By SCOTT PESZNECKER
On a winter night in the early 1980s, the snow was falling fast as deputy Steve Mathews drove northeast on Highway 4 to check a house alarm.
He had no idea the routine procedure would give him such a fright.
He reached a spot near the reported alarm and killed the engine of his 1979 International Scout at the top of a driveway in Camp Connell.
Through the stormy weather, he struggled to see the outline of the house, about 100 yards from the road and surrounded by dense forest.
With the nearest backup officer in Angels Camp, Mathews zipped his jacket, jumped the gate and started walking toward the house, alone.
He could barely hear his own boots sinking into the snow as he walked. His heart pounded.
"All you could hear is that alarm," said Mathews, 47, sitting in the safety of his office last week. "You can't see nothing."
His flashlight beam fell upon a tool shed off to the side of the house. Mathews started toward it. He was prepared for anything.
Until something grabbed his shoulder.
Instinct took over. Mathews drew his six-pound, .357 Smith and Wesson, whirled around and smacked ... a horse.
"I turned around and clubbed this freaking horse," Mathews recalled, adding that the stunned animal nearly fell over.
"I almost shot the b!
"I cannot think of a more scary moment in my entire life. I thought I was a dead man standing there."
Mathews, now the county jail commander, has more than his share of stories from his 25 years with the department.
And last week he was honored by Calaveras County supervisors for a quarter century of service to the Sheriff's Department.
His county experience includes two years as a jail officer, five years on street patrol, two years as a resident deputy in Arnold, four years as an investigator, three years on the narcotics task force, three years on boat patrol, five years as marine supervisor, one year as an administrative sergeant and six years (29 missions) with the SWAT team.