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It's hard to think of a place in Wyoming where the wind doesn't reign supreme; where the sovereignty of sound doesn't break through the parks of the Bighorns with a hoarse-throated howl. I sometimes wonder if the trees miss the wind in the infrequent moments when it dies down, when the air is still and the skies are a threadbare blue, thin and stretching above the mountains. Needled courtesans-the lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, and Engelmann spruce-stand at the edge of the great park like wallflowers awaiting the beseeching hand of the wind to invite them to the dance floor. And I can't help but wonder that when the sway passes and the trees are still, do they pine for that wind; do they grieve?
"It's a dead sheep."
"It's a dead sheep, in case you were wondering."
"Yep, it is."
She stopped eating her breakfast PowerBar and looked straight at me. "Then why have you been staring at it for the last five minutes?"
I swallowed and formed a few words, but they wouldn't come out. It was like that lately, almost as if some inhibitor was kicking in every time I tried to say something.
She studied me for a moment more, and then her eyes returned to the carcass. "Is it me, or does it seem like we've done this before?"
Two men were examining the demised and doing their best to ignore us. "I guess we didn't do a good enough job on the other sheep-o-cides."
She continued chewing. "Why is that?"
"Because there's another dead sheep."
"There's always another dead sheep. It's what sheep do-they die." Victoria Moretti glanced around at the snow-spotted park and the breathtaking beauty of the Bighorn Mountain Range, bold faces of the granite high country rising like magnificent stockades. "Boy, we're in the middle of fucking nowhere."
I sighed and girded up some more words. "Nice, isn't it." I passed her the cup from my battered thermos that was covered in stickers, one of which read drinking fuel. She handed me the remains of her bar, and I watched as she took a sip of the coffee.
"Remind me again why we're here?"
I took a bite. "Public relations."
"Since when does the Absaroka County Sheriff's Department have to worry about public relations?"
"When has the Absaroka County sheriff or any other sheriff not had to worry about public relationships? Or, more important, dealings within the law enforcement community." I took another bite and pointed at the two men. "Aka: the Absaroka County Brand Inspector and the National Forest Service."
"You just don't want to be babysat at the office."
I watched a random breeze push the treetops, dusting the frosted grass with a little fresh snow from the pine needles. "There's that." I undid the top of the thermos again and took my chrome cup back to refill it. "You mind telling me what that's all about?"
"Why everyone is treating me like a Faberg egg?"
"After Mexico, all parties have decided that you need a little more adult supervision."
I nodded and handed her the last bite. "Sancho follows me to the bathroom."
At the mention of our Basque deputy, Santiago Saizarbitoria, Vic smiled. "He's taking his orders very seriously."
I started to lift the cup to my lips, then stopped. "Whose orders?"
"I am not at liberty to say at this time."
I sipped my coffee, a slight huff building. "If she's so worried about me, why doesn't she come up here and see about me for herself?"
"Um, because she has a life and a career in Cheyenne." She studied the side of my face. "She's been through a lot, Walt."
I nodded. "Yep."
"What, you're lonely? I can get Sancho to go in the bathroom with you."
"Thanks, but no thanks." I took a deep breath, feeling the stitch in my side. "I know she's been through a lot, and I just think we need to talk about it."
"So call her."
"I hate phones."
"Go to Cheyenne."
"I'm not particularly fond of Cheyenne either . . . Besides, after the amount of time I've been gone from the county, I think I need to be around here." I turned to look at her just as the two men approached. "Well?"
Don Butler, who had been the county brand inspector for years, gave me an unsettled look. "Difficult to say on a three-day-old kill."
"Could be a wolf." We all turned to look at Chuck Coon. "Well, it could be."
Vic made a face. "I thought you Rabbit Rangers say there aren't any wolves in the Bighorns."
Butler pushed his stained hat back and scrubbed a hand over the lines on his face. "Of course there aren't, which is why we're collecting DNA."
Coon sighed. "Anyway, there aren't supposed to be."
"Are you saying the wolves aren't cooperating?"
"Like any other adolescent, they have a tendency to wander . . ."
Butler glanced back at the remains. "If it is a wolf, it's a young one, I'd imagine."
"I'm betting a two-year-old." Chuck leaned against the tailgate of my truck, the official mantra spilling from his lips like a teletype machine. "It will be dealt with swiftly."
"You're gonna kill it?" Vic shook her head. "Doesn't the Fed just pay for the sheep?"
"Yeah, but once they get a taste for mutton, they usually keep hitting the herd and it becomes a problem-besides, it's a predator zone, so they're not supposed to be here."
She glanced at me. "What's a predator zone?"
"Neither protected nor trophy, they are considered to be in an agricultural area and a nuisance or predator, and you're allowed to shoot them at any time, like coyotes."
She looked back at the ranger. "They were here before we were."
I changed the subject. "More important: whose herd?"
Don cocked his head with a grim look. "Extepare. Abarrane Extepare."
Vic looked confused.
"Son of Beltran Extepare, the man who blew Lucian's leg off." The sheep rancher's father had been the Basque bootlegger back in the late forties who had relieved my predecessor of an appendage.
Her tarnished gold eyes sparkled the way they always did at the mention of mayhem. "Ooh, shit. This is getting interesting."
I looked past the two men at the hundred or so sheep grazing a good fifty yards away. "So, I don't suppose the old man is up here?"
"Not that we've seen."
"How 'bout the herder?"
"Haven't seen him either."
"Well, who called in the sheep?"
Coon thumbed his chest. "I did."
"Then first you need to find the herder and talk with him. Then we can go have a little chat with Abarrane and hope we don't get shot." I watched as Coon, in search of a needle, looked behind him at the expanse of haystack mountains. I turned and looked at Butler. "Any idea what Extepare's permits for grazing are?"
Disgruntled, Don started off toward his truck. "Got 'em on my computer."
I threw out the rest of my coffee and, slowly sliding off the tailgate, limped after him with Vic and Chuck in tow. Coon pulled up beside me.
"How are you doing, Walt?"
"Good-a little stiff, but I'm fine."
"That sounded like some pretty hairy stuff down there in Mexico."
"Sure you're okay?"
He continued talking as I opened the passenger side door. "You lost a lot of weight-I guess you can count that as a positive."
The brand inspector had a nice truck with carpet, a leather interior, and all the electronic gizmos, including a swinging table that held a laptop computer. "Jeez, Don, the Cattleman's Association is making way too much money."
He grumbled as he climbed onto the seat. "I practically live in the thing." After tapping a few keys, he stared at the screen. "Extepare all right. One section-looks like it's mostly west of here." He peered through his windshield. "Odd, those sheep scattered this far east and nobody checking on 'em."
Studying the large meadow, my eyes followed his. "Maybe the wolf spooked them?"
Don pulled the brim of his hat back down, low over his eyes, still seemingly puzzled. "Maybe, but hell, we've been here for an hour and you'd think somebody would have shown up . . ."
I turned, looking at the expanse. "How big would you say this park is?"
"At least a couple square miles."
Vic studied the large, open space. "Why do they call them parks?"
"Bastardization of the French term that the trappers used when they first came to this part of the country." I sighed, seeing the lunch I'd planned at the Busy Bee Caf going up in grilled smoke. "All right. We can split it up-you take the right, Don. Chuck, you take the middle, and Vic, we'll work the tree line to the left. I don't think there's much of a chance that he'd set up camp out in the middle, but you never know." I glanced back at Butler. "Does the herder have a name?"
Walking back to the Bullet, I called over my shoulder. "Our standard frequency." Climbing in, I was met with a copious fog of Dog breath as he hung his bucket head over the seat and whined. "I know you want to get out, but you can't-like the butler, they might think you did it."
Vic pulled the passenger door closed behind her. "Chile?"
Glancing around at all the remaining April snow, I slipped the truck into four-wheel drive.
"H-2A-temporary-agricultural-work program that allows companies to hire foreigners if no Americans want the jobs."
She leaned forward, scanning the area ahead of us. "The scenery's pretty great, but I can't imagine the amenities are plentiful."
"If we find Miguel's campito, you'll see."
"They stay up here?"
Following the slope of the meadow, I drove slowly, keeping my eyes on the tree line. "You've seen the sheep wagons at the Basque parade; they generally live in those."
"So, this guy, Extepare, he's Basque, and he hires some guy from Chile?"
"Why not another Basque?"
"The economy is good there, and nobody wants the jobs. Most of the herders you're going to see out here these days are South American-borregueros they call themselves."
"What do they get paid?"
"About six hundred fifty dollars a month."
"Jesus. I'd run off too."
Hoping to spot something, I kept peering into the dense forest as we drove. "Tough to eat scenery. It's lonely work."
"You mean they just leave them here?"
"There's usually a camp tender who comes up with supplies and might spell them out for a day or two, but it's rough with no other human interaction-some never learn English."
"Do they have dogs?"
She pointed. "Because there's one."
I turned to see a border collie at the precipice of a ridge ahead. Slowing to a stop, we waited a moment, but then the dog disappeared. "Damn." Gunning the engine, I turned the wheel and drove to the spot on the ridge where the dog had been. "Do you see anything?"
Vic sat up in her seat and turned around to the right and back toward me, finally looking past me to a spot on my left. "There."
I turned and could see the dog hightailing it into the forest, so I spun the wheel again and then drove to the edge of it and parked.
Vic held her hand on the rear door. "You want Dog out?"
"No." He looked at me, deeply hurt. "Sorry, but if you run off chasing some strange dog, I'll never find you." I met my undersheriff at the front of the truck and peered into the mist, where the sun was attempting to melt the snow. The meadow behind us resembled an impressionist painting, evaporating before our eyes. "See him?"
Leaning against the grille guard and staring at the snow patch in front of us, I shook my head, raised a hand, and motioned to the right. "Looks like he's headed that way."
Letting Vic break ground, I followed, dodging between the trees and wishing the pain in my side would let up. After getting back from Mexico, Docs Bloomfield and Nickerson had given me the once-over and explained that the doctors in Ju‡rez had actually done a pretty good job of patching up my stomach, spleen, liver, and part of a lung, but I still felt like hell.
They'd warned me that I needed more bed rest, but I'd finished rereading all four volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time and I was going stir-crazy. They'd informed me that with deep-tissue, solid-organ damage, the repair was really up to the organ itself, and that if I wasn't careful, I was courting disaster-or at least asking it out on a first date.
"You all right?"
I looked at Vic, who was standing on the trail still ahead of me. I placed a hand on a nearby lodgepole pine. "Yep, just a little winded."
She approached. "Go back to the truck."
"Let me rephrase: go back to the truck or I'll shoot you."
I shook my head. "No, you won't."
Slipping the semiauto from her holster, she aimed the 9mm at my foot. "If you don't do what I say, I'm going to blow the big toe off your left foot-now go back to the truck."
"Is that a new sidearm?"
She held it up for inspection, displaying it like a hand model would. "Glock 19 Gen 4 in Midnight Bronze." She re-aimed it at my foot. "There is a pool at the office on who is going to be responsible for letting you do something stupid that causes you to hurt yourself, and that is not going to be on my watch-got it?"
I smiled at her in an attempt to save my toe. "Who's leading the pool?"
"Lucian, but Sancho coming up fast on the inside."
"That's why he follows me to the bathroom?"
"Uh huh. Now quit stalling and go to the truck."
"Yes, ma'am." I pushed off the tree and started back at a slow pace, wondering if I'd ever pick up the step I'd lost in Mexico. Maybe that was the way of things; sometimes you paid a price and never get to make another deposit into your account and eventually you are overdrawn. Lately, I'd been feeling like I was standing at the counter, the cashier always closing the window in my face.
I wasn't paying much attention as I walked back toward the truck, but after a while I became aware of some movement to my right and turned my head in time to catch a glimpse of what I thought was the same border collie-but then thought again.