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A Montana Mystery Featuring Gabriel Du Pré
By Peter Bowen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Peter Bowen
All rights reserved.
Du Pré fiddled the last bars of Poundmaker's Reel, drawing the last note out and then fading it to silence. The crowd applauded, politely, with none of the verve they usually gave.
It was midafternoon, Sunday, and this was a party to say farewell to the Eides, ranchers here since 1882, with the graves of their people in a little grove of cottonwoods near the main ranch house. The cattle business had been bad for years, and it had finally broken them. They could not hold on to their land or their leases.
They weren't the first in the country to have to sell out and go. They wouldn't be the last, either. Now they were just the latest.
Madelaine was talking with Millie Eide, who had her arms around her two girls, aged eleven and thirteen. Du Pré cased his fiddle and he put the case on the old piano and walked over to them.
"Thanks, Gabriel," said Millie Eide. "We'll miss your music."
Du Pré nodded.
"Not be so good a place you are gone," he said.
"It's hard," said Millie. "Jeff's heartbroken. But there wasn't a choice. It is what it is."
Du Pré wondered who Jeff was.
Oh, he thought, he is called Bud by everybody but his wife.
Bud Eide was off with a knot of ranchers, all of them laughing too hard.
Du Pré went over to the bar, got a drink, and rolled a smoke. He looked at his fingers, calloused and brown. He was playing alone today, no other musicians.
The news that the Eides were selling out and going was only two days old.
Father Van Den Heuvel was off in a corner spilling his drink on the Hulmes, who were both short and stout and very patient.
Madelaine came to Du Pré and slipped her arm in his and kissed his cheek.
"Too bad, them going," she said.
Du Pré nodded.
"People been leaving here, long time," said Du Pré.
"Quit," said Madelaine. "People been dying, long time, too, don't make it fun. You are sour as old pickles, Du Pré."
"Who is buying their ranch?" said Du Pré.
Maybe the Martins, they buy it, add another thirty thousand acres, have a hundred ninety.
"Bart don't know about it, him?" said Madelaine.
Du Pré shook his head.
Bart Fascelli would have bought it, certain, leased it back to the Eides.
But they would not ride what they did not own.
"They should have let Bart know," said Madelaine.
Du Pré nodded. My rich friend, he would have bought it, like that maybe. Maybe I get him, buy Montana. Put up signs. No Golf.
The Eides began to leave. They had several trucks and cars outside, all loaded. For some reason not one of them would say where they were headed.
Bud Eide came to Du Pré and Madelaine, and he nodded once and he held out his hand. Madelaine hugged him.
"Good luck," he said, and he turned away. His eyes were glistening.
Then they got into the vehicles and drove away, some headed east and others west.
Du Pré looked at the sheet cakes and the hot dishes on the big trestle table. Susan Klein began to clear dirty plates and take them back to the big dishwasher, and Madelaine went to help.
Du Pré wandered outside with his drink and his smoke. It was spring, a late spring, and the sere land was raw and the grass hadn't greened up yet. An eagle lazed high in the sun, and Du Pré saw its mate miles away. Goldens, fat on the winter kill.
Bart's big green Suburban pulled in, well spackled with mud, a sagebrush caught in the bottom of the driver's door. He parked the big wagon, opened the door and got out. He picked up the sagebrush and held it in his hand, close to his eyes.
Du Pré walked over to him.
"Smell," said Bart. He held out the scrubby plant.
Du Pré inhaled the bitter clean scent. There was dust in it, and winter.
"Like nothing else," said Bart. "They're gone."
"Yah," said Du Pré. "Why they don't ask you maybe buy it?"
Bart shook his head. He sighed.
"They may have thought it was sort of like asking for charity," said Bart. "Foote's trying to find out who really bought it. A lawyer who acts as agent for hidden investors is as far as we've gotten now."
Du Pré laughed. Lawyer Charles Foote was Bart's attorney, and he made damn sure Bart Fascelli was well taken care of. And the Fascelli money. Lots of money.
"I don't like it," said Bart. "I mean, the Eides can sell their land to whoever they wish to, but it would have been nice if they'd said something, damn it. I would have bought it. It's right next to the badlands."
Them malpais, thought Du Pré, where the ghosts scream when the wind blows and the wind is the land, too. I ride out there, the hair on the back of my neck prickles. Something there scares me, I don't know what.
The Eide place, better than thirty thousand acres, was mostly pastureland and poor pasture at that, with some hidden swales where hay and grain could be grown. A good place. They had run about four thousand head on it, shipped calves and yearlings out.
Beefmasters, they like them Beefmasters. That man, down Colorado, he don't care what kind of cow it is, she have a calf, fine, she don't, she is baloney right now. So they look like a lot of breeds.
What they do with all them cows? It is the spring they are out, but drive off, leave them?
New owners bought the cattle, some millions there.
"Du Pré," said Madelaine, "maybe you play a little now, everybody they got them long faces, it is done. So play."
Du Pré nodded, and he went back to his fiddle and took it out and ran the bow over the strings for tune. The A string was a little flat. He twisted the peg.
Du Pré looked up.
Benetsee and his apprentice, the Minneapolis Indian Pelon, were there, just come in from the mud. Pelon's jeans were smeared to the knees.
Benetsee just looked dusty, a neat trick in the short mud season. His running shoes were barely touched. The velcro fasteners flapped.
"Old man!" said Madelaine. "I am glad, see you! You are coming to supper tonight"
"I am not hungry," said Benetsee, grinning, his mouth twisted like a wrung rag.
"I am," said Pelon.
"Him," said Benetsee. "Him, confused."
"The hell I am," said Pelon. "I could use a shower, too."
Du Pré laughed.
Madelaine poured a huge glass of fizzy wine for Benetsee and she carried it to him with the gravity of the Pope bearing a chalice.
"I am not thirsty," said Benetsee.
"Drink this," said Madelaine, "or I get mad."
Benetsee grinned and he took the big glass and he drank it off in a long swallow.
"Not very much," he said.
Madelaine crooked a finger at him.
"You, come," she said. She turned, and her velvet skirt rippled in the light. Her high gray moccasins showed a moment underneath. Her arms and fingers and neck were thick with silver and turquoise.
Fine woman, Du Pré thought. Scare the shit out of me.
Benetsee and Pelon followed Madelaine to the bar. Susan Klein was sitting on a high stool, leaned against the back. Her legs hurt always, the deep scars from the mirror slashing her Achilles tendons stitched and ached after a few hours of standing. She was knitting.
Madelaine poured Benetsee more wine and some soda for Pelon. Pelon nodded at Madelaine and he drank thirstily. She filled his glass again.
"Eides go," said Madelaine.
"Too bad," he said. "More buffalo though." Du Pré looked at him. Benetsee put a hand to his mouth. Du Pré sighed and he rolled the old man a cigarette. "Buffalo?" said Du Pré. "Yah," said Benetsee. "What you mean, old man?" said Du Pré. "Good tobacco," said Benetsee.CHAPTER 2
Du Pré and Madelaine sat on the smooth log bench he had made for her, under the lilacs in her backyard. The lilacs were in bud but would not leaf for a couple of weeks and would not flower for more than a month. It was sharp cold, icy, and there was a wind. The sky was a black blanket with stars cast across it. They had a six-point Hudson's Bay Company blanket wrapped around them. The air was heavy and would frost later.
"Pret' sad, them Eide," said Madelaine.
"Yah," said Du Pré. He was looking at the Wolf Mountains high and white in the starlight. He pulled out his tobacco pouch and rolled a smoke and then he lit it. Madelaine took it and had a deep drag. She held it for him. The silver on her wrist and hand shimmered.
"You worry," said Madelaine. "You worry about what Benetsee said."
Du Pré grunted.
"Old bastard," he said. "Ever' time he say something, I know I am in trouble. It is like he is fishing. He throw out a buffalo, see Du Pré jump."
"What is that?" said Madelaine. She stood up and so did Du Pré.
There was a faint glow on the horizon to the east of the mountains.
"Shit," said Du Pré. "It is that Eide place burning."
"We better go there," she said.
They walked round the house and got into Du Pré's old cruiser and he started it and wheeled the car around and he gunned the engine and they shot out of town toward the county road that led to the Eides.
Somebody else's place now, Du Pré thought. He switched on the police radio he wasn't supposed to have.
"What?" said a woman's voice. The dispatcher in Cooper. Du Pré could never remember her name.
"Fire," said Du Pré. "Fire, the Eide place."
"Yeah," said the dispatcher, "we know. Du Pré, you were supposed to bring that transmitter back."
"It don't work," said Du Pré, switching it off. He put the little microphone back in its holder and accelerated.
When they got to the top of the bench and took the road that led off to the east, they could see flashing red and blue lights ahead. The lights would appear and vanish. More cars headed to the Eide place, to the glow on the horizon.
The road went across some foothills spilled down from the Wolf Mountains, and from the highest place they could see the fires, several of them. The buildings were blazing.
"Some trouble, them," said Madelaine. "Burn them down, after they are somebody else's."
Du Pré grunted.
Yah, they burn the place down there they are going. But they are gone before this fire start. If it is arson they are in trouble, yes.
Too many fires for it not to be arson.
Some them Eides end up in jail, sure.
Du Pré pulled up behind Benny Klein's cruiser. Benny was wallowing all over the road. He was a lousy driver.
Du Pré slowed.
"Glad we don't got speeders here," said Madelaine.
"Got none that Benny notices," said Du Pré. No one in Cooper County paid a shred of attention to speed limits except around the schools. Du Pré drove a hundred, a hundred and ten on pavement and a little less on gravel, or a lot less if the road was bad.
They dropped down onto a flat and slowed some more. Mule deer were bounding across the road. Benny Klein slowed to a crawl. He'd had a deer come through the windshield of his truck some time ago, and he did not want another deer to do that.
The Eide place was in clear view now. The buildings were red with fire. A roof collapsed and a gout of sparks shot skyward. There were several trucks and cars parked well away from the flames.
Du Pré pulled up beside Benny's cruiser and he stopped and they got out.
Benny looked at the burning buildings.
"Shit," he said, " 'bout all we can do is piss on the ashes."
Du Pré nodded. Everything was gone. Even the metal equipment shed was blackened, the siding buckled by the heat.
A burst of yellow and red and black flame shot out of the metal building. A fuel tank had blown. Benny and Du Pré and Madelaine walked to the knot of people looking on at the blaze.
"Won't go anywhere," said one of them. "Good thing it's wet for the one night a year that it is."
"Just as well," somebody said. "Probably been bought by some damn Californian."
"I be back, a moment," said Du Pré.
He walked over toward the main house, now a place of glowing walls and crackling heat. Old logs, cut over a century ago and dragged here with draft horses, laid up, chinked with moss and mud at first and later wire and concrete. Take a long time to burn.
Du Pré walked over toward the barn.
No smell of burning flesh. The Eides had left all their stock on the winter range but sold most of the farming equipment at auction. Odd, because the ranch was good only for raising cattle, and without equipment very little could be done.
They either were bringing other machinery, or they had no intention of running cattle on the land.
Du Pré walked between the burning barn and some smaller outbuildings that were also blazing, but now mostly consumed. Not one building had escaped. Only the junkyard, where old trucks and cars and equipment sat, awaiting cannibalizing, was not on fire.
Du Pré looked at the ground for tracks.
He found one. The track of a fuse, laid into the last long low shed. A faint black smear on the yellow-gray earth.
He followed the smear. It led to the junkyard.
Du Pré walked past a rusted old combine, broken teeth in its rakes and the glass knocked out of the cab windows.
He saw a glow.
The red end of a cigarette.
Du Pré dropped down, thinking of his 9mm. It was safely in the glove box of his cruiser.
Du Pré heard soft laughter. He saw a movement. Someone had been sitting in the comfort of an old truck cab, watching the fires and the people who had come too late.
"Peace to you," said a soft voice.
The man stepped out of the shadows then. He was dressed in a dark shirt, oddly cut, with very baggy sleeves and long collar points, high soft Apache moccasins, and dark pants.
Du Pré looked at his face, shaped in the firelight.
"You got some questions to answer," said Du Pré.
"Easily done," said the man. He was young, in his twenties, blond and fair.
"You set these fires?" said Du Pré.
"Yes," said the man, "on the orders of the owner. Now I would suggest you return to your mob there and tell them they must leave. This is a private property. The fires were set safely, and no one is wanted here."
"You do it," said Du Pré, turning away and walking back toward Benny and Madelaine and the others.
Benny was saying something to Madelaine when Du Pré approached. They both laughed.
Benny was saying something to Madelaine when Du Pré approached. They both laughed.
"Guy back there said the fires were set," said Du Pré, "and we are trespassing."
"Who the hell ...?" said Benny.
Du Pré shrugged. He turned and looked back toward the junkyard.
"He was in there," said Du Pré.
"Just watching us?" said Benny.
Du Pré nodded.
"There he is now," said Madelaine. She pointed.
Du Pré looked. It was another man, a dark one, dressed in the same odd clothing. He began to trot toward the people.
The man did not look up until he was ten feet away, and then he slowed and locked eyes with Benny Klein.
"We have no need of your services," said the man. He was a little older than the blond one Du Pré had seen in the junkyard.
"Why the hell set this fire?" said Benny. "These are good buildings."
"We will build anew," said the man. "Who the hell are you?" said Benny.
"You're trespassing," said the man, "and that's against the law. I guess I need to call the Sheriff."CHAPTER 3
"No, it's not good news," said Bart. He looked grim. His face was very red.
The Host of Yahweh had bought the Eide ranch, Foote had said. A cult from California.
"The which of who?" said Susan Klein.
"The Host of Yahweh," said Bart. "I should have more information by tomorrow. They're one of those Californian millennial sects. If this ain't enough to piss off the Pope ..."
"Like that bunch of loonies in Oregon?" said Susan."Had the guru. Ended up in the can for tax fraud and attempted murder, I recall."
"Something," said Bart.
"What the hell do they want with a ranch in the ass end of no place at all?" said Susan Klein. "I mean, there isn't a lot to do out there. It's about good for cows and a dozen people, tops. That's some tough country. Hell, there's hardly any water."
"They want it because it is out of the way," said Bart.
"I liked it better around here when it was like it was around here," said Susan. "We got enough homegrown idiots."
Du Pré nodded.
"Hell," said Susan. "You know, that bunch out in Oregon, they swept up homeless folks and brought them to Antelope, I think it was, and had them all register to vote. We haven't got that many people here in Cooper County, damn it, we don't need this."
Du Pré rolled a smoke.
"God damn those Eides," said Susan, savagely polishing the bartop. "Selling to a bunch of weirdos."
"I'm trying to find out how that happened, too," said Bart. "Perhaps there is something to be done."
"It's sold, isn't it?" said Susan.
Excerpted from Badlands by Peter Bowen. Copyright © 2003 Peter Bowen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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