By Carol Foss with Dizzy Dolphin
Lee had never been so sore in his life. What Chip saw in it he had no idea. Of course Morton was probably luxuriously sprawled out in a hot tub with his latest girlfriend back in Santa Barbara while he was stuck on the trail. Oh, it was hyped as a dude ranch, complete with spa, lake, campgrounds, lodge, and even some long distance trail rides; just the thing to get back to nature, Morton had said, but Lee was beginning to doubt his XO’s sanity.
“Hey Crane,” one of the wranglers said, “don’t forget to…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, take care of your horse first,” Cheech, he knew all about that. Lee un-cinched the saddle, and wondered how anyone could actually like the beasts. He was a sub captain. His men came first, so it was only natural that his horse would too. It was just that, well, a ladies’ spa didn’t primp and pamper their clients as much as the Tumbleweed Trails Horse Trail Riding Stables and Dude Ranch did. “Use a curry comb, use a dandy brush, use this, do that,” he muttered to himself. Of course, it wasn’t Lightning’s fault. He was just a dumb animal. It was all these experts on the practice trails with Crane, determined to make sure he had a good time. But a good time had only been had by them! Must be a wannabe cowboy thing. He doubted a good time would be on his agenda for the foreseeable future.
To top it off, he was just so damn sore. His hands were sore despite the gloves, his shoulders were sore, his butt was sore, his tailbone was sore, and he had jock itch.
He’d had no idea a saddle could be so cumbersome either. The dang thing weighed more than 30 pounds at least, and he’d had to cart it from the tack room to the horse’s stall without letting anything touch the ground or tangle with the bridle. The first time he’d looped the bridle around his neck while he carried the saddle the reins had slipped down and tangled around his legs. He and his gear had landed in the dirt and earned him some serious tack cleaning demerits while some of his fellow riders steadied and untangled him, trying very hard not to laugh at the newbie.
Then he’d had to put the saddle pad on Lightning, followed by lifting the saddle itself up and over the horse’s back without messing up the pad. After securely cinching the thing and finally taking his ride, later he’d had to undo everything in reverse order.
Being a kind of cowboy, even on a Dude Ranch was hard work. He was beginning to wonder if it was all going to be worth it.
“Oh hiya Doc,” Morton yawned as he answered the doorbell.
“What are you so tired for, it’s after 10 am.”
“I get the idea,” Jamison noticed the trail of shed men’s and women’s clothing toward the bedroom.
“So, what’s up, Doc?” Chip giggled.
“Have you seen Crane? I have a document he needs to sign and…what? I’ve seen that smirk before and it can’t be good.”
“You’re going to want to give me a ‘get out of sickbay free’ card. Lee’s on vacation. A real bona fide vacation. Plenty of fresh air, and,” he waved his arms in a parabola, “scenery. If you get my drift. ”
“I find it hard to believe he’d take a vacation just to go girl watching. You on the other hand…”
“Oh, there’s more. Think Dude Ranch! Or call it Cowboy Camp. Doc, this place has all the perks. It’s like living on the Ponderosa*! Leisurely horseback rides, even some mega long ones if he wants. There’s a forest of pine trees, a lake, a canyon, even scrub brush and tumbleweeds! Like a page out of a western. Fun and games at the Lodge, campouts, S’mores. And a surfeit of lovely ladies who just happen to be frequenting it now. College girls! I made sure to include that little demographic in my search. They practically booked the entire place for a really big trail ride when I signed him up.”
“And he let you?”
“Didn’t have much choice,” Chip snickered, “his faithful XO finally convinced him he needed to get away from NIMR, Seaview, and ONI for awhile. Way far away. And that it would do him a world of good. No doubt at least one of his fellow trail mates should be at least interesting. Of course, there are other folks there too, senior citizens, newlyweds, families too, so who do you think he’ll lean to for a little one on one companionship? The college girls, of course!”
“Oh, Chip, you are bad. ”
“My sacred duty to insure his health and well-being.”
“I have no doubt the fresh air will do him good. But I’ve noticed he tends to favor a more mature woman. Just how long is this vacation for anyway?”
“Two and half glorious weeks.”
“Two and a half weeks? You, sir, are a miracle worker.”
“Make that miracle worker extraordinaire,” Chip said proudly, “the amenities include a five star restaurant, not to mention a full service spa.”
“Spa? You’re joking aren’t you? No way Lee will ever consider that.”
“Trust me, if you’re not used to riding, nothing gets the kinks out more than a good Swedish massage afterwards.”
“Well, I hope you know what you’re doing. I’m not sure if I like the idea of Seaview leaving on her next mission without her XO, which is a definite possibility if Lee doesn’t enjoy himself.”
“Oh, he’ll enjoy himself. Guaranteed or my name isn’t ‘Chip knows how to take of Lee Crane Morton’. ”
Exhausted, Lee ditched the idea of lunch. But if he’d hoped to have a restful few hours before supper to recuperate from his second day on the beginners trail, it was not to be. Just as he drifted off in the overstuffed chair in his airy bedroom, thanks in part to some heavy duty aspirin, it was yesterday all over….
“Right inside his mouth from the side, move it up until you feel the gap between his molars,” the chief wrangler ordered, “that’s where the bit will fit. Then move the bridle up to help position the bit, don’t let it bang on his teeth. Makes ‘em bit shy.”
Easy for you to say, Lee curbed his thoughts from going verbal.
He took the bridle in his right hand, positioned it as he had been told and used his left hand to hold the bit up to Lightning’s mouth. The horse gave him a sideways look rolling his eyes showing the whites.
Oh this is sooooo not going to go well.
Still, Lee persevered, after all he reasoned, I command the mightiest submarine in the world, I have a crew of 125 men, I’m a trained ONI agent. Surely I can put a bit into a horse’s mouth.
While all of the above may have been true, it didn’t impress Lightning one iota. He knew this man was a greenhorn. As he felt Lee try to get his thumb in his mouth Lightning slowly raised his head, Lee stretched, and then the horse took one casual step to his left, and planted his left front hoof directly on top of Lee’s left foot.
So had begun a beautiful relationship…
As Lee woke from his daydream, he chastised himself for not having brought his steel tipped combat boots instead of letting Chip talk him into some rather gaudy cowboy ones. He also began to wonder if this had been a good idea. Chip wasn’t aware of the real reason he’d acquiesced so easily to the suggestion. As things were going, perhaps he should call for a little backup…just in case.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Admiral Starke shouted from Nelson’s speaker phone, “my aide dashed out of here on Friday like a bat out of hell, muttering Crane’s name with epithets one doesn’t’ use in polite society. Now he’s AWOL! It has to be Crane’s fault! Now, where is your boy wonder and what’s he up to that’s got Jackson so rattled?”
Morton checked his watch, “Well, I don’t know about Lt. Cmdr. Jackson, but right about now Lee’s probably enjoying a hearty meal of beef stew and dumplings, with all the fixings. Or he could be mucking out a stall.”
“A what?” Starke asked.
“A stall, as in stable…you know, for horses.”
“And just where the devil’s he doing this? Details damn it, details!”
“Just a minute Jiggs,” Nelson said, “I won’t have you interrupting Lee’s R&R just because you think Jackson might be with him.”
“I won’t hesitate to contact the SecNav, Harry. And trust me, they’ll interrupt him without hesitation.”
“He’s at a Dude Ranch, okay?” Nelson answered.
“Actually,” Morton added, “it’s a Dude Ranch and a Spa, sirs.”
“You’ve got to be kidding! Well, get me the number.”
“No,” Nelson said firmly, “you want him, you find him,” Nelson clicked off the videophone.
“And this,” Lee indicated the stall to Joe, “is Lightning. But I have to kick him to get him to move an inch.”
“You must be doing something wrong, Lee. Mustangs are fast and sure of foot.”
“Yeah, he sure is that. Sure of my foot,” Lee massaged his own swollen appendage, bootless for now. “Joe…I think I may need your help. You know what I mean.”
“The Lee Crane I know wouldn’t let a little boo boo make him call for reinforcements.”
“Boo boo, hah! The big trail ride I need to go on later this week on is almost 150 miles! I don’t know much about my contact but the rendezvous’ just a short distance from trail’s end. I thought I could do this. Just absent myself for a bit while everyone’s sleeping. But I know I’m not up to it…and this damn animal knows I’m not up to it…”
“He’ a horse, Lee. They can’t comprehend stuff like that, no matter what Roy Rogers always said.”
“You won’t help me?”
“I didn’t say that, not exactly, and stop looking at me like a lost puppy! You know you always do that when you want something above and beyond?”
“I do not!”
“You do too!”
“Good. I’ll get the chief wrangler to set you up with a horse.”
“Can I at least have a better looking one?”
“What’s the matter with his looks? Besides, whatever they give you isn’t exactly going to the Kentucky Derby. Er, Joe, you can still ride, can’t you? I mean, it’s been awhile …”
“Oh ye of little faith.”
“You’re beginning to think there’s something more to this, then, Chip?” Nelson asked Morton as he paced in his office after the call from Starke.
“I thought it was my presentation that made Lee agree to the ranch, but now…uh oh.”
“I don’t like the sound of that. What’s the matter, Chip?”
“I just thought of something. Jackson’s a part time spook, just like Lee is. Oh swell! This is just dandy! Lee’s probably gone off on assignment and pulled Jiggs’ man in on it…and he didn’t tell me one damn thing about it.”
“Has he ever? Look, Chip, we don’t know what’s really going on, if anything. For all we know, Jackson could have had a little emergency, and Starke’s jumping to conclusions. But if Lee’s friend did go join him, maybe Lee only landed on a cactus or something.”
“Well, if he is up to no good, he’ll wish he had fallen on a cactus when I’m finished with him!”
“Get in line behind me. But let’s confirm any assignment with ONI before we fly off the handle. We’d better be damn sure he’s off playing James Bond before we have to cooperate with Jiggs.”
Lee was feeling rather pleased with himself the next day. He hadn’t made a fool of himself in front of the other riders this time, especially the sorority girls. Chip may have meant well, but unfortunately these girls were from a catholic college and had nuns riding shotgun so to speak.
He’d almost mastered the art of bridling Lightning, although the horse still made him stretch for it. Of course, this time, Lee had kept an eye on where his feet were. If that wasn't difficult enough here was the whole cleaning of hooves issue before and after every ride. Nobody but nobody was going to be allowed on the big trail ride unless they could prove they knew what they were doing. Especially the use of the essential hoof pick. A lethal looking weapon if ever Lee saw one.
Used to remove mud, bedding and any stones compacted in the underside of their horses hooves; it was stressed how very important this was and Lee was determined that no horse of his would get an embedded stone, bruise or have smelly hooves. Not on his watch. Still, Lightning almost always shifted his weight to the wrong side which made Lee push him over before he could get to the hoof he wanted to check.
Lee was checking his mount’s right rear hoof when Lightning turned his head to watch. Lee tried a friendly smile in response, but the horse just stared at him. Finished, Lee set the hoof down but just as he began to straighten up, he caught a face full of vigorously swished tail. And Lightning sported a very thick, coarse, long, one. Women Lee knew would pay megabucks for such luxurious tresses, without the threads of attached manure, of course. It wouldn’t do to yell at the poor beast, but at least Lee could glare back at him, who just happened to be displaying his teeth in a kind of yawn.
“If I didn’t know any better, Lee,” Joe smirked, “I’d say he’s laughing at you.”
“You two had better hurry if you want to go with the group on the intermediate trail,” one of the wranglers said as the other riders headed out of the stable. “But there’s always the kiddie trail if you prefer,” he smirked.
Joe grabbed Lee’s arm before he could say anything…er…well….abusive. Not that Lee, ever the gentleman, would resort to it, but he had known Lee to mutter epithets under his breath that even Starke would be shocked by.
“We’ll catch up easy enough, right, Lee?”
“Yeah, right,” Crane replied, as the men led their horses out of the stable and tack area. Lee mounted Lightning with more than a little difficulty due to some overused thigh muscles. He gave a small sigh once he was safely ensconced in his saddle.
“Comfy?” Joe taunted.
“Comfy is a non-operative word here.”
“Just remember, boys, if you get lost or separated from the group, or stuck in inclement weather, give the horse his head. That means let him make the decisions. Never known a horse not to know the way home to the ole’ feedbag. Happy trails, boys!” the man swatted Lightning’s rump.
At least this time, Lightning lived up to his name and galloped away, Lee trying desperately to stay aboard.
“Lee, wait up,” Joe kicked his horse, an Arabian, “ah, c’mon, Lawrence, get moving! Giddy up!”
“Sorry about that, young fella, must be the name. The new owners thought it was kinda’ cute, you know, after Lawrence of Arabia? Papers said he used to be called Prince. C’mon Prince, get yerself goin’,” But even after his rump was swatted, Lawrence aka Prince, just snorted and dawdled behind, finding some scrub grass that seemed far more interesting than moving.
“I want another horse,” Joe began to dismount.
“No fella, don’t get off him yet…damn…”
Yes, there were a lot of choice words Lee would know, Joe thought as he just barely managed to hoist himself back up on the saddle as Lawrence began to jog after Lightning.
“We should have taken the kiddie trail,” Joe said wearily a couple of hours later as they rode side by side, their trail mates barely visible ahead of them.
“And let those girls snicker at us old codgers way behind them? That’s what I overheard one of them call us.”
“Whoa boy…not you, you stupid horse! C’mon, giddy up…old codgers Lee?”
“I sure feel like one. You know, Chip said I might enjoy the company of some college girls. Some company! Bad enough they’re so young. I’d rather tangle with a rattlesnake than with their chaperones!”
“Lee, Lee, Lee. The girls are of age, you know. So the nuns are not exactly chaperones, technically.”
“They’re still keeping an eye on them. Worse, on us! I can’t even scratch my privates in case they’re watching,” Lee whined, “ and I itch!”
“Think of it as a challenge…”
“C’mon Lee, it’s not like you to give up. What’s the real problem with the girls?”
After a moment of embarrassed silence, Lee spoke, “all the girls call me Mr. Crane. Like I’m their fath..uncle or something.”
“Could be worse,” Joe chuckled.
“Well, the nuns could be calling you ‘my son’.
“Very funny…is it my imagination or are these horses slowing down?”
“Yeah, they’ll take advantage of their riders every chance they get.”
“I thought you said horses didn’t have cognitive emotions.”
Just then something brown and furry darted out in front and across into the scrub brush leading down toward the lake.
Lightning reared and Crane found himself flying off the saddle, as Joe tried to calm down Lawrence who was dancing about in a panic.
“Owwww,” Lee moaned, “I think I broke my butt! Maybe dislocated my shoulder too.”
Joe dismounted, grabbing the reigns of both horses and squatted down to check his friend out. “If it were dislocated, it would look worse than that and you’d be swearing your guts out. Don’t be such a baby.”
“What was that thing anyway, Joe?” Lee gasped as he tried to get up but groveled in agony in the attempt. “I need a minute. You go on and warn the others. It’ll be okay, I’m packing heat if the beast comes back and attacks. I can still shoot it with my other hand.”
Just then the brush rustled and Lee struggled with his left arm to reach under his fringed leather jacket. “Ow, ow, ow.”
“Packing heat, eh, Lee? No good if you can’t reach it, not to mention that you’re not left handed. And the trail leader’s probably already on his way back to check on the commotion we made back here.”
Just then the creature emerged and stared at the men.
Lee looked up at Lightning, incredulous, “You bucked me off ‘cause you were afraid of a..a..little bunny rabbit?”
“It startled him, that’s all. Horses can be skittish.”
“Well, tell him they still have glue factories you know.”
“I very greatly doubt that. And it’s not a bunny; it’s a Jack Rabbit.”
“What’s the difference?” Lee managed to grab Lightning’s reigns in the effort to rise, “ Uh…Joe… I really think I broke my butt. Owww.”
“Let me,” Jackson managed to pull his friend up and drape him over the horse sideways.
“Do I have to go back like this? Like a sack of potatoes? I’ll never hear the end of it. Scuttled by a bunny.”
By the time the team leader reached them, and used his emergency radio to call the lodge about the accident, Mr. Hasenpfeffer had disappeared.
Le had never felt so humiliated. Especially as heard some of the girls giggling over his ‘cute butt’. At least the two nuns told their charges to mind their manners.
“Er, Admiral?” Morton hesitated to interrupt especially as Nelson was still in a foul mood.
“Um…I’ve had word from the Lodge. My number was on Lee’s ‘in case of emergency’ card…well it seems Lee fell overboard in a manner of speaking.”
“He fell off his horse. So hard that the ranch hands at the lodge took one look at him and had him airlifted to Carson City General, for x-rays. He’s still there. I couldn’t get in touch with Jaime, but Frank’s on the phone with them, making sure they don’t give him anything he’s allergic to, like penicillin, and our own Med Center’s been alerted…”
“Oh that’s great. Just great,” Lee muttered, lying prone face down on the examination table. “My arm was nearly dislocated, and I have a broken butt.”
“You have a hairline crack on the coccyx,” Dr. Amy Whitehorse corrected, “and some badly bruised musculature around your shoulder blade, only one torn ligament; you’ll be sore on both ends and I’m afraid you’ll have limited mobility for a while, especially since your foot’s already swollen. You won’t be able to sit or walk for more than a few minutes at a time. You’ll need to adjust the way you sit as well, use only one buttock at a time, use a donut, etc. but you should be fine in a few weeks.”
“A few weeks?” Lee asked, aghast. Damn, double damn! Lee chastised himself, ONI will be really happy about that! Not to mention Doc.
“If I may continue?” the doctor said, “I suggest ice packs be applied 4 to 5 times a day, and always after a hot bath or shower. The point is to reduce swelling and it would be advisable to have someone hold the ice pack in place. They tend to slip off the buttocks too easily.”
“Eeyyyo,” Joe groaned theatrically.
“I’ll wear a towel,” Lee said sarcastically.“At least Tumbleweeds has plenty of those.”
“You’ll be staying at the ranch, then?” the doctor asked, surprised. Usually when a Dude Ranch guest had a bad fall they wanted nothing further to do with the place.
“I’m on leave...er...vacation,” Lee said, “I don’t get to see trees very often.”
“Very well. I’ll have the pharmacy fill your prescriptions for the inflammation and the pain. I don’t think I have to tell you, no booze, no driving, no heavy machinery…”
“No horsepower,” Joe snorted.
“And no… extracurricular activities. I think you know what I mean.”
“No, what do you mean?” Crane dared her to say something. Perhaps this woman knew about the entire operation…
“Very well, I’ll be blunt. With your sore arm, bruises and broken tailbone, sex will be out of the question.”
“You seem relieved…did you hit your head? We didn’t take an x-ray of that…”
“He’s fine,” Joe said.
“Commander Morton told me not to believe you if you said that.”
“Oh gawd. You spoke to Chip?”
“He was listed as your emergency contact on the ranch’s computer, Mr. Crane, but it was a Corpsman from the Seaview who informed us of your medical history and a Dr. Jamison later added his own medical advice.”
“It’s okay Doc,” Joe said, “Lee’s just…upset they had to go to all this trouble. And I was there. He didn’t hit his head.”
“Well, I hope it won’t put you off riding Mr. Crane. The best thing to do as soon as you’re able, that is, will be to get right back up on a horse, otherwise, you might not wish to try it again. Could even develop a phobia about horses and…”
“What’s wrong with that? The vicious beasts hate me.”
“You can hardly blame the horse for being startled. A coyote was it?” the doctor smirked, knowing full well that no coyote in its right mind, alone or in a group, would attempt an assault on a fully grown horse. “Go ahead and get dressed, I’ll see to the pills.”
As soon as the doctor had left Lee raised an eyebrow toward Joe. “Coyote?”
“Did you really want me to tell her that your horse was startled by an itty bitty bunny wabbit? Now, hold still, let me help you with your shirt.”
“Well?” Nelson asked Doc, who had just returned from another phone conversation with Carson hospital.
“Looks like the Skipper has a fractured coccyx.”
“Tailbone. He also earned himself a badly bruised shoulder blade and a torn ligament. But nobody could talk him out of returning to the ranch. Something about him not wanting to give a Mister Hasenpfeffer the satisfaction.”
“No idea, sir. By the way, Joe Jackson was with him.”
“Damn,” Nelson ran a hand through his hair and pressed the intercom, “Chip, see what you can find out about a Mr. Hasenpfeffer at the Dude Ranch. By the way, do you still have your old cowboy boots?”
“I’m beginning to think we should abort,” Joe hissed in the nearly deserted dining room. It was late when they’d returned from Carson City and they’d been lucky dinner was still being served.
“No way,” Lee said, fidgeting on his medical donut in the wheelchair, his right arm in a sling.
“It won’t be the first time we’ve had to.”
“You agreed to help me, Joe.”
“Yeah, but the cards weren’t stacked so heavily against us and….”
“Cards? Did I hear someone say cards?” an older man approached, “Would you boys like to join us for dinner and a game of cards afterwards?”
“You up to it Lee? “Joe mocked.
“I’m fine, and I can still use my left arm when this one gets too sore…”
“Lee had a little accident.”
“Boating on the lake?” the man asked as Joe wheeled him toward his table.
“He fell off his horse.”
“Oh, so you’re Mr. Crane. Yes, we heard about your unfortunate fall.”
“The horse was startled,” Lee offered.
“Pack of rabid coyotes,” Joe interrupted. “There was a bear nearby too. We were lucky to get away with our lives.”
“Indeed,” the man turned Lee’s wheelchair to face him.
Surprised by his dinner companion, both Lee and Joe were tempted to turn tail when he began to speak again.
“I believe you may have already met Sister Helen, a fellow trail mate from today I believe, and I’m Henry Harrison….”
“You look quite pale, dear, please sit down,” the nun said to Joe and nodded to Lee, who looked a bit too shell shocked to say anything.
“My girls told me all about your little argument with some coyotes, or was it a bear?”
“Uh, both actually,” Lee began, but Joe interrupted.
“Lee won’t want things to get exaggerated, but there was also a snake.”
“Yeah. Probably poisonous. Good thing those coyotes attacked when they did, and the horses shied and stomped around all over the place. Snake got trampled before we noticed it. Things really could have bad. For Lee, for me, for Lawrence.”
“Er, my horse.”
“Ah, yes. Lawrence of Arabia. Elegant horse.”
“Yeah…anyway, we would’ve brought the snake back and asked the chef to cook it, you know, to get an idea about eating off the trail, but with Lee’s injuries, we kind of forgot all about it.”
“Yes, I understand your injuries required a brief time at Carson Hospital. I do hope they’re not too serious, my son.”
“Well, he won’t be doing any riding soon, that’s for sure, among other things,” Joe snorted. “I hope they hurry up with our dinner…oh there it comes, what’s on for tonight anyway?”
“Hasenpfeffer,” Harrison said.
“Oh gawd,” Lee groaned.
“What’s wrong, my son?” Sister Helen asked.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I think I’m going to be sick…”
“I’ll handle it,” Jackson quickly turned Lee around and pushed him hurriedly away.
“So, where the heck is this place supposed to be?” Nelson pulled over in the rented car on the deserted road and checked the map.
“What’s that howling, wolves?”
“Perhaps. Maybe coyotes.”
“Either way, it doesn’t sound encouraging,” Chip said.
“No, it doesn’t and Lee had better not be giving them a free meal.”
“Did ONI admit to anything?” Chip eyed some bats in the moonlight, which did nothing to improve his mood.
“Zero. Nil. Zilch. For all we know Lee and his cohort in crime could be out here bleeding to death in the service to their country. And this Hasenpfeffer’s no code word the Agency admits to knowing anything about. Still, I find it hard to believe anyone would actually agree to a code name that means ‘Rabbit Stew’. Look, here’s the turn,” Nelson pointed to the fine print, “I don’t know how we missed it.”
“I told you we should have stopped and asked for directions…”
Nelson just looked at him.
“Er. Right…I’ll shut up now, sir.”
“Sorry, lad. I’m worried about him too, you know. Why don’t we change places; you drive us back to the turn off.”
“The doctor’s quite right, ” Sister Helen said later as Joe wiped his lips appreciatively after having had the rabbit stew, Lee having remained in his room. “A good long sitz bath in Epsom salts should help but ice and rest is the best treatment. What a pity Mr. Crane won’t be able to go on the big ride. But don’t you worry Mr. Jackson, some of my sisters not going riding will make sure he’s well taken care of while you’re away. In fact, I’ll stay too. I am a CNA.”
“It was awfully nice meeting you both,” Joe smirked, as the waiter removed the plates, “I’ll have to take a rain check on that card game. I’d really better be getting Lee to bed.”
“Of course, goodnight my son.”
“Good night,” Harrison said and watched Joe leave, “Coyotes, bears and now a snake? What on earth will those boys dream up next? No horseman in his right mind would credit any of those stories.”
“Well something startled the horses. Of course, one excuse is as good as another for bad horsemanship.”
“The spare’s flat too,” Chip wearily leaned against the car and shivered. “It’s colder up here at night than I’d expected. We’ll just have to drive it on the rim. The rental agency can’t really fault us, can they? I mean we have to avoid hypothermia and all that.”
“Well, I’m not paying for any repair charge. We wouldn’t be in this mess if you hadn’t forgotten to bring along a fully charged cell phone, and it’s not that cold.”
“Are you kidding? We’re both shivering!”
“Hmpf. If you’re that cold, I guess we’ll have to bunk down in the car right here and wait for daylight. Or we can set up a campfire along there...away from any gasoline fumes. It’s doubtful we can find another car out here to hitch a ride. Of course, we could just hoof it. The moon’s bright enough.”
“All right, Lee, you’ve been awfully quiet,” Joe said after he finished brushing his teeth. Lee had already showered and lay on his bed, robed and miserable.
“Joe, I don’t think that woman’s what she claims to be.”
“I don’t think ‘Sister Helen’s a nun.”
“Lee, Lee, Lee….maybe you did hit your head.”
“I’ve seen her before, I know I have, but I just can’t place her.”
“Perhaps you saw her before she took the veil? In a bar, maybe? A streetwalker? You would have had to have been a kid anyway.”
“No…nothing like that. I’d remember someone I’d seen when on the prowl..I just know her face from somewhere…and her voice….damn, why can’t I remember?”
“Why get all upset about it? It’s not the end of the world, bro, even if she is off limits.”
“I don’t know Joe…I think maybe we really should abort.”
“You think she’s one of the bad guys?” Joe nearly choked.
“Well, think about it. Who’d imagine a nun on the take, in the pay of an enemy nation, a terrorist…”
“Okay, you have a point. So, if she’s a plant, how do we intend to find out if our mission’s compromised?”
“Only one way I know of,” Lee sighed.
“No. Absolutely not. You heard what the doctor said.”
“I’d give the job to you but I can’t get to the rendezvous without a horse, and you can. That leaves it to me to make an ass of myself to find out if she really is a nun. And if Harry finds out…”
“If Nelson finds out, he’ll know you had a damn good reason. Now, here, take your pills, while I get your Epsom salts ready.”
“Joe? Sorry I got sick. I just couldn’t face eating my foe.”
“Don’t know it was your rabbit, Lee.”
Lee had graduated, if briefly, from his wheelchair to crutches the following day, and found he immediately regretted his decision. As clean as the staff kept the stables, there had been a stray bit of manure streaked straw that hadn’t been swept up yet, and it was slippery.
“You did remember the tracer?” Lee gasped from the dirt floor where he’d fallen on his butt cheek, not his damaged tailbone, as he assured Joe.
“Will you quit worrying?” Joe helped him up, “piece of cake, I remember you saying. Speaking of cake, I’m not looking forward to a couple of days of chuck wagon stew while you have Bavarian Chocolate Cake with Raspberries.”
“Chuck Wagon Stew? Hardly. There are support teams at each designated campsite on the trail, and the food wagons are pretty sophisticated, five star food ratings even. Don’t look at me like that, Chip told me.”
“Okay, don’t save me a piece of cake. Just remember to introduce me to all those babes that have decided not to go on the big ride since your little accident. Only about 12 of the girls are still signed up for it and a couple of families.”
“Those girls are not ‘babe’s for us to sniff after, and it’s not my fault if Mr. Hasenpfeffer morphed into a pack of a slobbering rabid coyotes, not to mention a bear, and a snake, thanks to you. What next, Bigfoot?”
“Well, excussse me! Besides, the fewer riders on the trail, the better for me to disappear for a few hours to meet the contact and get whatever package it is we’re supposed to retrieve. Now, relax will you? Got a carrot?” he asked as they stopped in front of Lawrence’s stall.
“Yeah, here,” Lee pulled some out of his jeans pocket, “got one for Lightning too.”
“Don’t tell me you’re bringing him a gift.”
“Well, he’s bound to feel left out now that he’s not going…”
“Careful! Don’t hand it to him like that…you want him to bite your fingers off? Here, like this,” Joe demonstrated the correct way to offer food to a horse with Lawrence.
“I know how to feed him!”
“Just trying to protect you, bro. If I return you to Nelson even more damaged than you already are now, I’m the one he’ll want to keelhaul, not to mention what old blood and guts will want to do to me. He’s bound to find out that signed leave form in the interoffice mail is a forgery. When he finds it, that is.”
“You know, looking at these horses, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for them. One of the wranglers told me that they’re all geldings. They don’t use stallions for trail horses.”
“Well, how would you feel being castrated. Not like a simple vasectomy either I’m told.”
“Put it out of your mind, Lee. Doesn’t seem to have made them any less horsey to me.”
“Anyway…I kind of feel for Lightning in other ways too, stuck here when Lawrence at least gets to go and do his duty for his country.”
“Lee,” Joe patted him on the shoulder, “I think maybe your meds are kicking in…c’mon, bro. I hear breakfast calling. Besides, Chip wouldn’t have waxed on about this place if he didn’t think the menu couldn’t satisfy his stomach.”
“There it is,” Chip pointed to the arched white picket gate in the early morning’s light, “finally, my feet are killing me and that last ride we hitched put dents in my six.”
“I didn’t realize that you were so badly out of shape, Mr. Morton.”
“So, sir, are you, or have you lost count of how many times we’ve had to stop to take a breather. And speaking of breathing, you’d breathe better if you ditched the cigarettes.”
“The last I heard, complaining about my nicotine addiction was Doc’s job.”
“Or Lee’s,” Chip muttered under his breath.
“Well, I just hope to God that he’s alive and well enough after whatever he’s up to.”
“Stampede!” Chip dove on top of Nelson to protect him, knocking both to the dirt as a group of riders trotted out of the gate.
“You gents okay?” a pretty thing paused on her mount and bent down.
“Er…he lost his balance,” Chip said, lending a hand to Nelson as the got up.
“Well, if you’re sure,” she said, as she returned to her feminine trail mates.
In minutes, the group of riders and horses were out of sight, including one of the few men trailing behind, who’d taken one guilty look at the pair and got the hell out of Dodge, kicking his horse into a canter.
“Correct me if I’m mistaken, sir, but were some of those riders...nuns?”
“Looked like it...”
“Sir, you’re not going to like this, but one of the guys, well, he sure looked like Joe Jackson.”
“Let’s get to the front desk and find out where the hell Lee is.”
“Very well, we’ll take two rooms.”
“I’m sorry sir, there’s only one left, but…”
“We’ll take it.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Are you declining our business?” Chip asked.
“Absolutely not sir, but that part of the lodge is nonsmoking…” he glanced at Nelson’s plume of smoke.
“Damn,” Nelson muttered, then, “I guess we don’t have a choice,” he snuffed out his cigarette into the ash can near the counter, “no smoking in the room. Now, give us the key already!”
“There he is!” Chip pointed, freshly showered and shaved a short while later and standing next to Nelson unobtrusively at the pool deck entrance.
“He doesn’t look like an invalid,” Nelson pouted.
“Could that be his assignment? One of those girls in the hot tub with him?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, but what on earth’s come over him?”
Lee was singing…
‘Cause I saddle up my horse
And I ride into the city
I make a lot of noise
‘Cause the girls
They are so pretty
“Well, not all of them,” Chip said, indicating a few older grandmotherly types and their equally elder companions, along with the young ladies.
Riding up and down Broadway
On my old stud Leroy er Lightning
And the girls say…
Save a horse, ride a cowboy! The girls sang out
Save a horse, ride a cowboy! They all sang, and the women dissolved into giggles and laughter,
“Is Lee drunk?” Nelson mused.
“Could be the meds…”
“Well it’s an obscene song and I’ll have you know you need to get your mind out of the gutter regarding those girls, Mr. Morton. We’re here on business…”
“Lee, my son,” Sister Helen, in full habit, approached the hot tub from someplace, “it’s time for your Epsom salts and ice bags. Give him a hand up girls, and one of you go get his wheelchair. I don’t think crutches will be a good idea after that other fall in the stables.”
“I didn’t fall, I slipped on some shit..er...on some stray straw that hadn’t been swept up yet....”
“It didn’t help your already bruised tush. You were lucky you didn’t re injure your tailbone.”
“I’ll get it,” Nelson took the wheelchair with Lee’s name on the tag from one of the girls, and stormed over.
Lee groaned more in mental anguish than pain as he was steadied by Nelson into the chair, while Sister Helen helped position him on the chair’s donut.
“And you are?” Sister Helen asked as she helped towel Lee a bit more vigorously than warranted.
“Er, this is Lee’s father, Harriman Crane” Chip said before Nelson could deny it, “and I’m Lee’s brother, Chip. We heard he was hurt and flew right out.”
“Isn’t that nice. Now Lee won’t need little old me or the spa to help with his ice packs while his room-mate’s away. Make sure he soaks his tailbone in the Epson Salts at least five times a day. The ice packs more. He hasn’t been a very good boy about sticking to either therapies.”
“Can’t say I blame him,” Chip muttered as he looked at the girls appreciatively.
“Dad, Chip, this is Sister Helen,” Lee introduced them quickly, “she’s with the college girls,” he managed to glare at Chip.
“Lee, son,” Nelson intervened, “let’s get you to your room. By the way, I think I saw your room-mate, Joe isn’t it? He was on a horse.”
“That’s the general idea for a Dude Ranch, Dad,” Lee said with more than a bit of annoyance.
“All right, Lee, I want an answer and I want it now,” Nelson said as soon as he and Chip had wheeled him into his room.
“Why ask me? I’m on vacation. The vacation my brother Chip here hatched up…..”
A knock on the door interrupted.
“What?” Nelson practically roared as he opened the door to a distinguished elderly gentleman.
“Lee? Sister Helen said your father and brother were here. Perhaps they’d like to join us for cards tonight? Joe said you were very disappointed having missed the game last night.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. H. They’re just visiting.”
‘Mr. Hasenpfeffer?’ Chip mouthed to Nelson.
“Actually, son,” Nelson said, “we’ve decided to stay for the duration, enjoy the amenities. We’ll be glad to join you and Lee for cards tonight Mr…er…I didn’t quite catch the name…”
“Henry. Henry Harrison. You know Mr. Crane,” he addressed Nelson, “I couldn’t help noticing your boy hasn’t much of an appetite. But those meds can sometimes cause tummy troubles…oh maybe you can convince him to make an appointment at the spa for a Swedish massage later. The staff said you’d skipped out last time, Lee.”
“Sorry Mr. H. I uh, wasn’t feeling up to it.”
“Well, I’m glad your family’s here to help out…you know,” he returned his attention to Nelson, “ he should probably have gone straight home, but he didn’t want his friend to cancel their plans for the big trail ride. I wish my son were as considerate…you’re a lucky man, Mr. Crane.”
“Of course, well, see you later Laddie,” he ruffled Lee’s hair.
“Er, yes…thanks…”Lee managed as he departed.
“Laddie?” Nelson huffed, after he closed the door, “Laddie? Lee, just what is this man to you?”
“He’s just a guest Joe and I met after my accident. He’s a nice guy. Or at least pretending to be.”
“What does that mean?” Nelson demanded.
“Never mind... it’s not important.”
“C’mon Lee,” Chip added, “what’s really up? Why didn’t you go ballistic when he ruffled your hair? You don’t like it when we do. And Laddy sure sounds more like a term of endearment than what a mere guest or even card shark would have used.”
“Who are you to decide who can call me Lad or not!”
“All right, all right, calm down,” Nelson said, “it’s just...well, we’re not used to having anyone else call you that, than me.”
“I’m sorry I snapped,” Lee replied, “I’m tired, and I didn’t get much sleep much last night. And being interrogated like this doesn’t help.”
“You don’t seem drunk anymore,” Nelson raised his eyebrow.
“I wasn’t drunk. I was simply relaxing in the hot tub.”
“You sounded drunk,” Chip said, “you acted drunk. So unless you were practicing for an Oscar. Again, Lee, what the hell are you up to? ”
“Chip’s right, Lee. I can’t believe that you and Joe are here simply to ride the horses. You’re on assignment aren’t you, and this Mr. H. is your contact, or maybe you’re suspicious of him, I dare say.”
“Just leave it be, will you?” Lee gingerly locked the chair in front of the bathroom, and rose, bracing himself on door frame, “ I have an appointment with some Epsom salts right now and some ice packs after.” And with that he slammed the door behind him.
“He’s pissed,” Chip sighed.
“He didn’t exactly say no, though, did he?” Nelson pursed his lips in concern.
Joe was surprised he was actually enjoying the ride. Like Lee, he appreciated the scenery, including the girls ahead of him. He’d opted to stay in the rear of the trail and checked his watch. While he wouldn’t be near his ‘break off’ point until tomorrow, he still wanted to consider his options. Even though he was glad to be in the field again, he knew things often had a way of going wrong and hoped this wouldn’t be one of them. It would have helped if he knew what he was supposed to pick up at the rendezvous.
“Hold still, Lee!” Nelson ordered, “How many times do I have to tell you?”
“I can do it myself!” the securely toweled but otherwise naked Lee fumed from his prone position on one of the double beds, though his words were somewhat muffled in the pillow.
“Every time you squirm the ice pack moves!”
“Gee Lee,” Chip said, “ those colorful bruises peeking out from under your towel are almost as red as your face. So how big was that bear I heard about?”
“Er…I didn’t notice.. what with the coyotes and snakes and all.”
“Well, I guess you can get up now,” Nelson said, as he removed the pack. “You’re very lucky, Lee. Not only could you, Jackson, and your horses have been mauled, but if any of those creatures were rabid…”
“Nope. Couldn’t happen, Admiral,” Chip grinned. “Trust me. I know all about horses. A bear, well, okay but kind of doubtful around here, but coyotes? Not in a blue moon. I think Lee perhaps would like to tell us what really spooked his horse or maybe he just fell off all by his little ownsome…well? Wouldn’t you like to tell us, get it out in the open?”
“Not particularly. ”
“Here, let me help you up,” Chip
“Do you mind? I can get up and dressed without assistance!” he grabbed the towel tighter and tried to sit up. “Ow.”
“Doesn’t look like it to me,” Chip said.
“Do you really want to spend our next cruise as bilge inspector, Mr. Morton?”
“Brrr. He’s hostile Admiral.”
“Must be the pills, Chip,” Nelson said leaning against the dresser, his arms folded, amused. “I read the pharmacy inserts. Side effects for these medications include sudden and/or severe mood changes. That might be what happened in the hot tub. While Lola might not mind his singing, I’d suggest he not give up his day job.”
“Hah!” Lee pouted, as limped toward the dresser and pulled out some underwear, socks, and a sweat suit, and headed back to the bathroom, not quite slamming the door as hard as he’d wanted.
“I think I’ll go take a look at Lee’s mount,” Chip said, “you don’t mind, do you Lee?” he called through the door, “if I go say ‘hi’ to your horse, maybe take a ride?”
“You want to live dangerously, be my guest!” Lee yelled back “Er, extra carrots in the top dresser drawer. Chip? Wait a sec,” he peered out, leaning on the door frame, still holding on to his towel, “you said you know horse stuff. Does it hurt much? I mean, when they…well, when they geld them? Why not a quick snip like a vasectomy?”
“What on earth brought that up? Nelson asked, confused.
“All the trail horses are geldings, sir,” Chip explained, “it’s a hormone thing, Lee. It’s one thing to prevent reproduction, quite another to, well, to curb a stallion’s predisposition to being difficult.”
“Lightning’s a gelding and still difficult enough for me.”
“You don’t understand. Unless you’re breeding a horse for racing or the stud farm, you’re asking for trouble if you don’t geld them. Stallions are naturally aggressive around other horses and difficult to control.”
“But does it hurt?”
“It’s not like they do it without any kind of anesthetic nowadays. Just a couple of slits in the sac, then they…”
“Do you mind not being quite so graphic, Mr. Morton?” Nelson sighed, “Damn, I need a cigarette. Chip, you stay and try to convince Lee to tell us why Joe’s AWOL. I’ll go give the damn horse his carrot.”
“Joe’s not AWOL! Captain Bligh must have misfiled the leave papers, that’s all!” Lee shouted.
“Oh, I have no doubt there are leave papers somewhere in Jigg’s office, but I doubt if any of the signatures were dated before your trip! You listen to me Lee. We flew all the way out here because we thought, and with good reason, that you have something to hide. Now you just think about that, Lee, all the trouble we’ve gone to, just because we care about you, but I can see our worry doesn’t concern you. I need some fresh air. Maybe I can get in a smoke in while trotting around in a corral or something. Easier to hide the cigarette butts.”
“Er, it’s against the rules to smoke in the corrals,” Lee said.
“Well, there’s got to be someplace around here, for those of us who do smoke. I’ll check with the desk.”
“If Lightning doesn’t want his carrot, you can always use it as an oral fixation substitute,” Lee sang out.
“Hmph! You’re right, Chip, he’s
“Will you be joining us in the hot tub after dinner, Mr. Crane?” one of the sorority girls asked as Lee leaned heavily on Chip’s arm, forsaking the wheelchair and crutches, as they walked toward one of the outdoor café’s deck chairs offering the best view of the lake and Ponderosa pines.
“We’ll be having s’mores,” she added as Chip helped his invalid friend sit down on his donut.
“He’ll be there,” Chip said and watched her go appreciatively, then “I can come along too, can’t I, bro?”
Just then a red faced Nelson approached, accompanied by the manager and the chief wrangler.
“Uh oh,” Lee muttered.
“Mr. Crane,” the wrangler had a difficult job hiding his amusement, “please make sure someone is with Mr. Crane, Senior, when he wants to go riding.”
“He got bucked off, too?” Lee asked, aghast.
“Er, no.” Nelson looked ready to crawl under the deck.
“Well, he’s not the only greenhorn to mount a horse the wrong way,” the wrangler explained.
“The wrong way?” Lee asked, confused.
“I was facing south instead of north, okay?” Nelson muttered.
“Lightning was a little confused,” the wrangler said, “having a rider on him backwards doesn’t happen every day. Remember what we said about giving the horse his head in an emergency, Mr. Crane? Lightning just took your father back to the barn where we helped him dismount.”
“I need to speak with you for a moment, too,” the manager helped Lee up and escorted him out of earshot.
“Oh swell, here it comes,” Nelson muttered and sat down on one of the rocking chairs while they waited.
“Admiral?” Chip asked.
“Chip, you told Mr. Harrison that we were Cranes...I’d signed myself in at the desk as Nelson. Horatio Nelson, I used my middle name to avoid publicity you understand. Well, it got back to the management and now, well, they think it may be too much for Lee to handle, him not being able to enjoy his time here with his injuries and my…senility, among other things. Lee’s never going to let me hear the end of this. Here he comes.”
“Dad,” Lee said, leaning on the manager’s arm, “why don’t you just bunk with me for your stay? Joe and I just took any room, and smoking’s allowed in it. I’m sure he won’t mind switching. Okay with you Chip?”
“I had the window open,” Nelson muttered, “and I used the toilet for the butts...”
The manager snorted in response and whispered something to Lee.
“Well, if that’s settled,” Lee sighed, “they’ll have someone take your stuff over and we’ll move Joe’s things to Chip’s room later. Why don’t you order us some drinks, Chip? Make mine a virgin Appletini; meds’ you know. Now, I have to go sign some things at the front desk to avoid any future liability from your...er...our stay here.”
“He’s really upset,” Nelson said after Lee left with the manager, “did you see his eyes? I think I messed up big, Chip. It’s not just the smoking either. It’s us being here.”
“Yeah, the best laid plans of mice and secret agents soon often go astray.
What’s an Appletini?” he added, muttering to himself, when his eyes strayed to some of the college girls giggling about something.
“Down boy,” Nelson ordered, “we’re here to babysit Lee, not prowl after pretty girls, not that I blame you.. Not one bit.”
Lee returned after a few minutes, now in his wheelchair, and glared. “Do- you- have- any- idea …”he hissed to Nelson, “they could’ve pressed charges? It’s against the law to smoke in a no smoking area.”
“All right, all right! I already told them it won’t happen again...”
“It had better not…” Lee fumed.
“I told them I was sorry, already!” he pushed Lee’s Appletini toward him a bit too hard, making it slosh over the rim, “if you hadn’t gallivanted here in the first place...”
“It was Chip’s idea!”
“Damn it, Lad, we were worried!”
“Now you both listen, and you listen good,” he drank his beverage down in one gulp. “If I’m on Agency business,” he hissed, his voice dangerously low, barely audible, “you keep out of it. If I’m not on Agency business, you still keep out of it.”
“Ahah!” Chip gloated, “we were right!”
“Oh good grief. This topic is at an end,” Lee moaned and twisted on his donut, “it’s bad enough having you both here to check up on me…”
“Well, look at you,” Chip said.
“I can take care of myself.”
Nelson just raised an eyebrow.
“You’d think these days they could invent something that worked,” Lee tried in vain to sit comfortably.
“When’s your next dose of meds?” Chip asked.
“I don’t know…it’s written down someplace…”
“I’ll go check your room,” Nelson said and departed in a huff.
“You were a bit hard on him, Lee.”
“I had no choice.”
“Well, I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
It was late afternoon, and the trail riders were taking care of their horses before settling down at the campsite. Lawrence gave no indication that he was tired, but Joe dutifully attended to his horse’s needs firsts. No doubt correct horsemanship was akin to ONI training. And he’d had a little experience with horses as a kid and had actually bragged about it to Lee when they’d first met, glad he hadn’t gone into details that most of what he knew was from the already vintage Spin and Marty episodes he’d watched on TV after school. (It was a progressive channel which prided itself on ‘formative’ classics.) The fact that he’d actually spent a little time on a working ranch was beside the point. He’d been drafted to peel potatoes most of the time anyway.
He wondered what was on the menu and checked his watch. This was not your ordinary chuck wagon trail. Support teams had food service trucks already in place and ready. From the aromas, the dinner bell would ring soon. His rendezvous in the small canyon some miles distant was supposed to be at 2330 tomorrow night. Plenty of time to relax and enjoy.
“Not bad for a Dude Ranch,” Nelson perused the lunch menu the next day while
Chip checked his watch for the umpteenth time.
“He’ll be here, Lad. Settle down. He’s probably delayed from his appointment at the Spa.”
“If Lee Crane just willingly does anything, let alone a Spa treatment, I’m a monkey’s uncle.”
“Chip, I’ve had time to think. Do you really think Lee could stay ‘on assignment’ in his condition?”
“Well…Joe could have taken over for him. In fact, Lee could be in communication with him right now.”
“Not unless the phone or radio fits someplace in his spandex….”Nelson motioned to the lean swimsuit clad form just now entering the dining room on crutches, his still damp hair in riotous curls, as he was assisted by two girls, also in swim attire.
“Hi Ad..er…Dad, Chip…just letting you know I’ll be joining you shortly…kind of got sidetracked after the Spa to a pool volleyball game. Referee,” he stressed, “not player. Lost track of the time.”
“You still should have told us first, Lee!” Nelson fumed.
“Gee, he sure keeps you on a short leash,” one of the girls whispered, then to the men, “he had on a life vest. Just floated along, he didn’t have to kick or anything. And there’s nothing wrong with his other arm.”
“I see,” Nelson said. “And who’s team won?”
“Ours of course. Well, we’d better get him back to his room to change…hey, don’t look at me like that, Pops, Sister Helen’s going to help him get dressed. She’s a CNA, okay?”
“Pops?” Nelson muttered to himself, disgusted. “All right Lee,” Nelson said, “we’ll wait to order until you can join us.”
“I don’t buy it,” Chip said as Lee and his escorts disappeared from sight. “A nun helping him get dressed?”
“Or she took one look at him and remembered she was a woman.”
“Oh c’mon,” Chip said then looked again at the menu, “venison, beef, rattlesnake…uh oh…not again.”
“I think I need a little help,” Lee called from the bathroom, and pretended to struggle with the waistband of his swim trunks.
“Some fabrics are tighter when damp…” Sister Helen began to assist.
“The human body is nothing to be ashamed of,” she helped push the spandex down over his backside’s hipbones, “it’ll be easier now,” she left him to his privacy in the bathroom as she went to check his pills.
“Sister…” he emerged, in all of his naked glory.
“What are you doing?” she gasped.
“You want me, don’t you…” he approached and leaned over her, his good arm on the wall, in effect trapping her against it.
“Mr. Crane, control yourself!”
“You’re still a woman, aren’t you?” he said huskily.
“I am a bride of Christ, and you, sir, are an abomination! Stay away from me! And from my girls too!” She ducked out from under his arm and fled, in tears. “And you were such a nice boy!” she wailed.
Okay, so that gut feeling had to have been deceptive. Still, there had been a moment of hesitation in her eyes when he’d propositioned her as if she wanted to take him up on his offer. The unease returned.
“Uh, Admiral?” Chip asked as he saw Sister Helen charge into the dining room to whisper something to her fellow nuns, then to Mr. Harrison, who shook his head and glared at Nelson and Chip before heading toward the Maître D.’s podium. “They look upset.”
In minutes all of the nuns were dragging their charges out of the dining room with them, soon followed by most of the other diners. “What did Lee do?” Nelson said exasperated.
Crane, in jeans and plaid shirt, had begun wheeling himself in, but was shortstopped by Mr. Harrison who stopped and slapped him hard on the cheek.
“Hey!” Chip rose.
“Wait,” Nelson ordered, pulling him back down.
“He’s always telling us to let him handle things. Now’s the time.”
Indeed, Lee, his eyes downcast, appeared to be contrite instead of upset, and was mumbling something which did nothing to appease his assailant.
Harrison still looked at Crane with disgust, and gave an equally appalled glance toward Nelson and Chip before huffing out.
“Something you want to tell us, Lee?” Nelson asked as Lee finally joined them.
“Spill it, bro,” Chip demanded.
“Look, it’s really nothing…”
“Well, you must’ve done something!” Nelson fumed, “I demand that you tell me, Commander.”
“It was just a mistake, an error in judgment, well, maybe, okay?”
“What the hell did you?” Chip asked. “They’re all looking at us like we’re pond scum or something.”
“I had no choice....”
“Never mind. It doesn’t concern either of you.”
“The hell it doesn’t,” Nelson fumed, “whatever it was, does this something have anything to do why you’re really here?”
“Oh for pete’s sake, give it a rest, will you? I’m on vacation as per Chip’s interference in my life.”
“Hey!” Chip spouted.
“Okay okay, I’m sorry. I know you meant well. But...I...look, what I did was necessary.”
“What was necessary?” Chip asked.
Crane sighed. There was no way to get out of it.“I thought Sister Helen wasn’t who or what she said she was. I had to be sure…”
“Admiral, I’ve had enough!” Chip hissed, “If he won’t admit to what he’s really doing here, at least you can order him to tell us why we’re all persona non grata with everybody all of a sudden.”
“I…” Lee paused, “I had to check out my suspicions...because if she wasn’t the nun she claimed to be, it could…compromise certain…plans.”
“That does it,” Nelson fumed, “it certainly sounds like part of a,” he remembered where they were and lowered his voice, “special assignment to me.”
“I only knew of one way I could find out about her for real,” Lee appeared to ignore the assumption, “was...was...”he flushed and lowered his eyes. “I propositioned her.”
“You what?” Nelson roared slamming his fists down on the table, spilling his drink on the pristine tablecloth.
He chided himself for his action, having to wait now for Lee’s explanation as the dining room staff hurried over to clean up the mess, lay a fresh cloth and return with a new drink for their guest, however unwelcome.
“Go on,” Nelson was finally able to say as the staff departed and Lee squirmed under his glare.
“I propositioned her. I came out of the bathroom,” he hesitated, “naked. Stark naked. She was appalled or at least gave a pretty good imitation of it.”
“Oh this is just swell,” Chip said, “my own CO, who just happens to be one of my best friends, is going straight to hell!”
“Don’t be stupid,” Lee said, “besides, this was necessary and….” he stopped as a waiter was headed in their direction.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, have you decided what you’d like to order?”
“What I’d like to order, I can’t say in polite company,” Nelson directed his answer to Crane.
“I’ll try the Hasenpfeffer,” Chip said.
“Um,” Lee said, “is that rabbit farmed, road kill, or hunted?” he added to the waiter.
“What difference does that make?” Chip asked.
“Oh, you’d be surprised.”
“I can find out for you sir,” the waiter said.
“Never mind,”Lee sighed, “I’ll go with the fried rattlesnake..”
“Fitting decision, son,” Nelson said, “birds of a feather, snakes, that is…I’ll have the freshly caught lake trout. And after supper, we’re going to have a little father to son talk.”
“I’m sorry to cancel the trail ride, folks,” the lead trail wrangler said to the assemblage as they toasted marshmallows over the campfire, “but the sorority’s been called back to the ranch. The trip’s over. I’m afraid we won’t have the minimum number of riders to continue the trail for the rest of you. You’ll all be reimbursed of course. We’re sending out some ATV’s to take you all back. We wranglers will camp out with the horses and lead them back tomorrow. So you’d better say your goodbyes now.”
“Er…how about I just go on by myself?” Joe asked.
“I’m sorry sir. Once we’re back, of course, you can certainly use any of the shorter day trails.”
“You signed the terms of agreement sir, regarding unforeseen circumstances. Now, if you owned the horse outright that would be a different matter. It’s complicated; let’s just say it’s a legal thing...compensation for injuries while under our tutelage, stuff like that.”
“How much then? How much for the horse?”
“I was joking sir; he’s not for sale.”
“But it’s important I continue on this trail!”
“Maybe he has a hot date on the other side of the ridge,” one of the girls twittered.
“Actually, yeah, that’s it,” Joe said, any excuse welcome, “a hot date… she’s camping further down the trail, not one of your guests…please…I promise to bring Lawrence back safely.”
“I’m sorry. Rules are rules.”
“I was going to ask her to marry me tomorrow,” Joe tried to look woebegone. “Had it all planned and…”
“Look, I’m sorry but…”
“I have enough money to buy the horse, if that’s what you’re worried about. At least I know someone who does and can loan Lawrence to me.”
“Wait a minute Jack,” one of the other wranglers formed a huddle with the others, taking out the trail radio to call the ranch.
They have to let me, Joe sweated it out, they just have to, or the mission’s a bust and Lee will never forgive me.
“Okay, the manager’s considering it,” the lead wrangler returned, “but we’ll need to finalize the purchase and have you or your representative assume all potential liability before we can leave you alone tomorrow.”
“Excuse me Mr. Crane,” the manager approached the diners in the otherwise empty dining room, exasperated, “Mr. Crane Jr. that is. I need to see you in my office.”
“What’s he done now?” Chip couldn’t help whining. From the way the staff were looking at them, it was all over the Lodge that Lee had tried to dishonor the holy nun.
“Well, apparently he’s purchasing a horse for Mr. Jackson.”
Lee paled. Something was wrong.
“Mr. Jackson said funds were not a problem and you would gladly loan him the horse after your purchase.”
“This some kind of joke, Lee?” Nelson asked.
“Mr. Jackson said it wasn’t so much that he liked the horse,” the manager continued, “only that due to our liability policy, he’d have to own the horse outright. He needs to continue further down the trail by himself tomorrow. The sponsored ride’s been cancelled.”
“What’s so special about a trail ride?” Chip asked.
“Well,” the manager laughed, “Mr. Jackson is proposing to his fiancé tomorrow night; she’s camping further down the lakeside on property that’s not part of Tumbleweeds, but he needs to use the trail on ours, and he didn’t want to spoil things.”
“So,” Lee shook his head and tried to look amused, “um, how much is this horse?”
“$2800. We can accept payment by check, cash, or credit card.”
“That’s outrageous!” Chip sputtered and rose, “even I know that trail horses aren’t worth much more than $800 to $1200, tops depending on their age. My sisters were into horses growing up...”
“We’re also figuring in the tack and…”
“Even a completely new saddle wouldn’t add that much!”
“Shut up Chip,” Lee hissed, and turned to the manager, “I’ll meet you in the office in a few minutes to finalize things.”
“Very good sir.”
“All right, Lee, what’s going on?” Nelson asked furtively, and worried, as the man left. “There is no woman. It’s urgent we buy this horse, Admiral. Now. Trust me on this, please. I wouldn’t involve you regarding this, but my checking account’s down to less than a hundred dollars and my credit’s maxed out. You’ll be reimbursed asap, I promise.”
“By a certain agency with which we’re all familiar, I presume,” Nelson whispered.
Crane lowered his eyes, penitent, and nodded in the affirmative.
Nelson snorted then pulled out his wallet, and removed his NIMR credit card, and handed it over. “I’d better be.”
“Thank you sir.”
“Oh, don’t thank me. As soon as this ‘whatever it is’ you’ve gotten yourself into is over, I can think of a number of ballast tanks that need a little up close and personal inspecting, not to mention working off some Reserve time in Admiral Starke’s office.”
“Oh gawd, not that sir!” Chip groaned.
“Yes, that! Apparently since you’re our resident horse master, Chip, you go along with him and make sure he isn’t swindled.”
“Actually, sir, a horse master is a term for…” Chip began.
“Never mind the equine details, Chip! Just help Lee finalize the paperwork, so he can pay for, what’s its name anyway?”
“Lawrence….” Lee said, “he’s an Arabian.”
Nelson snorted, getting the joke at once.
“Well, he’d better be a prince if he’s worth all that money!”
“Oh, he is Dad, he is.”
“Very well, Mr. Crane. It’s all settled. Here are Lawrence’s papers. As agreed upon, the cost of the horse includes a month’s keep, feed, grooming, and corral time until you’re able to make arrangements to ship him to Santa Barbara. We’ll radio the trail boss to allow Mr. Jackson continue on the trail by himself tomorrow.”
The ‘Crane’ boys had just emerged from the office when Morton shook his head, “I still think they’re taking you for a ride, Lee. At that price they should have thrown in your bucking buddy.”
“Lightning? Are you insane?” he gaped.
“Not as much as you, bro. Not as much as you…” Chip tucked the manila envelope under his arm and wheeled Lee back to the dining room but they were interrupted by the fast approaching Matre’ D.
“Your father’s had your meals taken to Mr. Crane Jr.’s room. He’s waiting for you there.”
“Er, thanks…”Chip said, digging out a bill from his pocket.
“Your father’s already taken care of the gratuity. Good evening.”
“We are in deep doo doo,” Lee said.
“Correction, brother mine. You are in deep doo doo. I’m just along for the ride.”
“All right, Lee, I want some answers and I want them now,’ Nelson demanded as soon as the two entered Lee’s room but was quickly silenced when Lee motioned him to be quiet as he pulled out a small device from his pant pocket and waved in in a crosswise motion. A green light flashed.
Crane looked satisfied, lowering his head, then looked up at his friends with a sheepish grin. “Can’t be too careful...the dining room was safe due to a scrambler I’d placed when I first got here and...”
“Now, Lee,” Nelson demanded, Crane’s ‘lost puppy’ look be damned!
“Our contact’s supposed to rendezvous just down in the canyon near the trail. Top priority.”
“Haven’t a clue about what the mission is. Just that we meet the contact. When Chip suggested Tumbleweeds it seemed too good to be true. Maybe it was, but when I had the agency check it out, ONI was satisfied that it was just coincidence that he’d recommended it and….”
“You thought I was a spy or something?” Chip asked.
“Of course not! But they thought you might have been persuaded by someone to recommend the place and…oh hell, I’m sorry, Chip, Admiral.”
“And well you should be!” Chip roared, “if you’d informed us of your little cloak and dagger to begin with, maybe you wouldn’t be on your way to Hades! A nun a bad guy? A spy? A...a...oh gawd, I can’t say it...a lusty lady?”
“I had no choice!”
“Hah!” Chip seethed, “and it’s like they didn’t have any other secret agents to take on the mission?”
“Field Agents; there’s a difference. This assignment, Mr. Morton, is every bit as important as any mission aboard Seaview, even if I don’t have any of the usual details. And I’d appreciate it if you’d both stop harassing me about it.”
“We’re just concerned about you!” Chip ranted, “why, I have no idea!”
“Okay, okay, let me out of the woodshed already!”
“On one condition,” Nelson said dangerously quiet.
“Which is?” Lee asked.
“You’re no longer on this mission alone. Understood?”
“But I’m not alone. Joe can handle it fine…with a horse, anyway.”
“You know what I mean. If he runs into trouble, we’re his back up. You-will-not put yourself into harm’s way to accomplish whatever it is ONI has you doing, capiche?”
“That means…” Chip began.
“I know what it means!” Lee shouted, “but you’re not qualified agents…”
“Neither are you right now,” Nelson said, “I mean it Lee. We’re your back up or I’m calling Washington myself to tell them your assignment’s a bust.”
“But you can’t just…”
“Okay, okay, you win…Chip, get your mits off my rattlesnake.”
“Not bad actually…tastes a bit like chicken…”
Joe couldn’t sleep. And it wasn’t from all of the racket the evening’s critters were making. Had he made the right decision? To go it alone? Totally alone on the trail tomorrow? He had a GPS imbedded in his watch to insure there’d be no mix up regarding the coordinates, but damn it, what if the horse got spooked and galloped away? He was a good enough rider, still…there wouldn’t be any camp to crawl back to if he fell off. What if the horse returned to Tumbleweeds without a rider or maybe even vice versa. What if it was a ‘mission bust’? What if…damn. Visions of an irate ONI director were nothing compared to an angry or even worse, a disappointed Lee.
All too soon it was morning and after a farewell breakfast with the wranglers, he waved goodbye as Lawrence snorted in confusion as to why he was being urged on in the other direction by his rider.
“You know, Admiral,” Chip said over the more than ample breakfast with Nelson in the dining room the next day, “Lightning’s a nice enough horse, even if he got off on the wrong hoof with Lee. I know. I went to see him this morning. Took him an apple. Thought he might like a change from carrots. How about a ride this morning? I’m no expert but I can give you a few pointers.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever want to get on a horse again.”
“We’re stuck here till this damn adventure of Lee’s is over, sir. He’s out of action for the duration, so we might as well enjoy ourselves.”
“I don’t need a babysitter!” the man in question hobbled over using crutches, and sat down gingerly, minus donut. “Chip’s right though. This is a dude ranch. So go ahead and play cowboys. I’ll just soak in the hot tub.”
“Yeah, that sounds like fun,” Chip said sarcastically, “did you have to scare the girls away like that?”
“It’s not my fault the nuns dragged them away with them. Besides I still have a bad feeling about Sister Helen.”
“Yeah, well, couldn’t you have figured something else to prove your point or not?”
“Boys, boys, enough!” Nelson sighed, “do we have to spend the next few days arguing? That is all it’s going to be, right Lee? Just a couple of days?”
“If everything goes according to plan, yes.”
“They had better, Lad.”
“Oh swell, just swell,” Joe dismounted, and looked Lawrence in the eye. “Hold still, you stupid horse…it’s just some flies…”
The horse had been tossing his head about so severely that the reins had been pulled out of Joe’s hands more than once and it was time to do something about it.
Not that Joe knew anything about removing live (or dead) bugs from around or even on a horse’s eyeballs, he wasn’t going to let this delay his journey. Fishing out his first aid kit, he was glad whoever had designed the things had thought to place some ‘Liquid Tears’ in it. But were they safe for a horse? But who was he going to call, Fly Busters? So it was ‘Liquid Tears’ or nothing.
“I really would rather you go ahead soak in the hot tub, Lee,” Nelson urged as Lee leaned on his crutches toward the corral and closed the gate in front of him after Chip and Nelson led their horses safely in.
“No. I need to remember this…for my grandchildren.”
“And when pray tell,” Chip snorted, “is that ever going to happen? At the rate you’re going, you’ll be buried with ‘Lee Crane, Perpetual Bachelor’ on your tombstone.”
“That isn’t funny, Chip,” Nelson warned. “Now, how do I get up on this animal properly? And did you have to give me this old nag? Did you have to pick one that just happens to be named Captain?”
“I thought it was appropriate,” Lee smirked. “After all, you’ve sure been riding me enough.”
For the next few minutes, Lee found it amusing as Chip tried to instruct Nelson how to mount a horse properly, when Lightning suddenly reared, and began to stomp around nervously.
“What’s wrong with him, Chip?” Nelson said as Chip helped him dismount.
“How should I know?” Morton tried to calm the
horse down, “I only know how to ride them, not psychoanalyze them…”
“Well, something’s wrong,” Lee leaned against the rail as the horse nudged him, whinnying.
“Well, duh,” Chip said.
“No, I mean…I think maybe he’s trying to tell us something….”he grabbed Lightning’s mane and stroked his head. “What is it, what’s wrong?”
“You are kidding aren’t you?” Nelson raised an unbelieving eyebrow,” asking the beast to tell you?”
“When we were on the trail, the wranglers told us that if we were ever in trouble to give the horse his head. That means…”
“We know what it means!” Chip yelled.
“I don’t,” Nelson glared.
“It means let the horse lead the way.”
“Are you’re telling us Lightning senses something? Like you do at times?” Nelson asked. “Maybe all he senses is a snake nearby or something,” Chip looked about furtively.
“Look, I’d take Lightning out myself, only I can’t. You both volunteered to be my back up. Well, now’s your chance to get on ONI’s payroll.”
“There’s no way we’ll be allowed to take these horses out on that trail by ourselves.”
“There’s one way,” Lee winked and Nelson groaned.
“When we get back to Santa Barbara,” Nelson sighed astride one of his newly purchased horses, “I’m having Doc give me a CAT Scan.”
“I’ll be right behind you for it,” Chip said, “You know though, I think maybe Lee’s right. Lightning seems to know where he’s going. I’m not guiding him with the reins or my legs at all.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee’s already flown the coop and joined Joe and Lawrence!”
“How’s that, sir? He can barely hobble.”
“Have no idea, but I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“On the lighter side, what are you going to do with three horses?”
“I don’t think my hobbies include mucking out stables. I think I’ll donate them to a local riding club before we return home. Must be one someplace nearby… Now, what time is it and tell me again the difference between a gallop and a canter…”
“The number and severity of the saddle sores…”
“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” Joe couldn’t help muttering as, on foot, blister after blister in his cowboy boots, as he hiked toward the canyon campground where the rendezvous was scheduled for later tonight. One thing was for certain when he got back; he’d really enjoy telling Lee just where to put his ‘favor for a friend’ pleas in the future.
His stomach growled and he wondered how Lawrence was doing. He’d left the feedbag on a tree branch where he’d tethered him further back on the trail, but so much could still go wrong. For one thing, you’d think the horse would have been grateful he’d at least tried to get the flies and other bug goo out from around his ears and eyes and it wasn’t as if Lawrence was actually blinded by the insects. He was just uncomfortable. Not a good idea to make him go the whole distance. Yes, he was right to leave him behind.
“Sure are a lot of flies around here,” Chip commented as they dismounted to relieve themselves and give their mounts a break. “What kind are they anyway?”
what else,” Nelson chuckled. “But to be serious, I’ve seen several varieties of
biting flies out here. Black flies, Deer Flies, Midges too from the bite of
them. Not common ordinary houseflies, these.”
“Well, I’m just glad they’re more attracted to the horses than us! Still, I wish we had some kind of repellent…they’re starting to annoy the horses.”
“They’re probably attracted to the secretions around the eyes…maybe there’s something in the first aid kit…you did remember to bring it along didn’t you?”
“Yes, father. Er, sorry, sir…”
“I’m only thinking of our mounts, smarty pants. And completing Lee’s assignment. You can save the sarcasm for later.”
“May I join you?” Mr. H. sat down beside a despondent Lee on the deck, “will you accept my apology for striking you? I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a virile young man.”
“Oh, sorry, Mr. H. But you were right to hit me. I can’t think what got into me. I’m just concerned about the ad...er…my father and brother…not to mention my friend…they’ve never been on a long trail ride before…”
“Seems to me that the solution is obvious.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If you can’t ride to join up with them, you can at least borrow one of the ATV’s and join them.”
“That’s a wonderful idea! Do you really think the manager will let me?” he added, brows furrowed in concern.
“Don’t see why not…bound to be a bumpy ride though. Must make sure you take along your donut to sit on.”
“Ow!” Lee muttered, as he was buffeted and bounced around. He was sure every organ in his body was being pulverized into mush from the ATV’s bouncing along.
He was glad Mr. H. insisted he take along a blanket in case the cushioning donut wasn’t enough. And it was getting obvious that falling out of the ATV was becoming a real possibility.
Hopefully he’d catch up with Nelson, Chip, and Joe soon and readied himself for the chewing out he was bound to receive for tailing them. No doubt they were all fine, his fears totally unfounded. Then why did he have this compelling urge to push the accelerator all the way down?
“Well, where the hell is Joe?” Nelson whispered as he and Chip dismounted near Lawrence, both men rubbing their sore behinds, and checking their watches. “I’ll never see what cowboys see in this.”
“Hey, look..over there. I didn’t think the sightseeing ‘copters came this way…at least not from the brochures I saw.”
“Seems to be trying to find a place to land. Maybe it’s an emergency…or…ohmygod. What if Lee’s hurt or something!” Nelson shouted, half running, half sliding down the slope to the flat terrain where the copter was landing on its skids, Chip in hot pursuit.
After what seemed like a year to them and the rotors stopped, the two were greeted by Mr. Harrison.
“Lee? What’s happened to Lee?” Nelson demanded grabbing his arms.
“Correction,” a familiar voice owned by a woman in camouflage fatigues got off the craft said, “you should really use better syntax. You should be asking what’s going to happen to him.”
“Wonderful powers of recognition Harriman Nelson, no wonder you’re an Admiral. Now, put your hands up and don’t try anything. My men are armed with the latest in Taser technology and won’t have the slightest hesitation of setting them to kill at my say so. While bringing you back to my homeland alive would be a distinct bonus, right now, you’re not my prime objective.”
“We were on to you gents from day one,” Harrison said. “Seems you went to a great deal of trouble for nothing.”
“What...what do you mean...?”
“Oh don’t act so innocent. By now your gallant captain should be well on his way to help out Commander Jackson meet their contact and you two can’t be allowed to stop them. Yes, it’s a trap. The contact’s one of ours. Crane owes me...and I intend to have him,” she snorted.
“Why Lee, and why the nun disguise?” Chip asked.
“Who’d suspect an innocent nun? You know, one of the hardest things about that disguise was convincing the college that those stupid girls needed chaperones. The other was resisting Lee’s advances. He’s a fine specimen. Oh, I know he was checking out his suspicions regarding me. All spies are suspicious. A pity I’ll have to geld him before I send him back to my country for a little re-education. Don’t look so surprised. Who do you think planned to brainwash him that time he sabotaged Seaview? This time, I assure you, his reconditioning will last, or at least I’ll have had my revenge,” she cackled and strode off upwards towards the incline, her men prodding Nelson and Chip downwards toward the copter.
“Oh gawd,”Chip moaned.
“ Lee…Lee…”Nelson almost prayed.
“I’d forgotten how much I hate riding, unlike you,” Harrison complained as he and Helen rode Lightning and Lawrence respectively.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to riding Crane too,” she snorted. “Well, I wasn’t kidding when I said he was a fine specimen. He’s hung like a horse.”
“Now, now. Actually, I think ravishing him will put a whole new slant on the bondage thing…get it…Bond? As in James,” she laughed. “That is, if he resists…he is a man after all….looks like a storm’s coming…we’d better get these nags moving to the rendezvous if we want to get a ringside seat.”
“You don’t really think she’ll…cut off his…”
Chip shuddered as he was shoved closer to the copter, Taser at his back.
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Nelson replied sourly.
“Fall,” Chip whispered, and pretended to trip over a rock, Nelson following.
Lee needed to pee. Disgusted that he had to waste time, he managed to hobble off the ATV, and chose a tree to lean one arm against while he tended to business.
“Good aim, Commander,” a familiar voice said.
“No, don’t try anything,” the other half of the dismounted pair ordered as Lee quickly zipped up, turning. “Henry has you covered.”
“You,” he pulled out his gun and aimed it at Helen in a standoff, “I pretty much figured on being a spy.”
“Put the gun down, Captain,” Harrison ordered, aiming a Taser. “It’s no match for a Taser. Trust me, it’s quicker than any bullet and I can aim it where it will hurt the most.”
“Aim somewhere else, Harrison,” the woman ordered, “I need keep that area intact.”
“Who are you and what do you want.”
“You can’t think we’re that stupid. Of course you know who we are...we’re your worst nightmare, or don’t you remember your brief stay as a guest of the People’s Republic,” she nodded to Harrison, who fired the Taser before Lee could fire his gun.
The still shaky Chip finished securing their prisoners to the chopper’s skids. Nelson, equally wobbly, was already in a run up the incline. It had been relatively simple to use Chip’s fall to surprise the guards, and along with some particularly nasty hand to hand combat despite their unstable condition, had managed to grab some of the Tasers, twist their captor’s wrists and fire at them.
“At least they left us one horse,” Chip grabbed ‘Captain’s bridle and soon both were hot on the trail to save Lee.
As Harrison picked up Lee’s gun, Helen laughed while Lee groveled almost completely paralyzed as he tried to fight off the effects of having been immobilized at the next to highest setting of the Taser. “Now, my son, we have a little unfinished business, you and I,” she knelt by Crane and ran a fingernail down his chest, unbuttoning his shirt, then unzipping his pants. “By the way, it was all a trap you know. ONI’s Intel so easily corrupted by some double agents. By the way, your contact’s already captured Jackson, way ahead of schedule. We have Nelson and Morton already. All the better to make you watch when we kill them.”
“I don’t believe you,” Lee closed his eyes. He knew having all three would be of value to the People’s Republic. But then, if this was a personal vendetta, and Lee’s involvement had put his friends at risk...well... “Dieu aidez-moi*”, Lee muttered.
“What was that Captain?” she pulled something out of one of her fatigue’s pockets.
“It’s French,” Harrison laughed, “he’s asking for a little divine intervention!”
“Lethal looking thing,” Harrison said as he looked at the devise in her hand.
“It can be if one’s not careful,” she walked toward Crane. “This model of castrator’s called the ‘Double Crush Emasculator’*.
“Glad I’m on your good side,” Harrison snorted.
“You’re going to lose your most valuable possession, Captain. I do believe you boys call them your ‘family jewels’”, she snickered. “With this model I can squeeze, twist, and cut off your balls, and I might even decide to use my handy dandy pocket knife and include your other rather impressive appendage to add to my er...collection. I have quite a few left. Did you know that in primitive cultures, it was actually a delicacy, eating the genitals of one’s captives? Though I pretty much prefer to put them on display. Properly preserved of course.”
“Go to hell you pervert!”
Just as the metal glinted in the sunlight, Lightning reared.
Helen’s scream was cut off as his hooves crashed down, knocking the instruments from her hands and smashing her skull.
Harrison’s Taser hadn’t recharged and used Lee’s gun, firing at the horse, but Lightning still got some telling blows to the man leaving him unconscious.
“Can’t you get this beast to go any faster?” Nelson shouted, hanging on to Chip’s waist as they galloped toward the sound of the gunshot.
“He’s going as fast as he can, Admiral. He’s not a racehorse!”
“Look! It’s Lawrence...where’s Joe...”
“Whoa...whoa,” Chip dismounted and grabbed the stray’s bridle, trying to calm him down, then mounted... “They can’t be far! Giddyup!”
“You can’t do this to me, Lightning,” Lee barely crawled, for it was still all he could do, towards the downed horse, and tried to stop the blood, “c’mon boy...don’t do this to me...please be okay...oh Lord, please let him be okay....Get up, Lightning, get up...” he couldn’t help the tears streaming down his face.
“Lee!” Nelson yelled as he almost fell from ‘Captain’, and made it to Crane’s side as soon as Chip did, “Lee, Lee, son, are you okay?”
“Just roughed up a bit...Tazed pretty bad...looks like you were too...it’s all a trap...we’ve got to get to Joe! Chip? You’ve got to do something for Lightning. They shot him. With my gun! C’mon Lightning, you got to get up...oh God, oh God...he...he saved me...”
“Are there any bullets left in that gun, Chip?” Nelson asked.
“No!” Lee shouted, “No, you can’t!”
“Even I know it’s what they have to do to badly injured horses, Lee,” Nelson said, “it’s the merciful thing Lad. He’ll be out of his misery in a second.”
“Wait...if it has to be done, I’ll do it,” Lee took the gun from Nelson, “you really were a good horse Lightning. I’m sorry I didn’t think so at first...I hate to do this...but...”
“It’s what they have do to badly hurt horses,” Chip repeated but lowered Lee’s hand, “badly hurt’, being the operative word. C’mon, get up you scallywag. You can stop milking it for the attention. It’s just a graze, Lee. Like a scalp wound. Bleeds bad, but pretty much harmless.”
“There they are,” Lee whispered to Nelson as the older man brought the ATV to a halt. “Looks like we’re outnumbered ten to one.”
“Not with Sister Helen’s Taser,” Lee groped his way out of the ATV and onto the brush, overlooking the dirt gully where Joe was being held captive . “It’s got to be one of the experimental models ONI wanted to purchase but with budget cuts...well....Now, remember, both of you, since they’re all armed with them too, we can’t give them a chance to react. But don’t let the bullets from my gun hit them anywhere vital. We’ll need to interrogate them. And be careful not to hit Joe.”
“Yes, mother,” Nelson said.
“You’ve called me a lot of things, sir, but that’s sure not one of them.”
“Well, I certainly hope that’s the end of that,” the manager said, anxious, irritated, and relieved, when the last of the ONI, FBI, and CIA officials left after having ransacked ‘Sister’ Helen and Mr. Harrison’s rooms, debriefed Lee, Joe, Chip, and Nelson, taking along with them the body of ‘Helen Ivonovich’, the now conscious Mr. Harrison, and fifteen Agents of the People’s Republic. “I don’t have to tell you Admiral Nelson, that this is not the kind of publicity Tumbleweeds wants.”
“Don’t worry,” Nelson said, “there won’t be a word about it, unless it’s from your end.”
“My staff knows how to keep quiet...and that you haven’t reneged on the purchase of your horses.”
“I just wonder what my life expectancy would be if I did! Lee’s come to like, er...well, maybe I shouldn’t go that far; let’s say Lee appreciates Lightning for his horse sense. The vet assures me that he’ll be just fine.”
“Now that your er...government work is over, will you gentlemen be staying on for the next trail ride?”
“I thought just about everybody left.”
“Oh, we have a brand new batch coming in from Florida. I was concerned at first, the organizer was an Agent Catfish from the HENS Agency. But when I checked it out with Homeland Security I was assured they’re all quite harmless. Some fan fiction writer’s group out for a little firsthand Dude Ranch experience for some of their stories. Well, if you’ll excuse me...let me know your decision soon.”
“Ah c’mon Admiral,” Chip pleaded as the men emerged from the hot tub assisting Lee to one of the deck chairs.
“Yeah, Dad, I can hear his stomach complaining all the way over here,”
“Oh very well. Waiter?” Nelson called out, “we’d like order dinner. Some Chuck Wagon Stew for myself and Commander Jackson, Hasenpfeffer for Commander Crane, and Fried Rattlesnake for me.”
“I’m sorry, sir, we’re out of the Chuck Wagon stew and Fried Rattlesnake. Seems to have been a run on them from the convention....amazing that ladies of questionable vintage should show such an interest.. there’s Hasenpfeffer left though...farmed or hunted. Not road or coyote kill.”
“Then there really are coyotes here?” Chip asked.
“Why of course. In fact, they can be a problem. Oh, not with the horses, but they do yatter and howl at night...we get a lot of complaints about the noise sometimes...and they can be dangerous to hikers. That’s why we issue each guest a sonic repellant. Good for coyotes, wolves, rats, rattlesnakes, rabbits and...”
“Rabbits?” Lee began, his face reddening.
“Um, we weren’t issued any repellant,” Joe interrupted.
“Oh I do apologize. I’ll see some is placed in your rooms at once...so, will it be Hasenpfeffer for all?”
“Um,” Lee sighed, “I’ll pass...how about some hot dogs.”
“Sounds good to me, Lee,” Chip said, “make it three for me, mustard and ketchup.”
“Same here,” Joe said.
“Me too,” Nelson added, “and beer for all of us except for Lee. He can have one of those non-alcoholic brews.”
“Oh yeah,” Lee added, “I’d like my buns toasted and buttered and...oh gawd,” he muttered in response to their ribald laughter, “I’m never going to live this whole thing down, am I?”
“Afraid not, bro,” Chip smirked, “afraid not.”
“Are you sure?” Nelson furrowed his brows as Angie updated him a week later in his private NIMR office.
“I was a bit concerned myself. I wanted to call Security, but they’d cleared him. His name is Ben Cartwright. But also says he’s from the Ponderosa.”
“Ah. Of course. If it makes you feel better, Ponderosa Riding Academy is where my horses will be stabled. I sort of left them at Tumbleweeds because they needed the extra mounts for a convention. Paid a pretty price for the loan too.”
“Oh, yes, the Fan Fiction writers’ con, I remember Agent Catfish was the organizer. Did you get to meet her again when you were there?”
“Only briefly,” Nelson had to hide a grin. She and the fellow members of the HENS Agency tended to be rather more motherly toward his boys than the femme fatale wannabes of NIMR, especially when they found out Lee was hurt. But instead of coming to Lee’s rescue, he, Nelson and Chip simply let the ladies smother him with loving kindness, including feeding him extra servings of dessert, insisting he get more Swedish massages than strictly necessary (some of them were licensed masseuses), making sure he wore a sweater when the night air grew cool, even ruffling his hair with fond abandon.
Nelson chuckled to himself. Leaving Lee to his fate would show him not to get involved in another damn ONI assignment without telling him.
“Oh, um, send Mr. Cartwright in. And call Captain Crane. He’s down at the sub pen.”
“No kidding?” Ski asked the Chief, as Crane left the pen for Admin, “the guy’s actually named Ben Cartwright?”
“Wonder if he’s a relation of Admiral Cartwright of ONI,” Pat mused.
“Get real. Like ONI’s gonna’ draft the Skipper again after that great big snafu they just had. Now get those supplies loaded,” Sharkey said with all the authority he could and left. If he timed it right, he might be able to get a glimpse of the guy.
“Ten to one he is a relation and the Skip’s in for another camping trip,” Pat said.
“You’re on,” Ski grinned. “Looser gets to volunteer to clean out the Admiral’s horse’s stalls sometime.”
“Lightning’s here, already?” Lee asked, surprised. “The horses weren’t supposed to be here until this weekend.”
“Well,” Cartwright said, “ I was kind of requested to bring him out early.”
“Just him? Not the others too? Uh oh...did he buck anyone off?”
“No idea. Here’s the shipping invoice.”
“Ah, there seems to be some kind of mistake,” Lee showed it to Nelson.
‘Thought you could use a little equine companionship without me looking over your shoulder. Call it an early Christmas bonus. He’s all yours, son. Lock stock and horseshoes. Harry.’
“Well, Lad, don’t just stand there, go say hi to your horse and take the rest of the day to help him get settled at the Ponderosa.”
“I...I don’t know what to say,”
“You already have, son, you already have.”
*God Help Me
* There really is a castration device by this name.
* Ben Cartwright and the Ponderosa were from the TV series Bonanza on NBC.
*Appletini-drink that’s a mix of apple juice, syrup, and lemon juice.