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Frontier Justice

by Cecilie Miller

     3:00 am Wednesday morning, Gold Lake Lodge. My trailer mate/co-worker, a cook named Sharon, and I were awakened by a loud banging on our door. Randy, one of the ranch hands was yelling at Sharon and me to see if we were okay. Jumping to his cry from my deep slumber, I began to hear more chaos breaking the silence of the night.

     "Are you guys okay?" Randy shouted at us.

     "We were until you got here. What the hell is going on?" Sharon asked.

     Being the newcomer on staff—that was only my second season—I didn’t know what to expect. Gold Lake was a private guest ranch, just outside of Estes Park, Colorado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Canoeing, hiking, swimming, eating, and relaxing in the mineral pools and hot springs were all part of normal ranch experience. But our guests paid a lot of money for their visit. Who knew what else they might request?

     As mere employees, we were a rag-tag collection—at best a bunch of flipping crackpots and outcasts. On a good week, we consisted of eight ranch hands, who cared for the herd of cattle and a full hundred head of horses and led trail rides for guests; three housekeepers; one maintenance/grounds-keeper, Leonard, a self-proclaimed warlock, who, when pissed-off, would "curse" the various machinery causing disruptive breakdowns including the golf carts we used to get around and all the lawnmowers he was in charge of.  I think he just pulled spark plugs, but we all went along with his declaration of witchcraft (mainly to preserve peace); three cooks; one bartender; one dishwasher named Charlie, whom I met him the first morning I reported for work. It was 4:00 a.m. I was surprised to see him still there, and more surprised to see him gulping white wine out of a giant box of Ernest and Julio used for cooking.

     He was completely hammered. I managed to shuffle him off to his trailer but not before he had told me his horrific experiences in the Viet Nam war, and how beautiful I was over, and over, and over. That week Charlie greeted me drunk every morning. He also drunkenly greeted every guest, every staff member, every cow, and every fine ponderosa branch willing to bend over enough to listen. Poor Charlie. He was entertaining but his liver couldn’t have been too happy. By the next Sunday, Charlie was fired.

      The last but not least member of our group was one resident Native American. Everyone referred to him as "the Indian," including himself. He was charming, and he knew it. He taught guests the lore and history of the land, and if they wished, offered them ancient sweat lodge rituals. (Not long after I left the ranch, I heard that he impregnated a "Founders" fifteen year old daughter (the Founders were the major supporting donors to the ranch) after a stint in the sweat lodge.

     As for me, I was the baker. I made pies with ground-nut crusts, cookies, breads, sweet morning rolls, honey-sweetened granola. Baking was my contribution, my forte, my special gift. I never received one complaint, either. Most of us took pride in our work. Even so, catastrophes were a normal occurrence. This particular night, however, was strange even by our standards.

     Over Randy’s shoulder, I saw figures of people. Some were like shadows, black and dark. Others ran wildly through the camp caught in the moonlight.

     "There’s one!" someone shouted from the woods.

     An answer echoed through the night.

     "Where?"

     "Over there! He’s running towards the Lake!"

      The original rustic log cabins—fifteen in all—were scattered around the main grounds near the lake. The interiors had been redesigned and would rival any five-star New York hotel. The lake itself was crater made and crystal clear. You could drink the icy cold water as you swam. The kitchen staff resided in a smattering of 1950’s silver Airstream trailers glimmering on a small hillside overlooking the lake near the Great Lodge amongst giant, old, ponderosa pines whose long and low branches reached out, nearly brushing the ground.

     The ranch hands’ quarters were row houses built around the turn of the century. They were near the stables towards the entrance of the Ranch. The housekeepers stayed in the Great Lodge. The Native American lived in a tee-pee on the other side of the lake, using his canoe to travel back and forth.  Gold Lake was a truly magical and picturesque setting.

     July was our favorite time of the working season as we all enjoyed a week respite from serving guests. During this break, the machinery generally held up since Leonard was at his happiest. Everyone living on the ranch during this week pitched-in making "family" meals. We all participated in the sweat lodge. We skinny-dipped by moonlight, tipped cows, got chased by the bull and dove into the lake laughing our asses off to get away, rode horses, hiked, and relaxed in the spa pools. Whatever we wanted to do, we could. I was twenty-three years old and loved my job! Now, here I was into my second season and all hell was breaking loose.

     Randy told us to stay in the trailer and lock the door as he ran off into the shadows of the giant ponderosas. Of course, the first thing Sharon and I did was to pull on our boots to join the wild ruckus.

      My eyes quickly adjusted to the moon-filled night and we began to distinguish the varied figures darting through the woods. Figures dressed in black were running madly toward the entrance of the ranch with eight cowboys chasing after them. Something swooshed past my head and clanged against the metal side of the trailer. I looked down and picked up the shiny object. It was a silver martial arts star. No!? This could not be happening. Cowboys versus (were those black figures really) ninjas? One jumped into a golf cart and took off in the direction of the lake with Leonard in close pursuit, chanting and shaking his staff at the ninja he pursued. They disappeared out of our sight. 

      I saw other employees running toward the main lodge. Sharon and I joined them and quickly discovered the destruction of our kitchen and bar: liquor, glass, pots, pans, dishes everywhere simply smashed and destroyed. We found martial-arts stars stuck in the walls and in the old-growth forest, wood-planked floors. The local sheriffs’ department had been called and they arrived shortly at the Lodge. Suddenly, three cowboys, Leonard, and the Indian burst through the big fir door of the lodge with one little ninja.  

     He had been caught and taken prisoner by the Indian, who had fished the ninja out of the lake in his canoe after our resident warlock had cursed the cart into submission, causing it to plunge into Gold Lake. Unmasked, he was simply a boy of no more than sixteen.

     Surrounded by angry captors, the soggy, scared young ninja ratted-out his fellow warriors. Turned out, the man behind it all was Charlie, the drunk and disgruntled dishwasher. Over the past year he had lived in Boulder and plotted his revenge, recruiting homeless teens by promising them they could become ninja assassins. He had lured them with lies about "his" martial-arts store and about future careers working for the government. But first, they had to prove themselves worthy by breaking into the store without being caught and stealing ninja outfits and equipment for a planned attack. He had also informed them that he owned the ranch, and they were to attack and cause as much damage as possible but not to harm anyone.  After they carried out this first mission, they would be ready to ship overseas for further training.  

     I followed the newspaper accounts of the ensuing trials. The gullibility of those poor teenagers was taken into account by the judge. Charlie, however, was not so lucky. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Laughable as it was, none of us could have ever seen this coming. I am certain though, that to this day, razor-sharp ninja stars can still be found near Gold Lake stuck in many old, giant ponderosas.


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