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The body lay exposed, barely visible. Maybe there was the gentle knurl of bone, dirty and ivory, and something brittle and flaking that might once have been fabric. Something else, spidery and matted and awful and moving thick in the breeze, something that might have been hair. Human hair. It rustled with the grass and the black brush and dry mountain laurel, as if alive. Human hair . . . and a bone.
Deputy Chris Cherry stood over the body, thinking, as a couple of Bulger’s tigerstripe Herefords silently looked on. Bulger eyed him as well, propped up on his dirty Kawasaki four-wheeler, working a jaw full of Copenhagen and eating a peach. That was fucking talent. Chris bent down, slow and careful, looking closer, before standing up again and wiping his hands on his uniform pants, even though he hadn’t touched anything. “How’s the knee?” Bulger asked over a mouthful of peach and long-cut dip. How’s the knee? That’s what everyone always said to him . . . Murfee’s version of hello or goodbye. Another way of saying Welcome back or Damn shame, depending on who said it. How’s the fucking knee? Chris ignored it. “You found this earlier this morning?” Bulger made a face, spit a dark stream that looked bloody. “Earlier, ayup. Didn’t have time to call it in. Busy.” He finished the peach, tossing it behind him in the direction of Chris’s patrol truck, a Ford, painted Big Bend County blue and gray. It hit the ground a few feet short, and one of the Herefords slowly walked toward it, head down. Chris knew that after he left, Bulger would call the sheriff and complain a shit storm about his driving the truck up onto the pasture. He wouldn’t say anything now to Chris, just take it direct to the sheriff himself, who might or might not hear him out—and who might or might not turn around and say something to Chris. Tough to say. Either way, Chris didn’t feel bad about not hiking the five miles up from the ranch road to here, avoiding ankle-breaks and snakes and jackrabbit holes and whatever the hell else. Bulger on his four-wheeler sure in the hell hadn’t. How’s the fucking knee?
Matty Bulger’s place, Indian Bluffs, covered twenty thousand acres of crooked spine running along the Rio Grande river gorge. His family had owned it for decades after buying off a piece of the huge Sierra Escalera ranch. Matty had three sons and Chris had played football with the youngest, Nathaniel, at Big Bend Central. The two older boys still worked Indian Bluffs with their dad, but Nat was running hunting operations at Sierra Escalera, and Chris knew that pissed off Bulger to no end. Nat had been a decent receiver, tall with good hands. He’d been difficult to outthrow, scissoring along the sidelines beneath the big lights. Chris remembered Matty sitting in the stands, hollering Nat’s name, pumping his blue-veined fists and watching his boy run. “What we got? ’Nother dead beaner?” Chris shrugged. Probably. It was a fact of life in far West Texas, along the river: Mexicans crossing the border, looking for work, carrying drugs, carrying each other. The trip was hard and it wasn’t unusual for a few not to make it whole, or at all. Some got sick drinking water out of dirty stock tanks; others were injured by the land itself. They’d been known to break into ranch houses to steal food or to hide out for days in abandoned homes. Dupree had told him about a group that even called 911 on themselves after jimmying their way into a house. Lost and worn out, beaten, they’d polished off all the beer in the fridge and sat outside smoking cigarettes, stinking of river mud, calmly waiting with four hundred pounds of weed sewn up in burlap, until Dupree and a couple of the other deputies showed up. Dupree always laughed his ass off telling that story, drinking a Dr Pepper and drawing hard on a Lucky Strike.
The Big Bend of the Rio Grande was outlaw country. Always had been, always would be. It was the sharp curve where the Rockies met the northern Chihuahuan Desert, tough and beautiful and unforgiving. It was so bad, so rugged, so broken that it had been used to train astronauts for lunar walks. Big Bend, along with El Paso, Jeff Davis, and a handful of smaller counties, made up the bulk of the Texas side—the Trans-Pecos—more than 31,000 square miles. Big Bend County alone, anchored by Murfee and swallowing up whole both a state and a national park, was ten thousand miles of pure emptiness, patrolled by only six deputies and Sheriff Ross; all of it bigger than Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island together. Just a few of a thousand places Chris had never been, probably would never go. It was a patchwork of ranches and river frontages and gorges shadowed by the Santiago, Chinati, and Chisos mountains, like deep cuts in dirty skin. If you looked hard enough, there were still the black pockmarks of ancient burned-out middens dotting the land, naked Indian arrowheads on the ground, and fading cave paintings up in the rocks. There were hills and valleys of cat’s?claw and blackbrush and desert willow and mountain laurel, so much of it that when it rained good and hard, the waters were soon followed by an explosion of ground color rolling away as far as the eye could see—all the way to Mexico, so bright it was hard to take in all at once. The rest of the time it was only bone and rust, just as hard on the eye but for different reasons, save for the odd patch of Bahia grass some ranchers tried for forage—a green so pale it was merely a hint, so that if you looked one way or the other, it disappeared altogether. Chris had once hoped to disappear from Murfee altogether as well.
Chris’s dad used to say that the ranches squared the land into little kingdoms where men like Bulger crowned themselves kings. They didn’t answer much to deputies like Chris, less even to the green-clad Border Patrol agents who worked the Rio Grande. The land got handed down from father to son, and they hired their own men—more than a few illegals from right across the water—and bunked them in cold barracks built with their own hands. They tended their sick and dying and buried them in family plots and paid out wages in wads of dollars. Some operations had gone modern and given up cutting dogs and horses for cutting gates, choppers, and four-wheelers. Loading chutes and trailer trucks had long replaced the dusty trail, and more than a few had taken to hiring hunting management consultants to set up big-game operations on back acreage. They streamed live video of elk and mule deer and made top dollar from weekend warriors wanting to pick their own antler racks with little or no fuss. But the ranches, and the ranchers, were Murfee, and always would be. No different from the handful of other little towns held hostage by the patchwork of fences and pastures drawn in the dust beneath all the gathered mountains. They defined life here, the ebb and flow of it. In his summers, Chris had worked his fair share of cattle operations all around Murfee. He’d long known men like Bulger who didn’t give a damn about what happened outside their fences and couldn’t see much beyond them. Not all, though—both Terry Macrae at Tres Rios and Dave Wilcher at the Monument set out food and clean water for the illegals crossing their lands looking for work, adopting a live-and-let-live view of it all. Wilcher went so far as to put up a small cottage near the gorge, a way station for those passing through, even though it drove the Border Patrol crazy. Chris had been out there and seen the wadded clothes, blown-out old shoes, even the maps the travelers had left behind. They’d bought the maps down in Ojinaga. Crude things, pencil lines showing bare trails and roads and checkpoints and ranches like the Monument where desperate men—desperate people—could hole up for a few hours. Still, so many didn’t make it: drowned in the river in heavy rains, caught up in a cold snap or a sudden snow squall, more than a few catching a bullet behind the ear. All left for dead where they’d fallen. Bodies were not uncommon out here in the emptiness. Men like Bulger found them, unconcerned about the how or why, just waiting for men like Chris to clean up the mess.
Chris had grown up here and had been trying to leave it forever. His dad had been the town dentist and they’d lived in Murfee proper, but after graduating from Big Bend Central, Chris had taken his football scholarship and gotten the hell out for what he thought was good, only to return for a hundred bad reasons that seemed far worse now—like this god-awful moment, standing over bones and hair in the cold wind, with rain up in the mountains, darkening the far sky. Coming his way. And Matty Bulger waiting impatiently for Chris to do some goddamn thing so he could get back to work. His cell buzzed, dying before he even could reach for it. Service was spotty out here, the towers few and far between, and the radio was sometimes even worse, with the repeater in Stockton blocked by mountains. Either way, he’d have to go back out to the main road to call this in. The lost call was probably Melissa. The lost call meant he’d avoided another argument without even trying. Chris was about to turn away, return to his truck, when something on the ground caught his eye. Not so much on the ground, but the ground itself: that little rim of earth holding the body in place. Like hands holding something precious. He bent down again, careful for the second time, for a closer look. Bulger shifted behind him, finally sliding his ass off the four-wheeler, angling for a view of what had caught Chris’s attention. His eyes followed the contours of the body, trying to make sense of it . . . where it began, where it ended, in the mess of earth. That disturbed dirt, loam broken up with rocks that might be bone—all of it turned up, stinking like cow shit. Turned up. Unearthed. This body had been buried here. Not particularly well or deep, not at all, but it had been deliberately put into the ground until something, coyote or Mexican wolf, even a black bear, had scented it and dug it up. Someone had hid it. The illegals crossing the area never buried one of their own, no matter how they’d died. They left them naked, exposed, knowing the sun, wind, and rain had more time than they did to make them disappear. He saw it clearly then, perhaps the very thing that had made him take the second look to begin with—his intuition working overtime on a problem he’d been about to give up on. Hands holding something precious. The body’s hands were all there, puzzle pieces suddenly visible, both of them, held together tight. Wrist to wrist and pulled up close behind what could only be the curve of the spine, knees up by the broken jawbone, the way you might rope up a calf . . . or tie someone up. Skeletal hands held together tight by a thick zip tie, taut like a sunning snake in the upturned earth. It still looked new, untouched; barely stained by the earth it had been buried in. Chris rose up, his knee popping. It was a hard, sharp sound, carrying all the way to where Bulger stood, waiting. The rancher had asked if the body was another dead beaner, dirtying up his property, spooking his cows. Deputy Chris Cherry, who had been a deputy for less than a year, didn’t think so. He didn’t think so at all.
A nne stood in Tancy Garner’s—the dead woman’s—room, trying not to think about her. She had all the windows open, letting the October air wander through. A damp breeze shuffled the papers on the woman’s desk. A ratty old solar system hung high in the corner, turning circles, orbiting itself and nothing at all. Saturn’s cartoon rings bumped against water stains on the ceiling tiles. Anne hoped the breeze, cold enough to pucker skin, might blow the dead woman’s spirit away. Send it off to wherever it needed to go. She was ashamed that she was so grateful for the call that brought her here to Big Bend Central over a month into the school year; ashamed that it took another woman’s death to get her back on her feet again. At least Tancy Garner hadn’t died in the classroom. She was found in her kitchen, facedown in blood and milk, where she’d passed away the night before while putting away a glass bottle. A strange fall, an accident, clipping her head on her counter on the way down. She’d taught science, later English, at Big Bend Central for nearly twenty years. She’d been a school fixture—more like a monument—respected and feared in fair measure, with her stern face, carved and weathered like rock, still staring out of old yearbooks and copies of school newspapers. And she was local, having spent her entire life in Murfee. Anne figured the old woman had been able to rope and ride and milk and whatever the hell else people who grew up on a ranch knew how to do. Things Anne had read about and seen a few times on the Discovery Channel. Of course, no one expected Anne to replace Tancy Garner, just get her classes through the end of the school year . . . finish things without too much disruption or chaos. Philip Tanner, BBC’s principal, had made all that clear. Very clear. They’d talk about a permanent position at the end of the year, if at all. We’ll just see, Ms. Hart. We’ll just see then. Anne shuffled things around on the desk—her desk, for at least a while. It was a holiday, Columbus Day. The school was pretty much empty, except for her. She’d pulled into Murfee late on Thursday, got the keys to the little house she was renting the next morning right after she’d met with Tanner, and had spent the past three days over the long weekend getting settled. Tomorrow there would be students sitting in these old chairs, staring at her while they texted and whispered. A few had gotten a glimpse of her on Friday, had maybe already picked up on their new teacher’s name, and if BBC was like every other school—and it was—the rumor mills would’ve been turning since. She figured she would know by the second period on Tuesday, or Wednesday morning at the latest, just how much anyone knew about her.