Wyoming's new governor isn't sure what to make of Joe Pickett, but he has a job for him that is extremely delicate. A prominent female British executive never came home from the high-end guest ranch she was visiting, and the British Embassy is pressing hard. Pickett knows that happens sometimes--these ranches are stocked with handsome young cowboys, and "ranch romances" aren't uncommon. But no sign of her months after she vanished? That suggests something else.
At the same time, his friend Nate Romanowski has asked Joe to intervene with the feds on behalf of falconers who can no longer hunt with eagles even though their permits are in order. Who is blocking the falconers and why? The more he investigates both cases, the more someone wants him to go away. Is it because of the missing woman or because he's become Nate's advocate? Or are they somehow connected? The answers, when they come, will be even worse than he'd imagined.
About the Author
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Wylie Frye was used to smelling of smoke and that was long before he became a criminal of sorts.
Wood smoke permeated his clothing, his hair, and his full black beard to the point that he didn't notice it anymore. He was only reminded of his particular odor when drinkers on the next barstool or patrons standing in line at the Kum-N-Go convenience store leaned away from him and turned their heads to breathe untainted air.
But he didn't mind. He'd smelled worse at times in his life, and wood smoke wasn't so bad.
On cold nights like this, after he'd used the front-end loader to deliver bucket after bucket of sawdust to the burner from a small mountain of it near the mill, he could relax in the burner shack and let the warmth of the fire and the sweet blanket of smoke engulf him.
Wylie sat at a metal desk under a light fixture mounted in the wall behind him and stared at the dark screen of his cell phone. It was two-forty-five in the morning and his visitor was fifteen minutes late. Wylie was starting to fidget.
He watched the screen because he knew he wouldn't hear the phone chime with an incoming text over the roar from the fire outside. In the rusting shack where Wylie sat, fifty feet from the base of the burner, it sounded like he was inside a jet engine. The west wall-which was made of corrugated steel and faced the burner-radiated enough heat that he couldn't touch it with his hand. In the deep January winter of the Upper North Platte River Valley, Wylie had the warmest blue-collar job of anyone he knew. So there was that.
If he had to stink in order to stay warm on the job, it was a trade-off he was willing to make. He still had nightmares about that winter he'd spent working outside on a fracking rig in North Dakota where he'd lost two toes and the tip of his little finger to frostbite.
Every minute or so, Wylie looked up from the phone on the desk to the small opaque portal window that faced the road outside, expecting to see headlights approaching. He couldn't see clearly because the smoke left a film on the glass that distorted the view, even though he wiped it clear nightly with Windex.
There was nothing to see, though.
It wasn't just the heat from the fire that was making him sweat. He tapped the top of the desk with his fingertips in a manic rhythm. He felt more than heard his belly surge with acid and he tasted the green chili burrito he'd eaten for dinner at the Bear Trap in Riverside. It was going to be a long night.
The conical steel structure, known alternatively as a Òbeehive,Ó Òtipi,Ó or ÒwigwamÓ burner for its resemblance to each, roared in the dark and belched a solid column of wood smoke into the frigid night sky of Encampment, Wyoming. The burner was fifty feet high and its fuel was sawdust from the mill.
Its biggest fires took place at night by design-when sleeping residents couldn't see the volume of smoke and complain about it. The flames often burned so hot that the walls of the wigwam glowed red like the cherry of a massive cigar and errant sparks drifted out of the steel mesh at the top like shooting stars. When the base was filled with sawdust and fully aflame, the temperature inside exceeded a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.
There was a window of time to do what they wanted to do, heÕd told the men who would be texting him. Even though it was rare when anybody was up and around in the middle of the night in Encampment, a tiny mountain hamlet of barely four hundred people at the base of the Sierra Madre range, there was a very specific window of time when their plan would work. It lasted from two-fifteen to around three-thirty.
After two, some drunks were still driving around after the trio of bars in the immediate area closed. There was a bar for every one hundred and fifty residents, which Wylie thought was just about right-two bars side by side in the tiny village of Riverside, with its population of fifty residents, and one bar in adjoining Encampment. When two o'clock finally came around and they closed, ranch hands headed back to their bunkhouses, lumberjacks went home for a few hours of sleep, and unemployed drunks drove off to wherever unemployed drunks went.
Wylie could see the last drinkers of the night through the portal either driving recklessly up McCaffrey or motoring home so slowly and cautiously it was almost comical. Large clouds of condensation coughed out of their tailpipes in the cold, and he could sometimes see the drivers themselves if they were inebriated and had forgotten to shut off their interior dome lights. But he couldn't hear the vehicles because of the roar of the fire. He couldn't hear anything.
The town cop, known as Jalen Spanks-he'd been given the nickname Jalen Spanks (His Monkey) by the regulars at the Bear Trap-did the same routine every night, arriving at three-thirty. Often, Wylie would emerge from his burn shack and wave hello. In return, Jalen would raise two fingers from the steering wheel in a reciprocal salute. Sometimes, when it wasn't below zero outside, Jalen would roll down his driver's-side window and ask Wylie how he was doing. Wylie kept his responses pleasant and short. He didn't want to become friends with Jalen the cop, because Jalen the cop was kind of a dick who took himself and the authority his uniform bestowed upon him a little bit too seriously, Wylie thought. Too many small-town cops were like that.
Wylie looked at his phone again. They were twenty minutes late. If they didnÕt show soon, they might run the risk of being at the mill when Jalen cruised through. That could be a hell of a situation, and one that Wylie would have a tough time explaining away without incriminating himself and getting fired or worse.
So when his phone lit up with the message Running late, Wylie said aloud, "No shit."
Five minutes appeared in a text balloon immediately afterward.
"Better fucking hurry," Wylie admonished.
Then: Hit the bricks.
"Yeah, yeah," Wylie said as he pulled on his heavy Carhartt coat and jammed a Stormy Kromer rancher hat over his head with the earflaps down. He thrust his hands in the pockets and stepped outside the shack in time to see a pair of headlights turn his way from the road.
The cold instantly tightened the exposed skin of his face and Wylie tucked his chin into his coat and walked away from the burn shack and the burner. He guessed it was twenty below zero based on how quickly the crystals formed inside his nose as he breathed in.
He wasn't supposed to see the vehicle come in, or the faces of the men inside it, or observe what they were doing at the wigwam burner.
That was the deal.
That was the reason Wylie was a criminal of sorts.
In the version told by Jeb Pryor, the owner of the mill, the U.S. Forest Service had sat idly by while pine beetles bored into nearly every tree in the Sierra Madre range and, over ten years, killed them where they stood. While millions of board feet of lumber went to waste, hundreds of unemployed timber workers stared at the mountains as they turned from pine green to rust brown. Only after several five-month-long fires had gone out of control were the logging roads reopened.
The federal policy of not logging the dying trees had had something to do with combating global warming, Pryor complained.
Now thousands of dead pine trees were being hauled down from the mountains to the big lumber mill in Saratoga, eighteen miles to the north, as well as to the Encampment mill, the much smaller outfit where Wylie worked as night manager.
Beetle-killed lumber was different from traditional pine, and it surprised nearly everyone when there was high demand for it. Unlike regular pine, beetle-killed wood contained whorls within the lumber that were often tinted blue and green, and these bore holes gave it "character" that furniture makers and designers seemed to prize. The Saratoga mill was struggling to harvest the dead timber in the mountains before it burned or rotted and fell apart.
After he'd lost his job in North Dakota, Wylie had jumped at the opportunity to work at the mill, even though it paid less and the hours were brutal.
But Wylie had child-support payments for two daughters, and a wife who had left him but refused to work. Plus he wanted to insulate and improve his garage into a shop where he could tinker with discarded personal computers and reload his own ammunition. And there were all those gambling debts from his disastrous foray into the world of online poker.
So when he'd received a call a few months before from an unknown number while he sat at the desk in the burner shack, he'd punched it up out of curiosity and stepped outside so he could hear.
The man on the other end had known his name, his occupation, and his hours at the mill. He'd asked about the temperature of the burner at full capacity. His deep, almost guttural voice had sounded like a steel file sawing on a length of metal pipe. It was a strident voice, the kind that usually made Wylie bristle because it meant authority, but Wylie had listened anyway.
The man asked: Would Wylie Frye like to pick up some extra money by doing literally next to nothing?
Wylie was interested. He'd asked the man what he had in mind, and was told that if he needed that answer, the deal was off.
Wylie said he really didn't need to know.
"Just tell me you're not planning to burn hazardous waste," Wylie said. "I've got to breathe the air around here."
"It's not hazardous material," the man assured him.
And now it was an ongoing thing. Every ten days to two weeks, they showed up.
Up at the mill now, he circled the sawdust pile on foot, careful not to stare at the burner or the vehicle below. TheyÕd obviously backed their truck to the feeder door, though, because Wylie had seen headlights from the pickup sweep across the front of the mill as it did a three-point turn.
After his second circuit around the pile, Wylie noted that the pickup was driving away. They'd worked quickly. He watched as the red taillights narrowed in the dark and the pickup turned onto the road headed north toward Saratoga.
He was surprised how rapidly his legs had stiffened in the cold despite the flannel-lined jeans he wore, and he beat it back toward the burner shack. He was nearly to the door when he was suddenly bathed in white light.
Wylie turned on his heels, his eyes wide.
"Out for a stroll?" Jalen Spanks asked from his open SUV window. Wylie had not seen the cop enter the yard because the burner had blocked his view of the side road. Had Spanks seen the departing vehicle?
"Just getting some air," Wylie said as he raised his gloved hand to block the beam.
"Kind of a cold night for that, isn't it?"
"It's cold as a witch's tit, all right," Wylie said as he nodded toward the shack. "But it gets pretty smoky in there."
Spanks slid his spotlight to the side so it wouldn't continue to blind Wylie.
"You've really got that thing blasting tonight," Spanks said. Wylie wasn't sure whether it was a statement or a question. It was something a cop would say, though.
"It'll start to burn down," Wylie said. "I put the last bucket of sawdust in it for the night."
"Any more and you'll heat the whole town."
And that's a bad thing? Wylie thought but didn't say. It had been arctic cold in the area for a week.
Spanks leaned toward the open window and sniffed the air.
"What's that smell?"
"No, there's something else, it seems to me."
Wylie smelled it, too. The acrid and distinct smell of burning hair and something that smelled a little like roast chicken. Wylie kept his glove up so Spanks couldn't see his face, even though the spotlight wasn't as direct as it had been.
"Oh," Wylie said, "I threw the garbage in the fire. That's probably what it is. Guys throw what's left of their lunches in the garbage barrel."
"Is that a problem?" Wylie asked. "Do we need a permit or something to burn our garbage?"
"I don't think so, but I'll ask the chief," Spanks said.
"Well," Spanks said as his window whirred back up, "have a good night."
"You too," Wylie said.
The police SUV rolled away, gravel crunching under the tires.
Wylie let out a long shivering breath.
Inside, on the desk, was an envelope. In it was twenty-five hundred dollars in cash, as agreed.
Wylie closed his eyes for a moment and he tried not to think about what the men in the pickup had tossed into the burner.
Whatever it was had turned to ash by now, and Wylie, his kids, and his garage needed the money.
Carol Schmidt smelled it, too.
Schmidt was a birdlike woman, sixty-nine years old and wiry, a woman who kept active even when she didn't need to. Aside from her full-time job as a checker and bagger at Valley Foods, she crocheted afghans for hospitalized vets, attended both boys' and girls' games at Encampment High School, and was past president of the garden club.
She stood behind the storm door waiting for Bridger, her dog, to do his business in the snow in the small backyard. Bridger was an eight-year-old, eighty-five-pound, three-legged malamute/golden retriever cross. She watched him impatiently as he strolled through the shadows sniffing this and that, his white snout and legs picking up what little light there was, his tail straight up and swinging back and forth like a metronome.
There was no use rushing him. If she opened the storm door and hissed at him to hurry up, he'd obey and come running to get back into the house, but if he hadn't tended to his business, she'd just have to let him back out later. Not that she didn't curse him a little while she waited. "Damn you, Bridger boy-hurry up."
She felt guilty about it. He was always so cheerful when he came through the back door that he cheered her up as well. She loved how something as simple as relieving himself made Bridger happy night after night, as if it were the first time that particularly wonderful experience had ever taken place in his life.