She parked the jeep behind the mission building and darted around to the front doors. A quick glance over her shoulder assured her that no one followed - yet.
The heavy door groaned on its hinges as she opened it. Padre Martinez rose from a bench, slowly limping his way down the isle to her. His round face wrinkled into a warm smile.
“Welcome, child. What brings you out on such a stormy evening. I haven’t seen you since we laid your father to rest.”
“Padre, I think some men are following me,” she answered breathlessly.
His brow furrowed. “Calm down now and tell me what happened.”
“I was out looking for my mare. She’s ready to foal, and she escaped from the corral. I saw her tracks on the road, so I got the jeep and followed. It was dark and I was watching the road for tracks. I didn’t see the truck until I was almost on it. It was sitting cross ways in the road.”
He lifted a hand to stop her onslaught of words. “A truck? What kind of truck? Who’s truck?”
“I don’t know who the truck belonged to. The rustlers, I guess. A big semi-truck. Anyway, I stopped, and there were four men with guns. They had cut the fence, and they were loading Diamond C cattle. They tried to hide their faces, but I recognized two of them. When they recognized me, Todd yelled ‘stop her’ and ran for his truck. I turned the jeep around and took out. I turned on this road before they caught up.
“Rustlers? Todd? Slow down, girl. You’re talking too fast, and you’re not making sense.” Padre led her to a bench. “Sit down now. Relax. No one will hurt you here.” He sat down beside her on the bench. “Now what’s this about Todd? Todd Casey? And who was the other person you recognized?”
“Yes. Todd Casey, and his friend, Chris Langley. They were helping two other guys rustle some cattle.”
Padre shook his head. “Why would Todd steal cattle from his own father? You must be mistaken. Maybe they were simply loading cattle to sell.”
“But it wasn’t a cattle truck,” Maria said, her voice rising with frustration. “It was a regular semi, like they use to transport food. And who knows what Todd would do? He’s so wild, and he never did get along with his father. And how do you explain the guns?”
Padre smiled and patted her hand. “Young boys often quarrel with their fathers - and I know many dependable adults who were wild in their youth.” He turned his palms up and shrugged. “As for the guns, who knows?” His bushy brows arched. “Perhaps a coyote problem?”
She frowned. “And the fence? Why would he cut his father’s fence? Why would they load cattle in the dark on a narrow dirt road when they have a big corral and cattle ramps near the barn? I’ll tell you why. Because Mr. Casey would see them if they loaded them near the house.”
Padre shrugged again. “Perhaps they didn’t want to drive the cattle across the range to load them. Why not take the truck to where the cattle are? It would be easy enough to fix the fence afterward.”
“So why were they trying to hide their faces, and why did Todd yell at them to stop me? .Padre gave her a level look. “Perhaps they were trying to protect their eyes from the brightness of your headlights. Perhaps they wanted to ask you for help.”
Maria sighed. If there had been a flashing neon sign on the side of the truck saying "we’re rustling cattle, leave us alone", Padre still wouldn’t believe they were doing anything wrong. It was useless to discuss it with him. “I need to get into town,” she finally said.
Padre nodded. “Perhaps it is best. But be careful about accusing someone unless you’re certain. You can wait here until the storm is over, and I’ll go with you if you would like.”
The idea was comforting, and after an hour or so of raging storm, the entire incident seemed less frightening. Maybe Padre was right. Maybe there was a logical explanation for what she had seen. Sure, and maybe there was an Easter Bunny, too. What about the rumors that Mr. Casey was short of cattle in the last audit? It all fit together too well. She stared out the window at the dying storm.
With a start, she remembered the reason she had stumbled on them in the first place. The mare! Where was she? She jumped up from the bench and ran to the door. “My mare. She’s out there in this. If she has the foal now, it could die.”
Padre nodded. “Would you like me to ride with you?”
“No, the seat will be all wet and it wouldn’t be good for your rheumatism. I’m all right now. You’re probably right. It probably wasn’t what it looked like. I’ll go back to my house. Maybe the mare is back at the barn by now.
He smiled. “That’s a good idea. Get some sleep, and then maybe you will feel like asking some questions tomorrow.”
She smiled. “Maybe so.”
“Be careful,” he called after her as she stepped out the door. “The washes will be full of water.”
“I will,” she answered as she shut the door. None of the washes were deep, and the jeep would make it through - as long as she took her time.
She had crossed two temporary creeks and paused at the third, her headlights dancing on the turbid water. How deep? She tied one end of a rope to the jeep and the other end around her waist. Gripping the rope, she started across the water. She reached the other side without getting water above her knees. The jeep would make it.
Back at the jeep, she slowly gave the engine a little gas. Holding the jeep at a steady speed, she started across the wash. The jeep lurched over a rock and dropped into a hole. The water was over the bumper when the jeep refused to go any further. She gave it more gas, careful not to spin the tires. The engine revved, but the jeep didn’t move. She pulled it out of gear and put it into reverse. Nothing.
She walked around to the front of the jeep and pulled the cable from the wench. Traversing the water again, she secured the cable around a small tree. As she started back to the jeep, headlights illuminated the road from behind her. She glanced around, Todd? She sheltered her eyes from the glare of headlights, but it was impossible to see the driver.
She climbed into the jeep and flipped the switch. The cable pulled taught and then began slowly dragging the jeep from the water. The truck had stopped and someone was getting out of the cab. Her throat constricted with fear. It was Todd.
He unhooked the cable from the tree. “What did you run off for?”
“I was looking for my horse,” she answered stiffly.
He laughed shortly. “What were you going to do, run her down? Don’t you know it isn’t safe to drive that fast at night?”
Her fingers sought and found the cold steel of the jack handle underneath her seat. If he thought he’d caught her defenseless, he was in for a surprise. She tossed her head. “For wimps, maybe,” she taunted. If she could keep his mind occupied with something besides rustling long enough to get the jeep going, she might have a chance.
“For fools either,” he shot back. “I was trying to talk to you. I found your horse out wandering around.”
She paused with her hand on the gear shift. “Is she all right?”
“She’s fine. I put her in your barn.”
“Thanks.” Could Padre have been right?
“Listen,” he said, shifting uncomfortably. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything about what you saw tonight.”
“What did I see?” she hedged. Obviously Padre was wrong.
He kicked at a rock. “You know. Us loading the cattle and all. Dad is trying to keep it quiet.”
She stared at him. “You know that, and it doesn’t bother you?”
It was his turn to stare. “What’s that supposed to mean? It isn’t like we’re doing anything illegal, you know.”
She let off the break and gave the engine a little gas. “Maybe immoral,” she answered sourly. The jeep wouldn’t budge.
He frowned. “It isn’t immoral.” He shrugged. “Sure, it’s deceptive, but if everyone knew, they’d likely panic. Maybe for no reason.”
Panic? “Because they’d think their cattle would be next?”
He shuffled uncomfortably. “Well, maybe.”
“Doesn’t all this make you feel even the least bit guilty?” she finally asked in an exasperated tone.
He frowned. “A little, but it isn’t my fault, you know.”
“Well, just who’s fault is it then? Your father’s?” Her tone was sharp, and he took a step backward.
“It isn’t anyone’s fault. It just happened. We’re trying to make the best of it.” His tone was injured.
She stared at him. Something wasn’t right. He couldn’t be talking about rustling. But if he wasn’t talking about rustling, what was he talking about? “How are you trying?” she asked in a controlled voice.
He shrugged. “We kept the cattle confined away from other herds, and we used a closed truck so nothing would fall out on the road. We even had guns ready in case one got away.”
He rolled his eyes. “One of the sick cows. What do you think? One of the veterinarians?” He eyed her suspiciously. “Did you think we were going to shoot someone to keep them quiet? It isn’t that bad. It might even be some new parasite or something that’s making the cattle sick. We won’t know until the veterinarians get through examining them. They needed to have the cows in a controlled environment. If . . . what are you laughing about? This is serious stuff. Our herd could be . . .”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted suppressing a chuckle. “I know it’s serious, but you don’t know how serious I thought it was. I thought you were rustling your father’s cattle.”
His jaw dropped. “Rustling? Rustling my own father’s stock?
She sobered. “Well, you have to admit it looked suspicious. Especially the way you tried to hide your faces.”
A wry smile gradually tugged at his lips. “Yeah? Well you try herding cattle at night with nothing but a flashlight and then have somebody shine their headlights in your eyes. You’d be hiding your face too.” He shook his head. “Rustling,” he muttered. “Of all the stupid . . .” He glanced down at her jeep, obviously ready to abandon the subject. “What’s the matter with your jeep, did you flood it out?”
“No, the engine is still running. It just won’t move.”
He squatted down. “Got a flashlight?”
She handed him her flashlight, and he shined it around underneath the vehicle. Finally he grunted. “Here’s the problem. You knocked a hole in your transmission pan.” He stood and brushed his knees off. “Why don’t we push it over to the side of the road, and I’ll take you home. We can fix it tomorrow in the daylight.”
“OK, let me leave a note so no one will think it’s been abandoned.” She scribbled a note on a bank envelope and tucked the end of it into the seat.
I knocked a hole in my transmission pan. All is well. Todd and I will come back for the jeep tomorrow.
He’s a nice boy.
They pushed the jeep to the side of the road and blocked the wheels. As she climbed into his truck, she glanced back toward the mission.
“Leave something behind?” Todd asked.
“Yes,” she answered, still gazing into the darkness, “but it will be there tomorrow.”
“If it’s something important . . .” he began, slowing the truck.
“It’s extremely important,” she responded, “but it’s safe from danger.”
Please sign my guest book and you are welcome to leave comments