Bobby Hancock was confused. “You said we were going to Belfield, North Dakota, and now you’re referring to Beach. So…which is it?”
“Both, actually,” I explained, which didn’t help him one bit.
“Yeah. Kinda sorta. Adam’s place is closer to Beach. That’s where he gets his mail and where he’d based his oil field welding business for years. But Belfield is 33 miles east of there, and he likes the Trapper’s Kettle Restaurant. Goes there a lot, especially for breakfast on days when he has work farther east. So, he was chatting up a waitress one day, tipped her off about becoming a Rodeo Iron franchisee, and she told other folks in Belfield. First thing you know, Belfield decided to compete with Beach.
“You work with us, they told him, and we’ll promote your business. You know how we tout Belfield as the Gateway to the West. We’ll play on that, give you space to put up a huge billboard easily seen from the freeway, promote your business as Gateway to the Best.”
“Whoa.” Bobby shook his head at that. “You don’t want Rodeo Iron to be the Gateway to the Best, do you? I mean, isn’t it the best?”
I chuckled, slowing the Pontiac to let a big, bounding blacktail buck finish crossing the highway. Beautiful critter, even if it had just recently finished dropping its antlers for the year and might have looked like a doe to the uninitiated. “That was my first thought, too. But Adam got it right away. The billboard will feature a big, colorful steel Rodeo Iron gate, partially open, so, gateway.”
The kid was quick. Sharp enough, he might even be a candidate for our inner circle…eventually. He was looking good, too, since our stop at Greany’s Dry Goods. True, he was decked out cowboy style now, and he wasn’t exactly all that. His off grid family in Nebraska had owned a couple of horses, but only the coldest of coldbloods. They didn’t even own a saddle, except for a pack saddle, used to haul big game carcasses during hunting season–which, for the Hancocks, had always been 24/7, 365. When they rode, they rode bareback.
“I’m thinking,” he said slowly, “that Beach didn’t much like Adam switching allegiances like that.”
“Right on. They didn’t. Probably still don’t. But he pays his property taxes in Beach, gets his mail there, gives the town a fair amount of business. They can’t afford to get too snippy with him. Remember, there are a thousand plus people living in Beach, somewhere around 800 in Belfield, so they’re pretty competitive size-wise. Prospective Rodeo Iron customers lured off the highway at Belfield who end up having a meal at the Trapper’s Kettle will still have to go on to Beach if they’re going to visit Adam’s headquarters operation. He did have one guy at a meeting in Beach get kind of snippy with him. Said something about a lack of loyalty.”
Bobby pondered that for a moment, then asked, “Wouldn’t good business sense trump blind loyalty, especially for a startup like the Rodeo Iron franchise?”
I shrugged. “Seems to me it would. Adam, too. He asked his critic if the town of Beach was interested in matching what Belfield was doing, providing free space for the billboard and all. They weren’t, and that was that. Of course, he’d irritated them some, asked what they’d put on the sign for wording. They couldn’t use Gateway to the West. So, what? Thank the good Lord you’re almost out of North Dakota?”
Hancock was still laughing at that one when my cell phone rang. I fished the phone from my pocket, handed it over to my partner, not wanting to take my eyes of the road. It was getting dark, and while the road wasn’t bad underfoot, the bridges were definitely freezing. It was no time to be getting careless.
“Who’s calling?” I asked.
“Uh-oh.” Knowing we were on the road, barreling through eastern Montana, she wouldn’t be calling unless there was trouble of some sort at home. I took the phone back, put it in the hands free stand on speakerphone. “Yo!”
“Yeah, babe. On speaker. Whazzup?”
“We got a visitor. About an hour ago, a man came stumbling out of the timber, down to, well, the welding shop first. Covered in that sticky snow we got today, head to toe. Looked like a white tornado, touching down off the north hill. We were lucky it was after quitting time, so the welders had gone home for the day. Jennifer and the cook were just serving up supper in the main house, so all the ranch hands were in there. Nobody saw him but Jennifer and me–”
“Hold on, Sis. Cop flying down the highway the other way, need to let him go by.” She could hear the siren, of course, getting louder and then fading as the trooper barreled on, westbound. “He must be doing ninety. Something big. Glad it’s behind us. Okay, go ahead.”
“Okay, uh…when I said he stumbled, the guy was on his last legs. Looks to be maybe 30, 35 years of age. Scrawny, mostly starved, but still moving. Almost incoherent, hard to understand him, but he–I forgot to say he wasn’t wearing anything.”
“Huh?” Bobby and I dropped our jaws in unison. “Naked in the mountains in midwinter? Are you serious? How–”
“Sorry. I meant he wasn’t wearing any regular clothing like, you know, you buy in a store. He–hell, Tree, he was wearing a wolf skin, not cured or anything, said he’d–”
“Honey, take a breath.” I was pretty sure I’d never heard Sissy Harms this rattled, and we’d seen some times together. “Slow it down, okay? Did you get enough from him to know his story, or–?”
“Uh…yeah, you’re right. Let me get my sh*t together a sec here…okay. First of all, he begged us not to call the cops or Sercial Sovices–Social Services or anybody. Said it could mean his life if too many people realized he was still alive, and maybe put us in danger, too, and could we purty please with sugar on it just hide him out for a few days, let him heal up a bit, loan him a bit of food–that’s how he put it, loan him some food, maybe a set of clothing, and he’d be out of our hair in no time, no harm no foul.”
There was a silence then for ten, maybe fifteen seconds. “I take it,” I finally said, “we’ve got him in a secure spot?”
Sissy’s breath let out in a rush, audible over the phone. She hadn’t missed my use of the word “we”, meaning I was backing her play without conditions. As if there was ever any doubt.
“As secure a spot as we come up with,” she said finally. “I called Jack first. He’s down in Missoula, you know, for that court hearing tomorrow. We don’t want Judi’s thieving ex-lover to spout off too much without us knowing it.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“Okay, so we’ve got him at Jack’s. Um, should we be talking about all this over the airwaves?”
I shrugged, as if she could see it. “Don’t see why not. This guy may have enemies with the resources to snatch phone calls out of the air, but as far as we know, they’re not our enemies. At least, not yet. Okay, so his base story?”
“Yeah, that.” Sissy sighed again. “Before I forget, Judi and I are both staying over there too, at least till Jack gets back. So that gives us Wayne, her, and me to take shifts, one of us always awake on sentry duty, watching this Gary–that’s the name he gave, Gary Jellison–and also keeping an eye out for anybody sneaking up on the place, just in case.”
“Makes sense.” We both knew Carolyn West could not be counted on for that sort of thing. Jack Hill’s main squeeze was a lover but no fighter, the only one of our Inner Eight at Trace Nation who’d never fired a shot in anger. I didn’t ask how they were handling things at the shop for the duration; either Judi or Sissy would already have called the shop foreman, told him they were taking some personal time or whatever.
Risking a glance at the bars left on my phone, I told my beloved–one of my beloveds–“Okay. Got that. So, what’s his story?”
Another sigh. “Unbelievable, to anybody but us. Jack’s putting in an urgent request to his computer hacker contacts in the morning, so we’ll have more to go on by the time he gets back home tomorrow evening. But anyway. Jellison says he’s from northern New Hampshire. An accountant, of all things, but also a hunter and hiker, likes to balance his pencil pushing livelihood with roaming out in the forest every chance he gets.
“Which was going okay, until a few months ago. He saw an ad on Craigslist for a group calling themselves OOE, Outdoor Outfitters Extreme. They were soliciting for new members. He called the ad, found out they were into wilderness trips that, as they put it, increase the awareness of all the wilderness has to offer.”
“Okay-y-y. Babe, my phone’s getting low. Short version?”
“Sure. Short version, they were planning their next trip out to Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. Sounded good to Gary, so he went along. Only when they got there, way back in the high peaks somewhere, all of a sudden he started getting vibes that weren’t right. He got really uneasy, rigged himself a little survival packet in a Ziploc baggie and dropped it in the snow when he went behind a tree to pee. When he got back to the tents–they had two tents, three men in one, two in the other, his fellow club members surrounded him, weapons in hand. Told him he was about to get what their brochure promised, a real appreciation of Mother Nature in all her savage glory. Made him strip down naked, which didn’t seem like a great option, but against the four of them, resisting meant bleeding to death right then and there, so he did it. Two guys broke down the tents, took their time, enjoying watching him standing there, starkers, shivering in the snow.”
“Short version, hon!”
“Sorry. They took their packs, tents and all, the snowmobiles–there were three of those, illegal in the Bob but he hadn’t realized that, and boogied. He could hear their laughter over the roar of the machines. As soon as they were gone, he ran for the tree where he’d dropped the Ziploc. His feet were going numb already, and that scared him worst of all. But he’d dropped a lightweight pair of gloves in that pack, so his hands had some protection and he could still get things done. Also a Bic lighter, a little spool of cord, 45′ feet of it I think he said, and a Kershaw folding knife.”
It was full dark outside now. The Pontiac’s headlights cut through the dwindling snow. Looked like it was going to settle down to nothing more than overcast sky, as predicted. We were on track, only about another 150 miles to the North Dakota state line, but I wished we were pointed the other way. It was no fun at all, knowing my people at Trace Nation had another potentially deadly situation on our hands, considering the ruthless nature of the OOE snuff artists.
I wanted to be home. “And with no more than that, he what, snared a wolf?”
“Eventually, yeah, but first–”
Damn. My stupid phone had died. It wouldn’t have, but I’d forgotten to pack the charger that fit the cigarette lighter; we’d have to wait till we got to Adam’s to reload.
Well. I’d warned Sissy; she’d know enough to wait till I could call her in the morning. At least, I was mostly up to date. So was young Bobby Hancock, who observed with what sounded like a note of admiration in his voice, “I see what you mean, Tree. You guys really are sh*t magnets!”
“Want to back out, kid?” I grinned, somehow pleased that my traveling partner didn’t seem to mind when I called him kid. “It’s not too late.”
“Back out?!” He sounded honestly astounded. “No way! Sakes alive, man, this is just getting interesting!”