“I remember her.”
My voice was soft. The memory was not.
We three stood in the dark, in robes and slippers, watching the mammoth riders who’d not lived for thousands of years make their snow-bright hunting procession down through the cut. There were only two this time, two men, two mammoths, and a sadness rode with them. The ending time of the People was near, too few children, too little food, too many enemies.
Their sadness was ours. We comforted each other by our closeness in the chill Montana night, Sissy to my left, Judi to my right. The warrior woman was tall, mere inches shorter than my own six-three height. The petite white girl seemed but half my size, tucked in under my arm, yet no less capable in hard times. We were one, a trio of Souls whose fates had intertwined throughout the millennia, braiding together like the strands of a rope, each one lending strength to the other two.
Judi could not see the people of the mammoth or their massive steeds as clearly as either Sissy or I did, but she caught glimpses, as through fog. She did not doubt.
Neither of them spoke, waiting for me to go on if I chose, or not.
The room was warm, but the Soul I’d remembered was anything but. Deep inside where it counted, she was as cold as the ice over which the mammoths trod. Colder. Dry ice cold. I remembered a science demonstration given by a traveling educator who’d come to our school once when I was in the fourth grade. He’d set up on stage, explaining the magical nature of the steaming gas contained in the cooler.
What that had been, the specifics, my eidetic memory did not tell me. Corky Jessups had hit me in the side of the face with a spitwad just at the moment of explanation, distracted me, and I’d been too embarrassed to ask anybody later. I shouldn’t have been; admitting I’d missed something might have helped the other kids see me as human, not the alien memory machine. They’d already marked me then, feared me in a way, before I’d learned to guard my tongue, to tell others much less than I knew.
The man on stage had held up a room temperature hot dog, shown us how it was bendy and flexible as such things are, then with a heavily gloved hand, he’d dipped most of the dog into the near absolute zero temperature of the container. Seconds later, he’d pulled it up and snapped the hot dog in two. You could hear the -crack!- of it.
He’d done other things, too, dipping a thin rubber nail into the chest, then hammering it into a piece of wood as if it were made of iron, not rubber.
I’d almost missed that part, too. I’d been busy, firing my zip gun back at Corky, nailing him in the neck so hard he yelped and almost got us both in trouble.
The stuff in the chest, the liquid methane or whatever, the stuff that made hot dogs as brittle as glass and rubber as hard as nails…Hardesty Collins was that cold.
“He’s never been able to avoid her,” I murmured. “Nor she him, for that matter, but in the end, he’s always the one who suffers, fire to her ice, thaws her a little from time to time, but eventually his fire is quenched.”
She had the Soul we all knew as B.J. Hennessey in her icy talons. Again.
I heaved a deep sigh. The past life recall was fading, as the mammoth riders were fading. I struggled to hold on, to verbalize all I could before it vanished completely.
“Their past…she’s sacrificed him. Sometimes physically, literally, feeding his heart to the vultures. Sometimes emotionally, leaving him alive but a shattered husk of a man. Or woman, depending on the incarnation…lost it.”
Well. That was then, this was now, and we still had time to crawl back under the covers for another couple of hours. We needed all the sleep we could get. As the newly commissioned sole owner of Rodeo Iron, I was restructuring the business today.
It wouldn’t do to go into that overtired. I needed to be at the top of my game.
We held the meeting in the MMS, the Museum Machine Shed overseen by the tracker. Not all of those present for this get together were members of the inner circle, so of course they remained unaware that the little cabin at the back of the building doubled as a bunker (half inch thick steel inside those walls) and tripled as cover for the entrance to Wolf Cave. But there was room enough in the big building to set up folding tables, folding chairs, and such.
“Folks,” I told the assemblage, “you’ve probably all heard the rumors by now, that my uncle B.J. Hennessey left the business. Those rumors are true. He sold out to me, and that means you only have one boss now–except for those of you who are married, of course.”
It was a stale joke, but there were a few chuckles around the room.
“Now,” I continued, my cheerful delivery belying the possibly problematic nature of what I had to say next, “here’s the deal. You each have a sheet of paper in front of you with a list on it. If you haven’t read it yet, I’ll give you a moment to do so now.”
They’d all looked already. It wouldn’t really take a minute for them to be up to date, except for Wally Jacobs. Wally could weld in his sleep, but he’d never learned to read. The marks on the paper might as well have been Sanskrit for all he knew.
I made a show of reading my own copy, though, just because. Not that I hadn’t memorized it before it was ever put on paper.
RODEO IRON CONSIDERATIONS
1. Growing almost too fast for comfort.
2. Idaho operation likely to produce more sales than Montana in 2014.
3. Could be as many as sixty employees by year end 2014.
4. Shipping costs (steel) getting prohibitive.
“All right.” I pulled everyone’s attention back my way. “This is not simple, but I’ll try to make it understandable. First of all, after consulting with our lawyer in Butte, I’ve set the paperwork in motion to completely change the structure of Rodeo Iron. It was Rodeo Iron LLC, a partnership that originally included Sam Trace as senior partner, before he was killed.
“Then it was just B. J. and me, with him as lead dog.
“But now it’s just me, and the LLC form makes no sense despite what all the so called experts say. So that LLC is being shut down and reset as a Sub S corporation. Which means that me, myself, and I own the whole shebang. I can move faster, with less paperwork, than I could under the LLC format.
“Now.” I leaned forward over the head table, where I was standing, sweeping the group with my eyes. There were 19 of us gathered, a far cry from the early days. “Some of you may not like this next part, once you have a chance to think about it. You’re working for one black man in mostly white cowboy country, and that’s fine. But now you’re going to have another boss, a good looking little white chick. Judi, will you join me, please?”
She did, five feet three, 110 pounds of pure hottie, and sharp as they come.
“Tell ’em, girl.” I relinquished the microphone stand–my voice carried well enough in here, but hers might not have–and sat down for a bit.
She stood there for a moment, twinkling at the assemblage. Only I, and probably Sissy, could see she was nervous. Which she needn’t have been; most of these guys worshiped the ground she walked on. Put her on a fancy palomino, let her ride in the Grand Entry, and she could have won about half the Rodeo Queen contests in the state.
“Well…” she began, her voice carrying after I reached over to turn up the volume on her mike, “my name is Judi Minske, for those of you who don’t really know me yet. Tree has asked me to serve as Vice President of Rodeo Iron Inc., but he’s joking some about me being your boss. Most of my real duties will involve paperwork, keeping you welders paid on time and all that. If the hours don’t look right on your check, you come to me. If there’s a problem with a Workers Compensation claim, like when our insurance carrier tried to deny Walter’s claim last week, saying his injury wasn’t job related, you come to me.
“So, basically,” she grinned, lighting up the place like the sun itself, “whenever things aren’t going right in the paperwork department, I’m the bitch you bitch to.”
That did it. The room erupted in cheers and applause. She’d warmed them up for me, for sure. I was pretty sure all but two or three of the welders would have willingly taken a bullet for my girl right then.
She could call herself the b-word. If anybody else tried it, the guy next to him would likely deliver a knuckle sandwich without further ado.
Sort of like me and the n-word, come to think of it.
“Okay,” I said after thanking Judi. “Now. In a sense, we’re going to get rid of the Idaho operation.”
I let that hang for a few seconds, watching the sudden concern hit the hourly employees. Was I talking about eliminating their jobs?
“Hold on.” I raise a hand to forestall the unspoken protests. “Nobody here is going to lose a dime. We’ve crunched the numbers, and our Montana business alone is going to keep every welder here working his full forty, plus a fair bit of overtime.
“What I said about Idaho…we’re going to franchise. Clark Higgins, as solid a welder as he is, not to mention his wolf hunting prowess, has some other interesting qualifications as well. Most of you likely didn’t know this–he doesn’t go around talking about it–but the man has an MBA in Business Administration from Stanford University. In this economy, as we all know, that’s not particularly surprising…but it does work to our advantage.
“See, Clark has family and roots and connections in Idaho, particularly in the Idaho Falls area, where he’ll be basing. He’ll own his own company, also Rodeo Iron, also a Sub S corporation, but subject to contract provisions with us.
“The details may not matter to most of you here today, but I’m going to share some of them anyway.”
I stopped for a moment, letting the anticipation build while I took a sip of water from the glass Sissy had thoughtfully provided.
“The way we’re setting it up, Clark’s Idaho operation will legally qualify as a separate company despite the franchising. That’s important for two reasons. Namely, Clark will have the freedom to run his operation as he sees fit, subject only to our quality control requirements and certain advertising restrictions–but most importantly, we will also avoid the Obamacare requirement to provide health insurance for companies with more than 50 employees.”
They got it. Every new hire was briefed during the initial interview on the fact that Rodeo Iron never had and never would touch health insurance with a ten foot pole–except for Workers Compensation, which couldn’t be avoided and did make sense.
By the time we were done making our presentations and answering questions, it was 10:00 o’clock. The welders trooped on back to the shop to take their coffee break, hit the restroom, and get back to work.
Sissy, Judi, and I adjourned to the Trace ranch kitchen, where Jennifer and Jack Hill were waiting for us.
“How’d it go?” Jennifer asked the moment we were inside. Wayne Bruce had ridden over with Jack, as it turned out, and chose that moment to pull a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls from the oven. The aroma hit me so hard I started salivating and nearly lost my train of thought.
“About as expected,” I replied. “Judi knocked ’em dead. They weren’t too sure about Sissy as Chief of Security. After all, who ever heard of a small time welding shop in rural Montana needing a security chief? But when Sissy reminded them of Sam Trace having been murdered right on his own ranch, plus the earlier gunfight here, and then Shawn Hicks trying to kill me with a grenade, they settled down pretty well. It’s just that most of them haven’t been here that long; they’d never really put it together.”
Jack Hill added both butter and raspberry jam on top of his cinnamon roll, but he had a question, too. “They understand the need to report anything that seems off, or out of place?”
I let Sissy take this one. After all, it was her job. “I think so. I tried to make it clear we were not asking them to snitch on each other, while at the same time reminding them we’d had one welder–Hicks–who put out some decent iron, seemed as normal as could be, except that looking back, there were clues. I got them to laugh a little when I said, hey, we’re just saying, if you notice a guy’s carrying around a howitzer in his truck and not just a hunting rifle, that might be a subtle clue.”
We settled in to coffee up and please the gay man by devouring his cinnamon rolls. The fellow really could cook. He could eat, too, and downed three of his own offerings.
What we weren’t saying, because it had been said before, was that we had ulterior motives beyond avoiding Obamacare in shipping Clark Higgins back to his old Idaho stomping grounds. The man was too sharp to hang around Trace Nation forever without figuring out secrets we didn’t care to share. Our Gang of Eight trusted each other with our lives, literally, all of us except Carolyn West having seen combat on this land. Old Horace the tracker with his steel pinned leg, widow Jennifer Trace, 250 year old Jack Hill, the surprising gay warrior Wayne Bruce, Judi, Sissy, and me.
We did not plan on expanding the group.
Besides, we didn’t fully trust the Idaho business, either. It hadn’t taken much thinking to realize B.J.’s unbelievable sales numbers in Idaho, when he was rounding up all those customers for us before jumping ship, could not have been produced by any one man walking in doors and asking for the business. Cowgirl politician Hardesty Collins had gifted him, sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. She’d put out the word: My friend B. J. Hennessey sells steel fence panels and miniature corral sets for the kids at Christmas time. Cut him a check; I’d appreciate it.
In her circles, favors given beget favors received. The woman had her hooks in my uncle; I had no intention of letting her get those same hooks too deeply into Rodeo Iron.
Prior to the restructuring meeting, we’d made a list of advantages in setting up the Idaho franchise.
RODEO IRON (IDAHO) ADVANTAGES
1. It gets Clark Higgins out of our hair without raising suspicions.
2. Franchise “fee” (2% of Rodeo Iron Idaho’s gross sales) is enough to give us a profit on that business as well, without us having to do all that much to support it. (Occasional surprise visits to keep them on their toes, advertising support, an operations manual, but overall, not that much.)
3. If Idaho business suddenly disappears (Collins decides to tell her “friends” to place their business elsewhere because she and B.J. are no longer an item), too bad so sad for Clark, but we won’t feel the pain that much in Montana–oh, and guess what, Clark, no, sorry, we don’t need any more welders here right now….
4. If this franchise worked out, we might expand the concept to other states, or even to other areas within a single state, like Montana. A second Rodeo Iron operation based in Billings, or maybe even farther east, like Glendive, could have some real benefits.
5. Clark knew a steel supplier in Idaho Falls, and another one in Boise. Purchasing negotiations with one or both of them should (over time) save thousands of miles worth of shipping on many tons of steel. The potential cost savings were enormous.
6. By sticking to an “Idaho only” customer base, the Higgins operation should never need more than 35 employees at most, easily avoiding the Obamacare threshold.
Obamacare, the disaster that keeps on disastering. Senator Max Baucus had called it when he’d described it as a train wreck. Just yesterday, I’d heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio, chortling over the fact that the first day the dysfunctional government website opened for business, more than 4 point 3 million people visited the site…and exactly 6 signed up. Six. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Six. Out of 4.3 million people who at least tried to take a look.
There was no list for “disadvantages” for the franchising because there were no disadvantages, at least that we could see up front. However, there was one advantage I hadn’t put down on paper.
It would give me an excuse to mostly stay out of Idaho.
Oh, I’d need to drop in every now and then, inspect the Idaho franchise operation, take Judi with me and have her go over the books. But it wouldn’t be like having to make the sales call rounds. If I’d had to do that, I’d have needed to spend at least a third of my time in Idaho…and it would have been difficult to avoid visiting my Mom on a regular basis.
Right now, I did not want to visit my Mom. I didn’t want to see her, and even talking to her on the phone–which happened every once in a while whether I liked it or not–was a strain.
See, I was really not very happy with the woman who gave me birth. Not right at the moment. My irritation and disgust would fade someday, but for now it was hard, since we’d found out it was Louella Jackson, my very own mother, who’d introduced Hardesty Collins to B.J. Hennessey in the first place.