FAMILY AND FIREARMS
The day Eddy Cranny got himself murdered started bad and went downhill from there … especially for Eddy. My first indication things weren’t going well was waking to the unmistakable snick of a break-action shotgun snapping shut.
I’d been lying in bed in a pleasant half-drowsy state, just listening to the murmur of voices rising from downstairs and thinking that I really ought to get up and help with breakfast preparations. Mornings at the Smoke Quartz ranch were the best part of the day even in November when the chill breeze carried with it the faint echo of far-off northern winters, but the frost of morning usually gave way to mild sunny afternoons. The light from the single window on the far wall slowly changed from soft gray to gold, illuminating three sets of bunk beds in the big room. From my position in the bottom bunk nearest the door, I could see the only other occupied bed, on which an unmoving lump under a mound of feather blankets told me that my cousin Kyla was still fast asleep. The other bunks would be occupied by evening with an assortment of cousins of varying degrees, all under sixteen, and probably none too happy to have two adults bunking with them. They would just have to get over it. This Thanksgiving weekend, the Shore family was holding a reunion in honor of my uncle Herman’s ninety-fifth birthday, and every Shore in the state of Texas—and quite a few from beyond—were in town to celebrate.
I slid out of bed and through the door, closing it behind me as quietly as I could. Downstairs, another door opened and then shut just as gently, a sure sign that some of the family were already moving to the porch to drink their coffee and watch the birds fly to water as the sun broke over the horizon. In the bathroom, I slipped on sweatshirt and jeans and pulled my hair into a ponytail as quickly as I could, already anticipating strong coffee and homemade biscuits. I had just come out onto the landing again when I heard a shout, a crash, and then the unmistakable sound of shotgun getting ready for business.
Gripping the banister, I took the stairs two at a time and ran for the kitchen, which is not as brave as it sounds. On a Texas ranch, at least outside of hunting season, the primary purpose of a shotgun is predator control, and the primary predator is the western diamondback rattlesnake. It would be unusual to see one on a November morning, but occasionally a snake slithered inside seeking warmth and reappeared at an inconvenient time. My expectation upon rounding the corner into the kitchen was to find someone in a standoff with a serpent. What I actually saw was my uncle Kel staring down the barrel of a 12 gauge pointed directly at the narrow chest of his son-in-law, Eddy Cranny.
Which meant I hadn’t been far off, although it wasn’t very flattering to the snake.
Eddy stood with hands half raised, his face as white as paper, his body stiff as day-old roadkill. A skinny weasel of a man, Eddy had thinning dishwater hair and the watery eyes of an overbred Chihuahua. Give him another minute and he’d roll on his back and piddle the floor, a not unreasonable reaction considering the brick-red color of my uncle Kel’s face. Kel was a big man, tall, brown, and muscular from years of hands-on ranch work. The last man who would need a shotgun to subdue someone like Eddy Cranny, whom he could have simply picked up and shaken like a terrier killing a rat. In all the years I’d known Kel, I’d never seen him raise a hand to another living creature, but now he was so angry that the arm supporting the shotgun trembled visibly. I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest.
At the kitchen table, Kel’s daughter Ruby June huddled low and small in her seat, hands over her eyes as though she couldn’t bear to watch her father shoot her husband. I couldn’t help thinking that she would have done better to put her fingers in her ears. If Kel actually pulled the trigger in that enclosed space, we’d all be deaf for days and Eddy would be little more than a red mist on the cabinets. Uncle Kel regularly won the Lion’s Club sharpshooting tournaments, but he wouldn’t even need to have his eyes open to hit Eddy at that distance and with that weapon.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noted Kel’s business partner Carl Cress and one of his ranch hands standing slack-jawed near the refrigerator and knew there would be no help from that quarter. From the radio playing softly on the kitchen counter, an obnoxious voice began spouting something about low, low prices. I snapped it off.
“Uncle Kel,” I said, keeping my voice low and quiet. “Has Eddy been bothering you?”
Kel quivered, but didn’t speak. At the sound of my voice, Ruby June raised her head, and I saw with some shock an angry red welt high on her cheekbone. She’d be sporting an impressive shiner within a few hours, and I no longer needed to ask Kel why he wanted to kill Eddy.
Taking another step closer to Kel, I started again, “You can’t shoot Eddy in the house, Kel. Think about the mess. You’d never be able to get the curtains clean.”
At this, Eddy swallowed visibly, pale eyes darting to me in one incredulous and horrified glance.
I went on. “And consider how hard it would be to explain in court. You’d have to hire a lawyer. You might even miss the winter dove season if the trial dragged into December, which it would since you know how slow these things are. He’s just not worth it.”
At the last bit, Eddy nodded vehemently. He probably would have nodded at anything I said, and after all it could hardly be the first time he’d heard that particular statement.
Another few seconds ticked away, and then as though awakening from a dream, Kel drew in a shuddering breath and lifted his head from the stock of the gun. The tip of the barrel still pointed squarely at Eddy’s midsection, but Kel’s finger no longer hovered over the trigger. The look in his eyes should have made Eddy run for the hills, but Eddy had never yet managed an appropriate response to any situation.
“Eddy,” I suggested, “go. Now.”
Eddy took one final glance at Kel’s face, then fled. The door banged behind him, followed a few seconds later by the roar of an engine and the crunch of gravel spurting under tires.
My aunt Elaine appeared in the doorway wrapped in a fluffy robe, coffee mug in one hand, empty plate covered in toast crumbs in the other.
“Where’s Eddy off to in such a hurry?” she asked through the screen, trying to balance plate on cup so she could open the door. “He almost knocked me down.”
No one answered her, and her cheerful expression turned to one of puzzlement and then concern. Taking another step, she moved past the refrigerator and finally saw her husband, the shotgun still gripped in his shaking hands. Her eyes widened in surprise, but in one fluid movement, she set the plates on the counter, took the gun from her husband, and set it in its usual place beside the door. Taking Kel’s hand, she led him outside like a child. The screen door slapped shut behind them.
Carl Cress stirred at last. He was a big man, about forty years old, whose narrow hips and ample gut vaguely reminded me of John Wayne, assuming John Wayne had somehow been possessed by the unholy spawn of a used-car salesman and revival tent preacher. Carl was my uncle Kel’s business partner and the two of them together owned a herd of some thousand or so beef cattle. I suppose it was my own suspicious nature that made me keep an eye on my purse whenever he was around.
“Guess we’ll be on our way then. I’ll catch up with Kel some other time,” he announced to no one in particular.
Which was just as well because no one answered. He and his ranch hand Manuel followed Elaine and Kel out the door, Manuel holding the door so it would close quietly. Manuel was Carl’s polar opposite, a small man with work-hardened hands and a soft voice that, on the rare occasions he used it, would have pleased even a cranky librarian. Now he gave me a sheepish look before following Carl to their pickup truck.
Alone in the kitchen with Ruby June, I found my own hands starting to shake with the reaction. Opening cabinets at random, I finally found Elaine’s stash of baggies, filled one with ice cubes, wrapped a towel around it, and handed it to my cousin. She took it without a word, pressing it to her eye as I poured us each a cup of coffee and sat down.
A single tear slipped down Ruby June’s cheek. She was a pretty little thing, who couldn’t have been much older than nineteen and looked younger than the kids I taught in my high school history classes. With some surprise, I realized I didn’t know her well. A ten-year age difference meant she’d been too young to have much in common with my brothers or with me on our summer visits to her home. We’d been kind to her, in the careless way of teenagers, occasionally taking her with us in the truck or letting her join us when we went fishing, but never really feeling more than a casual interest in her. I’d attended her wedding last year, and considered that by giving her a toaster oven and refraining from telling her that she was being an idiot for marrying so young, I’d more than fulfilled my cousinly obligations.
“He didn’t mean to, you know,” she said abruptly, rubbing the tears away from her bruised face with the knuckles of a small clenched fist.
I didn’t say anything.
She flushed pink, then grew pale again just as quickly. Drawing breath, she tried again. “He isn’t like that. He wouldn’t hurt me on purpose.”
“What is he like then, Ruby Juby?” I asked quietly.
A little smile twitched at the corner of her lips at the old nickname. “He’s not like us—not like folks who have good families, I mean. His daddy is meaner than sin, and his older brothers aren’t much better. Eddy never says or does the right thing at the right time. Like then. He didn’t mean to hit me, it just happened. He’s clumsy, and he feels awful about it after.”
Sounded like a classic abuser to me, and hearing her defending him while her eye darkened and swelled made me sick to my stomach. Telling her so wouldn’t do any good, but I had to try.
“It doesn’t matter why he does it or how bad he feels after or how many times he promises to stop. Even one time is once too many. And you’re going to have to do something about it if you don’t want your dad to kill him. And I don’t mean the threatening, kick-his-ass kind of kill. I mean really, truly kill him.”
“Daddy should stay out of my business,” she burst out suddenly. “I’m a married woman now. I can do what I want. He’s always trying to tell me what to do.” She gave me a defiant stare.
I frowned. “Ruby June, your dad just saw a man hit his daughter in his own house. I think that makes it his business. You can’t honestly expect him to look the other way.”
“I told you, Eddy didn’t mean to. And Daddy never gives Eddy a break. He never even tries to understand.”
“Again, I’m not sure what there is to understand. That shiner seems pretty self-explanatory to me.”
“He doesn’t hit me. Besides, even if he did, it’s still my business.” Now she sounded sulky, like the rebellious teenager she apparently still was.
“Then you need to handle it. If you’re going to be an adult, you need to act like one. And adults don’t let other people hit them.”
“Yeah,” she said, but she didn’t meet my eyes.
I was trying to think of something useful to say to her when she cast me a sidelong look, and asked, “You ever done anything stupid, Jocelyn? Something you wish you could rewind and do over?”
I opened my mouth to run through the long list of things I’d like to rewind starting with the man I’d divorced and ending with the man I’d killed. Then I paused. Ruby June was family and undoubtedly knew my history almost as well as she knew her own. Seeing the little gleam in her eye, I grinned at her, glad to see there was a bit more to my cousin than I might have guessed.
“Hell, no,” I answered. “I’m so frickin’ perfect the sun shines out of my hiney. Hope you have a pair of dark glasses, kiddo, ’cause I’m about to turn and leave the room.”
* * *
An hour later, dressed and fed, Kyla and I dropped Ruby June off at her little house on the edge of town. Pulling the big red pickup to a stop, I looked around, but there was no sign of Eddy’s truck or Eddy himself. The house was barely more than a shack, white paint faded and peeling in places to reveal the gray wood underneath. The tiny yard was sere and yellow in the November morning, and a couple of sad rosemary bushes and a double row of newly planted pansies lining the path were the only splash of color. The pansies, no doubt bought on sale at the grocery store, weren’t looking too good this morning after the first hard frost. In the window, homemade and uneven flowered curtains hung limply from a pressure rod. I had a sharp impression of children playing grown-up in an only slightly oversize playhouse and felt an unexpected lump in my throat.
“I don’t like leaving you here alone,” I said, as Kyla opened the truck door and stepped down. “You sure you don’t want to tag along with us today?”
Ruby June hesitated only briefly before hopping out to stand beside Kyla. She leaned back in to answer me.
“That’s okay. I need to get this over with.”
She must have seen something in my expression, because she added, “You don’t need to worry about me. It won’t come as a surprise to Eddy—I told him that things couldn’t go on this way, and he knew I wasn’t foolin’ around.”
“We could wait while you pack and take you back with us,” Kyla offered unexpectedly, shooting me a glance over Ruby June’s head for confirmation. I nodded.
“Pack?” Ruby June said. “I’m not moving home.”
Her stubborn expression and the lift of her jaw changed her from a beaten young girl into one of the Shore women. It was a look that did not bode well for Eddy. Unfortunately, it faded all too quickly into doubt.
Kyla did not seem to notice. “Well, all right then,” she said, climbing back into the truck.
I gave Ruby June an encouraging smile. “We’ll see you this evening at dinner.”
She didn’t answer, and I thought she looked evasive. Glancing in the rearview mirror as we drove away, I could see Ruby June still standing in her driveway, hands on hips, eyes unfocused.
“Do you think she’ll really be all right?” I asked.
Kyla shrugged. “I think the one you ought to be worried about is Eddy. That little bastard,” she added. “I can’t believe I missed all the fun this morning. If he makes it through this weekend without one of us beating the snot out of him, it’ll be a miracle. I wouldn’t mind a piece of that myself.”
I glanced over at her then returned my eyes to the road. Kyla’s bulldog expression was a little wistful as though she really meant the last statement, which she probably did. I shot a second sideways glance at her soft leather purse and wondered if it still held her little Glock 19 that had once saved and taken a life with a single shot. I decided not to ask.
Although we were first cousins, the two of us looked enough alike to be sisters, the resemblance courtesy of our fathers, who were identical twins. Kyla, who would never admit to more than a remote family likeness, preferred to think of herself as unique and resented comments about our similarities. For my part, I would have been glad to look more like her because in her a trick of genetics had somehow transformed the family looks into real beauty. It didn’t hurt that she had an innate and classic sense of fashion and the income to support her taste. Even now, dressed for a Texas ranch, she somehow managed to look cool and stylish, long dark hair falling in perfect waves around her shoulders, a gold necklace looking rich against her soft yellow cashmere sweater. Even her jeans looked crisp and pressed. My hair was still yanked back in the same ponytail I’d made when I first woke up, my rumpled sweatshirt bore the University of Texas longhorn on a burnt orange background, and my jeans had a small stubborn coffee stain just above the knee from a long ago breakfast incident. I told myself that I didn’t care. I was, of course, lying.
I turned back onto the highway heading toward the Sand Creek feed store because, ever practical, Elaine had asked us to pick up a load of cattle cubes after we dropped Ruby June at her house. On the left side of the highway, an enormous green tractor was busy plowing the brown stubble of shorn winter wheat back into the earth, leaving a trail of rich dark soil behind it. On the other side, a single Mexican buzzard traced a lazy circle over a field dotted with goats and cacti, its primary feathers fluttering like fingers at the tips of black wings. In front of us, coming from the opposite direction, the driver of a white pickup truck lazily lifted a couple of his own fingers from the steering wheel as he sped by. I mimicked the laconic gesture.
“That someone we know?” asked Kyla.
“Didn’t recognize him,” I answered.
She rolled her eyes but then grinned. “You think they’d get tired of doing that. Still, it’s nice to be back out here. I forget sometimes how much I like it.”
“That’s because you don’t.”
“I like it,” she protested. “Lots. I just don’t like every single thing about it the way you do. I have discriminating taste.”
“You don’t like the heat or the cold, the bugs or the animals.”
“Well, who does?”
“You don’t like riding, hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, or picnicking.”
“Again … who does? Besides, I like picnicking okay.”
“Except for the heat, the cold, the bugs, and the animals.”
“Yeah, except for them. But so what? I’m here, right?”
I grinned at her. “You’re here.”
And right now, “here” was the town of Sand Creek. The single-lane highway widened into two lanes, and I slowed the truck to the posted speed limit of fifty, then forty-five, and finally thirty-five. Along the shoulders, small houses mostly painted white gave way to shops, restaurants, and gas stations in no particular order, followed again by a sprinkling of larger, older houses, some with mansard roofs and gingerbread trim and all surrounded by massive oak and pecan trees, limbs adorned by gray clumps of ball moss. We bumped across an abandoned train track and passed by the old train station, currently being restored to its former glory by an active, if underfunded, historical preservation society. Thanksgiving might be tomorrow, but that retail holy of holies, Christmas, was only a month away, and the storefronts lining the square were having an identity crisis. In one display, pilgrims nestled under boughs of holly, in another Frosty the Snowman towered over a faded turkey that looked as though it had just molted and wasn’t feeling well. In the center of the square, the courthouse, a massive buff-colored sandstone building complete with rounded turrets and a red roof topped by a clock tower, presided over the town as it had done for the last hundred and twenty years. The old hanging tree, famous as the site of countless legitimate hangings as well as a few lynchings, was located conveniently on the grounds. Workmen swarmed the area armed with staple guns and ornaments.
I sighed happily. “Nothing says Christmas like twinkle lights in a hanging tree.”
I maneuvered the truck around the square, pausing twice to wait for pedestrians to amble across the street, and then we were free and clear and picking up speed on the other side of town. On the western outskirts, we passed a funeral home with a marquee out front with the catchy slogan, “Drive Safe—We Can Wait.”
Kyla, who’d been unusually quiet, spoke at last. “So are you ever going to tell me what’s up with You-Know-Who?”
“Lord Voldemort?” I asked, knowing full well whom she meant.
The breadth and depth of her profanity was truly impressive and had, if anything, improved since our trip to Egypt. I waited until my ears stopped ringing and vision returned, then said, “If you mean Colin, then yes, thanks to you, he’s going to join us later.”
She sniffed. “Well, someone had to invite him. The boy was going to spend Thanksgiving alone.”
“You don’t know that. He could have gone to see his family, and I’m sure he had invitations from friends as well.”
Kyla half turned in her seat to stare at me.
“What is going on with you? You’re dating him, right?”
“We’ve been out a few times,” I admitted.
“And nothing. We’re dating. But it’s only been a few weeks. Too soon to expose him to the Shores, that’s for sure.”
“He didn’t seem to think so. He accepted pretty promptly as I recall.”
I thought about that awkward little scene. We’d gone on a double date with Kyla and her current boyfriend, and the dinner conversation had turned to the upcoming holidays. Upon learning that Colin had not yet made plans for Thanksgiving, Kyla had issued an overexuberant invitation to the ranch, complete with gushing descriptions of the first-class quail and deer hunting, the party atmosphere, and the joy of family. Considering that she loathed every single thing she’d described and usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming the entire way, she’d done a good job of making it sound fun. It had been the look in Colin’s eyes, the half-wary, half-hopeful expression that had forced me to smile and second her invitation. Even then, I hadn’t actually expected him to accept, but he’d done so with pleasure. Too much pleasure. I had my doubts whether he understood the concept of taking things slowly, which was my condition for dating at all. And I was positive that Kyla did not.
She now proved it by saying, “I don’t get it. You’re not really still considering that idiot Alan, are you?”
My boyfriend Alan Stratton—the man I’d thought I might love. I’d met him while taking a tour of Egypt about six months earlier, which despite being interrupted by two murders, one robbery, and the machinations of a ruthless smuggling ring had turned out to be one of the best vacations of my life. Although I’d suspected Alan of being a criminal for a while and of being interested in Kyla for even longer, eventually he convinced me that I was wrong on both counts. We’d been dating since we returned, but things had not been going smoothly recently. And then, of course, I’d met Colin.
“Alan is not an idiot,” I said automatically. “He’s a good guy. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I actually care about him. A lot. But that’s not the point here.”
“There’s a point?”
“Yes! The point is that Colin and I have only been dating—in a very casual way, I might add—for a few weeks. Sort of quick to take him home for Thanksgiving, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t. I invited Sherman, but he already had plane tickets to go see his folks. Anyway, what’s the big deal? Seems like it would be nice for the two of you to have some extra time together.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but it gives the wrong impression.”
Her blue eyes widened in mock horror. “Oh, no! Not the wrong impression. The family honor will be compromised. Whatever shall we do?”
I gritted my teeth and fleetingly wished that the truck had a passenger eject button.
“Anyway,” I said coldly, “Colin’s going to join us late this afternoon or early this evening. He had a few things to wrap up.”
“What kind of things? What could possibly be more important than the Shore family reunion?”
I hesitated, then finally decided on the truth. “He’s applying to the Texas Rangers. He’s taking some kind of test today.”
Kyla blinked. “You’re kidding. That’s kind of cool—Texas Ranger. I assume you mean the cop kind and not the baseball kind.”
“Yes, the cop kind,” I said. “When have you seen Colin playing baseball?”
She shrugged. “How would I know what he does in his spare time? He’d look good in those tight pants, though.”
That was true, but I was not going to give her the satisfaction of agreeing. “Anyway,” I said pointedly, trying to steer the conversation away from Colin’s pants, “he’ll be here as soon as he’s done.”
I could feel her beady eyes boring into my skull and kept my own virtuously on the road.
“You don’t sound pleased. About the test, I mean.”
I shrugged, unable to deny it. “Being a Texas Ranger isn’t a job, it’s a life. No fooling, those guys are on call every day, all day, always. Plus, being new, chances are he’ll be assigned to some region out in the boonies.”
“The boonies, huh? Is that anywhere near Bumfuck?”
“If only. People in the boonies dream of one day getting to go to Bumfuck.”
Kyla met this with a sympathetic click of the tongue. “That sucks. Why’s he trying to get into the Rangers anyway?”
I sighed. “It’s his childhood dream. You know, the goal of his life. Other kids wanted to be firemen or astronauts. He wanted to be a Texas Ranger.”
“Yeah, but he’s a big boy now. Doesn’t he have other better goals at this point?”
“No,” I answered shortly.
I could feel her looking at me again, but I didn’t say anything more. I didn’t quite know how to say that although Colin himself felt that a career change and move would not interfere with a potential relationship, I was not so sanguine. That even though I couldn’t bring myself to discourage his career aspirations to his face, secretly I was hoping he would fail his tests so spectacularly that future applicants would be warned against “pulling a Colin.” And that even as I hoped for it, I knew that he wouldn’t. There were few people as competent. Now I found myself in the completely unbelievable position of having two fairly spectacular men interested in me, and the worst part of it was that I had no idea what I wanted to do about it.
Fortunately, we arrived at our destination before Kyla could probe any further. I pulled into the parking lot of the Sand Creek Feed and Supply, a long, low building with a tin roof and two doors, one an open double-wide set of sliding doors that you could literally drive a truck through, and the other a more traditional size. No one was visible on the feed side, so I led the way through the smaller door.
This half of the Feed and Supply was a tack store that looked as though a small and surprisingly clean rodeo had set up inside and then exploded. Half a dozen saddles topped an assortment of sawhorses, which were jammed between racks of jeans, jackets, and work gloves. Bridles, bits, ropes, and other gear hung in random order from hooks on rough-hewn wood paneling. One corner was devoted to a diverse selection of cowboy boots, including an incredibly ornate pair in ostrich leather with a distinctive pattern of bumps and an equally distinctive price tag. I breathed in the clean smell of new leather and denim with pleasure.
Kyla, to my surprise, looked completely disgusted. Following her gaze, I saw the reason. Near the cash register, Carl Cress lounged against the counter and next to him stood Eddy Cranny. Eddy saw us enter and now stood as stiff as an ROTC cadet getting dressed down by a general. Carl hadn’t noticed. He was leaning on one elbow chatting up the cashier, a middle-aged woman wearing too much eye shadow who was twirling a strand of dyed auburn hair and giggling. Kyla moved forward, a barracuda gliding toward her prey, and I followed, reluctant to participate in a confrontation in a feed store but also unwilling to abandon my cousin. Or, more accurately, unwilling to let Kyla loose on Eddy unsupervised.
“Aren’t you bad, Carl?” the cashier said in a breathy, teasing voice. “You didn’t really.”
“I surely did. Had my Mexicans take ’er apart and load the pieces on my flatbed. Told the buyer it was seasoned lumber. That warn’t no lie, neither. Not my fault the fool never thought to take a look to see just how seasoned it was.”
Carl threw back his head and laughed, a big genuine laugh, the kind that made other people laugh with him even if they hadn’t heard the joke, or as in this case, only if they hadn’t heard the joke. He had, however, inadvertently managed to divert Kyla from Eddy. She swerved and stopped right behind Carl’s left shoulder.
“What fool are we talking about, Carl?” she asked loudly. “Not my uncle Kel, right?”
He jumped and turned, swallowing his laughter with a gulp. “Why, girls. Nice to see you. Everyone over at your place recovered from this morning?”
“More or less,” I answered, trying to nip that particular topic in the bud. I didn’t want Ruby June’s private business spilled all over the feed store like a torn sack of grain.
Kyla wasn’t going to allow herself to be distracted. “Who’d you sell old lumber to, Carl?” she asked again.
Carl’s eyes darted back and forth in shifty little twitches.
Kyla slammed her fist down onto the counter, making us all jump.
The cashier gave another giggle, this one considerably higher than her previous offerings, and said, “Carl’s been contracting out at the racecourse. They’re putting up new stands. Nothin’ to do with Kel Shore, right Carl?”
Kyla’s smile was icy. “Oh, I see. So you’re selling inferior materials to a public venue where people’s lives will depend on the soundness of the construction? Is that it?”
“Whoa, whoa. You got entirely the wrong idea,” Carl protested, holding up his hands. His eyes had finally settled, and I knew the lie would be a good one. “One of my friends is puttin’ up a hot dog stand out there is all. That lumber is plenty good enough for that, and anyways I’m just repaying him for some shifty dealing he did with me a while back. It’s just good fun between the two of us. Nothin’ at all for you pretty ladies to worry about, and I surely wouldn’t do nothing illegal. Y’all know me.” He grinned at us and winked.
Kyla made a sound like the one used by the monster in all the best horror movies just before it attacked and ate one of the minor characters. My attention, however, was still on the cashier, who looked confused and worried, which made me suspect the hot dog stand had not figured into the original story. Carl was already edging away.
“Well, if you ladies will excuse us, me and Eddy will just be getting on with our business,” he said.
Kyla remained motionless as Carl passed, his cowboy boots loud on the plywood floor, but when Eddy attempted to follow, she stepped into his path, blocking his way.
Keeping her voice low, she said, “I heard about what you did to Ruby June this morning, you ugly little piece of shit. I suggest you go home, pack your things, and clear out of this town permanently.”
Eddy’s eyes flickered away nervously. “But I didn’t mean…”
Kyla cut him off. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what kind of excuses you’ve got. But you better believe that if I ever hear you hit Ruby June again, I will personally hunt you down and put a bullet in your head.” She emphasized her point by poking him hard in the chest as she said each of the last three words.
Eddy reeled back a couple of paces, then scuttled sideways between a rack of jeans and a saddle display and followed Carl out the door with a single frightened backward glance.
The cashier gave Kyla an approving if somewhat nervous smile. “Those Crannys have always been a mean bunch, but I’m sorry to hear Eddy’s turning out that way. He never seemed quite like the rest, but I guess snakes don’t breed kittens, do they?” She clicked her tongue, then added, “So, what can I do for y’all today?”
Ten minutes later, we drove away with thirty sacks of feed cubes in the bed of the pickup and a bad attitude in the cab. I signaled left and turned very slowly at the corner of the town square, conscious that we’d had to leave the tailgate of the pickup open to accommodate the load.
“I can’t decide which one of them I want to kill most,” Kyla fumed.
“You gave Eddy a good scare,” I consoled her. “Now it’s up to Ruby June.”
“I suppose. Do you think she’ll actually kick him out?”
“I’m not sure she means to.” I thought back to the conversation I’d had with Ruby June, feeling as though I’d missed something important. “It’s weird—she wasn’t nearly mad enough about being hit. She kept making excuses for him.”
Kyla was silent for a moment, then she said, “Why the hell would she put up with him? It’s not like she’s used to seeing anything like that at home. She ought to know better.”
“I can’t tell you—I’ve never understood it. It’s sad, but I see it at school more than you’d think. A nice girl taking up with some creepy loser and then taking his jealousy and abuse. Instead of her helping him away from a bad element and onto a better future, he usually drags her down, cuts her off from her friends, and destroys her self-confidence. It’s terrible.”
Kyla, who was a dedicated backseat driver, took her eyes from the road to stare at me. “You see it? Why don’t you do something about it?”
I shrugged. It was a teacher’s eternal dilemma. “Do what? Unless I can tell there’s been physical abuse, I have no authority whatsoever. Every year I do my classic ‘come to me if you need help’ spiel and run through how to identify abusive relationships. If the girl is one of my students, I’ll call her aside and talk to her, especially if her grades are slipping.”
“And? What does she say?”
I slipped into my breathless high-pitched sixteen-year-old girl voice, “You don’t understand, Ms. Shore. He’s not like that. He’s had it hard. He’s wonderful.”
Returning to my normal voice, I added, “The only thing they’re right about is that I don’t understand. I guess for some of these girls, having an abusive boyfriend is better than having no boyfriend at all.”
“But Ruby June? She was always such a happy little kid. She doesn’t need her own pet asshole.”
“No. But I don’t think there’s much that we can do about it. It’s her life. If we’re lucky, she’ll figure it out before Kel kills Eddy. Anyway, that’s not the biggest problem here right now.”
I shook my head. “Carl Cress.”
“What a weasel.”
“Worse than that. I’m positive he was lying about the hot dog stand. He probably did sell inferior lumber to the racetrack. Plus, did you see his face when you asked him if he was ripping off Kel? He looked like a dog that just got caught drinking out of the toilet bowl.”
“That’s just his normal expression,” said Kyla automatically. “But you’re probably right. What are we going to do about it?”
I considered as I made another turn. “You want to go out to the racetrack?”
* * *
The narrow road leading to the R. “Blackie” Roberts Memorial Fairgrounds and Racetrack had been freshly paved with glistening black asphalt and the acrid smell permeated the truck. Loose gravel pinged off the undercarriage with a sound like marbles falling on a pie plate. I was glad we were driving the ranch truck, which could only be improved by splashes of hot tar, rather than my little blue Honda. Out here, Thanksgiving had been skipped altogether. Pairs of Christmas wreaths lined the road in preparation for the weekend’s festivities, interspersed with candy canes and wire deer dripping with lights. However, as we drew closer, even Christmas gave way to complete chaos.
In one corner of the parking lot, a giant yellow bulldozer pushed gravel from a massive pile onto a newly mown field to extend the available parking. White caliche dust billowed around it like smoke and coated everything downwind. Near the rodeo stands, workers were assembling large portable animal pens, while two men herded a dozen protesting goats into one of the new corrals. On the other side of the stands, the white fence surrounding the racetrack gleamed in the sunlight, the rich loam on the newly smoothed oval track looking as soft and deep as a featherbed. All around, the air was filled with shouts in both English and Spanish, punctuated by the frequent staccato bursts of a power hammer.
Kyla and I parked and then walked along the edge of the lot, trying to avoid the dust thrown up by the bulldozer. As we passed a pen containing a pair of enormous white Brahman bulls, a young man wearing worn jeans and a cowboy hat glanced our way. I guessed him to be in his early twenties and definitely heterosexual if his second and overtly appreciative look at Kyla was any indication. He caught my eye, realized he was staring, and blushed.
“You all might not want to get too close to them,” he suggested, still looking at Kyla. He indicated the bulls with a lift of his chin.
Kyla frowned. “Why not? They’re in a cage.”
He grinned. “They only stay there because they don’t know they could bust out as easy as a hot knife through butter.”
“Why put them there, then?” I asked with some concern.
He shrugged. “They have to go somewhere.”
One of the big white animals lifted its head, liquid black eyes looking expressionlessly in our direction. I began backing away. Kyla on the other hand, jutted out her jaw and stared back at it.
“Hey, can you tell us where the hot dog stand is?” I asked.
This temporarily distracted Kyla from the bull, and the cowboy from Kyla. The cowboy frowned for a moment, then answered, “There’s a bunch of small buildings going up around the rodeo arena over there.” He pointed, and added, “Maybe it’s one of them.”
“Thanks,” I said, and grabbed Kyla’s arm.
“What’s your hurry?” she asked as we made our way through the pens and crossed the dusty field to the arena.
“Just not in the mood to be gored and trampled today.”
“He was just yanking our chain. Those cows weren’t going to break out and charge us.”
I blinked. “Those aren’t cows. They’re bulls. Exceptionally large bulls.”
“Cows, bulls, whatever.”
I thought about trying to explain the difference, then figured the chances that Kyla would wander around the fairgrounds provoking animals in their pens were really low and decided to let it go.
As we approached the stands, we could see a half dozen ramshackle booths. A couple had been painted sometime recently, the rest remained weatherworn. All of them looked as though they had been slapped together from used lumber, and I found myself relaxing a little.
“Maybe Carl wasn’t lying after all. Or at least not about the old wood,” I said.
Kyla glanced at one of the signs, then stopped. “Fried Oreos. What the hell?”
I turned and read the freshly painted sign aloud, “‘Fried Oreos, fried Twinkies, funnel cakes, sausage on a stick.’” I grinned. “On a stick! All food is better on a stick. Wish they were open now.”
She looked appalled. “I’m judging you right now. Tell me you wouldn’t actually eat any of that.”
“Of course not,” I lied, giving what I hoped was a convincing little laugh and thinking I would have to ditch her tonight when we came to watch the rodeo.
Kyla put her hands on her hips and looked around. “They’re really going all out this year aren’t they? I don’t remember all this stuff when we were here last time.”
“You haven’t been here in at least five years. Plus the racetrack is new,” I reminded her. “But you’re right, I don’t remember them ever having a rodeo over Thanksgiving before. Looks like it’s going to be fun.”
She shot me a glance. “Fun. Yeah, right. Anyway, I’m starving. Let’s go back.”
We returned to the parking lot and stopped dead in our tracks.
A goat perched atop the mound of feed sacks in the bed of the red ranch truck and now appeared to be intent on chewing her way to the bottom.
I gave a shout and ran forward, waving my arms. The goat raised her head briefly, golden eyes with their odd horizontal pupils taking me in and then dismissing me. She raised a cloven hoof to liberate another few cubes from the torn sack and took one between delicate lips.
“How in the world did it get up there?” asked Kyla as she came up beside me. She looked around as though searching for a stepladder.
“Jumped. Goats can get into anything. I’ve seen them in trees. Besides, the tailgate is down.”
I hoisted myself onto the pickup bed and then climbed onto the mound of feed sacks. Face-to-face, the goat seemed larger and more solid than she had from the ground. She certainly was not at all bothered by my presence. I waved my arms again but got less response than she would have paid to a horsefly. I reached out and grabbed one of the curved horns and pulled gently at first, then as hard as I could. The goat shook me off with a nonchalant toss of her head and took another cube.
Kyla started to laugh. “Goat one, Jocelyn zero.”
“Very helpful. Get up here and help me push.”
“Yeah, right,” she said, making no move. “Who do you think he belongs to?”
“She,” I corrected.
“How can you tell? No, never mind, I don’t want to know. What if we just get in the truck and start driving? Either it will hop down or Uncle Kel will be plus one goat.”
“Or she’ll fall out while we’re driving, cause a traffic accident, and get squashed like a bug.”
“Yeah, or that.”
I climbed back off the truck and rejoined Kyla. “Maybe if we both got up there we could pull her off together.”
“No way. I’m not climbing up there and tugging at some strange goat.”
I gave her an exasperated glance. “Well, what do you suggest?”
A voice behind us spoke.
“Morning, ladies. Having trouble?”
We turned. Like many of the men working on the grounds, the man behind us wore jeans, a cowboy hat, and boots. Unlike most of them, his shirt was crisp and pressed, he was about our age, and he was, if not exactly handsome, then at least very nice looking. Kyla removed her hands from her hips, straightened visibly, and produced a dazzling smile.
“Yes, I’d like to register a complaint. This goat is bothering us,” she answered.
He laughed and gave her a frankly admiring glance. “We can’t have that.”
He turned, put two fingers to his lips, and produced an ear-splitting whistle. At the sound, half a dozen assorted workmen and cowboys raised their heads. He beckoned to one of them and gestured to our pickup.
Within a few moments, a trio of men in boots arrived and slipped a rope around the goat’s neck without any fuss. She made one bleat of protest, then accepted defeat with resignation and allowed herself to be led away.
Our new friend slapped the last cowboy on the shoulder as he passed and turned his attention back to us. Or rather, turned his attention back to Kyla. I might as well have been the goat.
“T. J. Knoller,” he said, extending his hand to her.
She grasped it firmly and squeezed. His eyes widened in surprise, not quite watering, but close. Kyla didn’t believe in limp, feminine handshakes.
“Kyla Shore,” she said, smiling up at him through long lashes.
“I’m going to take a wild guess and say you are not a ranch-to-ranch feed salesman.”
“You’re a sharp one. I’m just visiting family.”
“Shore,” he repeated. “You a relative of Kel Shore over at the Smoke Quartz?”
“He’s my uncle.”
Not “our” uncle, I noticed. I also noticed that she had shifted her weight subtly to edge in front of me. Not that she needed to have bothered. T.J.’s eyes had not left her face.
“Then we’re neighbors!” he said. “I own the Bar Double K. Our places meet up on the north side. Well, my north side. Kel’s south.”
“I’ve seen your gates,” I said, remembering. “They’re beautiful.”
This was no more than the truth. The gates were enormous, made of ornately scrolled wrought iron hung between massive stone pillars and topped with two distinctive Ks under a single bar. I’d noticed them yesterday as I drove by.
He looked pleased. “I put those in myself a couple of months back. Cost a fortune, but they’ll last a lifetime. Or three.”
Kyla wasn’t interested in gates or in my opinions. “What’s your story? You’re not in the rodeo, are you?”
His eyes crinkled. “I’m in everything around here, or I try to be. Today, it’s horses. Come take a look.”
He made an elaborate gesture and Kyla joined him instantly, leaving me to trail behind or not, as I chose. I glanced at my watch, then shrugged and followed. We recrossed the parking lot, this time in the direction of the racetrack rather than the rodeo stands. Beyond the oval track, the new grandstands gleamed in the sun: rows and rows of aluminum benches lined the concrete risers stretching up about three stories to end in a small glass-enclosed press box. Here, too, workmen were busy painting and hammering, giving an overall impression of frantic last-minute activity. I thought it was probably not a good sign to have this much construction occurring on the day before Thanksgiving, only two days before the big race.
Stopping at the fence, we could see the starting gates on the opposite side, where two horsemen were just loping across the finish line at an easy pace.
Raising fingers to lips, T.J. produced another painfully piercing whistle and one of the riders looked up. With a word to his companion, the two of them trotted to where we waited. I wondered if he always whistled to people as though they were dogs.
“You know them?” Kyla asked, glancing up at T.J. She was standing close enough to him that her long hair brushed his shoulder. Somehow, I didn’t think he minded.
“Sure do. You’re looking at the winner of Friday’s big race.”
Up close, the horses were larger and the men smaller than they’d looked from a distance. The rider of the first horse stopped inches from the fence, a lean man in his fifties riding a patient gelding with a dull yellow coat and black mane and tail. T.J. leaned over the railing and caressed the velvet black nose, running an affectionate hand around the jaw and ending in a pat on the neck.
Even my inexperienced eye could see the other horse was in a different class altogether. He danced to a stop beside his companion, a glossy rich bay with a single white forefoot and an aura of suppressed energy. His rider, too, was younger than the other man by twenty years, and at first glance seemed little more than a diminutive boy. Closer inspection, however, showed he was neither as young nor as fragile as he looked at a distance. The hands that gripped the reins were all sinew and muscle, and he had an intense, confident air.
“Like you ladies to meet Glen Blackman and Travis Arledge. Glen’s my trainer and Travis here is the best jockey this side of … well, anywhere. Glen, Travis, want you to meet a couple of friends. Kyla Shore and…” T.J. frowned and turned to me, finally realizing he didn’t yet know my name.
“Jocelyn Shore,” I supplied.
“Her sister, Jocelyn,” T.J. finished.
“We’re not sisters,” said Kyla quickly. “Cousins.”
“You’re kidding. Really?” T.J. looked from Kyla to me and back again.
I could see Kyla stiffening with irritation at being reminded of the resemblance between us.
“So these are your horses?” I changed the subject.
T.J. was easily diverted. “Yep. Well, Double is. Double Trouble, or rather Bar Double K Double Trouble, if you want to be formal.” He gestured to the bay with his chin. “How’s he doing today, Glen?”
The older man gave a considering nod. “He’s ready. It was all Travis could do to hold him in.”
The younger man nodded in agreement, but said nothing.
“You’re racing Friday?” I asked.
He nodded again, but it was T.J. who answered. “Fourth race. The Cornucopia Stakes. Biggest purse in the state. Two hundred thousand dollars to the winner alone.”
“Two hundred thousand? Wow.” Kyla sounded impressed.
“Isn’t that unusually large?” I asked. Not that I knew much about racing, but it sounded like a lot of money, especially in a tiny place like Sand Creek.
“Too large, if you ask me,” said the older man on the buckskin.
T.J. shook his head. “There’s no such thing as too large when it comes to diamonds or piles of cash. Back me up here, ladies.”
“I like this guy,” Kyla said with approval.
T.J. grinned and went on. “Glen’s just got his panties in a twist because that kind of prize draws some out-of-state competition.”
Glen managed to produce a weak smile at his boss’s joke. Or at least he got the corners of his mouth to turn up a bit. It looked like it hurt. “I’ve seen the field. There’s some good horses.”
“I’ve seen the field, too. The only one that might come close is Big Bender, and he’ll be lucky if he gets close enough to eat Double’s dust.”
The jockey Travis broke in. “It ain’t the competition, it’s the owners and jockeys.” His voice was surprisingly deep coming from such a small chest. “That’s enough money to make some folks think a risk or two might be worth it.”
“You had any more phone calls?” asked T.J. sharply.
“No, sir,” said Travis.
“Well, then, we just keep our eyes open and carry on.” T.J. waved a dismissive hand at them, and they both nodded to us, then turned and loped away. Double Trouble’s coat gleamed in the sun, his gait effortless and joyful as his hoofs threw up little puffs of dirt from the soft track.
T.J. frowned after them for a moment and then turned back to us. “Just like a couple of old women, worrying about every little thing. I tell you straight up, you want to make some money tomorrow, put a bet on Double.”
“Has Travis really been getting threatening phone calls?” I asked, as we began walking back to the parking lot. “That seems pretty serious.”
“Not threats,” said T.J. “Bribes. Some son of a … son of a gun called him up and offered him a thousand dollars to throw the race. Which was just ridiculous, because Travis gets ten percent of the prize money if he wins. Not to mention, a jockey is only as good as his reputation. A hint that he’s bribable would end his career.”
“What are you going to do about it?” asked Kyla. “Were you able to track the caller?”
“No. The number showed as ‘unavailable.’ I suppose we could have called someone, maybe the police, maybe the racing commission, but it didn’t seem worth it. I trust Travis. He’s ridden for me for a year now and before that he rode out of Ruidoso and Albuquerque. Has a sterling reputation.”
“It must be a pretty limited pool of suspects, though. How many horses run in a race?”
“Eight in the Cornucopia Stakes.”
“So seven possibilities?”
He laughed. “Hardly. Seven plus about seven hundred. The prize money in a race is only the teaser. The real money is in the private betting.”
I spoke up. “You’re kidding, right? Nobody really bets more than two hundred thousand dollars on races around here, do they?”
“You’d be surprised,” T.J. answered. “And you have to understand that the prize money is only available to the eight owners. And even that’s not all that much if you take into account the expense of keeping and training a horse, of paying the rider, of transport and entry fees. No, it’s the side bets where everybody else gets in on the action. A thousand-dollar bribe? That’s from some idiot who’s bet the farm on an outsider and is panicking.”
“So how about you? Are you betting on the side?” asked Kyla. “And how do you do that?”
“Of course not. That would be illegal,” he said virtuously, then gave her a big wink. “No, I just meant for you all to put a twenty on Double in the pari-mutuel. They’ll be taking bets at the windows under the stands Friday. He’ll be the favorite, so you won’t get much, but it makes watching the races exciting.”
“Okay, but you better be right if I’m risking twenty big ones.”
He grinned. “It’s no risk. Just easy money. You’ll probably make a dollar fifty. Hey, tell you what, I’m having a party at my place to celebrate the win on Friday evening. Why don’t you come by? Both of you,” he added as an afterthought.
“We’ll be there. What time?” said Kyla instantly.
“What if you don’t win?” I asked at the same time.
They both glared at me.
“Of course he’ll win,” said Kyla, who apparently based her betting strategy on the well-known if unproven horse-speed-to-owner-attractiveness correlation.
T.J. gave her an approving glance. “He’ll win all right, but the party’s on regardless, win or lose, rain or shine. Barbecue and beer, four o’clock,” he said, then added generously, “All y’all are invited of course.” By which I assumed he meant everyone in the family. Of course he couldn’t have known this was a family reunion weekend. I pictured thirty of us descending on his home and devouring his supplies like locusts in a wheat field.
“We’ll be there,” Kyla repeated, and gave me a withering glance as though she could read my mind.
T.J. parted from us and took himself off to talk with some of his men. Kyla stared after his departing figure a little longer than necessary, and we returned to the truck and stopped abruptly. The goat was back, staring down at us from atop the pile of feed sacks with mocking yellow eyes, chewing as fast as she could. While Kyla bent double with laughter, I turned on my heel and went looking for either a cowboy or a gun, whichever came first. Fortunately for the goat, I found a cowboy, and in a remarkably short amount of time we were heading back toward town, minus the goat and half a sack of feed.
Kyla looked pleased with herself and the world in general.
“He seems really nice,” she said thoughtfully.
“The goat?” I asked, to annoy her. “I told you it was a female.”
“T.J., you idiot.”
“You just liked his comment about money and diamonds.”
“Yes, I did,” she said, not at all put out.
“I hate to burst your bubble, but this is our family reunion weekend. I’m pretty sure we have stuff planned for Friday.”
“Don’t be stupid. I’m sure we can slip over to T.J.’s for a couple of hours. None of them will even miss us.”
I tried another tack. “I thought you were dating Sherman the Vermin.”
“So what? It’s okay for you to have two boyfriends, but not me? Besides, we’re just going for barbecue, and the last time I checked, eating ain’t cheating.”
I laughed out loud. “Where did you hear that? I know you don’t listen to country music.”
Her phone rang, and she pulled it out of her purse with a frown. “I don’t recognize this number,” she said, and started to put it back.
“Just answer it,” I said. “It might be Kel wondering where we are with his truck.”
It was Kel, but he wasn’t calling about the truck.
Kyla said a few words, then hung up. “Ruby June is missing.”
Copyright © 2013 by Janice Hamrick