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Out of range, p.19
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       Out of Range, p.19

           C. J. Box
 
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  "What do you want me to do?" her mother had asked.

  "Next time he calls, keep him on the line. Don't hang up on him. Talk to him instead, ask him questions. I think that's what he wants, to get you upset. But while you've got him on the line, call me immediately on your cell phone so I know we've got him live and I'll know if he hangs up or not. That way, I can check out my theory."

  "Where do you think he's calling from?"

  Nate shrugged. "Didn't you say you can hear some background noises sometimes? People talking, even some music?"

  "Yes"

  "There are only a few public places open that late at night," Nate said. "So I'm thinking it's a bar or a restaurant"

  "I see. Who do you think it is?"

  "It's just a guess," Nate said. "I don't want to say anything until I confirm it."

  "Just make him stop," her mom said. "Every time the phone rings I think it's Joe. And I don't want to miss Joe's call because this idiot is on the line."

  Nate nodded, and sipped his coffee.

  "Don't hurt him, Nate."

  "Never," Nate said, in a tone meant to be disbelieved.

  WHEN THE PHONE rang an hour later and her mother said, "Seven-two-oh," to Nate, he was out the door and in his Jeep before she picked up the receiver.

  Sheridan watched as her mother opened her cell phone and speed-dialed Nate's number while asking, "Why do you keep calling me? Is there something you want? Why won't you talk to me?"

  TEN MINUTES LATER, Bud Barnum looked up in time to see the old-fashioned accordion doors crash in and a huge pair of hands reach into the phone booth and grab his collar.

  "Hey!"

  Nate Romanowski jerked the receiver from his hand and asked, "Marybeth?"

  When he heard an answer, Romanowski let the phone drop and was on Barnum like an animal.

  "Help me!" Barnum cried out to the patrons seated at stools at the Stockman's Bar, but no one stepped forward. Even Timberman, who had a sawed-off shotgun and a tape-wrapped pool cue under the bar, froze where he stood.

  Romanowski pulled the ex-sheriff close and spoke quietly from an inch away: "From now on, you will leave that family the fuck alone."

  Barnum tried to reply but found himself being violently pulled along, Romanowski's hands still on his collar, aimed for the bar. A few drinkers had the presence of mind to grab their mugs and step away, but most didn't, and when Romanowski launched him onto the bar face-first and pulled him down the length of it, beer splashed into his mouth and whiskey stung his eyes.

  Romanowski didn't let go until he had wiped the bar clean with Barnum and sent him hurtling off the other end, where he crashed in a heap with a sound like wet laundry being thrown on the floor.

  Barnum lay there, trying to get his breath back, wiping at the sting in his eyes, when he felt more than saw Romanowski lean over him, again inches away. He felt his lips pried open by thick, callused fingers, and he cried out sharply when pain shot through his mouth and his cupped tongue filled with hot blood.

  He sagged sideways, not moving, and opened his eyes to see Romanowski toss cash on the bar and announce he was buying the house a round.

  Romanowski pointed a finger at Timberman: "If you ever see Barnum head for the telephone booth again, warn him off. He likes to intimidate families. He uses a calling card so they can't tell who's harassing them."

  With that, Romanowski gave Barnum a look of icy contempt and walked out of the Stockman's.

  After they were sure he was gone, several of Barnum's old friends helped him to his feet. They hadn't helped when he needed it, he thought. They had frozen and watched. He tried to say, "Get your hands off me, you fuckers," but his voice slurred and blood spattered from his mouth.

  "Bud, you've got to get that thing out," one of the men said, reaching toward Barnum's mouth.

  The ex-sheriff turned angrily away and reached up, feeling drops of blood spatter hot on his hand.

  Tears filled his eyes as he pried the calling card out from between his front teeth, where Romanowski had shoved it up well into his gum. Removing the plastic card resulted in a fresh torrent of blood. His friends stepped away, even as Timberman approached with a bar rag.

  "Stay away from me!" Barnum roared, spattering them all. He was well aware of how quickly this story would travel through Twelve Sleep County.

  SHERIDAN COULD TELL from the way her mom's face went white that she could hear what was happening on the other end of the line.

  "What did you expect?" Sheridan asked.

  "I said not to hurt him," her mother said. "It sounded like Sheriff Barnum."

  Sheridan weighed that and nodded. "He hates us, all right."

  Her mother slowly hung up the phone. "I can't believe I live in a place where people hate us."

  "It's because of what Dad does," Sheridan said.

  "Then maybe he should do something else!" her mother said angrily.

  Sheridan turned her back on her mother and went into her bedroom and slammed the door. She was still awake when she heard the sound of Nate's Jeep pull up outside.

  If she filled her backpack with clothes and started walking, she wondered, how far could she get before the sun came up?

  BARNUM KNOCKED HEAVILY on the door. With the other hand, he held a bar rag soaked with blood to his mouth. The front of his shirt was covered with it. Even the underside of his hat brim was flecked.

  He saw a band of light appear beneath the door and the peephole darken for a moment, then heard the bolt being thrown.

  Randan Bello stood wrapped in a towel, his eyes in slits. "What in the hell happened to you?" he asked.

  "Never mind that," Barnum croaked. "I know what you're doing in Saddlestring, and I'm here to help."

  Bello stepped back away from the door and examined Barnum from his bloodstained boots to his hat.

  "Come in, Sheriff," Bello said.

  OUTSIDE THE MOTEL, Nate Romanowski cruised through the parking lot in his Jeep with his headlights off. His .454 Casull lay unholstered on the passenger seat.

  Hunters, mainly. Plates from Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania. Hunting states. Except for the SUV Barnum had parked next to, the one with the Virginia plates. Interesting.

  Nate slowed to a crawl but didn't tap his brakes so his brake lights wouldn't flare. He leaned across the passenger seat and looked up at the windows that were lit. He saw a man with a profile that looked familiar—someone from a long time ago—approach the window and reach out with both hands for fistfuls of curtain. But before the man pulled the curtains closed, Nate saw the silhouette of Bud Barnum's crushed cowboy hat over his shoulder.

  Nate thought of his red tail flaring two days before.

  Instinctively, he rubbed the hand grip of his weapon with his thumb.

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  Smoke Van Horn was a huge man who seemed to fill up the cabin when he entered the room, accompanied by the smell of wood smoke, grease, horses, and leather that hung in his oversized sheepskin coat. His face was massive and naturally thrust forward, like a fist.

  "Nice night out there," Smoke said to Joe. "We need some snow, though, to get the elk moving."

  He let his coat slide off his shoulders, then tossed it on the bed across the room as if he'd done it a hundred times before. Perhaps he had, Joe thought. Under the coat, Smoke wore the same clothes Joe had seen him in that afternoon in the meadow, as well as the holster and .44 Magnum.

  "I was just scouting the territory when I saw the light from your cabin," Smoke said in a too-loud voice, "so I thought I better check it out. I've thrown more than a few backpacker types out of your place before, you know. A couple of years ago some hunters moved in before Will got up here, and I sent them packing too. I figure this place is paid for by my tax money and license fees, so I don't want nobody trashing it."

  "I appreciate that," Joe said, as he dished steak and potatoes onto his plate. "Can I offer you some?"

  "I filled my belly with pemmican while I was riding," Smoke said, shak
ing his head, "but that sure smells good."

  Joe filled a second plate and sat it on the table in front of the outfitter. He tried not to turn his back on Smoke at any point, but to stay in front of him. The outfitter exuded an aura of pure physicality and danger, even though he had not yet said or done anything that could be considered threatening. Joe watched as Smoke withdrew a collapsible camp cup from a shirt pocket, shook it out, and filled half of it with Wild Turkey from a bottle he had brought in with him.

  "Want some?" Smoke asked, already pouring it into Joe's tin cup.

  "Thanks," Joe said, adding water from a canteen.

  "That's ruining two good drinks," Smoke said, raising his cup, a wide smile cracking the fist. "Here's to fall in Wyoming and two good men."

  While they ate, Smoke noticed Joe looking at the .44 Magnum.

  "Something wrong?" Smoke asked through a mouthful.

  "Do you ever take that off?"

  "Nope."

  "Have you ever considered carrying bear spray?"

  "Nope."

  "Have you ever had to use it?"

  "Yup," Smoke said. "This steak needs something. You got any ketchup or hot sauce?"

  SMOKE SURPRISED JOE by gathering up the dishes and dumping them in an old plastic tub that he'd filled with hot water from a pot on the stove. Joe said, "You don't have to do that."

  "Camp law," Smoke said, not turning his head. "You cooked, so I clean. Have another snort. And give me a re-ride on mine, will you?"

  Joe picked up the bottle and began to pour it into his cup, then thought better of it. He refilled Smoke, and put the bottle back down with a thump so Smoke would think Joe had taken some. Instead, Joe added more water to his cup.

  "I've got to admit," Smoke said, washing a plate with his back still to Joe, "you are more wily than I gave you credit for when I met you outside of the Sportsman's. You must have known at the time you'd be coming up here into the backcountry, but you didn't give it away."

  Joe didn't respond.

  "That was an old trick of Will's too. He liked to keep everyone guessing. Shit, if I was the game warden, I'd probably do the same damn thing. This is a lot of country for just one man, ain't it?"

  "Yes, it is."

  "You ever seen anything like this before?"

  "My district is in the Bighorns," Joe said. "We've got some rough country."

  "Nothing like this," Smoke said, turning and taking a long drink, "nothing like this."

  He banged the empty cup down. "How 'bout another re-ride?"

  "It's your whiskey," Joe said, pouring again.

  Smoke cleaned the last of the plates and suspended the skillet over the soapy water. "Do you wash your cast iron, or keep it seasoned?"

  "Seasoned, I guess," Joe said.

  "Good man," Smoke said, wiping out the skillet hard with paper towels. "Not many folks know anymore how much good taste and character you lose in your food when you wash the damn skillet every night with soap. Cast iron is meant to be seasoned."

  Smoke sat down at the table when he was through, the drying towel still draped over his arm. "I suppose I ought to think about getting back to my hunters pretty soon," he said. "They'll be wondering if a bear got me."

  Joe felt a tightening in his chest. It didn't feel right to let

  Smoke go back happily to his camp, only to arrest him in the morning.

  "Something wrong?" Smoke asked, studying Joe's face.

  "Let's have a nightcap," Joe said, putting off his decision.

  "Nightcap, hell," Smoke said, pouring generously again, "let's tie one on."

  "THIS IS MY thirty-second year up here," Smoke said wistfully. "I love it as much as my first."

  Joe nodded.

  "Things have changed, though. I see it in Jackson all the time. But I never thought I'd see it up here, and it pisses me off."

  Smoke shifted and leaned across the table, his face thrust at Joe. Joe stanched an impulse to jump back.

  "I'm a third-generation outfitter," Smoke said. "I got the same camp my dad and my grandpa used. A couple of years ago I sat down during a blizzard when we couldn't hunt and I figured out that we've probably brought twenty-five hundred dead elk through that camp over the years. That's a hell of a lot of meat. I also figured out that over the years we've probably contributed over a half a million in license fees, and we've spent about four million in the county to keep our business running. I'm the best there is at what I do, so I feel pretty damned good about it, overall. I get to show these out-of-staters there is still some wildness left in this world, and that they'd better show some goddamned respect for it. I've been known to send a whiner or two home, even at a financial loss to me, if that son of a bitch don't respect what we've got up here."

  "Twenty-five hundred elk is a lot of elk," Joe said.

  Smoke weighed Joe's comment for a minute, his eyes narrowing, then decided it was neutral, not critical.

  "It is," Smoke continued, "but in the big scheme of things, it's not enough. Because of federal policies, we've got too goddamn many elk up here to sustain a healthy herd. There's no good reason to have ten thousand elk come down to be fed on the refuge, like pets. They're weak as a herd, and they spread diseases among themselves. The herd needs to be culled. It's a goddamned meat farm, except that shooting them for meat is looked down on."

  Joe smiled. "You sound a little like Pi Stevenson."

  "Damnit!" Smoke shouted, thumping the table with his hand and making the cups jump. "Don't get me started on her. Her stupid solution is to let the herds grow until they all starve to death in front of our eyes. Then listen to her bitch."

  "I can imagine," Joe said.

  Suddenly, Smoke broke out into a grin. "I used to have these kinds of discussions with Will Jensen all the time, right at this table. You're a lot like him."

  "You're not the first to say that."

  "It's a compliment," Smoke said. "I liked the hell out of old Will, even though he wanted to arrest me and throw my big wide butt in jail. He would have, you know. But I respected him, he was a man of his word. Too bad he went nuts in the end."

  "Were there people who hated him enough to kill him?" Joe asked abruptly.

  The question didn't faze Smoke. "A few, I suppose. Your friend Pi Stevenson supposedly made some threats. I probably did too, when I was drinking. He made me pretty mad a couple of times."

  "But in the end you got along?"

  "In the end he was crazy," Smoke said. "Taking up with that Ennis woman the way he did. He even brought her up here one time, which told me he was forgetting who he was and where he was at. I consider this a cathedral, and he violated it. It got worse with the fights he got into, and then getting arrested himself..."

  Joe watched Smoke closely.

  "Before all of that, though, we coexisted pretty damned well, I'd say. We gave each other a wide berth. I think he even admired me, in a way, although he never actually said it. I'm one of the few who doesn't mind the bear population increasing or the wolves the Feds released on us," Smoke said. "They're a part of all of this. We need 'em to get the herd sizes down to a level that makes some kind of sense. But I have arguments with the way those animals are portrayed by some folks, like they're on a higher plane than us humans. It's pretty damned simple, really. The Feds—and people like Pi Stevenson—don't love the wolves and bears as much as they hate people. They're winning the game, it seems to me. That pisses me off too."

  Joe found himself warming to Smoke, enjoying his company and his passion. Smoke was like a lot of the people he knew in Twelve Sleep County. He wondered, though, at what point Smoke's rage turned into violence. Joe admonished himself not to become complacent with this man.

  "You know about that meat town they're trying to build outside of Jackson?" Smoke asked, his face wide with incredulity.

  "Beargrass Village," Joe said. "I know about it."

  "Not only is there no beargrass in Wyoming," Smoke said, his face flushing red, "but the whole fucking idea is to create
an artificial environment for raising pure meat for millionaires! Jesus! They think that's real, somehow. It ain't real. This"—Smoke sat back, pointed toward the window— "this is real. It's just messy, and it's complicated, but it's real. Why'n the hell don't they experience this?"

  Joe shrugged. Smoke was getting more animated as he talked, and louder. Joe saw the flashes of eloquent rage Smoke was known for, the rhetoric he used at public meetings to dominate discussions and make himself the scourge of agency officials.

  "I'd like to bring a couple of those Beargrass jokers up here and let 'em shoot an elk, gut it, and hang it up in the trees. 'This is how we get meat,' I'd say."

  Joe conspicuously looked at his watch, trying to signal an end to the evening. It was late and he was tired. Smoke ignored him.

  "When I tell people what I'm telling you, they laugh at me," Smoke said. "They didn't used to, but they do now. They act like I'm something out of another century, some kind of throwback. I am, I guess."

  Smoke drained his cup and poured another before Joe could object.

  "I'm a goddamned arachnidism," Smoke said.

  "You're a spider?" Joe asked, knowing Smoke meant anachronism.

  "I don't mind being feared or hated," Smoke said, lowering his head, "but I hate to be fuckin' laughed at."

  Smoke's silence was striking after all of his loud talk.

  "I'm sorry," Joe said.

  "About what?" Smoke finally asked, his voice soft for the first time since he had arrived at the cabin.

  "For the spider joke," Joe said. "I knew what you meant."

  Smoke almost imperceptibly nodded his woolly head.

  "You know I saw you today, putting those salt blocks down," Joe said.

  Joe thought he sensed a sudden, cold calmness in Smoke's demeanor. Maybe it was the way he was gripping his cup.

  "I thought somebody was watching me," Smoke said.

  "I've got pictures of it."

 
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