Cheatgrass: A Novel

Cheatgrass: A Novel

by Bart Paul

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628726015
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 868,685
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Bart Paul is the author of TV documentaries, short stories, the biography Double-Edged Sword: The Many Lives of Hemingway’s Friend, the American Matador Sidney Franklin , and Under Tower Peak , his acclaimed debut thriller featuring Tommy Smith. Throughout his school years he spent summers working on cattle ranches and pack outfits in California’s Eastern Sierra. After years in Southern California, he now divides his time between Bridgeport, California, near Yosemite, and Smith Valley, Nevada—the ranching country of his novels.

Read an Excerpt

Cheatgrass

A Novel


By Bart Paul

Arcade Publishing

Copyright © 2016 Arcade Publishing
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-601-5


CHAPTER 1

Captain Cruz sat on the desk drinking wine and watching me pack. She rested her bare feet on the desk chair and dangled her glass in her fingers like the whole thing amused the hell out of her. It was a big rolltop that belonged to a deployed major who sublet me the apartment, and she looked good sitting on it. Nothing in the place actually belonged to me except my clothes, including Captain Cruz. Her clothes were all still scattered in the bedroom. I zipped a 9mm into its case and took it over to the desk to lock it in the drawer. The captain leaned over me so her hair tickled my face and I couldn't miss the way it smelled.

"You're not taking that?" she said.

"I'm just going to visit an old friend."

"An old girlfriend," she said. "That's when you need a gun the most, soldier."

"She's happily married. I told you so."

"And that's why she's texting you. 'Oh, Tommy, come home. Mama needs you' I always carry something in my check-in. You never know."

"I get off the plane in Reno, I guess I can find a firearm or two if I need one. I'd sure as hell need one if I ever called that girl Mama. She'd kick my ass"

"You can say her name," she said. "I've heard you say it before."

"Okay. Sarahd kick my ass. And she's real busted up about her dad. I told you, he just flat disappeared Monday morning. Vanished without a trace."

"Yes," she said. "You told me many times."

"You're a heartless old thing."

She gave a hot little quiver there on the desk. "You know better than that, lover," she said.

We both were still for a minute. You could hear gunfire from down the street in the direction of one of those bars where the soldiers and the locals went to mix it up. This was maybe the third time in a month. She ran a finger down my arm but she was watching the window, alert like she was back in the game. I took a sip of Wild Turkey and watched her close. It was a sticky night in Georgia, and it was only May. She wore red polish on all her fingers and toes when she was off duty. I wasn't used to girls who took the time to do that, but then the captain was no girl.

"So what does she expect you to do that the police won't do?" she said.

"Beats the hell out of me"

"So why do you go?"

"I don't know. We sort of grew up together. Her dad and my dad were best friends. It's like a family thing."

"My husband ever texted another woman like she did you, Id cut his heart out," she said. "My great-grandpa rode with Pancho Villa, so you don't screw with us. That is a family thing."

"You guys were fighting the army back then, and now you are the damn US Army."

"You laughing at me, lover?"

"Hell no. Company commander is a big deal. You oughtta be proud."

"Okay, then," she said, "since you're the only man at Fort Benning better than me." She did some moves with her hair to make sure I was paying attention. "I think maybe that's why I risk another court martial to be with you, Staff Sergeant."

"You got more on the line here than me, I know that."

"Don't be too sure, lover. You break my heart ... all bets are off."

She got quiet again when the sirens blasted by under the window. I let it go and went back to my packing. Like with most real pretty women, folks talked about the captain behind her back. She'd had trouble before, and probably for more than just diddling with somebody below her pay grade, but I never asked her about it. There were lots of stories, but I figured they were hers to tell.

"So how come you don't drive that fine Mustang GT out west?" she said. "If it was me, I'd take a road trip."

"Nope. Gotta get there quick."

"You're in a hurry to get to her," she said.

I tossed her the keys just to watch her stretch for them. "You take a road trip while I'm gone."

"You trust me with that hot car for two weeks?" she said.

"Sure. It ain't like it's a good horse."

"Damn, cowboy," she said, but she sort of smiled. "That's got to be a lot of money to spend on a car."

"It's my only extravagance."

"I thought I was your only extravagance."

I folded the last of my cowboy shirts and laid them all in the check-in bag except a white one I'd wear on the plane. Then I took off my BDU pants and pulled on some Wranglers.

"I always travel in uniform," she said, watching me. "I like it. Nobody ever looks past it to see your face, so it's like camouflage. In airports you blend in to your surroundg"

"You're not the blend-in type."

She liked hearing that. Then she just shook her head when I took my black buckaroo hat and a skinning knife down from the closet shelf. I tossed the knife in the bag and zipped it. The hat still had some sagebrush country dust on it. I hadn't touched it in a long time.

"How soon before we have to leave for the airport?" she said.

"Couple of hours, maybe. It's not even a hundred miles to Hartsfield. Just before sunup should do it."

She pointed to the hat. "You're not going to wear that thing, are you?"

"Not for the next couple hours."

She upended the wine glass and drained it. Then she slid off the desk and held out her hand. I took it. With her standing up I could see the nasty scar under her left breast where they stitched her up after an ambush on the road to Bagram.

"You can call me Mama all you want," she said, "and I promise not to kick your ass."


Mom's Beamer just ate up that grade on the new stretch of freeway that bypassed Steamboat and Pleasant Valley heading south out of Reno. Shed always driven like a madwoman, but since Dad died it was like shed studied on it, picking up a used 325i on Autotrader and tricking it out just like any other forty-nine-year-old widow would do. It was silver-gray and looked like she'd just washed it that morning before heading for the airport to pick me up. I was half dozing as she took those big sweeping curves on the new bridge at about eighty-five.

"Late night last night?" she said.

"You might say."

"Who was she?"

"Nobody you'd know."

She gave me one of those like-hell-you-haven't-got-beer-on-your-breath looks, like when I was in high school. She'd flown out to DC to meet me when they first sent me home, and she'd chatted up every nurse and doctor and friend of mine at Walter Reed. I guess I really didn't mind it as much as I let on.

"Well," she said, "even with the short notice, it's just great to see you. A sweet surprise on a sad occasion." She started to tear up and reached over to squeeze my hand.

I squeezed back, then let it go so she wouldn't rear-end a motor home. "Good to see you too, Mom."

I looked down on Washoe Valley, and over to that timbered mountain to the west that hid Tahoe, counting the seconds until she did that mom thing again.

"How did you finagle getting leave so quick?" she said. "You won't get in trouble, will you?"

"Company commander likes me. I said it was a family emergency."

"Did he believe you?" she said.

"Oh, yeah."

"You could have said it was for medical reasons," she said. "You still limp."

"Not so's you'd notice."

"Like heck," she said. She was quiet for a bit. "You look awful, Tommy."

"Sometimes I don't sleep so good."

"Like never," she said.

"You think there's a chance Dave's still alive?"

"I just don't see how he could be."

"Sarah thinks he is."

"But she has to, honey," she said. "She's got to have hope or just go crazy."

"She said the sheriff's office thinks it's foul play, but she told me Dave's doctors said maybe he had some sort of stroke. Wandered off. Maybe some new deal with his heart."

"Right now it's Sarah's heart I'm worried about," she said. "You stay out of her life, young man. She's over the moon about this guy Kip that she married, and he's real good to her and a great provider. You had your chance with that girl and you blew it when you reenlisted."

"Nice, Ma."

"Well?"

She just drove for a while. She thought the world of Sarah Cathcart and had her own hopes for the two of us, I guess. When we were halfway down Carson Valley, I got out my phone to text Sarah Id landed and would see her that afternoon. I saw I had a text from Captain Cruz but I didn't check it out just then. Mom stopped at the JT Bar in Gardnerville, and we went in for an early lunch. I dug into my steak sandwich and beer and fries, and she started telling me stuff I already knew — stuff about her new boyfriend, Burt Kelly, who was a Marine mule packer and instructor at the base out by Sonora Pass, and how two months before she'd moved off the ranch in Jack's Valley where she was bookkeeper to move in with Burt at the Marine housing in Shoshone Valley just down the road from Dave Cathcart's, and how she hoped I was okay with it all, as it had been almost eight years since Dad had died and she had to get on with her life.

"That's what Sarah's got to do," she said, "get on with her life and, well ..."

"She can't till she knows what happened to her dad."

"What has she asked you to do?"

"Nothin' yet. They figure why anybody'd want to harm him?"

"Sheriff Mitch thinks it might have been some sort of random home invasion thing," she said. "Gone bad."

"Sheriff Mitch"

"Now, Tommy," she said.

"Dave wouldn't have just walked out without a fight"

"There's a bad element creeping into our part of the country that just wasn't around when you were growing up. At least we didn't notice it out on the ranch." She looked kind of mopey and sad again, like she was lost in the past. "It's those drugs. Those and the lack of decent jobs. That does something to people."

I guess.

"I don't know how we deal with that," she said.

"Keep an eye out for strangers, I suppose."

"You're the stranger now," she said. Her look was as sad as I could remember.

I paid the check, and we hauled ass south, up into the Pine Nuts on the Reno Highway, then past the State Line Lodge and down into California. The big irrigation reservoir was blue and shimmery like always with some whitecaps in the breeze, but lower than I remembered. I watched a yellow cloud of dust at the far end of the reservoir. It was the Hoffstatler place, or what was left of it.

"The hell?"

"It's so sad," Mom said. "It happened when you were in Jalalabad. The LA cousins wanted to cash out, so when they couldn't find a buyer in this economy, they outvoted old Thor and sold the water rights to the restoration project. It just broke his heart. I think that's what killed him."

"What restoration project?"

"The Frémont Lake restoration project. They buy up water rights on the East and West Frémont watersheds so they can raise the lake level out by the Indian reservation — reduce salinity for cutthroat trout and all that. Hoyt Berglund's the rights acquisitions honcho for Fish and Wildlife. You remember Hoyt. He worked for the irrigation district back when your dad first started at Allison's." Just mentioning Dad seemed to make her sorrowful. "That seems like such a long time ago."

A big gust swirled that yellow cloud into a pillar of dirt hundreds of feet high, like all that was left of that ranch was getting sucked up into the sky. Mom slowed down as the dust devil swallowed us up, shaking the car on its shocks till we couldn't hardly see. She was just creeping along, and the road there was narrow and curvy and high, so it was a long drop down to the water's edge. When we got further along we could see the ranchland at the north end of Shoshone Valley. The pasture grasses had dried up and what little was growing out of the hard dirt was just cheatgrass and rabbitbrush. The West Frémont River curved through the center of the dry ground then ran straight into the reservoir, running past the old headgates, ditches, and diversion canals that had kept the place rich with grass for a hundred and fifty years. The only green now was along the river's edge.

"Damn, I hate to see that. Hoffstatler's was one of the first ranches that split off when old Tom Rickey went under a hundred years ago. Dad said Will James rode colts there."

"It's all so sad," she said.

The wind hit us again and a torn bit of yellow police tape snagged a wiper blade and trailed alongside the car, snapping in the air. By now we were south of the reservoir driving along the edge of the dead ranch with the foot of the Sierra rising high on our right. We passed a stone building that had been part of the old Rickey cattle empire and could see the fallowed ground up close. Mom pulled over under some dying cottonwoods, got out, and untangled the police tape from her wiper. She had thirty feet of it in her hand and looked pissed as hell. After she stuffed it in the trunk, she got back in out of the yellow wind.

"I don't know why I baby this darned car in this hard country," she said.

Then we were out of the fallowed land and just as suddenly the valley off to our left was green with spring grass. A narrow, fenced gravel road lined with trees sloped away from us down toward an iron bridge over the river then across the center of the valley, and I could see red cattle grazing and see the Cathcart headquarters under the big cottonwoods with their gray trunks, and leaves thick and light green shading the barn and sheds and corrals, and the sandy pink and white peaks of the Monte Cristos rising beyond the pastures and the sage hills off to the east.

I guess Mom caught me looking and began to chatter, as if that would keep me from thinking of Sarah and Dave and my dad, and all the rest that was gone.

"It's only a matter of time until this looks as horrible as Hoffstatler's," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean Dave was planning on selling his water rights, too," she said.

I couldn't think of a thing to say to that.

"Burt's kept your old Dodge Ram in good order," Mom said. She sounded happy to be talking about him. "He starts it up every week or so, and he changed the oil when he heard you were coming home."

"It's not exactly home."

"Well, it's the best I can do right now," she said, sort of snappish.

"Okay. I'm sorry. Thank Burt for me."

"You can thank him yourself," she said. "Be nice, Tommy. He's a good guy, and he wants to be your friend."

"I know. We knew each other when he was packing out of the Summers Lake outfit when I was in high school and I packed for Harvey. Before Burt went back into the service. He's okay."

By now Cathcart's was behind us. She was quiet for about as long as she could stand.

"I try not to compare Burt to your dad," she said. "He's a fine man, but he's not Leland Smith."

"Who the hell is?"

We drove farther south toward Rickey Junction until I saw a cluster of apartments and cars on a bench above the highway on the right. Mom slowed down and pulled up the access road to the Marine housing complex. It just depressed the crap out of me.

"It's funny," she said, "but the last two months is the first time in my life I haven't lived on a ranch."

We got out of the car and went inside their place to meet Burt. He was a big, curly-headed Irishman in black-rimmed glasses who, from his years in the saddle and all the times he got tossed out of one, carried himself more like a packer than a Marine. We said hi and drank iced tea and BSed about folks we knew and about my latest little hoo-rah with a Taliban IED, and what my plans were now that I could get out of the service again if I wanted. Burt had been in Desert Storm and got himself a Purple Heart while he was there, so I wasn't telling him much he didn't already know. He was trying too hard, but he was doing it for Mom so I couldn't complain. I figured he might be a few years younger than her. He called her Deb and she called him Hon and she looked girlish around him and happier than she had in years, so I guess her smile was because of more than just the damn car. I sure as hell hadn't made her happy since I got back from my second tour — before I re-upped for the third.

After a while I told them I best be getting on down the road to see Sarah. Burt told me my truck was topped off with diesel and ready to go. I thanked him and we shook, and I gave Mom a squeeze and said I'd call when I knew my supper plans. My old Dodge Ram hadn't really got any better looking with age and appeared pretty shabby parked next to Burt's immaculate F-250. I'd had that Dodge about ten years, give or take, since I was seventeen, and it was plenty used when I got it. It needed a paint job and probably new tires from all the sitting around, but it was so familiar I could hardly stand it.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Cheatgrass by Bart Paul. Copyright © 2016 Arcade Publishing. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Cheatgrass: A Novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Hard to put down. Learned lots of new words. Interesting how much can be conveyed with so few words of conversation.
katefj More than 1 year ago
I love a good, well-written mystery, particularly those set in the western U.S. So I was very happy when Bart Paul's "Cheatgrass," another thriller focusing on the Tommy Smith character, was released. It is a wonderful follow-up to "Under Tower Peak." It has a great plot line, characters with dimension, terrific dialogue and plenty of 'on the edge of your seat, page-turning' action! I was also happy to see the same sense of place that was prevalent in "Under Tower Peak." So if you love the eastern Sierras or the west in general, "Cheatgrass" will not disappoint. I really hope a third book in this Tommy Smith series will be coming out sooner than later!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another great modern western.
BruceMH More than 1 year ago
I liked this book. Hope there will be more