Sam Trace called a Rodeo Iron ownership meeting on the morning of November 7, with one addition. Jack Hill was invited to sit in.
Of course, the real meeting was for us Wolf Warriors, determined to get the Powers That Be before they could get us. The welding manufacturing and sales operation, Rodeo Iron LLC, gave us solid cover, and Hill’s involvement on the sales side of things fit right into that.
The boss wasted no time. We’d gathered in the main ranch house, after a couple of Jack’s friends from Helena swept the premises for bugs. They were former CIA guys, highly qualified and, more importantly, trustworthy according to the Protector.
“I’ve known Hank since he was a toddler,” he told us, “and he vouches for Spence. That’s good enough for me.”
Good enough for us, too. Neither my uncle B.J. nor I knew anybody we could trust that far. Back in Connecticutt, there were any number of dudes who had the chops–but most of them would also cut your throat for the right price and never ask who was paying. Sam was too well known to risk asking around openly, so it was the Hank & Spence show or nothing.
They didn’t give their last names, which was fine with us. Hank & Spence weren’t likely their real first names, either.
And they did find a couple of bugs.
Not in or near the house. Too many hands in and around the building, usually 24/7. But a pair of directional mikes with those point-and-shoot spy ears–whatever the right name is for those gadgets–had been planted in the barn, up under the eaves in the loft.
“About all they could really pick up was a conversation on your front porch,” Hank reported, “but maybe whoever slipped in and did that…well, maybe he figured he could report back to his superiors that he’d bugged the place without specifying too many details.”
Trace looked mildly amused. “Those ears aren’t exactly microscopic. Did they really think we were too stupid to sweep the place?”
Spence, the older of the pair and a good 40 pounds overweight, chuckled briefly. “Mr. Trace, the higher up the berry tree you go with these people, the more arrogant they–yes, they really do think things like that. Nor would they figure you to realize these things were broadcasting live, 24/7.”
I had to ask. “Are they still?”
“Broadcasting? Nah. We disabled them for you.”
B.J. raised an eyebrow, prompting Hank to clarify. “Believe it or not, gentlemen, these units are battery operated. So we just took out the batteries.”
The rancher dug in his shirt pocket, fished out a wad of bills, and handed it to Spence, who handed it to Hank. Obviously, they’d count the money and work their split later, down the road and out of sight.
Once their nondescript Ford Explorer was out through the ranch gate, Sam got down to business. “Coffee’s hot, donuts are on the counter. This meeting is now officially in session, and the floor is open. Who wants to go first?”
“Reckon I can.” I shrugged, loading three of the powdered sugar donuts onto a paper plate. A growing 24 year old boy’s gotta eat. Then I had to set the plate down to fish my notes out of a shirt pocket. “The first video, showing the attack on Jack & me in Phillips County, seems to have pretty much leveled off. Eleven million, two hundred thousand, three hundred and twelve views on YouTube as of this morning, but that’s only up by four hundred and seven in the past week.”
“The FOFF kids, though, are still at it. According to one article, they’ve wangled themselves an appointment with a fairly high government official. You know, to make their case as FOFF, defender of all things furry.”
Jack asked the obvious question. “Sounds right up Obama’s left wing alley. How high is the official, and what department?”
“Undersecretary of something or other, but,” I admitted, “it was hard to pin down which agency. The writer is a known blogger, been around a while–no Andrew Breitbart, but known to be reliable. But in the body of the text, he mentions the EPA, and in the closing paragraph it’s listed as the Forest Service. Though why either one would care about genetically altered wolves, I’ve no idea.”
The meeting went on until the donuts were gone and the coffee pot dry. Then Sam wrapped it up with a bombshell of a surprise.
“Well, boys and girls, sounds like we’re hanging fire for now on the Wolf War. We don’t have any great new angles to hit the enemy with at the moment. They’re keeping their heads down. But this unofficial cease fire can’t last. These yahoos will try taking us out again, sooner or later, and it’s my turn in the barrel, like as not.”
“Which is why I’m retiring from the rodeo producing business.”
If you’re thinking that caught us off guard, you’d be right. But once Trace explained it to us, it made a lot of sense. Out there on the road, producing 40 or more rodeos every year, he’d be a sitting duck. Or a driving duck, like Jack and me when a simple telephone poll dropped across a two lane highway came within a cat’s whisker of doing us in. By staying closer to home, he had a lot better chance of seeing them coming.
There was also the need to reduce the likelihood of collateral damage. If one of his hands got hurt or killed while the Wolf Weasels were trying to take Sam Trace out, there was going to be more than enough guilt to go around for everybody.
B.J. had to ask, though. “You’re okay financially, Sam?”
“Yep.” He grinned, kind of a wolfish look, now that I thought of it. “The ranch is paid off. Has been for the past two years and some months. Got plenty of room to run a horse herd and a cattle herd both, with graze left over. Figure to just raise bucking broncs and bulls from here on in, let the other tomfool idjits run all over the country trying to make two dimes to rub together. Besides, Rodeo Iron is already in the black and looking to make some serious coin in another year or two–if we can find enough triple platinum gold plated wizard welders to keep up with your sales efforts, Tree.”
I didn’t blush, and if I had, it wouldn’t have been that obvious, what with me being a black man and all. But I felt the compliment, and it felt good.
The rancher heaved himself up from the table, not with diffiiculty but maybe with a touch of regret. “Each of you grab a flashlight outa that drawer there.” He pointed to the drawer under the counter, two to the right of the kitchen sink.
We did as we were told. Once we were armed with torches to slay the dragons of darkness–though it was a bright, sunshiny midafternoon outside–Sam spun on his heel and headed for the door, turning his head to speak back over his shoulder as he did so.
“I got something to show you.”
We were obviously headed for the old machine shop. Which is different from the new machine shop, a huge steel structure that could double as an aircraft hangar without breaking a sweat.
The old machine shop had started life as a root cellar, back in the days of the homesteading pioneer family that had lived in this place at one time. Like many such, it had been dug into the side of a hill, with a set of front doors big enough to admit farm equipment and/or a team of horses. Back in the day, it would have kept provisions cool enough to slow down the spoilage, giving the homesteading family a bit of a chance to survive the wicked Montana winter.
Today, a hundred sacks of potatoes occcupied one corner, but most of the area was filled with antique steel-wheeled tractors, cultivators, harrows and plows, even a ditching machine that might still work despite having obviously seen better days.
Big Jude was starting to look like he’d seen better days, too. My beloved uncle, all six feet, eight inches of him, started hyperventilating the instant he set foot inside the shop door.
I hadn’t known he feared underground places. Truth be told, I hadn’t known he feared anything. We did need the flashlights once the door was closed–and B.J. decided he’d be better off guarding that door from the outside.
The rest of us understood that, sort of. My nearest male relative was a mighty big man, but feeling mighty small when he imagined the mountain coming down on him, crushing his chest….
Which left just Jack Hill and yours truly, Treemin Jackson, to follow Sam through all the machinery, ending up at the back wall. This was a wooden wall, or at least a section of one. Trace had blasted the rock bones of the mountain a bit, enlarged the overall inner space of the shop, then put up wooden wall sections at strategic points around the circumference of the cellar/shop. These sections served as places to hold an amazing variety of old tools, ranging from Swede saws to mower sickle blades, to what looked like a rusty old tomahawk.
All of which was interesting enough…but not what he wanted to show us. One eight-foot section of back wall swung out on smoothly oiled invisible hinges, and we were looking at a mine shaft.
Jack Hill was grinning, his eyes dancing. “Now this,” he said to no one in particular, “is more like it. Tell us the history, Sam.”
“Would if I could. It was here when I bought the place, though the portal wasn’t nearly as big as it is today. I enlarged that some. But nobody other than me, myself, and I know about this. And now you and Tree, of course.”
As we trooped into the guts of the mountain, I thought about several things. Excitement; there was that. I’d never been this far underground before, but found I was liking it. The mine seemed to welcome me, an old friend taking me to its heart. Side by side with the thrill of discovery, there was a pang of sadness for my uncle, a good man and a big one, packing a phobia that prohibited his entry into this world of dwarves and Orcs and deep-dwelling gnomes.
The gnomes, at least, were real. I caught two of them out of the corner of my eye, hanging out near the mouth of a side tunnel that flared off to our right. Their squat forms were thrown into shadowed relief by the beams from our flashlights.
That I was the only one who could see them was a given. But since I was bringing up the rear, it was okay to toss them a little half-salute and a smile. One of the pair acknowledged my greeting by doffing his dusty cap and bowing slightly in my direction. It was an act full of meaning, a sharing of the secret we held between us, a secret ever safe from the blind eyes of ordinary mortals.
I was some special, I was. Gnomes weren’t exactly Mammoth Riders of yore, but they’d do.
Roughly 280 yards inside the mountain–I counted my steps–the mine drift made a gentle turn to the left…and man’s scrabbling with pick and shovel and blasting powder transitioned abruptly into God’s own handiwork.
The miners had broken through into one helluva cave.
“No,” Sam explained while we took a break, seated with our backs to one oddly smooth boulder situated more or less in the middle of the great room. “The original tunnel never got this far. In fact, it ended a good fifty yards back of where I broke through. Wasn’t looking to find anything like this, you understand. Just never did trust Uncle Sam all that much–he can be a really nosy, pushy bugger at times–and figured it couldn’t hurt to drill a round and blast a little rock in my spare time.”
Which had been considerable, especially during the first few winters. He’d done the whole thing, all 50 yards worth, using miner’s knowledge he’d gained from a one-year stint working in the Anderson phosphate mine outside of Garrison.
Single handed, he’d done that. Jack Hill’s friend Ghost had built a house single handed, down in Arizona, but this had to add up to a lot more work than one piddly residence.
We sat in silence for a while, our lights wandering about, scanning the place bit by bit. It looked to be 50 yards across or so, longer than it was wide but not by all that much. Seen from overhead, it likely resembled a giant lima bean. The floor was far from even, but for the most part could be easily traversed by a three-plow farm tractor. The ceiling–did they call it a ceiling in a cave?–the ceiling vaulted overhead at a height ranging from eight or nine feet to more than twenty.
Solid granite, this place. No stalactites or stalagmites, not that I could ever remember which was which. Dark places in at least half a dozen spots around the room’s perimeter, hinting at branching tunnels and maybe other rooms waiting to be discovered.
And there was air. Somewhere, somehow, at least one of those holes led to the surface.
This was a holy place. Especially, I thought, a holy citadel for the Wolf Warriors, we few who found ourselves embroiled in a conflict that would no doubt get worse before it got better. As remote as we were in this near-wilderness fastness, miles from even the tiny hamlet of Ovando, Montana, hard times were coming. Especially with Barack Hussein Obama having won himself a second term in office, hard times were coming. The Internet was going nuts with speculation if you knew where to look. We knew people personally who were already locked and loaded, stocked up on ammunition and survival supplies and scrambling for more.
It might not come to open civil war, but then again it might. Christians of all denominations believed in the Second Coming of Christ, but there was no guarantee–even if they had it right–that the second coming of the Civil War might not precede the Second Coming of their Savior. Dimwitted pundits on TV talked about Obama maybe moving toward the center, espousing a bit less of this my way or the highway stuff, but I couldn’t see it.
Listening to the man, he sounded as hard core left wing ideological as ever. Maybe worse. He was already spoutng off about his “mandate” from the people, promising to raise taxes on the well to do or else.
We would need to start stocking this place. There were dozens of rock formations that could serve as places for storage, for fighting positions if our hidden redoubt were ever discovered and assaulted, even–with a little carpentry work–for rooms that would allow privacy. First and foremost, we’d need to figure out a water supply….
Once we’d had the nickel tour and retreated to the main ranch house, it was time to stuff our faces again. B. J. listened solemnly. Sam Trace was cutting great pieces of cherry pie, loading them up with vanilla ice cream and bringing them in from the kitchen. Jack Hill was firing up a fresh pot of coffee. I was using my eidetic memory as a reference, telling my uncle about the great underground room we’d dubbed Wolf Cave.
Telling him, as it turned out, a whole lot more than he wanted to know. When I was done, he shook his massive head. “It’s not something I can do, Tree.”
I was shocked. I’d thought he’d surely change his mind about going underground once I’d explained the marvelous benefits. “If you can’t….” I said slowly, “then–”
“No.” He raised a hand to forestall me. “You’re right to be enthused about this. If push comes to shove, the cave may keep you alive. You and Sam and Jack and whoever else in our core group can handle living for however long under a million tons of rock waiting its chance to crush you like a bug underfoot. Tree, I can’t breathe underground; I’d literally kill myself before I’d step foot inside that mine shaft, let alone truck all the way inside to the great room.”
“Hunh.” I grunted, realizing my ice cream had mostly melted while I was waxing poetic about Sam’s surprise. “Guess I shouldn’t take Tania for granted, either, till I talk to her about it. Don’t believe we’ve ever discussed cave crawling. She might get as freaky-eyed as you about it.”
“Freaky-eyed?” He tried a wry smile on for size. “Try flutter-gutted. But yeah, about your woman, you never know. The topic has come up with Quichona. She says, where I go she goes, so it kinda feels like if she gets killed because I couldn’t handle being a mole, her death will be on my head. But it is what it is; I can’t do what I can’t do.”
Another disturbing revelation. B.J. had always been Superman in my eyes. I’d always believed he could do anything. Where did that leave me, the nephew he’d rescued from the way of self-hatred? If Big Jude had limitations, so must I have them. Memory kicked in, and I was viewing the brilliant blue morning glories that bloomed near our rented home every summer. With Armageddon maybe on the way and the wolf mutators definitely trying to kill us, would I even be alive to see them in the coming summer of 2013?
My idol had feet of clay. Or at least an Achilles heel. What was I, then? A collection of pottery shards, fragile stock slapped together with not-so-Super Glue?
Well, whatever I was–or wasn’t–duty was calling. I took a deep breath. Let it out. “Sam,” I asked the senior partner in Rodeo Iron, the man to whom I owed so much, “could you do without me for a few days?”
He shrugged. “Don’t see why not. The calves are weaned, the sales calls are caught up, and the welding will still be here when you get back. Where you headed?”
“I don’t know if she’ll budge,” I explained. “She could be shacking with her boss. If she is, she ain’t gonna move for a box of dynamite. But I gotta lay it out for her, tell her the enemy has to know the connection between us by now, so she’s no safer in Idaho than she is here.”
“Soon as I’m done talking it out with Tania, I gotta go see my Mom.”