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LAST DITCH
Patricia McLinn

DAY ONE
MONDAY
Chapter One

The stir in the KWMT-TV newsroom occurred at four-twenty-six p.m.

Newsroom stirs come in many varieties.

There are those rare history-making events that everyone — journalist or not — remembers. How they heard the news, where they were, what they were doing. Those moments when, at least during that initial jolt, you forget you’re a journalist.

Then there are journalist-first major news stories that are so good they rouse an entire newsroom, whether you’re working on the story or not.

More frequent are the exciting-person-is-visiting stirs. Presidents, certain prime ministers, a rare Supreme Court Justice, an even rarer Nobel Peace Prize winner. And, of course, movie stars. Movie stars are always good for a stir.

This stir didn’t have the gravitas of a major event.

Besides, there were no bulletins on the wire, which I’d been idly checking while waiting for someone to answer the call I’d just made.

And if there was any reason a president, prime minister, Supreme Court justice, Nobel Peace Prize winner, or movie star happened to be in Sherman, Wyoming, it was beyond my imagination.

For that matter, the reason I was in Sherman, Wyoming was often beyond my imagination.

My chair only turned to the right, so to see the cause of the newsroom stir ninety degrees to my left I pivoted three-quarters of the way around.

Thomas David Burrell.

Tom was a rancher in Cottonwood County, and well thought of by most of its citizens. And, yes, he had a certain something that draws a fair number of people to his rough-hewn face and tall, lanky body. But I wouldn’t have predicted that his arrival would produce an exciting-person stir.

Except his purposeful stride and tight jaw added a potential layer of Big Story, especially since he was headed straight for the closed office door of News Director Les Haeburn.

I stood, disconnecting the phone as my source answered, and went after Tom.

His knock was somewhere between perfunctory and nonexistent. He’d swung open the door and strode up to Haeburn’s desk as I reached the room.

“Haeburn. I’m Tom Burrell. We—”

I spoke over Haeburn’s flustered half-syllables as I came up beside the newsroom-stirrer. “Tom?”

He didn’t look at or answer me. We’d had our issues, but never to that extent. “—need your help to put out a call for volunteers for a search. Immediately.”

I swallowed the Oh God that tried to come first, and demanded, “Tamantha?”

His daughter was formidable, yet there were dangers that could find any living soul. Even formidable third-graders.

Tom still didn’t look at me, but he reached out and rested a large hand on my shoulder. “She’s fine, Elizabeth.”

“Hey, I heard — Tom? What’s going on?” We’d been joined by KWMT-TV’s sports anchor, Mike Paycik.

Actually, as a hometown sports hero who’d made it to the National Football League for a respectable career, then returned here to serve his apprenticeship in TV, he provided the station more than simply a sports anchor.

What he was to me — if anything more than a respected colleague and sometimes fellow ad hoc investigator — remained to be seen.

Whether part of the reason it was unseen was Thomas David Burrell also remained to be seen.

“It’s Brian Walterston, Connie’s husband. He’s missing,” Tom said.

“I thought he was in a wheelchair,” Mike said.

“He is. But he has a special wheelchair so he can get around some outside. Connie got back from Cody and he’s gone and so is the wheelchair.”

“He must be in one of the ranch buildings—”

“She’s looked. Connie wouldn’t yell fire unless there’s a fire. He’s gone. Somewhere beyond the home ranch.”

“That’s too bad,” Haeburn said woodenly. “But what—”

“He can die out there. Sun’ll set before long and a man in his condition might not last the night. Even if it is warm for October. We need to find him. Fast. To do that we need as many pairs of eyes as we can get. Break into your show and—”

“Break into — We can’t!” Haeburn gasped.

“Ask the Heathertons. Or I’ll talk to them.”

So, Tom knew the nearly mythical owners of the station. Knew them and was confident he could persuade them to his way of thinking.

“We can’t interrupt programming,” Haeburn repeated.

“We’ve never—”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t,” Mike snapped.

Faced with these two men, I could see Haeburn drawing back into the stubborn certainty of the weak, like a turtle into its shell.

“Possibly it can be mentioned during the five o’clock—”

“We need searchers now. This minute. Waiting could—”

“A crawl,” I said. “We can put up a crawl.”

“What’s a crawl?” Now Tom did look at me, and there was something deep in his dark eyes that flicked at a nerve developed over years of journalism. There was something below the surface. Something he didn’t intend to reveal.

“It’s a moving message across the bottom of the screen. A ticker.”

“Great idea,” Mike said. “We’ll get with graphics while Tom checks with the Heathertons about a special report.”

“Special report?” Les squeaked. “A special report for a guy who’s gone for a walk? That’s out of—”

“He can’t walk.” Tom’s flat tone stopped Haeburn.

I’d have to try that on Haeburn. My pointed remarks didn’t always get through that turtle shell. Though it probably helped that Tom was half a foot taller, and significantly more muscled than KWMT-TV’s news director.

“Where do you want people to report to, Tom? Okay to say who’s missing? Tell them to bring supplies for a night search?”

“Red Sail Ranch. Yes and yes.”

Tom already had his phone out. Figuring he had Haeburn in hand, Mike and I exited past a knot of staffers by the door.

Then Mike turned back toward the room. “I’ll join the search as soon as we have this going. Won’t take long,” he told Tom.

“You can’t. You’re on air for the five.” Haeburn was referring to the five o’clock broadcast, though Mike wouldn’t be on until toward the end.

“I’ll get Pauly in,” Mike said of a stringer he used for sports coverage. “He can handle it.”

“You’re the one paid to handle it. You better be here, Paycik.”

“I’m going to help with this search.” He turned away.

“Me, too,” I said to Mike.

He gave me a look. “It’s going to be tough going over rough ground.”

“I’m coming. There’ll be something I can do.”


Chapter Two

What I’d done so far was keep Connie Walterston supplied with coffee and water as she sat outside her low-slung ranch house. Other people came by, saying a few words, touching her hand or shoulder, then moving on and letting the next in.

Red Sail Ranch was east and some south of Sherman in the area of Cottonwood County known as “low side.”

Here the soil wasn’t as fertile, the land not as valuable as the “high side,” which climbed toward the mountains and benefited from more generous moisture. Since it took more acres to support the same number of cattle, low side ranches tended to be larger. Which did not help the search efforts.

Beyond the Walterston house and main outbuildings, land stretched flat to the south with cattle visible in the distance. In every other direction was what Mike called broken ground. Not a bad term, considering the way gullies, creeks, and fissures slashed the landscape, exposing bands and ribs of red rock.

A search command center occupied an open area in front of the solid house. Weeds warred with wilted perennials in a front flowerbed, dust dimmed the windows, and dried mud trailed up the steps to a wide porch. I suspected Brian’s long illness explained these signs of recent inattention.

Tables stretched across a three-sided tent’s open fourth side. Several people — including Tom Burrell — worked from behind the tables.

Deputies gathered inside the tent, each holding a coffee cup. I recognized Deputy Wayne Shelton’s short, stocky frame and Richard Alvaro’s slim build among a half dozen others, some wearing uniforms from a neighboring county.

People signed in on sheets on clipboards and were given paper maps along with GPS coordinates for devices. These would be the next batch of searchers dispatched, following earlier groups Mike had pointed out departing as we’d arrived.

Connie exuded determined calm, but clutched the chair arms when I didn’t keep a cup in her hands.
I’d met Connie this past summer at the house of Mike’s Aunt Gee.

What had first impressed me was that Connie’s three sons had put a serious dent in Aunt Gee’s Sunday dinner spread — quite an accomplishment.

Then Connie had come over and said “Thank you.” I’d had no idea what I might have done that warranted thanks from this pleasant stranger.

She told me she ran the office for the road construction outfit Tom Burrell operated in addition to ranching.

Business had dried up when he’d become prime suspect in a disappearance, leaving her feeling she wasn’t earning her pay. But — according to her — business quickly picked up after Tom was cleared as a result of digging Mike and I did.

She hadn’t given details, but I’d picked up that her job was vital because there’d been an issue with insurance and medical coverage for her husband’s illness.

Now, a gray-haired woman came up to Connie. I rose, gestured her to my chair, and moved away.

I scanned the crowd, noting familiar faces.

Caswell Newton stood amid a knot of six teenage boys.

He was the nephew of Linda Caswell, one of the county’s leading citizens. He was also the son of my former landlord Stan Newton. A very mixed bag.

A ranch foreman Mike had worked for as a boy was alone, appearing half asleep and watching everything. I’d wager he’d be good in a search party.

I was less enthusiastic to see Hiram Poppinger, who owned a ranch in the northeast part of the county. He had a short fuse combined with a penchant for taking matters into his own hands.

Diana Stendahl, my favorite cameraperson, was there, though not on behalf of KWMT-TV. Each group of volunteers included at least one law enforcement person and a civilian leader. Diana was one of the civilian leaders.

She was a widow, raising two good kids, working full-time, leasing out her land to keep the ranch intact for the next generation. She’d also become my landlady recently, and she was my friend.

More and more people kept coming. It was hard to keep track. I did a second pan.

“What’re you looking for?” Mike asked from beside me, having finished signing up. He didn’t wait for an answer. “The sons? Oldest’s at college. Jaden.”

I almost made the mistake of asking how he knew that’s who I’d been looking for. Bad enough to have him read my mind, no sense giving him the all-clear to celebrate it.

“UW,” he added. “Tom’s got someone driving him home. Second son, that’s Kade, is in the official tent with Shelton. Haven’t seen Austin, but—”

“Mike Paycik. Haven’t seen you since you returned from the bright lights and big city.” A cowboy-hatted man about Mike’s age had come up on his other side.

Mike’s bright lights and big cities had been during his NFL career, playing for the Chicago Bears. The majority of Cottonwood County treated him like a demi-god. It was to his credit that he didn’t take it too seriously.

“Ted. How are you?”

They shook with enthusiasm. I had the impression their voices were subdued only because of the circumstances.

My attention had been drawn in another direction.
You know that test where you have to find one item that isn’t like the others?

I’d just spotted the unlike item in this crowd.

Even without being surrounded by cowboy hats and ball caps, the pork pie hat this guy wore would have looked wrong. It sat too high on his big round head, emphasizing a flat, round face, making him look as if he’d borrowed his father’s hat. Maybe his black leather coat was also borrowed, because it covered his round middle only under the protest of straining buttons.

Another reason he looked so out of place was the to-the-knees length of his coat. Every other man and most of the women wore jackets to their waists, their hips at most. The better to ride a horse, I suspected. Not this guy.

A stir rippled through the gathering and shifted my attention.

I recognized the youngest Walterston brother from that meal at Aunt Gee’s. He hurried toward his mother, apparently having just arrived.

Kade came out of the tent and intercepted him near Connie. There were low, intense words, then Connie rose, gripping each son by the upper arm and saying something low and sharp.

Kade broke away and strode back toward the tables.

Connie sat and at her nod, Austin took the chair beside her, his head down. She patted his leg, then stroked his shirt sleeve. In contrast to his older brother’s work clothes, his jeans were clean and new, his yellow shirt neatly pressed.

From the corner of my eye I spotted Mr. Pork Pie Hat on the move.

He’d reached the sheriff’s department tent when he was stopped by a deputy. When Shelton emerged, he tried to attach himself. Shelton stiff-armed him — sending the guy stumbling — and kept going.

Shelton didn’t even treat me that badly. So Pork Pie Hat must really be persona non grata.

“Listen up.” Deputy Shelton had stepped onto a chair, unabashedly using its height to make up for his lack. “As you know, each of you has been assigned to a team led by a deputy.” He gestured to deputies now taking spots around the rim of the group. “When we break, go to your deputy and form up your assigned teams. Don’t stray. Your leader knows the area you’re covering. We sent a few early groups out and we don’t want you covering the same territory. Most all of you are experienced, but it can’t hurt to remind you — take no chances. The first order is to not get yourself lost or hurt. Because we’ll be pissed if you slow us the hell down.”

A low murmur conveyed appreciation for his priorities.
Shelton gave brief, direct instructions about never losing connection with the group. To be sure their assigned territory was covered before moving on to the next. To check in when they finished each assigned area — if there was no cell service, send someone back to report.

“Brian was in the house and okay when Connie left the house at eleven this morning. He wasn’t in the house when Kade returned at two forty-five. Connie—”

“I thought he was with Mom,” Kade said.

Shelton didn’t talk over him, but didn’t let the interruption detour him, either. “—called in the report at three fifty-five when she got home. That means at least an hour and possibly five hours he’s been gone.

“We’re working on the theory Brian was in his all-terrain chair. So he could get farther than walking, but it’s still limited on what ground it can get over. We’re searching on foot, looking for signs. Best we can tell, Brian was wearing a pale blue shirt, khaki colored pants. But don’t get hung up on that. Don’t ignore other colors because we can’t be sure he didn’t have a jacket or some such.

“We’re short on daylight, so work fast, but even more important, work careful and work sure. You all know Connie and Brian. You know they’d be the first in line to help you in any kind of trouble. Enough said. Go.”

Mike and I made eye contact. He nodded, then headed to his assigned group.

Connie’s mug was full and with the groups heading out, room opened near the tables. I moved closer, yet staying well to the side so I didn’t get in the way. I also was staying away from a knot of women heading into the house. I didn’t want to get swept inside.

My maneuvering put me close to the official tent. A happy coincidence. That’s all.

One word snagged my attention: “candidates.”

The county had been short a sheriff and a county attorney for months. One had resigned. The other hadn’t. I’d been involved in both events.

County attorney and sheriff were elected positions, unlike judge — yes, Cottonwood County was short one of those, too — who was appointed, then subject to a pass-fail retention election. The replacement judge had been named quickly amid general approval.

The county attorney and sheriff jobs each had more than three years left on their elected terms, which meant the replacements were essentially incumbents for the next election and incumbents are notoriously difficult to dislodge.

The only known candidate for either job was the acting sheriff.

A good journalist would have leads on more candidates, but KWMT-TV anchor Thurston Fine insisted he alone covered local politics, so viewers didn’t even know the acting sheriff was interested. I knew that — and that the acting county attorney was not interested in the job — from reading coverage in the Independence by editor and publisher Needham Bender.

The political party of the elected-but-now-departed officeholder selects three candidates and the Cottonwood County commissioners choose which will fill the term. I also learned that from the Independence.
I’d have to corner Needham over coffee — or maybe dinner, along with his wife Thelma — to pump him.

The breeze shifted and I heard Deputy Lloyd Sampson say, “…out of towners. Both of them. The guy they want for county attorney has someone he wants to bring in as sheriff. They go way back and he’s making it a two-fer.”
Interesting.

A voice — young and harsh — rose, pulling me away from contemplation of Cottonwood County politics.
“I’m going,” the voice said. “Dammit, I’m going. I don’t care what you say.”

“We’re both going.”

It was Connie’s two sons, Austin had joined his older brother at the tables, standing shoulder to shoulder and daring Tom to say otherwise. They didn’t even look at Shelton.

Tom said something low, though I caught the words “stay,” “mother” and “need” — plenty to guess what he was saying.

“Others can. I’m going.”

“We’re going,” corrected Austin for a second time.

“We’ll handle this first.” This time Tom’s voice was full of command. At his gesture, the boys stepped aside, looking stubborn and unhappy, but no longer blocking two people coming to the table, writing their names, taking the information, then catching up with departing search groups.

Tom wrote down a couple more names of stragglers, then looked up to see me approaching the tables.

“Elizabeth? You’re not—”

“No, I’m not volunteering for search duty. I know my limitations. But I can stay here with Connie so perhaps—” I tipped my head in the direction of the two boys.

He shot a look — not toward them, but toward Connie.

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Thanks.” He turned to Deputy Shelton. “Wayne?”

“I’ve got to stay. You go ahead, Tom. Looks like we’ve got more coming in.”

I turned to see that the newcomers were in three pickups. That was no surprise. Most of the vehicles now lining the ranch road were pickups. But a sense of instant chill as the trucks’ occupants emerged was both surprising and in contrast to the quiet connection among the other searchers.

A young couple climbed out of the first pickup, the woman with awkward movements explained by her very pregnant belly.

The driver of the next truck had gray stubble, worn but clean clothes, and scowl lines dug into his face.

His scowl deepened as the third driver, a solid young man, started to pass him, apparently heading for the couple. The older man grasped his arm and said something. The third driver jerked away, but slowed his gait to stay beside the older man.

The two from the first pickup quickly decoupled, with the woman heading toward the house without stopping by where Connie sat and the man coming toward the sign-in table.

Shelton shot a look at the newcomers and called out to the last group of searchers, the one led by Deputy Richard Alvaro, which had only made it a few yards away, “Hold up.”

The older man and the driver of the third pickup reached the table.

“What the hell you doing bringing her out here?” Driver 3 demanded of Driver 1.

“Wasn’t going to leave her on her own in her condition. I don’t desert—”

That’s enough,” Shelton snapped. “Terry, Kade, Austin, you hustle up and get with Richard Alvaro’s group. Go on now.”

Driver 1 — by process of elimination, Terry — glared around at all and sundry, but obeyed the order.

“Three for you, Alvaro,” Shelton shouted. “Send back the Baranski boys and Newton.”

Clearly, he was juggling the groups to separate Terry and Driver 3.

The deputy nodded. As soon as Terry and the Walterston boys had joined his group, they resumed moving away.

In a few more minutes, Tom departed with a smaller group consisting of Driver 3, the older man I thought of as Driver 2, two cowboy-looking men I hadn’t recognized but guessed were the “Baranski boys,” and young Cas Newton.

I looked toward the sun sliding closer to the horizon.
In June, being this far north created long days and leisurely twilights, but now the Wyoming skies made up for those generous summer days by chopping them ever shorter. Sunset would come by seven with maybe another half hour of twilight.

As I turned toward the coffee maker, the back door of the house squeaked open, releasing the sound of female voices and what sounded like thin, high-pitched crying, then slapped closed.

A woman came out, hips swaying despite her speed.

She shot a look toward Connie, now seated alone by a camp table, then altered her route, her new path bringing her toward me.

“You’re smart to be out here.” She poured herself a cup of coffee. “I could not take one more minute of it in there.”

She leaned her hips against the table. She was dark-haired, small, and attractive.

“You’d think she’s the first person to ever be pregnant the way they’re all over her. And before you blast me for being an unnatural female who doesn’t like babies, it’s not that. It’s all the tears. I swear someone could say hello to her and she’d start crying.”

Her gaze narrowed at the sound of a distant pickup, then relaxed with what might have been disappointment when it passed the turnoff to the Walterstons’ ranch.

“At least half of them are all over her,” she amended. “The other half are busy tutting themselves into a frenzy over her morals.” Her long nose twitched slightly. In some people that might have indicated outrage, but I didn’t get that sense with her.

“You know the story, don’t you?” she asked.

She didn’t wait for my answer.

“You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but Hannah Chaney was having an affair. Worse, she got caught. And then she compounded all that by getting pregnant. Word is she doesn’t know which one is the father. Husband gets in a miff and kicks her out, though any idiot can see he’s not over her. Of course she goes to the boyfriend. Who happens to live practically next door. Then she’s all dewy-eyed — well, I was going to say innocence, but that doesn’t fit the situation, now does it? Make it dewy-eyed ignorance. Anyway, she genuinely seemed surprised they’re about ready to kill each other. And that makes her cry even more.”

Ah. This could explain the atmosphere and dialogue among the occupants of those three late-arriving trucks. I pegged Driver 3 as the outraged but still ensnared husband and Terry/Driver 1 as the sheltering boyfriend. Driver 2, apparently, was a concerned onlooker.

The woman shook her head.

“It must be the male instinct to go for good breeding stock, because it’s sure not brains they’re seeing in that girl. Even Do — Speaking of not brains,” she said quickly, trying to mask the broken reference, “I sure haven’t displayed mine, have I? I just realized — you’re that reporter on TV, aren’t you? I should have declared this was all on background or something before I opened my mouth. You won’t do an exposé on me gossiping about my neighbors, will you?”

I gave a perfunctory smile. “Not unless it has to do with consumer affairs. I’m Elizabeth Margaret Danniher. I do the ‘Helping Out’ segment.”

I extended a hand. She met it. Not a full-fledged shake as I would have expected, but one of those fingertips-only gestures. It surprised me. She didn’t seem the type.
That kind of handshake always gives me an uneasy feeling that the handshaker — and it’s mostly women who default to this style — might expect her hand to be kissed.

“Loriana. We’re neighbors of the Walterstons. Me for only the past couple of years, but Don — that’s Don Hazen — for longer. We have the next spread over.” She tipped her head to the north. “Such a shame about Brian. You know he’s had terminal liver cancer?”

I shook my head. I’d known he was very ill, but no one had given specifics and, for once, I hadn’t asked.

“Not that he was a drinker or a needle-using druggie or anything like that. The doctors think he got Hepatitis C from a blood transfusion when he was a teenager — that was back before they knew to screen for Hepatitis C. It damaged his liver and that led to the cancer. He’d smoked for a number of years, drank — not to excess — but with Hep C that makes it a lot worse. Even taking over the counter meds for aches and pains all ranchers get probably made it worse. It was the perfect storm. Never showed symptoms until too late. Apparently what he was most concerned about was Connie and the boys. But they’ve all tested clean, so he didn’t have that worry.” She sighed. “I guess it’s understandable.”
I met her gaze, indicating interest.

“His doing this. With the liver cancer so advanced, I mean. Wouldn’t have been long. You know that’s where Connie was today — talking to hospice services, picking a few to come out and meet him.”

Another pickup made itself heard and she focused on the entry again.

“Waiting for someone?” I asked.

“He said he was going to join the search, so I assumed — Unless…” Her gaze darted toward the house. I could almost swear I heard crying. “But maybe he went out on his own. That must be what happened. He went out on his own.” Her mouth formed a perfect smile. Her eyes didn’t join the fun. “Don’s an independent cuss. Probably approached the search from where our property meets the Walterstons’.”

Why did I have the feeling she was trying to persuade herself?

“That’s not the best for coordinating what’s been searched and what hasn’t, is it?” I asked mildly.

She shrugged. “As I said, he’s independent. Doesn’t like taking orders from, uh, anybody. Besides, he knows that area well, so he could cover it faster on his own than waiting for somebody else. Then again, it’s not a real likely spot for Brian to be, so Don probably figures he can do his neighborly duty without much risk of actually seeing Brian.”

This time her smile not only didn’t reach her eyes, but her lips seemed to receive a mixed signal.

“Oh?” I asked neutrally.

She hitched a shoulder as she settled back to sit on the table. “They’ve had run-ins — Don and Brian. Some folks might be surprised Don stirred himself at all to search, but he really does care about the area. You know how it is. People both caring passionately about the same thing but with different ideas about how it should be done, letting their tempers get the better of them. Anyway, that’s another reason he wouldn’t want to join the main search. He wouldn’t want to hear anybody else’s opinion about his showing up.”

I had no response ready, so I was glad to see another pickup arriving. “More searchers, I hope,” I said.

“Mmm,” she responded.

When the driver emerged, I recognized Needham Bender, editor and publisher of the Independence, and the best journalist I’d encountered here, short of Penny Czylinski. But since Penny only disseminated her work by telling those who passed through her checkout lane at the Sherman Supermarket, I don’t know if she officially qualified.

As Needham neared, he raised a hand in greeting, which both Loriana and I returned silently, then he headed for Connie. He sat, resting one hand on her shoulder.

The door of the house opened again and Pork Pie Hat emerged, holding a plate of food.

Loriana grunted. “Think I’ll brave going back inside now.”

The timing left the impression that Pork Pie Hat’s emergence prompted that decision.

“Who is that?” I asked as he headed toward Connie and Needham.

“Rich Taylorman. An insurance broker.”

“What kind of insurance?”

“Any kind that will make him money. Crops to start. But then he added medical, life.” Her tone dropped on the last word and her gaze went to Connie.

Abruptly, she stood. “You want to come in with me? The human water fountain has to dry up some time. Even if it hasn’t it’s preferable to him.”

“No thanks. I’ll take my chances.”

Once she’d departed, I poured two mugs of coffee and headed toward Connie and the two men.

“…you must have some idea of where he went, and if you don’t tell me, if you don’t cooperate with me fully, that can be fraud,” Rich Taylorman was saying to Connie.

Needham rose quickly. Before he could do anything that might get him in trouble, I stepped between the two men and extended a mug toward Connie.

Damned if Taylorman didn’t shift his plate to one hand and reach for the mug.

I avoided his reach by turning away from him, saying over my shoulder. “This is for Connie.”

She took it without any sign of recognizing what she held or what was going on around her.

“Fine. Give me the other one.”

I turned to him, both hands encircling the mug. “No. It’s mine. The coffee pot’s over there.”

He curled his lips back in what might have been meant as a snarl. It lost impact because of a kernel of corn between his front teeth.

Needham clapped a hand on my shoulder. I saw that the danger of his doing something rash was past.

“Stay here with Connie, will you, Elizabeth? I’m going to go talk to Wayne.”

In other circumstances I might have ribbed him about trying to get ahead of me on a story. Not now.

“I’m coming with,” Taylorman said, starting after him, plate still in hand.

Needham gave me a rueful look over his shoulder and I was sure he’d sacrificed himself to draw the insurance broker away from Connie.

A good journalist and a good man.


Chapter Three

“More coffee. Black.”

Connie didn’t look up at my announcement, just took the mug from my hands. Again.

I’d lost count of how many times we’d done this now.
She’d gone inside briefly once — probably a result of the coffee I kept plying her with. Other than that, we sat together in silence. Waiting.

I shivered out of nowhere. Perhaps from the abrupt departure of the cup’s warmth. Perhaps not.

The sun had set, twilight had given up, requiring electric lights on tall poles to illuminate the open area. The light poles were supplemented by fires burning in barrels.

“Winter’s coming on,” Connie said.
It was the first thing she’d said to me other than mumbled thanks for a mug delivery.

“Winter? It’s barely fall.” Weather — as long as it was theoretical and not the specific conditions her wheelchair-bound husband might be facing — seemed a safe topic.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

So much for the weather.

But she surprised me by turning her head toward me as I sat beside her again. For the first time I thought she truly knew I was there.

“I was sorry to hear about your house burning down and destroying your car, Elizabeth. But so relieved you and your dog are okay. I should have written a note or called to see if you needed help—”

“No, you shouldn’t have.” I put my hand on hers. It felt rough and bony. “We’re fine. Diana Stendahl took us both in and I can’t say the hovel is much of a loss.”

The hovel had been my less-than-fond name for the furnished rental house I’d lived in from my arrival in Sherman last spring until it burned down. Not by accident. And with me in it. Almost to the bitter end.

“The hovel…” A flicker of light showed at the back of her eyes. “Appropriate.” Then the light was gone and her next words were monotone. “Diana’s a good person.

Hard on her when she lost Gary with the kids so young.”
Her silence held the thought that she had lost her husband, too. Certainly in one sense as his illness had progressed, then in another sense today, and possibly in the final sense tonight, depending on the result of this search. At least her kids weren’t as young as Diana’s had been.

“It was a terrible accident,” I said, though I didn’t know much about Gary Stendahl’s death nearly a decade ago, only that it had been an accident on their ranch and Diana had lost the husband she loved and their kids had lost the father they loved, so by any definition it was terrible.

“Yes,” she said woodenly. “An accident.”

DAY TWO
TUESDAY
There was a stir.

Not the same as the one in the newsroom.

Then Tom had been a man on a mission and hadn’t cared who knew. This stir rose from someone trying to not be noticed.

I saw Cas Newton return from the northeast. He reached the edge of the lighted area, and I caught a glint of light from his belt buckle. He skirted the light, making his way to Deputy Shelton.

There was no reaction from the deputy to whatever Cas said to him.

But after enough time for maybe three or four sentences, Shelton said something short to Deputy Sampson and then Shelton and Cas quietly started back the way Cas had come, around the edge of the light, then back to the northeast.

I stood. Belatedly, I gave the movement an excuse by asking Connie, “More coffee?”

She made a negative noise without looking up.

I ignored her refusal, but went the long way around for the coffee — stretching my legs, I’d say if anyone asked — but none of the few around appeared to notice.

Two steps into the dark, I knew I’d never find Cas and Shelton.

I stopped.

As much as I hated it, I was going to have to wait for the information to come to me.

Connie showed no sign of having noticed their departure or my detour.

Nothing happened during the next hour and three minutes. I refused to count how many times I checked my watch.

First, lights bobbed into sight, like fireflies stripped of their joy and pinned to the earth.

By the time flashlights became recognizable, there also was sound. Mostly footsteps. I also thought I caught Shelton’s voice in full command mode, though words weren’t distinguishable.

Shelton was the first into the light. He pocketed his phone and moved to the side, letting Tom Burrell step ahead, then fell in behind him as they came straight toward us. The others filing into the light held back.

Connie rose, and I realized I had, too.

Tom’s granite-carved face gave little away, but his words were as direct and unwavering as his gaze on her face.

“We found him, Connie. He’s dead.”

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Summary

"If you haven’t started reading this series and you enjoy reading funny, sassy, interesting, characterful books, then start at book one and continue through. You won’t be sorry.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

"You want to stop everything to read while hoping it never ends." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Elizabeth “E.M.” Danniher  is sorting out her life and career, after shifting from top-flight TV journalism to  the smallest of small markets at KWMT-TV in Sherman, Wyoming.

Oddly, it's encountering dead bodies that's helping her figure out life. 

Solving mysteries -- often with at least a glance to the past of Wyoming -- with the help of her friends, colleagues, and family has become central to what she does. While she grapples with her evolving personal life.

  • Last Ditch    
           
    Irrigation ditches bring life to part of Cottonwood County, but this ditch also brings death.
  • Look Live
        
    A trip to Yellowstone Park for Elizabeth, her visiting friend, and Mike, sets the stage for murder in Sherman. 
  • Back Story
        
    A convicted murderer comes to town . . . and Elizabeth discovers the case is far from closed.
  • Cold Open
       
     
    House-hunting has never been this deadly. Elizabeth needs to find the murderer before she braves another open house.

"Addictive. The writing is excellent, the twists and turns keep the brain engaged, and Elizabeth's wry commentary keeps a smile on my face."⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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