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Death Pans Out

Death Pans Out

by Ashna Graves

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While recovering from a double mastectomy, journalist Jeneva Leopold seeks solitude and healing at her uncle's idle gold mine in the sagebrush desert of Eastern Oregon. Hiking the rocky ridges, swimming in the old mining pond, and ignoring the outside world save for occasional letters, Jeneva gains strength and a new will to live.

As her interest in life


While recovering from a double mastectomy, journalist Jeneva Leopold seeks solitude and healing at her uncle's idle gold mine in the sagebrush desert of Eastern Oregon. Hiking the rocky ridges, swimming in the old mining pond, and ignoring the outside world save for occasional letters, Jeneva gains strength and a new will to live.

As her interest in life returns, so do Jeneva's journalistic habits. And though the locals are at first puzzeled by all of her questions, she soon gets to know a young woman rancher, various miners, a quirky old artifact hunter, and an itinerant priest and medieval scholar. These people and other colorful locals give her the inside story on living in the harsh landscape of sagebrush and coyotes and revealing how the old west is changing under new economics and regulation.

But the Oregon desert is also a place of secrets. The more Jeneva talks with the locals, the more she wonders about her uncle's mysterious disappearance. Why did her uncle and her mother stop talking so many years ago? Does she know more than she is acknowledging? The murder of a young miner sends her on a quest for answers, leading her to an elderly woman artist living in a converted chicken house, a tongue-tied funeral home owner, and a swashbuckling sheriff with rule-bending tendencies.

The appalling business she uncovers shocks the region and nearly claims her life, but it also brings closure to an old family misunderstanding and the enigma of her uncle's fate.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In Graves's inspirational debut, 45-year-old Jeneva "Neva" Leopold retreats to her Uncle Matthew Burt's abandoned mining cabin in Billie Creek, Ore., for peace and healing after a double mastectomy and the recent loss of her mother. A columnist for the Willamette Current, the resilient, inquisitive Neva also hunts for clues to her uncle's disappearance from his mining claim 15 years earlier. She makes friends in the small desert community with colorful locals, including crusty artifact hunter Skipper Dooley, ex-beauty queen rancher Darla Steadman and miner Reese Cotter. Neva is horrified to discover the corpse of Reese's fellow miner, young Roy DeRoos, and is later skeptical when Reese is accused of murder. Strange events test Neva's courage, leading to a startling resolution that's both macabre and entertaining. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A journalist suffering from severe depression after a double mastectomy moves to the desert country of Eastern Oregon, where she comes to terms with her vanished uncle. Jeneva Leopold barely remembers her uncle Matthew, who had a falling out with her mother. But her dreams direct her to his abandoned cabin in Billie Creek, where she's determined to heal her body and mind through simple living and strenuous exercise. Although she's avoided getting involved with the area residents, they slowly intrude on her peaceful existence. Rancher Darla Steadman takes her riding; artifact-hunter Skipper Dooley camps nearby and befriends her; and a forest ranger orders her to vacate the cabin. But her real troubles begin when Reese Cotter shows her around his mining operation. Because Reese's brother has run off, Neva takes in his dog. Soon she discovers the body of Reese's helper Roy crushed in a slide, then watches helplessly as Reese is jailed for his murder. Neva's visits to town involve her with some curious characters. Many think she's searching for the gold they're certain her uncle hid before he went missing. Despite Neva's desire to maintain her Zen-like existence, she tries to find out more about her uncle. Unraveling the mystery reveals a gruesome crime and almost leads to her death. Engaging characters, evocative descriptions of a little-known area and a masterful mystery makes Graves's debut a riveting page-turner.
From the Publisher

"Engaging characters, evocative descriptions of a little-known area and a masterful mystery makes Graves's debut a riveting page-turner." --Kirkus Reviews starred review

Fascinating characters, evocative descriptions of a relatively unknown area, and a first-rate plot make this an outstanding debut. This is a definitely a series to watch. —Booklist starred review

"Graves unearths a small, strong gem of a book." -Entertainment Weekly

"a startling resolution that's both macabre and entertaining"  --Publisher's Weekly

Product Details

Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.06(w) x 8.81(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Death Pans Out

By Ashna Graves

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2007 Ashna Graves
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59058-475-0

Chapter One

September 1991

The opportunity Burtie had been waiting for came on a Saturday when his partner went into town and did not return for the night. Hoping they would come while he was alone at the cabin, Burtie sat up late, and sometime after midnight he heard them. He headed up the lane walking fast, boots crunching on the rocky ground. There was no reason to be quiet until he reached the canyon road, when the sounds ceased abruptly.

He also stopped, and listened with his head bent. Lying in bed on other nights, he had heard the same pattern of distant rumbling and banging, always ending with this sudden silence. By his calculations, they could not be far away, although there was nothing up the creek, no reason at all to go there in the middle of the night.

Moving slowly now, placing his feet with care, he followed the dirt road up the canyon. It wound in and out with the shape of the land, climbing gently, every curve familiar to his feet, just as the smells of cooling pine and sage were familiar. He listened hard but heard no sound that did not belong to the desert night.

He came to a spur road, a pale track of quartz gravel leading off to the left away from the creek, and hesitated, considering it. The spur was no more than a hundred yards long, most of its length visible in the light of the stars. No sound or movement broke the stillness, and the dimly illuminated outlines of rocks and trees were familiar and as they should be.

Walking on, he kept to the high center between the ruts where his boots were as quiet as slippers in the dust. There was another spur not far ahead. Although he hadn't been up it for years, he knew that it ran parallel to the canyon road for about a quarter of a mile, separated from it by a pine thicket.

The entrance was bright like the first spur, but the track soon entered dense shadow between the canyon wall on the left and the trees on the right. A few paces into the dark he stopped to let his eyes adjust. His right hand went to his hip and massaged it in a gesture that had become habitual. He was old. He could not keep up this mountain goat life forever—but what else was there for him to do, where could he go? He didn't want to be anywhere else on the planet.

I've already been.

The thought made him smile in the dark, grimly, but also with the satisfaction of having done what he had to, of making the best of a bad draw. If he'd expected luck to get him anywhere, he might as well have died the first time. His only worry was Orson. If something happened, what sort of life would Orson have at the mine? He wouldn't be able to keep it up alone, but he might find a new life, a better life. And Enid would help him. Dear Enid. And Frances ... He would write to Frances tomorrow, without fail. The thought of his sister brought a rush of affection and regret; he had let the silence go on for far too long, but now he would go to her in person to make amends and tell the truth at last.

Pushing his hands into his jacket pockets he listened again to the night, but heard nothing, not even wind. They must have gone farther up the canyon road. Or they might be standing close by in the dark, listening just as he was, waiting for another sound of movement. Burtie felt a chill start along his spine but he stiffened and set his face in lines that did not admit fear. He had to know what was going on here late at night where there was no possible reason for anyone to be.

Feeling the way with his feet, he continued up the rough track, wishing he'd used the road recently enough to know its condition, but there had been no reason to go up a minor spur to nowhere. He was long past the days of exploration, of choosing new walking routes just to see what was there, although now and again he did still hike to the top of Billie Mountain—the top of the known world. Again he smiled in the dark.

The next moment he stopped to listen. Was that a click of stone on stone? The prickling ran its course this time, flashing up his back and neck before he could control it. Immobile, straining to see, he waited and soon heard it again, the faint slither of movement, then the scuff of a boot or maybe something dragging.

He studied the blackness ahead, identified a denser black shape, and said quietly, "Whoever's there, I mean no harm. I'm from the mine down the way."

Chapter Two

July 2006

Jeneva Leopold leaned on the axe handle and bent her head to listen. A breeze stirred the pines, a bird called from upstream, a squirrel gnawed the antlers nailed around the roofline of the woodshed. The evening was perfect, just as she had come to expect, perfect, that is, except for a sound she did not want to hear. The low growl of an engine could mean only one thing. A vehicle was coming up Billie Creek Road. The engine, throaty like a truck, revved, stuttered, and revved again. It was climbing, dropping gears as the canyon grew steeper, the sound fading and swelling with the curves and dips in the road. Soon it would reach the turnoff to the cabin.

Jeneva spun toward the woodshed, but with only three walls it didn't offer much cover. She could lock herself in the cabin or go into the woods—how ridiculous to run away simply to avoid company. It was too late now in any case. The vehicle had turned down the cabin lane and would be here before she could grab a jacket and get out of sight.

With a quick, decisive swing, she raised the axe and let it drop so that the blade stuck in the chopping block. She stepped away from the woodshed to look up the lane, and as she ran her fingers through her hair a white truck topped the rise behind the cabin. Seconds later it eased into the packed earth dooryard and stopped beside her. An unsmiling man with pale blue eyes studied her through the open window. Blond hair streaked with gray hung long around a sunburned face netted with fine lines, the skin stretched tight over his jaw and cheekbones. His nose was crooked from an accident or maybe violence, a long-ago bar brawl where she easily pictured him throwing fast punches. The cut-off sleeves of his white T-shirt revealed biceps that clearly had been mighty but now were wiry with age.

The stranger returned her look with a flat stare. "In seventeen years coming out here," he said with slow, clear enunciation, "I didn't see one single woman, not one."

"This was my uncle's claim," Jeneva said calmly despite the hostility in his voice, and the rush of blood up her back. "If you've been coming out here for seventeen years, you must have known him. Matthew Burt?"

"The one that disappeared? You bet."

They looked away at the same instant, the stranger at the cabin, Neva at the trim camper on the back of the truck, and the small trailer hitched on behind. Like the truck, the camper was white and as clean as it could be after navigating Billie Creek Road.

"Are you a miner?" she said to end the silence.

"Hell, no, lady." He gunned the engine and dropped a hand onto the gear stick. "I aim to camp on this creek tonight. You have any problem with that?"

Neva looked down the rutted lane toward where it ended at Billie Creek. There was a rustic campsite there in a small stand of pine and aspen, with a fire ring and rough tables. The mining claim was on Forest Service land, so the camp was technically open to the public, but it had not occurred to her that someone might use it. "The mine belongs to my uncle's old partner, Orson Gale. Does he know you're here?"

"Orson's never coming back." He shoved the stick into reverse, started to roll, stopped, and thrust his hand out the window. "Skipper Dooley."

"Jeneva Leopold. Neva, generally."

Dooley gave her hand a quick, hard squeeze, then nodded at the passenger's seat, where a German shepherd sat regarding her. "This here's Cayuse. He doesn't like girls. Excuse me, women."

* * *

As daylight dissolved into night, Neva sat on the long porch on the downhill side of the cabin just as she had done on every one of her fourteen perfect evenings at the mine, but instead of owls, distant frogs, and the murmur of Billie Creek, she heard Skipper Dooley slamming in and out of his camper. Trees hid the camp from view but didn't blunt the sound of curses and a harsh smoker's cough.

Skipper Dooley had said he wasn't a miner, but no one would simply wander in here for the night by accident. Eight miles of winding, rocky road lay between the mine and the two-lane highway through the Dry River Valley, a highway used only by local ranchers and the few miners still working old claims in the hills. The highway didn't lead anywhere that couldn't be reached faster on some other road. A traveler with a good map and no need to hurry might find his way to the Dry River, but for a stranger to notice the rough track that turned off the highway through sagebrush and rocks toward Billie Creek Canyon was just about unimaginable. And for such a person to follow that track as it wound into the hills and then climbed through the canyon for eight slow miles, each mile worse than the last one, and then to turn down the faint sandy ruts that led to the cabin—but Skipper Dooley knew the mine. He had said so. He had known her uncle and his partner, and he had known there was a camp on the creek.

So he wasn't a stranger to the mine, but what business could he possibly have here? It wasn't hunting season, and there were no fish in Billie Creek or the mining pond. He didn't look sporty, like a hiker or birdwatcher. He had towed a small trailer with a four-wheeled scooter lashed onto it. Maybe he was simply an old codger who liked to prowl around the backcountry on his ATV.

Whatever his purpose, if he stayed at the mine she would have to leave.

Packing the car to come out here two weeks ago she had felt suddenly certain that she was just as crazy as everyone seemed to think. She had no business driving for ten hours across Oregon from the Willamette Valley nearly to the Idaho border to live on her own in an isolated mining cabin abandoned these fifteen years. She would suffer terrible loneliness even though it was solitude she craved. But once at the mine she had not felt lonely for a single minute. She had felt gloriously solitary and happy. She would not be able to stand sharing the gold mine, certainly not with Skipper Dooley.

Despite her immediate impulse to hide from visitors, she was not afraid of Dooley. She was not afraid of much at all, she realized as she listened to the quiet that had at last descended on the night, and those fears she did have were very personal. She was afraid of water with dark, invisible depths. She was afraid of sharp kitchen knives because, a hasty cook, she was likely to cut herself. She was afraid to call her son on his cell phone because it might catch him driving and cause a crash. But she was not afraid to stay out here alone, or to walk anywhere through the desert hills with their treacherous rocky slopes and rattlesnakes, and she was not afraid of strange men with scarred faces. She just wanted to be by herself, to get back her emotional balance, and most of all to heal.

Neva stood up, leaned on the porch railing to listen, then went down the plank steps and looked at the deeply layered stars. There was not one streetlight to compete with the Milky Way; in fact, there was no electric light for many miles. Here, she was surrounded by pure night. Breathing deeply, calm again, she unbuttoned her cotton shirt and dropped it on the step behind her.

Cool night air moved across her bare back and chest, touching the two scars where her breasts had been. She traced each scar with her fingers. The surgery had healed well, so well that she did not find her flat torso ugly or repulsive, as she had feared before the operation. Her new chest wasn't disturbing to look at or to feel. It just wasn't her. Boyish and corrugated with visible ribs, her new front couldn't really belong to Jeneva Leopold, forty-five, mother of Ethan, columnist for the Willamette Current newspaper. She had not been able to accept this new shape—not, that is, until she arrived at the mine and turned her body over to the healing desert air. Every day she swam in the mining pond and then lay nude in the full heat of the sun. Often she hiked with her shirt off, walking randomly over the empty land, glorying in the touch of warm light that turned her skin golden-brown, except for the two pale pink lines on her chest. Her body was becoming familiar again, a shape she could accept as belonging to her, and even a shape she could like. But she was not done yet, not ready to leave the mine, and certainly not ready to share it with a stranger. With Dooley at the camp she could not swim nude, she could not walk around free in the air. She would have to behave properly again, to follow society's polite rules, and this she simply would not do.

Chapter Three

In the morning, Neva carried her coffee outside as usual to watch the rising sun bathe the canyon in cool light. The local raven family, two adults and two fledglings, sent hollow cries back and forth across the creek, but the sounds she dreaded to hear were absent. Either Skipper Dooley was sleeping late or he was far more subdued at the beginning of the day than at the end. Despite the quiet she was acutely aware of not being alone at the mine.

Waiting for signs of life from the camp, she felt suspended, unable to go comfortably about her usual activities, but when early morning passed into midmorning with no detectable activity, she made herself split firewood, fill the oil lamps and prepare a new batch of bannock mix. Working with the old speckled enamel cookware from the pantry, she put three cups of whole-wheat flour into a bowl and added baking powder, powdered milk, brown sugar, salt, and raisins. A cup of this dry mix combined with a little water made enough dough to divide into three donut-size rounds, which she fried each morning in butter. One was enough for breakfast, and the other two she ate cold during the day, generally for lunch on her long walks.

Today she ate breakfast late, and was clearing away when she heard the camper door slam. A sharp bark was followed by the bellowed command, "Shut up!" and then an engine roared into life. Hope flared but then she realized that Skipper Dooley had started the scooter, not the truck. She hurried out the kitchen door and across the open ground to the woodshed, determined to catch him as he passed. She would ask outright what his plans were rather than waste more time worrying. But Dooley did not come up the road. The sound of the engine moved away from her, across the creek and up the slope on the other side, slowly, as though exploring.

Disappointed and puzzled, Neva sat down on the chopping block and tried to picture his progress through the dry, scrubby woods on the east side of the canyon. The old trails over there were even rougher than on this side of the creek, and only collapsed timbers remained of the shacks that had been scattered through the drainage during the heydays of gold mining. Skipper Dooley had not struck her as someone likely to explore for exploring's sake. Her many years as a journalist had trained her to get information from people fast, and to sum them up neatly, but she also had learned how wrong first impressions could be. Even so, she would have bet that Dooley was a man with a purpose.

The sound of the scooter ceased suddenly, leaving only the usual quiet of midmorning. Either Dooley had turned the scooter off or he'd gone over the top of the ridge and was headed down the other side into Jump Creek Canyon.

With sudden decision Neva returned indoors. It was later than she usually set off, but she couldn't let a stranger ruin her day. She would go ahead with the plan she'd made yesterday before he arrived. Today she would attempt the most ambitious hike yet. Today she would climb Billie Mountain, the highest point on the ridge at the head of Billie Creek Canyon. Working quickly, she damped down the stove, filled a water bottle, put cold bannock and dried fruit into the small bag she wore on her belt, took up her hat and binoculars, and left the cabin.

Her step was light and easy. Gradually, she was exploring all four branches of the creek that lay between the cabin and the upper springs, each with its own mini-canyon. Twice she had made it to the spring line where the creeks originated on the lower slopes of Billie Mountain. There, the seeping waters created a bright mossy necklace across the dry sage. Now she felt ready to climb out of the spring basin to the top, where the view would stretch for miles.


Excerpted from Death Pans Out by Ashna Graves Copyright © 2007 by Ashna Graves. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Born in Santa Fe to restless, bookish parents who moved her and her two brothers all over the West, Ashna Graves remained a nomad far into adulthood. In 1989, she began teaching college journalism and became associate director of the university's humanities research center in 2003. Her writing reflects her love of the emptier regions of the American West and her fascination with the hows and whys of violent crime in a region of great natural beauty.

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