"He pushed me down!" she yelled. "I'm not going to just stand there like you and—"

"Allison—" Miranda's voice was only slightly more in control. "You should look at yourself, girl."

I opened the door.

They were both standing by the bed. Miranda looked like a young square dancer in her fulllength denim skirt and white blouse and bandanna around her neck. She wore no makeup, but the colour in her face looked healthier than usual because she was angry.

Her eyes were bright brown.

She picked a twig out of Allison's hair. She had plenty to choose from. Allison had smudges of dirt on her face and dust all down her side. Her red blouse had come untucked from her jeans. She had the same murderous look I'd seen in her eyes that afternoon, but now her eyelids were swollen and red, a few tears smeared in with the dirt.

Miranda saw me before Allison did. The singer's shoulders relaxed just slightly. She said nothing but her posture invited me in. If I'd been alone in a room with Allison right then, I would've welcomed company too.

"What happened?" I asked.

Allison started. She had a little trouble bringing me into focus. She took a shaky breath before she could answer me with something besides a scream.


"He pushed you. So you figured you'd just brain him with a horseshoe?"

Allison splayed her fingers and brought them up to her ears. "He moved too fast. I swear to God the next time—"

Her voice broke. However violent a show she was used to staging, however much she normally got away with, this time she'd surprised herself. The muscles in her face had started loosening up.

"There can't be any next time," Miranda said.

"You could've succeeded in killing him, Allison," I said. "Easily."

Allison managed to refocus on me. "You're the one who slammed Cam's head into a beer keg, Tres. What— it's okay for you to act that way?"

Miranda gave me a look I couldn't quite read. She seemed to be willing me to say something.

I'm not sure why, but just then the room we were standing in came into clearer focus. I realized it must be Miranda's. The burgundy and blue quilt on the bed, the miniature wooden horse on the desk, the dried arrangements of sage and lavender along the windowsill all seemed right for her. A tiny blond Martin guitar was propped in the corner. A few Daniels family photographs were framed in silver on the nightstand. It was a strange room—sparse and orderly but also cozy, definitely feminine. Normally I would've guessed it belonged to a little girl with a tidy mother, or perhaps to somebody's grandmother.

Miranda kept giving me a silent request.

I looked at Allison. "Why don't I drive you home? You need to get out of here."

Wrong answer. Miranda tightened her lips, but she said, "That's a good idea."

Allison collected herself. She was just about to agree, I think, when Tilden Sheckly barged into the room.

He moved like he was still groggy, but he managed a pretty hideous facsimile of his regular grin. The left side of his face was still mostly blood and dirt. His unruly graybrown hair was flattened on top by sweat in the shape of his missing hat.

"Allison SaintPierre," he croaked. "I think we need to talk."

Sheck walked toward her. I made the mistake of trying to stop him, figuring that he was still dazed.

The next thing I knew I was sitting on the rug with my jaw feeling like it had just been branded. There was either blood in my mouth or dark beer—Guinness, maybe. I don't remember Sheckly's upper cut at all. I certainly didn't have time to block it.

"I'll talk to you in a minute, son," Sheckly said unevenly. He was focusing a little to the left of my eyes. "We'll have some words about trespassing in people's offices. Right now, stay out of my way."

He grabbed Allison by the wrist.

Allison managed to break Sheckly's grip and rake the bad side of his face with her fingernails, but Sheck looked like he'd expected that. He winced and swayed backward and then smiled, like he'd just been given permission to try again with a little more force.

"Sheckly," Miranda said, soft but insistent.

"Miranda, darlin'." He kept trying to get his mouth to work right, to have that normal smooth tone to it. "This ain't your fault, honey. I know that. But you understand what your friend here did? At your Daddy's party? You think I'm gonna let her walk away from that—would that be right?"

Allison tried for another slap and got her wrist intercepted. The back of Sheck's other hand struck her across the mouth with a sound like a leather belt snapping.

Miranda stood frozen, staring at Sheckly's fingers around Allison's wrist. I had no luck trying to get off the floor.

Sheck was raising his hand to strike again when Brent Daniels stepped into the doorway and cocked the hammer of his shotgun.

Brent didn't need to say anything. Sheck knew the sound of a doubleaughtsix just fine. Sheck's hand froze next to his shoulder, like he was saying the Pledge of Allegiance. He turned around.

When he saw it was only Brent he tried to reconstruct his smile. A little bead of blood dripped off his chin.

"Aw, Christ, son, put that damn thing down. You know I ain't—"

"You step away," Brent insisted.

Brent's voice was even and deadly serious. His eyes were still bloodshot but there was no alcoholic glaze to them. No hesitation and no uneasiness. Brent's eyes were alert and dangerous and I couldn't quite remember why I'd ever thought of him as dimwitted.

"Brent—" Miranda started to say, firmer than before.

"Shut up, Miranda."

Sheckly stepped sideways, toward the foot of the bed. He wiped at his chin. "All right, Brent. It's your house. Just appears to me—"

"Get out, Mr. Sheckly."

Sheck raided his hands slowly, giving up. "All right, son. All right."

He looked at Allison to let her know nothing was finished. He searched his pocket for a handkerchief and realized he didn't have one. He walked toward Brent until his chest was only a few inches from the shotgun's muzzle.

"Can I pass?"

Brent stepped aside silently. Sheckly got a glint of dazed amusement in his eyes.

"Maria would be proud of you, son. Taking up a gun again." He winked, I think. With his ruined face it was hard to tell what was intentional and what was just the flesh going into shock. "You cut a fine figure of a man."

Then, mumbling pleasantly to himself about all the people he was going to kill, Tilden Sheckly left the room.

When he was gone the barrel of Brent's shotgun lowered to the floor. I got to my feet.

Allison collapsed onto the bed. Her hands clenched but they trembled anyway. She gave Brent a crooked smile, winced, dabbed her tongue into the corner of her mouth, and tasted the blood there. "My hero."

Brent was blushing violently, but I don't think it was from Allison's comment. Miranda looked at him with an expression somewhere between outrage and sympathy.

"Oh, Brent—Good Lord, I'm sorry."

"Shut up, Miranda," Brent said again. He was staring at the floor, digging a hole in the rug with the shotgun muzzle. "For once, just shut up."


I leaned against a cedar post on the Daniels' back porch, staring across the dark field toward the barn where Brent Daniels had retreated. I could only see what was illuminated by the kerosene lantern Brent had hung at the edge of the roof, and from a hundred yards away that wasn't much. The building was apparently half tractor shed, half apartment. On the side closest to me was a curtained window with no light coming through.

The field between here and there was scarred with black lines of trenches, pocked with mounds of dirt. About thirty yards out was the dark silhouette of a backhoe. Some kind of plumbing work in progress.

My jaw where Tilden Sheckly had hit me throbbed every time my heart beat. My lower gums were puffy, but I hadn't chipped any teeth and my tongue had stopped bleeding from the hole I'd bitten into it. Compared to Sheckly—compared to a lot of people I'd met this week—I counted myself lucky.

Behind me the party sounds were dying down. The taillights of pickup trucks made little red eyes down Serra Road and onto RR22. Above my head, the bug zapper sizzled every time it said howdy to a mosquito. Once in a while somewhere out in the fields a cow or a horse farted. You think I'm kidding. Stay on a ranch sometime—you'll get to know those nighttime sounds intimately.

I'd finished my last beer and was now busy shredding the plastic cup into a flower.

Allison SaintPierre had ended up getting a ride from someone else. As it turned out there were plenty of guys ready to fight me for the chance. I didn't fight.

I started wondering why I didn't just go around the yard, get in my car and disappear when the screen door creaked open. Miranda Daniels came out and sat next to me on the railing. She'd taken off her bandanna and untucked her white shirt so it fell loose and wrinkled over her skirt. In the black light of the bug zapper her clothes glowed various shades of violet. Her lips were dark purple. The only thing that didn't change colour was her hair. It was so black I couldn't tell where it ended in the dark.

"Thanks for waiting," she said.

"Did you get your dad calmed down?"

"I think so. He's ready for me to quit the recording project. He says it's ruining his parties."

"Not to mention his relationship with Sheckly."

When she took a deep breath her collarbone sketched a line underneath her shirt.

"Daddy'd like to see me stay a local performer awhile longer, that's a fact. He doesn't trust how fast Les has been taking things. Sheckly and him—they see eye to eye on that."

"And you? What do you want?"

She scraped her thumbnail along her palm like she was stroking out a splinter. "It must look like I'm just going along for the ride, don't it? Letting everybody else take turns steering. Allison's always telling me—" She stopped, shook her head, displeased with herself for taking that detour. "I'm really not sure. I wake up different mornings, I feel different things."

"Allison showed me an article in the Recording Industry Times today. They seem to think you'll be rich enough soon to pay off your dad's ranch and buy the rest of Bulverde, too."

Miranda laughed uneasily. "They're assuming Les SaintPierre will be around to represent me."

"I spoke with Cam Compton too. He said he'd told you some ways to make the Century deal happen, some ways that Les could get bargaining power against Sheck."

Miranda frowned. She seemed to be casting around in her memories, trying to make a connection. Finally she found it. "You mean about Julie. Something about the headliner shows."

"So he did tell you."

"Cam said a lot of crazy things."

"But you passed the information along to Les."

Miranda shrugged. "I don't— Maybe I did. But not seriously. I told Les it was just crazy stuff. I told him not to do anything stupid on my account."

"But he did. Les started getting close to Julie Kearnes. He started digging for dirt on Sheck."

She shivered. "I don't want to talk about this."

We listened to another caravan of pickup trucks rumble and ping down the gravel road.