Diamond Paws didn’t show up for another full week, but when he did, he seemed fully healed and full of quiet energy. When Carolyn West explained what we needed, the big digger was enthusiastic.
“Ah,” he said, using a voice that sounded a bit like James Earl Jones. “Intrigue! Believe it or not, I’ve missed the playing of politics. Consider me Johnny on the job!”
On occasion, we’d noticed, his impressive grasp of the English language remained something less than perfect. It was still a gazillion times better than our grasp of the Umthnn language, of course, so we offered our corrections gently.
“It’s usually Johnny on the spot,” I pointed out carefully, “though most likely Johnny could be on the job as well.”
“Johnny on the spot it is, then. Consider me sanitized.”
That one stumped us for a moment. I’d come over to meet with the Umthnn in Jack Hill’s kitchen. Sissy and Judi were absent, preferring to pore over the blueprints for the home I’d be constructing momentarily, but Jack, Wayne, and Carolyn were all there. Diamond certainly wouldn’t fit any of the chairs, but he swore he was comfortable sitting on the floor. Why not? He was still as tall that way as any of us chair sitters.
Carolyn was the one who figured it out. “Diamond, I think maybe you meant to say, consider me deputized.”
“Deputized, sanitized, what’s the difference?”
What’s the diff–oh. “You’re kidding, right? That’s a joke? I didn’t know the Umthnn had a sense of humor.” Then it dawned on me he might be really offended by my statement, but he didn’t appear to be.
“We have a sense of humor,” he stated firmly. “Or at least, some of us do. How else could we survive all those centuries underground? If our people couldn’t laugh at our predicament, our living beneath the surface of the Earth while homo sapiens and the rest walked on our heads, our population decline would have taken us down to zero a long time ago.”
I thought he probably meant we humans walked overhead, not on their heads, but I’d crossed the line enough for one day. Diamond seemed to be lightening up with me; I’d like to see that trend continue.
Soren Kirk was in residence on his newly purchased property full time now, living in a relatively small shed on skids while he gathered the equipment he’d need to put together a truly hidden redoubt. True, he was gone a fair bit, supply runs to Missoula, sheer boredom meal runs to Drummond and Lincoln, but more hours of the day than not, he was home alone.
Diamond went to work. “I’ll surprise you,” he promised. “Give me one of your cycles–a week, you call it? Give me that much time, and I’ll report back here.”
That sounded good. The report would be oral, we knew, since the Umthnn did not write. Carolyn was beginning to suspect that lack of writing had more to do with Council caution and prohibition than it did with native potential. “He’s got two opposable thumbs on each hand. There’s no way he couldn’t write if he got a bit of training for it.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. The brain connections necessary to facilitate writing might not be there in this species. Then again, I wouldn’t want to bet against Carolyn, either. Either way, though, the report would be oral. The Umthnn had lived through literally millions of years, more than enough time to perfect the art of oral history. I suspected the entire species might be equipped with eidetic memory or something close to it.
On the Rodeo Iron corporate front, things were looking better and better. My uncle B.J., despite being gone on the road much of the time, was now overseeing 99 percent of the sales side of our operation. Judi had our headquarters office humming right along, Sissy reported no major security problems, and I decided it was time for me to throttle back a notch. That was kind of hilarious when I thought about it, just getting ready to turn twenty-seven and throttling back, but the temptation was too powerful to resist. When the new Mahindra backhoe loader came in, I cut back to a four day work week–on call for emergencies, of course–and started prepping our new homesite. Jack would gladly help as needed, as would Wayne Bruce and the girls, but most of the Treemin Jackson domicile would be built by Treemin Jackson himself.
The spring snowmelt was finished at our elevation except for an occasional patch in deep shadow. It was a fine, sunny Friday afternoon, temperature in the seventies. I’d only had to clear half a dozen trees from the area, dropping them with my new Stihl chainsaw. There’d been one close call, the tree deciding to (a) pinch the saw blade and then (b) fall the wrong way when it finally toppled. Missed the mobile home by a good six, maybe seven inches. No harm, no foul. I counted myself extremely lucky on that one, having limbed the tree, bucked it into logs, and moved the lot out of the way with the backhoe before Jack got home that day to witness my idiocy.
He grinned when he saw the damning evidence, of course, bark bits and other tree debris scattered everywhere.
That bit of learning curve was ancient history already, though. Today, I was using the Mahindra to get the stumps out. The timing was excellent, the powerful little backhoe pulling about half of the stumps free of the still soft earth without requiring any digging at all. It was also pure dee fun.
Something told me I’d never become truly comfortable operating a chainsaw; that spooky-sharp chain slinging around that little track in the bar at nineteen gazillion revolutions per millisecond kept me nervous the entire time I was using it. It gave me a ton of respect for professional loggers, not to mention those guys who sculpt wood with a chainsaw, but it wasn’t for me. Not long term. I didn’t admit that to anyone, of course. A guy’s gotta protect his macho image. The backhoe, thankfully, was an entirely different kettle of fish. I was just beginning to learn the machine, but I was hooked. If this welding thing didn’t work out for me, I could see making a living with a backhoe.
I was working on the next to last stump, digging around the roots, when Big Jude Hennessey pulled up in front of the mobile home. His vintage Hudson looked as good as ever. So did the big man, 300 rock hard pounds of six foot eight uncle. He hadn’t yet figured out how to attract women who weren’t toxic, but that was the only flaw he possessed, at least in my eyes.
“Yo, Tree!” His voice boomed out over the dying Mahindra engine as I turned off the key. “Wrapped up early today, decided to see how your Builder Bob project was going!”
He grinned at me and I grinned back, gesturing at the mostly cleared site. “It’s going gangbusters. We’re almost all the way down to dirt already!”
His grin suddenly froze in place. If he’d had wolf hackles, they would have bristled sky-high. His eyes no longer twinkled; they glared.
I looked over my shoulder to see Diamond Paws equally frozen in the act of emerging from the timber, his single forward eye projecting every bit as much hate toward B.J. as B.J. was projecting toward him. The eight foot tall Umthnn did have hackles and they were bristling sky-high.
One more glance back toward my uncle, another toward Diamond, and I summed up the situation neatly in just two words. “Oh, shit.”
These things happen. I know they do, know it from personal experience. More than once, I’ve walked into a room, locked eyes with a total stranger, known instantly that the two of us were eternal enemies. It’s something that can’t be faked, can’t be ignored, can’t even be explained unless one considers reincarnation in the equation. I liked Diamond Paws. Despite my killing of his former husband, I dared to think he probably liked me, too. I loved my uncle and vice versa. But if I didn’t keep these two apart, somebody was going to die. Maybe two somebodies. Both had killed before. Both knew how to fight. Diamond was born with deadly, razor sharp claws. B.J. packed heat.
But…what to do? To say? It was obvious I had to do something…it had to be bold. In their faces…. “If you two murder each other,” I said quietly but firmly, “I will have one hell of a time explaining it to my mother.”
Where that came from, I had no idea. It worked, though. Sort of. My Mom being B.J.’s sister…no, he wouldn’t want me having to explain things to his baby sis. As for Diamond, despite having killed some of his own former sister-wives and rebelling against his entire culture’s taboo system when he decided to contact humans, he remained as family oriented as they come.
“You’ve got a point, Tree.” B.J.’s tone was stiff. He didn’t take his eyes from the eight limbed Umthnn. His expression did not change.
Diamond took it from there. “This would be your uncle, Treemin,” he said. “Family is important. I will leave for now, return later.”
With that, the digger melted back into the trees. B.J. held position for several long seconds, getting hold of himself. Finally, expelling a great breath, he remarked, “Sumbitch talks like freaking John Wayne?”
“Sometimes. Guess that must be his stress go-to voice. He can mimic any human he’s ever heard.”
My beloved uncle didn’t stay long. He pretended to have pressing business elsewhere, which might have been partly true. There was a woman in Deer Lodge he was courting, all white and reportedly fascinated by his huge blackness as much as by his business success and his ’36 Hudson. He’d laughed fondly when he’d first told me about her, Jane or Janet or Janice or something like that. “She told me right out, Tree. Told me, Dude, I like the look of you, and I don’t care of you are a damn coon!”
Romance cemented by racial slur. What the heck; B.J. had tried about everything else. Maybe he was on the right track. You never know about these things. I do believe that if you go black, you’ll never go back.
But mostly, I knew he wasn’t that busy. I had an idea he’d be staying far away from Ovando as much as possible in the days to come. Not a good thing, that. Would he share his attitude with ranch owner Jennifer Trace, poison her already jumpy psyche? I didn’t know. Not that there was much I could do about it if he did, at least not until he did it.
Man, I thought, I feel like a guy caught between two jealous lovers, each ready to take the other out on the slightest pretext. I’d been spoiled in recent years, I suddenly realized. Sure, welders had come and gone. Enemies of various stripes had tested my mettle. But our inner circle had never before been breached; there had been nothing but trust and good will between all nine of us. Jennifer and her adoring tracker, old Howard Tamblyn. Jack, Wayne, and Carolyn. Sissy, Judi, and me. And of course, B.J….
There wasn’t an easy way out of this one. Not that I could see, there wasn’t. Unless Deer Lodge Racist Woman led my uncle back off on another tangent as so many females had done before, there wasn’t.
“Tree?” Diamond’s voice interrupted my churning thoughts. He was using his common voice now, the low-stress baritone amalgam that we’d come to expect. He stood within the clearing, hesitant, clearly unsure.
I gathered myself. “Pull up a stump, Diamond. We won’t be interrupted.”
“I hope my presence will not be a problem for you?”
“Hunh! Nah, don’t worry about that. You and my uncle have a hate-on-sight thing going, obviously, but that doesn’t mean I have to choose sides.”
“In Umthnn society, it would mean exactly that.” The big furry fellow sounded nervous. I marveled at his ability to convey his emotions in any language he chose.
“It would in most human families, too, I think. But we’re not most families. Much as you are your own Umthnn, making your own decisions, I am my own human. Nobody decides these things for me but me.”
Diamond fell silent for a moment, thinking. “It would seem you and I may have that in common.”
“I have my first surveillance report on Soren Kirk ready. Would you like to hear it now, or should the others be gathered first?”
“Let’s gather ’em in. Jack Hill’s kitchen table is big enough. Join us all for supper?”
“I suppose I could talk while you eat. I just had the most delectable pitch pine knot for lunch. I’m stuffed. Besides, I wouldn’t want to get sawdust on Jack’s kitchen floor.”
“Fair enough. I’ll go hit the sat phone, make the arrangements.”
At 6:00 p.m. sharp, we were all present and accounted for. Diamond Paws sat directly on the floor rather than on a chair, not that any chair designed for human anatomy would have worked for him. This put his height roughly level with ours.
“Go for it,” Jack advised, shoveling mashed potatoes onto his plate. “We’ll chew and listen.”
The Umthnn’s basketball shaped head bobbed in agreement. Seated across the table but somewhat to his left, I couldn’t tell which great eye was watching me the most closely. I suspected at least two of them were sharing the chore.
“I have learned much about your new neighbor,” he began. “It’s a good thing I had checked out a number of other humans before deciding to approach you. There are things this man does that would have thrown me otherwise.
“First of all, he is a hard worker. He has a machine much like your backhoe loader, Tree, with which he digs a lot. He’s excavating a great hole between two little mounds or hillocks or whatever you call them. The hole is close to his cabin shed, but not so close that it would fall in.
“When he is running the machine, he seems focused on that and nothing else, except that he stops sometimes, shuts the machine off, and climbs a tree to look around. Scouting, I think, wanting to know if anything or anybody is sneaking up on him.”
Diamond paused. (Heh! Diamond Paws…Diamond paused…heh.) He seemed to be considering how to put the next part. “I believe he can sense my presence.”
That alarmed me. “Has he seen you? Heard you? Smelled you?”
“No, no. Not that. It’s what you call….”
“Sixth sense?” Carolyn volunteered. “ESP? Psychic awareness? A sensitive?”
“I’m not sure. Something warns him. There have been times when he’s looked right at me, times when I knew no mortal eyes could pick me out. There’s a certainty about him. I doubt he knows what he’s sensing, but I’m pretty sure he knows he’s sensing something, some presence. I would not want to try to sneak up on this man with ill intent.”
“That fits,” Jack said. “In Missoula at the Half Castle, he acted like he didn’t even know Breach was there, but he had him scoped out all the way.”
“After he’s done working for the day, when the light fails,” Diamond continued, “he has a routine. First, he picks up a…I think it’s called a guitar. For some minutes, he plays a religious chant kind of thing, sort of a prayer maybe. Pardon me now while I sing.”
I bless the need-to-build-the-hideout-right situation
In the name of the Isness, the name of the Isness,
The name of the Isness
And I bless the need-to-build-the-hideout-right situation
In the name of the Isness, in the name of the Is-isness
“That’s interesting.” I passed the meatloaf down to Judi, but I was thinking about the song. Diamond had sounded like Johnny Cash when he sang it. “He does that every day after he quits work?”
“Yes. Not always blessing his hideout, but always that format. Sometimes it’s blessing his ex-wife’s situation, sometimes other things. But it’s always blessing.”
“Interesting indeed.” I caught Jack’s eye. A guy who sang songs blessing his ex-wife didn’t sound to me like much of a candidate for evil. Hill just shrugged; he was still reserving judgment. “So, after he sings, then what?”
“He, ah, surfs the Internet, I think you would say?”
“And have you been able to see what he’s surfing?”
“Yes. There’s a little window he keeps partly open even when it’s cold outside. Likes the fresh air. From outside in the dark, I can see his computer screen well enough.”
“Hm. He can sense you, yet he leaves that window open behind him?”
“I said he was interesting,” Diamond pointed out. “I didn’t say he was smart.”
“Smart enough to invent the Super Screw,” Jack muttered around a mouthful, but we all knew book smarts and street smarts didn’t always equate.
“So, what does he surf?”
“Sometimes, things to help him build. Mostly, the most hours, porn sites.”
“Porn, eh?” Sissy chuckled, deeply amused. “Big shocker for a divorced guy, right there.”
“Why a shocker?”
“That was sarcasm, Diamond.”
“Oh. Okay. Um, he does spend some time working on Super Screw business. I couldn’t tell much about that. Some emails, I think they’re called, but I don’t really read English, you know. But that doesn’t take him more than a few minutes at any one time. There is one other thing he seems to study.”
The Umthnn didn’t speak for a time. Carolyn finally urged him to come out with it; whatever he was holding back, we needed to hear. “Like I said, I can’t really read English, but I know pictures when I see them. He has quite a file on you, Treemin. Others at Rodeo Iron, too, those franchise owners and such, and your uncle. Also Jennifer Trace, from her rodeo bronc and bull sales mostly.”
Jack put his fork down. “Diamond,” he said softly, “compared to the time he spends on porn sites, how much time does he spend on us?”
He had the answer ready. “About half as much. Two parts porn, one part you all.”
Jack shifted his gaze, looked me in the eye. I looked back. I may have been right, his look said. Any new neighbor who spends that much time compiling a dossier on us is worth worrying about.
For the first time, blessing songs or no, I had to agree.