Undercover of darkness, the high-tech drilling rig, and two support vehicles eased around the mountain on the old logging road. No actual logging had taken place in this section for over forty years, but the road was kept maintained by the landowners for hauling cattle out of the high meadows twice a year. Spring and fall were roundup time, other than that, very little if any traffic used the road except for a few hunters that the rancher allowed on during the short hunting season.
The drivers and accompanying technicians all wore Gen 6-night vision goggles attached to their hard hats, and the vehicles were equipped with infrared headlights. Water filled mufflers on the trucks rendered the engines noise virtually silent. The specialized equipment supposedly made strictly for elite military units, allowed them to operate covertly, without alerting anyone, as they moved slowly through the dark moonless night.
The driver of the rig slowed as he picked up the signal they had been expecting, an IR strobe set in a meadow just ahead. Earlier that week, engineers had covertly parachuted into the mountains with seismic equipment and, after several days, had found what they were seeking. They had set the beacon and had sent out the isochronous burst transmission that had signaled they were ready for the drilling equipment.
The drill rig positioned itself over the IR beacon, and the crew moved with well-rehearsed movements to ready the rig for the test hole. A silent electric motor allowed the rig to drill so quietly that unless you were within a hundred feet of the drill rig, it could not be heard.
Two hours later, the men retrieved the drill bit with the core samples and quickly set about preparing the rig for exfil. As the big rig retraced its route out of the mountains, the two accompanying trucks followed dragging brush piles and netting they had carried in, sweeping over the tire tracks so no one could have told they had ever been there. An expected rain shower in the next couple of days would finish off the deception.
Two hours before daylight, the three vehicles turned off the logging road and onto a sparsely traveled country road that would take them forty miles to the interstate. IR lights were turned off, and night vision equipment was stowed, as the drilling crew and seismic engineers drove out of the county.
They would not stop until they were hundreds of miles away in a different state.
Chapter 1: Into the Fire
I stepped off the quiet rural road and eased my way through the scrub brush into a small grove of trees. It would suit to set up camp for the night. Situated on the side of a low hill, I could see the lights of a ranch house down in the valley. Standing there a minute, I watched the evening darkness creep down the hills and wrap the valley in its night's embrace.
It was quiet, and I was all alone.
No one misses the forgotten man. Nobody thinks of him, and no one wonders how he is or where he’s at, and it’s kind of a relief in a way, not to have the burden of maintaining relationships, that require a lot of energy and time to sustain, and it frees a person up for other things. It was difficult for a while, and I wasted way too much time and energy on personal reflection and self-pity. But I’m past that now, and my energy is dispensed on simpler things, like what will I eat, or where will I bed down, and where will I find a little work to get enough pocket money to get me a little further down the road to the next place. I don’t travel like most people to a destination. I have no place I’m going to. I travel to keep moving, to get further away from the time and places where I had friends and family.
…...and I literally don’t have two pennies to rub together.
I’m a drifter, and do not need a bank account, nor is there any savings or stocks and bonds. My parents died without leaving me an inheritance, and I received nothing but grief from the two divorces I went through. Instead, I lost all that I had, my money, property, and possessions. My children won’t be taking care of me when I get feeble, nor will anyone else. All I have are my skills and the memories of where I’ve been and what I did in my life. That’s all I possess, other than the meager possessions I carry with me now.
Not much to show for 58 years of life.
There were no vehicles on the road this evening, as most farm roads tend to have very light traffic at this time of day. Farmers and ranchers eat and bed down early, only to rise before first light to break their fast and tend to chores. I pulled my hammock out of the top of my backpack, the last item to be stowed, and the first to come out. Less than a minute later, it was strung between two solid trees, all the cover I would need on this mild night ahead. There is a small dome tent strapped to my pack but rarely used, unless it was cold.
Dinner would be cold tonight, just a can of beans and some two-day-old bread with a small wedge of cheese, more than enough to ease my hunger. I sat on the hard ground and dug my meager meal out of the side pocket of my pack and ate slowly, watching the daylight leave the valley, replaced by the night’s shadows.
Looking down at the house in the valley, lights flickered, signs of life, as bodies moved between the windows and the lights, perhaps as the family went about eating their evening meal before settling in for the night. Cows were softly calling in their calves as the darkness deepened, and I thought maybe I’d just try and get a few days’ work out of the folks on the small place. Having spent half a lifetime as a cowboy and rancher, there was nothing on a ranch I hadn’t done, and perhaps they could use a hand for a few days. And I sure could use the work.
After finishing my meal, I dug a hole for the garbage, before stepping into the brush to relieve my bladder. Pulling off my boots, I slid under the rain cover of my hammock and drifted off into fitful slumber, half asleep, half alert to danger. It’s never a good idea to get too relaxed when sleeping out in the brush. Just before first light, the morning dove cooed me awake, letting me know it was time to roll out. A rooster was doing his version of a wakeup call down in the valley. With boots on, I visited the bushes, then rolled my hammock up to stow away. Now I needed to brew a coffee.
I keep my stove, fuel, coffee pot, and fixings in pockets on the outside of my backpack, so I don’t have to unpack it to brew a cup when I stop during the day. At this low altitude, it only took about six minutes to boil water. Four minutes to let the grounds steep, and I was drinking my first cup and chewing on some bread and cheese. The sky was starting to lighten as I finished my second cup, and I stood and brushed the crumbs off of my worn jeans. Making sure everything was stowed away with nothing left behind, surveying my campsite one more time, I shouldered the pack and moved out to the road.
I’d take it easy moving down into the valley, to give the folks time to eat their morning meal before I came knocking, imploring for a little work. People are always more receptive if you don’t interrupt a meal, or get them out of bed. It was a quiet start to the day, with very little wind, and the only sounds were the morning birds and the crunch of gravel under my boots as I eased down the road into the valley. Occasionally I could hear the low murmur of cattle way off down the valley, but there was little else to break up the serenity of the early fall morning.
As the road bent down around the hillside, I caught intermittent glimpses of the ranch house below and could see the lights were on as I would expect them to be, knowing that ranchers and farmers don’t sleep in, ever. Livestock needs to be fed on a regular schedule, and horses in particular, if they are going to be used to work cattle, need time to eat before being saddled for a long day. Growing up on a ranch, I was not allowed to eat breakfast until the horses were fed, and I’d tended to our milk cow. Chores tend to get done early when your stomach is empty, and you’re thinking about filling it up with hot food.
I was still only halfway down the hill when I heard a screen door slap closed, alerting me that someone was headed out to start their day. I quickened my pace a little, not wanting to miss a chance to introduce myself and hopefully talk the rancher into giving me some work. Hurrying as fast as my worn-out knees would let me, I heard a truck engine racing down the hill behind me. The road was pretty narrow, and I didn’t want to get hit by a driver intent on breaking speed records getting someplace. Listening closely, and gauging when the truck was just a few hundred feet behind me, I stepped off the road and back into the brush to let them go past. I wasn’t trying to hide, but out of habit, I prefer to ghost through the countryside, with as few people knowing of my movements as possible.
The pickup truck fishtailed past me, going much faster than the narrow winding country road was designed for, and I glimpsed the driver struggling to keep the front end on the road. Another dark shape was sitting beside him in the cab. Behind it, a cloud of dust hung in the still morning air as it disappeared down the hill. Moving back out of the brush, I continued my trek down toward the ranch house, now following in the tracks of the pickup, which from the engine sounds was being pushed for all it’s worth getting down the hill. I quickened my stride, worried now that maybe these were ranch hands running late getting to work, and that maybe the rancher wouldn’t be in need of an extra hand.
Sure enough, I heard the truck engine slowing down ahead of me, and shortly after that, the sound of truck doors slamming shut. Keeping my pace, just in case I was mistaken on my read of the situation, I was soon close enough to hear voices talking, though too far away to hear what was said. It didn’t take me long to close the distance, and as I got closer, though still out of sight of the people talking, I began to make out the conversation, and it didn’t sound too friendly.
“Don’t get upset at me, Tom Roberts! I’m just the messenger here; the bank board wanted you to know straight out that your deadline to make your note payment is nine days from today, or we will file foreclosure on all your property, equipment, and livestock, and that’s a fact.”
“Then how come you brought Pete Carroll with you? Or is it so he can gloat over the chance to finally get my family’s home place that his father has wanted all these many years? You could have delivered this message all by yourself if you were just doing the banks business.”
“Now Tom, I just came along because I wanted to show Joe Bannon our new shorthorn herd bull we just got in from Montana. He’s quite a looker; you should stop over and see him yourself.”
“I don’t have time to come looking at your bull, Pete. I’m trying to gather all our cattle that got out when someone mysteriously cut the fence in our upper pasture. Strange that it happened just when I was fixing to cut the calves off their momma’s and ship them to the sale barn. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that fence being cut, would ya Pete?”
Just before I came in sight of the men talking, I slid back into the brush, kneeled, and peered through an opening. I could see the three men talking in front of the pickup that had passed me up the hill, but was out of eyesight of them as they continued to speak.
The rancher was a mid-sized fellow, shorter than my 6’2” on a lean frame. Maybe forty or forty-five years old give or take, as best I could tell. He was wearing a well-worn cowboy hat, which had seen several seasons from the look of the sweat-stained brim, a long sleeve work shirt tucked into worn jeans, and riding boots that had lots of wear on the heels.
The banker looked, well like a banker, in a suit, white shirt, without a tie, and polished boots that didn’t show much dust. No hat, he had grey-streaked hair and a thin mustache on his chubby face. Maybe 5’10” and pushing the limits his tailor had designed into his suit pants with a belly that made him appear top-heavy. Around sixty years old, but by the look of the purple lines streaking his fat face, his liver had been pickled for quite a few years already, and my guess was, he would never see seventy.
The third man was maybe forty, about my height, broad shoulders, and a waistline that was starting to spread. He had the build, though, of someone that had at one time been in good shape, like maybe an athlete or ex-military perhaps. He was wearing a starched shirt and pants tucked over custom-made boots that probably cost a couple of thousand dollars. His broad-brimmed Stetson hadn’t been sweated in yet, too new, or more likely not worn for work. He stood about two steps behind and to the side of the banker, letting the banker lead the conversation. Clean-shaven, he gave off the impression of a man that came from wealth and was comfortable with it.
“Now Tom, don’t you go accusing Pete Carroll of messing with that fence line. You know a couple of rutting bull elk could have torn it down. Happens all the time this time of year.”
“It was cut!” Tom said, “with sharp wire cutters for sure. It was taken down on purpose, and I’m damn sure I know who has the most to gain from me losing my place!”
“Tom, I know we’ve had our differences over the years, and our fathers never got along either, but I wouldn’t go out of the way to hurt you or your livestock. You’d best stop throwing accusations around in public, and I know you have. Sounds to me like you have your hands full getting your cattle back out of the high country?”
“It would be a damn sight easier,” Tom said, “If I could hire some hands to help me, but everyone I ask tells me the same thing, that if they work one day for me, they’ll never get any other work in this county. Now, who do you suppose has been letting that word out?”
“Tom, there you go again,” Joe, the banker stuck his finger out at the rancher. “You’d best get to work gathering cattle, or you and your lovely wife Paula are going to need a new place to live. You heard me now, nine days from today. Make that payment or lose it all.”
With that, the banker and Pete Carroll turned on their heels and got into the pickup. I could hear them talking and laughing as they backed it up and turned to go back up the hill, the way they’d come.
The rancher just stood there with his hands on his hips, watching them drive away. Then he turned and looked over at the house, and I could see, now that the truck was gone, a tall blonde-haired lady wearing an apron over blue jeans standing on the porch looking this way. She had a dishtowel in her hands and was ringing it, obviously distressed by what had just transpired.
I eased myself onto my feet and stepped out of the brush and back out onto the road. It took me about twenty steps to get to the ranch driveway where I could be seen. The lady on the porch saw me first, and as I spoke, the rancher turned to the sound of my voice.
“Pardon me, mister. I was wondering if I might get a little work around here?”
The rancher looked at me, and then scanned the road behind me, his mouth working, but no sound coming out. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the blonde lady, his wife, I was pretty sure, stepping off the front porch and heading our way. Finally finding his voice, the man I would come to know as Tom Roberts asked, “Where did you come from fella?”
“I walked down this hill,” pointing up the road behind me, “this morning. Almost got run over by the same pickup twice. Folks sure seem in a hurry to get someplace. I’m looking for a few days of work if you have something I can help with?”
At this point, Tom was joined by the blonde woman, and they took a minute to look me over. As I noted before, I’m about 6’2” tall and stocky build. Fifty-eight years young, but an active life has kept me fit; no loose flesh hangs on my frame. I was dressed as most cowboys would be except for my high-heeled riding boots were hung on my pack, my feet much preferring the flat-heeled boots I walked in. My pack was filled out pretty good as all I owned was either in it or strapped to it. A forty-foot lariat was tied with a latigo strap to the backpack, and my head was shaded by a dusty black, wide-brimmed Stetson, with a full beard covering my face.
“What’s your name, fella?” Tom asked, “I’m Tom Roberts, and this is my wife, Paula. You’re not from around these parts, are you? I know all the hands for a hundred miles around here.”
“My name is Steve Rawlings, pleasure to meet you,” I said as I stuck my hand out and shook both theirs in turn. “No, I’m just passing through, but I could sure use a few days’ work if you need a hand. I can do any ranch work you need, gather cattle or break colts, haul hay, whatever you need doing.”
“Well Steve, I don’t know if you’re an angel or not, but we really could use a hand right now, to gather about four hundred head that are up in that high country,” Tom said as he pointed to the mountains looming over the roof of the barn. “Someone cut my fence last week, and all the momma cows hightailed it with their calves up into the high pastures. If you’re interested, you could start working this morning. I’ll pay you forty dollars a day, plus free room and board, does that sound alright to you?”
“That will suit me just fine; I appreciate the work,” I said.
“I’ll go fix you some sandwiches to carry with you,” Paula said, “go with Tom, and he’ll show you where you’ll be bunking.”
“Thank you, ma’am, that’s very kind of you,” I said, stepping into Tom’s tracks as he headed for the barn.
The big gambrel-roofed barn had been painted red at one time, but the years had faded the color, and like most working ranches, more important work came before throwing a coat of paint on the barn. About a hundred feet long and maybe forty feet wide, in the center, was a big open drive-through, with stalls, a hay shed, and a couple of rooms lining both sides. Tom opened one door and stepped back for me to go through, and I entered a small room with several bunk beds lining the walls.
“You can throw your pack on any of these bunks, you’ll be all by yourself here I’m afraid, I’ve had a little trouble finding help this season. There’s an outhouse and a shower room out back you can use. The tack room is over there,” he pointed, “grab what gear you have, and you can pick any saddle on the racks that suits you, and any other gear or tack you need. I’ll meet you out back, and we’ll load up the horses in the trailer and head out as soon as you’re ready.”
Tom walked out and left me to sort out my meager possessions. I switched out my walking boots for my old high-heeled riding boots and strapped my spurs on. After picking up my bat-wing chaps, that had sure enough seen better days, grabbing my gloves and slipping my canteen strap onto my shoulder, I took my lariat in hand and went across the barn to the tack room.
There were about twenty older saddles lining the room on saddle racks. A quick glance over them and my eyes immediately fell on a good old roping saddle built on Wade tree. It had a deep, 16-inch seat with high cantles that would make working all day in the hills and mountain pastures almost bearable. I pulled it out and checked the straps and cinches, and though they had some wear as I would expect, the saddle seemed sound.
Grabbing a bridle off the rack, I saw a good braided horsehair hackamore hanging on a peg by itself, so I pulled it down too. Preferring to taking the pressure off a horse’s mouth if I could, I had trained horses most of my life on hackamores, so I hoped to be able to use it on whatever mounts Tom would give me to ride.
Slipped a saddle blanket under my arm, I picked up the saddle, headgear, and my lariat and walked through the barn to the pens out back, where I could hear Tom penning some riding stock. Setting the saddle down and laying the hack and bridle over it, with my rope in hand, I walked over and climbed up and into the pen, as Tom was shutting the gate on the other side. He had brought in about sixteen head, by my quick count, and they started slowly circling around the pen as I walked over to meet up with Tom.
“We should each take two mounts with us today, Steve,” Tom said as I watched the horses move around the pen. “I’ll take that sorrel there,” He pointed, “and that bay there with three stockings. You pick out what you want, but I caution you about that big lineback dun horse I see you looking over, he has bucked off more riders than have ridden him.”
I had spotted the dun as soon as they came through the gate. I was very fond of lineback duns, as I had owned a few over the years and found them to be as tough as any horse in the remuda.
“Tom, I think I will take that dun horse and that red roan that’s following him. They both look good and stout, and I like that in a working horse.”
“Suit yourself, Steve; if the dun gives you any grief, you can trade him out for another.”
Tom stepped away from me and swung a wide loop that settled over the head of his sorrel horse, and as he led him towards the gate, I quickly dropped my loop onto the big dun. He stopped before the noose tightened, which was a good sign, but as I stepped towards him, his ears stood up, and he eyed me hard. I moved slowly up to him, taking in rope and low talking to him the whole time, lightly stroked his neck and slowly blew my breath into his nose. I was a believer that once a horse had smelled you, he would never forget you. He relaxed slightly, so I turned and led him over to the gate that Tom held open.
He handed me a halter and lead rope, which I slipped on the dun, then went right on and loaded him into the big wide stock trailer. In about five minutes, Tom had his bay, and I’d brought out the red roan and loaded him up with the other mounts.
“Throw your saddle and tack in the back of the pickup, Steve, and we’ll pull around and pick up the lunch cooler Paula should have ready. I see you picked out a good working saddle there. That used to belong to my father. He had it custom built-in Sheridan, and I think he was the only one ever to use it. He’d be proud knowing you picked it out from all the other saddles.
“Well, it looks like a good strong saddle Tom. I’ll take good care of it and not tear it up, I hope? When we get back tonight, I’ll throw a coat of oil on it, so it doesn’t dry out as well.”
Tom got behind the wheel, and I slid into the passenger side. He put the old Ford in gear and pulled out around the barn and up in front of the ranch house. Paula came out on the porch carrying a five-gallon water cooler and set it by an old metal Coleman cooler already on the porch. Leaving the engine running, we both got out, and I grabbed the cooler while Tom lifted the water jug, and both went into the bed of the truck.
“Tom, you’re not going to let Steve ride that dun horse, are you? We can’t afford to get him hurt on his first day working.” Paula pleaded.
“I tried to warn him off, but he insisted on cutting him out, honey. Something tells me Steve is not only a good judge of horseflesh, but that he’s gonna be able to handle that big dun just fine as well. Don’t you worry none, he’ll be okay.”
Tom kissed his wife and hugged her as I loaded my bones back in the truck. I didn’t feel like spouting off yet, as that big dun might just dump my old ass in the dirt. I’d know in a little while if I’d made a good choice or not. He put the truck in gear, and we pulled through the gate and headed down the valley. As he drove, he began to tell me a little about his family’s home place. I was to find out there was a lot of history here.