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The third novel starring Montana's fly fisherman-cum-detective Sean Stranahan, for fans of C. J. Box and Craig Johnson
Wolves howl as a riderless horse returns at sunset to the Culpepper Dude Ranch in the Madison Valley. The missing woman, Nanika Martinelli, is better known as the Fly Fishing Venus, a red-haired river guide who lures clients the way dry flies draw trout.
As Sheriff Martha Ettinger follows hoof tracks in the snow, she finds one of the men who has fallen under the temptress’s spell impaled on the antler tine of a giant bull elk, a kill that’s been claimed by a wolf pack. An accident? If not, is the killer human or animal? With painter, fly fisherman, and sometimes private detective Sean Stranahan’s help, Ettinger will follow clues that point to an animal rights group called the Clan of the Three-Clawed Wolf and to their svengali master, whose eyes blaze with pagan fire.
In their most dangerous adventure yet, Stranahan and Ettinger find themselves in the crossfire of wolf lovers, wolf haters, and a sister bent on revenge, and on the trail of an alpha male gone terribly wrong.
About the Author
Keith encourages you to visit him at keithmccafferty.com
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
Praise for Keith McCafferty
The Royal Wulff Murders
“Keith McCafferty has pulled off a small miracle with The Royal Wulff Murders—a compelling Montana-based novel that will please both mystery readers and discerning fly-fishers.”
—C. J. Box, New York Times bestselling author of Back of Beyond and Force of Nature
“Keith McCafferty hits a bull’s-eye with Sean’s story in his debut novel, The Royal Wulff Murders. . . . Like bacon and brownies, Stranahan’s odd mix of painter, P.I., and fly fisher works. . . . Add the backwoodsy feminism of Sheriff Martha Ettinger, and the mystery is a good fit for enthusiasts of Nevada Barr who have read through all the Anna Pigeon novels. Packed with wilderness action and starring a band of stalwart individualists, The Royal Wulff Murders will have readers begging McCafferty for more.”
—Tom Lavoie, ShelfAwareness.com for Readers
“An impressive debut . . . The people here are all solid creations, sometimes prickly but always engaging, characters readers will be more than happy to see again.”
“A thoroughly entertaining debut . . . McCafferty blends plenty of fly-fishing lore with a host of intriguing characters . . . Only the sharp-eyed observation of the medical examiner suggests the body was a murder victim rather than an accidental drowning. The eventual identification of the victim helps link Stranahan’s task to that of the sheriff. The vivid Montana setting is a plus.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A terrific mystery . . . McCafferty blends his passion for fly-fishing and his intimate knowledge of the Montana fauna and flora into a page-turning suspenseful story. . . . A mind-bending murder plot . . . Anyone who likes fish or likes a riveting murder mystery will enjoy this book.”
“What a fine and thoroughly satisfying debut novel! There’s so much to enjoy here—a fresh sense of place, a cast of compelling characters, and a plotline with as many twists and turns as a Montana trout stream. Even if you know nothing about fly fishing, you’re going to love this book. Mark my words: from this day forward, you’ll be buying everything Keith McCafferty writes.”
—William Kent Krueger, author of Northwest Angle and Iron Lake
“What fun it is to visit my favorite fishing spots, not in a guide-boat but in a wonderful murder mystery.”
—Henry Winkler, author of I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River
“Two chapters in and you know you are in for an interesting read . . . Each scene is set up with a fisherman’s patience, with the wind, water, and wildlife of Montana becoming as important as the human characters we follow. . . . The Royal Wulff Murders should be on any outdoorsman’s reading list.”
“Keith McCafferty’s The Royal Wulff Murders is the mystery fly anglers have been waiting for. Finally, an author who knows the crucial difference between 2X and 4X tippet! But it’s not just the fishing details that make this novel so enjoyable: it’s the rich characters, the robust sense of humor, a sadly topical plot, and a writing style that is as gin-clear as a Montana trout stream.”
—Paul Doiron, author of Trespasser and The Poacher’s Son
“Wulff is fun . . . with sharp dialogue between characters . . . [and] fishing scenes that read right . . . [McCafferty is] Field & Stream’s survival editor, and that savvy shows in subtle and satisfying ways.”
—Fly Rod and Reel (online)
“A muscular, original first novel. McCafferty is one of the country’s most convincing writers on survival and life in the wilderness, and this mystery is an impressive foray into fiction—taut, often highly amusing, filled with memorable characters like the lady sheriff and the former private eye who paints and fly fishes—and it’s a real page-turner.”
—Nick Lyons, author of My Secret Fishing Life
“The last time I fished the Madison River it was high, fast, and dirty—words that come to mind for parts of McCafferty’s tangy debut mystery. But there are also episodes of angling wonder and Montana beauty, rendered in prose so gorgeous they make this book a truly rare catch, the page-turner that doubles as a poetic meditation.”
—Mark Kingwell, author of Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life
The Gray Ghost Murders
“This is a truly wonderful read. In an old and crowded field, Keith has created characters fresh, quirky, and yet utterly believable, then stirred them into a mystery that unfolds with grace and humor against a setting of stunning beauty and danger. Stranahan, the fisherman sleuth, breaks free of the old clichés and delights with his humanity, vulnerability, and love of cats. Yes, cats. Keith has written a book that speaks to women and men regardless of color or background. The only downside of this book is that we must wait a year for the next one.”
—Nevada Barr, New York Times bestselling author of the Anna Pigeon mysteries
“McCafferty skillfully weaves Big Sky color, humor, and even romance (in the form of Sean’s stunning new girlfriend, Martinique, who’s bankrolling veterinary school by working as a bikini barista) into the suspenseful plot as it gallops toward a white-knuckle . . . climax.”
“Think big-city CSI teams have it tough? Their examinations of crime scenes are hardly ever interrupted by a grizzly bear like the one that sends Deputy Harold Little Feather to the hospital. . . . Irresistible.”
“You’ll find yourself obsessed with the story . . . due to McCafferty’s hilarious, spot-on depiction of rural politics (starring a female sheriff, a latte-making love interest, and a fishing buddy), which proves that small western towns are as rich . . . as any world capital.”
—Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 (5 Addictive New Mysteries We Can’t Put Down)
Dead Man’s Fancy
“McCafferty knows his country and his characters, who have a comfortable, lived-in feel and yet shine as individuals. . . . [his] understated prose deserves to be savored.”
“McCafferty’s beautifully written third mystery . . . The complex, multilayered story smoothly switches from one character to another.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Dead Man’s Fancy breathes new life into the mystery genre with its unique milieu and . . . loveable characters.”
—Salt Water Sportsman
“McCafferty’s third series entry lassos up a range of topics—wolf reintroduction, wilderness living and survival, animal rights—that are uncovered through his protagonists’ meticulous sleuthing.”
A PENGUIN MYSTERY
DEAD MAN’S FANCY
Keith McCafferty is the award-winning survival and outdoor skills editor of Field & Stream and the author of The Royal Wulff Murders and The Gray Ghost Murders. A two-time National Magazine Award finalist, he has written articles for publications as diverse as Fly Fisherman magazine and the Chicago Tribune and on subjects ranging from trout to tigers. He lives with his wife in Bozeman, Montana. Dead Man’s Fancy is his third novel in the Sean Stranahan series.
Keith encourages you to visit him at keithmccafferty.com
Like many who toil in the murky profession of building words into books or, as writers may privately dare to think of it, turning lead into gold, I work in the dark. Much as I’d like to be able to consult Charles Dickens regarding a plot twist or summon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice about a turn of phrase, it’s just me shining the light, digging with the pick. Some nights, many nights, the gold I mine is fool’s gold that floats to the surface and is washed away the next morning; other nights, better nights, it glitters from the bedrock upon which the story is built.
In this manner of working I have never flattered myself as being much different from anyone else. The acknowledgment sections of a few novels to the contrary—so many mentions that one would believe producing a book is a collaboration requiring the manpower of the Normandy Invasion—writing remains a solitary, constantly humbling affair that comes down to one person aspiring to unearth fundamental human truths, or at least tell a compelling story, while stringing together lies summoned from the ether. There’s a measure of irony in the fact that one shuts the door on his fellow man in order to write about him, but recognizing the predicament you have put yourself in doesn’t seem to alleviate the difficulties.
Those who are truly important in a writer’s development belong to a short list indeed, at the top of which is the person who bestows upon him or her the magic of the written word. In my case that is my mother, Beverly McCafferty, whose voice, as she read aloud to me a children’s book about a little snake titled Slim Green, is among my very first memories. Then came the writers whose books first compelled me to turn the pages myself. They include Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jim Corbett. I was nine years old when our car broke down and I found myself with two hours to read in a Denver public library, where I chose a story called “The Talla Des Man-eater” in The Temple Tiger and More Man-eaters of Kumaon. I opened the book wanting to lead a life of adventure. I closed it wanting to write about it. Rounding out the most important influences are those people who provide the necessary support for the realization of the writer’s dream, and so are not among the well-wishers from afar (nice as it is to have them), but loved ones who not only share the infrequent celebration, but far too often suffer the doubts and fear of failure that plague all writers. My wife, Gail Schontzler, who also is my first and most trusted editor, deserves all the credit for keeping body and soul together.
On the professional side of the ledger, I wish to recognize my literary agent, Dominick Abel, as well as the team at Viking/Penguin who help me polish, publish and promote the final effort. They include Kathryn Court, Tara Singh, Scott Cohen, Beena Kamlani, Mary-Margaret Callahan and Rebecca Lang. Independent bookstore owners remain crucial to bringing writers to the attention of the reading public. None has been more helpful to me than Barbara Peters at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Ariana Paliobagis at the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana. I’d also like to thank Hurricane Isaac, which caused an electrical outage in New Orleans that led to Nevada Barr picking up my second novel, The Gray Ghost Murders, to while away a few powerless hours. For her irreverence and encouragement, both personally and professionally, I’m grateful. Dead Man’s Fancy demanded I have a thorough understanding of the wolf reintroduction effort in the Rockies and its ramifications for those who live among these great predators. Many thanks to all those I have interviewed over the past several years, on both sides of this controversial issue. In particular I’d like to recognize Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists Julie Cunningham, Justin Gude and Ken Hamlin, and wolf specialist Mike Ross. Special thanks to Robert Millage.
There are winter days in Montana when the office feels cold even with a wood fire and I need more warmth than Rhett, my adopted feral cat, can provide. On these mornings I bicycle through the snow on studded tires to Wild Joe’s Coffee Shop, where baristas Marissa Grinestaff, Jenalyn Lorilla, Adam Golder, Corissa Hannemann and Melissa Hoard, along with writer pal Sarah Grigg, make me feel at home, and a little less lonely in a lonely line of work.
Finally, there are the remarkable individuals who inspire my best effort simply because I look up to them in life and don’t dare let them down. These include my children, Jessie and Thomas McCafferty, my brother, Kevin McCafferty, and my life-long friend, Karen Basil. And my aunt Jackie Bailie—matchmaker, dog boarder, and doctor of dubious mail-order degrees—who mended spiritually broken children with a wave of her fairy godmother wand, or, when the body needed more succor than a seventy-year-old woman wearing a prom dress and face glitter could provide, passed herself off as a physician and cajoled specialists into seeing patients they otherwise would never have seen.
“You’re just whirring away in there, aren’t you?” Jackie once told a little boy whose thoughts were so jumbled he found it hard to talk. “Some day you’ll be a writer, and I will say I knew you when.”
Where Trees Grow Close Together
At the sound, Martha Ettinger glanced from the trail, the brim of her hat rising to uncover the early stars. In the foredistance loomed the indigo silhouette of Papoose Mountain. Crooked fingers of pines groped toward the peaks and it was from one of those forests the howl had risen, a deep, sustained note haunted by a higher harmonic that now stirred to song other voices, the lament of the pack dying away to leave her in silence, feeling the beating of her heart.
“What was that, Marth?”
“What do you think it was?” She touched Petal’s ribs and pulled alongside her deputy’s mount, a gelded chestnut walker that had her Appaloosa by four hands.
“I thought I heard wolves.”
“In the Madison Valley? What are the odds?”
“Actually they’re pretty fair, you listen to the ranchers’ bellyaching.”
Ettinger switched off her headlamp. “It’s called irony, Walt. Of course there are wolves in Montana. Anybody has ears can tell you that.”
“Well, I never heard one before.”
“Not that I could be sure of.”
Martha was asking herself how you could mistake a wolf’s howl when three drawn-out notes drifted down from the basin, the first wolf joined by one whose voice was pitched higher, the third higher yet, the chorus recalling to Martha the Inuit folktale of a mother who couldn’t find food to feed her children, her wailing becoming howls until she turned into a wolf herself. She told Walt while the horses blew from the climb.
He made a sound like puh. “That story don’t make no sense ’t all,” he said.
“That’s why it’s called folklore. Come on, we’re here for a reason if you haven’t forgot.”
“I haven’t, but you ask me, that young woman isn’t missing because her horse bolted and stranded her on the mountain, she’s missing ’cause she swapped the saddle for the pommel. Mark my words, she’ll show up tomorrow with a bowlegged walk account a’ too much cowboy lovin’.”
“I’d agree with you if it wasn’t for the likeliest cowboy calling our number.”
“You want to bet a dinner on it? Bison meat loaf at Ted’s Montana Grill if she’s shacked with a fella, frog food at Cafe Provence she turns up lost.”
“I don’t bet when a person’s life could be at stake, but if I had a mind to that’s one I’d hope to lose. I wouldn’t want to be up there with those lobos serenading my tender flesh.” She clucked to Petal, just one side of her mouth moving, and the horses clopped up the trail into the basin.
The call had come in three hours after Judy Woodruff took over the second-shift dispatch. Sunset seemed premature to call out the troops for a dude-ranch naturalist slash fly-fishing guide who’d failed to show for a planning meeting with the activities director only an hour before, but the wrangler telling the story of the woman’s disappearance was telling it priority backward. When he mentioned that her absence at the meeting prompted him to check the paddock where he found her horse standing outside the rails, riderless and sweated through its blanket, Judy didn’t wait for elaboration but immediately patched him through to Sheriff’s Sergeant Warren Jarrett. Jarrett reached Martha Ettinger at her home.
“You call up the hasty team?” she said.
“Sure. She’s hurt serious, you don’t want to lose time on something like this. My guess is she got bucked and they’ll find her before we mount up. The wrangler’s heading up there to backtrack the trail she was taking. He’ll have an hour start on us. No reason for you to come, but I’ve known you long enough to know you might rather.”
Ettinger stuck her head outside her back door and whistled sharply to round up Goldie, her Australian shepherd. She said, “That’s the Culpepper place on Papoose, right? Do they have a sign? I seem to remember making a wrong turn six, seven years ago when old Ollie tickled his tonsils with the barrel of his Winchester.”
“Yeah, well the widow’s got it clear marked. A gate big enough for Paul Bunyan to yoke his ox. But just in case you don’t pick it up in the headlights, I’ll drop off a traffic cone with a reflective strip.”
Martha had picked up Walter Hess in town and filled him in on the drive up the valley. The missing woman—she was twenty-five, named Nanika Martinelli—had taken advantage of ranch policy encouraging the help to participate in trail rides if there was a mount available, and being midway through September, there had been. The wrangler had led his party of yahoos on a standard afternoon outing, a twelve-mile loop trail skirting Lionhead Mountain, when Martinelli pulled alongside to say she was taking the long way back on a branch trail that cupped the headwall of Papoose Basin. The trail added six miles and would get her back to the ranch in about an hour and half. Martinelli being an experienced horsewoman who had soloed before, the wrangler just reminded her to check Boregard’s shoes for rocks before sponging and brushing him down.
It struck Ettinger as careless to allow someone to ride off into the wilderness alone, no matter how competent she was sitting saddle. A dude outfit like the Culpepper’s held its breath anytime a guest hung a fingernail or hooked himself with a trout fly. Even if Martinelli had signed on the dotted line of the liability clause, it opened the barn door for a lawsuit about as wide as you could push it. But without details it was hard to speculate.
Jason Kent, the incident commander of search and rescue, sat at the communications desk he’d set up in a corner of one of the ranch’s unoccupied guest cabins. “Martha, Walt.” No handshakes, the big sandy-haired man with the farmer’s tan glanced up at them—Walter Hess, thin, hawk faced, about five ten, Ettinger an inch shorter, solidly built with curly auburn hair, startling blue eyes that were spider-veined from strain and a broad face that was handsome rather than pretty. Kent indicated to Ettinger to bring him a stick of kindling from the stack beside the stone fireplace. He took the stick in his left hand, the one with two missing fingers, swiveled his chair and tapped the topo map he’d pinned to the wall.
“This is the trail Martinelli said she was going to take after leaving the party. It switchbacks up the north side of the basin, contours under the headwall for a mile and a half, then switchbacks down the south side. We have riders going up both legs. The wrangler had an hour start on us, so if she went spurs over stirrups up there, he should have found her by now. But Bucky, Bucky Anderson’s the ranch manager, said the young fella saddled up in a rush, went off half-cocked and has no way of contacting us or vice versa.”
Martha’s smile was sour. “I know Bucky. We share blood on my father’s side. Last I heard he was going to marry lady Culpepper herself, see ranch life from the top rung of the ladder.”
“Like my dad used to tell me,” Kent said. “Son, you can marry more money in five minutes than you can make in a lifetime.”
“Where is Bucky? I’d like to talk to him before Walt and I ride up there.”
Kent shook his head. “I told him you’d want a word, but he’s bullheaded and couldn’t wait. Reminds me of somebody else I know.” He briefly met Martha’s eyes. “Anyway, Bucky knows that country better than anyone. He left a half hour ago, I put him up the south side, the wrangler went up the north. Warren Jarrett’s coordinating the containment. We have riders here, here and here. As you can see, we drew the circle pretty big. Plus we have ATVs on the 26 A and B trails. If she’s conscious, it would be darned hard for her not to know people are out looking. In case she tried to find her way back on foot, we’re going to build bonfires at the trail junctions and shoot off strobes. She doesn’t show by morning, Karl Radcliffe will take his Piper Cub up and I’ll organize a ground search.”
“Where should Walt and I go?”
“By the time you get somebody to round up mounts . . .” He ran a hand through his crew cut. “Steep country, unfamiliar horses, riding in the dark, I don’t have to tell you that’s the paraplegic’s trifecta.”
“I trailered Petal and Big Mike,” Martha said. “We can be saddled in fifteen minutes.”
“You buy another horse?”
“I’m pasturing Big Mike for a friend. He’s bombproof and he’s got good feet. Walt shouldn’t have any trouble.”
“I can see it isn’t worth arguing.” Kent stared at the map and nodded to himself. “You could do worse than go off trail”—he tapped the stick—“directly up the main fork of Papoose. Say that young woman got bucked up along the headwall; if she panicked, she might take a shortcut down through the bottom of the basin. Bucky says there’s an elk trail skirts the south side of the creek. But you know elk trails, they go a ways and then they don’t. You might get turned around a time or two. Find yourself in a jackpot, just build a fire and hunker down. I’m not drawing anyone off the search to look for a sheriff and a county mountie who ought to be able to take care of themselves.”
Martha grunted. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jase.”
Kent shrugged. He handed her a printout with the description of the missing woman and tapped a few keys on his laptop, inserting Martha and Walt’s route into the search grid. “That’s all,” he said without looking up. “Just leave a crumb trail and check back on the hour.”
“You sure you know where we are? I thought Jase said the south side of the creek.”
Reining Petal to a stop, Martha dug her GPS out of her jacket pocket and touched a button to illuminate the liquid crystal display. “We are on the south side. But we’re on the north side of a creek, too. The problem is there’s three forks, four if you count the intermittent. I can’t be sure which one he was talking about.”
She raised her eyes to the triangle of timber that covered the basin. The gloom of the thickets, eerie under a haloed half moon, was fissured by darker lines marking the tributaries of Papoose Creek. Looking at the map, it seemed to Martha that they had the bases covered. But by god, the country was big. You could hide a herd of cattle in it.
“What’s that, Walt?” She hadn’t been listening.
“It’s going to be blacker than a witch’s snatch in there.”
Martha grunted. “And one would know that . . . how?”
“Just saying,” Walt said, “I don’t know what we’re going to accomplish riding around in the dark. Hell, we haven’t even reached the trees and we’re already lost.”
“Not lost, just considering the route. You don’t have to consider with me. I know you’re not as comfortable sitting on critters as I am.”
“No, if you think we’re following the right path, I’m right behind you.”
As they climbed into the pines, it was the right path—Ettinger was sure of it. She was less so a half mile later, having to choose when the path forked, and forked again to cross the left-hand creek, the trees leaning in so that she and Walt had to dismount and attach rope leads to the halters. Martha saw immediately that Big Mike was head shy around Walt, who was decent enough with his boots in the stirrups, but leading a horse along an elk trail was a different matter. He was on the wrong side of the horse, for one thing. Martha coached him but Big Mike had Walt’s number, and after balking changed tactics and started crowding him.
“Don’t let him barge you,” Martha said. “When he gets too close, just push him on the shoulder.” Walt stepped closer and when the horse’s left forefoot came down, it came down on the toe of Walt’s buffalo hide Tony Lama.
“Jesus, son of Mary!” he shouted, going over backward. The horse snorted and reared. Martha jumped for the lead, got it before it tangled in the brush and, gripping the rope in her right fist, stuck her elbow into the horses’ neck to keep it close. She held tight rein and stayed in Big Mike’s face until he calmed. “We just about had ourselves a rodeo,” she said.
“I can hear it squishing, Marth.” Walt had pushed himself to a sitting position. “My god, it’s like my foot’s on fire.”
“Then you better get that boot off before it swells.” She waited for her heart rate to come down and blew out a long breath.
“This is my fault,” she said. “We had no business leading horses in here, even if you were the whisperer himself.”
The bloody sock gleamed in Walt’s headlamp. “I shoulda’ stayed in Chicago,” he said. “I’d a’ been safer on the street.”
“And leave me with no one to insult? Nah, the county needs a man who knows the street. There’s more of them in Montana than there used to be, you may have noticed.”
“This isn’t the street. Jeez, do you think it’s broke?”
“Can you wiggle it?”
Walt winced, the skin around his eyes fissuring in Martha’s headlamp. He nodded. “I think he just got the tip. I bet I’ll lose the nail, though.” After a moment of silence, he managed a wry smile. “‘I think I just got the tip.’ That’s something my ex-wife was fond of saying. She was a regular comedienne, Lydia was.”
“I’d say you were lucky enough. Big Mike only weighs about twelve hundred pounds . . .” She stopped, tilting her head to listen. She brought a hand up to worry her jaw.
“Is it the wolves again? I don’t care what they say about ’em never attacking. Just thinking about Little Bo Peep out here wandering around in the dark. It gives me the willies. Why—”
“No. Ssshh. It sounded like a whinny.” She tapped at her GPS.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking to see if we’re close enough to the headwall to hear one of the searcher’s horses. We’re,” she waited, “a mile, no, mile and a half from where the trail comes closest. In this timber, I don’t think we’d hear a horse that far away.”
“Maybe it’s that wrangler’s horse. Maybe he saw something that took him off the trail.”
“Maybe. Let’s just sit and listen.”
But a pall had fallen over the wilderness, and she sat in silence except for the assorted groans coming from the direction of Walt’s silhouette. The minutes ticked by. “What now?” Walt said finally. “I can probably sit the saddle but I don’t know about hobbling out to where it’s open enough to mount up. You could keep going, Marth.”
She shook her head. “I’d keep pushing if there was something to push toward. No, we’ll check in with IC and then I’ll water the horses down at the creek. They’re ground-tie trained, but if they get wind of the wolves I’m afraid they’ll bolt, so what we’ll do is run a high line between a couple trees and tether them to the line. Then build up a fire, keep it going. If that girl wandered down into the basin, she might spot it and come in.”
Martha unholstered her radio. The crackling as she turned the volume knob brought a short snort from Petal and she immediately dialed it down to listen, to see if she’d hear the horse she’d thought she’d heard earlier. Horses that want company talk. It was logical that one separated from its rider would neigh, especially if it heard another horse. But the wilderness was silent.
Jason Kent’s voice was broken but audible. He’d been following the crumb trail from Martha’s GPS on his computer screen. Bad luck about Walt’s foot. He agreed that where they were was as good a place as any to spend the night. Nothing to report on the search except that Harold Little Feather, after following the trail the wrangler had taken, had met up with Bucky Anderson on the headwall. They’d heard the wolves howl, too, but of the woman they’d seen nothing. Nor had they bumped into the wrangler.
“So now we’re looking for two people could be in trouble. Citizens want to help, but all they do is make my job harder.” He sounded tired. To Martha, Jason always sounded tired. She told him about maybe hearing a horse in the distance. The radio went silent and Martha could picture the incident commander sipping coffee from his paper cup. “All the more reason for you to stay put.” He said he’d put out the word to the searchers and signed off.
Martha rigged the tarp she’d packed in a saddle bag; it was the time of year when once a week you’d wake up to see the high elevation forests dusted white. An hour later, lying on a rough saddle blanket that smelled of horse with Walt snoring beside her, Martha heard the long, drawn out bugle of an elk. The voice was faint, floating into the basin on the cold sink of night air, and in the light flicker from the fire, she saw Petal cock her ears. But the bugle was not joined by a rival bull, and after a while Petal relaxed her vigilance and Martha felt sleep coming as the fire hissed from the first snowflakes.
Hard as Bone
When she awoke, it was so light that Martha thought it was dawn. She pulled up her jacket cuff to glance at the luminous hands of her watch. Three a.m. It was just the diffuse light of the moon reflecting off the snow. She unbuttoned the waist of her pants to take the pressure off her bladder. Walt was still snoring, a line of blown snow in the center crease of the hat tilted over his face. The man could sleep through anything. Still, he was, at least marginally, a human being and she would not rather have been alone.
“Oh, quit stalling,” she muttered.
She shuffled off behind the trees. Her face relaxed as she relieved herself. Men on a search, they just unzipped; they could care less she was standing ten feet away. She’d commented on it once to Harold Little Feather, that time when they were hunting elk in the Badger-Two Medicine. He told her that in uniform she was just one of the guys. “It’s respect. That’s the way I’d look at it.” Then he’d shuffled a few feet away and pissed on the campfire coals. Martha shook her head. Harold. She kicked pine needle duff over the lance her urine had cut in the snow and went to check on the horses.
“Hey girl. It’ll be light in a jiff now,” she said, coming around the trees and then abruptly stopping. Directly in front of her, a little to the left of the two horses, a bulky shape loomed, blacking out a section of forest. For a second Martha thought it was a moose. But of course it couldn’t be a moose; Petal and Big Mike would have gone crazy. Then she heard the nicker and knew the horse that she’d heard earlier had followed its nose into camp. Martha started talking in a low voice and immediately the horse advanced, extending its neck. Martha rubbed her fist under its eye. It was a gelded quarter horse, a bay with a cropped mane and irregular forehead star.
“Where did you come from?”
She switched on the low beam of her headlamp and ran it across the saddle. A braided lead rope was neatly coiled and secured to a D-ring ahead of the left fender, indicating the rider probably hadn’t dismounted before separating from the horse. Thrown? Martha added a stop to the high line so the quarter horse couldn’t trample into Petal or Big Mike, clipped the lead to the halter and considered the sky. She went back to the shelter and buckled on her duty belt. She thought of waking Walt, but what was the point? He couldn’t go where she was going. And she was going, for the moon was showing only because it had found a hole in the clouds. It could snow again at any time, and the tracks the horse had left would be erased.
In the skiff, the impressions of the horseshoes were sharp sided. Martha backtracked them down to the creek, across and up and then a quarter mile farther to the north, down and across another creek. From there she backtracked the horse steadily upslope, her lungs straining and her legs quaking from the buildup of lactic acid. She had reached an open park some thousand feet or so below the escarpment. Snow was deeper here, the tracks pockmarks without definition. It had still been snowing when the horse reached this point, but had quit shortly after it entered the tree belt. Martha’s smile was grim, for she understood that the window of opportunity to discover why and where the horse had separated from it rider was closing. She was now deciphering the trail of a horse whose tracks had been filling in as soon as they were made, and the higher she climbed, the more snow would have accumulated. She could be left knowing the end of the story without its beginning.
Martha turned to look at the roll of forest through which she’d been climbing. The camp was marked by smoke that was visible as a ghostlike smudge over the trees. No stars, just the hazy half aureole of moon and the mountain deathly still in the grip of night. She shuddered and placed two fingers to the side of her throat, searching for her pulse. Strong and steady.
“Get a grip, Martha,” she said out loud. “You’re the sheriff of Hyalite County.”
When she picked up the track, her professional mask was firmly in place. But there was no longer a trail to follow. The tracks had disappeared. She cast upward and found where the horse’s hooves had cut furrows, kicking up dirt. When a horse is at full gallop, there is an interval in its gait when all four hooves are in the air, resulting in gaps in its stride. Martha understood this horse’s tracks had disappeared for twenty feet not because they were filled with snow, but because the horse had been plunging down the face of the mountain. A startled horse can run a long way—she had once witnessed a packhorse scared by a grizzly bear run at least a quarter mile across a scree slope before falling over a cliff—but most mountain horses had the sense to settle to a trot fairly quickly. She felt she had to be close to the place where the horse had panicked, where logic dictated it had bucked its rider.
Two hundred yards up the slope, a patch of timber made a black blot against the satin hump of the mountain. The horse had come from the direction of the trees, but as Martha continued to climb, the tracks became less distinct and then disappeared completely. She ran her front teeth across her chapped lower lip. “Don’t give up, Martha,” she muttered under her breath. She switched off her headlamp, which had gradually been dimming, and reached for the Carnivore tracking light holstered on her utility belt. The light had a two-position switch. In the tracking mode, a cluster of red and blue LED bulbs were activated to highlight the color red. A spot of blood would seemingly jump off the ground and appear to suspend in midair. In its normal mode, it was a simple flashlight, but the five lumen xenon bulb threw a much more powerful beam than her headlamp. Martha switched the light on in the normal mode and cast it on the trees. She had not been able to backtrack the horse for the last fifteen minutes, but had evidently followed the course of its flight precisely, for the snow at the lower end of the timber was littered with pine boughs that the horse had snapped in its panic.
She paused to catch her breath. For the first time since leaving camp, she found herself reluctant to follow the trail. Instinctively, she sought the leather strap that secured her sidearm in its holster. She withdrew the Ruger .357 magnum, felt its reassuring heaviness and replaced it in the holster, leaving the strap unsnapped. Stepping cautiously, she entered the trees and began to backtrack the trail of branch litter. She had climbed perhaps thirty yards and was still in the thicket when she noted a place where the horse’s hooves had dug in sharply, kicking up dirt. She swept the cone of light back and forth, illuminating a small opening to her left. Her eyes were drawn to what appeared to be a section of log and as she stepped toward it, not looking at the ground, she slipped on a branch under the snow and fell heavily.
Going down with the light tight in her right fist, she jammed the hand to stop her fall, inadvertently switching the button to the tracking mode. She felt her breath catch. Before her, the circular opening in the trees appeared to be dusted pink, the snow pushed up into irregularly spaced moguls. It was as if someone had spilled dozens of weakly flavored cherry snow cones, ranging in size from baseballs to beach balls. Martha stood and tentatively toed the snow under her boot. Immediately, it shone with brilliant crimson dots that appeared to levitate a few inches above the ground. It was blood. She knew then that it was all blood. Because it had been sifted over, the color did not jump into the air but rather pulsed from beneath the snow. The effect was startling, the forest floor all around her appeared to be radioactive with a diffused neon glow.
Her nostrils flared at the iron metal scent. “Oh, shit,” she said under her breath. She rested her thumb on the hammer of the revolver. Again, her attention was drawn to the log. She turned her eyes from it and then back; something was ticking at her brain. Why wasn’t it covered with the snow that blanketed the other downfall? She took a step toward it, she took another, she stopped. She knew it wasn’t a log.
In the eerie pinkish light, the man appeared younger than she’d thought he’d be. With his innocent, almost serene expression, he looked little more than a boy who had laid down and fallen asleep with his eyes open. Or at least his right eye, for his face was tilted to the side. She was so focused on the face that for a moment she did not notice that his posture, his body bent backward, was caused by the bulk of what he was lying on top of. She felt the hairs lift at the back of her neck. A sharp pain pulsed behind her eyes. She shook her head to clear it. It was not a mound of snow, as she had first thought. The young man was draped over the eviscerated rib cage and front quarters of an elk carcass.
Martha thought of the wolves she and Walt had heard earlier. But if the elk was a wolf kill, where were the tracks? And the man, had he died from head trauma or from spinal fracture when the horse bucked him and he fell onto the carcass? She swept the Carnivore light over his body, the LEDs reacting to a large stain of blood in the area of the groin. Though she could see no obvious sign of injury, the fabric under the waistband of the man’s jeans was tented up, as if a stick were protruding. Martha’s smile was sour. If Walt was here, he’d make a comment, say something about the man going out with a hard-on, dying happy. “Humpff.”
She bent down, then jerked back up as her gorge rose. She swallowed bile, steeled herself and gingerly unsnapped the man’s jeans. She worked the zipper down and pulled the fabric over the protrusion. It looked like a sharpened stick had stabbed upward into the man’s back and punctured the lower abdomen, from which it protruded four or five inches. Martha touched the object with the back of her fingernail. Hard as bone.
She turned her back on the body and drew out her radio.
“What do you have, Martha?” Jason Kent’s voice had some gravel in it after relaying messages all night.
“I found the wrangler. His horse wandered into camp and I backtracked him to where he got thrown. He’s dead.”
Kent told her to stay where she was. He’d relay her coordinates to Harold, who was the searcher closest to her, up on the headwall.
“So you figure he died in the fall?”
“That was my first thought, but I don’t know, Jase. He has an elk antler sticking out of his gut.”
“Maybe you better tell me about it.”
“I’ll tell you about it. But right now I got to throw up.”
She made it to the edge of the timber before heaving. She grabbed a handful of snow to wash her mouth out, found that her hands were trembling and sat down on a log that actually was a log. She felt empty inside, but the bad taste was gone, replaced by something else, not exactly a taste but more of an odor that exuded from her body. It was the odor of fear. She’d smelled it before when she found herself on a heartless breast of snow in wilderness, felt the dread gathering in the limbs of the trees. The scream that came from her lungs, she couldn’t believe she’d made it. God help me, she thought. But it was real. It had to be. For the wolves had heard. The first one answered from a long way off. The second was closer.
Reading the White Book
When Martha saw a light flicker up the mountainside, she switched the beam of the tracking light on and off a few times. She waited until her signal was answered, then her eyes fell to the revolver in her lap. She fingered the latch to swing out the cylinder, removed one cartridge and replaced the cylinder so that the hammer rested over the empty chamber. She holstered the revolver.
Harold was riding his paint. He dismounted and pulled his braid out from under the collar of his jacket. Martha made room for him on the log. She breathed in Harold’s odor that wasn’t sweat exactly, but dark and organic. Familiar. They had shared more than logs before, before Harold took back up with his ex-wife.
“Aren’t you going to tie off your horse?” she said after a short silence.
“Only white people lose their horses.” And after another stretch of silence: “I see you’re packing the Ruger again.”
“I can shoot it. I can’t shoot those damned semi-autos. Besides,” she said, “I’m a Western sheriff, I have to look the part.”
“Got to please your public, famous woman like yourself.”
Martha grunted. It had been more than a year since she’d shot a U.S. congressman in these mountains some twenty miles to the north, the congressman a murderer and the shooting cleared by a coroner’s inquest, but no one had ever looked at her the same way since. Nor had Martha looked at herself the same way.
“Those wolves did some talking tonight, didn’t they?” she said. “I thought one of them was going to walk right in on me a while back.” She put nonchalance into her voice, but felt her heart beat waiting for Harold’s reply, wondering if he’d heard her screams a half hour earlier.
“My understanding was FWP wiped out that Black Butte Pack,” Harold said. “Back when they got into the cattle that last time. Looks like a new one moved in.”
He wouldn’t say if he had heard, Martha thought.
“You want a piece of corn cake?” Harold was unfolding a square of wax paper on his knee. Martha told herself to let him get around to it in his own time. Talking about anything other than what brought two people together under unusual circumstances was a trait shared by many westerners, but perfected to an art form by Native Americans. Harold retrieved a thermos of tea from a saddlebag and they sat in easy silence, trading sips from the screw-on plastic cup.
“You make good tea,” Martha said. “What is it?”
“Whatever was in the cupboard at my sister’s. Why don’t you tell me what you saw tonight, starting with that horse wandering into your camp?”
“Did Jason tell you about the guy with the elk antler sticking out of his gut?”
“He did. I can smell the blood. But we’ll be able to read the white book a whole lot better in an hour or so. Just muddy up tracks if we go in now.”
So she told him, omitting only the scream. Harold refolded the wax paper and put it in his jacket pocket. “Couple things,” he said. “Did you notice any other tracks besides the horse’s? Wolf? Human?”
Martha said no, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Once her light registered the blood bath, her attention had centered on the body.
Harold nodded. It was gradually growing light. Martha could see the barred blue grouse feather that Harold wore in his braid flutter in the wind.
“Okay, last question. Did you circle around to see where the horse entered this stand of trees?”
Again, the answer was no.
“Then that’s the first thing we’ll do. I need to know if the horse was already running, which means something up above spooked him, or if he was walking. If he was walking, then what made him bolt was the kill. Horse coming from upwind, he could have stumbled right into the blood before it registered. Things go sideways in a hurry when a horse smells blood.”
“Reading the white book” was an expression that Harold had picked up from his grandfather, who’d taught him to track on the escarpments of the front range that bordered the Blackfeet reservation. It was the skill of deciphering stories written in snow, the pages turning as each animal went about the business of his day. Who came here, what was his name, whom did he fear, in whose teeth did he die? In early autumn, many pages in the white book were blank, while others were written in a disappearing ink, for the snow came and the snow went, often in the same day. When Harold and Martha circled the trees to find where the horse had entered them, Harold figured he had several hours before the snow melted and the book shut. He examined Martha’s boot tread so he could identify it and told her to follow two steps behind, placing her boots exactly in his own tracks.
The horse had entered the copse of pines at the upper northeast corner, where the trees were sparsest. Harold pointed with a stick. The pockmarks were spaced at regular intervals, faint scoops in the vanilla swirl.
“He was walking, huh?” Martha said, and cursed herself for commenting on the obvious. Notwithstanding the personal baggage of their relationship, she always felt inadequate following Harold while he tracked. He didn’t suffer fools and was disinclined to honor any but intelligent questions with an answer.
She followed him down into the thicket. Harold pointed again. “See where he crow-hopped?” The horse had kicked up dirt over the snow where it jumped. “And here, here’s where the rider bailed.” He was pointing to two narrow impressions—the snow-covered tracks of a man. “He landed on his feet.” Harold’s voice was matter-of-fact. “Good horseman.”
Martha felt the quick tremor of a vein in her neck. She rubbed at it and put her hands on her hips. The corners of her mouth turned down. “If he was bucked off here, how does he end up on the sharp end of an antler yonder down the hill?”
A momentary tightening of his cheeks was Harold’s only response. He tucked his braid under his jacket collar and pushed through the wall of branches. As Martha followed him, she watched where his stick tapped the snow, but if there were tracks she couldn’t see them. When they reached the edge of the clearing, Harold motioned to Martha to stay put while he conducted a perimeter search and disappeared into the trees. Martha squatted twenty feet from the elk carcass. It didn’t look as ominous in the dawn. The face of the wrangler was hidden by the bulk of the elk and most of the blood was at a remove under the snow. I should be tired, she told herself. Instead, she found herself snapping her fingers, sending Harold telepathic signals to hurry.
Harold was back. He drew his belt knife before squatting next to her and whittled a stick into a toothpick. It shifted around as he worked it with his teeth.
Martha fought her impulse to break the silence. And lost. “What’s the book tell us?”
Harold spit out the stick. “The pack that took down the bull is four, maybe five strong. They’ve probably been feeding on it couple days, hanging about the vicinity. They left just after it started snowing.”
“I didn’t see any wolf tracks.”
“You wouldn’t. They’re more shadows than anything physical.”
“Did the wrangler spook them when he rode in? Maybe that’s why the horse bucked.”
“No, I’d say the wolves left about an hour before the wrangler got here. But it wasn’t just the wrangler. There were two others.”
“Two?” Martha felt the breath slowly leave her lungs. Her lower ribs pressed against the muscles of her abdomen.
“They came in an hour or so after the snow started and it was snowing for a couple hours after they left, so we’re talking dents. You look close, half the dents are about two inches longer than the others. And neither has a square heel. Wrangler’s boot has a square heel. That tells me two other people were here.”
“Were they together?”
“Same time frame, but I don’t think so. The wrangler, we know he came on horseback. He stumbled into the opening from above. Call him person one. Person two came on foot from the timber flank there”—he pointed with his stick to the south—“ninety-degree angle to the route the wrangler took. Left the same way. His track’s wider than the wrangler’s track. The smaller track, person three, came in from the north, opposite direction from person two. Also on foot. Also left on his backtrack. Spacing says he was running on the way out. Tripped and fell down once, down below in the trees. Running blind, down timber all around, no more sense than the horse.”
“Or a woman.” Martha scratched the soft skin under her chin. “You said the third set of tracks are shorter. Why couldn’t they be a woman’s? That’s who’s missing on this godforsaken mountain.”
“Could be at that. Make sense if she came onto the scene, saw him dead like this.”
“I damn near bolted myself.”
“No, Martha, you didn’t. You just walked out to the edge of the trees where I found you and threw up and kicked some snow over it.”
“Damned white book,” she muttered under her breath. “Any idea where number two and three came from?”
Harold shook his head. “Once you get in the open, the tracks are windblown. Odd thing, though. There’s a drag mark near the elk carcass, a little dirt kicked up. Like someone dragging a heavy branch. Hard to tell with the snow cover.”
Martha fingered the point-and-shoot in her breast pocket.
Harold shook his head. “Pictures will just wash out, all that light bouncing off the snow.”
“I know that. I’m not taking pictures of the tracks. This is just my way of telling you to finish up so I can take the scene photos. If you haven’t noticed, there’s a man over there who’s cooling down to room temperature and he has an antler sticking out of him that’s long enough to hang a hat on.”
“That’s what I miss about you, Martha.”
“Oh, just you being you.”
“That was your choice, Harold.”
“My wife had something to say about it.”
Harold looked away. Martha felt her shoulders sag.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What’s going on with you and Lou Anne, it’s none of my business. Except . . .” All right, she told herself, I’m just going to say it. “I don’t know, you and me, I thought we had something. I keep asking myself what I did to screw it up.”
“You didn’t do anything. Lou Anne and I have known each other since we were kids. She’s my people. She’s got a problem with depression; she wanted to talk about it. I thought I could deal with it without getting involved, and I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to be two-timing you. You mean too much for me to be anything but honest.” He swept his arm, encompassing the opening in the trees, the pines beyond, putting on their colors as the country came awake. “All this, there’s no place I’d rather be than working a story in the snow with you looking over my shoulder, tapping your foot and telling me to get off Indian time.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Gray Ghost Murders
“This is a truly wonderful read. In an old and crowded field, Keith has created characters fresh, quirky and yet utterly believable, then stirred them into a mystery that unfolds with grace and humor against a setting of stunning beauty and danger. Stranahan, the fisherman sleuth, breaks free of the old cliche's and delights with his humanity, vulnerability and love of cats. Yes, cats. Keith has written a book that speaks to women and men regardless of color or background. The only downside of this book is that we must wait a year for the next one.”—Nevada Barr, New York Times bestselling author of the Anna Pigeon Mysteries
“Even amid the serene trout streams of Montana, Sean Stranahan can’t seem to stay out of trouble—and there’s a heap of it in this bracing second adventure for the fly fisher/painter/PI… Field & Stream editor McCafferty skillfully weaves Big Sky color, humor, and even romance (in the form of Sean’s stunning new girlfriend, Martinique, who’s bankrolling veterinary school by working as a bikini barista) into the suspenseful plot as it gallops toward a white-knuckle. . . climax. The book’s biggest lure, however, remains Sean and his rugged band of Montana individualists.”—Publishers Weekly
“Think big-city CSI teams have it tough? Their examinations of crime scenes are hardly ever interrupted by a grizzly bear like the one that sends Deputy Harold Little Feather to the hospital…Irresistible.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Firmly set in the Montana wilderness and populated by well-drawn characters.
This series will appeal to fans of Nevada Barr and C. J. Box as well as to fly-fishing devotees.”—Booklist
Praise for The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty
“Sportsmen will find the one-of-a-kind novel captivating, intelligent, and at times uproarious.”—Field & Stream
"Keith McCafferty has pulled off a small miracle with The Royal Wulff Murders — a compelling Montana-based novel that will please both mystery readers and discerning fly-fishers. A terrific debut that rings with authenticity and style."—C. J. Box, New York Times bestselling author of Back of Beyond and Force of Nature
“An impressive debut… the people here are all solid creations, sometimes prickly but always engaging, characters readers will be more than happy to see again.”—The Houston Chronicle
“Keith McCafferty hits a bull's eye with Sean's story in his debut novel, The Royal Wulff Murders… like bacon and browniesStranahan's odd mix of painter, P.I. and fly fisher works. It helps that McCafferty, an editor at Field & Stream, really knows his trout, and life in Bozeman has obviously acquainted him with the ways of Montana. He writes with both a love of nature…common in the outdoorsman. Add the backwoodsy feminism of Sheriff Martha Ettinger, and the mystery is a good fit for enthusiasts of Nevada Barr who have read through all the Anna Pigeon novels. Packed with wilderness action and starring a band of stalwart individualists, The Royal Wulff Murders will have readers begging McCafferty for more.”—Tom Lavoie, ShelfAwareness.com for Readers
“[A] thoroughly entertaining debut…McCafferty blends plenty of fly-fishing lore with a host of intriguing characters…Only the sharp-eyed observation of the medical examiner suggests the body was a murder victim rather than an accidental drowning. The eventual identification of the victim helps link Stranahan’s task to that of the sheriff. The vivid Montana setting is a plus.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A fish story with a homicidal hook… An entertaining debut.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Blue Ribbon is what they call a trout stream of extremely high quality and that’s what I call Keith McCafferty’s The Royal Wulff Murders—the debut of a frighteningly knowledgeable and wonderfully entertaining series.”—Craig Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of The Cold Dish and Hell is Empty
"What a fine and thoroughly satisfying debut novel! There’s so much to enjoy here—a fresh sense of place, a cast of compelling characters, and a plot line with as many twists and turns as a Montana trout stream. Even if you know nothing about fly fishing, you’re going to love this book. Mark my words: From this day forward, you’ll be buying everything Keith McCafferty writes."—William Kent Krueger, author of Northwest Angle and Iron Lake
“The Royal Wulff Murders hit all my buttons: mystery, flyfishing, Montana, the Madison River, beautiful women, and whole pickup loads of authentic Montana characters, many of them wonderfully quirky. Keith McCafferty is one terrific writer.”—Patrick F. McManus, author of The Bear In the Attic and The Huckleberry Murders
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I used to be a fan of the CJ Box novels, find them a bit too depressing now, Sean Stranahan makes me laugh aloud and still feel i am living in the Rockies
Dollycas’s Thoughts Another wonderful read from Keith McCafferty! This story has so many layers and the author brings them all together with the melodic quality I have to come to expect from him. Sean Stranahan is just an awesome character. A fly fisherman who loves nature, animals, fish and fowl. He lives most of the year in a tipi. He is a an very easy going guy, who paints and has found himself to be quite a private investigator even though he is techy challenged. He hates carrying a cell phone and when he does it is rarely on. He investigates the old fashioned way. He talks to people and then heads to a river for a bit of fishing to ponder over what they have told him. Surprisingly he can make all the pieces fall into place to solve the crime. Sheriff Martha Ettinger is the perfect woman for Sean. If they could just realize it themselves. They work well together and see eye to eye on most subjects. One would be truly lost without the other. The theme that drives this story it the wolf debate taking place out West. I have to stay the author tells both sides of the story very well without being political or preachy. He has created a very captivating mystery that involve parties on both sides. What I like best about Keith McCafferty stories is his writing style. The characters jump right off the pages. His descriptive quality not only brings the human characters to life but the setting as well. His builds a story that just ebbs and flows and then the clues start to come together and the pages fly. I had an inkling to what was really happening but with the twists I was never sure if I was on the right track. I love books like this. Controversy, revenge, mystery, extremists, murder, deception, trauma, drama…this story has all that and more.
The women characterized in this book are hard women with streaks of jealosy that are unreal. The book isn't about wolves or werewolves and the writing is hard to follow. Don't waste your time or your $12.99. I don't want to give this book one star, but the site won't allow me to budge unless I do.
I truly enjoyed this book what is great is the way the first sets the way for the rest of the series.
This is the third book in the Sean Stranahan series, and my introduction to this author’s writing. The protagonist is a former private detective who considers himself a Renaissance man: He guides during the trout season, writes for fishing magazines, and paints in the winter (or when he gets a commission); a man who had never owned a gun, his weapon of choice being a can of pepper spray, and whose impatience with modern technology prompts him to throw his flip phone in a lake. The author writers “Never meeting a stranger was a Western trait, and Stranahan had grown up in the East where people conducted business with skins of reserve so thick that you had to peel them like an orange. In that regard, moving to the Rockies had been like coming home.” In this appearance, his assistance is sought by Martha Ettinger, Sheriff of Hyalite County, Montana in two cases she is working on: A wrangler at an area dude ranch is found dead in the backcountry, impaled on an elk antler, and foul play is suspected, and, that same night, a 25-year-old woman on a trail ride from the same ranch has disappeared. It is unknown if the two things are related. The characters are all very well-drawn and interesting. Primary among these, besides Sean, is Martha, married and divorced twice, whose history includes having shot a U.S. congressman a year ago, he a murderer and she cleared by a coroner’s inquest, but her memory of the incident is still very sharp. Even lesser players are unique: One of the area residents is Pablo Mendoza, a baritone for the NY Metropolitan Opera. A major theme is the antagonism between the environmentalists who want to “bring to light the atrocities man committed against wildlife,” when e.g. wolves had been eradicated early in the 20th century by gun and cyanide stick, after the US Congress passed a bill allowing the reintroduction of the wolf population, a program that started in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, and groups such as Ranchers and Hunters for Taking the Wolf Out of Montana and, generally, ranchers who “hate wolves as much as they hate Democrats.” At least initially, I found the book replete with complex CSI calculations, and esoteric fishing and hunting descriptions and terminology, somewhat (well, completely) outside of my usual sphere of knowledge There are many references to fishing lures and ties, e.g., the title of the book is a name given to a fishing tie. I am certain that many readers, with perhaps more familiarity with such things, would not have a problem, but for this reader, it often took me out of the book. But ultimately, I discovered that the novel was filled as well with poetic prose, a good mystery, and a totally unexpected twist, and I closed the book, which was overall very satisfying, with a smile on my face.