Jon Horton
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Murder in Moab - Prolog

Murder in Moab This is the Serengeti of America — except for all the snow , Detective Tommy thought as he scanned the wintry sagebrush flats north of Jackson Hole with his binoculars and tried to think about something other than the boring little manhunt he was on.

He'd watched the Discovery channel the night before and had learned that the Serengeti plain and the Maasai steppe lie in the African countries of Tanzania and Kenya . Animals by the follow the rains south and then north, stippling and darkening the vast plains with shadow and dust that mimic the clouds overhead. They are ambushed on their migration by predators which depend on this semiannual event for their food. And north of Jackson 's big elk feed ground wait the predators of the American Serengeti — fluorescent-clad hunters laired up in pickups with binoculars and thermoses of hot coffee. There they wait for one of the thousands of elk which migrate through this bottleneck in order to reach their winter pasture The main difference between these killers and Africa 's, he thought, is that damn few use the elk meat for food. And hunting from a parked pickup wasn't what fell under Tom's personal definition of sport.

The Jackson Hole herd of elk now numbered about eleven thousand animals. Included in those thousands were hundreds of trophy bull elk, any one of which would put a man's, or woman's, name in the record books. One bachelor herd of about fifty bulls with gigantic racks tended to winter along the fence adjacent to the highway out of Jackson and the sight stopped traffic all autumn and winter long. It was dreams of ambushing one of those bulls that inspired these "hunters" to crowd the Kelly road's shoulders and turnoffs as soon as the special park hunt opened. The locals called it the Firing Line.

"Did you hear about Brent Basye's wife and one of them Budgie humpers up at the Science School ?" asked Woody.

"You mean bungee jumpers?"

"No, Budgie humpers...bird lovers. You know."

His partner for the day was Deputy Woodrow Hoopes and the man didn't need a fluorescent hunting vest because his neck was bright red enough to satisfy the law's requirement for minimum hunting vestment. He kept his eyes on the snowy expanse in front of him, knowing that Woodrow was going to tell the story, no matter what.

"Ol' Sharon drew a moose permit and so they're driving up Ditch Creek, scouting. Well lo and behold, there's a moose standing in the willows about a hundred yards past the park boundary, on the forest. They pull over and Sharon gets out, leans across the hood and ‘boom' — one dead bull moose. A pretty good one, forty-three inches and some.

"Well, wouldn't you know, here comes this guy from the Science school on his trail trike, just about the time Sharon lowers the boom on Bullwinkle. So he screeches to a halt and lays into Sharon for killing the moose. He's carrying on, cussin, giving Sharon a real hard time. Brent is getting ready to climb out of the truck and slap this guy pizzle-end upwards when Shar' looks at the kid and says, ‘How'd you like me to pull down them purple panties of yours and spank your butt with that silly looking thing on your head? That's what I' d do to my kid if they used that kind of potty language.'"

Woody snickered. "I guess the guy hopped on his bike and took off. Brent said he was wishing the guy would open his yap one more time, and get a lesson in minding his business from that big ol' freckle-face gal." He shook his head in admiration. "But she's got a mouth on her when it comes to Brent, too. She gives him pure hell sometimes." Woody thought for a second, then added, "But that's the way it goes — if it's got tits or tires you're gonna have trouble with it eventually."

Tom smiled. "Woodrow, I hate to illusion you, versus dis-illusion you, but when

Polly came back into my life everything changed for the better. She's as close to perfect as they get."

Woody looked into his coffee cup. "Tommy, if your marriage is perfect it is the first one I heard reported. Congratulations."

"Wait a sec'. I didn't say my marriage was perfect, I said that Polly was perfect. There's a big difference there."

"You look like the cat who got the cream, alright," Woody commented as he raised his cup and took a big slurp. "But, if your wife's perfect and the marriage ain't, that makes you the turd in the punchbowl. That right?"

Tom shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not perfect, God knows. But the problem is her money and my job — and this is just between you and me, OK?"

"Yep. Go on."

"I don't want to go into it, really, but she came into money when she was born and then married a lot more..."

"And you're a cop who'd have to borrow money for the remodel in order to have a window to toss the piss pot out of."

"Woodrow, you have a way of putting things, I'll say that much for you." Tom raised his binoculars. "What kind of horse did they say that Johnston was riding, again?" he asked, still looking through the binocs.

"Big paint. He's got red hair and the horse has got fancy saddlebags."

"Then I think that's our man that just dropped down off the bench, heading this way."

Tom and Woody were on a stakeout for a suspect who, after fleeing Wyoming for eight years, had drawn an elk permit in Teton County . And he'd been foolish enough to think that he'd been forgotten. But computers rarely forget.

"Looks pretty prosperous for a man who can't afford to pay forty thousand dollars in child support," Woody said, looking through his own binoculars at the approaching horseman. "Don't he look... picturesque ?"

Tom agreed. "Yeah,with all that snow and the Tetons raring up in back, his picturesque horse prancing and blowing picturesque steam as he nears that expensive horse trailer behind that new, expensive..."

"...and picturesque..." Woody interjected.

"...and picturesque red Ford F-350 with the chrome accessories all over it and a very, very expensive Alaskan camper on the back."

"Yeah, but that truck belongs to a corporation. and can't be touched Tom, surely that man would not put all his worldly belongings in some anonymous corporate hidey hole so his ex-wife has to work two jobs."

"Surely not."

"Have you seen that ratty trailer that his wife and kids live in, over on Simon Street ?"

"Yup. Lawn grass up to the butt on a giraffe and the kids parked in front of the TV eating Cheerios for supper. The usual. We'll be seeing them in juvenile court."

"Let's capture his ass and see if we can't help head that off."

"Good idea Mr. Hoopes. Let's give him a minute to get the saddle off the horse."

"Nah, let's do it right now. I been sitting in this damn truck for six hours and that's enough." Woody opened his door and said, "I've got the warrant. Let me break the news to him."

"You got it." Tom opened his door and stepped out. "I'm going to take a whiz, be right there."

Woody waved his hand and stood on the side of the Kelly road for a moment. Then, with a grin, stepped onto the snow packed road and started toward Jake Johnston's rig and the owner who had just gotten down from his horse.

Tom opened his fly, dug through his winter clothes and started to drain what had been the contents of a quart thermos of coffee onto the ground. He finished and began to put himself back into order when he heard, felt, the shock of a big bore rifle being discharged on the other side of the narrow road from where he stood.

Tom reached under his coat and grabbed his pistol as he looked at the scene in front of him. Woody had grasped the barrel of Johnston 's rifle with both hands and was holding on with all his strength. Johnston was howling with rage, his face was

red and his eyes wild as he tried to yank his rifle from Woody's grip. The two men fell to the snowy ground, Johnston trying to dislodge Woody long enough to crank another bullet into the chamber of his rifle. The big paint horse was walleyed and jerking at the lead rope fastened to the trailer. The trailer vibrated and whanged as the side panels were jerked and released by the shying animal.

As Tom ran across the road he could hear Woody and the other man grunting and swearing as each tried to gain control of the gun. As he reached the pile of flesh and winter clothes he saw Johnston close the chamber on the rifle, seating a big brass shell into place.

" Johnston " ! he screamed. "Stop or I'll shoot!"

He saw that the muzzle of the rifle was now pointed at Woody's midsection, in spite of his best efforts to push it away.

The wiry man looked up at Tom with bright blue eyes. They were crazed. Snot bubbled from his nostrils, his mouth under his reddish beard was contorted. He jerked his wild gaze back at Woody and the big rifle exploded directly into Woody's coat.

In the instant that Tom saw Woody recoil from the gunshot and heard him scream in agony, he pulled the trigger of his pistol and saw Johnston flinch from the bullet. The man dropped the rifle, grasped his chest and his screams joined Woody's groans.

Tom jumped on Johnston with one knee, holstered his pistol, then rolled the wounded man onto his face. He placed his other knee on the man's neck and removed his handcuffs from their case. As he jerked Johnston 's hands together and shackled them he shouted at Woody, who was sobbing and trying to crawl away. "Hang tough, Man. Hang tough."

He ignored Johnston 's flailing, and the screams that issued from his mouth now that the man had freed his face from the foot-deep snow.

"For the love of God help me! I'm shot! "

"I know, you fucker, I'm the one who shot you."

Tom jumped up from the secured man's back and scurried to Woody's side. He was now lying on his back, looking at the sky with a gaze that reflected the wan winter clouds overhead. He was in shock. Tom glanced down and saw a pool of blood melting the snow away as it ran from the enormous hole in the man's coat.

"Oh Jesus, help me," Tom whispered and then stood up to run to the department truck. But a man in hunter's clothes was leaning into the truck and had the radio mike in his hand. He waved a hand holding a badge at Tom, shouting, " Santa Monica , California P.D.!"

Tom raised his hand in acknowledgment then knelt to unbutton Woody's coat , to examine the wound. Once the coat was open, he rolled his friend onto his side and stripped the shirt away from his body. The gaping wound he had feared was, instead, a channel of raw flesh where the bullet had burned through it — no deep penetration. The wound was ugly but it was not fatal. However, Woody was definitely in shock and falling away fast. Just then, the California officer who radioed Dispatch joined Tom.

"What do we have?" he asked.

"He's not badly wounded, but he's going into shock. There's a bunch of stuff in the back of our truck, blankets and all that. Go get it, I'm going to take a look at the shooter."

"Right." The tall man jumped to his feet and ran across the road.

Tom returned to Johnston and saw that he was already in deep shock. For a moment he felt nothing for the man and his condition, but then he saw where Johnston had coughed onto the snow and it was pink from the spray of his breath. Tom knelt quickly and picked up the man's chin. Blood was trickling from the side of his mouth. Lung shot.

"Dammit! Don't you dare die on me," he muttered angrily as he began to expose the wound. "Today is my effing birthday."

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