The call came four days later, a shrill bleating in the otherwise silent house. Everyone had followed the baby’s example and lain down for a nap after lunch. The last few days had been spent with the impending certainty of a reckoning, and yet each day passed without event, leaving everyone jumpy, restless.
Agnes knocked on the bedroom door, pushing it open a fraction and calling out in a hoarse whisper to avoid waking Daniel, “Sorry, Son. It’s for you.”
Judd groaned as he pulled himself out of the bed. He was back a few minutes later, tense and determined, his jaw working but no sound coming out.
Bess sat up against the headboard, wide awake now. “What is it?” she demanded, worried as much by the wild look in Judd’s eyes as his harried motion.
He stopped in mid-button. “There’s a problem at the university. They’re calling in departments from across the county.”
Bess held her breath. In May the year before, students had been killed protesting at Kent State in Ohio. Since then, other violent protests against the war had been occurring across the country. She looked at the bandage still covering her husband’s ribs. She knew he had to go, so she just refrained from asking a stupid question. Instead, she got out of the bed and dragged the dress back over her slip.
Judd strapped his gun across his hip this time and sat on the bed to pull on his boots. He grunted with the effort it took. Bess walked to his side of the bed and kneeled between his knees, laying her head against his thigh. “You’ll be careful. That goes without saying,” she told him.
He grabbed her chin and lifted her eyes to his black stare. “I don’t want to go. I shouldn’t go, but they haven’t given me a choice.” He stood up suddenly, pulling her with him and grabbing her hand to walk her toward the kitchen.
Agnes was there, just filling a thermos with steaming, black coffee. She handed it to Judd and kissed his cheek without saying a word, but it seemed to Bess that a lifetime of conversing passed between mother and son. Judd took both women into his steady gaze.
“I can’t leave anybody here,” he said, “so you’re going to have to be extra vigilant. I want that rifle at arm’s length at all times. Don’t be answering the door or letting anybody in the house. Somebody tries to get in, you shoot first and ask questions later.”
Bess glanced at the rifle propped against the counter and shook her head. “I don’t know the first thing about guns,” she blurted.
Agnes touched her arm. “I do.”
Judd was moving toward the kitchen door. “I wish I had more time. I don’t like this, not one bit.”
The more he was talking, the more nervous Bess became. If he was worrying about her, his mind wouldn’t be on whatever was right in front of him. “We’ll be okay,” she reassured him. “Don’t you worry about us. You just worry about getting home safely.”
“Amen,” Agnes seconded.
Judd gave them each another long look before nodding sharply. Then, he was gone like a puff of smoke. Agnes locked the screen and closed the solid, wooden door as well. She turned to Bess and reached out her hands. “Let’s pray, Bess,” she said. “It may not seem like much at the moment, but it’s actually everything.”
Bess discovered that the words of thankfulness and praise made her feel better, even if her hands still tingled with nerves. She went into the living room, where she had her sewing things in one corner, and began working on altering more maternity wear, as well as making things for the baby. The work brought a numbing regularity to an otherwise discordant day. She could hear Agnes moving in other parts of the house. Once, Daniel fussed, then quieted. The wind outside whipped handfuls of sand against the window panes.
They were in the kitchen several hours later, pretending to eat the meal of salmon croquettes, green beans, and biscuits Agnes had put together for them, when the knock sounded at the kitchen door. For one insane moment, Bess thought Judd was back and rose as if to open the door. Agnes snaked out a quick hand and caught Bess by the wrist, shaking her head silently. The tension in the air around them crackled.
“It’s me, Samuel,” the voice said from the other side of the door. “Are you ladies all right in there?”
Bess felt her shoulders relax and took a step toward the door. Agnes’ grip tightened. Bess looked at her. “It’s only Samuel,” she said.
Agnes released her death grip. “Of course,” she agreed, but she went to the counter and picked up the rifle just the same.
Samuel knocked again and called out. Bess glanced at her mother-in-law, who nodded, lifting the rifle loosely to her hip, ready to raise it into position if necessary.
Bess opened the door and looked at Daniel, keeping the locked screen door between them. “Samuel, what brings you here today?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.
He was dressed in a three-piece suit and looked freshly groomed, as if he were expecting to meet a very important person indeed. He smiled, exposing his dimples, and cocked his head at the screen door Bess still had between them. “I’m headed back home to Dallas, and I promised Michelle I’d look in on you all as I was leaving.”
Bess crossed her arms over her chest. “She couldn’t come herself?”
“She’s feeling poorly. Wouldn’t want to expose that baby of yours to any illness now, would you?” He pushed back the pin-striped coat and placed his neatly-manicured hands on his hips. “I don’t have to come in or anything.”
Bess felt a pang of guilt for her rudeness and unlatched the lock on the screen door, pushing it open with one hand. “Come on in. We have some salmon if you’d like.”
Samuel stepped into the kitchen but stopped when he saw Agnes standing in the corner with a rifle in her arm. “Were you expecting a different kind of company?” he asked.
“Can’t be too cautious these days,” Agnes said. She openly studied Samuel, who didn’t even blink, and she laid the rifle back in its place. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Please,” Samuel smiled.
He sat down at the kitchen table, sipping on the coffee Agnes laid before him, his eyes flitting around the kitchen, eerily quiet for once. Bess sat down across from him and went back to pretending she was eating, pushing the steadily cooling food around her plate.
“I hope Michelle isn’t feeling too poorly,” Bess finally said, just to fill the quiet void.
He shrugged. “It’s just the sniffles. She’ll be right as rain soon enough.” Pushing back from the table, he crossed his legs and studied Bess over the coffee cup he tilted to his lips. “I can’t believe how beautiful you look, even without makeup.”
If Bess was going to stay friends with Michelle, she had to nip this habit in the bud. “Samuel, I’m married, and compliments like that, well, they just don’t seem appropriate. Don’t you think?”
Agnes, who had begun to clean up from making supper, coughed suddenly. Samuel looked between the two women, but he didn’t answer Bess’ question. He took another sip of his coffee, sitting the cup down on the table with a distinct thud. He laid his fingers beside the abandoned cup and tapped them on the solid wood, his eyes never leaving Bess’ face.
“Beautiful women have a tendency to think too much of themselves, you know. But I thought you were different.” His voice had the same, content little rhythm as always to it, but something about the look in his eyes made Bess’ back stiffen suddenly.
She got up and walked over to Agnes, touching the older woman on the elbow as if to ground herself. This was Samuel, for goodness’ sake, weird but harmless Samuel. “Beauty is more than skin deep, Samuel,” she said. “Believe me, I have skid marks underneath.”
“Samuel, are you feeling all right?” Agnes asked before he could respond to Bess.
Samuel stood up and moved across the kitchen so quickly that Agnes stuttered backward, her hand flailing for the rifle propped against her corner cabinet. But, Samuel was faster. He knocked Agnes to the side with a blow to her head from his balled fist and easily grabbed the rifle as it started to clatter to the floor.
Agnes, laying prone, groaned pitifully as Bess whirled around, reaching for the large kitchen knife her mother-in-law used to open cans of vegetables and lard. She felt Samuel’s fingers in her hair seconds before he yanked her back, sending her to her knees. His arm snaked under her chin and pulled, cutting off her air.
As she gasped for breath, she felt Samuel’s hot breath against her skin and yet her body was cold. “Yes, I can smell the smut on you,” he rasped. “You’re much too proud, Bess, for a whore.”
“Was you,” she just managed through thin lips as the room became dark around her. She gasped and pulled against his arm, but the struggles were futile.
“Yes, how convenient that you had such tunnel vision. But then, women like you are always hurting men. You deserve everything you get.”
She felt the tears well in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall where he would feel them against his hand and laugh all the more. How ironic that when she had the most to live for, she was going to die. She would ask to see her baby one more time, except she was hoping Samuel had forgotten about the little boy sleeping peacefully, thank God, in the other room.
Instead, she used the last of her energy to swivel her head, hoping to make contact with Samuel’s skin so that she could sink her teeth in the meat of his hand. Her struggles came up short.
“Now,” Samuel said, lifting her off her knees and stepping with her toward the hallway, “you’ve been a naughty, naughty girl, Bess, and you’re going to make it up to me.”
If she were going to die anyway, she certainly wasn’t going to help him do it. Bess went limp, falling to her knees again, feeling the choke hold tighten with a flash of gut-wrenching fear.
Samuel cried out in anger, a mad sound that echoed off the kitchen walls. Suddenly, a flash of black and brown fur flew across the kitchen. Samuel cried out again, this time in agony, and the hold on Bess fell away. She scrambled away and up, using the cabinet to pull herself to her feet and grabbing the knife. She whirled with it in her hand, prepared to defend herself.
That’s when the room, which had been spinning, came into full focus. Jethro, his hard body stiff and bristling, had his jaw locked around Samuel’s neck. Blood spewed in all directions, covering Jethro’s slick fur so that the bloodhound looked as if he had been wallowing in mud. Samuel’s body convulsed on the floor, his knees bucking, and then he was still. Jethro began a low growl in his throat, then sat back on his haunches and howled until goosebumps broke out on Bess’ slick skin.
She ran to Agnes lying on the floor, shaking her lightly. Agnes groaned and opened her eyes, her thin lids flickering several times before she managed to focus. She looked over Bess’ shoulder, a grim set to her lips. “It’s over,” she said, pulling herself up against the cabinets and sagging there.
Bess grabbed her bony hand and held it, surprised to discover her own hand shook uncontrollably. “I’ll call an ambulance,” she said after a minute.
“No,” Agnes said. “I don’t want Judd hearing about this on the radio. He’d kill himself trying to get home.”
Bess glanced behind her, where Samuel’s body lay oozing blood. “What do we do, then?”
Agnes grasped Bess by the shoulders with two amazingly strong hands and shook her slightly. “We wait.”