In the Moon of Red Ponies: A Novel

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9780743245432: In the Moon of Red Ponies: A Novel

"James Lee Burke tells a story in a style all his own, in language that's alive, electric. He's a master at setting mood, laying in atmosphere, all with quirky dialogue that's a delight." -- Elmore Leonard


In James Lee Burke's last novel featuring Billy Bob Holland, Bitterroot, the former Texas Ranger left his home state to help a friend threatened by the most dangerous sociopath Billy Bob had ever faced. After vanquishing a truly iniquitous collection of violent individuals, Billy moved his family to west Montana and hung out a shingle for his law practice. But in In the Moon of Red Ponies, he discovers that jail cells have revolving doors and that the government he had sworn to serve may have become his enemy.

His first client in Missoula is Johnny American Horse, a young activist for land preservation and the rights of Native Americans. Johnny is charged with the murder of two mysterious men -- who seem to have recently tried to kill Johnny themselves, or at least scare him off his political causes. As Billy Bob investigates, he discovers a web of intrigue surrounding the case and its players: Johnny's girlfriend, Amber Finley, as reckless as she is defiant -- and the daughter of one of Montana's U.S. senators; Darrel McComb, a Missoula police detective who is obsessed with Amber; and Seth Masterson, an enigmatic government agent whose presence in town makes Billy Bob wonder why Washington has become so concerned with an obscure murder case on the fringes of the Bitterroot Mountains.

As complications mount and the dead bodies multiply, Billy Bob is drawn closer to the truth behind Johnny American Horse's arrest -- and discovers a greater danger to himself and to his whole family. How Billy Bob strikes back at evil and protects his kin is the masterful triumph of In the Moon of Red Ponies.

Beautifully written, with an intriguing plot and characters whose conflicts seem as real as life itself, this novel shows James Lee Burke again in the top form that has made him a critical favorite and a national bestseller.

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About the Author:

James Lee Burke, a rare winner of two Edgar Awards, and named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, is the author of thirty previous novels and two collections of short stories, including such New York Times bestsellers as The Glass RainbowSwan Peak, The Tin Roof Blowdown, Last Car to Elysian Fields, and Rain Gods. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

My law office was located on the old courthouse square of Missoula, Montana, not far from the two or three blocks of low-end bars and hotels that front the railyards, where occasionally Johnny American Horse ended up on a Sunday morning, sleeping in a doorway, shivering in the cold.

The city police liked Johnny and always treated him with a gentleness and sense of fraternity that is not easily earned from cops. He had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery in Operation Desert Storm, and some cops said Johnny's claims that he suffered Gulf War syndrome were probably true and that he was less drunk than sick from a wartime chemical inhalation.

More accurately, Johnny was a strange man who didn't fit easily into categories. He lived on the Flathead Reservation in the Jocko Valley, although his name came from the Lakota Sioux, and his relatives told me he was a descendant of Crazy Horse, the shaman and chief strategist for Red Cloud, who actually defeated the United States Army and shut down the Bozeman Trail in Red Cloud's War of 1868. I don't know whether or not Johnny experienced mystical visions as his ancestor supposedly did, but I had no doubt he heard voices, since he often smiled during the middle of a conversation and asked people to repeat themselves, explaining nonchalantly that other people were talking too loudly, although no one else was in the room.

But on balance he was a decent and honorable man and a hard worker, who took pride in tree-planting the side of a bare hill or digging postholes from sunrise to dark, in the way ranch hands did years ago, when love of the work itself was sometimes more important than the money it paid. He was handsome, full of fun, his hands shiny with callus, his face usually cut with a grin, his coned-up straw hat slanted on his brow. His higher ambitions were quixotic and of a kind that are doomed to destruction, but he was never dissuaded by the world's rejection or the fate it would eventually impose on him.

I just wished Johnny hadn't been so brave or so trusting in the rest of us.

Montana's history of rough justice is legendary. During the 1860s the Montana Vigilantes lynched twenty-two members of Henry Plummer's gang, riding through ten-foot snowdrifts to bounce them off cottonwood trees and barn ladders all over the state. Plummer's men died game, often toasting the mob with freshly popped bottles of champagne and shouting out salutes to Jefferson Davis before cashing in. Plummer, a county sheriff, was the only exception. He begged his executioners to saw off his arms and legs and cut out his tongue rather than take his life. The vigilantes listened quietly to his appeal, then hanged him from the crossbeam at the entrance to his ranch, the soles of his boots swinging back and forth three inches from the ground.

But that was then. Today the Montana legal system is little different from any other state's, and the appeals apparatus in criminal convictions sometimes produces situations with which no one can adequately deal.

The most dangerous, depraved, twisted, and unpredictable human being I ever knew was a rodeo clown by the name of Wyatt Dixon. With my help, he had been sentenced to sixty years in Deer Lodge Pen for murdering a biker in the Aryan Brotherhood. On an early spring morning, one year after Wyatt had begun his sentence in Deer Lodge Pen, I walked from the house down to the road and removed the daily newspaper from the tin cylinder in which it was rolled. I flipped the paper open and began to read the headlines as I walked back up the incline to the house, distracted momentarily by a black bear running out of the sunshine into the spruce trees that grew on the hill immediately behind the house.

When I glanced back at the paper, I saw Wyatt's name and a wire service story that made me swallow.

I sat down at the breakfast table in our kitchen and kept the newspaper folded back upon itself so the story dealing with Wyatt was not visible. Through the side window I could see steam rising from the metal roof on our barn and, farther on, a small herd of elk coming down an arroyo, their hooves pocking the snow that had frozen on the grass during the night.

"Why the face?" Temple, my wife, asked.

"For spring it's still pretty cold out," I replied.

She straightened the tulips in a glass vase on the windowsill and lifted a strand of hair off the glasses she had started wearing. She had thick chestnut hair and the light was shining on it through the window. "Did you say something about Johnny American Horse earlier?" she asked.

"He got himself stuck in the can again. I thought I'd go down to morning court," I replied.

"He needs a lawyer to get out of the drunk tank?"

"This time he had a revolver on him. It was under his coat, so he got booked for carrying a concealed weapon."

"Johnny?" she said.

I folded the newspaper and stuck it in my coat pocket. "Meet me for lunch?" I said from the doorway.

"Can you tell me why you're acting so weird? Why are you taking the newspaper with you?"

"No reason."

"Right."

The phone rang on the counter. I got to it before she did. "Hello?" I said, my mouth dry.

"Well, God bless your little heart, I'd recognize that voice anywhere. Howdy doodie, Mr. Holland? I wasn't sure you was still around, but soon as I come into town, I looked in the phone directory and there was your name in the middle of the page, big as a horse turd floating in a milk shake. Bet you don't know who this is?"

"You're making a mistake, partner."

"Sir, that injures my feelings. I have called you in good faith and as a fellow American, 'cause this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. I don't hold no grudges. I have even used your name as a reference in the many letters I have wrote to our country's leaders. In fact, I have wrote President Bush himself to offer my services. Has he contacted you yet?"

"I'm going to hang up now. Don't call here again," I said, trying to avoid Temple's stare.

"Now listen here, sir, I'm inviting you and your wife to a blowout, all-you-can-eat buffet dinner at the Golden Corral Restaurant. Do not hang up that phone, no-siree-bobtail -- "

I returned the receiver to the cradle. Temple's eyes were riveted on mine.

"Who was that?" she said.

"Wyatt Dixon. He's out," I replied.

She began to straighten the tulips in the window again but instead knocked over the vase, shattering it in the sink, the tulip petals red as blood among the shards of glass.

As I left the house for work the sun was bright on the hillsides of the valley in which we lived, and to the south I could see the timber climbing up into the snowpack on the crests of the Bitterroots. I turned onto the two-lane into the little town of Lolo, then headed up the road to my office in Missoula. My reluctance to tell Temple that Wyatt Dixon was out of prison had nothing to do with the reasons people normally conceal bad news from their loved ones. Rather, it had everything to do with Temple's own propensity for immediate and violent retaliation against anyone who threatened her person or that of her friends or family.

Back in Texas, before she became a private investigator for small-town lawyers such as myself, she had been a patrolwoman in Dallas, a deputy sheriff in Fort Bend County near Houston, and a corrections officer in Louisiana. She had also been buried alive by Wyatt Dixon.

I parked in my rental space not far from the Oxford Bar, whose doors have stayed open since 1891, and walked down the street toward my office close by the courthouse. The maple trees on the courthouse lawn were in new leaf now, riffling in the breeze, the shadows shifting like lacework on the grass. At the corner, across from a pawnshop and bar, I saw a man watching me, his arm hooked on top of a parking meter.

He was lantern-jawed, his red hair like cornsilk, his eyes as pale and empty as a desert sky, his teeth big and ...

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