The hunter took off through the woods like the hunted animal he was. His body was filled with the adrenaline of mortal danger. No longer hampered by his heavy kit and pack, he ascended the steepening incline of the mountain’s base in a swift jog, his hunting bow pumping at his side.
In his head he replayed the events of the past few minutes over and over with morbid fascination. He almost couldn’t believe what was happening.
That thing spoke! And it shoots like a Ranger! Is this someone’s idea of a bad joke!? Why am I always in the middle of shit like this?! I’m sick of this. Gods above, I’m so sick of this…He scowled,wishing he had something to direct his frustrations at other than the conception of his own life as his worst enemy.
He couldn’t forget the feeling when the arrow had almost struck his groin – like lightning running through his bowels. He felt light-headed at the thought.
His leg muscles burned with exertion, but compared to hefting seventy pounds of gear, he felt light as the wind. He couldn’t seem to be happy about it.
Everything I owned was left back there at the waterfall. I can’t go back for it without facing it again…I need to get this back in my favor.
The grey peak loomed above, partially obscure by hazy clouds. He estimated a four hour hike lay before him – less, if he could keep up the pace.
If I can break the tree line before it’s upon me again, I might stand a chance in a one-on-one. He paused in his stride, fighting to catch his breath. That, or the effort will exhaust me too much to fight back…
In his mind the latter scenario was far more likely. It was easy for him to believe the predator would be what finally ended his rather anticlimactic life. But he couldn’t bear the thought of doing nothing about it, so still he struggled against what he suspected was the inevitable end, like a puppet tugging feebly against its strings.
Where the strength to resist came from, or whether it was strength at all, he did not know. He only felt the instinct to survive, and he did not question it.
Soon the view of the blue and white sky was obscured by tree limbs. The light of midafternoon waned behind drifting clouds. The day was dry and breezy. Now more often he hiked past spring streams rushing by, eager to reach the bottom. They carried fallen maple leaves from the previous autumn in their current.
Greedily he drank from the streams, their icy waters lending rumor to the frozen heights awaiting him above. The first pangs of hunger since his stew yawned in his gut like an empty pit, but he could not take the time to forage thoroughly. Everything had come down to timing; every minute was far too valuable to spend on anything other than moving. But he was no stranger to hunger. He could ignore it for a while yet.
The mountainside shed its carpet of fallen leaves and brown pine needles for bare stone. The hunter wove shoulder-to-shoulder between cramped spruce and fir. Their roots lay bare and crawling across the cold rock of the mountainside. The grey-brown hues of the mountainous woodland began showing spots of white snow, dirtied brown by soil and fallen twigs. He had little choice but to trudge through or over them. The drastically wavering weather of early Cheering had caused the dirty snow to alternately freeze and melt during the cold nights and warm days. The thawing forms revealed frozen fossils of last year: nuts, seeds, needles, and leaves, which lent to the dewy scent of the spring mountainside.
Navigating from one game trail to the next as frequently as he could would have normally saved time, but as the elevation continued to increase, so too did the fauna decrease. To make matters worse, no trail led straight up the mountainside. Most meandered, slowly winding around its circumference. Some ended abruptly or were lost in a veil of woodland too treacherous to be navigated. Eventually there was no longer a path to be found, leaving him with the thick wind-blasted bush to wade through. The maple, oak, and ash trees began to thin, leaving the hardy white pine and the blue fir to grow in their place.
Here he was entering the kingdom of the raptors, where hawks and falcons rule. They regarded him from miles away, drifting gracefully upon the atmosphere. There they watched the sweaty creature on two legs flee up the mountainside without tiring, but behind him they could not see anything giving chase.
And so it passed by; the unorganized chaos of the natural world. Brambles and Briar hemmed in at his feet. Limbs and branches scraped at his arms and face. Spring streams, thick mud, rotting trees, and unforgiving stone were his obstacles.
He scrambled, jumped, crawled, climbed and pushed his way through them. The only thoughts on his mind were of hunger, weariness, and panic. His legs held fast, but more often now he would stumble with fatigue
Don’t stop! Don’t you dare stop! You have to keep moving…
The once-vivid blue of the afternoon sky dulled to the hazy silver of early evening. The tree cover had just begun to thin out, but he had not yet reached the tree line. Somehow he had grossly underestimated the height of the mountain.
If I don’t make it before dark, that’s it…..
He pushed down the wavering thoughts of doubt rising in his mind, but the floodgates of his psyche weakened with each passing hour. They would not hold forever.
His surroundings began to blend together without detail in his head as the monotony of fatigue set in. His mind slogged through its thoughts without focus, halfway between sleep and wakefulness. He guessed roughly thirty minutes remained before everything would be plunged into the dark of evening. The hope in his heart simmered to an ember and nearly died.
I’m not going to make it, am I…
He sat heavily to the mountain’s stone.
Everything ached. He could not remember a time when everything didn’t ache. His socks and feet were soaked through and his boots caked with mud. Along the sole of the left, a new tear had opened by the heel. What was not soaked with water was coated with dried sweat and the long-accumulated grime of travel. The exposed skin of his face and neck all sported red scrapes and welts. Wearily he looked down at his hands and wrists.
In his left hand he still held the smooth hunting bow. It’s limbs curved and recurved in a graceful symmetry.
He hadn’t once let go of it.
Still visible was the grain of the wood, wrought from a mighty hickory tree in the woods of Fairfield. He had borrowed the woodworkers tools, but the skill, knowledge, and labor had been all his own. Every day, every hour, he had watched the weapon reach maturity under the guidance of his calloused hands. Even the bowstring he had made, though the current one was not the original; all of them from the sinew of a strong elk or deer, hunted by him alone.
From somewhere deep inside of him a spark kindled as he gazed lovingly at the bow, like realizing the presence of a close friend. There it lay in his grasp, a testament to his own craftsmanship; a declaration of competence and proficiency. Painters had their brushes, farmers their plows, and he his bow.
I am not alone. I will not stop here. He regarded the darkening slopes of thinning trees ahead.
Not yet. He grimaced, his jaw firmly set. You don’t need to be a Ranger to survive.
He rose from his seat with a small surge of determination, ignoring the complaints of his legs and lungs. He still had just enough light to navigate by. He set off without hesitation.
The red of the sunset began to dim like a dying candle.
No more than ten minutes passed before he emerged from the tree line. Only low, fragile alpine shrubs and a handful of trees still clung to life up in those frigid heights. Thick cloud cover drifted along the grey rock like a specter, forming indistinct shapes to trick the eye in the dying light. A chill wind cut through his sweat-soaked body like a knife, leaving him shivering down to the very core of his spine. Sharp, drastic hills of bare rock climbed up and away, both to his right and left.
He had reached the bare shoulder of the mountain. He looked left and right.
No more trees for that thing to hide in. Now to find a good place to set an ambush.
Something far off to the left was struck with the waning silver light of the sunset. He squinted and shielded his eyes from the buffeting wind. With such dim lighting he could not tell what it might be – only that it was something with sharp right-angles.
A distant structure? Atop a mountainside? He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but decided to risk an approach. Wearily he picked his way to the left among the wind-blasted rockface of the mountain.