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Like a master painter, Betty McMahon Buman sketches 20 years of troubled history with a just few quick strokes. This little gem of a short story swiftly evokes dusty small towns, even dustier rodeo arenas and the lingering consequences when things go wrong between two tough men.

The Scene of the Crime

What was he thinking now, going back after all these years?

By Betty McMahon Buman

 

Travis' heartbeat kept pace with the rhythm of the Greyhound's wheels thumping against the pavement. The landscape was changing, as the green fields of Colorado morphed into the sparser pastures and deserts of New Mexico.

The sight of the desert made his heart quicken, pulling it out of sync with the cadence of the wheels. Even within the elevated air-conditioned coach, he could taste the desert dirt, and breathe the dust that he knew swirled across the countryside. That dust. It was so thick in the rodeo arenas that you'd think it should pad the landing when you were dumped into it from the back of an angry bull.

"Body Language" by Redrock artist JaNeil Anderson. Her art can be seen at Ol' West Gallery & Mercantile, 104 W. Broadway in Silver City, 388-1811. For more on the artist, see www.maverickflatdesign.com and our June issue or contact her at 542-9752.

But the hard ground never got any softer, no matter what piece of dirt he was dumped into on any given day. New Mexico might as well be covered in concrete, for all his aching bones could tell in those days.

He kept his eyes open, even as the bus careered into the night. After all this time, he still couldn't close them without hearing the shot and seeing his friend hit the New Mexico dirt. How had he gotten the gun? What had possessed him to bring it? He could hardly remember the source of the passions that had fueled the action he'd been paying for ever since.

And what was he thinking now, revisiting the scene of his crime?

 

He covered his ears with his hands to keep out the sound. No matter how hard he tried, it still overpowered the applause of the crowd, the one sound he liked to remember, although 20 years of running had dimmed the memory.

But the tape still ran through his mind. He could hear it like it was yesterday, the announcement of his name: "Now entering the chute, the reigning number-one bull rider in New Mexico today, Travis Tuttle! He's riding the aptly named Tempest today." And Travis had slid onto the back of the wild and woolly Tempest, grasping the rope that would help him balance in one of the wildest few seconds of his life.

That day he'd bested Tempest. He still had the buckle to prove it, one of the highlights of his rodeo career. He struggled to keep the sound of the applause inside his head. Just the applause. Not the echo of the gunshot that thundered across the parking lot, drowning out the cacophony of rodeo sounds.

Or the resulting commotion that allowed him to escape. And to keep running for two decades.

He didn't mind fleeing from his stepfather. He and Fred hadn't had much to say to each other after his mother died. So, there had been no one to keep in touch with. The initial twinge he'd felt in the beginning when he thought of Lilah had long since faded. After years of running, he could no longer dredge up the passions that had inspired him to jealously fire on his best friend.

He'd managed to stay ahead of his pursuers by moving, always moving. The flight took him through a series of dead-end day jobs that, one after another, grew into years. The only highlight of his self-imposed exile was a two-year-long stint down in Chihuahua training a string of Paso Finos for a Mexican horseman. But the past always caught up with him. For something — or someone — imagined or real, always kept him on edge, looking over his shoulder. Moving on to the next temporary refuge.

To keep people at a distance, he cultivated a "leave-me-alone" aura, turning his happy-go-lucky personality into the churlish one he bore now.

A large woman who boarded the bus at the last stop lumbered down the aisle, balancing a pair of stuffed Wal-Mart bags in two chubby arms. She stole a look at his skinny six-foot-three frame folded into the seat by the window. Even without the three-day growth of beard, the faded long-sleeved western shirt and generally unkempt appearance, his surly look said, "Keep moving." She proceeded to the back of the bus.

 

It had been light for several hours when the bus slowed for the Interstate exit. As it wound its way through town toward the bus depot, Travis stared out the window, remembering.

The town hadn't changed much in 20 years. His heart stuck in his throat as the rodeo grounds came into view. Someone had painted the stands and added some more fencing, but it too looked as if it had stood still, untouched by the consequences that had been spawned a half a lifetime ago in one impulsive act.

And now they were pulling into the tiny parking lot, the kind that passed for a bus depot in countless little towns across the state. Waiting until the last minute, Travis rose and trudged down the aisle, trailing the lady with the heaving Wal-Mart bags. He stepped down off the bus.

Here he was, finally facing what had haunted him for two decades. And he hadn't a clue what he was going to do. He thought that when his boots hit the ground, inspiration would follow. But it didn't. Inside, he felt, not anxious, but empty.

"When in doubt. . . ," he thought, and headed for the nearest — and probably only — bar in town.

"7-Up," he mumbled to the bartender, hitching his hip up on a stool at the darkest end of the bar. One thing he was grateful for — in all his long, dark days, he hadn't medicated his moods with alcohol.

 

As he nursed his soft drink, a middle-aged man sat on the empty stool next to him.

I might have figured, Travis groaned inwardly. A whole bar to choose from and he sits next to me.

"Howdy," the man said to Travis, nodding and tipping his Stetson.

"Howdy," Travis said.

A few minutes passed, and finally the man dropped the tried-and-true conversational opener: "Haven't seen you in here before. Are ya new in town?"

"Just passin' through."

"Never been here before, huh?"

"Well, yeah," Travis allowed. "Years ago, I'd come into the Buffalo for a couple of drinks once in awhile."

"That right?" the man said. "This place hasn't been called the Buffalo for about 20 years."

"Umph."Go away, Travis wanted to say. But the man had an audience, however little Travis appeared to be interested.

"Yup. Changed the name to the Lucky Hat when the new owner took over."

Travis expressed mild interest. "Any special reason for the change?"

"Yeah. Sure was. Scottie — he's been the mayor here for years — well, when he was in his 20s, he rode in the rodeo. One night he was walking back to his rig after a ride, and a bullet came out of nowhere and struck that hat he used to wear. One with a tall crown. He wore it as part of his image in them days. Anyway, that high hat saved his life. Scared the hell out of him, even knocked him out for awhile. But he recovered to talk about it."

The man pointed to a sweat-stained, rumpled hat hanging on the bar wall. "That's the very hat hangin' there up above the bar."

Travis sipped his 7-Up. He raised his head to take in the hat, and sure enough, it was the one he remembered. Scott had taken his share of teasing for the silly, over-the-top style.

He turned on his stool toward the man. "You don't say," Travis said.

He picked up his own hat from the bar, pushed it on his head, rose, and walked out the door. He retraced his steps to the bus station and sat down on a bench. Leaning back, he tipped his hat down over his eyes to shield them from the New Mexico sun.

It would be two hours before the next bus appeared.

 

Betty McMahon Buman lives in Deming. Her short story "Hank" won the Grand Prize in the 2005 Desert Exposure Writing Contest.

 

 

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