When Earl Alden is found dead, his wife Missy is arrested. Unfortunately for Joe Pickett, Missy is his much-disliked mother-in- law. All signs point to her being guilty as sin. But then things happen to make Joe wonder if everything is as it seems. He has the county DA and sheriff on one side, his wife on the other, and some powerful interests breathing down his neck. Whichever way this goes, it's not going to be good.
He set out after breakfast on what would be his last day on earth.
He was an old man, but like many men of his generation with his wealth and station, he refused to think of himself that way. Deep in his heart, he honestly entertained the possibility he would never break down and perhaps live forever, while those less driven and less successful around him dropped away.
In fact, he'd recently taken to riding a horse over vast stretches of his landholdings when the weather was good. He rode a leggy black Tennessee walker; sixteen and a half hands in height, tall enough that he called for a mounting block in order to climb into the saddle. The horse seemed to glide over the sagebrush flats and wooded Rocky Mountain juniper-dotted foothills like a ghost, as if the gelding strode on a cushion of air. The gait spared his knees and lower back, and it allowed him to appreciate the ranch itself without constantly being interrupted by the stabs of pain that came from six and a half decades of not sitting a horse.
Riding got him closer to the land, which, like the horse, was his. He owned the sandy and chalky soil itself and the thousands of Black Angus that ate the same grass as herds of buffalo had once grazed. He owned the water that flowed through it and the minerals beneath it and the air that coursed over it. The very air.
Although he was a man who'd always owned big thingshomes, boats, aircraft, cars, buildings, large and small corporations, race horses, oil wells, and for a while a small island off the coast of North Carolinahe loved this land most of all because unlike everything else in his life, it would not submit to him (well, that and his woman, but that was a different story). Therefore, he didn't hold it in contempt.
So he rode over his ranch and beheld it and talked to it out loud, saying, "How about if we compromise and agree that, for the time being, we own each other?"
As the old man rode, he wore a 40X beaver silverbelly short-brimmed Stetson, a long-sleeved yoked shirt with snap buttons, relaxed-fit Wranglers, and cowboy boots. He wasn't stupid and he always packed a cell phone and a satellite phone for those locations on his ranch where there was no signal. Just in case.
He'd asked one of his employees, an Ecuadoran named José Maria, to go to town and buy him an iPod and load it up with a playlist he'd entitled "Ranch Music." It consisted largely of film scores. Cuts from Ennio Morricone like "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," the theme from A Fistful of Dollars, "L'Estasi Dell'oro (The Ecstasy of Gold)," and "La Resa dei Conti (For a Few Dollars More)," Elmer Bernstein's theme from The Magnificent Seven, "The Journey," and "Calvera's Return," and Jerome Moross' theme from The Big Country. Big, wonderful, rousing, swelling, sweeping, triumphalist music from another era. It was music that simply wasn't made anymore. The pieces were about tough (but fair) men under big skies on horseback, their women waiting for them at home, and bad guysusually Mexicansto be vanquished.
In fact, they'd vanquished some Mexicans of their own off the ranch in the last two months, the result of a surreptitious phone call to ICE placed by his wife. Although the Mexican ranch hands worked hard and were great stockmen, she could document how many times they'd refused to show her respect. She blamed their ingrained macho culture. So the immigration folks rounded them up and shipped them away. Their jobs had recently been filled by Ecuadorans like José Maria who were not as accomplished with cattle but were more deferential to his wife.
He threaded his horse up through gnarled bell-shaped stands of juniper. The trees were heavy with clusters of green buds, and the scent within the stand was sweet and heavy and it reminded him of a gin martini. His horse spooked rabbits that shot out from bunches of tall grass like squeezed grapefruit seeds, and he pushed a small herd of mule deer out ahead of him. It had warmed to the mid-seventies, and as the temperature raised so did the insect hum from the ankle-high grass. He hummed, too, along with the theme from The Big Country. He tried to remember the movie itselfGregory Peck or William Holden?but that was beyond his recollection. He made a note to himself to ask José Maria to order it from Netflix.
He paused the iPod and stuffed the earbuds and cord into his breast pocket as he urged his horse up the gentle slope. The thrumming of insects gave way to the watery sound of wind in the tops of the trees. The transition from an earth sound to the sounds of the sky thrilled him every time, but not nearly as much as what he knew he'd see when he crested the hill.
Clamping his Stetson tight on his head with his free right hand as he cleared the timber, the old man urged his horse to step lively to the top. Now the only sound was the full-throated Class Five wind, but there was something folded inside it, almost on another auditory level, that was high-pitched, rhythmic, and purposeful. He had once heard José Maria describe the sound as similar to a mallard drake in flight along the surface of a river: a furious beating of wings punctuated by a high-pitched but breathy squeak-squeak-squeak that meant the bird was getting closer.
From the crown of the hill, he looked down at the sagebrush prairie that stretched out as far as his eyes could see until it bumped up against the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. And it was all his.
From the gray and gold of the prairie floor, across five thousand acres, on a high ridge, sprung a hundred wind turbines in various stages of construction where just a year ago there had been nothing but wind-sculpted rock poking out of the surface like dry land coral. A fresh network of straight-line dirt roads connected them all. The finished turbinesand there were only ten of them operationalclimbed two hundred fifty feet into the sky. He loved the fact that each tower was a hundred feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. And they were lined up tall and white and perfect in a straight line along the humpbacked spine of a ridge in the basin. All ten working turbines had blades attached. The blades spun, slicing through the Wyoming sky, making that unique whistling sound that was… the sound of money.
And he thought: Ninety more to go.
Behind the row of turbines was another row of towers only, and another, then seven more rows of ten each in different stages of construction. The rows were miles apart from each other, but he was far enough away on the top of the hill to see the whole of it, from the gaping drill-holes at the rear where the hundreds of tons of concrete would be poured into the ground to the bolted foundations of the towers and finally to the turbines and blades that would be built on top. They reminded him of perfectly white shoots of grass in various stages of growth, sprouting from the dirt straight into the sky.
The blades on the completed turbines had a diameter of forty-four meters or one hundred forty-four feet each. They would spin at close to one hundred miles per hour. Semi-trucks had delivered huge stacks of the blades and they lay on the sagebrush surface like long white whale bones left by ships.
He was so far away from his wind farm that the construction equipment, the pickups and cranes and earth-moving equipment, looked like miniatures.
That first line of almost-completed turbines stood like soldiers, his soldiers, facing straight into the teeth of the wind. They spun with defiance and strength, transforming the wind that had denuded the basin of humans and homesteads more than a hundred years ago into power and wealth.
And he waved his hat and whooped at the sheer massive scale of it.
Meeting the supplier-slash-general-contractor for the project the year before had been a spectacular stroke of luck, one of many in his life. Here was a man, a desperate man, with a dream and connections and, most of all, a line on a supply of turbines at a time when the manufacturers couldn't turn out enough of them. This desperate man appeared at the right place and right time and had been literally days away from ruin. And the old man stumbled upon him and seized the opportunity, as he'd seized opportunities before, while those around him dithered and stuttered and consulted their attorneys, chief financial officers, and legislators. That chance meeting and the opportunity that came because of it had saved the old man a million dollars a turbine, or $100 million total. The old man had gone with his gut and made the deal, and here in front of him was the result of his unerring instinct.
Funny thing was, the old man thought, it wasn't the wind farm that would really make him the big money. For that, he would look eastward toward Washington, D.C. That was the epicenter of the breached dam that was sending cash flooding west across the country like waves from a tsunami.
When he heard a rumble of a vehicle motor, he instinctively swept his eyes over the wind farm for the source of the noise, but he quickly decided he was too far away to discern individual sounds.
Since there weren't any cows to move or fences to fix behind him, he doubted it was José Maria or his fellow Ecuadorans coming out his way. He turned in the saddle and squinted back down the hill he had come, but could see nothing.
The old man clicked his tongue and turned his horse back down the hill. As he rode down through the junipers, the harsh winds from on top began to mute, although they didn't quell into silence. They never would.
Again, he heard a motor coming, and he rode right toward it.
When he emerged from the heavy-scented timber, he smiled when he recognized the vehicle and the driver. The four-wheel drive was on an ancient two-track coming in his direction. He could hear the grinding of the motor as well as the spiny high-pitched scraping of sagebrush from beneath the undercarriage. Twin plumes of dust from the tires were snatched away by the wind.
He waved when he was a hundred feet from the vehicle, and was still waving when the driver braked and got out holding a rifle.
"Oh, come on," the old man said, but suddenly he could see everything in absolute gut-wrenching clarity.
The first bullet hit him square in the chest with the impact of a hitter swinging for the upper deck. Shattered his iPod.
by C.J. Box
It’s no secret to anyone driving across America that wind energy projects are the new gold rush. According to the American Wind Energy Association, over 10,000 turbines were erected in the last two years. In 2011, that number is projected to double. The wind energy boom has been paid for by us. The U.S. Treasury wrote checks for more than $2 billion in 2009 to fund the developments.
My home in Wyoming has a view of a distant interstate highway. I’ve watched truck after truck transport blades, sections of towers, and nacelles north at all hours of the day and night. And the landscape of dozens of vistas in my state have been transformed by hundreds of gleaming new 250-foot wind turbines.
Sometimes, the world changes right before your eyes.
There are those who look at miles of wind towers and see the energy source of the future. Others look at the same sight and see an abomination. Me, I wondered if it was possible to hang a body off one of the blades and what that body would look like after rotating at a hundred miles per hour.
The answer to those questions can be found in the newest Joe Pickett novel, Cold Wind (the answer is 1. yes, and 2. pretty frightening).
In order to work out the logistics of such a scenario, it was necessary to figure out a way to get inside and on top of a wind turbine. Lucky for me, an old college friend who is an executive at a power company oversees a wind farm in Wyoming and he made the arrangements.
So on a cold and snowy November day, I strapped on a climbing harness and cinched a helmet tight, tucked away my camera and notebook, and stepped through the hatch of a wind tower to play at being a “turbine monkey.” I fastened a fall-arrest mechanism to a steel cable, and started climbing the ladder.
There’s very little light inside a wind turbine tower and it gets darker as one climbs. The workers warned me not to look down, but I couldn’t help it. At one point, I looked down at the tiny pinprick of light from the hatch and almost swooned.
In a strong wind, the tower sways slightly. The hum of the blades outside gets louder the closer one gets to the nacelle. It gets harder to climb because the ladder rungs are slippery with grease.
Finally on top, we opened the cover of the nacelle. The view was spectacular; distant mountains, herds of antelope, frozen lakes and ponds, and dozens of other turbines at eye level. The speed of the spinning 124-foot blades was incredible close up. And underfoot, the power of the turbine made the metal floor vibrate like a massive electric razor.
In Cold Wind, game warden Joe Pickett makes a similar climb only to find that the misshapen body chained to the blade belonged to his ex-father-in-law. And that his nemesis and mother-in-law Missy is soon to be arrested for the crime.
I hope that after reading the new novel, readers will never look at a distant wind turbine—whatever their opinion of them now—the same way again.
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