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Bitter Creek: An Original Mystery Short Story

IN THE February 2 ISSUE

FROM THE 2013 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Mary Frisbee

This original mystery short story by Mary Frisbee has never before been published.

Granger sat on the warm hood of his Ford coupe, trying to keep his ass from freezing. Looking out over the matte black of the Montana prairie to the faint bar of gray light along the horizon, he pulled the collar of his parka higher and tucked in the strings of the orange cotton hunting vest fluttering in the slight breeze. He reckoned he looked like a scrawny scarecrow in his mish-mash of worn clothes: patched parka, jeans, Army boots, ear-flapped wool hat. While he’d come back from the war–Hawaii, Saipan, Okinawa–a better shot than when he left, he wasn’t a canny hunter, just a guy raised on a wheat homestead where they walked out into the fields and killed what they needed to eat. Granger was thankful he owned a rifle, felt beholden to Mr. Cat Ledoux for letting him hunt on Circle L land.

After being discharged from the Army, Granger had surveyed the infinite space of the eastern Montana plains stretching beyond the train platform and swore he’d never leave again. He married, had a daughter, finished up his degree, landed the band director’s job in Roundup, lucked out when the town’s parents went mad for band; the Roundup High Band Boosters couldn’t do enough for him. Still, rural parents often complained about the time band took, their kids needed to work the farms and ranches. He understood, rearranging his players to fill the holes left in the formations of the football halftime shows. So when through his office door he saw Cat Ledoux walk into the band room, he figured it was more of the same. He sighed; he didn’t know how he could do without Ledoux’s son Jack.

Everyone in Musselshell County had heard of Cat Ledoux.
He’d grown up out of Roundup on the Circle L, helping his dad run cattle, got the rodeoin’ bug early and lit out, did good for a couple of years, and then spectacular in the third, coming in runner-up for All-Around Champion to Mr. Fritz Truan in 1940. He’d had his hand shook at Madison Square Garden by Mr. Gene Autry, who told Cat he looked forward to seeing him at the big show next year. But Pearl Harbor got bombed and Cat enlisted in the Army. After the war, his daddy was too stove-up to work the ranch, and Cat took over, raised beef, had a nice string of horses. Ranch folks knew he was the man you wanted when you had a troublesome horse. Someone’s truck would rattle across the cattle guard with a horse in a trailer, and Cat would look the horse over, then take the halter rope and lead it toward the corral, saying over his shoulder, ‘Come back in a month.’

Ledoux surveyed the clutter of the band room, taking in the metal chairs and music stands, plywood podium, drums arrayed along the back wall, then closed his eyes, listening to the record Granger was playing. Ledoux had come to town in his work clothes, boots splayed and muddy, big grey Stetson wet from the sleet, stained sheepskin coat. He was skinny and tough as wire, his lean face weathered, a wide spray of lighter smile lines radiating out on his temples. The record ended and Ledoux started, turned and looked at Granger, wonder in his eyes.

“What was that?”

“Mozart, Mr. Ledoux.” He held out his hand, and Ledoux shook it absently. “The Magic Flute.”

“Is that German they’re singing in?”

“Yessir.”

“What are they saying?”

“That was the finale, the very end of the opera. They are singing, ‘We walk, by the power of music, in joy through death’s dark night’. It’s about the victory of light over darkness.”

“‘We walk by the power of music…'” Ledoux repeated softly.

“Would you like to borrow it?”

Ledoux nodded. “I’d like to hear the whole thing.”

They sat down on the folding chairs. Now we come to it, Granger thought.

“I hear my boy is pretty good.”

“Yes he is, sir. Jack is my best trumpet.”

Ledoux squinted at Granger. “This is a small town. What’s that mean in the larger world?”

“Jack’s the best I’ve ever taught. He could go to college–music school, if he wanted it bad enough.”

“We’re land-rich and cash-poor. Could he get a scholarship?”

“I think so.” Granger shrugged. “No guarantee.”

Ledoux leveled his gaze out the window to the stark November trees. “I’d like to pass the ranch down to him. But I want him to have the chance to do what he’s good at. I don’t know a damn thing about music, except I love it when I hear it. So for starters, how about you give him private lessons?”

A pause while Granger took this in, then: “Be happy to.”

“Done.” Ledoux rose to his feet. “You hunt?”

“A little. I’m always grateful to put some meat on the table.”

“Can you tell the difference between a deer and a steer?”

Granger laughed. “Yessir, I can.”

“Come out and hunt on the Circle L Sunday. Got a piece of paper?” Ledoux swiftly drew a map. “Hunt on this side, where you’ll be alone. Safer that way. Park here on the road…” He made an X. “…and go through the fence. Yonder you’ll see trees. Work your way through them, there’s always game in the thicket on the other side of the creek. You’ll be downwind.” Ledoux put a little N with an arrow pointing up in the margin at the top of the page.

“I appreciate this, sir.”

Ledoux made to leave, turned back. “Jack’s really that good?”

“Yes, I think he is.”

“Well, then.” Ledoux grinned, giving Granger the full effect of blazing blue eyes. “I thank you.” He tucked the album box under his arm and went on his way. In a moment Granger heard ‘Hot damn!’, the jubilant cry echoing down the dark school hallway.

On Sunday, the light grew around Granger, slowly revealing the textured achromatic landscape, dry sagebrush and bunch grass growing out of the stony range; soon the sharp-etched stand of cottonwoods appeared, then the finer tangled lines of the thicket beyond. Huh. Wasn’t quite in the right place according to the map. The softest tint of color suffused the earth, and when it was light enough to see the ground, he went through the fence. Moving slowly he gained the trees, stopping amid the thick gray trunks to listen.

Ahead someone walked out from the shadow-striped grove onto the sunlit bank of the stony creek, a figure leading a horse. Then several things happened, seemingly all at once: The figure turned toward the horse, loop of reins in hand and–with no warning and no sound–crumpled to the ground. The horse flinched off to the right, trotting away along the water, reins trailing free. And a group of mulies broke from the thicket on the other side of the creek, scudding away to the west.

Granger ran, clutching his rifle, stumbling over downed branches and exposed roots, and dropped to the ground by the figure fallen on its side. The breath caught in his throat as he saw the slim arrow protruding from Ledoux’s back. Peering into his face, he shouted: “Ledoux! Hey, Cat!” He felt for the carotid in the neck, reached for the pulse in Ledoux’s wrist. Nothing.

Scrambling to his feet, he snatched his hunting hat off his head and flung it,
waving his arms in the direction from which the arrow had flown, to the east. “Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, you stupid bastard, there’s people over here!” He fell to his knees again, put his hand inside the warmth of the sheepskin, pressing hard over the heart, but Cat was gone, the body settling with finality into the frost-rimed ground. Granger sat back on his heels, clutching his bare head with disbelief, regarding Ledoux with horror and sorrow, the possibility inherent in the early dawn smashed to smithereens.

He rose to his feet, looking down at the body. Why was Ledoux here? He’d said Granger would be alone, but clearly there had been at least three people in this corner of the spread. After retrieving his hat, he walked up the creek, chirruping softly. The horse stood, his ears moving at the sound; he gave a snort, showed a wild eye, then let the man close his hands over the reins. Granger talked soothingly, stroked the rangy buckskin’s neck, slid his rifle in the empty scabbard, checked the cinch of the saddle. When the buckskin was quiet, he awkwardly mounted up, his thick-soled boots barely fitting in the stirrups. Granger circled around Ledoux’s body out onto open ground, moving the horse into a steady canter east toward the road down which the ranch house stood out of sight a mile or so away.

The barbed wire fence was just ahead, the gravel road on the other side, a big cream-colored sedan parked on the road. Granger came in at an angle, reading the plate: Montana, county number two–from Great Falls, then. A man crouched by the front driver’s-side tire, placing a jack uncertainly under the car; the spare tire lay in the road. As Granger rode up, the man peered over his shoulder then turned unhurriedly back to his task. Granger dismounted, tied the buckskin to a post, took down his rifle, and bent gingerly through the fence. On the other side, he fired three quick shots at the sky, signaling the ranch house. The buckskin pulled violently against his tether, a pheasant rose heavily from the ditch with whirring wings.

The man by the car, startled, stood and turned toward Granger.
His eyes bulged slightly, as brown and moist as a Pekinese’s. He had a full head of dusty chestnut hair–a toupee? A round sort of roly-poly man, his pink face was puckered into a frown, ample body expensively clothed in a dark suit, white shirt, scarlet tie, all protected by a plush wool overcoat the color of chocolate; his leather town shoes were coated with dust. The man took in Granger’s shabbiness, eyes lingering on the rifle. He walked across the road, hand thrust forward, his face now metamorphosing into a series of upturned curves: “Say there, fella, been hunting, huh? Glad to see you, I’m having some trouble with this darn jack.”

Granger pointed the rifle at the man, ignoring the extended hand.

“Get back.”

The smile faded just a little, and the man’s hand plunged into the deep pocket of the coat as he backed up to the car.

“What are you doing out here?” asked Granger.

“Well, now,” the chubby man said pleasantly, “I don’t see that’s any of your business.”

Granger made a little gesture with the rifle. “Think maybe you ought to make it my business?”

The man shrugged.
“I’m supposed to meet with Mr. Cat Ledoux right here,” he said. “My name’s Howard Plum, with Allied Explorations. And you are?”

“Meet about what?”

“Mineral rights. Oil leases.”

“Why not at the house?” Granger tilted his head south, down the road.

Plum’s eyes shone, crinkling up in a friendly manner, the corners of his rosebud mouth curling. “Well, I’d say Ledoux didn’t want his wife to know anything about this meeting. She’s all for oil exploration on the Circle L. Lotta money, potentially.”

“Ledoux didn’t want to lease?”

Plum shook his head. “Nope. Didn’t want the ranch all torn up, he said.”

“And so you asked him to meet you out here alone?”

“That’s right,” Plum said. “I thought if we talked man-to-man, without the old ball-and- chain, I might get someplace with him, but he never showed up. Look, mister, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to fixing my tire.”

“You don’t have a jack handle there.”

“Well, hell, I don’t know,” said Plum, looking bewildered. “This was all there was in the trunk.”

“Why don’t you look again?” Granger suggested.

“No need. Nothing else in there.” The man’s eyes shifted to the left. “Somebody’s coming.”

“We’ll wait.”

Pretty soon young Jack Ledoux trotted up on a bay horse. He dismounted, looking uncertain.

“Mr. Granger? What’s going on?”

Granger’s eyes didn’t move from Plum. “You know this man, Jack?”

“Sure. That’s Mr. Plum, the oil lease guy.”

“Mr. Plum has a flat tire. Will you please fetch his jack handle?”

Puzzled but eager to help, Jack led the bay toward the car.

Plum’s hand came out of the pocket, the tiny Derringer almost lost in his plump palm. It spat twice, missing Granger at the distance. Then came the crack of Granger’s rifle and Plum went down in the gravel of the road, clutching his thigh, screaming.

The bay had shied away from the shots. Jack got him calmed, threw a perturbed glance at Granger, started toward Plum.

Granger wasn’t worried about the two-shot Derringer, but he said, “Leave Mr. Plum be, Jack.”

“Mr. Granger, what the hell’s going on?”

“I’ll tell you, son. But first, what’s in the trunk?” Jack opened the trunk of the cream-colored car and peered in.

“There’s a big hunting bow in here. Arrows. Strange–wouldn’t have figured Plum for a bow hunter.” Jack looked over at Plum, quiet now, lying on his side in the road.

“Say, Mr. Granger, what are you doing over here anyway? Dad said you were supposed to be hunting on the other side of the ranch.”

Granger pulled Ledoux’s map out of his pocket and handed it to Jack, who studied it with a little smile on his face. “My dad has trouble with reading and writing, gets things backwards. Look, he put the North arrow going the wrong way. You’re on Bitter Creek, supposed to be way over there on the Little Boulder.” He gestured with his head.

Granger closed his eyes, weary with the idiocy of the whole thing. It could have worked, he thought. After setting up the secret meeting, Plum would have used the silent bow to shoot Cat, and the murderous bastard would have gone on his merry way back to Great Falls, no one the wiser. The death would be blamed on a random hunting accident. After the funeral, Mrs. Ledoux would lease the oil rights to Allied, and Plum would presumably grow even fatter and happier.

Only, two unexpected things had happened:
Plum’s tire had gone flat, resulting in delay. And Granger, thanks to Ledoux’s mix-up with the map, ended up on the spot as witness to the pointless, vicious killing of a cowboy who rode hard his whole life and just wanted his son to have a choice. Now Granger was going to have to tell that son his father was dead.

He looked out across the range toward the silhouette of the cottonwood grove. Had Ledoux listened to the records? Did the potent strains of Mozart’s opera run through his head as he rode across his land? Granger found himself fiercely hoping that Cat Ledoux had taken his final walk along the sunny bank of Bitter Creek in joy, by the power of music.

Mary Frisbee is the author of the mystery novels Satori Ranch, Puzzle Creek, and the upcoming Keyhole Spring. Her setting, the college town of Silverplate, is located in the Adamantine Mountains of southwestern Montana. Learn more on her website.

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