When trading post owner Texana Jones and her veterinarian husband Clay take refuge at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa, they again cross paths with danger. Texana is begged by a rancher to help a possible killer escape arrest. In this fourth in the borderland series, murder and its resolution play out amid the mixed Anglo and Hispanic culture of the trading post and the river. As usual the most convincing married pair in mystery are aided by a charming cast of eccentrics.
"The great strength of Martin's Texana Jones series, now in its fourth installment, remains the vivid depiction of the stark Chihuahuan Desert of Presidio County, Texas, with its vibrant Tex-Mex culture and the unique mentality of its fronterizo inhabitants." - Booklist
About the Author
Allana Martin lives in Marfa, Texas, with her husband. Her first novel, Death of a Healing Woman, won the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award. She is a former journalism teacher.
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Death of A Myth Maker
By Allana Martin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Allana Martin
All rights reserved.
"I don't see the big deal about this. They look like flashlights to me. I bet it's kids with flashlights."
The man speaking with such certainty leaned his rotund weight against the minivan with New York license plates parked next to my white Ford pickup and waited for his wife to become as bored as he at the display of the Marfa Lights glowing in the darkness against the distant Chinati mountains. Sitting on the tailgate, I could see the lights plainly as they appeared and disappeared.
"It's not flashlights," his equally heavy wife said. "They're glowing real soft in blue and white. Look." She thrust the binoculars at him and dutifully, he looked.
"It's a gimmick for tourists, Blanche. Use your head." He handed back the binoculars. "I'll be in the van."
"Fascinating," my sister-in-law Fran said. "I admit I was skeptical, but this is really something. One is pulling apart as I watch."
Fran stood in the bed of my pickup, her eyes pressed to my binoculars, looking across the Mitchell Flats and toward the mountains. Even with her long, brown hair tied back into a ponytail and dressed in casual clothes, Fran was a striking woman and a stylish one. Everrything she wore, from tennis shoes to windbreaker sported a designer label. It was nine-thirty. Along with fourteen other vehicles, we had parked in the Texas Highway Department's viewing area nine miles east of Marfa. The area was filled because it was the Wednesday before the Labor Day weekend and the annual Marfa Lights Festival, which brought a fair share of tourists to stay in the local motels. The Marfa Lights, irregular in their display, were making a showing that kept most of the watchers, even those without binoculars, interested. The five or six lightbulb-size luminaries weren't spectacular, only mysterious and unexplained.
"What's the theory on this?" Fran said.
"The romantic legend is that the lights are signal fires lit by an Apache chief named Alsate to guide his people back to the safety of the mountains."
"They lived there?"
"The Mescalero Apache knew every mountain, road, arroyo, canyon, and cave around here. They ended up in the Trans-Pecos after being driven out of the Llano Estacado by the Comanche. But everybody, whites, Mexicans, Apache, were afraid of the Comanche. The tribe had made treaty with the United States, but Texas was a republic then and Texans and Mexicans were considered fair game. For over a hundred years, the warriors crossed the Pecos River and swept through west Texas, riding for the Rio Grande and Mexico, raiding for livestock and captives. Not a rancho or village was safe. So many Mexicans were killed or captured that the governor of Chihuahua paid mercenaries to stop the raids. The scalp-hunting bounty was known as Mexico's Fifth Law. Don't ask me what the first four were, I have no idea. Chihuahua paid from one to five hundred pesos for every Indian scalp brought in. We're talking the first half of the nineteenth century when the peso was nearly equivalent to the dollar. A hundred dollars was real wealth in those days. Men, and even a few women, poured in from as far away as Tennessee and Canada. The silver mines at Chihuahua City turned out newly minted silver pesos just to make the scalp payments. Raiding an Indian camp at dawn was like finding a gold mine. So much so, the mercenaries got carried away and took any scalp, friendly Indian, poor Mexican, or fellow mercenary, as long as the hair was black."
Fran lowered the binoculars and gazed at me. "Did it work, the bounty?"
"It slowed the raids, but ended up causing more trouble. Most of the mercenaries were white, so the Indians turned against all whites, even those they'd made private treaty with. No one was safe, especially when the Civil War took the soldiers out of Fort Davis."
Fran put the binoculars back to her eyes. "Is there any scientific theory about the lights?"
"Natural phenomena of unknown origin," I said. "That's the usual write-up's explanation, which explains nothing. Some people have suggested that it's reflected lights from cars on Highway Sixty-seven, which doesn't explain why the Indians and early settlers saw the lights. Then there are the wilder explanations of iridescent jackrabbits or swamp gas —"
"Swamp gas in a desert?"
"Like I said, theorists."
We watched for nearly thirty minutes, during which time the minivan couple left and a busload of high school kids arrived, grew bored quickly, and left.
Soon after, Fran and I called it quits, as did most of the other watchers. Every vehicle except mine headed east into Alpine, where most of the motels are. Driving west toward Marfa, we had the two-lane highway to ourselves in an empty world. The Trans-Pecos of far west Texas, with its rimrock mesas, arched brown mountains, volcanic calderas, sun-bleached lowlands, and the Rio Grande running through the open valleys and rock canyons, is one of the rare places left where people are insignificant.
My name is Texana Jones, and I live in Presidio County, Texas, one of the nine counties that make up the Trans-Pecos region. We have maximum land space, 3,855 square miles, and minimum population, just over seven thousand. The county is shaped roughly like a right triangle. The county seat of Marfa is tucked into the northeastern corner. Sixty miles to the southwest, the Rio Grande forms the longest side of the triangle. Right on the river is Presidio. Go up river toward distant El Paso and my trading post is at mile fifty. Polvo, population 125 and one of the county's oldest communities, is at mile fifty-two. After Polvo, the road goes five more miles, but it's only graded lava rock, and washes out after any rainfall, though we get under ten inches a year.
I kept my eyes on the road, looking out for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, javelina on the move under the cover of darkness, as well as the more mundane among our wildlife population such as coyotes, skunks, raccoons, gray foxes, and desert cottontails. Fran made no attempt at conversation, but sat slumped in the seat, her long legs folded up against the dash, her eyes staring at the darkness of the roadside. Such physical lassitude was no part of her normally frenetic personality.
Fran is my husband's only sibling, ten years younger than he, and physically very similar, nearly matching his six-foot, one-inch height and very like him in feature, with hooded gray-green eyes, prominent nose, and strong chin. Fran's hair is the same thick gloss, though hers shows no gray. However much they look alike, in personality the two are opposites. Clay is calm and steady, Fran is nervy and impulsive. A transplant from Fort Worth, Clay had come to Presidio County to get away from people. Fran had majored in interior design, marrying right out of college a promising young attorney named Jake Dare. They soon bought a home in the affluent suburbs of sprawling Houston. Fran produced two children and did the society-charity routine while her husband made a name for himself statewide as a defense attorney, taking on big and bigger cases. Jake Dare. The name evoked the privateering spirit that befitted the most successful of the lawyer breed, and Jake capitalized on it, "Daring to take on the toughest cases Texans can offer," he'd been quoted as saying. In 1998, Jake had been named "one of the twenty most impressive, intriguing, and influential people in Texas" by Texas Monthly. Fran sent us a copy of the glossy magazine.
Fran adored her brother Clay, and I thought she was fond of me in a mild way, knowing that Clay was happy in his marriage, but she had never hidden her feelings about our lifestyle. In Fran's eyes, Clay and I, the veterinarian and the trading post owner, were hermits, and without the requisite wealth to qualify as eccentrics, merely odd. In all the years of our marriage, she had paid us only three one-day visits, supplemented by long, chatty telephone calls and punctuated by lavish gifts selected from the trendier catalogs. Fran's asking if she might come and stay for a week had been startling, but froom her arrival that afternoon until this moment, she had remained mute on anything but pleasantries.
We had made the last rise on Highway 90. Ahead, the lights of Marfa, the town, glowed softly. Not brightly. The population of the Presidio Countyy seat is just short of three thousand, and because of the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains in the next county over, the entire region avoids overlighting, using guards to deflect outdoor lights downward in order to protect the darkness of the night sky. Marfa showed as a small stretch of lights in the middle of a vast and velvet darkness.
Fran blurted out, "I've left Jake."
Before I could take in her flat statement, Marfa vanished. One second there were lights, the next there was nothing save the ancient light of the stars to distinguish sky from earth. This, I thought, is what it must have looked like before the dawn of the first light. I stopped the truck, rolled down my window, and poked my head out into the cool night air, as if the view would be different from that visible through the windshield. Instead, I heard something that increased my feeling that this was an X-Files moment. From out of the darkness flowed a vintage forties dance band accompanied by a mellow voice crooning, "Isn't it romantic." Had I been transported back in time to a World War II blackout? On the road something moved into the edge of the pickup headlights, a dancing couple, the woman's full skirt swirling as her partner finished the turn in a dip.
Fran gave a choked giggle. "Do you see what I see?"
"Do you mean Marfa disappearing or Fred and Ginger waltzing the yellow line?"
"Good, you see them. For a minute I thought my Prozac was making me hallucinate."
The couple stopped and, arm-in-arm, walked toward us.
"I saw them get off a plane at the airport while I was waiting. So you know them?" Fran asked, her voice edgy.
"The woman is Ella Spivey. She belongs to one of the oldest ranching families in the Trans-Pecos. I've never seen her dance partner before." I cut the emergency flashers on, got out, and walked to meet the pair. Behind me, I heard the wail of the Union Pacific train's horn as it rolled west after its stop in Alpine.
"Hello, Texana Jones," Ella's soprano voice called to me over the sound of the music.
Ella wore a paper flower pinned in her upswept white hair, a frilly red blouse with a flared denim skirt, and shiny red boots on her feet. Everything her partner wore, from the black felt western hat to the fancy boots on his small feet, looked new. He looked like a friendly elf playing cowboy.
"We've been dining at Reata in Alpine," Ella said.
"We must have just missed you. I picked up my sister-in-law at the airport and took her to an early dinner, then we drove out to see the Marfa Lights."
"I took Julian to see them when he first arrived in Marfa." Ella introduced her companion as Julian Row, who smiled, and said, "I've seen similar phenomena in many places all across the globe. Pakistan, India, all the hot, dry climates seem to have mystery lights."
"Julian has led such an exciting life," Ella said.
I said, "The most exciting thing that happens around here are the low-level flights of the German air force training in New Mexico."
"This is a beautiful setting, though," Julian said, looking at Ella and placing his hand over hers where it rested on his arm. "Perfect for a beautiful lady."
He smiled at me like a politician ten points down in the polls. "You caught us out, Texana. We had a flat, and after I changed the tire, I couldn't resist asking Ella to dance with me under the stars."
"Night dancing on Highway Ninety might seem a bit odd to some folks, Julian, but I'll bet Ella has told you about the ranch families that used to meet at the crossroads for dances by headlights. I guess you've got a tape player somewhere in the car, not the whole band."
Julian smiled. "It's on the hood, along with a chilled bottle of champagne. If you'd care for a glass, follow me." He pulled free of Ella's arm to gesture broadly behind him. "Hey! Where has Marfa gone to?"
"Looks like the mayor forgot to pay the light bill," I said. "If you two are okay, I'll be on my way."
"We've never been better," Ella said.
I wished them good night, returned to the pickup, and drove off, leaving the dancers alone under the stars.
"What are they doing out here?" Fran said as I climbed back into the driver's seat. "Are they crazy or drunk?"
"Neither as far as I can tell, although they have champagne with them," I said, pulling my seat belt tight. "Ella Spivey is one of the seven sisters. You know, like the Pleiades. That would make their daddy Atlas, and from the way they talk about dear departed dad, I'd say they thought he held up the whole world like a god, although judging by the lovey looks Ella was giving her dance partner, it looks like she may have found someone she thinks as much of."
"Explain the Plee-uh-deez."
"It's the name of the constellation. Supposed to be seven sisters, the daughters of the god, Atlas. I guess in Houston you can't see the stars to know them. Anyway, that's the way everyone around here refers to the Spivey sisters and their ranch. It's a beautiful place in high country. Good grass, adequate water, spectacular views. The sisters all live together in one big house that their daddy built. They refer to themselves as 'unmarried ladies,' never 'spinsters' or 'single.' They expect locals to call them by their first names, and outsiders to say, Miss Spivey, never Miz. Not one is under sixty. Ella is in the middle, somewhere between Leila and the twins, Hattie and Mattie."
"What about the dance partner," Fran said.
"All I know is his name, Julian Row."
"He's a little over age for a 'toy boy,'" Fran said. She gave me a look. "That's not why I left Jake by the way. I mean, I'm not having an affair."
"I didn't assume you were."
What had happened to her marriage? I thought about Jake's photo in Texas Monthly, the hard brown eyes, the raised chin, and the confident smile as he posed surrounded by the media that increasingly covered him rather than his high profile clients. Posture or reality? Was he as arrogant as he looked? I hardly knew the man.
"Are you listening?" Fran was saying.
"I'm sorry, Fran. About you and Jake. Let's get home and we'll talk about it, if that's what you want."
"There's nothing to say, really. I woke up one day, that's all. You might say I was a lot like Miss Spivey back there, dancing with a man on a highway to nowhere."
She paused for breath, and I smiled to myself over her characterization of this being a road to nowhere. The citizenry, most of them anyway, would say that was what made the town a good place to live.
"I'm sick and tired of my whole life," Fran said. "Jake's life, really. On the rare occasion that Jake is home before ten in the evening, we have nothing to say to one another. When we make love, it isn't. It's coupling. The parties we attend are networking events. I want a divorce. The kids are old enough to handle it. Jake said I should think about it, that he is perfectly satisfied with things the way they are. He should be. Everything and everyone in his world revolves around him. Sounds a lot like Daddy Spivey, the way you described him."
I wanted to throw out a cautionary note about tossing away what you have without due thought, but I didn't say so. People in Fran's situation want support, not advice.
"Let's forget Jake and go find out what has happened to Marfa," Fran said.CHAPTER 2
Marfa sits on a high sweep of grassland nearly as high as Denver, landlocked by huge ranches, isolated by inhospitable land forms and limited water. There are no fast-food franchises, only a couple of local restaurants with a chronic need for additional help. The businesses are utilitarian: groceries, gas, insurance, furniture, liquor. Once a waterstop on the Texas and New Orleans railroad, the town hasn't changed much in appearance since it was named after a character in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov because the railroad engineer's wife happened to be reading the book and liked the name. It is headquarters for a sector of the Border Patrol, home to two art foundations, and a handful of galleries and a number of artists.
We rolled through a town blacked-out except for a few headlights. I stopped on a corner of Highland Street by the Paisano Hotel and asked the shadowy figure of a man on the sidewalk what had happened. "Don't know yet," said a voice I could not place.
I waved a hand in thanks and drove south toward Presidio. Marfa is above the rimrock, Presidio is below. Marfa is Anglo culture, with Rotary, Masons, and Protestant churches. Presidio is Hispanic, with brujas and curanderos and Catholicism.
"I forget," Fran said, "how far is it to the trading post? I thought we'd gone out of state getting to the spot to see the lights."
"Just over a hundred miles," I said, "but we'll make good time the first fifty."
"How do you stand having to drive fifty or a hundred miles any time you want to go anywhere?"
"You get used to it. Of course, it makes eating out expensive, if you include the cost of the gas. I guess it's a good thing I like to stay home."
"What do you do all day?"
"Nothing much. That's what I enjoy, the quiet, the view of the mountains across the river, bird watching, sitting on the porch and reading. The trading post gets its fair share of customers from the ranches above Pinto Canyon and from the other side of the river. People drop in to visit, buy supplies, pass along the latest news or hear it. It's nice."
Excerpted from Death of A Myth Maker by Allana Martin. Copyright © 2000 Allana Martin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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