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He's My Cowboy
Author: Diana Palmer






It was a miserable Monday morning. Undersheriff Gil Barnes was filling out a report from a local citizen about a robbery, one of the very few that had ever happened in Benton, Colorado. His boss, Sheriff Jeff Ralston, was out of the office. In his absence, Gil was in charge.

He’d just been given the new position of sheriff’s investigator. He was crazy about forensics, and while working as a sheriff’s deputy, he’d completed two certificates in this special field already at the local community college, going to night classes. He’d also aced a certificate through distance learning, and he belonged to two international forensic societies. But so far, he’d had no reason to use those skills.

It wasn’t as if they had that many murders in Benton. Occasionally somebody got shot, but more often than not, it was accidental. Of course, there had been the recent excitement when a nearby rancher was targeted by his sister’s murderous boyfriend. But that case was solved and there hadn’t been a murder. This past year there had been a murder with a knife. What a mess that had been. And years ago, there had been a notorious murder involving the mentally challenged heir of a millionairess. That had long been solved. In recent times, there had been a couple of attempts. But just attempts.

He sighed as he went down the form, filling in the information for the files. At the front desk sat the new receptionist, a pretty brunette who was answering the phone. She was the youngest of three sisters whose family had been the wealthiest in town but had fallen on hard times. The other two were married. This one, Jane Denali, was the prettiest of them all and the nicest. The sheriff, Jeff, was sweet on her.

Just as well that she didn’t do anything for Gil, he reckoned. He’d had his heart broken by a fickle woman a few years earlier, when he was in the military, and he’d never gotten over the humiliation of being thrown over publicly and insulted in the process as the woman transferred her affection to his drill sergeant. These days, he mostly ignored women. Oddly, that seemed to draw them. Go figure, he thought, amused.

He didn’t notice Jane’s quick glance at him. He was very attractive. He was tall, built like a rodeo rider, all muscle without any exaggeration. He had blond hair and dark eyes and a face like a movie star. Jane tried not to notice. He was obviously not interested in her.

* * *

He was just finishing filling out the form when the front door opened. He heard the receptionist ask who the newcomer needed to see.

“There’s a body!” the man exclaimed, red-faced. He was wearing working clothes, and his shoes were full of mud from the rain. “We need the sheriff!”

Gil got up and moved out to the front office. “Actually, you need me,” he said, smiling. “Hi, Red,” he greeted the city worker. “What’ve you got?”

“A body,” he said. “We were repairing a water break, and there’s a skeleton under the pipe!”

“Are you sure it’s a person and not an animal?” Gil asked.

Red nodded. “Absolutely. And it’s been there for some time. The clothes it was wearing are just tattered cloth, almost disintegrated.”

Finally, a real crime to solve, and the body was skeletal remains. Gil muttered under his breath. Well, this one was going to require a forensic archaeologist, and he didn’t have the credentials yet. That meant he was going to have to share the case with some hotshot from the state crime lab. It was a very specialized skill . . .

Gil followed the city worker back to the site, where he went through the routine procedure of cordoning off the area and securing the evidence. Luckily the water break was a few feet down from the remains, or there would have been more problems. It was right at the edge of the city limits, within throwing distance of the local elementary school, a florist’s shop, and the big brick mansion where the town’s mayor, Dirk Handley, lived with his wife.

“We’ll need a forensic archaeologist,” Gil murmured.

“Sure looks like it,” Red said. He grimaced. “I guess I can’t keep working . . . ?”

“Sorry. No. Not until I deal with the crime scene. You can patch the pipe, but that’s all.”

“That’s something, at least. Everybody’s raising Cain, especially Mayor Handley.” He looked past Gil and groaned. “And speak of the devil . . . !”

“What the hell is going on down here?” Handley, a tall, red-faced, redheaded, overweight man, glowered at the workers around the hole. “And why hasn’t this water leak been patched?!”

“We have a problem,” Gil said, pointing to the skeletal remains in the hole.

Handley scowled. He moved closer to the hole and looked down. He hesitated a few seconds and swallowed, hard. “My God,” he said to himself. He took another breath. “Who is it?”

“We don’t know,” Gil said. “Body’s obviously been there a long time, but I’ll need help to excavate the remains and work the crime scene. This involves forensic archaeology. I’ll have to get somebody here from Denver.”

The mayor drew in a breath. “Poor devil,” he said softly. “Any idea who he could be?” he asked.

“None. We don’t even know if it is a man or a woman,” Gil said. “It will take an expert.”

“Then, how long until your expert can get here?” Handley asked abruptly. “And more importantly, when can I get my water back?”

Gil didn’t say what he was thinking. “Soon,” he promised. “I told them they could patch the leak.”

“All right, then.” Handley looked once more into the hole. “Poor devil,” he said again. “Well, keep me informed.” He glanced at the undersheriff. “Should we call the press? They might help identify who it is.”

“Not just yet,” Gil said diplomatically. “First things first.”

“Let me know. Re-election is coming up soon,” he said. “A little publicity never hurts. We don’t let anybody get away with murder in our town.”

Gil was affronted. “Mayor, we don’t even know if it was a murder yet,” he said.

Handley blinked. “We don’t?”

“He could have fallen into the hole; he could have had a heart attack . . .”

“Right. And nobody noticed him.”

“It’s a very deep hole,” Gil reminded him, “and if it was dark . . .”

“Okay, I see your point. Damn, it’s cold out here,” he muttered. “Going back inside. Fix that leak, please. My wife’s raising hell in the house.”

“We’ll get right on it, Your Honor,” Red told the mayor’s retreating back before he made an unseen face at Gil and returned to work.

* * *

Gil left a deputy at the scene to make sure the body wasn’t disturbed. Then he went back to his office and called the state criminal investigation unit for assistance.

“Oh, sure, we’ve got a graduate right out of college who’s a whiz at forensic archaeology, and she’s available right now!” the man said, a little too enthusiastically. Red flags were going up in Gil’s mind. “Here, let me have her talk to you. Hold on!”

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