The women didn’t desert us any too soon. It was the morning of January 24th when Big Jude and I woke up to find them gone, and the morning of February 25th when old Horace showed up for breakfast at the ranch with the grim news that the wolves had hit the calving pasture.
Sam’s cows weren’t due to start dropping babies till March first–he’d never switched to the January calving program a lot of younger ranchers had adopted in recent decades–but the predators had taken down a first calf heifer. The youngster in her belly wasn’t one of Old Yeller’s prize calves, thankfully. His offspring were too big for first-time mamas.
But Trace didn’t have a cull in the lot. Besides which, lobos eating his livestock alive set with him about as well as somebody coming after his wife. There was murder in his eyes, and I could feel a bit of it myself.
Horace had tried trapping, but this pack was way too smart for that. We’d not nailed a wolf since our triple-hitter the previous August, a couple of weeks before wolf hunting season opened in Montana. Now, at least, it was open season. Only because the State had extended the season due to continued wolf population growth, and only for three more days, but this was no time to be looking a gift horse in the mouth.
The tracker cautioned us before we set out.
“My neck hairs were raising right up, boss,” he told Sam. “There was just four wolves when I jumped ’em up offen the carcass, but I swear, every one of ’em looked at me like I was dead meat.”
“You got that close?” Sam asked. “Get a shot?”
“Kinda sorta. Had to shoot from horseback. I come around that last little rise there, before you come out on the calving meadow, and they were two hundred yards out, maybe two-twenty. Trouble was, they didn’t panic. Managed to put enough cows between me and them that I never got off but two rounds before they hit the timber.”
“Thought I winged one on the second shot. No blood trail, though. But Sam, what I’m mainly getting at here is, I had the shivery danged feeling they wanted me to come after ’em.”
As it happened, Jack Hill was with us at the Trace ranch for breakfast that morning. He had some ideas for a new Rodeo Iron toy that would work extra well with some of the leathercraft his people were cobbling together, and besides, the ranch cook cranked out some Belgian waffles that were outa this world.
He spoke up. “Trap.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Boys,” Sam said slowly, getting up from the table, “we got us a hunt. Question is, who’s hunting who? We know these critters got more than normal wolf intelligence. Maybe even a plan for revenge, for taking out their pack members last summer. So saddle up, but make sure you got enough in the way of weapons and ammo and,” he glanced through the kitchen window at the leaden sky, “survival gear. We don’t know how long this one’s going to take, but we’re gonna have snow before dark. A lot of it.”
The party that rode out included Sam, Horace, and me–the three wolf hunters from last summer–and one other. Jack Hill had elected to come along. He’d called his main squeeze, Carolyn West, on the sat phone. By the time he’d barreled back over to his place in the Subaru, they’d had the stock truck loaded with his roan mountain horse, the big gelding he called Redwing.
We didn’t wait for him, but he caught up to us just before we hit the calving pasture, Redwing trotting easily through the snow like he was out for a Sunday ride with the ladies. Not even breathing hard.
BJ wasn’t with us. My uncle was a lot of things, but a horseman wasn’t one of them. Besides, 300 pounds of man mountain would be enough to wear down the stoutest cayuse where we were going. And–most important of all, though nobody said it–we needed at least one hardcore warrior holding the fort at ranch headquarters, just in case. If we weren’t under satellite surveillance by the enemy at least some of the time, I’d eat Jack Hill’s fur-flapped winter hat…and trust me, that thing was nasty.
Although the satellites likely couldn’t see much. Not since just before dawn, when the clouds had rolled in.
I was almighty glad we had Jack along on this one. We’d been through a lot together already, he and I had, and Horace wasn’t the only one with a queasy feeling. Something was wrong, something more than wolves and ranchers arguing over who owned the cows.
Tracking was easy enough, what with a good foot of snow on the flats. We’d not had new snow in nearly a week, so following the wolves would be a no-brainer at the start.
When that storm hit, though, all bets would be off.
Nobody talked. We’d sign to each other; that was it.
It weren’t no picnic. Them lobos were traveling steady, not hurrying, but even an easygoing wolf can still out-travel a horse a lot of times, depending on terrain. There’s a reason they’ve been alpha predators for all those eons.
Wasn’t getting any warmer out, either. Not cold enough yet to crunch the snow underfoot, but nippy enough to keep our long woolen scarves up over our noses, our fingers wiggling in our gloves, and our toes doing likewise in our boots. All except for Sam; the cold didn’t bother him no more than it would a polar bear. He didn’t even have his ears covered.
We were something like ten miles upcountry, closing in on noon, when Jack Hill suddenly -hissed- like some kind of mythical snow snake.
He was riding drag at the time, clear in the back of the line, but we all stopped cold, turning in our saddles to see where he was pointing.
Not at the wolves. We hadn’t spotted them yet, though Horace had signed to us that we were getting close–which any damfool could see. Steam was still rising from where the alpha male had most recently pissed on a tree.
So, if not the wolves, what then?
Ah. Men! Still a good half mile off, barely glimpsed as they moved across a slope that sported a few scrawny junipers but no real trees worth bragging about.
And the wolf tracks pointed off that way, on an angle that would have our two groups of homo sapiens bumping into each other if we kept going.
Over there, right between us, was the boundary.
The enemy–we had to assume they were the enemy–was inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We were still on Trace land…but if we followed the wolf tracks much farther, we’d have to cross over into the Bob. Where our hunting licenses were no good. Where we’d be violating federal law if we fired a single shot at anything.
I had no idea how he did it, but all of a sudden, Jack Hill was in charge. We’d been just about to break out of heavy timber, but thanks to Jack, we hadn’t quite done it. Easing our horses together into a tight little clump, with giant blue spruce trees and a few deadfalls giving us cover, the four of us dismounted as quietly as possible and huddled up.
Hill dug a spotting scope out of a saddle bag and braced himeslf against Redwing’s saddle to get a better look.
“Six or seven,” he whispered. We all whispered.
“ID?” Sam asked.
“Not sure. They look like Forest Service at this distance, but something don’t feel right. I’m thinking they’re trying to blame it on the Indians.”
We got the reference. Back in the bad old wild, wild West, many a white renegade had dressed up like an Indian before going on a raid, trying to blame his killing and raping and thievery and such on the Comanche or Cheyenne or whoever. You know, like Obama trying to blame Bush for everything.
Well. Whoever they were, we didn’t think they’d seen us yet. Maybe ’cause we moved faster through these snowclad mountains than they expected we could, and with that stormy sky, they wouldn’t have any help from aircraft or satellites.
Horace took the scope to keep an eye on the opposition while Sam, Jack, & I squatted in the snow between the horses, heads so close together I could smell the boss’s bad breath.
“It’s pretty clear they figure we’ll follow the wolf tracks into the Marshall.” This from Sam. He didn’t seem to mind Jack taking over for the moment, but he didn’t intend to be left out of the discussion, either.
“Agreed,” Hill said. I nodded.
“One.” The Protector looked thoughtful. Not worried, just thoughtful. “I cut loose from you three, backtrack to that last gulch that runs up behind that bunch, sneak up from the other side–from deeper in the Marshall–and shoot a couple of ’em.”
Sam Trace snorted softly. “Ambitious much?”
“There’s logic to it.”
“Yeah. That WMI bunch, our known enemies, are fully aware I don’t live at your ranch. Yeah, I ride with Tree on the sales runs, but it was pure fluke–or destiny, whatever–that I was at your place this morning. There was cloud cover by the time I drove over, so if they’re surveilling the ranch by satellite as we suspect, they couldn’t have seen me leave my driveway. Plus I’ve never ridden out with you before on horseback like this. They might not be expecting me.”
“Okay.” My boss rubbed his chin with a gloved hand. We’d pulled our scarves down to talk, though I was already anxious to get mine back up. It was getting nippy out here. “What else?”
“Couple things. Looks like those a**holes over there are on snowshoes. They’re packing some serious ordnance. One looks like he’s lugging around an old M60.”
“Machine gun? You mean the Vietnam Era kind of M60?” Horace asked that one. He was a Vietnam veteran, I knew, had been an infantry machine gunner at that.
I didn’t know what the heck an M60 was, specifically, but the machine gun part was clear enough.
“Yep. So, what I’m getting at is, Redwing and I can do a hit and run on these guys–hopefully–with less chance of getting nailed than two or three or four of us…and you ranch types will have the perfect alibi, ’cause you never left your own property. You were just trailing wolves that killed your stock, which you’re legally licensed to do. Then you heard all Hell break loose over there, which is when you tucked tail for home.”
He saw the looks on our faces and added, “After noticing them shooters over there just happened to gun down the wolves themselves, of course. You know. They shoot you, shoot the wolves, too, and blame the dead wolves on the dead rancher.”
“Hunh.” Trace grunted, then nodded slowly. He could see how that might be their plan.
I had an objection. “Alone, Jack? They’ve likely got ATV’s or something, back a ridge or two.”
He shook his head. “You don’t want to be in on this one, Tree.”
“How do I put this?” His eyes twinkled. “You’re big and you’re black. I’m scrawnier and I’m white–and it’s snowing.”
Well, he was right about that. Flakes were starting to come down, those big soft suckers that lull a tenderfoot into thinking the stories about snowstorms in these mountains were exaggerated ’cause the purty thngs are so soft and fluffy and all.
One thing about Jack Hill. When he had his mind made up, he didn’t wait around for permission or approval.
I kind of figured he had a chance, though, if anyone did. Not only had he lasted more than 250 years already, but he knew these mountains inside out. He’d told me so, during one of our bull sessions. Plus, after he snagged his scope back from Horace, the ancient Civil War fighter–who’d fought on both sides and survived the Andersonville prison camp to boot–unbuckled his righthand saddle bag and produced what turned out to be a set of white coveralls.
By the time he and the big roan were twenty yards away, easing back the way we’d come, they’d disappeared from sight altogether.
The enemy in green was under cover now, too, but they couldn’t cross the open country to get to our position without being spotted, and besides, it was pretty obvious they planned an ambush, not a running firefight. Maybe they’d set tight, wait for either us or the wolves or both to give them an opening.
One could hope.
Thank the War God and all his little helpers, I thought, that we ride with one up the spout and safeties off. The sound of a round being chambered would have announced our presence as surely as the bugle of a bull elk during fall mating season.
We settled in to wait, hoping the main snow would hold off enough to let us see where to point the business ends of our rifles when Hill opened the ball.
Remind me never to volunteer as Santa’s helper. I’ve no desire to go tackle Alaska with Sarah Palin or explore the Antarctic. Give me fluffy white clouds in a blue sky in a climate like, say, Arizona.
Normally, I deal with cold weather pretty well. Normally. But waiting, huddled up in thick timber, waiting for war to break out all over yet having no control over when that will happen…it’s hard to do. Bone-chilling, evil fantasy, Frost King from Ice Hell hard.
We all kept watch as best we could, peering through binoculars that weren’t all that much help, trying to pick out where the ambushers were holed up over on that slope. The boss did spot one of ‘em, tucked into a patch of brush mixed with jumbled boulders. He thought it might be the guy with the machine gun, but couldn’t be sure.
Neither Horace nor I could spot what he’d seen. Despite being in his mid-sixties somewhere, the man still had eyes the eyes of an eagle.
They might have killed the running wolves. We didn’t hear any gunshots, but we all noticed a couple of red streaks that zipped at light speed–literally–from behind a big jack pine, over toward where the lobos had been angling. Never saw anything else, neither man nor wolf, but that sure enough provided food for thought. Looked like our opponents had at least one futuristic, sci fi kind of rifle as well as the M60.
Or maybe they’d just laser-painted red dots out there for kicks and giggles. Could have been that, but why? If they dropped even one wolf, laser-burned through, they might be able to chase that with a rifle round later and claim we’d done it. On wilderness turf, of course.
Whereas popping that streak of red light out there like they’d done…you’d not think it’d be worth the risk of being seen, just to red-dot a slinking critter.
Seemed like it was taking Jack Hill forever and a day to get into position.
It didn’t help that the gray sky left us unable to tell one minute from the next. I didn’t dare look at my watch. If what felt like three hours turned out to be three minutes, it would be just too frustrating for words.
The older men didn’t give any sign of impatience, but I was starting to get depressed. How had my Mama’s little boy come to this?
Lookit you, Treemin Jackson, I told myself. Hiding here in snow deep enough to high center a giraffe, twenty-four years old, woman done left you, about to murder or be murdered by the bad guys, one wiggle away from frostbite, and for what?
Of course, finally, Jack did what he said he’d do. I was taking a leak when the small caliber -crack!- split the air. Hill’s ancient Marlin 60, a single .22 long rifle round of all things. The sound jerked me out of my cold-induced daze so fast that I jerked my bidness into my jeans and finished peeing down my leg.
No time to think about that. My .25-06 was up in position, resting across a preselected tree limb. The machine gunner was on the move, his back to me as he scrambled back upslope with his weapon. That squad had figured to be shooting thisaway; he couldn’t open up on whoever had attacked them from the rear without risking hitting his own men. He had to get to the new battle front, as it were.
My finger was tightening on the trigger when Sam Trace dropped a heavy hand on my shoulder.
For a moment, I didn’t get it, couldn’t comprehend the headshake the boss was giving me. Then I realized Horace was already in the saddle, and–no! We were going to run away? Leave my friend Jack to face half a dozen paid killers alone? With nothing but a freaking .22?!
But then, fighting past the denial and the rage that threatened to rise up and consume me, I suddenly understood. Didn’t like it, but I understood. If we slipped out now, trailed on back to the ranch as fast as we could safely go, nobody could ever prove we’d been here in the first place. The regular ranch hands knew we’d ridden out, but not how far we’d traveled. There couldn’t be more than an hour or two of light left. The snow was starting to come down for real and would have our tracks covered completely before long. We didn’t have to worry about enemy eyes in the sky, also because of the storm.
All the way back, Sam rode point, Horace brought up the rear, and they put the big useless-in-the-snow black man in the middle. Useless, useless, useless! I’d thought Jack’s idea was to catch those buggers in a crossfire, albeit a long distance one from our vantage point. But he hadn’t actually said that, had he?
No. He hadn’t. He’d said he figured to slip over there and shoot a couple of ‘em. That was all.
Why had it taken me so long to see it? If we’d retreated in force when we first saw the ambush being set up, the odds were just too high that we’d have been detected. It was only luck–if you believed in luck–that had placed us in those trees just in time to spot the bad guys without being spotted in turn.
Jack, if he was still alive, would be leading them deeper into the Bob Marshall, working to convince them he was a third, hitherto unknown force, not a part of our bunch. Yeah, the big roan should be able to carry him faster than those guys could move on snowshows.
But I could think of so many things that could go wrong.
I kept telling myself Jack Hill was hard to kill. He’d lasted this long, hadn’t he?
Blast it, we could have all retreated safely enough! We could!
Yeah, said that little voice inside me, but then what? You’d have left a hostile force within striking distance of ranch headquarters, left ‘em untouched. This way….
This way, I didn’t know. Couldn’t guess how it was going to fall out, except for the ugly possibilities, of which there were far too many.
“You sumbitch,” I muttered, aloud but under my breath, “you better make it back alive or I’ll kill you.”
There was a good six inches of new snow on the ground by the time we made it to the barn. We took time to fix the horses up right, stabled inside with plenty of hay and water and a special double ration of oats, before trooping on over to the main house.
It was nearly 8:00 o’clock. The crew had been fed and retreated to the bunkhouse long since, but Jennifer Trace and the cook had kept everything warm…and the whole gang, except for Jack, was there. His housemates, Carolyn, Sissy, and Wayne, had brought the Subaru back over, kept Mrs. Trace company while we great warriors were out there answering the call of the wild. As a matter of fact, uncle B.J. was sitting at the main table, chatting up Sissy like the two of ’em had a thing going on.
I felt an irrational stab of jealousy. Stomped it back down and crushed its head under my boot.
Carolyn West spotted the problem immediately. “Where’s Jack?” She said it calmly enough, but I could see by her eyes she knew something was not as it should be.
The boss started to open his mouth. I beat him to it. “He’s out there saving the world from the forces of evil.” The announcement came out a bit bitter. Didn’t mean for that to happen. The big kitchen went still, completely still, until Sam finally took up the tale.
“There was a group of men out there, just up the other side of Ten Mile Rock, over in the Bob. Looked like they were fixing to ambush the bunch of us, only we seen ’em first. Jack volunteered to tweak their tails.”
Carolyn looked…offended. “You let him go after them? Alone?!”
My turn again. “Carolyn,” I said, and even I could hear my voice had suddenly gone gentle, “you ever try to stop Jack from doing a thing, once he’s made up his mind to it?”
That got to her. “No,” she admitted, the fire going out of her eyes. “It would take more than the three of you to do that.”
Once again, we settled down to wait.. No physical discomfort this time, just a big, warm kitchen and people who cared, most of us with loaded weapons within arm’s reach. Which made it worse in a way. There was nothing to buffer the guilt.
Long story short, we hunkered around that kitchen table, mostly making small talk so’s we could avoid the topic of Jack being out there alone in the freezing cold and outnumbered at least six to one. We drank coffee and hit the bathroom frequently and toughed it out till finally, at 2:37 a.m. by the grandfather clock in the corner, we heard a familiar voice.
“HELLO THE HOUSE!!”
I beat the rest of them out the door, but not by much. Redwing came walking into the circle of the yard light. The snow had quit falling, and we could see the big roan was favoring his right front leg a bit, but he was still covering ground and his head was still up, ears flicked forward and ready for the barn.
Horace offered to put the horse up, and Jack accepted–after he’d unlaced the saddle bags, roll, and rifle scabbard from the saddle.
“Come on inside, man,” Sam boomed heartily, clearly as relieved as any of us. “Tell us all about it.”
“I’ll do that. But we got a time limit. If y’all would be so kind, I need to spit out what I got to say, hold the questions till the end, and then Tree and I need to run like Hell for Missoula.”
We were settling back around the table by this time, Jennifer and Carolyn bustling fresh coffee and a bowl of steaming beef stew down in front of the obviously exhausted man. Exhausted, but still alert. He looked at Sam Trace for confirmation. The rancher nodded, meaning we’d all shut up till Hill said otherwise, and Jack told his story.
Some of it.
“First of all, what happened.” He paused long enough to scoop a spoonful of stew into his mouth and down–which didn’t take long, I assure you–and gave us the Reader’s Digest Condensed version.
“Tree here mentioned them fake feds would likely have an ATV or two back a ridge or two. He was right. Three ATV’s, three ridges back, but close enough.
“They’d left a sentry. I put a round through his left ear, collected enough from his corpse that I’m betting I know somebody who can identify him for us–maybe give us a better idea of who’s really behind this Wolf Mutator bunch. He’s a grunt, disposable no doubt, but there still could be a trail. That’s part of why Tree and I gotta hit for Missoula, so’s I can get the evidence to my people ASAP.”
Somebody coughed. I didn’t turn to see who, though Jack flicked a glance off to his right, my left.
“The other part of why we need to get there is to prove we weren’t here these past hours. I’ve got a standing motel room in town down there. All I have to do is log in, and if we do it before 8:00 a.m., I can put down any time after 3:00 p.m. and get away with it. The motel manager will swear I was there at that time, and he’ll believe it. But we can’t do that if it’s 8:01 or later.”
He paused, reaching into his lefthand shirt pocket and pulling out what looked like a regular playing card, the Ace of Spades, except that it had a picture of a bobcat above and to the left of the center spade, plus a picture of an old west marshal’s badge below and to the right. There was a bit of wording in golden script around the border.
“I left one of these tucked in the dead man’s shirt pocket.”
I got the card first, scanning the wording before passing it on. Courtesy of the Hermit. “You had these ready ahead of time?” I had to ask.
Hill gave me a level look. “No time for questions, Tree. Like I said. But yeah, I figured we might could use a phantom on our side, one that lived out there in the wilderness somewhere instead of right here with a target painted on our backs.”
Wow. When I grow up, I’d like to be able to think ahead like that.
What? The meaning of the card? Yeah, that took me a while, too. Turns out some of our soldiers in Vietnam used to pin aces of spades to the chests of dead enemy combatants. Psy ops, psychological warfare. The bobcat and the marshal’s badge represented the Bob Marshall…get it?
My mind was off somewhere, trying to think that through, so that I almost missed the next part.
“That first shot I fired was back far enough, I doubted anybody heard it. Or if they did, they couldn’t tell where it’d come from. So I took time enough to mess with the ATV’s a bit. Stuffed the gas tanks full of snow on two of them. Peed in the third.”
“You didn’t!” Jennifer Trace, Sam’s wife, who’d been pretty quiet up till now, busted out laughing…which set the rest of us off.
Jack let it go for a bit, grinning. You could tell he was glad we liked that little touch. Then he held up a hand, we quieted, and he went on.
“Well, I’d best wrap this up so’s we can get going. Oh, Sam, would it be all right if my people bunked in the cave while Tree and I are gone? I don’t much like the idea of them being out at my place by themselves right now.”
“Sure,” the rancher nodded. “Should have thought of that myself.”
“Um, where was–oh. Yeah. Well, I eased up behind the bad guys then, only something was making me extra nervous. The guy I’d shot looked like ex-military to me, and I was starting to worry more than a bit. So I found a tree that would work, tied Redwing’s reins off, and climbed up about 80 feet to see if I could get a better fix on the lay of the land. Good thing I did, ’cause those buggers had two more sentries, right up there as part of the ambush crew. Not fixing to take the Trace bunch out, just watching to make sure nobody snuck up behind ’em.
” I could see one of them pretty good from up in that tree, so I did the Vietnam sniper thing and popped him in the bean right from there.”
“You were in Nam?” Horace asked.
“No,” he shook his head, “not a bit of it. Just read about it. Anyway, these guys were good. It was obvious before I nailed their guy and double obvious after. By the time I made it back down outa that tree, fell on my butt the last ten feet and like to broke an ankle, they had my position figured. There was some serious lead coming my way. But I made it into the saddle, and Redwing thankfully hadn’t got hit. The bottom bit of that tree, where he was, sat down just behind a ridgetop, and they were shootng over him. Close enough to get his attention, though. He took outa there like the Hounds of Hell were on his heels, which they pretty much were.
“For the rest of it, I laid a false trail for ’em, straight back toward the depths of the Bob, like I had me a serious hideout in there somewhere.
“Then, when it was good and dark and I had more miles and more ridges between me and them than they could possibly cover on foot before daylight, it was time to adjust course and hit for home. End of story.”
I believe every one of us let out our breath at once then, like we’d been holding it.
“No questions,” I told my best friend in the world, “but I presume we’ll be needing to borrow a couple of extra snow shovels. Could be a drift or three between here and Missoula.”
“Heck,” Sam Trace snorted–there’d been a lot of snorting going on lately– “there’ll be a drift or three between here and the freaking highway.”
Not until we were under way, hoping the cloud cover would hold for a few more hours and watching for the tricky places where snow drifted completely across the road, did it hit me. Jack had spoken openly, even in front of Sam’s wife, of having shot down men like swatting so many flies. Obviously, he trusted his own people with that sort of information–Carolyn West, Sissy Harms, and even the flamer, Wayne Bruce. The Traces had been married for a long time. My uncle B.J. and I were trustworthy, and the old tracker, Horace, had probably killed his own share of men in his day.
But…what about the cook? She’d not been present by the time my partner rode in, and it’s doubtful Jack would have been as free with his words if she was in the room. But where had she been? She’d stayed on duty, kept Jennifer Trace and B.J. company until Sam and Horace and I showed up; I remembered that much, but beyond that, my eidetic memory seemed to have gone on the fritz.
When, exactly, had she left? Where did she sleep? How long had she been with the Trace family?
In other words, could she be a spy for the opposition?
Probably not. Hopefully not. But somebody was. That, I realized, was what had been nagging at me for a while now. How information would be passed in this high country, where cell phones mostly didn’t work…who knew? ‘Twas a puzzlement. It was happening, though. The Wolfers had laid back for months on end, ever since we’d hit their facility in Wisconsin, but only to plot and plan. No satellite could have tracked us, yet they’d known we were coming, knew at least that we’d left with intentions to track and if possible kill the wolves who’d attacked the herd.
“Jack,” I volunteered, “we have a spy.”
He chuckled. “Finally figured that out, did you?”
I turned to look at him, his features rather ghastly in the dim green light reflected from the Subaru’s dashboard. “You’ve known? For how long?”
“A while,” he replied, which didn’t tell me much.”but let’s talk about it later. I do believe we’re gonna need our breath for shoveling.”
Eyes front and–no kidding. Looked like we had 40 feet of path to clear if we had to clear an inch. I sighed, reaching down to buckle the rubbers protecting my cowboy boots. It had been a long day and a long night, and it wasn’t over yet.