Having Sissy in my life produced a transformation. I’m not sure Soul mates exist, not in the literal sense, but what we had was close enough. What she’d learned while part of Jack Hill’s mini-harem was definitely a plus, and there was more. So much more.
Some of which I discovered in the wee hours of the first Saturday morning in April. I was standing at the bedroom window, watching my old friends the Mammoth Riders come down out of the cut. We waved to each other in acknowledgement as always, then they turned left to reach the chosen area for the day’s hunting.
Whereupon my love happened to awaken, just like Tania had done so often, to find me silhouetted against the window in my skivvies, communing with a people cast forward in time. But unlike Tania, when I told Sis what I was doing, she didn’t freak. Not in the least. Instead, she rose from the bed, threw a robe around her shoulders, and came to stand by my side.
“What a magnificent sight,” she breathed, and my jaw dropped in astonishment.
“You can see them?”
“Uh, yeah! Six guys on mastodons, or mammoths, or whatever you call them. Big hairy critters riding bigger hairy critters, stone-tipped spears and all.”
When we say we had a shared vision, we meant it. How about that?
Not until the vision faded did I realize the house was getting cold. Spring was upon us, but this was the high country in Montana, not the low desert in Arizona. I finally reached for my own robe, thinking hard.
“You feel like riding in to Missoula with me today, hon?”
I shrugged, flipping on the overhead light, making us both blink. “Good a time as any. If we get dressed and head out now, we could start with breakfast at the 4B’s. Pick up a few things at Walmart, see if those 30 round stick magazines for the Pietta ever came in or if they’re still backordered–you know, hoping they show before Obama outlaws their importation–maybe snag a few bricks of Stingers. Then grab lunch at the Half Castle, see what kind of intel on Jonathan Morse has turned up. Be back here by two at the latest.”
“Absolutely,” she replied, already laying first claim on the bathroom. “Take me to town, big boy. I’m all yours.”
Got that right.
We rolled out of the driveway at 3:31 a.m. Left a note pinched between storm door and frame at Jack’s; they might want to give us a call later in the morning, have us pick up a few things for them. Especially groceries. No one ever went to town without bringing some of those back. And toilet paper; the bears hate it when you forget the Charmin.
By one o’clock, we were powering the Pontiac back up through the canyon, the back seat loaded with store stuff and our hearts full of good cheer. The sky was blue overhead, not a cloud in sight. My head was stuffed with data picked up from Mr. Gray at the Half Castle, details that would be of considerable interest to Jack, Sam, and B.J.–when we got together to discuss it, that is.
For the moment, life was good. Really, really good.
Even when my phone vibarted in my shirt pocket, my most excellent mood held firm. That would be somebody from Jack’s household, wondering what we were bringing home to cook for supper. I tapped my pocket, Sissy’s cue to dig in there with her graceful fingers and fish the thing out, leaving me free to drive.
“Sissy,” she told the cell phone…
…and I heard Hill’s voice, hard and cold. “I need to talk to Tree. Now.”
Without another word, my beloved handed me the phone. She was shaking. Something was wrong at home.
“Go!” I snapped, not even realizing my own voice had gone as hard as his, just like that.
He didn’t waste any time. “Where are you right now, Tree?”
Why?–“Just coming up on Clearwater Junction.”
“Good. Put the hammer down, right now, but don’t come home.”
The last half of that sentence was almost lost as the Grand Prix’s turbocharger roared to life. When Jack says hammer down, I hammer first, ask questions later. We have that kind of relationship between us, that utter reliance, each of us trusting the other to know what he’s doing.
“Don’t come home?” I yelled into the phone, watching the speedometer rocket up from the sedate 55 mph we’d been doing, up past 60, 70, 80, heading for the century mark.
“No. Head for Deer Lodge as fast as you can scat.”
“On my way. What’s up?”
There was a beat, and then Jack told me, his voice as grim as it gets. “Sam Trace is dead.”
For a moment, just a brief moment, there was no sound in the car but the Nascar imitation by the engine and the howl of the all season tires on the pavement. Somebody said, “Details!” , and my friend filled me in.
“The lower calving pasture, the one down by the willows. Jonathan Morse ambushed him.”
“His wife and Horace. Jennifer took some hits, but nothing critical. Sam sacrificed himself to save her. The tracker’s got one busted leg and several more holes in him, how bad we don’t know yet. He was conscious when they loaded him into the helicopter.”
Helicopter. Life Flight. That was going to cost a fortune.
I cursed myself for that first unworthy thought, blazing past an old pickup just pulling out onto the highway at the Junction. The driver was cussing me no doubt, maybe calling the cops. But we were hitting 105 by the time we went by; no way he got the license plate
Back to Jack.
“Life Flight doesn’t usually run to little old Deer Lodge, does it? Why not Great Falls?”
“Horace. He knows a doctor in Deer Lodge. Told the EMT’s they could either take him to Deer Lodge, or he’d find a way to wreck the chopper so’s they all ended up in the Missouri River. He was tied down and his leg splinted by then, but I think they must have still believed him. And Jennifer went with.”
“In the chopper?”
“And I’m needed in Deer Lodge, why exactly?”
“Because Horace saw the shooters. He didn’t have time to tell me everything he knew before they stuffed him into the chopper. Get to him before the deputies do, Tree. They’re all out at the ranch right now, tromping over everything and generally mucking up the crime scene. I doubt there’s a one left in town, so you’ve hopefully got some time. I’d be on my way already, or B.J. would, but we don’t dare leave the ranch unprotected right now.”
“Got it. Coming up on Ovando. Gotta get ready to change roads. Talk to Sissy.”
I handed the phone back to my sweetheart on this oh, so wonderful of days, and got ready to cut right, across the bridge, down through Helmville and the twisty Helmville Canyon that had spilled many a driver over the years.
To say I was occupied right then would be an understatement. You don’t survive if you get cocky on high speed runs through this country, never knowing when a stray cow or old rancher or hidden patch of ice might jump right in front of you and yell, “Boo!”. Jack’s friend Ghost, he’d grown up chasing girls on this exact run, told the tale of hypno-driving his old man’s ’55 Ford pickup down this same way one predawn morning when he was sixteen. Hit the top of the Canyon at 65, couldn’t get it slowed much before the curves got him, sliding that red truck sideways down the narrow dirt road. It was paved now, but it was still no German Autobahn.
He hadn’t wrecked that time, but it had taken him half a dozen tries, backing and filling, to straighten the F-150 back around so’s the nose pointed straight down the road again. It was that narrow.
Thought of that story every time I came through here. With unpredictable patches of snow and ice still underfoot in the shaded areas, we didn’t dare try it at anything like 65. In the summer, when the road was bare and dry, maybe 45 with this car. I’d done that once, going uphill instead of down, following Jack’s Subaru.
But not today. We made it through at 40 mph, and that was cutting it close. Once we were out of the cut and in the clear, I dared a glance at my girl. She was ’bout as white as a woman of color can get, and gray around the lips.
A couple more miles, hang a left, up the ramp onto I-90, and once again, hammer down. If we were going to run into a Highway Patrol problem, this would be the place, 35 miles of freeway that took us past Jens, Gold Creek, the Y at Garrison, and on to the first Deer Lodge exit.
Average speed on the blacktop: 107 mph.
Once in town, we had to slow it down, keep it to no more than 2 mph above the speed limit. We’d lucked out, no sirens chasing us on the open road, but the city route was another thing altogether.
In the hospital parking lot, Sissy and I checked each other to make sure our concealed weapons weren’t showing, then walked into the hospital like we belonged there.
Which we most definitely did not. I hate hospitals. They kill people.
The front desk girl took one look at me and asked, just like she knew me, “Mr. Treemin Jackson?”
“Your father is in 302,” she nodded to herself, consulting a computer screen. “They said to tell you to come right on up.”
We headed for the elevators, Sissy mouthing silently, “Your father??”
I shrugged and kept going. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, even if old Horace did happen to be about as white as they come while I was about 20 shades darker than Barack Obama. Heck, I might even be darker than Herman Cain.
The door to 302 was open. We went on in. Jennifer Trace was sitting in a chair beside the bed, one arm in a sling and a bandage around her head, but alive. Her eyes had that thousand yard stare going, too, but it spoke volumes that she was here, keeping Horace company.
No guard outside the door.
As for the tracker, he didn’t look so good. Left leg in a cast clean up to the hip, a gash in his right cheek where they’d done some sewing, and hints of bandaging under the flimsy hospital gown that likely covered the real damage. His left arm seemed to be kind of just…hanging there.
But his eyes were open and clear, and the widow Trace let him do the talking.
He gestured to us. We pulled up another two chairs–which were magically present–and gave us the skinny…after I asked the burning question.
“Your’e my father now? The sumbitch that ran out on Mom all those many years ago?”
“Good to see you, too, buddy,” he grinned, which looked like it hurt some, so he scaled it back to a smile. “Figured that was the best way to make sure they let you in to see us.”
“Like to’ve seen ’em try to stop me,” I muttered, but he had a point.
“They’d slipped into the willows, Tree. Didn’t have a good angle on us from there, though, so they come running out a few steps before they opened up. We seen ’em coming, but mine was the only long gun we had with us; the others were back in the truck. Jennifer and Sam and I’d left it parked when we went to check out a newborn that hadn’t made it to its feet to suck yet.”
“You had your long-barreled AK?” I asked, trying to make sure I got the picture right. “The one with the bipod?”
“That’s the one. But had it slung over my back, getting set to help encourage that calf to its feet. Before I could get into action, I got shot in the leg. Dropped me right down. Turned out the bone was shattered. Doc tells me I’ll be wearing steel pins for the rest of my life.
“Sam seen we were done for. They were out of range of his pistol–effective range, anyway–and we’d be shot in the back if we tried for the truck. Plus, I wasn’t what you’d call exactly mobile. So he did what he had to do. Tackled Jennifer, shoved her down into the snow and lay on top of her.”
A deep, shuddering sigh issued from the far side of the bed. I pulled my eyes from Horace’s face just as Jennifer took up the tale. Her voice was steady, but cold.
“He took the bullets for me, Tree. A lot of them. He was shot eighteen times at least, maybe more.”
Eighteen–all I could think of to say was, “Ouch”. Fortunately, I didn’t. Sissy, wise woman she, just sucked in her breath, a sharp inhalation, and stayed out of the conversation. Despite our precautions, we hadn’t been cautious enough. Law enforcement had combed the hills around the Trace ranch for a week or so after the Mortar Battle but had then given it up, presuming Morse had lit out for parts unknown.
Obviously, he hadn’t.
We’d see if the lawdogs did any better job of manhunting this time, but I wasn’t counting my chickens.
Horace was talking again. “They’d have finished us all off, but I managed to get the AK off my back and pointed in their direction. Couldn’t have done it without the bipod; by the time I was shooting back, they’d put a round through my left shoulder, too. I was shooting one-handed. So yeah, the bipod made the difference.
“Basically, it seemed pretty clear they didn’t like their prey defending itself, just like during the Mortar Battle, so–finally–they tucked tail and scooted on outa there. Not a second too soon, either, ’cause my shooter was empty and I had no idea how I was gonna get another stick into that rifle with one hand that wasn’t working.”
He suddenly looked plumb tuckered out, went quiet for a minute, and then a doctor came diddy-bopping through the door. Awful chipper for a place of suffering like this, it seemed to me. The sawbones was maybe thirty, fresh faced and way too innocent looking to know how to treat bullet wounds.
The guy twinkled like he was laughing at me and extended his hand. I shook it. “Treemin Jackson?” he asked, and the way he said it, I figured he knew full well I wasn’t no blood relation to the paper-white dude in the bed. “And Mrs. Jackson?”
Sissy shook hands with him, nodding her thanks, playing along. We weren’t married, of course, but hey. Who is?
“Glad you could make it,” he was saying, “but Horace does need to rest a bit. He’s had a busy day, and he’s got surgery in the morning.”
The victim explained. “They’ve got three different bullets to dig out of me, plus pin that leg before they run outa morphine. Doc figured it could wait till morning. He’s got a partner in crime flying in from Denver to assist.”
“Partner in crime?” I raised an eyebrow.
“We did a couple of Afghanistan tours on a Navy hospital ship.”
“Oh. Um, thanks for your service.”
“De nada.” He nodded to Horace. “See you bright and early, Champ. In the meantime, don’t go anywhere.”
“Hardee har. Last comic standing.”
The doctor laughed, something you don’t hear every day, and exited the room.
My gaydar was going off big time, but who cared? None of my beeswax. Maybe being a member of the rainbow coalition makes a guy a better bullet-plucker.
“Horace, how many were there? Could you tell?”
“Five total, no doubt whatsoever. Morse among ’em, matches the description Jack gave us. He’s wearing a beard now, brown with just a few streaks of silver in it, but it’s him. Same square face and frame, same black eyes, same scar under the left one.”
“He got that close?” I was surprised.
“Close enough for my rifle scope. Thought I had him dead to rights, but one round just dusted him and…” he paused, gagging like he was choking on something, “…and that’s when my magazine went dry. No more boom-boom.”
I nodded. “You figure they went back into the Bob Marshall Wilderness? Again?”
“Yep. Laid a false trail first, most likely. Heard they stole a neighbor’s car, abandoned it down the road a ways. I figure that was just to make it look like they were heading out, but I know they’re back in the Bob. My gut’s screaming at me, telling me that’s the way it is.”
There was more, including descriptions of several of the raiders, but I could see through the hospital window that the sun was setting. Time to go.
Especially since the tracker had finally worn out and dropped off to sleep. Tough as whang leather, but even whang leather has its limits.
Jennifer Trace, on the other hand, didn’t look the least bit sleepy. She looked…dangerous.
“You’re going hunting?” She asked the question quietly. Of course, it wasn’t really a question.
I nodded. “Jack and me and–“, I looked at my woman, caught the look in her eye, “–Sissy. Might have to wait a few days to be sure law enforcement has cleared out, but yeah. We’re going hunting.”
“Good.” The gentle lady gave her approval in a voice that would have made ice shiver. “Bring me the bastard’s ears.”
As it turned out, our hunting trip had to be put off for two full weeks. Drove me nuts, till I sat down one evening and made out a To Do list that had to be handled before we set out on the vengeance trail.
1. Sam’s funeral.
2. Deal with the Trace brats.
3. Get rid of the feds.
4. Make sure the travel supplies are right.
There were countless subsets to those four tasks, of course. For instance, we could have headed out before the boss’s memorial service. His widow would have applauded, given her intense desire to see her man’s killers assassinated, mutilated, desecrated, maybe even constipated. If something vicious could be done to these guys, Jen wanted it done.
None of us blamed her…but Jack Hill blamed himself. “You’d think I’d know better,” he told me once. “More than two and a half centuries of watching man’s inhumanity to man should have been enough to make me realize we couldn’t just keep counterpunching with Morse. Once a man’s gone all Dark Side like that, there’s no stopping him till he’s pushing up daisies.”
Whereupon I responded with, “A wise man once told me, we homo sapiens tend to should all over ourselves.”
Jack himself had, of course, been that wise man.
He gave me a wry smile, but his self-loathing didn’t seem to slack off noticeably. He just started keeping it inside, where only those of who knew him best could see it.
Apparently, becoming quasi-immortal didn’t make you perfect. I’d once believed it did. Stupid me.
My uncle was a pretty big problem for a while there, too. All six feet, eight inches of him. He wanted in on this in the worst way. We all told him he was most needed to anchor the ranch defenses while we were gone, which was true enough, but Big Jude’s no dummy. He knew we mostly didn’t figure he could cut the mustard in the mountains, and the knowledge rankled.
If there was a grizzly bear that needed rasslin’, B.J. would be the man. But he was just learning to ride, made one monster of a target, and couldn’t seem to break the habit of stepping on every loud-snapping twig in the woods.
The funeral wasn’t so bad. Besides family, it seemed like every rodeo cowboy who’d ever crawled down on one of Trace Rodeo’s broncs or bulls felt honor bound to show up, and show up they did. Close to a thousand, so that the service ended up being held outdoors despite the chill fifty degree weather with the stiff breeze rolling through.
Nigh onto 50 of those cowboys volunteered to stay around for a bit, either to help with the ranch work or pull guard duty or both. Jennifer was running the place now, and she spoke with every one of them volunteers, eleven of whom would be around for a while. That was a good thing, since all of them knew how to work either cattle or a lever action rifle…or at least, so it seemed at first.
Ten days into it, there weren’t but two of them left. Noboy asked their reasons for going.
The ugliest part of it all, aside from losing Sam, was the fuss put up by the Trace offspring. It had never occurred to me that Sam and Jennifer might have kids, but they did.
They weren’t proud of them, though. The eldest, Milton Trace, was a fat, fortyish accountant currently living and working in Chicago. His sorrow at the passing of his father was about as sincere as Obama’s promises not to raise taxes or screw the Constitution, he hated country life altogether, and the pig-eyed loser was after his mother to sell the ranch and move to Chicago before his father’s ashes were even scattered.
How Jennifer endured that without carving the boy up with a kitchen knife, I’ll never know.
There were also two girls, twins a couple of years younger than Little Piggy Milton. They had husbands who also looked like twins, and the four of them had their noses stuck up in the air so far it’s a wonder a pigeon didn’t fly by and poop down their nostrils.
Not that we had pigeons in the area.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but the Trace kids made a mockery of that one.
The Snooty Twins left by sunset on the day of the funeral, though. That helped. Piggy Milton was a lot more stubborn; he pestered Jennifer for three nonstop days until he finally came down with a case of the runs so bad he had to run back to the Big City where they had “decent food” and, of course, narcotic anti-diarrheal meds.
We’re pretty sure he never figured out it was a simple matter of Izmelda the cook dosing his breakfast eggs with certain special ingredients.
The feds…we weren’t quite sure what to do about them at first. Somehow, the FBI had appointed itself as Morse Catcher. How they figured they had jurisdiction, they never did really explain, just looked at us funny for daring to ask.
And then, on Day Thirteen, they suddenly pulled up stakes. No more ominous SUV’s parked all over the place. No more Delta Force guys in camouflage playing Hunt the Dudes in the Woods. No more black helicopters–well, no more than usual.
Their leaving couldn’t have had anything to do with Jack’s solo run to Missoula. His contacts couldn’t have been asked to plant rumors of sightings, swearing on a stack of Bibles and various mothers’ graves that Jonathan Morse had been seen in Baton Rouge. Or San Diego. Or Sedona, Arizona.
Nah. Surely not.
However it happened, on the morning of Day 14, we were finally ready. Jack, Sissy, and I were mounted on sturdy, mountain raised horses, each sporting two special qualities: Their colors were nondescript, hard to see at any distance except against the fast-melting snow…and they were not precisely user friendly, especially to strangers. That is, we got along with them well enough, but if one of us got terminated, the horse under us would be mighty hard for the bad guys to catch.
No use giving the opposition a free ride. You know, just in case.
Our saddle bags bulged, so did the rolls lashed behind the cantles, and every horse carried not one but two rifles.
For sidearms, we’d gone with the venerable 1911 ACP, though Sissy’s and mine were Kimbers while Jack carried not one but two, and both of them Colts…which he’d most likely owned since long before Kimber existed.
What we were doing was, of course, 1,000% illegal. Vigilante justice, pure, simple, and raw. If the law enforcement community got wise to us in any way, shape, or form, it would be all over but the sentencing. On the other hand, we’d tried it the legal way, and what being all law abiding had gotten us was a dead Sam Trace.
Lord, I missed that man.
On the way up the slope toward the treeline, we stopped for a moment, turned in our saddles to look out over the ranch, taking in the smoke rising from the chimneys, the lights from the windows as night prepared to flee the onslaught of the day. It might, we knew, be the last time we’d be alive to see it. This wasn’t exactly no John Kerry duck hunting trip during the 2004 Presidential election, with a borrowed gun and a borrowed vest. This was real. This was playing for keeps.
We turned away from the gray-light view. Old Jack Hill spoke softly. “What’s the code?”
Sissy and I answered just as softly, in unision. “Shoot, shovel, and shut up.”
We shifted our horses a bit, leaned sideways out of our saddles to stack our right hands, mine over Sissy’s over Jack’s.
Then we eased on up into the trees, moving in ghostly silence through the snow-softened forest, swallowed from the sight of civilized man as if we’d never been.