I should have been home, sunken comfortably in my leather recliner with a fresh pot of coffee gradually turning to battery acid in the kitchen and my recently purchased copy of Dayne Mercer’s Storm over Chicamauga open on my lap.
Instead, just as the digital clock on the dashboard clicked over to 11:07 p.m. that Friday night, I turned my county car off the pavement of State Highway 56 and maneuvered twenty yards up a narrow fire road on the northwest flank of Santa Lucia Peak, the second highest hump in the San Cristóbal range.
To call the San Cristóbals “mountains” might have been a stretch, except for tourists from one of those midwestern places where the highest promontory in the county is the downtown bank building.
The rumpled, weather-scarred Santa Lucia Peak managed 8,117 feet above sea level—a few feet lower than San Cristóbal to its west. That lofty height would have been impressive had the mountain’s base been at sea level, instead of the 5,890 feet that it was.
I had discovered this particular spot on Santa Lucia Peak years before. Skirting a sheer rock outcropping that plunged away from the state highway’s serpentine guardrails, the little forest road wandered off to the east to who knows where. I’d never followed it more than the handful of yards.
What I wanted was a vantage point, and by backing just far enough into the little two-track so that headlights of traffic on 56 wouldn’t reflect off the bright white of the patrol car, I had myself a quiet, remote nook.
From there, the view of Posadas County to the north and east lay unobstructed. If I had the urge to talk to someone or listen to deputies yammer license plates back to dispatch, the county’s radio repeater was a mile behind me on San Cristóbal Peak, as was the mobile phone company’s tower. Reception was loud and clear. Twenty miles northeast nestled the village of Posadas, a tight little collection of lights in an otherwise dark prairie. Running east-west, the interstate formed a winking necklace across the county. With binoculars, I could pick out a few ranches that dotted the void to the north.
Even on a blustery November night, the grandstand view of Posadas County was the best blood pressure medication I’d ever found…the pure recreation of letting the mind wander, to touch first this base and then that, to skip from subject to subject, worry to worry, without interruption.
No one sat in the passenger seat, wondering what the hell I was thinking. No one ran out of patience, drumming his fingers on the vinyl dashboard. No one objected to the cold air coming through the half-open windows along with the potpourri of a thousand scents and wild sounds. No one tried to fill the silence with small talk.
I enjoyed my own company and that was hard to explain to someone who otherwise might think that I was just an old, fat, lonely insomniac. I would cheerfully admit to three of the four. On that particular Friday night, I was savoring the considerable joys of anticipation. The list was a rich one. If the voters had any sense, come Tuesday Undersheriff Robert Torrez would become the next sheriff of Posadas County, joining a long and sometimes distinguished lineage of lawmen who had all become tired of hearing the question “Sheriff of where?”
Unless something had seeped into the drinking water and fermented the voters’ good judgment, Bob Torrez was a shoo-in to win the election. Running against him was a daffy woman who had spent twenty years running for every elective office in the county—a woman who could design a hell of an overpass for the State Highway Department, but who didn’t have an iota of law enforcement experience.
Torrez’s only other opponent had been Mike Rhodes, a retiring state police sergeant. After a lackluster campaign that won him the Republican nomination, Rhodes endured some well-publicized in-law problems. He had given up the idea of elected office, pulled out of the election, and moved his wife and family to Missouri.
As far as I was concerned, Bob Torrez would be undersheriff on November 6, and when the votes were tallied on November 7, I planned to toss him the sheriff ’s badge and the keys to my desk. He could call himself whatever he wished: sheriff, acting sheriff, sheriff-elect, undersheriff-until-January…whatever. I didn’t care what the state constitution might say about the orderly transition of the powers of elective office. For me, November 7 was my last day as sheriff of Posadas County.
In the past, circumstances had prompted me to put off retirement more than once, and I currently held an office to which I neither had been elected nor to which I had aspired. Enough was enough. November 7 was it.
That was the extent of my retirement planning—but not of my anticipation. On Sunday afternoon, Francis and Estelle Guzman were flying into El Paso from Rochester, Minnesota, in company with my two godurchins, Francisco and Carlos. I hadn’t seen them in more than five months, and the delight of that reunion was tempered only a little by concern.
In a moment of weakness I’d offered the Guzman family accommodations at my rambling, spacious old adobe on Guadalupe Terrace, since the electricity and water were shut off in the place they still owned on South Twelfth Street. The thought of the two high-powered children racing through the dark sanctum of my fragile old home gave me pause.
My promise to handcuff four-year-old Francisco Guzman to a tree outside if he didn’t behave himself produced nothing but a cackle of glee.
Choosing Election Day for a family holiday wasn’t as bizarre as it might first seem. Estelle Reyes-Guzman had spent nearly a decade with the Posadas County Sheriff’s Department herself, including a week-long stint as undersheriff just before she, her physician husband, and the two kids had moved to the wilds of Minnesota. Two years before that, she’d tried her hand at politics when she ran for sheriff and was soundly trounced. I had planned to retire then, too.
I knew that the Minnesota life was in flux for the Guzmans, but had tried to stay out of their way. I even refrained from sending them care packages of green chile or decent salsa, that cruel trick that New Mexicans do to other New Mexicans who are forced to suffer outside the state for any length of time. I didn’t know what the Guzmans planned. If Estelle wanted to confide in me, she would do so in her own good time…I’d learned that over the years. I was just pleased that they had timed their arrival so that they could help the new sheriff-elect celebrate.
The clock on the dashboard clicked to 11:30, and four miles away I could see the wink of headlights as someone pulled out of the parking lot and headed west from the Broken Spur Saloon down on Route 56. In a few minutes, if they didn’t turn north at County Road 14, they would start up the long twisting slope toward Regal Pass, taking them past my parking spot. For most of their trip, I’d have a grandstand view as their headlights sliced open the night.
No sooner had the car straightened itself out on the pavement and headed west than another set of headlights popped on, this time a quarter mile east of the saloon. Winking red lights blossomed, and I grinned. I leaned forward and turned up the police radio. The sound of car engines carried in the quiet night air as currents wafted up the back slope of the mountain.
The flashing lights pulled close behind the first car, but it didn’t slow. As if tied together, the two cars plunged past the intersection with County Road 14, both heading west. When the car started up the hill without slackening its pace and managed to pull away from the county vehicle, I keyed the mike.
“Three oh eight, three ten is at the top of the hill. You want me to cut him off?”
“Negative, sir. I’m backing off. I know where the kid lives.” Even as Undersheriff Robert Torrez said that, I saw the interval between the two vehicles stretch. In theory, what Torrez was trying to do should have worked. With a dangerous, winding mountain road coming up, there was no point in pressing a senseless chase until someone ended up crashed into a canyon or pulped against a scraggly juniper, grinding up himself and his passengers.
Torrez knew the driver, knew where he lived, knew that if he dropped back, the kid would slow down, stay alive, and pull into the home driveway thinking he’d beaten the deputies again. That’s the way it should have worked. But that’s not what the kid did. Taking his cue from all the highly paid, sober Hollywood stuntmen he’d watched in the movies, the kid tried for magic. For a brief minute or two, as it snarled up the sweeping, smooth highway toward Regal Pass, the charging car was out of view, skirting around a couple of dry, brush-covered foothills. I could hear that he was still pushing pretty hard, a little engine flailing away. I saw a flash of lights through the trees and then, with a squawl of tires, the kid stood on the brakes and swerved into the narrow fire road…the same dirt two-track in the middle of which was parked the aging sheriff of Posadas County.