A suspenseful, dramatic crime novel, The Homeplace by Kevin Wolf captures the stark beauty of life on the Colorado plains (Available September 6, 2016).
Chase Ford was the first of four generations of Ford men to leave Comanche County, Colorado. For Chase, leaving saved the best and hid the worst. But now, he has come home. His friends are right there waiting for him. And so are his enemies.
Then the murder of a boy, a high school basketball star just like Chase, rocks the small town. When another death is discovered—one that also shares unsettling connections to him—law enforcement’s attention turns towards Chase, causing him to wonder just what he came home to.
When Chase Ford was a boy, he couldn’t understand why he never heard the sounds of dawn. Why couldn’t he hear night tear away along the horizon and day take its place? Why didn’t the sky sizzle when the warmth of the sun touched what was left of the cool darkness?
His father, Big Paul, would have called him foolish for having such thoughts. Some part of Chase knew he was only a visitor on this wide-open, windswept splash of prairie. Chase was the first of four generations of Ford men to leave Comanche County. For Chase, leaving saved the best and hid the worst.
But Chase Ford had come home.
As the first spikes of orange painted the gray morning, Chase spotted a deer at the edge of the field. It was upwind. No chance it would scent him. Through the binoculars, Chase could tell it was a big deer. The broken tine on the buck’s wide antlers and its graying muzzle meant it was an old bachelor, most likely run off from the herd by the younger bucks to live out what years it had left on its own.
If Chase could be patient, the deer might drift into the stubble field where he would have a shot. His father’s rifle would reach that far. He’d seen Big Paul take game a quarter mile or more away too many times to count. But it had been almost sixteen years since he’d held his father’s gun. And that many years since Chase had been home.
Chase swung the glasses back, but the animal was gone. He searched the sagebrush at the edge of the field, but the old buck knew all the places to hide on the homeplace better than Chase. For now there was a thermos of coffee waiting in his truck, and for the first time in sixteen years, he had nothing else to do except wait for his next chance at the deer, and listen for those sounds of dawn.
* * *
Once, simple fun came from pushing his old truck for every mile per hour he could get. Back then, Chase had let rooster tails of dust chase him home from school, home from practice, and home from errands Big Paul had sent him to run in town. At every chance, he stayed off the asphalt and drove the back roads. It was an easy choice in a county that had forty miles of dirt for every mile of blacktop. In a place that moved so slowly, pushing that old battered truck had made the whole world turn faster.
Now he pushed a new truck to remember what it was like to be home.
A silver blaze of reflected sun stabbed the sky. Chase tapped the brakes. From the top of a roll in the road, Chase spotted a vehicle in the bar ditch ahead. He slowed the Dodge to forty, and from the next hillock he could see a light bar on the car’s roof and markings on the tailgate. It wasn’t a farmer out checking stock. This was a county sheriff’s four-by-four, and a man in a Stetson leaned against the fender.
Chase let off the gas.
The man in the cowboy hat straightened, and Chase recognized the same lean figure that had often been on the seat beside him, racing across these dirt roads all those years ago. Chase pressed the brake pedal and eased to the side of the road.
He powered down the passenger window and leaned across the seat. “That you, Marty?”
A smile spread over the deputy’s face. “Well, it’s Chase Ford. What they been sayin’s true. The prodigal has come home.”
Chase jerked up on his door handle and met the deputy at the front of his truck. Hands were shook, shoulders slapped.
“Deb said she saw you at the game night last, but before she could get over to say hello you’d ducked out a side door.” Marty rubbed his hand over the grill on Chase’s new Dodge. “Boys at the café say you’re down to hunt.”
Chase nodded. “I towed a trailer down to the homeplace. I can only stay for a few days. It’s been a long time since I tasted venison.”
“How long has it been?” Marty shifted a match stick from one corner of his mouth to the other. “Back to Brandon, I mean? Folks here thought you’d be down for Big Paul’s…”
Funeral. Chase filled in the blank spot Marty left hanging on the prairie wind. “Couldn’t make it.” He looked away and nodded at the four-by-four in the ditch. “Trouble?”
“Yeah, transmission gave out. I called in, and Arlene is sendin’ a tow truck. Should be here anytime.” Marty leaned his hip on the Dodge. “You know, this county’s dead broke, but each fall they still find money enough for Old Man Gray to climb the water tower and repaint those big letters. Single A State Champs 1992. That basketball game and Chase Ford are about the best things ever to come out of Brandon.” He held out a tin of Skoal.
Chase shook his head.
Marty shrugged and tucked the tobacco can into the back pocket of his Wranglers. “You remember that game up at Eads our senior year? Coaches from six, seven colleges sittin’ in the stands. There just to see you play. We thumped ’em by thirty points. We was so far ahead, you told Coach not to put you in at all in the fourth quarter.”
Chase remembered. The game was fun then. It changed soon after. “You and I combined for forty-three points that night.”
“Yeah. I had four of ’em.” Marty smiled the smile that Chase would always remember. “Chase Ford’s come back to Brandon. How about that?”
* * *
Birdie Hawkins blew out a deep breath and turned away from the banty rooster of a man who paced back and forth down the length of the driver’s side of her truck. She slammed the door shut on the state-owned pickup truck she drove every day. Birdie needed that layer of window glass between her and the lunatic outside. She pressed the speed dial number on the state-owned cell phone and waited for it to connect.
Birdie combed her stubby fingers through the thick, brush-short hair on the top of her head. She never thought of herself as a girly-girl. And most people in the county didn’t, either. But the little dickhead outside kept calling her sir. Maybe it was time she started wearing earrings or eye makeup like Marty’s wife begged.
The dispatcher answered the phone on the third ring.
“Arlene, this is Birdie. I need some help out here. Do you know where Marty’s at?”
The little man stormed to the front of Birdie’s truck. He shook his fist at her and pointed to the field beyond the fence. Birdie didn’t want to look at it again, but it was better than watching the turd-bucket rant.
Four brown lumps decorated the sweep of sage brush and prairie. She shook her head. Yesterday they had been living, breathing buffalo worth upward of four thousand dollars each. Today they were fly bait with bullet holes in their wooly hides. Dead buffalo fell under the Sheriff’s Department’s jurisdiction. If these were pronghorns or deer it would be up to her, as county game warden, to figure what had happened. She had tried to explain that to the little madman doing the war dance, but he didn’t want to hear any of it.
Arlene told Birdie about Marty’s car trouble and that she’d sent a wrecker out to tow him into town.
“I’ll call him,” Birdie said, “and, Arlene, do me favor. Run this license plate.” She rattled off the string of numbers and letters. “It’s a red Ford half ton. With a Brandon Buffalos sticker on the back bumper.” Birdie was afraid she knew who the truck belonged to. If she knew, Arlene would, too.
Through the phone Birdie heard a gasp.
“Oh, dear,” Arlene said.
* * *
Marty plucked his cell phone from an inside pocket of his Carhartt. “Chase, you’re never gonna believe who this is.”
The phone hummed again.
“What’s she up to these days?” Chase asked.
“Got on with the Department of Wildlife ’bout ten years ago. They moved her to this district three years back. If you came around more you’d know that.” Marty lifted the phone to his ear. “Birdie, guess who’s standin’ beside me right now—it’s Chase. Yeah, Chase Ford—is, too.” He tucked the phone under his chin. “Chase, Birdie says, ‘Hey.’”
“What, Birdie?—That so?—I’ll ask him.”
Marty tucked the phone down again. “Chase, Birdie’s got trouble, and we need you to drive me over to the old McKeever place to give her a hand with somethin’. You do that?”
“Sure. It’d be good to see Birdie again.”
The deputy put the phone back to his lips. “We’re on our way. This’ll be like the old days. You, me, and Chase.” He slipped the phone into his jacket pocket.
Chase climbed behind the wheel, and Marty slid into the passenger seat. “What kind of trouble does Birdie have?”
“Somebody killed four buffalo.”
* * *
Chase jammed his foot onto the gas pedal and glanced at Marty beside him. The deputy wedged one hand against the dashboard and clung to the seatbelt with the other. Outside the prairie snapped by the windows at sixty miles an hour.
“So you saw that Riley kid play Friday night?” Marty said over the roar of the tires on the dirt road.
“The coffee drinkers at the café are comparin’ him to you. They say Brandon might make a run at the title again this year. Whatcha think?”
It was good that the conversation was about basketball and not about money, or his failed marriage, or the pills. “Just saw him that once,” Chase answered. “He can shoot a little bit, but he doesn’t play one lick of defense.”
“That’s what they said about you.”
Maybe the folks in Brandon would only remember the boy who played basketball and drove his pickup too fast. “This have anythin’ to do with Birdie?” Chase asked.
“It could. Birdie says the boy’s pickup is at the edge of the pasture with the dead buffalo. Just a Brandon Buffalo sticker on the back bumper.”
Chase took the hard turn at County Road 17 and pushed the truck up to sixty-five. “Marty, Jimmy Riley drive a red half-ton Ford?”
“You know somethin’?”
“Not really. It’s just that…” Chase bit down on his lip. “After the ball game last night, I drove over to Cheyenne Wells to get some groceries and ice for my trailer. I got back to the homeplace about midnight. My headlights flashed on a red Ford parked down there by those elm trees Grandpa Ford planted. I got a glimpse of a girl’s foot hooked over the top of the seat and a bare behind bouncin’ up and down. I hit the high beams, and two faces popped up. I think the boy was Jimmy Riley.”
“Probably was. That boy doesn’t do all his shootin’ on the basketball court.” Marty tipped his head. “There’s Birdie’s truck now.”
Chase pulled his Dodge in behind the DOW pickup. He and Marty climbed out. The closest dead buffalo had dropped just inside the fence. Three more dotted the corner of the pasture. Birdie stood by the farthest animal, about seventy yards out. She started toward the road when she saw them.
Fresh hay was scattered on the ground near the fence. Jimmy Riley’s red pickup was parked near a padlocked aluminum gate. Its tailgate was down, and a half bale of hay sat in the box.
Marty whistled through his teeth. “This don’t look good. Somebody put out that hay.”
Birdie stuck one of her stubby legs between the strands of barbed wire on the fence and wriggled her wide fanny through. She climbed out of the ditch and onto the shoulder of the road between Marty and Chase.
“It’s a lot worse than it looks,” she said. “Jimmy Riley is lyin’ dead out there behind a soapjack. Boy’s stark naked and has a bullet hole in his head.”
* * *
Chase set his coffee cup on the hood of Birdie’s truck. A brand-new GMC pickup with a gold Comanche County Sheriff’s Department star on the door wheeled up next to his Dodge. Powdery dust rose up from around the tires and drifted across the prairie.
Sheriff Lincoln Kendall stepped out. He had on the same tan uniform shirt and Wranglers that all the deputies who worked for him wore, but his shirt was shiny new and straight-edge creases had been ironed into his jeans. He tilted down the brim of his black Resistol to shade his eyes against the morning sun.
“He a lawman or politician today?” Chase asked.
Marty slopped the coffee from his Styrofoam cup onto the ground. “With him, one’s never too far from the other.” The deputy crushed the cup and tossed it into the back of the DOW’s truck. “C’mon, Birdie, you’re gonna need to explain whatcha know.” Marty tapped the side of his face, at the corner of his right eye. “And Chase, you might not want to say hello to the good sheriff ’til he’s ready to talk to you.”
* * *
If Birdie had a choice right then, she’d have told Chase and Marty goodbye, climbed in her pickup, and been fifty miles from Sheriff Lincoln Kendall. It wasn’t that she disliked the man. It wasn’t that at all. No, Birdie hated Lincoln Kendall. And she’d hated him since her first day of high school.
She wasn’t even sure he’d ever known her first name. He called her “farm girl” in high school and “Officer Hawkins” now.
“Sheriff.” Birdie hung her best farm-girl smile on her face and nodded.
“Tell me what you know.”
“Deer season opened up this mornin’. I was out before sunup. I was gonna drive the roads, listen for shots, and check licenses. Generally we don’t have too much trouble out here. Most folks obey the rules.” Birdie knew she was rambling. “I was down along Sandy Creek. Just checked two boys who’d filled their doe tags, when that little fart—” She pointed at the man sitting in the cab of his pickup, staring everywhere except the field with the dead buffalo. And the dead body.
“Officer.” Kendall raised his voice.
“Er, that good citizen”—she couldn’t help herself—“came barrelin’ down the road. Saw my truck. Jumped out and started screamin’ that somebody shot his bison.” Birdie took a breath. “That’s what he called them. Bison.”
“Do you know him?”
“Andy Puckett.” She’d been the first person with a badge the little dipshit could find. That was the only reason she was here. “He and his wife bought the old McKeever place. Renamed it Pleasant Prairie Winds. Come down from the city on weekends and pretend they’re cowboys. Got more money than good sense.”
Kendall’s eyes flashed at her. “Just tell me what you know.”
“I followed him up here and”—she pointed at the pasture dotted with dead buffalo—“he was right. Somebody shot ’em. I called in to let Arlene know. Dead buffalo belong to the Sheriff’s Department, not Department of Wildlife.”
“While I was waitin’ for Marty, we walked out in the pasture to get a closer look at the buffalo. That’s when we found … uh, it.” She glanced at Puckett again and then up at Kendall.
“Did you check for vitals?”
“Crap, no. The whole back half of his head’s gone.” Birdie’s stomach seized; she shut her eyes and saw the bloody smear again. “It ain’t pretty. That little fart puked his guts out.”
“Officer, mind yourself.”
“Didn’t mean nothin’ by that. Thought you should know in case somebody might find the puddle and think it’s evidence. It was him that puked, not me.”
Birdie thought for a minute. “The hay, sir. Looks to me like whoever did this put the hay out and shot the buffalo when they came in to eat. I think he shot the farthest one first and worked his way in.”
“Why you say that?”
“If he would have shot the one closet to the fence first, the others would have seen it fall and spooked. By shootin’ the farthest, the ones in front of it wouldn’t know what was goin’ on. They’d just be thinkin’ about what they’re gonna get to eat. A fella could take his time and pick ’em off one by one.” She smiled at the way she’d put things together. “And I think he did just that. A couple staggered around a bit before they fell, but there’s only one bullet hole in each of ’em.” Her stomach went sick. “Even the boy.”
Kendall looked out on the prairie. The muscles in his jaws bunched and then relaxed. “Any ideas?”
Birdie scraped a smooth spot in the dirt with the toe of her boot. “You know, there is somethin’ you could check out.” She looked up at Kendall, and he was watching her face as if he really wanted her help. “You know Ray-Ray Jackson?”
The sheriff nodded. “I got a call this mornin’ about him. He missed a court date, and there’s a failure to appear warrant out for him. Somethin’ about an overweight truck and an expired license from the next county.”
“Sounds like him. I ticketed him about five years back for huntin’ without a license and he missed that court appearance, too. One of your boys ended up draggin’ him in. ’Member?”
Kendall rubbed his chin. “Seems I remember somethin’. What’s that got to do with anythin’?”
“’Bout four months ago, Puckett’s buffalo broke through a fence and got onto Ray-Ray’s land. If there’s one thing Ray-Ray don’t like, it’s people trespassin’ on his ground. He threatened to shoot ’em if it ever happened again. It ain’t much. But somebody ought to talk to him.”
Kendall adjusted his hat down so the brim hid his eyes. “I’ll send one of my deputies out to his place and see if we can bring him in.”
“I could go.” Birdie wanted to get as far away from Kendall as she could get.
“Stick tight. The boys from the state are sendin’ down a crime scene team, and the coroner is on his way. They might have some questions.”
Birdie looked down, scuffed her toe in the dust, and bit back a string of cuss words. She wished she could get away. “Sheriff, better send two men out to Ray-Ray’s. He can be a mean one.”
Kendall nodded and then tipped his head toward Birdie’s truck. “Any reason for Chase Ford to be here?”
“When Marty had car trouble, Chase gave him a ride over here. That’s all.”
“Tell Ford to leave.”
* * *
Birdie forced herself to walk back to her truck when every part of her wanted to run away from Kendall. She grabbed her thermos from the fender and filled a worn, plastic Town Pump mug. If she had been home she would have sloshed two fingers of Crown Royal in with the coffee. She looked up at Chase. “That man don’t get any more likeable with age.”
“Careful, my ass. Only thing I like about him is when I remember the blood on his face from when you decked him out behind Saylor’s Café.”
“That was a long time ago.” Chase rubbed the knuckles on his right hand. Birdie guessed he was hiding a smile.
“Anyways, he wants you to get on out of here. The rest of us are gonna wait for the coroner and the state police. Now, go on and get yourself a good cup of coffee.” She gulped at her mug. “And, Chase, Mercy’s back at Saylor’s. You know that?”
Copyright © 2016 Kevin Wolf.
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Kevin Wolf is a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Crested Butte Writers. The great-grandson of Colorado homesteaders, he enjoys fly-fishing, old Winchesters, and 1950s Western movies. He is the author of The Homeplace and lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wife and two beagles.