Out of Range, p.1C. J. Box
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either 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.
Out of Range
A BERKLEY Book / published by arrangement with the author
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Electronic edition: April 2006
To the game wardens of Wyoming... and Laurie, always.
Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable, and distinctly more ignorant.
The Practice of the Wild: Essays
Moving the keelboat and pirogues upriver required a tremendous effort from each man; consequently they ate prodigiously. In comparison with beef, the venison and elk were lean, even at this season. Each soldier consumed up to nine pounds of meat per day, along with whatever fruit the area afforded and some cornmeal, and still felt hungry.
Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage:
Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson,
and the Opening of the American West
Before going outside to his pickup for his gun, the Wyoming game warden cooked and ate four and a half pounds of meat.
He'd begun his meal with pronghorn antelope steaks, butterflied, floured, and browned in olive oil. Then an elk chop, pan-fried with salt and pepper, adding minced garlic to the cast-iron skillet. His first drink, sipped while he was cooking the antelope, was a glass of Yukon Jack and water on the rocks. By the time he broiled a half dozen mourning dove breasts, he no longer bothered with the ice or the water. As he sat down late in the evening with an elk tenderloin so rare that blood pooled around it on his plate, he no longer used the glass, but drank straight from the bottle.
He ate no vegetables; unless one counted the sautéed onions he had slathered on a grass-fed Hereford beef T-bone, or the minced garlic. Just meat.
He needed air, and stood up.
His mind swam, the room rotated, his heavy boots clunked across the floor. He paused at the jamb, using it to brace himself upright. He stared at a flyspeck on the wall, tried to will the quadruple images he was seeing down to a more manageable two.
Finally, he opened the door. It was dark except for a blue streetlight on the northern corner of the block. A full moon lit up the crags of the mountains, casting them in dim blue-gray. The chill of the fall was already a guest. He stumbled down the broken sidewalk toward his truck. As he approached, his pickup seemed to swell and deflate, as if it were breathing.
"Something smells good inside," a voice said. It startled the game warden, and he squinted toward it, trying to concentrate, to hear it over the mild roar in his ears. A neighbor wearing a tam on his head was walking a poodle down the middle of the street.
"Meat," Will Jensen said abruptly, almost shouting. It was sometimes hard these days to hear his own voice above the roar.
"See you," the neighbor called as he walked down the street. "Bon appetit!"
These people here, Will thought. A goddamned poodle and a tam.
HIS .44 MAGNUM, his bear gun, was on the truck's bench seat where he had left it. Will drew it out of the holster. Holding it loosely in his right hand, he turned back for the house, tripped over his own boots, and fell in the gravel. A red finger of alarm probed into his brain, concern about accidentally discharging the weapon in his fall. Then he snorted a laugh, thinking, Who cares?
HE DIDN'T KNOW how much later it was when he stirred awake. He was still sitting at the table, but had passed out face forward into his plate. Crisp grouse skin stuck to his cheek, and he pawed at it clumsily until it fluttered to the floor.
Angry, he swept the table clear with his arm. Grease smeared across the Formica. The dirty plate cracked in half when it hit the wall.
Where was his .44?
He found it on his bed, where he had tossed it earlier. Along with the weapon, he grabbed a framed photo of his family from the bedside table. He took them both back into the kitchen.
Forlorn was a word he had come to like in recent months. It was a word that sounded like what it described. "Forlorn," he said aloud to himself, "I feel forlorn. I am a forlorn man." Something about the word soothed him, because it defined him, made him admit what he was.
What in the hell was wrong with him? Why did he feel this way, after so many years of balancing on the beam?
The roar in his ears was now so faint that it reminded him of a soft breeze in the treetops. His eyes filled with unexpected, stinging tears, and he drank a long pull from the bottle. He cocked the .44, watched the cylinder rotate. He opened his mouth and pressed the muzzle against the top of his palate. There was a burning, acrid taste. When was the last time he cleaned it? Why did that matter now?
He stared at the photo he'd propped up on the table. It swam. He closed his eyes so tightly that he saw orange fireworks on the inside of his eyelids. He tried to concentrate on the .44 in his fist and the muzzle in his mouth. His stomach was on fire; he tried to fight the urge to get violently sick. He tasted the bitter whiskey a second time.
The wedding of Bud Longbrake and Missy Vankueren took place at noon, on a sun-filled Saturday in September, on the front lawn of the Longbrake Ranch, twenty miles from town. Everyone was there.
The governor and his wife, most of the state senate, where Bud served as majority leader, the state's lone congressman, and what seemed like half of Saddlestring filled 250 metal folding chairs and spilled over into the lawn. Both U.S. senators had sent their regrets. The crisp blue shoulders of the Bighorn Mountains framed the wedding party. The day smelled of just-cut grass and wood smoke from the barbecue pit behind the house, where a prime Longbrake steer and a 4-H pig were roasting. It was a still, windless morning. A single cloud grazed lazily along the peaks. The only sounds were from car doors slamming as more guests arrived, pulling into the shorn hay meadow that served as a parking lot in the back, and occasional mewls from cattle in a distant holding corral.
Joe Pickett sat in the second row. He wore a jacket and tie, dark slacks, and polished black cowboy boots. He was in his mid-thirties, lean, medium height. His thirteen-year-old daughter, Sheridan, sat next to him in a new blue dress. She shone brightly, he thought; long blond hair still streaked with summer highlights, a touch of pink lipstick, open, attractive face, eyes that took in everything. She watched intently as her mother, Marybeth, and eight-year-old sister, Lucy, took part in the ceremony. Lucy was the flower girl, wearing white taffeta. Marybeth, the matron of honor, stood on a riser next to Dale Longbrake and the rest of the wedding party. The men wore black western-cut tuxedos and black Stetsons.
Joe and his wife exchanged glances, and he could tell from her eyes that she was exasperated. Her mother, Missy Vankueren, was an experienced wedding planner, having been the featured bride in three previous ceremonies. Missy had been designing the event for ove
Joe nodded toward the mountains and whispered to Sheridan, "See that cloud?"
Sheridan looked. "Yes."
"I would wager that by Wedding Five, Missy will have figured out how to get rid of it."
"Dad!" she whispered fiercely. But the corners of her mouth tugged with a conspiratorial grin. He winked at her, and she rolled her eyes, turning back to the wedding that was about to begin.
There was a growing murmur as the bride appeared, on cue, beneath an arch of pink and white flowers. Joe and Sheridan rose to their feet with the rest of the crowd. Applause rippled from the front to the back as Missy appeared, glowing, wide-eyed, looking demurely at the throng she had turned out.
"I can't believe that's my grandmother," Sheridan said to Joe. "She looks ..."
"Stunning," Joe said, finishing the sentence for her. Missy looked thirty, not sixty, he thought. She was a slim brunette, her face and hair perfect, her eyes glistening in a too-large head that always looked great in photos. She held a bouquet of pink and white flowers against her shimmering plum dress.
Joe heard Bud Longbrake say, in a reverent tone of appreciation he usually reserved for great cutting horses or seed bulls: "There's my girl."
THE RECEPTION WAS held behind the huge log home, under hundred-year-old cottonwoods. A swing band from Billings played on a stage, and couples spun on a hardwood floor that had been moved to the ranch just for the occasion from a vacated mid-forties dance hall in Winchester. The floor was unique in that it was mounted on carriage springs and had been used for Saturday night dances when big bands used to stop over in Wyoming en route to real paying gigs on the east or west coasts.
Joe ushered Sheridan through the reception line, shaking hands. Bud Longbrake slapped him on the shoulder and said, "Welcome to the family."
I've got a family, Joe thought.
Missy reached for Joe, and pulled his head down next to hers. He felt the bouquet she still clutched crush into his hair. "Never thought I'd pull this one off, did you?" she whispered.
Surprised, he pulled away. She grinned slyly at him, and despite himself, he grinned back. She was a substantial adversary, he thought. He'd hate to meet her in a dark alley.
"Congratulations," he said. "Bud is a fine man."
"Oh, I think I got the best of the deal," Bud said, wrapping his arm around Missy's slim waist.
"You did," she said, flashing her wide smile.
And her name is already on the ranch deed, Joe thought. She owns half of everything we see as far as we can see it. She pulled it off, all right.
Marybeth was next, and had been carefully watching the exchange that took place a moment before. "You look wonderful," he said.
Thank God it's over, she mouthed. He nodded back, agreeing with her.
"Welcome to the family," Bud was telling Sheridan. Joe shot him a look.
"JOE, ARE YOU sure she said that?" Marybeth asked later, as they sat at a table under the trees with their plates of appetizers. Joe had waited for Sheridan and Lucy to find their friends before he told Marybeth about her mother.
Marybeth shook her head, looking hard at Joe to see if he was joking. She obviously determined he wasn't. "She's something else, isn't she?"
"Always has been," Joe said. "What I can't figure out is how you survived."
Marybeth smiled and patted his hand. "Neither can I, at times."
Joe sipped from a bottle of beer that had been offered to him from a stock tank full of ice.
"You two have a very strange relationship," Marybeth said, looking across the lawn at her mother.
"I didn't think we had one at all."
Missy had never made a secret of the fact that she felt Marybeth had married beneath herself. Instead of the doctor, real estate magnate, or U.S. senator Marybeth should have chosen, Missy thought, her most promising daughter wound up with Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden with a salary that capped out at $36,000 a year. Marybeth's career as a corporate lawyer or a politician's wife, in Missy's view, had been unfulfilled. Rather, Marybeth stayed with
Joe as he moved from place to place in their early years together, before Joe was named game warden to the Sad-dlestring District. Then Sheridan came along, followed by Lucy, and in Missy's eyes it was all but over for her daughter. Because of incidents relating to Joe Pickett and his job, Marybeth had been injured and could have no more children. Then a foster daughter had been lost. It was frustrating for Missy, Joe thought. There she was, providing a living example of how to keep trading up—casting off husbands in exchange for newer, wealthier, and shinier models—and her daughter just didn't get it. Missy literally tried to show Marybeth how it could be done by marrying Bud Longbrake right in front of her, Joe thought.
Marybeth still had fire, intelligence, beauty, and ambition, Joe and Missy both knew. She also had a growing melancholy, which she tried hard to overcome.
"Look at Bud's kids," Marybeth said, nodding toward a table set as far away from the others as possible while still being in the shade. "They just don't look happy. Don't stare at them, though."
Joe shifted in his chair. Bud had a son and a daughter from his previous marriage. The son, Bud Jr., had flown in for the wedding from Missoula, where he was a street musician and a professional student at UM. Bud Jr. wore billowy cargo shorts, leather sandals, a T-shirt, and a sour expression. Missy had told Joe and Marybeth that although Bud Jr. had never wanted anything to do with the ranch while growing up, he was content to wait things out, wait for Bud to pass along or sell the ranch. Even after taxes, Bud Jr. stood to gain a huge inheritance. It was the same with Sally, Bud's daughter. Thrice married (like her new stepmother, who had just surpassed her in the race), Sally lived in Portland, Oregon, and was currently between husbands. Sally was attractive in a wounded, Bohemian way, Joe thought. He had heard she was an artist, specializing in wrought iron.
Joe turned back. "No, they don't look happy."
"They don't like it that Bud made Missy cosignatory on all of this," Marybeth said, waving her hand to indicate literally all they could see. "Bud Jr. got hammered at the dress rehearsal last night and shouted some things at his father before he passed out in the bushes. Sally was there last night for about a half an hour, before she disappeared with one of Bud's ranch hands."
"Welcome to the family," Joe said to his wife.
THE NEW TWELVE Sleep County sheriff, Kyle McLanahan, stood in front of Joe and Marybeth in the food line. The piquant smell of barbecued pork and beef hung heavy in the light mountain air.
"Kyle," Joe said, nodding.
"Joe. Marybeth. Congratulations are in order, I guess."
"I guess," Joe said.
"Same to you," Marybeth said coolly. "I haven't seen you since the election."
McLanahan nodded, hitched up his pants. Looked toward the mountains. Squinted. "We've got a lot of work to do."
"Yup," Joe said.
Kyle McLanahan had been the longtime chief deputy for local legend O. R. "Bud" Barnum, who had been sheriff for twenty-eight years. Barnum had owned the county in a sense, having a hand in just about every aspect of it. His downfall came over the past five years, as his reputation eroded, then rotted and tumbled in on itself. That Barnum's decline coincided with Joe's arrival in Saddlestring was no coincidence. The Outfitter Murders, mishandled by Barnum, had begun the slide. Barnum's shadowy involvement with the Stockman's Trust continued it. The ex-sheriff's complicity with Melinda Strickland in her raid on the Sovereign compound started the local gossip that Barnum had lost his commitment to the community and was looking out only for himself. The sheriff's deception during the cattle mutilations had turned the weekly Saddlestring Roundup against him. Joe h
"Have you been listening to your radio this morning?" Sheriff McLanahan asked Joe. "I saw your truck in the parking lot."
Joe shook his head. "I'm off duty."
Because Marybeth and Lucy were in the wedding, they had left the Picketts' small state-owned home early that morning in Marybeth's van. Joe had brought Sheridan in his green Ford Game and Fish pickup after breakfast, but he hadn't turned on his radio during the drive.
"Then you haven't heard that they found a game warden dead over in Jackson," McLanahan said.
Joe felt a shiver run through him. "What?"
SHERIDAN HAD QUICKLY become bored with Lucy and her friends in the play area that had been put up far enough away from the reception that the children wouldn't bother the adults. The placement had Missy's stamp all over it, Sheridan thought. A swing set had been erected, as well as smaller-sized tables and chairs complete with plastic tea sets.
She wandered away from the play area and the reception into the makeshift parking lot. It was tough being thirteen. Too old to play, too young to be considered one of the adults. Her parents were fine, she thought, they never treated her with disrespect, although her mother was starting to bug her in ways she couldn't yet say. In a situation like this, with adults all around, she was patronized. She climbed into her dad's pickup truck and looked at herself in the rearview mirror. At least she finally had contact lenses and didn't look so much like a geek, she thought.
Absently, she clicked on the radio. It was set to the channel reserved for game wardens and brand inspectors. She sometimes liked to listen to the interplay between the men and the dispatchers, usually women, at the headquarters in Cheyenne. There was a surprising amount of activity on the radio for a Saturday morning in early September.
Out of Range by C. J. Box / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes