Wilbur Pickett lived out on the hardpan in a small house built of green lumber with cheesecloth curtains blowing in the windows and zinnias planted in tin cans on the gallery. It was treeless, dry land, with grass fires in j the summer that sometimes climbed into the blackjack on the hills and covered the late sun with ash. But Wilbur had a windmill and grew vegetables and kept chickens behind his house and had planted mimosas by his j small three-stall barn and irrigated a pasture for his Appaloosa and two palominos.

I had heard that Wilbur had married an Indian woman from the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, but I had never met her. She came to the door in a pair of jeans, brown sandals, and a denim shirt with tiny flowers stitched on the pockets. Her face was narrow, the nose slightly flat, her hair fastened in a ponytail that hung I over one shoulder. But it was her eyes that transfixed you. They had no pupils and were the color of blue ink flecked with milk.

I told her Wilbur was in the county jail and would not be home until his bail was set. I stood in the center of the living room and read his penciled letter to her.

''Dear Kippy Jo, Earl Deitrich is a damn liar and I didn't take no bonds from his safe. Ask Mrs. Titus to carry you down to the IGA to stock up on groceries. Charge the groceries if you can, but if you can't there is a one- hundred-dollar bill under the paper liner in my sock drawer. Don't fret over this little bump in the road. I have lived here all my life. People know me and ain't going to believe the likes of Earl Deitrich.

''Keep all the mail in a safe spot. The pipeline deal in Venezuela is about to come through any day. Or else the gold deal up in B.C., which is just as good although a lot colder. Me and you are going to make it happen, hon. That's a Wilbur T. Pickett guarantee.

''When this is over I aim to stick Earl Deitrich's head in a toilet bowl.

''Your husband, Wilbur.''

'You're his lawyer?' she asked.

'No, ma'am, I'm afraid not,' I replied.

She seemed to look at a thought, or a question, inside her head.

'I'll get you some coffee. It's already made,' she said.

Before I could answer, she walked into the kitchen and picked up a blue, white-freckled coffeepot off the stove with a hot pad and poured into a cup, one fingertip inset just below the cup's rim. She went to the cabinet and brought a sugar bowl and spoon to the table and sat down with me, her eyes fixed on my face as though she could see.

'This man Deitrich, he's got millions of dollars. Why's he doing this to Wilbur?' she said.

'He says Wilbur stole his bonds,' I replied.

'If you're my husband's friend, you know he didn't do it.'

'He shouldn't have taken the watch.'

Her face darkened and her sightless eyes remained fixed on mine, as though she had transferred an image of me from the external world to one inside her head that she could examine, an image that bothered her. Unconsciously I wiped my palm on my trouser leg.

'Money and people are a bad combination, Ms. Pickett. I'm never surprised at what people will do for it. I'm not necessarily talking about your husband,' I said. Outside, the windmill was pumping water into a corrugated metal tank that had overflowed on the ground.

The wind puffed the screen door open. Her head turned toward the sound, then back at me. 'How much is it for a lawyer?' she asked.

'In a case like this, you'll probably need a few thousand. Sometimes you can pay it out.'

She nodded again, then she said, 'Ms. Titus, the neighbor he mentioned in the letter, is down sick. Can you drop me off at the IGA? I can get somebody to bring me back.'

'Don't y'all have some family hereabouts?'

'His mother was the last one. She died a couple of months back.'

I could hear the horses nickering out in the pasture, the windmill shifting in the breeze, the blades ginning furiously.

'Tell you what, Ms. Pickett. I'll carry you down to the grocery and wait for you, then I'll go back up to the jail and talk to Wilbur again.'

Her face showed no expression.

'He thinks growing up here means people will take his word over a rich man's. That's why he loses out in all his business deals. That's just Wilbur. But this time it's different, isn't it?' she said.

'Well, you never know,' I lied, then waited for her out by my Avalon.

Dust devils were blowing out of the hills in the distance and the wind was hot and dry and thick with grasshoppers.

I lived by myself in a three-story purple-brick Victorian home in the west end of the county. It had a wide, screened-in gallery and a veranda on the second floor, and the front and back yards were framed by poplar trees and blooming myrtle and the flower beds planted with hydrangeas and yellow and red roses. I parked the Avalon in back and fixed a chicken sandwich and plate of stuffed eggs and potato salad and a glass of iced tea for lunch and ate it at the kitchen table.

The interior of the house was oak and mahogany, and the wind seemed to fill every room with the presence of all my ancestors who had lived there. From my window I could see my barn and horse lot and my Morgan named Beau rolling on his side in the pasture, the windmill ginning on the far side of the barn roof, the fields of melons, corn, strawberries, cantaloupes, beans, and tomatoes that a neighbor farmed on shares, and a two-acre tank, or lake, that the state had stocked with bream and big-mouth bass.

At the far end of my property was a stand of hardwoods, then the bluffs over the river, which was slate green in late summer and roiling and full of mud and cottonwood bloom in the spring.

The sun went behind the clouds and the wind was cool inside the house, as though it were being drawn through the windows by a huge attic fan. But I could not concentrate on the fine day or the fact that where I lived had always been for me the best place on earth. Instead I kept thinking of Wilbur Pickett and the uncomfortable reality that I had never come to terms with my feelings for Peggy Jean Murphy, who was another man's wife now, or with the memory of what it was like to feel her hand slip down the small of my back, her thighs cradling my hips, while I came inside a woman for the first time and the fecund odor of damp earth and bruised grass and wildflowers rose around us in a green envelope that for a moment seemed to hold together the vanity of my passion and her unrequited love for a dead soldier.

I picked up the phone and called Marvin Pomroy at the prosecutor's office.

'I'm representing Wilbur Pickett,' I said.

'That's funny. I just talked to him. He said you told him to drop dead,' Marvin said.

'Must have been a bad echo in the cellhouse.'

'Let me warn you beforehand, Billy Bob. Earl Deitrich wants Wilbur's head on a pike.'

'Really? Say, I had a strange-looking fellow named Skyler Doolittle in my office this morning. He said something about doing time and burning down a church.'

'He was pestering me, too. You don't remember him?' Marvin said.


'He got drunk and plowed into a church bus outside Goliad. The bus burned. Four or five kids didn't make it out,' he said.

'Wilbur's wife is blind and by herself. Let Wilbur go on recognizance.'

'We're talking about a three-hundred-thousand theft,' Marvin said.

'According to Earl Deitrich. Has anyone ever seen those bonds?'

'Yeah, his wife. Is she lying, too?' When I didn't answer, he said, 'You still there?'

'I'm going up to see Wilbur now. I don't want anybody questioning him unless I'm there.'

'You ought to take a nap, get more rest. Your moods… Never mind. Have a good day,' he said, and hung up.

That night the phone rang during a terrible electric storm. The rain was beating against the windows, and the yard was flooded and quivering with lightning and the barn doors crashed back and forth against the jamb.

'That young man, Pickett, is he still in jail?' the voice said.

'Who is this?'

'I think perhaps a degree of wrong is being done here.'

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