The thirteenth Longmire novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Land of Wolves
Sheriff Walt Longmire is enjoying a celebratory beer after a weapons certification at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy when a younger sheriff confronts him with a photograph of twenty-five armed men standing in front of a Challenger steam locomotive. It takes him back to when, fresh from the battlefields of Vietnam, then-deputy Walt accompanied his mentor Lucian to the annual Wyoming Sheriff's Association junket held on the excursion train known as the Western Star, which ran the length of Wyoming from Cheyenne to Evanston and back. Armed with his trusty Colt .45 and a paperback of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, the young Walt was ill-prepared for the machinations of twenty-four veteran sheriffs, let alone the cavalcade of curious characters that accompanied them.
The photograph—along with an upcoming parole hearing for one of the most dangerous men Walt has encountered in a lifetime of law enforcement—hurtles the sheriff into a head-on collision of past and present, placing him and everyone he cares about squarely on the tracks of runaway revenge.
About the Author
Craig Johnson is the New York Times bestselling author of the Longmire mysteries, the basis for the hit Netflix original series Longmire. He is the recipient of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for fiction, and his novella Spirit of Steamboat was the first One Book Wyoming selection. He lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population twenty-five.
Read an Excerpt
I pressed in on the knurled end of my Colt 1911A1 with my thumb at the same time rotating the barrel bushing a quarter turn clockwise to free the plug and recoil assembly, my hands working from rote. “Business.”
Joe Iron Cloud, the young Arapaho sheriff, held up my silhouette target, the fluorescent light beaming through the holes tightly grouped at the center with only one high and slightly off to the right. “I guess business was good.”
I removed the mechanism, rotating the plug in a counterclockwise direction to free it from the spring. “I suppose.”
Some of the other sheriffs came over to join Joe, who chewed his gum like a masticating machine. “When did you start carrying that thing?”
Concentrating on the work in an attempt to try to get out of the mood into which I was descending, I rotated the barrel bushing counterclockwise, disengaging it from the slide. “Vietnam.”
Steve Wolf, the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy’s range manager, approached and handed me a clipboard. “Walt, I need you to sign off on these.”
The younger sheriffs drifted away as I signed the forms, and the silver-haired man studied me. “Mind if I ask why you do this?” Steve watched me continue to disassemble my weapon. “Come all the way down here every four years and requalify?”
I handed the paperwork back, shrugged, and leaned against the green felt bench. “A lot of these larger departments have facilities where they can do this stuff, but we’re kind of small. The only range we’ve got is outdoors, and come November, my undersheriff really doesn’t care for that.” The range manager smiled and glanced at Victoria Moretti, who was in the process of cleaning her own weapon. “I’d imagine.” He was silent for a moment. “That, and the academy happens to be on the way to Cheyenne, where you go for a four-year parole hearing.”
I glanced at him and then went back to working on my weapon. “Yep.”
He waited a moment. “Lot of controversy surrounding that case.”
“Lots of rumors.”
Smiling, he pushed off the bench and started for his office, but then stopped to call back, “Hey, I heard a rumor that your daughter is working for Joe Meyer and that collection of outlaws down there in the attorney general’s office.”
Having reassembled the Colt, I finally turned to look at him. “Yep.”
“She living in Cheyenne?”
“Well, maybe we’ll see you more often?”
He shook his head and then turned away. “Really good talking with you, Walt.”
As I took my time to carefully oil the exterior of my sidearm, I found myself staring at the forest-green felt, stained with the oil from thousands of weapons that had been taken apart and put back together on its surface. I wondered how many men had been taken apart and put back together in the process.
“You keep playing with that thing and you’re going to wear it out.” Iron Cloud barked a laugh. “At least, that’s what my mother used to tell me.” I turned and looked at him, his broad grin splitting his suntanned face like a shearing glacier. “How ’bout having a beer with us?”
I reloaded the one round in the pipe, filled the magazine, slipped it between the ancient, yellowed stag grips, and placed the Colt into the pancake holster at the small of my back. “Sorry, Joe, I have to get to Cheyenne. Besides, Lucian is waiting on us back at the hotel.”
“How many times have we heard this fucking story?”
“I’ve heard it more times than you.”
I had to admit the Rainier tasted pretty good, giving me time to think as my old boss, the previous sheriff of Absaroka County, regaled the younger men, who had waylaid us after all, with tales of derring-do from bygone days.
Vic leaned in, sipping her dirty martini. “Does it ever change?”
The perpetual frown was missing from his face, and his bushy eyebrows crouched over his nose as Lucian continued to hold forth. “I get this call that we had a cool one on the side of Route 16 out there on the edge of town. When I get there, this kid—Highway Patrol, he was—is standin’ over the damn body, I mean practically standing on the damn thing. Well, he steps back when he sees me and says it’s in my jurisdiction and what did I want to do?”
Vic nodded as she settled onto the piano stool beside me. “Yeah, it’s changed from the last time already.”
I stared up at the old pressed-tin ceiling. The LaBonte Hotel had been built in 1913 as a replacement for the Valley House Hotel, which had been torn down when the Burlington Northern Railroad had cleaved Douglas in two. I often wondered why, with nothing but open land all around, they had decided to run the railroad right through the middle of town.
The LaBonte got its name from the first resident of Converse County, Pierre LaBonte. It had recently been updated but was still old school. Most of the younger officers, deputies, and Highway Patrolmen stayed at the more modern digs on the strip near the interstate, but Lucian had brought me here when he first hired me, and we were creatures of habit.
Near the piano, there was a pool table and a dartboard, where I had sometimes seen Lucian compete, the extra darts embedded in his fake leg—an intimidating gesture for the benefit of his opponents.
Noodling around on the battered upright, I watched as the old, one-legged sheriff sipped a Wyoming Whiskey, his preferred libation when away from home, where he kept a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve twenty-three-year-old in the corner cabinet back at the Durant Home for Assisted Living.
“There was a big patch of blood at the back of his scalp, but I asked the HP if he was sure he was dead, and the troop said, ‘As Kelsey’s nuts.’ So, I pull the kid’s wallet and flip the body over, where I notice there are little blue threads all on the front of him. Well, while we’re waitin’ for the medical examiner to come over, I sit in my car and have my dispatcher patch me in to the mother, who doesn’t seem too upset about losing her baby boy. She says that her other son and another fellow went out with the kid rodeoing Saturday night and that they’d all hung one on.”
He pushed the Open Road Stetson back on his head. “Well, I roll over to the mother’s house where there’s a beat-up old Chrysler in the driveway with shitty carpeting, a curious shade of blue. I drag the one kid out and show him the carpet and tell him I’ve got him red-handed and he better damn well start singing, and boy does he—a regular Frankie Laine. He says the decedent and this other fella got into it, and the other fella pulled out a Ruger Blackhawk single-action revolver and shot young son in the back of the head.”
Lucian took a swallow of the whiskey and licked his lips. “The one brother doesn’t seem too upset about his dead brother, and I’m starting to think this family might be a little bubble off plumb, but I get the address of the shooter and throw Cain in back of the Nash. On the drive over, he’s telling me that he didn’t have anything to do with killing Abel and that he didn’t even help the shooter dump the body—made him do it himself. Took some kind of strange moral stand on that one, I guess.” The old sheriff rolled his eyes. “Well, Ludlow Coontz, the shooter, is this big, dumb-lookin’ bulldogger, two hundred and seventy pounds if he was an ounce, and this is before I had yon man-mountain over there.”
He gestured toward Vic and me, and I raised my glass at the enthralled dozen or so off-duty officers.
“So, I get Ludlow in the car, and all the way over to the jail I’m telling him how I’ve already got the story and if he wants me to go easy on him he might as well come clean and admit to the killing, but he doesn’t say a word. I stick ’em in separate cells where I’m looking at this big bastard and figurin’ I’m gonna have to beat on him all night to get a confession out of him. . . .” He paused. “Not that we did that type of thing a lot, but sometimes it was called for. . . . Anyway, I walk back into the office, tryin’ to figure out what I was gonna do, when I spot the new photocopy machine we just got and unplug the thing and roll it back into the holding cells. I mean this was back in the day when those things were the size of a dishwasher. So, I plug it in and push it over and tell him to stick his hand on the glass, which he does, whereupon I cuff him to the bars and the machine and I close the lid. I ask him if he killed that boy, and he says no, and that’s when I hit the button. Well, it lights up and goes back and forth with this hellacious racket and spits out a photocopy of his hand, and I pick the thing up and study it like it means some damn thing.
“Ludlow, I say to this dumb ass, this here is the newest state-of-the-art equipment in our ongoing battle with evildoers, the Xerox 914 Lie Detector. So, I hit a few more buttons, and I tell him that I’ve recalibrated the Xerox 914 so that if he lies to me again, it’s gonna deliver about two hundred and twenty volts through his sorry ass.
“I hold my finger above the button and doesn’t old Ludlow start sobbin’ and tellin’ the whole story of how he shot that kid and that the Ruger Blackhawk is under his mattress back home.”
The other sheriffs broke out laughing, and Joe picked up his beer from the bar and sidled over, leaning on the piano as Lucian launched into another story. “You two might be stuck here all night.” “Well, if need be I’ll stuff him in the backseat of the truck with Dog, and he’ll sleep it off by the time we get to Cheyenne.” Vic and I touched glass to can, sealing the deal.
Iron Cloud glanced at some of the photos on the wall behind me. “There’s a lot of history in here.”
It was true. The bar’s slogan is “Tell ’em I’ll meet you at the LaBonte,” and I’d spent many an hour combing the extensive collection of photos commemorating Wyoming peace officers that took in the history of the state from when it was an Indian territory to the present, a legacy that included small tintypes, 8×10s, and even a few movie posters. There were more than a few photos of Lucian, including the one of him in the hospital when they had just finished amputating the leg that bootlegger Beltran Extepare had attempted to remove with a shotgun in his own dynamic fashion. Lucian, with a nurse pulled onto his bed, is grinning widely and giving the camera a thumbs-up. Iron Cloud fixed on a photo of Joe LeFors, the man who had famously gotten the murder confession from Tom Horn and been responsible for running Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all the way to South America. “Was it tougher back then?”
“I wouldn’t know—LeFors died in 1940; I’m old, but not that old.”
He smiled. “No, I mean when you started working for Lucian.” He looked back at the old sheriff and Doolittle Raider still holding forth. “Being a deputy couldn’t have been easy with that old coot.”
“He wasn’t old then.” I shook my head. “And he was a good teacher. I was going through a lot of stuff when I got back from the war, and he was patient with me.”
“Jeez, Walt, you’re one of the most patient people I know.”
“Didn’t used to be.” Vic studied me as I sipped my beer. Joe’s attention, however, was over my right shoulder.
“Is that the Star?”
I turned and looked up at an old 8×10 color photograph, overexposed in the sunlight. Twenty-five armed men in cowboy hats and gun belts were standing on the platform beside a locomotive. “No.”
He sat up a bit in an attempt to get a better look. “Shit, that is it—that’s Wyoming’s The Western Star.” He called to some of the other men, interrupting Lucian’s story. “Hey guys, look at this.” They moved en masse toward the piano and peered at the photo behind me as I sipped my beer. Lucian had turned his stool and was watching me, but I ignored all of them and started playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, a relatively unknown piece.
Vic reached up, pulled the framed photo from the wall for a closer look before handing it to Joe, then let her tarnished gold eyes settle on me.
“Guys, this is The Western Star, the sheriffs’ train that they ran from 1948 to 1972.” He nodded his head in recognition.
“No, it’s not.”
They all turned to look at Lucian as he hefted himself off his stool and approached us, a little unsteady. “The Star was steam; that’s a diesel, you pups. Some pecker head from the Cheyenne Tribune-Eagle had us all stand in front of that locomotive for the photograph because he was in a hurry and didn’t want to wait till they could pull the real Star out of the Union Pacific roundhouse.”
“Is that you, Lucian?” Joe asked.
He smiled a lopsided smile as he studied the photograph. “Front and center—that was ’72, which turned out to be my first year as president of the Wyoming Sheriffs’ Association.” Lucian nodded and poked a finger like a truncheon onto the glass with a snapping sound. “Yep, and you might recognize that big son of a bitch on the end there.”
Joe turned the frame toward me. “Is that you, Walt?”
The man on the far left was big with his hat pulled down low and his muscled arms folded over his chest. He was the only one looking to his right at something not in the frame. If the camera had been closer, you might’ve seen the grimace, but only I knew it was there because I remembered.
Joe held the photo out for a moment more, I guess in the hopes that I might say something, but I didn’t. Then he turned it back toward himself. “Twenty-four armed sheriffs on a train.”