Skip to Main Content

Wayfaring Stranger

A Novel


See More Retailers

About The Book

In his most ambitious work yet, New York Times bestseller James Lee Burke tells a classic American story through one man’s unforgettable life.

In 1934, sixteen-year-old Weldon Avery Holland happens upon infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after one of their notorious armed robberies. A confrontation with the outlaws ends with Weldon firing a gun, unsure whether it hit its mark.

Ten years later, Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland barely survives the Battle of the Bulge, in the process saving the lives of his sergeant, Hershel Pine, and a young Spanish prisoner of war, Rosita Lowenstein—a woman who holds the same romantic power over him as the strawberry blonde Bonnie Parker, and is equally mysterious. The three return to Texas where Weldon and Hershel get in on the ground floor of the nascent oil business.

In just a few years’ time Weldon will spar with the jackals of the industry, rub shoulders with dangerous men, and win and lose fortunes twice over. But it is the prospect of losing his one true love that will spur his most reckless act yet—one inspired by that encounter long ago with the outlaws of his youth.

A tender love story and pulse-pounding thriller, Wayfaring Stranger “is a sprawling historical epic full of courage and loyalty and optimism and good-heartedness that reads like an ode to the American Dream” (Benjamin Percy, Poets & Writers).


Wayfaring Stranger



IT WAS THE year none of the seasons followed their own dictates. The days were warm and the air hard to breathe without a kerchief, and the nights cold and damp, the wet burlap we nailed over the windows stiff with grit that blew in clouds out of the west amid sounds like a train grinding across the prairie. The moon was orange, or sometimes brown, as big as a planet, the way it is at harvest time, and the sun never more than a smudge, like a lightbulb flickering in the socket or a lucifer match burning inside its own smoke. In better times, our family would have been sitting together on the porch, in wicker chairs or on the glider, with glasses of lemonade and bowls of peach ice cream.

My father was looking for work on a pipeline in East Texas. Maybe he would come back one day. Or maybe not. Back then, people had a way of walking down a tar road and crossing through a pool of heat and disappearing forever. I ascribed the signs of my mother’s mental deterioration to my father’s absence and his difficulties with alcohol. She wore out the rug in her bedroom walking in circles, squeezing her nails into the heels of her hands, talking to herself, her eyes watery with levels of fear and confusion that nobody could dispel. Ordinary people no longer visited our home.

As a lawman, Grandfather had gone up against the likes of Bill Dalton and John Wesley Hardin, and in 1916, with a group of rogue Texas Rangers, he had helped ambush a train loaded with Pancho Villa’s soldiers. The point is, he wasn’t given to studying on the complexities of mental illness. That didn’t mean he was an ill-natured or entirely uncharitable man, just one who seemed to have a hole in his thinking. He had not been a good father to his children. Through either selfishness or ineptitude, he often left them to their own devices, even when they foundered on the wayside. I had never understood this obvious character defect in him. I sometimes wondered if the blood he had shed had made him incapable of love.

He hid behind flippancy and cynicism. He rated all politicians “somewhere between mediocre and piss-poor.” His first wife had “a face that could make a freight train turn on a dirt road.” WPA stood for We Piddle Around. If he hadn’t been a Christian, he would have fired the hired help (we no longer had any) and “replaced them with sloths.” The local banker had a big nose because the air was free. Who was my grandfather in actuality? I didn’t have a clue.

It was right at sunset when I looked through the back screen and saw a black automobile, coated with dust and shaped like a shoe box, detour off the road and drive into the woods behind our house. A man wearing a fedora and a white shirt without a tie got out and urinated in front of the headlights. I thought I could hear laughter inside the car. While he relieved himself, he removed his fedora and combed his hair. It was wavy and thick and brown and shiny as polished walnut. His trousers were notched tightly into his ribs, and his cheeks looked like they had been rubbed with soot. These were not uncommon characteristics in the men who drifted here and yon through the American West during the first administration of President Roosevelt.

“Some people must have wandered off the highway onto our road,” I said. “The driver is taking a leak in front of his headlights. His passengers seem to be enjoying themselves.”

Grandfather was sitting at the kitchen table, an encyclopedia open in front of him, his reading glasses on his nose. “He deliberately stood in front of his headlights to make water, so others could watch?”

“I can’t speak with authority about his thought process, since I’m not inside the man’s head,” I replied. I picked up the German binoculars my uncle had brought back from the trenches and focused them on the car. “There’s a woman in the front seat. A second man and another woman are in back. They’re passing a bottle around.”

“Are they wets?”

I removed the binoculars from my eyes. “If wets drive four-door cars.”

“My first wife had a sense of humor like yours. The only time I ever saw her laugh was when she realized I’d developed shingles.”

I focused the binoculars back on the driver. I thought I had seen his face before. I heard Grandfather get up heavily from his chair. He was over six and a half feet tall, and his ankles were swollen from hypertension and caused him to sway back and forth, as though he were on board a ship. Sometimes he used a walking cane, sometimes not. One day he seemed to teeter on the edge of eternity; the next day he was ready to resume his old habits down at the saloon. He had gin roses in his cheeks and skin like a baby’s and narrow eyes that were the palest blue I had ever seen. Sometimes his eyes did not go with his face or his voice; the intense light in them could make other men glance away. “Let’s take a walk, Satchel Ass,” he said.

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that name.”

“You’ve got a butt on you like a washtub.”

“There’s a bullet hole in the rear window of the car,” I said, looking through the binoculars again. “My butt doesn’t resemble a washtub. I don’t like you talking to me like that, Grandfather.”

“Wide butts and big hips run in the Holland family. That’s just something to keep in mind as you get older. It’s a family trait, not an insult. Would you marry a woman who looks like a sack of Irish potatoes?”

He pulled open a kitchen drawer and removed a holstered revolver that was wrapped with the belt, the loops stuffed with brass shells. The revolver was the dull color of an old Buffalo nickel. It had been converted long ago for cartridges, but the black-powder tamping rod was still in place, fitted with a working hinge under the barrel. The top of the holster had been worn smooth and yellow along the edges of the leather. Six tiny notches had been filed along the base of the revolver’s grips. Grandfather hung the belt from his shoulder and put on his Stetson. The brim was wilted, the crown sweat-stained a dark gray above the brim. He went out the screen door into the waning twilight.

The windmill was ginning furiously, the stanchions trembling with energy, a thread of water coming from the spout, the tank crusted with dirt and dead insects and animal hair along the rims. “The moon looks like it was dipped in a teacup. I cain’t believe how we used to take the rain for granted,” he said. “I think this land must be cursed.”

The air smelled of ash and dust and creosote and horse and cow manure that feathered in your hand if you picked it up. Dry lightning leaped through the heavens and died, like somebody removing an oil lamp from the window of a darkened house. I thought I felt thunder course through the ground under my shoes. “Feel that?” I said, hoping to change Grandfather’s mood and my own.

“Don’t get your hopes up. That’s the Katy blowing down the line,” he replied. “I’m sorry I made fun of your butt, Satch. I won’t do it no more. Walk behind me till we know who’s in that car.”

As we approached the tree line, the driver of the car walked out of the headlights and stood silhouetted against the glare, then got back in his car and started the engine and clanked the transmission into gear. The trees were so dry they made a sound like paper rustling when the wind blew through the canopy.

“Hold up there,” Grandfather said to the man.

I thought the driver would simply motor away. But he didn’t. He stuck his elbow out the window and stared straight into our faces, his expression curious rather than alarmed. “You talking to us?” he asked.

“You’re on my property,” Grandfather said.

“I thought this was public woods,” the driver said. “If there’s a posted sign that says otherwise, I didn’t see it.”

The woman next to him was pretty and had strawberry-blond hair and a beret tilted over one eye. She looked like a happy country girl, the kind who works in a dime store or in a café where the truckers come in to make innocent talk. She leaned forward and grinned up into Grandfather’s face. She silently mouthed the words “We’re sorry.”

“Did you know you have mud on your license tag?” Grandfather asked the driver.

“I’ll get right on that,” the driver said.

“You also have what appears to be a bullet hole in your back window.”

The driver removed a marble from the ashtray in the dashboard and held it against the light. “I found this on the backseat. It was probably a kid with a slingshot,” he said. “I saw a kid up on the train trestle with one. You a lawman?”

“I’m a rancher. The name is Hackberry Holland. You didn’t give me yours.”

“Smith,” the driver said.

“If you’ll tell me your destination, Mr. Smith, maybe I can he’p you find your way.”

“Lubbock. Or anyplace there’s work. I work on automotives, mostly. Is that an antique firearm?”

“A forty-four Army Colt. Most of the time I use it for a paperweight. You know automobiles, do you?”

“Yes, sir, you could say that. I see automobiles as the future of the country. Henry Ford and me.”

“Turn left at the paved road and stay due west,” Grandfather said. “If you see the Pacific Ocean, that means you passed Lubbock.”

The man in the backseat rolled down the glass. He was short and not over 120 pounds and wore a suit and tie and a short-brim hat cocked on his brow the way a dandy might. He had a long face, like a horse’s hanging out of a stall. He also had the kind of lopsided grin you see on stupid people who think they’re smarter than you. His breath was as rank as a barrel of spoiled fruit. “My name is Raymond. This here is my girlfriend, Miss Mary,” he said. “We’re pleased to make y’all’s acquaintance.”

The woman sitting next to him had a cleft chin and a broad forehead and a small mean-spirited Irish mouth; her face was sunken in the middle, like soft wax. She was smoking a cigarette, gazing into the smoke.

“There’s a busted spar in my cattle guard,” Grandfather said. “Don’t pop a tire going out. I’d appreciate you not throwing that whiskey bottle in my trees, either.”

“Tidy is as tidy does,” Raymond said.

Grandfather rested one hand on the bottom of the window. He let his eyes roam over Raymond’s face before he spoke. “The man who kills you will rip out your throat before you ever know what hit you,” he said. “I’m not talking about myself, just somebody you might meet up the road, the kind of fellow who turns out to be the worst misjudgment you ever made.”

“We apologize, sir,” said the woman in front, leaning across the driver so Grandfather could see her expression more clearly. Her smile made me think of somebody opening a music box. “We didn’t mean to bother y’all. You have a mighty nice spot here. Thank you for being so gracious and kind.”

“No harm done,” Grandfather said.

I wanted her to say something to me, but her gaze stayed fixed on Grandfather.

The driver slowly accelerated the car, a nimbus of brown dust rising from the wax job, our visitors’ silhouettes framed against the headlights. There was a long bright-silver scratch on the left fender. After they were gone, I could feel Grandfather’s eyes on me, like he was about to give me a quiz to see how dumb I was at that particular moment. “What are you studying on, Satch?” he said.

“The car and the way they treat it don’t fit. You think they’re bank robbers?”

“If you haven’t heard, there’s no money in the bank to rob. Or in the general store. Or in the bubblegum machine at the filling station. Where in the name of suffering Jesus have you been, boy?”

I picked up a rock and threw it in a high arc and heard it clatter through the trees. “Why do you have to make light of everything I say?”

“Because you take the world too seriously. Let’s go see what your mother is doing. I bought some peach ice cream this afternoon. That’s always her favorite.”

“I heard you talking on the phone to the doctor,” I said. Suddenly you could hear the crickets in the dark, the whistle of the Katy beyond the horizon. The dust clogged my nostrils and throat. “You’re fixing to send her for electroshock treatments, aren’t you.”

“The doctor raised that possibility.”

“They use electroshock when they don’t know what else to do. I think the doctor is an ignorant man. In addition, he’s stupid and thinks meanness and intelligence are the same thing.”

“He says electroshock is the most modern treatment for what ails her. It’s done in a hospital. She’ll have the best of care there. It could be worse. Sometimes they push a steel probe into the brain.”

“On the subject of care, I wonder why nobody gave her any when she was a little girl and had to fend for herself.”

“You’re developing a hard edge, Weldon. It’s not in your nature. It’ll eat up your youth and rob you of the wisdom that should come with manhood.”

I hate you, I thought.

“Tell me something,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Do you ever think about forgiveness?”

“For you, Grandfather? No, I don’t. If you’ve ever sought forgiveness for anything, I’ve yet to see the instance.”

“I’m talking about forgiveness for all of us.”

“Are you going to call the sheriff about the people in the car?”

“They’re not our business. If they come back, that’s another matter.”

“The woman in the front seat caught your eye,” I said.

“All women do. That’s the way things work. That’s why preachers are always railing about sex. It’s here for the long haul.”

I could not take my grandfather’s proselytizing. “A stranger with a sweet smile is the light of the world, but your own daughter doesn’t mean diddly squat on a rock.”

I instantly regretted the harshness of my words. He walked ahead of me, the holstered revolver swinging back and forth under his arm, the windmill blades rattling in the wind. When we entered the house, my mother was eating from the carton of ice cream Grandfather had bought, and cleaning the spoon with her hair.

WHEN MY MOTHER’S spells first began, she told us she had dreams she could not remember, but she was convinced they contained information of vast importance. Behind her eyes, you could see her drawing a rake through her thoughts, as though on the verge of discovering the source of all her unhappiness. Her early hours seemed to be neither good nor bad; she said morning was a yellow room that sometimes had a sunny window in it. But after three P.M., when the sun began to move irrevocably toward the horizon, a chemical transformation seemed to take place inside her head. Her eyes would become haunted, darting at the row of poplars on the side lawn, as though a specter were beckoning to her from the shade.

“What’s wrong, Emma Jean?” my father said the first time it happened.

“You don’t hear them?” she replied.

“Hear who?”

“The whisperers. They’re over there, by the garden wall.”

“Look at me. I’m your husband, the man who loves you. There is no one else in the yard except you and me and Weldon.”

My mother went silent, seeming to believe now more than ever that we were her enemies, and she could not understand the poisonous vapor that awaited her every afternoon when the sun became a red wafer inside the dust clouds rising in the west.

After Grandfather and I returned to the house, I washed my mother’s hair in the upstairs bathroom and dried it with the electric fan, lifting it off her neck and eyes. When I finished, she got up from the chair and dropped her bathrobe to the floor in front of the closet mirror, staring at the flatness of her hips against her slip. She began tying a string around her waist, the way colored women do to keep their slip from hanging below the hem of their dress.

“Mother, I’m in the room,” I said.

My words didn’t seem to register. “I’ve lost so much weight,” she said. “Do you think I look all right? Did those people in the automobile come here in regard to your father?”

“Why would they be here about him?”

“He might have found work and sent word.”

“I think they were drunk and got lost.”

I went downstairs and set up our checkerboard on a folding bridge table we kept behind the couch. My mother loved to play checkers, and while she played, she smiled as though allowing herself a brief vacation from the emotional depression that consumed her life. Her hair had been dark blond when she was younger; it had turned brown with streaks of gray. She still bathed every day but no longer wore makeup or cut her fingernails. I believed that if I did not take my mother away from this house, away from the doctors who planned to kill thousands of her brain cells, she would end up a vegetable in the state asylum outside Wichita Falls.

“Mother, what if you and I left here and went out on our own?” I said.

“Where would we go?” she said, staring down at the red and black squares on the checkerboard.

“Maybe Galveston or Brownsville, where the air is fresh and full of salt from the waves crashing on the beach. There’s no dust there’bouts. I could get a job.”

“People are coming to take me away, aren’t they.”

Through the kitchen door, I could see Grandfather reading his encyclopedia, which he did every day, one volume after the next. Behind him, out in the darkness, fireflies were lighting in the trees like sparks rising off a stump fire. I tried to think but couldn’t. “We have to fight them, Mother,” I said. “The doctors are not our friends. I wish they had rubber gags put in their mouths and their own machines were turned against them.”

She stared at her hands. The heels were half-mooned with fresh nail marks. “I don’t know why I hurt myself this way or why I have the thoughts I do. I feel I’m unclean in the sight of my Creator. Something is about to happen. It has to do with the people in the car. They were here before. I saw them from the upstairs window. They took off their clothes out there in the trees.”

I knew then that my mother was absolutely mad. But her mention of our visitors made me think once again of the driver and his rugged good looks and thick walnut-colored hair and toughness of attitude toward Grandfather. He was no shade-tree mechanic, no matter what he claimed. “I’ll be right back,” I said.

I began hunting through a sheaf of old magazines stuck in a wood rack by the end of the couch. I flipped through the pages of a 1933 issue of True Detective until I came to a photo of a handsome man wearing a fedora whose expression had the intransigence of boilerplate. I took the magazine to Grandfather. “Does this fellow look familiar?” I said.


“You didn’t even look. It’s the man you had words with.”

“I think I’d know if I was talking to Pretty Boy Floyd.”

“Same eyes, same chin, same mouth, same expression,” I said. “A real hard case.”

“There’s only one problem. Floyd was killed last year on a farm in Ohio. Before the feds finished him off, he said, ‘Have at it, boys. It’s been that kind of day.’”

Grandfather had one-upped me again. He closed his encyclopedia and removed his glasses. “I heard y’all talking in there,” he said. “She’ll be better off under the care of the state. Don’t encourage her to think otherwise. You’re not doing her a service.”

“It’s you they ought to take away,” I said.

I had never spoken to my grandfather like that. As I walked back into the living room, the back of my neck was flaming, my eyes filming, my mother’s image as distorted as a hank of hair and skin floating in a jar of chemicals. In my absence, she had illegitimately crowned two kings for herself and was obviously pleased with what she had done.

THE WEATHER TURNED hot unexpectedly. The power went out during the night, shutting down our two electric fans, and within an hour the house was creaking with heat. The sun came up red and angry and veiled with dust at six A.M. The notion of cooking breakfast on a woodstove inside a superheated frame house was enough to make anyone lose his appetite, and the thought of cooking it for my cranky grandfather was even more irksome. But duty before druth­ers, I told myself, and poked kindling and newspaper through the hob into the firebox and set it aflame, then put the coffeepot on the lid and walked outside, hoping against hope there would be a cloud in the sky that had water and not half of West Texas in it.

I followed the serpentine tracks of the four-door automobile through the trees and over a knoll and down a gulley humped with dead leaves. For me, it was like following the trail of a mastodon or a creature from ancient mythology. I didn’t care if the people in the car were outlaws or not. The driver and the woman who had a smile like a music box represented not only the outside world but defiance of convention. Rather than accept their fate, they had decided to change it. The two-story gabled home in which I had been born no longer seemed a symbol of genteel poverty but an institutionalization of retrograde thought and cruelty that disguised itself as love, a place where surrender to a merciless sun and silo owners who stole people’s land for fifty cents an acre at tax sales was a way of life.

Grandfather said the notorious outlaws of our times were disenfranchised farm people, hardly more than petty thieves lionized by J. Edgar Hoover to promote his newly organized Bureau. I wondered if Grandfather would call Baby Face Nelson a lionized farm boy.

Then I saw the whiskey bottle Raymond drank from, busted in shards on a rock. Grandfather had asked him not to throw the bottle out of the automobile. But if you tell a man like Raymond not to stick his tongue on an ice tray or to avoid lighting a cigarette while fueling his automobile, you can be guaranteed he’ll soon be talking with a speech impediment or walking around with singed hair and a complexion like a scorched weiner.

The whiskey bottle wasn’t all I saw. On the other side of the knoll, down by the river bottom, was a camp complete with a lean-to, a stone-ringed fire pit, and some sharpened sticks that somebody had roasted meat on. Tire tracks led in and out of the trees. Our visitors had not only spent considerable time here but had probably buried their waste in our earth and had sex in the lean-to and shaved and brushed their teeth with water from a canteen and poured the water on the ground, conflating their lives with ours, without our consent.

Who were they? In particular, who was the woman in the front seat? I sat down on the knoll and stared through the trees at our house. The wind had piled dust on the west wall to almost the window level of our dining room. Up in the Panhandle, the dust was stacked in mounds that reached the bottom of a windmill’s blades. Would that be our fate, too? Would my mother be taken away and returned to us with the lifeless expression of a cloth doll?

I couldn’t bear the thoughts I was having.

I lay down on the riverbank in the midst of our visitors’ camp and closed my eyes. I think I fell asleep and dreamed of the strawberry-blond girl with the beret cocked on her brow. I saw her smile at me, her mouth as soft and moist as a rose opening at sunrise. I swore I could hear wind chimes tinkling in the trees. I wondered what her name was and what it would be like to run away with her. Even more, I wondered what it would be like to place my mouth on hers. For just a moment the world felt blown by cool breezes and was green and young again; I would have sworn the willow branches were strung with leaves that lifted and fell like a woman’s hair, and there was a smell in the air like distant rain and freshly cut watermelon.

Six days later, a physician and a nurse with a scowl like a prison matron’s came to the house in a white ambulance. They went inside and, with hardly a word, sedated my mother and took her away to the psychiatric unit at Jeff Davis Hospital in Houston. I suspected my mother’s next stop was Wichita Falls, where they’d blow out her light proper.

I STOPPED SPEAKING TO Grandfather unless the situation gave me no alternative. I went to school and did my homework and chores but avoided physical proximity to him. I could not even bring myself to look into his face, out of both resentment and shame at what he had done. Unfortunately for me, Christian charity required that I do things for him that he could not do for himself. His ankles and the tops of his feet were a reddish-purple color, the skin stretched so tight it looked like it was about to pop. I suspected he had diabetes and had decided to let it take its course, regardless if that meant blindness or amputation or the grave, which was the kind of self-destructive irrationality that characterized most of his time on earth.

In my mind, he had become a traitor, or at best he had revealed the person he had always been—a self-centered, unfeeling, and brutal man who made use of his badge to indulge all his base appetites. The stories about his womanizing and drunkenness and gambling were legendary; so were the accounts of the men who had died in front of his revolvers. He joined the Hebron Baptist Church only after the coals of his lust had crumbled into ash.

Ten days had passed since my mother was taken away in the ambulance. “The doctor told me she would probably kill herself if she didn’t get treatment,” Grandfather said, watching me from the kitchen table while I put away our dishes. “That’s why I finally gave in. I didn’t see another door out, Satch.”

“Don’t call me that name anymore. Not now, not ever.”

“All right, Weldon.”

“The doctor is a goddamn liar.”

“You’re acquiring a personality that’s not your own,” he said. “That might be understandable, considering what’s happened in your family, but it will cause you a shitload of grief down the road. Be your own man, even if you don’t add up to much.”

How could anyone pack so many insults into so few words? I worked the iron handle on the sink; the trickle that came out of it was rust-colored and smelled of mud. Leaves were spinning in the yard, clicking against the walls and screens like the husks of grasshoppers. I could almost feel the barometer dropping, as though another great storm was at hand, perhaps one filled with rain and thunder and electricity forking across the heavens. “I think I might go away,” I said.

There was a pause.

“They say the people who went to California to pick fruit have come back home. Maybe it’s better to starve among your own people than in a Hooverville. We have a nice house. A lot of people don’t.”

I turned from the sink. His pale blue eyes were fixed on mine. I saw no recrimination in them, no desire to control or belittle. It was an uncommon moment, one that made me question whether I’d been fair to him.

“I don’t think I belong here anymore,” I said.

“When you woke up this morning, your name was still Holland, wasn’t it? If people stick together, they can always make do.”

“It’s not the same now, Grandfather.”

His eyes went away from mine. “I sold off thirty acres this afternoon. That’s part of your inheritance, so I thought you had a right to know.”

“Who did you sell it to?”

“A man from Dallas. He tried to get it for five dollars an acre. I got him up to six-fifty.”

I already knew the mathematics of predatory land acquisition, and I was aware that my grandfather was notorious for his poor handling of money and lack of judgment when it came to bargaining. I also knew he wasn’t telling me the whole story. “You gave him the mineral rights, didn’t you.”

“There’s nothing down there except more dirt.”

“Then why does a man from Dallas want it?”

“Maybe he’s going to build a golf course. How would I know? He’p me up.”

I lifted him by one arm and fitted the handle of his walking cane into his right hand. He hadn’t bathed that day, and a smell like sour milk rose from his shirt. “I’ll walk you upstairs,” I said.

“Get me my revolver.”

“What for?”

“Somebody tried to rob the bank in San Angelo today. There was at least one woman in the getaway car. Maybe our visitors didn’t head for Lubbock after all.”

“Maybe it was Ma Barker,” I said.

“I think that gal with the beret woke up the man in you,” he said. “I don’t blame you. If there’s any greater gift than a beautiful woman in the morning, I’ll be damned if I know what it is.”

THAT NIGHT I heard an automobile in the woods. I went downstairs and unlocked the back door and went out on the porch. The air was cold, the moon showing behind the edge of a cloud, the sky free of dust. Through the tree trunks, I could see a white glow, but it disappeared as quickly as someone blowing out a candle. At daybreak I started a fire in the woodstove and set a pot of water on the lid, then removed Grandfather’s double-barrel shotgun from the closet and walked through the woods to the riverbank. The river was almost dry, the bank dropping six feet straight down, the sandy bottom stenciled with the tracks of small animals and threaded with rivulets of water that were red in the sunrise. I must have walked a half mile before I saw a four-door Chevrolet parked under a live oak. It was a 1932 model, one called a Confederate, with wire-spoked whitewall tires and a maroon paint job and a black top and black fenders and red leather upholstery. The spare tire was mounted on the running board. It was the most elegant car I had ever seen.

The backseat had been torn out and propped against the trunk of the tree. A man with his arm in a sling was leaning against the seat, while another man worked under the car, banging on something metal, his legs sticking out in the leaves.

The woman with the strawberry-blond hair was tending to the injured man, but she wasn’t wearing her beret. The second woman was eating a Vienna sausage sandwich. “Raymond, we’ve got a boy with a gun,” she said.

The injured man, the one I’d thought might be Pretty Boy Floyd, winked at me. “He’s all right,” he said, looking at me but talking to Raymond, who was crawling out from under the car. “He’s just protecting his property. Where’s your grandfather, kid?”

“How do you know he’s my grandfather?”

“Because you look just like him.” He pointed at the collapsed wire fence behind me. “Is that y’all’s boundary?”

“It was. We just sold off some of our acreage. Is that a Browning automatic rifle by your leg?”

“Is that what it’s called? I found it in an empty house,” he said. “Tell me, y’all have a phone?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“Because we had an accident, and I might need to call a doctor. I thought I saw a line going into your house. That’s your house with the gables, isn’t it?”

“We couldn’t afford the phone bill anymore.”

Raymond was standing by the car now, brushing off his clothes with one hand. In the other, he held a ball-peen hammer. “I straightened out the steering rod, but it’s gonna shimmy. What are you fixing to do with that shotgun, boy?”

“Shoot skunks that come around the house,” I said. “I’m right good at it.”

“You know who we are?” the injured man said.

“Folks who drive fine cars but who’d rather sleep in the woods than a motor court?”

Raymond was grinning. He walked close to me, his shoes crunching in the leaves. He had taken off his dress shirt and hung it on the door mirror and was wearing a strap undershirt outside his trousers. His shoulders were bony and white and stippled with pimples. I could smell the pomade in his hair. “You heard of people shooting their way out of prison, haven’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ever hear of anybody shooting their way into prison?”

“That’s a new one,” I said.

“Like you know all about it?” Raymond said.

“You asked me a question.”

“You’re looking at people who made history,” he said. He lifted up his chin, a glint in his eye.

“Raymond is a kidder,” the injured man said. “We’re just reg’lar working folks. I’ve been fixing this car for a man. Like to give it a spin? I bet you would.”

“Y’all broke into a prison?” I asked.

“I was pulling your leg,” Raymond said.

“I read about it in the newspaper,” I said. “It was at Eastham Pen. A guard was killed.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business,” said the woman eating the sandwich.

The only sound was the wind blowing in the trees. I felt like I was in the middle of a black-and-white photograph whose content could change for the worse in a second. I couldn’t have cared less. “Could y’all bust into an asylum?” I asked.

“Why would we want to do that?” Raymond said.

“To get somebody out. Somebody who doesn’t belong there.”

The woman with the strawberry-blond hair took a brush from her purse and stroked the back of her head. “Somebody in your family?”

“My mother.”

“She was committed?”

“I don’t know the term for it. They took her away.”

She began brushing her hair, her head tilted sideways. “You shouldn’t fret about things you cain’t change. Maybe your mama will come home just fine. Don’t be toting a gun around, either, not unless you’re willing to use it.”

“I’d use it to get my mother back. I wouldn’t give it a second thought.”

The injured man laughed. “Keep talking like that, you’ll end up picking state cotton. Can you forget what you saw here? I mean, if I asked you real nice?”

“They’re going to give her electroshock. Maybe they already have,” I said. “You think that’s fair? She’s an innocent person, and she’s getting treated worse than criminals who deserve everything that happens to them.”

Leaves were dropping from the oak tree, spinning like disembodied wings to the ground. They were yellow and spotted with blight, and they made me think of beetles sinking in dark water.

The woman eating the sandwich turned her back and said something to the injured man. It took me a moment to sort out the words, but there was no mistaking what she said: Don’t let him leave here.

“Mary, can you get me a cold drink from the ice chest?” said the woman with the strawberry-blond hair. “I want to talk to our young friend here.”

“I say what’s on my mind, Bonnie,” Mary said. “You like to be sweet at other people’s expense.”

“Maybe there’s an ice-cold Coca-Cola down in the bottom,” Bonnie said. “I don’t remember when I’ve been so thirsty. I’d be indebted if you’d be so kind.”

She took my arm and began walking with me along the riverbank, back toward the house, never glancing over her shoulder, not waiting for Mary’s response, as though the final word on the subject had been said. She was wearing a white cotton dress with pink and gray flowers printed on it and lace at the hem that swished on her calves. “I want you to listen to me real good,” she said close to my ear. “Pretend we came with the dust and went with the wind. Tomorrow when you get up, you’ll still be you and we’ll be us, and it will be like we never met. Your mama is gonna be all right. I know that because she reared a good son.”

“Who killed the guard, Miss Bonnie? It wasn’t you, was it?”

“Go home, boy. Don’t come back, either,” she replied.

I RETURNED TO THE house and replaced Grandfather’s shotgun in the kitchen closet. A few minutes later he came downstairs, walking on his cane. I fixed oatmeal and browned four pieces of bread in the skillet and put a jar of preserves on the table. I filled his oatmeal bowl and set it in front of him, and set his bread next to the bowl. All the while, I could feel him watching me. “Where have you been?” he said.

“I took a walk down by the river.”

“Counting mud turtles?”

“There’s worse company,” I replied.

“I guess it’s to your credit, but you’re the poorest excuse for a liar I’ve ever known. I heard a car out in the woods last night. Did that same bunch come back here after I told them not to?”

“They’re not on our property. The driver was hurt. The fellow named Raymond was fixing a tie rod.”

“Did the driver have a gunshot wound?”

“No, they were in a car accident.”

He had tied a napkin like a bib around his neck; he wiped his mouth with it and set down his oatmeal spoon. “Did those people threaten you?”

“The lady with strawberry-blond hair said my mother was going to come home and be okay. I think she’s a good person. Maybe they’ve already took off. They’re not out to cause us trouble.”

He got up from the table and went to the phone. It was made out of wood and attached to the wall and had a crank on the side of the box. He picked up the earpiece and turned the crank. Then he turned it again. “It’s dead,” he said.

“Maybe a tree fell on the line.”

“I think there’s something you’re not telling me.”

“The driver asked if we had a phone. I told him we didn’t. He said he saw a line going into the house. I told him we couldn’t afford the service anymore.”

“So you knew?”

“Knew what?”

“That these people are dangerous. But you chose to pretend otherwise,” he replied.

My face was burning with shame. “What are you aiming to do?” I asked.

“Let’s clear up something else first. Why were you talking about your mother to a bunch of outlaws?”

“I wondered if they could help me get her out of the asylum.”

I saw a strange phenomenon occur in my grandfather’s face. For the first time in my life, I saw the lights of pity and love in his eyes. “I called the doctor yesterday, Satch,” he said. “I told him not to put your mother through electroshock. I told him I’d made a mistake and I was coming down to Houston to get her.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was waiting on him to call me back, to see if everything was ready to go.”

I got up and went to the sink and looked at the woods. I felt like a Judas, although I didn’t know exactly whom I had betrayed, Grandfather or our visitors down by the river. “The woman’s name is Bonnie. The driver had a Browning. I think he might be Clyde Barrow.”

“Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” he said.

HE TOLD ME to take our Model A down to the store at the crossroads and call Sheriff Benbow.

“Go with me,” I said.

“While they burglarize our house?”

“We don’t have anything they want.”

“It must have been the tramp in the woodpile. That’s the only explanation I have for it,” he said. “Were you hiding behind a cloud when God passed out the brains?”

I drove away and left him standing in front of the porch, his khaki trousers stuffed into the tops of his stovepipe boots, the wilted brim of his Stetson low on his brow, his thoughts known only to him. I turned onto the dirt road that led past the woods where our visitors had camped. Our telephone wire was hanging straight down on the pole. There was no tree limb on the ground. A dust devil spun out of a field and broke apart on the Model A’s radiator, powdering the windshield, almost like an omen. The crossroads store was still two miles away. I did a U-turn and headed back home.

Grandfather owned two horses. The Shetland was named Shorty and was blind in one eye. When Grandfather rode Shorty through a field of tall grass, all you could see were his shoulders and head, as though he had been sawed in half and his upper body mounted on wheels. His other horse was a four-year-old white gelding named Blue who was part Arabian and hot-wired to the eyes. All you had to do was lean forward in the saddle and Blue would be halfway to El Paso. A man Grandfather’s age had no business on that horse. But try to tell him that.

I parked by the barn. Shorty was in the corral. Blue was nowhere in sight. I looked in the kitchen closet, where I had replaced Grandfather’s double-barrel shotgun. It was gone.

I took the holstered Colt from the drawer and walked into the woods and followed Blue’s hoofprints along the riverbank to the end of our property. Through the trees I could see the Chevrolet and four people standing beside it, all of them looking up at Grandfather, who sat atop Blue like a wood clothespin. They were all grinning, and not in a respectful way. None of them looked in my direction, not even Bonnie.

Grandfather had bridled Blue but hadn’t saddled him. Blue was sixteen hands and had the big-footed, barrel-chested conformation of an Arabian, and he rippled with nervous power when he walked. If a blowfly settled on his rump, his skin twitched from his withers to his croup. I could hear Grandfather talking: “Times are bad. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to use my place for a hideout or be a bad influence on my grandson. I know who y’all are. I also know it was y’all cut my phone line.”

“We’re plain country people, not no different from y’all,” Raymond said. “We’re not on your damn property, either.”

“No, there’s nothing ordinary about you, son. You’re a smart-ass. And there’s no cure for your kind,” Grandfather said. “You’re going to end up facedown on a sidewalk or fried by Old Sparky. I’d say good riddance, but somewhere you’ve probably got a mother who cares about you. Why don’t you try to change your life while you got a chance?”

“We’re leaving,” Bonnie said. “But don’t be talking down to us anymore. Your grandson told us what you let happen to your daughter.”

“Enough of this. Let’s go,” the injured man said.

“You’re Clyde Barrow, aren’t you?” Grandfather said.

“I told you, the name is Smith.”

“You were born in Telico. You tortured animals when you were a child. You got your brother killed up in Missouri. You’re a certified mess, boy.”

“Yeah, and you’re a nasty old man who’s going to have tumbleweed bouncing across his grave directly,” said the man who called himself Smith.

They all got in the Chevrolet, slamming the doors. That was when Blue went straight up in the air, his front hooves higher than the Chevrolet’s top. Grandfather crashed to the ground, the shotgun flying from his hands, his face white with shock, his breath wheezing from his throat. I thought I heard bones snap in his back.

Bonnie and her friends drove away with Raymond behind the wheel. One of them spat on Grandfather. In the shadows I couldn’t tell who it was, but I saw the spittle come out of the window like wet string and stick on Grandfather’s shirt. In seconds the Chevrolet was going up a dusty rise between the trees, the sunlight spangling on the windows.

I let the holster and belt slide free of the revolver and pulled back the hammer and aimed with both hands at the back of the automobile.

“Don’t do it, Weldon,” Grandfather said.

I didn’t aim at the gas tank or a tire or the trunk. I aimed ten inches below the roof and squeezed the trigger and felt the heaviness of the frame buck in my palms and heard the .44 round hit home, whanging off metal, breaking glass, maybe striking the dashboard or the headliner. Inside the report, I thought I heard someone scream.

The car wobbled but kept going forward and was soon gone. I shut my eyes and opened them again, unsure of what I had done, my ears ringing.

“Why didn’t you listen to me?” Grandfather asked.

My right ear felt like someone had slapped it with the flat of his hand. I opened and closed my mouth to get my hearing back. “I didn’t think. Was that a woman who screamed?”

“No, it was not. You heard an owl screech. Do you understand me?”

“I heard a woman scream, Grandfather.”

“The mind plays tricks on you in a situation like that. That was a screech owl. They’re blind in the daytime and frighten easy. Get me up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell me what you heard.”

“An owl. I heard an owl.”

“From this time on, you don’t look back on what happened here today. It doesn’t mean a hill of beans. Don’t you ever stop being the fine young man that you are.”

THE FOLLOWING WEEK, three of Grandfather’s old friends came to our house. They were stolid, thick-bodied men who wore suits and Stetsons and polished boots and had broad, calloused hands. One of them rolled his own cigarettes. One of them was a former Texas Ranger who supposedly killed fifty men. They sat in the kitchen and drank coffee while Grandfather told them everything he knew about our visitors. He made no mention of me. I was in the living room and heard the former Texas Ranger say, “Hack, I’d hate to bust a cap on a woman.” But he smiled when he said it.

Grandfather glanced up and saw me looking through the doorway. Something happened in that moment that I will never forget. Grandfather’s eyes once again were filled with a warmth that few associated with the man who locked John Wesley Hardin in jail. The lawmen at his table were killers. Grandfather was not. “Go upstairs and check on your mother, will you, Weldon?” he said.

I read later about the ambush in Louisiana. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were blown apart with automatic weapons fire. Later, their friend Raymond would die with courage and dignity in the electric chair at Huntsville. His girlfriend, Mary, would go to prison. None of them was struck by the bullet I fired into their automobile.

It rained that summer, and I caught a catfish in the river that was as reddish-brown as the water I took it from. I slipped the hook out of its mouth and replaced it in the current and watched it drop away, out of sight, an event that was probably of little importance to anyone except the catfish and me.

About The Author

Photograph by James McDavid

James Lee Burke is a New York Times bestselling author, two-time winner of the Edgar Award, and the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in Fiction. He has authored forty novels and two short story collections. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 13, 2021)
  • Length: 464 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982183448

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: James Lee Burke

More books in this series: A Holland Family Novel