Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett Country
Lately, C.J. Box has been publishing two novels each year, which constitutes an embarrassment of literary riches for those of us who have discovered this understated national treasure and a potential delight for those who have yet to do so. His prolificity as a novelist, however, is not matched by his short story work. SHOTS FIRED: Stories from Joe Pickett Country, his newly released collection, features his entire production of that medium to date. Although it contains just 10 entries, three of which have never been published before, what stories they are.
What Box’s short story production lacks in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality; as a result, each of the stories in SHOTS FIRED is a memorable gem. As Box hastens to advise us in his introduction, those seven stories that have been previously published haven’t been exactly easy to find. If you are lucky, you may have encountered one or two of them, but it’s doubtful you’ve read all of them. And while the book is advertised as containing stories from Joe Pickett Country, the breadth of these pieces is not limited to tales concerning Box’s steadfast though troubled Wyoming game warden. As is demonstrated in the six stories that do not feature or involve Pickett, Joe Pickett Country knows no state or national borders, or even period of time. It is more a state of mind, a dedication to duty and honor than a place underfoot.
"What Box’s short story production lacks in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality; as a result, each of the stories in SHOTS FIRED is a memorable gem."
While space doesn’t permit me to summarize/blather on endlessly about all of the stories here, there are some first among equals that stayed with me long after reading them. One is “Pirates of Yellowstone” from an anthology titled MEETING ACROSS THE RIVER, which featured stories based on the Bruce Springsteen composition of the same name. This speckled-trout-out-of-water tale features a couple of hard-luck Eastern European visitors to the Yellowstone Park area who get themselves involved in a grift and are in over their heads far too quickly. I first read it several years ago, and it was one of my favorites in the MEETING anthology (and here as well). “Le Sauvage Noble ("The Noble Savage")” will appeal to those who have ever felt as if they were in a situation where everyone knew the rules but them. Jimmy Two Bulls is an American Indian who is enticed by his cousin to come to Paris to work in the Wild West show in Disneyland France. Jimmy is lured more by the fringe benefits --- the French women --- than he is by the money, but quickly finds that he is ill-prepared emotionally to deal with the costs of his incidental celebrity. “The Wind River Range” is a historical short story, set in Joe Pickett Country in the 1830s, that documents the slow, rough slide downward of a relationship between two business partners who find themselves in quarters that are too close for far too long.
The Pickett stories? They are all gems, but “One-Car Bridge,” which opens this anthology and is being published for the first time, is my personal favorite, a bittersweet tale in which a powerful landowner whose potential victim is a man much like Pickett himself must face a rough justice at the hand of fate, or perhaps some other force. As much as any other Pickett story, it demonstrates Pickett’s willingness to use his occasionally limited abilities to their utmost, even in the face of almost certain failure.
These stories don’t feel like short stories. Even “Blood Knot,” which clocks out at a thousand words, doesn’t feel rushed or abbreviated. Box knows how to tell and sell a story, giving equal weight to the beginning, middle and ending. Hopefully, he will feel compelled to write in short form again very soon. Another anthology such as SHOTS FIRED would be more than welcome.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 25, 2014