We were too late.
The Subaru sat silently in the middle of the Y, engine off and the windows rolled down. The car showed no lights, though Jack’s foot was still on the brake; one of those under-dash switches allowed the Outback to go black at will.
Yonder, another mile down the righthand fork, there were intermittent flashes lighting the low cloud cover from beneath, accompanied by sounds we understood only too well. Rifle fire, the occasional stutter of a machine gun, the -CRUMP!- of, dammit all to Hell, a mortar.
Had the noncombatants made it to the cave in time? The demons of Hell itself would have a tough time advancing through that narrow entrance tunnel even if they found it…if some of our people were inside and ready, giving them a hard time.
Clearly, the ranch was holding for now.
“Damn.” Jack Hill swore softly. I didn’t look over at him. Couldn’t have seen him in the darkness anyway; his presence was simply felt. Known. Strange, though. I’d not realized anything could throw the ancient like this. His frustration and indecision were palpable.
Suddenly, the words just kind of popped out of my mouth. “Your place.”
He hesitated. “Why?” Leaving our people alone under fire clearly didn’t set any better with him than hearing about Americans abandoned under fire in Benghazi had set with Ghost32 and his friend Dusty, back in the day.
“The snowmobiles,” I told Jack. “Another set of white coveralls if you’ve got one big enough to fit me. Your heaviest weapons. More ammo. The long knives–”
“Yeah.” My words had galvanized the old man back into action. He fired up the Subie, cranked it around, and headed down the lefthand fork of the Y as fast as possible in the dangerous dark. Just two miles, and hope to Hell they hadn’t hit our place first.
They hadn’t. We were thankful for that much, both of us out of the car and running for our respective doors before the vehicle finished sliding to a stop. My two kittens were waiting to greet me at the door, took one look a the way I came storming in, and fled, taking up residence under the couch.
“Good thinking, guys,” I called to them on the way back out. “I’ll see you in time to feed you breakfast. I hope.”
On the return trip, both of us piloting snow machines, Jack followed me. He knew these mountains, but I knew the terrain immediately surrounding ranch headquarters even better than he did.
I knew where I’d set up a mortar if it was up to me, and I was right.
I knew where I’d set up an M60 machine gun if it was up to me, and I was right.
The rest of it, we played by ear. The M60 was parked about 300 yards southeast of the ranch house, just at the forward edge of a small cottonwood grove that housed a natural spring–now frozen over for the winter. Most importantly from the gunner’s viewpoint, they could cover both the long front of the house, which included the front door, and the narrower south-facing end.
They were firing intermittently, short bursts, making sure the defenders kept their heads down while the mortar found its range.
Which it was doing right well by the time I stashed my Snowcat in the willows and started bellying forward like an oversized snow snake.
Jack had headed for the backside of the house, ranging way out to be sure he was coming in behind the attackers. There were riflemen over there. We didn’t know how many yet, but the idea was, Hill would poke the hornet’s nest, distract the bad guys, give me a chance at first the mortar and then the machine gun.
You might think it would go better the other way around, but we had to call it as we saw it. I’d told Jack our little secret–that is, the secret only the Traces, my uncle, and I had known until tonight.
For three straight weeks, starting shortly after our women bailed on us, Big Jude and I had been pulling double shifts. The two of us, both expert welders–that is how we made our livings, after all–would eat supper with Sam and Jennifer. The cook they had now was brand new; she hadn’t been there to hear the arc welders sparking and hammers ringing downstairs from eight p.m. till four a.m., night after night for 21 straight nights.
But the point was, we’d gotten it done. The Trace ranch basement had become a bunker, sheathed in half-inch thick steel supported by numerous I-beam columns, the whole thing disguised with a spray coating of decorative stucco. The steel was monstrously heavy and definitely expensive, but we were all on board with the concept.
The disguise was perfect, too, unless you made the mistake of trying to drive a nail into the wall to hang a picture or something.
This meant the M60 was only a secondary danger. Sam would be down there for sure, and Horace the tracker, both expert shots who never failed to bring elk meat home for the table every fall. With the machine gun situated as it was, and the house as long as it was, a man inside–if he timed it right–could pop open a blast shutter, fire off a quick round, and duck back out of the way before the M60 operator could track his weapon back to the open window.
Our guys seemed to be doing just that, giving the machine gunners something to think about. Even as I watched, during my belly crawl toward the mortar, a rifle shot from the basement nailed one gunner and sent him sprawling. I could see that through my one open eye when the machine gun did its thing, combat vision by muzzle flash.
The mortar was on the back side of a low rise. No one shooting from the house could hit it. Which is why mortars are still useful in 21st century warfare; they shoot over hills and stuff.
Normally, it takes them a while to get the right range. But these guys knew what they were doing. A round -CRUMPed- its way over the hump and blew the above-roof part of the fireplace chimney to smithereens. I saw that, knew the next one would start ripping the log home to splinters, and figured I’d best get a move on.
My initial target was not the two-man mortar crew itself, but a third man, armed with an M16 or some such–details aren’t that easy to decipher when you’re using Vision Via Muzzle Flash Only. That guy was a guard, there to keep the boogeymen off the mortarmen’s backs, just in case.
He was pretty vigilant, too, using his night monocle to scan both left and right, constantly reassuring himself that no ranch hand had somehow managed to flank their position…but he wasn’t paying attention to his backside.
This would have to start out as knife work, slice the guard first. Three of them in one tight little area were just too many. My .25-06 Winchester is one helluva shooter, but it’s also a bolt action. With a semi auto…unfortunately, I didn’t have one of those.
Okay. Time to pull my monocle down from where it’d been riding, up on the stocking cap. Doesn’t do much up there, but I don’t like going to night vision equipment till I absolutely have to.
Although I did have to admit, being able to see green people was a whole lot better than not seeing them at all.
One slow scan around, check out the full 360, and then–wha?!
The green-limned wolf came low and fast over the snow. He would have taken me from behind, had I not done that turn-scan precisely when I did.
There was no time to unsling the .06, no time to fish under my winter gear to draw the .22, no time for much of anything except to whip the long double-edged Arkansas toothpick up into position, squirreling around in the snow to put my lead arm out there in front.
I couldn’t let him bite me anywhere. Wolf jaws have roughly ten times the closing power of a domestic dog; he’d crunch right through leg, arm, or skull, given the chance.
In that moment, I knew why our ancestors feared both the wolf and the dark.
I also knew he wouldn’t leap. They do that in movies, or in books written by idiots who have no idea what they’re writing about.
They don’t do it in real life. The wolf is an alpha predator. He gets to stay that way by staying alive. His fighting style is to slash low and get out of the way, over and over and over again, until his prey is hamstrung and/or bleeding to the point of helpless paralysis and can be safely eaten alive, stomach first.
The big lobo lunged with his teeth bared. I thrust with my knife. He ducked the thrust, spun away, then hesitated, crouching, lip pulled back in a silent snarl, total focus in those too-intelligent eyes.
In that moment, I learned to truly hate the Wolf Mutators who’d given him human DNA.
That he intended to take me out, I had no doubt. That he’d prefer to do it without getting cut in the process was also obvious. I’d swear he was calculating the speed of my reflexes verses the length of my exposed body parts, crunching the numbers like he figured to crunch my bones.
What, did they cross this guy’s Daddy Wolf with a freaking accountant? I felt an insane desire to laugh, but choked it back. Time was not on my side. The mortar crew and their guard were now at my back. The instant any one of them turned and saw me crouched in the snow, facing the wolf, it would be all over.
Mexican standoff, and I was about to be a dead Mexican.
There was a bit of a muzzle flash from a snowdrift some thirty yards to my left, the wolf’s right. He yipped once, in surprise I thought, and fell heavily over on his left side.
Blood stained the snow.
The snowdrift separated into two parts, one of those parts snaking toward me, exactly as I’d been snaking toward the mortar crew.
I waited, not moving. Whoever had just shot this wolf could take me out, too, should I decide to reach for my rifle. Besides, it had to be a friend. He who shoots my enemy before my enemy eats me is my friend.
Even so, I didn’t figure it out until she eased right up to me and whispered in my ear.
“Is that a knife in your hand, big boy, or are you just happy to see me?”
I looked down. Sure enough, I was holding the toothpick with my fist pretty much in my crotch and the blade (-ahem!-) erect.
“You’re a lass of many talents, Sis,” I whispered back. This was the six-foot woman of mixed race, African plus three different kinds of Native American, that I’d long believed to be the bottom feeder in Jack Hill’s household.
If this was the bottom feeder, what were the others?
“Let’s get through this night alive,” she suggested, “and I’ll be delighted to show you just how talented I am.”
Whoa. Durned if she didn’t get me some excited with that line, right there in the middle of the nasty ol’battlefield.
“Can you hit that guard from here, with that silencer on?”
She thought about that for a second or two. “No guarantee. But watch this.” Sissy Harms reached with one gloved hand, unscrewed the can from the tip of the rifle barrel, and placed it in a shoulder bag–white, like her parka.
I finally recognized her weapon. An antique .220 Swift, super flat shooting varmint gun of yesteryear.
Didn’t know they had any of those around any more.
“All righty then. I was figuring knife work to start this going, but with two of us–”
“Other side. Diversion–”
And right about that time, all Hill cut loose. He’d hauled seven different long guns up into the timber with him. Now he put ‘em to use. I didn’t know then, but later found out his idea was to empty one weapon in the general direction of the enemy as fast as he could, set it down next to a tree, scoot his butt over to the next tree where he’d left the next shooter, rinse and repeat.
I had no idea if he was hitting anything or not, but it surely did sound like more than one man up there…and on our side of the equation, his efforts had the desired effect.
Both the machinegun and the mortar fell silent for a bit, the crews just staring over that way like they had x-ray vision, could see right through the ranch house.
Super-professionals or not, they’d let Hill shock them out of complying with their own protocols for a few precious seconds.
Sissy and I lined up our rifles, me kneeling and her in a sort of cross-legged sitting position…and squeezed the triggers, almost as one.
Our targets went down, and then the remaining mortarman was spinning around, lunging for what looked like an AK-47.
He was too slow. This time it was definitely my round that took him. And when you hit a guy mid-chest with a 100 grain hunting round moving around 3,000 feet per second, he’s going down and he ain’t getting back up.
Sissy’s rifle barked again, and I realized she’d just encouraged the machine gunners, way off there in those cottonwoods, to keep their heads down.
Sort of. We were scrambling back, looking to put some cover between us and that M60, when they got the thing turned our way and opened up. The belt-fed military rounds chewed up the snow, took off the heel of my right boot–though I didn’t realize that until later–and zinged about twenty bullets into the dead wolf’s huge body right after I fell over the thing trying to get away.
Dang dead wolf saved my life.
Then the angle of the slope and a bit of rocky outcrop gave us cover. Finally.
Huddled up in the willows, literally back to back so’s we could watch in all directions, whispering through the corners of our mouths, I had to ask.
“Where’d you learn to do this sh*t?”
“Later, knucklehead. This ain’t the time to tune in to the Biography Channel.”
She had a point. I switched back into pay attention gear.
“They’ll try to get that mortar going again.”
“No duh,” she agreed.
“But that last guy I shot, he fell into the thing. Knocked it screwy. They’ll have to start ranging it in all over again.”
“So, maybe we got time enough to go after that machine gun. You know to operate an M60?”
“…No. Do you?”
“Not hardly. So we need to destroy it, right? Once we kill the guys who have it now.”
Lead on? I’m now the fearless leader, right after she calls me a knucklehead? This girl got some strange ways about her.
Well, I’d been called worse. I reloaded the .06, then started belly-crawling through the willow stand, angling toward the machine gun nest.
The route we took required covering nearly 500 yards worth of rough ground, mostly on our bellies. It had started snowing in earnest, reducing visibility to near zero even with the night vision monocles and/or night vision scopes on our rifles. That was, perhaps, why the machine gun had gone silent.
Or they were on the move. That possibility give me a bad case of nerves. Where were they?
There were still a few rifle shots being fired, but more and more sporadically until they, too, trailed off to nothing. The silence of the grave.
A thought which I could have done without.
After three or four eternities, buttressed by the uncomfortable realization that my right foot was both wet and freezing fast, having been exposed to the elements by the rifle bullet ripping off a bootheel, I stopped short. Sis, crawling right behind, bumped into me. She eased up alongside, touched my shoulder in question.
What is it?
“They’re gone,” I sad in my normal speaking voice–which sounded terrifyingly loud after all that stealth and silence. “They’ve pulled out. However many of them were left.”
I stood up, joints creaking like I’d suddenly hit 80 years of age. With osteoporosis.
Harms joined me more slowly, finally finding her voice. “You sure?”
“Yep.” Putting the trunk of a hefty cottonwood between me and the house–just in case somebody in there was a bit on the trigger happy side–I yelled out, putting every ounce of power I could muster into my best baritone bellow.
“TREEMIN JACKSON TO THE SOUTHEAST. ALL CLEAR HERE!”
There weren’t any booming echoes, not with this snowfall, but the message got through. We knew it did, because after three or four beats, another bellow came right back at us, and then another.
“JACK HILL TO THE NORTH! ALL CLEAR HERE!”
“SAM TRACE IN THE HOUSE! ALL CLEAR HERE!”
And finally, the biggest surprise of the night, not even a baritone but a bass worthy of the Statler Brothers.
“WAYNE BRUCE TO THE WEST! ALL CLEAR HERE!”
“Wayne?” The amazement in my voice was so evident, Sissy laughed aloud. “The flamer is a gunslinger? And he can go deep with his voice?”
“Tell you about it later, Sweet Cheeks,” she promised, practically giggling.
Once we’d all gotten together and run three sets of perimeter patrols, we were sure of it. Morse Code had gotten bloodied again and beaten a hasty retreat. Or, as you say when it’s your ox getting gored, a strategic withdrawal.
Jack Hill said he could identify Jonathan Morse if he saw him. None of the seven bodies qualified.
We weren’t sure how many attackers there’d been, but after comparing all the different accounts and discounting those from the panic prone–such as Izmelda Hidalgo, the new cook who clearly wished she’d found any other job but this one, and who swore there were “hundreds” of the bad guys, we agreed there had been at least eleven men coming at us, but no more than fifteen at most.
Seven dead, all professionals who should have made mincemeat of us in short order, while our side suffered just two casualties. My bootheel, and the boss’s wife. She’d been covering the east end, just keeping an eye on the terrain in case they came that way, when Horace took a shot at the machine gun nest and ended up slamming the blast shutters back shut just a split second too slow.
A round from the M60 had made it inside, rattled around a bit, and the richochet ended up taking a bite out of Jennifer’s left calf.
“Bled like a stuck pig,” she assured us cheerfully, showing off her limp and her bloodstained gauze wrap, “but it’s just a gouge. Lost a bit of meat, but I been gaining too much lately anyway.”
We all laughed at that, more than we should have, from the relief and the letdown. Jennifer Trace ran a body fat ratio of maybe 14 percent. On Thanksgiving. After dinner.
Nobody slept that night. The shooting was done by 9:30 or so, but we were wired.
Sam had employed six cowhands for the winter, a fraction of his summer crew. They’d all survived in the basement, alone with the two journeyman welders. All but one welder and two cowboys drew their pay; come daylight, they’d be fogging it outa there.
If they’d wanted to end up in the middle of a range war, they’d have been born in the 19th century, thank you very much.
Those of us in management, plus Jack, did a lot of thinking and plotting and planning during those dark hours. Morse had pulled out without his mortar, but he might circle around and try to recover it, we figured, so we posted a guard, two men watching each other’s backs, one being replaced each hour, and nobody getting cocky. If the former SEAL, now certified psychopath, came back, he’d do it right this time, but we needed law enforcement to see the mortar in its present position before it was moved.
To make it a bit tougher, B.J. ran out a few heavy duty extension cords and work lights, added a generator, and lit the surrounding area up like daylight. Even before the snow quit around three a.m., nobody could have gotten close without being seen.
The idea was, thanks to being way out in the boonies, we could get away without reporting anything to the authorities till daylight. In the meantime, we had to get our stories straight.
Sissy Harms couldn’t be involved. She had a past, it seemed, and wasn’t supposed to get within sniffing distance of a firearm. So she’d officially been home at Jack’s place, along with Wayne Bruce and Carolyn West, the whole time. None of Sam’s hands had seen them, and the snow was giving us boo coo cover, so that story would work.
SIssy’s kills, the wolf and the mortar guard, were to be attributed to me. I’d have to take “credit” for dropping one wolf and three men, then, two of them in the back–but my record was clean except for the sealed juvenile portion of it, and Sam assured me he had a lawyer that could tie prosecution attorneys in knots, should the whole thing go that far south.
The spy could have been one of the men who pulled up stakes or one of those who stayed. Or the cook, but there were plenty of indications we’d been infiltrated long before she came on board. Unless there were two spies.
Surprisingly, she decided to stay on. Which I appreciated; Izmelda could cook.
The men who were pulling out, we could do nothing about. If one of them was our bad news boy, too bad so sad, sayonara. At least, they did not know the cave existed, remained ignorant of Sissy’s contributions, and had been generally kept in the dark and fed bullshit anyway, as far as dangerous secrets went.
The media feeding frenzy, once Sam “finally got through” to the Powell County Sheriff’s Department in Deer Lodge at 6:49 a.m., was less than expected…mostly due to the Sheriff himself. There was an incident response bus on the property for three and a half days after that, the papers picked it up, and eventually the story did go national–but not like, say, the mass murder in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
After all, there were no children hurt, no adult white hats killed, no black men killed by whites for the media to get excited about, and Jennifer Trace managed to treat herself without ever going to the hospital. The EMT’s checked her leg out, rewrapped it, and insisted she go in–whereupon she told them to go to Hell in no uncertain terms, otherwise known as refusing transport.
They left kind of huffy, but no more was said about it. If she didn’t want to be helped, they had other people who did.
The coroner was mighty busy for a while, what with seven bodies and all. One of them might have made it, but we chose not to give him too much encouragement.
Dead men tell no tales that disagree with the survivors’ version.
We made sure one of them “had lived long enough to identify his boss”, though. The victim of choice was a rifleman either Sam or B.J. had nailed from the basement. He’d been gutshot, dead when we found him, but it had taken him a while to expire. He could have told us what B.J., Sam, Horace, and Jennifer swore he had told us, namely that he’d been working for Jonathan Morse, and that in his humble, dying opinion, Morse had gone wa-ay ’round the bend.
Amazingly–and this really did surprise me–nobody even impounded my rifle.
The mortar was photographed from every angle by the Sheriff’s people before it was moved to Deer Lodge. Then “someone” pulled off a raid two days later, relieving the town of such heavy weaponry and every one of the dead bodies.
That’s when the Morse Code whispers started getting ready to go national, but we all felt Jonathan hadn’t had anything to do with Deer Lodge. Not directly. Most likely, his bosses in the government simply figured he’d become an embarrassment, so they were cleaning up the mess.
Next thing, about a month later, the alphabet networks were magically all over it, trying Jonathan Morse in the press, declaring him an unutterably evil fugitive from justice, even profiling the guy on America’s Most Wanted.
I’d have felt sorry for Morse–I would have–except that I was pretty sure he was still out there, maybe turned himself into the real Hermit of the Bob Marshal Wilderness. He still had a handful of men with him, too, unless they’d all disbanded. Which seemed astronomically unlikely.
Over time, we dropped our Red Alert status down to Orange, but it wasn’t going to go below that until the day we knew for a fact that Morse was permanently out of the picture. None of our bunch went anywhere, not even to the calving meadows, without two well armed warriors within shooting distance. If Izmelda wanted to go to Great Falls on her days off–she had family there–she got an escort out and an escort back. All the way.
Fairly early on, I had an epiphany. Or something.
It happened one night, early, about 10:00 p.m. I’d had an easy day at the welding shop, a relaxed evening in front of the TV with the kittens, Mimi and Momo, then racked out. I was still living alone; Sissy and I were deeply connected now, but I’d yet to okay her move from Jack’s bed to mine. Why, I wasn’t quite sure. Thought it would happen someday. But not yet.
Anyway, like I said, I turned out the lights around 9:30…and almost immediately found myself in the most powerful dream of my life.
With a huge female wolf.
I knew she was a she, big and graceful and beautiful, with jaws that could have easily crunched the bones of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma without breaking a sweat. I also knew she was genetically enhanced, packing all that extra DNA including a serious dollop of human-type intelligence.
And she spoke English.
Which did not surprise me. In my dreams, most everybody speaks English. Or I speak their languages. However that works.
She was seated on a flat rock next to a deadfall, somewhere in the high country. Blue sky, sunshine, awesome day.
I wondered if I should be afraid, realized I’d mocked up the Arkansas toothpick in a sheath at my right hip, then decided fear wasn’t the point…even though I knew, knew without being told, that this wolf was the mate of the huge male Sissy had shot, and had also been part of the pack Horace, Sam, and I had decimated last summer.
“Molly,” I nodded to her respectfully, moving closer till I could take a seat on an old jackpine stump, which put my eyes pretty much level with hers.
“Raven,” she nodded in return, and I knew that was my real name, or at least my name in this place and at other, earlier times.
I waited, but not for long. She had things to say.
“I knew it would not end well,” she began.
“Your mate.” It was not a question.
“He believed them, you know. Believed them when they told us our destiny was to run with their hunters.”
“You saw their lies. As you always see.”
“Yes.” Heaving a deep sigh, the enormous animal settled down, laying her head on her paws in a gesture of utter fatigue. “I am tired, Raven. I no longer know how to guide them.”
I did not hesitate. “Those who remain. Those who will listen to you. If you cannot teach them to differentiate among men–”
“–then the only option is to lead them into the wilderness, as far as you can go. The elk will dwindle to limit your numbers, the winters and cougars and bears will kill many of your pups and limit your years…but the alternative is worse.”
She flicked an ear, considering. “Few will follow. Most crave the easy way, to gorge on man’s slow elk. They do not see the danger. They do not see the horror that will come.”
“It is the same, Molly, with men. Few will follow me, either. Most crave the easy way, to listen to the poisoned ones who offer them easy lives but take their Souls. We are alike, you and I.”
“Yes.” She raised her head, her great golden eyes drilling into mine. “We have ever been alike.”
And…I woke up, staring into the darkness, Mimi kitten cradled by my right side, Momo kitten asleep between my legs, and love in my heart.
“Fare thee well, sister,” I whispered into the night, tears running in unashamed streams down my cheeks and onto the pillow. “Fare thee well.”