Read Land of Wolves Online

Authors: Craig Johnson

Land of Wolves (5 page)

Smiling at the boy, I pulled my coat open to reveal the hardware, and he woke up a bit, leaning forward.

Abe smiled at us. “He don’t talk all that much, but you should see him fish.” He turned the boy in his lap and hugged him close. “Can’t you fish, tell ’em.”

The boy remained silent and seemed to have a hard time meeting our eyes. But that was nothing new in our line of work—you got used to people not looking at you.

Sancho lowered his head and pushed back his ball cap. With a little one at home, he was quick to break the ice. “Hi, what’s your name?”

Abe answered for him. “Liam.”

“You want to be a deputy, Liam?”

The little guy didn’t respond, but then Saizarbitoria pulled something from his pocket and handed it to the youngster.

Liam opened a hand and took the gift, and I could see it was a gold-painted, metal badge that read
SHERIFF
with crossed six-shooters at the top.

“That badge is better than ours, because it can make noise. Hold it up to your mouth and blow into it.” He demonstrated. “Just blow like a whistle.”

Liam slowly raised the badge to his face and blew, and to my surprise, it made a whizzing, siren noise.

“That’s it!”

For the first time, the boy smiled.

Abe stood him on his feet and patted his back, sending him off. “You go with Nanna while I say bye to dese nice men, okay?”

The smile faded, and he shot past us like a small fish, darting through the doorway like it was dark water.

“He don’t talk much, but he listens, and I guess dat’s more important, you know?”

I nodded and stood up, reaching back for the shotgun. “Are you sure you want to part with this, Abe? Like you said, the
statuary
limits on the crime have passed . . .”

He smiled and stood along with me, hitching his thumbs behind his wide elastic suspenders. “Oh, you makin’ fun of me now?”

“No, I’m not.” I stuck out a hand. “If you hear anything, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a call.”

“Will do.” He turned to Saizarbitoria, transferring the hand his way. “
Egun on
.”

The Basquo nodded. “
Egun ona izan dezazula
.”


Bai, bai
.”


Bumping back down the roadway, Sancho sawed the wheel, drifting to the right and then straightening his unit so that we barely missed one of the leaning poles. “Lays it on a little thick, doesn’t he?”

“I suppose.”

“H2O program . . . C’mon, he’s what, second, third generation?”

“First.”

“Still. He’s been here forever . . . why does he sound like he just got off the boat?”

“Because he wants to.” I glanced at the Basquo. “Did you know that other than Lucian or Omar Rhoades, that old fellow back there is probably the richest man in the county?”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.” I glanced around at the canyons and arroyos trailing from the foothills like chopped waves, the remaining snow looking like froth in the troughs. “This place is about fifteen thousand acres, but he’s got two others and that’s just in this county. Rumor has it that Beltran got the majority of this one in an epic poker game back in Durant, but Abe’s pretty shrewd himself and has done nothing but add onto the empire since he took over.”

I watched the country take shape as other thoughts crowded in.

“Something wrong?”

“When I was down in Cheyenne, I had a run-in with Libby Troon about Abe . . .”

“Who’s Libby Troon?”

“She owns Liberty Bail Bonds down in Cheyenne.”

“The biggest one in the state?”

I nodded. “She said that Abarrane had been taking ‘the boy,’ whom I assume is Liam, on some unscheduled fishing trips.”

“Do you know what I would pay to pass my kid off on weekends?” He shook his head. “And who would complain about a grandfather taking his grandson fishing?”

“I don’t know. I never let Libby get that far, but maybe I need to call her up and get the entire story.” Watching the sun loosen itself from the low-flying cloud cover like a yoke from a pan, I pursued an investigation of my own. “Where did you get that toy badge?”

Santiago pulled out another and handed it to me. “Ruby was complaining that one of the drawers in her counter wasn’t
shutting right, so I pulled it and found a crumpled up paper bag full of these.”

“Dobie County?” I read the fine print. “Tom Mix.”

“Yeah, I looked ’em up. They’re from the forties—giveaways from a cereal company. Some of them have the whistle and some have a spinning six-shooter decoder.” He jiggled his shirt pocket. “I give ’em to kids when I’m out on patrol.” He chuckled. “That cheap ol’ bastard Lucian must’ve done the same thing back in the day.”

I raised the tin toy to my lips and blew into it. “Well, he didn’t get to be one of the richest men in the county by being a spendthrift.”


I stared at the suspicious lack of communiqué on the door of my office. “Why are there no Post-its here?”

Ruby turned on her stool to regard me. “People have been doing your work for you, but you do have an appointment with Nate Laski.”

“And who, pray tell, is Nate Laski?”

“The nice young man who is now working for the
Durant Courant
.”

“What young man who’s working for the
Durant Courant
?” I walked back over to her desk, sat on the edge, and reached a boot over to pet Dog with the Vibram sole. “What’s going on with Ernie ‘Man About Town’ Brown?”

She pushed back and looked up at me. “He’s approaching a hundred years old, so he’s hired this nice young man to do his legwork.”

“More likely so that he can play with his train set.” Ernie Brown had an extravagantly marvelous train set cohabitating
in the work area of the small weekly newspaper. “So, what does the cub reporter want?”

“A statement about the wolves.”

“Wolf.” I shook my head. “What about it? There’s a wolf in the Bighorn Mountains. I’m not the Game and Fish, Predator Control, or Barnum and/or Bailey.”

Her phone rang, which was nothing remotely new, and she reached back to pick up the receiver and then listened for a moment. “Yes, yes . . . As a matter of fact, he’s right here.” She hit the Hold button. “Nate Laski, line one. I’m assuming you’d like to take this in your office?”

Attempting to give off an air of nobility, I limped back with Dog following. Evidently, he could feel my mood, or else he was in on the office pool too.

Slumping into my seat, I stared at the flashing red light on my phone, my arch nemesis and all-around annoyance, as Dog sat and rested his head on my knee. Sufficiently anchored, I pulled the thing off the hook, held it up to my ear, and punched the button like a lotto ticket. “Yep.”

“Sheriff?”

The voice was very young. I repeated myself. “Yep.”

“This is Nate Laski of the
Durant Courant
, and I was hoping to get some comments from you about the wolf situation?”

“Wolf
situation
.”

There was a pause. “Yes, sir.”

“What wolf
situation
is that?”

“Well, we have wolves in the Bighorns now.”

“We have a wolf in the Bighorns—wolf, singular; a lone wolf.”

He interrupted. “But there was a man killed.”

“There is a man dead, which is not the same thing.” I leaned
back in my chair, class now in session. “There is a man who most likely committed suicide.”

“But he was partially eaten by the wolf singular?”

I had to smile, maybe the kid was smarter than I thought—at least his ass was. “The wolf took part in some scavenging predation, which is what wolves, singular or plural, are sometimes wont to do.”

“Yes, but isn’t it true that once wolves taste human flesh they acquire a taste for it?”

I sighed. “Not to my knowledge, but I’m no wolf expert. Perhaps you need to talk to the wardens over at Game and Fish or to somebody who deals with these animals and get some professional answers before writing your story.”

There was a pause. “So, you say the death was a suicide?”

“I said, most likely a suicide.”

“Can you tell me his name?”

“Not until we’ve made arrangements in contacting the next of kin.”

“Was the man local?”

“No.”

“We’ve heard rumors that he was a shepherd. Could that have led to the circumstances surrounding his death?”

I sighed again. “Circumstances surrounding his death . . . How old are you?”

“Excuse me?”

At the risk of sounding like Lucian, I still had to ask, “How old are you, young man?”

Another pause. “I don’t see how that has . . .”

“I’ve been answering your questions, now you answer mine.”

“Twenty-four.”

“Where are you from? I’m just curious.”

“Casper.”

“Brand-new degree in journalism?”

“Yes, sir.”

When I was around that age, I got an invitation from the United States Marine Corp requesting my assistance in a conflict on the other side of the world in Vietnam. “Nate, can I call you Nate?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Call me Walt, okay?”

“Right, Walt.”

“What we have here is a man working up the mountain who may or may not have committed suicide and a registered, radio-tagged wolf most likely from the packs that have been reinstated in the greater Yellowstone region. Now this wolf couldn’t resist the opportunity of feeding on a portion of the dead man’s body, even after most likely killing a ewe. Now, if that is the case—and from my understanding this wolf will be dealt with ‘swiftly,’ in the parlance of the Game and Fish Department—then it should be noted that the wolf is alone and that it had nothing to do with the death of the man in question.”

“Got it.”

“Good. Is there anything else?”

“Excuse my ignorance, but having just moved here, I’m not aware. Have there been wolves in the Bighorns before?”

“I think there have been, but Chuck Coon of the Forest Service or Ferris Kaplan over at Game and Fish would be able to answer that and any other questions you have more capably than I.” I reached down and stroked Dog’s head. “I am no wolf expert.”

“One more thing?”

“Yep.”

“Do you have a stock photo you could email over to us here at the
Courant
just in case we decide to use it?”

“I don’t have a computer or email, and no I don’t have a photo of myself. Besides, why in the world would you want a photo of me?”

“Just in case we decide to use it?” There was some rustling. “I’m trying to get some things up to date here in the office, but it’s, uh . . . difficult.”

“Is the train set getting in the way?”

“It’s pretty sizable, Walt.”

“Best of luck with that, Nate.” I hung the phone up and turned around in my chair to find the majority of my staff standing in the doorway. I addressed the only one that spoke Spanish. “Sancho, you mind getting the number and contacting his wife in Chile?”

“Can do.”

“Has anybody run Miguel Hernandez through the National Crime Data Base?”

Vic glanced at Saizarbitoria and then back to me. “He’s the victim—we generally don’t do that.”

“Let’s.”

She turned to Sancho and dropped her voice. “Sic ’em.”

He disappeared, and she hung there in the doorway. “I heard you were met with armament this morning?”

I pointed to the article in question, which was leaning against the wall beside the coatrack. “There it is, the preferred method of amputation for decades here in Absaroka County.”

She picked it up and examined it as Dog, bored with the conversation, went out to his usual spot under Ruby’s desk. “I thought it was supposed to be a twelve gauge?”

“Evidently, even calibers get bigger in the telling.”

She sat down, still holding the shotgun. “What’s he like?”

“Who?”

Her eyes came up. “Honest Abe.”

“Tough, but kindhearted; colorful. Why?”

“I’m assembling my suspect list.”

“Why in the world would he do it?”

She shrugged. “It’s a short list.”

“Well, you may be getting yourself all worked up for nothing. Abarrane says Miguel had a history of self-mutilation, of cutting himself.”

“Oh, boy.”

“Yep, kind of textbook. He also mentioned that he had family down in Greeley, Colorado, so we might want to go through the personal effects and see if we can find some information on them as quickly as possible. You say he had a cell phone?”

“Yes, I’m charging it back to life now. It’s one of those cheap, prepay deals, but we can get information like a call listing off of it.”

“Good.”

“So, how goes the great wolf hunt?”

Turning in my chair, I looked at the spring sky, partially cloudy, close, and indifferent. “Like I say, not my problem.”

“Who were you talking to on the phone?”

“Some kid from the newspaper, hustling an angle.”

She lodged her tactical boots onto the edge of my desk, the only one I let do that. “You give him one?”

“Not really.”

“Have him fucking talk to me next time.”

“Oh, that’s just what we want.” I reached out and pulled my Rolodex from between Bancroft’s
Works
,
Volume XXV
and
Larson’s
History of Wyoming
. Scrolling through the paper cards, I became aware of my undersheriff smirking. “What?”

“Internet for old people—you know we’re going to eBay that thing someday.”

Finding the file I wanted, I dialed the number from the business card taped onto it, holding the receiver under my chin. “Don’t you have things to do? You know,
undersheriffy
things?”

She rolled her eyes and retrieved her boots, then curtseyed before flipping her imaginary skirt up to moon me and then made an exit, stage left.

On the third ring, a voice rasping from having smoked too many Virginia Slims, answered. “Liberty Bail Bonds; liberty means freedom.”

“Actually, it’s more of an ability to choose or a basic right.”

The rasp sharpened. “Who is this?”

“I’m hurt.”

There was a cackling laugh followed by an uneven string of lung-rending coughs. “Walt Longmire, I’ve been emailing you.”

“That would be a trick in that I don’t have a computer.”

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