This is Part 3 of an excerpt from the first chapter of Blood on the Cimarron, an Oklahoma Mystery, set in Payne County, OK.
She steered through the opening, jumped out to push the gate closed, and scooted into the vehicle again.
Before her, a dirt road meandered through the rippling grass and over the ridge to the headquarters, a half-mile away. Even though she kept the speedometer under twenty, her vehicle shimmied on a wash-boarded stretch of road.
The RAV crested a hill; the headquarters complex stretched before her in the river valley. Buildings, barns and paddocks clustered around a plaza where gleaming black river rocks surrounded a centered flagpole. Corrals and holding pens extended behind the barns and the bunkhouse, their fence lines stretching toward the slender willows and tall cottonwoods of the muddy Cimarron River another half-mile away. Above, a turkey vulture soared in a circle. During her previous visits, an American flag at the top of the flagpole had rippled in the constant breeze.
“First thing I do each morning, last thing I do each night, is care for the flag,” J.B. Floren had told her proudly that first visit.
Today, J.B. had not run his flag up the pole.
An uncomfortable feeling settled in her stomach.
As the RAV bumped down the sloping gravel road toward the buildings, Claire scanned the ranch complex for movement. A pile of something at the base of the flagpole caught her attention. She slammed on the brakes and hopped out.
A roaring noise in her head drowned out the chickens clucking and fluttering in the coop fifty yards away.
Surely that wasn’t …
The man’s arms had been tied to the flagpole. His splayed legs stretched toward her. Floren’s handsome face was ruined. Blood streaked his sliced cheeks. Deep, dark red smears splotched his tattered white shirt. Beneath him, blood pooled on the rocks, soaking into the rich river bottom soil
Gooseflesh raised on her arms. Her vision blurred and her legs folded. She grabbed the SUV’s door handle.
“J.B?” She had no hope that the rancher was alive.
So much blood.
Claire bent over the end of the deputy sheriff’s smooth vinyl front seat, her head on her knees, legs out the door, eyes closed.
Don’t hyperventilate. The chemical scent of carpet cleaner rose from the floor mats.
She didn’t want to see the blood or the body again. Everything she knew about J.B. Floren she’d learned during their interviews, but none of it insinuated a motive for someone to kill him so violently.
Older images of another bloody body split her mind open, as if that day had been yesterday and not three years ago. She opened her eyes and focused on the line of trees that defined the distant river. Somewhere, a dog barked furiously.
Two more vehicles rolled into the courtyard which had become a parking lot full of sheriff’s department vehicles and an ambulance.
“Claire” a familiar voice called.
Holt Braden slammed the door of his black dually Ford pickup and charged toward her.
Claire groaned and clenched her teeth.
“I heard sirens as I was driving to town. Followed the medical examiner right through the gate and saw your SUV. What happened?” Worry had drawn temporary lines on her neighbor’s handsome face, but otherwise he looked as if he could have been on a photo shoot for GQ, prematurely gray hair tousled by the wind, belted khakis recently pressed, golf shirt tucked in to better define his trim muscular upper body.
A deputy held up his hand to stop Holt’s progress, his other hand poised above his holstered gun. “Sir, this is a crime scene. You can’t be here.” The deputy planted himself in Holt’s path.
Holt peered at the man’s name badge. Towering over the shorter, bulkier deputy, he pointed at the tape ten yards away. “The crime tape is over there.”
The men glared at each other.
Claire breathed deeply. Her heart rate slowed. The memory of the other body receded.
(Check back for tidbits about the writing of Blood on the Cimarron, and character sketches of Claire, her family and friends. Also, be sure to visit my website, http://www.marycoley.com, and fill out a contact form to be entered in the drawing for a free copy of this book, available later this month from Amazon as a trade paperback and on Kindle as an ebook.)