What we called Christmas snow was falling by the time Sissy and I made it to the fence line marking the limits of Rodeo Iron property and the beginning of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, soft flakes misting down to add imperceptibly to the eight inches of white stuff already on the ground. Jack and I’d installed the gate three years ago, which was fortunate; my 80 pound backpack was no fun when it came to crawling barbed wire, but my warrior woman’s huge 120 pound pack would have made straddling the wire close to impossible.
Fortunately, it was little more than thirty yards from there to the tree line. Sissy shifted, not exactly to her classic black bear form, but to a hybrid creature she’d been working on perfecting for several months. An uninformed observer might have guessed he’d seen a young grizzly, her own 160 pounds combining with 15 pounds of winter clothing plus the huge pack for a total omnivore package of 295 pounds, all fur and bone and muscle.
A more astute observer would have been really confused.
The male animal–Sissy still had no clue why she switched genders every time she shape shifted–had the traditional grizzly hump, but there were black bear features, too. The fur was especially dense, which would allow her to ignore the extreme cold we expected to hit us by the following morning. The eyes were much larger than any natural bear ever thought of wearing; I’d thought of them as owl-like until realizing she’d copied them from our alien digger friend, Diamond Paws. The original Theodore Kraznick, Lord Heartbite himself with his ability to shift into the form a leopard with a barbed, venomous tail, had given her the idea. Why limit oneself to animal forms as Mother Nature featured them? She did have to be able to feel the reality of an “invented” form before being able to add it to her extensive repertoire, but once she could do that….
A low huff from my bear buddy shook me out of my reverie. I picked up my pace, leaning into the hike ahead.
“Why do you want to go camping in the middle of winter, Daddy?” Eight year old Willow had gotten right to the point. “You going all cave man on us or what?”
Her six year old sister answered for me. “The head of this household is cr-r-raaaazee!!” Aspen never did pull her punches.
Their mother just smiled. Judi understood my need to get away by myself, take stock of myself. My little blonde bombshell of a wife was just happy my personal mini-crisis could be worked out by disappearing into the Bob for a week or so instead of, you know, buying a Corvette and changing strange chicks or–the latest inside term in our group’s vocabulary–“pulling a B.J.”. Which meant something totally different to the public at large, but hey. We still had enough welding order backlog to keep our employees working, but mid-December was not exactly rush time for Rodeo Iron. The staff could handle what needed to be handled. Our eldest daughter, however, did not trust me to be able to take care of myself in the wilderness. She pointed out firmly that she’d had to de-vam me after the last battle on our home turf, that I’d never gone off by myself alone, and that if I got myself killed in an avalanche or froze to death, she was going to be really pis–
“Watch your mouth, daughter!” Judi had snapped, and Willow had shut up, but her eyes spoke volumes. If I went traipsing off into the mountains and didn’t come back, she’d haunt my ghost or something. Which wasn’t the way such things usually worked, but in this family, anything was possible.
The situation was disintegrating fast…until Sissy muttered quietly, almost under her breath, “Come to think of it, I could use a break, too.”
Secretly, I was relieved when I was unanimously “forced” to take Sis with me. I wouldn’t have dared suggest it on my own, not since it meant leaving my wife and kids behind while gallivanting out in the snow with her sister wife, but I knew we needed some time alone together, and Jack Hill would be around if Judi needed backup while I was gone. I had issues, but Sissy had come to my bed long before Judi had come on the scene. I didn’t doubt her head was a bit messed up, too. Our spiritual insights and extrasensory perception experiences tended to run parallel. The two of us had been scared to death for eight full years, both considering the protection of Judi and the girls to be Priority #1. Now…this was good.
But I was terribly out of shape. Now that she was a hybrid bear-Umthnn thing instead of a woman toting a huge pack, Sissy effortlessly ambled along behind me. She would have broken trail if I’d hinted even delicately, but I couldn’t do that. This was all my idea after all. So I sucked it up, adjusted the sling on the compact AK-47 carbine, and tried to find my mountain legs, which were hiding rather effectively.
Still, even though we had ten miles to go as the crow flies and a heck of a lot more than that as the ridges ran, we’d gotten an early start. Short winter day, for sure, but enough. Or should be.
Whether or not it was that second ridge I caught laughing at me or Sissy’s secret amusement as she followed along, I could not tell. What I could tell was my pace; if we were covering two miles per hour, it would be a miracle.
I managed to keep going until my watch said 9:30 a.m., by which time it was as light out as it was going to get. The snow was picking up gradually, sneakily getting heavier and thicker as we went. Which was expected. The forecast called for blizzard conditions by midafternoon and below zero temperatures by dawn tomorrow. Aspen had checked.
The little knoll had a downed log on it that looked like a fine place to sit, once I’d brushed the snow aside with the forearm of my parka. Sissy shifted back to human form. We both shrugged out of our packs and settled down to share a couple of oatmeal raisin cookies and a fair hit of water from our canteens. I was sweating buckets, buttoning and zipping layers back up as the sweat threatened to freeze on my skin right then and there. “Temperature’s dropping faster than they forecast,” I said, and my lover knew it was okay to talk.
“Ngh,” she replied around a mouthful of cookie. Woman of few words.
It felt like we were the only two people in the world, and for all intents and purposes at this moment, we were. I felt the breeze biting at my cheek from the northwest, watched the snowfall begin to shift from straight down to slightly swirly, and felt the knots in my psyche begin to unravel. We sat side by side, thighs and shoulders touching except for the multiple layers of clothing between us. I stared straight ahead, almost hypnotized, and spoke without looking at her. “Had a dream last night.”
No response. None necessary. “There were, um, eight or ten people around me. One of them said, We’re concerned about this apparent streak of violence in you. It seems like you might be able to kill. Can’t say for sure who these folks were, but it seemed like they were feeling mighty judgmental, true believers in the sugar plum fairy or some such. Anyway, I told ’em the simple truth: I could kill and just walk away. They were shocked by that, I think.”
Still no response, nor any expected. Sissy Harms, long before she’d gone by that name, had killed her first man when she was sixteen. Self defense, no doubt about it, but still a kill. Or as the folks from the future in the Demolition Man movie call it, a Death Murder Kill. To them, any homicide was just that. Death Murder Kill. I racked my eidetic memory for a moment, trying to figure out which of us, Sissy or me, had killed the highest number in our time together. Couldn’t do it. Psychological block.
I certainly couldn’t have foreseen that when I was a seventeen year old lightweight hoodlum, just stealing stuff to try to prove whatever the heck it was I was trying to prove. Most violent thing I’d ever done back then was hit an opposing player on the football field, hard. That was it.
Of those I’d terminated since, there wasn’t a single death I regretted. Except maybe Mary the Mute, a woman I’d not even known. Wiped out by Jack Hill’s Purple Fire, but under my direction as team leader. Had my uncle B.J. really turned on us before her death, or had her death tipped him over the edge into insanity? I doubted we’d ever know for sure. When he’d reported back in, Diamond Paws had told us he and B.J. had come to an agreement. Whatever that meant. Beej wasn’t in California any more, at least according to Shyala. My cousin had called to report that her Dad was driving out, intending to take an apartment in Cleveland, where the old WBA team had left a void and the new expansion team had picked up the slack. He’d be able to see his daughter’s home games, at least, and there were plenty of women in Ohio. Maybe he’d actually pick a good one this time.
Yeah, right. Speaking of believing in sugar plum fairies.
If I could kill again, twice as many as my numbers to date, and it would bring Jennifer trace back, or Horace Tamblyn, or even Sam Trace, or keep Judi from being gutshot in front of me before being saved by the Wizard and Doc Menning–any of those–I’d do it in the blink of an eye, damn the karma and full speed ahead.
I shrugged back into my pack, helped Sissy into hers, and we resumed our journey. There was still a long trek ahead of us, and my wandering mind settled down when we were on the move, needing to watch where we were going. A stray branch under the snow might not bother the owl-eyed bear…wait a second. Pug dog eyes! That’s what her new look reminded me of! I tried to forget that, since the pug is not my favorite breed. Didn’t work. Damned eidetic memory.
At least we knew we were truly alone. No aircraft, no drone, no anything would be flying in this. I leaned harder into the steeper slope as the next ridge loomed above us. I was going to have to pull my woolen scarf up over my nose to avoid frostbite before long, but I decided I was content, at least for the moment. If I couldn’t unsnarl all the tangles in my brain, I’d just freeze the whole thing and start over.
It was nearly an hour after dark before we found the cave, our forms only visible as darker outlines against the snow. Wouldn’t have found it at all, except I’d finally swallowed my pride when the light failed and let all-seeing Sissy Bear break trail the rest of the way. She’d not yet managed to shift to a non-human form that could speak English, but the boar bear’s broad bottom spoke volumes as I followed it up the final grade.
“Why aren’t you taking horses, Daddy?” Willow had asked that one, not aggressively or accusingly like her younger sister would have done. Just curious.
“Tough country for horses where we’re going, honey. Can’t carry enough feed for them. They won’t fit in the cave. Might have to work hard to protect them if a hungry griz happened to still be out and about.”
“So, lots of reasons.”
“Lots of reasons, chickie-poo. Lots of reasons.”
“Da-ad! I’m not a chickie-poo! I’m too old to be a chickie-poo!”
She was, too. Whatever a chickie-poo might be.
Coming out of snowpack nearly three feet deep, moving into a cave where the wind was completely cut off….Heaven on Earth, right there. My fingers were fairly numb. Sissy’s weren’t, shifting out of durable bear form, so she got the fire going. Jack had been the last one here as far as we knew. His stack of firewood was still intact, anyway, so we wouldn’t need to go wood hunting until daylight.
We didn’t worry about losing our night vision. Just set up Sissy’s long barreled AK on its bipod, pointing toward the entrance, with my carbine lying next to it and our oversized sleeping bag behind the pair. If trouble came upon us but gave us time to prepare, we both had foam earplugs in our shirt pockets. If not, better deaf than dead. Seriously, though, the storm meant safety. There shouldn’t be anything at all moving in this weather. Except, you know, us two idiots.
Chow was simple: Rice and beans for the coming days, when we’d have plenty of time to set up a tripod with the camp pot and melt snow over the fire. For now, precooked elk steaks, prepared by Judi’s own loving hand. They certainly weren’t going to spoil in this weather; even in the cave, ten feet from the fire, it was well below freezing.
We fell asleep in each other’s arms, snug as two bugs in a rug good to forty below zero, and slept for fourteen straight hours before my bladder prodded me out of the sleeping bag and onto the frozen stone of the cave floor. The fire had gone out, the sun had come out, and it was colder than the proverbial witch’s teat in Alaska. Which was fine by me; I felt like a new man. Even my dreams had made sense.
Backpacking and camping in subzero weather probably doesn’t appeal to a high percentage of the U.S. population as an ideal vacation. Bet the folks who tackle Mount Everest for kicks and giggles would understand, though. Except for considering us wussies, what with us never even venturing above the tree line.
By midafternoon, we had our day’s chores more or less finished. For several hours, Sissy had focused on improving our camp conditions while I worked on beefing up our firewood supply. We might be staying here for a full eight days, certainly no fewer than five or six, and the storm that had blown through during the night would be followed by another before long. This was something we knew, as all mountain grown wild things know when weather is on the way. Stocking the cave with a full week’s worth of fuel made sense.
There was evergreen cover all the way down the slope, starting from the left side of the cave mouth and reaching the frozen creek bottom some five or six hundred yards below. In the bottom itself, deadfalls were plentiful. With the temperature as low as it was–certainly below zero, though neither of us had brought a thermometer–a lot of good sized branches snapped right in two when leaned against a fallen Douglas fir tree and stomped in the middle with my size 13 boot. Unfortunately, the climb back to the cave was steep. I made sure to carry a huge armload each time; Treemin Jackson carries firewood like Dagwood Bumstead builds a sandwich.
Of course, this meant sweating like a pig on the uphill leg and freezing my buns off on the way back down, but I watched the woodpile grow, and I loved it. Life was good.
By the time I called it quits and took a seat on the log we’d set just inside the cave portal, ahead of Sissy’s brush screen but far enough back to be inconspicuous to the rest of the world, the wind was starting to pick up. Clouds were scudding across the sky, not a lot of them yet, but enough to scout ahead for Old Man Winter’s next blast. The temperature, conversely, was rising a little.
Sissy came out from the interior, handing me a cup of hot peppermint tea and a plate of–“Apple pie?” I cocked an eyebrow, the gesture I’d picked up from my uncle. “You packed a pie? No wonder that pack of yours was so huge!”
She eased down beside me, draping the sleeping bag over our shoulders as she did so. “Nothing too good for my man,” she declared quietly, patting my knee. “No reason to go without the comforts of home just because you need to contemplate the Cosmos for a while, eh?”
“Ngh,” I mumbled, my mouth full. This wasn’t just any old apple pie, either. Without a doubt, Wayne Bruce had cooked this. The gay man could do things with apples and cinnamon that would make Julia Child cry. When I’d cleaned my plate and downed the last dregs of tea to clear my palate, I asked, “You’re not having any?”
“Already did. Hey,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “Look!”
I was already looking. Below us and to the right, heading through a small open park toward the frozen creek bottom where I’d foraged for firewood, a whole lot of elk were moving. Not just a small herd. Not even one of those big harems with dozens of cows and a single dominant bull like you see when they’re in rut. Mating season was over and done with for these…the only word I could think of was elegant creatures. Elegant elk. No fighting over who got to procreate; that looked to be a thing of the past for this year, at least for this bunch. Bulls, cows, yearlings…I told my eidetic memory to set itself to Record; this was a scene I’d replay thousands of times in the years ahead. They kept coming and coming, moving out from tree cover on the one side, crossing the park, then moving under cover once again. Dozens of them…no, hundreds.
I sensed something change beside me; out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Sissy had shape shifted, but not her entire body. Her head, and only her head, was that of a great bald eagle, literally watching the herd with the eye of an eagle, her human hand pressing the binoculars into mine.
Right. As an eagle, she had better vision that I could get even with the glasses. I adjusted the focus, zoomed in on the herd. None of the animals seemed aware of our presence except for one big old cow who turned her head to look up toward the cave several times. She sensed us; I was sure of it. But she didn’t show any real signs of alarm, and the rest of the group ignored us entirely. They weren’t hurrying, but they weren’t grazing much, either. Not that they could have reached the winter grass without doing some serious digging through the snow, but mostly they seemed to be…migrating. Not hurriedly, but generally moving forward as if they had places to go, people to see. Elk people, hopefully; it was still hunting season.
How long it took them to pass entirely out of sight, I had no idea, but the light was fading by the end of it. Could have been sunset, or could have simply been the dense cloud cover, which was now blotting out the blue sky entirely.
Sissy let out a long, slow sigh and spoke softly. “I miss the mammoth riders.”
“Me too.” It had just been the two of us back then, plus sometimes Ruby kitten wondering what we were up to, back when we’d stood at the window of the old mobile home and watched the now extinct beasts and their now extinct handlers move through the now extinct snowy pass, down into the better hunting lands, turning to seek game at some distant place, sometimes waving to us and we to them, bonded across countless thousands of years…. “Me too.”
Blizzard #2 was still howling outside when I awoke. Gasping. Struggling to find the zipper on the sleeping bag, unaware of Sissy’s sudden alertness as she lay motionless behind me. She’d figured out that a three-fire triangular pattern of small blazes was the most effective compromise for keeping the firewood consumption down and the cave air temperature up, but only one of them still showed signs of life, a couple of small branch pieces still flickering fitfully above the coals. Enough light, barely, by which to grab my parka as I scuttled toward the opening, entirely unsure whether I was going to make it in time or not.
Thakfully, the cave vomited me into the frigid night a few seconds before I vomited all over the trunk of the little pine tree closest to the entrance. The spasms were horrific; within less than a minute, the only thing coming up was bile.
Once I reached that point, I became aware of Sissy at my elbow, urging me back inside. “Any more, Tree, I’ll clean it up!” She yelled over the howl of the wind. “Get your ass back in there before your feet fall off!”
My feet. Right. My feet. I was shiver-shuddering from head to toe, but my sock-clad feet were soaked and most likely mere seconds away from freezing solid. I wasn’t stable; it was a good thing we had to crawl on hands and knees to enter our stone haven. Normally, bending over would have been enough, but the only thing holding me up while I was bent over next to that tree had been the tree. Crawling was just fine.
Besides, my feet weren’t working right anyway. Sissy had called it; I hadn’t had much time to spare. My warrior woman got me seated on our fireside sitting log, pulled off my soaked socks one at a time, drying my stupid tootsies one at a time, getting them into clean dry socks. “Now,” she stated firmly, “back into the sleeping bag, babe. Until I can get these fires built back up. We need to get you some warmth.”
Couldn’t argue with her there. I curled up in the fetal position, still shivering and shaking. She was fast, though; it wasn’t long before she had the middle fire well stoked and stacked with wood. By the time she got the second one going, I felt I could talk a little, though my teeth still chattered a bit.
“O-old man’s dead.”
She didn’t look up from her work. When Sissy Harms focused, she really focused. “Your Dad?”
“My biological father,” I corrected her. “He never was my Dad. Not in any way, shape, or form.”
“Never had a dream hit me quite like that, but maybe. Seemed more like a straight out of body experience.” I stopped talking for a moment, opening the sleeping bag to let my frosty feet feel the heat.
“Details?” She already had fire #2 up and running. She moved on to #3.
“Figured, if witnessing it made you hurl like that.”
“I’m…I’m feeling b-better now, I think. But yeah. Wasn’t pretty. Neither was he. He got jumped by a couple of guys who cut him up pretty good. Fought his way out of it, but then went down. Died in the hospital. Doctors saying he should have made it, so they did an autopsy. His liver was mustard yellow and his lungs full of green stuff.”
“Hm. Honey, I’m surprised he made it this long, considering how long ago it was that you found him lording over other homeless guys as King of the Sand Dunes. That can’t be a formula for Live Long and Prosper.”
I sighed, more in relief at realizing the nausea seemed to be staying away than anything else. “True that. He was a tough old piece of dirt, though. I didn’t…the sickness? It didn’t feel like that was because it hurt to see him go. It was more…like when he passed, there was a giant parasite inside my body that got yanked out forcibly. A shock to the system, you know? But in the end, a really good thing.”
Sissy didn’t respond to that, but my brain finally started working. Had the nasty bastard who donated half of my DNA…had he somehow tied into one or more of my inner bodies, sucking off my energy for years? The more I thought about it, the more I knew it sounded exactly like something he would do.
Gray light was the most we got that day. The storm never gave the slightest sign of quitting, so we made the most of it with plenty of trips to the sleeping bag, an endlessly surprising variety of meals and snacks from the oversized pack that would be a whole lot lighter on the return trip, and snuggle sessions where we pillow talked a lot despite lacking pillows.
It was during one such session that I finally opened up for real. “I feel like a failure, Sis.”
“No, I really do. Not in all things, you understand. I don’t blame myself for Sam’s death; Morse Code was sicced on him before I really had a clue. But losing Jennifer and Horace…that never should have happened. Should have been able to keep Jude from having to take a bullet, too.”
I could feel my girl’s confusion. We were lying spooned but hardly asleep. As she lay on her side, she watched the flickering flames, and so did I. “Survivor’s guilt?” She asked finally, her voice so quiet and gentle that I barely heard it.
“More than that. Three weeks before the attack where they were killed, we had a major meeting.”
“I don’t remember….”
“You wouldn’t. You were working security that day; you weren’t in the meeting, and Judi was home with the girls. I only mentioned the highlights later. What I failed to mention was that Jennifer and Horace both thought we should go on the offensive then and there. Even Jack thought they might have a point. And you know why we didn’t do that? The only reason we didn’t do that?”
Sissy was never stupid. She got it. “You overrode them?”
“I did. And twenty-one days later, two of my best friends died for my sins. For me thinking I knew better than they did.”
“Here’s where you’re supposed to say something supportive and magically reassuring.”
“I’m thinking. I’m thinking.” She shoved her nice, warm, utterly naked butt back into me. Maybe that’s where she kept her thinking apparatus. “Don’t want to go off half cocked here…okay. I’m supposed to be your therapist for this CCS, right? So lets get up for a while and talk this out.”
“Uh…sure. Except…what’s a CCS?”
“Cave Counseling Session, dummy.”
“Oh. Right. I knew that.” For lack of anything more brilliant to do after finding my way back into my cave clothes and taking a seat on the log, I picked up a stick of firewood, got out my survival knife, and began whittling. The result wouldn’t be any masterful sculpture, but the shavings could always serve as tinder the next time we slept through the night and let all three fires go out. “CCS away.”
“Session is in session,” she intoned, an ancient priestess calling up her gods. “First thing, Tree. Is that your pivot point? That is, are you okay with your planning and tactical decisions up to that point? Nothing horrific before you bulldozed everybody in that meeting?”
I hesitated before answering. Sissy didn’t ask stupid or pointless questions; she deserved straight answers. “Yeah. Pretty much. Sam Trace was still calling the shots up until the day he got killed, so it’d be highly juvenile of me to shoulder guilt for that. The men we lost over the years were hard hits, all of them, but no one ever came up with a better plan, so I pretty much have to live with those casualties without beating myself to death. You pinned it; me going all bossified in that last meeting, that’s definitely my point of pain.”
“Uh-huh.” Sissy moved to add a few sticks to the fire and check the pot hanging from the tripod. “The stew is looking good. Probably be dark before it’s perfect, but it’ll definitely be hot and yummy by then.”
“I had no doubt. You were saying.”
She sat back down and patted me on the knee. “Treemin Jackson, you haven’t thought it through.”
“That’s why I brought it up,” I admitted miserably. “It’s been eating at me something fierce. They all looked to me, and I got two of the best people on Earth killed by not going on the offensive in time. Almost got our Judi terminated to boot. I don’t think I was the right one calling the shots, sweetheart. I’ll never know why we didn’t put Jack Hill in charge of combat operations from the get-go.”
“Ah. So that’s it.” My shape shifting lover got up again, stoked up the right hand fire, and poured cups of coffee from the battered pot hung over that tripod. Only after she sat back down, handing me my scalding hot cup–the heat barely felt through the buckskin gloves we wore even inside the cave–did she continue. “Honey, Jack Hill is no leader.”
My jaw dropped. “N-no leader!” I sputtered, for a few seconds unable to string my thoughts together. “What are you talking about? The Wizard has combat experience going back to the Civil War. On both sides. He’s a walking weapon, the likes of which would turn any nation’s military green with envy. Heck, even back when we first met, he was leading his own household pretty darned effectively, three slaves and none of you tossing so much as a cross word at each other. He was brilliant when he led us into the mountains against Morse Code. He–”
“Hold on now, hoss.” She sipped at her coffee. It cooled rapidly in this temperature. We drank it black, of course; camping out and bringing whitener along was just too citified for words. Oversized pack or not, that would have ruined our self images. “Think about what you just said. Yes, he took point on the Morse Code mission. Who else was there? Treemin, you were still in your early twenties, with a few Wolf War runs under your belt but not much else. You weren’t ready. But you’ve never once seen him take command of a large force, have you?”
“Well, no, but–”
“Hold on. You’re dead right that Jack is a solid head of household, but then, isn’t every man supposed to be king of his own castle? Not counting the emasculated male members of the population who grow up believing the politically correct dogma according to liberal doctrine. But his combat experience in the Civil War was line infantry fighting. He’d make one helluva Special Forces operative, the ultimate secret weapon if you will. He loves tinkering with things like Wolf Cave and manufacturing gun barrels, machinist type work. But take charge of a larger unit? Direct the disparate parts, assigning various people to time-critical duties and then trusting them to get things done as directed? No. Never.”
“No. Beloved, Jack Hill is a thousand times too paranoid to be an effective leader. He could never delegate and believe the way you do.”
I felt the beginnings of a paradigm shift within my consciousness, but I still had to ask. “Are you sure?”
“As sure as anything. You, I believe he would trust. The working bond between the two of you is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. But trust Seed and Beets, the former assassins? Never. He never has and he never will. You know he has more surveillance tricks set up on their side of his property than anywhere else.”
“True. What about Jordan Phreeb, though? He’d have no reason to doubt Jordan, would he?”
“Honey, the Wizard doesn’t need a reason. Jack does trust your instincts, so he’ll work with Jordan because you do, but trust the former Marine on his own merits? Not so much. He does trust Wayne Bruce and Carolyn West to do as they’re told–mostly, anyway–but he never trusted me beyond a certain point. He saved my butt without hesitating, but every bit of information he and the others shared with me was strictly on a need to know basis.”
We kicked the topic around for some time, me going through people who were or had been in our Inner Circle. By the end of our discussion, I felt the truth of her analysis, and I could see that I’d become the leader of our group, both in business and in war, mostly by default. There really wasn’t anybody more qualified to get the job done.
It was still a hard pill to swallow. I’d screwed up badly, yet I was the best we had? That really sucked.
But she wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot.
“We’re going to need more firewood by sometime tomorrow,” she pointed out. At first, I thought that was her woman’s way of saying I’d screwed up again and had better brace myself for many frigid hours of branch stomping, but that wasn’t Sissy’s way. She had the domestic side of the cave premises set up well enough; she’d no doubt be right out there with me, stomping and carrying.
I’d brought a camp saw in my pack, of course, but it was a point of pride to get by without it as much as possible. That, and the saw was slow. Helpful, at times even necessary, but definitely slow.
She got back to getting my head screwed on straight.
“We’ve settled Part A, agreed that you had to be–and still have to be–Rodeo Iron’s undisputed leader. Commander. Whatever we call it. Right?”
“Whatever you say. Yeah. Right.” My turn to pour the coffee. I got to it, listening to both the wind outside and the sage analysis being given inside the cave.
“Okay. What would have happened if you’d gone along with the others and launched a strike against Heartbite in Michigan three weeks before you did?”
“Seriously? Jennifer and Horace might still be alive. Judi might never have been shot.”
“I notice you don’t mention your own wounds, or mine either,” she observed drily. “But moving right along. Yes, it’s possible that could have worked out. But were the odds in our favor? I hardly think so.
“For one thing, we killed a whole bunch of the enemy in that last attack of theirs. Dozens of them, both the standard human mercs they called Expendables and the shifters, and at least ten of those shifters were vams. If we’d moved really fast after that earlier meeting, the timing would have been all wrong. We wouldn’t have met Chilly Bronson in time to find out what we were up against, so we’d have been going in blind. You’d never have taken all the firepower away from Montana, so it would still have been just the three of us, but without the crucial help we got on site from the kid werewolves. It was scary close as it was, considering the fact that we almost lost Jack, yet we’d have been facing every one of those fighters Kraznick sent to Montana on that fateful day in addition to what we did face. In other words, there’s no way we’d have succeeded in taking Kraznick out.
“Or maybe we’d have missed each other en route, and while we were battling it out at Heartbite headquarters, our home crew would have faced that overwhelming onslaught without its three top warriors. You know how Custer made his name as an Indian fighter, don’t you?”
I saw where she was going with this. Didn’t like it much. “Duh.” A grin started sneaking toward the front of my face; I headed it off by singing the pertinent lyrics from the classic Johnny Cash hit.
Now Custer done his fightin’ without too much excitin’
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
General Custer come in pumpin’ when the men were out a huntin’
But the General he don’t ride well anymore
With victories he was swimmin’ he killed children dogs and women
But the General he don’t ride well anymore
“Treemin Jackson,” she sighed with pleasure, leaning against my shoulder. “I do love it when you sing Johnny Cash. Did you know I sometimes mock you up as him in my dreams?”
“No. Didn’t know that.”
“I do. Anyway, that sums it up. Had we three been on the road or fighting in Michigan when Kraznick come in pumpin’, he’d have killed all the children, dogs, and women he could find. By proxy, of course; it’s not like he ever led from the front like old Iron Ass Custer did.”
“Point being,” I mused, “you think I did it right.”
“Yep. We had a mole in our camp, your formerly esteemed uncle, and still you led us to victory over an opponent who had superior numbers, all the money in the world, and some pretty ugly supernatural fighters on his side.”
“So knock it off, cowboy. Get off the pity pot. Or I’ll stop holding back when we spar.”
“Wha–wait. You’ve been holding back? No way.”
“Way. Deal with it.”
“When we spar. Your padded quarterstaff against my leather wrapped sword. You’ve been holding back.”
“Sure have. A girl’s gotta have a bit of light exercise. Beat the big bad macho swordsman and his fwagile widdle ego might make him quit the game altogether, doncha know.”
That did it. We still had an hour of good light left in the day. The storm hadn’t let up, which was just fine with me.
Or so I thought. It didn’t take long before I found myself thoroughly grateful for our heavy winter clothing; it softened the blows a little bit. Not that much, really, but just enough to keep my injuries down to a series of bruises rather than a series of broken bones.
She’d nailed me with more than twenty potentially disabling strokes including two upside the head that rang my bell pretty good. I’d scored on her exactly three times.
We returned to the cave once it got too dark to see the weapons clearly. Inside, once the fires were stoked back up, we stripped off our parkas. “Ow,” I muttered. My good right arm was not so good at the moment. I was exhausted, sore from head to toe, and probably had a mild concussion.
But my mind wasn’t tangled any more. Not one little bit. Therapy by Sissy Harms: Beat the self-pitying fool like a drum and give him something else to worry about.
“Stew’s ready,” she announced cheerfully. Further, she filled my bowl for me, back to being the dutiful cave wife. I noticed her limp. Not a bad one, but that single blunted sword strike to her thigh had apparently scored more than a minor hit.
After supper, it didn’t take us long to strip down and crawl into the sleeping bag, where we held each other with the most extreme and tender loving care. “Told you I’d been holding back,” she murmured sleepily.
“That you did. You weren’t lying. Ow.”
“Cheer up, big guy. There aren’t that many quarterstaff experts running around the hills these days.”
“Good thing,” I muttered. “At least, if we ever get involved with a Renaissance Fair, I’ll know not to underestimate the guys with the big sticks.”
“Good plan, boss man.” At least, I thought that was what she said. I couldn’t ask her to repeat it, though; my beloved warrior woman was already asleep, snoring steadily.