Monday, April 28, 2008
Lawless excerpt by Sarah Black
Lt. Colton Wheeler is the law in a lawless land. A year after his lover, Dr. Diego Del Rio, lost his eye in a vicious hate crime,trouble from across the border threatens to shatter the life they're building together.
An old lover stakes a claim, and Colton suspects he wants more than Diego. Colton's family comes under attack, a missing Apache boy is accused of cattle rustling, and bloody tribal masks from the old rituals are being worn by someone carrying a whip, bent on terrifying the people of the borderlands.
Colton only knows one way to protect his people. By walking into trouble, by drawing fire, by putting himself between the people he loves and those who mean them harm.
Liquid Silver Books (April 21, 2008)
Scrubby juniper and pinon pine, twisted and bent by the wind, dusty sage and tumbleweed dotted the landscape out the windows of the pickup. Diego leaned over and put his head in Colton's lap to sleep on the drive out to the old rancher's place. This is what heaven would be like, Colton thought. Driving an old pickup around the southern Arizona desert with Diego asleep on his lap. He put his hand down, rested it in his silky hair. He had come very close to losing him in the weeks after the hate crime that had cost him his eye. Closer than he realized, thanks to Rodrigo Valdez.
Diego stirred against his thigh and sat up, yawning. "We nearly there?"
"Yeah." He opened the directions Sanchez had written down for him.
You'll pass the sign for the abandoned copper mine on the left. Check your odometer and go seven-tenths of a mile further. On the right is a dirt track. Turn there and drive two miles until you get to the house.
"Have you seen the sign for the mine yet?"
Colton shook his head. "Should be coming up soon. You have a busy
night at the hospital, baby? I didn't even ask."
Diego shook his head. "A couple of acute abdomens I decided to watch. I stitched up a nasty knife wound. The girlfriend he cheated on practically carved her initials into his ass. That boy's gonna have quite a scar. Colton, look. Is that it?"
He looked out the window. A big, weathered piece of wood with faded red lettering was propped between a couple of juniper fenceposts: Peligro! Danger! Abandoned Mine.
"Looks like it." He glanced down at the odometer and turned onto the rough dirt track that in these parts passed for a road. "The old manbneeds to get a grader out here. I wonder how many tires he loses in a year?"
The ranch house was small and old, ochre colored adobe, built in the old way, thick walls, vigas and a flat roof, a couple of buildings out behind the pasture. The adobe looked like it needed some patch work. Colton had checked out the fences as they drove in, and they were in bad repair. The old man might have just lost his cattle because they took a walk out one of those broken pieces of fence.
He pulled up and parked next to a battered old Chevy. Impossible to tell if it was originally the color of dust, or if it had acquired that color through time and hard living.
Diego climbed out and walked around the front of the pickup, fitting the new cowboy hat down on his black curls. Faded Levi's, snakeskin cowboy boots with dust on the toes, black silk T-shirt and his hair was loose down to his shoulders. And that Stetson. Colton felt the bottom drop out of his stomach, lust, helpless love. He could have dropped to his knees in the dirt. "Jesus."
He had Diego backed up against the hood of the truck, one hand sliding through his hair, another sliding around that slender waist, and he pulled him close, buried his face in his warm neck. "Jesus, Diego..."It hit him like this, sometimes, like he was standing on the ocean shore, and a huge cold salty wave knocked him back on his ass. It was shameless, the way he felt about his man.
Diego slid fingers up under the new shirt, back and forth over Colton's belly. "Now, that's the reaction I was looking for."
His arms were trembling, his heart thudding in his throat. "I want to die in your arms. That's not too much to ask, is it?" The words fell out of his mouth before he could stop them. Diego's hands stilled against his belly and he moved closer, turned his head until his lips grazed Colton's ear, his cheek, his jaw, and settled on his mouth. Diego opened his mouth, let Colton slide his tongue inside and touch him.
"Goddamn, boy, your granddaddy know about this?"
Colton turned around and studied the old man. He was so skinny his Wranglers were held up with a rawhide belt wrapped twice around his waist. His head and his chin were covered with prickly nubs of hair, like an old boar, the exact color of the dust and sandstone surrounding them, and not a tooth in his head.
"Yeah, he probably knew." He let Diego go, turned around and offered his hand. "Lt. Colton Wheeler, Pima County Sheriff's Department."
"I'm Joshua Weaver." Colton reached into his pocket for his ID, but the old man waved him off. "I know who you are." He pointed to Diego with a tobacco stained forefinger. "I know I've seen you somewhere."
Diego adjusted the Stetson. "Ah..."
"You're that doctor fixed my ball last year." He turned back to Colton. "One of my balls, it turned ugly, swelled up as big as a coconut and the thing was turning black. I thought it was the end, gangrene, but that boy fixed me right up. Seems like he had two eyes back then. Well, it's a mean world."
He turned around, waving for them to follow. "Come on in, boys. You're here about the cattle rustling, right?"
"Good. I thought I'd die of old age before somebody showed up." They followed him up to the front porch, and Diego studied the arrangements. There were a couple of battered lawn chairs and a low sprung couch made of some yellowish-brown colored material. They could see where the old man's spot was on the couch. It was leaning, about ready to dump him on his ass on the weathered boards of the porch, and his bottle and ashtray were in easy reach. Diego grabbed one of the lawn chairs and pulled it around, dumping the sand off the seat, and he passed it over to Colton and got the other one for himself.
Joshua went into the house. "I'll bring us out some coffee." They could hear him rustling around inside, and Colton was thinking it would be better for Diego not to see the old man's kitchen. Colton wasn't quite sure where the water was coming from, but he suspected the hand pump around the side of the house was it. He also thought he had spotted an outhouse about 200 yards out back.
"Here you go." He handed around heavy old mugs, filled about two thirds with black coffee, then he settled in his spot and reached for the bottle. He poured a healthy slug of whiskey into all three cups. Colton looked at Diego staring down at the coffee. He looked up, met Colton's eyes, and his eyes were somber, the memories of what Rodrigo Valdez had done to him chasing each other across his face. Colton took a sip of his coffee. Bitter and black, with a smooth bite behind it. Good ranch coffee. He nodded his head, and Diego bent his head and took a sip.
"I need to tell you a bit about the boy's mama," Joshua said. "Then you'll know why I know it was him took that livestock."
"What all is missing?" Colton put his cup down and pulled out his little notebook.
"Two cows, two calves, and three goats. I can't blame him for the missing chickens, though I have my suspicions, cause we do have coyotes out here. I don't want to blame the boy unfairly."
"You think it was just him? That's a lot of livestock for one boy to handle on his own."
"He's a smart one, and a good roper. He took the calves first, and their mamas just followed behind. But we're getting ahead. I got to tell it my own way, boy, because in truth I don't know how much of this is my own damn fault."
Colton settled back, took another sip. This was working up to be a fine tale, just the kind he liked to hear. The kind that worked its way around to the truth in its own sweet time.
"Her name was Tamale Pie." Colton could see Diego twitch a bit. "She was a, well, I guess you could say she was a whore. But I never thought of her that way. She was a good old gal, had a trailer up there in the mountains and she used to entertain, you know. You could go visit her and you knew she would have a pot of stew orbbeans on the stove, and she'd make you up some fry bread. You could have a hand of cards and somebody to listen to your stories and somebody to share a bottle with. She had a bit of trouble with the drink, but, I mean, who doesn't! Anyway, that's what I mean she was a good old gal. Just a friendly, nice sort of woman. She didn't have the boy until she was more than forty. She told me she thought she was going through the change early. He was a bit of a surprise."
"She's part Apache, and the boy grew up dark, so she thought his daddy must have been Apache or maybe Mexican. She named him Johnny Bravo, and it didn't take the other kids in kindergarten very long to let him know he had been named after a damn cartoon character. That old girl never had the sense to fill a teacup. The boy, he grew up one of those lonely boys who like to ride off alone and read books, looking all handsome and desperate. He was always on a horse, every chance he could get, and he about drove those bookmobile ladies crazy demanding they bring him books. I don't know how he acted with his mama, because he always took off when there were any men around."
"How could his mama afford him a horse?"
Joshua shifted a bit on the sofa, reached for the bottle and tipped it up to his cup again. "Well, she couldn't have, and that's the truth of it. Her money went straight into the bottle. Now, she didn't drink, not one bit once she knew she was pregnant, cause I had to listen to her complain about it a good deal. But she's not out of the hospital from having him for two weeks before that came to an end.
"And if the truth be known, I gave the boy a horse when he was, oh, seven or eight, something like that. He was a serious boy and he was horse-crazy already, so I knew he'd take care of it. I thought he needed something to take care of, because there was no trying to take care of his mama, and some people just need that. And he loved that horse. Of course, he used that same damn horse to rustle my cattle!" He leaned forward, stuck a gnarled old finger at Colton. "You got to find him and stop him. He thinks he's living in some sad western song and he's gonna go down in flames, rustling. That's just the wrong way to go and he's gonna get hurt. What I want you to do is find him and help put him back on the right path."
Colton thought for a minute, and Diego spoke up. "What's he reading? Louis L'Amour?"
The old man shook his head. "No, it's that damn Cormac McCarthy! That old boy can write a crazy cowboy story."
"All the Pretty Horses? Not Blood Meridian? Damn."
The old man shrugged. "If it has a horse in it, he'll be reading it."
Joshua had a pattern to drinking his coffee, Colton noticed. He would take two sips, then top of the cup with whiskey. Two sips, then top off the cup. He needed to get him up and moving around or he was going to pass out and they would have to make three trips out here to hear this whole damn story. "Why don't you take me on a tour of the ranch?"
The old man struggled up from the couch. "I could do that. There was a time, this was the prettiest valley in Arizona. Still is to me."
Diego was resting his head on his propped up hand. "I'll just stay here a bit if that's all right."
Joshua nodded. "You just rest easy, boy." He followed Colton down the porch steps. "He's a pretty one. And he's a good doctor, too. What happened to his eye?"
"The sheriff of Pima County put his pocket knife in there and dug it out."
Joshua stopped in his tracks. "Not your uncle? What did he do a damn-fool thing like that for? Was it because he didn't like you being a queer?"
"He just wanted somebody to hate."
"Goddamn, boy, I am sorry to hear that. Where is he now, prison?"
"Dead. He got shanked in prison about two months after he got there."
The old man was shaking his head. "Goddamn, it's a mean world. And that doctor, he's something special. You know, I showed up at the ER, and I'd had a bit on, cause I thought the best thing to do would be to just cut it off myself."
"What, you mean your ball that got all swollen? You were gonna cut it off yourself?"
"Yeah. I haven't been to the hospital since I got my arm broke when I was a kid, and I figured, just go ahead and cut the bad parts out like you'd do to a bull got his balls twisted. I've castrated a lot of calves over the years. So I got tanked, preparing to do the job, but then I couldn't do it. So this old man lives back over there," Joshua gestured with his hand, "he rides me in to the hospital. Soon as I'm in the door some child with red hair keeps asking me for my insurance card. I say `insurance for what? The truck?'"`Health insurance,' she says, looking at me like she's smelling somebody's rolled in cow shit. `How are you planning to pay for your care?'"'So I say, well, you can just send me the bill and I'll pay it,like I do all my bills.' `You must be joking,' she says, and I was getting riled by then. So here comes the young doctor, and he says, `Let's see what we're talking about here.' And the girl, her face is getting all pink looking at him, which does nothing for her looks with that red hair. `You're doing too much pro bono, Doctor,' she says, `and he doesn't have any health insurance,' and he just smiles all gentle and says, `well, Michelle, what I want to do right now is examine this patient.' Next thing I know he has me in the exam room and I show him the problem. He rears back like a horse just kicked him in the teeth. `We'd better do something about that right now, don't you think? I don't want to put you to sleep, though, cause you've had a bit to drink. So let's just numb it up and do the job.' I say, `fine, you sound like you know what you're talking about,' and next thing I know I'm in the operating room and somebody's stripping me off and scrubbing me down and the job's done."
"How much was the bill?"
"He sent me a bill for forty dollars, and I paid it off when my social security came in. Want to hear something funny? I seem to remember I told him that forty dollars was how much the vet charged to whack off a twisted ball. Maybe they all set their prices the same."
"Now look out that way, boy. You ever seen anything so pretty in your life?" The old man was pointing to where his land began, a little creek running down through a mountain pass, falling down into the valley.
Colton turned in a circle, taking it all in. He could tell that Joshua wasn't seeing the disrepair, the fences falling down and the old tractor abandoned where it had stopped running. "It's fine country up here. I love the mountains. I don't have water like this down on my ranch. That creek running all year, that is a blessing."
"I first saw this land when I was seventeen. I had me a bit of money from selling my daddy's Trading Post. It was up there in Navajo country, but I had gotten a broken heart from some proud girl wouldn't have anything to do with me. So I sold up and went on the road, looking to find me some land of my own. I've got some pronghorn, like to come at dusk and drink out of the creek. It's right pretty watching them run across the land. I know those fences are down," he said, surprising Colton. "Last year a baby pronghorn got hooked up in the fence, trying to jump it. The little leg got broke and I just never had the heart to try and put the fence backbup. Not that I could do much these days by myself."
"I got a strong boy living out on my place. If you want, him and me could come up some weekend, give you a hand. You want to have a pen for the goats when they come back?"
"Thank you. I sure would like to have a good pen for those goats. But what makes you think they haven't been turned into barbeque already?"
"Two of them have. I think he's still got the third. Joshua, is that boy yours? You're sure acting like you're trying to be a father to him."
Joshua shook his head. "I'd stopped being with his mama that way about ten years before he was born. But I couldn't help but wonder, all those times I was with her when we were both young, what if she had gotten pregnant? Had she gotten rid of those babies? It's just that , I knew he wasn't, but I kind of thought he might have been."
Joshua looked out across his land. "He might have been, in another life."
And in another life, you might have had a son.