The Highwayman: A Longmire Story (Walt Longmire #11.5)
For the Wyoming Highway Patrol, the true highwaymen and women.
And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees, when the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, when the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, a highwayman comes riding.
—Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman”
One evening when we were driving through the tunnels of the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway, my wife and I came upon a stranded motorist frantically grinding his starter in an attempt to get his car going. He was an older gentleman and it’s a pretty hazardous place to be sitting if traffic were to come along, so I told Judy to go up to the north end and flag any cars that might be heading southbound.
Making sure he had the car in neutral and his foot off the brake, I began pushing the stalled-out car the fifty yards to the turnout between the tunnels, all the while hoping that some unknowing motorist wouldn’t come whistling into the darkness and slam into the both of us.
I think those minutes with my back against the sedan might’ve been the longest in my life, but once I got him out and safely parked he was able to use his cell phone and call for help. I ran through the tunnel to let Judy know what was going on and then returned to sit with him until the tow truck arrived. When I walked back through the gloom, my imagination started to work . . .
I’ll be honest—like most I love a good ghost story and every time I’ve driven through the Wind River Canyon I’ve felt as if there was one there just waiting to be put down on paper.
My humble contribution to the genre wouldn’t have been possible without the influence of Charles Dickens’s “The Signal-Man,” which I consider to be one of the world’s finest written ghost stories. After rereading it, I began thinking about how I could update it in the face of a modern age with so much technology. I remember talking to my good friend Jim Thomas about the Wind River Canyon, one of numerous magical places in the wonderful state of Wyoming, when he told me that the old-timers in the highway patrol used to refer to it as no-man’s-land because of the interference from the two-thousand-foot granite walls of the canyon that used to make radio contact all but impossible—and the legend of this particular Highwayman was born.
First off, I need to thank the Wyoming Highway Patrol’s Captain Jim Thomas—I just hope he likes his new nickname.
Jackie Dorothy of the Wind River Hotel & Casino and denizen of the canyon was also irreplaceable in her knowledge of the area and the Arapaho. She’s the one who put me in touch with wordsmith James Andrew Cowell to make sure my Arapaho wasn’t too terribly bad.
Some of the research materials I was fortunate enough to obtain were the Arapaho Stories, Songs, and Prayers by Andrew Cowell, Alonzo Moss Sr., and William J. C’Hair and the Hot Springs County Pioneer Association’s Mystic Wind River Canyon.
My usual riding partners were in on this one, “Gale-Force” Gail Hochman and Marianne “Motorola” Merola. The folks down at headquarters, Kathryn “Command Central” Court, Brian “Where the Rubber Meets the Road” Tart, “Lucky” Lindsey Schwoeri, “Victorious” Victoria Savanh, Ben “Buggy-Bath” Petrone, Angie “Mess with the Best” Messina, and Marcus “Ridin’ on the Rim” Red Thunder.
And lest I forget, because she would remind me, Judy “Shotgun” Johnson, my love and companion in all things in this world and the next.
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 granite 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 waves. At the Wedding of the Waters, the river changes its name and magically becomes the Rocky Mountain Bighorn River as it speeds north, 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.