The California High School Rodeo season had been moving along as usual in District 6. The cowboys and cowgirls were all honing their skills. The barrel racers trying to shave tenths of seconds off their times; the saddle bronc riders trying to remember to keep their feet high (Mark out) on the way out of the chute so as not to disqualify; the team ropers having the usual squabbles with their partners over missed catches.
One day upon arriving to set up for a weekend Rodeo, Jill Lamonte found the dead body of one of the opposing district’s bull riders on the ground outside the office. The young teen had apparently been murdered with a blow to the back of the head.
The story will follow Rodeo Secretary Jill as she simultaneously tries to keep the rodeos on track, the members calm, and help figure out who killed Rusty Baker.
Chapter 1: Off to the Rodeo
January in California’s San Joaquin Valley often brings with it a dense Tule fog, cold, wet, and clinging to the rises and hollows along the foothills and laying thick on the Valley floor. This early Saturday morning was typical for the season as Jill Lamonte headed toward the weekend high school rodeo. The drive had taken nearly twice as long as it should have with visibility near zero and the few vehicles out at 5:30 a.m. creeping along the blanketed roadways. Jill enjoyed the peace of the drive, slow though it was. Her son had driven over the night before to camp out with friends at the rodeo grounds. Jill relished the hour alone before all the hectic activity of running a weekend rodeo.
Going up the hill to Springville left a bit of the fog behind, but scraps of white still clung in low spots. As she turned into the rodeo grounds, Jill passed through the gravel parking lot and turned down the hill towards the small shack abutting the arena that would be her office for the next two days. As the volunteer parent serving as Rodeo Secretary, Jill was responsible for getting all the participants checked in, their back numbers handed out, doing the draws for position and stock, and making sure the time keepers and judges were all set up and ready for the day’s official start at 8 a.m. The office shack was made of weathered, wide slats which did little or nothing to keep out the cold, damp air, but it had a broad counter to set up her laptop and printer, and to lay out the bins of miscellaneous stuff that would be needed throughout the day. For winter rodeos, Jill also always brought a small electric heater to plug in near her feet, creating at least a small circle of warmth in the chilly space.
Off to the right of the arena, and up a slight rise, was the campground which Jill saw was filled with RVs, pickups with camper shells, and various shapes and lengths of horse trailers. There were old single horse trailers that looked as if they’d been new forty years earlier alongside full “living quarters” horse trailers that could sleep six people and transport 8 horses. The range of trucks, and trailers reflected the range of families who participated in the nearly century-old sport of California High School Rodeo. There were well-to-do ranching families, who raised their own stock and bought their daughters the most expensive and well-bred horses for barrel racing and pole bending. There were Tule tribe families supported by the salary of a janitor father and secretary mother, who used all their spare cash and help of scholarship money from the Casino to pay for their sons’ bull riding gear and entry fees. And there were many “in-betweens,” families who had participated in high school rodeos for generations now, grandparents, parents, the latest batch of kids, all pitching in financially to make the tradition continue.
Jill had been serving as the Secretary for District 6 of the High School Rodeo Association for 3 years now, since her son, Harley, had started riding bulls when he was just a slight, not yet developed 13-year-old. Now a senior in high school, Harley was well muscled and one of the star bull riders of the District. Single mother Jill had watched every bull ride along the way, sometimes holding fists clenched with nerves, but always supportive of Harley’s love for the sport. There had been discussion over the years whether the bull and bronc riders needed to wear helmets; Jill was relieved when other parents in the sport had insisted that as long as the boys were under 18, they were required to wear full protective gear to participate at the high school level. Bull riding is a dangerous sport: so much can go wrong in a short 8 second ride. The District and State associations had seen their share of bull riders carried off the arena grounds on stretchers with broken bones, bleeding wounds from the blow of a bull’s horns, and scary head injuries even with the insistence on helmets.
As Jill drove her F150 across the parking lot, she hoped for another day with no injuries to kids or livestock: that would be a successful rodeo in her eyes. Turning into the area in front of the rodeo office, the truck’s headlights passed over what looked to be a person laying against the office shack’s outer wall. Jill backed up so the headlights would be focused on that spot, and then put it in park and climbed out. As she walked over, she recognized it as one of the boys from the opposing rodeo team, Rusty Baker. Having been Rodeo Secretary for so long, she knew many of the kids in other districts as well as she did the ones in District 6. Rusty was another bull rider. She had eaten meals with him and his parents at different rodeos across the state over the past several years. She leaned down to touch his shoulder, wondering why he was sleeping outside on this very chilly morning. As she pushed against his arm, Rusty’s head dropped to one side, and Jill fell back at the sight of the wound on the back of his head. After checking for a pulse, and finding none, Jill immediately pulled out her cell phone and called 911.
* * * *
Within half an hour, the Tulare County Sheriff had two cars on site, and the coroner had been called. District President Ken Davis had arrived as well. Ken had been running the show for nearly 8 years as his three sons made their way through high school rodeo one after another. Ken was a tall, lanky man with a full handlebar mustache and a pale grey Stetson. Jill had never seen him without his hat, so had no idea what kind of hair he had under the hat. Several times she had done double takes when seeing men she knew only from rodeos in other settings: often she was surprised to see that they had curly hair or were balding. You just never knew what a Stetson might be hiding. Ken’s wife, Dani, was standing at his side, looking pale even under her normally dark complexion. Like many in the families that made up high school rodeo, Dani had Native American ancestry. Ken and Dani had pulled up right after Jill’s grim discovery, and had helped her keep the kids the office area until the sheriff’s deputies had arrived. The three of them were shaken, but being of tough Western stock, they were holding it together until they could get a moment away from the shocked stares of the kids and other parents who had gathered around.
While they waited for the coroner and detectives to arrive, and the detectives to finish setting up the screen around the body to shield it from view, Ken, Dani, and Jill fell into a choppy sort of conversation.
Ken said, “I wonder how much this will delay our start time.”
“Really, Ken? That’s what you wonder?” Dani looked shocked at her husband’s seeming off-hand callousness. “I think everyone would understand if we cancelled the rodeo all together this weekend. There’s a boy dead here.”
Jill spoke up, “I don’t know if people would understand. You know how some of these rodeo parents are. This is the last rodeo to qualify for the Champion’s Challenge. Some kids won’t have enough points in their events, if they don’t earn more this weekend. An awful lot of parents – and kids – will be disappointed if they lose their chance to go to Challenge.”
Ken agreed, “Dani, we’ve been doing rodeo as a family for close on twenty years now, from junior events through high school. And Will now doing calf roping at NMHU for the college team. You know as well as anyone that people will practically kill to make sure they get every point they can to qualify for the big championships.”
“You don’t think . . . ?” Dani stopped, looking even paler than she had a few moments before.
“What?” Jill asked.
“He said, ‘people will practically kill’ over rodeo points . . . “
“I didn’t mean it literally!”
“I wonder where Rusty was in the points standings so far this year . . .” Dani mused.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Jill exclaimed. “You two can’t seriously be thinking that one of the kids or parents had anything to do with this! He probably had too much to drink and fell and hit his head. Until we get an opinion from the police or the coroner, we shouldn’t be standing here speculating and starting rumors should someone overhear.”
The three quieted as a black van with white letters spelling out Coroner’s Office pulled up to the building.
Now that it was getting light out and the early morning mists had lifted, Jill walked to the corner of the building so she could see across the arena to where a group of bull riders were sitting on the edge of the chutes chatting among themselves and doing the bull riding moves that they all practiced even while standing on solid ground. She saw her son’s blond head among them, and walked out to the center of the hardened dirt ground to call out to him, “Hey, Harley! Come talk to me real quick.”
“I’m getting my rope rosined up. Bulls are first today, right?” He called back.
“We may be getting a late start. Come over here; I need to tell you something.” It seemed unlikely that the other bull riders hadn’t noticed all the activity around the office, but there was a building between where they sat and the police cars and huddle of people. Harley jumped down off the chute and jogged across the arena to meet her. “What’s up, Mom?”
His phone started to buzz in his pocket, and he said, “Hang on,” as he answered. “Hello? . . . This is Harley . . . No, I haven’t seen her . . ..“ Jill could hear a strident female voice coming out of the phone. “I’m in the arena with my Mom . . . I haven’t seen her since last night . . . No, I haven’t seen her . . . Mom, she wants to talk to you,” and Harley handed Jill the phone.
“Jill, this is Kathy Robinson, Kaylee’s mother. I can’t find my daughter. She’s not answering her phone, and I was told that she was with your son last night. I believe the person who told me that, and suspect that your son knows where she is. If we cannot find her in the next few minutes, I’ll be calling the police.”
“Mrs. Robinson. While I don’t appreciate your implication that my son is lying, I assure you I will talk to him about it right now, and see if he has any ideas . . . I will call you back shortly.” Jill hung up and handed the phone back to Harley. “She is very upset. She says one of Kaylee’s friends insists that Kaylee was seen getting in your car last night, and no one has seen her since. So . . . what can you tell me?”
Harley looked as offended as any 17-year-old boy has ever looked. “Mom. I’m not lying to her. I saw Kaylee last night. She was hanging all over Rusty Baker when we were all chillin’ at Tyler’s trailer. If anyone knows where she is, it’d be Rusty.”
Jill felt her heart sink. “Oh, dear. Honey, something bad has happened. There’s
been an accident of some sort, and Rusty is dead. The police are here now, and they’ll be trying to figure it out. Since you were with him last night, they’ll probably want to talk to you and everyone else who was there, too. Now I’m worried about Kaylee, too.”
Harley looked stunned. “Dead? How can he be dead? He’d had some beers. But he seemed fine at about midnight. That’s when Colby and I left to go back to our campsite. He and Kaylee were together. Was he driving drunk?”
“I don’t know what happened, Honey. Text me Mrs. Robinson’s number, and I’ll tell her that she needs to get over here right now and talk to the deputies. Let your friends know we won’t be starting on time. I’m sure Ken will make an announcement soon.” Jill reached out to give her boy a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek. She had to stretch up to do so since he’d passed her in height a couple years before during his growth spurt at 15. For once he didn’t pull away in embarrassment at his mother’s open display of affection in front of his friends, and she knew he was truly shaken by word of Rusty’s death and Kaylee’s seeming disappearance.
The two parted and trudged in opposite directions across the arena, Harley back to the bucking chutes and Jill to stand with Ken and Dani at the edge of the office shack. Jill spoke, “Harley says he and Colby and some other boys were hanging out at Tyler’s trailer last night and that Rusty was with them. He was still there when they left at midnight And Kaylee Robinson’s mom says she is missing. According to Harley, Kaylee was with Rusty last night.”
Ken asked, “Were they drinking?”
Jill responded, “I don’t know about the rest of them, but he said he thought Rusty had had a couple beers. . . . Harley asked if Rusty had been drunk driving. I didn’t know what to tell him.”
“That red-haired deputy came over while you were talking to Harley. He said the detectives should be here soon. They’ll want to talk to you first since you found him. But once they take the body away, I think we should get the rodeo started. It’ll give people something to think about besides death.”
A few minutes later, the detectives arrived and went over to talk to the coroner near the body. This was followed shortly by the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson who rushed up to the deputy sheriffs, and started a long winded, exclamation filled harangue, with frequent side-long glances in Jill’s direction.
Jill turned to Ken and asked, “What do you want to do about the rodeo? More and more kids are arriving to start check in. We need to announce something.” She pointed towards the parking lot — which was filling with pickups and horse trailers — and a number of people walking towards the group of people held back by the deputies who had strung a tape across the gate to the rodeo grounds itself.
Ken said, “I’ll go to the announcer’s booth and see if the P.A. is hooked up. If it is, I’ll just say there will be a delay of a couple hours. I won’t say why. Then I’ll see if we can get cleared by the police to get started any time soon.” With that, he turned and walked across the arena towards the announcer’s stand which, as at many rodeo grounds, was located just above the chutes.
* * * *
Sixty miles away on Highway 46 headed west, Kaylee Robinson slid across the bench seat of an old Chevy pickup to snuggle up closer to Bryce Ballard’s side. Bryce, a muscular, 22-year-old who had graduated from the local junior college and now worked as a welder, looked down into Kaylee’s soft blue eyes and smiled at her. “Where to next, little lady?”
Chapter 2: When the Luck Runs Out
Early in the evening, Jill sat alone in the rodeo office working on calculating points for the last barrel race that had ended the day’s events half an hour before. The rodeo had been delayed until noon, though the boy’s body had been moved several hours earlier. The detectives – Fairchild and Delano — wanted to interview everyone who had been around the scene. They had also talked to Harley and his friends who had been with Rusty the night before. They had left cards with everyone, and had said they’d be back to interview more people that evening when the day’s events were over and people were back in their campers and trailers settling in for the night. Though they hadn’t said so directly at least not to Jill, the detectives seemed to be treating Rusty’s death as a murder, not an accident. From what Ken had told her after his conversation with Detective Fairchild, there was nothing nearby that Rusty could have fallen against. It had to have been that someone hit him from behind.
As she worked through the list of 45 barrel racers, and entered their times into the spreadsheet, Jill mused over all the snippets of conversation she had heard as the day progressed. The rodeo office was often a gathering place as people came to check on the “go sheets” and look at the posted results. They stood around chatting and seemed to forget that Jill was sitting right there, just behind the loose-slatted shed wall, overhearing every word. Most of the talk today, naturally enough, had been about the disappearance of Kaylee Robinson and what, if any, connection it might have to Rusty’s death. Some of the conversations had been crude; others sympathetic; almost all worried.
One conversation between two girls on the other side of the wall from where Jill sat went something like this:
“I heard at the Paso rodeo that Kaylee was hooking up with all the bull riders.”
“Well, I heard that Rusty and Kaylee had gotten together at Paso. But Jenny McBride told me Kaylee didn’t want to see him again.”
“But I heard that she was with him last night! Maybe they had a fight and she smacked him with a beer bottle!”
“Kaylee’s tiny; she couldn’t hit anybody hard enough with a beer bottle to even break the bottle, never mind kill someone!”
“But if she didn’t kill him and then run off; where is she?!”
“Maybe someone else killed Rusty and then kidnapped Kaylee because she was a witness.”
Later a boy and a girl were talking and the boy said, “I never liked that Rusty anyhow. He’s like all those bull riders, they think they’re such hot shit.”
The girl replied, “Don’t say stuff like that! He wasn’t as bad as some. What do you think happened?”
“Is it true that Rusty was sitting in first in points in his district? Maybe whoever’s in second wanted to get him out of the way!”
“That’s stupid.” She replied, “Nobody takes rodeo so seriously, they’d hurt someone to improve their own standing.”
“Don’t you remember those girls down in District 8 who got kicked out for hurting another girl’s horse?”
After those two wandered away, Jill focused again on her work, but over the course of the afternoon, other comments would from time to time catch her attention.
“Did Kaylee show up yet?”
“Did you hear about . . . “
“Do you think . . .?”
“Are you scared?”
As she finished up the points, and started to put her things away for the night, she heard two more people on the other side of the wall. Their voices were low but she heard one of them say something about Harley. She stood quiet and still to listen.
A girl said, “I heard Janelle say that Kaylee got into Harley’s car. But Harley says she wasn’t with him. She was with Rusty.”
A boy replied, “I saw Rusty after he left Tyler’s trailer. I talked to him for a few minutes. We went back behind the chutes and smoked a joint. After that he said he was going to go sleep in the back of his truck. But I saw him walking out towards the barns instead of to the campground.”
Jill walked out of the office and around the corner to see two kids that she didn’t know. They were the ones talking. “Hey, I’m Jill Lamonte, Harley’s mom. If you know anything about what Rusty was doing after midnight when he left Tyler’s trailer, you really should contact Detective Fairchild. I have his card right here.”
The boy, black haired, slim, and suddenly visibly nervous backed away. “No ma’am. I don’t know nothing about it.” He turned then and ran off towards the campground, the girl following close on his heels.
Jill called after them, but they kept running until they disappeared between the rows of rvs and campers parked there. She shrugged and made a note to remember to tell the Detective what the boy had said. That bit of information had Rusty alive well past when Harley had last seen him, and in a different location as well. As she walked back into the office, she noticed that the horseshoe that had always hung above the door was facing down.
Chapter 3: The Night Before