They heard a door slam downstairs and a woman’s brassy voice calling, Hey, who’s here? She was starting up the narrow wooden stairs just as the two men appeared. Oh, she said, looking up at them.
It was his client. She wore a tiered calico skirt with a silver concha belt around her waist. If you looked close, you could see fantastical creatures stitched into the soft, worn leather of her boots. An old Indian had made them for her. Her blouse was stained under the arms, and her curls, unnaturally red, were piled on top of her head. Her name was Jane Riordan. The dead boy was her nephew.
When she heard, she’d come from New Mexico alone in a battered pick-up, a .38 on the seat next to her, the fringe on her jacket whipped in the air from the open window. She learned everything at once. Annie’s son was dead. Her husband had disappeared.
Joe was a cowboy. He used to sit at the end of the table like a slab of granite—when he was gone, you could see what had been in back of him. Jane kept the thought to herself: he must have ridden out into the desert and just kept going. He must be halfway across Sonora by now. He’d never spoken more than a few words to her, but she’d seen how he got when he felt crowded. And now, she decided, the desert had reclaimed him. He was just a thing the sun glinted on, out there among the jackrabbits and the cholla.
Jane was holding the family together now. She was upholding the memory of it, would be more accurate. Annie was a paper doll lying on the rough, straw-filled mattress, staring at the wall. Sometimes words slipped from between her dry lips. She was remembering—she was living in the world before Will died. Jane didn’t know if it would help to find out what had happened, but it was, just now, the only hope she had.
She sat on the front steps of the cabin and rolled a cigarette in the sun. The detective and that uncomfortable little man had gone—Sloan following as if keeping a safe distance. Sloan had a haunted look that made her trust him. He hadn’t said much. Just enough to let her know he was doing what she’d hired him for. That was plenty.
She heard the sound a horse makes when it’s being reined in, that irregular rhythm of hoofbeats, taut breath. She bent to light her cigarette, striking a flint across a stone at her feet. When she looked up, a young woman was leaping off a dusty Appaloosa. She spoke to the horse then stood there with her shoulders thrown back. Her light hair was shorn under her wide-brimmed hat. Her face was open, young, but lined around the eyes. Jane thought she knew who she was—Katie, the daughter of a rancher a few miles to the north. A bit of a loner, they said. One of Will’s only friends.
Coffee? Jane offered after a minute had passed. Cigarette?