The Lazarus Key, Chapters One & Two (unedited)
I followed the trail through the woods. These poachers were sloppy… a broken twig here, a boot print there. I could’ve followed their trail in the dark. Clearly, this pair had eluded the park rangers so long due to luck as they’d yet to leave any hints of skill or intelligence.
I kept my pace slow, careful not to betray my presence to the poachers. I’d been through this particular part of Yellowstone only a handful of times, but I’d been in woods like these much of my life.
I heard the poachers before I saw them. Two male voices conversing in hushed tones as though their clamoring hadn’t already scared off anything worth hunting in a two-hundred-meter radius. They finally came into view after I ducked under some low-hung branches. One tall and thin, the other short and stocky, bringing to mind the image of a young Laurel and Hardy in camouflage and carrying AR-15 rifles.
Fortunately, I didn’t come empty-handed. I unsnapped my hip holster. Outnumbered two to one, I stepped out from cover and right in front of the two men. Both men swung their rifles around at the exact same moment. I froze. “Whoa!”
The shorter man caught on first and yanked his rifle back. “Jesus, lady!” Hardy said in a breathless rush. “We could’ve killed you!”
Laurel had lowered his rifle, but I didn’t miss the fact that the man kept his finger on the trigger. That made Laurel both a novice and dangerous.
“You okay?” Hardy asked.
“Other than you giving me a heart attack? Yeah, I’m okay, I think,” I replied as I took a step back to be closer to the tree in case I needed its cover. “I didn’t mean to startle you like that. I just wasn’t expecting to come across anyone. I heard there were some bear in this area.” I held up the small camera I had looped around my neck. “I’ve been out here all week trying to get a decent shot of a bear, but I haven’t even seen a hint of one. You see anything?”
“We ain’t seen nothing,” Hardy said.
My lips thinned. “All right. I’ll be on my way then. Try not to shoot me or any other hikers out here. I was out here because I thought hunting season didn’t start for another three weeks.”
“Hunting season? That’s more of a guideline than an actual thing,” Laurel blurted.
“Well, I disagree,” I said as I inconspicuously moved my right hand to my Glock. “Know something else I disagree with? You thinking it was smart to post that video of you shooting that 400-pound boar off-season.” I unzipped my jacket with my left hand to reveal my uniform and badge. “Not very smart.”
Their eyes grew wide, and they tossed a look at each other in almost perfect comedic Laurel and Hardy fashion.
Just as I expected, the poachers rabbited, each heading in a different direction. I took off after the stocky one. As the smarter of the pair, he had the best odds of evading me. My prey bolted through the woods, tearing through shrubs, shoving through branches and pretty much making a hell of a racket. I dodged a branch that had come snapping back, only to get nailed across the forehead by the next one. “Son of a bitch.”
I sped up. A few long strides later, I tackled Hardy, using my full momentum to barrel into the man. The poacher’s air flew from his lungs with a grunt, and he hit the ground with a pleasantly brutal thud. I kneeled on Hardy’s back. “You know what else wasn’t very smart, asshole? Making me chase you down.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Hardy whimpered—an impressive feat given my full weight was kneeling on his chest.
I sighed as I disarmed and zip-tied the man’s wrists. “I’m Special Agent Frank Brodie. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. You’re under arrest for hunting without a license and for the unlawful killing of big game. And now you can add evading an officer to your list of charges.”
“But you’re not a cop,” Hardy whined as I yanked him to his feet.
I grinned and shoved him forward. “I’m worse. I’m a game warden.”
Hardy’s breaths echoed through the woods as we walked. After a minute or so, Hardy stopped. “Listen,” he pleaded. “We didn’t mean no harm. We were just having fun. We didn’t hurt no one.”
“Keep walking,” I ordered. “And no talking. Or else I’ll tie you to that tree over there, and let the bears hunt you for a change.”
Hardy’s mouth clamped shut.
We walked in silence for a good ten minutes. I didn’t rush Hardy. The man struggled to walk on the uneven terrain the way it was. But at least he wasn’t a chatterbox.
“Why’d you let Dave go?” Hardy asked out of the blue.
We walked for nearly an hour before the trees grew sparse, and Hardy became noticeably fidgety.
“Oh, so you thought you hid your shiny SUV really good, huh?” I asked. “You didn’t do half bad, but I’ve seen a hell of a lot better. With how fast your buddy Dave was running, I bet by the time he circled the gully, he got here about fifteen minutes ago.” Brodie paused. “Too bad for Dave, a Yellowstone park ranger got there twenty minutes ago.”
Hardy jerked his gaze back to me for a second. The hope in his eyes fell. He turned away with slumped shoulders.
When Hardy and I stepped out into the clearing, the small white truck came into view. Rob Richardson, wearing Yellowstone’s khaki park service uniform, was sitting on the hood. He waved broadly. I waved back. Laurel a.k.a. Dave sat on the ground in front of the SUV, his hands behind his back.
I motioned to the poacher on the ground. “This one give you any trouble?”
Rob shook his head. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
I nudged Hardy toward Laurel. “Sit.” Then I turned toward Rob. “Took you long enough.”
“I was dealing with some drunk campers,” Rob said.
My phone vibrated. I checked the caller ID—it displayed OLIVER CHAMBERLIN—and Ifrowned. I answered because not taking Ollie’s call meant I’d get punished with shitty assignments for the next two weeks. “What’s up, boss?”
“Did you track those two mentally deficient poachers?”
I grinned at the pair on the ground. “Hey, have you guys met before? My boss seems to know you. He called you mentally deficient.”
Both men were pretty good at pouting.
“Yeah, I found ’em. Richardson and I have got them at his truck now.”
“Good. Something’s come up. I received a call about a large cat sighting in the vicinity of Skunk’s Gully.”
“There’re plenty of mountain lions around Yellowstone. The park rangers can take the call.”
“Not this time. The guy who called it in is a South Dakota game warden on vacation here in Yellowstone. We look out for our own. Besides, this one sounds interesting. I don’t want to pass it off to the park service.”
“I’ll go check it out. Did he happen to give you coordinates or do I just have to call, ‘here, kitty, kitty’ until it comes to me?”
“I’m texting his last reported coordinates to you now. Be careful. He said the cat was well over five hundred pounds.”
What the hell kind of wild cat could weigh five hundred pounds? Instead, I said, “That does sound interesting.”
“The officer said he was going to check it out. You’re the only game warden in the park right now, and your tag says you’re within two miles of his location.”
I groaned. “So you want me to play babysitter?”
“No. I want you to get over there as soon as possible to provide backup to a fellow federal officer… and to babysit him.”
I checked the coordinates. “Received. I’m on it.”
I turned to Rob. “Laurel and Hardy are all yours. I’ve got to head out.”
“Sounds like fun,” he said.
“Sure does.” I went to hand the AR-15 over and then decided to hold onto it. If there was a five-hundred-pound cat out there, I’d rather be safe than sorry. I noticed Laurel’s rifle propped against the side of Rob’s truck and I grabbed that one, too.
Rob’s brows rose. “You need two rifles?”
“There’s another officer out there, and I’m guessing he’s unarmed. I’ll check these weapons in tomorrow.”
Hardy stared dumbly at me. “You’re keeping our rifles?”
I chortled as I slung both rifles over my shoulder. “Hopefully having these confiscated will help sink it in how close you came to spending time in a federal prison.”
I gave Rob a wink. “Have fun with this pair.” Then I pulled up the coordinates, placed them on my map, and headed in the other direction. The sun had set nearly a half-hour ago and twilight was fading to full-out night. The dark was going to slow down my hike.
Being a Wyoming game warden, I was used to getting animal calls in Yellowstone. Two weeks ago, it was a bear. Last week, it was a monkey attack. Yeah, someone’s pet monkey got loose and snuck into a camper in the middle of the night and raised a ruckus. It really should’ve been a park service call, but the wardens got called in far too often.
After all, we’re the ones with the guns.
I checked the time on my watch and jogged faster to try to beat the sunset. I’d burned nearly an hour hiking my butt all the way out to Skunk’s Gulley. My official shift ended three hours earlier, but that was the life of a U.S. fish and game warden. If there’s trouble, you go. And if a fellow game warden’s in trouble, you go even faster. Even if you don’t know the other officer.
And I definitely didn’t know the game warden. The call for backup came from a South Dakota officer—this is Wyoming. I ducked to miss a low branch while hurdling a part of the tree’s root system that had grown above ground.
When I finally reached the officer’s last reported coordinates, I had to burn more time searching the area, finally finding him a hundred meters to the southwest, tucked in behind a bush. I gave a low whistle. We game wardens tended to do that rather than calling out to each other. It seems to disrupt nature less.
“Glad you could make it,” the other game warden said quietly without lowering his night-vision binoculars. Another thing wardens don’t do is whisper. We talk quietly to not startle wildlife (or poachers), but we never whisper. People tended to over-express sibilants, especially the letter S, when they whisper. And the last thing a skittish animal wants to hear is something that sounds like a giant snake.
I sidled up next to him, took a knee, and set down the two confiscated rifles. I couldn’t make out what he was looking at in the darkness, but the call was to provide support on a potentially dangerous wildcat issue. “So, where’s this big cat?”
He jumped even though he would’ve heard me settle in alongside him. “You’re a woman.”
“And you’re black. Glad we got all that out of the way.”
“It’s just when they said they were sending a guy named Frank—”
“I get that a lot. Now, how about you tell me where this cat is so I can get to the more interesting topic of why I got called in to back up an officer who’s way out of his jurisdiction but still carrying all kinds of fancy equipment while out of said jurisdiction. Makes it look like you’re on the job.”
“It’s easier to show you.” He handed me his NVBs. “At your one o’clock, forty meters out. Just under the limestone ledge.”
No wonder I hadn’t noticed the animal in the deep twilight. Forty meters in dense foliage during the day was a long way to see. Even with his NVBs, it took me a good seven seconds to bring the cat into clear view. I refocused the glasses. At first I thought it could be a tiger—the shape was right, but this thing was too big. But what really threw me was its two long saber teeth… exactly how I envisioned saber tooth tigers in my head. I continued to stare. “What the hell is that?”
“You see it?”
“Yeah. I see it.” I was still working on believing it. I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was seeing except that I was one hundred percent sure that cat didn’t belong in Wyoming.
The other officer reached for the gun lying next to him on the ground. “I need to get within range to tranq it but I didn’t want to risk going in without someone to cover my back.”
In the dark, I’d initially mistaken the tranquilizer gun for a shotgun. “What are you doing with a tranq gun in Yellowstone?”
“I always carry one in my truck. Guess I brought it with me on this hike out of habit. You always carry two rifles?”
“One for each hand. And don’t change the subject. This isn’t South Dakota. That makes you out of your jurisdiction. You don’t have the authority to carry tranqs in Yellowstone, let alone Wyoming.”
“I promise I’ll give you a really nice apology later. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a little curious about the giant cat over there because I can tell you one thing: we sure as bunny tails don’t have anything like that in the South Dakota.”
“I might be a little bit curious about it myself,” I admitted, then frowned. “You just happened to come across this beast on a random evening hike through Yellowstone?”
“I got a tip from another hiker this afternoon, so I thought I’d follow up on it,” he said.
“They should’ve called the park service.”
“Evidently they didn’t know the scary-big cat protocol around here.”
There was a lot not adding up about this call. “Nice of you to call it in.”
“You’re welcome. Now, ordinarily, I’d say we sneak up closer, but it seems a might skittish, so I parked myself here to give it time to settle in, but it’s getting fidgety. I think it’s going to move soon now that the sun’s down. It’s a predator, so we might be able to encourage it to come at us instead of spooking it away. What d’ya think? Draw its attention?”
“You think, ‘here, kitty, kitty’ will work?”
“Has that worked for you in the past?”
“Not yet. But if you’re dead set on enticing that cat in our direction, my vote is you drawing its attention, and I tranq it.”
He grimaced. “I thought you might say that. Let’s try to get closer first.”
I handed the NVBs back to him and pulled out my own binoculars to see the strange tiger in a more natural way. Cats were nocturnal but they were also lazy. This feline was typical in that it was currently taking a catnap under a ledge before it would soon launch into its nighttime activities. It didn’t seem skittish to me—the opposite, in fact—but then again, I’d just arrived and maybe it’d been even more sluggish before I got there.
Two long and very large teeth glinted in the moonlight. Those still confused me. No current breeds came to mind that had such distinct teeth. The cat was obviously some type of tiger. The stripes, coloring, and size gave it away, but I’d never realized tigers were so big, not that I’d ever seen one outside a zoo or the internet. Its long tail flicked away bugs while it rested.
“Good plan. What weight are those tranqs good for?”
“They’ll take down a bear.”
“I hope you’re talking a big mean grizzly and not one of those cute lil black bears you have in the Black Hills.”
I checked each AR-15 rifle as quietly as possible, making sure the mags were full and each gun had a round in the chamber before holding one out to him. “I didn’t have a tranq gun with me, so I brought these for—you know—just in case the tranq pisses it off.”
“Good plan,” he echoed my earlier words as he slung the rifle over his shoulder.
We made our way forward at a snail’s pace, moving as silently as possible. With every step, I put weight on my toes before my heels. It was an old Indian trick I’d picked up back in Montana, but I still needed to keep a close eye out for twigs and dried brush.
We paused every five yards or so to look through our binoculars. The cat was still lying down but it had changed positions. At twenty-five yards out, our luck held, but we still had a stream to cross. It would be quieter than dry land, but there was always a risk of slipping on a loose rock and causing a splash. Since the other officer held the tranq gun, he maintained lead going into the water while I walked behind him, a few feet to his left so I could have a clear shot in case shit hit the proverbial fan.
When we were about halfway through the stream, a shot rang out in the distance to our right. Something big. Sounded like a .300 Winchester Magnum. Easy to tell because it’s a favorite caliber of big game hunters. We ducked and dove for cover at the water’s edge, making a hell of a splash and getting soaked. The cat had sprung to its feet at the first shot. Two more shots fired in quick succession, followed by the cat’s screech.
We were both on our bellies, and I scrambled to bring up my rifle, though I didn’t know whether to aim in the direction of the cat or the poachers. The cat helped me decide when it ran directly at us. My compatriot swapped the tranquilizer gun for his rifle. Tranquilizer darts were always preferred, but they took a lot longer than bullets to bring down an animal. With how fast the cat moved, darts would never take it down in time.
I thumbed the safety off my rifle just as the cat tore through the brush in front of us. It opened its mouth wider than I would’ve thought possible and leapt with a feral growl that would’ve made anyone piss their pants.
The other game warden and I fired simultaneously, hitting the tiger multiple times in its head, neck, and chest. The AR-15s barely made the cut to take down a bear. They were nowhere near what we needed for a cat that size but put enough holes in anything and you’ll bring it down. The cat stumbled and crashed a bare three feet from our position.
I stared at the wheezing tiger as its dying breaths whistled through bloody, gurgling holes in its chest. The majestic beast seemed impossibly large up close—its saber-like teeth even larger. I clenched my jaw as a vise squeezed my heart because I’d been forced to kill something so incredible.
The dirt kicked up next to me as another gunshot rent the air, this shot from what sounded to be a rifle like I was carrying.
“Hold your fire! Federal agents! Hold your fire!” I yelled.