Happy Bleeping Birthday to Me, Chapter 4: An Old Flame Burning

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Hiram Jacobson nearly didn’t make it. By the time we wheeled in through the massive gateway to the Nestossin ranch, I could hear his breath laboring, wheezing, death warmed over in the chill night air. In all fairness, I couldn’t have done what he did, pumping the pedals on that undersized bicycle with nothing more in my stomach than a pair of stale granola bars. Judging by his emaciated appearance, he’d likely not had anything else to eat for days.

But he made it, and that’s what counted.

“Hello the house!” I called out loud and clear, a bellow that could be heard for half a mile or more. Not that the ranch was unaware of our arrival; if there wasn’t a rifle or two with a night scope keeping each of us in the crosshairs, I’d eat my insulated work boots. It had been what, seven, eight years since I’d been here? The layout was still basically the same as it had been for more than two centuries, nine generations of Nestossins maintaining the square U that had stood the test of time against everything from marauding Utes in the late 1800’s to–I was willing to bet–an attempt by Dag Potter’s DSC thugs to raid Gwen’s larder.

Pretty much everybody in the county knew the DN Quarter Circle was rich, well stocked, worth having if it could be taken.

“If” being the operative word. Greener Nestossin, the original founder, had built the place for defense. The huge log structure that served as the main house loomed dead ahead, flanked on one side by the woodshed plus the bunkhouse. On the other side, nearly a full acre of truck garden, then the horse corral and finally the barn, big enough to stable two dozen saddle mounts and a double handful of cows who might be having trouble giving birth. The front doors of the buildings all faced inward, visible to each other and able to provide fire support in a gun battle. There were no back doors; the outside of the boxy U shape was one long stockade wall, Old West fort style.

The only concession to the modern era in the basic structural setup, so far as I knew, had been the use of creosote treated stockade posts to replace untreated timber as it rotted out.

“Identify,” came a disembodied voice from the shadows of the porch as we brought our bikes to a grateful halt.

Hiram’s wheezing made it a little hard to hear clearly, but I was pretty sure I recognized the speaker.

“Harrison Polson, Daniel, and a stray I picked up in town.” If that wasn’t Gwen’s second son, fifty-something year old Little Dan Nestossin himself, I’d just blown it big time.

“Harrison?” The rumbling bass evinced both pleasure and surprise. I’d gotten it right.

“One and the same. By the way, there’s a brockle faced cow in your east side calving pasture, looked like she was having a little trouble. Calf’s hung up halfway out.” I’d glassed the pasture with the night vision monocle during one of our rest stops. Spotting the distressed mother-to-be had been pure luck.

“Huh. Come on in,” he said, and we did, luxuriating in the heat radiating from the oversized woodstove, blinking against the light. The main kitchen was equipped with LED lighting; that was new. Must be solar panel power somewhere, supplying the juice.

“Old friend come to call, Mom,” Little Dan announced, “and he says there’s a calf to pull. Sounds like number 803, the one Gary spotted getting ready at six o’clock cow check.”

Little Dan, for those who don’t know the Nestossins, stood six foot four and weighed something like two-forty, every ounce of it muscle. He’d only been called “Little” because of being Big Dave’s son.

Gwen Nestossin nodded. Her son spun on his heel and headed back out. He’d likely grab one of the men from the bunkhouse and go give the critter a hand; pulling a calf was often a two man job, especially if the mother had to be herded to the barn first.

The old woman looked good. Really good. Five-eight, 150 pounds of rawhide and sinew with a leathery, weather cracked face framing gray blue eyes that could read the intentions of a wild animal, a cow, or a man with equal ease. Still ramrod erect, too; her body didn’t show the slightest hint of a dowager’s hump. Legend had it she could still work any two twenty year old cowboys into the ground and have enough left to go dancing after sunset.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one trying to prove otherwise.

She just nodded at me, her smile lighting up her face. There was real by God coffee on the stove; she got up and served the two of us without a second thought. Cream, too. No sugar, but then almost no one had any of that still lying around.

Her firstborn, Norman, pointed out the obvious. “Reckon these two could use a bite, Mom. I’ll warm up the stew.”

The stew turned out to be beef stew with potato chunks and carrots included, accompanied by a loaf of homemade bread and all the butter you could slather on. The DN Quarter Circle churned its own.

I enjoyed the feed immensely, but Hiram Jacobson fell onto it like a flock of vultures spotting road kill.

“Ain’t been much grain in his feed bag lately, eh?” Norman commented lightly enough, but the sympathy in his face was obvious. That, and the enjoyment we were all getting out of seeing the starving youngster gorge himself. We knew he didn’t mean to be rude; his body simply couldn’t help itself.

“Turns out if you’re unfortunate enough to live in Derringer these days,” I explained, “you’re not worth feeding if you’re not one of Potter’s flunkies.”

They’d heard about that. Norman, especially, seemed to have a keen interest in learning all he could about the goings on in Derringer. Which made sense; the lean 59 year old had a daughter whose husband had reportedly died from the stray tendrils of Quaglorin gas hitting the town. Since then, she’d hooked up with some fellow Nestossin didn’t find overly admirable, one of those who ran errands for Potter.

Norman Nestossin, I strongly suspected, would be a likely ally when it came time to bring Little Tin Tyrant Potter to justice. I couldn’t think of a better man to have at my side, or for that matter covering my back, than this man. Well…Marcus Grady, maybe. It would be a close call.

They didn’t push me. There’s a protocol to these things, rituals to be observed. Young Hiram didn’t know them, not really, but once he’d filled his belly–which took three huge helpings, all of which looked like it was actually going to stay down–he gradually came back to the world around him and sat back, enjoying his coffee and trying to stay awake.

He lost that battle. Norm and I got him back to the third room down the hallway on the right, tipped him into a bunk fully clothed, threw an old Army blanket over him, and returned to the kitchen.

For the next hour, we brought each other up to date. Gwen and Norman were keenly interested in every detail, delighted to hear that both Marcus Grady and I were not only in good health but kicking ass on a regular basis. On their side, they’d lost one man in a gunfight with rustlers in February, but the Derringer Gang had left three behind to provide food for the vultures, and there’d been no repeat of that attempt.

“We still have twenty-one hands on the place,” Gwen explained, “plus Norm and Dan and me. That’s not nearly enough to patrol the entire range, but we figure we’ll concentrate the herds from now on, keep them bunched up a bit, move them from pasture to pasture more often. More work for us, but we can keep a better eye on the livestock that way.”

“Makes sense,” I agreed.

“Rains?” Norm asked finally.

“Passed on the day before the Chinese hit the Springs,” I said. “Peaceful as could be, in my arms. Buried her where she wanted. I feel her sometimes, watching over me. And before you two die of curiosity, let me tell you, she lined me up a new girl before she went. Little blondie by the name of Tori Connors.”

“Liza’s niece?” Norm’s eyes rose in surprise.

“Uh-huh.”

Mirth danced in the man’s eyes. “She ain’t hardly old enough to know which end of a man is which, is she?”

Now, see, ranch people don’t razz each other like that unless they’re really close, and sometimes not even then. But I knew there was a sharp edge under Nestossin’s humor; he had a couple of granddaughters who weren’t much younger than Tori.

“Near as I can tell,” I replied with a straight face, “she’s pretty much got my ends figured out.”

Daniel came back in at that moment, stomping snow from his boots. The sky was clear overhead, but there was still plenty of the white stuff lying around. “Bull calf,” he announced, “seventy-three pounds.”

We all nodded in satisfaction at that. Gwen got out her tally book and entered the information, and I got around to the real purpose of my visit.

“I’d be interested in a couple of saddle horses–well, three, if you could spare them, now that I’ve got Hiram to consider.”

All three Nestossins looked thoughtful at that.

“For the high country, Harrison?” Gwen asked.

“High, low, and in between. Oh, and before somebody else brings it up, Tori and I seen the Spruce Ridge pack a few months ago. They were one short, just four of ’em, but it was them.”

“Where at?” Little Dan got his own coffee and poured refills for the rest of us before sitting down at the table. This was an important topic for the ranchers; they pretty much had a “shoot on sight” agreement with the wolves but refused to use traps. Didn’t have much use for trappers, either.

“Edge of the park at the head of Gray Rock Gulch.”

Norm sighed. “Well, if they stay that far back up in the timber, that’ll be a good thing.”

Nobody, I noticed, had said much about parting with any horses. Fortunately, Gwen spoke up and put me out of my misery. “We’re horse poor as usual, Harrison. The trick will be coming up with mounts that suit the three of you. Well, not you so much; you know your way around a bronc. But Tori and Hiram are both town kids to the core, right?”

“Right.” I sipped my coffee, feeling a great knot of tension in my gut let loose at long last. I’d been more worried about asking for horses in these times than I’d admitted, even to myself.

Dan looked awfully tired, but he was clearly thinking. “Dolly Parton could work for the girl, couldn’t she?” When his Mom nodded, he explained. “Dolly’s a stocky palomino mare, dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to working cattle, typical blonde all the way. But she’s okay on the trail, knows enough not to step in a gopher hole, and there ain’t a lick of buck in her. Six years old; she should have plenty of miles left.”

“And then,” he added thoughtfully, “for Hiram…Four Plant?”

“Four Plant?” Dolly Parton was a logical name, but Four Plant?

“Yeah,” Norm clarified, “he’s a smooth mouth bay gelding, a steady goer. We haven’t been using him lately due to his age, but he’ll give us a look when we pass him up in the horse corral sometimes, like he’s insulted that we don’t think he can do the job any more. Got his name from how he acts if a rider falls off, which we had a drunk hand do a time or two. He just plants all four feet, won’t budge an inch till the guy gets up off the ground and climbs back in the saddle. Couldn’t be a better beast for a total tenderfoot.”

Gwen twinkled at me. “That leaves you, Harrison. What would you like? A mighty steed with which to slay the dragon?”

“Oh no you don’t!” I laughed. “I’m way beyond the dragon slaying stage. Besides, the last time you mighty steeded me, that sorrel had to have been the reincarnation of the old Strawberry Roan himself!”

“Hey, you didn’t fall off and you didn’t pull leather.”

“Maybe not, but I wasn’t wearing chaps either, and my thighs were raw enough to pass for hamburger for weeks after that, I lost one rein–still not sure how I managed that–and that groin pull was one for the ages.”

Of course, that had been thirty-two years ago, when I’d been a youthful 88 years of age, not the mature 120 they saw before them now.

When they all got done laughing, they came up with not one but two critters. Moon, a tall black and white pinto gelding with a white crescent moon on his rump, and Tex. Tex was, of all things, a little brown range stud, green broke at the most and capable of being used as a pack horse but no more than that. He didn’t seem to mind carrying a pack saddle, but a rider on his back was treated like any other predator. Simply put, no cowboy in his right mind would ever want to go there, and if he did once, he wouldn’t do it again.

But the bronc had other qualities.

“He hates wolves,” Gwen explained. “If a wolf comes within a hundred yards of him or one of his mares, he starts watching it. Doesn’t make his move until he thinks he’s got a chance of closing the distance, and then he charges, you know the scream of a fighting stud, and he’s quick. Not afraid of a pack, either. You couldn’t ask for a better guardian for your horse herd than little Tex. Nine hundred pounds of dynamite, but not mean toward humans unless you try to ride him. Then all bets are off.”

That sounded good to me. Of course, I still had to negotiate payment for our new remuda.

The boys decided to rack out, leaving Gwen and me alone in the warm kitchen to work that part out. Wanting to look useful, I checked the firebox on the woodstove, stoked the coals a bit, and added a couple of chunks of wood. When I straightened and turned, the widow Nestossin was there, melting into my arms. We stood like that for a long time, listening to the crackle of the fresh wood in the stove and each other’s breathing, welded together as one.

When we finally stepped back, my hands on her arms, a twentieth century song lyric looked back at me. It took a second for the band’s name to surface. Alabama, that was it.

There’s an old flame burnin’ in your eyes
That tears can’t drown and make-up can’t disguise
Now that old flame might not be stronger
But it’s been burnin’ longer
Than any spark I might have started in your eyes.

Except, of course, I was the old flame in this case.

“He has your eyes,” she said.

“Yes,” I nodded, pleased. “Except they’re not hooded like mine. Which is probably a good thing, or the whole town would have figured it out.” Big Dave had stolen this girl from me when she was in her prime, the only certified Realtor in Derringer…and in the end the only woman I’d ever lost to another man after I thought for sure I’d staked my claim. It still stung a little, hard on the ego doncha know, but it helped to know his first son hadn’t really been his. Take that, Dead Dave!

We settled back down, resuming our seats, resting our elbows on the table, just reminiscing. “If you’d put those slave hooks of yours in me,” she smiled, “I never would have left you.”

“And we’re just having this conversation now? I wasn’t ready, Gwen. You know that. Still had a fair amount of sexual confusion to work through. That is, I wanted to, but I didn’t yet have the guts. Wasn’t sure it was really the right way to go.”

“What I figured. Okay, cowboy, about payment for the ponies.”

“Gold?” I had some with me, brought along for the purpose.

“Gold?” Her eyebrows rose. “We could do that, I suppose. Gold is always good. I had something a bit different in mind, though.”

I spread my hands. “Say on.”

“You still own the same two sections?”

“The ones you sold me when you were Realtor of the Year, yes. Never did add to that, but never let any of it go, either.”

“Good. Good. Well, here’s the deal. Have you been able to pull in the Randall Weaver show?”

“No…don’t believe I know that one.”

“Not surprising. We’ve got a humongous antenna out back of the barn, mounted on an eighty foot pine tree we trimmed up for the purpose. It’s an old school AM radio show. Weaver claims to have sources that give him a better overall picture of the war than anybody else, and I tend to believe him.”

“Okay-y-y….”

“According to Weaver, the Western Hemisphere is pretty much on its own.”

“Say what?”

“No, really. Seems the Russians developed and deployed a biological warfare agent against China, some sort of virus tailored to Asian DNA, kill rate something like 98 percent, airborne, infectious as Hell. Nobody has an accurate count for obvious reasons, but estimates are the Chinese lost between a billion and two billion citizens before they were able to figure the enemy out, let alone counter the virus and mount a counterattack.”

I thought about that for about half a second. “But they still had a bunch of billions of people left, and they’re not stupid. They made the Russians pay.”

“Seems so. The EMP pulse that nailed us? Our friends with the epicanthic folds were able to nail every square mile of Mother Russia with similar pulses. The entire Russian grid is down. During the winter, just about everywhere else on the planet that could mount a serious high tech defense got the same treatment. Except for China, Earth was gridless by the end of March.”

“Which means the Chinese are now the bosses of everybody?” I shuddered to think.

“It should have worked that way.” Gwen shook her head. “Except the political situation inside China dictated otherwise. With her armies deployed elsewhere, primarily in southern Russia and the western United States, internal dissidents decided it was time to rise up and smite their local tyrants…and there are apparently a lot of dissidents. Some of them are pretty tech savvy, too, and they’ve taken out China’s grid. Not via EMP, other methods, but no matter how they did it, it’s down. Or so Weaver says, anyway.”

“So….” I sat motionless for a minute or three, absorbing all this. None of what we’d heard had indicated our attackers were nearly that messed up in their home countries. “That leaves the Caliphate.”

“Yep. The Sharia Law boys are as solidly weird as ever, never sure whether killing us or killing each other is most important. Bottom line, none of the forces currently occupying these United States of America have any way home. They’re stuck here. There’s going to be a lot more killing before it all shakes out, but the new map of America the Beautiful is going to be…different when it’s all done.”

“I should say….”

“And even our own people are scrambling. Weaver claims he’s operating out of Casper, Wyoming, and there’s a new sovereign nation being proposed. They’re calling it Highland West. Near as I can tell, they’re proposing to pull together a chunk of territory that starts at the Continental Divide and runs east, parts of seven or eight states–if they can get approval from the surviving groups in the area.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “We still have federal forces in the field, right?”

“Yes. I’m pretty sure of that. There’s at least one sizeable Army in the East, one fighting somewhere up in the Dakotas–probably trying to hold the oil fields–and one hung up somewhere in northern Texas. Plus our Navy; that’s not dead yet, either, at least not quite. Air Force…I don’t think anybody has much of an air force left.”

“And President Brood still hasn’t surfaced?”

Gwen sighed. “That’s a matter of contention. There’s an audio recording out there now. We’ve heard it played several times. Have you?”

“No. Doesn’t mean much, though; you’ve got much longer range equipment than either Marcus or I do.”

“Well…I think it’s him. Could be an impersonator, but he sounds just like his whiny, arrogant, narcissistic self.”

Well, crap. If we had a President up and at ’em, or even up, we still had a government according to the U.S. Constitution. With a Commander in Chief, even such a sorry excuse for one as Brood had proven himself to be, and we had troops capable of functioning against the enemy….

“Dear Heart,” I observed, “it seems to me the Highland West people are committing treason.”

“Yep. If declaring the USA null and void by announcing a new nation ripped from its heartland isn’t treason, I don’t know what is. Certainly ought to be considered aiding and abetting the enemy and then some, considering the destruction of our Constitutional Republic would seem to be pretty much our opposition’s primary aim, whether we’re looking at the Russians or the Chinese or the jihadists.”

“Highland West has military, or at least paramilitary forces?”

“That hasn’t been stated yet, but I’m guessing.”

“And sooner or later, those forces will drop by, pointing weapons at our heads and inviting us to join up.”

“Again, that’s my guess.”

“So.” I looked at her soberly, having a pretty good idea where she was headed. “Your plan is?”

“First of all,” she pointed out, “from everything we’ve heard, Colorado’s state house as well as our County courthouse, they’ve both been destroyed completely. The Net is down, the grid is down.”

“Yeah?”

“Which means that when it comes to land ownership, occupation–especially if backed up by force–is going to be nine tenths of the law for a while. What we grab and hold–”

“–like the three miles of state owned wild mountain country between my place and the DN Quarter Circle’s northwest border,” I interrupted, “can probably be held for the foreseeable future. And if we form an alliance, not excluding a combat alliance if and when it should come to that, with the stated purpose of standing by the U.S. Constitution and defying any takeover by our Johnny-come-lately Wyoming friends, we’ll have a mountain base to be reckoned with.”

“See,” she smiled, “that’s why I always liked you. You’re not always the sharpest tool in the shed, but most of the time nobody has to draw you a blueprint.”

We were still talking when two o’clock cow check rolled around. I rode out with her to ease through the herds, looking for cows in trouble or newborn calves too weak to make it to their feet in the still chilly April night. Spirit was with us; we didn’t have to do anything other than take note of several healthy new babies that were on their feet and sucking mightily. We used our Maglites sparingly, though; once the ranch’s significant stock of D cell batteries was exhausted, getting replacements would be highly unlikely.

When we got back to the house, I decided it must be time to call it a night. We didn’t hug again; Gwen simply headed to her bedroom and I wandered down to join Hiram, ending up on a top bunk and marveling at the decibel level of the snores put out by the young man. Sounded like a chain saw running on bad gas with no muffler. Kept me awake long enough for one more thought to take root.

If the Nestossins and the Polson posse were going to strengthen our hand enough to be a real threat to any pushy takeover types from Wyoming, we were going to need to have the town of Derringer in our camp. Not just giving lip service, either; the townies would have to be really with us. Which meant bringing Dag Potter to justice, removing him from power. How we did that was going to be even more important than the fact that we did it. Simply executing the toad faced thug would be simple enough, even easy, but it would also be bad karma. Probably. It’s hard to be sure sometimes, but the Lords of Karma are generally pretty narrow minded about such things.

Pondering, I fell asleep to dream about sawmills. No clue why, unless it was the noise emanating from the bottom bunk.

Breakfast was pretty much all business, hotcakes and thick sliced bacon and milk to wash it all down before the entire crew got its ration of one mug of coffee each. I knew about half of the hands, ranging from sixty-something Braw Collins to the youngest Nestossin on the ranch. Cass Nestossin, at nineteen years of age the heir apparent and Little Dan’s only living grandson, stayed in the bunkhouse with the rest of the crew. By choice, I suspected; it would be less stressful during the wee hours for the young cowboy to slip back in with a bunch of uncaring, snoring workers than it would be to slide by his ever wakeful great grandmother in the main house.

Of course, he might have given up his girl chasing ways, but it wasn’t likely a mere Armageddon would have slowed him down that much. He’d sired his first out of wedlock child seven years ago when he was a barely pubescent twelve years of age. If there wasn’t a willing female out there somewhere even now…I’d believe that when the Chinese all joined the Caliphate and converted to Islam.

Gwen threw in the loan of enough tack to get us back to my place, worn but serviceable stuff, and after explaining to Hiram that mounting a horse worked better when you did so from the left side with your left boot in the stirrup, we were off with the rising sun.

“Japanese cowboys,” I remarked. Land of the Rising Sun, leaving the DN Quarter Circle with the rising sun, yee haw!

“Huh? What?”

“Nothing, Hiram. Nothing at all. Let’s boogie.” That was a relative term, of course; we boogied at a steady walk. The idea was to cross the frontage road when we got to it, taking a cross country route down in a wide loop around Derringer, coming back up at Grady’s Café from the south side. We’d be crossing land belonging to three ranches and one wannabe land developer who’d never gotten his project off the ground, but Nestossin intel had it that the ranchers were all dead–the Derringer Survival Committee aka Potter’s Thugs had picked them off one by one–and the developer lived down near Phoenix somewhere, most likely learning how to pray in Arabic by now. We shouldn’t have any trouble unless Potter’s boys were out and about, which wasn’t likely; that area had been picked clean months ago.

“Give Moon a little more slack,” I advised, turning in the saddle to observe the tenderfoot’s progress. I was humping Dolly Parton–uh, excuse me, Freudian slip there–riding Dolly Parton, the palomino intended for Tori, and leading Tex. The stud didn’t mind following the mare at all; in fact, he pretty much insisted on it. However, he wasn’t about to let any mere gelding travel in front of him, so young Jacobson rode Four Plant and led my pinto gelding.

It was never easy for me to watch a total newcomer to the saddle learn the ropes when he had to deal with more than one horse at a time. Gave me butterflies in the gut. It was going to be a long day.

Still, the sky was about as blue as a sky can get, the sun was warming things up nicely, and I still had the gold I’d thought to part with at the ranch. Quitcher bitchin’, Polson, I reminded myself, and get to figuring out a plan. Gwen and I agreed we needed to remove Dag Potter from power in Derringer and replace him with a magical fairy wand system of folks willing to stand and deliver for the U.S. Constitution, but we hadn’t yet come up with a clue regarding how, exactly, to do that. Pedaling a bicycle was hard work; riding a horse was not. Unless you were new to the game like Hiram back there, of course.

Bottom line, I’d always gotten my best brainstorms while traveling. So, what did we need, really, to get the job done? A few things were obvious.

–Grab Potter, convict him of his crimes, and ship him off somewhere else without killing him. He was too rotten an apple to leave in the Derringer barrel, but casual executions could and probably would backfire. Ship him to where? No clue.

–Ditto for the worst of his henchmen.

–Turn a blind eye to those not feared or hated by the rest of the town. We’d need every citizen we could convert to form an effective militia.

–Need the right person in charge long term, running the town, but who? Indeed, who? Whoever wasn’t actively backing Potter at the moment was still groveling, hiding, keeping a low profile. We’d need a man with courage–had to be a man, for these times. Where to find one?

The time passed swiftly, at least for me. It was nearing noon when I finally called a halt, allowing the horses a few minutes to graze some of the brand new spring grass while Hiram wolfed down two huge meatloaf sandwiches. Gwen had made sure the emaciated man’s saddlebags were stuffed with goodies before we left; she didn’t want the fellow starving on her account.

He was already looking better by far than he had when he’d come pumping out of that alley just yesterday, but he had a long way to go. His natural weight was probably somewhere around one-eighty. How long does it take a mostly starved young American male to rebound from a sixty pound deficit?

The guy was a quick study, though. I showed him just how much to snug his cinch back up, but he climbed back in the saddle like he knew what he was doing. No whiner, either; he hadn’t complained once about either the grueling bike run he’d done or what had to be rapidly stiffening joints from getting acquainted with saddle leather for the first time in his life.

We’d just crossed Nestossin Creek for the third time and were battling up a fairly steep little grade that was getting mud-slick with the warming temperature, when I heard it. “Whoa!” We pulled up, Tex sort of accidentally bumping his nose into Dolly’s rear end. It wouldn’t be practical to turn around and head back down this slick slope, but I couldn’t see over the top of the rise yet; we had about as much cover as we were going to get.

The sound was unmistakable. A small plane, single engine. The noise grew rapidly louder…and then the machine burst into view, flying low, treetop level almost, a flash of red and yellow colors as it buzzed right over our heads.

Tex went nuts. The little stud was bucking, trying to pull my arm out of its socket, yanking on his lead rope and coming within a frog’s hair of zipping me sideways out of the old A-fork saddle. Dolly wasn’t much help, either, proving her true blonde nature with a vengeance, just looking around and pretty much forgetting what neck reining was all about. The only saving grace was Hiram’s gelding; Four Plant stood rock steady, true to his name, and his calm demeanor seemed to communicate itself to Moon as well.

Not that I had time to pay much attention to them. There was a flash impression of Hiram hanging onto Moon’s lead rope, both man and horse about as wall-eyed as they could possibly get but frozen in position, and then I was too busy to consider them at all. I had to get Dolly turned, and finally did, but she started sliding down the grade toward the others just from the pressure applied by the panicked stallion.

From there, it went to a sort of good news, bad news situation. Just when I thought Tex might be slowing down a little, he found a new burst of head-throwing, pull-back energy that sure enough did yank me clear of the saddle.

Oh, that’s bad news.

No, ’cause I still had hold of Tex’s lead rope, which meant the only likely runaway in the bunch wasn’t going very far just yet.

Oh, that’s good news.

No, ’cause I landed in the mud hard enough to crack a few ribs and slid down the grade like any damn fool cowboy that don’t know when to let go of the damn rope.

Oh, that’s bad news.

No, ’cause Tex only made another couple steps back when he come up against Four Plant. The gelding didn’t budge, mud or no mud, but the stud slipped and fell smack dab on his side, meaning I had time to haul myself to my feet and get set before he made it back to his feet.

Oh, that’s good news.

No, ’cause the side the horse fell on had Marcus Grady’s mountain bike strapped to it, and between the angle of impact and the weight of the horse, the front fork was bent clean out of shape.

Oh, that’s bad news.

No, ’cause the bone headed horse didn’t get his ribs gouged by any of the metal on the bike.

Oh, that’s good news.

Well…yeah, I guess that was good news at that. Besides, my heavy gun-coat was rolled and strapped on behind Dolly’s saddle, so none of my weaponry had gotten damaged, nor had it been there for me to land on and bust myself up even further.

Hiram clearly didn’t know what to do, try to get off and help me, stay where he was, shit or go blind. He stared at the apparition in front of him, and sure enough I must have been a sight. From the way things felt, there had to be two, maybe three ribs cracked. One might be broke plumb in two; I was pretty sure I could feel one shifting in its sheath when I breathed–shallowly, I assure you. Deep breathing was going to be out of the question for a while. I’d have gritted my teeth if I’d had any teeth. Might have punctured a lung, but probably not; there weren’t any obvious rocks or other sharp protrusions from the ground where I’d landed. In other words, nothing to push a busted rib inward.

Which was a good thing. Silver lining and all that crap.

But pain or no pain, I had to project calm reassurance, both for the wall-eyed stud and for the terrified kid. Okay, so age 29 isn’t really a kid, but when you’re 120 years of age with a fresh batch of stove up ribs, he sure looked like a kid. Scared Daddy got hurt bad. I was his rescuing authority figure. Hell, he probably couldn’t even find his way out of these rolling foothills to make it to Grady’s place without me; they didn’t teach dead reckoning in public schools these days, as least not that I knew of.

Between saying soothing things to Tex and easing the stud back up the slick slope to get hold of Dolly’s reins before she decided to bolt, I tossed my travel partner a wry half-grin. “Welcome to the wonderful world of the horse.”

“Huh,” he snorted, and I knew I’d done right by bringing him along. He’d do. It’d take time to season the kid, true enough, but he’d do.

I didn’t feel like risking another launch from the saddle on this kind of ground, so I just tied Tex’s lead rope off to Dolly’s tail and then led the mare on up over the top. The stud seemed to think that was an okay way to go.

Fortunately, there shouldn’t be any more terrain as tricky as that between here and Grady’s. If another plane buzzed us, though, I wouldn’t want Tex tied hard and fast to Dolly’s tail. I’d lead him with the rope in my hand just like before, and if he spooked again, he could head for Montana for all I cared.

He seemed to have gotten all the spook knocked out of him for the time being, though. Would have been nice if he’d done that earlier, before I wound up keeping my elbow tucked in to minimize the rib pain.

Hiram finally worked up the nerve to ask, “What kind of plane was that, Harrison? Do you know? I’ve sure never seen one like it.”

“Not even in books? Or history films?”

“Not that I can recall, no.”

“That was what’s called a biplane, son, because of the wing above the cockpit and another wing below the cockpit. They haven’t made those since the early part of the twentieth century.”

“Really? Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow. Somebody got hold of an old museum piece somewhere, made the thing fly again–hey, what’s that?”

He’d seen them at the same instant, hundreds of somethings scattered across the field of melting snow.

“Hiram?”

“Yeah?”

“Do me a favor. Step down and grab me one of those, would you? I don’t much feel like climbing up and down at the moment.”

He complied. Picked up several of them, in fact, each one a large Ziploc baggie containing several folded sheets of paper. I scanned the pages, let out a long, low whistle, and said, “So this is what that biplane was doing. Don’t know why he dumped a batch out here in the open, but…gather up a few more and let’s ride. Marcus Grady needs to see these if he hasn’t already.” Which he probably had; the biplane hadn’t been coming directly from the café, but close enough.

The ribs were no fun, but they didn’t get any worse as we traveled. I didn’t vomit from the pain, so things couldn’t be registering more than a seven or eight on the discomfort scale. Didn’t pass out, didn’t have any near death out of body experiences, none of that. It was all good, just another day in the life of a horseman.

Or so I told myself. I can rationalize pretty much anything when I have it to do.

We had maybe an hour left before sunset when we rode up to the café. To say they were glad to see us would be an understatement, but I had to tell my bright-eyed Tori, “No hugging, honey. I know you love a guy caked in half-dried mud from head to toe, but there are a few ribs less than enthusiastic about the idea.”

I didn’t dare relax until we’d put the horses up in the old Cranston horse pasture; Marcus Grady was one helluva hand, but he didn’t know one end of an equine from the other. Tex looked honestly ashamed of himself, letting me curry comb the mud out where needed–which wasn’t as much as I’d thought, the pack saddle and gear having taken most of the hit. When it came to being purely dirty, I won the championship hands down.

Grady did take care of the cargo, though, shaking his head when he looked at his twisted mountain bike but grinning ear to ear when he realized Gwen had sent along a full twenty pounds of butter, ten pounds of cheese–Nestossins made their own cheese, too–and two oversized hams. The hams were courtesy of Old Yarbrough, the crusty fellow who single handedly ran the ranch’s hog farm operation in a little hidden hollow a quarter mile from the main buildings.

Few remembered which Nestossin had set things up that way, but everyone understood the advantage of having your hog operation some distance downwind from everything else.

Marcus insisted on me taking a good hot soak in his tub before we did anything else. I didn’t fight him on that; with the warmth and safety of the café at hand, there wasn’t much I wanted to do but relax and maybe, you know, die quietly. Once I’d gotten cleaned up, he came in and checked me out as only a man who’d once been a combat medic can do.

“I’d say you called it about right,” he said after probing enough to get me to wince a little on the outside and cuss him thoroughly on the inside. “One clear break, at least two more cracked, but nothing life threatening. Want ’em wrapped up?”

“No.” I shook my head. “My experience with ribs is they’re best left alone. If you can’t control your breathing and the way you move, or if there’s no choice but to do some heavy lifting, then yeah, wrap ’em. Otherwise, no. Besides, neither one of us has got an inexhaustible supply of tape. Better save it for when we really need it.”

He nodded, and we got down to discussing the flyers dropped by the biplane. In open meeting we did, figuring that since everybody in Marcus’s little refugee group had already read the things anyway, there was no point in going all hush-hush.

We all settled around the tables in the dining room. Skinny Holly Warburton, Tori’s former classmate, was starting to fill out a bit; with Marcus feeding her, she’d upgraded to merely thin instead of skeletal. She’d also immediately latched onto Hiram Jacobson, which seemed like it should be telling me something, but I couldn’t put my finger on just what that something might be.

No matter; it would come to me.

Had I been in my usual form, I’d have read the flyer out loud to everyone before opening the floor to discussion. With the shape I was in, I abdicated, enjoying having Tori snuggled up against my good side and letting Marcus do the honors.

“Well, folks,” he began as the rays of the setting sun threw long shadows across the floor, “what we have here is an attempt to set up a new nation.”

Know Ye Citizens of America the Beautiful

Wherefore
it has become clear to all that the Eastern United States no longer exists as such but has been destroyed by war and its remains occupied by Russian military forces, and

Wherefore it has become clear that the far Western United States no longer exists as such but has been destroyed by war and its remains occupied by Chinese military forces, and

Wherefore it has become clear that the Southwestern United States no longer exists as such but has been destroyed by war and its remains occupied by Islamic Extremist military forces,

Therefore it behooves those of us in the remaining Free States to form a New Nation Under God in order to Preserve the Union for all.

Resolved: That the New Nation shall be called Highland West.

Resolved: That the capitol of Highland West shall be located initially at Casper, Wyoming, subject to later change should the citizenry of Highland West so choose.

Resolved: That there shall convene on October 1, 2121, in Casper, Wyoming, Representatives of communities throughout Highland West, constituting a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of drafting a Constitution.

Resolved. That once the government of Highland West is formalized and organized, its primary purposes shall be twofold: To defend its Citizens from the Encroachments of America’s enemies on any and all fronts by whatever means necessary, and to Reclaim the territory currently occupied by the Russians, the Chinese, and the Islamists respectively.

There was more, including a map that made it clear Derringer was very much included whether we liked it or not, but you get the point.

Discussion extended through the supper hour and well into the night. Not that we missed out; Marcus whipped up a ham and bean soup that was hearty enough to keep us shooting the bull and passing gas with unending vigor.

Disappointingly, though it was no real surprise, several of the refugees were initially in favor of the Highland West proposal. Marcus and I waited a while before we disabused them, mostly so we could get a reading on who had brains and insight and who didn’t.

To my everlasting relief, Hiram Jacobson turned out to be one who did. In fact, after he’d downed I don’t know how many bowls of Marcus’s soup, he began waxing plumb eloquent. He hadn’t said a word until then, but when he did, it was magnificent.

“Some of you don’t get it,” he said. That got everyone’s attention. Silent Hiram could actually talk? He had an opinion? “There are holes in this Highland West bag of bolts big enough to drive a coal train through. For one thing, who are these people? For another, what are they using for brains, the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz? Did you notice how poorly that was worded? That they don’t say anything about liberty? That they don’t even acknowledge the very real possibility that, injured as it is, the United States of America may still be a functioning entity? We don’t know what’s going on in the far corners of our country because we no longer have instantaneous worldwide media coverage via satellite. People, this Highland West could be a complete fake. It could be a coup, a maneuver designed to eliminate the government, not replace a government that has already disintegrated. We know Washington was nuked, but how many of you realize Congress was not in session when that happened? They were expected to be in session, but they’d wound up business earlier than expected and recessed a few hours before the bomb hit D.C. Most of them were probably already out of town by the time the shit hit the fan. Which means the Speaker of the House may well be very much alive, and he takes over the Presidency if both the President and Vice President are killed. Plus, President Brood hasn’t even been confirmed dead, and the Vice President was in the hospital in his home town of Detroit, getting a hernia repaired, when the bang went boom. So this,” he held up one of the flyers, shaking it at his listeners, passion blazing from his eyes, “is at best premature and at worst…treason.”

Wow. Still waters apparently do run deep.

Hiram had them going now. I signaled to Marcus, left Tor sitting by herself for a bit, and retreated to our host’s bedroom where we wouldn’t be overheard. He closed the door, cutting off the buzz of excited conversation in the dining room, and we got down to it.

“My friend,” I smiled, “Gwen Nestossin and I talked last night about this whole Highland West thing. There’s a Randall Weaver radio show that’s been talking about it. Gwen and I came to exactly the same conclusion young Hiram did…but we did not talk to him about it, not even one little bit.”

“Inteesting,” Grady observed, his dark eyes gleaming. “Very interesting indeed.”

I brought him up to date, explaining how Gwen and I’d also concluded that we needed to be ready for Highland West enforcers when they got here and that we also needed to have Derringer cleaned up and firmly with us when push came to shove. Then I explained how Hiram’s speech had provided the trigger that had exploded the full blown plan into my conscious awareness.

“Hiram’s the man for the job,” I pointed out. “We need him to run what’s left of the town. Once we get rid of the trash element, of course. There aren’t many left, fewer than two hundred out of the original 750 population, but it’s a start. And I’ve got to ask a huge favor of you, old friend.”

He just looked at me, impassive, waiting.

“I need to leave him here with you for his, shall we say, early education. You’ve already got a bunch of Derringer refugees, people he knows, people who know him. Holly has already got a crush big enough to smother an elephant, and we both know a man will go to the ends of the Earth to look good in front of a girl who already idolizes him.”

Then I told him the rest of my plan, the details of the devious machinations I had in mind, and he started laughing. Oh, it took him a while; he had to wait until I’d thrown enough paint on the wall for him to get the full picture, but when he did, he fell off the bed in sheer hysterics, landing with a thump that quieted the conversation in the dining room for a moment as they all wondered what on Earth we two men were doing in the bedroom.

He gathered himself back up, wiping tears from his eyes. “Can’t say I’m 100 percent convinced it’ll work,” he admitted. “It’s a complicated devil of a scheme, darn sure the opposite of Keep It Simple, Stupid. But whether it plays out right or not, it’ll be one helluva show.”

“Hey,” I grinned, extending my hand, “the show must go on.” I had to be on the right track; my ribs were hardly even hurting…much.

He shook his head, shook my hand, and we went back out to start the ball rolling.

6 thoughts on “Happy Bleeping Birthday to Me, Chapter 4: An Old Flame Burning

  1. Hiram appears to be an example of the old saying “Still waters run deep”. That said, this was a good chapter. I do not know how you are going to keep all of the stories you have going straight. They are all good and worth continuing.

  2. Thanks; glad you liked it. Keeping the stories straight won’t be a problem; I live in them to the extent that it’s not much different from, say, keeping one city or state straight from another. Finding the time to write on all of them, however, is another matter entirely. I remember Paul Twitchell, who was the Living ECK Master from 1965-1971, was said to write so extensively that he usually had four different manuscripts going in four different typewriters (this being before the computer age, of course). I might be able to do something like that if I had NOTHING ELSE to do, but as it stands….:)

    I do intend to complete them all, though…someday.

  3. Excellent story, Ghost. thank you for combining the spiritual and adventure aspects. I hope you don’t take too long to finish the next chapter… the novel? I was also wondering if you had published your books as ebooks… 🙂

  4. Manny, by the numbers:

    1. Thanks for commenting.

    2. Glad to hear you enjoyed the story. (And I can’t avoid combining the spiritual and adventure aspects, since that’s pretty much my nonfiction life anyway.:))

    3. I’m working on Chapter 5. Lots of offline stuff on my plate, but that chapter should be published before too long. The novel…my novels are currently all targeted at 120 chapters, nothing small about them, so it could take a while.

    4. No, I haven’t published my books as e-books, but I do have plans in the works to begin “traditional” publishing sometime in 2015. Hoped to begin working on that right after the first of the year, but got blindsided by a couple of brushfires that have to be handled. Anyway, the first will be the western fiction novel titled Tam the Tall Tale Teller, which is also available (in full) on this site at this time. (In the Western Fiction Index.)

    5. They Walk Among Us will probably follow next. 88 chapters of that are done so far.

    6. When I do publish (not counting a few books from distant years past), there will be trade paperbacks available through shopping carts (and ads, of course) on this site. They’ll also be available on Amazon, including Kindle, so there’s your e-book answer.

  5. thanks, Ghost, for your “by the numbers” reply, and for the sample of how Chapter 5 is going (which is excellent!).
    As for the Kindle ebooks, I’m all for it, since they pay well (better than traditional publishing).
    I will continue reading more of your stuff, since I’m thoroughly enjoying it, as I’m also rereading Ptolia Book 1. 🙂

  6. Thanks, Manny. Just FYI: Ptolia Book 1 was eventually followed with Dwagelia Rises (Book 2), which isn’t easy to find (although I’ve seen it pop up on an occasional Internet search). The Ptolia series was originally planned as a trilogy, but for whatever reason, I’ve always found myself blocked on that one.

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