Isaac always knew his own mortality could be the cost of reaching the goals he had for his nation, but he wasn’t prepared to pay that price just yet. Therefore, the presence of masked men in the brush opposite where he sat was quite disconcerting. They wore hunter’s camouflage and carried semi-automatic rifles. That they had managed to sneak up on him and Devin seemed impossible. It was more likely that the group had been patrolling the area and Isaac and Devin stumbled into their midst. Either way, the situation was less than desirable. Isaac thought it best to play dumb for the time being, at least until he could communicate the danger they were in to Devin.
He pulled his thermos from his pack and spun the stainless steel lid. Steam rose as the hot contents met the frigid morning air. Isaac poured a cup of coffee for himself and then offered the cylinder to Devin.
“Light and sweet?” Devin queried as he accepted the container.
“Of course,” Isaac forced a grin.
“Just like your dad,” Devin laughed.
“You have no idea how often I have heard that. It used to drive me crazy. Now I realize what a compliment it is. Just hope I can live up to the billing.”
“I’d say you’re on the right trail. Pun intended.”
Isaac smiled, an honest and grateful smile this time. He wondered if the men across the path knew who he was, or if they were just stalking what they thought to be easy prey. Ultimately it was of no consequence. He and Devin would have to find a way to either elude their observers, or dispatch them should they prove to be intent on arresting their progress.
“So what happens after we are done here?” Isaac appreciated that his cousin took a direct approach on nearly all topics. He also was glad for an opportunity to try to make him aware of their guests.
“Depends if we can remain on schedule. I’d hate to see us get tangled up in something off trail, but that’s always a possibility up here isn’t it?” Isaac locked eyes with Devin, willing him to understand his subtle cue.
“Sure is. Always better to deal with those types of things head on, in my opinion,” Devin nodded and deliberately let his gaze wander in the direction of the predators in the woods across the trail.
“Agreed. Head on and without delay is my preference as well,” Isaac took a deep breath, relieved that his cousin picked up what he laid down. “Sooner isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s better to be patient and let things come to you.”
Devin took another sip of the coffee Isaac had passed him and then whipped the remnants in the trees beside him. He tossed the lid back to his cousin and stood up, heaving his pack back on his shoulders. Devin exuded a lithe power in the grace of his movements. He reminded Isaac of the mountain cat that had crossed their path earlier. That he was equally as deadly was a comfort at the moment. Following his cousin’s lead, Isaac donned his own pack after stowing his thermos.
They moved on along the trail. What had been a determined, yet relaxed, hike was now wrought with tension. Isaac labored not to give into the nearly overwhelming urge that plagued him. It took every ounce of his will power not to check over his shoulder every few seconds. The art of seeing without looking was not his strength, yet he endeavored to do just that, relying on his other senses to maintain vigilance. Every crunch of leaf, or crack of twig, echoed through his entire body.
After nearly another hour of climbing through increasingly frigid temperatures, straining with his entire being to hear anything he could that might provide a clue as to their unwelcome shadows, Isaac was ready for a reckoning. As best as he could tell, there were three ghosts among the pines haunting their journey.
“What do you think Dev? We must be about three miles in. I could use a minute to take stock, and a breath,” Isaac kept his tone light, trying not to give anything away. “Yeah, I’ve got the perfect spot coming right up. Good place to clear your head and unload your burdens.”
Burdens had such a dual meaning for Isaac. He didn’t consider the task of delivering his dad his final rest a burden, but the sorrow that plagued every aspect of life since his loss was something he longed to be rid of. Closure seemed within his reach. The trail took a dogleg to the left and they found themselves overlooking the valley. One look left Isaac breathless. The sky was pristine blue, void of even a single cloud. A quilt of orange, yellow, and read blanketed the earth fifteen hundred feet below. He marveled at the slope they had just climbed. It was exactly where he had been tasked to go. It was home for his father.
Dropping the pack from his back, Isaac knelt and withdrew the silver urn from inside. Gently, he unscrewed the lid and stared at the ash inside. It was hard to believe this was what was left of the man that raised him. Isaac moved deliberately to the edge of the cliff.
“Welcome home, Dad. I hope you have found peace,” Isaac whispered to the emptiness sprawled out below him.
“Maybe he can pass some of that along to the rest of us,” Devin had come to stand beside him.
“That’s the idea. He left a pretty clear plan to get us there. I just hope hearts are open to it, and the sacrifice it will require,” Isaac replied.
“Speaking of sacrifice,” Devin slipped a Glock into Isaac’s hand, “We may have to make some on this very altar momentarily.”
Isaac was again grateful for Devin’s forethought. Waiting until they had their back to the trail with nothing but a sheer cliff face in front to witness the weapon exchange was the only way it could have happened unnoticed.
Devin dropped his voice to a whisper, “I make three of them. All carrying semi-automatic weapons. If we don’t get the jump, we get dumped. Understand?”
Isaac nodded, “So what’s the plan?”
“We draw them out. Food is worth more than anything else right now to most of these guys. I’ll get a fire started and then we will see if they are hungry or just blood thirsty,” Devin’s countenance darkened with his final sentiment, “Make sure you have a hand on your gun and follow my lead if things go south.”
Isaac watched, mesmerized, as Devin conjured fire from steel and flint. It was clear that his cousin was at ease in the wilderness, both physically and mentally. He showed no sign of fear sparked by the looming danger in the woods. The specters of the new darkness held no sway over him. Still they insisted on rattling their chains and wailing.
Three of them materialized in the mouth of the clearing. The sun reflected off the mirrored lenses shading their eyes. Isaac couldn’t believe they hadn’t seen them sooner during the ascent, especially the man standing in the center of the trio. He towered over his companions, and was as wide as he was tall. The other two seemed to be of average build. Isaac immediately began to calculate the chances of taking out the big man first. Then he realized their best chance would be to take out the other two and then work together to subdue Atlas. Devin interrupted his strategizing.
“You boys hungry? Got some bacon ready to go here in a minute.”
None of the men spoke. Devin continued to work the campfire methodically. The sizzle of the bacon overtaking all other sound. The giant in the middle raised his arm and pointed directly at Isaac.
“Well that’s unfortunate,” Devin murmured, “I had hoped I wouldn’t have to bury anyone today.”
Check out all the chapters of The Mountain by Duane Deats