But today I thought I'd share Chapter Four of the novel. The first time we see Lenny (full name, Leonard Leonidas) in action. Now you have to remember something; this novel is set in the mesquite country of West Texas. If you're never been to Texas, just remember this. That part of the world is basically flat semi-desert country filled with mesquite bushes large enough be considered trees, Texas Longhorn where the bulls come equipped with a set of horns that can measure up to three meters from tip to tip. And oil.
But damn few people. Its wide open and empty out there. So murder is rare out there. Mostly.
Here it is. Chapter Four
Two piercing shafts of white light cut through the inky night like surgical scalpels, revealing an alien world of vast loneliness. West Texas flatland surrounded the fast-moving truck as it rolled down an arrow straight country road, the truck’s high beams barely able to cut through the clawing darkness. But the driver in the heavy Dodge short-bed crew cab knew where he was going. Knew the territory. It was a quarter to midnight and he was eight miles south and west of Ballard, traveling down as county maintained dirt road at high speed, throwing up a massive dust plume behind him in the process.
Inside the truck with him was Maria Fuentes and her three sons, Mark, Rafael, and Daniel. Maria was a third or fourth cousin. Hell, nobody in the family was exactly sure how the family tree twisted and turned in connecting her familial ties with his. And frankly, it didn’t matter. Maria was family. She, and about thirty other members of the family had all come together at the Leonidas house to welcome him back.
Now, almost midnight, he was taking Maria and her boys back to their ranch out into the county. Down a dirt road hardly ever used and about as empty as a West Texas road could get at this time of the night.
Glancing over at sleeping Maria Lenny couldn’t help but smile. In high school she was the best-looking girl in her class. Now, some twenty odd years later, and even after having three boys, she still was the best-looking girl he had ever laid eyes upon. She had smooth, dark brown skin. Flowing brown hair falling just to her shoulders and the largest almond-shaped brown eyes he had ever seen. Tonight, slumped down in the first seat, her head turned toward him and resting on the backrest of her seat, part of her hair partially hid her lips from him in the glow of the truck’s instrument lights. She was still something special to look upon.
Behind them, in the truck’s rear seats, her three boys were all splayed out across the backseat, somehow defying gravity as they slept but still buckled up in their seat belts. The boys were ten, seven, and five years in age. All full of piss and vinegar. All with naturally infectious grins which lit up their faces every time someone looked at them.
Their husband and father was missing. Missing for over a year. Maria married a high school sweetheart by the name of Donald Parker. Donald and his parents had a big ranch out just south and east of Ballard. A ranch close to three thousand acres in size. One Sunday morning Donnie saddled up a horse so he could ride out into the ranch’s backcountry to check some cows who were calving. Rode out smiling and waving at Maria and the kids. Riding high in the saddle proud and strong and full of life. But never came back.
His horse came back. But not Donnie.
There was a smear of blood on one of the stirrups. Apparently, the horse came back wet and lathered up as if he had ran for miles in panic. The sheriff’s department and about twenty ranches around the country mounted up and rode the back country in search parties hunting for Donnie. But nothing was ever found. Donnie disappeared as if the sage and mesquite country of West Texas just swallowed him whole, leaving nothing behind.
Donnie’s disappearance devastated Maria and the boys. Maria became a recluse. She hardly ever drove to town. Rarely answered the door when neighbors came over to visit. She stayed in the rambling ranch house, taking care of the boys and making sure they got on the bus and went to school. She hired three of her cousins to come in and run the day to day operations of the spread for her. Older cousins, seasoned vaqueros, who knew the ranching business forward and backward. But Maria rarely left the ranch.
Tonight she and the boys drove into town in the pickup to attend Lenny’s homecoming. Tonight, for the first time in a year, she found herself laughing at old family jokes and enjoying long conversations with the family as her boys, along with about a dozen or more of their cousins, romped around the house playing all kinds of crazy games. And tonight, for the first time in a long time, she drank some wine. Too much wine. When the party began to break up, Lenny volunteered his services to drive her and the boys home in their pickup. Maria agreed, telling Lenny he could use the pickup to drive back the thirteen miles to town. She’s send her cousins over to pick it up later.
So Lenny, in the silent of the pickup’s cab, sat behind the wheel of the Dodge and drove while Maria and the boys slept the sleep of tired souls. The dirt road ahead of him stretched out straight and true for miles on end. In fact, it was said, all the way to Mexico. It was an empty road. Rumored to be used by Coyotes, professional human traffickers, smuggling in Mexicans sneaking into the US. And various drug cartel runners bringing in shipments of cocaine and heroin.
Of course, it was obvious. If the rumors were true, as most suspected they were, everyone knew what happened to Maria’s husband. He rode off into the back country of his ranch and saw something he shouldn’t have seen. Probably drug smugglers bringing in a shipment. Saw them. And died for it. His body would never be found. No one would ever know for sure what happened to Donnie. But everyone in Ballard County was pretty sure what happened to her husband.
Thoughts like this occupying the moment, Lenny drove with one hand on the wheel and stared off into the night. Come over a hill something caught his attention. A flash of light sweeping vertically across the sky. A streak of light which lasted only a half second before disappearing. Off to his left. Off the road and out in the mesquite bushes. Unconsciously slowing down he stared off toward his left waiting to see if he caught another glimpse of the strangeness.
He did. Just a fraction of a second. But this time the beam of light was horizontal. The light moving from the south and sweeping around to the north. As if someone with a flashlight was looking for something in the thick darkness. Automatically he let up on the accelerator and stabbed lightly on the brakes, slowing the big truck down. He also stretched forward and clicked off the headlights. Bringing the truck to a slow halt he stared off to the left, a severe frown on his face.
“Lenny? What’s wrong?”
Maria’s voice, thick with sleep, as she stirred from her seat and sat up half in alarm.
Lenny glanced at her and smiled, a hand reaching out naturally and brushing some of her hair off her cheeks.
“You up to driving home? Think you and the boys came get home tonight without too much trouble?”
A curtain of panic slid across Maria's brown eyes as she sat up straighter, glancing first at her boys in the back seat, and then back to Lenny. She wanted to ask questions. Wanted to hear what had spooked her cousin enough to stop the truck in the middle of the road. But she didn’t. She saw Lenny’s face. Saw the server slash of lips set firmly on his lips. So she just nodded silently to Lenny as Lenny reached down and for the door latch and opened the door.
“Drive for as long as you can without turning on the lights, Maria. Drive without lights until you go over that little rise in the road. And then go home. I’ll call you tomorrow. Okay?”
Maria, looking at her boys again for second, looked back at Lenny and nodded. Hurriedly she opened her door and got out of the truck and hurried around the back end to the other side. Lenny held the door open for her and closed it after she slipped in behind the steering wheel. He waved as he stepped back. Maria, very frightened, looked pleading at Lenny and then looked down the road and reached for the truck’s gearshift.
He watched her drive away. Without headlights. Only the black shadow of the truck’s mass in the darkness disappearing down the road. Not even the tail lights revealing her presence.
Only when the truck went over the slight rise in the road and disappeared did he turn one hundred eighty degrees around and stare off into the darkness.
Someone was out there in the darkness with a flashlight. Someone who shouldn’t be out there at this time of night with a flashlight. He wanted to know who it was and why were they stumbling around in the darkness so awkwardly. Stepping off the road quickly he bent down and slipped through the prickly stubbing’s of barbed wire fence and stood up.
Someone was out there in the darkness. Someone who possibly needed help.