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Double PreyA Posadas County Mystery
By Steven F. Havill
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Steven F. Havill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCarla Champlin's voice had taken on real urgency. "Your son is running over this way," she said. "The other boy is down on the ground. Now I just don't know what ..."
Traffic was light, only a single on-coming car at the intersection of Bustos and Grande. Estelle flipped on the grill wiggle-waggles, ran the red light, and accelerated hard to continue west bound on Bustos. At Eighth, she turned south. In a moment she could see the open prairie, an expanse of tans and browns bordering the Eighth Street cul-de-sac.
A dirt two-track had been carved into the desert by scores of dirt bikes, motorcycles, and four wheelers that had jumped to the open lot from Eighth Street. Estelle eased the county car over the worn, crumbling curb. Off to the left, she could see Carla, arms waving commands. A tiny figure sprinted away from the old woman back toward the arroyo, racing a beeline through the scrub to intersect the patrol car's path. To the right, just back from the arroyo's edge, the other boy was hunkered on his elbows and knees, head down near the ground.
"PCS, three ten."
"Go ahead, three ten."
"I need an ambulance at this location ASAP. It may be a snake bite. One juvenile." Little Francisco was sprinting in high gear now, and Estelle realized that the loud pounding was her own heart.
"Ten four. Say the location again."
"The south end of Eighth Street, out by the arroyo."
The dirt two track wandered toward the houses on Carla's street. Estelle braked hard, sliding the county car to a stop. By the time she had climbed out, her son was within easy earshot.
"Butch got something in his eye!" the little boy called. Estelle looked hard at her son, the nine-year-old so lanky now that his bones poked at the lightweight, white linen Mexican shirt that his grandmother had given him.
"Show me." She strode after the boy as he dashed back toward his friend.
"We found a snake," Francisco called over his shoulder.
And sure enough, they had. The creature writhed in slow motion under a broken clump of creosote bush, rattles sounding like a short-circuited electrical gadget. With both hands covering his face, Butch Romero was curled into a crying, whimpering, cursing ball, crumpled so that the crown of his head dug into the gravel and sand. Estelle glanced quickly at the battered reptile, guessed that it wasn't going anywhere with most of its own head pulped, and sank to her knees beside the tortured boy.
"Butch, you'll be okay." She took his shoulders, feeling the trembling that racked his wiry body. He yelped and thrashed, hands tearing at his face. His mouth gaped, a strand of drool soaking his chin. Hugging him close, she caught one of his hands. "Come on, now. Let me see."
The boy wailed something incomprehensible, leaning his weight against Estelle. As if the flashes of pain were punching him in the gut, he kept ducking his head and twisting. The undersheriff maneuvered her hand across his right arm, and she could feel the knotted muscles like small bands of steel. The fourteen-year-old was no more than five-foot-two and ninety pounds, but he was a tough little kid.
All the while talking gently into the boy's ear, she worked her arm across Butch's chest until she hugged him tightly, pinning his upper arms. "You're going to be all right. You have to stop digging at your eyes. Come on." Still he fought her with a desperate strength that was astonishing. At one point he jerked his head back, his hard skull cracking Estelle on the cheek. She flinched and tightened her bear hug. In the distance, she heard a siren.
"Hijo, run over and wave them in," she said. "Butch, hang in there, now. You're going to be all right. Help is on the way." She still had no idea what the extent of his injuries could be. Struggling would make matters worse, so she settled for the tight hug, trying to hold him still.
Still whispering to the boy, she turned her head and watched the progress of the big diesel EMT rig as it waddled up over the curb at the end of Eighth. The ambulance left the two track and pursued Francisco, making its own road across the scrub-covered lot. It turned in a wide circle at the last moment.
Doyle Maestas climbed out of the truck and took two seconds both to survey the area and watch where he stepped, taking in the undersheriff and the apparent victim. He pulled a field case out of one of the storage compartments on the side of the truck, by that time joined by his partner, Matty Finnegan.
"What do we have?" Matty knelt by Estelle. "Oh, jeez, here we go." She caught sight of the battered snake. "Butchie, we're going to help you now. You hang in there." She inclined her head and looked at Estelle. "You have a good hold?" The undersheriff nodded.
"Butchie, you have to move your hands," Matty said.
"You want the sedative?" Maestas asked.
"We're going to need it. Here, take his right hand." With Estelle locking his upper arms, and one EMT on each lower limb, they were able to force the boy's hands down. "Butch, can you tell me what happened?"
"In my eye," the boy sobbed, finally saying something coherent. "My right eye."
"You have his arms?" Matty asked, and when Doyle nodded, she gently took his head in both hands, gripping him on each cheek, her fingers under his ears, thumbs on the crests of his cheek bones. The eye was already discolored, and a massive flood of tears poured down his face. Butch spasmed. "Well, you have something there, old man." She turned to look at the discarded electric Weed Whacker. "Now that's something I haven't seen before. You were teasing the snake with that trimmer?"
Butch howled something incomprehensible.
"Okay. I'm going to cover that eye so you don't injure it any more. You're going to help me do that, my man. All right?" In an instant, she'd found a large white eye cup in the bag, and with a few deft wraps had secured it over the injured eye, taping it around his head.
"Gurney?" Doyle asked.
"You betcha," Matty replied. "We're going to need the belts. Nobody's going to get an I.V. in him the way he's bouncing around." She looked over at the snake again as she rose to her feet. "Coon tail, right?"
"Yes." Estelle turned so that she could see her son. "Francisco, what happened?"
"We went looking for snakes," the nine-year-old said.
"With a trimmer?" The western diamondback was arguably the largest, most dangerous rattler in the southwest, doubly so because of its enormous venom supply and aggressive habits.
"It kinda worked," Francisco said. "We got it cornered, and then Butch was gonna cut its head off with the Weed Whacker. It kept striking at it."
"So we've got some of that in the eye," Doyle said. "Envenomed, you think?"
"Most likely," Matty said. "We're going to want that I.V., and get him on some Versed to calm him down. Butch, we're going to give you a little happy juice, all right? You're going to help us do that by trying your best to hold still."
Estelle looked around for her son, who stood with his hands clasped tightly under his chin. "Hijo, get the shovel out of my car. You know where the trunk release is. Be careful when you do it."
Doyle returned with the gurney while Matty popped the I.V. package out of the sterile packaging. "Butch, I'm going to give you a little shot to kill the pain, all right? You just try to hold still now." She had the needle in before he could react, and taped it securely in place.
In a moment, with the help of the fast-acting sedative, they were able to coax Butch Romero onto the gurney. He thrashed a bit, but finally they were able to secure his arms and legs, and then his head. With the boy trussed and wrapped, Doyle started a saline I.V., and in a moment their cargo was in the ambulance.
"Just another day's work in paradise," Doyle cracked as they boarded the vehicle. "Talk to you later, sheriff. Odds are good that he'll be flyin' out to University. We have antivenom at the hospital to start with, but your hubby isn't going to want to mess with that eye. Butch's mom at home?"
"I'll find her," Estelle said. "I'll bring her to the hospital."
"You got it."
Estelle reached out a hand for her son's bony shoulder and gave it a little shake, keeping her hold until the heavy ambulance had maneuvered away. "Thank you," she said, taking the shovel from him.
The diamondback was a full sixty inches long, its compliment of rattles showing that it had endured a good many seasons before running into an incomprehensible enemy. With a deft, sharp whack of the spade, Estelle cut off the mangled head, setting off a renewed thrashing as the powerful body tried to tie itself into knots. Francisco watched with eyes wide.
She handed him the spade and pointed. "We'll bury him right there. Dig a good hole." He set to work without question, and Estelle walked back to the car. She selected one of the heavy clear plastic evidence bags from her briefcase, along with a brown paper bag. By the time she returned to the site, Francisco had excavated an impressive hole.
The undersheriff used the edge of the shovel to flip the remains of the snake's head into the plastic bag. The trimmer's high speed spinning nylon string had been an effective weapon, macerating and then tearing out much of the rattler's mouth tissue. One fang was still in place, but the other had been torn free ... and apparently was pegged in Butch Romero's eye. She slipped the evidence bag inside the brown sack. The snake's now limp body slid into the hole, and Estelle spaded the dirt back in to cover it.
"Butch said his dad grills 'em," Francisco offered.
"Not this one, hijo. The snakes don't know that coming into town is the most dangerous place for them."
"What do you do with the head?" he asked.
"In case the doctors need it, hijo." She nodded at the string trimmer. "You fetch that so you can give it back to Butch's mom. We need to go talk to her now." The little boy nodded soberly.
"I'm sorry, mamá."
"So am I." She followed him back toward the car, watching the grace of his movements, the dark intensity of him. It would be so much easier if children could be cocooned until they reached twenty-one, she thought.
Chapter TwoFrancisco watched his mother complete the entry in her patrol log. His hands were clasped between his knees, and he remained silent, trying to stay out of the way. The log entry she wrote didn't reflect the alarm in Carla Champlin's voice when she had called.
"Estelle, I'm so sorry to bother you." Carla, the retired Posadas postmistress, had picked up a quaver in her voice as age chased her, but she had still managed to sound authoritative. Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman pictured the elderly woman, scarecrow-thin, standing in her kitchen with the receiver of the old-fashioned black wall phone pressed to her ear, face pursed with disapproval. Carla disapproved of most things.
"Carla, how are you?" Estelle pulled the county car into gear. "Are you calling from home?" If Estelle had stood on the top front step of her own home on Twelfth Street back in Posadas, she would have been able to see the white roof of Carla's neat little bungalow across the open patch of undisturbed prairie beyond Christman's arroyo. As it was, when Carla called the under sheriff's car had been parked on the shoulder of New Mexico State 78, seven miles from the village. The passenger seat was covered with file folders as Estelle found a quiet afternoon to peruse job applications and make calls to references. The sun was warm, and to keep herself awake, she'd changed locations from time to time, from one end of the small county to another, watching the traffic, the ranch kids on four wheelers, the patrons of the rural saloons as they took an afternoon brew break.
Carla had tracked her down, preferring a direct call to going through Sheriff's Department dispatch.
"Well, I'm just fine," Carla had said. "And of course I'm home. But listen. I'm watching a couple of hoodlums out beyond the arroyo, and I don't like what I'm seeing."
"What are you seeing, Mrs. Champlin?" She knew that hoodlums was a favorite Carla-ism for children. If children were seen or heard doing anything more disruptive than stamp collecting, they were hoodlums.
"Listen," the woman said again, as if Estelle might not be, "at first I couldn't see what they were doing, but I found my binoculars, and I just don't like this at all. They're over by the arroyo, and they're playing with a snake, for heaven's sakes. And it's a big snake. My gosh."
It's not illegal for boys to play with snakes, Estelle almost said.
"Now, one of them has one of those whacker things ... one of those Weed Whackers? That's what they're using, for heaven's sake."
Estelle turned onto the highway. She accelerated eastbound, at the same time trying to conjure a mental image of what Carla might be watching.
"It's Butch Romero," Carla reported.
"Ah, Butch." Estelle's amusement turned into apprehension. The skinny kid with enough imp in him for ten hoodlums lived just two doors west of the Guzmans on Twelfth Street. He out-Tom Sawyered Tom Sawyer by a quantum leap.
"Your little angel is with him."
"Francisco, you mean?"
"That's exactly who I mean. And oh, now they've gone down into the arroyo. I can't see what they're doing. But this can't be good. I really think you should ... oh, here they are again. You know, they're right at the edge."
Christman's arroyo was no more than twelve feet deep at its most precipitous, but the edge could crumble, depositing the hoodlums at the gravel bottom under half a ton of desert sand.
Estelle took a deep breath. Kids played along arroyos all the time. Not a single rain cloud graced the southwest at the moment, so there was no danger of a fast-moving headwall of water sweeping them away. Kids played with snakes all the time, too—hopefully learning early on which were the dangerous species. If Butch had elected to go hunting with a trimmer, its nylon string flailing, then he wasn't after garter snakes. Estelle could imagine a dozen ways that such an absurd expedition might turn tragic.
"I'll swing by, Carla. I'm about five miles out, so it'll be a few minutes."
"Come right down Eighth Street," the post mistress commanded. "That's the closest. Oh, my, there he goes ..."
"Stay on the line, Carla," Estelle said, and palmed the mike. "PCS, three ten."
Dispatcher Ernie Wheeler responded instantly. "Go ahead, three ten."
"I'll be ten-six at Eighth and Christman's Arroyo with a juvenile complaint," Estelle said. Two minutes later, she took the curve that joined County Road 43 with the State Highway, inbound on what would turn into Bustos Avenue. "Carla, are you still there?"
Yes, she had been, watching the two boys lure trouble. From the arroyo to Carla Champlins' was a mere hundred yards. Close enough for her to become alarmed and call, a call that brought Estelle to the scene and kept bad from being even worse.
Estelle closed her log book, and then keyed the mike.
"PCS, three-ten will be ten-six at 402 South Twelfth Street." Confirmation came immediately, and she racked the mike and looked across at her son. "So. Hunting snakes with a Weed Whacker. Butch does that a lot, hijo?" She started the car and backed out to the two-track, careful to avoid the larger clumps of cacti.
The little boy hunched his thin shoulders against the shoulder harness. "He said it was fun."
"Ah, and so we see how fun it is. For both the snake and for Butch, ¿no? The snake gets his head chopped off and is buried in a shallow grave in the desert. Butch gets to go to the hospital to see if they can save his eye. And if there's venom from the snake, maybe his life. Fun, ¿no?"
"The snake didn't bite him," Francisco said. "How could there be venom?"
Excerpted from Double Prey by Steven F. Havill Copyright © 2011 by Steven F. Havill . Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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