They Walk Among Us, Chapter Eleven: The Forge

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“Tree,” my uncle called, “come look at this.”

There was something in his tone that brooked no delay. The drumming of the rain on the steel roof of the welding shop was pretty thunderous, but it had to be something more than that. The wages-only welders were all gone for the day, this being early afternoon on what should have been a fine, sunny Montana Saturday.

Should have been, but not this time. The ranch’s owner, Sam Trace, was off in Colorado with a bunch of his best bucking stock, putting on an oldtimer’s rodeo in Rocky Ford, but the strawboss had brought in the entire haying crew from the fields. The downpour could have served for an Arizona monsoon.

If this went on for too long, a huge portion of the first cutting would be lost to mildew and mold, rotting in the field.

B.J. and Jack Hill were both standing at the big window fronting the break room, staring out at the rain. At first, all I could see was…

“Jack’s car?”

“No,” Hill replied, “to the right, over in front of the main house.”

“Oh.” As in oh. Holy. Crap.

Almost impossible to make out through the sheeting sky-dump, the critter cops had come to call. Not just one vehicle, but four of the buggers: Sheriff. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, which used to be called Montana Fish and Game in simpler days. U.S. Forest Service. And…

“What’s that last vehicle, Jack?”

“Homeland Security.” The long-lived Protector’s voice was grim. Made me start mentally reviewing where I had all my shooters: The Glock .40 in the Grand Prix’s console, .25-06 in the office coat closet, and of course the Walther .22 in the small of my back, hidden by a loose-hanging leather vest.

“Interesting fishing weather,” he added after a moment.

“Fishing, you think?” Big Jude’s voice rumbled like the not so distant thunder. He wasn’t really asking a question. We all got it. Not quite six weeks after we’d taken out a few wolves, mere days after we’d gotten DNA results back from an underground source indicating somebody was gene-crafting some kind of super-critters…and now this.

We watched as one, two, three…five people exited the four vehicles, trudging through the mud and the rain toward the porch. The lead lawdog carried what looked to be a briefcase.

“Better be waterproof,” I muttered, not bothering to explain myself. Both of the older men–in Jack’s case, much older–got it, though. The papers in that case would include a search warrant or I’d eat a tire right off of that Homeland Security rig.

At least they weren’t hitting the door in SWAT mode. No reason to figure this like the Tucson murder of Jose Guerena…this time, anyway. Of course, people who live in remote areas instead of major cities tend to spook badge-packers into relative politeness a fair bit.

Sometimes, with reason.

If these folks were out fishing in the rain…. “They’ll be looking to plant something.” The words just kind of jumped out of me. My partners glanced at me before turning their attention back to the window. There were still men in all of the vehicles except for the Homeland Security SUV. We could see that much, though not for sure how many or what they looked like.

“Wolf stuff.” This from Jack. My uncle was staying pretty quiet, which is a sure sign he’s thinking deep and hard.

“Wolf stuff?”

“Fur, skin, blood, bone, flesh, tags, whatever.”

“Oh.” I nodded. “Wolf stuff.” Yeah. That would be it. When those “magic wolves” had suddenly dropped off these people’s radar, and the last sighting had been on this ranch…. Sure. They couldn’t prove the genetically enhanced furbeasts had fallen victim to the old shoot, shovel, and shut up principle…so maybe they’d just fake it. Drop a bit of wolf stuff like a narc drops a dime bag on somebody who needs a good framing in the war on drugs.

Well, they’d have one helluva time getting the job done today. The foreman, Joshua T. Hogarth–better known as Hog, but only to his friends–was nobody’s fool and no friend to either the feds or the staties. Five six, 220 pounds of ornery, ol’ Hog was, with ten years in Deer Lodge for killing a man with his bare hands in a bar fight and a PhD in Agricultural Science from Bozeman. If I had it right, the fisherfolk would try to throw their weight around, Hog would educate ’em on where the bear kept the Charmin in the woods, and then they’d be coming our way.

Search the welding shop first, since it was closer, and then maybe the barn.

“Think we can wrap ’em up here,” I asked softly–as softly as could be heard over the rain, anyway, “or is it like to get plumb ugly?”

“Here, let’s hope.” Big Jude weighed in finally, having thought things through. “Them boys get loose in all them stalls plus the tack room, it’ll be way too easy for them to drop-and-discover.”

“Agreed.” Hill nodded once. “It’s got to be here.”

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Not that this was technically his fight. But as we’d already learned, long-lived Jack Hill didn’t much give a rat’s bony butt about technical. For whatever reason, he’d declared himself in.

Hogarth got rid of ’em at the front door; they never got inside the house.

“Here they come.” I wasn’t sure who’d spoken. Might’ve been me. The rain was letting up; you could actually hear yourself think.

Naturally, the almighty long arm of the law couldn’t be bothered to trudge fifty yards through the mud. They all piled into their rigs, convoyed our way for the few seconds it took, parked, and climbed back out again.

One man each remaining in the non-local rigs. So, eight men, four official vehicles equipped with GPS and video cameras either on-dash or behind the grilles. We’d best be handling this right, or….

The intercom buzzed. I got it. Hog’s gravelly voice. “Pussycats headed your way.”

“Got ’em.”

“Ten-four.” I heard him click off.

When Hog says somebody’s a pussycat, he generally means just the opposite. Sort of a flair for understatement, turned inside out and taken to a new level. What he was really saying was, this bunch is bad news.

Which we’d figured already.

Then the mob’s leader, no man at all but a bear of a woman I knew as Deputy Tina Crossen, reached the shop door. No pussycat there; that was a certainty. Two years back, the story went, three guys in a beatup pickup truck tried to jump her after she stopped their vehicle for expired tags. She’d put all three of ’em in the hospital. Two were now doing time at Deer Lodge.

The other one died.

Hill reached the door first, opened it before Crossen could raise her hamfist to knock. She looked mildly surprised.

“What’re you doing here, Jack?”

“Might ask you the same, Tina,” the old man replied, smooth and friendly with a hint of how-about-a-date in his voice, “only I reckon you’ll state your purpose soon enough.” I was almost expecting him to waggle his eyebrows suggestively, overkill and then some, but the Protector apparently knew his audience.

“Search warrant,” she said, sounding more than a bit like she really wished she hadn’t needed to use those particular words. She handed the papers over. Didn’t take him long to scan ’em. Evelyn Hill Speed Reading graduate, he’d once told me. No idea if Evelyn might have been related to Jack.

A brassy young guy bulled up behind her. Homeland Security, little man syndrome all the way.

Crap. I hate those guys.

“We’re here to search the premises for wolf remains,” he announced way too self importantly, and in a nasal tone just short of whiny at that. This was a fellow who got off on badges, big guns, and having the numbers on his side.

I really hate those guys.

“Wolf remains?” B.J. had been hanging in the shadows, but when he stepped forward, it was obvious to one and all that he’d have to duck to make it out the shop door.

The little dude’s eyes went wide. Deputry Crossen had a whole different reaction. Her nostrils flared. She took a deep breath. Pheromones filled the air.

My towering uncle, I should mention, has that effect on certain females. It’s not his blackness–or at least I don’t think it is, ’cause I’m just as freaking dark-skinned as he is. Maybe his size, but most of all, there’s something in his voice, sort of an Al Green thing.

Good, I thought. If there’s one agency we want on our side here, it’s the Sheriff’s Department.

Thus was the Wolf War joined.

We all protested vigorously when they insisted we give them free rein to search without interference. After all, we had to put up a bit of resistance; anything less might have made them suspicious.

As it was, we’d stopped just short of pushing the little Home Security pisspot into yanking his sidearm–just short of that–and off they went, grubbing through everything in the shop, getting themselves nice and filthy in the process. After all, you can’t sort through piles of welding slag and charcoal without acquiring some in the process, and one corner of the building was devoted to an old school blacksmith’s forge.

Which is another tale in and of itself. Suffice it to say, the forge especially dirtied the searchers, got them all nice and black. They didn’t quite come out looking like me or B.J. or even one of them white guys in blackface back in the day, but some of their uniforms would never again be the same.

All except for Deputy Crossen. She took it easy, kept an eyeball on the searchers.

If I had my guesses right, the feds had maybe or maybe not coerced the staties, but for a fact they’d come down on the County Sheriff, gotten him to go along with the search warrant idea against his will. Why…we could figure that out later.

Some PR push, maybe, politics, what with Obama and Romney in a flat-out neck-and-neck race at this point in the game. Could be the idjits in the White House were thinking, hey, let’s make sure we get the locals involved on this one. We’ll get all the credit with our base for saving the warm fuzzy wolves from the mean old rancher, and at the same time we’ll be able to split the blame with the locals when it comes to the conservatives and that &*%!! Fox News.

Or something like that.

The Yahoo Patrol gathered back in the break room 47 minutes after they’d begun searching.

“Everybody here is under arrest,” the midget dude announced, practically squeaking in excitement like Stuart Little on meth. “Turn around and put your hands behind your backs!”

None of us moved a muscle.

Now, you need to picture the scene. The only doorway into the break room is in the northwest corner. The big picture window runs along a fair bit of the west side. There’s a long table in the middle of the room, with folding chairs from Walmart all around the thing. There are two tall cupboards, one each in the southwest and northwest corners, with a sink and counter between them.

Old Jack Hill was seated at the table, sipping coffee from a green ceramic mug and looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Uncle B.J. had his carcass parked on a handbuilt log chair over by the southwest cupboard, since no folding chair would either cover his hind end or hold his weight, and I was seated on a folding chair next to the northwest cupboard.

The grim faces from the various law enforcement agencies were clustered between us and the door, looking suddenly uneasy for the most part. Stuart Little–I suddenly couldn’t think of him by any other description–started to sputter. This time he did reach for his pistol, actually got it halfway out of the holster before Deputy Crossen’s hand clamped down on his wrist.

“Just a damn second!” Her voice cracked like a whip over a 20-mule team.

For a few seconds there, everything hung in the balance.

In the end, Tina got the lawdogs all settled down, at least enough so we could hear the charges. The man who’d found the wolf stuff was named Aron Sparks. He was Stuart Little’s partner, Homeland Security, a tall, thin, balding dude with thick glasses and a twitch in his left eye. He showed us the Ziploc, a quart size with something icky in it.

“The forensics people will have to make sure,” he admitted, “but this sure looks like every other wolf tag we’ve been told about, along with a pair of ears.”

“And you found it where?” Jack asked the question mildly.

“Under the–what’s that thing?” He looked around for help.

“The forge,” his partner told him impatiently. “It’s a forge.”

“Under the forge. In a pile of junk.”

“Well,” I spoke up, “we do have a fair amount of junk back there. But no wolf tags. Or ears.”

“Then how,” Little’s voice was triumphant as he pointed to the icky Ziploc, “do you explain this?!”

I checked the room carefully before responding. Yep, Deputy Tina Crossen had positioned herself nicely, back to the wall a few feet from the doorway. She didn’t know yet, but her suspicions were showing to one who knew how to look for them.

Equally important, the guys from Fish, Wildlife & Parks and USFS looked more curious than anything else.

Only Homeland Security, it could be hoped, was directly involved in the frame.

Stuart Little repeated himself, itching to get out those handcuffs. “How do you explain this?!”

“Mr. Little,” I replied, knowing full well that would tick him off royally, “I thought you’d never ask. Let me show you.”

I reached for the cupboard doors, swung them open. Exposed the bank of security camera monitors, along with the computer and its monitor. Pulled out the keyboard shelf. Hit ENTER.

And watched the lawdogs as they watched the big computer monitor screen. I hadn’t yet had time to edit everything perfectly, but it was enough. You could see Sparks digging through the junk under the forge while Little stood guard, making sure no one would witness them making the drop. Most crucial of all, you could see him (Sparks) unbuttoning his shirt, reaching inside to pull out the very same Ziploc now clutched in one very sweaty fist, and dropping it, rubbing it around on the floor a bit….

…and then picking it right back up, shouting, “I got it!”

The rest was simply negotiating.

B.J. and Quichona followed me home that night, not for security reasons but simply to have supper with Tania and me. My sweetie didn’t work Saturdays, and the engine on B.J.’s motor home was barely cooled from its run out of Connecticut.

We were well on our way through an enormous batch of fajitas by the time the girls were brought up to date. Quichona did have a few questions.

“You guys rigged a camera under the forge?”

“Yep,” I replied. B.J. hadn’t even known about it yet, what with him being just arrived and all.

“With sound?”

“Why not? It’s always bugged me, those security systems that are all sight, no sound. Doesn’t make any sense. Not with the technology available today; I mean, for Pete’s sake!”

My uncle’s booming laugh rattled the apartment. “Generation gap, honey.” He reached for a fifth helping of fajitas, finally exhausting the supply. “The kids are a jump ahead of us in a whole lotta ways.”

Believe I’ve mentioned, Big Jude is the only man on the planet who can get away with calling me kid.

Tania had been thinking. “It sounds all well and good, but…they’ll come back at you, won’t they? With bells on?”

I looked at my uncle. He was stuffing his oversized mouth, so it was up to me. “Yes, no, and maybe.”

“Huh?”

“It’s like this. The Homeland Security guys might have tried to just gun us down then and there, but even that wouldn’t work. So they started edging for the door, but we told ’em–Jack told ’em, actually–they needed to wait a bit. Hear a bit more.

“Then I filled them in. Let them know a few things, but mainly that we had already shotgunned copies of these security videos out to more safekeeping sites than they could possibly ever find. Told ’em we were not interested in embarassing any law enforcement agency; there’d already been enough of that and more with Eric Holder as Attorney General and things like Fast and Furious going on.

“But I also told ’em we had no interest in putting up with bullsh*t, either. Let ’em know that if anybody came after us, ever again, we’d figure Homeland Security was behind it, and that the full background plus the tapes would hit everybody from the mainstream media to Fox News to YouTube and Twitter. We’d also send the vid to Loses Face Book, which I thought was hilarious, but they weren’t laughing.”

Tania got up, grabbed the coffee pot to refill our cups. I took a moment to add a healthy shot of half-and-half, then scalded my tongue with a sip. Fortunately, B.J. had finished downing his fajita. He took up the tale.

“You ought to have seen your husband, Tania. Twenty-four years old, and he handled that bunch like they were all in kiddie school stacking blocks. I swear, I thought those Homeland Security guys were going to ask to be excused to go to the bathroom by the time they got outa there. They did promise to pass the message on to their superiors without fudging–which was a lie, of course.

“And then,” he grinned ear to ear at the memory, savoring the taste of it. “that man of yours stuck in the hooks real good. The Forest Service and State guys looked plumb ashamed. We just let them go as they would, didn’t ask for any commitment from them. But Treemin asked Deputy Crossen to hang back a bit if she would be so kind.

“The others didn’t like it, but their options were kind of short at that point.”

Quichona and Tania were on the edges of their seats, each cradling a coffee cup in both hands. “And then what?” Tania asked, unable to contain herself.

“Why, the obvious,” my uncle chuckled. “Tree burned a copy of every security vid we had onto a DVD, labeled it, stuck it in a jewel case, and handed it to Tina.”

The women looked a little confused at that, so I finished up. “By now,” I explained, “the Deputy will have been on the horn to Sheriff Rosen. He will have more copies made and well secured, betcha betcha. And then he’ll inform the head of every one of those agencies–Homeland Security, Forest Service, plus Fish, Wildlife, and Parks–that they’d best walk soft around not just us, but the whole dang County from now on, ’cause he’s got ’em by the cojones.”

We all had a good time feeling fine about that, right on through dessert–apple pie ala mode, American as it gets. Finally, though, Tania got to fretting a bit. She’s that way, sometimes.

“So,” she ventured timidly, afraid of the answer, “does this mean they won’t ever bother us again?”

I patted my wife’s hand but left the verbal response to the big man. “It’s not a forever thing, honey,” he said quietly–he can do that when he wants to–“but we should be good until the elections at least.”

“The elections?” Those were less than four months away now, but better than nothing.

“Yep. If Obama gets reelected, then all bets are off. There’s no way to predict how things will go. We’ll be high on the White House enemies list, you can bet your bottom dollar. No way this one won’t be passed up the line; Janet Napolitano will know. And if Barack gets his second term, you can bet she’ll tell him we need to be chastised.”

“Oh.” Her voice was small.

“On the other hand, if Mitt Romney makes it…then yeah, we may be in the clear for a very long time, possibly even forever. The guy’s going to have other problems to address, and it’s not likely he’ll want to risk firing up the environmentalists by curtailing the wolf reintroduction program. Too much political risk for too little potential gain. But he can and will keep the federal agencies off our backs while he’s in office. I can guarantee that.”

“You can?”

“I can,” he nodded, then lifted his cup to drain the dregs. “But that’s another story.”

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