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       Free Fire, p.1

           C. J. Box
slower 1  faster
Free Fire


  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  part one

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  part two

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  part three

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  part four

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  part five

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  AFTERWORD

  Acknowledgements

  Teaser chapter

  “When I came across the world of Joe Pickett, I was reminded of the time I discovered Tony Hillerman.”

  —Michael Connelly

  PRAISE FOR

  Free Fire

  “[Free Fire is] Yellowstone in all its dangerous glory.”

  —The Wall Street Journal

  “C. J. Box has fashioned a splendid thriller, deftly plotted and skillfully executed . . . Previous Joe Pickett novels have earned Box numerous awards. This should bring him another.”

  —The San Diego Union-Tribune

  “A must read for anyone who’s headed for Yellowstone this summer, and highly recommended for everyone else.”

  —The Rocky Mountain News (critic’s choice pick)

  “Absorbing . . . His best yet.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “Box, winner of the Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe, and Barry mystery awards, knows how to turn on the nail-biting suspense and violence until the cliff-hanger of an ending . . . Highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)

  “Though Joe’s far out in no-man’s-land, as professionally on his own as he’s ever been, the family man’s moral compass is as strong as ever. And setting the action in the bubbling Yellowstone caldera . . . is a masterstroke.”—Booklist (starred review)

  “Absorbing . . . Almost unimaginably exotic.”

  —Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader

  “Well paced and action packed. Pickett proves once again to be an appealing hero.”—The Madison (WI) Capital Times

  “Deftly plotted and quickly paced.”—Lansing (MI) City Pulse

  “Like the thunder telling of a coming storm, [Free Fire] builds to a lightning strike finish that will leave you breathless and in awe.”—Crimespree Magazine

  “C. J. Box is that rarest of writers—a skillful, talented, and careful wordsmith who also tells a rollicking good story.”

  —Alexandra Fuller, author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

  “C. J. Box vividly evokes life in the West.” —People

  In Plain Sight

  “Startling . . . Well plotted . . . An explosive conclusion . . . Full of tense suspense and believable, emotional, well-crafted characters.”—Lansing (MI) State Journal

  “Edge-of-the-chair-suspense . . . Heart-stopping action . . . [An] unforgettable mystery.”—Library Journal (starred review)

  “Any mystery fan . . . can get drawn in just by reading the opening page of In Plain Sight. Just be warned, you’ll want to keep the lights burning.”—Billings (MT) Gazette

  Out of Range

  “Intelligent [and] compassionate.”—The New York Times

  “Grade A. If you haven’t yet discovered C. J. Box, don’t wait.”

  —Rocky Mountain News

  “An absolute must.”—Kirkus Reviews

  Trophy Hunt

  “The surprises [Box] springs keep you guessing right to the end—and a little beyond.”—People

  “Action packed.”—The Denver Post

  “Ripping good . . . Trophy Hunt is a choice mystery; spooky, poignant, thrilling, and rugged.”

  —The Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger

  Winterkill

  “Exquisite descriptions . . . Moves smoothly and suspense-fully to the showdown.”—The Washington Post

  “Fast moving, intelligent.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram

  “Box proves he knows how to make every storm into a story.”

  —Houston Chronicle

  Savage Run

  “The suspense tears forward like a brush fire.”—People

  “Hunker down and hang on tight for an intense, twisting ride that lasts to the final page.”—The Denver Post

  “Brilliantly crafted . . . Bears comparison to the best work of mystery giants such as Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke.”

  —Minneapolis Star Tribune

  Open Season

  A New York Times Notable Book

  Los Angeles Times Book Prize Award Nominee,

  Best Mystery/Thriller

  “Buy two copies of Open Season, and save one in mint condition to sell to first-edition collectors. C. J. Box is a great storyteller.”—Tony Hillerman

  “Intriguing, with a forest setting so treacherous it makes Nevada Barr’s locales look positively comfy, with a motive for murder that is as unique as any in modern fiction.”

  —Los Angeles Times

  “A muscular first novel . . . Box writes as straight as his characters shoot.”—The New York Times Book Review

  Also by C. J . Box

  The Joe Pickett Novels

  OPEN SEASON

  SAVAGE RUN

  WINTERKILL

  TROPHY HUNT

  OUT OF RANGE

  IN PLAIN SIGHT

  FREE FIRE

  BLOOD TRAIL

  BLUE HEAVEN

  THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada

  (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)

  Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

  (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)

  Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India

  Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand

  (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196,

  South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

  FREE FIRE

  A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

  Copyright © 2007 by C. J. Box.

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printe
d or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  eISBN : 978-1-429-57327-6

  BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME

  Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  The name BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME CRIME design

  are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  http://us.penguingroup.com

  To Becky, who finally saw her bear

  . . . and Laurie, always

  part one

  YELLOWSTONE ACT, 1872

  AN ACT TO SET APART A CERTAIN TRACT OF

  LAND LYING NEAR THE HEADWATERS OF THE

  YELLOWSTONE RIVER AS A PUBLIC PARK

  Approved March 1, 1872 (17 Stat. 32)

  Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River . . . is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate or settle upon or occupy the same, or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed therefrom. (U.S.C., title 16, sec. 21.)

  1

  Bechler River Ranger Station Yellowstone National Park July 21

  A HALF-HOUR AFTER CLAY MCCANN WALKED INTO the backwoods ranger station and turned over his still-warm weapons, after he’d announced to the startled seasonal ranger behind the desk that he’d just slaughtered four campers near Robinson Lake, the nervous ranger said, “Law enforcement will be here any minute. Do you want to call a lawyer?”

  McCann looked up from where he was sitting on a rough-hewn bench. The seasonal ranger saw a big man, a soft man with a sunburn already blooming on his freckled cheeks from just that morning, wearing ill-fitting, brand-new outdoor clothes that still bore folds from the packaging, his blood-flecked hands curled in his lap like he wanted nothing to do with them.

  McCann said, “You don’t understand. I am a lawyer.”

  Then he smiled, as if sharing a joke.

  2

  Saddlestring, Wyoming October 5

  JOE PICKETT WAS FIXING A BARBED-WIRE FENCE ON a boulder-strewn hillside on the southwest corner of the Longbrake Ranch when the white jet cleared the mountaintop and halved the cloudless pale blue sky. He winced as the roar of the engines washed over him and seemed to suck out all sound and complexity from the cold mid-morning, leaving a vacuum in the pummeled silence. Maxine, Joe’s old Labrador, looked at the sky from her pool of shade next to the pickup.

  Bud Longbrake Jr. hated silence and filled it immediately. “Damn! I wonder where that plane is headed? It sure is flying low.” Then he began to sing, poorly, a Bruce Cockburn song from the eighties:

  If I had a rocket launcher . . .

  I would not hesitate

  The airport, Joe thought but didn’t say, ignoring Bud Jr., the plane is headed for the airport. He pulled the strand of wire tight against the post to pound in a staple with the hammer end of his fencing tool.

  “Bet he’s headed for the airport,” Bud Jr. said, abruptly stopping his song in mid-lyric. “What kind of plane was it, anyway? It wasn’t a commercial plane, that’s for sure. I didn’t see anything painted on the side. Man, it sure came out of nowhere.”

  Joe set the staple, tightened the wire, pounded it in with three hard blows. He tested the tightness of the wire by strumming it with his gloved fingers.

  “It sings better than you,” Joe said, and bent down to the middle strand, waiting for Bud Jr. to unhook the tightener and move it down as well. After a few moments of waiting, Joe looked up to see that Bud Jr. was still watching the vapor trail of the jet. Bud Jr. looked at his wristwatch. “Isn’t it about time for a coffee break?”

  “We just got here,” Joe said. They’d driven two hours across the Longbrake Ranch on a two-track to resume fixing the fence where they’d left it the evening before, when they knocked off early because Bud Jr. complained of “excruciating back spasms.” Bud Jr. had spent dinner lobbying his father for a Jacuzzi.

  Joe stood up straight but didn’t look at his companion. There was nothing about Bud Jr. he needed to see, nothing he wasn’t familiar with after spending three weeks working with him on the ranch. Bud Jr. was thin, tall, stylishly stubble-faced, with sallow blue eyes and a beaded curtain of black hair that fell down over them. Prior to returning to the ranch as a condition of his parole for selling crystal methamphetamine to fellow street performers in Missoula, he’d been a nine-year student at the University of Montana, majoring in just about every one of the liberal arts but finding none of them as satisfying as pantomime on Higgins Street for spare change. When he showed up back at the Longbrake Ranch where he was raised, Bud Sr. had taken Joe aside and asked Joe to “show my son what it means to work hard. That’s something he never picked up. And don’t call him Shamazz, that’s a name he made up. We need to break him of that. His real name is Bud, just like mine.”

  So instead of looking at Bud Jr., Joe surveyed the expanse of ranchland laid out below the hill. Since he’d been fired from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department four months before and lost their state-owned home and headquarters, Joe Pickett was now the foreman of his father-in-law’s ranch—fifteen thousand acres of high grassy desert, wooded Bighorn Mountain foothills, and Twelve Sleep River valley. Although housing and meals were part of his compensation—his family lived in a 110-year-old log home near the ranch house—he would clear no more than $20,000 for the year, which made his old state salary look good in retrospect. His mother-in-law, Missy Vankueren-Longbrake, came with the deal.

  It was the first October in sixteen years Joe was not in the field during hunting season, on horseback or in his green Game and Fish pickup, among the hunting camps and hunters within the fifteen hundred-square-mile district he had patrolled. Joe was weeks away from his fortieth birthday. His oldest daughter, Sheridan, was in her first year of high school and talking about college. His wife’s business management firm was thriving, and she outearned him four to one. He had traded his weapons for fencing tools, his red uniform shirt for a Carhartt barn coat, his badge for a shovel, his pickup for a ’99 Ford flatbed with LONGBRAKE RANCHES painted on the door, his hard-earned authority and reputation for three weeks of overseeing a twenty-seven-year-old meth dealer who wanted to be known as Shamazz.

  All because of a man named Randy Pope, the director of the Game and Fish Department, who had schemed for a year looking for a reason to fire him. Which Joe had provided.

  When asked by Marybeth two nights ago how he felt, Joe had said he was perfectly happy.

  “Which means,” she responded, “that you’re perfectly miserable.”

  Joe refused to concede that, wishing she didn’t know him better than he knew himself.

  But no one could ever say he didn’t work hard.

  “Unhook that stretcher and move it down a strand,” Joe told Bud Jr.

  Bud Jr. winced but did it. “My back . . .” he said.

  The wire tightened up as Bud cranked on the stretcher, and Joe stapled it tight.

  THEY WERE EATING their lunches out of paper sacks beneath a stand of yellow-leaved aspen when they saw the SUV coming. Joe’s Ford ranch pickup was parked to the side of the aspens with the doors open so they could hear the radio. Paul Harvey News, the only program they could get clearly so far from town. Bud hated Paul Harvey nearly as much as silence, and had spent days v
ainly fiddling with the radio to get another station and cursing the fact that static-filled Rush Limbaugh was the only other choice.

  “Who is that?” Bud Jr. asked, gesturing with his chin toward the SUV.

  Joe didn’t recognize the vehicle—it was at least two miles away—and he chewed his sandwich as the SUV crawled up the two-track that coursed through the gray-green patina of sagebrush.

  “Think it’s the law?” Bud asked, as the truck got close enough so they could see several long antennas bristling from the roof. It was a new-model GMC, a Yukon or a Suburban.

  “You have something to be scared of?” Joe asked.

  “Of course not,” Bud said, but he looked jumpy. Bud was sitting on a downed log and he turned and looked behind him into the trees, as if planning an escape route. Joe thought how many times in the past his approach had likely caused the same kind of mild panic in hunters, fishermen, campers.

  Joe asked, “Okay, what did you do now?”

 
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