The phone rang. Judi jumped up to get it, leaving me to concentrate on the numbers.
We were working hard, trying to figure out whether or not Jerry Baldwin might be onto something. The Billings businessman wanted us to expand our Rodeo Iron franchise.
“Going into Idaho like you did was a brilliant move,” he’d told us when he’d showed up at the shop without warning, “and I’d like to get the next franchise for your company. Rodeo Iron Billings, can’t you just see it?”
His enthusiasm was repellent rather than infectious, but he didn’t know that. The man was a used car dealer, literally a used car salesman. Talked a good game like so many of them do, but with about as much bottom to him as a crankcase full of sawdust. He was a born hot air machine, 250 pounds of blubber held together with cheap suits and worthless rhetoric. Besides, the guy had no clue about acronyms. RIB, for Rodeo Iron Billings, might not be the worst he could have chosen, but it wasn’t the best, either.
I’d rained on his parade considerably by letting him know the first qualification for being a Rodeo Iron franchisee. “You’ve got to be able to do some serious welding on your own hook.” I’d said it mildly but with the Devil’s own knowledge in my heart. We hadn’t had time to run a background check, but something told me this tub of blubber didn’t know a MIG welder from a MiG fighter plane…and he didn’t.
He’d left in a huff, muttering threats under his breath that he had no clue any of us could hear.
The threats didn’t bother us. Not from a fat scam artist used car salesman, they didn’t. But he made me think. Could we really be ready to split off a separate operation in eastern Montana?
There were plenty of pros and plenty of cons. After several hours of studying the books and crunching numbers seventeen ways from Hades, though, it seemed to boil down to one thing: If we found the right man for the new franchise, then yes, we could make it happen and make it pay.
What added up to the “right man”, on the other hand…that was another matter altogether. In Idaho, the choice had been sort of made for us. For eastern Montana, that didn’t seem likely, lightning striking twice and all that.
Active search for a franchisee? Or wait, keep going the way we’d been heading, eyeballs peeled but not putting the word out on any official basis?
I stared, sure and yet unsure, all too keenly aware that my company’s survival to date had as much to do with fortune smiling on us as it did with anything else. Fortune, ’tis said, can be one mighty fickle dame. If I chose wrong, and the witch turned on us….
“Tree,” Judi cut into my tangled thoughts, “Jennifer needs us at the house. Now.”
Just like that, we were out of the office door and gone. It’s not far between our welding shop and the main Trace Ranch house, but we took the Pontiac anyway. There was a strange car parked out front.
As we headed in, old Horace the tracker came hustling out of the museum machine shed that had become his domain. He was moving at a pretty good clip, too, his gait showing no sign of the steel pins that held his shot-up leg together.
Jennifer Trace was on her feet as we came through the door. So was her guest, a sturdy looking woman in her forties with a square face and a worried look in her eyes.
“Tree, Judi, this is Karen Warnocke. She and her husband own the ranch three miles west of us.”
That rang a bell. Kyle Warnocke was crippled, if I remembered right. Horse had gone over backward on him a couple of years before I showed up in Montana. He was in a wheelchair, paraplegic, no use of his legs, which left his wife to handle most of the physical aspects of ranch life.
Word was he was one tough cowboy, though, even so. Sharp as a tack, did all the mental stuff, still made the hiring and firing decisions. Not that there were many of those; the Warnockes hired a few hands during haying season now that their kids were grown and gone, but mostly they made it through the winters on their own.
Karen jumped right into the conversation. “Our son is home from college for the weekend. He took two boys with him today, hunting up in the Catscratch Draw country. Carl promised he’d be back by three o’clock, and he hasn’t shown up.”
I glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. 4:17 p.m. In these mountains, especially back in the steep, timbered areas, it would be dark soon.
A memory surfaced. “Carl…he’s your oldest, right? Did a couple of Army tours in Afghanistan?”
Mrs. Warnocke looked kind of surprised that I knew that, but news gets around in this rural country. It isn’t really true that everybody knows everybody else’s business–if it were true, Trace Nation would have all been dead or in prison a long time ago–but you do hear things.
“That’s right,” she nodded. “And before you ask, I already tried calling the Sheriff’s office to see about getting Search and Rescue out here. I wouldn’t say the dispatcher laughed at me, exactly, but she made it clear nothing would happen till daylight. The thing is, Carl can survive anything, but those boys with him are another matter. They’re both 15, from Bozeman, single mothers, not the brains God give a soda cracker between the pair of ’em. Carl’s been mentoring them, playing big brother–not the official program, but….”
Jennifer added, “Carl Warnocke is a time freak. If he told his folks he’d be back at 3:00 and he wasn’t back at 2:59, something has gone wrong. He’s in trouble, or those youngsters are, or all three.”
By this time, Harold had joined us. “Tree,” he said, suddenly taking charge, “why don’t you grab your bugout bag and your ’06, and we’ll go hunting these hunters. We can take my 4 x 4.”
I thought about that for maybe a millisecond or so. “Your leg up to hiking these mountains?”
He gave me a withering look. Made me wish I’d kept my mouth shut.
Judi volunteered to call Sissy, have the pair of them sit with Jennifer till we got back, and the matter was settled. We never left the widow Trace completely alone in the big house without warrior backup, but my girls were about as handy as having a full squad of Delta Force soldiers in the area.
We found Carl’s pickup truck first, and yes, it was pitch dark by then.
The old rear wheel drive Chevy was chained up, parked way up the old logging trail that led to the top of Catscratch Draw. From the tracks in the foot-deep snow, it looked like Carl had fought his way on up beyond where he’d eventually parked, but at some point had to give it up. He’d gotten his ride turned around and pointed downhill, then the hunters had gone on foot.
It would have been nice to have Jack Hill with us for this, but there hadn’t been time to round up the old Protector. He’d taken Carolyn and Wayne into Missoula earlier in the day and wasn’t back yet.
If it was to be, it was up to Harold and me.
Of course, we could have rounded up a few of the regular ranch hands. That would have taken extra minutes, though, and we both had a feeling minutes might count.
Besides which, Harold and I were used to working together. We didn’t need some dumbass cowboy tromping all over the tracks we were trying to find.
There was a deer carcass in the back of Carl’s truck, a sizeable four point buck with a tag tied to one antler. We were working by flashlight now, but the snow told the story. He’d hunted off to the left, through a thick stand of timber. Must have snuck right up on the critter; you surely couldn’t see to shoot any distance in that stuff.
After casting around a bit, we found the first bit of wrongness. Two smaller sets of tracks, the biggest maybe a size 8 boot, hooked off up toward a low ridgeline, running at roughly 90 degree angles to Carl’s in-and-back trail.
“Sh*t,” Horace said quietly. We looked at each other, our eyes speaking volumes.
Carl had separated from the young kids, gone off hunting by himself for a bit. Let the tenderfeet wander off by themselves.
“He f*cked up.” I murmered. “Ten to one, he’s cut their trail since, but wasn’t able to catch up to them before dark. They’re lost, sure as sh*t, and Carl’s run out of light to follow them.”
Horace just nodded. We stood there for a bit, our Maglites illuminating the tracks in the snow, thinking. According to Karen Warnocke, her son carried an old World War II surplus rifle, a bolt action Enfield with wood clear out to the end of the stock. Those rifles had a hole drilled in the butt end of the stock, designed to hold a cleaning kit. Carl carried matches in there instead, plus a lighter in his pocket, but no flashlight. He hadn’t figured to need one.
Worse yet, the boys weren’t dressed for the weather. Not the overnight weather, which looked like it might hit down close to zero tonight. The snow was already crunchy underfoot, this high up. Carl was layered up enough; after all, he’d grown up in this country.
But not the kids.
After a time, Harold let me in on his thoughts. “From the feel of it, he must’ve told the boys to go ahead, maybe circle up around that bald knob–that one there, just out at the end of my flashlight range. It ain’t far. I’m guessing he told ’em to circle up behind there and meet him on the backside. Then maybe when they got there, they might have heard him shoot, but they’d be too restless to wait around for him to process his kill….”
I got it. “Tell you what. Why don’t I follow the kids. You hit out after Carl’s tracks. If you’re right, we’ll find at least some of the answers in a matter of minutes.”
Which we did. It was only a few hundred yards up and around the bald knob, then an easy curve back on the backside of the ridge, just like Harold figured. I beat him to the rendezvous point, though I could see his flashlight coming through the trees by the time I found where the trails had crossed.
It didn’t take any Daniel Boone to read the story. The kids hadn’t gotten restless. In fact, they hadn’t waited at all; there was no indication they’d done any standing around. Instead, from sailing along right on target, they’d suddenly hung a hard right and plunged off the backside of the ridge, plunging. Straight. Down. Hill.
Carl’s tracks were equally expressive. They’d come out of the trees at a normal hunter’s pace, hitting the boys’ trail dead center. This Afghanistan vet definitely knew his business; he’d told the boys where they’d meet, and that’s where they’d met.
Only not at the same time. Warnocke’s tracks didn’t hesitate, either, turning right on top of those left by the boys.
There was one difference. His strides were suddenly long, at least four feet per. Harold and I stared for two, maybe three seconds. Carl had lit out after those kids on the next thing to a high lope, doing his damnedest to catch them before the light failed.
Obviously, he hadn’t succeeded.
I wasn’t sure what our next move should be, but the old tracker was. “This gulch they’ve run down into,” he explained, “is one steep sumbitch. I used to hunt this country with Kyle, sometimes, before he got busted up. When them kids hit bottom, if they go downhill from there–and I don’t see ’em going uphill–they’ve got about a half mile of nasty deadfalls to get through. There’s a bit of a creek in the bottom, too, but it should be froze over by now.
“Trouble is, presuming they make it out of the gulch, it empties out on the road that runs through Slingshot Pass. It’s uphill to the pass, so you’d think they’d turn downhill. But then again, it ain’t very steep right there, and they might be dumb enough to hang a right. If they hiked on through Slingshot…Lord, Tree, there’s trails lead off every which way on the other side.”
“But,” I put in, pretending to be cheerful, “you’ve got a plan, right?”
He shrugged, eyeing the sky. It was dark up there, no stars to be seen. Cloud cover, and that utter stillness that often presages the sort of deep, soft snowfall that would cover the lost boys’ tracks completely. Nothing coming down yet, but we didn’t trust it one little bit.
“Maybe a little plan,” he said finally. “I know this gulch, and the pass road, so how be I hike down, follow the tracks. They’re not going to separate, I don’t reckon; Carl wouldn’t leave off following them, and he’s woodsman enough not to lose ’em even on the road. So, I hike down, find out which way they went, up through the pass or down and out. You take my truck, drive down and out. When you hit the dirt road just the other side of that fence down at the bottom, hang a right for…1.3 miles on the odometer. That’ll put you at the next road to the right. It ain’t marked, but that’s the Slingshot Pass road.
“Hang a right through that gate and head on up. I’ll meet you, probably about where the trees start again. There’s a cattle guard there. Or…tell you what, if I’m not there, come on up, easy like. I’ll be on the road somewhere, and by that time I’ll know which way they went from there.”
“On it.” He handed me the keys and I headed back the way I’d come.
It took just over half an hour to reach the cattle guard. Horace was waiting for me a couple hundred yards inside the treeline. There wasn’t much room to park the pickup without blocking the road just in case someone else came along, but I managed. Barely.
“You’re not going to believe this one.” He rubbed his stubbled jaw with a gloved hand. “Carl was hot on their heels, moving like a bat out of Hell, but he overshot. Got down by the cattle guard, figured the kids had made it out of the timber into the open–and then he realized they’d turned off somewhere. So he cut back and found where they’d done it. Right here,” he pointed to tracks I couldn’t even see, “they were no more’n a rock throw from being out of the woods, literally, when they cut sideways, off to the left, straight along this hillside.”
“Hunh.” I looked a bit deeper into the timber, where the snow was deeper, not hard packed like on the road. The tracks were obvious there. “Those boys are sure enough going in circles.”
We set out once more. I sneaked a glance at my watch. Seven fifteen. My nose was going to be talking frostbite if I didn’t pull up my scarf pretty soon.
The boys’ tracks disappeared–to my eye, that is. “They’re veering off just a little, slightly downhill,” he told me, and I had no wish to question his expertise. “Carl missed it, kept on going straight across the side of the mountain.”
“So…he’s lost their trail?”
“At this point. I’ll follow their trail, Tree. You stay on Carl’s. You feel like we’re getting out of range of each other, give me a holler. I’ll do the same.”
Carl’s tracks, at least, were easy to follow. Even where the snow wasn’t making it simple, we thought alike, the Afghanistan vet and I. It’s like he was in my head, or maybe we were both simply men that thought in straight lines.
I found where he’d stopped for a bit, then turned hard right, sloping downhill. Something bright caught my eye, and I decided it was time to contact my partner.
“I’m coming to you!”
“Come on down!”
When I got down to Harold’s position, I showed him the brass I’d found. Two .303 British shells, sure as shooting. “Probably fired three, but I couldn’t locate the third one.”
“Two out of three ain’t bad,” he opined, turning the casings over in his hand. “I didn’t find anything like that, but he must have gotten their attention. Maybe they fired back, or hollered like you and I did just now. But for some reason, them stupid ass boys didn’t wait for him.”
Just then, a cougar screamed in the canyon, the sound that’ll convince any tenderfoot there’s a woman in deep, deep trouble out there somewhere.
“That might,” I said drily, “be the reason, right there.”
We found Carl just over the next ridge. He had a fire going, and he was hunkered down, but not with any thoughts of spending the night. Instead, as we hailed him, he replied, said he was glad to see us, but he stayed squatting by the flames, working on…something.
Which turned out to be homemade torches. Once we assured him we had spare flashlights and plenty of spare batteries with us, he tossed aside the bundle of sticks he’d been lashing together with string.
His Mom hadn’t mentioned the string. Never leave home without it.
“Well, Horace,” the young man said, sort of half-smiling, no humor intended. “You get to rescue my dumb ass again.”
I figured there was a long story about that, somewhere in the past. And come to think of it, he wasn’t such a young man, either. Around my age, mid-twenties or so, stocky, with a capable look to him.
“You don’t look like you need a whole lot of rescuing, Carl.”
“No, but them boys do. And it’s my own damn fault.”
“We read the sign.”
“So you know.” Warnocke heaved a sigh from somewhere around his toes. “It just never occurred to me that two town kids with no training whatsoever might need constant supervision, you know?”
The question was rhetorical. We didn’t respond.
“Well, with you here to help, meaning mainly having brought decent light–which I’ve got, but it’s back in the truck. I figured I had to catch them in a hurry, you know? Didn’t want to take the time to double back for the flashlight.”
“Judgement call,” I ventured, and Carl seemed to notice me for the first time. Which was saying something, me being a big black man in the middle of snow country.
He nodded, though, like I’d just passed on a piece of real wisdom. “True that. You remind me a little of a sergeant of mine. That was one of his sayings. Anyway, we’re bound to catch ’em now. I had ’em earlier, I thought, but they spooked on me at the last second.”
Harold had heard enough. “Reckon we should get moving?”
“Reckon. This was going to be my second set of torches. The first batch lasted maybe fifteen minutes. Enough to know they headed a bit uphill again, back into another draw full of brush and a few deadfalls and hopefully no crazy-assed bear that didn’t know enough to go into hibernation yet.”
Carl took point. After all, it was his detail.
We didn’t catch up to the kids until darned near ten o’clock. They’d made it most of a mile from where their mentor had last tracked ’em to, but then terror and the ungodly cold, not to mention stumbling around in the pitch dark, had finally done them in. They’d gone to ground under a big deadfall, an old yellow pine that was far from the worst place they could have chosen.
Except that we didn’t figure they’d really done any choosing. It felt a bit like shelter under there, and they were just kind of curled up together like a pair of frozen little rabbits. Had they known enough to use the deadfall as the basis for a true shelter, they’d have been a whole lot warmer. It wouldn’t have taken any one of us three older men more’n a matter of minutes to build a combination snow cave and leanto, even with our bare hands.
But they were alive, and that’s what counted.
I shucked out of my inner parka, the extra layer I always kept in my bugout bag, and Carl helped the bigger kid–Jesse, I think he said his name was–into it. The smaller boy, Bob, had to settle for a wool Army blanket out of Horace’s pack, and he had the nerve to bitch about it.
“You always get the best stuff, Jesse,” he whined, and I wondered how Carl put up with these two.
At least, he was alive to whine about it. We had to bully the boys into working their fingers and toes for a while, but it looked like they’d lucked out, not even ended up with any serious frostbite.
The question now was, how to get everybody back to the vehicles. In the end, Horace headed back for his truck while I hiked the other way, keeping Carl company as he shepherded his two rather ungrateful charges.
“You weren’t where you said you would be!” That’s what Jesse told Warnocke.
“I would have been,” Carl replied mildly, “if you two had waited more than half a second.”
It went on like that for a while, until both boys turned sullen and sulky and insufferably lazy. They would have lagged behind except that Carl kept slowing his pace and I was bringing up the rear, chivvying the rotten little buggers forward.
By the time we’d reached Catscratch Draw and started up the logging trail–Carl’s truck was still about half a mile up the grade from our position–Jesse and Bob were throwing a union fit. They didn’t want to have to climb that whole mountain again.
I wondered how the veteran put up with them. I wondered if it would be wrong to bang their heads together till their skulls cracked.
Finally, even the endlessly patient Carl–or maybe it was the feeling guilty Carl–had had enough. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you boys just hang out right here, wander up the grade but at your own pace. Tree can stay with you while I stretch out and go get my truck.”
“Tell you what,” I shot back, “Why don’t you stay with these two paragons of virtue while I hike up to get your freaking truck?”
He grinned at that. “It was worth a try.”
I liked this guy.
His old Chevy fired right up on the first try, General Motors to the rescue. By the time I got back down to Carl and the kids, they’d made it another 300 feet or so…and that was it.
The rest of the way down the mountain, I rode in the back with a frozen deer carcass for company and counted it a blessing.