Authors: Jeff Carson
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Serial Killer, #Crime, #Police Procedural
By Jeff Carson
Cross Atlantic Publishing
Copyright © 2014 All rights reserved.
David Wolf Series In Order
Alive and Killing
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Dedicated to my family, friends, and readers who have given their generous support. Without you I’d be …
Sheriff David Wolf looked up and saw the line of trucks and SUV’s thundering down the dirt road at five-alarm fire speed. Letting up his bodyweight on the wriggling animal underneath him, he hissed in pain as a hoof glanced off his knee.
The dust from the slowing vehicles washed over the volunteers inside the cattle pen, and then moved on to envelop the rest of the crowd gathered on the surrounding lawn.
“Who the hell is that?” Deputy Tom Rachette said, spitting and squinting with a wave of his hand.
“MacLean,” Wolf said.
The calf bleated, protesting the ropes expertly lassoed around its head and hind legs. The two men controlled their horses, pulling the ropes with practiced precision.
Rick Welch, third generation owner of Triple T Ranch, quickly shaved the calf’s right rear haunch and a volunteer weekend cowhand approached with two smoking branding irons. “God damn it,” Rick mumbled through clenched lips, waiting for the cloud to pass.
Luckily, a light spring morning breeze dispersed the dust, and the air became breathable again.
The unplanned break over, Wolf sagged his weight onto the animal and held tight. At six-foot three and two hundred pounds, he’d always carried a muscular physique with little effort, or in the case of his years as an Army Ranger, he’d carried a muscular physique with tremendous effort, but now that he was almost forty-one years old, his physique hid the fatigue within that came after rigorous activity. The morning’s work had his shoulders and abdominal muscles screaming for mercy. As sheriff of Sluice County for the past three years, he was lucky if he managed to break away three times a week for weight lifting, and the cardio… well, he figured his cardio was living in the mountains of Colorado.
He’d lost count of how many calves they’d done so far, but he knew there were plenty more to go. Even with the second and third team of horsemen and volunteers working just as hard inside the pen, it was going to be an all day job that might go into tomorrow.
A fit young man in his mid-twenties, Deputy Tom Rachette seemed to sense Wolf’s slowdown and squatted next to him, gripping the calf’s hind legs and stilling the animal for good. Rachette was shorter than average, but in Wolf’s estimation, the young deputy was built like a bull, and he had tenacity and strength rivaling that of most larger men.
“Thanks,” Wolf said through gritted teeth, a fresh twinge of pain shooting through his lower back.
Triple T Ranch had the largest herd of cattle in Sluice County, and it was a community operation to get the cattle branded every year. Wolf hadn’t missed the event for seven years running, and Margaret Hitchens, town real estate agent and self-appointed chairperson of the Wolf-for-Sheriff election campaign, had turned the fall branding into a rally for votes, complete with food and games for the entire family outside the cattle pen. Margaret had seen to it that the Sluice Sentinel ran announcements in the three weeks leading up to the event, and nearly every display window and cork board in Rocky Points featured one of Margaret’s come one, come all invitations. Over fifty men, women, and children had shown up.
And now here were a few more uninvited ones.
Wolf looked toward the congregation of people milling outside the fence. The patrons were barely visible in the dust.
“Okay!” Rick shouted.
The ropes slackened, Wolf slipped the loop over the rear hooves and he and Rachette jumped up, clearing out of danger.
“Sheriff Wolf!” A deep, jovial voice called from the other side of the fence.
Wolf turned with little enthusiasm toward the commotion.
A videographer scrambled with a tripod and camera, and an army of still photographers was darting this way and that, kneeling and climbing into photo-opportunity positions.
Wolf instinctively glanced at Margaret, who was already out of her lawn chair and charging towards MacLean, a suspicious crease of her brow beneath her cowboy hat.
“What’s this?” she demanded.
MacLean looked over at her like she was an attacking rabid dog, then smiled pleasantly. “Margaret,” he gushed, “I heard about the cattle-branding and I thought I’d volunteer. That is, if you’ll have me?” His voice boomed over the mooing.
Photographers snapped photos, the videographer panned from MacLean to Wolf.
Margaret scoffed and turned away from MacLean. “
county?” she asked under her breath.
Wolf walked to the fence with an outstretched hand caked with dried mud.
MacLean knotted his hand with Wolf’s and shook vigorously, twisting his head and smiling with steely eyes, either ignoring or oblivious to the cool reception of every person surrounding him.
The cameras whirred and clicked.
Releasing Wolf’s grip, MacLean hopped over the fence with considerable grace for a fifty-five year old. He stomped down on the dusty earth with brand new work boots, bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt and rubbed it across his chest, leaving a skid mark on his expensive white button up shirt.
“Mr. Welch!” MacLean boomed, marching toward the owner of Triple T’s ranch with his now dusty hand.
Rick fumbled with the branding irons for a few seconds, leaving MacLean holding out his hand without a partner to shake it. Finally they shook and MacLean beamed a smile framed by his perfectly trimmed silver goatee.
The photographers pounced.
Wolf heard a ping on the fence and a collective gasp. He turned in time to see a photographer’s head whipping back as he landed on the ground. Wolf chuckled to himself, seeing at once the man’s smooth-soled shoes were no match for manure.
The guy bounced up and pulled the camera to his eye, snapping some shots.
Wolf looked over and plucked Sarah from the crowd. Standing in front of her chair to get a better look, she met Wolf’s gaze and smiled.
He smirked and shook his head, and they gravitated toward one another at the fence line.
He watched her and took a cleansing breath, feeling a jolt of energy. The combination of the crisp spring air and watching her move was better than ibuprofen or any pain reliever. As far back as high school, when he’d met his sweetheart turned wife turned ex-wife turned…whatever it was they were now, she’d always liked to dress the part of a cowgirl, and with her worn jeans, frayed hat, button-up embroidered denim shirt, she wore the look just as well as she did back then. Better than anyone.
They met at the fence and she handed Wolf a water bottle.
“Real nice of him to show up.” She made no attempt to mask her displeasure. They watched MacLean wave to bystanders with his left hand and extend his right hand to Travis Chapman, who sat unsmiling atop a jittery Mustang. “What a great guy.”
Wolf drank the cold water and squinted. It was clear blue skies with visibility as far as it gets to the north and south, with pine tree covered mountains socking them in to the east and west. The dung-scented air was warm with a steady cool breeze coming from the north, making it biting cold in the shade, typical of early June in the middle of the Rockies.
“No wonder this guy is winning,” Sarah said. “Good God, there’s like ten photographers. What’s he shooting another commercial?” Her jeans stretched against her thinly muscled leg as she propped a boot on the fence.
Wolf took off his Stetson and slapped it against his leg in a puff of dust.
Sarah looked at him and smiled. “You look like a dust bunny. Here”—she reached through the fence and ruffled his hair, sending a cascade of dirt onto Wolf’s shoulders—“let’s unveil that gorgeous dark hair of yours for the cameras, and let’s wipe your face. It looks like one of those cattle pooped on it.”
Wolf closed his eyes and let her delicate hands do their brusque work. “I think one of them did.”
Wolf turned around at the sound of his name. MacLean stood with Trevor Lancaster, the undersheriff of Byron County. Lancaster was Wolf’s age, younger, taller, and more muscled than his boss. Wolf couldn’t help notice the way the man raked his eyes up and down behind Wolf, taking in Sarah’s figure with unreserved curiosity.
Besides Lancaster, all eyes were on him. “What’s that?” Wolf asked.
“I say,” MacLean yelled over the cows, “why don’t you and I mount up and rope one of these calves? Show em’ how it’s done?”
MacLean was oblivious to the glares he received.
“I don’t think you or I could show any of these men anything they haven’t done themselves over fifty times already today.”
MacLean’s smile wavered for an instant, but he shrugged and walked toward a horse and grabbed the reins from the dismounted cowboy. The sheriff of Byron County climbed on with expert speed and grabbed the lasso off the saddle horn.
Wolf turned back to Sarah and handed her the water bottle.
She smiled and nodded with a wink. “Go get em’ sheriff.”
Wolf looked at Sarah’s beautiful Colorado-sky-blue eyes, her tanned face flecked with tiny circles of sunlight passing through the holes in her cowboy hat, and at that moment thought he could wrestle down a bull with his hands. Then when he tried to think of the last time he’d thrown a lasso and came up with no memories, his confidence was taken down a few notches. With a sigh he turned around.
“All right Sheriff Wolf!” Margaret Hitchens was rallying the cheerleaders, who hooted and whistled approval.
Travis Chapman hopped off his Mustang and gave Wolf the reins with a smile. “You got this?”
“Nope,” Wolf said climbing up without hesitation. He spent a few seconds trying not to fall as the beast beneath him twisted and bucked.
Chapman finally calmed the Mustang down and handed up his coiled lasso.
Wolf grabbed it and nodded. Then he let out some slack and began a slow circle, getting his bearings with twirling a throwing rope while balancing on a horse, two actions alone he hadn’t done in years. Two actions together that took him more than a few seconds to get used to.
“You be the heeler?” Sheriff MacLean winked at Wolf.
Wolf smiled. Roping the heels meant he’d have to lay the lasso loop as a trap in front of the moving calf’s rear legs and then snag the legs as it moved through the loop. Though neither looping the head nor heels was an easy task for the unpracticed, looping the heels was a more difficult task than roping the head. Successfully heeling a calf was something he’d seen the men today fail to do on numerous occasions. They were professionals. Wolf, most definitely, was not.
“Sure,” he said, getting the feeling this politically masterful opponent of his had just roped him.
MacLean turned and pursued a calf without hesitation, tossed the lasso and snagged its head in a swift fluid motion. He yanked the line and stopped his horse and the calf twisted, turning its hind legs toward Wolf.
Wolf rode into place, feeling wobbly in the saddle as the huge Mustang accelerated.
He twirled the rope above his head, at an angle towards his left shoulder, just like his father had taught him all those years ago. Then he rode up alongside the left hind leg, just like he remembered. He let the loop grow with each twirl. He watched the calf hop, the hind legs leaving the ground in steady, predictable rhythm. He threw.
“Come on Wolf!” Someone yelled from the crowd.
“You can do it sheriff! Waaahooo!” Margaret Hitchens continued rallying support.
Wolf tried again, missing the mark one more time. Then again, this time a good toss, but he was late pulling the slack.
“You gotta flatten your toss!” MacLean said over his shoulder.
Wolf chuckled to himself as he pulled in the rope one more time.
I’ve gotta flatten your face
The crowd was now long past cheering, and uncomfortable silence had settled in, which seemed deafening over the collective moos of the shifting cattle.
Wolf missed again.
“All right,” MacLean declared, loud enough for the people to hear. “I’ll take the heels. You got the head.”
Ah. Okay. Easy enough
, Wolf thought sarcastically. He felt like he was thirteen all over again with his father barking at him as he tossed a rope at a wooden dummy.
“Okay, you got this!” Deputy Rachette started a renewed wave of banter.
“Come on, Sheriff!”
“Yay Sheriff Wolf!”
Wolf took a deep breath, twirled the rope above his head, this time keeping a nice bend in his elbow with each revolution. He picked an easy target: a calf that was standing still, unobstructed in the confusion of moving cattle.
The rope hit the rear half of the animal and dropped to the ground.
MacLean laughed out loud. “Okay, let’s give back the pros their horses. We could be here all day.”
Wolf ignored him. He whipped back the rope and stretched the loop out, twirled it over his head twice and tossed it. Sailing through the air, the loop went over the head of a brown and white spotted calf and landed around its neck. He pulled back, tightening the slack, and then wrapped the rope around the saddle horn. He steered his horse the opposite way, whipping the calf around and presenting the hind legs to MacLean.
“Hey! Now we’re talkin’!” MacLean yelled.