The short stories in this collection were written over the last decade and appeared here and there—as limited editions, in obscure anthologies, or not at all. Three of them (“One-Car Bridge,” “Blood Knot,” “Shots Fired”) are new and original to this anthology.
I’ve received many inquiries over the years from readers asking where they could find the stories, and thanks to the good folks at Penguin/Putnam (especially my legendary editor, Neil Nyren), here they are. All of them. Four feature Joe Pickett and/or Nate Romanowski (“One-Car Bridge,” “The Master Falconer,” “Dull Knife,” “Shots Fired”) and the rest are wide-ranging, from the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming Territory, 1835 (“The End of Jim and Ezra”) to a dark little number in modern-day Paris via South Dakota (“Le Sauvage Noble”). Also included are pieces set in Yellowstone (“Pirates of Yellowstone”), the North Platte River in Wyoming (“Every Day Is a Good Day on the River”—one of my firmest beliefs, by the way), and during a ferocious Wyoming blizzard (“Pronghorns of the Third Reich”).
There’s a question that always comes up at talks and book signings, which is: “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s the most confounding question for a writer to answer, I think, and leads to an answer that is unsatisfactory for the person who queried. It’s as if when one revealed the true (but obviously withheld) answer, the curtain would be pulled back and the secret would be out.
I’ve always thought that the components of writing a novel are ninety-five percent craft and five percent creativity. I can respond to questions about craft just like a carpenter can talk about specific tools and tricks of the trade. Writing a book is like anything: One goes to work in the morning, every morning, and writes. Pages come out. Eventually, there are enough pages to make it a novel.
What I can’t answer well is where the five percent comes from, or how to pull it from the air. It’s just there—or it isn’t.
• • •
WHAT FOLLOWS are brief introductions to each story: where they appeared, why they were written, and where the ideas came from.
• • •
“ONE-CAR BRIDGE” is a new Joe Pickett story that appears here for the first time. It derived from a dinner conversation over drinks with a third-generation rancher whose grandfather was notoriously tough on his employees—so tough that his legacy still hovers over the land like a black cloud.
“Pirates of Yellowstone” first appeared in an anthology called Meeting Across the River, where the editors asked a number of writers to contribute short stories based on the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. I puzzled over what I would write, since I don’t do gritty urban. Hank Williams, sure. Bob Wills, maybe. But the Boss? I was thinking this over one evening in Gardiner, Montana, within sight of Yellowstone Park, when I witnessed several black-leather-clad Eastern European types in street shoes smoking cigarettes outside a local bar. They fit into the rough outdoorsy atmosphere like gangbangers at a cattle branding. I found out they’d been recruited overseas to work inside the park but there weren’t enough jobs available when they arrived. So I speculated on what kind of job—and trouble—they might get into.
Nobody—oh, maybe ten people—read “The End of Jim and Ezra” when it appeared in an anthology called Geezer Noir II a few years ago. In fact, I’ve never even seen a copy of the book. The volume was withdrawn from the market due to legal issues that resulted from the tragic early death of its publisher, David Thompson—one of the truly good and brilliant men in the world of booksellers. David was the marketing director and friend to all at Murder By The Book in Houston, one of my favorite stores. The story took David by surprise because he was expecting something contemporary, not a piece about two mountain-men friends set in 1835. But he liked it very much and he urged me—someday—to write a historical novel set in the same period. We’ll see. Anybody who has spent too much time with a business partner will relate to Jim and Ezra.
“The Master Falconer” appeared as a limited-edition short story published by ASAP in California and was available to fewer than a few hundred collectors. Later, it was released as an e-story. The piece is the first time I tackled a tale centered entirely on Nate Romanowski, the outlaw falconer from the Joe Pickett series. I wanted to see if I could do it and also see if Nate could carry a story on his own. I liked the results, and it set the stage for Force of Nature later in the series. Plus, I was angry at the Saudi royal family.
“Every Day Is a Good Day on the River” was my contribution to an anthology of fishing stories written by crime writers called Hook, Line & Sinister. It was edited by my friend and fishing buddy T. Jefferson Parker and contained entries from Michael Connelly, Ridley Pearson, Don Winslow, James W. Hall, and others. There is some great stuff in it. The proceeds of the book went to Casting for Recovery, helping women cancer survivors, and Project Healing Waters, which assists returning veterans. Two great causes. The setting is a cold day on the North Platte River north of Casper, Wyoming. There are three men in the drift boat—two clients, a guide—and a gun.
“Pronghorns of the Third Reich” (my second-favorite title next to “Every Day Is a Good Day . . .”) is an example of how short stories are birthed at times in disconnected, disparate, and mysterious ways. In this case, there are two main ingredients that went into the pot to create a dark little stew. First, Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and unofficial czar of the mystery book universe, asked me to contribute a piece for a series of small books he was publishing using bibliophiles—book collectors—as the theme. Second, I was doing some research at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming when I stumbled on a single photo in the Charles Belden collection taken in 1936 that simply took my breath away. (Belden was a fascinating rancher and photographer based near Meeteetse, Wyoming.) I still stare at the photo and shake my head. But whatever you do, don’t spoil the surprise for yourself. Read the story and don’t jump ahead to that last page.
“Dull Knife” was the first Joe Pickett short story for ASAP (see above) and came from an incident I recalled years before while ice-fishing with my father on Ocean Lake in Central Wyoming. There were four or five of us boys, and our job was to check the holes every hour throughout the night to see if there was a fish on the baited hook. One night, in the distance across the frozen surface of the lake, we saw a mysterious glow from under the ice. We had no explanation for the phenomenon and our speculation ranged from underwater vessels (ridiculous) to UFOs (even more so) to something supernatural. Later, we discovered that the glow was the result of dying headlights of a completely submerged car that had crashed through the surface at night and sunk to the bottom. There were no fatalities, and we never learned how the car got there. Joe Pickett, of course, doggedly investigates this eerie accident in this story.
“Le Sauvage Noble” (“The Noble Savage”) is easily one of the most exuberantly twisted and cynical stories I’ve ever written. Again, this was for ASAP. The germ of an idea that later fueled the story occurred at, of all places, the American embassy in the heart of Paris. I was there as part of a contingent of state tourism representatives in France to host a dinner and cocktail party for travel agents and journalists who, we hoped, would write about the Rocky Mountain West or send clients there. I found myself standing next to two American Indians in full native dress. Since they weren’t from any of our states, I asked why they were there. It was because, they said with a wink, French women liked the idea of having sex with Native Americans, and they never missed an embassy reception. The reason made me whoop. The next night we attended the Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris, which somehow confirmed what the Indians had said and revealed something about the French I never would have imagined. You might need to take a shower after this one.
“Blood Knot” is the shortest of short stories: one thousand words. Why? Because a newspaper in the United Kingdom requested it, accepted it, and sent a check. But for whatever reason they never ran it, and no one has read it until now. Because of the limitation on the word count, it was a challenge honing this multigenerational encounter down to size. I couldn’t waste a word. And I like the results.
“Shots Fired: A Requiem for Ander Esti” is a Joe Pickett short story written solely for this anthology. It’s about dirtbags encountered in the middle of nowhere that bring about a sense of loss to Joe that almost overwhelms him. The impetus for the tale comes from an experience of my own many years before when I worked summers on an exploration survey crew based out of Casper, Wyoming. Our job (I was the lowly rodman) was to re-survey corners and benchmarks in the practically roadless Powder River Basin near Pumpkin Buttes. It turned out the location for the stake we needed to drive into the ground happened to be exactly beneath the only man-made structure within sight: a sheep wagon. The odds against something like that happening were incredible. Nevertheless, it was my job to approach this lonely wagon of a sheepherder who had likely not seen another human in weeks and knock on the door . . .
• • •
I HOPE YOU ENJOY READING these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them.
C. J. Box
The tires of Joe Pickett’s green Ford Wyoming Game and Fish Department pickup thumped rhythmically across the one-car bridge that spanned the Twelve Sleep River. Ahead was the Crazy Z Bar Ranch. Joe was there to deliver bad news to the ranch manager.
It was Saturday in early September during the two-week period between the end of summer in the high country and preceding hunting season openers. The morning had started off with the bite of fall but had warmed by the hour. The groves of aspens in the mountains were already turning gold, although the cottonwoods flanking both sides of the river still held green and full. The river was down but still floatable, and upriver in the distance he caught a glimpse of a low-profile McKenzie-style drift boat rounding a bend. The guide manned the oars, and fly-fishermen clients cast from the front and back of the boat, long sweeps of fly-line catching the sun, toward a deep seam near the far bank.
He held his breath as he did every time he drove across. There were gaps between the two-by-eights that made up the surface of the bridge and he could see glimpses of the river flash by through his open driver’s-side window. The bridge itself was over forty-five years old and constructed of steel girders held together by bolts. Auburn tears of rust flowed down the surface of the steel and pooled in the channels of the I-beams, which had long ago inspired a local fishing guide to deem it “the Bridge of Cries.” It stuck.
Out of view beneath the bridge hung a large metal hand-painted sign:
THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY
FISHERMEN, STAY IN YOUR BOAT
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED
BY THE CRAZY Z BAR RANCH
Joe knew from experience they weren’t kidding. Even that time in high water when a raft filled with Boy Scouts capsized on the swells and rocks. Eight sodden but uninjured Scouts and their two Scoutmasters—one with a broken arm—had found the ranch headquarters at dusk. The former manager, following standing orders from the owner, loaded them all into the bed of his three-quarter-ton pickup and drove them to the Saddlestring jail to press charges.
The absentee owner of the ranch, Lamar Dietrich of St. Louis, had the signs put up when he bought the ranch. He meant what he said and played for keeps. And he wouldn’t be happy at all, Joe knew, to hear why Joe had come.
• • •
DAISY, JOE’S TWO-YEAR-OLD LABRADOR, raised her head from where she slept on the passenger seat to stare at the Angus cattle that grazed on the side of the dirt road. She was fascinated with cows, and Joe wondered if in Daisy’s mind cows appeared to her as very large black dogs. A tremulous whine came from deep in her throat.
“Settle down,” Joe said, navigating a turn and plunging his truck through a thin spring creek that crossed the road. “Don’t even think about chasing them.”
Daisy looked over at him with a puzzled expression.
“Chasing Dietrich’s cattle is a death sentence. He’s had dogs shot for it. I want to keep you around for a while.”
Daisy lowered her head.
“He’s got a big binder he calls The Book of Rules that sits on a table in the foreman’s house,” Joe said to Daisy. “I’ve seen it, and it’s thick. He expects every one of his ranch managers to memorize it, and he has tabs for every conceivable circumstance and how they’re supposed to deal with it. He’s got tabs on trespassing and road improvement and cattle management and fifty or so other tabs on everything he can think of. If the ranch manager makes a decision that isn’t covered in The Book of Rules, that manager doesn’t stay around very long. There’s a tab on stray dogs. They’re to be shot on sight so they don’t run his cattle.
“So keep your head down, especially if Dietrich is around,” Joe said. “He’s just plain mean.”
• • •
JOE HAD MET DIETRICH two times over the years, and both encounters were unpleasant. The old man was in his late seventies and appeared shorter than he actually was because his back was stooped and his shoulders slumped forward. Because of the deformity, his head was always down and when he looked up his eyes appeared menacing. His voice was a low soft growl and he didn’t waste words. He had no time or respect for local officials, state game wardens, or incompetent ranch foremen.
Joe had heard that Dietrich had amassed his fortune by negotiating cutthroat deals with urban governments for waste management services. There were thousands of distinctive red-and-yellow Dietrich Waste Management trucks throughout the inner cities of the Rust Belt and the northeastern states. He’d taken on local political machines and organized crime families to secure long-term contracts. Then, like so many extremely wealthy men in America, he had looked around for a safe haven for his cash and opted to sink some of it in real estate and had chosen to buy massive ranches in the West, including this one in Wyoming. The Crazy Z Bar, with tens of thousands of acres of mountainous terrain, pastureland, sagebrush flats, and fifteen premium miles of the Twelve Sleep River snaking through it. The purchase price, Joe had heard, was $22.5 million.
The first time Joe met Dietrich was when the then-foreman of the ranch, under orders from the owner, had strung barbed wire across the river to stop the passage of local fishing guides and recreational floaters. Joe had explained that state law allowed access to all navigable waters, that the land itself was private—even the river bottom itself—but the water was public. As long as the boaters didn’t anchor or step out of their boat, they could legally cross the ranch. Dietrich exploded and ordered his then-foreman to beat up Joe right there and then. The foreman refused, and was fired. Joe filed charges against Dietrich for threatening him, but dropped them when Dietrich agreed to remove his barbed-wire fence.
The second time, just two months ago, Joe was at a hearing before the Game and Fish Commission on a plan Dietrich proposed to convert two thousand acres of his ranch into a wild game hunting operation. Dietrich’s idea was to import water buffalo, gazelles, kudu, blackbuck, and scimitar-horned oryx from Africa to be hunted by his friends. Since Joe was the local game warden, he was asked to testify, and he testified against the plan. Exotic, non-native species were a threat to the antelope, deer, and elk populations, he had said, and there was no way for Dietrich to guarantee the animals would never escape or pass along diseases that could decimate local wildlife. Dietrich appeared briefly at the hearing and extended a crooked finger at Joe and called him “a no-account tinhorn jackbooted thug.”
Joe said: “I’ve never been called that before.”
Because the atmosphere in the hearing room was so poisonous, the commission chose to take the decision under advisement and issue a ruling at a future date.
That date had arrived. They had voted no. And Joe was tasked with delivering the verdict to the new ranch manager of the Crazy Z Bar, the Dietrich employee who had drafted and presented the proposal, Kyle Sandford.
Poor Kyle, Joe thought.
• • •
ALTHOUGH LAMAR DIETRICH’S magnificent empty home—built of native stone and sheets of glass so heavy and large that they’d been delivered by a cargo helicopter—was set into the side of the mountain that overlooked the river bottom, the manager’s house was humble and in need of paint and new shingles. It was located on a sagebrush shelf with a cluster of outbuildings including a metal barn, corrals, and a Quonset hut for housing vehicles and machinery.
There was never any need to knock on the doors of ranch homes, and no way to sneak onto a ranch. Daisy perked up again when a gaggle of motley ranch dogs boiled out from pools of shade and streaked toward Joe’s pickup. They formed yipping, tumbling knots on both sides and accompanied him as he drove into the ranch yard, nipping at the tires and fenders, the cacophony signaling the arrival of a stranger.
“You stay,” Joe said to Daisy over the racket.
The three members of the Sandford family appeared from three different places in the ranch yard as if joining each other on a stage: Joleen came from the ranch house itself, drying her hands on a dish towel; Kyle Sr. looked out from the Quonset, gripping a Crescent wrench with an oily hand; and Kyle Jr. strolled from a pocket of willows that marked the bank of the river, his fly rod poking nine feet into the air.
Joe was most familiar with Kyle Jr., who was seventeen and ran in the same circle as his ward, April. He was a quiet ranch kid who had boarded the same bus as other ranch kids until he could drive himself, but hadn’t been in the valley long enough—and wasn’t an outstanding athlete, scholar, or leader—to belong firmly to a pack. He seemed like a floater, the kind of boy who hung back and to the side, keeping his mouth shut, occasionally surprising others with a good quip or an observation, but was never missed when he didn’t show up and never mentioned when groups were forming to attend games, go out on Friday nights, or plan a party. Joe recalled April reviewing digital photos of her friends at a football game, pointing out characters and laughing about things they’d done or said. When she came across a photo of Kyle Sandford Jr., she shook her head and said, “I don’t remember him being there, but I guess he was.”
Kyle Jr. was wiry and dark with a prominent Adam’s apple and wispy sideburns. Joe had never seen the boy smile, but he had eyes that seemed to carefully take everything in.
Kyle Sr. nodded a reserved hello to Joe and Joe nodded back. Joleen withdrew into the house but stood behind the screen, watching carefully. Kyle Sr. tossed his wrench into a bucket of tools behind him, clamped on a dirty short-brimmed Stetson Rancher, and greeted Joe by saying, “Joe.”
“Did you bring me some good news?”
Joe paused. “Nope.”
Kyle Sr. took a deep breath and stood still. His face betrayed nothing, but Joe saw Joleen shake her head behind the screen and turn away.
“It was unanimous,” Joe said. “The commission voted to not allow a game farm. They said it would be a bad precedent, even if your owner did all the security fencing and inoculations he said he would.”
Kyle Sr. said nothing. He just stared at Joe and his mouth got tight.
Finally, in a thin voice, he said, “Is there anything we can do about this?”
Joe was puzzled. Was Kyle Sr. offering a bribe?
“Make another run at ’em, maybe. Adjust the proposal so they’re happy about it this time, you know?”
Joe shook his head. “They’ll meet again in a month, but I can’t see them changing their minds.”
Kyle Sr. dropped his head and stared at the top of his boots. “You know what’s going to happen then, right?” he asked.
“I’m guessing Lamar Dietrich won’t be too happy,” Joe said.
Kyle Sr. snorted and said, “You got that right. But you know what else will happen?”
Joe said he didn’t.
“Come with me,” Kyle Sr. said, gesturing with his chin toward the house. “I’ll show you something.”
Joe started forward and remembered Kyle Jr. He looked over at the boy as he passed by. “Any luck?” he asked.
“They’re hitting on prince nymphs and scuds.”
“Any size to ’em?”
“Eighteen, nineteen inches,” Kyle Jr. said. “I broke off one that was bigger than that.”
“Nice fish,” Joe said, impressed.
“Yeah,” Kyle Jr. said, his eyes worried, “they were.”
• • •
INSIDE, KYLE SR. pointed toward The Book of Rules and Joe knew then what was coming. The man slid the binder across the counter and used a greasy thumb to find the right tab. Joe read it: LOCAL POLITICAL INFLUENCE.
Kyle Sr. folded back the tab to the first page of the section, and read:
“‘As Ranch Manager of the Crazy Z Bar, an important part of your responsibilities is to develop influential working relationships with officials on the county and state level. The purpose of these relationships is to further the goals of the property and implement projects deemed important by the owner. Failure to secure beneficial results and decisions may result in termination.’”
Joe contemplated that.
Kyle Sr. said, “Mr. Dietrich thinks anything is possible if you’ve got the right relationships with the powers that be. That’s how he got to be such a rich man. He thinks all his managers need to have that same ability. I guess I don’t.”
“It’s not that,” Joe said. “I was at the hearing, remember?”
“And you testified against us.”
“Yes, I did. But it wasn’t because the proposal was sloppy or you weren’t a good man making a strong bid. The game farm was rejected on its merits. It would have been the only game farm in the whole state, and policy was against you from the start. I think we have a lot of stupid policies, but that isn’t one of them. No one wants to be out elk hunting and run into a water buffalo. Simple as that.”
“I know,” Kyle Sr. said softly. “But that won’t matter to Mr. Dietrich. He’ll see it as me being a piss-poor influencer of mucky-mucks. He won’t look at the big picture and see how I’ve made our cattle operation go into the black or how I’ve sold more hay than any other manager here over the years. He’ll look at this tab and cut me loose.”
Joe said, “He can’t be that unreasonable.”
“You don’t know him like I do,” Kyle Sr. said, shaking his head. “If someone doesn’t do the job he wants, he cuts ’em loose. Haven’t you ever wondered why this place has gone through six managers in fifteen years? I’ve stuck the longest—going on four years. But he’ll find out about this decision and—”
Joe looked up when Kyle Sr. suddenly stopped talking to see what had stopped him. He followed the man’s eyes to the outside screen door, where Kyle Jr. stood on the porch.
Joe understood. No father wanted his son to think of him as a failure, whether the circumstances were fair or not.
“We’re talking,” Kyle Sr. said to Kyle Jr.
“Are we gonna have to move again?” the boy asked.
Kyle Sr. raised his voice and said, “I said we’re talking in here, son. I don’t need you standing there listening in. You go get the company truck and gas it up. You can take it into town.”
Kyle Jr. looked back, uncomprehending. “Why?” he asked.
“Because Mr. Dietrich is coming for his quarterly visit. You can pick him up and bring him out here.”
“Why me?” Kyle Jr. asked, pain in his eyes.
“Because your mother and me need to start packing up,” Kyle Sr. said.
From the living room, out of sight, Joe heard Joleen gasp.
To her, Kyle Sr. said, “You’ll be getting what you always wanted, Joleen.”
She responded with a choked mewl.
To Joe, he said as an aside, “She never liked this place, anyhow. She’s scared of Dietrich and she’d like to be closer to her people in Idaho. Maybe we’ll end up there now.”
“What about Kyle Junior?” Joe asked, after the boy had left the porch.
“He loves this place,” he said with a heavy sigh. “He thought we’d finally found a place for him where we could stay awhile. He’s made some friends and he’s finally getting settled in. Now we’re going to jerk him out of high school and hit the road again.”
Joe shook his head.
“He ain’t never stayed in a place for more than a year or two,” Kyle Sr. said. “He’s like an army brat, I guess. But for some reason he thought this one would take. He finally let his guard down and started making connections. He told us he really likes it—the town, the school, even his teachers. Now . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence.
As Joe opened the door to go back out to his pickup, Kyle Sr. said, “Old man Dietrich couldn’t have better timing. He’s showing up on the day we find out about the game farm decision. He won’t even have a chance to cool off before he fires me. He likes doing it face-to-face. He says that’s the only way to fire a man: face-to-face. It’s in The Book of Rules.”
“How’s he getting here?” Joe asked.
“Kyle Junior is picking him up.”
“No, I meant to Saddlestring?”
“Private plane,” Kyle Sr. said. “He must have brought the jet or he’d land on our own strip.”
“How many planes does he have?”
“Three that I know of.”
Joe said, “Maybe I’ll meet him at the airport along with Kyle Junior. I’ll tell him the news and make sure he knows it had nothing to do with you. Maybe that will help.”
Kyle Sr. smiled bitterly. “Worth a try, I guess.” But Joe could tell he wasn’t optimistic.
As Joe descended the stairs on the porch, he heard Kyle Sr. say to Joleen: “I’ll hitch up the horse trailer and back it up to the front door. You start gathering our personal stuff. Mr. Dietrich has been known to give folks an hour to clean out. We might need more than that . . .”
• • •
JOE SWUNG INTO THE TRUCK and said to Daisy, “Man oh man.”
Daisy lowered her head between her big paws on the seat. Joe reached for his keys as Kyle Jr. drove through the ranch yard in the Crazy Z Bar’s Ford F-350. Joe got a glimpse of the boy’s face. He looked stricken.
• • •
AS JOE CROSSED THE ONE-CAR BRIDGE and drove toward Saddlestring in the lingering dust spoor of the F-350, he thought of the ranches in the Twelve Sleep River valley. There were twenty or more big holdings, most owned by out-of-state executives. But beyond that fact, each was mightily different from the other.
In his experience, each ranch was a world of its own: teeming with intrigue, agendas, and characters. Each was a fiefdom with its own peculiarities and practices, its own set of rules and expectations. Ranch managers were itinerants in cowboy hats who did the bidding of their owners but, unlike the owners, had to interact with the locals. They hired cooks, wranglers, cowboys, and hands who specialized in construction, fixing fences, and wildlife management. Their employees gossiped about them, and sometimes switched ranches for better deals or benefits. There was lots of interbreeding, and relationships formed between employees of one ranch and employees of others. Even for Joe, who was out among them day after day, it was hard to keep it all straight.
Despite telephones, email, and the Internet, most of the information and rumors from ranch to ranch were communicated daily through snippets of information relayed to the ranch communities by those who kept an old-fashioned circuit of visits, like brand inspectors, cattle buyers, large-animal veterinarians, and the almost legendary mail lady named Sandra “Asperger” Hamburger, who had delivered the mail in the rural areas on an ironclad timetable that had not wavered more than five minutes each day for fifteen years. Hamburger was unmarried and in her mid-sixties, and favored brightly colored cowboy shirts, jeans, short gray hair, and steel-framed cat-eye glasses she’d worn for so many years they were in fashion again. She was a tightly wrapped eccentric with mild autism—hence her nickname—who drove an ancient mud-spattered Dodge Power Wagon. She could be counted on to arrive at each rural mailbox on schedule, every day, despite the conditions. To her, the U.S. Postal Service was an all-powerful god and she didn’t want to let it down. When she was running late by even a few minutes, she was a terror. When Joe saw Hamburger’s truck barreling down a two-track road, raising dust behind her, he simply pulled over and let her pass. Otherwise, he was taking his life in his hands.
But if Joe needed information or intel on any of the ranch managers or their employees, Sandra Asperger Hamburger was who he sought out. She knew all the names, most of their backgrounds, and most of their likes and dislikes based on what they sent or received in the mail. Often and intuitively, she knew of management shake-ups before anyone else in the valley. She wasn’t a gossip, but she made it her business to know what was going on. Otherwise, she apparently reasoned, it might make her less efficient.
Some ranch managers fit right in, some contributed to the general welfare, and some were out-and-out bastards who used their positions as perches of power. A few of the ranch managers in the area were incompetent in every aspect of ranching other than being obsequious to the owner and his family when they arrived annually or semiannually, and that seemed to be enough to keep their jobs. Others were hardheaded cowmen who challenged their owners over budgets and priorities as if their roles were reversed. They didn’t last long.
Kyle Sandford Sr., it seemed to Joe, was one of the good ones. He kept to himself—too much, apparently, for his own good—and honored local traditions and idiosyncrasies, or at least as much as The Book of Rules would let him. He was a member of the local Lions Club and he attended school activities with Joleen. Sandford managed the ranch as if it were his own, and he drove hard but fair bargains with cattle buyers, shippers, and local businesses. He didn’t make dubious wildlife damage claims like some of the managers did, and he looked the other way when old-timers hunted or fished on private land they’d used for years.
Poor Kyle Sr., Joe thought. And poor Kyle Jr.
• • •
THE SADDLESTRING MUNICIPAL AIRPORT was located on a high plateau south of town. There were two commercial flights daily—both to Denver—and most of the activity at the airfield was as a fixed-base operator for private aircraft. The ranch Ford was parked in front of the small FBO building, and Joe swung into the lot and parked beside it. As he did, he heard the whine of a small plane accelerate in volume in the sky as it descended.
Joe swung out and patted Daisy on the head and pulled on his hat. Between two massive cumulus clouds to the east there was a glint of reflected light and it didn’t take long for the speck to grow wings and wheels.
Inside the airport, Kyle Jr. sat on a molded plastic chair and stared out the windows at the tarmac. He wore a gray Saddlestring High School hoodie, worn jeans, cowboy boots, and a Wyoming Cowboys baseball cap. It was the official uniform of every teenage boy in town, Joe thought, except for the Goths and the druggies. Kyle Jr.’s hands rested on the tops of his thighs and his head was tilted slightly to the side, as if holding it erect took too much energy.
“Are you okay?” Joe asked.
Kyle Jr. started to respond, then apparently thought better of it.
“I know this must be tough. You kind of like it here, don’t you?”
Kyle Jr. nodded his head.
“It’s a good place,” Joe said. “I know my girls would hate to leave it now that they’re in high school. But maybe it won’t come to that.”
The boy looked up with hope in his eyes. “My dad didn’t seem to think so.”
Joe nodded. “I’m going to talk to Mr. Dietrich. Your dad is a hell of a hand. He would have a hard time replacing him. I can’t believe he’d let him go because of something that was completely out of his control. I’ll let him blame me.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Kyle Jr. said, letting his eyes linger on Joe for a second before looking away.
• • •