Chapter 28 ~ A Mountain Lion Stalks Brad
The tall pine trees obscured the much of the night sky making the forest surrounding Brad as dark as coal mine. The only light Brad had came from his small dying campfire. Brad lie on his space blanket sound asleep. He learned during his deployment to Afghanistan how to sleep and simultaneously be aware of his surrounding him during the roughest and most dangerous conditions. Twice he woke up, opened his eyes, and listened. Something, he assumed was an animal, was near the edge of the rock outcropping. Each time he woke, his hand reflexively grasped hold of the machete.
The third time he woke was right before dawn. Brad opened his eyes, he listened, his hand already rested on the machete. He grasped hold of it and in a swift motion rose to his feet. His attention focused on the furthest edge of the rock outcropping from where he stood. He wasn’t sure what he heard, but he knew his subconscious heard enough to sound the alarm. He was sure enough to trust his intuition, it never failed him. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a dry branch, no more than two feet long, lying a few feet away. He carefully moved toward the branch while keeping his eyes trained on the far edge of the rock outcropping. When he was within reaching distance, he stooped down, switched the machete to his left hand, and grab hold of the branch. He moved back toward the fire, his eyes still trained on the edge of the outcropping When he reached the small campfire, he stooped, and holding the small dry branch as he would a club, placed the front end of the dry branch into the small fire.
As he placed the end of the branch into the fire, the mountain lion stepped onto the rock outcropping. He’s looking for breakfast, maybe lunch and dinner all rolled into one big meal. I’m not on your menu, Brad’s inner voice said.
When the end of the branch caught fire, Brad pulled it out of the fire, stood up, and brandished it toward the mountain lion. Waving it erratically. He raised the machete in his left hand and menacingly jabbed the burning branch toward the mountain lion. The mountain lion stood his ground, and began to emit a low aggressive growl.
Brad stepped aggressively toward the mountain lion, and made a loud series of guttural shrieks that traveled light years from his ancestral past. The mountain lion hesitated, confused by the larger beast coming toward him, turned and fled into the forest. Brad stopped, he became frozen in time and space. He was as still as a fallen log in Arizona’s the Petrified Forest. Only when he was sure the mountain lion surrendered this territory to the alpha male, did he dare move. He turned to the east and saw the sky beginning the slow process of being filled with light. Brad knelt down on one knee and briefly prayed in gratitude for sparing him from the mountain lion and for guidance in finding Matt.
He rose off his knee and quickly prepared to continue his search as soon as there was sufficient light. He folded the space blanket and placed it in the backpack. He took a protein energy bar out and slowly ate it, sipping water between bites. As it grew lighter, he put out the fire, making sure there were no burning embers. Only when he was sure every spark was out, did he dare slip on his backpack. The last thing he wanted to do was to start a forest fire that would destroy both Matt and he and countless animals.
When the sun’s rays broke through the stand of pine trees, Brad knew it was time to go. He estimated it was five-thirty leaving him between ten and twelve hours to find Matt before the cold front came through, if the weather forecast was accurate. He knew it was a big if. He slipped down off the rock outcropping and walked to where he found the orange peels. He scanned the brush looking for any sign Matt had come this way. He knew it was going to be slow going, but any mistake on his part might mean certain death for Matt.
Each of his steps were carefully placed. He repeated the pattern over and over. He took a step and looked first to his right, then straight ahead, then to his left for any sign of Matt. After nearly thirty minutes without any luck, Brad stopped. What if, he thought. What if Matt tossed the orange peels from the rock outcropping. Did he hear something and bolt into the forest from where he tossed the orange peels?
Brad turned back and scurried up to the top of the rock outcropping. He saw the place where he made the campfire. He thought it is possible the mountain lion was prowling in the same area where he saw him this morning. This might mean Matt took off in the opposite direction. Brad turned and walked to the opposite side of the outcropping. He saw it right away, a small broken branch, and beyond it, a trampled bush. Brad was sure Matt had fled in this direction. He knew he was placing Matt’s life on the evidence of a snapped small branch and trampled brush, but what other choice did he have? He estimated he had nine hours to find Matt.
Brad briefly shook his head to clear his mind of memories in the Afghanistan mountains. When his mind cleared he began his search. There were times when it seemed the way was clear. Yet, there were other times where Brad spent considerable time looking for signs. A half dozen times he backtracked to picked up Matt’s trail. Early on, he heard a helicopter somewhere in the distance. The sound of the helicopter brought another flashback of his deployment in Afghanistan. The helicopter was not near Indian Trail. He estimated the helicopter was searching the trail toward the Summit.
Brad retrieved his extension service cell phone, turned it on and sent a text to Grace telling her he believed Matt had taken Indian Trail. He had service, the text appeared to go through. Matt wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to waste anytime. He turned the cell phone off and continued to track Matt. It was after the sun had reached its apex that Brad decided to take a ten minute break, eat a protein energy bar and replenish the fluids he sweat out of his body. As he rested he looked at the sky. He saw a black wall rising 50,000 feet into the sky off to the the far west. He knew it was the cold front. It looked more dangerous than predicted. He changed the estimate of its arrival to between three and five. He had only two to three hours to find Matt before the black wall slammed into the mountain.