A Walt Longmire Mystery
In the latest mystery from award-winner Craig Johnson, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire finds himself in the throes of a modern-day range war.
It's a volatile new economy in Durant, Wyoming, when the owners of a multimillion-dollar development of ranchettes want to get rid of the adjacent Stewart junkyard. Meeting the notorious Stewart clan is an adventure unto itself, and when conflicts erupts- and someone ends up dead-Sheriff Walt Longmire, his lifelong friend Henry Standing Bear, and deputies Santiago Saizarbitoria and Victoria Moretti find themselves in a small town that feels more and more like a high-plains pressure cooker.
The hilarious and suspenseful sixth book in the Longmire series finds our sheriff up to his badge in the darker aspects of human nature, making his way through the case with a combination of love, laughs, and derelict automobiles..
I tried to get a straight answer from his grandson and granddaughter-in-law as to why their grandfather had been tied with a hundred feet of nylon rope to the rear bumper of the 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado.
I stared at the horn pad and rested my forehead on the rim of my steering wheel.
The old man was all right and being tended to in the EMT van behind us, but that hadn’t prevented me from lowering my face in a dramatic display of bewilderment and despair. I was tired, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the young couple or the season.
“So, when you hit the brakes at the stop sign he slammed into the back of the car?”
It had been the kind of winter that tested the souls of even the hardiest; since October, we’d had nothing but blizzards, sifting snowstorms, freezing fogs, and cold snaps that had held the temperature a prisoner at ten below. We’d had relief in only one Chinook that had lasted just long enough to turn everything into a sloppy mess that then encased the county in about six inches of ice with the next freeze.
It was the kind of winter where if the cattle lay down, they weren’t likely to get back up: frozen in and starved out.
I lifted my head and stared at Duane and Gina.
“Yeah, when I hit the brakes I heard this loud thump.” She shrank into her stained parka with the matted, acrylic fur of the hood surrounding her face and tried not to light what I assumed was her last Kool Menthol.
We all sat in the cab of my truck with the light bar revolving to warn passing motorists of the icy roads. The roads, or more specifically the thick coating of ice on the roads, was what probably had saved Geo Stewart and, if it hadn’t been for the numerous 911 calls that my dispatcher, Ruby, had fielded from passing motorists and the stop sign on state route 16, the seventy-two-year-old man would have made the most impromptu arrival into the town of Durant, Wyoming, in its history.
“I guess he slid into the back.” Gina Stewart nodded the same way she had when she’d told me she’d been after cigarettes, Diet Coke, and a box of tampons from the Kum & Go, where she worked part-time.
I looked at the bubblegum-pink lipstick that stained her lone smoke. I’d warned her three times not to light up in my truck and tried to ignore the vague scent of marijuana that wafted off the pair. If she was down to her last cigarette, it smelled like they still had plenty of something else.
“He’s a tough ol’ fucker. That isn’t the first time he’s come off the roof.”
We all listened to the static and random calls of northern Wyoming law enforcement on my Motorola, and I stopped scribbling in my duty book. “The roof?”
I looked at Duane, but he’d yet to utter anything more than a grunting agreement to whatever Gina had said. “Yunh-huh.”
I studied the two of them and thought about resting my head on the steering wheel again. “The roof of the car?”
She shook her head inside the hood and pulled the unlit cigarette from her mouth. “Roof of the big house.”
“The big house.”
It was quiet. I thought about the Stewart family’s compound, comprising a Victorian house and a number of single- and double-wide trailers. “And what was he doing on the roof of the big house?”
She pulled the hood back from her face; the heater from my truck was just beginning to bring the temperature inside the vehicle to past the ice age. For the first time, I noticed she had enormous brown eyes and a lovely, heart-shaped face. It was spoiled by dirty-blond hair, but she was pretty in a shopworn way.
She had learned that to captivate men you must treat them with the utmost attention. I’d only been in the cab with Gina for ten minutes, and I was already dizzy; of course, that could have been from the less-than-legal fumes floating off the two.
She looked at Duane, and so did I, figuring that the rest of the saga was his to tell.
Duane Stewart had dropped out of school at the age of fourteen with his parents’ consent, because he was, in an internal combustion sense, gifted; if you had any type of motor-driven vehicle produced before 1972, Duane could fix it. He and his uncle Morris had a ramshackle mechanic’s shop that was on the road to the junkyard, which was the family’s other going concern.
Thickly built, he had a few pimples scattered across his face that reminded me how young he still was—early twenties at best. His eyes hunted mine, but he ducked away and cleared his throat. “Yunh-huh, we was cleanin’ out the chimney.”
I watched the blue and red lights from my truck that joined with the yellow ones from the EMT van behind us as they raced across the hillsides. “In February?”
He looked at his new wife again and then back to me. “Yunh-huh.”
I took a breath and leaned back in my seat. “Maybe we need to start at the beginning.”
The young man tipped his grease-stained cap back on his head—it read hemi. “The chimney of the big house gets stopped up in the winter after you burn it for a few months, so we dip a mop in kerosene and force it down the flue to clean it out.”
“Yunh-huh.” He warmed to the story and began gesturing with his hands, the work embedded in the swirls of his fingerprints and nails. “I’d a done it, but I’m afraid of heights and Grampus’s agile. He can climb out that top window on the gable end and get ahold of the gutter and swing a leg up onto the roof.” He made the statement as if it should have settled everything.
It hadn’t. “So, the rope—”
“It’s slippery up there with the ice, so he tied it to his waist and slung it over the peak and I tied ’er off to the Classic.”
It was coming all too clear now.
He nodded as he studied my face. “Yunh-huh. I was in the backyard watching Grampus when Gina come around the house and said she was going to the store and did we need anything. I told her no, and then she left.”
I covered the smile that was creeping onto my face with a hand. “The Classic is the car that your grandfather was tied to—the Oldsmobile?”
“Yunh-huh. We heard the car door slam and the motor catch, and that’s when Grampus and me looked at each other. It was about then that the rope went tight.” His callused hand smacked the palm of his other and leapt forward. “Grampus fell over backward, and then he shot up the roof and over the other side.”
“Duane, you stupid prick, how’m I supposed to know you’ve got Grampus tied to the back of the car?”
His neck stretched in indignation. “We . . . we do it every year.” He turned back to me. “We dump snow beside the driveway, so I figure he landed on that, but with the forward momentum I don’t figure he hit anything solid till he took out the mailbox at the end of the driveway.”
I went ahead and rested my head on the steering wheel anyway.
Gina rejoined the conversation. “We always park the car facing forward so you can see both ways when you pull out.” Then there was an accusation, just to even the score. “People drive too fast on that road, Sheriff.”
Duane reached a hand out and played with the coiled cord that led to the mic clipped to my dash and then gestured toward his partner in crime. “I guess we’re lucky nobody ran over him before she got stopped.”
I raised my head and nodded. A local sculptor had made the first 911 call when the junkman had slid by him. “Mike Thomas says your grandfather waved as he passed him going the other way.”
Gina nodded her head. “We like Mike.”
They both smiled at me. I sighed and placed my pen on the aluminum clipboard. “So, what did you do then, Duane?”
“I jumped in one of the wreckers, but they ain’t near as fast as that 455 in the Classic, and it’s front-wheel drive so it took a while for me to catch up—especially with the roads bein’ as slippery as they are, and by the time I got here that deputy of yours already had Gina pulled over.”
Gina nodded. “And she used some really rude language.”
I brought my face a little forward so that the young woman would know I was addressing her. “Did you hear the thump again, the second time—after Vic stopped you?”
She fingered the fur around her neck. “No, he kinda swung into the barrow ditch back there after I made the turn.”
I nodded and slipped the clipboard back into the pocket of the driver’s side door. The Stewarts were a drama waiting in the wings. It seemed as far back as I could remember the clan members had been involved with some form of misadventure or another, usually resulting in a visit to the Durant Memorial emergency room.
“Duane, didn’t your dad die falling off a roof?” The young couple sat there unmoving, and I didn’t say anything either. It wasn’t like I was accusing him; I just wasn’t perfectly sure. “About five years ago, wasn’t it?”
Duane’s eyes stayed still, and his head dropped a bit. “Nunh-uh, it was a heart attack.”
I assumed that Nunh-uh was the opposite of Yunh-huh and nodded at him to encourage the rest. “After he fell off the roof.”
I was sorry to keep at the boy since it seemed to sadden him, but I figured I had a certain amount of leeway in the interest of public safety. “He wasn’t cleaning the chimney with the kerosene mop, was he?”
The young man took a deep breath. “Nunh-uh.” He cleared his throat. “It was in September, and he was patching a hole. He slipped and fell—then he had the heart attack.”
Charging any member of the Stewart family with reckless endangerment smacked of delivering coals to Newcastle, or to Moorcroft, for that matter. I nodded and pulled down my new hat, buttoned my sheepskin coat, and flipped the collar up to defend against the bracing February wind that was slicing down the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains.
I opened the door and lodged myself in the opening just long enough to speak to Duane one more time. “You know, Duane, maybe your family should stay off roofs.”
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