A Luke Jackson Thriller

            Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico
            Manuelito leapt from the school bus to the dirt road and in two strides topped the porch to the weaving store. He pulled open the screen door, not hearing it slam shut until he was through the showroom and into the kitchen that doubled as his mother’s office. Panting, he dropped the backpack beside her desk and waited as she spoke on her mobile phone.
            She glanced at him, her dark eyes unfocused, her mind on the call. She spoke quickly, fiddling with a pencil, then said, “Yes,” followed by a pause, then said, “No. That’s impossible. All of our items are handmade on a loom. We are unable to fill order like that in such a short time.” Her eyes moved to him again, still unfocused.
            Manuelito pointed toward the distance, the foothills nearby.
            She nodded approval, knowing that he was going to see his grandfather, El Viejo.
            Manuelito went to the sink and drew a glass of water, gulping it down. He sighed, clunked the heavy bottomed glass on the chipped Mexican tile counter, and wiping his chin, turned and ran out the door.
            The wind tried to slow him, but it was no match.
            Viejo says that when the wind stops, summer has come. Viejo laughs his squeaky laugh, coughs and spits, and with a thick finger wipes the corner of his wrinkled mouth.
            Manuelito stiff-armed the chalky hulk of a rusted and weed-choked Chevrolet, its hood open like the groaning maw of a long-dead beast. He stepped on the sagging bottom strand of a barbed wire fence, lifted the upper strand, ducked through, and sprinted across the soft, moist earth of the pasture, disturbing a small flock of Canadian geese that honked noisily.
            He leapt a cattle guard and sprinted up the rutted road to where Viejo was tending the flock in the tall spring grass. Viejo was moving the sheep to the higher mountain pastures where the snow had melted and the grass was fresh and green. Manuelito slowed, his heart thumping, and yanked a long stem of the knee-high grass, biting off the tender bottom. The wind softened and the aspens flickered. Stopping, he turned to face the breeze and listened intently over his own heavy breath for the bleating of the sheep.
            Manuelito crested a rise and saw sheep tracks and tufts of chewed grass. He looked for the hoof prints of Viejo’s appaloosa and listened again for the lambs and the clanking of the lead ram’s bell. Only the wind swished through the trees.
            Climbing another rise, he saw the sheep in the deep grass, partially hidden in the cool shadows of the aspen trees. The sheep lifted their heads, almost in unison, taking note of him. Some bleated and moved away, the lambs prancing behind. A few sheep had wandered through a section of cut fence where the barbed wire strands curled back stiffly. He crossed a shallow wash and stood at the fence line in the shadows of the trees. A chill rippled through his young body.
            Viejo’s appaloosa grazed under a tall ponderosa, the reins dragging on the ground. Viejo was getting sloppy, Manuelito thought. As he approached the horse, Appy tried to move away, but stepped on a rein that tugged the bit and made him stop.
            “Whoa,” Manuelito said, grabbing the stirrup of the weathered black saddle with his right hand and reaching for the loose reins with his left. Holding the reins, he jumped to put his left foot in the stirrup, grabbed the saddle horn, and pulled himself up and onto the creaky saddle. He clicked his tongue and gave Appy a tap with his boot heels.
            As the horse moved, Manuelito glimpsed a boot and then a pant leg in the tall grass. Manuelito swallowed hard as his heart pounded, fearing what he suspected.
            “Viejo! Viejo!” he called out, his throat tight. He slipped from the saddle and stumbled slightly as he hit ground and stopped short.
            El Viejo lay face down in the shadows, not moving.
            Manuelito trembled as warm tears dribbled down his cheeks. He dropped to his knees beside the old man’s body, touching Viejo’s back through the faded blue work shirt. His fingers stopped at the large splotch of dried and dark red blood that had saturated the cloth and was crusted at the edges. Viejo’s lifeless body was cool to the touch. One arm was splayed, the hand gripping the old, western-styled Colt six-shooter that Viejo always carried to keep away the coyotes. Manuelito sank to his knees and sobbed.