Excerpt: Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart

Sam Roswell stops for dinner at The Dog Bowl Diner in his civvies, his department-issued sidearm at home. He chats up his waitress because eating alone in public makes him lonely, and he doesn’t have any friends in town yet. He watches the other people in the diner as he eats, feeling half cop on the lookout for mischief and half looking for someone to meet. There’s a young family with a couple of restless kids who can’t stay seated longer than a minute, an old husband and wife tucked into a two-person booth, three men and a woman side by side at the counter, and some teenagers hanging out. They’re all on the opposite side of the diner, far enough away that everybody’s within Sam’s view.

Two men wearing black knit masks over their faces come in, each of them carrying a gun.

The man in a long-sleeved navy blue t-shirt moves into the populated section of the diner and says, “Everybody take out your wallets, now!”

The man wearing a dark red t-shirt under his jacket goes up to the counter and points his gun at the first employee he sees. “Open the register! Open it!”

The blonde waitress with big hair hurries to the register positioned at the right end of the counter and tries to obey, hands twitching and eyes panicked. Her first attempt fails.

“Hurry up!” Red Tee yells, steel revolver gleaming in the white lights screwed into the ceiling.

The register drawer clicks and slides open, and the waitress starts to yank the stacks of bills out of their compartments, dropping them on the countertop.

“Put the money in a bag! Put it in a fucking bag!”

She scrambles for the cash with one hand and clutches it as she looks around for the plastic take-out bags hooked onto the counter’s interior. She finds them, tears one off, and sticks the money inside. Red Tee grabs it out of her hand and gives the bag to his accomplice, who shoves it at the family.

“Put your wallets in the fucking bag and pass it on,” Blue Tee says to the room.

One of the children starts to cry in soft whimpers.

A boy sitting at the table of teenagers bolts for the door, but Red Tee gets hold of the hood on his sweatshirt and pulls him back.

“Where the fuck are you going?” Red Tee shouts, wrapping his free arm around the boy’s neck and pressing his gun into the boy’s head. “Huh?”

One of the teen girls yelps in horror.

Sam stands up and makes for Red Tee, plucking his badge off his belt as he goes. His pulse is fast, and waves of adrenaline start to wash through him. He’s not thinking about what he’s doing any more than he does when he drives a car, his body drawn to the trouble like a piece of metal to magnet.

“Hey, hey,” he says, soft-spoken. He holds the badge in his hand before him, so everyone can see it. “Just calm down now. The kid’s not going anywhere. Send him back to his seat, and you and your pal can get out of here.”

“A cop, huh?” Red Tee says, arm still wrapped around the teenager’s neck and the gun unrelenting on his skull. He raises his voice. “We got us a fucking cop in here.”

Blue Tee glances over at Sam, still following the bag of money around his section of the diner as it changes hands.

“Where’s your gun, asshole?” Red Tee says to Sam.

“Let the boy go,” says Sam. “You got your money. You don’t have to hurt anyone.”

Red Tee stares at him through the eyehole in his mask, silent for a long beat, then shoves the teenager away from him. He points his gun at Sam’s chest. “Maybe I’ll kill you just to be on the safe side.”

“He don’t even have a fuckin’ gun,” says Blue Tee, the bag of money in his hand as he steps closer to the two other men. “Don’t be stupid, let’s just fucking go.”

Sam’s standing with his hands up in front of him, badge in the left and his right palm facing out.

Red Tee doesn’t budge, staring him down with the revolver.

“I said, let’s go,” Blue Tee says, raising his voice.

“Fuck this cop,” says Red Tee and cocks back the hammer on his revolver with his thumb.

BANG!

The right half of his skull blows apart in a spray of blood, bone, and brain, and he drops to the floor with his gun still in hand. A few of the women scream, and Sam flinches away and covers his head with his arms, then looks again at where Red Tee had been standing.

A tall man who Sam didn’t notice earlier comes down the path splitting the diner in half, leading to the bathrooms in the back, aiming a pistol in his right hand at Blue Tee. He’s lean and long-limbed, a wavy lock of dark hair hanging over his forehead, eyes gray and hard like stone.

“You motherfucker!” Blue Tee yells, looking at his dead accomplice bleeding on the tile and aiming his own gun at the stranger.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” the stranger says, his voice dark and slow like raw maple syrup. An accent that could be Texas or mid-South. “This cop here is going to call his buddies now. The sooner you get, better chance you have of not being found. Or I can kill you. Save them the trouble of chasing after you.”

Blue Tee looks at him, hesitating, the bag of money still clutched in his hand.

The stranger blinks at him, lazy and calm.

Blue Tee runs out of the diner.

Sam follows him as he hears the engine in a vehicle start, watches as the pick-up truck squeals out of the lot and down the road southbound. The red taillights glow and fade into the night.

He goes back inside, his nerves frayed. Somebody, a woman or a kid, is crying.

The stranger looks across the diner at Sam, unruffled, dark eyes slanted, and says, “What’s a sheriff’s deputy doing without his gun?”

Sam swallows and doesn’t answer. The truth would sound stupid.

The stranger looks over at the blonde waitress cowering behind the counter. “Better call 911,” he says.

She picks up the old landline phone attached to the wall near the kitchen doorway, like she needed someone to tell her what to do. When she starts talking to the emergency operator, her voice sounds like it’s been shredded through a grater, high-pitched and borderline hysterical.

The stranger makes for the door, stepping over Red Tee’s corpse in his cowboy boots like the dead man’s a puddle of spilt milk. He tucks his gun into the holster on the back of his waistband and passes Sam without another word or look.

Sam doesn’t think to stop him.

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