Virgil knows that his sleepy hometown is starting to reflect the times, in good ways and bad. It still comes as a shock when his deputy is almost killed by the body of a woman falling from the highway overpass onto his car. A woman who had been fleeing for her life…
Then longtime resident Velma Thompson is found dead on her porch—her husband missing. To search for the man, Virgil saddles up and heads to the High Lonesome, the rugged mountains above their ranch. And on a wind-swept mesa, he’ll find the first clues that point to a killer whose body count has only just begun…
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Praise for Death at the Black Bull
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Frank Hayes
Jimmy Tillman hardly ever went on the interstate. As a deputy sheriff from the town and county of Hayward, it was out of his jurisdiction. It was under state authority, patrolled by state police. However, during nightly patrols, he would pass under it. This night was no exception. He had already done so twice. The nearest interchange was down near Redbud, almost twenty miles away. The law enforcement for that part of the county was covered by Dave Brand and Alex Rankin, who staffed the substation there. Dave was Rosita’s husband. She was the glue that kept the sheriff’s office in Hayward together. There was talk of adding another interchange, closer to Hayward, if the town kept up its slow but steady growth.
Jimmy had time to think about all of this as he made his nightly rounds. He thought, too, about the unspoken change in his status as recognized by the town council in approving his 24/7 use of the patrol car. He knew this was in no small way due to Virgil Dalton, sheriff, the closest thing to a father Jimmy ever had. When he was younger, long before he actually reached the rank of deputy, he had often fantasized about Virgil actually being his father. That had lasted until his real father had turned up again, staying around just long enough to give Jimmy a sister, Abby, twelve years younger. Shortly thereafter his mother said Jimmy’s father heard the sound of the outward bound. He left in the middle of the night like a bad dream. They’d had no word of him ever since.
It was a little after two in the a.m. when Jimmy pulled into the parking lot in back of the sheriff’s office. There had been some talk recently about paving the lot, but at present it was as it had always been. Once a year, usually in the spring, some Item 4 mixed with some half-inch stone was dumped and spread, so that by now clumps of weed had managed to get a foothold. There was even a small cactus growing by the door. Dif was snoozing at the desk by the radio, but sat up quickly when the door slammed in back of Jimmy. Dif had been a deputy under Virgil’s father, Sam Dalton. Now semiretired, he was a part-timer.
“Sorry,” Jimmy said.
“No, jist gotta get some java. You didn’t call in. Guess I kinda dozed off.”
“There was nothing to report. Dark and quiet out there. Summer’s done, kids are back in school. Guess they won’t get crazy till that first home game.”
“Yeah, football frenzy.” Dif poured two coffees and was carrying them to the small yard-sale table that sat against the far wall when Jimmy came out of the bathroom. “There’s a couple of doughnuts if you want to grab that box on the desk,” he said.
“No. Just think I’ll have my sandwich and a yogurt later when I take a break.”
“Eating healthy these days.”
“Trying to. Don’t get much exercise in the cruiser.”
“Yeah. Back in the day we made our rounds on foot. Course we could throw a rock from one end of town to the other. Only went out of town when we actually got a call. Coupla times a week Sam would do the perimeter on horseback. Think he liked it better than the patrol car. Me, never liked horses. They didn’t like me, either. Still got a half-moon scar on my ass from that piebald Sam used to ride. Virgil’s jist like Sam. He jist fits a horse.”
Jimmy, his mouth filled with sandwich, nodded at different points in Dif’s narrative. He was really happy that the town council went along with keeping Dif on part-time. Whenever Dif worked, Jimmy always made it a point to stop back at the office to eat and listen to Dif’s stories. He especially liked when Dif talked about the personal stuff. He had seen Virgil many times on horseback, but now he could see Sam Dalton astride, making his rounds. There was something mythic about it, introducing Jimmy to a life, a time, and a place he could only know from the mouths of people who had been around long before he came on the scene. Jimmy didn’t realize it, but he had become a student of history.
“Guess I’d better get back on my horse,” Jimmy said as he took a last swallow from his cup. He started to pick up his leavings.
“Let it go, Jimmy. I’ll clean up—got plenty of time. You like all those horses under the hood, don’t you?”
“Your first car, got all the bells and whistles and the town pays for it. My first car was a ’56 Bel Air Chevy, turquoise and white, best car I ever owned. Bought it secondhand of course. Drove that car everywhere. Across creeks during spring runoff, out in the desert, even took Edna on our honeymoon in it. Stayed in one of those cabins outside of Kingman up in the Hualapai. We jist about wore each other out—almost didn’t make it to the Grand Canyon. Yeah, had some good times with that car. Then, after I put near two hundred thousand miles on it, I sold it for almost as much as I paid for it to a college kid who wanted to restore it. Turns out it was a classic. Hell, that car is probably still driving around West Texas somewhere.” When Dif paused, Jimmy grabbed his Stetson off the table. He knew he didn’t have time for another reverie.
“Well, duty calls, Dif. Gotta get back out there and look for some criminals.” He opened the door. As he stepped through, he heard Dif’s last words.
“Take care, Jimmy. Them lawbreakers ain’t got a chance with you on the job.”
It was still black as pitch when Jimmy left for his last go-round. No moon, just dark. He thought about what Dif had said about only patrolling the town back when. Times had changed. It was not unusual for him to ring up over two hundred miles on the odometer. This night he decided to make his last run east of town, then north along the saddleback, the high ground on the other side of the interstate, then under the interstate for the last time, and home. He passed by the Black Bull. It was closed, no cars in the lot. He still got a hit of adrenaline when he thought about Buddy Hinton and what had happened to him there. Then he passed the grain silos by the railroad tracks, crossed over the tracks, went by a couple of houses, all but one unlit, and turned north.
When he got up on the saddleback high over the interstate he turned west. He knew even if he could see, there wasn’t much to see. The land up here was rough desert interspersed with stands of piñons, other conifers, and a lot of rock. Because of the altitude, it did have the payoff on a clear day of an expansive view of the valley.
He rarely took this route. He hit the brake lightly as an armadillo scooted across the road, again a little later for a mule deer. The land rose toward the mountains as he climbed. He rode along the ridgeline for about ten miles. Nothing, no sign of a light in the valley below. He was thinking a person could get swallowed up by the landscape out here.
He banked the cruiser to the left as he started his descent toward the underpass, which was less than a half mile away. For the first time, he saw headlights on the interstate. Truckers, most likely. Twenty minutes from now, he’d be shucking his boots, sitting on the edge of his bed. He braked as he came down the hill, slowing even more as the road started a sharp descent. The windows of the car were down. He could hear the traffic above—a couple of semis, he figured.
Emerging from the tunnel, he glimpsed something falling through the night sky. There was a deep, hollow thud. The wheel jumped out of his hand, the car veered to the left. Something crashed into the windshield, spraying him with shards of glass. He got his right hand on the wheel as the car slipped off the hard surface onto the shoulder. Trying to regain control, he yanked the wheel to the right, pulling harder then he should have. The vehicle spun, lurching across the road. He tried the brake to slow the downward momentum, but he was too late. The cruiser leaped off the embankment on the other side. He felt the sudden quiet when the rubber no longer met the road. There was a fleeting moment of expectation, then he heard the ripping of branches as the car carved out its path till it slammed into a tree at the bottom of the ravine. Jimmy’s last thought was that he had never known a night as dark as this one.
* * *
High sun managed to find ravines and depressions that a morning sun never could. The searching brightness fell on Jimmy’s car. The hood, smashed beyond repair, had just enough flat surface to bounce reflected light through the broken windshield onto Jimmy’s face. Jimmy squinted in its glare, then finally opened his eyes. Minutes passed. The light that brought him back to the world moved on. He fought to comprehend. Bits and pieces started to come together. No pain. Discomfort, yes, but no pain. There was a tightness, a cramped feeling, a deflated white balloon in his lap. He tried pushing it off to the side, but his left arm wouldn’t work. His right arm was free. It wasn’t a balloon, it was an air bag.
An accident. It all came flooding back. Something had fallen on him. What was it? His vision was partially obscured by of all things the branch of a piñon tree. He felt hot. There was also sweat running into his eyes, which he tried to wipe away with his free hand. When he took away his hand, he realized it wasn’t sweat. His hand was covered in blood. He looked down on the seat. He saw that it was saturated with crimson. There was a moment of near panic. He looked at the tree limb, then put his hand to the side of his head. He could feel the gash, a slice that ran from the tip of his forehead all the way back across his scalp to the back of his head. He knew that if he wanted to, he could lift the slice like a flap to expose his skull. Blood ran freely from the wound. He knew that scalp wounds bled profusely, but there was a lot of blood. He was literally sitting in a puddle. Hours, he realized, must have passed. How many? He knew he had to act before he passed out from the blood loss or he might never wake up. He couldn’t move anything but his right arm. The side of the car had jammed his left arm tight while his legs were held by the crushed front end. He managed to get a pen out of his shirt pocket. He stabbed at the air bag till he ripped it away. The dashboard was obliterated along with the radio. If he could reach the glove box, he knew his cell phone would be there, but the branch that scalped him blocked his effort. He could feel weakness starting to creep over him.
“No, no,” he said as he attacked the piñon, breaking off the shoots from the main limb. It took time. His fingers were cut by the sharp bark, but he didn’t stop. At last he could see an opening. He wasn’t able to see the glove box, but reaching across the console with his face buried in the still-attached branches he could feel the glove box. The impact of the crash had popped the door open, a bonus, he thought as he reached in and found his cell phone. The exertion had cost him. He knew he was fading. He punched in the number to the office, holding his breath hoping for service. Then the sweetest sound he ever heard. Rosita’s voice.
“Jimmy, where the hell are you?”
He felt like a stranger in his own world. Clouds of dust obscured the last of the trucks as he stood watching in the driveway. They would not be back. Virgil looked on till they reached the hard road, then stood even longer while the dust settled. When he moved at last, he turned to the two newly built barns that stood in the footprints of their predecessors. Bigger, gleaming, evidence of the latest in structural technology, they did nothing for him but confirm his displacement.
Almost reluctantly, he walked toward them. When he got close he could smell the sawn wood siding. He reached a side door, but before entering, he ran his fingers over the splintered roughness that butted the doorframe. Cesar had asked him the afternoon before, as one of the workers was putting the finishing touches on some trim, if he had thought of a color or if he just wanted to seal the wood, keeping it natural. Virgil’s lack of response caused him to repeat his question.
“Whatever we’re going to do to the outside, we maybe want to get done before winter. On the other hand, maybe we should just let the wood season till next year. What do you think?”
Virgil looked at Cesar like he was speaking in tongues. “I don’t know. Let me think on it.”
Cesar got up from his usual seat on the front porch. As he passed by Virgil’s chair, he reached out and lightly touched his shoulder.
“No rush,” he said. “It’ll keep.”
Virgil knew that if there was one person in the world who had a clue as to how he felt, it was Cesar. Now as he stood with his hand on the brand-new doorknob, he felt that when he pushed it open, a chunk of his past would disappear. The scab had to fall from the wound, in the process of healing. In the deepest part of his brain there was the realization that he had to move forward. He clenched his teeth and pushed. The door swung open so easily it surprised him. He could recall the hundreds of times when the wood in the old barns would swell and resist entry until a foot or shoulder was brought into play.
The barns were pretty much mirror images of each other in terms of their exterior dimensions. This one however had a separate tack room along with two rooms that were set aside for Cesar’s living quarters. Virgil had made sure they were a significant upgrade from Cesar’s previous room. He was pleased when he checked out the two finished rooms and saw that Cesar had already left his imprint. A few colorful scenes hung on one wall in the bedroom, framed with a gaucho’s bolo. In the adjoining room, which served as a kitchen and living room area, there were terra-cotta plates sitting on a tablecloth with a Southwestern motif of mixed desert flowers, along with all-new appliances, which reminded him how dated the kitchen was in the main house. He did not miss the half-filled bottle of tequila sitting on the counter next to the refrigerator. When he left the living area after checking out the modern bathroom, his mood had lightened.
By the time he got to the second barn, it was again becoming a struggle to not look for the pleasant ghosts of his past. They had been so alive to him in the old barns that had been reduced to ashes. There was not the full-throated laughter of his father in response to the gentle teasing of his mother. He did not hear her singing as she curried Star. He did not see himself as a boy unsuccessfully trying to lasso one of the chickens as it pecked aimlessly along the dirt corridor between the stalls, or see his father easily do the exact same thing.
By the time he got to the second hayloft upstairs, a huge empty space, he was feeling just as empty. He came down the stairs, an improvement over the ladders in the old barns, as Cesar had readily pointed out. When he reached the bottom, he gripped the handrail tight, then sunk slowly to the second step, sinking in a sea of remembrance. There was nothing of his past in this place. He lowered his head. His hat fell to the floor. He bent down to pick it up to dust it off.
“Not even dust here,” he said to the empty space.
He looked down the length of the barn to the opened double doors that led into the corral. The wide expanse of light was divided in two by an unrecognizable figure. Doubting the evidence of his own senses, he rubbed his eyes before he looked again. The figure started moving down the passageway toward him. He saw the golden red hair catching the last of the sun outside. The figure stopped less than twenty feet from him and his heart skipped a beat. A name jumped from his past into his mouth.
“No, Virginia,” she answered. “I thought maybe we should talk.”
“Let’s go up to the house.” He nodded in that direction, then stepped ahead of her.
Virginia followed him wordlessly back down the walkway between the vacant stalls out into the corral. Before he could open the gate for her, she slipped effortlessly through the rails. He did the same. When he stood up on the other side, she was facing him. She was taller than he’d realized.
The house, sitting on a knoll on the opposite side of the driveway, was catching the late-afternoon sun. The glare of reflected light on the facing windows made it seem larger than it was. The cottonwood, to the left of the kitchen entrance, defied the light, shading about a third of the porch that ran across the front of the house. Virgil instinctively stopped at the bootjack outside the door and slipped off his boots.
“You were well trained.” She then bent down to untie her sneakers. Virgil put out his hand.
“No, no,” he said. “That’s not necessary. It’s just force of habit for me. My boots aren’t even dirty. The barns are brand-new, just been built.”
She stood up. “That’s not a bad habit.”
“I should have brought you in the main door. I just hardly ever use it.”
“Do you often talk to yourself?”
“Oh, I guess I do sometimes. Some of my best conversations, but I get kinda concerned when I start arguing with myself, especially when I lose the argument.” He half smiled.
“You should do that more often.”
“Smile. It looks good on you.”
He held open the door and she stepped inside.
“Nice. Comfortable.” She looked about the kitchen.
Virgil saw only the dirty dishes piled in the sink. “I didn’t get to the dishes yet. I wasn’t expecting . . .” He didn’t finish. “Would you like something? A drink maybe? A glass of iced tea?”
“Iced tea would be great.” With her own half smile. “But if you don’t have any made a beer would be great, too.”
Virgil took off his hat and put it on the counter, then he got two glasses and put them alongside. He reached into the fridge and brought out a nearly full pitcher of iced tea. He set it next to the glasses.
“The real deal,” she said when she saw actual lemons floating in the pitcher.
“Yeah, sometimes the old-fashioned way is best.” Virgil filled two glasses and handed one to Virginia. “Maybe you’d like to sit in the living room.”
Before she could respond, he left the kitchen. She followed, glancing to her left at the stairs that led to the second floor. They crossed through the hall to the dining room, then through the arched opening that led from the dining room to the living room, which ran across the entire back of the house. A huge picture window centered on the rear wall looked out on a broad, grassy area. Clusters of wildflowers broke up the green. To the right, she could see the ever-running creek that twisted in back of the barns, making its way toward the road. It emptied into a substantial pond, alongside of which stood a white summerhouse with a trellised-rose entryway. The living room itself was sparsely furnished. A couple of leather chairs faced a stone fireplace. In front of the picture window was a long sofa covered in a fabric of light earth tones. On either side of the sofa were rustic end tables while on the floor was a vivid hooked rug. The only other pieces of furniture in the room were a trestle desk and chair on the half wall to the right of the entryway. Western prints hung on all the walls.
“This is really nice,” she said as she sat down in the sofa opposite the picture window. “It feels like a real home.”
Virgil sat at the other end. “Not quite as imposing as Crow’s Nest.”
“True, but also not as pretentious. I think Crow’s Nest was built to make a statement. This house was built to be lived in.”
“It’s so green.” She gestured toward the expanse on the other side of the picture window.
“When my great-grandfather came to this country he knew how important water was and he let that inform his choice of where to homestead. Turns out he probably got the best parcel of land in this part of the country. We’re green when in the dry a lot of other people are eating dust. We do irrigate some, but that’s mostly BLM lease land, not part of the deeded property.”
They sipped from their glasses. They each started to speak, then stopped. They smiled while the awkward moment passed.
“I thought maybe you might stop by Hilltop, but then I thought the house, Crow’s Nest, wasn’t the place for this conversation. I actually stopped by here last week. I met your foreman, Cesar. He was very nice.”
“I’m sorry I missed you, but I’m glad you met Cesar. He’s much more to me than a foreman.”
“I know. I could tell by the last thing he said to me.” She took another sip from her glass, then set it on the wood table next to her.
“What was that last thing that Cesar said to you?”
Virginia angled her body so she was looking directly at Virgil. “He said it was good for me to come and talk to my father now that he is feeling alone.”
Virgil said nothing as the silence in the room became almost painful. Finally, he stood up and walked to the window. The shadow of the house crept up toward the meadow in back as the sun started its journey toward evening. The demarcation line between light and dark was very clear. There was no gray, only the light and the dark. Virgil turned and looked at the girl. She sat on the edge of the sofa while he tried to understand the look in her eyes. Unexpected emotions battered him. He took a step toward her. He reached out his hand. Her fingers tentatively touched his.
“I guess we don’t have to worry about the elephant in the room anymore. Cesar took care of that.” His smile broadened when he saw the relief come into her eyes. “When did you find out?”
“My grandmother Audrey. She left me a letter when she died. How did you find out?”
“From Audrey. The day she died. There’s a woman who pretty much runs my office. Rosita. Rosie. You’d probably like her. Everybody does. Anyway, she made a comment after Audrey’s funeral about her seeming to go out with a whimper. A surprise to anyone who knew her, considering she wore the name of the town. Well, I guess as far as you and I are concerned, Rosie for once was wrong. I’d say she went out with a bang, wouldn’t you?”
Virginia could only nod her agreement. Her eyes were glistening. Her fingers tightened in Virgil’s hand. He gently tugged and she rose to her feet. They stood as close to each other as they ever had. In a voice barely above a whisper, Virgil was the first to speak. “Would you mind if I gave you a hug?”
“No,” she answered. “I think I’d like that.”
Virgil wrapped his arms around her, drawing her close. They stood like that a long time.
The phone was ringing when he stepped back into the kitchen after she had gone. He had been planning on driving into Hayward, figuring he’d stop by the office by way of routine. The idea of routine ended when he picked up the phone and heard Rosie’s voice.
“Virgil, Jimmy’s been in an accident. He was coming off the saddleback last night. Something went bad. He’s been at the bottom of a crevasse for the last eight or ten hours pinned in his car. The ambulance is on its way with Toby Sweets’s wrecker. Doesn’t look too good.”
Virgil’s ranch was closest so he got to the scene before the ambulance or the tow truck. He came up toward the saddleback from the south. When he saw the interstate overhead he pulled off onto the right shoulder. He knew that if Jimmy had been on his way down, he would have lost it somewhere on the other side of the road. He also knew there was very little shoulder on that side before the drop-off. He crossed the road, looking for some indication of where the cruiser had left the road. The only evidence was some spread gravel on the hard surface. When he first glanced down the embankment he saw nothing. The sides were sheer and it was a long way to the bottom. He realized that the car must have gone airborne, so he immediately started down the slope. It was at least thirty feet of treacherous slip sliding, holding on to saplings or anything else he could grab before he hit level ground. Then he saw the first sign. Tops of woody brush had been flattened or ripped off. He followed the trajectory they offered. It was another forty to fifty feet of bushwhacking before he saw the rear end of the car. He heard sirens up above. Help had come. Whatever he was about to find, he would not have to deal with it alone. Instead of yelling, he drew his sidearm and fired off two rounds. The roar echoed along the crevasse. When he looked up, he saw two or three EMTs at the top of the ridge.
“Down here! Down here!” He waved his Stetson till he got a wave back. In moments he was at Jimmy’s cruiser. There was no way he was getting in on the driver’s side so he climbed over the trunk to get to the other side. The passenger’s door had actually popped open on impact. He saw Jimmy’s body, but the view of his head was obscured by a tree limb that had smashed through the windshield. Virgil climbed onto the car’s hood. Reaching through the broken windshield, he grabbed the limb and started pulling it back. The muscles in his back tightened as the tree resisted his efforts. Two EMTs reached the car. One of them, seeing what he was attempting, jumped up onto the hood. Together they strained until the branch started to come toward them. When they felt it starting to give, they redoubled their efforts. Suddenly, it snapped as it came free. Both men reeled back with the release till they fell off either side of the car.
Virgil was lying on his back in a tangle of undergrowth when he heard the other EMT.
“He’s alive, Roscoe. Get over here. We’ve got to get a line into him before we get him out of the car. He’s lost a lot of blood.”
Virgil started to get up by rolling over to the passenger’s side of the hood. Through the shattered windshield, he came face-to-face with a girl who looked oddly familiar, but who was now clearly dead.
* * *
Later, slouched in a chair in a waiting room at the hospital, Virgil reflected on the suddenness of life. It was not new to him. His mother and father had left the ranch on a routine errand one day, only to drive out of his life forever. Since that day, rolling with the punches had been one of his strengths, but this day had him reaching for the ropes. He was exhausted and it must have showed.
“Don’t get up, Virgil. I’ll join you. You look like you’ve had a rough day.”
Virgil looked at the doctor, who was also his friend. “You could say that, Sam. Guess you’re going to tell me whether it’s about to get rougher.”
“Breathe easy, Virgil. I know you’re heavily invested in that boy. He’s going to be fine. Got two things working for him. He’s young and he’s got the constitution of a bull rider. Left arm is broke. So is his nose. But by and large his good looks are intact. Girls will still give him a second look. He’s probably going to have a permanent part in his hair where that tree tried to scalp him. On top of that, a three-day headache to go along with that cut. What beats me is there is no evidence of a skull fracture or even a hint of a concussion. When they talk about hardheaded, they must be talking about that boy. Couple of ribs are cracked. That will only hurt him when he breathes, but that’s a habit he ought to try to keep up. We got him pretty doped up, but if you want to see him before you leave, don’t expect him to make too much sense.”
Sam stood up, taking off his surgical cap as he did. “Now I’m going to get my supper. I’ll look in on him later before I leave the hospital. By the way, he won’t be much use to you for a couple of weeks.”
Virgil rose from his seat. “Did you speak with Jimmy’s mom and sister?”
“No. I thought maybe it’d be better coming from you. Some folks get faint seeing a doctor walking toward them in scrubs. Might be a little less upsetting seeing you walk through the door.”
Virgil spent the better part of a half hour with Abby and Jimmy’s mother. He was glad to give them good news, see the relief in their faces. Then he looked in on Jimmy, who would never know he had been there. He reached out and touched the side of Jimmy’s cheek before he stepped away from the bed. A deep breath escaped him. It had been a close call. Anyone passing by might not have noticed the slight sag to Virgil’s shoulders.
When he stepped outside into the night, he felt a slight chill in the air. It felt good. Before he got into his car, he looked up at a sky that couldn’t hold another star. It was good to see they were all where they belonged.
It was past nine. He wasn’t surprised when he pulled into the parking lot in back of his office to see a few extra cars there. Bob Jamison’s red SUV he recognized. “Ears,” as he was well known, always kept a high profile. Pretty near everyone within the town limits of Hayward knew the mayor’s car. The other cars he did not recognize, with the exception of Dif Taylor’s pickup, which on any ordinary night would have been the only car there. Virgil had a hunch that this night was not quite over for him. Before he turned the doorknob to his office, he took in a slightly deeper breath.
He was tired. It had been a long day. He could have done without this final chapter but he knew if he didn’t give an accounting tonight, it would only be facing him in the morning.
There were four of them beside Dif and the mayor, all members of the town council. The only missing member was Harriet Kleman. Harriet and her husband, Karl, ran a florist business. Karl liked seeing the Kleman’s Florist truck parked prominently in front of city hall. Harriet’s absence tonight, Virgil knew, was not for a lack of concern, but due to the fact that she was getting ready to give birth. Karl was nearly forty-seven and Harriet was forty-five. They’d been married for twenty-five years and were childless. They pretty much figured that ship had left the dock for them after years of trying and thousands spent on fertility treatments. They’d even toyed with the idea of adoption or using a surrogate, but had finally resigned themselves to the notion that it just wasn’t meant to be. That’s when Harriet decided to run for a seat on the city council. Shortly after winning, a couple of severe bouts of indigestion and some missed periods along with a kind of bloated feeling sent her to a doctor. They were expecting a diagnosis of gallstones and menopause onset. Instead, it was a set of twins. Karl had been practically catatonic ever since. The joke around town was that these would be the first gallstones enrolled in preschool. Dif was the first one to get to Virgil when he stepped inside the door.
“How is he, Virgil?”
“He’s good, Dif. I just left him. Doc says he’ll be down awhile, but that he’ll be good as new.” Bob Jamison had joined Virgil and Dif.
“I’m so glad to hear that, Virgil. I know how much you like that boy.”
Virgil heard similar positive comments coming from the table where three of the council members were sitting.
“Yeah, well I’m not so glad,” Lester Smoot said as he stood by Virgil’s desk. “We got a cruiser lying in Toby Sweets’s junkyard, smashed to bits and only good for parts. I hear that kid you like so much had a girl with him in the cruiser. Trailer park trash, that’s all he is, and Bob, you talked us into giving that loser use of the car, twenty-four/seven.”
Dif moved so quickly even Virgil was taken off guard. His fist hit Lester Smoot’s nose dead center. The crack of bone sounded like a rifle shot. Blood shot out like lava from a volcano. Lester went down. Dif stood over him as he started to moan.
“You sorry son of a bitch. That boy is worth ten of you. Before you get up off that floor, you better think twice about what you’re going to say next or by God you’ll be sleeping in the hospital bed next to him tonight.”
Virgil came alongside Dif. “Take it easy, old-timer. I think you made your point.”
Dif stepped back. Lester managed to get to his feet holding on to the desk.
“You . . . you broke my nose. He broke my nose. You all seen it. That old bastard. He broke my nose.”
Dif took a step forward. Lester scrambled to the far side of the desk, slipping in a blood puddle.
“You all seen it.”
Bob Jamison stepped forward. “Well, I must have got distracted, Lester. But if you say so, it must be true. Because I know you wouldn’t lie about such a thing. I don’t know if any of the others here saw anything, but I’m sure they’d all pretty much agree, you wouldn’t want us talking about something like this in public if it weren’t true.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Here, Lester.” One of the council members had left the table and brought a towel to Lester, who was dripping blood like a leaky faucet.
“Well, Lester,” Bob Jamison continued, “you wouldn’t want the story told around town that Dif here, a seventy-five-year-old, had busted you, a thirty-something-year-old man, in the nose and had come away from the incident without a scratch. You being held in such high regard and all. No, we know you wouldn’t want a story like that being spread around in places like Margie’s or the Branding Iron, a place I know you like to frequent. No . . . no, you wouldn’t want that told unless it was absolutely true. So, that’s just the way we’ll make sure to tell it. Old Dif here just got the better of you. Now, since I’m mayor and Virgil here is sheriff, we’d be more than happy to follow up on your complaint if you want to make one. That is, unless you think you’re mistaken and just got a little light-headed and maybe walked into a door or some other protrusion you just didn’t see, because you were so happy to hear how one of our deputies who was seriously injured in the performance of his duty is going to be all right.”
A loud silence followed Bob “Ears” Jamison’s narrative. Dif Taylor sat down in a nearby chair and appeared to be breathing heavily.
“Jesus H. Christ. Jesus H. Christ.” Lester Smoot held the towel soaked in blood to his nose and walked unsteadily to the door.
“Marvin, maybe you could drive Lester over to the hospital and get his injury looked at. Tell them it happened while he was doing town business and the town insurance will take care of any bills.”
Marvin Lewis, the man who had brought Lester the towel, stood by the table where he had been sitting. “C’mon, Lester, let’s get you fixed up so the girls will still smile at you.”
The two of them stepped out into the night. After a brief silence, Virgil turned to Dif Taylor.
“Man, I hope you never get pissed off at me, Dif.”
* * *
Virgil stayed till the last of the council members left. It was just him and Bob Jamison. Dif was going outside to clear his head, he told Virgil.
“I haven’t popped anyone in twenty years,” Dif said as he stepped through the door. “I thought those days were behind me. Lester jist hit a nerve.”
“That was a close one. I’m glad Lester’s ego is more fragile than his nose,” Bob said.
“Got to give it to you, Bob. You handled that like a politician.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll feel a lot better when Jimmy wakes up and can tell us something about what happened and where that girl came from.”
All the way back to the ranch, Virgil thought about what Bob “Ears” Jamison had said. What kept him awake, though, was her face and the nagging thought that he had seen that face before.
Virgil stepped onto the porch with his second cup of coffee in his hand. The steam swirled above the rim in the cool morning air, a reminder of the change that was coming. He sucked in a deep breath. The chilled air told him all he needed to know about the new season. He was ready for it. The previous spring, along with the summer that followed, had been gut-wrenching. Three bodies, a grim enough statistic, but their lives were much more than that. His own vulnerability exposed and the shocking revelation that he had a daughter. It was that last revelation that had him now trying to regain his footing. He put the still-steaming cup to his lips and looked at the newly built barns through different eyes. Moving forward, in the words of his newly discovered daughter . . . Starting over. Starting fresh. He was ready for the new day, whatever it would bring.
“Feels good, doesn’t it?”
The words jolted him. “Jesus!” He almost spilled his coffee.
“No, that was my father. I’m still Cesar and we pronounce it ‘He-sus.’” Virgil watched the man who had been in his life longer than any other step over the side rail of the porch.
“Where are you coming from?”
“The holding pens. Wanted to check what shape they were in before we bring any of the cattle down. The loading ramps need a little work. Thought I’d put Pete and Joe on it today, so we’re ready. Weather’s changing.”
Virgil nodded. “There’s some coffee in the pot. Get a cup and we’ll talk.”
“I’ll get the coffee, but there’s not that much to talk about. All we have to do is come up with a number. Bottom line is we’re heading toward winter without feed.”
He left Virgil with that thought. The slap of the screen door sounded like an exclamation mark. When he returned, he sat in one of the porch chairs. Virgil pulled a chair from the other side of the door so he could sit next to him.
“I’m not trying to ignore reality, but I don’t want to decimate the herd if we can avoid it. We’ll spend years trying to build it back up.”
“Comprende,” Cesar said. “But we lost most all our hay when the barns burned down. Maybe got fifteen, sixteen hundred bales in that old place across the road, but that’ll be just enough to take care of the horses. Virgil, most of this part of the country is dealing with drought. A lot of beef’s going to market for the same reason this fall.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. If we send them to market now, we’ll take a big hit.”
“Can’t argue with that, but whatever we keep, we’ve got to feed. At least we’ve still got graze—many other places don’t. Your granddaddy chose well when he came here. The cattle are still doing well on the grass. No weight loss. But fall grass isn’t spring grass and it doesn’t grow back near as quick.”
Virgil got to his feet. “Let me think on it a bit. We’ve still got some time. Maybe something will come up. Anyhow, I’m outta here. Got to check on Jimmy.” He didn’t go into detail about the incident. Past experience told him Cesar probably knew the whole story.
“Hope he’s okay. He’s young, he’ll bounce back, muy pronto. Too bad about the girl.”
* * *
Instead of going directly to the hospital, Virgil stopped by the office. The door was open. He had to jump out of the way to avoid the dust storm that blew out of the opening. Following it was Rosie on the end of a broom.
“Did you have the whole town in here last night? You know, I’m going to be looking for something extra in my paycheck, to cover these janitorial duties.”
“Guess it don’t hurt to look.” He slipped past as the last of the sweepings ended up in the parking lot from which they had come.
“Guess you’ll want me to get you a cup of coffee now.”
“No. I had two cups before I left home. It is nice to know that you can multitask, however. Should include that on your résumé, along with those janitorial skills. I’ll bet that fast-food place over in Redbud would hire you in a minute. Then you and Dave could commute together and share daily fast-food lunches. It’ll be just like when you were teenagers and couldn’t get enough of each other.”
For once, Rosie had no comeback. Then the phones on both desks started ringing simultaneously.
“It isn’t even eight thirty,” Rosita said as she reached for the phone on her desk. Virgil walked to his, following her lead. Each spoke for a couple of minutes, then hung up. They looked at each other. Rosie spoke first.
“That was Velma Thompson. Seems Charlie’s gone missing. She said he went to check on some strays up in that high country that they might have missed in the last roundup. I said you’d get out there as soon as you could. Your turn.”
“That was a trucker named Wilbur Anderson. He wants to come by in an hour or so. He says he thinks maybe he killed somebody.”
Rosie looked up at the wall clock that had been marking time for the last forty-some years. “Guess we won’t be collecting moss today,” she said.
“Don’t look like it. Guess I’d better get to the hospital before Mr. Anderson shows up. If I’m a little late, give him a cup of coffee.”
“Maybe I should run around the corner and buy him some doughnuts. After all, while I’m sitting here alone with a possible murderer, I should probably try to keep him happy.”
“That’s not such a bad idea, but if I think I’m going to get hung up, I’ll call Dif. He’s still feisty enough to give you some protection. He busted Lester Smoot pretty good last night.”
“I figured something like that happened after mopping up the blood this morning. Guess old Dif’s still got some gas in the tank. Knowing Lester, he probably got no more than he deserved. Send Dif on over.”
By the time Virgil pulled into the hospital parking lot, he had already called Dif. He explained the situation.
“Don’t worry, Virgil, I’ll head right over. Woke up feeling a lot better than Lester. Called him and apologized for being a little quick on the trigger.”
“Good move, Dif. How did he take your apology?”
“Real good. Said to forget about it, but did ask me not to mention it around town. Said he didn’t want people to get the wrong idea.”
“Yeah, I suppose he didn’t want that little incident exaggerated in the retelling and have the locals thinking their elected officials are not acting in a professional manner. Just let it go, Dif.”
Excerpted from "Death on the High Lonesome"
Copyright © 2015 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
Praise for Death at the Black Bull:
“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
“Virgil Dalton takes no prisoners in Hayes’s satisfying debut novel, and fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire will cheer the sheriff’s desire to protect his town. With its strong sense of place, this series launch will also keep fans of Western mysteries enthralled.”—Library Journal
“Hayes’s strong debut introduces a complex and likable lawman…readers will want to see a lot more of Virgil and friends.”—Publishers Weekly
“Hayes is a skillful storyteller and a deft hand at witty dialogue.”—Booklist