So, here is the opening chapter to Too Late to Call Texas, due out in late September.
It was just before midnight on a Friday in mid-July when Carson came out of Lucky’s Lounge with a couple of beers in him. He wiped the fresh outbreak of perspiration from his brow and headed down the sidewalk, still hearing the music from the bar. After a block he got into his truck, pulled onto the street, and drove toward Dead Brook Road.
The headlights pierced the night as the road went from blacktop to dirt. Cottonwoods, juniper and piñon trees flanked the timeworn path, and an aged barbed-wire fence ran haggard along the right side. The truck’s radio played a static-laced version of “Kitty Waltz.”
Against a pole of the fence leaned a small black shape. From Carson’s angle it looked like a hat, a cowboy hat, possibly a Bailey or a Stetson. He pulled alongside the road and got out. His headlights sprayed on trees and fence and hat. He crouched down and picked it up by the brim. It was sticky on the underside and he turned it over and held it in the headlight beams. The stickiness was dark and glistened and there was more of it in the crown along with little hard bits and a hole he could have put his finger through.
He scanned the darkened landscape. Other than the running engine of his truck, things were quiet. He threw the hat into the back of his truck and looked at the disturbed ground. On the bottom wire of the fence was more blood. He went into the floor of his cab and got his flashlight and hunting knife, then switched off the headlights and the engine. He clipped the knife to his belt, then pressed the bottom wire of the fence down with his foot and pulled up on the wire above and stepped through and turned on the flashlight. There were footprints and drag marks and dark splotches in the drag marks. He shielded the light beam with his hand and looked around again. There were some stars and a hint of the moon. He kept his hand cupped around the flashlight’s end and followed the trail.
Down a ways he reached a ravine. Not three feet down a body lay on its side, wearing jeans and a pair of roper boots and a plaid shirt under a denim jacket. A chunk of his head was missing and there was a small pool of blood beneath it. Carson crouched and looked closer at the man. It wasn’t anybody he knew, and it was difficult to tell if he was Anglo or Mexican. Whoever did this seemed to have been in a hurry, otherwise they would have pushed him further down the ravine and gone back to the road and retrieved his hat.
On the other hand, maybe they just didn’t care all that much.
He climbed down and found a solid place to sit and began going through the dead man’s pockets. No wallet, no money, no keys, nothing. Just a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and a tin of breath mints.
He sat back and wiped his brow and the sound of a closing car door echoed.
He fumbled and turned off the flashlight as the car’s engine turned over and revved. He kept himself lowered and watched the night where he thought the sound was coming from. For a while nothing happened. Then the sound of rocks grinding under tires, and, in the dark, the moving orange glow of parking lights popped up.
Carson kept his breathing steady but it shuddered. His foot bumped the dead man every so often.
The car went slow, crept along like a patient predator. The engine was sound but made a soft clinking noise. The orange lights were moving toward the ravine.
Carson looked around him. There wasn’t much to see in the darkness. He knew the ravine went down probably thirty feet and there were rocks and trees and shrubs on the descent. He stayed as low as he could, keeping watch of the vehicle.
The car was a truck as it got closer, one of those 4x4 hatchback things. A sport utility vehicle. He couldn’t tell what kind or how many were in it. When it was two dozen yards away he moved down past the dead man and searched blindly for solid footholds. Rocks slid and tumbled down. He found a tree and tucked himself behind it.
The truck came to a halt at the top of the ravine and the headlights blasted to life as doors opened. Carson could see a ways below him but the bottom was pitch-black.
Above came voices. They weren’t speaking loud but it sounded like Spanish. Two people from the sound of it, maybe three. He waited, his back pressed against the tree. He closed his eyes to listen but couldn’t make anything out. A minute passed and then a rock hit the ground to his right. His heart skipped but he didn’t budge.
Another rock hit the opposite side of the tree, bounced and then rolled down past him.
“Dónde te escondes, cabrón?”
He chewed his lower lip, rested his hand on the hunting knife sheathed at his side. They weren’t just going to go away. They knew he was here, knew he’d seen the body, knew he had to be exterminated. He looked down into the darkness of the ravine as another rock landed far off to his left. They were trying to scare him out of hiding but he’d seen the missing part of the dead man’s head. These guys were equipped with better than rocks.
“Dónde estás, amigo?”
From what he could tell it was a piss-poor slant to the ravine’s bottom. He pivoted and faced the tree, chanced a look around it.
Two men stood in silhouette before the car. One cradled a rifle; the other held a handgun. Behind them, alongside the car, stood a third man with a rifle.
The one with the handgun pointed. “Está allí,” and the two riflemen took aim.
“Shit!” Carson pushed away from the tree and headed downward, traipsing over loose rocks and cacti and fallen branches. When the first shot fired he lost his balance. He fell and rolled into the fall and tumbled down the hill, sharp things poking and scratching him. He fumbled over the edge of a five-foot drop and landed hard on dirt, then sucked a deep breath and got to his feet. The men were calling to one another above.
At least two of the men were heading down, flashlights lit in their hands, while the truck began to pull away from the cliff’s edge.
Carson jammed his flashlight into his belt and ran as another gunshot rang out.
He veered right. It was a mere slope here and he scrambled and weeded his way up through bushes and branches. Twenty feet up he stumbled and fell, rolled off his shoulder and faltered to his feet. He hobbled, then dropped behind a large rock and watched below.
A beam of light towed a blurred shape. The rifleman slowed from a run to a patient tracker’s walk, flashlight slicing the darkness from side to side.
Carson crouched low and slid out his knife. He could hear the 4x4 driving up top but didn’t know where the second man was. The man below appeared to be at a loss, kept cutting the light back and forth.
Time was a heavy cross.
Carson pulled a cactus spine from his ankle, made a point of breathing through his mouth and an eternity seemed to pass before the man moved on.
When the voices were unintelligible echoes, he rose from behind the rock, slid his knife into the sheath, and made his way back down the slope. He went left, walking at first, then picking up to a jog. He came to a clear spot that led upward and climbed, using trees for aid.
At the top he saw the 4x4 two hundred yards to his right. One man stood before it while another climbed out of the ravine and joined him.
With a deep breath Carson pulled himself up, stooped and moved, and headed in the general direction of Dead Brook Road. The sliver of moon was jaundiced and the stars were pale and dim. When he had gained some ground he uprighted and ran. The world before him was opaque nighttime and his lungs filled with fire and his throat felt like chalk.
There came another gunshot. The 4x4 revved and began to move.
There was a quaking in his left knee, the sad reminder of an old basketball injury. The headlights sprayed him. Another shot rang out and the bullet couldn’t have been more than a couple inches from his ear. He did a quick zigzag then cut left as another shot fired and ricocheted off a rock.
The ground beneath his feet softened into sand. More strain on his calves and ankles but he pushed through the pain and powered ahead. The trees closely congregated as behind him the 4x4 slowed and the tires spun in the loose earth. Another shot, then the truck made a ka-chunk, and began moving again. The ground beneath his feet solidified and he entered the thickening wilderness.
“Ande alrededor,” one of them said, and there was another loud crack and wood burst from a piñon.
Carson stooped again, negotiated trees and shrubs as the headlights turned away from him and darkness filled where the light had been. His foot caught a rock and he slammed down hard, the wind shooting out of him. The 4x4 was a good distance off to his left now, and he rolled onto his back and gasped, pulled air into his reluctant lungs. He got back to his feet and moved with more caution, and finally managed to locate the barbed-wire fence without cutting himself. It was more of a struggle climbing through it this time. When he did he saw his truck a ways down to the left. The 4x4’s headlights were pretty far off.
As his truck came into better view he saw a car parked behind it, lights out, engine either quiet or not running. Puffs of smoke fluffed into the air between the vehicles. Only a few yards from the front of his truck, Carson bent down, picked up a rock, and flung it over both cars. It landed with a thud in the road and he heard the smoker move around for a better look. Carson reached the side of his truck and crept to the back of it.
The smoker was alone and had his back turned. His left hand held a cigarette and his right hand held a pistol. Carson withdrew his blade and rushed the man, who spun around and cried out as they went down and grappled, the cigarette, gun and knife all dispersing. The man was big and got Carson onto his back and put his thumbs into his throat. A crimson darkness filled Carson’s eyes as he tried to pull the hands away.
“Carajo,” the man said, spittle spattering from his mouth.
Carson managed to get his knee between the man’s legs and brought it upward. The man let go of his throat and rose up, and when he did Carson drew his leg back and then shoved the man away, into the hood of the car. He got to his feet and saw the pistol on the ground, picked it up, then pointed and shot. The man went down and flailed, then stopped flailing and was still.
Not too far away was the sound of the 4x4.
Carson located his knife, took both weapons and tossed them and the flashlight into the cab of his truck, then hopped in and drove down Dead Brook Road with the headlights off.