Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett uncovers a conspiracy in this explosive novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series.
When a massive blast rocks the forests of Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is called to the scene to help investigate the death of a colorful environmental activist. The case is wrapped up quickly, explained as an environmental publicity stunt gone wrong, but Joe isn't convinced. He soon discovers clues that suggest a deadly conspiracy–one that will test his courage, his survival skills, and his determination to “do the right thing” despite all costs.
About the Author
C. J. Box is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Joe Pickett series, five stand-alone novels, and the story collection Shots Fired. He has won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe, and two Barry awards, as well as the French Prix Calibre .38 and a French Elle magazine literary award. His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages. He and his wife Laurie split their time between their home and ranch in Wyoming.
Read an Excerpt
No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.
Targhee National Forest, Idaho
on the third day of their honeymoon, infamous environmental activist Stewie Woods and his new bride, Annabel Bellotti, were spiking trees in the forest when a cow exploded and blew them up. Until then, their marriage had been happy.
They met by chance. Stewie Woods had been busy pouring bag after bag of sugar and sand into the gasoline tanks of a fleet of pickups in a newly graded parking lot that belonged to a natural gas exploration crew. The crew had left for the afternoon for the bars and hotel rooms of nearby Henry's Fork. One of the crew had returned unexpectedly and caught Stewie as he was ripping the top off a bag of sugar with his teeth. The crew member pulled a 9mm semiautomatic from beneath the dashboard of his truck and fired several wild shots in Stewie's direction. Stewie dropped the bag and ran away, crashing through the timber like a bull elk.
Stewie had outrun and outjuked the man with the pistol when he literally tripped over Annabel, who was unaware of his approach because she was listening to Melissa Etheridge on her Walkman as she sunbathed nude on the grass in an orange pool of late afternoon sun. She looked good, he thought, strawberry blonde hair with a two-day Rocky Mountain fire-engine tan (two hours in the sun at 8,000 feet created a sunburn like a whole day at the beach), small ripe breasts, and a trimmed vector of pubic hair.
He had gathered her up and pulled her along through the timber, where they hid together in a dry spring wash until the man with the pistol gave up and went home. She had giggled while he held her-This was real adventure, she said-and he had used the opportunity to run his hands tentatively over her naked shoulders and hips and had found out, happily, that she did not object. They made their way back to where she had been sunbathing and, while she dressed, they introduced themselves.
She told him she liked the idea of meeting a famous environmental outlaw in the woods while she was naked, and he appreciated that. She said she had seen his picture before, maybe in Outside magazine, and admired his looks-tall and rawboned, with round rimless glasses, a short-cropped full beard, wearing his famous red bandana on his head.
Her story was that she had been camping alone in a dome tent, taking a few days off from a freewheeling cross-continent trip that had begun with her divorce from an anal-retentive investment banker named Nathan in her hometown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She was bound, eventually, for Seattle.
"I'm falling in love with your mind," he lied.
"Already?" she asked.
He encouraged her to travel with him, and they took her vehicle since the lone crew member had disabled Stewie's Subaru with three bullets into the engine block. Stewie was astonished by his good fortune. Every time he looked over at her and she smiled back, he was poleaxed with exuberance.
Keeping to dirt roads, they crossed into Montana. The next afternoon, in the backseat of her SUV during a thunderstorm that rocked the car and blew shroudlike sheets of rain through the mountain passes, he asked her to marry him. Given the circumstances and the supercharged atmosphere, she accepted. When the rain stopped, they drove to Ennis, Montana, and asked around about who could marry them, fast. Stewie did not want to take the chance of letting her get away. She kept saying she couldn't believe she was doing this. He couldn't believe she was doing this either, and he loved her even more for it.
At the Sportsman Inn in Ennis, Montana, which was bustling with fly fishermen bound for the trout-rich waters of the Madison River, the desk clerk gave them a name and they looked up Judge Ace Cooper (Ret.) in the telephone book.
judge cooper was a tired and rotund man who wore a stained white cowboy shirt and elk horn bolo tie with his collar open. He performed the wedding ceremony in a room adjacent to his living room that was bare except for a single filing cabinet, a desk and three chairs, and two framed photographs-one of the judge and President George H. W. Bush, who had once been up there fishing, and the other of the judge on a horse before the Cooper family lost their ranch in the 1980s.
The ceremony had taken eleven minutes, which was just about average for Judge Cooper, although he had once performed it in eight minutes for two American Indians.
"Do you, Allan Stewart Woods, take thee Annabeth to be your lawful wedded wife?" Judge Cooper asked, reading from the marriage application form.
"Annabel," Annabel corrected in her biting Rhode Island accent.
"I do," Stewie said. He was beside himself with pure joy.
Stewie twisted the ring off his finger and placed it on hers. It was unique; handmade gold mounted with sterling silver monkey wrenches. It was also three sizes too large. The Judge studied the ring.
"Monkey wrenches?" the Judge asked.
"It's symbolic," Stewie had said.
"I'm aware of the symbolism," the Judge said darkly, before finishing the passage.
Annabel and Stewie beamed at each other. Annabel said that this was, like, the wildest vacation ever. They were Mr. and Mrs. Outlaw Couple. He was now her famous outlaw, as yet untamed. She said her father would be scandalized, and her mother would have to wear dark glasses at Newport. Only her Aunt Tildie, the one with the wild streak who had corresponded with, but never met, a Texas serial killer until he died from lethal injection, would understand.
Stewie had to borrow a hundred dollars from her to pay the judge, and she signed over a traveler's check.
After the couple left in the SUV with Rhode Island plates, Judge Ace Cooper went to his lone filing cabinet and found the file with the information he needed. He pulled a single piece of paper out and read it as he dialed the telephone. While he waited for the right man to come to the telephone, he stared at the framed photo of himself on his former ranch. The ranch, north of Yellowstone Park, had been subdivided by a Bozeman real estate company into over thirty fifty-acre "ranchettes." Famous Hollywood celebrities, including the one whose early career photos he had recently seen in Penthouse, now lived there. Movies had been filmed there. There was even a crackhouse, but it was rumored that the owner wintered in L.A. The only cattle that existed were purely for visual effect, like landscaping that moved and crapped and looked good when the sun threatened to drop below the mountains.
The man he was waiting for came to the telephone.
"Stewie Woods was here," he said. "The man himself. I recognized him right off, and his ID proved it." There was a pause as the man on the other end of the telephone asked Cooper something. "Yeah, I heard him say that just before they left. They're headed for the Bighorns in Wyoming. Somewhere near Saddlestring."
annabel told stewie that their honeymoon was quite unlike what she had imagined a honeymoon would be, and she contrasted it with her first one with Nathan. Nathan had been about sailing boats, champagne, and Barbados. Stewie was about spiking trees in stifling heat in a national forest in Wyoming. He even asked her to carry his pack.
Neither of them noticed the late-model black Ford pickup that trailed them up the mountain road and continued on when Stewie pulled over to park.
Deep into the forest, Annabel watched as Stewie removed his shirt and tied the sleeves around his waist. A heavy bag of nails hung from his tool belt and tinkled as he strode through the undergrowth. There was a sheen of sweat on his bare chest as he straddled a three-foot-thick Douglas fir and drove in spikes. He was obviously well practiced, and he got into a rhythm where he could bury the six-inch spikes into the soft wood with three blows from his sledgehammer, one tap to set the spike and two heavy blows to bury it beyond the nail head in the bark.
Stewie moved from tree to tree, but didn't spike all of them. He approached each tree using the same method: The first of the spikes went in at eye level. A quarter-turn around the trunk, he pounded in another a foot lower than the first. He continued pounding in spikes, spiraling them down the trunk nearly to the grass.
"Won't it hurt the trees?" Annabel asked, as she unloaded his pack and leaned it against a tree.
"Of course not," he said, moving as he spoke across the pine needle floor to another target. "I wouldn't be doing this if it hurt the trees. You've got a lot to learn about me, Annabel."
"Why do you put so many in?" she asked.
"Good question," he said, burying a spike deep in the tree as he spoke. "It used to be we could put in four right at knee level, at the compass points, where the trees are usually cut. But the lumber companies got wise to that and told their loggers to either go higher or lower. So now we fill up a four-foot radius."
"And what will happen if they try to cut it down?"
Stewie smiled, resting for a moment. "When a chainsaw blade hits a steel spike, the blade can snap and whip back. Busts the sawteeth. That can take an eye or a nose right off."
"That's horrible," she said, wincing, wondering what she was getting into.
"I've never been responsible for any injuries," Stewie said quickly, looking hard at her. "The purpose isn't to hurt anyone. The purpose is to save trees. After we're finished here, I'll call the local ranger station and tell them what we've done-although I won't say exactly where or how many trees we spiked. It should be enough to keep them out of here for decades, and that's the point."
"Have you ever been caught?" she asked.
"Once," Stewie said, and his face clouded. "A forest ranger caught me by Jackson Hole. He marched me into downtown Jackson at gunpoint during tourist season. Half of the tourists in town cheered and the other half started chanting, 'Hang him high! Hang him high!' I was sent to the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins for seven months."
"Now that you mention it, I think I read about that," she mused.
"You probably did. The wire services picked it up. I was interviewed on 'Nightline' and '60 Minutes.' Outside magazine put me on the cover. Hayden Powell, who I've known since we were kids, wrote the cover story for them, and he coined the word 'ecoterrorist.' " This memory made Stewie feel bold. "There were reporters from all over the country at that trial," he said. "Even the New York Times. It was the first time most people had ever heard of One Globe, or knew I was the founder of it. After that, memberships started pouring in from all over the world."
Annabel nodded her head. One Globe. The ecological action group that used the logo of crossed monkey wrenches, in deference to late author Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. She recalled that One Globe had once dropped a shroud over Mount Rushmore right before the president was about to give a speech there. It had been on the nightly news.
"Stewie," she said happily, "you are the real thing." Her eyes stayed on him as he drove in the spiral of spikes and moved to the next tree.
"When you are done with that tree, I want you," she said, her voice husky. "Right here and right now, my sweet sweaty...husband."
Stewie turned and smiled at her. His face glistened and his muscles were bulging from swinging the sledgehammer. She slid her T-shirt over her head and stood waiting for him, her lips parted and her legs tense.
stewie slung his own pack now and stopped spiking trees. Fat black thunderheads, pregnant with rain, nosed across the late-afternoon sky. They were hiking at a fast pace toward the peak, holding hands, with the hope of getting there and pitching camp before the rain started. Stewie said that after they hiked out of the forest tomorrow, they would get in the SUV and head southeast, toward the Bridger-Teton Forest.
When they walked into the herd of grazing cattle, Stewie felt a dark cloud of anger envelop him.
"Range maggots!" Stewie said, spitting. "If they're not letting the logging companies in to cut all the trees at taxpayer's expense, they're letting the local ranchers run their cows in here so they can eat all the grass and shit in all the streams."
"Can't we just go around them?" Annabel asked.
"It's not that, Annabel," he said patiently. "Of course we can go around them. It's just the principle of the thing. Cows don't belong in the trees in the Bighorn Mountains-they're fouling up what is left of the natural ecosystem. You have so much to learn, darling."
"I know," she said, determined.
"These ranchers out here run their cows on public land-our land-at the expense of not only us taxpayers but of the wildlife as well. They pay something like four dollars an acre when they should be paying ten times that, even though it would be best if they were completely gone."
"But we need meat, don't we?" she asked. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?"
"Did you forget that cheeseburger I had for lunch in Cameron?" he said. "No, I'm not a vegetarian, although sometimes I wish I had the will to be one."
"I tried it once and it made me lethargic," Annabel confessed.
"All these western cows produce only about five percent of the beef we eat in this whole country," Stewie said. "All the rest comes from down South, from Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, where there's plenty of grass and plenty of private land to graze them on."
Stewie picked up a pinecone, threw it accurately through the trees, and struck a black baldy heifer on the snout. The cow bellowed in protest, then turned and lumbered away. The rest of the small herd, about a dozen head, followed it. They moved loudly, clumsily cracking branches and throwing up fist-sized pieces of black earth from their hooves.
"I wish I could chase them right back to the ranch they belong on," Stewie said, watching. "Right up the ass of the rancher who has lease rights for this part of the Bighorns."
Table of Contents
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What People are Saying About This
"Bears comparison to the best Work of mystery giants such as Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"No sophomore slump from the remarkable talented Mr. Box.... His plots, centering on issues of land management but filled with Old West-style action, are rich in both complexity and narrative drive.... The "outdoor mystery" was a thriving sub-genre before Box arrived on the scene, but he has taken it to new levels of substance and style." —Booklist