Monday, February 23, 2009
Longhorns by Victor J. Banis is a bawdy love story set on the Texas plains. Longhorns ranges from hard riding action and sex as hot as the blazing Texas sun to lyrical descriptions of the Old West.
In this excerpt, Buck, Les and Red have gone to a barn dance at a neighbor's farm, but the neighbor's sons do not welcome the cowboys, and the oldest of them, Ron, challenges Buck to a fight.
[Additional excerpt posted June 9, 2008]
Publisher: Running Press (July 12, 2007)
Kindle Edition (2009) sold by Amazon Digital Services
“Come on, then,” Ron said, and began to shoulder his way through the crowd that had gathered. They went out into the barnyard, a distance from the barn, so that they were mostly in shadows. Buck stripped off his shirt as he went, since it was borrowed and he would not want to give it back with no blood on it. His bandana went too, and he tossed them to the ground,and unlaced his holster, and the sheath for his Bowie, and put his weapons aside with his shirt.
Ron began to do the same, but seeing his opponent like this, he couldn’t help having some second thoughts. Parading around on the dance floor the way he had been, Buck had looked more like a frolicsome boy than a man to be concerned about, but now that he was shirtless, flexing his muscles as he waited, he looked like someone to be reckoned with.
Ron looked at some of the boys crowding around the open door of the barn. “Someone go find Brett and Tom,” he yelled,“tell my brothers to get their asses out here.”
One of the boys in the throng turned toward the barn and yelled, “Brett, Tom, Ron is fixing to kick the shit out of this half breed.”
A minute later, the two younger Hansens, neither as tall as their brother but both of them thickly built, rushed out and pushed their way through the crowd.
“Hang on, there, brother,” Tom called, and Brett said, “I’m wanting to carve me a piece of that Indian’s ass while you are at it.” Tom already had a Bowie in his hand and Brett pulled his from the sheath strapped to his legs as he ran.
They stopped abruptly. A six foot three inch cowboy had stepped directly into their path, his feet planted wide, his hands resting on the handles of his six shooters. While the brothers blinked, trying to take this in, the big red headed fellow came up to stand alongside him, hand on his gun as well.
“What you cowboys got on your mind?” Brett asked, making a show of bravado.
“We got on our mind that those two over yonder will have themselves a fair fight, one on one,” Les said. “Without no help from you two and without no knives.”
“Well, who says you got any right to say how things will be, here on our farm?” Tom asked, but he took a step back so that he was half behind his bigger brother.
“It ain’t me saying it,” Les said, running his fingers over the butts of his guns. “It is Mister Colt’s idea.”
“Maybe we could just tell you and Mister Colt to go somewhere and mind your own fucking business,” Brett said.
“You could,” Red said, speaking calmly, like a man without a care in the world, “but you wouldn’t want to if you had good sense. Some people don’t take kindly to being smart mouthed.”
Tom took another step behind his brother, and Brett swallowed hard and slipped the knife back into its sheath, but he put his hand on his gun instead.
“You ain’t scaring me none with them damned guns,” he said. “Hell, I got me a gun of my own, if you are looking for a shooting match, and I know how to use it, too,” and he started to draw it, but it hadn’t begun to clear its holster, before he saw that there were two six shooters aimed right at his middle section. Damn, he hadn’t even seen the fucking cowboy’s hands move. The other one, the redhead, his gun was still holstered, but he was grinning from ear to ear like he had just heard a
“Shit,” Brett said, shoving his gun back down into his holster, “ain’t got nothing to do with us anyway, that’s between the two of them, seems like to me. Say, Tom, I hear some of the boys have got them some Pensacola rye down back of the house, and I reckon I am feeling a mite thirsty. Whyn’t you and me go get ourselves some?”
“I could use a snort myself,” Tom said. They began to move in the direction of the corner of the house, backing up at first, and then turning and moving quickly.
“Hey, where you guys going?” Ron called after his brothers, but they didn’t answer, they just kept going, not quite running but not exactly walking either, until they reached the corner of the house and had disappeared around it.
“You come back here, Brett, Tom,” Ron called after them, and got no reply. “Damn chicken shits,” he said, and spit at his feet.
He turned back to the half-breed and took stock of his situation. Damn, what worried him the most was that the guy didn’t look like he was scared at all, even though he stood a head shorter than Ron himself. Didn’t even look nervous, in fact. What it was, actually, was he looked like he was fucking crazy, now that Ron took a good look at him. Shirtless, the half breed stood kind of in a crouch, like a cougar getting ready to spring, his muscles still shiny with sweat from the dancing he had done earlier. His eyes glittered in the moonlight, it almost seemed like there were sparks coming out of them, and the way he grinned, his teeth showing, unnerved a fellow. There was something else too, that he did just then, that Ron had never seen nobody do before. His nostrils flared as he stood there waiting, like he was sniffing the air, or something—like an animal, looking for a scent.
Ron suddenly thought of when he was a boy, and older fellows had scared him with stories of Apaches, the things they did when they were in hand fights. He had heard of one, sprang on a man and ripped the fellow’s throat wide open with nothing but his teeth. There was another tale, too, about a fellow, got into a hand fight with an Apache and had his balls clawed right off him while they was wrestling on the ground, the Apache just reached down and grabbed a hold of them fast as lightning and tore them loose before the other man knew what was happening.
Remembering, Ron felt a little shiver of fear zigzag its way up and down his spine, and all at once it felt like he was about to take a shit in his britches. Sure thing, this fucking Indian looked plenty crazy enough to have something like that in his mind. He did not much care for the idea of losing his balls, let
alone having his throat ripped open.
“Shit, I ain’t of a mind to fight with no half-breed Indian trash,” he said, buttoning his shirt up again. “I got me more important things to do.”
He turned his back and began to walk away, but you could see that he was listening for any movement behind him. Buck was motionless though, until Ron had disappeared after his brothers, walking a bit faster as he got further away.
Buck looked at Les and Red then. “I didn’t start it, Les,” he said. “Don’t be sore at me.”
“I know you didn’t,” Les said, holstering his guns.
“And I appreciate your help, boys, really, I mean it,” Buck said, donning his shirt and his bandana, and strapping his weapons on, “but I wasn’t worried about that peckerhead. I could’ve took him on with one hand tied behind my back, him and his piss ant brothers too.”
“Sound mighty sure of yourself,” Les said with a grin. “He is a pretty good sized dude, appears to me.”
“Reckon so, but he was scared shitless,” Buck said. “I could smell it on him.”
“Like them Indian horses do?” Les asked.
Buck grinned back at him. “Guess it just runs in the blood, "he said. “Anyway, once you got a fellow scared, you got him half beat already.”
“Reckon you could have whipped him, at that,” Les said.
“Didn’t mean to say that you couldn’t. Imagine you could have easy enough, as long as a fight stayed fair. We was just providing knife insurance. Ain’t got no mind to see any of my cowhands carved up by a couple of polecats.”
“I am much obliged to you for that.” Buck stepped forward and the three of them shook hands all around, in a strangely formal sort of acknowledgment of their comradeship.
“You planning on any more dancing?” Les asked.
Buck glanced at him, and toward the barn, and thought of little Maggie, but there wasn’t much likelihood now of any trips behind the barn, and he knew well enough that nothing more than that was ever going to come of it.
He looked back at Les and shook his head. “I reckon it would just cause trouble for her with her brothers,” he said.
“They won’t forget they was humiliated, and others to see it happen. And by a half breed, that will make it worse.”
“Then I expect we might as well be heading for home,” Les said.
Red said, “Unless you want to wait and dance with old Ron there and his brothers when they come back, looked to me like they was pretty light on their feet,” and they all three laughed.
* * *
When they were on the trail for home, Buck looked from one of his companions to the other. The night smelled of sage and dust, and the faint scent of something dead and decaying that came downwind at them, a stray steer, maybe, that the coyotes had brought down, but a long ways off. The air was warm and dry, and fine for riding.
He thought about the two of them backing him up the way they had, and he felt like his chest was about to bust with happiness. There wasn’t anything in the world better, the way he saw it, than to have a couple of true friends, cowboy friends.
He began to sing at the top of his lungs: “Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie….”
“If I had known you was going to howl like a wounded coyote,” Les said, “reckon I would have let them boys cut you up back there.”
He larruped his palomino up to a gallop, and after a moment Red and Buck spurred their horses and galloped alongside him, Buck between the other two, the three of them pounding across the plains, feeling free in the way that only a cowboy can feel free, on his horse, out on the range.
Out of nowhere Les, who was not as a rule a man to show excitement, yelled at the top of his lungs, “Yippee-i-o, cowboys.”
Buck answered him by throwing back his head and giving a coyote howl, and they all three laughed, for the sheer joy of being cowboys and being alive, and riding through the summer night together, the hooves of their horses beating a steady thrumedy-thrumedy-thrum on the iron hard ground.
Monday, February 16, 2009
In The Jade Owl Legacy Series: Book 2 - The Third Peregrination by Edward C Patterson, the world is on the brink, now that the relics flow together again. The new China Hands should have left the Jade Owl in the tomb, to fester silently for another age, but they didn’t. Now there is a tapping in the basement and a flowering of new relics, all seeking to move Curator-General Rowden Gray and his crew into the field again to solve the mystery of The Seven Sisters. However, the world has changed since Rowden managed his first task. The new China Hands are sucked into the maelstrom of time, flowing together with the relics, now that the world is at the brink.
Rowden Gray and Nicholas Battle, joined by three new stalwarts in pursuit of the next level in the triad, find a fortress in a mystery deeper than the first warrant, something that compels them to return to China and unravel a more difficult truth - one that challenges them beyond time’s membrane. This second book in the Jade Owl Legacy Series pushes the new China Hands to the world’s brink - now that the relics flow together again.
The Third Peregrination
Publisher: CreateSpace (January 21, 2009)
Secrets Among Friends
In his soul’s hollow, Rowden Gray harbored a secret — a private terror kept from friends and family. A dreadful secret. Ponderous, and yet somehow in need of a reckoning. A hidden, burning coal that could liberate him from his current impasse . . . if he would let it. At such times, when this secret bubbled uppermost in his mind, Rowden Gray would bask in the Museum’s inner sanctum; in John Battle Memorial Hall — a hall of quiet relics now, promises not withstanding. This kept him near the brink of stability.
Rowden loitered about the display case that housed his greatest acquisition, known to some as the U-gu-ku, to others just as damned, but to the world as the Jade Owl. Six inches tall. Light green. Avian in all respects. A stubby, perky-eared hoot-bird. Rowden cracked his knuckles.
It served us well, he thought. Or who has served whom? Open question that. Since the Jade Owl returned to its display case, it had not flickered once. It had not charred so much as a piece of toast. No images cast. No time portals broached. Dead now — one hoped. A quiet relic displayed naked in this inner sanctum, the Museum world ruled by Curator-General Rowden Gray. His greatest acquisition, but innocuous now, sitting on its red velvet drape, set beside its pearl cage. Mysteries, it still kept. Still Rowden harbored . . . his secret.
A year had past since the tomb. A funny thing, time, tinkering with Rowden’s noggin. He tried to close a thirteen hundred-year-old circle, but in that more questions were raised than settled — -more rosebuds like hordes of killer bees from hell’s bowels — the Museum’s basement. From . . . the secret. A burning cannonball dropped heavy into Rowden’s gut.
“Curator Gray,” came a cracked voice from the shadows.
A man in a white shop coat stood clearing his throat. He clasped a clipboard to his chest, his latex gloves giving him the appearance of an intern on his rounds. Stat. His ebony hair was matted and in want of a combing. His earflap held a No. 2 pencil and heavy tortoise-shell spectacles. Lips pursed, perhaps a sign of impatience, or perhaps concentration on some matter at hand. Despite the late hour (the Museum having closed its massive doors to the public hours ago), this man seemed to harbor a full agenda. He continued his attempt to get the Curator-General’s attention with another croak.
“Yes, Sydney?” Rowden said, not diverting his attentions from the display case.
“I don’t mean to disturb you, sir.” Ah, but he did. Sydney blinked. He tapped the clipboard, not that it refocused Rowden’s attention. “The loaners are ready for conservancy.”
Rowden smiled at Sydney’s warble. Despite his assistant’s appearance, Sydney was a competent conservator. Beyond competent. Rowden had known few like him — quality delivered in spades. Now that the Shang-hai loaners had arrived, he had entrusted Sydney Firestone with the validation and conservation of these relics so that they might become a dazzling new exhibition for the good citizenry of San Francisco. Sydney cleared his throat again.
“Any special instructions sir?”
Rowden cracked his knuckles. Yes, competent indeed. Although Sydney cut a nerd’s figure, he was a worthy Sinologist. In fact, Rowden detected something of himself in Sydney.
“You’re a lucky fellow, Sydney. I had to wait years before being exposed to a collection like these Shang-hai loaners.” Rowden’s hand swept the air, a favorite gesture, although a trifle melodramatic. “China is at our fingertips.” He came within a pin-throw of Sydney’s pencil, and then whispered. “Do you hear her call?”
Sydney’s eyebrows arched over the thick, black rims.
“Do you know what she says?” Rowden didn’t say it. He hoped Sydney was keen to know the answer.
Report my secrets to the world, so the world will never forget me.
Sydney just shrugged, gathering the clipboard higher in his arm’s crook.
He’s missed the point, Rowden thought. “Is it really just science to you, Sydney?”
“Just science?” Sydney played with the latex cuffs.
“It’s okay, if that’s all it is. Not everyone has passion.”
“I have passion. Believe me, Curator Gray, I have passion.”
Rowden placed his finger to his lip, and then observed Sydney — inspecting the professional package, expecting a blend of passion and competence.
“Are you sure it’s passion and not just the process that’s gotcha? The process can be as riveting as the big picture.”
Sydney let the clipboard slip to his side. He twiddled with the No. 2 pencil. He puckered his lips, perhaps frustrated at not getting an answer to his question. He smacked his lips, revealing a small gap between his front teeth.
“I love to touch old things.” He blinked. An odd statement, but a valid one. “I like to clean them up — attack a crack and make it disappear.” He shrugged. “Or give it prominence, if that’s the case. I like to watch the tarnish vanish, to see fine lines revealed.” He grinned as if the sun still shone. “It’s like . . . like excavating an old ruin, watching bricks emerge to tell their tale. Now, you might call it process, but it feels like passion to me.”
Rowden laughed a hearty stage laugh. Ha Ha. It might have offended Sydney, had Sydney been the offended kind, but Rowden knew where the lines were drawn.
“Keep to that passion, my boy and you’ll soon put me to shame.” Sydney beamed, the gap spreading, his tongue revealed. Rowden swept his hands aloft. “This place is my passion. Whatever my mood, I can always drift into my hall of relics.”
Quiet or otherwise. His eye caught the elevator in the periphery. And my secret. He sighed.
“I’m restored here. Take a deep breath Sydney; take it in. Fill your lungs. From Golden Gate Park to the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s no other place like John Battle Memorial Hall.”
Rowden’s mood broke. He gazed at the Jade Owl again recalling thoughts of another place — a place deep in the heart of a secret tomb, where the waters healed and a selfish Empress defied death. In that place, the Jade Owl did its worst, shattering the porcelain dame. Death and destruction. Rowden shivered. These images still crammed his dreams . . . when dreams came. The cannonball stirred.
“Are you okay, sir?”
“Yes. The one fly in the ointment is the reminder of my last field trip and . . .”
“. . . the Jade Owl expedition.” Sydney was animated. “I wish I could have been on that one. That would have been pay-off, indeed.”
Rowden gazed at his assistant. Yes. Much like me in my younger days.
“Sydney, you would have been an asset.”
“Thank you, sir. I guess it’s a matter of timing. If I had graduated six months earlier, I could have applied for employment here and . . .” Rowden raised his hand cutting Sydney off mid-résumé. “Sorry,” Sydney said. He adjusted his shop coat, and then resecured the No. 2 pencil in its natural holder. “The relics are in the Conservancy.”
“As you’ve said.” Rowden smiled. “Took a fucking year.”
“The old slow boat from you-know-where. In any case, I want to start. I need your authority to . . .”
“. . . you have it.” Rowden’s mind drifted again. “The usual protocols. This’ll be on the grand scale, you know. If you need help, I’ll get you some.” Sydney blanched at that suggestion. Good. “I’ll join you . . . soon. Start with an inventory.”
Sydney drove his hand into his pocket.
“Inventory’s done. Your copy.”
“Very good.” Rowden glanced at it. Was there ever such an assistant? “Pick some samples for authentication. These relics are a unique acquisition. Some day I’ll tell you . . .” Rowden’s attention waned. His glance drifted back toward the elevator — back to haunted places. Ponderous. Disquieting. He would go to it tonight. However, there was the party. Had he forgotten the party? Audrey would brain him if he missed the party. Still, he was compelled to visit it . . . tonight.
Sydney strode off at a march, his footsteps echoing to the skylight. Rowden stared at the inventory sheet. Was there ever such an assistant? It slipped his grasp, floating to the ebony floor, like a leaf on an ice pond.
The inventory sheet spun twice over the black marble tiles before resting beneath the rubber soul of a black and white Nike. A quick hand snapped the paper into spidery fingers, and then popped the surface.
“Rowdy, you litterbug.”
“Nick.” He smiled at Nick Battle, son of the Old China Hand. Of course, it would be Nick. Time was fleeting.
“Are you ready to go?” Nick asked. He grasped Rowden’s hand with both his.
“I guess so. I’m a bit edgy.”
“Forget it. You think too much. Besides, what’s there to brood about here among my father’s things — in his hall of quiet relics that don’t sing or play or glow or hoot?”
“Always the smart-ass. Good to see you too. And good timing. I was just pondering some ideas for the Shang-hai loaners. Perhaps a theme. Perhaps ...”
“Perhaps you’ve found something new among the relics?”
Rowden glanced at the elevator doors. Had Nick guessed? Something new among the relics? “Perhaps . . . but, where’s Simon?”
Nick leaned on the Jade Owl display. “A fashion crisis. His blush didn’t match his evening bag. He’ll be along.” Rowden chuckled. With Simone, the world balanced on color congruency. There was nothing else to say on the subject. “You’re not plunging into one of your moods, are you? Not tonight. If you do, I’ll drag your ass out to the Painted Lips.”
“No dancing tonight. Not that I don’t enjoy going deaf and choking on smoke. Besides, I don’t think Audrey would approve of my dancing with the gay boyz now.”
Nick twirled, his sneakers squeaking on the marble.
“Bring Cousin Audrey along. What’s different now?”
Rowden returned his attention to the vacuity. Nick pursed his lips, and then cocked his head.
“Keep your secrets then.” He snapped his fingers under Rowden’s nose. “And I’ll keep mine.”
Rowden’s face broadened, a full sunray smile from behind the thunderhead — a give me a fucking break smile.
“Nick Battle with secrets? How novel.”
Nick snapped his fingers again. Rowden turned to tell the gadfly to buzz off, but Nick performed a trick. He balanced a mossy wooden box on his fingertips. That got Rowden’s attention — Svengali snagging his Trilby.
“I have what every Sinologist needs. Another relic to fart around with.”
Mesmerized, Rowden’s attentions bolted to the box.
“Do tell. You know I have a whole Conservancy filled with loaners.”
Nick pushed his secret toward the Curator-General.
“Leave the loaners to your assistant. This relic comes from Gui-lin.” Rowden touched it with his naked fingers. “Where’s your latex?”
“Will I need it?”
Nick popped open the box. Secret revealed. A ring — an enormous opal ring. Pale. Near jade in translucence. An inch long, at least. Fat. Marbled like fine beef. The silver setting, a dragon’s claw shimmering in the display lights.
Forget the Conservancy and its heap of loaners. This piece was worthy of a Trilby. “Where?” But as Rowden reached for it, Nick pulled it back, cheeky monkey, teasing his elder. Rowden interlaced his fingers like a Franciscan viewing a splinter from the cross.
“May I?” Hold still, he thought. Rowden hadn’t seen such ring craft in his entire voyage on history’s Ark. No two-by-two experience this.
Nick relented. He tossed Rowden the box.
“It’s yours to study, dear friend. Let’s call it an anniversary present from one adventurer to another — from a New China Hand to an Old China fart.”
Rowden touched the ring. Cool, almost icy. Something from the freezer perhaps, a mini-Klondike bar set in a serpent’s clutch. He sniffed it, and would have licked it, if it hadn’t been unscientific to do so. From his shirt pocket, Rowden seized his magnifier, the great loupe of the snoop. He combed every scintilla with his expert’s eye, perusing the network of spidery green filigree. How do opals to look? This one appeared like none other in his experience. He wasn’t a gemologist, but this one might be from a new vein. Ancient. Definitely a Sung Dynasty setting. Bai-ch’i huan Silver from K’ai-feng. He knew the trademark silver overlay on the claw, but that was the setting. He couldn’t estimate the age of the stone. It would be like kissing the seashore and proclaiming it Mesozoic.
“It’s from the Sung Dynasty,” Nick said.
Rowden gave Nick the fish-eye. How would he know that? He wouldn’t know Bai-ch’i huan from Gogol Bordello.
Nick smiled. “Yep, lucky guess.” He whistled.
Rowden continued his scan, but sensed that Nick still toyed with him — a Nick pastime. “Keep your secrets then, but it doesn’t help me study this fine relic if you don’t reveal the source.”
Nick’s lemur eyes assaulted him. “You’re right. There should never be secrets between us. Never.”
Never. No secrets. The cannonball reset in the pit of Rowden’s tummy.
“So in the spirit of No secrets, I’ll tell you. This ring was a thank you gift from Huang Li-fa.”
“The CTS guide?”
“The one I call little Cricket. You do remember him?”
Who could forget him? Huang Li-fa was key to their success in regaining the Jade Owl when it went missing in Gui-lin. “But how could Huang Li-fa come by such a thing? I mean . . .”
Nick templed his hands to his lips as if preparing to sing a psalm.
“The ring is his family’s heirloom. It once belonged to an ancestor — a Sung Dynasty bureaucrat.”
“Some thank you gift.”
Nick pouted. “I helped him, Rowdy. I freed him from the closet.”
“As I said, some thank you gift.”
Nick turned away. “No joke, Rowdy. It’s a bitch being gay in a repressive society. Still, he came out. Brave little Cricket. He was grateful, and that ring is a worthy thank you gift, don’t you think?”
No comment. Rowden recalled that a special bond had formed between Nick and little Cricket.
“So you’ve had this for a year and you kept it to yourself?”
“I was waiting for the right occasion.” Nick clapped twice. “In fact, I was gonna give it to you at the party tonight, but I figured that would end the party. So I’ll let you fuck around with it now. Go ahead. Put it on.”
“It’s a woman’s ring.”
“I’m no expert, but no woman wore that ring. Simon wanted to wear it in his act, but I told him it was too butch. Put it on.”
The stone lay heavy in Rowden’s palm. Still, he slipped it over his rugged middle finger. Queer feeling. Like poking a digit into a monkey puzzle. He raised his hand admiring its look in the florescent lighting.
Nick bowed in Chinese fashion, hands clasped to the forehead. “My lord, you must rule something mighty with that ring. And since it’s too heavy for you to wear and also crack your knuckles, perhaps you should wear it all the time.”
Suddenly, Rowden had guilt pangs. Nick had revealed a guarded, year-old secret. Yet Rowden grit his teeth about his own secret. The cannonball rolled.
“Your mind’s drifting again,” Nick said. “I don’t have another relic up my ass to keep you floating.”
“No, Nick.” Rowden slipped the ring off, and then boxed it. He gazed into Nick’s intense blue eyes. “No. Your secret’s delectable. Mine’s . . . a horror.”
Nick braced Rowden’s arm. He shook, excitement brimming to his gaping maw. Alarm.
“Don’t tell me you’re sick. I couldn’t bear that. I just couldn’t.” He sucked the air. “Too many friends . . . gone. Too many. I couldn’t . . .”
“No, Nick. I’m not . . . It’s nothing like that.” He braced Nick, calming him. “It’s just that . . . I’ve been less than honest with you.”
Nick’s eased, scrunching his shoulders. If anger welled, Rowden couldn’t tell. Nick had little reserve for a dark side. Yet at times, Rowden sensed something deep, a drop off into a shadowy ravine. Nick was the Jade Owl’s chosen One — Po-huai. He merited the first warrant — sown, sealed and delivered.
Rowden captured whatever bubbled to the surface now, and then redirected it to a spot across the hall, to the elevator doors.
It was time for revelations. That cannonball, how it rolled.
Monday, February 9, 2009
An old-fashioned 'they-don't-write-em-like-that-anymore' feel-good Western romance with a kick--and enough mystery and adventure to keep you riveted to the very end.
Zumaya Publications (October 2, 2006)
They set up camp in a small clearing between the town and the wagon train. After unsaddling the horses, Calico set up the campfire after urging Josh and Sarah to wander down to the train in search of young people their own age. Josh made it clear that he would just have soon have remained with Calico at the campsite. But Calico was well aware that, other than for himself, the twins had had no other company since leaving Hutchinson. Perhaps, he told himself, much of what he perceived to be going on between himself and Josh was largely his own imagination responding to Josh's natural need for male companionship.
Loneliness was a part of Western living, and Calico had long since accustomed himself to it, even to the point of enjoying being by himself most of the time. But for active teenagers used to the bustle of city life and a social circle
unimaginable to him, Calico mused, the crushing loneliness of vast open spaces and few people would be a heavy burden.
Josh returned alone shortly before sunset.
"Where's Sarah?" Calico asked.
"She's at the wagon train, with one of the families," Josh replied. "They've got a
son just a little older than us."
"What about girls?" Calico asked. "Wasn't there any girls there your age?"
"None that I saw, except one, and she was married and had a baby. But, then, I
wasn't looking for girls," Josh said dismissively. Looking for a reaction from Calico and receiving none, Josh hunkered down beside Calico at the fire. "Sarah wants to know if its okay if she stays to supper with that farmer and his folks."
Calico shrugged. "Sure, it's okay with me. Didn't they ask you to stay, too?"
Josh stared into the fire, picking up a stick to push a few unburned pieces of wood into the flames. "Yeah," he said without looking up, "but I said I had to get back. I'd rather be here with you."
Calico remained silent a moment, filled once again with the sense of a developing relationship in some ways like his own relationship with Uncle Dan, yet in other ways far, far different. He wasn't sure he was ready for it.
"Well," he said, reaching into the saddlebags for food, "we might as well have our supper right now. Then later on, you go back to the train an' fetch Sarah. Close as it is, I don't want her walkin' back here alone."
While they ate, Josh pried Calico with questions about life on the range, about
ranching, raising cattle, dangers commonly encountered, and a myriad of other subjects of interest to a city boy suddenly thrust into a new and, to him,
adventure-filled lifestyle. Throughout their talk, though, Calico detected that Josh had something else on his mind. Finally, after a slight pause in the conversation, Josh said "What do you think of me, Calico?"
Caught completely by surprise, Calico was at a loss for words. After a moment, he said "I'm not sure what you mean, boy?"
Josh was staring at him, and it made Calico once again both nervous and...he couldn't pin it down, but the sensation was warm, and good, and like he'd never felt before.
"That's just it: 'boy.' You think I'm still a boy, don't you?" Josh asked. Calico
started to speak, not having any idea at all what he was going to say, and was grateful when Josh continued. "You think I'm a kid who isn't old enough to know what I want."
Calico felt,in his gut, that he knew exactly what Josh was getting at, but he could not be sure, and so he just shrugged, hoping Josh would continue talking.
"I do know what I want, Calico. I've known what I wanted since I was six years old. It's not a something I'll grow out of. It's not something I've ever been ashamed of, or feel I have to be ashamed of. It's who I am—who I've always been and who I'll always be. I said I always knew what I wanted, but I never found it until…" he paused, staring at the fire, then raised his eyes up to look into Calico's, who had been watching him at him intently, unable to take his eyes off the young man.
"Somehow," Josh continued, forcing himself to keep eye contact with Calico, "I've felt since the day you met us at the train station that you understood that. Sarah thinks so too. If we didn't, I couldn't be talking to you now. You do know what I'm talking about, don't you, Calico?"
Calico felt almost dizzy; he was flooded with feelings that were both familiar
to him and yet at the same time, alien. He realized they had been with him all his life, but which he had never fully acknowledged before. He nodded.
"Yeah, I think I know, Josh."
"Did you ever…do you...feel the same way, Calico?"
Calico sighed deeply, a little embarrassed at the thought that even Sarah had apparently seen something in him that he had not fully acknowledged himself. "Yeah, Josh," he said finally, "I guess just about everything you said's pretty much the same fer me, 'cept you're a lot more aware of it than I been. I always just figgered I was different'n most men. Not that it ever bothered me much, or that I ever thought there was anything wrong with it, but feelin's are kind o' private out here—folks,'specially men, don't show 'em all that much. So 'til you come along, I just sort o' kept everythin' inside. I gotta tell 'ya it feels kind o' funny puttin' words to things I never spoke out loud about before in my whole life."
They sat in silence a long minute, Calico staring at the fire, trying to sort out he flood of feelings washing through him.
Finally, Josh spoke again. "You think there might be a chance, Calico?"
Calico looked up from the fire, thinking but again not quite sure he knew exactly what Josh meant. "A chance?"
"For...for you and me," Josh said quietly.
Calico ran one hand over his face and thought another long moment before replying. "You sure do know how to bowl a man over, bo...Josh," he said with a weak grin. "I'd be lyin' if I didn't say that a big a part o' me wants t'say 'yes' . But out here,the law means a lot to decent folks, and by the law, you're still a kid."
Josh nodded. "I know. And by the law I'll be an adult in a little over a week and
nothing will have changed except that I'll be at Aunt Rebecca's and you'll be somewhere between there and your ranch and we might never see each other again."
The thought of never seeing Josh again had been in the back of Calico's mind long before the conversation they were now having but, like so many things actually being spoken about for the first time in his life, the impact of the thought only now surfaced.
Calico said nothing for a moment, then sighed deeply. "We're talkin' about somethin' that's mighty hard f'r me t' find words for, Josh. I thought about it a lot, I uess, an' I guess it's somethin' I wanted all my life, too. And what you say is true about your just about bein' an adult in the eyes of the law. But we only knowed each other less than two weeks, an' much as an adult's you might be already, you still got a lot o' livin' t' do." He smiled and raised his hand to forestall Josh's objections. "If there's one thing I learned, it's that it's lots better t' grow int'a somethin' than t' jump int'a it."
"But we'll be at Aunt Rebecca's soon, and you'll be leaving us there!" Josh said.
"True enough," Calico said "An' that'll give ya' time t' think. I got nine years on
you, Josh. I never put words t' it before, but I think I been waitin' all this time, too. So I reckon I can wait a while longer. I just want you t' have the time
t' be sure you know that what ya' really want is what ya' think ya' want now. You understand me?"
Eyes downcast, Josh nodded.
"An' one more thing…'bout me callin' you 'boy' so much. My Uncle Dan called me 'boy' right up t' the day he died, an' I know he didn't mean no disrespect by it. I think I know now it was his way a lettin' me know that he cared about me."
Calico stirred the fire with a stick, then looked into Josh's face. "You just keep
that in mind if I should call you 'boy' again sometime."
The two sat in silence until Calico said: "Well, it's 'bout time we had our supper
an' then you c'n go get Sarah."
Monday, February 2, 2009
In Josh Lanyon's The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks, shy twenty-something artist Perry Foster, his romantic weekend in ruins, learns that things can always get worse when he returns home from San Francisco to find a dead body in his bathtub. A dead body in a very ugly sportscoat -- and matching socks. The dead man is a stranger to Perry, but that's not much of a comfort; how did a strange dead man get in a locked flat at the isolated Alton Estate in the wilds of the "Northeast Kingdom" of Vermont? Perry turns to help from "tall, dark and hostile" former navy SEAL Nick Reno -- but is Reno all that he seems?
The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks
MLR Press (December 19, 2008)
There was a strange man in Perry’s bathtub. He was wearing a sports coat -- a rather ugly sports coat. And he was dead.
Perry, who had just spent the most painful and humiliating twenty-four hours of his life, and had driven over an hour from the airport in blinding rain to reach the relative peace and privacy of the chilly rooms he rented at the old Alston Estate, stood gaping.
His headache vanished. He forgot about being exhausted and starving and soaked to the skin. He forgot about wishing he was dead, because here was someone dead, and it wasn’t pretty.
His fingers still rested on the light switch. He turned the overhead lights off. In the darkness, he heard rain rattling against the window; he heard his breathing, which sounded fast and scared; and from the living room he heard the soft chime of the clock he had bought at the thrift store on Bethlehem Road. Nine slow, silvery chimes. Nine o’clock.
Perry switched the light back on.
The dead man was still in his bathtub.
“It’s not possible,” Perry whispered.
Apparently this didn’t convince the corpse, who continued to stare at him under half-closed eyelids.
The dead man was a stranger; Perry was pretty sure of that. It -- he -- was middle-aged and he needed a shave. His face was sort of greenish-red, the cheeks sunken in as though his features were slipping. His legs stuck out over the side of the tub like a mannequin’s. One shoe had a hole in the sole. His socks were yellow. Goldenrod, actually. They matched the ugly checked jacket.
The stranger was definitely dead. His chest wasn’t moving at all; his mouth was ajar, but no sounds came out. Perry didn’t have to touch him to know for sure he was dead, and besides that, nothing on earth would have made him touch the corpse.
He couldn’t see any signs of violence. There didn’t seem to be any blood. Nor water. The tub was dry and empty -- except for the dead man. It didn’t look like he had been strangled. Maybe he had died of natural causes?
Maybe he’d had a heart attack?
But what was he doing having heart attacks in Perry’s locked apartment?
Perry’s glance lit on the mirror over the sink, and he started, not immediately recognizing the pale-faced, hollow-eyed reflection as his own. His brown eyes were huge and black in his frightened face; his blond hair seemed to be standing on end.
Backing out of the bathroom, Perry closed the door. He stood there trying to work it out through the fog of weariness and bewilderment. Then, eyes still pinned on the closed door, he took another step backward and fell over his suitcase, which was still sitting in the center of the front room floor.
The fall jarred Perry’s thoughts into some kind of order -- or at least action. Scrambling up, he bolted for the apartment door. His fingers scrabbled to undo the deadbolt.
He yanked open the door, but it banged shut as though wrenched away by a ghostly hand, and he realized the chain was still on. Fingers shaking, he unfastened that too and slammed out of the flat.
It seemed impossible that the hall should look just as it had when he had trudged upstairs five minutes earlier. Wall sconces cast creepy shadows down the mile of faded crimson carpet leading to the winding staircase.
The long lace draperies stirred in the window draughts. Nothing else moved. The hall was empty, yet the disturbing feeling of being watched persisted.
Perry listened to the sound of rain whispering against the windows, as though the house were complaining about the damp, the wood rot, the mustiness that permeated its aged bones. But it was the ominous silence on the other side of his own door that seemed to flood out everything else.
What was he waiting for? What did he expect to hear?
Despite his desperation to get downstairs to lights and people, he felt peculiarly apprehensive of making the first move, of making a sound, of doing anything to attract attention -- the attention of something that might wait unseen in the dim recesses of the long hall.
He had to force himself to take the first step. Then he barreled down the hallway, narrowly missing the half-dead aspidistras in their tall marble planters. Despite the reassurances of his rational mind, he kept expecting an attack to launch itself from the cobwebbed corners.
Reaching the head of the stairs, he hung tight to the banister to catch his breath. His knees were jelly. Uneasily, he looked behind himself. Nothing but the twitching draperies stirred the gloom. Perry headed down the stairs. Fifteen steps to the next level; he took them two at a time.
Reaching the second floor, he hesitated. Ex-cop Rudy Stein lived on this floor. An ex-cop ought to know what to do, right?
Mr. Watson had also lived on this floor, but Watson had died a week ago in Burlington. His rooms were locked, his belongings collecting dust waiting for a man who would never return.
Not that Perry believed in ghosts -- exactly -- or was too chicken to face another dark, drafty hallway, but after that moment’s hesitation, he continued down the rest of the grand staircase until, at last, he reached the ground floor which served as the lobby of Mrs. MacQueen’s boarding house.
Someone was just coming in the front door, pushing it closed against the sheets of rain. Overhead, the chandelier tinkled musically in the gust of the storm’s breath, throwing eerie blue and red shadows across the man’s figure.
He wore a hooded olive parka, and for a moment, Perry didn’t recognize him. In fact, he couldn’t see any face at all in the cowl of the parka, and (his nerves shot to hell) he gasped, the soft sound carrying in the quiet hall.
Shoving the hood back, the man stared at Perry. Now Perry recognized him. He was new to Mrs. MacQueen’s rooming house, an ex-marine or something. Tall, dark, and hostile.
Perry opened his mouth to inform the newcomer about the dead man upstairs, but the words wouldn’t come. Maybe he was in shock. He felt kind of funny, detached, rather light-headed. He hoped he wasn’t going to pass out. That would be too humiliating.
“What’s with you?” the man said. He was frowning, but then he was always frowning, so there wasn’t anything in that. He actually wasn’t that tall -- a little above medium height -- but he was muscular, solid. A human Rock of Gibraltar.
Finally Perry’s vocal cords worked, but the man couldn’t seem to make out his choked words. He took a step closer. His eyes were blue, marine blue, which seemed appropriate, Perry thought, still on that distant plane.
“What’s the problem, kid?” the man asked brusquely. Obviously there was a problem.
Breathlessly Perry tried to explain it. He pointed upward, his hand shaking like a Jesus freak who lacked conviction, and he tried to get some words out between the gasps.
And now the corpse upstairs was the second problem, because the first problem was he couldn’t breathe.
“Jesus Christ!” said the ex-marine, watching his struggle.
Perry lowered himself to the carpeted bottom step of the grand staircase and fished around for his inhaler.
* * * * *
Perfect ending to a perfect day, Nick Reno thought, watching the queer kid from across the hall sucking on an inhaler.
The divorce papers had arrived that afternoon, but what should have felt like relief felt like another failure. The job at the construction company hadn’t panned out, either. It was the wrong time of year for construction -- the wrong time of year for everything, it seemed. And now this. For the last few hours Nick had been hanging on to the idea of a stiff drink and some solitude, and what he got was this damn boy having hysterics.
“Kid, pull yourself together.” What was his name? Something Foster. Nick had noticed it on the mailbox in the lobby.
The kid continued to huff and puff, his thin chest rising and falling with the struggle to breathe. Maybe he’d just missed an episode of his favorite soap opera. Maybe they had discontinued his favorite flavor at Starbucks. Who the hell knew? Queers.
Nick looked around the suspiciously silent lobby. Where were all the busybodies who normally littered the halls of Mrs. MacQueen’s nuthouse?
“I could use some help here,” he called out, whether to the Almighty or the closed doors, he wasn’t sure. But after a moment he heard a chain slide. Deadbolts began scraping, latches cranking, turn knobs clicking. Old Miss Dembecki’s door opened a crack.
The kid, who had turned a lovely shade of blue, lowered the inhaler long enough to wheeze, “There’s a…dead man --” Suction resumed.
“There’s a what?” Nick demanded. “Where?”
People were now creeping out of their rooms into the hall. Miss Dembecki, wired for sound in pink curlers, pulled a gingham nylon bathrobe around her skinny body. “What’s happened?” she demanded querulously. “What did you do to him?”
“I didn’t touch him.” Nick glanced up as a floorboard creaked.
Suspended above them was a white moon of a face. Stein, the ex-cop, shone down on them. His mouth made an O as round as the rest of his perspiring face: round eyes, round mouth, squashed nose. “What’s going on? Somebody in an accident?” His voice floated down.
Dourly, Nick eyed the kid. “I don’t know.”
“Perry, whatever’s wrong?” quavered the old lady.
Perry. That figured, Nick thought grimly. A pansy name if there ever was one.
Across the hallway another door opened.
A cat wafted out of the Bridger woman’s apartment and pussyfooted toward them, white plume tail waving gently. The kid made a panicked sound and pointed with his free hand.
Nick pivoted impatiently, but Ms. Bridger, six-feet-nothing, red haired, and clad in an emerald kimono, was already scooping up the offending feline and shutting it back in the apartment.
Dembecki called, “Miss Bridger, perhaps you… Something’s happened to Perry.” She cast an accusing look in Nick’s direction.
Nick began, “Look, lady --” then gave it up, stepping aside as Jane Bridger rustled up in her silk dressing gown. There was a dragon embroidered on the back of her gown. She was doused in Poison perfume. Nick recognized it as Marie’s favorite, and his stomach knotted.
“Perry, sweetie,” she cooed, joining the kid on the bottom step. “What’s wrong?” To Nick she explained, “He has asthma.”
Foster lowered the inhaler once more and got out, “Dead man…in my…bathtub.”
He was speaking to Nick as though somehow it was Nick’s problem; maybe he thought Nick was the only one equipped to deal with a dead body scenario.
The door to the landlady’s apartment opened at last, and Mrs. MacQueen billowed out in a cloud of cigarette smoke. “What’s all the racket?” she rasped. “What are you people doing now?” A blast of canned TV laughter followed from her rooms.
“Perry’s ill,” Miss Dembecki quaked. “It’s his asthma.”
Bridger patted Foster’s shoulder kindly. Her long fingernails were bloodred against his white shirt. “Hang in there, sweetie. Take slow, deep breaths.” Her robe slipped open to reveal the outline of breasts so perfect they had to be fake. Nick raised his eyes. If Stein leaned any further over the banister he was going to take a nosedive.
Two small dogs burst out of MacQueen’s rooms, and nails slipping on the hardwood floor, scrabbled their way to Bridger’s door, barking hysterically.
Fed up, Nick stepped back, treading on Miss Dembecki’s slippered foot; he hadn’t noticed her sidling up behind them. Now she yowled like an injured cat.
“Sorry,” Nick exclaimed.
“Why can’t you look where you’re going?” moaned Miss Dembecki, hobbling to one of the overstuffed chairs by the fireplace. The fireplace was unlit. It had never been lit as far as Nick could tell. Maybe it was supposed to be décor. It just emphasized how unwelcoming the damn house was.
Foster gulped out more vehemently, “There’s a dead man in my bathtub!”
Dead silence. Another burst of televised laughter. Someone tittered nervously.
“What does that mean?” demanded MacQueen finally. She reminded Nick of James Cagney in drag, sort of sounded like him too.
“It means somebody ought to go upstairs and check it out,” Nick said.
The boy shot him a grateful look.
“Who, me?” MacQueen actually backed up in one of those you-won’t-take-me-alive-copper moves.
“You own the place. You’re the manager, aren’t you?”
“But, that’s…I mean…sure, but…” Her bug eyes traveled from face to face. She licked her colorless lips. The others were making sounds, wordless excuses, apologetic noises.
“Forget it,” Nick said. “I’ll go.” It would be a relief to escape the freak show for a minute or two. “Where are your keys, kid?”
Foster said, “I didn’t…lock the…door.” He still sounded breathy, but he wasn’t blue anymore. He kept a tight grip on the inhaler.
“It’s the third floor. The tower room opposite yours,” Bridger informed Nick.
“Got it.” Nick started up the stairs.
On the second floor, he passed Stein, who twitched him a meaningless smile but didn’t speak.
Nick continued his climb to the third floor. It was dark and quiet up here; the scent of cats and the sound of TV didn’t reach. Neither, half the time, did the heat. Lace curtains over the poorly sealed windows floated up like specters, then flattened back against the wall. Not the best visibility: the long hallway was badly lit; a pair of half-dead plants on tall pedestals provided suitable cover for ambush.
A funny feeling prickled across the back of Nick’s scalp. It was a feeling he had learned not to ignore during fourteen years in the service -- though unexpected in a broken-down mansion in the middle of the Vermont woods.
He considered, and discarded, going back to his quarters and arming. He was pretty confident he could handle any garden-variety scumball who might have sneaked in.
Approaching the kid’s apartment cautiously, Nick turned the doorknob.
The door swung open onto a large chilly room that smelled of rain and turpentine. It looked more like an art studio than someone’s living quarters. The curtains had been removed to allow more light. A spattered drop cloth covered much of the floor. A canvas half-covered with inky pine trees rested on an easel near the window. Blank canvases were stacked against the wall; painting utensils covered what appeared to be the dining room table. There were paintings everywhere: on the walls, on the floor.
In the middle of the room was a suitcase.
So the kid had been gone overnight; that meant someone could conceivably have got into his rooms and…dropped dead.
Except the bathroom door was open, the light on. Nick had a clear view of the tub. It was empty.
Loose Id: http://www.loose-id.net/prod-The_Ghost_Wore_Yellow_Socks-826.aspx