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Jack didn't want any trouble. He couldn't afford any. That was why he decided to keep walking right past the Range Rider bar and the blaring Western music, through the darkness that shrouded the long-ago abandoned buildings of his hometown.
A sliver of moon hung over the top of the mountains among a plethora of stars in a midnight sky bigger than any he swore he'd ever seen. He could smell spring in the pines and on the snow-fed water as the creek rushed past town.
When he was a boy he used to imagine what Beartooth, Montana, had been like in the late 1800s. A gold-rush boomtown at the feet of the Crazy Mountains. Back then there'd been hotels and boarding-houses, a half dozen saloons, livery stables, assaying offices and several general stores.
Once the gold played out, the town died down to what it was today: one bar, a general store, a cafe, a church and a post office. Many of the original buildings still stood, though, ghostly remains of what once had been.
As isolated as the town was, Beartooth had survived when many Montana gold-rush towns had completely disappeared. Towns died off the same way families did, he thought, mindful of his own. His roots ran deep here in the shadow of the Crazies, as the locals called the wild, magnificent mountain range.
Over the years two stories took hold about how the Crazy Mountains got their name. Native Americans believed anyone who went into the frightening, fierce winds that blew out of the inhospitable rugged peaks was crazy. Another story was about a frontier woman who had wandered into the mountains. By the time she was found, the story went, she'd gone crazy.
Jack believed being this close to all that wildness could make anyone crazy. His great-grandfather used to tell stories about gunfights and bar brawls on this very street. Of course, his great-grandfather had been right in the middle of it.
Blame the mountains or geneticsthis was his family legacy. Trouble was in his genes as if branded to his DNA. But hadn't he proven tonight that he could change? He'd been tempted to stop in for just one beer at the Range Rider. Why not, since it was his first night back in town?
But a two-year stint at Deer Lodge, Montana State Prison, for rustling a prized bull, had made him see that it was time to break some of those old family traditions. Didn't matter that he hadn't taken the bull. He'd been living as wild and crazy as the wilderness around Beartooth and it had caught up with him. He'd just made it easy for whoever had framed him.
He'd had two years to think about who'd set him up for the fall and what he was going to do about it. Or whether he was going to forget the past and move on with his life. Not that prison had been that bad. He'd spent those couple of years on the prison's cattle ranch, riding fence, chasing cattle, doing what he had since he'd been old enough to ride.
But now he was back in the only place that had ever been home.
A pickup roared past with a glow-in-the-dark bumper sticker that read: Keep Honking, I'm Reloading. Jack breathed in the night and the scent of dust along the narrow paved road, which turned to gravel just past the abandoned filling station and garage at the edge of town.
As the truck's engine roar died off, he heard raised voices ahead, coming from the alleyway between the Branding Iron Cafe and the skeletal stone remains of what had been the Beartooth Hotel.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw a man standing in the ambient light of the cafe sign. At first he didn't see the second figure. Jack caught only a few phrases, just enough to realize the man was threatening someone he had pressed against the stone wall of the cafe. It was too dark to see who, though.
"I've been looking for you," the man said. "I just didn't expect to find you here." The voice didn't sound familiar. Even after being gone for two years, Jack figured he probably still knew most everyone in this part of the county. Few new people moved here. Even fewer left.
Good sense told him to keep walking. Whatever was going on, it had nothing to do with him. The last thing he wanted to do was get involved in some drunken fight in an alley his first night home.
Earlier tonight he'd moved his few belongings into a small log cabin on the edge of town in the dense pines. The place was habitable and only a short walk from the cafe and the Beartooth General Store. It would work fine for the time being. He wasn't sure he was ready to go out to the family homestead just yet.
Walking on past the alley, Jack congratulated himself on staying clear of trouble tonight. He would have kept goingat least that's what he told himselfif he hadn't heard her voice.
"Let go of me." Definitely a woman's voice. "I already told you. You have the wrong woman. But if you don't leave me alone"
Jack had already turned to go back when he heard a smack and her cry of pain. With a curse, he took off down the dark alley.
The man turned when he heard Jack's boot soles pounding the hard-packed earth, coming fast in his direction. "Butt out. This isn't any of your bus" That's all the man got out before Jack hit him.
The man was a lot bigger than he'd appeared from a distance. He had the arms of someone who'd spent a lot of time lifting weights. Jack caught sight of jail-house tattoos on the man's massive arms below the sleeves of his dark T-shirt, and swore. He was already thinking that getting beat up wasn't exactly what he had in mind for his first night home. That was if he didn't get himself killed.
The man staggered back into a slice of darkness, rubbing his jaw. He'd lost his Western hat when Jack had hit him. The hat lay on the ground between them.
"You just messed with the wrong man, cowboy," the stranger said.
Jack couldn't have agreed more as he braced himself for the man's attack. He'd been in his share of fist-fights in his younger days and figured at thirty-one he could still hold his ownat least for a little while. He just hoped the man wasn't armed. That thought came somewhat late.
But to his surprise, the man looked past him in the direction of the woman, then turned, retreating into the pitch-blackness at the back of the alley. Odd, Jack thought, since the man hadn't even bothered to pick up his hat. Was he going to get his gun? Jack didn't want to find out. But a moment later, a vehicle door opened and slammed, an engine revved and the driver took off.
Jack leaned down and picked up the Western straw hat from the dirt before turning to the woman. "Are you all right?"
As she stepped away from the wall and into the diffused light from the cafe's sign, he was taken by surprise. She appeared to be close to his own age, and definitely not someone he knew since she was dressed in jogging gear. No one in Beartooth ranunless there was a bear after her. No one wore Lycra, eitherat least not in public.
But that was the least of it. Dark hair framed the face of an angel, while ice-cold fury shone in her dark eyes. It took him a moment to realize that her anger was directed at him.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I can take care of myself," she said, snatching the hat from his fingers. "I didn't need you coming to my defense." She started to storm down the alley in the direction the man had gone.
Jack mentally kicked himself for getting involved in what now appeared to be a lover's quarrel. He should have known better. Just as he should have known to let well enough alone and let the woman leave without another word.
"From what I heard, it sure didn't sound like you didn't need my help," he said to her retreating back.
She stopped and turned to look back at him. Her eyes narrowed into slits as she stepped toward him, back into the faint glow of the cafe sign. "What you heard? What exactly is it you think you heard?"
He raised both hands and took a step back. "Nothing. I should have just left you alone to take care of yourself."
"Yes, you should have."
He nodded. "I won't make that mistake again."
With that, he turned and walked away, shaking his head at his attempt at chivalry. Still, he couldn't help but think about the slash of red on her one perfect cheek where the man had obviously hit her. Well, whoever she was, like the man she'd been arguing with, she wasn't from around here.
He told himself he wouldn't be crossing either of their paths againwhich was just fine with him.
"Welcome home," he mumbled to himself as he headed for his cabin.
Sheriff Frank Curry shoved back his Stetson as he watched the assistant coroner inspect the body. The sun was high and hot, another beautiful spring day in southern Montana. A breeze stirred the new leaves of the cottonwoods along the crystal-clear Yellowstone River. In the distance, the snowcapped peaks of the Crazy Mountains gleamed like fields of diamonds.
A fisherman had stumbled across the body in the weeds this morning after hooking into a nice-sized cutthroat. He was trying to land the fish when he'd practically fallen over the dead man.
From a nearby limb that hung out over the water, a crow cawed, drawing Frank's attention away from the body for a moment. The bird's dark wings flapped before it settled its black, beady eyes on him, as if to say he'd seen it all and could tell volumes if only Frank were capable of understanding a bird.
The crow cawed once more and flew off as Assistant Coroner Charlie Brooks stepped out of the weeds, rubbing the back of his neck. He was a short, squat man with timber-thick legs and a bald cue-ball of a head.
"I'd say he was killed sometime in the wee hours of this morning. Cause of death? Strangulation." Charlie, like a lot of coroners, was a huge mystery fan. "The body hasn't been here more than a few hours. Dumped, I would imagine, from up there." He pointed to an embankment that led up to a gravel access road into Otter Creek. "Appears he rolled down, to come to rest at the edge of the river."
Frank noddedthat had been his opinion as well. That was why he had one of his deputies up on the road making plaster casts of the tire prints closest to the edge of the embankment.
"Going to need to take some fingerprints once you get him to the morgue," he told the coroner. "No identification on him that I could find."
"We'll put him on ice until you can get a positive ID and notify next of kin."
Frank figured it shouldn't take long. The man had spent some time in a penitentiary somewhere, given the array of prison tattoos on his arms and neck. His prints should be on file.
"What's that he was killed with?" the coroner asked. "Appears to be some kind of fancy braided rope."
"Hitched horsehair," Frank said. "They make a lot of this up at Montana State Prison. That's why around here, hitchin' is synonymous with doing time. You ever heard the legend of Tom Horn? It's said that he was hung with a rope he hitched while doing time in a territorial prison."
"Horsehair dyed bright colors, huh? I'll be damned."
A retired doctor, Charlie was new to Montana after living all his life in the big city.
Standing back, Frank watched as the assistant coroner and one of the local EMTs put the victim into a body bag and carried him to the fishing-access parking lot. In the distance he could hear the thrum of traffic on Interstate 90. Closer, a trout rose out of the water, the splash sending sparkling droplets into the morning air.
Frank watched the wavelets from the fish spread across the smooth surface. Murder had its own ripple effect. Shaking off the thought, he followed the path the body had made tumbling from the road. He hoped to find a wallet or something that might have fallen out of the man's pockets.
Fortunately, in Montana, few people littered, so there were only a half dozen rusted beer cans, a couple of plastic water bottles and several pieces of dew-wet cardboard in the weeds. He was about to give up when he spotted what looked like a scrap of white paper caught high in the grass.
His hands still covered by the latex gloves he'd donned earlier, he plucked the scrap up, surprised to see that it was a photograph folded in half. Yellowed with age, the snapshot was also cracked down the middle because of the fold and worn at the edges as if it had been handled a lot. The people lined up in the shot appeared to be a family, the youngest still in Mama's arms.
Frank turned the photo over and saw that something had been written on the back. The faded marks were impossible to read. But what made his heart beat a little faster was the realization that the photo hadn't been in the grass long. It wasn't even that damp from the morning dew.
All his instincts told him it had belonged to the unidentified dead man.