{From the Short Story Archive} Death at the Morada

2006-05-20_242{From the Short Story Archive}

The sun was barely coming up over the mesa. The night had been cold and Jake was running out of time. He had to get the cattle back down to the valley before the crew left for Fort Worth. There was no way he was going to miss out on a chance to make some money with the rest of them. When Rivera said the rancher from Dallas was looking for some good hands, he was ready to go. Only he had to finish the work he promised to do for Mateo, so he had to get these five head down so they could be hauled over to Tucumcari day after tomorrow. He dusted himself off and drank the last of the rotten coffee he made earlier, then he wet down the fire pit he had made. He could see them off in the distance. Looks like none strayed, that was good. He didn’t want to waste any time looking for a stray and his back wasn’t feeling all that good after sleeping on a roll all night. The thought of a nice warm bed was mighty enticing just then. Mateo would let it pass if Jake said he couldn’t bring them down but he wanted to keep it good with Mateo for those times when he needed some extra work. Mateo was shrewd and if Jake didn’t do what he promised he’d pass him over the next few times for work, Mateo’s way of saying, "don’t mess with me."
It pissed Jake off that he had to kowtow to the Mexican but until he could get enough money to buy the land back, he’d have to play that game. Jake was a raw teen when his father lost the land to the bank trying to make it work as a farmer. The Mexican had swooped in to buy it up from the bank for pennies just as he had done to his own “borracho” brother’s land whom in a night of drunken gambling, signed it over to Mateo for $50,000.00 when the land was worth $500,000.00. The “borracho” wasn’t able to think beyond the bottle and ended up begging his brother to let him live in the old adobe house that was on the land. When he could stay sober, he worked as a hand for his brother Mateo. The 50 grand was gone in no time.
Jake saddled up and started the work of the day moving cattle. The sun was over the mesa now and it would be late afternoon by the time he got down to the valley assuming there was no problems. At least it was a pretty morning; he could enjoy the blue sky and crisp air. Wasn’t long before he saw the smoke. He wasn’t sure where it was coming from.
He cut away from the heard and headed toward the smoke. As he got closer, he saw the fire. The old “Morada” was on fire. No one should have been in the old church this time of year, the old Spanish families held their ceremonies during Easter. The “Majordomos” checked on the church now and then to keep it clean and ready for use. It’s was possible they were in trouble. After all, they were always lighting those damn candles all over the place.
Jake grew up with the old Spanish traditions all around him; partly they were his traditions too. He had joined the local men on several occasions when they paraded the saint statues through the villages. Had joined the big feast at the “Morada” on Good Friday and walked the Stations of the Cross. A few times, he even took part in the “Penitentes” rites with “Los Hermanos.” He could speak 'Spanglish' with the best of them and could switch to pure Castilian, on a dime, to talk with the “Viejos.”
When he reached the "Morada", it was awash in flames. He pulled out his cell phone hoping he could get a connection. Cell phones didn’t always work in the high desert mountains. He dialed Mateo but the call dropped. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do anything himself; there wasn’t even a water supply nearby. The rangers would have to either let it burn out or order up a slurry drop. He moved a few yards hoping he would find a hot spot and dialed again. Mateo picked up on the second ring.
“Mateo, its Jake. The “Morada” is in flames. I can’t put it out myself. Call the ranger station, see what they can do.”
“OK, stay there, I’ll call them. Is the herd safe?”
“Yeah, they’re fine, far enough away. Hurry up, The “Viejos” are gonna’ be upset if they lose all their old statues.”
“OK, let me call” and Mateo hung up.
Jake waited, helpless, hoping they wouldn’t end up losing all their treasured artifacts. He wondered if he should start to dig a line just in case the grass caught. It could help, it would keep him busy until the rangers and volunteers got there. This was gonna’ put a damper on his plans. He got down from his horse and gave her a smack. He knew the horse would trot down to where the cattle were, instinctively looking for safety.
He heard the helicopter first followed by the grinding of gears of the volunteer water trucks. Three trucks pulled in close. Men jumped out and started getting the manual hoses ready to spray. They had to hit the target consistently since they had a limited amount of water in the trucks. He knew all of these men, spent plenty of time in town with any one of them having a beer or hitting the dance hall. He knew them all to be good men, hard working men. He kept digging knowing they would tell him to do something else if it were necessary. One of the men, Billy, nodded at Jake letting him know he was doing the right thing by digging the fire line. You couldn’t take a chance. Wildfires were a problem in the west and everyone knew to be careful just like they knew to turn the water off when they brushed their teeth. Water was precious in the desert.
It was almost an hour later when the fire was out and all that was left were adobe walls and burnt wood beams. The sheriff had arrived, as did several of the local and state police. A few of the local ranchers and “Viejos” had driven up in their old ranch trucks to see what was going on.
They found the body face down near the wood stove. It was easy enough to see the woman had been shot in the head. Identifying the body would be a pain in its condition. When the coroner left with the body, the sheriff walked back over to Jake. Ray Moro had been the sheriff longer than he cared to remember and this murder was not something he wanted to have to deal with. He had promised his wife they’d ride up to Alamosa for the weekend. Looks like that will have to wait. He knew Jake and his family for years and knew Jake was a good man even though he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his father losing the land.
“Jake, do you remember hearing any vehicles or voices up here last night?”
“No, I didn’t. Like I told your man, I made camp a good ways back near where the shale road reaches the top.”
“I’m pretty sure you would have heard if there was a vehicle. Dead quite up here in the night and sound carries pretty good. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t have hiked up. If you remember anything more than you already told my deputy, come see me.”
“Alright Ray.”
The sheriff started walking toward his truck and without turning back called out, “Stay close Jake, just in case we need ya’ for anything.”
Jake was tired. All the craziness of the day and digging the line that wasn’t needed took his energy. Most of the day was gone and he still had to move those cows. Looks like he wasn’t going to Fort Worth. He was hours behind his schedule to get down to the Valley and now Ray wants him to “stay close.” What the hell does that mean?
Mateo had called him twice to find out what was going on and told Jake not to worry about the cows. If he got them down by tomorrow afternoon, that would be fine, there was still time. Jake didn’t tell him about the woman found in the Morada.
Mateo sat in the cab of his dually and dialed ‘Becka’s number again. He was starting to get worried. She told him she was going to be staying at La Fonda. It was a pretty long drive from Dallas and he was hoping she didn’t run into any problems on the road. The Jeep Cherokee he bought her a few months ago was in good shape, it was brand new and he had made sure it had regular maintenance. Why wasn’t she answering her phone?
Mateo looked out over the valley. He loved this place and planned to make all of it his own. He was proud of his accomplishments even if some thought he went about them in a shady way or was overly aggressive in negotiations. He was a landowner, a successful rancher and was respected in Santa Fe and Taos as a man of influence. He built himself a spectacular home with a view of the entire valley and mountains beyond. From the back, he could see the mesa. His family was well taken care of and his wife Dolores had everything she could want. Now that the kids were gone, Dolores had taken to volunteering in town leaving Mateo with more time on his hands than he wanted. He probably could have brought those five head down from the mesa himself but no matter what Jake may think; Mateo liked him and wanted to give him the extra work. He knew Jake thought he was a bastard for buying his family’s land at a bargain but it was just business.
Mateo started up the truck and headed down the gravel road. He’d head into town, get a beer at Shorty’s before he tried to call ‘Becka again. Maybe play a game of pool.
Mateo walked into a full room at Shorty’s. A Los Lonely Boys song was playing. He sat in a booth by the pool table and ordered a Tecate. Ray Moro spotted him, walked over and sat opposite Mateo in the booth.
“Winding down Mat?”
“Yeah, got too much time on my hands. I think I need a hobby.”
“I don’t know about that, you seem to be a pretty busy guy from all that I read in the Journal.”
Mateo laughed, “Can’t believe everything you read.”
“I expect you handled the call up to the mesa today. What happened?”
Ray sat back and nodded to the waitress to bring his usual, Coke with ice and two wedges of lemon. He knew it was Mateo who called the fire in and that he was told about it by Jake who was working Mateo’s cattle up there.
“Yep, I was up there. Looks like we have a murder on our hands. Used the fire to cover the deed. Don’t know why people think a fire will cover up a murder but they do. Jake spotted the fire.”
Damn, you’re kidding me. Jake didn’t say anything. Just that the Morada burnt to a crisp. Who was killed and why didn’t he tell me?”
“He’s under orders from my office not to share any details though I’m surprised he did as we asked and we aren’t sharing yet.”
“You can see the mesa from your place, Mat. Did you see anything, lights, vehicles, anything out of the ordinary last night or today?”
“I can see the mesa from the back of the house but I don’t usually go out back and I didn’t last night or today. Do you think the murder took place last night?
“Hmm, like I said before, we aren’t sharing yet.”
Mateo sat talking with Ray a while longer before he remembered he had to try to call ‘Becka again. He told Ray that if he remembers anything or hears anything, he’d let him know and he excused himself. Back in the truck, he tried ‘Becka’s phone again. Still no answer. Now Mateo was concerned and he headed to La Fonda.
Jake was exhausted by the time he got down to the valley. It was just before dusk and he was happy he made it before the sky darkened. Now the cattle were wandering in a big corral and he was heading home to shower and sleep in his own bed. His truck was just where he left it. He’d call Mateo in the morning even though Mat would have a bird’s eye view of them from his front porch.
Happy he didn’t run into any major snags keeping them together and herded in the direction he wanted, he still would have preferred to have never even seen the smoke. He wished he didn’t have to be involved. He didn’t see or hear anything except the smoke and didn’t know anyone was in there until he heard Ray call for the coroner and still, he doesn’t even know who the body was. Ray was careful not to share details but expected details when he answered questions. Jake couldn’t remember a murder around here in his lifetime. This would be a big deal once the details were out.
Jake flashed his lights at the driver coming up the road that didn’t have their headlights on and was driving much faster than the two-lane country road could allow. Ignoring his flashing lights, the driver passed him way too fast and way too close. Jake recognized Dolores’s car and was surprised by her driving. He’d never seen her drive like that before but he was pretty darn sure it was her driving and not something else. No one could miss that big hair of hers.
Jake parked in his driveway, happy to be home; still annoyed he wasn’t going to Ft. Worth.
Mateo pulled up and parked beside the barn. It was late and he was tired. 'Becka never checked into La Fonda and still there was no answer when he called. The lights were on and that meant Dolores was still up. He thought about Dolores, she was a good woman, a good mother. They had met in high school and married shortly after. Within a year, they had a daughter and the following year, a boy. They had a good life. Dolores never had to work but now that the kids were gone, she was antsy to do something. When she told Mateo she was thinking of volunteering at the museum, he supported her; even spoke to a friend on the board to see if he could smooth the way. And he did.
Lately though she wasn’t herself. She was moody and drinking more than normal. Maybe the volunteering was too much. He’d talk to her about it.
He walked up the steps to the porch and looked out over the valley. Looked like Jake had brought the cattle down safely. He would have to throw in a few bucks more for a job well done. Dolores was passed out on the couch, Chris LeDoux was blaring on the radio and an empty bottle of wine on the table. Mateo turned off the radio and picked Dolores up to put her to bed. Mateo couldn’t figure out what was going on with his wife. He got her undressed and into the bed and headed to the kitchen to get something to eat. He opened the refrigerator and took out the makings for a sandwich, adding item after item into the crook of his arms. With his elbow, he swung the refrigerator door closed and started to put everything down on the table when he saw the note. In Dolores’s handwriting was the name ‘Becka and a phone number. It was “Becka’s cell phone number. Mateo lost his appetite. Dolores knew.
Mateo didn’t mean for anything to happen. He loved his wife and he loved his life with her but when he met Rebecka on business in Dallas, he didn’t realize he was heading into danger. This wasn’t good. Maybe that’s why ‘Becka didn’t meet him and why she wasn’t answering his calls.
Mateo put the sandwich makings back in the refrigerator and took out a beer. He went out to the porch and sat, he needed to think of what he was going to say to Dolores.
Mateo woke to a knock at the door.
“Ray, what are you doing here so early in the morning?’
“Came to talk with you about the fire. We identified the body that we found in the Morada, Mat. Her name was Rebecka Moran.”
Mateo leaned against the wall, “Come in Ray.”
When Ray finally left, Mateo just sat and stared. Mateo couldn’t believe how his world was spinning out of control. They found ‘Becka dead in the Morada with a gun shot in the head. Her Jeep was found in the parking lot on Marcy Street in downtown Santa Fe just a few blocks from La Fonda. Whoever killed her was sloppy and thought the fire would cover their tracks. Ray had been sure to tell Mateo to stay close because there was much more they would need to speak to him about regarding his whereabouts and his affair with Rebecka Moran.
Dolores had heard everything from the bedroom. When Ray left, she came out dressed looking like the pain of the world was on her shoulders. Couldn’t tell if it was the pain of what she had learned about her husband’s affair and the murder or if it was the bottle of wine taking its wager.
“How could you Mateo? You make me sick.” She turned back to the bedroom and retrieved an overnight bag she had packed. “I’m leaving. I’m going to Taos, I need to think.”
Mateo was speechless. He knew he should say something but he was overwhelmed. All he could do was watch her go. He couldn’t believe this was happening.
He picked up his phone. “Jake, it’s Mateo. I need your help. Can you handle the haul to Tucumcari? I’ll pay you good. The woman’s body they found, turns out its someone I know. I can’t leave and I don’t have a mind too. “Can ya’ help me out?”
Jake figured he knew what Mateo meant when he said he knew the woman. There were rumors around about his business trips to Dallas. When Mateo asked him for help, Jake saw dollar signs and agreed to haul the cattle to Tucumcari.
“Sure, no problem, I’ll take care of it.”
“Everything you need is in the barn and I’ll leave the papers you’ll need in your box, I’ll call the boys and let them know you’re taking my place. They’ll be at the barn by sun up. Make sure they know there’s no drink until the works done. I’ll call Bill Deere in Tucumcari; he’s the person you’ll see when you get there. I’m counting on ya’ Jake.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve handled hauls before.”
Jake hung up and smiled, Mateo just might get his after all.
“Hey Ray, got a minute.” Ray’s deputy was standing at the office door.
“Whatcha’ got for me Frank?”
“We found tire marks on the back side leading up to the mesa and it looks like the vehicle had a bit of an oil leak too. We also found two sets of footprints; both woman and one set matched the shoes that were on the deceased. The fire was set with gasoline probably from the cans kept in the workroom at the back of the Morada.
“Good work. Did you match the tires to the vehicle type?
“Yeah, belongs to a Cadillac Escalade, not too many of those around here.”
“We also found a pair of sunglasses on what would be the driver’s side, ladies Oakley’s
“Hmm, I know of one Escalade around here and the driver usually wears Oakley’s. I don’t think I like where this is going. You know what to do next Frank.
Mateo sat on his porch looking out over the valley. He had no energy to do anything. He kept going over in his mind how ‘Becka ended up at the Morada and why she never called. Who would want to kill her? Mateo sat with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He was sure Dolores would be filing for a divorce. This would ruin him. He heard a vehicle and looked up to see Ray Moro driving up the road. Mateo watched Ray slow down to make the turn over the cattle guard into his property. He’d be up at the house in a minute. Mateo got up and headed to the front door to let Ray in.
“Ray, come in. How about some coffee, it’s old, from this morning. I could make a fresh pot?”
“No thanks Mat. If ya’ have a coke I’d take that. Is Dolores here?”
Mateo handed Ray a cold can of Coke from the refrigerator “No, she left to Taos. She heard us talking this morning and took off. Said I made her sick. She’ll probably file for divorce.”
“What time did she leave?”
“Around 8:30, shortly after you left. Why?”
“We think she may know something about what happened up at the Morada. Let me make a call, I’ll be right back.”
Before Mateo could say anything else, Ray walked out onto the porch and closed the door behind him. Mateo didn’t understand what was going on.
“Mateo, did you see Dolores yesterday morning?”
“No, I left the house early to meet the boys for breakfast in town. I had to tell them what the plan was for hauling the cattle Jake was bringing down to Tucumcari. She was still sleeping when I left.”
They heard the Deputy’s truck coming up the driveway. Ray went to the door to let him in. Several other vehicles were with him. Ray spoke quietly with Frank for a few minutes.
“Ray, we have a warrant to search your home”, Ray said and Frank handed it to Mateo.
“Sure, go ahead. Am I a suspect?”
“No Mat, but Dolores is. We found tire marks up at the Morada that match her Escalade and a pair of Oakley’s, the one she always wears. Did she have them on when she left for Taos?”
“No. God, I can’t believe this. Dolores couldn’t.” Mateo fell into the chair at the table.
“She’s been picked up in Embudo on the road to Taos. They found a gun in her SUV. I’m sure it will match. She’s already implicated herself. Looks like she found out about the affair and lured Rebecka to the Morada, shot her and tried to cover up with the fire.” Ray put his hand on Mateo’s shoulder.
“Yesterday, when I came in I found a note with ‘Becka’s name and cell phone number and I realized she knew about the affair but kill he, I can’t, I don’t think Dolores could do such a thing.”
Mateo got the call from Ray in the late afternoon. Dolores didn’t want to see him or have anything to do with him. She didn’t want him to come to the trial or attempt to reach her. In her mind, this was his entire fault. Ray said she was ranting and didn’t make sense but she wasn’t sorry. She confessed to the murder.
Dolores heard Mateo’s cell phone ring and was surprised he had left his phone on the nightstand. Dolores picked up the phone and saw the call was coming from “B”. Dolores had felt the change in Mateo and knew something was wrong with their relationship. Mateo had been distant, often taken trips that he wouldn’t normally have bothered to take and he had been guarded about where he was going, what he was doing. So when she saw the call come in from “B”, she went into a tailspin. She starred at the phone until, the message signal came on, and then she dialed the voicemail and listened. The woman was talking about their upcoming tryst and how excited she was to be with him. She left the time and place that she would be in Santa Fe. Dolores was sick and then the plan started to evolve.
Dolores called the number back under the guise of being Mateo’s secretary. Dolores figured if it didn’t work and the woman knew better, then she would just have to have it out but if not she could meet this home wrecker and Dolores would have her say. She called and identified herself as Mateo’s secretary and told Rebecka that Mateo would be in a meeting and asked her to call Rebecka and arrange to pick up and bring her to the ranch where they would attend a party together. Dolores had laughed when she realized how young and na├»ve the woman was and that made her even angrier. Dolores picked her up in the parking lot a few blocks from where the woman was planning to stay. They drove the hour chatting amiably about Rebecka and how she met Mateo. Rebecka was more than happy to keep the conversation on herself. It was apparent from what Rebecka was saying that she knew Mateo was married and had two grown children but that was all, didn’t even know the wife’s name or anything about his children but was convinced the wife had to be awful if such a nice man like Mateo would so easily stray. Rebecka was happy to tell about the Jeep Cherokee that Mateo had bought her among other things including the diamond bracelet, which Rebecka kept dangling in Dolores’ face. Dolores had all to do to keep her temper. When they arrived at the Morada, Rebecka wanted to know why they were there because it didn’t look like anyone else was. Dolores said that was where they were all meeting, she was to get there early to open up and turn on the lights, blah, blah, blah, and Rebecka believed her. It was so simple and when Rebecka walked in and looked around, she turned to Dolores who had a gun pointing at her. It had made Dolores feel so good to just say, ‘I’m Mateo’s awful wife’ and shot Rebecka in the head. She left the body there, went to the back room where she knew there was a few can of gasoline, and poured it around. As she left, she lit the gas and for a few minutes watched the flames take hold.
“Mateo, she may need an insanity defense,” Ray said.
Mateo hung up the phone, walked out to the porch and dialed Jake. Listening to the phone ring, he watched the sun go down on the valley.

© Beachwalkermari  October 5, 2011

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