Margaret Mizushima is the author of the award-winning and internationally published Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries.
She serves as president for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, was elected the 2019-2020 Writer of the Year by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and is also a member of Northern Colorado Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Women Writing the West. She can be found on Facebook/AuthorMargaretMizushima, Twitter @margmizu, Instagram at margmizu, and her website at www.margaretmizushima.com.
The following is an excerpt from “Tracking Game.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Mystery
Always grateful that the county had bought an SUV for the K-9 unit, Mattie was even more so now. Robo stood behind her with his eyes pinned outside the windshield as the Explorer lurched up the rocky two-track that led into the high country above the Redman Ranch. Mattie had accessed the BLM property by leaving the highway and bumping over a cattle guard, and she was now on the four-wheel-drive road that headed upward beside the creek. Light from the setting sun slanted in, touching on bubbles made by eddies and swirls as water rushed downhill around rocks and boulders within the creek bed.
Willows crowded the creek banks, blocking her view as she looked for the man who’d been shot, and she realized she needed to leave her unit and search on foot. She pulled off the two-track and parked, ratcheting on the emergency brake. After hopping out, she wedged rocks behind the tires to reinforce the brakes and keep her vehicle from sliding downhill.
Robo leaped from his compartment. She made him wait long enough for her to put on his blue nylon search harness and to take a few laps of water. He was pumped up and ready to go, so she patted him on the side while she told him, “Let’s go find someone.”
She had no scent article for direction, but the mere presence of his harness told him he was looking for a person, and she knew it was all he needed to direct his considerable energy toward a search. She sprinted alongside him toward the creek bank.
Once she reached the water’s edge, she paused long enough to get Robo started. “Let’s find someone. Search!”
Nose down, Robo began to quarter the area, and as he trotted away from the creek, Mattie realized she hadn’t thought this through. How could she let Robo know that he was supposed to search along the creek bank?
She called him back to her, clipped a short leash on his harness, and started leading him upstream, staying as near the creek as vegetation would allow. She had a feeling the caller had been at a location higher up in the mountains than this, and she knew that keeping Robo on a leash was going to be too slow and cumbersome as they climbed in elevation. She needed a better plan.
She began to talk to him. “We need to find someone here. By the creek.” She said it over and over as she lifted branches of willows and pulled back shrubbery to direct him to search. Within a few minutes, he began searching without direction.
She unclipped the leash as she kept up her chatter, directing Robo with gestures and keeping up with him. He stayed beside the creek and started sniffing through the vegetation on his own. She felt a surge of pride. This dog was so smart, and she felt honored to have him for a partner.
They made better time heading uphill. The creek was about fifteen feet wide here, narrower and deeper in places where it tumbled downhill around granite stones and over falls. Mattie jogged along beside it, dodging rocks, fallen branches, and boulders.
Within the first fifteen minutes, they entered the forest, where pine, spruce, and piñon trees grew sparse but created new obstacles. The fresh scent of pine filled the air. Robo continued to beat around the willows and shrubs by the creek while Mattie ranged beside him to the best of her ability.
There had been no time to think about the danger associated with the search. Nate Fletcher had been shot less than twenty-four hours ago. Why had this caller been shot? Was it an accident? A long-range rifle shot? But it wasn’t hunting season right now, and an accident didn’t make sense.
It had been almost an hour since the call first came in to the station, and if this man was bleeding out, time was of the essence. She pushed a feeling of hopelessness aside and focused on the mission, whether it be recovery or rescue.
She jogged uphill, glad she trained each morning by running the hills that surrounded town. Robo continued to quarter the area beside the creek, searching under and around willows. When the creek traveled along steeper areas, the vegetation grew sparse, opening up the banks to view. Mattie took advantage of it to scan the banks and run ahead, calling Robo to join her.
Her phone jingled in her pocket, and she paused, letting Robo continue to search. The terrain was too rough to try to read the screen and run at the same time, and she was puffing hard, so she stopped to look at caller ID.
It was Brody, and she connected the call. “Hey.”
“Where are you? Johnson is on his way.”
“I parked close to the cattle guard. He’ll see my vehicle beside the road. By now, I’m about a mile farther uphill on the creek.”
“All right. He should arrive at your vehicle within ten minutes.”
Mattie began to jog uphill again. “Anything else from the caller?”
“Nah. We lost the connection.”
She puffed out a breath. Had the shooter found the victim and disconnected the call? Was there an armed shooter somewhere up ahead? “Okay. I’m going on up. Still have a cell phone signal, so have Johnson call me when he gets here.”
In the dim light of dusk, she’d lost sight of Robo, and she stepped up her pace. She focused on dodging tree roots, deadfall, rocks, and other barriers that seemed bent on catching her toe. She kept her eye on the ground with an occasional glance uphill to try to spot her dog. She hated to call him back and interrupt his drive to search, but she had begun to wonder if she should.
As she broke free from some trees, she finally saw Robo up ahead, still near the creek. The sun had set, and his black fur and tawny markings blended into the forest in the waning light. He was skirting the area, winding around a cluster of bushes, when he stopped, sniffing the air.
As Mattie neared, she could see his hackles rise. “What do you smell?” she murmured as she reached him. He was standing still, sniffing as if trying to sift through the air. She wished she possessed his special power and could help.
A low growl rumbled in his chest.
“What is it?” Mattie squinted, peering through the forest, struggling to detect something in the shadows that her dog could smell but she couldn’t see. “What’s out there?”
Robo edged closer, hovering at her left heel, growling as he searched the area with his eyes as well as his nose. A chill ran down her spine, and Mattie drew her Glock from its holster. She had no idea what they were facing, but she understood her partner’s warning.
The forest was still, all the normal evening sounds hushed. A low-pitched roar rumbled from somewhere uphill, a primordial sound that shook Mattie to her core. For a few seconds, she and Robo froze, and then he broke into a furious bark. Several rattling chuffs from uphill answered, followed by the long, drawn-out growl of an apex predator.
The hair at the back of her neck stood at attention. What on earth was that? A bear? A cougar?
Her first concern was for her dog. She sure as hell didn’t want him trying to protect her by charging to attack. “Robo, heel! Stay!”
She backed up to a pine tree, taking shelter against its rough bark. Robo stayed with her but continued to carry on, barking and snarling.
The predator responded with a rattling growl that ended in a roar. Mattie strained to see through the feeble light of dusk. Nothing but trees. She grabbed her flashlight from her belt and directed its powerful beam uphill. Again, nothing.
Robo hovered at her side, his front paws lifting from the ground with every ferocious bark. A downward glance told her where he was looking, and she shone her light in that direction. She glimpsed the shape of a large cat before it whirled and darted away.
Her dog’s hair bristled, and it reminded her of a strategy to use during a wildlife encounter—look big. She raised the flashlight above her head with her left arm while keeping her handgun trained in the direction of Robo’s line of sight. The light beam wavered in her trembling hand.
Another roar echoed through the forest, but this time it sounded like it was farther uphill. Was the cougar going away?
Mattie huddled against the tree, her heart pounding at a fearful pace. Robo continued to bark and growl, and she decided to let him. She held the flashlight aloft until her arm felt numb. After a series of fading growls from up above, the forest fell silent and Robo settled at her heel.
When she decided it was safe to move, she lowered the light and reached for her cell phone. There were enough bars on the screen to try a call. A quick swipe brought up Brody’s number.
“Where are you, Cobb?”
She spoke quietly into the phone, hoping her voice wouldn’t quiver. “Not far from when I talked to you last, maybe a mile and a half from my vehicle. Where’s Johnson?”
“He just passed your unit, but he’s sticking to the road. He should be near.”
“Tell him to stay in his cruiser. There’s a big cat out here, and it’s on the hunt.”
“Just a minute.” She heard Brody pass on her message to Sam, who would notify Johnson. “Are you safe?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. As far as I can tell, Robo barked enough to make it go away. I don’t want Johnson coming up on it unaware.”
“He’s still in his cruiser. He’s driven a mile uphill, but that’s as far as he can go. The road’s too bad for him to get closer. Retreat downhill so you can get to the safety of his unit.”
Despite the terror she’d felt a few minutes ago, she hadn’t forgotten the urgency of her mission, and evidently Robo hadn’t forgotten either. He paced a few feet out in front, sniffing the air, and then turned to stand at attention and pin her with his eyes.
“I think Robo’s hit on something, Brody. I’ve got to go uphill to check it out.”
“Don’t be stupid, Cobb.”
“I’m not. Robo scented the cougar, and now his body language tells me it’s gone. He’s got a hit on human scent this time.”
There was a long pause before Brody responded. “Keep this line open as you move forward.”
“Will do.” Mattie put her cell on speakerphone and shoved it into her pocket before clipping a leash on Robo’s collar. She wasn’t going to take the chance of losing him in the dark. “Okay, Robo, let’s go find someone.”
With Robo’s leash in one hand and her flashlight in the other, Mattie followed him uphill. She watched the hair on his back while keeping an eye on the rugged terrain at her feet. Robo didn’t hesitate as he led her straight uphill, his nose to the air instead of the ground.
Her flashlight showed her a still form beneath the trees, and as they approached, it gradually assumed the shape of a human lying spread-eagle, faceup.
Robo sat a short distance from the body, as if he’d taken Mattie as close as he dared. She scanned the form, but her eyes were drawn to its most ghastly aspect. The body’s shirt had been ripped open and its belly plundered, skin and viscera torn apart, bloody organs and tissue scattered. Mattie tore her eyes from the nightmarish sight and shone her light on the face.
It was Wilson Nichol, his mouth frozen open in a final scream. His passing had not been peaceful. Mattie recalled the low-pitched, rattling growl of the mountain lion that had fed on this man, and it touched a spark of terror in her soul. She reached for her phone.
“Brody, Robo found him. It’s Wilson Nichol. He’s dead.”
“Are you in a safe place, Cobb?”
She scanned the dark forest around her. A branch snapped off to her right, and she whirled to train her light in that direction. Nothing. She looked at Robo. He sat calmly, staring up at her.
“I think so, but tell the others to be careful as they approach. Have the posse come in a group, and tell them to bring lots of lights and make lots of noise.”
“Stay with me on the line, Cobb, while I get you some help. I’m coming, too, as soon as I can get there.”