Dark Sky (Joe Pickett #21) by C. J. Box





ONE


            Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett stood on the edge of the tarmac with his hands thrust into the pockets of his parka and his gray Stetson clamped on tight against the cold wind. It was a week until his birthday and his leg hurt and the brisk chill made him feel all of his fifty-one years on the planet.

            His first glimpse of the $65 million Gulfstream G650ER private jet was of a gleaming white speck high above the rounded, snowcapped peaks of the Bighorn Mountains to the west.

            It was a cloudless mid-October morning, but it had snowed an inch during the night and the ten-mile-an-hour breeze cleared the concrete of the runway, rolling thin smoky waves of flakes across the pavement of the Saddlestring Municipal Airport. The timbered mountains had received three to five inches that would likely melt away in the high-altitude sun, but the treeless summits looked like the white crowns of so many bald eagles standing shoulder to shoulder against the clear blue sky.

            “Cold this morning,” Brock Boedecker said.

            “Yup.”

            Boedecker was a fourth-generation rancher whose land reached up from the breakland plateau into the midpoint of Battle Mountain. He had a classic western look about him: narrow, thin, with deep-set eyes and a bushy black mustache, its tips extending to his jawline. It was the kind of weathered look, Joe thought, that had once convinced the marketing team at Marlboro to hire the local Wyoming cowboy who’d brought them horses for their ad shoot instead of the male models they’d flown out from Hollywood.

            “Not quite ready for snow yet,” Boedecker said while tucking his chin into the collar of his jacket.

            “Nope.”

            “About a month early for these temps.”

            “Yup.”

            “It’s supposed to warm up a little later this week.”

            “Yup.”

            Boedecker asked, “Are you sure this is something we want to do?”

            “Not really.”

            “Damn. I feel the same way. Is there any way we can get out of it?”

            “Nope.”

            “I could do it without you,” the rancher said. “Hell, I do this all the time.”

            “I know you could. But I wouldn’t feel right letting you down at the last minute. I’m the one that got you into this, remember?”

            “How’s your leg?” Boedecker asked.

            “Getting better all the time.”

            It was true. The gunshot Joe had sustained was healing on schedule due to months of rehabilitation and physical therapy, but he still walked with a limp. On cold mornings like this, he could feel it where the rifle round had punched through his thigh—a line of deadness rimmed by pangs of sharp pain when he moved.

            Boedecker sighed. It seemed like there was something he wanted to say, so Joe waited. Finally: “Well, them horses you ordered are all trailered up and ready. I’ll wait for you inside, I think.”

            Joe nodded. He turned to watch Boedecker make his way toward the glass doors of the old terminal. The rancher wore a weathered black hat, a canvas barn coat stained with oil, and a magenta silk scarf wrapped around his neck. His back was broad. The scarf reminded Joe that cowboys, even the crustiest of them, always displayed a little flash in their dress.

            “Thanks for helping me out with this, Brock,” Joe called out after him.