Death on the High Lonesome (6 page)

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
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8

D
if came in the office door a little after six. Virgil hadn't wanted to leave Rosita sitting in the empty office alone, so he had stayed.

“Rosita told me about Velma,” Dif said. “Kinda give me a cold chill. Happens every time, when someone I grew up with passes. Velma and I were in the same class.”

“Guess it does get your attention when it hits a little closer to home. Were you and her an item back then?” Virgil asked.

“Well, I don't know about an item. I think she kinda used me to get to Charlie. Your daddy and Charlie were bigger than life. Cowboying together, both of them crazier than a rabid dog. Charlie would gallop down Main Street, sitting backward in the saddle, rolling a cigarette. Hell, even I was impressed. The girls, well, they just went nuts. How do you compete with that?”

“My dad never told me about those days.”

“Most dads don't tell their offspring about the crazy-ass things they did when they were young. Kinda diminishes the
authority of an authority figure to see them with their pants down.”

“I just don't believe what I am hearing,” Rosita said, “with the vocabulary of a philosophy teacher to go along with it. Diminishes? Authority figure? Dif, you been taking night classes or just reading those
JAMA
articles in Doc Hicks's office?”

“Why, Rosita, didn't you know I'm chock-full of superfluous knowledge?”

Virgil broke out into a laugh. “I always knew you were chock-full of something, but all along I figured it was something that'd pass naturally through your system. I was going to suggest a dose of Miralax to help with that.”

More laughter filled the room. Night had fallen. The darkness inside had been displaced by a little humor, along with the sharing of past history. The three sat together for almost an hour. The conversation covered everything from the World Series to the federal deficit and a lot of other things they didn't agree on, but that didn't matter because it was more about the sharing than anything else.

Finally, Virgil got to his feet. He looked at the relic of a clock that hung on the wall. “My stomach and that clock are reminding me that I haven't eaten in over twelve hours.”

“That's a bad habit I've managed to avoid,” Dif said as he patted the overlap on his belt.

“What about you, Rosie?” Virgil asked.

“No. I figured to have a bite with Velma.” A hint of something came into her eyes as she said it.

“C'mon then,” Virgil said, coming to her rescue. “Let's you and me grab something. It'll be like a date. Then you can tell Dave about it. Stir his interest.”

“After twenty-four years, I think I'd need a backhoe for that.”

A little more prodding and Virgil got Rosie headed toward the door. When they stepped outside, Virgil immediately went toward the cruiser.

“Virgil, it's a nice night. Why don't we just walk to Margie's?”

“Just get in the vehicle.” He held the door open. Rosie gave him a puzzled look as he slid in on the other side. They drove in silence for the next couple of minutes until they crossed over the bridge that Jimmy and his sister, Abby, regularly fished from, then headed west along the river for a mile, until they saw the red glow that announced their destination.

“The Branding Iron. Guess this is going to be a steak night,” Rosie said.

“Figured we needed something a little different. A little step up from Margie's.”

They passed some empty outside tables on their way to the front door. “Guess it's a little too cool for folks to be sitting out here looking at the river now,” Virgil said. “Probably be putting them away soon till spring.”

The long, low building was built of logs so dark that at night it was hard to distinguish its actual dimensions, but on the side of each window that looked out on the parking lot, red and white checkered curtains framed the light from within. When Rosie and Virgil stepped inside, a young hostess greeted them, then led them to one of the tables by a window.

A waitress placed a beer in front of Virgil and a margarita in front of Rosie. “This is a nice change,” Rosie said.

“I figured after today we both needed a break.” For the next half hour, they enjoyed their meal and each other's company, avoiding any talk of the day's events. They were sitting over
coffee when Virgil's eyes widened in recognition of someone who had just entered the room. Their eyes locked. Then Virgil gestured to the young woman to come over.

“Hello,” the girl said tentatively as she stood by the table.

Virgil smiled at her, then turned toward Rosita. “I'd like you to meet Rosita Brand. I told you Rosita pretty much runs the sheriff's office and tries to keep me on the straight and narrow. Rosita, I'd like to introduce you to my daughter.”

The girl smiled. “Nice to meet you. I'm Virginia. Virginia Dalton.”

Rosita looked at Virgil, then at the young woman. “This has become the best part of my day,” Rosita said. “I am so happy to finally meet you.”

*   *   *

Virgil walked Rosita to her front door. The air was crisp, the night sky filled with stars.

“Virgil, I'm so happy for you. We all need some special people in our lives. I think you've been shortchanged in that area.”

“Oh, I don't know. I've always got you and Cesar. You're special.”

“Virgil, you've got to do better than an old Mexican and someone who's trying to keep you on the straight and narrow.”

“That's odd. I don't think of you as old. I didn't even know you were Mexican.”

Rosita shook her head. “I'm serious, Virgil. Build a relationship with that girl. That'll be good for you both.”

On the way back to the ranch, the words stuck with him. He had become a father, but the knowledge of it did not come with a set of instructions. It was new ground for him. By the time he pulled off the driveway alongside of the corral, he was feeling the
effects of a long day. He looked toward the near barn to see if there was any sign of life coming from Cesar's rooms. All was in darkness. The moon was full, casting a silvery glow over his world. A slight shiver rippled through him. There was no doubt that a new season had come. There was a slight glaze on the roof and the hood of the pickup that was parked nearby. He remembered what Kyle said, about change being the only constant.

As he went toward the house, he wondered what the new season would bring.

9

“A
re you going to join us for the white man's feast?” It was the only message on the answering machine.

Virgil recognized his cousin Billy Three Hats's voice right off. Virgil glanced at the calendar as he sat over his second cup of coffee. Thanksgiving, only a little over a week away. He was still staring at the calendar when Cesar came into the kitchen.

“Watching your life pass by?” Cesar said as he reached for the coffeepot.

“You read my mind.”

“Yeah, well don't dwell on it, take it one day at a time. That's what works best. Live in the moment. The future will take care of itself.”

Virgil set his empty cup on the table, sat back, a look of mock astonishment on his face, and crossed his legs. “Have you been hanging out with Dif lately?”

“Not that you'd notice. Why?”

“I mean, you two are turning into a couple of regular sages. In any event, before you ask, I think I might have gotten a line on a pretty good hay source, so maybe we won't have to decimate the herd. Manuel told me they have a lot more hay up at the Thompson ranch than they need.”

“I heard about Mrs. Thompson.”

“Guess you've been talking to Manuel, also.”

Cesar reached into his pocket.

“I don't believe it,” Virgil said. “A cell phone? You've actually decided to live in the twenty-first century?”

“Maybe partway,” Cesar said. “I want to be able to reach out and touch somebody.”

Virgil laughed. “Never thought I'd see this day. Guess that means I don't have to put a landline in the new barn like I did in the old one.”

Cesar held up the phone. “I'm connected,” he said. “Now about that hay.”

*   *   *

Kyle Harrison was waiting for Virgil at the office.

“He's usually here by now,” Rosita said as she glanced at the clock. “Maybe he stopped by the hospital to see Jimmy.”

“Well, I've got some things I've got to take care of, so tell him I'll be back a little after one to pick him up.”

“Does he know what this is about?”

“No, and I want to keep it that way.”

“Anything you want to share?”

Kyle looked at Rosie as he stood to leave. “I know you two are close. I will say that today is going to resurrect something that I think Virgil's been working hard these last couple of months to
put behind him. Maybe your relationship can help him process today's revelations.”

“Are we talking about something or someone?”

“Well, I guess you could say it's a bit of a mixed bag. He and I are going to take a short trip back in time and place. The place is going to be the Black Bull.”

Rosita realized after Kyle left that she had somehow risen to the level of “need to know” in Kyle's eyes. Now she was beginning to wonder if that was a good thing. Virgil, meanwhile, unaware of what the day before him held, had just stepped out of the elevator in Hayward Memorial Hospital.

Jimmy's bed was empty, so he checked with the nurse's station. One of the nurses told him Jimmy was having a physical therapy session, but would return shortly. Rather than sit in the empty room, he decided to touch base with Art Kincaid. He got back on the elevator. As he stepped out of it, he saw Ark go into his office. He tapped lightly on the glass window. Ark waved him in as he sat down behind his desk.

“We've gotta stop meeting like this, Virgil.”

“Yeah, but I understand if I really want a fun night out, we should go out for a beer sometime. Then you can tell me some of those grisly jokes I've been hearing about.”

“Let me guess—you've been talking to Chet, my intern. He told me he ran into you yesterday. He's a good guy.”

“Yes he is. Hope he sticks around,” Virgil said.

“I think there's a good chance.”

“Sex is a good lure.”

“None better. Besides, Karen is a nice girl. But you know that, Virgil. She was one of the nurses that took care of you a few months back when you needed some TLC.”

“She was. Hope he doesn't let her slip away.”

“Yeah, we all need somebody,” Ark said. “Except maybe you.”

“Don't know about that. Kinda feel lately like I'm missing out. Rosie's already suggested that I should cultivate some special person in my life.”

“Like maybe that young girl?”

“You know about Virginia?”

“Virgil, this is still a small town. I've known for a while.”

Virgil stood up from the seat he had taken. “Well, I'd better get upstairs,” he said. “Want to check on Jimmy before I get on with my day. Thought I'd stop by in case you had anything for me. So, let's do that beer some night. Like to hear some of those cadaver jokes.”

“You got it.”

Virgil opened the door.

“Oh, Virgil, by the way. We got Velma Thompson last night. I've only had time to give her a cursory look.”

“Anything?”

“Not yet. But I've known Velma a long time. I'd have never expected her to slip away in a chair on her front porch while she was sipping tea. I mean, she was one of those people I thought would bury all of us. I don't surprise easily, but this one threw me.”

Virgil hesitated in the doorway a moment. “Thanks, Doc. We'll talk.” Then he stepped out into the hallway.

*   *   *

It was after eleven when he left Jimmy. His empty stomach was gnawing at him. The morning jolt without food had him feeling like a hollow drum.

“Hey, Virgil.”

“Margie.”

He looked around, finally settling on a booth that looked out
on Main Street. It was late for breakfast, too early for lunch. There was only one other table with customers and Virgil could see they were getting ready to leave. Main Street was quiet. He saw a woman go into Talbot's hardware, an old man walking a dog, two or three cars go by, then an empty stock trailer. He figured the stock trailer might be heading down to Redbud. Luther's Livestock Auction had become the largest feedlot in the area. It had started out as a purely local auction over forty years before, but with the construction of the interstate, and then the opening of the interchange a little over ten years later, the area had experienced a little boom. Luther's was one of the recipients. It had developed into a kind of hub, reaching beyond the county. A lot of cattle were brought there, not only for sale, but for fattening after coming off the range and being a little down in weight. The interstate and train lines converged, so it became a logical center for the livestock industry.

Margie brought over a plate along with a glass of orange juice, setting them in front of Virgil.

“Don't I even get a chance to check out a menu?”

“You can if you want, but you won't do any better.”

He looked at the steaming plateful of pancakes covered with sliced strawberries, edged on each side with a couple of sunny-side eggs sitting on crisp bacon. Virgil wasn't about to argue. Margie left, returned with two cups of coffee, then slid into the booth opposite Virgil. She poured a little half-and-half into each cup, sliding Virgil's across the table after adding a half teaspoonful of sugar to his.

“Am I that predictable?”

“Virgil, I've been feeding you for twenty years. If I don't know what you like by now, I should be looking for another line of work.”

“Don't even consider that, Margie. You're good at what you do.”

“So are you, Virgil. Which reminds me, I heard about Velma. Never figured Velma to go like that. She was tough right down to the bone. And Charlie's gone missing?”

“So far.”

“Good people. I'll miss them. Last coupla years since things got quiet on the ranch, they used to stop by more often. I guess they were in a kind of semiretirement mode. Back in the day that ranch was some operation. Kinda sad to see it go downhill.”

“Guess none of the kids were interested.”

“It's an old story, Virgil. Hand something to somebody on a silver platter, they don't appreciate it. I remember an interview I saw with Michael Landon. You remember him, Little Joe on
Bonanza
.”

Virgil nodded.

“Well anyway, he told how one of his kids asked him to buy him a new car, then got pissed at him when he refused. I remember him saying that if he did, he was robbing him of the experience of the thrill of working for that first car, then the satisfaction of achieving that goal as the reward for that work. He went on to say he had a garage full of new high-priced cars, but none pleased him as much as the first car he ever owned, which he had bought for six hundred dollars and was six years old when he bought it.”

“Do you think his boy got it?”

“Probably not, any more than those Thompson kids.”

“I didn't really know them,” Virgil said. “Guess we moved in different circles.”

“Well, they were also older than us, Virgil. Velma would talk about them sometimes. They didn't come back often. That bothered her. The girl, Marian, turned out all right. She lives
near San Francisco, has two or three children. The boys were another story. A couple of marriages, gambling, some other stuff. The youngest, Vernon, has come around the last couple of months a few times. I think Charlie was hoping he'd come back to the ranch. Maybe help Charlie to bring it back. But Velma told me it wasn't going to happen.”

“What about the other son?”

“I'm not sure, but I remember Velma saying he was working on some deal with Vernon. She said it had to do with some company he worked for. She mentioned the name, but I can't remember it. Anyway, I don't think the Thompson ranch is ever going to be a going concern again.”

Virgil put the rest of his pancake in his mouth, then drained his orange juice.

“Yeah, I guess, but as someone said to me recently, times change, nothing stays the same.”

*   *   *

Rosita was on the phone when he came into the office. He walked through the door that joined the office to the annex where the holding cells were located. At the moment there were no occupants. He'd talked to Alex, who was driving up from Redbud with two prisoners. One Alex had caught after he stabbed another guy in a knife fight. The other had stolen a car outside of the new motel that had recently opened by the interstate. He checked each cell to make sure they would be ready for their new occupants, then he returned to the office. Rosita had just hung up the phone.

“You know Alex is coming up from Redbud, right?” Virgil said.

“Yes, sir. That was Dave on the phone, telling me why he won't
be home tonight. Alex is bringing them up because his wife had the baby yesterday. This way, after he drops them off here, he can go visit his wife, then stay overnight at his mom's. She's taking care of the three-year-old.”

“Call Dif. Make sure he knows about our two guests. Maybe he'll come in a little early. Give you a break.”

“Don't worry, Virgil. I'm fine.”

“Well, hopefully, they won't be here long. I'd like to get them processed quickly, then get them over to the detention center. It'd be good if we could keep the cells available for the locals who get a little carried away during the holidays.”

“Yes. I remember, last year we had a full house till after New Year. We had enough hangovers to start a new AA group.”

“Thank God for Bill W. Otherwise we'd have to build an addition.”

“Amen to that,” Rosie said.

“By the way, were you able to get in touch with the Thompsons?”

“The daughter, Marian, will be here tomorrow. She said she would get ahold of her brothers.”

“Good. Listen, I want to make another run out to High Lonesome before they get here. I'd like you to go with me.”

“Why do you want me to go with you?”

“I know you're not anxious to go back there, but I want to check the scene out before anyone gets in there and starts moving things around.”

“What are you looking for?”

“I'm not sure myself. Guess I just want to make sure that there isn't more to this than what it appears to be. You were there, the first person on the scene. I want to get your recollection while the place is untouched. I don't know, maybe I'm overthinking this
whole thing, but the fact that Charlie hasn't showed up, then Velma dies in a way that surprises most people, makes me wonder. I'm not sure, but I wonder if I'm missing something. It won't hurt to take a look. You don't miss much. That's why I'd like you with me.”

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
5.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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