The Long Night of Winchell Dearby Robert James Waller
The steady tick of an aged Regulator wall clock and the squeak of an overhead fan turning slowly are soft but insistent, counting down the night, while the high desert thrums like a half-remembered Victrola song. The sounds are below the consciousness of Winchell Dear, an old-time gambler, a Texas poker player on the southern circuit, as he waits for something . .
The steady tick of an aged Regulator wall clock and the squeak of an overhead fan turning slowly are soft but insistent, counting down the night, while the high desert thrums like a half-remembered Victrola song. The sounds are below the consciousness of Winchell Dear, an old-time gambler, a Texas poker player on the southern circuit, as he waits for something . . . something vague that his life of chance tells him is evil and moving his way. He has gassed and oiled the Cadillac and adjusts the pistol in his right boot, then plays one of the six fiddle tunes he knows, thinking back to his good days with Lucinda Miller. Alone, he waits in his remote ranch house, while, just outside, an acquaintance named Luther hunts, unblinking and of nervous temperament and moving through yellow primrose bending in the night wind.
In Diablo Canyon, a distant part of Winchell Dear’s ranch, Peter Long Grass squats by a campfire, contemplating the profile he saw moving along the ridge of Guapa Mountain an hour ago, thinking about the gambler’s housekeeper, Sonia Dominguez, about the small, quiet world he has fashioned far from civilization and what undefined presence might now be threatening it. He gathers his tools and begins to run across the desert floor.
And boring toward all of them is a cream-colored Lincoln Continental with two men aboard. Traveling from Los Angeles on a mission they’ve been given, they are professionals, cool and implacable at the start, but becoming steadily more confused by the strange landscape they are passing through. Forty minutes from their task, they ready themselves, while a kitchen wall clock ticks its way through the long night of Winchell Dear.
The Long Night of Winchell Dear finds master storyteller Robert James Waller at his best as he takes us through the wind and dust of the high desert mountains, into the shadowy world of high-stakes poker fought in the back rooms of Amarillo and Little Rock, and headlong toward the book’s stunning finale of chaotic terror, where an unexpected hero emerges.
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Read an Excerpt
So, my nephew, listen to me and know my words: In the high desert, Time is an old, sly rider, a bandit of legend who will steal your days and take your woman and be smiling down at you as He boards the evening train.
And having remembered his uncle's words and having lived with the truth of them all the length of his fifty-one summers, Pablo Espinosa came hard and fast off the ridge of Guapa Mountain in full darkness. Seventy-two miles above the border and slipping on loose stones, clutching the green and swaying branches of pinon pines for balance, he began his descent toward Slater's Draw, where his silhouette would no longer pin him to the sky. Across the dry ground, his brown feet in the rope-and-rubber-tire sandals were taking him north as they had done before, in a relentless shuffle that regarded distance as nothing more than a vocation.
Above the sandals were floppy gray and thorn-ripped trousers, and above the trousers a shirt that might have been citron colored once but was faded now, with "Moorman's Lanes, Presidio, Texas" lettered on the back. Yesterday, a helicopter had spotted Pablo Espinosa as he worked his way around Santa Clara Peak, and afterward came the grinding roar of four-wheel-drive Broncos and radio talk he could hear imperfectly in the canyons below him while la migra, the Border Patrol, cut sign for his track. He'd hidden up through the daylight hours and now was trying to recoup his losses.
In a hurry and having reason to be, rolling a pebble over his tongue to bring up the last bit of moisture in his mouth, Pablo Espinosa was almost at his journey's end. The pack he carried weighed nearly a third as much as his 140 pounds, the miles and what the pack contained making it seem even heavier. He adjusted the straps, let himself down from a limestone outcropping, and headed toward the draw, the curl and cut of which would take him to quiet and good water, where the signal lamps of evening burned.
He hoped only two of the lamps would be lighted, for less or more meant he would have to wait in the darkness before going to the house and the completion of his work. The woman sometimes had visitors and did not want him coming by at those times. That had happened less than two weeks ago on his last run up here, and he was angry with her and said as much. But she had dismissed his annoyance with a wave of her hand and set tortillas and water before him.
Five hundred feet below and a third of a mile east of Pablo Espinosa lay the diamondback. It of genus Crotalus and species atrox, on its belly and holding down its own special place in matters of form and function, was a month less than twenty years and an inch beyond seven feet. All day it had lain up under a mesquite tree, waking only twice when cattle grazed by. Now, with the sun well set and Del Norte peaks washed in the paleness of a three-quarter moon on its way to full, the air had cooled sufficiently for it to begin a night hunt.
Weighing sixteen pounds on its empty stomach, the diamondback came slowly out of its flat resting coil, and with the earth giving it purchase and converting horizontal curls into forward motion, it began to move across the high desert toward a ranch house. The route took it over short grass and past clumps of cholla cactus, through the loose dirt of a service road, winding, winding. On the other side of the road and fifty feet behind the rancher's house was a tank with a small leak forming a puddle from which the diamondback could suck its water.
Nearly across the road and sensing ground vibrations, the snake paused, came to alertness, eyes expressionless and always the same: black, fixed, unblinking. And the tongue flicking rapidly, conveying air particles to the Jacobson's organ in the roof of the mouth and thenceforth into the brain: smell. Its head came up, followed by part of the body and not quite into a full striking coil, holding there. But the vibrations receded, and after two minutes it slackened and continued on toward water, eventually crawling over boot prints put down only moments before.
So the high-desert night began to play itself like an old Victrola song. In the shadow of Guapa Mountain, a diamondback took water, a night bird called. A coyote howled, answered or joined seconds later, it was hard to tell which, by other coyotes. From the west, hard breathing and the nearly inaudible crunch of gravel beneath sandals as Pablo Espinosa picked his way along the bed of Slater's Draw. Coming off the ridge, he had noticed lights in the main ranch house far down to his right. He had seen them before on his other runs north and was not troubled, since he had been assured the old man who lived there was oblivious to what transpired in darkness.
A quarter mile northwest of the main house was another building, smaller and built of adobe and surrounded by scrub cedar, making it difficult to see from any distance how many lamps were lighted in the western windows. Pablo Espinosa would continue along the arroyo until he reached the big rock he had used before and would stand upon it and look over the edge of the draw, counting the window lamps. Please- his prayer went up to the Blessed Virgin- let there be two and only those. He could then relieve himself of the pack and drink good water, resting for a few hours before traveling south again to his home and family in Santa Helena. With luck, he would be picked up by la migra and given a ride to the crossing point near Castolon and would be home tomorrow evening. They would question him, of course, but he would say only that he had come to el Norte looking for work, and nothing could be proven otherwise. A sweet ride home on th American taxpayers' dollar, though Pablo Espinosa never thought of it quite that way. To him, the gringos' tolerant laws and innocent generosity simply made things easier.
Once more, a night bird. Once more, the coyotes. And almost finished with its drink, the diamondback again sensed movement, bringing its head out of the puddle and remaining still for five seconds before executing a slow backward crawl toward whatever cover it might find. Something had come to the other side of the water tank and was making sounds. Without a physiological apparatus of the kind normally associated with hearing, the snake perceived only some of those sounds, the ones causing even the faintest of vibrations in the substratum, such as human footsteps. In that way, Crotalus atrox could never be precisely sure of what surrounded it, could only react in a primitive fashion to the slice of reality baring itself to its receptors. For the diamondback, and as with most things counted among the living, existence when it was shorn of all that did not matter came down to food and danger and propagation of the species.
And the sounds were first the soft impact of old boots on the desert floor. Then beyond the snake's ability to hear, fingers swishing away debris from the tank's surface on which the moon rippled as the water moved and the slurping of a man drinking from cupped hands.
The Indian finished his drink and slowly wiped the sleeve of a worn denim shirt across his mouth, glancing toward the kitchen windows of the ranch house fifty feet away. Lights from the kitchen spilled only a short way into the darkness, and through honeysuckle vines partially covering the window, the Indian could see an old man sitting at a table, handling cards.
At that moment, the Indian, long in the desert and attentive to the slightest shift in its cadence and feel, came aware of a presence close by and paused with the sleeve of his shirt partly across his mouth. He moved his eyes, nothing more, looking toward the other side of the tank, holding that position for nearly a minute. Then he smiled and placed his right forearm across his chest, palm of the hand downward, and moved it away from him with a slight waving motion in the old and understood language that had been the true sign of his ancestors 150 years before, when the People roamed the Comancheria and did as they chose. Long ago, when the People lived in freedom and with honor and the Comanche name was synonymous with fear and no quarter given or received.
He eased away from the tank, parted the branches of a desert willow, and followed an oblique course away from the snake and toward Diablo Canyon six miles farther south. Looking up, he barely caught the moon-backed profile of someone descending a mountain ridge toward the jagged earth slash called Slater's Draw.
Hesitating, the Indian wondered if he should circle back to the small adobe where lights still burned. When he had left, the woman called Sonia was combing her black hair while she hummed and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror, her mouth tasting only a little acrid and her head only spinning slightly from the sotol she and the Indian had drunk. The mirror was cheap and caused a distortion. She supposed the rancher might buy her a new one if she asked, yet the bias was in the direction of making things narrower in whatever the mirror reflected, allowing the woman to feel younger than her age of fifty-four and slimmer than she truly was. And for that reason she said nothing and kept the mirror.
The Indian knew things were what they were and remained as such no matter how hard you might cry up for something different. In an unforgiving world, one trifled only with which one had to trifle by way of eating and drinking and getting along. And what the woman did when he was not with her was nothing of his own. So thinking that and carrying a plastic sack with food she had given him, he moved on through the night toward his wood-and-canvas shelter in Diablo Canyon, stopping twice to look up at the moon and thank it for taking him home.
Whether the diamondback understood the moon or looked at it with gratitude is difficult to say. Maybe, maybe not. But the snake did seem to glance up now and then as it crawled toward what its acute sense of smell indicated might be a rabbit's nest with enough food to carry it for another few weeks. And it caused the stalks of yellow primrose to momentarily bend as it passed through them.
Two lights burned in windows a little east of Slater's Draw. Soft thump of a pack coming out of the draw and onto the ground above, lying there and containing what was worth slightly more than forty-five thousand dollars on the streets of America. Pablo Espinosa followed the pack, taking hold of a tree root with one hand and clawing earth with the other, pulling himself up and out.
He brushed arroyo dust off his clothes and caught his breath, looking around. Nothing. Quiet across the high desert, except for the shrill and distant scream of a mother rabbit too far away for Pablo Espinosa to hear.
Sitting in the kitchen of the main ranch house, Winchell Dear heard the scream. He'd heard it before and was neither surprised nor alarmed. Nature ran things with an iron fist in the desert: cries in the night, step over bones a month or two later. Death in the short grass.
Beneath the table, a dog older than Winchell Dear in equivalent dog years raised her head, sniffed, growled. The dog had come with the ranch, and there was a time when she would have been up and pushing open the screen door, on her way to investigate whatever was happening within the perimeter she defined as her place of duty and concern. But now, arthritic and tired from fourteen years of watchfulness, she merely laid her head on her paws and went back to sleep.
Winchell Dear said, "It's all right, girl. Let it go. Something got a rabbit, that's all."
He straightened his shoulders, shuffled cards, and glanced out at the night where vectors were closing toward him. He might have known that, or had a feeling about it, for old gamblers who have lived long and by their wits have a way of catching the smell of evil when it is still some distance off. Perhaps that was why he reached up and touched the little .380 Colt automatic slung in a holster under his left arm. Perhaps that was why he'd put on his good gray suit and custom-made boots and why he'd earlier made sure the ten-year-old Cadillac out in the garage was gassed and oiled. Something about this day just past and this night in progress did not feel right. Winchell Dear was at the ready, for reasons not altogether clear to him, something to do with faint vibrations in the substratum of his consciousness.
And the thought sideslipped into his mind, as it seemed to do now and then without any help from him, that if Jarriel hadn't taken off her clothes and danced naked on Cut Norway's pool table, he wouldn't have had sufficient cause to kick her butt down the ranch road and back to Las Vegas or wherever. And minus that, she might still be here with him and he wouldn't be so all alone. And she wouldn't be sending those nasty letters demanding money and making pestilential late night phone calls full of vague threats about what she was going to do if he didn't send something she called palimony, a word unfamiliar to both Winchell Dear and the laws of Texas.
He shuffled cards, looked out at the night, and began a nervous, faltering hum of the song a Vegas musician had written about him:
Sittin' at the table, with my best suit on,
blue suspenders tugging at my shoulders . . .
A quarter mile northwest, in a small adobe where two signal lamps of evening burned, Sonia Dominguez combed her black hair and looked in a mirror having the pleasant flaw of making her seem younger than she really was.
Indian walking by moonlight. Diamondback, with inexorable purpose or at least giving sign of purpose by its direction and movements, appearing to be only another shadow momentarily slung across the desert floor by whatever bent above it in the gusts of night wind, passing between and among those shadows until it was indistinguishable from the ground over which it traveled. And Pablo Espinosa, pack up and centered, with only a quarter mile to go and legs getting on toward wobbly, letting fatigue have its way now that he was close to a place of resting.
Meet the Author
Robert James Waller is the author of the #1 New York Times bestsellers The Bridges of Madison County and Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend. His other works include the New York Times bestsellers Old Songs in a New Café: Selected Essays, Border Music, and Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, and his book of photographs, Images.
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This Robert Waller book was a little different from the others but a very good read -- really grabs you from the first page and won't let you quit -- a short book, as novels go, but so very well worth your time -- men and women! If you are a RW fan you simply must give this one a try!!
I have read all of Robert James Waller's books and this one almost beat Bridges of Madison County. The writing is very poetic and lyrical. I finished the book on a Friday night and picked it up to read again on Saturday. The first time I read the same book twice in one weekend. Great job RJW