High Stakes, High Mountain Trackers, Book Two
When her sister, Pippa, goes missing, Nella Freling tells her boss she’s taking time off from her job as a research librarian, hops in her sensible van, and heads south of the border to Montana. However, local police don’t seem too concerned about a missing woman living in her motorhome. So Nella will have to look for Pippa by herself, unless she can convince a highly recommended tracker to help her, but sadly the rude and angry cowboy won’t even listen to her at first.
But Nella can be persuasive.
The first time High Mountain Tracker, Fletch Boone, laid eyes on Nella, her ass was stuck in his grocery cart. The next time was at the ranch; she was wearing mud, head to toe. But when he catches sight of her a third time, hanging off a cliff, he can’t turn his back again. What Nella lacks in survival skills she makes up for in sheer determination. Unfortunately, neither of those is enough protection when bullets start flying.
Fletch has no choice but to jump in before the woman gets herself killed.
And that would be a damn shame.
“How can I help you?”
The woman behind the desk has a friendly smile, but her eyes are cautious.
“I have a reservation. Antonella Freling.”
I picked the Sandman Motel because I can park right in front of my unit which I prefer.
“Ah, yes. I have you here. Four nights?”
“You requested the end unit with a kitchenette?”
I’m not here to see the sights or waste money and time on eating out. Much cheaper and faster to pick up some groceries and fend for myself. I keep a small cooler in my van for drinks and something to eat in case I’m out all day.
She slides a form across the desk and I quickly fill it out before handing it back to her.
“I’ll need a credit card, please.”
I look around the small front office and shudder at the pictures of proud hunters with their prize kills. My dislike must’ve shown on my face.
“Not here for hunting I gather?” she inquires, a little smirk on her face.
“No. Not a fan,” I admit.
I’m the biggest hypocrite on two legs because I won’t say no to a good steak from a poor anonymous cow who never had a chance to start with, but I can’t bring myself to try game meat from an animal at least able to live its life free. Somebody offers me venison and all I can envision is Bambi with those big brown eyes.
My meat comes shrink wrapped in plastic so I can keep my emotional detachment. I tried a vegetarian lifestyle for a little over a year but found it a challenge living in a small mountain town in British Columbia, Canada. My first juicy burger after that episode was a purely orgasmic experience.
She smiles, a sparkle in her eyes. “We cater to a lot of hunters, but they won’t be coming in until next week when the season opens. Until the fifteenth only bowhunting is allowed and there aren’t that many of those. Mostly locals anyway.”
I mock-wipe my brow and smile back as she hands me the keycard.
“Unit 23 is yours.”
“Thank you. Oh, where can I find the closest grocery store?”
“Just down the road. It’ll be on your right hand side as you get into town. Rosauers, you can’t miss it. If you need anything else, my name is Martha.”
“Thanks so much, Martha.”
I’m almost out the door when I think of the more important question.
“The police station, is it easy to find?”
After shooting me a curious look, she gives me directions. The station is only a few minutes from the grocery store so I’ll head there first and pick up supplies after.
My unit is nothing special. A generic motel room with an art-by-numbers painting on the wall over two double beds, a dresser holding a TV, a functional—and thankfully clean—bathroom, and beside it a tiny kitchenette with microwave, hotplate, coffeemaker, and a bar-size fridge. It’ll do.
I spend twenty minutes putting my stuff away, toiletries lined up on the small vanity in the bathroom, some things in the dresser and the rest of my clothes on hangers in the narrow closet. It does little to give the room more personality. I don’t own much aside from work clothes and those are all rather drab in grays, blacks, and some muted tans. No color other than the single pair of jeans I own.
Hiding my light under a bushel, that’s what Pippa always tells me. She’s my opposite in every way; colorful, exuberant, and adventurous. I’m a strictly inside-the-lines person, while she breaks every conventional rule she can.
I went to the University of British Columbia studying library and information sciences while she went to trade school to become a mechanic.
As different as we are—coming from the same nest—we’ve always been close. Especially after our parents died in a house fire eighteen years ago. We’re all the other has, which is why I can’t simply sit around and wait to hear something. I need to find her.
The Libby Police Station is a nondescript red brick building and I snag a parking spot when a vehicle backs out.
“Yes?” The not so friendly officer behind the desk looks at me like I’m here to confess a crime.
I automatically feel guilty even though I’m pretty sure I haven’t broken any rules in the past few decades.
“Is Officer Franklin available? I spoke with him on the phone the day before yesterday. My name is Antonella Freling.”
“He’s on patrol. What is it regarding?”
“I filed a missing person report on my sister Fillippa Freling with him.”
He types the name into her computer.
“Right. I have it here. It says she drives a motorhome?”
“And you haven’t heard from her since August 26.”
“Correct. I was hoping perhaps you’d found out something more?”
“Doesn’t look like it. We’ll continue to keep an eye out for the vehicle.”
His tone is dismissive, much like Officer Franklin had been when I filed the report. I don’t know why I thought a visit here would have a different result. Maybe a bit more urgency, but it doesn’t look like that’ll be the case.
I get it, my sister is a bit of a nomad, roaming the country, often staying off the grid but she would always let me know where she’d be and for how long. Exactly what she did this time. Except she was coming home, she said she’d be there on Monday. Only two-and-a-half hours to get from Libby to Cranbrook, British Columbia, it’s not like she had a long way to go.
I know my sister. If she had run into any trouble causing a delay, or even in the unlikely event something changed her mind about visiting, she would’ve let me know.
Unfortunately my gut feeling Pippa is in trouble doesn’t go very far with law enforcement. I can’t really blame them, from what I understand quite a few people go missing in these mountains, exposed to the elements, so they’re not going to waste resources on a woman who travels in her home. Not unless I have something more concrete to give them, which is why I’m here.
My boss wasn’t happy with the short notice I’d be taking time off, but that can’t be helped.
My bread and butter is research so I’m not entirely unprepared. I know what to look for, I have every camping app downloaded on my phone, and I have the name of someone who might be able to help me.
If only he’d call me back, I’ve already left a couple of messages. If I haven’t heard anything by tomorrow, I’ll chase him down.
I’ll do what I have to find Pippa.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?”
I don’t bother answering.
The punk is squirming, but I have my knee in the middle of his back with my full weight on it. I pull a few zip ties from my pack and strap his wrists together.
Then I sit him up right next to the young bear he shot with his goddamn hunting rifle. I prop the rifle up against the bear as well. Next I pull out my phone and take a bunch of pictures while the kid is swearing at me. Every time he tries to get up, I kick his feet back out from under him.
It’s easy for me to tune him out, I have lots of practice. My hearing has gotten very selective after years of living in virtual silence. The only thing that penetrated it was the rifle shot earlier. Startled me so bad I fucking dove right for the dirt. It took me a few seconds to register what I heard, then I was on my feet and aiming straight for the excited laughing I heard down the trail.
Fucking poachers. No more than kids. Unfortunately the second guy took off running while I was taking this one to the ground.
It takes me half an hour to get the kid and the bear back down to the trailhead where my truck is the only one parked now. Catching my breath I take my phone out. Only one bar, but enough to dial out.
“Ewing, Fletch Boone here. I’m up by the Granite Ridge Trailhead parking lot. Got a dead bear with a bullet hole, the rifle that shot it, and the punk who fired it. Second kid got away. You wanna come pick this one up?”
Guess it was a slow day because less than half an hour later his cruiser rolls onto the parking lot, followed by a pickup. The kid loudly complains about his rights as Ewing hoists him to his feet and tucks him in the back of his vehicle. The deputy stepping from the pickup is already poking at the bear.
“Trust me, he’s dead,” I tell him dryly.
“Want it?” Ewing asks as he walks up.
He peeks in the back of my truck where I left my bow and the rest of my gear.
“Me? No. Still have plenty of bear from last season. Got a tag for a bighorn this year.”
“Bighorn? No shit? Those are hard to come by.”
“Especially for bowhunting,” I add. “Tried every year for the past six and this is the first tag I got my hands on.”
I only hunt with a bow.
Don’t like guns. I may wear one, but I don’t like it. It would have to be extreme circumstance before I pull my weapon, let alone fire it. Instantly my mind goes back to the spring, when my boss had the barrel of a gun pressed to the back of his head. That counted as an extreme circumstance, but even knowing it would’ve been Jonas’s life otherwise doesn’t stop the sour burn in my gut.
“It’s a fresh kill, shouldn’t be wasted,” the sheriff points out before asking me, “Mind if I drop it off at Pete’s?”
Pete owns a butcher shop and processes game for folks who don’t like doing that dirty job or don’t have room for it. Most hunters I know clean their own like I do.
“Have at it. And by the way, the second kid that got away? He’s driving a rusted, blue Chevy pickup, my guess would be 1985 or thereabouts. Rear bumper is tied down with wire. Shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“Sounds like Willy Stubblefeld,” the deputy suggest.
“Yeah. We’ll go have a chat with Willy after I drop this other punk off. Don’t know him, do you?”
“Never seen him,” I answer.
It takes all three of us to hoist the bear in the back of the deputy’s pickup.
“If there were any bighorns around, they’re probably gone by now,” Ewing observes. “May wanna check south of Cedar Creek. Talked to a guy the other day who spotted a couple of sheep up there.”
I’ve got a few other spots I want to try first, but if I’m running out of time, I know a couple of logging roads that’ll get me close to that creek.
“See ya later, Boone, ‘preciate the assistance.”
I wait until they’re driving off before packing up my own gear, but the moment I get behind the wheel my phone rings.
“Fletch, it’s Ama. Are you anywhere near town?”
“I’ll be driving through in about five minutes. Why?”
“Would you mind picking up some coffee? I would, but I’m in the middle of dinner prep and—”
“Sure,” I cut her off.
I need to get some stuff myself anyway. I’ve been putting off because I hate fucking grocery stores. Always too many people getting in my way. I like to go in, grab what I need, and get the hell out of there.
“Ah, you’re a lifesaver. Thanks. No coffee in the morning would’ve made for a grumpy bunch tomorrow.”
She’s right about that. All of us count on that big pot she always has ready to get us going.
“You stopping by for lasagna?” she asks as I start the truck.
More often than not I eat at my own cabin instead of at the house with the other guys. I don’t mind my own company, I’m used to it, and I happen to enjoy cooking which I know the others do not.
Having said that, Ama’s lasagna is legendary and I have to drop off the coffee anyway. She usually has dinner ready for five, before she heads home, which means I’ll still have the whole night to myself.
“You bet,” I respond, knowing it’ll please her. “See you soon.”
Ama is not only the wife of my teammate James, but the den-mother, manager, and housekeeper, for the entire crew at High Meadow Ranch. Jonas Harvey—my boss—owns it, but Ama runs it. She even tackles the office work for High Mountain Trackers.
Jonas Harvey was the commander of our special ops combat tracker unit. He was the first to be aged out and bought High Meadow ranch, building its name as a respected horse breeding facility. Then, one by one, he brought our former unit together to form High Mountain Trackers.
I was the last to join, running my own small tracking venture just outside of Fernie, British Columbia. I liked being on my own. My cabin in the mountains was secluded and I kept my interactions with other people to a minimum.
But Jonas had been relentless in his pursuit to find me, and finally convince me. Not with promises of money—which wouldn’t have meant much to me—but by offering me the only family I’ve ever known; my team.
A lot of our down time is spent running the ranch but these days we’re hired more frequently to track down and rescue missing individuals. Some of them go missing accidentally but in a few cases their disappearance had been intentional. A few months ago we assisted law enforcement in tracking down a couple of escaped domestic terrorists responsible for a pair of deadly bomb blasts outside state buildings.
Over the summer we’ve had our share of missing hikers, not just around Libby, but all over Montana’s northwest. I like the work, it’s unpredictable, can be challenging, is mostly gratifying, and definitely feeds my craving for adventure. In addition to that I get to take a couple of days off every fall during bowhunting season.
I grunt when I see the busy parking lot at the grocery store full.
For a second I contemplate stopping at the smaller Libby Empire Foods, but Ama prefers the coffee at Rosauers. Besides, I’m pretty sure the parking lot at the other store won’t be much better. It’s Saturday afternoon, everybody is out and about.
I find a spot around the side of the building and manage to snag a cart on my way in the doors. Afraid I’m going to forget otherwise, I aim for the coffee first. The din inside the store grates on my nerves so I tune out, keeping my eyes focused on the shelf halfway down the aisle.
I don’t even notice the woman hanging onto the shelves at first. Not until I accidentally brush my cart against her legs and she startles, landing with her ass in my cart.
“What the fuck?” slips out before I can check it.
Staring up at me are big eyes, that weird color somewhere between brown and green.
“No need to swear,” she says in a clipped tone as she struggles to get out of her precarious position. “Especially since it was you who knocked me off.”
“I barely touched you and I wasn’t the one climbing the damn shelves,” I grumble.
This is why I avoid people.
The woman’s lips press tightly together as I grab her under her arms in an attempt to dislodge her from my cart. There is some grunting involved before I can set her on her feet. Standing in front of me she barely makes it to my chin.
I size her up in two seconds flat. Middle-aged spinster. She has a few silver streaks in her hair, is wearing ill-fitting clothes and serviceable black shoes, and has a pair of glasses on a chain around her neck. In addition the contents of the half-full basket on the floor is as drab as the woman in front of me.
“I had no choice, they’re too high,” she huffs, shaking her shoulder-length waves from her face. “And my brand is up there.”
She points at a single, red can of coffee sitting well back from the edge of the top shelf before smoothing her hands down the front of her plain, white blouse.
I reach up, grab the can, and drop it in the basket by her feet.
Then, without another word I move past her, tossing Ama’s coffee in my cart as I aim for the produce section.
Fifteen minutes later when I push my cart out the doors, I just catch a glimpse of her behind the wheel of an older Dodge Caravan.
She’s so close to the steering wheel, her nose almost touches the damn windshield.