Buddy Hinton is just a good ole boy. So when he disappears after a night drinking at the Black Bull, his friends just figure he went down to Mexico to find himself a girlfriend and eventually will come back. But this case quickly becomes a homicide after the sheriff discovers the missing man floating in one of his stock tanks.
For a man who wasn’t known to have enemies, Buddy clearly upset someone. Figuring out who that was will require Virgil and his deputy, Jimmy, to retrace Buddy’s last steps—and to remain a step ahead of a murderer who may have no qualms about killing again …
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He sat on the tail of the old pickup, watching the dark as it crowded the western sky. Red flares, tinted with gold, like a thousand times before. Over the years, a rugged trail had been worn into the hill where his truck was perched. Scrubland stretched in every direction. Below him, partly hidden by the old cottonwood tree, rested the clapboard house where he had spent most of his life. In the dim light he didn’t have to acknowledge the peeling of the paint or the slight sag in the middle of the roof. Beyond the house stood the two barns, same vintage as the house.
The barns formed a right angle and the far sides of a large corral. A horse named Jack stood quietly alongside the fence, occasionally swishing his tail to chase away a nighttime fly or to stir the warm night air. His tail was the only movement in the landscape. No leaf moved. No breeze blew. The earth held its breath in expectation. Virgil felt this as he sat on the dented bed of the truck. He was not a man to waste time on idle thought, or to muse on what might have been, but he did have an innate sense of premonition. When he had ignored such thoughts, or passed them off as coincidence, they had always come back to haunt him, so he had learned to live with them. Never comfortably. Always reluctantly.
He looked past the barns to the long driveway twisting through the cottonwoods to the county road. With the sun going down, the shadows had crept over the land. A first star appeared in the night sky. He shifted his weight, making the tailgate swing and hit the frame of the truck with a metallic clank. An owl hooted. Virgil half smiled at the rebuke.
“Point taken,” he said. “Much better without the noise.”
He turned back and this time he could see a pair of headlights a good mile out on the road.
“Looks like company.” He hopped off the truck. By the time the car turned into the driveway he was leaning against the corral fence. Jack had joined him.
The SUV with the red dome light pulled to a stop alongside the pickup. When the door opened, the man who stepped out was a good twenty years younger than Virgil and wearing a uniform. He glanced around, then crossed the driveway. Virgil still leaned against the fence. Jack was nibbling at his sleeve.
“Don’t you feed that horse?”
“More than I feed myself, but it’s never enough.”
“Yeah, I guess.” The man in the uniform smiled. “Nice night.” He looked toward the last of the light on the horizon.
“I guess you didn’t drive all the way out here to tell me something I already know. What’s going on, Jimmy?”
“Well, Sheriff . . .” The deputy hesitated. “We got a call about Buddy Hinton. Charlie’s boy. Seems he’s gone missing.”
“How long?” Jimmy repeated.
“How long has he been missing? Who reported it? When? Fill in the gaps, Jimmy.”
“Charlie called it in. It seems he went out last night after supper. Said he was going to meet up for a coupla beers with Wade and some of the boys. Charlie figured maybe Bud got a snootful and that’s why he never made it back home. But when he didn’t show today, Mrs. Hinton started prodding him, so he called it in.”
“Okay, we’ll give him till morning. If there’s no sign, we’ll give it a look.”
Jimmy nodded in response. Virgil stepped away from the fence. Jack gave a soft nicker.
“Okay, hang on,” Virgil said. “I ain’t forgot.”
He walked over to the nearest barn door and stepped inside. He returned with a couple of flakes of hay and tossed them over the corral fence. They landed on the far side of the water trough. Jack gave a little louder call and moved toward the hay.
“C’mon, Jimmy. I’ll buy you some supper before you go back to work. Don’t expect much. Just leftover meat loaf.”
“Sheriff, you don’t have to do that. I can get some chili at Margie’s place.”
“And if you do, you’ll be stinking up the office all night. Least the meat loaf ain’t toxic. C’mon.” Virgil walked across the driveway with Jimmy following. Small clouds of dust stirred at their feet.
“Sure could use some rain,” Jimmy said.
At the door, Virgil locked a boot in the boot pull then did the same with the other. He paired them together just inside the front door. Jimmy started to do the same.
“Don’t bother. I’m in for the night. You got miles to go before you sleep.”
He looked to see if Jimmy got the reference. Apparently he didn’t.
“It might not have the same impact as Margie’s chili but it’s a lot cheaper,” Virgil said as Jimmy was wiping his plate with a piece of bread. “By the way, did you check on whether or not Buddy hooked up with Wade and the boys?”
“Yes, I surely did, Sheriff. Follow up. I try to remember all the things you tell me.”
“That’s good, Jimmy.” Virgil looked on as Jimmy finished wiping his plate.
“That sure was good meat loaf.” Jimmy was looking at the baking dish sitting on top of the stove.
“Sorry, Jimmy. That’s all there is. Wasn’t expecting company. Here, have this last piece of cake with your coffee. Maybe that’ll hold you for an hour or two. So . . .”
“So what, Sheriff?”
“What did you find out about Buddy?”
“Oh, that. Yes, sir. He did meet up. According to Wade, he left them about one or two in the a.m.”
“Did Wade say if he was going home?”
Jimmy paused as he took a bite out of the cake. “No. He didn’t say nothing about that.”
“It might have been a good question to ask him, Jimmy.”
“Yeah. I guess maybe you’re right. Well, maybe tomorrow morning if Buddy hasn’t shown up you should ask him about that, Sheriff.”
Virgil looked at Jimmy shoving the last piece of cake in his mouth and smiled. Then he stood up.
“Good idea, Jimmy. I’ll have to remember that. You’d better get back to town now before any other folks go missing.”
“Yes, sir.” Jimmy stood to go. Then he hesitated.
“What is it, Officer?”
Jimmy smiled. Virgil knew Jimmy liked the title.
“There was something else. Oh, yes. A call from Hayward Ranch. They want you to come out. I think Mrs. Hayward wants to see you.”
“Okay, Jimmy. I’ll take care of it.”
Virgil stood on the porch and watched as the patrol car went down the driveway, a cloud of dust trailing its path. When it was out of sight, he looked into the night. A few clouds still showed on the horizon but he didn’t think they held much promise. The air was dry. A bare hush of a breeze stirred a few leaves on the cottonwood. A couple of peepers could be heard from the creek on the other side of the barn. The broken flight of a few bats from the barn could be made out, but that was pretty much it. He was alone. He pulled up the chair by the wall outside the front door. He sat so that he could rest his stocking feet on the porch railing, the chair tilted at a slight angle.
He thought of Jimmy. He had been one of those kids that nobody outside of his family wanted, least of all to be hired as a deputy. Virgil was not unaware of Jimmy’s limitations, but he liked him. Always had. His father was a drunk who died young. His mother tried hard, but was one of those people for whom life was too much. So Jimmy pretty much raised himself. From where Virgil stood, he hadn’t done a half-bad job. He didn’t end up into drugs or trouble when a lot of kids who had a lot more did. The turning point seemed to be when Virgil picked him up off the ground after some kids beat him up in back of Talbot’s hardware store. From then on it seemed like Jimmy was always around. Virgil would occasionally buy him a taco or give him a ride when he saw him walking along the road, usually on his way to the trailer he shared with his mother and younger sister down by the river. He started coming into the office and Virgil began to give him odd jobs. Rosie, the dispatcher, started giving him clothes that her kids had outgrown. Being his family had become a joint project. Even Dave, Rosie’s husband and Virgil’s longtime deputy, warmed to Jimmy. By the time it became necessary to take on another deputy Virgil had made his mind up. When the mayor and council balked at the idea, he was ready. He had long since come to the conclusion that Jimmy was not simpleminded or a half-wit like many described him. Virgil knew Jimmy just hadn’t been exposed to what most kids get growing up in a normal family environment. So when he took him on two years ago, he knew it was going to be a work in progress.
As he sat mulling over Jimmy’s report, he thought about Buddy Hinton, Wade Travis, and the rest of the boys. They were not unknown to him in his official capacity, and Virgil had a gut feeling where this was going to lead. Which led him back to Hayward Ranch and the summons from Audrey Hayward. He sat in the dark a long time, trying to enjoy the night and the quiet, but he was uneasy about what the morning light would bring.
The sun rose from the earth in white heat. Virgil squinted in its light even though it was not yet seven. He stood on the porch, his second cup of coffee in his hand, contemplating his immediate future. A movement caught his eye. He saw the slight figure of a man emerge from one of the barns. He knew Cesar had started his day even earlier than he had. While he sipped his black coffee, he watched the man’s quiet movements as he went in and out of the paired barns. At last he emerged, carrying a small basket. Virgil watched and waited.
“Doesn’t look like a full basket.”
“Too hot . . .” Virgil stepped aside as the man walked past, then followed him into the kitchen, swallowing the remnants of his coffee. Cesar went directly to the refrigerator. After he placed five or six eggs in a bowl on a shelf inside, he closed the door, placed the basket on the counter, and poured the last of the coffee in a mug. Virgil watched as he took his first swallow.
“I’m probably gone all day. Don’t bother checking the stock tanks. When I get home this evening, I’ll do it. Jack could use the exercise. It’ll be cooler then.”
Cesar didn’t reply.
“Buddy Hinton’s gone missing . . . I gotta look into it.”
Again Cesar said nothing.
“You want to tell me anything?” He looked at the man he had known all his life. The dark, weathered face showed little change; only in the black eyes was there a hint.
“Maybe, a girl . . . a picker at Hayward Ranch. There’s a bunch there already getting things ready and helping with the cattle even though harvest is a long way off . . .”
“Okay . . . I’ll check.” Virgil stood and walked toward the door. “See you tonight. Take it easy today, old man.”
“Old man,” Cesar said.
Virgil half smiled and stepped out onto the porch. He got into his car. Jack and three other horses galloped across the field that bordered the county road, heading for the barn as Virgil drove by. It was a scene he’d witnessed as long as he could remember, but it never failed to get his blood racing. He hit the horn, then swerved around a tractor pulling a hay wagon.
The ride into Hayward took less than fifteen minutes. Although it was the county seat, there wasn’t a lot to recommend it. The population had hung in for the last decade at about ten thousand. The nonlegals didn’t count in that figure, though everyone knew that without them there would be a lot less reason for the majority of the ten thousand to stay. It was the kind of town where a dog could take a nap in the middle of Main Street during the day with little fear of becoming a traffic casualty. Virgil drove around the back and parked in the dirt lot.
“Coffee’s got a few more minutes, Virgil.” Rosie was not the kind to waste time on formality. She and Dave had been with Virgil ever since he became sheriff. Virgil looked at the clock hanging on the wall over her head. It was just eight thirty.
“Hope you’re not looking for overtime, coming in this early.”
“As if,” Rosie said. “By the way, did Jimmy catch up with you last night?”
“Yes. He told me about Buddy. I’m going to look into it today if he hasn’t shown up.”
“Well he hasn’t. Viola called about ten minutes before you got in. She said they haven’t seen him. He never came home. Charlie’s been out looking. No trace of him or his pickup. Maybe you should go look for sign.”
“Look for sign?”
“Well, I always heard you people could track a duck across water.”
“Yeah . . . well that’s only if you’re FBI.”
“Full-Blooded Indian,” he said. “Remember, I’m only a half-breed.”
“Does that mean you’re only right half the time?”
“Hey, don’t forget, you’re talking to the guy who can lock you up and throw away the key.”
“Yeah. I know. Next, you’ll be taking out the handcuffs. You into that bondage thing, Virgil?”
“Not with a married woman, especially one that’s got a husband that can shoot like yours. By the way, to get professional for a minute . . . Where is Dave?”
“He slept over last night at the substation. Alex was going to meet him this morning and they were going to look into that report of cattle gone missing over near Redbud.”
“Cattle rustling. Guess the Old West is alive and well.”
“In this economy, it’s probably just somebody trying to cut down on their meat bill.”
“You may be right, but we still can’t ignore it. Tell Dave if it’s like that to call me before he does anything. We don’t want some poor guy going to jail for trying to put meat on the table for his kids. You can get me on the radio. I’m heading over to talk to Wade Travis to see if he can point me in the direction Buddy might have gone. Then I’ll be going to Hayward Ranch.”
He gave a slight wave and started for the door.
“Virgil!” Rosie called.
He stopped with his hand on the knob.
“Be careful,” she said. “I got kind of a funny feeling about this.”
Virgil nodded then went out the door.
* * *
Wade Travis was a little rough around the edges, but he was good at what he did. He was the go-to guy for any kind of automotive repairs in Hayward. He had been trying to put together a NASCAR team, and they’d even had some local success, but the problem was his boys were long on wanting and short on reliable.
Virgil pulled into the station. He got out and filled up his tank, all the while looking for Wade. A teenager in the office pointed him in the right direction. Around back he saw a car up on ramps with a couple of legs protruding from underneath the front end.
“Wade, you got a minute?”
Wade, on a dolly, rolled out from under the car. “Well, if it ain’t the law. How did you know it was me under there?”
“I’m a good detective. Besides, the rattler that got you a couple years back left two pretty nice identifying marks on that left leg. It’ll help them figure out who you are if they ever find you tangled up in one of those cars after you hit the wall doing a hundred forty.”
“A hundred forty? Hell, that’s only second gear. So I guess I owe this visit to Buddy.”
“Don’t know what I can tell you, Sheriff. We got to drinking a little tequila, lost track of time. Buddy went outside . . . maybe to howl at the moon or to work up the courage to swallow the worm. But he never did come back.”
“And you didn’t look for him?”
“To tell the honest-to-God truth, the shape I was in I’d a probably gone missing myself if I was to go lookin’ for Buddy. Besides, he ain’t exactly a juvenile.”
“Let’s try another tack. Do you have any idea where he might have gone?”
Wade squinted in the sun then ran his hand over his three-day beard. “Maybe he decided to take a little trip down to Juárez and find himself a girlfriend from a foreign country.”
“That’s a long way to go. I understand there’s some nice-looking pecan pickers over at Hayward Ranch.”
“Yes, Sheriff. Heard the same thing. Gotta be kind of careful there. Some of those boys with them are pretty quick with a knife. Least that’s what I’ve heard. Sorry I can’t give you more, Sheriff. But like I told you and Charlie Hinton, if I hear something, I’ll give you a call.”
Virgil sat in the car, completely unsatisfied. As he reached toward the ignition key the red light on the radio lit up.
“What’s up, Rosita?”
“Rosita . . . Haven’t heard that for a while. Sounds like maybe you’re doing some heavy thinking.”
“Kind of goes with the job. What have you got?”
“Alex called in. He and Dave found two cows or what was left of them. Looks like somebody needed meat for the table like you said. They’re wondering what to do next.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Alex says he thinks they’re from the Grafton Ranch, based on where they found them. The brands were cut out.”
“Give me a minute, Rosie.” Virgil took off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. He knew the Grafton Ranch bordered the reservations. He also knew there wasn’t a lot of love lost between the two neighbors. He picked up the speaker. “Rosie, tell the boys to hold off for now. I’ll get back to them.”
“Virgil, Alex said the two steers were not exactly prime. Must have been some poor people outside of Redbud.”
“I know, Rosie.” There was a long pause. “Okay, tell Dave to indicate in his report that these kills might be a red wolf predator. The feds can reimburse the loss to the Grafton Ranch and we can keep the peace. I know they’re trying to reintroduce those wolves, so the feds might not balk at reimbursing. Then tell him and Alex when they are on patrol to keep a lookout for Buddy’s pickup.
“Got it. Ten-four.”
* * *
By the time he got to Hayward Ranch, it was a little after two. It had been a long time since he’d been here. None of his most recent visits had been memorable. He doubted that this one would be any different. As he turned off the road heading to the main house, he had a familiar apprehension. He knew there was no use trying to chalk it up to the refried beans. He’d only be lying to himself. Row after row of pecan trees lined the drive. Their perfect symmetry contrasted with the mixed feelings he had whenever he came to this place. For a fleeting second, he saw an image of himself running through the rows, a young girl in hot pursuit, a smile on his face. Quick as it came, the reverie passed. Like a flashback of someone else’s life . . .
But no, he knew it was his and he would never forget it.
At the center of Hayward Ranch, a house they called Crow’s Nest stood on a knoll, looking down on a half-breed sheriff. As he drove up to it, he wondered who was more misplaced.
There wasn’t another house in the county or probably the state like it. A huge Queen Anne–style Victorian, capped by a widow’s walk, it should have been perched on some craggy rock face on a lonely New England coast. Instead, it looked down on a sea of pecan trees. The history behind its coming to be in this place was of course something that he, Virgil Dalton, sheriff of Hayward, had heard long ago from a girl named Rusty.
A newly widowed man named Hayward from those far New England shores, a man who had amassed a fortune in the triangle trade, had taken his two sons, Caleb and Micah, out onto the ocean for the first time. A storm hit. Waves pounded the sides of the ship. Snapped like matchsticks, the mainmast and then the mizzen both crashed to the deck. The ship was driven into the rocks.
The two boys clung to each other, watching as one after another man disappeared from topside into the sea. The father, a captain no longer, held on to the two as long as he could, until he, too, was torn away. Micah and Caleb Hayward, locked together as Siamese twins, awaited their fate. A wave snatched them with the beam their father had tied them to. It bore them from wave to wave until at last they felt the ground beneath their feet.
They left that place to never again return, to never again feel the sea spray on their faces. In coming to this dry place, so many miles away, they built their future and this house, so named Crow’s Nest, to always remind them of why they came and what they left. In the years since, the Hayward Ranch had grown far beyond its original boundaries. Pecans, cattle, even an entire trucking operation outside of Redbud on the opposite end of the county, where most of the business end of the ranch was managed, gave witness to the descendants of the original Micah and Caleb.
* * *
“Hello, Sheriff.” The voice came from a chair on the porch as Virgil climbed the stairs.
“Hello, Micah.” The names had managed to survive the passage of time long after their original owners.
“What can I do for you?”
“Actually, I got a call that you wanted to see me.”
“That wasn’t me. It was probably Mother but I have no idea what it was about. She doesn’t always confide in me.”
Virgil didn’t miss the sarcasm in his voice. Despite his history with Audrey, he had a certain affection and empathy for Micah. Micah had never been able to escape his mother’s control. Maybe if his older brother, Caleb, had survived Vietnam, things would have been different. After Caleb’s death, he never had a chance. His life had been determined.
Or maybe if Rusty . . . The image that popped into Virgil’s head cut as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. He gripped the railing hard.
“I’ll see if Mother’s ready to see you. Come on up and have a seat.” Micah disappeared inside the massive front door.
Virgil stepped up onto the porch but did not sit. He looked out over the acres of trees and the collection of barns and outbuildings which housed the machinery that helped to sustain the family fortune. Beyond the barns he saw the farm roads which branched off the driveway and divided the orchard into equal parts. They wound for close to a mile before crossing the top of a distant hill. Virgil knew that one of them led to a collection of bunkhouses which housed the migrant population that was used to harvest the abundant crop. The population grew this time of year, but there was always a nucleus of farmhands.
“Virgil, she’s ready to see you.”
He turned at the sound of the voice, then followed Micah into the house.
“In the study.” Micah pointed to the opened door at the end of the hall just to the left of the central stairs that led up to the second floor. “I don’t think my presence is desired so I’ll leave you. By the way, Virgil, it was good seeing you.” He turned away then stopped. “I wish . . .” He hesitated. “I wish things had been different.”
The two looked at each other. Virgil gave a slight nod, then Micah turned away and walked through the door on the other side of the stairs. Virgil took a breath then walked into the study.
He hadn’t been in the room for many years, but he realized that it was virtually unchanged from the room of his memory. There was little about Audrey Hayward’s office that suggested family, but then it was only in Rusty’s room that he had ever felt at ease. He stopped himself before the thought led him down another path he didn’t want to go down.
“Have a seat.” Audrey Hayward’s voice was without emotion. No greeting accompanied it.
“I’ll stand,” Virgil said.
For the first time, their eyes met. She sat back in the chair, her back to the window, a short stack of papers on the desk in front of her. She pushed them to the side, than took off her glasses and laid them on top.
“Yes, I guess you will.” Her hair was whiter than he remembered, with just a hint of the russet color that she had passed on to her only daughter. There was little of the softness in her face that Rusty always had. Virgil wondered if there had ever been softness in those eyes.
“You never did take direction.”
He bridled at the comment but showed nothing.
“I understand that there are people who would like to see you as district attorney. Politically correct, I assume, you being indigenous and educated. A law degree, too . . .” She paused as if waiting for a denial. “Anyhow, Micah is thinking about the state senate.”
“Does he know this yet?”
He saw the tightness come into her face.
“Anyhow . . . this idea for you. I don’t think it’s a good one. It seems to me . . .”
Virgil raised his hand. “I am not your son. Whatever I decide to do or not to do will be my decision.”
She didn’t respond.
“If that is all, I’ll be on my way.”
She finally stood up, her hands resting on her desk. “I should have known there would be no reasoning with you. I curse the day you ever set foot in this house.”
“So do I, but for a much different reason.”
When Virgil stepped off the porch a few moments later, the heat rose in layers, making a shimmering impressionist watercolor of the landscape. There were no sharp lines, everything softened and blurred. High overhead in the cloudless sky a hawk circled, looking for its next meal. A couple of men came out of the nearest barn. Micah was with them. They stood for a minute talking. By the time Virgil had gotten to his car, Micah had stepped away and was walking back up to the house.
“How did your visit with Mother go?” he asked with a trace of a smile.
“Pretty much the way I reckoned it would.”
“Yes . . . well . . .”
Virgil accidentally brushed the car door with his hand. “Damn!”
“Careful. You get branded here, you’re in for life just like me.”
“I’ll try to remember that.” Virgil opened the car door, then took a step back from the rush of contained heat. “By the way, Mike . . .” It had been years since he had called him by the name. “Does Buddy Hinton work on the place here?”
“No. He’s down in Redbud at the trucking operation. Works on the trucks and drives . . . long hauls. I don’t get down there as often as I should. Why do you ask?”
“Well, he’s gone missing. Or so it seems.”
“Did you check with Cal? He’s pretty much running that part of the business these days. He’s caught on real quick since he came home and I’m not just saying that ’cause he’s my son. Even my mother says he and Virginia give her hope for the future.”
“I haven’t checked with him yet, but thanks for the update.” Virgil tipped his hand to his Stetson then got into the car.
When he got onto the paved road, he called Rosie. “I’m heading down to Redbud. Then I’ll stop at Hintons’ on the way back.”
“Good idea, Virgil. Viola called again. She’s pretty upset.”
“I’ll be back around five. Jimmy’s coming in around four, I believe. See you then if you’re still there.”
The ride to Redbud took a little more than half an hour. It was due west of Hayward so he was driving into the sun. By the time he got to Redbud, he was working on a pretty good headache. Redbud was little more than a wide spot in the road and the boundary at the western edge of the county, nevertheless it was a good spot for Hayward Trucking since it was so close to the interchange at the interstate. Because of the operation, in the last ten years there had been a minor population boom. At the only light in town, a gas station had opened with a mini-mart, and across the street a fast-food restaurant. Lately, there had been talk that a large motel was going to be built.
Virgil made a right at the one light, crossed the railroad tracks, and headed down the gravel road that dead-ended at Hayward Trucking. He had been there only once before and was surprised at how much it had grown. He saw at least ten semis parked perpendicular to the chain-link that encompassed the facility. Another couple were backed up to the loading dock. A few of the men were eating ice cream and standing next to an ice cream truck. He parked outside the separate office, which sat alongside a huge warehouse.
There was a receptionist sitting at a desk just inside the front door. Virgil didn’t recognize her, but he did recognize a couple of people on the other side of the glass partition separating her from the inner office. They were busy at their computers, entering data from stacks of invoices or bills of lading.
“Can I help you?” The girl looked to be in her early twenties and eager.
“Yes. I’d like to see Caleb Hayward if possible.”
“I’m sorry. He’s not here right now and I doubt if he’ll be back much before five. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“It’s about one of your employees . . . Buddy Hinton.”
“Buddy Hinton,” she said. “I don’t recognize that name. I’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“You might know him as Charles Hinton Jr., but that’s okay. I think I see someone who can help me.”
Virgil stepped to the glass and knocked loudly. All the people inside immediately looked up. He gestured toward one of them. The man started walking quickly toward the door that led into the reception area. “This fella will be good enough,” he said to the girl at the desk.
“Hey, Virgil,” the man said as he came through the door.
“Step outside for a minute, Carlos.” Virgil retreated through the door he had just entered. Carlos followed.
“There a problem?”
“Not for you, Carlos. I need some info on Buddy Hinton. He still works here, right?”
“Well, I guess so. I’m not sure. Haven’t seen him in a while. He usually does long hauls, but I heard there was some kind of dustup. I’m in the office usually, so the most I see Buddy is when we play ball together. Once the season’s over, not so much. I’m married, a couple of kids. My lifestyle’s a little different from Buddy’s. If I run into him down at the Black Bull, we’ll have a beer together, but that’s about it.”
“Do you know who he had the dustup with?”
“Sorry, Sheriff. This is a pretty big place. Stuff happens.”
“Didn’t realize this operation had grown so much.”
“Yeah, this place is always hopping. We ship all over.”
“But pecan harvest isn’t for another couple of months.”
“We’re pretty much year-round now. We have the two-week shutdown coming up, but even then there’s a crew here taking care of what’s left of last year’s inventory before the new harvest. Things are a little slower but not much.”
“So you have no idea what the problem was.”
“Not really. I just heard he was upset about something. One of the guys said it had to do with a transit problem, but I don’t know.”
“Okay, Carlos. Thanks. Say hello back home. By the way, if you hear anything that you think I might like to know, call.”
“Will do, Sheriff.”
Virgil watched as Carlos walked back inside. As far as Buddy Hinton was concerned, at this point he was digging a dry well. He hated to go to the Hintons’ empty-handed, but it didn’t look like he had much choice. A few minutes later he was back on the road. The sun was now at his back, but he still had the headache.
* * *
Jimmy Tillman was ready to go to work. He tossed the ball a few more times to his twelve-year-old sister, Abby, then he hopped on his bike. He worked hard to make sure her life as a twelve-year-old was much better than his had been.
“Jimmy, can I have a ride on your bike?”
“Not now, Abby. Gotta go to work.”
He saw the disappointment on her face.
“Tomorrow maybe,” he said. “We’ll even stop and get a slushy and fish off the bridge.”
He didn’t wait to see the transformation, just gave a wave. It didn’t bother him that the town council wouldn’t let him take a cruiser home. He liked the exercise because he knew once he started making his rounds he’d be sitting most of his shift. Besides, Virgil had told him he was going to see to it at the next meeting that the policy changed. Twenty minutes later, he was walking through the back door of the sheriff’s office.
“Hey, Jimmy, you’re early. I just got off the horn with Virgil. He was just leaving Redbud.”
“Anything happening? About Buddy, I mean?”
“Nothing yet. No trace. It’s starting to get worrisome.”
“Maybe since I’m early I’ll go have a look-see.”
“That’s fine. I’ll be here for another hour.”
Jimmy knew he had a lot to learn, and he was paying attention, especially to Virgil. There had been men in his life, of course. His dad for a little while, but it was hard to remember him sober. Then there was Grandpa. He was always good to Jimmy and glad to see him when he stopped over, but Jimmy did that less and less since Grandpa’s latest woman. She was meaner than a snake and Jimmy couldn’t figure out why Grandpa would want any part of her. But then he’d come to understand there was a lot about people that was a complete mystery to him. That was, with the exception of Virgil. To Jimmy’s way of thinking, there was Virgil, then all the others. He would walk barefoot over broken glass for a mile if Virgil asked him. It was as if his life was going nowhere before Virgil came along. Now he couldn’t think of his life as being anything without him.
Once in his car, he headed out of town, crossing the bridge that he and Abby would probably fish from the next day. He rode pretty much aimlessly around town, stopping at occasional places where he thought Buddy might be. He ended up at the Black Bull. It had been the local watering hole on and off for the last thirty years and the last place where anyone had seen Buddy Hinton.
Jimmy got out of his car and stood in the parking lot. There was no sign of life yet. His was the only car in front. He saw some staff cars around back. It would be at least another hour before the first beer of the day would be poured. Jimmy wandered around, not quite sure what he was looking for, although the thought struck him that everyone was convinced that Buddy had taken off from here for parts unknown. He wondered if maybe that wasn’t the case.
He walked around the back of the roadhouse. There were a couple of Dumpsters, a lot of broken glass, and not much else. The sun bounced off the shards of glass all over the lot and even on the hillsides that marked the boundary of the flatland on which the building stood. Obviously, Buddy had only been one in a long string to come out and howl at the moon. Some had obviously climbed to the top of the ridge in back during their lunar sojourn—maybe not alone and maybe leaning on each other—looking for a little privacy.
Jimmy noticed for the first time there was a snakelike cut between the sloping hills. He walked toward it. Where it disappeared around one of the slopes, he saw a tire track. Probably, he thought, somebody too drunk to walk tried getting to the top with their four-wheel drive. He reckoned the hardpan at the beginning of the climb wouldn’t show a tread but the softer sand midway up would. The upward swath, he realized, was wide enough for a vehicle, but why anyone would chance it just for a little sweet-talking when there were a lot more accessible places was beyond him. Barren desert for miles, it led nowhere. It would be a miserable place to get stuck. He continued the climb, sweat freely running down his back. The rough path snaked for a quarter mile or so, then started a gradual straight-up climb onto the ridge.
There was no more sign of tire tread, but the ground was so hard and baked that was not surprising. The sun beat down on him, evaporating the sweat before it got a chance to mark his shirt. He walked along the top of the ridge, looking down on the barren landscape that stretched to the horizon. Cottonwoods, cholla, and tumbleweed filled the flatland and in the deep draws that creviced the earth.
Then a brighter flash of reflected light caught his eye. He scrambled along the ridge in order to be able to look into the crevasse. The reflected light hit his eyes at such a sharp angle that he had to shield them with both hands when he finally stood over the draw. There, down fifty feet below him, he saw what he realized had brought him to this place. It was Buddy Hinton’s truck.
“So, you’re sure that’s Buddy’s truck.”
“Yessir, Virgil. I checked. Went down there myself. A 150, blue with the white stripe down the sides just like Buddy drives.”
“You went down there?” Virgil looked down over the edge of the ravine as he spoke. “Jimmy, you could have broken your neck. What were you thinking? Should have waited till somebody got here. Hell, if that had happened, I’d have been shorthanded.”
“I had to check,” Jimmy said. “See if Buddy was down there. He coulda been lying there hurt for two days. I just couldn’t wait.”
“I know, Jimmy. Woulda done the same thing myself. It’s just that I don’t want to lose one of my top men.”
A sideways glance told Virgil his pat on the back had been received.
“Good detective work,” Virgil said, “but you know there’s a lot of 150s around here. How do we know for sure this is Buddy’s? I bet there’s more than a couple with those white stripes.”
“It definitely is,” Jimmy said proudly. “When I came back up, I ran the plates.”
“Follow-up,” Virgil said, smiling. “That’s what it’s all about.” He looked out over the wide expanse. Shadows were lengthening. He knew the truck would probably have to sit there until the next morning. It was already past six.
“What are we gonna do, Virgil?”
“There’s not much we can do. It’s getting late.”
“I know, but what about Buddy?”
“Well, we know he’s not down there. From what you described I don’t think he ever was. So we just have to keep on looking.”
“Whaddya think happened to him?”
Virgil looked down at the truck one last time then stepped back from the rim.
“I don’t think it looks too good for Buddy,” Virgil said. “It’s not likely he drove that truck off this ridge for no good reason. So I figure someone else did it. That leaves me with only one conclusion. That person alone knows what became of Buddy.”
Jimmy headed back to town. Virgil stood in the Black Bull parking lot watching him until he was out on the county road. A couple of cars had pulled in carrying some workmen with an early thirst. One or two hesitated when they saw Virgil’s car but he waved to them to let them know that they could go on in. He absentmindedly kicked a stone with his foot while he digested what he’d just learned. He was happy with Jimmy’s success and handling of everything. Now he was wrestling with his next step, his visit to the Hintons’. At least he had something to tell them now, even if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. And there was no way he could say it that would make it less fearful.
He tried to ignore it, but that feeling that had been gnawing at him more and more was getting stronger. This whole thing was going to end badly.
For Buddy, it probably already had.
It was almost eight when Virgil started for home. He was thinking about Viola and Charlie Hinton. He wished he had more for them. They were the kind of people you wanted to do for. About as close to normal as you could get in this crazy world. He’d told them about the truck and how they’d get it out of that ravine the next day and look it over real carefully. It wasn’t much to offer, but it was something.
They didn’t say much. Viola insisted he have a glass of iced tea. He’d accepted and sat awhile, trying to talk of unrelated things. It was as if they were choosing not to speculate, but Virgil knew. This was the one piece of information he’d given them that would maybe start preparing them for the worst. He’d seen it in their eyes. The only spoken hint was when he got to his car to leave. Viola and Charlie had walked across the yard with him.
“Well, folks,” he said as he opened the car door, “I wish I had more for you.”
“Thank you, Sheriff, for what you gave us. It ain’t much, but it’s something. Buddy sure did like that truck.”
Charlie looked at Viola when he spoke. She nodded. That’s when Virgil knew they were getting ready.
It had been a long day. He shut off the AC and rolled down all the windows. The warm breeze felt good. The shadows had overtaken the hillsides, and everything else was bathed in a soft glow. He was looking forward to a ride into the high country to check on the stock tanks. It was probably unnecessary, but it made him feel like he hadn’t completely abandoned the day-to-day that had to be done on his place. Ever since he’d become sheriff, he’d been forced to let Cesar and a couple of hired hands pretty much run things. It struck him how much his life had changed, yet stayed the same. If anyone had told him right after college that this was going to be his future, he would have questioned their sanity. Hayward was the last place he expected to end up. He’d seen one tumbleweed too many. There were places to go and things to do. Or so he thought.
He remembered sitting in a bar one late afternoon in Bisbee, on his way home from school. It was a nice town, about the size of Hayward but a few rungs up the ladder in chic. He’d never been there before and he was thirsty and hungry, so he’d stopped. The cold beer tasted good. It was cool and pretty quiet. He’d been thinking a lot about his future and law school.
“One on the house,” the bartender said, breaking his reverie.
“Thanks,” Virgil said. “Nice town.”
“Yeah, it is. See the Hole?”
“On your way into town. It’s probably the main thing we’re famous for.”
Virgil remembered the huge crater he’d passed on his way in. “Yes, that’s some hole,” he said.
For the next five minutes the bartender talked about what a tourist attraction it was, how people marveled when they saw it. The five minutes sitting with that cold beer, listening to that bartender, had been a moment of clarity for him. Not to denigrate the good people of Bisbee, but he wanted to live in a place that was known for more than just a hole in the ground. That was his epiphany when he left the bar. Convinced, he went home.
Then he fell in love with Rusty.
All these years later, here he was in Hayward. And there wasn’t even a hole.
* * *
“Why do you have Jack in the stall?”
“Picked up a stone, got a little bruise. A day or two. Just a little rest. He’ll be fine.”
Virgil reached over the stall door and stroked the horse.
“Guess you’re going to wait for another day, pal.” He grabbed a halter and a lead rope off a hook next to Jack’s stall. Then he walked from the barn out into the corral. A few minutes later, he was back, leading a young bay mare. Cesar looked up as he threw a last flake of hay to Jack.
“That hay smells good,” Virgil said. “Got some nice color, too. Wonder if we’re gonna get a second cutting?”
“Pretty dry. Not if this heat keeps up. You still going? Getting late.”
“Yeah. I need to get out. Besides, I been out in the dark before.”
“I’m just saying be careful. She’s not Jack.”
Virgil looked at the horse calmly standing next to him, tail swishing slowly in the evening air.
“Still water runs deep,” Cesar said, as if reading Virgil’s mind.
“She’ll be fine. Look at her, doesn’t have a mean thought in her head.”
Cesar shrugged and shook his head.
“Thought the same thing about my second wife, till she slid a knife between my ribs.”
“Yeah, but you probably gave her plenty of reason. I’m just gonna sweet-talk this little gal right through the ride.”
While he bantered with Cesar, Virgil finished saddling. He kneed the horse firmly in the abdomen, then drew the cinch a couple of notches tighter.
“Sucked in some air, didn’t she? She’s not too anxious for a ride up into them hills in the dark.”
“There’s a full moon. It won’t be total dark for another hour. She’s just letting me know you been slow at your work. Ain’t been using her enough. I’m gone all day, and you, Pete, and Joe spend a lot of time leaning on fence posts talking about your past and future amorous adventures.”
“Pedro and José ain’t hardly had any amorous adventures worth talking about.”
“So you’re the only one worth listening to. Cesar, the great lover. Boy, conversation around here must be a lot duller than I thought.”
Cesar mumbled something Virgil couldn’t make out.
“What did you say? Must be all the noise in here. Couldn’t hear you.”
Virgil waited for a response as he flipped the reins over the mare’s head, getting ready to lead her from the quiet barn. This time Cesar spoke in the loudest voice Virgil had heard in a long time.
Excerpted from "Death at the Black Bull"
Copyright © 2014 Frank Hayes.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Move over, Walt Longmire. There’s a new sheriff in town. Virgil Dalton is the kind of character that comes along maybe once a decade—a classic Western hero and so much more. When you’re done with Frank Hayes’ stellar debut, Death at the Black Bull, you’ll smell the sagebrush in the air and have to clean the dust off your boots. An absolute must-read for fans of Craig Johnson and Tony Hillerman.” —Reed Farrel Coleman, Shamus Award–winning author of The Hollow Girl
“This is one of the most impressive debut crime novels I’ve ever read. There’s such depth and humanity in the characters, such tension in the story itself, and the sense of place is as good as it gets. I know I’ll be reading every book in this series!” —Steve Hamilton, Edgar Award–winning author of Let It Burn
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a book worthy of your time, especially - as a fellow author and reviewer noted - if you enjoy the books of Craig Johnson, Tony Hillerman & David and Aimee Thurlo. Virgil is a seasoned sheriff in a small southwestern town who thinks he's got a pretty good handle on his patch and its people. But when a local man is found dead in what is first thought an accident and then proven to be a murder, the investigation proves just how wrong Virgil is. Virgil is an engaging main character with a good supporting cast around him. The storyline held my interest, even if it felt at times there might be too much going on for one book. And the denouement of the murderer's identity wasn't a huge surprise, given the late-in-the-game clues the author provided. Overall, still a very enjoyable read and I look forward to the next installment.
pretty good but not wonderful
After half way thru this debut I ordered his next novel. This is an author to watch! Highly entertaining and highly recommended!!!!
In this debut novel from Frank Hayes, we are introduced to Virgil Dalton, past forty and a life-long resident of the Southwestern town of Hayward, where he has been sheriff for over a dozen years. The run-of-the-mill crimes with which Virgil and his mentee and deputy, Jimmy, usually have to handle bear no relation to Virgil’s discovery of the body of a dead man, also a long-time resident and known and well-liked by all (or nearly all, it would appear). The man had not been seen since his usual night drinking at the Black Bull, a local drinking establishment/roadhouse frequented by most of the residents, Virgil included. Hayward, the county seat, has a small population and one traffic light to brag about, and as with many such towns near the Mexican border, harbors a common prejudice against those born in Mexico, in the US illegally or deemed “half-breeds” among their less enlightened neighbors. Virgil himself is a half-breed, although indigenous and with a good education, including a law degree. The murder does not appear to Virgil to have been a random act, and Virgil becomes more and more convinced there is much more to it than a single lethal act, and determines to try to get to the bottom of what motivated the crime. “For him, this investigation had suddenly turned into more than he had expected, more than just a killing in a small town.” The writing is beautiful, e.g., the night when the dead man’s body is found is, for Virgil, an evening when “the earth held its breath in expectation,” and he has “an innate sense of premonition. When he had ignored such thoughts, or passed them off as coincidence, they had always come back to haunt him, so he had learned to live with them. Never confortably. Always reluctantly.” He looks up at “a night sky that couldn’t hold another star. . . He breathed deep the smells of the ranch . . . the mixed perfume was more than green grass, cut hay, and manure. It was home.” The author can take his place in the landscape of the Far West staked out by Tony Hillerman and, more recently, his daughter, Anne Hillerman, as well as Craig Johnson. “Death at the Black Bull is a very satisfying read, and is recommended.
A great little mystery with wonderful characters, a gorgeous setting, and an unexpected ending!
Dollycas’s Thoughts This is a great debut from Frank Hayes! He has created a wonderful character in Virgil Dalton. Virgil is half Native American and in addition to being the Sheriff of Hayward he is also a rancher and a lawyer. When Buddy Hinton disappears he thinks the guy has just run off but when his body is found he soon realizes big town trouble has come to the little town of Hayward. All the clues lead back to the Black Bull, a local watering hole for ranch hands on and off for 30 years. With the help of his small band of deputies and insight from his ranch manager, Cesar, and his grandfather that lives on the reservation, Virgil starts to put the pieces together and uncovers more than a few secrets. I was in the mood to read something a little different so I grabbed this book and once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. Hayes is a terrific storyteller. He is a very descriptive writer. I felt like I was watching a movie instead of reading a book. He also fleshed out his characters in a way that truly engaged me as a reader. The final twist was a real shocker too! This really can’t be Frank Hayes first novel. He is definitely an author to watch.