Ana Torres could not be sure of the time, though it had to be close to noon. The sun was an unblinking white disk overhead, blanching rocks and dirt alike and cutting through her clothing like a heated blade. She was glad she was not on foot, though the sorrel gelding she rode had to be suffering, too. Soon they would stop and share water, though they would not have the luxury of shade.
This was ranch land, but of the poorest quality. There were grasses cattle could eat, but mostly there was cactus and yucca and the occasional cluster of mesquite trees. Ana saw one of these trees off to the southwest, standing sentinel on a finger of exposed white rock that could have been the bone of a giant. She clicked her tongue and urged Rico toward it.
She wore a Stetson and wraparound sunglasses, but the glare was still intense. There was something about that black, twisted mesquite, and it was a few more yards before she realized what it was: a pink cloth caught in the branches.
“Come on, lazy,” Ana said to Rico. The animal picked a careful path among loose stones and patches of dirt. A person could easily twist an ankle on the uneven ground and Rico was not a foolish animal.
Closer, she saw that there were more bits of cloth in the branches, some yellow and some white. Ana already knew what she was looking at, but she hoped it was not. The nearer they came, the more likely it was, and her heart sank with every step.
Finally they were beside the tree. Like all mesquites it was ugly, and at this time of day it cast no shadow. A breeze cut across the scrub flat, but it was a hot breath, not a relief. The cloths fluttered in the air current, but they were not cloths; they were panties.
Ana dismounted. There were tracks all around the tree and she didn’t want to spoil them any more than she already had. The tree was so stunted that it wasn’t much taller than Ana herself. She counted six pairs of panties in total. Some were new, others were worn. One pair had a pattern of little lambs running across it.
She opened the saddlebag and rummaged around in it until she came up with a digital camera. “Don’t wander off,” she told Rico and the horse remained obligingly still.
And then she took photographs: of the tree front and back and of the panties collectively and individually. She scrolled back through them to make sure the images were good before putting the camera away.
Across the back of her saddle lay a heavy pack of water, like an inflatable toy. Ana poured water into her cupped hands and offered some to Rico, who took it. Then she had some of her own, swishing it around her dry mouth before swallowing. She was not drinking enough for the terrain or the weather, but she did not plan to be out here that much longer.
The tracks were a few days old at least, their outlines softened. Ana spent some time crouched over them, picking out tread marks and sizes until she could estimate that about a dozen came through here. They lingered awhile and milled around, and the panties in the tree told why.
A glint of gold caught her eye and she went to get a closer look. A .45-caliber shell casing was half-buried in the dirt. A quick check around and she spotted four more. The spread indicated that they had been fired in quick succession.
As for the rest, they had been carrying heavy packs. That much she could still tell, and they had struck out northeast. All except for a trio that headed northwest and traveled lighter.
Ana took Rico’s reins and turned him around. They went northwest.
The earth wrinkled a little here and at first she didn’t see the body. It was in a depression in the ground, lightly dusted by blown sand. A man’s body, Ana saw, wearing a dark blue windbreaker, jeans and sneakers. He lay on his face. When Ana came close, she saw he had heavily salted black hair.
She dismounted and stood over the corpse. Even in a landscape where nothing seemed to change, a dead body was even more immobile. The breeze didn’t even clip the edges of the dead man’s windbreaker.
There were three dark patches on the dead man’s back. Bullet entry wounds. The greedy earth had soaked up any blood that spilled from the exits, because there was no trail of dried red. Without the marks, it might have seemed as though the man had tripped and fallen onto his face, never to rise. Death by natural causes.
Ana looked north and south, as if she might catch sight of the others still toiling across the broken ground, but there was no one and nothing. Ana took off her hat and dried her forehead on her arm. She took a palm-sized GPS from a clip on her belt and marked her position. The glare was almost so much that she couldn’t read the screen.
She wouldn’t touch the body. That would have to wait.
Back on Rico, she followed the trail another dozen yards or so until they crossed another spur of bare rock and vanished. Whoever the dead man had run with had vanished. She watched their ghosts disappear.
Another pass on horseback cut the other trail. She tracked the larger party until she could be sure of where they were headed: the cutoff that led to FM 170. These, too, would vanish at the blacktop.
Ana called out on the radio.
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