"Proud of you, baby."
My voice was husky when I replied, "Thank you, honey."
"Like that girl said, kick ass."
Suddenly, we were both up, Deke surging out of the couch, his hands on my waist lifting me with him.
He put me down on my feet and I bent my head way back to keep his eyes.
He dipped his chin deep into his neck to keep mine.
Then he lifted his hand, forefinger extended, so he could slide the tip of it from the top of my throat along the soft skin under my jaw to the point of my chin.
I drew in breath and held it.
He'd touched me, a lot.
A lot, a lot.
But he'd only ever done that to me once before.
The night we met.
"Give 'em hell, baby girl," he said softly. "See you on the other side."
He'd called me that only in Wyoming too.
His eyes crinkled, one side of his lips hitched up, and I pivoted as I watched him walk out of the room.
I drew in breath and stared at the door.
Twenty thousand people.
I'd never played to a venue that big.
All of them were there for Heaven's Gate. Let. The Chokers. Uncle Jimmy. Aunt Tammy. Lacey. And the final act who came in after I'd asked their band leader: Stella and the Blue Moon Gypsies.
All of them were there for my daddy.
A knock came on the door, it opened before I called out and Mav swung in.
"They're ready for us, Jussy," he said.
I nodded and walked to him.
He took my hand when I got close.
We wound our way through some serious backstage activity to the side stage.
Dana was standing there.
She turned and smiled at us. Reaching out a hand.
It wasn't me who moved us forward to take it.
It was Mav.
For several long moments we all did nothing but stand there, linked together, looking at each other, holding on tight.
And then, at Mav tugging Dana and my hands, we started to move onstage.
But something made me look back.
When I did, emerging from the shadows and hubbub backstage, Mr. T appeared.
He had eyes on me.
And my heart squeezed when I saw on his lips that he was smiling.
Out and out smiling.
I shot my smile back and then faced forward.
And the three people who meant the most to Johnny Lonesome in his life at his death walked onstage hand in hand to start a kickass party.
* * * * *
I looked back to Dad's band, smiling so huge it hurt my face, as we all lifted then fell to the final note of one of Dad's most kickass songs.
I turned back to the crowd of screaming, clapping, shouting fans, the chant of, "Lonesome, Lonesome, Lonesome," coming in a beautiful wave, undulating all around me.
I swept my smile through them, but at its end, I looked home.
This being to the right side of the stage, cordoned off, fitted with padded seats that were all empty because everyone was standing.
I saw a lot of people I knew who didn't belong to me.
But with Deke, I saw a lot of people who did, including ones who hadn't come in to check up on me and raid my mini-fridge: Max and Nina, Sunny and Shambles, Wood and Maggie, Dominic and Daniel, Ham and Zara, Decker and Emme.
My smile lingered on them before I moved back to the standing microphone.
I'd already sung "Chain Link," glancing at Deke occasionally throughout as I did.
I did that because Deke knew that song was for him. I didn't need to make a point of it.
But it was more.
In all that had played out, no one was going to get that. That was only his.
And I wanted to keep that only for Deke.
For him and for me.
I'd also sung Rondstadt's "It's So Easy." I did this for Deke too, liking the curve it put on his lips. But, as ever, I also did it for Joss.
I'd sung others of mine. But that wasn't the vibe I wanted to give. The slow and the sweet.
I wanted to give them Dad.
So, with his band backing me, we did lots of covers of Dad's music. And halfway through my set, Lacey, Perry and Terrence (my girl was on after me, Dad's buds had already done their sets), came out to the crowd going wild, and together we did Dad's most well-known rompin', stompin' rock anthem.
And now it was time for me to wind up so Lacey could do her thing and then Stella and her boys could finish the night off.
I drew in breath and looked out into the dark sea of faces.
Then I said into the mic, "My father was Johnny Lonesome to you. But he was Dad to me. The best dad there could be." The crowd roared but I kept talking and they quieted quickly to hear me. "I miss him. I'll always miss him. And part of that is missing the fact that he was gone before he saw that I'd found my peace. But I know he knows that peace is with me. So I figure he'll like me ending my time with you, singing the words to a freakin' awesome song to share with you the peace a life of bounty saw fit to give to me."
I felt the shift in the crowd as I spoke.
They knew, with the media all over it for weeks, what Rudy did, how Deke saved me, Aunt Tammy's haggard face, Uncle Jimmy's tight one, Tate, Ty, Wood, Chace, Bubba crowding me, trying to hide me from the cameras as they rushed me to and from cars and hospital.
Everyone knew my bounty.
I stepped back, looked over my shoulder, nodded, giving the beat, one, two, three and four and...
I went back to the mic and it was me who flicked my fingernails on the strings for the first notes of Lynyrd Skynrd's "Simple Man."
The crowd went crazy.
My dad's band kicked in behind me.
I shifted my eyes to the right and started to sing that song.
And that song I sang right to Deke. Unlike "Chain Link," I didn't take my eyes from him when words flowed through my mouth.
Every word, I gave right to my man.
I didn't care that twenty thousand people saw. I wanted them to. That's why I was doing it.
I was proud to share the best way I knew how, through music, the kind of man I had. How much there was of him. How he made less so much more. How he redefined the word "simple" in glorious ways.
Dad's band rocked it while the darkness in front of me lit with the pinprick lights on cell phones.
And I prayed to God my voice raised to the heavens so my dad would hear each word and truly know just the man who had given me peace.
That said, I knew he was watching over me.
So he already knew.
When the song was over, I pulled my guitar from around my neck and walked sure-footed to the side of the stage. You know, just in case some in the upper decks missed it.
I got down on my knees, put my guitar on its back to the stage and bent way forward.
Because Deke was right there.
His head tipped back, his hand slid into my hair, and I kissed him, long, hard and wet.
I knew pictures were taken. That would never stop.
Even with his long hospitalization and recovery, Deke did not escape the fame his actions settled on his broad shoulders. Mr. T gave his most valiant effort, but with what Deke did, the way Deke looked, the perfection that was him and me, to that day, they still hounded us.
Deke took to fame a lot better than me.
And at my side, he just kept being Deke.
When our kiss ended, the roar of the crowd was deafening.
But me and Deke, we just touched noses.
I looked into his eyes and whispered, "Bounty."
His teeth caught his lower lip and his hand in my hair spasmed.
I pulled away, got up and sauntered with guitar back to the mic.
"Time for Lacey," I told the crowd, lifted my guitar and felt the wave of love hit me. "Thanks for spending time with me. And more." I put my hand to my chest. "Thanks for being here for my dad."
More love blasted over me as, lifting a hand in a wave, carrying my guitar with me, I walked off the stage followed by my dad's band.
* * * * *
Justice Lonesome with her father's band doing a rendition of "Simple Man" wouldn't be the video that Mr. T's people uploaded from that night on YouTube that got the most hits.
Because the best was yet to come.
* * * * *
I stood backstage, touched up and ready to join everyone else at the end of the concert when we'd all jam to Dad's "Never Missin' Home."
But I was watching with some confusion as the setup for Stella's set included the stage lights going purple and the stagehands setting up eleven microphone stands up front.
I felt someone join me and looked right to see Joss slide in there.
She never liked to miss anything either so she'd been in VIP.
"Hey, what're you doing here?" I asked.
She just gave me a look I felt in my belly and around the rims of my heart.
She took my hand just as more fingers slid around my other one.
I looked left and saw Dana.
"What's going on?" I asked, my body bracing.
Dana turned her head toward the stage.
I looked that way too.
The stagehands were gone.
And filing in solemnly were Perry, Terrence, Lacey, Rod, Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Tammy, Stella, and her band, Hugo, Pong, Buzz and Leo.
They each took a microphone.
The crowd seemed to sense something was happening. The buzz was low and attentive, when, even after this array of artists took the stage, it stayed purple.
"Bear with us, folks, we've had a request," Stella said into the microphone. "There's a man who wants us to sing a song to his gypsy."
My vision instantly went watery, but my eyes shot to the right, where I could see the front of the VIP seating.
Deke was already looking at me.
That was when the humming started, like a funeral dirge, somber in its beauty.
And the punctuated clapping.
A low, perfect harmony.
My gaze cut back to the stage.
And beats after it did, a cappella, Rod started singing Hozier's "Work Song."
My knees got weak.
Dana and Joss held me up, their hands in mine tightening, their bodies shifting into my sides like they felt it happening.
As for me, I felt. A lot. Too much. Such beauty, making my skin seem too thin to contain it, hold it in. My heart working hard in the effort to draw it deep inside me, absorb it, keep it forever there, filling me. All this as the fat drops of wet slipped from my eyes, gliding down my cheeks and I saw Rod turn his head and sing his words to his wife.
I loved my mom had that from Roddy.
Those words were for me.
Those that didn't have hands raised, cell phones up, dotting the sea of dark faces with thousands of slowly swaying stars started to add to the slow clap as well as giving stomps of their feet. Thousands of hands striking and feet landing, the noise reverberating through the arena, each one thumped against my flesh, beating the emotion I was feeling right to the pit of my heart where I'd always hold it.
I looked again right, catching Krystal grinning so huge at me, it was like her smile was a flash of a cell phone.
But I only spared her a glance in my search for Deke.
He was still watching me.
Perry sang. And Terrence. And Hugo. And Buzz.
Everyone on stage sang the chorus and consistent humming.
Uncle Jimmy finished the song.
Through it I studied my man's face. Unsurprisingly, the lines of life had tunneled deeper after he took four bullets for me and had months of painful recovery.
Now, for the first time since it happened, they were gone.
His life had smoothed out of his face once again, finally, as he watched me receive the second most beautiful gift I'd ever received...that one and the first both coming from Deke.
And at that end the song, Deke's lips moved.
I watched them form one word.
It was a miracle of music. It was a moment a music fan wished for for a lifetime. The kind they'd tell their friends, their kids, anybody who would listen, sharing it over and over until the day they died.
That day eleven legends took the stage and sang the most beautiful love song ever written.
A song whose astonishing, exquisite words, for me, from Deke, months before came nearly literally.
That got the most hits on YouTube.
And Dad would have absolutely fucking loved every second of it.
* * * * *
Body bent back, knees in the bed, Deke smoothed his hand over the ceiling of his trailer.
When he was sure all the edges were glued down, no bubbles, what was there fixed there being fixed there until that trailer was no more, he dropped his hand and looked up at the poster for the Johnny Lonesome tribute concert, one of several made up, this one with a picture of Jussy at a mic with her guitar.
He looked down at her lazing on her back on their bed.
"Good?" he asked.
Her eyes went from the poster over their bed to him.
"Perfect," she whispered.
Not exactly, he thought. But it's the perfect start.
He twisted and went down on her, taking her mouth.
Jussy opened for him.
Deke slid his tongue inside.
There it was again.
* * * * *
Rock's Gypsy Princess Makes Miracles
Justice Lonesome's comeback tour is not what you'd expect it to be.
Unlike what came from Lonesome's debut, Chain Link, after dropping her remarkable second album, The Miracle Mountains, she did not hit sold-out venues and press junket after press junket.
She went on the road.
Not on tour.
Just on the road.
Apparently, you can be anywhere from sea to shining sea, and if the music stars are aligned, shining on you the fortune of Lonesome, you might be having a beer at a bar and suddenly a woman, sometimes with a full band, sometimes with just a guitar and a microphone, will start singing.
And that woman will be Justice Lonesome.
She'll rock her signature covers of Rondstadt. She might sing any of her father, Johnny's, songs. However, as old fans and the new ones Lonesome is claiming along the way are avidly keeping track of on social media, she always sings Johnny's "Never Missin' Home."
And, of course, each time she'll hand you the jewel that shone in her first album, that album's title song, "Chain Link."
She'll also do her new stuff and you will not be disappointed.
Lonesome stamped her talent of penning a rock ballad all over her first effort.
Spreading her wings, showing growth and maturity, the ballads from The Miracle Mountains are more nuanced, have more passion, more pathos, and clearly demonstrate from debut to album two that Lonesome has honed already epic storytelling chops, including "Knight in Dented Armor" and "(Ev'ry Time I Come Home) Life Begins Again."
But The Miracle Mountains gives us even more.
Emerging from the very long shadows of the two legends who came before her, Jerry and Johnny, Justice Lonesome's signature ballads this time are mixed with twangy, foot-tapping, knee-bouncing country rock Ronstadt herself set the standard for with Lonesome's new singles "Pleasure and Pain" and "Gypsy Princess."
The Miracle Mountains is not a successful second effort.
But it's not only that.
It's the way she's going about spreading that love that's refreshing and unique.
With her current level of popularity and a loyal, solid fanbase who've been waiting over half a decade for her second collection, Lonesome could easily fill event centers and smaller arenas.
Instead, seemingly randomly, with no notice, no promotion, no press, and most surprisingly, no ticket sales, wherever the wind takes her, she's walking into saloons or honkytonks and letting fly.
But Justice Lonesome is not crazy nor is she stupid. It's not just handheld phone video that's hitting download sites. Professionally shot videos are also spreading wide. Even so, the production is minimal. It's Lonesome, perhaps backed by her band or just rock 'n' roll's gypsy with her guitar.
If your stars have aligned and the fortune of Lonesome shines on you and you find yourself in that bar having that beer and Justice Lonesome takes that mic, request her rendition of the Zac Brown Band's "Free." Buzz backed by fan video is that it's wicked good. Added bonus, every time she sings it, her eyes never stray from the man who took four bullets for her, a man who never leaves her side, her fiancé, Deke Hightower.
Unlike her grandfather, Jerry, who worked the road and the business with smarts, screaming talent and downhome sensibility, earning his crown as a rock god. And unlike her father, Johnny, who took up the family mantle, followed his father's path and soared even higher, earning his own reign. In one fell swoop, Justice Lonesome has seized a new crown: Rock's Gypsy Princess.