RANCHER’S WIFE – CHAPTER ONE:

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RANCHER’S WIFE – CHAPTER ONE:
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CHAPTER ONE:

Mitch Conner was sitting in the quiet little café in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. As sometimes happened, his mind took him on a journey back into time. It was okay with him that he spent these quiet moments in the past. He had made the decision a while ago that the past was the past, but forgetting the past was often a serious mistake. Moreover, despite the fact that he had taken very deliberate actions and steps to separate himself from that past, he knew he couldn’t afford any lazy mistakes. Not that he regretted any part of his past. He wasn’t running from anything, it was more like ignoring. That nearly always brought a smile to face; he liked that way of thinking about it. He had lived, served, and dealt with the world in ways most people would never know. Now, he simply wanted to ignore it. After that time in the world, he felt the world owed him that simple right to now ignore it.

The image of him in the café that day, gave that impression very clearly. As happened occasionally, this large man occupied the corner table as he always did when he stopped in. Not that he was regular by any means; it was just that you didn’t miss him when you saw him. He only appeared in Pagosa Springs every three or four weeks. It was as though he was simply passing through on some regular route except for his truck and manner. There was a comfortable sense to him as if he was near home. He was always dressed as if he just left something he had been working on. And, big he was. But, only in a muscular way. He had to be 6 foot 2 inches tall and 220 pounds, but every bit of it muscle. His hair was longish, over his ears, and jet black. Despite just turning 40 year old, his hair, like his body, showed no signs of it. And, when he was dressed like he was today on this warm spring day, women seemed to speculate about it while men seemed to not want to. Worn jeans and work boots, a faded black tee shirt stretched tightly over his chest, shoulders, and arms, this one saying ‘Release the b**st’. His pickup was also worn and always dirty and dusty, further evidence to people that he must be from around there somewhere. He never talked to anyone, always sitting by himself, never engaging anyone except for an occasional smile or ‘thank you’ to a server or after paying his bill. People were curious but he wasn’t forthcoming.

He knew what was happening around him, of course. He was very astute, very aware at all times what was happening around him, even if he didn’t directly shift his gaze. But, this part of his life was his solitude phase, or as he liked to think of it, ignoring the rest of the world. Oh, sure, he knew he had to interact with people; he just worked at trying to minimize that interaction to as little as possible. His mind was drifting, drifting back over the years, the events that led him to this place that he now called home, a place where he could ignore the world.

He was interrupted by a tentative server, “More coffee, sir?”

Without looking up, he started fishing out his equally worn wallet, “No, thank you. But, could I bother you for a large coffee to go?”

He looked up at her, finally. She was holding a large Styrofoam glass with a lid on it, “I thought you might ask for one.” She was smiling shyly at him. A sweet smile, he thought. Sometimes he thought about entering this little corner of the world, engaging some of these people, like her. She was awfully young, though. He thanked her and left the café, but instead of going directly to his pickup, he crossed the blacktop road and made his way to the little, fast moving river that ran along the road at this location. This little town seemed to pull him into the past more than the others. He split his trips for supplies between three towns but never on a routine. He might go to the same one twice in a row or skip one. It was his way of remaining unknown, unpredictable, and avoid routine when he was in the world. He smiled; it wasn’t that he was paranoid, just careful. He knew there was a huge difference.

He actually evaluated his action as he sat down along the bank of the river. He seemed to do this frequently after visiting the little café, evidenced by the server anticipating his desire for a large coffee to go. He thought back and knew he hadn’t stopped here in a month. He knew he stood out and that was always part of the issue in the past. Maybe he would have to change this routine that he was surprised had become a routine. He hated to, though, the river here was energizing with all this water crashing over rocks, tumbling toward some unknown destination. Maybe he should raft it sometime, find out what was down river … yeah, maybe … sometime …

As he sat on the bank sipping his large, very black coffee, his past came flooding back over him. He had no TV and devoured books once it became dark. But, he found it occasionally interesting to reflect on his life, what brought him to this new, unexpected lifestyle. A life he now relished and protected through all these careful avoidances of routine and entanglements. And just as he had no idea where the water directly in front of him went, what it would encounter beyond his present sight, so too was he unaware of the turn his life was about to take just beyond his present perception.

His life started so simply, at least to him. It was only much later that he understood how hard it had been for his mother. He barely recalled anything of his father, even at a young age. The man who should have been his role model in the world abandoned them, his mother, sister, little brother, and him. He was only six, at the time. Only six … If there ever was a saint in the world, though, it was his mother. She worked tirelessly to keep the house and the family together. Despite her long hours and struggle to keep their life on track, all the k**s knew was an even existence, a growing up filled with school, homework every night, and activities. She had the opinion that k**s kept busy would be too busy to get into trouble. For them, at least, it seemed to work for they all made it through growing up without the troubles and difficulties so many of their friends seemed so drawn to.

As the oldest, he was given the added task of looking after the other two, making sure homework was completed and they stayed out of trouble. As they grew, they went their own way in school and extracurricular activities but they were all busy with something. Mitch was exceptional, though, in almost everything he tried. He had straight A’s and helped his siblings achieve good grades, too. But, besides the academics, he was a natural athlete and his body quickly grew to a size that in combination with natural abilities made him a standout in sports year-round. Although he played baseball in season, he tended to basketball and football, especially in High School at their suburban Dallas school. He was a running back in football all four years in High School, the only one to ever start as a freshman. If the line gave him an opening, linebackers were trying to stop a car by the time he got a head of steam, which often only took to reaching the line of scrimmage. The poor defensive backs didn’t stand a chance if they met him one-on-one.

His exceptional grades and football skills, rushing records, and scouting appraisals got him a full ride scholarship at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He often assumed he would be playing for the beloved University of Texas, but they thought he should walk-on so a scholarship could be used to attract an additional prospect from out-of-state. He thought they could go to hell. The Pac-10, at the time, was fine with him. He excelled there, too, and learned a lot about nutrition and putting on muscle, something he never forgot or took for granted. He started the first season as a backup running back. Half way through that first season he was the starter and held that status for the following three seasons. Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering degree, he immediately re-enrolled for the Master of Business Administration program. He finished it a semester early and thought he was on his way.

His mother continually reminded him that gifts like his must be shared, given back to others in some way. All through high school, he had done just that, especially for his sister and brother and both had turned out well. His brother it turned out had a knack for repairing anything with a motor and somehow kept bringing life to the family car and later Mitch’s junk cars. And, along the way, Mitch learned more than just a little under his little brother’s guidance. His sister opened her own little shop and was very successful. She married well and they have a boy and girl of their own. Even now, he smiled; there couldn’t possibly be a better ‘Nana’ to those k**s than his mother.

His mother’s entreat haunted him constantly, ‘use your gifts for others’. While at UA, he spent countless hours helping other players manage the classwork. He was devoted to the team, motivating and leading by his work ethic and commitment. He was shocked and embarrassed when, as a sophomore, the coach came to him early in the practice season to tell him he had been elected by the team to be a Captain.

“I can’t, Coach. It isn’t right; one of the seniors should be selected.”

“This isn’t a coaching staff decision, Mitch. The team elected you as one of the captains. It was the only unanimous selection.” He took it as a commitment of trust. The coaching staff had never seen such a captain as what they experienced over the next three seasons. It was the best three years of football the school had ever experienced.

That experience and his mother’s words hung on him after he received his MBA. Was the business world the life that would satisfy his mother and himself? He realized something after football was over. He had a streak in him that needed scratching, a need for action, excitement. As it happened, he was passing a small strip mall looking for a coffee shop and what he found was an Army recruitment office not far from the campus. He spent nearly two hours with both recruiters, spent the night thinking about it, and then called his mother early in the morning, catching her with enough time to talk before she left for work.

“I am thinking about signing up for the Army, mom.”

“You have your degree, those offers from firms … are you sure, son?”

“You have always told me to help others. Maybe this is it.” She was scared, her son in the Army during wartime. But, she was more proud. She gave her blessing and her prayers.

Too soon, he found himself in Afghanistan. He performed well and gained the trust and respect of his squad mates and leaders. Almost before he knew it, he was a heavy gun specialist in a squad assigned to root out a cell in a residential area. They would have the support of a sniper and his spotter to watch over them. Everything went to terrible very soon. They were pinned down and caught in crossfire. Their ten soldiers were trying to survive against maybe five times their number. The lieutenant called for help from the sniper, but all that came back was static. They looked to his location and saw black smoke coming from the rooftop. The lieutenant panicked, gave bad commands, and immediately got two of their number killed. Then he completely broke down.

Mitch took command. It was i*****l, command was still in place, and he wasn’t even next in command. He let the officer rant and rave and predictably, he stood up to make a point. He was killed before he fully stood. Mitch then distributed the men into a defensive line.

He glared at them with the full effect of his size behind him, “Give me five minutes”, he turned for the sniper nest, then stopped, “oh, yeah, NOBODY dies!” In four minutes, there was a distant crack of the sniper rifle, then another and another and another. The forward man peeked over his cover and saw enemy falling from windows, doorways and as they attempted to cross the street. After a firefight for the next two hours, the buildings were cleared and Mitch was rejoining the squad as Humvees’ arrived with backup. The squad estimated that he had accounted for 19 kills from his sniper position. A position that was 500 yards away.

That put him into sniper training for the seven-week course at Fort Benning back in the States. Then he was back in Afghanistan for another tour. His proficiency attracted the attention of the Rangers who then recruited him. As always, he excelled in every phase and mission. The mission that again changed his fate was a complete disaster. The chopper taking them to their drop zone was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade from the ground. When he came to, alongside the burnout wreckage, he was the only man alive. The Rangers are trained to be given mission goals and only general instruction for carrying them out. They were expected to adjust to the conditions to accomplish the goal. This was quite an adjustment. He figured the only plan now that might work would have to be bold. When he succeeded to eliminating the senior leaders of a cell hiding in the mountains, the stories travelled to new segments of the government.

His life really changed when the CIA contacted him and brought him to Langley for interviews. He had been in the Army for four years, now the shadowy CIA was recruiting him. Waiting in the secure complex of Langley, a man watching his every move, as if he was going to steal something. He was beginning to think this whole ‘giving back’ thing of his mother’s was getting a little out of hand.

He already knew how to kill on the battlefield. Now he was taught how to kill without being seen doing it. Stealth and subtlety, blending into the surroundings and patient surveillance became new tools güvenilir canlı bahis siteleri for his survival. He was trained in the fine arts of being an assassin, infiltrating targets, and quietly eliminating those individuals of greatest threat to the nation’s security. It was a part of our government that was not admitted, not talked about, and publicly was not condoned. It existed nonetheless, and we all knew in our hearts it had to, and deeper in our hearts we all wanted it to exist, an arm of the nation that ‘took care of business’, the dirty business; we just didn’t want to know about it. That is where Mitch found himself, mired in the dirty business of protecting our country, not openly and ‘honorably’ as on the battlefield, but secretly, in ways nobody wanted to hear about.

Sadly, to him initially, he excelled at this, too. He could spend a month in a strange location, insinuating himself into the fabric of the surrounds, and with agonizing patience identify routines and weaknesses that would eventually lead to the target’s end. When it went perfectly, it was quiet and a mystery. When it didn’t go perfect, it often led to a mad chase for a known pick-up location and transportation to safety.

He was in the field; rarely back in the States for more than a month. During those times, his cover was a leave from the service. Mail was routed to him when possible. When it wasn’t, email exchanges with his handler produced timely responses that most always satisfied family.

During those eight years with the CIA, a new opportunity presented itself. His alias became known in the world of assassins and killing for hire. When his alias received an unsolicited offer from another government, he passed it to his handler who in turn took it further up the chain of command. They saw an opportunity. If other governments wished to take their own action and if it aligned with our government’s interests, they saw a way to take action on targets that might not otherwise receive approval. Each such offer was passed back through channels and approved or denied.

A side benefit his handlers ignored by never discussing was the payments for such contracts. He setup confidential and secret accounts in several offshore banks known for their strict privacy policies. In a matter of four years of this extra activity between his government and private assignments, he had amassed in the neighborhood of 40 million dollars. A large chunk of it was the result of breaking up the sale of nuclear material to a terrorist group. All parties involved were eliminated and the nuclear material safely contained for the cleanup team. The payment, however, seemed to evaporate. Yes, it was blood money, but for actions he convinced himself were for the benefit of the country and civilized men and women everywhere. That’s at least the story he kept telling himself. It was getting harder, though, as the assignments seemed to get more reckless and bold.

Agents had a life span in that business. Most were established by their death when an assignment went bad. Mitch could see his life span ending soon if he continued. He had used up more than his share of luck. He called his handler to be brought in. He wanted out. And he got out. It took four months of debriefings. It took fabrication of and planting documents around the country, in companies, on the internet, and everywhere else our names and history could be found. He went back to being Mitch Conner. He was given a history, a documented history, of his missing years while in the CIA.

He found himself in a brokerage firm, excellently matched by his new history and a hot line to government financial and economic analysts. He was quite successful for his clients over the next four years. At 37 years of age, he left the world of high finance and never turned back. Between the firm he had hired while still an agent and his own handling of his investments, he turned his wealth into a 60 million dollar portfolio located in five separate confidential banks. That was when he decided to find a way to ‘ignore the world’. He couldn’t imagine living in such a way as to use the earnings from his money. A modest return of 5% would annually yield three million dollars. Before disappearing from the world, he met with his family, first taking care of their debts, his brothers business, his sister and mother’s homes. He created trust funds for the nephew and niece, funds for each of his siblings and his mother for them to realize in a year’s time. With a well-crafted will to distribute his wealth among his family and carefully selected charities, he headed back to Arizona where it really seemed to start for him.

He spent a month there before ending up in south Colorado. He was roaming, looking, experiencing. He just wasn’t sure what it was he was looking for; he only hoped that he would recognize it when it knocked him over. But, not many things in his life had managed to knock him over. He had learned patience and subtlety and that was what he practiced on his long drives over highway, side roads, and dirt tracks. It was on a dirt track that he nearly ran over his opportunity, Jerome Abernathy. Mitch had taken a room in Monte Vista, Colorado and was roaming the mountains and side roads of the area. The mountains were inviting and he was considering some hiking, if he found a likely place. Instead, what he found was his future.

Rarely seeing anyone else on his drives on back dirt roads, he was admittedly charging down this one too fast, but he had become complacent. The road, if in fact anyone from a populated center would call it that, was barely more than a single vehicle wide, so when he came over a small rise and saw the stopped, old pickup right in front of him, he was forced to slam on his breaks and ease his way halfway into the ditch on the left to avoid the truck and the old man who jumped up from under the hood at the sound of crunching gravel and dirt. As he brought the vehicle to a stop just beyond the old man, he slumped forward with his forehead on his arms on the steering wheel. He was quietly cursing the old man, but after numerous deep breaths to regain a steady heart rate, he cursed himself for being so careless.

After regaining his composure and thankful that it wasn’t worse, he stepped out of the truck and proceeded back to the old man. “I am sorry, sir. I hope I didn’t scare you too much. I was driving too fast and I knew it.”

“Relax, son. There was no harm done and I broke down this time in a very inconvenient place.”

They got into a discussion about his breaking down as the two gazed into the engine. With no tools, there wasn’t much they were going to do about it, though. The old man introduced himself as Jerome Abernathy and Mitch returned with his, volunteering that he was just roaming and had no commitments, if he needed a tow. Abernathy quickly accepted, indicating that it was about three miles down this road and a little under two miles in from there. “If you think this road is bad, wait until you see mine.” The old man laughed in a way that caused Mitch to wonder what he getting into with this old guy.

The track from the bad road was no more than a two ruts cut into the range land by frequent use. If it had ever been graded as a road, it was at least a generation ago. Mitch worked on the truck engine the rest of the day and into the night, finally coming up with a list of parts needed to complete the task. He spent the night with the old man. He noticed a rickety old distribution line coming into the property to the house and out-building, but the man lived with kerosene lamps at night. His bathroom and kitchen used electricity. The stove was propane fed by a tank positioned safely away from the house. And the house was a common four-square farm house with large porch on the front, two stories with bedrooms upstairs that he learned were never used, any more. The man had settled into a makeshift bedroom in what might have once been a study on the main floor.

He was convinced to spend the night there, took the man into Monte Vista to get the parts. Then the man further convinced Mitch to save some money and stay at his place. Mitch relented, spent much of the rest of the day finishing the repairs on the truck until it ran better than it had in more than a decade. The old man found Mitch repairing some steps to the porch in the morning, but it didn’t end there. Mitch pushed to identify the most urgent priorities for repairs and proceeded to knock them off the list, going back into town for supplies and tools he needed for he jobs. They were both surprised when they realized that a month had passed like this.

Mitch woke in the middle of the night sensing a disturbance in the night quiet more than actually hearing anything. He found Abernathy in the kitchen, a kerosene lamp glowing next to him as he poured over papers and letters. Then it all came out of the old man like a gentle river after a dam upstream failed, sending water down like a churning, boiling force. In the old man, though, it transformed this upbeat, positive, and gentle man into a conflicted and tormented rag of emotion and self-doubt. It had been a race for a long time and it now appeared that he was going to lose. A race? Between the bank and his life. He couldn’t afford even the taxes on this land. The land had passed from generation to generation to him and his beloved who had passed a decade ago. His eyes softened, again, at the mere sounding of her name, Olivia, a woman he was convince was one of God’s very special angels, an angel He finally decided He wanted with Him. To Mitch it wasn’t only the name that reminded him of his mother, it was also the description, the awe she drew from this man, the awe and inspiration he felt for his own mother all his life. Even through all the v******e of his adult life, her vision, her words, and her entreating ‘to serve’ drove him even then to know right and wrong, acting for good from acting for expediency or convenience.

They talked the rest of the night and into the morning. Mitch took a sheet of paper, a letter that wasn’t needed and started taking notes of things that needed to be arranged and taken care of in priority. He looked down the list finally after the second pot of coffee and he knew he needed to burn off some the caffeine, but there were still details to be defined. They talked more.

Mitch went back to something that was started and then diverted by the memories of his Olivia. The race. The race between the bank foreclosure and his life? He had cancer. He was living his life rather than succumbing to the dreadful treatments that even the doctors gave little chance for helping. He had maybe a month left, but it was now looking like the banks would foreclose well before then. They had c***dren, but they were all in large cities from Denver to the Midwest, Chicago and Kansas City. None had any interest in the land, what the land represented in value maybe, but not in taking over the land. How much land was there, what livestock, how much taxes were owed? Mitch had a hundred questions now; his financial background came back in a rush, filling his mind with focus. He had money, more than he could ever use, more than his family could ever use; he could make a difference here.

Jerome Abernathy should be a wealthy man but for bad fortune. He had inherited from the past Abernathy’s a huge tract of land measuring 3 miles by 5 miles, including mountain land and half the valley on the other side, a part of the land he and Olivia only investigated a few times. The remainder of the valley was Forest Service land and protected. The land east of the mountains is simply range land for the cattle and horses. He was unsure how many cattle and horses were even out there. His embarrassment took over him; he hadn’t bothered with them much since his wife died. Only occasionally retrieving some for butchering or selling for supplies. He lived without any conveniences and didn’t need much except for the taxes and he couldn’t bring himself to sell everything. His embarrassment was compounded to confess to this man across the table from him, a man who worked so honestly and selflessly even for those he hardly knew.

Mitch leaned across the table and took the old, wrinkled hands into his own. They looked into each other’s eyes for many minutes, neither daring to say a word with the emotion hanging in the room. Finally, Mitch made his decision and stood up, “Sir, I need to go into town for a little while. Is your offer to stay here open for a while longer?”

“As long as you want to stay, son.”

“Thank you, sir, you’re very kind.”

“I think that’s backward, but we won’t argue the point.”

Early afternoon and Mitch was on the road to Alamosa, Colorado. Regionally, it was the hub with a population of about 9,500 and the county seat. It was also the location of Jerome’s bank. Inside the bank, Mitch asks for the manager, knowing that the way he was dressed wouldn’t get him top consideration in the largest bank in the county. Explaining that he was there to discuss Jerome Abernathy’s over-due tax payments, he was further greeted with skepticism. He was getting pissed off and if they had known of his previous line of work, they may not have taken that course of action.

So he got loud, “Listen up! You are ready to foreclose on a man who has been on that land for his entire life, but you are fussing over who is offering to make it good? He is about to die, the doctors say within the month. The month! You couldn’t postpone it for a month?!?” He stared the man hard in the eyes, “I’m going to make some phone calls, arrange for the transaction. I’ll be back in one hour, be ready with the number that is outstanding.” He glared at him for additional effect, perabet “Do NOT disappointment me.”

He was fuming as he stepped out of the bank and looked up and down the sidewalk, spotting a coffee shop at the end of block. He took a booth in a corner, ordered a large, dark roast, black coffee, and then was on his prepaid phone. Hard habits to break but he wasn’t trying too hard, either. Every so often as his minutes were used up, he tossed the phone, got a new one with a different phone number, and notified the few people besides family what the new number was. Most people thought he was just being difficult, but the people back at Langley understood the caution. Of course, his financial managers were ones that needed his phone number, at least to recognize it when called. Like now.

“Good afternoon, sir, how can we be of service to you, today?” It was the Senior Managing Direction himself. He was the only one at the firm that communicated with him. Mitch had assumed that the number he had been given was this man’s direct number at the office and it would roll over to his cell phone, if he was away.

“How is your day going, Clarence?”

“Not too bad, yours?”

“Well … it will be better after you’ve helped me. Here’s what I need …” He listed out that he needed access to about $300,000 and then to be ready to make available another very large amount accessible. “Better figure on $6 million. Much of the land isn’t worth anything for ranching, so it shouldn’t be that much but I’ll need the money for other things, if this happens.”

“You’re becoming a rancher, Mitch?”

“Don’t know, yet.” The firm didn’t manage his entire worth, just a portion of it and this would put a big dent in it, but they had made good money on it so far and he would likely move more back in later. They were good, efficient, and very, very discreet. He was going to continue working with them.

He returned to the bank a little early, partly just to pressure them a little bit, if they kept him waiting. He was sure that the manager would see a potential customer of anyone who had enough money to pay off someone else’s debts. Mitch gave them no such discussion opportunity, however; he transferred the funds to cancel the debts on the Abernathy account, received a balance sheet from the manager verifying that the account was cleared with just shy of $20,000 in a positive balance, and then left the bank with only a simple ‘thank you’.

Jerome was a proud man, as he deserved to be given what he had managed over his life essentially alone with his wife. He worried about how to present what he had done to the old man and still give him the dignity he deserved. Nearly at the turn into the property, he decided the only fair way to handle it was to be honest and upfront, not letting him find out some other way. As he drove up to the house, he found the old man sitting in his rocker on the front porch.

“What did you do, Mitch?” He got nervous. What had happened since he left? “I got a call from the bank manager asking if I knew a Mitch Conner. When I said that I did, he thanked me and hung up. So, my question to you is, what did you do?”

He handed him the balance sheet, stepped back, lean against the railing of the porch, and waited. The old man glanced at it, looked up at Mitch, then looked down and studied the sheet closer. “How can someone I only just met weeks ago use $220,000 of his own money to cancel another person’s debt and give him a positive balance? Is this some kind of scheme? It’s not is it?”

Mitch chuckled, “No, sir. Listen, Jerome, I have been exceedingly fortunate in my life. I am barely 40 and I am looking for a way to do something different, very different, with my life. I’ve done the military thing, the business thing. Believe me, please, this isn’t going to limit my options. You’ve been good to me and I feel truly blessed to have run into you … almost literally.” They both laughed at the memory of that day and moment. The old man just shook his head as he looked down at the sheet in his hands. Mitch saw a tear running down each cheek. Nothing more was said.

A week later, though, “Mitch …” He was in the barn organizing things. “Your pickup looks like it is good for off-road. I want you to drive me somewhere.” He didn’t react except to rise, bush off the dirt and dust, and head for his truck. “See that little river on the side that cuts through the pass in the mountains? That’s where we’re going. You’ll find a barely visible path up the pass along the river. But, be careful; don’t go charging up like you usually drive, it gets narrow in spots.”

At the top of the pass and just over to the other side, “Okay, stop anywhere here.” Mitch stopped, didn’t even bother pulling to the side since nobody else would be up here. “This is the valley I talked about.” He gave Mitch time to take it in. “The other side of the lake is Forest Service with no access except hiking and there are no trails to this lake. At least there weren’t. The property line is practically down the middle. This side is mine.” He waited for more minutes before he opened his door and got out. Mitch followed. With a sweep on his arm, the old man with pride and wonder said, “Have you seen anything so beautiful? Olivia and I never did anything about it. This just sat here.” He walked to a large rock, climbed onto it, and pointed, “See that clearing on the northeast side of the lake? You see it, right over there?”

Mitch smiled as he studied the area. What was he up to? Just revisiting lost opportunities? That didn’t sound like the man he had come to know. “Yes, I see it.” The man dug into his shirt pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of 3-hole punched paper. He opened it and turned it to be oriented properly, it was a crude sketch of the north end of the lake, a house, smaller buildings, and a dock into the lake.

“It was our dream that we never realized. Maybe you can …”

“What … you want me to buy your place? Is that what this is about?”

“You said you have money and you are looking for something very, very different to do with your life …”

“I don’t know anything about ranching? I could mess everything up.”

“Mitch, no worse that I have been doing the past years. Okay … tell me it doesn’t appeal to you and I will leave it alone.” Mitch didn’t respond, how could he? Everything the man said was true and had already occurred to him, it was the reason he warned his people to get ready to move a much larger amount of money. This certainly fit the classification of “very, very different”, but was he up to it? The man saw the hesitation and just smiled broadly at him, not adding anything further.

In two more weeks, Mitch was the proud but very nervous owner of a 15 square mile ranch, all assets included, many of which Mitch had not identified or qualified. There was a large storage pole-barn filled with equipment. The quantity and quality of horse and cattle livestock was a mystery. The cow that was used for consumption needed daily milking but the small milking machine made easy work of that. Mitch found that Jerome had lined up a couple neighboring ranchers to run him through the equipment and basics of ranch. Both quickly recognized that this man would absorb everything and force his way through with sheer muscle and determination.

Five days after the sale went through, Jerome Abernathy quietly passed away in his bed at home. Mitch was on the clock to get one more detail taken care of for his friend and it took calling in some political muscle to get the county to approve timely enough to be effective. The day of Jerome’s funeral and burial, a small group of about a dozen people made their way by 4-wheel drive trucks to a small clearing overlooking the valley on the other side of the mountain where Jerome was laid to rest for his eternity next to his beloved Olivia who had to be moved from the grave site near the house. With a rough wood bench set alongside the gravesite, Mitch could envision sitting overlooking the valley and thanking his friend … or cursing him.

It was now nearly three years later. He had acted quickly, hired an architect and general contractor to build his small single story ranch style home near the lake, a large porch facing the lake. In addition, he had two large pole-barns for the cow that needed regular attention and four horses he stabled nearby. He had discovered a love of riding and used the horses whenever possible and when it made sense. He kept an ATV and 4-wheel drive pickup in the barn at the old house that now stood empty of humans but otherwise remained as it was when Jerome had died. He just never had the heart to go through it. He had installed security at the main gate with a remote for the fence gate and cameras that snapped digital pictures if the gate was touched physically. He started repairing the barbed wire fence around the property the first year and gave up. He wasn’t skilled enough to have any skin left on his hands, arms, or body and it was taking far too long. He finally used some more money and hired a ranch contractor to rework all the fencing. He increased the strands and the height of the fencing with the intention of keeping others out. He also had it posted, “Private Property! Absolutely NO Hunting or Trespassing!!” This was the beginning of his ‘ignoring the world’ phase.

He was going to live simply. No cell coverage. No internet or TV or radio reception at the new house. Although he had a distribution line run to the new house and buildings, he removed circuit breakers to the rest of the house except for the bathroom and kitchen. The pole-barns and pump house also had power. He installed a generator for the barns and another for the pump house and house. The contractor was shocked but it came down to the motivation of money. By the first heavy snows, Mitch was in his new home. The construction traffic had worn in a slightly better path but was treacherous in the heavy snow. He found that the ATV was ideal for getting to the old house and the pickup stored there.

Nearly two and a half years after the beginning of that first winter, Mitch was climbing into his dirty, but finely tuned pickup. As before, his drive would be along the back mountain roads from Pagosa Springs to his home. It was a drive he had made along this route many times before. He had found that the river coming out of ‘his’ lake was ripe for trout, but he was always looking for new locations to try and constantly searching for small rivers that might hold or lead to, with a little hiking, new undiscovered locations. What he would discover on this drive, though, would change his life … again.

His habit of looking closely at the landscape around him as he took these back roads in search of new fishing and hiking locations had save him, or his truck, a couple times when deer came bounding out from cover along the roadside. What caught his eye today, though, was entirely different. Down a very narrow, two track, side road he spotted what appeared to be men beating down on something the size of a large a****l just off the road. It hardly seemed like any of his business but the sight was so unusual that he couldn’t resist a second look and stopped. He questioned himself if he really cared enough to go back and decided he was curious enough. Maybe they had hit and severely injured a deer or other a****l and were simply trying to put it out of its misery. He innocently put the truck in reverse and backed up the hundred feet to the entrance to the side road and then just beyond to make the turn.

When he made the turn and was able to focus on the scene, he was shocked and slammed on the brakes. That, of course, fully got the attention of the five men just up the road from him. He sat in the truck to take in all the detail and options that he could in the shortest amount of time before he made a decision to act. There was virtually no dependable cell coverage in these mountains so a call to the Sheriff or anyone else for support was out of the question. It was either him or nobody at the moment. He wasn’t even remotely aware of the reasons or motivations for what was happening, why all that v******e was being so focused, but he did know that he couldn’t allow it to continue.

His truck was completely blocking the road at this point. He didn’t know where the trail might lead in the other direction, but the car just ahead was not suited for long driving on trails like this. He took a deep breath and calmed himself, focusing his energy on the task at hand, scanning ahead, to the sides, and behind him using the truck’s mirrors. Without taking his eyes off the men ahead, he hit the side panel of the driver’s door and the panel opened. He unfastened the 9 mm pistol, released the magazine, and noted that it was full. Slammed it back into the handle and cocked the weapon. He watched the men, who were now mostly grouped in the road with only one still over their victim. He looked at her only closely enough to discern that she was probably middle aged and definitely naked, strung over what appeared to be the barbed wire fence. Seeing more detail, his anger increased and he had to spend another moment regaining control. You never go into a fight angry. That was one of his rules, one of his mantras.

He slipped an extra magazine into his back left pocket and the pistol, safety on, into the back of his jeans. He no sooner had the door open and one of the guys was yelling at him.

“Leave now; this is none of your business!”

He continued to walk slowly towards the group; they made several steps toward him, three of them fanning out across the track. “Leave, now!”

Mitch looked from them to the woman. He hadn’t seen her move, yet. Was she already dead? Was she passed out? Who was this woman he was risking his life for? “I’ll leave, but perabet giriş only with her. You see, I have a problem. My mother would never forgive me if I left a woman like this. So, you see, she has to come with me.”

“Are you nuts? There’s five of us against just you!”

“Listen, guys, just back off and we all walk away from this.” He knew that wasn’t going to happen. He scanned the ground around them and the woman. He saw a whiskey bottle, at least a dozen empty beer cans, and a camera on one of the nearby fence posts. Being closer now, he could see the woman tangled in the barbed wire fence at her middle, legs, and arms. Blood was covering her body at those locations, but the worst was the open wounds from the beating from two canes he saw on the ground near her. The backs of her legs, her ass, and lower back were red from the beating and were openly bleeding. He could see that some of the blood was dry, indicating this had been going on for a while. It turned his stomach and he had to fight to regain composure all over again. “Looks like you big, strong guys have been here for quite a while with her. Isn’t it time you’ve had enough?”

“Us? Hell, we only got here maybe fifteen minutes, ago. Other groups did most of this.”

Other groups?!? What kind of sick deal was going on here? Then he saw a guy with a digital video camera to the side. He wasn’t recording anything, any more, just watching. He seemed to be the only one really nervous. Maybe he was the only one sober. Maybe he had a different role in this. Maybe he was just here to film it … how sick would that be? He wasn’t backing down now, though, not seeing what had happened here. He stood to the side of the track, the video guy on the other side of the barbed wire fence, another next to the woman, and the three spread across the track slightly in front of where the woman was. Nobody was showing a weapon, but they didn’t know about Mitch’s, either. Anything could happen and he knew it. He rubbed his left thigh, but it was just a diversion, his right hand slipped behind his back and took hold of the pistol. And, he waited. They waited, too, but they were more nervous with each ticking second. Their feet were shifting in place, their eyes flashing to each other, the woman, and to Mitch. Their hands were clenching and flexing. Something was about to happen, Mitch slipped the pistol from the back of his jeans, flipped the safety off, and held it just behind him.

“Do we really have to get bloody over this, guys? Just back away and leave her.” He got their attention to turn for just a second in her direction and he pulled his gun and held it at his side. They exchanged looks and all three moved one after the other, two pulling pistols and one a knife. The two with the pistols didn’t get any further than showing the weapons and they were down. The one with the knife and the one by the woman hesitated, moved, and fell where they were. If only they had given up …

“Please, mister, don’t. I was just paid to film it; I didn’t touch her, promise.”

“Shut up!” Mitch had the weapon trained on him and his finger wanted to complete the squeeze, but his mind was telling him not to. He couldn’t decide if it was worse to do what they did to this woman or to be idle and video it as it happened. But, he knew what he had to do. “Just shut up!” He took a breath, his weapon, and eyes never leaving the man, except to flip to the woman once. He still hadn’t seen any movement. Then he heard a moan from her. “Get her out of there.”

When the guy had her out of the wire, he carried her to the back of the truck as direct. Mitch made a makeshift bedding in the back from a couple blankets that had been stuffed behind the cab seat. After she was settled on her front, he covered her with his jacket and put supplies on the edges to hold it over her. He walked the guy back to the scene but stopped at the driver door and took a large phone from the compartment in the door panel. He told the guy to put each body over the barbed wire fence. While that was happening, he pressed a series of buttons, which sent a signal out. Yes, he was well outside of cell coverage but this signal was going to a satellite overhead. When it was connected, there was no voice, no human at all, just a series of clicks, signaling an open channel and Mitch gave his code name and access code. He then closed the connection.

“You look nervous. I can see you are wondering what I am going to do next. Here’s the deal. Do you want to live?”

“Yes, please …”

“Shut up. Just strip … now!” The phone buzzed and he opened the connection, “Yeah, I have a problem here. Do you have a lock on my location? Good. I have four bodies and one guy who will be hurting. There will be a video camera next to the guy, it should give someone an idea what I stumbled into. I will NOT be here when they come, but they better hurry.” He listened for a moment, “Listen, I don’t really care one way or another. If they don’t get here pretty quick, though, I suspect some of the wildlife around here will start cleaning up the bodies.” More listening, “No, not going to happen. I will be leaving. I’ll make contact to arrange a meeting, and then you’ll know where I am living now.” He broke the connection.

He walked the guy to the fence, “Bend over the fence.” The guy just looked at him, “Look, I’d just as soon shoot you, too.” In the next couple of minutes he had the guy tied into the barbed wire like the woman had been, screaming as the barbs dug into his flesh. He used Duct tape to muffle him. Then he left with the woman and for the first time the rough roads were a problem for him, causing him to verbally cuss, something he wasn’t particularly known for. But, he reasoned that she had been through enough to render her u*********s, a little bumping around wouldn’t be the worst part of her day.

He made up a bed in the guest bedroom with a thick layer of towels with a sheet over it. He then ran out to retrieve her and place her on the bed on her front, then temporarily covering her with a top sheet. He had to assemble what he needed: cleaning supplies to clean out her many contusions, cuts, and broken skin from the caning; antibacterial ointment; antibiotic injection syringes (leftover from mission field supplies); burn gauze; and bandages. This was simply field-triage, take care of what was needed until medical assistance was available.

While taking care of her many wounds and sores, he made as careful an inspection of her as he could. That was greatly assisted by her already being naked. He had assumed she was d**gged which would explain her profound stupor. He searched all the likely places that a person would use to inject d**gs and found no marks that might indicate use, much less prolonged use. What he did find was several indications of injection points on her butt, among the skin damage caused by the caning. That by itself was interesting.

He waited until the next day late to make the follow-up phone call. The woman was awake for only moments, just long enough to know she wasn’t otherwise damaged. Of course, the light sedatives and pain killers he was mixing with her fluids was helping keep her quiet. For the moment, he was focused on keeping her sores clean and exposed to air for healing. That required that he roll her to her side occasionally and prop her up with pillows to allow her front to air out. When they tied her in the fence, they seemed intent on positioning her so the barbed wire was on her breasts and stomach.

Just prior to making the call on his secure phone, he spent time studying her. He needed a general impression of her, what her situation was, what her situation was now, her general health, and anything else his training may discern. She appeared to be about thirty-five, medium build, about five foot, six or seven inches tall, her hair was ‘dirty blonde’, and her breasts and hips were full, not small and not large, shapely he guessed. She appeared to be soft in a muscular sense, but not overly so. It wasn’t much but he needed what he could discern for the discussion with the authorities, which he assumed would be the regional FBI office in Denver. Field agents are never fully retired and off the government radar. A call for assistance from him was not going to be delegated to a local county or town sheriff. So he wasn’t surprised when his call in was redirected and he found himself talking to the Special Agent in charge of the Denver office, Special Agent David Baxter.

“That was quite a mess you left for us.” There was silence on both ends, “No comment?”

“Sorry, that just pretty well described it. So, what have you learned so far?”

“Huh … I thought maybe I would be able to get some questions answered.”

“Humor me for a few moments. I am sure you’ll concede that was a bizarre scene to stumble upon. What do you make of it from the video camera and the guy I left alive?”

“Yeah, thanks for leaving one for us to interrogate. He has turned out to be very cooperative. We have a lot more ground to cover with him, but he is pretty much already giving an indication of what the deal was. It’s some kind of porn/BDSM/sex-slave ring that gets into prostitution, video making, websites … hell, you name it. It will take us a while to get through it but I don’t think he knows the guy at the top, the one with slaves. That comes back to you … we need to see the woman.”

“She’s in and out, partly because I have her on light sedatives and pain killers and partly from the experience. She could use a doctor checking her over and we can talk. I assume you already have my location from this call.”

“Yes, we do.”

“If you come in by vehicle, you will need good 4 x 4 with good ground clearance. If you come in by helicopter, come in from the west over the National Forest land. Tomorrow will be fine, just give me a call on this phone before you get here.”

They did come in by helicopter. Denver was just far enough away and it was faster to go over the mountains than around them. Introductions were made and Mitch showed the Agency doctor and nurse where the woman was, then returned to the two Special Agents waiting on the porch.

“This is beautiful. That’s National Forest land across the lake? I thought you said you had a ranch here.”

“Yes, it makes it very quiet and private. And, I do but it is on the other side of the mountain.”

The two agents exchanged looks that were obvious of what they were thinking and finally uttered, “They don’t pay us that way.”

“Me, either. That wasn’t my government paychecks.” But, before they could dig any further into that, and FBI guys would be the type to want to, “What do we know so far? The doctor has final say, but I’m inclined to keep her here. It is much more relaxing and conducive to coming out of withdrawal and trauma, unless there is an over-riding medical concern.”

The lead Agent agreed to leave that to the doctor, then went on to discuss what happened in detail that ended with four men being dead. He would have the woman’s condition from the doctor. After that, the discussion led to what they were uncovering. They suspected a porn, slavery ring and that was being confirmed by the guy taking video. They suggested that maybe they should have Mitch come in to assist with interrogation and that seemed to motivate the guy to become more forthcoming with information. It did not appear that he knew the top guy’s name, but maybe where he lived. He delivered video to three different addresses; they were still working up information.

The doctor and nurse came back out and delivered a summary. She was doing wonderfully; he agreed to keep her drowsy for another day or so to aid in her recovery. The wounds and open sores were scabbing nicely and should be softened and removed. A warm-to-hot bath would work nicely. Keep everything clean and continue the salve application to anything open. The anti-biotic shots could stop unless something changed. Pain-killers as needed for comfort but not after the day or so she needed to regain strength and movement. At some point, he wanted to do a better examination including x-rays and more lab work. They took some blood for analysis. She was still out but breathing comfortably.

The Agent spoke to the doctor but watched Mitch, “Where should she be, doctor?”

“If it isn’t a problem for him, I would suggest she stay here. She in healing well and I am much more concerned about her reaction after coming out of this induced sleep stage. This is much more relaxing, peaceful, and less threatening.”

It was decided, then. She would stay put with Mitch, which was his preference. Even that was a confounding thing for him to admit. His intention was to ignore the world and he was willingly getting involved in a stranger’s troubles. But, there was something about this that he couldn’t let go. When he was completely honest to himself, he was initially just drawn to stop a wrong from continuing and that led to four men being killed by his actions. Now, he realized he was drawn to helping this woman, a woman he didn’t know the first thing about, and wasn’t really even sure it was for the woman as much as justifying the killing of four men, even if they caused their own death. He, however, had the same option as they did, to withdraw and walk away as opposed to perpetuating and inflaming the confrontation. But he knew that he really never had a real option at all. Although, the thing about his mother was true, it wasn’t the overriding reason. His own experience still haunted him sometimes, although he believed he was mostly past it. He knew the truth about those experiences; you never fully get over them.

She would be no different. Whatever her story turned out to be, he knew she would need someone uniquely experienced. There was no way he could just walk away from her now. No more than he could earlier. With the helicopter gone, he looked back at the house and the window of the room where she lay. He came here to ignore the world. He chuckled to himself, so much for that.

* * CHAPTER TWO will follow * * Thanks for reading.

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