We rolled on through Iowa and, falling into familiar habits, considered grabbing a motel room in Sioux Falls. However, that made no sense; we hit that area fairly early in the morning, when people were leaving their rooms, not checking in. So we said to heck with it, made our fuel and meal stops and changed drivers–between Jack and me only, not the kid–and ran all the way through to Belfield, North Dakota.
Our people there weren’t that open to taking on young Morrison Weathers after we gave them the updated version: Nice enough guy, strong as an ox, but dumb as a box of rocks when it came to rough and tumble politics and the need to lie every now and again with a straight face. They didn’t want to risk irritating me, though, so one of the welders who’d worked the oil patch before coming to work at Rodeo Iron made a call. Yes, the man camp near Watford City could use another hand; they were willing to teach him the ropes if he was willing to pay attention to instruction.
No problem there. The kid didn’t have any problem following directions.
“Word is,” I told him, “there are fifteen to twenty black men working on various crews in that area. You may feel like a licorice drop in a snowstorm for a while, but you won’t be the only one. And oil workers are good people overall, pay less attention to color than to whether or not you pull your weight.”
The welder would be given tomorrow off to drive Morrison up to Watford City and introduce him to his new boss. We dumped the kid, took a couple of hours to gas up the Pontiac and hold a bit of a business meeting at the Trapper’s Kettle Restaurant, and headed west.
Rodeo Iron franchise excepted, neither Hill nor I had lost anything in North Dakota.
Morrison had promised to call his Dad right away, but we didn’t trust that. Jack pulled out his cell phone, let Lawrence Weathers know the scoop–that his boy would be serving three hots to dozens of men working on the oil rigs, at least for a while–and hung up grinning.
“What?” I asked.
“Lawrence says thanks. He also says that kid never would touch a pan when he was living at home. He figures the experience will be good for him, one way or another.”
“Reckon it will. Unless he goes girl crazy. Not a lot of good looking women hanging around the man camps. Or, for that matter, the oil patch in general.”
We’d called home a couple of times, but I put in one more to Sissy anyway.
“Hey, cowboy.” Her rich, deep voice rolled through my consciousness, soothing and exciting me simultaneously as it often did. I was willing to bet she had what they call a contralto singing voice, but I’d never been able to catch her belting out a tune. Not even in the shower. “I’m putting it on speaker phone so Judi can hear.”
“How’s things at home, babes?”
“All quiet on the western front. We’re just sitting here watching White Collar Brawlers on TV. Two girls just got done duking it out; the smaller of the two whupped her opponent with a TKO in the second round.”
“Luck or skill?” I had to ask. That show had lately become our favorite whenever we could catch it. Some of the fighters, none of whom knew a thing about boxing before training ten weeks with the pros, wind up facing each other in the ring and looking surprisingly good. Others end up looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy could take ’em. Our five foot three, 115 pound Judi could definitely knock out more than half of the show’s contestants.
Of course, she’d had Sissy and me helping her learn all sorts of dirty tricks whenever we could squeeze in the time. It’s probably not a fair comparison, her ongoing instruction from a couple of hardened street fighters like us versus out of shape office workers signing up to climb in the ring because they were irritated with each other at work. All of us purely loved our work, loved each other.
Yeah. Definitely not a fair comparison.
“Skill all the way,” Sissy opined. “She was half again as fast as the girl she took out, she threw straighter punches, and she was just naturally slick.”
“As fast as Judi?”
“Almost. Give that one a year’s full time training, she and Jude would be a great match.”
Judi cut in. “No way! That little bitch ain’t got my killer instinct, Tree!”
Jack and I both started laughing. I had my hands free setup going, so he heard everything I did.
“Hit her with a breakfast plate, Judi!” Jack couldn’t resist. He was referring, of course, to the time her miserable ex had winged her with a .41 Magnum, a split second before Jack and I sent the bastard bye-bye with a pair of .22 long rifle rounds in the head. She’d thrown a tray of food at him as he was raising his pistol. None of the food had reached him, but the flying distraction had undoubtedly thrown off his aim and saved her life until we could get around to finishing the job.
We were all laughing then.
A few moments later, not so much. “We did see something, Tree. Just back of the shop. I came across them during my final security rounds before we left for the day. Told Jennifer and Horace. The old tracker said not to worry; he’d work the trail a bit, see what he could learn.”
“Work what trail?”
“Oh. Sorry. I came across some tracks I couldn’t identify. Couldn’t make out a clear print, even in what snow was left. It’s been melting here today, though; Horace might come up with a place the…whatever it was…crossed a muddy spot or something.”
“Well, like I said, the edges weren’t clear enough for me to swear to much, except that there was a center part bigger than the palm of your hand, shaped kind of like a roundy-curved T, and then several…they could have been toes, or claws, or Hell, fingertips for all I know. One was a lot longer than the others, though whether that was in front or in back I don’t have a clue. All I know for sure, Tree, is nobody I know has ever seen anything quite like it. Unless maybe Jack has; he’s been around longer than anybody else.”
“No, Sissy,” Jack cut in, “can’t say as that sounds familiar. Caught glimpses of a few things in the southern swamps while I was healing up after a major shootout one time in the 1870’s, but never got a look at their footsies. Tracking through alligator and cottonmouth country is a loser’s proposition, anyway.”
“Tell you what, girls,” I said, “from the chills running down my back, I’m thinking it’d be a real good idea if everybody makes sure they’ve got a fairly stout shooter close at hand, at least until we hear what Horace has to say. We’re sure as Hell not alone in this Universe, so the possibility of it being something extraterrestrial is certainly not out of the question. Likewise, there isn’t a wilderness anywhere that doesn’t harbor a creature or two that’s yet to be discovered by humans. What with us living right next to the Bob Marshall….”
“Makes sense to us fwagile widdle females, hon. We’ve been meaning to clean the .44 Magnum carbines, anyway. Wayne and Carolyn are always loaded for bear when Jack’s gone, and Jennifer’s got Horace on the job, so I think we’re covered, at least till you two get here. ETA?”
“Midmorning. Should be able to make an ownership meeting in Jennifer’s kitchen by 10:00 if she’d be willing to move up the date up a day.”
“Oh, that’s right; you guys were scheduled for Sunday. Okay, I’ll give her a ring, see if she has any conflict for tomorrow morning instead.”
With that, we said our so longs and hung up. Jack and I didn’t bother to look at each other as the Grand Prix powered on toward Billings, but both of us were pondering. For a while, that is. In the end, I broke first.
“What do you think, Jack?”
“Not sure what to think,” he replied. “The sort of rounded T she described could fit some mountain lions if she was looking at it back to front, but Sissy’s no rookie at reading cat tracks, and even if it was a coug, that’s be a damn big one. Plus, whether the rest of the track was from claws or toes, having a single center digit that’s dramatically longer than the others…either we’ve got a giant mutant mountain lion with a weird center claw, or maybe toe…or our visitor is truly a citizen of the great unknown at this point.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “That’s about how I was reading it. Then there’s the question of the time of day. Sissy said she spotted the track on her final security rounds. I forgot to ask if she’d taken that precise route earlier.”
“You mean, did she miss it, or was it put down fresh during broad daylight?”
“Yeah. But I’m going with fresh. Sissy doesn’t miss much, no matter when or where she makes her rounds.”
“True that.” Jack turned to grab a pillow from the back and reclined his seat. “Wake me at Billings.”
“Will do,” I replied, but my mind was already home, circling the information Sissy had imparted, trying to figure out what on Earth was coming at us now.
The sun was up by the time we stumbled wearily into the 4B’s Restaurant at 8:00 a.m., ordering a pair of sirloin steaks to go with our waffles and a gallon of coffee. The waitress wasn’t impressed, but she did stop back by to top off our mugs on a regular basis.
I’d had my head up my heinie, telling the girls we could make it for a 10:00 o’clock meeting. Luckily, the roads had stayed bare and dry, and the Pontiac’s fuzz busters had kept the Highway Patrol off of us for most of the way, but Jack had gotten nailed coming over Pipestone Pass. We were double-fortunate the curves had kept down our speed so that his ticket only clocked him at 88. We’d just cleared the 65 mph limit area when the lights started flashing. Fricking speed trap.
Most of the time, we’d been hitting closer to 100, all through the night. Had a deer gotten in the way, we wouldn’t have hit it; we’d have gone through the critter.
Jack had shrugged it off, sort of. “It is what it is, Tree. Seem like I average one ticket every ten years or so, come Hell or high water. So look on the bright side; we’re close enough to home that nobody’s going to think twice about that ticket if they happen to pull up my driving record for some reason, we covered enough ground in a hurry to make the morning meeting at the ranch possible, and I’m as curious about what Horace has to say as you are. Besides, my inner guidance did tap me at the top of the pass; it was my own damn fault for not listening.”
I didn’t bother to tell him how relieved I was that it was him who’d gotten the ticket, not me.
Anyway, all refreshed and raring to go, we left Deer Lodge on a high lope and sure enough pulled up in front of the Trace Ranch main house right on time. Almost. We were three minutes late.
Nobody bitched at us for our tardiness, so that was good. Jennifer had the cook dismissed and brunch laid out, ready to go. Not that we were hungry after eating at Deer Lodge, but hey, there’s always room for a cinnamon roll hot from the oven. Or two.
The girls weren’t there, but Sissy had stopped by earlier, dropping off my Winchester .25-06 and a stainless steel barreled rifle of Jack’s that I didn’t recognized. Turned out to be a Remington 7mm Mag. She’d reasoned that if I wanted everybody packing serious heat until we identified the being making those odd tracks, that applied to Jack and me, too.
Good thinking on her part.
We were all settled in around the big kitchen table before Horace arrived, favoring his bad leg a little. The titanium pins didn’t do him any favors during the winter months.
Nobody said anything until the old tracker had a mug of hot coffee steaming in front of him, but he passed on brunch. “Grabbed a bite before I went out again this morning to see what I could see,” he explained.
“I kind of want to get right to it. First of all, y’all take a gander at this.” He fished in his shoulder bag, a leather pouch he sometimes carried when he had papers he wanted to protect, and hauled out copies of a single sheet, passing them around the table. His leg might be talking a little, but his movements were crisp and sure. Nothing got Horace Tamblyn’s juices flowing like a tracking mystery.
Nothing except the widow Trace, that is, and nobody was going there. None of our business, whether or not those two had finally hooked up or not.
“This sketch,” he explained, “is one of a track I found in half-frozen mud about halfway between the shop and the tree line.” He paused, sipping his coffee while we all studied the drawing. “As you can tell, Sissy was dead right; this ain’t like nothing we’ve ever seen before, at least not that I’d heard of. Look familiar to anybody?”
He knew it didn’t, of course.
“As you can see,” he stated, “the center pug–I’m calling it that for lack of a better word at the moment–is a little like an oversized cougar if the cat traveled ass-backward, though it would have to be a five hundred pound cat at that. But the claws are, as Sissy first noticed, like nothing I’ve ever seen or even heard of. We got lucky in a sense; yesterday’s tracking conditions were just about perfect, and this morning’s ain’t bad either. In every print I could find that I knew was a full print, it was the same, three claws forward with the center claw much longer than the flanking claws, and a similar but much shorter version of the same thing going to the rear from the back of the foot.”
I held up a hand like a school kid. “Horace, this makes me think of, um, like if maybe you had some science fiction version of a hybrid, a cross between a massive cat and some sort of…bird?”
The old tracker nodded. “I had that thought, too. Until or unless we get a look at this thing, we’re shooting in the dark, but that’s kind of the image I’m getting. Except I’m not exactly a hundred percent dead certain that those claws, or talons if you will, to use the bird analogy, are exactly what they seem to be, either. I’d swear they operate more like flexible fingers with claw tips; they don’t always land with exactly the same angle or conformation from step to step
“But that ain’t all of it. I tracked till full dark last night. Didn’t go beyond that, seeing as how meeting up with whatever this is when I couldn’t see beyond the tip of my nose didn’t strike me as the most sensible of ideas, but I thought over what I’d discovered for most of the night. At first light, I was back at it. There was something nagging at me, and this morning I was able to figure out what it was. There’s no doubt, zero, none whatsoever, that this beastie is four footed…but it’s like no quadruped known to man. For one thing, there’s no difference between the front feet and the hind feet. In fact, I’m coming to believe there might not be any front or back or left or right to this thing at all. Each foot is pretty much identical to the other three…and it doesn’t move two front, two back. What it does is travel in a diamond pattern.”
“Huh?” Jennifer’s blank stare said it for all of us.
“A diamond pattern. Near as I can determine, there’s one forward foot with flanking in the middle and then one trailing foot. When it moves, the back foot lands exactly in the print the lead foot just vacated, too. And when it changes direction, any foot can become the lead foot, just like that. Which I figured out no more than an hour ago. I labeled that first sketch wrong ’cause I didn’t know any better; there’s no such thing as a right rear foot. There’s a single center rear foot and a right outrigger foot, also a left outrigger, but they can swivel and change designations instantly.”
It was old Jack Hill’s turn to raise his hand. “Horace, I hate to say it, but you’ve plumb lost me.”
“I’ve been tracking for a living for most of the past fifty-some odd years, Jack, and I know exactly how you feel. I do know one thing. If this critter wants to be dangerous, it’ll be dangerous like something out of one of them science fiction movies. It don’t follow our known patterns. It can change direction instantly, those feet can swivel, and it covers some serious ground when it wants to, at least eight feet a hop–or step or whatever the hell you want to call it.
“Here. I just finished this sketch before hoofing it on back to the house.” He passed around another sketch. “Until somebody comes up with a better name, or our new friend decides to inform us his full name, like he’s Mork from Orc or some such, I’m calling him Diamond Paws.”
“Him?” I asked without looking up from the sketch.
“Could be a him, a her, or an it,” Horace replied, “but I got a sense in my gut it’s a male. And just so you know, when I get a feeling about the gender of something I’m tracking…well, I’m just damn seldom wrong about that. I can’t tell y’all if Diamond here is a highly developed alien visitor or a long hidden native of our polluted planet, but I can tell you it’s a boy, make the announcement and pass out the cigars.”
“Huh,” I said. That was something, at least.
“The other sense I got when trying to trail Diamond, other than he’s big and flat out amazing no matter how you cut it, is he’s drawn to us and he’s afraid of us, all at the same time. He came out of the timber with long steps, like he was determined to get the job done. Aimed straight for the welding shop during what had to be full daylight when the entire crew was hard at work. But the closer he got, the shorter his steps got, like he was getting more and more hesitant, kind of tippy-toeing along. Then when he got up right behind the building, he stood there for a while…and then when he left, he was back to even longer steps than his first one out of the trees. He was getting the Hell out of Dodge, and he didn’t stop or slow down once, all the way to deep cover.”
“Huh,” we all replied in chorus. There didn’t seem much else to say.
Except for Jennifer Trace. “Who wants pie?”