GREEN RIVER, Wyo. — From every corner of this dusty river outpost you see them, sheer jagged cliffs rising from the desert, all burnished reds and orange-yellows and sandy browns, breathtaking and beautiful and deadly.
Castle Rock. Giant's Thumb. Slippery Jim Canyon. Massacre Hill. Their names evolved along with their formations and their stories.
But the name on everyone's mind last summer -- in the mines, in the taverns, at the mini-mart, at the Sage Creek Bagel Cafe -- was Lost Dog Trail.
The remote, rutted track meanders for seven miles across open desert before ending at the head of a cliff. It is a forbidding place of loose shale and parched scrub and swirling dust winds that gust even in summer. Coiled rattlesnakes sun themselves on ledges, slithering into crevices to cool. Lizards scurry underfoot. The redness of the rock seems as endless as the blue of the sky.
Senses are sharper here, if only because of the vastness, the desolation, the danger.
It was here, high on a ridge overlooking Flaming Gorge Reservoir, that a young mother and her child plunged to their deaths six years ago, their bodies crashing from rock to rock before coming to rest 100 feet down.
A tragic accident, people thought at the time. A weekend outing turned terribly wrong.
Or so it seemed.
Green River is a mining town of 14,000 named for the river that snakes through its center. It has a dusty, old-fashioned spirit and charm: Strangers are quickly welcomed; scores quickly settled.
Roger Brauburger and Bob Duke grew up here, in the shadow of the cliffs, best friends since a schoolyard fight in seventh grade.
Brauburger was the tough one of the pair, not a serious troublemaker but always in a scrape. As a teen, he strayed into drinking and drugs.
Duke was the clean-cut one, serious and ambitious, the son of schoolteachers who were known for their strictness at home and at school.
The two grew up a few blocks from each other, Brauburger in a little brown ranch house on Arizona Street, Duke in a little red house on Bridger Street. They went to school together, shot pool together, dreamed big dreams together.
Duke talked of college, of getting rich, of traveling far from the trona (soda ash) mines of Green River and making a name for himself. Brauburger was content to drop out of school and follow his father into construction.
Brauburger admired Duke: He was always so focused, so sure; nothing ever rattled him. He would set his mind to something and master it completely. When they took up tae kwon do together, Duke became a black belt. Brauburger dropped out after several classes.
The only thing Brauburger could do better than Duke was shoot. He was an excellent marksman.
They would go off-roading in Duke's truck, tearing over the desert above Flaming Gorge Reservoir, shooting rabbits and drinking beer. Or they would go cruising for girls on the streets of the neighboring town of Rock Springs.
Many nights they'd sit home watching murder-for-hire and horror movies: The violent cult film "Faces of Death" was a favorite. They would joke about becoming hit men themselves.
"We'd kid around about what a great life, little effort, little time, quick money," Brauburger said. "Click, just pull the trigger. Click! Next thing you have 15, 15, 20 grand. Man, what a life."
The outlaw history of Sweetwater County seemed to inspire such talk: Butch Cassidy once roamed these parts, back in the mid-1880s, when Green River was becoming a hub for the Union Pacific railroad. The mines came in the 1940s and remain the biggest local employers.
There is still a rough-around-the-edges quality to much of life here -- a throwback to the days of old.
It's the wind, some locals joke, blowing in from the plains, driving people crazy.
It's the highway, others say, carved right through the rock, bringing interstate traffic and interstate problems.
Or maybe it's the vast open desert where evil deeds are easily buried in the dust, and the only witnesses are rattlesnakes and lizards.
On resurrection day, goes one old saying, bodies will be poking up through the red desert dirt like white picket fences.
When he was 21, Brauburger bought Duke his first gun -- a 9 mm Beretta. Brauburger was older by a few months, so he was legally able to make the purchase. He also had connections -- connections that Duke didn't have -- to drugs, to guns, to small-time crime.
Years later, Brauburger would regret these connections and try to escape them.
Years later he would wish, with all his heart, that he had never strayed into a world that had tarnished him for life with a reputation he felt he didn't deserve -- a reputation that would haunt him when he finally tried to do the right thing.
At the time, though, life was good. Brauburger worked construction jobs with his dad during the week, drank beer with Duke on weekends.
Duke was not so content.