When Salvador “Sonny” Trujillo Jr. stuck my own gun in my face and pulled the trigger, it put the cap on an otherwise rotten evening.
At least the weather was nice. There’s always that. Late February in Posadas, New Mexico, is a gamble. A raging blizzard that drove cattle up against barbed wire fences and froze late winter calves was no more remarkable than a thunderstorm that filled arroyos and drowned livestock in a swirling torrent of thick, brown water.
This particular February 19th was southern New Mexico at its best. The high sun had been fading paint on cars all day with temperatures in the middle sixties. By the time the two big yellow activity buses carrying the Wittner Wildcats pulled into town, the air had softened and cooled without a stir of breeze. My first mistake was feeling sorry enough for Deputy Howard Bishop that I agreed to cover for him at the basketball game that evening. Every member of the Bishop clan, including Howard, had the flu. Why I said yes I don’t know. Dropping rocks on my feet was more fun than standing in the hot, steaming gymnasium watching five hundred fans work themselves into a rabid frenzy.
The job certainly wasn’t worth the thirty bucks that it paid.
High school principal Glen Archer pleaded his case. Posadas and Wittner, if not arch rivals, could at least be considered school bus window–busting enemies. Four weeks earlier, after the first season match-up between the two teams, three Posadas players had been caught locker bashing in the Wittner locker rooms. Archer fully expected some sort of payback, even though the Wittner superintendent of schools promised the sort of gentlemanly behavior that would make the fans teary-eyed with pride.
I agreed with Archer, and since I’d stiffed him enough times in the past, I foolishly gave in. I had nothing more important than a nap planned for the evening, and that could wait.
The game was scheduled to begin at eight, and I arrived at the school shortly after seven, parking 310 on the sidewalk right by the school bus entrance. I called dispatch and told Ernie Wheeler where I was and then, as an afterthought, suggested to him that he have Sergeant Robert Torrez stay central for the next couple hours in case he was needed.
“Three oh eight, PCS. Did you copy that?”
“Ten-four.” Torrez’s cryptic reply told me that he was about as excited as I was. I hadn’t bothered to inquire whether Torrez wanted the evening off so that he could attend the game. He would have looked at me, puzzled, while he waited for the punch line to a bad joke.
I clipped the handheld radio to my belt, pulled my revolver from the holster and dumped the shells out, then reholstered the weapon and double-checked the strap. With the six hollow-point .357 magnum cartridges jingling in my pocket, I locked the patrol car and strolled into the gymnasium.
Glen Archer was in the foyer, dwarfed by the enormous trophy cases. I’d had occasion to visit many schools, and every damn one of them had the same number of trophies. Apparently no one ever lost.
“Sheriff,” he said, extending a hand and looking pleased, “it’s good to see you.”
I shook and said something about it being a nice evening. I didn’t bother to correct his impression of my rank. No one understood what the hell an undersheriff was anyway, with the exception of some of the county legislators—and they probably wondered why the office existed.
The gym was filling rapidly, and if the pregame noise level was any indication, we all would be putting our trust in the strength of the ceiling girders before the evening was finished. I fished a set of earplugs out of my shirt pocket just as Archer asked, “Is anyone else coming tonight?”
“You mean from our department? No. I understood that one of the village part-timers was going to be here.”
“That’s good,” Archer said. I doubted that it was, since I knew the part-timer in question. Posadas couldn’t afford much more than a token village department—a chief and two full-time patrolmen, along with several part-timers. They relied on the Sheriff ’s Department to fill the holes.
I’d seen Patrolman Tom Pasquale outside, standing with several of the coaches near the side entrance of the gym. He hadn’t yet attended the police academy in Santa Fe for certification, and was still under the mistaken impression that a nightstick was the tool of choice for settling arguments. His other hobby was telling endless stories of law enforcement adventures that he’d never had.
I pushed the earplugs in tighter and realized why I loved fall football games as much as I hated dead-of-winter basketball. There were going to be no soft autumn afternoon breezes freshening this place. After two hours of sweaty scrapping between the Jaguars and the Wildcats, the gym was going to be foul enough to make me gag.
To one side of the door just inside the gym a set of wrestling mats hung against the concrete block wall. They made a conve- nient pad to lean against. I settled there, visible to anyone who entered. I knew most of the folks from Posadas, and exchanged pleasantries with a few as they came in. But they weren’t there to talk to me.
The game excitement was explosive, and I admitted to feeling a few goose bumps myself. The roar that greeted the various cats when they sprinted out for warm-ups damn near jarred the earplugs out of my head.
I knew little about the sport other than that my eldest son had wrecked his knee playing it fifteen years before and cost me several thousand in surgical bills.
The cloying smell of greasy popcorn drifted in from the foyer and my stomach rumbled in anticipation. There would be fifty pounds of the stuff scattered under the bleachers by game’s end, stuck here and there in puddles of spilled soda pop. That thought killed my appetite. I sucked in my gut and paid attention to the crowd.
Late in the first quarter, a Wittner player blindsided Bucky Berman, the Jaguars’ center, and Bucky slid fifteen feet on his butt before crashing into the wall under the home basket. A scuffle broke out, but the officials separated the kids and waved a technical against Wittner. The crowd loved it in a world war sort of way.
Enough popcorn blizzarded the floor that the officials called the broom out. Archer made an announcement asking for restraint, but he wasn’t anywhere near as pretty as the cheerleaders. The crowd ignored him. From there on, the game went steadily downhill. Every time the decibel level touched a thousand, I cringed and thought about my snug, dark, quiet adobe house deep in the cottonwoods on the other side of town. By the third quarter, if there had been any doubt before, I knew why I never volunteered for game duty. It was for younger bloods than I.
With less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars held a thirty-two-point lead. That was when several folks in the Wittner cheering section decided it was time to show that if they couldn’t play basketball at least they could fight. There’d been half a dozen scraps up to that point, none of them serious enough to warrant motion on my part.
I didn’t see what started this one, but the stands emptied. For ten seconds or so I remained against the wall, arms folded across my chest. Then head coach Wayne Tuckerman went sprawling, ramming the lower bleacher skirt with his head. I pushed myself into action, hustling across the gym floor. The fight was centered just to the right of the timekeeper’s table. I bullied my way through a throng of teenagers intent on seeing some blood and bruises.
A heavyset kid in street clothes appeared at my side and grabbed my left arm. What he wanted with it I didn’t know. I pivoted and rammed my right elbow into his gut as hard as I could. I left him behind to retch on his own. Ahead of me was a sea of uniforms, perhaps half a dozen athletes from each team having a grand old time, mixing it up with spectators, officials, and a few Posadas faculty members who were probably sorrier than I was that they’d attended the game.
I saw Rod Ulibarri, the Posadas athletic director, plowing in from my right.
“Separate them out that way,” I shouted, and grabbed a shoulder. It belonged to a Posadas player, and I hauled him to his feet and shoved him backward so hard he lost his balance and crashed into the arms of a group of admirers. By the time Ulibarri and I had cleared five or six flailing bodies out of the path, I could tell we were about to reach the heart of the matter.
Then two things happened at once. My left foot hit a puddle of blood fresh from someone’s bashed nose and I slipped, crashing down on one knee. At the same time, someone grabbed me from behind. I weighed nearly 220, so whoever it was lost purchase, grabbing only a handful of Sam Brown belt and uniform shirt.
A hard wrench at my right side helped me regain my feet just as I realized with a stab of horror that my service revolver had been ripped from my holster. I turned and there was Sonny Trujillo, face flushed with excitement and who knew what pregame drug, holding the magnum out at arm’s length, muzzle pointed at my face.
A short scream off to my left was the only sound I remember hearing. At that instant Sonny Trujillo and I were alone in our own private universe. There could have been a full-fledged riot ripping the gym apart around us and I wouldn’t have noticed.
I locked eyes with Trujillo. He was a big, flabby kid whose favorite hobby was being a bully with the help of four or five friends. Now, his wide, ugly mouth was open with the delight of victory, with the realization that for once, he held all the cards. He had reason to be delighted, of course. I, or someone in my department, had busted Sonny enough times that his rap sheet read like an index of every two-bit misdemeanor ever written… nothing very creative, since he and his buddies didn’t have enough brains for that. But in that moment, with my .357 magnum clutched in his grimy, coke-and-popcorn sticky hand,
Sonny wrote himself a new chapter.
“Don’t be stupid,” I barked. That was a waste of breath, since Sonny Trujillo was nothing if not stupid. I held out my right hand. “Give it to me.” We became a stage show, playing in front of a live, paying audience.
“You’re dead, shithead,” Sonny said. He screwed up his face and pulled the trigger. The magnum’s hammer clicked on the empty cylinder at the same time that someone to my right yelped in terror.
I grabbed the revolver barrel with my left hand, yanking hard and twisting at the same time. Sonny didn’t release the gun in time to save his trigger finger from snapping at the knuckle. He staggered toward me and swung a clumsy fist at my head, connecting hard enough to break my glasses. Bright lights flashed and in reflex I lashed out, punching him squarely on the tip of the nose.
He collapsed in a heap, blood streaming down his face. His hand came loose from the magnum and I grabbed the revolver by the barrel like a club and spun around.
“Now the rest of you get off the floor,” I roared. I heard a siren off in the distance, but backup wasn’t going to be necessary. The combatants had had enough. I was sure that the sight of the crazy old cop with his blood-spattered potbelly and his handgun on the loose was enough to squelch the fun.
Arriving out of the crowd too late to do any good, Patrolman Pasquale grabbed Trujillo by the shoulders and spun him around so that the youth sprawled on his face. Trujillo howled in agony as his hands were twisted behind his back and cuffed. His mangled index finger pointed off in a direction of its own. I tried to bend the frames of my glasses so they’d stay on my nose, then flinched as yet another blast of bright, white light filled the gym. I looked to my left and groaned. It wasn’t Trujillo’s blow to my thick skull that had produced lights. It was the electronic flash from reporter Linda Real’s press camera.