With the game warden suicide situation in Jackson Hole now resolved, Saddlestring game warden Joe Pickett can now focus on working in his district. However, the impossible happened: a Democrat was elected to be Wyoming’s new governor. This catastrophic event forces Trey Crump, the Wyoming Game and Fish supervisor, to resign. The new governor, Spencer Rulon, appoints Randy Pope to be the new Game and Fish Director. Pope declares that a “new era” has come to the Game and Fish Department and that “cowboy” like behavior will not be tolerated. Pope then limits the freedom of Wyoming’s game wardens by enacting new regulations such as requesting permission to investigate tips.
However, the new administration is not the worst news. Opal Scarlett, matriarch of Thunderhead Ranch, Saddlestring’s most influential and prolific ranch, has gone missing. A war between her two sons, Hank and Arlen, is underway to see who inherits the ranch. Each brother gathers an army and Saddlestring is divided on who to support. On one hand, Hank owns a very successful hunting guide and is ill-tempered. His army composes of ranch hands and other like-minded natives. On the other hand, Arlen is a suave politician. The Arlen coalition composes of business owners, politicians, and even members of law enforcement.
While Saddlestring braces for an upcoming civil war, a new yet unnoticed threat emerges from the South. John Wayne Keeley, the biological father to April Keeley (Joe’s adopted daughter), seeks revenge on Joe Pickett for allegedly killing April. Keeley utilizes the brewing civil war to infiltrate Saddlestring, and under the guise of Bill Monroe, aims exact revenge on Joe.
Days after Keeley’s arrival, animal carcasses start showing up at the Pickett house, disturbing the Pickett family. Joe’s demands that these acts of harassment be investigated by the police are quickly rebuffed by Sheriff McLanahan because the police are focused on finding Opal. As weeks pass since Opal’s disappearance, both sides become more polarized and the room for middle ground shrinks. Joe and Marybeth are pressured by both Hank and Arlen to join their respective causes. However, an anonymous tip alleging that Hank has trophies of endangered animals forces Joe out of neutrality. Without permission from Director Pope, Joe cannot investigate Hank’s home. Joe’s natural curiosity puts him face to face with Hank and his right-hand-man Bill Monroe. Monroe seems to have a deep hatred of Joe, nearly beating him to death after the confrontation with Hank. Furthermore, Monroe brazenly poaches animals in front of Joe and taunts the game warden continuously.
This series of challenges is even harder than those Joe faced in Jackson Hole. With Nate Romanowski nowhere to be found, Joe is forced to tackle these issues alone. The game warden’s duty to justice is pitted against his loyalty to his family. Can Joe protect his family as a game warden? How much danger can Joe’s family tolerate? Saddlestring is in chaos, and it seems the only way for this local game warden to survive and protect the ones he loves is abandon his most precious virtue.
Vengeance is Mine! (minor spoilers) “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” -Confucius (Wanderlustworker)
Revenge is a big theme in this book; the Scarlett feud is secondary to the Keeley vs. Pickett conflict. John Keeley seeks revenge on Joe for supposedly killing his daughter, stating “He [Joe] was in the middle of everything. He was responsible” (Box, p. 260). In order to exact his revenge on Joe, he plays both sides. As Bill Monroe, Keeley spied on and killed Hank for Arlen. He used his position as Hank’s subordinate to cause trouble for Joe. Keeley’s goal is to not only kill Joe but break the game warden.
I believe that Keeley’s desire to see Joe die in the worst possible way demonstrates how strong Keeley’s desire for revenge. There were two opportunities for Keeley to easily kill Joe but Keeley chooses not to pull the trigger because Keeley wanted to break Joe first by showing that he cannot protect his family. Keeley decided to pin dead animals on Joe’s door and destroy a family photo. Both events forced the Pickett family to move to the Longbrake Ranch home for protection. As a last resort, Keeley went as far as to take Joe’s daughter and friend hostage in order to draw out Joe. These mind-games that Keeley’s deploys shatter the sense of safety that Joe offers to his family. It forces Joe to think that being a game warden is more of a burden on his family than it is on him. While Joe prefers to keep his family out of his work, he cannot escape the fact that his work will sometimes bring negative consequences to his family.
The biggest opponent to Keeley’s revenge strategy is himself because Keeley is really impulsive and closed minded. Keeley tells himself, “He couldn’t be impulsive again, for one thing. No more lashing out, no outbursts. He had to be cool and smart” (Box, p. 162). Keeley’s actions in the book are anything but “cool and smart.” Revenge is a desire that is driven purely by emotion. Feelings of retribution, justice, and anger are what drives a person to seek revenge. If someone wrongs you in a significant way, anger is often the primary emotion followed by reason (if any). Furthermore, Keeley has some superiority complex or believes he is entitled to respect because he is John Keeley. Box exemplifies such narcissism when he writes, “he [Keeley] had the ultimately power over those who f***ed with him” (Box, p.162). Some examples of Keeley lashing out needlessly are when he kills a cowboy because that cowboy made fun of him, when Keeley nearly beats Joe to death after Joe called him a “rent-a-wrangler” (Box, p. 128), and when Keeley poaches animals in front of Joe.
What really drives home Keeley’s blind rage is that he refuses to stop and think. One indication of Keeley’s shortsightedness was when he was betrayed by Arlen. After killing Hank, Keeley reported the murder to Arlen only to be told that Arlen had nothing to do with the murder (despite giving the order to assassinate Hank). In response, Keeley hijacks a school bus full of kids and kills Arlen. If Keeley wanted to kill Arlen, why hijack a school bus with Joe’s daughters? Keeley even admitted that his actions were wrong saying that he was “greedy” (Box p. 303). Furthermore, Hank Scarlett tells Keeley that Joe did not kill April, instead Joe tried to save April. The person who actually killed April is dead. Despite hearing this groundbreaking revelation, Keeley kills Hank and continues to pursue his revenge. While I admit that Keeley has no reason to trust Hank, since Keeley is actually working for Arlen, Hank has no reason to lie to Keeley. Keeley could have easily killed the wrong man, while the real murderer is out there. Justice would be felt, but not done.
For revenge to actually occur, the victim needs to know why he is at fault. Revenge movies such as John Wick, Avengers: Endgame, and Kill Bill agree on the meaning of revenge: both the offending and vigilante party has to acknowledge the action. Agreement on the moral righteousness of the action is not required, just both parties agree that this particular action is what sets things in motion.
What Keeley is doing in this book is not revenge but murder because of passion. The difference between the two is the following: revenge is when a wife kills her husband’s murder. On the contrary, an emotionally driven murder is when a wife kills her husband because he made her angry. What Keeley calls retribution, I call arbitrary homicide. However, were Keeley’s actions justified? Let’s assume that a misunderstanding between Joe and Keeley over the issue of who killed April set the events in motion. Keeley would now be participating in revenge since both parties disagree on who killed April. Keeley’s revenge would not be justified because he is not acting based on the truth, but rather raw emotion. Let’s consider a universal rule: everyone who thinks they have been wronged has the right to kill those who “wronged” them. This rule, of course, is morally and logically bankrupt. If this law is in effect, then I am Mao Zedong. Considering the bigger picture, who really benefits from revenge? The vigilante? Society? It is really worth throwing away our humanity to satisfy raw emotions?
It is because of these emotions that we confuse revenge with justice. This delusion gives us the notion that our journey for vengeance is right, that it is willed by God. In current news, whenever there is a high profile murder/sexual assault case with an identifiable suspect (such as OJ Simpson in the murder of Nicole Simpson and Aaron Hernandez in the murder of Odin Llyod), the public and the media are always quick to judge the case before a trial begins. I remember seeing people on social media (namely twitter) wishing for an alleged assaulter to die or be punished in cruel ways. What I saw from those social media posts is people internalizing those cases and being the judge, jury, and executioner. They too confuse revenge for justice. There is a reason why extrajudicial justice is forbidden in many Western countries: it is simply revenge shrouded by the illusion of justice. As mentioned earlier, revenge is often based on emotions rather than logic. If logic is involved, then revenge becomes justice. This is assuming that people are perfectly rational beings. Of course this is false, which exposes faults in the justice system. In the United States, or any Western country, Justice of often done in a fair trial. In a fair trial the defendant gets a lawyer, an unbiased jury, and opportunities to defend himself and cross examine witnesses/evidence. Underneath the concept of the fair trial is an almost scientific way of proving that a defendant is innocent or guilty. Ultimately, everyone involved is human and emotion will still be involved in the case. After all, despite what the facts may say, one good lawyer and a hesitant jurist can lead to a mistrial and a full acquittal of the defendant.
Justice is, to put it simply, civilized revenge. Justice is the idea that stems from moral philosophies, religion, and social contracts. It is the shield and sword that protects the vulnerable and punishes the wicked. People who commit crimes are tried, convicted and punished based on the evidence, laws, and logic. However, reason based justice is fairly recent practice in human history. Throughout history, “criminals” were often sentenced based on accusations and circumstances. A prominent example would be the Salem Witch Trials. While a sword a shield can be used to defend the public, they can also be used to beat and oppress the public as well. Humans have used justice as a weapon to enforce power and establish hierarchy. Ideally, society cannot function properly if rules and punishment are determined by feelings, emotions, and power. Justice has to be blind because it is a component of a system that has been corrupted for millennia. Often we exempt those with power while letting the disadvantaged suffer. When justice becomes corrupted it needs to be restructured on a fundamental level. This is why we see calls to reform the criminal justice system because too many people of color are incarcerated.
Let’s think back to the first quote by Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” This phrase means that those seeking revenge should dig graves for not only their victims but themselves as well because the vigilante loses his humanity in the process. With justice, (ideally) only the criminals are put into body bags. Ironically, in the story, the two people who die are Keeley and Joe. Keeley died because Joe shot him, and Joe “died” because he lost his job and his idealistic view of justice. After killing Keeley, Joe thought “killing is easier than it should be” (Box. p. 305). The death of John Keeley was the first time Joe ever killed a man intentionally, which is in contrast with Smoke Van Horn’s death which was done in self-defense (notably, after Horn shot Joe). In the end this perilous journey for revenge hurts both parties and nothing is gained. Even if the vigilante achieves revenge, what now? What will that vigilante do? If you base your life around revenge, what are you when you “get” that revenge?
Reading this book was hard. Seeing Joe get beaten down both physically and emotionally by Keeley was difficult. I was bothered by the fact that Joe did not know why Keeley hated him so, a situation which reminded me of Iago in Othello. However, it is that conflict that keeps me engaged and interested in Joe’s story. Why couldn’t they talk it out? Because Keeley is too unstable and Joe is too hung up on justice. Did Keeley have to die? Could Joe have handled that situation better?
In the end, with Joe losing his job, I wonder what will happen to him. Without that badge, who is Joe anymore? What does he stand for? With no power, can he really pursue his virtues? We’ll find out in the next book Free Fire where Joe travels to Yellowstone to catch a man who performed the perfect murder.