The war between the McFalls and the Drinkwaters had taken a nasty turn: someone had dynamited a reservoir, depriving the Drinkwaters' Double D ranch of its precious water supply. And Aaron McFall’s eldest son George was found dead at the site, apparently killed in the blast.
It looked as though George had been the victim of his own plan for wanton destruction, but his old friend Conan Flagg thought otherwise.
Sensing mysteries beyond the immediate tragedy, Conan began to search for both families’ secrets and found that revenge was but one motive for murder. There were also romantic entanglements to consider, and something frightening and unnameable as well....
Past Burns, Johnnie took the plane down to a lower altitude, following the fragile line of Highway 20, Burns’s link with both east and west, drawn ruler-straight across the fossil lake bed of Harney Valley, then curling up over a range of hills named Stinkingwater Mountain. Singular. Then the highway straightened again, striking north-northeast across another basin, through which the Malheur River threaded its way eastward toward Hell’s Canyon. A lonely cluster of houses and trees on the river marked the site of Drewsey, but Johnnie turned due east before they reached it, following a dirt road that struck off the highway. He gestured downward once, shouting the word “Drinkwater” against the roar of the engine.
Conan nodded, looking down at the tiny patch of trees and buildings, the headquarters of the Double D. This survey was part of the flight plan he had outlined on Johnnie’s navigational maps before their departure. Three miles past the Double D was the border between the two warring domains, marked by the thin line of a barbed wire fence. It was a long border, stretching south ten miles, and north five miles to the Malheur River. A long border to patrol or defend.
A flash of light reflected from an oval of dull copper to the south caught his eye. That would be the Spring Creek reservoir George had told him about. It was on Drinkwater land, but within a mile of the property line.
Then he frowned, shading his eyes with one hand. The reservoir seemed nearly empty, a brown puddle ringed with darker brown, wet earth. And the dam—
He touched Johnnie’s shoulder, shouting his instructions, receiving a wordless nod as the right wing tipped down and the plane made a long arc over the reservoir.
And Conan stared numbly down.
The reservoir was nearly empty, and soon would be entirely empty. Dark earth sprayed in radiating lines that converged at what had once been the center of the dam.
It had been blown up; dynamited.
A minor disaster it might seem. It had been a simple earthen dam no more than fifty feet across; the reservoir couldn’t have been more than half a mile long.
But in a land with an annual rainfall of ten inches, and in autumn, when there would be little precipitation except in the form of snow until the following spring, it was a disaster of major proportion for the rancher who depended on it to water his cattle in their winter pastures.
George had told him that only the burning of the Black Stallion stackyard put them ahead of the Double D in total damages sustained in this miniature war. Now the score had been evened. With a vengeance.
Conan gestured to Johnnie to continue their course, grateful for his reticence and the engine noise; he was too distracted by the implications of that disaster to discuss it.
It was only seven miles via the dirt road from the Double D’s headquarters to the Black Stallion’s. He saw the trees first; an improbably lush grove, green shading to gold with the season. Cottonwoods, most of them, but soaring over them, the golden plumes of Lombardy poplars, as nobly defiant as Cyrano’s white plume. They shaded every ranch house more than fifty years old in the region, lovingly nurtured in a land where water was precious. Untended, they died and their white skeletons marked the graves of countless homesteads. Well tended, they flourished, creating green oases, barriers against dust, sun, wind, and snow.
In and around this grove was a small community, its prosperity evident in its orderly arrangement and white-painted buildings and fences. The main house and the barn were separated by an open graveled area perhaps a hundred yards across, the house putting its side to it and facing west, the barn opening onto it, facing north. These and the pump house were the oldest structures, but the windmill atop the latter had been rendered impotent by the advent of electric power, the vanes gone, and the rudder only an indicator of wind direction. The cookhouse, bunkhouse, and three private residences for familied employees were more recent additions, but still verging on middle age. The newest additions were three house trailers, two matched pairs of tall metal cylinders—silos and propane tanks—and a large building housing the shop, a totally modern, elaborately equipped automotive repair depot Conan remembered well from his last visit. The sun glared from its metal roof, glittered on the machines in the yard behind it; pickups, tractors, road graders, backhoes, and the mechanical dinosaurs that harvested, baled, and stacked the hay and alfalfa crops.
Johnnie made a circle into the wind as Conan looked down at the main house, wondering at the number of cars parked in front of it. From the air, it looked like a child’s building block to which had been added a low, pyramidal roof, but on the ground, he knew, it was quite impressive despite its prudent austerity; two stories high, built of beautifully dressed tan stone, fronted with a wide porch, it was a rare example of ostentatious display for the area. Few families of its period were prosperous enough to build stone houses, usually satisfying themselves with clapboard copies of the houses left behind east of the Mississippi.
The airstrip east of the buildings was only a bulldozed length of ’dobe, but Johnnie Moss put the plane down as smoothly as if it were new paving and taxied toward the only observable gate.
“I thought your friend had a pump. Oh—there it is.”
Conan scarcely heard him, but not because of the engine noise. There was no one in sight. Yet, George was expecting him, and the approach of the plane couldn’t have gone unnoticed.
“Are you low on fuel?” Conan asked absently.
“Yes, but I can make it to the Burns field if there’s a problem here. It’s only thirty miles.”
There was a problem here; one that had nothing to do with the availability of fuel. The conviction was only reinforced when the plane came to a stop near the gate and he finally saw a sign of life.
It came in the person of a uniformed man who approached at a measured, determined pace. The uniform was brown and tan, and included a flat-brimmed Stetson and a .38 revolver in a belt holster. From the county sheriff’s office.
Johnnie asked dryly, “That the kind of welcoming committee you were expecting?”
“Not exactly. Will you get my luggage out while I see how welcoming this committee is?”
Conan’s ears rang in the baked silence as he went out to meet the uniformed man. The light wind was cool, but it had only to stop for a moment and the heat of the sun closed in. The man squinted at Conan, his arms hanging in a ready curve. When they were within six feet of each other and came to a mutual halt, he turned his attention to the plane.
“You from the Circle-Ten?”
The Ten-Mile Ranch name was also lettered on the plane, yet he chose the brand by which to identify its owner. But Conan didn’t smile at that; he was too overwhelmed with a sense of dread to notice colloquial subtleties.
“Yes. I’m Conan Flagg. Where’s George?”
The man gave him a look in which suspicion vied with shock, then glanced back toward the ranch buildings.
“You mean George McFall. He…he’s dead.”