The evening meal, we decided, would be turned into a dinner party (sort of) at Jack Hill’s place. Horace headed over to the main house to bring Jennifer Trace up to speed, Jack called Wayne Bruce to let him know there’d be eight instead of three for supper, and Sissy dialed Judi to tell her to stick the casserole back in the fridge.
When Wayne had the chance to entertain, with Carolyn West’s assistance, even suggesting pot luck was an insult.
He did keep the menu simple this time, hamburger steaks with mashed potatoes and mixed veggies. No dessert until later; the excitement of first contact with Diamond Paws pretty much guaranteed nobody was going to have all that much of an appetite.
No one except the old Protector himself, that is. Jack left it to the three of us–Horace, Sissy, and me–to tell about our experience with the Umthnn in fits and bursts while he devoured not one but two complete meals. “A growing boy’s gotta keep up his strength,” he explained. “Besides, I saw a few things in the Louisiana swamps, back in the day, that’d put this diamondy fella all to shame.”
There was a twinkle in his eye as he said it. I was almost certain he was exaggerating.
Questions kept popping up, things we’d not thought to ask during our meeting in the snow covered clearing. “Keep your questions in mind,” I kept saying, repeating myself endlessly, “till the dishes are cleared. Judi will need a bit of space for her legal pad; we’re going to want to keep a written record. Well hidden, of course, and hard copy only.”
After dinner coffee settled us down some, especially since Wayne had gone all out, firing up a batch of fresh ground Kona. Nothing else like it.
“Okay,” I declared, “the meeting is now open.” I looked out through the kitchen window into the darkness for a moment, gathering my thoughts. This was a historical moment in a number of ways; I couldn’t remember Horace and Jennifer ever coming over to Jack’s to eat before, though we’d gone the other direction often enough. “You all know as much as the four of us who actually met with Diamond. Thoughts?”
To my surprise, the normally quiet Carolyn West, Jack’s main squeeze, spoke first. “Do you know his real name yet? It can’t be Diamond Paws.”
“Huh. We never thought to ask. Judi, make a list of questions. Another one for answers, too, though we might not have many of those just yet, if any.”
The petite bombshell nodded, her pen gliding over the yellow paper. “Ready.”
“Question number one for Diamond, next Sunday. What’s your name?”
“He might not have one,” Wayne pointed out, “or at least not as we know such things.”
“I suppose not. But we should ask anyway. Next?”
Jennifer Trace tapped her coffee mug thoughtfully. “Any particular reason you set the next meeting with our tunnel digging friend for a whole week from now? Seems like a long time to wait. Especially with a death squad hunting him.”
“Bunch of reasons, actually. In no particular order of importance, one, I’ve got the RICAD coming up in Billings. That runs from Tuesday through Friday. We’ll have customers attending that from all over eastern Montana; failing to give it our best effort could hurt us badly, long term.”
“What’s a RICAD?” Horace asked.
“Rodeo Iron Customer Appreciation Days.”
“Number two, B.J. has to be there–in Billings, that is–and won’t be back home until Saturday. I’d like to bring him up to speed before the meeting. Maybe bring him along to the meeting, if he’s up for it. Which he may or may not be; the big man is capable of coming up with a surprising phobia from time to time. Third…number three is probably the most important reason for the delay, come to think of it. We need time to absorb what we’ve just learned. It’s like B.J. with a new woman; he tends to dive in, head over heels, without testing the water first. Doing that with something like Diamond could be disastrous, even deadly. We need time to think.”
“Okay….” Jennifer looked more than a little worried. “Tree, you’re making sense. But this…thing is hanging out near my house. From what you’ve all reported, it could easily break into my house and, you know, cut the nervous old ranch woman’s throat in her sleep.”
“As to that,” Jack put in, his tone soothing, “I don’t believe you need to be concerned. But if you are, you’re more than welcome to sleep here with Wayne and Sissy and me until we’re sure what we’ve got. Give the cook a few weeks off, with pay. The ranch hands wouldn’t need to know; Wayne could drive back with you every morning, do the cooking chores. And you know he’s a fair hand in a fight.”
The widow Trace gave the gay man an appraising look. “Can’t say I’d object to Wayne cooking for a while. Izmelda’s okay, but she’s not exactly inventive in the kitchen.”
Wow. Jack never blinked, but I had to admit I was surprised the rancher was considering Jack’s offer. Nothing had ever been able to frighten her out of her own home in the past, not even an assault by armed attackers in the Morse Code incidents.
Then it hit me. “Question for your list, Judi. Several questions, actually. Is the Umthnn hit team currently hunting Diamond a potential threat to humans in the area? How many are there? Has Diamond fought them or simply run? Will he fight them, or is he a pacifist? There’s just so much we don’t know about him and his people.”
“Although we do know,” Sissy pointed out, “infinitely more than we did a few hours ago.”
It was ten p.m. by the time I called a halt. “Why don’t you read our question list back to us, Judi, and of course what few answers we’ve come up with as well. Then we’ll call it a night.”
“Okey dokey.” The list was extensive, at least on the question side.
- DIAMOND PAWS: QUESTIONS
2. Death squad numbers?
3. Fight or flight? Kill his own or die first?
4. Potential threat to humans?
5. Better meeting place?
6. How many Umthnn are there?
8. When did “population fade” begin?
9. Steady decline, increased speed, what?
10. Have the Umthnn considered nutrition? Could their cellulose diet need supplementation?
11. Habitat/environmental considerations?
- 12. If we (humans) do come up with ideas to halt Umthnn population decline, how does Diamond plan to present them (ideas) to a population determined to kill him on sight?
13. Why should we care if the Umthnn become extinct? What’s in it for us? Note: Care advised in wording this one!
Number twelve was a doozy. It reminded me of a friend of a friend who sold a mineral supplement that would wipe out HIV on contact. He’d once tried giving a bottle of the stuff to a gay doctor who was dying of AIDS–and had been physically attacked by the man’s friends who naturally assumed it was all a scam. He’d never come within shouting distance of the ailing physician, in the end having to watch for the guy’s obituary in the newspaper.
A small example, that. There’d been no bounty on the supplement salesman’s head at the time. Diamond’s self appointed goal quite frankly looked like Mission Impossible.
Judi had just one answer written down.
- DIAMOND PAWS: ANSWERS
5. Build a shed out back of the shop. Wood heat, seating, padlock, dirt floor, bench seating. Diamond should be able to tunnel under and come up through without being exposed. Ten foot ceiling, 12′ x 24′ footprint.
“Let’s call it a wrap,” I suggested. Nobody demurred. None of us would be getting more than a few hours of sleep this night as it was.
Come daylight, Judi and I were on our way, my girl thrilled to bits at being able to share a road trip with her man. Billings wasn’t really a long haul, but it was longer than she’d done since the day we met. Sissy promised to keep an eye on the shop,making sure no stray Umthnn popped up where he shouldn’t be and also stepping into the office from time to time. Judi’s latest assistant, a stocky Gros Ventre woman fresh from the Fort Belknap Rez, could handle the phones and whatever filing needed to be done. I’d been a bit nervous about hiring her, but why not? We didn’t keep anything in there that could burn us badly, nothing that would betray any of our deeply held secrets. True, we kept enough of the welders on a part time basis to avoid the Obamacare threshold, but even the giant employers like Walmart and McDonald’s were playing that game.
Horace promised to drag a boot through the snow where we planned to build the shed, scraping a rough outline while picturing the completed building with Diamond Paws and us all seated in the completed structure. We didn’t know how close the mind reader needed to get to pick that up, but it was a fairly safe bet he would be watching. If we could pass the message that way, telegraphing our intentions, so much the better.
We beat Jack out of the driveway, barely. He’d be parking his Subaru Outback at the shop and jumping into the big Ford dually, heading down to Missoula to pick up a load of building supplies. We didn’t have much lumber left on hand at the moment. Horace offered to go with him, but both Jack and I felt Jennifer Trace was jumpy enough without having her main warrior leaving her alone at the ranch with nothing but a gay man for protection. A damn sure deadly gay man when he wanted to be, no doubt about that, but still. There were plenty of ranch hands, but none of them had the slightest clue about Diamond, nor did we care to enlighten them.
The run to Billings was, for Judi and me, something of a delayed honeymoon. Romantic, that is, just a mellow sightseeing cross-state journey. Most of the time, her left hand rested lightly on my thigh. Both of us wore goofy grins, every now and then looking at each other and busting out laughing for no particular reason. It just felt so good, being on the road, alone, together.
We met up with B.J. at the Radisson Northern Hotel in Billings, the three of us enjoying a late evening steak supper. It wasn’t crowded yet, but my uncle assured me we’d at least half fill the convention center come meeting time on Tuesday afternoon. He should know; more than half of the attendees would be customers or potential customers the big man had personally invited.
“The oil people are all coming because they’re worried about the low price of oil. They’re having to cut costs even more than usual, trying to keep from stacking rigs until OPEC throws in the towel.” Not that the Saudis would necessarily cut production any time soon. If they kept pumping hard, the way they were doing, the price of crude would keep going down, but if they throttled back, they’d likely lose even more market share to the surging Americans. There was no way the U.S. oil patch could cut wages; each company would have to find its savings elsewhere or simply–if push came to shove–shut down completely for a while.
Not that they wanted cheap welders per se. Cheap meant unreliable, a sure recipe for disaster where a failed weld could result in a well blowout, a rig fire, possibly the flaming death of an entire crew.
Hopefully, the savings we’d be offering for the coming year–most of them ideas from my uncle’s fertile mind–would at least bring us a bigger share of our little market. B.J. hadn’t built HAIF in Connecticut from the ground up without learning a few tricks along the way, ways to boost production without sacrificing quality. Plus, the man was purely and simply a natural born salesman.
But our biggest push would be for the ranchers. Plenty of those were used to buying their iron from ranch supply outlets, either from paneling in stock or via special orders. This year, we’d be giving them the option of ordering direct from Rodeo Iron headquarters. Which was why we’d hired Sharon Two Birds; Judi was a whiz on the phone, but she couldn’t be fielding customer calls and keeping up with all the paperwork at the same time.
Later that night, and for the remaining nights in Billings as well, the two of us got intense behind closed doors. She’d never complain, ever, about being part of a threesome with Sissy in the mix, but our one-on-one time was…special. I was almost able to forget about the Umthnn problem, or set of problems if you will. The daily business meetings and speeches from the podium and hand shaking went by in a blur.
The RICAD event wrapped up at two p.m. on Friday, and we were outa there. B.J. wouldn’t be leaving until sometime after dark; he had sales to close and contracts to ink. But Judi and I were smoking west, burning up the asphalt, satiated, replete, content, ready to get on back to Ovando and get back after it.
We hadn’t had much sleep when the alarm rang at noon on Saturday. Sissy had left a note.
Figured you two might want to see the new shed before it got dark. Jack and Horace finished it up yesterday. Don’t know if D.P. is aware of its intended purpose yet or not, but it’s ready to go.
I showed Judi the note. “Shall we go take a look?”
She yawned, stretching mightily, arching her back. “Either that,” she purred, “or we could grab a nooner. You and I’ve never had one of those, have we?”
“You know we haven’t, but let me go rinse first. I got me some serious dragon mouth.”
It was three o’clock before we made it to the shop. Sissy happened to be finishing up her rounds and caught us just as we were coming around the corner. “Ah, here you are, you sleepyheads!” She said it with a straight face, knowing full well our tardiness hadn’t had all that much to do with sleeping per se. “You like it?”
“And then some.” Jack had done himself proud, erecting a building (with Horace’s help) with eight foot walls and a gambrel roof that took the overall height up to more than twelve feet. Even standing fully erect, Diamond Paws would have plenty of headroom. Unless he was claustrophobic, but being a tunnel dweller from birth, he shouldn’t be. Steel roofing in a burgundy color. Yellowish siding. Strong front door. A commercially pre-built shed like this would normally have a plywood floor, but of course Jack had skipped that. Treated timber foundation. One small window with a heavy light-blocking shade already hung in place. A small round-bellied parlor stove stood in one front corner, near the door but away from the shop wall.
Sissy was as proud of the structure as if she’d built it herself. “Jack says that’s hundred year roofing and thirty-five year siding. The roofing happened to be on a closeout sale. He found the stove at a second hand store for $125.”
“Not bad,” I decided. “Not bad at all.”
The call came on the heels of my pronouncement, low but urgent, a deep baritone Sissy and I recognized immediately. “Tree. Please come!”
All three of us jerked our heads around, scanning up toward the fence and beyond that, toward the tree line. A whisper of movement gave me the location. Sissy spotted it, too; we headed up the slope at a dead run, Judi hard on our heels. When we got to the fence, I didn’t bother with lifting wires, just grabbed the top of a tee post, threw one of my big-assed boots up on the top wire, and vaulted over, snagging a jeans leg along the hem in the process. The girls weren’t up to that, and I wouldn’t have tried it if I’d stopped to think.
Diamond Paws stood at his full height, leaning heavily against a tree, panting through all four mouths. His eyes, the ones that I could see, were squinched half shut in obvious pain. Blood ran down one shoulder, smearing the fur all the way to the wrist. There was a gash in the leg on that same side, deeper than the shoulder wound yet bleeding less.
How does a cellulose eater produce red blood? No time to worry about that. “The death squad?” It had to be them; I couldn’t picture any normal denizen of these parts damaging him like that.
“Si. I mean yes.”
The Umthnn drew a great, ragged, shuddering breath–through those mouth holes, I realized, much like a human. “Five. There were eight.”
There were–“You killed three?”
“I…I don’t know. I killed one. Two I wounded. Maybe to death, maybe not. But enough they won’t follow.”
Well. That answered a couple of the questions on our list. He would fight his own rather than be meekly slaughtered; he was no pacifist.
“How close? How soon will the other five be here?” I might have been shocked into brain freeze the first time I met this guy face to face, but my mind was racing now. I could hear Sissy and Judi laboring up the last yards behind me, but I didn’t bother to acknowledge them.
“I…I don’t know how…how you measure time.”
How…”Okay. Can you see in my head?” I threw up an inner vision of our home wall clock in the kitchen, with its twelve oversized numbers, the big hand, and the little hand.
No hesitation. Good. “That represents half a day. You know fractions?”
“Yes. Every–” Diamond flinched as a stab of pain caught him off guard. “Every Umthnn knows basic math. We must, to build our tunnels how and where we want them.”
“Good. Twelve marks for the daylight hours, twelve for the night. Sort of; it’s almost never even. How many marks till they get here?”
“Maybe…half of one. They…the five…they will stop long enough to…to take the dead and wounded underground, say the rites over them.”
Thirty minutes then, tops.
I turned to Sissy. “We’re not standing by to see Diamond slaughtered, but we’re not fighting here, either. There’s Jennifer to consider, besides which, the ranch hands will be heading over to the main house for supper before long. We’ve got to draw the hunters away. And that means one thing.”
“Our place?” Her eyes went wide in alarm. “Jack’s home, but Wayne is staying with Jennifer. And Carolyn, you know she’s no fighter. What–”
I raised a hand, cutting her off. “No. Not our place.” In order to give Diamond Paws a chance without putting either Carolyn or Jennifer at risk, there was only one battleground we could choose. “Judi, you call Jack. Sissy, you call Horace. Tell them to stay with the women, guard them, stay out of the fight.”
“We’re not staying out of it,” Judi declared, her eyes as fierce as any hawk’s.
“Never expected you would.” I’d have preferred it, but I didn’t expect it–and a plan was already forming in my mind, a plan that required more than one human backing up the rebel Umthnn. “I’m going to need you two. We’re headed to Wolf Cave.”
Sissy stared at me in shock for just a second, as well she should have. I was choosing to battle not one but five underground dwelling mega-monsters…underground. What could possibly go wrong?