A volley of shouts jerked Heath Masters' attention from the report he'd been filling out. Tension bunched the muscles across his shoulders as he stared down the steep embankment. When he saw that his deputies were still combing the thick brush, he relaxed slightly. Not another body, thank God. Evidently, his men and the ambulance attendants had merely been talking back and forth, their voices raised to carry over the roar of the rushing water that ribboned the canyon floor below them.
Three-quarters of the way down the slope, a blue Ford pickup lay upside down at the base of a massive pine tree. The vehicle's body and framework had crumpled like so much tin foil, and the rear axle had snapped like a toothpick.
A sudden gust of wind kicked up from the ravine. As the updraft molded his khaki uniform shirt snugly to his torso and cut through the heavy denim of his Levis, Heath caught the faint smells of burned rubber and gasoline. Trying to ignore the odor, he braced his booted feet wide apart and welcomed the refreshing coolness.
For almost a week, it had been unseasonably warm for early May, and this afternoon was no exception. 'Mere were few trees to cast shade over this section of the road, and with the eastern Oregon sun baking his shoulders, he was starting to sweat. When the breeze buffed softly under the brim of his brown Stetson, tousling strands of sable hair into his eyes, he only blinked, letting the air caress his hot face.
As if to remind him he had work to finish, the wind also ruffled the sheets of paper attached to his clipboard. Half blinded by the glare of sunlight, he squinted toread his writing. His aching eyes teared in protest. Damn, but he was tired. The kind of tired that went clear to his bones. He'd been working too hard, he guessed. Three weeks running with no days off, pulling twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts.
That's what happened when there were budget cutbacks. He'd been forced to lay off deputies, and now he was running himself ragged to take up the slack. Not that he minded the hard work. No. What really wore him down was the sense of defeat that dogged him. He couldn't be everywhere at once, and when he wasn't, things like this happened. A year ago, he would have had two deputies patrolling this area when the weather turned warm. Now he could only assign one. As a result, at least two kids had slipped through the cracks, and all Heath could do was pray his men and the paramedics didn't find others.
After making another unsuccessful attempt to bring his writing into focus, he decided it was time to give his eyes a short break. After securing his pen to the clipboard, he trailed his weary gaze over the slope that yawned below him, searching the bushes and tall grass for anything that looked out of place. lie wanted to believe he would see nothing. But after ten years in law enforcement, he knew better than to get his hopes too high. When high school boys cut classes to go down to the river and guzzle a few beers, they usually went in groups. Unless he missed his guess, there had been at least three youths in the cab of that truck and others riding in back. Without restraints, those in the back could have been thrown quite some distance from the vehicle: It only remained to find them.
Eventually, Heath's attention came to rest on the pickup again. As he studied it, he could almost hear the scream of tires grabbing for traction, then the crunch of metal as the truck plunged over the embankment and flipped end over end. He tried to shove the images from his mind, but they seemed to have a root system equal to that of the lofty pine, that clung so tenaciously to the slope below him Memories. They always haunted him at the scene of an automobile. accident, but never quite so cruelly as when he looked at that old Ford truck with its chipped blue paint.
A flare on the asphalt behind Heath emitted a soft hissing sound that reminded him of compressed air seeping slowly from a tire. Kaleidoscopic flashes of red and blue came from the light bars of the county vehicles parked on the shoulder of the road. Diluted by sunshine, the rhythmic rotation of colors blurred together to create an ethereal, muted mauve that lent a strange, pink brilliance to everything. It was like staring through heat waves with rosecolored glasses.
A burst of voices from one of the radios snapped Heath back to the moment. If he meant to get this accident report finished before the news hounds arrived, he needed to get cracking.
Bracing the clipboard on his left palm, he used the information on the driver's licenses he'd found inside the two victims' wallets to fill in their names, ages, and physical descriptions. In the photos, neither youth looked old enough to shave, let alone die. His hand shook slightly as he recorded the last entry, the tip of his pen squiggling below the line. Emotional detachment. Every lawman knew it was necessary to perform his job. Unfortunately, it wasn't always easy to turn off your feelings.
Sighing, he returned the pen to his shirt pocket and set the clipboard on the bumper of one of the cars so it would be handy later. After fishing a tape measure and piece of chalk from his trouser pocket, Heath signaled down to Tom Moore, the deputy closest to him. "I need a hand up here!"