At Wolf Ranch

By: Jennifer Ryan

She passed through the security line in the automatic fashion everyone else did, following the person in front of her. She ignored the stares and whispers. If the grief felt this heavy to carry, surely it showed on her face, because she couldn’t even muster a fake smile to make others believe she was okay. She’d never be okay. Not ever again.

Shoes back on, cell phone and her laptop packed back in her bags, and free to roam the terminal and walk to her gate, she made one last stop at the ATM. Between her debit and credit cards, she managed to withdraw twenty-five hundred dollars. If her uncle tracked her to the airport with the withdrawals, he still wouldn’t know which flight she took, thanks to the fake license.

After ignoring the other passengers on the plane and crying herself to sleep, she awoke just as the plane touched down in Bozeman. She exited, ignoring the stewardess’s sympathetic look, and followed the other passengers to baggage claim, where she picked up her sister’s bag. Without the ability to use her credit card to rent a car, she hopped into a cab.

“Where you headed, miss?” The older man gave her a concerned glance in the rearview mirror. She caught her haunted reflection. She should have stopped at the restroom to clean the smeared makeup under her eyes from crying.

“Home.” The ranch had been her favorite place as a kid. Large, looming mountains stood as the backdrop to the stone and timber house with the huge windows. She’d loved the rustic, comfortable feel of the house compared to the elegant penthouse her parents kept in New York.

“What’s the address?”

“Uh, sorry. Forty-two Wolf Road.” Since her father bought the property and paid for all the utilities and the road they built out to the house, he used his favorite number for the address and named the road after the family.

“I’m not familiar with it,” the driver said, punching the address into his GPS. “That’s quite a drive. There’s a storm up past the town of Crystal Creek. I can get you there, but you’ll need to stay overnight in town, or find someone with four-wheel drive who can get you through the back roads.”

Resigned and at the mercy of the gathering storm clouds in the distance, she nodded her agreement.

She used the long drive out of Bozeman’s wide valley to clean herself up with the makeup wipes she found in her sister’s toiletries that she dug out of the small suitcase. Eyes puffy and red, she’d never win a beauty contest, but she looked and felt better.

The drive relaxed her, unlike the turbulent flight. She hadn’t eaten since last night, lost her appetite completely this morning seeing her sister murdered, but now her hollow stomach ached. Maybe if she took a minute, had some coffee and a snack, she could think straight, take the edge off her raging headache, and figure out what to do next.

How far would her uncle go to find her?

Easy, he’d hunt her down.

“Where can I drop you, miss? This rain’ll turn to snow up where you’re headed.”

Lost in her own dark thoughts, she hadn’t seen the rain pouring down in sheets, or heard the fierce wind whipping against the car. She checked out the small town around them and spotted a coffee shop next to a motel. If she couldn’t find someone to take her to the ranch tonight, she could at least get a cup of coffee, a meal, and a warm room.

“Please drop me at the coffee shop. I’ll find my way from there.”

“You got it.”

She paid him the sixty-two dollars for the ride, plus a tip, and collected all her belongings.

“I’ll help you out, miss.”

“No, don’t get wet on my account. I’ll manage.”

Grateful, he smiled at her in the rearview mirror. “Suit yourself.”

Lucky for her, he pulled up close to the front door, but even in that short distance, her hair and shoulders got drenched. Thanks to the deep puddle she stumbled in, her suede ankle boots were not only ruined, but soaked through. A gust of wind pushed her through the front door. She shoved it shut and turned to face the room; many of the patrons’ gazes found her. She felt like a bedraggled wet cat with her hair dripping down her face and neck. She wiggled her freezing toes inside her wet socks and took a deep breath and let it out. Nothing she could do about it now.

She took a seat at the nearly empty counter and dumped her tote and purse on the seat beside her. A waitress bustled over from the two older gentleman at the other end and asked, “What’ll it be, honey?”

“Coffee, please.”

“Special’s the meat loaf and mashed potatoes. We got a pot of broccoli cheddar soup and some nice warm bread if you’d like.”

“I’ll take the soup and bread. Thanks.”

“You okay, honey?”

“No. No, I’m not. But I will be,” she vowed, thinking of taking down her uncle. Better to think about that than her sister’s cold, dead body lying on the library floor.

The waitress, Bev according to her name tag, poured her a mug of coffee and set a bowl filled with creamer cups in front of her. “I’ll have your order in just a minute. You just sit there and get warm.”

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