Editor's Note: This story originally aired June 1, 2016.
Western mystery author Craig Johnson has written a ghost story. Or has he? Maybe there's a logical explanation for all the weird things that happen in it. His level-headed main character, Sheriff Walt Longmire, isn't jumping to conclusions.
Johnson's latest book is called "The Highwayman." The novella is part of the best-selling series that inspired the "Longmire" TV show on Nextflix.
Read an excerpt:
There is a canyon in the heart of Wyoming carved by a river called Wind and a narrow, opposing, two-lane highway that follows its every curve like a lover.
Traveling north through rolling flats, there is a windswept, rocky terrain that stands like a fortress next to the shores of the Boysen Reservoir with icy blue water that reflects the Owl Creek Mountains, looking as if they might run to the Arctic Circle.
At this point, there are three living-rock tunnels that enter the canyon in a row — rough, incongruous, like the passages that my mind still races through from the time when both I and the interstate highway system were young. Once out of these vintage boreholes, surrounded by rock walls towering 2,500 feet on either side, there are some of the most ancient rock formations in the world.
The Precambrian cliffs glowed pink in the late-afternoon sun that peered over the tops to illuminate the road signs that note the geologic history of the canyon, once again making me feel as if I were falling through time.
I figured that’s what she was doing, standing at the edge of one of the overhangs that dropped down into the turgid water.
I’d parked my truck at one of the pull-offs that bulge out from the road so that the tourists can get a better view of the Wind River. By federal treaty, the Shoshone and Arapaho are the only ones allowed to outfit whitewater and fly-fishing ventures in the reservation portion of the canyon, and there were a few of these brave individuals navigating rafts and drift boats through the fallen boulders and jutting rocks that populate the foaming, churning waters. At the Wedding of the Waters, the river changes its name and magically becomes the Rocky Mountain Bighorn River as it speeds south, almost as if the Wind could not survive in the white man’s world.
I was surprised to find her here at all, standing on the ledge below, barely visible in the drifting mists. She looked the way I remembered her from our many interactions in my county, tall and angular with one of those profiles that are hard to forget. She didn’t have her hat on, so her blond hair trailed back in the slight breeze, making it look as if she were moving instead of standing still.
My friend Henry Standing Bear was talking to his contacts on the Wind River Reservation in my truck, so I’d gotten out and had trudged to the edge of the canyon in the early-morning fog that had settled in the passage and would stay there until the sun reached its zenith to burn the great mystery away.
Decades earlier, close to fifty bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the canyon, first transported in horse trailers and then flatbed cars on the Burlington Northern line that runs along the other side of the river. The animals are still there along the crags when the cloud cover is not too low, like pale, solitary sentinels keeping an eye on the white water of the Wind before it escapes the gorge.
She leaned forward, looking at the cliffs on the other side, and I started to run, feeling that sharp shock as I realized she was preparing to jump. “Hey!”
She stopped moving but didn’t turn toward me.
Afraid she might not have heard me, I shouted again. “Hey!” The sound of my fog-muted voice echoed off the rock walls. “Hey . . . Hey . . . Hey . . .”
With a slow arc of my hand, I waved, and she turned her face to look at me but gave no indication that she recognized or even saw me. She just stood there.
Route 20 runs some thirty miles through the Wind River Indian Reservation and the canyon from milepost 100 in the tiny town of Shoshoni, ending at milepost 134 just north of Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest mineral hot springs. In good conditions it can take as little as forty minutes to drive the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway, and in bad, it can take a lifetime.
“I’m not crazy, Walt.”
“Nobody is saying that you are.”
We sat there in her spiffy Dodge Charger and watched the traffic thread its way through the canyon on a cold April morning. The fog had cleared a bit, and we could see where the late frost had caressed the aspens, the chartreuse buds still glowing with an unearthly desire for life. Every once in a while a few husks would break loose, would catch the breeze, and then flip through the air before they fell onto the frigid surface of the blue black river.
“They’re wanting me to go in for a psychiatric evaluation.” She laid an arm on the sill of the Wyoming Highway Patrol cruiser and focused her eyes on the traffic like a blond-haired hawk.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean they think you’re crazy.”
She studied the road. “Have you ever been called in for one?”
Usually it’s the weather that impedes travelers who attempt to navigate the narrow canyon, snow that chokes the tapered passage like a mountain pass, drifting so that the highway disappears, or clouds that descend and fill the gorge like a funnel, rolling down the highway like a tsunami, just as blinding and inevitable. Then there is the wind for which the canyon and the river are named, howling whistlers of over forty miles an hour that shoot their way through the tunnels, singing an end song that dies over the whitecaps of the reservoir, a sound that no human can hear.
I glanced over at Rosey Wayman, who was rolling a large coin between her fingers. Tall and blond, lean and mean, she had blue eyes like searchlights that set you back when she looked at you. I’d known her for a few years when she’d been assigned to the Highway Patrol division in our part of the state. Through a few mutual cases, I’d observed her and come to the conclusion that she was one of the best HPs with whom I’d ever dealt.
“How long have you been in this division?”
“About three months now.”
There was a call that came through from down near Shoshoni, the town at the south end of the canyon, and we both glanced at her radio. “When did it start?”
“The first week.”
“But the same time each night?”
She sighed, and I watched as she stopped rolling the coin. Some of the tension left her body as she realized that finally somebody was taking her seriously. “Yes.”
“Our frequency, 155.44500 RM.”
“12:34 a.m.” We looked at each other, the two of us aware of the importance of that particular time around these parts.
“You mind if I ask you a different kind of question?”
She shifted in her seat and turned toward me, giving me all the blues I could handle as she went back to rolling the coin over her knuckles. “Go ahead.”
I gestured toward the mist-swept cliffs ahead of us, the vibrations of the falling water still discernible in the cruiser. “Out there on the edge of the cliffs, when I called out to you and you first saw me — why didn’t you answer?”
Sometimes it’s the rockslides that surprise the tourists, the state geologists, and the Wyoming Department of Transportation, unsure as to how they could’ve happened at all— things that may not impede travelers but certainly make their journeys more interesting, because the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway holds a distinction unlike any other road in Wyoming.
She turned her head, placed a fingernail under the coin, and flipped it to me. I caught it in my right hand and opened my fingers to look at it. “Because I wasn’t sure you were really there.”
I studied the silver dollar, which was in surprisingly good shape considering its age, and mused on the stories I’d heard my entire life. You see, the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway is haunted.
Henry and I waited patiently as Kimama Bellefeuille gave a blessing to the steaks sitting on the table in front of us. Kimama was an Arapaho medicine woman with a Shoshone name who gave the impression of being a thousand years old, and people generally did what she told them to do because she wore them down, like a glacier.
“Cese’éihii heetih- eh’etii- hióówo’owú-u.”
The two of us were sitting together, our combined weight of over five hundred pounds on a single bench seat by the window in the restaurant while the ninety-pound, seventy-something-going-on-a-century-old woman on the other side of the booth had a bench seat to herself; it was a question of respect. Henry leaned toward me. “She is asking the animals of the earth to hear her words.”
“Your surplus is going to be eaten so that the people will prosper. . . .”
She interrupted him and said something I couldn’t make out.
“What’d she say?”
“She wants to know if I am going to translate each line of the prayer.” The Bear looked unsure, maybe for the third time in his life, and we both looked at Kimama like truants. “I thought that — ”
Kimama interrupted him, and Henry translated. “She says she can continue in English for the Bird Turd, if you would like.” He bit down on a grin and made the decision for me. “That would be appreciated.”
“Umm, did she just call me a bird turd?”
He nodded and spoke through the side of his mouth. “Bird shit is generally white.”
I turned back to Kimama, but she had already recommenced the prayer, this time in English. “So that the breath of life will endure for a long time, so that the tribe will be numerous, the child whatever his age, the little girl and the little boy, and man, whatever his age, and the woman, even the Bird Turd, whatever his age . . . We pray that these foods will keep us healthy as long as the sun follows its path in the sky.”
Watching the old woman open her eyes and pick up her utensils, I figured the religious portion of the meal was through. “I don’t like being called Bird Turd.”
She mumbled something more in Arapaho, and I turned to Henry. “What?”
“Kimama says she will call you Frosty, if you prefer.”
I looked back at the medicine woman. “I don’t like that one either.”
She mumbled something more before cutting a piece of her steak and forking it into her mouth.
“She says she will call you Niice’nooo.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Why is that?”
Henry laughed. “Because you are beyond the pale.” I stared at him. “Get it? Bucket.” I continued to stare at him. “Pail?”
“No.” I watched as they shared a glance and then began using my knife on my steak and not her. “Well, I’m going to call her Pain In The Ass.”
She mumbled something more in Arapaho.
The Cheyenne Nation rolled up a forkful of pasta. “She says she has had that name since before you could drive.”
I bet she has.” I ate a bit and looked at Henry. “What’s she got against me?”
“I don’t like big men.”
I turned to look at her, envious of her easy switch from Arapaho to English. “Why?”
“Maybe I will tell you someday, Bucket.” She studied me through her sharp, dark gimlet eyes. “So, what did the flat- hat say?”
“She said she wasn’t crazy.”
Kimama grunted, now working on her string beans. “You know, only crazy white people say that.”
I sipped my beer, a Speed Goat from the microbrewery this side of the Bighorn Mountains in Ten Sleep. “So they tell me.”
Her dark eyes came up. “Do you think she is crazy?”
She picked up a French fry and dipped it in ketchup. “There are spirits in the canyon, great spirits that one time formed the earth.”
“I’m mostly interested in one in particular.”
She cocked her head at me and chewed, and I could see every muscle in her face. “Maybe you will meet him.”
I sat my glass down. “I assume that means yes?”
She grinned, and you couldn’t help but like the old broad. “You’re learning.”
“Was it a pleasant experience?”
I stared at her, trying to convey the importance of the favor we were asking. “Will you come with us tonight?”
“I have a prior engagement. And besides, what you are asking is after my bedtime.” Her eyes dropped, and she carefully cut another bite of steak. “But be careful what you wish for, Bucket.”
We finished our meal, dropped Kimama Bellefeuille off at the Methodist bingo hall, and headed up the street to the Troop G Wyoming Highway Patrol headquarters in Worland, the small brick building looking like a mini fort stranded out in the frontier wilderness with only a lone pine tree outside. “Think she’ll warm up to me?”
“I doubt it.”
“Think we can get her to change her mind?”
“No, but we will give her time, just in case.”
I paused before opening the door. “Do you mind if I ask why it is that she’s so important?”
“It is their canyon.”
“Actually, it belongs to the state of Wyoming.”
“The Shoshone and Arapaho have prior rights, and since she is both Shoshone and Arapaho . . .”
I pushed the door open and shouted, “You decorate that tree out there at Christmas?”
Jim Thomas pushed off his chair and walked over to the counter that separated us. “No, but I put out a bowl of red and green M&Ms. That’s about as festive as I get.”
He was handsome, with a blond crew cut, pale blue eyes, and an easy grin. If the Wyoming Highway Patrol were to have a poster child, he would be it.
“Might appease the natives.”
He shook hands with the Cheyenne Nation and gestured for us to have a seat in the available office chairs. “I’m not sure anything will do that.” Saying nothing else and leaving the proverbial ball in our court, he sat back in his chair and studied us.
“How are you, Jim?”
“Good. Glad to be off I-0.”
“I bet. Congratulations on the promotion, Captain America.”
He grimaced at the nickname, and I felt like telling him about my just-acquired one. “Thanks.” He glanced at Henry and then back to me. “To what do I owe the pleasure of you being on this side of the mountain?”
“I got a call from one of your troopers last week.”
He rested an elbow on the arm of his chair and palmed his face. “She called you?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What’d she say?”
“That you were trying to get her in for a psychiatric evaluation.”
His hands dropped to his lap. “Wouldn’t you?”
I glanced up at the wooden rack of mugs on the wall, a few of them blank but most of them adorned with not only the Wyoming Highway Patrol emblem but also the patrolman’s name. “Has this ever happened down there before?”
He sighed and stood, going over to the counter again and leaning on it with his muscled arms folded. “Not that I’m aware of. I called Mike Harlow to try and talk with him, but he hung up on me.”
The Bear looked at him. “Who is Mike Harlow?”
“The trooper who had the Wind River Canyon patrol up until three months ago, when Rosey took it over.”
I chewed the inside of my lip. “And who had it before he did?”
We all grew quiet at the mention of the man’s name. “Why do you suppose Harlow won’t speak to you?”
“Probably because he’s sick and tired of talking about Bobby Womack.” Thomas slid a hand along the old Formica.
"Mike’s a little sore. I think he was hoping that they’d give him command of G, just as a figurehead for a few months before he retired.” He sighed. “But they brought me up, and I think he got a little pissed off.”
“Do you think it would make a difference if we asked?”
“Where is he?”
“He retired and bought a cabin down in the south end of the canyon. You can’t miss it — he’s got a Marine Corps flag on a pole down there.”
I raised a fist. “Semper Fi.” I lowered my hand and eased back in my chair. “Kind of odd, retiring in the place he patrolled for all those years.”
Jim nodded and smiled, his face looking even more like that poster child. “We all thought it was pretty odd. I asked him about it at the little party we had for him the beginning of February, and you know what he said?” The big captain shook his head, the close-cropped hair not moving a bit. “ ‘Nobody ever gets out of that canyon, so I’m not even going to try.’ ”
We sat there for a while, listening to the radio chatter from all over the state. “What do you think it is, Jim?”
“She says it doesn’t happen every night.”
He spread his hands, truly at a loss. “And what am I supposed to do with that, Walt? I’ve got a wife and two daughters. I can’t just go down there and sit in the canyon with one of my troopers. That’s why I have them, to do the jobs that I can’t.”
“Still, you’ve heard the stories.”
He looked at the rack of mugs on the wall. “Yeah, I’ve heard ’em. We’ve all heard ’em, haven’t we?”
The trooper turned his head, surprised that the Bear had been the first to speak. “All the way up on the Cheyenne reservation?”
“The moccasin telegraph never sleeps.”
Thomas stood and walked over to the mugs on the wall, including one with his own name. “You see these?
There’s one for every trooper in G, past and present.” He pulled his own from its cubby and twirled it on his finger like a six-s hooter. “When a trooper dies, we turn his mug toward the wall, solid white.”
I studied the rack. “Which is Bobby Womack’s?”
He touched one at the upper left- and corner. “This one right here.”
“Can I see it?”
I glanced at Henry. “Do you mind if I ask why?”
He filled himself a cup from the urn and leaned against the counter. “When I first got here, every once in a while... not every day, but every once in a while, I’d come in and that mug, Bobby’s mug, would be turned back around to where you could read his name.”
“So why can’t I look at it now?”
“I superglued it down.” He turned and rinsed his mug in the adjacent sink and then carefully dried it and put it in its cubby just below Womack’s. “You know what they call him?”
“Heeci’ecihit.” The Bear leaned back and laced his long fingers in his lap. “That is what the Arapaho have always called him. Heeci’ecihit — the Highwayman.”