Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett stood on the edge of the tarmac with his hands thrust into the pockets of his parka and his gray Stetson clamped on tight against the cold wind. It was a week until his birthday and his leg hurt and the brisk chill made him feel all of his fifty-one years on the planet.
His first glimpse of the $65 million Gulfstream G650ER private jet was of a gleaming white speck high above the rounded, snowcapped peaks of the Bighorn Mountains to the west.
It was a cloudless mid-October morning, but it had snowed an inch during the night and the ten-mile-an-hour breeze cleared the concrete of the runway, rolling thin smoky waves of flakes across the pavement of the Saddlestring Municipal Airport. The timbered mountains had received three to five inches that would likely melt away in the high-altitude sun, but the treeless summits looked like the white crowns of so many bald eagles standing shoulder to shoulder against the clear blue sky.
"Cold this morning," Brock Boedecker said.
Boedecker was a fourth-generation rancher whose land reached up from the breakland plateau into the midpoint of Battle Mountain. He had a classic western look about him: narrow, thin, with deep-set eyes and a bushy black mustache, its tips extending to his jawline. It was the kind of weathered look, Joe thought, that had once convinced the marketing team at Marlboro to hire the local Wyoming cowboy who'd brought them horses for their ad shoot instead of the male models they'd flown out from Hollywood.
"Not quite ready for snow yet," Boedecker said while tucking his chin into the collar of his jacket.
"About a month early for these temps."
"It's supposed to warm up a little later this week."
Boedecker asked, "Are you sure this is something we want to do?"
"Damn. I feel the same way. Is there any way we can get out of it?"
"I could do it without you," the rancher said. "Hell, I do this all the time."
"I know you could. But I wouldn't feel right letting you down at the last minute. I'm the one that got you into this, remember?"
"How's your leg?" Boedecker asked.
"Getting better all the time."
It was true. The gunshot Joe had sustained was healing on schedule due to months of rehabilitation and physical therapy, but he still walked with a limp. On cold mornings like this, he could feel it where the rifle round had punched through his thigh-a line of deadness rimmed by pangs of sharp pain when he moved.
Boedecker sighed. It seemed like there was something he wanted to say, so Joe waited. Finally: "Well, them horses you ordered are all trailered up and ready. I'll wait for you inside, I think."
Joe nodded. He turned to watch Boedecker make his way toward the glass doors of the old terminal. The rancher wore a weathered black hat, a canvas barn coat stained with oil, and a magenta silk scarf wrapped around his neck. His back was broad. The scarf reminded Joe that cowboys, even the crustiest of them, always displayed a little flash in their dress.
"Thanks for helping me out with this, Brock," Joe called out after him.
"You bet, Joe," he answered with a wave of his hand. He paused at the door and looked over his shoulder. "I wasn't sure I'd get here on time this morning. Did you know the sheriff has a roadblock set up so only authorized people can get to the airport?"
Joe said, "I heard about that."
"I guess they were worried about a mob scene. That's what the deputy told me. This guy is some big shot, huh?"
"That's what they say."
"I can't say I support what we're doing," the rancher said. "I wish we weren't doing it."
"I know," Joe said. Then: "It's supposed to be a big secret, so I'd appreciate you keeping it between us."
"Word's already out," Boedecker said.
"I don't know how," Joe said. The only reason he'd told Boedecker what he was about to do was because he'd needed to rent horses and tack from the rancher.
"I'm just not feeling too good about this guy," Boedecker said.
Joe nodded his understanding. Up until the week before, he'd been in the same boat. His wife, Marybeth, had needed to explain to him who the man was, even though everyone-especially their three daughters-seemed to know all about him.
"Are you still convinced we'll have 'em all back down by the time the cattle trucks show up? The horses, I mean?"
"Absolutely," Joe said. "We'll be back down by Friday."
"Good, 'cause I loaded up my best mounts. Nothing but the best, you said."
"Thank you," Joe said with relief. "Did you remember to stop by our place and load Toby?"
Toby was Marybeth's oldest and most seasoned mount. He was a tall tobiano paint gelding who still displayed boyish enthusiasm, especially when he was taken away from the barn and corral and shown mountain trails.
"Any of these dudes ever been on a horse before?"
"They claim they have."
"Those types always claim they have," Boedecker said. He shook his head as he went inside.
Joe turned back to the west. The Gulfstream was now in profile, streaking left to right across the sky in order to make the turn and line up with the north-south runway.
He rocked back on his boot heels and tried to conjure a sense of anticipation, the feeling of excitement he used to feel as a younger man just prior to setting out into the mountains on an adventure. He'd toss and turn in bed the night before and be up hours before dawn to get ready, filled with a kind of primal joy.
Joe dug deep, but he couldn't find it now.
He was dressed as he always was for a day in the field, in his red uniform shirt with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department pronghorn antelope patch on the sleeve and his j. pickett name badge over his breast pocket. Under his uniform shirt and Wranglers were lightweight wool long underwear and socks. He wore a dark green wool Filson vest under his olive-green uniform parka.
He'd been instructed not to wear his holster and .40 Glock semiauto weapon, or his belt containing handcuffs and bear spray. The lack of weight under his parka made him feel airy and incomplete.
He squinted against the reflection of the morning sun on the perfect white skin of the Gulfstream as it taxied toward the terminal building. The twin tail-mounted jet engines emitted a high-pitched whine that hurt his ears.
The pilot of the jet did a graceful turn so the passenger door lined up with the entrance of the terminal before he cut the power to the engines. The turbines wound down into silence and the only sound was the light wind. Joe could see the profiles of several people inside moving about.
A moment later, the door opened and a stairway unfolded to the surface of the tarmac.
And there, not quite filling the opening, was a pale, gangly man with a boyish face and wispy ginger hair. He waved as if there were a crowd to greet him and not just Joe.
This was Joe's first glimpse of thirty-two-year-old Steven "Steve-2" Price, the Silicon Valley billionaire and CEO of Aloft, Inc. and the principal behind ConFab, the social media site.
Joe's job was to take him elk hunting.
Price was dressed in state-of-the-art high-tech outdoor hunting clothing, but despite that, he hugged himself against the cold as he descended the stairs. When he reached the pavement, he stopped and looked up and around him, theatrically taking in the wide-open sky and the mountain ranges on three sides.
Price opened his arms as if to embrace it all and he cried, "Nature!"
Joe stifled a smile.
Behind Price, another person emerged: a fidgety overweight man, bald on top with tufts of black hair above his ears. He came down the stairs so quickly Joe thought he might tumble to the concrete. The man quickly shouldered past Price and strode toward Joe until Price called to him.
The man called Tim stopped dead in his tracks and turned around. Joe had spent the past week exchanging scores of emails with Price's point man, whose name was Timothy Joannides. Joe assumed this was him.
"Did you get that?" Price asked Joannides.
"Did I get what?"
Price fixed a look of disdain on Tim. "My first reaction?"
"No," Joannides said. "I was behind you and-"
"Tim, your job is to document this experience. We talked about that, didn't we? Do I have to explain it again?"
Tim seemed to Joe to want to say more, but he didn't.
"Are you ready now?" Price asked.
Price waited impatiently until Tim found his phone and raised it to eye level.
Price held up his camo glove for a moment, then climbed the stairs of the plane and reenacted his actions from a minute before.
"Nature!" he called out again with his arms spread. Then he froze in mid-pose.
"Got it?" Price asked Tim.
"Make sure you get a panorama of the mountains," Price directed. "Then cut that in before we post it."
"I'm on it," Tim said as he stepped out of Price's way and raised up his phone to video the surroundings. He spun around slowly as he did so.
Joe was so preoccupied with the interplay between Price and Joannides that he hadn't seen a third man exit the plane until the newcomer was headed straight toward him. The man was heavy, squared-off, and built low to the ground. His stride was smooth and purposeful, almost a jog, and his shoulders and head were bent forward. His arms were held out away from his body in a way that gave Joe the brief impression that he was about to be tackled.
The man didn't stop until he was inches away from Joe.
"I need to pat you down for weapons." He had a deep bass voice and spoke with a blunt Eastern European accent.
"I left 'em in my truck," Joe said, feeling both angry and violated. The man was just too close. "Isn't that what I was supposed to do?"
"Sorry, it's my job," the man said without a real apology, and Joe found himself being expertly patted down, all the way to the top of his lace-up hunting boots. When the man was done, he stepped back.
"You're clear," the man said.
"I already told you that."
Joe and the bodyguard stared at each other for several beats. The man didn't blink. He had a wide Slavic face, close-cropped black hair, a downturned mouth, and a square jaw not quite as wide as his thick neck. Joe could only guess the man was armed because of the bulges and protrusions beneath his matte black-colored tactical coat.
"Please forgive Zsolt," Price said with an embarrassed grin as he joined the two. He pronounced the name Zolt. "He kind of overdoes it sometimes, but he's a good man to have around."
"I'm law enforcement," Joe said through gritted teeth.
Price arched his eyebrows. "I thought you were a game warden."
"Game wardens are law enforcement," Joe said to Price.
"If you say so," Price said, obviously unconvinced.
Joe didn't move. Inside, he seethed even while he offered his hand to Price.
"And you must be Joe," Price said with a grin. "'Good old Joe,' I've been saying."
Before Joe could confirm it, Price chinned toward the jet. "Is the wrangler waiting for us somewhere?"
"His name is Brock," Joe said. "Yup, he's waiting inside for us."
"You can call me Steve-2," Price said. He pronounced it SteveTwo as a two-syllable word. Instead of grasping Joe's hand in return, he offered an elbow bump. It was an obvious holdover from the pandemic. Either that, or Price was a germophobe, Joe thought.
"That's Tim out there with the camera," Price said. "He's my personal assistant. You've met Zsolt Rumy. As you probably guessed, he oversees security."
Rumy nodded at the mention of his name. Joe nodded back.
Price sidled up close, man-to-man. "I know you're probably asking yourself why a dude like me needs security."
"I sometimes wonder myself," Price said.
One of the crew of the jet had opened the cargo hold door and Joe could see what looked like dozens of large duffel bags, gear boxes, and backpacks inside.
Joe narrowed his eyes. "I'm sure Tim told you we're taking horses."
"He did. I'm really looking forward to it."
"We may need to winnow down some of your stuff if it's too much."
"Are you saying we don't have pack animals?" Price asked with a look of genuine concern. "My understanding is we'd have pack animals to transport everything we need."
"We've got horses and panniers," Joe said. "They're waiting for us in the parking lot. But we need to limit the weight on each animal to no more than thirty percent of its body weight. We've got five packhorses in addition to the horses we'll ride."
Price frowned. "How much does a horse weigh?"
"Depends on the horse."
Price closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then slowly reopened them. "I was under the assumption all of this was already sorted out in advance."
Joe said, "I told Tim to limit your baggage to five hundred pounds."
Price glared at him. "You know, good old Joe, I can do math in my head. In fact, I'm quite good at it. I'm a coder and a programmer and I've designed world-class proprietary algorithms. Are you telling me that your packhorses can only handle a hundred pounds each? I find that hard to believe, since most human riders weigh well above that."
"They do," Joe said. "But we need to plan for the weight of hauling elk back down the mountain."
"We'll get it figured out," Joe offered in an attempt to be conciliatory. As he said it, Joannides approached the group.
Price turned to his assistant. "If we need to leave things behind, they'll be yours."
"Yes, boss," he said through gritted teeth as he turned and walked away.
Joe felt embarrassed for the man, which Price seemed to pick up on.
"I hope that's not the first of many misunderstandings," Price said. "Sometimes I think Tim tells me what he thinks I want to hear rather than what I need to hear."
Joe was glad Joannides was out of earshot.
"Since you've been communicating with Tim," Price continued, "it's important that you know I'm not some kind of prima donna. I take what we're about to do very seriously and it's extremely valuable to me. I appreciate you and the wrangler taking your time to do this."