Authors: C. J. Box
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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C. J. Box
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Electronic edition: JULY, 2004
ALSO BY C. J. BOX
TO KELLY, SHERRI, AND KURT . . .
AND LAURIE, ALWAYS
Pickett’s dream, she was in the Bighorn Mountains in the timber at the edge of a clearing. She was alone. Behind her, the forest was achingly silent. Before her, a quiet wind rippled through the long meadow grass in the clearing.
Then the clouds came, dark and imposing, roiling over the top of the mountains in a wall. Soon the sky was completely covered, a lid placed on a pot. In the center of the clouds was a lighter cloud that seemed to be lit from within. It grew bigger and closer, as if lowering itself to the earth. Black spoors of smoke snaked down in tendrils from the cloud, dropping into the trees. In moments, the smoke became ground-hugging mist that coursed through the tree trunks like soundless, rushing water. Then it seeped into the ground to rest, or to hide.
As quickly as the clouds had come, the sky cleared.
In her dream, she knew the mist stayed for a reason. The purpose, though, was beyond her understanding. When would it emerge, and why? Those were questions she couldn’t answer.
heridan awoke with a start, and it took a few terrifying moments to realize that the darkness surrounding her was actually her bedroom, and that the breathy windlike stirring she heard was her little sister Lucy, asleep on the bunk beneath her bed.
Sheridan found her glasses where she had propped them on her headboard, and swung her bare feet out from beneath the covers. She dropped to the cold floor with her nightgown ballooning around her.
Parting the curtain, she looked at the night sky. Hard white stars, like blue pinpricks, stared back. There were no clouds, either dark or glowing.
T HAD BEEN A GOOD DAY
of fly-fishing until Joe Pickett and his daughters encountered a massive bull moose that appeared to be grinning at them.
Until then, Joe, Sheridan, and seven-year-old Lucy had spent the entire afternoon working their way upstream on Crazy Woman Creek on a brilliant, early-September day. Maxine, their yellow Labrador, was with them. The tall streamside grass hummed with insects, hoppers mainly, and a high breeze swayed the crowns of the musky lodgepole pine forest.
They fished methodically, overtaking each other in wide loops away from the water, passing silently while the person they were passing cast at a pool or promising riffle. The water was lower than usual—it was a drought year—but the stream was clear and still very cold. Joe was in his late thirties, lean and of average height. His face and the backs of his hands were sunburned from being outside at altitude.
Hopscotching over dry river rocks, Joe had crossed the stream so he could keep a better eye on his girls as they worked the other side with
their fly rods. Maxine shadowed Joe, as she always did, fighting her natural instinct to plunge into the water and retrieve fly casts.
Sheridan stood waist deep in brush upstream and was momentarily still, concentrating on tying a new hopper pattern to her tippet. Her glasses glinted in the afternoon sun, so Joe couldn’t tell if she was watching him observe her. She wore her new fishing vest (a recent birthday present) over a T-shirt, baggy shorts, and water sandals for wading. A sweat-stained Wyoming Game and Fish Department cap—one of Joe’s old ones—was pulled down tightly on her head. Her bare arms and legs were crosshatched with fresh scratches from thorns and branches she had crashed through to get closer to the water. She was a serious fly-fisher, and a serious girl overall.
But while Sheridan was the fisher, Lucy seemed to be catching most of the fish, much to Sheridan’s consternation. Lucy did not share her older sister’s passion for fishing. She came because Joe insisted, and because he had promised her a good lunch. She wore a sundress and white sandals, her shiny blond hair tied in a ponytail.
With each fish Lucy caught, Sheridan’s glare toward her little sister intensified, and she moved farther upstream away from her.
It’s not fair,
Joe knew she was thinking.
“Dad, come here and look at this,” Sheridan called, breaking into his rumination. He pulled the slack tight on his rod and looped his line through his fingers before walking up the bank toward her. She was pointing down at something in the water beneath her feet.
It was a dead trout, white belly up, lodged between two exposed stones. The fish bobbed in a natural cul-de-sac dark with pine needles and sheaths of algae that had washed down with the current. He could tell from the wet, vinyl-like sheen on the fish’s pale underside and the still-bright twin slashes of red beneath its gills that it hadn’t been dead very long.
“That’s a nice fish,” Sheridan said to Joe. “A cutthroat. How big do you think it is?”
“Thirteen, fourteen inches,” Joe replied. “It’s a dandy.” Instinctively, he reached down for Maxine’s collar. He could feel her trembling under her skin through her coat, anxious to retrieve the dead fish.
“What do you think happened to it?” she asked. “Do you think somebody caught it and threw it back after it was dead?”
Joe shrugged, “Don’t know.” On a previous trip, Joe had instructed Sheridan how to properly release a fish back into the water after he caught it. He had shown her how to cradle it under its belly and lower it slowly into the water so that the natural current would revive it, and how to let the fish dart away under its own power once it was fit to do so.
She had asked him about the ethics of eating caught fish versus releasing them, and he told her that fish were for eating but that there was no reason to be greedy, and that keeping dead fish in a hot creel all day and throwing them away later because they were ruined was an ethical problem, if not a legal one. He knew this is what she was thinking about when she pointed out the dead fish.
t wasn’t long before Sheridan pointed out another dead fish. It hadn’t been dead as long as the other one, Joe noted, because it floated on its side, flaunting the rainbow colors that gave the fish its name. It had not yet turned belly-up. This fish was not as large as the first, but still impressive.
Sheridan was righteously indignant.
“Something is killing these fish, and it makes me mad,” she said, her eyes flashing. Joe didn’t like it either but was impressed by her outrage, although he didn’t know whether her anger came from her outdoor ethics or if she was angry because someone was killing fish she felt
deserved to catch.
“Can you tell what’s killing them?” she asked.
This time, he let Maxine retrieve the rainbow. The Lab unnecessarily launched herself into the water with a splash that soaked both of them, and came back with the trout in her mouth. Joe pried it loose from Maxine’s jaws and turned it over in his palm. He could see nothing unusual about the fish.
“This isn’t like finding a dead deer or elk, where I can check for bullets,” he told Sheridan. “I can’t see any wounds, or disease on this fish. They may have been overstressed after being caught by someone.”
Sheridan huffed with disappointment, and strode upstream. Joe tossed the fish into a stand of willows behind him.
While he waited for Lucy to mosey her way closer, he reached behind him and felt the heavy sag of his .40 Beretta semiautomatic, his service weapon, hidden away in the large back pocket creel of his fishing vest. He also affirmed that his wallet-badge was there, as well as several strands of Flexcuffs. Although he wasn’t working, he was still the game warden, and still charged with enforcing regulations.
That morning, as he packed, he had taken the unusual step of adding another item to his fishing-vest arsenal: bear spray. He strummed his fingers over the large aerosol can through the fabric of his vest. The bear spray was wicked stuff, ten times more powerful than the pepper spray used for disabling humans. A whiff of the spray, even at a distance, brought men to their knees. Joe thought about the series of reports and cryptic e-mails he’d received regarding a rogue 400-pound male grizzly that was causing havoc in Northwestern Wyoming. For the past month, the bear had damaged cars, campsites, and cabins, but as yet there had been no human-bear encounters. The bear had originally been located near the east entrance of Yellowstone Park through a weakening signal from its radio collar, but he had not yet been sighted. When the “bear guys”—a team of Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bear specialists—tried to cut it off, the bear eluded them and they lost the signal. Joe couldn’t recall a runaway bear incident quite like this before. It was like the wilderness version of an escaped convict. He blamed the drought, as the biologists did, and the need for the grizzly to cover new ground in search of something, anything, to eat. It had not been lost on him that the damage reports indicated that the grizzly was moving to the east, through the Shoshone National Forest. If the bear kept up his march, he would enter the Bighorn Mountains, where grizzlies had not roamed for eighty years.
Joe disliked bringing his weapon and badge with him on his day off. He felt oddly ashamed that his daughters were seeing his day-to-day equipment as they caught fish and he cooked them over an open fire for lunch. It was different when he was out in the field, in his red chamois Game and
Fish shirt and driving his green pickup, checking hunters and fishers. Now, he just wanted to be Dad.
orking their way upstream, they stumbled upon another party. Sheridan saw them first and stopped, looking back for Joe. He could see flashes of color through the trees upstream, and he heard a cough.
Joe noticed a strange odor in the air when the wind shifted. The odor was sickly sweet and metallic, and he winced when a particularly strong waft of it blew through.
Making sure Lucy was well behind them, Joe winked at Sheridan as he overtook her, and she fell in behind him as he closed in on the two fishers. He debated whether or not to show his badge before saying hello, and decided against it. Joe noticed the unpleasant odor again. It seemed to get worse as he walked upstream.
As he approached them, he felt Sheridan tug on his sleeve, and he turned and saw her point toward the water. A small brook trout, not more than six inches long, was floating on the top of the water on its side. It wasn’t dead yet, and he could see its gills working as it pathetically tried to right itself and swim away.
“The fish killers,” Sheridan whispered ominously at the man and woman in front of them, and he nodded to her in agreement.
The man looked to be in his late fifties, and was dressed as if he were a cover model for
magazine. He wore ultralight Gore-Tex waders and leather wading boots, a pale blue Cool-Max shirt, and a fishing vest with dozens of bulging pockets filled with gear. A wooden net hung down his back from a ring on his collar. A leather-bound journal for documenting the species and size of the fish he caught was on a lanyard on his vest, as was a small digital camera for recording the catch. The man was large and ruddy, with a thick chest. He had a salt-and-pepper mustache and pale, watery eyes. He looked like a hungover CEO on vacation, Joe thought.
Behind and off to the side of the man was a much younger woman with blond hair; long sunburned legs; and a fishing vest so new that the
tag from the Bighorn Angler Fly Shop was still attached to the front zipper. She held her rod away from her body with the unease of someone holding a dead snake.
It was obvious, Joe thought, that the man was teaching the woman how to fish. Or, more accurately, the man was showing the woman what a fine fisherman
was. Joe assumed that the couple had stopped at the fly store on their way up the mountain and that the man had outfitted her with the new vest.
The man had been concentrating on dropping a fly into a deep pool but now glared at Joe and Sheridan, clearly annoyed that he had been disturbed.
“Jeff . . .” the woman cautioned in a low voice, attempting to get Jeff’s attention.
“Good afternoon,” Joe said and smiled. “How’s fishing?”
Jeff stepped back from the stream in an exaggerated way. His movement wasn’t aggressive but clearly designed to show Joe and Sheridan that he wasn’t pleased with the interruption and that he planned to resume his cast as soon as possible.
“Thirty-fish day,” Jeff said gruffly.
“Twenty-eight,” the woman corrected, and Jeff instantly flashed a look at her.
” he said as if scolding a child. “Twenty-fish day, thirty-fish day, they’re fucking
It’s what fishermen tell each other if one of them is rude enough to ask.”
The woman shrank back and nodded.
Joe didn’t like this guy. He knew the type: a fly-fisherman who thought he knew everything and who could afford all of the equipment he read about in the magazines. Often, these men were fairly new to the sport. Too often, these men had never learned about outdoor etiquette, or common courtesy. To them it was all about thirty-fish days.
“Keeping any?” Joe asked, still smiling. He reached into the back pocket of his vest, bringing out his wallet-badge and holding it up so Jeff could understand why Joe was asking the question.
“There’s a limit of six on this stream,” Joe said. “Mind if I look at what you’ve kept?”
Jeff snorted and his face hardened.
“So you’re the game warden?”
“Yes,” Joe said. “And this is my daughter Sheridan.”
“And his daughter Lucy,” Lucy said, having caught up with them. “What’s that smell, Dad?”
“And Lucy,” Joe added, looking back at her. She was pinching her nose with her fingers. “So I would appreciate it if you watched your language around them.”
Jeff started to say something but caught himself. Then he rolled his eyes heavenward.
“Tell you what,” Joe said, looking at the woman—who appeared to be fearing a fight—and Jeff. “How about you show me your licenses and conservation stamps and I’ll show you how to properly release a fish so that there aren’t any more dead ones?”
The woman immediately began digging in her tight shorts, and Jeff seemed to make up his mind that he didn’t really want a fight, either. Still glaring at Joe, he reached behind his back for his wallet.
Joe checked the licenses. Both were perfectly legal. She was from Colorado and had a temporary fishing license. Jeff O’Bannon was local, although Joe couldn’t remember ever seeing him before. Joe noted that O’Bannon’s address was on Red Cloud Road, which meant he lived in one of the new $500,000 ranchettes south of town in the Elkhorn Ranches subdivision. That didn’t surprise Joe.
“Do you know what that awful smell is?” Joe asked conversationally as he handed the licenses back.
“It’s a dead moose,” Jeff O’Bannon said sullenly. “In that meadow up there.” He gestured through the trees to the west, vaguely pointing with the peaked extra-long bill of his Orvis fishing cap. “That’s one reason why we’re fucking leaving.”
“Jeff . . .” The woman cautioned.
O’Bannon growled at her, “There’s no law against the word