The Diamond Paws mystery was taking over my life. No human alive, except of course for those champions of denial, the head-in-sand crowd, could ignore the presence of an unknown, very large, potentially very dangerous creature of a size that might well make a full grown grizzly bear look puny. I’m not by nature a curios person; give me enough information to tackle the job in front of me and I’ll take it from there. But throw a clue or two in my face that hints at a presence so alien it might truly be from another planet, or heck, another dimension, and I become as obsessed as the next guy.
This was what I’d learned about myself, struggling to understand what we were facing. An old black and white TV rerun kept running through my mind. I couldn’t remember the name of the program, but the high I.Q. robot kept saying, Insufficient data.
Jennifer Trace, Jack Hill, my uncle B.J., Sissy Harms, and the old tracker, Horace Tamblyn, were comfortably gathered at Jen’s kitchen table for our usual monthly owner’s meeting, but there was nothing usual about the only topic on the agenda. Nor were most of those present owners in the literal paperwork sense. Bottom line, I reigned supreme as the sole owner of Rodeo Iron and the widow Trace held the reins for everything else, the more than ten thousand acres of foothills ranch land bordering the Bob Marshall Wilderness…but the others were all invested deeply in one way or another. We were a composite, a laminated beam holding the structure together.
Some of us had killed to protect and preserve what we had. All of us had fired shots in anger–as the saying goes, though in mortal combat, for me at least, anger isn’t in it.
“Horace,” I said, reaching for another cinnamon roll to go with my third mug of coffee, “why don’t we start with you.”
“Figured you’d say that.” The tracker brushed a few crumbs from his shirt and opened the folder lying in front of him on the table, consulting his notes. Not that he needed to refresh his memory; the man could recite chapter and verse for every track he’d ever followed in the past fifty years, should the need arise.
“As you all know, we’ve had four weeks to work on the problem since Sissy first spotted a Diamond Paws track out back of the welding shop. There hasn’t been a day since then that I haven’t been on the lookout, along with the rest of you. Diamond has…in my considered opinion, he–I’m calling it a he–has set up a rhythm of visitation here that tells me our sneaky caller is seriously attracted to the shop specifically, smart as Hell, and at the same time doing all he can to keep from being spotted.”
He paused, rubbing his titanium pinned leg. He never complained about it, but the weather had to be a problem. The temperature had hit seventeen degrees below zero during the night and wasn’t exactly skyrocketing toward the tropics even now.
“Which is more or less nothing new from what I had to report the first day out. But with the number of snow days we’ve had, Diamond has given me a bit more to work with. For one thing, I get the impression he’s slipping right up to that blindside north shop wall and sticking his ear right up against the steel siding. Presuming he’s got ears. I get the impression he’s listening to us, based partly on the fact that his wall-side paw tends to make a deeper track than his away-from-wall paw, more times than not.”
“You’ve not been able to spot him at all?” Jack Hill looked troubled, as we all were. With our security chief and our chief tracker taking turns on surveillance–not all day every day but at random periods–you’d think….
“Not at all.” Horace nodded his thanks to Sissy, who’d risen to grab the coffee pot and top off our drinks. “That is, not at the shop. Sissy and I’ve put our heads together; we’re convinced Diamond can sense our presence when we’re watching the place.”
“Hold on, Horace,” my tall dark lover interjected. “Remember what we discussed?”
The tracker nodded. “I was getting to that. Sissy came up with the idea that it’s maybe not our presence Diamond senses, but more our thoughts. That is, say I’m thinking, hey, I’d best get over to the blind, it’s time to sit in there for the next couple of hours, watching for old Diamond, our friend might sense that and stay away. But if someone were to wander into the area without thinking about wandering into the area, then maybe we could sneak up on him.”
Jennifer Trace looked up from taking notes and asked, “How did you come up with that, Sissy?”
“Don’t know.” She shrugged. “It just came to me.”
“Anyway,” Horace continued, “I got to thinking maybe she was onto something, so for the past ten days or so, I been doing what I could to think of something else entirely, not think about Diamond at all.”
“Which can’t be easy.” I chuckled. “How do you do search and surveillance without thinking about doing it?”
“True. It ain’t easy. But every hunter worth his salt knows that when you’re lining up a critter in your sights, you don’t want to be thinking too much about what you’re doing. It’s an art, yeah, but we all practice it. A deer or an elk can feel you thinking about putting a bullet through his lights; I’ve seen more than one rookie lose a shot that way. So anyway, I been practicing. It hasn’t worked so far from any of the surveillance posts Sissy and I set up, but I swung by there on Friday afternoon about two o’clock, just sort of meandering up along the fence line this side of the trees, thinking as hard as I could about decorating a Christmas tree in my cabin. Not that I got a Christmas tree in there, but I figured it’s the thought that counts. And I stopped alongside a corner post, my eyeballs just drifting along the forest edge, and danged if I didn’t spot something.”
We all leaned forward in our chairs. “And you said nothing until now?” B.J. cocked his trademark eyebrow, accusing.
“Nope.” The tracker didn’t look a bit repentant. “So far, Diamond Paws hasn’t given any indication of meaning us harm, so there was no immediate need. Main thing was, I only caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. Couldn’t pin it down at first. But I’ve learned over the years, if I keep my trap shut for a while, let my mind work on it careful-like, I can sometimes sharpen the image. Which I did, a bit at least.” He picked out a number of copies from his folder and passed them around. “I ain’t saying this is what our diamondy visitor looks like for sure, but it’s close. Close enough, at least, we can use it for identification. There dang sure ain’t nothing else like it.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, stifling an impulse to laugh. “Looks kind of like a Dr. Seuss character, a sneetch or something.”
“Hey, Tree, I just sketched what I saw. Trust me, it didn’t look that cute and harmless out there in the woods. Not to the naked eye, it didn’t. That thing is big. But okay, it’s a giant sneetch.” Horace’s tone was defensive, a touch irritated. He was touchy about his artwork. “With four ground-covering legs that travel in a diamond pattern, four arms above the four legs, four eyes above the four arms, round eye sockets, fur all over except on the face, joints that move any which direction, but otherwise, the spitting image of a sneetch. Especially a star bellied sneetch.”
“Okay, okay.” I held up both hands, palms forward in a sign of surrender. I hadn’t intended to piss off our tracker. “I guess the resemblance isn’t really all that close.” I could see everyone else around the table trying to not to laugh, though. The sketch really did have a Dr. Seuss quality to it. “Hard to tell whether he’s coming or going, isn’t it?”
“It is in the drawing.” Horace was pretending to be mollified, but he was also carefully not looking at anyone but me at the moment. “Not when he’s on the move, but in a still shot like this, yes.”
I tapped my finger on the table, thinking. “I’m pretty sure it’s a good idea we decided not to let anyone outside of our inner circle know about this. Some of the welders are talkers; we’d have every crackpot on the planet coming up here with cameras and environmentalists wanting to put Diamond on the Endangered Species list and whatnot.”
“You know what I think?” Jennifer got up from her seat. “Anybody want pie?”
“I like how you think,” B.J. grinned at her. “I’ll take a pie or two.”
“You could.” The sixty-one year old widow, still a looker and healthy as a horse–so to speak, never mind that her ranch hands were treating several sick horses this month–punched the big man lightly on the shoulder as she passed his chair. B.J. went with it, flinching his three hundred pound body away from the blow, clapping his free hand over the spot, and screwing up his face as if he were in mortal pain.
“Aside from the pie,” she went on, nodding her thanks to Jack Hill as the ancient Protecter pulled a stack of plates from the cupboard, “I think it’s obvious our Diamond Paws is studying us for a specific reason. He’s repeatedly stood up against the shop wall with his ear–wait a sec. Are there any ears in your sketch?”
Horace answered absently, his eyes on the boysenberry pie. “No. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any. A lot of critters don’t have ears that you can see, and yet they hear just fine. Plus, Diamond could have itty bitty ears my quick glimpse didn’t notice, or maybe his ears don’t look like ears. Might hear out his ass for all I know.”
“If he has an ass.” Jack’s tone was dry.
Sissy twinkled at that, but she didn’t say anything. Jack had owned the big woman for a long time before I inherited her. Not that I kept her as a slave like the old man had. On the other hand, there were times I was quite certain she and Judi both owned me, and I was fine with that.
“Back to you, Jen,” I said. You were thinking what?”
She served me first, a full quarter, cherry pie. My favorite. Horace could have his boysenberry. B.J. glanced at my plate with undisguised interest. I got my fork ready to stab him if he tried. My oversized uncle didn’t have many addictions, other than toxic women, but Jennifer’s pie–no matter the flavor–was rapidly gaining a foothold in his affections.
“I was thinking Diamond is trying to learn our language.”
Whoa. My fork, loaded with the most precious tip piece of pie, stopped in midair of its own accord, halfway to my mouth. It made sense. What could an alien creature gain from the behavior Sissy and Horace–mostly Horace–had documented? If it had a steel wall fetish, there were other places to satisfy that. The welding process itself, maybe, the snap and spark and clang and all that. But most of all, conversation.
Benny Combs, Oscar Derough, Ulysses Castorio, and Melvin Grant all had work stations along that north wall. Two of the four were highly verbal; Oscar and Melvin yakked to each other constantly, pretty much closing their yaps only when one or the other was actually running a bead. No one else would put up with them, but their output was better than most despite their constant talking; I wasn’t about to fire them.
Jack looked highly amused. “If you’re right, Jennifer, and Diamond is learning English from listening to Derough and Grant, the result should be…interesting, to say the least.”
He was right about that. In the course of a week’s work, those two covered the bases and then some, from a relatively creative vocabulary of curses to whose wife was most inventive in bed to the ancient writings of Homer and the latest political dustup on talk radio.
“He’ll end up with a redneck accent, no doubt,” I agreed. But even if the ranch boss lady had intuited what Diamond was doing, that didn’t explain why he was doing it. Or when he’d decide he’d learned what he’d come to learn.
“Let’s think about that,” I suggested. “Assume Jennifer has nailed it. Diamond is here to learn our language. What do we know about anyone who might decide to learn a foreign language?” I noticed in passing that I was referring to the mystery critter as if he were merely another human studying French or German or Farsi.
B.J.’s bass rumble took the cue. “That’s fairly easy. One, he could be learning how to communicate with us, intending to make open contact at some unspecified future date. Two, he could be just plain insatiably curious; there are beings like that, curiosity killed the cat and all that. Three, he could be an enemy agent–don’t look at me like that; he’s cute, but he’s huge, and he could be–and he needs to understand our speech in order to plan an attack.”
“Four,” Horace put in, straight faced, “he could be a linguist from far off Linguon, planet of interstellar knowledge, here to study us primitive apes for his doctoral thesis at the University of Linguonia.”
It got quiet then, except for the sounds of pie eaters in action. We didn’t have all the answers yet, not by a long shot, but we had something. We had a sneetch. An eight foot long, four footed, four armed, four eyed, fur bellied sneetch.
For the moment, it would have to do. Sunday afternoon was coming right up, and I’d promised to watch the White Collar Brawlers marathon with my girls.