My eyes snapped open, staring into the dark.
It was Monday morning, but barely; the clock on the dresser said 1:01 a.m. Judi slept deeply, at peace, snuggled between Sissy on the wall side and me on the door side. My girls rotated that center position, not difficult to do in a king size bed, but my sleeping spot was ever and always the Warrior’s Position, nearest the most likely point of attack, should some suicidal home invader come blasting down the hallway.
This was rural Montana–really rural Montana, in the foothills north of Ovando, not far from the southern border of the rugged Bob Marshall Wilderness–where one would not think such an attack to be likely in the least. On the other hand, those who do not think, who are not prepared, populate the list of victims around the world.
We’d all been through literal combat, facing people with guns who were trying to kill us. We took no chances.
Sissy was undoubtedly at least as deadly as I was when it came to it, and even petite little Judi was no slouch. Any lady who can hurl a tray of food at a charging ex-husband who’s throwing down on her with a .41 Magnum is a born fighter. But the warrior’s side was mine; I’d claimed it from the beginning.
I couldn’t have lived with myself any other way.
Sitting up carefully, hoping to avoid waking anyone else, my feet found the slippers on the floor just as ten pounds of black and white cat landed on my shoulder. It had become a ritual. First, Ruby kitten would love-knead, tucked up next to my face for a few minutes after we’d all settled in for the night. She never stayed, eventually hopping up on top of the headboard, where she slept until I got up. How she managed to balance without digging her claws in, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t complaining, either.
Why the headboard? No clue; the other cats, Mimi and Momo, had their favorite spots on the bed, preferring the soft blankets, often snoozing between the legs of one human or another so that we’d all adopted the practice of turning over very carefully or not at all, even when deep asleep.
Ruby hopped down onto the kitchen table after I turned up the heat, flipped on the light, and sat down to write. The felines had the run of the furniture, table included, except during mealtimes. We had to brush a bit of cat hair from the table top from time to time, but so what? House kitties are not as tall as humans; to see eye to eye with us, they needed a bit of height. God made the big critter, God made the little critter, and then God made the equalizer.
The pen flowed across the paper, almost of its own accord.
Dream #1: I’m roving, countryside, near a town. See a lone individual, Nancy?? The girl I met while I was AWOL from McCrossan Boys Ranch that time, nearly ten years ago now? Think so. She seems to have access to a sort of warehouse, furniture in it, couches and such. Clearly, she’s a hooker, five-four maybe, trim, slim, blue sheath dress, heavy pancake face makeup but lively eyes, body looking good. Searching inwardly for a way to ask, I say,
“This gig going all right for you?”
“Not bad,” she smiles, clearly recognizing me. Blast from the past. We’d never done it together, but I’d wanted to.
“I had one helluva crush on you,” I admit, “from wa-ay back, when you were so young it would have been a pedophile situation.”
She laughs, delighted. I’ve just amused her immensely, and that’s a good thing. “So, now?”
Without knowing her prices, or even if she’s offering a freebie, I shake my head. “No condom.”
The girl–what, twenty-five or so now?–simply smiles. “Got a sock?”
A sock? “No. Frankly, I won’t use a condom, period. Tried those, didn’t like them. At her sudden look of alarm, I add, “I’d rather, um, self service than use a condom.”
She relaxes, realizing I’m not proposing unprotected sex; I’m not proposing any sort of sex at all.
Dream #2 (No segue, but in my dreams, there often aren’t.) I’m speaking with somebody I sort-of know from Rexburg, Idaho, where I went to school while growing up on the Bowles ranch. “I’ve been hearing a rumor that my Dad is homeless these days. Anything to it? We haven’t been in touch in years.” Which is an understatement; I’ve never even met the man.
“Yeah,” the guy replies, “I heard that, too. It’s probably true.”
“Here? Around Rexburg?”
He shook his head. “He’s not listed on the homeless rolls for Rexburg. South Dakota, I think.”
“Uh…Corpus Christi is in Texas.”
“Oh. Then maybe you need to go to Texas.”
What on Earth was that all about? The Nancy dream, sure; that was what it was. Clear contact, no mockups, real deal. Somewhere, on some plane of existence, she was making her living on her back and okay with it.
But the Dad thing…as far as I could recall, my old man had knocked up Mom when she worked for him at the Hartford Police Department in Connecticut, then dumped her when she turned up preggers. Or something like that. Not only had I never met the bastard, but I’d never even wanted to, and my mind had not changed on that point. I didn’t even know if he was alive or dead, if the dream referred to something on the physical or on the astral plane, nor did I much care.
Or so I thought. Soul has its own priorities; the shallow human mind can’t always keep up with it. There could be something in the wind…
…or my Dream Censor could be messing with my head, a rather common occurrence. As I understand it, that dude, the Censor, is tasked with guarding one’s dreams, filtering and masking the true content sufficiently to keep from driving the dreamer stark raving mad. You know, a You can’t handle the truth! sort of thing. Which is a necessary function, but like any functionary, the Dream Censor doesn’t always judge its human accurately. Some can handle a lot more than others, and….
Well. I didn’t figure to go chasing off to Texas looking for a man I wouldn’t even recognize on sight.
Symbology…homeless…Corpus Christi translated as “body of Christ”, but with me not being a Christian, what–?
My eidetic memory couldn’t help figure this one out, either. Not with dreams; my dream state recall was maybe a bit better than most, but hardly flawless. And not with my biological sperm donor of a father, who’d apparently gifted me with a few decent genes while sparing me from his more negative personality traits.
But I still wasn’t going to get back to sleep. We’d gone to bed early, around nine o’clock. I’d had four hours; I could run the day on that.
When the others got up, the cats were fed, coffee hot, waffles and bacon ready. I’d even washed the dishes we’d left in the sink the night before.
“Daylight in the swamps,” I told the girls cheerfully. “Eat up, me hearties. ‘Tis a big day in the fields today.”
Not that we were literal field hands, of course, but they knew what I meant.
8:12 a.m. Sissy was making her rounds as Security Chief. Judi and I were both working in the office, she handling payroll records while I pored over the specs for a new special order from a rancher outside of Dillon. He wanted a differently designed set of working stock corrals, nothing we’d ever seen before; it wouldn’t do to either make a mistake or, for that matter, to accept one of his desired panel designs at face value. If Rodeo Iron welded those panels up the way the rancher had sketched them, we were going to end up using way too much steel; the cost would be prohibitive. If possible, I had to find a way to point that out to him without losing the business. If not possible, we’d have to refuse the order altogether, which would be a revolting situation.
Especially since there were other companies out there, not to mention a fair number of individual welders, who’d love to take us down a peg or two.
The sat phone rang.
“Rodeo Iron,” Judi answered. “How may I direct your call?”
When she turned white and handed the phone to me, I braced myself. “Treemin Jackson here. How may I help you?”
“Tree?” The voice sounded shaky. Also familiar.
“Yeah.” Thomas “Tommy” Mielsberg, one of our better welders. “Me and–Tree, our carpool, we–we’re not gonna make it to work today, boss. I mean, I know I shoulda called earlier, but we’re–I’m in an ambulance. Headed to Deer Lodge.”
He fell silent. I asked quietly, “How bad?”
There was a long pause. Now that I was listening for it, I could hear the engine running, but no sirens. So either there was no rush getting to the hospital with the injured, or somebody was already dead.
Mielsberg got it together finally, all of 22 years old, being the man. “Nobody dead, at least not yet. I lost it on that last hard curve in Helmville Canyon. Put the car on its side, into the trees. My left arm is banged up pretty good, maybe a hairline fracture. Benny got knocked out, concussion for sure, don’t know how bad yet; he went in the first ambulance. If anybody’s got a chance of dying, though, he’s it. Curly’s bot a busted nose, and Willam–I think he’s okay, banged up some, but on his feet and cussing ’cause he’s missing a day’s work.”
“Don’t worry about that,” I told him, though I knew he would. I’d have to set Judi to crunching numbers, see if we could afford to grant these four at least partial pay until we could figure out how bad it was going to be. “I’ll be there ASAP.”
“Don’t kill yourself coming down the Canyon, boss.”
“Wouldn’t think of it.”
Jack Hill rode with me. I’d called him to let him know what was up, and he’d urged me to wait until he could drive over, park his Subaru at the welding shop, and jump in the Pontiac. It hadn’t taken much urging; I needed to talk to him at length anyway, and he was there in four minutes flat. I’d barely finished briefing Sissy and the foreman by the time he pulled up.
It wasn’t the land speed record I’d set before on a Deer Lodge run, but it wasn’t stopping to smell the roses, either.
In Helmville Canyon, the remains of Tommy’s Chevy Impala were still making love to the pine trees alongside the road.
“Damn,” Jack observed. “He said one busted arm, a concussion, and a busted nose are the worst that came out of that?”
I nodded without taking my eyes off the treacherous, ice-slick gravel road; we were heading downhill, triple the danger of coming up the grade as the welder had been. “Yeah. That’s what he said.”
Despite needing to run something by the old Protector, I hadn’t yet broached the subject on my mind. Once we were out of the Canyon and onto the I-90 freeway, though, I opened up.
“Jack, you know Jim Blake’s place.”
“Sure. Hasn’t been functioning as a working ranch since Jim’s arthritis forced him to town. Two thousand square foot main house, decent barn, so-so machine shop, couple of calving sheds. Never was a huge operation, maxed out at 150 cow calf pairs. Fourteen hundred deeded acres, the rest of it BLM lease, though Jim told me he’s likely to let the leases go, next time they expire. It’s not like he’s going to need the summer range, with no cattle left to run. Still half a dozen horses on the place; he drives out from Deer Lodge to care for them and take one out for a ride, time to time, but mostly they graze on their own.”
“How’s the water?”
He had to think a minute. “No year around running water, per se, but there are three…no, four good springs. They don’t show on the maps, but they’re there, all right. The best, or at least the most developed one, is up the hill from the barn. He’s got underground piping that supplies the house and water corral both. What you got in mind, Tree?”
I sighed deeply. “Well. I don’t know if Blake is ready to sell out yet–”
“I can tell you he ain’t,” Hill interrupted. “Not lock, stock, and barrel, anyway. He might be willing to split it up some, depending on what you got in mind.”
For a long moment, I was silent, mentally going over the lay of the land as I’d seen it. “He might hate my idea even worse than selling the whole thing,” I admitted. “It surely wouldn’t give him the mountain man kind of privacy he had all during his working years. But if he’d part with that south pasture, that’s what–eighty acres or so?”
“Right around that.”
“Well…I’m thinking we–Rodeo Iron–we need to build us a…I guess you could call it a company town. Housing enough for up to 40 welders and their families, plus maybe a small store stocking the essentials, milk and bread and meat, first aid items, stuff like that.”
Hill let out a low whistle. “It might work. I take it you’re figuring you need to get your welders a way to avoid these two-hour commutes each way. For those coming out of Deer Lodge or Drummond especially, so they wouldn’t have to worry about Helmville Canyon coming and going?”
“Got it in one.”
“Hm. Admirable concept, my friend, but way expensive. What about doing something with the town of Lincoln?”
I shook my head. “Cost even more, and I’m pretty sure that if anybody in town–in Lincoln–got wind of what I was up to, the price of land would skyrocket beyond what it is now. Plus, a lot of our guys, or at least their wives, aren’t going to want to send their kids to school in Lincoln. From Jim’s place, it’d be easy to catch the school bus to Drummond. Drummond’s no metropolis, but they’ve got a decent education program. Even produced a state championship ball team or two over the years, basketball and football both, depending on the decade.”
He chuckled. “Uh-huh. And you get a whole slug of Rodeo Iron families living up here, their kids will end up owning that high school. Which may not make the town of Drummond all that happy.”
“Couldn’t care less about that,” I admitted.
“I could talk to Jim,” he said thoughtfully. “That south pasture is out of sight of ranch headquarters, and it’s already fenced off. If the Rodeo Iron people were given to understand that their brats weren’t to be traipsing up the grade to trespass on the rest of the ranch…well, kids will be kids, and there’d be some sort of Hell to pay sooner or later, but…I dunno. It’s worth a shot.”
This time my sigh was one of relief. “You’ll do it then? Talk to Blake for me?”
“Sure. But even if we can work something out with Jim, how you figure to accomplish the rest of it? I mean, there are some major obstacles here. Getting Powell County to okay the development, for one thing. Fifty years ago, piece of cake, but now every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants a piece of the action. Ecological studies, where the water’s coming from, who has rights to it, how the septic will be handled, whether the freaking spotted owl might drop a feather or two….”
“Yeah. I know.”
“No you don’t. Up where we are at Trace Nation, we’ve got it good. We can hide most of what we’re doing so the County never cracks wise, and we’re remote enough that not too many inspectors care to meander out that far. But Jim’s place, while it looks like it’s sitting right in the middle of the wilderness, it’s really not that far off the beaten track. You’re going to have the County Nazis watching you like a hawk, maybe holding up progress, unless…unless we can grease the right palms just a little, get the right people to looking the other way….”
“And you know just how to do it, don’t you?” Our conversation had already taken us past Garrison; the Pontiac swept right, leaving the Lookout Pass option behind and heading on in to Deer Lodge. “Eleven miles to go.” Not that I needed to say it; Jack had been running these roads for more than a century before I’d come along.
“I might. I just might. Obviously, this is going to put our tunnel idea on the back burner for a while, but I can see it’s necessary. Okay, let’s say we find a way to slick the paperwork. How in Hell are you going to find the money for materials and labor to build that many houses? I mean, I know Rodeo Iron is on a tear, but it’s not raking in that much disposable income.”
I nodded in agreement, trying to look innocent as a Highway Patrolman passed us going the other way, willing myself not to think about all the questionable and in some cases downright illegal modifications my 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix wore under its plain white skin. “You’re right about that, and I haven’t yet figured out the building materials angle. But the labor shouldn’t be a problem. How about this? Let’s use Tommy as an example. His arm heals up, he’s back to work, but the Canyon scares the crap out of him for the rest of his life, at least when the roads are slick. So he’s highly motivated.
“We give him an opportunity: Tommy, if you would like to build your own home, working on the weekends and maybe your vacation time and heck, even a bit in the evenings when the weather is good if you want to camp onsite, here’s what Rodeo Iron will do. We’ll supply all the materials. We’ll supply a supervisor–’cause Tommy’s a fine welder but doesn’t know carpentry and plumbing and electrical from his left eyeball–and when the dwelling is done, it’s all yours…for life. You don’t own it, Tommy me lad, but you have a contract that gives you the right to dwell therein with your family for as long as you draw breath on this Earth. Think he’d go for that?”
Jack Hill thought for a minute or two before answering. “No doubt. But you’d want to cross your t’s and dot your i’s. For instance, what happens if he finishes the building, then drops dead the next day, leaving behind a pretty young pregnant widow without a penny to her name. Dispossess the girl, throw her out?”
“Ten years free rent for the widow and whatever rounder she takes up with, as long as he’s not a druggie or other form of insufferable lowlife,” I replied.
“Yeah. You’d need an eviction clause, call it the OWAR, Out With A-holes Rule.”
I laughed aloud, but Jack wasn’t done. “You’ll need to charge your builder-welder some rent from the get-go,” he pointed out, “or Rodeo Iron’s coffers will never stand the financial drain.”
“Oh, and who’s going to supervise all this building activity? You got a spare expert lying around, doing nothing?”
“Hardly,” I replied, hitting the turn signal and getting ready to take the Deer Lodge exit. “The only guy I know who could handle something like that is always busy. But then again, you know what they say; if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”
It took my partner almost three seconds to realize I was talking about him.