This book is a finalist in Romance for the Colorado Book Awards. The excerpt is from Chapter 8.

The next morning, just as the sun appeared boldly on the eastern slope of the foothills, I called Eulla. My old friend would worry if she heard the pipeline job had ended and she didn’t hear from me for several days.

“Eulla, I’m off work,” I said.

“I heard that yesterday. That the job had ended, honey. You OK?”

“I’m going to take Willie and the dogs and go to the hills for a while.”

“Well,” she said, “I’ve learned not to worry about you when you’re up there.”

“That’s good,” I said. “Don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

After a long silence, she asked, “You takin’ the ashes, honey?”


“Well, OK,” she said. “Will you be back for the Broncos game on Sunday?”

“I doubt it.”

“Well then. Peaceful journey. When you get back, call me so we can take care of that business I told you about.”

“I will.”

“Bye now.”

As I began to saddle Willie, I again thought about August dedicating the song to me the evening before, about his tender, whispered words and then the brazen way he’d pulled me to him with Charlie standing right there. I remembered the strength in his arms and the raging passion in his eyes. “If I became involved with him now, I wouldn’t be breaking my rule,” I said out loud, and Willie grunted when I placed the saddle on his back. “I’m a bad girl,” I told my jackass, then smiled. “But I can’t quite get the big Texan out of my thoughts. Chances are August Atkins is on his way east right now. And like all of the other guys I’ve worked with over the years, once he’s home, he won’t look back.”


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I knew that if August did try to come by to say goodbye, he would know I’d gone to the mountains. He would see that Willie and the dogs were gone, and he would know. After being around me for months, he’d also know I might be gone for days. I wondered if he’d wait. I didn’t expect him to. It was probably best for both of us if he didn’t.

Willie knew that the saddle panniers meant a pack trip. He seemed anxious to go. He kept turning his head around and nudging me with his nose as I packed the deep pockets of the panniers with lantern, skillet, sleeping bag, sweet feed, and miscellaneous gear. The dogs lingered nearby, playing with a frayed tetherball that was nearly flat. They, too, were in high spirits.

Dolly stood near my feet, her small eyes watching intently. It would be her first trip to the mountains. I had little doubt she’d do fine. She loved me with a love beyond love. I’d rescued her from hell, and I suspected, by the loyalty in her eyes, she would forever be grateful.

I thought briefly of Charlie tossing the hay hook and the vicious attack from Dolly that could have been much worse. “Maybe he’ll think twice before he throws something at a dog next time,” I said, looking down at Dolly. Her tail twitched.

I wondered, as I tied the flap on the panniers, would her abusive master look for her? Would he hear that I had acquired a Pit Bull and come looking? I doubted that, but even if he did, he couldn’t prove Dolly was his. And I had no intention of giving her back.

I walked Willie to the house and tied him to the handrail by the porch. In the kitchen, I put jerky, dried fruit, and water bottles in my backpack and took a new can of coffee. Hesitating, I talked to myself for a moment. Packing unnecessary food created a lot of extra weight and work for Willie. On this trip, food wasn’t a priority. I didn’t plan to be gone more than a few nights. I would fast part of that time, and my appetite hadn’t been good anyway.

But since I didn’t know how long I’d be gone…I pulled out a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, a can of ranch-style beans, and a loaf of bread. Bacon, eggs, hot beans, and skillet toast would taste wonderful on a frosty morning after a long fast. Besides, any food I didn’t eat, the dogs would be happy to clean up.

Once I had everything packed, I stood for a moment, going over a mental list. I usually forgot something, but after a few trips up the mountain in early fall, I didn’t forget matches, shovel, fuel for the lantern, a blanket, sleeping bag, or water. The rest was luxury, but in a storm, the essentials could mean the difference between life and death.

The temperature was only forty degrees, but the cloudless sky promised a beautiful day that would warm into the seventies. Indian summer. There were no better months than September and October to go hiking and camping in the mountains. Waking up on cold mornings to the promise of a campfire and coffee made me smile. I envisioned bright sunlight kissed by brief shadows from floating clouds. My anticipation churned at the thought of crystal springs trickling beneath giant pine trees deep in the belly of the distant canyons.

But autumn camping wasn’t for the weak of heart. October could bring stubborn rainstorms that moved in like evil ghosts and embraced the mountains with black clouds and gray fog as thick as mushroom soup. Or worse, early winter storms that dropped the daytime temperature thirty degrees in one day and blanketed the mountains with heavy snow that bit at your toes, played tricks on your eyes, and made all familiar landmarks look alike.

“Autumn of the Big Snow”


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I’d been lost more than once in my mountains. Getting lost always allowed me to see things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Getting lost also taught me many things. Any time the clouds began to cast gray shadows down over the hills, I knew to look up to read the sky, then look every direction in the distance to get landmarks. That was the first and most important lesson getting lost had taught me.

I knew that the big storms usually came up from the south, moved west, then back in over Elk Creek. When I saw clouds gathering in the south, I would become ever vigilant about exactly where I was on the mountain. Once the rain or snow started, it became easy to get confused about direction. I would quickly look for an overhang or some kind of protection for my animals and myself. A warm camp in a winter storm meant survival in the mountains of Colorado.

I was tightening Willie’s cinch when I saw the strange car pull up outside my gate. Many people pulled off of Highway 40 up toward my gravel drive, for a variety of reasons. It was my pet peeve. People had eighty miles of open sagebrush with many places to pull off, but for some mysterious reason, they seemed to favor my driveway. Some would just sit and talk on their cell phones. Others would let their dogs out to pee in the road ditch. I’d even had guys pull up and walk to the side of their truck and take a leak. I’d thought about having a sign made, with a dog with his leg lifted and a guy peeing: NO PISSING ZONE.

This appeared to be a lady in a late-model black and silver Lincoln Town Car. I glanced back down, double-checking the ties on the sleeping bag, my slicker, and the blankets I had packed above the panniers but behind my saddle. I checked my .243 deer rifle, made sure there were no shells in the chamber, then slid it easily into the saddle scabbard. On this trip, I would pack Willie and walk, knowing I had him to ride back if I got into trouble.

I heard my steel gate squeak open and looked up, surprised to see the lady in the Lincoln get back in her car and drive through my gate. She pulled her shining new car very slowly on up toward the cabin.

“Who’s this city girl?” I said to Willie and the dogs. The dogs stared, curious. “Lie down,” I said, watching as Dolly lowered her head and took another step. “Hey,” I said, in a firm tone, “that means you, too.” She dropped quickly, a look of apology in her eyes.

I was more curious than my dogs as I led Willie toward this woman who’d been brazen enough to open my gate, drive in, and shut the gate. This had to be a first for someone lost or wanting directions. Maybe she was low on gas and afraid of running out. Most would sit just outside the gate, contemplate their situation, then drive on, afraid to actually enter through a gate that said NO TRESPASSING. A few desperate souls would honk, hoping I’d come to them.

“Are you Katie Jo McVay?” the lady asked from the car as I stood ten feet away, holding Willie’s reins.

“Who wants to know?” I asked.

To my complete astonishment, the woman, who appeared to be about my age, then stepped out of the car wielding what appeared to be a .38, pointing the pistol directly toward me. “I’m Mrs. Charlie Hawkins,” she said, saying the word Mrs. like she was the Princess of Monaco.

We stood facing each other, and all I could think of was Charlie’s words from the night before, when I’d told him I wanted him to come to my cabin. “I don’t know, baby, that could be kind of risky.” Had he known his wife was having him watched, or that she was following him? The wife he’d said many times “didn’t care.”

“I’m going to shoot you,” Mrs. Charlie Hawkins said, without pause. “I can’t deal with it anymore.”

Oddly, her words didn’t alarm me at all. I thought, Well, it’s a good day to die. And then I thought, Maybe I’ll see James soon. And then, strangely, instead of fear, I felt a kind of euphoric happiness like I hadn’t known in months.

“Well, if you need to shoot me, that’s fine,” I said, “but I’d prefer to die up there.” I pointed north toward the mountains. “That’s where I’m headed anyway, so why don’t you just follow me up and you can kill me there.” Then I calmly turned and started walking Willie north toward the ridge, wondering what it would feel like to be shot. To hear the noise blast through the calm morning, have the lead burn into my flesh, and feel myself drop into unconsciousness.

“Come,” I commanded the dogs, walking with my back turned to the Mrs., wanting my dogs near if it was my time to die. They dashed out around me through the sagebrush, immediately on the hunt for rabbits.

The slam of the car door sounded like a gun in my ears, and I jumped. My reaction caused me to grin. Maybe I was a little nervous.

“I’ll bet you think I can’t climb that mountain,” I heard the Mrs. scream. “Well, I’ll just show your Indian ass.”

“Hmm,” I said to Willie. “The Mrs. needs anger management class.” I walked faster, without turning to look back. I could picture her behind me, in her tight designer jeans, trying to walk in her snakeskin boots with high heels through the rocks, the long, manicured nails pushing thick sagebrush aside. She was at least fifteen pounds overweight and had probably been pampered and spoiled from the day she was born.

“This is going to be a changing day in her life,” I said to Willie, chuckling and beginning to walk faster. The humor of the situation was almost too much to hold. I could be headed for the afterlife, and although it wasn’t at all the way I’d envisioned getting there, I knew James would be highly amused from the other side if he were watching.

I stepped up my pace, wondering if she was seriously going to try to follow me up over the rugged mountain range. I had grave doubts that she could make it across the sagebrush flats to the foot of the first ridge, which was less than a half mile. But when I reached that point, I turned and chuckled out loud. “Mad wife walking,” I told Willie. She was more than halfway across the flats, head down, marching forward, pistol in hand.

I knew from long experience that walking across the rocky flats was one thing, but climbing up the side of a mountain and going straight down the other side was another. I glanced over at the midmorning sun, now blasting forth with full glory. I led Willie up the side of the ridge, keeping up a steady pace. “In thirty minutes,” I said to Willie, “she’ll be slumped in the shade of a pinyon tree, crying for water.”

Stopping at the top of the first ridge to let Willie catch his breath, I turned and looked down. I was astonished to see that the Mrs. had effectively covered half of the distance between the cabin and the foot of the ridge below me. She was red-faced, and her once perfect blond hair stuck straight up and out. But after pausing and laboring for breath, she began her climb upward, swatting at small cedar trees and stepping over rocks.

“Anger is a great motivator,” I told Emmy and Dolly, who joined me at that point, panting and looking for attention. “Look at this white girl. Hell, she could whip four cops with her arm in a cast.”

The Mrs. hadn’t really stopped long enough to consider the fact that I probably wasn’t going to lie down and let her shoot me. That meant she’d have to catch me, which she couldn’t possibly do. Even if she continued to stay a hundred yards behind, in another three hours, she’d be totally exhausted. She hadn’t done a lot of planning in her murder scheme and had no water, no food, no blanket—just a gun. When the sun went down beneath the western hills, she’d be at my mercy.

Lou Dean is the author of countless articles in major magazines, five books of memoirs and two young adult novels. She has received four Colorado Authors’ League Awards and a prestigious Wrangler Award for her work. She grew up on a farm in Osage County, Oklahoma, and attended Oklahoma State University. She now resides in an isolated area of northwest Colorado.

Type of Story: Review

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