“If you look for authenticity in your books, you’ll swoon over Reavis Wortham. He’s Texas true.”
—C. J. Box
“Think: Elmore Leonard meets James Lee Burke.”
Judge. Jury. Executioner. One man is taking the law into his own hands. His targets are criminals who slipped through the justice system. From California to Texas, this relentless avenger hunts down the unpunished and sentences them to death.
But now he’s on Sonny Hawke’s turf. A Texas Ranger committed to his job, Hawke will not abide vigilante justice—especially when innocents are also in the line of fire. The trail of bodies stretches across the Lone Star State to the most savage clan East Texas has ever seen. And Hawke is the only one who can stop them . . .
“Wortham knows how to ratchet tension with pitch-perfect West-Texas flavor.”
—Lone Star Literary Life
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Dressed head to toe in Mossy Oak Brush camouflage, Alonzo Wadler settled onto the ground in the Coconino National Forest outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. Virtually invisible, he sat perfectly still with his back against a tall ponderosa pine, a position allowing a 180-degree view of the open forest.
As had become his recent habit when he was alone, Alonzo's mind went to his wife, Betty. They'd met in high school back in Gunn, Texas. There wasn't much to do in the tiny community tucked into the Southeast Texas piney woods back in the 1970s, only spitting distance of Louisiana, but their interests were virtually the same and they were inseparable. Once he graduated, they reluctantly moved into the family business for a steady income.
He smiled at the memory of her sweet smile and auburn hair.
The crack of a limb an hour later caused his heart to pound so loud he expected it to be heard by anything with ears. He tensed and willed his nerves to calm. Index finger along the outside of the rifle's trigger guard, only his eyes moved to scan the landscape.
Several deep breaths later, a mature doe wandered into view, just off the wooded ridge stretching across his field of vision. The hunter wasn't happy with the mule deer's appearance, especially when she stopped and tested the air with her black nose. Not liking what she smelled, she gazed across a downed tree laying between them and seemed to meet his eyes.
Hearing a slight noise, her head swiveled toward the opposite direction. Alonzo took that moment to rest his left elbow on a bent knee and snug the .270's stock against his shoulder. He placed the Simmons' Aetec crosshairs an inch above her back.
She turned back and stomped her delicate hoof, hoping to startle whatever it was that worried her.
She stomped again and watched.
Go on, mama.
An experienced hunter since boyhood, he knew better than to move. Motion gives predators away. They know this and use it to their advantage when they're hunting. The now-familiar pain in his stomach broke his concentration. It was increasing in frequency and duration, but this time seemed to be nothing more than common acid indigestion. He wanted one of the pills in his pocket, but his reason for being there was too important, and he toughed it out.
The deer's soft brown eyes fixed on his pine tree, knowing something was there, watching. She stomped once again, and finally decided to trust her instincts. Stepping quickly off the trail, she disappeared into the forest with a flick of her tail. A second, younger doe trotted into view and was gone.
The man sighed. He'd been so focused on the first muley that he hadn't seen the second. His dad, Marshall, spoke from the past, his deep East Texas accent strong in Alonzo's memory.
"You weren't aware. Even if you're not looking directly at something, you'll catch it out of the corners of your eyes. It could be a bird flitting through the trees, or a rabbit hopping through the underbrush.
"When you see it, stay still. Don't turn your head. Everything that lives in the woods is watching, and you'll give yourself away. The rabbit looks for movement, and when it sees something, it freezes, because it knows whatever is out there is likely looking for dinner."
* * *
They hunted together in the East Texas pines when Alonzo was a sprout, and he recalled the terrible day that made him who he was. As everything else in his life, it was driven by his grandfather, Daddy Frank Wadler. That old man ruled the entire clan from the time they were born.
It happened on a squirrel hunt one frosty morning with his dad and Daddy Frank. They arrived in the Sabine River bottoms less than a mile from their farmhouse as the sun announced the day. Ten-year-old Alonzo never liked being around his granddad, even under the protection of Marshall.
Slipping quietly through woods thick with pine, pecan, and oak, Daddy Frank led the way with Marshall and Alonzo following closely. The drainage area that suited him overlooked a wide, leaf-covered slope leading down to the creek.
"Sit there, boy." Daddy Frank pointed at a red oak tree. His voice was low, authoritative. "A tree behind you breaks up your outline."
The boy met his dad's gaze. Marshall nodded, and they settled to the ground.
Without fail, Daddy Frank pulled out a plug of Days O Work chewing tobacco, end cut of course, and carved off a chunk with his razor-sharp knife. Tucking the chew into his cheek, gray with stubble even back then, he closed the blade, returned it to his pocket, and became still as the trunk itself.
Daddy Frank didn't even lean over to spit. He swallowed the tobacco juice when necessary, something even the most hardcore chewers couldn't do. He expected Alonzo to be just that still.
Dawn revealed the thick bottomlands. A squirrel scampered into view, jumping from limb. When the time was right, Marshall raised his little .22 semiautomatic rifle to aim with glacial speed, and one shot through the head brought the squirrel to the ground.
Daddy Frank always made it clear that the hunter was allowed only one round per squirrel.
"Shoot 'em through the head, son." Marshall leaned toward the boy's ear and spoke softly. "They'll fall dead and won't scare the others. You don't want it flopping around down there in the leaves."
Alonzo's voice was barely a whisper. "Don't the shot scare the others none?"
"Nope. I reckon rifle shots might sound like thunder, but it's usually movement that scares animals. The woods ain't quiet like books tell you. They're alive. Limbs rub together, or break and fall. Deer step on sticks. Bodark fruit falls hard, and pecans and walnuts hit with a lighter sound. Trees fall sometimes, too, and make a racket when they tear the limbs off other trees on the way down. Things with four feet rustle through the leaves covering the ground. When you open your ears, you'll hear more than most folks realize."
On that morning so long ago, a fox squirrel scampered into range, and the headstrong boy ignored Daddy Frank and Marshall's lessons. He decided to try a shoulder shot with his .22, like when they hunted deer. At the time, the youngster was full of what the old men up at the Gunn store called "piss and vinegar." He figured he'd show both of them a thing or two about what he'd learned from Outdoor Life and Field & Stream.
Indecision at the last moment, and nerves, caused the boy's aim to waver. Alonzo missed badly with the open sights. The little body tumbled through a web of limbs on the way down, creating more disturbance than he thought possible. The dying squirrel finally caught itself by a hind foot in a thick tangle of vines, hanging upside down long enough for Alonzo to sneak a peek at Daddy Frank's angry face. The horrifying rattle reached their ears, and the boy worked the rifle bolt to finish it off.
"Nope." Daddy Frank's voice was low, but clear. "You had your chaince, Alonzo. One shot."
Alonzo's face flushed hot and tears filled the boy's eyes at the horrible damage he'd caused. "But it's suffering."
"That's right." The old man sitting twenty feet away shifted to glare at the boy. "It's your own damn fault, because you didn't listen to your daddy."
The dying squirrel dangled by the claw on one toe, blood dripping from its nose. The pattering sound on the dry leaves below was clear as a bell in the still autumn air.
"Just this time? I won't do it again." He turned toward Marshall. "Please, Dad."
Marshall paused and threw a glance at his dad, who glared back. "No. Don't you let him do it, Marshall. Sit there and watch, and listen. You'll learn to mind after this."
Right then, Alonzo hated his grandfather. For five minutes that seemed an eternity the boy stifled great, shuddering sobs that would only get him into more trouble.
Men don't cry. Daddy Frank, the elder, made sure that no one in his family cried, or he'd give 'em something to cry about.
It was obvious they were teaching Alonzo a lesson, but one that hurt. The boy got mad and raised the rifle again to finish the squirrel's suffering and end the terrible ordeal.
"I said no, boy." Daddy Frank looked as if he were going to stand. It should have been Marshall's place to correct his son, but the old man held every family member in a vise grip. "You quit that cryin' or I'm gonna give you something to cry about."
Marshall raised a hand. "Dad, let me ..."
"No! You ain't much tougher'n that little crybaby of yours. It's about time somebody got ahold of him to toughen that boy up." The harsh leader of the Wadler family had whipped every man who challenged his authority, and no child was going to disobey.
Alonzo looked at his dad for support, but Marshall wouldn't meet his eye.
The squirrel died moments later and released its hold, falling with a soft thump on the moist humus covering the ground. The woods quieted, until another fox squirrel scampered through the treetops and stopped only yards away to crack a pecan.
"Shoot." Marshall's soft voice barely carried. "Show him."
Alonzo's voice broke. "I can't." The tears trickling down his cheeks were frustrating, and the boy desperately wanted to wipe them away, but he knew the movement would give them away, once again bringing a reprimand. "I might miss again."
"Shoot, he said, and this time through the head." Daddy Frank spoke from right behind the boy, startling him. He'd moved without a sound. "Do it, or I'll slap your jaws into next week."
The boar squirrel stopped to test the air, offering a perfect profile target. A blue jay's call echoed through the woods.
Blinking his eyes clear, Alonzo took careful aim with the .22 rifle. When the squirrel's head disappeared behind the front sight, he squeezed the trigger, slowly, the way he'd been taught.
The little rifle cracked and the squirrel fell from the limb, dead long before it hit the ground. Only then did Alonzo wipe his eyes.
"Better'n the last shot." Daddy Frank grunted and shifted his chew. "Marshall, you get ahold of this prissy kid and teach him not to backtalk me, or I will, and then it'll be me and you."
* * *
Now, sitting directly on the ground almost dead center of a vast pine forest over a thousand miles from East Texas, Alonzo Wadler held a Remington .270. The traditional workhorse of deer hunters across the nation was loaded with 130-grain Hornady SST rounds.
Each morning for the past three days, Alonzo arrived in the dark, sat beneath the exact same tree, and waited above a trail leading to an old trapper's cabin a mile away. He'd scouted his prey's tracks on the first day and was confident he'd be by again. It was only a matter of time.
A pine cone fell from high above, and a tarantula wasp buzzed his head. Time passed slowly after that. Nothing wandered into view, and by noon his stomach pain had intensified to the point of watering his eyes. He closed them for a long moment, trying to decide if he wanted to call it a day.
When he opened them again, a bearded man stepped into view, returning down a trail he'd walked days earlier. The man shouldn't have been in Arizona at all. A California felon, he'd jumped bail and left the state.
Alonzo's nervousness vanished like water down a drain. The rifle rose almost of its own accord, and the sight picture through the scope jumped into focus. The hunter moved the barrel ever so slightly to the right and acquired first a head and then the shoulder, the only exposed parts in the thick brush.
The safety came off with the flick of his thumb. Two more steps, and the prey was in the open. Alonzo shifted the crosshairs to his chest and waited.
The scope's crosshairs moved to the second button down on the man's shirt.
Alonzo's finger gently tightened on the trigger. He never felt the trigger's break, but the rifle cracked. Despite the scope's jump, he saw a fine red mist explode behind the man's body as the SST round destroyed his heart and lungs.
Dead before he hit the ground, career criminal and convicted felon Nicholas Barbour fell where he stood.
One shot and another one down.
Alonzo shivered in relief, because he'd wanted this one so badly. "Payback, you son of a bitch! I wish to God I could kill you twice." A sob hitched in his chest and he choked it down.
Regaining control, he stood without ejecting the spent round and picked up the thin nylon ground tarp he'd been sitting on. Quickly rolling it into a ball, he stuffed it into the small daypack that had also served as a backrest through those long days of waiting. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he scanned the ground.
Two days of waiting, and the only sign he'd ever been there were a few scuffs that most people would miss. Instead of crossing the distance and kicking the man's face into a pulp like he'd fantasized a hundred times, Alonzo hurried in the opposite direction from the already cooling corpse.
The day was growing warm when Alonzo reached his four-door Dodge pickup parked on a lonely gravel road in the national forest. He unlocked the door, stripped off his camo clothing, and pitched everything into the back seat before starting the big diesel.
He chased down a pain pill with a swallow of water from a bottle in the console and shifted into gear.
Prissy boy, my ass.CHAPTER 2
The eastbound desert highway west of Alpine, Texas, shimmered under a hot afternoon sun. I thumbed off the Dodge truck's cruise control at the sight of the blocked two-lane up ahead. The opening riffs of "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones was too loud at the slower speed, so I cranked the volume down a couple of notches and studied the backup of vehicles.
Over in the shotgun seat, my black Labrador retriever, Buster, perked up when the engine brake growled, slowing the dually. My cell phone rang. I would have ignored it, but it was Major Chase Parker, commander of the Texas Rangers Special Unit.
The clot of cars slowed me to a crawl and I pulled onto the shoulder to talk. "Yessir."
"I need you to meet me in your office. We have a little situation that's gonna be your baby." He spends a lot of time in my part of west Texas, though the Rangers' Division Headquarters is in Austin.
"I'm feeling fine, thanks."
He was silent on the other end. "Okay. I get it. How're you healing up?"
I'd gotten banged up during a little altercation not long before that like to've put me in an early grave, so I was once again riding a desk. "Thanks for asking. Like I said, fine. What's up?"
He sighed like he usually does when we talk. "We have some kind of vigilante crossing the country, executing people who've gotten off murder raps on technicalities, or felons who're out on pardons. It looks like he's gonna be here in Texas any day now, from what we've been seeing. This one's right up your alley."
"He send you a schedule?"
"You want to quit being a smartass?"
"I can try, but I ain't guaranteeing nothin'. You at the office now?"
"I'll be there at three o'clock."
I scanned the chanting crowd. "I'll do my best."
"Fine. See you then."
He hung up, and I dropped the phone into an empty cupholder mounted in the floorboard to study the cars overflowing from the Marfa Lights viewing area's parking lot. More vehicles lined both sides of the table-flat highway.
Buster turned his brown eyes toward my side of the cab and woofed.
"You're right. Ethan's gonna be right in the middle of this one, too. It looks bigger'n the last demonstration."
A few people were sitting in the viewing center's shade and smoking. They were a mix of our part of the world out there in far West Texas, white, brown, and Native Americans. I figured they were there to protest the existence of the Trans-Pecos pipeline for the second time in a month.
Trying to be friendly, I raised two fingers from the steering wheel in a wave, because that's what Texans do, but no one lifted a hand in return. At least no one used a similar gesture to tell me I was number one.
Men and women in straw cowboy hats and a bright assortment of do- rag bandanas and wave caps watched with impassive faces as I pulled back on the highway and rolled through the corridor of vehicles. Once clear, I mashed on the foot-feed, knowing I'd find the drivers, and the action, less than two miles ahead.
I was right. The highway was completely blocked with protestors who had the light traffic choked down to a standstill. Half a dozen sheriff's department Police Interceptors, highway patrol cars, and trucks idled with their lights flashing both on the shoulder and in the pullout at BranCo's pipeyard, an enclosure scraped clean of vegetation and full of pipe and equipment. A handful of pipeline workers watched from behind the safety of a brand-new chain-link fence.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hawke's Target"
Copyright © 2019 Wortham and Wortham, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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