Laguna

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

   

     But none more mysterious or more powerful in effect than what had come to be memorialized in a local corrido, a ballad, called La Noche del Sal del Rey. The story was told of a family that held ten thousand acres of land on the Southern extent of the present day Magne holdings. Even though their land was nearly surrounded by Magne purchases, they refused Magne’s grandfather’s repeated demands to sell.

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

     Then, something extraordinary happened on Halloween Night, 1898, at the Hacienda Sal del Rey. It was a date well remembered, because it was also the exact day that John Magne III, the first one that is, was born. No one was sure exactly what, but a local curandera, a seer, said that an apparition of a girl child had appeared to her and said that the devil himself had come and so terrified the inhabitants of Sal del Rey that they were turned instantly to stone, frozen in their terror at the exact instant of their deaths.

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

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

     The Santander family who owned the hacienda and who lived in Monterrey, Mexico, some three hundred miles west, had more than suspected that Magne had been at the center of the mystery and didn’t at all believe in ghosts. They were sure Magne had murdered all the inhabitants of their hacienda and they were infuriated when Texas law enforcement officials refused to arrest him.

     One of their own lost was Maria Paredes Santander, only twenty-four at the time. Her seven-year-old daughter, Juanita, who, on the day before, had left for Monterrey to spend the holidays with the family, was devastated when she was told the news. It was a grudge inflamed by the family's hate for the Magnes that she would carry for the rest of her eighty-four years.

     

        Then, in the autumn of 1912, something extraordinary happened.

Chapter 1

     A Snowy Egret waded through the tidal pools hunting for stranded minnows. Easy pickings. In the blink of its eye, a swoosh, a squeal, a spray of blood and feathers, and the egret felt the Peregrine Falcon’s cold, stiletto-like talons tearing through its flesh.

    One moment predator, another moment prey, Octavio Paredes thought as he watched the falcon carry away the bird. He had never seen that before, a falcon taking an egret. Strange. He cast his fishing line where moments ago he had seen the water ripple, and considered the nature of justice. 

     His hands were the texture of well-tanned leather and his face marked with deep lines that came from a lifetime of squinting against the persistent Texas sun. A steady easterly breeze carried the scent of saltgrass as it swept across the barrier island and onto the long shallow bay called the Laguna Madre. A wind other than southeast made Octavio uneasy and he warily scanned the horizon for any hint of trouble. It was November 2nd, and the weather was about to change.

     Winter came to the Texas coast with a vengeance. Great blue northers, as the locals called them, charged in like an invading army, instantly turning warm peace and calm into torrential rains hurled by howling winds, punctuated by exploding thunder and blinding bolts of lightning.

The sun had just set and he felt oddly unsettled as he stared across the Laguna to the gray silhouette of the gangly legged water tower, which is all anyone can see of Port Mansfield from a distance. The falcon perched on a nearby channel marker, pulling strands of flesh with its hooked beak, watching Octavio as Octavio watched him.

     A century and a half ago, most of the land from where he sat in his second-hand fishing skiff to one hundred miles inland, belonged to his family. That was before the Anglos came. It was their land now, he told himself with a slight shrug, and anyway, it was a long time ago.

When it was dark, and no one could see where he was going, he would pull in his line and coax his old Evinrude to cough then purr its way across the Laguna to his favorite secret spot by the old rotted pilings of the dilapidated Magne Ranch landing, about four miles north. When he was a boy of fifteen some sixty years ago, he used to go with his father who worked as a vaquero on the Magne Ranch. They herded the cattle to the dock and loaded them on the barges. There must have been thousands of head in those days. The docks had been washed out in a hurricane a few years back and never repaired. There was no point. Cattle were not shipping out like that anymore. That was then.

     For now, he’d wait just a little longer until it was a bit darker. He would fish all Friday night as he often did. By the time he got back to the house late Saturday morning, Anajita would already be gone, out junk collecting with Ocky. He’d make himself some huevos rancheros, read the paper and take a nap until she came home in the early afternoon.

     When the sun set, the sky was washed with broad wild strokes of orange, red and purple against swatches of sky in blues and greens. It was so still that the only ripples were those that trailed behind Octavio’s skiff as it glided across the sky reflected in the Laguna. A full moon loomed just below the deep purple eastern horizon.

     At the same time, a mile west, Jason Grider, hands in the pockets of his khakis, leaned against a white-washed 4x4 column on the porch of the Port Office, staring out to the distant barrier island. His brother, Jack, would have said it was hard to tell Jason from the column, given that both were long and lanky and tended to stay in the same place. A perennial tan didn't fully hide the peaches and cream complexion that made him look younger than his forty-one years, an impression helped by his sandy colored hair that he kept short cropped, but not mowed.

     He could see a piece of the eastern horizon beginning to glow. In a moment the moon would breach the horizon and send its rays dancing on the water until it painted a golden path from the heavens to Port Mansfield, the kind angels might use on occasion. The air had gone dead still. It smelled like a wet dog, Jason thought, but one you cared about. He was lost in a dreamy gaze and time passed over him unnoticed, as it often did for the few souls who passed small and quiet lives in the sleepy backwaters of the southern Texas Gulf coast.

     Jason was startled by something sounding like a muffled pop. He instinctively turned to his left, northward, where a few sailboats were berthed in the marina. He wondered if it was a loose halyard slapping its metal mast. In a storm they sounded like off-key wind chimes, but there was no wind now. Then he raised his eyes to the northern horizon and out into what was now pitch blackness. He cocked his head and held his breath to be completely quiet.

     Nothing.

     Then, in the bubbles of a distant thunderhead he saw the flash of rose and yellow veins.

Jason was Sergeant of the Watch at the Port Mansfield Port Office police station and the Sergeant of the Watch was also the night janitor. He liked the night shift; it suited him. He could get the place cleaned up in an hour or less and have the night to listen to those wee hour radio talk shows, the ones with the psychics and people who’d been abducted by aliens: crazies, he called them.

     The norther would be there in a matter of hours, making another dull Friday night in Port Mansfield. The locals would be hunkered down for the storm passage and there would be no out of town visitors to stop by the office seeking directions. Another night of nothing. It wasn’t that Port Mansfield was hard to find. There were only two kinds of folks on the forty-mile road that ran from the interstate: those who sought its dead end on purpose and those who were lost. Sometimes a little of both.

     From spring to late summer sports fishermen would come from towns inland to try their luck in the shallow Laguna Madre, behind the protection of the long and narrow Padre Island. There were a few town people, and lately, some older folks were discovering the cheap land and quiet. These made enough trade for a small general store and a restaurant, and not much more.

Twenty-five years ago, there had been visions of a port for shipments of cattle and produce from the vast ranchlands that stretched inland for millions of acres. But like the post war National Geographic Magazines, with pictures of cowboys herding cattle and young lasses posing with giant grapefruit, those plans were finally stacked away and forgotten.

     Port Mansfield, without ever having any, had seen its better days. Jason liked that just fine.

But he'd had a bad feeling since August. Strangers were showing up more often, wearing suits and carrying briefcases. They weren't interested in the fishing, and they sure as hell weren't lost.

Maybe it was the change in the weather, the coming winter prying open the death grip of the merciless Texas summer, Jason wasn't sure, but something odd was going on and he didn't like it.

Chapter 2

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

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

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

     In his outer office, Patricia Wilson, his secretary of fifteen years, cradled the phone in the crook of her neck, wondering if she ought to disturb him with the call. For a moment she stared at his portrait across the room above the fireplace. Francie had commissioned it. How much, at sixty-three, John Magne looked like a maturing John Wayne, she thought. Both had a kind of rustic elegance. She was drawn to the piercing emerald eyes.

      “Mr. Magne?” the voice poured out of the intercom box.

     “Yes, Pat,” John Magne responded, swinging his chair around to the desk.

     “Congressman Monde on line two.”

     “Thanks, Pat, I’ll take it.” He pressed the button, “Lencho, good of you to return my call.”

     “I called as soon as I saw the message, John. Always good to talk to you. What can I do for you?”

     “Lencho, Gabriela and I want to take you and Mary to dinner next Monday night when we’re in D.C. Can you make it?”

     “Mario told me you were coming, John, and we’re all clear for Monday. Say around eight?”

     “Perfect, Lencho, we’ll pick you guys up at the house.”

     “Fine.”

     “See you then, bye,” John returned the receiver to the cradle and stared at it for a moment.

     “Pat,” he called out.

     “Yes, Mr. Magne,” she responded from the office doorway.

     “Pat, call Quinkaid’s and make reservations for four on Monday night at, say, nine. If they give you any trouble, ask for Benjamin and tell him it’s me. He’ll take care of you.”

     “Yes, sir,” she said, jotting on her note pad.

     “Oh, and Pat.…Send Mrs. Monde some of those long stemmed pink roses…She likes those…For, say, Friday. Got that?”

     “Yes, sir, flowers Friday, Quinkaid’s Monday, November 5th,” she said as she scurried out of the room.

     John Magne leaned back into his chair and swung it slowly around so he could see out of the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that framed a nearly endless vista of his ranch lands. His father had this scene laid out to replicate the savannahs of the Argentine property the family had acquired during the twenties. It was compensation from Presidente Albrego, who owed John’s grandfather a favor for the U.S.’s help taking down the Machado government and bringing him to power. It was the way the Magnes did business. They made the world to their image and liking.

     Stands of oaks, stretching long arms and gnarly fingers with whole handfuls of deep green leaves, cordoned the edge of the grassy plain. While most hunters settled for glass eyed stuffed heads staring from their perches on paneled walls, John Magne preferred the real and living thing. Before him grazed Nilgai, a few Zebras and even a pair of giraffes he had brought in from Africa. The view from his office could just as easily have been from a camp in the Congo as it could Argentina, yet it was Texas.

     On a knoll that rose barely above the coastal plain, the original ranch house, begun by his great grandfather as modest shelter for his family, had been added to and modified to meet practical needs.

     Then, Magne's grandfather built the new main house, or, as it came to be called, Casa Blanca, directly in front of the old one, bringing in architects from California and craftsmen from New England. What emerged was a grand mansion based upon Southwestern, Spanish, and Italian architectural styles. White-washed brick and plaster walls began at the ground and rose twelve steps to the entry level of the house where an arched arcade wrapped around the structure. The house then rose two more stories and was capped with a red tile roof. In the center of the front of Casa Blanca, a tower rose another two stories above the roof line. It was from this vantage the Magne men gathered on New Year's Eve to drink whisky and cast grand plans as they surveyed their world. It was the Kingdom of Magne, built by all means and passed down through the generations.

     The scale of the house made it the largest element of the landscape, easily dwarfing cowering oak and mesquite trees and thickets that were held at a distance from the outer perimeter of the grounds. Washingtonian palm trees stood tall around the perimeter of the house like sentinels. The mansion amazed and intimidated those locals who were fortunate enough to penetrate the nine miles into the ranch to ever see it.

     Above the massive fireplace in the library of the Main House, a huge carved black marble falcon was poised to pounce on its prey. Its talons grasped a long scroll inscribed with the Magne family motto: Porro, omni modo, “Forward, by all means.”

     “By all means.” It took that kind of persistence and sacrifice to build and hold this ranch of just under 1,000,000 acres on the land that once upon a time even God forgot, bounded by the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Mexico to the west and south and the Nueces River to the north. Farms in the U.S. averaged 500 acres. The Magne Ranch was bigger than Rhode Island. Texas may have joined the Union in 1845, but the Magnes always thought of their land as a separate country: independent and self-reliant.

     As he gazed across the stretching sea of grass, shadows of drifting clouds dappled the light in countless hues of yellow and gold. He was the fourth John Magne to rule over these lands. He rested his chin in hand, furrowed his brow and worried that he’d be the last.