“Dammit, Josiah, them two didn’t just vanish into thin air! You sure you ain’t been at the white lightning again?”
Offended by the question, the cook and owner of Crete’s Eats snarled audibly, his left eye squinting the way it did when the coiled rage within was about to break free. Only cooking calmed him, better than any woman, far better than alcohol. In fact, he’d not had a drink of anything stronger than an occasional O’Doul’s in more than a decade, and every man present knew it.
“Tommy Perseus Thicke,” he replied, his voice pitched at little more than a whisper, the subtle rasp across stone of a slithering diamondback, “you calling me a liar? Are you?”
T. P. Thicke, so called only by those who knew him well or those prepared to suffer the consequences, suddenly realized he’d gone too far. Josiah Crete was not their only leader–he shared that honor with T.P.–but he was the most dangerous when aroused. A knife man who could slice a steak so butterfly thin you could see through it or thick enough you’d swear it was a small roast…and his hand was poised mere inches from his favorite meat cleaver. Even if T.P. wanted to shoot Josiah, he’d never get his fingers so much as curled around the butt of his revolver before Crete took off his head. The Crete men were all quick, and Josiah the quickest of the Cretes.
Besides, he didn’t want to shoot the man, anyway. They’d grown up together, for God’s sake. He’d gone too far, as he so often did. “Sorry, Ziah. I ain’t calling you no liar.” He watched the killing light start easing out of his friend’s eyes and added, “It’s just that I don’t get how they done it. Ray Don and I were set up like we told you. They’d have had to been doing something like 200 miles an hour to get by us before we reached the crossroad, and that don’t seem likely.”
“No,” Josiah agreed, his squinty eye opening back up to normal so that everyone in the room hid a collective sigh of relief. “That don’t seem likely.” He got up from his chair and paced over to the window, staring out at the deep Kentucky night. Crete’s Eats had been closed for an hour now, since 10:00 p.m. as always. Inside, only the usual night lights were on, enough for the group to see by, not enough to tempt some fool into thinking they were open. “With you two faking a breakdown, sort of accidentally blocking the road, we had ’em in a squeeze box. Ain’t no question about it. I wasn’t more’n half a mile behind ’em, and they weren’t showing no signs of panic. Five miles over the speed limit, maybe, but not much more than that. Then, after they dropped over Wicket Hill, I never seen ’em again, and you guys didn’t, either. So what the hell?”
Barney Thicke, cousin to T.P., thin as a rail and the youngest man present at nineteen plus some days, spoke up. “Uh…Josiah?”
“Uh…I been thinking…what if they found a hidey hole?” When the rest of the group stared at him incredulously, he hurried to make his point. “I mean…after Wicket Hill, that levels off in the bottom at Bear Creek. We…I mean, Wendy and me, we used to pull off right there in the wide spot, tuck the truck back in the trees some, you know, before we was engaged….”
The room went quiet for a long moment, until Josiah Crete finally nodded. “I do believe you hit on it, Barn. Why none of the rest of us come up with that, you got me. Did you just figure it out?”
“Uh…no. Didn’t start wondering about that until an hour ago, though. Or so. At first I couldn’t credit it, but the more I thought on it….”
T.P. got up and went to fetch the coffee pot, sighing heavily. He was from the thick branch of the Thicke family tree, five eight, 220 pounds, more of it muscle than not. Black sheep of the family, he and Josiah Crete had a long history between them. “Ziah,” he said, “you and me, we founded Snow Snuffers what, seven years back?”
“Closer to eight.”
“Okay. Eight years. Now, for all those years, we’ve snowballed how many adventuresome idiots? Eleven?”
“Ah. Thirteen, then, if you count this accursed Gary Jellison. Until him, every Snuff we ever did came off without a hitch. And now, figuring this New Hampshire accountant for the biggest score yet, we get sandbagged. Who’d of thunk a freaking accountant would be tough enough to survive a wilderness winter like that without a stitch on?”
“If he survived. We really only have the word of those people who found him, or he found them, whatever.” Josiah turned from the window and crossed the room. Reaching down behind the counter, he dialed the combination to one of several safes in the building–upside down, no less–and fished out a box of Cuban cigars. After they’d all fired up their stogies and begun smogging the café nicely (which wouldn’t be obvious when the eatery opened on the morrow, thanks to Febreze), he laid it out for them. After all, he was both a co-founder and the resident strategist for Snow Snuffers. Not the brain; that honor belonged to young Barney Thicke. The kid had grown up on computers and could hack into most systems, though Wells Fargo Bank had stymied him so far.
“Bottom line, boys and boys, we got trouble. Barney found out that Montana girl’s employed by a company called Rodeo Iron, owned 100% by one Treemin Jackson. Her address shows at a post office box in Ovando, Montana, population 70 or so. We don’t yet know where she lives exactly, but Google Earth shows Rodeo Iron headquarters some miles north of there. Rodeo Iron picks up its mail in Ovando, too. Now, who the big black dude is, we don’t know yet, but he and the white chick are obviously a couple. If we find her, we find him. But the question is, do we dare go after them, now that they’ve slipped our clutches, as they say?”
“Uh….” Barney raised his hand.
“Go ahead, Barn.”
“Are we sure they’re gone? What if they’re still there?”
“Why,” T.P. asked, “would they still be there? If they were ever there in the first place. It’s closing in on eleven o’clock. Been pitch dark since six-thirty, especially with all this rain.”
“That’s just it. The rain. It really poured there for a while, at least an hour. Doncha think the Bear Creek pullout was a total mudhole by the time it got dark? What if they got stuck trying to get outa there?”
What a thought. The gloom and doom atmosphere lightened considerably and then kept on getting better. “Damn,” Josiah stated, “this kid’s a freaking genius.”
“Naw,” T.P. observed. “The rest of us are just freaking idiots. What say we all load up in a couple of the trucks and toodle on up to Bear Creek? Maybe they’ll be stuck right there in the mud, sitting in that SUV like little ol’ black and white sitting ducks. And even if they ran for it, these are our home woods.”
Josiah Crete, no longer ready to terminate his partner in crime, actually chuckled. “Come on, troops. Let’s go coon hunting.”
They took Josiah’s Ford F-150 and T.P.’s Dodge Ram. They also took a variety of firearms, two 12 gauge shotguns, one .22 long rifle squirrel gun, and a bunch of pistols. For lighting, there were 3 cell Maglites and, of course, the spotlights on both trucks. They’d only used those for poaching deer in the past, but spotlighting human fugitives ought to work just about as well. As an afterthought, Josiah whistled up his aging bloodhound, Old Dan, who was more than willing to take a ride in the back of the Ford, though he had to be boosted up in the bed. Old Dan could still follow a trail as well as any critter in the county, but his bones weren’t what they used to be.
Barney Thicke and Josiah’s younger brother, Caleb Crete, rode with Josiah. All of them peered out into the night, still overcast but the rain down to a bare drizzle. Occupied with his driving, the older man ignored the quiet conversation between the others.
“How do you think they made us, Barn?” Caleb was the dumbest of the Kentucky six man mini-crime syndicate, and by a fair margin at that. He was sharp enough to recognize the kid’s brain, though. In truth, he was in awe of the boy, the way he could make a computer sit up and beg.
“Dunno. And that’s some worrisome, let me tell ya. You and me, Caleb, we’re the stay-at-home guys. No way these Montana people could have figured us out. But they shouldn’t have gotten wise to Josiah, either. They did, though. Ziah and T.P. and Mordecai all three seen ’em at the funeral thing in New Hampshire, but there were hundreds of people there. Only thing I can think of is, they had some kind of line on us even before they went to Bulwer Falls. Had to have. Ain’t no other way to explain how they turned up at Crete’s two days later, big as life and twice as nasty.”
“Feds?” The fear and hatred in Caleb’s voice were both obvious. “Could they be feds?”
“Nah. Don’t see that, Caleb. They’re private citizens, just like us. Which don’t make sense, I admit it. But Snow Snuffers has survived this long because nobody ever had a clue who we were. Now it looks like they do. And what we do about that…well, I guess it’ll have to be up to Ziah and T.P., just like always.”
“Just like always,” his friend agreed.
T.P., driving the lead vehicle, began to slow for the pullout, one of his riders working the passenger side spotlight on the Ford. By the time both trucks were stopped on the shoulder, there was only one thing left for any of them to say.
The rain had started pelting down again in earnest, but the fierce candlepower of the spotlight pierced the downpour well enough to show the deep ruts running all the way from back by the creek to the highway itself. Globs of mud still pointed north on the pavement, but their quarry was long gone. The only Soul among them who wasn’t upset was Old Dan; the bloodhound had curled up under the dog shelter half-roof in the back of the truck and gone soundly to sleep.
T.P.’s voice came over the CB. “Any point in going on?”
Josiah picked up his own handset and keyed the mike. “Don’t reckon. That big old boar coon we’re hunting could be anywhere by now. Let’s head for the barn, get some shuteye. Tomorrow’s another day.”
With that, both trucks began jockeying to turn around on the pavement. The Snow Snuffers knew they’d need to do something about this threat to their very existence, but like the Good Book says, there’s a time and place for everything under the sun. It doesn’t say anything about the rain.
Except for Noah and the Ark, and that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Judi and I were running hard for I-90 now, keeping the Toyota precisely two miles over the speed limit but stopping for nothing. Once we’d made it back to I-64 and headed west on the interstate, we’d both breathed huge sighs of relief, but neither of us felt we were anything like out of the woods yet.
Out of the mud, yes. Thank the good Lord and all His angels for that. We’d gotten a boost, for sure. The Rav 4 had needed to fight for every inch of progress through the pullout mud. I hadn’t even dared turn the rig around–probably couldn’t have turned the rig around without getting hopelessly mired–and had to back up all the way, 30 yards or so, whipping around only after the rear wheels finally grabbed blacktop. Had it not been for my driving skills, developed on the dirt roads in the mountains of Montana in all kinds of weather, we’d never have made it. Rock-ease, rock-ease, rock-rev-ease, on and on, ad nauseum and danged near ad infinitum. I hadn’t dared try moving at all until nearly 9:30; there’d been too much evening traffic on the highway. Not a lot, but a vehicle or two every so often. And even after we’d decided it was now or never, I’d had to stop the effort half a dozen times, Judi and me huddling down low until a set of headlights passed, some northbound, some southbound.
At the end of it, fighting on, the Toyota’s engine starting to overheat from the strain and the mud within an inch of high centering us for the duration, I’d surrendered a bit, called for spiritual help. Started chanting the Hu, that ancient name for God, pretty near at the top of my lungs, mentally asked whatever Higher Power might be out there to help if it was in alignment with God’s will, kept on bellowing, “HU-U-U-U-U!”–and the tires had suddenly caught traction, practically launching us up onto the graveled portion of the pullout, right next to the pavement.
Judi never said anything about it, before or after, but she had to be impressed with the spiritual rescue. Me, I was mostly feeling humbled at the moment.
And wide awake. Man, were both of us bright eyed and bushy tailed or what?
Finally, after we found I-64 and were once again running the interstate, she got out her flashlight and consulted the atlas. “How much gas we got left?”
Good question. “Not quite a quarter tank. If this gauge is accurate. Guess we better make a pit stop first chance.”
“Fine by me,” she said without looking up from the map. “A quick one, though. I don’t know about you, but I fully intend to be out of this state by first light. Oh. No problem there. We’re crossing a skinny part of the state. Louisville’s the end of it, looks like a bit under 200 miles, and then, hm, how be we shoot north up from Louisville on I-65 through Indiana, then grab I-80 west at Gary, Indiana.”
My mind clicked into gear when she said that. “Gary? Absolutely. From that point on, I know the road. Been there, done that. Let’s see…three hours driving time plus one pit stop, say 30 minutes, grab some sandwiches to go, and we’ll be out of Kentucky. Yeah, well before daylight. Heh. Did I ever tell you about my first cross country run, from Hartford, Connecticut, to Jack’s place? My ex and I, Tania, we had a couple of hired killers coming after us, and a tracking bug I didn’t know about on my Pontiac.”
“You did? No, don’t believe I’d heard that one. But can you wait a few minutes to tell it?”
“Well, back there in the mud, when it looked like we were going to get stuck for sure, and trapped, and you suddenly let out with that HU-U-U bellow, you scared the pee out of me. I need to crawl over into the back seat and change my pants.”