Jonnie Martin is a native Texan, city-bred like the lead character in her debut novel, Wrangle. Early in her career she was a journalist with a Texas newspaper and she continued to write as she migrated to other states, chasing a business career. Later she earned a BA in Literature and Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction and returned to Texas, where she works as a novelist and a columnist for a newspaper, and blogs weekly on her website. You can also follow her on Facebook. In the long journey, she re-discovered her roots through her writing, drawn back to the land and the people who formed her.
Excerpt from Wrangle
© Jonnie Martin 2014
Wrangle begins on a Hempstead, Texas quarter horse ranch in the 1970s when racing was done on dirt tracks and winning meant a great deal more to the rancher than the value of the cash purse. Into this world comes Shannon Murphy to run her father’s ranch and train up a promising filly, Lady Caliente. At every turn, there is a shortage of help, disagreements with the hands and other problems on and off the track that foreshadow disaster. When a tragedy does occur on the ranch, Shannon is blamed. She self-exiles in the Davis Mountains to wrestle with this complex notion of family loyalty and whether she can have love without giving up self. It is a book about time and place and the people who love the western culture.
In this excerpt from Chapter III, Shannon and trainer Andi Taggart have hired part-time help from Jesus Valdez, a high school senior and young vaquero who works his uncle’s Mexico ranch each summer.
The crew welcomed Jesus and were immediately taken in by his youthful energy and tireless work habits. He did not complain about shoveling dung as long as he could stop and watch the timed sprints, and he seemed to know exactly when to drop the shovel and run out to the track. The feral hog adopted Jesus as his pet-boy, trotting behind him whenever possible, and sitting at attention when the horses pounded down the track in a fury. On the days that Jesus was at school, “Mr. Piggly” spent his time begging scraps at Angela’s kitchen or rooting up the pants legs of bystanders.
Dale Slate brought his filly over from Cat Springs, a buckskin with sooty mane and tail. Shannon was sitting on the fence talking to Farley when Dale arrived and began to earnestly negotiate with Andi.
“I figure your girl could use some variety in workout partners,” he said, brushing his fingers through a long matted beard. “I brought horse and tack but I’m needin’ a rider.”
“What happen to your Mexican?” Andi asked.
“Didn’t Lady already beat your horse once’t, over at the Judge’s?” Brett had moved into the conversation, and Shannon began to lose part of the exchange.
Dale was corpulent, didn’t ride. He had inherited the horse and stumbled blindly, foolishly into bush track racing as though there was money to be made. Shannon wondered where Dale’s rider had gone. She had a job for him.
There were more words, half-sentences, then Andi turned toward the trailer. “Unload her. We’ll figure out the rest.”
Shannon didn’t see a problem in it, did not pay any particular notice to preparations until she saw Jesus saddle up Dale’s horse and lead her over to Andi. “Let me ride, let me ride,” he begged. Andi looked back and Shannon caught her eye, moved her head from side to side. No. The message was unambiguous. They were not taking chances with a child’s life.
In minutes, Brett had swung into the saddle of the buckskin and paced her around the track. There was other movement. Andi, Alberto. Dale hailed Farley, walked over to the fence. Then Alberto gave Jesus a boost onto Lady’s back, cinched down the saddle, and gave the filly a slap on the rump. “No,” Shannon said as the boy moved the horse to the starting line. “Oh Lord, what is he doing.”
“Get ready for an ass-kicking,” Brett called out as the two horses lined up on the track. “Hah,” Jesus yelled through a smile that stretched his cheeks.
Andi had sprinted down to the finish line and wheeled to face the racers. In place of a flag, she shouted “eee-ya” and the horses bolted down the track. Jesus lay down against Lady’s neck, pressing her to run full-out, past Andi’s stance, and for several yards more. When he walked her back up the track, Alberto ran out to meet him, celebrating in streams of Spanish. Jesus claimed that the rider had won that heat; Brett said it was the horse—a good-natured squabble that would continue for weeks.
“You can turn loose-a my arm, now,” Farley said to Shannon.
“Sorry,” she said, and opened her hand that had gripped the nearest support. “I didn’t realize. Farley. Sorry.” She slid off the fence, and moved back toward the office, turning twice to assure herself that Jesus had dismounted. She stopped at the porch steps and sat down for several moments, watching the cool down of the horses, small groups of people forming and reforming.
What just happened? What is happening? Shannon pressed her palms hard against her legs, calmed a tremor. She needed to know what was fueling an anger that sat heavy in her frame. Andi’s insubordination? Perhaps. But easily enough solved. She had no qualms in firing Andi if it came to that.
It was the child, her fears for this child on the back of a powerful horse. Not her child. He wasn’t her child. I’m not old enough to be a mother. But of course at 39 she could have a teenage boy had life unfolded in a different way. Well if not her own, Jesus was surely in her care. Yet wasn’t this the way that boys grew into men; how they toughened into cow hands and rodeo athletes.
Bodies began moving up the incline to the long table under the tree out front where Angela had laid out the noon meal. Shannon walked against the stream, aiming her steps so that she could intercept Andi, cut her out of the herd. Midway up the walk they connected, turned back. No one spoke to them as they passed. Even Mr. Piggly stepped a wide arc around them. At the pasture gate, the women stopped, stared blindly across the field, over the heads of the grazing cattle.
“Want me to pack up?” Andi said, irritation abrading her voice.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“What exactly do you want from me?”
“You cannot just ignore me. You knew I didn’t want Jesus on the race horses.”
“You planning on wet-nursing that boy?”
A cow angled toward the fence, rubbed her flank against a post. Her calf ran beneath her legs, looked curiously at the women. “I’m planning . . . I’m planning on sending that boy home to his mom every night in the same condition we got him.”
Andi patted her shirt pocket, the back of her jeans, muttered “shee-it.” Her hands were shaking and she grasped the fence, breathed out all her air. She stood there a moment more then turned sideways against the wire.
“Is that it?”
“I’d feel better if I knew you heard anything I just said to you.”
“Not giving you any guarantees.”
The calf nosed up close to the crossing guard where he was in danger of catching a hoof. Shannon clanged the gate, scaring him back to pasture.
“Monday you told me you most wanted wins for Lady. I want the same thing. For you. For Dad.”
“Maybe. But it is not going to happen unless the two of us work together. And that’s never going to happen if you repeat today’s infraction.”
“Infraction. Yeah, well.” A range of responses seemed to play across Andi’s face but she only said, “I have to go get my smokes” before she trudged back toward the barn.
Despite the morning’s conflict, or maybe because of, Shannon drove into Austin Wednesday afternoon to find resources, ways to hunt down skilled workers. There was bound to be a local Grange, ranchers hanging around the feed store. Perhaps the following week she’d try San Antonio.
It was night by the time Shannon returned and only the collie ran up to greet her as she drove over the hill and down to her waiting, silent cabin. She unfolded her tired body from behind the steering wheel, and bent down to acknowledge Dog.
“Hey boy, miss me? Let’s go feed an ornery cat.” Dog jumped with his front paws, favoring the arthritic hindquarters. As they headed toward the cabin door the collie stopped. A low growl emerged, changing into a snarl. Shannon could not see anything moving but she backed to the near side of the truck, opened the door and lurched for her shotgun on the window rack. For a moment she crouched there, her breath shallow, quiet, as all other senses gave way to listening. A lone tree frog chirruped.
Shit, if someone’s in there I’m not wanting a shootout, Shannon thought, moving to the driver’s side of the truck. She pushed Dog into the cab, got in and locked the doors. Without lights, she backed up to the circular drive, turned onto 1736 and hauled on down the road toward town until she found a pay phone. By the third ring she managed to connect with the Waller County Sheriff’s office. “Hi, this is Shannon Murphy out at the Tio Lobo. Who’m I talking to?”
“Hey Shannon, this is Darryl. What can I do you for.” Darryl Jones was one of a handful of officers on the Waller County force, a Hempstead boy.
“Darryl, I may have a problem and I decided not to play hero.”
“Oh, so you’re gonna put me in the line of fire? Mama’ll be happy to hear that.”
“Apologies to your mama. You know where my little cabin sits, down in the hollow? This old collie dog I have keeps growling like somebody might be in there. Todd’s in Houston and I’m not sure I want to find out on my own.”
“Well Mama be damned—I’m on my way. You sit tight, hear?”
Shannon felt a little relieved and a little foolish as she pulled onto the shoulder of the road just short of two bronze colts that flanked the ranch entrance, but nothing happened until Darryl arrived 15 minutes later, Sheriff Bart Russell and Deputy John Allende in tow. Shannon didn’t know John well—he’d resettled from El Paso—but at least she had a posse now.
After a brief discussion, the officers led the way back to the cabin. When the trucks stopped, the collie jumped to the ground with a yelp and immediately retraced his path, approaching the cabin door with a wet, rolling snarl.
The Sheriff motioned for Shannon to stay behind her vehicle. With guns in hand, the officers approached the door in a semi-crouch. As the Sheriff reached out to the old iron doorknob he suddenly uttered, “Christamighty. It’s covered with goop.” A flashlight revealed a thick substance the consistency of rendered fat.
“Somebody left you a present, Shannon. You pissed anybody off lately?” The Sheriff took out his handkerchief and wiped the goop off the doorknob, handing the wad to Darryl who gingerly held it with two fingers.
“No. . . ,” Shannon started to say, and then remembered Miguel. But why would he smear this substance on her door? And what was it?
“Another handkerchief, Darryl,” the Sheriff commanded. Motioning Darryl aside, the Sheriff leveled his gun and with the clean cloth, he turned the doorknob. Locked!
“We’ll have you open up and we’ll take a look, Shannon, just to be sure, but I don’t think anyone’s inside. I think they left their calling card right here on the handle.”
“You asked if I pissed anyone off.” Shannon moved closer. “Yesterday I docked Miguel, threatened to fire him if he didn’t get his act together. He didn’t take to it kindly.”
“It’s voodoo,” said John Allende, speaking with a thick Tejano accent.
The Sheriff brayed loudly. “Someone putting a curse on Shannon? That’s rich!”
“It’s not meant to be a joke. It’s Santeria. Boil down a small animal on an altar, take the fat and smear it on the door of your enemy, and the orishas will take away their soul.”
“Ssssss,” the Sheriff whistled through clenched teeth, choked back a different response. “Well let’s take a look inside.”
There were no intruders in Shannon’s cabin; nothing had been disturbed. A search of the main house yielded a similar result. A frowzy Brett Ericson responded to the Sheriff’s knock at Andi’s cabin, saying that there had not been any problems on that side of the ranch. Andi’s shout from the interior (who the hell is it at this time of the godawful night) confirmed things were normal. In the back pasture, only Alberto was in the trailer.
“Shannon, I think that’s all I can do for you tonight. I’m not so sure I believe all this voodoo crap but someone intended to cause you grief. You feel safe in your little house?”
“Yeah, but I think the shotgun and the dog are sleeping inside with me tonight.”
“Good girl. We’ll get on this case right away, let you know what we find out. If Miguel comes back, you call me. Don’t approach him yourself.”
Shannon nodded, and thanked the officers for their help. As soon as she was locked in her cabin, she shucked off her boots and crawled into bed, fully clothed, shivering. Wanted to call Hayden, but that would upset him needlessly. She tried to slow her breathing, regain control. “Ahhhh,” she expelled through open mouth, lay motionless, spent. Just the day before she had faced down Miguel’s anger and nothing inside of her had quailed. And now?
She pressed fingers into the corners of her eyes, removed the sting of unexpected tears. This situation was different. Her reaction, the threat itself. Was it Miguel? Could he possibly be that angry? It seemed unlikely but what did she know.
She turned in the bed, tried to settle into a more comfortable place, close off her mind, invite sleep. Across the room she could hear the reassuring thump of Dog’s tail against the front door in response to her movement.
Certainly she could recall frightening moments with Rick if she tried hard enough to pull them from memory, but she preferred not to unearth that pain. At least his outbursts were predictable. If Rick drank, at some point he was going to use his fists—on bar mates or friends. Or his wife.
This was new territory for Shannon. The danger had come at her on her blind side for reasons she could not fully understand. It was a hard thought. Two distinct thoughts, and bigger than Miguel. That there might be people who suddenly and without warning could become her enemies—and that her enemies were not always going to meet her head on.