Here’s this week’s excerpt of BIG HORN, leading up to its 6/1 release. Did you miss the first two excerpts? Get them here:

Prologue: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/04/18/sneak-peek-big-horn-prologue/ 

Chapter One: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/04/26/sneak-peek-big-horn-chapter-one/

For anyone that pre-orders the BIG HORN Kindle ebook, you’ll get BUCKLE BUNNY, a Wyoming suspense novella. Free. Included with your ebook. You can do that here: https://amzn.to/3KSKe5q.

Before I release you to the exciting BIG HORN excerpt, though, I want you to know that my Amazon Top 25 bestselling Patrick Flint novel, SWITCHBACK, will be both free in Prime Reading (and Kindle Unlimited) from now through May. If you haven’t tried it, now’s the time. Do it here: https://amzn.to/3xzADMO. Hurry reading it and the other books in the series, because #7, SITTING DUCK, comes out 7/28!

With no further ado, here’s Chapter Two of BIG HORN:

Big Horn, Wyoming

Jennifer snaked her hand under her husband’s arm and jammed the horn on the rental car. The blast was long, loud, and discordant, but it didn’t break up the traffic jam ahead of them—the traffic jam of massive bovines. She’d thought since they were booked in a lodge instead of crashing at her cousin’s remote ranch, they’d be staying in civilization. Had been sure of it when they’d passed a golf course community, but now . . . this. 

“Come on.” She mashed the horn again. 

There was zero reaction from the herd of beasts streaming down the mountain and blocking the dirt road. Tails swished at flies. Calves bawled. A cowboy whistled, then yelled “Yaw” and waved a coiled lasso at a cow that had taken a detour. Another animal slung its head and licked the inside of its nostrils with a long pink tongue.

Jennifer kept going. “It smells like a flippin’ feed lot here. Are cattle drives still a thing? I feel like we’ve stumbled onto the pages of Lonesome Dove or something.” It might have been her favorite book of all time, but that didn’t mean Jennifer wanted it to come to life around her. She started to go for the horn a third time.

Her husband blocked her, but gently. Aaron had learned to be extra careful with people because of his size. At six foot five, he doubled her body weight and then some. His size came in handy with his two passions: veterinary medicine and football, although his playing days had ended long ago. Back then, she would have added herself to his list of passions, too.

“Honking won’t do any good,” he said.

“We’re going to be late for Hank’s dinner.” 

They’d already missed the hall of fame ceremony in Cheyenne. She hoped there’d been a good turnout of supporters, since her aunt and uncle—his parents—hadn’t lived to see it. Her mother and Hank’s father were siblings, and their two families had always been close, visiting each other when she was small. Her family had quit coming to Wyoming around when she entered elementary school, though, and everyone had started meeting up for destination vacations or family reunions in Tennessee instead. She wasn’t sure why. 

Anyway, Jennifer had really wanted to be there for Hank and to represent her side of the family.

Aaron lifted an eyebrow. Just one. She envied his ability to do that. It made him seem easy going. Seem, schmeem. He was easy going. A part of her believed that if she had his one-eyebrow trick in her repertoire, she would have seemed easy going, too. Which, truth be told, she wasn’t. 

“If we’re late, it won’t be because of these cows,” he said. 

The jibe hit its mark. They’d departed Houston a full thirty-six hours after their original flight. She flopped back into her seat. “The jury was still out. I couldn’t just leave.”

“The jury is always out. Or the judge has called an emergency hearing. Or you have to prepare for a closing argument.” His voice was without rancor, until he added, “Like my patients don’t have emergencies. The difference is I turn call over to my partners, but there’s only one Jennifer Herrington, superstar Harris County assistant district attorney.”

“It makes a difference, Aaron. If the jury had convened for questions with the judge, and I wasn’t there, it could have signaled my lack of faith in the case. It was touch and go after he excluded my Eurofins test results. A child murderer could have walked.” She’d gone way out on a fragile limb on the expensive Eurofins DNA test, which was the only test around that differentiated between identical twins’ DNA. It had proved her defendant was the murderer. But the test hadn’t yet been replicated by other labs or laid out in detail in any peer-reviewed journals, so the judge had ruled that she couldn’t present the test and results to the jury. It had been a blow and left the entire case resting on the testimony of a witness little better than a jailhouse snitch. Given the nature of the crime and after all the money she’d spent on the excluded Eurofins test, there was no way she would have walked out on that trial before the jury was back. No stinking way. Not to mention how emotionally wrapped up in it she’d been. Sleepless nights and ten pounds she hadn’t meant to lose told the tale. It had been her first school shooting. All of her homicide cases were heart wrenching, but this one had taken its toll.

Aaron didn’t respond. She hadn’t expected him to. The stalemate over her work wasn’t a new one, and she knew he was mad she’d missed the dinner he’d made for her the night before, even though he was pretending he wasn’t. The truth was, she hadn’t expected him to go to all that trouble, or she wouldn’t have gone for drinks with Alayah. And after she’d Ubered home, she’d been so buzzed that the magnitude of his efforts hadn’t registered. She’d apologized that morning and still felt bad about it. 

A cowboy galloped his horse down the hill beside the herd, breaking her reverie. Jennifer threw open the car door and jumped out, stepping in the hem of her red pantsuit. She recovered, but then wobbled in her Louboutin heels on the uneven ground. Rocks. Hummocks of grass. Divots and cracks. And, ew, cow patties. She hopped to the side, narrowly avoiding a steaming pile.

“Hey, there,” she shouted to the cowboy. “Excuse me. Sir?”

The cowboy looked her way, then back at the cows. He shouted over their moos, which to her sounded a lot like moaning. My God, these animals sound like a phone sex call center. “Can I help you?”

She picked her way over the rough ground to get closer to him, struggling to maintain her dignity. 

He threw a hand up. “Stay back, ma’am. These aren’t pasture pets. If one of the bulls makes a run for it, I won’t promise I can stop him before he gets to you, with you dressed like a matador and all.”

Matador? What’s he talking about? This is brand-new Michael Kors. Which she’d purchased after the jury came back the afternoon before. But she hadn’t thought about the bulls. She stopped and smoothed her jacket. “We need to get up to our lodge. Do you mind letting us through?”

He tilted his head, then adjusted his hat. Down, up. “I wouldn’t mind, but the herd might.”

“How long will this take then?”

He scratched one shoulder. “Shouldn’t be much longer now. Once we get a fair number in, the rest follow pretty nice.”

She made a strangled sound deep in her throat and lifted her hair off her neck. “I don’t understand why this is happening.”

He frowned. “They have to come down some time now that summer’s over or they’ll starve up there, if they don’t freeze to death first.”

Another cowboy hollered, “Craig, coming your way.”

Craig touched the brim of his hat, and, without seeming to give the horse any signal Jennifer could discern, he and the animal wheeled away from her as one to intercept three cows who’d broken ranks. 

Aaron pulled the car up beside her. The slightly neon cobalt blue Ford Fusion that had seemed fine at the airport was looking out of place now. She settled back in it with a withering sigh. Suddenly, the sea of cows turned and flowed into the pasture. She watched through the window, her foot tapping on the floorboard. Craig the cowboy had been right. With the logjam cleared, the cows moved quickly, but it turned out there were a lot more of them than she’d counted on. 

Finally, ten minutes later, Aaron accelerated up the steep hill. Not a hill, really. More like the side of the Bighorn Mountains, just outside the tiny town of Big Horn, Wyoming. The encounter with Craig and the cows seemed a bit more charming in retrospect. She sent herself an email with a few snippets of description and dialog. The subject line was “Someday novel.” 

They approached a crooked wooden sign on their right that read THE BIG HORN LODGE in faded green paint. Was everything around there named big horn-something? A trend in naming conventions. Or maybe a rut? She wasn’t going to complain, though, since Aaron had made all the arrangements for their trip, letting her focus on her trial.

“This is it.” Aaron bumped the car over the metal slats of a cattle guard.

“It’s way out in the middle of nowhere, isn’t it?” 

The road crested a rise, then wound down to a cabin and outbuildings nestled at the edge of a forest. Above them, a row of flatirons in black and gray towered up, up, up toward a cloudless blue sky. Jennifer could almost imagine the faces of long dead presidents etched into the stone. 

“Wow,” Aaron said. “Just, wow.” His square jaw hung open as he braked and leaned toward the windshield, admiring the mountains. She admired her husband. The man got better looking every year of his life, and he hadn’t started from a deficit. His blond curls pushed against the back of his collar. He needed a haircut. He always needed a haircut. He turned to face her. “Isn’t it amazing?”

She agreed. “Like something out of a movie.” Dances with Wolves. Or True Grit.

He eased off the brake. The car coasted down the road—driveway?—toward a majestic lodge. They parked in front. The area could have doubled as a used car lot. There was an old Suburban up on blocks, an incongruous Porsche Cayenne, and a worn-in Dodge Ram two-ton, all lined-up in a row beside them. A stand of aspens shaded the front yard with shimmering golden leaves. Up close, though, the structure looked a little tired. Made of rough-hewn logs, it stood three stories tall, with a deep porch and tall, rectangular windows. The varnish on the logs had dulled, and graying wood was showing through it. The aged skull of a ram hung over the entrance, the curve of its horns forming a three-quarter circle on each side. Green paint peeled from the door. 

Jennifer’s phone buzzed and then chimed. She hadn’t had a signal since their little regional jet had landed at the airport in Sheridan an hour before. Voice mail messages, texts, and emails all downloaded and announced themselves at once.

Aaron turned off the engine. “Ready?” He popped the trunk and got out.

The lure of technology tugged at her, but, after making sure none of the messages were from her twin brother Justin, her best friend Alayah, or her parents, she broke free of it. Her office knew to consider her unreachable through the weekend. She deserved a few hours away from the grind and could check her messages later. She slung her tiny purse and larger laptop bag over her shoulder. By the time she caught up with Aaron outside, he had hefted both of their suitcases onto the porch. She trotted up the creaky wooden steps, windmilling her arms to stay upright when she caught a heel between two boards. She jerked it out without breaking it. Aaron didn’t seem to notice. A piece of lined notebook paper taped to the glass of the storm door wafted up and down in the wind. BE WITH YOU IN A MOMENT. 

Jennifer rang the doorbell. After a minute with no answer, she heard voices outside. “Someone’s over there.” She pointed toward the side of the lodge. 

She and Aaron left their bags and followed their ears. On the side of the house, they found two men in a heated conversation. The looked like the before-and-after photos for an anti-drugs and alcohol public service announcement. One wore pressed khakis, wing tips, and a button-down shirt. The other, soiled jeans, suspenders, and a buttoned blue chambray shirt that, as Jennifer got closer, she saw read THE BIG HORN LODGE over the breast pocket. Both men looked to be in their early sixties and had white blond hair, but the conservative cut on the business-type was nothing like the Rod-Stewart-on-a-bender look of the one associated with the lodge. Their ice blue eyes differed, too. Piercing versus dulled. 

Rod Stewart crossed his arms. “Don’t make me call the sheriff, Hadley.”

Hadley, the Gordon Gekko wannabe, sneered at him. “I haven’t done a thing.” 

“Right.”

Gordon Gekko—Hadley?—pushed back his cuff, examining a shiny gold Rolex. “This isn’t over, George. Not by a long shot.”

“It never is,” George-aka-Rod Stewart muttered. He looked up as if noticing Aaron and Jennifer for the first time. Louder, he said, “Sorry about that, folks.” Then, staring at Jennifer, he added, “Oh, my.”

“What?” Jennifer said.

“It’s just, well, your outfit is—”

Hadley, “Loud,” at the same time that George said, “Terrifying.”

Jennifer’s jaw dropped, and she gawked at them. Hadley nodded and walked away. Jennifer looked at her husband and mouthed what the . . . ?  

“May I help you?” George took a few careful steps in their direction.

Aaron stuck out his big hand. “Aaron Herrington. My wife Jennifer and I,” he gestured to include her, “have a reservation for tonight.”

“Ah, yes. You paid for three nights, and then couldn’t make the first two.”

“That’s right.”

The men shook. Jennifer offered her hand, but she dropped it when George didn’t turn her way.

“I’m George Nichols. Come on.” He walked around them. Liquid sloshed in time with his steps. A glass pint protruded from the back pocket of his saggy, grease-stained jeans.

Aaron did the eyebrow lift again. Longing coursed through Jennifer. She wanted to be in love again, to be loved again. By Aaron. They had been so good together once. Had been for a long time, and she wasn’t sure when they’d drifted apart, or why. The moment and the ache passed as quickly as they’d come, though, and she and Aaron traipsed behind George to the entrance. Aaron took one of their suitcases in each hand. She reclaimed her laptop bag, then glanced back into the parking area before going into the lodge. The Hadley fellow was watching them from beside the Cayenne. The scene between him and George had been off putting. Jennifer wondered who he was, why he was here, and when he was leaving. Soon, I hope.

George flipped on lights and motioned them ahead. “Let me check your room. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared down a dark hall, like a bowling ball searching for a gutter.

Jennifer paused to take measure of the place. The front room was spacious, with bulky furniture oriented around a cast iron stove. It had a throwback feel, circa 1970. Oranges, browns, golds. Stained wood finishes. Knubby fabrics. Gilt-framed pictures. A wide opening led into a kitchen with yellow Formica on every surface. Before Jennifer could get a closer look, though, the light overhead flickered and went out. 

She said, “It’s a little run down. I’m thinking The Shining.”

Aaron cocked his head, a pleased expression on his face. “More Wyoming meets The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

“Maybe.”

A shaggy, gray-muzzled St. Bernard struggled to its feet from a carpet with a jagged row of missing fringe around its edges. Jennifer thought the dog was coming to check them out. Instead, it lifted a shaky leg on the corner of the wall.

“No,” she cried.

Aaron groaned, then he laughed. “Poor old guy. Here, boy. Let me take you out.”

The dog wagged its tail and tottered across the floor like it had been trading nips with George. Before he and Aaron could reach the door, there was a screech, and a calico cat leapt from its perch on a rolltop desk, attaching itself by its claws to Aaron’s chest. Aaron grunted—for him, a fairly dramatic expression of shock and pain—and grabbed the cat. In the brief and violent wrestling match that ensued, the cat scored a few major points, although ultimately Aaron wrenched it off and tossed it away from him. With a swish of its multi-colored tail, it jumped back onto the desk, where it licked its paws and studied the intruders as if imagining them stuck to a specimen board by long straight pins.

Aaron let loose a string of curse words. If his mother were here, she would have come after her son’s mouth with a bar of soap.

“That dog is an incontinent pony, and the cat is a gremlin.” Jennifer put a hand to her throat. “Your shirt. It’s shredded.”

He pulled the gray University of Tennessee golf-style shirt away from himself and peeked down the front. “So is my chest.” He let go of the fabric and blood seeped through as the shirt settled against his skin.

“I’ll find something to clean you up.” Jennifer hurried into the kitchen, looking for paper towels and soap. When George returned, she’d ask him for hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol, too. Aaron wasn’t a stranger to wounds inflicted by animals in his line of work, and she’d doctored him many times. Once, when he was in vet school, he’d even spent a few days in the hospital with cat scratch fever—which had earned him the nickname Ted Nugent from his classmates—so both of them knew personally how serious cat’s claws could be. 

She stopped short in the center of the eating area adjacent to the kitchen. A sour smell undercut with something sickeningly sweet burned her nasal passages. Trash was stacked to overflowing, with a Wyoming Whiskey bottle balanced on top. Detritus from a meal of chips and sandwiches littered the countertops. Dishes were piled like the leaning tower of Pisa in the sink. By the faucet, a rusted coffee can was heaped with rotten food. A piece of medical tape on its side announced in black all caps letters that it was COMPOST. 

But it wasn’t the filthiness that gave her pause. It was the black and white animal scurrying through the food and dishes on the counter.

“Aaron . . .” Her voice quavered. She sucked in a whistling breath. And then she burst into tears. Sobs, really. Gasping, heaving sobs that bent her over on her knees.

Her husband ran into the kitchen. “What is it?” He straightened her by her shoulders, his eyes boring into hers.

She pointed at the counter. The little creature was standing on its back legs now, watching them. Through hiccups, she said, “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Aaron’s laughter scared the animal, and it squeaked at them and darted behind a standing mixer. “It’s a skunk, Jenny.”

“I never thought I’d get this close to one.”

“You’re almost close enough to get sprayed.”

“I don’t c-c-c-care.” Watching Bambi as a little girl, Jennifer had fallen in love with Flower, and her heart had remained true. She inched into the kitchen. “Hey, there, little guy. Or are you a girl?” she cooed.

“You know you’re probably the only person on the planet who’s fanatical about skunks, right?”

Jennifer flapped her hand to shush him. “Come back, sweetie pie. Just let me get another look at you.”

“It’s so rare they probably don’t even have a name for the disorder.”

Jennifer sniffed. “They’re so little and misunderstood. Their spray is just a way to protect themselves. They do lots of good things, like eat mice and rats and spread seeds.”

She heard George’s feet thumping on hardwood. At least, she hoped it was George, and not Hadley. But she didn’t tear her eyes away from the skunk.

“That’s Jeremiah Johnson,” George said, sounding a little sloppier than a few minutes before. Glass clinked as he dropped something onto the trash mountain. “I found him as a baby in a live trap in my barn, dehydrated and starving. I bottle fed him until he recovered. After that, he didn’t want to leave. We’ve been together ever since. Jeremiah, come meet the nice guests.”

The skunk waddled to George and climbed into his arms. Jennifer trilled.

“Jeremiah’s stink maker was removed, so it’s safe to come close. He likes to get to know you before you handle him, though.”

Don’t we all. “If you’re sure?” Jennifer was already halfway across the kitchen.

Aaron shook his head, grinning. “You’re fulfilling a lifelong dream for her right now. A bucket list item.”

George swayed like there was a stiff wind blowing through the kitchen. “See if he’ll sniff your hand.”

Jennifer held her hand out, palm down. Jeremiah sniffed it, then skittered up George’s arm and perched on his shoulder like a parrot. 

“He’s adorable,” she said.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my little buddy.” George set the skunk back on the counter. 

Jennifer shuddered. Animals, even tame skunks, didn’t belong on kitchen counters in her world. The lodge was a pigsty. Luckily, they weren’t staying long and didn’t have to eat here. She turned away from the mess. 

“Do you have any rubbing alcohol? My husband had an encounter with your cat.” Her voice was sticky sweet. As cute as Jeremiah was, the cat was a menace.

Aaron gave Jennifer a look. He knew what it meant when a southern woman used a voice like that.

George smiled. “Sorry about Katya. She thinks she’s our guard dog, since Liam doesn’t get around well anymore.”

From the living room, the dog’s tail thumped so hard at the mention of its name that it sounded like a tribal drum.

“Is Liam the incontinent dog?” she asked.

George beamed. “That’s him. Isn’t he a peach?” He walked out of the kitchen and into the hall.

Aaron and Jennifer followed him.

“Bless his heart,” Jennifer said drily. 

“There’s rubbing alcohol and cotton balls in the hall bathroom closet.” George motioned through a doorway. He took a few more steps and pointed to another opening. Jennifer couldn’t see inside it. “This is your room. There was a famous mystery author staying in it last week. He rented the whole place so he could have peace and quiet to write in.”

Aaron said, “Jennifer is something of a writer herself.”

She frowned. “Am not.” An English major. A writer of trial briefs. An obsessive reader. But she’d given up dreams of pursuing writing along with eating bad carbs in her thirties. Both had been painful. 

Aaron’s eyes clouded. “But you’ve always wanted to write murder mysteries.” 

And now I just watch them on the Hallmark Channel. She shook her head no at him.

Aaron seemed to cast off whatever negative feeling it was that had sprinted across his face. To George, he said, “Who stayed here, if you can tell us?”

“The one who writes stories about that detective in LA named after some famous wacky artist.” 

Jennifer knew exactly who he meant, and she couldn’t help feeling a little excited. 

George continued. “One of many authors that have stayed here, actually. I’ve had Craig Johnson—back before he bought his spread west of here—Rita Mae Brown, and, oh, others. I remember names better earlier in the day when my brain is working.”

When he isn’t pickled.

“There’s a bathroom in here, but don’t use it. Come on. Let me walk you through your water situation.”

“Wait. What? Don’t use the bathroom? Water situation?” Jennifer asked.

“The septic tank corroded and collapsed, so we aren’t currently able to run any water. I’ve put some bottled waters in your room.”

Jennifer couldn’t be understanding him correctly. “What does that mean—not able to run water?” 

He looked at her like maybe her question wasn’t very smart. “We can’t use the sinks, showers, or toilets until tomorrow.” 

Jennifer was too flabbergasted to respond. No running water? As in zero, zip, nada?

Jeremiah galloped down the hall. George scooped the skunk off the floor and tucked him in his arm like a football. He opened a door. It led outside, and the three of them exited onto a back deck. On it sat a hard-plastic camp potty, about twelve inches tall and hardly bigger than Jennifer’s tush. Aaron will crush the thing. A roll of toilet paper sat on the deck beside it. 

George cleared his throat. “These are the temporary facilities.”

Jennifer’s mouth dropped open. “It’s so . . . exposed.” No sheet or shower curtain or screen or anything.

“Nobody back here but animals and the mountain.” George side stepped from the deck to a tree where a hose was attached to a pail hanging from a branch. “Here’s the shower. You turn it on over there.” He pointed to a faucet at the base of the house, about fifteen feet away. “The water comes through holes in the bottom of the bucket.”

Jennifer was at a loss for words. With wide eyes, she turned to her husband and mouthed no, no, no.

“Is it, um, heated?” Aaron asked.

George was fiddling with the pail and didn’t look over at them. “The water? No, but the weather’s still nice out. If you’re quick about it, it shouldn’t be too bad.”

Aaron avoided Jennifer’s eyes. “When will it be fixed?”

“Black Bear Betty is working on it right now. Here she comes with the old septic tank.” George lifted a hand in greeting as a tractor motored into view. He teetered but remained upright.

Black Bear Betty? 

A woman with a silver pixie cut and a face like a bulldog sat high on the big orange tractor, waving a cigar. Hunks of metal with holes like lattice filled the tractor’s bucket. Jennifer didn’t know much about septic tanks, but she did know they were meant to hold things inside, not sieve them to the outside. The septic tank in the bucket was holier than the threadbare underwear her grandma used to mend for her grandfather.

Aaron’s eyes wandered around the property. “We’d sure love a tour, if you’ve got the time.” They might as well, since Jennifer didn’t want to start over on her hair and make-up now, thanks to the outdoor “shower,” which meant they’d no longer be running late.

George said, “I’ve got nothing but time. Let me put the critter in the house first, though.”

Maybe he should put the incontinent critter out. “Does Jeremiah have to go in?” Jennifer leaned toward the animal. This time the skunk let himself be petted. She was touching a skunk for the first time in her life. The trip was worth it if for this moment alone.

“Only if we don’t want him to be fox food.”

“Oh, no, Jeremiah can’t be fox food,” Jennifer agreed, nearly purring. She peered up at Aaron. “But we should take care of your wounds first.”

“Let’s do the tour first,” he said.

After putting Jeremiah away, George returned and led them across the property. The grass wasn’t like Southern grass. It grew in the spikey clumps that Jennifer had already encountered by the cattle drive and made her wish she’d worn boots. When they reached a red wooden barn, George removed an unsecured lock and slid open the hanging doors. It was dark inside, but Jennifer’s eyes adjusted quickly. The space was cram packed, except for a tractor-sized parking spot with wheel imprints in the dirt. Probably from the one Black Bear Betty was using, Jennifer decided. She browsed the rest of the mess. Discarded paraphernalia from the lodge. Gardening pots. Winter shovels. Vehicle maintenance items. A couple of snowmobiles, one of which seemed pretty mangled. A set of stairs in the back leading to a trap door in the ceiling. The biggest portion of the interior was taken up by a red tractor with four flat tires parked in front of an assembly line of logs. Limbless trees, rather—a forest of them—laid cross ways between wooden guides. Beside them was a row of bins filled with split logs ready for a fireplace, and a chain saw hanging from a hook on a post. The whole barn smelled like sawdust and petroleum products.

Then Jennifer saw movement. A scrawny bearded man was sitting in a back corner, leaning against a giant backpack, whittling a stick with a black pocketknife.

George noticed him at the same time. “Dammit, Will. You can’t stay here. I’m getting sick and tired of telling you.”

Will’s clothes were grimy and frayed, and his age was hard to estimate under all the dirt and facial hair. “It’s a free country.” 

“Except for private property laws.”

“And that’s how you treat someone who used to work for you and is down on his luck. Nice.” 

“There are plenty of places to camp free on government land.”

Will closed his knife, stood, and stuffed it and a water bottle into the backpack. He didn’t zip it. Jennifer itched to pull it closed for him. “Not anywhere near here. Not with power and water.”

“I’ll give you a ride up to Big Goose myself.”

“Do you think I have a death wish? I’m not going up the mountain with a drunk like you. I’ll walk.”

“Suit yourself.”

Will hefted the backpack up and onto one shoulder. He worked his other arm through the strap, his back bowing under its weight. Without another word, he walked out of the barn, like a trekker in search of the Himalayas. 

Aaron and Jennifer exchanged a long look, eyebrows up.

“This baby is my log splitter,” George said, patting the broken-down tractor, and moving on as if he hadn’t just evicted a squatter from his property.

“It runs?” Aaron walked around it and inspected it with the look of someone who’d grown up fixing the things he’d broken or wrecked.

“The engine does. She won’t go anywhere, but she can still power this.” George walked them around to the back of the tractor. A large piece of pointed metal protruded from its rear side. 

George picked up a chain saw and mimed cutting with it. “I cut the big logs into useable lengths.” He set the chain saw down and grabbed a pre-cut section of log. “Then I turn on the splitter.” He held the wood against the stationary point of the metal. A drill bit, Jennifer decided. That’s what it looked like. “It splits the log into pieces.” He set the big piece down and lifted two others of the same length, only split. “Like these. Then I toss them in the carrier.” He heaved them into the wheeled bin. “When I need firewood, I hook the other tractor to one of the bins, and I drive it over to the house.”

“Wow, that’s a nifty system.” Aaron’s eyes were gleaming embers.

George’s chest expanded a couple of inches.

More like a great way to trigger a life insurance policy, especially for someone as obviously fond of Wyoming Whiskey as George. And how in the world can one person burn so much firewood, even in a lodge?

“Of course, I still have the manual splitter, too.” He hefted a long-handled implement with an angled club at the end. It looked like it weighed as much as Jennifer.

Jennifer was more interested in the bag of ancient golf clubs she’d spotted. She touched the bag. “Are these yours?”

George barely glanced at them. “They belonged to the previous owner.”

She pulled out a driver with a discolored metal shaft and scarred wooden head. Rolling her neck and shoulders, she settled into her stance, the old club as comfortable in her hands as if she’d held it a thousand times. Then she twisted into her backswing and unleashed like she was teeing off at Augusta. 

Aaron whistled as the club cut through the air with a swish. “Fore.”

George ducked with his hands over his head. “Shit! What was that?”

Aaron laughed. “A driver. Watch out for my wife. She’s lethal with one of those things.”

George was still shaking his head as Jennifer slid the club back in the bag. 

After they finished with the barn, George led them to a stable that listed slightly downhill. A big, fenced vegetable garden ran along one side. A horned barn owl with a superior expression watched them from the open hay loft over the door. Jennifer stepped around a nasty pile of something below it that looked disturbingly like a regurgitated mouse. 

George showed them stalls for horses and kennels for smaller animals. “Everything comes inside during the worst of the winter. But you’d be surprised how infrequently that is. The animals adapt. Especially the horses. I’d never been much of a horse person until I married. Shelly talked me into them, and before you knew it, we had four. I built this cedar tack room myself.”

The workmanship was beautiful. The room was empty. Jennifer hadn’t seen any horses outside, either.

“Where are the horses?”

“Sold ‘em.” His tone cut off the possibility of further discussion on the topic.

Next, he took them toward a cavernous metal building. They passed a section of fence on the way that looked like it had been built the day before. 

It was quite a paradox to Jennifer how decrepit the stable was compared to the five tight strands of barbed wire strung between upright green metal posts. “New fence?”

“Nearly. I had a fellow running cattle here this summer. He put it in.”

“It looks expensive,” Aaron said.

George grinned crookedly. “Fences around here need to be horse high, pig tight, and bull strong.”

Aaron nodded like George had just explained a revolutionary theory on quantum physics. “Exactly.”

They entered the metal building. Inside were stacks of new lumber next to an assortment of woodworking tools. 

“I’ve been meaning to finish out my shop, but I haven’t got around to it. It has electric, heat, and water, though, and that’s really all I need.” 

Aaron walked the concrete floors high on the balls of his feet, a bounce to his step. “Don’t you love it, Jennifer?”

“It’s peachy,” she said. It was bittersweet to see her husband like this. He’s been unhappy, she realized. She smiled at him, too late, and he didn’t see it.

The last place George took them was a cottage. Rundown didn’t begin to cover it. The wooden siding hadn’t seen a paintbrush in far too long. A board on the little porch was broken. One of the front windows had been replaced with plywood.

But what drew Jennifer’s full attention was a piece of plain printer paper plastered to the door with multiple layers of clear tape. The word KILLER marched across the page in precise capital letters.

George scowled and tried to loosen the tape with his fingernails. It didn’t go well, and Jennifer pitched in.

Aaron’s voice sounded concerned. “Do you know who left this here?”

George snorted. “Yes. My wife’s ex-husband. The crazy SOB’s been harassing me.” He nodded. “You met him earlier. Hadley.” The Gordon Gekko guy. He dropped his voice. “I’ll show him harassment. You’d think he’d find a better way to spend his time than driving out here a couple of times a week.” He peeled the last of the tape away. “He divorced her, you know, but he never loved my Shelly more than when she married me, especially after she died. He blames me for her death.” He opened the door and muttered, “Not half as much as I blame myself, though.”

Again, Aaron and Jennifer shared a significant look. 

Aaron cleared his throat. “Do you live in the cottage?”

“It’s where I sleep. I miss Shelly less out here,” George said. 

Jennifer peeked around his shoulder. Inside a dark, messy room, another Wyoming Whiskey bottle sat on a coffee table beside a tin cup. 

He eyed it and licked his lips. “Sorry about the mess. I think I’m going to call it a night. If you have an emergency, call 911.” He waved as if to shoo them away. “Have a nice evening.”

Aaron and Jennifer backed out the door, which George shut firmly in their face. 

“All right, then,” Aaron said.

The two of them walked toward the lodge. Jennifer pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. Could this man, this place, and this day get any stranger? It didn’t seem possible. They only had to spend one night here, though, and then they’d be back in their luxurious, beautiful, normal Houston condo—with functional plumbing. 

Thank God.

To lock in your pre-order Kindle ebook and bonus novella, order BIG HORN + BUCKLE BUNNY, here: https://amzn.to/3KSKe5q.

Now, here’s Chapter Three! https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/05/12/sneak-peek-big-horn-chapter-three/

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