We were all the way back into Montana, running the home stretch through the middle of the night, when Spirit bitch-slapped me upside the head to get my attention. Suddenly alert, I eased off on the gas, flipping the left turn signal, aiming for the rest stop on top of the hill between Hardin and Billings. I’d been fighting sleep at the wheel, not quite out of it but too close for comfort, letting Jack Hill snore in his tipped-back seat.
He popped right up, though, staring out at the lights fuzzed by falling snow. “Pit stop?”
“Or something. Need to wake up a touch if nothing else. But Jack, something….”
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his eyes, coming fully awake. “I feel it, too. Here, you think? Or something down the highway, a reason we don’t want to be there right this instant?”
“Can’t tell.” The ’89 Grand Prix crunched to a stop in the parking lot. We stepped out, settling stocking caps on our heads. Our heavy coats were on, but unzipped. I reached back behind, in under the coat, slipping off the Walther’s safety and unsnapping the hammer strap. The distinctive double -snick!- of a round being chambered in Jack’s Colt Challenger told me he was taking similar precautions. In the movies, our actions would have alerted viewers to expect a shootout with bad guys, but this wasn’t the movies. We just didn’t intend to require five seconds to draw and activate our weapons if it turned out two seconds was all we had. Neither one of us qualified as Quick Draw McGraw.
There was only one other vehicle, parked seven or eight spaces down. An old, tan Ford Econoline van. Way old, seventies vintage at a guess. As we walked past, we could hear its engine cooling; its occupants hadn’t been here long.
We were no more than a couple of steps from the men’s room door when we heard the sounds, the unmistakable impacts of fists on flesh, something else that qualified as neither grunt nor whimper but might have been something in between.
Jack and I shared a look. I got hold of the door handle with my left hand, yanked, and we stepped swiftly inside.
It was a scene out of Deliverance, north country snowbound version. Four men, two of them big S.O.B.’s, had caught themselves a fifth man–or maybe a boy; we couldn’t tell right at that moment. The victim was bent over, his neck half crushed in a standing guillotine hold by the Soul-ugliest Indian I’d ever seen.
No, I’m not going to call him a Native American. He might have been Native, but he didn’t deserve to be called an American. Six-three at a guess, about my own height, but close to three hundred pounds, and way too much of it was not fat. Heavy features, cruel and twisted, the feral light of pure malice sparking from his eyes.
“Get the f*ck outa here!” He snarled, and the others turned to see who had dared interrupt their Midwinter Night’s Dream. It was a bit after two a.m. on a Monday morning in the middle of a snowstorm; they hadn’t expected company.
I didn’t say anything, nor did Jack. Their party favor had his jeans down around his ankles, but his briefs were still in place. They’d been toying with him, laughing after they’d punched him into submission, though the guy’s right hand was where I could see it, and it had blood on it to match the other big man’s bloody nose. Whoever was getting the short end of the stick had put up a fight, and he hadn’t been stuck yet.
I slid forward a step, getting my back to the wall, just short of the sink. Jack sidestepped, getting another wall at his back, making sure we wouldn’t be getting in each other’s way when the action started. And start it would, soon enough. Neither of us reached for a weapon. It was too close in here, too many opponents, the .22’s too unlikely to stop all four of them cleanly–and even if they did, the legal aspects could get ugly. There might be prints or DNA left behind, and since we’d not be shooting the victim, there’d be a witness we didn’t know from Adam’s off ox, a witness who couldn’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut. The guns, therefore, would truly be used only if we found ourselves in the process of being killed outright.
We didn’t discuss this; we both simply knew. It was like that with us.
The thing was…was it like that with these four Ford Econoline Comancheros, too? The big Indian looked close to fullblood, but he was the only one. The other big guy, he of the bloody nose and apparent interest in being first to acquaint himself with another man’s nether regions, was either white or passing for white, and almost as mean looking as the head-holder.
Those two were our biggest dangers; the other pair were scrawny, paint huffing addicts by the gold and silver shades around their mouths and noses, wanting nothing to do with us. They backed away, hands in the air as Bloody Nose snarled and went for me. Jack would have to deal with Snarling Bull, if he could.
One thing my uncle B. J. had taught me, back in Hartford: If your opponent is injured, hit him there again. So I did, set myself and threw a hard lead right, smashing Bloody’s nose all over his face as he charged straight into it. The jolt ran clean through me to the floor, hell, to Infinity and Beyond. What it felt like at his end, one can only imagine, but it stopped him cold.
The folded-knuckle left followed up, snaking through the opening between his hands, crushing his Adam’s apple. He folded then, choking, gasping for air like a fish on the riverbank, feet thrashing as if they might somehow pump fresh oxygen through his ruined windpipe.
Don’t get me wrong. Windpipes are tough critters. I probably hadn’t killed him–but he was definitely out of action for the moment.
Trusting Jack, and what I picked up from the corner of my eye gave me no reason not to, I stepped across the thrashing body and cornered the two smaller men, both of whom had managed to back themselves into a corner next to the urinals. There was no way to tell if they were white, Indian, or Mexican; they had that dirty skinny addict look about them that could have been a little bit of each or something else entirely. Hell, they could have been Al Qaeda freaking terrorists for all I could tell. They were certainly terrorized right then. Which made sense, especially when I saw their eyes go wide, looking past me to where Jack had finished doing his thing. Snarling Bull was down, Bloody Nose was down; these two had seen their world turned upside down in a matter of seconds, and not many seconds at that.
I risked a quick glance over my shoulder. Yep. Bloody Nose was still fighting for air, eyes bulging, hands grasping his own throat, but Snarling Bull wasn’t moving at all. Jack was standing back, standing watch while the guy we’d rescued finished straightening up and, of course, pulling his pants back up.
“You two,” I told the cowering pair, “are going to stay right here while we leave. You got that?”
They both nodded, heads bobbing up and down nervously, but I wasn’t quite done. “Count to a thousand after we close the door behind us. Got that?”
More head bobbing. One of them, the one with a wispy black moustache and half a dozen chin hairs, stammered, “Yes s-s-s-sir. One th-thousand.”
My turn to nod, once. Then I grabbed a batch of toilet paper, wiped down the door handle on the way out, and the three of us got going. Our new buddy managed just fine on his own, except I thought he looked like he might spit on one of the fallen giants. “Don’t,” I told him. He looked at me, cocked an eyebrow, and swallowed his saliva.
He didn’t say anything. Not right then.
I unlocked the Pontiac and got the kid settled in the back seat while Jack was busy slashing the Econoline’s tires. Then we eased on out, no rabbit starts on snow, and headed on down the highway.
Jack spoke first. “No sign of life by the time we topped the rise. So nobody got a look at the car.”
“Good.” Big black man with old white man, pretty distinctive in Montana…but without a license plate number or even a description of the vehicle, good luck with that. Not that the Deliverance bunch seemed the type to go to the cops even if one or two of them did die, but you never knew.
We’d need to learn about the kid riding with us, but first, “So, Jack, your big Indian…what?”
He chuckled. “He was big, Tree, but he was also slow. Had his arm on my side, his left, locked so tight around Junior’s neck that it took him a second or so to clear it after he realized we weren’t going to cut and run, and that was enough. I hit him upside the head with these.” With that, he held up a set of brass knuckles. I couldn’t really see them well, but the silhouette was enough.
“Didn’t know you had those,” I admitted.
“Forgot to tell you. Found ’em at a yard sale in Ovando a couple of months ago, of all things.”
“Huh. Of all things. So,” I switched my attention to our rider, “you all right back there?”
“Yes. Thanks to you two.” The young man’s voice came back clear and strong, musical almost. “Why’d you do it?”
The question caught me off guard. “Do what?”
“Take those guys on. They might have–well…I guess you knew what you were doing. Obviously.”
“Heck, I wasn’t even planning on stopping, it just–.” That’s when it hit me. “Jack, I think I’ve turned a corner. Remember, I didn’t know why I was stopping, just a feeling–”
“Uh-huh.” The old Protector’s smile could be felt. “That’s the way it works.”
We shut up on that topic. Frankly, it could wait, but learning about our passenger could not. We had to decide what to do with him by the time the sun came up.
“So, my name’s Treemin Jackson; most call me Tree. This here old fart is Jack Hill. And you are?”
“Uh, my name? Bobby Hancock. Listen, I really want to thank you–”
“You’re welcome. So, Bobby, how’d you come to be all by yourself, no wheels, in the middle of a snowstorm, getting entertained by the local Welcome Wagon like that?”
The sigh from the back seat spoke volumes. “It’ll take a while to tell.”
“Then you better get started, eh? With the weather the way it is, we got maybe two hours before we stop for breakfast at Park City. Think you can give us a bit of biography by then?”
Bobby Hancock (full name Bobby, not Robert) was, it turned out, 19 years of age. Five-nine, 145 pounds when he wasn’t half starved. He’d grown up in Nebraska, off grid, raised by parents who weren’t exactly cult-type people, but neither did they trust any form of government whatsoever. At heart, the closest label would have been anarchists, except that they didn’t believe in destroying the existing power structure, just avoiding it wherever and however possible.
As a result, young Bobby and his two sisters–one older, one younger–had been home schooled, though not officially. The system simply never knew they existed. They’d been born at home, like in the old days, midwifed into the world by a friend of a family friend. No Social Security numbers. They were, for all intents and purposes, ghost people.
Which did not mean they’d been poorly educated. Bobby’d begun reading by the time he was three, digging into the classics–a supply of which his father possessed in abundance–by the time he was ten. At sixteen, he was handling math up to and including the early stages of calculus, and his survival skills were firmly ingrained as well.
“I do pretty well at snaring rabbits,” he admitted with no trace of boasting, “and I can throw up a shelter in almost any conditions. But when I turned eighteen, Dad and I had a real row. He and Mom own a couple of sections of land. They wanted me to take one of them, live on it, and you know, if they’d deeded it over to me, I might have gone for it. But no, that wasn’t the deal, so I told them I needed to get out in the wicked, government dominated world for a while. You know, see how the other half lived. Of course, my real reason was girls. I’m still, uh…”
“A virgin?” I put in helpfully.
“Yeah. A virgin. Not proud of it.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of, either,” Jack observed.
“You say. Anyway, I wasn’t going to be meeting many girls the way we lived. So the old man said if I went, I was no son of his, but I went anyway, and long story short, here I am. Found a few odd jobs here and there, where they’d pay cash under the table, no paperwork. Enough to keep me fed. These clothes I have on, though, they’re all I own now. The coat alone cost me close to a month’s work on a ranch, though they fed and housed me while I was there, so that’s something.
“Anyway, one of the other guys on the ranch, his wife wanted me to, you know, do her, I think is the way they say it? But I didn’t, mostly ’cause it didn’t seem right, and she got mad. Lied about me to the boss, and I got fired. Right in the middle of the winter, out you go. And there I was, thumbing it, caught a ride out of Sheridan. But the guy who gave me the ride, he wanted to do pretty much what those four buggers wanted to do, except he wasn’t a big man, and I refused, and he dumped me at the rest stop. I was just in there trying to stay out of the wind, trying to figure out my next move, when that not so Fantastic Four came stomping in. They were surprised to see me, and then….”
“That’s a pretty good summary, Bobby,” I said, thinking hard. We surely didn’t need another charity case at Trace Nation. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and all that. But…. “You said your Dad taught you quite a few skills, growing up?”
“Yes. And Mom, too.”
“Your Mom’s got skills, eh?”
“Well, she can cook.”
“And she’s a really good welder.”
It’s a good thing we’d not reached Park City yet, ’cause if I’d been drinking coffee when Bobby came out with that, I’d have spewed it for sure.
After that, we kept the conversation light until breakfast had been consumed–triple portions for Bobby; the kid had been a hop and a skip away from literal starvation–and the Pontiac was once again humming down the highway. The snow was finally letting up, though things were a little slick underfoot, and young Hancock was sleeping the sleep of the dead in the back seat.
A sense of security after what he’d been through will do that to you.
Jack had taken over behind the wheel, but he knew I wasn’t asleep yet. “Okay, Tree, spill it. You’ve got a plan, right?”
“That spot at the Y. If Bobby can weld like he says he can, even if his training has gaps here and there, we can use him. The Y place is all set up for a mobile home; all we’d need to do is buy a small used unit. There are plenty of them on the market these days. Wouldn’t have to be very big for, you know, a lone virgin.”
“Hmm…Mr. Jackson, you might have an idea there. From what he told us, staying in the place alone wouldn’t bother him.”
“That’s what I was thinking. Maybe ask him if he wants a kitten, later on. That cuts the alone factor down by a bunch.”
Hill chuckled. “Tell you what, I don’t think he’ll be alone for long. That’s a good looking young fellow there, he’s got a good heart, and guts, and I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut hole every one of our women from Carolyn West to Jennifer Trace her own self will be looking to do a little matchmaking.”
“Could be.” I yawned mightily. Never mind the rumble in the restroom; it had been a long run out of Texas even before that. “At any rate, that’s the only option I can see for now. He can’t have Judi, though.” Another yawn, even mightier. “Losing her once was more than enough.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that, Tree,” Jack hill opined, but I didn’t hear him. I was sound asleep, lulled by the hum of the all season tires eating up the miles, dreaming of tall timber and beautiful women.