“Mom,” I began, deciding to just lay it out there, “it’s like this. High Country Fence is suing Rodeo Iron for two point three mil, and Hardy Collins is behind it.”
She stopped in mid-stride at that, the steaming coffee pot in her right hand all but forgotten. “Damn,” she breathed softly.
We all stayed quiet for a bit while she recovered and poured. After returning the pot to the stove–she and Sim Bowles had no more use for Mr. Coffee machines than Jack and I did–the woman who birthed me joined us at the table, her dark elbows propped firmly on the red and white checkered table cloth while she blew on her coffee to cool it. Sim was out on 2:00 p.m. cow check; she and Jack Hill and I had the place to ourselves for at least another hour.
After two, maybe three minutes of silence, my mother fished her cell phone out of an apron pocket and punched a speed dial number. “Bobby,” she said when someone on the other end picked up, “this is Lou. My favorite booth tied up tonight, say around ten o’clock? You will? For little ol’ me? Thanks, my friend. There’ll be four of us.”
Without pause, she dialed again. The phone didn’t get answered as quickly this time, but it didn’t go to voice mail, either. “Jude, is Hardy still speaking at the Idaho Falls Tea Party meeting tonight? She is? Good. I’ve got a reservation for family plus Jack Hill at Bobby’s Baby Back Ribs, 10:00 o’clock, usual booth. Yeah. See you there.”
When she closed her old school flip phone with an audible snap and returned it to the apron pocket, we just cocked a couple of eyebrows at her.
“What?” She asked, innocent-like.
Jack Hill chuckled. “I’m mightily impressed, Lou. Seems a mite surprising B.J. can get away from his Queen of Hearts just like that, though.”
“Huh. Well, you may have a point at that. But when my brother hears his ex-cop sis call him by his given name, Jude, not B. J., he knows it’s serious. Not even true love of the mating sort will keep him from showing up.”
I knew that to be a fact. What I didn’t know was…”Mom, I know you and Collins are friends–”
“Hold on there, Tree.” Her voice had a sudden snap to it. Kind of reminded me of the way she used to sound when I’d get caught stealing stuff as a teenager. I shut up and listened. “Miss Hardesty Collins and I do go back a few years, but she just made a mistake. Not only with you. Not only is she messing with my son, but she has to be doing it behind my brother’s back. No way B.J. would tolerate this sh*t.”
What B. J. would tolerate for a woman might surprise his sister, I thought, but kept it to myself.
B.J. came through the door into Bobby’s back room a good 30 minutes late, so we had to order a second batch of ribs. Mom and I’d done our share of damage to the first order, but old Jack Hill had outdone us both. Despite having to cut the meat from the bones rather than use his nonexistent teeth, the ancient Protector could seriously down him some ribs.
“Tree. Jack.” The big man grinned to see us, and we responded in kind. He did look a bit worn around the edges, though. We sat for a while, let him wind down, get himself wrapped around some of Bobby’s specialty before talking business. The clock on the far wall said it was nearing eleven before I brought him up to date. My uncle didn’t seem all that surprised.
Although it was clear he was thinking.
“Well,” he said finally, “I gotta confess, I shoulda seen it coming. All the signs were there.”
We waited, expectant. B. J. wiped his lips with a napkin and got down to laying it out for us.
“Hardy, she’s…brilliant in some ways but, as I’ve been fnding out the hard way, she’s got…gaps.” He sighed, signaling the waitress. Four fingers up on one hand, two on the other: Four orders of the house dessert specialty, a cherry cobbler to beat all cherry cobblers, with scoops of vanilla ice cream on top.
“Gaps?” I asked quietly.
“Yeah.” He sighed, his huge body heaving in quiet distress. “Brain gaps. Now, you seen the way she dresses, how she presents herself. Like she’s got money, not to mention having life all figured out. Right?”
All three of us nodded, waiting for him to continue.
“Okay, so in some ways she does. But she’s been staking everything on this run at Mike Crapo’s U.S. Senate seat in 2016. Figured his DUI made him vulnerable. And maybe it might, for the right candidate, but she didn’t do her homework. Yeah, the man’s a drunk, but so are a lot of the perpetual politicians in D.C. And while she turned out to be right that associating with a six foot eight black man like me wouldn’t do her any harm despite Idaho’s Mormon constituency, she was dead wrong about her approach. Turned out the voters don’t appear to be one bit alarmed about Senator Mike’s boozing. As far as they’re concerned, he’s doing a great job for the home folks, and that’s all they care about.”
Jack rubbed his chin, pondering. “She’s having trouble with her fund raising.”
“You could say that. The GOP doesn’t figure on wasting its coin on a losing proposition, and despite being pretty well known in certain circles, Hardy doesn’t have squat for name recognition in the general low info voting population. Plus, her call us campaign never got off the ground at all. That is, she put, I dunno, maybe fifty thousand of her own dollars in those ads without getting much of anything back in return. Certainly no major donors or any supporters worth the powder to blow ’em to Hell.
“Then it turned out that’s about all she had. She tried hiding it from me, you know, but blinded as I can be by the woman’s charms–and trust me, behind closed doors, she does have some charms–our mama didn’t raise no fool. I started smelling trouble about a month back. Ain’t nobody but me and a couple of her bankers got wind of it yet, but my girl is maybe two hops from bankruptcy.”
He paused, letting us absorb that.
It was my mother who summed it up for all of us. “What you’re saying, brother, is that she’s hoping–stupidly hoping, but hoping–for a windfall? If the courts ruled in favor of HCF, wiped out Rodeo Iron, maybe seized its assets…”
“Better yet,” I added quietly, “would be for Rodeo Iron to cave. Meaning me. In her eyes, I’m what, a young punk? Twenty-six years of age, been lucky as a leprechaun so far, but what could I know, right? I get scared, settle for a lesser amount–not the two point three million, but, say, a hundred thousand? She persuades the HCF Board to crank that back to the shareholders, and her 51% chunks $51,000 back in her hip pocket. Not gonna happen, but–”
“You got it, Tree.” B. J. shook his massive head, sadness in his eyes. “Except I have to believe she’s thinking more like a quarter million in settlement. She’s been super smart in one way, never asked me to kick in a dime from the purchase payments you send me every month. But then again, I’ve never told her how much you’re shelling out, and I do keep my banking separate. My marvelously successful career with women taught me that much, at least.”
“Well, crap,” I commented with feeling, “now what?” I had an idea I knew the answer, but it wasn’t going to be pretty.
He sighed again, but there was a twinkle in his eye that hadn’t been there when he walked in. “Now, nephew, I get to kiss off one more love of my life. You’d think one of them pretty little lasses would know to honor a big, beautiful black man like your old uncle, wouldn’t you?”
“I would, B. J.,” I said, and I meant it.
“Okay. Tree, you don’t need to worry about that lawsuit. When I get done having a little chat with Hardy, she’ll see the light well enough. But here’s the rest of the deal. Hardy’s expecting me for breakfast in the morning. She’s off with a group of her true believers tonight, won’t be rolling in till then. That’ll give me time to pack the Hudson, but even that big old beast won’t hold everything I own. Now, I’ve got a hunch whatever I leave behind might just wind up hocked, or sent up in flames, or otherwise disappear. But–”
Jack interrupted. “B.J., you’ve never struck me as the sort of man to get caught with your pants down. Not twice, anyway,” he added, no doubt thinking back to the night Tania Overgood and her mama had emptied out the safe at the Trace ranch and left me and my uncle both in the lurch a couple of years back.
“You’re right, Hill; I ain’t. Got a little storage unit rented, just about fifteen miles from our place. I mean, Hardy’s place. But I could use a little help shoveling stuff into cars, shuttling back and forth, so’s I’m out of there clean and clear before sunup. Y’all up for pulling a graveyard shift?”
We all glanced at the clock. Eleven forty-seven. We were burning moonlight.
I got the check. On the way out, I sidled up to my uncle and asked the big question. “Coming back to Rodeo Iron?” I kind of hoped he didn’t want his share of the company back, but I had to ask.
“If you’ll have me, Tree.”
My eyebrows rose. “Why wouldn’t I? Of course you’re welcome!”
“That’s good to hear, kid.” He slapped a meaty hand down on my shoulder, nearly sending me to the ground. “But you’re the owner. I work for you. Maybe you could find me a sales position for a while? Get me out in Montana, maybe North Dakota, anywhere but Idaho? Gotta be a girl out there somewhere who’ll love me for my mind instead of fixating on my outstanding body, don’t you think?”
I busted out laughing. “First things first, uncle. Let’s get you out of Idaho in one piece, and then we can talk.”