Read Land of Wolves Online

Authors: Craig Johnson

Land of Wolves (4 page)

Vic drove off, and I reapproached the Toyota with Dog watching from the passenger seat of my truck. I rapped my knuckles on the window of the white pickup.

The border collie, Gansu, unleashed a series of yipping barks
as she stood on the seat. Keasik Cheechoo pulled the Tibetan hat from her face.

I raised my hand again. “Howdy.”

She rolled her window down and massaged her eyes. “What time is it?”

“A little after nine.”

“What were you doing in there?”

“Working.” I lied.

“Yeah, well, I’m waiting for our meet.”

“I’m sorry, did we schedule something?”

“Not since you drove off and left me standing in the hospital parking lot.” She pulled the blanket aside and then reached over and took her cell phone from the dash, the condensation of her warm breath filling the open window. “My plans have changed, and I’m leaving in the morning.”

I rested an arm on the roof of her vehicle. “Something come up?”

“Work related, so if you want to talk to me you need to do it now.”

“I’m sure we can just do it on the phone.”

“Now you tell me?”

“Well, you could’ve come in the office.”

“I don’t like police stations.”

“Okay.” I tapped the top of her truck. “You’re off the hook and can head back to Missoula.”

“Colorado.”

“Wherever, so long as I’ve got your cell phone number.”

She lodged the blanket between her and the dog. “I thought I should let you know, I’ve already contacted the Chilean government and lodged a formal protest on Miguel Hernandez’s
behalf, stating that his ultimate death was a result of unsafe working conditions.”

“Good to know.”

When I said nothing more, she looked up at me. “You’re not worried?”

“I didn’t employ the man, Ms. Cheechoo.”

“It was your job to protect him.”

I stared at her for a moment. “Yep, it was.” I tapped the roof once more and then turned and walked toward my truck. “Travel safe.”

The door opened and slammed shut behind me, and I could hear her rushing to catch up as I got to my own unit. She caught me off-balance just as I was turning, and I tripped over my own feet, falling against my truck and sliding down into a sitting position, my hat landing in my lap.

Dog thudded against the window above me and growled before breaking into a series of barks that only stopped when I beat on the door with my knuckles. “Knock it off, I’m all right.”

She’d backed away but now was reaching down to try to help me. “I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

Brushing her hand away, I told her, “I’m fine,” and started to stand but just couldn’t summon up the energy. “Actually, I’m not . . . would you mind helping me up?”

Between the two of us, we grappled myself to a standing position, and I placed an open hand on the window to stop Dog’s intermittent motorboat impersonation.

She backed to arm’s length as if the beast might come through the window. “What kind of dog is that?”

“I don’t really know.”

“He’s yours?”

“It’s more like I’m his.”

“I can see that.” Allowing me to catch my breath, she held onto my arm. “Would you like me to call someone?” She was distracted for a moment but then raised her head to look at me. “My God, you’re bleeding.”

Glancing down, I could see a dark stain seeping through my flannel shirt. “Well, hell . . . I must’ve pulled some stiches in the drainage hole.”

“Drainage hole?”

“I was stabbed a while ago.”

She stared at me in disbelief. “We’ve got to get you to the hospital.”

“I’d rather go home and bleed, really.”

“You can’t just go home.” She glanced back at the defunct library that served as our office and jail. “You must have emergency equipment in there?”

“Yep, but I can take care of it myself.”

“No, you can’t. I’m a medical technician for God’s sake—if you’re not going to let me take you to the hospital, then you have to at least let me patch you up here.”

Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, I acquiesced and turned to look at Dog. “Stay here, and don’t eat the steering wheel.”


I unlocked the door and, with the help of the banister, climbed the steps up to the desk where Ruby kept a large first aid kit. Sitting on the lower section of the counter, I shrugged off my coat and, grimacing a little, began carefully pulling out my shirttail and unbuttoning my shirt.

She stood at the top of the steps and looked around. “How did you get stabbed?”

“It’s a long story.” Getting the shirt out of the way, I could now
see that the bleeding was coming from the bottom of the Ace bandage that Bloomfield and Nickerson had wrapped around me at the last dressing change. Giving up on discretion, I shouldered off my jacket, unbuttoned the rest of my shirt, and then slowly unwrapped the flexible bandage to reveal the gauze patch and medical tape that had come loose when I’d fallen.

“Let me see.” Pushing my hands aside, she knelt and peeled the gauze back. “It’s not so bad—one of the stitches must’ve pulled, but it’s already stopped bleeding.” Pulling some antiseptic cream from the kit, she applied it onto a sterile pad and replaced the bloody one with deft hands. “So, who stabbed you?”

“A drug kingpin, down in Mexico.”

She continued to work. “Kind of out of your jurisdiction as a Wyoming sheriff, isn’t it?”

“A little . . . he had my daughter.”

There was a pause. “She in the drug business?”

“No, worse—she works for the attorney general’s office in Wyoming.” Keasik glanced up at my face again. “It was personal—between him and me.”

“Yeah, looks personal all right.” Finishing the work, she began rewrapping the flexible bandage around my midriff, her arms surrounding me. “How old is this wound?”

“A month or so, why?”

“It shouldn’t be draining like this after that much time.”

I reached over, put on my bloody shirt, and changed the subject. “So, why the emergency in Colorado?”

She stared at me for a moment and then reached out and flipped my collar down smoothing it. “Don’t you have a clean shirt?”

“No.”

Shaking her head, she began buttoning the dirty one for me. “I’m assuming you’re not married.”

“And why is that?”

“Married men always have a clean shirt—it’s one of the perks.”

Unmoved by the distraction, I asked again. “Colorado?”

She finished buttoning and stepped away to admire her handiwork. “I made that up. I’m not really leaving, but I thought it might motivate you. Instead, all it did was induce me into aggravated assault on a police officer.” She folded her arms. “You gonna book me?”

“It would be a hard sell on a jury, considering you’re the one who scraped me off the parking lot and brought me in here to patch me up.”

She nodded. “Also, I’m sorry about the parking ticket remark back at the hospital.”

“I’ve heard worse.”

She smiled, and there was warmth in it for the first time. “What are you going to do about Miguel?”

“Ms. Cheechoo . . .”

“Keasik, please.”

It seemed stupid to try to remain professional after she’d seen my insides. “Keasik, the first thing I’m going to do is find out if there’s anything to investigate. I mean, if the man committed suicide there really isn’t anything . . .”

“People can be driven to suicide, you know?”

“I do, and if there’s anything like the treatment you’ve mentioned, we’ll act on it.”

“Honest?”

“Honest.” I crossed my heart and did the Cub Scout salute. “You seem sure that wasn’t a suicide, and if it was that there were
mitigating circumstances.” I stretched my neck and looked at her. “How well did you know Mr. Hernandez?”

She studied me, stiffening and saying nothing at first. “What are you insinuating?”

“Just what I asked—how well did you know Miguel Hernandez?”

Still folding her arms around herself, she took a few steps toward the marble fireplace, a remnant from when librarians used to check out books using a card-catalog Dewey decimal classification system. “We slept together. I guess that’s pretty well, huh?”

Standing, I tucked my shirttail in, careful to avoid the wound. “Keasik, I’m honestly not trying to pry—it’s just that in the course of an investigation I’m going to need to get the lay of the land and I’m going to have to ask some questions that might not be pleasant.”

“You knew.”

“I suspected.” I chose my next words carefully. “You seem to have an emotional investment in all this.”

“He was my friend.” I stared at her, waiting. “And maybe a little more.”

“How long had you known him?”

“A couple of years; since the incident in Colorado.”

“And that was with the Department of Labor job there?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know of anyone who would wish him harm?”

She crossed back toward me. “Tons of people; he was a political dissident and was on the forefront of decent treatment of nomadic tradesmen.”

“In Chile?”

She gestured with her arms wide. “And here.”

“I guess what I’m looking for are individuals who had both a method and motive—if he was murdered. First off, someone who could’ve been placed in the Bighorn National Forest within the last forty-eight hours, which limits the suspects.”

“Some of the people who hired him could want him dead.”

I took a breath and shook my head. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I know the Extepare family and they’ve got a few rough edges, but I don’t see them hanging their own shepherd.”

“Someone else, then.”

“Who else does he know up here?”

“He worked for some other ranches in Wyoming.”

“Can you get me the names from the Colorado Department of Labor?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, that’s a start.” Standing, I shrugged on my jacket. “I will talk to Abarrane first thing in the morning. Is there anyone else he may have had contact with, other than yourself?”

“I really wouldn’t know.” She studied on the subject, finally pulling her fingers through her hair. “I know he’d come into town every couple of months, but I wasn’t with him, so I don’t know who he could’ve met.”

“I’ll check into it.”

She grinned. “Well, there’s a Basque bar in town.”

“Yep.”

She became even more excited. “And a Basque bakery.”

“I know that too. I live here.”

“Right.” Her enthusiasm dampened, she dropped her head and the smile. “I guess you get that a lot. Junior G-men who want to help?”

Ignoring the question, I thought of something else. “But he wasn’t Basque.”

“No.”

“Then why would you mention the Basque establishments in town and not, say, the Mexican restaurant?”

Her eyes stayed steady on me. “You don’t miss much, do you?”

“I try to be thorough, but you still haven’t answered my question.”

“He had more in common with the Basques than the Mexicans, I suppose. He was always kind of old world, if you know what I mean, at least that’s what his reading tastes were.”

Remembering that I had taken the books from the herder’s wagon, I brought them back into the room and pulled the handwritten poem from the book of poetry. “Any idea whose handwriting this is?”

She studied it. “No.”

“Not his?”

“No.”

I took the piece of paper back and studied it. “I’m no expert, but I’d say it was a feminine hand, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes.”

I nodded and placed the sheet back into the book, lodging it under my arm.

She cocked her head and reached out to tap the binding. “What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know, but to be honest it’s more important to ask all the questions than to have answers at this stage of an investigation.” I looked directly at her in anticipation of her next question. “Because at this point some of the answers would inevitably be wrong, and all that does is slow the pursuit.”

“Pursuit?”

I nodded, moving toward the door in hopes that she’d get the idea. “If Miguel Hernandez was murdered, then I am hunting for a killer, and the sooner I find him or her the better.”

Following me, she paused at the top of the steps. “Before he or she kills again?”

I took a breath and tried not to sound too pedantic. “And for the sake of justice and Miguel Hernandez.”

“All this for a three-year working-visa Chilean?” I watched as she went down the steps, turning at the landing to look at me and smile. “They’re growing an odd crop of sheriffs here in Wyoming these days.”

I stood high above her, attempting to cover my stained shirt with an arm—if you’re going to appear epic, it’s best to do it without looking like you’re bleeding to death. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m not a bad person, you know?”

I didn’t say anything.

“I knew he was married and had kids and everything, but he was so lonely.”

I dropped my head to examine my boots. After a moment there was a noise, and when I looked up she was gone. Having carefully avoided the minefield of personal interaction, I turned off the lights and eased down the steps, saluting the painting of Andrew Carnegie, along with all the 8 × 10s of the entire previous sheriffs of Absaroka County who had and had not avoided their own personal perils along the way.

When I got to the door, the Toyota was pulling out onto the main street, the yellow traffic lights strung through town blinking long after all good sheriffs should be home in bed.

I locked up and walked to my truck and was just about to open the door to an expectant Dog when I thought I heard a lone and plaintive sound from the west, high in the mountains.

I paused and listened, but there was nothing more. Figuring it was just in my head, I turned back and opened the driver’s side door, but then I heard it again. Still unsure if it was just my imagination, I glanced in at my 145 pounds of canine mix as his eyes glowed and he lifted his massive head, answering with the bellowing call of the hound of the Baskervilles.

Boy howdy.

3

“Did you get any sleep last night?”

We were bumping along the gravel road and over the moguls of ice that remained in the shadows of the Bighorn Mountains south of town, and I was actively failing in an attempt to keep my hat over my face. “Not much.” Finally giving up, I slouched against the passenger door and watched the sun slowly burning the late-morning mist from the Powder River Country like it was a doomed ghost.

“Double Tough texted me and says he’s happy to come up and meet us at the Extepare place, if you want.”

A lazy smile played on my face before my head bounced against the inside of the window again. “He’s bored down there in Powder Junction?”

Saizarbitoria laughed, the black Vandyke splitting to reveal his white teeth. “Probably, but he thought that since the family has a propensity to relieve law enforcement of appendages . . .”

Glancing out the window, I watched as we approached the gate of the fifteen-thousand-acre ranch. “Tell him I’ve got my Basque secret weapon with me and we’ll be fine.” Pulling the notepad from my pocket, I thumbed it open and held it in front of the Basquo’s face as he drove. “What do you make of that?”

“Your drawing?”

“Yep.”

“That you made the right choice with a career in law enforcement.” He glanced at it again as we bounced along. “Where did you see that?”

“On a tree, near where Hernandez was hung.”

“Arborglyphs—carvings. The old Basque shepherds used to do them on the aspens all over the West, but like other traditions, there are less and less of them.”

“These were fresh.”

“Really?” He studied them again. “The first one at the top is a flower symbol that is supposed to ward off evil. And the two figures below represent a father and son, I think.”

Folding up the notepad, I dropped it back into my pocket.

Sancho fought with the steering wheel again. “So, to get it straight, the old man Abarrane blew Lucian’s leg off?”

“No, not Abe, his father, Beltran.”

“I don’t think I know him.”

“Well, you missed your chance—he’s been dead for quite some time now.”

“When did that happen exactly?”

“You mean when did he die?”

“No, when did he blow Lucian’s leg off?”

“Late forties, after the war.” I glanced over at the Basquo, who still showed interest in the story. “Lucian was over on Jim Creek Hill in Sheridan County, out of his jurisdiction, which explains why it is that he got the drop on Beltran and his brother . . . Jakes, I think his name was.”

“Why was Lucian after them?”

“I think it had to do with a woman that Lucian was married to for a couple of hours.”

“A couple of hours? Who was she?”

I sat up, a little annoyed, and loosed my seat belt with a thumb. “Which story do you want to hear, because I’m only telling one.”

He continued to smile, entertained by my morning grumpiness. “The leg.”

“Not that much to tell, really. Lucian slips up on them but then isn’t watching, and Beltran grabs a shotgun and blows Lucian’s leg off and then walks over and stands there advising Lucian that he should take up another line of work before Beltran leaves him to bleed to death. Instead, Lucian uses the sling from his rifle to tie off the leg and drags himself to that old Nash of his and drives into Durant, and the doctor there took the leg.” I sighed. “Shortly thereafter, said doctor left town.”

“What happened to Beltran and Jakes?”

“Three weeks later, Lucian sticks the barrel of his .38 in Beltran’s ear and sends him down to Rawlins for a five spot. When he got back, he’d calmed down a bit. Heck, I think I even saw the two of them drinking together at the Euskadi Bar on Main Street.”

“What about the brother, Jakes?”

I thought about it. “Damned if I know.”

We got to the Extepare ranch and drove past the outbuildings and sheds giving the impression that this was most assuredly an honest-to-goodness working ranch. Abandoned, out-of-date equipment was parked alongside the barns with deeply trenched causeways and weather-beaten grayed posts and poles that leaned southeast in the pervasive wind.

I pointed to where some more modern vehicles and a bulbous ’65 International Travelall were parked in front of what must’ve been the main house, where a man sat on the front steps.

Armed.

Santiago slowed. “Is he holding a sawed-off shotgun?”

“Looks like it.”

Sancho pulled up and parked, and I got out, looking at Abarrane. “Mr. Extepare.”

He squinted his eyes at me as he stood with what looked to be an old, foreshortened Remington automatic half aimed toward the yard beside me. “Sheriff.”

“Are you going bird hunting?”

A short, stocky man with a prodigious nose and earlobes that seemed to comprise the entirety of his body fat, he held the tough-guy look as long as he could and then chuckled. “I did not know if you recognize an Extepare without a shotgun!” He broke out laughing at his joke as I came around the front. “How you doin’, Walter?”

He tossed me the old sawed-off Model 11 that probably hadn’t been fired since before Sputnik. I looked at the crusty, rusted mechanism of the twenty gauge. “What’s this?”

“Dat’s the one dat done it.”

I stared down at the weapon, the realization dawning on me like the slow morning I’d already endured. “This is it, huh?”

“Dat, or Ma Barker hid it under dat lambing shed over at the summer place.”

“Well, I’ll be.”

“No other reason my old man woulda taken a valuable piece of iron like dat and hid it unless he had a reason—you give dat to that grouchy boss of yours the next time you see him, you know?”

“He’s not my boss anymore.”

He knocked some knuckles against his lowered head. “I keep forgettin’. G’ttin’ old I guess.”

“We all are, Abe.”

“How ’bout you fellas come in and have a cup o’ coffee?” He nodded and stepped off the porch to ground level, looked up at me, and then glanced over at the Basquo. “
Kaixo
.”

Sancho extended a hand. “
Ondoeskerrik asko
.”

“I knew you was one of us people, you handsome devil you.” The old Basquo began laughing. “
Zein da zure izena
?”


Nire ib zena
Santiago Saizarbitoria
da
.”


Pozten naiz zu ezagutzeaz
.”

I took a step forward, breaking up the Basquefest. “Abe, I’ve got some bad news.”

He turned and looked at me for a moment and then dropped his eyes to the mud between us. “Yeah, dat Don Butler, he call.” He glanced back at Sancho and then me, turned, and thumped up the steps with tears in his eyes. “How ’bout you fellas come in and have dat cup o’ coffee.”


Abe sat ceramic buffalo mugs on the table with the red and white–checked plastic cover, and I glanced at the frilly curtains that gave the tiny kitchen a European feel. “Where’s Wilhelmina?”

He gestured toward another portion of the house. “Oh, she don’t feel so good in the mornings, so I try and let her get the sleep, you know?”

As Sancho and Abe sat, I studied the black and white photo hanging on the kitchen wall. “I know that’s your father, Beltran, but is the other man his brother, Jakes?” Both men looked as tough as wrought iron.

“Ya, dat ol’ dark-looking Basquo was my uncle—the real black sheep of the family—had the bluest blue eyes you ever saw.”

“Was?”

“Oh yeah, we figure he be dead.”

“Your father was the one who shot Lucian, wasn’t he?”

He sipped the coffee, his eyes sparking over the rim of the mug like daybreak. “There’s some argument in de family ’bout dat.”

My translator decided to join the conversation. “In what way?”

He shot a quick look to Saizarbitoria. “Hard to believe there would be some differences in a Basquo family story, you know?” He leaned back in his chair and studied me. “There’s talk dat Jakes was the one dat actually shot Lucian and that since my dad was the older of the two, he takes the blame.”

Rolling the sawed-off from my shoulder, I looked at it again. “Lucian says it was Beltran that shot him.”

Abe shook his head and laughed some more. “Yep, dat’s what Lucian says all these years all right.”

I leaned the dangerous-looking weapon against the wall and came over and sat with them. “Are you saying Lucian was in on it?”

“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, but you give him dat shotgun and see if the statuary limits is up on dat, then you come back here and tell me, you know?”

I sipped the coffee—it was really good. “Whatever happened to Jakes?”

Abe took a deep breath and slowly let it out, twisting at the hairs in his ear. “Don’t know to tell da truth. When my father got out of dat prison in Rawlins, him and Jakes got into it over how Jakes was running the place, and Jakes took off to Idaho and married some Indian woman and started his own spread, a big one—but then he got into money trouble and disappeared back in the eighties. I heard he got hit by a train or somethin’.” Reaching behind him, he picked up the old percolator from the stove and freshened our mugs. “It would have taken a train to
kill one of those ol’ Basquos. We ain’t heard nothin’ from dat side of the family since.”

I glanced at Saizarbitoria and sipped my coffee, letting the silence settle in the cozy kitchen, wishing I didn’t have to bring up the next subject. “Miguel Hernandez . . .”

Abe returned the percolator to the stove and then wrapped his stubby fingers around his coffee mug. “Dat poor young man.” He looked up at me. “I never can figure how you get to dat in life—I guess I fought so long for mine dat I can’t think of givin’ it up without a fight, you know?”

“I know.” I waited a moment. “Abe, who saw him on a regular basis?”

“Oh, the camp tender, Jimenez, and my son-in-law, Donnie.”

“And when was the last time they would’ve seen him?”

He thought about it. “Jimenez would’ve seen him last week when he brought him supplies.”

“And Donnie?”

He tried to smile, but it faded. “Oh, dat Donnie would’ve seen him when they move the sheep, but dat’s about all. Him and dat daughter of mine, they don’t want to work the sheep full time—live down in Colorado.”

“And where would I find Jimenez?”

“Up the mountain. I can get you a map or you can check with those Forest Circus guys, they know more about dat stuff than I do.”

I ignored the dig at the Rangers. “Did you know Hernandez very well yourself?”

“Oh, I’m the one dat hired him the better part of a year ago.”

“How?”

“They have dat thing with the federal government dat allows
us to hire folks for jobs the Americans won’t do, dat H2O program. Them labor people in Colorado, they sent me his information, and I met him down there in Greeley where he had some family he was staying with. He was a funny guy, smart . . . book-learning smart, you know? Too smart to be herdin’ the sheep, but he wanted the job and I gave it to him. He done real well, ’cept for that one time.”

“And what was that?”

“Oh, about a month and a half after we hired him, Jimenez went up to drop off supplies and the place look like hell, and Miguel was layin’ there drunk with his arms which was all cut up.”

Santiago lowered his mug. “What had happened to him?”

The old Basquo imitated dragging a blade across his forearms. “He done it himself; cut his arms with dat knife he had.”

Sancho looked at me. “He was cutting himself?”

“Like I said, he was high strung with all dem books and such. I don’t think he ever got used to the mountain and mountain ways; some never do, you know?”

I glanced around the kitchen, a little sorry that I hadn’t known the herder better. “Is there anyone else who might’ve made contact with him?”

Abe twisted the hair in his ear, almost as if he were winding up his brain to answer. “Dat bartender at the Euskadi, he overserved him a couple of times. I come in there, and dat herder, he done drank a good hundred dollars of the money I give him. So, I load him up and get him out of there.” He took another sip of his coffee. “Sometime you don’t do well on your own and then you turn around and don’t do well with people.” His eyes came back to mine. “Then what you gonna do?”

“Anybody else?”

“Nope, not dat I know of.”

“You say he had family down in Greeley?”

“I don’t know ’em, but yep, dat’s what he said.” He nodded and then rested his eyes on me, and for the first time I could see a glimpse of those hard men captured in the black and white, now residing in the son. “You tink someone did this to him?”

“We don’t know, but we’re trying to find out.” I drained my mug and sat it back down. “Abe, have you ever heard of a woman by the name of Keasik Cheechoo?”

He paused for a long moment and then slapped the table, causing Santiago to start. “The wolf woman!”

“So, you’ve met?”

“Dat woman, she crazy!”

Sancho laughed. “In what way?”

“Oh, she got all kind of ideas about how those wolves are people and dat we gotta take care of ’em.”

“Well, they are an endangered species.”

Abe shook his head and pointed a stubby finger in Sancho’s face. “You wanna know who the endangered species is, dat’d be us, dat’s who. I been losin’ my ass in the sheep business my whole life, but nothin’ gets me quite like pullin’ a squirmin’ life out of a half-dead sheep an’ nurturin’ that thing along till it has half a chance of life, and then some damn wolf or coyote eats the poor thing’s legs off and it’s layin’ there in the mornin’ for you to find . . . Market value is what they give me, market value, ya know?, and sometimes dat ain’t worth a tinker’s damn!”

He broke off his diatribe midsentence, and I turned to see that a very sleepy five-year-old boy in a one-piece set of pajamas, rubbing an eye open, was standing in the doorway.

“Oh, hey. Did Poppy wake you up with dat loud voice?”

The boy nodded and crossed the room to be swallowed up
by the old man’s arms that pulled him in close and then shifted him onto one knee. “Did you know dese guys are the sheriff and his deputy? They got badges and everything!” He poked a finger my way. “If you ask him nice, that big fella there is the sheriff and he might show you dat badge of his.”

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