By: Gary Gray
Two Eagle County Sheriff’s Deputies are sitting in their Jeep cruiser on a narrow Colorado mountain road in late January. It is Thursday evening, eleven o’clock. After two days of continuous winter storm, the sky is clear, the moon is full and the road is covered with fresh snow. Deputy Sergeant Williams is behind the wheel, puffing a cigarette. His stare is fixed on the windshield. Deputy Patrolman Avery is plugging a cell phone charger into the power outlet on the dash. Their faces are lit blue and red by the reflection of emergency lights from the snow covered rocks on the steep hillside next to their truck.
“Can you roll a window down?” Avery asks.
“Yeah…sorry.” Williams replies as he presses the button on the door. The motor groans as the window moves a few inches lower. The men’s warm breath cloud in front of their faces. Williams turns the ignition key and starts the engine. “I better get some heat in here. It’s gonna be a long night.”
“You think we should try the radio again?” Avery asks.
“I’ve tried it four times. It won’t transmit out of this canyon.”
“My phone is dead. I talked to the old-lady for two hours earlier. This cord is too short, I can’t get the phone up to my ear. Guess I better charge it up.”
“You get signal on it up here?”
“Yeah-three bars. It’s not as good down the hill.”
“What’d the Captain say?” Williams asks.
“He said to sit tight until they can get up here. I wasn’t able to talk long, the battery went dead.”
“It’ll take an hour. You want some coffee?” Williams asks, reaching for his thermos lying on the rear seat.”
Williams twists the lid from the thermos, pours the hot coffee into the plastic cup and hands it to Avery. Avery’s hands are shaking.
“Thanks. Can I get a cigarette from you?”
“I thought you didn’t smoke.”
“Not until tonight.” Avery replies, his hands still shaking as he sips the hot coffee. Williams pulls a pack of Marlboro’s from his inside jacket pocket and tosses it on the dash. Avery picks it up and fumbles for a cigarette.
“Look at this?” Avery says, holding the cigarette in his trembling hand.
“Don’t smoke’em all, that’s all we got until we get back down the mountain.”
“I’m not sure they know where we are. The phone went dead while I was talking.”
“I told dispatch we were on county road twenty-four just above the ridge on Mt. Falcon.”
“They’ll find us then. You sure they got it?”
“Pretty sure. When the phone charges up a little, I’ll call’em back. How much gas we got?”
“Half a tank. Plenty to keep us warm – for a while.”
“Do you think we should go down there?”
“It’s not safe. I nearly killed myself and I only got thirty feet down the hill.” Avery wipes a dribble of coffee from his jacket with his handkerchief. “Thank God for leather jackets.” He says.
“Yeah, these things do keep you warm.” Williams replies. Both men continue to stare at the windshield. Williams turns the engine off. “It’s getting warm in here.”
“Look, some of it’s still burning over on that hill.” Avery says, pointing to the mountain side across the valley. “I wish we could get over there.”
“These mountains are pretty at night in the moonlight, don’t you think?” Williams says. “Look at how those ridges stand out against the sky. The snow really lights them up.”
“I like seeing the stars. There are more stars up here than down below. Must be due to the city lights.”
“See – over there. This must have happened during the storm.” Williams points to another hill. “There’s another small fire. I don’t think we’d of found this for days if we hadn’t seen these fires. I guess it was a stroke of luck, us finding it so soon.”
“Not many cars gonna be up here in this crap. It’s so clear out tonight; we’d have never seen this earlier. Would’ve taken days or weeks… some skier or hiker would have called this in.” Avery says. “I hope we don’t have to stay here all night. I don’t want to see this in the morning. The poor bastards, never had a chance.”
“Look, I’m gonna take a walk down the road. See if there’s enough charge on the phone to call dispatch again.” Williams says.
“Yeah. Take your portable radio and a flashlight. If you need anything give me a shout.” Avery replies. “I’ll turn the spotlight on. Be careful.”
“I will. I’m not sure I want to do this.”
Deputy Sergeant Williams zips his jacket and puts on his gloves, leaving Deputy Avery alone in the front seat. Flipping the butt of his cigarette to the snow, he begins walking along the snowy mountain road. As Williams leaves sight beyond the headlight beams, Avery turns on his portable radio and pushes the button.
“Got’cha radio on?” Avery asks.
No answer – only static.
“Williams, you listening?”
No answer – more static.
Avery honks the horn twice.
“What’s the matter?” Williams says over the radio.
“Nothing, just making sure you was turned on.”
“Yeah, I’m on. There’s something in the road up ahead… Hang on a minute.”
Avery waits. The radio pops with static.
“I’m gonna try calling dispatch now.”
Williams responds – two clicks.
Avery lifts his cell phone, the battery has a charge. He hits the speed-dial button and listens to the garbled ring.
“Eagle County Dispatch, Deputy Santana speaking.”
“Donna. This is Avery.”
“Hey Billy, you guys okay up there?”
“Yeah, we’re fine. When’s the crew get here.”
“They’re on the way up the hill now. They had to stop and chain up.”
“Did they give an ETA?”
“No, but I’d guess they’ll be there within the hour.”
“The snows about a foot deep on the road up here. It’s going to be slower than hell crawling up that road.”
“I’m sure they’ll make it. The Captain said if you called to keep your cell phone on. If he has any trouble, they’ll give ya a shout. There will be two trucks.”
“Do you know what equipment they have with them?”
“No, but I’ll radio him and ask, hang on.”
After a minute of silence, Deputy Santana replies.
“Cap’n says he’s got spot lights, skis, a portable heater, the regular gear kit for mountain rescue. He also said not to try getting in on foot, just stay with the vehicle until he gets there. Everyone’s been notified.”
“Well tell him we aren’t gonna be getting in on foot, it’s too steep and the snow’s too deep.”
“Will do. Anything else?”
“Not now. I’m hang’n up, the battery isn’t fully charged yet…gonna try and save it.”
“Later, and be safe up there.”
“Call my wife would you? Tell her I’m not going to be able to pick her mom up at the airport in the morning.”
Avery disconnects his call and plugs the charger cord back into the cell phone. He hasn’t heard from Williams in about ten minutes and is wondering what he may have found in the road when he hears a single gun-shot. Keying his portable microphone, he shouts into the handset.
“I heard a shot. What’s going on? You okay?”
Silence – static.
“You okay Williams?”
Avery is ready to exit the vehicle when the radio squeals.
“Mountain lion. I’m fine. I’m coming back.”
Avery leans out the window, pointing a spotlight up the road in the direction of Williams. A few moments later he sees his partner’s dark form moving along the moonlit road into the glare of the trucks spotlights. He’s holding something in his hand.
“You shouldn’t be shooting at Mountain lions.” Avery shouts.
“I wasn’t trying to hit him. I was trying to scare him off.” Williams shouts back.
“Was he coming after you?”
“No. It dropped this.” Williams is holding something in the air but Avery can’t make out what it is from this distance.
“What is it?”
“It’s a woman’s shoe…”
“A woman’s shoe?” Avery asks.
“With a foot in it.” Williams replies as he approaches Avery, lifting what appears to be a charred piece of tree branch, except it’s not made of wood. Still in the shoe is a foot, severed above the ankle. Most of the skin is burned away and it has a chewed heel and leather strap wrapped around the remains of a woman’s foot.
“The God-damn lion was in the middle of the road eating her. When it saw me, it tried to drag her up the hillside, but she was falling apart. There were two of them. One of them grabbed another chunk of her and ran off down the road. This was all I could get. They’re up there eating the rest.”
“God-Damn!” Avery says, rubbing his forehead. “The fuck’n mountain lions are out there eating them?”
“Looks like it.” Williams replies. “Nothing we can do about it.”
“I’ll shoot the mutha-fuckers. God-damn, that makes me sick.”
“Look, they’re just wild animals. It’s food to them. I know it’s rough to think about it, but there is nothing we can do.”
Avery pokes his head through the window opening. The mountain air is frigid and slaps his face like cold steel. Williams watches as Avery vomits. Avery wipes his mouth with a handkerchief.
“First time?” Williams asks.
Avery continues vomiting, waving his hand above his shoulder.
“I remember my first time – I puked too. Most fellows think they can take it but they can’t. Most fellows puke their brains out the first time.”
“Fuck’n cigarettes.” Avery flicks a two inch ash into the snow.
“You spilled your coffee. Want some more?”
“Hell no.” Avery replies. “Maybe we can turn on the radio real loud and it will scare them off.”
“I doubt it, but maybe the noise will help keep them away.”
Williams leans into the truck and starts the engine, then turns the radio on. Punching the buttons, he finds a rock station playing Black Sabbath.
“That’s good, I like this song.” Avery says.
Williams turns the radio volume up as loud as it will go. “Maybe a little Heavy Metal will keep’em away.” The sound of Ozzy Osbourne’s voice echo’s through the valley below them.
“Open the back and get a plastic bag, we gotta bag this foot. Maybe they can identify her with DNA or something. I’m going to turn on the siren too.” Williams says.
“Yeah, that’ll scare the bastards off.”
Deputy Avery returns to the cab of the truck with a one gallon plastic bag and holds it while William’s drops the burnt foot into it. Williams seals the top and is about to put it in the back of the truck when he sees headlights along the canyon road below them.
“Looks like they’re about here.” Avery says, shouting over the noise.
“Light up some flares and line them along the road.”
“Yeah, right away.” Avery begins setting lit road flares along the curve of the road behind the truck. “This should keep them from losing the edge of the road and rolling off the hill.”
Sheriff’s Captain Mark Collins and his two-vehicle caravan creep slowly up the snow covered mountain road. It is forty five minutes past midnight. Ahead of him he sees a row of red glowing road flairs and two deputies standing behind a stopped Jeep.
“What’s that sound?” Captain Collins asks the driver.
“Sounds like a siren and Black Sabbath sir.”
“What the hell are these guys doing up here?” Collins asks as the truck comes to a halt. Collins steps out and walks up to Williams. The second vehicle stops and three more deputies join the group standing in the road, now seven in total. Ozzie Osbourne stops singing and a Led Zeppelin song starts.
“Sounds like we’re busting a God-damned rock concert. Turn that shit off.” Collins orders.
Sergeant Williams approaches Captain Collins. He’s carrying the bagged, charred foot.
“Sergeant, what the hell are you doing…having a party?”
“No sir. I got this off a mountain lion. It was eating a woman’s body up the road about a hundred yards or so. We turned on the siren and the music in an attempt to scare them off.”
“Jeeeez-us Christ! Is that a woman’s foot?” Collins asks.
“Yes sir. The mountain lions are down there eating the bodies.”
The seven officers stand quietly for a few moments, staring into the dark canyon below them. The stars are bright and the full moon is high in the winter sky. Their breath clouds in front of their faces. In the distance the faint glow of small fires sprinkle the moonlit mountain hillsides. In the sky above the ridge on the far side of the canyon, they stare at the red and green blinking strobe lights of a passing airliner.
Captain Collins turns to Sergeant Williams and lets out a deep breath.
“Turn the damn music back on.”