Endangered (Joe Pickett Series #15)

Endangered (Joe Pickett Series #15)

by C. J. Box

NOOK Book(eBook)

$9.99
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Overview

New York Times–bestselling writer C. J. Box returns with a thrilling new novel, featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.
 
She was gone. Joe Pickett had good reason to dislike Dallas Cates, even if he was a rodeo champion, and now he has even more—Joe’s eighteen-year-old ward, April, has run off with him.

And then comes even worse news: The body of a girl has been found in a ditch along the highway—alive, but just barely, the victim of blunt force trauma. It is April, and the doctors aren’t sure if she’ll recover. Cates denies having anything to do with it—says she ran away from him, too—and there’s evidence that points to another man. But Joe knows in his gut who’s responsible. What he doesn’t know is the kind of danger he’s about to encounter. Cates is bad enough, but Cates’s family is like none Joe has ever met before.

Joe’s going to find out the truth, even if it kills him. But this time, it just might.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698184435
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Series: Joe Pickett Series , #15
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 4,749
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

C. J. Box is the author of fifteen Joe Pickett novels, most recently Stone Cold; four stand-alones, most recently The Highway; and the story collection Shots Fired. He has won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe, and Barry awards, as well as the French Prix Calibre .38. He lives outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, with his family.

Read an Excerpt

1


When Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett received the call
every parent dreads, he was standing knee-high in thick
sagebrush, counting the carcasses of sage grouse. He was up
to twenty-one.

Feathers carpeted the dry soil and clung to the waxy blue-green
leaves of the sagebrush within a fifty-foot radius. The air smelled of
dust, sage, and blood.

It was late morning in mid-March on a vast brush-covered flat
managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. There wasn’t
a single tree for eighteen miles to the west on the BLM land until
the rolling hills rocked back on their heels and began their sharp
ascent into the snow-covered Bighorn Mountains, which were managed
by the U.S. Forest Service. The summits of the mountains were
obscured by a sudden late-season snowstorm, and the sky was leaden
and close. Joe’s green Game and Fish Ford pickup straddled the ancient
two-track road that had brought him up there, the engine
idling and the front driver’s door still open from when he’d leapt
out. His yellow Labrador, Daisy, was trembling in the bed of the
truck, her front paws poised on the top of the bed wall as she stared
out at the expanse of land. Twin strings of drool hung from her
mouth. She smelled the carnage out on the flat, and she wanted to
be a part of it.

“Stay,” Joe commanded.

Daisy moaned, reset her paws, and trembled some more.

Joe wore his red uniform shirt with the pronghorn patch on the
sleeve, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, and a Filson vest against the
chill. His worn gray Stetson was clamped on tight. A rarely drawn .40
Glock semiauto was on his hip.

Twenty-one dead sage grouse.

In his youth, everyone called them “prairie chickens,” and he
knew the young ones were good to eat when roasted because they’d
been a staple in his poverty-filled college days. They were odd birds:
chicken-sized, pear-shaped, ungainly when flying. They were the
largest of the grouse species, and their habitat once included most
of the western United States and Canada. Wyoming contained one
hundred thousand of them, forty percent of the North American
population.

Of this flock, he’d noted only three survivors: all three with injuries.
He’d seen their teardrop-shaped forms ghosting from brush to
brush on the periphery of the location. They didn’t fly away, he
knew, because they couldn’t yet.

It was obvious what had happened.

Fat tire tracks churned through the sagebrush, crushing some
plants and snapping others at their woody stalks. Spent 12-gauge
shotgun shells littered the ground: Federal four-shot. He speared
one through its open end with his pen and sniffed. It still smelled of
gunpowder. He retrieved eighteen spent shells and bagged them.
Later, after he’d sealed the evidence bag, he found two more shells.
Since eighteen shells were more than a representative sample, he
tossed the two errant casings into the back of his pickup.

There was a single empty Coors Light can on the northeast corner
of the site. He bagged it and tagged it, and hoped the forensics lab in
Laramie could pull prints from the outside or DNA from the lip.
Problem was, the can looked much older than the spent shotgun
shells and he couldn’t determine if it hadn’t simply been discarded
along the road a few weeks prior to the slaughter.

Joe guessed that the incident had occurred either the night or
day before, because the exploded carcasses hadn’t yet been picked
over by predators. Small spoors of blood in the dirt had not yet dried
black. Whoever had done it had shot them “on the lek,” a lek being
an annual gathering of the birds where the males strutted and
clucked to attract females for breeding. The lek was a concentric
circle of birds with the strutting male grouse in the center of it. Some
leks were so large and predictable that locals would drive out to the
location to watch the avian meat market in action.

The birds bred in mid-March, nested, and produced chicks in
June. If someone was to choose the most opportune time to slaughter
an entire flock, this was it, Joe knew.

So “Lek 64,” as it had been designated by a multiagency team of
biologists charged with counting the number of healthy groupings
within the state, was no more.

Joe took a deep breath and put his hands on his hips. He was
angry, and he worked his jaw. It would take hours to photograph the
carcasses and measure and photograph the tire tracks. He knew he’d
have to do it himself because the county forensics tech was an hour
away—provided the tech was on call and would even respond to a
game violation. Joe knew he was responsible for the gathering of all
evidence to send to the state lab in Laramie, and it would have to get
done before the snow that was falling on top of the mountains
worked its way east and obscured the evidence. Since it was Friday
and the lab technicians didn’t work over the weekend, at best he’d
hear something by the end of next week.

He’d find whoever did this, he thought. It might take time, but
he’d find the shooter or shooters. Fingerprints on the brass of the
shells, tire analysis, the beer can, gossipy neighbors, or a drunken
boast would lead him to the bad guys. Sometimes it was ridiculously
easy to solve these kinds of crimes because the kind of person who
would leave such a naked scene often wasn’t very smart. Joe had
apprehended poachers in the past by finding photos of them posing
with dead game on Facebook posts or by looking at the taxidermy
mounts in their homes. Or by simply going to their front door,
knocking, and saying, “I guess you know why I’m here.”

It had been amazing what kinds of answers that inquiry sometimes
brought.

But he wasn’t angry because of the work ahead of him. There was
also that special directive recently put out by Governor Rulon and
his agency director about sage grouse. Preserving them, that is.
Game and Fish biologists and wardens had been ordered to pay special
attention to where the grouse were located and how many there
were. The status of the sage grouse population, according to Rulon,
was “pivotal” to the future economic well-being of the state.

Sage grouse in Wyoming had shifted from the status of a game
bird regulated by the state into politics and economics on a national
level. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was threatening to list the
bird as an endangered species because the overall population had
declined, and if they did, it would remove hundreds of thousands of
acres from any kind of use, including energy development—whether
gas and oil, wind, hydrothermal, or solar. The federal government
proposed mandating an off-limits zone consisting of one to four
miles for every lek found. That would impact ranchers, developers,
and everyone else.

That was the reason Joe had been on the old two-track in the first
place and stumbled onto the killing ground. During the winter, he’d
seen the flock more than once from the window of his pickup, and
sage grouse didn’t range far. Sage grouse did not exhibit the brightest
of bird behavior. He recalled an incident from the year before,
when a big male—called a “bomber” by hunters—flew into the passenger
door of his pickup and bounced off, killing itself in the
process. Joe’s truck hadn’t been moving at the time.

Years before, prior to the national decline in the sage grouse population,
Joe had accompanied outlaw falconer Nate Romanowski to
this very sagebrush bench. At the time, Nate flew a prairie falcon
and a red-tailed hawk. Joe and Nate served as bird dogs, walking
through the brush to dislodge the grouse while the raptors hunted
from the air. Grouse defended themselves against the falcons by
flopping over onto their backs and windmilling their sharp claws,
but the raptors got them anyway, in an explosion of feathers.

Joe wondered if he’d ever hunt with Nate again, and not just because
of the sage grouse problem. With a half-dozen serious allegations
hanging over his head by the feds, Nate had agreed to turn
state’s witness against his former employer, a high-society killer for
hire. Nate had not touched base with Joe, or Marybeth, or their
daughter Sheridan in months. Joe had no idea if Nate’s long-ago
pledge to protect the Pickett family still held. And Joe was still angry
with him for getting mixed up in a murder-for-hire operation, even
if the targets richly deserved killing.

Joe shook his head to clear it, and looked at the carnage. Half
a year after being named “Special Liaison to the Executive Branch”
by Rulon himself, in the middle of Joe’s own five-thousand-squaremile
district, he’d discovered the site of the wanton destruction of
twenty-one rare game birds whose deaths could bring down the state
of Wyoming.

That’s when the call came. And suddenly he was no longer thinking
about birds.

The display said mike reed.

Reed was sheriff of Twelve Sleep County, and had been for two
years. He was a personal friend of Joe’s and had cleaned up the department,
ridding it of the old cronies and flunkies who had been
collected by the previous chief, Kyle McLanahan. Reed was a paraplegic
due to gunshot wounds he’d received in the line of duty and
he traveled in a specially outfitted van. His injuries had never prevented
him from getting around or performing his job.

Reed’s voice was tense. Joe could hear the sound of a motor in
the background. He was speeding somewhere in his van.

Reed said, “Joe, we’ve got a situation. Are you in a place where
you can sit down?”

“No, but go ahead.”

“I’m running out to meet my deputy on Dunbar Road. He responded
to a call from a couple of hunters this morning. They
claimed they found a victim in a ditch.”

Joe knew Dunbar Road. It was south of Saddlestring, an obscure
county road that ended up at a couple of old reservoirs in the break-
lands. It was a road to nowhere, really, used only by hunters, anglers,
and people who were lost.

“The victim is a young woman, Joe,” Reed said. “She was found
by Deputy Boner.”

Joe felt himself squeezing his cell phone as if to kill it.

“My deputy thinks she looks a lot like April. He says he knew
April from when she worked at Welton’s Western Wear, and it might
be her.”

Joe’s knees weakened, and he took a step back. April was their
eighteen-year-old adopted daughter. She’d disappeared the previous
November with a professional rodeo cowboy and they’d only heard
from her two or three times. Each time she called, she said not to
worry about her. She was, she said, “having the time of her life.”

Because she’d turned eighteen, there was little Joe or Marybeth
could do, except encourage her to come home.

“She’s alive?” Joe asked, his mouth dry.

“Maybe. Barely. We’re not sure. It might not be her, Joe. There’s
no ID on her.”

“Where is she now?”

“In the backseat of my deputy’s cruiser,” Reed said. “He didn’t
want to wait for the EMTs to get out there. He said it looks touch
and go whether she’ll even make it as far as the hospital.”

Joe took a quivering breath. The storm cloud was moving down
the face of the mountains, the snow blotting out the blue-black
forest of pine trees.

“Whether it’s April or not,” Reed said, “it’s a terrible thing.”

“Mike, was she in an accident?”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Reed said. “There was no vehicle around.
It looks like she was dumped there.”

“Dumped?” Joe asked. “Why didn’t she walk toward town?”

“She’s been beaten,” Reed said. “Man, I hate to be the one telling
you this. But my guy says it looks like she was beaten to a pulp and
dumped. Whoever did it might have thought she was already dead.
Obviously, I don’t know the extent of her injuries, how long she’s
been there, or if there was, you know, a sexual assault.”

Joe leaned against the front fender of his pickup. He couldn’t recall
walking back to his truck, but there he was. The phone was
pressed so tightly against his face, it hurt.

March and April were usually the snowiest months in high-country
Wyoming, when huge dumps of spring snow arrived between short
bursts of false spring. The last week had been unseasonably warm, so
he was grateful she hadn’t died of exposure.

Joe said, “So you’re going to meet your deputy and escort him to
the hospital?”

“Roger that,” Reed said. “How quick can you get there? I’m
about to scramble Life Flight and get them down here so they can
transport her to the trauma center in Billings. These injuries are
beyond what our clinic can handle. Can you get there and . . .
identify her?”

“I’m twenty miles out on bad roads, but yes, I’ll be there,” Joe
said, motioning for Daisy to leap down from the bed of the truck
and take her usual spot on the passenger seat. He followed her in
and slammed the door. “Does Marybeth know?”

Marybeth was now the director of the Twelve Sleep County Library.
She’d be at the building until five-thirty p.m., but she was
known to monitor the police band.

“I haven’t told her,” Reed said, “and I asked my guys to keep a lid
on this until I reached you. I thought maybe you’d want to tell her.”

Joe engaged the transmission and roared down the old two-track.

“I’ll call her,” Joe said, raising his voice because the road was
rough and the cab was rattling with vibration. Citation books, maps,
and assorted paperwork fluttered down through the cab from where
they had been parked beneath the sun visors. “We’ll meet you there.”

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Reed said with pain in his voice. “But keep in
mind we don’t know for sure it’s her.”

Joe said, “It’s her,” and punched off.

He called Marybeth’s cell phone. When she answered, he
slowed down enough so that he could hear her.

“Mike Reed just told me they’re transporting a female victim to
the hospital,” he said. “She was found dumped south of town. Mike
says there’s a possibility the girl could be—”

“April,” Marybeth said, finishing the sentence for him. “How bad
is she?”

“Bad,” Joe said, and he told her about the Life Flight helicopter en
route to the hospital from Billings.

“I’ll meet you there,” she said.

Before he could agree, she said, “I’ve had nightmares about this
for months. Ever since she left with that cowboy.” Joe thought, She
can’t even say his name.

Joe disconnected the call, dropped his phone into his breast
pocket, and jammed down on the accelerator. Twin plumes of dust
from his back tires filled the rearview mirror.

“Hang on,” he said to Daisy.

Then: “I’m going to kill Dallas Cates.”

Daisy looked back as if to say We’ll kill him together.


2


After what seemed like the longest forty-five minutes of his life,
Joe arrived at the Twelve Sleep County Hospital and found
Marybeth in the emergency entrance lobby. Sheriff Mike
Reed was with her, as was Deputy Edgar Jess Boner, who had found
the victim and transported her into town.

Marybeth was calm and in control, but her face was drained of
color. She had the ability to shift into a cool and pragmatic demeanor
when a situation was at its worst. She was blond with green eyes, and
was wearing a skirt, blazer, and pumps: her library director’s outfit.

She turned to him as he walked in and said, “Sorry that took so
long.”

He was unsettled from being nearly shaken to death on the ride
down from the sagebrush foothills. His hands shook from gripping
the steering wheel. He saw the subtle but scared look in her eyes and
went to her and pulled her close.

“I saw her when they brought her in,” Marybeth said into his ear.
“It’s April. She looks terrible, Joe. The emergency doctor called it
blunt force trauma. Someone hit her in the head, and her face was
bloody.”

“I was hoping it wasn’t her,” Joe said, realizing how callous that
sounded. It shouldn’t be anyone.
“She’s alive,” Marybeth said. “That’s all they can say. She isn’t  
conscious, and as far as I know she hasn’t opened her eyes or tried to
speak. I keep seeing doctors and nurses rushing back there, but I
don’t know what they’re doing other than trying to stabilize her for
the Life Flight.”

“This is so terrible,” he said.

“I kept telling her . . .” Marybeth started to say, but let her voice
trail off. After a beat, she gently pushed away from Joe and said, “I’m
going with her in the helicopter to Billings. We just have to hope
that, with all she’s been through, she can hold on another hour.

“I called the high school and left a message with the principal that
you would pick Lucy up,” Marybeth continued. “Maybe you can
take her out to dinner tonight, but you’ll need to feed the horses
when you get home.”

Joe started to argue, started to tell her not to worry about his
dinner or anything else, but he knew this was how she processed a
crisis—by making sure her family was taken care of. Only after it
passed would she allow herself to break down. So he nodded instead.

“I’ll call Sheridan as soon as I know something,” she said. “I’ve
already made arrangements to be gone a few days from work. They
were very good about it.”

Sheridan was a junior at the University of Wyoming and had
chosen not to be a resident assistant in the dormitory another semester.
She was living with three other girls in a rental house and making
noises about staying in Laramie for the summer to work. Joe and
Marybeth didn’t like the idea, but Sheridan was stubborn. She was
also not close to April, and the two of them had often clashed when
they’d lived in the same house together.

Lucy was Joe and Marybeth’s sixteen-year-old daughter, a tenth grader
at Saddlestring High School. She was blond like her mother
and maturing into self-sufficiency. Lucy had been a careful observer
of her two older sisters and had avoided their mistakes and errors in
judgment. April had stayed in contact with Lucy more than anyone
else, although Lucy had relayed what she’d been told to Marybeth.

Joe said to Marybeth, “You know who did this.”

“We can’t jump to that conclusion.”

“Already did,” Joe said.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Sheriff Mike Reed roll his chair
toward them. If Reed hadn’t overheard Joe, he’d at least gotten the
gist of what had been said, Joe thought.

“When you have a minute . . .” Reed said.

Joe turned to Reed and Boner, then shook Boner’s hand. “Thanks
for bringing her here. We appreciate it. You made the right call not
waiting for the ambulance to show up.”

Boner was new to the department and Joe didn’t know the
man well.

“Just doing my job,” Boner said softly. “I’ve got a three-year-old
girl at home. I can’t imagine . . .” He didn’t finish the thought, but
looked away, his face flushed red.

Joe said to Reed, “It was Dallas Cates. That’s who she left with.
We need to find him.”

“Whoa,” Reed said, showing Joe the palm of his hand. “I know
you’ve got your suspicions, and I do, too, but right now we’ve got
nothing to go on.”

“It was him.”

“Marybeth is right,” Reed said. “You’re emotional right now and
you’re jumping to conclusions. I know it’s against your nature, but
you need to let this thing work. I’ve got my guys working on the
investigation and my evidence tech out there on Dunbar Road to see
what we can find. It’s only been a couple of hours, Joe.”

Joe said, “If you don’t find him, I will.”

“Joe, damn you,” Reed said, shaking his head. “Slow down. Just
slow down. You know as well as I do that we could screw the whole
thing up if we put blinders on and make accusations that turn out to
be false.”

Joe smoldered.

After a moment, he felt Marybeth’s hand on his shoulder and he
looked back at her.

She was grave. She said, “Promise me you won’t do anything crazy
while I’m gone. I need you here with Lucy, and this is too close to
home. Promise me, Joe.”

“It’s obvious,” Joe said to both Marybeth and Reed. “A twentyfour-
year-old local-hero cowboy takes a liking to my middle daughter
and convinces her to take off with him on the rodeo circuit. She
doesn’t know about his past, or what he’s capable of, so she goes. A
few months later, she gets left in a ditch outside of town. Who else
would we suspect?”

Marybeth didn’t respond, but Reed said, “Joe, we’re already on it.
I sent two guys out to the Cates house fifteen minutes ago. Supposedly
Dallas is at home recuperating from a rodeo injury right now.”

“He’s home?” Joe said. “When did he come home?”

“Don’t know,” Reed said. “We’ll find out.”

“April was probably dumped yesterday,” Joe said. “Do you feel the
dots connecting, Mike?”

“We’re asking him to come in for questioning,” Reed said.

“I want to sit in.”

“Not a chance in hell, Joe. I was thinking about letting you watch
the monitor down the hall, but if you keep up your attitude, I’ll ban
you from the building.”

Joe looked to Marybeth for support, but she shook her head with
sympathy instead.

Reed said, “All we need is for you to draw down on our suspect
during the initial inquiry and for him to press charges against us
and you. No, Joe, if we want to do this right, we do it by the book.”

“Promise me,” Marybeth said.

Joe looked down at his boots.

He said, “I promise.”

She squeezed his hand.

Then he looked hard at Mike Reed from under the brim of his
hat. He said, “Mike, I know you’ll do your best and I’ll behave. But
if something goes pear-shaped, things are going to get western
around here.”

“I expected you to say that,” Reed said with a sigh.

BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA.

The very words were brutal in and of themselves, Joe thought as
he and Marybeth trailed April’s gurney down the hallway. He could
hear the helicopter approaching outside, hovering over the helipad
on the roof of the hospital.

April was bundled up and he couldn’t see her face. He wasn’t sure
he wanted to. Joe was grateful Marybeth had positively identified
her earlier.

He was unnerved by the number of suspended plastic packets that
dripped fluids into tubes that snaked beneath the sheets. An orderly
rolled a monitor on wheels alongside the gurney. Her body looked
small and frail beneath the covers, and she didn’t respond when the
orderlies secured her to the gurney with straps.

Joe reached down and squeezed her hand through the blankets. It
was supple, but there was no pressure back.

“Let me know how it goes,” Joe said to Marybeth, raising his
voice so as to be heard over the wash of the rotors.

“Of course,” she said, pulling him close one last time before she
left. Her eyes glistened with tears.

Joe watched as the gurney was hoisted into the helicopter. A crew
member reached down from the hatch and helped Marybeth step
up inside. Seconds later, the door was secured and the helicopter
lifted.

Joe clamped his hat tight on his head with his right hand and
silently asked God to save April, because she’d suffered enough in
her short life, and to give Marybeth the strength to carry on.

“How well do you know the Cates family?” Reed asked Joe as
he drove them to the Twelve Sleep County Building. Joe was in the
passenger seat of the specially equipped van. Deputy Boner had volunteered
to follow them in Joe’s pickup and to keep an eye on Daisy
until Joe could retrieve his vehicle and his dog.

“I’ve tangled with them before,” Joe said. “Mainly with Bull, the
oldest son. I’ve met the old man, Eldon, and I’ve been to his elk
camp a few times.”

He knew the Cateses lived on twelve acres in the breaklands. The
property contained a smattering of old structures in the scrub pine,
including the shambled main house, a barn, and several falling
down outbuildings. Their place was about twenty minutes from
town.

“What do you know about them?” Reed asked.

Joe told Reed that the Cates family ran a hunting-guide business
called Dull Knife Outfitters. Dull Knife was one of the oldest big-
game outfitters in the Bighorns, and one of the most notorious.
There were rumors that Eldon was involved in taking elk out of
season as well as in the wrong hunt areas, on behalf of clients, and
that he made deals with hunters to obtain prime licenses on their
behalf without going through the lottery, if they paid his special
fee. Joe had even heard that Eldon had a secret elk camp deep in
the mountains that he operated completely above the law, where he
guaranteed certain wealthy hunters a kill that would make the record
books.

But they were rumors only. Joe had never caught Eldon committing
a crime, and no accuser had ever come forward. He’d interviewed
several Dull Knife clients over the years and none of them
would implicate Eldon. Despite spending years on horseback in the
most remote areas of the mountains, he’d not yet found Eldon’s
secret camp—if it existed at all.

Eldon had a unique reputation among the other, more respectable
outfitters in the district. Although sniping among competing hunting
guides was normal, the one thing Eldon’s competitors could
agree on was that they didn’t like Eldon. They thought he used his
reputation as the oldest outfitter in the mountains as a slam against
them, and they didn’t like how he challenged the ethics of the
profession—which reflected poorly on them. Guides said that Eldon
sometimes claimed kills made by their clients by tagging them on
behalf of his clients, and that he refused to respect the boundaries of  
the Wyoming Outfitters Board’s designated hunting areas. He
would also bad-mouth other outfitters to his clients, calling them
“amateurs,” “greenhorns,” and worse. For a number of years, Eldon
drove his four-wheel-drive pickup around town with a magnetic sign
on the door that read dull knife outfitters: satisfying our
customers when the other guides were still in diapers.

Joe had been asked by several outfitters to talk to Eldon about it,
but Joe told them there was nothing he could legally do. When the
magnetic sign was stolen from the truck while Eldon was in a bar,
Eldon had vowed to press charges for theft against the other outfitters
in the county, but he never did.

Joe had always considered Eldon Cates to be an aggravating
throwback who would someday foul up. When he did, Joe wanted
to be there.

Bull was another story. Bull was bigger and dumber than his dad,
and two years earlier, Joe had caught the son and his unpleasant
wife, Cora Lee, red-handed with a trophy bull elk in the back of
their pickup three days before the season opener.

Bull’s hunting rig could be identified instantly because it had
been retrofitted as a kind of rolling meat wagon. He’d welded a steel
pole and crossbeam into the bed and strung a steel cable and hook
from a turnbuckle. With the device, Bull could back up to a big-
game carcass, hook the cable through its back legs, and hoist it up in
order to field dress and skin it on the spot.

Bull’s scheme had been to kill the bull prior to the arrival of two
hunters from Pennsylvania. If either of the two hunters didn’t get
their own trophy bull elk, Bull was going to tag the carcass with
their license and let them take it home, thus guaranteeing a one
hundred percent successful hunt. The Pennsylvania clients hadn’t
been in on the scheme, from what Joe could determine.

Judge Hewitt was a hunter himself, and he came down hard on
Bull Cates.

The violations had cost the outfitter several thousand dollars in
fines, the forfeiture of his rifles and pickup, and the loss of his outfitter’s
license from the state association. Bull was bitter and claimed
Joe had “deprived him of his livelihood” and that he would someday
even the score. Cora Lee acted out during the sentencing and hurled
epithets at Joe and Judge Hewitt and was forcibly removed from the
courtroom by deputies.

It wasn’t uncommon for a game violator to talk big in bars about
getting even with the local game warden, and Bull wasn’t the first to
ever make threats. For Joe, it was part of the job. He knew that in
the past the threats had always dissipated with the onslaught of the
next morning’s hangover.

Nevertheless, for months after, Joe had taken measures to avoid
running into Bull and Cora Lee. There was no reason to pour fuel
on the embers. Joe wasn’t as young as he used to be, and Bull had six
inches and fifty pounds on him.

So when Joe would see Bull’s pickup—a 2007 Ford F-250 with a
dull knife outfitters decal crudely scraped off the driver’s-side
door—in the parking lot of the grocery store, he would drive around
the block until it was gone. When the vehicle was parked in front of
the Stockman’s Bar, Joe would keep driving.

When there were no hunting seasons open, the Cateses operated
C&C Sewer and Septic Tank Service. C&C stood for “Cates &
Cates.” It was a dirty job, pumping out rural septic tanks. The
Cateses owned several circa-1980 pump trucks, and Joe often saw
them on remote roads in the spring and fall. When he spotted one in
front of him on the highway, he gave it a wide berth.

“So you know Bull, all right,” Reed said with a chuckle. “Did you
ever run across Timber, the second son?”

“Timber?” Joe said. “What’s with these names?”

“If you think Bull is a problem, he’s a piece of cake compared to
son number two. Timber was a hell of a high school athlete. He was
quarterback in the late eighties, the last time the Saddlestring Wranglers
won state, back before you came into this country. Timber
walked on at UW, and he might have played eventually, but he got
into some kind of bar fight at the Buckhorn in Laramie and they
threw him off the team. Unfortunately, he moved back home. And
he was crazy. He’d get so violent when he drank, it would take four
of us deputies to get him down. When he discovered meth, he got
even worse. Finally, he was arrested up in Park County for carjacking
some old lady on her way to Yellowstone Park because he’d run
out of gas and he wanted her Mustang. Lucky for all of us, Timber
is doing three years in Rawlins. I hear he isn’t exactly a model prisoner,
or he would have been out and back here by now.”

Reed took a deep breath. “However . . . I got word from a buddy
of mine, a prison guard, that Timber could be released any day now.
I’ve sent a memo to my guys to keep an eye out for him. My guess is
he’ll go straight home to Mama. Then it’ll be a matter of time before
he gets in trouble again.”

“Then there’s Dallas,” Joe said.

“Then there’s Dallas,” Reed echoed.

Joe had met him four months ago at his house. Dallas had been
invited there by April, who at the time had worked at Welton’s Western Wear.
Dallas was a local hero, winner of the National High
School Finals Rodeo, then the College National Finals Rodeo, and
at that time he was in second place in the standings in bull riding
and bound for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. His lean,
hard face was so well-known among rodeo fans that his likeness was
used to sell jeans in western stores, and he’d visit local retailers to
promote the brand when he wasn’t riding bulls. That’s how Dallas
and April met.

Dallas Cates was shorter than Joe, but had wider shoulders, and
biceps that strained at the fabric of his snap-button western shirt. He
had a compact frame that suggested he was spring-loaded and ready
to explode at a moment’s notice. His neck was as wide as his jaw, and
he projected raw physical power.

There was a two-inch scar on his left cheek that tugged at the
edge of his mouth in an inadvertent sneer. Supposedly, Dallas got
the scar when he jumped from a moving snowmobile onto the back
of a bull elk, in an attempt to wrestle the animal to the ground like
a rodeo cowboy did with a running steer. The sharp tip of one of the
antlers had ripped Dallas’s cheek. Joe didn’t know if the story was
true, but he’d heard it several times.

Dallas was also somewhere on the periphery of a terrible crime
that had occurred when he was an all-state wrestler for Saddlestring
High School, when a girl was abducted, raped, and dumped outside
of town by at least four high school–aged suspects. Unfortunately,
the victim, named Serda Tibbs, couldn’t identify her assailants
because she’d been slipped a date-rape drug that rendered her
unconscious. Were there four of them, or five? Four seniors were
arrested, tried, and convicted. None of the four would finger Dallas
Cates, even though several other students anonymously claimed
Cates was the ringleader. That was the power Dallas held over the
other student criminals.

“So have you met the matriarch, Brenda Cates?” Reed asked Joe,
cocking his head as he pulled into his designated parking spot on
the side of the county building.

The way he’d asked, Joe surmised, held significance.

“No. Marybeth’s met her at the library. Brenda wanted her support
on creating signs to post at the entrances to town bragging
about Dallas.”

Reed nodded. “She wants signage put up declaring Saddlestring
the ‘hometown of PRCA bull-riding champion Dallas Cates.’”

Joe snorted.

“Let’s just say she’s very proud and protective of her family,” Reed
said as he swung his seat around and lifted himself into his wheelchair
in a single fluid motion.

Before Joe could ask what that meant, Reed’s cell phone burred
and the sheriff held it up to his ear. He listened for a minute, then
asked, “What about Dallas?” before listening more and punching
off.

“What about Dallas?” Joe asked.

“That was my deputy. Dallas’s parents say he’s laid up and can’t
make the trip into town right now. But Eldon and Brenda Cates
themselves should be here any minute. They’re being very cooperative,
I’m told.”

Joe said, “I’ll bet.”

Sheriff Reed said, “If Dallas Cates is that banged-up and has actually
been home for a while, he might not have been the one, Joe.”

“I want to see him. I want a doctor to evaluate his condition.”

“We can do that,” Reed said, “and we will. But first I think we
should hear out Eldon and Brenda, don’t you?”

Joe agreed.

“Brenda is the one you should be interested in,” Reed said, arching
his eyebrows and sliding the van door open.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Endangered

“Is there a crime-fiction family as fully fleshed out as Joe Pickett’s? ...Pickett’s supporting cast—wife Marybeth and daughters Sheridan, Lucy, and April—lends a continuity and grounding to this series that sets it apart from all the lone-wolf stuff out there.”—Booklist

“All the action and suspense of Box's long string of high-country adventures.... One of Joe's best.”—Kirkus Review

Praise for Stone Cold
 
“[A] superlative outing . . . Box gets everything right: believably real characters, a vivid setting, clear prose and ratcheting tension. Maintaining these standards over 14 novels is more than impressive.”—The Plain Dealer

Stone Cold features carefully crafted characters who live in the wilds of Wyoming, a setting that Box uses to great effect . . . Box creates a story with an unique premise and takes readers along for a suspenseful, action-filled ride.”—The Denver Post

“Box weaves vivid descriptions of Wyoming’s landscape and the personal drama of Pickett’s family into a blistering page-turner.”—Arizona Republic
 
“In C.J. Box's thrillers, [Wyoming] is a featured character and you get to know its thickly forested mountains, its windy plains and its frontierlike towns . . . [a] fun read.”—Associated Press
 
“Another exciting read from crime fiction’s king of the great outdoors.”—Madison County Herald
 
“The author has proven that he can write good — no, great – books.”—Wyoming Eagle Tribune
 
“With each book, Box just gets better. Nonstop action, a twisty plot, and great characters make his latest a must-read for fans of this series.”—Library Journal
 
“This marks a welcome return to the thing Box does best: putting family man Joe in a dicey situation where, despite his orders to merely observe, his own moral code means he can’t help but light the fuse and see where it leads. Being in unfamiliar territory is familiar territory for Pickett, and corrupt-town scenarios are as old as the hills, but Box uses the ploys for maximum suspense.”—Booklist
 
“Exhilarating . . . Canny Joe uses his wits, taking time to assess the literal and figurative lay of the land.”—Publishers Weekly

Customer Reviews