As the last rays of sun eased west leaving the night in possession of the clearing what appeared to be an old man sat before the fire warming his feet. His back was against a large log worn smooth of its bark save the bottom against the ground. To his right lay a large husky or wolf like dog, his ears cocked towards the sounds several men were making as they tramped towards the clearing. “Quiet, George, let em come in. We’ll know if they mean trouble soon enough.” several minutes passed and George was on his feet emitting a series of low growls. “Quiet, now, George. No need to cause alarm. There’s three of them, aren’t there boy?” George looked at the old man as if to confirm what they both knew then continued to stare at the trail. His tail stiffened as he stood with his paws firmly on the ground, ready to leap at the first one to appear. “Steady, now, old George. this first one’s almost here. No teeth, George, don’t want to scare them. Likely to spook them and cause harm.” A moment later a young man appeared at the edge of the clearing. He stopped for a few seconds then let out a shout. “Here we are boys, we got us some civilization.” Then he turned to the old man. “Say, mister, mind if we camp here for the night? I think we got off the trail and took a wrong fork back there a few miles.” George wasn’t convinced of the man’s sincerity.
“Easy now George, give the man some room.” George went over to the old man and commenced to guarding his master. “Well, son, you are a bit off the trail. You heading up Virginia City way? My, that’s along trip to make on foot.”
“Over here, Mac, Red. Fire feels good right now. You don’t mind us warming ourselves by your fire, do you mister? My name’s Johnnie and this is Red and over there is Mac.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance, boys. This here’s George and I’m Jack Bridger. Medea is around here somewhere, she probably saw you come in. Oh, there she is now.” A rustle of leaves just beyond the clearing to the north was heard but the men sow no movement. “As long as you remain in the clearing and are peaceful like she won’t hurt you. Besides, she’s got her weekly shopping to do tonight.”
“Who’s Medea?” It was Red who asked the question as he looked toward where the sound had come.
“Oh you ain’t got to worry about her, she’s just an old mountain lion I raised from the wild. Now when Jason’s in town the we all got to look out. Every fall he comes round to tend to Medea. She’s had three litters by him. but this here’s July and I don’t expect him for at least another month, if that. But you’re safe here with me for the night. Just don’t go out of the clearing alone. That’s all. She might mistake you for a deer.” The three men watched him with rapt attention. George had started to relax a bit. He turned his head towards the fire and watched it crackle and pop. His eyes were back om the three men again. He would stand guard.
The old man lowered his food box and took out an old cast iron pan and some bacon. He proceeded to slice off some thick pieces of meat then commence to chop half an onion. Next he put two cloves of garlic in the pan and smashed them with the but of his huge knife. Then he added the onions and the bacon pieces to the pan and started frying the contents over an open fire. Every so once in a while he’d remove the pan from the heat and take his big wooden spoon and stir the content. Then he added some salt and a few pepper corns and a bit of seasoning. As the food cooked he added some dried corn and a few slices of potatoes and a cup of water. He let the mixture simmer on the cooler coals and went to haul his food box back up to about twenty feet above the clearing floor. “You know, Old Medea can really jump high. Yes sir, got to store my food that far off the ground and make sure she can’t get it from the limbs. The old man had two tin pans in his hands and he nodded to George. He scooped half the mixture into one tin pan and then put the rest into another. The last pan he placed before George. “There you go, boy. Remember you still got to catch a rabbit tomorrow.” Jack spoke to the three men. Dogs don’t do so good in the wild lessen they is in packs. So I got to make sure Old George gets a regular meal now and then. Sides, his good company and earns his keep. Natural order of things.”
Red had set his backpack down and pulled out a bottle of water and a package of jerky. Mac stood beside him and did the same. Only Johnnie kept to his feet and came closer to the old man. “Say, I guess you’ve lived here for some time, Mr Bridger. We heard about a trail that was suppose to take us up in the mountains and over a pass. A kind of short cut. You know anything about it?”
“Well, Johnnie. I think you were told wrong by someone who doesn’t know this area. See, this trail goes up aways towards the ledge and then snakes back around to the north of here. Bout a mile or so the fooking starts to get bad and two miles after that the going gets treacherous. Many men over the years have lost their lives up their. I knowed two of them fellers. Took the rangers almost a month to find their bodies and bring them back down. Can’t get a copter in there neither. No sir, just can’t be done. I reckon you boys ought to start back in the morning. Too late the start now what with the cat being out there. Oh she most likely won’t take all three of you on, but if you were separated from the others she just might figure yourself her dinner.”
“Gosh, Mr Bridger, I guess we were misinformed. Is there a pass to the north from here?” Johnnie tried to sound casual but not really sure he was convincing the old man.
“Yes, yes there is but its just five miles south of Virginia City. Now about a days travel up back up the way you came is a fork that leads to a trail that will take you over the mountains. but its a good two day climb to the other side. There’s been a couple young fellers like yourselves in he last three years who took that trail. Said something about they was rock climbers or something. Had some kind of device that told them where to go and all that kind of stuff. Now me, I know where I am and I know the land hereabouts real well. Used to do prospecting back in the sixties and seventies when I was much younger. But the ores played out and lessen a man wants to spend his live diggin holes in rock, it just ain’t no way to live.”
“Well what do you do now, Mr Bridger?”
“Mostly I help the rangers out. I keep track of some of the wildlife for them, maybe act as a guide when they want to go somewhere that ain’t mapped yet. Just generally help out some here and there. One of those wildlife people are suppose to be coming out the next day or two. They like to count the deer and other animals. Said they needed to keep track of their inventory. I could have told them that’s what nature does.”
“Thanks for the info, Mr Bridges.” Johnnie left and walked over towards the beginning of the clearing taking off his pack and sitting on a log. His meal was the same as the other two young men and he ate slowly while appearing to be deep in thought.
The old man observed and felt a little uneasy. “Well, George,” he was speaking to the dog in low tones. “Things aren’t what the seem. Johnnie wants something and I haven’t figured it yet. No, you keep an eye out. These fellas don’t act right.” George could have told the old man that much. Besides, there was something outside the clearing that was keeping watch as well.
Sleep finally came to all, even George who had tried to remain alert during the night. Sun from the east started to warm the air and melt the mist that hovered on the floor of the clearing. Someone stirred and George was awake, a low grrr came from his mouth. The old man sat up and yawned. George’s warning instinctively tipped him off that something was afoot. He stood up and then started to roll up his bedding, two blankets really. “Yes sir, George, got to keep regular habits out here. I’ll make us a little breakfast. How does that sound?” But George’s ears were back a little. He was wary about the others in the camp. Johnnie started to walk over and George was on his feet, ready to snarl and show his teeth. “Calm down now George, we don’t want to tip our hand.” Johnnie now stood about ten feet away.
“Say Mr Bridger, the boys and I were talking about our plans and we thought about offering you a job. You know, showing us around the area. We’d pay well, of course. We don’t want to take advantage of a man. Say fifty dollars for the day. You must know the best places to see around here. And we have extra provisions, even for your dog if you want to bring him along.”
The old man noticed that the other two, Red and Mac, had already cleaned the camp and put on their backpacks. The two were inching over as casually as they could thinking they weren’t arousing suspicion. “Well now, that’s mighty generous of you boys. Just were did you have in mind that you needed my help?” He knew that refusing would not be taken lightly. No, there was something afoot but he just couldn’t figure it. George picked up on that feeling as well. “Calm down George, relax. George here gets a bit excited if he thinks we’re going into the woods to hunt. He gets a little antsy. don’t mind him.”
The young man pulled out a geological survey map and studied it for a minute. Then he showed it to the old man. “We want to go here, where the X is. do you know where that is?” The old man looked at the map and placed the location in his memory.
“You want to go there? That’s the ridge I told you about last night. I don’t think you boys look good enough to go up that trail. I’m and old man and I know it’s too dangerous for me. But you boys don’t look like you’re half mountain goat and that’s what you got to be up there?” The old man knew all the local legends. Somewhere on the ledge some prospector or whatever buried or hid a fortune in gold or diamonds or whatever. The details changed but the legend remained the same. Yep, he knew of half a dozen men who had lost their lives looking for the treasure and a dozen more who had to be carried out broken in body. It was bad business all around. He didn’t need to ask why they wanted to go there. And he knew they were determined that he lead them to the ledge.
Johnnie was smiling now. “Yeah, we want to go up there and we want you to lead the way. If it’s a bad as you say then you must come with us. Show us how to get there.” His face grew more serious, determined. “We didn’t come all this way just to be stopped by you.” George started a low growl, his feet planted and ears slid back, his body was tensed in anticipation. “Call your dog off or I’ll shoot him.”
“You shoot George and you might as well shoot me. We don’t scare so easy.” The old man turned to his dog and motioned with his hand. “Easy George, easy does it.” Then he turned back to Johnnie. “Okay, Johnie, we’ll go. But I’ll only take you as far as the ledge. After that you’re on your own.”
“Get you stuff now and tie the dog up. I’m not going to argue the point.” Then Johnnie turned towards the other two men. “Let’s go guys, we have some hiking to do. Bridger here is going to tie the dog.” Johnnie turned and tosses a short length of corded line towards the old man. “Isn’t that right, Bridger?”
The old man examined to length of line then nodded in assent. “Come, George. We got to do as the man says.” he slipped a loop of line around the dog’s neck and tied the end to a small tree. “you’ll be okay George, I’ll be back about supper time.” George was agitated and started pulling at captivity. Barks and growls came in an almost steady stream. “Alright Johnnie, lets get this fool trip over with.” With that the men set out towards their goal. Bridger took measured steps, no need letting them think his body and energy were strong. ‘No, better to play the weak old man card for now. Besides, the weak knot that held the loop around George’s neck would fail in about two hours and the dog would find them easily enough. That much he counted upon. Meanwhile the next four miles would see what Johnnie and his two friends were made of.’
After the first mile and a half the trail started to become progressively harder. The gentle slope gradually increased and the ground grew more rocky, making footing more difficult. ‘Time to start my act.’ the old man became less steady on his feet, sometimes ready to fall. He was also slowing down a little, acting a little winded. The old man also became aware that they were being stalked. By noon the party had covered four miles and the younger men were starting to look a little tired when they took a rest break. Jerky and bottled water were taken out of the packs as the old man smiled to himself. Johnnie handed him a bottle of water and a small packet or jerky. “Here you go, Bridger. Better eat quick because we aren’t stopping long.” Johnnie was looking at his GPS device. “I’d say we have another three miles to go, wouldn’t you?”
“More like four and it’ll feel like ten by the time you get there. You might make it by nightfall. Then again, you might not.”
“You playing us for fools, old man?” A flash of anger crossed Johnnies face.
“Nope, wouldn’t think of doing that. But you boys don’t look like you’re use to difficult ground. No, you ain’t rock hoppers or what ever those other fellas are. The trail’s gonna get rougher still bout another mile. Elevation going to be steeper too. And by the time you get to the ledge air’s going to be a bit thinner. You boys ain’t use to all that. And that’s a fact. No, I don’t have to play you, you’re doing that yourself.”
“We’ll see about that old man. Come on, time to get moving.” Johnnie was starting to show impatience. The old man straightened up and continues on the trail. He’d keep the pace varied now, sometimes a little quicker and sometimes a little slower. Just enough to break their comfort. Conifer and evergreens began to dominate the the area. The trail was more crooked as it wound round clumps of trees, snaked around large boulders. They had to climb over or under fallen timber and rock. And rather go round a slide he’d lead them over it. Let the terrain eat up their energy and their strength. An hour later he spotter George trailing the boys. Johnnie called a halt. “Time to rest for ten minutes, old man. We don’t want you to die on us just yet.” He pulled out his GPS device. “Hell, we’ve only gone a mile and a half.” The old man kept silent and smiled.
They started again only now Johnnie was more agitated. “Come on old man, pick up the pace. We don’t have all day.” A mile later they came to the area where the grade was an easy thirty percent and oft times closer to forty five. The old man just smiled and kept going, only a little slower. The elevation was approaching five thousand feet and the sun was starting to fade. Just as he had said, they might not make the ledge by nightfall.
Now he heard grumbling from the other two men. ‘Yep, they are about plum tuckered out. And they call me an old man.’ Still, Johnnie was more impatience, starting to berate the other two. ‘Johnnie’s got more drive than good sense. But the ledge will break him soon enough.’ The old man was calmly thinking about the coming night and morning. ‘Barely an hour left, I’m gonna push em till it too dark. Won’t have time or light to find enough firewood. And ain’t none of them got a blanket.’ The old man kept climbing ahead as though he was strolling in the park.
“Stop, old man. Stop where you are. We don’t have any light left to speak of. We’re going to stop here for the night. Round up some firewood. Come on guys, that old man is making you look like a bunch of grandmothers. hurry it up.” Johnnie took off his pack and placed it on a rock. Then he sat down for a moment or two before getting back up. He fished a small flashlight out of his pack and turned it on. The moon was new, there would be no light before morning. The light from the flashlight was too weak for what Johnnie had planned. He kept looking at the site he had chosen by default. No dirt, just hard rock, a few boulders, and some gravel no smaller than an inch or two round and sharp edged.
The old man appeared with some firewood and commenced to make a fire. He deliberately chose a spot where the wind would insure that the wood burned rapidly. If they wanted to insure the fire would burn all night then someone with a flashlight would have to go look for it. The young men lay down on the gravel as best they could. None had thought to bring a blanket. A mile up in altitude and the night would get down close to freezing. The old man surveyed the group. ‘Yes, they’ll be lucky to hike a mile tomorrow. I reckon we got little over a mile tomorrow before we reach the ledge. Then it gets worse. at least one of them will fall tomorrow, that’s a fact.’ The old man pulled out a small plastic ground cloth and sat on it His coat would be warm enough but his legs might get a little cold. With a little luck George would be here to keep him warm.
Morning couldn’t come soon enough for the young men. Johnny was the first to awake and start to get up. Between the arduous exercise from yesterday and the cold of last night his muscles seemed to be frozen in place and the pain was great. “Old man, build another fire, now!” Johnny was almost screaming his words. Mac and Red were awake but in more of a somnambulant start, as if their brains were half frozen. He watched as the old man casually got up, folded a small tarp, and then place it back in his jacket. And then he strode up a little further up the trail in search of firewood. “And don’t you try to run off either!”
“You are in no shape to catch me if I did. But don’t worry, the only way back down is the way we came.” Then George poked his head out from behind a large boulder. He growled a couple of times and then ran off before Johnny could say or do anything. The old man came back half an hour alter with a load of firewood in his arms. Again, he place the fire so that it would burn quickly. The boys would get some heat but not enough to make a difference in their condition. “Well, Johnny, we got bout a mile and a quarter to go. Mostly climbing through boulder and rock. Might take a man bout three hours, maybe less. We might as well go unless you want to stay here another night.”
“I’ll tell you when, old man. Mac, Red, check your water. My bottles froze last night. One of them busted open.” The two men did as they were told and discovered the loss of one or two bottles of the water they carried. Between them they had five pints of water and no idea where they would find more. “Looks like you’re going to go thirsty old man. we barely got enough for ourselves.” A grin crossed Johnny’s face and he started to laugh.
“You that low on water, Johnny? That’s too bad. You’ll never make it off this mountain alive with out my help. I know where the water is.” The old man just grinned, he was enjoying the moment. “But you got more trouble than lack of water. Saw the tracks of two big cats this morning. I know the paws of one of them, that’s Medea. She’s been tracking us ever since we left the clearing. The other looks like Jason’s prints, though he ain’t due up here for another month. And what you got to protect yourselves, maybe a pistol.? You got troubles, Johnny.”
“Shut up old man, you ain’t scaring me or Mac or Red. Besides, you’re lying, thinking I won’t kill you if you scare me enough. Now let’s get going. And watch yourself!” The trio stood up in a rather painful manner illustrating that the old man was right. They trudged off with the old man in the lead slightly pulling them faster. Johnny barely kept up with the old man while Mac was lagging further behind. The trail a bend to the left and up a series of boulders in various positions and heights. Johnny and the old man had made it past the hurtle and red was about to reach that same stretch of boulders when they heard a cry. Then came several screams, one different from the others. Red was about to turn around and go back down the trail to where Mac had been.
The old man called down, “Don’t go back, one of the cats got him. I told you Johnny, you got troubles.” Then he hiked a little further and commenced to start another climb. Johnny finally caught up with him.
“You trying to run out on us, old man? What’s the big hurry here? And why aren’t we going back for Mac?” Johnny’s face was red with rage as he clenched his fists.
“Mac is dead and the big cat dragged him off somewhere. I ain’t stupid enough to tack a big cat just to fight him for a body. Now there’s one more cat to worry about and if we don’t get going we’ll run into it in the wrong place. Now we can go back down the trail but you buddy Red is too physically shot. Look at him.” Red had finally caught up with them. His face was red with exertion and covered with sweat. In fact, he was shaking slightly. “And look at yourself, you ain’t far from being like Red. No, Johnny, we got to make the ledge and camp for the night. Up there the cats can’t get ahead of us. should be enough firewood to keep em at bay. Besides, there’s a small spring where we can get some fresh water.” Then the old man returned to the task of climbing again. Two hours later the three men were at the base of the ledge and the old man started to collect firewood for the night. Then he took the empty bottles to the spring and filled them. After that he cut some pine branches for bedding and called George. Warily George came into camp. “Come on George, it’s all right. Johnny, we need George now. He’ll let us know when one of the cats comes up here. After a good rest we can make our way back to the clearing.” Minutes later the two young men were asleep.
By morning the last of the firewood had been used and the fire starting to die out. The set of prints about twenty feet from the fire testified to the old man’s experience. The group had been lucky, the prints were Medea’s. That meant Jason was eating his fill and would not pose a real threat. Still, one could never know about big cats. He and George found some more firewood, just enough to knock the morning chill off the body. He has seen that the water bottles were refilled. then he woke the boys. “Time to get up, we got a long way to go.”
The two got up and warmed themselves by the fire. Johnny was the first to speak. “Since we’re here we might as well go up the ledge. I mean, we’re here. Why not?”
“I know what you’re looking for Johnny. Ain’t nothing here. Never was. No hidden treasure for tenderfoots and fools like you to find. But if you and Red, there, want to go look, that’s okay. But I’m not staying.”
A funny look came over Johnny, he saw it in his eyes. He had a pistol in his hand now. “We’re going to go find that money and you’re coming with us. You hear me, you’re coming with us.”
“You going to kill me Johnny if I don’t? You need me Johnny, you can’t get back alive without me. We got enough water to make it halfway down. I know where the spring is down there, you don’t. And you won’t get past Medea. She was here last night looking for food. Now if Jason has shared his kill then she wouldn’t be up here. Besides, there’s a reason why Jason is here. Medea is in heat. So he is following her around. He won’t mind killing a second time. No, we got to go back down now.”
“Come on Johnny, the old man’s right. I’m sore and tired and I don’t want to be here any more. Come on, let’s go back down.”
“No, no one is going back down. I’m going to get what I came for. You listen old man, you’re coming with me. You’re going to help me find the cave. Get going, lead me to it.”
“There are half a dozen caves up there, some are unreachable. In some places that ledge is no more than six inches wide. there’s been a few landslides up there that most of the ledge is gone. No, you want to go, you go without me. You go find all the treasure you want. I’m not coming. I’m heading down, with or without you. You want to stay here Red?”
“No Mr Bridger, I’m going with you. Just let me get my stuff.” Red started to move towards his pack when Johnny took a shot at him but it was wide of the mark.
“You ain’t going, Red. We’re in this together. And you old man, I mean what I say. Now we’re all going up there. Right now!”
“You going to kill us both if we don’t? You better save a bullet for yourself. Medea’s up here and she’s watching you now. You will be her prey, her next meal.”
“Where is that cat? Where? I don’t believe you.”
“I wouldn’t tell you where. You’re going to shoot me, remember? I’m not going to help you at all.” The old man turned and started walking to the spot where he had to start climbing down. Another shot was fired at his feet. But he kept on walking. “Come on Red, might as well start the descent.”
“You stay or I’ll shoot you.” As Johnny shifted his attention towards Red the old man started his descent and was quickly out of sight. Johnny started to run towards the site where the rocks started. Red followed him. As Johnny was starting to take aim at the old man Red punched Johnny in the head, sending him over the edge. Johnny tumbled head over heels for about a hundred feet, maybe a little more. His Body came to rest on a small ledge overlooking a small gorge. Both the old man and Red looked at the body for a moment. The the old man whistled for George. ‘Come on Red, we got some hiking to do before dark.”