Death on the High Lonesome (5 page)

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
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The Thompson ranch was one of the largest in area. It also had been in the same family for over a hundred and fifty years. Unfortunately, it had fallen on hard times. Charlie and Velma were each closing in on eighty. They had two sons and a daughter. Each of whom had left the place as soon as they could. Ranching, they discovered growing up, was hard work. Rosita noticed the absence of cattle as she drove the long road in. She had heard that most had been sold off the last few years. When she got within sight of the ranch house, she saw a couple of horses in a nearby corral. The house was a long, low adobe, looking so much a part of the landscape that with a quick glance it could have blended in with the sandstone ridge that met the far horizon.

As she pulled up to the corral fence, she could see that Velma Thompson was sitting on the covered porch that ran across the front of the house. There was no sign of anybody else around, although Velma had mentioned to Rosita in their last face-to-face, which had taken place in town six months earlier, that Manuel and Lorenzo, two of their long-term hands, were still on the ranch. She explained that Charlie wanted to keep
them on the payroll to help with general maintenance. He also kept a small herd of Red Angus, as a nucleus, in case one of the children decided on a midlife career change.

“Charlie always was a wishful thinker,” Velma said.

As she stepped out of the cruiser, Rosie looked around again for a sign of either Manuel or Lorenzo. She got a whinny of acknowledgement for her efforts from an old bay gelding standing with his head over the corral fence, near where she parked the car. He called again. She gave a quick wave to Velma, then moved toward him.

“Okay, I guess we all need some attention from time to time.” She took the few steps to the fence, then reached out to him. She stroked his muzzle lightly, then ran her fingers down his neck, picking a strand of hay out of his mane as she did. He gave a soft nicker in response. “My, my, you men are all alike. Just never get enough attention, no matter how old you are.”

Looking him over, she concluded he was of great age. “My guess is you're on the yonder side of thirty.”

His eyes closed under her stroking. He shifted his weight. She saw his hip bones stick out. The sway in his back was deep. He was thin throughout.

“I'm thinking this is probably going to be your last winter, old-timer, but it was a pleasure to meet you before you go.”

She pressed her face against him, gave him a light kiss on his nose, then stepped back.

“Velma probably thinks I'm getting ready to become a horse thief, I spent so much time with you and haven't even said howdy to her.”

Rosita turned toward the house. The sun had warmed her. She could smell the horse scent on her hands. It was not unpleasant.
She waved again to Velma as she stepped onto the first flagstone on the long walk, amid abundant sprays of flowers on either side of her.

“The flowers are still beautiful, Velma,” she shouted. “It'll be a pure shame when the first cold breath of winter gets them. But you haven't lost that green thumb of yours.”

Velma didn't respond. Her chair sat in the shade of the porch overhang. Rosita bent down to admire some lupine. She continued to admire the flourishing gardens up to the point when she stepped up onto the porch.

“So has Charlie come back from rambling?”

Rosita felt the light breeze that eddied across the porch. She saw it whisper through Velma's white hair. Then Rosie put her hand to her mouth.

“Oh, no, Velma. Oh, no.”

*   *   *

When the phone rang on his desk, Virgil figured it was Kyle Harrison telling him he was running late. He was surprised to hear Rosie's voice.

“Where are you? I know you're not in the cruiser.”

“I'm in Velma's living room on the home phone.”

“What's up?” Virgil asked. “Isn't Velma there?”

“Virgil, she's here, sitting on her chair on the front porch. But Virgil, she's dead. Velma's dead.”


irgil had barely hung up the phone when Kyle Harrison walked through the door.

“Hey, Virgil. You look like a man who needs someone to throw him a lifesaver.”

“Yeah, well, it hasn't reached critical mass yet, but this day that started off gangbusters doesn't look like it's going to get much better.”

“Well, if it's any consolation, I've had more than a couple of those days in my life, too.”

Virgil smiled broadly.

“Did I say something to cause that reaction?” Kyle asked.

“That's the second time today that I've wasted my sad tale on people who can match me stroke for stroke. I've got to find someone other than a county coroner who spends a good part of his time cutting up dead people and a narc who's lucky if he can get through a day without someone trying to hand him off to that coroner.”

“Yeah. I guess that old saw about being judged by the company you keep places us on the list of untouchables for most social invites. But it does keep the adrenaline flowing through our veins, doesn't it?”

Virgil winced. “Is that what we are? Adrenaline junkies? Waiting for our next fix?”

“I don't know, but my wife says my eyes light up every time I get one of those calls in the middle of the night.”

“That's pathetic,” Virgil said.

“Yeah, it is, but I gotta admit she's right.”

“Okay, before I kick you out the door so I can deal with the latest thing that just got dropped in my lap, what's so important that we couldn't deal with it in a phone call?”

Kyle got up from the chair he had sat in next to Virgil's desk. He walked over to the small table against the far wall and poured himself a cup of coffee. After he took a swallow, he turned toward Virgil.

“You always have the best coffee.”

“That's because I forbid anyone to make it except Rosie. But you didn't come all this way to compliment us on our coffee-brewing skills. What's up?”

Kyle walked back to sit in the seat next to Virgil's desk. “Two things,” he said. “The first, we could have talked about on the phone. U.S. marshal. I told you after that huge bust a couple of months ago, you'd get on the radar. So here it is. I've been asked to feel you out on the idea of becoming one of us. Before you say anything, I want you to take some time and think it through. We don't need an answer right now. Actually, it's kind of an open-ended invitation, so if the timing isn't good now, maybe sometime down the road. Think about it. If you have any questions or concerns just ask.”

Virgil didn't respond right away. Instead, he got up, walked around the office, looking at it like it was the first time he'd ever seen it.

“You know, my mom told me I took my first steps here. That chair I sit in was my dad's. One way or another, I've been tied to this place my whole life. When I graduated from college, then was accepted into law school . . . Well, if anybody told me then that I'd be here twenty-some-odd years later, I'd have said they were drinking the Kool-Aid. But here I am, still sitting in my daddy's chair. Back then I would have jumped at that offer or pretty much any other, just to put this place in my rearview mirror.”

“Timing is everything, I know, Virgil, but things change. I guess like they say, change is the only constant in life. You're still a young man. You've got a lot of life ahead of you. I know you've got deep roots here, but sometimes it's good to shake things up.”

Virgil retuned to sit in his chair. “Well, thanks for the offer. It's good to be wanted. For now I'll put it on the back burner and let it simmer. Now, what about that second thing?”

“That's something a little more unusual, and for that I'll need you physically for a couple of hours.”

“Afraid that's not happening today. Got something that just jumped to the top of my list. Matter of fact, I should be on the road now. I put in a call to Dif, my part-timer, but he hasn't called back.”

“Virgil, I'm off the clock now. I'll sit in for a couple of hours. That's the least I can do. You know, that bust didn't hurt my stock any, so I figure I owe you.”

Virgil grabbed his hat off the desk. “That's great. Drink all the coffee you want. I'm out of here, before you change your
mind. Dif shows up, tell him I'm on my way to the Thompson ranch. He can reach me there.”

“Virgil, I'm going to try to set up the other thing for tomorrow.”

“Okay. Do you want to give me a hint?”

“No. I think it's better if you don't know till then, especially if you've got a situation now that needs your focus.”

Virgil gave a slight wave, then was out the door. All the way to the Thompson ranch, he puzzled over Kyle's reticence. He even passed the turnoff because he was so preoccupied.

“Damn, missed the turn.” He backed up Rosie's car a full quarter of a mile before he saw the marker.

“Charlie sure likes his privacy.” The only indication of the ranch was a sign proclaiming the name
and an arrow below pointing down the dirt road with the notation
. The sign hadn't been refreshed in at least twenty years, Virgil figured. Sagebrush along with cactus had grown up around it.

“If you didn't know it was here, you'd never find it,” he said to the empty car. The road in was rough. Dust clouds trailed in his wake while more than a couple of times loose stones bounced off the underside of the car. Like Rosita, he was aware of the emptiness. He hadn't been here in a few years, but remembered clusters of cattle dotting the now-vacant landscape. He saw a couple of mule deer, but no livestock. There were a couple of places where the fencing was in serious need of attention. The earlier preoccupation with Kyle's last comment had slipped away, then vanished completely when he saw Rosie standing by a corral fence, stroking a horse that looked like it belonged in a cartoon. He pulled alongside the cruiser that she had driven. Rosita was still stroking the old horse when he got out of the car.

“That sway is so deep, I think I could jump over that horse's
back from a standstill,” Virgil said as he got out of the car. “Wonder why Charlie hasn't put him down? His time has come and gone.”

“Not always easy to say good-bye, Virgil. You know that. I think this old guy was something special in his day.”

Virgil took a step back, eyeing the horse.

“I can't believe it. Rosie, I think you're right. I do believe this is the horse Charlie rode in his last rodeo years. If I'm right, he took a first, his last year in bulldogging on this guy. This old-timer's got to be at least thirty-five.”

Rosie patted him once more, then stepped away. “I called the EMTs. Thought maybe they'd get here before you.”

“Good,” Virgil said. “Where's Velma?”

Rosita nodded toward the house. Virgil could see the figure sitting in the porch chair even though the late-day shadows were creeping across the front yard.

“She's where I found her. I called from the house, but it didn't feel right staying there. I felt like a trespasser. That's why I decided to come out here and hang out with this old guy till you or the EMTs showed up.”

“Any sign of the help?”

“No one. Nothing.”

“They must be around here somewhere. There must be somebody besides Charlie and Velma on this place.”

“Well, Velma told me some time back that Manuel is still here. She also mentioned Lorenzo. I don't think I know him, but Manuel has been here a long time.”

“Manuel and Cesar are good friends. I've met him a bunch of times. I've run into him at the feed store with another fella. That must be Lorenzo. Daylight's slipping away, so wherever they are on the place, they should be heading in before long.”

“Virgil, I think I hear something.”

Virgil looked back down the ranch road he had just traveled. “From that dust cloud, I'd say the ambulance is about a mile off. Rosie, why don't you go in the house while they take care of Velma? See if you can find an address book so we can call Velma and Charlie's family.”

“All right, I can do that.”

“Rosie, you okay? I mean, I know you weren't expecting any of this.”

“I'm all right, Virgil. Just trying to get my balance back. Like you say, I wasn't expecting this, but then I guess neither was Velma. Now, I wonder what became of Charlie? Maybe his horse threw him. He could be lying out there in the mesquite wondering why no one is coming to help him.”

“That ain't likely, Rosie. The last time a horse threw Charlie Thompson, he still had his baby teeth. I'm not saying you're wrong. He might be lying out there, but it's not because his horse came out from under him. More 'n likely, it's because of something he never saw coming.”

*   *   *

The last of the sunlight was ringing the horizon by the time Virgil was heading back down the Thompson ranch road toward the asphalt. He had sent Rosie back over an hour earlier. As expected, Manuel and Lorenzo had showed up. They said they had been out running fence. Virgil mentioned the couple of spots he'd seen on his way in that needed attention, but Manuel told him what was left of the herd had no access to that area. In any event, they had it on their list. He broke the news to them about Velma.

“Miss Velma, no. She was good this morning. No.”

Virgil could see they were both shaken by the news. He asked if they had any word from Charlie. They both shook their heads.

“Do you have any idea where he might be?”

Quién sabe
, no can say,” Manuel replied. “Mr. Thompson, he rode off into the high country two, three days ago.”

Virgil could see the worry come into his dark eyes.

“High Lonesome,” Lorenzo added. Virgil looked at the younger, smaller man. His face still lacked the deep chiseling effects of wind and rain that grooved Manuel's face.

“The High Lonesome?” Virgil said.

“Señor Thompson always call the
,” Manuel said. “The High Lonesome. He always say that's where the ranchero begins, up in the High Lonesome. That's where the name of the ranch comes from. The
. The mountains.”

Virgil mulled over Manuel's words on his way back to town. He was surprised when he pulled into the lot to see Rosita's car there.

“What are you doing here? I told you to go home.”

“I was going to but Dave is down in Redbud. Won't be home till late, if at all. Alex's wife is due anytime. Dave is covering for him so he can be available. I understand, but the house is empty. Dave junior is away in college and since Harlan discovered girls, between them and football he's a ghost. I just didn't feel like being there by myself. Here at least there's stuff for me to do. Kyle was here when I came. Dif will be coming in soon. Keeps my mind occupied.”

“I guess you got a little more than you bargained for today. I'm sorry about that.”

“It's not your fault. There was no way of knowing. It was just that I didn't expect to find Velma like that. We still don't know what became of Charlie.”

Virgil lowered himself into his chair, throwing his hat onto the desk. “I got a strange feeling about all of this.”

“What do you mean, Virgil?”

“Well, that woman that's lying over there in the morgue. It struck me when I was riding back, something Manuel had said. She actually came out onto the interstate from Thompson land. That's too much coincidence for me.”

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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