Brady Johnson pulled the red and black checkered felt hat from his head, wiping a weary hand across his forehead. Despite the cooling temperatures of the late evening, sweat still dripped down the side of his face, the novice hunter unsure if it resulted from exertion or fear.
“Go hunting with me,” Jason had said. “It’ll be fun!”
Having fun was no longer a consideration. Brady just wanted to get out alive.
Evergreen trees towered above, their green spires piercing the darkening sky. Down below, the shadows grew larger each passing minute, his sense of unease growing proportionately with them.
His confident friend had made it sound simple. “Keep the mountain on your left, forcing the game toward me at the narrow end of the valley.”
“I’ll get lost.”
“Nah, all the trails go to the same place.”
An easy enough plan to follow, Brady thought, until he pushed back a branch holding an unseen hornet’s nest. Stinging insects swarmed from every angle, jabs of pain hurrying his terrified--and undirected--flight.
Collapsing from his frenzied rush at the base of a Ponderosa Pine, Brady found himself unable to find the mountain again, even after climbing a tree. Brady Johnson, city boy, was lost, each passing step taking him deeper into darkening shadows.
Dozens of red welts throbbed, courtesy of his flying friends, as Johnson struggled through the underbrush. He was starting to get cold, his cargo shorts no longer sufficing to keep him warm…or safe. Stinging nettles, thorns, and growing numbers of mosquitoes assailed his bare legs.
“HELP!” Brady screamed, as he did every five minutes, just in case someone was within hearing.
Despondent, he walked on, finally hearing a slight rushing sound. Cars? A highway? His spirits lightening at the revelation, Brady ran toward the sound, thrusting himself forcibly through the undergrowth. Darkness veiled his path, but Brady’s feet flew on, his eyes searching the near blackness for headlights.
Brady pitched abruptly forward, the ground giving way beneath him, falling toward the rushing sound. A chill gripped his heart, discovering he’d not heard a road at all...it was a river. Terrified, his body slammed into the bank once before plummeting into the river, his choking scream garbled as his head plunged under the icy mountain water.
Thrashing about, trying to get his head back into the air, his hands shot out in hopes of grabbing a snag or rock. Brady tumbled downstream amidst the river’s powerful flow, the brutal current smacking him against underwater obstacles, knocking his breath out, beating him into submission.
Just as the battered man began giving up, Brady felt powerful hands thrust into the water, gripping his jacket and pulling his head into the air. The hands dragged him until Johnson’s feet began grazing the streambed. Gaining new life, Brady tried to aid his own rescue, scrambling toward the shore.
Flopping onto the beach like a landed fish, he lay with his back on the cool sand, staring into the heavens. Exhausted, his body broken, but thankful.
Sputtering, Brady turned toward his savior, “Thanks.”
“No problem,” said the man, wrapping a blanket around Brady for warmth then holding out his hand. “I’m Jesse Christal.”
Gratefully clasping the man’s hand, the would-be hunter replied, “Brady. Brady Johnson.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Johnson.”
“Not as nice as it is to meet you.”
Jesse chuckled. “I was hiking out when I heard you calling for help. Figured you were lost.”
“You can’t know how much.”
Jesse ran his eyes over Brady’s battered body. “I think I have a rough idea. You’ve been through your share of trials, my friend. Take a few minutes to get your breath, then we’ll go.”
“Um…it’s pretty dark,” murmured Brady with trepidation. “We’ll never be able to see the mountain.”
“No, but that’s okay. Most people say to use the peak as your guide, but conditions up here are tricky. Those that truly know the way never rely on it. There’s only one safe way out.” Even in the darkness, Brady was close enough he could see Jesse’s eyes. Kind eyes.
“Can you show me the trail?”
Jesse shook his head. “It’s your first time, you won’t find it by following landmarks.”
“But how will I…”
His voice reassuring, Jesse said, “Don’t worry. Follow me, I’ll lead you out of the valley.”
Smiling, Brady nodded, feeling good for the first time all day. He wasn’t going to die in the wilderness after all. He’d been saved.
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