The antelope posed motionless, nostrils flared, enormous eyes taking in the sweep of prairie, trophy horns heavy and black. Robert Torrez’s right index finger remained relaxed, resting on the side of the trigger guard. The mature buck dominated a small hummock where he could watch his five ladies and the collection of bandy-legged fawns. The little ones had survived their first month—two sets of twins, three singles, and off to the left, a weary-looking doe with week-old late summer triplets.
The range finder built in to the expensive scope calculated the distance at 480 yards. A minute shift of the rifle moved the field of view yards to the right, where two more does grazed fitfully. Their concern was a second, younger buck who drifted ever nearer to them. Now beginning his second year, the young buck was new to the game, but smart enough to be apprehensive about the dominant male. The herd master ignored him.
Torrez let the crosshairs drift across the juvenile buck’s flank. Summer rains had been generous, the under-grazed gamma, fescues, and wheatgrass abundant. While the mature trophy buck’s sides showed the slight caving of age, this youngster was powerful and sleek, ready to begin the quest for a harem of his own. His horns were still runty, but a trophy didn’t interest Torrez. Dust kicked behind the buck as two tawny streaks shot past, the fawns enjoying their muscles and footing, accelerating and dodging with bursts of speed that flashed their white rumps.
Ignoring them, Torrez watched the young buck, his inspection as complete as a county fair livestock judge patting down a prize 4-H lamb—he saw well-padded ribs, a satisfying bulge of haunch muscle, even some weight building on the withers up through the neck. A minute adjustment of his hands and the scope’s image drifted back. The older buck now picked his way down a slight rise toward the does. Aging as he might be, the animal was still heavy enough, untouched by mange or scar- ring, still managing a healthy, productive herd. He’d be active for another year or two, maybe longer.
Torrez shifted his position, seeking relief from a pebble that dug into his hip. He blinked, glad that this day had dawned with a rare overcast, a pewter blanket in no hurry to either shed moisture or burn off. No wind stirred the prairie grass or ruffled the antelopes’ butt ruffs. The distance between shooter and game was so great that a hot, sunny day—the norm for southern New Mexico in August—would have made the shot an impossible guess with heat waves distorting the scope’s image. But the overcast permitted a clear, crisp view.
Having kept a close watch on this herd for weeks, Torrez was in no hurry to take his shot. He knew that the veteran buck favored the sweep of pasture close to County Road 14, close to one of the windmill-filled livestock tanks around which the grass stayed lush as the tank sweated and leaked. And Sheriff Robert Torrez had taken the time to prepare for the hunt far more thoroughly than he usually did—in his wallet was a folded letter from the landowner, rancher and developer Miles Waddell, granting him permission to hunt on this private, thoroughly posted property, a favor that might not be possible after the huge, three hundred million-dollar astronomy theme park being built by Waddell was complete and flooded with tourists.
For several weeks, Torrez had kept track of this herd. He’d had to pause more than once out on the county road as they shot across in front of him, often to disappear behind the steep prairie swell to the east. This morning, he’d hiked over the swell, saw the herd, and slipped down to this little mound of cover and support for his rifle.
There was nothing about this hunt to make Torrez’s heart hammer with anticipation, no excitement of the chase. Rather, what he planned was a simple culling of the herd, a carefully managed stocking of the freezer. Torrez took one more visual tour of this herd, and then settled back on the youngster. The crosshairs rested on a spot between eye and ear, and Torrez’s breathing slowed and then stopped as his right index finger moved into the trigger guard. Ten seconds, twenty, a full half minute, and finally he allowed his finger to actually touch the trigger.
A heartbeat later, the .264 Magnum bellowed, the recoil punching the hunter’s shoulder hard. So instantly did the skull shot drop the antelope that by the time Torrez had recovered from the recoil and once more acquired a clear scope view, the animal was down, one leg kicking spasmodically. By then the rifle’s sharp report had reached the herd. Unsure at first, they milled about and then charged off, the old buck circling toward the left to pick up the straggling fawns.
Even as Torrez’s hand relaxed away from the trigger guard, his scope exploded, sending aluminum, glass, and plastic shards in all directions. A heavy piece was flung backward, clearing the bill of his cap and whacking him over the left eye. Another fragment stung the middle of his left forearm, still another raked his left shoulder. When the crack of the gunshot reached him, it seemed to float in from a dozen directions, rolling across the prairie, finally bumping up against a nearby mesa, to echo and re-echo. With an instinctive lunge, he spun away and scrambled backward, to dive under a thick, runty spray of creosote bush, unmindful that the bush might include unwanted company. There wasn’t enough bush to hide his six foot, four inch body, even though he tried to curl his two hundred forty pounds into a tight ball. He clawed out his handgun at the same time—a useless long-range prairie weapon, but one step better than his folding knife.
For a moment he lay perfectly still, letting his breathing and pulse even out, waiting for a second shot or the thud of boots charging toward his location across the rough ground. His wristwatch told him that it was shortly after noon. Twisting slightly, he studied the watch until the exact time was engraved in his memory: 12:12 p.m. Torrez turned his head, scanning the prairie through the tangle of branches.
The ocean swells of prairie prevented most straight-line shots and the runty bush would blur the outline of his body, but the shooter had the advantage. Storm run-off had carved the arroyos and washes in a wild crisscross pattern. The terrain rose between him and the county road to the west, a long berm of shattered limestone that hid from view the gravel road and all the construction activity on Waddell’s Mesa. Farther to the south, the berm subsided, and Torrez could see the pale line that was the county road winding southward.
He took a moment to dig his ear plugs out and flick away the rivulet of blood that threatened to run into his left eye. Ten yards away, the rifle lay where he had dropped it, partially cushioned by his folded vest. The expensive scope was a shattered tangle, the rear portion jerked to the left, the forward half blasted free of its mount. That fragment lay on the ground five feet away… also to the left.
Torrez edged around the creosote bush, giving himself a view to the south. Empty prairie rolled down to the vast arroyo that scarred the prairie south of what Torrez still thought of as Herb Torrance’s ranch. Now that land belonged to Miles Waddell as well.
Upgrade shots were always a challenge. The single shot had missed Robert Torrez’s head by ten inches, and the terrain might explain why. But there were dozens of places where the naturally folded prairie could conceal the shooter.
He raised his head and breathed in hard. Far away now, the antelope herd had slowed as they drifted up the west side of a prairie swell, the big buck out ahead of them, alert and nervous. They were all looking off toward the south, and Torrez risked enough movement to holster the pistol, then find his compact binoculars. The leather lanyard was still looped around his neck.
Trusting the antelopes’ interest in what lay to the south, he backed away from the cover and moved due west, following the rise of the rough, rock-strewn berm. He bent low and slowed every few feet to drop to his knees while he scanned the prairie. Several of the antelope had spotted him. They stood stock-still, regarding him from the safety of eight hundred or more yards. Their gaze shifted from him to whatever in the distance had attracted their attention and then back again.
A soft, distant thud froze Torrez in his tracks. Far less intense than a gunshot, the sound still carried, and this time he could both identify and place it—a car door slamming off to the west, down at the county road. He ducked down and sprinted up the berm, legs pistoning like a Marine charging a challenge hill. He reached the crest of the prairie swell and dropped prone. To the west, County Road 14 snaked north-south. His truck was parked in the shade of a juniper clump on the shoulder of that well-traveled dirt road, a long, hot trudge away. And there was company. A second vehicle, less than two car-lengths south of his own, now accelerated on the county road. The white Ford pickup drove at a conservative pace, and despite the overcast, the lack of rain encouraged the billow of rich dust.
He hadn’t seen the pickup truck actually pull out from a stop…perhaps it had just idled by, innocent as can be, the driver wondering if the owner of the parked, decrepit Chevy needed assistance. But Torrez was absolutely certain he had heard a door slam. Even as he watched, he dug the cell phone out of his pocket. Twenty-five miles to the east, Sheriff’s Dispatcher Ernie Wheeler picked up on the first ring.
“Posadas County Sheriff’s Office. Wheeler.”
With his typical lack of greeting, self-identification, or small talk, Sheriff Robert Torrez asked, “What’s Guzman’s twenty?”
“She’s just headed out to Gastner’s for a bit, sir. Then she’s got a string of meetings this afternoon.”
Torrez paused. The white Ford’s dust trail was about to disappear around the west end of Waddell Mesa. He turned in place, surveying three hundred sixty degrees of prairie. He could easily interrupt his undersheriff’s activities, but the dispatcher prompted him.
“Pasquale is free. And Sutherland should be out of court in a few minutes.”
“Okay. Look, have Pasquale head south on 56 and then north on 14. If he sees a late model white Ford pickup, extended cab, have him find an excuse to stop it for a chat and run a twenty-eight. No holds at this point. Just tell him to be careful. Tell him twice so he hears you. It’s a newer model. No camper, no tool boxes. I don’t have a plate yet.” He didn’t need to request that Deputy Thomas Pasquale not let the moss grow. Foot to the floor was Pasquale’s favorite mode.
“Affirmative. This is in regard to…”
“I’m not sure yet. Somebody took a rifle shot at me out here just east of the cattle guard where I was huntin’. Might be the Ford, might not. So give Pasquale a head’s up.”
“You’re all right, sir?”
“Yep.” He didn’t offer any further explanation to the dispatcher, refusing to dwell on the image that he had been less than twelve inches removed from joining the downed antelope. He switched off the phone and slid it back into his pocket.
He walked north, staying just below the spine of the ridge. A hundred yards from where his shattered rifle lay, he found a large rock bench and dropped down with his back against it to continue his scan of the prairie with the binoculars. If the cruise-by pickup was indeed the shooter’s ride, it would be long gone by the time Torrez trekked back to his own vehicle. He knew better than to attempt some teenager’s wild sprint down the rocky slope, dodging rocks and cacti. By the time he had returned to his truck, if he could make the dash without breaking an ankle, leg, or neck, the Ford might be anywhere, blended in with a myriad other ranch trucks. Besides, Torrez had work to do. He had no intention of leaving the antelope carcass to rot. If the Ford turned east on the state highway, maybe Pasquale would get lucky.
He turned and looked carefully at his own truck, and swore under his breath. The sun-faded, bent hood, dappled in a dozen places with dings, dents, and scars, was sprung open. He cradled the binoculars against his knees to steady the image. Finally, face set hard with anger, he rose and returned to his jacket and rifle.
The sheriff had never used the phone’s camera feature, but he grumbled his way through a series of snapshots of the rifle and busted scope in situ, acutely aware of how much he’d like to have department photographer Linda Real—or Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman—at the site to do the job properly. Then he collected as many scope parts as he could and bundled them into his vest, leaving the rest hanging off the rifle. As an after- thought, he jerked off the dangling fragment of eyepiece and left it on the rock as a marker.
Satisfied that he was now alone on this particular reach of prairie, Torrez trudged out to the dead buck. As he had planned, the single high-velocity rifle slug had fragmented the animal’s skull. The sheriff took no particular satisfaction from the careful, calculated shot. The animal was down, mercifully or not, and the job now was the first step toward cuts in the freezer. After knotting his hunting tag around the split remains of one horn, he set about field dressing the small carcass with swift efficiency. Even as he finished, a raven wheeled past, a low fly-by that stayed a respectful distance away.
“Just a minute,” Torrez said aloud. “You’ll get yours.” Himself no connoisseur of dining on entrails or organs, no matter how disguised as fancy cuisine, he spread out the guts several yards away. In a couple of days, there wouldn’t be a trace remaining. All the while, he kept up a routine scan of the prairie horizon. He didn’t feel watched, except perhaps by the raven.
From a back pocket he withdrew a square of thin folded plastic, shook it out, and covered the carcass. Except for the obvious—that the high-powered rifle bullet had smashed in from his right, from the south as he lay watching the herd—he had no answers to any of a host of questions.