Putting things together to arrange housing and gainful employment for Bobby Hancock was simple enough. What neither Jack nor I had foreseen, however, was the fact that the youngster wasn’t sure he could accept my offer.
“I haven’t earned all that,” he protested. “Are you sure you’re not just, you know, helping out the gimp?”
“Gimp?” It was my turn to do the eyebrow cocking thing. He did have a little hitch in his git-along, courtesy of one of the punches in the restroom that had caught him on the inner thigh–low blow. He no doubt had a dandy bruise there, though we weren’t asking to look at it, and probably some temporary nerve damage to boot. At least, we all hoped it was temporary. “You don’t have to take the setup if you don’t want to; it’s only a couple of miles down to the highway from here.”
We were just finishing blocking the mobile home level. It was an ancient beast, 10′ x 50′, but in surprisingly good shape. The refrigerator that came with it was no good and would have to be replaced, but the furnace was like new. With a good bit of Montana winter left to go, that counted more than anything else.
I held up a hand to stop his protest. “Look, Bobby, here’s the deal. We’re not into charity at Rodeo Iron. The last guy who lived on this spot was a high school friend of mine, or at least I thought he was a friend until he tried to steal us blind and got caught at it. Matter of fact, he’s got a court hearing tomorrow in Missoula, and I personally hope he gets the book thrown at him. But we can always use welders if they’re not carrying too much baggage, like he was.”
He nodded. “But–”
“Yeah. I know. Your testing shows you’re not bad at arc, run the puddle right with acetylene, and that’s about it. There’s a lot you don’t know about the craft, at least not yet. But 90 percent of our output is basic stuff, and if you can put in a little of your free time every week, upgrading your skills, you’re likely to be as good as any of us and better than most in a year or so.”
“Dammit, kid, shut up and let me finish!”
He looked abashed at that, and I felt the guilt rip through me. If there was one thing I never could tolerate when I was younger, it was somebody–anybody–calling me kid.
“Sorry,” he said, and I felt even worse. But one way or the other, it was time to lay it out.
“Look, here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you a few details a new hire wouldn’t normally hear, partly because we don’t like scaring people off if we don’t have to. But our history, with Rodeo Iron and also with the Trace Ranch operation…we’re sh*t magnets. It’d take all week to tell you the full backstory, but we’ve had people try to kill us here. Real wild west shootouts, only with mercenaries, former Special Forces guys, coming at us. Jennifer Trace’s husband, Sam Trace, was killed in one of those attacks. Old Horace Tamblin, the tracker you met? One of his legs has been held together with titanium pins ever since he got shot up holding off the same bunch that did for Sam. Even before that happened, somebody tried to take Jack Hill and me out during one of our sales runs, up on the highline. Dropped an old telephone pole across the road, wiped us out. If I’d been driving a few miles per hour faster, neither one of us would be here today. Even worse, we’ve had federal law enforcement types drive right up and try to frame us on our own property for killing wolves out of season.”
Hancock looked attentive but not freaked. So far, so good.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. Nobody’s come at us for a while now, knock on wood, and even when they did, only law enforcement used this road out here to reach us. So far, all physical attacks have focused on the Trace Ranch headquarters, and they’ve come cross country. But we still need a watcher living here at the Y, a sentinel who can tell us if any strange vehicle goes by, and whether it hooks right toward Trace and the Rodeo Iron shop, or left toward where Jack and I live. This is not charity.”
Amazingly, nineteen year old Bobby Hancock grinned ear to ear. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“Uh…you’re happier with the deal, knowing you could get shot for your troubles?”
“Well, duh! I’ve read everything Louis L’Amour ever wrote. This’ll give me a chance to ride for the brand!”
Oh, really. “Hm. You do realize–what, you want to prove you’re tough or something? Bobby, that’s not what this is all about; if I gave you the wrong impression–this is not about the restroom thing, is it? ‘Cause I’m here to tell you, no one man caught in a corner by those four could have–”
“No, no.” He waved his hands to cut me off. “I understand that. I’m greasy fast, but there’s no way–no, I’d just like to prove myself worthy of my great great grandfather. Tree, he was one tough Scot.”
Jack Hill came around the corner just then, having finished setting the final wedge in place beneath the mobile home. He hadn’t heard the entire conversation but had caught that last sentence. He didn’t pursue the issue immediately, though, having more important things on his mind.
“It’s about time for lunch, folks. Wayne Bruce is cooking, and Carolyn will have the table set by the time we get over there and get washed up.”
To underscore his point, the antique Subaru Brat we’d purchased for our Security Chief’s use went honking past, Sissy at the wheel, Judi riding shotgun, leaving the office behind for the moment. This would be our last meal together before I hit the road again, heading east. I’d told Adam Microondas I’d show up at his place tonight, so I could be on hand for his Rodeo Iron North Dakota debut tomorrow, on Valentine’s Day, as promised. He’d thought it was going to take him another month to finish making it all happen, but there’d been a few dozen miracles along the way, and bingo!
Wayne had outdone himself. It looked more like a Thanksgiving Day spread than a normal workaday meal. He was in full flamer mode, too, doing his “stereotypical gay” thing. I’d wondered if Bobby Hancock might have a problem with that, but he didn’t seem to. Flamers and wannabe rapists apparently weren’t synonyms in his mind.
But his eyes did pop when I mentioned the town of Belfield, North Dakota, going all out to help publicize the creation of a new Rodeo Iron franchise in their area.
“Belfield!” He spluttered, not quite losing a mouthful of mashed potatoes and gravy. “Did you say Belfield?”
He took a swig of water before answering. “Well…that tough Scot I mentioned? My great great grandfather? Wait; that’s not right. He was my great great great grandfather. Let’s see, Mom’s father’s father’s father’s father…I think that’s right. Anyway, he ended up living the latter part of his life in the Belfield area. On a farm, but a Belfield address.”
Carolyn West spoke up, voice warm, her first words since calling us all to the table. “Tell us about him, Bobby. Who was he? What makes you say this was one tough Scot?”
“Uh–” The young man suddenly looked embarrassed. “Well. His name was David McLeod, born in 1859, died in 1932. ‘Scuse me, Judi, could you pass the corn?”
It went like that throughout the rest of the meal, the story of David McLeod being presented in short bursts between bites, usually while Hancock was reloading his plate with one victual or another. The guy could eat.
McLeod had immigrated to the U.S. from Nova Scotia in or around 1880, starting out working in the north Minnesota woods, but eventually shifting west to North Dakota, filing on a homestead but making a living with a railroad job. He was a farmer at heart, though, and in the fall of 1898–which would have put him at 29 years of age or so–got caught in a blizzard while moving a flock of sheep to a partner’s place, somewhere near Washburn, North Dakota.
He had a hired man with him, and a sheepdog, and a sheep wagon. But the blizzard got so nasty that the men left the wagon to try to save the sheep.
“What I’ve heard from family members, I don’t know if he thought there was some kind of break in the terrain, some kind of shelter he could get the flock to, or what. In fact, nobody seems to have any knowledge of what happened to the sheep, but I’m betting they all froze to death, ’cause the hired man froze to death, and the sheepdog froze to death. And David McLeod, his feet froze, and they had to cut ’em off, but he didn’t die. In fact, they tell me, he told people later that he now cared for his animals ‘on artificial feet’.”
Bobby paused in his narration at that point, eyeing the selection of pies Wayne was busy slicing.
Sissy broke the silence. “I would say, yes, that is one tough Scot.” There was admiration in her voice.
Having settled on pumpkin pie with Cool Whip, Bobby resumed his tale. “Oh, yeah, that was tough, all right. But, you know, that wasn’t the end of it. The family moved to Belfield in…1908, I think it was. To a farm on Frank’s Creek. A couple of years later, David’s wife, Irene, died of typhoid fever. Left him…I think it was seven kids to finish raising, the youngest only eight years of age at the time. So he did that, too, on artificial feet. He lived for 22 years after she passed, hanging in there until Christmas Day, 1932. So he left this world at the age of 73, in an era when that was right up there for longevity, farming and raising kids and all that, and for most of that time–more than 44 of those years he did it with no feet after being too tough to die in a blizzard that killed everything else around him.
“Now that,” he finished, “is one tough Scot!”
Yes, indeed. He dug into his pie while we gave him a sitting ovation.
Naturally, he’d given me an idea. “Bobby, you ever been to Belfield?”
He shook his head. “No. Wouldn’t mind going someday, though. As long as it’s not with a flock of sheep.”
“No sheep. Riding shotgun in the Pontiac.”
He looked startled. “What, Jack’s not going with you?”
“No. It’ll be a lone run unless you come along. No pressure, but–”
“Yes! Sure; I’ll be glad to do it. Except, uh…this Grand Opening you’re doing…I don’t have anything in the way of presentable clothing….”
Oh. Yeah. “Well…if we get a move on, it wouldn’t cost us much time to stop at Greany’s Dry Goods in Deer Lodge. They should have enough to square you away. And before you object, you can pay me back out of your first few paychecks, a bit at a time. Okay?”
“All ri-ight!” Hancock lit up.
It didn’t take us long to get going. My bag was already packed, and Bobby Hancock didn’t have anything to pack. Now, if the weather would only hold off a bit. The forecast was calling for snow showers in Belfield tonight, nothing worse than cloudy for the next 10 days.
Hopefully, the weather dudes were right. We didn’t need any feet-freezing blizzards.