I saw Wesley Crocker for the first time on a cold Thursday afternoon in October, three weeks before Election Day. He was pushing his bicycle eastward along the shoulder of State Road 17, an asphalt-patched remnant of highway that the interstate had made obsolete.
When I saw Crocker, I was sitting warm and comfortable in the Posadas County patrol car, cruising west, looking for no one or no thing in particular. Lenticular clouds formed, spread, and shredded over the San Cristobal mountains that separated Posadas County from Mexico, and rain had been predicted by morning. The wind was driving out of the northeast, gusting strong enough to rock the car. Moisture might have been in the offing, but at that moment the only thing in the air was the New Mexico prairie. Fine, stinging sand scudded across the macadam like tawny snow, the larger pieces rattling against the white paint of the Ford. Occasionally a kochia, its brittle stem snapped off at the ground, would perform a clumsy imitation of a tumbleweed, jouncing across the road to pack against the barbed-wire fencing. Crocker was walking toward Posadas, head pulled into his heavy coat, chin against his chest. His methodical pace planted one foot in front of the other in a rhythm that said he was no stranger to the asphalt.
His bicycle was an old, heavy thing with balloon tires, the sort of bike that paperboys with calf muscles like steel springs peddled around their paper routes in the 1950s. The top frame between seat and handlebars was bloated with stamped steel into a fake gas tank. My oldest son had once had a bike like that. He’d regularly stolen his mother’s clothespins so he could clip playing cards to the front forks. When the wheels spun, the cards barked against the spokes—an impressive motorcycle for sure. But Wesley Crocker was long past the playing-cards-on- spokes stage and the bike was a handful to push, even if there had been no quartering wind gusting in his face.
I slowed to thirty-five as I drove past and saw two enormous saddlepacks that bulged with Crocker’s belongings. Another duffel bag was lashed to the front basket.
It wasn’t just the wind that was giving the man trouble. The back tire of the bike was flat, the weight of the saddlepacks digging the rim into the asphalt. The three miles into Posadas was going to be a lifetime.
He didn’t lift his head as I drove past. Maybe he didn’t see me. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he knew how far the next village was and all his determination was focused on the ten thousand steps it would take to get there.
I glanced at my watch. At his pace, by the time he reached Posadas the sidewalks would be rolled up and stowed. He wouldn’t find a store open that carried a tire or tube or patch kit. If he could manage to fix the tire himself, one or two places could supply the air.
For a quarter mile after I had driven by, I watched him in the rearview mirror, wondering who he was, where he was from, where he was going. With a shrug I slowed the county car, swung wide, and made a U-turn.
I idled up behind the man and his bicycle and when I was within a dozen feet, he stopped, looked over his right shoulder at me, and then with great patience lowered the kickstand and balanced the overloaded bike against it, making sure that the stand wasn’t going to sink in the loose gravel of the highway shoulder and capsize the whole mess.
He ambled back toward the patrol car, and I buzzed down the window.
He bent down and placed his hands on his knees. “And a good afternoon to you, sir,” he said. Older than I had first thought, he was ruddy faced with a tangled thatch of salt-and-pepper hair held in place by a black knit cap. His smile didn’t show many teeth.
I hesitated, loath to encroach on his world, and I suppose he mistook my hesitation for the arrogance of disapproval.
“Wasn’t speeding, was I?” he said, and grinned even wider. “No, sir,” I said. “Do you want a lift into town?”
One of his eyebrows shot up. “Say, that would be welcome, kind sir, but I tell you what. I sure do hate to leave my rig unat- tended along the highway.”
I looked at the mammoth bike and tried to calculate how it would fit.
“It’ll go in the trunk,” I said.
He straightened up and surveyed my county car. “That would be a mite tight.”
I popped the electric trunk lock and then opened the door and heaved my two hundred and ten pounds out of the car. At five feet ten inches, I stood nearly a head taller than the traveler, but when the two of us grunted to pick up the bicycle, his proved to be the stronger back.
After he unstrapped the various packs, we pushed, heaved, and shoved until the bike’s back tire was planted in one corner of the trunk and the front forks were cranked around so that the front wheel stood vertically.
He then nestled the packs on top of the bike. “She’ll stay,” I said. “We’ll go slow.”
“What about the trunk lid, sir? You want to tie it so it doesn’t flop up and down?”
He produced a piece of brown twine from one coat pocket, and in another minute the trunk lid was secured, lashed down through the bike’s chain crank to the lower trunk latch.
I started around to the driver’s door, and he hesitated. “Come on,” I said, not the least bit eager to stand out in the chill wind a moment longer than necessary. “Climb in.” I saw him glance toward the backseat and added, “Up front.”
We settled into the car and both of us sighed with relief to have the wind and cold locked outside. My passenger thrust out a hand. “Wesley Crocker,” he said.
His grip was firm, his hand callused and rough. “Bill Gastner,” I replied.
“My pleasure,” Crocker said. His gaze wandered around the inside of the county car, taking in all the expensive junk that goes with the profession.
He reached out and ran a finger along the top of one of the radios as if he were checking for dust. “Things have sure changed, haven’t they?” he said as I pulled 310 into gear.
“The law used to be just a man on horseback, wearing a badge and a gun,” Crocker said. He indicated the radio and computer stack that sat astride the transmission hump, then patted the fore-end of the shotgun that rested in the electric lock. “Now look at all this.”
I shrugged. “Times change. I’d hate to be sitting on a horse in this weather.”
“You don’t happen to have a cigarette, do you?”
I grinned at the sudden change of subject. “Sorry. I don’t smoke, Mr. Crocker.”
“You used to, though, didn’t you?”
I looked over at him with amusement. His eyebrows were enormous, tipped with the same gray that was creeping into his hair and week-old beard.
“Yes, I used to.”
“Quit, huh?” I nodded and Wesley Crocker continued, “I should, too. I could make better headway against this wind if I had more wind.”
“And some air in your tires,” I added. “How far did you come today?”
“From just outside Playa. You know where that is?” I nodded. I almost said that my twenty-four years with the Posadas County Sheriff ’s Department probably had been enough time to learn the names of all seven villages in the county, but I spared Wesley Crocker the sarcasm. His seventeen miles of travel wasn’t much to show for a day’s work, but it was a hell of a lot more than I’d accomplished.
“Tire went flat about five miles back. ’Course, I don’t hurry, you know. I just kind of mosey along. There’s a lot to see in this big country.”
“The middle of nowhere is what most tourists say,” I chuckled.
“But see, I just bet that they aren’t really looking when they say that. If they looked, they wouldn’t say that. Do you know what I saw back up the road a ways? Just the other side of the Guijarro wash?”
“What?” I was doubly surprised that he knew both the name of the dry little arroyo bed and how to pronounce it.
His voice became animated and he half turned in the seat. He needed a bath as much as he needed air for his tire. “The light was just right, kind of comin’ through the clouds and all, and just before I started down that long, kinda easy slope to the bridge, I looked off to the north.” He stretched out his hand and spread his fingers. “And I could see the faint cuts in the prairie where Bennett’s Road used to run.”
I grinned. If I had been the frontier lawman on the horse with badge and gun, Crocker would have been the man in the black frock coat, driving the little buckboard, Bible tucked under his arm. “You sound like you’ve spent some time around here.” “Well, no. But I read a lot, see. It mentions the road in one of those government pamphlets I read over in Arizona. Talks about it just kind of in passing, don’t you know. But I could see those tracks plain as day.”
“That’s the only place in the county you can see them. Right from this road.”
Wesley Crocker leaned toward me as if he hadn’t heard right. “You don’t say so? The only place?”
I nodded. “You’ve got sharp eyes. The old cattle trail—what you call Bennett’s Road—jogs around that low mesa to the north of the highway. The rancher who owns the property happens to be something of a history buff. He fenced off that section of the trail so the livestock wouldn’t obliterate it.”
Crocker patted his right knee with satisfaction. “Well, I’ll be. I’ll be.” He looked out the window as we approached the outskirts of Posadas. It wasn’t much of a sight, but it had to be a relief from blow-sand between the teeth. As we passed the first buildings, a series of low rental storage sheds, he mused, “You gotta wonder what folks like Josiah Bennett would have thought of 1996.”
“Not much, I expect.”
With another knee pat, Crocker said, “Still, there was a time when old Mr. Bennett would have been just as happy to see you come along.”
I didn’t know much about Josiah Bennett, but I did know the story about him trying to push two thousand head of cattle north out of Mexico, headed for his ranch up in the Magdelenas. Some of the cattle had made the trip, but he hadn’t. His brains had been mixed with the prairie dirt thirty miles northeast of Posadas. His family had tried to blame Apaches, but that didn’t work.
When the story finally leaked out, it was Bennett’s own son-in-law who was hanged for the murder. Old Josiah Bennett would have been teary eyed with pride to know a dirt road had been named after him a century later.
“Do you have a way to fix that tire?”
Crocker nodded. “Got me a patch kit, but my hand pump broke.” He shook his head. “Isn’t that just the way of things, though. The tire’s no good, so I just elected to walk it on in. You think there’s someplace in town where I can get me a tire?”
I glanced at my watch again. “Not until tomorrow.”
“Well, then, you can just drop me anywhere along here, and that will be dandy.” As we neared the intersection with Twelfth Street, Crocker saw the Don Juan de Oñate restaurant on the left. “Now say, this is fine right here,” he said, and I pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway.
We unloaded the cumbersome bicycle, and I slammed the trunk lid. Crocker straightened the saddlepacks and took a deep breath.
“Say,” he said, and I knew what was coming before he said it. “You don’t suppose you could spare a dollar for a pack of smokes, do you?”
I laughed. “Where do you buy smokes for a dollar in this day and age, Mr. Crocker?” I fished in my shirt pocket, pulled out one of my business cards, and jotted a note on the back of it. “Give this to a gal named Shari in the restaurant. She’ll fix you up.” Crocker’s face brightened.
“Well, bless you, sir.” He held the card out at arm’s length. “Undersheriff William K. Gastner,” he read and his grin spread even wider. “I thought at first that maybe you were the state police, but then I remembered their cars are black in these parts.” I nodded. “You take care.” I walked back toward the car door. “And by the way,” I added. “Just down this street a ways is a little village park, over on the north side. You can’t miss it. There’s a World War I tank sitting in it. Just past that park is Guilfoil’s Auto Parts, right on the main drag. They’ll take care of your bike for you in the morning. If you have any problems, give us a call.”
He held up the card in salute. “Couldn’t ask for more, sir. Thank you.” I got in the car, and he appeared at the window. “May I ask you one thing before you go?”
“You haven’t asked me where I’m going, or where I come from.” He grinned again and looked east, down the street. “If I was you, I don’t think I could drive away without knowing. Just natural curiosity, you know.”
I looked at his gentle face, at the crow’s feet around his eyes that cracked his weather-beaten, sun-and wind-burned skin. “I don’t think that it’s any of my business, Mr. Crocker. You’re free to come and go as you please.”
He straightened up. “Isn’t that something.” He turned the card over and over in his hand. “Isn’t that something.”
“You have a good evening.”
As I drove off, I could see him pushing that monstrosity of a bicycle across the highway toward the restaurant. It wasn’t any of my business, but he was right. I did wonder. And he hadn’t offered.