Note to our regular readers: When I moved everything over to my site (here) from HubPages, I apparently lost a chapter of this series along the way, hit Delete over at HP before getting it copied and pasted or something. At any rate, I can’t seem to locate the part where Treemin Jackson and Jack Hill discover the “back door” to Wolf Cave, the entrance that comes out in Sam’s Hollow.
Fortunately, the map of that cave was backed up, still residing in my computer photo library. So this chapter will cover that discovery–but it won’t be the same, because that was written months ago. Quite frankly, not having Tree’s eidetic memory, I don’t recall the exact wording (by a long shot). Besides, there’s plenty of new material to be included.
Whenever a lack of immediate crises allowed, Jack Hill and I’d gotten back to further exploration of Wolf Cave. We’d blasted through the tight spot and eyeballed the long passage that opened up before us, but then Life–and near death, especially in the form of a grenade thrown by one Shawn Hicks–had intervened.
For a while, we’d figured we’d have to go wolf hunting every now and then, but old Horace caught a break. One of our new hires, a welder by the name of Clark Higgins, turned out to be an avid and experienced wolf hunter. Wolf season was open, had been from September 15 and would be till March 15. A couple of the other guys were novices, but more than willing to tag along with Clark and the old tracker on Sundays.
Between the four men, they had tags enough to keep shooting for a while, and thanks to the wild country abilities of Horace and Clark, never mind all the Lewis and Clark jokes, they’d already bagged three of the furry predators.
“They look to be getting the message,” Horace informed us. “The wolves, I mean. All the sign we could find on our last hunting jaunt tells me the survivors of the pack have pulled up stakes, back into the Bob Marshall. My gut’s telling me they won’t be back for a while.”
We were conferencing in Jennifer Trace’s ranch kitchen on a Saturday morning, sitting around the table, catching up on everything and planning out the coming week’s work. Jack Hill was busy at home, some leather crafting project, and B.J. was off in Idaho as usual, so that left just me, Horace, and the widow Trace herself to do the honors.
Except that Judi was working in the next room, inputting data on the computer. She could hear us but was mostly focusing on her keyboard.
“Sounds like these wolves are acting almost normal. Not like the war wolf mutation pack we had to deal with last go-round.” This from Jennifer, who had her glasses on, studying a livestock price report. She had several dozen old cows to cull, plus a number of broncs that hadn’t worked out as rodeo stock, and it paid to know the market before she made her move.
“I agree.” The old tracker nodded, kneading his leg while he talked. The steel pins gave him fits sometimes, warning of incoming bad weather and all that. He could sit a horse all right, though. Get him in the saddle, let his favorite sorrel serve as his legs, and he was still in business.
Something occurred to me. “Reckon the remains of the WMI pack maybe interbred with another bunch that didn’t have any human DNA grafted into them, sort of diluted down the problem?”
None of us were certain about that, but Horace had salvaged enough meat, hide, and hair from the kills to make up a nice little package for Jack and me, the next time we made a Missoula run. Our contacts through the Half Castle could give us a definitive answer.
No matter what the DNA said, though, it was all good news. I could get back to spelunking a bit.
On Sunday, we made the big discovery.
Jack owned an old surveyor’s transit, along with rod, tape, level, and various other tools of the trade. He was initiating me in the ancient craft, so his rough sketch of the hidden underground redoubt, along with copious notes, would soon enough be transformed into a detailed map.
We weren’t surveying this morning, though, just scoping out the situation. Our miner’s lights led us down a branch that squeezed mostly shut some 48 feet north–mostly north, anyway–from the main tunnel. One more dead end, at least for now, but we were not the least bit discouraged. We’d felt we were truly onto something the moment we’d blasted through to this area; that feeling had not left us.
Continuing on, slow and easy because you don’t rush cave exploration if you’ve a brain in your head, we found the second entrance some 197 feet from the blast site. The back door. It wasn’t a big doorway, but we could squeeze through…and we wouldn’t have to do a thing to disguise its presence.
The entrance was high up in a steep rock face, but not a bare face. The rock was cracked a bit here and there, just enough that a thick copse of juniper trees had been able to force roots down into place and find sustenance.
“Where the heck is this place?” Jack wondered.
I eased forward through the trees, not an easy task, and peered out. Below us, a sizeable hollow fell away, good grass along the bottom, a spring in a grove of cottonwoods on the other side.
“Sam’s Hollow.” Sam Trace, prior to his death, had used this hollow as a holding area every summer for young bulls he was planning to sell. “Never seen it from this angle, this high up on the west slope, but it’s Sam’s Hollow, all right.”
“Ah. We’ve come straight through under the ridge, then, wouldn’t you say?”
It wasn’t quite noon, but we found places to settle our butts anyway, just inside the cave but where we could see out, admiring all those junipers that provided such excellent natural concealment.
“It’s no wonder this entrance has never been found before,” I observed, opening my lunch box and fishing out a chicken salad sandwich. “Nobody in their right mind would want to scramble up that slope and then fight all the way through these junipers. In winter it’s cold and slick; any other time, there are ticks.”
“Sounds right,” my partner agreed. Wayne Bruce had fixed the ancient Protector’s lunch, and Jack was admiring a container of baked beans with lust in his eyes, fishing around for a plastic spoon so he could dig in.
We did some of the surveying that afternoon, enough to make sure Jack’s rough sketch wouldn’t be too far off, but our hearts weren’t really in it. Frankly, we couldn’t wait to get back and tell the others.
When we exited the cave through the secret door in Horace’s guard cabin, we were surprised to find the old tracker seated on his bunk, applying a coat of neatsfoot oil to his saddle.
“What’s up, Horace?” I had to ask. “Leg bothering you too much to work with the colt?”
Which he’d been doing every Sunday afternoon for a while; this change in his routine had to mean something.
He didn’t answer us directly. “You boys might want to wash up before heading out through the machine shop,” he advised. “And maybe brush the dirt out of your clothes. And leave your lunch boxes here with me for a little bit.”
We cocked an eyebrow or two at that, but we didn’t say anything more, just set about doing what he’d recommended. Our Portal Guardian is no fool; if he wanted us exiting this place looking like we’d been anywhere but underground, he had a reason.
I could have pushed him, of course, but what’s the fun in that? Or the honor, for that matter.
When we were ready, it didn’t take long to find out, anyway. Uncle B.J.’s 1946 Hudson was parked, not at the shop or his place, but up at the main house. He was with Jennifer, then, we figured.
We were right, but when we stepped into the kitchen, we saw why Horace had warned us. There wouldn’t be any cave talk for a while. B.J. had come home, all right, but he’d brought his new woman with him–and we could see at a glance this was not a lady we’d be sharing our Trace Nation secrets with any time soon.
She exuded money, for one thing. Ranch raised and rodeo bred, I thought, but not no barbed wire and rattlesnake infested outfit. Not her. This one was dressed to the nines. Her hat, hanging with the others on the hat rack, was a soft dove gray, looked like it probably cost a thousand or more. It didn’t get any cheaper moving on down, either. If that Rolex on her wrist wasn’t real, I’d eat wolf droppings. The rodeo trophy buckle on her belt, if she’d won it and not bought the thing, had to weigh a couple pounds of sterling silver and gold plate. Shirt and jeans? Custom tailored, without a doubt, framing an hourglass figure that radiated athleticism.
Who’d done up her boots, I had no idea, but they probably cost more than the entire rest of the outfit put together.
Five-six at a guess, 140 pounds of curves and muscle. Dark hair to her shoulders, snub nose, eyes like an eagle, able to see right through a man from a mile away.
Age? Between 35 and 40 at a guess, though when it comes to the ages of women with cash to burn, guesses are just that.
“Gentlemen,” B.J. bounced up, beaming like somebody’d stuck a halogen searchlight up his butt, “meet Hardesty Collins. Hardesty, this handsome young buck is Treemin Jackson, and the older fellow goes by the name of Jack Hill.”
Quite a bouncy introduction. Big Jude was smitten, all right, and by a rich white chick at that. Two firsts for the big dog, rich and white. I’d never seen him hook up with either one before.
“Call me Tree,” I said, getting in first, before the lady could spit anything out. She was polished; I’ll say that much. Rose from her chair, shook my hand with a grip that said, yep, a looker and a rich bitch, but she’d won that buckle. There was rodeo steel in that grip.
She twinkled, too. “Tree it is. Call me Hardy.”
Hardy? As in the Hardy brothers, or as in har-de-har-har?
I didn’t have time to process that right then, though. She and Jack were going through the motions. I could see the Protector slipping into one of his modes, too, not letting this woman see too deep into him. He’d be “just an old man” to her, bet your bottom dollar.
He’d seen something in her, then, something that made him wary. So had I.
Uncle, I thought to myself, mental shields up and locked just in case this female was a mind reader as some of them are, what have you gone and done now?
“Do you want to fill them in, honey, or shall I?” He asked the question with a touch of deference. She had her hooks into him good.
“You go ahead, sweetheart.” She smiled, and it was a smile that could have won pageants, maybe had done so in the past, a smile like that of the barracuda lurking deep in still waters.
Jennifer Trace was keeping quiet, getting out plates for the peanut butter cookies just coming out of the oven. She caught my eye, though, just for a second, and we shared a look.
Except for the lovesick big man, Trace Nation was uniformly on guard, one hundred percent.
“Well, let’s see,” B.J. began. “Hardy is from Burley, Idaho, but a few generations ago, her family made it big in silver, investing in some of the mines around the Wallace area. They poured their profits into a number of different ventures around the states, potato farms and cattle ranches, and–” He stopped himself, as if he’d been about to add something we weren’t supposed to hear.
Hardy Collins let loose with a laugh that didn’t quite bray, but close enough to it to send chills running up and down my spine. That laugh just didn’t fit the rest of her at all. “Oh, go ahead and tell them!”
“Uh…potato farms and cattle ranches and, uh, at one time, uh, a couple of the famous Wallace whorehouses.”
B.J. was being sensitive about whorehouses? Oh. Right. He’d put this woman up on a pedestal. Men, I realized suddenly, can be such idiots.
“Well, uh, long story short, Hardy grew up on a ranch near Pocatello, started rodeo contesting when she was fifteen, pretty good on the barrels, but her greatest passion is cutting horses.”
Where was this heading? I did wonder.
“So…she’s been pretty civic minded all her life, too, and, uh, entered public service for the first time in her early twenties, got herself elected mayor of a town so small it’s not even on the map. Since then, she’s been working her way up, did one stint as a County Supervisor, hated that.”
Wait a sec. This wily eagle eyed witch of a rich cowgirl was a politician?
Oh, that did explain what Jennifer and Jack and I were feeling here. If there’s one thing our hackles can sense a mile away, it’s a politician.
This was, in my considered opinion, definitely not good. As far as I was concerned, my beloved uncle might as well have brought in a live diamondback rattlesnake and dropped it in the middle of the kitchen table.
Idaho. Politicians. Wasn’t Idaho where Senator Larry Craig went down in flames, some years back?
I missed something, tuning out like that, but got my awareness back in gear just in time to hear the punch line.
“So, Hardy has decided to take a crack at Mike Crapo’s Senate seat in 2016, and she’s going to start her campaign now. Except nobody will know it’s a campaign until the time is right. Between now and then, she’s commissioned Rodeo Iron to weld her up…this.”
He pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his briefcase, laid it on the table, unfolded it, and…
…and we were looking at a very good artist’s sketch of a cowgirl on a cutting horse, facing down a longhorn steer that was clearly determined to go its own way. The model for the cowgirl had clearly been Hardesty Collins. An overhead banner announced,
CUTTING OUR MAVERICK GOVERNMENT DOWN TO SIZE
Below the action, another banner provided a phone number to call…and that was it.
“You want us to copy this, work it up in the shop?” I asked mildly. Inside, I was seething. Getting involved with a politician couldn’t possibly turn out to be a good thing. It was bound to turn the eye of the media our way, sooner or later. That was the last thing we needed. We’d survived by being sneaky, pulling off some truly outlaw stunts, and now….
Of course, Presidents seem to get away with that sort of thing–sometimes, anyway. Obama certainly seemed to be pulling it off.
But us? Not so much. We weren’t liberals, for one thing; the media was not and never would be our friend. What was Mormon Country going to say when they figured out their LDS white bread rich b*tch was banging a big black dude? A big black dude who was definitely not a Mormon.
Unless…the thought hit me like a thunderbolt. Could it be? Could Big Jude be so head over heels that he would convert?
He might. He might at that. Not because he believed, but because this broad had him by the balls, all the way.
Elder Jude. I couldn’t imagine it, and yet, grotesquely, I could. Big Jude doing his mission, knocking on doors, terrifying little old ladies with his booming voice and the Book of Mormon.
Maybe I was overreacting. Let’s hope so.
“This will run,” Collins was saying, “accompanied by the following text read on half of the ads by B.J., and half by me.” She passed out flyers. Jennifer joined us at the table; we all read silently for a moment.
“To term our current federal government a maverick is no compliment. It’s out of control. We need to cut unnecessary programs out of the herd, cull those leaders who will not lead, put the people’s brand on the people’s representatives once and for all. We have some ideas on how to do that, and we know you do, too. Give us a call.”
I decided to play Devil’s advocate, just a little. “Interesting,” I admitted, “but it doesn’t say, ‘I’m Hardesty Collins and I approved this ad’, does it? Or am I missing something?”
That’s when I realized she might have charisma, she might have those eagle eyes and that steel grip, but she couldn’t read me one damn bit. She bought my innocent act.
“Oh, no, Tree,” she smiled her barracuda smile, “you didn’t miss anything. See, it doesn’t identify me directly, or say that I approved the ad, because I’m not officially campaigning yet. For now, all of the ads will come out of my own pocket. At this point, I’m just a private citizen airing my concerns and inviting my Idaho friends to call up so we can chit-chat about ideas to, you know, fix Washington.”
“Ah.” I let that out as admiringly as I could. “So…when you do run, Hardy, have you picked out an opponent yet?”
She laughed again. “Oh, that’s rich! Of course I’ve picked out an opponent. I shouldn’t share this yet, but what the hey, B.J. knows, so–I’ll be running in the primary election against U.S. Senator Mike Crapo in 2016.”
I furrowed my brow, remembering Mom’s lessons on Idaho politics. “Uh…hasn’t Crapo been winning his elections by something like a gazillion percent or so?”
“You do know your politics!” She beamed for real that time, and I felt the pull of her personality, trying to reel me in. For a few seconds, I went with the flow, wanting to know the feel of it, the feel of the power she used to dazzle my uncle. Not all the way; I was not attracted to her sexually.
In fact, I’d rather have mated with a startled porcupine.
She did have at least a bit of method to her madness, though. “You’d normally be right on about Mike,” she explained, “except that was then and this is now. This year, he’s got a DUI on his record, after swearing publicly that he never used alcohol because of the LDS teachings. That’s the first crack in his armor, but in Idaho, it’s a big one. And I have…other information on the gentleman, which will be put to use at the right time.”
Hm. Did she, or did she not? Only the woman herself knew for sure, and I had an idea her poker playing skills were exemplary.
Right at that moment, Big Jude yanked the rug out from under all of us. He looked me right in the eye, calm and sure, happy and contented, not one glimmer of doubt or guilt to be seen, and announced, “I’m leaving Rodeo Iron, Tree.”
“You what?!” I spilled my coffee, right in my lap. Didn’t even notice.
“I’m pulling out. I’ve got the new customers squared away; you can easily handle them. Maybe not yourself, but hire an Idaho salesman; there are a lot of good men out of work, even there.”
“But–you’re the majority partner. How–”
“I’ll sell out to you, Tree. Make you an offer you can’t resist. I’ve crunched the numbers; it’s a good deal for you.”
I stared at him, poleaxed. “I’m sure it is, but–”
He held up one huge, meaty hand. “No buts. You can do this, and I need to do this. Hardy wants me to be her campaign manager, and I’ve accepted. I won’t have that title officially, of course, till there’s an official campaign.”
“So.” I stalled for time, struggling furiously to get my thoughts in order, finally realizing my jeans were soaked and I was next thing to scalded, but that could wait. “When are you leaving for Burley?”
“As soon as I can pack,” he replied, “and we have the paperwork signed. We hope to be on the way out, back down to the pavement by dark.”
And so it was.
Jack and Jennifer and I stood side by side by side at the picture window, watching them go. The rest of B.J.’s stuff, what he couldn’t fit in the Hudson, we’d have to have shipped down to him as soon as possible.
I damn sure wasn’t delivering it personally.
“What do you think, Tree?” Jennifer asked. “He’s your uncle. Is there any chance he’ll slip, let out some of our secrets?”
“Let me ponder that for a moment,” I replied, and I pondered. “No, I don’t believe so. Most men, yes. B.J., though, he grew up in a hard school, back in Connecticut. I’ve never seen him fail to keep a secret yet.”
Jennifer nodded, accepting. Good Lord, our entire existence was built on secrets.
True, my inner voice pointed out, but so is D.C. This might actually work out for him. I tried to believe that, tried for optimism. Missed by a mile. At least, he’d be able to see my Mom more often, living in Idaho.
Or would he? Married, shacked up, or single, B.J. had always seemed like a free man to me…until today. That woman had enslaved him as surely as our ancestors had been brought over on the ships from Africa, and I could picture no scenario where this ended well.