Death Pans Out

Death Pans Out

While recovering from a double mastectomy, journalist Jeneva Leopold seeks solitude and healing at her uncle's idle gold mine in the sagebrush desert of Eastern Oregon. Hiking the rocky ridges, ...

About The Author

Ashna Graves

Mystery writer Ashna Graves came into being on a warm June afternoon in 1997, and owes her existence to an ...

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Chapter One

September 1991

The opportunity Burtie had been waiting for came on a Saturday when his partner went into town and did not return for the night. Hoping they would come while he was alone at the cabin, Burtie sat up late, and sometime after midnight he heard them. He headed up the lane walking fast, boots crunching on the rocky ground. There was no reason to be quiet until he reached the canyon road, when the sounds ceased abruptly.

He also stopped, and listened with his head bent. Lying in bed on other nights, he had heard the same pattern of distant rumbling and banging, always ending with this sudden silence. By his calculations, they could not be far away, although there was nothing up the creek, no reason at all to go there in the middle of the night.

Moving slowly now, placing his feet with care, he followed the dirt road up the canyon. It wound in and out with the shape of the land, climbing gently, every curve familiar to his feet, just as the smells of cooling pine and sage were familiar. He listened hard but heard no sound that did not belong to the desert night.

He came to a spur road, a pale track of quartz gravel leading off to the left away from the creek, and hesitated, considering it. The spur was no more than a hundred yards long, most of its length visible in the light of the stars. No sound or movement broke the stillness, and the dimly illuminated outlines of rocks and trees were familiar and as they should be.

Walking on, he kept to the high center between the ruts where his boots were as quiet as slippers in the dust. There was another spur not far ahead. Although he hadn’t been up it for years, he knew that it ran parallel to the canyon road for about a quarter of a mile, separated from it by a pine thicket.

The entrance was bright like the first spur, but the track soon entered dense shadow between the canyon wall on the left and the trees on the right. A few paces into the dark he stopped to let his eyes adjust. His right hand went to his hip and massaged it in a gesture that had become habitual. He was old. He could not keep up this mountain goat life forever—but what else was there for him to do, where could he go? He didn’t want to be anywhere else on the planet.

I’ve already been.

The thought made him smile in the dark, grimly, but also with the satisfaction of having done what he had to, of making the best of a bad draw. If he’d expected luck to get him anywhere, he might as well have died the first time. His only worry was Orson. If something happened, what sort of life would Orson have at the mine? He wouldn’t be able to keep it up alone, but he might find a new life, a better life. And Enid would help him. Dear Enid. And Frances…He would write to Frances tomorrow, without fail. The thought of his sister brought a rush of affection and regret; he had let the silence go on for far too long, but now he would go to her in person to make amends and tell the truth at last.

Pushing his hands into his jacket pockets he listened again to the night, but heard nothing, not even wind. They must have gone farther up the canyon road. Or they might be standing close by in the dark, listening just as he was, waiting for another sound of movement. Burtie felt a chill start along his spine but he stiffened and set his face in lines that did not admit fear. He had to know what was going on here late at night where there was no possible reason for anyone to be.

Feeling the way with his feet, he continued up the rough track, wishing he’d used the road recently enough to know its condition, but there had been no reason to go up a minor spur to nowhere. He was long past the days of exploration, of choosing new walking routes just to see what was there, although now and again he did still hike to the top of Billie Mountain—the top of the known world. Again he smiled in the dark.

The next moment he stopped to listen. Was that a click of stone on stone? The prickling ran its course this time, flashing up his back and neck before he could control it. Immobile, straining to see, he waited and soon heard it again, the faint slither of movement, then the scuff of a boot or maybe something dragging.

He studied the blackness ahead, identified a denser black shape, and said quietly, “Whoever’s there, I mean no harm. I’m from the mine down the way.”

Chapter Two

July 2006

Jeneva Leopold leaned on the axe handle and bent her head to listen. A breeze stirred the pines, a bird called from upstream, a squirrel gnawed the antlers nailed around the roofline of the woodshed. The evening was perfect, just as she had come to expect, perfect, that is, except for a sound she did not want to hear. The low growl of an engine could mean only one thing. A vehicle was coming up Billie Creek Road. The engine, throaty like a truck, revved, stuttered, and revved again. It was climbing, dropping gears as the canyon grew steeper, the sound fading and swelling with the curves and dips in the road. Soon it would reach the turnoff to the cabin.

Jeneva spun toward the woodshed, but with only three walls it didn’t offer much cover. She could lock herself in the cabin or go into the woods—how ridiculous to run away simply to avoid company. It was too late now in any case. The vehicle had turned down the cabin lane and would be here before she could grab a jacket and get out of sight.

With a quick, decisive swing, she raised the axe and let it drop so that the blade stuck in the chopping block. She stepped away from the woodshed to look up the lane, and as she ran her fingers through her hair a white truck topped the rise behind the cabin. Seconds later it eased into the packed earth dooryard and stopped beside her. An unsmiling man with pale blue eyes studied her through the open window. Blond hair streaked with gray hung long around a sunburned face netted with fine lines, the skin stretched tight over his jaw and cheekbones. His nose was crooked from an accident or maybe violence, a long-ago bar brawl where she easily pictured him throwing fast punches. The cut-off sleeves of his white T-shirt revealed biceps that clearly had been mighty but now were wiry with age.

The stranger returned her look with a flat stare. “In seventeen years coming out here,” he said with slow, clear enunciation, “I didn’t see one single woman, not one.”

“This was my uncle’s claim,” Jeneva said calmly despite the hostility in his voice, and the rush of blood up her back. “If you’ve been coming out here for seventeen years, you must have known him. Matthew Burt?”

“The one that disappeared? You bet.”

They looked away at the same instant, the stranger at the cabin, Neva at the trim camper on the back of the truck, and the small trailer hitched on behind. Like the truck, the camper was white and as clean as it could be after navigating Billie Creek Road.

“Are you a miner?” she said to end the silence.

“Hell, no, lady.” He gunned the engine and dropped a hand onto the gear stick. “I aim to camp on this creek tonight. You have any problem with that?”

Neva looked down the rutted lane toward where it ended at Billie Creek. There was a rustic campsite there in a small stand of pine and aspen, with a fire ring and rough tables. The mining claim was on Forest Service land, so the camp was technically open to the public, but it had not occurred to her that someone might use it. “The mine belongs to my uncle’s old partner, Orson Gale. Does he know you’re here?”

“Orson’s never coming back.” He shoved the stick into reverse, started to roll, stopped, and thrust his hand out the window. “Skipper Dooley.”

“Jeneva Leopold. Neva, generally.”

Dooley gave her hand a quick, hard squeeze, then nodded at the passenger’s seat, where a German shepherd sat regarding her. “This here’s Cayuse. He doesn’t like girls. Excuse me, women.”

# # #

As daylight dissolved into night, Neva sat on the long porch on the downhill side of the cabin just as she had done on every one of her fourteen perfect evenings at the mine, but instead of owls, distant frogs, and the murmur of Billie Creek, she heard Skipper Dooley slamming in and out of his camper. Trees hid the camp from view but didn’t blunt the sound of curses and a harsh smoker’s cough.

Skipper Dooley had said he wasn’t a miner, but no one would simply wander in here for the night by accident. Eight miles  of winding, rocky road lay between the mine and the two-lane highway through the Dry River Valley, a highway used only  by local ranchers and the few miners still working old claims in the hills. The highway didn’t lead anywhere that couldn’t be reached faster on some other road. A traveler with a good map and no need to hurry might find his way to the Dry River, but for a stranger to notice the rough track that turned off the highway through sagebrush and rocks toward Billie Creek Canyon was just about unimaginable. And for such a person to follow that track as it wound into the hills and then climbed through the canyon for eight slow miles, each mile worse than the last one, and then to turn down the faint sandy ruts that led to the cabin—but Skipper Dooley knew the mine. He had said so. He had known her uncle and his partner, and he had known there was a camp on the creek.

So he wasn’t a stranger to the mine, but what business could he possibly have here? It wasn’t hunting season, and there were no fish in Billie Creek or the mining pond. He didn’t look sporty, like a hiker or birdwatcher. He had towed a small trailer with a four-wheeled scooter lashed onto it. Maybe he was simply an old codger who liked to prowl around the backcountry on his ATV.

Whatever his purpose, if he stayed at the mine she would have to leave.

Packing the car to come out here two weeks ago she had felt suddenly certain that she was just as crazy as everyone seemed to think. She had no business driving for ten hours across Oregon from the Willamette Valley nearly to the Idaho border to live on her own in an isolated mining cabin abandoned these fifteen years. She would suffer terrible loneliness even though it was solitude she craved. But once at the mine she had not felt lonely for a single minute. She had felt gloriously solitary and happy. She would not be able to stand sharing the gold mine, certainly not with Skipper Dooley.

Despite her immediate impulse to hide from visitors, she was not afraid of Dooley. She was not afraid of much at all, she realized as she listened to the quiet that had at last descended on the night, and those fears she did have were very personal. She was afraid of water with dark, invisible depths. She was afraid of sharp kitchen knives because, a hasty cook, she was likely to cut herself. She was afraid to call her son on his cell phone because it might catch him driving and cause a crash. But she was not afraid to stay out here alone, or to walk anywhere through the desert hills with their treacherous rocky slopes and rattlesnakes, and she was not afraid of strange men with scarred faces. She just wanted to be by herself, to get back her emotional balance, and most of all to heal.

Neva stood up, leaned on the porch railing to listen, then went down the plank steps and looked at the deeply layered stars. There was not one streetlight to compete with the Milky Way; in fact, there was no electric light for many miles. Here, she was surrounded by pure night. Breathing deeply, calm again, she unbuttoned her cotton shirt and dropped it on the step behind her.

Cool night air moved across her bare back and chest, touching the two scars where her breasts had been. She traced each scar with her fingers. The surgery had healed well, so well that she did not find her flat torso ugly or repulsive, as she had feared before the operation. Her new chest wasn’t disturbing to look at or to feel. It just wasn’t her. Boyish and corrugated with visible ribs, her new front couldn’t really belong to Jeneva Leopold, forty-five, mother of Ethan, columnist for the Willamette Current newspaper. She had not been able to accept this new shape—not, that is, until she arrived at the mine and turned her body over to the healing desert air. Every day she swam in the mining pond and then lay nude in the full heat of the sun. Often she hiked with her shirt off, walking randomly over the empty land, glorying in the touch of warm light that turned her skin golden-brown, except for the two pale pink lines on her chest. Her body was becoming familiar again, a shape she could accept as belonging to her, and even a shape she could like. But she was not done yet, not ready to leave the mine, and certainly not ready to share it with a stranger. With Dooley at the camp she could not swim nude, she could not walk around free in the air. She would have to behave properly again, to follow society’s polite rules, and this she simply would not do.

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