Mountain sheriff and city cop pursue a killer…
Wilda Proud Horse was Cherokee, but many in Long Valley called her a witch. She was rumored to cure sickness, cheat fate and sow love. When two boys find Wilda’s body beneath a sheet of ice in the river, Sheriff Gordon Bredenbury takes on his final case before he retires. But he has never investigated a murder; Long Valley has always been tranquil and free of violent crime. Gordon turns to a hard-boiled, jaded city detective for help, but indigenous spirits may stand between them and the killer.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I’ve written several novels, and all have one or more mysteries in the plots. A full-blown genre mystery was the next logical step.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The characters were introduced in two previous books “A Divide Beyond Reason” and “A River Named Vengeance.” This book is a spinoff of those novels, and first in a series.
HE WATCHED THE silver star slide across the walnut desk, making a scraping sound on the wood’s grain as it went. He had removed it from his bay sheepskin coat pocket just a moment ago; an odd feeling in itself, rather than pinned to his shirt or snug in its leather belt case. Then he set it on the desk and pushed it toward the man in the chair.
The badge glinted by the sun through the open window curtains, the dark blue circle with the yellow lettering fairly glowing. He almost snatched it back, surprised by a withering sense of loss; but he came to this decision from the flames of tragedy, and from ash he knew this was the only path that might ease the pain.
Halfway across the desk, but then the telephone buzzed. He kept pushing, sliding the star away from himself. Chief Deputy Lance Hartley—dark-haired, military crew cut, blue-eyed and fit as a gymnast—punched the button. “Yeah, Trish?”
The dispatch officer—his dispatch officer, Gordon reminded himself—sounded anxious. “Lance, the sheriff in there?”
Hartley looked at him, cocked an eyebrow that queried, Are you?
Am I? Gordon asked himself, or maybe he asked Hartley; he wasn’t sure.
By then the star lay at rest inches from Hartley’s hand. Gordon shook his head. “What’s up, Trish?” Hartley prompted.
“A state highway foreman called. Says one of the Nathan boys just ran up to them west of town. I think it was Henry Nathan. He said him and his brother—must be Silas—were about to go fishing but they found something in the river.”
Gordon didn’t take his eyes off Hartley. The star lay between them, one of its points flaring hot and bright in the sunlight lancing through the window. He caught a distorted glimpse of himself in the polished silver: still a tall, broad-shouldered but old man, curls and wiry beard no longer reddish-blond but gray, skin not so wrinkled as most men his age, but lined with worry and by long years of duty. He knew what he had set into motion there: a changing of the guard. The election was still a year-and-a-half off. But if Hartley took over in the interim he’d have the advantage of the incumbency. He’d be a shoo-in.
“What was it?” Hartley asked. He kept his gaze locked with Gordon’s.
“A body,” Trish said. “A woman’s body.”
Hartley glanced away, leaned closer to the phone. “Where? At their place?”
“No, just a little off from the National Forest. About half a mile, close to where US 64 passes over the river.”
“Thanks. We’re on it.” He punched off the intercom, settled back in the chair. Gordon’s chair, though Hartley had occupied it since the sheriff was shot two months earlier. The creak and groan of the oak slats, the squeak of the casters…he had never heard them from that side of the desk. He thought they sounded like abdication. “Things sure have changed,” the chief said.
“Yeah,” Gordon agreed. Around him sulked the mementos of his career, his life: awards from the state sheriff’s association, trophies from the annual baseball game against the city police, gifts from grateful people he had helped, and a framed collection of the badges he had worn since 1945. He glanced out the window at the sudden uplift of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the valley from town, thought they looked like the backs of a buffalo herd in stampede.
Hartley thrummed his fingers on the desk. “Well.”
Gordon felt the touch of an awkward smile on his face. “Yeah. Well.”
“I better get out there.”
“I suppose so.”
Hartley leaned toward Gordon, fingers clasped. The badge lay just past his wrists. “Am I going…or are we going?”
Gordon’s hand twitched. He had nearly reached out across the desk.
“Lance,” he began.
“Then that’s what it is,” Hartley said. He slid the badge back across the walnut top. “Don’t sweat it, Gord. I’m not.”
Gordon didn’t reach for it. He felt terrible. But he also knew he couldn’t not go. Hartley got up, donned his hat and coat, intentionally releasing the sheriff from the embarrassed turmoil.
“I’ll drive,” the chief said.
When the badge slipped back into Gordon’s hand it was cold as sheet metal in the dead of winter.
Bret and Isabelle Nathan lived just at the southern edge of the government land west of Lawson’s Peak, the largest mountain in that part of the lower Appalachians. The river marked the boundary between National Forest and private property. Nathan land sprawled along the south side of the river across more than two hundred acres where the family raised horses and offered the tourists trail rides into the mountains.
Gordon rode in the passenger seat of the patrol unit, feeling chagrined. Hartley was decent about it all; he expected no less from the man. He had recognized integrity and honesty in Lance when he was a rookie deputy, qualities that propelled him through the ranks to chief, passing more tenured officers along the way. If he could choose a successor to wear that badge, it would be Hartley.
He fully intended to retire that morning. The conviction had grown since late summer. He had enough. It was time to let it go, at last; at seventy-six years old probably past time. Though he won his last re-election easily he understood that another four years would be pushing his luck. Especially after all that he had endured that summer. He had lost too much faith in the world and human decency, and though some of it had been renewed by his sons and half-brother, far more heartache lingered in a town that had grown too fast, too ungainly, than he could stomach.
It’s like living in a big city or something, old Gabriel Forrester said to him decades earlier. Worse, really. It’s like a dead animal. All bloated. All bloated and stinking.
Outside the Tahoe’s window the river flowed across the bottom of the valley. Beyond it the foothills lifted abruptly up to the mountains, Lawson’s Peak dominating not only that section of the Blue Ridge range but also most of Gordon’s life. The river had finally settled into a wide, fast course through the mud-caked, gentle undulations of the valley floor. It was too late in the season for new growth to unfurl much green. The trees up the mountains had already turned golden and fiery orange and those at the highest elevations dropped leaves that were scattered by winter winds and carried downstream by the river. It reminded him of when he was very young, before the dam, when the river was unfettered and collected creeks and branches along its way, growing and strengthening until it reached the larger, deeper river near the city and turned southward away from Lawson’s Peak.
Gordon wondered if there might be trout in it, spilled from the lake through the crumbled concrete blocks that had held it in stasis for so long, or swept down from the mountains when that nearly century-old dam was blown up, emptied the lake and erased all evidence that human beings had ever settled the lush, fertile lands below.
The valley fell behind them, the river now tumbled tight between autumn-kissed forests. The radio spat chatter now and then: traffic stops, warrant checks and the occasional call for coffee from a deputy on some boring duty in cold Appalachian wind. Hartley didn’t speak. It was eighteen miles out to the bridge, just past the Nathan property, the highway being the westward boundary. Henry and Silas probably wouldn’t have caught anything in the river, but Gordon wasn’t sure there weren’t trout there now, two months after it was reborn. Knowing those princely denizens of cold, fast water so well, he wouldn’t be surprised at all if they had returned to it, remembering its contours and colors from ancestral recollection, as if they had finally come home.
Hartley turned northwest and soon Gordon saw the sign marking Lawson National Forest and Henry Lawson Wyatt Ranger District on a brown wooden kiosk shaped like a rectangle askew at its top left corner. A thin slat beneath it declared U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gordon grinned at the marker as they passed: the young Virginia-born soldier who was the first to die in the War Between the States had finally gotten his due, thanks to the naming of the mountain by descendants of the valley’s first settlers. There was also a statue of young Wyatt in Raleigh, since his family had moved from Virginia and he enlisted in the First Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers in 1861.
I could have left it on the desk. I should have. It was a lousy thing to do to Lance. But when the call came, both men knew what would happen. There had been too many deaths. Violent crime was rare in the valley until that fall. That the Nathan boys might have found a dead woman in the river made it seem that the killing would never end. He had already convinced himself that it was an accidental drowning, probably a hiker who misstepped trying to cross slick rocks, or a fly-fisher who got snagged in a deadfall. That would be it, he’d go ahead with his plan and in just a few hours that silver star would be pinned to Lance Hartley’s shirt and Gordon would go find Joseph to take him up to the cabin.
The rusty old iron bridge was intact, though it had only traversed a small creek below the dam for seventy years. Any remnants of gray paint had flaked away long ago. The onslaught of water had not taken it down, but Gordon saw highway department crews inspecting the foundations. A worker holding a flag waved them across, the sign in his other hand warning SLOW. State trucks, white with green logos, lined the road. The chief pulled to the shoulder.
A man in a hardhat ambled over as Hartley and Gordon got out. He was fit and chalky, black-bearded and sullen. Two boys trailed behind him, wide-eyed.
“Sheriff,” the foreman said, eyes flicking from one to the other officer, unsure which he addressed. Gordon thought he wasn’t sure himself. “Sam Hill. Normally I’d make a joke about that to break the ice, but under the circumstances…”
“Lance Hartley,” the chief said, offering his hand. “This is Sheriff Bredenbury.”
“’Pleasure. We were checking out the bridge when these boys came running up making no sense at all. Once I managed to calm ‘em down, I called right away.”
Gordon buttoned his long ranch coat, lifted the sheepskin collar around his neck. The sky had turned dishwater gray, a bitter wind gathering strength. He wished he had brought his hat, but he forgot it at home and the sky was bright blue and only about thirty-eight degrees earlier, the high for the day. Now a front moved toward the valley, threatening rain or snow, and he was grateful for his flannel-lined jeans and heavy socks. He worried he might not get to the cabin after all.
Henry Nathan was oldest, fifteen or so, skinny, red-headed and blue-eyed. He had a look of Tom Sawyer about him, unkempt and fancy-free, though Gordon knew he cleaned up pretty good for services at John Carlton’s church on Sundays. Silas Nathan was about ten, also reed-skinny but he inherited his mother’s milk chocolate hair that drooped into his brown eyes in an unmanageable tangle like jungle vines.
Hartley glanced at Gordon. He nodded.
“Tell me what happened, boys,” the chief said.
Henry stood with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, denim coat too big for his frame. His Dixie Chicks concert t-shirt hung low at the neck from him pulling at it incessantly; Henry’s taste in clothing lent evidence of the county and all of Appalachia being dragged into a world once only seen on television. Gordon thought it was the loss of something sacred. “Me and Silas was gonna fish the deep hole over there,” he pointed eastward. “But the ice done built up along the edge. We was looking for a spot to throw in, but then we saw her.”
Gordon glanced at the river. The temperature had stalled below freezing for nearly a week, rising into the high thirties only once or twice after noon. The river’s flow kept the center channel open, but its edges were lined with sheets of ice.
“Did you touch anything?” Hartley asked.
Silas and Henry both shook their heads. “No sir. She’s under the ice. We—” Henry gulped, eyes bulging. “All we could see was her face and her hand—she was reachin’ for us!”
Sam Hill shook his head sadly, watching Hartley for a clue what he should do. “Thanks, Mr. Hill,” the chief said. “Boys, show us where.”
Henry and Silas led them down the embankment and across a carpet of yellow, red, orange and purple leaves like scattered puzzle pieces crunching under their feet. The river flowed west, having taken weeks to empty the lake after the dam collapsed. Gordon thought that, despite the sadness and pain accompanying the river’s return to its natural state, it was beautiful.
Soon Henry stopped. “Over there. Behind that lil’ cedar with the forked trunk.” He seemed reluctant to go closer again, but said shakily, “I can show you if you want.”
Hartley reassured any affront to the boy’s courage. “Stay right here. We’ll go take a look.”
They walked the river’s edge to the sapling. There was a shallow sort of cove there, obstructed upstream by a tremendous fallen pine, its root ball nearly tall as Gordon. It had fallen from the upside of the high channel and the river diverted itself around it, leaving a pool of slack water, fifteen or twenty feet of it paned with ice, most opaque but there were a few runs of clear sheets. Probably spots where the sun had partially melted it during the day then it refroze at night, Gordon guessed, like the black ice that caused so many wrecks on the roads.
She lay in the water, under the ice, just as Henry said. Her hand was upraised, palm out and fingers spread, as if she touched window glass, but her eyes were closed. Saplings and stunted shrubs poked up from the frozen pool, grown on dry land before the explosion. She looked blue, but Gordon couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the dismal light.
“Gord,” Hartley said softly. “Is that—?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Wilda Proud Horse.”
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