Read Land of Wolves Online

Authors: Craig Johnson

Land of Wolves (2 page)

When you see a wolf, you can’t help feeling impressed. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to being around their more domesticated cousins, but this animal is something else. Aside from all the crap that you see on TV and in the movies or even in badly written books, they’re not the slathering beasts just outside the glow of the campfire; there’s only one word that comes to mind when I’ve ever seen one in the wild: empathic.

It’s like they’re reading your mind, because they have to know what you’re thinking to simply survive.

Back in the day, after that first nomadic hunter tossed a greasy leg of caribou to a curious pair of eyes, it set off a chain reaction of genetic mutation of over eight hundred thousand years that bred a partner for mankind, and an entirely different
branch of the canine tree was born. For the sacrifice of their freedom came security and their role as guard and companion.

That was not the animal I was looking at now.

He studied me, not moving, and if not for a slight difference in color gradation against the darkness of the trees and the faded snow, I would’ve never seen him.

What would he have done then?

Eons ago there was a period when we would have been competing with each other as apex predators, but intellect and opposable thumbs gave us an evolutionary advantage and now he lived in our world.

Unconsciously, my hand landed on the holster of my stag-handled .45—maybe I wasn’t feeling so apex after all.

His mouth was closed and his ears were down, but his eyes were wide and studied me. He was massive even if he hadn’t eaten a quarter of a sheep. There was no blood on his mouth or ruff, so if he had killed the sheep, who knew when he had?

Coon said he was probably an adolescent, but that didn’t jibe with what I was looking at right now—this fella must’ve weighed at least 175 pounds, and his muzzle was covered in gray, which contrasted with his broad, dark body.

I thought about what I knew of wolf societies and figured he wasn’t long for the world. A mating pair dominates most packs, and interlopers are usually killed outright. This poor old guy was on the prowl for a new life, likely pushed out of his old one in Yellowstone. Little did he know that the majority of other packs in the Lower 48 were in the far reaches of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, and I doubted he would make it that far—with Coon and Butler on his tail, it was unlikely he’d make it to South Fork.

I watched as he shied away, giving the impression that he
might bolt. I just stood there looking at him—hell, it wasn’t very often that you got such an opportunity. I didn’t pull my sidearm—that wasn’t my job.

“Hey.”

His ears perked, and I noticed he wore a transmitting collar.

“You need to get out of here.”

He held his post and watched me, but every time I began to make a movement toward him, he’d duck his head and act as if he were going to take off, so I just stood still. “You haven’t seen a shepherd around here, have you?”

I took another step, and this time he loped away, but I followed quickly enough so that he kept turning back to look at me now and again to see if I was still there.

I’d only gone about fifty yards when the radio on my belt sounded.

Static. “Walt, where the hell are you?”

Pulling the two-way up, I whispered honestly, “Um, in the trees.”

Static. “What is that supposed to mean?”

I keyed the mic again. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you . . . You find the shepherd?”

Static. “No, but you need to get back to the truck. Now.”

“We need to find the herder.”

Static. “Yes,
we
do, but
you
need to get your ass back to the truck right now.”

“What? I can’t hear you—you’re breaking up . . .”

Static. “Walt, do not try that shit with me. I invented it.”

I turned off the radio and welcomed the high-altitude silence as the wind scoured the treetops like a powerful hand. The big wolf was still watching me expectantly, but I was left with little choice if I was serious about finding Miguel Hernandez.

“You know, if you lure me out here and there are a bunch of your buddies waiting for us, I’m not going to be happy.” I pushed off again, but the pain in my side was really getting to me, so I stopped and leaned against a sizable trunk, resting with my hat in my hand and an ear pressed against the bark.

I listened to the blood rushing in my head, regulated my breath, and waited for the pain to go away, but it didn’t. Focusing on the ground, I became aware of something lying there, something out of place. Using the tree as support, I knelt and reached out to pick up a small piece of white cardboard with some blue printing on it. I held it a little closer and breathed a laugh.

“Are you okay?”

Raising my head, I glanced around, but could see nothing, not even the wolf.

“Over here.”

I leaned a little forward, looked around the tree that I was crouched behind, and could see a woman standing a little ways off. She had wide cheekbones, dark hair, and startling blue eyes, and wore snow boots, leggings, and a hunter-green down jacket. She adjusted what looked to be some kind of Tibetan
dharmachakra
hat complete with tassels.

Slowly standing, I stuffed the card into my shirt pocket. “Howdy.”

She took a step closer, and I noticed that the border collie we’d been chasing was standing at her feet, looking at me and whining. “Are you okay?”

“Um, yep.”

“You don’t look so good.”

I swung a finger toward the dog. “You need to keep a sharp eye on her: there’s a wolf right around here, a very big one.”

“I know—777M.” She gestured toward the dog. “Gansu’s been around wolves a lot and knows to stay clear.” The dog came closer than the woman had and sat at my boots. “She likes you.”

“Who is 777M?”

“That wolf you’re following, his designation is 777M from the pack he got kicked off of in Yellowstone.”

I straightened. “He’s a long way from home.”

She shrugged. “Old and gray . . . I’m guessing a newer, younger version has taken his place in the pack. It happens, no matter what the species.” She smiled, but I watched as the smile faded when she saw the semiautomatic at my hip. “You Predator Control?”

“Depends on the predator.” I pulled my Carhartt back, revealing the solitary, partial constellation on my chest. “Sheriff, Absaroka County.”

She relaxed a bit. “Where’s that?”

“You’re in it.”

“I thought I was in Big Horn County.”

“You would be, about a quarter of a mile that way.” I pointed west, then held out my hand. “Walt Longmire.”

“Keasik Cheechoo.” She shook my hand with a surprising grip and then shrugging the canvas rucksack off her shoulder pulled a Nalgene water bottle from it. “You still don’t look so good, Sheriff.”

I sighed a wheezing laugh. “I’ve had a rough couple of months.”

Handing me the plastic bottle, she glanced around. “Drink up.”

Unscrewing the attached top, I took a few swallows and then wiped off my mouth with the back of a glove. “You mind telling me about your relationship with 777M?”

“Relationship?” She smiled and took the water back, taking a slug for herself. “Is that cop talk?”

“Pretty much.” I tossed a thumb over my back. “We’ve got a dead sheep.”

Her eyes stayed on me, their sky blue offset in her deeply tanned face. “Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes. Anyway, your buddy 777M is number one on the suspect list.”

She stiffened again. “What makes you think he did it?”

“Um, the fact that he may be the only wolf in the Bighorn Mountains at this time?”

“How do you know a wolf did it?”

“I don’t, but the brand inspector and the forest ranger back up in the park seem to be pretty certain of it and are collecting DNA as we speak.”

“If it was the wolf, he was desperate and starving.”

“I don’t think the Stockman’s Association is going to care . . . Anyway, you haven’t answered my question, Ms. Cheechoo. What are you doing up here running with the wolves?”

She smiled again; it was a quick smile, but a toothsome one nonetheless. “Jungian analysis? Are you sure you’re a Wyoming sheriff?”

“So the citizens tell me every four years, and you do what for a living?”

She handed me the bottle again. “The wolf conservancy out of Missoula, Montana.”

I smiled at her. “I know where Missoula is—kind of a big town.”

“I’m a nurse at St. Patrick’s hospital and volunteer for the WC.”

“And 777M is one of your projects?”

“He is, and you’re looking to kill him?”

“Not really, I’m actually looking for a shepherd.”

She stepped in closer. “Miguel?”

“You know him too?”

“I do.”

“You know where his camp is?”

“He was moving it two days ago.”

“And you saw him?”

“I had dinner with him. He was lonely, and I’m female and can listen—kind of a rarity here in the mountains.”

“Well, his sheep, or more specifically Abarrane Extepare’s sheep, are scattered all over the meadow up there, and there’s nobody in sight.”

She thought about it. “I can show you where his camp was.”

“That’d be a start.” I lumbered up and stood there looking at her, taking in her features. “Assiniboine or Blackfeet?”

She smiled again, easier this time. “I’m always amazed when white people feel free to do that. I mean, what would you say if I walked up to you and said, ‘Scots-Irish; English, with a little bit of Nordic; possibly Swedish or Norwegian’?”

“I’d say those were nationalities, and nowhere near as important as tribe.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Sheriff, it’s all tribes.” Pulling the pack onto her shoulder, she turned to go, with the collie following at her heels. “Cree-Assiniboine/Young Dogs, Piapot First Nation by the way.”


“Idaho is where I grew up, but I lived in Colville Reservation for a while.”

“Washington.” I noticed she was slowing her pace to accommodate me. “You might know my friend, Henry Standing Bear?”

“Standing Bear?”

“Northern Cheyenne.”

“I’ve heard of him, I think.” She stopped. “Did he break a guy’s arm in Spokane one time, arm-wrestling back in the eighties?”

“Not that I’m personally aware of, but it sounds like his MO.”

She studied me. “Big guy, almost as big as you. Handsome.”

“That’s Henry, especially the handsome part.”

“It was my uncle’s arm he broke.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

She shifted her shoulders in an easy shrug. “He was a jerk.”

“Well, the Bear can be an acquired taste . . .”

She started off again. “No, my uncle.”

Keeping up, I noticed we were moving farther and farther from the park. “Any idea why Miguel might’ve moved his camp so far into the tree line?”

“He didn’t. There’s a spur opening up here, and he had the sheep gathered. It’s boxed on two sides, and it was easy to watch the stock from an outcropping or from the wagon.”

“You sound like you know him pretty well.”

“I do on-site inspections for the Wage and Hour Division of the Colorado Labor Department.” She stopped, turned, and looked at me. “Because of the itinerant nature of the job, there’s no way to enforce any kind of code for the working conditions, so I am on salary for the department part time.” She gripped the shoulder strap of her pack. “Miguel was working in Colorado and was going so hungry he ate part of a rotting elk carcass, and the rancher he was working for had the nerve to charge him with poaching and dropped him off at the immigration office for
deportation. He almost died of food poisoning, but an agent took him to a local emergency room and saved his life.”

“And he came back?”

“Miguel has a wife and two children in Rancagua, south of Santiago—he sends them all of his money.” She glanced around. “He was deathly afraid of wolves. I tried to explain to him that they really weren’t all that ferocious, but he heard of a child being dragged off by one when he was young and never forgot it.”

Kicking off again, we broke into the spur she’d mentioned, a clearing about half the size of a football field, a red and white sheep wagon with a set of mules tied to the rear at the far end. I was always seeing the wagons as a metaphor, like tiny ships on the rocky seas of the Bighorn Mountains, tidy little resources with everything in its place, prepared for the long journey of solitary months to come.

“That’s funny.”

“What?”

“That’s where his camp was two days ago, but he was in the process of moving it.”

“Maybe he changed his mind.”

“And let the sheep wander off? He’d never do that.”

Walking across the clearing, I could see a narrow aperture where the trees got thin and joined the larger park. “Nice little spot.”

She paid me no attention and continued toward the wagon with the collie loping alongside. “Miguel! ¿
dónde estás
?”

It looked like many of the other sheep camps I’d seen before but remarkably neat and orderly with the wagon buttoned up. There were two mules that twitched their ears at us when we arrived, and I noticed they’d eaten all the grass their leads
would allow them to reach. I filled a nearby bucket from a water container attached to the wagon and then moved the mule and the jenny to the other side where they could reach it and fresh grass.

The young woman appeared alongside the wagon. “Animal lover.”

“Rancher’s son.” I turned to look at her after watering the mules. “Find him?”

“No, and the wagon is closed up as if he was getting ready to move.”

“Do you want to look inside?”

She hugged herself. “I’m not comfortable doing that.”

“I am.” I headed toward the front. “I’m not going to spend hours out here looking for him if he’s asleep in there.”

I checked the latch on the front of the wagon. It was unlocked, so I opened the top part of the miniature Dutch door and peered inside. The canvas gave the interior an amber tone, and inside it was warm. I was tempted to climb in and take a nap.

The woman joined me in the opening. “This is so strange.”

Reaching over, I picked up a few books from the bench beside the tiny cook stove. “He keeps an immaculate camp.” Turning the books over, I was surprised to find a number of political pamphlets along with George Santayana’s
The Last Puritan
and
Philosophy and Poetry
by Mariá Zambrano.

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