Strangely enough, the Second Battle of Morse ushered in a period of relative calm and tranquility in the high meadows and foothills that comprised most of the Trace ranch. There was plenty of work to do on the home itself, replacing shot-out window glass and plugging holes in the thick logs where .30 caliber rounds had penetrated deeply but not quite gone through. The house was packing enough lead in its walls to shield a hydrogen bomb.
Likewise, the brick chimney had been pretty much obliterated. Sam hired a master mason from Butte to come out and rebuild it better than before, expressing satisfaction at the result and disgust with the cost.
But that was about it. Jennifer Trace’s leg wound healed rapidly, thanks in part–she felt–to the profuse bleeding that had cleaned the injury so well within moments after being hit. She still limped, but a bit less each day, and there’d be a scar, but she knew she’d gotten off lucky.
As all of us had.
Calving season was in full swing, as if those Brahma cross mamas somehow felt they needed to help make up for lost time. Which occupied Sam and Horace to a large extent, but since B.J. and I weren’t part of the beef operation, we weren’t directly affected.
I kind of had a hunch my uncle was sparking the Filipina cook, Izmelda, but he didn’t volunteer any information and I didn’t ask. What those two might be getting up to after the welding shop doors were locked for the night and I was gone back to my trailer on Jack Hill’s property…well, that was purely none of my business.
It was only a matter of days after the shooting that we began violating the Two Man Rule, but only so’s I could get back and forth to work without making a convoy out of the process. If my travels took me anywhere other than down the three miles of dirt road between the two places, I definitely buddied up.
We did take some precautions, though. Dug into the Rodeo Iron coffers with Sam’s complete approval, purchased some supplies, and reworked my ’89 Pontiac Grand Prix. It still looked like a Grand Prix on the outside, but looks could be deceiving. The glass was now all bullet-resistant, the side doors had quarter-inch steel panels inserted, the stock V-6 engine had been replaced with a compact V-8 that could push the extra weight all day without tiring, and the suspension–already pretty sporty–was seriously beefed up.
It wasn’t exactly equal to the President’s armored limousine, 6,000 pouinds of rolling stock known as the Beast, but it wasn’t made of crepe paper, either.
An IED could still get me, but a sniper, not so much. We’d even changed out the bumpers, installing tempered steel in place of the worthless plastic. I could hit stuff now, if I had to.
We figured to rig some 100% illegal firepower next, but hadn’t quite worked out the details. It needed to be something that would get by your average Border Patrol search, and that presented a bit of a challenge.
Kept our minds sharp, though, thinking on it.
Besides which, the Big Three–Jack Hill, Big Jude, and me–considered time spent thinking like a criminal to be a good investment. It might help us get into the renegade merc’s mind, help us see him coming. We weren’t going to believe wack job Jonathan Morse was dead until we’d sat three days with the body, burned it, and scattered the ashes. And maybe not then.
He’d hit down and dirty when he hit. When, not if.
Sam Trace, the #1 boss of the whole shebang, would have made our little think tank into the Big Four, except he had a ranch to run. That ain’t easy, and it ain’t a part time job, either. He did enjoy sitting in on some of our scheming sessions, those rare moments he could get away from pulling a calf or kicking a cranky hay-feeding tractor till it started. Having four cowboys quit at the start of calving season meant he and Horace and the other two–Jeb and Earl–were four men doing the work of eight.
B.J. and I asked him, once, if he’d like us to buck bales and pull calves for a while, but he said no, we had enough to do as it was.
Which was fine by me. An occasional war is one thing. Rolling out in the middle of every night for 2:00 a.m. cow check is quite another.
A couple of weeks after the mortar met its match, I pulled into the driveway after work to find Sissy Harms clearing snow from the turnaround spot in front of my trailer. She handled the little ’56 Farmall Cub tractor with ease, using the front-mounted blade to push the white stuff into high-mounded windrows. Jack’s pull-in was already done; I reckoned she’d be taking the museum piece to the machine shed and heading in for supper shortly.
Clmbing out of the Pontiac, I stretched a bit to loosen a few stiff muscles and tossed an appreciative salute her way. Sissy looked mighty good working that machine, I thought, much as she looked pretty awesome crawling around in the snow during a firefight.
Not for the first time, I wondered how she’d look in her birthday suit. Six feet of hard-bodied mahogany, somewhere around 160 pounds…couldn’t be all bad.
I’d swear–not for the first time–that she read my mind. Wheeled the chained-up Cub over close, shut the engine off, and grinned a kind of devilish grin. “Figured you’d need a clear path after working steel all day long. You gotta be tuckered out. Wouldn’t want you to trip and fall over your own boots, bruise your ego or something.”
“Appreciate that,” I shot back, “but are you sure an old crone like yourself should be out here in the cold and freezing dark? Might make your lumbago flare up.”
Not that Sissy’d ever complained of lumbago, which for you kids out there is an old school word for low back pain, but it was the best I could do on short notice.
She reared back on that red iron tractor seat and let out a ringing laugh…which is when I realized I was in love. I’d never heard any female laugh like that, not even my Mom. In the beginning, I’d thought she was pure dee homely. Then she’d come outa nowhere to shoot down the mutated wolf that was fixing to eat me in the snow that bloody night, and the woman’s face had looked downright angelic from that moment on.
But her laugh was what did it.
That, and the fact she wasn’t about to let me get the last word in. “I ain’t that much older than you are, Junior,” she stated, once she could quit laughing. “It’s the miles. You just ain’t lived enough to appreciate this fine vintage you see before you.”
My work-fatigued brain was scrambling for an appropriate response to that, but I needn’t have bothered. She wasn’t done yet. Her next words were completely serious.
“We decided you been eating way too many TV dinners out of the microwave, Tree. Come on over to the main house for supper. Wayne’s ovened up an elk roast you won’t believe, Carolyn’s got homemade cherry pie and ice cream for dessert, and they’ve already set a plate for you.”
I just nodded, at a loss for words, and headed on into my trailer to say hello to the kittens and change clothes.
That was the start of it; from that night forward, I ate my evening meal with Jack Hill’s household every day until…well, we’ll get to that.
Spring was on its way. Not there yet, not in this part of the country, but coming sure enough. It still froze hard more nights than not, but old snow was starting to melt down about as fast as new snow arrived. Going to work in the mornings was plenty frosty, but the evening runs started piling more mud up around the wheels than anything else.
Sissy was right; Wayne could put out a roast–any kind of meat, elk, venison, beef, chicken, or pig, it didn’t matter. I got to know him and Carolyn West and Sissy better and better, and it was all good.
A bit strange here and there, I will admit. It became clear to me that yes, old Jack was doing all three of ’em, and I never could quite wrap my head around that. Oh, it was easy enough to believe the dude could handle the work. I’d seen him flatten six gangbangers with nothing in his hands but a piece of rebar disguised as a cane, misdirect bad guys who’d been after me and Tania, drag me out of a wreck that should have killed us both, and the list never ended. He could handle three lovers at once, or however he scheduled it. I could even see him being, you know…bi.
Dominant all the way, of course.
But every time I tried picturing him and flamer Wayne Bruce getting it on, I kept hearing the gay dude’s falsetto voice suddenly dropping to its natural cellar-deep bass, booming out, ‘OH, HURT ME, BIG BOY! HURT ME!”
And when that happened, I’d have to excuse myself and race for the door before they saw me trying to keep from falling on the floor laughing. “Wayne Bruce to the west! All clear here!”
It was just too much. Of course, I was only twenty-four after all. Maybe when I turned twenty-five, got a bit more maturity under my belt, I wouldn’t think it was so hilarious.
Most of the time, though, I ate the man’s cooking with relish–or ketchup or whatever was handy–and kept a more or less straight face.
The straight face got a lot easier to maintain after I heard Wayne’s story; I will say that. One night, after we’d hogged down double helpings of his chicken parmesan and were waiting for Sissy to serve the raisin cake she’d whomped up that afternoon, I just came out and asked him,
“Wayne, do you mind sharing a bit of your history?”
They all looked at me kind of funny, like I’d said something wrong…until the flamer nodded and broke the tension.
“Don’t see why not, Tree. You’re family as much as anybody else in this room.”
That choked me up right there, but I didn’t let on. Just raised my coffee cup in kind of a half-salute, encouraging him to go on.
“Long story short,” he began, “I’m 35 years of age. Born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, raised on a dairy farm. Hate spotted cows to this day. My old man was a drunk, I was expected to do all the milking, and there were other issues.
“On my sixteenth birthday, second of November, I was driving to school one morning–had my own car–and the fog was fierce. Couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I pulled out onto the highway, and a pickup truck T-boned me. Sumbitch was running three sheets to the wind, not my Daddy but another alky, no lights on whatsoever. If I’d been wearing my seatbelt, I’d have been dead or at best lost both legs. As it was, I was banged up pretty good, but more or less all in one piece.
“And then the cops ticketed me.”
“Wait a sec,” I interrupted. “They ticketed you?”
“Yep. This guy knew the local Sheriff, I didn’t, and by the time the law showed up, the liar had his lights on. What was left of ’em.
“Anyway, one of the deputies gave me a ride home, and my old man lit into me as soon as we were alone. Cussing at me for totaling his car, which it wasn’t. I’d paid for that car myself.
“One thing led to another, he’s all red in the face and drooling spit, half juiced already at nine in the morning, and something in me snapped. I started yelling back.
“F*** you, you old wino! You want some bad news, how about this? I’m GAY!”
“Well, there was this sort of pregnant pause for a moment there, and then he screamed, ‘You’re WHAT?!”
“You deaf, you drunk-a** motherf****r?! I’m gay! Oh, I forgot, gotta dumb it down for the boozer.
“Which was probably not the brightest thing I’d ever said, ’cause then he hit me, and I hit him back, and by the time all the hitting was done he was lying on the ground deader’n a doornail and I knew he wasn’t getting back up. And I suppose I could have hung around, tried to say he just fell down dead, but I’d busted his nose and knocked out three of his teeth and gashed my own knuckles to the bone. It wasn’t going to take no rocket scientist to figure out what had killed him.
“So I walked up to the house–our fight had taken place in the dairy barn. Mom had died three years earlier from cancer, but Grandma was there. I told her how my morning had been, and that I’d killed the old man. She nodded, said ‘About time!’, put down her sewing, got up out of her rocker, and walked into her bedroom. Seconds later, she walked back out, put two thousand, seven hundred and thirty-two dollars in my hand, told me to get out of Michigan and don’t ever come back.”
Whoa. My growing-up years had been Paradise by comparison. Shangri-freaking-La.
We all took a breather then, didn’t say a word till the raisin cake was gone down to the last crumb and Sissy had made the rounds with the coffee pot one more time.
But I had to know the rest. “Got the energy to summarize the nineteen years between then and now?”
“Sure.” He shrugged. No big deal. “My name wasn’t Wayne Bruce then, obviously. I hitched out of state, made a living blowing truckers for a while, if you could call it a living. Ended up hiring on as a dishwasher in a Spokane restaurant. Worked my way up without doing any gay for pay, found out that as much as I hated live cows, I had a talent for cooking up dead ones. By the end of it, I was a certified chef, at least according to the cooking schools I attended. Found out I could sing a little, too, though that never went anywhere.
“But my relationships…I never had what you could really call a good one. Turns out–there must be some really functional gay men out there. Heck, Obama’s got one of ’em, Arne Duncan, as his Safe Schools Czar, of all things. There’s a guy that gives the gay community a bad name. Unfortunately, I never met the functional folks. It was like…if I were a lesbian, it would be like I was trying to meet Ellen De Generes and kept hooking up with Rosie O’Donnell.”
“Ew-w-w!” I said, eyes wide, and everybody laughed. None of us cared much for Rosie. “Um…with your cooking career, where’d you learn to, you know…fight? Like you did when Morse Code hit the ranch, I mean, outdoor warrior and all.”
He looked at me like I’d just missed a class assignment, told him the dog ate my homework.
“Like I said. I grew up on a farm with an alky for a Dad. You do the math.”
Oh. “As a kid, you had to learn to survive in the woods to stay our of your old man’s way when he was drinking. And he was always drinking.”
“So.” I glanced around the room, coming back to Wayne. “Jack what, came to eat at the restaurant where you were cooking and swept you off your feet?”
“Bingo!” The killer chef grinned from ear to ear. “Give the man a fortune cookie!”
And that was my cue. “Sis,” I said, rising from the table and offering her my arm, “I do believe it’s time I do the same for you. Shall we?”
She didn’t even look toward Jack, just pushed her chair back, got up, and came with. By the time we reached the coat rack, the others were also on their feet, applauding wildly, hooting and hollering and cheering like we’d just scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Which I guess, in a way, we had.