(Available April 6, 2010)
WITH EVERY mile of his last patrol of the Sierra Madres of Southern Wyoming, Joe Pickett 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 mid-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 jailbars to the forest floor. Joe had to keep nudging and kissing at his mount to keep him going up 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’s 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 mutton-chop sideburns and a slack expression on his face, Farkus had opened with, “So you’re really are 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.”