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I heard it before I saw it. There was a crack followed by an unmistakable whoosh signifying disaster. A quick look over my left shoulder confirmed my fears. An immense slab of snow had broken loose and was barreling toward me like a white locomotive that had jumped the track. I skied for the trees in an attempt to outrun the monster, but the slide was on me faster than thought and I only made a couple of yards. It slammed me with an angry surge, tossing me skyward before sucking me back down. I ended up riding its surface, a snow surfer at the front edge of a crystal tsunami that, like batter in a blender, kept threatening to pull me under. All my senses were on alert as the world flashed past in a river of white, trees folding like dominos, immense walls being carved into the terrain to either side.
Trying to keep my position atop the monster was like trying to leash a rabid dog. Pulling to mind every survival technique in my reservoir, I started swimming, which was like trying to do the breaststroke in mud. But I had to do something to stop it from towing me under and encasing me in a concrete coffin. My frantic mind recalled how they found Billy Rineheart's battered body last spring after the melt, his legs tucked behind his head in a morbid backbend, his spine but a memory. I swam harder, fighting to hold the surface, my frantic paddling like that of a non-swimmer thrown into a pond.
Thankfully, the force of the avalanche had knocked off both skis, so my legs were tracking directly behind me instead of being pin-wheeled into spiral fractures. Something hard hit from behind and bounced off my helmet. A moment later a tree branch swept past in the debris. My captor had funneled me into a chute and we were plummeting towards the valley below at mind-bending speed.
Ahead of me, the wave plumed upwards, crystals of snow turning to explosive white clouds. My helmet ripped off and then one of my gloves along with my left ski pole. My right pole was still attached and while I feared the strap might break my wrist, I also hoped it would stay with me so there might be something poking through the surface to let people know that a possibly breathing creature lay somewhere in the area.
I'd heard stories about a person's life travelling before their eyes when they know they are facing death, but that sure wasn't the case for me. There was no such luxury of time to recount my life, though I did think of my brother and wondered how he would take the news of my demise. Down and down we went, the white bronco trying to buck me off while every fiber of me struggled to stay on its back. My eyes flicked up to the clear blue sky that lay on the other side of the crystal fog. It looked so tranquil with the mountains carved into the blue and the rays of the late-afternoon sun slipping around the peaks.
And then, as quickly as it started, the slide came to a halt. My efforts appeared to have paid off, allowing the possibility of survival to occur to me. I was on the surface. Well, part of me anyhow. My legs, left arm and torso were encased in a snow cast, but my head, right shoulder and right arm were free. I was looking at Castle Creek Road winding lazily through the valley below. Miraculously, my right ski pole was still with me and I waved it in hopes of attracting the attention of some passing vehicle. In January, the sun set early, and if I wasn't rescued before it went down the chances of survival were slim.
My braid rested in front of me, a thick blond snow-packed piece of rope that I pushed aside to reach around my neck. I felt a surge of relief as my hand took hold of my avalanche beacon. Being on patrol, I always wore it. It was in the receive mode. I turned it to transmit and went back to waving my ski pole with an exhausted arm. A car in the valley flashed its lights and a wave of euphoria swept me. I was going to live.
The small glimpse of optimism was short lived, however, as another crack echoed through the valley followed by the sound of the locomotive bearing down on me again. The second slide took longer to hit, but this one knocked my ski pole free and shoved me from behind, taking the slab of snow that encased me along with it. I was travelling downhill again, the creature claiming victory as it pulled me underneath and enclosed me. When it came to a stop this time, I was in complete darkness. But somehow I'd had the presence of mind to keep my right arm in front of me. My right hand was inches from my face, protecting the world's smallest pocket of air. I said my prayers and tried not to panic. Panic meant hyperventilating and oxygen was precious enough as it was.
I wasn't cold or aware of any pain, but I was completely immobilized. I took miserly breaths, holding them in as long as I could, having no idea how long the air pocket would last. Time went into suspension, and an odd sense of acceptance came over me as I lapsed in and out of consciousness.
I was deep in conversation with the powers that be when a dull thump broke the absolute silence. I would have gasped had there been enough oxygen. The thump was followed by another thump and then another. The thumps started getting louder and more regular until it dawned on me it was a shovel I was hearing. And then a weak crack of light penetrated my tomb. Gray dusk brushed the sky above like variegated layers of smoke settling down after a fire.
A dark mustachioed face wearing a red ski cap was hovering over me.
'Are you an angel?' I asked.
Fierce dark eyes glared at me. 'Dammit, Westerlind. If you hadn't already got yourself buried alive, I'd do for you.'CHAPTER 2
When I woke up, I was alone in a hospital room with all kinds of tubes and cords protruding from my bruised and battered body. A beeping monitor behind me only made my already intolerable headache worse. Though my vision was blurry, I managed to focus on the far end of the bed and could see the outline of two feet poking up beneath the sheets. That was a good sign. I wriggled my toes, and the sheets moved. Even better. My arms lay exposed atop the blanket and I played imaginary scales, first with my right hand, then my left. Another victory. I tried to raise my right arm. That hurt like hell, but with some effort I was able to bring it up above my head. The left was no problem.
A doctor came in, a good-looking one I might add. He had a light complexion and was clean-shaven with short straw-colored hair, a square jaw and small, oval-shaped wire-rimmed glasses. That his face wasn't familiar puzzled me. Since I usually stopped at the hospital to check on the skiers I'd brought down the hill, I thought I knew just about every doctor in that ER. But the season was early and I hadn't been to the hospital a whole lot yet, so I figured him to be new.
The doc gave me a smile that momentarily overrode the feeling that my body had been pummeled by a rock in a sack. It was a warm and heartfelt smile with evenly spaced white teeth, except for one side tooth that was charmingly crooked in a Hugh Grant sort of manner. His nametag read Dr Duane Larsen.
'Well, you're a miracle,' he said. 'Remind me to book my next flight on your plane.' He huddled over me and I noticed the eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses were mismatched, one green, one brown. His mounded muscles beneath the green scrubs told me that aside from practicing medicine, the doctor practiced body building as well. He put his finger to my right eyelid and raised it, shining a light into it, flicking the light off before repeating the procedure on the left.
'Why am I here?' I asked.
'You don't remember?'
A shake of my head caused my brain to volley painfully against the sides of my skull. 'No,' I said, suppressing a grimace.
'You were in an avalanche, a pretty major one, I understand. The good news is all your parts are still in the right place. But you've been out of it for twenty-four hours. You've had a pretty severe concussion.'
No kidding, I thought, my head banging like those little hammers on those old aspirin commercials. A moment of panic followed as my thoughts turned to Kayla waiting for me at the front door. Then the pain in my head relocated to my heart upon remembering there was no need to let her out anymore.
'Are you up for a visitor?' Dr Larsen asked.
He left the room, closing the door behind him. I turned my head toward the window and tried to make sense of what had happened, but my brain was a wall. The mountains were bathed in the pink of the sunset sky, turning the white-capped peaks inviting and foreboding at the same time. One good thing to be said about being in the hospital in Aspen: every room had a view.
The door opened and Neverman stepped in. He was in street clothes, jeans and a down jacket, his graying curls tucked under a beat-up old cowboy hat. An image flashed and retreated, a slide and then Neverman's stern face peering down godlike from above. My only regret about being in one piece was having him to thank.
My nemesis, mentor and boss, Mike Neverman was a true enigma in my life. A mountain man in the truest sense, he lived in a cabin on the backside of Aspen mountain and snowmobiled or snowshoed to work most days. When he first started in patrol the day after God was born, there were no female patrollers and the only correlation he saw between women skiers and patrol was having to load us into toboggans for the downhill ride to waiting ambulances. And though things had changed a lot since ancient history and there were plenty of fully fledged women patrollers nowadays, it was no secret he wasn't happy about it. Luckily he had the good sense to keep his resentment simmering below the surface, only allowing it to boil over occasionally when dealing with Meghan and me and the other women. The only one he didn't mess with was Lucy. Big and quiet, Lucy was the size of a running back. She'd probably squish him.
His dark eyes were fixed on me in a manner that made me think he wished he had found me other than alive. But when he spoke, there was an unrecognizable timbre in his voice that made me nervous. It bordered on polite. But behind the politeness was a restraint I'd never heard before.
'How're ya doin', Westerlind?'
'Gotta say, I've felt better. My head feels like it's going to explode. I'm thinking of suing the helmet manufacturer.'
He was silent a moment before unleashing the anger behind the restraint. 'You know you dodged one hell of a bullet. From what we figure that slide carried you near to fifteen hundred feet. It's a fuckin' miracle you didn't suffocate or hang up on a tree. The only reason you didn't get your dumbass brains crushed in is you have such a hard head.'
Did I mention he'd started out polite? Oh well, one can dream. Before I could offer any commentary on his tirade, he shifted into the condescending voice I'd grown accustomed to. 'What the hell business did you have skiing back of Ruthie's anyhow? Did you take leave of your senses? You knew avi risk was high. Now I know you're notorious for taking chances, but skiing Ophir's in the afternoon, with the snow all set up the way it was, that's a stunt for some twenty-three-year-old idiot boarder. Not a seasoned ski patrol. What in hell were you thinking?'
The questions came rapid-fire and, to be honest, they were reasonable questions. The problem was the answers evaded me completely. I had no idea what chain of events put me out of bounds outside Ruthie's in the late afternoon when the avalanche risk was high. My memories started with being slammed by a slide and ended with being dug out while still breathing. Other than that, my brain was a vacuum of recall.
Now I'd say I'm a pretty confident woman in the larger sense, but at times Mike Neverman could level me to the proverbial little girl. As he had now. 'I ... I don't know why I was there,' I stammered.
'Well, all I can say is you're damn lucky.' He took his hat off and stared down at the crumpled rim in his hands. 'Wish I could say the same about Warren.'
'Warren?' His name catapulted from my mouth. There was no need to ask Warren who. There was only one Warren, my longtime friend and greatest ski buddy. My next words flowed from my mouth over a tongue that hoped to make them true. 'Warren wasn't in that slide.'
The rare hint of sympathy in Neverman's face forewarned something I wouldn't want to hear. His next words confirmed it. 'You didn't know you weren't alone in your folly?'
My mind searched for Warren anywhere in the picture and couldn't find him. Bits of the slide were coming back in fractured pieces of the whole. The first boom of white. Coming to a stop on top of the snow. Being buried in the second slide. But Warren was nowhere in that memory. The real challenge now was to pose my next question without breaking down. 'Please tell me that he's OK? Please tell me he just broke his leg or something like that?'
Dark staring eyes were his only response.
'He's paralyzed. Oh, God, he's paralyzed.'
Neverman's eyes went back to the hat in his hands, his knuckles whitening as his grip tightened upon the rim. 'He's dead, Greta.'
The cruel reality of his words left me speechless. The headache throbbed in my ears, drowning out all sound except the repetitive beep of the machines. Gradually sound returned, the carts rolling down the hall, the voices carrying in from the nurses' station. Dr Larsen came back into the room, took one look at my tortured face and turned his scrub-clad body toward Neverman. 'That's enough for now. She needs to get some rest.'
My boss placed his cowboy hat back on his head, flattening the greying curls over his ears. His voice had gone schizo again, all nice and understanding. 'Yep. Like the doctor says, you get some rest, Westerlind. Come back to work when you feel like it.'
He turned and went out the door. And then he was gone, the cadence of his cowboy boots echoing down the hall, leaving me alone to contemplate my role in the death of a good friend.CHAPTER 3
They released me the next afternoon, but not before I was walking to their satisfaction and not without Dr Larsen, who'd wanted me to stay another day for observation, giving me stern orders to lay low and 'refrain from doing anything strenuous for a week'. Easy for him to say. Sitting around wasn't anywhere in my DNA and never had been. The thought of doing nothing was as threatening to me as a jail sentence.
He wheeled me to the hospital entrance and waited beside the wheelchair until Judy came to pick me up. A wisp of a thing with dark brown hair and bright blue eyes, Judy was the first person I met when I drove into Aspen fifteen years ago in a car so packed to the gills I looked like an Okie. I had arrived in town all alone with no clue where I was going to live or how I was going to support myself. Just knew I wanted to be a part of this town. I met her in the hamburger place where she was waitressing at the time, and she took me under her wing and has been my best friend here ever since. Aside from my twin, she's the person I love and trust more than anyone in this world.
She was uncharacteristically quiet on the drive into town, silent as we wheeled along the snow-covered streets, past the Hotel Jerome and the County Courthouse and the Catholic church, all prosperous landmarks from when the town had seen its first heyday. Or silver day as you might have it. Aspen was among the most respected silver trading bases back in the 1880s when the country was on the silver standard as well as the gold. One of the richest cities west of the Mississippi, its fortune had changed drastically in 1893 when Grover Cleveland took the US off the silver standard. The end game was that the valley's population dwindled to below five hundred, a group made up basically of cattle ranchers and potato farmers.
Aspen found itself in an entirely different heyday now, the kind that dealt with real estate and second homeowners versus precious metals, but this heyday probably wasn't any less valuable than when silver had ruled.
We continued through town along eighty-two and headed up valley toward Independence Pass. My A-frame sits about as far up eighty-two as you can go before the Winter Gate gets shut in November, closing the road off to all travel on the other side until the pass reopens at Memorial Day. It's quiet where I live and that's the way I like it. Actually, my neighbor on the other side of the highway is Kevin Costner, but he has security so it's not like I could go over and borrow an egg.
I knew part of the reason for Judy's silence was that she was irritated with me. And it wasn't only for getting myself in an avalanche. She wanted me to stay with her and Gene in their Red Mountain mansion for a couple of nights to make sure I was all right, but I'd declined. I'd already spent three days in the hospital and I just wanted to be home in my own surroundings to lick my wounds. Not the physical wounds, you know. My pain threshold is high, and I've had enough blow-ups while skiing to know the bruising of my battered body would pass. It was the psychological wounds that were troublesome, and there was no doubt in my mind that Judy knew that. She knew how incredibly close Warren and I had been. She also knew my private nature and that I'd talk about it when I was ready.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "First Tracks"
Copyright © 2019 Catherine O'Connell.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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