CHAPTER ONE: Thank You for the Ears
“Treemin! Treemin! To me!”
I wouldn’t have heard the scream over the rattle of gunfire, had not my AK-47’s magazine run dry at that precise moment. Rolling back to my feet, dropping the empty clip in the gravel, slamming the final one home–there! Just around the corner of the semi trailer lying on its side, leaping over the dying, writhing bodies of two shifters, the scene blasted into view. Totally focused on getting there, I’d nearly let the mortally wounded vamdog take me out with its dying bite. Fortunately, the red eyed, snarling monster grazed nothing but bootheel. No blood had been drawn. I would live.
“Tree–!” Judi cut her scream short when she saw me, realized she would not die alone. Or almost alone; she fought back to back with Sissy Bear, the great black boar’s fighting squalls nearly as unnerving as hearing your wife’s voice call for help when you’re not sure you can get there in time. Carcasses littered the ground around my girls. Three huge wolves–the Bronson pack, without a doubt–were down and either dead or close enough to it, along with a red eyed vamtiger and several other attack animals of various sorts. The Jackson women had done themselves proud. But there were more, half a dozen at least. I dropped to one knee, my favored shooting position, and let fly. Thirty rounds of Jack Hill’s specially formed Silver Lace bullets left the AK’s barrel as quickly as I could aim and fire.
Even those were not enough. I was out of ammo, Sissy’s bear form was limping and bleeding as she fought–which made her even more dangerous, as anyone who’s ever fought a bear could tell you–and Judi was down to her matched Colt Diamondback .22’s. These Heartbite bastards were tough, especially the double twisted vamimals. Not even a direct hit with a single Silver Lace could take one out; it usually took several shots unless you got lucky.
Today, we weren’t that lucky. There were still five of the critters in the fight, with more streaming out of the series of vans lining Jennifer Trace’s ranch driveway. Why they’d chosen to strike in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, we could work out later…if any of us lived.
In the time it took me to process that thought, Judi’s right hand gun went dry and Sissy Bear went down, locked in a wrestling match to the death with a were jaguar as big as she was. Whether or not the jag was a vam, I couldn’t tell. Couldn’t see the eyes.
Three of the enemy turned to charge me. Some distant part of my mind noted that I was charging them in return, Tasker drawn and held in a two handed grip. We’d passed off my sudden penchant for wearing a sword as being due to an interest in Renaissance Fairs. How many of the welders believed it, who knows? They probably wrote it off as yet another of their big black boss’s well known eccentricities. In this neck of the woods, north and west of Ovando, Montana, tucked up in the foothills adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, they didn’t care; Rodeo Iron paid better than anywhere else, and that was all that mattered.
There were no welders on the job this fine weekend afternoon, though, which was a good thing. They’d have gotten in the way. In other words, they’d have all been dead by now.
Tasker was, of course, no ordinary sword. With a three foot blade and plenty of heft, it had started out as a stainless steel fantasy blade with no edge whatsoever. It had an edge now, as the first were critter, a vamboar with blood-tipped tusks, found out the hard way. There’s no good angle against a charging boar if you want to retain possession of your weapon, which I did. So I jumped sideways at the last split second, squatted low, and took a leg out from under it. That irritated it some; pivoting faster than should have been possible on three legs, it made one last lunge at my nearest leg, hoping to break some skin at the very least.
Which it did, barely, though Tasker’s circular downward strike swept completely through the hog’s facial bones, severing the front half of the head from the back. Between the blood loss, shock, absence of crucial body parts, and a push from the silver poisoning, that one was out of the fray. But my back was half turned to the undersized African ox intent on goring me.
I would have died then, except for the coyote. I should have realized that third critter was one of ours. Forty pounds of trouble, streaking in from the right rear, low to the ground, the canine snapped a chunk out of the heavy-horned bull’s hamstring and danced away.
“Dammit, Willow!” I bellowed as loud as the bull then, proud and frustrated all in one. And scared, which I had a serious right to be. “You’re supposed to be in the Security Center!” Forty pounds of trouble, indeed, that girl–and then every other emotion suddenly vanished, replaced by fear only. Heartbite’s reinforcements, it turned out, were in human form and packing rifles. One barked; Willow Coy was bowled over by the heavy round, slamming the ground with a startled yelp of pain. I couldn’t help myself; my gaze was riveted to my daughter, as was her mother’s…but we needn’t have worried quite so much. She’d done her spellcasting before joining battle, at least Hardened Fur. The kid was bruised, definitely, but not broken.
Still, we were all going down. There had to be twenty of the newcomers, all decked out like SWAT team dudes, black storm trooper helmets, laying down fire. Sissy Bear rose from her vanquished opponent and limped swiftly behind our favorite work truck. Willow Coy, hunched from the blow she’d taken and doing the coyote sidewise crab thing, joined her. So did Judi. Seconds later, so did I.
Not that we’d gained much; they’d have us flanked in a minute or less. Phreeb’s squad could have helped, but they were on the other side of the house with their own problems. Crap.
“Good work, kid,” I said, throwing the coyote a two finger salute. She grinned…and shifted, becoming a forty pound bobcat instead. The cat had no injury whatsoever. We didn’t know anybody else who could leave a hurt behind like that; when Sissy shifted, she brought along her boo-boos.
Judi and the bear were both panting with exertion, though the bear was covered in blood and the young blonde mother didn’t seem to have a mark on her. She looked like she wanted to say something to her impulsive, rules-ignoring daughter, but she didn’t have enough breath yet. I addressed Sissy Bear. “You safe to shift to human? We could use the weapons. Unless you need to stay in bear form to stay alive.” We all knew there was just about nothing tougher to kill than a bear when it didn’t feel like being killed.
The black bear boar gave a remarkably human shrug…and shifted. My six foot mixed race warrior woman manifested, complete with my beloved Winchester .25-06 and eighty rounds of ammunition. It looked like she had one broken arm and half a dozen ugly gashes in various places. Her face was tight with pain. Her eyes, however, were clear. “Take the gear, boss man,” she said. “I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn right now.”
“Gladly.” I wrapped the sling around my left forearm and, without hesitating, popped the first of the overly eager Biters to get an angle on us. He’d been quicker, but he’d hurried his first shot. He didn’t get a second. One down, only nineteen left. What could go wrong?
“You got vammed!” Willow’s voice. She was back in eight year old human girl form. I knew this because her tone, besides being youthful, was furious. “You shoulda told me, Daddy!”
“Yeah, well,” I said lamely. Truthfully, I’d forgotten, but I was pretty sure she didn’t want to hear that.
“Hold still, dammit!”
“Willow Jewel Jackson, you watch your language.” Mommy Judi had gotten her breath back. She moved to help our daughter, holding my booted foot still with both hands so the girl could get to the wound. I could feel the poison spreading; she was right about needing to hurry. Her little hands took hold of my leg, feeling cold right through my ripped jeans. “Hauwa-ho-eeee!” She sort of keened when she did that, the chill spreading faster than the evil in my bloodstream, icing the virus down as she put it. Watching for the enemy, I tried to ignore her ministrations, the healing touch of our youngest and in fact only true witchy spellcaster in the entire group. It wasn’t easy.
“There,” she said, an undeniable note of satisfaction in her voice. “You won’t die today, Daddy.”
I wished I could be half as sure of that as she was. The bastards had the angle on us now, not from the ranch house side–which was too close and dangerous for them to attempt when they had an easier option, but from the Rodeo Iron side where there was plenty of room to maneuver. With my women huddled behind me, everything left to me, I touched off one more round as they opened up. One of them dropped, the .25-06 being a sure thing at a mere 200 yards, but I felt one of the return bullets hit. Left shoulder, I thought, and it got some bone this time. The Jackson family was dead. I could shoot one handed, but not quickly enough and accurately enough against that many Biters. Sissy was too bunged up to do much better. The .25-06 was too heavy a hitter for our hundred and ten pound Judi, and forget about eight year old Willow.
The bullets were flying thick and fast now. Without really looking, I was aware of Judi going down, of Willow screaming for the first time.
It was over.
Or…was it? No. No, maybe not. The strikes from down the road came thick and fast, a blanket of flickering lasers, red and blue and purple. There was more screaming now, but not ours, not ours at all. One streak of blue lightning flashed right in front of my eyes; I turned, blinking, to see a fist sized hole blown clean through a vamhyena that had been creeping up behind us, entirely unnoticed. It wouldn’t be doing that any more.
Jack Hill had arrived.
My eyes more than a little bleary, I nonetheless checked my watch. Two seventeen p.m. The ancient Protector had covered the three miles from his place to the Trace ranch headquarters in three minutes flat. Over a dirt road. I was pretty sure I was impressed.
The next few minutes were never clear to me. Somehow, Sissy with her good left hand and me with my good right hand, plus of course little Willow’s chill-hand skill…we managed to stop Judi’s bleeding. She’d been hit in the gut, a through and through shot that we could only hope hadn’t perforated her stomach. Big Jude came in hot in his restored ’36 Hudson, back from a morning run to Butte, irritated as Hell that he hadn’t been home with his favorite M60 machine gun when the shooting started.
“I’d have made the difference and you know it,” he growled. When 300 pounds of mountain sized black man growls, it gets your attention.
I just grinned at him, Jack having shot me up with a bit of morphine. Doctor Larry Menning was on his way, he said. None of us thought for a millisecond that transporting Judi would be a good idea. Eight years of fighting Heartbite had taught us a lot of things, one being the necessity of maintaining a mini-hospital on site. Judi had her happy drug, too, though she didn’t look all that happy about it, drifting in and out of consciousness as she was. If I lost her, I’d blow up half of Michigan to get at Angle if that’s what it took. Looking at our daughter’s fierce almond shaped eyes–a shape neither of us could find in our family tree–what was Jack saying?
“I said,” he repeated, “can you walk?”
“Till the morphine wears off, reckon I can. It’s my shoulder that got shot, not my leg.”
“Then we need to go see Jennifer, down at the house.”
Jennifer. Of course. She and the old tracker, Horace Tamblyn, had been in the house alone when we were attacked. Clearly, the house had been the target; no outsider would have had any reason to suspect the entire Jackson family was hard at work in the Rodeo Iron headquarters building just a hundred yards or so away. Those two would have repaired to the fortified basement the moment the action started; they’d have been safe. But why did she need to see Jack and me at this point? I was kind of surprised they hadn’t been out there the moment Jack wiped out the opposition, helping patch us up, or clean up the mess, or something.
The walk between buildings was…educational, to say the least. Former Marine Sergeant Jordan Phreeb was handling cleanup, operating the big backhoe loader, loading up one of the hay trailers with corpses to deliver to a 22 foot deep trench that was technically ranch property, back in a nicely hidden draw, well away from the buildings. Shoot, shovel, and shut up. The were critters did not revert to their human forms at the time of death. Another popular myth destroyed, though the red eyed vamcritters did seem to shrink a bit by the time they were dumped. An effect of the virus, no doubt.
At the rate Phreeb was going, he’d have all of the bodies out of sight by the time Doc Menning came roaring up in his big red Ford Expedition.
Jennifer and Horace were still in the basement. They were also both dead. Tamblyn’s corpse was nearly unrecognizable, bloated and black, the skin cracked in places, darkened flesh showing through. He still gripped his long barrel AK-47, though, the one with the bipod. They hadn’t been able to separate him from that. Mrs. Trace didn’t look so bad, though it was obvious the vamsnake had done for her as well. The rattler had probably been a woman in her human form, or maybe one of the computer whiz kids taking a direct hand in the action. Still, a hundred pounds of Eastern Diamondback rattler is a lot of pit viper, at least ten feet long and heavy bodied. The triangular head, detached from the neck by the machete lying beside Jennifer if I had to guess, was enough to give a herpetologist wet dreams. Having no eyelids, it lay there glaring, scooped to one side with a shovel by Jordan, who’d found them. Touch me, that huge head said, and you’ll find I can still bite.
The Biters had forced entry to the reinforced basement with something pretty nasty; the quarter inch steel mid-wall was ripped inward, forming a hole large enough for the vamsnake to slither through. It had taken some damage to its belly scales doing it; the slitherer’s motivation must have been extreme. Or it was high on something and didn’t feel the cuts.
“Damn,” I swore softly. We had failed. Jennifer had been the target all along. I wasn’t sure why, but I was sure I was right.
“Watch your language, Tree.” Jennifer’s voice was soft, weak, but clearly amused. “You’ll corrupt the children.”
“Jen!” I kneeled beside her on the basement floor, overcome with emotion. Her eyes were closed, but…”You’re alive!”
“Not for long, cowboy.”
“I can fetch Willow–”
“No. Too much venom, both rattler and vampire. She can’t beat that combination. She doesn’t need the failure. Besides, my mind is clear but my time is short. Listen up.”
What else could I do? I took her left hand in my two hands and said, “I’m listening.” Jack, standing behind me, didn’t say a word.
“The ranch is yours.”
“What?” I couldn’t even begin to process that.
“I don’t have….” She paused, gasping a bit, whether from pain or lack of breath or both, I had no idea. “…time to repeat myself. My asshole kids will fight the will, but I’ve got tougher lawyers set up to handle this than even Sam did when he died. Get hold of Welling, Grant, and Yerkes. In Great Falls. Heartbite thought they could whittle you down to size by taking me out. They’ve got a surprise coming. Give ’em hell, Weaver.”
I stared at her beautiful, weather lined, seventy-something face. “I will.” I felt clueless, but you don’t deny a deathbed request–even if the bed is made of concrete basement flooring–of the woman to whom you owe literally everything. Besides, I fully intended to give Heartbite more than a taste of Hades, anyway, will or no will.
She smiled then, a lovely smile, a smile full of grace. “Thank you for the ears,” she said, and died.