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Authors: C.J. Box

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BOOK: Cold Wind
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Sheridan watched him
fill her tank and secure the load and gave him a little wave of thanks from inside the cab. He tried to grin back. Sheridan had blonde hair and green eyes like Marybeth and Lucy. She was mature beyond her years, but to Joe she looked vulnerable and frail, like a little girl. She wore a gray SADDLESTRING LADY WRANGLERS hoodie and had her hair tied back. When he looked at her behind the steering wheel, he saw her at seven years old, trying again and again with skinned knees and epic determination to ride her bike more than ten feet down the road without crashing. Until that moment, that very moment when they exchanged glances, it hadn’t hit him she was leaving them.
Sheridan, after all, was his buddy. Apprentice falconer, struggling athlete, first child, big sister. She was the one who would come out into the garage and hand him tools while he tried to repair his pickup or snow machine. She was the one who really wanted to ride along with him on patrol, and she made valiant, if vain, attempts to try to get him interested in new music and social media. She wouldn’t go far away, he hoped. She’d be back for summer and the holidays.
Joe swung into the van and struggled to close the door against the wind. When it latched, there was a charged silence inside. Marybeth took him in and said, “Are you all right?”
He wiped his eyes dry with his sleeve. “The wind,” he said.
 
 
Four hours later,
having gotten Sheridan settled in at her dorm room in Laramie, met her roommate, had a final meal together at Washakie Center, shed more tears, and dodged two more phone calls from Marybeth’s mother, they were on their way back to Saddlestring. No words were spoken in the van. Everyone was consumed with his or her own thoughts, and the situation reminded Joe of the ride home from a memorial service. Well, maybe not that bad . . .
Marybeth’s phone burred again in her purse, and she grabbed it. Joe could tell from her expression she was both hopeful and fearful that it would be Sheridan calling.
Marybeth sighed deeply. “Mom again,” she sighed. “Maybe I ought to take it.”
After a moment, Marybeth said, “What do you mean, he’s gone?”
 
 
Marybeth’s mother,
Missy, was back on the ranch near Saddlestring she shared with her new husband, the multi-millionaire developer and media mogul Earl Alden. He was known as The Earl of Lexington, because that’s where he’d originally come from when he was a mere millionaire. Between them, Marybeth’s mother—
Missy Vankueren Longbrake Alden
—and The Earl were the largest landholders in northern Wyoming now that they’d married and combined ranches. Missy had acquired her spread by divorcing a third-generation landowner named Bud Longbrake, who’d discovered during the divorce proceedings what the pre-nup she had him sign actually said.
The Earl was Missy’s fifth husband. She’d traded up with each one after her first (and Marybeth’s realtor father) died young in a car wreck. After a five-month mourning period, Missy married a doctor the day his divorce papers were finalized, then an Arizona developer and U.S. Congressman who was later convicted of fraud, then rancher Bud Longbrake. The Earl was her greatest triumph. Joe couldn’t imagine a sixth wedding. Missy was in her mid-sixties. Although she was still a stunner—given the right light and enough time to prepare—she’d met The Earl as her string was running out. Luckily for Missy, she took—and made—her last desperate shot just as her biological buzzer went off. Joe and Missy had a complicated relationship, as she put it. Joe couldn’t stand her, and she still wondered out loud why her favorite daughter—the one with pluck and promise—had stuck with that game warden all these years.
 
 
Marybeth said
to her mother, “I’ll ask Joe what he thinks and call you back, okay?” Then, after a pause, she said irritably, “Well,
I
care. Good-bye.”
Joe snorted, but kept his eyes on the road.
“Mom says Earl went out riding this morning and hasn’t come back. He was supposed to be home for lunch. She’s worried something happened to him—an accident or something.”
He glanced at his wristwatch. “So he’s three hours late.”
“Yes.”
“Has she done anything about it besides call you over and over?”
Marybeth sighed. “She asked José Maria to take a truck out and look for him.”
Joe nodded.
“She says Earl isn’t a very good rider, even though he thinks he is. She’s worried the horse took off on him or bucked him off somewhere.”
“As you know, that can happen with horses,” Joe said.
“She’s getting really worked up. He’s supposed to have his phone with him, but he hasn’t called, and when she tries him, he doesn’t pick up. I can tell from her voice she’s starting to panic.”
Joe said, “Maybe he got clear of her and just kept riding to freedom. I could understand that.”
“I don’t find that very funny.”
 
 
The small house
was on two levels, with three bedrooms and a detached garage and a loafing shed barn in the back. Joe sighed with relief when they pulled up in front of it, but if he thought he was done with drama for the day, he was mistaken. The House of Feelings, as Joe called it, had been percolating at a rolling boil ever since. First, April moved into Sheridan’s old bedroom—she’d been sharing a room with Lucy the same way rival armies “shared” a battlefield. Lucy, giddy with pent-up gratitude, helped move April out, and Marybeth showed up just in time to spot the corner of a bag of marijuana in April’s near-empty dresser drawer. Marybeth was stunned and angry at the revelation, April was defensive and even more angry she’d been found out, and Lucy managed to slip away and vanish somewhere in the small house to avoid the fight.
Joe was disappointed by the discovery, but not surprised. April’s return from the dead two years before had rocked them all, and the situation since then had been far from storybook. For the years she’d been away, April had bounced from foster family to foster family, and she’d had seen and done things that were just now dribbling out in her two-times-a-week therapy sessions. April had been damaged by both neglect and untoward attention, depending on the family she was with, but neither Joe nor Marybeth was convinced she was beyond repair. Marybeth had made it a life goal to save the girl. But April’s moods and rages made it tough on Sheridan and Lucy, who had expected a smoother—and more grateful—reconciliation.
After the discovery of the marijuana, there was yelling, crying, and recriminations late into the night. Whether April would be grounded for two months or three was a major point of contention. They settled on two and a half months. Joe did his best to support Marybeth, but as always he felt out of his depth.
Then, at two-thirty in the morning, shortly after Marybeth and April retired to their separate bedrooms, the telephone rang.
Joe immediately thought:
Sheridan.
She wants to come home.
But it was Missy again, and she was beside herself, and asked Marybeth to implore Joe to put out an all-points alert for her husband. She wanted him to contact the governor’s people immediately—apparently Governor Spencer Rulon had taken his phone off the hook after three calls from Missy, and her insistence that he call out the National Guard to look for The Earl.
Joe was slightly impressed Missy seemed to finally grasp what he did for a living. He took the phone long enough to confirm that she’d already reported her husband’s absence to County Sheriff Kyle McLanahan, the police chief in Saddlestring, and had left messages with the FBI office in Cheyenne and Wyoming’s two U.S. senators and lone congresswoman. She had all her ranch hands out searching for him, despite the hour.
Joe assured her he would follow up in the morning, all the time thinking The Earl had probably tied his horse to a fence at the airport and escaped to one of his other homes in Lexington, Aspen, New York, or Chamonix.
3
Now it was Monday,
and it felt good to be heading out. The front had passed through, and the morning was warm and sultry, which brought out the sweet smell of sage as Joe rolled down the gravel of Bighorn Road. He sipped his coffee and was grateful he was going to work. Bighorn Road was the primary access into the mountains, and it passed by the front of his house. The Bighorns loomed like slumpshouldered giants, dominating the skyline. The view from his front porch and picture window was of a vast angled landscape that dipped into a willow-choked draw where the Twelve Sleep River formed from six different creek fingers and gained strength and volume before its muscular rush through and past the Town of Saddlestring eight miles away. Beyond the nascent river to the south, the terrain rose sharply into several saddle slopes that bowed around a precipitous mountain known as Wolf Mountain. He had never tired of seeing the colors of the sun at dawn and at dusk on the naked granite face of the mountain, and doubted he ever would. But it was too early for sun.
 
 
It had been
a tough and eventful summer, and it was continuing into the fall.
Marybeth’s small business consulting firm, MBP, had all but dissolved. A larger firm had been in the long process of purchasing the assets when the recession finally came to Wyoming and three of four of MBP’s largest clients ceased operations. Within months, MBP’s assets were nothing like what they’d been when negotiations began, and both parties agreed to call off the sale. While Marybeth still worked for several small local firms on her own, the protracted deal had taken the steam out of her. She’d recently resumed her part-time job in the Twelve Sleep County Library while she looked for new business opportunities. It had been an unexpected and unusual defeat because Marybeth was the toughest and most pragmatic woman Joe’d ever met. Joe had no doubt she—and they—would be back.
The lack of MBP income had caused them to cancel their plans to purchase a new home outside of town. The development was disappointing to Joe, who desperately wanted to live without neighbors several feet away—especially his next-door neighbor, lawn and maintenance nemesis Ed Nedny.
In July, however, the other game warden in the district, Phil Kiner, had retired unexpectedly due to poor health, and the department in Cheyenne had given Joe the opportunity to move his family back to the state-owned house they’d once occupied on Bighorn Road, eight miles outside of Saddlestring. Kiner’s departure meant Joe’s numerical designation climbed a notch from 54 to 53. At one time, before he’d been fired, he’d reached 24, and he wondered if he’d ever get back there. Their former house in town was on the market, and until it sold, things would continue to be tight. Joe reveled in being back in the shadow of Wolf Mountain where his children had grown up. But there was no denying the fact that after all they’d been through, they were essentially back where they’d started ten years before: in the original House of Feelings. Without Sheridan.
“Don’t fret,” Marybeth had said, “backwards is the new normal.”
He passed through
the town of Saddlestring as it woke up and the single traffic light switched over from flashing amber, and he drove five miles to the interstate highway. As he merged onto the westbound two-lane, he paused for a convoy of tractor-trailers laden with the long, sleek, twenty-one-and-a-half-meter white blades for wind turbines. They came from manufacturing facilities to the south and east, and were no longer a curiosity on the highway. Massive parts for turbines and wind farms coursed down the highway bound for construction sites throughout Wyoming and the mountain west. Joe remembered seeing the first ones two years before, and he’d been intrigued and followed the convoy for a while to behold the sheer size and grace of the equipment, which reminded him of buffoonishly large parts for a massive toy. But now the frequency of the convoys was routine, as turbines sprouted in perfect white rows throughout the state and the region.
The sudden emergence of wind farms had added another dimension to his day-to-day responsibilities as well. He sighed and eased out onto the highway for areas twenty-one and twenty-two.
He turned from the highway onto the ranch owned by Bob and Dode Lee, a checkerboard of public and private land that contained a vast herd of pronghorn antelope.
 
 
He ground his truck
up the side of a flat-topped bench that overlooked the vast sagebrush flats of the Lee Ranch. The top sliver of sun winked over the eastern horizon as he positioned his pickup on the top so he could look out over dozens of square miles. The sunlight was orange and intense and lit up the side of the bench, and it was at the perfect angle and intensity to reveal hundreds of tiny American Indian arrowhead and tool chips that still clung to the surface of the rise. Like so many off-road locations he’d found over the years, Joe was struck by the fact that he wasn’t the first to use this dramatic geography for the purpose of work. In his mind’s eye, he envisioned a small band of Cheyenne or Pawnee on the same bench hundreds of years before, making weapons and tools, looking out at the landscape for friends and enemies.
BOOK: Cold Wind
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