Leo W. Banks' new modern Western novel: 'The Flying Z'

Editor’s note: Tucson writer Leo W. Banks is a longtime Arizona journalist who has written for the Arizona Daily Star, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Arizona Highways, Sports Illustrated and many other publications.

In 2017, Brash Books published his first novel, “Double Wide,” which won two Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America—for best first novel and best western contemporary novel. Publishers Weekly called his second novel, “Champagne Cowboys,” an “excellent sequel.” In a starred review, PW wrote: “The writing
flows easily, the dialogue is peppered with wry observations, the plot
tightly braids its seemingly disparate strands into a fascinating
pattern, and the characters zing with life. This intelligent,
pleasurable Western noir will have readers longing for more.”

His newest book, released on August 1, is “The Flying Z,” a modern-day Western that sets a rancher and a woman he rescues against the forces of a drug cartel smuggling dope across the Southern Arizona border. The book is a breezy read inspired by Banks’ love of classic pulp fiction.

The Tucson Sentinel presents the first chapter of “The Flying Z,”” alongside an essay about writing a novel from Banks himself.

Chapter 1

The rider picked through the tangle of mesquites, ducking and twisting to avoid the thorny branches. When he emerged from the thicket, he stopped on the dirt of Morales Road and studied the rock ridge to the south. By his calculation, the smugglers were ten minutes away, surely less if they hurried.

He looked west along the road at the woman walking toward him. He’d seen her earlier while scanning the hills with binoculars and rode hard to get closer, all the while thinking she’d recover her senses and turn back.

But she hadn’t, and he felt certain alarm.

Watching her, his breath quick in the high-desert cold, he said, “Whoever you are, ma’am, you have no idea what you’re walking into.”

The rider sat his horse and waited. He had big hands and a handsome face, although his jaw, slightly off-center and marred by a scar, brought the matter into dispute. It had clearly been broken. The skin around his eyes showed fine wrinkles fromtime spent in the sun horseback. He had three days of whiskers, and his eyes, a striking black, were often remarked upon for their intensity.

He had on a red snap-button shirt, a canvas range jacket with the collar up, and black Ramírez boots that had walked through mud and worse. His shaggy black hair hung beneath the brim of his beat-to-hell hat.

At that distance, only the woman’s cowboy boots stood out. The sun hit them and sparkled from some silver ornamentation. From that alone he knew she was not from the Arizona borderlands, for no woman born of that place would wear such boots.

He had seen women wearing similar varieties on his infrequent visits to the city, guessed them to be in style, and like most things of current fashion, considered them unworthy of his time. He knew, too, that no woman aware of the trouble that had come to that country would risk walking alone.

The land had always been home to rattlesnakes, but in recent years it had filled with men who acted like them.

Listening hard, the rider heard nothing and wasn’t surprised. The ridge would block the smugglers’ sounds even as they moved closer.

Morales Road went up and down, hid for a stretch, reemerged, tilted with the ground, and hid again. Beyond the road and for miles around, the tan hills rolled out, covered with brush and pancake cactus, one hill after another separated by deep draws that swallowed the ground, all the country looking hard and forbidding under the November sky.

The woman came into view again. Certain now that she wasn’t going to turn back, the rider could wait no more, and he couldn’t leave her. The Mexican border was two miles south. Having jumped the line, those mules were free. No churches or mothers in sight. Nothing to hold them back in a dangerous no-man’s-land.

The rider blew into his hands and spurred Lobo closer.

Now aware of the approaching clop-clop-clop, the woman hopped on her toes and waved. “I broke down!” she called and skipped to a trot. “Thank God you came along. My car’s stuck back there. Can you give me a push or something?”

“Right now we need to get you out of here and fast,” the rider said.

She pulled up short and gave him a confused look. “Excuse me?”

He reined his horse around and found her a most pleasing sight. She had a model’s face, fresh and shining with youthful good health. Her eyes were a rich green, the skin smooth with rose circles on the cheeks.Her long hair was a shiny chestnut color, an uncommon shade in that region. Her mouth was wide and full, her lips curling up at the corners. She wore a gray bolero jacket over a simple white shirt. She carried a shoulder bag with the image of Ralph Lauren’s polo player embossed on the side.

“There’s some men going to be topping that ridge any minute,” the rider said and pointed. “Best for us to be gone when they get here.”

“What men? What’re you talking about?”

“Ten of them in camos backpacking loads. Their boss has a rifle and wants more than anything to get his shipment through.”

“Rifle? Oh, you mean hunters.”

“Mules. Drug smugglers.”

“Drug—what? Like in the movies?”

“Like right here. No previews, no popcorn.”

She gazed up at the ridge with worried eyes.

He reached down. “Grab hold and jump on back.”

Her mouth took a stubborn bend. The rider noticed her boots. They were worse than he thought, a pale red, snakeskin,and he was right about the silver decoration. The sequin inlay began at the toes and wrapped around the sides. They probablycost $1,500 at a store in Santa Fe with “coyote” in the name.

Good for crossing the street to the next nightclub, not much for working stock. Even with the boots, she wasn’t taller than fivefoot three.

The rider said, “I don’t recommend standing here talking things over.” He leaned down and wiggled his fingers. “Let’s go.”

“Let’s go? With you?” The look on her face said she’d scarcely encountered an idea so disagreeable.

“Ma’am, it’s best you do what I say.”

“Ha! I don’t think so, mister.”

She stomped the dirt in protest and accompanied her performance with the last words in her vocabulary. Nothing the rider hadn’t heard before or barked out himself several times before breakfast. But he didn’t often run into women with such skill for the spoken word.

“Do you always cuss that way?”

She stared up at him. “Only when I need to.”

From the top of the ridge came a man’s voice, followed by others in quick succession, all in Spanish and in tones that spoke of serious business. The woman stiffened and threw her arms out in frustration.

“I don’t even know you. Where are we going?”

“My ranch is down the road.” He reached closer. “I’ll ride you clear of those men.”

The words soothed her, even though she balked at the idea of needing anyone’s protection. The voices on the ridge grew louder. She huffed in frustration as her mind raced through her options, which were exactly none.

“Dammit all.” She stuck her foot in the rider’s stirrup and grabbed his wrist. She had a strong grip, and even with that bag on her shoulder she looped her leg over Lobo’s back with ease.She sat as far back as she could without sliding off the hind end.

“Scooch up and put your arms around my waist,” the rider said.

“I will not.”

“Do it or you’ll fall off.”

“For the love of God.”

She muttered foul oaths as she wrapped her arms around his middle. The rider spurred and Lobo lurched, and together they galloped down Morales Road.