a thousand falling crows

ALSO BY LARRY D. SWEAZY

See Also Murder

Published 2016 by Seventh Street Books®, an imprint of Prometheus Books

A Thousand Falling Crows
. Copyright © 2016 by Larry D. Sweazy. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopy­ing, re­cord­ing, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, ex­cept in the case of brief quotations em­bodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Characters, organizations, products, locales, and events portrayed in this novel either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Cover design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht
Cover image © Valentino Sani / Arcangel Images

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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Sweazy, Larry D.

A thousand falling crows / by Larry D. Sweazy.

pages ; cm

ISBN 978-1-63388-084-9 (paperback) — ISBN 978-1-63388-085-6 (e-book)

I. Title.

PS3619.W438T48 2016

813'.6—dc23

2015030324

Printed in the United States of America

To Matthew P. Mayo and Jennifer Smith-Mayo

“The crow wished everything was black, the owl, that everything was white.”

—William Blake,
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

“From childhood's hour I have not been

As others were—I have not seen

As others saw—[. . .] I could not awaken

My heart to joy at the same tone—

And all I lov'd—
I
loved alone.”

—Edgar Allan Poe, “Alone”

CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

AUTHOR'S NOTE

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHAPTER 1

JUNE 11, 1933

The farm-to-market road was vacant, the day's traffic settled and tucked away as the big red sun dropped below the horizon. The hard days of summer had set in early. The few clouds that had showed promise of rain in the past month had pushed east, rushing by in a hurry like there was some place better to go, like the stink of dry Texas ground had offended them. Tender young crops succumbed to the heat and lack of water quickly, and the farmers, who'd had a bad year the year before and the year before that, knew that things were only going to get worse.

Soft pink light reached up with long fingers from the west, poking at the coming darkness like there was a victory to be won. But that was not the case. Light never won over darkness. At least at this time of day.

A lone crow sat on the telephone wire looking down at the road. Blood never escaped the eyes of a crow, but the smell of death was a vulture's quest. A kettle of six curious vultures glided down to a dead oak tree that had stood next to the road for a hundred years, its gnarly branches offering a perfect roost for the coming night. The big black birds were not attracted to the spot for rest, but by the rage, the loneliness, and the empty heart that had fulfilled nature's cycle of life and death. The smell of blood had piqued their appetite. The prospect of drought offered them abundance, reason to celebrate their way of living. There would be even more vultures this time next year.

The vultures and the crow looked at the blood without judgment. That was better left to humans and their laws, their ways of setting things straight. There was no justice to a hungry bird. There was only the now, the knowledge of hunger, and the need to fly. Blood and decaying flesh offered an opportunity, the concept of evidence and law foreign, useless. The crow was not disturbed by the vultures' presence.

The girl hadn't been there long. Her blood still pooled on top of the road and had yet to soak into the thirsty dirt. The blood glowed in the dusk, the pink fingers of the dying day reflecting off it like a mirror held up to the sky. There was no life left in the girl. She had been killed just before she was dumped from the speeding car, tossed out like an extinguished cigarette butt, left behind without worry or care. Her clothes were ripped and torn, and her face—what was visible of it—was plump with bruises and covered in blood. She was fresh. Not stiff. Flies had already found her. Joyful in the bounty, like the vultures.

Curiosity propelled the crow down to get a closer look. It didn't worry about the others. They were the least of its concerns. Coyotes would come soon. But for now the crow would claim the girl as its own. A feast to enjoy before darkness fell and the world turned black, black like itself, a twin without wings, but with far more secrets than it would ever tell.

The glass exploded out of the back window of the Chevrolet sedan like somebody had thrown a brick from the inside out. Once he saw the muzzle flash, it only took Sonny Burton half a second to realize that someone had taken a shot at him.

There was no question who was doing the shooting. Less than a year before, back in August, they'd killed a deputy in Stringtown, Oklahoma, launching a killing spree that had captured the nation's attention and made the pair as famous as the dead actor Rudolph Valentino.

Sonny had been alone, coming off duty in the small Panhandle town that had been his home for as long as he could remember. He was surprised at his luck, recognizing the two of them walking arm-in-arm to their car like they didn't have a care in the world, like nobody would know, or give two shakes, about who they were. Or maybe they just didn't give a rat's ass.

It didn't take them long to figure out that they were being followed by a Texas Ranger—the Cinco badge emblem and announcement that it was a Ranger's car was plastered across the side of the black 1932 Ford in hard-to-miss six-inch white letters. Thankfully, the duo had turned off on a nearly deserted dirt road when the shooting started.

With no way to communicate with anyone back at company headquarters about his lucky find, Sonny was on his own to bring the pair of lawless gangsters in for justice—if that was possible.

The shattering of his windshield sounded like a bomb had gone off directly next to Sonny's ear. He was pelted with stinging shards of the broken glass, and it felt like he'd fallen face-first into a hornet's nest. But that didn't stop him. His fingers tingled as he gripped the steering wheel; the thrill of the hunt never got old. The skin above his chest burned like it was going to rip open, and his heart was racing a mile a minute. Blood trickled down from his brow, but his eyes were safe, not hit, the blood not blinding him. He could still see the Chevrolet swerving in front of him, trying to get away or to get a better shot at him—one or the other, he wasn't sure.

A bullet whizzed by Sonny's right ear, just a couple of inches away from its intended target: his forehead. Luckily, he had tilted his head in the right direction. The wrong way would have put him directly in line with the shot and it would have been lights out. Game over. A Texas Ranger added to their growing collection of law enforcement kills.

It was a sobering thought, dying this close to the end of his career. Sonny wasn't sure what the future held for him, but up until a few minutes prior, he hadn't been too concerned about living to a satisfactory old age. He just wanted to finish what he had started—being a proud Texas Ranger and alive to boot.

The duo's older-model Chevrolet was no match for Sonny's newer Ford. The '32 Model B had a flathead V-8 engine and was fast off the start with sixty-five horsepower under the hood—an amazing thought considering Sonny had been born long before the invention of automobiles—when all of the Texas Rangers, including his own father, had ridden horses across the great state of Texas, pursuing the worst of the worst outlaws, like King Fisher and John Wesley Hardin. As a boy, Sonny wouldn't have been capable of imagining so much power in one vehicle. Times had changed all too quickly as far as Sonny was concerned.

He pushed the accelerator as far to the floor as it would go. His gun was loaded and in his hand almost magically, like a magnet had drawn it to his fingers. He aimed his Colt .45 Government Model automatic pistol with confidence at the busted out window of the Chevrolet and returned fire.

The Chevrolet swerved again, fishtailing on the gravel road and spraying the hood of Sonny's car with hundreds of pebbles—little pings and thuds that sounded like gunshots finding their target but posed no real threat.

A rifle poked out of the rear window, and a hot, orange flash exploded from the end of the barrel and did not stop at one. This was no riot gun or deer rifle, but a Browning automatic rifle, a fierce weapon that could empty a twenty-shot magazine in three seconds.

The noise was excruciating, metal piercing metal, ripping into the fenders, then shattering what little remained of the car's windows. Sonny could hardly take a breath or gather his wits about him. He wasn't ready to die.

The radiator exploded, sending a geyser of steam spraying upward to the heavens, clouding Sonny's vision. Bullets whizzed by his ears as he pulled the trigger of his .45, not stopping until every bullet had been fired.

He thought for certain he heard a tire explode, thought he saw a sign to his left warning that the road ahead was closed, under construction, that the bridge was out, but thoughts no longer mattered. He had been hit.

A bullet ripped into his shoulder, sending white-hot pain screaming though his body; blood sprayed out of the wound like a dam had been breached, an artery severed.

Another bullet hit him, not far from the other, and Sonny screamed with pain, with frustration and fear, as reality left him and his fingers slipped from the wheel, sending the '32 Ford careening into a ditch. He felt like he had been hit twice by a sledgehammer.

The last image Sonny saw before the car rolled and he blacked out was Bonnie Parker laughing like a maniacal child.

CHAPTER 2

JUNE 14, 1933

The volume of the radio was turned down low, the voices distant but decipherable. “The Nazi Party was made Germany's only legal political party today. Any political opposition is punishable by law . . .” the announcer said in a droning voice.

Sonny reached over with his left arm and was about to turn the radio off when he heard the announcer go on to say, “And in local news, the manhunt for Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker continues after their car was found wrecked and abandoned just outside of Wellington. They are to be considered armed and dangerous. If you see the duo, or know anything of their whereabouts, contact your local police or the Texas Rangers. Bonnie Parker is reported to be injured.” The announcer stopped for a brief second, allowing the radio to buzz, then continued, “The identity of the girl found on the farm-to-market road leading out of Wellington is still unknown. Funeral arrangements are being postponed until a positive ID can be made. If you have any information concerning this case, please contact the Wellington Police.”

Sonny took a deep breath as he struggled to turn the radio off. His right arm was bound and unmovable. He was right-handed, and any coordination and strength in his left hand was lacking, to say the least. He really wasn't supposed to move, but he didn't want to hear any more news, even though he was reasonably interested in hearing about Bonnie and Clyde and what had happened to them after he had been shot.

It was the first time he'd heard they'd wrecked, too.

The idea that he had something to do with that settled easy on his shoulders, but it didn't make the pain, or the uselessness of his arm, go away. All he really wanted was silence.

He didn't know anything about the dead girl found on the road, and he let the information flitter away. On any other day, he would have been interested, probably involved in the case, but now his concern was distant, difficult to hold onto. He resigned himself to that fact, eased down onto the hospital bed, and stared out of the second-floor window.

Summer had set in with a vengeance.

The windows were cracked open, but there didn't look to be a breeze outside. Every tree he could see was still as a statue, their leaves droopy. The sky was clear, the color of a roan mare he used to know, and the sun was a red hot plate, beating down relentlessly on the earth, scorching everything in sight; the grass had already given up all of its green and browned out. The landscape out the window was desolate, hopeless, but familiar. Hot, uncomfortable summers were just part of the deal when you lived in Texas. Sonny knew nothing else.

The door to the room was ajar, and a murmur of low voices found its way to Sonny's ears. He couldn't make out the words. It was like a small group was consulting three or four doors down, all whispering in soft, professional tones. The hospital was nothing more than a large two-story house with an operating room in the basement and patient rooms, at most four beds to a room, on the top floor.

Sonny closed his eyes. He had a room all to himself and hoped for sleep to come and take him away from the reality he'd woken up to, but that wasn't to be.

The door pushed open slowly, along with Sonny's eyes at the noise. A Mexican man, his black shiny hair just starting to turn gray, entered the room. His skin was as brown and leathery as a hundred-year-old holster, and though the man was probably in his late thirties, early forties at the most, he looked much older. He'd pushed a mop and bucket into the room, trying to be quiet. He was unsuccessful in the attempt. The wheels on the mop bucket squeaked like fingers slowly scraping down a chalkboard when he pushed it inside the room.

The man wore a blue short-sleeved work shirt with a pack of Chesterfields poking out of the pocket. He had the largest collection of keys dangling from his belt that Sonny had ever seen.

It was tempting for Sonny to close his eyes again and let the man do his job, but he couldn't keep himself from acknowledging the janitor's presence. “
Hola
,” he said, his voice weak but steady as he stared directly at the man. The patch on the Mexican's work shirt said his name was Albert, but Sonny doubted that was really the case.

Sonny had startled the man. His shoulders jumped back, then he looked up, glancing over at Sonny sheepishly, then back to the floor, as he pulled the mop out of the water. “
Hola
,” he answered. “
Hablas Español?

Sonny nodded and tried to pull himself up. “Yes, I learned to speak Spanish a long time ago,” he said, speaking fully in the Mexican's language.

The janitor smiled, relaxed a bit, then pulled up the mop and let it drain through the ringer. “You speak very well.”

“I was raised by a Mexican woman.”

“Really?”

“Yes. She was with me every day until I grew up and left home.”

“What happened to your momma?”

“She died about a year after I was born,” Sonny said, looking away from the man, out the window. At sixty-two years old, Sonny should have been long past the sadness of losing his mother and his nanny, if the woman who raised him could be called that, but Sonny still thought about Maria Perza every day. She had taught him everything he knew about being a decent, Anglo man, living in Texas. “What's your name?” Sonny finally asked.

“My name is Aldo,” the Mexican said. “Aldo Hernandez.”

Sonny smiled. He knew it wasn't Albert.

“And what is your name,
señor
?” Aldo said.

“Lester. Lester Burton. But everybody calls me Sonny. They have ever since I was four or five.”

Aldo returned the smile. “You are that Ranger that was shot by Bonnie and Clyde aren't you? You are lucky you are not dead,
señor
.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Your arm, will it get better?”

Sonny shook his head. “I‘ll be lucky to feel anything or be able to use my hand ever again.”

“Then you are done working. It is all over for you?”

“Seems that way. Times are tough all over. Another man can take my job. I‘ve had my life, and it's been pretty good up until now.”

“Yes, yes, times are very bad. This Depression seems like it will go on forever. I, too, am happy to have a job, happy that the doctor has kept me employed through this dark time. I have hungry mouths at home who depend on me. What about you, do you have children?”

Sonny nodded. “A son. He's a Ranger, too, down in Brownsville. He's married with a couple of little ones of his own.” A smile crossed Sonny's face, then quickly flittered away. He hardly ever saw his grandchildren. The distance between them was too far to encourage closeness, and that seemed just fine with his son, Jesse. They never seemed to see eye to eye on anything. It had always been that way, and Sonny didn't expect it to ever change.

“You are lucky then. You will have someone to help you when you go home.”

Sonny didn't answer. He looked away and stared up at the ceiling. There was no use telling Aldo that he'd be all alone when he left the hospital. The house was empty, a collection of dusty furniture and a clock that ticked for no one but him. Martha, his wife, had been dead for ten years, struck down in a single, unforeseen blow by a massive heart attack while she'd been out weeding the garden. The emptiness of the house was his sadness to bear and no one else's.

Aldo didn't broach the silence. He let it hang in the air knowingly.

Like his father, Sonny had always been tall and rangy, and he could only imagine how he must look to the Mexican—skeletal, gaunt, each breath a rattle on death's short chain. He closed his eyes then, the strength not in him to push away the memories of the past. Maria, Martha, Jesse, his father, the good times and the bad.

When he opened his eyes again, it was dark and chilly in the room. Aldo was gone.

It was a slow ride from the morgue to the funeral home. No one had claimed the dead girl. She was lost in a world of darkness, with no name, no family, no one to love her as she was prepared for her final rest. More important news had drowned out the cry of the injustice of her death. A small corner on the front page, otherwise loaded with images of Bonnie and Clyde and the Texas Ranger they'd shot, was all the notice the murder had garnered. On any other day in Wellington, the discovery of the girl would have been great cause for speculation, fear, and locked doors.

Only the crows worried over her now. The crows and her killer. The crows watched from close by, then flew away as the hearse passed. They went on with their day, always watching, always listening. Would the killer offer the world more carrion? More of what it deserved?

CHAPTER 3

AUGUST 12, 1933

Bonnie and Clyde's Chevrolet was sitting inside a barn. Three bullet holes had pierced the rear fender. Both of the tires on the driver's side were flat. Straw and dust covered the roof of the car, and a red tabby cat lay sleeping in the backseat, the coils poking up through the brown velvet material that was slowly being carted away, one mouthful at a time, by a herd of opportunistic mice—when the cat was away, of course.

Sonny stood back staring at the car. Hard afternoon light filtered in through the barn walls, and the August heat was so stifling and humid it made him sweat just at the thought of walking the rest of the way inside.

“Been chargin' a nickel a peek,” Carl Halstaad, a dairy farmer the size of a bull himself, said, as he chewed a big wad of Red Man tobacco in his right cheek. “But I 'spect I won't charge you a penny since you're the man who put them bullet holes there.”

“I appreciate that, Mr. Halstaad.”

“Carl. You can call me, Carl, Ranger Burton.” He spit a long stream of brown liquid from his mouth, splashing, respectfully, a good two feet from Sonny's boots.

Sonny nodded. “My Ranger days are behind me now. Most folks just call me Sonny.”

“Ah, heck. I can see you got a bad limb, there, but once a Ranger, always a Ranger, right?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so.” The doctors had wanted to amputate the arm. They feared gangrene would set in, but so far it hadn't. The arm just hung there, useless and numb, an annoying reminder of the time when he had felt whole and young. Most days he kept busy, didn't allow himself to feel sorry for the loss or grow too angry.

He walked up slowly to the driver's door and peered inside the window. The windshield was shattered, and the battery lay on the floor in front of the passenger's seat.

“People say Bonnie's got a limp now,” Halstaad said. “Clyde carries her around a lot. The acid burned her bad, but maybe not bad enough.”

“Maybe not,” Sonny said.

“Some folks up in Dexter, Iowa, seen them at an amusement park a couple weeks back. Bonnie was bandaged up pretty good. They was surrounded, but somehow they managed to get away again. Must be magicians, or blessed with the dark skills of Houdini's lost spirit. The one they called Buck died after surgery for a gunshot wound. And they just left him, ran from him like thieves in the night. There are no true friends to those two.”

“What are you going to do with it?” Sonny asked, pulling himself from the window, ignoring the news about the Barrow gang's whereabouts. The inside of the car smelled like cat urine, pungent and sour, mixed with acid and dried blood. His stomach lurched.

“The car?” Halstaad asked.

Sonny nodded.

“I suppose I‘ll just hang onto it, keep gettin' my nickels from it for as long as I can. Why? You want to buy it?”

“No, I‘ve seen all I need to.” Sonny turned and pushed past Halstaad. He knew about the incident in Dexter, Iowa. He followed Bonnie and Clyde's every move on the radio and in the newspapers. He'd been practicing shooting left-handed, just in case another chance at them ever came his way.

No grass grew on the grave. No name had been given to the dead girl. She was a wanderer, a ghost now with a sordid past, her wicked ways most likely the cause of the sad end she'd found in the middle of some farm-to-market road in the Panhandle of Texas. Newsmen forgot about her. The sheriff misplaced her file, stuffed it in the bottom of a drawer in a room that was rarely visited. Her flesh fell away from her skin in the bottom of a grave in Potter's Field. It was like she had never stepped a foot on the good earth, had never existed at all.

The crows went about their summer business. Families were raised and fledged, the promise of winter certain but distant. What corn had survived the drought was hardly worth eating. For now there was a bounty of dead things to feed on. But hunger would come soon. The desire and hunger for fresh meat, already dead or just dying, would be unbearable. Grain or meat, sustenance would come from wherever it could be found. Only survival mattered. The hand of death provided the crows the opportunity to continue to fly.

CHAPTER 4

MAY 1, 1934

Nine months later, there was no ache to warn Sonny that something was wrong. He could see it coming, though. The tips of his fingers were turning black. His arm was useless, had been since two bullets had blasted through the top of his shoulder, slicing the arteries, and exploding his flesh into a mess that was left beyond repair. Part of his body was dying, a quarter of an inch at a time. It might be weeks, or months, before the poison took him—if he did nothing, if he ignored the darkness and pretended his life was normal. The lack of pain was a contributor to denial. He could look away and not feel a thing.

The doctors had said there was no hope in saving the limb at the time of the shooting, but Sonny had resisted, remained stubborn in his stance to live out what remained of his life whole and intact.

He had been right-handed all his life and couldn't imagine having to depend on his weaker, less reliable, left hand. That hand seemed to have a mind of its own, often ignoring his commands recklessly—or on purpose, he wasn't sure which. Even in his clearest moments, Sonny couldn't see himself with only one arm, a sleeve pinned to his side, a constant reminder of what he once was. That seemed to be an unimaginable way to live, with part of your body lost, incinerated, not even saved, like a rare diamond, to be buried with you.

Oddly, in those moments Sonny remembered when he was a little boy and his father, who had fought for the Confederacy, would stop along the street and talk to men he saw without a leg or an arm. They whispered, lowered their voices, looked away distantly to the past, to some unseen place. It was like they spoke a secret language or belonged to some secret fraternity. At the end of the whispers, his father would pull away from the amputee solemnly and push Sonny forward, reminding him of what to say: “Thank you for your service to the cause.” The wounded man would normally nod with glistening eyes, offer a sad smile in response, wordless in his gratitude but certain in his loss when he looked to where a leg or an arm once had been.

The words echoed deep in Sonny's memory as he stood, an old man himself, fully dressed in front of the mirror, staring at himself, separating his story from the legion of dead Confederate soldiers who lived in his mind. Somehow, he thought he was going to will a miracle and save his fingers and arm from rotting off.

If he screamed, no one would hear him. He was alone. The nearest neighbor was a mile and a half to the east. Sometimes, he went to the basement. It was dark and dank down there, the walls built into the earth with planks, bound with roots from above. The smell was old, musty, organic. When he turned off the single bare light, it was like standing in a giant grave, a grave he could dance in, cry in, scream in, then walk up the stairs and out into the waiting sunlight, like he was well, whole, and resurrected from his nightmare.

He never believed it for a second. There was no question what path lay before him—he had seen it before.

Sonny had fought a different war than his father, on the soil of a foreign land with an army of Allied Forces fighting side by side against Germany's aggravated threat to the world. He had survived that war in one piece, although he was affected with what his father often referred to as “Soldier's Heart,” a melancholy that lasted a few years after his return to Texas and took a toll on his family that still stood to this day. These days they called it “the thousand-yard stare” because of the unfocused gaze of men like him who'd come back whole in body but not in mind. It was an apt description. Better than shell shock, Sonny thought.

Martha had fought against his depression and lost quietly. Her sudden death was probably a relief to her, an escape from him that no legal document could guarantee. His son, Jesse, had been a teenager at the time of his return from the World War and was full of rage and distance—in some ways, the boy had not changed. They saw each other once or twice a year, at holidays, and sometimes at funerals. Brownsville was a world away from Wellington. The long miles that stood between them suited each of them just fine. The universe had conspired to separate them, and it was probably for the best.

He had mastered dressing with one arm, though buttoning a shirt had been a challenge in the beginning. He'd rigged up a dowel rod with a little hook on the end that he used to finagle a button through the hole. It was, he supposed, the shape of things to come, a hook as an appendage. He shuddered at the thought, recoiling from the vision of himself as a monster, a hooked pirate gone mad, slashing away at anything that got in his way, at anything that made him angry. A gentle moment quickly turned into a bloody accident. He would have to avoid touching anyone—even more so than he did now.

He'd found that boots were easier to get on than shoes that had be tied, but weren't as easy to get off. Mostly, he'd figured out how to survive, though weakly and slowly. It had taken him an hour to get dressed.

Before he was shot, dressing and shaving were acts that he gave little thought to. He'd just floated through the morning, doing one thing after the other. Now when he opened his eyes after a restless night of sleep, he dreaded putting his feet on the floor. He just wanted to stay asleep.

Sonny drew in a deep breath, the house around him silent but for the ticking of a dusty old grandfather clock, then squared his shoulders and walked out the front door. He had a doctor's appointment at ten o‘clock.

CHAPTER 5

MAY 14, 1934

The nurse wheeled Sonny toward the door. “Is somebody waiting for you, Mr. Burton?” She was tall, blonde, and spooned into her white uniform that looked a little too tight and a little dull from one too many washes. At another time the woman, her voice husky and her perfume sweet, might have garnered a look of desire from Sonny—but not now. She was too young and he was too old. Desire of any kind had been stowed away long ago. It surprised Sonny that he even recognized such a thing at that moment.

“No,” he said. It hadn't occurred to him to tell anyone about the surgery. “I drove myself here, and I can drive myself home.”

The nurse stopped so suddenly and unexpectedly that Sonny nearly tumbled face-first out of the wheelchair. He reached out to steady himself with his right hand, but it wasn't there. The arm was gone. Hacked off in a sterile room while he had been anesthetized with some miracle drug that had taken him to the depths of sleep and to the edge of death, only to return him to the land of the living with a body he did not recognize—or want.

His brain had not adjusted to his new reality any more than his body had. His brain obviously still believed that his right arm was attached to his thin torso because the nerve endings under the incision burned like the nurse had doused the stub in gasoline and lit it on fire.

“You can't drive yourself home,” the nurse said. She moved from behind the wheelchair and faced him, standing stiffly, like a drill sergeant, her glare hard as stone, her hands placed solidly on her hips.

“Well, I best start walking then.”

The nurse flipped her gaze to the door, and took in the bright, hot day that awaited them both as soon they stepped outside the hospital doors. She shook her head.

Beyond being shapely, her fingers were bare of rings or jewelry of any kind. She looked to be in her early thirties, a slight pouch in her belly the only imperfection on her womanly body, a distraction from her obvious beauty, most likely caused by the recent experience of childbirth. Sonny had seen that shape before and was aware enough of his own loneliness, and status as a widower, to notice the effects of a recent pregnancy. It had to be that.

“There's no one to call?” the nurse demanded again.

Sonny shook his head. “My son lives in Brownsville. He's busy with a family of his own. I didn't want to bother him.”

“That sounds like an unlikely story. You just had your arm amputated, Mr. Burton. What about church people?”

“I don't attend church, thank you very much.”

“Another likely story.”

“It's all I have to offer.”

“I can't let you drive home alone. It's not safe.”

“I drove here with one hand. The arm didn't work any better then than it does now. I live alone and once I‘m gone from here, I‘m on my own. What's the difference?”

“I know about it. That's the difference.”

“I‘ve learned how to do for myself with one arm. I‘ll be just fine. Push me to the door and leave me be. I‘ll manage. Beyond that, I‘d rather you not push me into a rage and make me curse in front of you.”

“You'll mind your manners, Mr. Burton, thank you very much. I am only interested in what's best for you. Doesn't matter how much you think you can do. I can't allow it. I‘m sure Dr. Meyers wouldn't have released you if he'd known your circumstances.”

Inwardly, Sonny smiled at the nurse's gumption and lack of tolerance at his crankiness. He liked her but didn't let it show, didn't think it mattered anyway.

A familiar voice rang out from behind the nurse. Neither of them had detected the presence of another human being. “I can drive him home,
señora
.” It was Aldo, the middle-aged janitor who had visited with Sonny after he'd been shot. “If that is all right with
Señor
Burton and you? His house is on my way home.”

Aldo looked at the ground sheepishly. His eyes were bloodshot, like he lacked sleep; most likely he had worked a double or triple shift. His brown skin looked even more unhealthy than it had the first time Sonny had met him, and the wrinkles on his long face looked deeper and harder, if that were possible. Worry had cut into the man quickly. He'd aged ten years in a matter of weeks.

The nurse stared at Sonny with questioning blue eyes that flickered with relief. He could see the ocean in her eyes. So much so, he had to look away. “I don't want to put anyone out,” Sonny said.

“It would be my pleasure to drive you home,
Señor
Burton. You are a hero.”

Sonny shook his head, but said nothing. Heroes walked away from the battlefield in one piece, whole like his father, who had survived more battles and wars than any one man should have and lived to tell about it.

“I think that would be a fine idea, Albert,” the nurse said, reading the name tag embroidered on Aldo's work shirt.

“Aldo. His name is Aldo Hernandez,” Sonny interjected tersely.

“It does not matter what she calls me,
señor
,” Aldo said.

“Yes, it does.”

“I‘m sorry, I didn't mean any disrespect,” the nurse said.

Sonny lowered his head when he realized that he didn't know the nurse's name. He'd perused her body, allowed himself a fleeting moment of attraction, and chastised her for treating Aldo differently because he was a Mexican, when, in reality, she probably wasn't. He was sensitive about prejudice. Maybe more so than he should have been. “What's your name?” he asked in a softer tone than he had yet used when speaking to her.

“Betty. Betty Maxwell,” she snapped.

“I‘m sorry, Mrs. Maxwell,” Sonny said. “It's been a long day.”

“Miss. It's Miss Maxwell, if it's all the same to you. But you can call me Nurse Betty. Everybody does.”

Sonny continued staring at the floor. “I think it would be fine if Aldo drove me home. Just fine, Nurse Betty.”

“That's good, Mr. Burton, because you certainly weren't going to drive yourself.” Betty Maxwell turned to Aldo and, in impeccable Spanish, she said, “I am sorry to have offended you, Aldo. Could you please bring
Señor
Burton's car to the door?”

“He doesn't know which one it is,” Sonny said, with a smile, his Spanish as perfect as hers.

The road was bumpy, and Sonny was surprised by the pain he felt shooting through the arm that wasn't there. Doc Meyers had said it might happen from time to time. Phantom pain, he'd called it. But Sonny hadn't listened too closely when the explanation had come. He didn't think such a thing was possible.