Chapter 30 ~ Fighting for their Lives
Brad slowly and methodically tracked Matt’s trail. His progress was a series of hits and misses. It was nearly two in afternoon when he caught sight of a wall of big mountain sagebrush. Off to his right the sagebrush separated as if someone plowed through it. Brad made his way over the underbrush to the opening. He stopped. He looked just beyond the sagebrush and saw the edge of a cliff and a view of a valley stretched out more than five-hundred feet below.
Brad made his way the cliff’s edge, dropped to his knees, placed his hands, palm down on the edge of the cliff, and peered over the edge. He caught sight of a ledge. He scanned the ledge looking for a sign of life. He didn’t see any. The sound of thunder boomed in the distance and drew his attention toward the west. He saw a wall of clouds as black as the camouflage paint he wore on night operations in Afghanistan.
Brad stood up, took the backpack off his shoulder, opened it and pulled out the nylon cord he packed. He closed his backpack and slipped it back on his shoulders. He tied one end of the cord around an aspen and dropped the remainder of the cord over the edge of the cliff. He grabbed hold of the cord, turned his back to the cliff, and began his slow decent. He descended twenty feet to the ledge. He took off his backpack, set it down, and with his back to the stone wall he scanned the ledge. He noticed a shrub growing out of a small crack in the ledge several feet to his left. He slid over to it, stooped down and examined it. It had been recently damaged. Some of the shrub’s roots were exposed and the center branch was twisted.
Brad looked down beyond the shrub but only saw the tops of the trees far below. He looked to his left, the ledge continued but narrowed and disappeared. He looked to his right and saw the ledge continue and curve out of sight. A cloud to ground lightening strike followed by a roaring crash of thunder vibrating against the mountainside increased Brad’s sense of urgency. The black wall was no more two miles away. A moment later, he caught sight of a mountain bluebird flying up over the side of the cliff and into the forest above.
Brad didn’t hesitate, he began his slide along the wall. He traveled no more than ten steps when the first drops of rain hit his face. Brad continued on, a red tailed hawk sat on a nest and rose up off the nest flapping her arms. A gust of wind caught the hawk and she settled back down on the nest lowering herself on top of her chicks. The rain began to drive harder. Brad’s hair quickly became soaked and the water rolled off Brad’s cheeks as if he were taking a shower. Brad turned the corner and caught sight of Matt dangling with two hands clinging to a shrub growing out of a deep split in the stone wall.
Brad called, “Hang on Matt. One more minute. One more minute.”
“I knew you’d come. I knew it,” shouted Matt above the roar of thunder and increasing wind.
Brad deftly made his way to Matt. He stepped back, placing his heels on the edge of the ledge. He raised his two arms and placed them on Matt’s waist. He said, “You’re safe, let go, just drop don’t fight it.”
Matt closed his eyes, he took a look to the side, he said, “I’m going to let go, Brad. Hold on tight.”
“Don’t worry, Matt, you’re safe.”
Matt let go and Brad’s hands tightened around Matt’s waist as if they were the jaws of life. He gently eased Matt down to the ledge. “Don’t move until I tell you to move, Matt.”
“Yes, sir,” said Matt.
Brad stepped to the side and motioned Matt to move into the corner. “Stoop down, Matt. I want to give you quick check. We’ve got to get out of her and we don’t have much time.”
“I’m okay. I’m hungry and cold, that’s all. Maybe thirsty, too.”
Brad scanned Matt’s two arms, then he looked at his legs. “You’re pretty much bruised up. Do you have any sharp pains, anyplace?”
“No sir,” said Matt.
“Okay, Matt, stand up. Place your back to the wall. We’re going back along the wall. We’ll have to be careful. I’m going to hold on to your left arm. The ledge will be slippery because it’s raining. Glide to your left when I tell you to. Do not move without me telling you to move. Understand?”
Brad led Matt along the ledge. They passed the red tail hawk who glared down at them. Soon they were and to where Brad left his backpack. He picked up the backpack, and placed it on Matt’s shoulders. He said, “I’m going to turn sideways and stoop, place your arms around my neck and legs around my waist. I’m going to climb up this wall and you’re my passenger.”
“Yes, sir,” said Matt. He watched Brad stoop down. He placed his arms around Brad’s neck and put his legs around Brad’s waist.
When Brad was sure that Matt was holding on tight, he slowly raised himself up. He grasped hold of the nylon cord with his right hand. He used his left hand to wipe the rain away from his eyes. It did no good. The rain was driving sideways. Brad reached up with his left arm and his left hand grasped the cord and he pulled. His legs lifted off the ledge. He paused. His mind returned Afghanistan. A wounded buddy and he were trapped on the side a cliff. He signaled for help. He saw himself looking up the edge of a cliff. The Taliban were two hundred yards behind them. He had no choice but to scale the wall. He threw a grappling hook over the top of the cliff and pulled hard on the rope to make sure it was secure. His wounded buddy clung to him and he began the climb up the edge of the cliff, his buddy’s arms around his neck and legs hooked over his hips. Enemy fire ricocheted around them. Brad shook his head forcing the thoughts out of his mind. Hand over hand he grasped the nylon cord making sure he had a sure grip and he pulled lifting he and his cargo slowly up the canyon wall. His ascent was slow. The wind blew Brad and Matt from side to side almost as if they were on a wild ride at an amusement park. Brad’s muscles strained, his feet slipping agains the wet canyon wall. He kept climbing. When he made it to the top, he hoisted himself up and told Matt to drop to the ground once they were safely away from the edge. Matt dropped to the ground off of Brad. Brad turned around and Matt threw his arms around him and buried his head into Brad’s chest.
“It’s okay. You’re safe. We’ve got to get out of here. Before we go, I want you to eat a protein bar and drink some water. You’ll need all the energy you can get.”
Brad reached into the backpack, there was one protein bar remaining and one bottle of water. He gave both to Matt. He pulled out his PLB and turned it on sending out a distress signal. He place the PLB back in the backpack and pulled out the small first aid kit. He opened it and pick out an antiseptic wipe. He opened opened the packet and wiped Matt’s scrapped knees. He placed the packet back in the first aid kit and took out the antibacterial ointment and rubbed it on the broken skin on Matt’s knees.
Matt looked up at Brad, made an involuntary shiver and said, “Are you going to eat?”
Brad said, “I’m not hungry. I have a water proof space blanket in here. I want you wrap yourself in it when you finish your bar and drink, then climb on my back, we’re going to get out of here before the sun sets.”
Matt nodded and eagerly consumed the bar. He drank the water and placed the wrapper and bottle in the backpack. Brad handed him the space blanket. Matt draped the space blanket over his shoulders and pulled it tight around his neck. Brad stooped down, Matt climbed aboard. Brad got his bearings and began jogging back toward camp. It was nearly five o’clock. The storm raged around them. Lightening crack and thunder roared almost at the same time. Each time a bolt of lightening struck close by, Matt gripped Brad’s neck a little tighter.
Matt said in Brad’s ear, “Will we make it before it gets dark?”
All Brad said was, “We’ll make it. Hang on.”