They hit us at precisely 8:41 p.m, just a few miles west of Saco, and they hit us hard.
Not that we didn’t feel it coming. From the time we’d left Glasgow, stuffed on ribeye steaks and baked potatoes, we’d felt the wrongness. Both of us had.
“Stay sharp,” Jack Hill advised from his shotgun seat, his eyes scanning the horizon. At that moment, there was still a bit of horizon to scan, after sundown but not quite pitch black yet.
“Ngh,” I grunted. “You feel it, too?”
My question wasn’t really a question. After a moment, thinking it over, I kicked the big Ford dually out of cruise control and eased back from the 67 mph we’d been running to a foot-steady 55. Which might not seem like such a big deal, but it most likely saved our lives.
Although it didn’t go down for nearly another hour after that, an hour in which night had truly fallen. It was the dark of the moon, a time of the month that always brings to mind the old C.W. McCall song lyric from his hit tune, Convoy.
Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June
In a Kenworth pullin’ logs
Cab over Pete with a reefer on
And a Jimmy haulin’ hogs
We is headin’ for bear on I-one-oh
‘Bout a mile outta Shaky Town
I says, “Big Ben, this here’s Rubber Duck.
And I’m about to put the hammer down.”
No convoy this night, though. Just one big black Montana cowboy/welder/salesman and his lily white, long-lived bald-headed old sidekick, pulling not logs but an empty horse trailer. All in all, we’d had a great week, had sold a lot of Rodeo Iron and then called our women from the restaurant to let them know we’d be stopping for the night in Havre, grabbing some Z’s at The Duck Inn, and they could expect us home sometime tomorrow.
Best laid plans of mice and men.
Neither Jack nor I said another word as we toodled on westward, eating up the miles on Highwyay 2. The psychic pressure was increasing the farther we went. Had there been another route we could take, a way around whatever was lying in wait for us up ahead, we’d have taken it.
But there wasn’t. Not unless we wanted to tackle the back country dirt roads, the sort of dark running that can get you lost or at best find you angling up through the southern end of the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation, taking your chances with the Wings and the Mains.
For those who don’t know, the Wings and the Mains are a sort of Indian version of the Hatfields and McCoys–they’ll feud 24/7 with each other, only combining forces when some dumba** outsider stumbles along.
No, we had to eiither turn around and go look for a room in Glasgow or bull on ahead.
So bull it was…and then some.
Saco was buttoned up for the night by the time we rolled through that little town. Fortunately, we’d topped off the Ford’s tanks in Glasgow. The boss had outfitted the sales truck with 100 gallons worth of capacity when he bought it, so we had enough fuel on board to run clean across Montana plus a bit, had we so desired.
Highway 2 was pretty much deserted already. When we topped a low rise to see headlights in the distance, they were the first in the past eight, maybe ten miles.
Didn’t seem to be moving, but that can be deceptive. There was somebody at the wheel, anyway. When he flipped his lights at me, tellling me to dim mine, I did so without thinking.
“No!” Jack snapped, and I slapped the big halogens back up on bright. Which was the second thing that saved our lives.
There was something in the road ahead, just now visible in a dip in the highway, a low dark line clear across–
I slammed on the brakes. Uncle B.J. had driven out, met us in Glasgow after hearing about the near wreck with the deer, and helped me rework those brakes just yesterday. We’d cut the ABS crap out of the loop, so yeah, we laid skid-mark rubber for a good 200 feet.
Yeah, another thing that saved our lives. There were a lot of them, that night.
It was an old telephone pole; I could see that much before we hit. No way to avoid it, no workable ditch. The pole was lying completely across the highway, buttressed against ends of guardrails on either side.
Whoever had planned this had planned it well.
The truck slammed into the pole at 41 mph; I noted the speedometer at point of impact.
Had we been moving at our normal 67 mph, it would have been all over but the screaming. As it was, it was still enough to somersault the dually arse over teakettle. What the trailer was doing behind us, I couldn’t begin to imagine–nor did I have time to think about it.
We weren’t belted in. Neither Jack Hill nor I believed in seat belts. After dark, we never wore them.
Another thing which saved our lives.
Later, reconstructing the wreck, the two of us figured out the trailer must have come on up with the rear end of the pickup when it flipped–but the main thing was that the whole mess went spiraling off to the right, vaulting the guardrail and crashing down on the driver’s side in the little creek that ran under the bridge.
Right then, I was suddenly kind of out of it. Old Jack Hill wasn’t, though. With his help pulling after he’d gotten himself out through the busted upside window, I made it out, groggy as a sumbitch but moving, knowing somebody had just tried to kill us and we weren’t dead yet but we had to keep moving–
Took a second to register, that whisper in my ear. “I’m kinda out on my feet,” I whispered back.
Then he squeezed my arm, and I knew to be silent.
It’s funny, the sort of things that go through a man’s mind at such times. Well…not funny funny ha ha, but you know what I mean. My pants were wet, but not from peeing myself or anything; we were hunkered down in a stand of willows growing right out of the water. Jack had gotten us a good 80 yards upstream from the bridge, and none too soon.
But what I was thinking? I was thinking that Tania was going to be ticked at me for losing my hat. She’d just bought me that Resistol for my birthday, and now….
When I was done thinking about that, I realized I wasn’t thinking clearly at all, really. Concussion? Most likely.
The rig blew up.
Do you have any idea how big a bang more than 80 gallons of fuel can make?
Neither do I, ’cause if that truck didn’t have help exploding, I’d eat my now-toast hat.
My gaze met Jack’s, our faces bathed in the firelight despite the willow screen. If what he saw in my eyes was anything like what I saw in his, our enemies had just bought themselves a whole pack of trouble. Not that we knew exactly who those enemies were…not quite yet. But there was no doubt this related to the Wolf War.
All those law enforcement types we’d buffaloed at the welding shop that day…apparently weren’t buffaloed at all. They’d just called our bluff.
Except we weren’t, and never had been, bluffing. Just yesterday, Jack had gotten word. The backing for the enhanced genetics program, producing wolves with something of human intelligence, had been traced as far as a company called WSI. Wolf Support, Inc., headquartered on 40 acres along an unmarked cove known to its locals as Wolf Bay. In Wisconsin.
Wolf Bay, Wisconsin. We were getting close…obviously too close.
Our view of the burning wreck wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t bad, either. Over the roar of the flames, we began to hear voices. They were pretty much yelling at each other, two men whose faces appeared along the edge of the road, peering at the little holocaust, shading their eyes.
They had to yell to be heard, that close to the fire–which meant we could make out what they had to say.
“Nobody lived through that.” This from the stockier of the pair. I couldn’t make out their features, but the general build was clear enough.
“Certainly not,” his partner agreed.
“Hold the fort,” Jack whispered at just that moment, scaring me about half to death.
With that, the old man was gone. Where, I’d no idea, nor why–but that he knew what he was doing, I had no doubt. The man had fought in the Civil War, for cry-yi. On both sides.
My rifle was in my hands. How had–?
Jack. He’d not only gotten me clear of the wreck; he’d salvaged the .25-06 as well. And it had a scope.
Aha. Mr. Stocky’s features were more than clear enough now. I’d not forget them any time soon. Not with my eidetic memory, I wouldn’t. My head was clearing rapidly.
My finger caressed the trigger, wishfully.
The other guy was lean, dark complected, face like a hatchet and pockmarked to boot.
What the–? A new sound, also loud enough to be heard over the flames. Why would a chopper…?
I thought about scooching farther back in the willows, but any sort of motion might be a really bad idea right at the moment. I stayed put.
The first thought was that they’d brought in a gunship to blow us to smithereens, but that wasn’t it. The helicopter, dimly glimpsed by the flame-light washing its belly, turned out to be a Sikorsky Skycrane. A logging helicopter, there to remove the telephone pole that had served as such a simple and yet such an effective ambush.
No doubt that same chopper had dropped it there in the first place. Duh.
How long had they had us under such tight surveillance? That had to be a pretty tricky move, helicoptering in a giant log (aka aged telephone pole) to catch just us and nobody else. Of course, from the air it would be simple enough to spot headlights from at least 10 miles off on a clear starlit night like this, but still.
We were talking a real high-dollar hit here.
Shoulda made me proud, them feeling they had to go to all that trouble. That wasn’t exactly what I was feeling, though.
“Think we’d better look around just to be sure?” That was Hatchet Face, talking to Stocky Man after the Sikorsky was long gone with its telephone pole.
“Nah.” Stocky Man sounded sure of himself. “The scanner lost signal on both phones. They’re burned up.”
“Well then,” Hatchet opined, sounding satisfied, “let’s call it a night.”
At that moment, the box of .25-06 rounds in the truck’s glove box finally began cooking off. I knew what they were, what they had to be–but the bad guys didn’t. Nor, apparently, did they care to find out.
They were gone.
Minutes later, Jack slid back into the water beside me, but we waited a good while before getting to our feet and starting our hike down the highway.
We knew Malta was still a good 20 miles down the road, but that was the county seat of Phillips County, and the ambush had been sprung inside the Phillips County line, so that’s where we headed. My main carry bag had burned in the wreck, which meant my night vision monocle was gone forever, but Jack had his. Which was the main reason he took the lead, making sure we didn’t step on any rattlesnakes while trudging along the shoulder of the highway.
There weren’t many vehicles out, but whenever a set of headlights came within half a mile of us, we’d hit the ditch and lie flat until whatever it was rolled on by. We weren’t taking any chances.
Amazingly, the old man had not only gotten me and my rifle out of the Ford before it blew; he’d rescued quite a bit of other stuff as well. Not our jackets, and it was a bit chilly on this late summer night, but neither of us was complaining. We were both alive and relatively healthy…and well armed. The .25-06 Winchester only had three rounds in the magazine, but three high velocity rifle rounds in the hands of an expert is nothing to laugh at.
Additionally, the .22 Walther was in its usual holster in the small of my back under my shirt, and Hill had even managed to snag my Glock .40. Which was impossible to hide, so I just belted the thing on, wore it right out in the open. Although not as expected as in, say, Arizona, it’s not illegal to carry openly in the Big Sky Country.
And I was feeling testy enough to almost hope somebody would have something to say about it.
What Jack was packing didn’t show and I didn’t think it was my place to ask, but that he was heeled was a given.
We were both wearing cowboy boots, but with walking heels. 20 miles was doable.
“You come out of that without a ding?” I asked my partner, trailing two steps behind him like a good little squaw.
“More or less,” he replied, speaking over his shoulder. “The way the truck landed, you smashed your skull up against the seat belt mount, I think.”
“Yeah. I believe that’s what did it. Headache’s almost gone, though.”
“That’s good. Anyway, you landed, and then I landed on you, more or less. Had a hold of the grab handle, but you took a fair bit of my weight.”
“Don’t remember that.”
“Unh. The passenger side window had cracked, but it was still more or less in one piece. So I tried the control, and dang if it didn’t work, rolled right down.”
“Hunh. I thought it must’ve busted.”
“Nope. We’d have cut ourselves up on the shards if it had.”
“Never thought of that.”
“Wasn’t a lot of time for thinking.”
We fell silent then, trudging, trudging, trudging, ducking into the ditch when headlights came, trudging, trudging, trudging. By the highway markers, we’d covered a couple of miles before I spoke again.
“I heard them guys say our cell phone signals were gone.”
“We’re not chipped, you or me, so that meant to track us, they either had to have a bug on the truck itself or be following the phones.”
“Coulda been satellite surveillance.”
“Yeah. Coulda been. But if it was, I couldn’t do anything about it, so I did what could be done. Took the cells out of both our pockets and pitched ’em back in the cab.”
“Ah.” It made sense as soon as he said it.
More quiet trudging. A lot of it, in fact, till somewhere shortly after midnight. Jack suddenly stopped. I nearly ran into him. He took off his starlight monocle, passed it back to me so I could see what he’d seen.
Turned out to be the biggest rattlesnake west of the Mississippi, just crawling across the road all easy-like. The reptile was a good 30 feet ahead of our position, so we did the intelligent thing. I just stood there, watching through the monocle, while Hill got out his starlight-capable digital camera and took photos.
“Believe I’ll forward these to my friend Ghost down in Arizona. Let him do a writeup on the critter.”
“Tell me more about that camera.” He had me some curious now, this being the first time I’d seen him use the thing.
“Not a lot to tell.” He shrugged. “It’s basically a second cousin to a standard Canon PowerShot, only fitted with a toggle switch and a bit of extra technology to let you do really low-light stuff without painting a red laser dot on your subject’s forehead.”
“Did you get pictures of all that B.S. as it was going down?”
“Indeed.” His chuckle was dry as the Sonoran desert just before the monsoon rains hit. “Got close to 300 photos on here right now, before the rattler. Got great shots of the Ford burning down to slag, some of the telephone pole on the ground, the Sikorsky lifting the pole outa there, and some super Jim-dandy portraits of our two friends.”
“I could have shot at least one of them.” It bothered me some that I hadn’t, but of course the opposition would have been notified we were very much alive, had I squeezed the trigger. Besides which, these were nothing but the lowest of the low, mere trigger men.
The guys we wanted were the guys who hired the guys who hired the guys who hired the trigger men.
We’d get ’em, too. There was a fire in my belly now, a banked blaze that wouldn’t be going out until the enemy had been not just defeated but utterly destroyed. I was beginning to take a distinct dislike to these people.
“What about our families?”
Jack Hill must have been thinking about that, too. At any rate, he replied promptly enough. “I doubt they’re in any immediate danger.”
I didn’t believe so, either, but that could have been wishful thinking. “Why not?”
“Number of reasons. The one time those yahoos tackled us on our home turf, we kicked their butts. And despite the quasi-remote area in which we’re all located, there are 20 or more potential witnesses–and who knows how many potential warriors–living within a three mile radius of Sam’s place. Plus, Sam Trace especially is well established in the County; attacking him or his near to home would stir up a sh*tstorm of local media, and I’m thinking our foemen don’t want that.”
It made sense…and it was reassuring to hear him say it. Not a guarantee. There’s never a guarantee. But good enough to be going on with.
We walked into the Brown Bag in Malta mere minutes after its 6:00 a.m. opening. If the waittress spotted the Glock on my hip, she had the good grace not to say anything. Sheriff Scott Moran, on the other hand, gave my shooter the open eyeball.
The Winchester, clearly a hunting rifle, wasn’t even worth noticing.
Turned out the good sheriff had his morning coffee at the Brown Bag every sunup, with breakfast when he had the time. This morning, he had to take a rain check on the bacon and eggs.
Phillips County, the second largest county in all of Montana, is policed by just 7 officers–including the sheriff. He gave us a ride down to his office to take the full report on a double attempted murder in his jurisdiction. When we were done giving our statements, he leaned back in his chair and summed it up rather neatly.
“Gentlemen, you say you’re with Rodeo Iron?”
“I am,” I told him. “A partner, along with my uncle B. J. Hennessey and Sam Trace.”
“Well…that tells me your story is straight. Which is my way of saying I’m believing every word you’ve just told me both on and off the record. Sam and I go way back…and believe it or not, we’ve had a few run-ins with your genetically enhanced wolves, too.”
“This far from the mountains?” I was visibly surprised, though Jack gave me a look that said I should have known better.
“We’ve got hills,” Sheriff Moran said drily, “and there’s plenty of action along the Milk River. But what you need to understand is this. There’s not a prayer in Hell we’re going to be able to catch the guys who pulled this stunt or, for that matter, even prove there was an ambush.”
I just looked at the lawman, but Jack nodded. “Understood, Scott. We just figured you had the right to know what was going on. There are a few things you could ask your deputies to look out for, though.”
“Like?” Moran looked a bit skeptical, but interested.
“Well, I don’t figure we need to tell you or your people how to suck eggs, so of course they’ll be looking for marks on the ends of those guardrails consistent with slivers from old telephone poles.”
“I’d also suggest you take castings or whatever of our boots, you know, for elimination purposes.”
He wouldn’t admit it, but I had a hunch the sheriff hadn’t thought of that.
“And this.” He fished a folded piece of note paper from his pocket. “See this sketch here? One of those a-holes wears a left shoe with this bar mark across it, here. I ain’t none too certain, but my guess is it’s the hatchet faced fellow. He seemed to me like he was moving a little awkward.”
“Now,” Moran admitted, “that is something.”
We left it at that. Later, Jack would email the sheriff copies of the pictures he chose to share–shots of the Sikorsky Skycrane, the flaming wreck, the telephone pole as it was being hoisted back into the air, even portraits of the two men I’d rifle-scoped by firelight.
But not yet. Not until those pictures and a hundred more had reached one of Hill’s contacts, a contact who would make sure this story busted wide open on the Internet before another 24 hours had passed.
The sheriff would no doubt be pi**ed about that, about us withholding information pertinent to such a major investigation. He would be flame-hot and ready to smack us in jail for spitting on the sidewalk, next time we showed up where he could get his hands on us.
Couldn’t blame him for that, but we couldn’t take a chance, either. Until we had this out to the public in such a massive way that no coverup, no matter how massive, could ever succeed–until then, we couldn’t risk it. Which meant we’d best be tippy-toeing through the tulips, next time we made a sales run through Phillips County. Law enforcement folks have memories longer than the average elephant.
Whether or not Sheriff Scott Moran would accept our apology, accept our assertion that we’d done it that way to protect him and his people from the high powered bad guys as well as for our own protection…that remained to be seen.
At the end of our visit to his office, the lawman designated one of his deputies to run us on in to Havre, where we could arrange for a rental car to get us back to the ranch. As we piled into the SUV, I noticed a buzzard circling overhead.
An omen, I thought, but had not the wisdom to read it.