Longform

A WANTED MAN

part 1 of 2
Debrah Snider dozed fitfully on the couch, imprisoned by a dream.
She was back in Colorado, on the side of a mountain, on the run with Tom Luther, the man she loved. The man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. The man she believed to be a killer.

In the valley below, a solitary figure walked beside a stream. Even from dream distance, she knew it was Detective Scott Richardson. His bald head turned this way and that as his eyes searched the slope above.

Tom was breathing hard, his own eyes panic-stricken. He and Debrah kept running. But no matter which way they dodged, the detective kept following them. Then Richardson's eyes locked on Debrah's. He took a step up the slope.

It was over.
Debrah woke shivering in her rented cabin in wooded, rural West Virginia. Even though she knew him for what he was, she missed Tom. He was the only man who had ever made her happy; the only one who'd missed her when she was gone. But now he was in Colorado, sitting in a Jefferson County jail cell, waiting to be tried for the murder of Cher Elder. Detective Richardson had taken Tom away from her.

The trial was set to begin January 16, 1996, just two months away. And Debrah was slated to testify...for the prosecution. Once she had believed she could tame the wildness in Tom, the way she used to tame wolf pups. But she now knew there was no taming Thomas Edward Luther. Somewhere along the line, she had finally decided that truth was more important than love.

It should have been me you killed, she told the dark. No one would have cared. I'd never have been missed.

And you'd be free.

The jackrabbit broke from cover, mongrel dogs in hot pursuit across the desert outside of Belen, New Mexico. Hard on their heels was ten-year-old Debrah.

Someday Belen would be surrounded and absorbed by the city of Albuquerque. But in 1962, the town was still in the center of gray alkali flats where a jackrabbit could give his pursuers the slip.

Debrah lay down on a sand dune and watched the clouds drift. She was a skinny tomboy in patchwork jeans, her curly brown hair tied in two braids. She had few friends, preferring the company of her dogs and the family's horses to people. Animals, even the wild ones, could be trusted.

On this day the dogs waited patiently, their tongues lolling in the heat. Debrah was in no hurry. She was "running away from home" for the millionth time, hoping that someone would miss her and come looking.

Not that it had worked in the past. Nor had any other attention-getting stunts, like skipping school, or the time she'd stuffed beans up her nose and into her ears. That one had earned her a visit to the doctor and a whipping back home.

It never occurred to her parents that Debrah could use a hug or a kind word once in a while. Her father, an alcoholic, was a big cowboy of a man who derided public displays of affection as phony. He didn't think much of the female of the species. Those who wore their skirts short or showed a bit of cleavage were "whores"; the rest he held in approximately the same regard as he did Mexicans, who were a step above "niggers." So Debrah acted like a boy, which seemed to suit her father just fine.

"It's survival of the fittest out there," he'd tell his kids. "Don't never think you can't be replaced."

Debrah lay in the sand, wondering if her father meant to replace her and what God would think of that. She was pretty sure parents were supposed to love their kids; on the few occasions when her folks had taken her to church, the only thing she'd prayed for was some love and attention.

She was constantly on the lookout for a sign from God that her prayers were about to be answered. But this day there was no such sign. The sun was on its way down when she finally accepted that no one had even noticed she was gone and went back home.

Almost three decades later Debrah Snider paused outside a door on the med/surg floor at the state hospital in Pueblo. There was an "alert" notice attached to the chart for the patient in the room: No women admitted without a guard present. Debrah, her wavy brown hair now hanging to her waist, was immediately intrigued. So they had some real psycho stashed here, she thought.

Debrah would have preferred working on the psychiatric floor of some other hospital. But after she'd quit a perfectly good job in Greeley to go to work for a private hospital in Fort Collins that went bankrupt, this had been the only job available. Still, she'd come a long way from the little girl who'd skipped school in New Mexico. She was now a registered nurse with another degree in psychology, a married woman with two sons of her own.

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Steve Jackson