Hugh is just trying to get through another long workday on the ranch when he discovers two dead stallions. A further probe into the matter only pushes Hugh into dangerous corners, as he finds that the ranch's slick new owner, his beautiful wife, and even old Mr. Pettyjohn have terrible secrets to keep.
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By Neil McMahon
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2007 Neil McMahon
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Chapter OneI'd only ever seen Laurie Balcomb a few times, usually glimpses while I was working and she was passing by on her way to someplace else. I'd never met her or spoken with her. She and her husband were the new owners of the Pettyjohn Ranch, and they didn't socialize with the help.
But when she came into sight on this afternoon, riding horseback across a hay field, there was no mistaking her even from a quarter mile away. Her hair was auburn shot through with gold, she was wearing a brindle chamois shirt, and the way the sunlight caught her, she looked like a living flame.
I hadn't paid much attention to Laurie before this, other than to notice that she was a nice-looking woman. The sense I'd gotten from her was subdued, distant. Even her hair had seemed darker.
But now, for just a second, something slipped in my head-the kind of jolt you got when you were walking down a staircase in the dark and thought there was one more step at the bottom.
I shook it off and slowed my pickup truck to a stop. This was September, a warm afternoon at the end of a dry Montana summer, and I'd been raising a dust cloud the size of a tornado. I figured I'd let it settle so Laurie wouldn't have to ride through it.
But instead of passing, she rode toward me and reined up. The horse was one of thethoroughbreds she'd brought out here from Virginia, a reddish chestnut gelding that looked like he'd been chosen to fit her color scheme. Like her, he was fine-boned, classy, high-strung. A couple hundred thousand bucks, easy.
"Are you in a fix?" she called. She had just enough accent to add a touch of charm. In a fix, I remembered, was Southern for having trouble.
I pointed out the window toward the thinning dust storm.
"Trying not to suffocate you," I said.
"Oh. How thoughtful." She seemed surprised, and maybe amused, to hear that from a man in sweaty work clothes, hauling trash in a vehicle older than she was.
She walked the restless horse closer, stroking his neck to soothe him. She handled him well, and she knew it.
"So you men are-what's the term-'gutting' the old house?" she said.
The truck's bed was loaded with bags of lath and plaster, crumbling cedar shakes, century-old plumbing, the skin and bones from the ranch's original Victorian mansion. Nobody had lived there for more than a generation, but the Balcombs had big plans for this place. The mansion was on its way to being restored and turned into a showpiece for the kinds of guests who would buy the kinds of horses that Laurie was riding.
"That's the term," I said.
"You're an unusal-looking group. Not what I would have expected."
"You mean we're not like the guys on New Yankee Workshop?"
"Well, there do seem to be a lot of tattoos and missing teeth." "They're all good at what they do, Mrs. Balcomb."
"I'm sure they are. And don't misunderstand me-I think they're charming."
That opened my eyes. I'd heard my crew called a lot of things, but none of them involved words like charming.
"I'll pass that on," I said. "They'll be knocked out."
"So why are you here all alone on a Saturday?"
I shrugged. "Only chance I get to be the boss."
Her smile was a quick bright flash that shone on me like I was the one important thing in the world.
"You look like you could be bossy," she said. Then she caught herself up as if she'd slipped. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be impolite."
I was confused, and it must have shown.
"That scar," she said. "It's like on a villain in an old-fashioned movie."
My left hand rose of its own accord and my thumb touched the raised, discolored crescent that topped my cheekbone. It wasn't something I ever thought about any more. The touch broke loose a run of sweat from the hollow under my eye down my nose. It itched like hell, and while I knew that scratching was bad manners, I couldn't help myself. My hand came away smeared with plaster dust and red chalk.
"Just a low-rent injury and a surgeon with a hangover," I said.
She smiled again, but this time she seemed a little disappointed.
"You could come up with a more interesting story," she said. "Think about it." She turned the gelding away and eased him into a trot with her boot heels.
I gave her a hundred yards lead on my dust cloud, then drove on.
"Interesting" wasn't in my job description.
Excerpted from Lone Creek by Neil McMahon Copyright © 2007 by Neil McMahon. Excerpted by permission.
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