We were just slowing down for the Idaho Falls exit when my cell phone rang. Jack Hill happened to be driving at the moment, so I fished the cell phone out of my shirt pocket and checked the caller ID.
Uh-oh. Somebody was checking in from Jack’s home sat phone. This couldn’t be good. The folks holding the fort at home knew we were meeting with the Rodeo Iron Idaho owner, Clark Higgins, in about twenty minutes. They wouldn’t interrupt that unless–
I flipped the phone open. “Yo!”
“I’ll give you a Big Sky call in thirty minutes.”
“Thirty. Got it.”
We were both off the line, just like that. “Flip this thing around and head home,” I told Jack in a clipped tone others often told me sounded almost military, though I’d never served in uniform.
Hill didn’t ask questions, just took the planned exit and then reversed course to point north. “That call was from Wayne Bruce. Big Sky. He’s calling back in 30.” I said, punching in the speed dial number for Clark. My partner continued to remain silent, but he knew what that meant. A Big Sky call from home was one of our several codes. It meant serious trouble of the sort that required our presence in Montana, the Big Sky Country, specifically at Trace Nation. Any snooping NSA type who happened to monitor the call would get nothing from it; a Montana resident saying Big Sky was so common as to be literally invisible.
Clark Higgins picked up on the third ring. “Treemin? We’re looking forward to your visit to our operation; I presume you’re about here. Not lost, are you?”
I managed a chuckle. “No, not lost, Clark, but we’re going to have to postpone the meeting. I’m sorry, ’cause I was looking forward to this visit, too, but…something came up back home. Gotta go put out a brushfire or two.”
It was the Idaho man’s turn to chuckle. “Nothing like being where the buck stops to know about those brushfires. So, what, want to reschedule for, when?”
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” I replied–and made a lightning decision I’d had no clue I was going to make. Jack and I’d been in Idaho for nearly two weeks, quietly interviewing people, knowing some of our conversations would no doubt wander back to the ears of this man. We’d proceeded carefully, though; he’d not likely have any idea how much we’d found out already.
“Clark…I just decided some of this can’t wait. Or shouldn’t, anyway. Are you sitting down?”
“Uh–” The sudden wariness in his voice was clear. “Yeah. I am. And I’m free to talk, nobody else in my office at the moment. What’s up?”
“There’s no good way to say this. I wanted to lay it out face to face, but–the thing is, Clark, you’ve got people in your operation who are stealing you blind.”
There is a time under the sun for all things. This was a time for silence. I waited for a ten second count. “Clark? You there?”
“Mm, yeah, I’m here, Tree. Just waiting for the other shoe to fall.”
“You don’t sound overly surprised.”
A deep sigh gusted over the line. “Something like this is never good news, but the business owner who’s surprised that people would steal from the company is dumb as a bag of hammers. You two have been cruising around the state for a while now. I’m guessing you’ve pinned down who.”
“We have,” I confirmed, “but it’s probably not best to go into all that over the phone. We’ll swing in at Rodeo Iron Pocatello, just drop off the information packet with your store manager there, and head on. They’re close to the freeway, shouldn’t cost us more than 20 minutes or so.” Rodeo Iron didn’t have its own retail store outlets anywhere else, but Clark Higgins had pioneered the concept in Idaho. There’d been plenty of naysayers, of course, scoffing at the chances of survival for a store specializing in welded steel fencing and toys and nothing else. I’d been doubtful, myself. So far, though, the store was holding its own. Not making a profit, but not far in the red, either.
“That’ll work for me,” Higgins said. “I owe Zeb a steak dinner anyway. We had a bet on what his gross sales would be for February, and he beat projections by 17 percent.” Zebediah Norcross was, of course, the store manager at Pocatello. “I’ll buzz on up to Pokey this afternoon, pick up your packet.”
“Good.” I felt a huge rush of relief. There was one more thing, though. “In the meantime, until you’ve reviewed the material….”
“You might want to not mention this to anyone, including those, um, close to you.”
Clark Higgins was nothing if not sharp. In fact, we’d shifted him back to Idaho from the Montana operation precisely because he was too sharp not to eventually figure out some of the secrets our Inner Circle at Trace Nation was not willing to share. I swear I could hear the well oiled gears turning in his marvelous mental machinery. It took him less than five seconds to understand exactly what and who I was referring to, and why.
“Ah, sh*t,” he said quietly.
“Exactly.” I’d just let him know his head bookkeeper aka girlfriend was stabbing him in the financial back. I didn’t envy the man. Tania had run out on me in the middle of the night and cleaned out some cash, she and her Mom, but I’d never had a woman use me utterly in the way Higgins was being used. Of course, it wasn’t just the bookkeeper. She was sleeping with Rodeo Iron Idaho’s chosen accountant, too. Thankfully, my mother’s only involvement appeared to have been limited to introducing the she-thief to Clark, no harmful intent. Though, as we all know, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
We hung up. Higgins had his wars to fight; we had ours.
We had another twenty minutes left before Wayne was scheduled to call again. Which was good, since I needed to fish the throwaway Walmart phone out of my bag and power it up. He’d be calling that number, not the Verizon cell phone. Then all we had to do was wait, minutes that felt like years. I could feel my stomach cramping. Jack Hill’s eyes were fixed on the road ahead, but his knuckles on the steering while were white, he was gripping so hard. Neither of us said anything more. We understood the thirty minutes between calls, of course. Wayne would have to drive down out of the high country to get a cell signal.
The call, when it came, was bad enough…but it could have been worse. Wayne and I spoke in code, but we spoke for a long time. When we were done, the knot was out of my gut somewhat, and Jack had heard enough to let some color work itself back into his knuckles.
“Well,” I began, “here’s the story. Bottom line, there was–Wayne thinks it was an attempt to abduct Judi. Sissy caught a bullet through her left trapezius muscle. Missed her neck by half an inch. Laid the flesh open to the bone, and in fact grooved the collar bone a little, but she won’t need to go to the hospital. Wayne said he patched her up personally and thinks she’ll be okay.”
Jack nodded. “She will if Wayne Bruce says she will. There’s a lot about that man we haven’t told you yet.”
“Yeah. Not holding back anything, just never got around to it. He’s not a military veteran, but his grandfather was. Served as one of the original Green Berets in Vietnam, in fact. Did a number of forays as an advisor, more than a few of them across the border into Cambodia. Ain’t much about guerilla warfare that old man don’t know. Or did know, anyway; he passed some years back. Point being, he taught Wayne a lot, from the time he was five or so till he was fifteen or thereabouts. By the end of it, the snake eater told Wayne, ‘Kid, you’re queer as a three dollar bill, and that’s fine by me, but you’re damn sure gonna need to know how to fight, even more than the average citizen in this Uncle Sam dominated world.’ Field medicine was a serious part of his training, too. Anything short of a perforated gut wound or a vital organ, Wayne can patch up was well as any medic out there.”
“That’s good. That’s real good.” For a long moment, I let that sink in, then tried to put myself in the position of the people who’d been at Trace Nation when we’d been hit, so Jack could see it as clearly when I told it as I had when Wayne relayed it to me.
Judi locked the office door and turned to step into the Subaru Brat. “What’s on the lunch menu?” She asked Sissy as they wheeled out toward home, three miles (or five minutes) to the west. They were a few minutes early, having hit a mutually good stopping point in their work at precisely the same moment. Bobby Hancock was just exiting the welding shop, heading for his truck, which meant their rear guard would be starting out a quarter mile or so behind them.
“Meat loaf,” Sissy smiled, “mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and corn. Carolyn’s cooking today. Wayne said she just pulled the meat loaf from the oven. We’re advised to get there before it gets cold.”
They were just past the Y when Bobby’s voice came over the CB. “Heads up! I just got close enough to pick up the surveillance feed in my truck! Seven minutes ago, a green SUV cut left at the Y, toward Jack’s place! Anybody seen it?”
Three seconds later, Wayne Bruce fired back. “Hasn’t shown up here. Is Horace riding point?”
“Not today.” Sissy sounded calm but…intense. The old tracker was resting after what they thought was a mini-stroke, but that wasn’t information she cared to share over the air. “I’m going to turn arou–”
Her mike went dead, primarily because she’d dropped it. Rounding the first curve after the Y, she and Judi had found the “missing” SUV. It was sitting crosswise in the narrow road, no way around it, and two men were standing at either end of the impromptu roadblock, pointing rifles at them. One shouted, “Hold it right there!”
Which she did. Flipped the transmission into neutral, yanked the emergency brake on hard, and as the vehicle came sliding to a stop no more than sixty feet from the gunmen, both women slammed their doors open, rolling out and crouching behind them.
Their move stunned the ambushers for a second or two, both men staring slack jawed. Then the older one laughed. “Nice try, girlies, but I’d say these here rifles are more’n a match for your little pea shooters at this range.” And both of them opened fire, aiming at Sissy, ignoring Judi altogether.
Which they shouldn’t have done. For one thing, the doors were the only metal Tree had gotten around to reinforcing thus far, so the lead nosed rounds from the hunting rifles made a lot of noise bouncing off of the Subaru’s armor…except for one, which skimmed past the edge of the door and nailed the big Bear Warrior woman as she leaned out to try for a shot, knocking her flat on her back. They would have finished her off then, but Judi had realized where their fire was concentrated. She’d never have a better chance. She stood in a crouch, high enough to shoot through the open window in her door, using a two handed stance. The little Colt .22 in her hands only had a three inch barrel, but it would have to be enough; there was no time to get the M1.
No fancy head shots at this range with this gun; center of mass only.
Her first shot kicked up snow, no hit…but her enemies were so focused on killing her friend that they didn’t even realize they were under fire from her “little popgun”. Her second shot, however, changed the equation. From the way her target grabbed his leg as he fell, dropping his rifle on the way down, she figured he’d taken a hit around mid-thigh. The other man, the one she took to be the leader, began turning her way, his rifle tracking up and over…but at short range, even sixty feet, a rifle against a determined woman with a pistol is not a good bet–especially when you’re standing in the open, she’s not, and she already has you lined up in her sights.
Judi’s third round nicked the man’s ear, and he decided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. She missed him once as he bent over to grab his friend, helping him to his feet. They didn’t waste time, plunging into the trees on the south side of the road, taking their rifles but leaving their ride behind, the thigh-wounded man’s injured leg marking a drag trail in the snow, two more rounds dusting the snow behind their feet to hurry them along.
It wasn’t because Judi had deliberately missed. She’d been distracted by a sudden burst of gunfire from behind them.
And then Wayne Bruce was there, roaring up behind the SUV, driving Jack’s old Jimmy with the snowplow attached. He never slowed down, just lowered the plow so it skimmed a couple of inches above the snow, and slammed into the parked vehicle’s right rear. The rear, because it was lighter then the front end. The plow came smashing on through, the forest ringing with the screech of metal to metal contact at 40 miles per hour as the SUV was spun around.
Judi beat him to Sissy’s side, but not by much. Rodeo Iron’s Security Chief was on her feet, but her face had lost color–no easy feat with her skin tone–and there was blood everywhere.
“Let me look, Jude,” Wayne said, pulling her aside gently.
Sissy was going into shock, but her eyes were still clear. “I’ll live,” she told him. “Worry about those shots behind us. That could only have been Bobby, and he’s alone.”
“Not now, he’s not,” Judi observed. Young Hancock’s truck was just nosing into view. Bobby was driving, driver side window down, his carbine held out through the window while he drove with the other hand. “Though if he had to shoot that way, he’d be eating all the casings.”
By the time Bobby joined them, Sissy had passed out and Wayne was hard at work. “I’ve got enough of a patch on there to get her to the house,” he said “if we can get there without anybody else getting shot at. Bobby?”
“I think we’re good,” the kid replied. “Let’s get under cover and we can swap war stories.”
“Fair enough.” Wayne Bruce was neither as tall nor as heavy as Sissy Harms, but he lifted her unconscious dead weight without apparent effort, carrying her not in a fireman’s carry but in his arms to keep the injured area from getting bumped or having more blood rush to it. “Let’s git.”
He took her to the snowplow truck, Bobby hustling to open the passenger door so their precious cargo could be deposited on the front seat. “Just hold her in place a sec, Bobby,” Wayne said, moving swiftly around to climb in behind the wheel.
“No sweat, kid. I can keep her from sliding onto the floorboards. Get your truck.”
As narrow as the road was, it took him several backs and fills to turn the plow around. Then they eased all three vehicles through the gap between the significantly dented SUV and the road edge, moving the remaining mile to Jack’s home. Judi tried not to think about how much blood of Sissy’s she was sitting in; the wound had definitely dripped some on the driver’s seat after the warrior had made it back to her feet.
Half an hour later, Wayne had done all he could for Sissy. She’d regained consciousness long enough to know she was safe at Jack’s with friends in attendance, then slipped on back to sleep. Of course, the black market morphine probably helped.
“She should be all right in time,” he told the others as he was washing up, “as long as the bone doesn’t get infected. Which it shouldn’t. There’s a bit of a groove in the clavicle, but I was able to clean everything out that didn’t belong there, disinfect the wound, and stitch her up.”
“What,” Judi gulped nervously, “didn’t belong there?”
“Not much, sweetheart.” The gay man’s eyes brimmed with compassion. “A couple of shreds of clothing, that’s all. Tiny, but problematical with a puncture wound. This wasn’t that, so as I said, she should be okay. I got a couple of Cipro down her before she passed out again.”
They gathered around the kitchen table. “Anyone for warmed over meat loaf?” Carolyn West asked. Surprisingly, now that the question of Sissy’s longevity was settled, they all had appetites. In the absence of Jack and Tree, with Sissy out of commission, Wayne Bruce was clearly in charge.
“Lunch sounds good to me,” he agreed, “as long as I get a clear picture of everything that happened. Gotta call Tree ASAP, per our prearrangement. Bobby, what went down at your end?”
The kid cleared his throat, thinking how to tell it. “Shamed to say, I was running farther behind Sissy and Judi than I should have been–”
“Oh no you don’t!” Judi shook her finger at him. “That was our fault, not yours. We left early without even thinking to tell you. Besides, if you’d been closer behind us, it might not have helped, anyway.”
“Well, okay, but–”
“Just tell us what happened, Bobby,” Wayne advised.
“Uh. Okay. I’d just called everybody on the CB to tell about the SUV being on our road somewhere. Then, I was still rolling the playback and saw another rig, a silver sedan, right there in my own driveway. I started to announce that, too, but then all Hell cut loose. The car spun out of my place, pointed right at the Y I was just crossing. I didn’t know whether they didn’t know about our girls having an escort, or if they figured to take me out, or what, but if I’d kept going, they’d have had us boxed. Box crunch at the Y, if you will. And I figured, hell, here’s as good a place to say no as any. I didn’t even get out, just stopped dead center in the Y, leaned out of the window, and started peppering ’em. If they’d been innocent bystanders, I’d be going to Deer Lodge for life, but I didn’t think about that at the time. I just knew they had bad intentions. I put a bunch of holes in their windshield. Don’t know that I hit anybody–think there was two in the car at least–but they slammed on the air right sudden, I can tell ya. Backed down the 100 or so feet to my driveway, turned out south, and headed for the highway like a scalded cat. And…that’s it. I waited till they were outa sight, changed magazines, and come on ahead to see what the rest of the shooting was about.”
Nobody spoke for a bit. Finally, Wayne asked, “Tell me, Bobby, the rounds from where the Subaru was parked, did you hear those pretty clear? There were two rifles shooting at Sissy. Those rounds, some of ’em anyway, should have been almost line of sight to you.”
“Oh yeah. I thought I was being shot at for a bit there.”
“Do you remember what they sounded like?”
Bobby looked confused at first, trying to remember. “Well…now that you ask, there was…I’ve hunted before. I know what the average rifle shot sounds like, and what a meat shot sounds like. Those rounds, though…yeah, there was a difference. A -crack!-, like.”
Wayne grinned at that. “By George, I think he’s got it. Remember that crack sound, Bobby. You’ll only hear it when a bullet is coming your way. Might save your life to know that some day, if an enemy misses you with the first round.”
“Now,” he continued, “the only villains any of you saw clearly were the two shooting at you and Sissy, Judi. Sissy’s not really in shape to give descriptions just yet, and it’s likely she didn’t get a good look anyway. She was awfully busy, and it sounds like the round that knocked her down was one of the first ones. So at least for now, that leaves you. What can you tell us?”
The petite woman considered. “Definitely two of them. One was…he gave the impression of being powerfully built. Not necessarily huge, like Tree’s uncle B.J., but I got the idea he had an awful lot of muscle under those winter clothes. Carhartt coveralls, no less, for both of them. Dark flannel shirts, too, one red, one green, but muted, you know? The muscle guy was the one I knocked down. Couldn’t guess his age. The other…shaggy hair. I could see it sticking out below his cap, some gray but not all. I got the feeling he was older, in his sixties, maybe. But I couldn’t say for sure.”
“That’s a start, girl. By the way, that was some mighty fine shooting you did. Did you know that most gunfights these days are at half that distance or less and that even so, very few handgun bullets ever hit their targets?”
“No,” she said, blushing at the compliment, “but I know I should have done better. I let myself get distracted when Bobby cut loose at the Y. Threw my aim off, and then they were in the woods.”
Carolyn West snorted. “Honey, as you know, I’m no fighter. But I do watch the TV shows and the news, and I read a lot. What Wayne’s telling you is right. What you did today with your .22 pistol would have done Wyatt Earp proud. Or Wild Bill Hickok. Whichever.”
“Wild Bill got shot in the back of the head ’cause he didn’t watch his back, didn’t he?”
“He did,” Carolyn agreed, throwing up her hands, “but I wasn’t talking about that. By the way, I called Jennifer. All the hands were in the house for lunch, and all the welders were on lunch break in the shop. She said she’d pass the word that somebody had taken a shot at Sissy’s Brat on the road home, so nobody heads anywhere after work till we can give her the all clear. Do we think it’s clear?”
Everyone looked to Wayne. He nodded reassuringly. “I’m going to say yes. For now. That this was an attempt to abduct Judi seems clear, with the Snow Snuffers being the obvious suspects, badly underestimating our women. Looks like they figured it would be easy to intimidate you both, shoot Sissy down like a dog, then drag you off somewhere for questioning. That’s pretty bold of them, if it really was them. Let’s hope it was, ’cause if it wasn’t, we have an unidentified enemy out there, and that’s never a good thing. However, since those warm weather Kentucky boys now know this is dangerous country, they’ll likely lay as low as they can if we don’t crowd ’em too hard. Which we’re not going to do until Tree and Jack get back. We don’t have the firepower for it, and we’re not calling law enforcement. At least, not yet. Judi, been meaning to ask, how are you holding up?”
“That,” she replied fiercely, “I can tell you in detail. I’m really ticked off. If you hadn’t showed up as fast as you did, and if Sissy hadn’t been in trouble, I’d have had the M1 carbine out of the rack and gone after those bastards, shot ’em down like rabid dogs.”
Everyone looked at her as if they’d never seen her before, or she’d sprouted horns or something. Judi was the sweet little thing, the Junior Princess of Trace Nation’s Inner Circle. Only Bobby Hancock was younger, and he wasn’t a girl. Okay, so she’d once thrown a tray of food at her ex when he was shooting at her, but this? This was a side of Judi Minske none of them had seen.
“Commendable,” Wayne ventured, “but it’s a good thing you didn’t. Chances are, those boys will limp on down through the woods toward open country, sticking as close to the road as they can, hoping their buddies with the car will come back for them. It’s possible that will happen before the welders head for home after work. Our enemies must have some way to communicate with each other, eh? But until we know they’re gone, after I’ve updated Tree on all of this, I’m heading over to your place, Bobby. I’m going to monitor your home’s surveillance cameras and also keep a sharp eye out with my spotting scope. If I’m sure they’ve all four headed out of the country for a while, I’ll give Jennifer the all clear. If not, I’ll drive point, make sure the welders all get to the highway without being carjacked. You stay here, work with Judi, make sure nobody sneaks up on the place without getting lead poisoning. Carolyn will show you the layout; Jack built this to be a fortress, and there are a few tricks to the building. Oh, and I will need to drop down toward the highway to get a cell signal to call Tree and Jack. Might spot the car you shot up while I’m there. Not likely, but you never know.”
“What–” Judi started, stopped to clear her throat, started again. “What if Sissy wakes up and needs something?”
“There are morphine pills on the dresser next to her bed. You can give her a couple every four hours if you see she needs them. Antibiotics are good for now. The dressing on the wound is good till tomorrow unless she starts thrashing around, and I don’t see Sissy Harms doing that. Whenever she’s awake, offer her water. There’s a bedpan on the floor under the bed. If she comes around enough to actually be hungry, yes, feed the girl. She lost a bit of blood, not as much as it looked to you, Judi, but some. She’ll need to replenish her red blood cells.”
“Orange juice?” Judi asked, remembering the lines of blood donors who were given OJ after donating.
“Acceptable but not mandatory. If she’s craving red meat, by all means, give her that.”
Bobby Hancock thought about protesting, thinking it should be him who’d be monitoring the surveillance cameras in his own home, but he understood Wayne’s decision. The older man obviously had a ton more experience with this sort of thing. And who was to say the Snow Snuffers wouldn’t try to sneak up on the house that Jack built?
If they did, he’d be sure they got a warm reception. He and Judi. For a number of reasons, he’d never say so to anyone, but the nineteen year old had a pretty major crush on the twenty-four year old girl with the boot-holstered Colt .22’s.