We've been tracking Shawn Sutherland for almost two hours when the blizzard strikes. That's the common phrasing. A storm hits. A blizzard strikes. Like a left hook out of nowhere. Except that's not how it usually happens. There's always warning. The wind picks up. The sky darkens. At the very least, you sense a weight in the air. When the snow starts, you might curse at the suddenness of it, but you know it wasn't sudden at all.
This blizzard is different. Deputy Will Anders and I are roaring along on our snowmobiles, following a clear set of footprints in newly fallen snow. I'm glad Sutherland's prints are obvious, because it's such a gorgeous day, I struggle to focus on my task. The sun glitters off snow and ice as I whip along, taking my corners a little too tight, playing with the machine, enjoying the ride on what has become a rather routine task.
Rockton is a secret off-the-grid town, a safe haven for people in hiding. If a resident keeps his head down and doesn't cause trouble, we don't notice him. Until last month, that was Sutherland. Then the first snow came, and he snapped, declaring that he wasn't spending another winter in this town. He's run twice since then. Our boss—Sheriff Eric Dalton—warned Sutherland that if it happened again, he would spend the winter in the jail cell instead. Protecting citizens is our responsibility, even when it means protecting them from themselves.
Yesterday, Dalton flew to Dawson City on a supply run and, yep, Sutherland bolted again. But he's too afraid of the forest to actually leave the path, which makes him very easy to track after a light snowfall. Hell, I'd have taken the horses instead if Dalton wasn't due back before nightfall; I need Sutherland caught by then. Given that the sun starts setting midafternoon, we don't have much time.
We're ripping along when I catch sight of a dark shape ahead. Anders doesn't see it—he's gawking at something to the left, and I flip up my visor to shout at him. Then I see what he does: a wall of white. It's on us before I can react, a cyclone of driving snow and roaring wind, and I hit the brakes so hard my ass shoots off the seat and nearly sends me face-first through the windshield.
The sled's back slides—right into a tree. I curse, but on a path this narrow, striking a tree is damn near inevitable. I'm just lucky I wasn't the one hitting it.
I hear Dalton's voice in my head. Stay on the sled. Get your bearings first.
When I lift my leg over the seat, I hear him say, Stay on the sled, Butler. I ignore him and twist to look around.
White. That's all I see. Blinking against the prickle of ice pellets, I close my visor. Even with it shut, I hear the howl of the wind, an enraged beast battering at me.
I slit my eyes, turn my face from the wind, open my visor, and shout "Will!" but the storm devours my words. When I open my mouth to yell again, the wind whips rock-hard ice pellets into my face, and I slap the visor shut.
The first lick of panic darts through me, some primal voice screaming that I'm blinded and deafened, and if I don't move, don't do something, I'll die in this wasteland, buried under ice and snow.
And that's exactly the kinda thinking that'll get you killed, Casey.
Dalton's voice in my head again, a laconic drawl this time. He switches to my given name as his temper subsides, knowing all I need is a little bit of guidance from the guy who's spent every winter of his life in this forest.
I take a deep breath and then try the radio. Yes, that should have been the obvious first response, but four months up here has taught me that our radios are about as reliable as the toy versions I used as a kid. The second I pull off my helmet, the driving snow has me closing my eyes, hunkering down, and blindly raising the receiver to my ear.
"Butler to base," I say. "Anyone there?"
"Anders?" I say. "Will? You copy?"
I'm not surprised when silence answers. Unless his helmet is off, he won't hear his radio.
I squint in front of me, where he'd been only minutes ago.
He's there. He must be. I just can't see through this damn snow.
The howl of the wind responds.
I put my helmet back on and push the ignition button. As soon as the engine fires up, I know that's the wrong move. Anders was in front of me. I risk bashing into his sled. Or into him.