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Allie dragged her suitcase out to the barn. Just as she was about to swing the barn door open and pull the heavy case inside, she heard a horrible screeching break the silence. She froze, her breath caught in her throat. It sounded just like the earlier screech when the truck had torn the guardrail. She waited for more metal-on-metal shrieks, but heard nothing else, until a low-pitched thud seemed to rock the ground.
“Oh, my God,” she breathed. Had a car gone over the rail and down the embankment? Was the thud the vehicle landing hard? She knew she had to go and check, but if a vehicle had plummeted down the embankment, it could have brought enough snow down with it to bury it. What if she couldn’t find it? If she found it, would there be any survivors? And if there were, would she be able to help them? That was a lot of questions, considering she wasn’t even sure that a vehicle had gone over the embankment.
Then a sound even more terrifying than the screech of metal split the air—the blare of a car horn. Not intermittently, but constant, as if an unconscious—or dead—person were leaning on the horn. Allie shoved the suitcase into the barn, then hit redial on her phone, but there were no bars. She tried to send a text, but it didn’t go through either.
She scanned the shelves on the wall inside the barn doors and immediately saw the large, high-powered flashlight her dad always kept there. Just in case, she stuck extra batteries in the pocket of her down jacket. Before she left the barn, she flipped the knife switch that turned on the barn lights and made sure every single light was on, including the spotlight on the top, facing the highway. Then she started toward the embankment at the end of the pasture.
As she walked toward the sound of the car horn, she kept turning around to be sure she could see the barn lights, to be sure she wasn’t wandering off straight path between the barn and the embankment below the guardrail. It was after five in the evening and getting close to dark, that dusky time of day when everything appeared to be the same shade of gray. Allie could barely see anything outside the small circle of her high-powered flashlight. She clutched the flashlight more tightly and prayed that she’d be able to make it back to the barn in the dark.
If CeCe wasn’t so nearly ready to foal, Allie could ride her. CeCe’s horse sense would lead her straight back to the barn, even in a snowstorm in the dark. But she couldn’t risk anything happening to her horse.
Allie turned and looked, but she was too far away from the barn to even see the large spotlight. She had nothing to rely on except the little compass her dad had given her several years ago. It hung from the zipper pull on her jacket. She knew exactly where the curve in the highway was, but she also knew it was treacherously easy to get confused in a snowstorm.
Even following the compass, she could still end up hundreds of feet away from her target. Her dad’s cautionary tales about people dying within mere feet of their safe, warm houses came back to her.
As she drew closer to the area where she was pretty sure the highway curved, she checked her phone again, to see if she could get through to the sheriff’s office, but she still had zero bars. There was too much snow for the microwaves to travel.
Allie kept walking, wondering if she’d made a horrible mistake, coming out with nothing but a flashlight and a toy compass. But then, as she raked the flashlight’s beam from left to right and back again, she caught a reflection.
It was a vehicle, an SUV, and sure enough, it had fallen down the embankment. But the bad news was that the vehicle was upside down. Allie pressed her lips together as she slowly approached it. Despite everything her dad had taught her, she didn’t know a whole lot about transporting and treating injured people. She had a first aid kit, and she’d taken a course in second aid, so theoretically she knew how to make a stretcher, but in the snow, was it realistic to expect that she’d be able to find two long branches and a length of fabric? Not to mention that she had never seen a dead person—not outside a hospital.
When her dad had collapsed three months before, the ambulance had come and gotten him and taken him to the hospital in Cherry Lake. He’d been rushed into the Intensive Care Unit. He’d had a heart attack, the nurses told her, and they’d keep him in Intensive Care until he got better. But the thing was, he never got better. He stayed the same until he started getting worse. The nurses had been very nice, but when Allie asked them—repeatedly over those last few days—what she could do for her father, they just shook their heads and looked sad.
That wasn’t how hospitals were supposed to work. Hospitals were supposed to take care of people and bring them back home to their families. The nurses were not supposed to walk by you, looking sad and chagrined, as if they knew you’d expected them to do something more and they wished they’d been on day shift that day so they wouldn’t have to know that you were waiting there, hoping they’d have a miracle to bestow on you, but knowing that was impossible.
So Allie approached the SUV. It was upside down on the edge of a creek. It had broken the ice on the surface of the water and was sitting there as the water gurgled through the broken front windows. It wouldn’t be long until the water had frozen again, but right now it was flowing.
As she approached, she yawned to pop her ears and try to reduce the pain of the blaring car horn. She didn’t want to see a dead body, but she thought that a dead body might be better than someone who was still alive but was bleeding to death, or was horribly maimed and experiencing unbearable pain. She shone her light around the perimeter of the vehicle, looking for anyone who might have crawled out of the wreckage. To her relief and dismay, she saw no one.
That was the instant she realized that the horn was no longer blaring. The battery must have run down. She yawned again, the insides of her ears tingling with the aftereffects of the deafening horn.
Then she heard something else. The sound was so low and quiet, she thought at first it might be a trick of her ears, a last echo of the horn. But as she listened, she realized it was a voice calling out. A weak voice, barely loud enough for her to hear. But it was definitely a voice and it was coming from the car.
Someone was alive in there! The driver! She stepped over to the driver’s side window and saw a sight that was worse than anything she’d ever seen in her life.
A man in a brown shirt was sitting behind the wheel of the SUV. The vehicle had landed nose first and the impact had crushed the front end like a soda can and driven the steering column into the man’s chest. He was upside down, suspended by his seat belt and the eight-inch diameter column. His mouth was open in a grimace. Blood had dribbled down over his face, his eyes, his forehead and had stained the roof of the vehicle. His eyes were open and starting to film over.
“Oh, no! Oh, no, no, no,” she gasped, after the initial shock of seeing him had passed. She felt queasy, but she knew there were things she had to do. It seemed obvious that the man was dead, but Allie had taken first and second aid and she had to check. Drawing on a strength and calm she would never have predicted she had, she pulled off a glove and checked the side of his neck, where the carotid artery should have been pulsing. There was nothing. She pulled her snow goggles out of her pocket and held them under his nose for a count of sixty. Nothing. He was dead. She’d confirmed it and that was a relief. With that chest wound, there was nothing she could have done for him except possibly prolong his agony.
Immediately, her head began to spin and her stomach to rebel. She stumbled as far away from the vehicle as possible and vomited. Vomited until she couldn’t catch her breath, until there was nothing left in her stomach and she was just heaving dryly and gasping for breath. When she could stand up, she kicked snow over the vomit and made her way back to the car. There she bent down and cupped water into her hands and splashed it on her face until her hands and face were numb with cold. Then she dipped her frozen hands again and washed out her mouth.
Finally, she regained some limited control over her stomach. So she straightened slowly, and looked reluctantly back at the car. While she’d been throwing up, she’d heard that voice again. It wasn’t the driver who’d cried, Here! I’m here. You with the light. Help me.
“Hello?” she called hoarsely. “Where are you?” She didn’t see anyone else in the car. Certainly no one in the passenger side of the front seat. She shone the flashlight into the back seat and yelped in shock. Hanging upside down was another man with blood dripping down from his forehead to the top of his head and onto the roof of the vehicle.
She gasped and her stomach lurched again. “Oh no,” she muttered, then “Hello? Are you okay?”
He didn’t answer. Dear Lord, did she have another dead man? She swallowed against the nausea that was trying to crawl up her throat again. “Hello, mister?” she called out again, trying to speak louder. “Please don’t be dead,” she begged under her breath.
He moved. “I’m not—yet. Help me,” he whispered.
Suddenly, she couldn’t talk. Couldn’t make a sound. As shocked as she’d been to find the dead man, she was that much more shocked to discover that this man was alive. He was upside down, suspended by his seat belt, but he was alive. Her throat closed up and she gagged, but of course, nothing came out.
“Help—” he said.
“I don’t—” she swallowed. “Hold on.”
“Don’t go away! Come back!” The man’s voice was hoarser than hers. He sounded as though he was choked or sick or—dying.
Allie looked at her phone. Still no bars. She would get no help there. She rounded to the passenger side of the upside down SUV. She crouched down and looked through the shattered window at the man’s upside down face. “What—um, how are you hurt?” she asked.
“Not sure,” the man muttered. His breaths were short and sharp.
She shone her flashlight in his face, but he had his eyes closed and his face was distorted into a grimace. “Are you feeling any pain?”
“Hands,” he grunted.
“What kind of pain?” she asked, trying to remember the correct order of the triage questions from her first and second aid classes. “Is it burning, crushing, throbbing, aching?”
“Burning.” The word was grated out from between clenched teeth.
“Can you, um, rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10, if one is mild and ten is severe.”
“Look,” he rasped. “Stop with the first aid—crap. I’m not going—to die unless being upside down is—fatal. Un—undo my seat belt.”
Allie looked at the man’s lap. She swallowed. “You can’t do it?”
She hesitated, then reached around him, shining her flashlight down the seat belt, down his arms to his hands. The beam caught a flash of metal. He was handcuffed.
She stopped still, her gaze going to the driver, with his brown shirt and brown pants. There were small metal bars on the collar of his shirt and a leather strap over his shoulder. Then she turned back to the metal around the living man’s wrists.
“Oh, my God,” she whispered. “Handcuffs. You’re a prisoner.”
“Yeah, not—exactly,” the man gasped. “Get me out—of here. I’m gonna freeze to death.”
She shook her head. She was still crouched down, bent over so she could see his upside down face. “Is he a policeman?” she asked.
“Deputy sheriff!” he cried out, his voice breaking. He coughed. “He’s dead,” he muttered, more softly. “I’m alive.”
“Deputy.” Allie tried to think. The man was a prisoner. The deputy must have been transporting him somewhere, but the deputy was dead and Allie had to figure out what to do with the handcuffed prisoner. Deputy sheriffs transporting prisoners would be armed, wouldn’t they?
She stood and walked around to the driver’s side again. Bending over, she looked closely at the dead deputy sheriff. Not at his face. She didn’t ever want to look at that face again. But at his body, specifically the leather strap that draped over his right shoulder. It was a holster. And a holster held a gun.
“Looking for his gun?” the prisoner rasped.
Allie didn’t answer him. She wanted to find the gun without touching the dead body if she could, but the holster disappeared under the deputy’s jacket, which was covered with blood.
“Under his arm. About halfway between—his armpit and his waist. It’s held in place by a small—strap with a snap on the end. If you—unsnap it, the gun will fall—into your hands.”
“O—kay,” Allie said, not moving. There was no choice. She was going to have to touch the dead man. She’d never thought she was squeamish. She’d done just about every job on her dad’s ranch. And her dad had always told her that she could do anything she put her mind to. She knew that, because she’d recently faced the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life. She’d buried her father, the one person in the whole world she’d loved. She’d done that. She stiffened her shoulders. And she could do this.
“Think you—could find the key?” the handcuffed man gasped.
The man took in and blew out several sharp breaths, then coughed. “To—handcuffs. Probably in his front—pants pocket. And could you hurry?”
“Hurry—?” she gave a short laugh. “Are you late for something? I’m about to go groping around in a dead man and you’ve got a deadline? Just shut up, okay?!”
He didn’t say anything else.
After a long time and some unpleasant encounters with dead flesh, including a really creepy moment when the deputy’s arm fell and swung near her face, Allie finally got the weapon out of the holster. She knew about rifles, knew how to load them, fire them, unload them and clean them, but she’d never held a handgun before. She examined it, found the safety, hefted it in her hand and thought that, based on its weight, it must be loaded. She’d certainly treat it as though it was, another thing her father taught her.
“Hey—key to the cuffs?” the man said.
“I’m not sure. I think I’ll be a lot better off, all things considered, if you remain cuffed.”
“Please. They’re—too tight.”
His breathing was erratic and loud. It sounded as though it was getting harder for him to catch his breath. If he was telling the truth and wasn’t injured—and why would he lie?—then he was probably having trouble because he was upside down.
“Look at—my hands. Going to lose them. Please.”
Allie sat there a moment, propped on her heels, and waited for the last of the nausea from handling the dead deputy dissipated. “Where did you think the key would be?” she finally asked the prisoner.
She heard a sigh that almost sounded like a sob. “Front—pants pocket.”
She reached toward his pants pocket and heard the faint tinkle of something metallic. The prisoner started to say something, but she cut him off. “Hush!” she snapped. She felt around on the roof of the car below the man’s head. It took a long time, but her freezing fingers eventually closed around a tiny metallic object. “I might have found it,” she said.
She shone the flashlight on the small metal thing in her hand. “Yes!”
“I’ve got the key!” She wasn’t sure why she was so triumphant about finding the key, except that it wasn’t in the man’s pants pocket as the prisoner had been so confident it was. It had been in his shirt pocket. “Hah!” she said.
“Please—hurry,” the man whispered. He sounded desperate. He sounded ill. He sounded dangerous. “hands—dying,” he said. “Can’t feel them. Son-of-a-bitch cuffed—me too tight…”
His words trailed off at the end. Allie had no idea if he was telling the truth or not, but there was one thing she knew. She couldn’t leave him here in the car. Not even if she wanted to. The temperature tonight was going to be in the low- to mid-teens and from what she could tell, it was already getting close to that. Even the flowing water of the stream was freezing.
She stood and walked around to the passenger side of the SUV and crouched down. She shone the flashlight in his face. He’d been upside down all this time, but his face wasn’t red. It was white, with red spots on his nose and his cheeks.
“Let me see,” she said.
He held out his hands and they were white and bloated. The fingertips were beginning to turn dark. “Oh, my God,” she cried. His hands did look like they were dying.
As quickly as she could, with his help, Allie found the keyhole on the cuffs and undid them. Once they were unlocked, they sprang apart and the man screamed, a hoarse, guttural sound that echoed through the pasture.
Allie fell backwards onto her butt in the icy creek. “Damn it!” she cried.
The prisoner was groaning and sobbing involuntarily. Allie remembered that once when she was a kid, a cousin of hers wrapped a string tightly around her finger and tied it. By the time her dad saw what the cousin had done, her finger was swollen to three times its size and felt like it didn’t belong to her. When he finally cut the string, her finger had burned like fire. His hands had to hurt much more than that. She tried to imagine ten times the pain she remembered. She couldn’t.
“Can you move your hands?” she asked, wondering if part of his hands had already died.
He shook his head. “Seat—belt?” he gasped, around painful moans.
She hesitated, knowing she had to free him but wondering how she would protect herself. She had the gun, but could she, would she, use it? And that was the question. No matter who this prisoner was, no matter what he’d done, she couldn’t leave him here to die. She was not that kind of person. She never had been. She wouldn’t have had the heart to leave a rabid dog out to freeze to death in this awful storm. But he was a prisoner. A dangerous one, judging by the handcuffs.
He coughed and groaned again. His face was frighteningly pale and a small trickle of blood dribbled from a cut near his temple. It was cruel to keep him hanging from the seat belt like a cut of meat.
She undid her coat and pulled the knife she always carried when she was working, from its scabbard. “Are you ready?”
He didn’t answer.
“Hey,” she said, shining the light in his face again. His eyes were closed, his jaw slack. Had he passed out? “Okay, I hope I don’t cut you,” she said, “because I’m going to have to do this with my left hand. My right hand is holding the gun.”
End of Excerpt