When it came to Trace Nation, there was the inner circle…and then there was the Inner Circle. The inner circle included all eight of us who knew everything about everything: Jack Hill’s household, my household, rancher Jennifer Trace, and old Horace the tracker. The decision makers, however, boiled down to an Inner Circle that included Jennifer, Jack, and Jackson–i.e. yours truly, Treemin Jackson. What the three of us decided on a daily basis would make or lose money for all of us. In some cases, those decisions would keep us all alive and out of prison…or not.
For the new year, we’d made a joint resolution. Our responsibilities had grown exponentially since Sam Trace’s death. We needed to keep our A game polished up at all times. To that end, beginning in January of 2014, we’d begun meeting one Sunday morning every month, starting with breakfast in the Trace ranch house kitchen and running until noon, no exceptions, no excuses.
Of course, if a true emergency sprang up, like an armed attack or a calf that needed to be pulled, we’d go handle that and reschedule for later. But for the most part, we three took these meetings seriously indeed…and this was the first one. A curious Montana trio we were, too: One sixtyish widow rancher, hard as nails when she needed to be, with a heart as big as all outdoors and enough beauty, still, to snag any man she wanted, had she wanted another man after the love of her life had died protecting her. One bald headed old Protector, looking a hale and hearty 75 or 80 but in truth so ancient he’d fought on both sides in the Civil War, a warrior and a lover both, and the one man on the planet I was happiest to have on my side rather than against me. And me, perhaps the strangest anomaly of them all, a six foot three, 200 pound, 26 year old black man the shade of Herman Cain, a creosote critter who’d grown up a troubled young Idaho cowboy, morphing from a delinquent, thieving teen into the sole owner of the fastest growing welding company in all of the mountain states.
Not even the science fiction writers could come up with a group like us. Not and be believable, they couldn’t.
“Jack didn’t come over with you?” Jennifer asked as I entered, hanging up my parka and shucking my overshoes before grabbing a seat at the table.
“Said he had something to finish up first.” I picked the coffee pot off the stove–which my long arm could reach from my favorite chair–and poured myself a cup. “Ah!”
“Ah, this coffee’s hot, and ah, here he comes now.”
Hill was up to something; I’d bet my bottom dollar on it. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to open the ball, though, so I gave my report first, in between bites. “Rodeo Iron is running so smoothly at the moment, it’s making me nervous. Clark Higgins looks to have Idaho on the fast track, Adam Microondas is on schedule for the North Dakota kickoff, Chuck Berenson has our freight problems about two thirds licked, and that new foreman I hired in the welding shop, Robert Cranston, is working out beautifully. He’s better organized than I ever thought of being, and the welders don’t seem to mind him being put over them–in fact, a couple of them have told me they prefer the daily structure he gives them, just yay much work to do each shift, do it right, and no worries.”
Jennifer was nodding. Chewing and swallowing and nodding. “Fear of success.”
“You’ve heard of the fear of failure?”
“Sure,” I nodded back. “Who hasn’t?”
“Well, fear of success is the other side of the same coin. People who have fear of success tend to get really edgy when things go too well. In some cases, or so I’ve read, they end up subconsciously sabotaging their own careers to avoid having to deal with the problems of success.”
That I could understand. Payroll, government intervention and over-regulation, taxes, price cutting competition, backstabbing lying competition, the aforementioned transportation situation, you name it. However…”I sure hope I’m not sabotaging myself. That just wouldn’t be any fun at all.”
“No,” Jack Hill put in, “it wouldn’t. But I’ve noticed, Tree, you don’t seem to slow down long enough to worry about too much success as long as there’s a must-handle challenge right smack in front of your face. And,” he looked at Jennifer, then back at me, “I do believe I might just have the next challenge to keep your mind occupied in all that spare time your new foreman is giving you.”
“Trouble?” Jennifer and I both asked at the same time, in stereo.
“Hope not. More a way to stay out of trouble, should the time come. Here.” He reached into his briefcase and pulled out color copies of a rough sketch, no doubt the “something” he’d been working on before leaving his house this morning.
The sketch wasn’t to scale. In fact, it was a hurried bit of freehand; most likely, he’d thought of it just minutes before heading out to our meeting. But it didn’t need to be fancy; we caught his drift just fine.
Jack Hill was proposing a major tunnel project that would connect key portions of Trace Nation to each other.
For the first time I could remember, the widow Trace and I both played devil’s advocate, letting Jack defend his idea if he could.
Jennifer: “That’s a full three miles worth of tunnel.”
Jack: “Exactly. If there’s big trouble, black helicopters coming after us or some such, three miles from Tree’s and my homes to the Wolf Cave entrance is a forever long hike. With a tunnel unknown to any and all opposition, we could cover that same ground–or underground, I guess you’d say–in relative safety. If we did it right, not even the drones could suck up our where we’re goings.”
Me: “Lot of this land around here, it’s no more than a few feet to bedrock. We’d need multiple tons of explosives, and all that without the feds cracking wise. Which means nobody but the inner circle could ever find out, or else.”
Jack: “Precisely my point. The bulk explosives are prills, what ranchers often use for nitrogen based fertilizer, like the stuff Timothy McVeigh and friends used in the Oklahoma City bombing. Not the high tech charges that actually brought down the building, but the truck bomb our wonderful guvmint used for cover. Jennifer, as a rancher legitimately using many tons of fertilizer every year, it would be a piece of cake for you to cover slipping a ton or two of prills into Wolf Cave from time to time without anyone being the wiser. Then there’s the TNT. Any good six foot drill hole full of prills needs one stick of dynamite to help it go boom, and guess what? I just happen to know of a mine that’s going out of business. The owner will give me as many cases of dynamite as I want, cash under the table, and at a bargain price at that. He’s no lover of the government, and he doesn’t talk out of school.
“That leaves the blasting caps, which he’ll throw in with the TNT at no extra charge, plus rolls of fuse we can cut to length and even a batch of spitter cord used to fire up the fuses.”
Me: “Hm. Waste disposal? What about that?”
“That,” he admitted, “is a logistics problem I haven’t figured out yet. If we do this at all, we probably ought to do it big enough to use our vehicles, an 8′ x 8′ drift or so, which would accommodate anything short of the 18 wheeler. That’s 64 cubic feet per linear foot of advance, just over a million total cubic feet over three miles, nearly 35,000 cubic yards. I have to say, that’s a lot of rock to pile in a pile.”
“Take forever, too,” I muttered under my breath, but he heard me.
“Not quite, but yeah,” Jack agreed cheerfully. “If we bit the bullet and invested in a decent buzzy and a jackleg instead of drilling everything by hand with a single jack, a two man crew could drill and load one round per four hour shift, six feet of advance. Maybe as much as eight, but I’m a lot more comfortable working with six. Two thousand, six hundred and forty shifts, something like seven and a quarter years to complete if we were able to drill and blast every single day, without exception. Say ten years realistically, maybe as much as twenty. Plus, I’m the only one of us without a major organization to run day to day. Wayne Bruce could work with me, or at least he says he can, though he’s never worked underground or lit a single fuse in his life.”
We sat silent for a while, pondering. No one asked the obvious question; we all understood the desirability of such a tunnel if we could get it done. In essence, Trace Nation operated exactly like that, a sovereign nation outside the control of any other government whatsoever. Outlaws, in other words. Outwardly, we all complied fully with the laws, rules, ordinances, and B.S. of the United States of America–except for the abomination known as Obamacare, of course. In private, we made our own rules.
And those who made their own rules, especially when surviving in close proximity with foes who could crush them in open combat, well understood the value of underground tunnels. Ask the Viet Cong, during the Vietnam War, or the violent drug cartels operating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in the here and now.
But could it be done?
If it could, and it took ten or twenty years to build…well, Jennifer Trace would be getting up there in years (and what about her estate when she dies, I wondered, but that was a worry for another day). Jack Hill, on the other hand, wasn’t planning on passing from this vale of tears for a good long while yet; an extensive tunnel system on this precise property might give him the edge, a tool to help produce a seat of power from which he could operate for centuries to come, bypassing the need to move on to a new place with a new identity every fifty years or so. And me, I’d only be in my mid-forties, even if it took 20 years.
Yes. It was a great idea. But.
I finally broke the silence. “I like it, Jack. In fact, it’s freaking awesome. Being able to move our people to safety without showing their faces, being able to shift between places when the roads are snowed in or the enemy is raining lead down on our heads…yeah. I get that. But I think we need to table this discussion for another time. Maybe next month’s meeting. The waste disposal problem is a big one; until we can figure out how to hide all that rock, seems to me we’d better sleep on it.”
Jack was nodding. Jennifer had something to say. “I agree with Tree. Awesome concept, proceed with caution, think it through. We’ve all seen the mountains of mine tailings around the country; major excavations like that aren’t easy to hide. In the meantime, while we’re figuring out how to pull that one off, we need a code name for the project.”
“Makes sense to me,” Hill grinned. “How about Deep Throat?”
The widow Trace twinkled at him. “Not bad. Did you come up with that one?”
“Actually,” he confessed, “it was Carolyn West.” And he had the grace to blush.
Jennifer and I both broke up. Jack pretended to be offended by our laughter, but we could tell he was secretly pleased that we got it.