High Ground, High Mountain Trackers, Book Three
Not much has gone according to plan for mechanic, Pippa Freling, recently. With lots of bridges burned behind her, she decides to stick close to her sister and give Montana a try.
Things are looking up when she joins a local group of animal activists, buys an auto shop for a steal, and even tries her luck with the opposite sex. But it doesn’t take long before her hopeful new future is derailed once again.
This time permanently.
Maintaining tight control is the stronghold in Sully Eckhart’s life. It served him well during his years in special forces and has kept him out of trouble since. But his self-restraint stretches only so far whenever he finds himself faced with the one woman who has the ability to shake his determination. A woman he’s tried to avoid for months—since the first time she shook his resolve—but who now finds herself in the middle of a serial murder case.
However, when she not only ends up a person of interest to the FBI, but firmly in the crosshairs of a killer, he has no other option but to stick close.
And give up all control.
“I’ve got something.”
I circle the drone around, dipping a little lower to get a better view.
The red ball cap caught my eye on the first flyover. I can’t recall one mentioned in the description of missing hunter, John Harper, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The bright splash of color in the rock gully below is definitely out of place and warrants closer investigation.
Jonas leans over my shoulder to see the small screen on the drone’s controller.
“Give me a sec, I’m about to swing back over the spot. It’ll be the left side of the screen, on the rocks, at the edge of the creek.”
I maneuver the drone lower between the trees.
“There he is. Fuck,” Jonas mumbles.
Now I can make out the figure of a man in hunting camo, facedown in the water maybe six feet from where I spotted the ball cap.
Looks like it’s going to be a recovery instead of a rescue.
The missing man has family back in Wyoming. He’s here a few days before the opening of the bear season, in April every year, to get camp ready before his buddies show up. When they arrived two days ago, they found his belongings at camp but Harper was missing.
The start of the spring hunt is always chaotic so the game warden, with his hands full, bounced the call to the sheriff, who contacted us this morning.
High Mountain Trackers—our search and rescue team—often gets called in for missing individuals and we frequently work together with law enforcement. We search on horseback, which is a bonus in these mountains and often hard-to-access terrain. A bit old-style, but we also utilize technology in the form of the Matrice, my drone. Well, not mine technically, but I operate it. It’s a great tool to get the lay of the land before we go in with the horses.
Sometimes we get lucky—like today—and find what we’re looking for on the drone’s video feed.
“Even if we could get a chopper out here, there’s no way they’d be able to get him out. Good thing we brought Hazel,” Jonas observes.
Hazel is our new mule. She came to us through Hart Horse Rescue, which belongs to my boss Jonas’s spouse, Alexandra Hart. The team’s mounts are all sturdy quarter drafts, which can handle a bit, but adding an extra body to their load when they already have to carry us through often rough terrain is asking a lot.
The mule comes in handy, and even though she’s ornery and doesn’t particularly like people, she gets along well with the horses and she doesn’t spook. Perfect for transport. The modified saddle Jonas picked up has a fully adjustable backrest and straps to secure an injured or unconscious individual. Previously we’d have to double up on one of the horses, often slowing us down and sometimes causing more injury.
“I’ll catch up with you,” I tell the guys.
I still have to bring the drone back and pack it up, which won’t take me long but it doesn’t make sense for the others to wait. My horse, Cisko, won’t have any trouble catching up to Jonas and Bo.
There’s only three of us today. My other teammates, James and Fletch, left for Helena this morning with one of our prize studs, Phantom. Aside from High Mountain Trackers, Jonas also owns High Meadow Ranch. It’s a fairly small stud and breeding facility where we all work when we’re not out on a search.
Up until recently, Fletch and I were neighbors in staff cabins on the ranch, but last fall Fletch bought a neighboring property where he lives with his new wife, Nella. Bo has always lived in Libby, twenty minutes up the highway, and James and his family live just south of here.
I like my cabin so I don’t plan on going anywhere. I’ve got no family of my own, am close to work, and like the convenience of having my meals cooked for me by either Ama—James’s wife—or Alex. I occasionally enjoy shooting the shit with Jonas’s dad, Thomas, over a glass of good bourbon and a rare Cuban cigar on the porch, and other than that, I don’t need much.
Sure-footed Cisko closes the distance to the others before they reach the bottom of the gully. Bo dismounts first and crouches down beside Harper, who is partially submersed.
He reaches out to feel for a pulse but immediately veers back. “What the fuck?”
“What’s wrong?” Jonas voices.
“If that’s Harper, I’ll fucking eat my hat,” Bo announces. “Whoever that is has been gone a while longer.”
Both Jonas and I get down for a better look.
Now I can see he’s definitely been here for some time. From what is left of his head, this guy looks to have cropped gray hair, whereas Harper’s was supposed to be dark.
“Doesn’t look like he tripped and fell,” I point out.
I can’t tell for sure, but it looks to me like he was shot. A high-velocity rifle bullet to the back of the head would leave that kind of damage. Doesn’t exactly appear accidental either. More like an execution.
“No, it doesn’t,” Jonas agrees. “Hands off, Bo. We’re gonna have to get the sheriff in here.”
He gets on the radio right away and relays the information to Ama back at the ranch, who promises to get Sheriff Ewing on the horn.
“I spotted a clear-cut not far south of here,” I volunteer. “There’s gotta be a trail leading to it. That may be easier access for the sheriff’s department. I can go check it out.”
“Sounds like a plan. Whatever we can do to cut down waiting time, because we still have a missing hunter to find,” Jonas points out.
Good point. This clearly isn’t Harper, so he’s still out here somewhere. Hopefully, merely lost and not in similar condition to this guy.
I swing back into the saddle and guide Cisko across the shallow creek and up the south end of the gully. I noticed the clearing on the other side of a ridge. We left the vehicles and trailers up where Harper and his friends usually set up base camp, which is north of here, and made our way down on horseback. It took us close to two hours to find the body, so it would be good if I could find a faster alternate route for the sheriff to take.
This side isn’t as steep and it takes me less than fifteen minutes to get to the edge of the clearing.
I didn’t expect to see the motorhome tucked in under the trees on the opposite side, but I’m completely thrown when a familiar figure steps out of the door.
Last person I want to run into up here—or anywhere else for that matter—is heading straight toward me.
“Once wasn’t enough?” he says, the customary friendly expression gone from his face.
I know exactly what he’s referring to.
“Are you suggesting I should let fear rule me?” I snap back.
Last year, when I first camped near Libby, I’d fallen victim to a family of thieves stealing recreational vehicles. I was hurt in the process and ended up with a brain injury and memory loss, but I survived and came out stronger. It’s how I first met Sully, actually. My sister and her now husband were the ones who found me, but he’s the one who transported me out of the woods on his horse. I owe them my life, Sully included, but that doesn’t mean they get to rule it. I’m not about to let what happened keep me from enjoying what I love to do most; seeking out nature and solitude.
There’s something about being entirely on your own and self-sufficient—a simpler way of being—which feels both empowering and humbling at the same time. My experience last year has only made that feeling stronger.
Sully swings out of the saddle and turns his body toward me.
“No, but at least be a bit more cautious. Stick closer to town, to other people.”
“That would kinda defeat the purpose now, wouldn’t it?”
I know I’m not being very nice, but his sudden concern for me is coming out of left field. A far cry from the cold asshole he turned out to be last time I saw him. That was a huge mistake I unfortunately can add to a long list of them and will definitely not be repeated.
“No, Sully. I’m a big girl. I don’t need you—of all people—looking out for me. I’m perfectly safe here.”
I watch the nostrils of his patrician nose flare as his blue eyes narrow on me. He’s annoyed, which is too fucking bad.
But then he takes the wind out of my self-righteous sails.
“There’s a dead man with a hole the size of a fist in the back of his head in a gully less than a mile from here. You may want to reconsider that.”
My exit wasn’t exactly graceful.
Never mind that I was already packing up to head back to town for an appointment, but after he dropped that bombshell, I was in a real hurry to get out of there. Especially after he mentioned law enforcement being on the way. I hustled, I’m not stupid. Aside from the fact I’m seriously freaked-out right now, I know what will happen when the sheriff arrives and I don’t want to be stuck here for hours when I have somewhere to be.
Without another word for Sully, I hopped in my rig and carefully worked my way back down the logging trail.
“Hey, you’re back,” Marcie answers her phone.
“On my way back to town now. I just picked up a signal.”
“How was it?”
“Great, I got a few good hikes in. Nothing else to report though.”
The last spot I was at was a little farther up the mountain, north from here. It’s where I discovered a couple of baiting barrels on one of my hikes. I immediately packed up and left that spot, calling my friend, Marcie, on my way out to alert the group. That was four days ago but I hadn’t been ready to head back to civilization yet, which is why I decided to set up camp down here.
Apparently, a stone’s throw from a corpse.
I don’t know what it is about me that seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time a lot. Maybe it is true that I attract trouble. It’s something my ex used to say. Of course, he was more trouble than anything else.
I wasn’t aware baiting for bear was a thing until I bumped into a pair of hunters in November of last year when I was boondocking on the east side of Libby, not far from the Kootenay River. They were hauling buckets of what smelled like rotting fish and bags of stinky garbage down the trail.
Marcie and I met at rehab in the hospital last fall—she’d been in a car accident—and had struck up a friendship. She’s a local real estate agent, an avid outdoorswoman, and also an animal activist. Something I can identify with. When I mentioned my encounter with the hunters appearing to carry garbage into the wilderness, she explained about bear baiting, which is apparently legal in other states but not Montana. A contentious point for many local hunters and guides.
The basic premise is they leave food in a particular spot, starting late winter. Then when the bears wake up from hibernation, half-starved, the stench of rotting food draws them to these spots. They gorge themselves and keep returning for an easy meal. At the start of hunting season, all the hunters have to do is sit in a blind and bide their time. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
I don’t care if it’s legal in other states, I find the whole thing reprehensible. I’m not at all against hunting, but let it at least be equal.
Through Marcie I got involved with Fair Game Alliance, a group of passionate individuals who monitor for that kind of illegal activity. All Fair Game does is keep an eye out and when they see anything suspicious, they alert the Lincoln County game warden to intervene. Here in the Libby area, the game warden has his hands full and can’t be everywhere this time of year, which is why volunteers like me keep our eyes open.
It gives me a sense of purpose. Something I’m craving after a good year of floundering.
Oh, it was fun at first, going where the wind blew me, making a bit of money here and there putting my mechanic’s license to good use with some RV repair services. But I started craving steady roots and was on my way back home when I ran into trouble here in Montana last fall. Since then my sister, Nella, has moved here and is making a life for herself. Married a local guy, started baking for some local businesses, and now even has a little one on the way. She’s all the family I have, and there’s no way I want to go back to Canada now.
There’s nothing left for me there. Any dreams I may have had for my future have burned to the ground. The marriage, the business I built from scratch, the family we were supposed to have, those are all gone. My ex saw to that. All I ended up with was a whack of money he had to pay me to buy me out of the business that used to be mine. I bought the Jayco motorhome, stuck the rest of the money in mutual funds, and took off to find myself again.
And I did. Right here in Libby, Montana.
I’m trying to put down roots here. Last month I bought the closed-up auto repair shop on the south side of town I passed regularly. Marcie was able to get me a great deal. Unfortunately, as a Canadian, I can buy a business, but I can’t actually work in it. Not without a green card or at the very least a work visa, which I already applied for, but even a visa can take months.
In the meantime I wait, I volunteer, and I try to stay out of trouble.
Which is why I need to avoid Sully Eckhart like the plague. The man is like salted caramel; one taste only makes you want more.
I should know.