This isn’t Mayberry, its rough and raw Moose County, Nevada.
False dawn lit the mountains to the east. The black-and-white Grand Cherokee eased off the deserted highway and started down the once-paved road to Copperhead. ‘Moose County Sheriff’s Department’ circled the star on the front doors.
There was a large sign on the road that was supposed to read “Early Bird Farm”, with a caricature of a hen eyeing a worm sticking out of the ground, but it was so riddled with shotgun blasts, all that was left was the word ‘Bird’.
Power lines ran along the road. Drooping from pole to pole, they hadn’t held electricity in thirty years.
During the night it had rained, then frozen hard on the ground. The ice over the road crackled under the Cherokee’s tires. Captain George Wasco cleared the ridge and the old three-story brick structure came into view. It stuck up above the rolling hills around it like some monument to another time, as out-of-place with its surroundings as Man himself in this desolate place. Wasco saw another black-and-white cruiser pull off the highway behind him. Through the frosted windows, Wasco recognized Deputy John Feather behind the wheel.
Down at the renovated locomotive barn, the lawman could see a figure in a heavy jacket, floppy hat, hiking boots and shorts, feverishly laboring at some piece of machinery. The figure looked up, spotted the incoming vehicles, and ran inside the barn.
Stretching out from the ancient structure was a debris field of forgotten history. There had been three water towers at different epochs, built for some critical reason along the switch-out, now forgotten with the generation that had lived and worked here. There had been a veritable city of structures, sheds and workers housing, but they had been moved long ago to other locations, or torn down for materials. Left behind; low mean sheds and stables made of stacked railroad ties, digs where trash piles and outhouses had once been, where treasure hunters and looters had searched for wealth, and mounds of ash from the great coal-burning steam locomotives, grown over with cut grass and rabbit bush. Remote and primitive, this had been a place of great commerce, of labor and sweat and applied skill, austere investment with maximum profits expected, all gone in a tumble of time into the unfathomable expanse of the Great Basin Desert.
Just past the debris was the double line of modern commerce, two sets of track, where mile-long trains of ore, machinery, every conceivable product and produce made and bought in America, moved both ways. On display to passing trains, sometimes a dozen a day, Copperhead was not touched by the outside world. It slumbered like Brigadoon. Here, the trains of modern America were mere visitors, travelers passing through the desert wilderness. Though too romantic an image for such a place, Copperhead, Nevada could technically be called a ghost town.
Wasco saw his parking options were limited as he pulled up closer to the huge gray brick building. A wire tunnel, eighteen inches tall and wide, stretched from the old locomotive barn out to an acre-sized cage of the same design as the tunnel, a good hundred yards further north. Colorful chickens, some with furry legs, were already strutting and pecking at the ground in the cage.
As Wasco pulled up into the yard, the man in the floppy hat and shorts came back out again, carrying a camera.
Wasco emerged from his SUV, and before he could slip his Stetson up onto his head, his hair felt wet, and then icy. The cold of the night seeped through his jacket like phantom fingers searching for his heart to freeze.
“I got it on video!” the man boomed at Wasco. The deputy studied the approaching figure, male, Caucasian, a weary early fifties, as it stumbled over the wire tunnel. “Got it all on video!”
“What did you get on video, Mister Horton?” Wasco asked. The second black-and white trundled up.
“Those sons of bitches poisoning my water!”
Slurred speech. Wasco stepped closer to the barking man, but smelled no alcohol. Horton handed the camcorder to the Captain, then unsteadily stepped away.
“Poisoned your water, huh? Who again?”
“You know who! The Rockwell Boys!”
Wasco studied the camcorder with its small screen out.
“Well now, how do I get this thing t’roll?”
“Oh.” Horton stepped closer again, worked the camera’s controls as Wasco continued to hold the machine. The chicken farmer smelled of coppery sweat, chlorine and maybe chicken shit, nothing more. Deputy Feather stepped up and peered over Wasco’s shoulder.
The scene on the little screen was of practically where they stood, at a slightly different angle, to the south and higher up, lit by a large flood lamp on the side of the barn.
“Where is this?” Wasco asked, looking up.
“Right over here.” Horton staggered over to where a new large plastic water tank sat atop a wooden platform made from rail ties. Wasco put the tape on pause and had to step over the wire tunnel as he followed Horton over to the water tower, then hit play again, positioning himself at the proper angle.
“Where were you?” Wasco followed the line of the camera angle up an old telephone pole that had recently been shot up.
“In the trailer. I don’t think they even knew I was here.”
“How’d you film this?”
“I had a motion sensor connected to a remote camera up there,” Horton pointed at the telephone pole. “They spotted it. You’ll see.”
Wasco ran the tape. Sure enough, here came the Rockwell Boys strutting into the yard, each of them carrying a shotgun over his shoulder. Orrin, the youngest, was twenty-three. His brother Porter, twenty five, ‘Rocky’, the eldest, the two other’s cousin, was thirty-two. Rocky had a small white bag.
Feather slipped his department-issue Stetson up onto his head and pulled on gloves as he maneuvered again to watch over Wasco’s shoulder.
“No sound?” Wasco asked.
“Uh, no,” Horton answered. “No mike.”
“Think they were quoting scripture from the book of Morman?” Feather asked with a puff of frost.
Wasco ignored the jab as he watched the screen.
Orrin crawled up on top of the tank, ‘Rocky’ tossed him the bag. Orrin poured the contents of the bag into the tank. Porter was looking around, scouting. He spotted the camera, pointed, silently called to his brothers. They all looked up, waved at the camera, lifted their shotguns. With bright bursts of light, the scene went dead. Wasco glanced over to the bottom of the pole and could see some mangled electronics there.
“Why isn’t this tape all shot up?”
Horton stared at the Captain for a moment, then slowly answered, pointing as he went.
“Remote camera, line running down the pole, buried out to the trailer. Recorder’s there.”
“Very thorough, Mister Horton,” Wasco noted. “What makes you think it was poison in the bag?”
The chicken farmer pointed at a white cotton bag like the one ‘Rocky’ had been carrying, lying next to the water tower. Without too much difficulty, and without touching it, Wasco could read ‘Red Valley Mine Co.”, and below that in much bigger red letters, “CYANIDE: POISON!”
“Could just be sugar put in a bag, Mister Horton,” Wasco stated.
“You know what cyanide smells like?” Horton asked, and opened a spigot on the side of the tank, filling a white plastic bucket. The aroma of almonds wafted through the chill air. The chicken farmer shut off the spigot as he nodded. “Now we all know.”
The Shoshone had hitched up his pants a bit and squatted down, staring at the muddy, frozen ground in front of him.
“Tres Amigos boots, Captain.” Feather looked up and made eye contact with Wasco. “I’d know ‘em anywhere.”
“Nothin’ but th’best for the boys,” Wasco sighed.
“This tank feeds right into my waterers,” Horton seemed to be getting more unstable. Distress twisted his sweaty face. “I’ve been having to haul water in by hand since this happened, ever since I called you guys. What took you so long?”
“Fire over at one of the mining operations, danger of explosives going off,” Wasco offered. “Took all the deputies we have in the area.”
Feather rose and fluidly leaned to Wasco’s ear, whispering too softly for Horton to hear.
The Captain imperceptibly nodded, but all he could think was ‘we’ll never be able to prove it’.
“You saying they just dropped the bag right here and left?”
“It was here when I finally came out of the trailer.”
“Boys’ll claim they left it there so you wouldn’t feed the water to your stock.”
“It’s an automatic waterer!”
“Boys’ll say ‘Oops, didn’t know that’.”
Wasco looked coolly up at the reddening face of Tom Horton the chicken farmer. “That’s what they’re gonna say when they get on the stand.”
Casually Wasco turned to Feather.
“Headed for work?”
The full-blooded Shoshone nodded.
“Heard you talking on the radio, figured you could use back-up. Headed home?”
“Was,” Wasco countered. “Call the office, tell ‘em I need you here. The County Seat’ll just have to take its chances without you guarding it. Then get the crime lab people over here t’test this water. Call the Hazardous Material people over to the Red Valley Mine, tell ‘em t’get over here, too. They let their poison get stolen, they can clean it up.”
Feather nodded silently and trotted off.
“Until I clear this tank, I have to hand water twelve hundred thirsty chickens,” Horton’s speech slurred even more.
“Poisonin’ a water tank is a serious accusation, Mister Horton,” Wasco answered. “I’m gonna have t’gather evidence carefully and deliberately.”
“I got video of them doing it!”
Wasco just stared at the farmer without answering. Finally the farmer continued.
“If it’s a serious accusation, is it a serious crime?”
With gray blue eyes Wasco stared a hole through Horton, but still didn’t answer.
A boom and a rumble made the chicken farmer jump a foot, then shudder convulsively. The rumble went on for a long time.
“That’s thunder, Mister Horton,” Wasco chastised.
The Captain took note of the sudden look of relief on Horton’s face.
Feather ran up.
“It’s gonna take the lab people three hours to get here from Moose City, and its gonna take the mine people about four hours, but George –“ Feather pointed to the north-west.
Shooting into the sky was a mushroom cloud.
“What in the name of the Good Lord is that?”
“Train wreck,” Horton volunteered, then looked at the two officers. “Train wreck?”
Wasco studied the cloud as it rose into the sky.
“John, go call th’railroad, ask ‘em if they got any traffic between Copperhead and West Fork.”
Feather dashed to his cruiser.
“Listen, I – I’ll be back,” Horton answered. “I gotta hit the bathroom.”
He staggered off toward a small travel trailer beyond the barn. Wasco watched the bare-legged farmer for a moment, then shook his head.
Feather ran back up to Wasco.
“Got a call in to Santa Fe. They’re gonna call us back.”
Wasco nodded, watching the cloud rise higher into the frozen lead air.
“What did the office say, ‘bout you staying here?”
“Aw, hell, there’s plenty of cops in Moose. I hope I get t’stay all day. That three hundred miles back-and-forth commute is killing me.”
“Good career move, working the city area.”
“Bullshit,” Feather answered. “I pissed off the Chalice Grail, and you’re here to smooth it out.”
“Still trying t’figure out how they blame you for the Federal Magistrate bustin’ ‘em.” Wasco shifted his weight as he crossed his arms. “But that’s politics.”
Feather’s breath came out in puffs.
“They’re a polygamist cult that’s a black eye to your church.”
“First of all, they’re not Latter Day Saints.” Wasco turned to look at Feather. “Grayson Rockwell was excommunicated from the Church twenty years ago. Second, the Chalice Grail Ranch and all its subsidiaries are worth something like twenty million dollars, making it the last great cattle operation in this county, and certainly the largest political contributor.”
“And as the heir apparent, you need their support.”
Wasco looked back toward the cloud.
“Just lookin’ t’mend some fences.”
“How can you mend fences when the Chalice Grail keeps tearing them down? George, they got busted for forcing one of their girls into marrying her grand uncle, something like his fifth wife.”
“And with their battery of high priced lawyers, the Rockwells paid a paltry fine, didn’t spend a day in jail, and where is that girl?” Wasco glanced over at the silent Shoshone. “She’s in hiding somewhere, John.” Wasco looked back up at the cloud. “For fear or for shame. Afraid of her own family.”
“Poisoning a man’s water, trying to kill his livelihood, how they gonna laugh that off?”
“Problem with the Rockwell Boys,” Wasco started, “Some hate ‘em, too many love ‘em, but everyone fears ‘em.” Wasco glanced back at the trailer. “Yeah, the bad boys of the Church.”
“I thought they weren’t Mormons.”
“That’s right,” Wasco agreed, looking back to the horizon. “What in the world could make a cloud like that?”
“Where’s the rule of law, George Wasco?” Feather asked pointedly. George Wasco did not answer.
Horton staggered up to the two deputies.
“What now?” he asked.
“We’re obliged to investigate that large pillar of smoke risin’ into th’atmosphere. Don’t have to be back here for another three hours,” Wasco looked back at the farmer. “How’s your chickens?”
Horton waved dismissively at the barn behind them.
“I’ve got something rigged that’ll hold them over for awhile.”
Wasco nodded and turned to his cruiser.
“C’mon, then, let’s go check this out.”
Horton stood and swayed, stared at the officer disbelievingly, sweat rolling off his face in the freezing cold.
“I’m not driving anywhere.”
“Hop in m’cruiser, shotgun seat.” Wasco opened the driver’s side door, looked back at the chicken farmer. “C’mon.” Wasco urged.
Horton hesitated for what seemed a long time, then took deliberate steps to the cruiser and got in the passenger front seat.The radio spoke as the two four-wheel drive vehicles started across the active tracks, running along the well-maintained dirt road that paralleled the railroad lines.
“Railroad has nothing in the area, but has trains coming. They want to know whether it’s safe to run ‘em through.”
“Tell ‘em we’ll get back to them pronto. And John? Go to TAC 2.”
Wasco twisted at a knob even as he looked over at his passenger. Horton was staring at the shotgun.
“First time on a posse?” Wasco asked.
Horton looked up startled.
“Mister Horton, can I call you Tom?”
The chicken farmer hesitated, then drunkenly nodded.
“Tom,” Wasco started, “This is Moose County, Nevada. You could fit Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts into this one county, with room enough t‘fit Rhode Island in again. There’s something like two point five people per square mile, and most of those people live in Moose City, West Fork, and Border Town,. And Tom? You moved to the most sparsely populated part of our county. Every man outside of those cities has got to be independent minded, willin’ t’pitch in when called upon. Y’hear?” Horton stared at the cop as Wasco turned back to the windshield. “It’s different in this place, Tom.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Horton answered softly.
“Heard you were from Southern California, Tom. That right? What part?”
“Ever hear of Crest? East of San Diego?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Sure you have,” Horton countered. “Saw us on the news. Fire Storm. Cedar Creek Fire Storm. Crispy Crest.”
Wasco looked over at the chicken farmer, who had closed his eyes and was leaning against the doorframe.
“Lost your home, Tom?”
“Lost everything.” Horton’s speech continued to deteriorate. “Lost my manhood. They finally burned us out.”
After a moment, Tom Horton started to softly snore. Wasco grimaced at his passenger. After a moment the deputy turned his attention back to the mushroom cloud, now beginning to dissipate in the air, far to the north of the track, much further away than he had anticipated. He couldn’t help but laugh as he spoke out loud.
“Move a thousand miles from home to be a chicken farmer.”
At a rise, the two police SUVs stopped, and the officers got out.
“It must be five miles off,” Feather said. Wasco studied the distant flames across the great expanse of purple sage, then grunted.
“Call th’railroad. Tell ‘em they can run their trains.”
“What about a fire hazard?
“No wind t’speak of, the fires are already dyin’ out. Everything’s too wet. It’ll be out before Forestry even hears about it.”
Feather headed for his Cherokee.
Wasco thought a moment, then slipped back into his car. He glanced over at his unconscious passenger, shook his head, then spoke into the microphone of his radio.
“This is S-11, come in Dispatch.”
“Stationing,” a familiar voice answered.
“Louise, we got any air assets on hand? Anything at all.”
“Won’t have the chopper up for another hour or so. There’s been two reports of a mushroom cloud north-east of West Fork and north of Heather Mint.”
“We’re investigating.” Wasco paused a moment. “Louise, patch me through to the Moose City Airport. The control tower.”
Feather approached as Wasco continued to study the greasy black smoke boiling up from the base of the mushroom cloud. Feather leaned over to look at the chicken farmer.
“He fell asleep on you?”
“Why’d you bring him?”
Wasco grimaced as he studied his snoring passenger, dwelled on how vulnerable the Californian at that moment was.
“Don’t know,” he finally answered.
“Just didn’t seem right t’leave ‘em.”
“Moose City Control Tower,” a male voice stated. Wasco snapped his mike up.
“This is Captain George Wasco, Sheriffs Department. We’ve had some kind of explosion out in the middle of nowhere, about five miles north of Copperhead, if you know where that is. Are there any aircraft up around the eastern end of the county?”
“There’s a business jet flying out for Denver from a private air strip in the west end of the county. Maybe he can see something. Want me to patch you through?”
“Let’s try that.”
A short pause.
“This is ASR 719, Satin Club Express. Moose City says this is the police?”
Wasco turned to Feather.
“High end cat house,” Feather explained. “Customers fly in from all over the world.”
“It’s all legal,” the Shoshone volunteered.
“Yeah I know, recognize the name now, just forgot.” Wasco turned back to the mike. “We’ve had some kind of explosion, a big one, probably to your north-east. You see it?”
“I started flying toward it about ten minutes ago. I’m about ten minutes out. Hey, want me to buzz it for you? I got no passengers on board.”
“That’d be right neighborly of you,” Wasco answered. “Fly careful.”
“We stay here?” Feather asked.
Wasco nodded. Shortly, they could hear jet engines in the cold stillness of the morning, and a sleek plane came overhead. It flew east of the now gray smoke turning white. The plane dipped lower than seemed safe to Wasco. It arced around, circling.
“Moose Sheriff, this is ASR-Seven One Nine. I’m catching heavy turbulence – there’s fires everywhere, some look like a blow torch they’re so bright.” Buffeting sounds came over the radio. The pilot’s voice was shaky, as if he were being tossed around. “There appears to be a substantial crater, and it looks frosted!”
“ASR Seven One Nine, did you say the crater appears to be frosted?”
“That’s an affirmative, dark sparkly frost. The crater is probably less than a quarter mile in circumference, but the brush has been burned away for a mile all around.
The outer circle of fire looks like its dying out, but there’s these sun-bright fires inside the circle … Shades of Oklahoma City!”
Wasco lowered his mike, and stared at the fire.
“Anything else I can do, Moose Sheriff?” the Satin Club pilot asked.
Wasco thought a moment.
“Can you give us approximate UTM coordinates on the crater?”
“Like over the center?” the radio asked. The plane made a sudden twist and dove toward the boiling mass.
“Lord God!” Wasco gasped. Feather laughed gaily as he got behind the wheel of his cruiser. As the radio rattled off northings and eastings, the deputy called up a topography program.
The private jet reared back up into the sky. Wasco sighed and brought the mike to his mouth.
“Thank you, ASR. We’ve imposed on you long enough.”
“Any time, Moose County. Satin Club Express out.”
The sleek jet turned southeast.
“Aw, shit,” Feather cursed, staring at the computer screen. “Guess where those coordinates put us.”
Wasco knitted his brow.
“Y’mean it’s not BLM?”
Feather shook his head.
“Parson’s Well,” he looked up at the captain. “That’s a Chalice Grail watering hole.”
Wasco leaned a hand against the cruiser and dropped his head.
“Lord, give me strength.”
The two cruisers eased north along the ice-covered road. The brush fire had died out into a wet white steam. They passed into this hot fog, and for a time, the sky disappeared, and Wasco marveled at the contrast. In the open lands of the cold Great Basin Desert, it could feel like your soul was being sucked into the all expansive sky and mountains that stretched away into the horizon in all directions. Now in the steamy tunnel they drove through, he grew claustrophobic. The frost on the ground and in the plants had evaporated. Wet smoke hissed and billowed off purple sage and creosote, singed juniper and creeping cactus. Occasionally Feather’s cruiser would disappear in Wasco’s rear view mirror, the smoldering fog obscuring everything but a few feet of road ahead of the Grand Cherokee, crisp clarity replaced by smoke and vapor.
Wasco began to worry they had lost their bearings, then suddenly they burst from the tunnel, the sky above cobalt blue and cloudless.
The ground around them smoldered, but now the plants were burned away, the road bone dry.
They finally closed on ground zero.
Wasco didn’t notice the earth crunching under his boots as he came around the front of his cruiser.
“GPS says this is it,” Feather called over as he eased cautiously from his own Cherokee. “Parson’s Well.”
“I’ve been at Parson’s Well.”
Wasco looked over at Horton, who was pulling his jacket off as he stepped out of the cruiser. For a moment Wasco saw something in the chicken farmer’s face, great sadness, heavy as lead on his heart, struggling with remorse. It was in his voice as he continued.
“All sand and tamarisk, and a fence made from juniper limbs wrapped with barbed wire.” Horton lifted his camera without looking at its screen. “The windmill was shut down and the tank was dry.”
“Drought,” Feather answered.
“Have a good nap?” Wasco asked, looking over at the chicken farmer. Horton did not look back at the Captain, but something the Captain could not comprehend filled the Californian’s features, that melted into acceptance, resignation, then hardened into resolve.
“Yes, thank you,” Horton answered as he studied the landscape. He made a complete circle, the camcorder now raised to his eye. “What the hell happened?”
Feather stepped to the edge of the black glazed crater.
“About sixty meters long and about twenty meters wide.”
Wasco looked down into the hole.
“And about ten feet deep.”
Feather glanced back at the camera-wielding Horton.
“That’s about three meters deep.” He looked back over at Wasco. “We’re supposed to be going metric, aren’t we?”
“And me the military vet. Everything’s metric in the Army.”
Horton glanced over at the captain warily.
“You were in the Army?”
“First Gulf War,” Wasco answered.
“Special Forces.” Now he peered around and watched the steam still rising, obliterating everything a half mile off all around. “Yep, joined the Army, saw the world. Didn’t like it, came home.”
“Must be twenty degrees warmer here than at your place, Mister Horton.”
Wasco shot Feather a smile.
“I’d say no more’n ten degrees, if we’re talkin’ Celsius.”
Feather didn’t hear him. Instead he kept studying the sky, then looking back at the far end of the crater.
“You hear a jet engine?”
They all fell silent.
A high-pitched sucking sound, sputtering occasionally, emanated from somewhere on the other side of the crater.
Without a word, the three men started around the crater, Feather and Horton favoring the right side, Wasco going along the left.
The sound became louder. Past a slight ledge, a sharp, brilliant flame could be seen poking up sporadically. The three men eased up the rise.
Beyond the incline was another crater, two meters round, with a mound of glazed dirt surrounding it.
Wasco led the pack now, Horton with the camera still to his eye, bringing up the rear.
Inside the shallow crater, a bright red-to-white rectangle of something, two holes pointing heavenward, one of them with an oxy-acetylene torch-bright flame pulsing from it.
Wasco raised a hand to ward off the light and heat.
“What is that?”
Feather too had raised a hand, but now he leaned forward on a knee.
“That,” he stated, “is an engine block. ‘Least part of one.”
A hunk of the white-hot rectangle slid off like slag.
“Not for long,” Horton offered.
Wasco snapped up.
“We gotta get a handle on this. Now!”
He turned to his deputy. “Let’s go get the fire extinguishers.”
The two officers turned back toward their vehicles, passing the civilian even as he bent over and picked up something. Horton let out a yelp.
“Hey guys,” he started. Impatiently Wasco turned to Horton. The chicken rancher pointed at the ground. “This crunchy glazed stuff? It’s glass.” He looked from officer to officer. “This was a sandy spot, and now it’s glassed over.” Everyone stood silently for a moment. “I mean, I’m no expert at this or anything, but there was talk of stolen Russian suitcase nukes, and what with Nine-Eleven –“
Wasco kept staring at Horton even as he pointed at the other officer.
“John, go get the Geiger counter.”
Feather took off at a young man’s sprint.
Wasco fought a pique of panic, checked himself, took a breath, then started back toward the cruisers.
“If this was a nuke,” Horton threw in as he took off after Wasco, “we shouldn’t be here.”
By the time Wasco got back to the cruisers, Feather had the back open and was hauling a small machine out.
“What’s it say?”
“Don’t rush me, I only got an hour of training on it.”
“An hour?” Wasco echoed. “All I got was, ‘here ya’ go, happy Nine-Eleven’.” Wasco knitted his brow. “How come you rate training and I didn’t even hear about it?”
“Maybe they figured management wouldn’t be so stupid as to get this close to a nuke,” Feather countered as he turned his carmine face toward his superior. “Besides, I volunteered. Drove all the way t’Reno for the class, then a lousy hour.”
Wasco squelched a retort, and instead motioned impatiently at the Geiger counter.
Satisfied with his adjustments, Feather stepped over to the hole. He stuck the machine by its handle at the crater.
‘What’s it say?” Wasco asked.
Feather hesitated, then pulled it back.
“Nothing. Wait! Let me run the internal diagnostic.” He adjusted something on the machine. Horton sighed nervously as he glanced around. Feather thrust the device out again, brought it back. He threw a small button, and there was a pop, then another pop.
“What’s that?” Horton shouted.
“Background radiation. See? Draw the shield back, and you’ve got the radiation that just exists, and then throw the shield on over the sensor, and … nothing.” Feather sighed. “It wasn’t a nuke.” He turned toward Wasco. “No radiation. No nuke.”
Wasco sighed, started to sag, then snapped back up and walked briskly to his cruiser.
“Grab your fire extinguisher, John. Evidence is burnin’.”
Wasco pulled the extinguisher out of his trunk and handed it quickly to Horton.
“Take this and knock down that fire, Tom.”
The chicken farmer juggled it and the camcorder in his hands.
Wasco pulled the camera away. Feather had already started to sprint toward the burning engine block. Horton stood there for too long, looking at the fire extinguisher in his hand, at his camera, then up at Wasco.
“Go!” Wasco said.
“Well what are you gonna do?” The chicken farmer practically whined.
“I’m gonna call m’boss!” Wasco bellowed. Horton flinched, turned toward the fire, but added over his shoulder as he cradled the extinguisher, “I thought you were the boss.”
“Shouldn’t you be off-duty George? Over?”
Wasco pressed the button on his mike.
“The wicked never rest, Boss. I need to give you a Sit-Rep. Over?”
“On the Law, or the art of the possible? Over?”
Wasco hesitated, then pressed the button.
“You mean there’s a difference? Over?”
“Yes,” Sheriff Smith’s voice came back sharp. “There is.”
Wasco watched the two distant figures as they danced around the engine block that was hidden from his view. The ground must be so hot, they can only get so close.
“You got a signal out there? Over?”
Wasco pulled out his cell phone and flipped it open.
It began to play ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’, and Wasco answered.
“Give it to me.” Boss Hyde’s voice was only slightly altered by the scrambler he and Wasco shared. “Make sure you’re not broadcasting on the radio as well.”
“Done,” Wasco said. “You know about the fire at the Red Valley Mine?”
“Getting a report from the lab people right now.”
“I was there, then I went t’check on the call from Early Bird Farm. You know the man?”
“Tom Horton. Californian, three kids, good-lookin’ wife. She’s teaching at Heather Mint Elementary. Gentile. Why’d you roll on this Early Bird call?
“Because the Rockwell boys have taken a curiously strong dislike to Mister Horton, and I wanted to be the officer t’check it out.”
“Good thinkin’. Able to smooth it over?”
Wasco grimaced as he walked around the cruiser, studying the blanched ground around him.
“Mister Horton has a video of the Rockwells dumping cyanide into his water tank. The boys even left the bag the cyanide came in.”
“Why those sons of ….”
Wasco waited for the boss to continue, then added.
“Deputy Feather is here with me.”
“What?” Hyde’s sputtered. “What’s he doin’ there?”
“He was headed for Moose City, heard the call, and decided to back me up, like a good deputy would.”
“Yes, he’s a fine officer, a young man who I hope will go far in our department, which is one of the reasons he’s here in Moose City and not there, and the only reason you’re there and not here!”
“It gets worse,” Wasco pressed on.
“Heard about the explosion?”
“Somethin’ big,” Hyde answered. “Lord, man, you there too?”
“I’m standing at ground zero, and I swear t’God we pulled out the Geiger counter, it’s so big.”
Wasco looked around him.
“About a half square mile flattened, four square miles burned.”
“Dear Lord God!” Hyde breathed over the phone. “Where?”
“Know Parson’s Well?”
“That’s a Chalice Grail waterin’ hole.”
“It’s ground zero. The sand here has been turned to glass. You have any idea how hot it had t’get t’do that?”
“What caused it?”
“There’s some ordnance I remember from the Gulf, Daisy Cutters and th’like, but other than that, I couldn’t fathom a guess.”
Wasco paused, took a breath.
“Boss, we’re gonna have t’call in the Feds.”
“No!” Hyde stated flatly, “No ATF. I hate the Feds more’n Grayson Rockwell does. I won’t hear of it!”
“Sheriff, they’re gonna get wind of this. A private pilot flew over and gave us coordinates. He likened it to Oklahoma City. If we don’t invite them in, they’ll just pull rank on us, Patriot Act and all that.”
There was a pause.
“You get Jesse Stewart out there,” Boss Hyde finally countered. “He tells me we need, God help us, the ATF, well, I’ll sign off. But you deal with them. They make my skin crawl, the bastards.”
“First things first, boss,” Wasco said.
“Jesse and his team takes the evidence at the Early Bird Farm, then they come out to the blast area. Horton can’t water his flock properly until that tank is cleared.”
“Man’s livelihood,” Hyde agreed. “Gotta have your priorities straight.”
Wasco studied the pointed toes of his boots.
“What am I gonna do about the Chalice Grail Ranch, boss?”
Hyde sighed, then his voice became stern again.
“Now listen to me, George. I’ve got sources tellin’ me that Grayson Rockwell and the Mayor have been talkin’. I don’t know who contacted who, and I don’t care. We’ve always had the East County in our pocket, their money and their votes. If we lose their money, the Chalice Grail goes neutral, I think we could still win. But if the Chalice Grail throws in with the Moose City crowd, Chief Bluthe will be the next Sheriff, and those Godless Libertarians on the Moose City Council will hand the whole county over t’the casinos and brothels.”
“Well, short of destroying evidence, what do you suggest?”
There was a short pause.
“You go over to the Chalice Grail,” Hyde finally started. “You tell Grayson what we got on the boys. You tell him, straight up from me, that they’ve gone too far! And that they can expect the full weight of the law t’fall on their heads like wrathful angels from God hisself!” Another pause. “Then you assure him that we’re the best friends he has in the county and that he should throw his money and his influence behind us in the coming election. And George?”
Wasco sighed and nodded.