IT NEVER HAD a chance.
The burnt red of the fox's fur stood out against the white background. Blood saturated the snow. I wanted to look away, but found myself morbidly fascinated by the rabbit's death throes. The fox lifted its head from the rabbit's neck and watched, almost bemused, as the small paws kicked at empty space.
Finally, it stilled. The fox bent its head and began to rip off bits of fur. I turned and walked past the gory scene.
It fit my state of mind.
Daylight was scarce this time of year, and I quickened my pace to make it back to my rig before dark. I needed this hike today. Normally, I’d be leading a group of guests on a hike from the local hotel, but business was soft this time of year, and I wanted to keep my guiding abilities sharp. Hiking alone always honed my awareness of my surroundings and allowed me to forget my past.
For a while.
I fell into a rhythmic stride, comforted by the crunch of the snow under my feet. As I rounded the corner that marked the lonely stretch of wilderness that lay between me and the roughed in trailhead, I noticed movement to my right. Thinking it was probably more wildlife trying to break through some ice in a nearby pond, I stopped.
A series of odd grunts punctuated the silence. It was still early in the season, so the possibility it might be a late-to-hibernate bear was real, but not necessarily the only explanation. Silently, I moved in the direction of the noise, peering at the frozen pond through winter-stripped alders.
There were three men; two standing and one on his knees on a gray tarp. It took me a minute to realize what was happening. The sharp report of the gun flushed a small murder of ravens from a nearby tree. The man on his knees crumpled forward.
Unable to breathe, I dropped to a squat behind the trees, scanning the area for better cover. The barren white landscape held no place to hide.
Just sit tight, Kate. If I moved now, I’d be dead. The low murmur of voices drifted past me, accompanied by the occasional scrape of a tarp-wrapped body being dragged over the crusty snow.