The weather held. We convoyed down from Dubois over and down into Jackson Hole, stopping briefly in Jackson while Jack Hill went in to a restaurant to get us a bunch of cheeseburgers, fries, and assorted drinks to go.
I say assorted because while most of us wanted coffee, as hot and strong as possible, Blessing Devonia was craving Dr. Pepper.
“I haven’t had a soda since the day when–you know.”
We certainly did know, at least as much as anyone could know who’d not been on the receiving end of her experience with her late captor.
She rode with Mom, of course. What the two women said to each other during the drive will remain forever between the two of them. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know all the details anyway, nor did either my uncle B.J. or the ancient Protector seem the slightest bit curious about it.
Mom’s Jeep was no longer riding point, though. We’d put the girls in the rocking chair, B.J. out front, with Jack and me still bringing up the rear in the Pontiac. For the most part, we maintained radio silence, and nobody called Billy Davis to let him know we were coming.
The last thing we needed was for anyone to go snooping too hard around Dubois, Wyoming, while the grave in the trees was still fresh and the wreckage of the Forester equally so.
Ten miles out from the ranch, Mom did finally call Billy, but she didn’t hand the phone to Blessing.
“Get your clothes on, cowboy,” she told the rancher, who answered on the third ring–he still wasn’t sleeping much. “We’ve got something you’ll want to see, and we’ll be there in a short.”
In ranching country, something you’ll want to see could be anything from a prize bull to a cutting horse, maybe even a new Winchester, but Davis was no fool. He knew what she meant. When our little convoy rolled to a stop in front of his sturdy log home, the yard lights were blazing. Not only Billy, but his three sons as well, were all clustered out on the front porch.
When the long lost Blessing burst out of the Jeep, there was a whole lot of flying going on. She flew toward the man and the boys, but they flew down off those steps and at her just as fast.
I was waiting for a collision, but it didn’t work out like that.
Instead, the Davis bunch all kind of pulled up at the last instant, like maybe they were afraid of slamming into the girl too hard, hurting her or something. Blessing, though, she didn’t have no hesitation. She spread her arms wide, took ’em all in like she was a mother hen covering her chicks, never mind that all but the youngest boy were taller than she was.
I found myself wishing I dared take a picture. Talk about a Kodak moment.
We all adjourned to the kitchen. The boys–I never did catch their names–hustled up some extra chairs from somewhere, and we all got settled in to catch things up a bit and make sure the story got laid out right. The oldest boy jumped right back up and started making coffee. Billy had a restaurant sized coffee maker, and I think we Hicks hunters were all glad of it. It was just past midnight by then, a long day, and miles to go before we slept.
Billy and Blessing, we noted, sat side by side, their thighs touching, eyes shining all around. The boys were mostly quiet, respectful; they’d been raised right.
Not that they took their eyes off of the young woman who’d become their stepmom, in fact if not quite legalized on paper just yet.
We made it quick, heading back out around 1:30 a.m. Billy would give us time to get clear, then call 911 around 2:00 a.m. The story would be, surprise surprise, that Blessing did indeed have amnesia. She could remember the ranch, Billy, and the kids, but nothing of the two months she’d been missing. All she knew was that she’d caught a ride from a nice man in a big, warm car, who’d been kind enough to drop her off at the end of the driveway.
Naturally, that car would have been heading the opposite way from where we were going.
The boys, their Dad assured us, could carry the ruse off as well as the adults. To make his point, he’d pointed at his eldest.
“Ben, what do you know about this?”
“Oh my, sir!” Ben’s eyes went wide and innocent. He looked to be around fourteen, maybe fifteen years old. “It was so incredible! Dad told me, wake up! Wake up! And I got up and came out to the kitchen, and there she was, miss Devonia, just like she’d never been gone!”
Billy nodded, straight faced, then signaled the middle child. “Harvey, is Ben telling the truth?”
“Yes sir,” the twelve year old (at a guess) nodded. “Ben doesn’t ever lie. He makes me do my homework, too. Sometimes I don’t like him very much.”
And finally, “Stevie?”
The little guy shook his head, a seven year old pro. “I never get told anything,” he declared solemnly. “They didn’t even wake me up until you guys told Dad to get me out of bed so’s you could talk to me.”
We all laughed at that. Stevie could really sell it.
Right about the time Billy was calling 911, we were pulling into the Bowles place. Mom hadn’t bothered to call, just honked her horn, two short pops, and that was it.
Sim was up, though. We’d seen the light from the highway.
“They’re psychic together like that,” I explained to Jack. “Always have been.”
Hill grinned. “Bet that made it tough for you to get away with stuff when you were a kid.”
“That it did. Believe me, I started learning to shield my thoughts at a young age around them two.”
There wasn’t much conversation this time, and certainly no coffee. Sim knew I knew my way around the place, so he just hauled Mom off into the bedroom and closed the door.
Fortunately, my old room was at the other end of the house, so their pillow talk wouldn’t be overheard or anything.
“B.J.,” I told my uncle, “about the only thing long enough for you is that eight foot couch in the living room.”
“Works for me.” He yawned prodigiously. I dug out a spare blanket from the hall linen closet and left him to it.
Jack and I had to share my old bed, and it was only a double, but both of us had done worse in the past. Besides, neither of us was likely to move once our eyes closed; we were that tired.
“Daylight in the swamps!”
For just a moment, hearing Sim call out his ritual greeting to the morning, I was a kid again. Not really, you know, but I’d heard that call to rise and shine during all the years of my upbringing, pretty much from birth till I’d been shipped off to McCrossan Boys Ranch in South Dakota at age 16.
Mom had everything squared away for breakfast in the kitchen, too, and looking good, as if she’d had eight hours of sleep instead of maybe four at best.
Buckwheat waffles, plates of ham slices, bacon, sausage. Real maple syrup. Real butter, too, from the Saunders Dairy down the road.
When Jack and I were ready to hit the road, B.J. surprised us.
“I’m staying on for a bit, Tree. I know there’s more than enough work back at the welding shop; things have to be piled up something fierce since I’ve been gone. But it occurred to me that there are some serious marketing opportunities around here. I’m thinking Rodeo Iron might be about ready to expand into neighboring states, and I thought I’d take a look around for, you know, a few days.”
“Uh-huh. Okay.” It made sense, sort of, though I had the feeling there was something he wasn’t telling me. “We’ll need more welders, and none of them named Hicks.”
He shrugged his oversized shoulders. “True enough. But there’s a lot of unemployment. We’ll have to run hardcore investigations on everybody from here on in, can’t afford any more Hicks mistakes, like you say, but the good ones are out there.”
“Sounds great,” I agreed hastily, grabbing my hat and heading out the door. “See you when you get back.”
We were rolling, then, just Jack Hill and me, on the road again.
Maybe five miles out, Hill spoke up. “You looked…you okay, Tree?”
“Yeah.” I knew what he was getting at. “It’s just…it stung, you know? B.J. saying we can’t afford any more Hicks mistakes.”
“And you were the one who approved his employment.”
“Yeah. I’ll get over it. Hadn’t realized it was just laying there, under the surface, waiting a chance to jump up and bite me like that.”
“Huh. Tree, you ever read the Bible? The King James version?”
“Uh, yeah, had to as a kid. Book of Mormon, too; you’d be going around blind and uneducated in Mormon country if you don’t have at least a passing knowledge of their holy book.”
“Well,” Jack rubbed his chin thoughtfully–except he had a chin to rub, not like chinless little Alvin Izzard, the hunchbacked coin dealer who’d pointed us Hicks hunters in the right direction. “There’s a lot of sayings in the Bible, and some of ’em even make sense. One I go by a lot is, Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.”
He fell silent then, let me work that one through.
“So you’re saying…don’t be fretting about what might be coming down the line in the future, that is, don’t invite trouble into your life ahead of time, and…the past is the past, and it doesn’t do any good to tear yourself up about mistakes, either?”
“That’s pretty much it,” he agreed. “Besides, like they say, the only man who makes no mistakes is the man who does nothing at all.”
“I’ve heard that one, or a version of it.”
I thought it over some more. It didn’t make me feel any better, not really, but maybe it would eventually, after it had time to settle in.
“Well,” I spoke up maybe half an hour farther down the road. “Reckon it’s safe enough now to give our people in Montana a call or two?”
“Don’t see why not. You just been to see your Mom and are heading back. It ain’t your fault that’s happening the same morning Blessing Devonia turned back up safe and sound, now is it?”
“Certainly not.” I laughed, and we started calling.
Jennifer Trace first, because she’d earned it, she and Horace holding down the fort at the ranch for as long as they had. The hands were reporting predator-savaged livestock again, and the tracker had determined we had beef-hungry wolves getting frisky. Seemed like old times. We all hated to see calves lost, but at least this was a familiar enemy. It would still be shoot, shovel, and shut up, with of course the extra problem that an Obama drone might be eyeballing us from the sky these days.
You never knew.
Wayne Bruce and Carolyn West next, because Jack had seniority on me. They promised him they’d not run across to the mobile home to tell the others we were on our way home; my girls deserved to hear it from me.
Then, finally, my call to Sissy and Judi. We changed drivers for that one, so I could focus on talking to my sweethearts. First, as with the other calls, the code that said we’d succeeded in tracking down Hicks and also that Blessing Devonia was okay, at least physically.
“Two in the hand and none in the bush,” I began. The girls had me on speakerphone, and I could hear what sounded like a big old double sigh of relief. “We’re headed home from Mom’s, should make it home tonight, late. By midnight if we’re lucky, but before daylight for sure.”
“That’s great, Tree,” Sissy’s voice replied, and Judi echoed the sentiment.
It turned out they’d begun working at the ranch during our absence. Both of them; Judi helping Jennifer Trace around the house and Sissy going out with old Horace on his tracking expeditions. That way, work could get done and everybody still had their backs covered.
Made sense to me. In fact, it made me wonder why I’d never thought of it myself.
We did have one scare, later on. Just a few miles shy of Montana, there was a roadblock. A Highway Patrolman walked back down along the line of vehicles that stretched ahead to what looked like a serious blockade. Our weaponry, for the most part, could pass as normal for hunters, and this was hunting season, but even so…
Fortunately, it wasn’t a drug search or anything. There’d been a heck of a wreck up ahead. Nine vehicle pile-up, and our side of the highway was closed.
It cost us a couple of hours, sitting in that mess, waiting, but we were lucky. We’d later see in the news reports that a flatbedder had spilled a load of drill pipe destined for the oil patch. Neither the big rig nor the truck driver were hurt, but the traffic behind the spill was another matter. By the time it was all done, seven of the nine vehicles involved in the pileup were pretty well totaled, with three deaths and two more sent to the hospital for observation.
When they finally got one lane cleared and let us through, both of us were craving a restroom, but we weren’t complaining. We remembered another spill across a highway, a telephone pole dropped deliberately so we’d crash into it and be killed.
“Brings back memories, don’t it, Tree?” Jack’s voice was dry as we eased past the traffic cop. He was eyeballing the pieces of drill pipe, which were now all in the ditch and more or less out of the way.
“As long as they keep missing us, partner,” I replied, my tone utterly sincere.
“There is that,” he agreed, reclining his seat–I was back behind the wheel–and settling in for a nap. “There is that.”