At some point, I became aware of a couple of things simultaneously.
1. If Alfredo Thomas was the first to initiate combat between us, I would die on his blade here tonight, alone in the mountains on New Year’s Eve. Thomas might also depart this vale of tears, but my demise was certain.
2. The ability the two of us had to read each other’s awareness, at least to a certain extent, was as dangerous now as it had been helpful in calling him to me. If he could read my thoughts, or more importantly my emotions, he would have the edge. Ergo, I must (a) shield my mind while (b) maintaining my readiness and hair trigger awareness of the razor thin high wire we walked in the Here and Now, and (c) with all that, I must act fast or forever Rest in Peace.
Strangely, I had lost all fear of this man. Now that the die was cast, now that the real possibility of getting a hunting knife plunged into my gut presented a clear and present danger, my awareness was clear, cold, utterly without any emotion whatsoever.
Jack Hill had once told me that life and death situations didn’t have any time for feelings. Such things slowed you down and got you killed.
A word occurred to me, and I spoke it aloud.
Thomas hesitated, his concentration broken. “Not planning to eat you, Jackson. Just gut you and leave you for the wolves.”
I chuckled without humor. “Wasn’t thinking about long pig. Got a fresh killed deer in camp. Plenty of liver left, or backstrap if you’d prefer. You’re welcome to some of that, or we can get to cutting each other’s livers out. Your call.”
He was silent for a moment, thinking. Did I mean what I was saying, or was this another trap?
In truth, it was both, but I kept my real thoughts as neutral and hidden as possible. Everything hinged–
“The guns stay here.”
Not bad. He likely figured on pulling a pistol when he got the chance and finishing me off if he could, but at least he was making sense regarding the shotgun lying behind me in the snow and the rifle he correctly assumed I’d stashed nearby.
Neither of us trusted the other one little bit, but we’d gone from a dead even double death dealing equation to plotting and scheming, each of us looking to gain the edge. It would come down to who was the better scam artist in a pinch.
I could live with that.
It took a while to finish negotiating the details. In the end, we sheathed our knives, made no mention of any other weapons we might have secreted on our persons, and walked up through the rock cut, side by side.
Not shoulder to shoulder, you understand; we kept as much distance between us as we could. Moon or no moon, it was still almighty dark, especially between those high rock walls. We couldn’t see each other’s eyes, and one quick lunge by either party would be enough to make contact.
I could feel the intent coiling within him, priming itself, getting ready to strike. It was all I could do to hold it together, to keep the mental façade intact so that he couldn’t read me as clearly as I was reading him.
Then it happened. I knew it was coming, knew that the instant his lead right foot hit the ground on the next step, he’d plant hard and lunge at me, whipping his sizeable Bowie knife back out faster than a striking snake. He did it just that way, too.
There was a whole lot of commotion. My eye caught the gleam of the eleven inch blade coming my way, my brain registered the calculation that I was going to get cut, that my defensive arm block couldn’t react quickly enough, that the speed and power behind the thrust was going to be more than enough to force the steel tip through my heavy winter clothing and into my ribs, taking out a few vital organs along the way.
For one long moment, Thomas’s mind didn’t register the wolf trap jaws that had leaped up out of the snow to clamp onto his boot, right over the ankle bone.
A wolf trap is not a bear trap. It’s made to snap onto the slender limb of a gray wolf, not the burly, booted ankle of a 200 pound man. It didn’t break any bone. It didn’t even hold him–but it did distract him, and that’s all it took. He couldn’t help but look down to see what the Hell. By the time his awareness whipped back up in my direction, it was too late.
The butt end of my Buck knife’s handle, gripped in an adrenaline-driven fist, crashed into his temple.
Alfredo Thomas toppled into the snow, face first, unconscious before he fell.
I’d given the bugger one helluva shot. Might have killed him. I could work that out later, though. If he was dead meat, I certainly knew a few things about shoot, shovel, and shut up. In case he wasn’t, I had to hurry without haste, just in case. Plastic ties securing his wrists behind his back. More of the same for his ankles.
Thirty minutes later, having used Pepper to drag Thomas’s inert form over the snow and into camp, the banked coals of my campfire were reawakened and put to work. Not just a tiny fire this time; it was after midnight on New Year’s Eve–technically, New Year’s Day now. If there was anyone else in the area right now, he was as crazy as we were, and I seriously doubted there could be three of us.
I checked my watch. Twelve thirty-one. He had a pulse, but if he didn’t wake up from the hammering I’d given his skull…one o’clock. If he wasn’t coming around by one, I might as well finish him off.
A helpless man? I could do that and live with myself?
Uh-huh. Under the circumstance, I could. We had some dark hours yet, but our business together had to be finished before the sun–
“Guess that’s that, huh?”
I started a bit at his voice.
He was lying on his side in the snow where I’d put him, his head using one of my packs for a pillow. Oddly enough, Mr. Rage seemed downright calm and collected now–
–and then I got it. He’d done time in Lompoc, three years under the rules, regs, and guard-enforced structure in Lompoc, California. The man was at least partially institutionalized. Rage against the machine, but not when the cuffs are on. When they’ve got you, they’ve got you; no use fighting it.
Reminded me of a college course I’d once taken. My major was Philosophy, but there’d been plenty of electives thrown in there, too. One such had been a three credit class in Child Psychology. Professor Bliss had, among other course materials, used a study done of the White Russian people. For the first 9 months of their lives, these particular Russians lived swaddled on cradle boards, often hung on the wall between feedings while the mother worked. As a result of this fierce confinement, they learned to communicate extensively with their eyes–which were the only things they could move while their limbs were restrained. They also developed personalities that were utterly contemptuous of anyone weaker than themselves…while automatically submitting utterly to any authority stronger than they were.
This stocky black man lying near my campfire was a stereotypical White Russian at his core.
He wouldn’t understand that, though, so all I said was, “It’s still entirely your call, Alfredo.”
“Oh yeah? How so? Damn, my head hurts. Whatchu hit me with?”
“Butt of my Buck. Tell you what. How be I sit you up and cut your hands loose? Hard to eat with your hands tied behind your back, eh?”
He hesitated briefly. “Ain’t you worried about me coming up with a weapon while your guard’s down?”
I shook my head. “My guard’s never down.” Which was a bald faced lie, but he didn’t need to know that. “Besides, I searched you pretty good while you were out. Only place I didn’t go was up your ass; if you’ve got a stick of TNT tucked inside your rectum, I’m in trouble. But other than that. Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a line of quarter inch cable clamped off around your neck. Got you staked out to a tree root. Room enough for you to sit up, eat if you like. We really do need to talk.”
What decided him the most, it seemed like, was the simple fact that he had to pee really, really bad.
The man was definitely hungry. By the time his appetite was sated, he’d gone through all of the deer heart and two sizeable backstrap steaks.
But it was the coffee that did the most to civilize the bandit Alfredo. I’d captured him and then cooked for him; who could resist a combination like that?
Hard to say for sure, but maybe Wayne Bruce had been right. Thomas had never really had a chance. I’d just had to fully indulge my feminine side.
“What’s so funny?”
I hadn’t realized I was smiling. “Nothing, really. Just something a friend of mine said once. So, let’s get down to brass tacks, eh? I wasn’t kidding when I said we needed to talk.”
“My head’s still killing me. Too much to hope for a couple of aspirin?”
“Got some Excedrin Migraine in the pack.”
I thought about telling him I’d been his wife, poisoned him in a past life. Even if he did believe in reincarnation, though, that didn’t seem like a good idea. If he became consciously aware, he’d be looking at the b*tch who poisoned him to death, then the next time they met, beat him in one on one combat and trussed him up like a Thanksgiving turkey ready for the chopping block. Not good for the male ego. So, I needed another angle.
He gave it to me.
“I s’pose the treasure chest doesn’t really exist?”
That made me laugh aloud. “Damn, Thomas, you realize how freaking psychic you have to be to pick up on that image that clearly?”
“Uh…not really. I do pick up on stuff, though. Always have. Which is a lot of what gets me in trouble from time to time. I’ll be in a room with other people, somebody in the bunch will be thinking something ugly at me, and just like that, I want to smash his face. Or her face; there’s some truly wicked women out there.”
“Tell me about it.” I rolled my eyes. We were bonding.
We both quieted for a bit, sipping coffee, studying the flames. My night vision was thoroughly destroyed, but I was willing to take the risk. Pepper was watching the night, and I could see him from where I was seated.
At length, he asked, “So, that’s how you found me? Psychic sh*t?”
“Including a dream, yeah.”
“So…you didn’t kill me, and you damn sure could have, at least twice. When I first came walking into your snare like a fool, and again after you coldcocked me. You gotta have a reason; what is it?”
Oh, lordy. How to put it? I shrugged. “Hate to see a powerful brother flush himself down the drain. I couldn’t hire you at Rodeo Iron, and I told you why, but I could see you had something going on, too. Like, potential, you know? And then, all of a sudden, it was all over the news about you starting to hurt people, take the money and run. You were what they call escalating, doing worse things–or what the man calls worse things, anyway–than you’d done before. We run a hardcore background check on anybody who applies, and yours came back better than that. You mighta killed a couple a dudes in prison, but I’m talking ’bout outside.”
I fell silent, poured myself another cup of scalding camp coffee. Thomas waited, clearly intrigued. I was talking about his favorite subject–Alfredo Thomas–and he wanted to hear more.
Pepper stamped a hoof, causing me to glance his way, but he was only pawing down through the snow for better grass. Definitely not in alarm mode.
My next words were weighed carefully. “I need to ask you, Alfredo. Those two girls in Missoula–did you do that crime for the money, or because the chicks offended you in some way?”
He heaved a sigh that told me more than his voice did. “A little of both. I was really hurt that you wouldn’t help me out, Treemin. I mean, really hurt. I was down to my last ten bucks by the time I got to Missoula that day. You saw how my Buick was running. I needed to lift the radiator cap and drive a new car under there, but it wasn’t happening.
“Then old man Obee and I met at McDonald’s, where I was trying to figure out something to eat off the dollar menu. Don’t remember how the conversation started, but he pretty quick figured out I was at the end of my rope, and he offered me the job at Outdoor Outfitters. The beauty of it was, Obee’s a flaming liberal’s flaming liberal, or at least that’s how I read him. Wanted to help lift up the oppressed black man. Then the girls, both of them were titanium plated b*tches. Little Dina, she was always whispering to Big Betty behind my back, making jokes about how I must have a little Anthony Wiener on count of the size of my feet….”
Huh. He did have small feet for a 200 lb. man. I hadn’t noticed.
“Sitting here like this,” I observed, “you don’t sound like no uneducated dude from the ‘hood. You got some brain power under the hood.”
“Yeah, and I came from the ‘hood, where being too smart for your own good can get you killed, too. So I learned to hide it around most people. Not my Ma, may she rest in peace, but otherwise….”
“You got room for dessert?” I changed the subject abruptly.
“Got a pack of dried apricots.”
Right then, I was convinced I could have offered him a plate of rabbit turds and he’d have eaten every one. At least when anybody was looking, he must have been a model prisoner. Then, when their backs were turned….
It occurred to me that my prisoner found himself in a situation where he could talk about himself, really talk, for the first time in probably…approximately forever. How would I have turned out if there’d been no uncle B.J. Hennessey to take me in and straighten me up, back when? From what we knew of him, Alfredo Thomas had never had anyone like that in his life, except maybe his roommate at Lompoc.
Who, we knew, had died in a high speed chase with cops on his tail, overdrove a curve, rolled his pickup truck umpteen times, flew through the windshield headfirst with the body left behind.
“Okay,” I said, shifting back to the subject at hand, “I get the Missoula incident. Now, what about Spokane? News said you pistol whipped a guy, put him in the hospital.”
“He’s in the hospital?” Thomas sounded genuinely surprised. “Hell, I hit that S.O.B. with everything I had. Woulda sworn I’d put him in the morgue.”
“Disappointed?” I asked, drily.
“Woulda been at the time. Not now. Water under the bridge.”
“He ticked you off, how?”
He heaved a long-suffering sigh. “I didn’t plan on robbing the place. What the hey, I was already wanted in Montana, driving the Toyota Camry I’d stolen from my benefactor, old Obee himself. But–”
“Wait a sec. You took the car belonging to the man who hired you? That was kind of cold, don’t you think?”
“Nah. I mean, well, yeah, but I figured there was a 50-50 chance he’d never report it stolen. Wouldn’t want to get me in any more trouble than I was, him being the liberal’s liberal and all.”
“Huh. Well, apparently you called that one right. Last news flash I heard, the cops still had no clue what you were driving.”
“Uh-huh. About Spokane.”
“Yeah. Well. I had a different ID, different name on it and all. Used that, and applied for a job at the convenience store. Seemed like, even though I was wanted in a town just 200 miles to the east, the cops probably wouldn’t even think to take a second look at a black man asking for a job right after he’d scored seven hundred bucks cash in a robbery.”
I laughed out loud at that, and for the first time since I’d known him, Alfredo Thomas grinned. Which was a revelation; his whole being lit up when he grinned. With a grin like that, the dude could be a serious girl catcher.
“That could work,” I admitted, “but I take it there was a glitch?”
“Big time. A glitch called a racist night manager. I spent a good thirty minutes filling out the application form, then as soon as I left, he round filed the paperwork. I saw him do it, right through the window.”
“So you went back in and whapped him upside the head.”
“Yeah, I really did mean to kill him. Thought for sure I had.”
“Understandable mistake.” My tone was getting a little dry again, I noticed. “I don’t suppose anyone’s ever used the term anger management when you were in earshot?”
“Oh, Hell no,” he grinned again, “ain’t no irritated brother from the ‘hood ever heard of anger management.”
He sobered suddenly, his mercurial nature becoming more evident by the moment. “Tell you the truth, Treemin, I kind of figure I got a right to my rage. I’ve always tried to make my way by working honest jobs. It’s just that so many sh*t-for-brains employers and coworkers out there, I get to feeling like they’re insulting my intelligence, and then I find out they really are, ’cause they don’t think I have any intelligence, and then, next thing you know….”
“Low impulse control?” It was my turn to grin.
“Or something. It just gets so hard, trying to put up with jerks.”
There were dozens of ways I could have responded to that. Rather than choose between them, I ignored his last remark and went on to something else.
“Alfredo, I’ve heard enough. Time to let you in on what I been thinking.
“First of all, I came after you because (a) I had one powerful dream telling me roughly where you were, and (b) I’ve learned not to ignore dreams like that, and (c) I figured maybe I needed to try to catch up to you before you did something really stupid and showed back up in our neck of the woods. Because if you did, and you showed threat, one of us at Rodeo Iron or the Trace Ranch would have ended up shooting a whole bunch of holes in you. You didn’t need that, and we didn’t need the karma, so I saddled up, and here I am.”
“Okay…” he nodded slowly, “I get that. I think.”
“All right, then.” I paused long enough to stoke the fire a bit and organize my thoughts. “Way I see it, I’m going to give you some options, and you pick the one you hate the least. By the numbers,” I began ticking off points on fingers, “it’s like this.
“Option one: You can tell me that if I turn you loose, you’re going to come after me and mine as soon as you can. In which case I cut your throat before I leave here, shoot, shovel, and shut up.
“Option two: You can give me your word you’ll get out of Montana and stay out, but otherwise no promises, and I’ll let you go, as is. But if I ever lay eyes on you again, one of us will die, and there’s folks can tell you, I’m fairly hard to kill.
“Option three: I can spot you a bit of cash and point you toward a possible welding job, in which case you’ll maybe have a chance to get your feet on the ground, turn your life around. No guarantees, but a chance.”
Thomas looked at me like I’d sprouted a spare head. “This is no joke? You’re not punking me?”
“I don’t do punk,” I replied.
“Where…where might this job be?”
“Back in the ‘hood, brother, but not one with which you’re familiar. Hartford, Connecticut, to be precise.”
“Why would they hire me? I mean, yeah, I know some people, I could come up with an ID that ain’t been used yet, but–”
“I don’t know that they would hire you, but I think the odds are good if you leave your temper at the door when you go in to apply. It’s a company called HAIF, short for Hennessey Artistic Iron Fabrication. My uncle built the business from scratch, but he sold out and moved west a couple of years ago. The current owner knows who I am, though, and you could use me as a reference. I wouldn’t lie to him directly, but I’d be willing to spin the truth just a touch. Tell ’em I know you can weld–which from the background checking we did on you, I do–and that I’ve never seen you run a bad bead, which I literally haven’t.
“As for your tendency not to suffer fools gladly, I believe the way HAIF is being run…there’s not a whole lot of having to put up with other guys. Most of the time, you’ll get assigned to do a job by yourself, so somebody else’s incompetence or smart mouthing is not a factor except maybe at lunch time in the break room. Half the guys working there are ex-cons, and all of them are black.”
It seemed like time to shut up, so I did. We sat quietly for some time, watching the flames, listening to the snap and crackle of the burning wood.
When he finally spoke, he had one question. “Why?”
“Why would I do this for you? What’s the catch?”
“Well…the why of it is simple. The more I thought about it, the more I started to see myself in you. You know, the old saw about, There but for the grace of God go I. My uncle pulled my ass out of the fire nine years ago. Now maybe–just maybe, depending on what you decide to do and how you do it, it’s my turn to do the same for you.
“And the catch? Well, that’s simple, too. When the time comes, down the road whenever, when you’re strong enough and can do it and the opportunity is right, you pass it on.”
“I pass it on….okay. I get it…I think. It’s a lot to take in all at once, you know.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I know. I lived with my uncle B.J., worked with him every day, and it still took him three, four years before I had my head pulled mostly out of my ass. I have no way to know if a single little bump like this can do you any good or not.”
He took a deep breath, let it out, his eyes shifting to stare past me, into the darkness. I could feel his resolve settling in. Whether or not he could make it work, only time would tell, but I knew his answer before he spoke.
“All right. You’ve got a deal. I’ll take option number three.”
The moon, I realized suddenly, had set. We had less than an hour left before first light.
Without further ado, I took the crescent wrench to the cable clamps, freeing his neck from that tether. Cut the plastic ties binding his ankles. Handed him a thick envelope and said, “There’s $9,000 cash, mostly hundreds but five hundred of it in twenties. Stretch it like you were dead broke; make it last. Your weapons–all three pistols, the shotgun, the Bowie, and the folding knife–are sitting in a pile at the base of the third pine tree past the edge of the clearing. If you keep going down over that drop, you’ll end up in Packer Gulch. Or you can go back to pick up stuff from your old camp, but if it was me, I wouldn’t. I’ve loaded this backpack with enough survival gear and rations to keep you going for a while.”
We were on our feet, where the height differential between us made him look up at me. “You sound a little anxious, Treemin, like it’s really important to get moving?”
“It is,” I agreed. “That wolf trap that snapped your ankle wasn’t mine. It also wasn’t legal, setting the trap right out in a known, traveled trail like that. I hate trappers with a passion, just as soon hang every one of ’em up by his own trap and let him howl himself to death, but the S.O.B. who’d plant a trap where this one was planted is pure scum of the earth. He’ll likely be here today to check that trap, whoever he is, and we need to be gone.”
“Ah.” Thomas was already shrugging into the backpack, adjusting the straps to fit his burly body. “You left his trap sprung?”
“Uh…no, not exactly. It was still light when I got here, and I managed to cut his trail. With any luck, he’ll step in his own trap. If he’s a scrawny little twerp, maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll get himself a cracked ankle out of the deal.”
“Well, let’s hope for luck, then. Wolves scare me some, and I might shoot one if I felt threatened, but I don’t like traps, either.”
I didn’t suppose he did. Not after I’d trapped him twice in the space of a few minutes.
The horses were already loaded and ready to go except for snugging up their cinches; I’d had to leave them that way all through the night, knowing the skedaddle factor was in play. Thus it was that I turned in the saddle at the eastern edge of the little meadow, peering to see Alfredo Thomas’s dark shadow ghost on out the north side.
It wasn’t shooting light yet, but we needed to get under cover. I headed Pepper into the timber, Nugget complacently trailing along behind. A wolf howled somewhere not all that far away, and I chose to think it was my friend Molly, giving us a sendoff.
“Move it on out, Pep,” I whispered to the big spotted gelding. “We’ve got miles to go and ridges to cross before we sleep.”