Sissy and I stood, staring out through the north side window, silent, watching. My left arm snugged gently around her shoulders; her right returned the favor around my waist.
The interior of the mobile home was dark, still a couple of hours before dawn, but the ancient mountain pass once used by the mammoth riders blazed bright under a chill noonday sun, visible to both of us but bringing no joy. There were no more mammoth riders; the straggling column of men, women, children, and dogs moved only under the power of their own legs.
Dogs…no. Those weren’t dogs. Those were wolves, neither dire wolves nor modern gray wolves, yet wolves nonetheless.
The wolves were not being used as beasts of burden, but rather than hunting men, they hunted with men. The leader of those men was clearly the alpha male among both two legged and four legged predators.
And predators these beings were, predators indeed. Seen as we saw them, separated by tens of thousands of years in time if not more, they were…perhaps not evil, precisely, but vicious, as merciless as weasels with winter sinus problems making them extra cranky.
Had they become aware of my beloved and me, had they turned their attention to we two voyeurs from far in their future, Sissy and I would have shifted away from the window instantly, unwilling to maintain the connection. They were not the sort of creatures with whom we would ever wish to communicate.
But they did not have the spiritual awareness of the mammoth riders. We remained invisible to them.
Without doubt, it was this band who had wiped out the last of our friends, eaten their mammoths as likely as not, and moved on without a thought for the slain. For all we knew, perhaps they’d eaten our friends as well, after they’d killed them–or while they were killing them, for that matter.
I squeezed Sissy’s shoulder and we did finally turn away. We’d seen enough.
Going back to bed was not an option. We cranked up the heat, got dressed and repaired to the kitchen where Sissy started the coffee while I put the finishing touches to a razor edge on my Buck survival knife. Not the folder, this one, but a combination hunting and fighting knife with an olive drab composite handle and a six inch blade, half of the back grooved to form a saw that could cut through bone or, in a pinch, through wood.
When the coffee was done, so was the sharpening. We sat across the table from each other, warming our hands, sipping.
Finally, she spoke. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.” I took a deep breath, let it out. “This is something I have to do alone.”
She nodded. “If you fall, husband, I will take up your sword.”
I got the reference. There were warrior cultures, on this planet and others, where the tradition was just that. If the man fell in combat, his mate frequently donned his armor, took up his weapons, and fought until she, too, went to see her ancestors. This was not a case where I would wish her to do that, but I couldn’t deny her, either.
“Will you at least fill Jack Hill in, before you leave? I see the kitchen light just came on over there. I could call, ask if they’d mind two more for breakfast.”
“Sure. I owe him that much.”
We all gathered around the table at Jack’s, just one more war council in Hill country. Except….
Well, it could wait till we’d filled our bellies. Wayne Bruce was making Belgian waffles; it was not a good idea to let those get cold.
They all knew, though. We’d been through a lot together, enough to let us read each other’s minds to a certain extent. Once I’d cleaned my plate and taken it to the sink, it was time to start talking.
“You all remember Alfredo Thomas, the black job applicant I told you about. The one with the old lime green Buick and the bad attitude. Long story short–guess I’ll just cut to the chase then back up to fill in the gaps–he’s a wanted man now. The TV stations and also the Missoulian have been reporting on it. Seems he did find somebody who would hire him, went to work for that new store, Outdoor Outfitters. Probably minimum wage clerking or whatever, but he fooled his bosses well enough that he was working the late shift on Christmas Eve, nobody there but him and two young female employees when it came time to close.”
Carolyn, Wayne, and Jack all looked mildly surprised at this. They hadn’t known. As Sissy, Judi, and I’d described the fellow, he hadn’t sounded like retail material at all.
“Thing was, Thomas had apparently just been waiting for the right setup, and that was it. According to the girls who were working with him, he caught one of them alone in the stockroom, about half strangled her so she couldn’t cry out, tied her to a steel I-beam back there, duct taped her mouth, then went out front and snagged the other girl pretty much the same way.”
Jack Hill looked thoughtful. He knew I had to be heading somewhere with this. “Rape?”
I shook my head. “Apparently not, at least according to the girls. He just tied them up, cleaned out the cash register, and disappeared. What in, the cops aren’t sure yet; his clunker Buick was left parked out behind the store.”
Carolyn West, who besides being Jack’s main squeeze was an avid student of the latest anti-criminal technology, snorted audibly. “Fingerprints and DNA everywhere, not to mention the paperwork in the Buick. What’s he trying to do, get caught for the three squares a day in prison?”
“No.” That much, I was sure of. “If you’d seen the rage this man is packing, you’d know he’s not going to deliberately make himself dependent on the man. Long story short, though, he didn’t stop there. A day later, he was identified as the man who robbed a convenience store in Spokane. He didn’t kill anybody, but he did pistol whip the clerk, a 55 year old white man who’s still in the hospital.”
“Tree,” Jack put in quietly, “what are you trying to say here?”
Yeah, I was kind of turning this into a shaggy dog story, wasn’t I? Time to get real.
“Cops in at least two states are looking for him, but they’re looking in the wrong direction. He’s back in Montana.”
Hill got it. “Doubling back on his pursuers. Deliberately hurt the Spokane clerk to make people think he’s moving west. Going to ground somewhere around here?”
Relief flooded through me. It always helped when Jack Hill made those connections without having to be led by the nose.
“Exactly,” I said. “Not here precisely, or at least not yet–but too close for comfort. I had a powerful dream last night. There were two things I got out of it. One, something about a place called Nelson Springs, and also Mulkey Gulch. The other, I’m the only one who can catch him–and it’s my karma. I have to do it alone.”
“Your karma?” Wayne Bruce found this fascinating. As a seasoned fighter and fugitive, the gay man was more than interested in anything having to do with karma.
“My karma,” I repeated, “from more than one past life. Last recall I got–I hesitate to say this, but I was his wife, and I let him down.”
“His wife?” Carolyn West’s confusion showed on her face. Despite having come to grips with the fact that her man, old Jack Hill, had been born well before the Civil War, she still wasn’t sure about the idea of Soul incarnating as either male or female–or sometimes neuter. It was, in her own words, a bit much.
However, that was why Alfredo Thomas had frightened me so badly during his Rodeo Iron interview. I’d been terrified of him back then and had eventually taken the easy way out, by poisoning him. As Soul, he knew full well I was the b*tch who’d done it. Not only had he been angry and then dejected when we were face to face this time around…but if I didn’t go confront him in his current hideout, and law enforcement didn’t accidentally stumble on his whereabouts, he’d be back.
The kitchen was silent for a long moment except for the ticking of the clock over the fireplace mantel.
Jack, who understood these things better than anybody else I knew, eventually broke the silence. “It’ll be hard, Tree, if you have to kill him.”
“But if you don’t, and you make the tiniest mistake, he damn sure will kill you.”
“If possible, you’re going to try to catch him and talk to him without killing him?”
“That’s the plan…such as it is.”
Wayne Bruce started laughing. The rest of us cocked a few eyebrows in his direction, waiting for the gay warrior to tell us what was so funny.
He waved a hand in the air. “It’s just–Treemin, I don’t think Mr. Alfredo Thomas has a chance. After all, how many men are really able to escape when a woman sets out to ensnare them? You’ve just got to fully indulge your feminine side!”
I didn’t know whether to chuckle at that or be mildly insulted…but something he’d said stuck with me. Something I might find useful in the days to come.
“Well,” Jack put in after we’d all settled back down, “at least I can tell you where Nelson Springs and Mulkey Gulch are. And you’re right; they’re not all that far from here. A few days at most on foot, maybe two days on a good horse, nothing at all if you’ve got wheels.”
He got up from the table, went into his office, and returned with a set of topographical maps. Selecting one, he unfolded it and laid it on the table.
“Here’s Drummond,” he pointed. “Five miles west on the frontage road, Rattler Gulch hooks north. Somewhere between two and three miles farther on, there’s a little valley that also heads north. Following that one, you can slant right up Tie Gulch, or keep straight and end up in Dry Mulkey Gulch–which becomes Walker Gulch farther up. If you slant left on past Dry Mulkey, you’ll be heading up Mulkey Gulch, what the locals sometimes call Wet Mulkey.”
“Huh.” I studied the labeled terrain he was indicating, locking it into my eidetic memory. “I see here they all, um, including Sheep Gulch branching off Rattler and Garden Gulch in between Rattler and Tie…they all drain from this headland labeled Top o’ the Deep?”
“Yep.” Jack stabbed a finger. “And here, easily reachable from either Rattler, Sheep, or Tie, is Nelson Springs.”
“Damn, old man,” I marveled, “when you said you knew this country, I only thought you were talking about parts of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.”
He shrugged. “I’ve bounced around western Montana quite a bit,” he admitted.
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“Yes and no. Fifty years ago, there was a good, solid shed with a door–like a cabin but with no stove or anything–at Nelson Springs. That was a long time ago, though. I believe that might be on BLM land, but don’t quote me. Also, it used to be simplicity itself to reach Nelson Springs by going right straight up Rattler, but the feds did something to the road up there, some years back. Last time I was in the area, they’d piled up a vehicle barrier, a three foot dirt berm obviously meant to discourage vehicular travel. Can’t have the People freely moving around on their own property, eh?”
“I hiked up past there that day, some…oh, twelve, maybe fifteen years ago. Got lost. That is, me not lost, Spring lost. They’d cut the road off along the mountain slope. I could have backtracked and figured it out, but I had other places to be, people to see. Tie Gulch should still be a good bet, though. The road quits near the Top O’ the Deep, you pas through a little park, then over on the backside, you just follow the game trails, and they’ll lead to Nelson Springs. Or cut up Sheep Gulch the same way, tops out in the same park, yada yada yada.”
I felt adrenaline tickle my innards, stir up the need to visit a toilet with a good roll of paper. But first….
“Jack, would you be willing to drop me off back of Blake’s place, down by Helmville? Two horses; I’ll be using Nugget for packing and riding Pepper.”
“Why not, brother?”
And thus it was settled. Sissy would bring Judi up to speed at the office, out of earshot of her welder husband. Or husband to be, anyway. The girl thought she was already knocked up. So much for not wanting kids, now that she had a good, white, Mormon man to have them with.
Not that she wouldn’t have been willing with me, had I expressed an interest. There was just this explosive kind of chemistry between her and Jerry Lee that made people believe in love at first sight.
Jennifer Trace and old Horace the tracker would need to be updated, too, but as Rodeo Iron security chief, Sissy could also handle that. She often wandered here and there around the ranch as part of her duties, scoping things out, keeping an eye out for anything that looked out of place.
Which was important. If Alfredo Thomas slipped by me and showed up in Trace Nation looking for trouble, there was plenty of trouble waiting to be found.
The steep slope took us up past what used to be Walt Acoff’s place, back in the 1960’s or so–at least according to Jack it had been, and I hadn’t found him to be wrong yet. Walt, he’d told me, had even then been “older than the hills and twice as cantankerous as a grizzly with a bellyache”. There’d been a rancher in the Drummond area, fellow by the name of De Witt, who’d come from the Oregon country or some such. Seemed this De Witt guy had a bad rep, like to sue people he got crosswise with, but he met his match one day when he said the wrong thing to old Walt. Acoff chased him down Main Street in Drummond, brandishing either his old revolver or a hammer, the witnesses never could agree on which.
Once up in the trees and well under cover, I stopped and dismounted. Shucked my hunter’s orange and slipped into winter camouflage gear. There were hunting tags in my pocket, good for both deer and elk, but those had expired when the season closed on December 1. I kept them just in case, figuring to fumble them out as part of my cover, should I be accosted by an unexpectedly zealous game warden.
Few wardens were ever found this high up in these mountains at this time of year, but you can’t be too careful.
The five wolf hunting licenses were completely valid, all the way into March. I wouldn’t be out here that long, but still. And I’d bought all five just because that’s the maximum number you could buy this year in Montana. I wasn’t figuring on trying for a wolf unless it got in my way, but being closely connected to a ranch that had been known to have wolf trouble–that would be my best cover.
If asked why I was riding in camouflage, hey, I wasn’t at my planned base camp location yet. Who’s hunting, dude? I’se jist a-moseyin’ on up-country, see?
Based on the original background check Jack Hill had run on Thomas, no one would expect him to hit the wilderness…but we’d missed something. Further investigation had found a link to the high country. He’d had a roommate for most of his three year incarceration at Lompoc, a roommate who knew a great deal about living rough, living off the land, surviving in tough terrain. Alfredo Thomas would have had to absorb the man’s knowledge without having lived it, but that’s apparently just what he’d done.
When I remounted, the swirling thoughts dieseling my brain were already settling down, calming. It had been more than a decade since I’d hunted alone in the mountains, and I’d never once been alone when hunting prey that could and would hunt back. But there was an advantage to doing it this way. A big one.
With no one else in my party of one, I could focus utterly. Any human sounding sound meant an enemy was in the area until proven different.
I slackened the reins, and Pepper moved on up the game trail without further ado. Most folks would have considered the tall gelding an Appaloosa, I guess. At any rate, he was mostly white with a random pattern of black dots that had earned him his name. He’d be fairly visible with dark tree trunks or pine needles as a backdrop, but there was snow on most of those needles, and he was hard to see against snow.
Pressing on faithfully behind, the smaller Nugget was technically a golden palomino…but of such a pale gold hue that he, too, managed to blend in during the winter months.
At any kind of range at all, we were mighty inconspicuous. Snow Ninjas of Montana.
Except for my own black face, which disappeared better after dark than it did when the sun was up.
I’d chosen this route for Ninja reasons, too. No one would have given a thought to seeing our Rodeo Iron horse trailer in this country, mere miles from our headquarters. If we’d gone down the frontage road west of Drummond to drop me off at the lower end of Mulkey or Tie Gulch, though, dozens of eyes might have taken note of our passage and wondered. It helped that deer and elk season were long gone, but still.
This way, the route led up over the ridge running down the back side of King Mountain, dropping down into Rattler. I’d figured to drop on down to Sheep Gulch and head up that route toward Top O’ the Deep. Sheep, Jack assured me, could be a b*tch even in midsummer, largely because it was steep on both sides, narrow at the bottom, and deadfalls across the way were not uncommon. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been that way, specifically, but….
There was a sharp single bit axe in the pack as well as a camp saw good for cutting firewood, but any big fallen tree would necessitate climbing treacherous slopes to get around it. The sound of an axe chunking wood can carry for miles in the mountains, and the saw would be worthless for anything over six inches in diameter.
I watched Pepper’s ears; he’d be likely to spot most any living creature before I would. The snow was soft underfoot, not cold enough to be crunchy, not warm enough to turn to slush. A jay called from somewhere off to the right. Overhead, glimpsed briefly through the treetops, a great golden eagle soared in its quest for lunch. Off to the left, a squirrel -chr-r-rred-, warning of our passing through its territory.
Slowly at first, and then more swiftly, more surely, my awareness relaxed and expanded, reaching out. There, just a faint patch of tawny color seen through an otherwise dense screen of thick timber–a deer, though too hidden to be identified as either buck or doe. Best of all, I’d sensed its presence a split second before Pepper’s ears had perked in that direction.
Nugget didn’t care. The little pack horse was oblivious to anything but the gelding he followed. Bosom buddies, these two, Pepper the leader, Nugget the follower. That was the main reason I’d wanted Nugget; in an emergency, I could drop his lead rope and he’d still be right there with the bigger horse when the crisis was over.
We topped the ridge and dropped down into Rattler Gulch without incident, though trekking down the Gulch road to reach the Sheep Gulch turnoff was nerve wracking. People did drive up this way on rare occasion, to cut firewood or find a place to park with a pretty girl or whatever. Being seen would not make me a happy camper.
Fortunately, we were not seen.
Almost, though. The sound of an engine could be heard by the time we were out of sight past the first turn in Sheep Gulch. The traveler never saw our tracks. The engine’s sound never slackened as it went on past Sheep, and besides, most Americans are blind to anything less than a baseball bat between the eyes, anyway.
Jack was right about Sheep Gulch. We had to work our way around no fewer than three sizeable deadfalls within the first quarter mile, and two of the three came close to wrecking us outright. One required climbing a bit of slope that nearly dumped us, and the last one, balanced some five feet above the ground on massive limbs, could not be skirted at all.
The only option was to find out if I had any real talent as a horse whisperer.
First, the packs and pack saddle had to come off of Nugget’s back, after which I was able to lead him right through. The bark of the tree brushed his back a little, but he handled it like a trooper.
Pepper, a full hand taller, was another matter. Offsaddled or not, he didn’t seem highly inclined to bend his knees and scooch under there. Which I knew was B.S.; I’d seen this big lummox crawl through lower spots when he thought nobody was looking.
After a good twenty minutes of this, running out of sweet nothings and muttered curses alike, I began to think I might have to tie up a front leg, throw him, and drag the bugger through by brute force, sledding the horse like he was a big elk carcass. Which was when he must have read my mind, ’cause all of a sudden he turned, lowered his rump like a roping horse setting down to stop a calf, and backed through, ducking his forelegs and head as easy as pie when he came to that part.
“Good boy,” I murmured softly in his ear, whereupon he flicked said ear and gave me a look that said, “Gotcha, sucker!”
Or something like that. It might have lost something in the translation.
The rest of Sheep was steep, but without incident…except that we were losing light. I began to look around in earnest for a place to camp. We’d topped out of Sheep Gulch and found the park that emptied into both Sheep and Tie, but now what? It was going to be pitch dark soon, too dark to count on finding Nelson Springs, which had been the original idea.
In the end, not daring to do anything else for fear of stumbling onto my quarry in the dark and getting killed before I knew it, I turned the horses around, backtracked into the upper reaches of Sheep Gulch. There was good grass there for the horses, even now, with plenty of snow in lieu of the water at Nelson Springs. There was also an abundance of wildlife; I was hearing deer move around us from the moment it got too dark to see your hand in front of your face.
At least, I hoped they were deer. The horses, set up on a two horse picket line run between two stumps from the old logging days, didn’t seem to be alarmed.
Being a coward at heart, though, I took 200 feet of rope from the packs and made myself a low fence, enclosing an area roughly ten feet on a side, getting four wraps around the stumps that served as corner posts before I ran out of rope. Any critter tough enough to roam the high Montana night could easily slip through or hop over three feet of rope lines spaced nine inches apart, but the psychological effect was good. No wonderful rock overhang or cave like Jack Hill would have found, but it would do. Predators would know I’d marked my territory as surely as if I’d peed on everything or stretched to claw the bark like a boar bear. They’d respect my warning.
The packs and saddles were of course arranged around me for further protection, weighting down my ground cloth and making me feel like I was hiding behind something, at least a little bit.
All of my trail rations were designed to be eaten cold. I had a bit of something–a granola bar, I think, though my attention really wasn’t on it–and then got up to pee on the top line of rope, here and there, before crawling into my sleeping bag, fully dressed and fully armed. I left the zipper on the oversized bag mostly undone, tucking the top edge under my body to block the draft while making sure I could get the .25-06 into action in a hurry if need be.
Lying there, utterly and completely alone but for the horses–which were more than a little help–I focused on sensing Alfredo Thomas. If he was in the general area (and I knew he was), he’d have better sleeping arrangements than this. A cave perhaps; that would be best, if not already occupied by a bear. One of the old tumbledown cabins, if any of them still existed. He might be as far off as the old ghost town of Garnet, holed up in a building there–but that would risk running into other people, so probably not.
After a time, who knows how long, I got a sense of the man. Nothing dramatic, just something like a little dark ball, nothing solid, more like a cloud, off to the west, toward what should be Mulkey Gulch. Not north by northeast, where Nelson Springs lay.
I focused a little more, carefully, softly so as not to lose it, and–
“About time,” he spoke. Not outwardly; my clairaudience picked up his comment. I heard him say it in my head, clear as day.
My eyes flew open and I peered into the dark, listening to the horses paw snow and munch dry winter grass, straining to see through the thousands of trees and several ridges than lay between my position and Mulkey Gulch. “Yes,” I thought back at him, “it is. We need to talk.”
There was no answer. Whether is was my mind that had shut down the connection between us, or his, I had no clue. What I did know was that he knew I was here. Maybe not consciously, but as Soul he knew.
I made no effort to sleep nor even to close my eyes, but at some point I must have done both. When next I became aware of my surroundings, there was enough light to outline the horses against the trees, and the nearest stumps looked like stumps rather than lurking bears.
It was time to get moving.