A lthough Cork had often watched Jubal Little play football on the television screen, in the flesh, his old friend was startling to behold. Jubal had grown. Not just in height but also in mass. His football career had dictated that he create a body that could take brutal beatings week after week, pounding from men as big as rodeo bulls. And a magnificent body it was, broad and towering. But there was something that diminished his presence, an air of uncertainty, of defeat that Cork had never seen in him when they were kids. In high school in Aurora, when Jubal walked the halls between classes, the sea of bodies would part for him. It was subtle, but now Cork thought he saw in Jubal’s eyes a look of desperation, the look of the lost.
They used Willie’s American Express Gold Card and rented a Jeep at the Portland airport, then drove east down the Columbia River Gorge. It was early April, and Cork had never seen air so gray or mist so viscous. He had a sense of mountains rising up almost from the roadside, but a hundred yards above him, everything was swallowed by cloud and drizzle. The great river on their left looked as cold as water could get without becoming ice. On their right, waterfall after waterfall unspooled long, loose threads of liquid that hung down the face of wet black rock. It seemed like a world in which moss and rot reigned.
They passed through Hood River, a dismal-looking little town squatting among the hills. They had breakfast, and Jubal flirted with the waitress, a pleasant woman who easily told him her name was Johanna Sisu. He asked, “So, Johanna, when will we see the sun?”
She laughed, didn’t bother to look at her watch, but simply nodded instead toward the calendar on the wall. “ ’Nother month, give or take a week.”
Cork and Willie tipped her well. Jubal left her with only the golden memory of his smile.
Twenty miles later, they hit The Dalles and turned south into great hills that were soft and green with winter wheat. At Madras, they veered east again and eventually entered a desolate area of plateaus and canyons carved out of thick layers of old lava flow.
“The Great Oregon Desert,” Willie said. ThGreOrgnDeser.
“You came out here alone?” Jubal asked, clearly astonished.
“I go everywhere alone.”
There was no resentment in Willie’s voice, but the statement saddened Cork. As kids, Willie and Winona had been inseparable, and her leaving must have been a terrible blow.
“What have you been up to, Willie?” Jubal asked.
“School mostly. I got my B.A. from the U of M in the Twin Cities, then did graduate work at Yale.”
“Yale?” Jubal said. “You went to Yale?”
“For a while. I missed the North Country and came home after a year. I have a studio near Allouette now, but I go all over doing shoots for magazines.”
“Willie’s work has been in National Geographic, ” Cork said. He was driving, with Jubal riding shotgun. Willie was in back.
“ National Geographic? I’ll be a son of a bitch,” Jubal said. “My hat’s off to you, Willie.”
“I’ve been lucky.”
Cork knew there was more than luck involved. There was something at the heart of Willie Crane immeasurably strong and immensely admirable. He’d seen it sometimes, great adversity shaping great character. It could work the other way as well, killing everything in the human spirit. What made the difference, maybe only Kitchimanidoo or God alone knew.
“You’ve done pretty good, too,” Willie said to Jubal. “I’ve watched you play on television. But you didn’t play last year.”
“I couldn’t find an offense where I felt I fit in,” Jubal said, with a note of defensiveness. “I’m in talks with the Dallas organization. I expect to hear from the Cowboys any day now.”
“What are you doing in the meantime?”
“A friend of mine, guy I know from my days with the Broncos, he and I build luxury mountain homes.”
Which, as Cork understood it from his discussion with the La Plata deputy, was an exaggeration at best. But he said nothing.
They reached a river called the John Day and then drove through a small town called Furlough, which wasn’t much more than a grid of a dozen streets lined with cottonwoods, a grocery store, two bars, and a gas station, everything dusty-looking. A few miles beyond, they turned onto a dirt road that followed a rocky creek, and they began to climb in altitude. After five miles or so, Willie said, “Stop at the crest of this hill ahead.”
Cork did as he’d been instructed. Beyond the rise lay a little valley, and beyond the valley rose blue mountains capped with snow. A stream ran the length of the valley, and on both sides of the stream grew orchards. In the middle of the orchards was a big white house and outbuildings.
They got out of the Jeep, stood on the dirt road, and studied the scene below them. A cool wind blew at their backs. In that high desert place, the air smelled of fresh sage.
“A man named Spenser McMurphy started this as a sheep ranch in the eighteen hundreds,” Willie said. “A couple of generations later, it became what they refer to out here as a fruit ranch. It’s owned by the McMurphys, three brothers. The oldest is Crandall. He’s maybe forty, a bachelor, unattached. Middle brother is Caleb. Late thirties, married, has one son, a teenager named Beckett. Youngest brother is Cole. He’s a few years older than Winona, and he’s the one she’s with. They all live communally in that one big house.”
“Crandall McMurphy?” Cork asked. “Isn’t that the guy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”
“That’s Randle,” Willie said. “But McMurphy went to college with Kesey and they were both wrestlers. Folks in Furlough are positive that Kesey based the character in his book on Crandall. Both of them, I guess, are sly and more than a little crazy. From what I understand, they’re all a rough bunch.”
“You told me they were heavily involved in drugs,” Cork said.
Willie nodded. “The orchard’s just a cover. They have several marijuana grows along the creek down the valley.”
“You learned this just by asking around?” Cork was frankly amazed.
“No. I tracked them when I was here last week. It’s planting season, and they’ve been busy getting the grows ready.”
“How long has Winona been with them?” Jubal asked.
“She came here a little over a year ago.”
“Came from where?”
“San Francisco. She was living on the streets.”
“Homeless?” Jubal said, obviously dismayed.
“She preferred to be called a free spirit.”
“You’ve seen her since she left Aurora?” Cork asked.
“Only once, a few years ago. She agreed to meet me when I flew to the Bay Area for an exhibit of my photographs.”
Cork said, “How’d it go? The meeting, I mean.”
“Awful. She was so lost. I begged her to come home, but she refused. I think she felt ashamed of what she’d become. She was into drugs, panhandling on the streets. Maybe worse. The one thing she agreed to was to let me send her money. Which I did. It was never much, but she wrote me that it helped, and she was grateful. Then she wrote me that she’d hooked up with a guy named Cole McMurphy and was moving to Furlough. I haven’t heard from her since.”
“Did you still send letters and money?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if she got them.”
“Have you tried to talk to her here?”
“I never got the chance. I had to ask around in Furlough to even find this place, and word got back pretty fast to the McMurphy brothers. Crandall and Cole came looking for me. If I didn’t talk so funny or walk so badly, they might have got physical with me. Folks tend to write me off. All they did was warn me not to try to see Winona.”
“And if you did?” Jubal asked.
“It wouldn’t go well for me, or for Winona. They weren’t bluffing. When I was here last week, I spent three full days just watching that place down there. I saw how Winona gets treated. The other woman, too. It’s not good.”
Darkness swept over Jubal. He turned his back to the valley and slammed his fist on the hood of the Jeep. “My fault,” he said. “Goddamn it, it’s all my fault. She’d never have left Tamarack County except for me.”
Willie didn’t argue, but Cork said, “Blame gets us nowhere, Jubal. We’ve got to figure out how to get her away from there.”
“We just go in and take her,” Jubal declared.
Willie shook his head. “We would be trespassing, and it would be kidnapping. They have guns, and folks around here are pretty isolated and tight. I’m guessing the local authorities have some idea of what the McMurphys are up to but don’t care, or maybe they’re being paid off. If push came to shove, we’d be taking the bigger risk. Besides, I have another idea.”
Jubal drew himself up, huge and angry, and said, “Let’s hear it.”
At dusk Cork and Jubal went to the store in Furlough. They left Willie behind because he didn’t want to take a chance on being recognized in town. They bought cold cuts, cheese, bread, and soft drinks. They also bought a big thermos and filled it with hot coffee. When they came back, Willie directed them to a jumble of rocks a mile from the orchards, but still high in the hills above the valley. They parked the Jeep where it couldn’t be seen from the road and hunkered down to wait for morning.
The sky was clear and the night was cold. The moon rose late, full and ice white over the valley. Cork slept fitfully in the front passenger seat of the Jeep. Willie dozed behind the wheel, and Jubal took up the whole of the backseat. Cork woke often and several times heard the cry of coyotes in the hills around them. Near morning, he woke again and couldn’t go back to sleep. He took the thermos, slipped away, and climbed up to the flat top of one of the rocks that hid the Jeep. Below him, the orchards formed an irregular darkness against the moonlit wild grass that filled the valley. It reminded him of a huge bruise on a patch of pale skin. The white house, iridescent in the brilliant moonlight, dominated the middle of all that darkness. Somewhere inside, Winona slept. He poured coffee into the thermos cup and, while he sipped the tepid brew, tried to imagine what she was like now after all she’d been through. He thought about Stockholm syndrome, and wondered if, despite all they would be risking for her, Winona would actually agree to let them take her away. If she refused, what could they do?
He heard the scrape of a belt buckle across the rock at his back. Jubal crawled up beside him and stared a long time into the valley, saying not a word.
“You ever want to go back, Cork?”
“To when everything wasn’t so complicated.”
“Moot issue, Jubal. You can’t go back. As far as I know, in life there’s only forward.”
Jubal was silent again. In the hills above them and to the left, a coyote howled. It seemed a forlorn sound, although Cork knew that under other circumstances he might have heard it differently.
“Back in Chicago, is there anyone special?” Jubal asked.
“Yeah. A woman named Jo.”
“Is it serious?”
“It’s headed that way.”
“Me, I’ve had more women than I can remember. They all kind of blend together.” Jubal’s eyes fixed on the white house at the center of the darkness. “Except for one.” He turned back and glanced at the Jeep. “That Willie. Man, he’s amazing.”
“He always has been,” Cork said.
“He’s getting famous. And you, you’re doing exactly what you always wanted to do. It’s funny.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I always figured I was the one most likely to succeed.”
“Hell,” Jubal said. “I’m a washed-up football player. I’ve got no prospects at all on the horizon. That stuff I told you about, talking to the Dallas Cowboys, that’s bullshit. Nobody’s interested in me. You want to know the truth? Right now, I’m just a construction worker. A big, dumb ladder monkey.”
Cork didn’t know what to say to that, so he just looked at the moon. Jubal looked there, too.
“Winona had a vision once,” he said. “She saw me on a mountaintop, holding the moon and the sun in my hands, the stars singing around my head. She told me I was destined for greatness.” Jubal stood and reached skyward as if to take all the heavens in his hands. Then he held them out, empty, and shook his head. “So much for visions.”
They heard the Jeep door close, and in another minute, Willie joined them atop the rock.
“Sun’s up in an hour,” he said. Sunsupinour.
“Any coffee left in that thermos, Cork?” Jubal asked.
They shared coffee from the same cup and listened to the birds that had begun to chatter, and watched the eastern sky above the distant mountains turn amethyst then amber, and waited for signs of life to come from the ranch house in the valley so that Willie’s plan could be set in motion.
This was what Willie had proposed.
Every morning the McMurphys rose around six. They had breakfast. Then the three brothers headed south down the valley to tend to their marijuana grows. They would come back around noon, have lunch, and work the orchards the rest of the day. When the McMurphy brothers left after breakfast, Beckett, who was a freshman in high school, would ride an ATV to the main road, where a bus picked him up and took him to school in John Day. Which left only the two women at the house. And that, Willie had suggested, was when they would make their move.
Lights began to wink on in the house a few minutes after six. The sun was still below the mountains to the east, and the valley lay in the blue of their shadow. Cork took turns with his companions, staring through a pair of field glasses that Willie had brought, watching the fruit ranch for activity.
By seven, the sun was above the mountains and the valley was beginning to warm. Willie had the field glasses, and he said, “They’re leaving.”
Cork squinted and could just barely make out small figures moving in the yard between the house and what looked to be the barn. They went to a brown pickup, got in, and a moment later, across the mile of dry, high desert that separated them, Cork heard the distant sound of an engine growling to life. The pickup pulled out of the yard and down a lane that ran between the trees of the orchard. Outside the orchard, where the lane met the dirt road that came in over the hills from the main highway, they turned south. The pickup kicked up a little rooster tail of dust as it went, and Cork finally lost sight of it as it disappeared behind the broad chest of the hills where he and the others lay watching.
“How long before the kid takes off?” Jubal asked.
“Beckett should be leaving any time now,” Willie replied.
But Beckett didn’t leave. They waited nearly an hour, and there was no more movement at the fruit ranch below.
“What the hell’s going on?” Jubal finally asked, tense and impatient. “Where’s the kid?”
Cork said, “Sick maybe. Or maybe it’s spring break for schools in Oregon. Or maybe he’s just playing hooky. Whatever it is, we need to rethink our plan.”
“Hell,” Jubal said. “It’s just the kid and his mother with Winona now. We can’t handle a kid and a woman, we’re in trouble.”
Cork said, “If there’s a rifle in that house and he’s been taught how to use it, he can give us plenty of trouble. I don’t want any blood shed over this.”
Willie said, “What should we do?”
“If we drive down, they’ll see us coming for sure. I’d rather catch them by surprise.” Cork looked at Willie. “Can you handle the Jeep?”
“Okay, then Jubal and I are going to hoof it down there, sneak through the orchards to the house. When you reconnoitered here last week, Willie, did you see a dog?”
“Yes, but he always went with the men.”
“Let’s hope he went with them today.”
“We get down there, then what?” Jubal said.
“We find Winona and talk to her. And then we bring her out. Willie, you keep those field glasses glued to your eyes. When you see us leave the house with Winona, you come down there fast.”
“And if that kid goes for a rifle?” Jubal said.
“We talk to him.”
“You got a lot of faith in talk.”
“Talk doesn’t kill people, Jubal.”
Jubal eyed him a long moment, then laughed. “Shoot, we got nothing to lose. Let’s find Winona.”