EXCERPT CHAPTER ONE "THE DARK HORSE "

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from DARK HORSE by Craig Johnson. Copyright © Craig Johnson, 2009.

THE DARK HORSE

By Craig Johnson
Chapter 1

It was the second week of September on the high desert, and the long, hot summer had baked the color from the plains and had turned the rusted girders of the old bridge into a thinned-out, tired brown. I topped the hill overlooking Absalom and pulled the gunmetal, Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren't very many of them in the Powder River Country, and the few that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches; I had grown up with these old camelback bridges and was sorry to see the last of them go. My eyes were pulled to the town balanced on the banks of the anemic river and pressed hard against the scoria hills like the singing blade of a sharp knife. The water, the land, and the bridge were sepia-toned; depleted.

I told Dog to stay in the back seat and got out of the car, slipped on my hat and an aged, and of course, burnished-brown horsehide jacket, and walked across the dirt lot. I studied the dusty, wide-planked surface of the bridge and, between the cracks, the few reflecting slivers of the Powder River below. The Wyoming Department of Transportation had condemned and, in turn, posted the bridge with bright yellow signs—it was to be removed next week. I could see the abutments off to the right that they had constructed where the new bridge would soon rest.

A Range Telephone Cooperative trailer sat by a power pole with a junction box and a blue, plastic service phone that gently tapped against the creosote-soaked wood like a forgotten telegraph, receiving no answer.

“You lost?”

I turned and looked at the old rancher who'd pulled up behind me in the antiquated, five-ton Apache truck laden with hay. I tipped my new hat back and gazed at him. “Nope, just looking around.”

He kicked at the accelerator and eased the Chevy into a lop-sided idle as he glanced at Dog, my late model car, and the Montana plates. “You workin' methane?”

“Nope.”

He squinted at me with eyes green as the algae that grows on the tops of horse troughs, making sure to let me know he wasn't sure if I was telling the truth. “We get a lot of them gas and oil commission people out here, buying up people's mineral rights.” He studied me, sizing me up by my new black hat, boots, and freshly pressed blue jeans. “Easy to get lost on these roads...”

“I'm not lost.” I looked at his load, at the tiny blue flowers intermixed with the hay and the orange and cobalt twine that indicated it was weed-free. Idiot cubes , as we used to call the seventy-pound bales. I stepped in closer and put a hand on the hay, rich with alfalfa. “Certified, you must have a pretty good stretch of bottom land around here somewhere.”

“Good enough, but with the drought, this country's so dry you have to prime a man before he can spit.” As if to emphasize his point, he spat a stream through the rust holes in the floorboards of the Chevy and onto the road; the spittle approaching the same tint as the river.

I nodded as I looked down at my boots. “A buddy of mine says that these small bales are what broke-up the family ranches.” I looked back up at the load—three and a half tons at least. “You buck a couple thousand of these in August and your mind starts to wander; wonder as to what the heck else you could be doing for a living.”

His eyes clinched my words. “You ranch?”

“Nope, but I grew up on one.”

“Where ‘bouts?”

I smiled, stuffing my hands in the pockets of my jeans, glanced at his rust-orange, heavily loaded flatbed, and then at the dilapidated structure that spanned the distance between here—and there. “You gonna drive this truck across that bridge?”

He spat into the dirt again, this time near my boots, and then wiped his mouth on the back of his snap-buttoned cuff. “Been drivin' the car-bridge for sixty-three years; don't see no reason to stop.”

Car-bridge; I hadn't heard that one in a while. I glanced back at the yellow WYDOT signs and the decrepit condition of the doomed bridge. “Looks like you're not going to have much choice as of next week.”

He nodded and ran a sun-tanned hand over his patent-leather face. “Yeah, I reckon they got more money down there in Cheyenne than they know what to do with.” He waited a moment before speaking again. “The state highway is about four miles back up the road…”

“I told you, I'm not lost.”

I could feel him watching me; I'm sure he was looking at the scar above my eye, the one at my neck, that little part of my ear that was missing, my hands, and most importantly the insouciance that goes along with a quarter of a century spent with a star pinned to your chest . I nodded, glancing back across the bridge before he had a chance to study me longer. “Is that a town, down there?”

“Sort of.” He snorted a laugh. “Halfway between woe-be-gone and far away.” He continued to study me as I watched the dust drifting across the warped and swirled surface of the dried-out planks. “Used to be called Suggs, but when the Burlington & Missouri came through they decided that it ought to have an upstanding, proper, biblical name.”

I continued to study the town. “And what's that?”

“Absalom.” I laughed and thought that one of those railroad engineers must have had a pretty good sense of humor, or been from Mississippi , but Faulkner hadn't been walking, let alone writing by the time the railroads came through here.

He continued to look at me through the collection of wrinkles that hid the majority of his eyes. “Something funny?”

I nodded. “Do you read the Bible, mister..?”

“Niall, Mike Niall.” I noticed he didn't extend his hand. “Not since my mother used to make me and there ain't nobody that makes me do much of anything in about seventy years.”

Seven years longer than he'd been driving the car-bridge, I figured. “You need to read Mr. Niall, if for no other reason than that historical reference. Absalom was King David's son—the cursed one who turned against him.”

I started back toward the rental car but stopped when he called out to me again. “…Hey youngster, I didn't catch your name.”

“I didn't throw it.”

I continued on toward the huge, low-slung car, and there was a pause before he spoke again.

“I wouldn't go down there if I was you; it's not a friendly place.”

I opened the door, tossed my new hat onto the passenger seat, and looked at him from over the top—and especially at the .30-.30 carbine in the trucks rifle rack behind his head. “That's all right; I'm not looking for friends.”

 

I drove off the pavement and pulled the rental to the edge of the dirt street alongside the railroad tracks under the shade of an abandoned mill, which read BEST OUT WEST, but maybe not so much anymore. It was true that they had changed the name of Suggs to Absalom when the railroad had come through in an attempt to elevate the town and pull it from a dubious past, but I couldn't help feeling that whatever its name, it was surviving on borrowed time and that the bill had come due. I left the windows down just a bit for Dog and got out across from the only obvious commercial establishment in the town.

The Ar had been The Bar at some point in its past, but poor carpentry and the ever-prevalent wind had changed its name; that, or the B had decided to move on to a better hive. There were a few seedy motel rooms connected to the building on one side with a few unconnected cabins on the other, the entirety attached by an overhang that protected the wooden walkway. Cowboy boots dangled from the eaves and gently twisted in the breeze like loose appendages. There was a hand-printed sign that read, ABSALOM BAR—WHERE THE PAVEMENT ENDS THE THRILLS BEGIN.

Indeed.

The truck I parked behind had a half-dozen dogs in the bed, border collie/blue-heeler mixes that all came over to growl at me as I made my way around the front of the car. The red one in the corner snapped and missed me by only eight inches. I stopped and turned to look at all of them, still growling and snarling, and looked back at Dog, who had raised his head from the back seat to balefully inspect the herding dogs the way wolves inspect coyotes.

There were still hitching posts in front of The AR , which was handy because there were horses in front of The AR . A snippy looking grulla and a sleepy grade stirred as I placed a boot on the wooden steps. The mouse-colored one had a cloudy eye and turned to look at me with his good one, while the grade went back to napping in the September sun, his right rear hoof raised in relaxation like some World War II starlet being kissed. I stuck out a hand, and he brushed the soft fur of his nose across my knuckles. I thought about a circle around an eye and the last horse I'd been this close to and how he had died. I studied the well-worn but carefully polished bridle and saddle.

“In this country, we don't touch a man's horse without asking.”

I dropped my hand and turned to look at the voice. “Well, technically, he touched me.” I stepped the rest of the way onto the boardwalk and looked down at the cowboy, aware that a two-foot height advantage is always handy in dealing with antagonists, especially ones that are ten-years-old.

The little outlaw tipped back on the heels of his boots and looked up at me with dark eyes. “You're big.”

“I didn't plan it.”

He thought about that for a while and then looked disapprovingly at my new, pinch-front, black hat. “You lost?”

I sighed softly and continued toward the door. “No.”

“Bar's closed.”

He said everything as if it were an absolute that would brook no argument; I wondered if he was related to the green-eyed rancher at the condemned bridge. I turned to look at him with my hand on the doorknob of The Ar . “Do you frequent this establishment a great deal?”

He placed a fist on his hip and looked up at me, as if I should already know what it was that he was going to say. “You talk funny.”

I stood there looking at the crow black hair sticking out from all angles like a murder of crows trying to escape from underneath the stained, cowboy hat with chewed-on stampede strings. I thought of another kid from a number of years ago with a head like a pail—just as impenetrable and about as empty. “Is everybody in this town as polite as you?”

He paused for a second and stuffed the leather strings in his mouth, saving him from spitting on the road like the old rancher. “Pretty much.”

I nodded, looking at the plastic sign in the window that read CLOSED , turned the knob, and stepped into The AR . “…Must make for gracious living ‘round these parts.”

The AR was like most of the establishments in northern Wyoming , which bear a great resemblance to the establishments of southern Wyoming and everywhere else in the west. There was a large u-shaped bar at center with a particleboard surface and a few small tables with mismatched chairs to the right. What made this one different, however, was a makeshift boxing arena—an elevated area with steel fencing poles in the corners and two strands of calf-roping ropes strung around a plywood platform. On a shelf above the bar,' there was a television set, tuned to the Weather Channel with the sound off. Weather was always a safe subject in this part of the world—everybody was interested, everybody enjoyed the bitching, and nobody could do anything about it. A more than middle-aged man sat smoking a cigarette and reading the Gillette newspaper.

“Bar's closed.”

Perhaps not so strangely, it was the same cock-sure intonation as the kid's, but I'd already shut the door. I looked around at the all but empty room. It was a female voice, so I ignored the man reading the News-Record, just as he ignored me. “Beg your pardon?”

“Bar's closed.”

The voice had come from behind the U-shaped counter, so I walked over and looked down; I could just see the punt end of a baseball bat, the butt of an old Winchester pump on one of the shelves, and a young woman. She was diminutive and was mopping-up water from under the beer coolers with a dishrag. She looked up at me through a confection of black hair pulled back with an elastic band. She had mocha-colored eyes, and her skin-tone was the same as the boy on the porch. Maybe Indian, maybe, on closer inspection, somewhere in Central America . “Bar's closed.”

“Yep, I got that.” I tipped my hat back and raised a hand in submission. “…And before you ask, I'm not lost.”

She threw the rag onto the floor with a loud plop. “Then what do you want?”

It was silent in the bar for a moment. “I was wondering if there were any rooms available in the motel.”

She struggled to her feet and leaned on the bar, where she grabbed another rag and wiped her hands. “Nothing but rooms available. Nobody wants to stay here without air-conditioning and satellite television.” She glanced at the man seated at the small table, who was still smoking and reading. “Pat? Man's looking for a room.”

He didn't look up and continued to cover most of his face with a hand on which was an enormous, gold Masonic ring that seemed to hold the cigarette smoke in a sustained orbit. “Full.”

The young woman glanced at me, to him, and then shrugged as she took another rag from the pile and went back to the leaking cooler. I turned to the man. He was overweight, dressed in overhauls, a short-sleeved, print shirt, and a trucker-style ball cap that read, SHERIDAN FEED & SEED

“No rooms at all?”

He glanced up at me, but for only a moment, and flicked some ashes into the glass ashtray that advertised, THUNDERBIRD HOTEL, LAS VEGAS , NEV. “Booked up.”

The voice from behind the bar rose again. “What about #4?”

He continued reading. “Toilet's busted.”

The voice spoke again as I leaned against the bar. “We got a toilet in here, he could just use that.”

He sighed and flashed a dirty look in her general vicinity. “S'against the law, room's gotta have a toilet.”

She stood back up, tossing the now sopping rag into a galvanized trash can, and ripped a half-dozen paper towels off a roll on the counter. “What law is that?”

He folded the paper, looked at her, stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray. “The you-gotta-have-a-crapper-in-any-room-you-rent law.”

“Whose law is that?” The quick-draw flash of temper in her eyes and the barest trace of an accent was significantly Latin.

He started to get up, folding the newspaper again and slipping it under his arm. “Mine.”

She turned the entirety of her attitude toward me, and I was briefly reminded of my daughter. “You paying in cash?”

I blinked. “I can.”

The attitude shifted back to the lawgiver, and I was just as glad to be relieved of it. “You haven't paid me in two weeks because you haven't had any money.” He continued to look at her through sloped eyelids. “Well, here's money.” She walked to the bar back at the wall, plucked a key from a full rack, and slammed it on the counter between us. “Thirty-two dollars and ninety-five cents.”

I nodded, looking at the key still covered by her hand. “For a room without a toilet?”

She glanced up at me from below the accentuated eyebrows and through the dark lashes. “You can forget about the ninety-five cents, and I'll eat the tax.”

I reached for my wallet. “What the Governor doesn't know won't hurt him?” She didn't say anything and ignored the older man completely as I handed her two twenties. “I might need the room for more than one night.”

“Even better; I'll keep your change as a deposit.”

I took the key and turned toward the door. “Thanks… I think.”

“You want a drink?”

I turned and looked at her. The older man hadn't moved and still stood in the same place, and was watching me. “Thought the bar was closed?”

She smiled a stunner of a smile, with perfectly shaped lips. “Just opened.”

* * *

 

Three weeks earlier, they had brought her in on a Friday night.

The jail had had been empty, as usual. One of the ways Absaroka County supplemented their allotment of the budget was to import prisoners from the over-crowded jails of other counties. They did a brisk business in Gillette, which was Campbell County , and Sheriff Walt Longmire provided high-security, low-amenity lodging for a portion of their tax base.

Walt and Dog, had slept the last three nights at the jail after his daughter, Cady, had returned to Philadelphia . The large man with the wide shoulders that sloped just a bit, as if from their own excessive weight watched his deputy, Victoria Moretti. She was easy on the eye, and he liked watching her; the trick was in not getting caught.

She dotted a vicious i and snapped the pen back onto the clipboard after having filled out the transport of prisoner forms and handed them back to the two deputies.. “For them to send two of you, she must be pretty dangerous.”

The young man with the ubiquitous cop mustache had ripped the receipts for Mary Barsad and had handed them back to Vic. “Dangerous enough to fire six shots from a .22 hunting rifle into the right side of his head while he lay there asleep. Then, for good measure, she set the house on fire.”

The other deputy interrupted. “Allegedly.”

The first deputy repeated. “Allegedly.”

Vic glanced at the papers and back at them. “That'd do it.”

Wyoming state law allows that incarcerated females must be supervised at all times by a female docent or a matron; neither of which aptly described Vic, but she had the third watch and would till Mary Barsad was transferred back to Campbell County for trial in three weeks.

She had bid the two deputies an extraditionary farewell as Longmire waited with Dog at the door of her office, which was across the hall from his. She'd handed him the paperwork, which was stuffed in a manila folder, had crossed her arms and leaned on the other side of the doorway. She'd stared up at his face and studied the washed-out grey of his pupils and it was like they were nickel-plated, carrying a luminescence all their own. “I can't believe you're doing this to me...”

“It's not my fault, if you want to yell at somebody call up Sandy Sandberg and give him an ear full.” He had reached down to pet Dog so that the beast wouldn't take the argument seriously; she had reached down and pulled one of his ears so that he would. “He didn't tell me the detainee was a she.”

“That douche-rocket is doing this because I out-shot him at certification in Douglas two months ago.”

He figured he'd divert her, before she really got mad. “You want something to eat?”

She had looked up. “Is this a date, or just dinner?”

“Just dinner. I figured if you were going to be stuck here all night, I'd go get you something.”

“What the fuck do you mean just me all night? Where are you going?”

He had taken a breath, the great hogshead of a body straightening for only an instant. “Well, I thought I'd go home.”

She had paused, the way she always did when she remembered just how big he was. It was something he never remembered. “Great. You sleep in the jail all the time, but as soon as I'm here, you decide to go home?”

Walt's head inclined, and he'd adjusted back to his apologetic stance. “You want me to stay?”

“Yes.”

He hadn't moved. “You want me to go get you something to eat?”

“Yes.” She thought for a moment. “What are you getting?”

He had sighed. “I never know until I get there.”

“I'll take the usual.”

Walt had slipped the folder under his arm, and headed back to take a look at the prisoner with Dog. Vic had called after him. “And be quick about it, there's a classic example back there of what happens when we women get frustrated.”

Mary Barsad hadn't looked like his usual lodgers. She was tall with blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, with a face that had more character than pretty would allow. She looked good, which was a real trick in the orange, Campbell County Department of Corrections jumpsuit she was wearing. She had narrow, long-fingered, capable hands and had used them to cover her face.

“Would you like something to eat?”

She hadn't said anything.

“Dog and I are starved.”

Her face had come up just a little, and he looked into the azure eyes as they settled on Dog. She was terribly thin, and he had watched as a trace of blue at her temples throbbed with the pulse of her mind.

“No, thank you.” She had a nice voice, low and kind, very unlike the one with which he'd just been dealing.

“It's chicken-pot-pies till Monday, sure you won't change your mind?”

The eyes had disappeared behind the hands, and he was sorry to see them go.

He had hung an arm on the bars. “My name is Walt Longmire, and I'll only be gone for about twenty minutes, but if you need anything I've got a deputy right down the hall; her name is Victoria Moretti, but she goes by Vic. She might seem a little scary at first…” He trailed his words off when it had become obvious that she wasn't listening.

The sheriff had watched her for a moment more, and then he and Dog had slipped out the back door and down the steps behind the courthouse to the Busy Bee Cafe . They had walked past one of the bright, red-and-white signs that read KYLE STRAUB FOR SHERIFF, A MAN FOR CHANGE. He thought about it, a man for change ; what did that make him, a man against change ? Whenever he saw the slogan, he felt as if somebody was walking on his grave without him fully being in it.

The sitting prosecuting attorney had been running a vigorous campaign with signs, bumper stickers, and pins, and Walt had seen all of them with an unsettling frequency. When it came time to choose a homily for his own campaign, Walt's proposed slogan from Cato the Elder, CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED had been quickly dismissed by the local council. The previous sheriff, Lucian Connally, had put in an appearance at the VFW and had loudly announced to any and all, ‘If you stupid-sons-a-bitches don't know what you've got, then you don't deserve a sheriff like Walt Longmire, anyway'. Ernie Brown ‘Man about Town' , who was the editor and chief of the Durant Courant had caught Ruby in an honest moment where she'd stated flatly that she wouldn't elect the attorney as dogcatcher It had seemed as if everyone was doing all they could to make sure Walt would be elected in November—that is, everybody but him.

The first, and only debate at Rotary had been something of a disaster. Kyle Straub had made the point of lobbying for a new jail as the centerpiece of his future administration, and the fact that they didn't have enough lodgers to support the facility the county had now, had done little to dampen the enthusiasm for a new building out along the by-pass. The sitting sheriff had failed to take into consideration how many building contractors filled the rolls of Rotary.

It had been the day after an early Labor Day, and there was a star-filled twilight, with an evening that was cooling off nicely, in promise of the cold to come. Autumn was his favorite season, but Cady had left for Philadelphia the past Friday and Walt was unsettled by her departure and by the woman in his jail. He had taken a quick look at his pocket watch to see if he was going to make it before the café closed, the brass fob with the Indian Chief's head and the opposed horse heads catching on the pocket of his jeans.

Dorothy Caldwell had been keeping the café along Clear Creek open later in the summer to take advantage of the tourist trade, but all that might have already dried up with Labor Day weekend now past. If she'd already closed, it meant potpies, which bordered on cruel and unusual punishment for the lot of the Absaroka County staff, and for Dog.

He had paused at the open door of the all but empty café. “Can I bring him in?”

The owner/operator had turned from scraping the grill to regard man and beast. “It's against the law.”

“I am the law, at least for another couple of months.”

“Then I guess its okay.”

He sat on his regular stool nearest the cash register; Dog sat in the space between the counters and looked at Dorothy expectantly. She reached into a stainless steel container, plucked out a piece of bacon, and tossed it. In one snap, it was gone. The man had looked down at the brute with the shaggy red head that was as big as a five-gallon bucket. “…It's like the shark tank at Sea World.”

“How many?”

He noticed she didn't bother to ask of what; he hadn't seriously picked up a menu in the place in years. “Three.”

Walt laid the folder on the counter and had looked up as she took a frying pan as big as a garbage can lid down from the hanger above. “You got a lodger?”

“Transport from over in Gillette.” He had glanced back out onto the deserted Main Street and could only imagine how much the three of them looked like some high plains version of Hopper's Nighthawks .

She had dumped a few tablespoons of bacon grease into the heating pan and, like all things bad, it smelled delicious. She took out three, large strips of round steak and began pounding them with a meat mallet; then she dipped them in batter and dredged them in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and just a touch of paprika.

He caved. “I take it chicken-fried steak is the usual?”

She tossed the strips of battered meat into the frying pan and dropped some fries into the deep fryer as Dog looked on. “The special, when are you going to get it right?”

His large hands had opened the file, and he studied the few pages that the Campbell County Deputies had brought with the woman; it didn't seem like a lot to accompany an incarcerated life. “Make sure you include ketchup packets…”

“Vic?”

“Yep.”

The next question hadn't sounded completely innocent. “What's she doing working late?”

“Prisoner's female.”

She'd leaned against the counter and looked down at the file, her salt-and-pepper locks hiding her eyes. “Mary Barsad?” Her eyes reappeared and met with his; cool hazel on grey.

“Ring a bell?”

She picked up an oversize fork, expertly turning the steaks. “Only what I read in the papers. She's the one that shot her husband after he killed her horses, right?”

He had shrugged at the report. “The motivating factors are not mentioned, only the grisly consequence.” He looked at the threadbare corner of his shirtsleeve. “What's the story on the horses?”

“The official story is lightning, but the rumor is he locked ‘em in the barn and set it on fire.”

He had stared at her. “You're kidding…”

She shook her head. “That's the story down the lane. He was a real piece of work, from what I hear. You must have been off with Cady when the story broke; it was in all the papers.”

“Where'd this happen?”

“Out your way in Powder River country. She and her husband had that really big spread across the river near the Middle Prong of Wild Horse Creek.”

“Rough country.” He thought about it. “The L-Bar-X, I thought what's his name… Bill Nolan had that?”

“Did, but the rest of the story is that this Barsad fella came in a few years back and started buying everybody out. Took the old place and built a log mansion on it, but I guess that pretty much burnt down, too.”

“The report says that he was shot while he was asleep. He set the barn full of horses on fire and then went to bed?”

She pulled the fries up, dumped them in the styro-foam containers along with the steaks, three small, mixed salads, and the packets of ketchup and salad dressing. “Seems kind of negligent, doesn't it.”

“He burned the horses alive?”

She had placed three iced-teas in a holder and slid them across the counter with the meals. “That's the rumor. From what I understand, the finest collection of quarter-horses this country's ever seen.”

Walt got up, and Dog started for the door; he knew full well that the real begging couldn't start till they got back to the jail. “Barrel racer?”

“Cutter, but I think she also did distance riding. I understand she was world-class.”

“She looks it.” He gathered up the movable feast. “What the heck was she doing with this…” Walt glanced down at the file before closing it and placing it on top of the styro-foam stack. “Wade Barsad?”

The sheriff paid the chief-cook-and-bottle washer, and she gave him back the change that he had stuffed into the tip jar. It was their ritual.

“They don't all start out as peckerheads; some just get there faster than others.”

He had paused at the door. “Is that experience talking?”

She hadn't answered.

 

The dark-eyed bartender's name was Juana, and she was from Guatemala . Her son, Benjamin, the little outlaw from the porch, was half Cheyenne and now sat on the barstool next to me. He was nursing a Vernor's ginger ale and was hypnotized by the Cartoon Network. I didn't even know that such a thing existed. The law-giver who passed the privy proclamations had disappeared.

“John, I bet you're a John.” The young woman stole a sip from the straw of her son's soda and glanced at me. “Nope, too plain. William, maybe—or Ben.” She rested her elbows on the bar and looked at the boy. “Maybe he's a Benjamin, like you?”

“He's an Eric.” The child's voice carried so much certainty, that even I almost believed him. He sidled up on one cheek and pulled a business card from the back of his tiny Wranglers and handed it to his mother.

I recognized the card—it had rested on the seat of my rental.

She read. “Eric Boss, Boss Insurance, Billings Montana ?”

I looked at the little man and thought about the nerve it would take to reach into a vehicle that contained Dog. His Cheyenne half was showing. “Did you get that out of my car?”

He didn't say anything but received a sharp look from his mother and a full, Spanish pronunciation of his name. “Ben-ha-meen?!”

He shrugged. “It was unlocked…”

She was on her way around the bar when he launched off the barstool and was on his way out the door like a miniature stagecoach robber.

She flung herself past me and across the room after her son, yelling from the open doorway. “ Casero, entonces usted el unsaddle que caballo y va a su sitio !” The clatter of horse hooves resounded from the dirt street as she continued to yell after him. “ Usted me oyo !” The young woman closed the screen door behind her and then crossed silently past me and back behind the bar. Once there, she slid the card across the surface but didn't look at me. “I apologize.”

“It's all right.”

She gathered a remote, switched off the cartoons, and reached over to a burner for the coffee urn. “Well, that pretty much settles that mystery.” I pushed my cup back towards her and watched as she refilled the buffalo china mug. “You're here about the house that burned down, the barn with the horses… That woman?”

I sipped my coffee—it was still surprisingly good—and collected the business card from the surface of the bar. “What woman was that?”


 

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