Thanksgiving Day dawned on a morning that was mostly sunny and, for a change, free of life and death crises. Just before sunrise, the thermometer had shown 26 degrees, but by the time we wandered over to Jack Hill’s house around eleven a.m., it was closer to 40, mostly sunny, just one fine, beautiful high country winter day.
Wayne Bruce and Carolyn West were hustle-bustling in the kitchen, getting all the fixings ready to go with the oversized turkey currently crowding the oven. Rancher Jennifer Trace and old Horace the tracker had been invited to partake but had declined.
“We’ve got a turkey in the Oval Office,” Jennifer had pointed out. “We don’t need another one at the dinner table.”
Instead, she and the ranch cook were putting on a buffalo chili feed for the hands, and these days, where Jennifer went, Horace went. It wasn’t a romantic arrangement, or at least we didn’t think so, but the man who’d survived the first Morse Code gunfight and helped her late husband save her life…well, he didn’t much trust this latest aura of peace and quiet.
Nobody was getting at the widow Trace’s back on Horace’s watch, and they’d best not be trying to get at her front, either.
Judi rolled up her sleeves and started peeling potatoes, but the cooks of the day seemed more than willing to get rid of Sissy and me for a while. “Jack’s out back,” Carolyn announced, and away we went.
When we turned the corner, an interesting sight greeted our eyes. Maybe Sissy had seen this before, back when she was Hill’s lover instead of mine, but I’d never been around this side of the house. It was clear back there for a fair distance, no trees or brush, nothing but winter-dead native short grass. The ancient Protector was throwing knives at man-torso shaped wooden boards he’d nailed to a trio of fence posts. He knew we were there, but it didn’t seem like the time to be running our mouths, so we just leaned up against the building and watched for a while.
He was positioned maybe 20 feet or so from the target boards, close to the usual quick draw pistol combat shooting distance. I thought he was pretty good–better than I’d been as a kid trying the same thing on the Bowles ranch in Idaho, anyway–but he wasn’t perfect. Of the six throwing knives in the quiver that hung from his belt, only one had hit the bullseye painted on the left hand target. The rest were kind of all over the place, and one had missed the center target altogether.
Jack had to go fish that one out of the snow.
“Not bad for an old fart,” I observed.
Beside me, Sissy snickered. “Tree, didn’t you notice?”
“Notice what?” I had an idea I’d just stuck my foot in my mouth, but no clue how.
“He threw those left handed.”
Hill was in high good humor. Once he’d gathered up all six blades and returned to his starting point, he asked, “Care to give it a try?”
“Uh…sure.” Hey, my manly reputation was on the line now. “But first…would you mind throwing a few with your right hand? You know, just so I know what I’m up against?”
Jack and my girl exchanged a look. He shrugged. “Sure.”
And then…damn. You know all those knife throwing videos out there on YouTube? I’ve looked at a few of them, but even the so called experts were nothing compared to old Jack when he got going. First, he reworked the quiver so it hung on the other side; he apparently preferred to bring the weapons out from a crossdraw position.
One second he was walking along as if he was out there among ’em somewhere. You could see the scene he was projecting when he suddently became aware of the enemies off to his right. The first knife was thrown with a backhand motion as he was spinning toward his “attackers”. The second was delivered from the quiver to his right hand by his left hand, thrown overhand. Later, when I took the time to rerun the sequence via my eidetic memory, it was clear he delivered a couple of throws underhand and at least one with a sidearm motion. -Thwack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack! Just that fast, two blade tips buried in each of the three targets, not one of them failing to at least touch the edge of the ten ring.
“Damn!” I breathed the word in awe, almost in reverence. I wasn’t sure I could do that much with my Walther .22.
“Three point eight seconds.” Sissy was grinning, holding a stopwatch. Where had she gotten that?
It went downhill from there. We practiced for the full two hours it took till Judi came out to tell us dinner was ready. During that time, I managed to look really, really bad, sticking a knife cleanly about once in every ten tries. Maybe fifteen tries. Worst of all, Sissy was almost as good a knife tosser as Jack, though her fastest time to deliver six of the blades to their targets never dropped under six seconds flat.
Jack clapped me on the back as we headed in to wash up. “Not bad for a green kid,” he stated solemnly.
“Reckon I pretty much walked into that one.” I was feeling a little sheepish. Even if I could find the time to practice every day–which I couldn’t–it seemed highly unlikely I’d ever get good enough to try throwing left handed.
“Don’t feel bad, Tree,” he advised. “It’s just the Groundhog Day effect.”
“The Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day.”
“Ri-ight. That came out in…’93, I think it was. You’d have been, what, five years old or so? Guess that counts as being before your time. Well, in that movie, Bill Murray’s character is a nasty piece of work, a TV broadcaster with an ego the size of Texas and a pissy personality. He goes out one February–the station forces him to go–to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover Groundhog Day. Will the groundhog see his shadow or not, right? But he winds up caught in a time loop, forced to repeat the same day over and over again. He’s the only character aware of this. He goes nuts, indulges himself, goes the other way, tries suicide, but finally, when nothing else works, starts to take stock, become a better person.”
“Oh.” I remembered now. “Mom rented the video once. Didn’t Murray’s character, like, learn to play the piano really, really well, ’cause, you know, he had nothing but time on his hands?”
“Exactly.” Jack nodded. “One of the things that eventually dawned on me after I realized I was living longer than most folks was that I’d best keep learning along the way. I started throwing left handed about eight, nine years ago. Not regularly, just whenever I had the time. But the right handed throwing, that started when I was a kid. Heck, a rural southern youngster in the 1850’s who didn’t toss a knife or two would have been marked out as a gay blade or some such, if you know what I mean.”
That was worth thinking about. “How long…do you have any idea how many total hours of practice went into it before you could sling steel like you do now?”
“Hm. I never really tried adding it up, but, let me think…maybe…a thousand hours, give or take. I’m not sure how many throws that works out to be.”
Whoa. “A thousand–”
“That’s just a guess, based on an average of 70 hours per year for each of the last 150 years. You can learn a lot when time is no object.”
“Dinner’s on the table,” Wayne Bruce announced a bit curtly, cutting into our conversation, “just in case you’re interested in eating something before it gets cold.”
We were interested, all right. Jack even said grace, at least his version of it.
“Here’s the potatoes and there’s the meat. Pass the gravy; let’s shut up and eat.”
Which we did.
Stuffed to the gills and beyond, we settled in to watch the football game. Most of us favored the Raiders; only Carolyn and Judi wanted the Cowboys to win.
Not that any of us were obsessed with the big boys getting paid obscene sums to play with their little pigskin toy. Mostly, the game was an excuse to kick back, sip coffee or high fructose corn syrup cola, cram extra helpings of dessert down our throats that at least tasted better than Obamacare, and shoot the breeze. Rodeo Iron wasn’t quite as stern a taskmaster as the rodeo broncs and bulls dominating the Trace ranch operation, but it was devilish enough; there were few opportunities to simply loll around, enjoying each other’s company as the family we’d truly become, doing nothing but enjoying the day.
Something was bugging me, though. I mentioned it during a commercial.
“Jack, you said the other day, we needed to talk about investing. Would this be a good time for you to clarify that?”
“Good as any.” He belched thunderously, earning a raised eyebrow from Wayne Bruce but no acknowledgement whatsoever from anyone else. “Your Rodeo Iron operation is moving into the black, Tree. You may not be able to see it now, but if things keep going the way they’re projected, in both Montana and Idaho, you’re going to find yourself with excess income on your hands.”
“Excess income?” I frowned. “Didn’t know there was any such a thing.”
“You will. Let’s say you end up around midyear with half a million cash in your corporate account–”
I busted out laughing. “That’ll be the day!”
“Exactly.” He nodded, and I could see he was serious. “It very well could be the day. And if that does happen, what do you do with that money? You going to want to let it sit right there until Uncle Sam gets his cut the following April, just tempting trouble, or do you want to shift it a bit?”
Okay. I quit laughing. “You have some ideas about that, Jack?”
“Maybe.” He held out his coffee cup for a refill; Sissy had just brought a fresh pot into the living room and was making the rounds. “I can certainly mention a few things you probably won’t want to do.”
“Like leave it all in the bank and trust the banks as well as the government not to steal it or shut it down, for one thing. For another, never hire anybody to manage it for you; that’s the way people like Willie Nelson wind up with an accountant skipping off to South America and the IRS taking everything they’ve got. Also, holding cash under the mattress or burying it up in the woods in a coffee can is fine for the short term but no good for longer periods of time because the feds keep changing the bills just to screw that up. And also, a bit of gold or silver, or both, is a good thing, but not too much ’cause this government has shut down private ownership of gold before.”
“Huh.” I steepled my fingers, thinking. “Bet you’ve had to really think about this sort of thing a lot, haven’t you, Jack? That is, what with you living for centuries and all. You’d need to figure out how to pass your own assets on to yourself in each new identity….”
He nodded. “True that. I’ve had several close calls, too, identity changes where I had to abandon most of what I’d built up and simply start over from scratch. Which brings me to the one suggestion I can make without reservation.”
“And that would be?”
“Invest in yourself, Tree.”
“If and when you get that excess money? That part that’s not being held for taxes or capital improvements? Use at least some of it to continually upgrade your knowledge and your skills.”
That made me grin. “Like buying a really good set of throwing knives and targets?”
“You laugh.” His gaze, delivered above a steaming coffee mug, was serious. “But that skill got me back on my feet once already. During the Great Depression, I got caught in the middle, like so many men did before World War II came along. Dead broke, not the first time nor the last, but the only time where I simply could not find any work that paid worth beans. So, about half starved to death and ready for new ideas, I rounded up a little bunch of people just as desperate as I was. Jenks, Hag, Thomas, and Gwen, three men and one woman. Or I should say, two men, one boy, one girl. Thomas wasn’t but sixteen and his sister a couple of years younger than that. He was a strapping young buck, though, strong as Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, and Gwen had flowered early; she was a pure dee knockout. Only her bother’s size, and his aggression, had kept her from being raped on the road.
“Jenks was what they might call an idiot savant today; the lights were on but nobody was home except for one thing. He could play a banjo that made Flatt and Scruggs look second rate. He’d been trying to survive on music gigs, just going from town to town, but nobody had much money to throw his way, and good as he was, the folks weren’t often willing to part with their hard earned coin just to see another banjo picker all by himself. Plus, people took advantage of him, too.
“Hag, he was a bigmouth and a drunk, the least reliable of our bunch and the most dangerous to be around because of that, but he was a born showman. Couldn’t sing a lick, but he could narrate a story as long as he had a script to go by.
“Anyway, we all met up one night in a hobo jungle in the Midwest somewhere–don’t ask me where; I’m not even sure I could tell you which state and get it right. But I’d kind of hooked up with the kids first, mostly ’cause I seen ol’ Hag eyeballing the young girl and Thomas getting ready to pound him for it.”
He paused as Judi brought in pieces of cherry pie to tempt us. Jack took one gratefully. He might be centuries old, but the man could still eat.
I didn’t rush him. In fact, I was picturing the setting, campfire flames under a kettle of mulligan stew, dozens of beaten down men and one young fox of a female, plus old Jack–he’d have been old even then. The tension building as the worst drunk among them began openly eyeballing the beauty in their midst….
Jack finished his pie before taking up the tale once again.
“I could see push was gonna come to shove, one way or the other, and it finally did. Hag started to make his move, weaving a bit. Thomas come out of this crouch he’d been in, just waiting to pound the boozer who’d sully his sister’s honor, but there were guys lining up behind Hag. I mean, Tree, you could see the lust bouncing off their eyeballs, reflected from the firelight. A couple of them were kind of drifting off to the side, getting ready to flank the boy, big and tough as he was, and I could see there was not only rape, but murder about to be done.
“So I stood up my own self, from where I’d been squatting near the youngsters, and stepped between Thomas and Hag. I knew their names, or at least the names they’d given, so that helped. ‘Hag,’ I told the drunk, ‘you’re under a misapprehension.’ Now, that was way too big a word for this guy. There were college graduates in that hobo jungle that night, but Hag wasn’t one of ’em. He looked confused for a second there, which was what I was going for. Then I told him, ‘See, you can’t just tackle the kids right off like that. They’re too dangerous, professional killers from the Russian steppes, so they hire me to handle their light stuff. You gotta go through me first. If you can get through me, then you have the right to get yourself killed by Thomas. That is, if Gwen don’t take out your throat first.’ That’s what I told ’em, and I thought I was gonna get away with it for a bit there.”
“You had them all off balance?” I spoke to Jack, but my attention strayed to the TV screen for a moment. I couldn’t tell if a Raider had given a Cowboy a cheap shot or the other way around, but there were flags all over the field. Not that I had any idea what quarter it might be, or the score.
“I did. Enough that them two who’d been moving to sneak up on the kids thought better of it. Thomas wasn’t stupid. Neither was his sis. They’d spotted the sneaks, and with me handling business up front, so to speak, the big kid felt free to face ’em directly. They melted right back into the shadows, they did.
“But not ol’ Hag. He’d truly gone beyond the point of no return, thanks mostly to the rotgut he’d found to fuel his little binge. He snarled something about my ancestry and lunged at me. Had a knife in his right hand, too, figured to gut me proper and be done with it. I hadn’t yet downed my mulligan, though, so I flung the contents square in his face as he was coming in low. That stew was till next thing to boiling hot–which is why I’d been letting it cool a bit. Scalded him pretty good. Pretty quick, I’d gotten his knife from him. Offered to give him a free tracheotomy if he didn’t settle down. He didn’t know what that big word was, either, but the blade against his windpipe, dull as it was, spoke a clear enough language.
“So naturally,” Jack shrugged expressively, “as soon as he sobered up, early the next morning, I hit him up. The kids and I’d already talked during the night. Explained my idea for a traveling troupe. Didn’t know about Jenks, but he overheard us talking, showed us what he could do with that banjo, and that was it. We were a team.
“Our approach was simple. We scraped up enough between us to have some flyers made. We’d hit a town, put up them posters, do our little five-people parade up and down the local Main Street, and put on a show just like the circus had come to town, except there were only the handful of us. I always did the talking to the locals so the Sheriff or constable or whoever wouldn’t run us off before we could do our thing, but the parade was a team effort.”
I should have been getting sleepy from all that food–especially the turkey, of which I’d had three helpings–but Jack’s tale had my attention. “I take it your knife throwing was the centerpiece?”
He chuckled. “Well…I’d say young Gwen was the real centerpiece. We rigged up one of them wheels, so we could tie the girl to a big round board. We’d work up to it, of course. Jenks was a genius with that banjo; he’d work his musical accompaniment to Hag’s big bass voice, building it up. You gotta save the best for last in these things, of course. But long story short, Thomas would do some strong man stunts–he really was a stout sonofagun–while his sister was getting lashed to the board. I’m pretty sure at least half of the audience, the male half, figured they’d got their money’s worth just from seeing the girl get tied up like that. We’d have balloons arranged on either side of her head, above her head, under her armpits, and one between her legs. I’d act all nervous, then one by one pop them balloons.
“Then, with Hag still haranguing the audience, we’d tack up a new set of balloons and do the same thing, but getting more creative with the throws–overhand, underhand, backhand. Not the sidearm; I hadn’t learned that one yet. Then one more set of balloons, big Thomas would set Gwen to spinning on that wheel, and I’d throw them six knives again, only this time at a moving target, and as fast as I could do it safely.”
“Sounds like quite a show.”
“Oh, it was. We couldn’t figure out how to stretch it out to a full hour, but did manage to give the people 45 minutes of escalating thrills. I’d pretend to cut my own fingers while handling the blades, ham it up with chicken blood dripping from the supposed wounds. Did have to remind Thomas to spin the wheel counterclockwise once; I had great accuracy that way, but spin it clockwise, and I’d have put a knife right through poor Gwen. Charged a nickel to get in, but being short handed, I usually tried to recruit a couple of hopefully honest locals to help at the gate.”
“I’m impressed,” I said, not for the first time. It was impossible to hang around this quasi-immortal without ending up a little wide eyed every now and then. “And I guess I can see what you mean. You were investing in yourself every time you practiced throwing those knives, and I’d be wise to figure out a way to invest in myself in some way, use excess money–if and when I’ve really got it–to become stronger, smarter, and better able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
“By George, I think he’s got it.” Jack raised his coffee cup, saluting my newfound awareness. “But…where’d everybody go?”
Good question. The living room was empty. The TV had been turned off without our noticing–no doubt the football game was over, though we had no idea who’d won–and the only sound coming from the kitchen was the dishwasher running one last load of Thanksgiving dinner dishes.
Well, we’d either find them, or they’d drift back inside sooner or later. In the meantime, the woodstove was keeping things comfortable and cheery where we were. I looked at Jack Hill, raising both my eyebrows and my shoulders in a maximum who cares sort of shrug before we both closed our eyes and kicked the big recliners back. Worrying about how to improve my survival skill set could wait for another day.
For now, though it was certainly not the night before Christmas, we each settled down for a long winter’s nap.