A House of Short Stories

THE STRAY

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A precocious six-year-old, Zach Anderson, sat warm and cozy in the back seat of his father’s recently purchased pre-owned Hummer H1. He paid little attention to the verbal warfare coming from the front seat. Engrossed in a video game, and pacified by the furry dog at his side, he ignored the all-too-familiar harangue between his parents, even though the dog was the topic of conversation.

Richard Anderson was hot, and not from the outside temperature. The heavy snow blowing sideways in the twenty-eight degree air was to his liking. The cause of his sudden flushing sat next to him in the front seat of the vehicle. “Look at it from my perspective. I finally get a full weekend off, a chance to try out my new Hummer on the back roads, and you insist we travel to Dillon in a snow storm to visit your parents. If your demand wasn’t enough, you insisted on picking up that wet, stinking mutt.”

“What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll lose the new car smell? Jeanie Anderson stared darts at her husband with her rebuff. “I got news for you, hubby. The new car smell came from a can and if you visit the dealer after this trip, he’ll provide one for you. And furthermore the ‘mutt’ as you call him, is a Norwegian Elkhound, a very expensive breed. He’s obviously someone’s pet and got lost. We’ll leave him with my parents until we can locate his owner.”

Ignoring his wife’s rant, Richard flipped on the radio and tuned to the weather channel that provided up-to-date information on the status of Interstate 70, the highway they traveled west out of Denver. They were near Eisenhower Tunnel, a dual-bore, four-lane vehicular tunnel continuing I-70 under the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. The announcement over the radio reaffirmed Richard’s growing suspicion of the slow traffic. The Tunnel was temporarily closed. He was familiar with those words; ‘temporary’ meant anywhere from one hour to twelve hours. He refused to sit in the car with a stinking dog and a bitching wife for any length of time.

“We’re getting off at the next exit,” he announced to all.

“Are we going home? I’ll need to call Mom and tell her.”

“No. Your mother will accuse me of using bad weather to avoid the trip,” Richard retorted. “I’ll get on U.S. Highway 6 and travel across Loveland Pass around the tunnel.”

“Are you crazy?” Jeanie leaned over the seat divide and shouted in Richard’s ear. “If the snow is too heavy for traffic to safely enter the tunnel, why would you even consider driving over Loveland Pass?”

Richard patted the steering wheel. “This baby will make it. It was built for this weather and terrain. Wide track, four-wheel drive, sixteen inches of ground clearance. See this button? CTIS. Central Tire Inflation System. This magic button lets me increase or decrease the tire air pressure from inside the vehicle. If the terrain gets rough, I’ll lower the tire pressure to handle it.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Jeanie flopped back against her seat. “You are thinking with your overabundance of testosterone. You are placing your family at risk for a joy ride.”

Zach removed a hand from the video game, gently rubbing the soft fur of the dog’s head buried in his lap. When the dog whined, Zach placed the game on the seat, grabbed the animal’s ears and playfully rocked his head from side to side. “Easy, boy. We’re going up a mountain.” His words were meant to soothe himself as well as the dog. He had remained quiet since the turnoff onto Highway 6, but when the wheels spun and the vehicle slipped sideways, he wasn’t so sure his father could handle the treacherous road. He had crossed the pass one summer with his grandfather, and remembered the steep drop-offs away from the mountain. Guard rails were almost nonexistent and then only on the worse hair-pin curves. He pushed the dog’s head out of his lap and leaned forward in his seat located behind the driver. The snow blanketed the windshield making the wipers useless and the glare of the headlights reflecting off the falling snow made visibility worse. “Shouldn’t we go back?” he asked.

Richard attempted to show confidence though the nervousness in his voice betrayed him. “No place to turn around, sport. I know this road well. We are near the summit. Once we top out we’ll get protection from the wind-driven snow and we’ll inch our way down the other side.” He cast a quick glance at his wife who remained rigid in her seat, her eyes locked on some invisible object outside the Hummer.

The right rear wheel suddenly lost traction and spun in place causing the Hummer to slide toward the edge of the road and the precipitous drop. Jeanie gasped, and then clamped her hand over her mouth to avoid alarming Zach.

Richard wrestled the steering wheel to the left and moments later the left front tire caught firmly and pulled the slowly drifting vehicle back toward the sloping incline to their left.

Jeanie could sit quietly no longer. “For God’s sake, Richard. Please stop and rest for a few minutes. I can see the strain in your face.”

Richard’s shoulders slumped, giving in to his whining wife. She had no sense of adventure. A city girl. Never exposed to danger in her life. I can’t let Zach grow up like her. He applied pressure to the brake pedal and the already slow moving vehicle came to a complete stop. “We can’t sit here long. The snow will pile up and make forward progress more difficult. A few minutes of rest won’t hurt. Once we get to lower elevation the snow won’t be this heavy and we can make better time. Maybe you’d better call your mother and tell her we’ll be late.” He slumped down in his seat, resting his head against the support. He heard Jeanie mumble, but the words were lost in his brief respite.

“Did you hear me? There is no signal.”

Richard pushed upright. “Did you charge your phone before we left?”

Jeanie spat her answer back at him. “I have it plugged into the adapter. There’s plenty of power. Just no signal.”

Richard shifted his body forward, dug into his pocket and retrieved his smart phone. With a click it came alive. No towers. “Damn. The mountain and this heavy snow is blocking the signal. We better get started. Keep an eye on your phone. If towers pop up on the screen, yell out and I’ll stop.” He had left the engine idling during the stop to keep the interior of the Hummer at a comfortable temperature. He raced the engine a little, shifting the gear from neutral to forward. The vehicle lurched forward for several inches before all four tires spun in place. He pressed harder on the accelerator and the 6.6 L turbo Diesel V8 engine roared, the 300 horsepower applying the maximum of 520 lb-ft of torque to the transmission. The tires spun faster, digging through the snow to the ice layer below. All four tires failed to make purchase.

“I knew we shouldn’t have stopped.” He slammed the gear into reverse and gradually increased pressure to the pedal. The tires grabbed for an instant before spinning again. Rapidly shifting the gear from forward to reverse, he managed to rock the Hummer back and forth in the same tracks. With each gear change he silently pleaded for the tires to grab a solid surface. The tires sunk deeper into the trench with each maneuver until the undercarriage of the vehicle came into contact with the snow buildup. Previous silent prayerful pleadings became a stream of curses and he pressed and held the accelerator to the floor, slamming the gear shift back and forth. The engine screamed in protest and steam poured out from under the hood.

Jeanie grabbed Richard’s arm. “Stop it, stop it. You’ll blow the engine and we’ll freeze to death.”

Richard was beyond hearing, or caring about the engine. He continued his maniacal frantic maneuvers until the left rear tire suddenly made purchase. With the gear in the forward position, the vehicle leapt out of its own brief grave and shot forward. Richard shouted in joy, his elation cut short when the front of the vehicle veered sharply to the right. At the same moment, the right front tire dug into the ice on the side of the road causing the front end to dip and then slip downward over the edge. He stomped on the brake pedal, locking the wheels even as his brain registered the futility of the action. He yanked the gear shift back into reverse, shoving his foot on the accelerator with all his might, praying the tires would grab and stop the slide. The motor howled and the tires spun uselessly, failing to slow the vehicle’s descent over the snow-covered frozen terrain. He turned toward Jeanie, his eyes taking in the panic on her face as she searched the back seat for Zach who had fallen to the floor during the furious back and forward motions.

Locking his hands on the steering wheel, he pressed his feet against both the brake and the accelerator. Neither action slowed the rapid descent of the Hummer down the side of the mountain. The large tires and the undercarriage careened off covered boulders, bouncing the box-like vehicle from side to side even as the downward plunge increased in speed.

“God save us,” pleaded Richard.

Jeanie screamed. “Zach, get on the floor and cover your head.”

The front tires struck a wide, partially buried boulder sending the Hummer airborne for several seconds before the front windshield exploded in a shower of glass and the grill impacted with a massive hardwood tree. The front seat airbags deployed instantly, seconds after the frozen protruding limbs of the tree slammed through the windshield, impaling the occupants of the front seat. The force of the impact killed the engine and soon the only sound was a momentary pinging noise from the rapidly cooling motor.

Within minutes the wind driven snow covered the debris, restoring balance with the surrounding landscape.

Zach awoke to a wet cloth bathing his face. He quickly realized it was the dog’s warm, rough tongue. He wrapped his left arm around the dog’s neck, answering the whimpers from the animal with soothing words. “It’s okay, boy.” Why is it so dark and quiet? Where are my parents? He lay still with the animal in his embrace. Slowly the memory of the earlier event returned. “Mom? Dad?” He pushed the dog to the side and attempted to get up from the floor. He screamed when the motion produced lightning bolts of pain shooting up his right arm to his shoulder. His arm was pinned beneath the front seat. “Mom, help me. I can’t move my arm.” His plea was met with silence. Why would they leave me in the car? He collapsed on his back, aware of the cold wind blowing through the shattered windshield. “Dad, I hurt my arm. Why won’t you help me?” His lips trembled, followed by tears streaming down his face. He felt the dog lick his face, and then climb on top, whimpering in response to the tears.

***

Michael Harris hung up the phone and turned to his wife. “No one answers at home. I’ve tried their cell phones. No response.”

Ann stood beside her husband with her hands folded beneath her chin in prayer. “Please call the Colorado State Patrol. It’s almost dark. They should have been here hours ago. It’s not like Jeanie. She would have called if they were delayed by the weather.”

Michael nodded his agreement. Eight hours had passed since his daughter first called to let them know she, Richard and Zach were leaving from Denver. Even in bad weather, the trip shouldn’t have taken more than four hours and, in the Hummer, the icy roads should still be passable. “I’ll call the Patrol office. Maybe the tunnel on Interstate 70 is still closed. The kids may be in a restaurant somewhere waiting on the roads to be scraped and salted.”

“They would have called,” Ann murmured under her breath.

***

Zach tried desperately to be brave. His Paw Paw would be proud of him. He was so cold and his injured arm wouldn’t allow him to rest. He twisted in place until he was lying on his right side with his knees pulled up to his chest. “Someone please help me.”

He heard a whisper, like the wind blowing through the shattered window. “I’m with you.”

Zach turned his face toward the sound and quickly covered his eyes shielding them from a bright light above him. A weight compressed him against the floor, the discomfort made tolerable by the blessed warmth seeping into his frigid body.

***

At dawn, Michael Harris sat across from the commander at the district State Patrol office. Almost twenty-four hours had passed since he last heard from Jeanie. When he arrived earlier at the Command Post, he half expected the troopers to advise him to go home and wait for his kids to call. That didn’t happen. The tunnel had been re-opened only five hours after the initial closure and no one remembered a 2006 silver-colored Hummer passing through the roadblock. Anyone in line should have long ago reached their destination.

A massive snow blanket buried the exit from the interstate to Highway 6 that briefly ran parallel to the interstate before climbing northwest. The road, when clear, was used by trucks hauling hazardous material, and during the spring and summer was used by tourists who wanted to enjoy the panoramic views offered by the high mountain pass. Few were fool hearted enough to chance crossing the pass in the winter, especially during blizzard-like conditions.

A Search and Rescue helicopter operated by the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department was soon in the air following Highway 6 by GPS since it was virtually impossible to distinguish the road from surrounding snow banks. The occupants at each window made careful notes of each sharp turn and sudden drop offs. No one expected to find the vehicle parked on the side of the road. If the family had chosen this route around the roadblock, the officers hoped to see a distress signal or message stamped out in the snow.

“Caught a flash of something, sir!” Sergeant Williams shouted. “At your one o’clock position.”

“I see it. Looks like a piece of chrome. Maybe a section of glass.” He spoke over the internal communication to the pilot. “Hold a position around this region while I radio the ground crew to check it out.”

Thirty minutes later a Snowcat appeared near the site and Sergeant Williams dropped red flags at the end of long wooden rods onto the location in question. Three rescuers, using ropes tied to the Snowcat, rappelled down the slope. Using gas-powered blowers, they cleared away the heavy accumulation of snow and identified the Hummer. Using equipment from their packs they pried open the frozen doors and discovered the gruesome scene inside. After clearing additional snow, they opened the rear doors.

“I don’t see the boy. There’s a large dog on the floor. Damn, it’s frozen stiff. Hard to move him. Wait! I found the boy. He’s beneath the dog and he’s breathing.”

***

Michael and Ann Harris rushed into the waiting area of the emergency room. The trip by police helicopter had been the longest of their lives.

Lieutenant Steed met them at the information desk. “Your grandson is alive. He’s undergoing treatment for hypothermia and a broken arm. I understand you’ve already been informed about his parents.”

Michael pulled his wife to him in a tight embrace. “Yes. We were devastated by the news. We are so thankful to you and your people for the successful rescue of our ‘Zach’.”

***

Ann remained constantly at Zach’s side and she was holding his hand when his eyes opened. “Mama Ann. We had a bad wreck. I don’t know where Mom and Dad went.”

“We’ll talk about that later. Right now, we’re so glad you are okay.”

“A nice man kept me warm. He stayed with me the whole time.”

Ann turned her head toward Michael. Her face registered her confusion. “Which man was that?”

“The man in the white coat. He lay down on top of me and he never moved.”

Tears welled up in Michael’s eyes. He recalled the rescuers informing him of finding a dog covering Zach. The carcass of the animal had been left in the Hummer. He turned away from the hospital bed.

Ann looked up when her husband started for the door. “Michael. You look upset. Where are you going?”

“To find the hospital chapel to say a prayer for a special animal. Then I’ll find someone to bring him home for a decent burial.”

***

Michael stood up from the chair at Zach’s bedside when he heard a knock at the door. He opened the door and stared at the puzzled face of Lieutenant Steed.

“Mr. Harris. My men went back to the accident site by snowmobile. They searched the Hummer and the area around it. The dog’s body wasn’t there.”