Looking Ahead to Future Projects
I am currently doing research for a series of mystery novels that will feature a woman sheriff working in a large rural county in the 21st Century American West.
Drinkwater County, where the novels are set, is a fictional place based on a county in Idaho that is larger than the state of Massachusetts and has fewer than 15,000 residents. Sheriffs working in these large, underpopulated areas have all the problems that other law enforcement officials deal with, plus some problems unique to their jurisdictions such as modern-day cattle rustling, water theft, grave robbing of prehistoric sites, poachers (sometimes with international connections) hunting endangered species to complete their collections, etc. etc. What's more, sheriffs in these areas are elected by locals who often expect that "their sheriff" will take care of them, meaning they will ignore or not enforce locally unpopular federal laws, something that could put the sheriff, herself, in legal jeopardy. Not to mention the fact that such jurisdictions have very limited manpower and budgets.
As part of my research, I flew with a sheriff who patrols his county by air. During the flight, we happened on some wealthy Japanese poachers hunting endangered big horn sheep. That resulted in a few moments of unexpected excitement. He worried out loud about how low he dared fly over their plane, sitting on the ground, hoping to read the numbers off the wing. The hunters, who happened be close by, were waving high-powered guns at us. His concern, I realized, was whether or not he should risk putting me in danger. Who says research is boring!
The first two novels, Rainbow Horses and Spotted Spirit Dog, are complete as near-finished drafts. The next three novels in the series are outlined.
Opening Pages of Rainbow Horses:
Seven horses guard the seven directions . . .
The YELLOW horse guards the west
where thunderheads gather
and dust devils dance.
Riding the yellow horse requires skill;
it is quick as lightening, fickle as luck.
Sheriff Samantha "Sam" Nielsen was driving along the bottom of a deep canyon on a narrow dirt road, listening to her dead husband’s music when seven wild horses crashed through the brush and jumped in front of her. Her first thought was to wonder if her husband had been distracted like that—off on a wave of song—when he drove into a concrete barrier dividing one of Los Angeles’ many freeways. Her second thought was that she might also die.
She swerved, barely missing a big gray—the stallion. With him were five or six duns and a black colt, or, maybe, two colts. She couldn’t be sure. The swerve had sent her patrol car into a skid. Steering furiously, she fought to keep herself from going into the storm-swollen stream on her right. It didn’t help that on her left were huge boulders. Even worse, the low, early-morning light skimming the canyon’s uneven ridge had created alternating patches of bright sunlight and deep shadow, both equally blinding. Most of the time, she had no idea how close she was to the edge of the water or anything else. Finally, her vehicle fishtailed and banged to a halt against one of the big rocks.
The horses, unhurt, ran along the road ahead of her to where the stream widened. Then they splashed into the water, churning up enough spray to sprinkle the sunshine with rainbow. That unexpected beauty took away what breath she had left.
Local Indians believed that White Bead Woman, a goddess, made the horse. It was to be the medicine animal that completed the world. Knowing that, White Bead Woman took great care with her work. She used red stone for the heart, small cloud for the mane, and black cloud for the tail. She caught distant thunder for the hooves . . .
Sam shook her head. She couldn’t recall when she’d first heard that myth. What was it about horses? Every Indian she knew believed horses were magical. Not just Indians. The Greeks claimed their god Poseidon created the horse, and, to this day, the white-capped breakers that roll in from the sea are known as “the white horses.” In Ireland, O’Donohue’s legendary white horses supposedly reappeared every seventh year to carry the hero over the lakes of Killarney—an event accompanied by hordes of fairies and unearthly music. Not to be forgotten, there were horned unicorns, winged Pegasus and the Biblical Horsemen of the Apocalypse who supposedly rode steeds of white, red, black, and pale.
Personally, she preferred her patrol car. When it didn’t run right, she could get it fixed at the local garage. At least that’s what she liked to tell herself in her down-to-earth role as the Sheriff of Drinkwater County. She lied. Even in her practical-sheriff moments, she understood the fascination. Riding a horse across an open expanse was like sliding along the seam between heaven and earth. Nothing quite like it.
She shook her head. Spin a story. Say a prayer. Sing a chant. Take what comfort you can. One moment you are on the rough road to somewhere. The next moment, wild horses jump in front of you. Or people die—her husband—without rhyme or reason. Unless, of course, you choose to believe the made-up stories. In the case of her husband’s death, some of those made-up stories were being whispered behind her back.
She sat a moment longer, watching the horses, reminding herself that she’d already survived an end-of-the-world-as-she-knew-it crisis. She could do it again if she had to. On the other side of the stream the horses fanned out. Then disappeared, one by one, around a turn in the canyon. At that same moment, her husband’s music rose on a swell of percussion that hinted at horses’ hooves. Perfect, she told herself.
The music wasn’t real. It was something only she heard, like a catchy jingle you can’t stop humming. Her dead husband had composed enough music for enough movies that she could recall bits that fit almost any circumstance. And, since she spent a lot of hours, alone driving the backcountry of Drinkwater, she’d gotten into the habit of indulging herself with the bits of his music that she could hold onto. And, yes, there had been moments in her grief when she was tempted to follow the music into oblivion . . . but the music wouldn’t go there. The music was his. He was the dreamer—the one who lived light, always laughing, never caring for tomorrow. She was the one who moved in to make sure his bills got paid. When she gave birth to their daughter, he asked her to marry him, an act so responsible, so completely out of character, she’d laughed, thinking he couldn’t be serious. She didn’t trust happiness. She was always waiting for the crash.
This one wasn’t too bad. She rubbed a sore spot where her shoulder knocked against her side door. His crash had left her in far worse shape. If not for their daughter . . . she paused to reshape that thought. For their daughter’s sake, she’d figured out a new life. She was the Sheriff of Drinkwater County, Idaho. In fact, she’d been the sheriff long enough to be up for re-election in a few weeks. Hard to believe.
It was her job that had brought her out here, all by herself, driving this rough, rock-strewn canyon. Rain, not horses, was the usual worry. If caught in a flash flood, she’d have no place to run. For that reason, she hadn’t been entirely inattentive. Even as she listened to his music, she’d kept an eye on the weather and rising stream as well as the road. In the catalog of possible catastrophes, she hadn’t given wild horses a thought.
She rotated her arm. It was sore but not injured. Airbags might have helped, but, out here, in the middle of America’s nowhere, everybody disabled their airbags. In a place where the nearest tow truck was half-a-day away, deployed airbags only complicated getting back on the road, which was what she needed to do.
She opened the door and climbed out to assess the damage. She noted a new dent in the bumper and a crease along the back rear panel. Neither were the first scars her official ride had acquired in the line of duty. Then she climbed onto the dented bumper to check her antennae. She had three. None picked up anything down in this canyon. Likewise, her cell phone had been out of service for at least an hour. She was “down a dirt highway,” the local expression for being out of contact and miles and miles from anywhere.
When her husband crashed, she packed a few mementos and brought her daughter back to this place she called “home.” Never mind that “home” happened to be one of the most desolate places in America—desolate and dying. It was one of the ironies of the Twenty-First Century that the wide-open spaces of the American West were not disappearing. They were growing. Huge areas outside cities like Denver, Santa Fe, Boise, and Phoenix were losing population at the rate of two per cent a year. At that rate, in a few decades, there would be nothing left in a county like Drinkwater but ghost towns and interstate highways. Even in Idaho, most people had never heard of Drinkwater County. Remarkable considering her county—the jurisdiction she sheriffed—was larger than the state of Massachusetts.
When she was sure everything was OK up top, she jumped down and looked underneath, checking for leaks. She didn’t see any. So far, so good, she told herself. That’s when she caught the sound of an approaching vehicle, normally a good sign. However, in this case, she recognized that particular low, diesel rumble. Only one rancher on this end of Drinkwater County made that much noise, and she wasn’t necessarily referring to his loud, oversized pickup truck.
On a good day, Sam managed to make-nice to Bill Willoughby. She wasn’t sure this was a good enough day. On the other hand, she didn’t really have a choice. She was the sheriff. He was one of Drinkwater’s three county commissioners. That meant he voted on her budget. More like he seemed to think counting pennies was a good use of her time. Actually, Willoughby’s money issues had nothing to do with her budget, she knew. He still wasn’t sure she was up to the job. Everybody knew that she’d been elected mostly because she was a third generation “Nielsen woman.” The real question was whether she was enough of a “Nielsen woman” to match her mother and grandmother’s reputations. Willoughby doubted it. So did a lot of people. For that matter, there were days when she doubted it. The difference was that Bill Willoughby didn’t pain himself to pretend otherwise. Maybe that made him honest. Maybe wild horses never looked back—another local myth.
Sam started the engine and backed away from the rock. Her old, trusty, official ride seemed to be running fine. Having established that fact, she was tempted to put it in gear and keep going, but good sense got the better of her. She cut the engine and waited.
“Good thing I came along,” Willoughby announced as soon as he arrived.
Sam got out and slapped the hood of her car. “No problem. Everything’s fine.”
“I spooked some horses. Or they spooked me. Trying not to hit them, I fishtailed, but there’s no real damage.”
He circled her patrol car. An older lanky rancher, Willoughby had worked around trucks and cattle all his life, for that reason, he clearly thought it was up to him to decide the depth of the damage. He noted the scratches and the dent. Then he dropped to his hands and knees and looked under her car for leaks. Mostly he was showing off for his passenger—a man, about her age, who was wearing a name-brand jacket and a two-hundred-dollar haircut—in other words too fancy to be local.
“You’re a long way from your ranch. What brings you out here?” she asks Willoughby, a routine question.
“Him,” he answers gesturing over his shoulder while he climbs up top to check her antennae. “Meet Miles Gurwitz. I’m giving him the grand tour. It’s been a while since Hollywood took an interest in our part of the world, but he’s thinking of making another movie out here.
Sam knew who he was. The Gurwitz family was old Hollywood, dating back to when Hollywood was “Hollywood”—a term not much in current use. Her husband had introduced her to Miles and his uncle, a big producer, at a party, maybe, a year before he died “the whole family are cheats and crooks,” he’d added as an aside.
No reason Miles Gurwitz would remember her and even less reason to believe he wanted to make another western in Drinkwater, Idaho. Westerns died decades ago.
Miles cleared his throat. “Wild horses, wow!”
Sam shifted her attention. What was he doing here?
“Sorry about the crash,” Miles continued. “He scared them up for me. I’d never seen wild horses, except in documentaries.”
Sam allowed herself a little shake of her head, thinking that’s exactly what Willoughby would do, while trying to impress someone from “Hollywood.”
“Do you see wild horses often?” Miles continued.
“Not spooked like that,” she said, tossing the words in Willoughby’s direction.
Willoughby offered no response. After checking her antennae, he’d lifted the hood of her patrol car and was looking around under there. She wasn’t sure what he expected to find.
“And you’re the law out here?” Miles now asked.
She nodded. Being short, blond, and female didn’t fit the usual stereotype.
He continued, “Oddly, that fits if you don’t mind me saying so. I mean, I’ve never seen any place like this—it’s all so weird and wonderfully wild.”
She almost laughed out loud. He was from Los Angeles where the air was solid, and the earth moved.
Opening Pages of Spotted Spirit Dog:
She sees the bullet coming straight at her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she also notes a flurry of blackbirds flying up from the thicket of trees where the bullet seems to be coming from. Ravens? Then something hits her knees. Hard. She falls sideways. Thankfully, her training kicks in. She rolls into the fall, hitting the ground with the back of her shoulder, minimizing the damage to her body. Simultaneously she draws her sidearm. Then quickly pulling herself into a sitting position, knees tucked into her chest, she scoots sideways, putting her patrol car between her and the shooter. Without thinking, she also grabs the collar of the dog that knocked her down.
Sheriff Samantha “Sam” Nielsen gives herself a chance to catch her breath while she listens for a second shot or any other sound that might tell her where the shooter is or what’s going on. She hears nothing but the buzzing of a couple of mosquitos and the whisper of a slight breeze rustling the willow trees behind her. A long moment later, a ping from her car’s engine makes her jump. The dog whimpers. She tightens her grip on its collar. More mosquitos, maybe a bee. The breeze again. Nothing else.
Dragging the dog with her, she slides sideways over uneven, slightly damp ground, stopping only when she was sure she’s sitting squarely behind her car’s engine block. She’s alone, no backup. Or to be more precise, her backup was at least forty minutes away. She and her five deputies were responsible for area larger than the state of Massachusetts. They patrolled deep canyons, wide salt flats, and seemingly endless stretches of sage and scrub brush, sometimes romantically dubbed the “American Serengeti.” More like it was America’s forgotten place—Drinkwater County, Idaho, population under 20,000 and dropping. Drinkwater was not a place where the young saw a future. Most left. She had returned. The first time she ran for sheriff, winning was a surprise.
Not like this. Not as surprising as seeing a bullet coming at you. Total surprise.
She looks around, making a quick assessment. She should be safe. The engine block is the only part of her vehicle that can stop a bullet. Everything else might deflect it or slow it down, but not . . .
Stay focused, she tells herself. Listen!
If someone is working their way around hoping to take another shot, she’ll hear something. Given the dense scrub brush next to the refuge lakes, she can’t imagine the shooter making a move without also making a noise. The undergrowth next to the lakes was thick. Not even the best tracker could . . .
Just listen, keep listening, she tells herself.
She hears nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. The buzzing of those pesky mosquitos continues. She also notes the screech of a distant hawk and the steady breathing of the dog that has momentarily stopped struggling. She loosens her grip slightly. The dog turns its head and tries to lick her hand. Not her dog. Never saw it before it hit her knees and took her down.
Sam leans her back against her patrol car, feeling a growing soreness in the shoulder that hit the ground. Still listening, she draws several slow, deep breaths while she reminds herself that you never see the bullet that kills you. Seeing a bullet is a good thing. Means it missed you already. Your brain can’t process what your eyes are seeing. Not that fast. By the time you know you’re seeing a bullet, it’s past being a danger. Her current danger is the next bullet, the one she doesn’t see.
Stay focused, she tells herself again while she tries to figure out what’s going on here. She was on her way to The Royal Hotel, a refurbished birder hangout on the edge of a local ghost town. The proprietors had called her because of a fist fight between a couple of seventy-year-old birders, both of whom wanted to press charges. So, she was on her way to the hotel, driving along the edge of the refuge’s larger lake, when she spotted some car tracks leading into a part of the bird refuge that was supposedly off limits to everyone. She stopped, got out of her car, followed the tracks a few steps and then from out of nowhere . . ..
She shakes her head.
Her patrol car has “sheriff” written on all four sides. Whoever fired that shot had to know they were firing at the Sheriff of Drinkwater County, Idaho, unless they were so inept with a gun that they’d let a shot go wild. She dismisses that possibility. The people in her county know how to handle a gun almost from the time they are old enough to hold one.
She takes out her phone. No service. No surprise. The bird refuge, situated near the eastern side of her jurisdiction, was notorious for having little or no cell phone service. She thinks about reaching round for the radio inside her patrol car, but quickly dismisses that idea. Sticking her head up long enough to grab the radio might be the move the shooter is waiting for—a scenario she considers more likely given the fact that the shooter obviously isn’t tramping through the brush hoping to line-up a shot from another, better angle.
Letting her dispatcher know that she was pinned down, wasn’t going to help. Sam returns to her only best option, which was to wait this out, let the shooter grow impatient and make the first wrong move. Meanwhile, she had become so alert, listening so intently, that the hair on the back of her neck was beginning to feel like pinpricks.
If she hears something, suggesting that the shooter is coming round, looking for a clean shot, she plans to roll under her vehicle, forcing her stalker to come within range of her side arm. Her rifles, of course, were also in her car along with her radio.
Five minutes tick by and she still hasn’t heard anything out of the ordinary. Come to think of it, she hasn’t seen anything out of the ordinary either—except that bullet and the dog. No longer struggling against her grip, the dog lays quietly beside Sam giving her a wide-eyed look, every time she glances in its direction.
She will deal with the dog when the danger is past, she tells herself. Sooner or later, the shooter will need to move. Wait, listen, she reminds herself yet again.
Sam Nielsen grew up in this dusty corner of America. At nineteen, she left to go to school in California, and like most young people who fled this long-forgotten, futureless place, she never thought she’d come back. Then, years later, when her husband died suddenly in a car crash, she couldn’t imagine raising her daughter alone in California, not when she had family living here. When she got elected sheriff, six months later, no one was more surprised than she was. She’d been sheriff for five years now, re-elected once, but, in moments like this one, sitting behind her car, waiting for someone to take another shot at her, she still couldn’t quite believe the direction her life had taken. She wasn’t naïve; she knew her election had a lot to do with the fact that her family had deep roots in this place, generations deep, and a family reputation for “not sitting still” a phase that meant something quite different than Sam’s current circumstances.
Actually, Sam thought the phrase “not sitting still” mostly applied to her grandmother, Maddy, who still ran the family ranch and was one of Drinkwater’s three county commissioners—had been for years and years. “Not sitting still” meant grandma, now in her seventies was still considered a go-getter. Sam’s mother was the famous artist Xan (Alexandra Nielsen), who signed her paintings with an “X.” She upheld the family reputation by never-never doing the expected or the ordinary. Being sheriff, didn’t mean that Sam was trying to uphold the family reputation. Quite the contrary. Her idea was to keep Drinkwater County running as smoothly as possible. No drama. No drama that could be avoided. She preferred to think of herself as a “peace officer.” Keeping the peace was how she measured her job. If things were running smoothly, she was doing a good job.
With that in mind, she made it a point to personally know most of the people in her county. She attended local football games, graduations, weddings, funerals. In other words, without making it a stated goal, she’d also learned to do the politician part of her job. In short, she was hard-pressed to think why anyone would want to shoot her.
Of course, the shooter didn’t have to be local. It is fall—bird season--meaning her job was currently complicated by the 10,000 or more birders who descended on her county, twice a year, every fall and spring. Strangers who didn’t know her, came from as far away as Australia, Brussels, and Patagonia. The map at The Royal Hotel showed pins from people who'd stayed at that hotel coming from every state in the US and half the world. Drinkwater County was considered a world-class birding site—one of the places every serious birder want to brag about having been. And yes, some of those birders could be annoying and city-stupid, meaning they got lost or got into fist fights or trespassed onto private property. Nevertheless, they were birders. They carried scopes, not guns. No reason to think one of them wanted to kill her.
A couple more minutes tick by.
Having not heard another shot or any other unusual sound, Sam releases her grip on the dog. It stands up and shakes itself. To her surprise, the dog is huge—a Great Dane. A spotted black and white Great Dane with a missing one back leg. The leg had been amputated some time ago; it was cleanly healed.
Whoa! she tells herself, a dog with a history.
Then she catches that thought as she suddenly realizes she remembered everything backwards. The black birds flying skyward had caught her attention. Then the dog knocked against her and, as she was falling, she saw the bullet. Did that mean . . .
Had this dog saved her life?
She shakes her head slowly. The bigger question was the dog itself. How had this enormous, three-legged, black and white dog come to be here at the right moment or any moment? It made no sense. Drinkwater County, Idaho, is rural. The only dogs people owned here were working dogs, ranch dogs, herding dogs. A three-legged Great Dane fit none of those categories. Most likely it had been dumped because it was too big or too crippled or just too much trouble to someone. Maybe that explained the tracks she saw. Someone had pulled off the road to dump the dog, leaving it to slowly starve or be killed and eaten by coyotes.
People like that . . . she grits her teeth. Then she reminds herself that she still needs to keep focused, keep listening.
She watches the dog. Like her, it seems alert, listening. In the distance, there is the gurgling cries of sandhill cranes. The dog turns in that direction and tests the air with its nose, no doubt smelling the water. Not too far in that direction are two lakes with a combined size slightly larger than Lake Tahoe, but unlike Lake Tahoe, they are only inches deep. Twice a year, every year, some 320 migratory species of birds used those lakes as a stopover. Scientists had found evidence that some species, like the sandhill cranes, had been stopping at these lakes for over a million years. A million years made the long minutes she’d been sitting behind her patrol car seem silly short, but she isn’t under the impression that any of this is silly.
The dog relaxes, it stretches its nose in her direction and nuzzles her arm—the one holding her sidearm. She brushes it away, not wanting to be distracted. The dog steps back, eyes her a moment, and then lies down, rolling onto one side as if it doesn’t have a care in the world. She thinks that’s a good sign, but waits, still listening.
A couple of minutes later, she hears it—the thing she’s been waiting for. Someone is tramping through the underbrush. However, they aren’t trying to be quiet and they’re coming from the lake side—her unprotected side, the opposite direction from the expected danger. The bullet had come from behind her. There are thick willows and a bank of cattails in front of her. She glances at the dog. It has rolled up, head cocked, listening with interest. Sam is taking no chances. Side arm still drawn, she gets onto her feet in a crouching position, braces her arm and waits.
Half a minute later, a middle-aged, slightly rotund woman, dressed in what looks like a white lab coat, pushes aside some of the willow branches and emerges into the clearing where Sam stopped to check the strange tracks. She exclaims, “Oh, here’s the road.” Then seeing Sam, she suddenly throws her arms into the air and shouts, “Don’t shoot.”
For a moment, Sam thinks this is so surreal she wonders if she has fallen into a Murakami short story or a Magritte painting. But, again, her training kicks in. She quickly shakes off her surprise, and, because it’s her job to protect people, she pops up, grabs the woman and pulls her down behind the truck. The woman lands with a decided thump and an audible groan.
“There’s an active shooter in the area,” Sam says. “Didn’t you hear the gunshot?”
The woman shakes her head. “What gunshot?”
Then Sam asks if she saw the flurry of blackbirds—probably ravens.
“Ravens,” the woman repeats and then adds, “No, no ravens.”
The woman rubs her arm where Sam grabbed her. The dog whimpers. Then, all of a sudden, the woman stops rubbing her arm and starts complaining about the dog. “It’s against the law to have a dog on the bird refuge, leashed or unleashed.”
“Not my dog,” Sam starts to tell her. Then it occurs to Sam that the real mystery is the woman.
“Who are you?” she asks.
The woman straightens slightly and answers, “I could ask the same. I mean, I’m not used to having a gun pulled on me. I’m even less used to being roughly pulled to the ground.”
Sam thumbs over her shoulder to the identifying insignia painted on the side of her vehicle.
The woman twists around. Then she leans away from the patrol car, as though she’s having trouble reading the sign. When she turns around again, she looks Sam over and says, “You’re the actual sheriff of Drinkwater?”
Sam is short, slight (she prefers “wiry”) and blond, meaning this lab-coated woman isn’t the first person to have asked that question.
Sam leans forward, looking pass the woman, to check the dog. It is sitting up, interested in what was going on, but not exhibiting any anxiety. If a shooter is still in the area, Sam would expect the dog to be more anxious. . .
Sam stops that thought. More likely, the dog was an overgrown house pet, lacking all the usual dog instincts. She gives herself a little shake. Things aren’t always what they seem, but this was getting weirder and weirder by the moment, meaning it was time to get a few things explained.