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Morning in northern Montana: A wave of early sun taking flight off the floor of the plains, warming the sky from night-indigo to diamond-blue, crystals of overnight ice hanging in the air like angels, but a hellish stink in the air.
John David Jefferson stood on a little hill overlooking the forty acres where 150 of his pedigreed Angus lay dead. Their carcasses were scattered outward like shrapnel from a bomb, wild looks in their eyes, mud in their noses, and grass between their lips. Small trees were trampled, yards of ground pawed down to the dirt, as if the animals had gone berserk before they died.
"Well," said Jefferson's foreman, Pete Haskins. "I guess you could look at it like they was born to die anyway."
Jefferson was a big man, six-four and 220, but he spoke in a low Southern drawl.
"Yeah, Pete," he muttered. "And you might say love is eternal because half of all divorces end in remarriage."
"Ain't so much the cattle that's bothering you, is it?"
"It was a prize herd."
"But it's her that's really gettin' under your skin, ain't it."
"Sure, boss. But you got to relax. She'll be back."
Everybody was full of advice after your wife left you. Where was Pete with his advice before she left? Why hadn't he told the boss man that he was about to lose the thing that made his life his own and not someone else's?
This was not the way his life was supposed to work out. The way he had it planned, forty-nine was the age when all he'd have to do was stay rich, love his wife, ride a good horse, read some poetry, drink some whiskey, and generally ignore the heart-felt horseshit stories of love, hate, and overweight trauma that her mind? She was after something here -- maybe just a reason to talk to him.
"I talked to Keith night before last. He wanted to come home when he found out. I told him to stay there, that it was between you and me. Delia didn't say much of anything. You know her."
"She thinks I'm deserting you."
Delia. Daddy's girl. Chestnut hair only a little darker than her mother's auburn cascade, dark eyes like his own, but soft as summer. Delia held herself in like her grandfather, Colonel Jack Jefferson. She'd broken her first horse at the age of fifteen, sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night so she could do it by herself. Jefferson had sensed something in the corral and had gone down, intending to scold her for doing it alone, but she was so proud all he could do was smile. Delia shared the smile with him, and he went back to bed.
"Now, why would she think you're deserting me?"
"This isn't easy for me, Judd."
"What do you want me to do, Celine? Tell her it's all right?"
"Just don't turn her against me."
"Where did this idea come from that I'm a threat to you?"
"Now, don't get angry."
"I'm not angry, I'm frustrated. I've done the best I could since I moved you out here from Virginia. I thought we'd done pretty well."
"Think back to those first weeks we spent together, Judd. I could see something coming for you. I've seen it coming all these years, and now that it's here, I can't stand it."
"Maybe it's just age."
"I may be forty-four," she said with frosty dignity, "but I'm not the one getting in bar fights and strangling strangers. And I didn't call to get into this."
"I just wanted to ask about the pre-Colombian piece in the fro nt hall."
"See you soon."
Jefferson clicked off the phone, walked up a slight hill to a cottonwood tree, and slammed his hat against the trunk.
He heard footsteps behind him and felt a hand clap him lightly on the shoulder.
"She'll come back, boss."
Jefferson looked straight into Pete's baked-apple face.
"What if I'm the one who's spooked?"
Pete stuck the cigarette into his mouth and talked around it.
"Well, boss, a spooked stallion, sometimes you just got to let him run it out."
Jefferson straightened the brim of his hat and returned his attention to the dead cattle.
"What do you think about this?" he asked, waving an arm at the pasture.
Pete kicked at a clod of dirt and rubbed the back of his neck. "Never seen anything like it," he said. "A whole herd don't go down at once. It's like they was poisoned. Deliberate."
Jefferson was about to answer Pete, but the state vet was walking up the hill, a slim Swede wearing a dark blue state jumpsuit and long rubber gloves. He pulled the gloves off as he walked and dropped them near his van.
"Mr. Jefferson," he began.
Jefferson straightened up out of his slouch to take the news.
"I took some samples of saliva, and later today we'll be sending out a truck for one of the carcasses. We'll do an autopsy, and you should hear something in three or four days."
"What's your best guess?"
The vet rubbed sweat from his eyes and stared at the cattle, shaking his head.
"Strange," he said. "The random pattern of the bodies, the trampled condition of the area, the contorted postures. All of that would indicate some type of brain lesions, meningitis, mad cow disease, even rabies."
"But they were all inoculated."
"I know; I'm just using rabies as an example. I don't really have any idea at this point."
"What about poison? PCP or mercury leeching into the streams?"
The vet rubbed his jaw as he looked around the area.
"Maybe, but where would it come from?"
Jefferson pointed west at a faint wisp of white smoke rising from the horizon.
"What about that plant over there? It opened three months ago and now this happens."
"But they make computer chips, don't they?"
"So they say."
"Well, I don't know much about that business, but from what I've heard, it's one of the cleaner industries, and they'd have to file an impact statement with the EPA."
"But we could be dealing with a pollutant?"
"I just don't know."
Jefferson seized the man by the upper arm and held him, squeezing tight with one bearlike hand.
"I want an educated guess," he said. "I've got fifteen thousand more acres out there. I need to be thinking about what to do."
The state man looked down at his arm, then up at Jefferson.
"Don't shoot the messenger, Mr. Jefferson."
"Just make me a guess."
"A brain lesion...probably a pathogen, but maybe a pollutant. That's the best I can do for you right now."
The vet pulled his arm free, walked quickly to his van, and stopped by the door.
"I'm sorry to tell you this, Mr. Jefferson, but we're going to have to quarantine the whole ranch until we get the answer."
He jumped quickly into the truck and drove away.
Jefferson sailed his hat into the tall grass to his right.
"Goddamn!" he said. "Did you hear that, Pete? Quarantined."
Jefferson was mad enough to sweat steam. If all the cattle died he'd still make it, but P ete and Pete's friends would be out of a job. He would have failed them, and not only would he be a failure, he'd be a lonely one. Celine had bailed, and now this. Maybe she was right and something was coming for him.
"Lucky thing you got other herds," Pete said. "Maybe we ought to ride out and check on 'em, boss. Maybe take us a bottle, smoke some cee-gars, and cuss the bears. How's that sound?"
"You see that, Pete?" Jefferson asked, pointing west.
"That plant's been there for months, boss. If it's poisoning the water table, how come we ain't dead too?"
"Maybe it just takes longer for us."
Pete turned pale under his leathery tan.
"C'mon, boss. You're scaring me."
Jefferson turned on Haskins with a thick-browed scowl.
"I don't feel too easy about it myself, Pete. The damn thing opens up, then forty acres of cattle die. What's next? By God, I'm going over there."
"I'm going over there, Pete."
As he drove up Highway 89 toward the plant, Jefferson thought of his son Keith; six-two, athletic, hard-jawed kid with a head to match, stubborn as his father, willful as his mother, with Celine's red hair and gray eyes and the old man's temper -- a dangerous combination. But a sweet kid, really, always ready to agree that the measure of a man was forbearance, but only after he'd told a teacher where to get off or gone chasing wolves in Canada for a week without telling anyone. Maybe the Europeans would put a little shine on him.
It was good that Keith was away, because Jefferson was about to do something he'd blast the kid for doing. But Keith didn't have several hundred people depending on him, and he'd never known his grandfather, Colonel Jack Jefferson. If Colonel Jack had s ent young John David to Switzerland, it would have been to invade the place. A bitter smile crossed Jefferson's face as he remembered his father standing tall in a yellow spring sun as it turned his marine greens to gold, finger pointing down, burr-head bent forward, voice loud as a drill sergeant's:
You WILL go over to Frankie Bradley's house, and you WILL get your football back by whatever means necessary. Do I make myself clear?
Frankie Bradley was two years older. But that cut no ice with Colonel Jack, who had been a platoon lieutenant in the First Marines when they fought their way through a quarter million Chinese troops to get back from the Chosin Reservoir in 1952.
Jefferson and his friends had been playing three-on-three with the football Colonel Jack had given him for Christmas. Frankie Bradley had seen the younger boys choosing up sides and invited himself in. He'd knocked the smaller boys around until dark. Then he'd simply picked up the ball and walked away.
Frankie's mother was at one of her three jobs, so Frankie answered the door. Jefferson could see his football lying on the couch. He asked for it back, but Frankie told him with a smile it was now his football. Jefferson was caught between Frankie and the old man and at that moment he hated them both, and the football, and Christmas. He felt surrounded and miserable, with no way out but to attack.
Jefferson hit Frankie in the jaw with all the power in his ten-year-old body. Frankie slammed against the door frame, and Jefferson hit him again in the small of the back. Frankie let out a moaning whine and sank to his knees, the front of his pants turning dark and wet.
"I got a kidney condition," he wailed. "Now I'm go nna die."
Jefferson was so horrified that he couldn't feel his feet on the floor as he walked over to get the football.
He ran home on a cushion of cold panic, sure that Frankie was dying on the floor of his house and that his ghost would come out of the closet at night to drag him into eternal blackness.
The old man nodded his head with satisfaction when he saw the football.
"I hit Frankie and he's gonna die," Jefferson blurted.
"Is that what he said?"
"He's got a kidney condition."
"Bullies always come up with a condition when you hit 'em. Don't go soft on him now, John D."
Jefferson had gone up to his room and crumpled in a corner, feeling used and ashamed. He hated the old man that night for showing him pain and humiliation. And he hated him for not coming upstairs. He'd actually approve of this, God bless his shiny brass heart.
The plant was cobalt-blue steel and loomed squarely off the flat plains like a giant headstone. A man at the gate waved for him to stop, but Jefferson just waved back and rolled on by. At the top of the road he pulled into a half-full parking lot, got out, and headed for a set of double doors cut into the front of the building.
A sign on the door announced the place as Unitel Incorporated. Harlow Rourke had built the place to produce fuel from the methane in cow manure, but then the bottom dropped out of the shit business. Harlow had been looking for a sucker to buy the place ever since.
Jefferson had never heard of Unitel Incorporated and couldn't imagine why they would choose to locate in the middle of Montana ranchland.
Inside the double doors was a glass partition set into the side of a long hallway, which led toward the rear of the plant. Behind the partition was a plump young woman with crow's-wing hair and a flat copper face, a girl from the Blackfoot reservation.
"Good morning," she said with rehearsed cordiality. "May I help you?"
"I'm looking for the plant manager," Jefferson told her.
"Do you have an appointment?"
The girl stared at him blankly.
"Just call him, will you. My name is Jefferson. I own the property adjacent to here. Tell him I have a matter of possible liability to discuss with him."
Chang was interested in possible liability. He came down the hallway and escorted Jefferson up a flight of stairs to a second-floor office with a window facing Jefferson's property.
"Now then," he said in heavily accented English. "What is this matter of liability?"
Chang didn't look much like a businessman. He was short but athletic-looking, had his hair cut in a hip 'do that hung to his shoulders, and he sported a thin mustache. He also had a thin scar running from hairline to cheekbone that looked more like barroom fight than boardroom stress.
"Forty acres of beef cattle," said Jefferson. "Dead in one night and downhill from here. What's in your waste water?"
"Nothing harmful, I promise you," Chang said with a placating gesture. "We meet every EPA standard. I have the certification right here."
Chang reached into his desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers with the EPA logo on top. He tossed the papers casually onto the barren desktop. Jefferson picked them up and saw they were authentic. He owned gas wells, silver mines, and reams of EPA boilerplate just like the ones he was holding in his hand.
"You make computer chips?" he asked.
Chang stiffened a little in his chair. Obvio usly he was a man not used to answering a lot of questions.
"And the smoke?"
"From the heating system, mostly. It's cold at night. And we incinerate our trash. Read the certification."
"I don't have to read it. I can see they certified you. I also know that the people who do the certifications are a bunch of hog-nosed geeks who can't find their ass without sitting down. Half of them can be bought off with a subscription to Penthouse."
Chang's eyes narrowed to slits and his scar turned from white to red.
"I'm not going to argue about it," he said.
"I don't think you have enough authority to argue about it."
"You're a very rude man," Chang said.
"Give me a name, someone who can actually help me."
"Mr. Jefferson, I have showed you the EPA certification. That was more than I had to do. Now I'm asking you to leave."
One part of Jefferson's brain told him to leave, but it was a part that was way in the back. The blood all seemed to be rushing to the front. He moved forward and stood over Chang's desk. His hands began to tingle and his vision zoom-focused onto Chang's face.
"No," he said. "I want a name, the CEO, someone on the board. I want to talk to someone who actually owns this building. Give me a name. One way or another, you're going to give me a name."
Chang looked a little surprised but not at all afraid.
"Mr. Jefferson, are you threatening me?"
This was going to be the fortune cookie thing all over again, only worse. Jefferson knew he should be backing off, acting his age, but it felt so good coasting toward the line. He looked toward the multi-button phone on Chang's desk.
"You going to call security?"
"Maybe I'll call the sheriff."
"Good. His na me is Bob Wagman. He's a sixty-year-old fat guy I shoot quaff with three times a year. He owes me five hundred bucks from a poker game, and I know he's been on the take for years. Do you want me to dial the number?"
A little smile played across Chang's face.
"Maybe security, then. They're not sixty or fat and the only person they owe is me."
Over the years Jefferson had lost a lot of faith in conversation. It always seemed to go around in circles. He was done talking.
"I want a name."
"You're trespassing. We don't have to be gentle."
The blood receded from Jefferson's eyes and went to his hands. He felt loose and relaxed. He was glad for Chang's implied threat. It made his decision easier.
Chang's hand darted toward the telephone, but before it could get there, Jefferson reached forward, grasped Chang's necktie, and yanked the man forward. He pulled the necktie over the front edge of the desk, pinioning Chang's head.
"Odd behavior for men of our station, isn't it," he growled into Chang's face. "But I like it. I'm forty-nine and my wife has left me and a lot of my cattle are dead. If you don't tell me who I can talk to, I'm going to throw you out your office window."
Jefferson pulled Chang across the desk, and with his fight hand still on the necktie, he grabbed Chang's belt with his left hand, flipped him around, and headed toward the window.
"All right," gurgled Chang. "All right. Put me down."
Jefferson dropped the man against the wall but held on to the necktie.
Chang took a few deep breaths and tried to recover his composure.
Jefferson tightened his grip on the necktie.
"We don't even own the plant. We lease it from Harlow Rourke."
Jefferson breathed a sigh of relief. Harlow was a hard piece of work, but they'd known each other since Jefferson hit Montana in 1970. They'd even been friends once. He'd see the old goat just as soon as he could figure out a way to let go of Chang.
"Thank you, Mr. Chang, that's very helpful. But we've got kind of a problem here, don't we?"
"I'd say you're the one with the problem."
He was right. Jefferson had what he wanted, but now he had to get out of the plant without encountering security.
He looked around the office and saw a red fire alarm on the front wall. In the event of fire, security would have to man the extinguishers and make sure people got out. Jefferson would be glad to oblige. He let go of Chang, ripped the phone cord out of the wall, then pulled the handle. The plant erupted into a cacophony of bells and sirens. A recorded voice began booming out the message that this wasn't a drill.
Jefferson left the office and began running toward a fire exit sign. He passed several other people running in various directions, all wearing white lab coats. He heard Chang behind him yelling down the hall for security just as he hit the fire door and blasted through it onto a set of steps. He took them four at a time and stumbled out a bottom door on the side of the building.
Workers wearing blue coveralls were jumping off the loading dock and heading for the parking lot. Jefferson joined them, looking over his shoulder for Chang. He thought he saw a light-suited figure waving some security men toward the lot, but by that time he was already jumping into the Rover.
He roared down the gravel road in a rooster tail of dust.
"Well, Colonel Jack," he said. "How'd you like that one?"
Copy right © 1999 by Lee Moler