Ian liked to consider himself in good shape, but he could hardly keep up. Lankin set a merciless pace, only stopping long enough for Ian to catch up. The snarl on his face reflected his agitation at having to slow down. Above them, clouds were gathering and the air hinted of rain, perhaps even graupel.
Once Ian returned to Lankin’s he barely had time to transfer his gear from one vehicle to another. Lankin set off at a furious pace, getting them to the dirt tracks four-wheelers used around Gaia’s Backbone at a speed that would have resulted in a severe speeding ticket at the very least. He drove at least two, perhaps even three miles past any four-by-four road Ian was aware of before finally stopping, getting out of his vehicle and slipping into his pack before the engine had completely shut off. Lankin was already at least fifty yards away when he looked back at Ian, still getting his back on.
“We do not have time for you to dally, Deputy,” Lankin said, making no effort to mask his ire at the situation.
The sky turned black, matching his mood. Ian struggled to keep up. What was more unsettling than his companion’s mood was the fact he could feel eyes on him. Someone, something was following just out of sight. If Lankin was aware of it, he didn’t let on. He just kept his purposeful gate, marching toward the summit of Phantom Peak with grim determination of a pallbearer on the way to a gravesite.
It took two hours to reach tree-line from where they parked. Lankin finally stopped at a rather large boulder to have some water and unshoulder his pack. When Ian finally caught up, he looked on impassively.
“This is the trail, such as it is,” Lankin said. “Anyone who comes up here seems to intuit this route. It would seem that your cousin just kept going instead of turning around. If he was smart, he made for the lake on the other side, which is what the ones who come down off this mountain do.”
“And if he didn’t?” Ian asked breathlessly.
“If we don’t find him on this route, we won’t,” Lankin replied. “You’ll have to reconcile he’s one of the lost.”
“That’s a cold way of looking at it,” Ian muttered.
“No, Deputy,” Lankin corrected. “It’s realistic.”
A drop pelted Ian’s face, cold and jarring. There was a chill on the breeze. Although there was clear skies on either side of them, the sky above looked like it would open up with a deluge.
“It might blow over, but we should put on our shells,” Lankin said. “This boulder here has a nice cut we can use for a bivouac if needs be. The summer before my sister’s accident, we camped here.”
“You camped here?!?” Ian exclaimed. “With all the stories? My god! Why?”
“We had our reasons.”
They crawled inside the cut to put on their hardshells. Both men noticed the pack stashed next to the rock. Ian felt his heart sink at the realization of whom it belonged to. It didn’t fit; Trace was young and a little cocky, but to just leave his pack seemed too careless. Lankin noted the pack with a detached glance, his eyes tracking back out to dirt and rock landscape outside. It was starting to drizzle.
Movement caught Ian’s attention. He moved back toward the opening to get a better look, hoping it was Trace coming back to collect his pack, making this whole trip for naught. His hopes were dashed when he saw it wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t even human.
The mountain lion looked to weigh three hundred pounds if it weighed an ounce. It was sitting looking directly at the boulder, directly at the two men. Without a conscious thought, Ian’s hand slipped down to the pistol he had belted to his waist. He only realized what he was doing when he felt a strong hand seize his wrist.
“Don’t you dare!” Lankin hissed.
With that, he pulled the hood of his shell over his head and reshouldered his pack. He stepped out into the rain causally, walking toward the big cat. Ian watched horrified as Lankin got to within just a few yards of the animal and stopped. The mountain lion could easily pounce if it so desired. At the moment it just watched as the person in front of it folded his arms across his chest and smiled off-handedly.
“Hello, Father. It’s been a bit.”
The mountain lion yawned before it laid itself down. It’s tail swished back and forth as something of an afterthought. If anything, it really didn’t seem at all interested.
“So, I’m up here looking for someone,” Lankin continued. “Someone Bast seems to think is alive, and perhaps in need of some help. Have you seen anyone like that?”
The mountain lion stood up and stretched. With another large yawn it revealed its full set of large teeth. It turned and started walking in the direction of a scree field.
“Are you coming, Deputy?” Lankin called over his shoulder as he began to walk, not bothering to see if he was being followed.