Authors: C. J. Box
It was a standard barbed-wire ranch gate, stiff from disuse. Wire loops from the ancient fence post secured the top and bottom of the gate rail. A heavy chain and padlock mottled with rust stretched between the two. “You got the keys,” Lyle said, gesturing with his Colt.
Parker dug the key ring out of his pocket and bent over the old lock. He wasn’t sure which key fit it, or whether the rusty hasp would unsnap. While he struggled with the lock, a beach-ball-sized tumbleweed was dislodged from a sagebrush by the wind and it hit him in the back of his thighs, making him jump. Lyle laughed.
Finally, he found the right key and felt the mechanism inside give. Parker jerked hard on the lock and the chain dropped away on both sides.
“Stand aside,” Lyle said, and shot him a warning look before he put his pistol in his pocket and leaned against the gate. The way to open these tight old ranch gates was to brace oneself on the gate side, thread one’s arms through the strands until the shoulder was against the gate rail and reach out to the solid post and pull. The move left Lyle vulnerable.
Parker thought if he was prepared to do something and fight back, this was the moment. He could attack Lyle before Juan could get out of the pickup. He felt his chest tighten and his toes curl and grip within his slippers.
Lyle struggled with it. “Don’t just stand there,” red-faced Lyle said to Parker through gritted teeth, “Help me get this goddamned thing open.”
Parker leaned forward on the balls of his feet. He considered hurtling himself like a missile toward Lyle, then slashing at the man’s face and eyes with the keys. He could tear Lyle’s gun away, shoot Lyle, and then use it on Juan. That’s what a man of action would do. That’s what someone in a movie or on television. would do.
Instead, the lawyer bent over so he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Lyle and his added bulk against the gatepost was enough that Lyle could reach up and pop the wire over the top and open it.
Back inside the pickup, they drove into the maw of the storm. It had enveloped them so quickly it was astonishing. Pellets of snow rained across the hood of the pickup and bounced against the cracked windshield. The heater blew hot air that smelled like radiator fluid inside the cab. Parker’s teeth finally stopped chattering but his stomach ached from fear and his hands and feet were cold and stiff.
Juan leaned forward and squinted over the wheel, as if it would help him see better.
“This is the kind of stuff we live with every day,” Lyle said to Parker. “Me and Juan are out in this shit day after day. We don’t sit in plush offices taking calls and sending bills. This is the way it is out here.”
Parker nodded, not sure what to say.
“The road forks,” Juan said to Lyle in the backseat, “Which way do we go?”
“Left,” Lyle said.
“Are you sure?”
“Goddamit, Juan, how many years did I spend out here on these roads?”
Juan shrugged and eased the pickup to the left. They couldn’t see more than fifty feet in any direction. The wind swirled the heavy snow and it buffeted the left side of the pickup truck, rocking the vehicle on its springs when it gusted.
Parker said, “When this is over and you’ve got whatever it is you want, what then?”
Lyle said, “I’m still weighing that one, counselor. But for now just let me concentrate on getting to the house.”
“It would he helpful to know what you’ve got in mind,” Parker said, clearing his throat. Trying to sound conversational. “I mean, since I’m playing a role in this I can be of better service if I know your intentions.”
Lyle backhanded the lawyer with his free hand, hitting him hard on the ear. Parker winced.
“Just shut up until we get there,” Lyle said. “I heard enough talking from you in that courtroom to last the rest of my pea-pickin’ life. So just shut up or I’ll put a bullet into the back of your head.”
Juan appeared to grimace, but Parker determined it was a bitter kind of smile.
Lyle said to Parker, “You got the keys to that secret room old Angler has, right? The one he never let anybody into? The one with the books?”
“How far?” Juan asked. They were traveling less than five miles an hour. The snow was so thick, Parker thought, it was like being inside a cloud. Tall sagebrush just a few feet from the road on either side looked like gray commas. Beyond the brush, everything was two-tone white and light blue.
“What’s in the road?” Juan asked, tapping on the brake to slow them down even further.
Parker looked ahead. Six or seven oblong shadows emerged from the whiteout. They appeared suspended in the air. They looked like small coffins on stilts.
The pickup inched forward. The forms sharpened in detail. Pronghorn antelope—part of the same herd or from another herd. A buck and his does. They stood braced into the storm, oblivious to the truck. Juan drove so close to them Parker could see snow packed into the bristles of their hide and their goatlike faces and black eyes. The buck had long eyelashes and flakes of snow caught in them. His horns were tall and splayed, the hooked-back tips ivory colored.
“Fucking antelope,” Lyle said. “Push ‘em out of the way or run right over them.”
Instead, Juan tapped the horn on the steering wheel. The sound was distant and tinny against the wind, but the pronghorns reacted; haunches bunching, heads ducking, and they shot away from the road as if they’d never been there.
Parker wished he could run like that.
“Few miles,” Lyle said. “We’ll pass under an archway. I helped build that arch, you know.”
“I didn’t know that,” Juan said.
“Me and Juan,” Lyle said to Parker, “We’ve worked together for the past what, twelve years?”
Juan said, “Twelve, yes. Twelve.”
“Some of the shittiest places you could imagine,” Lyle said. “All over the states of Wyoming and Montana. A couple in Idaho. One in South Dakota. Most of those places had absentee owners with pricks for ranch foremen. They’re the worst, those pricks. They don’t actually own the places so for them it’s all about power. You give pricks like that a little authority and they treat the workingman like shit. Ain’t that right, Juan?”
It’s like we’re the only humans on earth.
The world that had been out there just that morning—the world of vistas and mountains and people and cars and offices and meetings—had been reduced for him to just this. Three men in the cab of a pickup driving achingly slow through a whiteout where the entire world had closed in around them. Inside the cab there were smells and weapons and fear. Outside the glass was furious white rage.
There was a kind of forced intimacy that was not welcome, Parker thought. He’d been reduced to the same level as these two no-account ranch hands who between them didn’t have a nickel to rub together. They had guns and the advantage, Parker thought, but they were smart in the way coyotes or other predators were smart in that they knew innately how to survive but didn’t have a clue how to rise up beyond that. He knew that from listening to Lyle testify in court in halting sentences filled with poorly chosen words. And when Lyle’s broken down ninety-eight-year-old grandfather took the stand it was all over. Parker had flayed the old man with whips made of words until there was no flesh left on his ancient bones.
Lyle likely couldn’t be reasoned with—he knew that already. No more than a coyote or a raven could be reasoned with. Coyotes would never become dogs. Likewise, ravens couldn’t be songbirds. Lyle Peebles would never be a reasonable man. He was a man whose very existence was based on grievance.
“This is getting bad,” Juan said, leaning forward in his seat as if getting six inches closer to the windshield would improve his vision.
Parker gripped the dashboard. The tires had become sluggish beneath the pickup as the snow accumulated. Juan was driving more by feel than by vision, and a few times Parker felt the tires leave the two-track and Juan had to jerk the wheel to find the ruts of the road again.
“We picked a bad day for this,” Juan said.
“Keep going,” Lyle said. “We been in worse than this before. Remember that time in the Pryor Mountains?”
“Si. That was as bad as this.”
” Lyle said definitively.
There was a metallic clang and Parker heard something scrape shrilly beneath the undercarriage of the truck.
“What the hell was that?” Lyle asked Juan.
“A T-post, I think.”
“Least that means we’re still on the road,” Lyle said.
“We could turn around,” Parker said.
“We could,” Juan agreed. “At least I could follow our tracks back out. As it is, I can’t see where we’re going.”
“We’re fine, Godammit,” Lyle said. “I know where we are. Keep going. We’ll be seeing that old house any time now.”
Parker looked out his passenger window. Snow was sticking to it and covering the glass. Through a fist-sized opening in the snow, he could see absolutely nothing.
He realized Lyle was talking to him. “What did you say?”
“I said I bet you didn’t expect you’d be doing this today, did you?”
“You’re the type of guy who thinks once a judge says something it’s true, ain’t you?”
“You thought after you made a fool of my grandpa you were done with this, didn’t you?”
“Look,” Parker said, “we all have jobs to do. I did mine. It wasn’t personal.”
Parker waited for an argument. Instead, he felt a sharp blow to his left ear and he saw spangles where a moment ago there had been only snow. The voice that cried out had been his.
He turned in the seat cupping his ear in his hand.
Lyle grinned back. Parker noticed the small flap of skin on the front sight of the Colt. And his fingers were hot and sticky with his blood.
“You say it ain’t personal, lawyer,” Lyle said. “But look at me.
at me. What do you see?”
Parker squinted against the pain and shook his head slowly as if he didn’t know how to answer.
“What you see, lawyer, is a third-generation loser. That’s what you see, and don’t try to claim otherwise or I’ll beat you bloody. I’ll ask you again: what do you see?”
Parker found that his voice was tremulous. He said, “I see a working man, Lyle. A good-hearted working man who gets paid for a hard day’s work. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that.”
“Nice try,” Lyle said, feinting with the muzzle toward Parker’s face like the flick of a tongue from a snake. Parker recoiled, and Lyle grinned again.
“That man fucked over my grandpa and set this all in motion,” Lyle said. “He cheated him and walked away and hid behind his money and his lawyers for the rest of his life. Can you imagine what my grandpa’s life would have been like if he hadn’t been fucked over? Can you imagine what my life would have been like? Not like this, I can tell you. Why should that man get away with a crime like that? Don’t you see a crime like that isn’t a one-shot deal? That it sets things in motion for generations?”
“I’m just a lawyer,” Parker said.
“ And I’m just a no-account working man,” Lyle said. “And the reason is because of people like you.”
“Look,” Parker said, taking his hand away from his ear and feeling a long tongue of blood course down his neck into his collar, “maybe we can go back to the judge with new information. But we need new information. It can’t just be your grandfather’s word and his theories about Nazis and …”
“They weren’t just theories!” Lyle said, getting agitated. “It was the truth.”
“It was so long ago,” Parker said.
“That doesn’t make it less true!” Lyle shouted.
“There was no proof. Give me some proof and I’ll represent you instead of the estate.”
Parker shot a glance at the rearview mirror to find Lyle deep in thought for a moment. Lyle said, “That’s interesting. I’ve seen plenty of whores, but not many in a suit.”
“Lyle,” Juan said sadly, “I think we are lost.”
The hearing had lasted less than two days. Paul Parker was the lawyer for the Fritz Angler estate, which was emerging from probate after the old man finally died and left no heirs except a disagreeable out-of-wedlock daughter who lived in Houston. From nowhere, Benny Peebles and his grandson Lyle made a claim for the majority of the Angler estate holdings. Benny claimed he’d been cheated out of ownership of the ranch generations ago and he wanted justice. He testified it had happened this way:
Benny Peebles and Fritz Angler, both in their early twenties, owned a Ryan monoplane together. The business model for Peebles/Peebles Aviation was to hire out their piloting skills and aircraft to ranchers in Northern Wyoming for the purpose of spotting cattle, delivering goods, and transporting medicine and cargo. They also had contracts with the federal and state government for mail delivery and predator control. Although young and in the midst of the Depression, they were two of the most successful entrepreneurs the town of Cody had seen. Still, the income from the plane barely covered payments and overhead and both partners lived hand-to-mouth.