The next few hours were a blur for Carl. Between the police, firemen, investigators, and news reporters he did not know which way was up. Questions poured in from so many directions, he could not keep track of who he was talking to. Finally, at about 6 a.m. the last fire truck pulled away from what was left of his station. The morning sun was just starting to peek across the prairie, and hazy ribbons of light were casting a golden hue across the truck stop. To Carl, it looked like nothing less than a war zone. The business that he had worked and toiled his whole life to build was practically in ruins. As Carl surveyed the damage he pulled in a deep breath of cool morning air. The store front was still partially splattered with paint, his new diesel island was a smoking ruin, and his station manager Marcus was in the hospital burned from head to toe. Perhaps he was even dead by now.
Carl felt a wave of helplessness wash over him. He had never wanted any of this. For the first time since the whole mess had started, Carl felt as if he was about to snap. Tears welled in his eyes so heavily that he had to brush them away with his flannel shirt sleeve. He kept seeing Marcus’ burned face in his mind. What if it had been him? Had he stayed at the station that evening instead of coming home, he would have been the one in intensive care…not Marcus.
At that moment Carl felt compelled to do something that he had not done in years. Looking around to make sure he was alone, Carl sat down on a curb by the burned out pumps, bowed his head, and said a prayer. The words came to him slowly at first but the more he prayed, the more the words began to gush from his heart. First he prayed for Marcus, and then he prayed for the safety of Katie and the kids. Tears began to stream down his face as he squeezed his eyes tightly shut. “Dear God, if I am the one responsible for this mess, forgive me,” he said out loud. “If I am not, please give me the wisdom not to make it worse,” he concluded.
Carl looked up into the morning sun now blurred by his tears. All of a sudden he noticed a figure standing in front of him.
“Hey, are you Carl Lamonte?” the figure inquired.
Carl jumped up and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and relieved.
“That’s what they call me,” Carl responded clearing his throat. “How can I help you?”
As he spoke, his vision cleared. The man in front of him was wearing a dusty Stetson cowboy hat. He was a big fellow with a meticulously waxed grey mustache, and he had what looked like a Marlin 30-30 leaver action rifle across his shoulder. The sight of the gun threw Carl off for a moment, but the Cheshire cat smile on the man’s face threw him off even more.
“Well I’ll be damned!” the stranger exclaimed at the top of his voice as he reached out with his free hand.
Carl extended his hand and the man grabbed it tightly pumping it up and down in the air. As he shook Carl’s hand he looked over his shoulder to a pickup truck full of men.
“Hey boys, I told you this was him!” he yelled pumping Carl’s hand even harder.
Carl was confused, and still somewhat concerned about the rifle on the man’s shoulder.
“May I have the pleasure of knowing who is trying to break my arm?” Carl quipped.
“Oh hell,” the man exclaimed turning his attention back to Carl. “I’m sorry son, I just got carried away when I saw you sittin’ over here havin’ a conversation with the good Lord. My name is Billy T. Winslow, but all my friends call me Shorty.”
Carl caught his breath and managed a smile. “You look pretty tall to be named Shorty,” he replied not really knowing what else to say.
“Well, I didn’t say it was a good name!” the man replied with a chuckle.
“So what can I do for you Mr. Winslow?” Carl continued.
“Call me Shorty please,” Carl’s new acquaintance boomed. “Me and my boys are here for your little barbeque.”
Carl was confused. “Well the barbeque isn’t for another week and a half,” he noted.
“Yeah I know,” Shorty shot back. “We just figured we would get here before the rush.”
“The rush?” Carl asked somewhat amused.
“Yeah buddy,” Shorty responded without hesitation. “The way I see it, things are going to start filling up quick around here, and we wanted to be right up front when the fun starts….now where can we pitch a few tents?”
Carl paused, soaking in the conversation.
“Well I’m not so sure you and your boys want to stay here right now. Things have been pretty crazy lately.”
Shorty’s grin appeared once again as he slapped Carl on his shoulder.
“Well why the hell do you think we’re here?” Shorty chuckled. “We drove all the way from El Paso last night after we saw you on the news. Now, why don’t we just set our camp over by the access road across the street?”
Carl did not know what to say.
“So what is the gun for Shorty?” he asked.
Shorty dropped the gun off his shoulder and looked it over.
“Oh, this lil’ pea shooter? We just figured we would pass the time plinkin’ at tin cans and such waiting on the barbeque to start,” he explained.
Carl was feeling a bit overwhelmed. “So you drove all the way from El Paso just to come to my barbeque and plink at tin cans?” he pressed.
“You got it partner!” Shorty confirmed with another friendly slap on the shoulder. Carl looked back at the truck full of cowboy hats. “Well, the station is closed, so I am afraid you guys will be on your own,” he warned.
Shorty let out another chuckle. “Son, I’ve been pissin’ in prairie dog holes since I was two years old….Now you just go about your business and we will be just fine.”
Carl was at a loss for an argument. “Well that’s county land over there, so I can’t be responsible if the Sheriff comes out and runs you off, but until that happens you are welcome to use the station restrooms and showers around back.”
Shorty’s grin beamed even wider. “Well, that’s right neighborly of you son!” he exclaimed. “But I think we will be fine just as we come.” With that Shorty spun around on his boot heals and headed back for the pickup truck. After about three steps, he turned around again.
“I forgot one thing ole’ buddy,” Shorty hollered back.
“What is that?” Carl responded curiously.
Carl found himself confused once again. It was a feeling that he was getting used to. “Thanks for what?” Carl inquired.
Shorty walked back to where Carl was standing, his big smile now gone.
“Thank you for remindin’ us just who the hell we are,” Shorty replied looking Carl directly in his eyes. “Thank you for reminding us that we are Texans!”
With that, Shorty returned to his truck, hopped in, and drove his crew across the access road. Carl watched them for a few minutes as they unloaded tents, coolers, and more rifles. Before long they had set camp and were boiling what looked like a pot of coffee.
Carl went back inside his station. He needed to call the hospital to check on Marcus and then check in with Katie. After a few minutes he was able to reach the head nurse at the emergency room. She was polite but clearly busy. According to her, Marcus was alive but still in shock. They were treating his burns and other injuries but the jury was still out as to whether or not he would make it through the night. Carl then talked to Marcus’ wife Rosalinda, and assured her that he would do everything he could to find out who had done this to her husband. Rosalinda did not speak much English, but he could hear the overwhelming pain and sorrow in her voice. Marcus was in a bad way for sure. If he lived, he was going to have to go through months of painful skin grafts on his face and arms. According to the doctor, he may also have suffered severe brain damage from the beating he took. Carl hung up the phone, sat down in his desk chair, and rocked back rubbing his eyes. He could only imagine how much Marcus’ medical bills would be. Perhaps he would find a way to help. Maybe he could get back on the news and ask for donations. Carl closed his eyes, exhaled, and slipped into a sorely needed sleep.
Around noon, he was jolted awake by a banging on the quick store’s front door. He looked around the corner of his office door and saw Katie outside. Carl jumped up from his chair rubbing his face and unlocked the bolt.
“Hey sweetie,” Katie chirped as she kissed him on the cheek.
“Hey,” Carl replied still groggy.
“Well…I brought you some sandwiches for lunch, but from the looks of things outside, you aren’t going to need them,” she replied gesturing over her shoulder with her thumb. “It looks like dinner is already cooking!”
Carl figured that she was talking about Shorty’s group.
“Oh that’s just five or six cowboys from El Paso that came down to see the show,” he explained.
Katie gave him a weird look. “Five or six? You really didn’t do well in math did you?”
With that, Carl stepped out of the station and looked across the access road. In the few hours that he had been asleep, things had changed fairly significantly. Scanning the prairie Carl could count no fewer than about 30 tents. People were all over the place, fires were burning, music was playing, and it even appeared that one group had a horse shoe match going. As he watched, three more trucks pulled up and about 15 men in cowboy hats jumped out with bed rolls, rifles, and coolers.
“What did you do to get all these folks here?” Katie asked in astonishment.
Carl had to think a moment for the answer to come to him. “Well, I reckon I prayed,” he confessed under his breath. Katie did not bat an eye. “See what a little churching can do?’ she admonished. “Aren’t you glad I didn’t let you stay at home and watch the Cowboys every Sunday?”
Carl was lost for words. In just a little over four hours, the prairie had swelled from 5 cowboys to about 40. As he stood with Katie surveying the growing crowd, two young men crossed the access road with what looked like a big platter. As they came closer, he recognized them as two of Shorty’s crew.
“That’s me,” Carl responded.
“Uncle Shorty said for us to bring you some lunch,” one of the men said extending a foil covered tray.
Carl shook his head. “Well that’s not necessary…”
“Please tell your Uncle Shorty we are much obliged!” Katie cut in taking the tray.
The men smiled, tipped their hats, and headed back for their camp.
Carl gave Katie an irritated look. “Honey I don’t even know those fellah’s…”
Once again Katie cut him off. “Carl baby, I love you but sometimes I wonder what you are thinking. Look across the street. Just since we’ve been standing here another five truck loads of people have pulled in. I don’t claim to fully understand what is going on here, but one thing seems pretty clear.”
“What’s that?” Carl sighed.
“They are here for us, and we need to be thankful, “Katie admonished. “Now you be neighborly, because they may be the only friends we have in a few days.” Katie lifted the tin foil, pulled out a spare rib, and took a small bite. “Oh, this is tasty,” she exclaimed licking the tips of her fingers. “No one barbeques like a Texan!”
With each passing day, the crowd across from the station continued to grow. By the end of the week, Carl could count about 300 tents and twice as many people. Shorty had also proven to be a natural leader. Each morning he would send his boys out to meet with the new arrivals, get their names, and make a list of any weapons and ammunition they had brought with them. He also started separating the prairie into sections. The area by the access road and highway was reserved for cars and tents, while larger campers and RVs were sent to the rear. Carl had made his showers available and set up several hoses for water but, with his station in the condition it was, he had little else to offer. Friday afternoon, to Carl’s surprise, five flatbed trucks pulled up fully loaded with green portable toilets. A half a dozen men jumped out and, without even asking, started lining them up along the side of the street. As the last john was being lowered to the ground, an older man in overalls walked over to Carl and shook his hand.
“Hope you don’t mind a few out houses on the road,” he said gesturing over his shoulder.
Carl had been concerned about facilities for the growing crowd and was, in fact, grateful.
“Not at all, thank you very kindly,” he responded.
“I am happy to help,” the man continued. “I got a 60 day notice just like everyone else in this state, so I figured I would do my part to help out. I will send a truck by every day to clean them up.”
As word of the amassing crowd spread, businesses around the area started pouring out their support. Local donut shops brought pastries and coffee, restaurant owners showed up with trays of sandwiches, and a garbage removal company dropped off about twenty large dumpsters. A San Antonio radio station even donated a portable stage and PA system for Shorty (now the de facto camp boss) to make his morning announcements from. Carl had never in his life seen such an outpouring of community support, and as the crowds grew to well over a thousand people, the goods kept pouring in.
News trucks were also arriving in droves. Fox News, CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN had set up large media enclaves and were reporting live from the site daily. Their correspondents would stroll through the crowd, interview campers, and give live reports almost hourly. Carl was amazed as he listened to the interviews. It seemed as if Shorty had even handed out talking points. Without exception, everyone interviewed would simply state that they were there for the barbeque, and to show their support for Texas.
To Carl, the atmosphere almost seemed festive. Texas state flags and American flags flew from just about every tent, country music thumped endlessly through the air, and the popping of fire arms could be heard off in the distance as campers set up skeet shoots and target competitions. Folks were getting along, working together, and generally having a pretty damn good time. It was the most amazing and humbling thing that he had ever witnessed.
Since the fire, Lanum had arranged for a Sheriff’s car to be posted at Carl’s home 24/7, so Carl had been spending most of his evenings at the station. He did not want to involve his children in the madness, so he and Katie had agreed that they would stay at the ranch until things had died down. Carl set up a cot in his office at the quick store and spent most of his days giving interviews, talking to Shorty and other campers, and doing what he could to help out. He still had no idea how things were going to unfold, but when he looked out across the growing sea of tents and campers, it was clear that things had become much bigger than just him.
Late Tuesday afternoon Carl was sitting by his old RC Cola machine resting, when a group of CNN workers pulled up in a large truck and started unloading cameras, generators, lighting, and cables. The reporters that Carl been accustomed to seeing would usually have nothing more than a single shoulder camera and light, so all the activity piqued his interest. Within an hour, the crew had set up a string of cameras and lights up and down the access road. At about 6 p.m. a man in a headset appeared and motioned for the cameramen to start filming. It was at that very second that a line of large buses appeared in the distance. As they approached the station, Carl could tell that they were different. As they drove between the station and the camp, Carl could see that they had large images of Texas with red slashes through them painted on their sides. As the buses drove by a voice on a PA began to chant, “Texans are Traitors!”
Everything came to a complete halt across the prairie, and hundreds watched in silence as the buses drove past, not sure just what they were seeing. The buses pulled into the overnight lot of the station and before Carl could get to them, dozens of people started pouring out. They were holding anti-Texas signs, peace signs, and upside down American flags. Carl stopped and watched in shock as over two hundred angry protesters amassed on his property, chanting, shouting profanity, and pumping their fists in the air. Almost, as if rehearsed, they formed up in rows and marched out toward the access road right in front of the news cameras. Carl looked back across the street toward the camp and saw something that sent a cold chill down his spine; it was the shape of a thousand people moving en masse toward the street. Carl shivered; someone had set this up with the media and they were counting on a fight. How else would the CNN guys have known exactly when to arrive? As he watched the tide of people moving toward the protesters, he could see Shorty stepping onto the stage.
“Everybody calm down!” Shorty yelled into the microphone. “This is nothin’ but a trick to try and get us kicked outta here!” he continued. Some folks turned and started to listen, but hundreds still headed for the street. Shorty continued undaunted. “Lay one finger on those losers and this whole thing is over! If we do not hold the high ground we will lose this battle!”
Carl’s mind was racing, someone had to do something quick or there was going to be a full scale riot. All of a sudden he had an idea. He dashed into his office and grabbed a furled up Texas state flag that he kept for special occasions. Running outside, he crossed the street waving it over his head. “Grab your flags and line the road!” he yelled at the top of his voice. “Grab your flags!”
Shorty could see what Carl was doing, so he grabbed a Texas flag off of the stage and started waving it over his head as well. “Grab your flags!” he yelled into the microphone. “Let’s remind these folks just where they are!” Shorty’s sons came up to the stage and started waving flags as well. “Line the street with your flags!” Shorty’s voice boomed over and over from the PA.
As Carl stood on the street with his flag he could see the crowd start to reverse its advance. All of a sudden he saw flags coming down from tents, RVs, and pickup trucks all across the massive camp. By the hundreds, people started lining up next to Carl and cheering. In what seemed like just a few seconds hundreds of flags appeared up and down both sides of the street. Those without flags took off their shirts and waved them over their heads cheering wildly.
The protesters were clearly shaken, and about a quarter of them ran back to the safety of their buses. The rest however, started marching down the street screaming, cussing, and spitting at those who had lined up on the roadside.
As the protesters neared, Carl heard a man next to him singing God Bless America under his breath. Carl could not help but join in. “Stand beside her and guide her…” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. Almost simultaneously another 50 people joined in raising their voices in unison. Shorty heard the singing and joined in on the PA. Soon the song rang out on both sides of the road completely drowning out the shouts from the protesters.
“Keep singing!” Shorty bellowed into the microphone. “Show the world that no one messes with Texas!”
As Carl sang he felt tears welling up in his eyes for the second time in a week. This time however, it was because he was proud. Not only was he proud to be a Texan, he was proud to be an American. This was not a fight for Texas; it was a fight for the America that he had loved so dearly his entire life. He was fighting for the America that had allowed him to build a thriving truck stop from nothing but an old gas station with a rebuilt RC Cola machine. He was fighting for the country that had sent waves of Marines up the beach at Iwo Jima, put a man on the moon, invented baseball, and defeated the Soviet empire. Many on the news had referred to the crisis as the “New Civil War,” but in Carl’s mind it was a rescue operation.
At that moment, Carl was snapped out of his thoughts by a deafening cheer. He looked down the street toward the protesters. Apparently they had reconsidered their plan, and were in the process of making a hasty retreat to their buses. As they retreated, a cry rose up across the prairie.
The chant boomed like thunder across the open plains, and seemed to shake the very ground on which Carl was standing. He watched as the buses pulled back onto the road and drove through the crowd past rows of flags and raised cowboy hats. The noise was so deafening, Carl could not even hear the bus engines as they drove by. As the protesters disappeared toward the interstate, another cheer arose from the crowd. This time it was one of victory.
Deputy Motter took a sip from his coffee and cringed. It was cold and bitter, and so was he. This was the third night in a row that he had been assigned to sit out in front of the Lamonte ranch and make sure no one tried to vandalize it. This was what was known in the business as crap duty. He had listened to the radio intently as every Sheriff within a hundred miles had sped to the Fill & Fuel to stop a riot. He had then listened in amazement when the units arrived only to find a bunch of cowboys singing the national anthem and waving flags. The fact that he had not been there really pissed Motter off. It was just not fair that he had been given babysitting duty while the rest of the state was making world news.
Motter glanced toward the house and made his hourly report on the radio. “This is unit 23, all quiet at the Lamonte ranch,” he droned into the handset. Dropping the microphone back into its holder, Motter opened his car door and stepped out to stretch his legs. The evening was uncharacteristically cool for summer, and it made Motter want a warm cup of coffee even more. He picked up his binoculars and scanned the pastures around the ranch house. From his vantage, all appeared to be normal. Motter let out a sigh and looked at his watch. His relief would not be there for another 5 hours.
At that moment a twig snapped somewhere behind him. Deputy Motter turned around to find two eyes staring at him through a black stocking mask. Before he could reach for his gun, the cold steel of a crowbar came crashing down on his head sending him to the ground. Motter struggled to get back to his feet. The pain was unbearable, and he could feel blood running down his neck. He got to his knees and tried to reach for his gun again, but for some reason his hands were not working correctly. He never felt the second blow.