An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
A lone star blazed in the midnight blue sky.
It looked like the Christmas star, which was appropriate seeing that it was four days till the holiday, but with Mitch’s luck it was more likely a crashing jet plane headed straight for him.
Yeah, that would be about right. On the bright side, it would spare him driving any more miles down this long, dull stretch of memory lane. Texas looked only minimally better at night than it did in the day. Nothing but rugged, ragged landscape. Igneous hills of limestone and red rock as far as the eye could seewhich wasn’t far, given the darkness beyond the sweep of the rental car headlights.
Mitch rubbed his bleary eyes. This was more driving than he’d done in years. He didn’t even own a car anymore. New York had decent public transportation, and when Mitch wasn’t working he waswell, he was always working, so problem solved.
Prickly pear, yucca, and juniper bushes cast tortured shadows across the faded ribbon of highway. A mighty lonesome stretch of country, as they’d say out here. Cemeteries were more plentiful than towns. He wasn’t entirely alone, though. Outside of Fredericksburg a pair of headlights had fallen in behind him and they continued to meander lazily along a few miles back. Some cowboy moseying on home, though not in any hurry to get there.
That made two of them.
It had been six months since Mitch had got the word his old man had keeled over, and he’d have happily waited another six monthsor six yearsbefore dealing with what his father’s lawyer euphemistically called “the estate.” But after the blowup with Innis, Mitch had desperately needed time and space. And one thing Texas had in plenty was space.
Speaking of space, the star twinkling and beaming up ahead could have fallen right out of the state flag. It was the biggest star in a night field of stars. A beacon burning in the night. Mitch blinked tiredly at it. He hadn’t slept on the plane, hadn’t slept in nearly forty-eight hours. Not since he’d walked into his dressing room to catch Innis with his pants down. Not a euphemism, unfortunately. Innis’s excuse Up ahead Mitch caught movement in the middle of the road. Headlights picked out the gleam of eyes. A deer. A very large deer with a huge rack of antlers. An eighteen pointno, not a deer. Mitch’s eyes widened. A caribou. In Texas?
What the hell?
A caribou... in Texas... wearing a red leather harness with bells?
He was asleep. He had fallen asleep driving.
Mitch wrenched the wheel. The tires skidded off the road onto the rocky shoulder. He tried to correct but oversteered. Instinctively, he slammed on the brakes, the car spun out. It did a wild fouetté across the highway, tipped over the side and rolled once. The air bag exploded from the dashboard. The car landed upside down in the sand and gravel beneath the embankment.
Dust and powder from the air bag filled the interior. The engine died as the car rocked finally to a stop. The passenger door had flown open. Mitch could smell oil and antifreeze and cornstarch and singed juniper. The air bag hissed as it deflated. Or maybe that was the radiator leaking. Or the sound of four tires simultaneously going flat.
“What was that?” He wiped the air bag talc residue from his face. His eyes and skin stung.
It had happened so fast. So fast there hadn’t even been time to be afraid. And at the same time it had seemed to occur in slow motion. Like watching a film or seeing it happen to someone else. Really weird. Maybe that out-of-body sensation was shock.
In movies, of course, flipped cars promptly burst into flames. That didn’t seem to be happening here, which was good news. He took quick stock.
Neck and shoulders felt wrenched. No surprise. The web of seat belts was cutting into his chest and hips. Other than that, he seemed to be unhurt. Shaken, bruised, but nothing serious. He could safely move without risking further injury, and probably the sooner, the better.
Reaching around, Mitch fumbled with the clip and unlatched his seat belt. He wriggled free of the shoulder strap, landing awkwardly on the ceiling interior. He crawled under the gear box and beneath the passenger side, scrambling out the door.
The dry, cold desert air was a jolt. Mitch drew in a deep lungful and it tasted as sweet, as fresh as his first ever breath. He was alive. Maybe his luck wasn’t as bad as he’d been thinking.
Climbing to his feet, he stumbled up the embankment to the highway. He was relieved to see the vehicle that had been tagging along behind him for the last thirty miles pulling to the shoulder, tires crunching gravel. Mitch waited in the glare of the headlights.
The door of the large white SUV swung open, and Mitch glimpsed official insignia. Public Works? Parks and Wildlife? Highway Patrol?
But no, the man coming toward him wore a cowboy hat and a leather coat with a sheepskin collar. The headlights illumined his tall, rangy silhouette; it was too dark to see his features. He moved well, though. He moved like a cowboya real cowboy, not the movie kinda long, easy stride with the little swing to it.
“Howdy, friend.” The cowboy had a deep, unhurried voice shaded by that familiar homegrown accent. “You need an ambulance?”
“I’m okay. I think my car’s a goner, though. Did you see what happened?” Mitch hugged his arms to try and stop his shaking. The temperature couldn’t be much above the low thirties, and his jacket was somewhere in the wreck below.
“I saw you swerve and then lose control.” The cowboy was already sidestepping down the embankment to get to the crashed sports car. “Was there anyone else in the vehicle with you, sir?”
Not Water and Power, by the look of it. But not regular police. Even in Texas the regular police didn’t swagger around in jeans and boots and cowboy hats. Mitch might have forgotten one or two things about the Lone Star State, but not that much. Unless he was very much mistaken, it looked like he’d snagged the attention of a real life Texas Ranger.
“No. No one. I’m by myself.”
The cowboy wasn’t taking his word for it. He reached the flipped car and knelt, checking the interior. He rose and went around to the other side. Mitch lost sight of him for a moment or two. When the cowboy returned to view, he had the rental car keys.
He scaled the ascent in a couple of long strides and returned to his own vehicle. The dome light flashed on and Mitch could see him speaking over the radio. He hugged himself tighter, waiting. He should have known what a mistake this trip would be.
When the cowboy had finished his report, he ducked out of the cab and started back toward Mitch. “You have your license with you, sir?”
“Yes.” Mitch addedbecause he felt he had to say something and the cowboy didn’t seem to be the chatty type“Did you see the deer?”
“The deer? Is that the story? You were avoidin’ a deer?”
The story? Mitch glanced at the empty road. “That’s what happened. I saw the deer and swerved. I… It must be someone’s pet. It was a wearing aa”
Mitch wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. He hedged, “A collar, I think.”
“A collar?” the cowboy repeated politely as he reached Mitch. Mitch was six feet, tall for the average dancer, but the cowboy was taller by a few inches. It had been a very long time since Mitch had needed to look up at someone to speak to them.
“Er, yeah.” He wished he could read the other man’s face.
“You thought you saw a deer in a collar? What kind of collar would that be, sir? A rhinestone collar? A fur collar?”
Great. Maybe you couldn’t always find a cop when you needed one, but there was never a shortage of assholes. “There’s a deer farm around here, right? There used to be. It could have escaped from there. It was wearing one of those”
“No. Actually, it was a harness. For pulling a…” Self-preservation kicked in. “Something.”
“A somethin’?” Mitch could see the gleam of the cowboy’s eyes. He had a suspicion he was going to be providing belly laughs around the old bunkhouse that night. The cowboy’s tone was still perfectly polite. “I see. Did y’all maybe have a drink or two this evenin’, sir?”
“Of course not. I don’t drink.” Although maybe he’d make an exception tonight.
“Uh-huh. You were takin’ this stretch of highway at a mighty fast clip.”
“I... I guess so. I was in a hurry to get where I was going.”
“And whereabouts is that, sir?”
“The old Evans place off Highway 16.”
In the silence that followed his words, Mitch could hear the ever-present wind whispering over the sand like some ghostly oracle. The cowboy went so still he seemed to stop breathing.
“Mitch?” he said at last in a flat voice. “Mitch Evans?”
Mitch stared back into that faceless shadow.
It couldn’t be.
The muscles in his neck and shoulders locked so tight he wasn’t sure he could move his mouth, let alone his head. Any time he had envisioned this encounter, it hadn’t gone like this. As a matter of fact, it had gone with him managing to avoid the encounter.
How had he failed to instantly recognize? But in twelve years a boy’s voice deepened considerably and a boy’s light frame filled out and even the way he held himself changed. Mitch found his own voice. “That’s right. Web Eisley, is it?”
“I’m flattered you recollect.” Web didn’t sound flattered. Mitch couldn’t blame him for that. The last words they’d spoken to each other had not been kind ones. But that was twelve years ago and grown men didn’t hold grudges. Or if they did, they tried not to show it.
“I remember.” His voice sounded as toneless as Web’s. He made an effort to sound more personable, seeing that he was standing at the scene of an accident with a Texas Ranger whom he’d once called a “fucking gutless coward.” Among other things. “Well. It’s been awhile.”
“That’s true enough,” Web said.
For the life of him, Mitch couldn’t think of anything to say. He wasn’t exactly a smooth talker at the best of times, and to meet like this, after all these years, left him floundering.
When the silence stretched beyond a natural breaking point, Web spoke again in that plain, unmoved way. “I guess this’ll be a surprise for most folks around here. We pretty much gave you up for a lost cause when you didn’t show for your daddy’s funeral.”
Despite the cold night air, Mitch’s face burned. There were any number of reasonable and even true things he could have said to explain his absence. He was startled to hear his own fierce voice. “I don’t give a fuck what anyone around here thinks of me.”
A pause followed his words before Web said, “I’d say we all got that message, loud and clear. So I guess you’re just passin’ through?”
“That’s right. I’m planning to talk to my father’s lawyer and put the ranch up for sale.”
“Well, I guess you won’t have too much trouble sellin’ it. Sixty acres of land is still a nice parcel even if the buildings are startin’ to show the wear and tear of six months of neglect.”
Yes. It went without saying that people in Llano would not think highly of him for letting that ranch sit there and rot. It went without saying, but people would be saying plenty. That was what folks in Llano did.
“They can raze the place to the ground. I don’t care. I just want to unload it.” Once again Mitch was startlednot by his hostility but his lack of restraint in venting it. He’d thought he was past all this. Maybe the accident had shaken him more than he realized.
Maybe he’d been knocked out and was dreaming. It was all beginning to feel as surreal as a production of Michael Smuin’s Christmas Ballet. Any second the hula girls and dancing Christmas trees would show up.
Web must have formed a similar thought. He said, “A tow truck’ll be here directly. You sure you don’t need medical attention? You must have been tossed around pretty good when that car went over the side.”
Mitch shook his head. Then he glanced down at the rental car lying like a toy upside down in the sand and rocks and cactus, and a funny light-headed feeling swept over him. It was little short of a miracle that he was standing there unharmed. A Christmas miracle. A four-days-to-Christmas miracle.
Web’s voice was unexpectedly harsh. “You were damn lucky. I don’t see many people walk away from that kind of accident.”
“I guess not.” Mitch studied Web’s moonlit outline. “I guess you’re some kind of a cop now?”
Mitch said without warmth, “That’s what you always wanted. Congratulations.”
“Yeah, well, you’re lucky it was me following you. Anybody else would have figured you’d had a snort or two before you got behind the wheel, what with the speed you were going and that business about the deer wearin’ a collar. But since you didn’t drink back when you were trainin’ to be a big, famous ballet dancer, I guess I might could believe you when you say you don’t drink now that you are a big, famous ballet dancer.”
“Or you might could breathalyze me. I don’t much care.”
There was another of those conversation hitches, then. “You’re about as cantankerous as your old man was,” Web observed. “I just said I believed you.”
“Good. I’m telling the truth. I saw a deer. Or I thought I saw a deer.” The deer seemed more and more unlikely despite the fact that this was the deer hunting capital of Texas. Mitch was forced to admit, “Maybe I was falling asleep, but I sure as hell didn’t have a drink before I got behind the wheel.”
His honesty must have caught Web offsides. “It’s not technically against the law, but I don’t recommend you share that.”
They both turned at the rumble of an engine. A tow truck with a long flatbed was trundling down the empty highway from the direction of Llano.
The truck pulled up along the side of the road, and Web went to talk to the driver while Mitch watched. The driver climbed down from the cab. Another man hopped from the passenger side. The two of them went with Web to check out the wreckage.
They were back in a couple of minutes carrying Mitch’s suitcase. They rejoined him on the blacktop highway. The tow truck driver was about Mitch’s age, but Mitch didn’t recognize him. Then again, he hadn’t recognized Web Eisley and he’d have bet money that was impossible.
“I sure hope you opted for the rental insurance,” the driver informed Mitch. He was panting from the short climb.
“Is it totaled?”
“Let me put it this way, she ain’t goin’ nowhere on her own. But we’ll tow her into town and take a look. Give us a call tomorrow and we’ll let you know the damage.”
Mitch nodded. “Thanks.”
“I’ll give you a ride out to the ranch.” That was Web.
The last thing Mitch wanted was the opportunity for another private chat with Web, but he could hardly decline on the grounds of being chickenshit. Besides, what was he supposed to do? Call a cab? There was no good reason not to take Web up on his offer. Mitch was past the initial shock of running into him again, right? He’d known all along coming back here meant confronting a few old ghosts. So here was the Ghost of Christmas Past offering him a ride. Big deal.
“I appreciate it. Thanks.”
He followed Web to the SUV. Web unlocked the passenger door, waiting till Mitch climbed inside. He slammed the door shut and walked around to the driver’s side. By then Mitch was starting to feel the aches and pains of getting thrown across the highway in a tin can. That was actually a relief because it gave him something to think about other than the fact that he was sitting about a foot away from Web Eisley.
The scent of sheepskin and leather and a faintly herbal aftershave filled the vehicle. It was annoying to be so aware of Web. Thankfully, Web paid him no mind, picking up the radio speaking to the dispatcher on the other end. When he was done, he clicked off, hung up the handset and started the SUV’s engine.
For all Mitch had been thinking he didn’t want to talk to Web, the silence got to him. He couldn’t seem to get past the strangeness of Web within arm’s reach after all this time.
“Are you still on duty?”
Web shook his head. Then, perhaps thinking Mitch might miss the gesture in the dark, he said, “No.”
Just being a good citizen, it seemed. Mitch searched for something else to say, the normal things people said in this kind of situation. Not that this was a normal kind of situation. “How long have you been with the Rangers?”
“Just over a year.”
“You always said you’d make it before you turned thirty-five.”
“Is that so?” Web’s reply was automatic. The kind of tone people used when they had their minds on more important matters.
The final look in Mitch’s side mirror showed the tow truck being angled across the highway, backing to the side of the road. “How are your folks?”
“Fine. Gettin’ older, I guess.”
Well, yeah. Wasn’t everyone? Mitch didn’t say it. If Web didn’t feel like talking, the instinct was probably a good one. It wasn’t like there was a lot left to say between them. It had all been said twelve years ago. And then some.
Hard gusts of wind pushed against the SUV as it sped along the bleak stretch of unlit highway; the occasional crackle of the radio filled the silence.
It wasn’t more than ten minutes to the ranch. Mitch said nothing else and neither did Web until they reached the turnoff. Then Web parked so that Mitch could get out and open the wood gates.
Mitch got back in the SUV. As Web let the vehicle roll forward, an enormous tumbleweed rolled across the dirt road and vanished into the wind-scoured dark beyond the headlights.
Web drawled, “Welcome home, Mitchell Evans.”
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.