Just west of the Rocky Mountains, a frightened horse with a bloody saddle is found running loose on the Yellowhead highway. Former RCMP investigator Hunter Rayne is on the road in his eighteen-wheeler when he is flagged down to help calm the horse and find its missing rider.
The horse with the bloody saddle leads Hunter and a good-natured French Canadian cowboy into a complicated murder mystery. The police are none too happy with his interference, but Hunter strongly believes the RCMP have arrested the wrong man and sets out to uncover who stood to gain from the death of a wealthy ranch owner.
His belief in the suspect’s innocence is shared by a rookie female RCMP constable who joins him in the search for the truth. She befriends the dead man’s young fiancé in an effort to get answers, and discovers that the vulnerable Texas beauty is not who the victim believed her to be.
Yellowhead Blues was one of three finalists for the 2020 Whistler Independent Book Award in Fiction. It has earned an average of 4.7 stars in ratings on Amazon.com, and is the fifth novel in a unique mystery series set on the highways of North America.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I love mysteries. I especially love mystery series that feature realistic characters and situations, with stories that make me believe those characters actually exist. Of course, that's the type of books I have always aspired to write.
Among the excellent crime series that inspired me to write the Highway Mysteries are Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series, Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series and John Lescroart's Dismas Hardy series.
As for the unique setting of the Highway Mysteries, I spent a good part of my life working in the transportation industry, and was fortunate to get to know many of the interesting people working as truck drivers, customs brokers and other support workers who help get goods to every corner of North America.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My hero Hunter Rayne, the retired RCMP homicide detective who now drives an 18-wheeler, is loosely based on my late husband, who in early twenties worked as an undercover operative for the RCMP. His cover was being a truck driver, and after several years as a driver, he would go on to manage a major transportation company but always retained his RCMP contacts.
Many of the characters in the Highway Mysteries are a fictional amalgam of people I have known, either in the transportation industry or in other facets of my life. For example, Hunter's dispatcher, Elspeth Watson (aka Big Mother Trucker) has the combined traits of a male dispatcher and a female customs broker I used to work with. They were friends that I remember fondly. Hunter's sidekick, Dan Sorenson, is an amalgam of a biker I met through my second husband and a driver I knew from my first job in transportation.
I have used my father and uncle (Gord and John) as recurring characters — with their knowledge and permission before their passing — and I even insert myself in short cameos (a la Alfred Hitchcock) in each of my novels. (Can you find me?)
Pierre Bostonais was murdered near the headwaters of the Smoky River.
Hunter Rayne wouldn’t have known that if he hadn’t stopped in Valemount for an early dinner on one of his first trips across the Canadian Rockies via Highway 16. He’d been hauling a loaded trailer for Edmonton farmed out by a less-than-truckload carrier in Vancouver and had stopped to get something to eat and stretch his legs. During the stop, he wandered into the Valemount Museum; it was there he saw the story about Pierre Bostonais, the blond haired Iroquois Métis known to his contemporaries as Tȇte Jaune, or Yellow Head. The rumor was that Bostonais had been scalped and dismembered, along with his brother Baptiste and their families, by the Beaver Tribe of Carrier Indians in retribution for hunting and trapping in Beaver territory. Nothing else was said about the families, which left Hunter wondering. Did the men have wives? Young or old? Were there children and were they killed, too?
Hunter wished he knew what had really happened, but he kept his old RCMP investigative drive in check. He had no intention of investigating a murder committed in 1828. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder how many other interlopers from the east the Beavers had dispatched in a similar manner, their names and hair color now lost to history. Tȇte Jaune was remembered because he’d been the guide who led Hudson’s Bay Company chief trader James McMillan through a little-known pass across the Rockies from Jasper, Alberta in 1825. Now not only the Yellowhead Pass, but over eighteen hundred miles of the Yellowhead Highway from the BC coast to the prairies still keep Pierre Bostonais’ sobriquet alive. Not a bad legacy for a half-breed trapper described as a mischievous rogue.
This trip, Hunter had stopped for a late breakfast at a truck stop just outside of Kamloops, having left the Watson Transportation yard at six with a jumbo mug of his boss, El Watson’s strong coffee and one of the donuts he’d picked up for her at a Tim Horton’s on his way in. Now, early in the afternoon of a late September Indian summer day, he was not far past Tȇte Jaune Cache, traffic was light and he was enjoying glimpses of the Rockies that opened up now and then as the eastbound highway snaked up and down, over and around treed slopes. His mind had wandered back to the fate of Tȇte Jaune’s family when he was suddenly forced to brake the Freightliner to a fast stop — dangerously fast. A man in a cowboy hat stood in the middle of his lane, waving both arms in the air above his head.
“What the —?” Hunter rolled down his window, preparing to ask what was going on, but the man had turned his back on Hunter’s truck and was walking slowly and calmly across the opposite lane of the highway. Hunter couldn’t figure out why until he saw the horse.
The horse was obviously frightened. Even from Hunter’s vantage point in the driver’s seat of the Freightliner, he could see the white in the horse’s eyes, although the horse’s high head and flight or fight stance were clear enough indicators of the horse’s fear. The horse had a saddle and bridle on, a loop rein made of marine rope still dallied around the saddle horn. Hunter’s first assumption was that the horse belonged to the cowboy, but he saw a pickup truck hooked to a small horse trailer parked facing his own truck, on the wrong side of the highway a few hundred yards ahead, as if it had been forced to stop suddenly. There was no sign of another person in or around the truck. Hunter put his emergency flashers on and stepped down from the cab, intending to do as the cowboy had done, waving down any vehicle that might approach from behind. Away from the engine noise, he could hear the cowboy talking to the horse. Although he couldn’t make out the words, the voice was cajoling, as if to set the animal at ease, and it seemed to be working.
There wasn’t much of a shoulder on either side of the highway at this point, with a rock face on one side and a steep slope down to the Fraser River on the other, so the horse was dangerously close to the traffic lanes. Hunter waved an approaching semi to a stop, then turned to watch the cowboy again. He had hold of the rein and was petting the horse’s face and neck, the horse visibly relaxing at his touch. It dropped its head and made chewing motions with its mouth. The cowboy then turned and waved Hunter over.
“Can I get some help ‘ere?” the man called out. As Hunter drew closer, he added, “You know much about horses? How ‘bout you gimme a hand ‘ere?” The man dropped his H’s like a French Canadian. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was built like a tank. A mustache stretched above his upper lip and a couple days growth of beard covered his lower jaws. He could have played a desperado in a 50’s Western.
“I’m no expert, but I’ve been around a horse or two,” Hunter told him.
“Good. I’m gonna let ‘dis pony graze a bit first, calm him down. Move your rig offa ‘de road, eh?”
There were four eastbound vehicles stopped behind his rig. Hunter approached the window of the first one and spoke to the semi driver, cautioning him to go slow as he passed the horse. No sooner had he said that than a noisy diesel pickup came speeding toward them in the westbound lane. The horse tried to rear, then spun its rump out into the road, but the cowboy kept a firm hold. Hunter thought he heard the cowboy shout, “Asshole!” as the pickup roared past.
By the time Hunter had eased his tractor-trailer as far onto the shoulder as he dared and set out some orange markers behind it, the cowboy had lifted the looped rein over the horse’s head and walked the horse along and across the highway as far as the horse trailer where the shoulder was wider. Hunter trotted up to join him, slowing down as he got closer. The horse was pulling at some long grass beside the shoulder, wisps of brown and green blades being drawn into his mouth as he chewed.
“How’d your horse get loose?” asked Hunter.
The cowboy shook his head. “Not my horse. I got my two here in my trailer. Dis pony was racing up the road, lookin’ to get itself killed.” He motioned Hunter closer to the horse. “Look here.”
The cowboy held his hand out toward Hunter, palm up. It was red with fresh blood. Then he pointed to the horse’s shoulder. “From here, see?” The bay horse’s shoulder was streaked with blood, still glistening, still wet. The blood seemed to come from the crest of its neck near the withers, soaking the roots of the horse’s mane. It had dripped down the shoulder, under and over the breast collar and mixed with the sweat on the horse’s chest into a pink foam. Hunter could smell the combined scent of blood and sweat from where he stood. No wonder the horse had panicked.
The cowboy was palpating the horse’s neck, looking for the source of the blood. He shook his head, then pointed to a dark smear on the brown leather of the saddle. “I never seen a saddle bleed,” he said.
“Where’s the rider?”
“That’s what you and me are gonna find out.” The cowboy looked Hunter up and down, then gestured at Hunter’s western style boots. “You ride, eh?”
“I can’t just leave my rig here,” Hunter began to object, indicating the tractor-trailer parked up the road, but the cowboy cut him off.
“Whoever rode this gelding was bleeding bad. He ain’t got much time. What’s more important? Your goddamn truck or a man’s life?” He frowned. “Or could be a woman.”
Hunter traced the dark streaks of blood with his eyes. The blood had dripped from the pommel, run down the leather skirt of the saddle and onto the barrel end of a leather rifle scabbard. The wound had to have been a large one. “How are we going to find the rider?” he asked. “I doubt this horse is going to lead us back there.”
The cowboy grinned, showing a broken front tooth. “I got Blue,” he said. “Hold onto this pony while I saddle up my two. What’s your name?”
Hunter introduced himself as he took the rope, then said, “And yours?”
“Léon. Léon Rousseau.” He winked as he added, “You can call me Leo.”
Hunter pulled out his cell phone as he watched the cowboy back his horses one at a time out of the trailer’s back door and tie each of them to a steel ring welded to the trailer’s side. The trailer was obviously old, as was the Ford F250 in front of it. He glanced at his phone. No signal. No way to reach emergency services, so he and the cowboy were on their own. He hoped looking for the injured rider was the best idea, but he couldn’t think of a better one.
Leo opened a door in the side of the trailer and took out a saddle pad, then a well-oiled Western saddle for each horse. His moves were practiced and smooth, quick and sure. The horses stood quietly, obviously used to the drill. Leo tightened the cinch of the first one, a tall dun colored horse with markings like black stripes around its lower legs, grabbed the saddle horn and wiggled the saddle back and forth, then snugged the cinch up a little more. He repeated that with the second horse — a mare who was smaller than the first and a bay so dark she was almost black — then pulled a bridle up over her nose and did up the buckle on her cheek. The horse had a long, wavy mane and tail and Hunter couldn’t help admiring her appearance.
“This one’s for you,” he said. “She’s a good mare, but sensitive. Go easy wit’ your cues or you’ll think you’re in the Kentucky Derby.” When Leo was finished bridling his own horse, he took the rope rein from Hunter and handed him the black mare’s leather reins instead. “We’ll lead them across the road before we mount up. I seen what looks like a trailhead a few hundred yards up that way. Stay a horse length back, eh?” He motioned to the riderless horse. “Don’t crowd this pony.” With that, he whistled and a dog with black eye patches and a salt and pepper coat emerged from under the horse trailer and scampered up to the cowboy. The dog trotted at Leo’s heels until they reached the overgrown trail.
Hunter debated flagging down a vehicle and asking them to send an ambulance, but decided against it. He couldn’t be sure that they would find the injured rider, or if there even was one. Could the blood be from a deer that a hunter had shot and tried to hoist onto his horse’s back?
It had been a year or two since Hunter last rode, but he found it easy enough to get his left foot into the stirrup and swing his right leg up over the saddle. He guessed that clambering in and out of his Freightliner cab, not to mention hoisting himself into the back of a forty-eight foot trailer on occasion, had kept him relatively limber. It helped that the mare wasn’t much over fifteen hands at the withers.
Before the cowboy mounted, he examined the grass and scrub at the overgrown trailhead. “He come down here alright.” He approached the runaway horse, untied a denim jacket that had been rolled up and snugged against the back of its saddle with leather strings, rubbed it in the blood on the horse’s shoulder, then squatted on his heels and held it out to the dog to sniff. “Find ‘im, Blue,” he said.
The dog looked him in the eye for a few seconds, then sniffed again at the bloody jacket before turning around and starting up the trail. With a quick hop, in spite of his relatively short stature Leo had his left foot in the stirrup and his butt in the saddle in less than a second. Holding onto the rein of the riderless horse, he reined his own horse around and set off up the trail behind his dog. It was obviously not a well-used trail, although fresh cuts on a dead pine that had fallen across it showed that someone cared enough to keep the trail open. There were trees and underbrush on both sides; a breeze rustled the canopy of yellowing aspen leaves and the smell of pine hung heavy in the air.
Hunter leaned forward in the saddle and the mare he was on leaped forward, causing the riderless horse to crowd the Frenchman’s gelding. Leo turned around and said, “I tol’ you! Keep that mare off ‘a this pony’s tail. Lean back. You lean forward, that’s her signal to go, man. Sit straight or lean back.”
Hunter pulled back on the reins and the mare shook her head in protest, but once he’d shifted his weight back, she settled into a walk about a horse length behind the bloody gelding. It felt good. Hunter had always enjoyed riding, ever since he learned as a teen, but he seldom made the time for it. He just wished the reason for this ride wasn’t the search for someone who could be gravely injured or possibly dead.
R.E. Donald writes the Highway Mysteries series, featuring a former RCMP homicide investigator who takes to the road as a long haul trucker. Although her hero, Hunter Rayne, is based in the Vancouver area, the five novels in the series take the reader on highways from L.A. to Alaska. Ruth draws on her years in the transportation industry to create realistic characters and situations in her traditional mysteries. She lives on a ranch on B.C’s Cariboo plateau.
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