As lawman, rancher, and Korean War veteran, Ty Dawson has his share of problems in the southern Oregon county he calls home. Despite how rural it is, Meriwether can’t keep modernity at bay. The 1970s have changed the United States—and Meriwether won’t be spared.
A standoff looms when the US Fish & Wildlife Service seeks to separate longtime cattleman KC Sheridan from his water supply—ensuring the death of his livestock. If that’s not enough trouble, a Portland detective is found dead in a fly-fishing resort cabin. Though the Portland police, including the victim’s own partner, are eager to write off the tragedy as a suicide, Ty has his own thoughts on the matter—as well as evidence that points to murder. His suspicions soon mire him in a swamp of corruption that threatens nearly everyone around him. Turns out that greed and evil are contagious—and they take down men both great and small . . .
“Combines the mystery and honesty of Craig Johnson’s Longmire with the first-person narration of a fiercely independent Oregon character.”
~ Sheila Deeth, author of John’s Joy
“A masterful work of a time gone by . . . Ty Dawson is a cowboy, lawman, father and philosopher like none other.”
~ Neal Griffin, Los Angeles Times–bestselling author of The Burden of Proof
A TRANSITIVE NIGHTFALL
NO CHILD IS brought into this world with any knowledge of true evil. This they learn over the passage of time. In my experience as a Sheriff, and as a rancher, I have found this precept to be true.
Time passes nevertheless, even if it passes slowly. Here in rural southern Oregon, sometimes it seemed as if it hadn’t moved at all, advancing without touching Meriwether County, except with glancing blows.
That is, until the day it caught up with us all, and came down like a goddamn hammer.
ORDINARILY, AUTUMN IN Meriwether County would come in hard and sudden, like a stone hurled through a window. But this year it snuck in slow and mild, lingered there deceitfully while we waited for the axe to come down.
The sky that morning was turquoise, empty of clouds, the altitude strung with elongated V’s of migrating geese and a single contrail that resembled a surgical scar, the narrows between the high valley walls opening onto a broad vista of rangeland some distance below. I had expected ice patches to have formed on the pavement overnight, but the weather had remained stubbornly dry, even as temperatures closed in on the low thirties. I tipped open the wind-wing and let the chill air blow through the cab of my pickup as I stretched, and drank off the last dregs of coffee I had brought for the long southward drive from the town of Meridian.
I had received a phone call at home the night before from an unusually distressed KC Sheridan. I had known KC for as long as I can remember, a pragmatic and taciturn cattleman whose family history in the area dated back to the late 1800s, much like that of my own. Three generations of Sheridans had stretched fence wire, planted feed-grass and run rough stock across deeded ranchland that measured its acreage in the tens of thousands, and whose boundaries straddled two separate counties, one of which was my jurisdiction.
But the decade of the ’70s thus far had not been any kinder or gentler to cowboys than to anyone else, and KC and his wife, Irene, had found themselves increasingly subject to the fulminations and intimidation of both local and federal government. While the Sheridan ranch had once numbered itself among a dozen privately held agricultural properties in the region, KC now found himself surrounded on three sides by a federally designated wildlife refuge that had swollen to encompass well over three hundred square miles; a bird sanctuary originally conceived under the auspices of President Theodore Roosevelt’s white house. All of which would have been perfectly fine and acceptable to the Sheridan family, given the understanding that the scarce water supply that ultimately fed into the bird sanctuary belonged to the Sheridans by legal covenant, as it had for nearly a century.
I turned off the paved two-lane and onto a gravel service road, headed in the direction of the ridgeline where KC sat silhouetted against the bright backdrop of clear sky, mounted astride his chestnut roping horse. KC climbed out of the saddle as I parked a short distance away, switched off the ignition and stepped down from my truck. KC trailed the horse behind him as he moved in my direction, took off his hat and ran a forearm across his brow, then pressed it back onto his head. His hair and his eyes shared a similar shade of gunmetal grey, and the hardscrabble nature of his existence as a rancher had been recorded in the deep lines of his face.
“What the hell am I supposed to do about these goings-on, Sheriff?” KC asked, and cocked his brim in the general direction of a reservoir that was the size of a small mountain lake. Two men wearing construction hardhats were surveying a line on the near shore where a third man studied a roll of blueprints he had unfurled across the hood of his work truck.
“Is that who I think it is?” I asked.
“They aim to fence off my water. My cows won’t last a week in this weather.”
“Have you talked to them, KC?”
“’Bout as useful as standing in a bucket and trying to lift yourself up by the handle. It’s the reason I finally called you, Ty. I didn’t know what else to do.”
The vein on KC’s temple palpitated as he cut his eyes toward the foothills and spat.
“I’ll have a word with them,” I said. “You wait here.”
A wintry wind had begun to blow down from the pass, pushing channels through the dry grass and the sweet scents of juniper and scrub pine. A harrier swept down out of a cluster of black oaks and made a series of low passes across the flats.
I averted my eyes as the sun glinted off the US Department of Fish & Wildlife shield affixed to the driver side door of a government-issue Chevy Suburban. The man studying the blueprints didn’t bother to lift his head or look at me as I stepped up beside him.
“Care to tell me why you and your men are trespassing on private ranch land?” I asked.
The man sighed, scrutinizing me over the frames of a pair of steel-rimmed reading glasses. He had a face that put me in mind of an apple carving, and a physique that resembled a burlap sack filled with claw hammers.
“Who the hell are you now?” he asked.
“Ty Dawson, Sheriff of Meriwether County. That’s the name of the county you’re standing in.”
He took off his reading glasses and slipped them into his shirt pocket, hitched a work boot onto the Suburban’s bumper and offered me an approximation of a smile.
“Well, Sheriff, I’m with Fish and Wildlife—that’s an agency of the federal government, as I’m sure you’re aware—and I have a work order that says I’m supposed to put up a fence. And that’s exactly what me and my crew are doing here.”
I gestured upslope, where KC Sheridan stood watching us, his arms crossed in front of his chest.
“You’re on that man’s private property,” I said.
The government man made no move to acknowledge KC.
“I don’t split hairs over those types of details, Sheriff. The work order I’ve got lays out the metes and bounds of the line, and me and my crew just install the fence where it says to. It ain’t brain surgery.”
“Scoot over and let me have a look at that site map.”
“I oughtta radio this in.”
“You do whatever you think you need to,” I said. “But do it while I’m looking at your map.”
He lifted his chin and looked as though he was conducting a dialogue with himself, then finally stepped to one side. I studied the blueprint for a few moments, looked out across the rock-studded range and got my bearings.
“Looks to me like the boundary line for the bird refuge is at least a hundred yards to the other side of this reservoir,” I said. “Your map is mismarked.”
“The agency doesn’t mismark maps, Sheriff.”
“They sure as hell mismarked this one. You need to stop your work until this gets sorted out.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“Care to repeat that? There’s clearly been a mistake.”
“No mistake. You need to step away, Sheriff.”
“Let me explain something to you,” I said, removing my sunglasses. “It’s the law in the State of Oregon that the water that comes up on Mr. Sheridan’s property belongs to Mr. Sheridan. Period. If you fence off his reservoir—especially this late in the season—you’re not only stealing his water, you’re murdering his herd.”
The agency man lifted his foot off the bumper, set his feet wide and faced off with me. He slid both hands into the back pockets of his canvas overalls and rocked back on his heels.
“Now it’s my turn to try to explain something to you, Sheriff: I been given a job to do, and I intend to do it. If you don’t walk away right this minute and leave me to it, I will be forced to radio this in. Long and the short of it is, the guys who will come out here after me will have badges, too. And their badges are bigger than yours.”
“I won’t allow you to trespass onto private property, steal this man’s water and kill his livestock.”
He glanced at his two crewmen staking the line then turned his attention back to me.
“You going to arrest us?” he asked.
“What is it with you agency people? Why is it that your first inclination is to slam the pedal all the way to the floor?”
“When me and the boys come back out here, it won’t just be the three of us no more.”
“I’m finished talking about this,” I said. “Pack up your gear and go.”
I could feel his eyes boring holes into the back of my head as I picked my way back up the incline where Sheridan stood waiting for me.
“I can tell by your stride that you had the same kind of dialogue experience I had with that fella,” KC said.
“Bureaucrats with hardhats.”
“I ain’t no cupcake, Dawson. But, you know that those sonsabitches have been tweaking my nose for years.”
“Those men are part of a federal agency, KC, make no mistake. If you’re not careful, they’ll try to roll right over the top of you.”
“What do you call what they’re doing right now? I don’t intend to lay down for it.”
“I’m not saying you should.”
“Get on the phone and call Judge Yates up in Salem,” I said. “Ask him if he can slap an injunction on these clowns until we get it sorted out.”
Sheridan’s horse pinned back his ears and began to shuffle his forelegs, responding to the tone our conversation had taken. KC calmed the animal with a caress of its neck, dipped into the pocket of his wool coat, snapped off a few pieces of carrot and fed it to the gelding from the flat of his palm.
“I’ll do it, Ty, but I swear to god—”
“KC, you call me before you do anything else, you understand?”
Excerpt from RECKONING by Baron Birtcher. Copyright 2023 by Baron Birtcher. Reproduced with permission from Baron Birtcher. All rights reserved.
Baron R Birtcher is the LA TIMES and IMBA BESTSELLING author of the hardboiled Mike Travis series (Roadhouse Blues, Ruby Tuesday, Angels Fall, and Hard Latitudes), the award-winning Ty Dawson series (South California Purples, Fistful Of Rain, and Reckoning), as well as the critically-lauded stand-alone, RAIN DOGS.
Baron is a five-time winner of the SILVER FALCHION AWARD, and the WINNER of 2018’s Killer Nashville READERS CHOICE AWARD, as well as 2019’s BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR for Fistful Of Rain.
He has also had the honor of having been named a finalist for the NERO AWARD, the LEFTY AWARD, the FOREWORD INDIE AWARD, the 2016 BEST BOOK AWARD, the Pacific Northwest’s regional SPOTTED OWL AWARD, and the CLAYMORE AWARD.
Baron’s writing has been hailed as “The real deal” by Publishers Weekly; “Fast Paced and Engaging” by Booklist; and “Solid, Fluent and Thrilling” by Kirkus.
“YOU WANT TO READ BIRTCHER’S BOOKS, THEN YOU WANT TO LIVE IN THEM” — Don Winslow, NYT Bestselling author
“BIRTCHER IS PART POET, PART PHILOSOPHER, AND A CONSUMMATE WRITER” — Reed Farrel Coleman, NYT Bestselling author