Read Land of Wolves Online

Authors: Craig Johnson

Land of Wolves (10 page)

“Well, possibly. You’re Abe Extepare’s daughter?”

“Yes, God help me.”

I leaned back in my chair and cradled the phone in the crook of my neck. “I get the feeling that you know why I’m calling.”

“The kidnapping thing.”

“Yep. Would you like to tell me what that’s all about?”

“Why?”

I took a second. “It’s kind of a serious charge, and I’d just like to get the lay of the land before it gets even more serious.”

“Are we being charged with something?”

“Not now, but I would like to know what’s going on between the two of you and your father.”

She fumbled with the phone. “Oh, God . . .”

“If this is a bad time?”

I listened as she breathed. “It was just a stupid threat. Look, my father is very attached to Liam, and we sometimes have trouble getting him from the old man, so Donnie called that idiot Libby Troon and asked her about getting someone to help us get our son back.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“Well, Donnie’s had some difficulties with the law, and I didn’t want to press charges on my dad. I mean, Abe’s my father for goodness sake.”

“I see.”

“But my husband can be a little intimidating and so can my father, and the last time we were up there he threatened Donnie with a shotgun.” There was a pause. “Look, my parents are getting older, and it’s easier for them when Liam is around, and they know we’ll be coming if he’s there. I don’t know, it’s all screwed up. Family, you know?”

“It’s what I deal with the majority of the time.”

“Well, Donnie’s going to be pissed that Dad’s gotten you involved.”

“Actually, he didn’t.”

There was another pause. “Did Libby Troon get you—”

“No, there’s been a bit of a tragedy up here that involves one of your father’s herders, and I happened to be over there and met your son.”

“What kind of tragedy?”

“He appears to have committed suicide.”

I listened as she caught her breath. “Oh no, which one?”

“A Mr. Hernandez. Did you know him?”

“No, but I know that Dad gets very attached to his herders.”

“Miguel Hernandez, he was Chilean and somehow politically involved down there.”

“How terrible.”

“Is there any possibility that your husband knew him?”

She laughed. “No, no. Donnie doesn’t want anything to do with the sheep business—the closest he ever came to ranching was buying a cowboy hat and learning to line dance. That’s one of the problems between him and my father.” There was a long pause, and then she spoke again. “I’m sorry, but what did you say your name was again?”

“Longmire, Walt Longmire.”

“My father built an empire, Sheriff Longmire. The problem is that now that he’s built it, nobody wants it but him. I don’t suppose you have any kinds of problems like that in your family?”

“Actually, I still own my family ranch.”

“Working?”

“Leased.”

I could hear disappointment in her voice, all the way from Colorado. “Oh.”

“Ms. Lott, from what I understand, Mr. Hernandez has family down there in Greeley and we’re having trouble getting in touch with them. You wouldn’t happen to know them, or know how I could contact them?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Well, are you or your husband planning on coming up anytime soon? I’d like to speak with you, perhaps along with your father?”

“We were hoping to get Liam this weekend.”

“Maybe I can help with that. When you get a clear picture of what your travel plans are, could you give me a call and we’ll set something up?” I read her the number and then we said our goodbyes.

That’s the problem with empires—they’re all personal.


As I rounded the corner at Fort Street, I noticed a white Toyota pickup with Montana plates trailing me. Making the turn to go to the hospital, I pulled into the alley behind the bank and stopped, rolling down my window as Keasik Cheechoo pulled up beside me and lowered hers.

“Hey, robbing a bank?”

“Nope, I just saw you tailing me and thought I should see if you wanted something.”

“You saw me?”

“I did.”

“I thought I was being really inconspicuous.”

I glanced around. “It’s a small town with not much cover. Do you have something on your mind, Ms. Cheechoo?”

She nodded, parked, and, telling her dog to stay, walked over to my window. “News from the wolf front.” She leaned her elbows on the sill, a little breathless. “As it turns out, 777M is something a little special.”

“In what way?”

“He’s native.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“To Wyoming, he’s one of our original wolves.” She smiled and continued. “Sheriff, wolf remains in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park go back almost a thousand years; wolves have always been here, but they were
irremotus
and not
occidentalis
.”

“I’m not following.”

“By the late nineteen thirties there were maybe a dozen wolves remaining in Yellowstone Park, and they were
irremotus
, but in the sixties they started using compound-1080, sodium fluoroacetate, to virtually wipe them out. Do you know that one spoonful of that stuff can kill a hundred people?”

“No, I can’t say that I do.”

Ignoring my answer, she continued, “But there was a sighting in the late seventies of a dark-colored pair living in the northeast section of the park.”

“So?”

“So, the midnineties was when the
occidentalis,
the Canadian wolves, were reintroduced into the Yellowstone ecosystem—a completely different subspecies.”

“And the
irremotus
is the native Wyoming wolf that you say survived? How is that possible?”

She threw up her hands. “Who knows? Usually the ox’s kill the irre’s but some of the irre’s must have survived both them and the poison.” Out of basic respect, I reached down and switched off the motor on my truck. “There must’ve been a mating pair that produced pups that produced more pups that must’ve produced this guy.”

“How can you be sure of that?”

“777M was tagged and collared by a National Park Service
trainee before turning him loose. Well, our people did the DNA paperwork and discovered 777M is full-blood
irremotus
.”

“Don’t the two subspecies mix?”

“Not generally, and like I said, it’s more common for the ox’s to kill them because they’re smaller, but not this guy if he’s as big as you described.”

“You’ve seen him too.”

“Yes, but not as close as you.”

I thought about it. “So, you have a throwback.”

“I know, isn’t it amazing?”

“Congratulations.”

“Well.” She stared at me. “You have to stop your wolf hunt.”

“It’s not my wolf hunt, Ms. Cheechoo, it’s the Department of Agriculture’s Wolf Management people or the predator board you need to be talking to, not me.”

“But you’re picking the wolf hunter.”

“No, I’m not. That was Ranger Coon’s attempt at a joke, since he is retiring, and one that I don’t think is particularly funny. I suppose you could also talk to Don Butler of the Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association, but I’d imagine that’s going to be a rather one-sided conversation.”

“You’re not going to help me?”

“Frankly, I don’t see how I can.”

She stepped back and practically shouted at me. “Call off the wolf hunt!”

“I don’t have the jurisdiction to call off anything, Ms. Cheechoo. It’s the state and federal agencies you’re talking about. I’m a county sheriff. Now, if you want to talk to me about the investigation into the death of Miguel Hernandez, that’s within my job description, but not wolves.”

She stood there for a moment more and then stalked away, headed for her truck, but turned back and stuck a finger out at me. “By the way, I read your interview in the local paper, and for my money it was one of the most shameless, exacerbating things I’ve ever read—you’ve started a full-blown wolf scare here, Sheriff.”

With that, she turned away again and jumped into her truck, tires squealing down the street. I thought about going after her and giving her a citation, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember if I had a ticket book in my truck.

I glanced over at Dog, who looked as shell-shocked as I felt, and then pulled out and continued to the hospital. “Let’s not follow that car, shall we?”

Dog wanted to go into the hospital and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed inside. “It’s not my fault they don’t allow dogs.” I stood there holding the door of my truck in the sunshine as he studied me. “I don’t know why you wanted to come, they’ve never allowed dogs.”

He sat and continued looking at me, eye to eye.

“Some people are allergic . . . Or something. I don’t know.” I rolled down the windows a bit, and he settled, resting his mammoth head on his huge paws, and stretched out the full length of the seat as I shut the door.

Walking into Durant Memorial always gave me a slight chill, maybe because there were times when I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to leave the place of my own volition. I turned the corner, waved at the receptionist, and walked down the hall to Isaac Bloomfield’s office.

Knocking on the door, I heard nothing inside and then knocked again, wanting to make sure that the piles of files hadn’t fallen over and incapacitated him.

“He’s not in there.”

I turned to see David Nickerson, Isaac’s protégé—and didn’t we all have them these days? “Where is he?”

“Outside. There’s a picnic table in the back where the staff can eat if the weather is nice.”

“Thanks.” I pushed off and walked past the dark-haired young man.

“It’s the other way.”

I called over my shoulder. “I’m bringing a friend to lunch.”

It didn’t take long for Dog to navigate the grounds around the hospital building, and he now sat with Isaac’s hands cradling his head, the finely boned fingers supporting the boxy muzzle as the two old souls gazed into each other’s eyes.

“Maybe you should do his DNA.”

“I’m not so sure I want to know what he is.”

Isaac released Dog’s head and reached onto the picnic table, breaking off another piece of matzo and feeding it to the beast. “Happy Passover.”

I broke a piece off for myself. “Certainly seems like spring today.” Chewing the unleavened bread, I did my best to ignore the thin remains of snow on the grounds, leftovers from the skiff of the other night.

“Are you all right, Walter?”

“I . . .” I thought about whether I wanted to share my symptoms with him but then figured he was the only one who was medically trained that I really trusted. “Um . . . I’ve been having these phases.”

“What kind of phases?”

“I’m not really sure, but it’s like some traumatic pause.”

“Physically or mentally?”

“Both.”

He studied me, and then his eyes went toward the trees by the creek. “You are familiar with the fight-or-flight response?”

I nodded. “Survival-oriented acute stress response.”

“Yes, but have you ever heard of the fight-flight-or-freeze response?”

“No.”

“You access the menace as something you can defeat or one that you must run from. Both of these responses require a burst of biochemical, such as adrenaline, that enable you to combat or flee your adversary. But what if in those nanoseconds of response time, you realize that you can neither defeat nor escape the menace.” He finally looked back at me. “Are these phases happening in moments of stress?”

“No.”

“Interesting. Are you alone?”

“Mostly.”

“How long are these periods?”

“Vic timed one at almost eight minutes.”

“It is possible that your mind is disassociating itself from the terrifying enormity of what you are facing because accepting it might rob you of your sanity.”

I looked at the concentration camp survivor. “I’m getting tired of it all, Doc. I’m getting sick of what people do to one another.”

“This is the first time you’ve felt this way?”

“No, but it’s gotten to me worse than it ever has before.”

He nodded. “You’ve been through a great deal lately.”

“Maybe it’s enough.” He stared at me through the thick-framed glasses as I spoke to the surface of the table. “Maybe it’s time to have it over with—just up and quit.”

“That would be a shame.”

“Why?”

He adjusted the glasses and smiled the sad smile that had aged like wine. “Because you are very good at what you do, Walter.” Isaac reached under his down jacket and pulled a small plastic bag from the front pocket of his smock. He handed it to me.

I held the bag up but couldn’t see anything inside.

“Mule hairs.”

I sighed, thinking about how high the man had been hung. I held the bag up in the sun and could now see the short fibers and then lowered it to the table and studied the wood grain of the surface. “So, what is it I’m so damned terrified of, Doc?”

“Why Walter, I would’ve thought it was obvious.” He smiled his sad, worldly smile. “Yourself.”

7

“Even though Chuck Coon is fur-bearing, I still don’t think we’re going to be able to have a hunting season on him.”

Vic cocked her head at the game warden. “He’s retiring, that means he’s old and slow and will be easier to shoot.”

“Um, I don’t think the department will go for it.”

She crossed her legs. “Then I guess I may have to resort to the shoot, shovel, and shut-the-hell-up plan.”

I glanced at the twenty-inch brown trout on the wall above Ferris Kaplan’s desk, adjusted my hat on my knee, and changed the subject. “What do you know about this Keasik Cheechoo?”

He laughed. “The wolf advocate—she’s a major pain in my ass, but that’s not an official department position either.”

“She was quoting me some interesting findings on 777M earlier today.”

“Like what?”

“That he’s a native Wyoming wolf and not one of the Canadian transplants you guys brought down here in the nineties.”

“First off, we didn’t bring them down here, the Forest Service did, and second, I haven’t heard anything about that.” I spread my palms as he studied me and looked thoughtful, finally shaking his head. “
Irremotus
. That would be highly unlikely.”

“How big of a deal would it be?”

“Huge, like finding an extinct species or the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.”

Vic slumped in her chair. “So, we get to be the ringmaster of an even bigger shit-show than the one we have now.”

“Possibly.” Ferris leaned down and opened a desk drawer. “Want a drink?” Not waiting for a response, he placed a bottle of Sazerac Rye on his blotter along with two tumblers. “You guys are going to have to share.”

Vic reached for the glass as he finished pouring. “Okay, so this wolf is collared, right? So why can’t you guys just track him and dart him, or whatever you do?”

Kaplan took a sip from his personal glass and leaned back in his chair. “Well, that supposes that the smart collar is operating.”

I reached over and took the tumbler from Vic as she lowered it from her lips. “I take it it’s not?”

“Sometimes. The new collars were developed by a team of scientists at UC Santa Cruz with accelerometers like those of smartphones.” He paused and glanced at Vic. “Will you explain what a smartphone is to him?”

She turned to me. “It’s a phone that’s smart.”

The game warden sighed. “Anyway, they not only track the wolf but give us an indication of when they’re burning up calories by running or conserving energy while resting, almost like keeping a diary of the wolf’s activities.”

“Sounds great. So, what’s the problem?”

“That batch got the first-generation leftovers, and they proved to be a little finicky. Sometimes they transmit; sometimes they don’t.”

“The Cheechoo woman also mentioned that a trainee was the one who tested and collared 777M.”

“That could’ve also had an effect.”

Vic took the glass back from me. “Does it have GPS tracking?”

“Sometimes.”

I leaned forward. “And is it true that private individuals can get transponders and track the wolves themselves?”

He nodded. “If the transmitter on the collar is working, yes. I’ve heard of cases over near Yellowstone and that could be true with 777M.”

“Hey, what the hell is this 777M shit anyway? It sounds like we’re talking about a U-boat—can we just name this fucking wolf?”

Kaplan shook his head and placed a hand over his bearded face. “Oh, please don’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“It will anthropomorphize the animal, and pretty soon we’ve got GoFundMe sites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and Instagram pictures . . .”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

He glanced at me and then back to her. “Because somebody’s going to shoot that wolf, and it always has a negative effect when people start looking at large predators as Fluffy-the-dog-next-door.”

Vic made a face. “So, somebody’s going to shoot him.”

“Most assuredly.”

“Because he might’ve killed a sheep? Which, by the way, was not confirmed by your own lab’s DNA testing.”

He raised his hands in surrender. “Yes.”

“Not because he nibbled on the shepherd?”

Ferris took a sip and then rested the tumbler on his blotter. “Surprisingly, in the eyes of the federal and state government that’s less of an issue.”

“Well, in the eyes of the denizens of Absaroka County, it’s not.” I took the glass back from my undersheriff. “Evidently there are hordes of wolves preparing to descend out of the Bighorn Mountains and run rampant through the streets of Durant.”

He shook his head. “Have these people ever checked the statistics to see what the odds are of a wolf attack on human beings?”

“Somehow I doubt it.”

“In modern history in the contiguous United States, we’ve had two deaths by wolves, and in both cases the animals were habituated to the point of not being afraid of people. Wolves generally know better than to associate with human beings in that it’s always going to end badly for the wolf. It’s a case of humans perpetuating a campaign of selective breeding—over the centuries bold wolves are killed and the more timid animals survive. So, if you even see one in the wild, it’s quite an accomplishment.”

Vic took the glass back and finished it off with one slug. “How about Larry?”

Kaplan looked at her, then me, then her again. “Excuse me?”

“The wolf, how ’bout we call him Larry.”


Carrying the sawed-off shotgun through the Durant Home for Assisted Living didn’t raise much of a response from the staff—Lucian Connally had had visitors bearing firearms before. Stopping at his door, I reached down, ruffled the hair behind Dog’s ears, and looked at Vic. “Why Larry?”

“KYW back in Philadelphia used to have this Chiller Theater show on Saturday nights, and as a kid I was an avid viewer.”

I looked at her, taking in her open flannel shirt and tight thermal she wore underneath just to distract the old sheriff. “Okay.”

“My Nonna used to stay up with me, and we’d watch the movies and sleep on the sofa. I don’t think she ever made it through a single one, but I felt better having her there.” She reached down and petted Dog’s enormous head. “They would show a triple-creature feature—you know, three Frankenstein movies or three Dracula movies. But my favorites were the Wolf Man movies with Lon Chaney Jr., and his character was named Larry Talbot.”

I knocked on the door. “There are times when I think I barely know you.”

“There are times you’re right.” She reached up and pounded. “You home, you old pervert?”

I glanced up and down the hallway in hopes that Lucian was the only one to receive the greeting. After a moment, the door opened and he stood there in a freshly ironed shirt, clean blue jeans, and polished Paul Bond boots, his silver hair combed and parted.

I’d told him Vic was accompanying me this evening.


Entrée, entrée
 . . .” He stepped back and ushered us in with a sweep of his arm—Dog shot into the room and jumped onto his favorite leather sofa.

The place was spotless, and some sort of fragrant burbling was coming from a pot on the stove. I sat the shotgun by my usual chair. “I’m sorry, we were looking for the apartment of Lucian Connally?”

He ignored me and continued into the kitchen on his four-prong cane. “Get in here and shut the damn door.” He stirred
the ingredients as we slipped off our jackets and piled them beside Dog, who was already stretched out, his head on his paws.

“What’s for dinner?”

“I had a friend drop off some elk tenderloin, and I used it to make what I consider to be one of the finest stews I’ve ever created.”

Looking over at the chessboard, I could see the ol’ sheriff had left it the same as it was last week when I’d been here, and I was worried that none of his other players had paid him a visit. “Is that last week’s game?”

He came in from the kitchen holding a bottle of Clos de l’Oratoire des Papes and an opener, which he handed off to Vic. He only drank wine when she accompanied me. “It is.”

“No other games this week?”

“Nope.”

“How come?”

“All my opponents are either dead or too senile to play anymore.”

“So, you’re stuck with me?”

Vic expertly pulled the cork on the red and handed the bottle back to him. She wandered toward the sliding glass doors and stretched her arms upward. “And me.”

He allowed his eyes to linger on her, and I couldn’t blame him.

“All three of you.” He petted Dog and tottered back into the kitchen to collect the wine glasses and, returning, handed them out to me. “So, what’re you gonna do about this wolf situation you got on your hands?”

I extended a glass, he poured, and then I handed it off to Vic. “There is no wolf situation.”

“That ain’t what’s in the papers.” He glugged another for
me—a technique that would have appalled the vintners. “What came over you, giving out with statements like that?”

“I was misquoted.”

Pouring one for himself, he raised a glass. “Here’s to the fourth estate.”

After the three of us touched glasses, he looked thoughtful. “What the hell are the other three estates anyway?”

“Edmund Burke, 1787, referring to the three estates of the realm in the European sense, the clergy, nobility, and commoners, but in the American sense, the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches—ceding power to the fourth, the press.”

Lucian shook his head. “Drink up, maybe we’ll get some sense out of you before it’s all over.” His eyes lingered on Vic again. “How the hell do you put up with him?”

She sipped her wine and sat on the sofa beside Dog. “It’s going to get worse. He’s got a computer now.”

The old sheriff turned to look at me, appalled. “The hell you say.”

I nodded. “I haven’t figured out how to turn it on, but when I do I’m going to be hell on wheels.”

“Saints preserve us.”

Anxious to change the subject, I remembered it being my turn and hooked in a knight from the left. “So, did you ever have any wolf problems back in the day?”

He studied my move and sipped his wine. “Define the term
problem
.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Did I ever have a wolf problem . . .” His eyes came back up but paused when he noticed the weapon leaning beside his guest chair. “What? These games become so competitive that you have to come armed these days?”

Reaching down, I picked up the old shotgun and tabled it in my outstretched hands, presenting it to him. “You remember this weapon?”

He studied it up and down as Vic stood nearby with a smile playing on her lips. “Can’t say that I do.”

“It’s the one that cost you your leg.”

He stared at it. “You’re shittin’ me . . .” He took it, and I watched as he swung it up and stared at it almost as closely as if I’d handed him the leg they’d cut off all those years ago. “I’ll be damned.”

“Look familiar now?”

He shook his head, unbelieving. “Well, I only saw it for a few seconds back in the day, and by then it was far too late.” He studied it some more. “I thought it was a twelve gauge.”

“Twenty.”

He nodded. “By gawd, that night it took off my leg it looked like a bazooka.” He studied it a bit more and then raised his dark eyes to look at me. “Remington Model 11, widowmaker, the Dillinger Gun. This little booger was easy to saw off and made it the go-to weapon for motorized bandits back in the Dirty Thirties; along with those new en block V-8 engines those ol’ boys were hard to run down. Hell, this gun alone is probably responsible for the National Firearms Act of ’34—no silencers, machine guns, or anything sawed off.” He studied the thing, running his hands over the metal. “You’re sure this is the one?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Abarrane Extepare found it under one of the lambing sheds on his father’s summer place. He says it was in pretty bad shape and probably had been lying under there since the act.”

Lucian raised the shotgun and sighted it on the mule-deer
mount on his wall just above my head, and I could see how a man could be intimidated by it. “I’ll be damned.”

“He also said something else interesting about who it was that actually shot you. He said to give that to you and see if the
statuary limits
had run out yet.”

The old sheriff lowered the weapon but continued looking at it. “Beltran was the older of the two, bigger and tougher than his little brother.”

He sipped his wine.

“It took me a couple of weeks to get out of that damn hospital, but when I did I went looking for ’em. When I caught up with ’em it was down on the Middle Fork on the Powder River near the Outlaw Cave—they didn’t know what county they was in, and I ain’t so sure I did either. They had a sheep camp and a little dugout no bigger than a walk-in closet.” He reached out and stroked the pebbly finish of the shotgun astride his knees. “They’d been down there hidin’ out for a month.” He shook his head. “Now, just imagine how tough you had to be to be out there livin’ in a hole in the ground.”

Vic held out an empty glass to him, and he picked up the bottle to refill her before setting it at the edge of the table.

“They knew I was comin’, but they didn’t have a weapon between ’em. Beltran come out empty-handed, and if there’s ever been a man I faced that was certain he was gonna die, it was him.” His eyes fell to the board and tightened, attempting to seize those fleeting moments when just one mistake might mean the end of your life. “I had my .38 out and pointed at him as he stood there between the doorway of that ol’ dugout and me and said he understood if I wanted his life for what they done, but that if I could see fit to just blow off an arm or leg and leave his head attached he sure would appreciate it.”

Vic laughed.

Lucian cocked his head and smiled. “Honest to God, that’s what he said.”

“Then what?”

“I asked him where his brother was, and I told him I wasn’t gonna ask twice, and that’s when Jakes come out of the dugout, also empty-handed.”

I sipped my wine and waited.

“I told Beltran to step aside, but he didn’t—he just stood there between me and his brother, who had those spooky blue eyes. Starts tellin’ me that one of the last things he promised his mother was that he’d take care of his little brother, and he didn’t see any way out of it now. He said you know how it is down there in Rawlins, Lucian. They’ll eat him up and spit out a half-man if he survives, and he was right—that was back in the day when that place was rough, brother. So anyway, he says, ‘Why don’t you just send me down there, or whatever’s left of me when you get done and we’ll call it even.’”

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