“That’s right, Tree.” Jack Hill held the burner phone tight to his ear, turning off the truck’s engine to hear better. This pullout provided a mighty fine view but no great signal strength. The next turnoff would take him up into the hills, a boneyard dead cell tower zone or he missed his guess. “Frank’s son, William, took the Impala. His contact on the Rez has the necessary windows in stock, says he can get the shot out ones replaced by supper time, but there’s no way the man will let a stranger get a look at his place. Sim has William’s car for the day. He’s just hanging around Show Low, acting the part of the old retired rancher who’s a lot more stove up than he really is. Louella stirred up a Realtor who can’t decide whether to sh*t or go blind, squiring this good looking woman around who might get him a handsome commission for his efforts. Me, I’m about an hour out of town, fixing to look up an old man who knows more about this country and the people in it than you could possibly imagine.”
The Weaver’s voice perked right up at that. “That sounds like it’s worth doing, Jack. You’re confident this contact of yours won’t talk out of school?”
Hill snorted. “Not hardly. More to the point, I don’t even know if he’s still alive. Been twenty-three years since I was out this way. He was no spring chicken even then. Besides which, I got to find his place before anything else. There’s been some roads cut through this area that weren’t here before.”
“Urban sprawl, Arizona style?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“Well, we’re coming up pretty dry at this end. Philip dug deep on the late Mr. Larson and his lady. Nothing there, not that’s made it to cyber world, anyway. He did find one tidbit. Might be nothing, might be something. There’s a restaurant owner down there, name of Cornelius Reuben, proprietor of the Texas Load Café in Show Low. Fairly new; I don’t think it was in business two years ago. Nothing on social media, no website or anything, but Philip found a couple of mentions of him in the White Mountain Independent. One time, he was in court for manhandling a Native man who came into his place drunk–might have been more to it than that, but that was the gist of the article. There were no witnesses, so it was the red man’s word against the white man’s, and the assault charge was dropped. The other was just a mention in the Sheriff’s Log that he’d been thrown in jail for mouthing off to a deputy who stopped him for expired tags on his vehicle. At least we think that’s what he did; neither Phil nor I could be sure, the way it was worded. The Native in the first article was quoted as saying he wasn’t drunk or even drinking, just asked Reuben why he opened a Texas café in Arizona, and that set him off.”
“The only good Indian is a dead Indian. Guy with a short fuse,” Jack mused. There might be something to it, or there might not. It was something to check out, anyway. Shouldn’t be too hard to get a restaurant owner’s fingerprints without him knowing it, right? See if they matched up to those on the rifle. “Oh, hey, Tree? I forgot to tell you, Lou lifted some pretty decent prints off of that .30-06 the sniper used to get our attention. Some from the Dead Indian note, too. Definitely not the same fingers; even I could tell that much. She took pictures of everything, said she’d be emailing them to you before she went out with Mr. Enthusiastic Realtor to look at properties for sale.”
“Ah. Haven’t checked my email since breakfast. I’ll root those out, turn them over to Philip.”
“So, cowboy, you about to hit the road?”
“Another hour or two. Jordan’s crew, along with Seed and Beets, have got things buttoned up pretty tight here. They’ll be able to keep the gate open for the welders, but nobody we don’t know will be coming up to either the houses or the office without being challenged. Sissy and I’ll be bringing the Pontiac, flying low. Should roll in to Frank’s place sometime tomorrow evening, after dark but before midnight. You’re sure he’s got room enough for us?”
“Close enough. Bring your bedrolls. He’s got a spare bedroom with a double mattress and a couch in the living room, but he’s a bit short on bedding, thanks to his last divorce. Before he left Nevada to come back home, his wife got the uranium mine and he got the shaft. Poured every dime he could find into getting Rodeo Iron Arizona, Slow Low Franchise, up and running. Didn’t figure extra pillows and blankets would do much to pay the bills.”
“I can relate to that.”
They signed off. Jack sat a moment longer, cogitating on their conversation. Cornelius Reuben, eh? It was a start, maybe. He got out of the truck and took a leak, grinning when he heard an old tom turkey gobbling up on the juniper covered hillside. It was good to be home, or at least a place he’d called home at one time. And might again, depending on how the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse went.
It took him three tries to get the ’54 Chevy’s door shut all the way. The door worked all right; it just hung a wee bit crooked on the hinges these days. The ancient dull green stock paint, what was left of it, had faded to a sort of mottled gray. The off rear fender had an impressive dent in it. There was plenty of rust–he was suddenly reminded of the old comedy hit song, Rusty Chevrolet, by Da Yoopers. “Those were the days,” he said aloud, slapping the dusty dash affectionately. “Even got the requisite old mouse nest in the jockey box.” That, and the incongruously bright Navajo blanket covering the holes in the seat fabric, not to mention the lack of a foot pedal for punching the gas. To make the beast go, you had to push your booted foot–don’t try it with soft soled shoes–directly on the narrow steel lever. Try that with a worn Walmart tennis shoe and you’d cleave your foot plumb in half, given time.
In other words, the old beater was perfect; nobody seeing him pull him up in this would ever mistake him for a rich tourist or government puke.
Besides, it was a sleeper. Originally a farm truck, the Chevy had come from the factory with an anemic straight six, but that engine was long gone. In its place, crowding the space something fierce, rested a healthy 283 V-8…with 327 heads…a four barrel Rochester carb…and exhaust pipes that led to a pair of classic glass pack mufflers. No tail pipes, so those mufflers, held up with multiple wraps of baling wire, blew their sweet, throaty notes right up under the driver’ ass.
“Couple of things,” Frank had told him. “Granddad loved messing with young guys driving muscle cars, so he never changed out the original .411 rear end. She don’t have a lot of top end, purely tops out around 105 mph, but from a stop light up to about 95, she’s a screaming demon. Oh, and you can see that’s still the old four on the floor, too. If you hit 80 in third, it’ll try to jump out of gear on you. You have to hold it in gear.”
Jack didn’t intend to run the antique up to 80 in third, but that was still good to know. If he did have to scat for any reason, he wouldn’t want to suddenly find himself free wheeling without warning.
He’d lied to Treemin about one thing. It was true that new roads had been cut here and there, but the Wizard knew where he was. Exactly where. He should; the painted metal signs hung on Garmin’s property line fence were kind of hard to miss.
WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT
Two of those signs flanked the first gate, framing the signs that hung on the gate itself.
“Looks like the Trevalyan clan is still standing vertical and taking nourishment.” Hill grinned ear to ear as he parked the truck and got out, leaving his hat on the blanket covered seat. Stepping right up to the gate, he raised his hands high, crossing his wrists above his own head. They could have changed the signal, but not likely. Besides, circling his own head like that provided a perfect bullseye, should one of the boys decide to shoot his eyeballs out.
They could, too.
He held the pose for a count of ten, long enough for the hidden sentinel cameras to get a clear portrait logged into their system, then calmly unlatched the steel pipe gate and swung it open. It wasn’t locked; the Trevalyan security system was more active than passive. The gate was manufactured by Rodeo Iron, he noted; his old friend never would settle for anything but the best. Shutting the gate behind himself like anyone familiar with country ways would do, he drove on up to the compound, taking it easy, as close to 5 miles per hour as he could manage. There were three more fences, three more sets of signs.
DO YA FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?
That was gate number two.
IF YOU DON’T HAVE
A BAD FEELING ABOUT
THIS, YOU SHOULD HAVE
Number 3. And finally, gate number 4.
BETTER TO BE TRIED BY TWELVE
THAN CARRIED BY SIX
The row of small round windows peered at me like so many demented owl eyes, dark, deep, harbingers of death. Fronting the only exposed portion of the underground house and bracketing the heavy steel door, they could have been so many portholes along the side of a ship sunk in earth rather than water. There was the sound of heavy bolts being withdrawn, more reminiscent of those on a bank vault door than anything else, then the door swung open without a sound. Mighty fine lubrication on those heavy hinges.
Coming from bright sunlight, it looked pitch dark in there. I kept my poker face in place and stepped inside, not daring to hesitate. Two steps beyond the door, blind as a bat but lacking the squeaker’s finely tuned sonar, I stopped, waiting as the massive door closed behind me, locking me in as surely as any terrorist ever held at Guantanamo Bay. There was the soft sound of breathing, slightly labored, but I couldn’t pin down the direction. It wasn’t mine; mostly, I wasn’t breathing at all.
The lights came up slow-like. The room wasn’t exactly overwhelming, but sizeable. At the far end, to one side of a doorway that led who knew where, sat a massive Native man. Navajo, clearly, but not fullblood. There’d been another kinda redskin in that particular woodpile. Black eyes regarded me impassively as two other men flanked me, neither as heavy as the one seated, but neither of ’em splinters by any stretch of the imagination. Slowly, the big man’s lips twitched, then split in an ear to ear grin that exposed a couple of gaps in his yellowed teeth. Made him look sorta like a demented jack-o’-lantern.
“Wizard!” Were a man to measure the fellow’s voice with a decibel meter, it’d not show as being all that loud, yet it boomed anyway. “Talk about a blast from the past!”
Striding forward, my face splitting in a grin of my own, I thrust out my hand and watched it disappear in Garvin Trevalyan’s meaty paw. “How the hell are ya, Garv?”
He didn’t get up. Couldn’t. Not with his final covert op for the CIA having gone south the way it did, he couldn’t. A severed spinal cord has that effect on some folks. Still, even seated, he managed to give the impression of looming. Trevalyan could fill a room by his lonesome old self, that was for sure. “Still vertical and taking nourishment, Jack. Half vertical, anyway.”
“Close enough for company work.” I gave each of his sons a quick nod of acknowledgement, toed a chair over to where it’d do me some good, and parked my carcass across the table from the toughest man I knew. “Double entendre intended on the company part. Gotta admit, I’m some impressed they haven’t burnt you out yet.”
“Ain’t like they haven’t tried.” The former field operative’s good humor never wavered. “Along about five years back…five, was it, boys?”
“Four, Paw. You’d just passed your ninetieth birthday, remember?” The answer came from behind me. Wasn’t sure which man had answered, but he was the one who wasn’t busy with the coffee maker. We’d be having fresh brew before long. Which was a good thing; I was suddenly craving something fierce.
“Right. Four years, then. Guess some of the knuckleheads at Langley thought it was time. Lot of the hotshots I had the dirt on had either died off or gotten close enough to as to make no nevermind. Reckon they assumed I was old and feeble, not just cripped up a bit. You oughta seen it, Jack.” He chuckled, the light of genuine joy in his eyes. “They persuaded the FBI, the DEA, and a few other alphabet agencies to take us out ’cause we was, you know, too dangerous to leave alive. Meaning we’re off by ourselves enough that they could surround the place without the press getting wise. Bottle us up until we come out and surrendered for being ready to shoot feds, treat us all as domestic terrorists. Fun times.”
“They had you surrounded?” I felt my eyebrows rise up toward my missing hair. “Musta done one fine job on the news blackout. I missed that one completely.”
“Aw, hell, Hill, I was wishing you was here. Truly I was. They were set up with some fairly heavy stuff, enough to at least knock the paint off the concrete out in front. Jamie counted twenty-seven vehicles one day. Choppers, too, though they kept ’em low and had ’em painted up to look like Forest Service instead of black ops.”
“Wait a second.” I was trying to get my head wrapped around all of this. “You mean a bunch of different agencies coordinated on a covert takedown? That’s…unusual.”
“Ha!” Garvin slapped the table, making it jump. “Me and mine are unusual targets, doncha know! It was the funniest damn thing you ever seen. For one week straight, after they tried yelling at us through their loudspeakers, telling us to come out with our hands up and all that bullcrap, they set up this godawful heavy metal music track and let ‘er rip. There’s been people beat down by that sort of thing, but in here, hell, you couldn’t hardly hear it at all. I think it likely sent a few of their own people to the funny farm, but not us. We let it go on for a while. About the…ninth night, was it, Jake?”
“Yes, Paw. The ninth.”
“My memory ain’t one hunnert percent completely what it was, Wiz. Was-wiz. Should be a tongue twister in there somewhere. The ninth night, we could tell they were getting ready to try something new and wonderful. Long about three in the morning, here they come. Came busting through the fence. None of ’em used the gate; guess they feared it might be booby trapped.”
“And was it?”
“Oh hell yes! But them boys are all pussies. Not a one of ’em wanted to find out the hard way. You’d think having their family jewels blown to Kingdom Come by a little old IED would be a blessing, what with today’s divorce rate and all. Save ’em time and money both. That coffee ready, Jamie?”
“I’m Jake, Paw. Yes, it’s ready. Cream or sugar, Wizard?”
“Cream,” I said. “Jake, you weren’t but about nine, ten years old, last time I seen you.”
“Eleven. I was small for my size until age fifteen. Then I shot up like somebody’s stuck me in the ass with a needle full of Jack-and-the-beanstalk juice.”
“Ah. Garvin, you were saying.”
“I was? Yeah, I was. All today’s field guys are pussies. Not even enough balls to risk losing their balls. So they crash through the fence with a couple of special SWAT Bearcat type vehicles, only them Bearcats had big V-plow bumpers added on the front for such formidable obstacles as the terrifying bobwire fence. We let ’em do that, figuring they need to build a bit of confidence. Wouldn’t want to hurt their self esteem. Most of ’em prob’ly grew up on them participation ribbons and such. But when they got to the second fence and fired off a round or two, explosive cannon ordnance that chipped the paint on our front wall, that was crossing the line. So Jake here–”
“Jamie, Paw. I’m Jamie. It was me that done it.”
“Well, hell, son, why don’t you just tell the rest the damn story!”
“He gets cranky when his piss bag ain’t been changed in a while.” Jamie shook his head sadly. “And he’s too damn lazy to change it till it backs up to his eyeballs.”
I sat back, sipping my coffee, enjoying the hell outa myself. The women folk would be in back, out of sight for now but listening in on every word. If there was any women folk left with this bunch; it was hard to tell, and I wasn’t asking. For the first time since Treemin Jackson had come into my life and started stirring things up by his very presence, his natural born ability to magnetize crapola right to us, I found myself totally relaxed. It wouldn’t last long; I couldn’t afford more than two or three hours here, and come to think of it, a measured dose of the Trevalyan clan was sometimes a lot more therapeutic than being around them long term, but damn, this was good coffee. “So, Jamie, you gonna tell it?”
“Guess I gotta. I tell ya, Jack, having a Daddy who was in his fifties before he started siring colts he’d admit to, that’ll wear on a man some. Old fart can’t even finish his own story.”
The senior Trevalyan didn’t say a thing, just glared at his son. I ain’t never seen more love in a man’s glare, tell you what.
“You remember that old Sharps you give him, right?”
“I surely do.” Took me a moment, though. I hadn’t thought about that antique buffalo gun in decades.
“He give it to me, said if I learned to make my own black powder and shoot it straight, I could keep it. Had to hunt around for a new Creedmore sight to fit it, practiced a bit ever week for years, but depending on the wind, I can mostly hit a gallon coffee can at 800 yards or so. The lead Bearcat was closer than that, so I let a round rip and knocked the machine on its butt.”
Jamie stopped, waiting to see if I’d take the bait. Anybody who knows anything about the Bearcat is aware that a single black powder .50 caliber round wouldn’t do much to the Cat. After the silence had stretched a bit, I said, “You’re telling the story. I’m just listening.”
“Paw was right. You’re no damn fun at all. We have a number of buried steel plates out front, scattered around in strategic locations. They’re not all the same size, but this one was half inch plate steel, four feet one way by ten the other. We’ve got explosive charges set up underneath the plates for just that scenario. Gives us the option of discouraging a vehicle or three without killing everybody inside. Make ’em feel vulnerable, see? So that old Sharps didn’t have to do anything to the Bearcat directly; it just had to hit the trigger target we’d put in place a long time before this happened. I touched off the round, it smacked the trigger just as the Cat’s front wheels rolled into position, that plate pushed up from the ground with enough force to launch a fair sized rocket into space, and that there invulnerable assault vehicle done a back somersault like a really chunky gymnast and laid there on its back, spinning its wheels like a turtle upside down on a fence post, waving its legs in the air.”
“Kill anybody?” Garvin Trevalyan had done plenty of wet work in his day, but I didn’t think he’d care much for the idea of greasing a bunch of kids in a Cat who didn’t know any better.
“Don’t believe so. Banged ’em around a little. A few broken bones, maybe a concussion or two.”
“Don’t tell me they quit then, ’cause I ain’t believing it.” I stretched my legs out, closing my eyes to savor the coffee. Damn good stuff, whatever brand it was. I knew they ground their own beans, but no more than that.
“Course not.” Garvin took over again, his sizeable paunch jiggling as he struggled to contain his mirth. “When we broadcast through our speakers that they was trespassing, they did beats feet back to just outside the first fence. Gotta give somebody credit, too; a team came in that night after dark, as if we didn’t have night vision. We let ’em hook an ungodly long cable to the Cat and drag it outa there. That’s what they did, too. Didn’t even try getting it back on its feet till they was off our property. Then they went back to just hanging around out there, broadcasting their demands for our surrender ever now and again. It got plumb boring after a while, Jake volunteered to hold the fort one day while the rest of us went out the back way. Made us a day of it, too. Drove into Phoenix, went to the movies, had us a mighty fine meal at Red Lobster, loaded up on groceries, and came on back.”
“They never knew you were gone?” My grin was back. Couldn’t seem to get rid of it.
“I’m sure they woulda missed us if they’d known. We didn’t wanna hurt their feelings none.”
“Course not.” I’d already gone through my first cup. Jake was there with the pot by the time I realized I needed a refill. He’d have made some café owner a damn fine waitress…if they was partial to dark eyed Native waitresses standing well over six feet, with prominent Adam’s apples. “So how’d it wrap up?”
“Well, them boys obviously needed a refresher course in Don’t Mess With Us 101, so we let ’em do their thing, long as they weren’t over the property line, for…how long was it, Jake?”
“Thirty-three days total, Paw.”
“Thirty-three days. Then it was Jake’s turn to play. The whole thing was getting kind of boring by then, so I give him the okay. He and Gussie went out the back way, went to the movies, had ’em a mighty fine meal at Red Lobster, picked up some groceries. On the way outa town, they dropped a few envelopes in the mail, addressed to certain influential individuals. They never did find a single one of our surveillance cameras, so DVD’s in the envelopes showed footage of the siege with me narrating. I’m purty sure that’s what done it. Couldn’t have had anything to do with the incriminating video clips of the President–he was the President then, not now–fornicating his happy little heart out with a couple of transvestite whores. A three pronged threesome.”
I kept a straight face. Barely. “That would do it.”
“So tell me, Jack.” Trevalyan shifted in his motorized wheelchair, his heavily muscled arms making short work of the adjustment. “You ain’t out this way for your health. Come to check out your bolt hole?”
“Partly.” I shrugged, thinking how I wanted to say what I wanted to say. “Got an excuse to do so, so I’m using it. Been quiet over there?” There were only three ridges between my property and Trevalyan’s. Besides which, the only way to get there, short of a chopper, was right past Garvin’s front gate.
“Is now. You had some wannabe squatters not long ago. Just last fall, in fact. It was last fall, right, Jamie?”
“One before that, Paw.”
“Uh. Okay. Two autumns ago. We seen ’em truck on by on the road. They didn’t come out, so a few days later, the boys wandered over that way to have a looksee. They had an old Dodge Ram and a fifth wheel trailer. Looked to be a man and his wife, plus one other feller. Bearded, scruffy types. They’d done skirted that fifth wheel in right snuglike already, looked like they was fixing to stay the winter.”
“The hell you say.”
“The hell I don’t. Boys asked me if I’d care to take a little moonlight ride. They saddled up old Tex for me. He’s since your time, half Percheron, gentle as a lamb. Stands plumb steady while I get hoisted up there, then the boys strap me into the saddle. They caught up their own saddle mounts, we each took a rifle, and the three of us made it on over there around midnight. Set up so’s we could all pop caps without hitting one another in the crossfire, then let the fireworks begin. We all had night scopes on our shooters, so like they say, we owned the night. I prob’ly ain’t as accurate as I used to be, shooting from the back of old Tex, so I was in it mostly to make noise, but I figured out right quick-like I could hit the big rear bumper on that Ram, so I let ‘er ring. Jake’s got a sweet full auto AK, so he set that for three round bursts and started in on the little generator they had humming away. Weren’t humming for long. He kinda felt bad about hurting an innocent machine like that, but if the gunfire hadn’t got their attention already, the lights going out surely did. Jamie spotted a bunch of antennas on that fifth wheel, so he knocked all them out, including their TV satellite dish. Or maybe it was mobile Internet. Whatever; he shot the sh*t out of it.
“They had to know we coulda Swiss cheesed that thin walled camp trailer; no way they could be that dumb. We figured the hunnert or so rounds we laid down there should likely have sent the message, but it never pays to assume. Besides, we was having way too much fun to call it quits just then. We did quit shooting, but then the boys worked their way back up to where I was. We picked out a spot to hide the horses, they rigged a block and tackle up to a tree limb to get me down off of old Tex, and we made us a little campfire where they couldn’t see it. Roasted s’mores, set a few cameras up to record their activities, and waited. Believe I slept some. They was mighty quiet down there, afraid of the boogey man in the dark. But at first light, as soon as they could see to the treeline, we seen the husband crack the door on that camper and peek out.
“When he didn’t get shot at, he finally come on out, followed by the other man. They ripped that skirting loose and hooked up to the truck in twenty minutes flat. Don’t believe the speed they took out of that rough country did that camper no good, and most likely the missus was bouncing around in there something fierce. She never did leave the trailer, at least not till it was out of our sight.”
I set my cup down on the table so’s I could use both hands, thumbs up to every Trevalyan man in the room. “Appreciate what you done, neighbor. And the way you done it.”
“De nada. They never bothered to mess with that skirting, once it was off the trailer. It’s still over there, just a mess, lying on the ground, making things ugly.”
“I can live with that.” I tapped my chin, pondering, only half aware I was doing it. “You ever heard of a man by the name of Sim Bowles?”
Paraplegic or not, Garvin Trevalyan sat up a bit straighter at that. “Sim Bowles, you say?”
“How’d you cross his trail, Wizard?”
“Long story. First off, I found the Weaver.”
“The hell you say–wait a minute…well, I’ll be damned. He’s the black man in that YouTube video, ain’t he?”
“Which YouTube video?”
“Which–about, what, ten years ago? The one involving a log across the highway and some dumbass too stupid to stop before he smacked into it. That YouTube video.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, that’s the Weaver. He hadn’t remembered his true identity back then.”
“He has now?”
“More or less. Seems like he’s still fighting the bit some, but yeah. He knows. And his Momma is hooked up with Sim Bowles. Has been for better’n thirty years now.”
“Damn. Sim Bowles is…Wizard, if he’s on your side, that’s not a bad thing. You know him as a rancher, right?”
“Retired. Guess he’d more or less have to be. Sim ain’t no spring chicken, no more than I am.”
“Sounds like you know him pretty well.”
“Kinda sorta. First thing is, his name ain’t Sim Bowles.”