The wind howled down the ravine as Deputy Sheriff McCall Winchester poked what appeared to be a mud clod with the toe of her cowboy boot.
The thunderstorm last night had been a gully-washer. As her boot toe dislodged some of the mud, she saw that the pile of objects in the bottom of the gully was neither mud nor rock.
“Didn’t I tell you?”
McCall looked up at the man standing a few feet away. Rocky Harrison was a local who collected, what else? Rocks.
“It’s always better after a rainstorm,” he’d told her when he’d called the sheriff’s department and caught her just about to go off duty after working the night shift.
“Washes away the dirt, leaves the larger stones on top,” Rocky had said. “I’ve found arrowheads sitting on little columns of dirt, just as pretty as you please and agates large as your fist where they’ve been unearthed by a good rainstorm.”
Only on this bright, clear, cold spring morning, Rocky had found more than he’d bargained for.
“Human, ain’t they,” Rocky said, nodding to what he’d dug out of the mud and left lying on a flat rock.
“You’ve got a good eye,” McCall said as she pulled out her camera, took a couple of shots of the bones he’d found. They lay in the mud at the bottom of the ravine where the downpour had left them.
With her camera, McCall shot the path the mud slide had taken down from the top of the high ridge. Then she started making the steep muddy climb up the ravine.
As she topped the ridge, she stopped to catch her breath. The wind was stronger up here. She pushed her cowboy hat down hard, but the wind still whipped her long dark hair as she stared at the spot where the rain had dislodged the earth at the edge. In this shallow grave was where the bones had once been buried.
Squinting at the sun, she looked to the east. A deep, rugged ravine separated this high ridge from the next. Across that ravine, she could make out a cluster of log buildings that almost resembled an old fort. The Winchester Ranch. The sprawling place sat nestled against the foothills, flanked by tall cottonwood trees and appearing like an oasis in the middle of the desert. She’d only seen the place from a distance from the time she was a child. She’d never seen it from this angle before.
“You thinking what I am?” Rocky asked, joining her on the ridge.
She doubted that.
“Somebody was buried up here,” Rocky said. “Probably a homesteader. They buried their dead in the backyard, and since there is little wood around these parts, they didn’t even mark the graves with crosses, usually just a few rocks laid on top.”
McCall had heard stories of grave sites being disturbed all over the county when a road was cut through or even a basement was dug. The land they now stood on was owned by the Bureau of Land Management, but it could have been private years ago.
Just like the Winchester land beyond the ravine which was heavily posted with orange paint and signs warning that trespassers would be prosecuted.
“There’s a bunch of outlaws that got themselves buried in these parts. Could be one of them,” Rocky said, his imagination working overtime.
This less-civilized part of Montana had been a hideout for outlaws back in the late 1890s or even early 1900s. But these remains hadn’t been in the ground that long.
She took a photograph of where the body had been buried, then found herself looking again toward the Winchester Ranch. The sun caught on one of the large windows on the second floor of the massive lodge-style structure.
“The old gal?” Rocky said, following her gaze. “She’s your grandmother, right?”
McCall thought about denying it. After all, Pepper Winchester denied her very existence. McCall had never even laid eyes on her grandmother. But then few people had in the past twenty-seven years.
“I reckon we’re related,” McCall said. “According to my mother, Trace Winchester was my father.” He’d run off before McCall was born.
Rocky had the good sense to look embarrassed. “Didn’t mean to bring up nothin’ about your father.”
Speaking of outlaws, McCall thought. She’d spent her life living down her family history. She was used to it.
“Interesting view of the ranch,” Rocky said, and reached into his pack to offer a pair of small binoculars.
Reluctantly, she took them and focused on the main house. It was much larger than she’d thought, three stories with at least two wings. The logs had darkened from the years, most of the windows on at least one of the wings boarded up.
The place looked abandoned. Or worse, deteriorating from the inside out. It gave her the creeps just thinking about her grandmother shutting herself up in there.
McCall started as she saw a dark figure appear at one of the second floor windows that hadn’t been boarded over. Her grandmother?
The image was gone in a blink.
McCall felt the chill of the April wind that swept across the rolling prairie as she quickly lowered the binoculars and handed them back to Rocky.
The day was clear, the sky blue and cloudless, but the air had a bite to it. April in this part of Montana was unpredictable. One day it could be in the seventies, the next in the thirties and snowing.
“I best get busy and box up these bones,” she said, suddenly anxious to get moving. She’d been about to go off shift when she’d gotten Rocky’s call. Unable to locate the sheriff and the deputy who worked the shift after hers, she’d had little choice but to take the call.
“If you don’t need my help…” Rocky shifted his backpack, the small shovel strapped to it clinking on the canteen he carried at his hip as he headed toward his pickup.
Overhead a hawk circled on a column of air and for a moment, McCall stopped to watch it. Turning her back to the ranch in the distance, she looked south. Just the hint of spring could be seen in the open land stretching to the rugged horizon broken only by the outline of the Little Rockies.
Piles of snow still melted in the shade of the deep ravines gouged out as the land dropped to the river in what was known as the Missouri River Breaks. This part of Montana was wild, remote country that a person either loved or left.
McCall had lived her whole life here in the shadow of the Little Rockies and the darker shadow of the Winchester family.
As she started to step around the grave washed out by last night’s rainstorm, the sun caught on something stuck in the mud.
She knelt down to get a better look and saw the corner of a piece of orange plastic sticking out of the earth where the bones had been buried.
McCall started to reach for it, but stopped herself long enough to swing up the camera and take two photographs, one a close-up, one of the grave with the corner of the plastic visible.
Using a small stick, she dug the plastic packet from the mud and, with a start, saw that it was a cover given out by stores to protect hunting and fishing licenses.
McCall glanced at Rocky’s retreating back, then carefully worked the hunting license out enough to see a name.
Her breath caught in her throat but still she must have made a sound.
“You say somethin’?” Rocky called back. McCall shook her head, pocketing the license with her father’s name on it. “No, just finishing up here.”
Inside her patrol pickup, McCall radioed the sheriff’s department. “Looks like Rocky was right about the bones being human,” she told the sheriff when he came on the line.
“Bring them in and we’ll send them over to Missoula to the crime lab. Since you’re supposed to be off shift, it can wait till tomorrow if you want. Don’t worry about it.”
Sheriff Grant Sheridan sounded distracted, but then he had been that way for some time now.
McCall wondered idly what was going on with him. Grant, who was a contemporary of her mother’s, had taken over the job as sheriff in Whitehorse County after the former sheriff, Carter Jackson, resigned to ranch with his wife Eve Bailey Jackson.
McCall felt the muddy plastic in her jacket pocket. “Sheriff, I—” But she realized he’d already disconnected. She cursed herself for not just telling him up front about the hunting license.
What was she doing?
She waited until Rocky left before she got the small shovel and her other supplies from behind her seat and walked back over to the grave. The wind howled around her like a live animal as she dug in the mud that had once been what she now believed was her father’s grave, taking photographs of each discovery and bagging the evidence.
She found a scrap of denim fabric attached to metal buttons, a few snaps like those from a Western shirt and a piece of leather that had once been a belt.
Her heart leaped as she overturned something in the mud that caught in the sunlight. Reaching down, she picked it up and cleaned off the mud. A belt buckle.
Not just any belt buckle she saw as she rubbed her fingers over the cold surface to expose the letters. W I N C H E S T E R.
The commemorative belt buckle was like a million others. It proved nothing.
Except that when McCall closed her eyes, she saw her father in the only photograph she had of him. He stood next to his 1983 brand-new black Chevy pickup, his Stetson shoved back to expose his handsome face, one thumb hooked in a pocket of his jeans, the other holding his rifle, the one her mother said had belonged to his grandfather. In the photo, the sun glinted off his commemorative Winchester rifle belt buckle.
She opened her eyes and, picking up the shovel, began to dig again, but found nothing more. No wallet. No keys. No boots.
The larger missing item was his pickup, the one in the photograph. The one he allegedly left town in. Had he been up here hunting? She could only assume so, since according to her mother, the last time she saw Trace was the morning of opening day of antelope season—and his twentieth birthday.
Along with the hunting license, she’d found an unused antelope tag.
But if he’d been hunting, then where was his rifle, the one her mother said he had taken the last time she saw him?
McCall knew none of this proved absolutely that the bones were her father’s. No, that would require DNA results from the state crime lab, which would take weeks if not months.
She stared at the grave. If she was right, her father hadn’t left town. He’d been buried on the edge of this ridge for the past twenty-seven years.
The question was who had buried him here?
Someone who’d covered up Trace Winchester’s death and let them all believe he’d left town.
Her hands were shaking as she boxed up the bones and other evidence—all except the license still in her coat pocket—and hiked back to her rig. Once behind the wheel, she pulled out the plastic case and eased out the license and antelope tag.
The words were surprisingly clear after almost thirty years of being buried in the mud since the plastic had protected the practically indestructible paper.
Name: Trace Winchester. Age: 19. Eyes: dark brown. Hair: Black. Height: 6 ft 3 inches. Weight: 185.
He’d listed his address as the Winchester Ranch, which meant when he’d bought this license he hadn’t eloped with her mother yet or moved into the trailer on the edge of Whitehorse.
There was little information on the license, but McCall had even less. Not surprising, her mother, Ruby Bates Winchester, never liked talking about the husband who’d deserted her.
Most of what McCall had learned about her father had come from the rumors that circulated around the small Western town of Whitehorse. Those had portrayed Trace Winchester as handsome, arrogant and spoiled rotten. A man who’d abandoned his young wife, leaving her broke and pregnant, never to be seen again.
According to rumors, there were two possible reasons for his desertion. Trace had been caught poaching—not his first time—and was facing jail. The second was that he’d wanted to escape marriage and fatherhood since McCall was born just weeks later.
A coward and a criminal. Trace solidified his legacy when he had left behind a young, pregnant, heartbroken wife and a daughter who’d never been accepted as a Winchester.
As McCall stood on that lonely windblown ridge, for the first time she realized it was possible that everyone had been wrong about her father.
If she was right, Trace Winchester hadn’t run off and left them. He’d been buried under a pile of dirt at the top of this ridge for the past twenty-seven years—and would have still been there if it hadn’t been for a wild spring storm.
North of Whitehorse, Luke Crawford pulled down a narrow, muddy road through the tall, leafless cotton-woods along the Milk River. The only other tracks were from another pickup that had come down this road right after last night’s rainstorm.