Trace was taken down from Phantom Peak without further incident, just questions racing through his mind. That night, the storm moved in. A dusting of a few inches of snow coated the higher peaks. Had he not been found, he would’ve died of exposure, becoming a meal for the scavengers and bleached bones upon the tundra. Another victim of the mountain locals called haunted or cursed.
It was only when the doctors began to examine him that he really felt he had gone downhill. The skull fracture had caused swelling to his brain, which had damaged motor skills to his right side. Not that it really mattered; his right collarbone was broken in three places and his right forearm in six. He had broken his back, as was well his pelvis. His right leg was not so much shattered as ground into powder.
He would live, but it was questionable how well he would be able to function, let alone walk. Trace wondered if being told he’d survive, given the damage, was really good news after all. Maybe exposure was the better option.
“A few years ago, Lazarus’s big sister was in a rollover up Deneb Gulch. The doctors said she’d never walk again.” Ian said a few days later. “Six months later, she was dragging herself along through Leeds’s town park with a set of crutches. She’s determined to summit the Death’s Head in the next two years.”
Trace knew his cousin was trying to help. Telling him not to give up. The pain and the surgeries and talk of therapy made such pep talks sounds silly. A few days after Ian’s visit, a card arrived for him. It was a picture of some nameless snowcapped peak with a very brief message written inside;
If you give up now, then your injuries have beaten you. Bear that in mind.
It was the middle of March when Ian brought him up to Marrakech. His leg, precariously held together by pins, like a few other parts of his body, was encased in a brace and he hobbled along with crutches. One of his doctors remarked how proud he was of Trace’s progress and he mentioned the name Bast Lankin. The doctor chuckled.
“Her stubbornness is contagious,” the doctor said.
A fat full moon shone down upon the fresh fallen snow across Gaia’s Backbone, making the high peaks look like they were encrusted in a blanket of cut diamonds. Warm light and jovial voices spilled out of Magpie Jack’s. Trace smiled weakly to himself. It had been six months since he’d had a beer, and he intended to buy a glass of wine for the man who pulled him off of Phantom Peak.
Lankin was sitting with Bast and a brunette girl who was introduced as Sydney. He traded civilities with Ian that seemed strained at best. Even so, it seemed the two men respected one another.
“And how long before I pull you off another mountain?” Lankin asked Trace with a smirk that was rather predatory.
“Hopefully never again,” he replied. “But I want to start hitting trails again by summer. My girlfriend’s been taking me to Denver’s City Park to try walking a little more outside of PT.”
“That’s good. You’ll recover. Give it a season, you’ll be hitting the Backcountry again.”
“I’m hoping so,” Trace said. “I don’t know that I’ll be trying another shot at Phantom Peak.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Lankin mused.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened up there,” Trace said. “I swear I heard laughing and voices. I swear I saw a girl, and maybe even a guy, not a stands of aspens. And the mountain lions? Was I in shock, or did you really call them Mother and Father?”
Lankin’s gaze hardened. He seemed to be restraining something. Trace noticed how Bast was eyeing him strangely. Both Ian and Sydney seemed uneasy at the Lankin siblings’ reaction.
“Let’s go up to the bar and get a drink, Trace,” Lankin said suddenly. “I owe you a beer from our first meeting, and I’m sure Grizz would be interested to hear of your trials and tribulations.”
“Oh, sure. Let’s go.”
The others watched them go up to the bar. Grizz made an excited greeting at receiving his company, calling for a round, on him. Ian looked over at Bast, but quickly averted his gaze, going back to his beer. Sydney started to open her mouth, but was silenced by gentle squeeze to her wrist.
“Were you to ask some of these old-timers, like Grizz, we Lankins don’t die, we just disappear,” Bast began, as though in a trance. “That we haunt the wilderness, as it were. There are other old-timers who say our parents are shape-shifters. Some will claim to hear their voices on the wind and others say to have seen them just as they must have looked the day they left Lazarus and I.” She looked away, almost wistfully. “Then, there are those who say they appear as two groves of aspens; one with yellow leaves and one with red, far closer to tree-line than normal. And, of course, the mountain lions…
“They watch. Perhaps it is they are the ones who decide who comes out of the Backcountry and who doesn’t. Some would call it all ghost stories, and there’s a logical explanation. But they’re up there, and they’re always watching.”