Table of Contents
Also by Craig Johnson
The Cold Dish
Death Without Company
Kindness Goes Unpunished
Another Man’s Moccasins
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First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Craig Johnson, 2009
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events,
or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Dark horse: a Walt Longmire mystery / Craig Johnson.
eISBN : 978-1-101-05727-8
1. Longmire, Walt (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Sheriffs—Wyoming—Fiction.
3. Wyoming—Fiction. I. Title.
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For Sue Fletcher, the real Wahoo Sue, and for Juana DeLeon, whose
heritage lives on in Auda, Marlen, and Benjamin.
The origin of the phrase “dark horse” is based on a story about a nineteenth-century breeder who would arrive in a strange town and pretend to be riding an ordinary pack animal, which was in truth a very fast black stallion. He’d enter the dark horse in a race and, when the horse would win (much to the surprise of the locals), he would pocket the prize money and more than a few bets on the side and move on to the next gullible community.
The front-runners of the Absalom Trifecta, as always, are Gail Hochman, a handsome little Brooklyn filly with a sharp eye and a sharper tongue who taught me that the race may not always go to the swift or the victory to the strong but that’s how you bet. Kathryn Court, a thoroughbred of fine breeding with an ability to go long in the back stretch and who taught me that horse sense is the good judgment that keeps horses from betting on people. For Alexis Washam, who tends to be fast out of the gate and who reminded me that you don’t approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a copy editor from any direction.
My good friend Maureen “Donnybrook” Donnelly, who always comes up on the inside and instructed me from the get-go that life is generally six to five against but good days are around turn two. Ben “El” Petrone, who said that if an earthquake ever hit the Kentucky Derby while I was there to be sure to go straight to the ticket window where nothing ever hits. To Meghan “The Cincinnati Kid” Fallon, who, with the luck of the Irish, always seems to come in by a nose but says no horse can ever go as fast as the money you bet on him.
Eric Boss, who once bet me he could make the jack of spades jump out of a sealed, perfectly new deck of cards and squirt cider in my ear. I’m still cleaning the cider out of my ear.
Thanks to the Brannaman school of Oat-ology for all the inside tips.
Thanks to my buddy and track-side physician David Nickerson, who says racehorses are the only animals that can take a couple of thousand people for a ride.
A note of apology to Buzzy and the gang at “The AR,” and the town of Arvada as a whole, which shares a geographic location but bears no resemblance to the environs of this novel. “The Arvada bar, where the pavement ends the fun begins.” Indeed.
Most of all, to my wife, Judy, who took the greatest gamble in her life by betting on me.
1 a: a usually little known contender (as a racehorse) that makes an unexpectedly good showing b: an entrant in a contest that is judged unlikely to succeed 2: a person who reveals little about himself or herself, esp. someone who has unexpected talents or skills
1October 27, 11 A.M.
It was the third week of a high-plains October, and an unseasonably extended summer had baked the color from the landscape and had turned the rusted girders of the old bridge a thinned-out, tired brown.
I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren’t very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches. I had grown up with these old camelback bridges and was sorry to see the last of them go.
My eyes were pulled to the town balanced on the banks of the anemic river and pressed hard against the scoria hills like the singing blade of a sharp knife. The water, the land, and the bridge were sepia-toned, depleted.
I told Dog to stay in the backseat and got out of the car, slipped on my hat and an aged, burnished-brown horsehide jacket, and walked across the dirt lot. I studied the dusty, wide-planked surface of the bridge and, between the cracks, the few reflecting slivers of the Powder River below. The Wyoming Department of Transportation had condemned and, in turn, posted the bridge with bright yellow signs—it was to be removed next week. I could see the abutments that they had constructed off to the right on which the new bridge would soon rest.
A Range Telephone Cooperative trailer sat by a power pole holding a junction box and a blue plastic service phone that gently tapped against the creosote-soaked wood like a forgotten telegraph, receiving no answer.
I turned and looked at the old rancher who’d pulled up behind me in an antiquated ’55 GMC, the kind that has grill-work frozen in a perpetual sneer. The big truck was overladen with hay. I tipped my new hat back and gazed at him. “Nope, just looking around.”
He kicked at the accelerator and eased the Jimmy into a lopsided idle as he glanced at Dog, my late-model car, and the Montana plates. “You workin’ methane?”
He squinted at me to let me know he wasn’t sure if I was telling the truth, his eyes green as the algae that grows on the tops of horse troughs. “We get a lot of them gas and oil people out here, buying up people’s mineral rights.” He studied me, sizing me up by my new black hat, boots, and freshly pressed blue jeans. “Easy to get lost on these roads.”
“I’m not lost.” I looked at his load, at the sun-dried, tiny blue flowers intermixed with the hay and the orange and cobalt twine that indicated it was weed-free; idiot cubes, as we used to call the seventy-pound bales. I stepped in closer and put a hand on the hay, rich with alfalfa. “Certified. You must have a pretty good stretch of bottom land around here somewhere.”
“Good enough, but with the drought, this country’s so dry you have to prime a man before he can spit.” As if to emphasize his point, he spat a stream through the rust holes in the floorboard of the truck and onto the road, the spittle approaching the same tint as the river.
I nodded as I glanced down at the stained pea gravel. “A buddy of mine says that these small bales are what broke up the family ranches.” I looked back up at the cargo—two and a half tons at least. “You buck a couple thousand of these in August and your mind starts to wander; wonder as to what the heck else you could be doing for a living.”
His eyes clinched my words. “You ranch?”
“Nope, but I grew up on one.”
I smiled, stuffing my hands in the pockets of my jeans, glanced at his rust-orange, heavily loaded flatbed, and then at the dilapidated structure that spanned the distance between here—and there. “You gonna drive this truck across that bridge?”
He spat into the dirt again, this time near my boots, and then wiped his mouth on the back of his snap-buttoned cuff. “Been drivin’ the car-bridge for sixty-three years; don’t see no reason to stop.”
Car-bridge; I hadn’t heard that one in a while. I glanced back at the yellow WYDOT signs and the decrepit condition of the doomed structure. “Looks like you’re not going to have much choice as of next week.”
He nodded and ran a hand over his patent-leather face. “Yeah, I reckon they got more money down there in Cheyenne than they know what to do with.” He waited a moment before speaking again. “The state highway is about four miles back up the road.”
“I told you, I’m not lost.”
I could feel him watching me; I’m sure he was looking at the scar above my eye, the one on my neck, that little part of my ear that was missing, my hands, and most importantly, trying to get a read on the insouciance that goes along with a quarter of a century spent with a star pinned to my chest. I nodded, glancing back across the bridge before he had a chance to study me longer. “Is that a town, down there?”
“Sort of.” He snorted a laugh. “Halfway between woebegone and far away.” He continued to study me as I watched the dust drifting across the warped and swirled surface of the dried-out planks. “Used to be called Suggs, but when the Burlington and Missouri came through they decided that it ought to have an upstanding, proper, biblical name.”
I continued to look at the town. “And what’s that?”
I laughed and thought that one of those railroad engineers must have had a pretty good sense of humor or been from Mississippi. But then it occurred to me that Faulkner hadn’t been walking, let alone writing, when the railroads came through here.
He continued to look at me through the collection of wrinkles that road-mapped his eyes. “Something funny?”