#7 The Sun: a mystery

An excerpt from Chapter One

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

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It’s the Holidays so I’ve decided to take a break from the usual (serious) content of this newsletter and offer something different and fun: an excerpt from the first chapter of my mystery novel The Sun (Book 1 of the Sun Ranch Saga).

Instead of a news item, I’ll quote an endorsement of my book by Anne Hillerman, New York Times best-selling author of the Leaphorn/Chee/Manuelito mysteries: “In this far-ranging debut novel, Courtney White creates a story worthy of his deep and detailed knowledge of the American West today…Nicely done!

Here’s the story pitch for The Sun:

Without warning, Dr. Bryce Miller, a young doctor in Boston, inherits a historic cattle ranch in northern New Mexico from a wealthy uncle she barely knew. She flies out to sell The Sun to the highest bidder, but things get complicated when a body is found murdered. She must choose among suitors who want to turn the large ranch into either: an upscale housing development with golf courses, an oil-and-gas field, a nature preserve, a casino resort, the underground home for a doomsday cult, or the plaything of a shadowy business mogul. Each is willing to pay a large sum of money – and maybe do anything – to get the property. She has seven days to decide.

Bryce could see a cluster of buildings under two rows of tall trees up ahead, looking like a leafy oasis in the sea of grass. Ranch Headquarters, had to be. The foreman’s house should be the first building on the right she recalled from a map. She slowed the car as she approached a small brown house. Near it stood a tall windmill, its heavy gray blades making a screeching sound as they turned slowly. It looked like it came straight from a western movie, Bryce thought – or a museum. Behind the house was what appeared to be a corral. What really caught her eye, however, was the silver pickup truck parked in the driveway. The foreman was home!

She parked behind the truck and pushed up her sunglasses as she stepped out of the car to get a better look at the house. It was a simple, cinder-block thing fronted by a white fence. Behind a gate sat a small, thirsty-looking lawn. It was late May – shouldn’t the grass be greener? She waited. Where was the foreman? Napping? She honked the rental’s horn, surprising herself at its loudness in the quiet air. Nothing. She walked to the gate in the fence, opened it, and crossed to the front door. She knocked once and waited. The windmill screeched again. She knocked a second time.

“Mister Harris?” she called loudly. “It’s Bryce Miller.”

Nothing. Feeling slightly annoyed now, she cupped her face with her hands and peered through the living room window, whose curtains were partially open. Dimly, she saw a light-colored sofa, a stuffed chair, and a pair of mostly empty bookcases against a far wall. There was carpeting and possibly a stereo system on a wooden console, though she couldn’t be certain. A laptop sat on a coffee table in front of the chair. She could see a closed door in a hallway and what looked like the entrance to the kitchen.

No foreman.

Bryce pulled her phone from the vest pocket, but there was no signal at all. Maybe he was out back. She crossed back through the gate, leaving it open, and turned to her right. Rounding the corner of the house, she had to side-step a rain barrel that had fallen over. Behind the building was a miserly backyard with two neglected-looking trees and a peeling bird bath. No foreman.

She folded her arms across her chest in frustration. Where was he? Uncertain if she should continue to feel annoyed or begin to feel worried, Bryce turned a half-circle, peering around. The silver pickup sat quietly in the driveway. Something didn’t feel right. She decided to hold her breath and listen. Other than the screeching windmill and a few distant bird calls, everything was so quiet. There was no background noise, she suddenly realized. The steady urban hubbub that she had known all her life was gone.

At the sound of another metallic screech, Bryce walked toward the windmill, shading her eyes against the bright sky as she traced a spindly metal ladder to its top, not entirely sure why she thought the foreman might be up there. He wasn’t. Was there an outhouse? She surveyed the grounds. Maybe the foreman was busy at one of the other Headquarters buildings. Maybe they had a more relaxed attitude toward keeping appointments here in the country. Perplexed, she began walking back to her car. She glanced at the silver pickup as she walked past.

A dog suddenly lunged at her from the bed of the pickup, snarling and snapping its jaws. Bryce recoiled, tripping over a tree branch that lay incautiously along the side of the driveway. She recovered quickly and spun around athletically, but the dog had disappeared, no doubt lurking in the truck’s bed waiting to attack again. She could feel her heart beating fast. She approached the pickup cautiously, rising a bit on her toes in order to peer into the bed without getting too close. It was empty at first. Then she saw a black tail followed by a black-and-white body, then a head, pointy ears and brown eyes. Reflexively, she pulled back, but the dog didn’t attack. She peeked again. The dog stared back. Its eyes were sad.

 “Hey there,” she said soothingly. “Where’s your person? Did they go away somewhere?”

Bryce decided to peer through the open passenger window into the cab. She saw a travel mug in a cup holder, a water bottle next to it, a pair of work gloves on the passenger seat, and a magazine on the floor with a cow on its cover. Did that mean the truck belonged to the foreman? Maybe everyone here had cow magazines. There was a CD on the seat next to the gloves. She reached through the window and picked it up. Loyal Brigand. Hard jazz. Not what she expected a ranch foreman to listen to, but you never knew. She dropped the CD back on the seat and pushed off from the pickup with both hands as if she were in a small boat leaving the dock. Maybe she was supposed to meet him at one of the other buildings?

She climbed into the rental, shutting the door harder than she planned. She swung the car back onto the road and drove slowly through the Headquarters looking for a sign of the foreman. On her left, she saw a brown, rambling, one-story building, looking historic. A sign stuck in the ground said Office. Next to the house, a sprinkler sat quietly in the middle of a large lawn. A hammock hung motionless between two tall trees. On the right, she passed a double-door maintenance facility of some sort, looking new. Its doors were closed tight. A yellow tractor sat passively beside it, near a pile of large rocks. As the building slid by, she caught a glimpse of three tall, cylindrical containers on thin metal legs behind it. Hoses hung down from each one.

A little farther on, as the canopy of trees began to thin out, she spied a short road on the right leading to a large circular structure. It reminded her of the corral back at the little house. It was empty as well. On the left, under the last row of trees, was a trailer. It was long and narrow, its silver metallic hide pocked at regular intervals with windows, each closed with curtains. A solitary door occupied its middle, connected to the ground by a short stair. She slowed down. There was evidence of tire tracks in the semi-circular driveway, she thought, but no vehicles. It looked lifeless.

A small chill tingled her spine.

Bryce hit the brakes, stopping the car in the middle of the road. She had reached the edge of the sea of grass and didn’t feel like venturing any farther in fear of getting lost. She drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. Where was the foreman? Did he forget their meeting? Unlikely. She pulled her phone from her vest but it still utterly lacked a signal. She tossed it onto the passenger seat in exasperation. Honestly! What sort of foreman skipped appointments? The missing kind. The chill returned. She pushed it away, feeling faintly ridiculous. They had crossed wires somehow, that’s all. She decided to go back to her uncle’s house – maybe he went looking for her there.

Bryce tugged on the steering wheel and stepped smartly on the gas, forcing the car into a tight U-turn, tires crunching loudly on the gravel. She had miscalculated. The car rocked side-to-side violently as it left the road, tossing Bryce around in her seat. The steering wheel slipped from her hands briefly. The wheels made a straining sound in the grassy dirt and the car slowed to a crawl. She prayed it wouldn’t get stuck! Fortunately, the vehicle kept going but rocked again as it reentered the roadway. Finally, everything settled down. Bryce took a deep breath as she gripped the steering wheel firmly.

No more wrong turns, she promised herself.

The Sun is the first book in a mystery series titled the Sun Ranch Saga, set on a working cattle ranch in northern New Mexico. You can purchase a print or ebook version HERE: https://www.amazon.com/Sun-Mystery-Ranch-Saga/dp/1732756104/

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About me: For twenty years I worked to create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others focused on western working landscapes. Today, I am a full-time writer. My nonfiction books include Forewords by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. For more information or to contact me see: www.jcourtneywhite.com/

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Terra Firma means ‘solid earth’ or ‘firm ground’ in contrast to air or water. Historically, it was first used by the Republic of Venice to describe its holdings on the Italian mainland.