Read Land of Wolves Online

Authors: Craig Johnson

Land of Wolves (3 page)

There was a handwritten piece of paper in one book, and I pulled it out and read it:

I would I might Forget that I am I. Sonnet VII. George Santayana

Closing the poem back inside, I gestured with the book. “Hmm . . . Not the usual reading material you find at sheep camp.”

Looking past my shoulder, she nodded. “He is incredibly intelligent and writes a great deal of poetry himself. I think he was something of a dissident and might’ve not been welcome back in Chile.”

I noticed there were some theme notebooks stacked neatly on a bench, and I was tempted to sample Miguel Hernadez’s poetry but decided I was being intrusive.

Closing the door, I turned to glance around and suddenly froze. “Where’s your dog?”

Keasick patted her leg, and the collie came from under the wagon. She sat at her feet, wagging. “She’s right here, why?”

I pointed to a spot in the tree line where, in the drifting cloud of evaporating snow, stood 777M.

Carefully slipping the pack from her shoulder, I watched as she opened the top and took out a large digital camera, but just as she got it up to her face, the dark wolf vanished into the mist. “Damn, I can’t see him. Are you sure he’s there?”

“Until a moment ago.”

Sighing, she slipped the camera back into the sack. “The O-Seven lineage goes back to the midnineties, but this guy is something different. Maybe from another pack.”

“Do you think he knows you?”

“I don’t know, I guess I never thought about it.”

“In my experience with wolves, they get away from human beings as fast as they can, but this guy seems to be loitering around—and that’s not good.” Half turning, I gestured toward her dog. “The two of you stay here.”

I’d taken a few steps when she called after me. “Is that an order?”

“Do what you want, but if that was my dog I wouldn’t want her anywhere near ol’ 777M.”

Crossing the small meadow, I approached the forest and was suddenly glad I wasn’t wearing a red hood or out visiting grandma.

I stopped for a moment, noticing some carvings on one of the trees. They were fresh, and I could make out the general design but not their meaning. Pulling out a small field notepad, I copied the designs and then returned it to the inside pocket of my jacket.

The roof of the cloud ceiling had lowered to the point where I could only see about seven feet above the ground. Trailing my eyes in and out of the visible world, I thought something moved off to my right, but as my eyes adjusted, I could tell it was only a branch, swaying in the mist where the treetops shimmied like the seed heads of alpine grass and dropping curtains of powdery snow through the fog.

Even though the last known case of wolf rabies in America had been back in the forties, I still wasn’t willing to take any chances, so I unsnapped the safety strap on my holster and took a few investigative steps forward. Glancing in all directions, I moved slightly toward an open area to my left where I thought I saw something move again. Thinking that the wolf might’ve found some way to get above me, I slipped the Colt from my holster, flipped off the safety, and aimed upward, but there was nothing there.

There were tracks in the snow, a lot of them, and bloodstains, and I was getting more than a little concerned about Miguel Hernandez—still, lone wolf attacks were rare. With roughly a dozen wolf fatalities in the last century, almost all, if not captive animals or the few with rabies, were the result of attacking packs. Wolves worked in numbers, making them such impressive predators—but this was a lone wolf, and why, of all things, would he attempt to take on a human being?

I knelt down and ran my hand over the surface of the snow where the blood seemed coagulated, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it to indicate an attack on something as large as a person. Maybe there was an initial assault that had disabled Hernandez enough for him to be carried off, no mean feat for a single wolf—or damaged him enough that he limped away to be attacked again in another location.

Something struck the brim of my hat, splattering off the edge and falling onto the leather surface of my glove. Slowly raising my face, I looked up just as a brief window in the mist revealed the grisly remains of Miguel Hernadez’s naked feet, stripped of all flesh and hanging high above the ground.

2

“I think it’s safe to assume the wolf didn’t hang him.”

“Probably not, but I don’t think we should jump to any conclusions.”

“Yep.” Sitting on the stool in room 26 of the Durant Memorial Hospital along with Saizarbitoria, my custodian-of-the-moment, we watched as Isaac Bloomfield and David Nickerson carefully went through the findings of their autopsy with us. “Were there any other signs of predation?”

“No, just the feet, which I imagine were the only portions the animal or animals could reach—excluding birds, of course.”

Isaac adjusted his glasses. “How high would you say he was hung?”

“His feet were at least five feet off the ground, probably closer to six.”

Nickerson looked at me, pausing in his work. “Wow.”

“I’ve jumped that high for a beer.”

Isaac interrupted. “You are six and a half feet tall.”

“Well, this wolf is almost that tall.” I made a face at Santiago and gestured toward the body. “So, what’s the verdict?”

“Well . . .”

The silence hung in the room like a caul. “Now, why do I not like the sound of that?”

“Second most common method of suicide.” The senior doc pulled at his lower lip. “The neck was not broken, which is not that unusual in suicides; rarely does the individual do the job correctly, and most asphyxiate.” He pointed to the neck of the herder. “But the knot was correct in this case, and the drop should’ve been substantial enough to break the neck . . . but it didn’t.”

“The knot?”

“Textbook knot, and it should’ve broken the spinal cord along with the dislocated vertebrae, but it didn’t. Not that unusual, I suppose. Hanging is a very technical form of execution and difficult to perform properly; much crueler, painful, and primitive compared with other methods.”

Sancho got off his stool and approached the body. “So, it’s a suicide.”

“Most don’t attempt it from eight feet above the ground, and you found no stool, ladder, or anything he could’ve climbed onto?”

“No.”

The Basquo glanced at me, but I’d played this game many times before with Isaac and was happy to just let him think out loud. “So, it’s a homicide.”

Nickerson shrugged. “He could’ve climbed the tree and swung out into the air, which would’ve done the trick.”

“So, suicide?” Sancho looked at me, but I still said nothing.

“All the wounds on his arms, those are curious.” The younger doctor posited. “Difficult to judge the alcohol level of the deceased, because the bacteria of the body produces its own alcohol as it decays, but the vitreous humor sample verifies that he was intoxicated.”

“How drunk?”

“Three times over the legal limit.” Isaac glanced at me. “Was a bottle discovered in the vicinity?”

“No.” I joined him in studying the body, even going so far as to lumber off my stool. “Hard to climb a tree when you’re drunk.”

Saizarbitoria made up his mind. “Homicide.”

“And there is the damage to his face.”

I moved forward. “What damage to his face?”

Isaac pointed. “Numerous bruises and a split lip—I’d say he was in a fight, Walt.”

Stooping down, I studied the damage I’d missed because of the general swelling and discoloration. “Would you say that was part of the hanging?”

“No, I’d say that he was in a fight two to three days before his demise. Then there’s the feet. The decedent was not wearing shoes, which might’ve assisted in climbing the tree.”

The Basquo, having now figured out the drill, said nothing.

“Or the wolf might’ve carried them away.”

I lifted my head a little as a thought struck. “Have you done any fiber testing on his clothes yet?”

“No, we simply bagged them to be sent down to Cheyenne.”

“You mind doing a preliminary?”

“And what, exactly, would I be looking for?”

“Horse hair, or mule to be exact.”

Isaac nodded. “Interesting . . . that would be about the only way you could get him up that high.”

“Folks have been hanging people from their mounts for years around these parts.” I nodded and began for the door. “Let me know what you find.”

As I turned the corner in the hallway, the Basquo caught up. “You really think somebody hung him?”

“Hard to say, that line of work has a high suicide rate—they used to call it
sagebrushed
. I know of two who’ve committed suicide in my lifetime; that much time alone just isn’t good for anybody.”

“So, which ear do they put the knot behind in a hanging?”

As we turned the corner, Keasik Cheechoo, the woman from the mountain, stood with her hat in one hand, running the other through her impossibly thick hair. She stepped out to block us. “Well?”

I pulled up and stopped. “Hello, Ms. Cheechoo.”

“He was killed.”

I glanced around the mauve waiting room, where a few heads lifted from last year’s magazines and last week’s
Durant Courant
. Turning a little sideways, I blocked her from the majority of the room and lowered my voice. “I’d like to speak with you about the situation, but I’d just as soon do that at my office, if you don’t mind?”

She shot a look around, her eyes ricocheting off the citizenry. “Um . . . Okay. When?”

I patted my shirtfront pocket. “Well, I’ve got your card here with your cell phone number on it, and I can give you a call when we’re ready to speak with you.”

“Why not now?”

“Because we have other responsibilities, Ms. Cheechoo.”

“Like what? What’s more important than Miguel Hernandez’s life?” She stepped toward me, lowering her own voice. “You’ve got important parking tickets to write?”

I stood there for a moment looking at her—I like doing that
to convince people that I’m angry, although all I really am is tired. “Ms. Cheechoo, when I spoke with you earlier, I asked if you could let us know if you were considering leaving town and that if you were, would you please contact us, and you said you weren’t leaving anytime in the near future. Now, have your plans changed?”

She crossed her arms. “No.”

“Then I will be contacting you shortly.” With that, I turned and walked past her and outside, toward my truck. Saizarbitoria was staying to my right with a slight smile on his face. “What?”

“Nothing.”

We climbed into my truck and were buckling our seat belts when she appeared on the other side of my hood. Santiago’s smile had faded, and he began to remove his belt when I stopped him. “No.”

Climbing out, I closed the door behind me and placed a hand on my fender. “Ms. Cheechoo . . .”

“Keasik.”

“If you’re concerned about the speed of the Hernandez investigation, I’d advise you to stop impeding it by hampering me in my duties.”

Her head kicked sideways. “I’m not so sure there’s going to be any Hernandez investigation.”

“Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, Ms. Cheechoo.”

As I climbed into my vehicle, she shouted after me. “I’m not moving.”

I started the truck, stared at her for a moment, and then pulled the selector into reverse, throwing an arm over the seat and swinging wide before pulling down into drive and then quickly accelerating before she could run in front of us.

When I glanced at Sancho, he was smiling again. “What?”

“Why didn’t you just talk to her?”

“Because I want to think about what I’m going to ask her, and I’m tired.”

He nodded.

“Left.” He stared at me. “They put the knot behind the left ear in a formal hanging.”


“Walt.”

There was nothing, nothing I could see, nothing I could hear, nothing I could taste, nothing I could smell, but worst of all nothing I could touch.

“Walt?”

Nothing, and no matter how hard I tried, it seemed like consciousness was leaving me out in the cold—almost like I’d come loose from the earth and was spinning out into space and total desolation.

“Walt!”

I started, almost flipping my chair backward. Something pulled in my side, and I was pretty sure I was going to die. Sitting there without moving, I waited till the spasm faded and then raised my eyes to meet the two sets standing in the doorway of my office.

“You okay?” Victoria Moretti studied me.

“Yep, I’m fine.” Swallowing, I patted my leg and the other set of eyes came over, resting his broad head on my knee.

She glanced back into the dark, main office. “You fell asleep, and nobody wanted to wake you up—at least we thought you were asleep.”

“I was.”

“Your eyes were open.”

“I’d just woken up.”

“No.” She glanced at her tactical Timex. “You’ve been sitting there staring and not moving for seven minutes and thirty-two seconds.”

I smiled a crooked grin. “That long, you’re sure?” I glanced up at the old Seth Thomas on the wall—it was after nine o’clock at night. “I guess I wore myself out up on the mountain.”

She came in and sat in one of my guest chairs, lodging her boots on the edge of my desk, studying me from over her kneecaps. “Walt, something is wrong.”

“I’m just tired.”

“It’s more than that. You’ve done it about a dozen times that I’ve witnessed, and other people have noticed it too.”

I smiled again, this time putting a little more effort into it. “Maybe I’m cracking up.”

“Not funny, asshole.” She studied me. “Is it Bidarte?”

“I don’t think so.”

“He’s dead.”

“So they say.”

“You watched him die.”

“Yep.”

“You killed him yourself.”

“Please, don’t remind me.”

She shook her head and then dropped her tactical boots to the floor. “In case you haven’t noticed, the world as a whole is a much better place since his passing.”

“I know.”

“So, let it go.”

I nodded and continued petting Dog’s head.

“Wow.”

“Wow, what?”

“This isn’t so much about him as it is about you, huh?”

“Meaning?”

“This is the moment when you find out you’re not ten feet tall and bulletproof.” She leaned in and smiled. “You’ve been shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, run over, and generally abused in just about every way possible, and it’s only now that it’s gotten to you?”

I stopped petting Dog for a moment, so he gave my hand a lick. “Maybe so.”

“I mean, I can see your point—the fucker did more damage to me than anybody ever has or ever will, and I wanted to wring the life out of him with my bare hands, but I’ll settle for having you skewer him like a campfire marshmallow.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She settled back in the chair. “Let’s go have dinner.”

“I’m not really hungry.”

She stared at me. “You’ve lost what, thirty, maybe forty pounds since your adventure in the desert?”

I continued petting Dog’s head. “I don’t know.”

“Not that you don’t look good, I mean better.”

“Thank you, I think.”

She continued to study me. “Not that I don’t enjoy your company, but I think you need to go see a guy.”

“Any particular guy?”

“Yeah, the guy you usually see when having these internal philosophical debates. I don’t mind doing it for a while, but then my head hurts and I want to shoot something.”

“Okay.”

“So, unless you want a beer, or the horizontal bop or both?”

“I’m not sure if I have the energy for either.”

She shrugged. “So, you need me to give you a ride home?”

“No, I think I can make it on my own.” I carefully stood, still feeling the tremors of pain from my side echoing through my nervous system like distant thunder. “I think I’m just going to go home and go to bed.”

“Without company?”

“I’m afraid so.” I held out a hand, and she took it. “I wonder . . .”

“Don’t. Don’t wonder about you and me right now. Okay?” She curled my arm around her, slipping herself gently into my damaged side as if making it whole. “You’ve got enough to think about.”

Draping my arm over her shoulder, she helped me with my jacket and then walked me out of my office and around Ruby’s dispatcher’s counter toward the steps.

“Who’s leading the office pool?”

“Think our adventures in the mountains.”

“Sorry.” After saluting the painting of Andrew Carnegie, I held the door for her and Dog as we passed through and into the night. She leaned against the adjacent glass as I locked up and thought about who had the pager that one of us always carried home at night. “Whose got the Rock?”

“Sancho. He said he’d meet you here early and go with you out to the Extepare place—he figures speaking Basque will give you an advantage.” She leaned back and looked up at me. “You ever need an expert in sarcasm, you’ll let me know, right?”

“Undoubtedly.” We’d just started down the remainder of the stairs when I noticed a white Toyota pickup with Montana plates and a slide-in truck camper sitting in the parking lot.

Vic noticed my gaze. “Somebody moving in?”

“I believe that’s Keasik Cheechoo’s vehicle.”


Choochoo
the wolf woman?”

“For lack of a better name.”

As the three of us approached, I could see a large lump of blankets in the cab and the border collie snugged into the pile with her owner.

“She’s sleeping in our lot?”

“I guess so.” I gestured toward Vic’s vehicle parked next to mine. “Throw Dog in my unit and then get out of here and I’ll talk to her.”

“Fuck that, you and Dog get out of here and I’ll talk to her.”

“That will end with you putting her in a cell.”


Qué será, será.

“That means someone has to stay here tonight with her.”

My undersheriff slumped, some of the wind having effectively escaped her incarceration sails. “I don’t like her.”

“Enough to spend the night with her?”

“Point taken. Just don’t be long and then go home.” I watched as the new and improved Glock 19 Gen 4 in Midnight Bronze bounced off her hip as she unhappily retreated before opening the passenger door of my truck for Dog, then she climbed into her own unit, started it, and circled around, rolling down the manual window. “I’m back here in forty minutes, and if the two of you are still here I’m arresting you both, and she can listen to the two of us having sex in the next cell.”

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