The Wild Mountain Trail – Short Story

“Its winter time, and we have snow in the mountains again here in Southern California.  I was in the mood to be amongst the pine this morning, and decided to write a little story.  Hope you enjoy!”

 

To say that Jeffrey had been hiking the trail may have been misleading.  He was confused, hurt and stumbling, but miraculously staying on the trail.  It wasn’t hiking.  Not that one could really call what he was walking on a trail anyway.  Jeffrey was high up on the eastern side of the San Gabriel mountain range in mid-February, amidst one of the worst storms California had ever seen.  The range wasn’t overwhelmingly large, the tallest peak pushing ten thousand feet above the Earth’s surface.  But for all of its seemingly docile features, the slopes and scree during a brutal winter storm make these mountains as dangerous as any in the world.  It was all just a matter of where Jeffrey stepped next. 

            His next step was as accurate as the step before it, but he trod along with difficulty.  The snow continued to build beneath his feet, which he could not comprehend in his condition.  He shuffled more than stepped, his mountaineering boots displacing snow with each slide of his foot, the crunching sound lost on the wind of the storm.  And though it was mid-day, it was dark.  It didn’t matter to Jeffrey; his vision was clouded by pain and blood anyway.  His breath was labored, but he never stopped.  It wasn’t survival that inspired him, encouraging him to put one foot in front of the other.  It was fear.

            Jeffrey was up on the mountain with his favorite hiking companion Dutch, his four year old Siberian husky.  They had been hiking for two days, enjoying a moderate climb into rich pine and chaparral blanketed in wintery snow.  The big storm was early, catching the two mountaineers off guard and in unfavorable conditions.  Jeffrey was an experienced climber, his dog too, and neither had worried about getting down off of the mountain safely, even in blizzard like conditions.  The man was well equipped and knowledgeable of this mountain.  But it wasn’t for the mountain that he was unprepared.

            The two companions had been hiking down for about an hour when Dutch had stopped, a few feet in front of Jeffrey.  The tail had stopped wagging and a guttural sound poured from his lips.  Jeffrey could not see far enough in front of his dog to understand why the sudden alert, but he knew it could not be good. In fact, it wasn’t.  From out of the gray a mountain lion leapt; a brown streak of lightening through the haze.  It made almost no noise, though the sound of impact between cat and dog was sickening.  Dutch squealed, the mountain beast almost as large as he.  The two tumbled, and Jeffrey could not distinguish if one had an advantage over the other.  From instinct, he pulled his side knife from its sheath, a razor sharp hunting blade he kept attached to his belt.  He stood, worried but ready. 

            The wind drowned out the sound of the struggle before him, and all Jeffrey could do was stand and wait.  He would not leave his dog without at least knowing the outcome of the fight, good or bad.  His decision to stand put him in harm, as the large cat had gotten free from the battle, and was now preying on the man.  Seemingly unhurt, the cat leapt again, this time from behind Jeffrey, with one slash of the paw breaking open his skin and knocking him down.  Immediately he felt the warmth of blood cover the side of his face.  But the pain didn’t stop him from protecting himself, from fighting back.  He furiously stabbed, blindly waving the knife in every direction.  Few times he felt an impact.  But he fought, and continued to fight.  It was a fight for this life. 

            The few times he had cut the animal were enough to free him from the attack, though they were far from mortal wounds.  His own injuries, however, were life threatening if for no other reason they impaired his ability to manage the dangerous slopes of the mountain.  The injuries were also a sign that the mountain lion had not finished what it started, and would most likely want to change that fact.  As Jeffrey stood, wavering, he turned in every direction, seeking out his attacker.  There on the trail before him it stood, menacing and without remorse.  The big brown cat had deep black eyes, and traces of white along its snout.  It breathed heavily, but not labored.  Though Jeffrey was sure he had injured the animal, it showed no signs of being hurt.  This alone defeated Jeffrey, if only a little.  Emotionally he wasn’t sure if he could survive another attack.  The battle against a seasoned killer seemed to be fraught with failure.  But Jeffrey would not yet be engaged in another attack.

            As if taking a page from the lion’s own book, Dutch emerged from the fury of the storm and pounced on the mountain cat.  In Jeffrey’s eyes, the struggle resumed as it had before, with neither animal appearing to have an advantage.  Adrenaline now filled his head, and for a moment he felt a sense of clarity. But it was for only a moment.  As the two animals continued to fight, an opportunity arose for Jeffrey to possibly get a fatal blow in to the cat.  He gripped his trusty knife tightly and took a deep breath.  As the battle neared the spot where he stood, Jeffrey lunged forward and down toward the mountain lion.  He missed, and in the act he lost his footing and began to tumble.  As he violently descended the mountain, the faint sound of a wail could be heard from his faithful dog Dutch.

            Jeffrey had come to stop on a small landing a few hundred feet below the trail where he and his dog where attacked.  The storm had not let up, and even lower on the mountain the snow continued to blow.  The mix of white and gray were blinding, and disorienting.  He was now cold, physically spent and emotionally disconnected. He had the warmth of blood on his face and the taste of blood in his mouth.  A sharp pain began stabbing him with each breath, centered in his rib cage.  He knew he was in a bad way, and that odds were against his getting off of the mountain alive.  But he was moving, stumbling along, telling himself he needed to survive one step at a time.  After forty minutes and a sudden cough that nearly made him black out, he stopped and decided to rest on a cold and wet rock on the side of the mountain.  He knew the lion might find him if he stopped.  The dangers of the storm and the dangers of the mountain don’t always apply to an animal designed to hunt in both extremes.  As he sat, Jeffrey began to think of his dog.  Dutch was his friend, his companion. 

            He had fallen asleep at some point, unknowingly, sitting on a rock in a winter storm, high in the mountains.  His injuries from the attack and from the fall were bad, and painful, and the pain was most likely what shook him awake.  When he opened his eyes he was surprised to see that the storm was letting up, though by no means over.  A sense of hope seemed washed over the hillside however, and the feeling filled Jeffrey with a new energy.  When he sat on the rock he was defeated, and resigned to fact he would die.  He had already made his peace with the death of this friend, Dutch.  But now the quiet solitude of the mountain had renewed his spirit, the smell of pine and clean air cascading into his lungs.  He clenched his hands, feeling the pain course through his arms and through his body.  He didn’t care.  He felt the worst was over, and stood to make his way again down the trail.  But as he rose, the sense of dread returned when he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. 

            Jeffrey stumbled again as he hurriedly walked away from the sound.  The actions of his feet could not keep up with the thoughts in his mind, but he raced as best he could.  It was a slow pace, and he knew that, but he felt if he kept moving he might have a chance.  He had lost his knife, and knew he had no defense, but he kept walking, shuffling his way through the snow.  He focused on the sound of his breathing, still labored, but constant and reassuring.  The sounds of his own footsteps eroded all other sounds, and he was curious if he was still being followed.  But he dared not stop. 

            In the brief waning of the storm, Jeffrey’s tracks remained on the trail, high up on the mountain.  As the man struggled forward, he left behind a distinct pattern that would have been elementary to follow.  But the pattern need not be elementary, as the animal tracking Jeffrey was adept at following even the most complex of trails.  And as Jeffrey left behind his tracks, Dutch followed close behind, the limp body of a mountain lion firmly clenched in his teeth.

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