Sign Off (Caught Dead in Wyoming, Book 1)

 

 

With the car engine off, I heard a rhythmic sound, too widely spaced for hammering and not the right tone. Wood-chopping.

 

The side of the house was as spare as the front. But the back was something totally different. This—I thought with a glance that took in double glass doors to a wood-slatted patio, picnic table, grill and a sort of log jungle gym—is where somebody lived.

My second glance took in the man who lived there.

He was about fifty yards from the house, where the creek curved back around, forming a rear limit to the civilized area. A dead cottonwood tree had fallen from the far creek bank, bringing down a fence on the near side. Someone had sectioned the trunk, and he was chopping the sections into logs. He didn’t pause with his chopping, though I was certain he knew I was there.

This man could be Abe Lincoln’s cousin—from the good-looking side of the family. He had the hollowed cheeks, deep-set eyes, prominent brow of Lincoln. His skin was better, well tanned and not as lined. Beneath a baseball cap, his hair was dark, though he clearly had a more skilled barber than Abe. Even at this distance, I could tell Thomas David Burrell’s dark eyes were not filled with the same sad, but kindly interest that Abe’s always were. More like the rock-solid determination of Burrell’s daughter Tamantha.

There was another difference. I’ve heard stories about Honest Abe splitting logs, but never saw any evidence of it in his physique. This guy qualified as lanky, but he showed the evidence.

A navy plaid shirt hung from a protruding log. Burrell wore a white short-sleeved T-shirt, faded jeans and hefty boots. Each time he raised his arms, the thin cotton went taut over ridges of muscle. Under other circumstances, I might have appreciated that. In an alleged murderer hefting an ax it was not a particularly reassuring attribute.

“Mr. Burrell? I’d like to speak to you.”

“I’m busy.”

Against the crisp smell of the living vegetation fed by the creek, the pungent scent of cut logs pricked my nostrils. The chainsaw he’d apparently used to section the trunk to fireplace-sized lengths was off to a side with safety glasses beside it. Sawdust covered the ground and stirred with each motion. Even a spider’s web laced between two saplings at the edge of the creek held grains of it like a doily dotted with tarnished glitter. Around the stump he used as a splitting platform, chips littered the ground. On the other side grew a stack of fresh-split logs with not a stick out of place.

A man who didn’t mind making a mess, if the result was orderly.

He cleaved a quarter-round of log into a pair of perfect wedges, laid both on the pile, snagged his shirt and started toward me.

I sure wished he’d left the ax behind.

I swallowed as he neared. If Tamantha was wrong about her father, it was going to be very sad for her, but it could be damned tragic for me.

Those kinds of thoughts can slow your mind. So it had almost happened before I realized he intended to walk right past me and into the house. Rushing to stop him, I used what had been my best weapon for most of my life—words. “I’m E.M. Danniher, Mr. Burrell, with—”

“I know who you are.” He stopped just beyond me, turning his head.

“Oh. Well, you might not know that Tamantha—”

“You stay away from my daughter.”

I would if I could. I was tempted to say it, but the straight, narrow line of his mouth didn’t encourage that bit of honesty. “Tamantha came to me and—”

“I don’t care. Stay away from her.”

He turned, rested the ax against the railing and went up the two steps to the deck. Just as I was sure he was about to slam the door on me, he turned back.

“And quit nosing into my life. Quit asking questions about me.”

Of all the unfair accusations—

“I haven’t asked questions about you. I’ve asked about Foster Redus, but I can’t shut people up about you.” I moved to the bottom of the steps, looking up at him. “For some reason they seem to connect you and Redus.”

That one hit. I was glad, until I saw that it made him all the more dangerous. “So, you came to see the scene of the crime?”

“No.”

“Wanted to see a murderer for yourself, then?”

I was fed up. “No, I came to see the person Tamantha believes in. But all I see is someone who doesn’t care what this might be doing to his daughter.”

Silence. The sort of silence where your own words echo at you like a taunt. He narrowed his eyes. “That little speech supposed to make me break down and say I’ll tell you anything you want to know for my daughter’s sake?”

I stared right back at him. Me and Admiral Farragut damning those torpedoes and steaming full-speed ahead.

“Of course it was supposed to do that. Would anybody say something that sappy if it wasn’t supposed to break you down?”

His knees didn’t buckle. His damned mouth didn’t even twitch. But he did step back enough to let me in his house.

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