ed 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.”
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 ne
“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