Tales From the Far West: Dog Days in Lincoln County.
The Sheriff of Lincoln County and I happened to be in the Wortley Hotel Lincoln NM at the same time. He came into the breakfast room shortly after me. A big man, well into his 60s I guessed, but he moved lightly. He pulled up a chair at the table next to mine. ‘Howdy’ he said. ‘What brings you to Lincoln?’ I told him my business was antiques and art works and gave him my card to prove it. Rural county sheriffs like to know who’s around. He ordered steak and eggs. Some small talk was made. He asked me if I had done any military time. I told him two tours in Afghanistan. ‘Vietnam was my thing’ he said. ‘I volunteered’. He held out his hand and we exchanged strong grips. ‘Staying long?’ he enquired. I told him it depended on what business there was to be done. ‘I have a thing here to deal with. I’m based in Carrizozo. If you’re going that way, stop by’. I said I would be glad to.
We finished our meal and went out into the hotel’s front yard on the main street at the same time. On the street a Sheriff’s Department patrol car disgorged a couple of deputies. The Sheriff nodded to me ‘welcome to Lincoln, there’s a little action coming – nothing serious but best if you stayed back.’
Into view down the street came a curious procession. It was led by a dog, a black Great Dane. It was big even for the breed. Following was a palomino ridden by a woman in jeans and sweatshirt. A rope led from her saddle pommel behind the horse. Attached to it by the neck was a shambling figure in dusty and torn clothing carrying a small backpack. He looked Latino and very depressed.
The deputies stepped forward. The woman made a gesture and the dog sat down. There was a short pantomime in which inaudible words were exchanged, the captive was released and then handcuffed and placed in back of the police car. The woman reeled in her rope and furled it onto her saddle pommel. Turning in my direction the Sheriff beckoned me forward. ‘This here is Ms Mackenzie’ he said, ‘Anna, this gentleman is in the antique business, so if you have any stuff you don’t need, he’ll take a look. Give her your business card, Son.’
The dog and I looked at each other. The woman said ‘Still Hamlet.’ She had a soft voice recognisably mid-Western but there might have been a bit of Scots in it. I approached the horse and reaching up gave Ms Mackenzie my card. She took it, read it, looked at me again and said ‘Sure, could be handy. Come over around noon to-day.’
Then she said ‘Thanks Sheriff. See you around.’
She turned her horse and, led by the dog, trotted off.
The deputies left and the Sheriff said ‘Come on, Son – let’s you and me have another coffee.’
‘Darned nuisance these Mex illegals are,’ he grumbled. ‘We don’t get that many but the Mackenzie women, they’ve caught several. The farm is kind of out of the way down the valley. I mean, I sympathise with the migrants, they mostly work hard. But when they are caught it’s paperwork, and they have to be taken to Roswell, and processed and then shipped down to El Paso for deportation.’ He paused as if mustering his thoughts. ‘Man does his time for his country is OK by me,’ he said. ‘The Mackenzie women do their best with the ranch but it’s a small place and tough to make a living from. I know they have quite a bit of stuff – furniture, paintings, silver and so forth. If they trust you, they’ll likely sell. Give them a fair price son, you won’t regret it.’
Maybe there was an implied threat there. I don’t normally do distress sales and wondered why the Sheriff was taking such an interest. He read some of this in my face. ‘So why is it my business?’ he asked. He told me. Anna had a twin sister, Bel. Their mother had died when they were very young. The father was reputedly, somehow related to a British aristocratic family and indeed spoke with a Scottish accent. He had inherited the ranch from an uncle and back in the late 19th century his great grandfather had sold the Wortley Hotel to Pat Garrett. Mackenzie tried hard with the ranch and the family were well thought of in the county. He was killed in a riding accident when the girls were in their teens. ‘What with the family history and all, the sisters are our folk and we try to take care of them.’ The Sheriff finished his coffee. ‘You know your business,’ he said, ‘but if you can do something for them, we’ll be obliged.’ We shook hands and he left.
The Mackenzie Ranch wasn’t so hard to find. A mile or two out of Lincoln a dirt road branched off the highway and followed the river until a hand lettered sign read Mackenzie and another track took me through the trees to a well-made wood and stone ranch house. The dog was outside. I stopped my truck and the dog turned toward the house and gave a bark. Anna came out. ‘You can get out of your car,’ she said. I did so, the dog watched me. Anna came toward me. ‘Friend,’ she said to the animal. He came up to me and pushed his muzzle into my groin for what seemed a very long time. Then he turned, lifted a hind leg and damn well pissed down my pants leg. Anna laughed. ‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘Hamlet owns you now.’
We went into the house and I met Bel, who was indisputably Anna’s twin. They must have been in their late thirties or early forties and were handsome women with red-gold hair and green eyes and strong features.
‘I expect Sheriff Williams told you our history,’ said Bel.
That broke the ice. I asked about Hamlet. The sisters looked at each other.
‘He’s the man of the house,’ they said, laughing.
The dog preceded us everywhere as we went round the place. At the door to the sisters’ bedroom he simply sat in front of it. ‘He never lets anyone in there,’ Bel said. That was fine because nothing in that room was for sale. Outside we visited a barn where most of the items were.
‘We don’t need the income,’ said Anna, ‘but we really could do with a bit of capital to put by and pay for emergencies’.
‘And improvements,’ added Bel.
We sat around the kitchen table – Hamlet at one end watching us talk. We all ate meat stew and squash. It was good. I gave them an honest opinion of what they had and what I could do with their valuables. We agreed a course of action. They were very nice people and I could see why the Sheriff was protective of them. When I left they came out into the yard and we shook hands. Hamlet sat by my truck door and held up his huge paw. I shook that too. The he went back to the women and sat in front of them watching me leave. He didn’t wave, but he did bark once, short and restrained. I noticed he had a huge and alarming erection.
Over the next few months I managed to find rewarding buyers for much of their stuff. To be fair there was some valuable silver, a few pedigree paintings and some other collectibles. I advised them to send the best pieces direct for auction but they said no. I sold them privately at a fair price but they could have done better. The furniture took longer but we were getting there. When I went down to Lincoln I always stopped by Sheriff Williams’ headquarters. We’d have coffee and talk about army days. He was pleased with what I had done – so were Anna and Bel. The dog was always affable. He ignored my crotch but followed us everywhere and shook paws when I left.
Things went quiet for a while. The furniture market was slow, I was busy and frankly, the main value of the project had been realised. I was in Santa Fe when Sheriff Williams called me. ‘I have some bad news for you Ken. The Mackenzie women are dead.’ He said he thought it would be good if I came down to Carrizozo. It wasn’t something for the phone and he wanted help with their possessions.
‘There’s no easy way to tell you what happened,’ he said.
He looked much older than I remembered and his normally florid complexion was pale.
‘Get going with it.’
He told me that the sisters hadn’t been seen for several days. That wasn’t unusual, but then the postman noticed that the box at the end of their track hadn’t been emptied. He had gone up and found them: the two women and the dog and a young man.
‘The post guy called 911,’ said Williams. ‘I was down there, the ambulance, a State Trooper, all within an hour. Ken, I ain’t seen anything so bad even in ‘Nam.’
He paused, took a breath and said, ‘It was a slaughterhouse. Bel had her throat torn out; evidence is the dog did it. Hamlet had his head blown off and Anna had done the same to herself.’
‘What about the young man?’
‘Yeah, well, kind of the same. Throat and…..’
He took another breath: ‘You see, he had no pants on, nothing. There was nothing left down there. Probability is the dog did it.’
I paused to think it through.
Williams said, ‘And Bel, she didn’t have anything on either, ‘cept her shirt.’
It seemed the young man had some while previously arrived as a ranch hand to help the women. He came from Capitan up the road and was earning money to go to college. He was reckoned to be a decent kid. The explanation was obvious:
‘You think Bel and the young guy were having sex in the barn and the dog got jealous and killed them both?’ I asked.
‘That’s about the size of it. So Anna shoots the dog and then figures: what’s left of her life?’
We sat silent for a long while. Neither of us wanted to talk about what happens when bodies lie out in the sun for days in places where the wildlife is carnivorous.
‘Goddamn shame’ and ‘No knowing about folks and lives’ were our shared sentiments.
Williams stood up.
‘Come over to Lincoln with me,’ he said hopefully. ‘ I’m executor of their wills and I could use some professional help.’
‘The one thing about wars at least you know to expect bad stuff to happen,’ said Sheriff Williams as we climbed into his car.
How could I disagree?