After Jodie Johnston left Nevada with Johnny on his bus, she called from hotels the mornings after shows, excited and eager to report. The crowds were much larger than the nights at the Branding Iron in Waverly when she'd first sung with the Johnny Black Band. Fans loved my songs and Jodie singing them, especially "Travis Jackson."
She always did several encores and they still applauded when the lights came on-Jodie was already talking with Johnny about cutting "Travis Jackson" with Harlan Smith, the agent and promoter she'd called that June day from Junior's store at Country Corners.
That was the afternoon Slim Frye had put her out of the red Porsche and I'd picked her up and taken her to the ranch and she'd found my stack of lyrics and changed "Eldon Carter" to "Travis Jackson."
"Are you sure you want to do that?" I'd asked.
"It feels just right," Jodie said. "Don't you think?"
We talked about how each date went, the next show and town, what songs of ours she'd do and their order. Sometimes Jodie sang one over the phone to let me hear a new angle, a buried phrase or minor chord she'd highlighted, then asked what I thought before she closed with the chorus from "Travis Jackson."
Jodie said Johnny was the best country lead guitar she'd been around, he really drove a number and Red was odd but fine on pedal steel and Hank Sanders played decent rhythm. Todd Miller, the drummer, was only fair but she liked him, he was easygoing and wanted to learn.
Half the songs the band did were ours and Jodie had a few others she wanted to work in that Johnny was thinking about, she was sure he'd see the light. If she had to, she'd work on Marlene, Johnny's wife.
More than once Jodie told me the music was a revelation and had made her a better singer than she'd ever been or thought possible. She'd reached a whole new level she hadn't known existed before. She'd heard good female vocalists like Tammy and Loretta, Connie Smith and others, and she could understand why they were famous.
But for the first time she had actually experienced the way it felt inside to believe heart and soul in a lyric like "Travis Jackson." She could sense it deep in her body. The songs felt different in her throat. It wasn't just her. She could see it in people's faces.
"You're a genius, dear," she said.
We were talking about music, but we were also talking about each other. She asked if I were writing new songs when I wasn't working with the cattle, what I did after supper, if I sat outside with the guitar and looked up at our stars the way each night she slept with the piece of obsidian from Shoshone Canyon under her pillow.
I tried to sound like things were normal, that although I surely missed her I was still happy and busy at the ranch. But like the couple in "Current of Love' we knew that we'd been taken by a swift surge that had knocked us off our feet and carried us along as it moved fast and deep, cutting its own channel.
"You love me, don't you, the way I love you?" she asked me directly one night.
"I do," I said. "I've never loved anybody more."
Jodie asked if I could fly out and meet her for a weekend in Memphis but I couldn't leave the stock. In the end, it was Jodie who got on the plane from Chicago. Johnny Black and the band had finished the tour and gone back to Nashville.
We spent the late summer and early fall making music-our own kind of music. Everything we did was a song with secret words. The sun kept the time, the night wind rustling the cottonwood leaves was the chorus as we watched our stars. The creek rose from underground strong and steady as a heart as each day the constant Earth tilted another notch toward the north and our shadows grew slowly longer across the changing pastures.
At last I fully understood "You Are My Valley," the one I'd written the first week Jodie had stayed at the ranch. At dusk the soft bronze grasses on the hills were like the tender down on Jodie's thigh, the curve of her shoulders that fell to the small of her back like the gentle ridges sloping to meet the flat valley.
We were happy, alone and at peace, as the cottonwood blazed yellow and the autumn light made the house and barn glow bright. The ants busy at storing their provisions cast sharp shadows across the sparkling quartz sand. We saw a faint V sweep the barnyard and looked up, shading our eyes at a high long wedge of Canadian geese crossing the sun, hearing their muffled distant calls to one another.
We rarely listened to the radio or the news and could have cared less about the uproar in Washington, all the backwash about Clinton's wanderings and lying under oath. In the evenings after dinner we sat outside and played and sang or listened to the tapes Jodie had recorded of her tour.
"They're still up there shining," Jodie said. "The two of them."
"Yes they are," I said.
On Columbus Day, we drove into town and made it public.
I'd found my own new country there'd been rumors about but no one had ever seen. Everything old looked changed, shiny and freshly painted, lit up from inside, not made a century ago but just finished the day before. I imagined that my boot heels gave off sparks against the black granite as I walked down the courthouse steps holding Jodie's hand with the sparkling gold ring.
For two weeks it was the same, morning through night-it all seemed like one long good day, as I walked around in a haze like light from a halo.
Before I'd met Jodie, I could go a month or two without seeing or talking to anyone. Now I was so happy I felt lonely any time I was away for an hour.
On a Friday afternoon I was raking hay from a stall, humming "Travis Jackson," when I heard "Travis Jackson was a loving friend" and looked up.
Jodie was standing in the doorway.
"You like that song?"
"I like it when you sing it," I said.
"No, you do it just fine."
"Did they have the part for the bailer?" I asked.
Sometimes I felt unaccountably shy when she came home, as if we were meeting for the first time, like in a dream and I was afraid I'd wake up. Again she'd insisted on driving to town, telling me she wanted a few hours to herself. She'd smile and say, "I got to let my blood cool down -"
"I didn't get there," Jodie said.
I watched her close. She looked somber. It worried me, when she drove the mountain road alone-
She held up a white envelope like a flag.
"We got mail."
"What is it?"
I leaned on the rake.
"It's from Harlan Smith."
"He's interested in 'Travis Jackson.'"
It took a second to register.
"He wants it?"
"He wants to hear all the songs."
I stared at Jodie. Her face looked flushed.
"I told you, didn't I, that first night? Remember, about the stars, yours and mine and the shooting star crossed between them?"
She broke into a wide smile and ran up and I let the rake fall and took her in my arms.
"Oh, I'm so happy-" She kissed me hard, then stood on tiptoe and pressed her cheek to mine.
"I love you, baby," I said, stroking her hair.
"We don't need any more."
"Harlan wants us to cut 'em."
"You and me?"
Jodie leaned back, gripping my arms, the words coming fast.
"With Johnny doing back-up. Harlan'll be in Reno in two days to hear the tapes-he wants us to go out with Johnny, to promote the record."
"When is all this supposed to start?" I asked.
I felt something heavy sinking through my chest.
"Harlan wants to build an audience for 'Travis Jackson,'" Jodie went on quickly. "Harlan's big. He made Slim Frye-"
"What about the ranch?"
"But this is it! What we're always talking about."
Her eyes had stopped smiling.
"It's fish or cut bait," she said. "No tour, no record." She was watching me, waiting.
"I've got 100 head," I said. "I got a contract with Smitz."
Jodie grabbed my shirtsleeve. "Open your eyes. Stardom's staring you in the face."
"Look, I'm as happy about the music as you are-"
"How come you don't show it?"
"You took me by surprise."
"You knew I'd get an offer sooner or later, that we'd have to cross this bridge when we got to it."
"I guess it didn't seem real."
"Well, it is real. We're there now. Both of us!" Jodie tilted her face in a frown, staring up at me. "You and yours truly."
"Living out of suitcases, eating sandwiches in bars. Having breakfast at two in the afternoon like Slim Frye?"
I remembered Frye throwing Jodie's clothes and guitar out the window of the red car as he raced past my pickup and Jodie walked alone along the desert road. I leaned down for the rake.
"We can't just leave."
"Screw the cows and suitcases," Jodie shot back.
I stood up straight, each word running up my spine. Now she pulled back and put out her palms, as if cradling something.
"Don't you see," she said more softly, "this is about making a real change in our lives. We'd have choices. Be able to play our own music. Eventually, recording would mean less touring if you didn't want the spotlight-"
"Do you want it?"
Jodie smiled warmly.
"That's part of being a musician. But not everything. Music can be our life. That's how we started. With 'Travis Jackson.'"
She put a hand on my shirtfront.
"That's how we fell in love."
"Give me three weeks. For Smitz to take the stock. I can't leave-"
"Can't or won't?" Jodie searched my eyes.
"I'll go the end of November. We'll go see Harlan in Reno. Maybe we can get the tour postponed a month," I said.
Jodie stepped back. Her green eyes had gone flat. She studied me from a distance, a strange blank expression surfacing on her face.
It was as if she didn't know me, she'd never seen me before, and now she was deciding on the spot if she liked what she saw. She had no previous knowledge to sway her in my favor.
"If you want to throw yourself away, that's your decision," she said. "I'm not spending another day out here."
I felt like I'd fallen facedown in snow.
"What do you mean?"
There was a hard and final edge I hadn't heard since the day I'd picked her up beside the sage when Slim Frye drove off.
All I could do was repeat it.
"You heard me."
"We just got married-"
"We just got separated."
She stepped back, flinging her hair.
"Next step is divorce," she said coldly.
"I thought you were happy here."
I moved toward her, reaching with my hand, but she slapped it away.
"You got it wrong. You're the one who's happy here."
"What's 20 days?"
Jodie stomped out of the barn. She was heading toward the house.
"Jodie! Hold on a minute-"
She turned on her heel.
"I'm sick of the smell of cow shit, of waiting all day for a cloud to cross your blue, blue sky! You've got what you want and I never have."
"Listen, let's talk this out. I never knew-"
"I'm going without you!"
She pulled off her wedding ring and threw it at me. It went past my ear before I could catch it.
"It's over-I'm not some dumpy little ranch wife you can lock up in a pumpkin. I didn't pretend to be a slave when we met and I'm sure as hell not going to start now."
"Wait a minute!"
"No, I'm through waiting-"
I watched her run into the house. I followed slowly.
The bedroom door was closed. I could hear her crying, but when I tried the knob it was locked.
"Jodie? Let's work this out. All right?"
"You stay away! You hear me?"
I heard something break. I went in and lay down on my dead parents' bed. I closed my eyes and pretty soon I heard her footsteps in the hall, going the wrong way, the front door slamming.
It felt like it had all happened before, another time before I'd ever met Jodie.
I got up and went into the living room and out onto the porch, hoping she'd gone out to saddle Sally and go for a ride.
I looked through the dusty screen as she threw her suitcase into the new white Blazer and drove off.
Just like that.
From then on things got blurry.
Me riding alone across the pasture, to the willow-lined creek, afraid to go too near the water and the rusty iron bars across the cavern where the water returned underground. On the bank, the willow branches had gone red and bare.
From a distance I saw the silver dipper on the cottonwood trunk and imagined if I drank from it or touched the handle I'd die of poison.
"It's sweet, isn't it?" Jodie said, smiling and looking up that first morning before we'd undressed and dove down where the river rushed up from under the pasture.
I stayed clear of the bubbling pool and the grass where the pale ghosts lay, holding each other tenderly on the blue plaid tablecloth.
Me alone on the ridge, looking down at the valley and the single pine and the fenced square of tombstones, thinking of saltwater, of purple anemones opening and closing with the waves, of the Pacific beyond Jenny Lind and the line of snowy mountains to the west, as the November wind blew the dying grass.
Me opening the mail box in town and taking out a postcard.
Still a fan.
I was like the dead man in the George Jones standard-"He Stopped Loving Her Today," the one who underlined all her old letters in red.
One day, drunk, on all fours, crawling across the barnyard hunting for Jodie's ring, thinking if I found it her car would drive in-
"Gold doesn't rust," I kept saying to myself when I couldn't find it, when I imagined the ring had broken down and turned to dust and blown back to the mountain it came from-like in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," Walter Huston and Tim Holt laughing crazily and dancing in the howling wind, waving the empty flour sacks that had held their treasure.
From the willow by the river's mouth I saw the sorrel race toward me in a red blur, a rider in white now standing in the stirrups, waving.
It wasn't Jodie galloping back-just Sally broken out of the corral and snagged in a bed sheet from the line, running terrified.
Me standing in the yard as the strange cowboys drove the herd toward the waiting trucks. Ed Smitz asking how I was after I signed the receipt, if I needed anything.
He'd been at the Branding Iron the first night Jodie sang "Travis Jackson."
Finally, the pasture empty and snow falling on the valley, on the barn's shingled roof, building on the kitchen windowsill, covering the hills like a white blanket over Jodie's body.
Snow falling past the window in the living room, as I sat in front of the unlit fire with a guitar and a whiskey bottle. I'd broken up with a few women before but this was something different.
At night I lay in bed, looking out at the winter stars, then reached under the pillow and gripped Jodie's cold black stone in my hand, pressing it warm against my palm, as I heard her voice singing "Travis Jackson":
"At night he held me from the storm,
Inside his arms I was safe and warm.
I never worried he'd let me down,
His boots were anchored to the ground."
Each blank new day I'd wake alone and stare out at the stark winter sun.
On Christmas morning, whiskered and unwashed, I was trying to cook eggs when I heard a car pull up.
Out the window I saw a snowy Cadillac.
A woman in clothes white as the snow got out and walked to the house and up onto the porch. The front door opened and Jodie walked in.
She looked smooth as silk, like a winter princess, in her fringed white-leather jacket and skirt, white boots.
We stared at each other, the living and the dead sizing each other up. I smelled smoke.
"My breakfast is burning."
I turned and went into the kitchen. I grabbed the smoking pan off the gas and dropped the hot spatula in the sink.
"Need some help?"
"No, I've got it under control."
"I can see that."
I ran my hand under the water.
"Looks like you've done well by yourself," I said.
"It hasn't been easy," Jodie said.
"I thought of calling you a lot of times."
I didn't answer. I reached for the wadded-up dishtowel.
"Are you okay?" Jodie asked.
Jodie shivered, wrapping her arms around herself.
"It's freezing in here. How do you stand it?"
"I'll build a fire. You want some eggs? Third time's the charm."
"It's a little early for me. You have coffee?"
I took the coffee can from the refrigerator and peeled off the plastic lid.
"All out. I've been meaning to get to town."
Jodie took a step and I looked up from the empty can.
"I missed you," Jodie said. "I still miss you-"
I stood by the cupboard.
"What've you been doing?" she asked.
"Not much. This and that."
"This and that?"
"I wrote some songs."
I stepped past her toward the table.
"I've got them here somewhere. 'Nobody's Blues' was one. I didn't finish it, though."
Jodie moved beside me as I fumbled with the sheets of music, then took my burned hand and touched my palm.
"I need you," she said. "I can't make it alone."
Then we were in each other's arms and a minute later Jodie was leading me like a blind man down the hall to the bathroom, where she ran a hot tub and helped me climb in. She left to start a fire, humming "Travis Jackson."
She came back and slipped out of her white clothes and found the razor and shave cream and got into the tub. She washed and shaved me, held me, dried me off with a towel, then took me into the living room where she'd laid out pillows and quilts in front of the fireplace. I reached up and pulled her down naked beside me.
I slept off and on for three days, waking up with a start to make sure she was there, forgetting and waking and remembering and making love and then sleeping between bowls of hot soup and mugs of tea.
Once she said, "Look." In her hand she held the piece of black obsidian.
"You and me and Travis Jackson, we're going to make sparks," Jodie told me when we left the ranch and headed out in the snow toward Denver and Johnny Black and the Cowboy Club, to the little makeshift studio where we recorded the single, "Travis Jackson."
I believed her. I only looked back once, as we left the barnyard and the blue pickup under the bare cottonwood. Jodie'd called a man to come take the horses. For a second, through the slanting flakes, I thought I saw the stranger leaning against the barn wall.
I felt like a different man, driving south from Denver to Phoenix in the silver rain, then on to El Paso, Austin, Fort Worth.
Now we were Buck and Jodie Cole.
We did make sparks, but Jodie was the one who had the fire.
A week or two of crystal clarity, hungry love, and deep, dreamless sleep, then rehearsals began running together. I felt like I was watching the world from a rising and dipping horse on a merry-go-round gone out of control.
I told Jodie and she said, "Use it, write a song about it," and I did, "Outlaw's Carousel," with the chorus
"What I see I'll see again,
Where I go I've already been,
'Cause a circle has no beginning or end
And there's no one to tell,
Yes, without you it's hell,
On this outlaw's carousel . . . . "
We were in Waco, finishing off the third encore, when the crowd began clapping in time and wouldn't stop, shouting "Travis! Travis!" so it bounced off the rafters.
Jodie and I joined hands and took three deep bows, then stood waving to the audience, but the roar followed us backstage and we had to go back and do "Travis Jackson" again.
Then the Thunderbird in Austin, and again the audience started that cadenced applause, so you felt like your heart had lost its beat and was following the new rhythm the world had picked up, from a song Jodie and I had worked out one night at the ranch.
Hotel, dining room, concert, hotel. Our first interview, with Country Weekly.
"Sure, Buck is Travis Jackson," Jodie said . "Just like him-"
And Fort Worth, Buck and Jodie Cole up in lights on the marquee.
Our budding word-of-mouth reputation had preceded us and was waiting in Little Rock and Mobile, Birmingham and Savannah, as we crossed the South, then went north and made a long curve across the Midwest toward the West Coast, then back again to Reno, Salt Lake, and Denver.
Halfway through the tour Harlan Smith released "Travis Jackson" to radio stations.
We'd recorded it with Johnny Black in an hour in the rented studio, the afternoon of that first night at the Cowboy Club.
In a week, it made Number 2 on the country charts, and after that we sold out every place we stopped.
And then a while later, us performing alone in Spokane, without Johnny, with another, fancier neon on the side of a tall building, flashing The Coles.
In early 2000, Jodie fired Johnny Black and his band.
I liked Johnny and I wanted him to stay, but in all fairness we were at a fork in the road. We could go Johnny's way, or we could strike out clean, in a different direction, a combination of Dylan and Tammy and George, with the Stones thrown in for good measure.
That's how Jodie saw it. She was steering and I was just holding onto the bumper.
The rush of people was too strong.
Buck this, Buck that, here Buck, there Buck.
Suddenly Johnny and the other old faces were gone, there wasn't anybody that knew me from the Nevada days.
Everything was music, morning till night and on into the wee hours, on buses and planes, in hotels and dressing rooms, notebooks filling with lyrics as we rode the crest of a building tidal wave of excited fans.
Once you were in it you had to ride it or it would catch you and crash on top of you. It was too late to turn out of the rising water. It was like riding a wild horse-you couldn't get off once you'd got on, not without getting hurt worse than if you got bucked off.
But it was also heady, like pure benzedrine in the blood. Every sad moment, every bit of passion and pain, each wistful, momentary hope, the random regret or daydream or nightmare, went down as a song, as if I were keeping a daily diary of our lives.
Then magic: lightning struck. The album came out and "Travis Jackson Country" was a monster hit.
It rained money and love, our faces and music were everywhere, raves came from all over, not just country fans: kids were listening to us, and '60s rock-and-rollers.
The world seemed to be turning into a mirror; wherever we looked we saw ourselves smiling back. We heard Buck and Jodie Cole singing from every TV and car radio and jukebox and elevator and lobby.
It was like a house of mirrors wired for sound.
Everything else was jumbled snapshots:
Outside the Opry in Nashville, dressed in black, I stepped out of a white limousine, slipping a silver flask into my coat as fans screamed and pushed at a red velvet rope guarded by cops.
The crowd surged and, without thinking, like Marie Antoinette tossing cake, I threw the flask in the air and people fell back, jumping for it as Jodie and I made a run for the stage door.
On the movie set of "Twilight Falls," I stared at the two Elvis impersonators dressed in sequined white capes and white bell-bottoms. They sat chatting and smoking before the director shouted "Action!" and with a knife one stabbed the other until his suit ran red.
In a hotel room I found an Enquirer with our pictures, an article about me sleeping with a well-known model and Jodie dating a U.S. senator, the hint that a time or two she'd slipped into the Oval Office on weekends after Monica. The photos of Jodie and me were shot at a concert-we both looked hot and sweaty as racehorses and wore crazy grins on our faces.
Jodie took it from me and felt the pages, then said, "It's too rough for sensitive skin or I'd use it. Hell, Buck, let 'em write what they want. It's good for business."
She giggled, and after a minute I laughed with her.
Inside a fenced, gated estate with a kiosk and a guard, I carried Jodie across the threshold of a mansion across from Roy Orbison's old place.
"Oh Buck, we both are!"
Jodie ran through the rooms, screaming with excitement at each door she entered until she hurried back and jumped into my arms as I waited beyond the French doors by the sparkling pool.
"Thank you, Travis Jackson!" Jodie said to the sky.
The bumper stickers came out, "Travis Jackson Lives!" We were on every car in every traffic jam east to west. Jodie'd point to them excitedly as we rode in the bus.
At an airport, Jodie picked up a copy of Time with our pictures on the cover: America Again? She waved it at me as I sat in the corner of the VIP lounge and an elderly black man polished my lizard boots until I couldn't take it anymore. I shoved $50 at him and ordered a drink at the bar.
On TV I heard "Travis Jackson" fill the hall at the Republican Convention, after Jodie took the podium and sang the "Star-Spangled Banner." I shut off the set.
"The Governor and Laura are so nice, so natural, and they really love our music and send their love to you."
I watched for a month, upset, as Gore lost in Florida after the Supreme Court.
Then I was traveling to the ranch in Crawford, driving the white truck at Bush's insistence, lighting the First Lady's cigarette, then standing somehow at the White House, Jodie and Laura wearing red satin shirts with fringe, Bush and I in black as we posed for the cameras.
I flinched as he squeezed my neck the same second Laura kissed the air beside my mouth. I could smell the nicotine on her breath.
At least Travis had begun writing to me, letters and little postcards about ranching, signed "TJ."
Twice he called me on the phone, after I'd failed to get hold of him for weeks-I'd heard he was going through the divorce and he was rarely in the house
Travis drove Jodie ballistic. That and the fact I was leaning on the bottle.
I was in a darkened bar in Grand Rapids, rereading the letter from Travis I kept folded in my pocket, and Jodie jumped in, grabbing it and tearing it up.
"I'll have George call the FBI."
Other than Jodie, I had one friend in the world and now Jodie hated him.
"That's not true! The President thinks the world of you!"
I was stumbling from a white Cadillac, up brick steps, trying the locked door of my $3- million house, then turning and zigzagging back to the Caddie. I lay down in the back seat, looked once out the window at the stars above Nashville, remembered the Nevada sky, then slept happily.
I kissed one of the Wheelers in the darkened sound booth.
What else had I done? Slept with her? When?
Finally, I was praying with the President to kick the booze, then exchanging Travis stories until Jodie grabbed the receiver and asked for his wife.
"Travis Jackson lives!" Bush said as Laura took the phone.
Thank God for that, because Johnny Black was dead-Marlene had just said so, when she'd broken into the make-up room before the Donnie Williams Show and thrown the wedding cake, yelling, "You murdered us!"
The punk rocker had fired a flintlock, when he didn't like the contract Johnny handed him-Johnny had become a fixer for Columbia-
"Isn't that the way it was, Buck?"
It was Jodie's voice as the studio crowd began to cheer and roar "Travis Jackson!" at her story of our miraculous success. I saw the desert road and the man and red-haired woman picking up strewn clothes from the alkali and sagebrush.
"How bout it?" Donny asked.
He jerked forward eagerly, his hair making a white halo. I winked into the blazing spot, like a suspect under questioning. I couldn't see his face, only the shining wedding band through the engraver's round lit magnifying lens.
"Throw some water on him!" Jodie said.
"How about a cake?"
"No," I said. "No don't throw anything-"
"Buck Cole?" The voice spoke from the blinding light. "Or is it Travis Jackson?"
I saw the stranger leaning against the barn, the snow slanting sideways so now his face became a blur, as we left the ranch in Jodie's Cadillac.
"I was Travis Jackson. Once. Not anymore-"
"Buck! You stop that!"
I started to leap up, then saw the mug of Jack Daniels and grabbed for it as suddenly I remembered who I was.