He saw himself as a camera would, and often thought of himself in
the third person, as if an omniscient eye were looking down on him
and his activities. It was no different that Halloween night, as he
prepared the syringes. He talked to himself --- out loud ---
narrating every carefully conceived action, as if reading from a
script. He could picture himself as one of those guys on the
Discovery Channel or A&E.
"He moves with the utmost care as he makes his preparations, as
skilled a technician as he is a hunter..."
The snow was falling to beat hell, which brought a twisted grin to
his scrappy face. Virgin snow --- the irony not lost on him,
although his education had stopped in the ninth grade and irony,
per se, was unknown to him. Fresh-fallen snow erased tracks. No one
knew this better than a tracker, and, according to the voice-over,
he was among the most accomplished trackers in all of Idaho, all of
the West, if you excluded Montana, because there were guys up there
who could follow wolves for three hundred miles on foot without a
dog. Not him. He used his dogs and their radio collars whenever
"The final preparations almost complete, he anticipates the
events in the hours to come with near-military
On that night, he was scheduled for a twofer, a tricky bit of
timing and complicated logistics, especially given the storm. He
intended to get an early start for just this reason, the narrator
in his head reminding him of the importance of meticulous
preparation and execution.
He arranged the five darts and two syringes, methodically checking
dosages, storing them in two metal lunch boxes, the kind he'd once
carried to school, the kind his daddy before him had carried into
the mine. This one was lined with a gray foam rubber, not a white
napkin or sheet of paper towel. He double-checked the charge on the
Taser, was half tempted to test the thing on one of the dogs, as he
sometimes did. But with Pepper's staying behind, plump with a
litter, he couldn't afford to have another one out of commission
for the night.
Next came the firearms: the 22-gauge dart rifle; the MAC-10, with
its three-speed taped magazines; the double-barreled sawed-off, for
under the seat of the pickup. He was careful to separate the Bore
Thunder/Flash Bang cartridges from the 12-gauge shot. The flash
bangs performed like stun grenades but could be fired from the
sawed-off. He kept the right barrel loaded with one of these in
case of a run-in with law enforcement; he'd stun the bastard and
then shoot him up with some ketamine and leave him by the side of
the road, knowing he wouldn't remember what day it was, much less
the make or registration of the truck he'd pulled over.
He attached the magnetic license plates over the pickup truck's
existing ones --- a move as routine to him as brushing his teeth
--- a necessary precaution when working with his private clients.
The plates were registered to a similar truck in Bannock
He stuffed some fresh chew behind his molars, hawking a gob of spit
onto the garage's dirt floor. Even after being off of crystal meth
for six months, at moments like this he found the allure of it
tough to resist.
He checked the straps on the wire cages for the dogs. The snow
wouldn't hurt them any, and he was in too big a hurry to trade them
out for the vinyl carriers that were better in bad weather. He put
only one of the weatherproof carriers in the back, the biggest he
had. He double- and triple-checked its electric mat, a black sheet
of heavy rubber, a wire from which ran to a 12-volt outlet
installed in the side paneling of the truck bed; it was warm to the
touch --- a good sign.
The specially outfitted carrier was large enough to hold a mastiff
or Bernese mountain dog, or a mature sheep.
Beneath his stubble, he carried a hard scar on his chin, looking
like a strip of stretched pink leather, the result of a meat hook
slipping when transferring a she-cat from the pickup to the
dressing shed. He scratched at it, a nervous habit, the result of
too many hours with nothing to do. He spent far too much of his
life waiting for others, a disappointing aspect of being a
But now he had purpose, a higher calling.
It was time to put things straight. There were enough assholes in
Washington to fill a latrine. It was about time they remembered him
and others who believed in their country.
The male caucasian, twenty-four, a skier, was said to have been
missing for over three hours. A man's panicked voice had made the
call to 911: "A friend of mine...He never showed up...We thought
we'd accounted for everyone. I have no fricking idea how we missed
him but...I think he's still up there."
"Calm down, sir." The county's ERC operator.
"Calm down? WE LEFT HIM UP THERE. We were skiing the Drop on Galena
Pass. He never came off that mountain. He's out there somewhere.
You got to do something."
Blaine County sheriff Walt Fleming had listened to the Emergency
Response Center tape several times, trying to judge if it was a
prank or not. It wouldn't be the first time some yahoo had called
in a false alarm to Search and Rescue. This one sounded authentic.
And hanging up on such calls was, sadly, not that unusual. Guilt
could be a powerful motivator. Didn't need to tell a sheriff
A life in the balance.
A snowstorm. A miserable night.
Walt had set Search and Rescue's phone tree into operation.
Now, standing in blowing snow, in the freezing cold, with only his
pale face protruding from the parka, Walt caught his reflection in
the glass of a nearby pickup. Where others saw a capable
outdoorsman, Walt saw a softness settling in, his desk job taking
over. Where others saw a face that could be elected, Walt saw
fatigue. No one had ever called him handsome; the closest he'd
gotten was "good-looking," and that from a woman who no longer
shared his bed. He blamed his sleepless nights on her: the mental
images of her riding his own deputy, Tommy Brandon, flickering
through his mind. The two of them laughing. At him. After twelve
years of marriage, she'd left him alone with their young twins. And
as much as he wouldn't have it any other way, it wasn't working. He
was failing as a single dad. Barely keeping his head above water as
the county sheriff. With the help of only eight full-time deputies,
he oversaw law enforcement in a piece of Idaho roughly the size of
Rhode Island. Now he faced Galena Summit in a snowstorm when all he
wanted was a night playing Uno with his kids, and a decent night's
He awaited the dogs. Looking through the heavy snowfall, past the
bluish glare of halogen headlights thrown from several pickups and
SUVs parked in the turnout, he searched for some sign of the Aker
brothers. A freak October storm, the forecast calling for eighteen
inches above nine thousand feet. They were now above ten thousand,
occupying a wide spot in the road along a series of switchbacks
that constituted a part of State Highway 75.
Thirteen inches of fresh powder and no signs of a letup.
The conditions were horrible for an organized search, but,
statistically, the probability of the missing young man surviving
exposure went from bad to worse after the first four hours. They
were now well into hour six, so awaiting first light wasn't an
Walt saw a flicker of headlights and turned to watch a pickup truck
make the hairpin turn in a wheel-spinning ascent and pull into the
turnout, parking with the other vehicles. Dogs barked from crates
lashed to the bed of the arriving truck, which prompted the other
canines to compete. Walt couldn't hear himself think. After another
minute, and a lot of peeing, the dogs settled down. Local vet Mark
Aker, and his younger brother, Randy, came out of the truck,
"This coat stinks!" Randy complained, zipping up a winter jacket.
"I mean it smells bad, bro --- amoxicillin mixed with stale
"It takes a moron to forget a coat on a night like this," Mark
said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. By now, the others had
climbed out of their vehicles.
"No, it takes a moron to be out on a night like this!"
Walt and the Aker brothers went back years. Walt had first met Mark
as a teenager, when his family had spent summers and Christmas
breaks with his grandparents in Sun Valley. They'd been in a summer
camp together, had raised some hell as teenagers on the Sun Valley
ski slopes. Now with three dogs at home, Walt basically lived at
the vet's. It felt as if he might as well sign his paychecks over
to the Aker brothers. Randy's specialty was large animals, horses
and cattle; Mark's, primarily cats and dogs. In the glitzy,
celebrity-studded Sun Valley community, it was Mark's practice that
had soared. With working ranches giving way to showy estates and
ranchettes, Randy's large animal practice had nearly vanished in
the last ten years, causing some envy and friction between the
brothers. Things had gotten more cozy between Walt and Mark when
Mark had volunteered his services to Search and Rescue, developing
an effective K9 unit. Walt felt more like the third brother than a
good friend. Hearing that Randy --- the wilder of the two --- had
forgotten his coat came as no big surprise. He'd probably done it
on purpose just to frustrate his more responsible brother. If
anything, Randy was a professional thorn in his brother's side.
Like most brothers.
Walt and Mark divided up the K9 teams into four pairs. Randy, the
odd man out and the most experienced backcountry skier, would work
solo, head higher up the road and find his way out to the Drop,
from where he would ski the face of the mountain in search of the
missing skier. The plan was for him to rendezvous with his brother
and Walt midmountain.
The teams headed off without a pep talk or sermon --- just a check
of avalanche peeps, the radios, and GPSs. Radio checks would be
made every fifteen minutes. If the radios failed --- and they often
did in the mountains --- then communicate by flares if the young
man was discovered; orange, if you got yourself lost.
Six hours twenty-five minutes.
The ache in the pit of Walt's stomach had nothing to do with the
rope tied around his waist, pulling the evac sled.
Now it was all up to the dogs. Mark released Tango, his bitch
German shepherd and the best scent dog he'd ever trained. She would
go ahead of them searching for anything human, dead or alive.
Fifteen minutes rolled into twenty. A walkie-talkie check produced
reports from everyone but Randy Aker, already out of range.
The terrain proved slow and difficult. Walt was in a full sweat,
his parka hanging open. It was twenty-eight degrees out. Snow fell
in flakes the size of nickels. Steam rose from his neck and swirled
around his headlamp like a halo.
"I wanted to talk to you about something," Mark Aker said
breathlessly. The falling snow deadened all sound.
"Good a time as any," Walt said. He knew what Mark was up to: he
was trying to keep Walt's worry at a manageable level.
"We never talk...politics," Aker said, testing Walt in a
way that made him pay closer attention.
"I run for office every four years. That's enough politics for
"Not those kinds of politics."
"I don't pay too much attention to Washington or Boise, if that's
what you mean," Walt said. "You ever hear that story --- true
story, by the way --- about some budget committee hearing where the
congressman from back east had found a line item listing
thirty-five hundred cattle guards and made the recommendation to
take them off the federal payroll? Someone had to explain to the
idiot that a cattle guard is a couple pipes welded together to
prevent cows from crossing a fence line on a road, not a person on
"That's the point, I guess."
"What's the point?" Walt asked. "That congressmen are
Mark didn't answer.
At this temperature, over this amount of time, the batteries in the
missing man's peep --- an electronic device used to help searchers
locate someone in the backcountry trapped by snow --- would fail
It was a human life, and his survival weighed on Walt's every step
in the cumbersome snowshoes.
"We're going to lose his peep soon," Walt said, "if we haven't
"Hypothermia's the enemy, not the Energizer Bunny."
"Point taken." They continued for a few more difficult yards. "Are
you going to explain what you mean by 'politics'?"
But before Aker could answer, both men stopped at the exact same
"Did you hear that?" Mark asked.
"A branch snapping under the weight of the snow." Walt moved his
headlamp around. A badly bent and sagging pine bough shed some snow
and sprang up. Others seemed to bend lower with each flake of
The two men moved on, Mark Aker with less grace than Walt. He'd
spent too much time in the clinic. He rocked forward and back on
the snowshoes, wasting energy. But Walt knew better than to try to
tell him anything. Mark was a doctor, after all.
"You're thinking it was a gunshot," Walt said. "A rifle. Light
gauge: twenty-two-power load or an AR-15."
"It didn't sound like a tree branch to me. Too far away," Aker said
breathlessly, winded by the climb. "But you're the expert."
A few nearby branches snapped, surrendering to the snow load.
Hearing this, both men turned their attention uphill. Then Aker
trained his headlight directly on Walt, blinding him.
"You're right," Walt said, raising his glove to shield his eyes.
"That was a gunshot."
Walt reached for his radio.