HONOR & . . .
WHEN JOE PICKETT SET OUT that morning, he hadn’t anticipated coming face-to-face with a killing machine.
It was an unseasonably warm late-September day. As a favor to another game warden, Joe was scouting the western slope of the Gros Ventre Range above Jackson Hole, deep in the black timber.
When he heard the staccato series of high snapping sounds in the distance, he reined his gelding Rojo to a stop and leaned forward in the saddle to listen with his head turned slightly to the southeast, the direction from which he thought the sounds had come.
For a time all Joe heard were Rojo’s snuffles and snorts as he caught his breath after their hard climb. Then, two heavy booms rolled through the trees at ground level, and Joe realized that what had started out as a routine day had turned potentially dangerous—for three reasons.
First, the sounds weren’t natural. It was a popular misconception that the mountain forests were silent because there were few people in them. Fact was, the wilderness was a riot of noise. Elk, moose, and grizzly and black bears broke through tree limbs and sometimes knocked over dead trees, not so much walking through the brush as crashing through it. Add to their racket chattering squirrels, shrieking hawks, and wolves and
coyotes howling at a pitch that seemed designed to curdle human blood, and the mountains became damned noisy.
But there was a natural rhythm to the cacophony.
What Joe had heard intruded on that natural rhythm in a way that set his senses on high alert.
Second, the source of the sounds was curious. He was nearly sure he’d heard a flurry of semiautomatic gunshots from multiple weapons fired at once, followed by a pause. Then came the two heavy, high-caliber shots.
It didn’t compute.
He was well schooled on the firing sequences of hunters after big game. True sportsmen prided themselves on expending as few bullets as possible. It was about the hunt, and accuracy, not raking an animal with gunfire that would spoil the meat. Besides that, the opening of elk season on this particular mountain range was a week away.
Last, the area was remote and without roads. Down in the valley were thousands of rental cabins, camping sites, and hotels, all easily accessible. But it took an effort to get up here, this high in the mountains, and no one would go to the trouble without good reason.
The lawman in him wondered what that reason could be.
Of course, he could just leave it alone. This wasn’t even his district. The only reason he was in Teton County was because the local game warden, Bill Long, had asked him to help check on remote elk hunting camps because he couldn’t get to all of them before opening day.
Joe was granting the favor, partially in order to give his family—wife, Marybeth, and teenage daughters, Sheridan, Lucy, and April—a minivacation. Gauging by the number of shopping bags that were piling up in the corner of their hotel room, Joe figured he would lose money on the deal rather than make a little extra, but there were so few perks for his family in his line of work that if he could treat them to a few days in Jackson Hole, he was happy to do it.
He could report hearing the distant gunfire to Bill Long, who might even know who was responsible for it and have a logical explanation.
Or maybe not.
But Bill definitely wouldn’t want him to wade into a potentially
dangerous situation on an unfamiliar mountain without backup or local support. So maybe he should—
Another heavy shot.
And it came with the abrupt, brutal, closed-in point-blank sound of a bullet hitting flesh, which carried a completely different sound than a miss.
It was a game changer.
He turned his horse toward the southeast, did a mental inventory of his shotgun in its saddle scabbard and handgun in its holster, clicked his tongue, and said, “Let’s go, Rojo.”
He could smell the camp before he could see it. Clinging to the brush and evergreen boughs was the stale odor of grease from cooking fires mixed with the sweat of dirty men.
That, and the smell of gunpowder.
It was the smell of a hundred elk camps Joe had entered over the years.
Without warning Rojo snorted and balked. The horse detected something ahead that Joe hadn’t noticed.
He urged him on.
Entering a wilderness campsite for the first time was always fraught with tension. Small, bonded groups enjoyed getting away from it all. Inside the camp were guns, alcohol, and as often as not, clouds of testosterone. The last thing hunters wanted to see was a representative of the Game and Fish Department asking them questions and checking licenses and permits. And the last thing Joe wanted to do was surprise them or appear threatening, because he was always outnumbered and outgunned.
It was part of the job.
“Hello, there,” he called out. “Just your friendly neighborhood game warden here.”
There was no response, although Joe thought he heard footfalls through the brush on the far side of the camp. Someone running away?
“Hello?” he called out again.
Rojo walked forward, taking halting steps. Joe sat tall in the saddle and didn’t look down as he untied a leather string that secured the butt of his shotgun in its scabbard. He hoped he wouldn’t have to pull it out.
He pushed through the trees into a rough clearing and took it in all at once. Four dirty wall tents, stumps where trees had been cut down, camp chairs for sitting, a large blackened fire ring that was still smoldering, and trash strewn everywhere. It was a crude and dirty camp, he thought, something out of the Gold Rush days or built by mountain men just before the winter roared in. He decided he didn’t much like the people in the camp. They had little respect for the wilderness and practiced poor camp hygiene.
Walls of trees surrounded the clearing. Beyond them the mountains rose vertically in three directions to their treeless summits. Granite outcroppings pierced through the trees like knuckles, a few of them topped with massive eagle nests. Just inside the tree line were a small mountain of coolers and cartons of canned food. A yellow Gadsden DON’T TREAD ON ME flag with a coiled rattlesnake hung from a crooked flagpole made of a bark-stripped lodgepole pine. On the far side of the clearing was the framing and half walls of a large log building still under construction. The walls were no more than four feet high. It looked like a crude open shoebox. Hand tools—axes, saws—leaned against the outside of the structure.
What appeared to be a bundle of dirty clothing was lying half in, half out of the open framed door of the log building. Only when he rode closer did he realize it was the body of a bearded man with wide-open eyes and a bullet hole in the center of his forehead.
The body was twitching in what might be death throes, and the smell of gunpowder hung bitter in the still air.
The fatal wound was that recent—the kill shot Joe had heard.
He tried to keep his heart from racing by placing his right hand over his breast pocket and pressing.
It didn’t help.
He cleared the shotgun from the scabbard before dismounting and walked Rojo across the opening to tie the gelding up to a dead tree. Rojo was understandably spooked and he wanted his horse to stay put. Before calling in the incident to dispatch on the handheld radio or the satellite
phone—both of which he’d left back in his saddlebag on the horse—Joe wanted to check on the condition of the victim in the doorway.
He took a deep breath and raised his gaze up above the treetops as he walked across the clearing toward the fallen man. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He could see no movement on the mountainsides or even an eaglet poking its head up in one of the nests. But he had the feeling—and it was only a feeling—that he was being observed from above.
Maybe whoever had shot the man and run off had come back?
He leaned his shotgun against the log wall and squatted next to the gunshot victim. He was grateful to be low and out of sight, on the other side of the building.
He reached out and pressed his fingertips to the man’s dirty neck. No pulse. The victim was indeed dead now and completely still. His gray eyes were staring but unseeing, and a single black trail of blood from the bullet hole had congealed on his face next to his nose. Joe wanted to close the man’s eyes but not badly enough to touch him again.
The dead man stank as if he’d been wearing the same clothes—greasy jeans, heavy boots, layers of undershirts, shirts, and Dickies denim jacket—for weeks. His skin was ashen and his beard was long and unkempt. He studied the body and noticed the glint of a steel rifle muzzle protruding an inch from beneath the man’s shoulder. Obviously, he’d fallen on top of his weapon and it was pinned beneath him.
The muzzle was equipped with a tubular conical guard. A military feature used to reduce the flash of a shot, not an accessory needed by hunters. Just like the camp didn’t look or feel like a typical elk camp, the victim didn’t appear to have been an ordinary hunter.
Joe had never run across hunters who erected log buildings or raised flags.
What was going on here?
He knew he shouldn’t move the body before he photographed it or before a Teton County forensics tech arrived. He couldn’t determine if the man had been murdered while standing in the doorway and collapsed on his rifle, or some other scenario. And he wondered if the rifle pinned below the body had been the one he’d heard firing multiple times before
the three heavy booms. It certainly looked like the kind of military-style black rifle chambered-in .223 that would make the snapping sound he’d heard.
Maybe, he thought, he’d been mistaken about the number of guns firing prior to the heavy booms. Maybe the dead man had fired his rifle as fast as he could pull the trigger and the shots had echoed around on top of one another until it sounded like multiple shooters.
But who was the victim shooting at?
And who had put a bullet hole through his head?
As he grasped the log wall to push himself back to his feet, Rojo suddenly snorted and reared behind him. He wheeled around to see his horse pull back in sudden fright and with enough momentum to pull the dead tree it was tied to on top of him. The trunk largely missed Rojo but several spindly branches raked the horse’s haunches as it fell. Rojo, white-eyed with terror, bolted across the clearing in the direction from which they’d come.
“Stop,” Joe yelled.
He watched helplessly as his horse—stirrups flapping on the sides and reins dancing in the air behind its mane—vanished into the northern wall of trees. He took a few steps toward where Rojo had gone, but pulled up short. He’d never run down his gelding. He could only hope that the horse wouldn’t go far and that he could catch him later.
That’s when he felt a presence on his left, an anomaly set against the dark of the trees.
A man had emerged from the timber.
He stood silent and still, but his cold, Nordic eyes were locked on Joe. He was tall and lean and despite his stillness seemed tightly coiled. He wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a light jacket that had seen some wear.
Instantly, Joe knew that this guy wasn’t a tourist. Nor was he a stranger to the mountain West. In his right fist was a large squared-off semiauto, a M1911 Colt .45. It looked like a weapon large enough to have punched the big hole in the dead man’s forehead.
Joe was grateful the gun was pointed down because he knew it could be leveled and aimed at him much faster than he could retrieve his shotgun
from where it was propped against the log wall of the unfinished building. And judging by how the man stood with his feet set, one slightly behind the other, and his shoulders squared, he had no question at all who would kill whom if it came to a gunfight.
He nodded his hat brim to where Rojo had disappeared. “See what you did there.”
The man shrugged. “A game warden should have a better-trained horse.”
Now that hurt.
LEE COBURN DIDN’T LIKE IT that the uniformed man was standing there beside the guy he’d killed. He knew what it looked like, and he didn’t want to take the time to explain himself or what had happened.
The game warden, this skunk at the party, wore a red shirt with a pronghorn antelope patch on the shoulder, faded Wranglers, outfitter boots, and a stained gray Stetson. He was lean and of medium height and build, with silver staining his short sideburns. He’d seen
the game warden glance toward the shotgun he’d left against the log wall, but no effort had been made to lunge for it. Nor had the guy reached for the handgun on his hip.
“I’m a Wyoming game warden. Name’s Joe Pickett. I’m afraid I need to ask you to drop your weapon and follow me into town so we can get this sorted out.”
He could hardly believe his ears. “Really?”
Pickett didn’t flinch. “Really.”
He sucked a deep breath and expelled it slowly. “This isn’t your fight. You have no idea what’s going on here and you don’t need to know. I suggest that you remove your handgun and drop it at your feet. Leave your shotgun where it is. Then I’ll let you turn around and walk right out of here.” He chinned toward the north. “I think your horse ran that way.”
Pickett slowly put his hands on his hips and squinted one eye at Coburn. “I let a guy take my weapons once. It didn’t go well.”
“Drop the pistol.”
The game warden continued to squint and seemed to be thinking, which was starting to annoy him.
Pickett said, “I’m going to lower my handgun to the ground. I’m no good with it anyway. Then I’m going to walk over there to you and place you under arrest.”
Coburn snorted and looked around as if trying to see if he was the subject of a practical joke. “You’re out of your depth here, game warden. When I give you the chance to walk away, you should take it.”
“Why?” Pickett asked, easing his handgun out of his holster with two fingers and lowering it to the ground.
“I told you,” he said, with mounting impatience. “This isn’t your fight.”
“Seems like the fight’s over.” Pickett gestured to the dead man in the cabin doorway, then stood up and took a step toward Coburn.
“You’re not really going to do this, are you?” he asked. “Try and arrest me? Did you notice I’m holding a gun?”
“Everybody in Wyoming has a gun,” Pickett said, though he didn’t seem so sure of himself now.
Coburn kept his .45 pointed down but thumbed the hammer back with a sharp click so Pickett was sure to hear it.
But the man kept advancing.
What was wrong with him?
That’s when he noticed the long thick cylinder attached to the game warden’s belt. Bear spray. Pickett wanted to get close enough to hit him with a full cloud. That stuff was ten times more effective than the pepper spray used by street cops.
He raised his weapon. “Not another step.”
Pickett hesitated, eyes locked on Coburn and the big round O of the muzzle.
That’s when the ground exploded between them, throwing fist-sized chunks of black earth straight into the air. The chatter of at least two semiautomatic rifles was delayed a half second because of the distance.
Pickett jumped back as if stung, flinging himself to his belly, shielding his head with his hands. The game warden rolled to his left as a flurry of bullets bit into the ground where he’d just been.
Coburn dropped to his haunches and raised his .45. He swept the mountainside above the trees, moving his front sights from outcropping to outcropping. He was sure the gunfire had come from up there, but he couldn’t see anyone. Behind him, bullets smacked into tree trunks. Pine needles rained down on his head and shoulders, and slivers of dislodged bark stung the back of his neck. He looked up to see Pickett on his hands and knees, launching himself toward the cover of the half-completed building.
Coburn shimmied to his left behind a two-foot-diameter tree trunk that had been recently felled. He squatted behind it for a moment, then came out over the top with his hands extended and the .45 held tight. He aimed at a suppressed muzzle flash far up the mountainside in a fissure in the outcropping and fired twice. He knew he hadn’t hit anyone, but the return fire would at least make the shooter retreat for a moment. He used the time to throw himself over the tree trunk and run toward the shelter as well.
He caught up with Pickett, who tripped over an exposed root just as his hat was shot off his head. Coburn reached down and yanked the game warden to his feet. But rather than run straight to the structure, the idiot turned and retrieved his hat from the ground, snatching it as bullets kicked up chunks of earth on both sides of him.
Coburn leaped over the corpse in the doorway and rolled across the dirt floor of the building until he was tight against the far wall. He heard Pickett behind him. Both men pressed their cheeks against the rough log wall while the shooter, or shooters, continued to fire.
He felt the impact of bullets thumping into the outside of the wall, but the logs were sturdy enough that they stopped the rounds.
That was good.
But they were pinned down, and the shooters had the high ground, able to see clearly below, which included three-quarters of the structure floor itself.
“Are you hit?” he asked Pickett over his shoulder.
“I don’t think so.”
“Did you remember to grab your pistol on the way in?”
“Wouldn’t have done any good anyway. But I got my shotgun.”
“There’s that,” Coburn said. “So we have my .45 and your shotgun against long-distance rifles and guys with hundreds of rounds of ammunition.”
“How many of them are there?”
“At least two. Maybe all three.”
He grunted a yes, contemplating rising to full height and aiming carefully at the muzzle flashes he’d seen earlier. Maybe he could take one of them out and improve their odds.
But the gunfire had stopped.
The shooters seemed to have realized it was a waste of ammo to fire at targets behind a log wall.
“Do you mind telling me what’s going on here?” Pickett asked.
“Later. Right now, I think they’re trying to come up with their next move.”
He spun on his heels and looked east toward the doorway and the dead man. The one direction where the mountains didn’t rise above the trees.
“At least they can’t get above us from behind,” he said. “But they’ll see us if we venture more than five feet away from this wall, so stay put.”
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” Pickett said, sounding annoyed. “And when this is over, I’m still going to arrest you for murder.”
The man was a bulldog. The worst kind.
“Look,” he said, “you can do whatever you want once we get out of here. But right now we’ve got a little time while they reload and regroup. I need you to call this in and get some backup here. I know the Teton County sheriff has access to a chopper. I can give you the exact coordinates.”
“That would be fine if I had a radio or a phone.”
He turned angrily. “What kind of law enforcement officer doesn’t have a radio or a phone?”
“The kind whose horse was spooked by a lunatic who suddenly appeared from the trees. Everything was in my saddlebags, including my cell phone. You don’t have a phone?”
“I did but it’s . . . gone.”
“What part don’t you understand? It’s no longer in my possession.”
“Did you drop it?”
He swore under his breath. “I gave it to them, and they took the battery out.”
“And you thought I was a chump.”
He felt a flash of anger and considered decking the guy.
But first things first.
“How well do you know these mountains?” he asked.
“Not well at all. This isn’t my district. I’m doing a guy a favor.”
“Fucking great. I’m stuck here with a game warden who doesn’t even know where he is.”
“Story of my life,” Pickett said with a shrug. “By the way, thanks for helping me up out there when we were running for the cabin.”
“What’s your name, anyway?”
“As far as you’re concerned.”
“Just Coburn? One name, like Cher or Beyoncé?”
“Lee Coburn, damn it.”
“Can you spell it so I get it right on the arrest warrant?”
“Capital F-u-c-k Capital O-f-f.”
He briefly considered smacking the game warden on his precious hat with the butt of his .45. Maybe that would keep him quiet for a while. But he needed Pickett to keep an eye on the north while he handled the east, west, and south where the shooters surely were.
“I’ll just call you Coburn,” Pickett said.
FOR THE NEXT HOUR, JOE sat with his back to the wall and his shotgun across his knees, wishing the day had gone in an entirely different direction. He scanned the trees he could see over the top of the walls, hoping the shooters weren’t creeping closer to them.
He also kept an eye on the north side of the clearing, hoping against hope that Rojo would wander out of the woods. He hoped his horse was okay. In addition to the shooters perched in the rocks above their position, the timber was populated by the grizzly bears, mountain lions, and other predators who would consider Rojo meat on the hooves.
He checked his watch.
Two in the afternoon.
Marybeth would expect him back by dark, but not before. So unless they could get word somehow to the Teton County sheriff, for the next five hours no one would know he was in trouble or even think to send someone up to look for him. Today, he recalled, the plan for his family was to buy tickets for the alpine slide on Snow King Mountain. Lucy was quite excited about that.
Next to him Coburn sat, watchful, still, lethal. When he moved at all, he raised up just high enough to look over the top of the wall. Each time he did the shooters retaliated by firing shots, which Joe figured was what Coburn wanted. When they fired, he could spot them.
After the last volley, Coburn had aimed and squeezed off a shot. He said he was pretty sure he’d hit his target that time, but he couldn’t guarantee it. Which meant there were two shooters left, or two shooters and a wounded shooter. All had high-powered rifles. The odds were still against him and his unlikely ally.
“One of these times when you pop up like a Whac-A-Mole, they’re going to blow your head off,” he said to Coburn.
“Like a what?”
Coburn’s face remained a blank.
“You know. The kids’ game.”
Coburn looked down at the pistol in his hand, hefting it. “Never was much of a kid. Didn’t play many games.” Then he raised his gaze back to Joe and said with derision, “Sure as hell not one called whack a . . . whatever.”
Joe tucked that observation away to think about later. “So you’re just going to keep letting them take potshots, until you get off a lucky one?”
Coburn glared at him. “Do you have a better plan?”
“Then please shut up.”
Joe thought about the canister of bear spray attached to his belt. He could still blast Coburn, disarm him, and bind him up with flex-cuffs. But to what end? Would he then stand up and explain to the shooters in the mountains that everything was okay? That they could put down their arms and surrender peacefully?
Coburn was rude and likely a murderer.
But he possessed one redeeming quality.
He was on this side of the wall.
COBURN WAS AWARE OF THE game warden watching him as he reloaded.
Pickett said, “Coburn, before this is over, I’m fairly certain that things are going to get western between you and me.”
“I told you this isn’t your fight. Do I have to say it again?”
“My family’s in Jackson. I’d kinda like to see them again.”
Coburn again considered bringing his gun down hard on the crown of that Stetson. He could use some peace and quiet to deal with the situation at hand. He’d never been one to accommodate weakness. It wasn’t that he had no empathy or understanding for men not hardwired for action. But in a firefight, and he’d been in many, slow thinkers resulted in the deaths of not only themselves but other brave men too. In this situation, he had two options.
Fight or flight.
But he doubted the shooters would even extend to him the second option.
“If nothing else,” Pickett said, “you need to tell me what’s going on. It’s not every day I start out checking elk camps and end up getting shot at with a psycho next to me.”
He snickered. “I’ve been called a lot of names. But psycho is a first.”
“Then prove to me you’re not. From where I sit, I see a dead guy with a bullet through his forehead and two or three other guys trying to kill us. It’s hard to come up with any other conclusion.”
He took that as a challenge. “So what do you think happened here?”
Pickett took a long time to answer, which was a little maddening. “I’ve seen a lot of strange things up in these mountains. Here in the Gros Ventres, or in my own mountains, the Bighorns. Sometimes these woods look to people like the last best place for them to wash up, when they can’t fit in anywhere else. I’ve run across end-of-times survivalists, sheepherders dealing meth, environmental terrorists, and landowners who run their ranches like tin-pot tyrants.
“When I look around here,” Pickett said, gesturing toward the camp beyond the walls, “I see the beginning of something that blew up while in progress. My guess is you and your buddies decided to pick the most remote part of these mountains to set up a little headquarters. For what I don’t know. But you figured, like so many do, that you’d be far enough away from civilization that you could do what you pleased, whatever that is.
“So you gathered up your best weapons and tools and got up here somehow and started building your stockade. Then there was a falling-out. That’s not surprising, given your foul disposition and the fact that the dead guy in the door obviously carried around a black rifle. So the disagreement, whatever it was about, escalated beyond control. You shot that guy over there, and the rest of the crew headed for the hills. You were going after them when they got the sense to go to high ground and turn on you. That’s when I showed up.”
He slowly shook his head. “That’s what this looks like to you?”
“Yup. Or something like it.”
Pickett raised his eyebrows with doubt. “You don’t expect me to believe that.”
He dug out his wallet badge from his jacket and showed the game warden his credentials.
“Undercover for what?” Pickett asked.
He took a deep breath, then quickly rose up and checked the perimeter to make sure the shooters weren’t sneaking up on them. Assured they weren’t, he lowered back down and said, “I’m based in Jackson
when I’m not on assignment. It’s a good place to get my bearings back and recuperate.”
He didn’t address that. “A few days ago I got a call from my boss, a guy named Hamilton. Real asshole.”
“As I said. Anyhow, he told me that four really bad actors—white supremacists who call themselves One Nation—escaped from a raid on their compound in West Virginia last month. I’ve known One Nation was on the bureau’s radar for a long time, but I wasn’t involved with the case.”
“What’s their mission?”
“To incite a race war by gunning down white cops in largely black neighborhoods. These rednecks knew that if that happened, the local cops would likely overreact and trouble would spread. They put their whole manifesto on the Internet like so many of these mouth breathers do, but no one really thought they’d follow through. But they did. A couple of cops got shot in South Philly. And all hell broke loose. Riots, vandalism, looting, people on both sides killed, including some grade-school kids. I’m sure you saw it on the news.”
“So the bureau raided the One Nation compound outside Wheeling. They arrested a dozen guys and a couple of women, but the four men in leadership got away. No one knew where they went, or whether they’d split up or stayed together. But one of the group in custody said one of the four guys had some familiarity with Wyoming, because he’d been elk hunting out here. Specifically, Jackson Hole. So my boss asked me to poke around, without alarming the locals.”
“And you did,” Pickett said.
He nodded. “I needed a distraction, so I jumped all over it. It took me a few days before I found a clerk at a hardware store who told me about two guys who fit the description buying up ammo and heavy-duty hand tools. He said they had West Virginia accents and one of them had a long beard like those yokels from Duck Dynasty.”
“Our man in the doorway,” Pickett said.
“I started making forays into the mountains. I didn’t think I’d actually
run into them. It was really more an accident than intentional. I walked into their camp this morning, before I realized who they were.”
“That’s when you gave them your phone?”
“It wasn’t like that,” he said, annoyed. “I told them I wanted to join up. I told them everything I thought they’d want to hear about the country going to shit and the way to finally fix it. They liked what I was saying, but they didn’t greet me with open arms. I could tell they were thinking about it, though. If nothing else, they needed help with the building before winter rolled in. These guys aren’t exactly geniuses when it comes to construction, as you can tell.”
“Most criminals I’ve dealt with are just idiots,” Pickett said.
“I’ve known many who were fuckin’ smart. But these guys are idiots, with a cause. And even though they were friendly at first, they started getting suspicious. To prove I wasn’t a threat, I gave them my phone when they asked for it. I wasn’t worried because I’d deleted everything on it.”
Pickett nodded. “Go on.”
“It all went pear shaped when a fat guy with a WHITE PRIDE sweatshirt and a skinny guy who looked like he’d just walked off the set of Deliverance decided they’d pat me down to see if I was packing. I was, of course. I started backing off, but that didn’t sit well with Duck Dynasty over there, and the next thing I knew he was locking and loading his rifle and aiming it at me. I ran for the trees as the three others went for their weapons. I was able to throw myself into the shelter of a big root-pan, when they all opened up. It sounded like D-Day.”
“I heard it,” Pickett said.
“Finally, when they paused to reload, I was able to take out Duck Dynasty. That caused the others to strike out on foot. I chased them for a while and then decided it made more sense to see if I could find my phone and call it in. Unfortunately, that’s when you showed up.”
Pickett raised his hands in a what-are-you-gonna-do? gesture.
“But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think I have a plan to take these guys on,” Coburn said.
“Oh, really? This should be interesting.”
He pretended not to notice Pickett’s skeptical tone. “I keep them engaged until dusk, like I’ve been doing. That way, they’re on the defensive
and they won’t have the wherewithal to overrun us. Then, you’ll replace me. I’ll give you my .45 so they’ll think I’m still the one firing.”
“You’ll do what I’ve been doing. Playing the . . . what was it?”
“Right. Popping up every fifteen to twenty minutes to take a shot at them. Keep them guessing when you’ll appear and where you’ll shoot.”
“Meanwhile?” Pickett asked.
“I’ll use your cover fire to run out of this building. I’ll take your shotgun and get up into the trees and outflank them. Then I’ll take them out one by one. They’ll be dead before they know what hit them.”
Pickett seemed to remain doubtful.
“The best thing you can do to the enemy is keep him off balance,” he said. “Given the odds, they won’t expect me to take it to them.”
Pickett grinned. “I’ve got a buddy named Nate Romanowski. We butt heads from time to time. I think he’d approve of your plan. But I’m not sure I do.”
“You have a better one?” Coburn asked with some heat.
“That gives me absolutely no confidence.”
Pickett continued to ruminate. Why did it take this guy so long to form a thought? A glacier could have thawed by the time the game warden said, “So you’ve been hiking around these mountains all by yourself for weeks until you found these guys?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Must be running from something yourself.”
His hackles rose. Pickett might be slow, but he sure as hell wasn’t thick. “That’s none of your goddamn business.”
“What are you recuperating from?”
He didn’t respond.
“You said you were recuperating. What from?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just wondering. Concussion? Chickenpox? Ingrown toenail?”
He gnawed the inside of his cheek and finally said, “Gunshot.”
Then he sprang to his feet and ran along the wall toward the corner of
the building, his .45 at the ready. The burly white supremacist in the filthy WHITE PRIDE hoodie had just cleared the trees to the south and was working his way toward the unfinished lodge. The man carried a Ruger Mini-14 rifle with a thirty-round magazine.
“Drop it,” Coburn shouted.
WHITE PRIDE raised the rifle.
He fired and hit him center mass. WHITE PRIDE flopped straight back and landed on his butt, still.
“Two down,” he coldly said.
He heard a bang, then something hit him with the force of a mule kick and threw him flat on his back.
He couldn’t move his upper body.
But his grip on his .45 never wavered.
Pickett rushed over and dragged him along the ground to the log wall.
PICKETT WAS SURPRISED BY HOW heavy Coburn was. He was dead weight, but still alive. Proof of that was the litany of profanity that poured out as he propped the agent against the wall.
“Son of a bitch, that hurts,” Coburn hissed through gritted teeth.
“Where are you hit?”
Not good. A high-velocity round through the chest could be fatal. He reached up and peeled back Coburn’s jacket. The bullet had struck just below the clavicle, closer to the shoulder than heart. It looked like a through shot because there was blood coming out from both sides. He’d seen the damage gunshots could do to big-game animals and had become inured to the sight of them. But when a human being was hit, that was different, even if it was a man he had no reason to like.
“I don’t think anything vital was hit,” he said. “I’m not sure it even broke any bones.”
“It hurts like hell.”
“You bleeding out is a worry, though.”
Joe didn’t have access to the first aid kit. That was with Rojo and his
saddlebag. “I’m going to use your shirt to bind it up. Lean forward so I can get your jacket off.”
Coburn took a deep breath and bent forward. Joe could only imagine how much it hurt to do that. He eased the arms free, pulled Coburn’s jacket over his head, then removed the bloodstained shoulder holster. Not taking the time to unbutton Coburn’s shirt, he ripped it open and the buttons popped off.
He couldn’t help but notice the scar on Coburn’s belly. Pink, puckered, recent. “Is that where you were shot?”
“No, I cut myself shaving.”
At least that wonderful personality seemed unaffected. Coburn’s arms were muscled and rippling with veins. A barbed-wire tattoo banded the left biceps, while the right displayed the words HONOR &.
The second word was missing.
“Honor and what?” he asked, as he fashioned a sling out of Coburn’s shirt that went over the left shoulder, under the right armpit, and across the chest. He hoped it would stanch the bleeding on both the entry and exit wounds. “Honor and duty? Honor and sacrifice? Or couldn’t you make up your mind?”
Coburn mumbled something incomprehensible.
“Hang on,” he said, “I’m going to cinch this tight and tie it off. It’s gonna hurt.”
Coburn gave a quick nod, the go-ahead, and Joe took that as his cue to pull the shirt as tight as he could and knot it. Coburn didn’t cry out, his jawbone locked tight.
He checked his handiwork.
The shirt was taut, but blood was still seeping through. Best he could hope for was that it would slow down the bleeding.
“I don’t suppose you can raise your right arm,” he asked.
Coburn winced as he tried, but his right hand and the .45 it held stayed in his lap.
“Didn’t think so.”
“I can shoot with my left.”
Empty boast? Hard to say. But he transferred the pistol to Coburn’s left hand.
“Just sit here. No more Whac-A-Mole for you.”
“We need to keep an eye out.”
“I’m not sticking my head up like you did.”
“This completely screws up my plan.”
“With all due respect, it was a crappy plan anyway.”
“Still haven’t heard one from you.”
He sat back. “Honor and what?”
“Honor and why don’t you shut the hell up.”
NOTHING HAPPENED FOR THREE HOURS.
Coburn was getting antsy, and becoming more annoyed with Joe Pickett by the minute. The evening sun was dropping below the tops of the trees, casting deep shadows through the golden light. The smell of the cool pines seemed to intensify. The temperature had dropped ten degrees. It would be dark in two hours.
His shoulder had gone from screaming pain to what was now a low throbbing. If he sat still, he could stand it. But when he moved, even when he took a deep breath, he had to clench his teeth to keep from moaning, groaning, or cussing a blue streak. Despite the chilly air, he was sweating. Only an act of will, and his training for covert missions, prevented him from shivering. He had no doubt he could do what he needed to do with the .45 in his left hand. Especially at close range.
But he wasn’t sure he’d even get the chance.
The game warden sat still.
He worried that Pickett had fallen asleep. He stared across at the man who seemed to be looking at nothing. Face stoic. Or was it empty? He wasn’t sure which, but either way it was getting on his nerves.
“Blink if you can hear me, Pickett.”
“I hear you.”
“What are you doing?”
“Please don’t strain yourself, but could you speed it along so I don’t bleed out?”
“I’ve been waiting for Rojo to come back.”
“My steed,” Pickett said, with an embarrassed smile. “It doesn’t look like he’s coming.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Pickett was quiet for a long time. Then said, “Do you hear anything?”
He perked up, but when he tried to straighten his shoulders, pain pulsed through them.
“No,” he said. “It’s perfectly quiet, except for a little bit of wind.”
“Right,” Joe said. “We’ve been waiting three hours and the natural sounds haven’t come back. No birds, squirrels, anything. Meaning, those guys are still up there.”
He was more than a little impressed that the game warden had determined that. Coburn had engaged in guerrilla warfare in Central America. When the birds quit calling and the monkeys stopped chattering, you unsheathed your machete because somebody was close.
“It also probably means they aren’t exactly sure what they’re going to do,” Pickett said. “Otherwise we would have heard something. Low talking. A branch snapping underfoot. Something. I think they’re still up there, but confused.”
“Think about it,” Pickett said. “It was around noon when they were peppering us with gunfire and watched us take cover here. But because they’ve only seen you, they might assume I was hit and died in here. They haven’t even caught a glimpse of me. They’re pretty sure you’re hit. And since that happened we haven’t shown ourselves. For all they know there are two dead men down here.”
He gave a curt nod of agreement.
Pickett asked, “Have you ever hunted?”
“You mean game?”
He turned his head aside, looked into the darkness, and said quietly, “Men.”
“Only bad men, though.”
“Sort of depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?”
Pickett said nothing for a moment, then cleared his throat. “I was thinking elk or deer.”
“Long ago in Idaho, with my dad,” he said.
He’d been twelve years old. His father shot a mule deer from the window of their truck before the sun came up, which was illegal. In the headlights, his dad had put the wounded animal out of its misery by hitting it on the head with a shovel.
“Didn’t like it much,” he said.
“Maybe you can still relate to my point.”
“You can spend weeks in a wilderness like this, going after elk or moose. Stalking. Camping. Moving on foot. The first few years you hunt you’re filled with bloodlust. It’s how men are wired. We want to blast away and kill something and get our hands bloody. But it gets frustrating after a while because these animals we hunt are prey. That’s how they’re wired. They aren’t particularly smart, but they know not to charge into a confrontation. Instead, they avoid ’em.”
“What does that have to do with us?”
“Maybe nothing. But from what you tell me, these One Nation guys are just dumb rednecks. If they were smart, they’d hightail it out of these mountains while they’ve had the chance. Either that, or they’d wait until morning and sneak down here to make sure we’re dead. But these guys are dumb. And violent. They have bloodlust. So they’re itching to confirm their kills, bury our bodies, and get to working on this building again so they can go back to inciting a race war. In other words, they don’t have much patience and they’re probably hungry, like I am.” Pickett chinned toward the coolers and canned goods in the shadow of the trees. “They want their Dinty Moore stew.”
Coburn saw the logic in what Pickett said. Besides, in the shape he was in, he couldn’t launch an attack on a butterfly, much less two idiots with firepower and a cause.
“So we wait them out?”
“Till they make a move,” Pickett said.
“Or I drain dry of blood.”
“Whichever comes first.”
Pickett opened his eyes.
It had been an hour and a half since either of them had spoken. They had thirty minutes of light left, although it had been a while since they’d seen the sun. The dark walls of trees seemed to be closing in, and because the breeze had stopped it seemed incredibly still and totally silent except for Coburn’s whisper of a name.
“What?” he whispered back.
“Honor and Emily.”
He was puzzled. “That’s a new one.”
Coburn shook his head. “Honor is the name of my . . . woman. Emily’s her daughter. Five years old.”
He tried to keep his surprise from showing. “So you have a family?”
Joe waited for more that didn’t come. Finally, he said, “I’ve got a great wife and three daughters. I don’t mind admitting that, if it weren’t for them, I don’t know what good I’d be.”
Coburn looked over hard at him. “You mean like me.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You wouldn’t be far off the mark. She and I have only been together three months.”
“Marybeth and I met in college.”
Coburn shifted uncomfortably. “Honor and I met under more unusual circumstances.”
He waited for more.
“I crawled out of a swamp into her yard, held her at gunpoint, threatened her life, and tied her up.”
“Never would’ve taken you for such a romantic.”
Coburn puffed a laugh. “She was involved in this case I was working.”
He motioned toward Coburn’s belly. “Is that when that happened?”
“Yep. Didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. I started going out to the airport every day.” Coburn paused. “Anyhow, that asshole I told you about? My boss. Hamilton? Honor threatened him with bodily harm if he
didn’t tell her where I was. She would’ve been better off staying in Louisiana. But one day there she was. With Emily and Elmo.”
“That sounds like a happy ending.”
Coburn shrugged. “Maybe for a guy who wants to settle down. Maybe for a guy like you. A guy who knows who Elmo is.”
He chuckled. “A little girl, huh? So you’re awash in estrogen.”
“You could say that.”
“Sometimes I think of my place as the ‘House of Feelings,’?” he said. “It can be quite a shocker to spend the day alone out in the field and return home to that.”
“Four of ’em,” Coburn said, shaking his head. “I have trouble handling two. I’ve spent my whole life on my own. Keeping my own company. Not sharing anything with anybody, especially space. Now I’m having discussions about things like curtains. I don’t care what color they are. I just want to know if they shut.”
He nodded. “I hear you. And what’s the thing with throw pillows?”
“Hell if I know.”
They pondered the imponderable for a few seconds.
“Can Honor cook?” he asked.
Coburn smiled. “Oh, yeah. And don’t get me wrong. She’s wonderful. I can’t keep my hands off her. It’s the other stuff I gotta work through. I keep asking myself, Can I do this?”
“That’s not the question you should be asking.”
“Do you want to do it?”
He gave him time to answer, but nothing came, so he said, “You can do it, Coburn. If I can put up with a mother-in-law who never fails to remind me that her daughter married down, you can put up with curtains and throw pillows. Builds character. Maybe Honor will take the edge off you.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“With all due respect, you could be less of a hard-ass. And one other thing. When we get out of this thing, go have Emily’s name added to your arm. Don’t chicken out this time.”
Coburn glanced at his still seeping wound. “If we get out of this thing.”
“We’ll find out soon enough, I think.”
By eight thirty a sliver of moon had wedged between the spindled tops of two pine trees, the sky overhead almost cloudy from the countless stars. A sight Pickett never tired of seeing.
Two men stepped out of the trees on the south side of the clearing. One was stocky and short with a barrel chest. The other cadaverous, and he pulled his left leg behind him as he walked. Silver light reflected off the barrels of their rifles.
The stocky man whispered, “You gonna make it?”
“I better,” the skinny man said in a southern twang. “Ain’t never tried to walk on a shot-up leg before.”
The stocky man chuckled.
They moved deliberately across the clearing toward the walls of the lodge. Condensation puffed from their mouths with every breath. They kept low as they neared the log walls.
When they were leaning against it, the stocky one whispered, “One, two, three.”
And they both sprang up and looked over the wall, their rifles sweeping the dirt floor.
After a beat, the stocky man said, “Where the hell did they go?”
“Right behind you,” Coburn said, raising the .45 with his left hand.
Joe didn’t even have the stock of the shotgun up to his cheek before there were two loud booms and orange fireballs erupted from the muzzle of Coburn’s weapon. Both the rednecks were thrown into the wall by the bullets’ impact. The skinny man fell like a puppet with his strings clipped. The stocky one regained his balance, turned, and raised his rifle. Coburn shot him again and the man dropped to the ground.
Pickett’s ears rang.
He barely heard Coburn say, “I think I forgot to say freeze.”
COBURN EYED PICKETT IN THE amber light from the campfire. The game warden had finally stopped talking and had settled in to shoveling spoonful after spoonful of canned stew into his mouth.
“I can’t believe I’m so hungry,” Pickett said. “Usually when I see a dead person, I get sick.”
“Then drink,” Coburn said, extending a bottle of bourbon they’d found in the One Nation cache.
Pickett grabbed the bottle, sucked a long swig, then grimaced.
“Good, huh?” Coburn said, taking it back.
The liquor dulled the pain from his shoulder but not as much as he would like.
“How did you know they wouldn’t see us leave that shelter to hide in the trees?”
“The darkest time of the night is that ten-minute window after the sun goes down, and just before the moon comes out. It takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust. You learn that by chasing poachers around. That’s why we left when we did.”
Something emerged from the trees.
Like a ghost, twenty feet from the fire, startling them both.
“My steed,” Pickett said, definitely pleased. “Rojo.”
The horse snorted.
Pickett stood with a grunt and led the animal closer to the fire, tying him to a tree trunk and fishing a radio out of the saddlebag.
“I’m going to contact the Teton County Sheriff’s Department. When the good guys get here, do you want to go straight to the hospital?”
“Thought maybe you’d want to roust your tattoo guy first.”
Coburn savored another deep drink of the bourbon.