When he was a teenager, Gabe Wager and his friends in the Denver barrio had no greater idol than Vaquero Tommy Sanchez. One of the rare Mexicans to break through into professional rodeo, Sanchez was a hero to every Hispanic boy with dreams of making it in a white man’s world. By the time Sanchez’s star faded, Wager was away with the Marine Corps, enduring terrors but supported by his memories of hot, dusty rodeo days. Now the old barrio has been bulldozed, Wager is a homicide detective, and Sanchez is little more than a memory of faded glory. The retired cowboy’s estranged sons are following in his footsteps, and he fears they may have fallen in with a bad crowd. He asks Wager to find them and keep them out of trouble. Wager agrees, even though rogue police work could cost him his badge. What man could ever refuse his boyhood hero?
About the Author
Once a monthly mystery review columnist in the Rocky Mountain News, Burns has also written nonfiction and hosted the Mystery Channel’s Anatomy of a Mystery. He lives and writes in Boulder, Colorado.
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A Gabe Wager Novel
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1986 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns
All rights reserved.
"I guess ... I guess what I'm asking, Gabe—dammit all—is if you'll help me out."
The plea came hard through Tommy Sanchez's wrinkled mouth, and Gabe Wager, sharing Tommy's embarrassment, stared at the rows of brightly lit whiskey bottles behind the bar. He could tell Tommy no, and Sanchez would understand. There would be neither begging nor blame; they'd finish their beers and argue a little over who got to pick up the tab, and then the cowboy would mash out his cigarette and shake hands and say, "Thanks, anyway, Gabe," and stump out of Wager's life forever. Or he could say yes and it would be pretty much the same except Wager wouldn't lose a friend. But he might get kicked out of the homicide unit of the Denver Police Department for sticking his nose in places it didn't belong.
"I'll try, Tommy," was the most Wager could say. It sounded as bad as a politician before election day. "Let me see what I can find out, anyway."
"Appreciate it, Gabe. Muchas gracias."
"De nada." That was it; agreement sealed, they talked a little about quarter-horse racing and a lot about rodeo, about people Tommy had seen lately on the circuit and some of the old-timers who were only vaguely echoing names to Wager. After so much time, it was hard to reach back to Wager's fourteenth and fifteenth years, when Tommy had been—let's see, twenty-one? twenty-three?—old enough, anyway, to be a hero to Wager and every other kid in the long-gone Auraria barrio. One of the best all-around rodeo cowboys in Colorado, Vaquero Tommy Sanchez, as they called him then, had taken time to talk with Gabe and the others as if they were truly the men they hungered to be. Wager could remember the local rodeo grounds west of town in what was now a sprawling suburb with its own office towers and blank-walled factories and tangle of streets and traffic. Then it had been ranch land, and on one corner of it, off old Highway 6, was the rodeo grounds: a collection of sagging bleachers warping in the summer sun and winter snow. Dust—that's what Wager remembered—and the heat; the sting and smell of dust kicked up and dragged over by sweating, straining cowboys and the white-eyed animals who fought them with speed and strength and savagery: man against untamed nature. And Vaquero Tom, one of the few Mexes to earn his way into the professional ranks of the sport they invented, roping and riding through four or five events. God, he seemed so tall and wide-shouldered when he came to the barrio to visit his grandparents; it was always an occasion—"I just saw Tommy Sanchez"—and, in ones and twos, Wager and the other kids would drift over to old Elias Sanchez's backyard as if by accident and just happen to find Tommy and his grandfather drinking iced tea in the rustling shade of the cottonwood. You knew then it was rodeo time, one of those punctuations that marked the almost unnoticed glide of long summers that began with Cinco de Mayo, was marked halfway by Fourth of July, and ended with the smells of new school Levi's and fresh pencil shavings and the World Series on the radio. There were also lesser fiesta days—those of the church—and better nights when the carnival pitched its neon rides, and the oily-smelling tents filled with the sticky aroma of cotton candy riding on the musty odors of caged animals. Or the stock-car season with its championship races at the dirt track in the bug-filled glare of spotlights. But for three or four years, the best time had been rodeo, and you knew it was here when Tommy Sanchez came to town.
In his rookie year he was good enough to be sponsored as a steer roper, sharing purses with the man who provided the horse, the entry fees, and a lot of good advice. Wager still remembered the excitement when Tommy fired out of the chute after a sprinting and twisting longhorn. The rising blare of the loudspeakers—"Here comes Vaquero Tommy Sanchez"—lifted Wager with the same feeling he got when the big roller coaster out at Elitch's tipped over that first screaming peak.
"Andy Shaw—I ain't heard from him in a long time. I wonder if he's dead."
"Wasn't he a steer roper, too?"
"One of the best. I learned a lot from him. He won him some good money, too, when there wasn't that much to win."
The trick was to angle your horse against the path of the steer, and the horse had to be smart enough and quick enough and have enough balance to outthink, outtwist, and outrun a half-wild steer that knew exactly what that man wanted to do to it. Then the rope whipping out to settle quickly over the horns and yank tight while the horse, bunching against the oncoming shock, turned and lunged away. With a twang, the rope jerked stick-tight as the cow went one way and the horse another. If everything was right—the timing, the riata, the equipment, the angles of the running animals—the steer would be yanked into the air, to spin heavily against its own speed and plummet solidly into the arena's dust, stunned, sometimes its neck broken, occasionally a leg shattered. If things went wrong, the horse and rider would go down; and the same things could happen to them. All of this against the clock, and prize money to only the fastest four riders and their horses. Tommy made his best living that way until he lost his horse down in Prescott. "Broke her neck when she went over—damn mean cow and a smart one. Rope-wise. I had to put Dolly Bee down. Damn, she was a good horse." Tommy broke his leg in two places that time, Wager remembered. When he mended, he concentrated on the riding events instead of the timed ones. "Hell, I'd raced quarter horses until I got too heavy. The barebacks and broncs wasn't much different from some of them I raced. And bulls—hell, there's not much you can do with them anyway except hang on." Besides, the purses were getting bigger, the competitive times faster, and Tommy was getting older. It just made sense to specialize in events that had the least overhead. "I had to rent horses after that, and some of them I wasn't sure of. It would have took me three years to train another cow horse of my own. And then it wouldn't have been as good as Dolly Bee." Moreover, steer-roping was a fading event because of damage to the animals.
But by then, at sixteen years old, Wager faced his own challenges in the Marine Corps. He and his mother lied to the smiling recruiting sergeant about his age, but there was no lying to anyone about how scared he was later, stamping his numb boots against the frozen mud of a bunker and listening to the Chinese bugle calls drift and toss on the north wind from loudspeakers somewhere out in that cold dark. More than once the memory of Vaquero Tom had blotted out minutes and even hours from those empty nights of staring into the freezing blackness and waiting for another "incident," waiting for them to come and try again to "straighten out the line" before all the talking finally stopped at Panmunjom.
Now, of course, Tommy didn't ride anymore. He was a horse handler—a stock hand for the contractors who provided animals for rodeos whose size and glitter outdistanced anything he ever dreamed of when he was healthy enough to ride. Now, he walked on legs broken in half a dozen places while his panting lungs pushed against his ribs that had strange angles and bumps. He worked the animals with knotted, swollen knuckles whose sprains and breaks were becoming arthritic. But he was still in rodeo. "Hell, Gabe, I'll die in it if they let me."
"You don't have anything to retire on?"
"Aw, I got a little ranch down near Antonito. It's about as much as a dog can piss across. But who wants to quit what they do for a living? Jijole—you quit that and you start digging your own grave! No, I reckon I'll hold on as long as I can. And there's this thing about the boys ..."
John and James. The two left alive, and the ones he wanted Wager's help with. "Just exactly what did you hear about them?" Wager asked.
It wasn't anything concrete. A rumor, a meaningful silence, a nod of the head and uneasy eyes from people who used to grin and grab for his hand when they saw him. "That's the damned problem, Gabe. It's like everybody knows something but me."
"But you think they're in trouble?"
"Well, there's smoke; that's all I can say. I don't know for sure that there's anything to it, but I want to find out. And if there is ... well, I want to help them before they screw themselves up." He fumbled for his cigarettes and stared at the package before drawing another one out. "I seen too many kids mess themselves up by doing dumb-ass things."
"Have you seen them lately?"
"No. I reckon they were up at Cheyenne for Frontier Days. But, hell, that's a big rodeo. And a couple young kids in all that excitement—they got better things to do."
From a large speaker at the rear of the bar, the thud of an electronic bass quivered their shirts and a nasal voice groaned, "My life is just an empty road and people walk on me."
"Have you heard anything from their mother?"
"Only when she wrote to tell me James was rodeoing and to say it was all my fault."
"So you haven't actually seen them with anyone?"
"You haven't tried to write or call?"
"I never was much of one for writing. And the only phone number I've got is their mother's."
"When was the last time you talked to either of them?"
Tom shrugged and pulled at his beer; his lip made a squeaky noise in the bottle. "Couple years now. I wanted to go to John's high school graduation. But I knew his mother'd be there ... and I wasn't sure what the boys would think about it anyway. So I called him instead. He said he was glad to hear from me."
"Has either written you since then?"
"Christmas card. It was signed 'Love, James.'"
"That was before you started hearing about the people they were running around with?"
He nodded. "It caught up with me here in Denver at the National Western."
"Two Januaries ago by now, I guess." He drank again. "I just been over to look at the old neighborhood. Hell, I couldn't even find it. Carajo, Gabe! Even the streets are gone!"
"Urban renewal. They put a university there."
"I saw the Tivoli Brewery and Santo Cajetanos. But, man, that's all. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't of known where the hell I was."
Wager let the man talk about his bewilderment in trying to find his way around what had become an entirely new city. It was Tom's means of escaping the lingering ache of his failed family life, and Wager could understand both the failure as well as the need to bury it. In fact, just as Wager had seen in the younger Vaquero Tommy an idol that, in his own way, he once tried to follow to excitement and adventure, so now he felt in Tom's isolate, wandering life, anchored only by his job, a chill of premonition about his own future. And that, too, was a thought better pushed back rather than brought out for examination. "Their mother really blames you for the boys going with the rodeo?"
"She still blames me for Elias."
The oldest boy, the one killed when a horse hung up coming out of the chute and rolled on its rider—nineteen-year-old Elias. "She wrote to tell you James was rodeoing. But she didn't say anything else? Who he was with or anything?"
"We don't have a damn thing else to talk about."
Wager rephrased it. "Has she written to you before about them? Where they were or who they were running around with?"
"Once or twice, I guess. John was working a ranch down near Lubbock awhile back after he graduated from high school, and she wrote and told me. I didn't get a chance to see him, though. You know how it is—a man gets busy, and time goes by so damn quick."
"Any other time?"
"Just when she found out James was rodeoing."
"And that was the last time?"
"Do you have any names? Any idea of who they're supposed to be with?"
It was Wager's turn to drink his beer and wonder how to live up to his promise. He'd check the computers, of course; and then ask around among friends in agencies which had statewide jurisdiction to find out if either Sanchez boy was a name they'd heard. But beyond that, he didn't know what to do. "Why don't you just look them up and ask them, Tommy?"
"Ask them what? If they're getting in trouble? Who those culos are they're running around with? Christ, Gabe, I'm the last one they'd tell anything to."
Besides, Wager knew, there was Tommy's fear that neither would want to see their father. Not after so many missed chances.
"That's why I come to you. I turn this thing over every which way, and I don't see no way I can look into what's going on without them finding out. Too many people know who I am. They know them, too—they know about me and Elias, and who John and James are." He lit another cigarette. "I got a few people I can ask, but, hell, they're old-timers like me—they're not in the middle of things no more."
"Maybe there's nothing at all."
"I'd be mighty happy if that's what you find out."
He promised again, "I'll see what I can do."
Out on the sidewalk, they stood a few moments in the waves of heat from the sun-scorched concrete and talked about the unseasonable weather. Tommy plugged another cigarette into the corner of his mouth and lit it with the old one. Flipping the smoldering butt into the littered gutter of Colfax Avenue, he asked, "Whatever happened to all the chinga shows you used to have along here?"
"Closed them down. Denver's a clean town, now."
"That's too damn bad."
It wasn't all true, either. "How do you feel about the boys rodeoing?"
He spat a shred of tobacco toward his pointed boots. "It's OK for a little while. But I hope they don't try it for a living. There's no way in hell they can make any money in it now."
"They're trying the old way, and you can't do that no more. Now you got to start when you're nine or ten. You go to Little Britches rodeos and to rodeo schools. Now most of the pro-rodeo cowboys are college graduates." He spat again. "Intercollegiate rodeo, for God's sake."
"I didn't know it was that big."
"There was almost fifteen million dollars prize money won last year. But there's a hell of a lot more people going after it now. Caga—they got training machines and seminars and goddam gurus running around teaching meditation to bull riders! It's a big business now, Gabe. It sure as hell ain't what it was when I started. You got to have a pot load of money just to get into it, now. There's no way in hell for two raggedy-assed ranch hands to step in and make a go of it."
"Are you going to tell them that?"
"They wouldn't listen. I don't think they'd listen." The cigarette spun toward the curb. "I want to straighten out this other stuff, first. Without them knowing anything about it, if we can."
"How do I get in touch with you in case I do find something?"
Tommy lifted his brown Stetson with its high crown and the feathered band and ran twisted fingers through hair that was still mostly black. "Well, I'll be over in Oklahoma for a while—I'm supposed to look at some horses at a place near Sturgis. Damned if I know the address there, though. Know how to get there, but I don't know how to send a letter there."
"It'll take at least a couple weeks." If he was lucky.
"By then I should be back at my place." He borrowed Wager's pencil and notebook to print a rural route number. "There's a telephone sometimes. I'll give that to you, too."
"If I find out something, you'll hear from me."
Tommy's palm was dry and thick as knotted leather, and popped slightly as he clasped Wager's hand. "Appreciate your help, amigo—I really do. See you on down the road."
Wager watched the silver-and-blue pickup with its high camper shell pull away from the curb and into the heat-shimmered traffic of the summer afternoon. On the cream-colored bumper, a tattered sticker read "I'm a Roper Not a Doper," and another said "Tony Lama Boots and American Rodeo—Best of the West." There were a few others, but they were ragged and faded with age and dirt, and Wager guessed Tommy had stuck them on as much for laughs as for statement.
He got into his Trans-Am, the trapped air of a hot spring day wrapping him like warm cotton, and worked his way across the one-way streets that carved Denver into a grid of semi-isolated neighborhoods. He had promised Jo he would be over right after the shift ended, but that was before Tommy had called him. Now he was almost two hours late. But what the hell, Jo was a cop, too, and she would understand. Or pretend to, which was good enough for Wager.
Excerpted from Ground Money by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1986 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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