She could feel the rifle at her back.
It nudged her menacingly, urging her to take another step up the steep path that lead to the edge of the mountain. She knew where it ended, had climbed here on her own on one of those clear, blue mountain days when the sun feels like butter on your skin and the quiet of the forest is broken only by the gentle kiss of the wafting wind.
Tonight, not even the wind was in attendance. The silence on the ridge was like a still, waiting presence, the only witness to her approaching doom.
Susan Ryan was climbing toward a sheer drop of nine hundred feet.
She struggled to keep her fear at bay while her brain searched every avenue for some way out, some way to survive. It flooded with plans of escape-quick, desperate ideas that included screaming for help or grabbing at the rifle to save herself, plots that died as quickly as they were born. She knew she was about to perish and there was nothing she could do about it.
As she hiked further up the trail, her fear became mingled with an overwhelming sadness; sadness that she would never see her father or sister again. What she wouldn't give at this moment for one more day with them, to touch them softly, to say some things that should be said.
That chance would never come now.
Off to her right, she heard an owl hoot into the inky darkness. The sound was singular in its isolation. It occurred to Susan that it would be the last thing she would ever hear.
The last thing Susan Ryan heard was the roar of the rifle as it blasted through the quiet of the night. And just before that, the final, nagging thought that flashed through her mind.
Why didn't I see this coming?