An Excerpt from LAGUNA

     There had been stories that managed to survive over the years that cast an aura of invincibility upon the Magnes and the ranch, stories of reluctant sellers who disappeared or turned up dead, clusters of “unfortunate accidents” that suddenly left families without a single male to run their ranches, and other more exotic tales.

     But none more mysterious or more powerful in effect than what had come to be memorialized in a local corrido, a  ballad,  called La Noche del Sal del Rey.

     The story was told of a family that held ten thousand acres of land on the Southern extent of the present day Magne holdings, and whose land was nearly surrounded by Magne purchases, refused Magne’s grandfather’s repeated demands.

     The Santander family hacienda was an original Spanish Land Grant and included the Salina de los Reyneros, Sal del Rey, for short. It was so named for a salt lake that supplied virtually all of northern Mexico with the salt used for preserving meat. It was for that reason critical and valuable and why the family had been able to hold on to their land while others had not. Sal del Rey had once been of the vast lands of the King of Spain. “The Salt of the King.”

     Something extraordinary happened on Halloween Night, 1898, at the Hacienda Sal del Rey. It was a date well remembered, because it was also the exact day that John Magne III, the first one that is, was born. No one was sure exactly what, but one local curandera, a witch or seer, said that she had been told by an apparition, a fifteen year old boy, that the devil himself had appeared and so terrified the inhabitants of Sal del Rey that they were turned instantly to stone, frozen in their terror at the exact instant of their deaths.

     Official reports were almost as bizarre. On the next day, November 1, an itinerant priest, an Oblate Father who worked a circuit ministry from Brownsville, arrived at the hacienda just before dark but found the place completely abandoned. He reported that he found not even the usual barnyard fowl which were nearly always milling in the courtyard. He searched every room, and it was as if all of the people had simply disappeared in the middle of ordinary routine. Tortillas were stacked on the stone surface of the kitchen worktable as they would if the cook had just been busy patting the masa between her hands. The fires had gone cold, but cauldrons of frijoles sat on the grill, a thin crust of dried and hardened lard covering the soup. Candles were burnt down to their bowls. Beds still unmade, as if hastily emptied.

     The curandera’s story seemed to be contradicted by the priest’s report, as no one was to be found in the hacienda, as was corroborated by the sheriff, who investigated the incident. No witness ever came forward. The matter became part of the local lore as the years passed without any further clues as to what happened to the people of La Hacienda Sal del Rey.

 Then, in the autumn of 1912, there was a sighting....

 

   Chapter One

     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.


   Chapter Two

    Tuesday, three days earlier, John Magne, IV, sat in his grandfather's chair, staring out the huge picture window.  His late wife, Francie, had tried on at least three occasions to have the old ox-blood red leather redone but John resisted.  The worn and wrinkled texture, and the smell of it, was like an old favorite saddle. It was a long relationship where one grows into the other. 

     She'd tried to convince John to refinish the desk too.  The leather inset on the top had lost most of its tooling on the near edge and there were places where the rosewood was worn into by that odd Magne way of constantly swinging a crossed leg like the pendulum of a hall clock. To John the dents and dings were verbs in a venerable ancestral saga.  The Magnes tended to think like that. 

     Francie was gone, but not the chair, not the desk.

     In his outer office Patricia Wilson, his secretary for fifteen years, cradled the phone in the crook of her neck, wondering if she ought to disturb him with the call.  For a moment she stared at his portrait across the room, above the fireplace.  Francie had commissioned it.  How much, at 63, John Magne looked like a maturing John Wayne, she thought to herself, both had a kind of rustic elegance.
 
    “Mr. Magne?” the voice poured out of the intercom box.
     “Yes, Pat,” John Magne responded, swinging his chair around to the desk.
     “Congressman Monde on line 2.”
     “Thanks, Pat, I’ll take it.”  He pressed the button, “Lencho, good of you to return my call.”
     “I called as soon as I saw the message, John. Always good to talk to you.  What can I do for you?”
     “Lencho, Gabriela and I want to take you and Eva to dinner next Monday night when we’re in D.C.  Can you make it?”
     “Mario told me you were coming, John, and we’re all clear for Monday, say around eight?”
     ”Perfect, Lencho, we’ll pick you guys up at the house.”
     “Fine.”
     “See you then, bye,” John returned the receiver to the cradle and stared at it for a moment.
     “Pat,” he called out.
     “Yes, Mr. Magne,” she responded from the office doorway.
     “Pat, call Kinkaid’s and make reservations for four on Monday night at, say, nine.  If they give you any trouble, ask for Benjamin and tell him it’s me. He’ll take care of you.”
     “Yes, sir,” she said jotting on her note pad.
     “Oh, and Pat…send Mrs. Monde some of those long stemmed pink roses…she likes those…for, say, Friday.  Got that?”
     “Yes, sir, flowers Friday, Kinkaid’s Monday, November 5th” she said as she scurried out of the room.
     John Magne leaned back into his chair and swung it slowly around so he saw out of the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that framed a nearly endless vista of his ranchlands.  His father had this scene laid out to replicate the savannahs of the Argentine property the family had acquired during the twenties.  It was compensation from Presidente Albrego, who owed John’s grandfather a favor for U.S. help taking down the Machado government and bringing him to power.  It was the way the Magnes did business.  They made the world to their image and liking. 
     Stands of oaks, stretching long arms and gnarly fingers with whole handfuls of deep green leaves, cordoned the edge of the grassy plain.  While most hunters settled for glass eyed stuffed heads staring from their perches on paneled walls, John Magne preferred the real and living thing.  Before him grazed Nalgai, a few Zebras and even a pair of giraffes he had brought in from Africa.  The view from his office could just as easily have been from a camp in the Congo as Argentina, yet it was Texas. 

     On a knoll that rose barely above the coastal plain, the original ranch house, begun by his great grandfather as modest shelter for his family, had been added to and modified to meet practical needs. 
    Then, Magne's grandfather built the new main house, or, as it came to be called, Casa Blanca, directly in front of the old one, bringing in architects from California and craftsmen from New England.  What emerged was a grand mansion based upon Southwestern, Spanish, and Italian architectural styles.  White-washed brick and plaster walls began at the ground and rose twelve steps to the entry level of the house, where an arched arcade wrapped around the structure. The house then rose two more stories and was capped with a red tile roof.  In the center of the front of Casa Blanca, a tower rose another two stories above the roof line. 
     It was from this vantage the Magne men gathered on New Year's Eve to drink whisky and cast grand plans as they surveyed their world.  It was the Kingdom of Magne, built by all means, and passed down through the generations. 
     The scale of the house made it the largest element of the landscape, easily dwarfing cowering oak and mesquite trees and thicket that were held at a distance from the outer perimeter of the grounds. Washingtonian palm trees stood tall around the perimeter of the house like sentinels. The mansion amazed and intimidated those locals who were fortunate enough to penetrate the nine miles into the ranch to ever see it. 
     Above the massive fireplace in the library of the Main House, a huge carved black marble falcon was poised about to pounce on its prey.  Its talons grasped a long scroll inscribed the Magne family motto, Porro, omni modo,  Forward, by all means. 
     "By all means." It took that kind of persistence and sacrifice to build and hold this ranch of just under one million acres on the land that once upon a time even God forgot, bounded by the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Mexico to the west and south, and the Nueces River to the north.  Farms in the U.S. averaged 500 acres.  The Magne Ranch was bigger than Rhode Island.   Texas may have joined the Union in 1845, but the Magnes always thought of their land as a separate country, independent and self-reliant. 
     As he gazed across stretching sea of grass, shadows of drifting clouds dappled the light in countless of hues of yellow and gold.  He was the fourth John Magne to rule over these lands.  He rested his chin in hand, furrowed his brow and worried that he’d be the last.

Chapter 3

     Tuesday evening, Jason’s older brother, Jack, wallowed in his scruffy robe and his duct tape-patched Barcalounger, waiting for relief that only came with brief dozing. 
     It had been a month since he slammed the door and stormed out of the office. “It,” was his famous last word, but it was the penultimate one that sealed the deal. Now poverty competed head to head with his depression. In another month, he’d be practically homeless, he thought. But that was self-pity and melodrama and he knew it, which made him feel worse.
      It wasn’t the usual swoon into his periodic depressions; it was the freefall into the abyss. Again, that dismal inventory of stupid things said, done, missed…again that gut wrenching guilt. If somehow he could just turn it off. 
     Drink, drugs, death: the unhappy trinity of options. But none of these held much allure. Too much alcohol made him nauseous, drugs meant needles and he had always been afraid of those and death was just too much of a commitment.
     He pressed the remote: talking head, smoldering car frame, wailing mother. Deja vu. He drifted into a daze, mesmerized by the patterns on the screen. 
     The sudden ring of the phone startled him. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, but it persisted. 
     “Damn it,” he shouted into the mouthpiece.
     “Jack?” It was his sister, Joan.
     “Yeah.” 
     “What are you doing home on a Tuesday?”
     “What do you want?”
     “Your office said you didn’t work there anymore. What happened?” 
     “Quit.”
     “Quit? Why?” she asked, surprised.
     “I couldn’t stand it anymore, that’s why.”
     There was a pause, then, “Are you all right, Jack?”
     “Oh, I’m fine.”
     “You don’t sound fine. You sound sick or something.”
     “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he protested weakly.
     After a pause, “I’m coming over,” she said with concern in her voice.
     “No, don’t, uh, I’m just about to go out.”
     “I don’t believe you. You’re lying.”
      “No, I’m not, honestly, I’m going to an interview and running late. I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said quickly and hung up. 
     It would take an hour for him to calm down. He flicked the TV on again. He must have dozed, because when he blinked his eyes open again, he wasn’t sure if it was day or night. The room was dark before, but now the walls flickered in a soft green light. Gradually the sound of the TV seeped into his consciousness, a meaningless garble of voices and music. He fumbled for the remote and switched it off and the room went completely dark and silent. All he could hear was the distant bark of someone’s dog. He drifted back into sleep.
     The banging in his head grew louder until it woke him. 
     “Jack!” a voice was insisting from the front door.
     “Jack, open up, it’s Joan!”
     “Dammit!”
     More banging on the door. She wasn’t going away. He swung his legs around and put his feet on the floor. He tried to collect himself enough to get up but when he did, his head felt light and faint. He stumbled toward the door and opened it. 
     “What!” he growled. 
     She pushed past him and into the room. “Interview, my ass,” she shouted. “You haven’t moved from here in a month. What the hell is going on?”
     He gave out a low groan and staggered back to his Barcalounger. “Leave me alone,” he protested.
     “Leave you alone,” she echoed with a disapproving tone. “To do what exactly?”
     “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Joan,” he answered as he flopped down into the chair.
     “This place looks like a garbage dump,” she said, surveying the strewn trash: pizza boxes, beer cans, magazines. “What’s going on with you?” she demanded. 
     “Nothing,” he replied. “I’m just resting between things.”
     “Resting. Right. And just how long do you intend to be ‘resting’?”
     “It’s no skin off your nose, Joan, so why do you even bother me?”
     She looked around the room for a clear place to sit down. She swept some newspapers off an ottoman and sat, then looked straight at him. 
     “Jack, you can’t go on like this.”
     He stared straight ahead in a stupor. 
     Joan felt a sinking in her chest to see her older brother in such a state. He was supposed to be the successful one, the one everybody admired and wanted to be with, the hope of the whole family. If he crashed, what did it say about them, she thought. She looked down at the floor and a long time passed between them. 
     “I’m going to fix something for us to eat,” she said at last, rising to her feet.
     “I’m not hungry,” he said.
     “Well, I am,” she declared as she walked toward the kitchenette next to the room. She opened the refrigerator to find a lone carton of vintage milk, a rotten apple and some dried out slices of cheese. “This all you got?” she asked.
     “No,” he sneered, “I keep the meat in the bathroom.”
     “You are a mess, brother,” she said.
     “Tell me,” he agreed.
     “Well, get dressed, we’ll go get a Subway.”
     “I don’t want to go anywhere. What the hell time is it, anyway?”
     She looked over to an old mantle clock. The pendulum was dead still. “Well, looks to me to be about November. You’re going to get up, put on some pants, a T-shirt, some loafers and we’re going to get a sandwich or I’m going to drag your ass out to the car just like that,” she threatened. 
     He sighed deeply. “Ok, ok, hold your horses.” He slowly rose, weaved a little and made his way to his bedroom. 
     Joan idly scanned the walls of the room as she waited. There were no pictures hanging, but on the floor below, frames leaned against the wall. She couldn't tell if he was putting them up or taking them down, but knowing him as well as she did, she suspected he hadn't decided. There were seven pictures like that, all of them sailboats.  
     On a shelf were a few frames with pictures of people she didn’t know, except the one of Jack with his friend Saul in their graduation robes at Harvard in ‘95. Her brother hadn't seemed to change a bit in the six years since: still the stormy eyes, furrowed brow, tussled brown hair; but now there was early salty grey around the edges. He wasn't as tall as their brother Jason but he was nearly as thin. In fact, the way Jack stood, leaning a bit to the right, his head up and alert, he reminded her of a Great Blue Heron. And that long distance gaze. He seemed perpetually lost in thought. 
     She realized how little she really knew about her brother’s life. What she did know were essentially “resume” facts. He went to work computer programming the day after he graduated from Texas A&M in ’80, a fact he liked to boast about. “Next day,” he’d say. “Not even a weekend off.” He was like that, always deep in his work, and usually alone in it.
      Three years later he joined a small trucking company. She didn’t know what it was he did there, but she recalled it had something to do with accounting. Anyway, somehow he ended up running the place then bought out the owner. A few years later, after buying up some other small companies and organizing them under some sort of software system he’d developed, he sold the whole thing to a big national company who wanted to get hold of the systems and get rid of Jack, who was becoming a real threat. He never talked much about it. He must have gotten some money because he bought a boat, took a year off and traveled around, if modestly. Then, six years ago, he went back to grad school, mostly working out of Woods Hole, at the neck of Cape Cod, and got his masters in marine biology. That’s how he connected with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department, doing systems analysis in a field office just outside Weslaco, Texas. 
     Jack came back into the room now dressed.
     “Well, if we’re going to do this thing, let’s do it,” he said.

Chapter 4

      “Sophia Louise Poole,” she read the picture caption out loud to herself as she smoothed the dog-eared page 54 of the 1943 Port Isabel High School yearbook. No one ever called her Sophia, though. For as long as she could remember, her father called her “Sophie L,” which he pronounced as one word: “Sophiel”. Somehow that became “Sophie” among her friends and it stuck. 
     She sighed to see the fresh, innocent, yet unfamiliar face smiling back at her, barely eighteen at the time. She remembered thinking of her grandmother as old and how it seemed to young people that old people had always been that way. They were born old and young people were born young. Of course she got it now. But knowing and getting it are not the same thing. Her high school annual photograph still mystified her. 
     She looked up to the picture of her mother above the hallway table just in front of her. The way the light came through the window in the autumn lit her face, and that reflection is what she saw in the glass covering her mother’s image, but as she focused she could see more of her mother’s face bleeding through. She was struck with how alike they looked once, but how much younger her mother looked to her now. She had died at sixty-five. Sophie was ten years older than that now.
      She looked back down to the annual and scanned the pictures of her classmates. The pictures were arranged alphabetically, so all the Ps were together, leaving the false impression that this was a group of close friends forever captured here as they usually assembled. Most of the other Ps were nothing much to her, but there were a few special friends. 
     Amelia Perez, one of her dearest and most treasured friends, married a Pan Am pilot a few years after graduation and moved away. She never heard from her again. She wondered how her life had turned out. Ester Ponder and Sophie had been girl scouts together and had been tent mates at summer camp twice. They would spend hours dreaming about who they’d marry and how many children they would have. Ester was sweet and delicate, very beautiful. It broke Sophie’s heart when she heard that Ester had been killed in a skiing accident while she was away at college. The two of them had grown up in a place where it never snowed. It seemed ironic to Sophie that a girl who grew up with sand between her toes would die in snow. It said a lot about the surprises life could bring, she thought. 
     Then there was Roquelle Paredes, “Rocky.” They were inseparable. Nearly everyday, Rocky and Sophie would walk home from school together, and on most days did their homework on the front porch of the Poole ’s house. Sophie’s mother would bring out chocolate chip cookies and tall glasses of cold milk.They’d study some, chat some more and would carry on until Sophie’s father came home from the furniture store. Rocky would go home then. 
     Sometimes Sophie would go to Rocky’s house for a birthday party or to work on some school project. She was never allowed to sleep over. 
     Sophie’s finger traced a line across the page of the annual to Rocky’s picture and paused to look at it. Then she slid it over one to Rocky’s twin brother. He was cute and funny. And maybe only Rocky knew that Sophie had always loved him. She knew it from the first time she had seen him when they were in the first grade. Octavio. 
      Then there was that night when they were both sophomores. She could still recall the bitter taste in her mouth from her streaming tears and saliva, thickened by her crying. Octavio had asked Sophie to the Halloween Dance at the high school gym. Her mother’s best efforts to intervene on her behalf did nothing to assuage her father’s fury over it. Those were different times, she remembered. She couldn’t understand any of it then. Octavio never again asked her out and she found herself avoiding him thereafter. She never again went to Rocky’s house.
     She closed the yearbook and placed it back in the hallway table drawer. It was no longer fun to look at it. 
     On her way to the kitchen to make some tea, Sophie only unconsciously glanced at the three picture frames on the old grand piano in the living room. There her mother and father posed in separate photographs with identical frames, arranged so that they were slightly turned towards one another. 
      A newer frame held a picture of her only daughter, Angela, who lived in Boston and worked across the river at M.I.T. This was her human family, she would often joke to visitors. “My real family is over there,” as she pointed to a wall of shelves loaded with photographs of what looked like scores of animals. 
     Each frame was either silver or bronze, complete with engraved nameplates for each. Noble, Amadeus, Romulus, Nordyke, and George were a few of them. Dogs, cats, a raccoon, and even an opossum. On another set of shelves across the room were hundreds of books on animals, from zoological texts to novels. Her favorite had always been The Call of the Wild

    
On the wall in the entry hall was an arrangement of photographs of the Laguna Madre and South Padre Island beach. One featured a woman standing with Sophie, both wearing broad brimmed straw hats and smiling from ear to ear. Below it read the inscription, “To Sophie, my hero!” And signed, “The Turtle Lady.” 
     Over the hall console hung a picture of Sophie standing ankle deep in a backwash of the Laguna with a grizzly faced man who wore a broad and easy smile. In one hand he held a notebook of some kind and with the other a long handled net. They wore matching straw hats and looked as if caught in the middle of a pleasant, busy chat. Sophie remembered the day as if it was yesterday, but it was twenty years of yesterdays. She smiled at the fellow. 
     “John,” she said softly with a sigh.

Chapter 6

      Voices in the outer office brought John Magne IV back from his thoughts about his ancestors and he looked up in time to see Clinton strutting through his office door. His second son had the unmistakable bow-legged walk of a man who’d spent a lot of hours in the saddle, but with a gait that testified to purpose. 
     He was the spitting image of his grandfather, John Magne III, about five foot eight, ruddy complexion, solid, square and muscular, and the only true rancher of the two sons. Yet Clinton , more than John Jr., reminded Magne of Francie: same muted red hair, same bright blue eyes, but mostly it was the smile, impishly turned up at the corners.
     She was dead nearly ten years now. It had been hard on the boys losing their mother to cancer so young. Magne knew they would never accept anyone else as their mother and Gabriela had never tried to assume that role. She was his wife now, not their mother, and that understanding made her acceptance much easier when their father married her last year. 
     “Dad!” he exclaimed enthusiastically, as he always did.
     “Clint!” John responded in kind, as he nearly always did.
Clint smiled as he pulled off his hat long enough to wipe the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “She calved!”
     “Fantastic! No trouble?”
“Well, it looked like it hurt a bit,” drawled Clint in his dry humor, “but she’s fine and the calf looks pretty good…wobbly, but good.”
     “Isn’t she the first in the States?” asked John.
     “Think so; think there was a zoo that tried it a couple of times, but no go.” 
     “Damned good, Clint, what you’ve been able to do with the game is unbelievable. You ought to get a message to Fredrickson. He’ll be anxious to know.”
     “Yep, but I’m calling Dr. Perceval first. Aggie’s always come first, Dad.”
     “The Corp!” he exclaimed. “Hey, Clint, seen Junior?” 
     “Not since yesterday afternoon. Passed him on the beach road. Gotta get back to the action,” Clint called over his shoulder as he left the office.  

      The idea of importing wild game and breeding them for the ranch was Clint’s. It was a way that Clint was unlike his grandfather, a true naturalist. But Magne could see the potential in it. Already their nescient herds of exotic game--Axis deer, Nilgai, and black buck antelope--were doing well. The ranch was already thick with the indigenous deer, quail, dove, feral hogs, javalina, turkey and several species of duck, but these were the game for hunters of more modest incomes. 
     The exotic species were the province of the truly rich. If it worked, in a few years they would have enough of a population to charter hunts for African game right there in Texas . The amount of money well-healed arm-chair adventurers would be willing to pay was serious. It was a vanity business. They could land their private jets on the ranch’s long runway any Saturday morning, bag a gazelle by mid afternoon, pose for the requisite pictures, have cocktails under the palapa and still be home in time to watch the late news. John smiled to himself as he thought that the one most valuable person to the Orvis catalog crowd was a taxidermist who could hide the rope burns.
      Promising as it was, it could do nothing for the problems facing the Magne Ranch now. 
      In his great-grandfather’s day, before the scourge of mesquite scrub, the ranchlands were a sea of grasses that could sustain a head of cattle on fifteen acres of land. But cattle brought the beans that led to the virulent spread of the brush. In the beginning, the Magnes hired armies of Mexican workers to clear the land by hand, but in the fifties they had devised a method using pairs of bulldozers with root plows dragging 100,000 pound chains, clearing nearly four acres an hour. 
     When water was the problem, they drilled 300’ to 400’ wells and found clean, clear artesian well water. 
     When the more common breeds of Herefords, Angus and Brahmans struggled in the Texas heat, the Magnes bred their own varieties. It was his grandfather, John Magne II, an amateur geneticist, that in 1921 culminated years of careful breeding to produce a calf that was the beginning of the first truly American breed, the Santa Maria . It was hardy, resistant to common stress diseases, more drought tolerant, and put on weight quickly and easily, even on the harsh South Texas plains.
     The Magne Dynasty was a story of challenges and survival, of perseverance against all threats and dangers. And these seemed to come in never-ending waves. 
     Then came the Mad Cow scare and it ruined the cattle business. Not one of his herd had any sign of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Japan had shut down all imports from the U.S. and prices had plummeted. Worse, he had doubled his bet on those prices in the commodities and options markets. The Magne Ranch was land rich but cash poor. He had relied on working capital loans for a couple of years and those notes were coming due. 
      Before he died, his father made him swear that Magne land would never be sold. Never. And he promised. But the reality was the banks could take it. 
      He could never let that happen.
      And he wouldn’t. He had a plan, simple and effective. In some ways it was the culmination of a century and a half of Magne breeding and hard work, and the powerful drive to survive. All around the edges of the Magne Ranch, pockets of natural gas had been found and it was being extracted for huge royalties to the mineral rights owners. Families with mere fractions of percentage points were drawing staggering monthly checks from the oil companies. 
     The Magnes owned all their own mineral rights. So all they had to do was prove there was gas under the ranch then enter into lease agreements with an oil company. Better yet, Magne could form his own oil company and sell the gas directly into the market. It would mean hundreds of millions of dollars over generations. Never would a Magne ever have to worry about money again. 
     But the path from here to there was strewn with obstacles. He needed capital to drill for the gas and build the infrastructure to transport it into the market. An investment bank could be hired to create an IPO, an initial public offering, to sell shares in the new oil company. He needed approvals and permits from the state and federal government, and for that he would call in the mountains of political chips he had carefully sown over the years. But he needed help figuring out how to get all this done. All he needed to solve that was to hire the experts who knew how.
      It may not have been what his father would have done, but it was the family’s best chance, Magne knew, and he would do what ever it took to fulfill the Magne destiny.

Chapter 7

     There was the sound of clicking at a slow but deliberate cadence. “There you are!” Sophie declared. “I wondered where you’d gone off to. Hungry yet?”
     A face, that looked to be made of melting brown wax and planted with two glass eyes, turned up to her. The lower jaw dropped to reveal a long pink tongue that immediately fell to one side of the broad and wrinkly bloodhound’s mouth. He panted in approval, lifting one eyebrow,
then the other.
     “Geez, Louise, Hannibal , you look like you’ve been on a four day drunk,” Sophie said to him as she moved sideways to the refrigerator. She pulled out a Ziploc freezer bag of a meat and gravy mix and dropped it into a pot of water and turned up the gas.
     “I really wish you’d give up meat altogether, Hannibal , but I know you won’t, you old scoundrel. But I guess it’s okay if that’s what you’d eat out in the wild,” she reasoned. For herself she pierced some sweet potatoes and popped them in the microwave then retrieved a Tupperware tub of left-over Black Bean Chili to heat next. Over the years she had learned that with some onions, tomato paste, and hot pepper sauce, she could fairly imitate the heft and texture of the meat version of the same foods.
     She ate alone at the kitchen table, her eyes fixed on the article pinned in the center of the corkboard by the kitchen door. She had cut it out of The Herald features section nearly a year ago. The article was about the Magne Ranch, where rare game animals were being imported from Africa to be bred and raised for wild game hunts.
     Prominent in the middle of the full-page story was a photograph of the most elegant gazelle she had ever seen. It stood bold, dignified, defiant. Yet the eyes, those huge eyes, revealed to her a certain sadness. The eyes mesmerized her. They seemed to stare at her personally, pleading. Every night since she pinned up the article, she sat at the kitchen table staring at the photo while she ate. Occasionally, Hannibal
would turn his head when he heard her speak, thinking she was calling to him.
     Eventually she gathered up her dishes and washed them, dried them and put them back in their proper places in the china cabinet. The kitchen was spotless by the time she made her way to her bedroom to change into a nightgown and her flannel robe.
     Hannibal finished off his dinner and took up his usual place on the floor by the hearth in the living room, waiting for her to come sit on the green leather sofa. It was a ritual. He’d watch her read her book and after a little while, her head would loll and then roll forward until her chin rested on her chest. Her breathing would slow and take on a rhythm and then he too would drift off to sleep.
     It was well after midnight when Hannibal ’s head suddenly jerked up. He struggled to shake off his grogginess and he rose cautiously to his feet. His eyes were glued to the kitchen door at the back of the house. He held his breath in anticipation.
     There came the sound of scuffling from beyond the door. Hannibal huffed in a muted effort to bark, the hair on the back of his neck rising. Then there was the slow squeaking of the outer screen door’s hinges. The door handle slowly twisted left then right. After a long pause, the screen door snapped lightly on the door frame, followed by the sound of footsteps moving away.
     Hannibal remained at attention, his head turning slowly as if following some invisible figure across the front of the house. A shadow danced across the curtains, weaving in and out with the furls of the fabric. A pin-hole beam of light flowed from the street lamp through the peep hole in the solid wood front door. Then the beam instantly blackened. Hannibal began to huff again, trying to bark. He could see the doorknob as if it were magnified ten times. It began to turn. There was a click and the door began to open slowly. 
      Hannibal was frozen in fear, incapable of defending his master. A trickle of urine began to form a pool under him. Suddenly he was blinded by the light and yelped in terror.

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Excerpts for other chapters....

   Chapter 61

     Jack was dreaming of Angela when Moses woke him sometime after two A.M.  He was trilling oddly and Jack noticed he was fixated, ears alert, on the canvas covered companionway.  When he felt the boat give, and tilt toward the dock, he knew that someone had stepped into the cockpit from the dock.
    “Angela?” he called out, his heart rate suddenly surging with excitement.
     The canvas cover was pulled back, and in the dark all Jack could see is a dark form coming down the steps into the salon.
     “Angela,” he repeated.  Moses dashed away through the doorway to the forward stateroom.
     “Angela, huh,” a twangy male voice repeated, as another figure came down the companionway steps behind him.
     “You Jack Grider?”
     “Who is that?” Jack demanded sitting up, trying to see.
     “Depends, are you Grider?”
     “Yes, I’m Grider, who the hell are you?”
     “Now, Ed,” he seemed to be saying to the other figure, “isn’t it just awful how rude people are becoming, I mean, the language!” he protested sarcastically.
     Jack reached back to turn on a light.
    “Now, now, don’t be doing that,” the first figure said, grabbing Jack’s wrist. “Why don’t we just keep this real friendly.”
     “I don’t know who you are, but I want you off my boat, right now!” Jack demanded. 
     “Why can’t we jus’ git along,” the voice said, mimicking, “besides, I’m here to give you some good news, Mr. Grider, really, really good news."
     Jack felt the sting of an adrenaline rush and sensed immediately that he was in an exposed position.  His mind ran wildly in an assessment of his options.  He had no good ones.  He thought his best strategy was to remain quiet. 
     “You see, Ed, here, has come all the way out from Houston tonight to discuss your future.  Isn’t that right, Ed? The thing is, Ed just isn’t much for words.  I’d have to say that Ed, well, Ed is more a man of action, if you get my drift.”
     Jack tried to make out the man’s features in the dim light.
     “I’m just gonna help translate for ole’ Ed, here. That’s my job, sort of like an interpreter,” the voice said in a matter of fact manner.

Jack could see the second figure was bigger than the first, as it moved quickly towards him.  Jack felt a sharp blow to the left side of his face that stunned him and left him seeing stars. “What the fuh...,” Jack cried out.
     “Well you see, what Ed was trying to say with that was he’s awful worried about your health, Jack.  He says you’re just not taking care of yourself.”
     “If it’s money you want,” Jack pleaded, wincing from the pain, “I don’t have much but my wallet's on the table behind you take it, but leave me alone.”
     “You know, you were right all along, Ed. Right, again, gall darn it,” the voice said to the second man. “He doesn’t understand at all.  Good thing you brought me along.  What’s that you want to say, Ed?” he asked as if he was hearing a voice that Jack wasn’t.     
     Jack threw up his arms to block the second assault, but it only made the man strike more furiously.  Jack felt himself briefly losing consciousness on the third blow.
     “Oh, that,” the voice said.  “Why didn’t you say so?” he asked sarcastically.  “Ed says that you need a lot of fresh sea air, for your condition, that is.  He thinks you ought to take a nice long sail in this great big boat of yours as soon as possible.  When would that be, Ed?” he asked out loud. 
     Jack winced and covered his head at what he expected next.  He felt a single blow to the top of his head.  He was suddenly dizzy, and his ears rang.
     “Gee, Ed says you need to leave yesterday and that he’s very disappointed you’re already running late, aren’t you Ed?”
     The man speaking drew closer to Jack’s ear and in a stage whisper said, “I don’t want Ed to hear this, Jack, but I’m thinking he might not be real happy to see you again.  He’s like that, you know, sort of, what’s the word, ah, petulant.  That’s it, he’s petulant.  And there seems to be a whole lot of important people, a whole lot, who are worried about you, Jack.  Must’ve been something you said, I guess, or,” he paused for effect, “something you wrote, maybe?”
     “Here’s my advice to you, Jack.  I suggest that before the sun rises you ought to get this boat of yours underway, headed for the Caribbean, or the Atlantic, or, hell, even the Pacific.  Anywhere far away from here.  Do you understand?”  He slammed his elbow into Jack’s side, “I said, do you understand?”
     “Yes, yes,” Jack pleaded, “I understand.”
     “Good, good,” the man said in an appreciative tone, patting Jack’s shoulder, then straightening up.  “Well, Ed, do you have anything else for ole’ Jack here?”  Jack covered his head.  “No?  Fine.”
      “Jack,” he said his name in a sing song, “Ed seems to be all talked out.  Me too,” he said now turning to Ed with a sigh, “this is just too much work.”  The man called “Ed” went up the companionway, and the first man followed him then paused on the first step and turned back to Jack.  “Oh, Jack, Ed and I don’t want to hear that you’ve been talking to some fancy tree-huggin’ New York lawyers about birds and fish and shit.  Ever.  And we don’t want to see you back in Texas for a year, got that?  We’ll be watching and, you know Ed, when he has something to say, well, you just can’t shut him up,” the man said in a hoarse laugh.  “Remember! Sunrise,” he said, then, “See ya!”

Jack laid shivering with terror.  Every sense was heightened as he froze, wondering what was going to happen next.  He could feel the warm ooze of blood running down his cheek and he could taste iron in his mouth.  Who were these men, he wondered.  What did they want?  “Birds and fish and shit….New York lawyers,” what were they talking about?  
     He replayed the words over and over in his head: “important people, something you said, birds and fish…” then it struck him like a lightning bolt, “something you wrote.”
     Jack struggled to his feet, wiping his face with his T-shirt sleeve.  He needed to call Angela, but how?  He didn’t have her cell phone number, and it was the middle of the night.  He’d never find her in time.  He sat down at the nav station, switched on a map light, took out a piece of paper and wrote her a note.  He stuffed it into an envelope and wrote on the outside, “Hold for Angela.” He stopped before he wrote her surname.  What if they found this at the marina office door first?  He had to protect her.  He wrote below it, “from Jack.”  He ran up the dock and stuck the letter in the office mailbox and pulled up the flag.

     Thirty minutes later, Jack motored Wist out of the marina and ran for the open sea.

 

   Chapter 46

      The Port Mansfield jetty passed behind Wist and Jack planned to continue east, farther into the Gulf for about 30 miles before turning North.   This would clear the main fairway where the big ships traveled, and beyond most of the oil well platforms.  By dark he wanted to be closer in, where he could use the land lights as a guide.  He knew that some of the older platforms weren’t lit and a night time collision could be fatal.  He expected to make Port Aransas later that Sunday evening, in about 15 hours.
     But when he reached the point to turn, the winds would have been dead on his stern if he did, which made for a precarious watch against an accidental gybe and slow going.  That was more tension that he was in the mood for, so he pointed more easterly, to keep the wind on his starboard quarter.  It was a quiet and more relaxing point of sail.  The boat moving with the wind had a breezeless quality about it, and the waves at barely a foot were of no consequence.
     The breeze built throughout the day, and he was making nearly 8 knots at times.  The speed was exhilarating.  He set the autopilot to steer and went below to do chores and see after Moses.  He busied himself in that mindless, happy work of cleaning and organizing. It gave him a sense of order and control he could not feel on land.  
     The vastness of the Gulf of Mexico and the smallness of a boat tended to focus the sailor on little things in a finite world, totally reliant upon himself, unbothered by humans.  Jack felt the power of it.  There were no other authorities at sea.  Even the power of the United States of America ended at twelve miles.  There were no phones, no postman, no intrusions.  It was as much or as little as one made of it. 
     By middle afternoon, his climbing up the companionway to the cockpit for a look around became less frequent, as he grew more comfortable with his place in the emptiness of the gulf.   He tore open a package of cat food for Moses, who adapted surprisingly quickly to the continuous motion of the boat.  Jack fixed himself a sandwich and opened a beer then sat at the table in the salon, idly browsing through a magazine.  After a while, he put his head back on the cushion to rest his eyes.
     He began to dream.  He was again at the Target, where he first met Angela.  Then he saw her again in his house that morning, just over a week ago.  He dreamt that she had come with him on the boat and that he kissed her softly on the lips and that she pressed back and her mouth was hot and moist.  He felt her tickle his ear with her nose, then whisper. “Jack,” she said, “Wake up, Jack.”

     Then he awoke.

     Moses had come and sat on his shoulder and was nestled in the crook of his neck, his ear next to Jack’s.  Jack lay there motionless, listening to the water moving against the hull.  He was suddenly aware that he was in total darkness.  He jolted upright.  How long had he been asleep?  What time was it?
     His legs were still asleep, and he stumbled as he bolted for the companionway.  He climbed the steps and swung around facing the bow.  It was pitch-black darkness, and it frightened him that he had been sailing full speed into the unknown.  The adrenaline was surging as he realized that his navigation lights were off.  The darkness not only cloaked the world around him, but no one else could see him either.  He dashed below to the nav station and flicked on the salon lights so he could read the labels on the other switches.  He turned on the running lights only, as he was under sail.
     He came back up the companionway blinded by the salon lights and went immediately to the helm to check the chartplotter.  At least it would show if he was near any drilling rigs.  He quickly found the cursor that marked his position on the chart, and to his horror, immediately in front of it he could see a marker of some kind.  He squinted and frantically zoomed the image larger with the control keys.  It was an abandoned rig.  Dead ahead.  Instantly he tried to turn the wheel to starboard, but it wouldn’t follow.  The autopilot was still engaged.  He fumbled for the button to turn it off then swung the wheel to full starboard.  The wind came around from the quarter to the beam, pushing the boat into a deep heel.  Jack looked down at the chartplotter and could see the cursor pointing barely right of the object.  He looked up and to his left in the darkness and saw the slightest glint of reflected light from his red port running light.  In seconds there were reflections of the brighter white light on his stern.  Suddenly he was aware of looming gargantuan legs that made the abandoned platform appear like a giant black sea monster, standing ankle deep in the ocean.  It towered above his 55 foot mast by at least three times.  Jack’s heart pounded so hard it hurt and then his knees grew wobbly, and he was forced to sit down.

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