The alarm clock went off, triggering an awareness of something cold and wet impacting my face. My eyes flew open, staring at nothing but darkness. Wha–
–Oh. “Thanks, Ruby. You good girl.” My whisper increased the young cat’s purr-o-meter as she kneaded the blankets under my chin, happy drool dripping down to smack me just under the left eye. “Thanks a lot.” I eased to my right, leaving Judi still sleeping, deep in sandman country. It was Sunday morning, no reason for her to rise and shine until she was good and ready to do so.
Sissy, of course, was already up. Her gunshot wound was healing rapidly, especially since the application of aloe vera gel several times daily had reduced the scar tissue to virtually nothing, but there was still more than enough ache in the mending flesh to keep her from sleeping more than a few hours at a time. She’d be in the kitchen, sipping her third cup of coffee, studying the reports Jack and I’d brought back from Missoula yesterday. This was one of our Triad Meeting mornings, so she wouldn’t be worrying about breakfast; Judi would whomp up something for the two of them later.
By the time I was out of the shower and halfway back to the land of the living, the kitchen light was on over at Jack’s. The old Protector was up, then, no worse for the wear. Last night’s wolf hunt, just him and me and Horace the tracker, had made a long night of it. We’d been near the far eastern border of the Trace ranch before sighting any wolves, and even then it was just the one lobo. Lone wolves had been known to run amok when it came to killing cattle, though, so we’d dismounted, Jack Hill holding the horses while Horace and I did the shooting. Or rather, while Horace did the shooting. Back when Sam Trace had been our living leader, I’d always assumed the tracker’s talk about his sharpshooting skills was just that, nothing but talk. He’d held the mounts then, let Sam and me blaze away.
Last night, he hadn’t waited. I’d been just slow enough getting the .25-06 lined up, finding the running wolf in the night vision scope, that the animal would have escaped–had not Horace opened up with his AK-47. He’d managed to go to a prone firing position with the bipod, lining up his shot through the military grade peep sight while I was still trying to zero in. Full metal jacket rounds weren’t soft nosed hunting bullets, though, so he stitched the critter, stem to stern.
When we caught up to the wolf’s carcass–a big fellow, clearly one of the genetic mutations, pack or no pack–there were four holes in the target’s hide. Shoulders, lungs, gut, and one through the haunches.
“Dude,” I’d remarked, “this wolfie looks like he done been carpet bombed.”
The old man had glanced at me kind of funny when I said that. Or at least I thought he did; it had been way too dark to be sure. How he’d been able to see well enough to shoot at all, I had no idea. There was a moon out, but not that much of a moon. The guy must have eyes like a cat.
So much for the generally held belief that people automatically lost their night vision as they aged.
“I see you boys survived.” Jennifer Trace’s greeting was cheerful as Jack and I trooped into her ranch headquarters kitchen, more or less wide eyed and bushy tailed. She put special effort into these brunch mornings, our intense-business meetings that bound the three of us together as tightly as anything else in our day to day lives.
“We did survive,” I agreed, grinning at the sight of the table set before us, “and from the looks of things, you’re making sure we thrive as well.” She was just dropping the first piece of French toast into the cast iron skillet she favored. There were several berry flavored syrups laid out, which ought to get our sugar levels up there where they belonged in a hurry, and a brand new package of Kona coffee.
It was my turn to run the agenda, which I began as soon as my stomach said whoa and my plate was in the sink. “We’ve got some really separate issues to cover today,” I told them, “so we’re gonna tackle ’em one by one, in order.” The first sheet I passed around said, simply,
“Jack, you want to take this one?”
“Sure.” The man who’d fought in the Civil War cupped his hands around his coffee mug, smiling as he brought the widow Trace up to date. “Basically, one less wolf. It was way too late when we got in last night to wake you. Horace picked up the lobo’s trail along the north edge of the middle meadow, right where he said. Didn’t catch up to him till the old gray was nearly off Trace property, but he’d killed an early calf–one of the brockles–and fed, so he wasn’t moving all that fast, either. Horace brought him down; Tree just watched.”
“Not quite the way I’d have described it,” I put in drily, “but accurate enough. That tracker picked off that wolf, stitched him full of holes at a good 400 yards while I was still trying to find him in the scope. I never would’ve thought any man could hit a moving target at that range with that rifle, as dark as it was. Guess there’s a few things about old Horace I don’t know yet.”
Jennifer chuckled. “Tree, there’s more than a few things you don’t know about that man.”
“Care to fill me in? Or is it none of my business?”
“It’s no secret. Horace isn’t one to toot his own horn all that much, but he won’t take offense if I do it for him. However, another time, eh? I’m guessing from the pile of notes you brought with you that we’ve got more than enough to occupy our time this morning.”
“That we do. Anyway, Horace says that’s the last wolf in the area, at least for now, according to the sign he’s seen. So most of calving season should be fairly clear of predators. Unless we get some late storms that drive the packs down out of the mountains, that is. Next issue…”
II. SNOW SNUFFERS
As Jennifer knew, Jack and I’d run to Missoula twice during the week, snagging reports from his hacker contacts. Mr. Gray at the Half Castle Restaurant had shaken his head in pure amazement when he’d passed us the reports. “Way too much stuff here for anything but hard copy,” he’d said, “so we’re risking it. Here you go.”
He hadn’t been terribly upset. Not after Jack had crossed the man’s palm with a few pieces of gold, he hadn’t.
“Bottom line,” Jack began, “we’re going to need to hold off a while on doing anything about the Snuffers.”
“What? Why?” Widow Trace looked rather indignant. She wasn’t much on waiting around when people shot up her people. I wondered if she still had Jonathan Morse’s ears…strike that. I wondered where she kept Jonathan Morse’s ears.
“Well, it’s like this. The hackers were able to get a line on precisely who is involved in the Snow Snuffers operation. At least, a couple of the hotshots who’d kind of made it their personal business to scope ’em out are telling us there are six men, no women involved. One young computer whiz, one less than genius who acts as nothing much more than a gofer around their home stomping grounds in Kentucky, and four dudes who do the field ops. You know, the actual murdering. The whiz kid handles the YouTube work, though, even sets up the auctions.”
“Okay,” Jennifer nodded. “I get that. So…there has to be more, right?”
“Oh, yeah. Remember the movie, Jonah Hex? There’s about as much more to this Snow Snuffers situation as there was to Jonah’s revenge. Couple of Gatling guns on horseback worth, with a bit of talking to the dead thrown in. For one thing, these boys have a good 200 or more male relatives scattered around the great state of Kentucky, a fair number of ’em hillbilly rednecks that make Hank Williams, Jr., look like Mary Poppins. The Snuffers have attacked us on our home turf and wounded one of ours. Retaliation is purely logical…but we have no way to know for sure if the six we’ve identified are the only ones involved in the Snuffers scheme. They could have others in the weeds, or even simply have a dead man switch set up, so that if we take them out, the whole mob puts us on their hate list. It could end up being Montana vs. Kentucky, a long term blood feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys.”
I could tell the lady of the house wasn’t impressed. Ever since the love of her life had been gunned down, dying atop her while saving her from Morse Code bullets, she’d been a tad testy when it came to things like this. That she’d back us all the way if we took on the world, I had no doubt.
After a long moment, she spoke. “Is that all?” Her voice held no trace of sarcasm.
“No-o,” I replied slowly, “that’s not…quite…all. We’d heard the FBI was interested in them boys, right?”
That got her attention. “Right….”
“One of Jack’s contacts, a hacker who calls himself Epynonymous–a play on the Anonymous group, I guess, though he does enjoy reporting in rhyme, he’s kind of taken a shine to the idea of keeping a digital eye on the federal investigation. Not sure how he does it, but then again, I’m no forensic hacker, or whatever he calls himself. Here’s what he reports, as of two days ago.” I handed the sheets out.
The Federal Bunch of Idiots
Be rounding up their warrants
They got a friendly federal judge
Who signs the things in torrents
Surveillance is a-tightening
Along Kentucky way
Could be a flea could duck the net
But not by light of day
They’ve got a hundred agents now
With more a-coming soon
Stay the hell out of Kentucky
‘Less you think you’re Daniel Boone
Jennifer Trace finished reading the doggerel and busted out laughing. Jack started with just a grin, but the woman’s mirth was infectious; we both joined her before she was done.
“Well,” she said, wiping her eyes, “that does rebalance the equation a mite.”
“It does,” I agreed sincerely. “It truly does. We’re going to sit back a bit, keep checking in with Epynonymous, see how it goes. It the feds take out the Snow Snuffers, that’ll have to do, eh?”
“Eh. But,” she gestured at the folder I’d not yet opened, “there’s more on the agenda, I surmise?”
“Good guess. I’m being sued.”
“Here you go.”
“Lawsuit. An Idaho company, High Country Fence, better known as HCF. They’re claiming Rodeo Iron stole the design for our portable rodeo chutes from them. It’s a trademark issue, according to the papers–which Judi signed for when she picked up the mail on Friday, but which I just found time to read yesterday afternoon, before we headed out to hunt wolf. They want two point three million in damages, plus we give up making chutes.”
“Sam designed those chutes himself!” Jennifer was spitting fire now. “There’s no way they were copied!”
“I know. And if this makes it to court, your testimony to that effect will be invaluable. Sam told me the same thing, how he figured out half a dozen different ways to make a better mousetrap. That is, a better set of portable chutes. Rodeo Iron’s design is cutting edge, or at least, it was when he launched it. And he got the trademark registered, too–”
“–Yes. I’m certainly aware of that. I was there, you know.”
“Do you think they have a chance?”
“Jennifer,” Jack put in softly, “the suit is frivolous. Trouble is, a crooked judge could rule against us. The suit has been filed in Idaho. It’s specifically aimed at Clark Higgins’s franchise, but extends to include the entire parent corporation by default, since all of your operations use the same design specs and quality control standards.”
Sam’s widow stared at me, suddenly aware. “There’s something you’re not saying, Tree.”
“Yeah.” I took in a deep breath, let it out slow. “There is. There’s one major stockholder in HCF who owns 51% of the whole shebang. That individual is on the company’s Board, too, not the Chairman, but definitely someone who would know about a major decision like this, a decision to go after the fastest growing steel fence manufacturer in the mountain states.”
“And…that stockholder just happens to be Hardesty Collins.”
The kitchen went silent, except for the percolator ramping up another pot of coffee. I hadn’t even told Jack Hill about that part. The data hadn’t needed to come through the old Protector’s hacker contacts; it was public information, freely available to anyone with a computer and a bit more than sand between his ears. Or between her ears; it was Judi who’d done the online work. Hardesty Collins, Ice Witch of the West, who’d beguiled uncle B. J. in this lifetime as she’d done in so many others. Hardesty Collins, cowgirl politician–who wasn’t doing so well in her Congressional primary, from what we’d heard. Hardesty Collins, introduced to my uncle by my own innocent yet ignorant mother. Hardesty Collins, who’d loaded up Clark Higgins with behind the scenes referrals when we’d first launched Rodeo Iron Idaho…and now her company, whose growth we’d surpassed some time back, was suing us.
I broke the silence. “No, we don’t know what she’s up to. We also don’t know if B.J. knows anything about this. I can’t really imagine that he does–don’t want to think he could know about it. Nor do I have the slightest clue what Collins is really up to with this lawsuit. On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense. But I do know one thing.”
“Yep.” Jack Hill didn’t have to ask what that one thing might be. “Thank goodness it sounds like the feds will be keeping the Snow Snuffers busy for a while, ’cause you and I are heading for Idaho. Maybe talk to your Mom first, when we get there?”
“How,” I wondered aloud, my mouth twisting in a humorless smile, “did you ever guess?”