Welcome to the official website of Spur Award winner Keith McCafferty, author of Viking/Penguin’s Sean Stranahan mystery series, which includes The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders, Dead Man’s Fancy, Crazy Mountain Kiss, Buffalo Jump Blues, Cold Hearted River and A Death in Eden. Here you will find information about the books, as well as reviews, excerpts, contests to win flies and books, a sneak peek at the preface of A Death in Eden, and links to my articles. Contact me for free postcards and check out the The Deadwater Blog, which explores subjects ranging from the art of fly-tying to the art of writing about murder.
A Death in Eden, the 7th novel in the Sean Stranahan series, is available in bookstores and online now.
“The decision to give Harold a more prominent role this time out is a good one, affording McCafferty an opportunity to probe the inner life of a robust, thoroughly fascinating character who could easily lead his own series. Another satisfying western mystery from this talented author.” —Booklist
“If you’re not reading Keith McCafferty because you don’t fly fish or because you don’t like mysteries or westerns, you need to get started because he’s just flat-out terrific.” —Craig Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of the Walt Longmire novels, the basis for the Netflix drama Longmire
“With wry humor, Montana PI Sean Stranahan negotiates the territory between tradition and public interest with native rights in a mystery filled with characters we city folks don’t meet often enough.” —Carole E. Barrowman, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
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In A Death in Eden, state investigator Harold Little Feather is enlisted to find a mystery man known as the Scarecrow God, who has been erecting frightening effigies in the cliffs above Montana’s Smith River. On the surface, the incidents appear related to a copper mining project that threatens the purity of the river, but Harold’s investigation takes an ominous turn when a decapitated body is found in the river.
At the same time, Sean Stranahan and “Rainbow” Sam Meslik have been contracted as guides to float a party down the Smith that includes the manager of the mine project, Clint McCaine, and Bart Trueblood, the president of “Save The Smith,” a grassroots organization devoted to stopping the project, and the documentarian filming their arguments. Both men grew up on the river on neighboring ranches, and as they travel further downstream, it’s revealed that the two share a past that runs much deeper and darker than their opposing viewpoints.
Waters will rise, Sean’s long-time love Martha Ettinger will enter the fray, and all will hurtle downriver together toward a date with danger at a place called Table Rock.
To see photographs that follow the action, check out my Smith River Travelogue as you read.
My next events include Herringbone Books in Redmond, OR July 6, Sunriver books in Sunriver, OR July 7, the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ July 8, Orange, CA on July 9, and Country Bookshelf in Bozeman July 12. Check out the Events page for details and other upcoming events. Hope to see you and I’ll bring cookies.
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PART ONE: Hard Rock Heaven
Prologue: A Loo With A View
“I have to pee.”
Awakened by the child’s voice, the woman rolled over in the double-wide sleeping bag she shared with her husband. She spooned back against him.
“I didn’t hear that,” he murmured.
“I have to pee.”
The voiced was smothered. It came from the far side of the tent, where a small girl lay curled like a snail, her head buried in her sleeping bag.
“Can you wait until morning, darling?” the woman said. “It will be light in just a little while.”
“I have to pee now.” The head was out of the bag, the girl’s indignation registering.
The woman let out a sigh and fumbled for the zipper of the bag.
“I’ll go,” the man said.
“No, I’ll do it. She’s seven, Larry. She’s getting sensitive about that.”
“I’m seven and a half on the next full moon.”
Now where did she hear that? the woman thought.
“It’s all right, darling,” she said. “I just have to find the flashlight.”
“Take the bear spray,” the man said.
“It’s packed in the boat bag. We’ll be okay.”
“Sure,” the man said. “I paid the premium on your life insurance. If you get eaten, I’ll trade up to a pair of C cups.”
The woman swatted him with her pillow.
“What’s a C cup, Mommy?
“Nothing, sweetie. Daddy’s making a joke.”
“I have to pee bad.”
“I know. We’re going.” The woman had found the flashlight and twisted the barrel to turn it on. She got out of the bag and crawled on her knees to the tent flap and worked the zipper.
“Don’t step on snakes,” the man said. “We’re only a hundred miles from anywhere.”
“Fifty-three,” the woman said. “We floated six miles after we put the raft in and we take out at Eden Bridge at mile fifty-nine.”
“You and your arithmetic.”
“We’re going, Mary Louise. Do you want to hold the flashlight?”
“No. You hold it.”
So there was no reason to get lost. There was a path and no excuse for it, except that the woods were a skeleton of branches that stood like bones against the milk spilled by the moon, and the abstract shadows they cast made you step faster than you should, before you were sure of the way.
The woman swore under her breath.
“You said a bad word,” the girl said.
“Where are we, Mommy?”
“We’re in back of the camp . . . I think.” The last two words more to herself than to her daughter.
“Where’s the loo?”
That’s what her husband had called it. “A loo with a view.”
All the designated camp sites along the Smith River had pit toilets with hinged seats and “BEAR AWARE” stenciled on the lid. Some were situated on benches of land above the camp sites, so that, sitting, one might contemplate the river that glinted between the walls of the canyon.
“I found it,” the woman said.
Her voice was matter-of-fact. Still, she felt relief flood through her body. It was silly to have been afraid, even when the path seemed to be taking them too far from camp. They were on the river, after all. They might make a wrong turn to find a toilet, but they weren’t lost. She could even hear the cascade of Indian Spring across the river.
“You go first, Mommy.”
“I did earlier, darling.”
“I don’t want to sit down until you have.”
“What do you think’s down there, a bogey man? Okay, I’ll go first and warm it up for you. You can hold the flashlight and keep watch.”
Keep watch. She recalled the signboards they’d seen along the river yesterday, before they’d entered the roadless area. A yellow circle with a diagonal line slashed through the words “SMITH MINE.” And underneath, “#NOT ON MY WATCH.”
The Smith River was a crown jewel among Rocky Mountain trout streams. For sixty miles it flowed through a near-wilderness canyon of incomparable grandeur, with towering limestone cliffs that glowed gold and pink in the sunrise, and that were shot through with caves where Indians had painted thousands of ochre-colored pictographs. A proposed copper mine in the headwaters threatened the purity of its water, or so she’d learned from her husband, who had made a charitable donation to a grassroots organization called “Save The Smith .” He’d done a lot of research before filling out the application for the lottery. Had insisted she kiss it before he put it into the mail. With odds of drawing a permit ten to one against, you needed all the luck a kiss could give you. On the day that the results were posted on-line, he’d called her into their computer room, and she’d sat on his lap as he tapped the keys.
For a few seconds they just stared at the screen. “I knew you had lucky lips,” he’d whispered, and their daughter had appeared at the doorway as he was exploring them.
“You two do too much kissing. You should get a room,” she said.
It was true. They did a lot of kissing, and the kissing that night had led to a positive pregnancy test six days later. One they’d been trying to get for three long years. She thought of that as she sat on the loo with a view. She rubbed the just noticeable swelling of her abdomen and felt the tenderness in her breasts. Another few weeks, she thought, and he wouldn’t have to reach very far to find C cups. She smiled to herself as she watched the moonlight play across the pool below camp. The first weeks of pregnancy had been hard, with almost daily morning sickness. But the nausea wasn’t as bad now, and life, well . . . Life, like the river, was wonderful.
“Why is that man watching us?”
The woman jumped from the seat and yanked her camp pajamas back over her hips.
“Give me the light.” Trying to keep her voice calm.
The cone of light flashed through the bushes and trees that surrounding them.
“It’s nothing, darling.” But then — she swept the light up the hillside — there was something. Just for a second. A silhouette? Like a man on a cross, she thought, his arms outstretched. It looked huge. The light wavered and the silhouette was gone. She saw only trees. Had it been there at all?
She gripped the girl’s hand. The girl was crying now. It had taken a few moments for the fear to register.
“Larry!” the woman shouted.
“You’re hurting my hand,” the girl said. She was crying as she was tugged back down the trail.
The woman again shouted for her husband, waited a beat. No answer.
They fled through the trees, the branches whipping at them.
The girl yanked her hand away. Stumbling, the woman turned and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders.
“I lost my shoe, Mommy.”
“It’s okay, we’ll get you some more. Come on now.” She grabbed the small hand and started off, not running now but walking briskly, the girl hobbling.
It’s nothing, she told herself. Nothing.
And to her daughter, “Come on, you can do it. Just a little faster.”
In the darkness, the firefly of a headlamp.
His voice. “It’s me. Over here.”
She ran the last yards and flung her arms around him.
“What’s wrong? Did you see a bear?” He had the pepper spray gripped in one fist, a hatchet in the other.
“It was like a ghost.”
“I don’t know. Mary Louise saw it first. What did you see, darling? What did you see?”
“I don’t know.” She was still crying. “It had b . . . branches. It was walking.”
“Maybe it was a tree blowing.” the man’s said.
“There wasn’t any wind,” the woman said.
“It had arms. Like a scarecrow.”
“You mean like in ‘The Wizard of Oz?'” the woman said.
“Tigers and lions and bears, oh my,” the girl said.
“That’s backwards,” the man said.
“Larry, your daughter is frightened. Be serious.”
“Tigers and lions and bears, oh my,” the girl said again.
“That’s right darling. And we’re all together now, like Dorothy and her friends. We’re all safe if we’re together.”
“Who am I, Mommy?”
“Who do you want to be?”
It was a game they played when they watched movies. What character do you want to be?
“I want to be Dorothy,” the girl said.
“Then you’re Dorothy, darling. And nothing can hurt you, not even the Wicked Witch.”
“But I lost one of my ruby slippers.” And she had. The tennis shoes she’d got on her birthday pulsed red LED lights with every step.
“That’s all right. You only need one to protect you.”
The girl looked down at her remaining tennis shoe. The battery was starting to draw down, but the lights still flickered when she pumped her foot.
“Tigers and lions and bears, oh my,” she sang.
And the words strung out behind them as they walked the path back to camp, the girl hand in hand with her father and the stars losing their sparkle, but the forest holding fast to the terrors of the night, and with every other step a pulsing of the lights.