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By Christine Gentry
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2005 Christine Gentry
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Chapter One"We will be known forever by the tracks we leave." Dakota Sioux
Headlights off, the lone driver steered the Ford pickup parallel to the narrow Red Water River, which surged westward in the stormy breeze like a monstrous, undulating snake. Lightning flickered, and a sonic boom thundered across the sky as he drove along the parched Montana grassland. Hunger had driven a horde of small grasshoppers through a coulee as they scoured the land at midnight. They popped like bubble-wrap beneath the truck's dusty radial tires. Finally the driver halted, then waited and watched. He made sure that no one had seen his approach.
For fifteen minutes, he sat in the darkened cab while the sky flared and bellowed. A thousand feet away, a two-story, vinyl-sided building surrounded by eight-foot chain link fencing lay anchored against the elements. Vapor lamps on poles spotlighted the structure. The only real security measure had been a Bureau of Land Management station a mile south. By driving down an old utility access road, he'd avoided notice.
His anger simmered. Dumb peckers, he reflected as he observed the lay of the land from within his insulated space. Those BLM assholes and their butt-kissing goonscould go to hell. Nothing but land-grabbers and rustlers. Just thinking about his hate made this job enjoyable.
When the time was right, he left the truck and stepped onto the prairie. For all the bluster, there wasn't any rain. High-based storm lightning and boomers had pummeled the night skies for a week, and still Lacrosse County suffered the worst drought in years. Summer temps over one hundred degrees, along with no rain for six months, had sparked numerous brush fires and dried up watering holes from Oregon to South Dakota. He had his own problems.
Thoughts of the money he'd make from this job hurried him to the flatbed. He pulled down the back panel and reached for his night-vision goggles and a small toolbox. Next he positioned a plywood ramp, jumped up, and guided an industrial concrete saw down the incline. The self-propelled, twenty-horsepower chassis rolled easily on eight-inch rubber wheels.
He slipped the goggles with head straps over his eyes and grabbed the toolbox. Limping slightly with his right foot, he navigated the saw toward the river. Everything appeared in varying shades of green as the goggle lenses filtered polarized light from his surroundings into his eyes so he could see without light and greatly reduce his risk of attracting attention.
Suddenly a hideous, towering form eclipsed his field of vision. He froze, heart racing. A monster with tree-trunk legs, clawed forearms, and huge sickle-shaped teeth stared down at him. He'd been busted by a life-sized model of an ugly, pebbly-skinned dinosaur.
"God dammit," he cursed, feeling foolish.
Two months earlier he'd taken a tour of this property given by a fat, balding man. He'd listened patiently as the prissy guide told tourists about the ancient fossil prints pressed into a tidal mud flat about one hundred and sixty-five million years before he was born. The dinosaur hadn't been here.
Lightning flashed again, and he jumped as a tremendous clap of thunder exploded. Sweat coursed beneath his long-sleeved shirt and down his ribs. He looked at the sky. The heat storm moved directly over him. Static electricity crackled the air, and his short black hair stood on end.
He pushed the saw toward a flat shelf of exposed sandstone which angled down to the river. As he reached the rocky ledge, he could see a row of three-toed dinosaur tracks stamped into stone. He set the toolbox down and decided which of the two-foot-long, concave prints to take. He chuckled. Like shopping for pickled pig's feet at the grocery store.
He stood behind the machine's handlebars and activated the ignition with the push of a button. The engine turned right over, and a low RPM whine from the twenty-inch-diameter cutter filled the air. The diamond blade could dry-cut an eight-inch deep slice through solid rock at speeds up to eighty feet per minute. He carefully lined up the guide roller for the first of four slab cuts. There would be noise but only for a short time. The storm was a blessing.
He worked the control lever, shifting the transmission into a low forward speed as he watched the depth feed indicator. The blade shaft dropped just as he heard an unnatural hissing sound coming from the five-gallon propane tank. He smelled gas. A split-second awareness filled him with dread. A pressure leak. Fumes.
The blade bit rock and sparks flew for only milliseconds, but he couldn't kill the engine fast enough with his fumbling, gloved fingers. Powdered rock spewed from beneath the chassis right before a loud popping sound echoed behind him. A green luminescence brighter than the sun filled his goggles as gas-laden air ignited into flame. A few seconds more and the propane tank combusted toward him like a vapor bomb.
The concussion deafened him in an instant while a wall of sizzling heat enveloped his body. Before his goggles melted, he watched his arms and legs ignite like dry kindling. The stench of burnt meat assailed his nostrils. Then everything went black, and he felt only the stomach-jarring sensation of being lifted and dropped. He never even screamed.
By the time the force of the explosion propelled him upward twenty feet, he was already a human fireball.
Chapter Two"Life is not separate from death. It only looks that way." Blackfeet
Ansel Phoenix's gaze focused on a dried-up, half-acre stock pond as she nudged the buckskin gelding forward with her boot heels. Chunky, so named because he nipped skin from people's hides, picked up speed. Suddenly the mournful bawl of an animal in distress carried across the pasture.
"She'll die if we don't get her out." Ansel eyed her father, who was riding a large leopard Appaloosa named Ditto.
Chase stared hard at the fifteen-hundred-pound Angus cow crying like a newborn calf. The pond, which kept a nearby trough topped off via a wind-generated pumping system, had evaporated into a deep quagmire of mud. The small windmill with frozen blades now stood over a bone-dry tub. Raw thirst had lured the heifer into this death hole despite good cow sense.
"That's the two-year-old Seth couldn't find when he moved the dry stock," he said, referring to cattle not giving milk to calves. Brown eyes flashed from beneath his white straw hat. "I'll work her out so you don't have to get near the pond."
A tingle of apprehension coursed up Ansel's spine. His offer to do the chore alone sent a subtle message: Stay away from the water. I don't want you getting upset. She'd almost died from drowning as a child and still suffered debilitating anxiety attacks.
She shook her head. "It's just a mud hole, Daddy."
Chase grabbed a stiff coil of rope hanging from the saddle's horn string with gloved hands. "You're sure?"
The cow strained toward freedom, then dropped. Muck sprayed in all directions. Wide-eyed and near exhaustion, she lay chest-deep, panting hoarsely and spewing garlands of foamy saliva. Ansel knew that time and dehydration would eventually kill her.
"Gonna be like pulling an anchor out of molasses," Chase groused, moving Ditto ahead.
Ansel reined Chunky to the right side of the cow but several safe yards from the mud hole. She was close enough to use her lariat if needed and out of striking range of a panicked animal. All of her concentration was centered on the cow rather than the shimmering potholes of water.
Chase halted Ditto next to the mud line and uncoiled some of the lariat from its looped end. Holding the remaining coils in his left hand, he stretched his right arm away from his body and twirled the loop in a small circle. Feeding more rope through the slipknot, he opened the loop from small to large, shifting the whirling circle onto its side. He tossed the lasso in a graceful arc so quickly that the cow never even blinked when the loop fell over her head.
Chase tugged the slipknot tight around the beast's neck, snubbed the lariat around the saddle pommel for leverage, and pulled Ditto in reverse. The Appaloosa backed up quickly, stopping automatically when the twenty-five feet of rope went stiff with tension. Chase urged Ditto further back with bit and boots. Ditto's eleven hundred pounds pulled step by step, dragging the cow from the sucking mud.
"Hup, Ditto," Chase encouraged over and over.
The cow shook her head viciously and bellowed. Ditto tugged harder, hooves churning up dead grass as he strained flesh and bone to maintain momentum. Another big yank and the Angus slid forward on bent legs.
"She's dragging free," Ansel said.
Pride rose in her chest as she watched her father work his horse as if their minds were one and the same. Dressed in faded Wranglers, fringed leather leggings, long-sleeved blue cotton shirt, scuffed boots, and cowboy hat with a long white ponytail hanging behind, Chase resembled an old buckaroo riding range rather than the wealthy owner of the twenty-seven-thousand-acre Arrowhead Ranch, which produced the best purebred Black Angus breeding stock this side of the Rocky Mountains.
At last Ditto belly-dragged the cow onto solid ground and the heifer struggled to get her weakened legs beneath her. Chase nudged Ditto forward, slackening the lariat. He dismounted and walked carefully toward the cow, coiling the rope in his hands as he went. The heifer watched him but made no more attempts to rise. Ten feet from her, Chase flicked the lasso loop off her head with one fast jerk. He turned away.
The cow swung her legs beneath her body in one fluid motion, dug rear hooves into the grass, and rose, a maneuver that took only seconds. Once on her feet, the hornless female hopped forward, gained stability, and moved toward Chase's back.
"Daddy," Ansel yelled while digging her heels into Chunky's ribs.
Chunky rocketed forward, head stretched low and tail flying. Ansel reined him toward the cow's rear end and her only hope of saving her father from injury or worse. Her body was pressed so close to Chunky's neck that his black mane blew into her eyes and sweaty horse musk filled her nose. Every second was a millennium. Every inch a mile. She knew a way to stop the Angus, but would it work?
Chase turned, Ansel's shrill cry alerting him to danger. His face contorted with surprise, then fear. The Angus loped at him, head low and eyes rolled forward.
Ansel leaned low off the right side of the saddle toward the cow's whipping black tail. Miraculously, she caught the thick rope of muscle and yanked it toward her as hard as she could before releasing it.
The cow lost its balance and came crashing down on its head and shoulders. Legs flying up and over during a tumbling roll, the Angus landed on her back in a dusty cloud of dirt and grass. Chase blinked, then stared down in dismay at the filthy rump which had come to rest only inches from his pointed boot tips.
Ansel reined Chunky to a stop and leaped out of the saddle. She grabbed her father in a bear hug. "Thank God. I thought she had you."
Visibly shaken, Chase stared at her before inhaling deeply. "I'm fine. Who taught you how to bull-tail?"
"Mom told me. She said rodeo hands did that when there's no way to use a rope on a wild bull. It just came to me. I didn't even think it would work."
The cow rolled onto her side and shook her head from side to side as if to clear it. As she recuperated, Chase led Ansel away.
"I guess both of you saved my life today. I shouldn't have turned my back on a bogged cow with hot blood."
Ansel reached for the nickel-sized azurite stone hanging from a leather cord around her neck. The stone was the fossilized remains of a small Cretaceous sea urchin. It meant the world to her. Her mother, Mary Two Spots, had passed this Iniskim, or lucky stone, on to her before she died. It had once belonged to her grandmother, a member of the sacred Blackfeet women's society called the Motokiks. She wondered if her mother was watching them at this very moment.
Chase retied his lariat to the saddle string. "I'll get one of the hands to round up the cow. You must be bushed."
"A little. I'd forgotten how hard it is filling water tanks and driving them out to pasture."
At dawn she'd helped ranch hands move two large flatbed trucks, each carrying a circular two-thousand-gallon, polyethylene tank with an integrated portable trough strapped to it. The vehicles were left in the largest pasture for two days so cattle could drink their fill. Afterward, they would be driven back to the main ranch well, refilled, and carted out again. Every Angus drank twenty-three gallons of water a day when temperatures went above eighty-eight degrees.
"First year I've ever seen the stock ponds dry up," Chase said, wiping sweat from his brow. "Two years of little rain and another dry winter have really messed things up. No rain this month will put the Arrowhead in the red."
"Are things that bad?"
"They're dicey. Forage is bad because the grass is dead. Got all the stock rounded up in one pasture to get uniform grazing on what's left, and I'm supplementing with feed I should save for the winter. I've sold every animal on the spread I can part with quick, but there's a glut of stock for sale. My payback was dismal. Things don't change, I'm going to have to let some hands go." Chase turned and, placed his boot in a stirrup, and hiked himself into the saddle. "No use jawing about it. Mount up, and we'll get out of this heat."
Ansel was too stunned to comment about the ranch's dire financial situation. She walked past the cow, which had gained its footing and hobbled away from them. As she mounted Chunky, she stroked his neck. "Good boy," she cooed, remembering how the sometimes ornery horse had obeyed her so well.
She frowned and adjusted her black Stetson. The crown kept snagging the top of the single long black braid hanging down her perspiring back. Her wristwatch didn't lie. Only eight o'clock in the morning and temperatures in the west pasture had to be in the high eighties.
They trotted through a cattle gate, exiting the pasture. After reaching her father's white double-cab pickup with a horse trailer attached, Chunky was loaded first, then Ditto. As Chase closed and locked the rear doors, the sound of a car churning up gravel along the ranch road drew their notice.
A custom-painted, pink Lincoln Town Car with blinding chrome trim came blazing toward them. There was no mistaking the owner of the vehicle. Everybody in Lacrosse County knew the spirited, eighty-seven-year-old matriarch behind the wheel.
Ansel's eyebrows hitched up. "Wonder what Permelia wants."
Chase removed his hat while his face puckered painfully. "Probably just to vex me to no end."
A slow smile spread across her face. The loquacious Permelia Chance could talk the vinyl off wood, according to her father, and always spoke her mind. As eccentric as she was, local residents held Permelia in high regard. Childless, she had survived the deaths of three husbands, managed a thriving Longhorn ranch, interceded as a philanthropist for many needy children's projects, and acted as the Grand Marshal for the Mission City Maverick Parade every July.
The Town Car jolted to a stop, dirt and heat roiling off its girth in a billow thicker than pig pen litter. Ansel coughed while Chase fanned dust away with his work hat.
The buzzing driver's window rolled down and a stick-thin, wrinkle-faced woman wearing a pink felt cowboy hat and a matching polyester pantsuit gave them a crooked, pink-lipsticked smile. The smoking Tipparillo clenched in her right jaw made a full-scale grin difficult. On the passenger seat, a ferret-like red dachshund sporting a pink, leather fringed vest and a miniature cowboy hat strapped beneath its throat yapped maniacally. Its ears flapped fast enough to gain liftoff any moment.
"Shut up, Belle Starr," Permelia yelled. The dog stopped in mid-yip. "Howdy, Chase. Ansel. Glad I caught y'all out here."
"Good morning, Mrs. Chance," Chase said with customary politeness. Cold air, heavy with the scents of lavender and menthol, blew into his face.
"Hello," Ansel replied.
Excerpted from Carnosaur Crimes by Christine Gentry Copyright © 2005 by Christine Gentry. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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