Shadow of the Templar: Come Back To Texas
On timeline: at some point post-High Fidelity
Requested from me during one of my infrequent story-prompt-request thingsJohnny's always popular.
Johnny would be the first to admit that he wasn't the sentimental type. He'd only gone back to El Paso once since he left, when Angela had gotten that bee in her bonnet about getting the whole family together for Christmas and Johnny had gone along with her mostly to keep the peace. It hadn't been a bad Christmas, really. It had been just fine. Angela's kids were okay and his parents seemed happy that everyone was there, but when Johnny looked across the table, he saw the faces of friendly strangers beaming back at him in desperate incomprehension. Johnny had left after New Year's and he hadn't been back, not even for the funerals.
Sometimes, when he thought about itwhich wasn't oftenhe thought that maybe he should have found a way to go. He'd come within an inch of asking Simon for time off when Angela called to let him know that his mother had passed, but that was right when the Brookline thing exploded, and he'd have hated to leave the team a member down during that nasty scramble. He'd chewed on the decision for a day or two, and in the end, he'd sent flowers and his sincere regrets.
Angela had tightened her lips over this terrible sin against the family, like she did, but Johnny had figured she'd get over it. She had, he'd thought. Things had been terse for a few months, but she'd eventually stopped punishing him for it, which made the voice mail even more surprising, when he got it. Daddy left you something in the will, Angela said, that old pursed-mouth sound back in her voice. We buried him on FridayI meant to call you and let you know, but things have just been so frantic around here, and after Mama's funeral I thought maybe you wouldn't want to come.
Phone still to his ear, Johnny had frowned at the wall of his apartment and tried to work out how he felt about all this. He didn't feel much of anything, he decided. Hearing about his father's death seemed to be hitting him like hearing about the death of a long-lost childhood friend: a slight jolt and a vague sadness. Maybe that was what his parents had been, Johnny thought. Long-lost childhood friends.
You'll have to come down and talk to Daddy's lawyer, Angela went on, all tight-lipped and disapproving. Whenever you can. I know how busy your job keeps you. You're welcome to stay with us, of course.
Of course, Johnny thought, deleting the message.
El Paso was brown from the air and brown on the ground, too. Even the green parts were brown. The mountains were brown, and the Rio Grande was brown, and so was Juarez on the other side of it; the rental car they gave Johnny at the airport was brown, too, which seemed fitting.
Angela's red-brick house had all its trim painted white, though, and it looked fresh, like she sent the oldest boy out to hose it off once a week and repaint it once a year. The lawn was a carefully-tended green and the cement driveway was clean and new, without any cracks. Angela was doing well for herself, apparently. Johnny was glad to see it.
His sister answered the door when he knocked, her welcoming smile only a little pinched, and Johnny was once again struck by how old she looked now. She was only a couple of years younger than he was but she looked like something out of a frontier photograph, all weatherbeaten and tight-mouthed like a woman profoundly disappointed by the harshness of her life. She'd always kept herself tanned nearly to leather when she was younger, of course, and she had two teenaged boys and a nonentity of a husband to look after, but Johnny couldn't help but think that maybe it was Texas that had done it to her in the end, that it was Texas that had ground her down into the stub of a woman that she was today. Still, she said his name and she hugged him, and she showed him to a guest room that was too frilly for Johnny's tastes but clean and bright all the same, and she made him lunch while he was showering off the grime of the trip, and all in all Johnny was glad to see her, too.
The lawyer came over that afternoonsome places they still did thatand laid out the will for Johnny to see. It was pretty simple. They'd left most everything to Angela, which Johnny had to allow that he approved of, with her having two boys to put through college some day. Johnny's inheritance was a thousand bucks and something in a battered envelope so old that its yellow parts were starting to turn brown. An unfamiliar name and address was written across the front in a spidery, old-fashioned hand. Johnny flicked a thumbnail against a bit of peeling tape and then eased the envelope open, shaking out a small pile of equally yellowed documents and two keys, one ancient, one shiny and new. "Huh," he said.
"What is" Angela craned to look over his shoulder, then sucked in a breath in recognition. "That's from Mama's side of the family," she said. "Mama's aunt Jane left it to her back in the seventies. I didn't think they still owned it."
"Never knew about it," Johnny said, gingerly paging through the old deed. He was the proud new owner of fifty acres of West Texas scrubland, looked like, out in the middle of nowhere. "What all's out there?"
Angela picked up the old key and frowned at it, then rubbed her hand against her jeans leg and left behind a shadow of rust. "Nothing, far as I know. They never did anything with it that I heard about. Wonder if there's oil under the property."
"There was, I don't think someone like Jane woulda gotten her hands on it," said Johnny.
"She always was the unluckiest of Great-Grandma's girls," Angela agreed.
Johnny put the papers back in the envelope. "Still, it's something to think about," he said, worrying the two keys onto his keyring.
The next afternoon found him cruising through the endless cornfields of West Texas in his rental car with nothing but his own thoughts for company. Out here the radio could only pick up a shouting preacher at one end of the dial and fuzzy, fading country & western at the other, and neither one was exactly to Johnny's tastes.
Angela had been planning to come along, but the boys' school had needed something from her, and she hadn't fought against it too hard. Johnny was just as happy to make this trip alone. Yesterday was the first he'd ever heard about this chunk of property, and he still wasn't sure how he felt about it.
Out here the road was so straight that Johnny could have dozed off and slept for an hour without veering off into the corn. It was only when he started to get close that the corn started to falter; by the time he turned off onto the first of an endless series of farm-to-market roads, the browning cornstalks had given way to true scrubland, neither desert nor prairie, just ugly. It was all rocks and mesquite scrub, dry as a bone and just hilly enough to be irritating; Johnny couldn't see the nodding horse-heads of oil wells anywhere, not that he'd expected any. Tangles of rusting barbed wire marked off chunks of property, the old fences falling down as the posts rotted away.
Johnny's brand-new property stretched out between a bunch of other properties just like it. There was a patch of bare dirt off to one side of the FM, just large enough to park the rental car. Johnny dusted off his hands and set out on foot, popping a fresh mint toothpick into his mouth like the bite of it might protect him against the near-desert heat. The sun was relentless and the air was bone-dry, sucking the sweat right out of him like it was greedy for it. Johnny wished he'd thought to bring a hat.
He rambled around the property for a good twenty minutes before he saw anything that wasn't a rock or a scrawny mesquite tree. The battered old wooden shack sat spang in the middle of the property, hidden away in the curve of a valley that was little more than a dent between two hills. It had never been a nice place, even when it was new. No one had ever painted it or cared about it very much. The walls were fat, unchinked planks, the windows were just holes, and the roof was made from rusty sheets of corrugated metal; the place had been crumbling in on itself for years now, and a good kick would probably bring the whole place down.
Johnny ambled in a wide circle around the building, taking its measure. It was pretty big for what it was, but Johnny was of the opinion that you couldn't pay him enough to step up on the porch, let alone wrest open the doors and go inside. The rusty key on his keychain probably fit the front door. Johnny thought he could live without knowing that for sure, especially after he got a good look at the massive wasps' nest that had turned the entire underside of the porch into a sucking, organic thing. The fat yellow-and-black wasps that were zipping around looked like they thought that the place belonged to them, and Johnny thought they might not be far wrong. He gave them an extra-wide berth.
There was a little lean-to shed built up against the shack's rear wall. The padlock on its door was rust-spattered but still new enough to shine a little silver, and after a careful wasp-wary reconnaissance, Johnny approached and stuck the newer of the two keys in the padlock. It dragged like its innards were full of sand, but in the end the key ground around and the padlock's hasp grated free. Johnny pulled it free and took a prudent step back before easing the shed's door open, unsure what he was about to find.
The shed was about half-full of tools gone to rust. There was a hoe, and a rake, and a sturdy post-hole digger, and a shovel with some red paint and a fluttering sticker still on its handle; the rest of the shed was occupied by a fat roll of barbed wire that had rusted in place, completely unused. What the rust hadn't taken, the spiders had. Johnny rolled his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, then closed the shed door and put the padlock back on it.
Retreating to the dubious shade of a stumpy mesquite, Johnny hunkered down and thought about it. The shack looked to be fifty, sixty years old if it was a day, but the tools were of a more recent make, if only barely. Angela had said that his mother had inherited the land in the seventies, which seemed about right. Johnny had to wonder what kind of plans his mother had made for this place, back then. Johnny had to wonder if it hadn't been his coming along that derailed those plans.
A man would have to work his fingers to the bone to make anything out of this scrubby little patch of land. Johnny's fingers flexed gently as he thought about it. Bulldoze the shackhell, just burn it down, show those wasps who was boss, and bulldoze the remainder under when the fire burned itself out. It'd burn clean and fast, that rotting wood as dry as it was, and it wouldn't take more than a day to grub a clear circle around it first, to make sure the fire didn't spread. The land, well, it wasn't much, but if you cleared out the rocks, something would grow, if you made it. Goats'd do okay. Hell, cattle had lived on worse. Put in a well and a septic tank, you could even live some kind of life out here. No electricity, but propane could be had
Johnny caught himself thinking about it and cracked up, rolling back to his feet under the scrubby little tree. Who'd he think he was, anyway? Just like his parents he'd always liked the planning more than the doing, and the frontier days were long gone, even in Texasbut Texas had a way of clinging to you like red dirt on your boots, of calling you back when your defenses were low, of reclaiming you when you got old, and Johnny knew he wasn't the exception. Now that he thought about it, he thought he knew why his father had left him this scrubby little plot: this was just the old man's last offer, coming along after he wasn't around to be argued with any more. Come back to Texas, it said, clear as day. Come on back to where you belong.
Still chuckling Johnny slapped the dirt off his jeans and left the shack behind. "Not yet," he said, biting down on his toothpick and getting one last little taste of mint off it. "Ain't coming back just yet, that's all."
The sun was starting to sink in the west by the time Johnny made it back to the car, although it hadn't made it any cooler out here. Johnny was dirty and sweaty, but in a good enough mood for all that. He turned on the car's engine and got the AC going first thing, then popped open the glove compartment and fished out the plat map.
Something in the very back of the glove compartment clattered as the map jostled up against it. Curious, Johnny went prospecting after it. Under the rental-car agreement and the pile of the car's manuals there was a battered cassette tape that looked like it had been rattling around in there without its case for months; Johnny examined the side, then cawed out an explosive "Haw!" of laughter and stuck it into the car's cassette deck. He got the car turned around and pointed back the way he'd come, heading off down the farm-to-market road with a cloud of reddish dust rising in his wake. "Wild, wild horses... couldn't drag me away," Mick Jagger sang as the car rolled along, and Johnny sang along in a cracked but creditable baritone.