A Fatal Thaw: A Kate Shugak Mystery #2

A Fatal Thaw: A Kate Shugak Mystery #2

On the first day of spring, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of massacre when he takes a .30-06 and kills nine of his neighbors in a national park ...

About The Author

Dana Stabenow

Dana Stabenow is the author of eleven previous Kate Shugak mysteries as well as three featuring Alaska State Trooper Liam ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It was six a.m. on the first day of spring, and although sunrise was still half an hour away, when Kate opened her eyes the loft of the cabin was filled with the cool, silvery promise of dawn. She sat up, stretched and yawned, and flung back the covers.

Pulling sweats on over her long underwear, she shimmied down the ladder from the loft into the cabin’s single, square room. “Hey, girl.” Mutt stood pressed up against the door, ears cocked, iron-gray ruff standing straight up around her face, yellow eyes wide and fixed imploringly on Kate. “In a minute. Hang on.”

Going to the stove, Kate opened the fire door and stoked the fire from the wood bin next to it. The coals from the night before were still hot and it only took a moment for the wood to catch. She went to the sink and pumped up some water to replace what had evaporated out of the gallon-sized kettle overnight. Straining a little, she set it back on top of the stove. “Okay, girl,” she said. Mutt danced with impatience as Kate stamped her bare feet into boots, and then, as Kate got down the choke chain and leash, her tail went between her legs and she whined, a soft, piteous sound.

“Forget it,” Kate said severely. The scar on her throat, a whitish, flattened rope of twisted tissue stretching from ear to ear, pulled at her vocal chords in protest at this early-morning use, and her voice rasped like a rusty file over her next words. “I saw that old he-wolf hanging around yesterday. I know  you’re looking to get that itch of yours scratched but the last thing we need underfoot is a litter of pups.” Mutt flattened her ears and furiously wagged an ingratiating tail. “Don’t try that sweet talk on me. I remember what happened last time even if you don’t.” Mutt heard the inflexible note in Kate’s voice. Her tail stilled, her muzzle drooped and she gave a deep sigh. Conveying the impression that she had been beaten into it, she submitted meekly to the leash, and slunk through the door and around the woodpile.

Kate let the leash run all the way out to give her some privacy and waited. She breathed in deeply of the cool morning air, smelling of pine resin and wood smoke. The big, round, flat- faced thermometer fixed to the wall of the cabin read twelve degrees, and it was only six-thirty. Yes, spring was finally here, at last.

She felt a single, experimental tug on the leash. One large yellow eye peered over the woodpile. “Not a chance,” Kate told her, and took her turn in the outhouse without losing her grip on the leash.

# # #

The killer woke a few moments later, twenty-five miles to the east, and rose at once, whistling. He washed his face and brushed his teeth, slowly methodically, a deliberate ceremony to his movements. Shaving was almost a ritual, and he was very careful not to nick himself with the blade. The new clothes—Levis, a Pendleton shirt, socks, T-shirt, shorts, bought the day before in Niniltna—had been pain stakingly laid out on his bed in the order that he would put them on.

The clerk at Niniltna General Store hadn’t recognized him yesterday, in spite of his shopping there all winter long. He wiped the last of the shaving cream from his face and smiled at himself in the mirror.

# # #

Kate ate the last of last week’s bread as toast dunked in her morning coffee. She mixed up a batch of dough and turned it into a buttered bowl. Covering it with a damp kitchen towel she sat it next to the wood stove to rise. Puttering around the cabin, she changed the sheets on the bed in the loft and the towels next to the sink, scoured out the sink, cleaned the top of the stove, took the rag rugs outside to shake, and swept the hardwood floor. Pumping up enough water to fill the washtub, she added soap and clothes and left it on the wood stove to heat through. She cleaned the chimneys and trimmed the wicks of all the propane lamps. It was her usual Monday morning routine and she performed it on automatic. It was good to have a routine. It got things done, and it kept her too busy to think too much on how isolated she was. In the middle of 20 million square acres of national park in Alaska, where her closest neighbors were the grizzly sow across the river just waking up after a long winter’s nap and the he-wolf sniffing hopefully around her horny husky, if she let herself she could get to feeling pretty lonely. Kate never gave herself enough time to feel lonely.

Chores complete, she sat down at the table next to the oil cookstove and pulled the one-pound Darigold butter can toward her. Dumping it out, she began to separate bills and stack coins. When she was through she had the grand sum of $296.61.

“Well,” she told Mutt, “better than at breakup last year. At least we’re going into this spring solvent.”

Mutt wagged her tail in halfhearted agreement.

# # #

The Winchester Model 70 30.06 was new, purchased just the day before, from the same general store in Niniltna that had sold him his new clothes, from the same incurious clerk. The bullets were new as well, a dozen cardboard boxes of shiny new cartridges, 180-grain hunting ammunition, Winchester (he was loyal to the brand) Super X Silvertips, twenty rounds to the box. He succumbed to temptation and opened one of the boxes, pulling out a round. Even in that early light the brass gleamed, the copper glowed and the silver shone. He’d never seen anything so beautiful.

He set up a row of empty cans and bottles on a sawhorse placed across the road leading to the lane outside his cabin. From the crossbar he hung a paper target, a series of concentric circles. He paced off 150 yards down the old, straight railroad bed that served as the Park’s main, and only, road. The hard-packed snow of winter was beginning to melt and break up beneath his feet. He squatted and set the boxes of ammunition to one side. Taking   the rifle in both hands, he held it to his face for a moment, inhaling the fragrance of the oiled walnut stock, running an adoring fingertip down the gleaming black barrel. The bolt worked smoothly, the craftsmanship of the piece evident in each planed and polished surface, all the machined parts working together to form a perfect whole.

He pulled the stock firmly into his shoulder and sighted down the barrel. The tiny metal bead at the end of the barrel seemed at once so close and so far away. The metal was so new it glistened in the early morning light. He frowned, and felt around in his pockets for a match. Striking it, he held it so the smoke rising from it blackened the bead.

He looked at the factory sights and shook his head with an indulgent smile. From another pocket he produced a Williams Foolproof peephole sight and mounted it next to the receiver. He loaded the rifle, five in the magazine, one in the chamber, and stood. He pulled the stock in tight and sighted through the aperture, noting that in spite of the overwhelming whiteness of the surrounding snow pack the dulled black bead at the end of the barrel stood out clearly, with no distracting reflection of light. He squeezed off six shots, enjoying the cracking sound of the reports, the solid thump of the butt into his shoulder, the smooth action of the bolt between rounds. When the chamber was empty, he walked back up the road and inspected the target. Most of his shots were grouped above and to the left of the bull’s-eye. He adjusted the peephole sight with a small screwdriver, reloaded, and repeated the process. The third time he shot at the bottles and cans.

It took him less than an hour. When he was done, he had  a killing machine that would reduce the three hundred yards between target and shooter to point-blank range. “A dead shot,” he said, and smiled. And his wife had accused him of having no sense of humor.

He reloaded, and was careful to switch on the safety afterward.

He didn’t want to hurt himself.

# # #

“No, I said, and no, I meant,” Kate told the door. Mutt whined mournfully behind it. “Besides, take it from me, men are nothing but trouble.”

She pulled hard on the knob to see that the door had, in fact, truly latched, and turned to walk to the garage. Its double doors swung open easily, now that a winter’s worth of ice and snow packed around the sill had melted down.

The building was an unheated shell made of  three-by-six sheets of plywood on  a  frame of  two-by-fours. A  row of windows, encrusted with a year’s worth of grime and mosquitoes, shed little light on the interior. The inside was lined with long strips of fuzzy pink fiberglass insulation between the studs, and shelves bolted to the studs, floor to ceiling and wall to wall. The floor was made of rough, unplanned planks. There was a red metal tool chest as tall as Kate mounted on wheels standing in one corner, a table saw in another and a counter with a line of power tools hanging from a pegboard nailed up above it. Unfinished and utilitarian, the garage was neat, reasonably clean and arranged so that everything in it was immediately ready to hand. Kate swept the tools with a stern eye and was satisfied that none of them had rehung themselves carelessly in her absence.

She went around the snow machine parked in front to the pickup truck behind it. It was a small diesel, an Isuzu Trooper, with a homemade toolbox mounted in the bed behind the cab. She popped the hood. She’d disconnected but not removed the battery when the first big snow fell the previous autumn. Now she took it out and set it on the counter. She left the garage and went to the generator shed. The Onan 3.5KW had been new last fall, but it was also diesel and balked at an easy start as a matter of principal. She bled off some air from the compression-release valve and, grunting, gave the hand crank a few more turns. The engine caught, and she winced away from the resulting roar. She shut the door on it and returned to the garage. A single, 150-watt light bulb she had forgotten to turn off in February lit up the dim interior. She hooked the truck battery up to the trickle charger and left it.

As an afterthought she went around to the back of the cabin and climbed the wooden ladder to the rack that held the diesel fuel tanks, a dozen fifty-five gallon Chevron drums mounted on their sides, connected with lengths of insulated copper tubing to each other, the cabin and the generator shack. Pulling the dipstick from its rack next to the ladder, she tested each barrel. The diesel was used only to run the truck, the cabin’s oil stove and the generator to run the power tools in the garage, so the barrels were all about a quarter to a third full. It was enough to see her through to late May or early June, when the road opened up and the tanker from Ahtna could get through. “Close enough for government work,” she said out loud, and wiped the dipstick and capped the last barrel.

She went back into the house and reappeared with a bucket of soapy water, a sponge and a squeegee and began to wash the windows on the garage. After a while the sun grew warm enough to remove her sweatshirt and work in shirtsleeves. “Bet we hit thirty-five today,” she said. She stopped and looked guiltily   at the cabin. Huge yellow eyes stared reproachfully out at her from the window over the sink. “Get your paws off the counter, dammit,” Kate called, but her heart wasn’t in it. Something halfway between a whine and a howl was the reply, and she sighed and put down the squeegee.

Mutt greeted her at the door with ecstatic yips and tried to weasel her way outside. Kate wound one hand in her ruff and with the other reached for the choke chain and leash. She led Mutt outside, slipped the choke chain around Mutt’s cringing neck and fastened the leash to a length of wire stretched between two trees at the edge of the clearing. The leash was just long enough to let Mutt run up and down the length of the wire without tangling itself. Mutt immediately dropped to her belly and, without a trace of shame, groveled for freedom.

“Don’t look like that,” Kate told her. “You know it’s for your own good.”

# # #

The killer donned hat and jacket and gloves and shouldered the rifle. He took the little mirror from its nail on the wall and held it at arm’s length to survey his appearance. He frowned and made a minute adjustment to the collar of his shirt. His brows puckered a little over the wrinkling effect of the rifle’s strap on his new mackinaw. He smoothed the jacket down with one hand, readjusted the strap just a hair to the left, and was satisfied. He looked around the cabin. It was spotless, the chipped white porcelain of the sink scrubbed clean, the stove top scoured and gleaming blackly, the floor swept, the bunk made up neatly beneath its olive-drab army blanket. He nodded his head, pleased. No one was ever going to be able to say he wasn’t a good housekeeper.

His first stop was a mile down the road. He enjoyed the walk, the cool, calm air, the chittering of the squirrels. Once he paused and cocked his head, certain that he’d heard a golden-crowned sparrow trill out its trademark three descending notes, Spring Is Here. It didn’t repeat itself, and he moved on.

When he came into the clearing of the next cabin down the road, he met his neighbor coming in from the outhouse. He was greeted, if not with enthusiasm, then at least with civility. “Hey, hi there. Great first day of spring, isn’t it? Want some coffee?”

He turned toward the cabin and the first bullet caught him in the back, severing his spinal cord and exploding out of his chest in a hole six inches across. The second bullet went in the back of his neck and ripped out the front of his throat, changing his last terrified scream into a bubbling gurgle of bewilderment.

# # #

The sun was high and warm in a clear, pastel sky, and the thermometer on the cabin wall read twenty-eight above. “Told you so,” she said to Mutt. Setting the chisel with a few taps of the blunt side of the axe, she stood back, raised the axe over her head, and brought the blunt side down on the chisel. The round of pine had seasoned through the winter and split cleanly at the first blow, with a satisfying crack, into two almost even halves. “I’m giving a loose to my soul,” she told Mutt. Mutt yawned and settled her chin on crossed forepaws. Her choke chain was pulled tight, her leash stretched as far as it would go between choke chain and wire, and the leash run as far as it could get from where Kate was chopping wood. She was not speaking to Kate, but she still had plenty to say, all of it eloquent. Properly chastened, Kate reversed the axe and used the blade to spilt each half into two chunks.

A jangle of chain and a flurry of hysterical barks interrupted the splitting of the second round. She looked up to see Mutt prancing frantically, in a manner wholly unsuited to her age and dignity, at the extreme end of the wire closest to the edge of the clearing. Every hair on her body strained against the leash. Kate followed her gaze and drew in a breath.

He was a timber wolf, ash gray in color, standing three and a half feet tall at the shoulder and weighing, Kate estimated,   a hundred and sixty pounds. His eyes were large, brown and probably usually filled with intelligence. Today they were bright with something else, and they were fastened on the half-wolf, half-husky tethered to the wire next to Kate’s cabin. He shook his coat into amorous order, adjusted the curl of his tail and stalked forward.

He was, all in all, a very handsome fellow indeed. Well, Mutt was no hag herself, and Kate understood the impetus behind and almost wavered beneath the onslaught of imploring yips and entreating howls from both lovers. She managed to pull herself together, though, and spoke in a stern voice. “Dammit, Mutt, I told you. We don’t need any more puppies around here. The last bunch like to drove both of us into running away from home. We’re lucky they turned out to be halfway trainable so Mandy could put them to work.”

Mutt ignored the voice of reason, quivering, her ruff standing straight up, her tail curled coquettishly, her wide yellow eyes fixed on the wolf. He paused in his approach, glancing for the first time in Kate’s direction, taking her in at a single glance and dismissing her as negligible. Kate wasn’t quite sure she even registered on his peripheral vision as human and therefore a potential threat; his attention was clearly fixed elsewhere.

She moved over to the wire. Mutt danced around her eagerly, and Kate took one cautionary wind of the leash around her forearm, regarded it for a moment and took another. “Never underestimate the power of love,” she muttered, and Mutt proved her point by almost jerking her arm out of its socket when Kate detached the leash from the wire. Mutt pulled avidly for the trees, Kate grimly for the cabin. Sweating, straining, and swearing all the way, the tug-of-war turned her hands and forearm dark red and numb to all feeling. Finally, Kate managed to get her shivering, whining roommate back inside and the cabin door safely closed and latched behind her. She subsided limply on the doorstep and mopped her overheated brow. “Besides,” she told the eager scrabble of toenails against the other side of the door, “if I can do without, so can you.”

From the edge of the clearing the wolf howled, a long, lovelorn sound that rose to a frustrated crescendo. “Oh, shut up,” Kate snapped, and returned to vent her spleen on the woodpile.

# # #

“Well, hey there, my first customer of the morning.” The portly, cheerful man turned to face him across the counter. “The mail plane hasn’t been in yet, so—”

The killer shot once. The expanding nose of the soft-tipped bullet shredded the back of the man’s head and stuccoed the wall of wooden cubbyholes behind him in grayish white and dark red. The man’s body stood, swaying for a moment, before slumping slowly and somehow gracefully to the floor.

There was a still, silent moment. The killer heard a quick, sharp intake of breath and wheeled to see the curtain that separated the post office from the rest of the house moving, as if someone had been holding it open and had just released it. He jerked it back, to reveal an empty living room, the door to it swinging wide. He went to the door and looked out, and saw her running down the long, narrow length of the airstrip, a pudgy little gray-haired woman in jeans and sweatshirt and stocking feet. He thought she screamed. A movement caught his eye and he looked beyond her. Two people on a snow machine broke out of the trees at the middle of the strip. The running woman yelled and waved her arms. The driver looked her way and turned the snow machine in her direction. The woman screamed and waved her arms more frantically.

The killer brought the 30.06 to his shoulder in one smooth motion and shot once. The driver slumped over the handlebars and the machine swerved abruptly. The passenger screamed and tried to shove the driver aside so she could grasp the handlebars, to no avail. She screamed again, and went on screaming, as the machine slewed and swerved, back and forth, across the airstrip. Lining up the sight, the killer exhaled, held it and shot again. The screaming stopped abruptly. The snow machine, riderless, ran into the plowed snowbank at the side of the strip and flipped over.

He gave the Winchester a fond pat and looked around for the running woman. He found her all the way down at the end of the strip, stubby legs pumping tirelessly beneath the spur of adrenaline. Sighting carefully through the peephole, down the barrel and over the darkened bead that stood out so clearly against the hard-packed snow of the runway, he closed his fingers almost gently around the trigger, heard the shot and its echo immediately following, felt the kick of the butt against his shoulder, saw her stagger and fall. She lay still for a moment, before lifting herself up on her forearms and dragging herself into the trees. He shook his head, almost in admiration, and went after her.

He paused at the edge of the strip to look at the bodies of the two from the snow machine. He turned them faceup with one foot, careful not to let the blood dull the gloss of his new boots. One body no longer had a face, the other no chest. The killer straightened one’s shirt, the other’s legs, and followed the tracks into the trees.

A sharp crack echoed through the woods, and instinctively he threw himself down and rolled. He came up shooting, working the bolt and spacing his shots in an arc. He paused to reload, listening. There was complete silence, and then he saw the broken branch in one of his own footprints. He clucked at his over-reaction and recovered her trail. A few yards down it, he found the body.

He approached cautiously, rifle held in front of him, a round in the chamber and the safety off. Mukluks, bright pink bib overalls, a checked shirt. “Oh,” he said, on a long note of discovery when at last he saw her face, and sank to his knees, beside her in the stained snow.

She was blonde and she was beautiful, even in death. The last time he’d seen her, that fair skin had been flushed, the full, red lips twisted away from her white, straight teeth in a sneer, the widely-spaced dark blue eyes narrowed in contempt. She had laughed at him.

He smiled down at her now, touched her cheek. It was cooling rapidly. He raised one lid to see if her eye was as blue as he remembered. It was. He admired the perfect fans her thick lashes made on her cheeks. His hand slid down her throat, shaped one breast, stroked her narrow waist, cupped between her thighs.

A small whisper, perhaps of wind, rustled through the grove. A sound, perhaps the whimper of a frightened squirrel, came from deeper in the stand of trees. It was enough to make him withdraw his hand.

He rose to his feet and threaded his way through the trees to the airstrip. Righting the overturned snow machine, he mounted it and thumbed the electric starter. It caught on the first try.

# # #

The pile of split wood was waist high when Kate heard the rapid whap-whap-whap of a helicopter’s rotor. The sun was high in a still-cloudless sky, and her shirt was damp down her spine and beneath her arms. She sunk the axe into the tree stump that served as her chopping block and went inside to pump up a drink of water. She drained the glass, refilled it and brought it back outside, narrowly missing Mutt’s nose in the door. She sat down on the front step, groaning a little from sore muscles. A rustle of underbrush called her attention to the edge of the clearing, where Mutt’s would-be lover sat beneath a mountain hemlock.

For a change he was not looking yearningly at the cabin but in an inquiring fashion at the sky. She squinted up as the noise of the helicopter became louder, and jumped to her feet when it roared the last few feet to hover over her clearing.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she yelled, her voice a furious croak. “You can’t land here!”

Mutt’s lover decided it was a better day for discretion than valor and broke for the high country. As the Bell Jet Ranger with the distinctive blue-and-gold markings of the Alaska State Troopers lowered to the exact center of the clearing, Kate was forced back up against the door of the cabin. She held her breath, watching the ends of the rotors sweep dangerously close to the eaves of every building in the semicircle of her homestead.

The blades slowed their rotation but didn’t stop. The engine powered down, and the door of the helicopter opened and a man in a state trooper’s uniform emerged. Holding on to his hat, he crouched over the few running steps that brought him face to crotch with Kate.

She glared down at him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Jim? You’re lucky you didn’t take the roof off everything I own!”

“Get inside!” he yelled, and suited word to deed by reaching around her to open the door and shove her inside, thudding up the steps and in behind her and pulling the door shut after him.

He was a tall man and a large one, and he filled up the cabin more than she liked. “What the hell do you think you’re doing,” she snapped, “pushing your way in here? What’s going on?”

“You haven’t heard?” “Heard what?”

He strode over to her scanner and snapped it on, to be greeted by dead air. He shook his head and swore. “Dammit, I told them to broadcast a warning and keep broadcasting it until we catch the fucker.”

“What fucker? What warning?” she said angrily. And then she saw his expression. In that instant her anger changed to apprehension. The words devoid of heat, she repeated. “Jim, what’s going on?”

He turned and surveyed the room, Kate mystified, Mutt alert, both of them wary. “At least you’re all right.”

“Of course I’m all right.” Kate’s gaze sharpened. “Who isn’t?” His lips thinned. “Two people we know of, so far.” “Niniltna?” He nodded curtly, and she tensed. Next to her Mutt whined once, a keen, anxious sound. “What happened?” Kate said flatly.

He blew out a breath. “Near as we can figure, some guy’s running around shooting at people with a 30.06.”

Her mouth went dry. “Who?”

He shook his head. “We don’t know yet.” “Who’s been shot?”

A gleam of understanding crossed his face, but he shook his head again. “We don’t that yet, either. He shot at the mail plane as it was coming in to land. George Perry saw some bodies lying at the end of the strip. Then a guy on a snow machine started shooting and he hit the throttle. He climbed to five thousand feet and circled long enough to put out an SOS. He saw the guy on the snow machine take off. That’s about all we know, except…”

“Except?”

“Except that he’s headed this way.” The trooper saw Kate’s reaction and nodded once for emphasis. “The mail plane called the tower in Tok, the tower called me, and I got in the air right away. I’ve been hitting every home-stead on the way in.”

Kate walked around him and got the shotgun down from the rack over the door. She broke it open to check that it was loaded. It was. She turned. “Okay. Now I know. You’d better get on with passing the word.”

His expression relaxed, and he gave half a laugh and amazed her by swooping down for a swift, hard kiss. He laughed again at her expression and chucked her beneath the chin. “Probably the only chance I’ll ever get, how could I resist?”

The shotgun was on its way up and if the helicopter hadn’t been right in back of him she might even have fired off a round. He looked from her furious face to the shotgun and back, laughed again and actually had the gall to salute her. “If he gets here before I get him, he’s wearing a black-and-red mackinaw and a brown billed cap with earflaps. He’s driving a Polaris. Watch your ass, Shugak.”

He ducked and ran to the helicopter. The engine pitch and blade rotation increased immediately. In five seconds he was in the air, in seven over the trees, and in ten out of sight.

# # #

“Go!” the farmer yelled at the two open-mouthed, petrified figures of his children. “Run, dammit!” He turned back to the killer and waved his arms. “Here! Over here, you lousy bastard! Come get me, I dare you!”

The killer looked at him without expression. The farmer, lying against his barn with a shattered leg and his life’s blood oozing away, clutched frantically around him for something to throw. He found nothing but melting snow, and so he threw that, in handfuls that fell far short of their target in ineffective, disintegrating pieces. “Shit!” The killer watched him without moving. “Motherfucker!” the farmer yelled and flipped him the bird with both hands. “Joe! Mary! Run!”

The two children finally broke and ran, straight out across the frozen pond that fronted the farm buildings. The killer took half a step forward, swiveled and brought up the rifle. He forward, swiveled and brought up the rifle. He frowned at the running figures through the sights. They were so small and they ran so fast. He squeezed off two shots. One hit, one missed. “No!” the farmer screamed, “no, no, no goddam you, no!” The killer shot a third time. The second figure fell hard on the grainy ice of the little lake and slid ten feet before coming to a stop.

The farmer, sobbing, crying, gasping for breath, was clawing his body to the edge of the lake when the killer stepped up next to him. Their eyes met. The killer’s face was calm and still, the farmer’s contorted with grief and rage.

“Fuck you,” the farmer hissed. “Do it.”

# # #

Kate leaned the shotgun against the woodpile and picked up the axe. After staring at it for a moment, she put the axe back down and picked up the shotgun. She felt like pacing, but pacing back and forth across the clearing with a crazy person going around shooting at people seemed like a bad idea. It might have been the safest thing to do, but she couldn’t bear the thought of cooping herself up in the cabin. She turned to the woods. A frustrated whine and an eager scratching at the inside of the door told her Mutt had seen her. She paused. There was a rustle across the clearing. The timber wolf was back. “Damn.” In the state she was in and with this embodiment of lupine perfection hanging around, Mutt would be no use to her. Squaring her shoulders, she walked across the clearing and up the path that led to the road.

# # #

The miner vanished into the trees as the killer reloaded the Winchester. The frantic, laboring sound of someone crashing through thick woods and a winter’s worth of snow cover came clearly to him through the still air. He threw in the bolt and cast a speculative glance toward the sound. He stretched and yawned. The snow under the trees was too darn deep to hassle with. The miner would probably bleed to death anyway. Besides, he was tired. His stomach growled. Hungry, too.

# # #

Kate was dozing when she heard it. At first it had sounded like a single, distinct crash, like a large-scale breaking of glass, but now there was no doubt about it. It was a snow machine, and it was coming her way.

She’d walked from where the path that led to her homestead intersected the old railroad bed until she found a long, straight stretch of the road. At the end of the straight stretch farthest from Niniltna, she searched out a squat, thickly branched spruce tree that was neither too close nor too far away from the edge of the road, stamped out a path and forced her way in between the branches. She squatted beneath it now with the shotgun resting across her knees. Peering out between the branches, she had a perfect view of half a mile of road, from where it curved to avoid Honker Pond to where she crouched.

The noise of the snow machine grew louder. The sky was clear and pale and innocent of helicopters or planes or any other kind of cavalry. “Damn you, Jim. Isn’t that just like a cop, never around when you need him.” When she looked back down the snow machine had rounded Honker Pond and was headed straight for her. There was no one else in sight.

She muttered a curse and clicked the safety off the shotgun. She rechecked the load, pulled the stock in against her shoulder, sighted carefully down the barrel, and waited.

The snow machine labored up the slight slope, until she could see his face, red from the force of the wind against it, lips pulled back from his teeth in a humorless grimace. It was a Polaris snow machine, all right, and the guy was wearing a red-and-black checked mackinaw and a brown-billed cap with earflaps. A chill shivered down her spine. She took her time lining up her shot. No matter what this yo-yo had done, she didn’t want to kill him. She had enough on her conscience without another death, however justified.

He was almost upon her when the snow of the road exploded in front of his machine. Pieces of ice flew up and hit the windshield and his face. He  yelled and jerked. The machine swerved. The handlebars ripped out of his hands and he fell, rolling awkwardly, slung rifle and all.

Kate plunged out between the branches of the spruce. One caught in her hair and almost yanked her off her feet. She slipped and lost her grip on the shotgun. It smacked into the snow and slid several feet from her. Across the road, the killer staggered to his feet and unslung his rifle. She felt around and grasped a piece of deadwood and threw it at him as hard as she could. It caught him square across the face. He staggered a little. “Doggone it,” he said. He recovered, and in one automatic action raised his rifle and sighted down at her.

Her hair still tangled in the spruce, the stock of the shotgun several feet away, Kate froze. She stared across the hard, packed roadbed into his calm, clear, quite mad eyes, and she knew she was staring at an escape from pain, a loss of laughter, the cessation of joy, all of them, straight in the face. She didn’t move, couldn’t.

He smiled at her. “Know anywhere around here somebody might get a bite to eat?”

There was a crash of tearing brush, and Kate was hit hard in the back of the knees. Her feet went out from under her, her hair ripped free of the branch and the world whirled around as she made a perfect backward somersault, landing on her chest with a thump that drove all the breath out of her.

Mutt’s forepaws hit the killer square in the chest. He fell flat on his back with a hundred and forty pounds of proprietary rage on top of him. In a movement faster than Kate could follow Mutt clamped her teeth in the stock of the Winchester and shook it loose from his grip like a bear shaking off a mosquito. The rifle hit the ice six feet away and slid for twenty more. The killer lay where he was, dazed, his throat exposed, and Mutt lunged directly for it, her teeth closing in on either side.

Kate’s breath returned with a rush. “Hold!” she shouted.

Mutt froze, her teeth indenting but not breaking the skin of his throat. “Hold, girl,” Kate repeated, grasping at air, her voice a husky croak, “hold.”

It took her two tries to climb to her feet. She stood where she was, trembling, eyes closed, gulping in great breaths of air. Her chest hurt. Her scalp ached. Her lungs burned. Somewhere behind them the Polaris was still running. The engine rose in whiny protest, spluttered and died. Kate sucked in another deep breath and opened her eyes.

The killer lay where he had fallen. Mutt stood over him, teeth bared against his throat, a low, rumbling growl issuing unbroken from deep in her throat. In that moment she seemed all wolf. Kate recovered her shotgun and approached them warily. She reached his rifle, kicked it away. “All right, Mutt.”

The dog lifted her head slightly, her teeth no longer touching the killer’s throat, but that continuous, rumbling, paralyzing growl never stopped. “It’s all right, girl,” Kate said and reached out a steadying hand. Beneath it Mutt flinched once, and Kate tensed. “You done good, girl. Now let go. Mutt,” she repeated, more sternly this time, “release.” The growl missed a note, diminished, and died. Mutt looked up at Kate and gave her tail a single wag. Kate inhaled again and straightened. “Good girl.” And then, more fervently, “Good girl.”

The killer was conscious. He looked up at them calmly, all tension drained out of his body. He even smiled, a happy, bloody smile that reached all the way up into mischievous, twinkling eyes, one nearly swollen shut. He giggled. “You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing.” He giggled again. “I’ve been a bad boy.” He licked the blood from his lips and appeared surprised. He raised one wondering hand, touched it to his mouth and looked at his stained fingers. “I’m bleeding,” he said. His face puckered. “He should have sold me Board Walk. I told him. He should have sold it to me.” He started to cry.

Kate took three faltering steps to the side of the road and was thoroughly and comprehensively sick, which was how Chopper Jim found her when he landed twenty yards down the road a few minutes later.

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