Cover image for Slickrock
Crum, Laura.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books : St. Martin's Minotaur, 1999.
Physical Description:
240 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy is up for the challenge of a lifetime: two weeks alone deep within the winding trails of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Needing a break from the stress of everyday life and a somewhat trying long-distance relationship. Gail is eager to depart on a solitary pack trip with only two horses and her faithful new puppy for company.

The night before Gail is to leave, she stumbles across a wounded man lying in an open meadow next to a gun. He has apparently tried to kill himself, and despite the immediate help that Gail gets, he sadly succeeds. But not before he mumbles several enigmatic words, leaving Gail to wonder if this might have been more than a simple suicide.

Unwilling to let anything get in the way of her long-planned trip and unable to do anything about the man's death, Gail sets off. But it isn't long before she becomes aware of an eerie lurking presence following closely in her footsteps, threatening to close in and make Gail his next victim. It will take all of Gail's strength to survive the trip, and all of her intelligence to figure out who her stalker is and how he might be related to the dead man.

Author Notes

Laura Crum, a veteran of many mountain-pack trips, lives in Aptos, California. Her web site address is

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Gail McCarthy (Roped, etc.), a smart and stubborn veterinarian fast approaching middle age, is looking forward to a trip in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, accompanied only by her two dependable horses and one frisky dog. Crum spins a solidly built story that pits the independent and savvy woman against a heedless natural world and some nasty humans. Gail leaves the pack station after an unsettling incident: she has watched a local die after a self-inflicted gunshot wound and has listened to his last few, cryptic words ("Green fire in their bellies. I couldn't save them. Dying"). Although still uneasy (several intrusive packers are extremely interested in those last words), Gail heads off alone into a territory that is familiar but enchangingÄbrilliant wildflowers, magical, open green meadows, white water. But storms, rock slides and an attack by wasps wear down her and her animals. Worse, she feels she is being stalked, as a felled tree, a snare set for horses and a sabotaged bridge are set in her path. And when she is joined by an enigmatic yet attractive packer she had met earlier, she is deeply ambivalent: Is he a protector or a menace? Some finely drawn portraits, a tight plot that keeps its secrets until the end and a spectacular assist from Mother Nature make for memorable reading. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Despite discovering an apparent suicide victim in the wilderness, Santa Cruz veterinarian Gail McCarthy begins a planned vacation alone in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The much-anticipated isolation never happens, though. Other campers and horse people pop up everywhere, including her boyfriend's resentful ex-wife, the suicide victim's ex-wife's one-time boyfriend, a strange anti-horse and -cattle environmentalist, and a furtive ill wisher. Descriptions of breathtaking natural surroundings abound, as do adept equine and human characterizations. Steadily paced but lively; a good series bet. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The roan colt rocketed around the bullpen, making every jump high, wide, and handsome. Stirrups swung wildly, latigos popped and slapped, leather squeaked with strain. The colt grunted, head down between his knees, and put all his effort into stiffening his front legs and kicking his back feet as high as possible. I stood outside the bullpen and watched Ted Reiter watch the colt.     Ted was in the middle of the pen, a short, stocky figure wearing dirty jeans and a white straw cowboy hat. He watched the colt buck with the empty saddle on his back and spat out some tobacco juice. Ted didn't look like the boss of a big outfit; he looked like another dirt-poor ranch cowboy. But appearances were misleading in his case.     The colt was getting mad. He was determined to rid himself of the saddle that had been cinched so uncomfortably around his belly, he had made every effort to do so, and the saddle was still there. He bucked harder and began to squeal--grunting squeals, like a pig. His eyes had a blind look. Ted dodged out of the horse's way when the roan bucked in his direction.     Not exactly an easygoing colt, was my thought. Oh well, he wasn't my business. My business was finding a vodka tonic. I'd had a long day, and I was ready for a drink. I waved a casual hand at Ted and headed down the hill toward the bar.     It was six o'clock on a July evening in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. This time of year Deadman Meadow was brilliantly green. It stretched out in front of the Crazy Horse Creek Pack Station like a patch of the Emerald Isle itself. The little bar sat facing the meadow, a small shack of a place with a porch all along the front. I pushed open the door and went inside.     Six o'clock on a Friday evening in July meant the Crazy Horse Creek Bar was fairly crowded. I found a gap and ordered my drink from the bartender.     Talk rose around me like bubbles through tonic.     "Did you see the bay son of a bitch Charley was riding?"     "I swear to God he caught a fifteen-inch brookie out of Kennedy Lake."     Horse talk, fisherman talk. I sipped slowly and let the talk and laughter swirl and fizz around me. Like Ted's roan colt, it wasn't my business.     This turned out to be a mistake. When you're sitting in a bar full of drunks it pays to stay alert. But I was absorbed in my own thoughts and didn't see it coming.     The first clue I got was when the stranger on my left pushed me hard against the bar and shoved his body in front of me. My angry "What the hell" was swallowed up in a jolt of surprise as I felt the secondhand impact of the drank on my right, who catapulted into my benefactor (as I now realized), who in turn launched the drunk into the open area in the middle of the bar. Scuffling and shouting rattled around me.     In a minute I pieced it together. Two of the fairly drunken fishermen in the group to my right had gotten in an argument and were now engaged in the sort of shoving match of a fight that drunks usually pursue. The original attack had thrown the one guy in my direction, and the solitary man on my left had seen him coming and fended him off. At this point my rescuer stepped away from me and resumed his place at the bar; the fight, if you wanted to call it that, was moving out into the parking lot.     "Thanks," I said, looking up at him.     "No problem. I didn't want to see you get run over."     This man was big. I'm five-foot-seven and he looked to be about a foot taller. Wide shoulders, too, although he was fairly lean. I could see why he wouldn't have a problem defending strange women from drunks. Some sort of further politeness seemed to be called for.     "I'm Gail McCarthy." I held out my hand.     "Blue. Blue Winter," he said, a little sheepishly. His hand felt surprisingly fine-boned and slender.     "Do you know those guys?" I asked, gesturing in the direction of the shoving group at the doorway.     "No."     Polite conversation was proving difficult. Blue Winter (could that possibly be his real name?) stared at his drink. Not only was he roughly six-and-a-half feet tall, he had red hair and wore a gray felt hat somewhere between a cowboy hat and a fedora. Regulation Wrangler jeans, a faded denim shirt, and cowboy boots completed the effect. He looked exactly like the "tall red-headed stranger" in Willie Nelson's song.     I tried again. "Are you here for a pack trip?"     "Yes, I am."     "The pack station taking you in?" I asked.     "No, I'm packing myself."     My ears pricked up. "So am I."     He looked directly at me for the first time. "Are you with a group?"     "No, I'm going alone."     "So am I."     We looked at each other with mutual curiosity. The bar fight still seemed to be going full swing in the parking lot; at least, there was a fair amount of shouting outside. The bar, however, was relatively empty, most everyone having dashed out the door, either to participate or to spectate. Blue Winter and I were surrounded by vacant bar stools.     "So have you packed in the mountains much?" Blue Winter's shyness or reticence or whatever it was seemed to have been swallowed up by his curiosity. Gray eyes regarded me steadily from under the brim of his hat.     "Well, no, I haven't," I admitted. Knowing what was going through his mind, I added, "I'm pretty well prepared for this trip, though."     He watched me quietly, and I had the sense he was wondering what to say. I decided to help him. "Have you done a lot of packing?"     "Yes, ma'am."     "Any advice for a novice?"     He smiled. Immediately I liked him. He had crooked teeth and kind eyes, and when he smiled his somewhat somber expression became shy and friendly.     The smile receded and his face was once again reserved.     "Sometimes you need to doctor a horse," he said.     My turn to smile. "I'm a vet," I said.     As I expected, a brief flicker of surprise in his eyes. Women vets aren't uncommon anymore, but still, I often caught that look. "A horse vet," I added. "I'm from Santa Cruz."     At this, he looked startled. Then that charming, unaffected smile. "You must be Jim Leonard's lady vet."     "That's me," I agreed. Jim was my boss. "How did you know?"     "I'm from Watsonville."     Watsonville was maybe thirty minutes from Santa Cruz. The same neck of the woods, in other words.     "So if you're from Watsonville, and I take it you have horses, you must use Bob Barton."     "That's right."     "Bob's a good guy." This was professional courtesy; in my opinion Jim was a vastly superior horse vet. Bob Barton was mainly a small-animal practitioner who did horses on the side. He was a nice guy, though.     "So, what are you doing here at Crazy Horse Creek, about to take off in the mountains on your own?" It was the most forthcoming question Blue Winter had asked yet, and I couldn't think of a simple answer.     Crazy Horse Creek Pack Station was five hours from my home on the coast of California. I had never taken my two horses on a pack trip before, though I had done some solitary backpacking up in these mountains during my college years. However, I hadn't been camping in any way, shape, or form for many seasons; the three-week vacation I was currently indulging in was the first time off of any length I'd had since I started working as a veterinarian five years ago. So, what exactly was I doing here, preparing to take my two flatland horses over the granite of four High Sierra passes on a two-week expedition?     I decided to cut to the chase. "Well, the reason I'm here, specifically, is my boyfriend used to own this pack station, and the people who run it were willing to put me and my horses up for a few days while we got acclimated."     He took that in. "Your boyfriend must be Lonny Peterson."     "That's right."     "I know Lonny a little."     I changed the subject. "So, how about a few tips for a beginner."     He was quiet, considering. "Well, you obviously know how to take care of your horses, and I guess you must have some idea about camping, or you wouldn't be going."     I didn't respond to this, and I could sense him sizing me up, looking me over the way a man will size up a horse. I tried to imagine what he was seeing.     A tallish woman in her mid-thirties, with dark hair in a braid, olive skin, wide shoulders and hips, long legs. I wore a T-shirt, jeans and boots, hoop earrings in my ears, no other jewelry. I weigh about 140--not fat, but not thin either.     "You look strong enough," he said.     I laughed. "Why, thanks."     He smiled. "To deal with the packing. That's hard, when you're alone."     I nodded. "Uh-huh."     It had been my main problem. I was packing Plumber, my younger horse, and he and I had learned the routine of putting on the pack rig fairly easily. Plumber hadn't minded the back cinch, or the crupper under his tail, or the wooden forks straddling his back. But he hadn't been crazy about my lifting the heavily loaded panniers up onto him.     Docile as always, his only expression of objection had been to sidestep away, but since I had a hard time lifting the pack bags up at all, it had proven virtually impossible to get the straps over the forks that were to hold them unless Plumber stood perfectly still. Thus, we had practiced the routine of packing over and over again, with many reprimands for moving.     Plumber had learned. His name wasn't Plumb Smart for nothing.     "I had to work at that," I told Blue Winter. "My pack horse is only about fifteen hands," I added. "That helps."     "What kind of horses are you taking in?" he asked.     "Well, they're Quarter Horses."     He nodded. Many, if not most, western riding horses in California were American Quarter Horses.     "I've used the saddle horse as a team roping horse, mostly. The pack horse used to be a bridle horse, a show horse, before I got him."     Another abbreviated story. Gunner and Plumber, my two horses, with their complex histories and equally intricate personalities, had been a big part of what my life was about for many years.     "So, how about you?" I asked. "How do you come to be here?"     "Oh, I come here every year." His face looked withdrawn.     "You take your own horses?"     "Yes, ma'am." No further information forthcoming.     I half shrugged. If he didn't want to answer questions, that was no skin off my back. The conversation had gone on long enough for politeness. Trouble was, I was in this bar waiting for Lonny, and he still hadn't shown up. Oh well. I could look for him later.     "Speaking of horses, I guess I'll go check on mine." I held out my hand. "Nice to meet you."     Blue Winter took my hand in his oddly long, slender one. "Likewise," he said.     Nice man, I thought, as I left the bar. Quiet, though.     Stepping out the door I took a deep breath of the cold-water, pine-tree scent. It was a sunny summer evening, and I happen to think that such evenings in a Sierra meadow are perhaps the prettiest things on earth. I don't know what it is--the generous gold of the light, the contrast of soft green meadow grass against hard silver-gray granite ridges, the smell of the mountains, the lively voice of the creeks. It filled me right up with happiness, just being there.     Taking another deep breath, I strolled toward the horse corrals, reviewing with pleasure the proposed events of the next couple of weeks. I had arrived here this afternoon, horse trailer in tow, prepared to meet Lonny and spend the weekend with him here at the pack station. Tomorrow we had plans to take a short ride, Sunday I would rest, and on Monday ride in on my solitary two-week excursion. This trip was the result of a year of planning on my part, and I felt a deep sense of anticipation and excitement that it was happening at last.     As for where Lonny was at the moment--"out for a ride," the bartender had said. Ernie, the bartender, tended to use as few words as possible; I hadn't pressed him. Lonny and I had agreed to meet in the bar Friday evening before dinner--no doubt he would show up eventually.     A familiar nicker rang out as I neared the corrals. Plumber. My younger horse was a talker. He constantly nickered at me--when he was tied to the rail waiting, while I saddled him, whenever I approached his corral, even occasionally when he saw me in the midst of a group of people.     Walking toward him now, I smiled. His head was thrust out between the bars of the corral where I had put him and Gunner, his eyes bright and inquiring. "So there you are," he seemed to say. "What's up, what are we going to do?"     Gunner, in contrast, had his head down, munching on the hay I had put in the corral. He glanced up and over his shoulder at me, snorted softly, and went back to eating. I had been using Gunner as my main saddle horse for several years now, and he knew the score. We were here to work, no doubt in his mind. Best for him to eat while he could.     I leaned on the fence for a moment, watching them. Gunner, at 15.3 hands, was fairly tall and leggy for a Quarter Horse. He had a bright bay coat, three high white socks, a big blaze, and one blue eye. Plain-headed and big-boned, his friendly, clownish expression made him appealing.     Plumber, on the other hand, was almost cute. Smaller than Gunner, he was finer-boned, with rounder muscling, and he had a little breedy head. Cocoa-brown in color, with a small white spot right between his bright, mischievous eyes, and the sort of personality that caused him to thrust his head into your lap--Plumber was a real puppy dog of a horse.     I rubbed his forehead for a minute, told him to go back to his dinner, and turned away. The horses were fine.     Next stop--the pickup. It was parked nearby, my brand new acquisition--the very first new truck I'd ever purchased. A gray Dodge, it had four-wheel drive, an automatic transmission (good for hauling horses), and an extended cab (good for piling junk in). It also had a camper on the bed. For Roey.     A short, excited yip emanated from the camper as I approached. I'd been spotted.     Sharply pricked red ears pointed at me through the screened windows of the camper. Heavy-duty metal screen, I might add. Roey had destroyed the light nylon screens that had come with the shell months before.     I had hopes that at a year old my young dog's destructive impulses were diminishing. It was debatable, though. I had taken the pup last summer; she was a purebred Queensland heeler, bred by a friend of mine. I liked both the parent dogs, I missed my old dog, Blue, who was also a Queensland, and I thought I was ready to raise a pup. I'd simply forgotten just what that entailed.     Blue had died a couple of years ago at the age of fifteen, so it had been many years indeed since I'd dealt with a puppy. I was accustomed to a dog who understood what I was saying to him, who knew my ways (and human ways in general), and who obeyed me (albeit with a lot of grumbling). I was now faced with a fluffy bundle of energy who had no clue what I wanted in the way of behavior, and who had a strong desire to tear things up with her teeth. Any things. Not to mention, she saw no reason why she should not defecate wherever the impulse took her, or why she should follow my arbitrary orders. She was, like most Queenslands, smart, stubborn, and endearing.     I opened the door of the camper and rubbed the wide, wedge-shaped head that was thrust over the tailgate at me. Roey wagged her tail frantically and wiggled all over. I ran my hand down her back. Roey was a red heeler, like her mother, Rita, and with her small size and her pricked ears, I often thought she looked just like a little red fox.     She reminded me of my old dog, Blue, in being very intelligent and incredibly hard-headed, but unlike Blue, Roey was generally friendly. She liked people, and other dogs, and cats, and for that matter, the whole world, as far as I could tell. Lonny teased me that she'd never make a watchdog; she'd probably try to inveigle potential burglars into throwing a stick for her. This was true. After Blue's protective tendencies I found Roey's amiable nature somewhat of a relief. No more worrying that my dog would nip (and mortally offend) a client.     A few more pats, a check to see that her water and food bowls were full, and I shut Roey back in the camper. I'd taken her for a run when I first got here; she should be fine for the night.     So where the hell was Lonny? Out for a ride. But the sun was sitting right on top of the western ridge at this point, and nobody had come riding in down the trail for the last hour.     Lonny knew he was meeting me tonight. So why wasn't he here? Annoyance and worry struggled for dominance in my brain.     Well, neither of those emotions was going to help anything. I stared off across Deadman Meadow, already in shade. Crazy Horse Creek ran along its far side, as I knew. And right where the creek emerged from the canyon and rushed out into the meadow was a pretty little waterfall. I'd just walk quietly up and check out the waterfall. Spend a moment enjoying the mountains. If Lonny rode in, he'd know I was here--horses in the corral, rig parked nearby. We'd find each other.     Resolved, I headed off down the trail that crossed the meadow, looking around with a deep sigh of relief. I was here, at last, about to achieve a goal I'd held all my life. I was going to spend a sizable chunk of time in these mountains all alone, with just my horses and my dog for company.     The farther I walked into Deadman Meadow, the more the busy bustle of the pack station receded and I could feel the presence of the mountains around me. Granite and pine tree--clad ridges rose up all about me; the meadow was springy under my feet. Ahead of me the chatter of Crazy Horse Creek grew louder. In another few strides the bright water was visible, jumping and chasing between boulders.     I followed a faint trail that led upstream, worn by the feet of many fishermen over many seasons. The creek got noisier and noisier as I neared the canyon from which it emerged.     It was dusk now. The air was soft and still and dim--with every moment that passed, the shapes around me dissolved further. I could see the lights of the pack station across the meadow. Wondered if Lonny had come in yet. Don't worry, I told myself, Lonny's had more experience in the mountains than anyone you know.     Still, I peered hopefully through the gathering darkness at the big barn, although it was impossible to see anything as small as an individual horse and rider from here. And even less possible along the unlighted main trail, though I traced its course along the far side of the meadow. I could see a white horse, maybe.     In point of fact, I saw nothing. I scanned the meadow one more time, started to turn away, and stopped. There was something out there. Something shiny. A car.     The car was behind a clump of willows that screened it completely from the pack station and the main trail. It was partially obscured, but visible from where I stood on the banks of the creek. Small and low and dark, some sort of sports car, it had only caught my eye due to the sheen of light reflecting off its metal surface. It was pretty damn well hidden.     This, I supposed, was because it shouldn't be there. The Forest Service did not allow cars to be driven out into the meadow. However, the big gate that blocked such vehicles from the main trail was often left open so that various ranger Jeeps, or pack station trucks, could go up to the ranger station at Bright Water Flat, a couple of miles up the trail. The gate had been open this afternoon, I recalled. But duly posted with many signs declaring it off-limits to cars.     Well, this car had clearly ignored them. I guessed it belonged to a particularly lazy fisherman, and wondered briefly if it was now stuck. The meadow was damp in spots and the car didn't look the sort to have four-wheel drive.     It was possible. And the light was dying fast. If I wanted to reach my destination, a mere hundred yards away up this canyon, I'd better go.     I turned and headed for the waterfall.