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Neil McMahon

Lone Creek

1

I'd only ever seen Laurie Balcomb a few times, usually glimpses while I was working and she was passing by on her way to someplace else. I'd never met her or spoken with her. She and her husband were the new owners of the Pettyjohn Ranch, and they didn't socialize with the help.

But when she came into sight on this afternoon, riding horseback across a hay field, there was no mistaking her even from a quarter mile away. Her hair was auburn shot through with gold, she was wearing a brindle chamois shirt, and the way the sunlight caught her, she looked like a living flame.

I hadn't paid much attention to Laurie before this, other than to notice that she was a nice-looking woman. The sense I'd gotten from her was subdued, distant. Even her hair had seemed darker.

But now, for just a second, something slipped in my head-the kind of jolt you got when you were walking down a staircase in the dark and thought there was one more step at the bottom.

I shook it off and slowed my pickup truck to a stop. This was September, a warm afternoon at the end of a dry Montana summer, and I'd been raising a dust cloud the size of a tornado. I figured I'd let it settle so Laurie wouldn't have to ride through it.

But instead of passing, she rode toward me and reined up. The horse was one of the thoroughbreds she'd brought out here from Virginia, a reddish chestnut gelding that looked like he'd been chosen to fit her color scheme. Like her, he was fine-boned, classy, high-strung. A couple hundred thousand bucks, easy.

'Are you in a fix?' she called. She had just enough accent to add a touch of charm. In a fix, I remembered, was Southern for having trouble.

I pointed out the window toward the thinning dust storm.

'Trying not to suffocate you,' I said.

'Oh. How thoughtful.' She seemed surprised, and maybe amused, to hear that from a man in sweaty work clothes, hauling trash in a vehicle older than she was.

She walked the restless horse closer, stroking his neck to soothe him. She handled him well, and she knew it.

'So you men are-what's the term-'gutting' the old house?' she said.

The truck's bed was loaded with bags of lath and plaster, crumbling cedar shakes, century-old plumbing, the skin and bones from the ranch's original Victorian mansion. Nobody had lived there for more than a generation, but the Balcombs had big plans for this place. The mansion was on its way to being restored and turned into a showpiece for the kinds of guests who would buy the kinds of horses that Laurie was riding.

'That's the term,' I said.

'You're an unusal-looking group. Not what I would have expected.'

'You mean we're not like the guys on New Yankee Workshop?'

'Well, there do seem to be a lot of tattoos and missing teeth.'

'They're all good at what they do, Mrs. Balcomb.'

'I'm sure they are. And don't misunderstand me-I think they're charming.'

That opened my eyes. I'd heard my crew called a lot of things, but none of them involved words like charming.

'I'll pass that on,' I said. 'They'll be knocked out.'

'So why are you here all alone on a Saturday?'

I shrugged. 'Only chance I get to be the boss.'

Her smile was a quick bright flash that shone on me like I was the one important thing in the world.

'You look like you could be bossy,' she said. Then she caught herself up as if she'd slipped. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be impolite.'

I was confused, and it must have shown.

'That scar,' she said. 'It's like on a villain in an old-fashioned movie.'

My left hand rose of its own accord and my thumb touched the raised, discolored crescent that topped my cheekbone. It wasn't something I ever thought about any more. The touch broke loose a run of sweat from the hollow under my eye down my nose. It itched like hell, and while I knew that scratching was bad manners, I couldn't help myself. My hand came away smeared with plaster dust and red chalk.

'Just a low-rent injury and a surgeon with a hangover,' I said.

She smiled again, but this time she seemed a little disappointed.

'You could come up with a more interesting story,' she said. 'Think about it.' She turned the gelding away and eased him into a trot with her boot heels.

I gave her a hundred yards lead on my dust cloud, then drove on.

'Interesting' wasn't in my job description.

2

A mile farther on, the hay fields gave way to timber. I started to glimpse the sparkle of Lone Creek, draining down from the continental divide to the Missouri River. Even in dry years, it always flowed swift and cool. If you followed it upstream, you came to a little waterfall that spilled into a swimming hole. I'd hung out there a lot as a kid, but I hadn't been back since the summer I turned fourteen-almost twenty-five years, now that I thought about it. A quarter of a century, one-third of a good long life, ago.

I'd worked on this ranch that summer, for the first and last time until now. My family weren't the social equals of big landowners like the Pettyjohns-my father was an ironworker, my mother a schoolteacher, and we lived in a modest house in nearby Helena-but my dad had gotten to be pretty good friends with the clan's head, Reuben Pettyjohn, with the common bond that they'd both fought in Korea. We were welcome on the ranch, and I came out here every chance I got, to fish or wander in the woods. The men finally decided that they might as well put me to use.

That same summer, a girl named Celia Thayer had come to live with us. She'd grown up near my family's hardscrabble old homestead near the Tobacco Root range, which my father's brother was still working. She was usually around, hanging out with my cousins, when we went to visit.

Celia was a year and some older than me, just turning sixteen then. Supposedly, her parents decided that she'd benefit from living in Helena-it was the state capital, and with a population of about thirty thousand, one of the few places in Montana that could be called a city. But I eventually figured out that she was already too much to handle for those people from an older world, living in the middle of nowhere. My older sisters were gone, one married and one in college, so we had room. Celia's folks worked out a deal with mine to board her at our house while she finished high school.

She was glad to leave her bleak home behind, except that she was crazy about horses, and already an expert rider. So my dad arranged for her to work on the Pettyjohn Ranch along with me that summer, helping in the stables. She could ride to her heart's content and make some money, too.

I was a typical gawky, terminally shy boy of that age. The issue of girls was just starting to appear as a haze on the horizon of my life, portending the coming storm. Celia fascinated me, but what I felt was more like worship than desire. Even as a little girl, she'd been the bright light in any group, pretty and compelling. At sixteen, she was flowering, with a tough, sultry beauty and a ken that sometimes seemed much older. I was bewildered, humbled, and scared by her.

But what drew me to her most powerfully was my belief that there was a special intimacy between us-that some deep part of her was lonely, wistful, and hurt, and that she showed it only to me. Maybe I only imagined it. I

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