For a time, working generally eastward along the Top O’ the Deep, I had serious trouble staying awake. Not that this was a good time to relax; we were still in Indian Country, so to speak, out in the relatively high semi-wilderness of Granite County, Montana, surrounded by beautiful country that–like so many beautiful things–could kill you in a heartbeat.
No rattlesnakes in January, thankfully, and the bears should all be denned…but up here in the timber, nothing can be taken for granted. The Indian Wars are long gone, but other dangers remain. Stray outlaws, for example; Alfredo Thompson wasn’t the first robber to seek refuge in the hills, nor was he necessarily the only one out here on New Year’s Day, 2014.
There might not be anyone else within miles, but then again there might.
You just never knew, never dared take such things for granted. For all I knew, there could be another pair of idiot poachers, too, skulking behind yon boulder or that monster pine tree, right there.
Nor was the human element the only risk factor. Pepper could step in a hole hidden by the snow and break a leg, throwing me unceremoniously on my head in the process. A desperately hungry mountain lion, smelling the deer blood on the tarp folded in Nugget’s pack, might forget its fear of men long enough to jump the little palomino.
And so on, and so forth.
Unfortunately, knowing all this did nothing to alleviate my fatigue. I was worn to the bone, frazzled, ready for a warm bed inside four strong manufactured walls, with or without Sissy snuggled next to me. The Rose Bowl game would be played today, but even if I made it home before that was over, I’d not be watching it this year.
Unless it was an out of body experience. Then, maybe.
With my eyelids constantly slamming shut like a load of lead bricks, it’s a wonder I didn’t get lost and end up wandering in circles or something. Had it not been for Pepper, I most likely would have done just that–but the tall gelding had it figured out. We were headed back over to the Palouse side of the mountain range, headed home, and the horse was more than willing to make a beeline toward our rendezvous point.
How long I’d slept in the saddle, I’m not sure, but when I jerked awake, we were at Nelson Springs, Nugget already drinking and Pepper impatiently waiting for me to slacken the reins so he could lower his head to do the same.
Right out in the open. Sitting ducks, had there been an enemy watching the clearing at that moment.
That scared me some. It reminded me of an old book I’d read, and then the movie made from it. Many Rivers to Cross. The movie was all Hollywood, but the opening pages of the book were important. I thought about that.
The central character knew that had his old Indian mentor seen him step right out from the cover of the trees into the open clearing,
…he would have snatched me back by my breechclout….
That thought slapped me awake long enough to pay attention for a good long while. There’s nothing like picturing a .50 caliber bullet from a black powder rifle crashing through your chest to banish exhaustion. It’s a regular magic wand.
For the first time in a while, I became aware of the sounds of the forest around us. Magpies, jays, ravens, multiple smaller birds, the usual scolding squirrels, even the musical cry of a red tailed hawk, soaring high overhead as it uttered its challenge to the world below.
I stepped down, stretched the kinks out of my limbs, forced down a granola bar and a drink of purified water from the canteen, and checked my watch. 10:33 a.m. We should be back on the Helmville side by noon at this rate, or close to it, easing on down out of the timber and into cell phone coverage, where I could take the throwaway Walmart cell phone out of its wrapping and call Jack Hill’s sat phone, telling him I was alive and ready to be picked up as soon as he could get to us with the horse trailer.
That optimism lasted three or four seconds, until I noticed the shift in the wind. Not a high wind. More of a breeze, really, but it had suddenly changed directions, bringing with it a new scent, a new feel to the air.
“Storm on the way,” I told the horses, checking their cinches before stepping back into the saddle. “We need to get cracking.”
Pepper rolled an eye at the cobalt sky, not a cloud to be seen. He didn’t argue, though; the sort-of Appaloosa probably knew weather was coming long before I did.
Tell you what, I stayed awake after that.
Down through the swale, past the kill site where I’d jumped the poachers and taken their kill. Most of the deer carcass, lacking the liver, heart, and backstrap Alfredo Thomas and I’d consumed, had been left in the meadow where we’d had our little consultation. Hauling illegally killed deer meat right out into the civilized open would have been too stupid for words. Scavengers would find it sooner or later, though, and with this winter cold freezing the meat, they could take their time. It wouldn’t go to waste.
Nor had the gut pile, which was completely gone already.
We dropped out of the timber into Rattler Gulch right on target, never mind the BLM road changes that had confused old Jack Hill some years back.
Hitting the trail on the other side, down below the scummy pond that served as one of the Gulch’s primary landmarks, was a piece of cake. I kept scaring myself, thinking I’d overshot the thing, but no. Once we had that, my gut settled down and I quit feeling like I was going to pee my pants. We were as good as gone, one more high ridge to cross but a clear trail all the way now.
And a good thing, too. No more blue sky. The clouds had rolled in, the wind had picked up, and the temperature was dropping like a rock.
I reached back behind the cantle and untied the saddle strings holding my heavy parka. This storm might not turn into an out-and-out blizzard, but it was already making its presence felt–and now I had a new worry.
As heavy as that cloud cover looked, getting through to Jack’s sat phone might not be an option after all.
If that turned out to be the case, what were my options? I mean, other than pitching camp. We were so close now, that one didn’t count.
Hm. Blake’s place, maybe. There was hardly anybody there these days; it was no longer a working ranch, the stock sold off when Jim Blake’s arthritis forced him to give up the good life and move to town. But there was a barn that would get the horses out of the wind, and I knew where he kept the key to the front door. In a pinch, that would work as a survival strategy.
It would suck, but not as bad as freezing to death.
By the time we dropped down the east slope and out of the timber, it was spitting snow. Not a lot yet, but there was going to be plenty of the stuff before long. And sure enough, the call home wouldn’t go through.
Well, crap. Yeah, I was alive, Alfredo Thomas hadn’t killed me, and I knew I should still be rejoicing and grateful for that. But Hell, that was last night and this was another day, and come on God, what have you done for me lately?
Not that I was really dissing the Creator. It was just that…wait a sec…that looks like…
“Well, I’ll be damned.” I stared at the running lights on the Rodeo Iron horse trailer, seen more clearly through the snow with every step. “Hello the truck!”
“The price is right, Tree! Come on down!”
What the–? “Judi?!”
“The one and the same. Me and Sissy.”
Talk about a sight for sore eyes. Both of my girls–wait, Judi wasn’t my girl any more, was she? She and Jerry Lee Parsons were getting hitched come Valentine’s Day; they’d set the date.
Still a sight for sore eyes, though. She’d come out with Sis to snag me off the mountainside in the middle of a snowstorm, engaged or not engaged, even pregnant. Not that she was showing yet.
We didn’t waste much time in conversation until we had the horses loaded in the trailer and the big Ford dually moving on down toward the road. Sissy drove–she was every bit as good as I was behind the wheel, probably better when I was this worn–and I rode shotgun in the blessedly heated cab.
Judi, of course, tiny as she was with her five-three frame, sat between us.
Sissy focused on getting us back home in one piece, leaving the catch-up to Judi and me.
“Catch up with Mr. Thomas?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “and it’s all good. Or at least, as good as it could be, considering. Nobody got killed, Alfredo is on his way out of Montana for good with maybe a chance at a real life–after the storm, anyway; I’m guessing he’s likely holed up somewhere at the moment. Or not; he could be using the storm for cover to get the Hell outa Dodge. But it’s a long, shaggy dog story. I’ll fill everybody in later. Right now, I’m mighty glad to see you here, Judi, but I’m a little surprised you’re not home with your man.”
That’s when she surprised me more than a little. She put a hand on my thigh, looked up right into my eyes, clean through them to Soul, and said softly, “I am home with my man, Tree.”
Oh sh*t. My heart leaped–Lord, how I’d missed having this girl under our roof–and my heart sank, all at the same time. “What happened, honey?”
She sighed. “You know how Jerry Lee’s been doing so good for us, making the Missoula grocery run every Saturday, freeing up time for the rest of us to do other stuff that needed doing?”
“Yeah. Sure. He’s been a big help.”
“Yep. Well, turns out it wasn’t us he was helping. It was himself.”
Ah. “Woman on the side?”
“Worse.” Another sigh. “He’d been stealing from me, Tree. I didn’t even realize every bit of my jewelry was gone–don’t wear the stuff that often, anyway, had no reason to check it. But on New Year’s Eve, the second day you were out, no work ’cause you had Rodeo Iron make a two day holiday of it, right?”
“Okay, so the night before, he tells me, Judi, honey, you know you been wanting some time to hang with Sissy, and Tree’s off wherever, I figure I’ll get an early start in the morning. You know, hit the stores before the New Year’s Eve rush gets going. You got anything special you want, other than the pot roast?
“No, I told him, that should do it. And thanks, baby, you’re a gem. That’s exactly what I said, I called that scumbag a f*cking gem.
“So, he’s out of the house and down the road by 4:00 clock. I sleep in, reveling in my good fortune and my joy in finding such a wonderful man. And then I get up about 8:00, and get dressed, and before I leave the house to go see Sissy, I open the drawer to get my boot pistols, and they’re not there.”
“He stole your guns? Your matched pair of .22’s?” I was in shock.
“Yes, Tree. Those beautiful little Colt Diamondbacks you and Sissy gave me for my birthday. The ones I never leave home without. But, sweetheart, please don’t hyperventilate like that. We got ’em back, see?” She reached down, pulled up a pant leg to show me. Sure enough, she was packing, just like always.
“Okay.” I reached a hand around her head, planted a gentle kiss on her cheek. “And now…the rest of the story?”
“Plenty of it. It took me a while to come to grips with the truth. I mean, not all day or anything, but it was somewhere around nine, nine-thirty before I drove on over to your place without my babies. By that time, I’d searched the house high and low. Not only were the Colts gone, but so were the rifles. There wasn’t a shooter left in the place…and nobody had stepped a foot inside the place for weeks but me and Jerry Lee.”
When she’d fallen into Sissy’s arms, sobbing out her story, Sissy had held her till she got herself back under control–after which the two of them had marched across the yard to Jack Hill’s place and called War Council.
Before long, Jack had called Jennifer Trace at the ranch. If I called before they got back, she and Horace the tracker would grab a rig and go pick up me and the horses.
Which brought up a point. I interrupted Judi’s narrative, asking, “Come to think of it, how did you two know to be at the pickup point today, right when I needed you?”
“We didn’t,” she admitted. “If you’d died, we’d have felt it, so we were pretty sure you were still alive, but not when you’d be coming home. We just knew the storm was on the way, so we got down there while the getting was good. Got enough stuff with us to last through a couple of days and nights. We weren’t about to risk you popping out of the trees like you did and not being able to reach us, or us not being able to drive up through a bunch of snowdrifts.”
“Ah. Well, thank you both from the bottom of my heart.”
“You are welcome, kind sir,” they chorused.
Then Judi continued her tale. “By two p.m., the three of us were in Missoula, and–”
“Missoula?” I interrupted again. “Dangerous place for you, my dear.”
“For sure. But not near as dangerous as it was about to be for Jerry Lee Scumbag Parsons. Anyway, we figured if he was stealing guns, he had to be selling them, for what we weren’t sure yet, or why, but the first place to look was the pawn shops. And sure enough, the third one we walked into, there were my Colts, right there on display, asking $3,700 for the pair. And the Winchester, too. The other two rifles had already been sold, the pawnbroker told us.
“So then old Jack Hill went to work. Man, he’s good.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Yes, he is.”
“I couldn’t say I remember all of what he told the pawn guy, but the gist of it was, hey, buddy, you been fencing stolen goods here. Sissy’d brought along your original receipt for when you bought the Colts, and Theodore–that’s the pawnbroker–he just turned plumb white.”
I chuckled, picturing Jack at work. “I can imagine.”
“Yeah. So. Jack acted all sympathetic in a way, told Theodore he understood how these things can happen–and gave him a couple of options. He could reimburse me, cash, for the replacement cost of the rifles he’d already sold and hand back my other three guns free of charge, and we’d all forget the whole thing. No need to involve the cops. Or we could do it the hard way, press charges, get the District Attorney interested in this pawnbroker who fenced stolen firearms.
“With option #1, he’d lose a bunch of money, however much it was he’d given Jerry Lee for the Colts and the Winchester plus a thousand or so for the two weapons he’d already sold. But if he wanted, we’d join in with him in filing police reports and yes, taking the stand, too, come time for Jerry Lee Parsons to stand trial.
“If he went the hard way, option #2, it would most likely be Theodore going to jail, since we’d be reporting him as an unrepentant criminal fence, yada yada yada.”
I laughed aloud. “Looks like ’tis the season for offering options. I gave Alfredo Thomas some of those, too. Let me guess; Mr. Theodore took option #1?”
“He did, surly about it–must have pinched his weaselly little money grubbing pawnbroker heart to go that route, but he did it. Except for reporting Jerry Lee; he said he’d rather not do that.”
“Huh. Didn’t want the police paying too much attention to his pawn business, you think?”
“We think. I wouldn’t doubt he’s got some thug buddies looking for Jerry Lee to break his kneecaps or something, except I’m not sure Theodore’s the type to have buddies. But yeah; he seemed really anxious to avoid police attention.
“Anyway, I got my shooters back, and I was sore tempted to show off, you know, flash a little leg and strap my rigs on right there in the store. But the guy was such a weasel, it didn’t seem like a good idea to let him see I was used to carrying concealed, so I waited till we were in the car.”
She paused, catching her breath and waiting while Sissy negotiated the turn onto pavement at the Highway 200 intersection. No real danger with Sissy at the wheel, but it was definitely getting slick out. And nippy; the thermometer in the instrument cluster showed nine degrees above zero.
Visibility was so-so. You could see maybe 50 yards ahead, except when another vehicle came by and blew snow in your face, at which point you couldn’t see anything.
It made me glad we lived in low-traffic country like this. On a busy freeway, this weather would be a prescription for a pileup.
“So,” I asked, “did you catch up to my old football buddy, the fellow I introduced you to who stole from you. That’s a terrible rhyme, and I got guilt, too.”
Judi laughed her tinkling laugh, and I felt the bands around my heart melting, the bands I’d not even realized were there from the day she first left us to go with her new man.
“You nurse your guilt all you like, big man.” She punched me in the arm, lightly. “I’ll nurse my stupid for being sucked in and turning away from you, and that’ll make us even. We’ll be a matched set, Guilty and Stupid.”
“Fair enough.” I grinned at her. We held hands the rest of the way home.
“Anyway, yeah, we found ol’ Jerry Lee, all right. He was in jail. Still is in jail.”
Somehow, that made me feel mighty fine. But I had to know, though I could probably guess. “For what?”
“Turns out he’s a druggie, Tree. He’s heavy addicted to pain pills, prescription Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Percocet, Percodan, Demerol, anything he can get. In fact, he’s been addicted since high school, ever since his knee got messed up during a football game. It never showed up in the divorce papers, but that’s the real reason his wife dumped him; he was stealing her stuff just like he stole mine, all to pay for drugs on the street. It’s also the reason he didn’t have any gas left in the tank when he got here to apply for the welding job; he’d spent the last money he had on a big bunch of Vicodin rather than be able to keep driving or eating.”
“Aha.” The last piece of the puzzle clicked into place. “Which means he’s been high the whole time he’s been with us. Huh. He got busted, trying to buy?”
“Yeppers. Same hustler who’d sold him all that Vicodin at a bargain price had been supplying him every time he came to town. And New Year’s Eve was the big day. Said drug dude was an undercover deputy sheriff, big bust for him. The word is, the DA is going to try to hang Jerry Lee as buying for resale, not just using.”
Ouch. That had to be B.S., but if it stuck–and B.S. sticks more often than we’d like to believe–Jerry Lee Parsons could end up doing some serious hard time.
I was overjoyed that Judi was back, and frankly I didn’t care if my old high school friend and current employee had to be run over by a train to make that happen, but still….
“How’d you find out about all this, honey?”
“We went down to the jail. I told ’em I was the office manager where he worked–Jack warned me not to talk like I was his wife or engaged or anything, ’cause they might try to hang me as an accomplice or something, cops being cops. I put my cute on, and I’m pretty sure the Sergeant had the hots for me, so I got to talk to Jerry Lee. He told me all of it, including that the arresting officer was bragging about what they were going to do to him.”
“Jerry Lee?” She shook her head. “Not that I could see. He’d been without a pill fix long enough, he was already jonesing. Begged me to tell the jail staff he was really in a lot of pain so maybe they’d give him something. As if.”
My turn to sigh. “That does sound like your typical addict. I heard on the radio a week or two ago, Jerry Doyle I think, he was saying prescription pain pill addiction in this country is doing more damage than all of the street drug addictions combined. I hadn’t ever really thought much about it till I heard that…and now this.”
“Yeah.” She squeezed my hand. “And now this.”
Sissy had piloted us past Ovando; we were nearing our turnoff to the dirt road that would take us the rest of the way home. “Judi’s moved all of her stuff out of Jerry Lee’s mobile home, Tree. She says if by some miracle he comes through this and you keep him on, she can work with him at Rodeo Iron, since he’d be in the shop and her in the office, anyway–but on a personal level, there’s no going back.”
I nodded, looking fondly at our girl. “One strike and out. You learned your lesson with Merv the Perv.”
“Has he been to see the judge yet?”
“Are you kidding? This is New Year’s Day. You think a Missoula judge is going to spend the holiday processing idiots?”
“Likely not. Tomorrow, then?”
“Probably. Jack did some checking. He says it’ll be tomorrow unless there are just too many. You know, from all the New Year’s Eve partying, Stupid Drunk Tricks. Then it might not be till the next day. Why, you going to be there?”
“In the courtroom? Yeah. I don’t know yet if I can risk keeping him on at the shop or not. Depends on a bunch of things. But I’ll be there.
“That is, if Jack will run me down in the Subaru tonight, smack in the middle of this storm, I will. And if I can sleep on the way. I’m surely in no shape to make the run on my own.”
We were pulling into the driveway when Judi gave my hand another squeeze, then disengaged in order to zip up her coat. “I’m really glad you made it back okay, Tree.”
“I’m really glad you made it back okay, too, Judi,” I replied, realizing to the core of my being that truer words were never spoken.