This out-of-the-way area is plagued with unsolved murders, disappearances and other, unexplained events ranging from the mysterious disappearance and suspected murder of county sheriff Bucky Tuttle back in 1955 to the death of a Chicago cattle buyer at the Hoof Highway railhead way back in 1897.
There are two common connections: the powerfulbut presumed extinctWolf family, and their secret repository, the legendary Eagle Well. Ranger Jimmy Hanson, an amateur treasure hunter, had been searching for this so-called well and the rumored fortune of old gold eagle coins and stash of incriminating information hidden in it. Had he found itor died trying?
Rusty believes this illusive Eagle Well holds the keys to his solving all the old, and even this new, crime. But does it?
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Almost dark enough ... Another ten minutes and it'll be too dark to see the smoke, yet not dark enough to see the flames from afar ... Of course, who's to see them anyway?
The tow trailer's been switched from the truck to the ATV ... Gas can's on the trailer ... Rifle's in the scabbard ... Gloves ... Toss those gloves under the truck's fuel tank ... Already hid that ladder and all the other stuff back at the well. Hope no one knew he had those things with him ... With luck, this site won't be found until the coyotes, buzzards, and wolves have their way with whatever's left of the body ... Got to get out of here without being seen ... Close call getting in here ... Don't want that again ... Got all the dried grass and brush pulled away ... Surely don't want to start a forest fire ...
Well, here goes. The match scratched across the grit and flashed to life. Seconds later it was tossed to the ground, on top of the trail of gasoline leading to the government pickup truck. Whoosh! The gasoline-soaked truck was instantly engulfed in flames. In mere minutes, the flash of flames subsided substantially, without setting any of the surrounding grass or brush on fire.
That's it ... This will burn down now without spreading.
The starter on the ATV whirred, and the engine came to life. With the throttle twisted open and its wheels spitting sand, the ATV — trailer in tow — sped out the rarely-used, remote two-track road.
* * *
Rusty Redtail's boot heels tapped on the saltillo tile as he walked across the second-floor hallway. He hesitated just outside the office door. He'd been on the job for nearly six months now, and it seemed he'd done nothing important so far to earn the respect of his boss, or even be noticed. Graduating near the top of his class with both law and criminal justice degrees from UNM last year, he'd fulfilled one of his longtime dreams when he was hired on at the Albuquerque FBI office. However, he now felt his hiring wasn't so much for any of his knowledge, skills, or intellect, but for diversity reasons. Putting a Native American on the staff made his boss look good, insightful, and politically correct.
Rusty then stepped in front of the open doorway. As he reached up to knock, Special Agent Harland Carter looked up from his computer.
"Come in, Redtail. Here, sit down," he said, motioning to a row of chairs across the front of his desk. "I'm giving you an opportunity, Redtail. Yes sir, this could be a feather in your cap. Ahh ... hope that didn't offend you."
Rusty gave no response as he sat in the first chair in the row.
"I'm putting you in charge of this murder case," Special Agent Carter said, nodding to an open file on his desk.
"Murder case? In charge?" Rusty asked, leaning slightly forward. "How is that federal?"
"Yeah, it's ours. It's a ... Well, you're the natural one to do it. Yes sir, it's got your name all over it. BLM Ranger found burned to a crisp. Shot first, so it seems. Down near some forsaken crossroads called Datil Well, believe it or not. San Agustin County it says here. Near Mag ... Magdalena? That out near your old reservation?"
"Only about three or four hours away," Rusty said. "Closer to here, really."
"Oh well, lots going on in this, what they call a city here, this forsaken Albuquerque thing, and, well, figure there can't be but a handful of people out there in those mountains who could have done this crime. Just go out there and solve this," Special Agent Carter said. "See Liz before you go. Have her find you a room out there — unless you want to take a tent, if that's more your style. Ahh ... just kidding. Whatever, just don't spend a lot of money, with the way things are now, you know. Of course, I don't know what you'd spend much money on out in that desolate land.
"You're to meet up with the BLM's own guy on this out at the local sheriff's office in that Magdalena place. Nine in the morning," Agent Carter continued. "The dead ranger's truck is still out there, somewhere. Process the area. Have the truck sent in here. We'll go over what's left of it. Body, what little there was left of it, is already at some funeral home in Socorro. We've got some sort of an autopsy and all of that covered there. All that stuff's in this file here," he said, handing Rusty a folder. "You're in charge of this. Don't let that cactus cop or hick sheriff waste your time. Use them for what you can, but always remember, you're in charge.
"Keep me informed," Agent Carter said after a few seconds of silence. "Surely cell phones work out there, somewhere. Any questions?"
"A vehicle. I'll need one of the SUVs," Rusty said.
"Guess so. Bring it back clean, undamaged. Remember, those are mostly for looks. No four-wheel drive. They're a hefty price tag, though. Don't go hitting some moose, or whatever's out there, with it. Just get this done, Redtail. Solving this quickly would look good for you — me too."
* * *
Rusty Redtail stood alongside BLM Ranger Chub Murry and San Agustin County Sheriff Wesley Cutter as they surveyed the burned-out truck carcass and the scene around it.
"What all's been done since you found this?" Rusty asked.
"Just what we had to," Chub said. "Got the body out, what there was left of it, you know. What hadn't burned, coyotes or wolves or some critter took care of most else but the bones. Ain't right for any man to be treated like this, even if he was dead first — especially Jimmy. We were nearly like family. Worked together a long time."
"Couldn't get an ambulance in here," Sheriff Cutter said. "Had to haul him out on the back of one of those utility ATVs. Put all we could find in a body bag, so we did."
"Shot in the head, the file says. That happen here?" Rusty asked.
"Ahh — assume so," Sheriff Cutter said. "Guess that's your job to find out. I know how you federal boys are, but I've got some ideas, if you want to stoop so low as to ask some lowly local sheriff his opinion."
"You know this area — the people. What do you think?" Rusty asked Sheriff Cutter.
"Got two families hereabouts who've been feudin' ever since the early cattle drive days. All kinds of old rumors about things they did to each other and anyone else who got in their way. Cattle rustling, fence cutting, even worse. Since I've been here, nearly twenty years now, there's been dogs killed, cattle missing, flat tires, and so on. Each always blames the other. Ain't had any real trouble with any of the young Calderone kids, but that Duke Atwood is one wild hombre, for sure. Had him locked up again last weekend. Bar fight. Broke some tourist's arm."
"An Atwood in a bar fight?" Chub said. "Thought that whole clan was a bunch of strict Mormons. What's Duke doing in a bar?"
"You know how it is, sometimes," Sheriff Cutter continued. "None of that holy teaching seemed to catch with Duke. Few years back, Duke did six months up in the state pen in Los Lunas for stealing some fella's pickup truck and stripping the fancy wheels, tires, and some other stuff off it. All that said, though, I'd still put my money on the Calderones being behind this. More their style."
"Never had any trouble with the Calderones, Sheriff," Chub said. "I was a part of the investigation into the Atwood's guide service and those illegal hunts they supposedly set up a few years back. That was all inside stuff, though. Some family members and church leaders from up in Utah stretched the law some, well, quite a bit, I'd say."
"Yeah, I'd say killin' comes easy for any of them," Sheriff Cutter replied.
"Killing an elk without a proper license on one's own ranch is a lot different than killing a BLM Ranger," Chub said. "Both the Calderones and Atwoods pay their grazing fees like clockwork. Never heard either one squabble about anything except that the other always had the best grass or better wells or something like that. Never knew either one to have a spat with anyone else, just with each other."
"I've read some old stuff around the office," the sheriff said. "Never any convictions, but stories go way back. Back to when old Fernando Calderone showed up here from Old Mexico with about fifty head of mixed-breed cattle all with a road-brand burned in with a running iron. Story was that there was blood spilled by his guns down yonder, and he picked here to hide out from the Mexican federales. He did have a good-sized poke of money with him, though. Never said where it came from, that I can tell."
"Any strangers around here lately?" Rusty asked.
"Always strangers," Sheriff Cutter answered. "This is kind of a back way from northern New Mexico and Texas over to Phoenix and around there. A lot of people who don't want to run with all those trucks and the like on the interstates cut through here. Those White Mountains over in Arizona draw thousands of vacationers each year. Hunters in the fall too. Campers all summer. You say you grew up over around Cloudcroft, you know lots of people want to get up to seven or eight thousand feet and cool off when the valley temperatures are triple digits. As a rule, most folks passing through here aren't looking for trouble — usually trying to find peace and relaxation."
Rusty walked over to the truck. He looked inside. The cloth and plastic of the interior were burned or melted away, and only rusted, charred metal remained. Rusty studied things in silence for several minutes.
"He wasn't shot here," he then said. "Not in his truck anyway."
"Now how in the world can you look at this burned skeleton of a truck and determine that?" the sheriff asked. "You have a vision or something?"
"Ranger Hanson was shot in the head, right? Went clear through. In the left side and out the right. If he was in his truck with the windows down, the glass wouldn't be all over the inside floor. If it broke in the fire, it would be inside the doors. If he had the windows up, the driver's side would be shattered and be inside, as it is. However, the bullet would have gone out through the passenger's side and blown the glass outside. There's a full window's worth of glass inside over there too. I'd say someone smashed both windows in from the outside with a rock or hammer or something like that. No, Jimmy Hanson wasn't sitting in his truck, and most likely nowhere near here, when he was killed.
"Give me half an hour to take pictures and make some notes," Rusty continued. "Then we can get this thing out of here. Hard to get a wrecker in, a big one anyway. Might have to use a chain or tow strap."
"That's one of the odd things," Chub said. "When Jimmy left the office the other day, he had an extension ladder up over the headache rack. Curious, I walked over to his truck and looked into the bed. He had a length of chain, twenty-five feet at least, and a shovel and pry bar in there. I didn't think too much about it. Jimmy was a real history nut. He was always chasing after some old lost treasure or the like.
"The thing is, though," Chub continued, "when I found his truck, none of those things were with it."
"Any sign of his wallet, a briefcase, or computer?" Rusty asked.
"He never carried a briefcase," Chub said. "Kept his papers in a manila folder. No sign of that, but the fire surely burned it up. Couldn't find any sign of a wallet. Things were such a mess, though. His laptop melted down to a glob of crisp plastic. Who would want to steal a ladder and other work tools and leave a laptop?"
"Wasn't a robbery," Rusty said. "A robber would take what he wanted and run. Whoever did this took the time to move this truck for who knows how many miles, and with great effort. Must have been a second person, or at least a towed vehicle or something. This is a lot more than a robbery. Too much planning and way too much coverup."
"I've seen enough," Sheriff Cutter said. "High Plains Garage has a winch truck on a one-ton four-by-four. I'll have Hector get this out of here."
"Get it out to the paved road, then on a flatbed and up to our lab in Albuquerque, Sheriff," Rusty said. "Tell this Hector guy I'll be by to pay the bill in a few days. Where's his shop?"
"High Plains Garage, Hector Gonzalez. Off South Second Street in Magdalena. You can't miss it," Sheriff Cutter replied.
"All right, Sheriff. I'll probably see you tomorrow," Rusty said. "Maybe you can take me out to meet these Calderones and Atwoods you talked about. Any other possible suspects you think of too. You know the locals will talk to you a whole lot more than to a stranger like me. I'd appreciate your help."
"Need me anymore, Agent Redtail?" Chub asked.
"Rusty. Call me Rusty. Yeah, I want to see Hanson's widow. You know her, right?"
"Sure," Chub said. "We were all friends."
"This has to be tough on her. A five-year-old son, the file says. Still, I need to see her as soon as possible. Can't rule out that she might be in danger. Don't push her, but see when you can set up a meeting. If she'd be more comfortable, you're welcome to join me. That's probably best, really."
"I'll uh ... I'll go stop by when I get back to Socorro," Chub said.
"I'm staying at the Trails End Lodge in Magdalena. Room 202," Rusty said. "Here's my card. Let me know when we can meet with Sally Hanson. As I said, I'll be here half an hour or so, then go back to the hotel. Call me anytime. I don't have to tell you how limited the phone service is out here, so leave a message."
"Yeah, I'll go see Sally, little Jimmy too," Chub said. "She'll want to get to the bottom of this. She'll help you, I'm sure."
"OK, Chief," Sheriff Cutter said to Rusty. "I'm out of here. See you around."
Minutes later, alone at the scene of the burned truck, Rusty sat on a boulder and pondered what lay ahead of him. Why the fire? It didn't totally destroy the body — the arsonist had to know that would be so. He hadn't seen the body yet, wasn't sure he wanted to, but it was easily identifiable — had been so already by local dental records. The truck was easily identifiable as a federal government vehicle. Whoever did this surely knew this would bring a major investigation. There had to be something mighty important to do this, and do it up so drastically.
This obviously wasn't the original crime scene. Maybe the perpetrator wanted to point this toward someone else rather than just hide the truck. It was hard to pinpoint the exact time of Jimmy's death. He'd been missing five days before the truck was found. It had rained hard twice during that time, destroying any other tracks and markings around the scene.
He'd probably been killed sometime the day he first went missing. But what if he wasn't? What if he'd been held to get information before being killed? What was he up to anyway? Was he acting alone? Was this job related or personal? Was everything totally legal, or was Ranger Hanson into something shady? From what little Rusty had in the file about Jimmy Hanson, he appeared to be an exemplary employee and good family man. However, things like gold and old treasure were known to derail many good men.
Rusty thought about the two families Sheriff Cutter brought up as probable suspects. They seemed to confine any hostilities to each other. Even young Duke Atwood's antics didn't indicate cold-blooded murder. If the Calderone clan fled Mexico, that was a hundred twenty years ago, four generations at least. Still, the local sheriff wasn't to be ignored. Sometimes gut feelings had warrant. If Ranger Hanson had gotten in the middle of something between these two families ...
Rusty took pictures until his battery ran down, then he walked to his Suburban and slowly drove out of the canyon on the seldom-used old ranch road. Why here? Why Ranger Hanson? Where was his ladder and other things? Out here on a remote ranch, using a shovel, pry bar, even a length of chain would be common. But a ladder?
Maybe Sally Hanson would have some answers. That wasn't going to be an easy interview. He'd never done anything like that before.
Three hours later, driving into the small town of Magdalena and pulling into his hotel parking lot, Rusty's mind was still rolling around these questions, along with many others — with no answers.
A short time later, he sat in the café attached to the Trails End Lodge. After he'd ordered his dinner, and, as he sat sipping iced tea and reading the day's Albuquerque paper, the hotel and café owner came over to his table.
"Señor, I'm told you are here to investigate this thing with Ranger Hanson. FBI, I am told. I am pleased you are here. Manny Rodriguez," he said, extending his hand. "My wife and I own this place. Been in my family since Mr. Frederick Wolf left town."
"I'm glad you have this here. Guess I'll be making this my home for a while. I'm Rusty Redtail. Yeah, I'm with the FBI. You knew Jimmy Hanson, did you?"
"Oh sure. He was often in here," Manny said. "We had many long talks. Things of the old days. Things my father and grandfather talked about. He was very interested in tales of events of the past."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Last Wolf at Eagle Well"
Copyright © 2017 Robert C. Mowry.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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