Strong from the Heart

Jon Land

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Strong from the Heart, by Jon Land. When all the residents of a small Texas town die suddenly, Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong is surprised to learn that this tragic case is connected to the near-death of her outlaw boyfriend's son, due to an opioid overdose. But these cases stretch beyond her wildest imaginations. Is she ready to take on a vast and terrible conspiracy?

Southwest Texas

“There is a house in New Orleans they call the rising sun.”

As the famed song played in the single bud still wedged inside an ear, Tom Santiago found himself baking beneath a sun that had risen hours ago, long before his postal rounds brought him to the town of Camino Pass. The mailbag was still slung over his shoulder, a trail of circulars, bills, and typical junk mail left in his three-mile wake across the desert. His other earbud fluttered by his side, but Santiago noticed that no more than he noticed that the wind had blown his cap off a mile back, exposing his nearly baldpate to the blistering sun.

His scalp was already scorched red, but neither the pain nor the burn registered with him one bit. He walked purposefully, even though no part of his assigned route awaited him and only bobcats, mule deer, and coyotes were anywhere about to claim the mail he was toting.

“And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy and God I know I’m one.”

Santiago listened to classic rock through the duration of his route, able to time his delivery schedule by how many songs he’d covered. He could cover an entire neighborhood in the length of one of Bob Dylan’s ballads and a whole street in the time it took to listen to almost any pair of Beatles songs that ranked among his favorites.

Today, though, he didn’t register the song playing in one of his ears, or anything else. He walked in an absurdly straight line, as if the desert flora he passed lined his normal route, not noticing the Homeland Security drone overhead. Homeland maintained a fleet of them in the area of the Texas–Mexico border to watch for immigrants making their way north after illegally crossing the border. But the dispatcher who ra- dioed the nearest patrol vehicle currently coming up on Tom Santiago from behind never had to deal with a wayward mailman before.

The Humvee with the Homeland Security logo stenciled on both sides came around Santiago and banked to the side to cut him off, only to have him skirt the vehicle and continue on as if it were a natural obstacle. So officers Jim Ochoa and Darnell Reavis leaped down from their air-conditioned cab and caught up with the dazed, barely blinking mailman after a brief chase.

“Hey, buddy, what’s wrong?” Ochoa said, snapping his fingers in front of Santiago’s face, positioned so Santiago could not resume his march through the desert. “You lost or something?”

When this produced no response, Darnell Reavis plucked some mail from the top of Santiago’s bag.

“Isn’t that a crime or something?” Ochoa asked him.

“I don’t think this drunk sack of shit is in shape to care.”

“You think he’s drunk?”

Now it was Reavis who snapped his fingers before the mailman. “Or stoned. What else?”

Ochoa regarded some of the mail Reavis had handed him. “Looks like he left a whole bunch of mail to Camino Pass undelivered.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Small town; no more than three hundred residents,” Ochoa recalled. “Maybe one of them can tell us what happened to this guy. Hey, what’s that song he’s listening to?” Reavis wondered, easing the stray bud into his ear to find out.

“Well, I got one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train, I’m going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain.”

Both Ochoa and Reavis felt something strange as the town of Camino Pass came into view. Though neither would admit it, both were of a mind not to continue and to call in the highway patrol instead, especially when Tom Santiago’s eyes bulged at sight of the town and he began thrashing against the bonds of his shoulder harness.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!”

Santiago finally stopped, with his eyes frozen open on Camino Pass, which was growing in shape before them. The perspiration that had soaked through his blue postal uniform was now gluing him to the Humvee’s leatherlike upholstery.

“What do you want to do?” Reavis asked Ochoa.

“Let’s see what we can see,” his partner replied, even though that wasn’t what he wanted to do at all.

They passed by the homes dotting the town’s outskirts and contin- ued toward its small commercial center, which was populated by stores that had been around since before either man had been born, some of them closed.

“Hey,” Reavis said, his attention drawn to the right, “there’s an open door over there. A restaurant, I think.”

“Or a bar,” from Ochoa. “That would explain things.”

“Want to check it out?”

“I’m thinking one of us should stay with the mailman.”

Ochoa threw open his door. “He’s not going anywhere. Come on.”

Tom Santiago’s blank stare followed the men passing through the open door. Little more than the length of a breath passed before they stum- bled back outside, both nearly falling in their desperate rush back to the vehicle.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” the mailman repeated, over and over again on an infinite loop, as Ochoa screeched the Humvee around and raced from the town with the accelerator floored the whole way.

Reavis grabbed the mic from its stand. “Central, this is Rover Six!

Central, come in!”

“This is Central, Rover Six.”

“Central, we’ve got a potential level one event in the town of Camino Pass. Send . . .”

“Rover Six, this is Central,” the Homeland Security dispatcher said, when Reavis went quiet after using terminology reserved only for the most serious of catastrophes. “Rover Six, we read you. Please continue.”

Reavis swallowed hard. “Send . . . everyone.”



Born in Tennessee, Hays arrived in San Antonio in 1837, shortly after Texas won its independence from Mexico. By 1841, at the tender age of 23, he was a Ranger captain. A fearless fighter and skilled leader, Hays won his fame defending Texans from raids and attacks by both Native American (Comanche) groups and Mexican bandits. More than any other man, he would come to symbolize the Rangers of the Texas Republic era. During the Mexican War (1846–48), Hays’ Rangers scouted, defended U.S. supply and com- munication lines from attacks by Mexican guerrillas and fought alongside regular U.S. army troops, earning a national reputation for their bravery. After the war, Hays went further west to Cali- fornia, where he made his name in politics, real estate and ranching and helped found the city of Oakland.

—Sarah Pruitt, “8 Famous Texas Rangers,” History.com


San Antonio, Texas

Caitlin Strong pushed her way through the gaggle of reporters and bystanders clustered before the barricade set up just inside the lobby of the Canyon Ridge Elementary School building.

“Look,” she heard somebody say, “the Texas Rangers are here!”

She focused her attention on the six men wearing black camo pants and Windbreakers labeled “ICE” in big letters on the back who were glaring at her from the entrance of the school that they had clearly been prevented from entering. She pictured several more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stationed at additional exits in case their quarries tried to make a run for it.

“We didn’t call the Rangers,” snarled a bald man. The name tag he was required to wear read “Orleans.”

“No, sir,” Caitlin told him, “that would’ve been the school principal.

She told dispatch you’d come here to collect some of her students.”

Caitlin let her gaze drift to a windowless black truck that looked like a reconfigured SWAT transport vehicle.

“Just following orders, Ranger. Doing our job, just like you.”

“My job is to keep the peace, sir.”

“Ours too, so I’m going to assume you’re going to assist our efforts, given that we’re on the same side here.”

“What side would that be?”

Orleans snarled again, seeming to pump air into a head Caitlin figured might have been confused for a basketball. “United States government, ma’am.”

“I work for Texas, sir, and the principal told me all the kids you came for were born on Lone Star soil.”

“That’s for a court to decide.”

“Maybe. And you’re right, the both of us are here because we’ve got a job to do, and I respect that, sir, I truly do. My problem is it’s never right, in my mind, for adults to involve children in somebody else’s mess.”

Canyon Ridge Elementary, located on Stone Oak Parkway, was part of San Antonio’s North East Independent School District and featured a comfortable mix of Caucasian and Hispanic students, in keeping with the city’s general demographics. The building featured a rounded arch entry, where Caitlin could see any number of faces, both child and adult, pressed against the glass. She also glimpsed a heavy chain looped through the double doors to prevent entry, although numerous chairs, boxes, and what looked like an overturned cafeteria table had been piled into place as well. Caitlin pictured similar chains and barricades barring entry at any of the other doors as well, the eyes of both children and adults alike gaping with hope at her arrival through the glass.

“As a Texas Ranger,” Orleans responded finally, “you enjoy a degree of discretion I don’t have. I wish I did, but I don’t. And as long as I don’t, I’ve got orders to follow, and that’s where my discretion begins and ends.”

“Where are you from, sir?”

“Not around here, that’s for sure. Does it matter?”

“That ICE is about to take six U.S. citizens, all under the age of ten, into custody matters a lot,” Caitlin told him. “Some might even call it kidnapping.”

“Did you really just say that?”

“Like I said, I’m only trying to keep the peace. Exercise that discretion you mentioned.”

“It’s not your jurisdiction.”

“San Antonio was still part of Texas, last time I checked.”

Orleans’s spine stiffened, making him look taller. “Not today, as far as you’re concerned. You don’t want to push this any farther than you already have, Ranger, believe me.”

“It’s about the law, sir—you just said that too. See, the Texas Rangers maintain no intergovernmental service agreement with ICE; neither does the city of San Antonio. And, according to the city’s detainer agreement, a local police officer has to be present whenever you’re staging a raid. And I don’t currently see an officer on-site.”

“That’s because this isn’t a raid.” “What would you call it then?”

Orleans’s face was getting red, taking on the look of sunbaked skin. “There’s a local inside the building now.”

“Right. The school resource officer. What was his name again?”

Orleans worked his mouth around, as if he were chewing the inside of his cheeks.

Caitlin cast her gaze toward the pair of unmarked black Humvees that must have brought the ICE officials here. “You got assault rifles stored in those trucks, sir?”

“Never know when you might need them.”

“Sure, against fourth graders wielding spitballs. Report I got said those and the fifth graders helped barricade the doors.”

“So arrest them and let us do our jobs,” Orleans sneered, his shoulders seeming to widen within the bonds of his flak jacket.

“Be glad to, once you produce the official paperwork that brought you this far.”

“We can give you the names of the students we’re here to detain, Ranger.”

“What about warrants, court orders, something that passes for official?”

Orleans shook his head. “Not necessary.”

“It is for me.” Caitlin took a step closer to him, watching his gaze dip to the SIG Sauer nine-millimeter pistol holstered to her belt.

“Don’t make me the bad guy here, Ranger. I’m doing my job, just like you. You may not like it, all these protesters might not like it, but I don’t suppose they’d disobey the orders of their superiors any more than I can.” “I know you don’t make the rules, sir, and I respect that, to the point where I have a suggestion: Why don’t you stand down and give me a chance

to fetch the kids you’re after from inside before somebody gets hurt?”

A skeptical Orleans nodded stiffly. “Sounds like you’ve come to your senses, Ranger.”

“Never lost them, sir. You’re right about orders, and mine were to defuse the situation through whatever means necessary. That’s what I’m trying to do here. The lawyers can sort things out from that point.” Orleans hedged a bit. “I didn’t figure something like this fell under

Ranger domain.”

“This is Texas, sir. Everything falls under our domain. In this case, we can make that work to your advantage.”

Orleans nodded, his expression dour. “The doors were already chained and barricaded when we got here, Ranger. That means somebody tipped the school off we were coming, even fed them the names of the kids we were coming to pick up.”

“It wasn’t the Rangers,” Caitlin assured him.

“No, but somebody in the Department of Public Safety must’ve been behind the leak, after we informed them of our intentions as a courtesy.” “That’s a separate issue you need to take up with DPS, sir. For now, how about we dial things back a few notches so the two of us can just do our jobs?”

“That sounds good to me, Ranger. The United States government thanks you for your support.”

Caitlin stopped halfway to the school entrance, beneath the curved archway, and looked back. “Don’t confuse what I’m doing with support, Agent Orleans. When t hings go from bad to worse, blood often gets spilled. What do you say we do our best to keep the street dry today?”


From Strong from the Heart by Jon Land. Used with the permission of the publisher, Forge. Copyright © 2020 by Jon Land.

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