They Walk Among Us, Chapter 59: Fear and Guilt

In the end, it was not Billings that drew my interest in the matter of considering a third Rodeo Iron manufacturing franchise. Instead, a phone call from the much smaller town of Beach, North Dakota–just barely east of the Montana state line–had drawn me to make a rare lone run to the Peace Garden State.

If you’ve never spent a night in Beach, North Dakota, I have one recommendation: Don’t.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a motel, the Buckboard Inn, which may be a fine sleeping place. I don’t know; I’ve never stayed there. And there’s a truck stop as well, so if you’re a long hauler crashing in your rig’s sleeper, you’re good to go.

But North Dakota, as a whole…well, as one trucking friend of Chuck Berenson’s put it, North Dakota is kind of the North Pole version of Arizona, only without the charm.

Chuck also had a whole repertoire of what he called North Dakota jokes, politically incorrect lowbrow humor specifically designed to insult anyone even slightly connected to the state.

“My favorite,” he’d told us, “Is the one about the sewage lagoon. If you put a sewage lagoon on the Montana-North Dakota state line, how could you tell which side was which?”

He’d been in the office with me and Judi when he came up with that one. We both just gave him the cocked eyebrow routine.

“The North Dakota side,” he’d stated with exaggerated patience as if explaining to children, “is the one with the diving board.”

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Fortunately, Adam Microondas–who insisted he’d never known his family name was Spanish for microwave oven–had his own place a few miles north of town, with plenty of peace and quiet plus a spare bedroom.

In fact, the house had several spare bedrooms. At least for the time being, Adam lived alone. He was 32 years of age, having gone to work in the Texas oil patch at the age of 18. Like any true oil field trash, he’d followed the booms, happening to land in North Dakota in 2006 before the Bakken play really took off. By mid-2008, he had his own oil patch welding company, AM Welding.

At the moment, he was ready to make a switch.

He also had a pretty mean talent as a chef, at least when it came to putting ribeye steaks on the table with all the fixings. “Damn, Adam, how come you ain’t married?” We both dug in, working men who appreciated good beef. “Just about any splittail out there would appreciate having you in the kitchen.”

“Hunh.” He grunted around a mouthful. “I’ll explain when we’re done eating. Sunset’s pretty, ain’t I?”

I nodded. “That it is.” The Microondas home sat on a low rise, providing a panoramic view across the rolling plains to the west. The last rays of the setting sun lit the snow on fire. A man could get used to a view like this…if it weren’t for his warrior mindset. You’d sure enough be able to see the enemy coming, but that picture window was as vulnerable as all get-out.

Thankfully, not everybody lived in constant expectation of attack the way Trace Nation did.

After the eating was done, my host pointed out his variety of coffee blends. He had more than twenty of them. “I got hooked on coffee pretty early in life,” he admitted cheerfully. “Somewhere around age twelve. My folks down in Texas, Mom will now and then grab a cup at Starbucks, but mostly they still stick to Folgers right out of the can, from Walmart.

“Me, I figured, after I’d socked a bit of money in the bank, if it was going to take me a while to find the right woman–and I ain’t give up on that yet, not by a long shot–I might as well have a hobby I could enjoy in my spare time. That is, something that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg or get me impaired to the point of ruining my life. That sort of thing.”

It made sense. It would have been nice if I could have been half that sensible when I was in my teens. “The Kona looks good.” I pointed, and he started grinding beans.

The moment AM Welding had started turning a solid profit–which had been within weeks from the time he’d outfitted his first service truck for the oil patch welding environment, with its own flood lights, heavy duty suspension, and top of the line equipment–he’d started searching for a piece of real estate.

“Whenever the Bakken boom plays out, and they all do, sooner or later, I figure to stick around if I possibly can.” He’d explained enough on the phone to get me to point the Pontiac toward Beach, but this was new, detailed information. “I’ve got three other welders working with me–was four, but I had to run one guy off for doing drugs on the job. We’re used to working around the clock at the drop of a hat, so production deadlines won’t be a problem. I’ve already got my 40 acres zoned commercial, jumped through all the county and state hoops for that. The place is far enough out of town that the great city of Beach should never be a problem.”

The Microondas place was not only out of town, but it had been the headquarters portion of a working ranch before the previous owner fell on hard times. Adam had picked it up at a foreclosure sale, mere months before the energy industry began realizing the shale play in the Bakken formation was worth exploiting.

“I couldn’t afford it today,” he admitted. “Had it appraised just last month. Came out close to ten times what I paid for it five years ago.”

The outbuildings, including a huge machine shed that he’d already converted to a working shop, were worth it. There was no question that the infrastructure needed for a Rodeo Iron enterprise was in place.

But were we right for each other as business associates? There were questions.

I waited until the Kona was poured before hitting the sore spot. “When you first laid eyes on me, when I first stepped out of my car and you came to the door, you looked a little surprised. Did I read that wrong?”

He thought for a second, not looking for a way out but considering his response. “No. You got it right, Tree. I was a bit surprised. I never knew the owner of Rodeo Iron was a big black man such as yourself.”

“Fair enough. Next question: Would that be a problem, you getting a franchise from me?”

He exploded in laughter.

I waited.

When he managed to get control of himself just a little bit–which took a while–he spluttered in amusement. “Mr. Jackson, suh, does you realize this po’ white trash be beggin’ fo’ scraps from da black massa’s table dis time aroun?”

He got me. Before I knew it, I was laughing as hard as he was.

It was a good thing, that first night we met, being able to let it out with no witnesses to remark on our mutual insanity. None except Jock, Adam’s bright eyed Australian shepherd dog, anyway. Jock had been sitting up, watching us, paying attention like he knew what we were saying. Now he lay down, plopped his head on his forepaws, and pretended to go to sleep.

Humans were obviously crazy.

As it turned out, Adam didn’t look it, but he was one eighth African American by birth and a lover of black sisters by preference. Most of the rest of his genetics sourced out of Germany, back in the day, but he swore none of his ancestors were even remotely related to Hitler, and that set us off again.

We did eventually get down to talking the brass tacks of business, the thousand and one details that go into making a welding enterprise–specifically a Rodeo Iron welding enterprise–profitable.

By the time we gave it up and decided to get some shuteye, somewhere around 2:00 a.m., we were in business. It would take a few weeks to put everything in place, but we figured the official startup date for Rodeo Iron North Dakota could be targeted for Valentine’s Day with a bit of luck.

Never mind the horrible acronym for Rodeo Iron North Dakota: RIND. It would undoubtedly spawn even more North Dakota jokes, but you can’t win ’em all.

The Pontiac made it all the way to the Bair’s Truck Stop at Belgrade before needing to be gassed up. With that done and a cheeseburger to go, we were on the road again, headed home.

My cell phone rang before I could unwrap the burger.

“Hello!” I always belt it out a bit when answering the phone in the car. Don’t ask me why.

“Tree,” Judi’s voice asked, “is this an okay time to talk?”

“Good enough. I just gassed up. I’m just west of Belgrade, be home sometime this evening.”

“Oh, good.” The relief in her tone spoke volumes.

“What’s up?”

“A job applicant just left here. I told him you do all the welding tests, and you wouldn’t be in until tomorrow, so he’s coming back then.”


“Tree, this guy scares the crap out of me.”

Whoa. Judi hadn’t turned a hair when her insane ex-husband, Merv the Perv, had come barging into the KO Rodeo Ranch Restaurant in Missoula and put a bullet through her arm. This job applicant must be something else.

“Details, honey.”

“Well…he’s the epitome of the angry young black man stereotype. About…five seven, maybe five eight. Stocky, probably two hundred pounds of muscle. He didn’t exactly glare at me, but I could, you know, feel this aura of violence around him, like he could smash my head in without a second thought. And I definitely got the impression he hates whites. I’m not sure I’ve met a really to-the-bone racist before, but I’m pretty sure he’s one. Suspect he doesn’t like women much, either.”

“Sounds like a real bundle of joy.”


“Is Sissy there?”

“Yeah, let me give her the phone.”

Sissy Harms was our Security Chief for a reason. Her recital was calm and to the point, none of the fear Judi was experiencing–but then, she’d killed a whole lot more bad men than Judi had, and she stood nine inches taller as well. That makes a difference.

“Judi’s not exaggerating, Tree. He’s a bad one. I saw his car out front of the office when I was making my rounds. Got a feeling, and went in to make sure she had some backup. Good thing I did; Alfredo Thomas was looming.”

“That’s his name. Alfredo Thomas. We had him fill out an application. I faxed a copy over to Jack Hill at his house, and he’s on his way to Missoula as we speak. He’ll have a deep background report for you before you have to deal with this guy tomorrow.”

“Good.” Alfredo’s aura alone meant he’d never be hired, but the background report should give me enough ammunition to craft a refusal with some chance of avoiding an explosion.



“Tell Judi I love her, and ask her to help Jennifer Trace tomorrow. I don’t want her anywhere near the office when Mr. Thomas returns.”

“I agree.”

“What’s he driving?”

“An old beater Buick, out of the 70’s. Lime green paint job. You can hear it coming, running on seven, missing and backfiring like crazy. How he’s going to make it to the nearest town for the night and then make it back up here, I have no idea–so maybe he isn’t. He might be parked somewhere, subzero sleeping bag or something, just toughing it out. So watch your ass coming home, boss.”

“Got it. I need to sign off, honey. Cop lights up head.”



Alfredo Thomas pulled up and parked at 8:01 a.m. I’d thought I was prepared for him, but I wasn’t. His Buick wasn’t just missing, for one thing; it was running entirely without the benefit of one piston.

I met him at the door. At first, he was polite, almost obsequious, a parody of the yes, massa attitude Adam Microondas and I had laughed about.

But this man was no laughing matter.

When I told him without preamble that he would not be hired, he dropped the fa├žade. His eyes bore into mine, glittering hate. His entire fireplug of a body began twitching, as if he were restraining himself by sheer force of will but about to lose it.

“Chocolate cream muthaf*ckah!” His snarl was feral, wilder than the wolf I’d faced in the snow with nothing but a knife in my hand.

Alfredo Thomas didn’t just scare little white girls like Judi. He scared me. I found myself wishing my six foot eight uncle B. J. hadn’t gone soft on that Idaho politician witch. I could have used him right then.

There was a .357 Magnum revolver mounted in a sling under my desk and loaded with silvertip hollowpoints. I wasn’t too sure even that would stop this rage machine if he let loose, though. I’m a big man myself, topping out at six-three, but Thomas at five six–which was all I gave him for height–packed his 200 pounds in tight. He was the kind of fighter who is carefully avoided by professional boxers in the ring, let alone in a small company office.

Not that I let my fear show. Even Mama Louella Jackson raised me better than that.

“Would you care to know why I’m declining your application?”

He glared for a long while, stone silent. I thought about peeing my pants but decided not to.

“Yeah,” he said at last, “Why not? Give me your bullsh*t Uncle Tom reasons.”

“All right.” I began ticking off the points on my fingers, mostly to keep my right hand away from that Magnum. The urge to empty the revolver into this man’s broad, unsmiling face at point blank range was next thing to irresistible, an instinct for survival. “By the numbers.”

“1. Your three years at Lompoc. Two other inmates died while you were there, under mysterious circumstances.

“2. Your four meth DUI convictions, none of which resulted in hard time, but all of which show a pattern of addiction.

“3. The beating of Keating Phelps. That–”

“Enough.” The violence within Alfredo Thomas suddenly deflated, like air being let out of a tire or like the greatest, longest fart ever fired. The fart analogy was probably closest; it let the poison out in the air, stinking things up more than a bit, but at least you knew the man wasn’t going to literally explode in your face for the next few minutes. “I heard about this black man running a company way up here in white bread Montana, and I hoped you’d be different, man. I should have known. I should have f*cking known.”

He got up from his chair, turned his back, and made his way out to his car. The old beater took seven tries to fire up, but just when the battery started sounding like it wasn’t going to make it, the engine caught. By the time the ancient Buick made it out of the yard, sputter-chugging down the dirt road, it was blowing smoke out the back.

Looked like the rings were pretty well gone, too.


I turned from the window. Sissy stood there, cradling her recently acquired M1A1 carbine.

“Got another one,” she said.

“Another what?”

“Job applicant,” a male voice spoke, a voice that sounded somehow familiar. Then he poked his head around the doorframe, from back in the shop where Sissy had asked him to wait until I’d dealt with Alfredo Thomas, and I did a double take.

“Jerry Lee Parsons?!”

“That’s my name,” he grinned, easing on into the office and extending his hand. “Don’t wear it out.”

I grabbed the hand but didn’t shake it. Instead, I pulled my old friend into a bear hug that probably bruised a couple of ribs. It was mostly adrenalin letdown from facing Death by Thomas, of course. Nothing more.

“Good to see you, too, Tree.” He kept the grin, wincing only a little after I released him.

Jerry Lee had been Rexburg’s least used quarterback during my high school years, before I turned juvenile delinquent and eventually got expelled. I’d always thought he was underrated and had made an extra effort to prevent pass rushers from reaching him during our games.

“Man, you’re a sight for sore eyes. You’re looking for a job, you say?”

“I say. Been welding since high school. Was working in Twin Falls till my wife divorced me and stole everything I had. Bounced around some since then. Didn’t know about you owning the company till I went in to apply at Rodeo Iron Idaho and they told me. I couldn’t believe it.”

“You’re not the only one. I’ve been living it, and I’m not sure I believe it, either. Tell me, after I got my butt booted out of school, did the Coach get you more playing time your Junior and Senior years?”

“Um…about that…” The grin slipped from his face. “Without you blocking for me, Tree, things didn’t go so well. First game my Junior year, got caught on a blitz, slammed down, messed up my knee. It’s okay now, more or less, but I never played another game.”

“Oh.” The guilt slammed into me, hot, searing, relentless.

Guess it was my day for naked emotions. First fear and now guilt.

Fortunately, I was born a better than average poker player. Alfredo Thomas never saw my fear. Jerry Lee Parsons wasn’t about to see my guilt.

He saw a lot of my clan for a while, though. He didn’t have enough fuel left in his Toyota pickup’s tank to make it to any town with a gas station, let alone survive the rest of the way until his first payday. So Sissy and Judi and I took him home. He slept on the living room couch for four full weeks, until the combination of a no down deal promoted by a Great Falls mobile home dealer and cheap space rent offered by Jack Hill combined to set him up with his own place.

It was good catching up with Jerry Lee. He turned out to be an excellent welder. I never had the slightest reason to question my own judgment in hiring him and temporarily hosting him in my own home…except for one thing.

When he moved out, he took Judi with him.