Every midnight Katharine Lee Jackson appears like a ghost in the live oak and ceanothus scrub on the hillside above the Azimuth County Jail.
Speaking to no one, she drifts silently out of the darkness, a widow’s veil concealing her pale face. Sometimes the moon shows her clearly; when the weather is foul and rain soaks her mourning clothes, she is barely visible.
Each time she visits, she reminds me of the woman in the song by Lefty Frizzell:
She walks these hills in a long black veil She visits my grave when the night winds wail Nobody knows, nobody sees Nobody knows but me
I watch for her because I dressed her in those widow’s weeds when I turned her husband into worm food.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
My name is Johnny Ray Deets and I’m a chain rigger, tree faller and straw-boss for the Daugherty Lumber Company. At least I used to be.
I fell in love with Katharine Lee Jackson the first time I laid eyes on her, a couple of years before I quit school in the eleventh grade to take my old man’s place in the woods.
I still love her today, but the real world got in between us and we took different paths.
When I spotted her in the corridor at Horace Greeley High School, I thought she was the prettiest girl in the world.
I’d heard her father was the new manager of the local bank. That didn’t mean anything to me. In my family we respected anyone who worked hard, regardless of whether they wore a suit or a hard hat.
Most of the kids had dads who worked in the woods like mine. Many barely scraped by and had a low opinion of people higher in the pecking order.
Their kids picked up the attitude like valley fever. They viewed the new girl with suspicion.
One day as I looked for a place to eat my brown bag, I saw her in tears surrounded by three boys jawing at her about how her old man’s bank was bleeding their parents dry on the loans they’d taken to make it through rough patches. As I walked up, one of them spat on her and called her a “rich bitch.”
I was pretty big as a kid—already six feet tall in the ninth grade and beefy enough that I got tagged to play varsity football in what should have been my redshirt year. I wasn’t just bigger than most of my classmates; I was faster and a hell of a lot stronger.
Maybe because of my size my old man raised me to hate bullies and I’d jump into a fight with anybody picking on somebody smaller or weaker. Hurting a girl or calling her names were probably the most awful crimes I could imagine.
Particularly a girl as pretty as Katharine Lee.
I grabbed the kid who’d been running her down, swung him to face me and drove a left hand into his chin. As he fell back, I followed with a right cross, just like my pa had shown me. The bigmouth wound up coldcocked on the blacktop.
“Learn some manners, you ignorant asshole!” I growled as his chums dragged him away.
When they left, I turned and stared at Katharine Lee like an idiot. “C-can I sit next to you?” I asked, my face suddenly blood red.
She wiped her tears away. Patting the bench next to her, she smiled and said, “Why not? Nobody else will.”
We ate lunch together each day for the rest of the year.
From that day forward, the teasing stopped. I was Katharine Lee’s protector, her champion.
We dated at homecoming through my junior year. She had me over to her house twice for dinner with her family (her old man was delighted she had snagged a first-string football player who had decent table manners). When the Junior Prom rolled around, I even used the money I made summers pumping gas to buy her a corsage of gardenias and a decent suit from the Monkey Ward Catalog so she wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with me.
Afterwards when I took her home in my pa’s pickup she kissed me at her front door. Her lips were the sweetest thing I ever tasted.
But that same year, things went sour. My old man was helping to rig a turn for the cold deck when a bum tie-down gave way and one of the big-assed logs rolled up on him. His legs were pulped right up through the hip. He died a week later.
We couldn’t live without pa’s paychecks. I was nineteen and big enough to fall lumber, so I grabbed my old man’s calks, helmet and beat-up McCulloch 3-25 and plugged into the Daugherty operation, working six shifts a week plus overtime during good weather.
I was a perfect fit. I didn’t even have to change the name on the hard hat.
Ma never got over pa’s death. A year later, she passed on herself.
Clarence Daugherty, the company’s founder, ran Azimuth County like a cotton plantation in Mississippi. He was a tyrant and his word was law, but he was a lumberman to the core with sawdust in his veins. He took a shine to me because there was hardly a job in the woods I couldn’t do, usually faster and better than the men who’d been working there for years.
“Johnny Ray is the best hand in Azimuth,” he’d say. “I’m proud to have him on my push!”
When he died of a stroke two years ago his son Richard took his place in just about everything, including the day-to-day of running the company.
Richard was about my age but never had a job that made him sweat. He didn’t care for the lumber business. He stopped producing finished lumber for homes and businesses and went to cutting Japanese Squares – unfinished logs for shipment overseas. He brought in suits from Los Angeles to make most of the show mechanical and he started going through the payroll and getting rid of older hands with real timber skills.
Pretty soon nothing was left but a skeleton crew to operate the machinery and cable cut entire hillsides. All the old timers ended up at home, staying drunk on rocking chair money. When their unemployment ran out, they either lived off food stamps or starved.
Eventually Richard Daugherty sold what was left of his old man’s company to some big outfit in Asia. The only thing they kept was the company’s name.
Daugherty Lumber was pretty near the only show in town and most folks for a hundred miles in each direction depended on it for their living. Times fell hard in Azimuth County.
I was one of the last to get the ax. That’s a joke, friend.
Daugherty didn’t have the courtesy to tell me in person. I found out from the pink slip in my pay envelope. I’d gone from being one of the highest paid guys in the woods to living off unemployment like everybody else.
I was trying to figure out what to do, but my options weren’t attractive. There was always working as a gyppo, but the work was irregular as hell and there weren’t enough indy logging operations to get steady income.
I could always poach trees off private property but most of the good stands were gone leaving nothing but snags. Pirating firewood was another non-starter: there was no cash in beaver bait and blow downs, even when you hawked it to suburbanites.
So I went on unemployment for two years.
The bank in town is where I cashed my last go-to-hell check. There, sitting behind a desk in a little glass office, was where I spoke with Katharine Lee Jackson for the last time—only now the little black plastic plate on her desk said she was Katharine Lee Daugherty, Vice President.
I watched her talking on the phone while I waited for a teller. She still was a stunner, the most beautiful woman in town, but she had a bruise around her left eye that was starting to fade from brown to green and her free arm was in a sling. Under it you could see a plaster cast that ran from her fingers to the bend of her elbow.
She spotted me taking my cash and getting ready to leave when she was hanging up.
“Johnny! Johnny Ray Deets!” she said as she got up and left her little office. She was walking with a slight limp and I noticed an elastic bandage around her knee. “Wait, Johnny! It’s me, Katharine!”
She stopped in front of me, smiling through her pain at the effort. “Do you remember me at all?”
It felt so good to see her and hear her voice I couldn’t help but smile back. “Hell, how could I forget you?” I said gruffly. “You’re the only girl I ever kissed. You were the love of my life.”
She looked surprised. “Then why’d you quit school? I heard you’d gone to work as a lumberman.” She shook her head sadly. “I never understood it. You were all-state in football—had a chance to go to the University on full scholarship. But one day you were just gone. You never even said goodbye.”
“I didn’t have much choice, Katharine Lee,” I said. “My pa got crushed on the job. I had to support my mother. That meant getting a job, and the only thing I knew was working the woods. I knew all the logging jobs ‘cause I’d been watching my pa do ‘em all my life.”
I gestured to the sign on her desk. “Lest you forget, the Daugherty’s have this county sewed up. You want to make a real living, you best lug a saw or drive a log truck. Everything else is barely subsistence wages.”
“I can see you did okay for yourself, though,” I said, a note of bitterness creeping into my voice. “It must be nice having a banker dad and a millionaire husband. Glad one of us grabbed the brass ring.”
She blushed. “I started as a teller and worked my way up,” she said. “Had to take a test and pass an interview to get my foot in the door—with no short cuts. My dad died of a heart attack three years ago when I was still working the loan desk. Bank headquarters liked my work and made me his replacement.”
“As for Dick, I married him because he was the only guy in town who showed an interest in me besides you,” she said. In a voice so low he could barely hear her, she added: “Believe me, having a millionaire husband hasn’t been a bed of roses.”
“How do you mean?”
She bit her lip. “He goes off at the slightest provocation. I think under all the money and fancy cars, he feels inadequate and tends to take it out on those around him. He’s wretchedly jealous. Every time another man looks at me, he thinks we’re having an affair.”
I looked at her eyes. They looked haunted.
“I thought he only treated us working stiffs like dirt,” I said, my voice softening. “Did he give you that shiner and break your arm?”
She hesitated with tears welling in her eyes. “No, uh—I fell down a flight of stairs at the house.”
She was obviously lying. I squeezed her uninjured hand gently. She didn’t pull away.
“Come on Katharine Lee,” I said. “Tell the truth. Did he abuse you?”
She leaned onto my chest, trembling and beginning to shed those tears.
“Yes,” she whispered. “More than once. But for God’s sake don’t say anything to anybody about it. When he broke my arm two weeks ago, he said he’d kill me if I reported it to the sheriff. He said he’d know because Creed Moreland and his deputies have been in the Daugherty family’s pocket for years.”
“The rotten son of a bitch,” I said, biting off my words through clenched teeth.
Moreland had been sheriff forever. I knew when the elder Daugherty was alive, most every Saturday Creed played poker with him and Azimuth’s mayor, Carny Davies. My pa told me the only time he knew the old man to bug out of the game was the night Richard got drunk and ran his Corvette into a logger’s station wagon, killing the driver and critically injuring his wife and kids.
Clarence stepped out “to make a couple calls,” my pa told me. Not only did Richard get off without so much as a traffic ticket, but there wasn’t a word about the accident in the local paper.
By sheer bad luck, Daugherty Junior walked into the bank at that moment. He saw us with our heads together, holding hands. I could tell from the blank look he flicked my way he had no idea I was a former employee.
“What the hell is this all about?” he demanded of Katharine Lee. “You shameless cunt! Are you hooking up with your fucking lovers in your damned bank now?”
Snake quick, he grabbed her by her broken arm and pulled her away from me. Showing his teeth, he slapped her across the face and backhanded her on the return.
I jerked him away from her and she fell to the floor with a cry of pain, a ribbon of blood trickling from her nose. I drew back my fist to pound Daugherty senseless but he was holding a snub-nosed pistol pointed at my middle.
“Stand back, cowboy,” he said. “This is just between me and my so-called wife. I’m going to let you walk out of here intact. Just edge out that door. If you don’t, I’ll either shoot you myself or have the sheriff arrest you and charge you with something that puts you away for decades.”
I’d grown three inches taller during my first couple of years working as a faller. A decade of wrangling logs, dragging chains and toting a McCulloch with a 30-inch bar had made me stronger and more limber than when I was playing free safety in high school.
But I was shocked at how fast Daugherty moved. Only an idiot takes on a man who has a gun aimed at his belly so, fuming with rage, I half raised my hands and backed slowly out of the bank.
Once I was outside my anger took over completely. I wanted to kill the son of a bitch, no matter what the cost. I could reach my pa’s red International Harvester with just a few steps. The Ruger carbine I use to hunt deer was locked in a rack behind its seat.
But when I got to the truck, the coil of hooked log chain in the bed gave me a better idea. I pulled it out and wrapped enough around my hand to leave four feet of steel hanging and slouched back in the doorway of a boarded-up shop to watch the bank’s entrance.
Daugherty came out a few minutes later and turned my direction as I ducked out of sight. I waited until he drew alongside and said quietly, “hey, asshole!”
He turned, pulling out his snubbie and I wrapped the chain around his wrist with a single quick swing. The gun slipped from his shattered forearm and went off when it hit, telling me it had been loaded and cocked.
He yelped like a kicked hound and staggered back, grabbing his arm as the chain unwound. I stepped up and chain-whipped his shoulders with a sound like a sledge hammer crushing a pile of walnuts.
As he went to his knees, I wrapped the chain around his head with a final vicious lash. The pulpy crunch stifled his screams of agony permanently.
Sprawling on the sidewalk, the cracks in Richard deformed skull oozed blood and a gray and pink goop that looked like cottage cheese. His eyes bulged between the loops of iron that seemed to be the only thing holding his head together.
I let the rest of the chain unwind from my hand into a pile next to him. It seemed unlikely I would ever get a chance to use it again.
It made no sense to run; I had nowhere to go. I figured wherever I ended up, I wouldn’t be there long, anyway. Count on it: murdering a millionaire gets you the needle these days.
Sheriff’s patrol officers quickly arrived, followed by an ambulance and two paramedics. While the cops put me in handcuffs and stuck me in their black and white, the sawbones declared Daugherty dead where he fell.
As the cops drove me away, I saw Katharine Lee watching through the bank’s front window. She was crying and she pressed her uninjured hand against the plate glass. Once again, I had been her champion and protector.
I wanted to keep Katharine Lee from sitting through a painful trial that probably would have required her testimony so I pleaded guilty to murder one and was sentenced to die. No big loss. I would have been convicted anyway, what with Daugherty’s kin and hot-shot cronies in the driver’s seat.
My only regret is that there isn’t a vacant cell in Death Row and I’ll be stuck in the county jail until the state is ready to stick me. I guess it makes sense: I spent my whole life in Azimuth and I’ll be here until they take me to San Quentin.
That’s why I see Katharine Lee walking the hills in mourning clothes. Each night she appears on the pine-topped bluff that shields the jail from the Northwest wind. Sometimes I seem to hear the breeze carry her quiet weeping across the gulch near the razor wire fence. Or maybe I just imagine it. I can’t be certain.
I am sure she knows I’m watching. After all, she isn’t there to grieve the man I killed. Her tears are just for me.