Under the winter moon’s pale light,
across the cold and starry night,
from snowy mountains soaring high
to ocean shores echoes the cry.
From barren sands to verdant fields,
from city streets to lonely wealds,
cries the tortured human heart,
seeking solace, wisdom, a chart
by which to understand its plight
under the winter moon’s pale light.
Dawn is unable to fade the night.
Must we live ever in the blight
under the winter moon’s cold light,
lost in loneliness, hate, and fright,
last night, tonight, tomorrow night
under the winter moon’s bleak light?
— The Book of Counted Sorrows
In the distant age of the dinosaurs, fearful creatures as mighty as the Tyrannosaurus rex had perished in treacherous tar pits upon which the visionary builders of Los Angeles later erected freeways, shopping centers, houses, office buildings, theaters, topless bars, restaurants shaped like hot dogs and derby hats, churches, automated car washes, and so much more. Deep beneath parts of the metropolis, those fossilized monsters lay in eternal sleep. Through September and October, Jack felt the city was still a pit in which he was mired.
He believed he was obligated to give Lyle Crawford a thirty-day notice.
And at the advice of their Realtor, before listing the house for sale, they painted it inside and out, installed new carpet, and made minor repairs. The moment Jack made the decision to leave the city, he’d mentally packed and decamped. Now his heart was in the Montana highlands east of the Rockies, while he was still trying to pull his feet out of the L.A. tar. Because they no longer needed every dollar of equity in the house, they priced it below market value. In spite of poor economic conditions, it moved quickly. By the twenty-eighth of October, they were in a sixty-day escrow with a buyer who appeared qualified, and they felt reasonably confident about embarking upon a new life and leaving the finalization of the sale to their Realtor. On November fourth, they set out for their new home in a Ford Explorer purchased with some of their inheritance. Jack insisted on leaving at six in the morning, determined that his last day in the city would not include the frustrating crawl of rush-hour traffic. They took only suitcases and a few boxes of personal effects, and shipped little more than books. Additional photographs sent by Paul Youngblood had.revealed that their new house was already furnished in a style to which they could easily adjust.
They might have to replace a few upholstered pieces, but many items were antiques of high quality and considerable beauty. Departing the city on Interstate 5, they never looked back as they crested the Hollywood Hills and went north past Burbank, San Fernando, Valencia, Castaic far out of the suburbs, into the Angeles National Forest across Pyramid Lake, and up through the Tejon Pass between the Sierra Madre and the Tehachapi Mountains. Mile by mile, Jack felt himself rising out of an emotional and mental darkness. He was like a swimmer who had been weighed down with iron shackles and blocks, drowning in oceanic depths, now freed and soaring toward the surface, light, air. Toby was amazed by the vast farmlands flanking the highway, so Heather quoted figures from a travel book. The San Joaquin Valley was more than a hundred fifty miles long, defined by the Diablo Range on the west and Sierra foothills to the distant east. Those thousands of square miles were the most fertile in the world, producing eighty percent of the entire country’s fresh vegetables and melons, half its fresh fruit and almonds, and much more.
They stopped at a roadside produce stand and bought a one-pound bag of roasted almonds for a quarter of what the cost would have been in a supermarket. Jack stood beside the Explorer, eating a handful of nuts, staring at vistas of productive fields and orchards. The day was blessedly quiet, and the air was clean?- Residing in the city, it was easy to forget there were other ways to live, worlds beyond the teeming streets of the human hive. He was a sleeper waking to a real world more diverse and interesting than the dream he had mistaken for reality. In pursuit of their new life, they reached Reno that night, Salt Lake City the next, and Eagle’s Roost, Montana, at three o’clock in the afternoon on the sixth of… November.
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of Jack’s favorite novels, and Atticus Finch, the courageous lawyer of that book, would have been at home in Paul Youngblood’s office on the top floor of the only three-story building in Eagle’s Roost. The wooden blinds surely dated from mid-century. The mahogany wainscoting, bookshelves, and cabinets were glass-smooth from decades of hand polishing. The room had an air of gentility, a learned quietude, and the shelves held volumes of history and philosophy as well as lawbooks.
The attorney actually greeted them with, “Howdy, neighbors! What a pleasure this is, a genuine pleasure.” He had a firm handshake and a smile like soft sunshine on mountain crags.
Paul Youngblood would never have been recognized as a lawyer in L.A. and he might have been removed discreetly but forcefully if he had ever visited the swanky offices of the powerhouse firms quartered in Century City. He was fifty, tall, lanky, with closecropped iron-gray hair.
His face was creased and ruddy from years spent outdoors, and his big, leathery hands were scarred by physical labor. He wore scuffed boots, tan jeans, a white shirt, and a bolo tie with a silver clasp in the form of a bucking bronco.
In L.A. people in similar outfits were dentists or accountants or.executives, costumed for an evening at a Country-Western bar, and could not disguise their true nature. But Youngblood looked as if he had been born in Western garb, birthed between a cactus and a campfire, and raised on horseback.
Although he appeared to be rough enough to walk into a biker bar and take on a mob of machine wranglers, the attorney was soft-spoken and so polite that Jack was aware of how badly his own manners had deteriorated under the constant abrasion of daily life in the city.
Youngblood won Toby’s heart by calling him “Scout” and offering to teach him horseback riding “come spring, starting with a pony, of course? and assuming that’s okay with your folks.”
When the lawyer put on a suede jacket and a cowboy hat before leading them out to Quartermass Ranch, Toby regarded him with wide-eyed awe.
They followed Youngblood’s white Bronco across sixteen miles of country more beautiful than it had appeared to be in photographs. Two stone columns, surmounted by a weathered wooden arch, marked the entrance to their property. Burned into the arch, rustic lettering spelled QUARTERMASS RANCH. They turned off the county route, under the sign, and headed uphill.
Wow! This all belongs to us?” Toby asked from the back seat, enraptured by the sprawl of fields and forests. Before either Jack or Heather could answer him, he posed the question that he no doubt had been wanting to ask for weeks: “Can I have a dog?”
“Just a dog?” Jack asked. “Huh?”
“With this much land, you could have a pet cow.” Toby laughed. “Cows aren’t pets.”
“You’re wrong,” Jack said, striving for a serious tone. “They’re darned good pets.”
“Cows!” Toby said incredulously. “No, really. You can teach a cow to fetch, roll over, beg for its dinner, shake hands, all the usual dog stuff- plus they make milk for your breakfast cereal.”
“You’re putting me on. Mom, is he serious?”
“The only problem is,” Heather said, “you might get a cow that likes to chase cars-in which case it can do a lot more damage than a dog.”
“That’s silly,” the boy said, and giggled. “Not if you’re in the car being chased,” Heather assured him. “Then it’s terrifying,” Jack agreed. “I’ll stick with a dog.”
“Well, if that’s what you want,” Jack said. “You mean it? I can have a dog?” Heather said, “I don’t see why not.” Toby whooped with delight.
The private lane led to the main residence, which overlooked a meadow.of golden-brown grass. In the last hour of its journey toward the western mountains, the sun backlit the property, and the house cast a long purple shadow. They parked in that shade behind Paul Youngblood’s Bronco.
They began their tour in the basement. Although windowless and entirely beneath ground level, it was cold. The first room contained a washer, a dryer, a double sink, and a set of pine cabinets. The corners of the ceiling were enlivened by the architecture of spiders and a few cocooning moths. In the second room stood an electric forced-air furnace and a water heater. A Japanese-made electric generator, as large as a washing machine, was also provided. It looked capable of producing enough power to light a small town.
“Why do we need this?” Jack wondered, indicating the generator. Paul Youngblood said, “Bad storm can knock out the public power supply for a couple of days in some of these rural areas. Since we don’t have natural-gas service, and the price of being supplied by a fuel-oil company in this territory can be high, we have to rely on electricity for heating, cooking, everything. It goes out, we have fireplaces, but that’s not ideal. And Stan Quartermass was a man who never wanted to be without the comforts of civilization.”
“But this is a monster,” Jack said, patting the dustsheathed generator.
“Supplies the main house, caretaker’s house, and the stables. Doesn’t just provide backup power to run a few lights, either. As long as you’ve got gasoline, you can go on living with all the amenities, just as if you were still on public power.”
“Might be fun to rough it a couple of days now and then,” Jack suggested. The attorney frowned and shook his head. “Not when the real temperature is below zero and the windchill factor pushes it down to minus thirty or forty degrees.”
“Ouch,” Heather said. She hugged herself at the very thought of such arctic cold. “I’d call that more than roughing it,”
” Youngblood Jack agreed. “I’d call it suicide.” I’ll make sure we have a good gasoline supply.
The thermostat had been set low in the two main floors of the untenanted house.
A stubborn chill pooled everywhere, like the icy remnant of a flood tide. It surrendered gradually to the electric heat, which Paul switched on after they ascended from the basement and inspected half the ground floor. In spite of her insulated ski jacket, Heather shivered through the entire tour. The house had both character and every convenience, and would be even easier to settle into than they’d expected. Eduardo Fernandez’s personal effects and clothing had not been disposed of, so they would need to empty closets to make room for their own things. In the four months since the old man’s sudden death, the place had been closed and unattended, a thin layer of dust coated every surface. However, Eduardo had led a neat and orderly life, there was no great mess with which to deal… In the final bedroom on the second floor, at the back of the house, coppery late-afternoon sunlight slanted through west-facing windows, and the air glowed like that in front of an open furnace door. It was light without heat, and still Heather shivered.
Toby said, “This is great, this is terrific!” The room was more than twice the size of the one in which the boy had slept in Los Angeles, but Heather knew he was less excited by the dimensions than by the almost whimsical architecture, which would have sparked the imagination of any child. The twelve-foot-high ceiling was composed of four groin vaults, and the shadows that lay across those concave surfaces were complex and intriguing. “Neat,” Toby said, staring up at the ceiling.
“Like hanging under a parachute.” In the wall to the left of the hall door was a four-footdeep, six-foot-long, arched niche into which a custom-built bed had been fitted. Behind the headboard on the left and in the back wall of the niche were recessed bookshelves and deep cabinets for the storage of model spaceships, action figures, games, and the other possessions that a young boy cherished. Curtains were drawn back from both sides of the niche and, when closed, could seal it off like a berth on an old-fashioned railroad sleeping car.
“Can this be my room, can it, please?” Toby asked. “Looks to me like it was made for you,” Jack said. “Great!” Opening one of the two other doors in the room, Paul said, “This walk-in closet is so deep you could almost say it’s a room itself.”
The last door revealed the head of an uncarpeted staircase as tightly curved as that in a lighthouse. The wooden treads squeaked as the four of them descended.
Heather instantly disliked the stairs. Perhaps she was somewhat claustrophobic in that cramped and windowless space, following Paul Youngblood and Toby, with Jack close behind. Perhaps the inadequate lighting-two widely spaced, bare bulbs in the ceiling-made her uneasy. A mustiness and a vague underlying odor of decay didn’t add any charm. Neither did spiderwebs hung with dead moths and beetles.
Whatever the reason, her heart began to pound as if they were climbing rather than descending. She was overcome by the bizarre fear- similar to the nameless dread in a nightmare-that something hostile and infinitely strange was waiting for them below.
The last step brought them into a windowless vestibule, where Paul had to use a key to unlock the first of two lower doors. “Kitchen,” he said. Nothing fearful waited beyond, merely the room he had indicated.
“We’ll go this way,” he said, turning to the second door, which didn’t require a key from the inside. When the thumb-turn on the dead-bolt lock proved stiff from lack of use, the few seconds of delay were almost more than Heather could tolerate. Now she was convinced that something was coming down the steps behind them, the murderous phantom of a bad dream. She wanted out of that narrow place immediately, desperately… The door creaked open. They followed Paul through the second exit onto the back porch. They were twelve feet to the left of the house’s main rear entrance, which led into the kitchen. Heather took several deep breaths, purging her lungs of the contaminated air from the stairwell.
Her fear swiftly abated and her racing heart regained a normal pace.
She looked back into the vestibule where the steps curved upward out of sight. Of course no denizen of a nightmare appeared, and her moment of panic seemed more foolish and inexplicable by the second.
Jack, unaware of Heather’s inner turmoil, put one hand on Toby’s head and said, “Well, if that’s going to be your room, I don’t want to catch you sneaking girls up the back steps.”
“Girls?” Toby was astonished. “Yuck. Why would l want to have anything to do with girls?”
“I suspect you figure that one out all on your own, given a little time,” the attorney said, amused. “And too fast,” Jack said.
“Five years from now, we’ll have to fill those stairs with concrete, seal them off forever.”
Heather found the will to turn her back on the door as the attorney closed it.
She was baffled by the episode, and relieved that no one had been aware of her odd reaction. Los Angeles jitters. She hadn’t shed the city.
She was in rural Montana, where there probably hadn’t been a murder in a decade, where most people left doors unlocked day and night- but psychologically, she remained in the shadow of the Big Orange, living conscious anticipation of sudden, senseless violence. Just a delayed case of Los Angeles jitters. “Better show you the rest of the property,” Paul said.”
“We don’t have much more than half an hour of day- light left.”
They followed him down the porch steps and up the sloping rear lawn toward a smaller, stone house tucked among the evergreens at the edge of the forest.
Heather recognized it from the photographs Paul had sent: the caretaker’s residence. As twilight stealthily approached, the sky far to the — east was a deep sapphire. It faded to a lighter blue in the west, where the sun hastened toward the mountains. The temperature had slipped out of the fifties. Heather walked with her hands jammed in jacket pockets and her shoulders hunched. She was pleased to see that Jack took the hill with vigor, not limping at all.
Occasionally his left leg ached and he favored it, but not today. She found it hard to believe that only eight months ago, their lives seemed to have been changed for the worse, forever. No wonder she was still jumpy. Such a terrible eight months. But everything was fine now… Really fine.
The rear lawn hadn’t been maintained after Eduardo’s death. The grass had grown six or eight inches before the aridity of late summer and the chill of early autumn had turned it brown and pinched off its growth until spring. It crackled faintly under their feet. “Ed and Margaret moved out of the caretaker’s house when they inherited the ranch eight years ago,” Paul said as they drew near the stone bungalow. “Sold the contents, nailed plywood over the windows. Don’t think anyone’s been in there since. Unless you plan to have a caretaker yourself, you probably won’t have a use for it, either. But you ought to take a look just the same.”
Pine trees crowded three sides of the smaller house. The forest was so primeval that darkness dwelt in much of it even before the sun had set.
The bristling green of heavy boughs, enfolded with purple-black shadows, was a lovely sight-but those wooded realms had an air of mystery that Heather found disturbing, even a little menacing. For the first time she wondered what animals might from time to time venture out of those wilds into the yard. Wolves? Bears?
Mountain lions? Was Toby safe here? Oh, for God’s sake, Heather She was thinking like a city dweller, always wary of danger, perceiving threats everywhere. In fact, wild animals avoided people and ran if approached. What do you expect? she asked herself sarcastically.
That you’ll be barricaded in the house while gangs of bears hammer on the doors and packs of snarling wolves throw themselves through windows like something out of a bad TV movie about ecological disaster?
Instead of a porch, the caretaker’s house had a large flagstone-paved area in front of the entrance. They stood there while Paul found the right key on the ring he carried. The north-east-south panorama from the perimeter of the high woods was stunning, better even than from the main house. Like a landscape in a Maxfield Parrish painting, the descending fields and forests receded into a distant violet haze under a darkly luminous sapphire sky. The fading afternoon was windless, and the silence was so deep she might have thought she’d gone deaf- except for the clinking of the attorney’s keys. After a life in the city, such quiet was eerie.
The door opened with much cracking and scraping, as if an ancient seal had been broken. Paul stepped across the threshold, into the dark living room, and flicked the light switch. Heather heard it click several times, but the lights didn’t come on. Stepping outside again, Paul said, “Figures. Ed must’ve shut off all the power at the breaker box. I know where it is. You wait here, I’ll be right back.”
They stood at the front door, staring at the gloom beyond the threshold, while the attorney disappeared around the corner of the house. His departure made Heather apprehensive, though she wasn’t sure why. Perhaps because he had gone alone.
“When I get a dog, can he sleep in my room?” Toby asked. “Sure,” Jack.said, “but not on the bed.”
“Not on the bed? Then where would he sleep?”
“Dogs usually make do with the floor.”
“That’s not fair.”
“You’ll never hear a dog complain.”
“But why not on the bed?”
“I’ll take good care of him. He won’t have fleas.”
“Dog hairs in the sheets.”
“That won’t be a problem, Dad.”
“What-you’re going to shave him, have a bald dog?”
“I’ll just brush him every day.”
Listening to her husband and son, Heather watched the corner of the house, increasingly certain that Paul Youngblood was never going to return. Something terrible had happened to him. Something- He reappeared. “All the breakers were off. We should be in business now.” What’s wrong with me? Heather wondered. Got to shake this damn L.A. attitude.
Standing inside the front door, Paul flipped the wall switch repeatedly, without success. The dimly visible ceiling fixture in the empty living room remained dark. The carriage lamp outside, next to the door, didn’t come on, either.
“Maybe he had electric service discontinued,” Jack suggested. The attorney shook his head. “Don’t see how that could be. This is on the same line as the main house and the stable.”
“Bulbs might be dead, sockets corroded after all this me.” ‘- Pushing his cowboy hat back on his head, scratching his brow, frowning, Paul said, “Not like Ed to let things deteriorate. I’d expect him to do routine maintenance, keep the place in good working order in case the next owner had a need for it. That’s just how he was. Good man, Ed.
Not much of a socializer, but a good man.”
“Well,” Heather said, “we can investigate the problem in a couple of days, once we’re settled down at the main place.” Paul retreated from the house, pulled the door shut, and locked it. “You might want to have an electrician out to check the wiring.”
Instead of returning the way they had come, they angled across the sloping yard toward the stable, which stood on more level land to the south of the main house. Toby ran ahead, arms out at his sides, making a brrrrrrrrrrr noise with his lips, pretending to be an airplane… Heather glanced back at the caretaker’s bungalow a couple of times, and at the woods on both sides of it. She had a peculiar tingly feeling on the back of her neck.
“Pretty cold for the beginning of November,” Jack said. The attorney laughed.
“This isn’t southern California, I’m afraid. Actually, it’s been a mild day.
Temperature’s probably going to drop well below freezing tonight.”
“You get much snow up here?”
“Does hell get many sinners?”
“When can we expect the first snow-before Christmas?”
“Way before Christmas, Jack. If we had a big storm tomorrow, nobody’d think it was an early season.”
“That’s why we got the Explorer,” Heather said. “Four-wheel drive.
That should get us around all winter, shouldn’t it?”
“Mostly, yeah,” Paul said, pulling down on the brim of his hat, which he had pushed up earlier to scratch his forehead.
Toby had reached the stable. Short legs pumping, he vanished around the side before Heather could call out to him to wait. Paul said, “But every winter there’s one or two times where you’re going to be snowbound a day or three, drifts half over the house sometimes.”
“Snowbound? Half over the house?” Jack said, sounding a little like a kid himself. “Really?”
“Get one of those blizzards coming down out of the Rockies, it can drop two or three feet of snow in twenty-four hours. Winds like to peel your skin off. County crews can’t keep the roads open all at once.
You have chains for that Explorer?”
“A couple of sets,” Jack said.
Heather walked faster toward the stable, hoping the men would pick up their pace to accompany her, which they did. Toby was still out of sight. “What you should also get,” Paul told them, “soon as you can, is a good plow for the front of it.
Even if county crews get the roads open, you have half a mile of private lane to take care of.”
If the boy was just “flying” around the stable, with his arms spread like wings, he should have reappeared — by now. “Lex Parker’s garage,”
Paul continued, “in town, can fit your truck with the armatures, attach the plow, hydraulic arms to raise and lower it, a real fine rig. Just.- leave it on all winter, remove it in the spring, and you’ll be ready for however much butt kicking Mother Nature has in store for us.”
No sign of Toby. Heather’s heart was pounding again. The sun was about to set.
If Toby? if he got lost or? or something? they would have a harder time finding him at night. She restrained herself from breaking into a run. “Now, last winter,” Paul continued smoothly, unaware of her trepidation, “was on the dry side, which probably means we’re going to take a shellacking this year.”
As they reached the stable and as Heather was about to cry out for Toby, he reappeared. He was no longer playing airplane. He sprinted to her side through the unmown grass, grinning and excited. “Mom, this place is neat, really neat.
Maybe I can really have a pony, huh?”
“Maybe,” Heather said, swallowing hard before she could get the word out. “Don’t go running off like that, okay?”
“Sure, okay,” Toby said. He was a good boy.
She glanced back toward the caretaker’s house and the wilderness beyond. Perched on the jagged peaks of the mountains, the sun seemed to quiver like a raw egg yolk just before dissolving around the tines of a prodding fork. The highest pinnacles of rock were gray and black and pink in the fiery light of day’s end.
Miles of serried forests shelved down to the fieldstone bungalow. All was still and peaceful. The stable was a single-story fieldstone building with a slate roof. The long side walls had no exterior stall doors, only small windows high under the eaves. There was a white barn door on the end, which rolled open easily when Paul tried it, and the electric lights came on with the first flip of a switch. “As you can see,” the attorney said as he led them inside, “it was every inch a gentleman’s ranch, not a spread that had to show a profit in any way.”
Beyond the concrete threshold, which was flush with the ground, the stable floor was composed of soft, tamped earth, as pale as sand. Five empty stalls with half-doors stood to each side of the wide center promenade, more spacious than ordinary barn stalls. On the twelve-inch wooden posts between stalls were castbronze sconces that threw amber light toward both the ceiling and the floor, they were needed because the high-set windows were too small-each about eight inches high by eighteen long-to admit much sunlight even at high noon. “Stan Quartermass kept this place heated in winter, cooled in the summer,”
Paul Youngblood said. He pointed to vent grilles set in the suspended tongue-and-groove ceiling. “Seldom smelled like a stable, either, because he vented it continuously, pumped fresh air in. And all the ductwork is heavily insulated, so the sound of the fans is too low to.bother horses.”
On the left, beyond the final stall, was a large tackroom, where saddles, bridles, and other equipment had been kept. It was empty except for a built-in sink as — long and deep as a trough. To the right, opposite the tackroom, were top-access bins where oats, apples, and other feed had been stored, but they were now all empty as well.
On the wall near the bins, several tools were racked business end up: a pitchfork, two shovels, and a rake.
“Smoke alarm,” Paul said, pointing to a device attached to the header above the big door that was opposite the one by which they had entered.
“Wired into the electrical system. You can’t make the mistake of letting batteries go dead. It sounds in the house, so Stan wouldn’t have to worry about not hearing it.”
“The guy sure loved his horses,” Jack said. “Oh, he sure did, and he had more Hollywood money than he knew what to do with. After Stan died, Ed took special pains to be sure the people who bought all the animals would treat them well.
Stan was a nice man. Seemed only right.” the lights. “Name’s Lester Steer, and he owns the Main itreet Diner in town.”
“He’s a man!”
“Well, of course he’s a man,” Paul said, rolling the door shut.
“Never said he wasn’t.” The attorney winked at Heather, and she realized how much she had come to like him in such a short time. “Oh, you’re tricky,” Toby told Paul. “Dad, he’s tricky”
“Not me,” Paul said. “I only told you the truth, Scout. You tricked yourself.” — “Paul is an attorney, son,” Jack said.
“You’ve always of to be careful of attorneys, or you’ll end up with no ponies or cows.” Paul laughed. “Listen to your dad. He’s wise. Very wise.”
Only an orange rind of sun remained in view, and in seconds, the irregular blade of mountain peaks peeled it away. Shadows spread toward one another. The somber twilight, all deep blues and funereal purples, hinted at “I could have ten ponies,” Toby said. “Wrong,”
Heather said. “Whatever business we decide to get into, it won’t be a manure factory.”
“Well, I just mean, there’s room,” the boy said. “A dog, ten ponies,”
Jack said. “You’re turning into a real farm boy.
What’s next? Chickens?”.”A cow,” Toby said. “I been thinking what you said about cows, and you talked me into it.”
“Wiseass,” Jack said, taking a playful swipe at the boy. Dodging successfully, laughing, Toby said, “Like father, like son.
Mr. Youngblood, did you know my dad says cows can do any tricks dogs can do-roll over and play dead and all that?”
“Well,” the attorney replied, leading them back through the stable toward the door by which they’d entered, “I know a steer that can walk on his hind feet.”
“More than that. He can do math as well as you or me.” The claim was made with such calm conviction that the boy looked up wide-eyed at Youngblood. “You mean, like you ask him a problem, he can pound out the answer with his hoof?”
“He could do that, sure. Or just tell you the answer.”
“This steer, he can talk.”
“No way,” Toby said, following Jack and Heather outside. “Sure. He can talk, dance, drive a car, and he goes to church every Sunday,” Paul said, switching off the stae unrelenting darkness of night in that largely unplowed vastness. Looking directly upslope from the stable, toward a knoll at the terminus of the western woods, Paul said, “No point showing you the cemetery in this poor light. Not that much to see even at noon.”
“Cemetery?” Jack said, frowning. “You’ve got a state-certified private cemetery on your grounds,” the attorney said. “Twelve plots, though only four have been used.” Staring toward the knoll, where she could vaguely see part of what might have been a low stone wall and a pair of gateposts in the plum-dark light, Heather said, “Who’s buried there?”
“Stan Quartermass, Ed Fernandez, Margaret, and Tommy.”
“Tommy, my old partner, he’s buried up there?” Jack asked. “Private cemetery,” Heather said. She told herself that the only reason she shivered was because the air was growing colder by the minute. “That’s a little macabre.”
“Not so strange around here,” Paul assured her. “A lot of these ranches, the same family has been on the land for generations. It’s not only their home, it’s their hometown, the only place they love.
Eagle’s Roost is JUST somewhere to shop. When it comes to being put to eternal rest, they want to be part of the land they’ve given their lives to.”.”Wow,” Toby said. “How cool can you get? We live in a graveyard.”
“Hardly that,” Paul said. “My grandfolks and my parents are buried over to our place, and there’s really nothing creepy about it.
Comforting. Gives you a sense of hentage, continuity. Carolyn and I figure to be put to rest there too, though I can’t say what our kids want to do, now they’re off in medical school and law school making new lives that don’t have anything to do with the ranch.”
“Darn it, we just missed Halloween,” Toby said, more to himself than to them. He stared toward the cemetery, caught up in a personal fantasy that no doubt involved the challenge of walking through a graveyard on All Hallows’ Eve. They stood quietly for a moment.
The dusk was heavy, silent, still. Uphill, the cemetery seemed to cast off the fading light and pull the night down like a shroud, covering it-self with darkness faster than any of the land around it. Heather glanced at Jack to see if he showed any sign of being troubled by having Tommy Fernandez’s remains buried nearby. Tommy had died at his side, after 11, eleven months before Luther Bryson had been shot.
With Tommy’s grave so close, Jack couldn’t help but recall, perhaps too vividly, violent events best condemmed forever to the deeper vaults of memory. As if sensing her concern, Jack smiled. “Makes me feel better to know Tommy found rest in a place as beautiful as this.”
As they walked back to the house, the attorney invited them to dinner and to stay overnight with him and his wife. “One, you arrived too late today to get the place cleaned and livable. Two, you don’t have any fresh food here, only what might be in the freezer. And three, you don’t want to have to cook after putting in a long day on the road.
Why not relax this evening, get a start on it first thing in the morning, when you’re rested?”
Heather was grateful for the invitation, not merely for the reasons Paul had enumerated but because she remained uneasy about the house and the isolation in which it stood. She had decided that her jumpiness was nothing other than a city person’s initial response to more wide open spaces than she’d ever seen or contemplated before. A mild phobic reaction. Temporary agoraphobia.
It would pass. She simply needed a day or two-perhaps only a few hours-to acclimate herself to this new landscape and way of life. An evening with Paul Youngblood and his wife might be just the right medicine.
After setting the thermostats throughout the house, even in the basement, to be sure it would be warm in the morning, they locked up, got in the Explorer, and followed Paul’s Bronco to the county road. He turned east toward town, and so did they.
The brief twilight had vanished under the falling wall of night. The moon had not yet risen. The darkness on all sides was so deep that it seemed as if it could never be banished again even by the ascension of the sun. The Youngblood ranch was named after the predominant tree.within its boundaries. Spotlights at each end of the overhead entrance sign were directed inward to reveal green letters on a white background: PONDEROSA PINES. Under those two words, in small letters:
Paul and Carolyn Youngblood.
The attorney’s spread, a working ranch, was considerably larger than their own.
On both sides of the entrance lane, which was even longer than the one at Quartermass Ranch, lay extensive complexes of whitetrimmed red stables, riding rings, exercise yards, and fenced pastures. The buildings were illuminated by the pearly glow of low-voltage night-lights. White fences divided the rising meadows: dimly phosphorescent geometric patterns that dwindled into the darkness, like lines of inscrutable hieroglyphics on tomb walls. The main house, in front of which they parked, was a large, low ranch-style building of river rock and darkly stained pine. It seemed to be an almost organic extension of the land.
As he walked with them to the house, Paul answered Jack’s question about the business of Ponderosa Pines. “We have two basic enterprises, actually. We raise and race quarter horses, which is a popular sport throughout the West, from New Mexico to the Canadian border. Then we also breed and sell several types of show horses that never go out of style, mostly Arabians. We have one of the finest Arabian bloodlines in the country, specimens so perfect and pretty they can break your heart-or make you pull out your wallet if you’re obsessed with the breed.”
“No cows?” Toby said as they reached the foot of the steps that led up to the long, deep veranda at the front of the house. “Sorry, Scout, no cows,” the attorney said. “Lots of ranches round here have cattle, but not us. However, we do have our share of cowboys.” He pointed to a cluster of lighted bungalows approximately a hundred twenty yards to the east of the house. “Eighteen wranglers currently live here on the ranch, with their wives if they’re married.
A little town of our own, sort of.”
“Cowboys,” Toby said in the awed tone of voice with which he had spoken of the private graveyard and of the prospect of having a pony. Montana was proving to be as exotic to him as any distant planet in the comic books and science fiction movies he liked. “Real cowboys.”
Carolyn Youngblood greeted them at the door and warmly welcomed them.
To be the mother of Paul’s children, she must have been his age, fifty, but she looked and acted younger. She wore tight jeans and a decoratively stitched red-and-white Western shirt, revealing the lean, limber figure of an athletic thirty-year-old.
Her snowy hair-cut short in an easy-care gamine style-wasn’t brittle, as white hair often was, but thick and soft and lustrous. Her face was far less lined than Paul’s, and her skin was silk-smooth. Heather decided that if this was what life in the ranch country of Montana could do for a woman, she could overcome any aversion to the unnervingly large open spaces, to the immensity of the night, to the.spookiness of the woods, and even to the novel experience of having four corpses interred in a far corner of her backyard.
After dinner, when Jack and Paul were alone for a few minutes in the study, each of them with a glass of port, looking at the many framed photographs of prize-winning horses that nearly covered one of the knottypine walls, the attorney suddenly changed the subject from equestrian bloodlines and quarter-horse champions to Quatermass Ranch.
“I’m sure you folks are going to be happy there, Jack.”
“I think so too.”
“It’s a great place for a boy like Toby to grow up.”
“A dog, a pony-it’s like a dream come true for him.”
“So peaceful compared to L.A. Hell, there’s no comparison.” Paul opened his mouth to say something, hesitated, and looked instead at the horse photo with which he’d inoken off his colorful account of Ponderosa Pines’ racng triumphs. When the attorney did speak, Jack had the feeling that what he said was not what he had been out to say before the hesitation. “And though we aren’t spitting-distance neighbors, Jack, I hope we’ll be close in other ways, get to know each other well.”
“I’d like that.” The attorney hesitated again, sipping from his glass of port to cover his indecision.
After tasting his own port, Jack said, “Something wrong, Paul?”
“No, not wrong? just? What makes you say that?”
“I was a cop for a long time. I have a sort of sixth sense about people holding back something.”
“Guess you do. You’ll probably be a good businessman when you decide what it is you want to get into.”
“So what’s up?” Sighing, Paul sat on a corner of his large desk.
“Didn’t even know if I should mention this, cause I don’t want you to be concerned about it, don’t think there’s really any reason to be.”
“It was a heart attack killed Ed Fernandez, like I told you. Massive heart attack took him down as sudden and complete as a bullet in the head. Coroner couldn’t find anything else, only the heart.”
“Coroner? Are you saying an autopsy was performed?”
“Yeah, sure was,” Paul said, and sipped his port. Jack was certain that in Montana, as in California, autopsies were not performed every.time someone died especially not when the decedent was a man of Eduardo Fernandez’s age and all but certain to have expired of natural causes.
The old man would have been cut open only under special circumstances, primarily if visible trauma indicated the possibility of death at the hands of another. “But you said the coroner couldn’t find anything but a damaged heart, no wounds.”
Staring at the glimmering surface of the port in his glass, the attorney said, “Ed’s body was found across the tbreshold between his kitchen and the back porch, lying on his right side, blocking the door open. He was clutching a shotgun with both hands.”
“Ah. Could be suspicious enough circumstances to justify an autopsy.
Or it could be he was just going out to do some hunting.”
“Wasn’t hunting season.”
“You telling me a little poaching is unheard of in these parts, especially when a man’s hunting out of season on his own land?”
The attorney shook his head. “Not at all. But Ed wasn’t a hunter.
Never had been.”
“Yeah. Stan Quartermass was the hunter, and Ed just — inherited the guns. And another odd thing-wasn’t just a full magazine in that shotgun. He’d also pumped an extra round into the breach. No hunter with half a brain would traipse around with a shell ready to go. He trips nd falls, he might blow off his own head.”
“Doesn’t make sense to carry it in the house that way, either.”
“Unless,” Paul said, “there was some immediate threat.”
“You mean, like an intruder or prowler.”
“Maybe. Though that’s rarer than steak tartare in these parts.”
“Any signs of burglary, house ransacked?”
“No. Nothing at all like that.”
“Who found the body?”
“Travis Potter, veterinarian from Eagle’s Roost.
Which brings up another oddity. June tenth, more than three weeks before he died, Ed took some dead raccoons to Travis, asked him to examine them.” The attorney told Jack as much about the raccoons as Eduardo had told Potter, then explained Potter’s findings.
“Brain swelling?” Jack asked uneasily. “But no sign of infection, no.disease,” Paul reassured him. “Travis asked Ed to keep a lookout for other animals acting peculiar. Then? when they talked again, on June seventeenth, he had the feeling Ed had seen something more but was holding out on him.”
“Why would he hold out on Potter? Fernandez was the one who got Potter involved in the first place.” The attorney shrugged. “Anyway, on the morning of July sixth, Travis was still curious, so he went out to Quartermass Ranch to talk to Ed-and found his body instead. Coroner says Ed had been dead no less than twenty-four hours, probably no more than thirty-six.”
Jack paced along the wall of horse photographs and along another wall of bookshelves and then back again. slowly turning the glass of port around in his hand. “So you think-what? Fernandez saw some animal behaving really strangely, doing something that spooked him enough to go load up the shotgun?”
“Could he have been going outside to shoot this animal because it was acting rabid or crazy in some other way?”
“That’s occurred to us, yes. And maybe he was so worked up, so excited, that’s what brought on the heart attack.” At the study window, Jack stared at the lights of the cowboys’ bungalows, which were unable to press back the densely clotted night. He finished the port.
“I assume, from what you’ve said, Fernandez wasn’t a particularly excitable man, not an hysteric.”
“The opposite. Ed was about as excitable as a tree stump.”
Turning away from the window, Jack said, “So then what could he have seen that would’ve gotten his heart pumping so hard? How bizarre would an animal have had to be acting-how much of a threat would it have to be seemed-before Fernandez would have worked himself up to a heart attack?”
“There you put your finger on it,” the attorney said, finishing his own port.
“Just doesn’t make sense.”
“Seems like we have a mystery here.”
“Fortunate that you were a detective.”
“Not me. I was a patrol officer.”
“Well, now you’ve been promoted by circumstances.”
Paul got up from the corner of his desk. “Listen, I’m sure there’s nothing to be worried about. We know those raccoons weren’t diseased… And there’s probably a reasonable explanation for what Ed was going to do with that gun. This is peaceful country. Damned if I can see what kind of danger could be out there.”
“I suspect you’re right,” Jack agreed. “I brought it up only because… well, it seemed odd. I thought if you did see something peculiar, you ought to know not just to dismiss it. Call Travis. Or me.” Jack put his empty glass on the desk beside Paul’s.
Y’ll do that. Meanwhile? I’d appreciate if you didn’t — mention this to Heather. We’ve had a real bad year down there in L.A. This is a new start for us in a lot of ways, and I don’t want a shadow on it.
We’re a little shaky. We need this to work, need to stay positive.”
That’s why I chose this moment to tell you.”
“And don’t you worry about it.”
“Cause I’m sure there’s nothing to it. Just one of life’s many little mysteries. People new to this country sometimes get the heebie jeebies cause of all the ope space, the wilderness. I don’t mean to get you on edge “Don’t worry,” Jack assured him. “After you’ve played bullet billiards with some of the crazies loose in L A there’s nothing any raccoon can do to spoil your