Death on the High Lonesome (24 page)

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
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All this time Virgil was standing by the door. He opened it, looking outside into the bright sunlight, mulling over Rosita's question.

“I don't know,” Virgil said. “Maybe Vernon had some demons he let out of the jar and he just couldn't put them back in. Maybe he just couldn't deal with them anymore. In any event, think I'm going to have to look into the possibility. Listen, while I'm over at Margie's, see what you can dig up on Coastal. Pretty sure they most likely have a website—everybody does these days.”

“Will do, Sheriff,” Jimmy said.

“Virgil, when you're looking into that possibility you mentioned, I'm guessing it's going to involve Marian and that old cowboy. Be easy on them. They've been through a lot this last week.”

Virgil nodded. “I know they have, Rosie. I also know we all got our demons, but I think it's key that I find out what Vernon's were because they likely were bad enough to get him killed.”

32

V
irgil was right. There was a website. Coastal, according to what Jimmy and Rosie had learned while he was gone, was a Texas-based company down on the Gulf principally involved in oil and natural gas exploration. Beyond the site description there wasn't much other than the address of the corporate headquarters and some contact numbers. After lunch Virgil decided to put in a call. It was an exercise in frustration until he finally got connected with someone in human resources. Virgil explained the reason for his call, immediately getting what he figured was a typical response to anyone calling in regards to personal information about any company employee.

“I'm very sorry,” the somewhat detached voice said. “There are privacy concerns here which I can't possibly abrogate.”

Virgil knew immediately this was going to be an uphill battle.

“I fully understand your privacy concerns, but I'm not really looking for personal information. I just really want to find out whether this particular person is one of your employees.”

“I'm sorry, even that is protected under privacy law. Beyond that, I have no way of knowing that you are even who you say you are.”

“If I could validate my identity, would that help?”

There was a slight hesitancy on the other end. Virgil jumped on it. “Listen, I'm going to explain the whole situation to you. Then I'm going to offer verification of who I am. No commitment on your part.”

Over the course of the next few minutes, Virgil acquainted the voice that had become a little less detached with the circumstances that led to an unidentified woman lying on a slab in the basement of Hayward Memorial Hospital for the last couple of weeks. At certain parts of his narrative, Virgil picked up on a veiled emotional reaction. When he had finished, he told the woman on the other end of the phone that he was faxing her verification of who he was along with the photo of the woman in question. He even went so far as to tell her he would Skype her if she thought it necessary. She could then speak to him as he was sitting at his desk in uniform. By the end of the conversation, Janet Turner, who it turned out was an assistant to the head of HR, had become much more compliant. She told Virgil she would look at everything and get back to him promptly. It turned out she was as good as her word.

Virgil had decided it might be a good idea if he headed out to High Lonesome. He put in a call, but got no response. Then he thought maybe Marian was at the hospital. He was about to pursue that possibility when the phone rang.

“Sheriff Dalton, how can I help you?”

“I'm hoping I might be able to help you, Sheriff. This is Janet Turner.”

The voice on the other end was much different from the
voice that had responded to his initial inquiry. “To begin with, the woman in the photo is Linda Murchison, home address 155 Skyline Drive, Colorado Springs, Colorado.”

Janet Turner went on to explain that Linda Murchison was a geologist who had worked for Coastal on a contract basis from time to time. Approximately ten years earlier, she had been an employee, but then had decided to go out on her own.

“Do you have any record of her working for Coastal in the last year or so?”

“Yes. About a year ago. We had a contract with her, but nothing within the last six months.”

“Would you have any idea why she would have been in this area and probably working or, as they say, out in the field?”

There was a momentary hesitation.

“I'm not trying to put you on the spot here, Janet, but if there's anything that you could give me to help me understand why she got killed in our neck of the woods it would be huge. I told you in our earlier conversation that she was killed in a road accident, but it's looking more and more like she was trying to escape from someone whose intent was to kill her.”

“Oh, I didn't realize.”

A momentary silence followed. “Well, I think I can share this with you because it's generally well known in the industry. There is a lot of speculation that there are significant untapped oil and gas reserves in the Southwest. Kind of like what's been discovered in North Dakota in the last couple of years. Well, as I said, there is a lot of evidence that the same kinds of discoveries are going to be made there. Are you familiar with the expression ‘Where there is shale there's oil'? Some companies including ours are making a stab at negotiations with some Native American tribes to explore for oil and gas reserves on reservation lands. If Linda Murchison
had a contract with some of these interests, that could explain why she would have been in your area.”

“Janet, could you give me a general idea of how this all works? I mean, I don't know anything about the process. I'm way in over my head here.”

“Well, as you already know, I'm in human resources, HR. I'm hardly an expert on the technical aspects of what we do, but I guess I could give you a general idea. If you want something more detailed or precise, I could have someone from engineering call you.”

“I don't think that will be necessary. Like I said, I'm just trying to get a handle on how she would fit into the overall process.”

“Well, she would be part of a team. Before going out in the field, members of the team spend time trying to assess whether or not a particular area looks like it might be worth investigation. From what I gather that means spending a lot of time poring over topographical maps, analyzing information, sharing what they know or suspect with geologists, hydrologists . . . other members of the team, to see if there is a consensus that might suggest further exploration of a region is warranted. If that seems to be the case, then the fieldwork begins. Test samples, core samples from the area, things like that. Then a field survey is written, reporting all their findings. Based on all of these things, a decision is made as to how to proceed. I guess if it's a thumbs-up then offers are made to owners of sites and the lawyers get involved. End result, if everything gels, a calendar for drilling on the site is drawn up and the ball starts rolling. Like I said, I'm not a technician, but I think that's generally the way it works.”

“So, Linda Murchison would be part of the team that
actually went out into the area to determine whether it was worth going forward?”

“Yes. She wouldn't likely be alone, but she would be integral. Her assessment in the report submitted would be looked at very closely. In her case, even more so, because she has an established track record. That's probably why she went out on her own, working as an independent. The fact that the company continued working with her long after she left suggests to me that she was held in very high regard.”

“Thank you, Janet. This has been great. At the very least we've given this poor woman a name. By the way, if you have any next-of-kin information . . . If not, I'm sure I can get something from the local police in Colorado Springs.”

“I'll see what we have and I'll send it to you.”

“One last thing. Could you tell me if you have or have had a Calvin or Vernon Thompson on your employee list?”

“I'll have to get back to you on that. Particularly if you want me to go beyond current employees.”

“Okay, whatever you can do. Again, I really appreciate the cooperation along with the fact that you made a judgment call in my favor. I know that's not so easy in the light of privacy restrictions. Seems everything has gotten a lot more literal these days.”

“Absolutely. I'm afraid the genie is out of the bottle in that regard. It's going to be a lot harder to keep private things private from now on. Another fallout of technology. On the other hand the information that you and I just shared would have taken at least a week to get in a less-technological world. Good luck with your investigation, Sheriff. Glad I could help.”

Virgil sat back from his desk, mulling over everything he'd just found out. He knew he was a couple of steps behind in
terms of new technology. He also knew this was because of the psychological roadblock he'd built in his own mind. Virgil knew the lesson of the dinosaurs.

“Well? Well?” Rosie's voice interrupted his internal dialogue. “What did you find out?”

“Her name is Linda Murchison, from Colorado Springs. That HR person, Janet Turner, said she would try to get more for me, but it might take a little while.”

“I'll work on it from this end—see what I can find out,” Rosie said.

“What do you mean? I mean, how are you going to find out about her?”

Rosita gave Virgil a strange look. “Duh, Virgil. I'm going to begin by Googling her, then follow up with Facebook or Twitter.”

Virgil looked at Rosita without responding. He wondered if the dinosaurs ever had an epiphany like he just had.

33

“H
ey, Mom, what are you thinking about? Here, I brought you a cup of tea.” Marian's daughter, Holly, set the cup on the table next to Marian, who was sitting in the kitchen.

Virgil was right. Marian had been at the hospital. She had gone there after the reception she had hosted following her mother's funeral. In some way, seeing people she had known all throughout her childhood had made her feel like she had never left Hayward. It was not that in any way she regretted her years away. She'd had a good marriage, a good career, and she only had to look at her son and daughter to know those years away had been a personal success. But each day that passed made her sure of her decision to return.

“Oh, I guess I've been reminiscing. You know, a lot of those people at your grandmother's funeral I hadn't seen in years. It kind of got me to thinking about my past. Growing up here on the ranch, what it was like, how I felt. Now, I guess it's time to be thinking about what comes next.”

“Me, too,” Holly said. “I've been meaning to tell you I applied for a master's degree program for next year. Just before I came down here, I found out I was accepted. So, I know maybe this is a rough time to tell you, but after I graduate I won't be coming back home.”

“Where are you going?” Marian asked. “What school? Where?”

“I'm going to New York. I've been accepted into a master's program at Ithaca College. So not only won't I be going home, but I might as well tell you that Oren told me that after he graduates next year, he's planning on trying to get into law school, so he won't be going back home, either.”

Marian took a sip from her cup, then smiled at her daughter. “Well, I guess that makes it unanimous. I won't be going home, either—that is, once I sell the house. After I do that, then I'm coming back here to High Lonesome. I was waiting for the right time to tell both of you. I guess that's now.”

“Mom, you don't have to do that. There are agencies. You can hire a caregiver for Granddad.”

“No, your grandfather is not going to need a caregiver for a long time. He just needs to get back on his feet. I'm coming back to High Lonesome because I love it here. Being here, this last little while, has convinced me how much. I've always loved it, never wanted to leave. Only did when I saw no future. Now, that's changed, so I'm coming back.”

“But I don't understand. What are you going to do here?”

“Well, for openers, I'm going to help that old cowboy in the hospital so the two of us can work to get High Lonesome back to where it used to be. It's what I always wanted to do, but he didn't see me in that role. Only this time I'm going to tell him and I'm not taking no for an answer. So, if you and your brother are
looking for a home to come to, this will be it. But be warned, when you come you won't be sitting on your honkers. You might be stacking hay or mucking out stalls, because this is going to be a working outfit again. But it will always be home for you both.”

*   *   *

The next morning, Marian was still standing in the driveway after waving good-bye to her children when she saw the cruiser with the dome light coming down the ranch road.

“Virgil, didn't figure to see you today.”

“Hope I'm not interrupting your plans.”

“No, nothing like that. I was going to hunt up Manuel, go over a few things, then go into Hayward, see how Dad's doing. I'm going to talk to him about the ranch and my plans. What I spoke to you about. Once that's settled, after I get him home and on his feet, I'm going to head up to San Francisco and pack up my other life. Then I'll be back here for good.”

“Sounds like you got it all worked out.”

“Well, let's just say I'm making a start. But I'm sure you didn't drive all the way out here to hear about my future life.”

“No. I wanted to ask you about your brother.”

“Which one? Although, like I told you, it's been years. Almost didn't recognize them when they first got out of the car.”

“Well, to begin with, Art Kincaid told me that Vernon was pretty much non compos mentis when he went off the River Road the other night. Ark said he probably didn't even realize he was behind the wheel. Drugs and alcohol.”

“I'm sorry for Vernon, but he started going down that road a long time ago. Tore the heart out of my folks, but we all make choices. That was his. The only person that maybe could have pushed him in another direction didn't.”

“You mean your brother Calvin?”

“Calvin—Cal—could have nipped his weakness in the bud years ago. He didn't even try. He liked the hero worship. More than that I think he liked the total power it gave him over another person. Vernon was his introduction to manipulation. I think he's become a master of it ever since.”

“What about Calvin? I mean, you never told me. Was he into the scene like Vernon?”

“You mean drugs? No. Remember, Calvin got an early scare with his diabetes. No, he never went there. But he did like nice things, fast cars, being in the life, as they say. My husband ran into him one time when he was in Las Vegas at a convention. He said everyone at the tables knew him. Dealers, that is. Guess Calvin liked to gamble. I often wondered where he got that kind of money. I suspect my father. Maybe it was his way of trying to lure Calvin back. I don't know. I never asked him. Probably never will. I expect Calvin will drift back into the shadows for another ten years.”

“I wonder,” Virgil said. “I wonder.”

“What do you mean, Virgil?”

“Nothing, nothing. Just trying to connect some dots. Do you know where Calvin's at? I never got to really meet him or even offer condolences.”

“Sorry, can't help you there. Maybe you can catch up with him tomorrow. The medical examiner said we could get Vernon in the morning. There's just going to be a small service, followed by the burial. Calvin said he'd take care of it. I know nothing about Vernon's immediate past life. All I had to notify him about Mom was a cell phone number. I don't even have an address for him. Calvin said he'd take care of whatever Vernon left behind, which I imagine isn't much. Calvin ought to be at
Simpson's tomorrow. After that I don't know. We really haven't had much time together or any significant interaction, for that matter.”

“Okay, I'll see you in the morning.”

Virgil tipped his hat, got in his vehicle, and left Marian standing in the driveway. She watched till the dust from his car rose and dissipated in the morning air. Then she turned and walked toward the barns.

Virgil had been gone about an hour. Marian had spent most of that time with Manuel, going over a schedule of sorts covering the next few days. She was particularly concerned with the time when she would be in San Francisco. Her father would be at the ranch on his own. Manuel said he would arrange to have his wife or one of his daughters stay at the house in Marian's absence.

“Don't worry about
su padre
,” Manuel said.

Marian looked into the dark eyes set in the smiling face. “I don't know what we would do without you, Manuel. When I return to High Lonesome, I won't be leaving again. This is going to be my home. With your help we are going to work to bring this place back to what it once was.” Marian saw the smile on Manuel's face grow.

“You stay? You going to live here with Señor Charlie?”

“That's right. I'm going into town to tell him that today. I'm telling you first because I want you to know how much I appreciate what you've done. I also want you to know you will have a place here for a long time to come.”

“Bueno, bueno.”
His joy was so obvious, it spread like a contagion to Marian.

“I'm thinking to hire some of the hands back. You'll handle that, of course, since you will be foreman.”

Manuel's eyes lit up. In all his years on High Lonesome there
had never been anything but an informal understanding of his role because Charlie had always been such a hands-on boss.

“I want you to be thinking about my plans for the ranch. I thought over the winter we'd get everything in working order—barns, fencing, anything that needs maintenance. Sometime during this time if the weather cooperates, I want to get back into the high country. Dad was right, there was some stock up there that was missed. The sheriff and I saw four or five cows with calves. I want to round them up, see what we got. Bring them down here, put them in with those Red Angus Dad held on to, so we won't lose any if it's a tough winter. Then in the spring we'll sort them all out. See what we want to keep, to start to rebuild the herd. Then maybe make a couple of trips down to Redbud to see what Luther's got for auction. I've got some other ideas I want to run by Dad, but I want your input all along the way.”

“That is a good plan, but it will not be easy if there's cattle up there on that mesa catching them up. They by now mostly wild.”

“That's why I need you to line up some good wranglers. I know it's going to be a little crazy, but it'll be fun. I'm already looking forward to it.”

“You going up to that High Lonesome country yourself?”

“You bet I am. That's the other thing I want you to do for me. Pick out one or two good colts to work with when I return. Need to get my riding to where it used to be.”

“This is good,” Manuel said. “Gonna be like old days.”

“No,” Marian said. “It's going to be better.”

*   *   *

Charlie Thompson was sitting in a chair by his bed, not watching the television even though it was on, when Marian came through the door.

“Hey, Dad.”

Her smile was the first bright spot in his day. He had spent most of his morning considering his options. Though not one given to self-pity and pretty much intolerant of it in anyone else, he could not escape the notion that looking down the dark tunnel of what he saw as his future, he wondered if he wouldn't have been better off if that shooter up on the ridge had taken better aim. Always the realist, he knew time was catching up with him. Maybe his days of bulldogging a steer were long gone, but he could still sit a saddle, round up cattle, even clean out a stall, maybe not his favorite thing to do. But all this was slipping away from him. Sitting in that chair by the window with the nonsensical chatter from some talk show in the background, reveling in the gaffes of some so-called celebrity whom he didn't know or care to know, he knew he should accept his new reality, but he sure as hell didn't want to.

“What's the matter, Dad? You're looking kinda glum.”

“There's a word you don't hear much anymore, ‘glum.' Yeah, I reckon it fits. Guess when you see what you've spent your whole life doing coming to an end that can bring you down. Bit by bit, people, then parts of your life start to drift away. Guess I just wasn't ready, didn't see it coming. Then, of course, there's life's little ironies. You know I always hoped High Lonesome would be there for generations yet to come. While they were coming along, I hoped your brothers would take hold. That never happened. Now, your mother's gone along with one of your brothers and Cal shows up here this morning, says he wants to take High Lonesome off my hands. Says he has backers who'll buy it on speculation, then I can move to town. As he put it, sit on the front porch, put my feet up. Guess what he means is I sit there
watching sunsets till I run out of them. That's not exactly what I had in mind for my last days.”

Charlie slumped down in his chair, let out a sigh, then turned his face to look out the window. Marian grabbed the remote, clicking off the television.

“So Calvin's going to offer you a retirement package. Dad, you should have told him to stick it.”

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
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