A hot wind blew across the rangeland swirling dust through the dry grass and cactus. The scent of sage mixed with a whiff of dried manure. The men faced each other under the noon day sun.
“Stop right there. Get away from the gate.”
“Sir, hear me out. You are Deputy James Taylor, aren’t you?”
“Doesn’t matter who I am. You’re on private property. Turn around and leave. Take your photographer with you.” He raised the shotgun. The top of his head was on fire. The heat radiated through his skull and his vision blurred. He had to squint to see clearly. He was so fed up with reporters intruding with their offers and questions. It was taking all his will power not to shoot this one. He’d reached his limit.
“Wait, wait. Wait. I’m from National News Daily. We want to buy your story. People want to know all about the death squad.”
“Not for sale. Not now. Not ever. Go. Now.”
The reporter pushed on the gate. “We’ll make you famous. Put you on the cover. We’ll . . .”
Jim squeezed the trigger. The shotgun roared and spat fire.
The shotgun blast drowned out whatever the man was trying to say. Dust and bits of cactus blew up at his feet just before he turned and ran.
Jim Taylor turned to his horse, Buck, who had watched the entire exchange. “That’s the sixth one this week. If I find out who gave directions to our place . . .” He stopped talking as a familiar car bounced down the gravel road that led to the gate the reporter had just vacated. He wondered what the sheriff wanted now.
Jim Taylor was a tall, thin man in his late sixties. His hair and beard had long ago gone gray. He was dressed in worn jeans, Ariat boots, and a Grateful Dead t-shirt, not a typical uniform for a deputy, but he didn’t care. A dope smoking, left-leaning, burned out trial lawyer from Wisconsin, he had fled to Wyoming with his horse seeking a simple life of peace and solitude in the wilderness. He had found neither. Instead, he had tangled with murderers, kidnappers, and serial killers. He had been shocked to discover a talent for finding--and killing--these violent felons. The sheriff had recognized this talent and convinced him to become a deputy, despite his unorthodox habits and attitudes. He lived on the open range twenty miles south of town where he enjoyed the quiet isolation, peace, and solitude the location usually provided.
The squad car stopped at the gate trailed by a cloud of dust. As the dust settled a big man extricated himself from the car. Sheriff Zeke Thomasen was six foot five and solid. He was weathered by seventy plus years spent outdoors. A career lawman, he was Jim’s boss but he had also become his friend. He tolerated Jim’s quirks as few other sheriffs would have.
“How you boys doing? I just passed two fellas who looked like they were being chased by a pack of rabid wolves. More reporters?” He cocked his head as he looked at the shotgun in Jim’s hands.
“Yeah, Zeke. Wanted to buy my story about the death squad. I don’t think he’ll be back.”
“I got ambushed by a couple of them in the parking lot. I might try your method of getting rid of them.”
“Did you drive out here to hide out?”
Zeke looked around. The range land was covered with patches of dry grass, cactus, and dotted with sage. The view was all he could ask for. To the east were knobby hills and to the west were the foot hills of the Big Horns, the granite peaks looming in the distance. The north fork of Crazy Woman Creek meandered through the middle of Jim’s land. A herd of antelope grazed on the far side of the creek. Zeke considered his friend’s question and took a deep breath, smelled sage and horses. “It’s tempting, Jim, but we’ve got a new problem.”
“Ah, man. What now?”
“Got a call from the FBI field office in Denver. Washington is sending an agent up here to investigate us.”
“The sheriff’s death squad crap?”
The death squad rumor had originated with a reporter’s question to the sheriff at a televised press conference. It had quickly gone viral on the internet. Unfortunately, it was grounded on the fact that recently murderers and violent felons had not come to trial in Flint County because they had been killed by the sheriff or his lead deputies, Jim and his female partner, Hook.
“Doesn’t the FBI know this is bullshit?”
“I reckon they probably do, Jim, but some big shot in Washington likely made a stink about it.”
“So they have to look like they’re doing something about it.”
“Then screw it. I’ll go hide out in the mountains.” Jim kicked a cactus and sent it flying.
“And leave me holding the bag? Hook’s out of town for a month’s leave.”
“Goddammit, Zeke.” Jim scratched the scar on the top of his head. “Maybe I’ll plead the Fifth, tell them to take a hike.”
“That won’t help things.”
“I am so goddamn tired of this death squad business. Can’t they just leave it alone?” His head started throbbing again.
Zeke shook his head. “Jim, I’m fed up, too, but we have to ride it out. The FBI can’t ignore all the fuss and publicity. Sally tells me it’s still all over everywhere.”
“Screw the internet.”
“Think about how it looks. We’ve got a whole bunch of dead criminals, over a dozen. There’s truth in what they’re saying, murderers don’t come to trial in our county.”
“I’d like to shoot the reporter who asked that question.”
“Zeke, the FBI will have full access to the reports in your files?”
The sheriff nodded.
“The reports are clean? No mention of him” Jim gestured with his head, “or what he did?”
Jim’s biggest fear about the death squad publicity concerned Buck. Buck had killed several of the men attributed to the death squad. If this became known, Buck would be called part of the death squad. Jim could see the headlines: Killer Horse or Death Squad Horse or even Man Killer Psycho Horse. The horse would be at risk. Jim would have to hide him from those who would call him a hero and those who would seek to put him down. He vowed to never reveal these details--how Buck had deliberately killed criminals. Jim would do anything to protect the horse.
To enlist his help in hiding Buck’s deeds, Jim had told the sheriff some of what Buck had done. As a horseman himself, Zeke understood the bond between Jim and Buck. He readily agreed to help keep the secret.
“Totally clean, not even a hint. I know what you’re worried about.” Buck had walked over to greet the sheriff. Zeke skritched his neck. “I’m mighty partial to your horse and I will protect him.”
“Thanks, that means a lot.”
He hated the death squad label. He hated the notoriety. Hated the reputation, the publicity, the questions, the looks people gave him in town. Hated the pats on the back and thumbs up signs even more. Most of all he hated being a killer, the knowing what it was like to take a life.
He knew the reporters were just doing their job. The death squad was news. People wanted to know more--the details, the scenes, what he was like, what he thought about what he had done. He understood all that, but he didn’t have to cooperate. He was a private man. He just wanted to be left alone, to forget about the deaths, the humans he had killed, at least for a little while. Most of all he needed an end to the killing.