JARED TOOK THE TRAIL slowly and with the utmost caution. If one of the horses slipped and fell, he’d have no easy way of getting Ruby back down the mountain. And he couldn’t risk staying in the mountains with her. He absolutely had to return to the valley because Lorelei was a woman of her word.
He, Colonel Meldrum, and the 2nd Colorado had parted company near where the Overland Trail and La Porte met. He was on his own and glad to be so.
There was not a dark cloud in the sky. The sun was at his back. The day was warm and the snow on the flat section of the mountain trail he traveled had already begun to melt.
He was making good time. Within an hour or so, he’d be back at the cabin with Ruby. Once again, nestled in the arms of the woman he loved.
Content with his progress, his mind drifted to thoughts of Ruby and their times together. It had been a month since he’d last seen her and he wondered how she must look now. Had her belly gotten even bigger because of his child growing within her? Was she and the baby OK? God, how he had prayed for their survival during the blizzard. Had he left her enough firewood and supplies? He wanted to hurry but knew it wasn’t safe. Not on this mountain trail that on one side had a deadly drop into a deep rocky gorge.
Too late. It, came out of nowhere. He hadn’t seen it. It had been cleverly camouflaged among the rocks. But mostly, he hadn’t seen it because he hadn’t been as watchful as he should have.
He’d been riding close to the mountain side of the trail with Sorry on the outside, near the edge. Stupidly, he’d had Sorry’s reins wrapped around his saddle horn. He’d been so anxious with thoughts of Ruby and the child, he hadn’t noticed Biscuit raise his head.
His first inkling of trouble had come when Biscuit, the older of the two horses, snorted and came to a halt. When Biscuit reared slightly and began kicking towards the rocks on the trail and Sorry tucked his tail tight and refused to move forward, he knew they were in trouble.
Too late. He’d walked them into trouble. He tried urging Sorry and Biscuit on by giving Biscuit a gentle kick in the sides. But, instead of racing forward, out of the danger zone, the horse shivered, snorted louder, and started backing up.
Fearing that Biscuit would back them over the edge, Jared kicked harder into the horse’s sides trying to get the animal to move forward. Sorry, to his left, reared up and kicked violently at the air.
Too late. It occurred to him what was wrong. Biscuit’s unrelenting pull backwards meant only one thing. There was mountain lion!
Jared pulled his pistol from the holster wrapped around his waist. But, it was too late.
The fully grown, one hundred and fifty pound, eight foot long male mountain lion had already sprung from the side of the mountain. At that moment, Biscuit backed up and the mountain lion sailed passed Jared, dislodging the LeMat pistol from his hand. The hungry mountain lion landed firmly on Sorry’s back.
The frightened sorrel reared up in an all-out effort of ridding itself of the ravenous mountain lion that had sunk its sharp claws into the horse’s back.
Biscuit went wild eyed with fright, rearing up and prancing about on the narrow snow covered cliff.
Jared yelled, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa,” trying to calm the horses. Neither horse obeyed him as the mountain lion growled and sank its claws even deeper into Sorry’s back trying to hold on.
Jared, the two horses, and the enormous mountain lion were engaged in an intricate struggle for survival on the six foot wide, snow-covered cliff trail that hung perilously over a deep and jagged gorge.
Jared feared that it was only a matter of seconds before the frightened horses went over the edge carrying the mountain lion and him with them.
When one of Sorry’s rear legs began slipping over the edge, the mountain lion realized the danger. It released its claws, stood up quickly, and charged back toward Jared and the safety of the mountain knocking Jared off Biscuit.
Jared fell backwards onto the cold, wet cliff trail. The full weight of the mountain lion landed solidly on his chest, knocking the wind out of him. As he lay there, the mountain lion opened its mouth revealing a full set of long sharp teeth designed for ripping and tearing the flesh from the bones of its kill. It snarled an angry growl down at Jared.
In that instant, Jared decided he wasn’t going to die like that. Using all of his strength, he punched the snarling lion in the eye, momentarily dazing it.
Quick as he could, he brought both feet up towards his chest and kicked the lion off. Scrambling to his feet, he ran in the only direction he had open to him. Towards the ledge.
The mountain lion, even more furious now because of Jared’s attack, charged mindlessly after him. The ground beneath Jared’s feet trembled from the weight of the huge mountain lion as it roared after him.
Jared, wild with fear, knew he had but one choice. Jump or be torn apart. He prayed.
Just as he was nearing the edge of the cliff, he saw it. An answer to his prayer. A small Ponderosa pine clinging to the side of the mountain.
Jared could smell the rotten flesh tinged breath of the lion as it got closer. It was personal now. Having abandoned the sure kill of the horses, the lion’s sole aim was killing Jared.
Ripe fear gripped him when he looked back and realized the lion was ready to spring. Jared summoned all of his courage and threw himself off the cliff. The mountain lion followed. It flew passed him as he reached out and grabbed a hold of the small Ponderosa pine. Jared could hear the thump, thump, thump as the lion’s body struck the huge boulders below.
Then, there was a sudden loud crack. Jared realized that his weight was too much for the small pine. He plastered his body firmly against the side of the mountain and dug his fingers deep into the side of the mountain. Just as the lion had done Sorry.
The branch cracked more as the pine tree’s roots pulled away from the cliff. He was falling.
Praying and cursing, he dug his fingers even deeper into the rocky soil and pushed upwards with his feet.
Trembling from fear and with great effort, he slapped one hand up over the top of ledge. It took every bit of courage and strength he had to pull his body up onto the trail.
When he’d done so, he rolled over onto his back, looked up at the pale blue sky with its bright yellow sun laughed and thanked God for his survival. Slowly, he got to his feet and after an hour of searching, found the two horses, still linked, grazing on an outcropping of spring grass.
Late in the day, he came to the fence surrounding his property that he, himself, had put in. But something was terribly wrong. Everywhere, there were little goat trails dug in the chest high snow. Ruby, in her condition, could not have dug so many trails.
He eased himself down off Biscuit and having lost the pistol, in the scuffle with the mountain lion, he pulled his Springfield Model 1861 rifle from its case on Biscuit’s side. Checking, making sure the rifle was loaded, he hunched down low and made his way up the goat trail leading to the cabin.
Common sense told him not to go burst in on a situation he knew nothing about. So, he laid low just outside the cabin door and listened for a few minutes. Soon, he heard laughter coming from inside and a familiar voice.
Lowering his rifle, Jared stood up, walked over to the cabin door and kicked it open.
“Jared!” screamed Ruby.