I stopped at the top of the saddleback and looked down through the pines. The campgrounds were still a mile below me, hidden behind the fat swell of Steamboat Rock. I took a deep breath, found a big granite boulder, and sat down. This walking was worse medicine than pills or needles.
Walk, the damn doctors had said. Walk. I hated walking. That’s what cars are for. Or elevators.
Nevertheless, the heart surgeon had convinced me that if I walked, gave up smoking, and shed my considerable girth, I might live a couple more years. I fumbled in my shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette. Hell, I was walking. That was one out of three.
From where I sat, I could see all the way down Isidro Valley. The sky was a blank, merciless blue, and the sun beat down on my back, roasting right through my shirt. It burned out the kinks.
I had walked up a trail from the Steamboat Rock campground and had worked my way through the thick ponderosa pines for almost two miles. At first, the notion of a hike had seemed like a pleasant idea….I had a long afternoon to kill before I tried cooking supper over the little gas grill stowed in the back of my Blazer.
After the first ten minutes, the hike had been nothing but sweaty, grinding work. And the Smokey Bear signs down along the highway hadn’t been joking. The mountain was dry. The needles under my feet crackled like little shards of glass, and I probably shouldn’t have even thought about a cigarette. I lit one and relaxed on the rock.
It was peaceful. Maybe wilderness hikers had something. Get away from it all; leave worries behind. I’d been working up a sweat and hadn’t thought about Posadas County for nearly half an hour.
Here I was, basking in the sun like a fat toad, 300 miles north of my own New Mexico border town. For two hours I hadn’t thought of the past winter, when I’d spent the valuable hours of my life dealing with an unpleasant and mixed bag of drunks, punks, child abusers, drug runners…or even simple, wacko souls like Vinnie Jaramillo, who’d arrived home one night in May to find his wife cheating on him. He’d taken a shotgun to his wife and her boyfriend while his three small children watched. Then he’d called the sheriff’s department.
I hadn’t gotten there first, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He’d waited until the first deputy arrived, and then, when he was sure he had an official witness, Vinnie sat down on the living room sofa and blew his own skull to pieces. It had been a hell of a mess.
I guess we were lucky Vinnie had kept his targets within the walls of his own home. And that’s how it happened in Posadas County most of the time. Someone went off the deep end and made news. Maybe there’s a natural tendency to think one’s own community isn’t as nuts as the rest of the world, where the loonies try to change the lives of complete strangers.
Hell, I still had a two-week-old copy of the Albuquerque newspaper tucked in my Blazer with headlines about the assassination of Washington State’s governor, along with a Department of Corrections warden. According to the article, the governor had been fishing by himself, sitting peacefully in a canoe on some remote Washington lake, and a high-powered rifle bullet fired from hundreds of yards away had exploded his skull. And the prison warden had been shot later that same day when he stepped out of his station wagon to unlock the garage door of his suburban Tacoma home.
Real freaks running loose…the paper said the resulting man- hunt was the largest Washington had ever had. We’d even gotten a teletype from Washington in our office, for God’s sakes…probably because we sat right on the border with Mexico.
I took another drag on the cigarette and wished that I could keep my mind off work for more than a few seconds at a time. But replay, replay.
In Vinnie Jaramillo’s case, for months afterward the scene still flogged my brain, unwanted but tenacious. The faces of the children left behind were the worst.
What do you do with a three-, four-, and six-year-old who’ve seen their parents splattered all over the wallpaper? The deputy and I had made some awkward motions and then with relief had watched my chief detective, Estelle Reyes, take the three traumatized and orphaned children under her wing.
She didn’t try to stop their sobs, didn’t try to distract them. Instead, she was just there, hugging them all close and giving them a spot safe from all the strangers. Later, she wouldn’t let the relatives take the children until she was convinced the children understood what was happening to them.
I watched her teach the children, including the youngest one, her telephone number, the four of them playing with the telephone like it was one of those Kmart toys for tots. What a wonderful mind for law enforcement that woman had developed. And two weeks after that incident, her letter of resignation was on my desk, and I was plunged into the deepest funk I’d wallowed in for years. I sighed. I admit it. I missed her damn near as much as I missed my own daughters. As undersheriff of Posadas County, I’d watched Estelle Reyes work for six years, moving from dispatcher to road patrol to detective—our only detective.
She’d come to us as a part-timer, a college student who showed a flair for common sense and organization. Stunning-looking, too. I know the lawyers who make their living from discrimination cases would be after me for saying so, but she brightened up our drab little office just with her presence. She’d even won the confidence of our sheriff, who viewed anything in skirts as either a sex object or a nuisance.
Shortly after the Jaramillo tragedy, she married a young physician, he as handsome as she was lovely. It was a hell of a wedding, and the department attended in full force…and we behaved ourselves throughout. The young couple’s plans meshed nicely. Dr. Francis Guzman took a residency with the Public Health Service, running a clinic in San Estevan, 300 miles north of Posadas County and 6 miles down-canyon from where I now sat. Estelle had applied for a job with that county sheriff ’s department, and Sheriff Pat Tate had jumped at the chance.
His turf was a long, narrow county that was awkward to administer from the county seat far to the southeast, a county that was split down the center by a single state highway, with the rest dirt roads. Towns and villages were scattered far and wide. An Indian pueblo in the north end of the county made jurisdictional matters there even more interesting, especially since the pueblo had only a couple of law officers of its own.
Tate had had the good sense to assign Estelle to what he euphemistically called the San Estevan substation so she could avoid the forty-mile daily commute from the county seat to her new home. The “substation” turned out to be nothing more than a spare room in the highway department’s district headquarters.
When I decided to take a short vacation late that summer—an escape from doctors who wouldn’t mind their own business—I found myself traveling north. I didn’t mean to pry, mind you, but I wanted to cruise through another county and see what Estelle Reyes-Guzman had won for herself. And if I had to walk, it might as well be in spectacular mountains that should be cooler than the summer blast furnace of Posadas.
I crushed out the cigarette and tucked the remains in my shirt pocket. I lay back on the rock with a groan of aching muscles, hat over my eyes. I had a dinner invitation from Estelle and Francis for Saturday…I hadn’t told them I was coming up the day before. That gave me a good stretch to loaf and play outdoorsman. I knew me pretty well and twenty-four hours was about my limit for recreation. I even had grand plans to sleep in my Blazer, figuring if I parked clear in the back of the Steamboat Rock campground, I’d have peace and quiet.
The granite wasn’t comfortable for long and I sat up. Another hour would see me down to the campground, if I didn’t take the short side trail out to the promontory of Steamboat Rock. I’d briefly imagined that I might walk up there, come the cool of the evening. Briefly.
I was sixty-two and fat, fully recovered from a quadruple bypass the winter before, but inclined to lie down and rest whenever someone mentioned serious exercise. I would do well to stumble my way back down to the campground, much less anything more strenuous. Even the grilled dinner was improbable. I knew damn well that when the time came, I’d settle for a couple of pieces of bologna on a hamburger bun, washed down with a beer or two.
And that’s exactly what happened. I made it off the mountain without falling on my face or even having another cigarette. The last hundred yards were easiest, following a well-packed trail with no grade.
Back at the campground I unlocked the Blazer, stowed my daypack, and popped a beer. The sun was already filtering through the trees, ready to drop behind the rugged mesa rim. I unfolded an aluminum lounge chair and settled back to watch the mountain colors fade and blend.
The campground was quiet for a Friday night…for about five minutes. Then a big Winnebago pulled in, one of those things with the canvas awning that folds down from one tall, slab side. Two elderly folks made home away from home in that monster…all thirty feet of it. In minutes they had a covered patio with a gas- fired barbecue grill sending up plumes of cooking chicken.
Two slots down was a Volkswagen bus, crammed to the gills with two young couples and an endless supply of noisy, scrapping children. They should have hijacked the Winnebago and had some room. Another Blazer, a couple years newer than mine, pulled in, and the first creature to emerge was a Dalmatian, nose to the ground and on a beeline for my peaceful corner. He snuffled up, tail wagging, expecting me to pat his wide, empty head.
“Get out of here, brute,” I said and waved a hand.
“Pokie, come!” his owner called and Pokie angled off to bother someone else. I opened another beer, just about ready to start sulking. Hell, I could have parked just as easily in a convenience store lot and had more privacy. I needed to find a rough old Forest Service road leading out to nowhere so I could vegetate in peace.
I scowled and looked across the large campground toward the highway. Several of the children from the Volkswagen were barefoot, and I wondered if their parents realized how much broken glass littered the place.
“Jesus, Gastner,” I muttered aloud. How the hell had I gotten so adept at minding other people’s business? Occupational hazard, I guess. By 8:30 I stopped fighting the fatigue that kept me from making any effort to move to a more secluded spot. I crawled into the back of the Blazer where the mattress was soft and cool. With windows cracked for air I was asleep in half a minute, despite the shrieks of playing children and the endless slamming of car doors.
And it seemed no more than half a minute before the first siren jerked me awake in the deep pitch of that mountain night.