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©2017 BY JAMES BELTZ.

Chapter 1: Ambush

 

David John Slaughter leaned into the open window of the red, four-door Jeep Wrangler and half-closed his eyes. Wind swirled around the inside of the compartment and he gave a brief smile to himself, savoring the moment, enjoying the summer breeze and the view. No one ever referred to him by his given name. As far back as he could remember, he had always gone by DJ.

With one hand on the steering wheel and the other hanging out of the driver side window, DJ sat relaxed, guiding the four-wheel drive along the mountain road that was effectively his driveway. For two miles the gravel path meandered, twisting and snaking its way along a thin mountain stream. Behind him, sat his cabin, nestled deep in the boxed canyon. Ahead of him, somewhere still out of view, was the road that connected him to civilization.

He loved it out here. It was a quiet retreat from the world; an angry world that had robbed him of his family and left him searching for a reason to live. He never did find the reason for living out here, but he did find a peaceful existence in this hermit-styled solitude. His isolated cabin sat far away from a world of complexity and angry people. Out here, there was no chaos. Out here, no one tried to kill each other.

As he drove along, breathing in the southern Colorado air, he considered the path that brought him full circle to where he was now. He started his life here, in Colorado. He left it for a time, but now found himself returned to his roots. His was not the story of a prodigal son’s return, however. It was decidedly more tragic.

His father died when he was a teenager. An aggressive form of the ‘The Big C’ took him with very little warning. To make ends meet, his mother had to work three jobs. In DJ’s eyes, she became a super-mom. Without his father in the picture, his mother became his everything. He clung to her emotionally like a drowning man does a life raft. But at eighteen, just a few years later, reality took another hard turn, brutally slamming him against the wall of life. A car accident stole her away from him. DJ was devastated. He dropped out of the high school he attended in Boulder and joined the Navy on a waiver. He knew it now to be nothing more than an attempt to run away from life.

He didn’t quite make it four years as a Corpsman. A nasty tumble down the side of a hill with a squad of Marines on patrol in Soran, Iraq, left him with a steel plate in his head and a medical discharge. What should have been another sudden and tragic detour in life, turned into a real blessing, however. It was lying in a bed at Bethesda Navy Hospital in Maryland where he met his future wife.

Cassie was a volunteer at the hospital, a modern-day Candy Striper who showed up on the weekends to help where she could and try to put a smile on wounded warrior’s faces. As far as he was concerned, it was love at first sight. As far as she was concerned, he was just another sailor and soldier that needed cheering up. DJ was persistent though, and soon she fell in love too.

After less than a year of dating, they married, and he moved her back to her home town in Oklahoma. He saw little reason to move back to Colorado. Oklahoma was just as good a place to live as any. Moving her back near her family and adopting them as his own had certainly seemed appealing.

For a few years he stayed unemployed and directionless. They lived off his meager medical pension and the odd handy-man job. Then he was talked into trying options trading by a friend at church. DJ soon learned that he could see patterns in the chaos of the stock market. He found that he could anticipate things that were about to happen. It was an artform, he learned, and DJ just seemed to have knack for it.

A few years later they had a nice house, bulging bank accounts and two beautiful twin girls. Lindsey and Kelsey became twin planetary bodies around which DJ and Cassie whole lives orbited. They were only two years old when the evils of this world directed their attention to his family. Life ambushed him. Again. Only this time it was far worse; forever changing him, leaving him a broken and bitter man.

DJ was snapped out of the wanderings of his mind by a spine-jarring bump in the winding gravel road. It nearly ripped the steering wheel from his hand, severely upsetting the vehicle, and he reflexively grabbed the wheel with his left in order to correct the Jeep’s direction. He slammed on the brakes, skidding to a halt with the growling grate of knobby tires on gravel. Shifting into reverse, he backed up and leaned out of the window to see what had nearly thrown him from the road.

Rain runoff from last night’s storm funneled off the steep valley walls, cutting a deep but narrow channel across the gravel drive, heading to the creek that divided the valley down the middle. Sunlight mixed with the dirty windshield and had obscured the trench in the road from view. If DJ had hit it any harder, he would have been ejected from the road and into the creek below.

He would need to get that fixed. It would involve recreating a runoff path beneath the road through some heavy gauge PVC and burying it back below the gravel. That meant he would need a new battery for the aging tractor he hadn’t started since last year. He might as well pick one up while he was in town.

There went his weekend. Nothing like finding an odd job that needed completing on a Friday afternoon. He was hoping to spend his Saturday doing something far more relaxing than rebuilding a section of road.

Making the last bend at the end of the canyon, he was greeted by the narrow, two-lane blacktop that was Highway 160. He pulled through the split rail fence and over the cattleguard that marked the border to his property. He paused at the road. Looking both ways, he took a left heading to South Fork.

South Fork was a small town in lower Colorado. It sat in the intersection of two wide valleys and along the banks of two merging mountain rivers that met right in the heart of town. The Rio Grande cut east and west through the mountains. The very same Rio Grande that eventually turned and snaked its way south to become the border between Texas and Mexico. It was met with a smaller tributary coming in from the south, aptly named the South Fork Rio Grande. Locals just referred to it as ‘The South Fork’. It was along the latter that he now drove, headed north into town.

It was about as picturesque a place as you could find; a small town in size with the atmosphere to go along with it. It was here that he picked up supplies once or twice per month, checked his mail at a privately-owned mail store once or twice a week, and occasionally had a bite to eat at a small diner known as Uncle Henry’s.

Henry, the proprietor of the diner, was the closest thing to a friend DJ had. They were friendly, but not close. The aging black man with wrinkled eyes would serve him pan-fried trout caught fresh from the South Fork that ran behind the diner on the edge of town. They would talk about the weather and fishing. How much snow were they going to get come winter? How was Henry’s wife currently faring in perfecting her homemade pickle recipe? How was DJ doing with his growing redneck gun collection, and what was his most recent purchase? But that was about it. Henry knew nothing about DJ’s past, sensing it was an area off topic, and DJ never volunteered anything. Thinking about this one relationship he had in his life turned the wheels of time backwards in his mind, once more contemplating what had brought him back to Colorado.

After tragedy stole his family, DJ felt he had nothing left to live for. He found little comfort in associating with the few friends and family he had left. He had made friends at the small church they had attended in Oklahoma, plus Cassie’s parents still lived there. But while they all did their best to help him cope with the loss of his wife and kids, every time he saw their faces he was only reminded of that loss. It mired him in sadness that eventually morphed into anger and bitterness.

One day, while checking his email, he saw a spam ad for acreage in Colorado. Since he was originally from the state, he impulsively clicked on it. The expansive properties, seemingly far away from civilization and all the evils that came along with it, pulled on him. Suddenly, he just wanted to run away. He wanted to flee from life; run away from the people that reminded him of his loss. Just like he had done after his mom’s death. Only this time, he wanted to extricate himself from everyone, not just the ones he knew.

Within a few weeks, he sold his house and everything in it, both of the cars, and boarded a one-way flight to Denver. He caught a ride off one of those ride-share apps to a Jeep dealership and paid cash for the red Wrangler he now drove. The next day he met with a realtor that drove him out to a sprawling 6,800-acre piece of property that stretched along a deep, high walled valley and ended at a boxed canyon. It was labeled a ranch, but one could tell it had never functioned as such. It contained a nearly 140-year-old abandoned gold mine, a decaying gravel road that stretched to a dilapidated old hunters’ cabin, its own fresh mountain stream fed from a natural spring, and it was surrounded by national forest. It was about as isolated as you could get without being on another planet, but still within driving distance to the nearby town of South Fork, offering a source of supplies for the necessities of life.

DJ signed the paperwork that afternoon and paid cash for it all. It cut his bank account into nearly half. He had done well in the market, however, and had nothing else to spend his money on, so he really didn’t care. Besides, the stock options positions he had trained himself to buy and sell would have that replenished in no time.

He contracted someone to build a small two-story house on piers. He had it outfitted with solar and wind-power, so it was off the grid. He even had a water-catch system installed with a cistern. He put in satellite for internet, and as long as he kept the snow off of it in the winter, the connection was plenty fast enough for anything he would want to do.

It was quiet, remote, and peaceful. But still not enough to keep the pain and anger away.

About three months after completing the house and with nothing else left to occupy his thoughts, his grief and anger finally overtook him. He had purchased a rifle right after acquiring the property. It was a heavy caliber bolt action Savage with a scope. The realtor had advised it on account of bears that roamed the area. It had never been fired or zeroed. He took the rifle, sat down in a chair on the porch, placed one round in the chamber, and rested the stock on the ground. After placing the barrel in his mouth, he could barely reach the trigger. But it was enough. He closed his eyes, applied pressure to the trigger, and…

Nothing.

Taking the gun out of his mouth, he picked it up to look closer at the trigger. He pulled the trigger again, but it simply would not budge. Was it defective? He looked even closer and noticed that the safety was on. The sheer lunacy of not realizing that it might be switched to safe, caused him to laugh out loud. He pushed the safety off and tested the trigger again with it still resting in his lap.

The rifle exploded with light, volume, and pure violence. It leapt from his hands and clattered onto the flooring of the porch. All the normal sounds associated with his remote cabin retreat instantly vanished, replaced by a severe ringing in his ears. He jerked both of his hands furtively over his ears, as if that would somehow help. He was aware that he cursed out loud and even knew exactly what he said, but he could not hear his own voice. He could only hear the ringing in his ears that was like an icepick to the brain. He stood up and kicked at the rifle as hard as he could, cursing yet again. He missed, lost his balance, and stumbled backwards into his chair to sit again. Cursing yet a third time, he slowly leaned over his knees and began to cry.

Cassie would not have approved of his language, no matter the circumstances. For that matter, she would not have approved of him taking his own life. But he missed her so much. He missed them all so much. The pain knotted in his chest, gripping his heart with a pair of clenched fists, twisting and rending the muscle nearly in two. The pain was more than he could bear.

“Cassie,” he sobbed. “I am so sorry.” The tears drained from his face, drip-dropping nonstop onto the rifle at his feet as he stared at it. Over and over again, he repeated his apology to his dead wife. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

After a long while, the sobbing slowed, eventually stopping altogether. As he sat there, with his red eyes focused downward at the rifle at his feet, and with his hearing still somewhat impaired, he fussed at himself out loud. “If I am going to shoot myself in the head, I at least should know a bit more about the last act I will ever do.”

It was a misconception to assume that anyone in the military must know a lot about firearms. That was not necessarily true. In DJ’s case, he was a corpsman. His primary job was patching up Sailors and Marines. He focused on keeping them alive long enough to make it back to an actual doctor. And while he carried the same M4 Assault rifle that any basic rifleman carried and could shoot it with reasonable skill, it was never really much of a focus for his job classification. Aside from that one rifle he had been outfitted with in the Navy, he had never fired another gun in his life.

Over the next few days he scoured the internet learning all he could about guns and shooting. A mild curiosity rapidly turned into something for him to really focus on; something that could occupy his thoughts. The desire to blow his brains out faded into the background, replaced by a new hobby.

Just like had happened with options trading on the stock market, he began to see patterns in the things he was reading online. He could visualize the mechanics and engineering behind the art of shooting. He learned the human requirements for being proficient. He watched videos on the internet to learn not only about the act of shooting, but about the science behind the weapons themselves. He ordered books off the internet written by, and about, famous marksmen. He purchased technical manuals that taught him how to reload his own ammunition.

Over the last two years he had begun to acquire a rather extensive collection of firearms and most of the things associated with them. Some, he purchased from the sporting goods store in town. Some, he bought used. He discovered a website that was essentially a collection of online personals ads for people selling their used firearms. There, he would find people in his own state looking to unload their used weapons. If he spotted one he was interested in, he would contact them by email and then phone, arrange for a neutral meeting place, and pay them cash for the weapon if it met his expectations.

To date, he now owned over 75 various rifles, pistols and shotguns. He even had a well-equipped shop to service them all and reload ammunition. It was a recent add-on to the cabin last year. Previously, he had been using the second bedroom upstairs, but he had run out of space. He specifically hired a contractor from outside the state to add it to the house for secrecy. He paid the man cash to avoid a permit and inspection by the state. It ran along the entire backside of the house and contained a secret room for storage. In fact, the secret room even possessed a hidden storage area in the floor; a secret in a secret, as it were. He hid most of his collection in the larger, hidden room, with his most prized possessions tucked away in the floor.

It was for this new hobby that he was now coming to town. A while back he had found a guy who had wanted to sell a high-end small caliber pistol. It was a beautiful, handmade job worth nearly three-grand. Apparently, it was left to him by his grandfather. He met the guy at the end of a department-store parking lot and paid cash for it on the spot.

A couple of days ago the same guy reached out to him yet again. He said he had a friend wanting to get rid of his whole collection because he was hard up for cash. The friend’s wife had come down with cancer and he needed the money. The collection included a mix of some real heirlooms and some newer more modern weapons. One of those was a hand-fitted military grade sniper rifle. It was a platform that would run almost $6,000 by itself and DJ began to drool over it as soon as he saw the pictures.

In total, it was nearly $20,000 worth of firearms for half the price. It was a deal too good to pass up. So, once more, DJ agreed to meet his friend. This guy even agreed to drive down from just north of Breckenridge to make the exchange. Plus, the man sounded like he might even be able to be talked down off his price as he was that desperate. Not that DJ would do so, seeing that the seller was trying to save the life of his wife. It didn’t seem fair. In fact, DJ was considering paying him more.

A quick glance at his watch told him he was early. He would have time to run a few errands first. He drove past ‘Uncle Henry’s Diner’ on the right as he entered town. The meet would be in the parking lot. DJ figured he could catch something to eat afterwards. Maybe ole Henry would have a jar of the latest batch of pickles from his wife.

DJ turned left onto highway 149 in the middle of town and then pulled into the auto parts store for the battery he needed for the tractor. The place was empty except for the pimply-faced young man sitting on a padded stool behind the counter. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else. DJ figured the kid couldn’t have been more than 19. The young man barely looked up from fiddling with his phone.

“Hey, man,” Pimple Face said, not bothering to stand. DJ merely nodded and headed to the battery display to make his selection. He settled on one a bit larger than he needed and made his way back to the counter. Pimple Face slowly stood and started the process to ring him up. “You got one to trade?” Pimple Face asked.

“Nope. Just this,” DJ replied.

“OK, well its gonna cost you ten bucks more if you ain’t got one to recycle.” The red tint to Pimple Face’s eyes, along with the slight sweet smell DJ picked up from being so close to him, gave it away that the young man was freely partaking of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana. Although, he certainly seemed too young to make the purchase himself.

“Understood.” DJ reached into the left breast pocket of his gray work shirt and produced a small wad of bills. He waited patiently for Pimple Face to finish selecting the right combination of buttons on his terminal. On the counter to his right was a cylindrical display for sunglasses containing an assortment of choices. The mirror used for checking yourself out was facing his direction, and he couldn’t help but see himself.

He winced at the image staring back at him. A scraggly, brown beard showing no signs of trimming in a long while, covered a large portion of his face and neck. Chaotic tufts of brown hair poked out from the edges of his camouflaged ball cap on his head. The mirror even reflected the hollow, haunted look in his grey-blue eyes. DJ looked every part the gun collecting, backwoods redneck that he was slowly turning into. Cassie would not have approved of his physical transformation. She would have wrinkled her nose at seeing his hair covered face. She loved it best right after he shaved in the morning.

Just like that, he was not standing at the counter of an auto parts store. He was standing in a steamy bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist, looking down into the green eyes of his wife. She grinned up at him and caressed his newly shaven face. In the background, from down the hall, he could hear the girls playing. A child’s giggle softly made its way to his ears and his wife’s grin deepened even more.

“Sir? Hey sir… Sir, are you OK?” The moment was gone, ambushed by a pimply-faced teenager in an auto parts store with bloodshot eyes and an ‘Assistant Manager’ badge pinned to his shirt. “Umm… That’ll be $129.52.”

“Keep the change,” DJ snapped, dropping a collection of bills on the counter. He snatched up the battery, quickly making his way through the front door, ignoring the shocked look of young Mr. Pimply Face.

With time still left before his meeting, he drove to the mail store. Aptly named ‘The Mail Store’, it was run by a grizzled old veteran named Mike. He reminded DJ of an angry version of Santa Claus. White hair sat on his head like a cloud with a matching white beard attached to his chin and cheeks, and a rotund belly decorated his middle. The similarities were purely physical, however. Mike was short with his customers, opinionated about politics, which he eagerly shared with anyone that would listen, and had about as much patience as a toddler in need of nappy time.

“Got a box for ya’,” Santa Mike snapped. “Why do your boxes always weigh so much? You’re gonna have to come around and get it yourself.” He poked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate where the box was stashed.

DJ nodded and stepped behind the counter. He located his box in a stack of packages and picked it up. In Santa Mike’s defense, it was indeed on the heavy side. Judging from the logo on the side, it was a thousand rounds of 9mm ammo DJ ordered last week. He tended to reload most of the other calibers himself, but he had found a place online that had a pretty good remanufactured ‘9’ for cheaper than he could make it.

Santa Mike watched him carry it around the counter. “What you got in there?” the gruff man asked with a growl.

“Bullets,” DJ replied flatly, not bothering to keep it a secret. “Got a coyote problem.”

“That’s a lot of ammo for a few coyotes. Must plan on missing a lot.” Mike looked at him with unmasked disdain.

“I just never could pass up a good sale. Got anything else for me?”

“Just what’s in your wall box.” Mike turned around and flipped on a wall mounted TV. A popular cable news channel instantly filled the air with the latest happenings in the world. “What you think about the latest crap your government just pulled?” Mike asked over his shoulder, his attention now firmly on the TV.

“Bunch of crap, for sure,” DJ replied. Truthfully, he had no idea what Mike was talking about, and really didn’t want to know. He sat the box down on the floor and fished out his keys from his jean pockets. He quickly located his mailbox along the wall and unlocked it, finding a letter with a handwritten address. It was a letter from Cassie’s mother.

He stared at it for a long few seconds, then folded it over and shoved it into his left back pocket next to his wallet. He picked up his box, and without even saying goodbye to Mike, who was now fixated on the news, headed back to the Jeep.

He hoped the meeting with the gun seller would go down quick. He was starving. It was now 3 pm, and still pretty early for supper, but he had skipped lunch because of a late breakfast. His stomach was starting to think that his throat had been cut. He smiled at the thought. It was a line from a set of Louis L’Amour westerns he had read when he was a kid. His hunger wasn’t quite that bad yet, but he was indeed starting to get hungry.

The diner parking lot was just a large patch of gravel with no clear entrance or exit. One could simply pull off the road at any angle and find a spot to stop anywhere. As he approached it from the north, he quickly spotted a white, late-model pickup parked facing the road. It was angled perfectly for an easy exit and positioned right next to the blacktop. A young man was standing next to the driver’s door smoking a cigarette. He was wearing jeans and a short-sleeve button-up, untucked, and over the top of some sort of dark printed t-shirt. On his head was perched a khaki ball cap.

He was a white guy, clean-shaven, except for a strip of black hair stretching from his bottom lip to the base of his chin. What did they call that? A soul-patch? Regardless, he matched the description the seller gave him over the phone.

DJ waved as he pulled past him, stopped the Jeep parallel to the road, aimed back towards the direction of home. He figured he would meet the guy, take a look at the guns, and then back the Jeep up to the tailgate if he was happy with what he saw. He didn’t expect there would be an issue, however. He had already been emailed pictures of all seven weapons and was really looking forward to making this deal.

As he stepped out, he left the engine running and the door open, and started the walk towards Mr. Soul Patch. Soul Patch’s face lit up with a big smile as he stepped across the gravel to meet DJ halfway. “You must be the guy I’m looking for,” Soul Patch said. As they drew closer, Soul Patch extended his hand to shake. DJ smiled back and met the man’s hand with his own. He instantly regretted it. The Soul Patch’s hand was clammy like a sick person.

“If you’re the seller, then I’m the buyer,” DJ replied. Releasing his grip, he casually wiped his hand against the leg of his jeans.

“What did you say your name was again?” Soul Patch looked around as he asked, checking out the parking lot like he was nervous. Being a bit nervous made perfect sense to DJ. After all, the guy had some valuable weapons likely stretched out in the back of that truck under the bed cover. Soul Patch was probably a little concerned with being robbed. That made the way he was dressed make more sense as well. The man was no doubt concealing a handgun underneath that button-up he was wearing like a jacket.

DJ understood completely. He had made deals like this a few times before and had his own Glock 19 tucked underneath his shirt for protection. He had obtained his Concealed Carry Permit sometime back. In this part of the country, if you exercised your Second Amendment rights, odds are you had a permit to carry. Both parties bringing one to a deal like this was just par for the course. It was both perfectly legal, and completely understandable. So far, this deal was going down just like every other purchase before it.

DJ answered the question with a lie. “Sam. The name is Sam.” He never gave his real name just to be on the safe side. He glanced around the parking lot as well. Henry’s truck was parked on the north side of the building and facing them. He could clearly see the silhouette of a shotgun in the gun rack. Aside from that, there was no one else here. The evening customers would be coming in soon, and along with them, the one waitress that worked both the breakfast and dinner crowds. The lunch group was small enough that Henry worked the place by himself. But, right now the place was empty.

“So, let’s see what you got,” DJ stated. He made to walk around Soul Patch and head towards the truck.

Soul Patch side-stepped to move in front of him, holding both hands up in a ‘stop right there’ motion. “No offense, buddy, but I got a lot riding on this. Did you bring the cash?” Soul Patch’s countenance of slight nervousness had transitioned to one of a sterner nature.

“You bet,” DJ replied, still smiling. He reached around behind him and produced a fat envelope from his right back pocket. “Right here.” He patted the envelope reassuringly with his other hand. “So… can we take a look?”

Soul Patch looked at the envelope for a second, then dropping his hands, smiled again. “Sorry about that. Just kinda nervous.” DJ returned the envelope to his back pocket and followed Soul Patch around to the back of the truck. “You know,” Soul Patch lamented, “I’ve heard about people getting robbed doing this kind of thing. I know you already bought a gun off my friend, but still. Forgive me for being cautious. I got a lot riding on this.”

Soul Patch folded the bed cover back and dropped the tailgate down. Not before DJ got a look at the license plate, however, causing alarm bells in his head to go off. “Hang on a sec. I thought you said you drove down from the other side of Breckenridge?”

Soul Patch looked blankly at him before replying. “That’s right. Lived there all my life.”

“How come your license plate says Missouri?”

Another flat stare before replying. “Oh… Yeah, well I bought this one used from a guy yesterday. I had to sell the new one we had. You know, because of needing money for my wife. I promise I’m from Colorado. I know selling across state lines is illegal.”

The nervous nature of Mr. Soul Patch was back. DJ watched as beads of sweat were beginning to form above the seller’s upper lip. For DJ, those alarm bells were now ringing even louder. He only had one more question for Mr. Soul Patch, but DJ already knew he wasn’t going to like the answer “So why does the plate read Porsche Lover?”

Yet another flat stare before speaking, “Um… What?”

Wrong answer, DJ thought to himself. He took aim at that annoying patch of hair on Soul Patch’s chin and punched the man as hard as he could.