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icebox, with oak doors and brass handles, stood in the corner; a bladed fan turned lazily overhead. I stood by the open window and looked at Wilbur Pickett dropping a shaved and beveled fence post into a hole.

'Last year I inherited half a city block in downtown Houston,' Earl said to me, smiling, a glass of iced tea in his hand. He was a handsome man, at ease in his corduroys and soft burnt-orange shirt, his fine brown hair combed like a little boy's across his forehead. There was nothing directly aggressive about Earl, but his conversation always had to do with himself, or what he owned, or the steelhead fishing trips he took to Idaho or up on the St. Lawrence River. If he had any interest in anyone outside his own frame of reference, he gave no sign of it.

'But it's my worst nightmare,' he went on. 'A failed savings and loan had the lease on the site. The government seized the savings and loan, and I can't do anything with the property. The government doesn't pay rent on seized properties and at the same time I have a six-figure tax obligation on the land. Can you believe that?'

'This has something to do with me?' I asked.

'It might,' he replied.

'Not interested,' I said.

He winked and squeezed my forearm with two fingers. 'Let's eat some lunch,' he said.

Then he followed my gaze out to the horse lot where Wilbur was working.

'You know Wilbur?' he said.

'I've bought horses from him.'

'We'll invite him in.'

'You don't need to do that, Earl,' I said.

'I like him.' He cut his head philosophically. 'Sometimes I wish I could trade places with a guy like that,' he said.

I was soon to relearn an old lesson about the few very rich people I had known. Their cruelty was seldom deliberate, but its effect was more injurious than if it were the result of a calculated act, primarily because the victim was made to understand how insignificant his life really was.

An elderly black man, whose name was John, went out to the horse lot to get Wilbur, who looked uncertainly at the house a moment, then washed his hands and forearms and face with a garden hose and came in through the kitchen. He pulled up one of the cushioned redwood chairs to the table and nodded politely while he was introduced, his shirtfront plastered against his chest, his neck cuffed with fresh sunburn.

'Y'all pardon my appearance,' he said.

'Don't worry about that. Eat up,' Earl said.

'It looks mighty good, I'll tell you that,' Wilbur said.

But Earl was not listening now. 'I want to show y'all a real piece of history,' Earl said to the others, and opened a blue velvet box, inside of which was a huge brass-cased vest watch with a thick, square-link chain. 'This was taken off a Mexican prisoner at the battle of San Jacinto in 1836. The story is the Mexican looted it off a dead Texan at the Alamo. I have a feeling this was one day he wished he'd left it at home.'

The men at the table laughed.

Earl opened the hinged casing on each side of the watch and held it up by the chain. The watch twisted in a circle, like an impaired butterfly, a refracted, oily light wobbling on the yellowed face and Roman numerals.

'That come from the Alamo?' Wilbur said.

'You ever see one like it?' Earl said.

'No, sir. But my ancestor is supposed to have fought at San Jacinto. That's the good part of the story. The bad part is the family says he stole horses and sold them to both sides,' Wilbur said.

But no one laughed, and Wilbur blinked and looked at a spot on the wall.

'John, would you bring a second glass for everyone so we can have some wine?' Earl said to the elderly black man.

'Yes, sir, right away,' John replied.

'Y'all have to come up on the Gallatin in Montana,' Earl said. 'We catch five-pound rainbow right out the front door.'

Wilbur had picked up the watch from the velvet case and was looking at the calligraphy incised on the case. Without missing a beat in his description of Montana trout fishing, Earl reached out and gingerly lifted the watch by its chain out of Wilbur's hand and replaced it in the box and closed the lid.

Wilbur's face was like a pink lightbulb.

I finished eating and turned to Peggy Jean.

'I have to get back to the office. It was surely a fine lunch,' I said.

'Yeah, we'll talk more later about that real estate problem I mentioned,' Earl said.

'I don't think so,' I replied.

'You'll see,' Earl said, and winked again. 'Anyway, I want y'all to see the alligator I dumped in my pond,' he said to the others. Then he turned to Wilbur and said, 'You don't need to finish that fence today. Just help John clean up here and we'll call it square.'

Earl and his guests went out the door and strolled through a peach orchard that was white with bloom. Wilbur stood for a long time by the plank table, his face empty, his leather work gloves sticking from his back pocket.

'You go on and finish what you were doing out there. John and I will take care of things here,' Peggy Jean said.

'No, ma'am, I don't mind doing it. I'm always glad to hep out,' Wilbur said, and began stacking dirty plates one on top of another.

I walked out to my car, into the bright, cool air and the smell of flowers and horses in the fields, and decided I couldn't afford any more lunches with Earl Deitrich.

But the lunch and its aftermath were not over. At four that afternoon Earl called me at my office on the town square.

'Have you seen that sonofabitch?' he said.

'Pardon?' I said.

'Wilbur Pickett. I put that watch on my office desk. When Peggy Jean's back was turned, he went in after it.'

'Wilbur? That's hard to believe.'

'Believe this. He didn't take just the watch. My safe door was open. He robbed me of three hundred thousand dollars in bearer bonds.'

2

Temple Carrol was a private investigator who lived down the road from me with her invalid father and did investigations for me during discovery. Her youthful looks and baby fat and the way she sometimes chewed gum and piled her chestnut hair on top of her head while you were talking to her were deceptive. She had been a patrolwoman in Dallas, a sheriffs deputy in Fort Bend County, and a gunbull in Angola Penitentiary over in Louisiana. People who got in her face did so only once.

I stood at the second-story window of my law office and looked across the square at the sandstone courthouse. High above the oak trees that shaded the lawn were the grilled and barred windows of the jail, where Wilbur Pickett had remained since his arrest last night.

Temple sat in a swayback deerhide chair by my desk, talking about East Los Angeles or San Antonio gang- bangers. Her face and chest were slatted with shadows from the window blinds.

'Are you listening?' she said.

'Sure. The Purple Hearts.'

'Right. They were in East L.A. in the sixties. Now they're in San Antone. Their warlord is this kid Cholo Ramirez, your genuine Latino Cro-Magnon. He skipped his own plea-agreement hearing. All he had to do was be there and he would have walked. I picked him up for the bondsman behind a crack house in Austin and hooked him to the D-ring on my back floor, and he started telling me he was mobbed-up and he could rat out some greaseballs

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