Explosive sabotage and the startling unearthing of a hundred-year-old skeleton on a Nevada ranch thrillingly start off this debut novel in a tail-wagging new series from New York Times bestselling author Rita Mae Brown.
With the ruins of her high-powered Wall Street job now far in the rearview mirror of her rented silver Camaro, thirty-two-year-old Mags Rogers arrives at her great-aunt Jeep’s sprawling Wings Ranch to reassemble her life. In the passenger seat, with his suspicious nose to a cracked window, is Mags’s beloved wirehaired dachshund, the urbane Baxter.
Mags was named for her great-aunt, Magdalena—though everyone calls the spry octogenarian rancher Jeep. From piloting planes in World War II to discovering one of America’s largest gold deposits, Jeep has enjoyed a lifetime jam-packed with love and adventure, and she’s not done yet. At her side—to Baxter’s low-down distress—is Jeep’s loyal German Shepherd mix, King. The growlings are mutual: King sniffs that Baxter is a “fuzzy sausage.”
Meanwhile, someone pipe-bombs Red Rock Valley’s pumping station, endangering the water supply near and far. Deputy Pete Meadows links the sabotage to a string of local murders, but he doesn’t yet know if it’s a corporate plot or twisted eco-terrorism. He’s also called out to Wings Ranch when human bones are dug up in Jeep’s barn; the dead man’s ring identifies him as an elite Russian military officer from the late 1800s, apparently knifed to death. In her search to find out whodunit, Mags uncovers fascinating history about Jeep’s ranch, including an intriguing connection to Buffalo Bill.
Mags and Pete have mysteries to solve, among them why they are so drawn to each other. Baxter and King team up when it comes time to protect their humans. And all the while, Jeep Reed, the sassiest wit in the West, has a bold plan for Red Rock Valley in which they all will play a part.
A steady, increasing wind blew dust and sagebrush across the path of Magdalene Rogers. The graceful curving skeleton of a snake long ago disturbed from its resting place formed an S, straightened out, then broke up, its delicate white head carrying four vertebrae with it.
Mags, as she was called, looked down and hoped this wasn't a portent. Putting her hand palm inward to the left of her left eye, she craned her neck upward. Pieces of debris flew harder now. She watched as one small, crooked slip of sagebrush fastened itself to the P-47 propeller in the middle of the high crossbar forming the entrance to Wings Ranch. Just as quickly the brush dislodged, sailing farther into Red Rock Valley. Great sheets of Confederate-gray clouds interlaced with charcoal ones, crested the Peterson Mountains, which in essence divided Nevada from California.
Looking west toward that range, Mags saw that the ridgeline at its highest point--2,250 feet--was already engulfed in snow. Within ten to fifteen minutes the snow's advance guard would be swirling through the Wings Ranch gate.
Baxter, her three-year-old wire-haired dachshund, sat alert in the passenger seat of the rental car. Better Mags stand out there in the cold wind than himself. It had been a long day for the fastidious, very proper canine and he'd hated every last minute of it. The worst was the flight from JFK Airport to Reno. At least that was over--never to be repeated, he hoped fervently.
She flipped up the collar of her shearling jacket--a long-ago Christmas present from her great-aunt who owned this sprawling, 10,000-acre ranch located about twenty-two miles south of Reno.
The first snowflake tentatively appeared as Mags stood under the propeller blade. Aunt Jeep never did anything halfway, so her western entranceway was wide and high. Each spring, the old prop blade would be lovingly cleaned, touched up if needed, and a sprig of evergreen was tucked behind its nose for good luck.
Magdalene was named for her aunt. As Magdalene is a three syllable name, Americans shortened it. Who wants to say a mouthful? Hence, Mags. Aunt Jeep earned her nickname in 1941 when she first began driving Jeeps. She still had an old war issue that ran like a top. If you had any sense, you ran when Aunt Jeep took the wheel. The old lady craved speed whether driving or flying--both of which she had always done with sangfroid.
In the time it took her to fondly recall the sight of her small but imposing great-aunt blasting down a dirt road leaving a plume of dust behind her, Mags was wearing a shawl of snow. Since she wasn't wearing gloves, she rubbed her cold hands together and climbed back into the Camaro. She might be flat broke but damned if she was going to rent something that didn't possess some style. And power.
Closing the door, she reached over to rub the dachshund's russet head. "Buddybud, home. I hope."
"I'd like to eat."
Mags smiled as she heard what sounded like a muffled bark. Then the tears came.
"Oh, Momma. Everything will be all right." Baxter stepped over the center console to lick her tears.
She hugged him. "Damn if I'll let anyone see me cry. Just you." She took a deep breath. "You're the only one who loves me. Well, maybe Aunt Jeep does, too. In her fashion."
She popped the transmission into drive. GM products, while possessing virtues, often had an off-center feel to the steering wheel, a numbness, slowness to respond. The silver Camaro surprised her; its steering wasn't as crisp as a Porsche's, but it was much improved from prior models. She took pleasure in it. Just like her great-aunt, if it had an engine in it, Mags liked it. These days she needed a dash of pleasure.
"Damn, I can barely see the road," she said peering over the wheel. "Everything's different here, Baxter. Everything. You blink and the weather changes. We're in the high desert, but we're in it together."
Poking along at twenty miles an hour she finally reached the old, white rambling ranch house. Its first section had been built in 1880, a long time ago in these parts.
Cutting the motor, she sat for a moment, took another deep breath, then brightened. "Hey, I'm not doing great, but at least I'm doing better than my lying, cokehead of a sister."
With that, she jumped out and popped the trunk. Hoisting one bag onto her shoulders, she dragged the other up the steps to the wraparound porch. Returning, she shut the trunk lid and opened the passenger door.
"At your service."
Baxter nimbly negotiated the distance to the ground as snowflakes dotted his wiry fur.
Mags opened the front door, which was never locked, threw in the biggest bag, then set down the other. "Aunt Jeep!"
"In the kitchen," answered a resonant, deep alto voice.
"Who goes there?" King growled as he hurtled himself out of the kitchen to draw up short in front of Mags, whom he knew--although not well--from her infrequent visits.
But what was this low-to-the-ground lowlife with a trimmed Vandyke?
Faced with the shepherd mix, Baxter stood his ground, saying nothing.
Jeep Reed strode out of the kitchen, her slight limp apparent but in no way impeding her progress. "King, he's your new best friend."
"That?" The much bigger dog was incredulous. With a handsome black face with brown points and a regal bearing, he had no patience for what he thought of as inferior breeds. "I've seen snakes higher off the ground than that."
Baxter curled back his upper lip. "And I can strike just as fast, you ill-bred lout."
"All right, boys. Get along or I'll get out the bull whip." Aunt Jeep wagged her finger at the two dogs as she walked toward her beautiful, thirty-two-year-old great-niece. "Mags, sweetheart, welcome home."
Mags held the lean, fierce old woman close. "I won't be a burden, Aunt Jeep. I swear to you, I won't."
"I know you won't because I intend to work your ass off. Sweat and manual labor should help work free those toxins from Wall Street. I'll fill you in on the details of my latest dream once you've settled in. It's a big dream." She stepped back. "Hang your coat up. You know where. Want help with those?"
"Oh, no. I can manage."
As Mags hung her coat on the peg next to the front door, Aunt Jeep gave her the once-over. "I'm surprised. You didn't turn to fat sitting on your nether regions all day."
"An hour in the gym every day. Five-thirty a.m. Otherwise, I'd be fat as a tick. Walking Baxter every morning and every evening helps."
Jeep's warm brown eyes cast down at the little intrepid fellow. "You and I are going to be friends, Baxter. Did you hear that?"
The little gentleman responded, "I like you already."
"You look like you always do." Mags complimented her aunt.
"When you're older than dirt, nothing much changes."
"I think Momma would look like you do now had she lived." Mags smiled.
Jeep laughed. "Honey, your mother was one of the great beauties of her generation. She outshone all those Hollywood starlets vying for your father's attention. If she had made it to eighty-five, she'd have looked better than I did at thirty."
Mags slipped her arm around her much shorter aunt's still small waist as they walked toward the kitchen, heavenly smells drawing them down the center hall.
"You always underestimate your looks, Momma used to say that." Mags swallowed hard. "Aunt Jeep, I'm so grateful to you for taking me in and I'm so glad Mom and Dad aren't here to see--me."
"Oh, shut up, Mags. First off, I love you. The moment Glynnis and John were killed on that awful Memorial Day in 1992, you and your sister became mine. Not only did I wish it, that was your mother's will. Don't fret about that mess on Wall Street. Most of us hit the skids once or twice in our lives and you know something, I feel sorry for those who haven't. Think about your parents; your father wasn't always on the top rung of the Hollywood ladder. He and your mom had plenty of highs and lows, but they loved every minute. What you learn, how you adapt, how you change inside, well, it may be a hard lesson but if you embrace it, you're far better off than when you started. Weaklings ask for an easy life, Mags." She turned toward her great-niece. "Failure is feedback for success."
Mags bent down to kiss the silken cheek. "Then fasten your seatbelt, Aunt Jeepers, I'm heading for one helluva success."
"That's my girl."
As Mags entered the kitchen, Carlotta looked up from stirring porridge at the stove. She carefully laid the spoon on a small yellow plate, then rushed toward the younger woman.
"Carlotta, oh, how good to see you."
Carlotta, bombastic in her affections, opinions, and dress and much loved for it, proudly held up three fingers. "Three."
"Three what?" Mags looked puzzled.
"I am now three times a grandmother." The middle-aged, well-padded Carlotta beamed, her black eyes sparkling, her black hair still shiny. No gray yet.
"I thought Tommy just had two kids." Tommy was her only son.
Aunt Jeep wryly commented, "It's a fertile family."
"October twenty-seventh. A girl. Finally, two boys and a girl." Carlotta's eyes darted to her porridge and she hurried back to stir. "We are all waiting for your turn, Mags."
"Oh." Mags waved her off. "I am not getting married."
"Famous last words," Jeep said, pointing to the table. "I'm sure you haven't eaten and if you've eaten plane food, you need help."
"What about me?" Baxter politely inquired.
"Touch my dish and you die!" King curled back his upper lip.
"Ah." Jeep opened a cabinet door, found a small painted stool, pulled it over, and stood on it to fish out a mid-sized, heavy ceramic bowl. "I've shrunk."
"That cabinet has gotten higher." Carlotta smiled.
Suddenly tired, Mags sat down at the farmer's table.
"Never occurred to me. That must be it." Jeep stepped off the small stool, walked into a small pantry off the spacious kitchen, and returned with a bowl of crunchies for Baxter, which she wisely placed at the opposite end of the kitchen from King's bowl.
King's ears shot up. "Did you give him something better than you gave me?"
Baxter, famished, made a beeline for the bowl as Jeep shot King a stern look of warning.
Two steaming bowls of porridge were now on the table, along with a loaf of wonderful-smelling fresh bread, a wooden cutting board, and a serrated knife.
Carlotta occasionally ate with the boss, her mother-in-law, but usually returned to her own house, a smaller replica of this house, where she made lunch for her husband. Enrique Salaberry, fifty-eight, had been orphaned in the mid-1950s and then adopted by Jeep and the late Dorothy Jocham. Even after the formal adoption, Jeep had not changed Enrique's last name to Reed. She'd preserved the surname of his unwed mother, a Basque.
In one of her downward spirals, Catherine, Mags's sister, had tried to get her great-aunt to change her will so that only she and Mags (as blood relatives) would inherit Jeep's considerable estate. Jeep's enraged response was to strike Catherine from her will entirely. She sent copies of the revised document to Catherine, Catherine's lawyer, as well as to Catherine's extremely handsome and extremely loathsome husband. That had been in 2000. A long, noticeable silence followed, and had continued ever since.
Either Catherine stewed in Brentwood, a beautiful wealthy neighborhood of Los Angeles, or she was stewed. Ever the actress, she was always ready for another comeback. Catherine, being Catherine, was sure to turn up again sooner or later. She had a talent for picking the worst possible moments to reappear. What made it worse was that she was the spitting image of her mother, Glynnis, which always hit Jeep square in the heart.
Mags carried her mother's high cheekbones, and had that same lithe body, but you could also see her late father in her: the coloring, the piercing green eyes. Mags was wonderful to look at, but Catherine was drop-dead gorgeous. Such striking looks are so often a curse. In Catherine's case, it was a big one.
Jeep rarely mentioned her other great-niece. It wasn't that her name was forbidden, only that the conversation inevitably grew somber. Sooner or later someone would say, "You know, Cath will wind up dead. Someone will wipe her off the face of the earth."
Carlotta leaned over the sink and looked at the sky out the window. Then she walked to the long row of paned glass windows overlooking the wraparound porch. "More is coming."
Jeep turned to look. "The weatherman said two days of snow, maybe a foot and a half or more should fall in the city. That means two or more here."
"Where's Enrique?" Mags asked once she'd eaten a bit. She hadn't realized how lightheaded she'd become.
"The old barn," Aunt Jeep answered. "I've said ever since I bought this place that I'd take it down to the beams and then build it back like the original. Well, it's only taken me fifty-three years. Always one thing or another."
"That will be beautiful. You've sent me the photographs. I was very impressed you used a computer."
Jeep waved off the compliment. "People knew how to build back then. They built to last. For generations. Those hand-hewn beams get me every time I look at them. This ranch's original owners did an incredible job. I can just imagine Ralph Ford and his brother, Michael, one in the pit, one on top, sawing through those huge tree trunks."
"Where'd the Ford brothers ever get the trees?"
While various pines flourished in some spots in Nevada, not much else did.
"Brought 'em over from California by wagon." She shifted in her seat. "In a way, it's my duty to bring the barn back to its origins. I owe it to the Ford brothers. Too much Nevada history has been bulldozed, burned, or smashed to bits." She paused. "Bad as we've been out here, nothing's touched the day Penn Station was destroyed in Manhattan."
"Oh, I bet if there had been a Penn Station around here someone would have said the land beneath it's too valuable, let's tear it down and put up a great big ugly box," Mags critically commented.
"No. Not anymore. We've all awakened on that subject. At least, I hope we have." After a spoonful of the thick porridge, Jeep turned to Carlotta. "Perfect for a wicked cold day."
Carlotta smiled. "Thank you."
"Nobody cooks as good as you." Mags meant it, having tired of food considered as art.
Carlotta waved her be-ringed hand. "Poof."
A rumble stopped their chat.
King barked. "Trouble."
Baxter lifted his head from his plate. He'd never before heard such a sound. He specialized in ambulance and fire sirens.
"If those damned kids blow up my mailbox again, I'm getting out the shotgun." Jeep slammed her hand on the table, stood up, and rushed to the windows at the front of the house.
A brief gap in the snowfall revealed a black spiral of smoke, far from her mailbox, perhaps three miles to the northwest.
Then, just as fast, the snow closed over it.
Jeep scampered back to the kitchen in a rush, her footfalls reverberating on the old wooden floors. She preferred a landline to her cell since reception was spotty in Red Rock Valley. Wings Ranch sat in one of those spots.
From the kitchen's wall phone, Jeep called the Sheriff's Department.
"Yes, Miss Reed."
"Get me Pete." Everyone knew Jeep. Everyone would take her call.
Mags listened intently, transfixed by the abrupt change--Aunt Jeep was suddenly a WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilot.
Lisa patched her through. Pete's deep voice came over the receiver.
"Pete, there's been an explosion, saw black smoke. I think it's the pump just north of here off Red Rock Road."
He inhaled sharply. "Smart of them. This storm will cost us time. Too much time."