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Authors: JF Freedman

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BOOK: A Killing in the Valley
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The issue that upset her, that she dwelled on but had no solution for, was knowing that when she died, this way of life, passed down ten generations, would be over, because neither of her children were interested in maintaining stewardship over the land. Her son managed a Nissan dealership in Tucson, Arizona, and her daughter and son-in-law owned a chain of natural-food grocery stores in northern California. Her heirs would subdivide the property. The mini-estates would sell for millions of dollars, and her descendants would be rich. But the land would be gone from them.

The sky was a black canopy of stars and a three-quarters moon when Juanita woke up. She put on a pot of black coffee and clicked the television to the weather channel. The forecast was for hot, dry conditions, with the possibility of evening Santa Ana winds—no change for several weeks now.

Juanita was particularly vigilant about keeping trespassers off her property during this time of year. One careless match, one overturned lantern, and thousands of acres could light up the sky in a hellish fireball. That had happened many times in the past, and would again; nature was more powerful than man. But the heedful landowner didn’t help nature destroy itself. You protected your property, and by doing so, you protected everyone else’s.

The fear of fire wasn’t the reason Juanita was up earlier than usual this morning, however. Over the past week, on two separate occasions, her vegetable garden had been plundered by a vicious, cruel marauder. Both times, her dog had chased the intruder away, but not until considerable damage had been done. This time she was going to be awake and ready when it returned to continue its violation.

She drank a cup of black coffee, waiting impatiently. If she didn’t stop it, the culprit would come back until there was nothing left to devastate. She itched to go outside to lie in wait, but if the wind was blowing the wrong way her scent would carry and spook her prey. The instant her dog started yelping she’d rush out and confront the bastard.

She glanced at the clock over her stove. Almost five-thirty. First light would soon be on the horizon, and then the chance for success would be gone, because this was a night prowler who did its damage under the cover of darkness.

Her dog’s frenzied barking was loud and intense. She raced to the door, grabbing her father’s old lever-action Winchester 30-30, which she had loaded with 150-grain bullets the night before. Flinging the door open, her eyes scanned the edges of the garden for her prey.

A boar or a sow, she couldn’t tell from this distance, the moonlight wasn’t strong enough. But there it was, its purplish snot rooting deep in her turnips. Her dog, no coward but no fool either, was dancing about at the edge of the garden, keeping his distance from the intruder, barking nonstop.

Juanita whistled up her dog. She chained her to her doghouse, so she wouldn’t frighten the intruder away again. Then, bearing the rifle high in her hand like an Indian brave on the warpath, she ran full-tilt across the back grass to the garden, her hair a mane of glimmering silver streaming behind her. She wore only a light summer nightgown and was barefoot, but she could care less about how she looked. She could be stark naked, there was no one around to see her for miles.

The feral pig was dark brown, with scattered, mottled pink and gray patches on its rump. A set of lethal-looking tusks protruded from the corners of its mouth. It shook its massive, hairy head, as if tossing off fleas.

She circled around so that she was downwind of it—pigs can’t see well, but their senses of smell and hearing are keen. She got to within seventy-five yards of the predator, then stopped. It was a boar, she could see that now, it was too big to be a sow, and there were no tits hanging from its underbelly. It was a fine if ugly specimen; it would weigh over two hundred pounds, maybe close to two-fifty.

Snorting through massive nostrils, the boar rooted through her hard-won garden. As Juanita had done countless times before, from long ago, when her father had taught her to hunt as a young girl, she dropped to one knee and brought the rifle up to her shoulder in one graceful movement, the worn wooden stock pressed tight to her cheek. Her left eye squinted shut while the right, her shooting eye, narrowed to its target. Her finger squeezed the trigger without a moment’s hesitation.

The bullet ripped through the boar’s shoulder. The beast ran a few steps on instinct; then it stood still, wavered for a moment, and dropped in its tracks.

She got up and walked to it, prepared to spend a second bullet if the first hadn’t killed it—she didn’t want it to suffer. But it was dead. She had done the job right.

She prodded its massive belly with the end of her rifle barrel. Later, she would notify her ranch foreman to come fetch it. Right now, she needed another cup of strong coffee.

Juanita ate her breakfast of oatmeal, toast, and the rest of the coffee on the back porch. The now-rising sun was casting pale yellow tendrils on the low hills, shadowy patterns moving across the face of the limestone outcroppings. Next month, she and her ranch foreman would trek into the back-country section of the ranch and hunt for deer and wild turkey. One good-sized buck and a few big torn turkeys, along with this pig, would provide a sizable portion of her winter’s meat, which she would dress with the help of a nearby rancher who was good at butchering. The meat would go into her freezer. She only killed what she ate.

Back inside, she caught up with the stock market on CNN, went through the e-mail on her computer, planned a shopping trip into Santa Ynez for her weekly stocking-up, and called her foreman to come get this winter’s pork.

Before she knew it, it was midmorning. She walked outside and crossed the yard to the stable. Her dog, an Aussie Shepherd bitch, followed at her heels.

The stable was dark, quiet, cool. It smelled of hay and manure. Shafts of sunlight shone through gaps in the roof, which needed to be sealed before winter. Her mare, hearing her come in, snickered in greeting. The dog jumped and played in the sunbeams.

She fed and watered her horse. Then she led her out of the stall and slid on the bridle. She threw the blanket on her back, the saddle on top of it.

Her saddle was almost sixty years old. It had been a high school graduation present from her parents. She had other saddles, but this one remained her favorite.

“Time to get you two some exercise,” she called out to the animals as she mounted the mare. They started off at an easy walk, the dog running ahead of them, then circling back, then running on again.

The trail meandered through low stands of oak, pine, and juniper. Even after living here for three-quarters of a century, Juanita still savored the sights, the smells, the essential feeling of her land. Partway to her destination, she stopped to pick an armful of wild sage. The fragrance was pungently redolent in her nose; on impulse, she decided she would invite a few neighboring ranchers for dinner over the weekend and barbeque some sage-rubbed chickens. She hadn’t had a dinner party all summer—the thought of preparing for it energized her.

The original
had been erected in the 1830s, when California was still part of Mexico. It was adobe, the clay coming from their property. Over decades, new sections, also adobe, had been added to the core. The last addition, in the 1880s, had enlarged it to its present twelve rooms. At the time it was constructed there was no running water in the house and, of course, no electricity. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the house was plumbed, but there was still no electricity.

No one had lived there for decades, since Juanita’s grandparents died. Despite its age and benign neglect, however, it was still a grand old place—a living link to the past, not only for Juanita’s immediate family, but for the history of Santa Barbara County.

She approached the house from the back, riding through the abandoned orchard. Dismounting, she tied her horse to the hitching-post, stretched for a moment to loosen the kinks, and went inside.

As usual, the house upon first being entered had a musty, slightly damp smell and feel to it, as if the lid on the jar that was preserving it hadn’t been screwed on tightly enough. She threw open some windows to air the place out, then made her way to the small library at the rear, a room that had been her grandfather’s study.

The task she’d set for herself today was to go through some of the old photo albums that chronicled the ranch’s genealogy, going back to the 1860s. Alexander Gardner, one of Matthew Brady’s principal associates, had spent a month on the property shortly after the Civil War. Edward Curtis, the famous Indian portraitist, a ranch guest around the turn of the century, also took hundreds of pictures, many of which still existed in the albums and scrapbooks that her mother, grandmother, and the women before them had lovingly maintained and preserved.

Sitting at her grandfather’s old pigeonhole desk, Juanita leafed through the volumes of old images, jotting down notes in the small pocket notebook she had brought with her. Later, when she got home, she’d transcribe the information into her computer.

She heard the sound of a vehicle approaching on the gravel road. She marked her place, closed the book, and stood up. The single road into this section of the ranch was guarded by a locked gate. Only a few people had access to the combination to the lock, and none of them were supposed to be here today.

Her encounter with the boar should have been enough excitement for one day—she was a strong woman, but she was also seventy-six years old. But she would have to deal with this, she couldn’t hide from the intruder—her horse tied up in front and her dog scampering around the yard revealed her presence.

She hadn’t brought the rifle with her from her house, but there was enough firepower in this old house to deal with a battalion of intruders. She crossed to a gun cabinet that was built next to the walk-in fireplace, unlocked the door, and opened it. An impressive array of shotguns, rifles, and handguns were lined up inside. None of them were contemporary; many had not been fired in decades. They were part of the ranch’s heritage, like the books in the library and the paintings on the walls. A couple times a year, on special occasions, the cabinet would be opened and the old arms would be put on display.

She certainly didn’t want to shoot anyone, but a gun was a useful tool. The mere show of arms was usually enough to scare off an unwanted visitor. Reaching into the cabinet, she took hold of an old Colt revolver. The weapon felt heavy in her small hand. She carefully parted the curtains and peered out the window.

A mud-splattered Nissan Pathfinder rounded the corner. As she watched it approach, her hand involuntarily tightened on the pistol’s grip. The Pathfinder stopped at the edge of the driveway. There was a moment while the dust cleared; then the driver’s door opened, and a young man stepped out, shading his eyes against the sun. The dog ran around him in circles, yapping at his heels.

Juanita put the gun down and flew out the door. “Steven!” she cried out in delighted surprise. “What are you doing here?” She leaned up and gave him a dry kiss on the cheek.

The man, tall and lean, in his early twenties, scooped her up in his arms. “Hey, Grandma,” he said. “Hi.”

Another man, the same age as Juanita’s grandson, got out of the passenger’s side and walked over to them, grinning at the old lady’s unrestrained show of affection. Steven made introductions: “Tyler, this is my grandmother, Juanita McCoy,” he said. “This is my buddy, Tyler Woodruff,” he told Juanita.

The other boy came around and shook Juanita’s hand. The old woman was shaking, she was so excited. “Come sit with me, boys,” she said in a voice that hadn’t sounded so high and girlish in decades. She led them to a small gazebo outside the kitchen that was canopied by trellises overgrown with red, orange, and purple bougainvillea. “Tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Steven McCoy was the youngest child of Juanita’s son and daughter-in-law. Her youngest grandchild, and her favorite. He had been visiting the ranch with his parents since he was barely old enough to be lifted up on a horse. A fluid, natural athlete, by the time he was seven he could ride as well as most of the cowboys Juanita and Henry hired to help out during roundup. He enjoyed life on the ranch, more than his father had.

“We’ve been tooling around the past couple of weeks,” Steven told his grandmother. “Nevada, Idaho, Oregon. After we leave here we’re heading straight home. School starts the beginning of next week.”

Steven was a biology major, an honors student about to start his senior year at the University of Arizona. Next year he planned on going to medical school. His future was wide open, boundless.

“Well, I’m pleasured you stopped by,” Juanita said. “Although I wish you had given me notice, so I could have planned something.”

“We’ve been road-tramping it, Grandma,” Steven explained, “so I didn’t know when we’d get here. I knew we’d stop by, though. You know that this is one of my favorite places on earth.”

“How did you get in here?” Juanita asked. “The gate wasn’t unlocked, was it?”

“It was locked,” he reassured her. “I memorized the combination when I was out here last Christmas.”

“Okay, then,” she said, mollified. “What are your plans?”

“We want to spend the night here.”

“Here? In this old house?”

“Is that a problem?” A cloud of worry crossed his face. “It might be my last chance. Sleeping with all the ghosts.”

“No, no,” she declared. “Not at all. What about dinner?” She remembered the sage she had picked earlier. “I could barbeque, and make biscuits. Fresh corn and tomatoes from my garden.”

“Can we do breakfast instead?” he asked. “I want to show Tyler around Santa Barbara. Go to Brophy’s for dinner. I’m hankering for seafood.”

“Breakfast it is,” she agreed, masking her disappointment. “How early?” she asked. “I’m up before the chickens,” she said with a laugh.

“Early’s good,” he said. “We’re going to need an early start.” He stood up. His friend Tyler followed suit. “Going to go now,” he told her. “See you mañana.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek.

BOOK: A Killing in the Valley
2.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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