Muddy Waters

by Candace J Carter 

Colorado Plateau, Late Spring
Henry Smith paused in the sparse shade of a juniper. He recognized the truck in the canyon below, and that bothered him. The stock trailer and makeshift loading chute bothered him even more. He followed a deer trail down the slope and approached the vehicle. Examining tracks in the soft ground, he noted someone had unloaded a horse and ridden west. Glancing toward the late-afternoon sun, he pushed back his Stetson and wiped his face with a faded bandana. It was cooler here under the cottonwoods, but that wasn’t saying much. Spring had been unseasonably hot and dry on the Colorado Plateau. Clumps of gray-green sagebrush stretched to the purple horizon where dancing heat waves melted cloudless sky into parched earth. This small canyon was a refuge from the drabness. The bright patch of green by the spring stood out like an unexpected splash of color in a monochromatic photo.

Henry Smith paused in the sparse shade of a juniper. He recognized the truck in the canyon below, and that bothered him. The stock trailer and makeshift loading chute bothered him even more. He followed a deer trail down the slope and approached the vehicle. Examining tracks in the soft ground, he noted someone had unloaded a horse and ridden west. Glancing toward the late-afternoon sun, he pushed back his Stetson and wiped his face with a faded bandana. It was cooler here under the cottonwoods, but that wasn’t saying much. Spring had been unseasonably hot and dry on the Colorado Plateau. Clumps of gray-green sagebrush stretched to the purple horizon where dancing heat waves melted cloudless sky into parched earth. This small canyon was a refuge from the drabness. The bright patch of green by the spring stood out like an unexpected splash of color in a monochromatic photo.

Henry returned to his horse tied near the spring. He found a half-melted Snickers bar in the saddlebag and wrestled with the sticky wrapper, his thoughts on the pickup. The faded Mesa State license plate frame brought back images of a grinning Aubrey Miller, whom he’d known since they were kids growing up in North Carolina. A day after graduation from college, Aubrey had stopped by to show off his brand-new F-250. Aubrey was still driving that same truck last year, vowing to keep it until he ran it into the ground. Henry had laughed. He wasn’t giving up his 1965 Chevy any time soon.

Friendship wouldn’t make a difference to the ranchers who paid Henry to take care of stock thieves. It wouldn’t make a difference to Henry, either. After ten years as a range detective, he wouldn’t allow a friend’s transgression to tarnish his otherwise spotless record.

Henry licked chocolate from his fingers before wiping them on the bandana. He swallowed a mouthful of lukewarm water from the canteen, grabbed his rifle and settled down in the lengthening shadows near the trailer to wait. Around dusk, the roan twitched his ears, listening. The distant shuffle of hooves grew louder, echoing off the canyon walls. Henry placed his hand over the roan’s nose to keep him from whinnying.

A rider emerged from the shadows, herding the small group of yearlings toward the loading chute. The cattle were urged forward until they clambered inside the trailer. When the rider leaned in to close the door, Henry’s suspicions were confirmed.

He stepped forward. “I’ll get that for you, Aubrey.”

“Damn!” Aubrey jerked the horse’s reins.

Henry swung the door shut and leaned against the trailer, cradling his rifle in the crook of his left arm. An owl hooted somewhere near the spring.

“They don’t call you ‘Whispering Smith’ for nothing.” Aubrey dismounted. “How long you been out here?”

“Long enough.” Henry could see dust covering Aubrey from his battered cowboy hat to his boots. He’d put some effort into stealing the cattle. “These Lazy K steers look good, despite the drought. Only problem is, you don’t work for the Lazy K.”

Aubrey twisted the reins in his hands. “So, what happens now?”

Henry stared at Aubrey. What did he think happened to rustlers? He clenched his fists, wondering if it really was possible to knock sense into someone. “What were you going to do with the cattle?”

Aubrey shrugged and tied his horse to the trailer.

“Wouldn’t have anything to do with your friend Connor, would it?”

When Aubrey didn’t answer, Henry took it as a yes. Connor was a nasty piece of work, but good at getting rid of stolen cattle quickly. He’d been lucky at staying a few steps ahead of range detectives across three states. That luck might be turning.

Henry moved away from the trailer. “Where were you meeting him?” He shifted the rifle to his right hand.

Aubrey licked his lips. “You know I can’t tell you that.”

“Maybe you’d better think on saving your own skin.” He leaned against the trunk of a cottonwood.

Aubrey dropped his head and kicked a stone.

Henry watched the stone bounce, realizing Aubrey’s boot hadn’t made the tracks by the truck. When a slight rustling near the spring caught Henry’s attention, Aubrey rushed him and they both hit the ground with a force that knocked the rifle from Henry’s grasp. A bullet ripped bark from the tree he’d been leaning against.

Aubrey grabbed the rifle. Henry’s first thoughts were that Aubrey was about to shoot him, followed by how quickly he could draw the holstered pistol at his waist.

“That idiot,” Aubrey hissed. He pointed the rifle toward the brush surrounding the spring. “If I’d any idea he was going to pull a stunt like this, I’d have told you he was out there.”

Hands shaking, he passed the rifle to Henry as a second shot slammed into the trailer. Pinpointing the muzzle flash in the darkness, Henry fired three shots at the flash then dropped to the ground a few feet away. He watched the shadows for movement. The cattle inside the trailer were bawling and thumping the trailer walls, making it impossible to hear anything else.

“Let those cows out,” Henry snapped.

“Do what?”

“And keep your head down.”

Aubrey swore as he untied his panicked horse. It reared, then wheeled and kicked at the trailer before running into the gloom. Seconds later, Henry heard the clank of the latch and the groan of the metal door on its hinges. He saw Aubrey jump away from the cattle and flatten himself on the ground near the trailer. The cattle scrambled over each other in their haste to escape, stampeding through the brush and out of the canyon.

Silence enveloped the spring.

“I’m a range detective for the Colorado Plateau Cattlemen’s Association.” Henry’s voice carried in the stillness. “It’s best if you come on out now, before things get out of hand.”

A bullet scattered dirt a few feet to Henry’s right. He spaced three more shots at the muzzle flash before shifting his position, then studied the shadows. With his foot, he pushed the trailer door in hopes the squealing hinges would elicit another shot. Nothing. After several minutes, he crawled to the rear of the trailer and got to his feet behind the door. Henry leaned the rifle against the trailer and drew his pistol. Signaling Aubrey to stay put, he peered into the darkness.

“Connor! If I have to come after you, one of us won’t make it through the night. I’m figuring that’d be you.”

Connor’s next bullet ricocheted off a rocky outcrop on the slope behind them. Henry determined the location of the muzzle flash, and firing twice, he slipped into the scrub beside the trailer. He edged quietly toward the spring, listening for movements in the undergrowth to locate his quarry. He found Connor hunkered beside the bones of a long-dead tree, tying a bandana around a blood-soaked leg. His rifle leaned against the trunk.

Henry used a large cottonwood for cover. “Move away from the rifle and keep your hands in sight.”

Connor was quick. In one move he grabbed the rifle and fired. The shot clipped branches near Henry’s shoulder. He tried to chamber another round as Henry stepped into the small clearing, pistol aimed at Connor.

“Drop it – now!”

Connor raised the rifle to his shoulder. Henry squeezed the trigger. His bullet struck Connor squarely in the chest. Dry limbs cracked as Connor slumped against the decaying trunk. Henry kept the pistol trained on Connor as he approached, watching for movement. His boot on Connor’s rifle, he leaned in and checked for a carotid pulse. Nothing.

The image of Connor’s empty eyes burned into his memory. He took a few deep breaths and holstered his pistol. Above him, the moon shone through the tangle of cottonwood branches. Somewhere in the darkness a coyote howled. Cattle rustled through the brush as they slowly returned to the spring. Henry checked the handcuffs on his belt. He fished in his chest pocket for his Miranda card while walking toward the truck to arrest an old friend who’d just saved his life.

* * *

North Carolina Mountains, Early Summer—One Year Later

The Parsons Gap city limits sign loomed ahead, gleaming in dappled sunlight and offering a more welcoming impression than Henry believed were deserved. He slowed the old pickup to meet the speed limit. He was unexpectedly attracted to the dense greenness absent in northwestern Colorado. Summer had always been his favorite time of year growing up here. Now it seemed cold and uncertain, like he was about to dive into muddy waters. When he’d left his North Carolina hometown fifteen years ago, he promised not to return. He’d never gone back on his word before. That was one of the few things his father bothered to teach him.

He pushed thoughts of his father aside before they brought on a hailstorm of unpleasant memories.

The municipal lot across from the Corner Café offered plenty of parking. He set the parking brake and climbed out of the pickup. The town had changed during his time away. The only thing he recognized was the faded, red-and-white café sign. The clothing store was gone. So was the gas station. A restaurant had replaced the bank. By the time he crossed the street to reach the café, he was nearly convinced this was the wrong town.

He pushed through the glass door, automatically removing his hat as he took in the café. The familiar aroma of bacon, hot coffee, and fresh-baked biscuits greeted him. Nothing had changed here, from the red vinyl chairs and yellowed floor tiles to the faded photos of local high-school teams and athletes on the walls. Even the big picture window overlooking High Street wore the same grimy streaks. It was strangely comforting.

“I was beginning to think you got lost.” Aubrey Miller grinned at him from a stool at the far end of the counter.

“I hope you’ve managed to stay out of trouble.” Henry took the seat beside him. A year had passed since the arrest and it was good to see Aubrey again. After serving a brief probationary period, Aubrey had decided to leave Colorado and accept a job with his cousins back home.

“You look like you’re in shock or something.”

Henry glanced out the big window toward the street. “I barely recognize this town.”

Aubrey laughed. “Things are different around here, that’s for sure.”

Henry found a menu wedged between the napkin dispenser and a ketchup bottle. “You order yet?”

“Yes, sir. I’m a working man now. Got responsibilities.” A waitress in her early twenties appeared with a heaping plate of food. She placed the plate in front of Aubrey and winked suggestively before turning to take Henry’s order. She ripped the order ticket from her pad, flipped her blonde hair and winked at Aubrey again as she returned to the kitchen.

“At least the service is good,” Henry said.

Aubrey wasn’t paying attention to anything but the waitress. She returned with a cup of hot tea, staring at Aubrey as she slid the mug to Henry. Henry moved to the edge of the stool to evade the hot liquid she was undoubtedly about to spill. The danger passed and Henry relaxed until she reappeared moments later with a steaming pot of coffee.

Aubrey shoved a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth then stabbed a piece of ham. He shook the ham to emphasize his words. “Never thought I’d move back home.”

“It’s hard to say no to a fresh start.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” Aubrey chewed the ham and washed it down with coffee. “I never did thank you properly for what you did. Your testimony kept my sorry ass out of jail.”

“You kept my sorry ass out of the graveyard.”

“I hope that doesn’t mean we’re square.” Aubrey picked at a chip in his coffee cup. “Henry, there’s something on my mind. Something maybe you could help with, now you’re here for a few days.”

“What’s that?”

“Rumors about the slaughterhouse. I think my cousins are taking in cows with questionable ownership.”

“As in stolen?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.” Aubrey tapped his fork against his plate. “Seen your father yet?”

Henry shook his head. “I’m having supper over there tonight.”

“You two finally going to kiss and make up?”

“It’ll take more than one date for that.” Henry stirred sugar into his tea and shifted Aubrey’s attention. “Who’s the girl?”

“What girl?”

“The one that seems to think you’re the only person in the room.” Noticing Aubrey’s blank expression, he added, “The waitress.”

A smile spread across Aubrey’s face. “Oh, that’s Alva Jean.”

Alva Jean appeared to be Aubrey’s latest love of his life. The ridiculous grin confirmed it. He’d only been in town a few months, but that was Aubrey.

“Looks like you’ve settled into this place quick enough. How’s the job?”

“Never expected to be working this side of a cow, but I like it. My cousins want me to learn all about the business. Never knew there was so much to making steaks.”

Alva Jean brought Henry’s order then refilled the coffee. Aubrey nearly slipped off his stool trying to watch her walk toward the kitchen. His behavior made Henry seriously consider the possibility Aubrey had become a born-again adolescent.

“This ol’ town ain’t so bad.” Aubrey re-centered himself on the stool. “It’s grown into a nice little place. You ought to consider staying.”

“The only thing I ever liked about this town was the fishing. You know I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Vernon’s wedding.”

“Why’d you come back for two weeks then? Only takes one day to be best man.”

Henry looked out the big window.

“Boy, that’s something ain’t it? Your uncle getting married.” Aubrey’s expression grew serious. “You’ve been lucky so far, you know.”

“Haven’t met the right girl.”

“Not that.” Aubrey picked at a fingernail. “I’ve been thinking about a lot of things lately. They say life-altering experiences do that to a person.”

Henry wondered if he meant being arrested for rustling or finding a new girlfriend.

“You ever think about a new profession? One of these times you may not come out in one piece.”

Henry raised his eyebrows. “This may be a surprise to you, but I don’t go into situations unprepared.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.” Aubrey waved a hand as if erasing the words. “You’re prepared all right. It’s just that, well, you nearly got shot that night. Maybe it’s time to find something a little bit safer.”

“I don’t track down dangerous people every day. Most days, the worst that can happen is a severe paper cut.”

“What’s so wrong with a new line of work?”

Henry shrugged.

“You must be thinking of that saying about old dogs and new tricks. It ain’t true.” Aubrey grinned and spread his hands. “Look at me.”

Henry didn’t mention his leave of absence following Aubrey’s trial. Or the career change he was considering. They sat in silence until Alva Jean returned with Henry’s breakfast. He tried to ignore the silly look on Aubrey’s face when she was near. Something in the way they looked at each other made Henry imagine them settling down and raising a bunch of kids, all with names beginning with ‘A’.

“You really like her, don’t you?”

Aubrey grinned. “You know me. I fall in love every other week.”
With Aubrey it was more likely to be lust than love, but this affliction seemed different. “You always did have good taste.”

Happy to discover strawberry jam in the bowl of individual jelly portions, Henry split open a biscuit and meticulously coated the inside of both halves.

“Tell you the truth, I’ve got a feeling things could get real serious here.” Aubrey waved his toast toward the waitress. “You don’t recognize her, do you?”

Henry studied the waitress. “Should I?”

Aubrey stuffed a chunk of toast into his mouth. “Here’s a clue, her big sister was your high school sweetheart.”

“That’s A.J.?” Henry barely avoided blurting something about her being all grown up. That was obvious. She’d been about to start kindergarten the last time he’d seen her. What was Aubrey doing with a girl fifteen years younger?

“Guess I never gave much thought to what the initials ‘A.J.’ were for.”

“I ran into her the other day.” Aubrey paused to swallow the toast. “Carlie, I mean. She’s a doctor now. Moved back to town a few years ago and set up shop. Maybe you should look her up while you’re in town.”

Henry didn’t comment.

“Say what you will, but I never did believe that story about her cheating on you.” Aubrey waved a second slice of toast at Henry. “Even if she was the one that said it.” He glanced at the clock on the wall, then tucked several crumpled bills under the edge of his plate. He got to his feet. “Better run. If I’m late, my cousins will kill me.”

Henry stared at his plate. His mind wasn’t quite a million miles away, just fifteen years in the past. He’d lost his appetite but still felt it a shame to waste good strawberry jam.

 

 

 


Candace J Carter received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Iowa State University following military service. She spent much of her professional career with the U.S. Department of the Interior and has worked with several threatened and endangered species in both Colorado and Florida, including the black-foot ferret, Florida scrub-jay, and four species of sea turtles. She is retired from the National Park Service. Muddy Waters is her first mystery.

 

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