The old tracker left the note on his pillow and eased ever so softly through the bedroom doorway, listening for the sounds of Jennifer Trace’s breathing from down the hallway. Deep and regular. Good. Despite the threat of unknown gunmen possibly trying for a home invasion, she’d dropped cleanly off to sleep.
Tough girl, that widow rancher.
Of course, it helped that the yard lights were on and that any would-be intruder would find himself up against it, should he be reckless enough to brave the illumination. Despite appearing as everyday normal as any neighboring ranch home, Trace Ranch headquarters was effectively a bunker. Military artillery could take out the roof, should it come to that, but otherwise…not likely.
Once outside, with the setlocks fallen in place behind him and no way back in, he paused on the front step, bending over to get his head down before he fell down. It took a moment for the dizziness to clear. Horace Edward Tamblyn, he told himself silently, get your act together. Time to cowboy up. Not the first time, of course. Screams and gunfire tore through his consciousness, green jungle, fellow Green Berets falling around him, no way out. He usually didn’t experience that except in his nightmares these days; must have been closer to fainting than he’d thought. It wouldn’t have hit him so hard, he suspected, had he not been commanding the squad. Or maybe it would have. Marsh and Tomo, who’d followed him through the foliage after their ammo ran out, scrambling on their bellies like the big snakes they frequently encountered…both of them had it worse after it was all over. At least, he figured they did. After the fall of Saigon, after coming home to less respect–by far!–than the enemy in southeast Asia had given them, his fellow survivors hadn’t lived long.
Randy Marsh had lost it about ten years later, slitting his Vietnamese wife’s throat in a flashback and then, when he realized what he’d done, eating his own .45 Colt. Benny Tomo had lasted another half decade, then contracted pancreatic cancer. Agent Orange, maybe, fortified with copious amounts of alcohol and a four pack a day smoking habit. Another Marlboro man bites the dust.
Still up and at ’em more than 40 years after mustering out, with nothing worse than the night willies, Horace figured he had it good. Definitely, he had some good people to protect.
The walk to the horse barn wasn’t bad. The titanium pins in his weather leg were talking a bit, but not enough to make him drag the foot. Curious, that, getting shot harder right here on the ranch than he ever had in ‘Nam. Well, technically ‘Nam. That’s what the official records said, anyway.
Cold night air cleared his senses. That was good. Time to make a midnight requisition. Old Bess, quietly munching hay at the horse corral manger, lifted her head at his triple finger snap. The black mare wasn’t his, had never been his, but Jennifer wasn’t likely to chew him out for riding her. On the other hand, she was likely to give him the stinkeye for having slipped out of bed when he was supposed to be convalescing, leaving that note.
Gone tracking. Back by breakfast.
Kind of abrupt, now that he thought about it, but what else was there to say?
“Hey, old girl,” he told the horse nuzzling his shoulder, “how be you and me go see what’s what?”
Once the mare was saddled, he considered. How was his strength, really?
Well, only one way to find out. Bess stood patiently while he mounted. It took him three tries. Stepping back down at the machinery museum building housing his steel reinforced cabin, he ground tied the mare–the only one on the place he’d trust that way–and fetched his gear, including the long barreled AK-47 with the bipod. Stepping back into the saddle took only one try this time. The exercise was doing him good, as it always had. He’d need to talk to Jack Hill someday about a few things, though. Hill had mentioned something once about a supplement he took, or maybe it was a few supplements. Anyway, something that helped with circulation, something that might prevent a reoccurrence of the mini stroke that had kept him in bed this morning, tended by the widow Trace, chafing yet admittedly not quite right.
He should have been there. Had it been him driving point, those bastards never would have tagged Sissy. Tree’s tree-tall lover was a warrior woman all the way, but she’d been up against it. Had it been him rounding the corner to face the roadblock and rifles at the ready, he’d have thrown his venerable ’59 International Scout into a sliding, sideways stop with the passenger’s side door facing the enemy, rolled out the driver’s side door with the AK, and been stitching both gunmen from stem to stern from beneath the vehicle within seconds. Thirty rounds of full metal jacket .308 short, punching daylight.
The bastards wouldn’t have had a chance.
Not that Sissy could have done any different than she’d done. A side-slide maneuver would have put Judi Minske right under their guns. The guilt that tore through him over missing the shootout ripped him harder than his dreams did these days. Thank the good Lord and all his angels for little Judi’s cool head under fire. She didn’t realize it, but what she’d done was roughly equivalent to an Army infantryman taking out a tank single handed. A regular Audie Murphy, fem-style.
There was a sliver moon out, maybe twenty degrees, a still and quiet Montana winter night. Spring was coming, though. Forecast said it could hit the high thirties tomorrow, at least at Ovando. Could start melting any time. Which would destroy a whole lot of evidence. About halfway to the Y, a bobcat crossed the dirt road, moving easy but wasting no time. Shifting hunting grounds, most likely, from the lower slopes to the upper. From the southwest, barely enough breeze to feel with a licked finger held up to test the air. Good. He’d be downwind all the way, or at least not upwind. Being upwind of one’s quarry in the woods was never a good thing, doubly so when said quarry tended to shoot first and ask questions later.
At the Y, Bobby Hancock’s trailer was dark except for a single light left on over the kitchen sink, the sort of bulb people leave lit when they’re either not at home or asleep for the night. Bobby, Horace knew, was neither. The kid had gone against orders from Wayne Bruce, who’d wanted them all to stay huddled up at Jack’s until the men could get in from Idaho. Bobby had quietly pointed out that Tree and Jack weren’t likely to hit home till sometime in the evening, and a lot could happen before then. He’d headed out, back to his place to monitor his surveillance cameras. Were any tomfool Snow Snuffers to tackle the boy’s mobile home, thinking it an easy target, they wouldn’t survive the experiment. The tracker could feel the youngster’s wakefulness. Bedded down on a pallet where he could rake the front door from a prone position, or Horace missed his guess. The back door would be heavily blocked, just in case.
Good kid, that one. Plenty of sand.
The rider suppressed a sigh. He’d turned 79, just last week. Nobody but Jennifer knew that; it wasn’t something he advertised. She’d baked him a cake, come right to his cabin with it, German chocolate with coconut frosting and pecan slivers. Lord, how he loved that woman. Always had, since long before she’d married Sam’s partner and then, later, Sam Trace himself. Had he thought he’d had a chance back then, he’d surely have been in the hunt for her hand. But skilled as he was at following critters through the woods, skilled as he was at staying alive when others around him were falling like flies, he was tongue tied when it came to women. Always had been. Besides, he had seventeen years on the girl, which at the time had seemed a big thing. Maybe not so big now.
Half a mile past the Y, the dark bulk of the abandoned SUV hove into view.
He dismounted, tying the mare’s reins to the nearest tree. She’d need to stay for a while, and even old Bess had her limits when it came to ground tying.
Shucking his leather gloves, he fished a pair of surgical gloves out of a shirt pocket and donned them. Fished a small notebook and pen out of the other pocket and started taking notes, using a shuttered penlight to illuminate a few things as needed. Make, model, VIN number, license plate number. The doors weren’t locked. The keys were in the ignition. Horace pulled those, using a pair of needle nose pliers to minimize fingerprint smudging, dropped them into a sandwich baggie, and dropped the baggie into a coat pocket.
A sound, whisper faint, caught his ear. He froze, listening, nostrils flared, upper lip peeled back, mouth open, inhaling carefully. Ah. No problem. A deer, delicately crossing the road, except that unlike the bobcat, the ungulate was heading down toward lower country. A doe from her smell, unaware of his presence or the presence of the horse standing in the shadow of the tree line.
Further searching produced a number of items. Two travel satchels. Cigarette butts in the ash tray. A jumbo sized roll of duct tape. Empty drink cups and burger wrappers from a McDonald’s restaurant. An orange Bic lighter. A box of .30-30 ammo, and another in .270 caliber.
Gathering the loose items into a couple of gallon size Ziplocs, the old man stuffed the batch into the least burdened satchel, then moved back to Bess. Not speaking, because nothing carries sound like still night air, he lashed the satchels firmly behind the saddle’s cantle. Then, after stroking the horse’s neck and giving her a final pat, he slipped into the woods, all senses extended, especially his sixth. Every man he knew who’d ever walked point in the jungle or the rice paddies and survived to tell about it had done so because of that knowingness, that awareness that told Soul when a bullet was about to come his way, or a punji stick one step ahead, even when–especially when–such dangers could be neither seen, heard, felt, nor smelled.
Woodmere had been walking point that day. He had the sixth sense, but even that hadn’t been enough to save him. It had allowed him to give warning to the rest of the squad, no more than that before he was riddled with AK-47 bullets, delivered from rifles exactly like the one Horace was carrying tonight. Julian Woodmere, Corporal, U.S. Army, KIA, August 14, 1967. Woody’s body was never recovered. He still walked point in First Lieutenant Tamblyn’s dreams, though, bellowing his warning, his voice immediately drowned in the sudden roar of what sounded like a hundred rifles and at least one machine gun.
There were no records kept of that mission, as there were no records kept of most of his group’s work across the line in Cambodia.
Judi had hit the big man harder than they’d thought. She’d told everyone that his leg had been dragging and bleeding when his partner hustled him into the timber, but nobody seemed to think of the .22 as much of a blood-maker. They’d been wrong; there was a blood trail. Not enough to bleed the wounded man out in short order, nothing like that, but a clear pattern of drops in the snow, one every few feet.
A couple hundred yards inside the woods, the tracker stopped and squatted on his heels to consider. Then he reached back to get the night vision monocle from his backpack. Night vision was useful in its place, but he avoided using it any more than necessary. The technology interfered with his own senses. Frankly, he figured getting dependent on it would get him killed, sooner or later. Still, the blood trail led to a dark hump he couldn’t quite make out through the snow. Wouldn’t hurt to make sure there was no body heat coming off that.
There wasn’t. He stuffed the monocle back in the pack, rose to his feet, and eased forward, looking not at the dark form but to one side of it, picking up the target in his peripheral vision.
A small granite outcrop, not unusual in these parts.
They’d stopped here, though, and for some time at that. The snow was beaten down where the wounded man had sat with his back to the outcrop for a while. The other man’s tracks were all over the place. At a guess–an educated guess–the fellow had been pacing, peering in every direction, wondering from which direction the boogeyman would come next. Or, perhaps just as likely, where they needed to go in order to catch their ride out of Indian country.
The rest had helped. By the time they’d moved on, the bleeding had stopped. Had they used any field improvisation to plug the wound? Or patch it?
Probably not. These weren’t snake eaters.
Horace Tamblyn considered some more. From the rock, the trail angled off more to the southwest, a change of course of some thirty degrees. The pacer had come to a decision…and the tracker thought he knew the nature of that decision. As the crow flies, it was exactly two miles from where the shooters had abandoned their SUV to Highway 200. Angling the way the trail headed now, it was more like two and a half…but easing on downslope in this general direction would eventually get them to a shallow, unnamed gully that carried spring runoff all the way to a culvert that ran under the highway. Bobby had shot the crap out of their Oldsmobile. Nobody except the totally innocent ever wants people–law enforcement or otherwise–asking about a windshield full of bullet holes.
So, he mused, how about this scenario? They had some way of staying in contact with each other. Long range walkie talkies or CB’s that fit in their pockets. Something. The driver told ’em about getting the car shot up, said–or was ordered–to find the nearest place not to be noticed, wait till dark, then go steal another vehicle, come back, and pick up their wounded. The culvert would be a workable meeting spot. Hell, it’s the way I’d do it. If the two men, one injured, got there first, they could hide in the culvert, wait for the cavalry.
It felt right.
Which didn’t mean it was time to get careless. When he got back to his feet, the tracker took a couple of minutes to massage his pinned and aching leg, but no more than that. The easy way to check out the culvert would be to go back, get Bess, and ride around via the Y and down to the paved highway. There were, unfortunately, a couple of problems with that idea. One, he might get shot riding by Bobby Hancock’s place, if the boy’s trigger finger was a little extra itchy, this late at night. Two, he’d be a sitting duck, a dark-silhouetted cowboy starkly visible against the snow.
No, (*sigh*), this would have to be done the old school way.
It took Tamblyn three hours, give or take, to cover the distance. The Snow Snuffers–he assumed it was them, though proof would have to wait for Jack Hill’s contacts to run forensics on the car keys and other goodies. Not on the .270; he’d be keeping that. It had no doubt belonged to the wounded dude, the big one. They’d hidden it well enough, had he not followed the leader’s tracks right to it. Them Kentucky boys, again presuming it was them, apparently weren’t half as tough as they thought they were. The wounded man’s injured leg was dragging far more than it had been at the beginning, his partner having to take most of his weight to keep him upright. The last quarter mile was downright ugly, slow, and sloppy–but they’d made it. Horace could see that, clear as day. Hadn’t beat their ride by much, either; from the sign, they couldn’t have had to wait more than an hour to hook up and head out. Two sets of tracks coming down off the shoulder and helping get the big man up to the car. His wound had reopened; there were several blood droplets visible.
The vehicle, a full sized pickup with studded snow tires from the look of the tracks, had headed west. The tread was one you didn’t see every day, but the old tracker recognized it. Johnny Broman’s Dodge, sure as shooting. The welder never did lock up his truck, and now he’d paid the price. Come Monday, he’d either be late for work or pooling with one of the others who lived in Lincoln.
Right there in the culvert, Horace found both license plates and nodded his head in understanding. The thieves had stolen a set of plates from another truck. Or car, if they were really stupid, but probably a truck. But they hadn’t dared hang around town for the few minutes it would take to switch plates, and besides, they had men in trouble they needed to pick up along the highway. So, once they’d gotten their wounded warrior in the truck, and with the silent Montana night, no headlights coming at them from either direction, they’d gotten out a screwdriver and gone to work.
More Ziploc work, two baggies to each plate, and into the backpack they went.
Time to start back. Uphill all the way, and his leg wasn’t particularly happy with the concept. What the hell, he thought. Beats jungle rot. He’d probably not make more than two miles an hour on his way up the gully and then through the woods to reach his midnight requisitioned horse, but he’d be able to keep his word, and that would have to do. The mare would be unashamedly glad to see him.
The rancher lady who held his heart…well, he’d be there in time for breakfast, all right, but not before her alarm clock went off and she rose to start her day. She’d be worrying deep.
He’d best get moving.