cj Sez: I’ve been working on two mysteries, two widely disparate stories. One is the detective mystery set on the Gulf Coast that I’ve been meandering through for the past year and a half, and the other is a modern Western mystery set in Colorado.
I thought I’d give my readers chapter one of the Western mystery as an excerpt. It’s an opportunity to pick apart my writing.
Austin Burnette’s cellphone went off at the same time he started twisting the handle of a claw hammer through a wire hoop at the gate post to tighten the fence wire. It was his last job of the day before he headed home. He left the hammer hanging in the wire and peeled off his thick, leather glove to pluck the phone out of his belt clip. The name on the display read Steve Carradine.
“Austin, where are you?”
“At the loading pens in the north pasture. What do you need?” He wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.
“Tobias had an accident.”
“At the house. It’s bad. Better come now.”
Austin threw the tools into the back of the pickup.
Twenty minutes later, the Dodge skidded to a stop in the gravel at his father’s cabin, bathed in strobing blue lights. He jogged past two idling County Sheriff cars, hesitated next to the coroner’s wagon, then took the porch steps two at a time. The house smelled of burned coffee, and a stench he couldn’t identify left the taste of copper in his mouth.
In the kitchen, Sheriff Dan Everton huddled in quiet conversation with Steve Carradine and Mitchell Hargreaves, the local medical doctor who also acted as the coroner. There was an irregular shaped pool of dark red liquid on the boot-scuffed grayish linoleum under the table.
Austin inhaled a gasp and strode toward the orange body bag strapped onto a gurney.
Carradine intercepted him. “Austin, I’m so sorry.”
“Snake bite,” Doc Hargreaves said, shaking his head.
Austin ran the zipper on the body bag down as far as the second button on his father’s shirt before the sheriff placed a hand on his.
“You might not want to do that.”
Austin pushed Everton’s hand aside, pushed open the bag, and gazed at his father’s face.
A low groan escaped his throat as he cupped his father’s face in his hand. “Aw, Dad.”
There were multiple pairs of puffed and bloody holes on Tobias Burnette’s ashen cheek. The discoloration around a set on his neck showed the venom had already begun to destroy tissue.
“He must’ve fallen into a nest of rattlers,” Everton said. “They struck him nearly a dozen times.”
“He didn’t call for help?”
“His cell’s on the kitchen table there. Not working.”
“If he didn’t call, how’d you know to come?”
Carradine dropped a heavy hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I found him. I was on my way to pick up a prescription for Sally and stopped by to see if he needed anything while I was in town.”
“Snake bite’s not what killed him,” Doc said.
Austin’s eyes asked the question.
“He would have been going into shock, dizzy, having difficulty breathing. At his age and in his condition, it wouldn’t take long for the neurotoxins to start destroying his body. Looks like he decided to take control of how he died before he got too weak.” Hargreaves cleared his throat and looked at the sheriff as if for confirmation. “He slit his wrists. Steve found his bloody straight razor on the floor.”
Austin zipped the body bag fully open, tenderly raised his father’s arm, and then looked again at the floor. The coppery taste in his mouth came from his father’s drying blood.
“There was no reason,” Austin whispered. “Antivenin could’ve saved him, wouldn’t it?”
Hargreaves shook his head. “Him not being able to call for help? That’s not likely. With the number of hits he took, he would’ve run out of time. Those there on his neck got the jugular. A straight shot to the blood stream and his heart. Never saw anything like it before. More ’n likely, he knew it’d be a painful death. I’ll know more when I finish the autopsy.”
“Autopsy? You said he—” Austin said.
“The law says we have to do an autopsy in circumstances like these. And I’ll want to send off blood and tissue samples to Colorado State University in Fort Collins to determine what kind of snake it was. It’ll take a couple of weeks or more to get the answers.”
“A couple of weeks for some lab tech to tell you it was a rattlesnake? This ranch is called La Cascabel for a reason, Doc. The name means rattlesnake. There are three venomous snakes in Colorado, and all of them have the word rattlesnake in their name. You going to make me wait two weeks to bury my father when the answer is that obvious?”
“Not at all. Waiting for the results is my task. I need the lab results before I can sign off on the death certificate. You tell me what funeral home you want to use, and I’ll release your father’s body to them day after tomorrow,” Hargreaves said, then swept his hand toward the kitchen floor. “I’ll send somebody over to clean up.”
“No!” The word burst out of Austin’s mouth, then he calmed. “No. I’ll do it.”
The doctor nodded and closed the zipper on the body bag. “I’m real sorry for your loss, son. Tobias was a good friend to me and a lot of folks around here and a real special man. He’ll be missed.” He cleared his throat. “Dearly missed.”
Austin fixated on the gurney as the sheriff’s deputies rolled it out to the coroner’s wagon while Carradine and Everton repeated condolences that he vaguely heard. Finally the room was filled with a deathly silence that made him shiver. He escaped from the kitchen to his father’s bedroom where he rummaged around in a desk drawer until he found the 8x10 framed family portrait taken at Risen Son Baptist Church when he was fourteen.
It occurred to him that the picture had been taken the year before his mother had driven away with his sister and never returned. State police reported that she must’ve taken an icy curve too fast and rolled over. The aged pickup wasn’t equipped with seat belts. He frowned, and in a voice filled with sad wonderment, he announced his new status aloud: “I’m an orphan.”
He touched his fingers to each face as he remembered the years that followed. His father homeschooled him, hired tutors when he reached the limits of his own abilities, taught him how to rope a cow and break a horse. When he told his father he wanted to be a lawyer, Tobias got the money to pay for law school by selling the ranch to Steve Carradine, all except the cabin and the surrounding forty acres. Tobias quieted Austin’s protests by claiming he’d already decided it was time he sold. Said he’d gotten too old to do a proper job of ranching, but he wanted to keep the little place he’d built for his bride fifty years before and the land that came with it.
Tears blurred the picture in Austin’s hand when he thought of the grim phone call he’d gotten from Tobias six months before.
“Doc says I have cancer, son. Thought you ought to know.”
“I’ll be home as soon as I can,” Austin said.
“No need to do that. It’s called a carcinoid, and it’s a slow-growing thing. Doc says I probably had it for years.”
Austin knew cancer was unpredictable. Patients can live years, or they can die in weeks. He’d defended physicians in more than one medical malpractice lawsuit when a cancer diagnosed to be in remission had unexpectedly metastasized. “May be, but I’d like to come home. For a little while, if that’s okay. I kind of miss the ranch.”
He hadn’t said it but he was grateful for the chance to repay some of the debt he owed his father. He closed his law practice in Colorado Springs and came home to Piños, the small town in southwest Colorado founded by his great-grandfather. Finding work as a ranch hand for the La Cascabel Ranch was a return to his youth, yielding memories of the days when he’d worked side by side with his father on the land that had once been theirs.
Austin eased down into the brown, saddle leather chair his father kept in front of the picture window that framed the dusty-green sage and Ponderosa pines in the distance. He rested his boots atop the cowhide ottoman and stared, unseeing, at Tobias’s favorite scene. Silent tears coursed down his face as he sat with the photo pressed hard to his chest.
“Damn it, old man. What were you doing?” Then he broke into body-wrenching sobs.
The Ponderosas, silhouetted in the light of October’s full Cold Moon, were throwing long, dreary shadows across a clearing when Austin stirred from the chair. Flipping the switch on a lamp, he placed the photo back in the drawer then glanced at his image in the mirror his mother hung on a nail next to the front door. The Burnette women had used it to do last-minute checks of their appearance on the way out. He skirted the mahogany stain on the kitchen floor as he headed for the sink where he splashed cupped handfuls of water on his face and obliterated the dirty tracks of his tears with a rough towel.
Rolling up his sleeves, he filled a three-gallon galvanized bucket half-full with cold water and poured in a stream of vinegar followed by half a box of baking soda, and watched the solution roil up. He dipped a brush in the solution and scrubbed the legs of the chairs and table before carrying them to the porch. Then he emptied the bucket onto the floor, grabbed the mop from behind the door, and erased the vestiges of Tobias’s life blood. When he was done, he filled the bucket again with the same solution and scoured the floor on his hands and knees with the scrub brush. He mopped the floor one last time with clear water then heaved the mop, the scrub brush, and the bucket out the door.
While the floor dried, he sat in his father’s chair and toyed with the dead cellphone. A warm flush of love washed over him as he remembered the resistance he encountered the day he instructed his dad on the phone’s use. It’d taken a lot of convincing to get Tobias to agree that he needed a cellphone in case of emergency. Austin had programmed his own cell number as number one on the speed dial to make it as easy as possible. Cracking the back to check the battery, he discovered both it and the SIM card were gone.
I didn’t think you even knew how to open this thing
cj Sez: There it is. Chapter one of my Western mystery. Have at it...tell me what you think, would you?
Okay, you-all guys keep on keeping on, and I’ll try to do the same.
The Great Outdoors 8 book publisher’s bundle (includes Choosing Carter) Available May 1 @99 cents
California Kisses—10 book publisher’s bundle (includes Deadly Star) @ 99 cents