Thunder and Rain: A Novelby Charles Martin
Third generation Texas Ranger Tyler Steele is the last of a dying breed a modern day cowboy hero living in a world that doesn't quite understand his powerful sense of right and wrong and instinct to defend those who can't defend themselves. Despite his strong moral compass, Ty has trouble seeing his greatest weakness. His hard outer shell, the one essential… See more details below
Third generation Texas Ranger Tyler Steele is the last of a dying breed a modern day cowboy hero living in a world that doesn't quite understand his powerful sense of right and wrong and instinct to defend those who can't defend themselves. Despite his strong moral compass, Ty has trouble seeing his greatest weakness. His hard outer shell, the one essential to his work, made him incapable of forging the emotional connection his wife Andie so desperately needed.
Now retired, rasing their son Brodie on his own, and at risk of losing his ranch, Ty does not know how to rebuild from the rubble of his life. The answer comes in the form of Samantha and her daughter Hope, on the run from a seemingly inescapable situation. They are in danger, desperate, and alone. Though they are strangers, Ty knows he can help protecting the innocent is what he does best. As his relationship with Sam and Hope unfolds, Ty realizes he must confront his true weaknesses if he wants to become the man he needs to be.
RT Book Reviews (**** 1/2)"
...entertaining hybrid of James Lee Burke's morality tales and Nicholas Sparks' sentimental journeys.A John Wayne hero, multiple appreciations of the Colt Model 1911 and a cowboy-gets-the-girl"Kirkus Reviews"
Good for anyone who likes good, strong, old-fashioned, right-or-wrong reads, and Martin does have a following."Library Journal"
Charles Martin is a sensitive fellow. He is also one hell of a writer. His latest book tells the story of a modern day Texas Ranger. It will have you cheering, and crying, of course."The Florida Times-Union"
[A]n enlivening, inspiring and action-packed novel....you will not be able to put it down."bookreporter.com
Thunder and Rain is one of the best books I have read in years....this book reads easy and Mr. Martin tells a story that grabs you from the first chapter and keeps you turning the pages. Before you know it, the book is almost done. This is the first of Martin's books I have read and now I'm a fan. If you like westerns, read the book. If you like action stories, read the book. If you're a fan of Texas or the mystique associated with the Texas Rangers, get the book. If you like a great story that culminates in the triumph of good over evil - yeah - get the book. Highly recommended, you won't be disappointed."SkinnyMoose.com
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Thunder and RainA Novel
By Martin, Charles
Center StreetCopyright © 2012 Martin, Charles
All right reserved.
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
—C. S. Lewis
Five years ago.
Andie grabbed the pommel, slid her foot in the stirrup and hopped up on May—a fifteen-hand black cutting horse with white socks. I handed her the reins while she glanced at me below the brim of her hat. A slight smirk. She walked to the door of the barn where the last of the sunlight danced on her shoulders. She ducked below the beam and the saddle creaked. An M. L. Leddy’s we’d found at a flea market. I checked the knot holding her saddlebags and the picnic inside. She clicked her mouth, heeled May in the flank, pressed her hat down tight and May launched her out of the barn. Half laughing, she hollered over her right shoulder, “Last one down brushes them both.” I laid the left stirrup across the saddle, adjusted the breast collar, and watched her. Full gallop. Swirling dust in her wake. I’d seen jets on aircraft carriers do much the same thing. If ever woman was at home on a horse, it was Andie. Heels deep, back straight, ponytail bouncing, arms straight. When we first married, she’d done some barrel racing. The insides of her thighs grew so strong from holding on that she could hang upside down on a fifty-five gallon barrel like a kid on monkey bars. I tried it once and ended up with three stitches in the top of my head.
She rode across the pasture then disappeared through the mesquite and scrub oaks. I led Cinch to the door and climbed up. I stroked his mane. “Let’s don’t keep her waiting.” He turned toward the river and blew through his nose, ears forward. I laughed. “Well, she can wait a little.”
We ambled to the river, waded in, crossed over and climbed up on the island that had become our oasis. A scrub oak canopy rising up out of a sandbar known to few. Time spent here was once plentiful. Now rare. The echoes of laughter had long since faded downriver. I climbed down and tipped my hat back. She had spread dinner out across the blanket. I’d be up all night and the spread was her attempt to make sure I didn’t go hungry.
I washed my hands in the river and sat across from her. She handed me a plate. Her cheeks were thinner. More hollow. Black circles under her eyes. Jeans loose. The nights had worn on her. Being alone did that. She said, “You’ll be careful?”
I nodded. The trick was to give her enough detail to satisfy her while not causing more concern. Or showing my own. “Everyone’ll be asleep. Most will be drunk or high. There’s more of us than them.”
“And if they’re not asleep?”
“Then”—I laughed—“it’ll get exciting.”
She turned away. I should learn to keep my mouth shut. I tried to remind her. “This is four years in the making.”
“But you always told me you can’t control every variable, every angle.”
“And, we feel like we’ve got most of them.”
“But, what about—?”
“But…” She pushed the food around her plate.
“Andie.” I set down my fork. “This is what I do.”
She nodded, which meant she heard me but didn’t like it.
Maybe all this was unavoidable. Maybe it couldn’t be helped. Occupational hazard. Or, casualty. Happened to lots of guys. I had tried to be a good husband. Father. Least, that’s what I told myself. She turned and swallowed the pill she had told me was a women’s multivitamin prescribed by her doctor.
I knew better. It was not.
We ate, stepping silently around the elephant on the island. I scooped the cobbler and passed it to her. The silence loud.
My pager sounded. A thunderclap. I muted it.
She shook her head. “You can’t do that.”
Five minutes later, it thundered again. I read the callback numbers: “60.” I had an hour. I gathered the plates, began packing.
She stopped me. Set the dishes aside. Reached across. The vine-thick vein on her neck pulsed rhythmically. On a blanket beneath a deep Texas sky, she slid off my hat and pulled me to her. Once tender and warm, her love had been an offering shared, a discovery, a pursuit.
This was not that.
I’d already lost her.
“Yeah, big guy.” The sun had fallen and hung bright orange rimmed by dark mango, filling the sky from Amarillo to Odessa, drawing long shadows across rusty oil derricks.
“I don’t understand something.”
He was whittling. A yellow-handled two-bladed Case trapper. Three miles beyond the end of his knife sat Jack McCarter’s pasture where the last few years he’d grown melons. “I don’t understand why some people put salt on their watermelon.”
It was not yet March. Watermelons were still a good ways off. “A watermelon’d be good about now.”
“Why would people do that?”
His legs dangled off the end of the tailgate, hanging to below the bumper. He was eleven now and his boots looked to be getting small. The river slipped silently by. Wood shavings sprinkled his lap. A few rode the river. The Brazos River falls into Texas off the Cap Rock, or the end of the Great Plains, in northwest Texas then meanders some eight hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Below our feet it still had some six hundred to go. He waved the blade of his pocketknife in a circle in front of him, an extension of his hand. “Why would you want to put salt on something sweet?”
I shook my head, ran my fingers through his hair. “I’ll be gone when you get up in the morning. Dumps’ll fix your breakfast. Get you to school.” He nodded and didn’t look up. The fishing pole next to him leaned against the side of the truck bed, its line connected to a red-and-white bobber floating midstream and a piece of hotdog resting on the bottom. The fish had yet to find it. “I should be home tomorrow night.”
He shrugged, digging his knife into the wood, marring it. “Can I go?”
I shook my head.
He looked up. “But I’m old enough.”
The weight of the world lay hidden in his question. “Yes, you are, but I need some time with her.”
“You always say that.”
“You’re right, I do. But it’s true.”
“When can I see her?”
“I don’t know, son.”
“She don’t call much.”
“I know that.”
His eyes narrowed. “You taking her some flowers?”
Beyond the river, the pasture was dotted with the first of the bluebonnets. Lupinus texensis. The Texas state flower. Another month and God would paint the earth blue and the sky red. “Think I should?”
“Okay. I’ll pick some. Take them down.”
“You get her some for me?”
I reeled in his line, held it while he fed a worm onto the hook. He cast farther upstream and set it back against the truck bed.
He returned to his stick.
“How much longer does she have?”
I put my hand on his shoulder. He looked away. I tried to speak quietly. “You should know.”
He’d hung a calendar on the refrigerator. Every morning he’d mark another “X” then announce the number of days remaining. “Thirty-five.” He looked up at me. “When she’s done, is she coming home?”
I pulled him to me, tucking his shoulder under mine. “I don’t know, son.” The sun slid. Orange bled to crimson.
“Do you want her to?” The world hung in his question.
I squeezed him. I’d never lied to him. “I don’t know.” He cut deep into his stick. “I don’t know.”
I-10 westbound. Louisiana in my rearview. Texas beyond my hood. The rain had returned. Grape-sized drops pelted the windshield. I couldn’t see past the end of my wipers. The manila folder sat on the dash. Yellowed. A coffee stain on top. The weight of the papers inside drew my eye. Such finality. Two signatures… I could almost hear the “sign here” tags talking. I shuffled it off to the side. Wedged down where the windshield met the plastic. But it did little to dull the conversation. Nothing silenced that.
I slowed, watched my mirrors for lights and mopped off the fog on the inside of the glass with a dirty T-shirt. I slowed to a crawl, nearly stopping. I couldn’t see anything. The flowers lay on the seat next to me. Wilted.
I hadn’t left them.
My mind was distant. The Polaroid stared up at me. I’d taped it next to the gas gauge. When full, the needle pointed to Brodie’s ice cream–covered face. He was sitting on my shoulders, wearing my hat, arms raised. He was so proud. My mind was distant—half of me was driving, and half of me was walking up the front porch trying to find an answer to Brodie’s question. That distance only partly explained why I bumped the car in front of me. The rest of the explanation had something to do with it being parked in the middle of the highway.
I hit my flashers, pulled off to the side, pulled on my slicker and hat and walked toward the driver’s window. The car was once a 1970s wood-paneled station wagon. Most of the wood was gone. A woman—young, maybe early-to midthirties—climbed out of the driver’s side as I approached. She was soaked to the skin. A muffled and tight cough rose out of the backseat.
The driver was tired. Haggard looking. Medium height. Five-eight or so. Skinny. Light brown, even blond, hair. Faded T-shirt. Glasses. She wrapped a dirty towel around her shoulders. She pushed wet hair out of her eyes. Rain dripped off her face. One lens of her glasses was fogged up and the rain was causing them to slide forward on her nose. One of the nosepieces had broken off so they sat at an awkward angle. She shoved them up with her finger. She was not happy. “Why don’t you watch where the hell you’re going!” The word “hell” was two syllables and sounded like “hale.”
I looked behind us. Two lights approached in the distance. Closing faster than I liked. Sometimes the best way to disarm somebody is to come in around them. “Will it crank?”
More coughing from the backseat. Her eyes narrowed. “If it would, do you seriously think I’d be sitting here?” Her accent wasn’t Texas. More Alabama. Maybe south Georgia.
“You steer. I’ll push.”
She bit her lip. This confrontation wasn’t going as she had planned. I glanced at the lights behind us. She hopped in, I leaned against the rear bumper and pushed her onto the shoulder of the road as a moving truck passed in the left lane. I walked to the window. “Hit the engine one time and let me listen.” Rain puddled alongside the road.
She turned the key and the engine turned over but wouldn’t start. She palmed her face, locked the door, and began rolling up the window. She spoke through the glass. “Thanks for your help.” She tried to smile. “We got help coming.”
I’d “read” a lot of people. It’s helped me stay alive. ’Course, I’ve missed a few, too. I knocked on the window. “You sure it’s got gas?”
She cracked open the window and tapped the gauge. “It’s broken. Doesn’t register right.”
“When was the last time you filled up?”
She paused, staring through the windshield. Black circles around her eyes. She sat back, crossed her arms. “A while back.”
I lifted a five-gallon can out of the back of my truck, and began pouring it into her tank. Doing so allowed me to see the person in the backseat. She was small, hidden in a blanket, eyes wide and knees pressed to her chest. Her face was pale and her breathing shallow. While the empty tank drank, I listened. The coughing came in violent, spastic spurts. Sometimes hard and deep. Other times, short and shallow. Sounded like it was coming from down in the lungs and it sounded like everything else was swollen and tight. I’m no cough-reader but it needed a doctor. I screwed the cap back on, patted the roof. “Okay, hit her one time.” She turned the engine over and over. “Pump the pedal.” She did and the engine sputtered, backfired, then the big block roared to life, sending white exhaust out the left bank. It idled rough and the timing needed adjusting. I knocked on the hood and spoke over the rain, which was thundering. “Pull the latch.”
She did and I lifted the hood. I shined a light. The engine was leaking oil like a sieve and one of the engine mounts was broken and banged every time the engine revved and torqued. I hollered around the hood, “Your timing’s off.”
I heard a mumble from inside, “You’re telling me.”
The door opened, she came around the side, wrapped in the soaked towel, arms crossed. The rain was bucketing. It was cold and getting colder. “Is that expensive to fix?”
Water was dripping down my back. More hacking erupted from the backseat.
I leaned in, and turned the distributor counterclockwise.
The engine settled but little improved. White clouds blew from the right rear pipe. I shut the hood and held the door while the lady climbed back in the car. An empty quart of oil lay on the passenger floorboard. The gas gauge was bouncing off “E.”
She cracked the window again. I spoke above the rain. “You’re burning a lot of oil. Your right head gasket is leaking like Swiss cheese. You push this thing very hard and you’re liable to blow the engine.”
“Can it be fixed?”
“Yes, but…” I glanced at the car. “I’m not sure the car would be worth whatever you’d have to pay to fix the engine.”
The woman seemed distracted, nervous. Like she was looking over her shoulder. She was rubbing her hands together. The person in the backseat had pulled the blanket over her head, crossed her legs Indian style, and was writing in a journal. The pages were covered in words. Lots of words. She looked up once, eyed me, but never quit writing.
The woman pushed the hair out of her face. Unzipped a small black backpack that looked like it served as a purse, and pulled out her wallet. Crow’s-feet formed in the corner of her eyes. She said, “What do I owe you?” Given the concert of her life—the torn upholstery, bouncing gas gauge, empty oil can, kid coughing, bald tires, smoke billowing out the exhaust pipe, smell of burning oil—I had my doubts.
“Not a thing.”
She let out a breath. “I’m sorry about your truck. Is it very bad?”
My truck is a Dodge Ram one-ton, 3500 series four-wheel drive, powered by a Cummins turbo diesel. Its color was in the gold family but with a little over two hundred thousand miles, it’s more a dull satiny remnant of that. If there is such a color. It’s what I like to call a highway tank. It has a crew cab—four doors—a topper that keeps everything dry in the bed, including me when I sleep back there, and aftermarket BFGoodrich all-terrain tires. It is designed to pull cattle trailers, which it has done much of, and if forced, could probably slide a house off its foundation.
“Where I come from that’s called a cattle guard and it takes something akin to a nuclear blast to ding the thing. A few exits down, you’ll find a truck stop. Greasy place, but it’s dry, they serve a good egg sandwich and they got a mechanic who will be in tomorrow morning. He’s almost honest. If you can’t wait, then you might ought to stop and pour some oil in this thing. Maybe buy a few quarts for the road. It’s burning as much oil as gas.”
Another push on her glasses. They were stretched out and didn’t fit her face well. She tried to laugh. “Don’t I know it.”
Another painful swallow. She proffered her wallet. “Sure I can’t pay you something?” Another muffled hack sounded behind her. The shape moved slowly, obscured by the fogged-up windows. The woman glanced over her shoulder, then returned to me and slid her hand back into her purse. “I can.”
Rain was flooding the side of the road. “I’ll follow you to the truck stop. Just stay in the right lane and click your flashers on.”
She nodded, smeared the rain off her face and rolled the window up. She tried to take a deep breath but it didn’t get very far. She opened and slammed the door, which did little to lock it shut. She shut it again, but the hinge was bent and, judging by the sound of metal on metal, had been for a while.
She dropped the stick to drive, rolled up her window, and eased off the side of the road, slinging mud out of the right tire. The left spun on the asphalt. The car fishtailed. Two eyes stared at me out of the backseat.
I figure you already know everything I need to tell you. If you don’t then you ain’t much of a God. Certainly not The God. Momma says God would know. And if God was really God then He would be pissed. I’m writing you ’cause we don’t never stay nowhere long enough for me to find a real pen pal. Plus, Momma told me to. Remember the train station? We were sitting on that bench in that town with the name I can’t remember, just Momma and me, and she was rubbing her hands together, and we didn’t have no ticket to nowhere and no money and no nothing and I kept bugging her and asking her to tell me who to write ’cause somebody needed to know about us. Somebody other than us needed to care about our life, which was real bad but it was ours so anyway she’s rubbing her face and sweating and pacing back and forth and trains are coming and going and nighttime was coming and I didn’t want to sleep in that station another night and I jabbed my pencil into this book and I said Momma, who can I write? And she looks at me and tells me not to raise my voice at her. Can’t I see she’s got enough going on. And when I started crying and threw this book at her she went and picked it up and straightened all the pages and then she sat down and put her arm around me and she cried too, which she don’t do much ’cause she’s trying to be strong but she cried then and she cried hard, I know ’cause she was shaking and she couldn’t catch her breath and then she was quiet a while and finally she picked me up and carried me through this door that said “chapel” and it wasn’t nothing more than a broom closet without the broom but with a stained-glass and bleeding Jesus hanging crooked on the wall that reminded me of one of those velvet Elvises you see hanging at closed gas stations and we spent the night in there and a couple hours later when the trains had quit coming and going and she was combing my hair with her fingers she looked at me and said, God, baby. He’ll listen. He’ll be your pen pal. You can write God. So, you’re stuck with me. I know you’re busy with hungry people and folks dying and disease and all kinds of bad stuff but when I asked Momma about you and having the time for me she just smiled and told me that you can walk and chew gum at the same time, which I think means you can do more than one thing at a time so if I’m bugging you then just tell me and I’ll try to write shorter letters.
I haven’t written much lately ’cause, well—I guess you know. Anyway, I can’t talk to Momma about it ’cause it hurts her too much to hear it and come to think about it it hurts me too much to say it and, well, I don’t really know where to start so I’ll just start right here—Momma found out about the… you know, and she blew a fuse. Like I ain’t never seen. She grabbed me and we took off. Said we were “getting the hell out of there.” Sorry to cuss at you but that’s what she said as we ran to the car. I’m just repeating it and repeating it ain’t a sin ’cause it didn’t start with me.
She stole this car. It was the neighbor’s and she wasn’t driving it. Just letting her cats sleep in it. She won’t miss it none. Anyway, we stole it and Momma’s been breaking every speed limit we see. By a lot, too. She says we’re headed to her sister’s. Told me not to worry. Says when we get there, she can get a job and we’ll be fine. Just fine. She said it twice, which means she don’t believe it none neither. Says there’s lots of jobs in New Orleans. She can go back to Wally World and they’ll transfer her job to wherever she’s living at the time. She says they’re good about that. They like her ’cause she’s always on time and never stole nothing like the other cashiers. And at her sisters, she says we’ll have our own room. Upstairs. Overlooking the water and the lights of the city. And we can have clean sheets every night ’cause her sister’s got a washing machine. Says there’s always something going on in New Orleans. Always a party. I’m not so sure. I know I’m just ten, but sometimes I think she tells me things to make me feel better even though they ain’t true and they ain’t never gonna be.
My blanket is dirty. I asked Momma if we could get a new one and she rubbed her hands and put her hand on her forehead, which told me it cost money and we didn’t have none of that so I took it in the bathroom at the rest area and tried to wash it out with the pink hand soap and then held it under that hair dryer mounted on the wall but it didn’t do no good. I tried to find a word to describe it. I think I found one. “Bedraggled.” I think it fits. Anyway, it’s real dirty and looks like I been dragging it in the mud.
It’s raining. I better go. Momma just cussed, twice, ’cause the engine quit and now we’re sitting in the middle of the highway with headlights getting closer.
It’s been a few minutes. This man stopped to help us. Actually, he bumped into us, Momma cussed him out and he just tipped his hat and helped us, which I thought was strange. He looks like a cowboy. Wears one of those long raincoats you see in the movies. Gave us some gas. Looked through the window at me. Momma pulled the hood latch and he fiddled with something. The engine don’t sound as bad. He told us about a truck stop up ahead. Said he’d follow us.
He is. I just looked.
Momma once told me she’s got a tumbleweed heart. I didn’t know what it was so I looked it up. It’s a bush that dries up ’cause its water source goes away, then, once it’s sucked dry and dead, it rolls around in the wind. Or, tumbles. That’s how it got its name. You’ve seen them in old Western movies.
Momma just asked me how I’m feeling. I said fine. But between you and me I feel like a dirty tumbleweed. Just rolling ’round in the wind. No roots. No place to set down. Nothing to call home. And you know when you see a tumbleweed rolling around those old movies, the movie always ends before you get to see what happened to it.
But, looking back on it, I don’t think it’s real good.
The rain had driven most of the trucks on I-10 off the interstate and into the flooded truck stop parking lot. Must have been two hundred trucks sitting in six to eight inches of water. She parked underneath the canopy overhang and sat long enough for the windows to fog up. I tapped on the window. A crack appeared. “There’s oil inside.” The landscape was a tightly packed sea of parallel trailers. “If you have anything valuable, I wouldn’t leave it lying around.”
She nodded and rolled up the window. Her eyes were darting all over the place.
I grabbed my bag, and headed for the showers. Twenty minutes later, shaved, clean, and feeling more human, I dropped my bag in my truck and saw that her car was gone. Nothing but a big black oil spot remained. She wouldn’t make it far.
I took a seat at a booth in the corner and a waitress named Alice appeared with a pot of hot coffee, a dirty apron, and an empty mug. I looked up. At one time, Alice had been good looking. The “A” in her name tag had worn off. She smiled. Several teeth were missing. “Baby…” Her voice was sweet, and cigarette raspy. “What you need?”
“Just an egg sandwich with cheese. Please, ma’am.”
She set down the cup, filled it, and patted me on the shoulder. “You got it, baby.” Her white uniform shoes were run down. Greasy. Yellowed. The years had not been kind to her.
I bought a paper and made it halfway down the first column before the picture of that wood-paneled station wagon reappeared in my mind. Then my mind played a trick on me and I heard that cough. I made it to page two before I heard it again. I looked up over the paper and caught movement out of the corner of my eye.
She was wrapped in a worn fleece blanket that, at one time, had been cream-colored and printed with Disney characters. Now it was a dirty brown and most of the characters had blended in or worn off. One frayed corner dragged the ground. Something red had dried and smeared in one corner. She coughed slightly, one hand covering her mouth. Tight, labored, and mucus-filled. She crept around the far end of the diner, away from Alice, slowly eyeing each tabletop. When Alice disappeared toward the kitchen, the girl approached a table where a tip had been left. A few dollar bills and some coins. Glancing over her right shoulder, she slipped her hand out of the blanket, across the table and took one quarter. Six minutes later, when the two guys down from me stood and left a similar tip, she reappeared, quickly scanned, and stole a second quarter.
Alice appeared at my table with my egg sandwich just about the time the girl’s fingers clasp around the coin only to disappear back under her blanket. Alice put her hand on her hip and muttered, “Well, I’ll be a—”
I put my hand on her arm and shook my head. Alice watched the little girl leave, and muttered, “What’s the world coming to?”
I reached in my wallet, and gave her a ten-dollar bill. “Will this cover it?”
Alice smiled at me and slid the money into the top of her bra. She leaned on the table and the front of her dress hung open exposing two sagging bosoms. “Are you married?”
Alice raised one eyebrow and shook her shoulders. “You want to be?”
“It’s tempting, but… I’m still trying to get… unraveled from the first one.”
She patted me on the shoulder. “Baby, I know what you mean.” She stood, ran her fingers through my hair and walked back toward the kitchen keeping her eyes on the girl.
The girl walked the aisles of the convenience store next to the restaurant. She paused in the medicine aisle, then walked down to the trinket aisle where they sell all the crap that kids look at and bug their parents about but is absolutely worthless. She stopped a long time at one thing but I couldn’t tell what it was. She pulled it off the rack, flipped it over, looked up at the counter and then she eyed the LOTTERY sign. She hung whatever was in her hand back on the rack, wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, coughed three times hard enough to bend her double at the waist, and then took a long look into the restaurant. When she walked around the aisle and disappeared from sight, I emptied a handful of change and six dollar bills on the table two down from me.
The girl reappeared at the end of the row of booths, shuffling close along the edges of the tables with her head low. Wrapped in the blanket, I still couldn’t see what she looked like. About this time, I started wondering what happened to her mother who I hadn’t seen since the side of the highway. Least, I assumed it was her mother.
The girl reached the table two down from me and paused, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I hunkered over the sports page. She reached out, grabbed one quarter, then returned her hand to inside the blanket. She took one step, then stopped and looked down into both her hands. Her lips moved, then she turned her head to look at all the money remaining on the table. She coughed again, covering her mouth, then slipped her hand out, grabbed a second quarter and walked out of the restaurant.
I finished my sandwich, paid Alice, and meandered into the convenience store, stopping in the children’s crap aisle. Didn’t take me long to find it.
Tinker Bell stickers.
I pulled two packs off the rack and approached the counter where the girl stood swaying back and forth—her head just extending over the counter. She laid four quarters on the laminate surface. Her voice was constricted, “I’d like to buy a lottery ticket, please.”
The woman at the register laughed and tapped the sign above her head with a pencil she slipped from her beehive. “Child… you got to be eighteen. How old are you?”
Her eyes never left the lady at the register. “Eighteen… minus the eight part.”
The lady leaned on the counter. “Child, if I sell you a ticket, I could lose my job.”
I laid the stickers on the counter next to the four quarters and paid no attention to the kid. “Howdy. I need sixty on pump seven, these stickers, and one lottery ticket.”
The kid stepped back and eyed her quarters. She shook her head, mumbled something I couldn’t hear, slid the quarters off the counter, and shuffled back toward the restaurant. I walked out the side door and began pumping the gas. I leaned against my truck, and stared back through the window at the kid crouched in a corner watching Alice. When Alice disappeared into the kitchen, the kid crept into the restaurant, laid four coins on the table nearest the door and walked out.
I scratched my head and stared down the highway. I have a thing in the back of my brain that starts dinging when something doesn’t set right. At the moment, it was banging pretty good.
I refilled the five-gallon tank in the back, screwed on both caps, and walked back toward the trashcan where the kid was leaning against the window. The glass had fogged up in front of her mouth. I walked inside and laid the lottery ticket on the frame next to her cheek. She stepped back, looked at the ticket, wrapped her blanket tighter around her and didn’t look at me. I spoke softly. “I was a kid once, too.”
Dirty fingers came out of the blanket and hovered over the ticket. “My mom told me not to take stuff from strangers.”
“Did she also tell you not to talk to them?” The kid nodded. “Good. Don’t talk to us, don’t take anything from us, and don’t ever, not ever, get in a car with one. You understand?”
A slow nod.
“Where’s your mom?”
She shrugged and her eyes darted left and right, skimming the floor. “Don’t know.”
I stared out over her shoulder, over the fogged-up section on the glass, across the parking lot and toward the intersection that led into the truck stop. At the corner, where the four lanes intersect, a woman stood in the rain holding a cardboard sign. I swore beneath my breath.
The girl looked up at me. “You shouldn’t cuss.” A weak cough. More of a tickle. “God don’t like it.”
“Seems like I remember hearing something about him not liking thieves neither.”
She flushed and shot a glance toward the restaurant. She pulled her hand back inside the blanket, leaving the ticket on the windowsill. “It’s not for me.”
Her eyes darted to the intersection.
I reached in my pocket and set a penny on the sill next to the ticket. “Well… some lucky stranger might win…” I stared up at the marquee. “This is one of those quick pick deals where you can win a couple million bucks when three of the numbers match.”
Two hands came out. One grabbed the penny. The other, the ticket. She scratched furiously then turned it sideways, studying the numbers. None matched. She flicked it like a playing card and walked off. The ticket fluttered, spun, and returned like a boomerang, landing on my toe.
The girl was making her way toward the far corner of the parking lot where the station wagon sat in the shadows. She skirted a puddle, pulled away the sheet serving as the right rear window, climbed in and pulled the soaking sheet back across the window frame.
I swore again. This time louder.
I cranked my truck, dropped it in drive and sat watching the intersection through my binoculars. The sign she held read, PLEASE HELP. GOD BLESS. The rain had slowed but was still falling, as was the temperature. Upper thirties. I could see her breath from the warmth of my seat. Maybe the last cold front of the year. The kid in the car had to be cold, too. I rubbed my forehead.
One of the passing trucks threw a hamburger wrapper at the woman on the corner. I pushed my hat back, and backed into a corner of the lot where I could see.
Thirty minutes later, the parking lot filled with trucks and the intersection quiet, the woman sailed her sign like a Frisbee into the ditch and then started making her way down the long row of semis—knocking on doors. Her clothes were drenched.
I rolled a cigarette and watched her talking with the drivers. The first seven shook their heads. The eighth deliberated, then shook his head. The ninth—a big man with an even bigger gut, looked around the parking lot, rubbed his hand through his beard, scratched his behemoth belly, then smiled and welcomed her up into the cab.
That was my cue.
I pulled on my slicker and my hat and set the unlit cigarette on the base of a lamp pole on the only dry spot I could find. I wove my way around the trucks, through clouds of spent diesel fumes, stopping just shy of his cab. His trailer was sitting low on the rear wheels. I waited, listening. About sixty seconds later, I heard the raised voices followed by the smacks and screams.
I didn’t used to be a flashlight nut but you spend enough time walking around in the dark and you come to appreciate a good light. SureFire makes one of the best. Something the size of your palm can light up the world. Mine did. I put my foot on the step, took a deep breath, put the flashlight in my left hand, and pulled on the door.
I swung into the cab, lit up the sleeping quarters and found him trying to do to her what he was paying her to let him do. Problem was, the thing he needed to do it with wasn’t cooperating. Or, if it was, it had a funny way of showing it. She lay on her back in front of him—available.
He shielded his eyes. “What the…?” He was not happy but his pants were crumpled at his ankles so I knew he wouldn’t be making any drastic movements. At least any that were successful.
I clicked the switch above my head and turned on the cabin lights. He liked that even less. She reached for her clothes and covered up. Her nose was bleeding and her lip was already puffy. Her glasses hung bent on her face. She turned and spat blood on his sheets. She needed to shave her legs a week ago. He made a move to pull up his pants, but I did something I’d done a hundred times before and his response was much the same. I drew from the holster and pointed the muzzle at him.
Deer in the headlights.
A large frame handgun like the 1911—the GI’s .45—has several impressive features, the most eye-catching is the inside diameter of the barrel—it’s bigger around than many folks’ pinky finger. And you get a pretty good view of it when the fire-breathing end is aimed at you.
His eyes crossed and he started stammering. I cut him short.
I waved the muzzle slightly left to right. “Not a word out of you.”
I turned to the woman. “You okay to move?”
She turned on her side and spat again, dark red. “Yes.”
She pulled on her panties and wet clothes and then climbed out the door. I was about to hop down and then remembered. I looked down at her. “Did he offer to pay you?” She crossed her arms, looked away and nodded. “How much?”
He piped in, “I ain’t paying noth—”
I steadied the muzzle six inches from his face. “I’ll let you know when it’s your turn. This ain’t it.”
She didn’t bother to wipe the rain draining off her face. “Fifty.”
He screamed again. “That lying whore… she said ‘twenty.’ ”
His wallet was chained to his pants. I ripped it off the chain and opened it to find it empty. Not a dollar in sight.
He laughed. I shook my head. Figures. She turned, said something beneath her breath, and began walking off. I turned to him. “Out.”
“But I ain’t—”
“That’s your problem.”
When he climbed over the seat, his pants fell on the floor. I pushed him out of the cab where he tumbled into a puddle on the asphalt. He stood up, cussing.
I grabbed the keys off the console, locked the door, and slammed it shut. He stood wearing a T-shirt, two wet socks, and his birthday suit. The two trucks facing us had heard the commotion and clicked on their headlights. Fenway Park wasn’t as well lit during game time. Laughter rose all around us. One of them blew a horn.
I holstered only to watch her turn, walk back to him, and stand in front of him. He laughed. “Just what do you think—” He got the word “think” out of his mouth about the time her boot landed squarely in his groin. His heels lifted four inches off the ground and his voice rose about that many octaves. He crumpled and fell to writhe in a puddle. She turned and began walking to the restaurant. I turned to follow her and he screamed, “What about my keys?”
I threw them into the retention pond just opposite the truck. He lay in the puddle, moaning, hands holding his tenders.
The woman began walking toward the lights of the truck stop—cold, wet, and no closer to the money she needed. I stared at my truck, and followed her at a slow walk.
Behind me, I heard the sound of a man vomiting.
She walked the length of ten trailers in the direction of her car. I was about to take a deep breath, I even raised my finger to get her attention and ask her if I could talk with her a second—seems like she and I ought to have some closing conversation—when a man dressed in all black with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up over his head, walked out from behind a truck, grabbed her by the hair and threw her up against the side of a tractor trailer. Her head hit the trailer, her glasses clattered on the asphalt. Rag-doll limp, she slid into the mud. He picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and, with fast, strong strides, disappeared between two parked trailers.
The whole thing took less than two seconds and went a long way to explaining why she was constantly looking over her shoulder.
I don’t know how he found them. It’s not too tough to put out some sort of alert on a stolen vehicle, especially one that keeps breaking down, but even that was hit and miss. No guarantee. Despite some unknowns, I was absolutely certain about a few things: He had been waiting, which meant he had a plan, he was physically strong, he was experienced, he had in fact found them, which reminded me of the proverbial needle in a haystack and, once he did, he wasted no time. Lastly, I had a pretty good feeling she didn’t want to go with him and he knew that, which would explain why he didn’t waste time talking about it.
I skirted around one trailer, sprinted the distance of six more and paralleled his shadow along two more. He walked to the fence and slipped behind eight other trailers en route to the corner of the fence and a parked van. Flat-black paint, dark window tint, even dark wheels and tires. The thing disappeared in the shadows. He pulled open the back door and dropped the woman into the back. When he did, the screaming voice of a frantic, gagged, and coughing girl rose up beneath her.
A brachial stun is taught by most martial arts and self-defense schools. It’s performed by striking someone on the side of the neck, just below the ear. Doing so blocks—in theory—the electrical impulses traveling from the brain to the rest of the body. One being the ability to stand up. If performed correctly, it can completely immobilize a very large or strong threat for a few seconds. Maybe several if you’re lucky. If performed incorrectly, you run the risk of making them mad.
He shut the door and I stunned him. He collapsed like the Scarecrow. I rolled him to his stomach, quickly untied his boot laces, folded his legs behind him so his heels touched his butt, pulled his rather muscular arms across the lower part of his back, fed the laces beneath his belt and tied the ends around his hands. Given the size of his arms, that only gave me a few seconds. I opened the door and found the woman unconscious and the girl wide-eyed and hysterical. Fortunately for me and unfortunately for him, the door of the van was lined with industrial-strength zip ties. The kinds tactical units use on crowds when they don’t have enough handcuffs to go around. Held in a can mounted to the door just above a sign that read, HIGH S PEED—LOW DRAG. Some law enforcement folks have been known to carry them inside the crown of their hat for such a purpose. Not even the Hulk can break them.
I zip-tied his hands, his feet and then zip-tied those together. In Texas, we call that hog-tied.
Because wolves hunt in packs, and more than half of all assailants have a partner, I wasn’t sure if this guy was flying solo or traveling with help so I dragged him off to the side next to the fence, knelt down and got quiet. Listening. Muffled cries rose from the rear of the van. When I didn’t hear footsteps, or shots fired, I appeared at the rear of the van, held my finger to my lips, cut the girl’s ties and pulled the gag off her mouth. I scooped up the unconscious woman and whispered to the little girl, “Can you walk?”
I carried the woman back through the spent diesel fumes to my truck and laid her across the backseat. She was regaining consciousness when I sat her up. The girl climbed in next to her. I touched the cut above the woman’s left eye.
I reached down along my ankle and pulled out a Smith & Wesson model 327 from an ankle holster. It’s an eight-shot revolver chambered in .357. I load it with Barnes triple shock. While not a .45, you don’t want to get hit with it. When you do, it feels like you’re being lit on fire. Keeping the muzzle pointed away from us, I handed it to her. I placed the grip flat inside her palm and stretched her trigger finger straight along the frame and away from the trigger. I didn’t want to get shot giving someone my own gun. “If anyone other than me opens that door, point that at them and pull this trigger until it stops going ‘boom.’ Can you do that?” She wrapped her left hand around her right and nodded. I pushed the door closed and said, “Be right back.”
I don’t know if she trusted me but I was pretty sure she didn’t trust the other guy. I returned and found him trying to wiggle his way around the van. I put a boot in his rib cage and drove the air out of his lungs. He coughed and cussed. I knelt and pressed the muzzle of my 1911 against his temple. Unlike a lot of folks in that same predicament, he didn’t go crazy. Didn’t scream. Didn’t writhe uselessly. He was cool. Collected. Measured. That told me a lot.
I studied the shadows. If he had help, it was slow in coming. He was studying what he could out of the corner of his eye. He hadn’t seen, and couldn’t see, my face but he was taking a mental picture of everything else. He was good. He also liked being in control—which he wasn’t.
And that he didn’t like.
I straddled him and drove my elbow down onto his neck, pressing his face into the mud. He shook his head and spoke around the mud. “Don’t know you. Don’t really care. I do know that I’ll hunt you. Find you. Rid you of whatever and whoever you love.” He laughed again. His anger was growing and he was losing his self-control. I reached in his back pocket and slid out his wallet. A bifold. On one side I found his driver’s license. On the other, his badge. Told you he had experience. I slipped it in my shirt pocket.
He had yet to see my face and I didn’t really want him to see me drive away so I sunk my arm under his chin and dragged him into the corner of the fence where the grass was tall. He knew what was coming. I locked my right hand on my left bicep and applied pressure to the back of his head with my left hand. He grew frantic. He knew he didn’t have long. In martial arts circles, this hold is called a “rear naked choke.” It’s painless, quite effective, and the problem with it is not that law enforcement folks use it but rather that they don’t use it enough. He, evidently, had used it. Through gritted teeth, he managed a smile. He was thick, all muscle. I’d not want to face him on even terms. He spoke through gritted teeth. “You are now… my life’s mission.”
I clamped down on both sides of his neck with my bicep and forearm and continued to push forward with my left hand. It only takes a few seconds. Just before he went to sleep, I whispered, “Be careful what you wish for.”
He slumped forward and I laid him in the grass. He’d recover. I walked a different route to the truck and approached slowly—from the front so she could see me through the windshield. I made eye contact with the woman holding my gun, opened the door slowly, and gently took the pistol from her hand. I grabbed a dirty T-shirt and an old towel off the passenger’s side floorboard, and draped them over my front and rear license tags. I didn’t know if this truck stop had video monitors or not but I wasn’t taking any chances.
The girl was shaking uncontrollably and the woman wasn’t altogether conscious. I put it in drive, turned off all lights, and began pulling out of the truck stop.
The girl pressed her nose and palms to the glass and screamed, “Wait!” She was trained on the station wagon. “Turbo!”
The woman held out a hand. Stop sign. “Wait, please.”
I stopped and stared in the rearview.
She opened the door and the kid ran back through the puddles to the car. She reached in the back and returned with a cage filled with what smelled like old cedar shavings. She set it on the backseat behind her mother, then ran back for her blanket, her notebook, a small black backpack, which her mother held on to and set in her lap, and a thick paperback. As she opened the back door I could see the pages were dirty, the corners were curled, and both the front and back cover were missing.
She hopped in and we drove out, through the lights and onto the highway.
A quick glance in the rearview. The woman was looking at me out of the corner of her eye. The look on her face told me she didn’t trust me any more than the guy behind us. Her face above her left eye was cut and needed stitches, her glasses were gone, her nose was dripping blood, her left eye was black, her bottom lip swollen, and she was still spitting blood.
We drove in silence. After fifteen minutes with no headlights coming up fast behind us, I turned off onto a smaller state highway, then again onto a country road. When the pavement ended, and the road turned to dirt, I pulled over, cut the lights and sat with the truck running. I turned around and scratched my head. “Are you okay to talk?”
Her wall had returned. “What do you want me to say?”
Her accent was rich. Thick. Syrupy. Mixed with a little attitude and sprinkled with spunk. Reminded me of Jo Dee Messina singing “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” I shrugged. “How about a name?”
“I’m Virginia. This is my daughter, Emma.” I doubted it, but if I were her I wouldn’t trust me, either.
The girl looked up at her.
“And, what are you two doing out here tonight?”
A quick look in the rearview. “Running from him.”
“And he is?”
“Was… a guy we lived with.”
“Until I decided I didn’t like him anymore.”
“Where are you from?”
Thought so. “Why’s he chasing you?”
She looked away. “ ’Cause he… didn’t want us to leave.”
There’s always more to a story than what surfaces on the first go ’round. Even the second and third. The best scenario for me would be to get them some place safe, get back on my way, and never ask her for her real name.
I tapped my chin, considering my options. “You got any family?”
“Sister in New Orleans.”
“Will she take you in?”
She paused, nodded.
“When was the last time you talked to her?”
“Couple months ago.”
“Why so long?”
She pursed her lips. “Phone’s disconnected.”
That should have been my first clue. “You know where she lives?”
I pushed her. “As in… you can point me to the exact address?”
Another nod. The rain was coming down again. I spoke to myself as much as to her. “I hate New Orleans.”
She pressed gingerly on one side of her mouth, talking as much to herself as to me. “I hate a lot of things.”
I did the math. Almost four hundred miles. About a six-and-a-half-hour drive. “Would it help if I drove you to your sister’s?”
Her head tilted to one side. One eyebrow raised. “You’d do that.”
It was a question embedded in a statement. “Yes.”
“How else are you going to get there?”
She stiffened. “I got no money. Can’t afford to pay you.”
“Well, you don’t have to sound so smug about it.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that after everything tonight, that you… probably didn’t have much of anything. That’s all.”
“My sister can’t pay you, either.”
“I’m not looking for money.”
Her eyes darted away. “Are you wanting the same deal I gave that truck driver?” It was an offer embedded in a question.
I shook my head. “No.”
Her eyes narrowed, forcing a wrinkle between. “You gay?”
I laughed. “No.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I picked up on the fact that when she got wound up, her accent got wound, too. It took a second after she quit speaking for the words to settle in their rightful place of meaning.
I laughed. “We’re going to need a longer highway for that conversation.” Her shoulders relaxed and a crack in her wall developed. I looked at her—the whole of her. She was dead tired. “How long have you been awake?”
She spoke without looking. “Couple of days.”
“How many is a couple?”
She thought. “What day is it?”
“I slept some last… Friday.”
I thought about her car at the truck stop. “Do you have Triple A?”
She frowned. Her head tilted. “Do I look like I have Triple A?”
“What about your car?”
“Whose is it?”
She shrugged. “No idea. I stole it.”
She rolled her eyes. More of the story she didn’t want to tell. “An old woman lived behind… where we were staying. She’s in a home. They were letting her cats sleep in it.”
“Well…” I glanced at my watch, thought about home, and dropped the stick into drive. “Come on… let’s get you two to New Orleans.”
I pulled back onto the highway. Her head turned on a swivel as she checked all the signs. A few minutes passed. She grew more jumpy. Her eyes squinted as she tried to read the passing road signs. “Are you really driving us to New Orleans?”
I figured we didn’t need any more sarcasm. “Yes.”
She sat up a little. “You’re not dropping us”—she tried to read another sign that disappeared into the blackness on the side of the road—“the first place you come to?”
“No.” She sat back, confused and deflated. “Why don’t you get some sleep. When you wake up, we’ll stop and get something to eat.”
She closed her eyes. “I already told you… I don’t have any money.”
“I can afford McDonald’s for three.”
For the first time, she noticed the bluebonnets I’d picked. Lying on the front seat wrapped in plastic. “You going somewhere?”
I shook my head once. “Been there.”
“Want to talk about it?”
She fell quiet. Maybe even dozed. After a few minutes, she jerked slightly and lifted her head. I spoke softly. Tilted my hat back. “It’s okay. You’re safe. Still headed to New Orleans.” She put her head back down and took a deep breath. Drunk with sleep, she turned to check on her sleeping daughter, then stared out through the windshield at the wreckage that had become her life. “I don’t have real good judgment when it comes to men.” I didn’t say anything. She spoke without looking. “Are you a good man?”
“My son thinks so.”
She stared at the Polaroid taped next to the gas gauge. “That him?”
Minutes passed. She spoke, “That driver tonight… the truck… that was the first time I’d—”
“Lady, I’m not judging you.”
“That’d make you different than most men I’ve met.”
She fought to keep her eyes open. “You’re pretty good with people in duress. I mean, you didn’t lose your cool when a lot of others would.” She was asking how, not stating a fact.
“I’ve had some practice.”
“What, being cool or handling stressful situations?”
Her tone changed. “Is that why you carry a gun on your ankle and one on your hip?”
I shrugged. “I’m from Texas.”
“You a cop?”
“Do I look like a cop?”
She eyed me. “Not really.”
Unimpressed, she studied my truck. “What do you do?”
“You don’t look retired.”
“What’s it look like?”
“Knee-high socks, Sansabelt slacks, pudgy belly.”
“I’m not that kind of retired.”
“What’d you used to do?”
“I worked for the DPS.”
“Department of Public Safety.”
“What, you drive a bus or something?”
I laughed. “Something like that.”
Her words were slow, even slurred. “You have a name?”
“Tyler. Most folks either call me Ty or Cowboy.”
She chuckled. “Are you?”
I nodded. “I’ve done some cowboying.”
“That gun you gave me… would it stop him?”
Excerpted from Thunder and Rain by Martin, Charles Copyright © 2012 by Martin, Charles. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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