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Big Sky Murder- first three chapters

Which is safer? Being an outlaw or an outcast... Sometimes a woman has to choose.

Big Sky Murder

Book 1 Moonshiner Mysteries

Copyright © Sherilyn Decter All rights reserved

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property and prohibited.

Big Sky Murder is a work of historical fiction in which the author has occasionally taken artistic liberties for the sake of the narrative and to provide a sense of authenticity. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Print ISBN: 978-1-7775151-1-9
EPub ISBN: 978-1-7771277-8-7


“Is there anything lonelier than an empty mountain road under a moonlit sky?”

Delores Bailey winced as Charlie’s words struck home. She shot a quick glance at the dapper fellow sitting next to her: his baggy pants, too-small jacket, thick, square moustache, bowler hat. Surrounded by the thick darkness, dense forests with mountains towering above, there was truth in what he said.

Gritting her teeth, she clutched the wheel tightly as the 1926 Ford Model TT truck skidded along a rutted dirt trail, the glare of her headlights scouring the way ahead.

“Hang on, Charlie. This is a rough road.”

“I don’t see how you can even call this a road,” Charlie Chaplin said. He was braced against the dash of the truck with one hand and clinging to his cane with the other. The truck lurched again. “Although it’s nothing like that scene from The Gold Rush. Remember that prospector’s cabin teetering at the top of the mountain? Rocking back and forth on the precipice? Now that was alarming.”

“You had to bring that up? Now?” Delores gripped the steering wheel harder. A sheen of sweat on her forehead glistened in the moonlight. “How about you just hang on and shut your yap for a bit so I can concentrate on getting us home.”

Charlie looked at her with wide, sad eyes and mimed a key locking his mouth. Then, with great fanfare, he flung it away.

Delores rolled her eyes. “I wish.”

It was so quiet she could hear the clink of the bottles and jugs of moonshine in the back of the truck as they rattled along the rough road. The moonlit sky was a narrow ribbon above the towering lodgepole pine and Douglas fir of Montana’s Tobacco Root Mountains.
Delores had first come across Charlie as a lonely girl sitting in dark movie theaters in Philadelphia, only Charlie Chaplin and his movies for company. And what movies! He was so funny, always in trouble, he’d fall down—a lot—and always pick himself up again. She admired that about him. And there was nobody—not Buster Keaton, not Laurel and Hardy, not Fatty Arbuckle—that could make her laugh and forget her troubles like Charlie.

Now here she was, still lonely but sitting in the dark truck instead of a dark theater, hurtling down the side of some mountain in Montana. But she still hung on to Charlie to keep her company … and make her laugh. It was the closest thing she had to feeling like a kid again. Or at least what a kid was supposed to feel like. Happy. Silly. Cared for.

She wasn’t crazy or nothing; she knew he wasn’t real … just somebody to talk to. Although for a figment of her imagination, he occasionally had a bit of an attitude about him, just like the movie magazines claimed the real Charlie did.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be more careful,” Delores said.

“You’d better be. There’s a lot of time and money poured into those bottles. Any of them breaks and we’re in trouble.”

“I know. I know. I can’t afford to be careless,” Delores said.

“Right. Careless. What happened to the Delores Bailey that’s always bragging about being the best moonshiner in the Rockies? That Delores wouldn’t break bottles, and her moonshine certainly wouldn’t blow up,” Charlie said.

Delores could feel the drip of sarcasm. He was definitely in some kind of mood tonight. “Look, Chuck-els, keep your comments to yourself,” she replied.

Charlie shot her another of his famous sad-eyed looks. “I was only trying to help, my dear. No need to get testy.”

It was 1927. More than a year had passed since sixteen-year-old Delores had fled Philadelphia one step ahead of the law. Her train ticket had taken her as far as Pony Gulch, but even after all this time, she still wasn’t comfortable in Montana’s vast emptiness.

Charlie relaxed against the seat. “I miss Philadelphia. Big city lights, sidewalks crowded with people, the air crackling with energy. A lot like Hollywood. Oh, right. You’ve never been to Los Angeles. Like the travel brochures say, the City of Angels,” he said, sighing. “This place is too big. Too empty. Too quiet.”

Delores shot a firm look at her traveling companion. “You know why we’re here. We’re making greenbacks hand over fist. Plus, quiet is good for us right now. I know you haven’t forgotten what happened to us in Philly.”

“I didn’t forget.”

With a sigh, Delores added, “Look. I promise. The second we stop making money, we’ll move on to California.”

“Tinsel Town? I’m going to hold you to it, my dear. This place … there’s too much space. It’s hard to breathe.”

“I know. I know. Soon, okay?”

“That’s what you always say.”

The truck slammed into a rut, and she was flung violently against the steering wheel. Delores grunted. “Damn.” She flicked a quick glance in the rear-view mirror mounted on the side of the truck to check out her precious cargo. “Everything’s still in one piece.”

“I told you to be more careful. And all we need is to lose a tire out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“I know. I got it. What a nag. I promised I’d get us home in one piece, and I will,” Delores replied with a glare. But she lifted her foot off the gas pedal, slowing down and picking her way along the rough trail.
“Plus, we don’t know what’s in those trees,” Charlie said, his face pinched with worry as he peered out into the darkness.

It was the same look Delores had seen when Charlie was facing down the grizzly bear in The Gold Rush. She glanced out the window at the trees flying past. Do they have grizzlies in Montana?

“Probably lots of vicious animals with fangs and claws out there,” Charlie said.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it. We’re going to be fine,” Delores replied. “You should be braver. Wasn’t The Gold Rush filmed in the Klondike?”

“Hardly. It was movie magic. We did it all in the back lot in Hollywood. You know better.”

Delores yawned.

“And you work too hard,” Charlie said.

Delores knew he was right. Hauling the crates of bottled moonshine, swatting bugs and wiping sweat, haggling with customers, dealing with their sly, hungry glances that slid off her when she caught them looking. Moonshining may seem like the glamorous life of an outlaw when it was in the movies, but to Delores, the reality was a dirty job that left her with an aching back.

“What else we gonna do?” she asked.

“That’s true. You were born for this. And you’re darn good at it. Never forget, my dear, life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it. All it takes is courage, imagination … and a little dough,” Charlie said, rubbing his fingers together.

Delores yawned again and smiled. “We’ll sleep when the work’s done.”

“My motto, exactly,” Charlie said with a smug look.

There was a deep satisfaction at the end of the day when she counted her money, knowing she had earned every single goldarn penny herself. She’d been through hell for the right to be her own woman, answerable to no one, and she had all those dirty, sweaty, sticky pennies to thank.

Bouncing over a deep rut, Delores whacked her head against the roof of the truck cab and swore. The hostile assault of the dirt road perfectly fit her current mood. The last delivery had left her rattled. She couldn’t get Tamater out of her head.

Charlie gripped his cane tighter. “I hate going out to Never Sweat. It’s dangerous and too far, especially for a woman alone.”

Delores couldn’t argue with that. The Never Sweat mining camp was an isolated place, and there were plenty of hazards selling moonshine out in this wilderness to a bunch of rough men too long underground.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll keep us safe,” she said. Moonlight gleamed off the barrel of the 1911 Colt handgun that lay on the seat beside her. She’d snitched it from her brother, and when she needed it, the gun added some clout to the negotiations.

The truck veered left, and Delores gasped as they drifted close to the edge of a steep embankment. The tops of the tall pine from the chasm below were just visible along the edge of the road.

She yanked hard on the wheel to keep it in the middle of the trail and settled her hunched shoulders again, blowing out the breath she’d been holding.

“You’re putting too much trust in the darn brakes. Will you slow down?” Charlie demanded. There was just a hint of panic in his voice.

“You make one crack about women drivers and you’re out of here,” Delores said gruffly. The dull ache in her lower back was crawling up to meet the cramped shoulder muscles. She rolled them without loosening her grip on the wheel, trying to find an easier position—without luck.

“I’m just saying that you should stop going out there. Tamater doesn’t treat you right. I’m not sure the money is worth all the hassles sometimes,” Charlie said.

Delores’s lip curled in disgust as she thought about Tamater, stooped from crouching underground like some hideous gnome, wizened, the thinning strands of rusty red hair a faint echo of the former blaze of glory that saddled him with his nickname.

“There’s always some jackass who wants to push us around,” Delores replied. “You get used to it in this business—or you get out of the business.”

“He calls you ‘girlie.’ Just like your father used to. I don’t like it.”
Charlie’s concern washed over her. According to everything she’d read about him, he’d had a childhood as ugly as her own. Both of them were on their own at a young age, the streets safer than staying home. And for Delores, the harrowing tales of Charlie being placed in a London workhouse at the tender age of seven put her own upbringing in a new light. Somehow, she didn’t feel so bad about her own childhood, not when there was somebody that had it worse.

Charlie looked at her closely. “Are you okay, my dear?”

Delores’s stomach churned. When Tamater talked, she could hear her father’s voice in her head. His sneer rode on the red-headed miner’s whiskered face. And just like her father, Tamater had a sixth sense about weakness. She knew the type. Men like that, they’d pick and tear at her like giant carrion birds until she was shredded and bleeding, her guts lying on the ground waiting to be scooped up.
Her mouth went dry at the memories.

Her eyes narrowed as she gripped the steering wheel. Next time, when Tamater pushed, she’d push back harder—until he was the one that got crushed. “I’m not that helpless little girl anymore, and Pa is dead,” Delores said, her face grim.

Charlie’s silence was uncharacteristic.

“You got something on your mind?” she asked.

“He’s a welcher is all I’m sayin’.”

Delores looked at Charlie, an eyebrow curled in surprise. “Welcher?”

“Exactly. Chiseller, grifter, scammer, swindler, gouger.”

“I know what the word means. I was just surprised you used it. It doesn’t sound like you. Are you quoting from a movie script?”

“I’m all in your head, my dear. You write the script—I read the lines. But I’m serious about Tamater. He’s as nasty as any movie villain. All he needs is a black top hat with a cape and moustache to swirl.”

“You talking about Tamater or my pa?”

“They’re both just shades of the same evil, my dear.”

“Now, that’s got to be a line from some movie.”

“And I delivered it perfectly. How about this: he’s a dirty rat.”

“You never said that.”

“I was doing my tough guy impersonation.”

“Don’t. It sounds too much like my brothers, or Mickey. I’m done with mobsters.”

“All the same, Tamater tried to take two gallons of your finest moonshine without paying. And then had the gall to challenge you on it— ‘girlie’ indeed. Threatening to take his business elsewhere. Like that’s going to happen,” Charlie said with a laugh.

Delores nodded, her eyes on the road. “I got those miners right where I want ’em.”

Charlie laughed. “Yeah. Grateful. Nothing like being the only game in town.”

Delores flashed him a quick smile before turning back to watch the road. “And so they should be. Even with Prohibition, we don’t have too much competition in these mountains that are prepared to ferry the ‘shine out to the camps. You’d have to be a dumb dame to try to build a business around that idea.”

“You, my dear, are anything but a dumb dame.”
Delores looked over at Charlie, surprised at the compliment. And suspicious. Was this another one of his cracks? He smiled his sad little smile and tipped the bowler hat that was always riding on his head.

“What about those moonshiners from Mammoth?” he asked, pantomiming shooting a gun.

“I don’t bother them, and they don’t bother me.”

Tamater. She remembered the weight of the pistol in her hand. The power of the gun surging into her hand and up her arm … making her blood sing. Then the satisfying snick of the metal as she slid the breech back. ‘You owe me twenty-five dollars, Tamater, or I take back the ’shine. Either one is fine with me, but hurry it up. I haven’t got all night.’ The arrogant, dismissive attitude served her well—cold as ice, its jagged edge sharp enough to slice.

“It’s tragic that you never stood up to your brothers like that. Or to your father,” Charlie said.

Delores flinched. The criticism struck home. She’d been raised by a family of bootlegging moonshiners, spent her youth as a gun moll to a famous mobster, and then jumped a midnight train, looking over her shoulder as she skedaddled out of Philly.

“I remember the promise you made when you got on that train. Do you?” he asked.

“I remember.”

“You said you weren’t ever going to let anyone treat you like that again.”

“I said I remember. You made your point.” She’d seen enough in her young life that could get anyone’s pulse racing, but she was a Bailey. She was born staring down drunks and dodging blows… Whether they were bootleggers from Philly, crooked cops on the take, or miners in the backwoods of Montana, they were all the same to her.

“I can handle myself.” The grimness in her tone confirmed it.

Sliding through a patch of mud, Delores wrestled to keep control of the truck. Branches scraped against the side as it swerved. She swore through clenched teeth. The trail cleared, and she regained speed. She was almost home.

“All I’m saying, my dear, is that maybe you should stay away from Tamater.” Charlie’s thick black moustache twitched.

Delores barely glanced at the movie star riding in the front seat beside her. Or the road ahead. Instead, all she could see was the look in Tamater’s bloodshot, rheumy eyes. He was sizing her up and weighing his chances. The rest of the miners weren’t going to let another muckman get between them and two gallons of hooch.

And it was a good thing they had hauled him off back to the camp. Although the look Tamater shot back at her as they pulled him away could have choked a horse. She’d seen that rage before, right before her father’s fist smashed into her face.

Charlie’s sad eyes said it all. “Bruises may fade, my dear … but that kind of thing casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”



The road widened as Delores got to the valley, turning from dirt to gravel as she pulled into Pony Gulch. Home. Her grip on the wheel relaxed, and she flexed her fingers to work out the stiffness. As she drove through the far edge of town, sturdy log houses dotted the side of the road, and they gave way to clapboard Victorians fronted by boardwalk. Turning down Broadway Street, there were people and vehicles on the streets, the occasional prospector’s mule tied up to a post, a sleepy horse harnessed to a buckboard waiting for the owner’s return. She sighed with relief.

“Ah, civilization at last.” The sarcasm was back in Charlie’s voice.

Delores shrugged him off and let the sights and sounds of the small town calm her. The Tobacco Root Mountains looming over the dark, alien wilderness were behind her. The sounds of the honky-tonk music flowing out of the Bonanza Saloon just ahead beckoned. She was home—and about bloody time, too.

The Bonanza Saloon was one of the watering holes in the small mining town, its name inspired by the exceptionally large and rich deposits of gold and silver Montana was famous for. And it was the only bar that Delores supplied.

“Perhaps Tamater should take a few lessons in manners from that young man of yours. Now that’s a ladies’ man. You think Johnny will be there tonight?” Charlie asked with a teasing glint in his eye as Delores pulled round back of the bar. He lifted his bowler hat so she wouldn’t miss the wiggle of his thick black eyebrows.

“Hope so,” Delores said. She and Johnny had been an item the last few months, and after all the crap she’d had to put up with today, she was looking forward to a bit of sweetness.

“As long as you don’t get caught up in that beau of yours. Don’t forget you promised to stop by Pete’s,” Charlie said.

That earned Charlie a smile. “I haven’t forgotten. I’m looking forward to it.”

“I guess there’s no rest for the wicked.”

Delores rolled her shoulders, working out the knots. “We won’t stay long, I promise. I’ll just have a quick drink to recharge the batteries. I haven’t seen Johnny all day, and after a day like today, I deserve a reward. Then we can swing by Pete’s.”

Pete, an ancient prospector, was also something special in Delores’s life, a rare gift as far as she was concerned. Over the past year, he’d become the father she’d never had, the friend she desperately longed for growing up among the Baileys. Pete would spin a few good stories while sipping the liquor she brought him, and she could put her feet up and share victories from her day. She bloomed under his friendship; the first time he’d praised her—‘not bad driving for a city girl’—she was hooked.

Delores craved that sense of family more than a hot soak in the tub at the end of the day. To feel cherished—a golden treasure. And she’d found it in the backwoods of Montana.

She pulled around back and thumped her fist against the saloon’s locked wooden door. It was doubtful Smitty would hear it over the ruckus inside. Her muscles were straining and splinters snagged her leather gloves as Delores carried crates of bottled moonshine to the back door. After setting each crate down, she gave the door another pound with her fist. It took three crates before it opened and yellow light spilled out.

“Eh? Delores, that you?” The voice was gruff from smoke and whiskey, and the words were followed by a gob of yellow spit that splattered against the ground by the door.

Delores gave a grunt as she hoisted another crate from the back of the truck bed. The bottles rattled.

Smitty came scuttling over and lifted the last crate. “Here, let me give you a hand getting this ’shine unloaded.” It took some effort for his arms to reach, being a pear-shaped man with a large belly of indulgence that hung between his suspenders. He let out a groan as he hoisted it. “Dang, Delores. How many bottles you got packed in here? Shoulda unloaded the heavy stuff first.”

“Whatever. It was first in the truck, so it’s last coming out.” Delores wrestled the crate away from Smitty. “I got this. You grab the door, will ya?”

Charlie, one elbow hanging out the window of the truck’s cab, smirked as she went past. “I wouldn’t put it past him to try to discount his labor from the price of the moonshine.”

With a quick check to make sure Smitty was out of earshot, she growled under her breath. “Let me look after this, okay?”

“Speaking of sweetness, I think the barkeep is sweet on you, my dear.”
Delores looked back over at Smitty, who was waiting for her at the back door of the Bonanza Saloon. “Don’t be stupid.”

Charlie twirled the bowler and grinned. “It’s hard to miss.”

Delores ground her teeth. Johnny and all his shenanigans were one thing. After all, he was a looker, the mayor’s son, and everyone said he was a catch. Smitty, on the other hand, was none of those things.

She set the crate of bottled moonshine down at Smitty’s feet and went back to the truck for the last one, hoisting it with a grunt. Besides, she could manage on her own just fine. She didn’t need any help, although that last load had felt particularly heavy.

Delores struggled, her arms straining. A sharp pain stabbed between her shoulder blades as she lowered the crate to the ground by the door. Stepping back, she arched her back to work out the kinks.
Smitty yelled back into the saloon. “Hey, Nipper. Get out here and give us a hand, will ya?”

A teenage boy about thirteen scuttled out, wiping his hands on the apron around his waist. “Sh-sure thing, b-boss.” He peered out from beneath long bangs and gave a quick, shy grin to Delores. “M-M-Miss-breath-B-B-Bailey.”

Nipper easily hoisted the crates, carrying them into the saloon.

Nipper was a side to Smitty for which Delores had a grudging appreciation. He had been firmly tucked under Smitty’s wing for the past four years, ever since Smitty had scooped him up and rescued him from some nasty bullies. The boy was infamous in Pony Gulch for his stutter, an affliction that Delores had noticed became worse when he felt cornered. But he was safe now, ’cause nobody messed with Nipper when Smitty was around—not if you wanted a drink.

Smitty turned to Delores with a wink. “Youth, eh? Come inside and I’ll get you yer money.” He held the door open as Delores brushed past him.

In the long, dark hallway that led from the rear entrance to the saloon proper, Smitty slid the last case into the storeroom and locked the heavy door. Pausing at the end of the back hall, Delores searched the saloon for the familiar fedora hat and pencil moustache. Johnny had a room on the Bonanza’s second floor and was usually rooted to the poker table in the corner by the stairs. But not tonight.

The place was packed, as per usual, on a payday Friday night. She blinked to clear her eyes from the glare of lights and the heavy cigarette and cigar smoke. A piano player banging away on the keys of an old upright added to the general chaos and mayhem in the crowded room. Standing next to him was another musician with a banjo draped around his neck, stomping out a beat.

Smitty came up behind her. “He ain’t here. He took off hours ago. Before the supper break, even.”

There were plenty of saloons around Montana like the Bonanza that turned a blind eye to the federal Prohibition laws. Smitty’s only concession to the Dry-Law was to close the saloon from six to seven every day. It gave him and the ladies of the evening that worked out of his saloon time to grab a bit of supper in peace and quiet. It also forced the worst of the drunks to stagger out to sleep it off somewhere else before the Bonanza’s busy hours started.

Delores’s heart sank. It was looking like the whole day was going to be a write-off. Ah well, at least she still had Pete’s delivery to look forward to.

“Want a drink?” Smitty asked as he headed toward the bar.

She followed him; her eyes scanned the customers. Who was drinking what? Pride thrummed through her when she saw people tipping back glasses of her ’shine.

“Just a quick one, but then I’ve got to get going.”

“I’ll get yer money, then. And I’m short of that chokecherry liqueur. It’s a winner. Folks sure do love its tartness in this heat. Got any more in stock?” Smitty mopped at his forehead with his sleeve. “Can you believe how hot it is for June? And I don’t suppose the huckleberry ’shine is ready.”

“Not berry season yet, but I can drop off the last few jugs from last year’s chokecherry pickings tomorrow.”

Smitty nodded, grabbing a bottle of bootleg Canadian whiskey from the back counter. He held it up, a question in his eyes. Delores considered the fine liquor, imagining the smoky, smooth feel as it slid down her throat. “Better not,” she said, nodding to the customers in the saloon. “I’ll have what they’re having.”

While she waited for him to pour her drink, Delores continued to scan the crowd. Draped on the men’s arms were the hurdy-gurdy gals of the establishment, eager to help the men spend their pay. She was suddenly aware of her work overalls and heavy, scuffed boots. Perfect for deliveries but clumsy in the presence of perfumed silk and ribbons.

Probably just as well that Johnny isn’t here. I’ll see Pete and then head home. She was looking forward to a soak in the tub, maybe with some of those bath oils Johnny had given her. He’d stop by later. He always did. She smiled to herself as she debated greeting him in something silky, or maybe nothing at all. Just her long blonde hair and a smile. Yup, there was still potential for the day yet.

“You look like a cat with the canary. Got plans for the rest of the night?” Smitty asked as he slid a glass of moonshine toward her. At the far end of the bar, a couple of burly miners banged down empty glasses and shouted. “Give me a sec, and I’ll be back with yer money as soon as I finish with this lot,” he said, bustling off to the other end of the bar to deal with the impatient customers. And in a Montana saloon in the 1920s, whether it was dust from the ore or straw dust from hay bales that were stuck in their craw, they were all impatient.

Delores took a sip, watching the crowd in the mirror that ran along the counter behind the bar. Everybody yammering away, laughing, wrapped up in the latest tall tale somebody was telling, nuzzling the bare necks of the gals, having a good time, unwinding together after a busy week. They were part of something … at least for tonight.

She took another sip, drowning a sigh that threatened to escape. Every drink was a reminder that Johnny wasn’t with her, and she was alone. Even in the crowded room, Delores felt the tug of loneliness. Charlie was right; she was working too hard. She tried and failed to shake it off. She got like this when she was beat—melancholy, miserable, dark. And delivery days were the worst.

She hooked her elbows on the edge of the bar, leaning back against it as she looked out over the saloon. Charlie Chaplin was trundling before her in his famous penguin walk—jacket too small, pants too baggy, his cane twirling. Everything about the man was a contradiction.

She gave him a small, gloomy smile. “Bit crowded in here for you, isn’t it?” she said with a yawn. Charlie was usually only around on those lonely truck rides or out at the moonshine still, not in crowded bars like tonight. She must be more tired that she thought.

“Hey, now. No falling asleep on the job,” Charlie said as he did a classic slapstick fall onto the floor, his overlarge shoes waving in the air. The rough men crowded nearby were blissfully unaware of the private performance Charlie was giving for her exclusive amusement.
Delores grinned. “Thanks.” As she spoke, she glanced warily around the room. She didn’t want people thinking she was a nut case, talking to herself.

He stood up and made an elaborate show of brushing himself off before bowing and joining her at the bar. “In the end, everything is a gag, my dear. Remember that the next time you’re dealing with Tamater.”

Charlie’s gaze wandered over the crowd and then rested on Delores. “Life would be wonderful if people would only leave you alone.”
Delores smirked. “Folks are trouble. And I don’t need any more trouble.”

From a nearby corner table, a man shouted to get her attention. “Hey, Delores. Come over here. We could use some fresh blood.” He and his companions were clutching cards, a stack of money piled in the middle of a table littered with glasses and bottles.

“Speaking of trouble,” Charlie muttered.

Delores stared stone-faced at the shouter, a local lay-about by the name of Dutch. The scene reminded her of other poker games in Philly, ones where she was snuggled on Mickey Duffy’s lap, listening to his steady heartbeat while he played cards. Those were the best days. No one could threaten her there.

Dutch shattered the sentimental memory. He picked up some coins and let them rain down on the table, a challenging grin on his face that got her back up. They always offered to cut her in, and she always turned them down. She had better use for her hard-earned money than to gamble it away on a rigged card game; and besides, poker always brought out the worst in her. She was a gal that hated to lose.

Another card player spat out a laugh. “Dutch, you know dames don’t have a head for cards.”

Delores sneered at the words and tossed her head. “I can count just fine. Just don’t trust poker players with gold teeth.”

The laughter at the card table grated. She loosened her hands, which had curled into fists. She knew the type. All they wanted was her, her dough, and her hooch. And not necessarily in that order.

Dutch shrugged, intent on the cards he was holding. “Suit yourself. Change your mind, you know where we’re at.”

“Don’t bet on it,” Delores replied.

Dutch laughed. “Good one. Johnny should be by later. Maybe we’ll see you then.”

Smitty came up beside her with a fistful of bills. “Said he’d be back before closing,” he said. “Took a bottle with him, so who knows.”

Delores stuffed the bills into the front pocket of her bib-overalls and headed down the hallway to the backdoor. A nasty thought snaked its way into her brain before she could shove it aside. And just who’s he sharing that bottle with?



By the time Delores climbed back into her truck, she’d pushed the ugly thought away. Johnny may be a bit wild, especially for a mayor’s kid, but they had an understanding. The only wild oats he was sowing were with her. And a fella like him stepping out with a gal like her.… Well, those oats were plenty wild enough to keep him happy.

She pulled the truck door shut, and her pinched expression eased.

“You sure you don’t want to wait around for Johnny? He might be back soon,” Charlie asked from his customary spot in the corner.

“I’m sure I’ll see him later. Just that last stop at Pete’s, and then I’m ready for home,” Delores said. “

At the thought of Pete’s, a contented smile slowly bloomed. She let out a sigh like air escaping from a balloon, the muscles in her shoulders relaxing. To be honest, she was a few pounds shy of being able to hoist those crates without a struggle. And the men she had to deal with…. She rolled her eyes, the smile creeping into a mischievous grin. The prices she charged for her ’shine made all their crap worthwhile.

Although she had to admit she was weary, her arms heavy as she started the truck. Work was done. On one side of town was home—a warm bath, a glass of whiskey, and a soft bed with fresh sheets. Heaven.

“Maybe you should just call it a day, my dear? Forget about Pete’s.”

“We can’t go home yet. I promised I’d give him a hand,” Delores said.

“You need some sleep,” Charlie said.

Sleep sounded good. Home. Delores lived in a small, three-room log house on the edge of town. It had a snug little kitchen with a table she could eat at and a smaller front room where she’d placed an oversize easy chair between the fireplace and the window, her knitting basket on the floor beside it. When she’d moved to Pony Gulch, one of the harder adjustments had been the outdoor privy. In winter, it was a fast trip out to her throne and back.

In the back room, there was an ornate brass bed. Its purchase had been an indulgence, but she had few pretty things in her life and needed something to dream on.

As tempting as it was to think of crawling into that comfy bed, Pete’s was a stronger pull in the other direction. She backed the truck up and took the road that followed along the banks of Pony Creek out of town.

She thought of the one bottle left to deliver tucked under the front seat of the truck. It was imported Canadian whiskey bought off a bootlegger on his way home to Wyoming from Canada. She figured Pete would be tickled pink to have a bottle of the real stuff.

“You know Pete wanted to celebrate, and that bottle of Canadian whisky is going to be the perfect present. And I’m not that tired,” she said.

“Fine. Fine,” Charlie said with a small pout. “I know when I’m not wanted.” He tipped his bowler hat. “Enjoy your evening with Pete. You’ve earned it, my dear.”

Driving across the valley, Delores enjoyed the silence of having the cab of the truck to herself. Out at Pete’s cabin, the old prospector would be company enough, she wouldn’t need Charlie hanging around. And while she’d be lost without Charlie Chaplin yammering away in the background, there were times when it was just nice to be alone with her own thoughts. And he was accommodating like that … an advantage she had by being the one in charge.

Her arm rested out the open window, the night breeze ruffling her hair and thoughts of the evening ahead in Pete’s cabin washing away the last of the day’s turmoil.

Delores had gotten into the habit of making Pete’s cabin the last stop of her weekly delivery runs. He was a prospector left over from the long-gone gold-rush days that had built Montana’s reputation as the Treasure State, and he was the closest thing to family she had. No, better than family—she ran away from her family in Philly.

Friendship. Family. How do you describe something you’ve never known before? Like a blind man trying to figure out an elephant. Delores chuckled. In the pit of her stomach, happiness was radiating a warm glow, like Pete’s pot-bellied stove.

When Delores had first started delivering moonshine to Pete, they’d stand on his front step and chat. Speculation about the weather had moved on to deeper discussions about current events and the meaning of life. It was a novelty for someone to listen to and care about what Delores thought, and she had a lot of thoughts.

It wasn’t convenient to visit at that length at the door, and soon she was being invited to come in and sit for a spell. Before she knew it, Delores had a place at the table and a second knitting basket beside the chair next to the fire.

Delores was an avid knitter. She had discovered it was a necessary skill in the harsh winters in Montana. The blue scarf she’d knitted for Pete had come in handy for him during a late spring blizzard, and her current project out at the cabin was a bright red scarf with an attached hood for herself. It would really play well with her honey-blonde hair. All she needed to do was figure out how to make a pompom, which seemed likely to take her until the first snow to do.

Although it was doubtful, she’d get the pleasure of picking up her needles tonight. Pete had asked for her help to fill out the paperwork on a Notice of Discovery form from the mining office in Bozeman. When a valuable mineral deposit was discovered, the notice was the first step in registering the claim.

Pete had a reputation around Pony Gulch for bonanza strikes, although he was being darn coy about the nature of what he’d found this time.

His secrecy made Delores chuckle again. Prospectors … to hear them talk like there was a bonanza in every swish of the pan, every swing of the pickaxe. Of course, unless there was—and then they clammed up and were as silent as the granite rocks that seduced them.

Like a lot of miners and prospectors, Pete hadn’t had much schooling. The regulations you had to jump through and the mountain of paperwork you had to complete these days to officially register a claim were a huge headache for him.

It was an easy enough task for her to take on. And she had the warm glow of the stove and Pete’s company as a reward. Even when there was no special paperwork to help with or other specific reasons for stopping by, his cabin was an oasis in the bleak monotony of her days.

After all the hassles she had to endure, Delores looked forward to her regular visits—sometimes they were the only good thing that happened to her all week.

Heading out of town and across the valley, it wasn’t long before Delores was back in the woods again. The gravel and dirt roads of the mountains were a far cry from the pavement and cobblestones of the city she’d grown up in, and the woods were a menace—worse than any bootlegger or speakeasy. And she would know, being raised by mobsters.

Bouncing along the narrow trail that followed along Pony Creek to Pete’s cabin, Delores felt the familiar bite of claustrophobia as the trees closed in around her and the mountains blocked out the night sky. The light from the truck’s bug-eyed headlights washed over a solid wall of dark-green pine and fir and occasionally caught the white gleam of an animal’s eyes. Delores shuddered and squared her jaw, pushing the pedal a bit harder to hurry the truck along.

Lights swept the clearing as she pulled into Pete’s, narrowly missing the large boulder he hadn’t yet blasted from the ground. It was a very rustic one-room log cabin. The white mud caulking between the logs had a ghostly glow in her headlights, and the heavy coat of moss on the roof shingles melted into the darkness of the woods that surrounded it.

Hanging on a nail on the porch was a kerosene lantern, its warm glow a beacon. Pete knew Delores hated the dark and made sure to light it on delivery nights when he was expecting her.

Delores could feel the challenges of the delivery run and the trips through the wilderness melt from her shoulders. Grabbing the bottle from under the seat, she picked her way across the open space to the sloped porch that ran across the front of the cabin. Sitting on the floor of the porch next to the door was an empty plate and a tin dish of water. A small smile flickered on Delores’s face. Did Pete get himself a pet?

She pushed open the door and called out before entering. Having surprised him once before in his long johns, Delores didn’t want to catch him in his drawers again.

“Pete? I got you something special to celebrate.”

There was silence.

“Come on, Pete. I’m tired.”

Still, there was no reply. The lantern was lit. He knew she was coming. She pushed the door farther, peeping around the edge, and chuckled.

“Did you fall asleep? Are you decent?”

Stepping inside, she peered through the dark, trying to make out the shapes in the room she knew so well.

“Pete? You in here?”

As her eyes began to adjust, her chest tightened. Everything was wrong.

She called out, her voice soft, hesitant. “Pete?”

The room began to make sense—tragic, horrific sense.

“No. Pete!” Everything came into full view.

Delores screamed.


I hope you enjoyed the first taste of the Moonshiner Mysteries. I loved writing this series- strong female characters, all the danger of Prohibition America, a very interesting setting (so different than the urban environments I usually favor), and just a wiff of the paranormal. Oh, that’s right… you haven’t met Lash yet.

If you want to keep reading, head over to Amazon and pick up your copy of Big Sky today!

Cheers, Sherilyn