They Walk Among Us, Chapter 88: Happy Bleeping Thanksgiving, Ferguson, Missouri

Jason Townsend, it turned out, was a lucky man. Yes, he’d been burned when the nitrogen tanker exploded, but not as badly as the rumor mongers or even the newscasters made out. He was in the Salt Lake City burn center, sure enough, but by the time we’d run over that way and found a motel room, his doctors had already upgraded his condition from critical to “merely” serious. He’d not been that close to the blast, torching his left forearm pretty well and one patch of skin across his forehead, but despite the considerable pain–no burn is a comfy thing–he expected to be released in a week or so.

When we were first allowed to talk to him, of course, they had him flying pretty high on Percodan. Cheerful bugger.

I gave him Rodeo Iron’s commitment for a new Wyoming franchise, guesstimating a Grand Opening announcement for mid-March of 2015 or so, and we headed on home.

The rest of the summer and early fall were uneventful by our usual standards. Nobody was freaking out, sales leveled off a wee bit but promised to finish out the year well up from the previous twelve months, and I had a pleasant obligation to take Judi with me to Belfield, North Dakota, to attend a Thanksgiving Day feed with our people there. I couldn’t remember a more pleasant, relaxed couple of months.

Naturally, that was too good to last. I should have known.

Sissy and Judi and I were just finishing up supper one evening, trying to decide whether it was worth turning on the TV or not. Probably not; Dancing With the Stars was about the only thing on other than constant CNN and/or Fox News coverage of the craziness going on in Ferguson, Missouri, what we called the Ferguson Foolishness. Based on massive amounts of forensic and eyewitness evidence provided to the grand jury, white police officer Darren Wilson had been cleared of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of big, young black Michael Brown. Anybody with a clear eye could see the cop hadn’t had much choice; Brown had already soaked up five rounds from Wilson’s gun and was charging the officer, head-down football style, when a sixth round killed him. Brown was big, young, fast, and Wilson was obviously in fear for his life. Major fear for his life. The facts made it obvious the shooting was justified.

Unfortunately, there were some folks out there who weren’t the slightest bit interested in what the facts had to say.

What sort of folks, you ask? You haven’t been watching the news?

Well, let’s see. President Barack Hussein Obama, shades of the Trayvon Martin case. Attorney General Eric Holder. Perennial race baiting opportunist Al Sharpton. And, sadly to say, both of Michael Brown’s parents. Brown’s Mom was on TV saying she was certain Wilson had been “out for blood” that day, “…wanting to kill someone.” Brown’s stepdad simply recommended to one and all that they should, apparently referring to the entire city of Ferguson, “Burn this bitch down!”

Easy enough to see where Michael got his basic attitude toward authority, right there. Now, Jack Hill and I, we flaunted authority all the time, but we were a whole lot sneakier about it. Which might have something to do with why I was a live black man and Michael was a dead black man.

No, we decided, we didn’t need to watch any more of that crap. Rioting, smashing up your own neighborhood, that never did make any sense to me, and Dancing With the Stars was just plain boring.

“Hey,” Sissy observed, looking out the window, “something’s going on with Jack.”

“What?” I got up, moved over by her chair where I could see the front yard separating our mobile home and Jack’s residence. Sure enough, there was something going on. Our friend and mentor was hustling in and out, back and forth between his front door and the Subaru Outback, throwing things in the back like there was no tomorrow. His movements were hurried, almost jerky, nothing like his usual self.

I didn’t say anything more, just headed for the door. It wasn’t far over to the car.

“What’s up, Jack?” I asked, side stepping to keep from getting run over as he barreled toward the open hatchback with his green warbag. Warbag for real, too; I knew that one held some serious firepower.

“No time to talk, Tree,” he snapped. “Gotta go. Outa my way, please.” I happened to be standing between him and the driver’s door.

Wow. I’d never seen him like this. Not exactly wild eyed, but close to it, not his usual balanced self at all. I should do what he said and get out of the way, but–“No, Jack.” I crossed my arms, hoping he wasn’t crazy enough to hit me when I stood like that. If he did, I was going to get hurt; I’d seen the man fight. “I’m not letting you out of here and then having to find out from Wayne or Carolyn. Talk to me.”

For a second or so, I swear my friend’s sanity hung in the balance. His hand clawed, ready to grab for the Colt Challenger I knew he had tucked under his shirt, pointing at his groin. My best friend was actually considering shooting me dead to get me out of his way. Which mean I really wasn’t about to let him go just yet, not like this. Friends don’t let friends drive when they’re bonkers–

–and then he found himself, at least enough to unclaw his hand and straighten for a second. The words came out of him in a rush, but they came out.

“Got a man in Ferguson I owe big time saved my life twenty-some years ago got a letter just opened today’s mail couldn’t reach me by phone didn’t have my number his son is under threat of death I called him it’s not over yet but there’s no time I got to go and I got to go now!”

Believe it or not, I got enough of that to get the picture. “Not alone, you’re not,” I told him quietly.

He looked at me with an expression I could only describe as tortured exasperation. “Tree, you and Judi have to head to North Dakota in the morning. I can’t ask you in on this one.”

I stared at him in astonishment. “What the–?!! Jack Hill, you dumb sumbitch, you been backing my play for years now, and you think some pissant business meeting is going to derail me from backing you up for once? You really are off your K Mart rocking horse! Give me five minutes, throw your gear in the Pontiac instead of the Subaru, and we’re outa here.”

For once, Jack Hill stood speechless. Tears welled in his eyes. We stared each other down like that for a long moment, then he nodded his head once and got to work.

“Oh,” I said over my shoulder, “one other thing. Leave that warbag behind. If we’re heading into Ferguson, we can’t chance getting caught with enough firepower to start World War III. Your Colt, one spare box of Stingers, and that’s it, okay?”

He stiffened, his fiercely independent streak (what some call stubborn) wanting to buck me on that one. At the end of the day, though, old Jack Hill was no fool; he knew I was right, now that I’d gotten him to slow down just a hair.

“Call North Dakota in the morning,” I told Judi. “Extend our apologies. You might not want to tell ‘em we’re heading to Ferguson, but–”

“I’ll handle it,” she replied firmly, giving me a goodbye hug that about cracked my ribs. Six-foot Sissy’s parting embrace was gentler than little Judi’s bear trap squeeze.

We rolled out of the yard at 7:02 p.m., armed with a MapQuest route provided by Wayne Bruce and most of a tank of gas. I’d topped off the oversized 22 gallon tank at the shop; we were good for at least the next 500 miles. It looked like it could snow, but the roads weren’t bad at the moment. Most importantly, Jack visibly relaxed now that we were actually rolling. I let his silence go on for a while, especially after realizing he’d closed his eyes.

As we transitioned from the Helmville Canyon dirt road onto I-90 East at Drummond, those eyes popped open and he spoke. Quietly, calmly, the Jack I knew. Or thought I had known.

“My apologies, Tree.”

“None needed,” I replied, “but accepted if you insist.” A blasted eighteen wheeler with his fog lights blazing tried to blind me from the other lane. Business as usual.

“I…well, bottom line is, I got out of balance.”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“Yeah. Well. That’s happened a few times over the years. I get complacent, start cutting down or even skipping my spiritual exercises completely. There’s always a price to pay. You’d think I’d know better by now.”

Ah. He hadn’t been napping, then. Out of body contemplation or one of his other techniques. There were a couple I liked rather well, and I’d begun to discipline myself enough to pretty much understand his point.

“So,” I said, “tell me what we’re doing on this run.”

He grinned at that. We had that kind of relationship. Either one of us could yell FROG and the other one would be in the air without asking for details until later. This was perhaps the first time he’d been the frog yeller, though.

“Where to start,” he muttered, organizing his thoughts. “Okay. Hartford, Connecticut.”

My eyebrows rose. “There’s a connection?”

“Not directly, but you remember when we talked about the first time B.J. and I ever saw each other?”

“Of course. He said you saved him from being lynched or something like that.”

“Yeah. Well. I was headed back west from that run when my inner guidance told me to take a little detour through Ferguson, Missouri. Now I assure you, I was perfectly disciplined with my spiritual exercises during that particular period, and I didn’t doubt there was a reason I needed to be there. Rescue a pretty girl, hopefully; that’s always fun.”

I chuckled. He and I’d both rescued a few and he was right; it was always fun.

“Long story short, I didn’t know my way around the town, and I got more or less lost. Ended up in a part of town that was blacker than the inside of Wolf Cave without a candle. Which didn’t worry me unduly until the engine died on the Chrysler I was driving. It was a hot day, humid as Hell in the tropics; I figured vapor lock most likely. That car was known for that. So my options were few. I managed to ease the old boat into a parking spot right in front of a second hand store before we lost momentum, but I was going to have to wait a while, probably at least half an hour or so, before the engine would fire up again.

“Okay, things could be worse, I thought. I got out, locked up, and went into the store like I belonged there, except of course I clearly didn’t. There were only a few folks out on the street when I first arrived, but they started gathering. The Chrysler was big enough and old enough and beat up enough to fit right in, but not with those Montana license plates, and certainly not driven by an old honky. I was out of route, and by golly, the circus was in town. People were, I think, extra cranky because of the heat.

“The owner of Enduring Treasures was a big man, six feet six at a guess, solid, sort of right in between you and your uncle B.J. I told him my name and my situation, and he introduced himself as Lawrence Weathers. Friendly gentleman, the kind that made you feel like you’d known him all your life, or if you hadn’t, you’d like to.”

Jack paused, thinking back, remembering. I swung out into the passing lane to avoid a roadkill deer that was currently working as a speed bump and waited for the old Protector to continue.

He took a deep breath and let it out. “Long story short, maybe twenty minutes had passed, me just kind of browsing through the store, when I decided maybe I’d better see if the Chrysler would give me a break. There were at least a dozen men gathered by that time, most of them lounging around outside but a couple in the store, all too obviously watching me. Lawrence was busy with a customer when I went out to do my thing. The taunting started the moment I stepped out on the sidewalk. Nothing particularly inventive, just the usual honky and cracker and dumb white man don’t know where he’s at sort of things. Trouble was, there wasn’t any way for me to make it to the driver side door without turning my back on somebody, and if I started rubbernecking like I was as alarmed as I was, they’d know it for fear and jump me for sure.”

I nodded at this. He was right; I’d seen it too many times back in Hartford. Not necessarily race related incidents; anybody a bit different would do.

“What I should have done was just pack it in, retreat back inside the store, wait for the owner to get freed up and ask to use his phone. Call the cops, ask for an escort out of there. If I could have done that without everybody hearing me admit to my weakness, that is. But of course you and I both know I wasn’t going to call the authorities. I’d rather take my chances on getting killed, and I nearly did. This big kid–not as big as the late Michael Brown, but a lot bigger than me–jumped me from behind, tried to put me in a bear hug. Now, if I’d just let him do it, the group most likely would have just played with me for a bit and let me go. There wasn’t any real hardcore animosity I could feel in the group up to that moment. But Tree, ain’t nobody ever jumped me from behind and succeeded in locking in a bear hug, and this kid didn’t, either. I pistoned an elbow back into his ribs a few times, loosened him up, turned back into him, dived for a one leg takedown, and slammed him on his back, right there on the concrete. Smacked his head, too; I think I might have cracked his skull.

That pissed off a bunch of ‘em, and the fight was on. I managed to get back to my feet and get my back up against my car, but that was about it. I put the first two idiots down, but then they got smart and got ready to gang tackle me–which didn’t do them much honor, requiring a mob to take down one feeble old geezer, but they weren’t thinking honor right then. In fact, they pretty much weren’t thinking. And then I wasn’t thinking too well, either, ’cause a truck run over the back of my head–turned out it was a little kid’s baseball bat, reaching over from the street side of the Chrysler. Really just grazed me, I guess, or my skull would’ve been caved in, but it still rang my bell pretty good. I wasn’t down, but I was pretty much out on my feet, aware of the others closing in but too far gone to care.

“And then…and then there was a shotgun blast that pretty much settled ‘em all right down. Lawrence Weathers was standing out in front of his store, holding the biggest bore, meanest looking sawed off shotgun I’ve ever seen to this day. Turned out to be a 10 gauge. He’d triggered both barrels at once into the air, and it hadn’t even rocked him back.

“He told the mob–well, it weren’t really that much of a mob, but you know what I mean–he told ‘em to go on home, that he didn’t need no dead white men bringing the Ferguson po-leese down on him with their twenty thousand questions, and they should quit trying to mess up his bidness and mind their damn own. Or something like that; I was still seeing things a little brighter than usual, and I knew I’d have a headache for a while.”

Hill fell silent. I waited a bit, until we’d passed Deer Lodge and were headed on toward Butte, before I asked, “And this Lawrence Weathers is the one we’re going to help?”

“Indirectly. He’s the one who wrote me. Thing was, by the time he and I’d made sure I was going to live without having to go to the hospital, there wasn’t another person on the street. He assured me I’d not be bothered no more, and he’d be honored, if I had the time, if I’d join him for supper after he closed the store for the day. I could hardly refuse, him having saved my life and all, so that’s what I did. He called home, told his girlfriend he’d be bringing a guest home for supper. By the time we got there, April had a batch of baby back ribs ready that would melt in your mouth, fresh corn from their own little backyard garden, fried spuds, mm-mm! I told him right in front of her, Lawrence, you don’t marry this woman, you crazy!”

“Let me guess,” I put in, smiling. “He did eventually marry her?”

“That he did, about a year later. They had ‘em selves a child, too, a bouncing baby boy. Named him Morrison. Morrison Weathers.”

“Sounds like you stayed in touch.”

Jack sighed, looking out his side window at the clouds scudding over the face of the moon. “For a while we did. Three, four years. Then we sort of trailed off, you know, like people do.”

“You said we’re going to help Lawrence indirectly?”

“Yeah. He sent me a letter that came in today’s mail. I didn’t get around to opening it till we were sitting down to supper, and then I freaked out ’cause I blamed myself for the delay in communications. I should have made sure he had my phone number whenever I changed it. Guess I might as well read it to you; it’s pretty self explanatory.”

He fished out a small flashlight from the console, retrieved the letter from his shirt pocket, smoothed it out, and began to read.

Dear Jack,

I didn’t have your number and you’re not in the book, so all I can do is send this letter and hope it reaches you in time. I can’t think of anybody else to turn to, and I need your help desperately.

You must know about the troubles in Ferguson these days. Morrison is twenty-two now, a few years older than the late Michael Brown. My son is too much like me, and that’s got him into trouble. He knew Michael a little, knew he was trouble. Told us about him a long time ago, a year or more. Said that boy was headed for trouble, which we all now know he was. But the problem is, after the grand jury verdict came out and Officer Wilson was not charged with the shooting, some of the young men my son knows dropped by his apartment to “invite” him to a protest.

Morrison told those fools straight out that the verdict was right based on the evidence, that Michael had caused his own death, and that protesting a just verdict was about the stupidest, most ignorant thing a man of color could do in this situation. Or something like that.

The boys who “invited” him didn’t challenge him right then. Morrison is nearly as big as me, he knows how to fight, and he’s not afraid of anything. They knew that, and they left. But they talked, and it got to a little local radio station here, and now there’s folks out there planning my son’s death. We’ve got the threats, and they’re 100% believable.

April and I aren’t worried about ourselves or about the store, we don’t see anybody trying to take us on directly, but our boy is another matter. They rocked his car yesterday, and there were enough of them that even he realized the only smart thing to do was power it out of there. We’ve got to get him out of Missouri if we can, but we don’t have the money to make it happen. They’re watching the bus station and stuff like that, and they finally got his car. Fire bombed it.

So what I’m asking, old friend, is if there’s any way you can help get him out of the state, we need help. Desperately.

Sincerely,

Lawrence Weathers

“Yep,” I agreed soberly when he’d finished, “that’s pretty self explanatory, all right. Does he say where his son’s holed up? With his parents, or…??”

“Not with them.” Jack reached over to fish around in the back seat. “You want a Coke?”

“I’m good. Thought you were off of the stuff.”

“I am,” he said, “except for medicinal use.”

“Ah.”

“Besides, this is the good stuff. Mexican Coke, real sugar, real green hourglass bottle.”

“Yeah, I know. Don’t tempt me.”

“Ah,” he exclaimed with satisfaction, “that really is the good stuff. Anyway, I called Lawrence as soon as I read the letter. Morrison is hiding out with a distant relative, an elderly lady they don’t think anyone else realizes is connected to the family. His enemies aren’t the types capable of intercepting cell phone transmissions, so he’s in touch with his parents. But he doesn’t dare move around at all, and he wants out of there as soon as possible, before his hostess gets hurt if they come after him.”

“Man,” I shook my head, “the truth will get you killed.”

He nodded. “Lots of times, it will do exactly that.”

“How serious is the hunt for Morrison? Do they have a fix on that?”

“Somewhat. Lawrence’s store is shut down for the duration, but he still has contacts. Word is, some of these people want Morrison as bad as they want Darren Wilson, maybe worse.”

“Race betrayal syndrome?”

“Sure sounds like it.”

I thought about that for a few minutes, then decided I needed to lay out a few things for Jack. “MapQuest says it’s right at 1660 miles from Ovando to Ferguson. If we run through the night and stock up on snacks at fuel stops only, we should be able to average close to 65 miles per hour all the way, considering it’s nearly all freeway from here on out. That’ll put us hitting the Ferguson city limits about 25, 26 hours from departure. So, eight or nine tomorrow night.”

“That’s…better than I could have done alone. Thanks, Tree.”

I snorted. “Knock it off, old man.”

“Okay. I can do that.”

“Couple more things.”

“Shoot.”

“If this gets ugly, like if there’s a confrontation before we can get out of town, no shooting unless somebody else pulls a gun on us.”

“Wasn’t planning to, Tree,” Hill replied dryly. “Teach a dog to suck eggs, will you?”

“Just covering the bases. We think Ferguson is ugly now, we definitely don’t want to see it if another white man guns down another black baby boy or two. And as you’ve noticed, teenagers can sign up in the U.S. Army and go off to fight our wars, but get one of these white on black shootings and suddenly the black man is a sweet little toddler barely out of diapers, murdered in cold blood by old Jim Crow himself.”

Jack didn’t say anything. I felt a little foolish, pointing out the obvious like that. Maybe I wasn’t quite over his uncharacteristic behavior of a few hours ago.

“One more. You’ve maybe thought of this, but I don’t believe we should let the Weathers family know we can be there as early as we can. None of them are road warriors. They’ll believe us if we tell them it’ll take another day.”

“You’re thinking we shouldn’t assume our calls can’t be intercepted.”

“Damn spiffy.”

“Works for me. We’ve got the address for the apartment where Morrison is hiding out. If we hit there by nine or before, and I identify myself at the door, the old lady should let us in.”

“Better the element of surprise is on our side.”

“Agreed. And now, you know what? I think maybe I could use a nap.”

Jack tilted his seat back, closed his eyes, and was gone to the world. Which was fine by me; I’d need him to take the wheel at Sheridan, where we’d make our first fuel stop. One good thing about this run, we both knew the road all the way down to the Missouri border, and Jack even knew the final bit into Ferguson. It had been a while, but he knew it.

I turned on the radio, listened to KOPR out of Butte for a while, got bored with that and switched to the new Sirius XM satellite radio. So far, I’d only found three stations worth presetting. Fox News had mostly Ferguson, Ferguson, and more Ferguson airing. Hannity was on, right in the middle of his trademark yelling match with a couple of yahoos, one of them pro-protest, damn the evidence and full speed ahead. That format has made Hannity’s show the force that it is, but I can’t stand the bickering. Blue Collar Comedy worked better, especially by buttoning up a couple of notches to Raw Dog and back whenever a voice came on that was too screechy. When my eyes started drooping over a few sets that weren’t that funny, it was time to go to Bluegrass…no, Willie’s Roadhouse, then Outlaw Country.

The miles fell behind us, we made our driver changes as needed, managed to survive on Grandma’s Cookies and horrible high fructose corn syrup fried pies all the way. The sun came up, the sun went down, and at 8:23 p.m. we pulled up in front of the designated apartment building. My fully restored snow white 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix with its hidden custom touches wasn’t the newest car on the block, but it was definitely the only set of wheels that didn’t look like a refugee from a junkyard. In other words, it stood out like a beacon of light.

“I can go up alone,” Jack said.

“This city,” I decided, “must just automatically turn you brain dead.”

“What about the car? You really think it’ll be here if we leave it alone for more than two or three milliseconds?”

I grinned at him. “Normally, no, but watch this.” I got out, popped the trunk, and fished out five separate magnet-mounted CB antennas, each one a slightly different size and no two by the same manufacturer. It took mere seconds to attach them to the car.

Jack looked puzzled. Which surprised me a little, but maybe this town really did mess up his brain waves. There were places on the planet that screwed with my thinking; I knew that much. “Anybody sees this shiny retro beast sitting here with all this array, they’re going to assume it’s a drug dealer who’ll just kill ‘em if they mess with it.”

“Ah.”

The walkup was a typical ghetto bitch, dark enough in the stairwell to make one mindful of possible ambushes, stray cats, rats, winos, meth heads, and of course cockroaches. Wonderful smell of stale urine, too.

Man, I’d missed the city. Not.

The step boards had been painted at one time, but now it was mostly a matter of making sure you didn’t fall through, which a man with my weight could have done in several places. There were TV sets playing in a number of the units, light spilling out here and there under doors that were no longer as close to the floor as they’d been before they lost their weather stripping, numerous smells of both good and bad cooking as well as unwashed bodies.

In other words, Home Sweet Home to a whole lot of people in this richest nation on Earth.

Jack had arranged to be recognized by knocking on the door with the old “Shave and a Haircut, Six Bits” pattern, but the only thing that happened at first was the TV in the place going quiet. There was a peephole, and Hill knew enough to stand squarely in front of it, looking as innocent and friendly as a white man in a black neighborhood can look, come to call at an old lady’s door, the hand that wasn’t holding his hat resting atop his black rebar cane. I’d said no shooting, but I was glad he’d brought the cane.

There was maybe enough light in the hallway for the occupant to see that he was not exactly a man of color. Maybe.

The door did finally open, held by a fine black lady I’d have been proud to call my grandmother. According to what Jack had learned from Lawrence, she was over eighty years of age, but there wasn’t a wrinkle on her that I could see. Her eyes were friendly, the sort that gives you the impression the lights are on but only the squirrels are home. She wore an ankle length dress that must have once been purple, with a pattern of big, faded flowers. Her apron had seen better days.

And she was approximately three feet tall.

Oddly enough, Lawrence Weathers hadn’t warned him about that, but Jack never missed a lick. “Miz Agatha?” he asked, doffing his hat. Her upward staring eyes caught that for sure. She liked it, too; I had a hunch not too many gentlemen came to her door, and of those who might, even fewer would think to show respect with the hat trick.

She didn’t say a word, just stepped aside, still holding the doorknob, and ushered us in. The apartment was a studio, impressively clean, with a homey feel and a pleasant scent I couldn’t quite identify. Morrison Weathers was just getting up from the couch. His Dad hadn’t been kidding about his size; I had to look up a bit to meet his eyes, and I’m six-three.

It took us two, maybe three minutes to get out of there, most of that spent waiting while the oversized young man and the undersized old lady hugged it out, him squatting in order to get down somewhere near her level.

They were waiting for us on the street.

We saw them before we stepped out of the stairwell, but there was no holding back. At least we were outside now, a bit away from the building. Miz Agatha would not have to be part of this.

There were no taunts, no catcalls. Instead, the gang–and I was pretty sure this was an organized group, a far cry from an emotional mob–spread out quietly, making sure they had us thoroughly surrounded.

“You know,” Jack said conversationally, bringing his cane up to point at the stocky forty year old who appeared to be the leader, “we’re going to have to stop meeting like this.”

Of course, Hill and I’d fought together before, but young Morrison–only four years younger than me, but still the baby of the group–was a new element. “Back to back to back,” I advised him, “but give the old man room to work.”

He raised an eyebrow, but all he said was, “Okay.”

Why was this such a big deal to these men? I didn’t know for sure, but their hatred of young Weathers was palpable. In fact, they seemed fixated on him for the most part, only a few of the thirty or so punk-ass thugs paying me much attention. Hill, they ignored entirely; he was a smaller man, a scrawny old whitey, of no account to them.

Which was why, when they finally lunged in for the kill and Jack’s steel cane broke the elbow of a man wielding a knife aimed for Morrison’s ribs, they were mightily surprised.

I didn’t see any more of his side of it for a while after that; I was too busy by far. Nobody pulled a firearm, thank the Creator and all Its angels, but blades and steel pipes and various clubs were much in evidence. I got lucky early on with a low kick, took out an attacker’s knee, and hastily retrieved his pipe when he screamed in pain and dropped it. It was a nice pipe, too, two solid feet of one inch galvanized with a 90 degree elbow at one end. Nobody came close to touching me after that.

There was a sudden lull in the battle. I looked around. The kid was holding his own, kind of favoring his left side like something was wrong with his ribs–hopefully not a stab wound–but with two opponents unconscious at his feet and nobody else looking terribly eager to close with him any time soon. That could have been because of the baseball bat he now held in his hands.

Jack Hill was grinning ear to ear, eyes dancing. The old man was enjoying himself something fierce. He’d redeemed himself in Ferguson, at least for the moment. One man lay sprawled against the Pontiac’s front tire, down for the count, another was dragging himself away with what looked like a badly broken leg, and we’d bought ourselves a breather.

The kind of breather that often culminates with the losers hauling out shooters in sheer rage and frustration. We needed to get going.

I unlocked the doors and told Morrison, “Get in the back seat.” He did so without hesitation. I threw his little satchel in on top of him, walked around to my side as quickly as I could without looking like I was running, and climbed in behind the wheel. Jack was already in place in the shotgun seat, the doors were locked, and it was time to rock and roll.

Except that the assault force, whatever the real story behind them, did not like that idea much at all. They surged forward, clearly less intimidated now that they were facing a mere Pontiac rather than three armed and surprisingly violent men. They surrounded the car, trying to rock it. To their surprise, it didn’t budge much; with the passenger load we had, the beefed-up Grand Prix with its quarter inch steel door panel inserts weighed almost as much as the official Beast hauling our skinny President in the back seat.

Not that they couldn’t tip the thing if enough of them wised up and grabbed hold under the rocker panel at the same time.

I had no intention of waiting for them to figure it out. Gunned the engine. Laid rubber. Ran right through three men who thought standing in front of a Chinese tank in Tiananmen Square was a great idea, and after bumping over their bodies, we were out of there and on our way.

“Dang,” Jack observed, “I never thought to move that fellow’s head away from the tire. He might have a rubber road rash up one side of his face, or something.”

“Maybe he can tell his friends it’s a hickey from the Fifty Foot Woman, or something,” I replied.

A quick check of the rear view mirrors showed me three things. There was no pursuit, at least not yet. There were quite a few bodies strewn around the asphalt back there. And the kid in the back seat…well, his eyes were kind of bugged out.

“You done good, Morrison,” I informed him.

“Uh, what?”

“You fought like you knew what you were doing.”

“Shit, man, I thought I was dead. Mr. Hill, sir, where did you learn to use a cane like that? How old are you, anyway? Who’s your friend behind the wheel? Did we kill anybody? Can they track this car? How far to the state line? When–”

“Easy, son.” Jack handed a small paper bag back to Weathers. “Blow into this for a while. You’re hyperventilating.”

We let him settle down a bit, then Jack started answering questions as he could. “Let’s see…you asked about tracking this car. Before I answer that, how do you feel about the law?”

“America is a nation of law,” he answered primly.

I shook my head. “Okay, Morrison, do you truly understand and believe that, or are you just spouting something you’ve memorized?”

“Well…it should be a nation of law…shouldn’t it?” Now he sounded confused.

“Yep. I’ll grant you that; it really should. But I gotta tell you something. Oh, by the way, I’m Treemin Jackson. Or Tree; I get called that a lot. Anyway, Jack and I and our people back up in Montana, we sometimes have to, um, bend a law or two to make things right. And before we answer some of your questions, we need to know how you feel about that.”

“Well…could I have an example?”

Jack laughed. “He’ll dance you around that one all night, Tree. Morrison, here’s the thing. It’s not likely anybody will track this car, especially not through the license number because we’re running a stolen plate at the moment, one from a minivan out of Ohio, not a Pontiac out of Montana. And not through the great number of antennas on the car, either, because all of the extras are stick-on CB antennas we just put on there for show in the ‘hood. There’s your example.”

“Oh…I see. Well…truth?”

“That would be best.”

“Then…truth is, that makes me really uncomfortable.”

Jack and I shared a look. Oh shit. Time to start lying to this one.

I took the ball and ran with it. “That’s good, Morrison. You don’t want to get comfortable with breaking the law. It’ll take us a few hours to get out of Missouri.” More than a few, you chucklehead, but I reckon you’ll be sound asleep for most of it. Good thing we brought a couple of pillows. “I seriously doubt we killed anybody. Ran over a leg or two with the car, knocked a few people out, maybe broke a few bones, but nothing fatal.” Nothing that’s likely to make the news, anyway; I have a feeling that attack crew isn’t going to be going to the media any time soon. “Jack, he asked about your cane fighting.”

Hill turned in his seat to address the issue. “I didn’t really learn it, Morrison. One day, I happened to have the cane with me–I don’t need it all the time–and wound up having to use it. Got lucky, found out it came naturally.”

“Oh. Boy.” Weathers sounded…wistful. “I wish something would come naturally for me.”

That surprised me. “Nothing does? You looked pretty cotton picking natural during that fight tonight.”

“Oh, I can fight. You grow up where I did, you learn to fight. But I mean something useful.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. Fighting’s not useful? Fortunately, Jack Hill came to the rescue. “You mean like something you could do as a career? Or to attract good looking women?”

“Uh….”

I shot him a startled look in the mirror, biting my tongue at the last second to keep from asking him if he was gay. “You’ve not had much luck with women?”

“They’re…”

Wow. I was pretty sure the kid literally couldn’t get out another word.

“They’re…too pretty. I mean, the pretty ones are. Oh, that didn’t come out right, did it? I mean, I can talk to a girl if she doesn’t, if there’s no chemistry, but if she’s really beautiful I get tongue tied. I…pretty girls intimidate me.”

Whew! Jack and I started chuckling simultaneously.

“What’s so funny?” Morrison wanted to know.

“My friend,” Jack told him, “pretty girls intimidate everybody.”

The conversation sort of fell apart after that. Jack and I waited quietly until the kid fell asleep, which he did no more than an hour outside of the Ferguson city limits. We talked then, not loud and half in code.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to hurry as much on the return trip as we had on the way to Ferguson. The first truck stop in Iowa saw us settled into a booth, ordering enough food to supply a small army. Jack and I were more than ready to abandon our junk food diet, and Morrison could just flat out eat the hide right off a horse and then eat the horse.

It was late enough in the morning now, so I left Jack babysitting and slipped outside to make a phone call. When I returned, the waitress was bringing dessert. Not for me or for Jack, but Morrison ate three pieces of pumpkin pie before he was ready to quit. I’d thought to bring him all the way up to Montana, but there was no way Rodeo Iron or Trace Ranch could afford to have such a goody two shoes mucking around next door to any of our multitudinous secrets, let alone eating us out of house and home.

Instead, Jack and I had come up with a better idea, and my franchisee had been okay with it, too.

“Morrison,” I asked, “do you know anything about welding?”

“No. Should I?”

“Not necessarily. How about cooking?”

“Um…I don’t know a lot. I like it, though. I always thought if I could be a chef, I’d be the happiest man alive.”

“That’s pretty happy. How about starting as an apprentice cook?”

“Okay.”

“In North Dakota.”

“Okay,” he said, looking both earnest and excited, “where’s North Dakota?”

“A couple of states north of here,” I told him. With this kid, keeping it simple was mandatory. “It’s pretty far from Ferguson. Oh, did you guys realize today is Thanksgiving?”

“It is?” Morrison looked genuinely surprised. “Which direction is Ferguson?”

Jack pointed, south by southeast. “That way.”

The big young black man lifted a huge fist, middle finger extended, flipping the town the bird. “Happy Bleeping Thanksgiving, Ferguson, Missouri!”

Six truckers and a waitress turned to stare at us. I busted out laughing. Jack Hill held it in, but he was covering his mouth with one hand. “Guess he won’t miss his old home town for a while,” I decided.

And then it hit me. “Oh foo. Know what we forgot? We forgot to tell his parents he’s out and okay.”

Morrison looked stricken until Jack pointed out, “Hey, Tree, no harm, no foul. I told Lawrence we wouldn’t even be there yet. The kid and I can both call in when we get back to the car.”

That sounded good to me. I got up and made a grab for the check, but Jack beat me to it. My turn next time. I was feeling pretty fine, us having accomplished Jack’s mission and gotten the Weathers’s son out of town safely.

I just wish they’d told us the boy had the I.Q. of a carrot, but maybe they didn’t know. Parents can be mighty skilled at denial sometimes.