Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Big Sky, Montana
February 29, 8:00 p.m.
THE STORM WAS getting worse.
In the powerful headlights of the Prinoth snowcat, the snow blew sideways, lessening the visibility to only two yards.
Brian Rhome leaned forward in his captain’s chair, squinting through the windshield as he eased back on the throttle of the massive machine.
The cat’s engine whined in protest, the large, gritted tracks digging into the deep snow, desperately fighting up the hill.
Rhome guessed the snowstorm was throwing four inches of powder onto the mountain every hour and had been doing so for the past four hours. At this rate, Big Sky Ski Resort would be having one of the biggest powder days they’d seen in years.
Rhome flipped on the fog lights.
It was no use. The halogen beams only exacerbated the whiteout and made Rhome’s visibility worse.
He swore and brought the machine to a grinding halt.
Leaning over, he grabbed his iPad and brought up the NOAA weather app. The app didn’t load. The storm must have blown out the cell towers. Rhome thought back to the weather report he’d heard before his shift. Checking his watch, he saw it was just after 8 p.m. If the report had been correct, the storm was supposed to ease off at any moment, before picking up steam again for the rest of the night.
But in southwest Montana, weather reports were rarely accurate.
Laying the iPad onto the seat next to him, Rhome rubbed at his tired eyes.
During the last four months of working his new job, his body had never gotten used to its new nocturnal habits. He’d go to bed each day at 8 a.m. and rise at 4 p.m., just as the sun was setting behind the Spanish Peaks. By 5 p.m., he’d already have driven up to the resort to start work as the newest snowcat driver of the season.
It was a lonely job, but a job Rhome preferred and had even sought.
After all, what better job was there when one was actively trying to avoid all human contact?
Grabbing the lever that worked the cat’s spotlight, Rhome turned the beam left and then right, trying to discern where the hell he was on Big Sky’s notoriously steep Elk Park Ridge ski run.
Having grown up doing downhill ski races on this particular slope, Rhome guessed that he was halfway up the piste, most likely a few dozen yards to the right of the seventy-foot Snake Pit Cliff. Driving blind in a snowstorm on this part of the mountain could be suicide.
Rhome keyed his radio to his boss at dispatch.
“This is Cat Two. Jimmy, do you copy?”
Rhome tried again, “Jimmy, I’ve got zero viz out here on Elk Park. Any word if there is supposed to be a break in this storm soon?”
Rhome cursed and leaned back in the captain’s chair. The wide rearview mirror caught the reflection of his tired, bloodshot eyes, his greasy, unruly black hair and bushy beard.
Rhome jolted away from his reflection.
In the last six months, he’d had trouble looking himself in the eye. So much so, that he’d taken all the mirrors down in his cabin and put them in the shed out back. How could he look at himself? How could he face the man staring back? After what he’d done…
Rhome tried to get ahold of Jimmy two more times before giving up.
He was either going to have to hope for a break in the storm soon or make sure he knew exactly where Snake Pit Cliff was in relation to his cat before he carried on.
Reaching for the backpack under his seat, he pulled on his down jacket, gloves, wool hat, and a pair of snow goggles. Cinching a headlamp over his head, he turned on its red light and stepped out into the blizzard.
Instantly, the wind and snow lashed at him.
Reaching back into the cat, Rhome grabbed his hundred-foot climbing rope and tied a knot around the vehicle’s winch and the other end around his waist.
He’d heard of too many people getting lost and freezing to death in Montana snowstorms in the past and didn’t want to become a statistic.
If he was going to die, he’d do it his own way.
With the rope secured around his waist, Rhome walked sideways across the slope toward where he determined he would run into Snake Pit Cliff.
At nearly six feet tall, and one hundred eighty pounds of solid, lean muscle, Brian Rhome still struggled, his big, powerful legs disappearing up to his thighs as he waded through the powder.
The lights from the snowcat all but swallowed up in the storm behind him, he continued to trudge forward, knowing all too well that the precipice of Snake Pit Cliff could open beneath him at a second’s notice. Feeling with his feet, he took ten more cautious steps and then stopped as a sound made his blood turn cold.
Rhome froze in his tracks. He knew that sound all too well.
Large masses of shifting snow, like the grinding of tectonic plates.
The prelude to an avalanche.
Standing like a statue, Rhome listened for the thunderous roar and the wave of white, kinetic energy that would surely sweep him away.
For minutes, he stood stock-still, watching as the snowflakes in his headlamp’s red beam thrashed about. He knew that any movement, any shifting of his weight could cause his demise.
Dammit, what are you doing? he thought to himself. This was no way to die. This was careless. Stupid. Out of all the dangerous situations—all the hellish war zones he’d experienced in his short life, this was how it was going to end?
A damn avalanche?
For what seemed like an eternity, Rhome focused on his breathing, and eventually noticed that the snowflakes whipping around him were lessening their assault, and a few minutes later, the moon’s rays cut through the clouds.
The break in the storm, Rhome thought.
Squinting ahead, and with the aid of the moon, Rhome suddenly realized he had been standing a good five feet from the precipice of Snake Pit Cliff.
He had been correct, earlier, in guessing his snowcat’s general location on Elk Park Ridge.
Maybe it was because he stood atop the cliff nearly every night.
As Rhome continued to stare ahead, a violent gust of wind tore at his long beard, the darkness beyond the cliff pulling at him.
Rhome took a step forward.
As he stood on the cliff’s edge, a gust of snowflakes swirled downward, disappearing into the abyss below.
The seventy-foot drop into the jagged rocks beneath him would mean a certain, painful death.
It would be so easy.
The fall would take seconds. The rocks below would pummel and pierce his body. If the fall didn’t do the trick, the cold quickly would.
Rhome closed his eyes and felt the familiar wave of misery course over him. The pain that had been brewing over these past six months was reaching a critical mass.
Images of that fateful day halfway across the world consumed him. He could hear the agonized yells of his men. The gunfire. The explosions.
But even worse, he could hear the bloodcurdling screams.
Hot tears formed around Rhome’s eyes and instantly froze to his eyelids.
A gasping, primal cry expelled from somewhere in his throat and was taken by the wind.
He couldn’t go on like this.
How could he live with what he’d done?
What he’d ordered.
Six months of secluding himself in the mountains of his old home, living like a hermit, was getting him nowhere.
Maybe it was time to end it.
On my own terms.
Opening his eyes, Rhome let out another anguished cry and lifted his right leg, so his boot was hanging over the edge.
And then he heard it.
It wasn’t the whooshing sound of moving snow. Nor was it the whistle of the wind.
It was a howl.
A series of them actually, coming from below the cliff.
His foot still dangling over the abyss, Rhome nearly toppled in surprise, but he was able to catch himself just in time.
Both feet now firmly planted in the snow, he raised his goggles and squinted down over the cliff’s edge.
Rhome watched a pack of nearly two dozen wolves, their eyes illuminated in the moonlight, howling and yipping at the sky.
Rumors had been circulating in town over the past week that the Wapiti Lake wolf pack had made their way out of Yellowstone National Park and were heading in the direction of Big Sky in search for elk. But never in Rhome’s wildest dreams did he imagine seeing them at the resort.
As the crescendo of howls died down, and the storm began to pick up again, Rhome saw the pack move toward the woods in search of cover.
Only the biggest wolf stayed behind, his nose pointed skyward, sniffing at the wind.
Then, the predator suddenly turned and stared directly up at Rhome.
Though they were a good two hundred yards away from each other, Rhome felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
The wolf’s posture was not aggressive. Nor was it passive.
If anything, the wolf was merely recognizing the smell of another apex predator and communicating without words that there was nothing to fear between them.
As the storm picked up its onslaught, Rhome watched the wolf saunter away from him and disappear with his pack into the forest.
Rhome felt the emotion swell up in his throat again.
He was ashamed how close he had come tonight.
Of all the days, why did he tempt himself this night?
It was too much of a cliché—
Killing himself right before his birthday.