The ride home from the hospital was, quite frankly, worse than the original injury itself. On the way in, half conscious and half dead, I’d at least been able to focus on getting there, wheeling the Pontiac all the way into the parking lot in Deer Lodge under my own power.
On the return trip, I was delegated to riding shotgun while Sissy drove. In my own Pontiac. Judi followed in the little Honda she’d acquired while I was down. Up front, uncle B.J. rode point in his restored 1946 Hudson, while Jennifer Trace and old Horace the tracker covered the drag position in one of the ranch trucks. Everybody, even including wounded little old me, was heavily armed.
We were taking no chances, never assuming Shawn Hicks wouldn’t try again.
I hated not being at the wheel, but I’d been overruled this time, based on Dr. Menning’s evaluation when he’d signed off on my release.
“You should be good to go, Tree,” he’d told me–with, unfortunately, most of our crew gathered in the room at the time, “but you’ll need to take it easy for a while. Maybe for a month or more. Those ribs are going to need some time to heal. Your heart got slammed over about an inch from where it used to be, but that double-busted rib is the most dangerous. It wouldn’t take much of a bump to slam a piece right back through that lung all over again.”
Truthfully, I knew he was right, though I’d never admit it. Every little dip in the road reminded me all over again. The dirt track up through Helmville Canyon was a matter of cold pain sweats, nausea, gritted teeth, and darned near passing out.
At least, it was Sissy behind the wheel, and I was thankful for that. I trusted the big mixed blood woman warrior with my life and my love, and she knew what she was doing. In fact, once the worst of it was behind us and we’d passed through Helmville, I could tell by the set of her jaw that this was probably hurting her as much as it was hurting me.
Time, then, to start talking.
“Jack?” I had to ask.
“Missoula run. He’s had his contacts digging deep into Mr. Shawn Hicks. The normal background check obviously missed something, so….”
I felt a spike of alarm. “He go alone?”
“No. Relax, honey. Wayne and Carolyn are both with him. Not that he needed Carolyn for backup, obviously, but he wasn’t about to leave her home alone.”
“No.” I did relax, then. Carolyn West was no fighter, but flamer Wayne Bruce was as hard twisted as they came in the kill-or-be-killed department. That did mean there were zero humans at the Hill place right now, however. I was glad our convoy would be seeing Sissy, Judi, and me safely home–and inspecting the premises for prowlers, snipers, and such–before most of them headed back to the Trace ranch.
“Forgot to mention,” I yawned, suddenly sleepy, “arson inspector from the State stopped by yesterday. Wanted to interrogate me alone, which alarmed Horace and Jennifer some, but they’d already talked to the guy. Knew he was really with the state. I still kept the Walther pointed at him under the sheet the whole time, though.”
“Naturally.” Ahead of us, B.J.’s Hudson made the left turn onto the highway, heading toward Ovando. Sissy slowed the Pontiac, preparing to do the same. “How did it go?”
“Well enough, I think. He didn’t seem suspicious or anything. In fact, he had no trouble at all buying our story that I’d been at home, working with Jack’s new mule, when I got kicked, knocked out, and woke up in a world of hurt to see the wildfire already up and running.”
She nodded, not taking her eyes off the road. “No reason he shouldn’t. I think we’ve got the State pretty well convinced Shawn set the fire, based on his disappearance plus the story we laid on ’em about him being close to getting fired. B. J. showed both the State inspector and the deputies a few of his early welds, pointed out how inferior they were. A couple of those country boys turned out to know a bad bead when they saw it, and that helped. Plus, we got extra lucky, what with the State guy being so willing to buy it.”
“True. Especially, as it turns out, he has a brother in law down near Drummond who has something like two dozen mules, gets involved with Drummond Mule Days and all that. The man was more than willing to believe evil things about mules.”
“Huh. I don’t think he told any of the rest of us about that.”
“Well, I am the one who got mule kicked.”
We didn’t speak again until we made the turn into our own driveway, and then–
“Oh sh*t.” I breathed, softly but with considerable fervor.
Sissy chuckled. “You never called her?”
“Well, your uncle did. He never said she’d be showing up today, but I suppose he must have given her directions. Bet she made the trip alone without telling him she was doing to do it, though.”
“No doubt.” I stared with considerable trepidation at the high end Jeep Rubicon parked politely to one side of our mobile home’s front door. Every man’s nightmare.
Mom was here, drove over from Idaho. By herself, barreling right into what she had to know was a possible shooting war, a possible ambush, because her baby was in danger. She’d never utter one word of reproach for my neglecting to inform her directly that I’d nearly been killed…but she’d give me the look. I’d see the hurt in her eyes.
“I wish,” I muttered, “we could just turn around and get the Hell out of here.”
Sissy laughed aloud.
Jack Hill saved the day. Again.
The mobile home wasn’t that big. I’d been ensconced on the couch, legs stretched out, propped up with pillows, sipping a mug of spearmint tea and trying to decide whether I was faking how rocky I felt just to avoid any confrontation with my mother…or did I really feel that rough?
Mom had greeted me calmly, exchanged warm hugs with everybody but busted-up me, starting with her brother but not excluding anyone despite meeting most of them for the first time. Judi had brought me the tea, pulling up a chair and keeping me company.
Once they’d gotten me settled in, it was like I didn’t exist any more.
Which was a relief, watching the woman who bore me do her thing, the center of attention, charming the mob in our kitchen. When she wanted to turn it on, she could charm the birds out of the trees, and she had it turned on.
Must have been the frustration of her life, I suddenly realized. My birth father and me, whoever he was (not that I cared, particularly, knowing what he was), but clearly we were in one way the two great failures in her life, the two males–and just about the only two males–she’d never quite been able to wrap around her little finger.
It must have just about killed her when she couldn’t charm me out of my juvenile crime spree, back in the day.
What was she…five-seven, maybe five-eight? I’d never thought about her size before. Not really. She’d just been Mom. Closer to five-eight, probably. Maybe 150 pounds, but packed tight; there was a lot of twisted steel in that woman.
Well…there would need to be. With Big Jude for a big brother, the Hartford ‘hood for a training ground, and parents of her own who’d not made it easy. Grampa Hennessey had died of a heroin overdose when young Louella was just fifteen, then his widow had sort of just wasted away, smoking like a chimney–Marlboro Reds, I’d been told–and eventually passing from pancreatic cancer at the age of 45.
Mom had been in the Police Academy at the time, just finishing up. She did, too, her graduation from the Academy falling on the same day as my grandmother’s funeral.
She’d skipped the funeral. “Let the dead take care of the dead,” she’d told her brother. “I’ve got to take care of the living.”
For three years, she did the cop thing. Rocketed up through the ranks. Not that she ever talked about that time in her life, but B.J. did. He’d told me. “Your Mom was on track to become one of the youngest, toughest, smartest Detectives they ever had,” he’d said, “when she got knocked up. By her own Captain, who was married at the time. The a**hole dumped his wife for my sis, all right, but then he turned around and dumped her for some little white street chippy.”
That had been our version of the birds and the bees talk, B.J.’s and mine, shortly after I’d been shipped back to his custody six…no, seven years ago now. Or was it eight?
“She decided enough was enough,” I remembered him saying, “quit the force, three months pregnant with you, loaded some of her stuff in her car, left the rest with me, and headed west.”
Like I said, our family doesn’t have much use for the po-lice.
She did appreciate some of the skills she’d gained while on the force in Hartford, though, and I’d bet that was her favorite Sig Sauer nine millimeter in her fanny pack. Eighteen rounds in one after market magazine, with a spare mag tucked in there as well. She’d let me shoot it a few times when I was growing up, but nobody could handle that pistol like she could. It was part of her, an extension of her own body.
Her boss in Idaho, rancher Sim Bowles, always said that was what he liked best about my Mom. “She can dang sure cook, kid,” he’d told me–back then, it was okay for Sim to call me kid–“but she can shoot even better. Yo mama is the buffalo soldier’s answer to Little Annie Oakley.”
Not really, of course. Annie Oakley, from everything I’d read, favored rifles.
The kitchen confab was still going on when Jack Hill’s Subaru Outback pulled in. Instead of going directly to his own house, he headed over our way, stuck his head in the door just for a moment.
“War conference,” he declared cheerfully, “my place. It’s got more room than here. Good to see you, Lou.”
“Good to see you, too, Jack,” Mom replied, and from my position on the couch, I realized something else. Jack was one of the few people allowed to call her Lou instead of Louella…and she had a crush on him, too. She and Sim Bowles, her employer, were long time lovers, but she had a thing for the ancient Protector.
Man, I thought, how does that old bugger do it?
By the time we got settled, all around Jack’s big kitchen table with both leaves put in, I was feeling some better and ready for coffee. Plus a piece of rhubarb pie. Wayne Bruce had baked yesterday. Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on partaking of Pie by Wayne.
“My hacker contacts came through,” Hill told us calmly but grimly. None of us liked the fact that we’d been infiltrated and attacked. We liked it better when it was the other way around.
“We know the story on Shawn Hicks?” I asked the question. Hell, it was my right; I was the idiot who’d originally approved his employment at Rodeo Iron, and it was me at whom he’d thrown the grenade.
“We do,” Jack nodded. “Shawn Hicks is dead.”
Oh, he had our attention now.
“The real Shawn Hicks got run over by a train at a railroad crossing down by Three Forks, some years back. He doesn’t show up in the SSDI, the Social Security Death Index, though, and here’s the kicker.”
He paused, letting the drama build, then dropped the other shoe. “The administrator of his estate was a fellow by the name of Thaddeus Moore.”
There was kind of a stunned silence around the table that lasted for a good little while. Thaddeus Moore. Former Undersecretary at the Department of Defense. Cartel bribe taker, wolf mutating facilitator, corrupt to the core Moore, code name at Rodeo Iron: Curly. Dead by suicide in the middle of Lake Chelan, Washington.
My own voice finally broke the silence. “The rumors of his death…” Several of us finished it together. “…have been greatly exaggerated.”
Frankly, it was a relief. Identifying our enemy eliminated much of that old bugaboo, Fear of the Unknown. I could feel a knot in my gut loosening, a knot I’d not even known was there. A knot I’d not…never mind.
“There’s more,” Big Jude rumbled, hardly hesitating between bites. Flamer Wayne Bruce, I thought, might have a bit of a crush himself. He did love a man who showed appreciation for his cooking the way B.J. did. “I can see it in your face, Jack.”
“Yep. There’s more. His pickup and his 5th wheel camper showed up in Wall, South Dakota, three days ago. He swapped a guy straight across, got a late model Chevy Impala in return. The guy he swapped with was worried when the cops showed up, figuring maybe he’d ended up with stolen goods, but no. The paperwork’s clean on the Hicks vehicles.”
“But,” Jennifer Trace put in, “you can bet he hasn’t put his own name–Hicks or Moore or whatever–on the Impala, nor will he.”
“No. Not likely.”
“The question now is,” I mused aloud, “where is he headed? What is he up to?”
Mom’s fanny pack chirped. She fished out her cell phone–a lot quicker than most women can dig those things out of dump truck sized purses, I assure you.
Her face turned gray as she listened. Then, “Got it, sweetheart. I agree.”
She returned the phone to the pack, staring straight ahead as she spoke, her voice suddenly brittle.
“That was Sim. Blessing Devonis has disappeared. They think she’s been abducted.”
Suddenly realizing we had no clue who she was talking about, she shook herself, exerted visible effort to take control of her emotions, and explained.
“Blessing is an African American woman who moved to the Rexburg, Idaho, area about…three years ago, I think it was. We women of color aren’t that common in that part of the country, but we’re not nonexistent, either. She’d married a young soldier who was from Rexburg, came there with him, but the marriage didn’t last.
“She and I met when she was looking for work. Called up out of the blue, just checking ranch after ranch. Turned out she’d grown up on a cow-calf operation in Florida, just felt safer out in the country, now that her marriage was kaput. And she liked Idaho, didn’t want to leave. Plus, she felt like going back to Florida would mark her as a failure, and she didn’t want that, either.
“I told her Sim didn’t have any openings, but Billy Davis over at the BB Quarter Circle might. He’d lost his wife to cancer a while back, might be in the market for a housekeeper, trying to raise three boys and run a ranch by himself. He’d hired a few, here and there, but none of them had been able to hack the country life.”
Mom stopped, staring at the table, her mind hundreds of miles away. I think somebody took a sip of coffee, but other than that, nobody moved. I’m not sure anybody breathed.
“Well,” she finally went on, “she got the job. Loves it. Loves Billy’s kids, too. Not sure if she loves Billy, but she’s definitely happy in her work.”
I couldn’t speak, but Jack Hill did, gently. “This looks connected, Lou?”
She turned to him, then, appreciation in her eyes, gratitude that we got it. “Yes. It has to be him. The cops are trying to keep a lid on things, not let any information out, but Sim and Billy are friends from way back. Billy said he found a note.”
“And it said?”
“It said…Two down, many to go. Aryan Nations, eat your heart out.”
“That canny bastard.” I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud till all the other faces around the table shifted their attention to me. “Law enforcement will be looking at this as a hate crime for sure. Well, it is a hate crime, but not race related, and they’ll be convinced it is. The Feds will be all over it, trying to tie it to known groups, skinheads or whatever, muddying up the tracks.”
“Exactly.” The cold desolation in her voice tore at my heart.
“Mom…you figure Hicks thinks he got you, right?”
“I don’t figure, Tree. I know.”
Damn. “She’s either dead or–”
“Dammit Tree, I know! I hope to God she is dead!”
Well. That didn’t require any elucidation. Louella Hennessey had been an inner city cop; she knew what an abducted female kept alive meant….
B.J. took over. Sort of. “Lou, alive or dead, she’s only got one chance, right? I mean, nobody’s going to find this bastard but us. Period. End of story. So, how quick can we reach Rexburg without getting busted for speeding?”
Hearing her big brother step into the breach, that’s all it took. Mom’s chin lifted. A look came into her eyes I’d never seen before, a look that made me suddenly glad I’d never seen it while I was growing up. In fact, if Hicks/Moore had a lick of sense–which he clearly didn’t–he’d be shaking in his boots right now.
“I can be ready in–”
The whole table turned on me as one, but they let my uncle deliver the message. “You, Tree, are staying out of this one.”
I started to protest. B.J. cut me off. “Kid,” he said in that tone I knew all too well, “you’ve got to convalesce. You try running with the big dogs while you’re still busted up inside, you’re going to slow us down. Plus, your Mom at least will be worrying about you. She’ll be off her game, having her attention split like that. It could get her killed.”
Sh*t. “When you put it that way….”
They were already on their feet, heading for the door. They’d drive over to the ranch, let B.J. pack what he needed for the road, then hit for Rexburg.
Jack Hill took over at the table, gesturing for Carolyn West to pour another round of coffee. “You ain’t gonna be as useless as you think, Tree.”
“Oh. Look at it this way. We’ve got a strike team heading out, that being Lou and B.J. Brother and sister, nobody tougher, they’ll have each other’s backs, and both of ’em got a way of getting people to open up. If anybody can pick up this bugger’s trail, they will, or find where he’s gone to ground with his captive.”
“Hold on. Think it through, cowboy. I said we got a strike force out there, right?”
“Well, they’re going to need backup. They can’t be cut off communication-wise. They need every possible bit of intel they can get.”
“Okay, so that’s you and me. Until Hicks is run to ground, we don’t dare leave any base uncovered. So, Jennifer and Horace at the ranch, either move Horace into a spare main house bedroom for the duration, or throw a bunk into Horace’s cabin for Jennifer, either way. That make sense to you?” He looked across the table at Jennifer Trace, who simply nodded once in confirmation.
“That covers the ranch. We can’t leave this place open, either, but here we’ve got warriors aplenty. Wayne, Sissy, and by the way, have you seen Judi shoot?”
Actually, I hadn’t. I’d heard, though. Like me and Jack, she favored lightweight .22’s, but Sissy said she was good enough with ’em to make that an okay thing.
“That leaves you and me, like I said. There’s no way to keep in close touch with my hacker contacts except in Missoula. We can take it easy on your ribs, driving down. I’d say take your Pontiac, it being a heck of a lot tougher to kill than my Outback.”
Huh. He did have me feeling some better. And he was right about the Pontiac; B.J. and I had that pretty well armored, at least for a civilian vehicle. I heaved a sigh–a shallow one, what with the ribs and all. “When do we need to leave?”
Jack took a swallow of coffee, considering. “Morning will be soon enough. Midmorning at that. Pack heavy; we may have to be there for a while. In the meantime, chill. Your Ruby kitten told me she’s been missing you.”
I actually grinned at that.