March 21, 2014
Joyce Riddle huffed, raw mountain air burning her lungs with each breath. She sweated beneath the heavy brown parka and state trooper uniform. She managed to stop herself from stumbling and falling to the icy ground as a tiny stream runs like a river down the small of her back. Suspect’s a hundred yards ahead, increasing his lead with every step. Where the hell does he think he’s going in the middle of a white- out? How long does he think he can last wounded in this climate? Escaped mental patient? Tweeker?
She pulled the ski mask up exposing her face to frigid air. Breathe. A lock of damp dark hair fell from beneath the wool cap and brushed the tip of her wind-chapped nose. She squinted. Blowing snow stung her eyes, clouding her vision.
Losing him didn’t worry her. Bright-red-blood stood out in pure-driven-alabaster-white Rocky Mountain snow. Thank God one of the men in the motel parking lot got a shot off before being gunned down. She squeezed the grip of her sidearm and fingered the trigger. Preparation for confrontation. 9mm hollow points. “Take-down -rounds.” That’s what the squad leader at the Colorado State Police Academy called them. The memory only reminded her that what she might have to do once she caught up to him did worry her.
She’d only been in one other foot chase in her seven-years as a state trooper. “Jack the drunken hunter,” an easy catch, wearing orange and firing his deer rifle up at the man in the moon. The only threat he’d offered was a crude redneck remark about how “sweet” her ass looked in her curve hugging uniform.
Man ahead is no “Jack the hunter.” She’d be forced to shoot him if he resisted. Even if he’s unarmed, can’t risk a fight this winded. She tipped the scale at a sturdy one fifty, muscle mass outweighing body fat, at her last mandatory physical, but even through the blowing snow she estimated he had an easy thirty pounds on her.
Is he armed? She assumed so. Had to. Procedure. But he hadn’t fired on her and only looked back in her direction once. He seemed indifferent to her presence. Not running from something, running to something. What possible destination? Both charged full steam down the middle of Dry Gulch, a dead river. Its waters dried up a century ago at the height of the gold rush, back when Cold Spring still commanded the nickname, Gold Spring, a title given by fever-riddled- prospectors.
The river’s banks grew taller, the deeper into the wild they tore a path, currently up to seven feet on each side. The bank shielded them from the blizzard’s stronger winds. He slowed near an enormous rock formation. She prayed he’d finally run out of wind and adrenalin. My tank’s empty. She closed the gap between them, raised her Glock, and aimed for the center of his back.
He ignored the order, darting into a cave at her right. A cave? Crazy son of-a-bitch is running into a cave? She spotted the rear rock wall beyond the cavern gloom. Dead end, Einstein.
“Stop! Don’t make me shoot!” The surge in adrenalin caused her heart to slam against her chest.
He fell down on his knees, panting and wheezing inside the cave mouth.
She inched closer. He held something in the palm of his right hand. Not a gun, too small. He wrapped his fingers around it.
“Open your hands and raise ’em above your head, so I can see them! Now!”
Again he ignored her, digging in the snow between the rocks on the cave floor. He reminded her of a dog scrounging for food, eyes wild with hunger.
“It’s here! It’s here! I saw it! I swear! Let me dig! Maybe they buried it! I’ll split it! Please! Help me!”
“What the hell you talking about?” She stepped closer, keeping the gun trained on his torso, eyes on his hands.
He looked up and whispered, “Cold.”
Welcome to Colorado. “I’m cold too. Make this simple. You’re bleeding and suffering from exposure. Now raise--”
“Not cold! Gold! Gold!” He wailed, rocking back and fourth on his knees, nearly in tears. She noted a trifecta of injuries. Blood flowed from a flesh wound on his forehead, gunshot to the shoulder, and the corner of a freshly slit lip. Besides the bullet wound the guy’s been banged around by someone.
She cocked her head in disbelief. “Gold? You’re a hundred years too late.” He opened his right hand. Her eyes locked on to the glow, mystical in the way it caught and reflected the pale light falling down between the snow covered branches of the high mountain pines. Licking her tongue across cracked lips, swallowing, she tried to say something but couldn’t get the words out. She turned her gaze from the gold piece and peered deep into his delirious green eyes.
“Gold.” He grinned and nodded. You feel it, don’t you?
“Gold,” she whispered.
The precious metal slipped from his hand, bouncing off rocks, landing on the frozen ground. The trance broke. She made a move to pick it up. What the hell you thinking? She sucked in a breath of cold air to clear her head. Get a grip! You got a job to do! He reached for the gold. She aimed the gun at his chest and ordered him, for the last time, to raise his hands. He stopped breathing and froze in mid-motion. She sensed he’d noticed her pistol for the first time, his face ash white with fear.
“Don’t be afraid. I promise…” She halted, speechless. Shock. The man she’d chased down the riverbed, the man she’d feared apprehending, the suspected killer, pissed his pants.
What the hell did I do to provoke this response? Guy’s scared out of his mind. Lowering the gun she shifted her eyes from the wet stain spreading across the front of his jeans to the gold piece lying among the rocks, sucker-punched in the gut by a terrifying realization. Not rocks. She froze. Bones. He’d unearthed a wolf’s skull, stripped clean of flesh, white as the snow that swirled outside the cave mouth.
She looked to those delirious eyes once again. Not my gun causing his sudden panic attack and empty bladder. He peered over her right shoulder as she heard the familiar sound, a snort, thick, nasal. Her turn to stop breathing. The thing behind her moved, shifting its weight forward, shaking the ground beneath her feet. She knew the bigger males weighed half a ton. So close now she could smell the ripe, musky canine scent, stale from a season’s worth of hibernation.
Don’t panic. Keep your head clear. Too late. Images ignited by campfire horror stories strangled her thoughts. What the hell happened to Goldilocks in the fairy tale?
Exhale or black out. The mist released from her mouth clouded her view of the man kneeling in the snow. He managed to mumble the word, “monster,” before falling on his face, unconscious. That left only her, the beast, and three options. Spin, squeeze and pray. She could get one, maybe two, shots off before the attack, and it’d be over. One swipe of its massive paw would decapitate her. She glanced down at the suspect. What about him? Fuck him. He’d led her to this chamber of death. You’re on your own with your twisted, belated case of gold fever.
Spin and squeeze. A simple command, but the communication line between her brain and lower body had been short circuited by fear and fatigue. Her legs were still wobbly from the chase. She felt a tingle in her waist, but no movement. Then, in a delayed reaction, she spun, squeezed the trigger of her sidearm, and prayed.
She heard the shot ring out, echoing off the mountainsides, distant, dream-like. She managed a second shot, before opening her eyes in time to see it lunge.
She locked her jaw in defiance. Fuck you, too.