By the time I rolled into the hollow and shut the Chevy down to sit a while and take the measure of the place, there was maybe three hours of sunshine left. Would have been less except for the low saddle to the southwest that lined up with the setting sun at this time of year. I was grateful for that saddle; it give me a way to get farther back into the mountains in a hurry, should I be living here someday and be needing to slip out quiet-like.
It was good to ease right back into the way of thinking and talking that was closer to my roots than what I used around modern society these days. Although, truth be told, it was kind of a bastard hybrid way of putting words together. Part nineteenth century, part twentieth, part twenty-first.
Miss them old times, do ya? Yeah. A bit, here and there. You know them old times was harder’n a cob an’ twice as nasty, doncha? Or are you gone plum senile, you old coot? Eh?
I didn’t say none a them things aloud, my head being back in wilderness survival mode. Instead, I just sat there, my butt warming that Navajo blanket as I listened to the sounds of the truck’s cooling engine. Right fine piece of machinery, that Chevy. I’d flat out steal it from old Frank, ‘cept for it having been his granddaddy’s.
The mess of skirting was about half hidden in last year’s dead grass. Not hidden near enough, though; I’d have to throw all that in the back a the truck before heading out. Clean up the meadow a mite.
Fragments of my conversation with Garvin Trevalyan and his boys kept floating through my consciousness. Mostly, I let ’em float. Learned a long time ago it was best to do it that way. Sorta soak everything into what passed for gray matter between my ears.
No songbirds around; the migratin’ types were all down in Mexico or South America or wherever.
“I was forty-one that year”, Garvin said, his black eyes betraying nothing. “The Company had me down in one of them South American sh*tholes, running guns to a bunch of rebels the President of the moment wanted to use to topple the current dictator. Jungle, snakes, bugs, bad water, ever kind of disease known to man and a fair number that ain’t. In other words, same old, same old. I’d been operating alone since my partner contracted a case of amoebic dysentery that got him shipped back to Walter Reed. Never made it; the poor bastard died on the way outa the jungle. So what did them brilliant assholes do? Sent me a brand new wet behind the ears rookie, right out of training. Tall drink of water, not an ounce of fat on him, name of Jefferson Corder.”
“Couldn’t have been the first rookie you had to train, was he?”
Trevalyan snorted. “Sh*t no; I got stuck with a boatload of ’em over the years. But he was the first one that weren’t looking to be career CIA. Field operative, my ass; this kid had joined the Peace Corps. He figured his life mission was to teach these little jungle villages about hygiene, purifying water, cleanliness is next to Godliness, that kind of crap. All the Agency training he’d received was an instruction to keep his eyes out for anything that looked funny and report it to me. And if I wasn’t handy, meaning I’d been killed or captured, he was to look up the Station Chief and report to him. As messed up as things had been for some time in them years, I couldn’t believe it. They’d sent me an effing pacifist.”
I was getting a bit stiff, sitting in that truck. Time to stretch my legs a bit. Frank Harding had loaned me his hunting knife and the leather sheath to go with it, just in case I needed to cut something. Or somebody. I slipped it onto my belt and started walking, slow and easy, figuring to make a circuit around the entire hollow, just up next to the tree line or maybe inside it a bit. Depended on the game trails.
Had to penetrate a couple hundred yards into those trees first, though. Lots of juniper, some pine, a bit of scrub oak. If wishes were fishes, there’d of been some Douglas fir, larch, and an occasional blue spruce in the mix, but these weren’t those kind of woods.
The spring looked good, far enough up the slope to provide ample water pressure to a habitation tucked up inside the trees a bit. Wouldn’t take a man with a pick and a #2 shovel more’n a day or two to dig it out deep and wide enough to slip an open bottom tank in there to serve as a cistern. I’d seen plenty of galvanized steel stock tanks get messed up from having a bottom that stopped all natural water flow. First thing you knew, you had slime top to bottom and big water bugs in there that’d take a chunk outa your finger if you were dumb enough to give ’em a taste. Run the pipe first, set a screen at the top end, then let the spring trickle-fill everything up to the top. It’d run out the top like usual, seep out the bottom natural-like, and you wouldn’t have to muck the bottom out and clean the screen more’n once a year or so.
There were seventeen rebels heading deep into the jungle. Idea was, this little force of Grade A assholes was s’posed to lead us to the area honcho. Near as the captain–he called himself El Capitan, anyway–near as he’d admit, it should take us a week or so of travel on foot. There weren’t no other way to get where we were going. The government had the river sewed up, and them so called freedom fighters couldn’t of flown a chopper if they’d had a hundred of ’em to practice on. Sh*t, none of ’em could even read. The captain pretended he could, but he wasn’t even very good at pretending. Any animal we’d of tried to take would have been shot by the government soldiers or eaten, either by a roving jaguar or by the rebels themselves. They was a ragtag motley crew, to be sure.
First thing that surprised me was, this Corder didn’t bitch much. He never complained about the skeeters or the leeches or chiggers, the heat or humidity, none a that. Second thing looked like trouble with a capital T. El Capitan and Kid Corder hated each other on sight. Young Jefferson, he tried to hide it, ’cause his people had preached at him about racial tolerance and helping the poor benighted heathens and all that, but the local didn’t have any a them inhibitions. He looked murder at the kid ever time his back was turned and half the time to his face. I expect it didn’t help that lily white Jefferson stood a good foot taller than that little banty rooster. Jeff was in his early twenties and looked about twelve years old, too. Nasty, nasty trouble brewing.”
There were bears doing their thing in the woods. I came across several sizeable tracks and a couple of tall-clawed trees where the bruins had stretched to measure up against their neighbors. It was easy to see where the Trevalyans had set up to roast their s’mores, too, a nice little pocket that could give me a survival edge, should the day ever come that I needed such.
A red tailed hawk screamed, high in the blue, blue sky. Squinting, I could barely make out the soaring form of the big raptor. Most moviegoers fail to realize those awesome eagle cries in their favorite thriller westerns aren’t eagles at all. Eagle talk isn’t near as purty as that of the red tail, so Hollywood directors go for the red tail sound nearly ever time.
At the head of the hollow, a bit past the saddle, I found a sizeable boulder shaped just right and set down a bit. Craving a bag of Bull Durham and some rolling papers, I was, though I’d quit smoking near a century ago. Old habits die hard.
This place could be set up near as defensible as Garvin’s own, should I take a notion to do it. Be faster if Tree was along and persuaded Diamond Paws to help out, for sure.
“I didn’t trust that snotty little rebel as far as I could throw him one handed. I took my life in my own hands and confided as much to Corder one evening while we was making camp, gathering firewood and a few plant species that wouldn’t kill us on contact if we ate ’em. Turned out the kid was green and starry eyed, but he weren’t entirely stupid at the core of him. He didn’t trust El Capitan no more’n I did. So he listened, and damned if he didn’t start taking really good care of the .45 ACP they’d issued him. I had one a them, too, but also a standard M16, which pissed me off. Damn things jam easy, AK’s don’t but no, I had orders to stick to American made. Corder and me, we were watching each other’s backs pretty good from that time on, and green as he was, it did comfort me some.
“It was the fourth day on the trail, if you could call our route a trail, that the monkey sh*t hit the palm fronds. We come to a little village, nothing but three thatched huts, maybe a dozen people living there all told and that counted a couple of youngsters still on their mama’s teat. I don’t know what tribe they were, some kind of folks that never come out of the jungle for any reason. Not bad looking people, looked like they ate well and were mostly healthy, which turned out the be their downfall. Long story short, they were scared of our noble rebels, and with good reason. Me and Corder were trying to make talk with the headman when suddenly we hear this screaming from the other end of that little settlement.
“It didn’t look good, and for just a second I hesitated. Unlimbered my rifle, but stayed where I was. Corder didn’t. He lit off on a dead run, covering ground with them long legs of his. For a second or two, I couldn’t figure what he had in mind, and then it was too late.
“There were three of El Capitan’s men standing guard in front of the farthest hut where the bastard was raping the headman’s daughter, or fixing to. They made to throw down on the kid and he dropped ’em with that .45, bam! Bam! Bam! Just that quick, one round each, center mass. My eyes were flicking everywhere, trying to figure where I could get my back covered and still do the boy some good, but he weren’t waiting on me none. He scooped up an AK from one of the rebels he’d shot, and damned if he didn’t know how to use the thing. He dove through that hut doorway on his belly, firing as he went–guess he could see who he wanted to hit by then–and something slammed into my back.
“Next thing I knew, I was down, and somehow I knew I wasn’t getting up again. Found out later my spinal cord had been severed, about as low as it coulda been, but enough to take my legs outa the equation. I could still bend a bit, though, and the idiots had done me a favor in a way. There ain’t no more stable shooting platform than Mother Earth herself, and I emptied two clips before it was over.”
I thought about that for a while, sitting there and craving a nickel bag of tobacco, pondering the Fate that throws our lives together in certain ways at certain times. Garv had gone on to finish the tale, describing the final butcher’s bill. Sixteen of the seventeen rebels were done for, or close enough, but one had escaped and would be a threat to them if he could find the head honcho’s camp in time. The headman and one other villager had been cut down by stray bullets during the firefight; the others, including the girl who’d screamed, disappeared into deep cover and were never seen again.
Young Jefferson Corder, consumed with guilt at seeing his superior officer paralyzed, had nonetheless done the impossible. He’d stopped the bleeding of Trevalyan’s wound, rigged a plains Indian style travois, and dragged that heavily laden, hard-dragging load clean out of that godforsaken hell and back to what passed for civilization.
And he did it in three days flat, shaving the time of their inbound journey by a full quarter without getting lost once. I’d always considered Trevalyan to be the toughest man I knew, but he figured Jefferson Corder was.
I wasn’t going to make the full circuit of the hollow after all. Not enough time. I’d spent too much of it off in la-la land. Instead, I hiked back down the slope and out through the meadow to the truck. While I was loading the messed-up skirting, which required removing a whole lot of screws with nothing but a blister-producing screwdriver, I let my mind go again.
“By the time we got back to where I could call for an evacuation, I’d managed to pound a little awareness of the real world into the kid’s head. Look, I told him, I understand why you had to do what you done. Can’t blame you for it, so don’t you go blaming yourself. But the Company ain’t going to see it that way. Most likely, this little clusterf*ck is gonna get reported all the way up to the President himself, and he ain’t going to see your side of it at all. I know you said you voted for the bastard, but he’s an arrogant sonofabitch, no ethics whatsoever, and he’ll hang your ass out to dry. So the thing is, I gotta lie and you gotta die. A dead hero, missing in action forever. If they ever realize you’re alive and shot down a bunch of the President’s favorite monkey-humping puppets, it ain’t gonna be purty.”
Garvin Trevalyan was in heap big trouble himself, but that mostly related to his physical recovery. It took him close to two years to get as better as he was gonna get, having the doctors clean all the infections and parasites and bone splinters and whatnot outa his body. But his mind had remained clear, and while he was out of the official loop in a way that meant the CIA would never even try to coerce him back for one more mission, he still had plenty of connections.
“Always believed in socking something away for a rainy day, Jack. Always did. It come in handy then. From my hospital bed, I was able to arrange for the dead hero to stay hidden with locals on the coast until he could be smuggled back into the states under a different name. Even managed to move a little money around, not saying I’d been skimming or anything, but it was enough to give one Sim Bowles a start on a ranch up in Idaho, tucked in among them Mormons. Good people, them Mormons.”
“So, Garv, Corder was a pacifist but Bowles never was?”
“Hah! Wiz, I did what I could, but by my figuring, that kid killed nine or ten of the sixteen we done for on purpose. I seen the look in his eye after, too, during them three days he was towing me. I’m telling ya, Jack, on my best day before I was shot, I couldn’t a done what he did, and he put out an aura that made everything from the jungle cats to the giant snakes get the hell outa the way. I didn’t dare go near him after he had his new identity for fear of blowing his cover, but I had a friend check in on him a time or two. Every report on the man come back the same. He mighta went in that jungle with stars in his eyes, wishy washy like some kinda gumby man, but there was steel down inside him, and it got tempered right thoroughly.”
Up there, right in that little hollow where they’d roasted them s’mores, would be a fine place to set a cabin. Wouldn’t take much, just an ordinary concrete foundation, or maybe stone if that one outcropping could be quarried a bit. Not much in the way of workable timber for the building itself, them scrub oaks being kind of ornery about twisting off instead of growing straight and tall enough, but plenty of firewood. Hauling in logs to build the place might get a small bit of attention from the powers that be, but not enough to be overly worrisome.
It was too late in the day to worry about dumping the mangled skirting. It was getting toward deep dusk by the time I rolled the old Chevy back into the owner’s yard. There was a light on in the house but no yard light. Dark as the Devil’s own colon. It took a few minutes to tuck the truck away out of sight, turn off the ignition, and gather my gear. Probably no snakes on the ground at this time of year, I thought, grateful for the area’s six thousand feet above sea level. About the only thing that scared me enough to wet my pants was the thought of stepping on a rattler I couldn’t see. Did that one time, during the War Between the States. Bell worm’s fang’s got hung up in my canvas pants and leather boot tops, never did scratch my hide, but I never had no spare pants back then, either. Wore the smell of dried piss for near a full month before getting a chance to soak in a crick and freshen up some. Like everbody else in the unit, I got used to smells way worse than that, but never did get accustomed to the rash.
“Hello the house!” I might not have needed to call out, seeing as the Hardings must’ve heard me drive up, but with bullets flying around and all, it didn’t pay to take no chances. Besides, it was just plain courtesy.
Frank’s voice hollered back out, easy enough to hear since he had a window partway open. There’s some folks can’t function with a place shut up tight. “Come on in like you owned the place!”
When I stepped inside, the first thing I smelled was the coffee. Nothing fancy, just plain old coffee. Best damn thing there is on a cool night. Company wasn’t bad, either; Harding was a right likable fellow. Didn’t seem to get overly worked up about the murders or us getting shot at, just kept on keeping on with a quiet strength that told me his enemies–even had they not incurred the wrath of Rodeo Iron entire–might have bitten off more’n they could chew.
“Cups are in the cupboard. Help yourself to the coffee; I don’t dare take my eye off my cooking.” Frank was stirring something on the stove, maybe nothing more than a mulligan stew. It give off a subtle yet fine aroma, second only to the black brew sitting ready in an old style percolator. Royal brand cookstove, too, one of them with the safety rail out front where any man of good sense would lean to warm his backside on a chill winter day.
“About a 1945, ’46 model?” I nodded toward the stovetop, my hands being busy with cup and pot.
“Damfino,” he grunted. “Came with the place. All I know is it ain’t cracked anywhere and holds a good fire.”
“Can’t ask more’n that.”
“Nope. William called. He’s running a bit late, be here in about an hour. The Impala is fixed up good as new.”
“That’s good to hear.”
We both heard Sim’s rental car as it turned onto the gravel driveway. Couldn’t see much more than the headlights. Moon wouldn’t be up until later, and there was just enough cloud cover to keep the stars from meaning anything. Neither of us spoke again until the car shut down and we heard Sim yell, “Hello the house!” Somewhere along the way, that ol’ boy had gotten himself a pretty fair country etiquette education.
“Come on in like you owned the place!” Frank’s reply, heard from six feet away and a bit in front of his bellow, hurt my ears just a mite. That Indian could call hogs in from the next county, had he a mind to.
Louella Jackson came in first, the old rancher holding the door for her like a true gentleman. Or, knowing what I’d come to know about him, like a man wanting to take the measure of the room before he stepped inside. I had the feeling not much had been able to take Bowles off guard since that one time when he hadn’t even been a Bowles yet.
Damn, that woman of his looked good. He was right, not wanting me and her to have a chance to flirt. Her being Treemin’s mother should have put me off the idea of bedding her, but she had way too much fire in her britches for that. She knowed what I was thinking, too. Gave me a big old deliberate wink on the way in, while Frank’s back was turned and Sim was behind her so he couldn’t see it. I applied an extra ounce or two of try to my poker face, but Bowles just looked ad me and shook his head, smiling a little. This one’s mine, that smile said, and you, old man, are plumb out of luck. I give him back a little nod and a little smile with its own message. She’s a good ‘un, all right. Don’t turn your back or I’ll steal her quick as a wink.
Not that Lou and I would ever cross that line, should the opportunity present itself. I didn’t think we would. But a man can dream. The Wizard and the Weaver’s Mother. Blockbuster movie title, right there.
We all decided to wait supper on William like one hog waits for another. There was plenty of that stew, though; there’d still be some on the stove when he got in.
After we’d eaten and piled the dishes in the sink for later–Frank explained that the last one to the table inherited dishwasher duty, which meant his kid was drafted for this round–we got down to business.
“Don’t keep me waiting,” Frank advised, pulling a can of Skoal out of his shirt pocket and dragging an antique brass spittoon close enough so’s he couldn’t miss. “Somebody start talking.”
“Might need a new passenger side front wheel bearing on that truck, but other than that, ladies first.” I mock-bowed to Lou, about as much as I could manage without getting up from my chair. Sim didn’t say nothing.
The only female among us kind of chuckled. “The Realtor who squired me around today–his name is Paulson. I thought that was interesting. You have to say it right, Paulson, or he gets all offended. I called him Paul once and saw his hackles rise right up. Anyway, he’s fairly new in the county. Moved here from Phoenix a while back. I got the feeling some of the locals aren’t overly fond of him, but he’s picked up a lot of gossip nonetheless. Showed me around to seven different places today. Pretty sure he wanted to show me his Mr. Happy, too, but I think I scared him a little bit. Kind of doubt he’s used to authoritative women, let alone authoritative black women.
“Which is all beside the point. Let’s see, what I learned that might count…Cornelius Ruben is a name of interest. Newest eatery in town, the Texas Load Café, is owned by him. Nobody seems to know just where he came from; Paulson has heard half a dozen different stories about that. Supposed to serve pretty decent food at his place, but most of the people who eat there are either tourists or white men past retirement age. Strongest word I heard is that he doesn’t like Native Americans. Paulson hadn’t heard whether or not he liked African Americans, though, so I persuaded him to take me there for lunch. Ruben works some in the kitchen, but mostly hangs around in front, refilling coffee for people when he feels like it and chatting up a favored customer here and there. My cop instincts kicked in, and I can just about guarantee you that he’ll turn up in a prison database somewhere. The man reeks of convicted felon, right down to a bit of ink showing past the cuffs of his shirt that’s mostly likely prison work.”
I had to jump in. “Philip turned that name up while he was digging around a bit, Lou. Bet he never thought to take a look at prison data, though.” I turned to Frank. “Our main computer guy at Ovando can hack pretty much anything, but he can’t investigate what doesn’t occur to him.” Frank just nodded.
Lou went on. “I didn’t get so lucky as to have Mr. Cornelius Ruben try to throw me out for the crime of Eating While Black, but I noticed he never got around to our table with his coffee pot, either. My best bet is that his cop radar is at least as finely tuned as my con radar. But he’s not the most interesting fellow in that place. They had a pretty good noon rush, just one waitress handling the whole place except for the boss and his coffee pot. She got behind, and for a few minutes, the dishwasher–at least I hope he was the dishwasher, not the cook–came out to bus tables. Ugly bugger, short, squat, wispy moustache, little piggy eyes close-set. Kind of spooky; looking at him, I couldn’t make my mind up. Was he cross eyed, or just almost? Got a serious con vibe from him, too, and he’d been in a gang somewhere. Teardrop tattoo under the eye. I’ll guarantee he’s one of the most evil bastards you’ll ever meet. Couldn’t believe none of the diners seemed to notice that; it was all I could do to keep from reaching for a gun I didn’t have. I’d almost forgotten the way most people blind themselves to what they don’t want to see. When did Tree say he’d be here, Jack?”
“Tomorrow evening, between dark and midnight. He and Sissy are bringing the Pontiac, loaded for bear.” That had more than one meaning, Sissy being a were bear when she felt the urge. “Can you make it another twenty-four hours, or do we need to find you something tonight?”
We were still kicking things around when William pulled in. Lou figured she’d be all right for one more day without packing heat, but Frank Harding wasn’t impressed; he came up with an older Taurus Judge, capable of chambering either .45 Long Colt cartridges or .410 shotgun shells. Like the truck, it had been his granddaddy’s. There was no paper on it. We thought Sim was out of luck until he pulled a little .380 Grendel out of his pocket. Said he’d found it in a classified ad. No paper on that, either, ten round box and a terrible stiff double action only trigger pull, but it beat going naked by a wide margin.
Everybody pretended to be suitably impressed that my contact had also fingered Cornelius Ruben as a possible bad guy, but since Lou was the only one to make mention of the dishwasher from Hell, she won the purple ribbon in the Detective of the Day category.
Sim had waited, speaking last. “I turned up a few bar conversations with old boys,” he said. “It might not only be Ruben and his hired help who are resentful toward the Natives making something of themselves. Two of the men whose tongues had been loosened by me buying a round here and there, they come off as thinking it wasn’t right that the new welding operation was only hiring Indians.”
“What the hell?” William had come in by this time, tossing Sim the keys to the repaired Impala. “Dad, how many white welders have come out to the shop to apply for jobs?”
“Just three, son.” Harding was sitting forward in his chair, kind of staring at the table top while he rubbed his temples. Headache, or maybe that was how he refreshed his memory. “Didn’t hire any of those three, so maybe that’s where this bar talk is coming from. But damn, they weren’t worth hiring. You were there, working the books when I checked them out. One couldn’t run a bead worth beans, the second guy was a snarky-mouthed asshole, and that last man might have been a hand at one time, but he’d taken too many welding flashes over the years. Damn fool was blind in one eye and couldn’t see outa the other. Cataracts, maybe. I asked him what his vision worked out to be, last time he was tested, and he threw down his mask and stomped off.”
I found myself rubbing my chin, deep in thought. “Most of your conversational contacts feel that bitter, Sim?”
“Nope. Not at all. For the most part, even the bar talkers were in favor of what Frank here is doing.”
“And the talk could be just talk.”
“Except we know somebody took a shot at us. Don’t suppose your fellow drinkers mentioned somebody missing a rifle and a bootheel, by any chance?”
“Mr. Hill,” Bowles replied drily, “if it was that easy, it’d be a TV show or something.”
He was right, of course. None of us felt much like talking any more. We just sat around, watching William go through three bowls of stew like he hadn’t eaten in a month, and thought. I don’t know what the others were thinking, but me, I was wishing the Weaver would hurry his ass up and get down here. There was something about that boy, something that stirred the pot without him even trying. I hated to admit it, even to myself, but I was missing him something fierce.