Jack Hill was more than willing to chauffer me into Missoula for Jerry Lee’s court appearance. In fact, as he put it, he wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“I’ve got a hunch this may turn out to be downright entertaining, Tree,” he remarked with a twinkle in his eye.
Sitting in his kitchen, pouring heavily sugared coffee down my gullet by the quart, I was too brain dead from fatigue to think much about it, but it was clear he knew something I didn’t. I’d ask him later, once we were on the road, or maybe after I’d gotten a few hours of sleep. If I remembered. At the moment, Judi was packing my bag, Sissy had headed over to the ranch to offload the horses and get them back in the horse corral after feeding them a ration of rolled oats, and I was regaling the Hill household with a condensed version of my get-together with Alfredo Thomas.
Once I was done with that, Carolyn West dished up a bowl of beef stew for me. I didn’t think I was hungry, but my body thought otherwise.
I almost nodded off in my empty bowl, but Judi and Sissy came bustling in the door, one right after the other, bringing a frigid blast with them.
“Your gear is in the Outback,” Judi said. “All you need to do is pee in the snow before you go, crawl in the car, kick back the seat, and pass out.”
“Thanks, babe. I’m ready.”
“Almost, you are.” Sissy paused at the coat rack long enough to shrug out of her parka, then moved to join the rest of us at the table. “As soon as I give you a little update.”
“Huh?” I turned my bleary eyes her way, trying to process what she was saying.
“Good thing Jack will be with you on this run, cowboy. He can tell you what I said, in case you’re so sound asleep with your eyes open–a little bit open, anyway–that you don’t catch it on the first pass. While I was brushing down the horses, a thought hit me. I just checked the shop equipment against our inventory list. That brand new Mig welder is gone.”
I heard that, all right. “The portable? The one we got for aluminum, still in the box?”
“That’s the one. The spools of aluminum wire are gone, too.”
Okay. Now I was awake again. “Stuff he could carry out in a hurry, small enough he could hide it.”
“Looks like. I wish we’d thought to check the shop before we hit the pawn shops. We were just looking for Judi’s weapons, didn’t think about Rodeo Iron equipment.”
“Well…I guess if my old buddy would steal from the mother of his child, stealing from his boss wouldn’t bother him much, eh?”
No, of course it wouldn’t. On the other hand, Jerry Lee Parsons had “only” stolen from us. The last guy who ran a scam on me and mine was Shawn Hicks, and he tried to kill me with a grenade. By comparison, a few thousand dollars worth of grand larceny was nothing.
“Uh…Tree?” Judi raised her hand like a school girl.
“About me being the mother of his child…that turned out to be a false alarm. The home pregnancy test I used said I was, the rabbit died, but that little floppy eared sucker is still hopping around, eating carrots. I started my period yesterday.”
“It was a relief to me. Jerry Lee talked about wanting a family, and I let him talk me into it. If the baby in my belly had been real, sure I’d have treasured it, but the way things turned out….”
What could I say to that? I just nodded.
Nodded off, that is. I’d fallen asleep in the middle of her sentence.
They got me out into the Subaru, one way or another, but I didn’t remember moving. In all my adventures, and there’d been some dandies, I’d never hit my absolute limit like that.
When my eyes opened, Jack was parking the Subaru in front of our usual motel room. The ancient Protector had wheeled us all the way through, fighting the storm alone, yet he looked no worse for the experience. I checked my watch. 10:33 p.m., exactly twelve hours after I’d awakened on horseback at Nelson Springs.
What a difference a half day makes.
We stashed our bags, Jack went to sign the motel log, and we headed for the nearest restaurant. Now I was starving.
“Took a lot of hours getting here,” I observed. “Road was a b*tch?”
He shrugged. “Slick enough, wind wanted to blow us off the road until we got down into the canyon. Seven hours to make a two hour run. But I didn’t have to shovel any drifts. In this weather, that’s a bonus.”
“True that.” We were the only customers in the place, except for one dirty old man nursing his coffee and staring at the young waitress’s rear end whenever he thought he could get away with it. Our booth was far enough in the back to give us privacy, and Danielle–according to her name tag, anyway–didn’t seem to mind the hike from the kitchen. In fact, I had a hunch she was happy to see us. It couldn’t have been a fun shift, having an eighty year old horndog on oxygen as her only customer.
She made a point of dropping by with the coffee pot on a regular basis, and our steaks were delivered almost before they hit the warming table. Danielle was kind of chubby, but cheerful, with a bright eyed look that reminded me of the squirrels in the trees at Top O’ the Deep.
“A true admirer?” I asked, indicating the old lecher.
“My grandfather. And yes, he is a dirty old man.”
She said it without rancor, just stating the facts.
I couldn’t think of anything to say, but Jack could. “I see he’s into family values.”
“That,” she grinned, “and a few other things. He just got out of Deer Lodge last week. A gen-yoo-wine registered sex offender. But he’s no danger to me. I just make sure he’s never in the same room alone with my boys.”
With that, she flounced off, clearly enjoying herself.
“Is she for real, or is she pulling our legs?”
Jack didn’t answer for a few seconds; he’d already cut into his ribeye and had to swallow before speaking. “I’d say she’s just telling us how it is.”
“What I thought. Guess maybe our little challenges, you know, homicidal maniacs and druggie thieves and such…we don’t have it so bad. Not so bad at all.”
Morning dawned clear and cold, seven below zero, clear sky overhead.
No more snow, no wind.
Jack found a place to park on the street a couple of blocks from the County Courthouse, and we walked the rest of the way. After stashing our weapons under an old shirt carelessly tossed behind the driver’s seat for just that purpose, that is. It wouldn’t do to be packing when we hit the metal detectors, and you never knew when law enforcement might suddenly decide to search every vehicle in the courthouse parking lot.
I’d never actually seen it happen, but Jack said he had, a time or two.
They let us in to find seats precisely at eight o’ clock. Jack and I both wore neckties and western blazers over crisp, new blue Wranglers, just in case. If there was any reason for us to speak, we wanted to look thoroughly country and a little bit spiffy, all at the same time.
At 8:06, deputies brought in the prisoners slated to see the judge. There were seventeen of them, all in orange jumpsuits and shackles, 21st century chain gang, Montana style. They had their own seating, tiered benches along one wall.
Jerry Lee Parsons shuffled to his place with the rest of them, eighth in the line. Not that he’d necessarily be the eighth man called to stand before the judge–oh. Here came three more, females, directed to a section of bench well away from the guys.
So. Twenty in all. Looked like a busy morning for Judge Henderson Shaw, but what did I know? Maybe this many were as nothing to him.
At any rate, it looked like we’d picked the right day to be here.
Did Jerry Lee see us? I didn’t think so. We weren’t making any effort to hide, but none of the prisoners were paying attention to the audience. They were focused on the bench, as they should be.
Naturally, we all stood when the judge entered, sat back down when he told us to. I’d been on the short end of the stick in enough courtrooms as a juvenile to understand how the system worked; that’s for sure.
Jerry Lee was called around 9:30. Judge Shaw read the charges, asked the prisoner if he understood them…and my ears could hardly believe Parsons’ reply.
We were back home before the sun went down. Jenifer Trace gave the cook the night off. We gathered in the Trace ranch kitchen, all of the Inner Circle, together again for one more War Council.
The winter weather was bothering Horace’s steel-pinned leg some, but he served up the lasagna, anyway.
I looked around the table. Horace, Jennifer, Wayne, Carolyn, Sissy, Judi, Jack…and me. Between us, we eight Souls had lived through a lot…and once the eight of us had finally been assembled, the lists had been closed. Every time we let another Soul get even slightly close, we got burned.
Why eight? Why not the Magnificent Seven or, alternatively, some higher number?
“Earth to Treemin!”
“Uh…sorry, Jennifer. I was woolgathering. So, Jerry Lee Parsons. The judge asked him if he understood the charges against him. He stood there, orange coveralls and shackles and all, and told the Court he did not understand because he’d done nothing wrong.”
“He what?!” Judi exploded. “After he told me the whole story?”
“Judi,” Jack put in gently, “Jerry Lee was standing there, all right, shaking like a leaf, but neither Tree nor I could be sure how much was withdrawal, how much was righteous indignation, or how much might have been acting. We don’t think the judge could tell, either. He’s clearly in denial, has himself convinced he’s the victim here, but–”
“Trying for an insanity defense?” Horace’s lips quirked in amusement.
“Hard to say,” I said, “but one thing is clear. We can’t predict what Parsons is going to say next. The judge didn’t order a psychiatric evaluation; he just had him sent back to jail, assigned a Public Defender, set his bail high at $100,000 since he figured Jerry Lee for a flight risk, and set a new court date for February 14th.”
Judi spewed her coffee, causing Jennifer to jump up and head for the paper towel dispenser. “Valentine’s Day? The day we were supposed to get married?!”
“Uh-huh. Both sides, the Public Defender and the District Attorney’s office, are supposed to have it figured out by then, what to do with him, I guess.”
Jack Hill, having seen more of the way the criminal justice system worked than anybody else present, took up the explanation. “Nobody’s thinking an insanity defense would work in a drug case. Heck, it very seldom even works when it comes to murder. We don’t know yet what the Public Defender will conclude. We do know the charges the judge read did not include buying for resale. The multiple buys from the undercover deputy, yes, but not the resale part. So, Judi, Jerry Lee lied to you about that.”
“Or,” Jennifer Trace put in, “he believed it when he said it.”
“Yeah,” Jack admitted. “Could be that, too. But the point his, the boy’s mouth is loose from its moorings. He could say anything–and that means we have to stop and think: Does he know anything that could hurt us? Have any of us slipped and let him in on even one of our secrets?”
None of us stared at Judi when this was said, but his former fiancée was the obvious main target of concern. A lot of loose lips have sunk ships when pillow talk was involved.
To her credit, she stopped, scanning back through her memories before speaking.
“I’m pretty sure I’m clean,” she said at last. “And believe it or not, I have my ex to thank for that. I can tell Tree and Sissy anything, duh, but ol’ Merv was a husband from whom the wife had to keep secrets if she wanted to survive. And as much as I thought I was in love with Jerry Lee for a while there, I definitely knew better than to tell him anything I wouldn’t tell the Billings Gazette. Which was easy enough; he mostly prized me for my listening, anyway. Jerry Lee, behind closed doors, mostly liked to talk about Jerry Lee.”
I hadn’t known that. But then, I hadn’t been intimate with the fellow, either.
My turn. “You’d think if anybody blew it with Parsons, it would have been me. After all, we go way back, clear to high school football. And I not only hired him–another miscalculation like Shawn Hicks, I’m batting a thousand–but he lived under our roof for three weeks. I mostly remember talking with him about high school, his knee injury, and the welding business. I’m positive I didn’t drop any high risk terms like the Wolf War, Morse Code, or anything like that–but I have to admit, I’m uneasy about it all the same.”
It went like that, all around the table. None of us could point to a single thing we remembered saying that could put our secrets at risk…but we were still nervous.
In the end, all eight of us heaved the only collective sigh I can remember us ever heaving.
Then I summarized. “Bottom line, we think we’re okay, but we can’t be 100% sure. It’d be marvelous to have a spy in the District Attorney’s office, somebody who could tell us if Jerry Lee started spinning tales about us, but not even Jack has a contact who can do that. Not safely, anyway. So the best we can do is mark our calendars and get on with our lives for now. That, and make sure Jack and I are back in the courtroom on Valentine’s Day, so we can hear every word from the horse’s mouth in case he decides to be a horse’s ass.
“Better that than having the authorities show up here with a search warrant someday, and us with no warning.”
There was general agreement, though Horace the tracker had one last question. “You gonna go his bail, Tree?”
That time, it was me who spewed the coffee, but I got my own paper towels to clean up the mess. Jennifer was too busy serving pie.