Death at the Black Bull

BOOK: Death at the Black Bull
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Death at the Black Bull

“Move over, Walt Longmire. There's a new sheriff in town. Virgil Dalton is the kind of character that comes along maybe once a decade—a classic Western hero and so much more. When you're done with Frank Hayes' stellar debut,
Death at the Black Bull
, you'll smell the sagebrush in the air and have to clean the dust off your boots. An absolute must-read for fans of Craig Johnson and Tony Hillerman.”

—Reed Farrel Coleman, Shamus Award–winning author of
The Hollow Girl

“This is one of the most impressive debut crime novels I've ever read. There's such depth and humanity in the characters, such tension in the story itself, and the sense of place is as good as it gets. I know I'll be reading every book in this series!”

—Steve Hamilton, Edgar® Award–winning author of
Let It Burn


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

A Penguin Random House Company

This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank Hayes.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15535-0

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hayes, Frank, 1940–

Death at the Black Bull / Frank Hayes.—Berkley Prime Crime trade paperback edition.

pages cm.—(A Sheriff Virgil Dalton mystery)

ISBN 978-0-425-27429-3 (paperback)

1. Truck drivers—Crimes against—Fiction. 2. Sheriffs—Fiction.

3. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 4. Southwestern States—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3608.A924D43 2014




Berkley Prime Crime trade paperback edition / October 2014

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


To my family, without whom any success would be meaningless, but especially to my wife, who one day on a beach on Cape Cod gave me a spiral notebook, a pen, and a note on the first page, which set me on a path that brought me to this place. I love you all.


To all the people who helped me find my way. From Corlies (Cork) Smith to Bill Appel and everyone in between . . . Kevin, Marlane, Verneece, Douglas, and all the others who encouraged and criticized in a good way. Most of all Bill Keller and Steve Hamilton who have been rock solid in pushing me toward my final goal.


Praise for
Death at the Black Bull

Title Page




Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37


e sat on the tail of the old pickup, watching the dark as it crowded the western sky. Red flares, tinted with gold, like a thousand times before. Over the years, a rugged trail had been worn into the hill where his truck was perched. Scrubland stretched in every direction. Below him, partly hidden by the old cottonwood tree, rested the clapboard house where he had spent most of his life. In the dim light he didn't have to acknowledge the peeling of the paint or the slight sag in the middle of the roof. Beyond the house stood the two barns, same vintage as the house.

The barns formed a right angle and the far sides of a large corral. A horse named Jack stood quietly alongside the fence, occasionally swishing his tail to chase away a nighttime fly or to stir the warm night air. His tail was the only movement in the landscape. No leaf moved. No breeze blew. The earth held its breath in expectation. Virgil felt this as he sat on the dented bed of the truck. He was not a man to waste time on idle thought, or to muse on what might have been, but he did have an innate sense of premonition. When he had ignored such thoughts, or passed them off as coincidence, they had always come back to haunt him, so he had learned to live with them. Never comfortably. Always reluctantly.

He looked past the barns to the long driveway twisting through the cottonwoods to the county road. With the sun going down, the shadows had crept over the land. A first star appeared in the night sky. He shifted his weight, making the tailgate swing and hit the frame of the truck with a metallic clank. An owl hooted. Virgil half smiled at the rebuke.

“Point taken,” he said. “Much better without the noise.”

He turned back and this time he could see a pair of headlights a good mile out on the road.

“Looks like company.” He hopped off the truck. By the time the car turned into the driveway he was leaning against the corral fence. Jack had joined him.

The SUV with the red dome light pulled to a stop alongside the pickup. When the door opened, the man who stepped out was a good twenty years younger than Virgil and wearing a uniform. He glanced around, then crossed the driveway. Virgil still leaned against the fence. Jack was nibbling at his sleeve.

“Don't you feed that horse?”

“More than I feed myself, but it's never enough.”

“Yeah, I guess.” The man in the uniform smiled. “Nice night.” He looked toward the last of the light on the horizon.

“I guess you didn't drive all the way out here to tell me something I already know. What's going on, Jimmy?”

“Well, Sheriff . . .” The deputy hesitated. “We got a call about Buddy Hinton. Charlie's boy. Seems he's gone missing.”

“How long?”

“How long?” Jimmy repeated.

“How long has he been missing? Who reported it? When? Fill in the gaps, Jimmy.”

“Charlie called it in. It seems he went out last night after supper. Said he was going to meet up for a coupla beers with Wade and some of the boys. Charlie figured maybe Bud got a snootful and that's why he never made it back home. But when he didn't show today, Mrs. Hinton started prodding him, so he called it in.”

“Okay, we'll give him till morning. If there's no sign, we'll give it a look.”

Jimmy nodded in response. Virgil stepped away from the fence. Jack gave a soft nicker.

“Okay, hang on,” Virgil said. “I ain't forgot.”

He walked over to the nearest barn door and stepped inside. He returned with a couple of flakes of hay and tossed them over the corral fence. They landed on the far side of the water trough. Jack gave a little louder call and moved toward the hay.

“C'mon, Jimmy. I'll buy you some supper before you go back to work. Don't expect much. Just leftover meat loaf.”

“Sheriff, you don't have to do that. I can get some chili at Margie's place.”

“And if you do, you'll be stinking up the office all night. Least the meat loaf ain't toxic. C'mon.” Virgil walked across the driveway with Jimmy following. Small clouds of dust stirred at their feet.

“Sure could use some rain,” Jimmy said.

“Couldn't hurt.”

At the door, Virgil locked a boot in the boot pull then did the same with the other. He paired them together just inside the front door. Jimmy started to do the same.

“Don't bother. I'm in for the night. You got miles to go before you sleep.”

He looked to see if Jimmy got the reference. Apparently he didn't.

“It might not have the same impact as Margie's chili but it's a lot cheaper,” Virgil said as Jimmy was wiping his plate with a piece of bread. “By the way, did you check on whether or not Buddy hooked up with Wade and the boys?”

“Yes, I surely did, Sheriff. Follow up. I try to remember all the things you tell me.”

“That's good, Jimmy.” Virgil looked on as Jimmy finished wiping his plate.

“That sure was good meat loaf.” Jimmy was looking at the baking dish sitting on top of the stove.

“Sorry, Jimmy. That's all there is. Wasn't expecting company. Here, have this last piece of cake with your coffee. Maybe that'll hold you for an hour or two. So . . .”

“So what, Sheriff?”

“What did you find out about Buddy?”

“Oh, that. Yes, sir. He did meet up. According to Wade, he left them about one or two in the a.m.”

“Did Wade say if he was going home?”

Jimmy paused as he took a bite out of the cake. “No. He didn't say nothing about that.”

“It might have been a good question to ask him, Jimmy.”

“Yeah. I guess maybe you're right. Well, maybe tomorrow morning if Buddy hasn't shown up you should ask him about that, Sheriff.”

Virgil looked at Jimmy shoving the last piece of cake in his mouth and smiled. Then he stood up.

“Good idea, Jimmy. I'll have to remember that. You'd better get back to town now before any other folks go missing.”

“Yes, sir.” Jimmy stood to go. Then he hesitated.

“What is it, Officer?”

Jimmy smiled. Virgil knew Jimmy liked the title.

“There was something else. Oh, yes. A call from Hayward Ranch. They want you to come out. I think Mrs. Hayward wants to see you.”

“Okay, Jimmy. I'll take care of it.”

Virgil stood on the porch and watched as the patrol car went down the driveway, a cloud of dust trailing its path. When it was out of sight, he looked into the night. A few clouds still showed on the horizon but he didn't think they held much promise. The air was dry. A bare hush of a breeze stirred a few leaves on the cottonwood. A couple of peepers could be heard from the creek on the other side of the barn. The broken flight of a few bats from the barn could be made out, but that was pretty much it. He was alone. He pulled up the chair by the wall outside the front door. He sat so that he could rest his stocking feet on the porch railing, the chair tilted at a slight angle.

He thought of Jimmy. He had been one of those kids that nobody outside of his family wanted, least of all to be hired as a deputy. Virgil was not unaware of Jimmy's limitations, but he liked him. Always had. His father was a drunk who died young. His mother tried hard, but was one of those people for whom life was too much. So Jimmy pretty much raised himself. From where Virgil stood, he hadn't done a half-bad job. He didn't end up into drugs or trouble when a lot of kids who had a lot more did. The turning point seemed to be when Virgil picked him up off the ground after some kids beat him up in back of Talbot's hardware store. From then on it seemed like Jimmy was always around. Virgil would occasionally buy him a taco or give him a ride when he saw him walking along the road, usually on his way to the trailer he shared with his mother and younger sister down by the river. He started coming into the office and Virgil began to give him odd jobs. Rosie, the dispatcher, started giving him clothes that her kids had outgrown. Being his family had become a joint project. Even Dave, Rosie's husband and Virgil's longtime deputy, warmed to Jimmy. By the time it became necessary to take on another deputy Virgil had made his mind up. When the mayor and council balked at the idea, he was ready. He had long since come to the conclusion that Jimmy was not simpleminded or a half-wit like many described him. Virgil knew Jimmy just hadn't been exposed to what most kids get growing up in a normal family environment. So when he took him on two years ago, he knew it was going to be a work in progress.

As he sat mulling over Jimmy's report, he thought about Buddy Hinton, Wade Travis, and the rest of the boys. They were not unknown to him in his official capacity, and Virgil had a gut feeling where this was going to lead. Which led him back to Hayward Ranch and the summons from Audrey Hayward. He sat in the dark a long time, trying to enjoy the night and the quiet, but he was uneasy about what the morning light would bring.

BOOK: Death at the Black Bull
7.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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