I had me a cowboy once on a hot steam Friday night, on a hot go all the way time, just us together riding in his truck with old Angel From Montgomery playing way turned up. I wanted that cowboy but he had eyes for another, some slack-jawed and heavy-walking Sally from the next town over, daughter of the dairyman. Me, I’d been out turning grapes as far back as I could remember but by then I was fixing to marry and I had long red hair down to my waist and I was one sunburn away from old age. I wanted that cowboy to come to his senses and I decided he had about a week to do it before I went right stark mad on him and I’d tell his future bride all we’d done together, how he’d kissed me each and every place and I did the same and we was one before the Lord and in the eyes of God we was already married and she ought to step sidewise and abide by our blessed salvations evermore.

When I met that cowboy I was working at the feed store standing there with my tongue hanging out like a dog in the desert. In he walked, short as myself, strong legs in tight thick-cut denim, an ass high and proud as a horse. Boots of turquoise, hat to match. A rhinestone belt and a flaming pink pearl-buttoned shirt and his eyes were glassy lavender. I’d never seen purple eyes on no person but there he was. He wore opalescent dark glasses pushed down on a slimline nose and he walked right up to me and I straightened, thinking, what on earth is this clown doing in here? I was used to men in overalls and no shirt, straw hats with no grace. But then he smiled. Lord. The teeth on a man always did me in. His were made of the finest of slants, little crooked fangs crammed into each other. The overall impact of them was sacred. His face was unfreckled and pale, shaven clean and cleaner. His nostrils had no wily hairs poking from them and his eyebrows were even and he struck me almost girly but for his voice. He said, ‘Lady, I’d like to be with you somewhere other than here.’

Now. I was of course waiting for my marriage sacrament before becoming one flesh with a man but this cowboy told me all I wanted to hear. I said, ‘I’ll need a white dress.’ He said, ‘I can imagine you in white now.’ I said, ‘I ain’t got no daddy to marry me off,’ and would you believe it, he said, ‘I’ll be your daddy.’

Ten minutes later I was panties off and his tongue was up there.

Only after all that did he tell me about his Sally up the road. How his purpose was to marry her in an arrangement situation. ‘So you see I can’t skip out on her, honey.’

‘You a real cowboy?’ I asked him, weak over those teeth. I had never kissed a man on account of suffering alopecia in my younger years and keeping to myself. By the time I’d bloomed a desert rose all the boys had turned into gut-slinging men and were married right up. Now the Lord was rewarding my patience, I could see a clear.

‘Course,’ he said. ‘My daddy owns the biggest cotton plant this side west of the west.’

Money, I thought, but didn’t say. Money was colorful and so was he. ‘Well, you’re gonna be with me,’ I told him. I felt the devil’s jealousy run over and through me.

He laughed. ‘I couldn’t love you honey.’

That’s what he said, but I thought different. The Lord gives you challenges, my mam always told me. So this was mine.

I set off on a plan to convince him I was rich. I wasn’t rich at all. My daddy sold the family raisin farm because his alcoholic tendencies became a full-time job. After that I worked like a common orchard boy for pennies. That’s why I had me my second job at the feed store and a third job Friday nights where I was a telephone operator of the sensual variety. All these jobs enabled me to keep my hair shiny and buy myself enough fine fabric to make one new dress a month because I had a flair for fashion and presentation and this alone would show him I was a worthy bride. I could see then in his truck, a pair of diamond-studded dice hanging from the rearview mirror, that he wanted a woman of big money because that’s all he’d known. I’d convince him I was of it somehow and by the time he found out I was poor he’d already be in love with me and I’d probably be pregnant.

The sensual hotline was called Angels. My momma’s best girl friend growing up, Rennie, was short a girl and she begged me. Said don’t worry missy, it’s only until I can get a professional. Four years into it I could do it in my sleep. Now being Christian as I was I did feel shame, but I kept my hand firm on the Bible while I took the calls, and I made up a fake name and I am sorry to say that I felt a brushfire fairytale in my own knickers while talking the bliss to the men in Rennie’s dim dark basement, but that was only because I was nearing thirty and still chaste. It was me and two others, some real hot-to-trot girl named Sylvia who kept silent, filed her long nails while she talked bored into her headset, and D’Andra, who brought in Chinese chicken salads from Applebees to win my friendship but she was playing a dead hand. I couldn’t be friends with a phone sex operator. I ate her salads, though, imagining my real life going on somewhere else, out of the valley

Once I met the Cowboy I saw my life turn dreamy before me and I quit Angels the next day. I told Rennie that I was getting married and she said ‘hells bells halleluiah’ without so much as looking at me and it made me feel secure knowing I could come back at anytime if I needed to because she didn’t care about a thing going on around her. D’Andra hugged me like we was next of kin, her fat sloppy tears dripping on my new raw silk shift I’d sewn up only the night before. I was happy to never smell another chicken salad again. It was fine dining from here on out. Steak and mashed potatoes.

The Cowboy gave me no way to contact him after our first encounter but I knew where Sally lived, up the road in Dinuba in the big dairyman’s mansion, and so I borrowed a car from Wayland, our neighbor with the diabetes so bad his feet ballooned in painful purple scabbing swells. ‘One day you’ll hafta kiss me for it,’ he grunted as I walked on past. ‘Kiss my dust,’ I muttered.

‘Huh?’ he said.

‘I said next time I’ll give you a real smacker.’

I’d need the Cowboy to think I had me a nice car, and this car was nice by my standards in that it had four wheels still attached and vinyl on the seats. I drove it home and I gussied myself and used the purple eyeshadow that went with the red of my hair nice and I wore two push up bras for luck. I looked at my sun-spotted hands heading toward a spinster grave and I said aloud to the mirror a thanks. ‘Dearest Papa God, a husband you have delivered at last and saved me!’

My younger sister Beulah hovered around sensing I was taking off toward uncharted places. She was slowish in mind and didn’t like to leave the house. She ran the pig races every year at the town carnival, pulling up the hatch on their gate and calling out the winner. Blue! or Orange! was all she had to say but the town loved her like some kind of prize. It ain’t hard to recite a color, I’d told her and she’d said, yeah Vangie, you’re right, which made me burn with anger. She was always doing that, making me mad by agreeing with me.

In any case, I knew she’d be fine without me. She could cook soft white rice in a pot and in the skillet she could brown a beef tongue from Mike’s Meats, delivered by Mike himself who always stood around too long talking to her like he was interested when we all knew he wasn’t. ‘On you go, Mike,’ I’d tell him. ‘We get it.’ Once Beulah told me Mike had asked for a date to the movie theatre all the way in Fresno, and they could eat French fries afterward and that’s when I met Mike at the door and told him we’d taken up vegetarianism. ‘I’m to be wed before you, little sister,’ I reminded her and she said, ‘Course Vangie.’ She wore our dead father’s shirts and slacks and combed her fine blonde hair into a swoop like kewpie doll and I made terrible fun at her but not that day.

‘Beulah, we always knew it was coming to this moment. Didn’t we?’ I said. She moped at the kitchen table while I packed a bag. ‘I’m the marriage material of us girls. Daddy always said that.’

‘I don’t remember him saying that,’ she said, holding her pointer finger up. ‘I remember him saying to keep our knickers on and our hands in prayer.’

‘My husband’s arrived and you’ll just have to understand. I can’t be around here to pet your head all the night no more.’

She looked at me dumb and said, ‘You real sure, Vangie? Maybe we better write down the phone number of this husband?’

I didn’t want to tell her I didn’t have such a thing, nor did I even know his Christian name. Who was the idiot here? Not me.

I drove to the dairyman’s house in Wayland’s car where I knew his Sally daughter would be, and likely the Cowboy getting ready to bend down on one knee. I would tell her to step aside and my appeal would glow strong from me pulling that cowboy right along. Beyond that, I assumed things would take a natural course. That he would see me next to her and understand that I was to be his rightful bride. I’d pull up in my own vehicle and he would understand that a single girl in the country with her very own vehicle was something special. I had my recipe book prepared to show him all I could cook up, what sort of mashers and cranberry sauce he could come to expect. I hadn’t washed since I’d seen him and I could still smell him on me. It was something like the herbs my mother used to rub on a freshly killed chicken and I knew this was a cherishable thing, loving deeply the scent of another.

I sat in the car and my hands shook with excitement. I was going to have a husband. And not just any husband. I was going to have a husband who could afford to take me far out of here and to a place with a swimming pool I just knew. I didn’t have me a swimming outfit but he would buy me one of course. He would think maybe I was rich for a while because of my car and good looks but then he would see that he didn’t need my money. That living poor my whole life had made me resourceful and he’d hardly notice my spending, so needless I would be under his gaze, no hungrier than a mouse. God knows I wouldn’t mention Beulah, my cross to bear. I let out a long breath. It was exhausting being poor. I felt at that time I was too pretty for that.

Sure enough there was the Cowboy’s truck, shiny and black, lifted into the air by four huge fully pumped tires. Not a scratch on that paint job. I could have almost licked it. I checked my reflection in the paint, it was that shiny, and I stood extra tall. For the first time, I would get what I wanted. I walked to the front door and opened it. Who had time to knock, not me. Keep me strong in your will, Lord.

The house was something else. I stood in an entryway that seemed to be its own room, a dresser standing there with a metal basket, its only use for mail. Who puts their clothes in an entryway, I wondered, counting the drawers on the dresser. There were family pictures on the wall, one featuring Sally all alone in her cheerleading outfit, silver braces a gleam, her blond ponytail in one huge curl coming from the top of her head like a lasso. I couldn’t remember if she was out of high school or not, but who cared about youth? I felt that high school was just yesterday for me and people always commented on how young I looked and acted. I could compete is what I’m saying.

I walked into the living room where there was a plump blue couch and cooking magazines spread across a glass table. The air in the house was still. It was cool. They had air conditioning. I lifted my arms and let my sweat dry in the luxury.

Now I’ve always been real tight with God, and liked to think he gave me special previews of things to come, but when I saw the dairyman’s bare feet poking out from behind a big La-Z-Boy chair, I uttered aloud, ‘What it tarnation?’ and I rounded the chair and saw him lying there, shirtless with kiss-sized welts all over his body, quivering. He didn’t see me on account of his blindfold, but he sucked air in a desperate fashion through his nose. I didn’t know what to do. I bent down and tried to pull the ball from his mouth but boy it was in there.

‘Sir,’ I said. ‘This is Vangie Herd from up the road in Raisin City. I’m looking for a cowboy, don’t know if you seent him?’

He grunted, almost a cry.

‘Thank you for your fine fresh milk,’ I went on. ‘My mother always let the fat rise and then ate it off like frosting.’ He was still. I bent closer to his ear. ‘I know all about your type. At my place of employment I have plenty of men who tell me they want to be hung up by the ankles and taken through all number of abuses. I’m not here to judge you sir just looking for your girl to set her straight. Seems she thinks she’s gonna be with my Cowboy and it just ain’t so.’

I looked at the red and strained skin of his stomach. He shook his head back and forth like I was whipping him. I thought of the Cowboy’s lavender eyes. I missed them then even, us only apart for a short time.

I stood up and just as I turned to go down the hall it all went black and arms pulled a gunnysack over my head and dragged me down a long hallway, my heels bouncing along.

As I went, I thought of Beulah waving sad from the door as I’d left her. I had poked my head out the window and said, ‘When I’m settled, I’ll call for you.’ The last thing I’d said to her was a lie.

The arms set me up against a wall and I heard a door close. I remembered my mother once telling me about a story where a carjack man came to her window the first and only time she ever drove around Fresno alone at night, and all her mind could muster up was ‘Oh, brother.’ She said everything was happening to her and she had no choice in the matter so she let herself go soft and disappear. The story always terrified me in that I pictured my own small mother pushed out of her car onto the hot street but she told the story numb. ‘Vangie, quit your crying. If something like that’s coming your way, it’s coming.’

The sack was pulled from my head. It was my Cowboy. He shook his head. ‘Here you are involving yourself.’ My heart flickered.

‘I won’t run,’ I said, and he put the coil of rope in his hand down in total trust and belief in me. His lavender eyes were red. He was tired I could see. My heart pained for my tired husband. ‘You need a glass of water,’ I told him, imagining the name of our first born son. Ras July.  

‘Welcome to the show,’ he said and that was when I saw Sally in handcuffs with a rope tied round her neck like a leash, her ankles bound, slumped in the corner like a down-and-out dolly. She shivered in the dead heat of the room.

He dragged me closer to her so we were sitting side by side then walked to the corner of the room and messed with a small radio. ‘I think he’s going to kill me,’ she said, her voice a scratch.

‘Well why’d you get involved with him anyhow?’ I hissed. I was in a brain fog right then, Oh, brothering instead of looking straight at the scenery without my sunglasses on.

‘I’ve never seen him before in my life,’ she said.

Here she was denying their arrangement when it was plain to see their arrangement was the thing keeping him and I apart. Me and him could be elsewhere but we were here. When the Cowboy turned back toward us I gave him the eye. He could tell I was on his side with it.

‘Until she can tell me where her daddy keeps the money,’ he said. He poked her nose like a pup with his finger. ‘Then this will just go on and on.’

He stripped off all his clothes. A snake tattoo wound its way up his arm and down his chest. I hadn’t noticed that in his truck during our consummation. I shoulda been a cowboy….I shoulda learned to roam around…streamed from the radio. He danced with himself, wrapping his arms around the paleness of his long torso. He didn’t have a muscular stature. He was straight with a little paunch belly and his toes were far reaching stems. Sally sobbed quietly next to me but I was enthralled by him. I saw then that the Lord had a plan all along. All my hours on the phones listening to the mens tell me their deepest desires had equipped me for just this moment. I wasn’t scared of his desires. What was going to happen next? was all I wondered.

He pulled a jar of peanut butter from his rucksack and opened it. With a bread knife he coated his midsection in it. He stopped and ate some, then told us it was our turn.

‘I’m allergic to peanuts,’ Sally said.

‘Another reason she ain’t gonna be the bride of your very dreams,’ I said.

‘I’m aware of the allergy,’ he said. ‘I’ve been watching you for awhile now.’

‘Bride?’ Sally said, looking at me. ‘Do you know this person?’

‘We made love like in the movies,’ I said. ‘Like you’ve probably never known.’

She looked real young to me then, even though I of course was still young and vibrant, fertile, too. But she was a teenager. I let my eyes trail over her. ‘I was a virgin when he had me,’ I said to her. ‘We’re married already if you really get down to it. You still a virgin?’

‘There’s no money in this house,’ she said to him, ignoring me like I was simple or something.

‘You like your daddy of the alive variety?’ he asked Sally.

‘Here, she wants to marry you,’ Sally said, her tone changing into a child’s. ‘I bet she has the money you’re after. Why don’t you leave me and my daddy be and get with her?’

He looked me up and down. I imagined myself crawling up to him and licking some of the peanut butter off his stomach, fast like a dog, just showing him my dedication.

‘I can’t marry a girl like this,’ he said. ‘She talks like a hillbilly.’

‘There ain’t no hills around here,’ I said.

Sally scooted toward the door. He closed his eyes and put his hands together under his chin like a prayer.

Where was Sally’s mother, the woman from the photos with teased hair two inches off her head and string of pearls around her neck like a choke? Wasn’t she bound to come home? I thought of my own mam and how she’d died only the year before but it felt most days like she was still alive just waiting for me to come home so we could smack our lips about the sinning ninnies at church. Beulah and I had left my mam’s earthly body in her bed for just under one month before calling the authorities, that’s how sad we were.

‘My mam would think the size of this house is ridiculous,’ I said to Sally and she squinted her eyes at me like she was staring at the sun. About then I noticed a pistol on the floor in the corner. Fear touched me like a rolling wind. I’d seen a gun before. I’d handled one, sure. I’d shot a rabbit in a field and felt little to nothing over it. I’d fed it to Beulah and me and we were thankful. Lord, keep me, I thought. I had never felt more alive in my life for it seemed clear then: The Cowboy was wounded internally in a deep and hell-bound way and was acting out in a cry for my help. His salvation was mine to give. This was what I’d been waiting for all my years turning grapes, all my days at the feed store counter, on the phone saying Come now, come. This was the payment the good Lord was finally repaying for the years of suffering I’d gone through. I’d been waiting not just for my strong steed of a husband to walk through the door, but for someone from the outside to push me into life.

The song changed. Iris DeMent. I knew all the Cowboy’s songs because they were the

same songs my father loved. You only have to hear a true cowboy song once for it to brand you. Whatever was on the radio these days, was anyone’s guess. I dragged a finger through the peanut butter on his stomach and wiped it across my lips like lipstick. I danced slow to Iris’s high voice.

‘I’m done going round in circles,’ he said to Sally. ‘I’m here for the money!’

‘I’m rich,’ I said, standing between them. ‘You should understand.’

‘Richer than this girly here?’ he said.

‘Course,’ I said. I looked at Sally who was pressed into the door. It was like she was barely breathing, making a horrible wheezing sound. It seemed dramatic.

‘My daddy was the Sunmaid raisin man of all the world,’ I said. ‘I got jewels and rubies in my rightful house. My sister Beulah guards them day and night like a bridge troll.’

‘I don’t want to be nice,’ he said softly. ‘I’ve been nice for a lot of my life and I don’t know it’s gotten me anywhere.’

He pushed past Sally and his boots clomped down the hall. ‘Come on,’ she said. She got up and hopped to me and grabbed my arm, her leash trailing her. ‘Let’s get out the window.’

‘We did all the dirties one could imagine right in his truck,’ I said to her. ‘I’ve been waiting all my life for a man to come along and now here he is.’

‘What’s wrong with you? We need to get out now. You’re acting like you half like him or something. You’re crazy!’

She gagged and hopped to the window. She reached her handcuffed hands up and tried to open it. The window was high and we both knew she wouldn’t be able to get out without my help.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘I saw my life flash before me there on the ground. I never done anything wrong, believe me. I’ve been a good girl and this is what I get? I don’t believe it. And here you are, crazy as all get-out no help to me at all.’

I didn’t appreciate her talking to me like I was beneath understanding, but when a loud pop came from the front of the house, I saw her fear become her and I felt for her, I did. Sally crumpled to the ground and tried to lift her hands over her head. ‘Daddy,’ she whimpered.

I imagined the cow slaughters of my youth, the way my daddy would take me to his friend Ron’s to watch the cows be shot and then gutted upside down while the froth of them poured out. I never felt strange over it because that was my life.

‘A gunshot wound don’t always mean death,’ I told her, comforting. Red pox covered her mouth. ‘My Cowboy wouldn’t hurt a fly. I bet it was nothing more than a startle shot.’

She started coughing and sputtering a storm and begging for God. She was saying ‘Jesus take me now,’ over and over.

The Cowboy came back in white as a sheet. The small pistol in his grip looked unnatural like he’d just discovered such a thing could be held and used. ‘Can you believe her daddy won’t talk? Even when I showed him this? I didn’t mean for it to go off but it did. It wasn’t my fault, I’m telling you.’ His eyes looked through me and it gave me the willies.

‘Let’s be on,’ I said. ‘Already ruined things with your potential father-in-law, I’d say. Imagine, with me, you won’t have no in-laws to concern yourself with.’

He bent down near Sally, shaking. ‘Give me the goddamn money. Now.’

She gasped for air. Her face was an alarming purple now. ‘There’s no money,’ she pushed out.

The Cowboy looked at me as if I knew something I wasn’t telling him. ‘I was told by a very reputable source there was money by the millions hidden in this place. The father moaned down the hall. The Cowboy started at the sound. ‘He’s alive,’ he said, nodding.

‘I bet the neighbors heard that shot, honey,’ I said. ‘Best get out before the whole jig’s up. Best get us down the road to our marrying destination. Put this farce in the past.’

He looked at Sally. Glanced nervous out the window. He was a smooth operator but not then. He was showing me his shakes and worries.

‘I’ll take you to my place,’ I went on. I took the gun from his hand and he let me. ‘I’m telling you. I’m an heiress to a raisin fortune.’

‘Why you wanna give me all your money?’ he asked.

‘What’s yours is mine, of course.’ I said. The metal was cool and hard in my hand. ‘I keep tryna tell ya.’

I pulled up my blouse so he could see my brassieres. I thought of the phone sex men who wanted me to describe the state of my breasts to them and I often had trouble. I’d say round and they’d say how round? I’d say bouncy and they’d say what acrobatics can you do?

The Cowboy showed me his slanty teeth. ‘You’re growing on me and this might work,’ he said. ‘And that man in there’s still alive. Everything’s gonna be just fine.’

‘Let’s leave this place. We can come on back if you’re unsatisfied by what I have to offer. Sure we can always come back.’

He put his clothes on in a fury and pushed me out of the room in front of him by the neck. I tucked the gun into my raw silk fabric belt. We walked like this through the house until we came to the dairyman lying face down in a pool of red. He wasn’t groaning anymore. ‘He ain’t got much time,’ I said. The peanut butter smell suffocated me and I dry heaved. The dairyman’s feet were perfectly fine, plump and pale, black hair on the toes. I was glad I couldn’t see his face then.

‘It just went off,’ the Cowboy said. ‘You believe me now, don’tcha?’

My body froze and I felt like all my years walking God’s Earth reached back and slapped me. Did I believe him? I remembered the nicest thing my daddy ever said to me which was, Vangie, you’re pretty but you’re stupid. His voice was a siren going off between my ears and I knew I’d never seen a dead man of this variety, for this was surely what he was. I’d seen my dead daddy. Bleeding out and soft as a plum in the end lying in bed with a wool blanket on a one-hundred-degree day. But that had been a death that had taken years and years. The dairyman had been alive moments before and now perhaps wasn’t. I felt the Lord come into me. Keep moving, He told me. In what direction, I asked in my head. I knew Sally was probably on her way to meet Him too, if I didn’t find her some help.

‘On and on,’ the Cowboy said, pushing me out the door.

We walked past Wayland’s car. It looked cheap and I didn’t claim it. The Cowboy herded me into his truck, that tall and lifted black shine of a thing, so beautiful before and now looked like a hearse. He peeled out of the driveway and we sped down a dirt road. I couldn’t take him to the house. Beulah was there and she was an innocent. What had she ever done wrong? And Sally, Sally would need a paramedic.

‘Take a left,’ I said.

‘You seem different,’ the Cowboy said. ‘Where’s your sparkle now? Here I am giving you just want you wanted.’

‘Oh, I know honey,’ I said. ‘Think I’m just hungry or something.’‘Now you said you didn’t live far from here. I don’t see no houses.’

‘You done something like this before?’ I asked.

‘Like what?’

‘Like with that Sally back there. You know. The gun.’

‘I’m a traveling man,’ he said. ‘I was just having a little fun with her. Turns out she wasn’t no fun. Not like you. And that man is still alive.’

‘A right here,’ I said.

We neared the main strip where there were other people. The police station and post office. His truck slowed to a roll. ‘I told you not to take me through towns.’ I tried to open the door. His arm shot out and held me in.

‘I shoulda known not to trust a hillbilly,’ he said and he pressed the accelerator. I thought we were going to sail through the main strip, past the feedstore, past the post. Everyone would see my hair flying out the window. They would think wow, Vangie’s really going somewhere and they wouldn’t know I had failed at my one life and trusted a cowboy who was no cowboy at all. Goodbye town, I thought. Goodbye men on the phone. Goodbye grapevines and raisins.

In the crosswalk was old Mrs Evers holding a shopping bag. She had a stoop to her back and no peripheral vision. We steamed ahead. Her life would be over, too.

‘You hit her, imagine the fuss. Imagine the cops hightailing behind you. Right now you’re clean. You’re free like a bird. Just nice and easy. You killed a man but you can leave it here.’

He slammed on the break and we jolted to a stop just a foot from Mrs Evers, who turned her whole body toward us and leaned back to look. She turned her middle finger up and the Cowboy wrung his hands together.

‘I didn’t,’ he said slow, ‘kill no man.’

It was time, I decided then, for the truth. I’d saved Mrs Evers life and I felt a high. I felt God just right there in that truck with us. ‘You ever said something out of love?’ I asked.

He hit the steering wheel and grabbed my collar. I felt my precious handmade dress rip. ‘I ain’t got time for this.’

A horn blared behind us. Course we were just stopped right on the main street of town not moving. ‘Attracting attention,’ I said. He let go of me and rolled on.

He looked like a boy then, like he wanted to cry. I saw all his sins before me and I forgave each one.

‘My buddy up in Sacramento said you country folk down here are dumber than a bag of hammers. Farm rich, storing money by the millions under the floorboards.’

‘We ain’t as dumb as we look,’ I said. I pointed to the town bank. ‘There’s where the money is of course.’

He grumbled and sank in his seat, pouting.

‘Now listen,’ I said. ‘I didn’t like that killing you did back there. That ain’t no way to do it.’

‘What do you know?’

I looked to my left where down the road was Rennie’s basement where I could waste my life away. I saw the feed store up ahead where I could scoop pellets into sacks until I croaked, the faded Coca Cola sign out front. ‘What you need is a sharp mind and a slow hand on the trigger,’ I said. ‘I could help you.’

‘I’m in no mood for settling down,’ he said.

Then it came to me. ‘We could do banks,’ I said, and smiled for it was certainly God who had planted the bank before me, showing me the way. ‘And you can’t do a bank alone. You’ll need someone with a foot on the gas. You’ll need me.’

He looked at me and the red was all drained out of him.

‘Husband and wife,’ I said.

Finally he nodded.

‘I need to make two calls and then we’ll go and never look back,’ I said to him. I put a finger on his teeth, felt the ridges. He didn’t flinch.

I led him to the feed store where I walked inside and let myself behind the counter. I picked up the phone and dialed 911. ‘Head to the dairyman’s,’ I told them. I paused. I could tell them everything and they could pick me up a victim, but Sally was bound to throw me under and into the sawmill. She wouldn’t be rational at all. I hung up. I called Beulah. ‘I love you but I ain’t coming home,’ I told her. ‘Vangie, are you in some trouble?’ And I said, ‘Call up that Mike. Go to that movie and when you close your eyes at night imagine me riding into the sunset toward the biggest city you ever seen.’

‘What you want for dinner tonight?’ she asked me. That’s how slow she was. I’d just told her the situation and here she was not hearing her own sister’s destiny when it spoke right to her.

‘Goodbye,’ I said.

I opened the register and took out what cash there and jammed it in my pockets. I took one last look at the town as I hitched up into that big black truck and I spread the money over the bench seat between us. My husband smiled up at me. The Lord shown down. I had saved two lives and now I’d save the Cowboy’s. I’d make him an honest man, and I’d bring him to the faith, I would. But first, I’d speak his language. We rode off and I got a new name and dyed my hair a bleach of blond and the Cowboy fashioned his in an inky pompadour and grew a beard down to his belly button. I was the keeper of the pistol and we slept in the back of that truck in the wide-open plains alongside highway after highway, riches like tall cotton.

And that’s how I became the wife of a traveling robber, Amen.


Image © Chad Horwedel

Three poems
The Poker