Murder at Dead Woman Pass
by Gary Clifton
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
By the l880’s, the lure of gold had drawn hordes of miners, drifters and the like to the towering mountain ranges of western Wyoming. Dead Woman Pass was squeezed in a deep valley between newly opened Yellowstone National Park and the Custer Mountain Range, rifle distance to the north in Montana.
That it was square in the middle of Crow Indian territory didn’t make much ‘never no mind,’ as the hardy pioneers said. The town was named for the clear-water stream that rushed downhill just up-range from Dead Woman Mountain. Residents could count on fresh water year round, although some axe work was necessary on fifty below zero days.
Fred “Thumper” Gregory had been born in a lopsided shack just below the tree line. Nobody knew the date. And nearly a century later, he still couldn’t read or write a lick. The birthday and Thumper’s illiteracy were part of that ‘never no mind’ business.
He acquired the name “Thumper” because he had beaten a man to death in a barroom brawl. Community heads conferred and, since there was no law against killing a fellow in a beer joint in Dead Woman Pass, they’d just lynch him anyway.
They hanged Thumper from a pine tree, but the rope broke — twice. They held an impromptu trial, and after several gallons of bust-up moonshine and two fistfights, the “yeas” had more guns, so they opted to send him to the joint.
After a year of busting rocks at Rawlins Prison, with his cellmate an Arkansas bootlegger, Thumper came out of prison a moonshine whiskey aficionado. For the next fifty years, preceded eighteen inches by his stomach and smelling like a wet Lowland Polish sheepdog, he distilled and distributed ’shine across the northern territory.
Thumper was often found passed out drunk on a front porch, even at fifty below zero, apparently immune from freezing to death by alcohol pickling. The chief of police always dragged him to the city building. In lieu of a jail, he chained the old man to the center post of the building until he sobered up.
Ten days before Christmas, Thumper, drunk as usual, piled too much wood on the whiskey still cook-off fire and started an intense conflagration. Highway 212 had been closed by unexpected early eight-foot snowdrifts, and no outside help was available. By the time the police chief and volunteer fire department contained the two-day blaze, it had consumed a lot of timber and most of the chief’s good disposition.
Then came bigger trouble. Beneath the debris, a badly decomposed, burned body was found. The chief guessed the body to be male by its height, plus the size-thirteen hiking boots on the feet. And on the ground beneath the remains, the jackpot, a gold badge: “U.S. Department of Justice, ATF.” The chief promptly hooked Thumper up to that center pole.
* * *
After three airplane changes and an overnight at Salt Lake City, Petrovic and Valdez skidded into West Yellowstone in a battered, single-engine charter. Blowing snow blanketed the area, buffeted by nasty arctic blasts. A shiny Wyoming State Police helicopter idled nearby.
A man in a heavy parka approached, raised his ski mask briefly, and shook hands. “Sergeant Cliff Dykes. Gotta hustle. Need to fly through several valleys in Yellowstone, then past a couple of Montana mountains. This baby won’t get high enough to clear ’em. They got snowmobiles waiting on you. We’ll try like hell to set her down on the highway.” He tossed their luggage into the chopper.
“Cold!” Valdez shouted hoarsely over the engine noise. Sharp wind flapped her hooded coat, her hourglass figure hidden by six layers of clothing.
“Hell, folks, it’s really cold up at Dead Woman Pass,” the heavily bundled sergeant replied. “Forty below last night. Ain’t too bad here.” He looked across the windswept, deserted airstrip. “Only about minus twenty.”
The big copter labored through heavy wind and snow above vast, snow-smothered valleys. The road below, occasionally discernible, was generally camouflaged in brilliant white.
After what seemed half a day, the pilot banked, hovered against the punishing wind bursts, and bounced the craft down amidst four snowmobiles. Each was attended by a driver bundled in orange, hooded coveralls. Everyone wore ski masks and goggles. The massive mountains were covered with evergreen trees, a layer of snow blanketing the ground and more snow falling in blowing sheets.
“John Newman, Police Chief.” The big man extended a gloved hand without removing his face gear. “They call me Bigfoot. Pardon the glove. Exposed skin doesn’t last long up here. Meet Luther Brown, the Mayor.” Bigfoot didn’t introduce the two other snowmobile drivers, unidentifiable beneath the clothing and facial cover.
“Is this the North Pole?” Valdez looked around, bewildered.
Bigfoot grinned without comment, dug into a storage box on the rear of his snowmobile, and tossed Petrovic and Valdez each a pair of the heavily insulated, orange coveralls, plus ski masks and goggles. Both hurriedly donned the gear while the third and fourth drivers loaded their luggage onto racks on the rear of their snowmobiles.
In minutes, Petrovic and Valdez were on the rear of screaming machines, burrowing and bouncing their way through the beautiful, frozen world. Petrovic hoped they were on a road. The orange coveralls would be handy to spot at the bottom of one of many sheer drop-offs they roared past.
Dead Woman Pass appeared abruptly in a bend in the valley. It had twelve to fourteen Christmas-light decorated storefronts and two gas stations. Signs advertising snowmobiles for rent were everywhere. Petrovic craned his neck upward to see mobile homes of varying size, plus more permanent homes ranging from shacks to rustic mini-mansions perched on the hillsides on either side of the road. Most would be summer homes, vacant in winter. He wondered how they managed to get a mobile home up the side of a mountain. The seemingly endless sea of towering evergreens continued upward and outward as far as the eye could see, marred to the north by an extensive patch of burn residue.
They stopped in front of a log cabin bearing a sign “City Building.”
“Puttin’ you folks up at the Buffalo Butte Bed and Breakfast,” Bigfoot said. “Their restaurant’s open seven days all winter.” He gestured down the highway.
“Uh, separate rooms,” Valdez stammered.
Bigfoot ordered drivers three and four to take the luggage to the bed and breakfast and to put away the snowmobiles. He led Mayor Brown, Petrovic, and Valdez into the City Building where a bedraggled figure lay wrapped in a blanket on the floor. The warm room prompted the four new arrivals to quickly remove a few outer layers of clothing.
Petrovic eyed the chief of police. He was fiftyish, husky, with a haircut and demeanor that should have required tattooing “U.S. Marines” on his forehead. “You a native up here, Chief?”
“Born here. Thirty-four years in the Corps, and I settled back here.” He flashed a toothy grin. “I’m the Chief of Police, dog catcher, city councilman, coroner and city clerk.”
“This the cadaver?” Valdez knelt to examine the blanketed form on the floor.
“He ain’t dead. He’s the suspect,” Bigfoot replied, looking closely at Valdez. “Hey, you’re a woman.” He stared as if she had just grown an extra nose on her forehead.
Valdez’s smile was radiant. She didn’t respond.
Bigfoot nudged Thumper with a booted toe. The old man sat up, startled. “Anybody got a nip o’ whiskey on ’em?” He snorted. The blanket fell aside to reveal a heavy chain tethering his ankle to the center pole.
“Figure the ATF man was snooping on Thumper’s still, and the old drunk put a round between his eyes,” Bigfoot said. “Thumper, you might as well go ahead and tell these Federals the truth so they can carry you down to Rawlins Prison for lethal injection.”
“Well hell, Bigfoot, I ain’t did shi... er I mean nothin’. Sorry miss.” Thumper looked up, confused. “Well, maybe accidentally caused a little fire.”
Petrovic waved a file folder. “Old timer, are you the Fred ‘Thumper’ Gregory that Special Agent Peters busted for transporting moonshine whiskey three years ago?”
“Warn’t no bust. Sucker stopped me twenty miles down Highway 212, left me handcuffed to a tree, drove away with my F150 full of jugs of shine. He come back with the truck empty and cut me loose. Three, four weeks later or thereabouts, three more Federals showed up. I give a statement. They was investigatin’ that thief Peters. Never heard no more ’bout it. Hope they sent him to the slammer.”
Bigfoot caught Petrovic’s eye. “Peters had left ATF,” Petrovic said quietly.
Through blowing, heavy snowfall, Bigfoot led the way behind the city building. A badly decomposed and burned body lay on a sheet of plywood propped across two sawhorses inside the storage building.
“Killer buried ’im under rocks. Animals couldn’t get to him.” Bigfoot dug the ATF badge from his pocket and handed it to Petrovic.
Pretrovic inspected the badge. “Probably had it in his hand when he stopped a bullet. Could be Peters.” He shrugged. “Body not dressed for winter. Cold weather considered, I’d estimate dead about six months, killed in summer. We need a pathologist.” He looked at Bigfoot.
“Nobody died since I been the coroner.” Bigfoot gestured. “Can’t even spell pathologist. No doctor here, neither.”
Valdez pointed to the small hole in the cadaver’s skull.
Bigfoot nodded. “Maybe a .22? ’Cept nobody up here with a lick o’sense would be carrying a peashooter like that. Wouldn’t hurt a bear enough to know he’d been shot. Thumper had a Marlin .30-30 in his shack, but no peashooter.”
Petrovic opened the jaw of the corpse and shone his flashlight into it. Decomp had eroded the palette. With his pen, he fished around inside the skull and came out with a very small bullet. “Steel jacket.” He turned the slug in his fingers. “Left the bullet intact. Rare to find a gun that small with a hard-nosed bullet like this. Hadn’t oughta be two in this neighborhood.”
Bigfoot and Valdez leaned closer to study the slug.
“No chance to get this bullet to the lab. Valdez, can you conjure up a ballistics miracle?” Petrovic asked, pointing to a desk-computer. “That got e-mail?”
“Satellite.” Bigfoot grinned.
Valdez produced a small digital camera from her backpack. She took several shots of the bullet on a piece of white paper beside a ruler and turned to the computer. The bullet appeared onscreen with surprising detail. “That magic enough?” She typed in Petrovic’s ID and sent the photos.
Petrovic pulled out his cellular.
“Cellphones won’t work in this valley,” Bigfoot warned. “Satellite works for the computer ’cuz it’s straight up, but cellular don’t.”
Petrovic tapped a land-line telephone on the desk. Bigfoot nodded. Valdez jotted down the number, then sent the number via a second satellite e-mail with instructions for the lab in Washington to call back.
Petrovic walked back to the storage shed and rolled the body over. Partially imbedded in the back side of the lightweight jacket were soggy remnants of a deteriorated matchbook cover. Petrovic carefully picked it out of the cloth. Inside the cover was the logo: “Sky-View Resort.”
“That’s local.” Bigfoot pointed with his chin.
In 15 minutes, the land-line rang. Petrovic answered, spoke into the receiver several minutes and hung up. “Lab says the bullet is probably 7.65 Parabellum,” Petrovic said. “Possibly a World War II German Lüger.”
Bigfoot shook his head and turned to the Mayor, eyebrow raised.
“Nobody I know has a gun like that,” Mayor Brown said. Minus the thick parka and goggles, the mayor was tall, late forties, with bushy, sandy hair and beard.
“If you turn your prisoner loose, can he escape in this weather?” Petrovic asked Bigfoot.
“He’s never been very far outta the mountains... except that time when he went to...”
“We know about his stint at Rawlins,” Petrovic said.
“No, he couldn’t get out, even if he stole the best snowmobile around.” Bigfoot shook his head.
Afternoon daylight was nearly gone when they made the Buffalo Butte Bed and Breakfast at 4:00 pm. They conferred in Valdez’s room. “We need to climb that mountain and we need the Chief’s know-how. We’re not mountain people,” Petrovic said. “What was Peters up to?”
Valdez raised her eyebrows. “Maybe looking to square up with Thumper for getting him fired?”
* * *
At 7:00 a.m. the next morning it was still pitch black outside. Petrovic, Valdez, and Bigfoot sat in the dining room of the Sky-View Resort. The proprietor, still in nightclothes, was visibly irritated at being dragged out of bed on a very cold day. “Meet George Shilati,” Bigfoot introduced the owner. Petrovic tossed the matchbook cover on the table.
Shilati, late forties, was short, bald, fidgety, and uncooperative, with a nervous habit of tugging on his left earlobe. He described himself as a refugee from the violence in Lebanon and said he’d been operating the Sky-View for two years.
Bigfoot nodded. “Two years sounds about right.”
After ten minutes of abrasive conversation, culminating by Petrovic offering to yank off the ear Shilati constantly tugged, the harried resort owner suddenly “found” records of tenants from the previous summer. He pointed, reluctance apparent, to an entry showing that “William Smith, Denver, Colorado” had registered in late August but never checked out. “I think this is the man you described,” Shilati said, sullenly.
“How did he get here?”
“Hitchhiked, I think. Leastways he didn’t have no car. Warm weather. Went hiking up Dead Woman Mountain and didn’t come back. Figured he hitchhiked his way out of paying the bill.” He gave his ear a tug.
“You report this to the Chief?” Petrovic gestured to Bigfoot.
“What the hell he’s gonna do on a walked room-rent cheat?” Shilati whined. “Just took the loss. And now you tell me he’s dead on a mountain. Federal agent or not, he owes me a hundred.”
Valdez looked closely at Shilati, then to Petrovic, but said nothing.
Petrovic, Valdez, and Bigfoot stepped on the porch in the cold to confer outside out of Shilati’s earshot. William Smith of Denver had to be William Peters, the terminated ATF agent. Petrovic was now partially convinced that Peters intended harm to Thumper, but Thumper had beaten him to the draw.
“Chief?” Petrovic asked. “What’s Mayor Brown’s occupation?”
“Worked for the post office down in Denver. Injured in a traffic accident. Gets a disability pension. Around town here, he works some as a handyman, part-time electrician and the like.” Bigfoot studied Petrovic. “Told him to stay behind this morning. We don’t need him with his bad leg.”
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Gary Clifton