“Hooooowhup!” Dale Torrance bellowed, and his horse under- stood whatever that language was and ducked hard to the left, cutting off a calf ’s escape. Dale and another of the H-Bar-T hands, Pat Gabaldon, worked the herd counter-clockwise around the corral’s perimeter. Every now and then a calf, all gangly and awkward like a teenager, would bolt sideways from the flow, figuring who knows what in its bovine brain.
I stood in the middle of the arena with Herb Torrance and enjoyed watching the two kids do all the hard work. Half of their efforts went into playing rodeo stars, and they were spending a good deal more time having fun than the actual task at hand demanded. But we were in no hurry—although if I dawdled much longer, I would be late for lunch. Since I had no other plans on this pleasant day, I had agreed to meet another old friend, George Payton, for a take-out burrito after I’d finished with the paperwork for the Torrances.
The late September sun baked the khaki shirt against my shoulders, and the sweet tang of New Mexico dust mixed with livestock manure, horse sweat, and leather. The notes on my clipboard reminded me that I’d hit the same count three times with this particular lot—fourteen cows, four heifers, and six calves. Patrick’s blue heeler, Socks, worked the cattle with his nose close to the ground, beady little eyes unwavering.
The twenty-four H-Bar-T brands were all correct, high on the left flank. As each wide-eyed Angus paraded past us, I saw no signs of disease, no coughing or diarrhea, no runny or glazed eyes, no hitches in gait, no dings or dents. But then again, even though I’d been a livestock inspector for less than a year, I could have eyeballed any of Herb Torrance’s livestock from the other side of Posadas County with my eyes closed.
“Can you imagine John Chisum doin’ this?” Herb’s smoke- eroded voice jarred me out of la-la land. I looked across at him, amused. I knew exactly what he meant, and he knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t take offense at a gentle jibe aimed at my employers.
“He would have shot somebody, probably, ” I said. Well, maybe not. Maybe old John would have been enough of a gentleman not to do that. But he sure would have shaken his head in disgust at the thought of the government meddling in his affairs, demanding all kinds of penny-ante paperwork and fancy-schmancy permits.
Today, all Herb Torrance wanted to do was move this particular little herd of cattle from the pasture near his home to a section leased from the U.S. Forest Service up on the back side of Cat Mesa, north of Posadas—about forty miles as the ravens flew, maybe sixty-five by road. The grass was tall and lush there, and the cattle would fatten up for market. But bureaucracies being what they were, ranchers couldn’t just move cattle anymore. They couldn’t just hire a bunch of dollar-a-day cowpunchers and drive the herd here or there as John Chisum would have done back in the 1880s.
Now, the critters traveled in the modern style, sandwiched hide to hide in a stock trailer pulled behind a snorting diesel one-ton pick-up truck. And before ranchers could even do that, the State of New Mexico and the livestock board wanted their cut from the operation, because, after all, it’s always about the money.
In this case, the tally that Herb Torrance would have to pay for a transportation permit from me included forty cents for each set of four legs, plus a five dollar service fee, plus a buck a head paid to the New Mexico Beef Council. Herb would fork over $38.60 for a state permit to truck this modest bunch from one little dry patch of New Mexico to another just a few miles away.
If I valued my time even a little bit, the money paid wouldn’t cover my time and travel from Posadas to Herb’s ranch. But the bureaucrats evidently felt better when the cattle trail was littered with paperwork.
As the herd circled for my inspection—and to give the boys some much-needed practice with their fancy horsemanship—the wind kicked up a little. All morning, it had been calm enough that the dust had risen from the hoof-stirred arena in a great cloud, drifting straight up. Now I felt the breeze against the back of my neck, a reminder that this was a good time to finish up before I missed my luncheon date and before the afternoon gusts made working outside a miserable chore.
As if someone else agreed, the phone in my truck chirped its imperative. I knew my phone was the culprit, since Herb’s was on his belt and he made no move for it. I ignored the summons. The phone could wait. The two cowpunchers on horseback gathered the cattle for me once more, and then I waved a “good enough.”
The breeze found a foam coffee cup that had been lying under one of the pickup trucks parked outside the arena and gave it a kick. I saw the flicker of white about the same time as did Dale Torrance’s sorrel gelding. Why a thousand-pound horse thought a cup was a fearsome threat, only he knew. Up until then, the horse had been handling himself with professional skill. Young Torrance was only a fair rider, more at home on a four-wheeler or motorcycle, tending to saw the gelding’s reins like a pair of handlebars.
He kicked his mount toward the corral side of the herd just as the little white cup bounced and clattered under the rails, then blew between the animal’s hind hooves. The gelding saw it and promptly came unglued. The critter crashed sideways into one of the railroad tie uprights, crushing the young cowboy’s leg—a thousand-pound hammer with Dale caught against the hard, smelly anvil of the creosoted oak.
A heifer jostled the big gelding and doubled his panic. He danced hard to the left, losing Dale in the process. The young- ster went down with a crash, a flail of arms and legs in the dust. The sorrel, brain empty, inadvertently planted a hoof squarely on Dale Torrance’s right knee and then rocketed off to mix it up with the cattle. The kid’s scream was shrill and chopped off abruptly.
Herb dove into motion. He raced toward his son, his own lame knee turning his sprint into an awkward, skipping shuffle. With a deft snatch, Pat Gabaldon caught the loose horse and eased him back to reality, the gelding’s eyes wide and nostrils flared. The cattle drifted into a confused, milling bunch across the way. Socks, the blue heeler, yapped his excitement without a clue about what to do next.
By the time I had crossed the corral, Dale’s face was a pasty gray. He had squirmed under the bottom rail of the arena and now lay flat on his back, fists clenched and beating a tattoo on the hard dirt. His breath hissed through clenched teeth, coupled with whimpers and tears. It didn’t take an orthopedic surgeon to see that his right knee was a wreck, with the lower half of his leg at a grotesque angle. Another bolt of pain bent Dale at the waist, and he clawed at his leg with both hands.
“Easy now,” his father said, and dropped to his knees in a fashion that any other time would have been funny, his own bad leg crabbed straight out to the side, boot heel dug in for support. “God damn, son,” he observed. “That’s sure as hell broke.” He glanced up at me.
I looked around for options. This wasn’t the sort of injury where we could just shoulder him to his feet and hop-a-long to the house for an ice pack. We had pieces of bone where they weren’t supposed to be, and an orthopedist was going to have to do some reassembly.
If we tried to fold Dale into the cab of one of the pickups, he’d have to bend the wreckage of that knee, and that wouldn’t work—not for a fifty-mile ride, part of it on hopeless dirt roads. Riding in the back with all the hay, shovels, reels of barbed wire, steel posts and bags of Nutri-Steer wouldn’t be a whole lot better. His mother’s Chrysler was parked across the road in front of the Torrance’s double-wide, and no way in hell Dale would fold into that. But we couldn’t just stand dumb and wait while an ambulance took the better part of an hour to run all the way out from Posadas.
“Let’s put him in the back of my rig,” I said. “Don’t move that leg, and find something to use as padding.” I didn’t give Herb any time to discuss it, but set off at my own version of a jog. I hadn’t driven the veteran state truck that day, leaving it in the shop to have all four wheels toed around to point in the same direction. That left me driving my own late model Chevy SUV. I huffed inside, and as I set about swinging it around to drive to the arena, I found the cell phone in the clutter of the center console and thumbed the auto dial for the Posadas County Sheriff ’s Department.
Dispatcher Gayle Torrez picked up on the second ring, and I could hear radio traffic in the background.
“Gayle, this is Gastner,” I said. “Look, I’m out at the Torrance ranch. Dale Torrance just busted his knee with a nasty fracture. I need an ambulance to meet us on 56.”
“You’re not going to bring him all the way in?”
“I can do that, but the sooner he has an I.V. running the better.
This is a bad break, Gayle. Lots of bone chips and bleeding.” “Ten-four.”
“I’m in my red SUV. I’ll keep an eye out for the ambulance and flag him down. Tell the driver to pay attention.”
There are some perks that come with being a has-been. When the has-been’s life includes thirty-five years as deputy, undersheriff, and finally sheriff of Posadas County, some of the county doors remain open, ready to expedite favors.
By the time I’d brought the Trail Blazer over to the arena, opened the back and flopped down the seats, they’d come up with a couple of saddle blankets and three pillows from Dale’s own mobile home across the paddock.
Dale’s mother, Annie Torrance, had bustled out from the house, her face grim and white but her nerves like tempered steel. She directed the operation as Herb, Pat, and I lifted Dale into the SUV. It would have been easier for Dale if he’d managed to faint, but he was a tough kid, with a string of curses colorful enough that they surprised even me. Annie Torrance was tougher yet. She didn’t bat an eye.
“I have an ambulance on the way,” I said. “They’ll meet us down on 56. Faster that way. Herb, one of you needs to ride in back with him.”
“You bring the car,” Annie Torrance said to her husband. “I’ll ride with Dale.”
“You can finish up here?” Herb asked Pat Gabaldon, and the young man nodded.
In another minute, we were southbound on the washboards and potholes of County Road 14, the wandering dirt by-way that ran down the western side of Posadas County. Any other time, I would be ambling along on CR 14, windows rolled down, marveling at the country—the broad sweep of the dry short bunch-grass prairie, rugged mesas with rims crumpling, arroyos so deep you could effortlessly hide a herd of cattle or a tractor trailer with license plates issued in Chihuahua.
This time, I paid attention to my driving, but for every thump and bump that I avoided, three more pummeled the Chevy’s stiff suspension. The cries and gasps from the back made me feel like a card-carrying member of the Inquisition. Annie did what she could, but a few hundred CC’s of morphine would have been just the ticket. Behind us, Herb kept the Chrysler just far enough back that our dust cloud had time to drift off the road. In seven miles—an agonizing twenty minutes—we reached the last cattle guard that crossed CR14, and I slowed the SUV to a walk as we waddled across the steel girders. Just beyond was the intersection with New Mexico 56, and pulling onto the pavement of the state highway never felt so smooth.
“You doing okay back there?” My passengers had been too quiet.
“He’s passed out,” Annie said. She stroked Dale’s forehead. “I guess that’s the best thing.” She was all scrunched up, not an easy ride for her sixty-year-old bones.
“Hang in there,” I said. “We have an ambulance coming.”
Just beyond the intersection, the Broken Spur Saloon marked the only pocket of civilization in the thirty-five miles between the village of Posadas at the north end and the Mexican border and the tiny hamlet of Regál down south. Traffic was nonexistent, and for three miles, we had clear sailing. Herb apparently thought that the posted fifty-five was as fast as his old Chrysler would go, and he dropped far behind as my speedometer touched eighty-five.
I felt confident enough to glance at my call record, and recog- nized George Payton’s phone number. My Thursday lunch date was with the irascible old retired gun dealer, and I knew that he didn’t call just to chit-chat. I pushed the dial option and in four or five rings, his sunshine-filled voice greeted me.
George and I tried to celebrate our stay on the planet over a luncheon burrito once in a while, and in the past year, we’d eaten take-out at George’s place more often than not. He needed a walker to get around and refused to be seen in public with it. We missed our lunch date now and then, almost always my fault, but both of us looked forward to an occasional hour of good food and lies. We’d settled on this day, a Thursday with no particular complications on the horizon. Until the Styrofoam cup.
“George, I’m going to be late,” I said, able to predict what his reaction would be. “We got a little issue going on.”
“Huh,” he grunted, his curiosity underwhelming. “Some other time, then. I’ll have the Mexican send over something for me. He’ll do that, all right.” The “Mexican” was Fernando Aragon, owner of the Don Juan de Oñate restaurant, and of course the Mexican would be delighted.
“Can you give me an hour?” I said. “I was going to pick up some wine.”
“Nah, you say an hour, that means two,” he countered. I knew that arguing was a waste of breath. George Payton didn’t do casual in his daily schedules, even though he had nowhere special to go, nothing special to do. In his world, lunch was noon, straight up. Predictable and comforting. “Look, I don’t feel all that great anyway. And you got things to do, Billy,” George said, the only human being on the planet who could get away with calling me that. “Catch you next time around.”
“Your call,” I said.
“You be careful,” he said, his habitual parting shot.
The next time I glanced in the rear-view mirror, I saw sunshine wink on chrome. I paid attention to the highway as we hit the curve leading to the concrete bridge across the Rio Guigarro, a gravel arroyo that tasted running water maybe once a season. In another minute, the vehicle had caught us—and sure enough, the light bar blossomed on the roof of the sedan. I didn’t slow, but reached for the phone. I think dispatcher Gayle Torrez was expecting my call. The first ring hadn’t finished when she picked up.
“Hey, sweetheart. This is Gastner again. We’re north on 56, looking for the ambulance, and I’ve managed to collect one of your young hot rods. You want to fill him in? He needs to leave us alone.”
“The EMT’s are on the way, sir,” Gayle laughed, and in a couple of seconds the red lights went out behind us. The Crown Victoria backed off my bumper a discreet distance. “Deputy Collins wants to know if you need an escort.”
“I’m sure he has better things to do, thanks. Oh, and there’s a blue Chrysler on the way as well. That’s Herb Torrance. He’s coming in to the hospital with us.”
“Can you hang on a second, sir?” “Sure.”
I heard radio traffic in the background, and in a moment Gayle came back on the phone. “The ambulance is just coming up on Moore, sir.” The remains of that little ghost town lay eight miles ahead, and at the rate the ambulance was closing with us, we’d meet in less than four minutes.
“You bet. Who did you say owns the knee?”
“Dale Torrance. His horse stepped on him. It’s a mess.” “Ouch. Well, stop in when you get a minute. Don’t be such a stranger.”
“You bet.” I switched off and glanced in the mirror at Annie. Her expression was worried, but she caught my eye and looked heavenward, the crows-feet deepening at the corners of her eyes. “He’s going to end up hobbling just like his old man,” Annie said.
“Maybe not that bad,” I said, not believing a word of it. Knees that pointed sideways never turned out as good as new.
Behind us, Deputy Collins had slowed and U-turned to return to his speed trap. The kid had been my last hire in the final months before Robert Torrez, dispatcher Gayle’s husband, took over the sheriff ’s office. Like most young cops, if Collins could put three or four years’ experience under his belt without making any bone-headed mistakes, he’d probably make a good deputy. But by then, he’d want to move on to some other department that paid more than a street person makes working an intersection in Albuquerque.
Far ahead, as the buttress of Salinas Mesa rose to the south, I saw the first flash of ambulance lights. Just before the bridge across Salinas arroyo, I took the turn-out and pulled to a gentle halt, turning on the flashers. By the time the EMTs pulled the heavy diesel rig to a stop, I had the SUV’s doors and tailgate opened for them.
In minutes, Dale Torrance was strapped to a proper gurney, an IV started, and the mercy of morphine—or whatever magic potion they use nowadays—flowing into his arm. I stayed out of the way. In a bit, the ambulance, loaded with mother and son, took off with a wail and flash, followed by Herb Torrance in the Chrysler.
That left me standing by my SUV, in no hurry to join the parade to the hospital. There was nothing I could do now except my job. Life at the ranch would go on. Pat Gabaldon and Socks, left by themselves with a day’s work still ahead, would need the transportation permit to move the cattle. The paperwork rode on my clipboard on the passenger seat.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was already coming up on noon. It would take at least another hour to finish with Patrick and then head back to town. George Payton was right. When the day starts to go to hell, it’s a hard snowball to stop. I climbed back into the SUV and pulled it into gear, then planted my foot hard on the brake, jolted to a stop by another siren.
This time, Deputy Dennis Collins wasn’t sparing the horses. The county car came in from the west, traveling so fast that when it shot by me I felt its bow wave rock my truck. The siren note wafted away as Collins sped north on State 56, winding through the parade of mesas.
I had no sheriff ’s department radio in my personal rig. Retirement was retirement, I had decided. I didn’t need to be listening to all that jibber-jabber of 10-this and 10-that. Still, curiosity takes longer to retire. Hopefully EMT Matty Finnegan hadn’t swerved the loaded ambulance off the highway in an effort to miss an errant steer or antelope. I reached for the phone but immediately thought better of it. With an emergency serious enough to shag a deputy in from the other end of the county, Sheriff ’s dispatcher Gayle Torrez would have enough to do without fielding curiosity calls.
Instead, I U-turned the SUV and headed southbound toward the ranch. After issuing the Torrance permit, the rest of my day was clear, and I relished that notion. After thirty years in the same tiny county, you might imagine that there wasn’t a corner or niche that I hadn’t explored. But I knew of a couple such places, and I planned to spend my afternoon in the bright sun, poking here and there like an old badger scouting out a good spot to dig another hole.
A pickup truck and two cars had stopped at the Broken Spur Saloon as I drove past. Two women, one of them carrying an infant, were just climbing out of a Volvo station wagon. I almost swung into the parking lot myself at the thought of one of Victor Sanchez’s enormous, dripping Spur burgers, but disciplined myself. I had a permit to deliver. Maybe on the way back, although I had second thoughts about that, too. Ice tea was one of my passions, and as edible as the rest of his food was, Victor didn’t have a clue how to brew tea leaves.
That was the magnitude of my daydreaming as I turned off State 56, once more running the kidney jolting surface of CR 14. The wheels of the SUV rattled over the cattle guard and as if vibrated to life, my cell phone interrupted my peace and quiet.
“Sir,” Gayle Torrez said, “are you ten-eight?”
I laughed at the ten-code expression, an affliction I was still trying to cure. “Almost. I’m running a permit out to the Torrance ranch so that Pat can move some cattle. What’s up?”
“Sir,” she said, “we’ve just been called to an unattended death over at 1228 Ridgemont.” She said it as if I knew the address, but she had forgotten my selective memory—remember meal and bed time, forget everything else. In this case, however, there was no doubt that I would remember.
I slowed for a particularly jarring section of CR14, a well of apprehension already growing in my gut. “Phil Borman called us, sir. He found Mr. Payton in the kitchen.”
“Well, shit.” I damn near drove off into the bar ditch. “Estelle said you’d want to know.” Gayle’s voice was soft with sympathy.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” I muttered, and that’s about all I could think to say. The dirt road stretched out in front of me, and it seemed a little emptier.
“She said she’d like to meet with you if you’re clear,” Gayle added. “She’s over at that address right now.”
I heaved a grand sigh and pulled my senses together. Moping wasn’t going to accomplish diddly. Estelle Reyes-Guzman, the county undersheriff but to me more like an adopted daughter, wouldn’t request my presence at the death scene out of sympathy. I was still fifteen minutes south of the Torrance ranch, and the time to drive there and back, with the state livestock paperwork in addition, would add another hour. Estelle hadn’t asked for me to come to George Payton’s home ‘sometime,’ or mañana.
“I’m on the way,” I said, and found a wide spot to execute another U-turn.