“Action is the antidote to despair.”
“To do HER Sacred Work, SHE chooses a Guardian,
then creates a hallowed place, despite Time and Space....”
Rules of Chronos
Friday, April 13th, 2018
Ambushed by the suspected serial killer she pursues through Mount Baker National Forest, Homicide Detective Beth Chambers prays for a second chance to stop him.
* * * *
The sloppy wetness of Luke's tongue as he licked her face roused Beth. Her head spun. She struggled to lift one hand. She forced open her eyes and gently pushed the dog away. He whined and sat down beside her. She reached up, felt the bump on the back of her head where it’d hit a rock. Remembering the sight of Luke's broken body beside the trail, she touched the dog, stroked his brown fur. He pressed closer, and she rubbed his shoulder. He’d been stunned, not killed. “Guess we both messed up, buddy. We've gotta be a lot more careful from here on out.”
Luke growled and licked her hand. She risked trying to sit up. Her mind fogged and she almost slipped into welcome darkness. No time for rest. The accident had obviously been Tigger's fault. It wasn't the first time the stallion had thrown her. However, it was the first time he'd reared and gone over backward on top of her. “Damned, stupid idiot. I ought to have bought a Quarter-horse instead of falling in love with a beauty like you when Nina took me to Xanadu Arabians. I shouldn’t have listened when Audra bragged about how brilliant you are and your terrific pedigree.”
From where he pulled at a few tufts of grass near a granite boulder, Tigger nickered in answer. Beth glared at the horse. A faint wisp of memory filtered into her mind, and she tried to follow it. She had fallen off him, hadn’t she? Wasn't she pinned by the stallion for at least a moment or two? She must have passed out prior to Tigger standing up. No wonder she thought she was dead meat. For a moment, she recalled a sense of pervading peace, love, admiration, and acceptance. There had been all of that and yet something more.
The harder she tried to remember, the more the feeling slipped away. Reluctantly, she gave up the battle. She’d think about the accident later, after her head quit hurting. She hugged Luke tightly for a moment, then rested one hand on the German Shepherd’s solid, eighty-pound body and struggled to her feet. Her ribs throbbed in protest. She must have cracked one, if not broken it.
Her head swam. She took a step. Her stomach rebelled and she barely made it to the side of the trail before she hurled, grateful lunch had only been beef jerky and water eaten in the saddle hours ago. Should she head home? Nobody would blame her if she stopped searching for Gary Smith, nobody but herself. She raised a hand to her forehead and felt for the cut she remembered. The blood had frightened her. She'd been so sure she was dying.
There was no blood on her face now and no sign of the injury either. She tried a cautious step. Her legs were fine. She could walk. Her hysterical fear during the accident prompted the notion it was the end of the world and her life. Nina often said, “A good fall is one the rider walks away from.” Recalling her friend restored Beth’s courage. She took a deep breath. Her body might feel a little sore, but she wasn’t finished yet. Smith deserved to spend the rest of his life behind bars and justice must be served. She wouldn’t wimp out now, not when she was so close to him.
“No.” She petted Luke. “We’re not going back yet. We’re getting that scumbag off the streets and behind bars.” The dog pressed against her. She stroked his bristly short hair. “Come on, partner. Let's go look around.”
Crossing to the Arabian, she took the rifle from its scabbard. She checked the load and started up the path. The stud whickered and then trotted after her. “Now's a fine time to tell me how much you love me.” She swung around to catch the reins and tie up her horse. The sight of a bloody crease in the center of his forehead stopped her. A bullet wound. She was closer to Smith than she'd imagined. Tigger's spooking saved her life. She rested her hand on his gray neck. “I’ll be more careful. I don’t want you hurt.”
The stallion nuzzled her arm and Beth changed her mind. She couldn't leave the horse tethered. If he were loose, he could run away from Smith, and since the Arabian was used to getting treats from her, he'd come when he saw her. She glanced at the trail, a thin scattering of dirt over granite. She went to Tigger’s right side. She opened the saddlebags and removed evidence bags and plastic gloves. Now, if she found anything, she would be able to use it against Smith. She worked her way through the overgrown salmonberry bushes and alder saplings, glad when she found her way back among the evergreens. Less than a hundred feet up the trail, she discovered the place where Smith had launched his attack. A few cigarette butts littered the muddy ground, and she recognized his footprints.
Removing her digital camera from a jacket pocket, she took pictures of the area then collected the evidence. No way she’d use her phone to take a video and risk losing it to the inept prosecutor. John Watkins, the lead homicide detective still complained about having to replace his smartphone when it was seized for evidence. She’d turn the cigarette butts into the lab when she got back to town. Tests would prove Gary Smith indeed attacked her, leaving her for dead.
The man was long gone. Did he think she was finished? Why hadn’t he made sure? He generally beat his victims almost to death, then slit their throats to be certain they couldn’t testify against him. Shooting her wasn’t his usual M.O. Why had he changed? She shrugged. Everyone made mistakes. Smith was a human being, not only the monster she personally thought of him.
Slowly, she returned to Tigger, collecting her hat on the way. She replaced the rifle in the scabbard, checked the tack, and then swung into the saddle. For the next hour, she rode cautiously. She kept a wary gaze on the trail and often rested a hand on the butt of the rifle. Luke remained closer this time, a few feet from the Arabian.
Suddenly, the path opened into a small clearing. A hill rose before her, clawing into the sky. Even misty fog and slanting rain couldn’t disguise the hazardous trail up the steep incline. She saw paw prints in the mud and knew Luke had already started the climb. She petted Tigger’s neck, lingering to watch the moon rise above the giant cedars and hemlocks. Something in the atmosphere caused the bright globe to appear red tonight. It provided plenty of light to see the trail and that was all she cared about.
Tigger tossed his head and snorted, the loudness shocking her. She returned her attention to the mammoth slope in front of her. Huge granite boulders lined the path while smaller fragments awaited an unwary hoof. A light sprinkling of dirt covered the slick gray stone and a tiny evergreen clung precariously to the side of the hill. Fog shrouded the top of the ridge, hiding the steepest part of the ascent.
She took a deep breath and measured the climb again. Then, she urged Tigger forward. The gray stallion leaped up the rocky incline, scrambling for footing. Granite pieces fell behind them and she glimpsed another horse’s hoofprint and a scrape on gray stone. So, Smith still had Wonder, an abused Appaloosa stallion he’d stolen from Nina Armstrong’s horse rescue facility. Nobody knew where the starved wreck of an equine came from almost two years ago, but Nina, a famous Washington State horsy do-gooder nursed him back to health. The woman had interrupted Smith when he’d absconded with the horse three days ago and she’d paid the price. Beth found Nina before she died. She identified Smith and asked Beth to return the stallion to her barn.
The drizzle grew heavier, silvery rain slashing down in a curtain of thread-like drops, streaming downward. Waves of water rolled, small drops followed by larger ones creating a hazy view, a thin fog-shrouded screen blocking most of the path behind them. Tigger collected himself for another series of leaps. When they gained the first plateau, she reined him to a halt. Oddly enough she could breathe better up here, better than she had when she first mounted after the accident. Her ribs had stopped hurting. Her head no longer pounded like someone beat a jack-hammer against her skull and her stomach wasn’t roiling. She truly had walked away unscathed. She’d have to tell Nina when they returned that her advice was correct as always. Of course, the younger woman would pitch a fit when she heard about the fall and lecture Beth for the hundredth time about keeping her heels down and staying balanced in the saddle.
She waited for Tigger to regain his breath. With a squeeze of her legs, she sent the horse forward again, grateful for the bright red moon lighting their way. More than once she heard his hooves strike small rocks. He jumped another log and came to a halt on the summit. She petted his steaming neck, scanning the top of the ridge. The evergreens which were so huge at the bottom of the hill had become tiny tips, like baby Christmas trees, insubstantial from this height. Grateful the rain had stopped, she eyed the descent, stretching before her, down a winding trail. The path seemed clearer in the evening moonlight with none of the hazards they’d overcome on the ascent. She touched Tigger’s sides with her legs and the Arabian headed downhill at a faster pace. When they reached level ground, the small stallion picked up a jog.
Suddenly, she heard a short yip. Luke had found something of interest. A low, menacing growl came next. It meant the discovery was male, a human male which the large German Shepherd considered fair game. His refusal to work with men had almost ended the canine’s career with the department before it started. “Luke, hold.” Had she found Smith already? Why wasn't he shooting at Luke or her? She pulled her carbine from the scabbard.
Tigger snorted as they came around a bend. He leaped sideways as he caught a glimpse of the shadowy figure huddled near a boulder. Luke stood in front of the man, continuing to growl, hackles raised. She cursed the dusk. The red moonlight didn't help her see much. She couldn't get a clear view of the man, but he appeared bigger than her suspect. “Smith?”
“No.” The stranger groaned. “I'm hurt. Bad.”
She shoved her rifle back into its holder. Her voice deepened with frustration and impatience. “What the hell are you doing here then?”
“Bleeding.” Faint amusement filled his bass rumble.
“On Friday the 13th, if the moon is red,
Follow the scarlet pathway to the Land of the Dead....!”
Rules of Chronos
She swung from the saddle. Her poncho flapped as she landed, and Tigger tossed his head debating whether to spook or not. She ignored the horse and turned to the man. She viewed him dispassionately, cataloging his appearance. White, in his forties, approximately six-foot tall. He might be an inch or two more since he leaned against a rock. Black, gray-speckled hair. Shoulder-length. Broad-shouldered. Wide chest, no extra fat, about 180 pounds. She noted the work clothes, a ripped wool shirt over a thick cotton one, pants, heavy coat, and boots – he’d planned to be out in the woods, and he wasn’t a city slicker.
Pain-filled, navy-blue eyes stared at her. Bloody froth bubbled from his right lung, and she focused on the gunshot wound, a hole in his chest, approximately the size of a golf ball. For an instant, she remembered explosions, screams of injured soldiers and she shook her head. That war was behind her. She’d served her country, done her time. She was home now, safe in the USA, well as safe as a woman could be hunting a scumbag like Smith.
“I got shot.”
“I can see that.” She glanced around, tried to pinpoint the best place for a shooter to hide. Too many trees and huge rocks. Anyone could be watching them. “Who did this? When and where?”
“Full of questions, ain’t ya?”
“I want straight answers.” She dropped to her knees beside him, the poncho swirling as it enveloped her. “Don’t hold back.” She peeled the shirts away from the wound, noticing the top one only had two buttons closing the wide neckline. He must pull it over his head when he dressed. “I don’t intend to be the next victim because I’m helping you.”
He’d already tried to stop the bleeding. The bandage torn from his shirt was soggy and wet with blood and rain. “Fella isn’t around.”
She stood, checking out the large evergreens and the narrow trail lit by the red moon. Luke had plopped down, lying on a bed of pine needles licking his paws. Well, if the dog wasn’t upset or on guard, it probably was safe here, at least for now. She glanced at Tigger. The Arabian stood hip-shot, head down, eyes half-closed as he took a horsy nap.
The man gagged and turned his head to spit out a mouthful of blood. “This is where I came off my mare.”
Beth took a deep breath. She’d seen worse injuries in Afghanistan. She didn’t want to think about that, couldn’t afford to remember those days right now. Medical procedures rattled into her mind. She needed to prevent shock. She opted for an authoritative tone. “I’ve got more questions.”
“Save them. I’m dying. I know it.” The man spat again. “So, do you.” He coughed up more blood. “Nothing anyone can do. Thanks for trying.”
“I’m not quitting yet.” Beth stood and went after the first aid kit in her saddle bags. “Neither should you.”
“The money from the bank robbery is on my horse. You’ve got to find her and take it back. The folks ‘round here need every cent and Burdette can’t afford to reimburse everybody with money in the bank.”
“Bank robbery?” Beth swung around and noticed he was coughing again. She waited until he stopped choking and spitting blood before she asked. “Which bank did you rob?”
“I’m no thief, boy! I’m the Junction City marshal.”
“Don’t yell at me.” Beth didn’t bother to correct his assumption she was male. Her hat and loose poncho gave that impression. If he thought she was a man, he’d give her questions more respect. She returned to kneel beside him and swabbed at the blood on his chest. She had to keep him talking even if he began to babble. “The first thing you told me about was the robbery. What was I supposed to think?”
“Guess you’re right.” The stranger stared at her as she cleaned the area around the wound. “I don’t know you. Where are you from? Just riding through?”
Beth waited until he spat again. “I was born in Seattle, but I’ve been around.”
“Looking for work? I got a ranch outside of Junction City.” He coughed up more blood. “Save me and you’ll have a place for life.”
Beth hid her amusement. “I’ve already got a good job, but thanks.” She temporarily sealed the hole in his lung with a piece of clean gauze and decided not to tell him she was a cop too. At least, not yet. There wasn’t a town called Junction City in Snohomish County, but perhaps she’d already crossed the line into Skagit. She’d check her map later. For now, she helped him lean forward so she could clean the smaller entry wound in his back, then bandaged it. “What’s your name, Marshal?”
“Morgan. Rad Morgan.” The man waited. “And you? What’s your name?”
She suppressed a smile and searched through the first-aid kit for a large bandage. “Beth Chambers.”
“You’re a woman?” Rad paused, spat more blood, then demanded. “What are you doing out here by your lonesome? This ain’t a place for a lady.”
“Spare me the trite, patriarchal lectures. If you needed a man to save you, then you should have put in your order before last Christmas.”
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