“Three days and nothing.” Sissy and I’d gotten back in from a run to Show Low, stocking up on groceries for Harding’s place. Frank appreciated our investigative and temporary security assistance and all that, but he didn’t have a big enough personal piggy bank to be footing the feed bill for the bunch of us.
My lover patted my shoulder on her way past the table. The pot roast wouldn’t fit in the fridge, so she’d volunteered to cook supper, complete with potatoes and carrots simmered in the roast juice. Sis wasn’t our Clan’s finest chef, exactly, but she could more than handle camp cook duties. None of us would go hungry, nor would there likely be any leftovers. “Not exactly nothing, Tree,” she said calmly. “We’ve turned up three more stories about Cornelius Ruben running Native people out of his café, to the point that every redskin within a hundred miles knows not to bother going there unless he figures to Cochise that ex-con’s ass. We know ol’ Cornball uses his dishwasher as extra muscle if needed, helping him escort a very drunk and understandably belligerent Tommy Red Hawk off the premises, Tommy weighing close to four hundred pounds and not much of it fat. We’ve heard nothing but good about Deputy Jess Harnling, nothing but bad about sex offender Burnside Harnling, and nothing but scary about the eldest brother, rancher Gideon Harnling. I’d have to say that’s something, not nothing.”
How she spit all that out while getting the roast started, I have no idea. My eidetic memory may be magically marvelous and all that, but multitasking was never my strong suit.
“It’s something, all right,” I admitted. “Question is, what? Not every bigoted graduate of the Big House goes around shooting people. Neither does every narrow minded rancher in the country. If either of those things were true, we’d have a curb on the population explosion, right there.” If I had to put a label on my emotion of the moment, it would probably be morose. Gloom and doom. One good hop-skip from full blown depression. Being an action hero, that I could maybe stand, as long as I didn’t have to think about it too much between hearing about a problem and doing something about it. Being a detective, patient and dogged and slowly putting the puzzle pieces together when both time and money were a-wasting…that was not my cup of Kona by a long shot.
Frank and Will pulled in next, looking none the worse for wear despite running the welding business full time during the day and insisting on sharing at least some of the perimeter patrol duties at night. We didn’t have enough personnel to cover the shop, but even the Harding home was enough of a job to keep us all half sleep deprived. Except for a scrub-filled draw that ran far too near the house for my taste, maybe eighty yards out, the field of vision was excellent during daylight hours. Besides, with all of us out and about, nobody seemed too worried about the dwelling itself. Nothing but a shack, Will had pointed out, and we were inclined to agree.
After dark, the tactical situation changed drastically. The heaviest economic hit would always be at the welding shop, filled with high priced equipment and supllies, not to mention office records that would be extremely tough to replace. But that building was all steel, the doors secured with sate of the art locks and the few small windows covered with anti-crime wrought iron. It would take a serious effort to bust in there, nothing near the exterior would burn, and the structure itself was capable of withstanding anything short of military grade explosives.
That left the people, specifically the owner of Rodeo Iron Show Low and his son, as both the most vulnerable and the most irreplaceable targets. The murders had taken place during the evening, shortly after dark. The shot at Jack and his passengers happened near sunrise. It only made sense that the bad guys, if they wanted to avoid setting a pattern, would try something in between those two extremes, an attack somewhere around oh dark thirty.
Neither Sissy nor I had even thought about coffee, so Will got a couple of pots started. By the time the sun was touching the horizon on its downward plunge, Jack Hill arrived, Sim and Mom pulling up right behind him in their rented Impala.
“Gang’s all here,” I observed as we all found our seats. It was getting some tight in here in the evenings, but we’d picked up half a dozen folding chairs at Show Low’s Walmart. That helped a good bit, especially since it meant I didn’t have to sit on one of Frank’s Butt Splinter Specials any more. Yay me.
Jack got out his favorite mug from the cupboard, settled onto one of the homemade chairs–which he seemed to favor for some twisted reason of his own–and nodded a thank you to Mom, who’d taken it upon herself to waitress the bunch of us for a bit. “Not quite the whole gang, Tree. Got a call from Ghost. He should be showing up in another hour at the most. He’s going to drop by. You’ll get to meet him.”
“Ghost?” I raised both eyebrows at that. “Here?”
“What he said. He’s on a run up to Oregon to check out a place he might or might not want to buy. I do believe the boy’s had about as much of that southern Arizona desert as he can stand.”
“Who’s Ghost?” Will asked the question for the rest of the room.
“Friend of mine. Haven’t seen him in some time. Said I’d been on his mind and he was thinking about driving on up to Ovando when he was done in Oregon, just to say howdy. Swap lies for an evening or two. He’s got roots up that way, down around Drummond mostly. When he found out I was in Show Low, he cussed me out for not letting him know earlier and decided to shift his route a bit.”
“Hunh.” Frank did look kind of tired, come to think of it. “Any friend of yours is a friend of mine, Jack, but is that a real good idea for him to be stopping off in the middle of all this? Hate for your amigo to end up catching lead.”
“Well, Frank, tell you what. I might have tried to discourage the fellow, but then he might have been mad at me for another forty or fifty years. Takes him a while to let go of things, sometimes. Plus, his luck hasn’t been bad. I don’t know the man’s entire life story, mind you, but there’s been a trap or two set for him over the years, and somehow when the jaws snap shut he ain’t never between ’em. There’s a reason he’s called Ghost.”
The bunch of us let it go then. I was looking forward to meeting this Ghost I’d heard about, off and on, since coming to know Jack.
The pot roast was on the table and most of us on our second helpings, the day outside just fading to deep dusk with a banana moon throwing just enough light to fool a man into thinking he could see more than he could, when strange headlights announced Ghost’s arrival. Jack met him at the door, the two men shaking hands but nothing more than that, as if they’d seen each other just the other day and weren’t too worked up about it one way or another.
Jack made the introductions. Ghost had a man’s handshake, knew how to apply it and when to back off. Our Native American host had a soft, easy grasp, the red man kind that doesn’t appreciate being squeezed too hard. I could tell Ghost knew that.
“We got some pot roast left,” Frank pointed out, “and plenty of coffee. Pull up a chair and set.”
“Thanks for the coffee. I’ll pass on the pot roast for now, though it is one of my all time favorites.”
I was sizing him up as he said that, as I suppose most of us were. First off, he reminded me of Jack Hill so strongly that I had trouble remembering they hadn’t popped out of the same mama. Same height or close to it, both long and lean of limb, both way past old enough to collect Social Security. Hell, for that matter, they were both bald and both toothless, near as I could tell.
But there were differences as well. Jack always kept a clean belt, but Ghost’s was festooned with enough apparatus to make him stand out in a crowd whether he liked it or not. Only people I’d seen walking around with that much weight on their waists were cops. Folding knife in a leather case on his right hip. Ahead of that, a cell phone in an open topped, fast draw, fringed leather holster that was clearly handmade. Ahead of that dangled a set of keys on a carabiner hung from a belt loop…and on the other side of his fly, a second set of keys, then two black camera cases, one hung horizontal, the other vertical.
Vulnerable to the cowboy fashion sense of his peers, this man was not. I was musing more deeply over that than I realized. Almost missed the next part of what he was saying.
“…appetite. Down at the far side of the S-curve, I came past a couple of vehicles. One was a big black Range Rover, tucked clean off that wide spot, about half hidden by the brush. Only caught a glimpse from the corner of my eye, but it looked to me like several men were starting up that draw. Packing long guns, too. Then out next to the road, that was a big SUV. Didn’t catch the make or the license number, but definitely Arizona plates. My neck hairs were climbing clear up on top of my bald head when I went by ’em. Careful not to make eye contact, but my peripheral is pretty good. Can’t say about the driver, but there was a guy in the shotgun seat that looked kinda startled and a whole lot unhappy when I went motoring on by.”
He stopped there, seemingly unconcerned, sipping his coffee. There was a sort of rustling in the room, people shifting on their chairs and such, but nobody spoke till Jack broke the silence. “On the hunt, you think?”
“Smelled that way. And before you try to run me off, old man, you need to know I also think them two in that SUV were setting up to keep anybody from driving back out of here. I woulda gladly drove off and left you to your own devices, but by the time I realized there was a problem, it was too late. Couldn’t have stopped in time to turn around in that wide spot. By the time I could have got three pointed around anywhere else on that road, they’d have been over their surprise. I’m driving a stock F-150; it ain’t exactly bulletproof. I didn’t like the odds, so I come on in. That draw end up anywhere near here?”
Well, shit. “Yeah,” I replied quietly, “runs right past this house, about eighty yards off. Frank, how much time you figure we’ve got if they’re coming in on foot?”
The entrepreneur didn’t panic. I had to give him that. One of the steadiest men, under any conditions, I’d ever known. He thought it over for a good thirty seconds. “Shorter than the road. Mile and a half, maybe.”
Jack took over. “Doing four minute miles, that would put them here right now. Military double time, another six, seven minutes. There’s a fair amount of uphill, though, and some pretty rough terrain. I’d say we have twenty minutes to get in position. Mind if I take five of those to mention a few things, Tree?”
“Not a bit. Go ahead.”
The Wizard had four points to make. One, we had to assume there would be a major police investigation of the night’s action, possibly with the feds involved. Terrorism was law enforcement’s more or less default position these days, Jihad or domestic, until proven otherwise. That meant we not only had to take care of business, but we had to make ourselves look good in the process.
“We don’t know how many are coming in at us,” he pointed out, “but from what Ghost saw, probably no more than a handful. It would be good if we could take all of these bastards out at some distance from the house, but the farther away we do that, the less innocent we’re going to look. Which means we need to set up close in, and that means putting Frank and Will at extra risk.”
Frank didn’t say anything to that, but Will did. “Wait a minute! They’re after us! Both Dad and I can fight! Right, Dad?” He looked to his father for confirmation. The older man nodded fractionally, but his eyes were on Jack Hill. Yes, he could fight if he had it to do, but he wasn’t a combat veteran and didn’t want to be. We all knew it.
“Will,” Hill said, his voice gentle, “nobody’s doubting your ability to fight. But think of it this way. You and your Dad are the likely targets, right? It’s obvious somebody wants Rodeo Iron Show Low taken out. If you two are killed, hey, mission accomplished. So why put you in the most exposed positions? Better we mess up their game.”
The young man snorted. “Right. And Treemin’s going out there? He’s a lot bigger target that we are. If they take him out, we’re done for, too. And I bet he’s not a combat veteran either, is he?”
“Not,” I grinned mirthlessly, exposing a lot of teeth, “on paper.”
He shut up then and we got to it.
That left Ghost, and despite his friendship with and superficial resemblance to Jack, he remained an unknown to me. “Packing?” I asked, as we all moved outside, into the limited moonlight.
“Nothing really suitable for this,” he admitted. “Got a spare?”
It was Sim’s turn to snort. “Take a look in that Pontiac’s trunk.”
Ghost didn’t blink when the trunk light came on, just waited until the rest of us had made our selections and then picked out an A1 M1 carbine and three thirty round magazines.
It made no sense, but somehow I felt I had to apologize. “No night sight for that one.”
“Shouldn’t matter. The tritium three dot should work just fine in this moonlight. Besides, I figure I won’t need it unless one of ’em trips over me. Jack, you mind if I provide the Stupid Factor?”
“Not a bit.” I could hear the Wizard’s amusement. “Knock yourself out.”
“Now, being a literalist….” Ghost’s voice trailed off as he walked away from us, directly toward the draw from whence we suspected the attack would come. He’d taken a couple of things from his own truck as well as our .30 caliber carbine, but the low light level wasn’t quite enough for me to identify them. Could have trained my rifle scope on him, but that would have been just plain rude. Somewhere out there, maybe halfway between the house and the draw, I could hear the sounds of digging.
“What the heck–?”
“We’re outa time, Tree. The Hardings have a hidey hole under a trap door in that back bedroom, so they should be safe enough till we sound the all clear. Sim, you and Judy want to set over by the water tank? It ain’t bulletproof, but there’s a lot of junk around there that is. Should be able to find decent cover.”
“Done and done.” The couple moved off. Funny, how I worried about a total stranger getting shot but didn’t think twice about my own mother putting herself in harm’s way. On the other hand, I knew my mother’s capabilities….
“Tree, that little patch of scrub oak look okay for you and Sissy?”
“Good enough. Where will you be?”
“Right here, tucked in behind Frank’s truck. It’ll give me decent cover, and if I draw fire, a bunch of bullet holes in his rig ought to help tell the investigators the story we want them to believe.”
“Gotcha.” I moved off, Sissy trailing but off to the side a bit. Unlike the Hardings, this wasn’t our first rodeo. We didn’t intend to make it easy for a single bullet to find both of us.
We waited for hours. Yeah, my watch claimed it was somewhere between seven and eight minutes, but that Casio G-Shock is a lying sumbitch.
The wait was finally over, or mostly over, when Sissy’s massive paw touched my leg to let me know she’d sensed them. Gone into black bear mode to take advantage of the scent on the wind, she had, but now she shifted back to human form and whispered in my ear. “They called it right. I identified five different man scents. One is wearing Old Spice.”
Not professionals, then. Nobody who knows anything about the craft is going on the hunt with aftershave on his stupid face. Whatever Ghost might be up to, this bunch sounded like it didn’t need any help with the Stupid Factor. Which didn’t make me feel any better. Ignorant amateurs can be every bit as dangerous as elite pros. You know a pro is going to do things the smart way. Amateurs simply can’t be predicted.
Or so my experience to date has indicated.
They came creeping, not crawling, yet slipping through the mist. Except there was no mist. A bit of snow on the ground, some of which was now ice water seeping through my clothing, but no mist. It took a while to spot all five, but that was only because they advanced in single file and we happened to be directly in front of them. Ghost’s position, if I was guessing right, was roughly fifteen degrees to the left. They wouldn’t be stepping on him if they kept to their present course, but he’d be able to hit them with a rock.
What he and Jack had in mind, however, that was a mystery. I didn’t like mysteries.
The way the terrain lay, I was beginning to think the enemy’s point man had actually passed Ghost. I was wrong. Without warning, a terrified shriek cut the night. “EEK! THE BAD GUYS ARE HERE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” Startled as I was, I forced myself to keep my attention squarely on the dim forms as they began to split off, no longer single file, and–LIGHT! What flew up and away from Ghost’s position, illuminated by what had to be the most powerful lantern on the market…I had no idea what it was, even as it fluttered back to Earth, the light now gone but the bad guys pretty much night blinded despite the banana moon.
Night blinded and subjected to the raging hormones controlling their reptile brains. Every one of them was blazing away, mostly high as far as I could tell, firing at the boogey man or flying vampire or whatever the hell had just flash-leaped into and out of the night in one big flutter-hop. They must have lit off more than a hundred rounds between the five of them, triggering as fast as their fingers could cycle.
The five of us, not counting Ghost–who never fired a shot anyway–took just sixteen to face plant every one of them. It was worse than shooting fish in a barrel. It was mass execution, pure and simple.
Strangely for a shooting of this type, as if there such a thing as a type, there were no wounded to dispatch. Every one of them had caught at least two high powered hunting rounds through center mass, two of them displayed three entry wounds apiece, and as far as we could tell, only three of our shots had missed their targets. Their panicked muzzle flashes had lit them up like the Fourth of July, and we…then we lit them up.
Ghost had joined Jack, turning on his mega lantern to facilitate the checking of corpses. Once we were sure they were all dead and had dispatched Sim and Mom to give Frank and Will the all clear, I said to Ghost, “Not your first rodeo, I take it.”
“Nope,” he replied innocently. “I rode broncs and bulls on the pro circuit for a while.”
“Uh-huh.” Didn’t look like I was going to get a straight answer out of this guy, but what the heck. Might as well try one more time. “So. I get the screaming like a girl part and the unexpected lantern light part, but what was that thing that jumped up in the air like that?”
“Ah. Forgot.” He walked back in the general direction of his sort-of foxhole, just a little scoop-out situated behind a small boulder and a few feet back from a waist high bush. “Here we go.” He picked up the winter parka and held it in the light. “Looks like the only thing they hit. Couple of holes in my favorite coat. Assholes. Served ’em right, attacking an innocent parka like that.”
Our adrenaline levels weren’t fully back down to normal yet, but there was more to do. “Their road watch lookouts? Anybody got a bright idea about them?”
“Not me,” Ghost admitted, “but while you folks are figuring that out, I saw Frank had a computer in his house. Think he’d mind if I uploaded a bit of video footage?”
“Yeah. A lot of it’s probably blurry as hell, but I filmed the shooting as best I could. Thought I’d leave that in Frank’s computer and you could, you know, maybe use it if you needed it.”
“You have a night vision camera?”
“Nah. Filmed the whole thing with my Kodak Brownie.”
Jack got me out of there before I could think to take offense at the sarcasm. He needn’t have worried. I’d decided I kind of liked this Ghost guy, and besides, I’d never heard of a Kodak Brownie. He’d given the Wizard an idea, though, so Jack and Sis and I left everybody else at the house and ghosted (sick, yeah, I know) on down the draw. We figured the lookouts in the SUV would be expecting to hear gunfire, so they weren’t likely to be spooked plum outa their shorts yet. Some nervous, no doubt, but Sissy had that covered. She went on ahead in cougar mode, and believe me, there ain’t nothing sneakier on this planet than Sissy cougar when she wants to be. By the time we got down close to where we needed to start being careful, she was already back.
“Just the two,” she reported, “like Ghost said. The driver is staying in the vehicle, windows down, chain smoking. Saw him light one off the butt of the other. His partner is outside, pacing. Got a hunting rifle of some sort, but it’s slung on his back.”
“Excellent.” I pulled my day-or-night camcorder out, the one Judi had given me for my thirty-fifth birthday, and checked the settings. Ghost wasn’t the only one with a cool toy. “Let’s go get some pictures of these bozos and the vehicles, license plates and all. Then we’ll lay down some fire and make ’em poop their pants. Shouldn’t take ’em too long to turn that rig around and head on back to town. Or wherever.”
So that’s what we did. Once those two were nothing but taillights and dust in the minimal moonlight, Jack pulled a burner phone out of his shirt pocket and called Ghost. “Road’s clear, cowboy. Boogie on.”
It didn’t take him long; he’d been sitting in his truck, waiting half a mile up the road, when Jack made the call. We waved as he went by. He blinked his lights and kept on rolling. No need for him to get involved in this whole official mess. He was never there. Ghost who?
Behind him, Mom had the Pontiac. We piled in and scooted back up to the house, fast as the Grand Prix would take the turns on that dirt road. Which, in case you didn’t know, is pretty damned fast. Especially with Louella Jackson at the wheel. Rally racer Jackson. My thoughts were skittering, water drops on a hot skillet. Damn shame we couldn’t have grabbed one of those fools for questioning. Wouldn’t have taken a lot to learn what they knew, especially if we turned the were bear loose on ’em. Couldn’t do it, though. With all the law enforcement heading out, we’d be lucky if we didn’t end up getting our shorts checked for stains. We might not know these corpses, but there was no way the attackers could come up a man short without the local badge packers eventually figuring it out and starting a search we didn’t need.
The Pontiac went into the barn, hastily covered with an old tarp, a few forkfuls of stale manure and hay tossed around for random effect. Will got out the Harding hunting rifles, an antique octagon barreled .30-30 and a vintage .30-06, and fired a couple of rounds so it’d be obvious they’d been used recently. By that time, we could hear the sirens in the distance. We hadn’t gotten back any too soon. Frank waited to call 911 until we were back in the yard, but the petrified lookouts must have beat him to the punch.
“Nobody’s packing?” I asked, making eye contact with each member of the Rodeo Iron Clan in turn. Nobody was; every weapon on the place, other than those two hunting rifles, were stashed in my car. The mind can do ridiculous things at times like that; before I quashed the notion, it occurred to me to worry about that ratty old tarp scratching the paint on the Pontiac.
“So.” We were all gathered outside, waiting in the minimal moonlight, knowing the blaze of headlights and the testosterone laden presence of dozens of law enforcement personnel were about to change things up considerably. “Jack.”
“You said ol’ Ghost just never seems to be there when the jaws of the trap close.”
“Yep. There’s a reason he’s called Ghost.”
“What?” Jack looked at me, startled. “Colder than any of the rest of us? What–I do believe you’re jealous, Tree!”
“Trees don’t get jealous”, I snapped.
“Hah. Tell you how cold ol’ Ghost is. We got a few seconds before the law rolls into the yard. He cleared the area no more’n five, ten minutes before the cops would’ve cut him off at that intersection. Right now, he’s high as a kite, watching for trouble in more directions than there are directions, putting out every mental shield he can muster. Maybe singing his protection word. He’ll keep doing that till he’s not only outa the county but outa the state. Probably won’t even stop to take a leak till then, but after that he’ll be looking for a wide spot and a dark bush where he can put toilet paper to use, likely until he’s tucked into a truck stop and ordering breakfast somewhere after daylight. His gut’ll be cramped up. He’ll be hitting Alka Seltzer and Immodium AD in equal doses. After he gets to feeling better, he’ll start replaying the whole thing in his mind. Congratulating himself for what he done right, cussing himself out for what he coulda done better. Might even make up a song about the whole thing, though nobody will ever get to hear it. That fellow can go through more after action emotions than a nymphomaniac Catholic girl who can’t resist doing the deed and gets her guilt on when she’s done.”
I had to chuckle. “Sure looked like the Ice Man when he was playing around between two opposing forces.”
Jack nodded. “He’ll do that. No nerves till after the fact. But after, that man’s adrenaline letdown is champeen quality. Gives good intel, though.”
“That he does.” I shuddered to think how it might have gone, had we not received warning before the Dead Five came creeping up out of that draw.
Enough thinking for a while. The cops were here. Time to focus on looking wide eyed and innocent and, most importantly, saying not one word more to the first responders than needed to be said.