Finding a job only took three days of hustle, though it felt like an eternity. The B bar B ranch, 3,000 head of Brangus cattle, had all the hands they needed; there hadn’t been room for even one more desperate fool on the haying crew. Which meant the operation bordering the west side of Jack Hill’s property was out.
Unfortunately, most of the other nearby ranchers were small outfits, hiring no more than a few barflies to buck bales during the summer. If that. I’d begun seriously thinking I might have to take a look at the city of Missoula, a good 80 miles down the road, to find work. No guarantees there, either, but at least more places to apply.
In the end, I was saved by the women. Sissy snagged Tania one morning, drove her around to meet some foks–and returned with a job interview appointment for me.
Turned out the one sizeable ranch in the area I’d not hit yet, the YT Bar, might be able to use my welding skills. In addition to breeding broncs, bulls, roping calves, and steers for bulldogging, Samuel Trace had started a line of portable steel fence panels he called Rodeo Iron. Some of the big ranch supply outfits were starting to stock his product, and demand was on the verge of completely outstripping supply.
I met with Sam that same evening, got hired at far better wages than any ordinary ranch hand could normally expect, and went to work the next morning. Yeah, I know; there were bound to be smart alecks mouthing off sooner or later about a black man working for a place most called the Whitey Ranch. YT, get it?
Hey, Tree, I hear you’re working for Whitey again!
Truth be told, I thought it was kind of funny myself.
Turned out my old HAIF welding skills made the locals look like amateurs. The three other guys I worked with in the shop didn’t much like me showing them up, but none of them seemed nervy enough to go at me face to face about it, either.
“Wait’ll I make you shop foreman next month, Tree,” the boss had told me just this afternoon.
“You’re thinking to jump me over the entire bunch?”
“Ain’t that much of a bunch. You’re worth more’n the three of ’em put together.”
“So if they all up and quit, you’ll be okay with that?”
The old man snorted. “Jenkins is the only one worth spit. Save me firing the other two.”
Sam Trace was, I should maybe mention, a salty old cuss. In his sixties somewhere at a guess. He and a man by the name of Belton Yancy had founded the YT some forty years back, taking rodeo winnings from their early years, starting with a small spread and buying out neighbors on favorable terms as the years went by. Yancy had dropped dead two years back, though, pulling a flank strap on a saddle bronc at one of the rodeos. Heart attack, no warning.
Pretty okay way to go, seemed to me, doing what you love one second, knocking on the pearly gates the next.
Yancy’d been the more conservative of the partners, and his widow liked Trace’s entrepeneurial style better anyway. She’d waited exactly one year for the sake of appearances, then married Sam–who had until then been a lifetime bachelor.
Mrs. Jennifer Trace was a formidable woman…and the lady who actually signed my paycheck. I made it a point to get along with her.
Especially since Jen had later hired Tania to help with the bookwork. When you added up the forty or more rodeos the company produced every year, the ranching operation itself, and the fast-growing Rodeo Iron operation, there was a lot of that. Enough that my girl was staying over there tonight. She and the boss lady would be pushing pencil till close to midnight, or I missed my guess.
Which left just me and Sissy Harms at the Hill place, at least for now. Jack, Carolyn, and Wayne were on a Great Falls run with the stock truck, rounding up some building supplies for a project the long-lived Protector had in mind.
Missoula was closer, but Jack detested Missoula for some reason.
They’d be taking in a movie about now, stay the night in the Falls. Head home tomorrow.
“Hello the house!”
“C’mon in! It ain’t locked!”
“My hands are full!”
“Ah! Hang on!” I got up from the kitchen table where I’d been jotting notes for a later letter to uncle BJ and Quichona. Mrs. Overgood really had gotten around to leaving her husband and moving in with Big Jude.
Turned out Sissy’s hands were full with supper for the both of us, covered dishes on a wide wooden tray.
You might be wondering a couple of things–why she’d holler out when she was coming over, or if the two of us had something going on the side. The first one is easy: Announcing your presence at a bit of a distance is both common courtesy and a good way to keep from getting shot.
Westerners who live remote…well, we don’t like surprises.
As for Sissy and me maybe getting it on, not a chance. That she was number two concubine to Hill, I had no doubt, and I wouldn’t think of horning in there. But first and foremost, Tania and I were honestly and truly tight…and neither of us was the sharing type.
Damn, the big Blackfoot-Crow-Arikara-Nigerian woman could cook, though. Pot roast tonight, with carrots and potatoes simmered right in the meat juice. Nothing better on God’s green Earth.
We were done gorging ourselves, in the middle of washing dishes by the time I got around to asking a question I’d been meaning to ask.
“How long y’all been with Jack? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Not a bit.” She paused in the act of towel-drying a plate, gathering her memories. “I actually came into the picture first some, mmm…17 years ago now. Then Carolyn, about 14 years back. Wayne’s the most recent. He joined us barely a year before Carina translated–”
“So that’d be right at 10 years ago for him.”
Good. Now it was set up. Now I could dig without looking like I was digging. “I’d be interested in hearing how all that came about. I mean, if any of you have stories half as wild as the way it worked for Tania and me….”
She chuckled. “Hey, cowboy, you asked the right person.”
Right at that moment, the sat phone rang. Not even Verizon had cell coverage up in this high country, not yet anyway, so it was satellite or nothing. I grabbed the receiver from its wall mounted cradle.
“Tree,” the voice on the other end said, “I need you back here as soon as you can scat. Bring your night gear. We got us a Wolf Moon, a pack just hit the north pasture, and Horace got us a trail.”
“On my way.”
Sissy looked a question at me as I hung up the phone. “Sam’s tracker–old Horace, the one he hired last month?–got a lead on the pack that’s been killing his stock. I gotta go.”
She nodded. “I’ll finish up the dishes and lock up.”
I thanked her, grabbed my hunting pack and weapons, and was out the door.
Saw what the boss meant by a Wolf Moon. Didn’t know it was called that in these parts–or maybe just by Samuel Trace; who knew? But the thing was striking, a half moon canted over on one side, blood red, just clearing the trees on the east ridge.
One reason the rancher appreciated me had nothing to do with my welding skills. Rather, he sort of liked the fact that I was partial to night work. Not to mention a certain willingness to take the law into my own hands when riding for the brand required it. The hay hands were all bunked down for the night–needed their sleep for sure, and besides, not a one of ’em showed a whole lot of nerve when it came to bucking the U.S. Government, the environmentalists, and every tree hugging Lupus lover in between.
The ranch owner, the old tracker, and the young black renegade,though…we were going wolf hunting.
What? Yeah, guess I should explain a bit.
See, the tree huggers pushed through the wolf reintroduction that every rancher had fought against, and like every other stockman running horses or cattle anywhere near the northern Rocky Mountains these days, Samuel Trace was losing livestock to the Happy Wolf Buffet. On the legal front, the greenies had us tied hand and foot. There was a wolf hunting season in the state, but mid-August wasn’t it.
The legal way to go about handling the wolf problem was to call in the Fish & Game folks, the Ranger Ricks, whenever you lost a calf or a colt to a wolf and/or wolf pack. Then Mr. Ranger–or in one case, Ms. Ranger, and that was a mess if there ever was one–would come out, look at your proof in the form of torn-up carcasses, hunt down the offending critter, and kill it.
According to most of the media coverage, even in area papers like the Great Falls Tribune or the Missoulian, that actually worked.
Which, like most media coverage in general–as I was coming to learn–was pure and utter bulls**t. The official government line was that every wolf was chipped and could be tracked with GPS technology via satellite. But that didn’t always work for a number of reasons, not even with the use of helicopters.
One seldom publicized fact: Not all wolves had transponder chips tucked neatly under their hides. Not these days.
In fact, according to Sam and Horace, several packs had in recent years managed to avoid tagging teams for years at a time, long enough for pups to grow up, split off, and form their own entirely untagged packs.
“I’d lay you better’n even odds,” Horace Tamblyn had told me the other day, “there’s more unchipped wolves out there than chipped, and by a fair margin at that. They’re expanding fast, too.”
Last winter, the YT had lost seven bull calves thrown by Old Yeller, a remarkable bucking bull boasting a mix of Brahma, Charolais, and Scottish Highland ancestors in his family tree. Old Yeller had been ridden just once in the first nine years of his outstanding career in the arena–and it had later been discovered that he’d been sick at the time Bob Branson had scored 95 on his unfriendly back at Casper.
Calves of his, especially bull calves, were worth a king’s ransom.
Trace appreciated neither the hit to his pocketbook nor the slaughter of his special Yeller Bees, as the old bull’s offspring were called. Not unlike ranchers of a century earlier, he declared war on the wolf.
Shoot, shovel, and shut up.
Which meant night hunting. Uncle Sam’s finest weren’t out there in the darkness; you couldn’t have pushed them in that direction with a four-tined pitchfork.
Of course, it wouldn’t do for word to get out that we were prowling the night, either. The regular hands had no idea whatsoever that we did this sort of thing.
We’d been lucky on several counts. None of the horses currently running the north pasture had been taken down, so (a) Sam hadn’t lost any stock this night, at least yet, (b) the pack was still hungry, so they wouldn’t be denned up yet, and (c) the Wolf Moon provided enough light for the most part, so that we only had to use our night monocles to spot check as we rode.
Throughout history, wolves have hunted at night. Seldom if ever, to our knowledge, had the alpha predators been hunted the same way. They logically felt safe with the sun down, even under the half moon.
Had they but known it, the night vision scopes were more dangerous to them than even our long-shooting rifles. My wolf gun was a simple Winchester bolt action .25-06, though equipped with a 10X night vision scope and a military style bipod. A little bulky for horseback, requiring a specially tooled scabbard to avoid throwing the scope out of whack, but it was a flat shooter with some speed to it–and more than enough punch to knock down a wolf at some distance.
Horace and Sam packed larger calibers and claimed they could beat my 5-inch pattern at 400 yards, but both of ’em lie a lot. Trace is a good boss and Tamblyn an unbelievable tracker, though.
About an hour out, the tracker extended an arm, pointing. We did not speak on these hunts, not till the possibility of shooting was done for the night. Voice carries, especially in still air, and except for the tiniest of breezes, we had that.
My saddlebags contained an assortment of night vision gear, including a 25X telescope, but the binoculars were enough. Seven…eight animals. The built-in rangefinder said they were all in the 350 to 400 yard range, not bellied down yet but easing slowly around what looked to be a small band of elk.
Perfect for the Winchester, the way I had it sighted in. Just hold where you want to hit and don’t jerk the trigger, not enough windage to worry about.
We all dismounted. Despite his boasting, the tracker didn’t pull out his rifle. Fact was, he never meant us to take him seriously about being all eagle-eyed; he was a whole lot better at finding targets than hitting ’em.
So he held the horses.
The boss and I had a system, this being the third hunt we’d done together. I started on the left, he took the right, and we worked toward the middle. Which served to confuse the survivors some, seeing their people fall at both ends of the pack. The idea was to make ’em think they were surrounded, confuse ’em long enough to get ’em all. Plus, it was pretty easy to tell who’d done the best shooting that way–and neither Samuel Trace nor Treemin Jackson wanted to come up on the short end of that stick.
Bottom line? We’re both competitive as Hell.
These particular wolves, however, were smart sumbitches. We took out two apiece, but the others didn’t wait around to join the death parade. They were moving flat out, running like the wind, low to the ground…and in as many different directions as there were wolves.
“Told you,” Horace reminded us as we were finishing up the knife work, “these are no ordinary animals. I’ve seen packs scatter during my days in Alaska and Canada, but not like that. This bunch spread out like a bunch of illegal immigrants jumped by the Border Patrol down in Arizona.”
Sam grunted, whether in affirmation or dissent I couldn’t tell. “Well, we’ll see if you’re right. Tree, you take this pack of tissue samples back to the ranch and hightail it for home. We only got another couple hours till daylight. Tell Jen we won’t be back till the sun goes down again.”
“Take the day off when you’re done.”
“All right. Thanks, boss.” I headed Earl, the big pinto reserved for my use, toward ranch headquarters. At a steady walk, we’d make it just in time to offsaddle and stash my gear in the Pontiac before the haying crew came stumbling out of the bunkhouse for breakfast. I’d join them innocent-like, maybe see if Jen could spare Tania for the day as well.
I couldn’t recall which one of us first came up with the idea, but we were all agreed: There was something off about the wolves running these parts. They weren’t quite right. Too intelligent, too canny, too able to survive against most if not all odds. Rangers had come up empty more than once when trying to track even the animals they knew were chipped. Wolves had never been stupid per se, but these….
We thought they’d been messed with. Genetically. Not just plain old interbreeding, wolf-dog hybrid, though there could very well be some of that included. No, we had a frightening suspicion these were transgenic animals. That is, somebody–some scientist, or team of scientists–had messed with their genes. Grafted in genetic material from other species, certainly some of the giant dog breeds, but most likely more than that.
Maybe even humans.
Gene splicing between Homo Sapiens and so-called lower animals has gone on as long as there’ve been mad scientists, which is to say as long as there’ve been people on the planet. One author states that certain hogs were developed from humans, back in Atlantis, before the Lost Continent sank beneath the waves–though how he could know for sure remains an open question. I’d once read an old science fiction book that was published in the fifties, The Rule of the Pagbeasts, about gene-spliced critters escaping from their cages and giving Homo Sapiens a run for its money..
And now we had the work of Michael Crichton titled Next. Yes, the same dude who wrote Jurassic Park. And created the TV series ER. First published in 2006–same year my Mom shipped her delinquent son to Connecticut on a bus–Next had called out to me at a yard sale one day. The back cover text alone had reeled me in:
“Welcome to our genetic world. Fast, furious, and out of control. This is not the world of the future–it’s the world right now.”
The ten pounds of meat, hide, hair, eyeballs, brain tissue, and organ slices might not be exactly what a genetic scientist would need to determine the animal’s total DNA picture, but it was certainly better than nothing. Any pro in the field–given a proper lab in which to work–should be able to tell us if indeed a modern day and all too real Dr. Moreau had “upgraded” these wolves and then sent them out to play.
Horace and Sam were headed straight north, into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the four wolf carcasses draped across the backs of some very unhappy pack horses. It wouldn’t do for any dead wolves, chipped or unchipped, to be found on YT Bar property. The rancher knew of an old mine shaft deep enough to hide transponder signals from any satellite ever developed. They’d dump the bodies there, then move off a mile or two and camp, sleep through the day–since it also wouldn’t do for them to be seen returning to the ranch from that direction.
What? No, I don’t happen to know a genetic scientist who’d be willing to do such sneaky detective type lab work on the QT. I really don’t.
But Jack Hill does.