That second morning in the cave, when we woke to find our prisoner dead in his bonds, the snow was still falling outside. Heavily.
We three Trace ranch vigilantes sat around our fire, munching pemmican and drinking coffee after Sissy had dared the bears in the predawn darkness to gather snow for melting in the coffee pot. I was daydreaming, ignoring the corpse lying against the leftside wall in favor of visualizing bacon frying in the pan, cinnamon rolls with butter and raspberry jam added on top, and eggs. Fried eggs, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, hard boiled eggs, and especially deviled eggs.
“You know,” Jack Hill spoke softly, eyes thoughtful, “I’m kinda thinking we ought to head ’em up and move ’em out.”
Pulling my brain away from all that hen fruit, I considered what he’d said. “Well…the wind is pretty much down. Sissy and I’d get ourselves lost or jammed in a snowdrift before we went fifty yards, but the way you know these mountains…yeah. We’ve got to make it to the wolf-dumping hole, get rid of our buddy here, then back to the ranch. The more country we get behind us while the storm is still going, the more our tracks will be covered.”
Hill was already on his feet. “Kind of a long-winded way to put it, Tree, but you get the picture. Plus, if we go now, we can get Mr. Spiers draped across a saddle before rigor mortis sets in.”
Sissy jumped up like she had fire ants in her britches. “Not saying I’m getting cabin fever or anything, but yeah, let’s get the Hell outa here.”
And so we did.
The way Jack led us, the snow was only up to the horses’ knees for most of it, though he and his grulla had to push pretty hard to break trail through a couple of drifts that brushed the stirrups.
There were deeper drifts, some that could have swallowed us whole, but our fearless leader figured a way around those…except once, when horse and rider suddenly plunged almost out of sight. They were buried clean up to the swells and cantle of the saddle, with no horse but a panicked head and black-maned neck showing. Fumbling around under there, Jack’s fingers couldn’t even find the strap to unbuckle his catch rope despite it being lashed down mere inches ahead of his right thigh.
Sissy took care of the problem. Unlimbered her own rope, tied it off hard and fast to the horn on Ditz’s saddle, and threw the loop out to Jack. Took her a couple of tosses, but hey. The Protector dropped the loop over his own saddle’s horn, step-leaned half-out of the saddle to the right so’s the rope only had to run over his left thigh, which it cleared by maybe an inch, and both horses were urged to back up, slow and easy.
I swear that grulla looked plumb ashamed of herself, once she was back on solid ground. Don’t know what she had to be embarrassed about, seeing as how she was only going where Jack told her to go, but she acted like she figured it was all her fault, kind of looking around at us to see if anybody’d noticed she’d been mostly snow-buried a few seconds ago.
We trudged along for the entire day, coming up on the wolf hole just after dark.
Craig L. Spiers had already been relieved of anything we’d thought might be remotely useful, so we didn’t stand on ceremony….
Okay, yes we did.
Gathered around the hole in the ground that dropped who knew how far toward the center of the Earth, snow still blanketing the hillside, pitch dark except for the occasional flick of a flashlight, we said our goodbyes to the best friend an enemy ever had.
“You were one helluva man, Craig.” I spoke first, but couldn’t say much. That was it.
Sissy had a bit more to say. “When we first got hold of you,” she began, addressing the hatchet faced corpse lying rigor mortised in the snow, “I figured it would be me that’d be the death of you. Had it all planned out. When the time was right, you’d be standing there sneering at us like you did that first night in the helicopter, and I’d slip Tree’s Arkansas toothpick out of its sheath. Slip it out of the sheath and in between your ribs, turned flat so it’d slide right in, through your black heart and out the other side. And when your mouth flew open in shock, that this chocolate bitch was the one who’d done you, I’d lean in and say, you tried to kill my man.
But then you turned out to be a human being. You gave us what we needed to stay alive, to hopefully get the Cartel off our backs and get your own revenge on those murderers at the same time. You turned out to be what Tree said, one helluva man, and my heart breaks for the tragedy in your own life. And I’m talking too long, so I’m going to say goodbye, knowing we’ll meet again, under hopefully better circumstances.”
Jack’s turn. I could hear the choke in his voice when he said the only thing left to say. “May the blessing be.”
Then he and I picked up the body of Craig L. Spiers, PhD, age 48, of Phoenix, Arizona. We picked up the body, dropped it down the hole, and turned for home.
We made good time after that, especially after clearing the Bob Marshall Wilderness and making it back through the gate onto Trace land. It was still snowing down here, too, but more lightly, with inches instead of feet of the stuff already on the ground. From where we entered ranch property to the main house was roughly four hours on horseback in decent weather; we didn’t take much longer.
None of these horses qualifed as barn sour, but they did pick up their paces nonetheless, knowing we were pointing toward home.
Still, we reined ’em in on the knoll above ranch headquarters, hanging back just inside the treeline while we studied the layout. The snow was down to almost nothing, the clouds getting ready to clear out. The moon was even busting through. Our night vision equipment didn’t reveal anything more significant than what the naked eye could see. One light each, in the ranch house kitchen and in the welding shop.
That was the signal, known only to us, Jennifer Trace, and B.J. Hennessey.
“Whaddya think, Tree?” Jack asked as he returned his spotting scope to the saddle bag.
“Looks right,” I murmered, rubbing my stubbled jaw in thought. “One if by land.”
Had there been trouble, we had a whole code set up. Yard lights on, that would have been the worst, meaning the ranch was not only under siege but occupied by the enemy. We’d figured Jen and B.J. could sell that to anybody who took over by force of arms, convince ’em we’d shy away for sure if they weren’t on.
But we weren’t quite ready to ride on in. Not just yet. Sissy Harms had proven her worth as a key member of our combat team a thousand times over; her input counted.
“Hm. I can feel a little something, Jack. But I don’t think it’s here, at least not tonight. It’s kind of, you know, more…distant. Like a storm on the horizon.”
“Been a few of those lately,” he opined, the dryness in his voice unmistakeable. “and I reckon there’ll be a few more. Okay then. Single file, thirty foot spacing, let’s do it.”
The eggs were scrambled, the bacon hot out of the pan and plentiful.
“Hard to believe you’re out of the hospital and cranky as ever.” I grinned at old Horace, manning the stove, hobbling around with his shot-up, steel-pinned leg still in a full length cast. How he dragged that thing hither, thither, and yon the way he did, I had no clue.
“You’d be cranky, too, Tree,” he grinned, shoveling another rasher of bacon my way, “if you had to put up with those Deer Lodge nurses.”
“They’re that bad?”
Jennifer Trace cut in, her eyes twinkling. “Don’t let him kid you. Horace is in lu-u-u-v!”
A bunch of us raised eyebrows at that. “Hooba uppee gurg?” I asked around a mouthful.
The tracker eased himself into a chair, having piled the table with enough food to feed an army–or three starving vigilantes who’ve been subsisting on pemmican and snow-water coffee for the past five days. “You shouldn’t talk with your mouth full,” he admonished. “I’m sure your mother taught you better than that.”
I swallowed hastily. “She did. Who’s the lucky girl?”
He shook his head mournfully. “Jennifer’s got it all wrong. Mrs. Clancy, she’s the lead dog on night shift at the hospital, but she’s not interested in shot-up old cowboys.”
Jennifer Trace snorted. “Uh-huh. Tell it to the judge, old man.”
Sissy’s turn. “Mrs.?”
“All right, all right.” Horace threw his hands up in surrender. “She’s widowed, okay? And night shift was slow for her, and I couldn’t sleep much. We talked a little, that’s all.”
It went like that for a while, Wayne and Carolyn, Jennifer and Horace, B.J., Sissy, Jack and me, with us three manhunters stuffing ourselves like the pigs we were–and all of us ha-a-a-appy to be back together again, nobody in a pine box or even wounded.
Exhausted to the bone, but not wounded.
It was the widow Trace who got down to business. “So, Tree, did you bring me something back?”
“Uh…oh! Sure!” I jumped up, scooted out to the porch, retrieved a plastic baggie from my righthand saddle bag, and handed it to her. “Here you go, compliments of Jack. It was his elephant gun what done the trick.”
She looked pleased as she held the baggie in her two hands, staring at the contents.. The tears running down her face were…well, they were what they were.
My uncle hadn’t said much until now. “Are those what I think–?”
“Yep,” I nodded. “Jonathan Morse’s ears. Jen asked me for ’em special, and I figured it was the least I could do. Even if I did have to shinny up an eighty foot Douglas fir in pitch dark to slice ’em off his cold, dead head.”
Jennifer got up from her chair, came on around the table, and put a hug on me that held nothing back. “Thank you, Treemin Jackson,” she whispered, most likely ’cause she didn’t trust her voice.
Then she did the same with the Protector. “Thank you, Jack Hill, for blowing the bastard away.”
Sissy watched all this impassively, her face revealing nothing–which I knew meant she was feeling left out. She needn’t have worried. Mrs. Trace got to her next, hugging her up, then stepping back, holding her at arm’s length. “And thank you, Sissy Harms, for mowing down most of Sam’s killers and keeping these two idiots out of harm’s way.”
In cowboy country, that’s about as mushy as it gets.