INCH BY METICULOUS INCH, he slides down the 10.5-mm rope, twisting and releasing the figure-eight descender in tiny, silent increments. He is sitting on a trapeze bar, which, in turn, is suspended from the rappelling device. Every time he twists the ring, the bar descends a few inches. He wears a webbed climbing harness around his chest, which allows him to lean back from the rope as he goes down. His face is now only a foot away from the granite overhang. He reaches out to touch the rock, but gently, so as not to induce a spin on the rope. The mountain air is clear and cold, with only a hint of a dawn breeze, enough to mask small sounds but not enough to disturb his body as he slips down the rope.
He’s already come down sixty feet from the anchor point up above the overhanging bulge, and he’s now at the closest point to the rock face. Ten more feet down and the cliff curves back in to become a sheer wall that descends into the morning mists above the river. It is just past morning twilight, that time of suspended animation when darkness retreats but then seems to make a comeback even as the stars begin to lose their definition. He can’t be certain, but the cat should be back in its lair by now.
Two hours ago, he’d heard her shrieking attack on some desperately scrambling prey animal, whose ensuing death squeals punctured the mountain darkness like a hot knife, followed by a momentary silencing of all other forest sounds. If she held to pattern, she’d quickly consume the soft parts, hide the carcass, and take a part of it back to the den for her cubs. He felt like he knew her, her habits, all her mysterious moves. He should; he’d been tracking and watching her for ten days and nights.
The rock face is definitely withdrawing from his line of drop now, getting two, then three, then six feet distant, the striations of the ancient rock no longer visible as the forest remained still in anticipation of dawn. He concentrates on the oval of dark shadow below that is her cave and resists the urge to touch the Max 800 to make sure it’s ready to shoot. He knows it is; of course it is. But the urge is strong after days of spoor casting and stalking, using binoculars by day, night-vision goggles by dark, and now that he’s within thirty vertical feet of his objective, he wants to make sure he’s ready.
He stops the descent and regulates his breathing. He thinks he can hear the tiny creaks of the harness and the sounds of his own heartbeat echoing off the rock wall, even though the granite is now a good ten feet away. The whole expanse of sheer gray rock is a blur in his peripheral vision. The loss of perspective isn’t helped by the effort of having his whole body hanging, with his left arm locked rigidly in tension against the rope, but it’s the only way to let his body weight do all the work and to keep his right hand, the critical trigger hand, free at all times.
Twist and release, inch by inch now. He detects a barely discernible sway in the rope and extends his free arm ever so slightly, trying to dampen the swing so that he and the rig don’t turn into a pendulum. He imagines he can hear the rope rubbing up top, its synthetic fibers heating under the strain. He can’t hear it, of course, but, with her supersensitive hearing, the cat might. Nature’s sounds are random. Rhythmic sounds in the forest are a trip wire to an alerted mountain lion. The soft, regular breathing of sleeping prey, the steady footfall and puffing breath of a hiker climbing blissfully into a furious ambush, the whimpering mews of a fawn searching for its mother, the crunch of hiking shoes across pine needles, the repeated click of a walking stick on a rocky path—these are the sounds that bring those delicate tufted ears up and the cat’s sharp senses to hunting pitch. He now looks up, half-expecting the cat to be up there, peering over the rim of the overhang, a tentative paw reaching for the rope, waiting
for him to come back up. Now that, he thinks, would be truly interesting.
Squeeze and release, inch by inch, the concave rock face now a good twenty feet away and beginning to curve back toward the vertical again. The dark blur of the cave’s mouth is coming into focus, its top edges more defined, the hollow darkness of the opening contrasting with the bright white bones littering the ledge in front. It’s a surprisingly big cave, maybe ten feet across. He wonders how many and what wonderful kinds of beasts have sought haven there over the millennia.
He descends in tiny halting jerks, ignoring the pain in his thighs and the constriction of the harness as he controls his breathing, mouth open to make no sound, taking in small irregular puffs of pristine pine-scented air. He thinks the breeze, such as it is, is working for him, blowing across the face of the sheer rock and masking the steely smell of his own adrenaline, which makes his eardrums thump with each heartbeat. The rig’s swivel keeps him from spinning away from his target. He’s still desperate to put his hand on the Max 800, just to make very damned sure.
Trust your instinct, he reminds himself. You’ve made your preps. Focus. Twist and release; twist and release. Then he’s finally in position, ten feet below the lip of the cave’s front ledge. He locks the ring. For a moment, he just hangs there and listens to his own heartbeat, willing it to slow down, trying for biofeedback and not succeeding worth a damn. The Max is attached to his camo jumpsuit by a tiny tungsten wire so that he can’t drop it, even if he should want to, because sometimes that happens if the fear becomes sufficiently intense. He’s dying for a drink of water, but there’s no time for that, not now, not here. He concentrates on that ledge and what he can see of the top half of the cave’s mouth.
She’s in there; I know she’s in there.
So: Let’s go. Let’s do it.
Time to dance.
He drops below the ledge because now he has to get closer, and the only way to do that is to swing in toward the
rock face. The swing will begin with him at the bottom of an arc. He has to get within eight feet of the ledge, which will happen at the top of the arc, because the Max is worthless beyond eight feet, and its short range is the whole point.
Keeping his eyes on the ledge, he reels up the Max and takes it in both hands. With his fingers, he tests the firing mechanism for resistance, assuring himself that it’s cocked and ready to fire.
He takes a deep breath, lets most of it out, and then, barely inclining his body, initiates the swing. It takes surprisingly little effort, with almost eighty feet of rope rising into the gloom above him. His body is stiff with tension and resists the swinging impulse. He has to bend his neck and then his shoulders to get it going, moving back and forth, not in a circle, but straight at the rock face, slowly but steadily gathering speed and reach as he swings in toward the rock and up toward the ledge, then away, down, and out over the seemingly bottomless gorge. An uneasy thrill lights up in his belly as he senses the great height and all that empty air. The river courses invisibly below him, making a distant rushing sound.
Back in again, still gripping the Max in both hands and controlling the swing with his body mass. He brings the Max up closer to his face so he can sight properly, pointing it toward the cave while he amplifies the swing into and up toward the rock face, then away, down, and out over the void. His brain knows that the rope is plenty strong, capable of holding him and two others like him. But his gut knows that there’s nothing but a couple hundred feet of air between him and the shattered scree below. He’s been down there, sniffing through bones and other debris from the lair above, trying to gauge the freshness of the litter, confirming that this is a live lair.
Back and forth now, a human pendulum riding a silent arc, each time coming closer to the ledge, rising higher with each sweep, a little off target now, focus, concentrate, straighten it out, and watch the back of the Max’s sight, watch for the flickering red light to turn green when he’s achieved the preset range of eight feet.
He’s cat-dancing for real now. He no longer has to worry
about remaining soundless in the rising light. Out and back, out and back, as the dawn’s terminator line creeps down the eastern slopes of the mountain. Suddenly, there’s something visible in the mouth of the cave. He catches only a quick glimpse at the top of the arc, seeing and then not seeing, imagining or seeing—which is it?—then down and out, then back, the light getting better, and then he knows.
arc. All his instincts are screaming, and then the cat’s screaming,
gathering to leap right off the ledge as he swings in for the last time. Her front legs are twitching back under her belly, the muscles of her massive shoulders and haunches quivering, her fangs baring, her eyes blazing while she shrieks at him and he shrieks back as he raises the camera, sees the blessed ready light, and shoots and winds, shoots and winds.
And then it’s rise, Lazarus, rise, as he swings back out again, away from that coiled tawny fury on the ledge. He raises his knees, bends in the middle, and then thrusts fully upright like a human inchworm, his hands together on the Jumars, climbing now in powerful lunges, kicking up with his legs. The sudden vertical surge of his body interrupts the rhythm of the arc, so that it diminishes with each powerful reach, while the cat shrieks again and races furiously back and forth in front of her cave; her whirling turns incredibly quick, her total outrage echoing across the canyon, creating an echo chorus of a dozen furious cats. He’s well above the ledge now, reaching up and grabbing whole meters of rope and pulling hard, the little camera bouncing around on his hip. The cat and the cave disappear as he approaches and then scrambles past the overhang. He can slow down now, catch his breath, savor the moment, pull the precious camera into his hip pack.
I have a face.
I have a
Now the trick is to get to the top and get the hell out of there before she figures it out and comes sprinting up after him. He should be safe, because she has cubs. She won’t leave the cubs. He hopes to God.
In his mind’s eye he can see White Eye waiting back at camp, a tiny Primus fire glowing against a circle of sharp rocks by now, the battered coffeepot balanced precariously on two stones, three cups of cold mountain water, grounds, eggshells, and his damned pinch of salt. He’ll be grinning, he thinks, just like I’m grinning, ear to ear, having heard that incandescent shriek transfix the morning air from the mouth of the cave, that feral “How dare you?” sound echoing down the gorge and over into the high pines, where White Eye’s been waiting since midnight.
Waiting and wondering if, after four years of training, I could really do it.
I have a face.
Now for the good stuff.