The Cold Dish

1

“Bob Barnes says they got a dead body out on BLM land. He’s on line one.”

She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese. I watch the geese a lot in the fall, when the days get shorter and the ice traces the rocky edges of Clear Creek. The sheriff ’s office in our county is an old Carnegie building that my department inherited when the Absaroka County Library got so many books they had to go live somewhere else. We’ve still got the painting of Andy out in the landing of the entryway. Every time the previous sheriff left the building he used to salute the old robber baron. I’ve got the large office in the south side bay, which allows me an unobstructed view of the Big Horn Mountains to my right and the Powder River Valley to my left. The geese fly down the valley south, with their backs to me, and I usually sit with my back to the window, but occasionally I get caught with my chair turned; this seems to be happening more and more, lately.

I looked at her, looking being one of my better law-enforcement techniques. Ruby’s a tall woman, slim, with a direct manner and clear blue eyes that tend to make people nervous. I like that in a receptionist /dispatcher, keeps the riffraff out of the office. She leaned against the doorjamb and went to shorthand, “Bob Barnes, dead body, line one.”

I looked at the blinking red light on my desk and wondered vaguely if there was a way I could get out of this. “Did he sound drunk?”

“I am not aware that I’ve ever heard him sound sober.”

I flipped the file and pictures that I’d been studying onto my chest and punched line one and the speakerphone button. “Hey, Bob. What’s up?”

“Hey, Walt. You ain’t gonna believe this shit. . . .” He didn’t sound particularly drunk, but Bob’s a professional, so you never can tell. He was silent for a moment. “Hey, no shit, we got us a cool one out here.”

I winked at Ruby. “Just one, huh?”

“Hey, I ain’t shittin’ you. Billy was movin’ some of Tom Chatham’s sheep down off the BLM section to winter pasture, and them little bastards clustered around somethin’ in one of the draws. . . . We got a cool one.”

“You didn’t see it?”

“No. Billy did.”

“Put him on.”

There was a brief jostling of the phone, and a younger version of Bob’s voice answered, “Hey, Shuuriff.”

Slurred speech. Great. “Billy, you say you saw this body?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“What’d it look like?”

Silence for a moment. “Looked like a body.”

I thought about resting my head on my desk. “Anybody we know?”

“Oh, I didn’t get that close.”

Instead, I pushed my hat farther up on my head and sighed. “How close did you get?”

“Couple hundred yards. It gets steep in the draws where the water flow cuts through that little valley. The sheep stayed all clustered around whatever it is. I didn’t want to take my truck up there ’cause I just got it washed.”

I studied the little red light on the phone until I realized he was not going to go on. “No chance of this being a dead ewe or lamb?” Wouldn’t be a coyote, with the other sheep milling around. “Where are you guys?”

“ ’Bout a mile past the old Hudson Bridge on 137.”

“All right, you hang on. I’ll get somebody out there in a half hour or so.”

“Yes sir. . . . Hey, Shuuriff?” I waited. “Dad says for you to bring beer, we’re almost out.”

“You bet.” I punched