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Tucker McBride fed coins into an ancient soft drink machine, heard the clink clink clink as they fell into the box, opened the door, and pulled out a frosty glass bottle. After positioning it beneath the opener, he yanked, and the metal cap clattered into the box. Seated on a stool behind the gas station’s counter, an old man with a tobacco chaw in his cheek watched him intently.
Tucker lifted the bottle to his lips and sipped. Sweet, syrupy, black cherry flavor exploded on his tongue, and instantly took him back to childhood. “Dublin Dr Pepper. Man, I haven’t had one of these in twenty years.”
The ingredient that made the particular variety of Dr Pepper bottled in the small town of Dublin so special was Texas’s own Imperial Pure Cane Sugar. It made the soft drink sweeter, to be sure, but a Texan would tell you Dublin Dr Pepper just tasted different. Better.
“Well, you ain’t having one today either.” The gas station owner turned his head and spat a stream of tobacco juice into a spittoon. “You must not be from around here if you don’t know that the corporate suits out of Dallas put nails in the coffin of Dublin Dr Pepper a few years back. Sued the little guy, they did. Not allowed to make Dr Pepper anymore. What you’re drinking is a Dublin Original. Twenty-four flavors instead of twenty-three.”
No, he hadn’t known. That wasn’t the sort of news a man usually picked up in the desert of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan, or the swamp of Washington, DC. “A knockoff, then. Damned good one.”
His second sip took him back to summer days spent with his cousins, Jackson and Boone, at their grandparents’ lake house at Possum Kingdom. Nothing tasted better on a hot summer day than Dublin Dr Pepper. They’d consumed the soft drinks by the caseload until they’d grown old enough to switch to Shiner beer.
The man behind the counter shifted his tobacco chaw from his right cheek to his left, then said, “Yeah. Can’t get Original anymore either. Big city reporter stirred up trouble by writing about the situation, so the family pulled the plug on the flavor. Couldn’t afford another lawsuit from Goliath. I hauled two truckloads of Original back here. Worked our way through about half of it.” He gestured toward the bottle in Tucker’s hand and said, “You be careful who you share my location with, you hear? I don’t believe in wasting the good stuff on folks who can’t appreciate what they got.”
“You have my word. I appreciate you offering me access.”
“I always offer to the military. I’m a vet myself. Vietnam.”
Tucker gave him a look of surprise. “I’m not in uniform.” Not anymore.
The man shrugged. “You got the look, son. So, where you headed? Fort Hood?”
Tucker took another long sip of his drink. “No. Not this time.”
He’d left the huge, Central Texas army base for the final time earlier today on his H-D Road King without a firm destination in mind. Now, he turned his head and looked through the store’s ancient screened doors toward the motorcycle parked at the gas pump. “I’m possibly on the road to Redemption. Or maybe Ruin. The jury’s still out on that one.”
“Huh.” The gas station owner rubbed his grizzled chin stubble. “Well, I reckon most of us stand at that crossroads sometime in our lives. You want some jerky to go with your Coke? It’s made locally. You won’t find better.”
In Texas, all soft drinks were Cokes, not sodas or pops or even Dr Peppers. Glad to be home, Tucker paid for his gas, his Original, and three different flavors of beef jerky, thanked the man behind the counter, and headed outside. He leaned against his motorcycle, sipping the drink and chewing on a piece of jerky as he scrutinized the intersection before him. Wonder how many farm-to-market road intersections existed in Texas? He knew the two-lane farm roads numbered over three thousand and made up over half of the state’s road system. Bet Boone would know the answer to the question. He knew useless facts like that.
Tucker blew an airstream over his bottle to make it whoo just like he’d done when he was a kid, in no real hurry to move along. He was on no time clock. Nobody knew he’d come home to Texas. This was the first time in a long time he’d had the luxury to lollygag while traveling.
For the majority of the past decade, he’d operated on a ticking clock while finding his way in and out of jungles, deserts, mountains, urban fortresses, and just about anywhere else someone needed the services of his specialized Army Ranger unit. The work had suited him. He’d excelled at the job, aided by his natural talents and traits—tenacity, endurance, the ability to make quick decisions, and an uncanny sense of direction. It also helped that he’d had more than his fair share of good luck and, according to his late father, a head as hard as the granite dome of Enchanted Rock.
Tucker had been little more than a boy when he’d decided on a military career. Having plotted that course early on, he’d never strayed from the path.
Until now. Now, he’d not only veered from the trail, he’d burned his map, smashed his compass, and shattered his satellite phone on the way into the wilderness.
He’d left the service. He’d quit the military. This was the first time in his life that he’d ever quit anything, and he didn’t have a clue where to go from here.
He was lost.
Figuratively speaking, that is. Tucker knew he stood at a farm-to-market crossroads where the prairies and lakes region of Texas transitioned to the Hill Country. Where he was lost was inside himself. He’d lost his identity, his sense of self. He’d grown up, and he no longer knew what he wanted to be. Helluva thing for a man in his mid-thirties.
“So, which way are you going?” he asked himself. He could turn north, head for the family ranch outside of Fort Worth and do some catching up with kin. His parents were both gone now, and he’d been an only child, but he still had plenty of family.
Family who would pepper him with questions and ask for explanations.
He wasn’t ready for that. He would not take FM 486 north toward Thorndale and weave his way up toward Fort Worth.
Instead, he could head southeast, mosey on down to the coast and Port Aransas, and rent a fishing boat. Or, he could make a real ride of it and go west, way out west toward Big Bend. Hiking and camping and communing with nature sounded appealing to him.
That’s what Tucker liked best of all. He belonged outdoors, where the air was clean and fresh, and the people along the trail were generous and good and forthright and kind.
He did not belong on special assignment behind a desk in the nation’s capital, surrounded by vipers—duty that revealed the political underbelly of institutions he had always revered. Duty that darkened a man’s soul.
Swamp didn’t begin to describe it. Slimy cesspool was more appropriate. They’d made him responsible for one tiny little area of it, no bigger than a broom closet in the grand scheme of things. He’d made a valiant effort to clean up his space, but the vipers and rats had blocked him at every turn. He’d finally admitted he was fighting a losing battle. His only choice was to surrender to the filth or leave.
Tucker had left, but doing so damaged something inside him. He needed to heal. He needed to shed the film of slime he’d acquired. He was counting on clean country air and crystal clear spring water to do the trick.
That crossed the Gulf of Mexico off his list. He wouldn’t take FM 112 south toward Old Dime Box either.
So … what would it be? The Piney Woods? The Davis Mountains? Big Bend National Park?
No. Tucker didn’t truly have a decision to make. He’d known his ultimate destination ever since he’d exited the Fort Hood gate, even if he’d pretended otherwise and followed his nose on the road for a while.
From here, he was going to head southwest toward the Texas Hill Country. Toward Enchanted Canyon, to be exact. The air blew clean and fresh there, and the water ran sweet and crisp and cleansing. The only vipers he’d likely run across slithered on their bellies or coiled and shook their rattles in warning. The people there, well, they didn’t come any better than his cousin Jackson. Tucker could tolerate that much family, at least. Jackson wouldn’t press him with questions he didn’t want to answer.
He drained his soft drink, placed the empty in the wooden bottle crate sitting on the ground beside the pumps, then swung a long leg over the saddle and started his bike.
He’d probably take a ride to Big Bend and another to the coast and do a trek up to the Piney Woods in the coming weeks and months, but today, for now, he’d take the scenic route toward the little tourist town of Redemption. He’d look up Jackson and share the salient pieces of his story. Jackson would give him the space he needed right now. Plus, he could be counted on to smooth Tucker’s way with the rest of the fam-damly.
While Tucker had been waging war in Washington, Jackson had taken point in dealing with a family windfall, the inheritance of Enchanted Canyon from a distant relative. He’d overseen the remodeling of the nineteenth-century brothel and dance hall that stood at the halfway point between Redemption and the ghost town and former outlaw conclave of Ruin, snuggled at the back of the canyon. The cathouse had been converted to a bed-and-breakfast, and the Fallen Angel Inn had recently opened to great success. Many of the guests it welcomed came to hear music at the Last Chance Hall, which was Jackson’s pet project.
Jackson was the perfect person to run interference for Tucker. No stranger to turmoil after a contentious divorce and child custody fight, he would be a sympathetic ear for whatever parts of Tucker’s story he wanted to share. And maybe, just maybe, Jackson could help Tucker find his way to … somewhere.
So Tucker headed for the Hill Country and took pleasure in the ride through a fertile stretch of rolling plains along the way. The afternoon was overcast, but the temperature hovered in the mid-seventies. A mild breeze carried the lingering scent of morning rain. The cotton harvest was underway, some of the fields stripped bare, others white as snow. Fat Angus, Herefords, and Holsteins populated the pastures. Seeing them made him hungry for a good steak. A short time later, as he rode through a bottomland pecan orchard, he added pecan pie to the menu.
He would need to decide where he wanted to stay overnight before long. He could step up his pace and make it into Redemption tonight, but camping held greater appeal. Today’s weather forecast called for a cold front to blow through around sunset, taking the clouds with it. It had been way too long since he’d camped beneath Texas’s starry sky.
As was his custom, Tucker carried essential gear with him. He simply needed to find a place to build his fire and a shelter. In his mind’s eye, he pictured the map he’d studied before heading out from Fort Hood this morning and reviewed the landmarks he’d noted along his meandering today. Bastrop State Park wasn’t too far away. He could alter his direction a skosh and go there. Finding a vacant campsite this time of year shouldn’t be a problem. Tomorrow, he could take a morning hike through the park, then circle around Austin and arrive in Redemption midafternoon.
Decision made, he took the next southeast turn, and a few minutes later, zoomed past a figure before he registered what he’d seen.
A vision with mile-long legs and glossy waves of hair the color of rich mahogany that fell almost to her waist. She had finely drawn features: her face heart-shaped, her nose straight, her lips lush and full. A sleeveless red dress hugged her voluptuous curves, its narrow tab shoulders revealing the strap of a red bra underneath. Her full hips enticingly swayed as she walked on the shoulder of the road in a pair of red high heels.
No car was in sight. No house was in sight. No other human being was in sight.
Former Army Ranger Tucker McBride had just spied a long-legged damsel in distress.
* * *
Gillian Thacker was having a wretched day.
Copyright © 2020 by Geralyn Dawson Williams.