Where was I?
Struggling, trying desperately to stay conscious. How many times had I blacked out? I did not know, knew only that the left side of my chest felt like it was caved in completely, maybe even blown open. My heart must still be beating, but it was hard to see how.
I didn’t dare look down.
Bleary eyed, I managed–finally–to bring the trees above my head into focus. Chokecherry…I was in Choke Cherry Gully, lying on my back, behind an ancient, rotting pine deadfall. We’d come to pick…
I blacked out again, almost, but managed to pull myself back from the brink. Something was telling me there was more. More than the injury, however it had been caused, however massive it might be.
There was danger.
Of course, there is always danger in September in Montana’s high country. The rattlesnakes are on the move, some of them blind while shedding skin and therefore even less likely to avoid being stepped on than usual, many of them shifting toward the hibernaculum that will house them through the harsh winter. The bears, too, were hitting the last of the berries, as likely to show up in choke cherry country as not.
But this was not that, or not just that.
I was alone…or was I?
Then, in a rush, memory returned. My eidetic memory, the double edged sword that was both gift and, sometimes, curse.
Our newest welder, frog-bodied cowboy Shawn Hicks, had done this. Two months he’d been with us, ironically approved for employment by yours truly.
Maybe it was the pain, anything to avoid concentrating on the agony. Whatever it was, the flashback came full force. Shawn had come to us in early July, looking for a job. Out of work, a native Montanan with his own 5th wheel camp trailer and his own welding rig.
B.J. hadn’t been sure about him, because of his welding. His beads had left something to be desired when we tested him. But he’d explained–sheepishly–that he’d not had much practice lately, had struggled through a three year bout with Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, and also that he always got self conscious when being tested. If we could give him a chance, he promised, just feed him for the first week or two, he’d work for free and prove himself.
Which he’d done. He’d been given the least critical welds at first, Rodeo Iron toy corrals where a spot weld was generally all that was needed and not too much steel was at risk if the welder goofed. The man got better every day, and we’d put him on regular wages as of August first.
We’d never had a harder worker, principals like B.J. and myself excluded.
We’d even talked about maybe giving him a cut of the business in a year or two, if things continued to go well.
It was…Saturday. Judi had family up at Eureka, a brother who’d survived the car crash that killed her parents when she was twelve and Johnny was fourteen. He owned an RV campsite, had offered to spot our whole crew for free, giant tailgate party. Everybody had headed out yesterday. They’d be at the rodeo right now, having a fine old time, Jennifer Trace and my uncle B.J., Sissy, Judi, even Jack Hill, Wayne Bruce, and Carolyn West.
The haying was done for the season. The summer hands were gone; those who’d be staying through the winter were off visiting family or friends and wouldn’t be back for a week or two. Even Izmelda the cook and old Horace, the tracker, were away for the day, gone to Great Falls where Izmelda had family. Horace had escorted her and had a few errands in town besides.
Only Shawn Hicks and I had stayed behind. There’d been a day’s worth of welding left to do–a day’s worth for one man–and Hicks had volunteered to help me get it caught up.
Any other time, I’d have gone with Judi and the others. I’d only met Johnny Garrett one time, but I liked the guy. He’d been as racially prejudiced as they come, Judi told me, but had recently changed his tune. I had a hunch she’d told him who’d really saved her life by shooting her ex-husband in Missoula; the siblings were pretty close. She might have done that.
I hadn’t gone, though. Instead, I’d insisted on manning the fort. My uncle hadn’t taken a recreational road trip away from the ranch since he’d moved out from Hartford, and neither had the widow Trace.
I’d stayed behind…and the remarkable Shawn Hicks had volunteered to stay with me. Between us, we’d finished the welding backlog by noon.
“Thanks, Shawn,” I’d told him. “That’s it for the day.”
“Heading back to your lonely domicile?” He’d asked casually, smiling, a normal question between friends and coworkers.
“Mm…nah. Not just yet. Believe I’ll grab a pail and hike over to Choke Cherry Gully. Anywhere else, it’s too late for those, but they always hit late in that one spot. They should be perfect, right about now, and I do love me some choke cherry jam.”
“Can’t argue with that,” he’d agreed, and volunteered to join me in the picking.
It had been careless of me, yes. I could see that now, but we’d thought it was over. Since the suicides of both corrupt former DoD Undersecretaries, Jonathan Q. Parkins and Thaddeus Moore, the wolf mutating program had been 100% defunded. In Wisconsin, Wolf Management Inc. was out of business, with the Sierra Club and half a dozen other eco-freak outfits fighting over who was going to coddle the wolves that had already been “upgraded” with human DNA.
Who Shawn Hicks worked for, who’d set him on us, I didn’t know. That he really was a born and bred Montana cowboy had been confirmed; we’d done our due diligence with a complete background check before he was hired in the first place.
Nothing in that background check had told us about the grenade.
We’d both been picking choke cherries at a good clip. I’d hoped to fill a five gallon bucket, and there were at least three inches of the pitted fruit in the bottom when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.
I don’t know exactly what triggered my reflexes. It wasn’t that I knew a grenade was lobbing my way with the pin pulled. But there shouldn’t be anything approaching on that trajectory, and–at any rate, I’d dived over the deadfall, and….
That was all I could remember, except the sensation of getting hit hard. I’d been knocked out, no question.
Where was Hicks?
He’d tried to murder me. Why hadn’t he followed up?
Maybe he was still around…no. Probably not. I saw the smoke then, heard the crackle of flames as the fire topped the west ridge and started down into the little gully. Either I was dead, he’d likely figured, or the forest fire he’d started would roast me nicely, finish the job. I must have looked dead, lying there after the blast, if he’d gotten close enough to check.
Wouldn’t you know, one of those Dark Angels of Death chose that exact time to show up. A presence, not any form you could describe, but real enough nonetheless.
I snarled at it mentally. Not a plea, a command. Get out of here! I want to see my kids grow up!
Which was a strange thing to be thinking, since I didn’t have any kids, but it did the trick. The Angel departed, albeit more slowly than I might have liked. No Soul reaping just yet, thank you very much.
The flames were chewing their way downhill, through the dry, late summer grass. I was lying just beyond the bottom, low on the east slope. Trees were already heating up, bursting into flame. I had minutes at best to get out of there. Once the fire got a crack at this upslope, I was literally toast.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t move. Every time I tried to get to my feet, the pain knocked me back down.
The third time it happened, I finally got around to looking down at myself.
Weird. No blood. What the–? Oh…maybe I had a real chance after all. The left side of my chest had not been shredded by shrapnel. Instead, the blast had broken a three foot branch from the deadfall, some three or four inches thick, I could see it laying right beside me now, and that had whacked me in the ribs. Broke a few, no question, likely punctured the lung on that side…but I probably wouldn’t be bleeding to death in the next ten minutes.
I can’t begin to express how much better that made me feel.
Still couldn’t make it to my feet, but crawling up the slope…as long as I held my left arm in close and moved carefully, like a three legged dog, I could travel.
Sort of. There was a small gap between the choke cherry trees on this side. I had to get up through that gap, cross that ridge, only forty feet away though it looked like a mile, and then ease on down the other side. There was a little spring fed slough, a place where I could slide into the mud and water with the frogs and leeches and such, a place where red winged blackbirds nested and cattails grew…if I could get there.
In the end…it wasn’t happening. I was still trying, but making progress by inches, sometimes sliding back downslope a foot.
The fire reached the bottom of the draw, hungrily latching onto the big pine deadfall that had saved my life, if only briefly.
When I felt myself lifted to my feet, my good arm draped over a tall man’s shoulders, I was sure I was either already dead or hallucinating and about to leave this vale of tears from the smoke inhalation. He never said a word. We topped the ridge with the Devil’s hot breath warming our backsides…and I passed out again, for the umpteenth and final time, my last thought being of the nineteen Yarnell hotshot firefighters who’d lost their lives this year in Arizona.
I came to in the slough, delirious maybe–who comes back from a near death experience and starts rhyming? I came to in the slough. But I was, surprisingly, still on Earth, soaked to the bone, several yards in among the rushes, with my head pillowed on my right arm, which was mostly under water.
The pain was still intense, but down enough I could think. The fire had jumped over and around us, leaving the mini-wetlands to its own devices.
What to do next?
It had been a while. Judging from the angle of the sun, maybe two hours or more. There were firefighters out now, of course. Both helicopters and planes could be heard making their retardant drops. This land bordered the steep, rugged Bob Marshall wilderness. If they didn’t have hundreds of men already on the fire line or on their way, I’d be surprised.
Could end up being one of the big ones.
So. I had to assume I was operating on one lung. Not that I could tell, really. With smashed ribs, nobody does any deep breathing exercises to check his lung capacity. But even breathing shallow, I could feel bone pieces moving in their sheaths.
It was not a pleasant experience.
The first thing, now that my mind was working again, was to guess what Shawn Hicks might be doing, and I had to guess right. Lives were at stake. If the bugger had targeted me, everybody connected with me was very likely on the hit list as well. It would be reckless endangerment to assume otherwise.
Would he hang around? He might, figuring to play the innocent (as he had done so well prior to today). After setting the fire, he could have hopped in his pickup and headed to, say, Missoula. Pick up a movie, have a meal in a restaurant, strike up a conversation or two so people would remember him and he’d have an alibi.
He’d have to be a cold one to pull that off, but he’d already betrayed us, broken bread with us and then done his damnedest to break the silver cord that tethers Soul to the body, tried really hard to murder the very benefactor who’d hired him.
Lack of coldness would not be his problem.
“We finished welding at noon,” he’d tell investigators, “and Tree cut me loose for the day. I decided to go see that movie I’d been wanting to see. He was just going to go pick some choke cherries….”
He wouldn’t try that if he was a professional. A pro would know it was all too possible the State investigators would find and identify a piece or two of the grenade. But I didn’t think–even now–that he was an expert killer.
If he’d truly known his craft, I wouldn’t be alive to be thinking about it.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about the mystery man who’d appeared out of nowhere to help me over the ridge. He’d been tall, with long blond hair. A spiritual Master without a doubt, and I was pretty sure either Jack Hill or his friend Ghost could tell me who, but that was for another day.
For now, there were practical matters to consider. This life and death dance was anything but over.
The first thing to do, it seemed to me, was find out if Hicks had flown the coop or not. Which meant making it back to the ranch house, nearly half a mile distant. I’d have to walk it, and I’d best remain invisible, not only to the wannabe killer but to the firefighters as well. Which might be a problem, especially if the Trace ranch had been selected as a staging point.
As fast as the blaze was moving, though, the chances were good they’d set up at the Blevins place instead.
Getting to my feet was no fun, but then again, I was in no rush. I’d need to stay under cover as much as possible, just in case Hicks hadn’t left at all. If he was ornery enough to do what he’d done, he might be nuts enough to hang around, maybe finish the job with a hunting rifle.
I don’t pretend to be able to read the minds of these people.
The dizziness passed, mostly, by the time I was clear of the slough. Another good sign that I wasn’t bleeding internally, at least not fast enough to kill me quickly. Amazingly, the Walther P22 hadn’t gotten wet enough to worry me about the ammunition. The holster was damp, but that was all.
Of course, I’d been lying mostly on the one side, in water shallow enough to leave me armed and dangerous. If the enemy got close enough, anyway.
Thank God and all his angels, the firefighters, it turned out, had not staged at our place. I could see the fire winking its red eyes, higher up the mountain and to the east. Between here and there, nothing but char and smoke, a square mile or more of destruction already.
When your stride is cut down to twelve inches per step or so, covering half a mile takes a while. The sun had set by the time I reached the house.
Shawn’s fifth wheel was gone. He’d pulled up stakes.
In Jennifer Trace’s kitchen, I eased down in a chair, the coffee pot turned on and the sat phone in my hand. Strange, our various addictions. Near death, filled with pain that made morphine sound really good, and all I really wanted was a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of apple pie.
Or maybe not so strange. Sissy tells me, sometimes, that I’m just insane by nature. That could be it.
Horace first. He and Izmelda weren’t scheduled in until tomorrow, but there’d be just the two of them, and only one warrior. Even if Shawn Hicks had gone completely ’round the bend, he’d not likely dare tackle the heavily armed convoy coming in from Eureka.
The old tracker picked up on the fifth ring, just before it would have gone to voice mail.
“Horace?” I asked, realizing my voice didn’t sound quite right.
“Yeah, Tree, what’s up?”
I told him. He listened, then asked, “You called 911? Life Flight?”
“Nope. Ain’t gonna, neither. I get done here, I’ll drive myself in to Deer Lodge.”
There was a pause at the other end. “You sure, cowboy?”
“Dead sure.” Oops. Poor choice of words, again.
“Well…your Pontiac’s got an automatic, and it’s as close to bulletproof as anything short of Obama’s limo, so…but you feel you’re passing out, you get the Hell off the road, you hear me?”
Our main crew was a scarier call. That is, if they were already on the road, there are a lot of cell phone dead spots on that route…but as it happened, they’d not left town yet. The rodeo had run late, as amateur rodeos often do. They were just queued up in the dusty line of vehicles leaving the rodeo grounds when I got through to Jack.
My uncle might be P.O.’d I hadn’t called him instead, but too late. I’d already done dialed.
Jack and I could communicate even better in code than even my uncle and I could, and communication was priority one.
And then it was time to roll. Hicks had clearly panicked. He hadn’t taken time to, say, burn down the ranch house or trash my car or anything. After fragging me and torching the land, he’d just cut and run.
Amateur hour, all the way. I’d been whacked by a freaking minor leaguer.
Horace had promised to get a call in to his friend, the young doctor and Afghanistan vet who’d worked on him when he’d been shot up. The doc would be prepped, would accept my story that–well, I didn’t yet know what the story would be yet, except that it would make no mention of an attack by a murderous employee. I’d have to make up that tale on the way into town.
Law enforcement had never proven itself particularly effective before; we weren’t about to start trusting their expertise now.
Besides, they’d want to know why this guy, this Shawn Hicks, was so all fired determined to do me in. Until I knew the answer to that, I was playing my cards close to the vest.
The ’89 Grand Prix fired up and we were good to go, except that I had to stop long enough to take off the Walther. I’d keep it handy on the passenger seat till we got to Deer Lodge, but walking into the hospital with a shooter strapped to my back didn’t seem like the slickest idea. Montana has a lot of gun hating, lily livered yellow bellied sapsucking liberals, disgustingly enough.
A grunt of pain escaped me a few times on the way down the dirt road, but once we reached the blacktop, it wasn’t all that bad, driving one handed. We made it all the way to the hospital, not in record time by a long shot, but quickly enough, beads of pain sweat running down my chest and Waylon Jennings’ Will the Wolf Survive repeating endlessly in the Bose CD player.
I only passed out once, somewhere between Jens and Garrison, coming to again before the Pontiac could quite drift off the shoulder.