Deception at the Diamond D Ranch is a western mystery published by Coffeetown Press, an imprint of Epicenter Press, in April 2022. This chapter digs into two characters’ relationships with the land and their competing conservation ethics. It is reprinted with permission.
Ranger Cade Rigens is working to establish the nation’s newest national park in one of the most rugged and remote parts of the American West. On the cusp of a history-making public hearing, the park’s most vocal opponent comes to Cade with news about a young man who went missing doing research in the mountains.
Venturing into the wilderness with a political adversary as his guide is the least of Cade’s problems. As he struggles to uncover what happened, he gets the attention of militant activists who stymie his progress and threaten his safety. As he gets close to unraveling it all, he discovers at the center a mystery as old as the region’s settlement.
Deception at the Diamond D Ranch is grounded in present-day political tensions about federal land in the West. It also draws on the story and heritage of Basques who moved to the West at the turn of the twentieth century to work as miners and sheep herders. Basque language, dance, traditions and stories dating to 6000 BC are thriving in the Intermountain West, and the central riddle in the novel hinges on the lore and legends of this vibrant and influential heritage.
Deception at the Diamond D Ranch is set against the backdrop of the West’s most unsung and stunning scenery, as well as the real tensions that exist between rural westerners, new westerners, and the lower forty-eight states’ largest concentration of publicly owned land.
Fey Dunham shivered in the dawn chill. She was tucked tight against a chocolate-brown escarpment of rock, the dirt beneath her back hard as stone, her hands tucked into her sleeves to keep her fingers warm, the sweater the ranger gave her bunched beneath her head as a pillow.
It would have been nice if they’d had time to grab their sleeping bags, but she’d never been shot at before and, ashamed as she was to admit it, had lost some of her wits. She grew up around guns, had a collection of rifles she used to shoot coyotes and rodents, but she’d never shot at a person. She’d heard lots of brash talk over the years from men oozing with spirit-drenched testosterone, but she’d never seen a person actually shoot at another person—let alone at her.
She looked across the canyon and saw the first faint hint of dawn cracking the horizon above the cliffs. Ten feet over her shoulder, also tucked tight against the wall, the Park Service ranger tossed in his sleep. The man had demons that made him sleep real light, that was for sure. A chorus of chirping crickets flooded the canyon. The morning was still, their predicament strange.
Government people were just people like anyone else; she supposed that was plain. But there weren’t many who actually grew up on the land. It seemed like most were from big-city places and colleges, and she’d suffered from their endless reams of rules: regulations to keep cows out of the water, laws to protect the damned snails, rules to make sure the sage grouse could screw without human interference. The government had a rule written down for anything a person could do or want to do in the desert, and it didn’t make sense. The land was big, and there was plenty of it to go around. Plenty for cows, sheep, Indians, ranchers and all the critters, too.
Fey knew the Owyhee Plateau of southern Idaho. She knew it lifetimes better than some Cade Rigens from Boise. When she was sixteen, she’d spent the first of two summers building Highway 51 with her grandpa’s construction company. She’d worked on the dynamite crew with her uncle who’d been shot down in Korea and spent most of the war in a prison camp. He was short on work ethic and long on stories, and his blood was red, white and blue, too. After long days blasting the roadbed across the plateau, they’d recline by a campfire and listen to Uncle Andy spin yarns about the war. They often ended with the same old moral: “We’re damned lucky to be bred and born in America,” he’d say. “We’ve earned our right to live as we see fit, and by God we’ll fight to keep it that way.” She just didn’t ever imagine they’d be fighting against the same government Uncle Andy had fought for in the war. That’s what it felt like, anyway, like they were fighting an all-out campaign against the Park Service for their way of life on the plateau.
During her days on the road crew with Uncle Andy, Fey would get raging nitro headaches from handling too much dynamite, but the headaches usually let up by late afternoon when she’d hike into the canyon to fish for cutthroats. She loved the thrill of landing a big fish, the subtle jerk of the rod, the wiz of line, the waist-deep fight to bring the fish home. She’d known the plateau her whole life, but during those hot summer evenings alone among vertical cliff walls and trickling waters that sounded like wind chimes in the willows she grew to love the place. The plateau was as much a part of her as she was part of it.
The ranger snorted over her shoulder, and she looked to see his eyes slowly un-crease, his irises poking into the clear gray of dawn.
“You got dreams, mister,” she said, “stuff you can’t let go of.” He turned his head to the east where the stars were receding. “We should get moving. We’ve got places to be, and—well, with all the bullets from last night.”
He mumbled in the stillness. Fey couldn’t make out what he said. Not a morning person, she guessed.
He stood and peered east, then looked up and down the canyon, brushed some of the dirt off his pants.
“You know a way out of here?” he mumbled.
“Up-canyon the cliffs get a little lower, same as I told you last night before you decided to be a hero and climb a damn cliff wall. We can find a way to the plateau up there, then we can hike back to Mary’s Creek and find your truck.
“We could go back the way we came,” he said. “Follow the canyon back upstream.”
“Not sure we should.”
He nodded his agreement, swung the missing kid’s pack across his shoulders and started rustling through the sagebrush along the base of the upper cliff wall where they’d nested for the night. She shouldered her pack and quickly caught up.
“Any idea who’d want to shoot at you out here?” the ranger asked.
“Not at me, but I can think of lots of folks who’d want to shoot you.”
“I’ve been living around places like this for thirty years,” he said. “I’ve come across lots of folks who didn’t like me because of my uniform, but I’ve never been shot at.”
“Makes two of us,” she said.
She looped her thumbs through the shoulder straps of her backpack and let her mind drift as the miles mounted, the hike giving her time to ponder the ranger from angles that weren’t at first natural. She hated that his job was to regulate the land, but she didn’t altogether hate him. He seemed to appreciate things not everybody did. It was subtle the way he paused to hear the sound a bee made when it flew past or turned his face toward the warm sun for a quiet moment of God-given reflection. He was doughy and out of shape, but obviously comfortable on the land. He seemed to fit as well as anybody she knew even if he didn’t know the first thing about branding Herefords or shooting coyotes. He seemed like he could survive in the wild just fine, might even prefer it to the city if he had the chance. But his presence on the plateau was a nagging thorn in her chaps.
They’d walked a half-hour when they finally found a notch where the rock crumbled and a slope of steep scree angled down. They clawed on all fours up to the plateau and were confronted with the immediacy of the new perspective. Where there had been vertical rock moments before, there was an endless flat plain. Only the Jarbidge Mountains to the south gave any indication there was any variety at all. The canyon and conversations from which they emerged were invisible. The view was almost all sky.
Fey felt freed from their ordeals but maintained her uneasiness about the ranger. While she didn’t trust him to regulate her cattle, she believed he’d tell the truth as he saw it. He seemed like a man of good character, and that made her uncomfortable. She wanted a better understanding of someone she’d long considered an enemy.
“How do you figure you feel about the land out here?” she asked, her curls dangling from beneath her white cowboy hat.
He didn’t answer right away, but seemed to roll the question between his fingers like a plug of tobacco he was about to stick in his cheek.
“The same as I feel about lots of beautiful places,” he said. “I love it.”
His response grabbed her attention. It’s the exact thing that had been tugging at the back of her mind all morning.
“Love’s a big word,” she said.
He slowed. “I’m serious. I think about the land like I think about my wife. Any relationship has to be reciprocal. We take from the land incessantly, but we rarely give back. We’re obligated to give back.”
Her temples pulsed. She understood his declaration as a challenge of her integrity.
“You don’t think I give back? What do you think I do out here all damn day? My way of life, my business, they depend on the land’s health.”
The ranger didn’t answer at first. Maybe she’d taken him off guard.
“I appreciate that you earn a hard living,” he said. “But running cattle in the desert’s hard on the land and hard on the critters that depend on it. You ever seen pictures of cattle country before and after the cows? The streams get eroded, the plants gnawed down, the water’s cloudy and sour. It’s not natural.”
She stopped and turned her full attention on him.
“What isn’t natural is all the rules and regulations you government people use to have your so-called reciprocal relationship. Why don’t you try giving your wife a two-inch-thick rulebook and tell me how it goes. You should spend some time out here under this big sky on the back of a seventeen-hand bay rounding up cows. That’s natural. That’s a relation- ship. You can’t have a relationship with a place you’ve never been.”
She saw a thought crawl into the ranger’s mouth, but it didn’t come out. He bit his lip, and she knew, at least for the moment, that she’d had the last word.
They climbed over a chocolate brown boulder pockmarked with air bubbles, a sign of its volcanic origin, and a crow landed amidst the sagebrush nearby. Fey looked to discover a dozen or so crows soaring against the sky, their big black wings hissing in the morning’s blue breeze. The wind whipped her curls as she had an uncanny memory from a long-ago night after the nitro headache was gone and she was camped beneath the stars of the plateau feeling the satisfaction of a hard day’s work with her uncle.
“You know what they call a group of bears?” Uncle Andy had asked, the firelight dancing in his eyes.
She’d shaken her head no.
“A sleuth. It’s called a sleuth of bears,” he’d said.
“You know what they call a group of crows?” he’d asked, a wry smile crawling onto his lips.
A flock, she’d answered.
“No,” Uncle Andy had replied. “It’s called a murder. A murder of crows.”