Anderson watched in wonder as the bear stood still for several moments, as if contemplating her injuries. Anderson was halfway through reloading his rifle when finally, with a deep, rumbling groan, the huge animal fell to the ground, dead.
Moments later, ignorant of the danger, the two cubs came bounding over, nuzzling the dead bear and emitting wailing cries.
Anderson ignored them, anger taking over. The snowmobiles were out of action, and who knew what state his men were in.
With a sigh of resignation, he accepted that Karl Janklow had escaped.
Janklow finally came to rest at the bottom of the mountain. Even though the snow was thick and deep, he had still smashed into fallen branches, rocks and stones on his way down. He was badly battered and barely conscious. He staggered to his feet, half falling through the last of the trees, and stumbled out of the forest on to the dark grey asphalt of a road.
He turned one way, then the other, and saw lights heading towards him.
He held back, worried it might be more soldiers from the base, but then he saw the multi-levelled lights and realized it was a commercial truck. Almost delirious with the joy of a survivor, he stepped out into the road, waving his good arm frantically.
The truck sounded its horn, and Janklow wondered if it was going to hit him and end everything right there and then; but then the brakes were applied, and the huge truck started to slow down.
By the time the truck driver got out of the cab to help him, Janklow had passed out and lay unconscious on the icy road, his head filled with a single thought before oblivion.
I’ve made it.
Alyssa Durham’s fingers pinched the tiny outcrop of rock with a vice-like grip, the sides of her painfully tight climbing shoes pressed against the almost sheer surface for added traction.
She was free-climbing a one-hundred-foot granite cliff face, a short climb for her but made difficult due to the low temperature, which ensured the wall was covered in a thin layer of ice.
In earlier years, she would have done the climb as a free solo, without ropes for protection, but now, as the lone parent of a beautiful eight-year-old daughter, she was not willing to risk making that child an orphan. And so she used ropes, but only to save her if she fell — she wouldn’t use them as an aid in her climbing.
Her daughter, Anna, was higher up the mountain, skiing. Alyssa was a good skier herself, but Anna was something else — she’d started at the age of five and shown a natural aptitude for it. They went to the mountains every opportunity they got, which wasn’t as much as Alyssa would have liked. Her job was demanding, and there was only one of her, after all, but it was enough for Anna to have become pretty incredible for an eight-year-old.
The trips had started after the death of her husband, Patrick. He had contracted a rare form of degenerative disease at a shockingly young age, and Alyssa had nursed him for twelve painful months before — mercifully for him, agonizingly for her and Anna — he had quietly passed away one night. She had cried for hours — helpless tears, hopeless tears — but had gathered herself before Anna woke. She needed to be strong for her, and although both Alyssa’s parents and Patrick’s parents were a huge help, the fact of the matter — at least as Alyssa saw it — was that Anna was her responsibility, and nobody else’s. And she was now all that remained of Patrick.
Anna herself had found it hard to deal with her father’s death. He had been ill for some time and had not been involved in her upbringing during that final, painful year, but the gap that he left was difficult for a young girl to deal with. Where’s Daddy? she would ask incessantly, especially before bedtime, when he used to read stories to her before kissing her goodnight. When’s Daddy coming home? It was hard for Alyssa to explain, and Anna had cried for days, for weeks, and Alyssa had cried along with her.
It wasn’t until their first trip into the mountains, a few months after Patrick’s death, that Anna had started to come round. The magical quality of the snow, the serene peace of the valleys, the majesty of the mountains themselves had shown Anna another view of the world, perhaps of something beyond it, and given her hope; and Alyssa had felt it too, the pull of something beyond, the first faint rays of a life beyond the one that had been wrenched so terribly from them.
Alyssa and Patrick had been winter sports addicts — skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing; anything that could be done, they would do it. They had even met on a mountain, thousands of miles from home, and when holiday romance had bloomed they were delighted to find they lived only a hundred miles from one another back home. Alyssa’s first love was climbing, and had been since she was a little girl, but Patrick’s was snowboarding, and he had shown her everything he knew. They were wonderful years, those early years, getting away whenever work let them. She was an up-and-coming journalist, cutting her teeth on the local papers but determined to break into the nationals; he was an up-and-coming public prosecutor, destined for the DA’s office. But then Anna had come along, and it wasn’t so easy to get away any more. They hadn’t regretted it, not for a second; on the contrary, their years of adventure were simply put aside as other priorities took hold.
But when Patrick died, the first place Alyssa had thought to take Anna — after the worst of the grieving was over and behind them — was the mountains. If Patrick had loved them, she thought, maybe Anna would too. And she had, with a wild abandon, and for the first time in as long as she could remember Alyssa had felt free, the strains of her life miraculously lifted.
Anna had wanted to ski. She was adamant about that, having watched as people shot down the slopes, leaning first one way and then the other, slicing through the snow in graceful arcs.
Alyssa had taught her at first, and the first season had just been the basics — how to put on the equipment, how to stand, how to move, and then the first few tentative movements down the training slopes — and Anna had loved it. Alyssa had seen the excitement in her eyes, the joy of being a little girl that had been absent for so long, and had almost wept with happiness herself.
Further visits to the slopes had shown that Anna was moving beyond her mother’s teaching limits, and so Alyssa started to arrange more expert instruction. This was what had led them here, to the special training centre in the heart of the western mountains, where Anna was undergoing the first stage of selection for the national team. Alyssa was probably even more nervous than Anna was, but however Anna did, it didn’t matter. The girl was perfect whatever happened.
Alyssa, at a loose end for a couple of hours at the foot of the mountain, had decided to get a little exercise of her own, and the pull of climbing — the sharp surge of adrenalin flooding her bloodstream, the overcoming of physical barriers, the feeling of accomplishment when a wall, a rockface, a mountain, had been conquered — had been too much to resist.
The wall was a real battle, full of tiny holds that required all sorts of gymnastic contortions to reach; hard enough without the ice, nearly impossible with it. But she persevered, gaining an inch here, an inch there, pulling herself up the cliff face through sheer determination.
And finally she was there, levering herself on to the top shelf of rock where she sat for several moments to gather her breath. Then she got to her feet and gazed out across the glorious scenery around, above and below her.
She shielded her eyes from the sun, and could see the ski school on one of the slopes in the distance. Squinting hard, she could make out twelve kids, two assessors. She could even make out Anna in her bright orange parka, waiting at the top, listening to the instructions of the experts, and then she was off, skiing down the mountainside, and Alyssa’s heart filled with pride as she watched.