Ah well . . . enough of this melancholy.
I've got a first chapter to share with you. The first chapter of the second book in the Lenny series. The series is about an Army veteran who returns home. Home being a Texas Panhandle county tucked away in the vast wide-open plains of northwest Texas. A county where there are more cattle living there than there are people. And I do mean empty. About 11 per square mile. The problem with this is that, what few people are around, many of the few who live there have a tendency to be related to you.
The first book, entitled Lenny, had the vet returning home and, through no fault of his own, finds himself becoming a deputy sheriff. Working for a larger-than-life old sheriff who practically raised him as his own son prior to his leaving for the Army.
Amazing how so few people can create so much trouble in this out of the way Texas county.
Book two is going to be called, 'A Quiet Place to Rest.' And I think it starts off with a bang. But you be the judge of that.
A Quiet Place to Rest
Viejo Gruñón, Old Grumpy in Spanish, stood solidly on the slope of the hill and watched with complete indifference the human approaching him. The lanky figure, dressed in the uniform of a Ballard County sheriff’s deputy, ascended the long but gentle slope of the hill, preserving his strength and endurance underneath the scorching sun. The big Texas Longhorn bull, all 2000 pounds of him, didn’t mind the blistering Texas sun. Or the cloud of flies circling mindlessly in a holding pattern between his seven-foot spread of horns. Or the faint smell of something rotting in the sun not too far away. This was his domain. His kingdom. All three thousand acres of Texas scrub. He reined over this harsh land in solitary magnificence knowing there was nothing out there who dared to challenge his authority.
The human, coming to a halt halfway up the slope, pulled his sweat-stained DI hat off and lifted it high over his head, shading his eyes from the ball of fire hanging above him in the cloudless blue sky. In the heat and glaring sun, the deputy sheriff eyed the panoramic view of the county’s amazing emptiness. Not a manmade structure to be seen. Not a car, or a truck, or a plane above could be seen. Not even a breath of wind stirring the air. Nothing. Just miles piled upon miles of dirt, sky, and a blazing sun. There was no living creature to be seen, other than the massive Longhorn bull and one seemingly out-of-place sheriff’s deputy. The nearest human being was a Hispanic family who worked for a local ranch owner. Their small house was some ten miles away. A young family with two kids under the age of eight and a third on the way. That was it for finding the closest human contact.
But there were cattle. About eight hundred head of cattle splayed out across the ranch’s three thousand acres. Big longhorns. Tough, garrulous creatures who, more times than not, did not take well having humans bunch up too close to them. As he stood shading his eyes from the sun and feeling his body heat simmering close to the boiling point, Lenny’s caution forced him to keep his eyes on the giant bull. You never knew when one of these critters would suddenly decide they took umbrage to your presence. Big as they were, city folk were always surprised on just how fast these bovine giants could run when they decided to move. Grinning, he half turned and soaked in the vast loneliness of the open country.
The emptiness of this land seemed to soak into one’s bones. Like the old saying went, if you looked hard enough, you probably could see Hell from here. Or at least El Paso. The terrain was pocked marked with small hills and flat lands filled with mesquite bush and grassland long since burned dry and turned to a faded mustard yellow color. But standing on this small hill, he could see twenty miles or more easily in any direction. Out here, anyone would see a pickup truck coming down one of the two dirt roads cutting across the land and rudely slicing each other’s path when they met a little over a mile away. See them coming for a long time before it ever arrived. Or a cattle hauler for that matter. In dry country like this, the dust trail left behind a moving vehicle would tower into the air and hang for an incredible amount of time before eventually disappearing into nothingness.
Which was odd if you thought about it. Anyone would see someone moving down a road long before the unknown vehicle arrived at its destination. More than time enough to call the sheriff’s office and inform the dispatcher that someone was coming out to steal their cattle. If, that is, someone had been around to see the rustlers coming. The emptiness of the county was a cattle rustler’s biggest ally. Ballard county, in the upper end of the Texas Panhandle, was ninety percent empty country. Almost six thousand people lived in a county approximately one thousand square miles in size. That meant the population density in the county came out to about six people per square mile.
That was a lot of empty space.
But what made it even more unique was the simple fact there were about twice as many cattle in the county than there were people. Hell, maybe more. Lenny, shaking his head in wonder, really didn’t know. All he knew was Stuart Wilson, the owner of these three thousand acres of land, was losing cattle at an alarming rate. The seventy-five-year old rancher was convinced rustlers were coming in and steeling his cows. And if the Ballard County Sheriff’s Department would not find the bastards who were stealing his cattle, well then by god, he would!
Which was the reason why Lenny was standing under the hot Texas sun warily watching the bored Texas Longhorn who was eyeing him with a mask of complete disinterest toward him. Last week someone drove onto the ranch and loaded up eighteen heifers and one rather expensive Longhorn bull and drove away with them. The Old Man, Sheriff Horace Greene, told Lenny he’d better get out there and figure this out pronto, or there was, as Horace could say so eloquently in his Texas southern drawl, “gonna be hell to pay.”
So here he was. Eyeing the big bull, feeling the sun beating down on him like some avenging angel. Noting the stickiness of his uniform shirt clinging to his back and shoulders with the tenacity of a wet washcloth. And . . .for the first time . . . picking up the faint odor of something that’s been dead for a long time. But not long enough to have no smell left to it. Frowning, Lenny felt a little uneasy. The aroma was all too familiar to him. He had sniffed it before, in the high hills of Afghanistan and Iraq. The aroma and carnage left behind on a battlefield weeks after the final bullet had been hurled at an enemy. The only things still clinging to the tainted ground were the dead and the ghosts. And the smell.
It is quite true. There is a difference. The smell left behind by a dead animal compared to the smell left behind by a dead human being. Unforgettable. An aroma permanently locked away in one’s memory and never to be forgotten.
Dropping the hat back on his head, Lenny took a step closer toward the huge animal. Old Grumpy didn’t react one way or the other. He took another step toward the bull. This time there was a reaction. The Longhorn snorted once irritably, lowered his head menacingly, and eyed Lenny for a moment before deciding it was too damn hot to put up a ruckus. Instead, the one ton of flesh and muscle and horn turned to one side and strolled leisurely off down the side of the hill before stopping and turning to eye the stranger again.
“Gracias amigo,” Lenny said, touching the brim of his hat with a couple of fingers in a gesture of quiet gratitude before continuing up the hill.
It did not take long to discover the body. Or what was left of the body. Five minutes later was all it took to realize he had just opened up a Pandora’s Box of trouble for a quarter of the population in Ballard County. That quarter being the majority of his immediate and extended family.
Looking down at the corpse, a genuine look of sadness on his otherwise somewhat handsome face, he remembered something Horace told him a long time ago. Back when he was still a teenager.
Son, get used to the idea of dyin’. Dying is the other half of livin’. You can’t have one without the other. Most of the time, the dyin’ comes naturally. Old age finally catches up with you. Sometimes an accident snuffs your life out without you realizin’ it. Sometimes Death comes knocking on your door and you have no idea why.
Jes’ remember one thing. Before you die, don’t forget to learn how to live. There’s a great big world out there, son. Filled with all kinds of happiness and all kinds of terror. Take’em both in. Don’t hold back. Don’t let your natural fears keep you from livin’. Or learnin’ how to be happy. That part’s on you. The learnin’ how to be happy part. The world will naturally hand you your share of terror. Never worry about that.
And so there it was. As plain as day. He had a little more livin’ to do. He had another homicide to investigate. But this time, the case involved the discovery of a long lost cousin whom everyone in the family thought left Ballard County weeks ago for greener pastures in California or Florida.