Discovering Craig Johnson is like stumbling into a gold mine, his work a rich bounty of imagination to be explored and savored. Johnson is one of those rare earthy storytellers who writes of rugged men in a challenging environment - in this case Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, traveling to a rendezvous with the feds in the Big Horn Mountains, the setting for good versus evil and everything in between, a tattered copy of Dante’s Inferno in his pack.
Part of a multi-jurisdictional group meeting with the FBI task force and federal marshals for a prisoner exchange, Longmire is accompanied only by his Basque deputy, Saizarbitoria (Sancho), for the hand-off. By far, the most dangerous of the inmates is sociopathic murderer Raynaud Shade, who has confided to the FBI psychologist the location where he first murdered then buried Indian boy Owen White Buffalo in the Cloud Peak Wilderness area. Once he has set eyes on Raynaud, Longmire never underestimates the man’s menace: “As long as he walked in my county, he would walk in chains.” When the FBI handlers decide to detour to the site of the boy’s grave, Walt intuits some kind of mischief on Shade’s behalf. A Crow-adopted Canadian Indian, Shade has a spectacularly violent rap sheet, a quick mind behind a sullen face, and the ability to inflict great pain on his victims, his focus immediately riveted on Longmire as a worthy adversary.
The inevitable occurs, agents incinerated in their black SUV, six dangerous criminals unleashed in the wild, Shade the driving force behind every move, climbing higher into the mountains on a dead-end course, a particular mission in mind. Sancho left behind to tend a badly wounded FBI agent, Walt is a solitary figure following the tracks of Raynaud and his violent band, whatever the consequences. Deprived of the usual repartee of his undersheriff, deputies and best friend, Henry Standing Bear, all working their way from down mountain in a blizzard, Longmire is left to commune with the haunting voices of ancient Indian spirits, a raging ice storm, Shade’s determination to kill him and the occasional company of the boy’s grandfather, Virgil White Buffalo, who may or may not be a hallucination.
Part deadly endurance trial, part existential examination of Walt’s trek up the Big Horn Mountains, Johnson crafts a masterful tale of man versus enemy, man versus nature’s indifference, and man versus his own internal voices (“all horrors are horrors of the mind”). While salted with the usual unpredictable and colorful characters, it is really Walt who reveals himself in this harrowing, if agonizingly slow chase up the mountain, “the sound of the blackened leather wings of wrathful vengeance folding themselves around me.” Even in imminent danger, Longmire experiences moments of perfect clarity (including conversations with Virgil White Buffalo that may or may not be figments of his imagination), balancing on the edge of two worlds, isolated in a place where evil has escaped the confines of society, where “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”