Friday morning, mid-July
A stitch in her side plagued Deputy Mattie Cobb as she jogged uphill, telling her that her level of anxiety and this form of exercise didn’t mix. Running in the Colorado high country around Timber Creek had soothed her for years, but not today. Her mind kept jumping back to the one thing that made her so . . . well, she’d have to say frightened, excited, and nervous all at once.
Though Mattie rarely took vacations, starting tomorrow she’d scheduled a week off from her duties as K-9 officer in the county sheriff’s department. It was unsettling enough to think about being away from work and outside her normal routine, but in addition to that, she and her patrol dog, a German shepherd named Robo, would leave early in the morning to drive to San Diego to meet her sister for the very first time.
Her sister! Just thinking about it took her breath away.
A few weeks ago, she’d learned through a DNA match on an ancestry database that an unknown family member was looking for her, and a flurry of emails had revealed that she had a sister and grandmother living in California.
It seemed impossible. Though she’d dreamed of finding family—or more specifically, her mother, since she’d been unaware the others existed—the thought of actually meeting this new sister and grandma scared her.
Mattie pushed herself up the steep path toward Hanging Falls, her feet crunching on stones as she took note of spots where washout had damaged the trail enough that it would need repair. She breathed in the moist air of the dampened forest. El Niño weather patterns had caused atypical levels of monsoon-like rainfall this summer in the Colorado mountains, resulting in floods throughout the high country. While at first everyone had welcomed the moisture—hoping the forests would recover from years of drought—now too much water had wreaked its own kind of havoc. In Timber Creek, when it came to rain and snow, it seemed like it was either feast or famine.
Mattie’s K-9 partner, Robo, kept pace beside her. As they jogged, they alternated running on the easier footing in the middle of the trail with navigating the more challenging, uneven ground at the edge. Dealing with ankle-turning stones, clumps of foliage, and tree roots helped keep Mattie’s focus sharp and her legs strong for the times when she needed to follow Robo off-trail during a wilderness search.
As she took in the scent that her brain classified as “wet forest,” she wondered what the aroma smelled like to Robo. A dog would interpret scents in layers, dissecting each one and classifying it as it came to him: the crisp smell of fresh pine, the earthy scent of damp soil, the musky odor of decaying leaves and vegetation. And then there would be additional layers that Mattie couldn’t detect with her inferior human nose—oh, a rabbit passed by here a few hours ago; there’s a deer hidden in the forest over there; and hey now, Moose and Glenna are just up ahead.
The local district wildlife manager, Glenna Dalton, had invited Mattie and Robo to join up with her and her Rhodesian ridgeback, Moose, to scout out wildlife habitat and trail conditions prior to the start of hunting season. Mattie had been happy to go. She’d hoped the exercise would settle her nerves.
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The pain in her side sharpened, and she knew she would need to stop soon to rest. She forced herself uphill, her goal the top of this last ridge where she could see what lay ahead. Surely the falls were around the next corner.
She pushed herself up the last fifty yards of steep slope, the pain turning into a blazing burn as she crested the ridge.
“Okay, Robo, let’s stop here for a minute.”
Robo threw her a confused glance before sitting at her left heel without needing to be told. He scanned the terrain while she smoothed the fur on his head, his nose bobbing as he sampled the air. Mattie wondered if he thought they were about to track a lost person or a fugitive as they often did.
Or maybe he was just searching for Glenna and Moose. She’d expected to see them when she came to this lookout and was surprised to find that she and Robo had fallen far enough behind that the pair had disappeared back into the forest.
Mattie puffed hard, taking in oxygen from the thin air. They’d reached a point in altitude right below tree line, and while the forest was still thick where she stood, the lip of the natural bowl that was their destination could now be seen about five hundred yards farther uphill, near enough to detect its stony rim, relatively treeless and littered with boulders and shale.
She’d been here countless times before, and she knew that the bowl at the end of the trail would be filled with a pristine, jewel-like lake fed by spring waters and snowmelt that spilled down a sheer thirty-foot drop, resulting in a spectacular cascade called Hanging Falls.
On her way up, the river below had been swollen and in many places even running outside its banks. Trails were washed out, and falls of all sizes crashed down rocky waterways as the abnormally high levels of snowpack continued to melt and rain continued to fall. Colorado Forest Service and Parks and Wildlife personnel would have to team up to make repairs as soon as the snowmelt diminished.
But right now, it was all she could do to battle the tightness in her chest and try to catch her breath. She clasped her painful side, going into a runner’s lunge to stretch her psoas muscles and hamstrings.
“You should be able to do better than this,” she chided herself. “Must be getting old and out of shape.”
As Mattie stretched, her thoughts wandered back to her family. She knew precious little about them, but she felt like she’d discovered hidden treasure. Her sister, Julia Prescott, was thirty-five, four years older than Mattie. Julia lived in the southern part of San Diego with her husband, Jeff, and two sons, ages ten and eight. Nephews! And to top it off, their maternal grandmother, Yolanda Mendoza, lived with Julia. Her sister referred to their grandmother as Abuela, and that’s how Mattie had begun to think of her.
It was almost more than she could take in and process.
She removed Julia’s last email from her shirt pocket, one she’d printed and kept next to her heart. She unfolded the email carefully, thinking she’d read it so many times that she’d almost memorized it.
My dear little sister,
Even as I write this, I can’t believe that we’ve found you. I’ve prayed for this for decades and still have trouble believing my prayers have been answered. I can’t wait to see you next week and to hold you in my arms like I did when you were a baby. I have many old photos of our parents and us kids to show you, and I’ve made copies of all of them for you to take home when you have to leave.
Joey and Jason can’t wait to meet their auntie. I cried all week after you told me that our brother Willie was dead and that you didn’t know where our mother is. I guess it was too much to hope to be able to have all of you returned to me at once.
I understand when you say you don’t want to share details about Willie’s death until we’re together. I feel the same about discussing our father’s death. Some things are just too muddled to write down on a page in black and white. It makes it hard to see the gray that surrounds the circumstances. We’ll have to talk about them when we see each other next week.
Abuela is beside herself with joy, though she has become very quiet the past few days. I think it’s overwhelming for her to have found her cherished granddaughter only to discover that it’s too late to ever see her grandson again. She’s getting older, but she has never given up hope that she will still see our beloved mother again before her life ends. And now I have renewed hope that we can pool our resources and make that wish come true.
I’ll text you directions to my house, and like I told you when we talked, both you and your dog Robo are welcome to stay with us. (I still have trouble imagining my baby sister as a K9 cop!) I know you mentioned finding a pet-friendly motel nearby, but we would love to have you as our guest. Please consider staying here with us, your family.
We love you and can’t wait to see you.
Hugs and kisses, Your sister, Julia
The unmistakable deep-pitched bay that could come only from Moose resounded over the lake and echoed off the granite wall on the other side.
“Oh no,” Glenna said. “What has he found?”
“Not a cougar, I hope.” Concern for Robo pushed Mattie forward. Stepping off-trail to dash past Glenna, she sprinted toward the lake, shouting at the top of her lungs for Robo to come.
Glenna ran close behind, but downhill had been Mattie’s specialty in high school. Her shorter legs and lower center of gravity allowed her to travel faster than taller runners whose stride outmatched her when going uphill. She pulled ahead on the smooth pathway, continuing to shout for her dog.
But Robo’s familiar bark had joined the echo. Mattie reached the lake and took the trail along its edge where she’d last seen the dogs. The footing was rockier and uneven here, and she watched the path, shouting to Robo while she ran. She entered a band of pine that wrapped like a finger around the pool at the base of the falls.
Darn it! She hoped the two of them hadn’t cornered a dangerous animal and gotten themselves into trouble. She imagined the worst, her heart in her throat, as she pounded along the path. The noise of the tumbling cascade filtered through the evergreens, growing in volume as she approached.
When Mattie broke through the trees, she spotted Moose and Robo crouched and barking near the base of the falls. White water spilled off a cliff, crashing over boulders, filling the air with a fine mist. Robo’s bark sounded ferocious as he jumped at the water’s edge, landing elbows-deep in the pool and then backing out to trade places with Moose.
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Both dogs raced back and forth in a fury, their eyes pinned on a felled pine that lay partially underwater, its trunk upended but still anchored to shore by a root system that rose into the air. Mattie called Robo as she ran, but his attention was fixed on something within the submerged part of the tree and he wasn’t listening.
Mattie raced the last hundred yards and came up to the dogs only a few paces ahead of Glenna. As she rounded the felled tree, Robo spotted her and came at once, his eyes bright and snapping with excitement. Mattie’s first glance didn’t reveal anything, and she allowed herself to relax, thinking it must be a squirrel or chipmunk that had taunted the dogs.
But Robo whirled to go back to Moose, obviously still drawn to whatever the ridgeback was barking at. In a stern voice, Mattie told Robo to “leave it” and made him come to her. Moose was so fixated on the tree boughs that he wouldn’t break away when Glenna called him. She charged down to the water’s edge to grab his collar.
Glenna captured Moose and had started to drag him away when surprise crossed her face, followed by a look of horror. She straightened, one hand on Moose’s collar while the other went to her chest. “Oh no!” she said, loud enough for Mattie to hear over the roar of the falls.
“What is it?” Mattie shouted, reaching for the pistol she’d strapped into a shoulder holster under her loose shirt.
Glenna’s eyes were still fixed on whatever she’d seen as she dragged Moose up the bank. “It’s a body, Mattie. Snagged in the tree. Or at least I think it is.”
Surely not a body. Mattie returned the pistol to its holster. She needed to subdue Robo and get him back under control. She feared he would leap into the water, which swept past the tree and into the torrent. “Robo, down. Stay.”
He obeyed, panting, his eyes now pinned on her as he watched her every move. Glenna struggled to get control of Moose as he continued to bark and pull against her. With a feeling of dread, Mattie inched her way down the tree trunk, searching the water within the submerged branches.
Then she spotted it. White and bloated, facedown, bobbing about six inches below the water. One arm floated upward, its hand swollen like a puffer fish with sausage-like digits. A body, hung up in the snag of branches and debris from the felled pine. The current rushed against it, threatening to loosen the tree’s hold and wash it away at any minute.
Below this point the river ran in rapids and white water until it spilled out of the bowl and rushed downhill, where it joined with other streams and runoff. If this body slipped from its mooring, it would be damaged as it bounced over the boulders in the riverbed. And if it floated past the rim to the next falls, it might be lost forever. Mattie couldn’t let that happen.
She raised her eyes from the grisly sight and looked at Glenna. “We need to get it out.”
Margaret Mizushima is the author of the award-winning and internationally published Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries. She was named the 2019 Writer of the Year by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and is also a member of Northern Colorado Writers, Sisters in Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Women Writing the West. Find her at www.margaretmizushima.com.