Hours later I woke up all alone on my bed. The feeling that something was terribly wrong enveloped me before I even opened my eyes. The visual of Sloppy spread out on the grass appeared in my mind and my stomach clenched and knotted.
I didn’t want to get out of bed and I definitely didn’t want to face the day but the aroma of frying bacon and fresh tortillas lured me into my own kitchen. It normally doesn’t smell that good unless my mother was in town but it was Angelina standing by the stove. Shade and Whitey sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee.
“Runt has two more dogs,” I said as I walked into the room. “Where are they?” I reached into the fridge for a Red Bull.
“Good morning to you too,” Shade said.
“What I don’t understand,” I said, ignoring him and downing half the energy drink, “is why would only one dog be by the side of the road? How did Sloppy get there? Why weren’t they all together? They’re a pack, family ─ Sloppy, Bud Light, and Red Bull. Where are the other dogs?” I fired the words off as rapid as pistol shots, my voice growing shriller with each phrase.
“Whoa. Slow down, woman.” Shade said. “Is that Red Bull instantaneous with you or what?”
I managed to decelerate and lowered my voice a notch. “And another thing,” I said. “His dogs are well trained. If he told them to sit and stay, they’d do it until the sun melted manure. Sloppy had to have been dropped off by Runt and told to stay on that road or else he would have gone home. Why would Runt do that?”
If I had used my head for thinking yesterday, instead of just letting it sit there on my shoulders holding up my hair, Sloppy might be alive today. I was mad at myself and felt responsible for Sloppy’s demise.
Shade fiddled with his mustache, obviously thinking my questions over. “To deliver a cell phone to whoever picked him up. Maybe you?” Shade asked. He looked at me but all I could do was shrug my shoulders.
“I don’t think Runt meant it for me,” I replied. “He had no way of knowing I’d have his truck. We hadn’t talked about the Mustang going in for repairs. And Sloppy wouldn’t go with just anybody. He’d only go with someone he knew. Or someone in a familiar vehicle.”
“Which brings us back to how would Runt know someone else would have his truck,” Whitey said. Angelina was making more breakfast tacos, since we were eating as we talked.
Shade unclipped Runt’s phone from his belt. “It’s dead,” he said, opening the phone and pressing buttons. “Any of you have a phone like this so we can use the charger?” We all said no with shakes of our heads.
“Then I’m going to Runt’s house and get his charger,” I said.
“I’m with ya,” said Shade. “Whoever’s behind this manhandled my girl and killed my dog.” He had that I’m-Shade-and-I’m-great grin on his face.
His girl? His dog? I didn’t think so. Just because Shade saved me from that mystery man in black, didn’t mean I was under new ownership. I closed my eyes and took a deep breathe. I couldn’t let my exasperation with the ego talk of an old boyfriend get in the way of finding my brother. Today wasn’t about me. Or Shade. It was about Runt and the trouble he was in.
The decision to pick my battles was a good one. It was pretty clear I needed someone else’s backbone besides my own to get me out to Runt’s place. The possibilities of what I might find out there graphically passed through my mind. I could only hope I had too vivid of an imagination.
“I’m in too,” said Whitey. “Bad news about transportation, though, T.R. We’re in Runt’s duelie or my two-seater until we can swing by Shade’s place so he can pick up a car. The jerk that stole his truck nose-dived it into the Brazos River, then swam off downstream.”
“Wow,” I said, looking at Shade. He just shrugged his shoulders. I felt terrible about his old truck but at the moment I had of troubles of my own to handle. I grabbed Runt’s keys and walked out the door, eating another taco on the way. This time, I vowed to myself, I’d keep control of the duelie. Shade caught up with me and slapped my hat on top of my head. The other two were close behind him.
Runt’s place is a twenty-one acre ranch called The Barely Legal, located not too far from town. I truly dreaded going out there. The “what ifs” were just way too many and had the likelihood of being horrendous. Imagination in overdrive, I mentally ran through a list of things that could have happened since I’d left the ranch in Runt’s truck the day before. It was only yesterday but it sure seemed days ago.
My cell phone rang before we got to Runt’s place. Shade plucked it out of my purse and answered it before I could protest.
“Dispatcher,” he informed me, looking at the ID. “Hello…What’s up?...I’m with T.R.……..When’d the call come in?...We’re on our way there now…Nah, probably don’t need a squad car. I’ll call you back…No, you can’t talk to her right now. She has one hand on the steering wheel and the other one on my thigh. No hand available for the phone. See ya, Casey.”
I gave a nose wrinkle as I listened to his end of the conversation.
“There’s trouble at The Barely Legal,” Shade said, dropping my phone back into my purse. “Neighbors called the Sheriff’s Department with a complaint and Casey can’t get hold of Runt.”
I guess not. We had his phone. Plus the battery was dead.
“What kind of trouble?” I asked, my stomach dropping to the floor of the truck.
“A couple of men were seen snooping around his place about ten minutes ago. Whitey, do you still carry a pistol in your boot?”
“Does a straight beat a pair?” Whitey drawled. “Angelina carries too.”
I was wondering if Shade felt as naked as I did when he abruptly leaned down and checked his boot holster. Where was all this packed heat when I needed it the night before?
I looked down the road towards Runt’s place and saw smoke drifting up past the trees. Whitey saw it too.
“Not good,” he said as he leaned down to look through the windshield. “Couldn’t be the trailer house, though. Smokes too wide. Smells wrong, too. Grass fire, I’d say. The right color for it.”
I’d noticed a yellow hue to the smoke too. I could smell it now and it smelled good but I knew from experience it would soon become overwhelming and nauseating.
“Runt keep brooms and buckets in the barn for fire fighting?” Shade asked.
“No, outside the trailer by the front door,” I replied. “He’s got a plastic garbage can with handles there with a couple of straw brooms in it.”
Angelina tied a bandana around Whitey’s neck to protect his white skin from the harsh sun. He pulled his hat down over his ears as we turned off the dirt farm-to-market road and drove down the lane to the mobile home. I could see the yellow flames along the fire line now. The blaze had already burned an area the size of a football field.
The grass was dry, mostly dead, in fact. Yesterday’s rain hadn’t had a chance to work its magic yet and bring new green from the roots. There’d been a burn ban in effect all month to prevent this type of thing from happening, but burn bans are only good if humans obey them.
“The fire’s eating its way toward the barn!” My voice echoed loudly in the truck. “Horses are in that barn!”
Equipment too. Everything a rancher, even a small one like Runt, needed and would hate to lose was in that barn. The trailer house might be used and old and ugly ─ definitely ugly ─ but the barn was Runt’s pride and joy. He’d built it to his precise specifications to shelter his beloved horses.
“Pull up where the can is, T.R.,” Shade said. “You girls stay with the truck and keep clear of the fire. Ya hear? And call the fire department,” he added as an afterthought.
Who made him trail boss, I wondered as we all opened the crew cab doors and jumped out. We scattered like somebody had disturbed our ant pile. The guys grabbed the trash can by the handles and raced towards the stock pond where they dipped it into the water. Muscles strained as they pulled it back out full of water.
Shade stuck the two brooms back into the can to absorb water as they half-carried/half-dragged the can to the fire line. Immediately each man grabbed a broom and started beating and sweeping the flames, working their way apart from each other.
As I ran into the trailer house, my heart pounded harder than during the attack last night. I grabbed the kitchen broom and a dish towel and bolted back out the door to the fire line. Angelina followed, grabbing a blanket from the couch.
Shit! My phone was in my purse in the truck. “Go back to the truck, Angelina!” I yelled to her as I tied the dish towel over my nose and mouth. “Call 911! Tell them we need the fire department at The Barely Legal!” She turned immediately and ran to the duelie.
The whole countryside seemed ablaze. I picked my piece of hell and started beating at the flames. The task was overwhelming. I felt sure that three people armed only with brooms couldn’t possibly beat the fire back quick enough to save Runt’s barn and home but we had to try.
I smacked my broom again and again at the flames, my arms pumping up and down, up and down. Smoke billowed high into the sky. The acrid stuff made my eyes water and my nose run. It coated the inside of my mouth and I couldn’t conjure up enough spit to rid myself of the nasty taste.
Texas is hot and humid any day of summer and half the days of winter but after the heavy rains we had yesterday, it felt like I was battling the fire inside a sauna. The steamy, smoky heat sapped my energy and drained my body of everything I’d drunk the last five days but I kept banging my broom against the spreading fire.
Heat rose through the thick soles of my cowboy boots, increasing my internal body temperature to that of roasted meat. The sweatband on my hat failed me and perspiration streamed into my eyes. I wondered why my own dripping sweat wasn’t putting out the fire all by itself but I kept whacking away at the fire.
I’d beat it out in one spot and it’d sprout up a couple of feet away like it was traveling underground in tiny tunnels. Using my shirttail, I wiped the sweat from my eyes. I was filthy from sweat, smoke, and dirt. My shirttail proved it.
In the distance sirens of the volunteer firemen headed our way. Come on, guys, I mentally urged. Hurry. Please. My arms were weak from the constant beating motion. The broom was growing heavier and heavier and my legs felt like hot pepper sticks.
The chartreuse-colored fire truck full of water finally appeared in the pasture and immediately the fireman sitting on top of the tanker turned on his water cannon and sprayed the edge of the burn closest to the barn.
Resting my broom over my shoulder, I stood back and watched the fireman work, satisfied I had done my part in keeping the fire contained until the cavalry arrived. My spirits revived and relief soothed my tired muscles. I even felt a stir of cool air.
Shade yelled something from across the pasture, something I couldn’t understand, and I turned to look at him. The noise of men and equipment broke through the wall of hot air as more and more volunteers arrived at the scene in their personal cars and pickups.
Shade yelled again and pointed at me but he was far away and I couldn’t understand a word. He broke into a run straight towards me. I turned, not knowing what to expect behind me. More fire? A truck? A bull? A man in black?
But when I turned around, there was only Whitey, way down the line, yelling and shaking his broom at me. I turned back to look at Shade, who was coming fast, still yelling, still pointing.
What? What was going on? I turned back to Whitey. Now he was running my way too. “What?” I yelled. “What am I suppose to be seeing?”
I checked the ground around me. There was nothing to see there but burnt grass. I looked up, turning just my head. Then I saw it.
My broom was on fire!
I threw it down and ran. I don’t know why. Too much adrenalin. Too many upsetting events in too short of time. Whatever, I just ran.
Foof! My raffia cowboy hat flared up in flames just as Shade tackled me from behind. Down on the hot, burned grass we rolled. He yanked the hat off my head and beat my hair with his bare hands. I tucked my chin and covered my face with my hands, trying to protect myself while offering him full access to my hair. It was probably only seconds but it felt like forever before he stopped slapping at me.
One of his big hands gently lifted my chin and he examined my face. It didn’t feel like he was looking for burns, more like he was looking deep inside me, past the grime and grunge smeared over my face. Past the little clean tracks made by tears rolling through the soot.
I could have sworn he was going to kiss me. Instead, Shade slipped his hand around to the back of my neck and tucked my face into the cleft made by his shoulder and chin.
“It’s all right, Tana.” His voice was just a whisper in my ear. He gently rocked me in his arms. “Everything’s gonna be all right, honey.”
The heat rose like a curtain around us, isolating us from all the activity ─ or was it just my imagination. Me, wrapped up in my own little world. And that world, at the moment, consisted only of Shade’s arms, Shade’s chest, and Shade’s legs, one draped over me and the other pushed between my thighs. I pressed my face deeper into Shade’s neck. His hand at the small of my back pulled me closer against his hard body.
The world was going to a fiery Texas hell but I was safe in this place, this one place. I wasn’t so distraught that I didn’t appreciate his sweet tangy smell, mixed with woodsy smoke.
“You two like to do it outdoors on the ground?” Whitey voice penetrated my sanctuary. “Ain’t it hot down there?”
Laughing, Shade released me and rolled away. Whitey reached out his hand for mine and I reluctantly lifted it so he could help me up. “Burning hair sure does stink,” he said.
“True story,” Shade said as he got up and went over to the burnt broom that I had flung down. “Your broom wasn’t wet,” he said, picking it up. “When you stopped beating the fire with it, it caught on fire itself. Then it caught your hat on fire.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah and the hat caught my hair on fire. Jeez, another great look for me. Singed hair, dirty face, runny nose, weepy eyes, blackened clothes, and a smell that only a fireman could love.
The fire truck pulled up to where we all stood.
“Fire’s out. You all right, T.R.?” one of the volunteers asked.
I nodded. I was so thirsty I couldn’t speak.
“We’ll stick around for a while and wet everything down again,” he said. “One of the guys checked the barn and all the horses are safe. Well, except Tonto. He’s not there. I take it Runt’s away on him and all his dogs. His little pickup’s in the barn and the duelie’s out front.”
“We’re in the duelie,” I said. “Tonto’s gone?” Tonto was Runt’s little pinto, a real cutie of a horse. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” another fireman said. “I’m sure. I looked for that gelding in particular. That’s Runt’s baby and he’d never forgive me if I let something happen to him.” The fireman wandered away towards the task of cleaning and putting away gear.
“Well, it’s obvious Runt’s on horseback,” I said to Shade. “But why?”
“I just don’t know,” Shade mumbled, shaking his head in frustration. “Some guys are after him and he’s out campin’?”
“Maybe he’s horseback because some guys are looking for him,” Whitey suggested. “That’d make it harder for city folk to find him.”
“There’s that,” I agreed, as several firemen walked our way. Angelina came out of the trailer with an armful of cold bottled water and started passing them around.
“Damn, ain’t that a switch,” one of the fireman said, laughing. “I’m on The Barely Legal and all I’m offered to drink is water.” He took a deep slug of the cool liquid and glanced out at the burned pasture. The fire had come mighty close to the barn. “Any idea how the fire started, T.R.?”
“No. Well, yes. The 911 dispatcher called when we were on the way out here. She said a neighbor phoned in a complaint that two men were seen snooping around. I suppose they could have started it. Accidentally or on purpose.
“Come back when Runt’s here and I’m sure he’ll have something stronger than water to offer you.” At least I hoped Runt would be here again to serve them the hard stuff. No telling where he had disappeared to. And why.
“OK, we’ll sure take him up on your offer. I’ll get the fire inspector over here to see what he can figure out.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shade disappear into the house. When he came back out, he gave a thumb’s up. He’d put the phone on charge.
To be continue Monday.