Mid-July on the ranch. Carter was relaxing in his cottage, letting the humid air lull him into a slumber as it twirled through the blades of the ceiling fan that, incidentally, had absolutely no effect on the stifling heat. It was difficult for him to keep his eyes open, and they were itching with the effort. This was often a problem in midsummer. It was far easier out in the fields, where there was labour to concentrate on, targets to achieve, but in here, where there was little for Carter to do but relax, he found that the conditions were starting to get to him. He would force himself out of his lounge onto the veranda, and plan out activities in his head. He might decide to head out on to the North Field and overlook the harvest, maybe even lend a hand. Sometimes, Carter got his hiking gear together and went on long, winding treks across his land, occasionally getting lost and having to camp in the dwindling light, when it became impossible to find ones way through the arid night. He might tend the garden that he kept or at least tried to keep in the yard next to the cottage, but he seldom did this as he hated gardening, and so this was something Valdez often volunteered to do for him. Even he, though, was struggling to keep the lawn looking presentable, as it was fighting a losing battle against a rapid desertification of the landscape. Cracks were starting to appear in the hardening soil between the blades of grass, and in the beds, many of the small bushes that Valdez had planted in the winter were becoming dark and stunted.
This was one such day, but the activity he would undertake was decided for him when a beep from his mobile phone indicated a message from Valdez, who was out on the North Field with the cultivator and a large team. Something serious must have happened, as the rancher rarely bothered him during the daylight hours. They would only really communicate early in the morning, and in the evenings, where they would have a drink or a smoke, and Carter would pay him and the other workers. But here it was, a communication, and it was only one in the afternoon. He was slightly relieved; it saved thinking up something else to do. Carter grabbed his Stetson hat from a hook near the door and set out, intending to walk up to the field, but then doubled back and got in his 4x4 instead. God, he thought, as he engaged drive and started bumping up a rough track that led away from the cottage, he must be getting old. Back when he had bought the old place, he used to walk everywhere, intending to learn every inch of the land. He owned it after all, it was his dollar-given right. But he found he could never be bothered. Whenever he was here, it was constantly hot, and such strenuous mapping of the territory never seemed like a good idea. Still, he told himself, this was nice. He wound down the window, and was pleased to feel a draught of cool air play across his forehead. One hand on the wheel, he negotiated the rough terrain, craning his head out of the open window just as often as he would peer through the windshield. The last thing he wanted now was a flat. That would spoil it.
The North Field was the largest of the arable plots that Carter owned on the ranch, covering a fifty acre square of the otherwise dusty earth in green and organic yellows and browns. Much of the land was flat, of course, but there were hillocks between the acres, and they were major landmarks that Carter used in order to find his way across the ranch. He of course knew the route to the North Field by heart, by this time. It always struck him when he approached it, just how green it was, even with much of the cultivating in this quadrant completed for the year. The sudden appearance against the blue sky and red earth of the green countryside created a strange purple haze in between; a kind of compromise of all three that left smudges on the edge of his vision if he stared at it too long. Heaven on earth, or an industrial centre? You picked your own truth.
As he approached the ranchers where they had been working, three things occurred to Carter. Firstly, none of the men were cultivating; they had all stopped along with Valdez, who was easily visible up on the cultivator’s raised seat, so what had happened was indeed serious and affected all of them. Secondly, all of the men were worried; anxious was the best word to describe it. They had gone and called for him, or at least Valdez had, and now they were scared about what he might do. He was the boss around here. Thirdly, he noticed that a degree of cloud had scudded across the face of the sun, and the temperature had dropped noticeably. A slight breeze picked up until it tugged at Carter’s shirt. He pushed the door of his 4x4 shut, feeling it seal under his fingers, still watching the workers intently. They didn’t move, caught as they were in his gaze. As he approached, boots crunching, they continued to remain stock still.
“Mr. Valdez?” Carter stopped, his hands on his hips, as Valdez descended athletically from the cultivator, pulled his hat down tighter and approached Carter.
“Thanks for coming out, boss,” started Valdez, who knew how to get on his good side, “I wouldn’t normally call, yes, but, there’s been an accident…”
It transpired that one of the workers, a guy who went by the name Gus, had been killed by the machinery. With help from some of the others, Valdez explained how the poor sucker had become trapped when the cultivator reversed over him, and, with the operator unable to stop the machine quick enough, he had become mangled in the rear axle. Carter looked skywards as Valdez spoke in low tones close to his ear, before crouching and peering under the rim of the cultivator. What met his eyes was a mess of carnage, such that he had not seen in propaganda, simulation and war zones before or since. Whether it was because he was so close to the body, or because it was deformed in such a way, it struck him, and Carter wasn’t sure how, but the sight of the lad stuck between the riveted axle and the undercarriage clung to his vision like a hook when he looked away. There was silence, apart from the slight whistle of the breeze through gaps in the machinery panels.
“Alright,” Carter said, straightening up and leaning close to Valdez, “send the men home.” He crouched again to survey the scene, while Valdez shouted commands to the ranchers, who gradually dispersed, following the sound of his voice, until they had vanished off back towards the worker’s quarters down the sun-beaten track. A number of scenarios were running through Carter’s head as he thought about what had happened. Many of them ended in circumstances that were, in his opinion, unfavourable, if they were allowed to be played out. A crunch of dirt signified the return of Valdez, who stood behind him quietly, not daring to contradict his boss.
“Who was driving?” Carter asked, lowering his voice further. The breeze had dropped and much of the dust that had been kicked up by the wind had settled again. The heat beat down once more, and Valdez was sweating.
“I no see him, boss, I swear. He must’a gone behind for a cigarette or something. We were all done here for today, so I go to back the tractor off the field, yes, and, and…”
“Okay, I thought as much. Thank you.” Valdez was instantly silent. There was something cold about Carter, something that Valdez didn’t always notice. He was constantly aware of it, aware that it was there somewhere, possibly submerged not a single inch beneath the surface of his expression, ready to freeze the next man to annoy him or let him down. But this coldness was separate from his anger; he had seen Carter be both cold and angry singly and at the same time, and so he could see, now, that his boss was not angry.
“I can see several reasons, Mr. Valdez, why reporting this unfortunate event to the authorities may be… detrimental to me, to you, and to this ranch.”
“They would investigate, certainly boss, and there are many papers I have to produce that I no have.” Carter looked Valdez in the face for the first time, and saw that his right-hand man was scared. He had never seen Valdez look scared before. Not scared because he had done something bad; he had said it was an accident and Carter believed him, but scared that he might lose his home, and source of income, and be deported from what had become his country. And that was after the jail-time that he was guaranteed to receive. His life was on the line here, and that would make Carter’s more difficult. Not having Valdez to watch over the ranch would be costly and inconvenient, and what with the bad publicity Valdez’s incarceration would bring, he would almost certainly have to sell the place. And with the price of such property plummeting, that was not something Carter wanted to resort to.
Carter crouched down once more to examine the body. What was visible of the man’s head in the shadow of the cultivator was a face horribly contorted, the neck stretched and eyeballs enlaced with scarlet. The whole head was arched back as if on the end of a spring, being held back with a finger. There was a suggestion that he was watching the two men responsible for his death. “It is inconvenient for us,” Carter said, causing Valdez to start, “so we will not be reporting it. I want that to be clear. This unfortunate event never took place. On this day, if anyone asks either of us what happened, we will say that cultivation took place and nothing more. We will also not speak of it between ourselves, as, of course, it never occurred.” He looked up and found Valdez staring intently, “You are to go to the worker’s quarters tonight and explain this situation. You will say to them that we have reported the death, and that an investigation will be taking place. You will tell them that the entire workforce is under scrutiny, and that, were they to tell their families, friends or indeed any such authority without my express permission, then I will make sure that they are implicated in whatever crimes emerge to the fullest extent. It doesn’t do to go around blabbing about someone dying. It is disrespectful to his memory. Take my car and do it now. When you are done, drive back here and we will tidy up before we turn in. And bring a bottle of something; I’m thirsty.”
Two days later, a young lady from a local township called in to Carter’s office around midday. She knocked tentatively on the door; he could see her stockinged feet and Sunday-shoes through the crack beneath, and had to smile.
“Hello?” Her voice was tinny, the accent Texan, but with a lot less brunt behind it than other Texan accents that Carter was used to. She was either very fragile or a little slutty, Carter guessed, and from the way she was dressed, he could only ascertain a smattering of both. There was a worried expression on her face, as if she were in trouble, and was calling in to see the principal.
“Hi,” Carter said, smiling and getting up from his chair to greet her, “David Carter, I run the place.” He ushered the woman into a chair opposite his desk, and she smiled, thanking him breathlessly, and introduced herself as Tina. The way she sat, even when clearly anxious, caught Carter’s attention; she perched on the chair rather like a small bird on a branch, tense, leaning forwards as if about to take off across the desk at him and fuck his brains out.
“So, whats up, Miss Tina, what can I do for you?”
“Well, I… Its Miss Gustav. Tina Gustav. But Tina… Tina is fine. Yes. Erm, I called here… I called you yesterday because I wanted to ask after my brother Robert. He said he had found some work here; that you gave him a job, and how grateful he was; see he just got out the pen about a month ago, and had given up finding work until you gave him a chance, and he was ever so grateful… we were ever so grateful.” She stopped, aware that she had strayed from the original thread of what she was saying, “And… He didn’t come home two nights ago. We were wondering if you’d seen him, or if he’d maybe been staying here. Because the last time we saw him, it was morning, and he was heading over here.” She stopped again and grinned nervously, as if worried she had offended him somehow.
Carter got up again, picked up a roster off the top of a filing cabinet and leafed through it.
“Robert Gustav… Did he happen to go by the name Gus, per chance?”
“I see…” Carter continued to stare at the paper in his hands, “well, I’m glad you’ve come to see me, Tina, very glad. Mr. Gustav came in here a few weeks ago with his application. Like you say, I was only too happy to employ him part-time. But sadly, we never saw him again. I was going to make contact with you, actually, but its all been rather hectic here the past few days, and I never quite found time. We too were wondering where he had got to?” He sat once more.
“Oh right…” The woman looked as if she had hit a brick wall, “its just he told us he came here…”
“To work? Yes, that’s what we thought. I’m sure my assistant told him all the details; times, dates and whatnot. But I can assure you, he never turned up to work. I should know, I was meant to be paying the man. Its probably why things have been so hectic here, you see, as we’ve been a man light for a couple of weeks now.” Carter replaced the roster on the top of the desk and sat back, his hands behind his head, “You say you haven’t see him? Is it unusual for him to go AWOL?” He had caught the mention of the pen.
“Well… to be honest, no. It isn’t unusual. But we thought that Robert had put all that behind him now, that state penitentiary had taught him a lesson or two, but perhaps we thought wrong.” Tina looked slightly disappointed, but not nearly as much as Carter had expected. She appeared more let down by the man’s punctuality than his not having been seen on the ranch.
“Oh, well, I’m certainly sorry to hear that. And I’m very sorry that I can’t help you. He did leave us his contact details, but I don’t suppose they will be of any use to you.” Carter leafed through the papers in his desk drawer and found another sheet, which was in fact blank. Ha, taught him a lesson indeed.
“No, we’ve tried his cell, and nothing. I think he’s just abandoned us. Cooked up some excuse about finding work, gone to the interview to make the lie more convincing, and then run off with the old drug racket again.” Carter watched with sincerity as the woman placed a hand to her forehead, with a small sigh, “I’m sorry, I’ve come barging in here, and you’re busy enough as it is…”
“No, please, sit,” Carter asked, as Tina made to take her bag and stand, “I have a little time. Perhaps I can be of help here. I don’t want you to have to suffer alone. I have lost out too. We can help one another.” Tina sat once more. “Can I get you a drink? A coffee, perhaps?” Carter gestured vaguely in the direction of a small cafeteria, through the door which led into his home.
“Erm, that’s okay… you’re very kind, too kind. Oh, go on, two sugars, in mine. Please.” She smiled toothily, her face flushed, and was still red when Carter returned swiftly with two steaming mugs.
He got a couple of dates out of Tina Gustav, but little else in the end. They did little other than joke about the abandonment of her brother and what he could be doing at that very moment. Carter could begin to feel relieved that the guy was actually dead.