TUESDAY, AUGUST 25
Three hours after he'd broken camp, repacked, and pushed his horses higher into the mountain range, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett paused on the lip of a wide hollow basin and dug in his saddlebag for his notebook. The bow hunters had described where they'd tracked the wounded elk, and he matched the topography against their description.
He glassed the basin with binoculars and noted the fingers of pine trees reaching down through the grassy swale and the craterlike depressions in the hollow they'd described. This, he determined, was the place.
He'd settled into a familiar routine of riding until his muscles got stiff and his knees hurt. Then he'd climb down and lead his geldings Buddy and Blue Roanie—a packhorse he'd named unimaginatively—until he could loosen up and work the kinks out. He checked his gear and the panniers on Roanie often to make sure the load was well balanced, and he'd stop so he and his horses could rest and get a drink of water. The second day of riding brought back all the old aches, but they seemed closer to the surface now that he was in his mid-forties.
Shifting his weight in the saddle toward the basin, he clicked his tongue and touched Buddy's sides with his spurs. The horse balked.
"C'mon, Buddy," Joe said. "Let's go now, you knucklehead."
Instead, Buddy turned his head back and seemed to implore Joe not to proceed.
"Don't be ridiculous. Go."
Only when he dug his spurs in did Buddy shudder, sigh, and start the descent.
"You act like I'm making you march to your death like a beef cow," Joe said. "Knock it off, now." He turned to check that his packhorse was coming along as well. "You doing okay, Blue Roanie? Don't pay any attention to Buddy. He's a knucklehead."
But on the way down into the basin, Joe instinctively reached back and touched the butt of his shotgun in the saddle scabbard to assure himself it was there. Then he untied the leather thong that held it fast.
It was to have been a five-day horseback patrol before the summer gave way to fall and the hunting seasons began in earnest—before a new game warden was assigned the district to take over from Joe, who, after a year in exile, was finally going home. He was more than ready.
He'd spent the previous weekend packing up his house and shed and making plans to ride into the mountains on Monday, descend on Friday, and clean out his state-owned home in Baggs for the arrival of the new game warden the first of next week. Baggs ("Home of the Baggs Rattlers!") was a tough, beautiful, raggedy mountain town as old as the state itself. The community sprawled through the Little Snake River Valley on the same unpaved streets Butch Cassidy used to walk. Baggs was so isolated it was known within the department as the "warden's graveyard"—the district where game wardens were sent to quit or die. Governor Spencer Rulon had hidden Joe there for his past transgressions, but after Rulon had won a second term in a landslide, he'd sent word through his people that Joe was no longer a liability. As luck had it, at the same time, Phil Kiner in Saddlestring took a new district in Cody and Joe quickly applied for—and received— his old district north in the Bighorns in Twelve Sleep County, where his family was.
Despite his almost giddy excitement about moving back to his wife, Marybeth, and his daughters, he couldn't in good conscience vacate the area without investigating the complaint about the butchered elk. That wouldn't be fair to the new game warden, whoever he or she would be. He'd leave the other reported crimes to the sheriff.
Joe Pickett was lean, of medium height and medium build. His gray Stetson Rancher was stained with sweat and red dirt. A few silver hairs caught the sunlight on his temples and unshaved chin. He wore faded Wranglers, scuffed lace-up outfitter boots with stubby spurs, a red uniform shirt with the pronghorn antelope patch on his shoulder, and a badge over his breast pocket with the designation GF-54. A tooled leather belt that identified him as "Joe" held handcuffs, bear spray, and a service issue .40 Glock semiauto.
With every mile of his last patrol of the Sierra Madre of southern Wyoming, Joe felt as if he were going back into time and to a place of immense and unnatural silence. With each muffled hoofbeat, the sense of foreboding got stronger until it enveloped him in a calm, dark dread that made the hair prick up on the back of his neck and on his forearms and that set his nerves on edge.
The silence was disconcerting. It was late August but the normal alpine soundtrack was switched to mute. There were no insects humming in the grass, no squirrels chattering in the trees to signal his approach, no marmots standing up in the rocks on their hind legs and whistling, no deer or elk rustling in the shadows of the trees rimming the meadows where they fed, no grouse clucking or flushing. Yet he continued on, as if being pulled by a gravitational force. It was as if the front door of a dark and abandoned house slowly opened by itself before he could reach for the handle and the welcome was anything but warm. Despite the brilliant greens of the meadows or the subdued fireworks of alpine flowers, the sun-fused late summer morning seemed ten degrees cooler than it actually was.
"Stop spooking yourself," he said aloud and with authority.
But it wasn't just him. His horses were unusually twitchy and emotional. He could feel Buddy's tension through the saddle. Buddy's muscles were tight and balled, he breathed rapid shallow breaths, and his ears were up and alert. The old game trail he took was untracked and covered with a thin sheet of pine needles but it switchbacked up the mountain, and as they rose, the sky broke through the canopy and sent shafts of light like jail bars to the forest floor. Joe had to keep nudging and kissing at his mount to keep him going up the face of the mountain into the thick forest. Finally deep into the trees, he yearned for open places where he could see.
Joe was still unnerved by a brief conversation he'd had with a dubious local named Dave Farkus the day before at the trailhead.
Joe was pulling the cinch tight on Buddy when Farkus emerged from the brush with a spinning rod in his hand. Short and wiry, with muttonchop sideburns and a slack expression on his face, Farkus had opened with, "So you're really goin' up there?"
Joe said, "Yup."
The fisherman said, "All I know for sure is I drink beer at the Dixon Club bar with about four old-timers who were here long before the energy workers got here and a hell of a lot longer than you. A couple of these guys are old enough they forgot more about these mountains than either of us will ever know. They ran cattle up there and they hunted up there for years. But you know what?"
Joe felt a clench in his belly the way Farkus had asked. He said, "What?"
"None of them old fellers will go up there anymore. Ever since that runner vanished, they say something just feels wrong."
Joe said, "Feelings aren't a lot to go on."
"That ain't all," said Farkus. "What about all the break-ins at cabins in the area and parked cars getting their windows smashed in at the trailheads? There's been a lot of that lately."
"I heard," Joe said. "Sheriff Baird is looking into that, I believe."
"Is there something you're not telling me?" Joe had asked.
"No. But we all heard some of the rumors. You know, camps being looted. Tents getting slashed. I heard there were a couple of bow hunters who tried to poach an elk before the season opened. They hit one, followed the blood trail for miles to the top, but when they finally found the animal it had already been butchered and the meat all hauled away. Is that true?"
Like most hunters who had broken the law, the bow hunters had come to Joe's office and turned themselves in. Joe had cited them for hunting elk out of season, but had been intrigued by their story. They seemed genuinely creeped out by what had happened. "That's what they said."
Farkus widened his eyes. "So it's true after all. And that's what you're up to, isn't it? You're going up there to find whoever took their elk if you can. Well, I hope you do. Man, nobody likes the idea of somebody stealing another man's meat. That's beyond the pale. And this Wendigo crap—where did that come from? Bunch of Indian mumbo-jumbo. Evil spirits, flesh eaters, I ask you. This ain't Canada, thank God. Wendigos are up there, not here, if they even exist. Heh-heh."
It was not much of a laugh, Joe thought. More like a nervous tic. A way of saying he didn't necessarily believe a word of what he'd just said—unless Joe did.
Joe said, "Wendigos?"
They broke through the trees and emerged onto a treeless meadow walled by dark timber, and he stopped to look and listen. Joe squinted, looking for whatever was spooking his horses and him, hoping reluctantly to see a bear, a mountain lion, a wolverine, even a snake. But what he saw were mountains that tumbled like frozen ocean waves all the way south into Colorado, wispy puffball clouds that scudded over him immodestly showing their vulnerable white bellies, and his own mark left behind in the ankle-deep grass: parallel horse tracks, steaming piles of manure. There were no human structures of any kind in view and hadn't been for a full day. No power lines, microwave stations, or cell phone towers. The only proof that he was not riding across the same wilderness in the 1880s were the ...