It had turned out to be a rough Friday night, but at least I was still alive.
The stomach cramps had started about half an hour after we’d left the restaurant, heading out, figuring to be back home by daylight. By the time I had to pull over on the shoulder to change drivers, putting Jack Hill behind the wheel of the Pontiac, it was clear we weren’t going to make it. Jack poured me a shot of colloidal silver from the flask he always carried in his satchel, just in case we were looking at e. coli or salmonella, but that didn’t seem to help a whole lot.
Neither did the three simethicone pills or the prescription Ranitidine. Don’t ask me where he got the Ranitidine; it wasn’t his. Carolyn West, maybe. She had a stomach issue or two, if I remembered right.
“I’m not exactly dead or anything,” I told my partner, “but it’s feeling like the only thing that’s going to help is going belly down in bed, and we’re a long way from one of those at the moment.”
He disagreed about that last part. “Not really,” he said, turning on the blinker for the next exit, and I groaned in dismay. He wasn’t even discussing it. We were heading to Sim’s place. I’d been ducking my Mom for weeks, still ticked at her for having introduced cowgirl politician Hardesty Collins to her brother, my uncle B. J. I hadn’t figured to stop there this time, either.
Well. The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. Frankly, I was too sick to argue.
At least, neither Sim nor Mom said anything when Jack laid it out for them, just nodded and helped Jack carry in our travel bags. I didn’t waste any time, heading for my old childhood bedroom, stripping down and sacking out without comment. Sure enough, once I was belly down, no pillow, face turned to the left, left knee drawn up nearly to my chin, I was asleep within seconds.
“Daylight in the swamps!”
Sim’s familiar reveille call woke me. How healed was I? Hm. Sit up and see…on a scale of 10, I’d give myself an 8. No cramps, anyway. A little “sick fever feeling” around the edges, but not bad.
The sheets were soaked. I’d sweated something out during the night.
“Had to be food poisoning,” Jack announced cheerfully, forking enough bacon onto his plate to nearly make me cramp up all over again. I definitely wasn’t ready for a hearty meal to start the day.
“How so?” I settled for spearmint tea, which Mom gladly made special for me when I asked–I could see she was pleased that I’d asked. “You and I both had the hamburger steaks. You didn’t get sick. I didn’t have any of those, um, other symptoms we won’t describe at the breakfast table. And besides, it hit me awfully fast for food poisoning. At least, the only other time I can remember anything like that, I didn’t have any symptoms at all until about six hours into it.”
“We did both have the hamburger steaks, Tree. But I had soup. You had a salad, didn’t you? Could have been something in either the produce or the dressing. And didn’t you have a glass of milk, too?”
“As for the other symptoms, the silver likely prevented those. There’s one known strain of e. coli that silver can’t kill, but only one, and it–silver–takes out salmonella on contact. Timing…that can vary.”
“Hm.” Nobody spoke for a while, being occupied with the important task of shoveling food into our mouths. In my case, is was a pretty dainty shovel job; I managed all of one piece of toast and one egg, over hard. Plenty of water, though; I refilled my glass twice. Didn’t want it, particularly, but my morning urine had been such a rich yellow, I could have painted egg yolks with it.
Dehydration was not my friend.
We didn’t hang around too long after the table was cleared, just long enough to engage in a bit of idle chitchat so Mom wouldn’t feel she’d been obviously dissed. Sim was itching to get at his morning chores, anyway. He’d always been like that, and a good thing, too. The man knew how to run a ranch.
“Willie?” I asked after a bit, and Jack nodded. On the Road Again, time to get rolling.
Mom and I hugged before we left. She deserved that much, for the spearmint tea if nothing else.
I took the wheel of the Pontiac. Most of the time, driving heals me, and this was no exception.
As soon as we cleared the driveway, I asked Jack, “Presume you told them we’d been planning on stopping anyway?” Not true, of course.
“Naturally,” he responded. “We sat up and talked for a couple of hours after you racked out, too. Then I hit the living room couch. Didn’t seem like a good idea to sleep in the same bed with you last night. You were snoring worse than I usually do, and every once in a while you’d fire off a fart we could hear clean out in the kitchen.”
“Really. We’d all look at each other and kind of twinkle when we’d hear it, but neither Lou nor Sim is any greenhorn. Them two know getting rid of gas out your ass is better than blowing up till you explode or maybe die. Ask any rancher that’s ever had to shove a trocar into a bloated critter.”
“Good point,” I admitted, but I was still embarrassed. At least a little.
“How you feeling, Tree? Really?”
“Um…nine on a scale of ten. Don’t feel any worse now than when I got up, so that’s good.”
“Good to hear. Wanna hear what we talked about?”
He paused then, looking out his side window, either enjoying the Idaho scenery or gathering his thoughts.
“First thing we talked about, they’re having wolf problems. Sounds like the pack they’re dealing with is ranging mostly around the same area you went hiking in when little rabid Ruby skunk came to die in your arms, back when you were a kid.”
I thought about that. “You know, Jack, I don’t think I like that very much.”
“Neither does Sim Bowles. He’s lost three calves to date. They’ve managed to shoot one of the wolves, but the rest are still there. Apparently, they’re a pretty wily bunch. Denned up somewhere in the high timber, only come out at night to raid the stock. Sim had to pull his herd off the high graze early this year, get ’em down to the winter pastures almost a month before he normally would. They were just too much at risk in the mountains.”
“Hm.” Having grown up on the Bowles ranch, I knew this was serious. “Which means he likely saved some livestock, but also means he’ll have to start slinging hay sooner this winter than he normally would. He’s only got so much carrying capacity in the lower meadows.”
Hill reached one hand up to massage his neck, which had been stiffening up a bit. Nothing serious, he’d assured me; it was a minor irritation that had been with him intermittently for centuries.
“That’s exactly right. He had a good hay crop this year, figures he might have enough in the stacks to make it through, but it’s kind of iffy. I told him just how good a wolf hunter Clark Higgins is, though, and he lit up at that. I’m betting he’ll make our Rodeo Iron Idaho owner an offer he can’t refuse, sooner or later.”
This was all good information, of course, but not what I was interested in hearing. Sim Bowles was perfectly capable of dealing with his own problems. I wanted to know about Mom.
Unsurprisingly, Jack read my mind as he so often did. He hit that part next.
“I worked the conversation around to B. J. and Hardesty as quick as I could do it without seeming obvious. Asked how they were doing with the campaigning. Not that it’s an official campaign yet, but everybody in her District who pays any attention to politics whatsoever knows she’s gunning for a Congressional seat.”
That was worth a grin. “She ain’t exactly subtle.”
“No, she’s not. Nor should she be, if she intends to win. I did hear some stories from your Mom about that woman’s competitive nature. When she was barrel racing, and then later in the cutting horse competitions, seems she made enemies right and left. But…not even her worst enemies could deny she’s one helluva rider and smart as a whip, genius level.”
“I’m skeptical,” I interjected, stating the obvious. “Mom’s one of Hardesty’s Kool Aid drinkers. She would think she was a genius.”
Hill shook his head. “No, it’s more than that. She cited some facts to back up her opinion, your Mom did. Collins may be a real bitch, but she’s a smart bitch. She’s even got it figured out how to sell the Fair Tax Plan to enough people to get that done, only she knows she’s got to be in D.C. to do it.”
“She thinks she can get that done? Eliminate the IRS, eliminate a couple of Constitutional amendments, stand all the good old boys and special interests in Washington on their heads? Really?” If she could do that….
“She believes; that’s for sure.”
“Don’t know, Tree. Your Mom wouldn’t say. But I can tell you this. Lou Jackson didn’t just introduce your uncle to Hardesty Collins. It’s more than that. The two of them are tight–Collins and your Mom, I mean. Your Mom knows what Hardesty has in mind, how she’s intending to rewire the nation’s entire government. Beyond that, she’s not sharing, so as not to jinx anything ahead of time.”
Paradigm shift. My world didn’t exactly turn upside down, but it did tilt on its axis a bit.
“If she can really do that…but it would take two things at the very minimum.”
Hill waited quietly for me to go on, to finish that thought. I had the feeling he was testing me, though the sensation was so subtle that I didn’t consciously pick up on it at the time.
“Power, for one.” I had it now. “She’d have to have incredible power. Not like the Presidency. Real power. Like maybe, down and dirty dirt on the key players. Evidence of Harry Reid being involved in a pornography ring. John Boehner caught on camera dealing drugs. Barack Obama laughing over an open mike about how he’s been scamming the American people and is really working for China. Her hand in all that blackmail couldn’t be seen, though, or they’d take her out, have her assassinated.
“Then, beyond even that, she’d have to have the media in her pocket, like Obama did have before Obamacare started unraveling the way it’s been doing lately.
“Plus, she’d have to have impeccable debate skills, be able to handle anything they threw at her, not get blindsided like Sarah Palin did by Katie Couric.”
“Tree,” Jack put in drily, “I can’t picture Hardesty Collins getting blindsided by anybody. She doesn’t get blindsided. She does the blindsiding.”
I nodded. “Just saying. Then, plus all that, she’d have to have a way to–oh sh*t. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Hill didn’t answer the rhetorical question. He just waited.
“It has to be. Having a giant of a handsome black man at her side, be he campaign manager of whatever, probably won’t help her a bit in Idaho Mormon country–but at the national level, she’s just insulated herself against the race card. A lot of liberal heads will explode, trying to figure how to get around that one.”
Staring straight ahead, down the road, rolling toward Montana, I finally understood. “She needs B.J. If she can get that first Congressional seat, once she’s in and established and making a name for herself in the House, she’ll probably even come out of the closet and marry him.”
“That’s the way I see it, partner.” Jack agreed with my analysis, completely. “How do you feel about that?”
He would have to ask. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue. Hardesty Collins was still the Wicked Witch of the West, but maybe she was our Wicked Witch. It was clear that no la-de-da Mary Poppins type would ever be able to reform our deformed federal government. If Collins could really do that….
Heaving a sigh, pulling my thoughts together, I answered my friend. “I don’t know, Jack. The pitfalls along the way are enormous. We think we have our tracks covered, that even the most intensive investigations will never be able to uncover B.J.’s outlaw past. In that way, Big Jude is an excellent match for this woman. He’s willing to do what it takes to get the job done, he’s comfortable either in the country or the city, having lived most of his life in Hartford, and he’s proven he’s not afraid to tackle new challenges. So it’s possible he can survive what’s coming. But..can she do it? Do you really think she can pull this off?”
Jack shrugged. “Got me. Not enough data. If we had the details she’s keeping close to the vest, maybe I could hazard a guess, but without that…. I got the impression that only a handful of trusted associates have been told the full story, certainly Lou, and no doubt B.J. has been brought into the picture. But they’re not talking, as well they shouldn’t.”
A past life awareness flickered through. “Uh…they don’t have the full story. Not even Mom or B.J. has that.”
“No. I just pulled a memory. One thing that’s always been true about the Soul known in this incarnation as Hardesty Collins…she always holds something back. She never lets anybody in completely, not ever. I don’t know the specifics, but she’d be the kind of ruler who’d have a new castle built with umpteen secret passages, then have the builders killed so only she knew the layout, then have the assassins killed so they couldn’t talk, and so forth.”
“I’ve known a few like that.” Jack chuckled, adding, “Those types have to kill the last killers personally, or there’s no end to it.”
“Exactly.” Something was troubling me…ah. “And one more thing.”
“If this woman does make it to the big time, especially if she someday marries B.J., we’re going to have problems. Reporters and private investigators digging around as deep and wide as they can, including around Trace Nation. And if, or when, that happens–Jack, we’re going to need more insulation around Sissy Harms. She’s our Security Chief now, and a good one, but we can’t afford to let the paparazzi get a picture of her. I know she’s had plastic surgery, and there are no known early photos out there, but….”
“Yeah, kid, you’re right.”
We drove on in silence after that, each preoccupied with his own thoughts. Strangely, that was a good thing, Situation Normal for the two of us, just another day at work. Maybe we weren’t only trouble magnets. Maybe we thrived on trouble, need it to flourish like Obama needs sycophants.
At any rate, I had my appetite back. We’d need to pull off at Dillon, hit the Subway sandwich shop whether my passenger liked it or not.