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The Far Empty
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 7, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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In this gritty crime debut set in the stark Texas borderlands, an unearthed skeleton will throw a small town into violent turmoil.
Seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross is adrift in the wake of the sudden disappearance of his mother more than a year ago, and is struggling to find his way out of the small Texas border town of Murfee. Chris Cherry is a newly minted sheriff’s deputy, a high school football hero who has reluctantly returned to his hometown. When skeletal remains are discovered in the surrounding badlands, the two are inexorably drawn together as their efforts to uncover Murfee’s darkest secrets lead them to the same terrifying suspect- Caleb’s father and Chris’s boss, the charismatic and feared Sheriff Standford “Judge” Ross.
Dark, elegiac, and violent, The Far Empty is a modern Western, a story of loss and escape set along the sharp edge of the Texas border. Told by a longtime federal agent who knows the region, it’s a debut novel you won’t soon forget.
We tried a desperate game and lost. But we are rough men used to rough ways, and we will abide by the consequences.
—COLE YOUNGER, 1867
This is the song that the night birds sing
As the phantom herds trail by,
Horn by horn where the long plains fling
Flat miles to the Texas sky. . . .
This is the song that the night birds wail
Where the Texas plains lie wide,
Watching the dust of a ghostly trail,
Where the phantom tall men ride!
—S. OMAR BARKER, "Tall Men Riding"
TALL MEN RIDING
My father has killed three men.
The first was over in Graham, an undercover drug deal gone bad. He was a lot younger then, only a deputy, not yet the Judge, buying weed from a California nigger—his words, not mine. Put him in front of the right crowd, give him a few Lone Stars or a Balcones Texas Single Malt—he pretends it loosens his lips like everyone else, but it doesn't, not really, not at all—and he'll say I shot that ole boy two times.
Once for being a nigger in Texas, then again for being a shitty drug-dealing nigger in his stretch of Texas.
• • •
The second was right here in Murfee, late summer a few years back, when Dillon Holt held his granddad's Remington on his wife and baby daughter.
I go to school with Dillon's younger brother Dale, so I knew Dillon a little, not much. Enough to know that only part of him—angry, broken—came back from Iraq. He hadn't been able to keep his job at the Comanche, spooking the cows too much, and he got into more than his share of fights at Earlys. It got so bad they wouldn't serve him anymore, so he spent that last Friday night drinking a twelve-pack of Pearl alone beneath the pecan trees behind his house, before getting ahold of a little meth early Saturday morning. By the afternoon he was shirtless on his porch, screaming at everything and nothing, his body slick and swollen and glowing like it was on fire. His wife Brenda held baby Ellie and covered both their eyes so neither of them would have to look down the barrel of that Remington.
I know all this because I was there. My father brought me on the callout, left me sitting in the truck cab. Everyone knew I was watching, but no one was going to say a goddamn thing about it.
He wanted me to see how he handled business.
That's how he said it then, how he still says it today.
My father tried some to talk Dillon down, even let him rant a bit to see if he'd wear himself out, but when he swung that shotgun around one too many times toward Brenda's face, my father shot him clean through his naked, burning chest with his Ruger Mini-14.
There was hot blood everywhere, fantailed up on the porch screen, on the windows, all over Brenda and the baby. It fell fast, like falling stars . . . red streaks. There's a sound that blood makes when it hits wood or skin. Dillon's yelling was lost to his widowed wife's screaming. It was furnace-hot that morning, but my father didn't break a sweat. Afterward, when he bent down into the truck to put away the Ruger, still stinking of smoke and oil and warm to the touch where it hit my knee, his skin was dusty, cool. Dry, like a snake's. He winked at me like we were old friends.
And that's how he handled the business with Dillon Holt.
• • •
The third man was the husband of Nancy Coombs, the woman he was sleeping with right after my mom disappeared.
He didn't shoot Roger Coombs like Dillon Holt or that poor black kid in Graham, didn't even raise a hand to him as far as I know, but he might as well have, since it all turned out the same. The story I've heard (nobody will say it to my face) is that Roger came home after a Big Bend Central Raiders game and found my father with Nancy in their bedroom—all their wedding pictures and honeymoon pictures from the Excalibur in Vegas staring down at them as my father made Nancy moan. There were words, maybe even a punch thrown after my father got done laughing and wiping himself off on Roger's sheets, but not much more than that—not then, anyway. A lot of people in Murfee whispered about my dad and Nancy—suspected, anyway—but they weren't going to make much out of it.
Who was going to say a goddamn thing to the famous sheriff, Stanford "Judge" Ross?
That left Roger to deal with it: the whispers, the smiles, the laughs. Everyone knew about Nancy and my father, and Roger couldn't step outside his house without knowing about it as well. All day, every day . . . down at the Hi n Lo he managed, every time someone came in for Lone Stars or cigarettes or Skoal Long Cut Wintergreen. Every time my father came by and poured himself a free cup of coffee, black and sour, sometimes still smelling like Nancy, before walking out with a wink and that sharp smile on his face.
Because Sheriff Ross doesn't pay for anything in Murfee.
Not even another man's wife.
When he'd had enough, Roger pulled his old F-150 into the parking lot of the Big Bend County Sheriff's Department and took a brand-new Gillette to both wrists, bleeding out into the old McDonald's bags and other shit on his floorboards. Chief Deputy Duane Dupree found him first, his dying breaths fogging the truck's glass, but Duane took his sweet time making the call, even fired up a smoke while he rang my father first; then, a few minutes later, the county EMT. Roger was dead fifteen minutes before the ambulance arrived, and his last sight ever on this earth was Duane Dupree calmly smoking a Lucky Strike, picking at his teeth with his thumb, watching him die.
Roger left a note. I know because I overheard Duane and my father talking about it one night on our porch, but no one ever saw it or read it. Duane was carrying on, laughing about it, but my father didn't say anything at all, just gave him that look that only my father can, when his gray eyes go black and don't seem to reflect much of anything in front of or behind them.
That look, far more than anything he ever says, shuts lesser men up. We're all lesser men. Staring into my father's eyes, Duane said he'd take care of that damn letter, burn it all to hell on his Weber grill, and I bet my life that's exactly what he did.
• • •
My father's first wife was Vickie Schori. They met in high school right here in Murfee and were married six months after the senior prom. He was of course the king, she the queen—but a couple of years later she ran out on him to El Paso. Most people thought it was for the best anyway, at least best for young Deputy Ross (he was still a long way from being the sheriff). There had been ugly whispers about the Schori family as long as they'd been in Murfee—as long as anyone, longer than most. They started the West Texas Cattle Auction, managed it forever, but sold it off and left town themselves a few years after Vickie, and it's the Comanche now. No one knows where they went. No one ever spoke to Vickie again.
I've never seen her picture in our house, but there is one at school, pressed behind glass near the front office. It's part of a collage of a hundred other images, bits and pieces of Big Bend Central's history. The picture is black and white, faded. She's standing on a football field and she looks like a ghost beneath the stadium lights. Her dress has these huge sleeves and her hair is turning in the wind and she's waving, even smiling . . . looking at something distant, and she's so beautiful.
All you can see of my father is his hand, heavy on her arm, holding her. I know it's him. I'd know those hands anywhere. He's there, present, but just out of sight. The rest of him is covered up by a baseball picture from 1988.
• • •
My father's second wife was Nellie Banner, and they were married less than a year after Vickie disappeared. She came from a longtime Murfee family as well; she'd been a freshman when my dad and Vickie were prom king and queen. Where Vickie had been all Texas blond, Nellie was short, dark, with a drop of Mexican blood, although no one ever said that out loud. My father has never talked about her, but I think they fought a lot. Fought, made up, fought some more. Early on, they lived out on Peachtree, and I imagine the neighbors got used to a bit of yelling and banging around. Still, they showed up each Sunday at church, with my father in his uniform and Nellie in her Sunday white, even if she wore a bit more makeup than most of the women around here thought proper for church.
Maybe she liked the way it looked. Maybe she needed that extra color to cover up the blue of bruises.
Nellie died unexpectedly in about two inches of water in the big Kohler bathtub in the new house on Rustler they built after my father made chief deputy. It was a shock to everyone, a true tragedy. Nobody could explain it, even after they brought the ME from El Paso. My father hadn't been home at the time, out with Deputy Dupree near Nathan, coming in far too late that night to find her blue and unresponsive. Facedown in water long gone cold. Colder than her skin.
People say that my father was so upset and distraught at Nellie's death he tore that Kohler out and replaced it—people around here swear it. I've heard them talking about seeing it happen with their own eyes. But I know better.
That goddamn tub's still there.
My father's third wife, my mother, was Evelyn Monroe. They met in Dallas while he was there for a law enforcement conference. She'd just graduated from SMU but took to him right away, I guess, and soon they were calling all the time and he was heading up to Dallas on weekends to see her. She left her new position at IBM to relocate out to Murfee, sight unseen.
I've often wondered about her first thoughts when she got here, way out in the middle of nowhere. What did she think when she first saw her new home? Chihuahuan scrub and long rolls of grassland; the humps and hills of the Santiagos and the Chisos hammered by the sun. Dust on everything all the time, like the whole fucking world's covered in ash.
If it had been March or April, at least the Texas mountain laurel would have been blooming through the caliche, and the sides of the valleys would have been carpeted in purple. She would have liked that. Purple was her favorite color.
They married and she moved into the house on Rustler that Nellie and my father built and that Nellie died in. About a year later I was born. My father eventually won the sheriff's seat away from old Dugger Barnes, and my mom got involved in raising me, volunteering first at Barnhardt Middle and later at Big Bend Central.
My mother was beautiful, tall, thin, her blond hair always pulled back in a ponytail. There was always a hair tie or scrunchie somewhere around her, orbiting her like small stars: wrapped around her wrist, trapped on the shifter in her truck, tossed on a counter or hidden beneath cushions.
I still find them, even now. And when I do, I still cry. Not so much, a little less each time, and never where my father can see.
They smell like her . . . her shampoo. Mint and rain and green places far from here.
• • •
Thirteen months ago my mother left us, maybe to go to one of those faraway places.
That's what the note said—a note my father claims he found folded on our kitchen counter. A note written on a piece of Big Bend County Sheriff's Department stationery that somehow didn't end up on Duane Dupree's grill. It was three sentences long and all but got printed in the Murfee Daily, because everyone had to explain and understand and debate how Evelyn Ross—the beautiful, smart, and beloved wife of Sheriff Ross—could leave her husband and teenage son and disappear.
Gone without a trace.
People offered to go after her. When they weren't dropping off casseroles or checking in to see how we were, they wanted to help track her down and drag her back like an old-time posse, but my father wouldn't hear of it. He claimed she'd been unhappy for a long time, was quick then to reveal little bits and pieces of their lives—secrets he'd carried and never shared before to protect me and her reputation—all ready and at hand to explain her actions.
There were secrets, of course, real ones—not those he pretended to let slip at Earlys or at the Hamilton. Three weeks after she was gone he packed up all of her clothes and things she'd left behind and put them in boxes in the attic.
His hands were still dusty from the attic ladder when he sat me down and told me I was never to take those things out again. I had two or three days to grieve her, a generous handful of extra hours to be sullen, and then I was never to say her name again either, not in his presence. If I did, he'd have to beat the dog piss out of me, and he didn't want to do that. He would, though, because he'd said it, and once something was said, it became the law.
He hoped it wouldn't come to that, though. He really did.
After that he winked at me, patted me heavily on the shoulder, and got up to get a Lone Star and make a phone call. He left a dusty handprint on the shirt I was wearing, and later that night I tossed it in the trash.
• • •
I knew my mother. I know my mother. I know she would never have left so empty-handed, without any of the things she loved that he so easily boxed away.
Without her photo albums and books and the chalcedony ring and necklace her grandmother gave her when she was sixteen.
She would never have left all those things behind.
She would never have left me behind.
My father has killed three men.
My father . . . that fucking monster . . . also killed my mother.
The body lay exposed, barely visible.
Maybe there was the gentle knurl of bone, dirty and ivory, and something brittle and flaking that might once have been fabric.
Something else, spidery and matted and awful and moving thick in the breeze, something that might have been hair. Human hair. It rustled with the grass and the black brush and dry mountain laurel, as if alive.
Human hair . . . and a bone.
• • •
Deputy Chris Cherry stood over the body, thinking, as a couple of Bulger's tigerstripe Herefords silently looked on. Bulger eyed him as well, propped up on his dirty Kawasaki four-wheeler, working a jaw full of Copenhagen and eating a peach.
That was fucking talent.
Chris bent down, slow and careful, looking closer, before standing up again and wiping his hands on his uniform pants, even though he hadn't touched anything.
"How's the knee?" Bulger asked over a mouthful of peach and long-cut dip.
How's the knee? That's what everyone always said to him . . . Murfee's version of hello or goodbye. Another way of saying Welcome back or Damn shame, depending on who said it.
How's the fucking knee?
Chris ignored it. "You found this earlier this morning?"
Bulger made a face, spit a dark stream that looked bloody. "Earlier, ayup. Didn't have time to call it in. Busy." He finished the peach, tossing it behind him in the direction of Chris's patrol truck, a Ford, painted Big Bend County blue and gray. It hit the ground a few feet short, and one of the Herefords slowly walked toward it, head down.
Chris knew that after he left, Bulger would call the sheriff and complain a shit storm about his driving the truck up onto the pasture. He wouldn't say anything now to Chris, just take it direct to the sheriff himself, who might or might not hear him out—and who might or might not turn around and say something to Chris. Tough to say. Either way, Chris didn't feel bad about not hiking the five miles up from the ranch road to here, avoiding ankle-breaks and snakes and jackrabbit holes and whatever the hell else.
Bulger on his four-wheeler sure in the hell hadn't.
How's the fucking knee?
• • •
Matty Bulger's place, Indian Bluffs, covered twenty thousand acres of crooked spine running along the Rio Grande river gorge. His family had owned it for decades after buying off a piece of the huge Sierra Escalera ranch. Matty had three sons and Chris had played football with the youngest, Nathaniel, at Big Bend Central. The two older boys still worked Indian Bluffs with their dad, but Nat was running hunting operations at Sierra Escalera, and Chris knew that pissed off Bulger to no end.
Nat had been a decent receiver, tall with good hands. He'd been difficult to outthrow, scissoring along the sidelines beneath the big lights. Chris remembered Matty sitting in the stands, hollering Nat's name, pumping his blue-veined fists and watching his boy run.
"What we got? 'Nother dead beaner?"
Chris shrugged. Probably. It was a fact of life in far West Texas, along the river: Mexicans crossing the border, looking for work, carrying drugs, carrying each other. The trip was hard and it wasn't unusual for a few not to make it whole, or at all. Some got sick drinking water out of dirty stock tanks; others were injured by the land itself. They'd been known to break into ranch houses to steal food or to hide out for days in abandoned homes. Dupree had told him about a group that even called 911 on themselves after jimmying their way into a house. Lost and worn out, beaten, they'd polished off all the beer in the fridge and sat outside smoking cigarettes, stinking of river mud, calmly waiting with four hundred pounds of weed sewn up in burlap, until Dupree and a couple of the other deputies showed up.
Dupree always laughed his ass off telling that story, drinking a Dr Pepper and drawing hard on a Lucky Strike.
• • •
The Big Bend of the Rio Grande was outlaw country. Always had been, always would be.
It was the sharp curve where the Rockies met the northern Chihuahuan Desert, tough and beautiful and unforgiving. It was so bad, so rugged, so broken that it had been used to train astronauts for lunar walks. Big Bend, along with El Paso, Jeff Davis, and a handful of smaller counties, made up the bulk of the Texas side—the Trans-Pecos—more than 31,000 square miles. Big Bend County alone, anchored by Murfee and swallowing up whole both a state and a national park, was ten thousand miles of pure emptiness, patrolled by only six deputies and Sheriff Ross; all of it bigger than Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island together. Just a few of a thousand places Chris had never been, probably would never go. It was a patchwork of ranches and river frontages and gorges shadowed by the Santiago, Chinati, and Chisos mountains, like deep cuts in dirty skin. If you looked hard enough, there were still the black pockmarks of ancient burned-out middens dotting the land, naked Indian arrowheads on the ground, and fading cave paintings up in the rocks. There were hills and valleys of cat's-claw and blackbrush and desert willow and mountain laurel, so much of it that when it rained good and hard, the waters were soon followed by an explosion of ground color rolling away as far as the eye could see—all the way to Mexico, so bright it was hard to take in all at once.
The rest of the time it was only bone and rust, just as hard on the eye but for different reasons, save for the odd patch of Bahia grass some ranchers tried for forage—a green so pale it was merely a hint, so that if you looked one way or the other, it disappeared altogether.
Chris had once hoped to disappear from Murfee altogether as well.
• • •
Chris's dad used to say that the ranches squared the land into little kingdoms where men like Bulger crowned themselves kings. They didn't answer much to deputies like Chris, less even to the green-clad Border Patrol agents who worked the Rio Grande. The land got handed down from father to son, and they hired their own men—more than a few illegals from right across the water—and bunked them in cold barracks built with their own hands. They tended their sick and dying and buried them in family plots and paid out wages in wads of dollars. Some operations had gone modern and given up cutting dogs and horses for cutting gates, choppers, and four-wheelers. Loading chutes and trailer trucks had long replaced the dusty trail, and more than a few had taken to hiring hunting management consultants to set up big-game operations on back acreage. They streamed live video of elk and mule deer and made top dollar from weekend warriors wanting to pick their own antler racks with little or no fuss.
But the ranches, and the ranchers, were Murfee, and always would be. No different from the handful of other little towns held hostage by the patchwork of fences and pastures drawn in the dust beneath all the gathered mountains. They defined life here, the ebb and flow of it.
In his summers, Chris had worked his fair share of cattle operations all around Murfee. He'd long known men like Bulger who didn't give a damn about what happened outside their fences and couldn't see much beyond them. Not all, though—both Terry Macrae at Tres Rios and Dave Wilcher at the Monument set out food and clean water for the illegals crossing their lands looking for work, adopting a live-and-let-live view of it all. Wilcher went so far as to put up a small cottage near the gorge, a way station for those passing through, even though it drove the Border Patrol crazy. Chris had been out there and seen the wadded clothes, blown-out old shoes, even the maps the travelers had left behind. They'd bought the maps down in Ojinaga. Crude things, pencil lines showing bare trails and roads and checkpoints and ranches like the Monument where desperate men—desperate people—could hole up for a few hours.
Still, so many didn't make it: drowned in the river in heavy rains, caught up in a cold snap or a sudden snow squall, more than a few catching a bullet behind the ear. All left for dead where they'd fallen. Bodies were not uncommon out here in the emptiness.
Men like Bulger found them, unconcerned about the how or why, just waiting for men like Chris to clean up the mess.
• • •
Chris had grown up here and had been trying to leave it forever.
His dad had been the town dentist and they'd lived in Murfee proper, but after graduating from Big Bend Central, Chris had taken his football scholarship and gotten the hell out for what he thought was good, only to return for a hundred bad reasons that seemed far worse now—like this god-awful moment, standing over bones and hair in the cold wind, with rain up in the mountains, darkening the far sky. Coming his way. And Matty Bulger waiting impatiently for Chris to do some goddamn thing so he could get back to work.
His cell buzzed, dying before he even could reach for it. Service was spotty out here, the towers few and far between, and the radio was sometimes even worse, with the repeater in Stockton blocked by mountains. Either way, he'd have to go back out to the main road to call this in. The lost call was probably Melissa.
The lost call meant he'd avoided another argument without even trying.
Chris was about to turn away, return to his truck, when something on the ground caught his eye. Not so much on the ground, but the ground itself: that little rim of earth holding the body in place.
Like hands holding something precious.
He bent down again, careful for the second time, for a closer look. Bulger shifted behind him, finally sliding his ass off the four-wheeler, angling for a view of what had caught Chris's attention.
- On Sale
- Jun 7, 2016
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Hachette Book Group