I saw Wesley Crocker for the first time on a cold Thursday afternoonin October, three weeks before Election Day. He was pushinghis bicycle eastward along the shoulder of State Road 17, anasphalt-patched remnant of highway that the interstate had madeobsolete.
When I saw Crocker, I was sitting warm and comfortable inthe Posadas County patrol car, cruising west, looking for no oneor no thing in particular. Lenticular clouds formed, spread, andshredded over the San Cristobal mountains that separated PosadasCounty from Mexico, and rain had been predicted by morning.
The wind was driving out of the northeast, gusting strongenough to rock the car. Moisture might have been in the offing,but at that moment the only thing in the air was the New Mexicoprairie. Fine, stinging sand scudded across the macadam like tawnysnow, the larger pieces rattling against the white paint of the Ford.Occasionally a kochia, its brittle stem snapped off at the ground,would perform a clumsy imitation of a tumbleweed, jouncingacross the road to pack against the barbed-wire fencing.
Crocker was walking toward Posadas, head pulled into his heavycoat, chin against his chest. His methodical pace planted one footin front of the other in a rhythm that said he was no stranger tothe asphalt.
His bicycle was an old, heavy thing with balloon tires, the sortof bike that paperboys with calf muscles like steel springs peddledaround their paper routes in the 1950s. The top frame betweenseat and handlebars was bloated with stamped steel into a fake gastank. My oldest son hadonce had a bike like that. He'd regularlystolen his mother's clothespins so he could clip playing cards tothe front forks. When the wheels spun, the cards barked againstthe spokesan impressive motorcycle for sure.
But Wesley Crocker was long past the playing-cards-on-spokesstage and the bike was a handful to push, even if there had beenno quartering wind gusting in his face.
I slowed to thirty-five as I drove past and saw two enormoussaddlepacks that bulged with Crocker's belongings. Another duffelbag was lashed to the front basket.
It wasn't just the wind that was giving the man trouble. Theback tire of the bike was flat, the weight of the saddlepacks diggingthe rim into the asphalt. The three miles into Posadas was goingto be a lifetime.
He didn't lift his head as I drove past. Maybe he didn't see me.Maybe he didn't care. Maybe he knew how far the next village wasand all his determination was focused on the ten thousand steps itwould take to get there.
I glanced at my watch. At his pace, by the time he reached Posadasthe sidewalks would be rolled up and stowed. He wouldn't find astore open that carried a tire or tube or patch kit. If he could manageto fix the tire himself, one or two places could supply the air.
For a quarter mile after I had driven by, I watched him in therearview mirror, wondering who he was, where he was from, wherehe was going. With a shrug I slowed the county car, swung wide,and made a U-turn.
I idled up behind the man and his bicycle and when I waswithin a dozen feet, he stopped, looked over his right shoulder atme, and then with great patience lowered the kickstand andbalanced the overloaded bike against it, making sure that the standwasn't going to sink in the loose gravel of the highway shoulderand capsize the whole mess.
He ambled back toward the patrol car, and I buzzed down thewindow.
He bent down and placed his hands on his knees. "And a goodafternoon to you, sir," he said. Older than I had first thought, hewas ruddy faced with a tangled thatch of salt-and-pepper hair heldin place by a black knit cap. His smile didn't show many teeth.
I hesitated, loath to encroach on his world, and I suppose hemistook my hesitation for the arrogance of disapproval.
"Wasn't speeding, was I?" he said, and grinned even wider.
"No, sir," I said. "Do you want a lift into town?"
One of his eyebrows shot up. "Say, that would be welcome,kind sir, but I tell you what. I sure do hate to leave my rigunattended along the highway."
I looked at the mammoth bike and tried to calculate how itwould fit.
"It'll go in the trunk," I said.
He straightened up and surveyed my county car. "That wouldbe a mite tight."
I popped the electric trunk lock and then opened the door andheaved my two hundred and ten pounds out of the car. At fivefeet ten inches, I stood nearly a head taller than the traveler, butwhen the two of us grunted to pick up the bicycle, his proved tobe the stronger back.
After he unstrapped the various packs, we pushed, heaved, andshoved until the bike's back tire was planted in one corner of thetrunk and the front forks were cranked around so that the frontwheel stood vertically.
He then nestled the packs on top of the bike.
"She'll stay," I said. "We'll go slow."
"What about the trunk lid, sir? You want to tie it so it doesn'tflop up and down?"
He produced a piece of brown twine from one coat pocket,and in another minute the trunk lid was secured, lashed downthrough the bike's chain crank to the lower trunk latch.
I started around to the driver's door, and he hesitated. "Comeon," I said, not the least bit eager to stand out in the chill wind amoment longer than necessary. "Climb in." I saw him glancetoward the backseat and added, "Up front."
We settled into the car and both of us sighed with relief tohave the wind and cold locked outside. My passenger thrust out ahand. "Wesley Crocker," he said.
His grip was firm, his hand callused and rough. "Bill Gastner,"I replied.
"My pleasure," Crocker said. His gaze wandered around theinside of the county car, taking in all the expensive junk that goeswith the profession.
He reached out and ran a finger along the top of one of theradios as if he were checking for dust. "Things have sure changed,haven't they?" he said as I pulled 310 into gear.
"The law used to be just a man on horseback, wearing a badgeand a gun," Crocker said. He indicated the radio and computerstack that sat astride the transmission hump, then patted the fore-endof the shotgun that rested in the electric lock. "Now look atall this."
I shrugged. "Times change. I'd hate to be sitting on a horse inthis weather."
"You don't happen to have a cigarette, do you?"
I grinned at the sudden change of subject. "Sorry. I don't smoke,Mr. Crocker."
"You used to, though, didn't you?"
I looked over at him with amusement. His eyebrows wereenormous, tipped with the same gray that was creeping into hishair and week-old beard.
"Yes, I used to."
"Quit, huh?" I nodded and Wesley Crocker continued, "Ishould, too. I could make better headway against this wind if Ihad more wind."
"And some air in your tires," I added. "How far did you cometoday?"
"From just outside Playa. You know where that is?" I nodded.I almost said that my twenty-four years with the Posadas CountySheriff's Department probably had been enough time to learn thenames of all seven villages in the county, but I spared WesleyCrocker the sarcasm. His seventeen miles of travel wasn't much toshow for a day's work, but it was a hell of a lot more than I'daccomplished.
"Tire went flat about five miles back. 'Course, I don't hurry,you know. I just kind of mosey along. There's a lot to see in thisbig country."
"The middle of nowhere is what most tourists say," I chuckled.
"But see, I just bet that they aren't really looking when theysay that. If they looked, they wouldn't say that. Do you know whatI saw back up the road a ways? Just the other side of the Guijarrowash?"
"What?" I was doubly surprised that he knew both the nameof the dry little arroyo bed and how to pronounce it.
His voice became animated and he half turned in the seat. Heneeded a bath as much as he needed air for his tire. "The light wasjust right, kind of comin' through the clouds and all, and justbefore I started down that long, kinda easy slope to the bridge, Ilooked off to the north." He stretched out his hand and spreadhis fingers. "And I could see the faint cuts in the prairie whereBennett's Road used to run."
I grinned. If I had been the frontier lawman on the horse withbadge and gun, Crocker would have been the man in the blackfrock coat, driving the little buckboard, Bible tucked under hisarm. "You sound like you've spent some time around here."
"Well, no. But I read a lot, see. It mentions the road in one ofthose government pamphlets I read over in Arizona. Talks aboutit just kind of in passing, don't you know. But I could see thosetracks plain as day."
"That's the only place in the county you can see them. Rightfrom this road."
Wesley Crocker leaned toward me as if he hadn't heard right."You don't say so? The only place?"
I nodded. "You've got sharp eyes. The old cattle trailwhatyou call Bennett's Roadjogs around that low mesa to the northof the highway. The rancher who owns the property happens tobe something of a history buff. He fenced off that section of thetrail so the livestock wouldn't obliterate it."
Crocker patted his right knee with satisfaction. "Well, I'll be.I'll be." He looked out the window as we approached the outskirtsof Posadas. It wasn't much of a sight, but it had to be a relief fromblow-sand between the teeth. As we passed the first buildings, aseries of low rental storage sheds, he mused, "You gotta wonderwhat folks like Josiah Bennett would have thought of 1996."
"Not much, I expect."
With another knee pat, Crocker said, "Still, there was a timewhen old Mr. Bennett would have been just as happy to see youcome along."
I didn't know much about Josiah Bennett, but I did know thestory about him trying to push two thousand head of cattle northout of Mexico, headed for his ranch up in the Magdelenas. Someof the cattle had made the trip, but he hadn't. His brains had beenmixed with the prairie dirt thirty miles northeast of Posadas.
His family had tried to blame Apaches, but that didn't work.When the story finally leaked out, it was Bennett's own son-in-lawwho was hanged for the murder. Old Josiah Bennett wouldhave been teary eyed with pride to know a dirt road had beennamed after him a century later.
"Do you have a way to fix that tire?"
Crocker nodded. "Got me a patch kit, but my hand pumpbroke." He shook his head. "Isn't that just the way of things,though. The tire's no good, so I just elected to walk it on in. Youthink there's someplace in town where I can get me a tire?"
I glanced at my watch again. "Not until tomorrow."
"Well, then, you can just drop me anywhere along here, andthat will be dandy." As we neared the intersection with TwelfthStreet, Crocker saw the Don Juan de Oñate restaurant on the left."Now say, this is fine right here," he said, and I pulled over ontothe shoulder of the highway.
We unloaded the cumbersome bicycle, and I slammed the trunklid. Crocker straightened the saddlepacks and took a deep breath.
"Say," he said, and I knew what was coming before he said it."You don't suppose you could spare a dollar for a pack of smokes,do you?"
I laughed. "Where do you buy smokes for a dollar in this dayand age, Mr. Crocker?" I fished in my shirt pocket, pulled outone of my business cards, and jotted a note on the back of it."Give this to a gal named Shari in the restaurant. She'll fix youup." Crocker's face brightened.
"Well, bless you, sir." He held the card out at arm's length."Undersheriff William K. Gastner," he read and his grin spreadeven wider. "I thought at first that maybe you were the state police,but then I remembered their cars are black in these parts."
I nodded. "You take care." I walked back toward the car door."And by the way," I added. "Just down this street a ways is a littlevillage park, over on the north side. You can't miss it. There's aWorld War I tank sitting in it. Just past that park is Guilfoil'sAuto Parts, right on the main drag. They'll take care of your bikefor you in the morning. If you have any problems, give us a call."
He held up the card in salute. "Couldn't ask for more, sir. Thankyou." I got in the car, and he appeared at the window. "May I askyou one thing before you go?"
"You haven't asked me where I'm going, or where I come from."He grinned again and looked east, down the street. "If I was you,I don't think I could drive away without knowing. Just naturalcuriosity, you know."
I looked at his gentle face, at the crow's feet around his eyesthat cracked his weather-beaten, sun- and wind-burned skin. "Idon't think that it's any of my business, Mr. Crocker. You're freeto come and go as you please."
He straightened up. "Isn't that something." He turned the cardover and over in his hand. "Isn't that something."
"You have a good evening."
As I drove off, I could see him pushing that monstrosity of abicycle across the highway toward the restaurant. It wasn't any ofmy business, but he was right. I did wonder. And he hadn't offered.
Excerpted from Privileged to Kill by Steven F. Havill. Copyright © 1997 by Steven F. Havill. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.