.
Making sure Lucy was well behind them, Joe winked at Sheridan as he overtook her, and she fell in behind him as he closed in on the two fishers. He debated whether or not to show his badge before saying hello, and decided against it. Joe noticed the unpleasant odor again. It seemed to get worse as he walked upstream.
As he approached them, he felt Sheridan tug on his sleeve, and he turned and saw her point toward the water. A small brook trout, not more than six inches long, was floating on the top of the water on its side. It wasn’t dead yet, and he could see its gills working as it pathetically tried to right itself and swim away.
“The fish killers,” Sheridan whispered ominously at the man and woman in front of them, and he nodded to her in agreement.
The man looked to be in his late fifties, and was dressed as if he were a cover model for Fly-Fisherman magazine. He wore ultralight Gore-Tex waders and leather wading boots, a pale blue Cool-Max shirt, and a fishing vest with dozens of bulging pockets filled with gear. A wooden net hung down his back from a ring on his collar. A leather-bound journal for documenting the species and size of the fish he caught was on a lanyard on his vest, as was a small digital camera for recording the catch. The man was large and ruddy, with a thick chest. He had a salt-and-pepper mustache and pale, watery eyes. He looked like a hungover CEO on vacation, Joe thought.
Behind and off to the side of the man was a much younger woman with blond hair; long sunburned legs; and a fishing vest so new that the tag from the Bighorn Angler Fly Shop was still attached to the front zipper. She held her rod away from her body with the unease of someone holding a dead snake.
It was obvious, Joe thought, that the man was teaching the woman how to fish. Or, more accurately, the man was showing the woman what a fine fisherman he was. Joe assumed that the couple had stopped at the fly store on their way up the mountain and that the man had outfitted her with the new vest.
The man had been concentrating on dropping a fly into a deep pool but now glared at Joe and Sheridan, clearly annoyed that he had been disturbed.
“Jeff . . . ” the woman cautioned in a low voice, attempting to get Jeff’s attention.
“Good afternoon,”Joe said and smiled. “How’s fishing?”
Jeff stepped back from the stream in an exaggerated way. His movement wasn’t aggressive but clearly designed to show Joe and Sheridan that he wasn’t pleased with the interruption and that he planned to resume his cast as soon as possible.
“Thirty-fish day,”Jeff said gruffly.
“Twenty-eight,”the woman corrected, and Jeff instantly flashed a look at her.
“It’s an expression,” he said as if scolding a child. “Twenty-fish day, thirty-fish day, they’re fucking expressions. It’s what fishermen tell each other if one of them is rude enough to ask.”
The woman shrank back and nodded.
Joe didn’t like this guy. He knew the type: a fly-fisherman who thought he knew everything and who could afford all of the equipment he read about in the magazines. Often, these men were fairly new to the sport. Too often, these men had never learned about outdoor etiquette, or common courtesy. To them it was all about thirty-fish days.
“Keeping any” Joe asked, still smiling. He reached into the back pocket of his vest, bringing out his wallet-badge and holding it up so Jeff could understand why Joe was asking the question.
“There’s a limit of six on this stream,”Joe said. “Mind if I look at what you’ve kept?”
Jeff snorted and his face hardened.
“So you’re the game warden?”
“Yes,”Joe said. “And this is my daughter Sheridan.”
“And his daughter Lucy,”Lucy said, having caught up with them. “What’s that smell, Dad?”
“And Lucy,”Joe added, looking back at her. She was pinching her nose with her fingers. “So I would appreciate it if you watched your language around them.”
Jeff started to say something but caught himself. Then he rolled his eyes heavenward.
“Tell you what,”Joe said, looking at the woman’who appeared to be fearing a fight’and Jeff. “How about you show me your licenses and conservation stamps and I’ll show you how to properly release a fish so that there aren’t any more dead ones?”
The woman immediately began digging in her tight shorts, and Jeff seemed to make up his mind that he didn’t really want a fight, either. Still glaring at Joe, he reached behind his back for his wallet.
Joe checked the licenses. Both were perfectly legal. She was from Colorado and had a temporary fishing license. Jeff O’Bannon was local, although Joe couldn’t remember ever seeing him before. Joe noted that O’Bannon’s address was on Red Cloud Road, which meant he lived in one of the new $500,000 ranchettes south of town in the Elkhorn Ranches subdivision. That didn’t surprise Joe.
“Do you know what that awful smell is?” Joe asked conversationally as he handed the licenses back.
“It’s a dead moose,”Jeff O’Bannon said sullenly. “In that meadow up there.” He gestured through the trees to the west, vaguely pointing with the peaked extra-long bill of his Orvis fishing cap. “That’s one reason why we’re fucking leaving.”
“Jeff . . . ” The woman cautioned.
O’Bannon growled at her, “There’s no law against the word fucking.”
Joe felt a rise of anger. “I think, Jeff, that I’ll see you again some time out here,”Joe said, leaning in close to Jeff. “Given your bad attitude, you’ll probably be doing something wrong. I’ll arrest you when you do.”
O’Bannon started to step toward Joe but the woman held his arm. Joe slipped his hand in the back pocket of his fishing vest and thumbed off the safety bar on the bear spray.
“Aw, to hell with it,”O’Bannon said, leaning back. “Let’s get out of here, Cindy. He’s already ruined my good mood.”
Joe watched as Cindy breathed a long sigh of relief and shook her head in bewilderment for Joe’s benefit, keeping out of Jeff’s line of vision. Joe stepped aside as the man stormed past him, followed by Cindy.
“Bye, girls,”Cindy called to Sheridan and Lucy, who watched the two walk downstream. Jeff led the way, snapping branches and cursing. Cindy tried to keep up.
“Dad, can we leave, too?” Lucy asked. “It stinks here.”
“Go ahead and go downstream a little ways and get out of the smell if you want to,”Joe said. “I need to check this moose out.”
“We’re going with you,”Lucy honked back, still holding her nose. Joe turned to argue when he noticed that O’Bannon and Cindy hadn’t moved very far downstream after all. O’Bannon stood in a clearing, glaring through pine branches at Joe while Cindy tugged at him.
“Okay,”Joe said, knowing it was best to keep his girls near him.
The moose wasn’t hard to find, and the sight jarred Joe. A full-grown bull moose lay on its side in the ankle-high grass in the center of the meadow, which was walled on three sides by dark trees that continued in force up the mountain. The dead moose was horribly bloated to nearly twice its normal size, its mottled purple skin stretched nearly to breaking. Two black legs, knobby-kneed and surprisingly long, were suspended over the ground, like a chair that had been tipped over. Its face, half-hidden in the grass, seemed to leer at him with bared long teeth and a single, bulging, wide-open eye that looked like it was primed and ready to fire right out of the socket.
Joe turned on his heels and told his girls to stop so they wouldn’t see it. Too late.
Lucy shrieked, and covered her mouth with her hands. Sheridan stared, her eyes wide, her mouth set grimly.
“It’s alive!” Lucy cried.
“No it isn’t,”Sheridan countered. “But there’s something wrong with it.”
“Stay put,”Joe said sternly. “I mean that.”
Drawing a bandanna out of his Wranglers, he tied it over his nose and mouth like a highwayman, and approached the bloated carcass. Sheridan was right, Joe thought. There was something wrong with it. And there was something else; he had a fuzzy, slightly dizzy feeling. For a moment, he was light-headed, and thought that perhaps he had moved too quickly or something. He blinked, and when he looked around he saw faint, slow motion sparkling in the air for a moment.
Shaking his head to try and clear it, Joe circled the carcass, never getting closer than a few feet from it. The animal had been mutilated. Its genitals and musk glands had been cut out, and its rectum was cored. Half of its face had been removed, leaving a grinning skull and long, yellowed teeth. He could see where the skin and glands had been cut away, and noted that the incisions were smooth, almost surgical, in their precision. He could not imagine an animal, any animal, leaving wounds like that. Where the skin had been cut away the exposed flesh was dark purple and black, speckled with tiny commas of bright yellow. When he stopped and stared, he realized that the commas were writhing. Maggots. Besides the incisions, he could see no exterior wounds on the carcass.
Turning his head for a big gulp of air, he strode forward and squatted and grasped one of the bony, stiff forelegs. Grunting, he lifted, using the leg as a lever. He shinnied around the obscenely smiling face and massive, inverted palm-frond antlers and pulled, using his legs and back, trying to turn the stiff carcass. For a moment, the sheer weight of the animal stymied him, and he feared losing his footing and falling over it. Worse yet would be if the leg pulled loose from the putrefied shoulder, leaving a long, hairy club in his hands. But with a sickening kissing sound the body detached from the ground and began to roll toward him. He pulled hard on the leg and jumped back as the carcass flopped over in the grass. Gasses burbled inside the carcass, sounding like something subterranean. He searched the grass-matted hide for external injuries. Again, he found none.
He expected to see the flattened grass black with congealed blood, as was usually the case when he found animals that had been poached. The entry wound was often hard to see but the exit wound would bleed and drain into the turf, leaving a black-and-red pudding. But there was no blood underneath the moose at all, only more insects, madly scrambling, running from sunlight.
Joe stepped back and looked around. The grass was lush and thick in the meadow, and he noticed, for the first time, that there were no tracks of any kind in it. When he looked back on the slope he had walked up, his own footprints were glaringly obvious in the crushed, dry grass. It appeared that the moose had chosen the center of the meadow to suddenly drop dead. So what could possibly have removed the animal’s genitals, glands, and face” And not left so much as a print”
He pulled the bandanna from his mouth and let it hang around his neck. His necropsy kit was in his pickup, which was a one-hour walk away. Dusk would be approaching soon, and he had promised Marybeth he would have the girls home in time for dinner and homework. Tomorrow, when he returned, he expected that with the kit and his metal detector he would find a bullet or two in the carcass. Usually, the lead caught up just beneath the hide on the opposite side of where the animal had been shot.
Joe walked back to where Sheridan and Lucy were standing. They had moved back down the hill from the meadow, close enough that they could watch him but far enough away that the smell of the carcass wouldn’t make them sick to their stomachs. Jeff and Cindy were nowhere in sight.
As they worked their way down the slope to Crazy Woman Creek, his girls fired questions at him.
“Who killed the moose, Dad?” Lucy asked. “I like moose.”
“Me too. And I don’t know what killed it.”
“Isn’t that strange to find an animal just dead like that?” Lucy again.
“Very strange,”Joe said. “Unless somebody shot it and left it.”
“That’s a crime, right” A big one?” Sheridan asked.
Joe nodded, “Wanton destruction of a game animal.”
“I hope you find out who did it,”Sheridan said, “and take away all of his stuff.”
“Yup,”Joe agreed, but his mind was racing. Besides the mutilation and the lack of tracks around the animal, something else bothered him that he couldn’t put his finger on. But as the three of them walked downstream, he saw a raccoon ahead of them splash through a pool and vanish into a stand of trees. The raccoon had found one of the dead fish that Jeff had “released.”
Suddenly, Joe stopped. That was it, he thought. The bull moose had been dead for at least several days, lying in the open, and nothing had fed on it. The mountains were filled with scavengers’eagles, coyotes, badgers, hawks, ravens, even mice’who were usually the first on the scene of a dead animal. Joe had discovered scores of game animals, which had been lost or left by hunters, by the squawking, feeding magpies that usually marked a kill. But the moose looked untouched, except for the incisions.
As a big fist of cumulous clouds punched across the sun and flattened the shadows and dropped the temperature by a quick ten degrees, Joe heard a snapping sound and turned slowly, looking back toward the meadow where they had found the moose. He could see nothing, but he felt a ripple through the hairs on the back of his neck.
“What is it, Dad?” Sheridan asked.
Joe shook his head, listening.
“I heard it,”Lucy said. “It sounded like somebody stepped on a branch or a twig. Or maybe they were eating potato chips.”
“Potato chips,”Sheridan scoffed. “That’s stupid.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“Girls.” Joe admonished them, still trying to listen. But he heard nothing beyond the liquid sound of the flowing breeze through the swaying crowns of the pine trees. He thought of how, in just a few moments, the mountain setting had changed from warm and welcoming to cold and oddly silent.
IT WAS A HALF HOUR BEFORE DUSK when they arrived at their small, two-story, state-owned home eight miles out of Saddlestring. Joe swung the pickup off Bighorn Road and parked it in front of the detached garage that needed painting. Sheridan and Lucy were out of the passenger door even before he set the brake, rushing across the grass in the front yard into the house to tell their mother what they had seen. Maxine bounded behind them but paused at the door to look back at Joe.
“Go ahead,” Joe said, “I’m coming.”
Assured, the Labrador bolted into the house.
After putting the rods, vests, and cooler into the garage, Joe walked around the house toward the corral. Toby, their eight-year-old paint gelding, nickered as soon as Joe was in sight which meant he was hungry. Doc, their new sorrel yearling, nickered as well, following the older horse’s lead. Joe shooed them aside as he entered the corral, then fed them two flake sections each of grass hay. He filled the trough and checked the gate on his way out. While he did so, he wondered why Marybeth hadn’t fed them earlier, because she usually did.
As he opened the door at the back of the house, Sheridan stormed out of it in a dark mood.
“Did you tell your mom about the moose?” Joe asked her.
“She’s busy,” Sheridan snapped, “maybe I should have made an appointment.”
“Sherry . . .” Joe admonished, but Sheridan was out the back gate toward the corral.
He turned and entered the kitchen. Marybeth sat at the kitchen table wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, surrounded by manila files, stacks of paper, facedown open books, a calculator, and a laptop computer. Boxes of files were stacked on either side of her chair, their lids on the floor. She was concentrating on her laptop screen, and barely acknowledged him as he entered the kitchen.
“Hey, babe,” he greeted her and swept her blond hair away from the side of her face and kissed her on the cheek.
“Just a second,” she said, tapping on her keyboard.
Joe felt a pang of annoyance. It was obvious that nothing was cooking on the stove, and the oven light was dark. The table was a shambles, and so was Marybeth. It wasn’t as if he expected dinner on the table every night. But she had asked him to be home early with the girls, for dinner, and he had lived up to his part of the bargain.
“Okay,” she announced and snapped the screen down on her laptop. “Got it.”
“The Logue Country Realty account is finally reconciled,” she said. “What a mess that one was.”
“Well, good,” he said flatly, opening the refrigerator to see if a covered dish was ready to heat. Nope.
“I don’t know how they stayed in business after they bought it, Joe,” she explained, filing bank statements and canceled checks into folders and envelopes. “The previous owners left them an unbelievable mess. Their cash flow was an absolute mystery for the last twelve quarters.”
There weren’t even frozen pizzas in the freezer, he saw. Just some rock-hard packages of deer burger and elk roasts from the previous year, and a box of Popsicles that had been in the freezer as long as Joe could remember.
“I thought we’d go out tonight,” Marybeth said. “Or maybe one of us could run into town to get something and bring it back.”
He was surprised. “We can afford to?”
Marybeth’s smile disappeared. “No, we really can’t,” she sighed. “Not until the end of the month, anyway.”
“We could thaw out that burger in the microwave,” Joe suggested.
“Do you mind grilling out?” she asked.
“That’s fine,” he said evenly.
“Honey . . .”
Joe held up his hand. “Don’t worry about it. You got caught up in your work. It’s okay.”
For a second, he thought she would tear up. That happened more and more lately. But she didn’t. Instead, she bit her lower lip and looked at him.
“Really,” he said.
As he scraped the grate of the barbecue grill in the backyard, Joe battled with himself over his disappointment that there was no dinner planned and his growing worry about Marybeth and their marriage. There was no doubt that the violent death of April, their foster daughter, last winter had severely affected Marybeth. Joe had hoped that the dawn of spring would help Marybeth heal but it hadn’t. Spring had only brought the realization that their situation in general was no different than it had been before.
Sometimes, he caught her staring. She would fix on the window, or sometimes on something that seemed to be between the window and her eyes. Her face would look slightly wistful, and her eyes softened. A couple of times he asked her what she was thinking about. When he did, she shook her head as if shaking off a vision, and said, “nothing.”
He knew their finances troubled her, as they troubled him. There was a statewide budget crunch, and salaries had been frozen. In Joe’s case, this meant he would make $32,000 a year as far ahead as he could see. The long hours he worked also meant that any kind of extra income was out of the question. The department provided housing and equipment, but recently the house, which had at one time seemed wonderful, felt like a trap.
After April died, Joe and Marybeth had discussed their future. They needed normalcy, they agreed, they needed routine. Faith and hope would return naturally, because they were strong people and they loved each other and, given time, they’d all heal. Joe had promised to look at other job options, or request a change of districts within the state. A change of scenery might help, they agreed. But he had not really researched the job postings recently, because in his heart he loved his job and never wanted to leave it. That reality shrouded him, at times, with secret guilt.
Marybeth was no longer working at the library and the stables, the two part-time jobs she had held. Even combined, they were too low-paying, and involved too much public contact, she told him. She was uncomfortable with library patrons who assessed her and asked her questions about April, and the events that had lead to her death.
But they needed additional income, and in the summer Marybeth had started her own business, setting up accounting, office management, and inventory control for small businesses in Saddlestring. Joe thought it was a perfect choice, with her education, toughness, and organizational skills. So far, her clients included Barrett’s Pharmacy, Sandvick Taxidermy, the Saddlestring Burg-O-Pardner, and Logue Country Realty. She was working hard to get established, and the business was close to being a success.
Which made him feel even more guilty that he had been angry with her about dinner.
Tell me about that moose,” she asked after dinner, while they washed and rinsed dishes in the sink. Joe was surprised by the question, because Sheridan and Lucy had described the incident in such graphic detail while they were eating that Joe had asked them to stop.
“What about it?”
She smiled slyly. “For the past fifteen minutes, you’ve been thinking about it.”
He flushed. “How do you know that?”
“You mean besides the fact that you’ve been staring off into space the entire time that we’ve been doing the dishes? Or that you’re drying that glass for the fourth time?” she said, grinning. “You’re standing right here but your mind is elsewhere.”
“It isn’t fair that you do that,” he said, “because I can never tell what you’re thinking about.”
“As it should be,” she said, giving him a mischievous hip-check as they stood side-by-side at the sink.
“The girls described it pretty accurately,” he said. “Not much I can add to that.”
“So why does it bother you?”
He rinsed a plate and slid it into the drying rack, pausing until he could articulate what he had been thinking about. “I’ve seen a lot of dead animals,” he said, looking over his shoulder at her. “And, unfortunately, some dead human beings.”
She nodded him on.
“But everything about that scene was, well, different—extremely so.”
“Do you mean that you couldn’t figure out what made the wounds?”
“That too,” he said. “But you just don’t find a dead moose in the middle of a meadow like that. There were no tracks; no indication that whoever shot it went to check it out afterward. Even the really bad poachers, the ones who leave the bodies on the ground, usually go check out the target.”
“Maybe it was just sick and it died,” she said reasonably.
Joe had turned and was leaning back against the sink with the towel still over his forearm.
He said, “Of course animals die of natural causes all the time. But you just never find them. You may find some bones if the skeleton hasn’t been too scattered by predators, but you just don’t happen upon animals that have died of old age. Or if you do, it’s damned rare. Dying animals tend to seek out cover where nothing can find them. They don’t just keel over in the middle of a meadow like that.”
“But you don’t know that it wasn’t shot, or hit by lightning or something,” she said.
“It wasn’t lightning. There were no scorch marks. It may have been shot; I’ll find that out tomorrow. But my gut tells me I won’t find any lead.”
“Maybe it was poisoned somehow?” Marybeth asked.
Joe was silent for a moment before answering, reviewing the scene in his head. He was pleased that Marybeth was so wrapped up in what had happened to the moose. She’d been so distracted by her new business that it had been a long time since she’d been interested in anything he’d been doing.
“Again, I think the bull would have sought cover to die. Unless the poison killed him so quick he just dropped, which doesn’t sound very likely to me. And those wounds . . .”
“You described them as incisions earlier,” Marybeth said.
“Yes, they were more like surgery than butchery. No animal I know of makes perfect cuts like that. And the parts that were cut away were removed from the scene, taken away. As if they were trophies of some kind.”
Marybeth grimaced. “I’d hate to see that trophy collection.”
Joe laughed uncomfortably, agreeing with her.
“It’s almost as if the moose was dropped from the sky,” Marybeth said.
“Aw, jeez,” he moaned. “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that.”
She prodded him hard in the ribs with her finger. “But that’s what you were thinking, weren’t you, Joe?”
At first he thought about denying it. But she was so damnably keyed into his thoughts that he didn’t dare.
“Yup,” he said.
“I can’t wait to hear what you find out,” she said, turning and reaching through the wash water for the plug. “Should I ask my mother what she thinks about it?”
Joe bristled, as Marybeth knew he would, and she laughed to assure him she was kidding. Her mother, the former Missy Vankueran, was soon to marry a local rancher named Bud Longbrake. In addition to getting remarried (she had four ex-husbands), and discussing exactly how Joe had stifled Marybeth’s potential, Missy’s top passion was reading books and watching television shows and movies about the paranormal. She loved to speculate about situations and events around Twelve Sleep County—and the world—and ascribe supernatural explanations to them.
“Don’t tell her, please,” Joe begged, exaggerating his please, but not really. “You know how I hate that woo-woo crap.”
“Speaking of woo-woo crap,” Sheridan said as she entered the kitchen from where she’d been eavesdropping, “did I tell you I had that dream again?”
THE NEXT MORNING, MONDAY, Joe hiked up the Crazy Woman Creek drainage with his necropsy kit to discover that the grinning moose was no longer there. The absence of the dead moose in the meadow stopped him outright, and he stood still for a moment, surveying the crushed grass. He was thinking about Sheridan’s dream, which made him uncomfortable. Joe refused to believe in aliens or creeping mist or anything else he couldn’t see or touch. Had there been a time when he believed in monsters and things that went bump in the night? Nope, he thought. He had always been a skeptic. He remembered when neighborhood kids gathered around a Ouija board, and urged him to join them. Instead, he went fishing. When his friends stayed up late at night to watch creature movies, Joe fell asleep. Sheridan was different, though, and always had been. He hoped she’d outgrow the dreams.
Something had dragged, or carried, the carcass away. The trail was obvious; a spoor of flattened grass led across the meadow in a stuttering S-curve toward the northern wall of pine trees. Puzzled, he followed it.
The mature bull moose weighed at least 600 pounds, he guessed. Whatever had moved it had tremendous strength. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see a set of pickup or ATV tracks in the meadow, but they weren’t there. He wondered if it could be the grizzly. As he walked silently across the meadow in the flattened grass track of the moose, he tried to peer ahead into the dark trees and see into them. He listened intently for sounds, and noted the absence of them. There were no chattering squirrels in the trees, or calling jays. Except for the low hum of insects in the grass near his feet and the high, airy flow of a cold fall breeze through the branches, it was deathly silent in the meadow. Again, he felt a chill run up his spine, which raised the hairs on his neck and forearms.
He couldn’t explain the odd feeling he got again from the meadow. It felt as if something was physically pushing against him from all sides. Not hard, but steadily. The crisp fall mountain air tasted thicker than it should have, and when he breathed in, his lungs felt heavy and wet. He sensed a kind of shimmer in the air when he looked at the wall of trees and the granite mountains that pushed up behind them. He didn’t like the feeling at all, and tried to shake it off.
Joe slipped the strap of the necropsy kit over his head so that his hands were free. He drew his semiautomatic weapon and worked the slide, seating a cartridge in the chamber. With his left hand, he unclipped the large can of bear spray from his belt and thumbed off the guard. He cautiously approached the wall of trees, his weapon in his right hand and the spray in his left. All of his senses were tuned to high, and he strained to see, hear, or smell anything that would give him a warning before it was too late.
That’s when he saw the bear track in the center of the crushed grass. The huge paw was the size of a pie plate and had pushed down through the mat of grass into dark soil. He could see the heel imprint clearly; it was pressed into the dirt, as were the prints of all five toes. Nearly two inches from the end of the toe marks were sharp punctures in the ground, as if a curved garden rake had been swung overhead and embedded deeply into the earth. The creature that had made the tracks was the rogue grizzly bear, he was sure of it. None of the native black bears could leave a track that large. The odd thing, he thought, was that the track was pointed toward him, and not toward the wall of trees. Why wasn’t the track heading away from the meadow?
Then he answered his own question. If the bear was dragging the moose out of the meadow, he would have clamped down on the moose’s neck with his teeth and pulled it backward, like a puppy dragging a sock. The fact that the heel print was deeper than the claws indicated that the bear was struggling with the heavy carcass, backing up and digging deep into the earth for traction.
He glanced at the bear spray he carried and then at the .40 Beretta. Too small, he thought, too puny. Not only would he likely miss because he was such a poor shot with a handgun, but even if he hit his target it would probably do no more than make the bear angry.
He stood, thought, and shrugged, then plunged forward, toward the trees that lined the meadow. There was a hole in the brush where something—the bear?—had already blazed through. Branches had been bent and snapped back and broken. Entering the pool of shadow cast by the wall of pine trees, Joe squinted to see better. The forest was unnaturally dense and cluttered with wicked snarls of dry deadfall. The tree trunks were the thickness of the barrel of a baseball bat and extremely close together. Joe lowered his shoulder and pushed through.
The forest floor was dark, dry, and carpeted thickly with several inches of bronze pine needles. His boots sank with each step, and the earth was springy. The smell inside was a combination of dried pine, vegetative decay, and the sudden strong odor of the dead moose that for some reason Joe had not noticed until now.
As his eyes adjusted to the half-light filtering through the pine boughs, the carcass of the moose seemed to emerge on the forest floor right in front of him. The stench was suddenly overpowering, and Joe stepped back and thumped his shoulder blade against two tree trunks that prevented further flight. Holstering his gun, he held his breath while he dug a thick surgical face-mask from the kit, pulled the rubber band over the back of his head, and fitted the mask over his nose and mouth. He smeared Vicks VapoRub across the front of the mask from a small plastic jar in the kit to further block the smell. Then he approached the carcass and got to work.
The carcass had obviously decomposed even more. Blooms of entrails had burst through several places in the abdomen of the moose, where the hide had been stretched so tightly that it split. Again, he marveled at the surgical precision of the incisions that had been made. He could see no wounds that he had missed the day before, except for the gouged rips in the neck from the teeth of the bear that had dragged it from the meadow. Joe photographed the wounds from several angles using his digital camera. The photos, he thought, didn’t convey the dread and fear he felt. They looked clinical, and somehow cleaner than the real thing.
He put on thick rubber gloves and squatted next to the carcass with his kit open. Using dental charts, he noted the size of the pre-molars as well as their stain and wear and guessed that the bull was at least seven years old, in its prime. Pushing a stainless steel probe through the hide along the spine of the moose between the shoulders, then in the middle of the back, and finally between the haunches, he noted that the body fat of the animal was normal, even a little excessive. Joe thought it was unusual in a drought year that the moose seemed so robust and healthy. Whatever had happened to the moose, it was clear that it hadn’t died from either starvation or old age.
He ran a telescopic metal detector over the animal from its tail to the rounded end of its bulbous snout. No metal. If the animal had been shot, the bullet had passed through the body. But there was no exit wound. Conventional high-powered hunting bullets were designed to mushroom inside the body and do horrendous damage inside. But they were engineered to stay inside the body somewhere, not to exit. There was the possibility, Joe thought, that the shooter was using specialized armor-piercing type rounds that could pass straight through. But he doubted that scenario. In fact, the more he studied the body, the less he could convince himself that somebody had shot it.
Using a razor, Joe sliced tissue samples from the places on the moose’s hindquarters, neck, and head where its hide had been cut away. He dropped the strips of meat into thick paper envelopes to send to the lab in Laramie. Plastic would spoil the samples, and he didn’t want his effort to go to waste. He duplicated the procedure with another set of envelopes he would send to another lab.
After he completed his work, he stood above the carcass and stared at it. If anything, the face stripped of its flesh seemed more gruesome in the dark silence of the forest floor. The smell of the decaying body was working its way through the mask, overpowering even the Vicks. Joe looked around, suddenly realizing that he had been so intent on collecting the samples and completing the necropsy that he hadn’t thought about the grizzly. Was he out there now, somewhere in the shadows? Would he be coming back?
Why would the bear go to all the effort of dragging the huge corpse into the trees and not feed on it? Moose was highly choice meat, for hunters and for bears. If the bear wasn’t hungry, why would he have worked so hard? If the bear intended to eat the moose later, why hadn’t he buried the carcass or covered it with brush as bears usually did?
Joe zipped up his kit and retraced his steps. Nothing about this dead moose made sense. His only hope to solve the puzzle, he thought, was if the lab boys could come up with something from the photos and the samples. But even if the moose died of some strange disease, how would they account for the incisions and the missing skin, glands, and organs?
As he neared the meadow, the light fused yellow, and when he emerged from the forest he had the same feeling a swimmer does as he breaks the surface from below. In the meadow, Joe turned. He listened closely for the sounds of a bear approaching or, for that matter, any sound at all. There was none. But there was still that shimmer in the air, and the closed-in feeling of density.
Maybe, Joe thought, somebody or something is watching me. Maybe that was why he felt so unnatural and out of sorts in the meadow. He swept the forest with his eyes, trying to find something out of the ordinary. A set of eyes, perhaps, or the glint of the lenses from binoculars. He turned slowly in the center of the meadow, not far from where the moose had originally lain. He scanned the three walls of trees, and the creek bed, even the high, slick faces of the mountains. He saw nothing unusual. But he was thoroughly and ashamedly spooked.
Still clutching his weapon and the bear spray, Joe walked across the meadow and dropped down into Crazy Woman Creek. As he walked downstream, he felt the pressure lessen. Eventually, he couldn’t feel it at all. The sun seemed warmer and brighter overhead. A raven cawed rudely somewhere on the opposite bank.
In the afternoon, Joe sat in his truck on the crest of a sagebrush-covered hilltop in the breaklands east of Saddlestring. Behind him, the terrain arched and transformed into the foothills of the Bighorns, where he had come from. In front of him were miles of blue-gray sagebrush plains cut through with slashes of red ravines. From his vantage point, the breaklands looked like the ocean caught in freeze-frame; wavelike rolls of undulation stopped in time. This was pronghorn antelope country but there were few hunters out. He had identified only two vehicles over the past three hours, distant sparkles of glass and steel over two miles away. Watching through his window-mounted spotting scope, he observed the four-wheel drives move slowly on BLM roads. Road hunters, Joe thought. He had heard no shots. After the first weekend of antelope season, hunting activity was minimal in the breaklands. Pronghorns were so plentiful and easy to hunt that serious hunters had harvested their game within hours of the season opening. Those still out were either stubborn trophy hunters looking for the perfect rack, or local meat hunters who felt no sense of urgency.
Joe sat back from the spotting scope and rubbed his eyes. Maxine sighed and rolled over on the passenger seat, still sleeping.
He had stopped in town and mailed the tissue samples of the moose. The packages should arrive at the lab in Laramie and his other source in Montana the next morning. He had called both recipients on his cell phone and left messages asking that the examinations be expedited. He promised to forward the digital photos of the moose via e-mail that evening, when he got back to his house, so they could see the source of the samples.
From his vantage point, looking out at the plains, he could see forever. He loved this particular time in the fall for many reasons, but one of the major reasons was how the air and light seemed to sharpen, and everything was in perfect focus. In the summer, waves of rising heat rose from the plains and limited his field of vision. In the winter, moisture in the air or wind-borne snow did the same thing. This time in the fall the air was crisp and fresh and clear, and the colors from the trees that filled the valleys gave the landscape a festive, celebratory quality. Yet, today, the spectacular view failed to fill him with the same sense of awe that it usually did. He just couldn’t stop thinking about the dead bull moose.
Even without the strange feeling he’d had in the meadow—which he now seriously doubted had come from anywhere other than his own imagination—the circumstances of the animal’s death made even less sense than they had the day before.
Joe shook his head. He hoped some answers would come from the Wildlife Veterinary Research Services, where he’d sent the samples.
Then something caught his eye—a glint—and he leaned into the spotting scope again and tilted it upward, past the breaks into the private ranch lands miles beyond. Focusing the eyepiece, he simultaneously tightened the mount on the window to steady the telescope.
The glint, it turned out, was not from glass but from water forming around a freshly drilled well. The drilling rig that produced it was surrounded by three large pickup trucks, all the same make, model, and color. Men moved quickly between the pickups and the well, splashing through the growing pool of water. Joe couldn’t see them clearly enough to make out their faces, or read the logos on the pickup doors, but he recognized what was going on. He had seen it dozens of times in the past year.
The trucks and rig were drilling for coal-bed methane in the basin. Judging by the rush of water to the surface and the urgency in the men’s movements, they had obviously found it once again.
Underground coal seams covered the concentrated natural gas like a blanket, which in the past had made it difficult to retrieve. Joe had read, however, that since the technology had been perfected to extract the gas 5,000 CBM wells had been drilled in the Powder River Basin. An additional 5,000 to 8,000 wells were planned. Gas was being found everywhere they looked, and locating the underground pockets was now a fairly easy thing for geologists to do. Methane that had once been vented and released into the air during oil exploration as waste was now funneled into pipelines bound for the Midwest, the West Coast, and beyond. The coal-bed methane boom was being called the largest new energy discovery in North America.
In less than two years, Northern Wyoming was unexpectedly awash in the two things that, prior to that, were rare: money and water. Although Joe only understood the details of the boom from what he read and the snippets of conversation he heard from developers and locals in town, the price of methane gas ranged from seventy-five cents to three dollars per million British thermal unit, or mmbtus, depending on demand. And from what the energy developers were claiming, the underground coal in Twelve Sleep County could hold trillions of mmbtus of methane gas.
The CBM boom had invigorated the economy, and the county population, for the first time in a decade, was increasing. And it was only the beginning.
Although local businesses were certainly benefiting from the CBM boom, the developers, energy companies, and people who owned the mineral rights to the areas where the gas was being developed stood to gain the most. Stories abounded of instant millionaires, as well as of landowners who, after selling off what they thought were worthless mineral rights to their lands years before, could now only stand by while millions of dollars in gas were being pumped from wells on their ranches. Marybeth had told Joe the story of the Overstreet sisters, who owned the Timberline Ranch north of Saddlestring. The ranch was for sale through Logue Country Realty, her favorite client, but there were no buyers. Six hundred CBM wells were planned. Walter Overstreet, the patriarch of the ranch, had sold the mineral rights years ago, before he died. Despite the wells, the Overstreet sisters could be found in line for free lunch every day at the Saddlestring Senior Center.
But the controversial byproduct of CBM development was water. Far underground, water was trapped beneath the coal. Once a drill bit tapped the pocket, water rushed to the surface with great pressure. As the pressure eased, methane followed. Eventually, the water cleared out of the mix, and pure methane was produced. Although water had always been considered the single most precious commodity in the state, the effect of huge releases of underground water on the surface due to CBM wells was still unknown. Some tracts of land that had been parched for generations were now covered with standing water. Various landowners and many environmental groups claimed that CBM wells were depleting the aquifers, transforming the landscape and polluting the rivers with bitter water. The developers and other landowners countered that at last there was finally some water available for stock and wildlife. The battle raged on, although developers were now required to receive approval from state and federal environmental regulators before drilling.
Joe didn’t know which side he was on. On the one hand, residents of Saddlestring were practically giddy with optimism for the first time since he had lived there. A new school was being built, the hospital was in the process of renovation, and the small airport was expanding. New restaurants and retail stores were filling the empty downtown buildings that had been boarded up the year before. The nation lusted for clean burning natural gas.
But there was no doubt that the thousands of wells were a blight to the landscape, even though the country they occupied was flat, barren, and stark to begin with. If the CBM wells sucked up so much underground water that water wells went dry or surface land collapsed, that wasn’t good, either. And if the water being released to the surface was as mineral-heavy and tainted as some people claimed, it could poison the rivers and reservoirs, harming both people and wildlife.
Joe shook his head. Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming, was usually considered to be behind the rest of the world in all things modern or progressive. But when it came to this new kind of energy development, it was ahead of everyplace else.
The breaklands seemed empty of hunters, and before Joe moved to patrol a different area, he scanned the channels on his radio. While he usually listened to the channel reserved for the Game and Fish Departments in Wyoming, which was shared by brand inspectors and state park employees, he liked to check out what was going on in other areas of law enforcement. He listened to a highway patrol officer flirt with the dispatcher 200 miles away from his lonely location south of Jeffrey City, and a local Saddlestring police department request officers to check out a domestic disturbance. Joe had noted more domestic disturbance calls with the influx of CBM workers.
When he switched to the mutual aid channel, used by all agencies to communicate with each other in crises or emergencies, he found it crackling with traffic.
He recognized the first voice as that of Sheriff O. R. “Bud” Barnum, the longtime sheriff of Twelve Sleep County.
“Come again on that one?” Barnum said to someone. Even hearing his voice set Joe on edge. Over the years, Joe had come to despise Barnum. The feeling went both ways.
“You aren’t going to believe this,” someone answered, and Joe recognized the voice as that of Barnum’s top deputy, Kyle McLanahan. “We’ve got a dozen dead cows on the Hawkins Ranch. It looks like they’ve been . . . well, operated on.”
“What do you mean, operated on?” Barnum asked.
“Jeez, it’s hard to describe,” McLanahan said. “Half their faces are gone. And, uh, their peckers are missing, it looks like.”
Joe felt a jolt of familiarity.
“Their peckers?” Barnum sounded angry.
“Well, if they had peckers,” McLanahan reported. “If they was females, then their female parts have been cut out.”
More trophies, Joe thought. He reached down and started his pickup. The Hawkins Ranch was an hour away on bad roads.
IN THE TOWN OF SADDLESTRING, behind a battered desk that came with the building, Marybeth Pickett shot her arm out and looked at her wristwatch. She had twenty minutes to finish up and print out the cash-flow spreadsheet she had been working on for Logue Country Realty, meet with the Logues, gather up her computer and files, and pick up her children from school. This is what it was like now, she thought. Her life was on the clock.
She had spent the morning meeting with the office manager of Barrett’s Pharmacy going over accounts receivable, then at Sandvick Taxidermy working with the owner to establish a new billing system. Once they wrapped up, Marybeth asked the taxidermist, Matt Sandvick, if he had ever seen an animal brought in with the kind of wounds Joe had found on the dead moose the day before.
“Yup, I have,” Sandvick had answered, his eyes widening behind thick lenses.
“On that show that used to be on. The X-Files.” And Sandvick laughed.
After a quick lunch with her friend Marie Logue, co-owner of Logue Country Realty, Marybeth set up her portable office in a shabby back room at the real estate office and worked under a bare bulb. A small metal electric heater rattled to life whenever the temperature dropped below 60 degrees, and blew out dust-smelling heat through bent orange coils.
Of her three accounts, Marybeth preferred working with the Logues, although the account also presented the most challenges. While Marybeth did her best to straighten out the Byzantine finances of the business they had bought into, there was no doubt that the company and the Logues were in trouble. Despite this, she had come to like and admire them and wanted to do what she could to help them make the company survive, including undercharging for her time. She knew they couldn’t afford her full rate just yet.
But if Sheridan and Lucy were to progress to college, as they should, it would take two full-time incomes. Joe’s salary was barely enough to live on, considering Sheridan’s basketball, volleyball, speech and debate interests, and Lucy’s piano, dance, and Young Writers’ Club. The real estate license would potentially create the cushion they needed for their family. When it came to college for the girls, they would be considered a low-income family, a designation that affected Marybeth deeply. She tried not to blame Joe, because he loved what he did and was good at it. But it didn’t pay the bills.
Cam and Marie Logue bought what was then called Ranch Country Realty from its previous owner, a longtime local institution named Wild Bill Dubois. The purchase included the storefront on Main Street sandwiched between the Stockman’s Bar and Big Suds Laundromat. With their seven-year-old daughter, Jessica, they had moved from Rapid City the previous winter and leased one of the oldest Victorian homes in town with the goal of restoring it while they lived there. They changed the name of the business to Logue Country Realty and sincerely did their best to establish themselves in the small community. They joined the Presbyterian church, the chamber of commerce, the realty association, the PTO, and gave to the high school activities groups and the United Way. In a sleepy town like Saddlestring, where the population trend until recently was a net loss, the arrival of the energetic, optimistic Logues was a welcome deviation from the norm. Or so Marybeth thought, despite knowing that there would be the usual bitter clucking from the old-timers and third-generation types. These were the longtime residents of Twelve Sleep County who referred to Mayor Ty Stockton—who had arrived with his parents from Massachusetts as a toddler—as “that guy from Boston.”