Over four generations the Magnes built a Texas ranching empire, shedding blood, sweat and tears and they didn't much care whose. Now they will wield their great wealth, political connections and ruthless will to build a natural gas field in the ecologically delicate Laguna Madre.
Against overwhelming power stands an unwilling and unwitting ex-bureaucrat, with a deep aversion to conflict and a record for running from it... and five determined women, all relatively powerless.
But deep in the hundred year history of the Magnes there is a dark secret and long memories.
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A Snowy Egret waded through the tidal pools hunting for stranded minnows. Easy pickings. In the blink of its eye, a swoosh, a squeal, a spray of blood and feathers, and the egret felt the Peregrine Falcon’s cold, stiletto-like talons tearing through its flesh.
One moment predator, another moment prey, Octavio Paredes thought to himself as he watched the falcon carry away the bird. He cast his fishing line where moments ago he had seen the water ripple, and considered the nature of justice. His hands were the texture of well-tanned leather and his face marked with deep lines that came from a lifetime of squinting against the persistent Texas sun.
A steady easterly breeze carried the scent of saltgrass as it swept across the barrier island and onto the long shallow bay called the Laguna Madre. A wind other than southeast made Octavio uneasy and he warily scanned the horizon for any hint of trouble. It was November 2nd, and the weather was about to change. Winter came to the Texas coast with a vengeance. Great blue northers, as the locals called them, charged in like an invading army, instantly turning warm peace and calm into torrential rains hurled by howling winds, punctuated by exploding thunder and blinding bolts of lightning.
The sun had just set and he felt oddly unsettled as he stared across the Laguna to the gray silhouette of the gangly legged water tower, which is all anyone could see of Port Mansfield from a distance. The falcon perched on a nearby channel marker, pulling strands of flesh with its hooked beak, watching Octavio as Octavio watched him.
A century and a half ago most all the land, from where he sat in his second-hand fishing skiff to one hundred miles inland, belonged to his family. That was before the anglos came. It was their land now, he told himself with a slight shrug, and anyway, it was a long time ago. When it was dark, and no one could see where he was going, he would pull in his line and coax his old Evinrude to cough then purr its way across the Laguna to his favorite secret spot by the old rotted pilings of dilapidated Magne Ranch Landing, about four miles north.
When he was a boy of fifteen, some sixty years ago, he used to go with his father, who worked as a vaquero on the Magne Ranch. They herded the cattle to the dock and loaded them on the barges. There must have been thousands of head in those days. The docks had been washed out in a hurricane a few years back and never repaired. There was no point. Cattle were not shipping out like that any more. That was then.
For now, he’d wait just a little longer until it was a bit darker. He would fish all Friday night as he often did. By the time he got back to the house late Saturday morning, Anahida would already be gone, out on her junk collecting with Ocky. He’d make himself some huevos rancheros, read the paper and take a nap until she came home in the early afternoon.
When the sun set, the sky was washed with broad wild strokes of orange, red, and purple against swatches of sky in blues and greens. It was so still that the only ripples were those that trailed behind Octavio’s skiff, as it glided across the sky reflected in the Laguna. A full moon loomed just below the deep purple eastern horizon.
At the same time, a mile west, Jason Grider, hands in the pockets of his khakis, leaned against a white-washed 4x4 column on the porch of the Port Office, staring out to the distant barrier island. His brother, Jack, would have said it was hard to tell Jason from the column, given that both were long and lanky and tended to stay in the same place. A perennial tan didn't fully hide the peaches and cream complexion that made him look younger than his 41 years, an impression helped by his sandy colored hair that he kept short cropped, but not mowed.
He could see a piece of the eastern horizon beginning to glow. In a moment the moon would breach the horizon and send its rays dancing on the water until it painted a golden path from the heavens to Port Mansfield, the kind angels might use on occasion. The air had gone dead still. It smelled like a wet dog, Jason thought to himself, but one you cared about. He was lost in a dreamy gaze and time passed over him unnoticed, as it often did for the few souls who passed small and quiet lives in the sleepy backwaters of the southern Texas Gulf coast.
Jason was startled by something sounding like a muffled pop. He instinctively turned to his left, northward, where a few sailboats were berthed in the marina. He wondered if it was a loose halyard slapping its metal mast. In a storm they sounded like off-key wind chimes, but there was no wind now. Then he raised his eyes to the northern horizon and out into what was now pitch blackness. He cocked his head and held his breath, to be completely quiet. Nothing. Then, in the bubbles of a distant thunderhead he saw the flash of rose and yellow veins.
Jason was Sergeant of the Watch at the Port Mansfield Port Office police station and the Sergeant of the Watch was also the night janitor. He liked the night shift; it suited him. He could get the place cleaned up in an hour or less and have the night to listen to those wee hour radio talk shows, the ones with the psychics and people who’d been abducted by aliens: crazies, he called them. The norther would be there in a matter of hours, making another dull Friday night in Port Mansfield. The locals would be hunkered down for the storm passage and there would be no out of town visitors to stop by the office seeking directions. Another night of nothing.
It wasn’t that Port Mansfield was hard to find. There were only two kinds of folks on the 40 mile road that ran from the interstate: those who sought its dead end on purpose and those who were lost. Sometimes a little of both. From spring to late summer sports fishermen would come from towns inland to try their luck in the shallow Laguna Madre, behind the protection of the long and narrow Padre Island. There were a few town people and, lately, some older folks were discovering the cheap land and quiet. These made enough trade for a small general store and a restaurant, and not much more. Twenty-five years ago, there had been visions of a port for shipments of cattle and produce from the vast ranchlands that stretched inland for millions of acres. But like the post war National Geographic Magazines, with pictures of cowboys herding cattle and young lasses posing with giant grapefruit, those plans were finally stacked away and forgotten. Port Mansfield, without ever having any, had seen its better days. Jason liked that just fine. But he'd had a bad feeling since August.
Strangers were showing up more, wearing suits and carrying briefcases. They weren't interested in the fishing, and they sure as hell weren't lost. Maybe it was the change in the weather, the coming winter's prying open the death grip of the merciless Texas summer, Jason wasn't sure, but something odd was going on and he didn't like it.
Copyright 2007 by Michael Putegnat, All rights reserved