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Texas Ranger Rory Yates is not keen for hero status. But it's unavoidable once his girlfriend, country singer Willow Dawes, writes a song about his bravery. Rory escapes his newfound fame when he's sent to the remote West Texas town of Rio Lobo, a municipality with two stoplights. And now, according to the Chief of Police, it has one too many Texas Rangers.
Rio Lobo Detective Ariana Delgado is the one who requested Rory, and the only person who believes a local councilwoman's seemingly accidental death is a murder. Then Rory begins to uncover a tangle of small-town secrets, favors, and lies as crooked as Texas law is straight.
To get to the truth before more people die, Rory is forced to take liberties with the investigation. The next ballad of Rory Yates may not be about a hero, but rather an outlaw song.
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SUSAN SNYDER PRESSES her foot down on the gas pedal and zooms around a curve, the headlights of her Mustang convertible cutting through the darkness and the stereo blasting the Foo Fighters into the cool June Texas air. She has the top down, and her hair whips around in the wind as goose bumps rise on her arms. Maybe from the chill. Maybe from excitement.
She knows she should slow down. She should be careful. But she can’t help herself. She’s giddy. She can’t wait for tomorrow to come. She should probably feel more scared. That’s the smart way to feel—scared and careful. But caution has never been a word in her vocabulary. At thirty-seven years old, she’s single and successful, and she doesn’t take shit from anyone.
She rounds another curve, the tires squealing against the blacktop. Up ahead, her ranch house is nestled among the sagebrush-covered hills. She races into her gravel driveway and skids to a halt, sending a cloud of dust up into her headlight beams. She takes a deep breath and sits in the car for a minute, trying to let her heart rate slow down.
It won’t. She’s just too excited.
She was on a dinner date tonight. At least that’s what it would have looked like to the other customers at the only halfway decent restaurant in town. A man. A woman. White wine. Filet mignon for him. Crab legs for her. A shared dessert of strawberry cheesecake topped with vanilla bean ice cream.
But it wasn’t a date. It was a strategy session.
Come tomorrow, the little West Texas town of Rio Lobo won’t know what hit it.
Susan presses the button to raise the convertible roof. On her way up her front walk, she looks up at the moonless sky. The view is breathtaking, and she never tires of country still so untouched by light pollution that the stars look like droplets of paint sprinkled over a vast black canvas.
One of the reasons she lives here is the solitude. The simple country life. She works as a freelance web designer and makes a comfortable living. In a town like Rio Lobo, where Susan serves as one of five elected members of the town council, she might even be considered borderline rich. But her income wouldn’t go nearly as far in a big city like Houston or Dallas, let alone New York or Los Angeles, where a lot of her clients are based. Besides, the town of Rio Lobo is about the perfect size for her. It has exactly two stoplights.
Susan takes her eyes off the sky for a moment and notices something on her front porch. On the rocking chair next to her door sits an object enfolded in clear plastic wrap, with a handwritten note attached. Made some cookies for you. They’re safe. The note is unsigned, but when she sees the two snickerdoodles—her favorite cookie—she knows who left them for her.
Inside, she’s already unwrapping the cookies as she kicks off her shoes. She eats the first one and takes a drink of milk straight from the gallon. She considers saving the second one for tomorrow, but she’s in an indulgent mood. She eats it and tosses the cellophane and note onto her kitchen table. She leaves her purse there next to the wrapper and heads down the hall to her bedroom.
She steps out of her dress and pulls on a pair of Victoria’s Secret sweatpants and a Dallas Cowboys jersey that she sleeps in.
When she picks up her toothbrush, her fingers feel tingly, as if they’ve fallen asleep. She puts the toothbrush into her mouth and notices the swelling of her lips. She squints at herself in the mirror—not only does it look like someone punched her in the mouth but also her whole face appears to be swelling, as if she’s suddenly gained twenty pounds.
Worse than her appearance, her breathing has become labored.
Susan tells herself not to panic. She has a known peanut allergy, and any hint of peanut oil could trigger this reaction. Her friend who left the cookies knows about the allergy—and labeled them They’re safe—but must have accidentally baked in some trace of peanuts.
Moving slowly, trying to keep her breathing under control, Susan opens the medicine cabinet and, with fingers swollen like sausages, grabs her EpiPen. Tearing open the package, she walks over to her bed, sits on the edge, and then, without hesitation, jams the needle into her leg, right through her sweatpants.
She knows that she needs to call 911. But her cell phone is in her purse back in the kitchen, on the other side of the house. She decides to wait a minute and let the shot of adrenaline do its job. She concentrates on her breathing. Air wheezes through her throat, like wind whistling through a desert canyon.
Her vision blurs. Her heart won’t stop pounding. A wave of dizziness nearly topples her off the bed. She needs to get to her phone.
The shot isn’t working.
She rises and takes a step forward, but the floor seems to tilt under her feet. She makes it to the hallway and collapses. She tries to stand, but all her muscles are cramping, shooting lightning bolts of pain throughout her body.
Over the pounding of her own heart, she hears something—footsteps.
Thank God, she thinks.
Help, Susan tries to say, but no words come out. Her lungs have stopped inflating. Her vision darkens.
There are no stars in this blackness.
I PULL MY Ford F-150 into the small parking lot at the Rio Grande Bank and Trust in Waco. A big Dodge pickup, even bigger than mine, is taking up two handicapped spaces right in front. I drive around to the shady side and find an opening far from the door.
It’s my lunch break, and I need to deposit a check for my girlfriend.
“Tell me again, Rory,” my lieutenant and new boss says from the passenger seat, “why your girlfriend doesn’t get a bank account in Tennessee.”
Kyle Hendricks and I became Rangers right around the same time and have always been competitive. Up until about a month ago, Kyle and I were the same rank. Then my old boss, friend, and mentor, Lieutenant Ted Creasy, retired and Kyle got promoted. A lot of Rangers wanted me to take the lieutenant’s exam, but I wasn’t in the right headspace to apply for the job. I’ve been through hell and back in the last year.
Now that Kyle’s my boss, I remind myself to be respectful of his position. After all, he’s in his late thirties, a few years older than me. The Texas-bred good old boy has hair the color of straw and the long, lean body of the baseball pitcher he was back in high school and college. Since football was my sport, I thought of Kyle and me as two quarterbacks vying for the starting spot, fueled by a mix of mutual respect and distaste—then suddenly one of them became the coach.
“Coach” invited me to lunch at a local restaurant called Butter My Biscuit, which I took as a good sign that he wants to smooth this transition. But the way he’s been ribbing me about Willow makes me think that maybe he hasn’t changed much after all.
“Hell,” Kyle says, “it’s the twenty-first century. They got national banks now, you know. Wells Fargo. Capital One. You might have heard of ’em.”
I ignore him. The guys at work tease me all the time about Willow, who moved to Nashville a good eight months ago. She’s a country singer—a hell of a good one, too. Through most of her twenties, she played in bars and roadhouses from Texas to Nashville. But she never got her big break—until last fall, when she broke her ankle and a video of her singing on a barstool in a leg cast went viral. Suddenly producers and talent scouts were asking for demos of her songs, inviting her to fly out to Nashville for auditions. She and I had really only just started dating. But I encouraged her to go and pursue her dreams. Take her shot.
She’s done well so far. A couple of songs she wrote were recorded by Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town, and are already earning her royalty checks. Her own album is due out later this summer. People are saying Willow is going to be the next big thing, but she knows every new artist is next up for fame, though fame passes most of them by.
She’s been cautiously optimistic, and maybe a little superstitious. She doesn’t want to open a bank account in Nashville until she feels sure this is a permanent move. Which also has a little something to do with me. The Nashville Police Department has a job opening for a detective, and she’s asked me to consider applying.
I’m honored to be a Texas Ranger, born and raised in Texas, and the thought of leaving the top division of state law enforcement isn’t a decision I take lightly. Times have changed since the Wild West days, but not the legendary status of Texas Rangers. The badge still carries a mystique.
“How much is that check for anyway?” Kyle says, gesturing to the sealed envelope in my hand.
I ignore this question, too. “I’ll be right back,” I say.
“Take your time,” he says, leaning his head back and tilting his Stetson down over his eyes. “I’m going to take me a little nap.”
It’s early June, but already the air is hot and thick with humidity. My clothes stick to my skin. I’m wearing the typical Texas Ranger attire: dress slacks, button-down shirt, tie, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots. And a polished silver star pinned to my shirt.
I’m wearing my gun, too, a SIG Sauer P320 loaded with .357 cartridges, sheathed in a quick-draw holster. A Texas Ranger should always be ready for anything.
I walk into the bank head down, not paying attention to my surroundings as I open the envelope Willow sent me. I’m caught off guard by the amount of the check. I’m glad I didn’t tell Kyle—I’d never hear the end of it.
Not until I hear the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked no more than a foot from my head do I sense anything is wrong. Today I’m not ready.
“Hold it right there, Ranger,” a voice says from behind me. “One move and I’ll put a bullet right through your skull.”
I SLOWLY RAISE my head and take in the scene. Besides the guy holding a gun to my head, I see only one other robber. He rises from a crouch behind the counter, where the half dozen tellers are standing. The AR-15 assault rifle he carries is equipped with a bump stock to effectively turn it from semiautomatic to fully automatic.
“No sudden movements,” he yells at me, “or I’ll light this place up like the Fourth of July.”
The big Dodge parked out front, blocking the view into the bank, is probably the robbers’ getaway car.
The guy behind me swivels around, keeping the pistol—a 9mm Beretta—leveled at my head. “Put those hands up,” he says. “Slowly.”
I do as he says, quickly counting the six customers standing in the bank lobby. The last thing I want is to put innocent bystanders in the midst of a gunfight.
These guys look like pros. They’re wearing black tactical gear from head to toe, including masks and bulletproof vests, standard issue for law enforcement or military personnel (though your average citizen can get this stuff on the internet).
Even if these guys are professionals, I still have one question.
“Why the hell are you guys robbing a bank at lunchtime?” I say. “There probably wouldn’t be a soul in here at any other time of day.”
“Not that we owe you any goddamn explanation,” the guy with the AR-15 says, “but the vault’s on a time lock.” He checks his watch. “And it’s just about time.”
With that, he disappears into a back room. Now is the time for me to make a move. But even if I could get the drop on the guy with a gun to my head, Mr. AR-15 would hear the gunshot and come running. He’d open fire with the assault rifle and tear the place apart. He could kill everyone in the room before he needed to reload.
The eyes of the guy with the Beretta dart to the pistol on my hip, then back up to my face. I can tell what he’s thinking. He’s wondering how to disarm me. If he gets close enough to reach for the pistol, maybe I can disarm and disable him. Asking me to remove it from the holster and drop it will risk putting a gun into one of my hands, even if he insists I use the left one. Or I could leave my hands right where they are, shoulder high and far from my gun belt.
“I don’t want any trouble,” I say to the guy. “I’m going to let you walk right out of here. You don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“If anyone’s gonna get hurt, Ranger, it’s you. I hate the fucking Texas Rangers. I might kill you just ’cause I feel like it.”
The guy’s voice is rough and strained. These guys might be professionals, but this one’s nerves are shot. I need to find a way to keep him under control.
“Let me remind you,” I say, maintaining a steady, calm voice, “killing a Texas Ranger is capital murder. They’ll give you the needle for it.”
In other states, death-row inmates die of old age while their lawyers delay their sentences with endless appeals. But this is Texas, which executed more people last year than every other state combined.
The hand holding the gun trembles slightly.
“It’s also capital murder,” I say, “to kill someone during the execution of a robbery. If you shoot anyone today, anyone at all, that’s a death sentence. Automatically.”
I’ve scared him, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“You and your partner are free to go,” I assure him. “I don’t care about the money you’re stealing. Maybe you’ll get caught at a later date. Maybe you’ll get away with it. That’s not my problem today. What I care about is that no one gets hurt.”
I can’t gauge the impact of my words. The guy watches as his partner lugs two loaded duffel bags, one on each shoulder. He hauls them up onto the counter and then, like a bank robber in a movie, climbs atop the marble. He stands and shoulders the assault rifle, swinging it around at the people standing in the lobby.
Some are crying. Some are shaking. All of them look scared to death.
“All right,” Mr. AR-15 announces, breath heaving from carrying the bags, “since we had the bad luck of a Texas Ranger walking in on us, we’re going to have to take us a hostage.”
“There’s no need to take any hostages,” I say. “I’m going to let you walk right out of here.”
“We seen you circle the parking lot,” he says. “We know there’s another Ranger out there. We need some insurance we won’t be followed.”
Mr. AR-15 looks overly confident, crazed almost. But his partner, Mr. Beretta—I can tell he’s spooked. His eyes bulge in his mask. And his arm is getting tired, too. His gun hand is shaking more and more.
“If you have to take anyone,” I say, “take me.”
MR. AR-15 GIVES me a look that says he’s considering my request.
“I’ve got handcuffs on my belt,” I say. “Put them on me. Get one of the tellers to give you a canvas money bag to put over my head. I won’t see a thing. You can leave me wherever you want once you know you’re safe.”
His eyes drop from my face to the belt at my waist. The cuffs are on one side, the loaded gun on the other. He knows he won’t be safe as long as I’m armed.
“Ain’t gonna happen, Ranger,” he says. “We’re gonna take us one of these pretty little customers. The kind that they’ll put all over the news, saying, ‘Those damn Texas Rangers fucked up and got that little girl killed.’”
He uses his assault rifle as a pointer. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” he says.
Each person cringes as the gun aims at them before moving on.
“You are it,” he says finally, aiming the rifle at the youngest person in the room, a pretty girl who can’t be eighteen. She lets out a sob, and her eyes swim with tears.
I have to do something.
And I have to do it now.
Mr. AR-15 bends his knees like he’s going to hop down off the counter, but my best chance—my only chance—depends on keeping him above the rest of the crowd. It will be safer for all of the bystanders if I’m shooting upward.
“Wait!” I yell as loudly as I can.
My shift in tone has caught everyone by surprise. Let’s see if I can surprise them again.
What happens next takes only a couple of seconds.
Three at the most.
I drop into a crouch, reaching for my gun as I do. My cowboy hat flies off my head as if yanked by a string, and only in that split second am I aware that Mr. Beretta has pulled the trigger and filled the silence with the roar of a gunshot.
I land on one knee, in a shooting stance, and raise my pistol. Mr. Beretta is closer, but Mr. AR-15 is more dangerous. I draw a bead on the center of his black mask as he’s bringing the assault rifle around. I squeeze the trigger and his head snaps back. Blood splatters the ceiling. His body leans and he starts to fall backward off the counter, but I’m already shifting, swinging my gun onto Mr. Beretta. It’s only been an instant since he fired his pistol. He’s moving fast, and in a fraction of a second, he’ll have his gun aimed between my eyes. But I don’t give him a fraction of a second. My sight is already locked on the black mask.
I squeeze the trigger.
His body hits the floor an instant after I hear the thump of Mr. AR-15 landing behind the counter.
The air is full of the acrid smell of gunpowder and screaming. I take a moment to verify both men are dead. Then I call out and ask if anyone is injured. People are crying, in shock—they’ll be traumatized for life—but no one is hurt.
My eyes drift to my cowboy hat, lying on the floor. There’s a dime-sized hole through the crown. An inch lower and the bullet would have punched a crater in the top of my skull. I’m in a trance for a few seconds, looking at the hat. Then I hear the door of the bank burst open. I whirl around with my SIG Sauer, but I pull up and point the barrel at the ceiling.
My lieutenant, Kyle, is at the door, out of breath and gun in hand. His face is a picture of absolute surprise. He takes in the scene and then adjusts his hat on his head.
“I’ll be damned,” he says. “What’d I miss?”
THAT EVENING, AS the sun sits low on the horizon, I pull my F-150 into the driveway at my parents’ ranch. I live here, in a separate house that’s less than a year old. My place is on a small hill overlooking the spot where a bunkhouse for ranch hands used to be, back when hired cowboys lived on the property. I like the view from the little two-bedroom home that Willow and I briefly shared before she moved to Nashville.
I pass my parents’ house, the home I grew up in. Mom is out working in the garden, and Dad is on the porch, whittling a block of wood.
I pull to a stop but don’t get out.
“I’m okay,” I say as they approach the truck, their expressions revealing they’ve been sick with worry. They’ve already heard what happened.
We talk for a few minutes as I try to set their minds at ease. I’m still numb from the deadly events at the bank, and I just want to be alone. But it can’t be easy having a son who wears a tin star to work every day, so I try to reassure them.
One of the reasons I moved back to the property was that I wanted to be close so I could help out. Dad had a bout with cancer last year. He’s in remission now and doing great. Most of the time it feels like Mom and Dad are helping me out and not the other way around. Tonight is no different. Mom says she made extra for supper and brings me a plate wrapped in cellophane, a venison sirloin with fried okra and mashed potatoes on the side. When I get to my place, I set the plate on the table but don’t unwrap it.
I have no appetite.
I take a long, hot shower, then grab a Shiner Bock from the refrigerator and go sit on the porch. The pine boards feel good on my bare feet. It’s dusk, and there’s a hell of a Texas sunset in front of me. The whole landscape has a sharp golden hue, and the clouds in the sky look like they’re on fire.
I take one sip of the beer and it hits my empty stomach like acid. I dump the rest over the porch railing into the grass and set the empty bottle at my feet.
This isn’t my first time shooting someone, but it never gets easier. One minute, I feel like I could throw up. The next, I feel like I could break down crying. Instead, I just sit there and think. These were bad guys—identified as ex-felons with long rap sheets. Still, I took their lives to get the people in the bank out of harm’s way. But I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would have been okay watching those men take that teenage girl hostage.
I could not have let that happen.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with God—the violence I’ve seen can make me question God’s existence—but today I say a little prayer of thanks for the safety of the innocent folks in that bank. And I say thanks for the bullet that passed through my Stetson, that its path wasn’t any lower.
A faint orange glow remains on the horizon. Stars have begun to populate the darkening sky. I go inside to get my guitar, figuring if anything will clear my mind, playing will. Concentrating on the notes, focusing on the lyrics, doing something I love—that’s the medicine I need right now.
But when I get inside, I see my phone is full of missed calls and text messages. Family and friends are wanting to check on me, but I’m not in the mood to talk. There’s nothing from Willow. She’s on tour with Dierks Bentley, and she has a show in Sacramento tonight.
There is one message that catches my eye. My old lieutenant, Ted Creasy, sent me a text that says, Call me, partner.
“I’ve got bad news and bad news,” he says. “Which one do you want first?”
“AREN’T YOU SUPPOSED to be retired?” I tell Creasy.
“Yeah,” he says, “but I still got my ear to the floor. People tell me stuff.”
As we’re talking, I step out into the grass, feel the cool blades on my bare feet. Fireflies light up around me in the dark. I can hear insects chirping in the distance. I could have died today—and that perspective makes it hard to be worried about whatever Creasy has to say.
He tells me that the higher-ups in the Texas Ranger Division are happy with my performance today. From the major who oversees my company to the chief of the whole division, everyone agrees I couldn’t have handled the situation any better.
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- Mar 30, 2020
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