For Trace, all he had were the moments. Moments of pain. Moments of cold. Moments of hunger. Moments of thirst. Moments of fear. Moments of anger. All of these were shrouded in intervening moments of blackness. He really had no idea how long he’d been where he was. Although, once he woke to the sight of the moon staring down at him like a cold half-lidded eye against phantasm clouds, giving him the impression at least one day had passed. Beyond that, time had little meaning. With what had happened to his right arm, it’s not like he could check his watch or reach for his phone to pretend to call for help.
He assessed the damage in stages. For every bit he discovered, the pain sent him back into the black. First, was his head, which had been wet and sticky on the left side. When he tried to touch it, it felt like something that was supposed to be solid gave way. He might have screamed before he passed out. Next, was the realization he could not feel his right arm, and it looked like his collarbone might even be sticking out of his shirt. Finally, he was able to lift his head up just enough to see his right leg was at an odd angle and partially buried.
First, he was terrified. Injured, half-buried under scree, this was not good. He was in no condition to move and it could be days before anyone even thought to look for him. Then, the anger came. He was angry that he thought he could beat Phantom Peak, that he let himself get caught in this situation, that he didn’t listen to the stories, that he’d stupidly left his pack behind when he went scrambling across the scree.
He was going to die. That much was obvious. He had no food or water with him and he was injured. What was worse about this realization was the knowledge that it was not going to be a quick death. Ravens would probably be picking at his flesh while he would still be alive to feel it.
The rain brought him back. Cold drops pelting his damaged frame. He opened his mouth and greedily gulped at the little bit of water falling from the sky. The breeze chilled him. He could already see the sky clearing, even if the clouds overhead were so ominously black.
Something was watching him. There was no doubt about it. He could feel the eyes burning into him. Slowly, despite the pain in doing so, he turned his head slightly to see what it was.
The mountain lion laid passively just a few yards to his right, its tail moving slightly. It didn’t look like it was going to pounce just yet. Instead, it just watched him. Only when another, far larger, cat walked up, did the first one stand to stretch. Trace swallowed back a hard lump just hoping they’d make it quick.
“Hello, Mother. It’s been a bit.” The voice sounded familiar. “I was just telling Father I was up here looking for someone that Bast said was in need of help. I’m sure she’ll just be positively tickled to know I reached him in time. Thank you so much for looking after him for me. It appears I have a new place to look for the lost here now.”
Both mountain lions were standing and watching. Then, they turned and began to walk away. Perhaps under normal circumstances, Trace would’ve been surprised beyond all reason, but he was on Phantom Peak. His experience here had taught him reason didn’t readily apply.
There were people checking him. He looked up to see a pair of familiar feline gray eyes framed by a mane of rust colored dreadlocks. The wine guy from Magpie Jack’s. Something that looked like a smile crossed his face.
“It’s alright, you’re okay,” he began. “You’ve been injured, but I’m here to help. My name is Lazarus Lankin. Can you tell me your name?”
“Trace…” He wheezed, his throat was so dry it hurt. “Trace McAlester.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Trace, Trace McAlester.”
“Just Trace,” he said, almost laughing.
“I know a girl named Just Sydney,” Lankin said in a friendly tone. “She’s yet to tell me the etymology of her name, though I think it’s Farsi.”
This got Trace to laugh, but then the pain seized him.
“Hush, relax, and save your strength,” Lankin cooed before looking over his shoulder. “Help me get his leg uncovered, then you haul ass back up to the summit to radio Connelly.”
“Do we have to worry about your…parents?” Ian asked as he started to remove rocks from around Trace’s leg.
“I never imagined you as the superstitious sort, Lazarus,” Ian mused. “Always living by that rule of respecting the Backcountry or it’ll kill you.”
“I do live by that, but you are up here because of a premonition from my sister,” Lankin said. “I allow for the possibility my parents have turned into a pair of mountain lions.” He shrugged. “It’s a leap of faith.”
“Isn’t a leap of faith the same as superstition?”
“Not really,” Lankin said casually. “Every moment here in the mountains is a leap of faith, and in the Backcountry? Doubly so.” He paused to chuckle. “Really, Deputy, I thought you’d know that by now.”
They worked in silence to get Trace’s leg uncovered. The sun came back out, warming things once more. Ian then began to hike back up to get a signal to contact Connelly. Lankin set about making sure Trace was stable enough to transport.
“You’re doing great,” he said in a warm tone. “We’ll be getting you out of here soon. In fact, we should be down in time for trivia at Magpie Jack’s, and you’re young and strong, you’ll be better and back to getting into Backcountry trouble before you know it.”
“I thought I heard someone,” Trace said weakly. “A girl. Thought I saw someone too, but it was just a tree.”
Lankin looked at Trace a moment before looking down toward tree-line. Along the krumholtz, the mountain lion pair stared back, before melting into the shadows once more.
“How interesting,” he muttered.