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The Dark Horse

A Walt Longmire Mystery

Craig Johnson - Author

ePub eBook | $12.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101057278 | 368 pages | 28 May 2009 | Penguin | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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"It's the scenery-and the big guy standing in front of the scenery- that keeps us coming back to Craig Johnson's lean and leathery mysteries." -Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times

With its stellar hardcover reviews-including stars in all four trade publications-and its riveting plot, Sheriff Walt Longmire's fifth and latest outing is sure to be the most successful installment in a series that has been garnering more praise and many more loyal fans with each new book.

Wade Barsad, a man with a dubious past and a gift for making enemies, burned his wife Mary's horses in their barn; in retribution, she shot him in the head six times. But Longmire doesn't believe Mary's confession. Leaving behind the demands of his upcoming re-election campaign, Walt unpins his star to go undercover and discovers that everyone-including a beautiful Guatemalan bartender and a rancher with a taste for liquor-had a reason for wanting Wade dead.

1

October 27, 11 a.m.

It was the third week of a high-plains October, and an unseasonably extended summer had baked the color from the landscape and had turned the rusted girders of the old bridge a thinned-out, tired brown.

I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren’t very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches. I had grown up with these old camelback bridges and was sorry to see the last of them go.

My eyes were pulled to the town balanced on the banks of the anemic river and pressed hard against the scoria hills like the singing blade of a sharp knife. The water, the land, and the bridge were sepia-toned, depleted.

I told Dog to stay in the backseat and got out of the car, slipped on my hat and an aged, burnished-brown horsehide jacket, and walked across the dirt lot. I studied the dusty, wide-planked surface of the bridge and, between the cracks, the few reflecting slivers of the Powder River below. The Wyoming Department of Transportation had condemned and, in turn, posted the bridge with bright yellow signs—it was to be removed next week. I could see the abutments that they had constructed off to the right on which the new bridge would soon rest.

A Range Telephone Cooperative trailer sat by a power pole holding a junction box and a blue plastic service phone that gently tapped against the creosote-soaked wood like a forgotten telegraph, receiving no answer.

“You lost?”

I turned and looked at the old rancher who’d pulled up behind me in an antiquated ’55 GMC, the kind that has grillwork frozen in a perpetual sneer. The big truck was overladen with hay. I tipped my new hat back and gazed at him. “Nope, just looking around.”

He kicked at the accelerator and eased the Jimmy into a lopsided idle as he glanced at Dog, my late-model car, and the Montana plates. “You workin’ methane?”

“Nope.”

He squinted at me to let me know he wasn’t sure if I was telling the truth, his eyes green as the algae that grows on the tops of horse troughs. “We get a lot of them gas and oil people out here, buying up people’s mineral rights.” He studied me, sizing me up by my new black hat, boots, and freshly pressed blue jeans. “Easy to get lost on these roads.”

“I’m not lost.” I looked at his load, at the sun-dried, tiny blue flowers intermixed with the hay and the orange and cobalt twine that indicated it was weed-free; idiot cubes, as we used to call the seventy-pound bales. I stepped in closer and put a hand on the hay, rich with alfalfa. “Certified. You must have a pretty good stretch of bottom land around here somewhere.”

“Good enough, but with the drought, this country’s so dry you have to prime a man before he can spit.” As if to emphasize his point, he spat a stream through the rust holes in the floorboard of the truck and onto the road, the spittle approaching the same tint as the river.

I nodded as I glanced down at the stained pea gravel. “A buddy of mine says that these small bales are what broke up the family ranches.” I looked back up at the cargo—two and a half tons at least. “You buck a couple thousand of these in August and your mind starts to wander; wonder as to what the heck else you could be doing for a living.”

His eyes clinched my words. “You ranch?”

“Nope, but I grew up on one.”

“Where ’bouts?”

I smiled, stuffing my hands in the pockets of my jeans, glanced at his rust-orange, heavily loaded flatbed, and then at the dilapidated structure that spanned the distance between here—and there. “You gonna drive this truck across that bridge?”

He spat into the dirt again, this time near my boots, and then wiped his mouth on the back of his snap-buttoned cuff. “Been drivin’ the car-bridge for sixty-three years; don’t see no reason to stop.”

Car-bridge; I hadn’t heard that one in a while. I glanced back at the yellow WYDOT signs and the decrepit condition of the doomed structure. “Looks like you’re not going to have much choice as of next week.”

He nodded and ran a hand over his patent-leather face. “Yeah, I reckon they got more money down there in Cheyenne than they know what to do with.” He waited a moment before speaking again. “The state highway is about four miles back up the road.”

“I told you, I’m not lost.”

I could feel him watching me; I’m sure he was looking at the scar above my eye, the one on my neck, that little part of my ear that was missing, my hands, and most importantly, trying to get a read on the insouciance that goes along with a quarter of a century spent with a star pinned to my chest. I nodded, glancing back across the bridge before he had a chance to study me longer. “Is that a town, down there?”

“Sort of.” He snorted a laugh. “Halfway between woebegone and far away.” He continued to study me as I watched the dust drifting across the warped and swirled surface of the dried-out planks. “Used to be called Suggs, but when the Burlington and Missouri came through they decided that it ought to have an upstanding, proper, biblical name.”

I continued to look at the town. “And what’s that?”

“Absalom.”

I laughed and thought that one of those railroad engineers must have had a pretty good sense of humor or been from Mississippi. But then it occurred to me that Faulkner hadn’t been walking, let alone writing, when the railroads came through here.

He continued to look at me through the collection of wrinkles that road-mapped his eyes. “Something funny?”

I nodded. “Do you read the Bible, Mr. . . . ?”

“Niall, Mike Niall.” I noticed he didn’t extend his hand. “Not since my mother used to make me. And there ain’t nobody that makes me do much of anything in about seventy years.”

Seven years longer than he’d been driving the car-bridge, I figured. “You should read it, Mr. Niall, if for no other reason than that historical reference. Absalom was King David’s son—the cursed one who turned against him.”

I started back toward the rental car, and there was a pause before he spoke again. “I wouldn’t go down there if I was you; it’s not a friendly place.”

I opened the door of the Lincoln, tossed my 10X onto the passenger seat, and looked back at him from over the top, and especially at the .30-30 carbine in the truck’s rifle rack behind his head. “That’s all right; I’m not looking for friends.”

I started to climb into the driver’s seat but stopped when he called out to me again. “Hey youngster, I didn’t catch your name.”

I paused for only a second, continuing to look down the valley at the small town. “I didn’t throw it.”

I drove off the pavement to the edge of a dirt street alongside the railroad tracks and pulled the rental under the shade of an abandoned mill that read best out west, but maybe not so much anymore. It was true that they had changed the name of Suggs to Absalom in an attempt to elevate the town and pull it from a dubious past, but I couldn’t help feeling that whatever its name, it had been surviving on borrowed time and the bill had come due. I left the windows down just a bit for Dog and got out across from the only obvious commercial establishment in the town.

The AR had been The BAR at some point in its past, but poor carpentry and the ever-prevalent wind had changed its name; that, or the B had decided to move on to a better hive. There were a few used-up motel rooms connected to the building on one side with a few unconnected cabins on the other, the entirety attached by an overhang that marginally protected the wooden walkway.

Through the opening between the main building and the cabins, I could see a propane tank in a weedy backyard and, attached to makeshift gutters with baling wire, cowboy boots that gently twisted in the breeze like loose appendages. There was a hand-printed sign that read ABSALOM BAR—WHERE THE PAVEMENT ENDS THE THRILLS BEGIN.

Indeed.

The truck I parked behind had a half-dozen dogs in the bed, border collie/blue heeler mixes that all came over to growl at me as I made my way around to the front of my car. The red merle in the corner snapped and missed me by only eight inches. I stopped and turned to look at all of them, still growling and snarling, and saw that Dog had raised his head from the backseat to balefully inspect the herding dogs the way timber wolves inspect coyotes.

There were still hitching posts in front of The AR, which was handy because there were horses in front of The AR. A snippy-looking grulla and a sleepy quarter horse stirred as I placed a boot on the wooden steps. The mouse-colored one had a cloudy eye and turned to look at me with his good one, while the grade went back to napping in the October sun, his right rear hoof raised in relaxation like some pre-Technicolor-era starlet being kissed. I stuck out a hand, and he brushed the soft fur of his nose across my knuckles. I thought about a circle around an eye and the last horse I’d been this close to and how he had died.

“In this country, we don’t touch a man’s horse without asking.”

I dropped my hand and turned to look at the voice. “Well, technically, he touched me.” I stepped the rest of the way onto the boardwalk and looked down at the cowboy, aware that a two-foot height advantage is always handy in dealing with antagonists, especially ones that are ten years old.

The little outlaw tipped back on the heels of his boots and looked up at me with dark eyes. “You’re big.”

“I didn’t plan it.”

He thought about that for a while and then looked disapprovingly at my new, pinch-front hat. “You lost?”

I sighed softly and continued toward the door. “No.”

“Bar’s closed.”

He said everything as if it were an absolute that would brook no argument; I wondered if he was related to the green-eyed rancher at the condemned bridge. I turned to look at him with my hand on the doorknob. “Do you frequent this establishment a great deal?”

He placed a fist on his hip and looked up at me, as if I should already know what it was that he was going to say. “You talk funny.”

I stood there looking at the black hair sticking out from all angles like a murder of crows trying to escape from underneath the stained cowboy hat. I thought about another kid from a number of years ago with a head like a pail—just as impenetrable and about as empty. “Is everybody in this town as polite as you?”

He paused for a second and stuffed the already chewed-on leather stampede strings that were dangling from his hat into his mouth, saving him from spitting on the road like the old rancher. “Pretty much.”

I nodded, looking at the plastic sign in the window that read closed, then turned the knob and stepped into The AR. “Must make for gracious living ’round these parts.”

The AR was like most of the public drinking establishments in northern Wyoming, which bear a great resemblance to the establishments of southern Wyoming and everywhere else in the West, except that this one had a makeshift boxing arena to the left of the central U shaped bar, with an elevated plywood platform, steel fencing poles in the corners, and two strands of calf-roping ropes strung around it.

On a shelf above the bar was a television set tuned to the Weather Channel with the sound off. Weather was always a safe subject in this part of the world—everybody was interested, everybody enjoyed the bitching, and nobody could do anything about it. A more-than-middle-aged man sat on a mismatched chair at one of the small tables to the right of the particleboard bar and smoked a cigarette. He was reading the Gillette newspaper.

“Bar’s closed.”

It was a female voice, with the same cocksure intonations as the kid’s, so I ignored the man reading the News-Record, just as he ignored me. I looked around at the all-but-empty room. “Beg your pardon?”

“Bar’s closed.”

The voice had come from behind the counter, so I walked over and looked down; I could just see the punt end of a baseball bat, the butt of an old Winchester pump on one of the shelves, and a young woman. She was bantam-sized and was mopping up water from under the beer coolers with a dishrag. She looked at me beneath a confection of black hair pulled back with a wide elastic band. She had mocha-colored eyes, and her skin tone was the same as the boy’s—maybe Indian, maybe, on closer inspection, from somewhere in Central America. “Bar’s closed.”

“Yep, I got that.” I tipped my hat back and raised a hand in submission. “And before you ask, I’m not lost.”

She threw the rag onto the floor with a plop of exasperation. “Then what do you want?”

It was silent for a moment. “I was wondering if there were any rooms available in the motel.”

She rose to her feet and leaned on the bar, where she grabbed another rag from a pile and wiped her hands. “Nothing but rooms available. Nobody wants to stay here without air-conditioning and satellite television.” She glanced at the man seated at the small table, who was still smoking and reading. “Pat? Man’s wanting a room.”

He didn’t look up and continued to cover most of his face with a hand on which was an enormous, gold Masonic ring that seemed to hold the cigarette smoke in a sustained orbit. “Full.”

The young woman glanced at me, then at him, and then shrugged as she went back to the leaking cooler. I turned to the man. He was overweight and dressed in overalls, a short-sleeved print shirt, and a trucker-style ball cap that read sheridan seed company.

“No rooms at all?”

He glanced up at me, but for only a moment, and flicked some ashes into the glass ashtray that advertised THUNDERBIRD HOTEL, LAS VEGAS, NEV. “Booked up.”

The young woman’s voice rose again from behind the bar. “What about number four?”

He continued reading. “Toilet’s busted.”

She spoke again as I leaned against the bar. “We got a toilet in here, he could just use that.”

He sighed and flashed a dirty look in her general vicinity. “S’against the law, room’s gotta have a working toilet.”

She stood back up, tossed the new now-sopping rag into a galvanized trash can, and ripped a half-dozen paper towels off a roll on the counter. “What law is that?”

He looked at her and stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray. “The you-gotta-have-a crapper-in-any-room-you-rent law.”

“Whose law is that?” The quick-draw flash of temper in her eyes and the barest trace of an accent was significantly Latin.

He pushed his chair back and folded the newspaper, slipping it under his arm. “Mine.”

She turned the entirety of her attitude toward me, and I was briefly reminded of my daughter. “You paying in cash?”

I blinked. “I can.”

The attitude shifted back to the lawgiver, and I was just as glad to be relieved of it. “You haven’t paid me in two weeks because you haven’t had any money.” He continued to look at her through sloped eyelids. “Well, here’s money.” She walked to the bar-back at the wall, plucked a key from a full rack, and slammed it on the counter between us. “Thirty-two dollars and ninety-five cents.”

I nodded, looking at the key still covered by her hand. “For a room without a toilet?”

She glanced up at me from below the accentuated eyebrows and through the dark lashes. “You can forget about the ninety-five cents, and I’ll eat the tax.”

I reached for my wallet. “What the governor doesn’t know won’t hurt him?” She didn’t say anything and ignored the older man completely as I handed her two twenties. “I might need the room for more than one night.”

“Even better. I’ll keep your change as a deposit.”

I took the key and turned toward the door. “Thanks . . . I think.”

“You want a drink?”

The older man hadn’t moved; he still stood in the same place and was watching me. I turned and looked at her. “Thought the bar was closed.”

She smiled a stunner of a smile with perfectly shaped lips. “Just opened.”

October 17: ten days earlier, evening.

They’d brought her in on a Friday night. The jail had been empty. It usually was.

One of the ways we supplemented our budget allotment was to import prisoners from the overcrowded jails in other counties. They did a brisk business, especially in Gillette, which was in Campbell County, and I provided high-security, low-amenity lodging for a portion of their tax base.

Dog and I had slept the previous three nights at the jail. Sleeping in a holding cell was a pattern I had developed when I was feeling discontented, and I had been feeling this way since Labor Day, when my daughter, Cady, had left for Philadelphia.

I leaned against the wall and could feel my shoulders slope from their own weight as I watched Victoria Moretti. My deputy was easy on the eyes, and I liked watching her. The trick was not getting caught.

Vic filled out the transport of prisoner forms, dotted a vicious “i,” and snapped the pen back onto the clipboard. She handed it back to the two deputies. “For them to send two of you, this Mary Barsad must be pretty dangerous.”

The young man with the ubiquitous cop mustache ripped off the receipts and gave them to Vic. “Dangerous enough to fire six shots from a .22 hunting rifle into the right side of his head while he lay there asleep. Then, for good measure, she set the house on fire.”

The other deputy interrupted. “Allegedly.”

The first deputy repeated. “Allegedly.”

Vic glanced at the papers and back at them. “That’d do it.”

Wyoming law states that incarcerated females must be supervised at all times by a female docent or a matron, neither of which aptly described Vic, but she had the third watch and would until Mary Barsad was transferred back to Campbell County for trial in three weeks. It was an understatement to say that she wasn’t thrilled.

She bid the two deputies an extraditionary farewell, and I waited with Dog at the door of her office, which was across the hall from mine. She handed me the paperwork, which was stuffed in a manila folder, crossed her arms, and leaned on the other side of the doorway. She stared at me. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”

“It’s not my fault. If you want to yell at somebody, call up Sandy Sandberg and give him an earful.” I reached down to pet Dog so that the beast wouldn’t take the argument seriously; she reached down and pulled one of his ears so that he would. “He didn’t tell me the detainee was a she.”

“That douche-rocket is doing this because I outshot him at certification in Douglas two months ago.”

I figured I’d divert her before she got really mad. “You want something to eat?”

She looked up. “Is this a date or just dinner?”

“Just dinner. I figured if you were going to be stuck here alone all night, I’d go get you something.”

“What the fuck do you mean just me all night? Where are you going?”

I took a breath. “Well, I thought I’d go home.”

She looked at the wall. “Great. You sleep in the jail all the time, but as soon as I’m here, you decide to go home?”

“You want me to stay?”

She looked back at me, the tarnished gold eyes shimmering. “Yes.”

I didn’t move. “You want me to go get you something to eat?”

“Yes.” She thought for a moment. “What are you getting?”

I sighed. “I never know until I get there.”

“I’ll take the usual.”

I slipped the folder under my arm and headed back to take a look at the prisoner on my way to the café. Dog trotted after me.

Vic called out as I retreated down the hallway. “And be quick about it. There’s a classic example back there of what happens when we women get frustrated.”

Mary Barsad didn’t look like one of my usual lodgers. She was tall with blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, with a face that had more character than pretty would allow. She looked good, which was a real trick in the orange Campbell County Department of Corrections jumpsuit she was wearing. She had narrow, long-fingered, capable hands and had used them to cover her face.

“Would you like something to eat, Mary?”

She didn’t say anything.

“Dog and I are starved.”

Her face came up just a little, and I looked into the azure eyes as they settled on Dog. She was terribly thin, and a trace of blue at her temples throbbed with the pulse of her thoughts.

“No, thank you.” She had a nice voice, kind, very unlike the one with which I’d just been dealing.

“It’s chicken potpies till Monday—sure you won’t change your mind?”

Her eyes disappeared behind the hands, and I was sorry to see them go. I hung an arm on the bars. “My name is Walt Longmire, and I’ll only be gone for about twenty minutes, but if you need anything I’ve got a deputy right down the hall; her name is Victoria Moretti, but she goes by Vic. She might seem a little scary at first . . .” I trailed my words off when it became apparent that she wasn’t listening.

I watched her for a moment more and then slipped out the back door and down the steps behind the courthouse to the Busy Bee Café. Dog followed. We walked past one of the bright, red-and-white signs that read KYLE STRAUB FOR SHERIFF, A MAN TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I thought about the newest political slogan to sweep the county—a man to make a difference; what did that make me, a man against making a difference? Whenever I saw the slogan, I felt as though somebody was walking on my grave without me fully being in it.

Kyle Straub was the sitting prosecuting attorney and had been running a vigorous campaign with signs, bumper stickers, and pins; I had seen all of them with an unsettling frequency. When it had come time to choose a homily for my own campaign, I’d proposed a slogan from Cato the Elder, CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED, but that platitude had been quickly shot down by the local council.

I had supporters. Lucian Connally, the previous sheriff of Absaroka County, had put in an appearance at the local VFW and had loudly announced to any and all, “If you stupid sons-a bitches don’t know what you’ve got, then you don’t deserve a sheriff like Walt Longmire anyway.” Ernie Brown, “Man about Town,” was the editor in chief of the Durant Courant and had caught our dispatcher Ruby in an honest moment where she’d stated flatly that she wouldn’t elect the attorney as dogcatcher. It seemed as though everyone was doing all they could to make sure I would be elected in November—that is, everybody but me.

The first and only scheduled debate at Rotary had been something of a disaster despite my friend Henry Standing Bear’s support. Kyle Straub had made a point of lobbying for a new jail as the centerpiece of his future administration, and the fact that we didn’t have enough lodgers to support the facility the county had now had done little to dampen the enthusiasm for a new building out along the bypass. I had failed to take into consideration how many contractors filled the rolls of Rotary.

It was the middle of October, and there was a star-filled twilight, with an evening that was cooling off nicely in promise of the cold to come. Autumn was my favorite season, but Cady had left and I was still unsettled by her departure—and now by the woman in my jail. I took a quick look at my pocket watch to see if I was going to make it before the café closed, and the brass fob with the Indian chief centered between opposed horse heads flapped against the pocket of my jeans. There were more than just a few leaves dropping from the cottonwood trees that surrounded the courthouse, and I crunched through a few piles on my way to the Bee.

Dorothy Caldwell had been keeping the café along Clear Creek open later to take advantage of the tourist trade, but all that might have dried up with hunting season almost over. If she’d already closed, it meant the potpies, which bordered on cruel and unusual punishment for the lot of the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department staff, never mind for Dog.

I paused at the open door of the all-but-empty café. “Can I bring him in?”

Dorothy, the owner/operator, turned from scraping the grill to regard me and beast. “It’s against the law.”

“I am the law, at least for another couple of months.”

“Then I guess its okay.”

I sat on my regular stool nearest the cash register; Dog sat in the space between the counters and looked at Dorothy expectantly. She reached into a stainless steel container, plucked out a piece of bacon, and tossed it. In one snap, it was gone. I looked down at the brute with the five-gallon shaggy red head, big as a bucket. “It’s like the shark tank at Sea World.”

“How many?”

I noticed she didn’t bother to ask of what; I hadn’t seriously picked up a menu in the place in years. “Three.”

She took a frying pan as big as a garbage-can lid down from the hanger above. “You got a lodger?”

“Transport from over in Gillette.” I glanced back out onto the deserted main street and could imagine how much the three of us looked like some high plains version of Hopper’s Nighthawks.

She dumped a few tablespoons of bacon grease into the heating pan; like all things bad for you, it smelled delicious. She took out three large strips of round steak and began pounding them with a meat mallet, then dipped them in milk and dredged them in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and just a touch of paprika.

I caved. “I take it chicken-fried steak is the usual?”

She tossed the strips of battered meat into the frying pan and dropped some fries into the deep fryer as Dog looked on. “The special. When are you going to get it right?”

I opened the file that I had put on the counter and studied the few pages that the Campbell County deputies had brought with the woman. “Make sure you include ketchup packets.”

“Vic?”

“Yep.”

The next question didn’t sound completely innocent. “What’s she doing working late?”

“Prisoner’s female.”

She leaned against the counter and looked down at the file, her salt-and-pepper locks hiding her eyes. “Mary Barsad?” Her cool hazel eyes reappeared and met with my gray ones.

“Ring a bell?”

She picked up an oversized fork and expertly turned the steaks. “Only what I read in the papers. She’s the one that shot her husband after he killed her horses, right?”

I shrugged at the report. “The motivating factors are not mentioned, only the grisly consequence.” I looked at the threadbare corner of my shirtsleeve—I had to get some new duty shirts one of these days. “What’s the story on the horses?”

“The official one is lightning, but the rumor is he locked them in the barn and set it on fire.”

I stared at her. “You’re kidding.”

She shook her head. “That’s the story down the lane. He was a real piece of work, from what I hear. You must have been fly-fishing with Henry when the story broke; it was in all the papers.”

“Where’d this happen?”

“Out your way, in Powder River country. She and her husband had that really big spread across the river near the middle prong of Wild Horse Creek.”

“Rough country.” I thought about it. “The L Bar X. I thought what’s his name, Bill Nolan, had that.”

“Did, but the rest of the story is that this Barsad fella came in a few years back and started buying everybody out. Took the old place and built a log mansion on it, but I guess that pretty much burnt down, too.”

“The report says that he was shot while he was asleep. He set the barn full of horses on fire and then went to bed?”

She pulled up the fries, dumped them in the styrofoam containers along with the steaks, three small mixed salads, and the packets of ketchup and ranch dressing. “Seems kind of negligent, doesn’t it.”

“He burned the horses alive?”

She placed three iced teas in a holder, along with the requisite sugar, and slid them across the counter with the meals. “That’s the rumor. From what I understand, the finest collection of quarter horses this country’s ever seen.”

I got up, and Dog started for the door; he knew full well that the real begging couldn’t start till we got back to the jail. “Barrel racer?”

“Cutter, but I think she also did distance riding. I understand she was world-class.”

“She looks it.” I gathered up the movable feast. “What the heck was she doing with this . . .” My eyes focused on the file before closing it and placing it on top of the stack. “. . . Wade Barsad?”

I paid the chief-cook-and-bottle-washer, and she gave me back the change. I stuffed it into the tip jar. Like the usual, it was our ritual.

“They don’t all start out as peckerheads; some just get there faster than others.”

I paused at the door. “Is that experience talking?”

She hadn’t answered.

October 27, 11:35 a.m.

The dark-eyed bartender’s name was Juana, and she was from Guatemala. Her son, Benjamin, the little outlaw from the porch, was half Cheyenne and now sat on the bar stool next to me. He was nursing a Vernor’s ginger ale and was hypnotized by Jonny Quest on the Cartoon Network. I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. The lawgiver who passed the privy proclamations had disappeared.

“John; I bet you’re a John.” The young woman stole a sip from the straw of her son’s soda and glanced at me. “Nope, too plain. William maybe, or Ben.” She rested her elbows on the bar and looked at the boy. “Maybe he’s a Benjamin, like you.”

“He’s an Eric.” The child’s voice carried so much certainty that even I almost believed him. He sidled up on one cheek and pulled a business card from the back of his kid-sized Wranglers and handed it to his mother.

I recognized the card—it had rested on the seat of my rental.

She read. “Eric Boss, Boss Insurance, Billings, Montana.”

I looked at the little man and thought about the nerve it had taken to reach into a vehicle that contained Dog. His Cheyenne half was showing. “Did you get that out of my car?”

He didn’t say anything but received a sharp look from his mother and a full Spanish pronunciation of his name. “Ben-ha-meen?!”

He shrugged. “It was unlocked.”

She was on her way around the bar when he launched off the stool and was out the door like a miniature stagecoach robber.

She flung herself past me and across the room, yelling at her son from the open doorway. “Vete a la casa, desensilla el caballo, y vete directamente a tu cuarto.” The clatter of horse hooves resounded from the dirt street as she continued to shout after him. “¡Escuchame! ” The young woman closed the screen door behind her and then crossed silently past me and back behind the bar. Once there, she slid the card across the surface. “I apologize.”

“It’s all right.”

She gathered a remote and switched off the cartoon, where a giant eye with spider legs was chasing people around in the desert. She reached over to a burner for the coffee urn. “Well, that pretty much settles that mystery.” I pushed my cup back toward her and watched as she refilled the buffalo china mug. “You’re here about the house that burned down, the barn with the horses.” She nudged the cup back. “That woman?”

I sipped my coffee—it was still surprisingly good—and collected the business card from the surface of the bar. “What woman is that?”


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