Todd sat cross-legged between two rock walls just wide enough for his shoulders. The crack in the granite cliff was an entrance to a small, cave-like area where he had slept the night before, If you could call what he was doing sleeping. Todd was plagued by anxious dreams of ghosts and gods stealing away with his strength and determination. They kept leaving him with no weapons and energy. After six fitful hours, he got up, made coffee, and sat in front of his cave before the sky had even started to lighten. The pre-dawn was full of spirits and shifting thoughts, so he sat still and sipped his instant coffee. Finally, the sky gave way to a dark blue glow, and the sun finally pulled itself up over the ridge behind him. He watched the light creep down the valley wall across from him. A small creek, full and muddy brown rumbled about 20 feet in front of him. Beyond that was the Jeep road- The road he was certain the Johnsons would be coming down later this morning.
A cry called out from the blue sky above, and he leaned forward, shifting his view up. Two hawks circled in the morning thermals high above the valley edge, looking for an early snack. He pondered on the hunting birds. Birds were known to be both good and bad omens, but he didn’t know how to read these sorts of things. He decided they were good. Todd had set out for this small cave in the cliff wall just above the creek and the valley floor two nights ago. Based on Fell’s information and Todd’s knowledge of the mountains, this jeep road made the most sense for the Johnsons’ travel route. He figured he would see them mid to late morning. They would work their way south down the creek, up to the switchbacks to the west ridge and then go by foot the last few miles to the cliffs north of the compound. He could imagine all of it, right down to where they would anchor their climbing ropes.
He knew of this little hiding place from an elk hunt a bunch of years ago. After getting on a good hurd he decided to test his luck and stay out a few days longer even though the weather was supposed to turn. Snow piled up quickly, and he didn’t have a proper tent. He spotted this slot in the cliff wall and crawled in looking for shelter. The slot was about twelve feet tall, and once past the small opening there was small open space protected by an overhang. The top of the slot was about 24” wide. He spent three days in this cave-like shelter while the storm did its damage leaving 12 inches of late fall snow. He knew from here he could watch the road and be sufficiently hidden. Plus, there was a good escape hole up out the back, with plenty of rocks to hide behind as he tracked the Johnsons’ to the south. He would mirror their movement from the east side of the valley. Once they were on foot he could take his shot. Being on the other side of the valley gave him a head start if all went bad.
The elk rifle leaned against the cliff wall, and his pack was loaded and ready to go. He went over all the details in his head. He wanted to pat himself on the back for his diligence and planning. He wanted to feel good about his choices and his chances. He wanted to say, “this will be a good hunt,” but he wouldn’t let himself. Too many times had he thought these things. Thought that he was ahead of the game. Too many times had t\The Regulator crushed his burgeoning ego. He would not fall into that trap again. So, he went through the motions, visualizing every detail, over and over. This was what Bob and Reynor had told him time and time again. Replay the details over and over until you can manifest the outcome. Despite his self-importance and his predisposition to not listening, it seems a few nuggets of information made their way into his brain.
The sun had now gotten high enough that it streamed through the slot in the crack above him and landed on his back. This replenished some of the warmth that had been stolen by the cold stone walls. His body softened. Todd had not realized how tense he had become, sitting in the morning chill. Then he heard it. Waves of a revving engine echoed off the valley walls. It was barely noticeable over the white noise of the creek. Todd sat up and grabbed the rifle. He shifted into a firing position, one knee on the ground and the other leg bent in front of him. This left him more exposed than lying down, but the willows by the creek were too tall. He moved back a bit so the end of the rifle was just at the entrance to the cave. Then he waited and again went over the details. As he did, one thing kept creeping in and bothering him. He had not heard from Fell for over 24 hours. This brought on some more negative thoughts.
Was Fell caught? Was he dead? Am I now on my own? Would this all work if it was only him? Was there any choice but to make it work? No, stop thinking like this, I need to make it work. Or do I?
Todd had been in the habit of late to dig into the meaning of his words. He had taken to ruminating on them when he heard one that stood out in his vocabulary. Right now, he was concentrating on the word ‘work.’ There were many ways to use the word, work, and many definitions, whether used as a verb or a noun. There was one definition that came to him now.
Work; To exert oneself physically or mentally, especially in a sustained effort for a purpose or under compulsion or necessity.
It was that last part that especially caught his attention. The rumbling waves of the engine came closer and were more consistent. What is my compulsion or necessity in all this? His compulsion was to protect his family. To honor his mother and his brother by protecting them from…Protect them from what? Themselves? They are adults; they can take care of themselves. As far as necessity goes, it is not really ‘necessary’ that I am here. This thought came as a surprise to him. And that other word, ‘honor’. That was a tricky one, too.
Honor; Adherence to what is right or to a conventional standard of conduct. Regard with great respect.
Respect? Can I really respect the choices that Jane and Jason have made? Does their behavior fall into the framework of what I would consider standard moral conduct? And, Axel, what of his behavior? These questions pinballed around his mind. In the world, they lived in was good moral conduct really a thing? They were all professional thieves and killers living on the fringes of society. Just about any common person would look at the clan’s whole existence as bad moral conduct. The reality was that everything must be then applied to the context that is the clan. So he asked himself again, Is there a standard of moral conduct that has been broken by his family? That got his mind working on the next word that stood out, moral.
Moral; A person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.
Then there it was- the crux of all this internal debate. His eyes were blank and hypnotized by the rushing water of the creek. The questions came off his lips and out into the world for both him and anyone to answer, “What is acceptable for me to do?”
Just then the Ford Raptor came into view. He was stunned at how fast it was moving down the rough road — running along as if it didn’t have a care in the world. As if the rocks, ruts, and water bars didn’t hold power in its world. But, this didn’t come close to startling him nearly as much as the sudden loss of the sun’s warmth and the cool, even tone of the voice. He wheeled around and looked up through the two-foot wide gap in the stone. He tried to turn the rifle with him, but the space was too tight. Where the sun should have been shining in his eyes was a silhouette of a man. He could not see his face, but he knew the voice. Two Barrettas were trained on him, one on his heart the other on his head. He took solace in only one thing. If The Regulator had the plan to kill him, he would be dead already. Still, he didn’t dare move.
The voice radiated out from the dark outline along with the late morning sun. “Please, do not let me interrupt you, Todd. It is an excellent question and one I believe we need to get to the bottom of. ‘What is acceptable for you to do?’ ”
Todd slumped to the ground from his squatted position and sat at the cave entrance. His head hung low.
“Seriously, I want to know.” There was no ridicule or sarcasm in The Regulator’s voice. “Let’s dig in. Do you want to be on the side of the bad guys, or the badder guys?”
Todd was reminded of how The Regulator never disillusioned himself about his or the clan’s role in this world. Never did he pretend that they were anything more than what they wer: thieves, manipulators, and killers. He then heard footsteps by the opening to the cave. Turning his head, he saw Sanna come into view. He did a double-take. He was amazed at how she looked exactly the same after all these years. He pondered how time just didn’t seem to affect the Johnsons like normal people.
“Hi Sanna, long time,” Todd gave her a nod. He tried to sound happy to see her, but his voice betrayed his disappointment.
Sanna leaned against the rock wall. “Hi Todd, how have ya been?” The Raptor stopped out on the road behind her. Bridget stepped out from the cab and Todd could see another person riding shotgun. Even from thirty yards, Todd could see the man was shaken up.
Todd looked back up at Sanna. “Well, that depends. Are you referring to in general or right at this moment?”
Sanna smiled and said softly. “How about both.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Get in line.” The Regulator made a quick jump up, turned sideways and shot down the gap in the rock walls. He landed like a cat next to Todd inside the cave. He looked up and laid his black eyes on Todd. Todd shuddered. Those eyes were his faraway eyes. His killing eyes. “I was here first, sis.”
“So you were, little brother,” Sanna said as she holstered her pistol. “Go ahead then, what do you want to do, Todd?”
Todd looked back and forth between the two. “To tell ya the truth, I don’t want any part of this shit. If I had to break it down to the essence of it all, Jane has been blinded by revenge for far too long. She has this overwhelming ambition for something she made up in her mind a lifetime ago, when we were young. She felt cheated by losing my father and blamed you all for it. And somewhere along the way she talked my little brother into thinking there is some self-righteous entitlement to who-knows-what. Hell, she almost got me. I mean, I’m the one running around in the mountains trying to find the best spot to gun you down from a safe distance.” He looked up at Bob with knowing eyes. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, there’s no such thing as a safe distance from you.” The Regulator nodded in approval. “I am just sorry it took losing a great man like Reynor for me to open my eyes. I played along like it was a game. I truly never thought she would do anything this drastic.” Todd just stared into the black eyes of The Regulator. They were so empty that he questioned if there was a soul or anything truly alive and compassionate behind them. Todd wondered if his words were even registering with him.
Then with one blink, the piercing blue was back. He stood up over Todd. His voice was understanding and calm. “Oh, you saw it all, and you saw it from the start. See, that is the rub. We actually see everything. It’s all right out in front of us, every minute of every day. The choice lies in whether we truly allow ourselves to understand it…whether we accept what reality is showing us and take the time to understand all of its nuances. I have tried to show you this over the years.” The Regulator shook his head, then stepped past Todd and out through the opening in the cave to Sanna’s side. He said over his shoulder, “I, we, don’t have a shit ton of time here, Todd. So, what are you going to do?”
Todd crawled through the opening with his rifle and pack. Bridget had come across the creek and stood by her children. Todd stood up tall in front of the Johnsons. He was a good 6 inches taller than Bob and towered over Sanna and Bridget. “I won’t follow you, and I won’t fight you, but I won’t help you kill my family either.”
Bob looked at his family, and they nodded. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a box of bullets. Todd looked at it with curiosity. Then he opened the bolt on his rifle. No bullet. He pulled the clip. No bullets. He face was in shock. “But…when…how?”
“We have been right behind you for over a day now,” The Regulator said before turning to the creek. “Don’t get discouraged. I know you would have been more careful about leaving a trail had you known we were following. You really need to learn how to sleep a bit lighter, though.” Both Sanna and the Regulator laughed.
“Fuck you, Bob.” Todd said. “and you too, Sanna.”
“Ah, come on. Is that any way to talk to your long- lost stepsister?” She gave him a big hug. Todd did not hug back.
They all made their way across the creek, hopping from one stone to the next. On the other side, Todd stopped suddenly and asked, “Wait! Just how the fuck did you guys get here?”
“You’re wondering how we got past Fell up on Goat Ridge?” Sanna asked.
“Wel,l yeah. The only way here from Marshall Pass is through Goat Ridge.” Todd scanned his mind and imagined the route.
Bridget smiled and pointed to the mud-covered truck. “There is another way.”
A recollection came to Todd: an old mining, mule trail. “No freakin’ way.” He shook his head.
“There is no way you came through Kerber Creek in that truck. Not this time of year. Hell, not any time of the year.”
Bridget just smiled and shrugged. “Ok, then we didn’t.”
Todd marveled at the older woman. “Damn. But, that doesn’t explain how you two got behind me. I was too far south for you to catch. You must have started at the old mine. How did you get there?”
The Regulator Said, “Same way you did. Dirtbikes.”
“But Fell said you both turned and headed up Marshall Pass Road. You were in the Firebird. Where did the dirtbikes come from?”
“I have shit planted all over Colorado. What have I always told you? If you want to be a ghost, you have to prepare.” The Regulator patted Todd on the shoulder.
“Fuckin’ A, it just ain’t fair.” Head nodding, Todd backed up with a worried look. “This isn’t right.” Sanna and The Regulator looked confused. “You’re supposed to kill me. That’s what they said. We, Jason and I, die first.” His voice had a hint of alarm. He was like a young boy who just realized the adults knew he was up to no good.
The Regulator put up his hands in a halting gesture “Don’t go talking about your spirit walks. I don’t need to know any of that shit. Besides, I am not all that fond of the spirit world and their edicts. Too many riddles and open-ended statements. Do you ever notice that? They’re so mysterious.” The Regulator turned towards the truck. Todd followed.
“Seriously, Bob! We should not fuck with the spirit world.”
Realizing how her brother felt about the spirit world, especially with the all that had happened over the past few weeks, Sanna jumped in. “Todd, let’s say you and Fell had succeeded in taking us out from some far off ridge in a fish barrel crossfire? Good idea by the way.” She finished with truth in her voice. Todd cocked his head and squinted. She continued in a very clear voice, “If you had killed us before we could kill you that would not have satisfied the spirit world’s prediction. Would it?”
“Well, no…but…” He was following Sanna and The Regulator as they walked around the truck. A pale-faced John came walking the other way. Todd gave him a questioning glance. “All I am saying is we should not tempt the gods”
The Regulator halted and turned. He had a fully amused look on his face. “The gods? Oh, trust me, the gods won’t have an issue with what we are doing. Grandkids get all kinds of leniency. Everyone knows that.” He grabbed a backpack from the back seat for the next part of their journey.
Todd noticed that the comment didn’t phase Sanna in the least. The two double-checked their gear. Todd also noticed there were no ropes in their packs. What are they planning? By now, I should know that it won’t be anything obvious. Grandkids? What in Odin’s name is Bob talking about?
He decided he didn’t want to know, but then something dawned on him, and his stomach dropped. He said in a low voice, “Did you kill him? Fell?”
The Regulator’s head shot up, and he had a very confused look on his face. “Well, I haven’t heard from him for a while. I just figured…”
The Regulator just went back to checking his pack. He voice was very even and distant. “Now, why would I do that? If I were to kill Fell, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to kill me.” This statement did attract a sideways look from Sanna.