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Pronghorns of the third.., p.2
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       Pronghorns of the Third Reich, p.2

           C. J. Box
 
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  There was a kind of forced intimacy that was not welcome, Parker thought. He’d been reduced to the same level as these two no-account ranch hands who between them didn’t have a nickel to rub together. They had guns and the advantage, Parker thought, but they were smart in the way coyotes or other predators were smart in that they knew innately how to survive but didn’t have a clue how to rise up beyond that. He knew that from listening to Lyle testify in court in halting sentences filled with poorly chosen words. And when Lyle’s broken down ninety-eight-year-old grandfather took the stand it was all over. Parker had flayed the old man with whips made of words until there was no flesh left on his ancient bones.

  Lyle likely couldn’t be reasoned with—he knew that already. No more than a coyote or a raven could be reasoned with. Coyotes would never become dogs. Likewise, ravens couldn’t be songbirds. Lyle Peebles would never be a reasonable man. He was a man whose very existence was based on grievance.

  “This is getting bad,” Juan said, leaning forward in his seat as if getting six inches closer to the windshield would improve his vision. Thees.

  Parker gripped the dashboard. The tires had become sluggish beneath the pickup as the snow accumulated. Juan was driving more by feel than by vision, and a few times Parker felt the tires leave the two-track and Juan had to jerk the wheel to find the ruts of the road again.

  “We picked a bad day for this,” Juan said. Thees.

  “Keep going,” Lyle said. “We been in worse than this before. Remember that time in the Pryor Mountains?”

  “Si. That was as bad as this.”

  “That was worse,” Lyle said definitively.

  There was a metallic clang and Parker heard something scrape shrilly beneath the undercarriage of the truck.

  “What the hell was that?” Lyle asked Juan.

  “A T-post, I think.”

  “Least that means we’re still on the road,” Lyle said.

  “Ay-yi-yi,” Juan whistled.

  “We could turn around,” Parker said.

  “We could,” Juan agreed. “At least I could follow our tracks back out. As it is, I can’t see where we’re going.”

  “We’re fine, Godammit,” Lyle said. “I know where we are. Keep going. We’ll be seeing that old house any time now.”

  Parker looked out his passenger window. Snow was sticking to it and covering the glass. Through a fist-sized opening in the snow, he could see absolutely nothing.

  He realized Lyle was talking to him. “What did you say?”

  “I said I bet you didn’t expect you’d be doing this today, did you?”

  “No.”

  “You’re the type of guy who thinks once a judge says something it’s true, ain’t you?”

  Parker shrugged.

  “You thought after you made a fool of my grandpa you were done with this, didn’t you?”

  “Look,” Parker said, “we all have jobs to do. I did mine. It wasn’t personal.”

  Parker waited for an argument. Instead, he felt a sharp blow to his left ear and he saw spangles where a moment ago there had been only snow. The voice that cried out had been his.

  He turned in the seat cupping his ear in his hand.

  Lyle grinned back. Parker noticed the small flap of skin on the front sight of the Colt. And his fingers were hot and sticky with his blood.

  “You say it ain’t personal, lawyer,” Lyle said. “But look at me. Look at me. What do you see?”

  Parker squinted against the pain and shook his head slowly as if he didn’t know how to answer.

  “What you see, lawyer, is a third-generation loser. That’s what you see, and don’t try to claim otherwise or I’ll beat you bloody. I’ll ask you again: what do you see?”

  Parker found that his voice was tremulous. He said, “I see a working man, Lyle. A good-hearted working man who gets paid for a hard day’s work. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that.”

  “Nice try,” Lyle said, feinting with the muzzle toward Parker’s face like the flick of a tongue from a snake. Parker recoiled, and Lyle grinned again.

  “That man fucked over my grandpa and set this all in motion,” Lyle said. “He cheated him and walked away and hid behind his money and his lawyers for the rest of his life. Can you imagine what my grandpa’s life would have been like if he hadn’t been fucked over? Can you imagine what my life would have been like? Not like this, I can tell you. Why should that man get away with a crime like that? Don’t you see a crime like that isn’t a one-shot deal? That it sets things in motion for generations?”

  “I’m just a lawyer,” Parker said.

  “ And I’m just a no-account working man,” Lyle said. “And the reason is because of people like you.”

  “Look,” Parker said, taking his hand away from his ear and feeling a long tongue of blood course down his neck into his collar, “maybe we can go back to the judge with new information. But we need new information. It can’t just be your grandfather’s word and his theories about Nazis and …”

  “They weren’t just theories!” Lyle said, getting agitated. “It was the truth.”

  “It was so long ago,” Parker said.

  “That doesn’t make it less true!” Lyle shouted.

  “There was no proof. Give me some proof and I’ll represent you instead of the estate.”

  Parker shot a glance at the rearview mirror to find Lyle deep in thought for a moment. Lyle said, “That’s interesting. I’ve seen plenty of whores, but not many in a suit.”

  “Lyle,” Juan said sadly, “I think we are lost.”

  The hearing had lasted less than two days. Paul Parker was the lawyer for the Fritz Angler estate, which was emerging from probate after the old man finally died and left no heirs except a disagreeable out-of-wedlock daughter who lived in Houston. From nowhere, Benny Peebles and his grandson Lyle made a claim for the majority of the Angler estate holdings. Benny claimed he’d been cheated out of ownership of the ranch generations ago and he wanted justice. He testified it had happened this way:

  Benny Peebles and Fritz Angler, both in their early twenties, owned a Ryan monoplane together. The business model for Peebles/Peebles Aviation was to hire out their piloting skills and aircraft to ranchers in Northern Wyoming for the purpose of spotting cattle, delivering goods, and transporting medicine and cargo. They also had contracts with the federal and state government for mail delivery and predator control. Although young and in the midst of the Depression, they were two of the most successful entrepreneurs the town of Cody had seen. Still, the income from the plane barely covered payments and overhead and both partners lived hand-to-mouth.

  Peebles testified that in 1936 they were hired by a rancher named Wendell Oaks to help round up his scattered cattle. This was an unusual request, and they learned Oaks had been left high-and-dry by all of his ranch-hands because he hadn’t paid them for two months. Oaks had lost his fortune in the crash and the only assets he had left before the bank foreclosed on his 16,000-acre spread were his Hereford cattle. He’d need to sell them all to raise $20,000 to save his place, and in order to sell them he’d need to gather them up. The payments to Peebles/Peebles would come out of the proceeds, he assured them.

  Benny said Fritz was enamored with the Oaks Ranch—the grass, the miles of river, the timber, and the magnificent Victorian ranch house that cost Oaks a fortune to build. He told Benny, “This man is living on my ranch but he just doesn’t know it yet.”

  Benny didn’t know what Fritz meant at the time, although his partner, he said, always had “illusions of grandiosity,” as Benny put it.

  Fritz sent Benny north to Billings to buy fence to build a massive temporary corral for the cattle. While he was gone, Fritz said, he’d fly the ranch and figure out where all the cattle were.

  Benny returned to Cody four days later followed by a truck laden with rolls of fence and bundles of steel posts. But Fritz was gone, and so was the Ryan. Wendell Oaks was fit to be tied. Bankers were driving out to his place from Co
dy to take measurements.

  Three days later, while Benny and some locals he’d hired on a day-rate were building the corral, he heard the buzz of an airplane motor. He recognized the sound and looked up to see Fritz Angler landing the Ryan in a hay meadow.

  Before Benny could confront his partner, Fritz buttonholed one of the bankers and they drove off together into town. Benny inspected their monoplane and saw where Fritz had removed the co-pilot seat and broken out the interior divides of the cargo area to make more space. The floor of the aircraft was covered in white bristles of hair and animal feces. It smelled dank and unpleasant.

  The next thing Benny knew, sheriff’s deputies descended on the place and evicted Wendell Oaks. Then they ordered Benny and his laborers off the property by order of the sheriff and the bank and new owner of the ranch, Fritz Angler, who had paid off the outstanding loan balance and now owned the paper for the Oaks Ranch.

  The arch appeared out of the snow and Juan drove beneath it. Parker was relieved to discover how close they were to the ranch house, and just as frightened to anticipate what might come next.

  Lyle was wound up. “That mean old German son-of-a-bitch never even apologized,” he said heatedly from the backseat. “He used the airplane my Grandpa owned half of to swindle our family out of this place, and he never even said sorry. If nothing else, we should have owned half of all this. Instead, it turned my family to a bunch of two-bit losers. It broke my Grandpa and ruined my dad and now it’s up to me to get what I can out of it. What choice do I have since you cheated us again in that court?”

  “I didn’t cheat you,” Parker said softly, not wanting to argue with Lyle in his agitated state. “There was no proof …”

  “Grandpa told you what happened!” Lyle said.

  “But that story you told …”

  “He don’t lie. Are you saying he lied?”

  “No,” Parker said patiently. “But I mean, come on. Who is going to believe that Fritz Angler trapped a hundred antelope fawns and flew them around the country and sold them to zoos? That he sold some to Adolf Hitler and flew that plane all the way to Lakehurst, New Jersey and loaded a half-dozen animals on the Hindenburg to be taken to the Berlin Zoo? I mean, come on, Lyle.”

  “It happened!” Lyle shouted. “If Grandpa said it happened, it fucking happened.”

  Parker recalled the skeptical but patient demeanor of the judge as old Benny Peebles droned on at the witness stand. There were a few snickers from the small gallery during the tale.

  Juan shook his head and said to Parker, “I hear this story before. Many times about the plane and the antelopes.”

  Parker decided to keep quiet. There was no point in arguing. Lyle spoke with the deranged fervor of a true believer, despite the outlandishness of the tale.

  Lyle said, “Look around you. There are thousands of antelope on this ranch, just like there were in 1936. Angler used the plane to herd antelope into a box canyon, where he bound them up. Grandpa showed me where he done it. Angler loaded them into the Ryan and started east, selling them all along the way. He had connections with Hitler because he was German! His family was still over there. They were a bunch of fucking Nazis just like Angler. He knew who to call.

  “He sold those fawns for $100 to $200 each because they were so rare outside Wyoming at the time. He could load up to 40 in the plane for each trip. He made enough cash money to buy airplane fuel all the way to New Jersey and back and still had enough to pay off Wendell Oaks’ loan. He did the whole thing in a plane co-owned by my Grandpa but never cut him in on a damned thing!

  “Then he started buying other ranches,” Lyle said, speaking fast, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth, “then they found that damned oil. Angler was rich enough to spend thousands on lawyers and thugs to keep my Grandpa and my dad away from him all those years. Our last shot was contesting that old Nazi’s estate—and you shut us out.”

  Parker sighed and closed his eyes. He’d grown up in Cody. He despised men who blamed their current circumstances on past events as if their lives were preordained. Didn’t Lyle know that in the West you simply reinvented yourself? That family legacies meant next to nothing?

  “I can’t take this ranch with me,” Lyle said. “I can’t take enough cattle or vehicles or sagebrush to make things right. But I sure as hell can take that damned book collection of his. I’ve heard it’s worth hundreds of thousands. Ain’t that right, Parker?”

  “I don’t know,” Parker said. “I’m not a collector.”

  “But you’ve seen it, right? You’ve been in that secret room of his?”

  “Once.” Parker recalled the big dark room with floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelves that smelled of paper and age. Fritz liked to sit in a red-leather chair under the soft yellow light of a Tiffany lamp and read, careful not to fully open or damage the books in any way. It had taken him sixty years to amass his collection of mostly leather-bound first editions. The collection was comprised primarily of books about the American West and the Third Reich in original German. While Parker browsed the shelves he had noted both volumes of Mein Kampf with alarm but had said nothing to the old man.

  “And what was in there?” Lyle said. “Did you see some of the books I’ve heard about? Lewis and Clark’s original journals? Catlin’s books about Indians? A first edition of Irwin Wister?”

  “Owen Wister,” Parker corrected. “The Virginian. Yes, I saw them.”

  “Ha!” Lyle said with triumph. “I heard Angler brag that the Indian book was worth a half million.”

  Parker realized two things at once. They were close enough to the imposing old ranch house they could see its Gothic outline emerge from the white. And Juan had stopped the pickup.

  “Books!” Juan said, biting off the word. “We’re here for fucking books? You said we would be getting his treasure.”

  “Juan,” Lyle said, “his books are his treasure. That’s why we brought the stock trailer.”

  “I don’t want no books!” Juan growled, “I thought it was jewelry or guns. You know, rare things. I don’t know nothing about old books.”

  “It’ll all work out,” Lyle said, patting Juan on the shoulder. “Trust me. People spend a fortune collecting them.”

  “Then they’re fools,” Juan said, shaking his head.

  “Drive right across the lawn,” Lyle instructed Juan. “Pull the trailer up as close as you can get to the front doors so we don’t have to walk so far.”

  “So we can fill it with shitty old books,” Juan said, showing his teeth.

  “Calm down, amigo,” Lyle said to Juan. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”

  “About a thousand times, amigo.”

  Lyle huffed a laugh, and Parker watched Juan carefully. He didn’t seem to be playing along.

  Lyle said, “Keep an eye on the lawyer while I open the front door.” To Parker, he said, “Give me those keys.”

  Parker handed them over and he watched Lyle fight the blizzard on his way up the porch steps. The wind was ferocious and Lyle kept one hand clamped down on his hat. A gust nearly drove him off the porch. If anything, it was snowing even harder.

  “Books,” Juan said under his breath. “He tricked me.”

  The massive double front doors to the Angler home filled a gabled stone archway and were eight feet high and studded with iron bolt heads. Angler had a passion for security, and Parker remembered noting the thickness of the open door when he’d visited. They were over two inches thick. He watched Lyle brush snow away from the keyhole and fumble with the key ring with gloved fingers.

  “Books are not treasure,” Juan said.

  Parker sensed an opening. “No, they’re not. You’ll have to somehow find rich collectors who will overlook the fact that they’ve been stolen. Lyle doesn’t realize each one of those books has an ex libre mark.”

  When Juan looked over, puzzled, Parker said, “It’s a stamp of ownership. Fritz didn’t collect so he could sell the books. He collected because he loved them. They’ll be
harder than hell to sell on the open market. Book collectors are a small world.”

  Juan cursed.

  Parker said, “It’s just like his crazy story about the antelope and the Hindenburg. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

  “He’s crazy.”

  “I’m afraid so,” Parker said. “And he sucked you into this.”

  “I didn’t kill your dog.”

  “What?”

  “I didn’t kill it. I shot by his head and he yelped. I couldn’t shoot an old dog like that. I like dogs if they don’t want to bite me.”

  “Thank you, Juan.” Parker hoped the storm wasn’t as violent in town and that Champ would find a place to get out of it.

  They both watched Lyle try to get the door open. The side of his coat was already covered with snow.

  “A man could die just being outside in a storm like this,” Parker said. Then he took a long breath and held it.

  “Lyle, he’s crazy,” Juan said. “He wants to fix his family. He don’t know how to move on.”

  “Well said. There’s no reason why you should be in trouble for Lyle’s craziness,” Parker said.

  “Mister, I know what you’re doing.”

  “But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

  Juan said nothing.

  “My wife …” Parker said. “We’re having some problems. I need to talk to her and set things right. I can’t imagine never talking to her again. For Christ’s Sake, my last words to her were, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”

  Juan snorted.

  “Please …”

  “He wants you to help him,” Juan said, chinning toward the windshield. Beyond it, Lyle was gesticulating at them on the porch.

  “We can just back away,” Parker said. “We can go home.”

  “You mean just leave him here?”

  “Yes,” Parker said. “I’ll never breathe a word about this to anyone. I swear it.”

  Juan seemed to be thinking about it. On the porch, Lyle was getting angrier and more frantic. Horizontal snow and wind made his coat sleeves and pant legs flap. A gust whipped his hat off, and Lyle flailed in the air for it but it was gone.

 
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