Arrowmoon by George Wier

George Wier
By George Wier October 15, 2012 21:32

Arrowmoon by George Wier

Summary:

What do a leather journal from a previous century, a loaded pistol, and an old safe hidden in an aging barn have to do with a court order that halts the completion of a Texas highway project? Why are snipers taking pot-shots at Bill Travis and Lief Prescott, the highway construction manager?

Bill Travis must uncover a century-old conspiracy before he himself becomes a casualty in a secret war.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

The name’s Bill Travis. No relation.

Well, maybe some relation. Who knows? I’ve been too busy to try and track it down and there are few relatives outside of my immediate family that I’m close to enough to ask about it.

The other Bill Travis, defender (and loser) of the Alamo, that’s another guy entirely.

Me? I do well to defend myself from the family dog, who once in awhile will be so over-stressed as to forget that my leg is not a bitch in heat.

When Julie sees it starting, she laughs. I don’t kick him too hard.

Julie? That’s my wife.

I met her in the not-usual way. By way of saying that I didn’t up and ask her out to a movie or something during some kind of conference, nor bump into her at the grocery store. She was a client of mine.

Which brings me to what I do.

I manage money.

That’s what I was doing when I got word that I was needed in East Texas: managing money, or rather making sure the money already invested was making money. Which was why I was two hundred feet in the air looking out over a sheer drop to the street below when Jack Pierce yelled at my back and startled me. I’d been thinking about our dog, Franklin, humping my leg. I was doing anything I could, actually, to try and not think about the height.

Normally, I like heights, but every once in awhile I can feel the side effects.

“Travis!”

I started. Suddenly the distance below me yawned wide. I backed away, groping for ground with my heels.

Jack Pierce was the head contractor for the new Ranchers and Merchants Bank building that was going up downtown. Jack needed about fifty million in start-up money and that’s where my contacts and I came in.

I heard laughter behind me.

Jack was somewhat of a joker. He loved scaring the bejesus out of his men whenever he got the chance. I guess he thought he knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t punch his lights out. What he didn’t know was how close he came to just that.

“Wha’samatter, Bill?” He chuckled.

“Nothin’, Jack.” I turned to him. “Why do you do that?” I asked.

“What?”

“Why do you try to scare people like that?”

“Bill, you’re an okay sort of fellow. Except for one thing.”

“What’s that, Jack?”

“I’ll tell you later,” he said, and grinned. “You got a call in the shack.” He motioned behind him. “It’s your secretary.”

“Penny?”

“Yeah. You should carry a cell phone,” he said, and turned back toward the elevator.

We were seventeen stories up. Fifteen more stories and four months to go. Jack’s company was ahead of schedule. The investors, my investors, would be happy about that, if I didn’t kill the boss before he was finished.

I took the long ride down with Jack on the temporary outside service elevator. There’s no glass, little room, plenty of wind, and the ride isn’t nearly as smooth as your given luxury tower elevator. We didn’t say much. When I got out at the street level in downtown Austin my stomach was no longer in my throat.

The shack was across the yard from the building site and was actually a video home that looked to be about twenty years old. Someone sure was cutting corners. Not that I blamed him.

Inside there was an old steel office desk sitting on a stringy and frayed blue shag carpet. I used to see such things in the oil patch back home. That’s East Texas.

Behind the desk was Jack’s daughter, Libby.

“Hi, Bill,” she said, and smiled. All of Jack’s daughters were raving red-haired, lightly freckled, green-eyed beauties. Also, I’d known them since they were little kids, so they didn’t bother with the formal last name and simply called me Bill. Hell, I kind of liked it.

She pushed the phone toward me.

I picked it up and pushed the flashing green button.

“Penny?” I asked.

“Mr. Travis. I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“So I gathered. What is it?”

“Lief Prescott called.”

“What about?” I asked. I felt like I needed a drink of something. Preferably something a little stronger than water. I was looking at Libby Pierce. She was sitting in one of those leather executive chairs and wearing a University of Texas T-shirt and very short shorts. She crossed her legs and then smiled sweetly, showing me her even, white teeth. Libby was all of twenty-one years old.

I turned away. It was tough, but I did it.

I looked at Jack, standing there and waiting. He rolled his eyes.

“He says he can’t go any further with his highway.”

“Why the hell not. He’s got eminent domain behind him.”

“Something about a temporary injunction and fourteen days. He said that fourteen days translates somehow into two months and he can’t wait two months for a check from the Department of Transportation.”

“I know he can’t. Wait a minute, Penny.” I pressed the phone into my chest. “Jack, I gotta go.”

“Fine by me,” he said.

“You’ll bring the check by tomorrow, right?”

Jack looked over at his daughter.

I turned toward her. “Tell him to bring me the check tomorrow, Libby. Okay?”

She frowned.

“She’ll remind me,” Jack said. Jack was middle-aged and beginning to show his years. His neck was sun-reddened and seamed and crosshatched with wrinkled skin and his reddish crop of hair was beginning to gray at the temples. Jack was the kind of guy you either liked or loathed. I guess he was alright by me. Most of the time.

“Okay, Penny. I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said.

“Fine, sir.”

I hung up.

I stepped out the door and into the too-bright Texas summer sunshine.

I stopped and turned back to Libby.

“Bye, Libby,” I said. “Nice T-shirt.”

She grinned back at me.

*****

My office is on the western fringe of downtown. That’s where they keep all of the professional people who feel they have to have hardwood floors to walk on and park their cars underneath the spreading branches of old oak, pecan and cottonwood trees. People like me.

It’s just my office now, although the name outside says Bierstone and Travis. Nate Bierstone is now an in-law of sorts. My wife’s uncle. Also, he’s the Lieutenant Governor, which means he’s usually somewhere else banging a gavel, or making political deals behind the scenes and pushing or derailing legislation. The old Democrat loves it, too.

“Hello, Penny,” I said once inside.

Penny was going through some kind of phase. She’d changed her hair and was wearing classier clothes and was all dolled up with makeup. Maybe she had a new boyfriend.

“Mr. Travis, Mr. Prescott called again. You really need to talk to him. He said something about some Big Shot is flying in on a Lear Jet. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was talking about.”

“I’ll handle Lief,” I told her.

At that moment the phone rang again.

“Bierstone and Travis,” Penny answered.

“He’s right here, Mr. Prescott.” She held the phone out toward me and her eyes pleaded for me to take it. I could hear Lief’s voice talking to the air.

I motioned to my office.

Once inside with the door closed I picked up the receiver and hit the flashing button.

Lief Prescott was still talking:

“… And if Travis thinks I’m going to talk with some goddamned lawyer, he’s got another thing―”

“‘Mornin’, Lief,” I cut him off.

“Where the hell have you been? I’ve got an entire road crew that can’t road. I’ve got Peterson’s paving people about to catch up to me and there’s this asshole Jockovitch supposed to be flying in―”

“Simmer down, Lief. Just simmer down a minute. What is this all about?”

“It’s about Highway 119, that’s what it’s about. A Highway that is going nowhere.”

“Penny said something about a restraining order. Where? What Court? Who signed it? Why?”

“I don’t know all that, and I most especially don’t know why?” Lief wasn’t the kind of guy to calm down simply because someone tells him to do so, but I was using soothing and calm tones with him and I was beginning to get that tone across.

“Well,” I said. “Let’s start with the Court Order. You got it there with you?”

“Um. Yeah.” I heard papers being shuffled around. “Here’s the goddamned thing.”

“How thick is it? How many pages?”

I heard a sigh. “About five or six.”

“What does it say, essentially?”

“Well shoot! I got no idea what it says. It’s written in legalese language. Something about injunctive relief and temporarily restraining. Crapola like that.”

“Okay. Flip through it and see if there is a section with a Roman numeral two on it.”

I heard rattling paper and low curses. There was a train going by somewhere within half a mile of Lief Prescott and his restraining order.

“Found it. It’s on page two,” he said.

“Read it to me, Lief.”

“Okay. It says: ‘On or about April second of this year, the State of Texas annexed the property known as the Pender Addition of Southwestern Robertson County, Texas, for the purposes of constructing a multi-lane throughway as a part of the state highway system. This was done through the Eminent Domain doctrine. However, the current owners of the property were not advised of the annexation nor were they given sufficient notification to remove any personal property in existence on said property.”

“That’s enough for now, Lief. What’s on that property that’s so hot?” I asked.

“What do you mean? There’s nothing on that property.”

“Have you been on it?” I pressed him, cautiously.

“I’ve walked every square foot of that property. There ain’t nothing there but scrub brush and gullies and an old hay barn.”

“An old hay barn.”

“That’s what I said. An old hay barn that’s about to fall down under its own weight.”

“And nothing else?”

“Nada. Zip. Goose egg,” he said. He was starting to calm down a little. That was a plus.

“Okay,” I said. “But there is something there. Who’s Jockovitch?”

“He’s some big time lawyer from Boston. Flying down here. He said he doesn’t want anybody near that property for the next fourteen days. Bill, I’ve got a survey crew that needs in there right now. Also, there’s a big hill on the place that we’re going to have to doodle-bug our way through.”

Doodle bugging meant blasting with dynamite. I’d heard enough.

“Lief. Don’t do anything. When’s this lawyer coming in?”

“Tonight. Flying in to Easterwood Airport in College Station. They’ve got the biggest runways between Dallas and Houston, and it’s pretty close. Thirty miles from here.”

“Okay. Give me a couple of hours and meet me at that little café you’re so fond of.”

“You’re coming?” he asked. I could hear the relief in his voice.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

“Hot damn,” he said, and hung up.

CHAPTER TWO

A phone call to Julie to let her know I wouldn’t be home for supper and a quick stop for a full tank of gas, and I was on my way.

I took to the back roads East of Austin, the traffic thinning down to about one pickup truck or car every five minutes, and with the sun squarely behind me I got to the gently rolling hills, my now aging Mercedes eating up the miles as I looked over the countryside.

Driving for any good distance is somewhat therapeutic, and I found myself humming along to an old Jazz tune.

And so I started thinking about Lief Prescott, whom, I was certain, wouldn’t be able to pick out jazz from a choice between Count Basie and an elephant stampede. George Strait and Randy Travis were more his type of music. I don’t know that they still make them like Lief Prescott, but then again, somebody is sure buying that country music these days.

I get along in life by making it a point to know a lot of people and being sure they know I’m the guy that can help them. That was how I met Lief.

My good friend, Hank Sterling, had given Lief my name and I got a call from him one morning after coming back from a misadventure back home. All I could really remember about that time was a black female Sheriff, a great deal of water coming down on my head, and Julie having our first baby together, Jennifer. When I first spoke with Lief over the phone he didn’t bother with any back-story but simply began by telling me what he needed from me, as if he were placing an order with Sears and Roebuck.

And that pretty much sums up Lief Prescott. If the government were to give him a hundred million and tell him to get mankind to the stars, Lief would figure it out and still come in under budget. All by way of saying that he was the kind of fellow who got what he wanted. Who was I to try and stop him? No. With Lief, all I saw was opportunity.

Since then, with a little backing from a few of my friends, Lief had built a toll road in Houston, had added a runway to the George Bush Airport, and was now working on the biggest thing to hit Central Texas: a five-lane highway neatly bisecting the triangle between Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.

With the kind of client base that included people like Lief Prescott, within a few years I’d be able to retire if I played my cards right. My only problem was that I had never been what you’d call a good card player. Yet.

Small towns with quaint names passed on by. I made good time.

I hung a right, headed east on Highway 79 and passed through the one-horse bergs of Milano and Gause. A few miles on down and I found Lief’s highway where it bisected 79. I noted that the road was still blocked off there. I went on into Hearne, Texas, an old Southern Pacific railroad terminus and once the home of a large Italian prisoner of war encampment. When World War II ended most of the Italian POWs who were released decided to settle down there, and so the local phone book reads more like the directory for, say, Brooklyn, New York, than it normally would for a small Texas town of less than five thousand souls.

I loved the place.

I turned right, from memory, onto Highway 6, went north one block and there was the café. Lief’s maroon Ford King-cab pickup was parked out front.

*****

In small towns they don’t usually pass ordinances against smoking in restaurants. I’d forgotten that. The cigarette smoke was thick inside the Family Diner, and as far as I could see, there weren’t any families in evidence. It was a good name, though. If I had been driving sedately along Highway 6 with my wife and kids, I would’ve stopped.

Lief was hunkered over the jukebox in the corner. A quarter disappeared into the machine from his meaty fingers and he tapped a couple of buttons.

A waitress was suddenly in front of me, a short woman with broad thighs and an equally broad smile and twinkling, pretty brown eyes. I bet she made good tips with that smile and those eyes.

Before she could say anything we heard a voice.

“He’s with me.” It was Lief.

“Fine,” she said and stood back, waiting.

Lief came over and shook my hand. He had a grip like iron.

“Made good time,” he said. “I wish you were here this morning when that Constable served those papers, though.”

“Yep,” I said. “I’ll bet you do.”

“Come on and sit down.” Lief turned and led me to his table. There were plates there that needed cleaning away, and the waitress, whose name tag ready “Dollie” began gathering them up.

“Coffee?” she asked me.

“Iced tea will be fine,” I told her.

She gave me that smile again. I pegged it: a smile that seemed to say ‘You and I have got a secret.’

She flitted off.

“Interesting folks around here,” I said.

“That’s for sure. Here’s the papers, Bill.” He handed me a re-used manila file folder and I took it and laid it on the booth cushion beside me.

“You ain’t gonna look?” Lief asked.

“No reason to. What we are going to do is take a little ride, see what’s on that land.”

“What?” His voice came up a decibel level.

“Quiet, Lief,” I said. “We don’t know anything until we know something, and we won’t know that until we know everything.”

The restaurant was half full ― or half empty, depending upon one’s point of view ― and I didn’t want to share our conversation with everyone in town.

The waitress set a glass of iced tea in front of me, and with her other hand refilled Lief’s coffee cup, then she was gone.

“Lief, you wouldn’t happen to have the original plat map for that property, would you?”

He smiled.

“I’ve got it and about two hundred others out in my truck.”

“Get the one we want, would you?” I asked.

“Alright. Be right back.”

It was after he got up and left that I realized the jukebox was playing something by Aerosmith. Just when you think you’ve got somebody pegged ―

To my right, outside the window, Lief was rifling through the back seat of his pickup.

I looked up to see the waitress giving somebody else the same smile she had given me. I suppose I was both vaguely relieved and disappointed at the same time.

Lief was back inside of a minute.

I moved my iced tea aside, wiped up the condensation on the table and unrolled the map.

“You’re looking at it upside down,” he said.

So I was. I righted it.

“Here,” he said. A thick forefinger pointed out the tract. It was 269.23 acres. The map showed two structures instead of one.

“This smaller one has to be the barn,” I said.

“Sure is. The house is not there anymore.”

“What happened to it?”

He took a sip of coffee. “I don’t rightly know. There’s a glade where that house used to be, but little evidence that there ever was a house there.”

“Burned down, maybe?” I asked.

“Nothing charred around there. No slab. No old piers or beams. Nothing.”

“Okay.”

I looked back down at the map.

Something very strange happened. Lief’s coffee cup broke. One minute it was sitting there, the next he was jumping up from his seat. I snatched the plat map away, but a corner of it had gotten wet. Coffee was everywhere.

“They don’t ordinarily do that, do they?” I asked.

“Dammit!” Lief said.

I looked to my right. I don’t know why, just reflex I suppose.

There was a neat, round hole in the window just above the baseboard.

I slipped out of the booth, taking the court order and the plat map with me, grabbed Lief’s arm and pulled him after me.

“What the hell?” he asked.

We had the attention of the entire restaurant. The waitress was standing near the door, not smiling. There was less glass and therefore less exposure to the outside in that direction.

“Back door?” I asked.

She pointed. I stuffed the paper under my arm, reached for my wallet and drew out the first bill I encountered ― a fifty. I handed it to her and led Lief off the way she had pointed, through a kitchen where a skinny, acne-faced kid and a big black man labored over a smoking grill.

The kid looked at me, yawned, and turned back to some frying eggs.

“Hold on just a goddamned minute, Bill. What the hell?”

“We’re being shot at, Lief. It’s either that or holes magically appear in windows simultaneously when coffee cups explode.”

“Shit,” he said.

Through a back room with a large cooler and big sinks and there was the rear door, standing open. There lay dimming sunlight, lengthening shadows and green grass out there.

CHAPTER THREE

Outside there was a smelly dumpster and an even smellier grease bin. A line of scrub brush divided the diner property from an open field beyond, but there was no fence.

“Let’s circle around,” I said.

“What about the police?”

“That’ll just upset everybody. Right now we don’t want any attention. Come on.”

We went through the brush, turned right when we were through and jogged down a block to the next street and doubled back across the highway when the traffic was clear.

Up a grassy embankment we came upon a set of railroad tracks. We flew over them, rushed down the other side and turned right.

A hundred yards ahead of us was a pickup truck, just getting into motion. Whoever was driving it was in a hurry. Gravel and dust flew and the truck lurched forward, did a little fishtail for a moment and then turned left and disappeared into an old residential neighborhood.

“That was the sniper,” Lief said.

We arrived where the rear truck tires had left a set of divots in the dirt road beside the track.

I looked in the direction of the café. I couldn’t see it.

Lief motioned to me, already moving that way.

Up the embankment again, we both saw where the grass had been pressed down in several places.

“Here,” Lief said. “He had his knees planted here.” He pointed. Something caught my eye off to our right. The glint of shiny metal.

“Cartridge,” I said, pointing.

Lief started to pick it up, but I touched his arm.

“Wait.” I loosened my shirtsleeve at the wrist, pulled my hand inside the cuffs and reached down and picked up the cylinder with my shirtsleeve.

“Damn,” Lief said. “Fingerprints, huh? Just like a TV private eye. What are you, Bill?”

“I don’t know about any of that,” I told him, “but this is the only thing we’ve got at the moment. We may need it.”

“I ain’t never been shot at before,” he said.

“I have.”

He exhaled slowly and I looked at his face. I could see relief there.

“Sort of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?” I said. “Close call like that.”

“Yeah.”

“You alright?” I asked.

The tension drained away from his face. He smiled. “You know, for the last five minutes I haven’t felt the pain in my leg where it got broken in High School. Also, I haven’t been thinking about hiring and firing and checking accounts.”

“Yep,” I said. “Me neither.”

I put the cartridge in my shirt pocket. I didn’t say anything to Lief, but I certainly thought it. It was the ejected shell of a .22-250. A deer rifle. If the bullet had hit either one of us, it would have gone through and out the other side, funeral arrangements pending.

*****

We were in Lief’s pickup and headed south on Highway 6 when the local police blew past us, lights rotating and siren wailing.

We drove on.

*****

I was thinking about my Mercedes, which I had moved to the empty parking lot of a funeral parlor next door to the café. I was hoping that no one had noted it and connected it up with the rifle fire and pointed it out to the police. The old tub of bolts had seen me through a number of miles and I had a soft place in my heart for it.

About five miles south of town Lief turned us off down a narrow county dirt road. The sun was getting low on the horizon through the bare tree branches and neither one of us was talking. I’d never known Lief not to talk before, but I could understand it.

After ten minutes of winding countryside and a stunning sunset, Lief slowed us down and pointed to his left. I looked but could see nothing but gathering darkness and woods.

We drove a quarter of a mile further and pulled off the road at a turnout that led down a deserted lane.

“We’ll park here and walk back,” he said.

“You got a flashlight?”

“Does a hen lay eggs?”

We climbed out and walked back to about the area Lief had pointed. We stopped.

Dense brush marked the property in question. I turned and looked behind us. Even in the dark I could see the silhouettes of abandoned earth movers across the road; the highway that, as Lief said, was going nowhere.

“Just so you know,” Lief said, “I don’t look on this as trespassing. Jockovitch is some kind of lawyer, and the fellow who owned this was named Pfeffer, and is probably dead. The name has been on the plat map at least since 1936. So the owner hasn’t told me I can’t go on this place and the court papers didn’t say anything about it either. And court order or no court order, this place was condemned.”

“You don’t have to rationalize it to me, Lief,” I said.

“Oh. Alright. Let’s go, then. Let’s wait until we get into the woods a bit before turning on the flashlight.”

“Yeah. We’ve had enough attention already.”

At that moment, far down the road that led back to the highway, I could see spreading illumination. Headlights.

We moved quickly, stepping across the ditch through high weeds and up to the barbed-wire. Lief put his foot on the middle strand and pushed down while pulling up on the top strand.

I stepped through without a snag. It’s a skill gained from country living. I haven’t lived in the country since I was a kid, but some things you never forget. Once through I held the wire for Lief and he came on through. No mishaps.

We took to the woods.

The brush was thick. I got slashed lightly across the forehead with some kind of thorny vine. I felt my forehead, then examined my fingers in the dim light. I didn’t seem to be bleeding.

There was a racket in the dense leaves nearby. We both started for an instant, but then the racket moved off quickly. Probably an armadillo or a raccoon.

The headlights out on the roadway grew closer.

We stopped and hunkered down. It was pitch black, but for the bluish headlights coming on.

After an interminable half a minute, the vehicle passed.

Neither one of us moved.

For some reason there was complete silence. Not a rustle anywhere.

Lief exhaled loudly. I realized I had been holding my breath. Also, my heart was thumping in my ears.

“This reminds me of stealing watermelons as a kid,” Lief said.

“And how’s that checking account?”

“What checking account?”

I laughed. Lief joined in. The nervous laughter of a couple of trespassers who hadn’t been caught. Yet.

*****

Humans are not nocturnal creatures. Going out into the woods at night is little different from diving to the bottom of the sea and strolling through the foliage there. The creatures either shy away or become curious and close in. We saw the occasional close-set pair of eyes reflecting back at us in the powerful beam of Lief’s flashlight. We kept going and the eyes disappeared as quickly as they had come.

Two hundred plus acres makes for a good deal of woods. The Pfeffer property was no exception. The brush was thick, opening only occasionally onto a narrow glade with a billion twinkling stars for a roof. I hadn’t been camping since about age fifteen, but our trek through the woods brought back those memories. Good ones. That morning I had been looking down from a hundred feet onto congested downtown traffic, and the same night I was nearly a hundred miles away tromping through the East Texas woods.

After half an hour of moving through the brush, climbing down into narrow creeks and up the other side and generally attempting to keep to a straight path, Lief suddenly clicked off his flashlight.

“Shh,” he said.

I stopped.

“Through the trees there,” he whispered. “Tell me if you see it?”

“What am I looking for?” I whispered back, but then I saw it. An orange flicker, as if from flame. “Yeah, I see it.”

Without another word Lief began to move carefully forward. The moon was coming up into the sky behind us, and we moved from one patch of pale-lit ground to another.

There was a fire ahead of us, not forty feet away. A small campfire.

Another ten feet along and we were inching our way forward.

We both heard it at the same time. Someone clearing their throat and spitting.

Another five yards and a gravelly voice suddenly froze my blood in my veins:

“No use sneakin’. I can hear and see you well enough. Come on in, boys.”

“Shit,” Lief said.

The voice didn’t sound dangerous, but instead sounded diffident, tired, and mildly amused, all at the same time.

“Alright,” I called out. “We’re comin’.”

CHAPTER FOUR

When I was twelve years old I took a neighbor kid up on his invitation to a Boy Scout camp out. I was no Boy Scout, nor have I ever been one, but I did go with him that weekend to Camp Strake, a State Park located in the piney woods of the Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas, about sixty miles north of Houston.

The second night there I attended what is called a Tap Out, which is sort of a ritual of entrance into a Boy Scout secret society called The Order of The Arrow. Or maybe it wasn’t so secret. After all, I was there.

The initiation entailed taking the line of boys who had been accepted and making them strip down to their underwear. Each was stopped in turn by an older boy dressed Native American fashion, headdress and all. Within spitting distance of a huge bonfire each kid was then “tapped” rather soundly on the shoulder in welcome to the Order and sworn to secrecy of what was about to follow. I recall that a flaming arrow was shot into the lake, symbolizing something or other, and then the ceremony was done.

On the way back to camp I was informed that the boys, one of whom was the kid that had invited me, would, over the next twenty-four hours, have to go through some rigorous trials and not be able to speak for the entire day.

The pitch black woods close around us that night at Camp Strake were eerie and sinister, as if I had stepped out of the twentieth century and into another time altogether.

Pfeffer’s woods were like that. There were no ancient and gargantuan pine trees, no pine needles crunching like soft powder beneath my feet, and no one dressed Indian fashion, authentic or not. There was, however, the over-powering and nearly complete blackness of night, the smell of wood smoke, and not a little trepidation. There was also that same feeling inside of me as Lief and I approached the growing firelight: the sensation of other-worldness. A misplaced feeling, as if we had somehow managed to travel through time.

I suppose if a fellow lived long enough, he’d eventually see everything. And some things maybe twice.

At the campfire was something I had never seen before.

*****

It was the silhouette of a man, sitting with his back to the fire in meditative pose. He was naked. Also, he was very old.

“What the chilblain hell are you doing, old-timer?” Lief asked.

“Lief! Be nice,” I said. I spoke to the old man: “We’re sorry for invading your meditation, but we weren’t expecting to find you here.”

I smelled something then, just a light scent in the breeze. A familiar smell, but I couldn’t place it right off, it was so foreign to the dark woods around us.

“Of course you weren’t,” he said calmly. “Give me a minute.” He stood up with some effort, took a few steps around the fire to a small pup tent and pulled a robe from a tree branch hanging above it and donned it.

“I don’t get many visitors,” he said to the dark.

“I reckon not,” Lief said.

“Bit of a shock, huh?” the gravelly voice asked.

“You could say that,” I said.

“I’d ask you to sit, but there’s nothing here but the ground,” the old man said.

“How do you not get eaten up by fire-ants and mosquitoes?” Lief asked.

“The garlic keeps them away. And the diatoms.”

I sniffed. That was the smell. Garlic.

“I’m Bill. Bill Travis,” I told the man.

“Bill, your friend says ‘shit’ a lot, doesn’t he?” the old man asked.

Lief turned to me. He had sort of a sardonic grin on his face.

“Yeah,” I said.

I noticed it then. My eyes had adjusted to the light from the fire, and almost to the extent of the firelight the ground and even some of the foliage around us was dusted with a fine white powder. Diatomaceous earth. There are companies that scoop it up by the metric ton from dry seabeds ― the microscopic exoskeletons of dead marine life. Some gardeners used it on their plants to keep the ants and aphids away. I wasn’t sure how effective it was, but the old man in front of us wasn’t pocked with sores. His face was smooth and seamed with age but for a gray scraggle of beard. And with every breath I breathed in more garlic. He must have mixed the two in some way and come up with an effective insect repellent.

“This is Lief Prescott. He’s building a highway through this neck of the woods,” I told him.

“I’ve been expecting you fellows. But not so late in the evening, or else I would have dressed for company.”

“What’s your name?” Lief asked. “And how long have you been squatting here?”

“Squatting,” the old man said. “That’s the word. I had forgotten it. Ty. Ty Hennessey is my name.”

I held out my hand. “It’s good to meet you, Ty,” I said.

We shook. Ty Hennessey had a solid handshake for an old-timer.

“Shake his hand, Lief,” I said. “We need all the good will we can find right now.”

“Lief Prescott,” he gave his name and shook Hennessey’s hand.

“It’s good to meet you Mr. Prescott.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Hennessey,” I chimed in, “how long have you been living in these woods?”

“Oh…” He scratched his head. “About twenty-four years, give or take.”

Lief whistled.

“How long do you have to go?” I asked. I’d heard of squatters before ― people who come to own a piece of property by sitting on it for the statutory length of time. In Texas, last time I heard, the required length of time was twenty-five years.

“August 15 of this year. That’s my last day.”

“Shoot,” Lief said. “That’s just two more months. By that time I’ll have cut a fifty yard swath right down the middle of it, dividing it in half.”

“I know,” Hennessey said.

“I don’t understand ―” Lief began, but I cut him off.

“Some things you can’t stop, so you don’t worry about them. Am I right?”

The old man’s face scrunched up a little at that. He flicked his eyes upward toward where the smoke from the fire dispersed among the treetops and into the night sky, raising his balding head. Maybe he was considering something.

“Some things…” he said.

“Bill,” Lief said, “we need to move on.”

“I know. Mr. Hennessey, I expect you know the shortest way to the barn that’s on this property.”

“That I do.”

“I also suspect that you know what we’ll find there.”

His eyes dropped back down from the sky to meet mine. I couldn’t see them so well, but I felt his intent.

“Some things,” he began, “you bury and leave buried. But they come up again anyway, no matter what you do. When I was a little fellow they told me there was a time for everything… A time to plant and a time to reap.”

“And a time to roll away stones,” I said.

Lief was looking at me with a furrowed brow. “Are you two crazy?” he asked.

Ty Hennessey looked at him. “Crazier than most,” he said. “Not as crazy as some. Bill,” he said, turning back to me, “there’s also a time for truth.”

“That’s all I want,” I told him.

“Give me a minute to get properly dressed,” he said.

Lief and I looked at each other. He rolled his eyes.

“I reckon we’ve got time,” Lief said.

We waited as the old man disappeared inside the tent and came out with a neat stack of clothing. He draped the clothes over the same low-hanging branch where he’d gotten the robe, disrobed again and began getting dressed. Once he had on a pair of old blue jeans and a checkered shirt he sat down on the ground and carefully put on a pair of socks and pair of brogan boots and laced them up carefully.

He stood.

“You fellows ready?” Ty Hennessey asked.

I nodded.

Hennessey picked up a jug from beside a tree and emptied it on the fire. A gout of steam rose up and we were once more plunged into the blackness of night.

“It’s time then,” he said. “Come on,” he said.

CHAPTER FIVE

Robertson County, Texas, has a population of less than ten thousand and is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. During the Prohibition Era it was nicknamed Booger County, in large part because moonshining was so prevalent. When the Revenuers came, as they invariably did, if they weren’t careful out in the woods they might not make it back. The IRS Chief up in Waco or Dallas might ask: “What happened to Agent Lowe?” The answer: “Booger must have got him.” Whatever happened to the missing men, no one seemed willing to hand over a clue, and so the unfriendly woods became even more sinister to outsiders. And so the nickname stuck: Booger County.

The county is hemmed in on the east by the Navasota River, little more than an oversized creek, and on the west by the lazily meandering Brazos River, once called The Mississippi of the West. To the south the county line tracks Texas’ most ancient of roads: the El Camino Real, or King’s Highway, which dates back to Spain’s possession of Mexico, and consequently, Texas. The forests in the county are largely uncut, the earth not being so conducive to farming but for the long, narrow strip of cotton fields along the Brazos River bottom to the west. The seven-hundred odd square miles of woods and brush are crisscrossed by a network of unpaved county roads that lead to mostly nowhere. The county is by no means, however, a backward place. It is very old as settlements in Texas go, and the people have no love for authority, much less patience for new schemes. Consequently, Lief’s highway was not exactly what one would term popular.

I had heard about some of Lief’s problems over the previous months: run-ins with ranchers, sabotage of some of the equipment. The expenses had mounted until the road crews took to locking up the equipment when it was not in use and posting guards at night. I didn’t envy Lief his job by a long shot.

But for the occasional steady strobe from a high-flying airplane, there was little evidence that we weren’t traversing a landscape from the distant past. The night was quiet and still with only the occasional soft breeze and the sound of us interlopers. Possibly I had heard too many tall tales about Booger County while I was being raised in neighboring Brazos County.

We came up from a shallow gully onto an expansive pasture with a bulging hill.

We all heard it at the same time: voices.

On up the hill near the crest we hunkered down in the dark. A hundred yards away was the barn, bathed in headlights. There were the twin, close-set beams of a jeep spearing the tin barn with electric illumination.

“I’ll be damned,” Lief said.

We couldn’t see each other’s faces in the dark. The old man was silent.

“Tell me if you see anybody?” I asked. “I hope you can hoot like an owl or something. I want to get closer.”

“What?” he said, as if I’d asked to date his sister. “No. I can’t hoot like no damned owl. Let’s stay put for a minute.”

I thought about it. Maybe he was right.

“Well, what time was Jockovitch flying in to Easterwood Airport?” I asked.

“About twenty minutes ago.”

“Alright.”

Easterwood Airport was about thirty miles to the south. You can’t drive that distance in less than thirty minutes. There are too many red lights to go through in College Station and Bryan. Still, I had the sinking feeling we’d be seeing this Jockovitch fellow soon enough.

No sooner had the thought gone through my head than we heard the distant thumping sound, at first little more than a whisper, then growing louder.

“Chopper,” Lief said.

My first thought was a dim sort of hope. Life-flight helicopters can be seen at any given time of the day or night flitting over East Texas between Houston and Dallas and any given far-flung hamlet. Also there were intermittent oil field and corporate helicopters, going about their work. It was my faint hope, at first, that what we were hearing was any one of those, but the certainty that this was not the case rapidly settled down into my stomach to become a knot of growing fear.

At the barn there was a piercing glare of light. Someone had set off a roadside flare. We could see the figure plainly. A broad-shouldered man wearing a slick brown jacket and Sam Browne belt with a prominent side arm. He waved the flare back and forth as the thumping of the helicopter grew in intensity.

Then we saw it, two hundred feet above the distant treetops and coming in fast.

The pilot must have spotted the flare because the whine of turbines cut out slowly and the chopper banked suddenly and circled. A fierce cone of light sprang from the craft and stabbed downward onto the foliage on the other side of the barn from us.

He was going to circle and land, and the brilliant circle of light he was proscribing into the night terrain was making its way toward us in a lazy circle as he banked around.

“Shit,” Lief said.

“See?” Ty Hennessey said. “I told you he says it a lot.”

I looked around quickly. The way back to the creek and the protection of the brush and trees that grew there was too far. To our left around the hill was a dark, tall shape against the stars. I had purple splotches across my vision from all the brightness I had seen in the last few moments, but I instantly calculated our chances of making it to cover: they weren’t good.

“Follow me,” I barked out.

With the roar in our ears of helicopter blades slicing the air, the three of us hoofed it around the hill.

My breath came in gulps and I felt a stitch in my side, the same one I used to get in my college track and field days. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder to know we weren’t going to make it. The chopper was lower now and bearing down on us.

On instinct I threw myself to the ground and rolled over to see Lief and Ty Hennessey do the same, dark shadows landing not so softly in the thick weeds.

Copyright© George Wier. All rights reserved.

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George Wier
By George Wier October 15, 2012 21:32
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