Reaching the pass was like opening a door into the Moreno Valley. It was a high mountain valley, carpeted with a huge grassy meadow with the Cimarron Range on one side and the more substantial peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the other side. Joe’s heart was hammering at a furious pace as he pushed the motorcycle to the top. From his fishing trip, he hadn’t remembered the road leaving the creek and climbing up into the hills as it approached Eagle Nest, but the dam occupied the notch and the road had to go around it.
Eagle Nest Lake stretched below him. He stopped, huffing like a steam locomotive from the climb.
There was the town, and the road was down hill all the way. He watched the fishing boats out on the lake for a couple of minutes as he cooled down. This was a special place for him. In all his years, this lake marked the farthest he’d ever been from the Railroad Motel. Those mountains on the far side the valley were unknown territory. Taos was as remote as Siberia, as far as he was concerned.
Joe checked the road for traffic, then straddled the bike and pushed off with his feet. He wobbled. The motorcycle wasn’t as stable as his bicycle, at least at this slow pace.
But with gravity helping, he quickly gained speed. He fumbled at the controls, to make sure he wasn’t riding the brakes or leaving it in gear. By the time he’d gone a few hundred yards, he started tapping the brakes instead.
The town of Eagle Nest wasn’t very large. As he sailed past the ‘Welcome to Eagle Nest’ road sign, he was looking for a silver Lexus SUV, and more importantly, any gas station.
The red and black Texaco star sign surprised him. He’d thought all those gas stations had been converted to Shell stations by now. It didn’t stop him from coasting in to the pumps however.
Money. He checked his pockets. Slightly less than two dollars in loose change and the five-dollar bill tip that the Jamesons had left him.
Is it even enough to get home on?
He walked inside. The lady at the cash register was three deep in customers. Joe hesitated. All he wanted was for her to turn on the pump. Did he have to wait in line for that?
Maybe not, but he did anyway. Too timid, that’s me.
When the last one walked away with his ice and his beer, Joe handed her the bill. “Five dollars on pump three.”
She took it and pressed the keys.
But, behind her on the counter was a blue leather jacket. Light blue, like the color of Judith’s eyes.
The lady looked up, puzzled. She reminded him, “You’re ready to go.”
Joe pointed at the jacket. “Did you see a girl come through here? Brown hair. Silver Lexus SUV.”
She nodded. “Yes, not too long ago. Do you know her?”
“Yes! That’s her motorcycle out there. Her father was injured and she had to leave it behind. I’m trying to find her to return it.”
“Poor girl. Mute. She looked positively frantic when she came through. She was hunting for the nearest hospital.” The lady looked around her cash register and picked up a slip of paper. Joe recognized the paper and Judith’s lettering.
“That’s her. Do you know where they went?”
She brushed at her hair. “Well, I told her about the clinic in Angel Fire, but the nearest real hospital is in Taos. I don’t really know where she went.”
“I’ll try the clinic first then.”
She nodded, and then snatched up the jacket. “You’d better take this with you then. She took it off when she pumped her gas, and then forgot it when she drove off.”
Joe had the cashier describe where the clinic was located.
Not too far ahead of me. He pumped his gas and left.
By the time he urged the motorcycle up to seventy, he regretted that he’d bundled up the jacket and used one of the bungee cords to strap it behind him. It was a girl’s coat after all, and blue at that. He couldn’t wear it.
But the mountain air whipping by was chilling him down as completely as that climb up the pass had heated him up. He lowered his head and resolved to bear the cold.
Angel Fire was a ski town, and looked nearly deserted in the off-season, just an odd collection of buildings scattered across the valley. Up at higher elevations, he could see the broad stripes where the forest had been cut to make the ski runs. He turned off the highway and drove up the main road into town.
He quickly lost track of where he was supposed to turn. The gas station lady’s instructions hadn’t stuck in his memory as well as he’d hoped. I should have written them down. He drove on, irritated that he’d have to ride back and forth through the town to find it.
Barker. Something triggered his brain. He slowed and turned around. His eyes had read something his mind hadn’t caught.
There it was. Elliott Barker Lane. That’s what the lady said.
The building was just a couple of hundred feet away, obviously not a big hospital. More like a house with “Moreno Valley Healthcare Clinic” lettered in block type on the side. There was no SUV in the parking lot. Still, he needed to check. He parked the motorcycle and walked up onto the covered porch.
“No. No Smith.” The nurse was polite, in spite of his fumbled explanation.
“How about Winston? Kenneth Winston?”
She shook her head and smiled at the dark haired mother with two small children waiting for attention. Obviously, he was taking up her time.
“Okay. Sorry. Do you know where I can find the Taos hospital?”
“If you’ll just have a seat. I’ll get with you in a minute.” She gestured for the mother to come with her.
The polite snub silenced him.
Joe hesitated. If Judith hadn’t come here, then she must have gone on to Taos. He didn’t want to wait if that was the case. He could ask a local where the hospital was when he got there.
He turned to the door, but stopped. It was a little thing. Just a clump of mud that had fallen from someone’s shoes. But, it was the right color.
Years of conditioning to be polite and respect his elders warred with the sudden need to know!
Joe raised his voice. “John Smith! Are you here?”
Everyone in the waiting area looked his way. He felt his heart race.
But faintly, from behind a curtained area, he heard, “Joe? Is that you?”
Joe walked past the nurse. He went to the curtain and pushed it aside.
It was John Smith, and he looked a hundred years older. One arm was wrapped up and in a sling. He had a bag of something plugged into his arm, and his eyes were half closed.
“Sir? I’ve been looking for you. Is Judith...?”
As wrecked as the man looked, his grip with his free hand was strong. “Shhh.”
“Are you okay?” Joe whispered. Up until this moment, he’d kept the possibility alive that Judith alone was part of this mess. Perhaps good old John Smith of unit 31 was unaware of his daughter’s activities. Certainly, he couldn’t believe anything she said.
But this sudden insistent on secrecy was a giveaway. Since he’d met her, secrecy was the word.
A concerned doctor pushed aside the curtain and said, “This man needs his rest.”
John Smith whispered in a hoarse voice. “Five. Five minutes alone. Please.”
The doctor looked Joe over suspiciously. “Okay. But Mr. Brown has been given a sedative and needs to sleep before the ambulance gets here.”
Joe nodded. The doctor stepped away, but didn’t close the curtain.
“Joe. I thought it might be you. Judith didn’t give your name.
“Joe, you have to help her.”
Smith, or Winston, or Brown looked at the doctor across the room and kept his voice low. He slurred his words. “’M a courier. Judith’s gotta make... delivery. Long trip. Might not make it in time, alone. Catch up... with her. Needs help. Can’t talk.”
Joe nodded. “Sir, I’m dead broke. Not even gas money.”
He waved toward a smelly pile of clothes. “Wallet. Hand me.”
Hesitantly, Joe fished through the soiled trousers and found it. Joe handed it over.
What name would I find on the driver’s license? He mused. But the doctor was still watching his every move.
With a shaky hand, the man opened his wallet and awkwardly tugged free a small bundle of twenties. “Take it.”
Joe asked. “Where is she? Where’s she going?” He took the cash.
His eyes were closed. He was drifting off. “She knows.”
“Sir? What route? Which way did she go? I’ll have to find her.”
“North. 285, 24, 40.” His breathing deepened.
Joe put his slack hand back on the bed, and looked over at the doctor.
After his pulse was checked, the doctor closed the curtains.
“What happened to him? Is he going to be okay?”
“A car accident, apparently. And then he was trapped for two days in the car with broken ribs and a fractured ulna. Mr. Brown is very dehydrated. We’ve called for an ambulance to get him to the Taos hospital.
“Are you a relative?”
Joe shook his head. “No. Just friends.”
The doctor frowned. “I was hoping. The woman who found him said she had to leave immediately. In the shape he’s in, he really needs family care. Do you know where he lives? I checked his wallet for identification, but there were no phone numbers, no driver’s license, nothing but a little cash.”
“Honestly, no. I think he’s a traveling salesman, living in motels. That’s where I met him, in Las Vegas.”
“And you are...?”
Joe shrugged. “Nobody really. I’m just trying to help.”
“Will you be going with him on the ambulance?”
Joe looked out the window. “Ah, no. He gave me an errand to run.”
The doctor looked disappointed, and a little suspicious. He sighed. “Okay, could you come over here and help me with some of the paperwork? He said his name was John Brown, but he was in pain and I’m not sure I got everything down correctly.”
Joe felt trapped. He needed to be gone immediately, if he had any chance of catching her.
“Ah, the girl. Did she say where she was heading? I’ve got her coat and I need to get it back to her.”
He shook his head. “Not really. She did mention Taos, but...”
“Fine. Thanks.” He left the clinic at a run, the doctor’s objections left behind.
As he rumbled out of the parking lot, he saw the man in the white coat in his rear-view mirror, but he didn’t look back.