“So this Web Olson is some rancher?” Sergeant Glad asked with feigned innocence as Sheriff Blair shifted the cruiser into gear. “Big wheel?”
Like Ronald Coleman in Lost Horizon, I turned to catch a last glimpse of the blue-shuttered house and wooded park down the aisle of silver poplars—Viv’s world, where doe and bear took food from her shapely hands and I’d breathed the scent from last night’s flower I couldn’t name, before the sudden visitor woke me in the rented cabin by the river.
The Stones’ green valley was fading, the wisteria blooms sweet as purple grapes, and the black-eyed deer that let me stroke the suede along her nose.
“Used to be,” Blair answered Glad.
“What you mean?” Ray Bell asked. “Web Olson’s the Cattle King of the County, maybe all of Montana.”
Blair hit the gas as he pulled from the fluttering poplars onto the gravel county road, rock shooting up under the car as I raised my window.
“That was news to me, too,” Blair said.
“Fill me in.” I didn’t look at Glad. “I’ve heard Olson’s name before.”
“A guy called ‘Jim’—” Glad began.
“Bob ran into someone in town,” I said quickly. “He mentioned Olson.”
I didn’t add that Glad got drunk with a guy named Pete in a bar and drove into the mountains, to see a crazy boy named Jim Sloan who’d built a bull.
“That’s the trouble.” Blair frowned. “Everybody’s name comes up.”
“Something might ring a bell,” I said.
“I asked Lloyd Stone if there’d been anything odd. He said no. I asked about Web and he said it looked like he’d gone out of the cattle business, turned his range back to the deer.”
Stroking Viv’s tame doe, I’d remembered the little deer, how curiously she’d stared, her wet nose nearly touching mine, then spun and jumped for the cabin’s door, running through the aspen to swim the river.
“Maybe his prime stock came down with Bitterroot Fever.”
“Wouldn’t that be the cherry on top,” Bell said. “I don’t see him running scared from any Night Slayer.”
A speckled grouse whirred up like a pheasant from the dry grass at the road’s shoulder, crossing in front of the chrome hood ornament.
“He’s an odd bird, though, isn’t he, Jack?” Bell said.
“And a smart one,” Blair agreed.
“And a rich one. The Olson Modified Hereford.”
In Glad’s drunken story, the mechanical animal with sharpened horns circled the barn, nearly spearing Glad and his new Montana friend.
Blair lifted a hand to tilt back his Western hat.
“Always kept to himself. Came from the Dakotas or maybe Minnesota, during the Depression. Just a kid when he started working for the Olsons.”
“They adopted him?” Glad asked.
“Yep. Web was the guy who made the place go. Had his own cold storage for slaughtered beef. Bypassed the big packers.”
Blair steered around a giant pothole and sped up.
“The old folks died in a plane crash. Web dropped out, no one saw him anymore, just the bankers. His yearlings brought a pretty penny. Supposed to be immune, to the fever. I’ve heard rumors to the contrary over the years.”
“Is he married?” Glad asked.
“Only to his ranch. That and electronics.”
“Really?” I said.
“He rigged a radar system. We’d get a call and sure enough we’d find the rustlers. Just where old Web said they were.”
“Sounds pretty sophisticated.” Poor Jim Sloan and his bovine creation wouldn’t stand a chance. His true love had left him and he’d fallen for Olson’s daughter, Clark County’s Helen of Troy.
“He must be in his 80s now, wouldn’t you say?”
“Last time I saw him was three falls ago,” Blair said. “He was a little worked up—nursing a sick steer. Still wore his Colt, low like a gunslinger. Pearl handles.”
“You ought to get a pair of .45s, Bob,” Bell said. “Go with your outfit.”
“Maybe I will,” Glad said. “What about Lucinda?”
“How long you been in town?”
“What’s the joke?” Glad asked.
“Web had a real pretty young woman,” Blair said. “Pretty wild. Her parents sent her East somewhere. Word was Web had got her pregnant.”
“So Olson does have a daughter?” Glad asked with surprise.
“In the late ’50s his old flame showed up in Clarksville. With a beautiful girl. They went out to Web’s place, then the mother took off.”
Blair paused, thinking.
“A wealthy loner, prize stock, big spread all paid for. She was like a princess.”
“But no one ever saw her?” Glad asked.
“It was just a story, like when I was a kid. This old man had a shack, next to a log garage. Each night the light was on in his ‘laboratory,’ that’s what we called it. We thought he was working on an Army tank, or a boat to sail off to Hawaii.”
“And did he?” Glad asked eagerly.
“Naw,” Blair said. “The dogs put up a fuss, they were starving. Sheriff found him dead, a hammer in his hand. All he had was some steel framework on wheels.”
“What was it?” Glad leaned forward so the silver tips of his bolo swayed.
“Just an open box with a motor. Someone said it was supposed to be a bell cow. Remote control or some such.”
“What’s a ‘bell cow’?” Glad asked Blair.
“Leads the herd to the barn, so you don’t have to round ’em up,” Bell said.
“He had a lot of papers. Plans he’d drawn up.”
“What happened to them?” Glad probed.
“Who knows? Web was the same kind of guy. Nutty genius who built stuff. Except Web knew what he was doing. His daughter was a joke—”
“‘You going out tonight?’ a guy would say,” Bell said.
“‘Sure, I’m going out,’” Blair mimicked.
“‘Who with?’” Bell asked. “‘Lucinda Olson?’”
“You saw Olson three years ago?” I asked Blair.
“Yeah, all his trophies and ribbons. Nice place. Full of books. Web’s quite a reader.”
“What kind of books?” I asked.
“Electronics, science stuff, physics. Lot of veterinary journals. Things seemed a bit cockeyed. The way loners get a little funny?”
I did know. Ellen had been gone six years and last night she’d been real as life, dressed in white, holding the long-stemmed bloom, across the river from the line of aspen. From a hundred yards I could smell its fragrance.
“Was he getting senile?” I asked.
“He was supposed to be old.” Blair stared forward at the gravel road. “He didn’t look over 50. It made me think of the other story.”
“He’s an alien,” Bell said.
“Illegal?” Glad said.
“No—” Bell laughed. “From another planet.”
“He’s the guy that built the pyramids. His ranch is right here—”
We pulled around a long hill and I saw the miles of striped red-and-white steel fence posts. Every 30 yards a yellow metal plate hung from the top strand of wire:
Maximum Armed Response
“Pretty organized,” I said.
“He had a room of equipment,” Blair said. “If somebody nudged a clod Web knew it. He’d just bought a turret, off a B-26. On top of his house.”
“Machine gun?” Glad asked.
“Telescope. Turned 360 degrees.”
The radio crackled and Blair reached for the mike.
“We have a witness—”
“Who, Dorothy? Over.”
“Frankie Two Shoes.”
“Hell,” Bell said.
“Oxford Bar, talking a blue streak. Juana brought him in.”
“Not sure. D.T.’s. She got it secondhand.”
“Tell me, Dorothy.”
“Something about a saucer.”
“What a waste,” Bell said.
“Where is he now?”
“Holding cell. He’s climbing the walls. He—”
“Tell him I’m coming in.”
“Ten-four. FBI called. Over.”
“What’d they want?”
“They’re here. With an Air Force colonel.”
“Okay. Out.” Blair dropped the mike in its cradle. “Christ, that’s all we need—”
“Won’t the Freemen love that?” Bell said. “The government butting in.”
Blair hit the gas and Olson’s fence posts and warnings flashed by in a yellow and red and white blur. We passed two pine poles and carved 12-foot horns that made a crosspiece with a sign:
Olson’s Circle-Bar Ranch
Intruders Met With Deadly Force!
“All empty.” Bell gazed at Olson’s bare range.
“You mean stock or crazy Lotharios?”
“Yeah,” said Blair. “Maybe Lucinda ate them all.”
“That or Bitterroot Fever.”
Again I saw Glad’s boozy pencil sketch of the lonely boy’s bull built of hides and steel. We’d have to fill Blair in about the homegrown Ulysses, before he confronted Olson’s pearl-handled revolver.
“We gonna eat?” Bell asked. “Viv’s cookies made me hungry.”
The beautiful silver-haired ex-movie actress had stood at the car window with her rescued doe and black bear, while Blair talked to her husband about the Night Slayer and the latest cattle thefts and mutilations.
“I guess they’re my kids.” She held out a cookie to each animal. “The ones I never had.”
The doe, Blossom, stared into my eyes and I’d thought somehow Ellen looked at me again from another world.
“I raised her from a fawn.” Viv nodded toward the bear. “Him too. Hunters killed his mother when he was just a cub.”
“You can get us some chicken takeout at Crossroads, while I buy Frankie a bottle.”
“Who’s Frankie?” Glad asked.
“Grub-staker, gold-panner. Local drunk. He knows this country like the back of his hand.”
“When he can see the back of his hand.”
“Two Shoes?” Glad asked. “Is he Indian?”
“Naw,” Bell said. “He painted a number on each boot, so when he wakes up he knows right from left.”
“He’s pretty smart, though,” Blair said.
“Smarter than his old man?”
“Who’s his father?” Glad asked.
“The old guy with the bell cow,” Bell answered.
“I’d like to talk to him,” I said.
“Sure, just as soon as we get him oiled up.”
“He’s a Tin Man,” Bell said. “Rusts up when he’s out in the rain.”
“I’m feeling a little rusty myself. How ’bout you, Phil? Fried chicken, then cocktails with Frankie Two Shoes, after the Feds and Air Force?”
“Then dessert with Beulah?” Bell asked.
I’d nearly forgotten, with the Night Slayer on the loose. Blair’s sister-in-law had sounded smart and nice, Viv Stone was adamant, and I hadn’t gone out with anyone human since Ellen’s death.
“Don’t wait too long,” Viv warned when Bell told her a date was planned for me, her eyes blue as the wisteria on her trellis, as the flower Ellen had held. “You’ll lose out.”
Several fence posts were down, wire fallen across the grass on either side of the road.
“Good,” Blair said. “I’ll tell Betty. Hang on!”
He threw the car into a long sideways slide as I saw the sudden tan blur—buck, doe, two dappled fawns crossing the gravel—
The doe’s eye stared a foot beyond my window—Blossom or the deer from the cabin?—and was gone as I blinked, waiting for the thud.
“Everybody all right? Phil?”
I’d thrown my hands against the dashboard. Dust was settling. Nothing had hit the car.
“Fine.” I sat back.
“We’re okay.” Glad’s ten-gallon hat from the Western store in Fresno had fallen to the floor and carefully he brushed it off.
“Lucky we didn’t lose another radiator,” Bell said. “You’ll get a commendation.”
“Yeah, but there goes my buck.”
I spotted the four deer standing on a low bluff and remembered the doe’s staring look, then Blossom’s dark eyes that had mirrored my own.
And the bolting deer that tempted me to cross the night river.
I woke from Ellen and the flower’s pungent scent as the doe nuzzled my cheek. Time slowed and I lifted a hand to touch her face—for a second it was also Ellen’s—before she spun with a clatter of hooves and leaped for the open door in a streaming amber flash.
Then a woman’s tender voice whispered: “Without coat or gun, Philip Lambert ran into the cool night, into the darkened green world—”
I’d sprinted 20 yards, still drowning in the deer’s black eyes, until I heard the splash and churning water and stopped short, listening above my frantic breath and heart to the hush of river, past the swaying leaves the frightened doe had brushed.
The four deer watched as Blair shifted gears and we moved on past Web Olson’s fenced rolling acres left to the white-tailed deer—to meet thirsty Frankie Two Shoes who’d seen a UFO.
And talk with the Air Force and FBI, while under the string of orange lights Jim Sloan prepared to rescue Web Olson’s captive daughter.
Now Sloan climbed up inside the darkness of the bull he’d fitted with hidden wheels and motor and wide polished horns with razor tips.
They had lowered in a charge and nearly gored Glad in his fancy ostrich-skin boots and black whipcord pants and shirt with white piping, a red rose stitched above each scalloped, pearl-buttoned pocket.
Glad had shown up at the airport carefully dressed for the Big Sky’s officer exchange, before Ellen appeared on the river’s far bank where the silver willows moved like Viv Stone’s double row of winking poplars.
Was I any saner that Sergeant Glad?
Frankie Two Shoes or Web Olson?
Or Jim Sloan, obsessed by a fatal, make-believe beauty, after he’d lost his true love?
Maybe it wasn’t Lucinda but a sweeter, darker scent that drew him on—
Ellen stood in flowing white, her lovely hand gesturing with the cobalt flower, before the deer met my cheek and I woke to large eyes reflecting my two faces, one for either shore of the swift and cold Columbia’s Clark Fork.