Box has a penchant for capturing the extremes of human behavior, dramas made all the more poignant for their contrast with nature’s harsh beauty, whether it be in Saddlestring, Wyoming, Fort Smith, Montana, or Medicine Wheel County in the Black Hills. Though some of the players hail from more distant places—New York, the West Coast, Florida—their schemes reach larger-than-life proportions against nature’s majesty. Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is known for his doggedness in rooting out the bad behavior of those who would hide their crimes, often attracting the scrutiny of his superiors in take-no-prisoners scenarios. This book is no exception, though the bad guy is much more difficult to corner after buying up masses of Medicine Wheel County for his Sand Creek Ranch spread in the Black Hills and hiring most of the locals in a depressed economy. Wolfgang Templeton, who has rescued an area in sharp decline, is a revered man in the county. Few are willing to speak against him.
Pickett is dealing with the antics of his daughters. The eldest, Sheridan, faces a serious problem in her dorm at the University of Wyoming that will have tragic consequences. Teenaged ward April is straining the parental relationship in a rebellious romance with a boyfriend Pickett doesn’t trust when Pickett is summoned by Governor Rulan to the state capitol. The governor wants him to quietly assess the state of affairs in Medicine Wheel County in the Black Hills. The last agent who was sent to the area did not come back, dying in a suspicious motel fire.
Rulan suggests that Joe arrive under the guise of his office without attracting attention, check out the lay of the land and report back without taking any action himself—a near impossibility for Pickett. If, indeed, illegal activity—a murder-for-hire enterprise—is based there under the direction of Wolfgang Templeton, Pickett will receive backup from his old friend, Special Agent Chuck Coon, his only contact while on the assignment. Box adds a little more spice with the presence of Nate Romanowski, an outlier and master falconer who lives by his own rules, often skating the fine line between lawful and not. Nate appears to be involved in the murder scheme masterminded by Templeton, unaware that Pickett is anywhere in the vicinity.
Warden Pickett, with only Coon between him and the vast wilderness he has entered, both literally and figuratively, finds his low profile doesn’t fool anyone for long. Even the local game warden seems to be in thrall to the big man, or at least the tentacles of his power, as are a couple of thugs hired by Templeton who don’t think the laws apply to them, a more serious threat on the horizon. Nate, by the nature of his association with Templeton, is privy to the ugly turn the enterprise has taken, proving to be invaluable once more when Pickett is in dire trouble.
Box plays the two men off one another in a perfect cadence of hero and anti-hero, each bound by loyalty, affection and a love of the environment they inhabit. It is this land that serves as a central character in Box’s books, immutable, beautiful and often deadly. Box effortlessly takes his readers into another world in his novels, uniquely contemporary in plot but primitive in the nature of the territory on which the action plays out. It’s the perfect canvas for yet another memorable struggle between those who respect the law and those who defile it.