No one answered the front door so I walked around by the horseshoe pit.

The back field looked like a playground for the Army Corps of Engineers—pyramids of PVC and copper pipes, crisscrossed trenches, mounds of caliche soil. The other night it had been too dark to see the extent of the work.

Leaning against a utility shed out beyond the chicken coop were three metal canisters a little smaller than cars—septic tanks. Two were dull silver and pitted with rust holes.

The third was new and white but caked here and there with clods of dirt, as if it had been improperly installed and then dug up again.

The riderless backhoe squatted at the end of a trench, its shovel nuzzling the caliche.

The backhoe was speckled with dirt and machine oil but looked fairly new, painted the green and yellow of a rental company.

I heard a tape playing out beyond the tractor shed. It was spare acoustic guitar and male vocal—like early Willie Nelson.

I walked that direction. The horse in the neighbouring field watched me with her neck leaning into the top of the barbed wire while she chewed on an apple half.

When I got closer I realized the tape I was hearing was one of the songs Miranda performed, only changed for a male singer. When I got around the other side of the shed I realized I wasn't hearing a tape at all. It was Brent Daniels singing.

He was sitting in one of two lawn chairs against the far wall of his tractorshed apartment, next to the chicken coop. He was facing the hills and strumming his Martin for the hens.

His hair was tousled into a thin wet black mess, like he'd just showered. He wore a Tshirt and denim shorts.

There was a stack of Dixie cups and a bottle of Ryman whiskey on the tree stump next to him. He'd made a bold start on the bottle. He was singing his heart out and for the first time I realized just how good he really was.

He didn't hear me coming up, or he didn't care. I stayed about twenty yards away and listened to him finish the song. He gave the impression that he was singing to somebody on the hilltop over on the horizon.

When Brent finished he let the guitar slide off his lap, then he picked up the whiskey bottle and poured himself a cupful. He slugged it down and glanced at me.


"I thought you were a recording."

Daniels frowned. " You want Miranda, she's in Austin, mixing the demo. Willis is out getting more finger pipes."

"In that case, mind if I join you?"

He deliberated, like he wanted to say no but was so out of practice turning down social requests that he didn't remember how. He held the stack of Dixie cups toward me. I took one off the top, then sat in the other lawn chair.

You could see a long way off. The hills in the distance were green. The sky was blue the way amusement park water is blue—an unnatural, dyedforthetourists kind of look, with foamy little scraps of cloud. A couple of turkey buzzards circled about half a mile to the north, over a clump of trees. Dead cow or deer, probably. To the east there was a brown zigzag of haze from someone's brushfire.

The Ryman whiskey burned its way down my throat.

"Les' brand, isn't it?"

Brent shrugged. "He gives it out. Door prizes."

I wanted to ask some questions but the country air, the country mood, had started working on me. I realized how tired I was, how tired I'd been for the past few weeks.

The midday sun was warm but not unpleasant, just enough to burn the last of the dew off the chicken wire and get some warmth into my bones. The hills invited quiet spectating. The reasons I had come out to the ranch house started unknitting in my head.

"You play out here often?"

Some shadows deepened around Brent's eyes. "I suppose."

"Y'all got another gig tonight?"

He shook his head. "Just Miranda. She's got a show up scheduled with Robert Earle Keen at Floore's Country Store. I suppose Milo's going to bring her back down for that."

I dabbed the flakes of Dixie cup wax off the surface of the liquor. "Miranda doesn't drive at all, does she?"

I hadn't even considered that fact until I said it. I hadn't questioned it Friday night, when I'd given her a lift into town, or the other times when she'd gotten rides with Milo or her father. The fact that I had just naturally accepted it, not even thought about it as odd, disturbed me for some reason I couldn't quite put into words.

"Not that she can't," Brent said. "She doesn't."


Brent glanced at me briefly, declined comment.

He picked up his guitar again and picked the strings so lightly I almost couldn't hear the notes. His hand changed chords fast, contorting into various claw shapes on the fret board.

"You ever get frustrated with her playing your songs?" I asked. "Getting all the attention for your music?"

Brent kept playing quietly, looking at the hills as he worked his fret board, occasionally twitching his eye as he reached for a harder note. His face and his hands reminded me of a deepsea fisherman's as he worked his rod and reel.

"She was grateful at first," he said. "Told me she couldn't have done it without me—that she owed me everything. She gives you those bright eyes—" He smiled, a kind of sad amusement. Suddenly he looked like his father, a leaner version, less gray, weathered a little sooner and a little more harshly, but still Willis' son. "Guess you're the cavalry now, ain't you, Navarre?"

"You never thought much of Milo hiring a private eye."

"Nothin' personal," he said. "Seems to me Les has ditched us, Milo's trying to prove he's got things under control. It's not—I appreciate—" He stopped himself, not sure how to proceed. "Miranda was talking about you yesterday. She seemed to feel a lot easier about things—said you were a good man. I do appreciate that."

He meant it, but there was an uneasiness in his tone I couldn't quite nail down.

"Something about her Century Records deal is bothering you."

He shook his head uncertainly.

"Has Les tried to call you?"

Brent frowned. "Why would he?"

"Just a thought. You don't figure he would've contacted Miranda?"

"Les is gone for good. That's pretty obvious, ain't it?"

"Is that what Allison's hoping?"

Brent played a few more chords. His focus moved farther away by a few hundred miles. "It never should have happened between me and her."

"None of my business."

Brent shook his head sadly.

For no reason I could see he decided to start singing again. It was a pretty tune—one of his slow ones, "The Widower's TwoStep."

Coming straight from Brent the song was a hundred times sadder. I could almost feel the weight of the tractor shed apartment on his back, imagine a young woman in there, pregnant, dying from some condition I couldn't even remember the name of.

I got myself another Dixie cup full of whiskey. The liquor made a warm heavy coating around my lungs.

When Brent finished the last verse we were quiet for a long time. The sun was nice.

The circling buzzards and the horse pawing up the field and even the frantic, coked up movements of the chickens were all getting more and more fascinating the more I drank. I could've settled into that lawn chair for the rest of my life, I figured.

"You get any money from the songs?" I asked. "Allison was saying something—"

Brent nodded. "Quarter royalties."

"A quarter?"

"Half to the publisher."

"And the other quarter?"

"Goes to Miranda as cowriter."

"She cowrote the songs?"

"No. But it's standard," Brent said. "The artist who records the song gets half credit for writing it even if they didn't. Looks better on the album that way. It's a tradeoff for them choosing your material."

"Even if she's your sister?"

"Les said it's standard."

I watched the turkey buzzards. "Seems like Miranda could've made it unstandard."

He shrugged. I couldn't tell whether he cared or not. I wondered what conversations Allison had had with him about that.

"Les ever stay at the ranch house?" I asked.

He nodded reluctantly. "Once. I was following him back from a gig one night, he run himself off the road from all the drink and pills. Had to convince him to come back here and sleep it off. He wasn't a happy fella. He talked a lot about selfdestructing that night."

"How'd you handle it?"

Brent played a chord. "Told him I'd been there."

He sang another song. I drank more. My feet were pleasantly numb and I was enjoying the sound of Brent Daniels' voice. I felt easy and comfortable for the first time in days.

Not thinking about whether I wanted to become a licensed P.I. or a college teacher or a neon blue bearded lady for Cirque du Soleil.

Brent and I talked some more in between songs. It was like having a bilingual conversation—shifting in and out of singing and talking until there stopped being a difference. After a while Brent started doing other people's music—"Silver Wings" and

"Faded Love" and "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground." Stuff that reminded me of my dad's record collection. God forbid maybe I even mumbled along with Brent as he sang.

Things got blurry after that, but I remember during one of the silent places saying, "Les hasn't played straight with anybody this whole time. He wouldn't be worth protecting."

I wanted to look at him, see his reaction, but my eyes were closed and I was enjoying them that way.

"I gave up on protection a long time ago," Brent said.

His voice was a sad sound, the chords bright and airy behind it.

The last thing I remember, he was singing something about a train.

I woke up with the feeling that somebody had hooked me to a reverse IV. All the fluid had ^r drained out of my mouth and my eyes and my brain. When I moved my head everything turned white. I realized, belatedly, that I was feeling pain.

I sat up on the metal cot and rubbed my face where it had pressed itself into the texture of the rayon. One of the yellow curtains was open and light was pouring directly onto my chest.

Other things came into focus—a folding card table with a bucket of silverware on it. A wooden bunk bed, the bottom bunk stripped to the springs. A Playboy wall calendar that was still stuck on Miss August. The walls were the same inside the little tractorshed apartment as they were outside—rough wood, painted red. What few pictures there were hung from bare nails. Brent's carving knife was stuck directly into the wall above the tiny sink. There was no oven—no kitchen to speak of. Just a hot pad and a coffeemaker and a minirefrigerator.

It was possible that a woman might've lived here once, but you couldn't've proved it.

I tried to get up.

I tried again.

When I finally succeeded I realized where all the fluid in my body had drained to. I looked around for the rest room.

It was a tiny closet behind a shower curtain. Everything was close together. The sink overlapped the toilet tank and the shower drained directly into the tile floor so you could, conceivably, use the toilet and take a shower and brush your teeth all at the same time.

I only tried option number one.

It wasn't until I rummaged in the medicine cabinet, hoping for aspirin, that I found some reminder of the woman who had once lived here—orange prescription bottles, at least ten of them, all typed faintly with the name Maria Daniels. Insulin A. Prenatal vitamin supplements. Glucophage. Several other names I hadn't ever heard of. Some were open, as if she'd just taken her prescription this morning. As if nothing had been touched in the cabinet in two years. In the corner, behind the container of white Glucophage tablets, was a baby teether still in its plastic wrapper.