When a resident at the Durant Home for Assisted Living is found poisoned, Sheriff Longmire finds her death proving as dramatic as her life, which was marked by connections to the coal-bed methane industry, a relationship with Longmire's predecessor, and an abusive husband. By the author of The Cold Dish. 20,000 first printing.
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Craig Johnson is the author of eight previous novels in the Walt Longmire series. He has a background in law enforcement and education. He lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population twenty-five.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“They used ?re, back in the day.”
What the old cowboy meant was that folks who were inconsiderate enough to die in the Wyoming winter faced four feet of frozen ground between them and their ?nal resting place.
“They used to build a bon?re an’ allow it to burn a couple of hours, melt through the frost, and then dig the grave.”
Jules unscrewed the top from a ?ask he had pulled from the breast pocket of his tattered jean jacket and leaned on his worn shovel. It was 28 degrees outside, the jean jacket was all he wore, and he wasn’t shivering; the ?ask probably had something to do with that.
“Now we only use the shovels when dirt clods roll into the grave from the backhoe.” The tiny man took a sip from the ?ask and continued the throes of philosophic debate. “The traditional Chinese cof?n is rectangular with three humps, and they won’t bury you wearing red ’cause you’ll turn into a ghost.”
I nodded and did my best to stand still in the wind. He took another sip and didn’t offer me any.
“The ancient Egyptians had their essential organs removed and put in jars.”
I nodded some more.
“The Hindus burn the body, a practice I admire, but we cremated my uncle Milo and ended up losing him when his top came loose and he fell through the holes in the rusted ?oorboard of a Willy’s Jeepster on the Upper Powder River Road.” He thought about it, shaking his head at the ignominious end. “That ain’t where I wanna spend eternity.”
I nodded again and looked off toward the Big Horn Mountains, where it continued to snow. Somehow bon?res seemed more romantic than construction equipment or Willy’s Jeepsters, for that matter.
“The Vikings used to stick ’em a?re on a boat with all their stuff and shove out to sea, but that seems like an awful waste of stuff, not to mention a perfectly good boat.” He paused, but continued. “Vikings considered death to be just another voyage and you never knew what you could end up needing, so you might as well take it all with you.” The jackleg carpenter turned his ferocious blue eyes toward me and took another sip in honor of his ancestors, still not offering me any.
I buried my hands in my duty jacket, straining the embroidered star of the Absaroka County Sheriff ’s Of?ce, and dropped my head a little as he kept on talking. I had seen Jules on a professional basis as a lodger at the jail when the nephew of the previous sheriff, and deputy of mine at the time, had picked him up for public intoxication and had beaten him. I had in turn beaten Turk, much to the dismay of my receptionist/dispatcher Ruby, and then turned him over to the highway patrol in hopes that a more structured environment might do him some good.
“The Mongols used to ride the body on a horse till it fell off.”
I sighed deeply, but Jules didn’t seem to notice.
“The Plains Indians probably had it right with the burial scaffolding; if you aren’t up to anything else, you might as well feed the buzzards.”
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Jules?”
I turned and looked down at him. “Do you ever shut up?”
He tipped his battered cowboy hat back on his head and took the ?nal swig, still smiling. “Nope.”
I nodded my ?nal nod, turned, and tramped my way down the hill away from the aged cottonwood at the fence line, where I had already worn a path in the snow. Jules had been there on my three previous visits, and he knew my pattern.
I guess gravedigging got lonely.
You can tell the new graves by the pristine markers and the mounds of earth. From my numerous and one-sided conversations, I had learned that there were water lines running a patchwork under the graveyard with faucets that would be used in the spring to help soak the dirt and tamp the new ones ?at but, for now, it was as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes. It had been almost a month since her death, and I found myself up here once a week.
When somebody like Vonnie dies you expect the world to stop, and maybe for one brief second the world does take notice. Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still.
It took about ten minutes to get back to the IGA in the center of Durant where I had left my erstwhile deputy to shanghai prospective jurors for the local judicial system. I rolled into the parking lot, scratched my beard as I parked, and looked at the plastic-wrapped bundles of wood priced at two for seven bucks that were stacked at the entrance of the grocery store. We had been forced to act as the Absaroka County press gang about eight times during my tenure as sheriff, which itself had taken up almost a quarter of a century. The jury wheels used by the county were chocked so full of outdated records that a large percentage of the summonses were returned undeliverable, and the ones that did get where they were supposed to go many times got ignored. My advice that we simply put occupant on the things was dismissed out of hand.
I looked at the handsome woman at the entrance of the grocery store with the clipboard in her hands. Victoria Moretti didn’t like being called handsome, but that’s how I thought of her. Her features were a little too pronounced to be dismissed as pretty. The jaw was just a little too strong, the tarnished gold eyes just a little too sharp. She was like one of those beautiful saltwater ?sh in one of those tanks you knew better than to stick your hand into; you didn’t even tap on the glass.
“Of all the shitty things you make me do, I think I hate this the most. I have an undergraduate degree in law enforcement, I’ve forgotten how many hours toward a masters, graduated from the Philadelphia Police Academy in the top ?ve percent. I had four years street duty, two ?eld commendations...I am your most senior of?cer.” I felt a sharp jab at my midriff. “Are you fucking listening to me?”
I watched as my highly capable and awarded deputy accosted a middle-aged man in a barn coat, copied down information from his driver’s license, and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. “Well, there’s another notch on my Glock.”
I watched as the hapless shopper balanced his purchases and wandered off to his car. “Hey, there are worse places for a stakeout, at least we’ve got plenty of supplies.”
“It’s supposed to snow another eight inches tonight.”
I looked over at the neatly shoveled driveways. “Don’t worry. You can go in and ?ush them out, and you can do some last minute shopping.” I was tapping on the glass and getting my tarnished gold’s worth. “How many more talis jurors do we need?”
“Two.” She searched the automatic glass doors behind us. Dan Crawford stood at the far register, registering his annoyance at our of?cial abuse of his customer base. She looked back at me. “Talis jurors?”
“The process started in this country with the Boston Massacre. They pulled spectators out of the courtroom gallery to serve as jurors during the trial of a British soldier. It’s from the Latin, meaning bystander. You’re Italian, you should understand these things.”
“I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.”
I looked off toward the mountains west of town and at the broiling darkness that seemed to be waiting behind the range. I couldn’t help but think that it would be a nice evening to sit by the ?re. Red Road Contracting had promised to have my triple-walled ?ume put in by last weekend, but so far all they had done was cut an opening in my roof the size of a large porthole. They said the ?rebox that mounted to the ceiling would cover the hole, but for now the only thing between the inside of my snug little log cabin and the impending great outdoors was ten millimeters of plastic and some duct tape. It wasn’t really their fault. The coal-bed methane out?ts were paying close to twenty dollars an hour, roughly twice what general contracting paid anywhere on the high plains, so Danny Pretty On Top had signed on with Powder River Energy Exploration and had left Charlie Small Horse to pick up the slack.
“How about I go in and ?ush ’em out?” she said. I looked down at her. “I just want to get back and shoot your dog if he’s shit in my of?ce again.”
I had suspected an underlying motive. The beast did; it was true. I hadn’t had him all that long, and he had decided that rather than go to the trouble of going all the way to the door and having Ruby let him out, he would just wander across the hall and unload in Vic’s of?ce. “He likes you.”
“I like him, too. But I’m going to shoot him in the ass if he leaves another little package for me.”
I sighed and thought about how nice it would be to go back to the warmth of my of?ce. “Okay, go ahead.” It was like turning loose the dogs of war; her eyes grew cold, the mouth curved lupine, and she turned and disappeared.
If it did snow tonight, the whole county would be thrown into a frozen panic, court would be canceled anyway, and my little department would likely be stretched to the limit. Jim Ferguson was only a part-time deputy and Turk was already gone to the highway patrol, so Vic pretty much made up the staff; but we had a potential candidate for Turk’s job. He was a Mexican kid who had ?nished up at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, had elected to begin his career in Kemmerer, and then had moved to the state’s maximum-security prison. After two years there, it would appear that he had changed his mind and was looking for rosier pastures. He was supposed to drive up from Rawlins in the morning for an interview, but I wasn’t holding out much hope. He would have to gun it over Muddy Gap at 6,250 feet through the Rattlesnake range and then up the basin to the foot of the Big Horns and Durant. It was a ?ve-hour trip on dry roads and, looking at the mountains, that didn’t seem possible. It appeared as though we were going to get our third heavy snowstorm since fall: the ?rst had tried to kill me on the mountain, and the other I had enjoyed from a stool at my friend Henry Standing Bear’s bar, the Red Pony.
It was just after Thanksgiving, and we had consumed the better part of a bottle of single malt scotch. When I woke up the next morning, Henry had already pulled a couple of leatherette chairs in front of a double ?fty-gallon drum stove. I slipped off the sleeping bag and swung my legs over the side of the pool table on which I had fallen asleep and tried to feel the muscles in my face. He had hauled his bag with him and sat hunched over the stove. I watched as steam blew out with my breath, and I scrambled to get the down-?lled bag back around me. “Heat’s off.”
He turned his head, and the dark eyes looked through the silver strands in the black curtain of his hair. “Yes.” I joined him at the stove in my socks. The ?oor was cold, and I regretted not slipping on my boots. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Then go and make some. I am the one who built the ?re.”
I found the ?lters and the tin of already ground coffee on the second shelf of the bar. I had lots of little bags of expensive beans that my daughter had sent me when she was a law student in Seattle. Cady was now a lawyer in Philadelphia, and I still hadn’t gotten around to getting a grinder. Henry Standing Bear had a grinder. The Bear had a vegetable mandoline, and I didn’t know anybody else who had one of those.
I started the coffee, hopped back over to the ?re, and grabbed my boots along the way. The windows had begun to freeze on the inside. “How come the water hasn’t frozen?”
I pulled my boots on and gathered the sleeping bag back around me. “You out of propane?”
“The heater never works when it is really cold.”
“Yes, in the summer it works perfectly.”
We sat there for a while, the homemade stove just beginning to warm the northeast corner of the little building or at least the sixteen inches between it and us. I yawned and watched as he yawned, too. He was studying me again. We hadn’t talked in the last few days; there had been too much to say. We watched as the bottom barrel began to tic and grow red.
“Dena go to that pool tournament in Vegas?”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“I have not yet decided.”
It felt good there with that strange feeling of being in a public place without the public. I was going to have to call and check in, but it was still early on a Sunday, our slowest day of the week. I was avoiding it, mostly because I would get caught talking to Lucian. He had a few strange ideas about some goings on out at the Durant Home for Assisted Living and had become a kind of Absaroka County Agatha Christie. I told him that if anybody shortened the span of any of the occupants they wouldn’t be robbing them of all that much, and he reminded me that he would be happy to take me by my mutilated, half-century old ear and march me around the block. Ever since I had hired the retired sheriff as a part-time dispatcher on weekends, he had been gathering his salt.
I looked out through the haloed light of a high-plains winter at the falling snow with ?akes the size of poker chips. I had had inclinations that it was going to be a winter to remember, and so far I had been right. The day before Thanksgiving, Cady had been trapped at the Philadelphia airport; she had been trying to get back to Wyoming for a surprise visit. I hadn’t been feeling well and, after getting through one of the toughest cases of my life, she could tell. Cady had called, ?lled with tears and frustrated fury at a two-fold snowstorm that had grounded planes on both the eastern seaboard and in Denver, the hub to our part of the world. They had assured her that even if she did make it there, she would be spending the holiday at DIA. We talked for an hour and forty-two minutes. She was laughing that heartfelt laugh of hers by the time we were done, the one that matched her deep rustic voice, and I felt better.
“Dena says she is moving to Las Vegas.”
The coffee was done, so I pulled the sleeping bag up a little higher on my shoulders and towed it over to the bar with me; I must have looked like a giant praying mantis. I poured myself a cup and got the heavy cream the Bear kept in the bar refrigerator. I added the cream to his and dumped in what I considered a reasonable amount of sugar, dropped a spoon in, and carried it over to him; I ?gured the least he could do was stir the thing himself. I handed him the Sturgis mug and sat back down. “Things could be worse.”
“And how is that?”
I took a sip of my coffee for dramatic effect. “You could have been dating a murderer.” I watched as the big shoulders shifted, and he stared at me. It felt wrong, saying it like that. It was disrespectful of somebody I still cared a great deal about. “I guess everybody’s a little nervous about talking to me, huh?”
His eyes were steady. “Yes.”
“I’m okay.” He didn’t say anything. “I am.”
I shook my head and looked at the stove. It was warming up a little in our corner of the world, so I shrugged the bag down off my shoulders. “Are you going to say anything in this conversation besides yes?” I quickly added. “Don’t answer that.”<...
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