The only location in Fredonia where you could purchase a hot meal was a small, family-run Mexican-American restaurant called Nedra's Cafe. Along with Judd Auto, it was the nerve center of the town. Nedra and her daughters were noted for serving generous helpings of good food sprinkled with down-home hospitality; the kind of place that was usually full but never felt crowded.
Jason and Dwayne met at Nedra's to compare notes. The sun was a fireball on the western horizon and they were finally off work after another grueling day, looking like a pair of sleepy-eyed basset hounds. They took a corner table by the window, ignoring the stares and hushed whispers of their curious neighbors.
"So, how did it go out at the ASN mine today, Jason? Any luck?"
Jason nodded his head as he stirred his iced tea. "I had a very interesting talk with Todd Krieter – you know, the manager of the mine. He said he had never heard of Willie and Charlie. Claimed they never worked for ASN, but thought maybe they were working for Ray Schmoot's gravel operation."
Dwayne choked on his food and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. "GRAVEL?!"
"It looks to me like this lie is just the tip of the iceberg. Todd got real riled-up by just about every question I asked him. If I hadn't already figured that Charlie and Willie worked for his company, his defensiveness would have alerted me that something was wrong over there. And I mean from the first second we met, Dwayne. The guy was rattled to the bone."
"Did you ask him about the choppers?"
"It took an unbelievably long time to get him to say anything about the ASN helicopters. He said he was touchy about the subject because of the previous accusations leveled against the company for pothunting from the air."
"Uh-huh. Sure," Dwayne with contempt. "So how many choppers do they have?"
"Two. One of them broke down Monday evening. They took it to the Kanab Airport to get it repaired."
"How about their flight plans?"
"They don't file 'em. The pilots are pretty much free to go wherever they please."
"That's convenient," said Dwayne as he took a sip of Coke.
Jason removed a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and tossed it over to Dwayne. "I also got the list of all of their helicopter pilots. Any of those names sound familiar to you?"
Dwayne took his time scanning the list. "Nah, I never heard of any of these fellas. But it wouldn't hurt to run a background check on them and see what the computer comes up with."
"I think somebody on that list is the man we're looking for, Dwayne. I'm not convinced that Todd Krieter is the one who's running the show here – but he definitely knows the folks who are. For some reason, he's letting those people use the mine as a cover, and the company choppers for looting."
Dwayne put down his fork and stared directly at the Sheriff. "It's interesting that you would say that, Jason, because you're the second person who's told me that today. Billy Mangum claims that the ASN choppers have been buzzing around the west end of the forest like a bunch of flies since late spring."
"Is he sure?"
"You know Billy. He's sure about pretty much everything, but he's so sure about this that he almost punched me out when I asked him the very same question."
Jason nodded thoughtfully. "Well, Billy has a real short fuse, but as far as I know there's nothing wrong with his eyes. And he's not the kind to go looking for trouble. He'll give it to you in spades if you mess with him, sure. But it's hard to imagine him saying something like that if he wasn't certain of the facts. So who exactly did Billy Mangum see?"
"Well now, he ain't sure who's doing the flying. He just knows they're ASN helicopters. He said that he heard a chopper flying back and forth for about an hour or so on Monday. He remembered it as being sometime around sunset, and he placed it out near Jumpup."
"And he's prepared to testify that it was an ASN helicopter?"
"No. He didn't actually see the helicopter because Big Saddle Mountain was blocking the way. But he's willing to bet it was the same chopper he's seen flying around out there all season."
"Betting isn't the same as seeing, Dwayne. You know that."
"That's true enough. But it's still worth something, ain't it?" I mean, Todd's lying ain't the same as confessing, either, but it tells us where we need to be looking. By my count, that's the third shot aimed at ASN today."
Dwayne picked silently at his meal before speaking. "Billy also told me he's had it with vandals cutting his range fences. He says that he and his boys are gonna stay with the cows until they take 'em off the mountain, and he intends to shoot anyone who he catches messing with the herd. I tried talking sense to him, but it didn't do any good. He says we can't protect his property, so he's gonna do it himself. About all we can hope for is that whoever's been cutting his fences goes away. Otherwise, I'm afraid somebody's gonna get his ass shot off."
Jason closed his eyes and shook his head in disappointment. "Professional hit men in choppers, and now vigilante ranchers. What's next?"