The clock on the dash said it was 8:33 a.m. Willie Nelson’s classic song, On the Road Again, was stuck in my head. Which made sense. Breakfast at the truck stop had been all right except for the second rate coffee–a shame, that, crappy coffee for tired truckers–but we still had a lot of miles to cover before reaching Show Low, Arizona.
Me and Sissy Harms, on the road again.
My mixed race shape shifter warrior woman was nothing if not perceptive. “Penny for your thoughts”, she said, “or a whole dime if you feel they’re worth it.”
“Wal, ma’am,” I replied, affecting an exaggerated Texas drawl from the 1800’s, “ah wuz thinkin’ this yere Pontiac is eager fer tha trail, ya know? Hi yo Silver, away!”
She laughed. “If you’re shooting for voice over work, Treemin Jackson, you’re going to starve to death in short order.”
“No I won’t.” I grinned at her, keeping one eye on the highway as I did so. “Neither you nor Judi would ever let me starve. Judi especially. Ever since our first baby was born, that wife of ours gets nervous if she sees me skip a single meal. Which is why I’m getting fat.” I patted my stomach. It wasn’t exactly drooping over my belt yet, but I could stand to lose five pounds. Maybe ten.
“Nice try, Tree. You’re not even comfortably padded, let alone fat. You’re a mighty fine changer of subjects, though.”
It dawned on me that I hadn’t set the cruise control, so I did, at 80 mph exactly, right at the speed limit. The Beast loved that speed. Considered it a bare step up from loafing. “You really want to know?”
“Wouldn’t have asked otherwise.” Sissy took a tiny sip from her go cup of Dr. Pepper. We all knew what phosphoric acid could do to your bones, and don’t even get us started on all that high fructose corn syrup. Which was why she seldom indulged except during a road trip. Since our journeys usually involved either killing or intimidating somebody, the long term damage from a soda or two just didn’t seem all that important.
I took a breath and let her have it. “Honey, I’m nervous as a nudist camping out in wood tick and chigger country. Believe it or not, I’m missing old Theodore Kraznick the First, vamleopard billionaire nastiness and all.”
“Whoa.” Her head swung to study my profile. “Clarify, please.”
“Yeah. I probably should do that.” One butt cheek was already considering going to sleep. There was a pillow in the back seat. Probably should grab it. Eventually. “Kraznick the Original was not a nice guy.”
“But at least he came right at us, you know? There wasn’t any mystery about it; he just kept throwing his fighters at us until he didn’t have any fighters left and I put a bullet through his skull. He fought dirty, but once he’d declared you as his enemy, you by God knew who you were fighting. For eight years, we battled that bastard. Earlier, there was crazy old Morse Code. No mystery there, either, nor was there during the Wolf War as such. Yeah, we’ve been hit out of the blue a few times, but it never took very long at all before we knew who and what we were fighting, if not exactly how to beat them.”
“Oh.” Sissy nodded and took another tiny sip. “Now we’ve got a mystery enemy in Arizona. Might have a suspect or two, but no guarantee that we’re looking in the right direction. Lots of unknowns, and you don’t like dealing with the unknown.”
“By George, I think she’s got it. It doesn’t seem to bother you, though. Why is that?”
She chuckled, a throaty sound that automatically turned me on. Always had. If she noticed, she was kind enough not to mention it. “Honey, until Jack Hill dragged you up into our mountains like some lost puppy, my life was nothing but unknowns. I’d been on the run for so long, never knowing if the murder warrant was out there but assuming it had to be. Jack gave me shelter, but as you know, I was the bottom feeder in that household. What each new day held for me, I had no clue. Would he get tired of me, or maybe Wayne or Carolyn turn jealous and convince him to get rid of me? Most nights, I didn’t sleep well. Most mornings, the first thing on my mind was wondering if I’d have a home by the time the sun set again.
“Then here you come. Man, you were something. You still are, of course. Even more so. But you have no idea the sort of impact you made on first impression, Treemin Jackson. Here I was, part Indian, part black, pretty much all confused and scared and hiding it from the world as best I could, and all of a sudden this super hot black stud is living across the driveway. Not that I had any hope; the Black Stallion had this little woman, stacked and sexy as hell, and I knew he didn’t have eyes for me. He looked at that little slut and his nostrils flared, every time.
“I knew I couldn’t compete with that, but I could dream, Tree. I could really dream. Every night when I headed for bed, I took along two things, a little battery powered vibrator and my fantasy of the ebony Adonis living across the way. And then, miracle of miracles, I’ve never doubted the Creator since, the little sexpot boogied in the middle of the night, stole money, broke your heart, and left behind the best thing she ever had. I began to hope I had a chance.”
To say I was stunned at this revelation would have been a world record understatement. “Sis, I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. You know, boss man, if all I’d ever been able to do for you was shoot that wolf and save you from having to match its fangs with your knife, that would have been enough. I could have lived with that, knowing I’d been of service to you at least once. But when the miracle of miracles happened and I actually wound up in your bed? Tree, I was a gone gosling. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thanked God for you. As long as both of us are alive and I can follow you, no matter where you go, no matter what you do or need me to do, there is no unknown for me. So no, I’m not nervous.
“That”, she finished with an impish grin, “is your job.”
It took me a moment to recover. “Well, hell, babe.” I decided to drive one handed for a while, covering her left hand with my right. “Tell me how you really feel.”
Naturally, being the strong male figure I am, my lover’s confession didn’t affect me at all. The fact that the next twelve hours, including two gas-and-meal stops, flew by without being noticed? Coincidence. Pure coincidence. Okay, so I was no longer nervous. The woman had nothing to do with that. Coincidence, I say!
True, one of those stops turned out to be gas-and-meal-and-gas, thanks to a mighty tasty chiliburger that inspired a fair amount of window opening for the next two or three hundred miles, but I barely noticed even that.
Frank Harding still hadn’t invested in a yard light. He’d put out a light for us, though, a battery powered Coleman lantern that showed the way to the door. Sissy had driven the last leg. She shut the Pontiac down, we climbed out a bit stiffly, and I was sucking in wind to announce our arrival when a voice spoke from the shadows.
“Glad y’all could make it to the party.”
“Dammit, Sim!” I was hoping he hadn’t seen my hand twitch, startled enough that I’d started to reach for the Walther at the small of my back before the rancher’s voice fully registered. “Mom put you up to scaring a little old city boy like me?”
“Nah.” Bowles chuckled, the brief flare of a cigarillo tip pinpointing his position as he inhaled. “You two just timed it right to catch me sneaking my evening smoke. That, and we been taking turns, one of us walking the perimeter every half hour or so. Ain’t the finest security money can buy, but you get what you pay for. You been keeping this rounder coloring inside the lines, Sissy?”
“Coloring?” Her voice came out all prim and proper, much at odds with her words. “What is this coloring? Clearly, this man is into black and white.”
That got him. Sim half-swallowed a mouthful of smoke and choked on it. “G-good one, girl!” He gasped, somehow managing to put a healthy dose of admiration into his response. “Don’t guess Mr. Jackson here is close to being one of them Rainbow Coalition fellows at that.”
On that serious and mature note, we all trooped inside. I was thankful for the humor; there’d likely be little enough of that in the days to come.
Mom, Frank, and Jack were all seated at the big oak table that filled far too much of Frank’s kitchen. William wasn’t there, but he was a young buck. Likely had himself a date, either a comely young squaw from the Rez or one of the local white girls. Bit of a ladies’ man, that William. At least, he was a serial dater according to his Dad, who ought to know.
“William out on the town?” I asked as soon as the initial greetings were over and we’d settled into chairs. Although settled was a rather optimistic word and comfortable wasn’t in Frank’s vocabulary at all. Unless I missed my guess, the entrepreneur had cobbled these torture devices together from local deadwood, using nothing more high tech than maybe a chainsaw, an axe, and possibly a drawknife. They were lashed together with paracord, like you might find in a survival camp. Not that I was complaining. Might get a splinter or two in my butt, but I wasn’t complaining. Better a new franchisee who pinched pennies than one who didn’t know the value of a dollar.
“Lorene Harnling tonight, I believe.” Daddy Harding smiled a little, a proud father recognizing the prowess of his charismatic son. “Rancher’s daughter. Will says she can suck the chrome off a truck bumper. Doubt he knows he stole that line from Willie Nelson in The Electric Horseman.”
“Your boy’s not much for movies?” I nodded my thanks to Mom as she took it upon herself to ply Sissy and me with coffee and sweet rolls from a Hostess box.
“Boy’s not much for Willie Nelson. He can tolerate Garth Brooks, though, so maybe there’s hope.”
Jack spoke for the first time. “Okay trip, Tree?” I noticed he looked tired. Old and tired. Really old and really tired. What had the Wizard been up to that I didn’t know about yet?
“You’d have to ask Sis. She drove more than I did.”
“Not a bad little journey at all,” Sissy observed cheerfully, “except for about three hours after Treemin ate a particularly powerful chiliburger at our last meal stop. Dang near had to shoot out the back window to air the car out.”
O-okay. “Enough small talk.” I scowled ferociously at my woman. She returned a look of utter innocence, happily munching her sweet roll. “Reckon we could use an update, seeing as how it’s been thirty-six hours or more since Jack and I talked on the phone. And before anybody asks, Philip didn’t turn up anything new. So, how’s the progress at this end?”
Jack Hill grimaced slightly. “We were just talking about that, what little there is to talk about.” He didn’t say anything more, though, so I looked my question around the table. Frank broke first. “For my part of it, Treemin, I had a guy coming in for a job interview cancel on me today.”
“Sure. This one didn’t feel right, though. Half the time, my Native brethren communicate as much by what they don’t say as what they do say. This man, he’s not from around here, but his wife’s got family on the Rez. Nothing I could pin down exactly, but they’d been talking, eh? So far as I know, word hasn’t spread about somebody shooting at Jack and Sim and Louella yet, but the triple murder was enough. He was scared, or his wife was scared. Either way, he wasn’t getting in the middle of whatever might be going on.”
Sissy cocked an eyebrow in a move worthy of my traitorous uncle. Didn’t say anything, though; she left that up to the boss. “He said that?” I asked
“Not in English. What he said out loud was, his wife was off her feed and he had to take her to Phoenix to see a doctor. Some kind of specialist. But I got the message, eh?” Frank was stirring his coffee with a plastic spoon, staring into the swirling liquid, not making eye contact with me. He had a right to be worried. As far as he knew, his Rodeo Iron franchise was hanging by a thread. If this didn’t work, if the business went belly up, he’d be back to looking for a welding job in somebody else’s company, and that wouldn’t be around here. I didn’t have any intention of letting a murder or three cause something like that if I could help it, but my own path forward wasn’t crystal clear, either. I’d need to tread on silent little cat feet.
That thought about broke me up, my size 13 cowboy boots qualifying as silent little cat feet.
Sim’s turn. “We let the town of Show Low see your Mom and I are a couple,” he said, poker faced. Just relaying the facts. “Looking for reactions. You said Philip would need another little while to check out the prison databases, what with all he’s got going on in the computer center this week, so we figured it couldn’t hurt to stir the pot a little while we were waiting. Took a room at the Hampton in Pinetop. After breakfast this morning, we stopped at a couple places in Show Low where we’d be seen together, then went our separate ways for the day. I went back to bar hopping, just another slightly befuddled old man, letting out a little more about my ahem, nurse, ahem. And of course getting some of the same regulars I’d seen the day before to talk about whatever. Most of them talked about themselves. Can’t say I turned up much.”
“I might have,” my mother put in, her dark cop eyes sweeping the table. Funny, how I hadn’t noticed her doing that lately, but I could remember it from childhood. Louella Jackson had a way of commanding a room with nothing but her eyes. Probably no wonder I lashed out as a teenager, anxious to get away from the All Seeing Parent. “Paulson the horny Realtor tried to grope me.”
“You had to wait for your son to be present to mention that?” I grinned at her.
She grinned back. “Figured you might be a peacemaker, Tree. Wouldn’t want Sim going off half cocked on the guy, now would we?”
The retired rancher froze when she said that. There was something in his eyes, something deep and feral and…hunted? Couldn’t put a name to it. And Jack. I knew that look. The Wizard was watching the retired rancher, and watching him carefully at that. Mom seemed oblivious. There was something going on here, something Jack Hill knew and Lou Jackson did not, or I’d eat my road-nasty shorts.
“Of course not, Mommy dearest. We all know I’m the very Soul of peacemaking.”
Sissy choked on that one.
“So,” Sim said, his voice calm enough to be scary, “he groped you?”
“Yep. We were walking through a house I really liked. Made me feel a little guilty that we’re not really buying. I stopped to admire a Russell painting the owner left hanging on a hallway wall. A copy, obviously. Nobody would leave a Russell original in an unprotected dwelling. Old Paulson, he slipped up beside me, pretending to look at the painting like I was doing, and grabbed my pretty black ass.”
Sim’s knuckles turned white where he was holding his coffee cup. “And?” His voice was whisper soft, the nearly silent slither of a pit viper easing up on an unsuspecting mouse.
“Aw shucks, honey.” Lou batted her eyelashes at him. “I was just so startled, doncha know? I went EEK! like a little girl. Couldn’t help my elbow accidentally breaking his nose like that. It was an accident, I tell ya. An accident! And when I turned around, you know, all spooked and everythang, afraid the boogey man had got me, I couldn’t help it if his nuts were smack dab in the way of my left knee. I really couldn’t, honey!”
Bowles cracked up. The rest of us held on for a few more seconds, convinced the performance wasn’t finished yet. We were right.
“And then I just had to run outa that house, all scared like that. It wasn’t my fault his crunchy foot bones were right under the heel of my boot when I launched. It really wasn’t! But this is the age of the cell phone video, right? So in my panic, I just sort of happened to turn on the camera and point it at him a little bit, screaming at the top of my lungs how he’d assaulted my booty and tried to rape me and all, as he was stumbling outa that house, visible just enough to identify him but not showing the blood streaming from that busted nose all that much. I’ll YouTube you, you racist pervert! I yelled at him and jumped in his car and took off with the keys that had somehow fallen out of his pocket and into the ignition.”
Frank went south then, which was too much for the rest of us. It took a while before the room settled down and I got the tears wiped away from laughing so hard. “Mom”, I had to ask, “you drove off and left him there?”
“Why, I surely did, child.”
“How far from town?”
“Only ten miles and a bit of change.” Lou Jackson wasn’t performing for us now, just twinkling like crazy. “I left his car parked in front of his office with the keys on the floor like he’d dropped them there. Wiped my prints off the wheel and the driver side door. Left them on the passenger side door.”
“That’s a fair walk for ol’ pudgy Paulson,” Frank observed, “especially with a busted foot, sore nuts, and a busted nose to boot.”
“Hey. He had his cell phone. He could have called his wife to come pick him up, right?”
We lost it again.
Around 10:30, Sim and Lou took off, headed for their motel room. I’d assured him that Sissy and I could spell Jack and Frank on perimeter patrols for the rest of the night. With me wearing one of the night vision goggle sets we’d brought in the trunk of the Pontiac and Sissy shifting into black bear mode when we were out of Frank’s sight, we owned the night. No drones overhead, though I could sense something going on in the far distance, somewhere in the vicinity of the Hon-Dah casino or I missed my guess.
“Appreciate your help, Tree,” Frank said after we came in from our rounds at 11:17, “but you guys can’t be doing this forever. I’m going to have to do something on my own for security around here.”
“Sure,” I agreed, hanging the goggles on a coat hook and settling into my chair. “I’ve got some ideas about that. Back home, we’ve had some experience with that sort of thing. For starters, you’ll need to hire a couple of good men, and not from around here. Get some higher tech going, too.”
“Like that night vision?” He seemed fascinated by the goggles but made no move toward them.
“Like that. Plus cameras, a secure room for your hired help, computer linkup, and motion activated lights. Fencing around your home and the shop that will at least keep the honest folks honest. And the next thing you’re going to tell me is, you have no idea how to pay for any of it.”
“No”, he admitted. “I don’t know what it would cost, but a dollar three ninety-eight would be too much right now. I didn’t expect our people to be….Treemin, I’m….” The man was tough, but he was whipped and he knew it. Dammit. I didn’t have the details worked out in my head yet, but it was time to let him off the hook.
“Quarter million to start,” I mused, putting the numbers together on the fly. “That would give you a solid start on everything, including a reasonable year’s entry level salary for a pair of qualified security guys. We could help you find the right men; our computer whiz can sort through resumes at warp speed, get a list of applicants you might want to interview.”
“A quarter mil.” He voice was flat, utterly devoid of emotion. “Yeah, that I got. Sure. I ain’t no redskin, you know. I’m really an effing leprechaun with gold falling outa my ass. Just gotta hold on till the next rainbow and shit a fresh pot of gold.”
“Far as I know,” I smiled, just a little, “I’m not Irish. But I could front you the money. Side deal, nothing to do with the franchise contract. Just you and me, signature loan, no collateral. Payments don’t start for six months, give us all a chance to figure this mystery murder crap out and let you get on your feet a bit. No interest for seven years, three percent after that if you don’t have it fully paid off at the end of that time.”
He froze for a long moment, just looking at me. Finally, he asked, “Why?”
I let out a long breath. From the corners of my eyes, I could sense Jack and Sissy doing pretty much the same. Hadn’t been sure his pride would let him go for it. “Lots of reasons.”
“Because I can. Because somebody helped me when I was down and out, and it’s time to pay it forward a little. Because whoever’s trying to put you out of business, and I’m ninety-nine percent convinced that’s what’s behind the shootings, they piss me off. Don’t know who they are yet, but they’re damn sure going to find out who I am before all this is done. The reputation of Rodeo Iron is involved. My ego is involved, and I got an ego the size of Texas when it comes to people thinking they can take down me or mine. Because you put every dime you could scrape, beg, or borrow into this enterprise before we ever signed the franchise papers. Because, because, because. Fair enough?”
The tension ran out of Frank Harding like water heading downriver when the ice breaks in the spring. “Fair enough,” he said, and stuck out his hand. I leaned across the table to shake it. We hadn’t solved all the problems in the world, but the atmosphere had lightened up considerably.
Frank and Jack were thinking about racking out for the night when William got back, the distinctive taillights of his car visible as he parked with the nose heading out.
“Not quite twelve-thirty yet.” Frank looked surprised. “Haven’t seen that boy home before three or four at the earliest on a Lorene Harnling night.”
“Maybe they couldn’t find a truck bumper for her to work on”, Jack observed.
Will came through the door, cheerful and strong, a bit of a bounce in his step. I’d known a white rough stock rider or two with a bounce like that. Didn’t see many Natives with it.
“Lorene run out of suck, son?” Frank asked the question without inflection. Not your average father-son relationship, these two. Or maybe it was. With my absentee and now dead King of the Sand Dunes homeless asshole excuse for a father, what did I know?
The young man half-smiled. “She’s still got a full tank, Dad. Her old man ran me off at the door.”
“What? He did?”
“Yeah. She warned me that would happen sooner or later. Ol’ Gideon Harnling, he doesn’t much care for young bucks courting the apple of his bloodshot eye. I’m not the first he ever run off, I can tell you that much.”
Jack Hill had a question. “Hate all young men, does he, or only uppity redskins?”
“Huh.” Will poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down. “That’s almost word for word the way Janice put it.”
“Yeah. After I got the Harnling brushoff, I stopped by her place. You know her, Dad, used to work at the Days Inn? She’s divorced, two kids. We’re just friends. Everybody in town assumes we’re banging, but we aren’t. I would, being so studly and all, but she says it wouldn’t be fair to me, that I got my whole life ahead of me and don’t need no ball and chain with a couple of ankle biters dragging me down.”
“Sounds like a helluva woman,” I interjected.
He shrugged. “Got her head on straight, I guess. Told me a few things I didn’t know about Lorene’s family. There’s rumor her Dad isn’t a real friend to the red man. The girl’s got two older brothers, one of them in the Navy and one working on the ranch with their Dad. Both boys are Golden Gloves boxers. There’s an uncle who’s a local deputy Sheriff and another uncle who did hard time in Kansas as a child molester. That guy, the sex offender, he and his then-wife used to take in foster children. He got busted for messing with them. Wife got off, claimed she didn’t know what was going on, testified against him in court, divorced him when he was in prison, and took off. The guy just got out of the pen a couple of months ago. Split from Kansas, came home because his brothers were here presumably. Janice says she’s seen him around town.”
“Son,” Frank said soberly, “you sure can pick ’em.”
Will yawned mightily, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. “Apple don’t fall far from the tree, Dad. Tell you what. Us handsome young fellows need our beauty sleep. I’m off to the land of Nod.” He got up from his chair, deposited his coffee cup in the sink, and headed for his room.
Sissy watched him go, then spoke up. “Sounds to me like we’ve got another possible suspect. A whole family of possibles, to be exact. Over protective rancher, sex offender brother, law enforcement brother, two sons handy with their fists. All of them into throwing their weight around in one way or another.”
“An embarrassment of riches”, I agreed.
Frank Harding’s eyes were wide. “Oh crap,” he muttered. “The Harnlings? I never even considered that.”
I didn’t bother to point out how close those two family names were, Harnling and Harding. Figured he had enough troubles on his mind. For all I knew, killers could be trying to shoot Harnlings and nailing people working for Harding instead. Which was a dumbass thought, indicating I needed some sleep before I did something stupid.
“Frank,” I said, stifling a yawn of my own, “suppose you could take them goggles and handle perimeter patrol for a couple of hours? I’ve about hit my wall.”
“Absolutely.” He was already eyeing the night vision rig hanging on the hook. “Jack, could you maybe show me how they work?”
I’m pretty sure he did, and most likely Sissy threw her roll before lying down to catch a few winks, but I couldn’t testify to either possibility in court. I was sound asleep, leaning over the table, my head resting on my crossed arms. It was probably simple letdown, but when a guy’s that tired, a wooden table top and a splintery chair are as good as any Sleep Number air bed.