Joe Pickett is the new game warden in Twelve Sleep, Wyoming, a town where nearly everyone hunts and the game warden—especially one like Joe who won't take bribes or look the other way—is far from popular. When he finds a local hunting outfitter dead, splayed out on the woodpile behind his state-owned home, he takes it personally. There had to be a reason that the outfitter, with whom he's had run-ins before, chose his backyard, his woodpile to die in. Even after the "outfitter murders," as they have been dubbed by the local press after the discovery of the two more bodies, are solved, Joe continues to investigate, uneasy with the easy explanation offered by the local police.
As Joe digs deeper into the murders, he soon discovers that the outfitter brought more than death to his backdoor: he brought Joe an endangered species, thought to be extinct, which is now living in his woodpile. But if word of the existence of this endangered species gets out, it will destroy any chance of InterWest, a multi-national natural gas company, building an oil pipeline that would bring the company billions of dollars across Wyoming, through the mountains and forests of Twelve Sleep. The closer Joe comes to the truth behind the outfitter murders, the endangered species and InterWest, the closer he comes to losing everything he holds dear.
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A New York Times Notable Book
One of the Chicago Tribune’s Ten Best Mysteries of 2001
Edgar® Award Nominee for Best First Novel by an American Author
UNPRECEDENTED ACCLAIM FROM CRITICS AND PEERS FOR C. J. BOX’S
“Buy two copies of Open Season, and save one in mint condition to sell to first-edition collectors. C. J. Box is a great storyteller.”
“Intriguing, with a forest setting so treacherous it makes Nevada Barr’s locales look positively comfy, with a motive for murder that is as unique as any in modern fiction. Pickett is a refreshingly human and befuddled hero. . . . But it’s Box’s offbeat way of telling the story that puts it on the best-of-the-year track.”
—Los Angeles Times
“C. J. Box has hit the bull’s-eye his first time up. Open Season explores an honorable man’s love of family and the unflinching measures such a man is willing to take to protect them. Riveting suspense mingles with flashes of cynical back-country humor and makes Box an author to watch. I didn’t want this book to end.”
“C. J. Box . . . certainly knows the Wyoming territory Pickett covers. . . . Pickett is deceptive and complicated himself, a struggling young husband and father who combines eagerness and ambition, strength and fragility into an interesting, original package.”
“Pickett [is] an engaging change from the fast-driving, trigger-happy male heroes of so many contemporary crime novels. . . . What really sets Open Season apart, however, is the author’s ability to incorporate the viewpoints of his hero’s seven-year-old daughter into the story. Box does a very fine job of capturing the heart and fears of a young girl. . . . She is, indeed, an integral part of the story, and she adds a warm counterbalance to the relentless greed of the adults surrounding her. Open Season is a very promising debut.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“A fabulous debut—a great crime novel and a great modern-day western rolled into one. All the elements are here: a tremendous sense of Wyoming’s scenic grandeur, vivid characters, and a high-stakes plot that moves like a rifle bullet. Plus, as a bonus, hero Joe Pickett’s daughter, Sheridan, is the best-written child character I’ve read in a long time. C. J. Box is a keeper, and I for one hope he’ll write a few more like this one—soon.”
“Open Season rings true . . . Box nails the taste and smell of the place, and in the process, creates a sensory experience that can be rare in fast-paced, plot-driven crime fiction—without stalling the plot. He finds a way to weave the mysteries of landscape into the larger mystery at hand . . . Box’s yarn is full of the kind of grittiness a reader can expect from a place where blood and bone are not just the stuff of crime fiction, but of sport and survival, too.”
—The Denver Post
“C. J. Box knows the Wyoming high country inside out, and his protagonist, Game Warden Joe Pickett, is as real and refreshing as they come. This one is a hunting trip and then some.”
“C. J. Box has written a fast-paced, intelligent mystery that draws us into the wide open spaces of Wyoming and introduces a memorable hero: Game Warden Joe Pickett, unwilling detective and a man with a conscience. A page-turner and a remarkable debut.”
“Every few years a first novel appears that immediately sets itself apart from the crowd. As readers, we feel that special shock of recognition that announces, ‘Here is something special. ’ Taking dead aim with his first sentence . . . Box remains square on target throughout this nearly word-perfect debut. . . . Best of all, the soft-spoken Joe Pickett is a Gary Cooper for our time.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“The unusual setting and flawed characters make for an enlightening, as well as suspenseful, read.”
—New York Daily News
“Open Season is a lean, fast-moving thriller that proves you don’t need an urban landscape to make the pages turn. With the exception of James Dickey, I can’t think of another writer who has managed to wring so much white-knuckled terror out of rural America. This is a truly outstanding read.”
—Loren D. Estleman
“Open Season is a western deco, vividly painted and fun as hell. I know nothing of the West, but C. J. Box is a superb guide—and also a very good novelist.”
—Randy Wayne White
“[A] debut mystery to be savored . . . Joe Pickett is a modern-day Gary Cooper, soft-spoken and good-hearted . . . [A] clever mix of mystery, western, and scenery-to-die-for . . . Box has created an enduring hero in Joe. . . . Once you stake out Open Season, you won’t want to turn loose until the limit is bagged and the back cover is closed.”
—The Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger
Also by C. J. Box
The Joe Pickett Novels
OUT OF RANGE
IN PLAIN SIGHT
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To Molly, Becky, Roxanne, and especially for Laurie—
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And thanks to Andy Whelchel and Martha Bushko, who
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Table of Contents
An exciting preview of STONE COLD
When a high-powered rifle bullet hits living flesh it makes a distinctive—pow-WHOP—sound that is unmistakable even at tremendous distance. There is rarely an echo or fading reverberation or the tailing rumbling hum that is the sound of a miss. The guttural boom rolls over the terrain but stops sharply in a close-ended way, as if jerked back. A hit is blunt and solid like an airborne grunt. When the sound is heard and identified, it isn’t easily forgotten.
When Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett heard the sound, he was building a seven-foot elk fence on the perimeter of a rancher’s haystack. He paused, his fencing pliers frozen in midtwirl. Then he stepped back, lowered his head, and listened. He slipped the pliers into the back pocket of his jeans and took off his straw cowboy hat to wipe his forehead with a bandanna. His red uniform shirt stuck to his chest, and he felt a single, warm trickle of sweat crawl down his spine into his Wranglers.
He waited. He had learned over the years that it was easy to be fooled by sounds of any kind outside, away from town. A single, sharp crack heard at a distance could be a rifle shot, yes, but it could also be a tree falling, a branch snapping, a cow breaking through a sheet of ice in the winter, or the backfire of a motor. “Don’t confirm the first gunshot until you hear the second” was a basic tenet of the outdoors. Good poachers knew that, too. It tended to improve their aim.
In a way, Joe hoped he wouldn’t hear a second shot. The fence wasn’t done, and if someone was shooting, it was his duty to investigate. Joe had been on the job for a only a week, and he was hopelessly backlogged with work that had accumulated since the legendary Warden Vern Dunnegan had retired three months before. It was the state’s responsibility to keep the elk herds out of private hay, and the pile of work orders on his desk for elk fence was nearly an inch high. Even if he built fence from dawn to dusk, he didn’t see how he could possibly get it all done before hunting season started.
There was nothing really unusual about gunshots ringing out at any time of day or night or at any time of the year in Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming. Everybody owned guns. A rancher could be shooting at a coyote, or some of the boys from town could be out sighting in their rifles on a target.
Joe’s eyes swung northwest toward the direction of the second shot, toward the foothills of the mountains where outstretched fingers of timber reached down into the high sage that reflected blue in the heat. The shot had come from a long way, three to five miles.
Maxine, Joe’s eight-year-old yellow Labrador, also heard the shot, and bounded from her pool of shadow under Joe’s green Ford pickup. She knew it was time to go to work. Joe opened the passenger door with the Wyoming Game and Fish logo on it, and she leaped in. Before he closed the door, he unsheathed his Winchester .270 rifle and scope from its scabbard case behind the seat and fitted the rifle into the gun rack across the back window. His gun belt was coiled in a pile on the floorboard of the truck, so he picked it up and he buckled it on. Even though regulations dictated that he wear his sidearm at all times, Joe hated driving with his holster on because the heavy pistol jabbed him in the back.
As he climbed into the pickup, there were two more quick shots, one after the other. The first shot wafted across the brush and hay. The second was definitely another hit. Joe thought it was likely that at least two—and possibly three—animals were down.
Joe shoved the pickup into four-wheel drive and headed west toward the mountains, driving as fast as he could without losing control of the wheel. There were no established roads, so he kept the left tires in a cow track while the right wheels bounced through knee-high, then thigh-high, sagebrush. Maxine leaned into the windshield with both of her large paws on the dashboard, balancing against the violent pitching of the terrain. Her tongue swung from side to side and spattered the dashboard with dog spit.
“Get ready,” Joe told her—although for what he didn’t know.
They plunged into a dry wash and ground up out of it, the tires independently grabbing dirt and shooting plumes of dust into the air. Joe nearly lost his grip on the steering wheel as it wrenched hard to the right and left, then he regained control and powered up a brushy slope. His mouth was dry, and he was, quite frankly, very scared.
A game warden in the field rarely encountered anyone who wasn’t armed. Hunters, of course, had rifles, shot-guns, and sidearms. Hikers, fishers, and campers all too often were packing. Even archery hunters had bows capable of rocketing a razor-sharp broad-head arrow through his pickup door. But that was during hunting season. This was the middle of summer, and there were no seasons open. The only kind of people who would be knocking down big animals now would be poachers or cattle rustlers, and either could be desperate and dangerous if caught in the act.
Joe Pickett topped the small hill and quickly sized up the situation: three large buck mule deer were dead, lying on their sides, on the bottom of the saddle slope. Their throats had been cut to bleed them, but they hadn’t been opened up yet to field dress. A bearded man wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a King Ropes cap straddled the largest of the bucks. He was a big man, built solidly with thick arms and a barrel chest. His T-shirt read HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUT PILE. He outweighed Joe by at least 40 pounds, but he didn’t seem menacing, only very upset with the fact that he had been caught. He held a dripping knife in his hand. His rifle was propped up in a tall sagebrush about 50 feet away from him. He appeared not to have a sidearm. His pickup, a battered three-quarter-ton GMC, nosed out of the timber on the opposite slope.
He squinted up at Joe’s pickup and his face fell open. “Oh, fuck me,” the man said, loud enough for Joe to hear over the whine of the engine.
Joe drove quickly down the hill and positioned his Ford between the man and the rifle so the poacher couldn’t lunge for it. Joe got out, told Maxine to stay, and approached the man and the downed deer.
“Please drop the knife,” Joe asked, sizing up the deer and the poacher. The poacher tossed the knife aside into the grass. Joe saw no reason to draw his revolver. Joe rarely found a reason to draw his weapon, and even if he did, he doubted he could hit anything with it. Joe was a notoriously bad pistol shot at any range, the worst in his class.
“You’re about four months early for deer season, you know,” Joe said. He now recognized the man, a local outfitter named Ote Keeley. Joe had seen his photo and a reference request for an outfitter’s license on his desk his first day on the job.
Ote sighed. “Meat for the pot, Warden. Just meat for the pot. Some of us got a family to feed.” Ote had a deep Southern accent. Joe couldn’t identify the state.
Joe squatted over the nearest and largest buck deer and ran his fingers over the soft velvet that still covered the antlers.
“Seems to me you didn’t have to kill the only trophies in the herd just to fill your freezer.” He looked up at Ote Keeley, his eyes hard. “A meat hunter would have probably been happy with a big dry doe or two.”
Joe knew there was a black market for antlers in velvet, and that racks this size would command thousands of dollars in Asia where they were thought to possess healing powers as well as serve as an aphrodisiac when ground up and ingested.
“I’m going to have to write you up. Ote Keeley, isn’t it?”
Ote was genuinely surprised. His face flushed red.
“You’re gosh-darned kidding me, right?” Ote asked, as if avoiding an additional ticket for cursing.
Joe stood and pulled his ticket book out of his back pocket and flipped it open. “No, I’m not kidding.”
Ote stepped toward Joe over the downed deer he was straddling. “Hey—I know you. You’re the brand-new game warden, ain’t you?”
Joe nodded and began to fill out the citation.
“I heard about you. Everybody has. You’re the bonehead who arrested the governor of Wyoming for fishing without a license, right?”
Joe could feel his neck getting hot.
“I didn’t know he was the governor,” Joe said, wishing he hadn’t said anything.
Ote Keeley laughed and slapped his thigh.
“Didn’t know he was the governor,” Ote repeated. “I read about that in the paper. Everybody did. ‘Rookie Game Warden Arrests Governor Budd.’ ”
Ote turned serious: “Hey, you’re not really going to ticket me, are you? I’m a professional hunting outfitter. I can’t feed my family if my outfitter’s license gets pulled. I’m not kidding. I’m sure we can work this out.”
Joe looked up at Ote Keeley. “I’m not kidding, either. Now give me your driver’s license.”
It was as if Ote Keeley, for the first time, realized what was really happening. Joe was amazed at the man’s almost staggering stupidity. Joe caught Ote glancing toward where he had left his rifle.
“There’s more animals in Wyoming than people,” Ote spat. “These critters won’t be missed by anyone. That herd ran nearly thirty. Vern Dunnegan wouldn’t have pulled this shit.”
“I’m not Vern Dunnegan.” Joe said, hiding his surprise about what Ote had said about his predecessor and mentor.
“You sure as hell ain’t,” Ote Keeley said bitterly, as he pulled his wallet out of his jeans and held it out for Joe. As Joe reached for it, Ote grabbed Joe’s arm and jerked it past him, throwing Joe off balance. Ote had Joe’s revolver out of the holster before he could recover.
For a brief second, Joe Pickett and Ote Keeley stared at each other in genuine surprise, then Ote raised the pistol and aimed it squarely at Joe’s face.
“Uh-oh, look what just happened,” Ote said, a little in awe.
“I would suggest you give that back,” Joe answered, trying to keep his face from twitching. He was terrified. “Give it back and we’ll call it even.”
Ote Keeley smoothly cocked the hammer of the revolver. Joe watched the cylinder rotate. Dull noses of lead filled each chamber, and the mouth of the barrel was black and huge, gaping. Ote wrapped his other hand around the grip, steadying his aim.
“Now we’re in really, really fucking deep,” Ote said, more to himself than anybody.
Joe thought of his daughters, Sheridan and Lucy, both at home, probably playing outside in the backyard. He thought of his wife, Marybeth, who had always feared that something like this would happen.
Then Joe’s entire consciousness, his entire being, focused on one simple question: would he die with his eyes open or closed?
Findings, Purposes, and Policy
(b) Purposes. - The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions set forth in subsection(s) of this section.
—The Endangered Species Act Amendments of 1982
Printed for the use of the Senate Committee on
Environment and Public Works
US Government Printing Office
Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of. It was now fall and Sunday morning dawned slate gray and cold. He was making pancakes for his girls when he first heard of the bloody beast who had come down from the mountains and tried to enter the house during the night.
Seven-year-old Sheridan Pickett related her dream aloud to the stuffed bear that served as her confidant. Lucy, three and horrified, listened in. The television set was on even though the reception from the vintage satellite dish was snowy and poor, as usual.
The monster, Sheridan said, had come down from the mountains through the dark, steep canyon behind the house very late last night. She watched it through a slit in the curtain on her window, just a few inches from the top bunk of her bed. The canyon was where Sheridan had always suspected a monster would come from, and she felt proud, if a bit fearful, that she had been right. The only light had been the moon through the dried leaves of the cottonwood tree. The monster had rattled the back gate before figuring out the latch and had then lurched clumsily (sort of like mummies in old movies) across the yard to the backdoor. Its eyes and teeth glinted yellow, and for a second, Sheridan felt an electric bolt jolt through her as the monster’s head swiveled around and seemed to looked directly at her before it fled. The monster was hairy and shiny, as if covered with liquid. Twigs and leaves were stuck to it. There was something white, a large sack or box, swinging from the monster’s hand.
“Sheridan, stop talking about monsters,” Joe called out. The dream disturbed him because the details were so precise. Sheridan’s dreams were usually more fantastic, inhabited by talking pets or magical things that flew. “You’re going to scare your little sister.”
“I’m already scared,” Lucy declared, pulling her blanket to her mouth.
“Then the man walked slowly away across the yard through the gate toward the woodpile where he fell down into a big shadow. And he’s still out there,” Sheridan finished, widening her eyes toward her sister to deliver the complete effect.
“Hold it, Sheridan,” Joe said abruptly, entering the room with a spatula in his hand. Joe was wearing his threadbare terry-cloth bathrobe he had purchased on a lark in Jackson Hole on his and Marybeth’s honeymoon ten years before. He shuffled in fleece slippers that were a size too large. “You said ‘man.’ You didn’t say ‘monster.’ You said ‘man.’ ”
Sheridan looked up quizzically, her big eyes wide. “Maybe it was a man. Maybe it wasn’t a dream after all.”
Joe heard a vehicle outside, racing up the gravel Bighorn Road much too fast, but by the time he crossed the living room and parted the faded drapes of the front picture window, the car or truck was gone. Dust rolled lazily down the road where it had been.
Beyond the window was the front yard, still green from summer and littered with plastic toys. Then there was the white fence, recently painted, paralleled by the gravel road. Farther, beyond the road, the landscape dipped into a willow-choked saddle where the Twelve Sleep River branched out into six fingers clogged with beaver ponds and brackish mosquito-heaven eddies and paused for a breath before its muscular rush through and past the town of Saddlestring. Beyond were the folds of the valley as it arched and suddenly climbed to form a precipitous mountain-face known as Wolf Mountain, a peak in the Twelve Sleep Range.
With Wolf Mountain in front of them and the foothills and canyon in back, the Pickett family, eight miles from town in their house, lived a life of deep and casting shadows.
The front door opened and Maxine burst in, followed by Marybeth. Marybeth’s cheeks were flushed—either from the brisk cold air or her long walk with the dog, Joe wasn’t sure which—and she looked annoyed. She wore her winter walking uniform of lightweight hiking boots, chinos, anorak, and wool hat. The anorak was stretched tight across her pregnant belly.
“It’s cold out there,” Marybeth said, peeling the hat off so her blond hair tumbled onto her shoulders. “Did you see that truck tear by here? That was Sheriff Barnum’s truck going too fast on that road up to the mountains.”
“Barnum?” Joe said, genuinely puzzled.
“And your dog was going nuts when we got back to the house. She nearly took my arm off just a minute ago.” Marybeth unclipped Maxine’s leash from her collar, and Maxine padded to her water dish and drank sloppily.
Joe had a blank expression on his face while he was thinking. The expression sometimes annoyed Marybeth, who was afraid people would think him simple. It was the same expression, in a photograph, that had been transmitted throughout the region via the Associated Press when Joe, while still a trainee, had arrested a tall man—who turned out to be the new governor of Wyoming—for fishing without a license.
“Where did Maxine want to go?” he asked.
“She wanted to go out back,” she said. “Toward the woodpile.”
Joe turned around. Sheridan and Lucy had paused at breakfast and were looking to him. Lucy looked away and resumed eating. Sheridan held his gaze, and she nodded triumphantly.
“Better take your gun,” Sheridan said.
Joe managed a grin. “Eat your breakfast,” he said.
“What’s this all about?” Marybeth asked.
“Bloody monsters,” Sheridan said, her eyes wide. “There’s a bloody monster in the woodpile.”
Suddenly, there was the roar of motors coming up Bighorn Road from Saddlestring. Joe was thinking exactly what Marybeth said next: “Something’s going on. I wonder why nobody called here?”
Joe lifted the telephone receiver to make sure it was working, the dial tone echoed clearly into his ear.
“Maybe it’s because you’re the new guy. People here still can’t get used to the fact that Vern Dunnegan isn’t around anymore,” Marybeth said, and Joe knew instantly she wished she could take it back.
“Dad, about that monster?” Sheridan said from the table, almost apologetic.
Joe buckled his holster over his bathrobe, clamped on his black Stetson, and stepped outside onto the back porch. He was surprised how cool and crisp it was this early in the fall. When he saw the large spatters of dried blood between his oversized fleece slippers, the chill suddenly became more pronounced. Joe pulled his revolver and broke the cylinder to make sure it loaded. Then he glanced over his shoulder.
Framed in the dining room window were Sheridan and Lucy. Marybeth stood behind them and off to the side. His three girls in the window were various stages of the same painfully beautiful blond and willowy female. Their green eyes were on him, and their faces were wide open. He knew how silly he must look. He couldn’t tell if they could see what he could: splashes of blood on the ancient concrete walkway that halved the yard and crushed frozen grass where it appeared that someone—or something—had rolled. It looked almost like the night nesting place of a large deer or elk the way the grass and crisp autumn leaves had been flattened.
Grasping the pistol in front of him with both hands, Joe skirted a young pine and stepped through the open gate of the weathered fence to the place where the woodpile was.
Joe sucked in his breath and involuntarily stepped back, his ears filled with the whumping sound of his own heart beating.
A big, bearded man was sprawled across the woodpile, both of his large hands folded across his belly, palms down, and one leg cocked over a stump. The man’s head rested on a log, his mouth parted just enough to show two rows of yellow teeth that looked like corn on the cob. His eyelids weren’t completely shut, and where there should have been a moist reflection from his eyes there was instead a dull, dry membrane that looked like crinkled cellophane. His long hair and full beard was matted by blood into crude dreadlocks. The man wore a thick beige chamois shirt and jeans, and broad stripes of dark blood had coursed down both. It was Ote Keeley, and Ote looked dead.
Joe reached out and touched Ote’s meaty, pale white hand. The skin was cold and did not give to the touch. Except for the dried blood in his hair and on his clothes and his waxy skin, Ote looked to be very comfortable. He could have been reclining in his La-Z-Boy, having a beer and watching the Bronco game on television.
Clutched in one of Ote Keeley’s hands was the handle of a small plastic cooler minus the lid. Joe kneeled down and looked into the cooler, which was empty except for a scatter of small teardrop-shaped animal excrement. The inside walls of the cooler were scratched and scarred, as if clawed. Whatever had been in there had been manic about getting out, and it had succeeded.
Joe stood and saw the extra buckskin horse standing near the corral. The horse was saddled, and the reins hung down from the bridle. The horse had been ridden hard and had lost enough weight that the cinch slipped and the saddle hung loose and upside down.
Joe stared at Ote’s blank face, recalling that day in June when Ote had pointed Joe’s own pistol at his face and cocked the hammer. Even though Ote had thought better of it and had sighed theatrically and spun the weapon around butt-first with his finger in the trigger guard like the Lone Ranger, Joe had never quite been the same. He had been expecting to die at that moment, and for all practical purposes he deserved to die, having given up his weapon so stupidly. But it hadn’t happened. Joe had holstered his revolver with his hands shaking so badly that the barrel of the revolver rattled around the mouth of the holster. His knees had been so weak that he backed up against his pickup to brace himself so he wouldn’t collapse. Ote had simply watched him with a bemused expression on his face. Without a word, Joe had written out the citation for poaching in a shaking scrawl and handed the ticket to Ote Keeley, who took it and stuffed it in his pocket without even looking at it.
“I won’t say nothin’ if you don’t about what just happened,” Ote had said.
Joe hadn’t acknowledged the offer, but he hadn’t arrested Ote either. The deal had been struck: Ote’s silence in exchange for Joe’s life and career. It was a deal Joe agonized over later, usually late at night. Ote Keeley had taken something from him that he could never get back. In a way, Ote Keeley had killed Joe, just a little bit. Joe hated him for that, although he never said a word to anyone except Marybeth. What made it worse was when word of the incident filtered out anyway.
During the summer Ote had gotten drunk and told everyone at the bar what had happened. The story about the new game warden losing his weapon to a local outfitter had joyously made the rounds, and it even appeared in the wicked anonymous column “Ranch Gossip” that ran in the weekly Saddlestring Roundup. It was the kind of story the locals loved. In the latest version, Joe had lost control of his sphincter and had begged Ote for the gun back. Joe’s supervisor in Cheyenne heard the rumors and had called Joe. Joe confirmed what had actually happened. In spite of Joe’s explanation, the supervisor sent Joe a reprimand that would stay in his personnel file forever. An investigation was still possible.
Keeley’s poaching trial date had been set to take place in two weeks, but obviously Ote wouldn’t be appearing.
Ote Keeley was the first dead person Joe had ever seen except in a coffin at a funeral. There was nothing alive or real about Ote’s expression. He did not look happy, puzzled, sad, or in pain. The look on his face—frozen by death and for several hours—told Joe nothing about what Ote was thinking or feeling when he died. Joe fought an urge to reach up and close Ote’s eyes and mouth, to make him look more like he was sleeping. Joe had seen a lot of dead big game animals, but only the stillness and the salt-ripe odor was the same. When he saw dead animals, he had many different emotions, depending on the circumstances—from indifference to pity and sometimes to quiet rage aimed at careless hunters. This was different, Joe thought, because the dead body was human and could be him. Joe made himself stop staring.
Joe stood up. There had been a monster.
He heard something and turned around.
The backdoor slammed shut, and Sheridan was coming out in her nightgown, skipping down the walk with her hands in the air to see what he had found.
“Get BACK into that house!” Joe commanded with such unexpected force that Sheridan spun on her bare feet and flew right back inside.
On his way through the house and to the phone, Joe told Marybeth who the dead man was.
Of course, County Sheriff O. R. “Bud” Barnum wasn’t in when Joe called the dispatch center in Saddlestring. According to the dispatcher—a chain-smoking conspiracy buff named Wendy—neither was Deputy McLanahan. Both, she said, had responded to an emergency that morning in a Forest Service campground in the mountains.
“Some campers reported seeing a wounded man on horseback ride straight through their camp last night,” Wendy told Joe. “They said the suspect allegedly rode his horse right through their camp while displaying a weapon and threatening the campers with said weapon.”
Joe could tell that Wendy loved this situation, loved being in the center of the action, loved telling Joe about it, loved saying things like “allegedly” and “said weapon.” She did not get a chance to use those words often in Twelve Sleep County.
“I called out the entire sheriff’s office and both emergency medical vehicles at seven-twelve A.M. this morning to respond.”
“Did you get a description of the man on horseback?” Joe asked.
Wendy paused on the telephone, then read from the report: “Late thirties, wearing a beard, bloody shirt. A big man. Crazy eyes, they said. The suspect was allegedly swinging some kind of plastic box or cooler around.”
Joe leaned his chair back so he could see out of the small room near the front door that served as his office. Both girls were still lined up at the back window, looking out. Marybeth hovered behind them, trying to draw their attention away by rattling a box of pretzels the same way she would shake dog biscuits at Maxine to get her to come into the house.
“Why wasn’t I called?” Joe inquired calmly. “I live on the Bighorn Road.”
There was no response. Finally: “I never even thought about it.”
Joe recalled what Marybeth had said about Vern Dunnegan but said nothing.
“Sheriff Barnum didn’t mention it neither,” Wendy said defensively.
“The injured man was displaying and threatening a weapon with one hand and swinging a plastic box with the other?” Joe asked. “How did he steer his horse?”
“That’s what the report says.” Wendy sniffed. “That’s what the campers reported. They was out-of-staters. From Massachusetts or Boston or some place like that.” She said the last part as if it explained away the inconsistency.
“Which campground?” Joe persisted.
“It says here they was at Crazy Woman Creek.”
Crazy Woman was the last developed U.S. Forest Service campground on Bighorn Road, a place generally used as a jumping-off site for hikers and horse-packers entering the mountains.
“Are you in radio contact with Sheriff Barnum?” Joe asked.
“I believe so.”
“Why don’t you give him a call and let him know that the man on horseback was Ote Keeley and that Ote is lying dead on the woodpile behind my house.”
Joe could hear Wendy gasp, then try to regain her composure.
“Say again?” she replied.
Joe hung up the telephone and started for the backdoor.
“You’re not going back out there?” Sheridan whispered.
“Just for a minute,” Joe said in what he hoped was a reassuring tone.
He shut the door behind him and slowly walked toward the body of Ote Keeley, his eyes sweeping across the yard, taking in the bloodstained walk, the woodpile, the canyon mouth behind the house. He wanted a clear picture of everything as it was right now, before the sheriff and deputies arrived. He didn’t want to screw up again.
Squatting near the plastic cooler, Joe drew two empty envelopes and a pencil from the pocket on his robe. Using the tip of the eraser, Joe flicked several small pieces of scat from the cooler into an envelope. He would send that to headquarters for analysis. He gathered several more pieces of scat and put them in another envelope. He sealed both and put them back in his pocket. He left the rest for the sheriff.
Back in the house, Joe dressed in his day-to-day uniform: blue jeans and his red, button-up chamois shirt with the pronghorn antelope patch on the sleeve. Over the breast pocket was his name plate, which read GAME WARDEN and under that J. PICKETT.
When he came downstairs, the girls were sprawled in front of the snowy television, and Marybeth was sitting at the table flanked by dirty dishes. She held a big mug of coffee in her hands and stared at something in the air between them.
Her eyes raised until they met Joe’s.
“It’ll be okay,” Joe said, forcing a smile. He asked Marybeth to gather up the children and some clothes and go into Saddlestring. They could check into a motel until this was over and the backyard was cleaned up. He didn’t want the kids seeing the dead man. Sheridan’s dreams were already vivid enough.
“Joe, who will pay for the room? Will the state pay for it?” Marybeth asked softly so the children couldn’t hear.
“You mean we can’t?” Joe replied, incredulous. She shook her head no. Marybeth kept the meager family budget under a tight rein. It was the end of the month. She would know if they were broke, and apparently that was the case. Joe felt his face flush. Maybe they could stay with somebody? Joe dismissed that. While they had made a few friends in town, they were still new, and he didn’t know who they could call to ask this kind of favor.
“Can we use the credit card?” he asked.
“Nearly maxed out.” She said. “It might work for a night or two, though.”
He felt another wave of heat wash up his neck.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he mumbled. He fitted his dusty black hat on his head and went outside to wait.
After measuring, marking, and photographing, the deputies sealed off the woodpile with yellow CRIME SCENE tape and unfurled a body bag.
Joe stationed himself outside with his back to the window so no one who looked out could see the deputies bend Ote Keeley into the bag, folding his stiff arms and legs inside so they could zip it up and carry it away. Ote was heavy, and the middle part of the bag hummed along the top of the grass as the deputies took the body out of the yard and around the side of the house to the ambulance.
Sheriff O. R. “Bud” Barnum had arrived first and had briskly ordered Joe to show him where Ote Keeley’s body was. Despite his age, Barnum still moved with speed and stiff grace. His pale blue eyes were set in a pallid leather face and rimmed with paper-thin flaps of skin. Joe watched as the blue eyes swept the scene.
Joe had expected questions and was prepared for them. He informed Barnum that he had gathered the scat evidence to send to headquarters, but Barnum had waved him off.
Table of Contents
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What People are Saying About This
“C.J. BOX is a great storyteller” Tony Hillerman
“Open Season is a great crime novel.” Lee Child
“Meet Joe Pickett: He’s going to be a mystery star.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Intriguing, with a forest setting so treacherous it makes Nevada Barr’s locales look positively comfy, with a motive for murder that is as unique as any in modern fiction. Pickett is a refreshingly human and befuddled hero…But it’s Box’s offbeat way of telling the story that puts it on the best of the year track.” Los Angeles Times
“Every few years a first novel appears that immediately sets itself apart from the crowd. As readers, we feel that special shock of recognition that announces, ‘Here is something special.’ Taking dead aim with his first sentence…Box remains square on target throughout this nearly word-perfect debut…Best of all, the soft-spoken Joe Pickett is a Gary Cooper for our time.” Booklist (starred review)
“C.J. Box might represent an endangered species himself: a first novelist who is getting his due…Box’s book has it allsuspenseful plot, magnificent scenery and a flawed male hero who is tough but truly connected to his family…profoundly memorable.” Boston Herald
“A muscular first novel…Box writes as straight as his characters shoot, and he has a stand-up hero to shoulder his passionate concerns about endangered lives and liberties.” New York Times Book Review
“A high-country Presumed Innocent that moves like greased lightning.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“A fascinating, well-scripted debut novel…In Gary Cooper style, Pickett is transformed into a man with a mission to save his family, then exact his vengeance. It’s a classic tale of Wild West justice.” USA Today
“Pickett [is] an engaging change from the fast-driving, trigger-happy male heroes of so many contemporary crime novels…Open Season offers several unexpected twists and is greatly enlivened by concise but heartfelt descriptions of the Wyoming landscape…a very promising debut.” Washington Post Book World