Pauly Rodriquez heard the thonk over the roar of the backhoe. Pauly knew his thonks. This one sounded like a king-sized ball peen bouncing off a large tin drum. He remembered the one when that sonofabitch Roger Pearson’s head hit the curb outside the White Swan Bar. Pauly had been charged with manslaughter. He had gotten off because he hadn’t started the fight, but still remembered that sound.
But this thonk was different, more metallic, and the concussion shook his parked truck.
“What the hell?”
He leaped from his big red 4X4 and ran to look in the hole before Harry could shut the hoe down. Fine yellow dust poofed as Harry set the bucket on the dry rocky ground.
“Sonofabitch” Pauly grumbled. “Damnit Harry, I’m already a week behind on this house, concrete will be here tomorrow, and now you’ve hit something.”
“Well it’s not like I’m out here looking for something to hit,” Harry Bower fired back. “What the hell could it be? There’s nothin’ out here but cows and coyotes!”
Until the previous year the four-thousand-acre place, near La Veta in Southern Colorado had been a cattle ranch. When Oscar Nasher died ten years ago his family leased the property to various cowmen for summer pasture. Two years ago a Colorado Springs developer had bought the land and split it up into what he called ranchettes.
Pauly stared in the hole. “Damned if I know what it is.”
At the bottom of the hole a hunk of rusty metal peeked through the loose clay soil. Pauly handed Harry a shovel. “Here, jump down there and get some dirt off. Let’s see what we got. Maybe we can yank it out and keep on going.”
“Shit.” Harry looked at his brand new boots. “The reason I bought this damned backhoe was so I wouldn’t have to shovel. If I scratch up these new boots Wanda will kill me.”
But he spit out his wad of tobacco, jumped down in the hole and started scraping dirt away from the rusted metal. “Good news. It’s not a water or gas pipe, thank God.”
He kept on shoveling. “It’s starting to look like the top of a stock trailer.”
Harry crawled out of the hole and onto his backhoe. Soon he uncovered the side of a sixteen foot stock trailer down to the fender.
“If I can get a chain around the hitch maybe you can lift it out of there,” Pauly said. “It’s worth a try.”
Harry reset his hoe and tried to expose the hitch. He swung the bucket to within two feet of the front of the trailer. On the second scoop the now familiar thonk repeated. It didn’t sound quite like the first, but it was definitely metal. And the hole was too shallow for it to be the hitch. Shutting the backhoe down Harry started to get off.
“I’ll get it,” Pauly said. “What the hell could it be now?” Sliding down on the back side of the hole, Pauly worked his way forward using the shovel as support. As he stepped on the flat top of the fender he looked inside the trailer. It had not filled with dirt.
“Jesus, there’s a bunch of bones and horns in here. Man I hope these critters were dead before this trailer got buried.”
Harry slid down beside him. “Hell, those look like Longhorns, like the ones that Tonka Morgan fella runs over there on the other side of Walsenburg. Those things are worth some money. Man, this is getting weird.”
They looked at each other. Pauly couldn’t tell whether Harry shrugged or shivered. “Let’s go see what you hit up front.”
They climbed in front of the trailer and started clearing dirt. With a few scoops they could see a strip of rounded metal two inches in diameter.
“Damn, this here’s the tailgate of a pickup,” Pauly said. “God, Harry, I’m not digging any further. What if there’s bones in there too?”
Hell, they were only bones. He’d been called upon to identify bones before. But veterinarian Gil Tailor was skittish as a gopher in a badger hole. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t practiced his profession in more than two years. Maybe it was the irritating manner in which Deputy Jarmillo had asked him to view the bones during their earlier phone conversation. Could it be premonition? Nah, he’d never been a big believer in that paranormal bullshit.
Dr. Gillette Tailor drove the Spanish Peaks Veterinary Clinic truck up to the secured entrance to Rough Mountain Ranches. He was early. The huge wrought iron gates were closed and could only be opened by someone who knew the code. So he parked to the side to wait for Huerfano County Sheriff Jarmillo. It was the sheriff who had called about the bones.
Gil was surprised to see his knuckles were white from holding the steering wheel so tight. He needed to relax. To pass the time and calm himself, he read the advertising signs bordering the highway in front of Rough Mountain Ranches. Own Your Own Colorado Ranch. 40-160 Acre Ranches.
Gil snorted. “Ranches my ass. Forty acres wouldn’t sustain even one animal in this country.”
But grousing didn’t relieve his tension. Nervous perspiration ran down his back, causing his shirt to stick. The hot summer sun blazed through the window churning the odors of naugahyde, hay, manure, medicine and sweat into a sour amalgam. He opened his window and tried to focus elsewhere – his new opportunity as a relief veterinarian for Dr. Bramlett, getting his life back together, distancing himself from the death of his wife; but he couldn’t keep his mind from returning to what was beyond that gate.
His gaze took in Rough Mountain, the namesake of the subdivision. It sat next to the taller Mt. Mestas like a surly sidekick. Their rocky slopes looked grim and uninviting. He turned south to look at the Spanish Peaks. Much larger than Mestas and Rough, the legendary twin peaks stood like two mystical sentinels, scrutinizing all comers to Southeastern Colorado. As he was having coffee earlier the sun was starting its honey flow down the rugged sides - warming and welcoming. Now black clouds blanketed them with an ominous threat.
A black-and-white Durango came careening up the highway. The driver made a screeching turn into the entrance, slid to a stop in front of the gate and climbed out. This had to be Deputy Jarmillo. In his mid-thirties, the deputy stood five foot seven or eight, with swooped shoulders, a round face and hatless head covered in shiny black hair. His mustache swooped from his big nose like two caterpillars, then thinned into lines that followed the upper lip to each corner. A slight paunch hung over his utility belt. He could have stepped out of a Treasures of the Sierra Madre poster.
Jarmillo marched up to the rock gate post, took off his dark glasses and punched in a series of numbers on the key pad. The gate slowly swung in. Jarmillo went back to his vehicle and waved Gil to follow.
Gil blinked. “Well, nice to meet you too, Deputy.”
The deputy’s Dodge Durango kicked up a screen of dust as it led the way over the graveled road and across a two track trail into a little hollow. Jarmillo slid to a stop, jumped from his Durango and was striding toward a hole before Gil could shut off the clinic truck and set the brake.
Gil took off his hat, brushed back the damp, copper-colored hair and scratched his head as he took in the scene. In this little hollow scattered pinion pine rimmed the area giving it a shadowed seclusion. A backhoe was parked on the far side of what appeared to be a deep hole judging by the dirt piled next to it. It seemed too big for a few bones. He took a deep breath and pulled his hat down tight. With the knuckle of his index finger he smoothed his bushy mustache and climbed out of the truck. He tried to appear relaxed as he strolled to join Deputy Jarmillo.
Quietly they stood side by side looking down at a partially buried, rusted stock trailer and the exposed tailgate of a pickup. The only sound was the eerie call of a magpie and the pinging of cooling engines. Gil couldn’t believe what he saw. “I’ll be damned.”
Jarmillo was studying him closely. When Gil didn’t go on the deputy said, “What?”
Gil murmured, “The trailer.”
“What about the trailer?”
The sound of the pinging engines seemed to roar in the silence. When the deputy spoke his voice was the low growl of a cow dog who wanted you to know he was alert. “You want to explain?”
Gil took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He looked at the grim-faced deputy and tried to smile, but couldn’t quite pull it off. “Not sure I can.”
“Do your best.”
Where to begin and how to tell it? Gil pulled a bright red kerchief from his back pocket, took off his wire rimmed glasses and polished each lens thoroughly before placing them back on. “I loaned that trailer to a buddy of mine a couple years ago. He was starting up a cattle hauling business. One day he disappeared while taking a valuable bull from up near Brush to Fort Worth for a big Longhorn show. He never made it.”
Gil sought refuge in the silence. But Jarmillo pushed him. Pointing to the trailer he said, “How do you explain this?”
“I don’t. I can’t.”
There was no point in stalling so Gil went on. “Roscoe. His name is Roscoe Brown. He and I grew up together in Wyoming. We played sports together, rodeoed together. Hell, he damned near married my sister.”
The deputy had a notebook out and was taking notes. “Where is he now?”
With a slow shake of his head Gil sat down on the dirt pile. “Don’t have a clue. Haven’t heard from him since he disappeared.” He picked up a chunk of clay and crumbled it between his fingers, letting the pieces fall between his boots. It dawned on him what Jarmillo had asked. “He’s not in the pickup?”
Jarmillo was quiet for a second, staring at Gil over the tops of his dark glasses, his jaw muscles working. “We don’t know what’s in the pickup. We haven’t looked.”
Jumping up Gil said, “Well hell, let’s find out.”
“Not yet. We need to protect the scene and pull all evidence before we disturb it anymore.”
“Dammit, let’s do something. You said you had some bones for me to look at. What bones?”
The deputy held up his hand. “I think we’ll get someone else to do that.”
Gil was getting pissed, “Wait a minute. You didn’t get me out here to look at any goddamn bones. You knew that was my trailer.”
“Calm down, Tailor. Naturally, we ran the plates. Found out it was yours. That intrigued me. We find a trailer, filled with bones, buried in the middle of an old cow pasture. It turns out that it belongs to a transient veterinarian who just took a job over the hill from here. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Well, it is a coincidence.” Gil knew how lame that sounded.
The emotion that crossed Jarmillo’s face might have been a smile, but looked more like a snarl. “In law enforcement we have a hard time believing in coincidence. Your daddy probably taught you that.”
Gil stared at the rusty trailer. He felt like he was on a runaway horse and couldn’t reach the reins. Then he realized something Jarmillo had said. “What do you mean my daddy taught me?”
“Actually, I’ve learned quite a bit about you.” The deputy looked at his notes. “I know your dad was sheriff in Campbell County, Wyoming for twelve years before being killed trying to stop a barroom brawl. I know you inherited some money which you probably blew on a veterinary degree. I know your pregnant wife was supposedly killed by a horse two years ago, a horse that you should have been treating. Since then you’ve had run-ins with law enforcement throughout Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. No tickets or charges filed, but the incident usually involved alcohol. And I know you treated the bull that disappeared with that trailer.”
“Jesus,” Gil exclaimed, sinking back onto the dirt pile. “I’m a goddamn suspect!”
“Not yet,” Deputy Jarmillo growled. “But your story stinks and I sure see you as a person of interest, and I don’t want to lose track of you. How long will you be subbing for Dr. Bramlett?”
“He’ll be on vacation about three more weeks.”
“Okay. Here’s the deal. I’ll need you to come into Walsenburg and sign a written statement telling me all you know about this trailer and how it got here.”
“Dammit, I told you, I . . .”
Jarmillo held up his hand. “Shut up and listen. Just write down what you do know. Then, don’t leave the area without telling me. If you think of anything that might be helpful, give me a call. Obviously, if you hear from your buddy, Brown, call me immediately. And finally, if you take off, I’ll be on you quicker than flies on shit.”
Jarmillo turned and strode toward his Durango.
Gil stood, took off his hat and wiped his brow with his kerchief then ran his fingers through his hair. “Can you let me know what you find in that truck?”
The deputy wheeled. “Why don’t you go see if you can play veterinarian and we’ll take care of the investigating. There’s a Colorado Bureau of Investigation guy coming down from Denver this afternoon. He’ll tell us when we can get in that pickup.” Jarmillo looked directly at Gil as he said, “But everyone wants to know whether this is just larceny or do we add murder?”
The word froze Gil’s heart. “Roscoe murdered. And this guy thinks I might have done it.” Gil could feel the personal animosity emanating from the deputy like puss from a prolapse.
Gil wasn’t aware of his drive back to the Spanish Peaks Veterinary Clinic. He kept replaying the scene at Rough Mountain. Was Roscoe in that truck? How did it get there? Was this his fault somehow? Why had he abandoned his search for Roscoe and spent two years drunk? Why the hell did he think he could be a veterinarian? Hell, he couldn’t even take care of his friends.
The jolt when he bumped across the cattle guard into the veterinary clinic parking lot brought him back. He didn’t get out of the truck right away. He knew what he ought to do. He ought to stay out of it and let Jarmillo sort out what happened to Roscoe. That’s what he ought to do.
“Shit, shit shit.” He rubbed his temples and rolled his neck. Trouble was, he was never very good at ought-to’s.
In the office Janey Ryan, Dr. Bramlett’s veterinary assistant, sat behind the counter with a phone to her ear. “Yes, sir, if you can bring her over tomorrow morning, Dr. Tailor will take a look at her.”
Gil appreciated the professional way she handled the call. Every veterinary clinic needed someone like her, but seldom found them. Raised on a ranch with two years of business school, she appeared smart, knowledgeable, hard-working and willing to learn.
Janey did everything - answered the phone, maintained the schedule, ordered the drugs, gave vaccinations, assisted the veterinarian, made sure patients were fed and stalls mucked.
“Will nine o’clock be all right?” she asked the client while looking at Gil to get his okay.
Gill nodded and picked up the folder on top of the “Today” tray. It contained registration papers, breeding charts and the medical history for Three Box Ruby Red, a registered Quarter Horse mare.
Gil was familiar with the bloodlines of two of the stallions she had been bred to. They were well known in racing circles. No question, she was a pampered and valuable animal. Something good to know when making decisions and recommendations to an owner.
Janey hung up the phone. “Grueling day at Rough Mountain?”
He gruffly replied, “Yeah, personal business.”
“O-o-o-kay.” Janey’s blue eyes cooled a couple degrees. Pointing to the folder in his hand she said, “That’s next. Robinson’s Ruby. Has a bruised hoof, I think. Corn, maybe. I don’t think it will be anything serious. Want some help?”
“Please,” Gil said, feeling bad about snapping at her. “First time around a strange horse it helps to have someone hold them.”
“I’ll put a ‘I’m-in-the-barn’ message on the phone and be right with you.”
Gil headed for the barn, fretting over the way he’d treated Janey. He vowed to do better. He didn’t think he could change his disposition, but he could change his behavior. There wasn’t anything he could do right now but be a veterinarian. He needed to do that as well as he could. At the barn he jumped and grabbed the header over the door, hanging by his arms to stretch his tense back and shoulders. It felt good.
He didn’t hear Janey come up behind him until she said, “You Tarzan, me Jane.”
He slunk to the ground and muttered, “Stretchin’ my back.”
“Uh huh,” she said.
Without acknowledging her teasing, Gil moved to Ruby’s stall. She was a stunning sorrel with flaxen mane and tail. The mare nuzzled Janey as she put the lead rope on.
“Been around her before?” Gil asked.
“She’s one of my favorites,” said Janey. “I’d love one of her foals, but I’m not likely to get into that tax bracket anytime soon.”
“She’s a beauty.” Gil noticed the limp as Janey led her outside for better light.
Janey explained, “The Robinsons paid somewhere around fifty-thousand dollars for her as a yearling. They ran her as a three-year-old at Ruidoso and then started breeding her. Every colt she’s had has been a dandy. Of course they’ve put nothing but top studs on her. I’ve heard they’ve been offered up to two-hundred thousand for her, but turned it down.”
Gil ran a hand over the mare’s back and patted her rump. “I’d better take good care of you, lady. You’re high dollar horse flesh.”
He bent over, raising her left front hoof, propping it on his bent knee. An abscessed bruise emerged as he gently flicked little clods of dirt with the hoof pick. Over the next half hour he drained the abscess and gave her a tetanus shot. When done he put a protective boot over the hoof.
“She’ll be more comfortable with this on,” he told Janey, “and it will keep the abscess clean while it heals. I’d recommend she stay here a couple days so we can keep an eye on that hoof and make sure it heals properly. Will that be a problem?”
“I don’t think so,” Janey said. “The Robinsons have never questioned our treatment and seem ready to pay what’s necessary.”
“If it’s okay with them, let’s do it.”
Janey took Ruby back to her stall. Gil went by his pickup to get some horse candy before walking over to the corral. His little donkey, George, trotted over, looking for her treat.
“Have you met George?” he asked Janey as she moved beside him.
“Not formally.” She pointed to his horse that stood cautiously watching them, “They both kept a real close eye on me when Ruby arrived last evening.”
“George and Sue are pretty good watch dogs.”
“Did you say George?” She had to bend low to look at the little donkey’s undercarriage. “Being a highly trained veterinary assistant I can’t help but notice there are some very specific male parts missing from this donkey.” She reached through the fence to rub George between the ears. “May I assume that whoever named her may have been a little gender ignorant?”
Gil handed the donkey a treat. “It’s a long story. We got her up in Cripple Creek.” He hung his head and kicked some dirt. “My wife, Bobbie, and I were on a Sunday drive. We hadn’t been to Cripple Creek, so we thought we’d take a look. They have a small donkey herd running loose as kind of a tourist attraction. I guess they’ve been there for years. Among them was this little Sicilian jenny with a brand new baby. The mama got hit by a car. We came upon the scene right after it happened. I tried but couldn’t save the mama. The local police showed up, called someone and got permission to euthanize.”
Gil paused as he recalled how he had taken his rifle out of his truck and put the poor jenny down. He could still see the look on Bobbie’s face. He felt a tear start to form. He looked away so Janey wouldn’t notice.
“Huh,” he cleared his throat.
Janey stopped petting George and looked at him, her eyebrows arched as if wondering what he was thinking. Gil had no desire to explain about his wife, knowing any explanation would inevitably lead to how she died. That was a place he didn’t want to go with Janey
He went on with his George story. “That little critter was standing off a ways, all ears and legs, looking very alone. Whenever anyone tried to approach, she’d run off - then creep back when we weren’t watching. A guy came with a tractor and loaded the mother’s carcass into a dump truck. As it drove away the baby followed. It broke Bobbie’s heart to watch that little thing traipsing after that truck. She insisted we do something. To make a long story shorter, we ended up with George.”
Handing the donkey another biscuit, he remembered hauling her to Brush. All three of them in the front seat of his pickup. “She’s kind of my sounding board.”
Janey was rubbing George’s ears. “You talk to your donkey?”
“Yeah,” Gil admitted.
“Does she talk back?”
“In her own way. You’re a good listener, aren’t you George?”
Janey continued with the ears. George seemed to like it. “That still doesn’t explain why you named her George?”
“I didn’t really have anything to do with that. It seems Cripple Creek has a tradition of naming baby donkeys after prominent town’s people. A lady named Georgeanna runs the city tourist information center. I’m told everyone in town calls her George. They named the donkey after her. We kept it.”
He leaned on the top rail, looking down as he kicked the dirt around with the toe of his boot. He smoothed his mustache with his knuckle and said, “So that’s my story.”
Janey smiled. “So that’s why she’s George. And your gelding is Sue?”
“It’s really Tsunami. He was a PRCA bareback bronc. It’s another long rescue story involving Bobbie. I’ve got this strange name thing going. I seem to be destined to associate with people and critters with gender bending names. I have a jenny named George, a gelding named Sue, my wife was called Bobbie and I was called Jill until I was out of junior high.”
“Jill?” Janey asked.
“Well, my given name is Gillette. As kids will do, my classmates made up teasing nicknames. Gillette was shortened to Jill and the fight was on. It took me a few years and several bloody noses before my classmates started calling me Gil.”
She reached up and ran a finger down his nose. “Is that why your nose is flat now?”
The sudden contact startled Gil. “No, that has a lot to do with a horse wreck and a fence post.”
“Well it looks good with your big mustache.”
Embarrassed, Gil didn’t know what to say.
Before he could form a reply, Janey said, “It looks even better when you blush.” She turned and started to the office.
Gil felt a moment of guilt as he realized he liked the flirting. But he didn’t have much time to enjoy the moment, the phone was ringing.
He followed Janey to the office. When he walked in Janey was holding the phone at arm’s length and pinching her nose as if smelling a skunk.
“Mr. Oren Hansen.”
Gil felt like a fifty pound sack of feed had been dumped on his chest. Prominent in state politics and a well known authority on cattle, particularly Longhorns, Hansen owned the Holy Cross ranch. He raised the bull that disappeared with Roscoe. He was a walking example of the Napoleon complex. His pompous, pious attitude had worn on Gil like a twisted cinch. How the hell had Hansen heard already? And how did he know Gil was working here?
“You know him, I take it?” he asked Janey.”
She closed her eyes and slowly nodded. “Oh, yeah. Take it in Dr. Bramlett’s office.”
At Bramlett’s desk in the back office, Gil gathered his wits, breathed deeply and stroked his mustache. He set his hat, crown side down, on the desk and picked up the phone. “Dr. Tailor here.”
“Gil, my boy,” boomed the familiar voice. “I lost track of you after you left Brush. How’ve you been?”
“All right Mr. Hansen. Taking things kind of one day at a time.”
Hansen lowered his voice. “I imagine. . . Son, I never did get a chance to tell you how sorry I was about your wife. She was such a beautiful young lady and so full of life. Such a tragic accident.”
“Thanks, Mr. Hansen.” Gil didn’t know what else to say. Hansen had always been condescending and demanding to both he and his wife. The phony concern rankled.
The line was quiet. All Gil could hear was raspy breathing. Hansen had an annoying habit of executing long pauses during a phone conversation. Dr. Carter, the veterinarian Gil and his wife had worked for in Brush, had once told Gil his secret to tolerating an Oren Hansen call. Carter had gotten to where he would count the seconds filling these pauses. At fifteen he would just hang up. When Hansen called back in a huff, Carter would leave him on hold for a minute before explaining that he thought they’d lost their connection. After a few hang-ups the pauses got shorter.
Gil was tempted to start counting but then Hansen said, “I understand there has been a development concerning Black Mountain, my missing bull. What can you tell me about that?”
Now Hansen was getting down to the real purpose of the call. Gil said, “Not a whole lot. Apparently some construction guys dug my trailer out of the side of a mountain. There’s a truck too, but they haven’t uncovered it yet. The local sheriff is moving slow.”
Again the raspy breathing. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, . . one thousand eight. “Is my bull in the trailer?”
“Not sure. I heard there were bones and horns in there, but the deputy wouldn’t let me get down to the trailer to look.”
“Why the hell not?”
It somewhat surprised Gil to hear Oren cuss. The man tried hard to maintain his pious image. He hated to let his underlings hear him stoop to swearing.
Gil told Hansen, “My guess is because it’s a crime scene and he didn’t want me to disturb any evidence.”
… one thousand eleven, one thousand twelve. Gil was already on edge and these pauses were unnerving.
Hansen finally said, “Well it certainly was a crime. You know that was a hundred thousand dollar bull. He was going to be the foundation sire of a million dollar breeding program. Brown put me in trouble with my investors and placed me in a hell of a financial bind.”
Gil hated to hear Hansen laying the blame on Roscoe, but had always avoided getting crosswise with Hansen. The man had contacts all over the livestock industry. So he figured he better keep his cool, but it wasn’t easy.
“So they didn’t find Brown’s body?” Hansen asked.
“No. The deputy told me they have the CBI coming this afternoon to help them decide their next move.” He had to swallow hard before he could say, “I guess they feel that another day won’t make a difference in a case that is more than two years old.”
Gil stood and walked to the door and back as he counted, … one thousand nine, one thousand ten, one thousand eleven.
Oren cleared his throat. “I don’t think there is a body. I suspect somebody paid Brown to kill my bull and bury it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s off in Mexico some place.”
Gil’s intention to stay cool collapsed. “Dammit, Hansen, you ought to know Roscoe better than that. There’s no way he’d commit a crime. And he’d never abandon his wife and kid, no matter how much money was involved.”
Gil, put the phone to his chest and took some deep breaths before saying, “Listen, it just doesn’t make sense. That bull was worth $100,000, right?” He didn’t wait for Hansen to reply. “Without registration papers, it’s worth packer prices. Maybe a $1,000.”
Gil finally got to the question that had been bothering him since Roscoe and Black Mountain disappeared.
“Let me ask, Mister Hansen. Why would anyone want to have Black Mountain vanish? If they wanted him out of the way, they could kill him? Why have him disappear? Who benefits from that?”
The breathing was more rapid now, almost panting. … one thousand eighteen, “Yes . . . That is the question, isn’t it?”