Chickens clucked and scattered as Jeb and Mrs. Thomas rode into the yard. "Joleen," Mrs. Thomas called, "it's me, Dessie."
The house was a small frame that looked to have once been painted white, but now, in the dusk of early evening, was more a dingy gray. Through a thin curtain, Jeb could see a yellow blot of light from a coal oil lamp. A wisp of smoke curled from a pipe that rose out of the roof.
"Come on out. I got us a fella here you can tell your story to. He's from the court, and he can write down words just as fast as you can say 'em."
Jeb saw movement through the window, then the front door opened, and a woman stepped onto the porch.
"There you are," Mrs. Thomas said. "Look here who I brung." She reached over and gave Jeb a pat on the shoulder as though he was a prize head of livestock. "He writes down the trials, and he's come to write down your story about what happened to Lenny."
The woman gave Jeb and the machine he straddled a curious look. "You really from the courts?" she asked.
"That's right, ma'am," Jeb said as he swung his right leg over the rear wheel and leaned the cycle against the porch rail. "Name's Jeb Blake," he said, touching the brim of his hat.
It was impossible to tell exactly how old she was. She had a girl's small, thin-boned frame, but her face appeared worn. Two deep lines set her mouth off in parentheses. Strands of hair—a dull blond—had pulled loose from a bun at the back of her head and hung limply about her shoulders. When she came out to meet Jeb and Mrs. Thomas, she had been drying her hands on a dish towel. Now she held the towel close in front of her, twisting its ends first one way, then the other. "I just got done eatin'," she said, and her voice was fragile, the way a sparrow might sound if it could speak, "but there's a bit left if you're hungry."
"Why, yes, ma'am, that'd be nice."
"Starved," Mrs. Thomas said, rubbing her ample middle.
"Come on in, then," said Joleen.
Jeb and Mrs. Thomas followed her into the house. It was a two-room, sparsely furnished place. There was a table with four straight-backed chairs next to a wood-burning cook stove. On the far side of the room was an old Ben Franklin pot-belly. In front of that were two cushioned arm chairs that looked to be only a little more comfortable than the chairs around the table. A door led into what Jeb assumed to be the bedroom.
"It ain't much," Joleen said, referring to the food. "Just some biscuits and bacon, but there's sweet corn from the garden. She opened the fire box on the stove, stirred the embers with a poker, then tossed in two small sticks of wood.
Jeb and Mrs. Thomas sat at the table. The old woman shoved the Colt back into the flour sack, but she made sure Jeb saw her place the sack on the floor close by. She gave him a look that he read as saying he'd better not try anything funny.
"How's Bobby Joe?" Joleen asked as she shucked four ears of corn and placed them into a pot of water.
"Dumber than ever," his mother said matter-of-factly, "if you can believe it."
"He's still telling them he's the one who killed Lenny, isn't he?"
"He's tryin' his best."
"There's going to be a trial," Jeb said. "The judge is going to make the prosecutor prove his case to a jury."
"I reckon that won't be too hard," said Joleen, "if Bobby Joe gets up on the witness stand and says he's the one who done it."
"If you know something that could clear him, Mrs. Lukather," Jeb said, "then you need to go to town and tell the county attorney. Maybe there wouldn't even have to be a trial."
"I reckon I know somethin' that'd clear him, all right," Joleen said in a near whisper. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and Jeb saw how long and pretty her fingers were.
"Then you gotta tell," snapped Mrs. Thomas. "They're gonna hang the boy if you don't. What is it?"
Joleen took two plates from the cupboard and placed a biscuit and a couple of strips of bacon on each one. As she checked the pot of corn to see if the water was boiling, she said, "It's me. I killed Lenny myself."
After they had eaten, Mrs. Thomas said, "I reckon I don't need to be stayin' for this." First she looked at Joleen and then she looked at Jeb. "As long as you're talkin' and you're writin'."
"I'll take it all down, Mrs. Thomas," Jeb said, "and see that it's delivered."
"I have your word on that, Jebediah?" she asked.
"Yes'm, you do."
She stared at him a moment, then with a broad smile she said, "Thank ya, son. I 'preciate it."
Jeb tried his best to give her a dirty look rather than return her smile, but despite his good effort he couldn't do it.
The old woman rubbed her hands together and said, "I ain't been home in nearly two days. I expect there are things needin' done."
Joleen was sitting at the table with them, and Mrs. Thomas reached over and squeezed her hand. They didn't say anything, but their eyes met and held for a second. Then the old woman stood and headed for the door. Just before she turned the knob, she snapped her fingers, spun around, and returned to the table. "I dern near forgot my flour sack," she said to Jeb, then gave him a wink.
"You wouldn't want to do that," he said. "You never know when you might need to kidnap someone."
He could still hear her laughter as she climbed aboard her mule and rode away.
Jeb and Joleen sat and listened until the sound of the crickets drowned out the clop of the mule's hooves.
Joleen finally broke the awkward silence. "I'll put on some coffee," she said.
While she made the coffee, Jeb went out to the Harley-Davidson. When he returned, he brought with him three pencils and a small writing pad.
Joleen, noticing the pad, said, "Can you really write as fast as a person can talk?"
"Well, I guess that all depends on how fast they're talking, but, yes, within reason I can."
"That's really something," she said. Jeb heard the sound of amazement in her voice. "Here I can't write at all, and you can do it as fast as all that." She gave a little shake of her head and smiled. When she smiled, the deep lines around her mouth faded into dimples.
"That's the first time you've smiled since I got here. You should do it more. It makes you look like a girl."
When he said that, the smile vanished. She began to fumble with the loose strands of her hair, trying to reattach them to the bun. "I'm hardly a girl," she said. "I'll be thirty-two in December. I know I look older. I wasn't never a beauty."
"No," Jeb said, "you're wrong about that." He saw her give him a skeptical look, but he meant what he said. She wasn't pretty the way his wife was—no one could be—but there was something about her.
"No, I'm not," she said as she rose and crossed to the stove. "But that don't matter to me. It never has, really." She poured two cups of coffee and brought them back. "I don't have any sugar or milk," she said. "Sorry."
Trying to make her feel less nervous, he said, "This is fine. It's just the way I like it." The truth was he had a sweet tooth, and he used as much sugar as possible whenever he could get it, which wasn't nearly often enough.
"Do you want to tell me about it now, Joleen?" he asked.
"Sure, I reckon. I been wanting to tell someone ever since it happened. The law, I mean. 'Course I did tell Bobby Joe, which turned out to be a great big mistake. His mother's right about him, you know. He's not very smart." She paused and smiled. "He is sweet, though. And not at all like ever'body says. People think he's wild, but it ain't true, not a bit of it. He's kind. He's very kind."
Jeb opened his tablet and picked up one of the pencils.
Joleen sat staring into her coffee. Finally she began, "Lenny Lukather was my husband. But he was the meanest man the good Lord ever let be." She lifted her head and stared Jeb squarely in the face. "One afternoon when he was so drunk that he'd passed out leaning up against a rail of the pig sty, I used that shotgun over yonder." She nodded toward the corner of the room. "And I blew off the top of his head."
She told her story without interruption, pausing only long enough to refill their coffee cups. And Jeb captured every word. She spoke of how Lenny Lukather, who was born here on the La Prele, but who'd been gone for some time, showed up two years earlier looking for work. A year before that her parents had died when their team of horses spooked in a lightning storm and their wagon crashed into a draw. The place was in bad shape and she needed the help, so she offered to hire Lenny for room and board. She couldn't pay any more than that, but Lenny, who was also on hard times, agreed.
"At first he was nice as any man could be," she said. "He wasn't much of a worker, but he had a ready smile and was quick with a joke. You gotta know I haven't been around many men in my life. And he made me feel—well—" She stopped and Jeb saw a blush rise into her cheeks.
"We was married two months later. The Baptist preacher come out from Douglas. Dessie and Bobby Joe came over, and a few of the other neighbors. It was a small thing, I reckon, but I was never happier before or since." She blew on her coffee, but there was no need. Both hers and Jeb's had already gone cold.
"Before we got married," she said, "I'd never seen Lenny take a drink. And he didn't drink a drop at the party we had after the ceremony. But the truth is, our wedding was nearly two years ago, and that was the last sober day of Lenny's life.
"When we woke up that first morning, Lenny said we was on our honeymoon, and there would be no working for a while. He went down to the barn, and when he come back he was carrying a jug. He took a couple of long drinks and said, 'Joleen, come here.' It surprised me he was drinking, but I couldn't see any harm in taking it easy for a day or so. After all, I was a new bride, and I wanted to be pleasing. I came over when he called, eager to be with him. I'd been lonely for a long time, and I couldn't get enough of that man. When I got close, though, I could see that something was different, but before I could say anything, he rammed his knee in my stomach so hard I went down to the floor in front of him, choking for breath. I guess it stunned me for a second because the next thing I know, he was picking me up by my neck and lifting me off my feet so high our eyes were even. I still remember how cold and hard his eyes were that morning. He said, 'You ain't my boss no more, girl. You are now my wife. And the first thing that all wives has gotta learn is who the real boss is.' Then he slammed me up against the wall and hit me in the face with his fist over and over. It's strange. Looking back now I can't remember the pain of it, or even the fear. I just remember filling up with sadness. After two or three times of him hitting me like that, lights started exploding inside my head. Then finally things went all black.
"That was our first full day together as husband and wife. Most days weren't that bad. Some days were worse. Sometimes he'd tie me down, then heat up his knife blade." She rolled up her gingham sleeve, and Jeb saw at least half a dozen fiery red scars along her arm. "There's scars in other places too," she said, "private places. At least he never did that to my face, thank the Lord."
She stopped talking and took a deep breath. The telling of it seemed to be relaxing to her.
Jeb set his pencil aside and rubbed the palm of his hand. There was a lot that didn't make sense. He couldn't understand why she didn't go for help. She had the proof of her husband's brutality branded on her body. He started to point that out, but before he could speak, Joleen stood and said, "I know that confessin's good for the soul, but let's take a break from it and go out and look at the night. I love it when the moon's this bright."
Once they were on the porch, she said, "You're an easy man to talk to, Mr. Blake."
"I'm a professional listener."
"Bobby Joe has the same skill of making you want to tell him things."
Jeb leaned against the porch rail and watched an owl soar across the moon. "It doesn't need to be part of your statement," he said, "but are you going to tell me the rest of it?"
"You just wrote down how I shot my husband with a shotgun while he was asleep. What more could there be?"
"You could explain why you didn't leave."
"Leave? That's not something I can do."
"I don't see how you could stay."
"Sometimes staying's the easy way."
"With a man like that? Someone who beat you, burned you?"
Jeb could see a brief flicker of confusion cross her face. "Lenny Lukather was a bad man. The way I figure it, he got exactly what he deserved for the things he did to me. But the truth is, I didn't shoot him just because he was beating me. Not really."
"You didn't?" Now Jeb was confused. "Why then?"
"I killed him because he was going to make me leave this ranch."
Joleen sat on the porch and stretched her legs along its three steps. "I know that once you read them what I told you in there, they'll come get me."
"Yes," Jeb agreed, "they will. But you won't hang, Joleen. There's not a jury in the state that'd convict you of first-degree murder. I doubt they would even convict you of second degree. I'd say manslaughter at the most."
"It don't matter. It'll never get that far." Jeb could see her clearly in the moonlight, and he could tell by the look on her face what she meant.
"You wouldn't do that, Joleen."
"I would have to," she said. "I'd have no choice. It's not what I'd want, Mr. Blake. I don't want to die. But if I let them take me, I would die anyway."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"I know. It doesn't make sense to me neither. It didn't make sense to my mother and father. But it's real."
"What is? I don't understand what you're saying."
She pulled her legs up and placed her feet on the step below the step where she was sitting. She wrapped her arms around her calves and placed her head on her knees. "It's fear," she said, then looked up and corrected herself. "No, it's more than fear. Fear's not strong enough. It's terror. Plain ol' terror. I know it's crazy. I've tried to make it go away, but I can't. Fact is, it's gettin' worse."
Jeb pulled his tobacco from his shirt pocket and rolled a cigarette.
"I can't leave this place, Mr. Blake. As soon as I start down that road yonder, I panic. Iron bands crush against my chest. I can feel it squeezing the life right out of me. I can't draw a breath. When they come for me, I may as well take my own life, because I'll be dead before they get me into town anyway. Either dead, or out of my mind."
"Dessie mentioned something about you never leaving."
"I know. The neighbors all call me Crazy Joleen. All of them except for Bobby Joe. Bobby Joe's special. He's the only friend I ever had. Maybe that's because he's crazy too. He knew Lenny was doing bad things to me. He even called him on it once, but Lenny was strong as well as mean, and he just beat Bobby Joe down. I think Lenny would have killed him if I hadn't come between them. That made Lenny mad enough that he turned on me. Bobby Joe's never forgiven himself for not being able to protect me better."
"Looks like he's doing it now."
"Lenny decided he wanted to sell this place and move us to Sheridan. He had some get-rich scheme to build a sawmill up there. It would never have worked. I expect the sawmill business requires some labor, and that was something that Lenny wasn't too fond of. I stood up to him about that, and the beatings got worse than ever. Finally, he said he'd found a buyer for the place. The papers'd be signed by the end of the week, and we'd be leaving for Sheridan soon as they were. That's when I killed him. Bobby Joe showed up right after I done it. He threw Lenny's body on the buckboard and headed off to town. I waited all afternoon and night for the sheriff to come. I sat right here on this porch with the same shotgun I used on Lenny. Soon as I saw the sheriff coming down the road, I was going to use it on myself. But he never come. Dessie did, though, and she said Bobby Joe'd told 'em all that he'd killed Lenny."
"And you couldn't go tell them any different."
"Funny, isn't it? I can't let them take me away to prison because I can't leave the prison I'm already in."
"Has it always been like this?"
"For as long as I've lived here."
"I thought you'd lived here all your life."
"No, the people I call Momma and Papa really weren't my parents. They found me when I was five years old wandering along the side of the road."
She put her hands behind her and leaned back. The light from the fat moon was bright enough to cast her shadow along the porch.
"Will and Sadie Felder," she said. "They were fine people. They loaded me onto their wagon, and tried to get me to tell them who I was and where I come from, but I couldn't say a word. They planned to bring me back here to their ranch, then Will was going to ride into town and get the sheriff. But before they got home, they run across my mother and father. Those were wilder days, I reckon, and there were plenty of bad men around. Pa, my real pa, had been killed outright, but Momma . . . " Joleen's voice trailed off. She then cleared her throat and said, "They killed her, but not outright."
Jeb crushed the stub of his cigarette with his boot heel, then kicked it into the yard. "Did you see this happen to your parents?" he asked as he sat down on the step beside her.
"Every bit of it," she whispered. "I watched from a willow thicket, too scared to even cry. Will and Sadie tried to find out if I had other family somewhere, but never could, so they kept me. They were older and never had kids of their own. They treated me good, but still, it was a year before I started talking again. They brought me here to their ranch and took care of me. They gave me love, and treated me like I was their own. It's been three long years since they died, but I don't hurt from missing them any less now than I did the first day they were gone."
Because of Jebediah's line of work, he figured he'd seen more than might be expected for his years. At one time or another just about every bad thing that could happen to folks had come through the court. But never had he met a woman who'd been given more to bear than Joleen Lukather. Even though what Bobby Joe was doing was wrong, Jeb now understood why he was doing it.
Joleen pushed herself up, took one last look at the fullness of the moon, and said, "It's late, Mr. Blake. You're welcome to stay here for the night. I'll make you a place in the barn, or even here on the porch."
"No, thank you, Joleen. It's only five or six miles back to town."
"You'll see they let Bobby Joe go, won't you?" she asked.
Since saving Bobby Joe meant dooming her, Jeb wanted to tell her no, by God, he would not. But he couldn't do that. What he did say was, "Yes, Joleen, I will."