We timed our morning run to reach Dubois around 10:00 a.m. This time, it really was an easy drive, temperatures hanging in the low forties, blue sky overhead, not a cloud in sight. There was plenty of sun glare from the previous day’s snowfall, of course; you wouldn’t have wanted to tackle this run without sunglasses.
Nobody was terrifically hungry, so we settled for pie and coffee at the Cowboy Café. It somehow didn’t feel like a good idea to start flashing the Shawn Hicks photo around, so we sat there for a while, trying to figure out how to grill the locals without them realizing they were being grilled.
If Hicks was known here, he might have made friends, maybe even somebody who’d feel it his bound duty to warn the fugitive there were big black people looking for him in town.
Besides, the fact that coin dealer Alvin Izzard hadn’t recognized the snapshot even though he could give a detailed description of our bulgy eyed quarry was a pretty clear indicator the picture was worthless.
It would have been nice to realize that a month or so earlier, but hey.
Our waitress, a young girl who looked like she came straight from the Rez, took our orders. Both Jack Hill and I were thrilled to find out they had huckleberry pie on hand.
When Jack placed his order in a language I didn’t recognize one tiny little bit, the girl positively lit up–and chattered back at him in similar fashion. By the time they were done making noises at each other, Mom and B.J. and I would have sworn they were in lo-ove.
She left to get the coffee and pie with a bounce in her step that hadn’t been there when she arrived.
“Sheepeater,” Hill explained. “Uh…Shoshone to y’all. Her tips are most of the income for her family. Their land on the Rez includes some pretty decent mineral reserves, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs holds the money from oil sales in trust, and it takes 29 steps for Native Americans to get their hands on their own money. Plus, there’s been waste water dumping that tainted their best pasture, but they’ve received nothing by way of reimbursement for that.”
Besides being impressed that she and Jack had covered that much conversational ground, I had to ask. “What about the Wind River Casino? Don’t they get something out of that?”
“Nope. Wrong tribe. The casino is 100% owned by the Arapahoe.”
We all sat there for a bit, pondering, until Mom got around to the obvious question. “So, did you ask about Hicks?”
The coffee arrived right then, though, as well as pie all around. The rest of us held our peace–and our pieces–till the Shoshone chatter between Jack and Lela (according to her name tag, which I finally got around to noticing) finished up. They didn’t talk as long this time, thankfully. Most likely, Lela had reason to fear for her job if she dawdled too much.
Thankfully, Jack didn’t make us wait any longer.
“She knows Shawn, all right. Doesn’t like him much. Says he comes in here two, three times a week, but he’s got crazy eyes. Most importantly, he’s a lousy tipper. She hopes we catch him.”
“You told her?!” B.J.’s eyebrows shot up toward the ceiling somewhere.
“Nope. She knew. Girl’s got the sight, she can read people. Also said she spotted him hanging out in his Forester, down the street a bit but she felt he was watching her, one night when she got off shift. She could see him from the front window. Her feeling was, he knew she’d have to walk past where he was sitting to get to her car, and she didn’t trust the meaning of that.
Mom nodded, her cop sense appreciating the youngster’s awareness of her surroundings. “How’d she handle it?”
“Went out the back door, jogged way down through the alleys till she was past his position, then cut around and came to her vehicle from the other side. When she pulled away from the curb, he put his lights on, but he didn’t follow. She figured she’d thrown him off his game just enough to freeze him in place long enough for her to get clear.”
“So.” I sipped my coffee. Stout; it need another creamer. “She have any tactical info, anything particularly helpful?”
“Yep. After that one incident, she’s been keeping a sharp eye out for our friend and his black Subaru Forester. Figured if he was going to stalk her, she’d better counter-stalk him, so she did. Even followed him once, way back and damn careful about it, but she saw him turn off on a dirt road–snow packed now, no doubt. She wasn’t about to go in there, says that road goes way back up in the timber, just a few properties up there, everything else is National Forest.”
Acid started churning in my gut. We’d been right; he was here.
And then it hit me, right smack upside the head. “Uh…people? We’re idiots.”
“Eh?” Three sets of eyes turned toward me, every one of them with one eyebrow cocked.
How do they do that? I mean, how do they coordinate the eyebrow cocking like that?
“He knows B.J.’s Hudson and my Pontiac both,” I explained. “The second he sees either one of them, it’s off to the races.”
All the lifted eyebrows came back down. My uncle chuckled. “Heck, Tree, don’t you think a black man dang near the size of Shaq in a town like Dubois would be enough identification? We’re not Ninjas.”
“Well, no, but….”
“Look, kid, if he drives in here and sees our rides on the street, he’ll rabbit, right? But so what? We can only work with what we got. If it comes down to a car chase, I’d rather we were driving rigs we knew and trusted, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“And if we wind up wrecking one, or getting it riddled with bullet holes, we’re better off not having to explain the damage to a rental company, right?”
I threw up my hands. “Okay, okay. Maybe we’re not idiots. But when we hit that trail, that twist-around, dead end, great place for an ambush trail, can we at least make sure Mom’s out on point? I mean, not that I want my mother to get shot first, but she’s the only person he doesn’t know and she’s driving the only vehicle he doesn’t know. If we stay spaced out a little and just talk easy code on the CB’s, maybe she could give us a few seconds warning if he passed her going the other way or something. Might make the difference.”
“Tree,” Jack said drily, “I’m pretty sure that was already the way we were going to do it.”
Had I only known we had it bass ackwards.
The pavement on the highway–which led on over to Jackson Hole if you kept going far enough–was bare and dry. The second we left the asphalt, though, things changed. The track up through the trees was in fact snow packed. We might have been better off chaining up, but there was no safe place to do that, so we didn’t.
None of the rigs were slipping and sliding too badly, though. If it didn’t get a horrible bunch worse on in a ways, it might turn out all right. Or maybe there’d be a turnoff where we could chain up.
Optimists. Glass half full.
Unfortunately, there was no turnoff, and the half full glass spilled all over the snow pack and made ice as we went along. Mom’s Jeep Rubicon didn’t really notice the difference; that machine was about ninety percent mountain goat. The Grand Prix got pretty slippy-slidey by the time we’d passed the third summer cabin, though, and B.J.’s Hudson looked to be having it the worst of us all.
If it got much worse, we’d have to chain up in the middle of the road, and it wasn’t a very wide road.
Mom was something like three turns in the lead, with B.J. just around the next bend in front of me, when I blew it. If the Hudson had made it, the Pontiac should have been able to follow, but despite having grown up in snow country, we had a classic case of driver error.
I picked the wrong line around a left hand curve, and the front wheel drive suddenly lost traction. We weren’t moving very fast, somewhere between five and eight miles an hour, but it was enough.
Made it around the curve, technically, but never quite got straightened out despite my very best–and desperate–tap dancing on the footfeed.
Ironically, we’d found the turnout we needed, but it was drifted in a bit, and the Pontiac was spun out for real, facing up a five percent grade, half of the car still blocking a portion of the traveled lane.
Jack Hill, riding shotgun, reached for the handset to inform our partners–and Shawn Hicks shot past us on the left, coming from behind, the black Forester fully chained up and going like a bat out of Hell.
Hill was yelling into the mike now, for real. “Heads up! He just passed us, fast, coming your way!”
Maybe the Hudson could block him, but he knew this trail. We didn’t…and the Grand Prix, if the bastard got turned around and charged back out…we were sitting ducks.
“Out!” I snapped at Jack, but he was way ahead of me, grabbing my scoped .25-06 from under the blanket on the back seat and scooting out just enough to use the passenger door as a shield and shooting rest. Which made sense; we had a quarter inch of steel in that door, as much protection as we were likely to get.
I started to follow my partner’s lead–and then changed my mind. Sat frozen in position behind the wheel, waiting. Jack flicked a look my way but didn’t say anything.
We didn’t have long to wait. B.J.’s voice thundered over the radio. “Coming back your way! I had him blocked, he spun that Subaru around right in the middle of the road. He’s coming fast!”
He was, too. Fast, anyway, for this road in these mountains, 25 miles per hour and accelerating when his Forester nosed into the straightway to aim right at us. He might crash on the turn behind me at that speed, but then again, he might not; the Forester was chained all around and the man behind the wheel could drive.
If he got past us, we might never find him again. If Blessing Devonia was confined somewhere in this thick timber, we might never find her, either. I had the crazy impulse to lunge sideways out of the car and grab the charging vehicle bare handed, Man of Steel, but I didn’t try it.
Instead, I triggered the Glare Mout dazzlers. Both of them. Squeezed my right eye hard shut, hoping Hill was doing the same.
The left hand laser missed low, focused light spearing the grille of the SUV, but the right hand blaster caught him right in the eyes. The bounce back nearly blinded me, too, even with that right eye closed, and I realized I’d possibly killed both Jack Hill and myself.
It was like the sun had ducked in under the trees and lit us all up.
Hicks was fully blind for the moment, no doubt about it. The Forester veered…straight toward the Pontiac. At the last of it, all of the split second it took for Shawn’s Subaru to close the remaining distance between us, I thought sure we were done for.
He missed by a hair, wide to the right. Snow flew, great gouts of it, and there was a whole lot of crashing going on.
The after images were out of this world. I blinked my eyes like some demented owl, trying to clear my vision, trying to figure out how Jack had gotten back into his seat so fast, wondering why his door was closed.
Later, my eidetic memory didn’t help straighten things out one little bit. My brain had shut down; images were simply not processed for a while.
It turned out Jack Hill really had scrambled back into his seat that quickly, figuring getting hit head on inside the armored vehicle was a sight better than getting run over outside of it. Part of the crashing sounds involved the Subaru’s slamming into that steel-cored passenger door, slamming it shut with a vengeance. The steel had held, the outside skin was mashed in, and the latch was crimped somehow; we could travel, but Jack would have to crawl in and out of the driver’s side for a while, or more likely, ride with somebody else.
I figured all that out later. For now, I rolled out, scrambling around the back of the Pontiac, just about falling on my butt, racing to see what was left of Shawn Hicks.
If he was dead already….
He wasn’t, but he wasn’t long for this world, either. The Forester had ended up in a head butting contest with a monster of a pine tree. The tree won. The vehicle was crumpled up pretty good, part of it pinning both of Hicks’ legs to the frozen ground. He was bleeding at a rate nobody was going to be able to stop; Hawkeye from M.A.S.H. would have signed his death certificate on the spot.
Worst of all, for him, was the fact that he was conscious and fully aware of his situation. Yet even with that, when he saw me coming, his eyes went wide, so the dazzling blindness must already be wearing off a bit.
Not that it mattered much. Hicks had other problems.
“Am I in Hell already?” His voice was dry, self deprecating. Some men know how to live well, some know how to die well. It looked like Thaddeus Moore aka Shawn Hicks, corrupt bureaucrat turned attempted murderer and abductor of young women, was one of the latter.
“You ain’t got long,” I told him, kneeling in the snow. He was on his back, his head and shoulders lifted a little, some rock or tree limb or something holding him up a bit.
“I know,” he replied, and he said it without the faintest trace of self pity. He reached out his left hand, and I took it in both of mine.
“Where is she?” I asked, and he gave me directions without hesitating. Then, after a long, shuddering breath that told me how fiercely he was holding off the inevitable with nothing but sheer will, he added, “Let her know I was happy with her, and–” he stopped there for a long moment, coughing up blood, reaching desperately for the strength to add a few more words. He found it, found the power within. Looked me straight in the eye.
“Take good care of her, Tree,” he said, and died.
I was still kneeling there, still holding the now lifeless hand, when B.J. loomed up over my left shoulder. He’d backed the Hudson all the way down to us. Mom had found a place to turn around and would be here shortly.
I didn’t move. Couldn’t. I was frozen as surely as the ice on the road, except for the tears streaming down my face. This Soul had tried to kill me, had kidnaped and done who knows what to Blessing Devonia, had set a fire that did untold damage…but he had manned up at the last, and I knew him, and I grieved.
Jack, thankfully, had overheard the directions Hicks had given, the directions to the place where Blessing was being held. He passed them on to Mom and B.J., and those two went to find her.
When they were gone, Hill squatted beside me in the snow, talking softly, almost as if to himself. “There’s a tow cable and a three ton come along in the wreckage. Reckon if a fellow was to tie off to that tree right over there, we could lift this thing off his legs.”
That got me moving, and he was right. It took us most of an hour to get it done, but we did it, and just in time. Mom’s Jeep came tooling back down the grade, and I could see a black girl riding shotgun, except that she leaped out before the Rubicon had even come to a full stop. She was running flat out through the snow, well dressed for the weather, mukluks a-flying, throwing herself across the corpse of her captor, sobbing her heart out.
“Well,” I murmured to Jack, quietly so no one else would hear, “at least he didn’t go unlamented.”
My emotions were back under control, which was good, ’cause Blessing’s weren’t. Mom and B.J. told us they’d found her in a cabin, washing dishes. She’d been held in a bunker out back at first, but the last few weeks, he’d trusted her enough to bring her out above ground, where she could see out and enjoy the natural daylight and all.
“He even went shopping for me,” she told us later, reverence in her voice.
Once she’d cried herself out–which didn’t take all that long, really–Blessing asked, meekly, if the world had to know about Shawn, what he’d done. We told her some people already knew, including Billy Davis, Sim Bowles, and our inner circle in Montana–but no, it suited our purposes as well as hers to leave the rest of the planet in complete ignorance when it came to Mr. Hicks.
There were bruises on her face, but they were old, nearly faded out. She hadn’t been hit much lately. Maybe she could just show back up in Idaho, claim amnesia. It worked in the movies.
“Thank you.” She responded to our assurances, and you could tell the gratitude came from her heart. Then she took a deep breath, bucking up her courage, and asked one more favor. “I know it’s a big thing, but…could we bury him? There’s a spot upslope from the bunker. We used to go there before the snow came, just sit and talk and stuff. It–it would mean a lot–”
“Sure, honey,” Mom hugged her up, leading her back toward the Jeep. “Let’s go see what’s in the tool shed we can work with. We’ll leave the men to bring Shawn along.”
B. J. shook his head at that, but he was grinning. “Louella always did have a way of getting the men to do the heavy lifting.”
I had a plastic survival tarp in the trunk, a brown one, so we wrapped Shawn’s remains in that after B.J. and Jack helped me get the Pontiac unstuck and we chained up both cars. He’d fully bled out, and the temperature was dropping, so everything was froze up pretty good; he wasn’t going to be dripping on the Hudson’s carpet.
The Hudson? Of course. You think we tried stuffing him in the back seat of a two door Pontiac with one of the doors jammed shut? Get real.
Sure enough, Blessing’s chosen piece of burial ground was frozen, but we were lucky. It was early enough in the season that the frost only went down a few inches, and then it was just ordinary post hole digging, only bigger.
We did the old school thing, put him six feet under, wrapped in the tarp.
Blessing did the speaking over the grave. She brought out her slave chain, collar and all. Wrapped it around and around a low limb on nearby pine tree, with the collar hanging down a bit at one end and the tail end of the chain hanging likewise at the other end.
She bowed her head and folded her hands, and said her words. Her voice was strong and clear.
“Master, you gave me the best two months of my life. It’s doubtful I’ll ever find another like you, but that’s all right. Every time I’m in another man’s arms, it’s your strength, your dominance, your heart, mind, Soul, and body I will be remembering. You are with me always, and I am with you, before and beyond the grave, throughout eternity, forever. I do not know if your Spirit will visit this place often, but I know mine will. My heart will touch the steel I have left on the tree, and I will know your touch as well. I must go now, but thank you. Thank you for owning me. Thank you from all of me.”
With that, she bent, picked up a handful of soft dirt, and sprinkle-tossed it into the grave.
I was the first man to pick up the shovel, murmuring, “May the blessings be,” as I began filling in the hole. I was not far from miss Devonia when I said it, and she reached out her fingertips to brush against the back of my hand, once, lightly, as it wielded the shovel.
Somehow, there were things I knew this day, and things I did not. I knew Blessing would be well received by her employer and lover, Idaho rancher Billy Davis, and his three sons. I did not know how that would work out, long term. I knew that, if possible, we needed to get Billy, not Blessing, into counseling with an eighty year old retired psychologist in Montana. I did not know if it would be possible.
And I knew for the first time, astounded that I’d not thought of it once until now, my mother had felt tearing guilt, the knowledge that an innocent girl had been taken in her place ripping her apart inside. I did not know if Mom would be able to release that guilt now.
Most of all, I knew that Shawn Hicks was not done with me yet. He had laid a charge on me with his dying words, a charge that could not be denied. “Take good care of her, Tree,” he had said. I knew that I would do that, knew that I must do that.
But I did not know how.