On the Trail

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The time is September of 2008. The place is Ojinaga, Mexico. Observing the peaceful beauty and outward normalcy of the pueblo, you could not tell that bad things are happening.

Two unusually brutal murders interrupt Capitán Benito Escalante’s weekend visit in Texas. One perpetrator, a gringo covered in his victim’s blood, is behind bars. The other is, for now, still in the wind.

As the capitán says, “Crime doesn’t stop just because the police captain is busy.” Who is the woman claiming to be the gringo prisoner’s friend? What do a box containing a fifty-year-old mystery, a man with “eyes like a cat,” and a homeless boy with a sobering secret, have to do with the murders? What does the blind curandera know?

Capitán Escalante invites you to ride, run, and walk along with him as he tries to figure it out. “Invite” might be the wrong word…his tale of intrigue and adventure will force you to turn pages until all questions are answered. When he rests, you can rest. Then everybody can take a breather on a bench in the shade on the plaza.

But not for long.

 

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Hold My Calls

Hold my calls

I made an announcement a few days ago that Deputy Ricos Tale 5, “A Reasonable Explanation,” will be released in August. Somebody asked what happened to “The Hardest Word.” Good question. That was a working title and in the end it didn’t make sense for this novel. My publisher liked the title and so did I, but I can’t write to fit a title. It doesn’t work like that.

“A Reasonable Explanation” is the same novel I started, but it didn’t go where I thought it was going because Deputy Ricos kept taking it other places. The plot I had in mind would have made sense for the former title, but it wasn’t to be. One thing is clear to me: the deputy no longer cares what I think.

The imagination that brings forth fictional works also brings all the bugaboos you can imagine. As I write on the next Tale, I’m sometimes gripped by panic. What if my readers don’t like the new novel? What if I never finish another one? What if? What if?

“So what if they don’t like it?” counters Deputy Ricos with a lot of attitude for a woman I could erase with a tap on the delete key.

The problem is that I won’t/can’t erase her and she knows it. She is in me and I am in her. If she and I never wrote another tale, she’d still be with me as long as I live.

I think I struggled to write about 80,000 words before my character took it away from me. “Good grief,” I could hear her say, “You have no idea what you’re doing. Go read or something. I’ve got this.”

It’s with you, Deputy Ricos. Please hold my calls.

Knocking Out a Wall, Part Two

My final Avalanche column ran a few Thursdays ago and on the same day, my ex came to Alpine. When I opened the door, I gaped. It took a few seconds before I could speak. How long do you think he’ll be able to pull off timing like that?

He invited me to lunch and of course I accepted. I broke the news that he could relax; there wouldn’t be any more columns about him. The look of disappointment on his face almost made me laugh.

His response: “Good. Now you’ll stop calling me a liar in public.”

Yeah, right.

Then he said, “I told you that people don’t want to hear those stories.”

Al contrario, Cowboy. It seems they do.

I tried to work a few more stories out of him, but he’s wise to me now. So I have to go with what I know. And I was there for this one.

What we didn’t know at the time was that the Border Patrolman who had taken such a dislike to us was a vindictive man, and he was the boss. Before I continue, I want to say that this is about only one man, not the Border Patrol in general.

The cowboy had been picked up on numerous occasions and was returned to the border each time. He’d worked at the fluorspar mine in the Christmas Mountains, on Terlingua Ranch, and in Odessa, Midland, and Lajitas. He said he’d never been mistreated once by any Border Patrolman and he never feared them. My point is that in any profession there can be one who gives the whole bunch a bad rep.

I could tell you the man’s name, but it doesn’t matter. He’s long gone from the job and also the planet. Suffice it to say that the night of the murder, which was later determined to be an accidental shooting, he let personal hatred supersede his professional duties.

Lajitas was similar to a large plantation during the days of slavery. In the Big House, some inhabitants were “less than” others. The workers, no matter our background or color, were in it together. We were tight. At the Big House they professed, “But we love our Mexicans.” Read, we love our cheap labor.

Border Patrol raids were common, but back then it was like a big game. A few green-uniformed men would show up in town. Radios, walkie-talkies, and telephones would hum with the news. La Chota!

The Border Patrol only came because they were supposed to and they sometimes took men away if they were slow enough to get caught. Or if the officers managed to surprise them. On raid days we hid people in all the nooks and crannies of the resort while the outside workers ran for the hills. I said it was like a big game, but I didn’t say everyone enjoyed it.

Four times they came in succession and it became evident they were after my cowboy. They asked about him at the Big House and they chased him. He escaped into the mountains or to the Rio, and he was fast. This became a rock in the boot because the boss was telling them to get That Mexican.

The manager of Lajitas called me in to say that this problem with the Border Patrol was disrupting the work schedule. I asked what I was supposed to do about it. Did he expect me to tell him not to run? No. He was one of the best workers. What, then? He didn’t know.

The Border Patrol figured it out pronto. The next day they returned with the boss and he caught my cowboy himself. He yelled to stop or he’d shoot him. That was a tactic they hadn’t used on him before and it worked.
I was at home and received this call from the front desk: “They have him in front of the hotel.” Nobody had to tell me who had nabbed who. I ran as though they were chasing me.

They had put him in back of a Suburban that was barred. There were a few other stricken-faced guys with him. It was a sight that tore at my heart. I was about to start sobbing, but he gave a tiny grin and shrugged. He believed he’d be back in a few days. I knew it would not be that simple.

What followed was a long, drawn-out mess. He was prosecuted because he’d run away and in doing that, he had “endangered” an officer of the Law. The game had reached a new level and the opponent held all the pieces.
I was forced to hire an immigration attorney. He said if I intended to marry the man, and I did, I had gone about it backwards. He explained that you’re supposed to get a “Sweetheart Visa” first. Great. Everywhere but within the law, falling in love comes first. The bottom line, law-wise, was that he should have stayed in Mexico until we were married. I didn’t bother to point out that if he’d stayed there I would never have met him.

The cowboy was jailed in Alpine, then Pecos, and was later moved to a big holding facility in El Paso. He was formally deported and then came back on a provisional visa. Doing it the wrong way cost us plenty. They slammed door after door.

The great news is that love won. We made it through the wall.

* * *

We saw our Border Patrol nemesis a year or so later when we were eating in the Badlands Restaurant in Lajitas. My husband was holding our tiny newborn daughter and the sun was shining brightly on both of them.
The Bad Man came in with two other men and they all glared at us.

My wise cowboy said, “Don’t look at him, Honey. He’s too small and sad to be part of our world.”

That was true; I knew it was, but I was not so forgiving. I said, “I wish I could hurt him.”

“You already did.”

Going Cold Turkey

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Recently I have been full of “blah,” even when it comes to writing. It’s hard to believe I’m tired of putting my thoughts into words, but maybe I need a break from it. I say this, and yet I’ve just planned a retreat in South Brewster County to do nothing but write for five days. The place I’m going doesn’t receive cell service and my friend has no Internet. I’ll be disengaged from outside stimuli and the things that suck up my time. I’m a social media addict who also enjoys texting and yapping on the phone, so this is the equivalent of going cold turkey. Maybe I’m just panicking because of that.

I’m the only person who says I have to write. Nobody else knows what I’m doing. I’ll be staying with a friend; she doesn’t care if I’m writing or not—except that she pushes to read the next novel. But she won’t try to beat it out of me.

Maybe I’ll just stare at the mountains, talk with her, and play with her animals. We’ll have an adventure—or at least fun—because we always do. Even when I’m not physically writing, I’m always writing in my head. More important is to refill the place out of which words come.

I’m packed and ready to go, but I need a column! It’s not as though I can write it when I get to Terlingua Ranch and send it to Alpine by carrier pigeon. So, this morning I made a “Walk for Inspiration” or more like a “Walk of Desperation” around my neighborhood.

I stopped to admire the persistent collection of wildflowers growing along a fence line by an empty field. I glanced up and a deer was bounding towards me—just one lone young doe. Dogs went crazy barking but they were fenced and I was relieved to see that nothing was chasing her.

She stopped at the edge of the vacant property and we regarded each other. I don’t know which of us was more startled. I hadn’t expected to see a deer and from her reaction, I don’t think my presence made her day. She skidded to a halt and her nose worked the cool morning air. I hoped I didn’t smell like a predator but more like a lover of wildlife, mountains, and desert air, whatever that aroma would be.

Our visitor never made direct eye contact with me but she was wary and watching. I didn’t move and after a while, she passed me on her way to wherever she was headed before I alarmed her.

I made a rash statement in an earlier column and I want to take it back. I accused my neighborhood of being dull. That’s not true, but I was panicked by having no idea what to write. I was blaming my neighborhood. Not fair.

There’s a swing set in a tiny playground at the apartments where I live. Sitting on a swing alone was a little blond-headed girl. We greeted each other and I asked her where the other kids were. She answered with a shrug.

I was going to move on, but she asked what I was doing. I told her I was walking for exercise and ideas.

“Ideas about what?”

“I need to write a column for the newspaper.”

“You write that paper?”

“No, only tiny piece of it.”

Her little face scrunched up in thought. She sighed with the effort. Then she looked up at me. “You could sit here and swing for a while.”

Leave it to a five-year-old.

I don’t need to worry about columns or where the next novel is coming from or how to finish the five I have in various stages of completion. I only need to swing for a while. That is why I’m heading south to the mountains that speak to my soul and the quiet that fills it. I’m going to go swing for a while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gratitude

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This morning I needed to write. I also needed to walk, and it seemed as though I couldn’t get it in gear to do either thing. I opened the windows and heard the birds, busy and joyous. My guilty conscience thought all their songs were about lazy female procrastinators.

When I went to bed last night, I was writing a scene that takes place at the picnic area in the mountainous pass between Alpine and Marfa. I can’t hike in the mountains, which I would dearly love to do, but I can look at them and climb them in my head. And for my own sanity, I need to write about them. So I drove to the place I wanted to describe.

It was early but the sun was bright and warm. There was a cool breeze that rippled through the trees and caused the wildflowers to bob their heads up and down as if saying an emphatic “yes!” to the glorious day. It didn’t even take ten seconds for their enthusiastic mood to rub off on me.

I’ve driven through that pass so many times I couldn’t say how many, but I’ve never stopped at the picnic area—or never stopped for long. I changed that today by spending most of the morning there taking notes and studying a landscape worth writing about, although I will never do it justice.

I love the severely eroded mountains that surround us. Imagine how many years they’ve been standing there and the things they’ve seen and the extremes of weather they’ve endured. They were there when Native Americans roamed the area and long before that. The exposed stone makes them appear rugged and, at the same time, somehow vulnerable.

All the mountains and hills in the Big Bend Country are unique. Some have boulder-littered sides; some have craggy outcroppings or wear jagged crowns; some are tall and some short; some have a lot of plant growth while others have little; some are ridges or bumpy humps more than what you would call mountains.

After I fulfilled my walking goal, I sat on a bench in the sun and spent a long time studying the scene in pieces instead of trying to take it in all at once. For some reason I thought that would help me describe it. Directly across the road was the “back” of Twin Peaks. The sun was high enough in the sky that I had to concentrate on the lower reaches because of the glare at the top. The places closer to the ground were in shadow, which made the colors muted and the landscape more sharply defined. There’s a deep canyon back there that begs exploration, not to mention every other inch of that location.

Like the rest of the mountains throughout this region, Twin Peaks is not what it seems from a distance. Our mountains hold surprises for those who venture close. They have secrets. Often, they’re not one formation at all, but are layers of them, along with canyons and mountains within mountains. Sometimes they hide springs, waterfalls, ruins, or rare plants and animals.

Twin Peaks’ backside slopes down to a ridge that is topped by a long, wall-like structure called a dike. Dikes are the result of magma being injected into the fractures of rocks. When the surrounding rock is eroded, dikes are exposed and often appear as dark walls of rock. They give our landscape its sharp, jagged, crumbling features. I’m a writer, not a geologist, so what this boils down to is that they make our scenery stunning and no two places are the same. Add to that the sun and shadows, and it’s also ever-changing.

Across the highway from Twin Peaks is a giant rock wall that sits on top and slightly in front of a different mountain. I stared at it a long time trying to determine if it’s a dike or something else. For my purposes, it doesn’t matter. I can make geologists, biologists, and even sheriffs roll their eyes. I get things wrong all the time, but I try hard to capture the essence of them.

While I was resting in the sun, feasting my eyes, writing in my head, and with my imagination running off in all directions, I thought about gratitude. How fortunate I am to be alive right now in this place. Every single morning when my eyes open, I think, “Thank you.” I get to live another day. And not just another day, but a day in Big Bend.

Country Lanes

Here is my latest Alpine Avalanche Column, “Country Lanes.” It will explain why I have been so absent from my blog in the last two weeks! I hope you enjoy it.

I recently drove from Alpine to Johnson City, TX to visit old friends and to meet my fan club. Yeah, Stephen King, eat your heart out.

My friends treated me to several tours around various parts of the Hill Country. We drove on what I think of as “country lanes” and saw way more deer than other vehicles. In fact, there were no other vehicles. That was good because deer were coming and going every which way with no regard for traffic. There were so many of the critters it became tiresome to point them out. Nor did anyone need to.

There were amazing wildflowers in small bunches and by the field-full. How many would you like? It was as if the Hill Country was saying, “I see you going all crazy with flowers, Big Bend Country, and I raise you 500 acres of solid yellow blossoms—on the edge of a live oak and cedar forest next to a shaded lane lined with fancy purplish plumes.”

That part of Texas has creeks with water in them (I’m not making this up!) We saw the site of an abandoned serpentine mine, fantastic old ranch houses and outbuildings, and “Gold Diggers’ Dam” on one of the creeks. And gigantic cypress trees on another creek. We also saw sheep, horses, and cattle of every variety, but not even one cowboy.   😦

We saw a place where eagles return to nest year after year, and Lake Travis, four different rivers, Enchanted Rock (astounding!) and Lake LBJ.

I learned that Llano, whether you’re talking about the town or the creek or the river is never pronounced with a Y at the start. It’s not Yano with a soft “a.” Probably everybody else in Texas already knows that. And just so you won’t have to embarrass yourself, Blanco is pronounced Blank-o. I don’t understand why that is, but I think those people got too far away from the border to know better.

Also, because I’m “in” with the right people in Johnson City, I was asked to participate in a seminar about writing and getting published. It was held Saturday in the new library. There were 17 participants plus a 4-person panel. Attendees were from Johnson City, of course, and places like: Hye, Marble Falls, Blanco, and Fredericksburg. I had come the longest distance, so far in fact, that my presence was suspicious. At least Alpine is in Texas, so I had that going for me.

When it was my turn to speak, I asked if anyone was acquainted with Big Bend National Park, Terlingua, or Alpine, and nearly every hand went up! There was a lot of oohing and aahing and statements like “That’s such beautiful country.” Yes, indeed.

I love to talk about a lot of things, but writing and the Big Bend Country head the list, so I could have made a day of it. Fortunately for the attendees, there was a thirty minute time limit per speaker.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Writing has brought me new friends from everywhere and every walk of life. It has put me in touch with old friends with whom I’d lost contact. I’m constantly amazed and humbled to hear peoples’ take on my short stories and books. It must be true that no two people read the same novel. Writers put it out there. What happens next is up to the reader.

I enjoyed my travels, spending time with a dear friend, touring with other friends, and making new friends, but I’m happy to be home in the land of usually-dry creeks, visible cowboys, and to be among people who know how to properly pronounce “blanco.”

The WOW Factor

In writing about the Big Bend country, I often describe sunlight chasing shadows across the layer upon layer of mountains, or innumerable canyons hidden within what appears to be a single mountain. I have seen so many astounding things in more than thirty years of living either in Big Bend National Park, or at its back door, that I sometimes think nothing can surprise me when it comes to the Wow Factor. 

Then I stepped onto the catwalk of the 107” telescope of the McDonald Observatory on top of Mount Locke. The scene was so immense that on one side of it, a dark storm approached bringing rain, and on the other, sunlight still chased shadows across ridges and canyons and mountains within mountains. Towards the middle of the view, whitish clouds rose and dipped within a deep cut, as if flirting with the dark storm raging above them. Immediately below were ravens riding thermals down a brightly lit canyon. What storm? 

We were so high above the ground that Mitre Peak was a bump on the landscape, and farther away still was Cathedral Mountain. On a less stormy day, we would’ve been admiring mountains in Mexico. From up there, it seemed like we could see the whole world.

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Thank you to Coyne and Vicki Gibson and Matt Walter for a day to remember. The photo, by the way, is Matt’s.