He tossed his pack on the rock and looked around for footholds so he could climb after it. Finally, he spot one- a 3-inch diameter hole. He took a deep breath, lifted his sore leg gingerly into the hole, and jumped. He folded around the top of the rock and held on to dear life until he had scrambled all the way up. Then he was at the top. He sat on the gray stone for nearly a minute, blind to the scene around him. The air was just cooling after the stifling day, and he could feel the heat evaporating from his skin. He took a deep breath and began rolling his head back and forth, right and left. When he was sure his heartbeat was neutral, he slowly opened his eyes. The sight sent his heart racing. Four hundred feet below was the forest he had left behind. The sun, just 10 degrees above the horizon, was full and yellow in the bright sky. The western trees were arrayed in yellow, red, and orange. In awe, he spun around and gazed at the mountains nearby. These were familiar to him, he had seen them at the edge of the forest. But to see the massive gray stone fuse with the green of the prairie, and to see that melt into the sunset-tinted trees, was a completely new experience.
He blinked, and the sights were nothing to him, for he had a job to do. When he had lifted the plastic backpack from his sweat-soaked t-shirt, he rummaged in it until he found his binoculars. These he examined carefully, holding his breath. If there was one crack in the lenses, his mission would be forfeit. But the dusty binoculars did not have a mark. Relieved, he used his fingers to brush off the gray granules. Then he held them to his eyes.
“Whew! That was something. What was that, five miles?”
“We’ve traveled one mile, Grox,” He said in a low tone, disappointed to hear the nasal sound of his partner’s voice.
“Well, I’m quite a hiker, but that was something! Give me a lift, will ya, Nathan?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan could see Grox’s red hair poking up from behind the rock. He lifted the binoculars off of his head and placed them in his backpack with careful precision.
“Na-than!” Grox called.
Nathan grimly flattened himself out on the rock, belly-side down, and extended an arm to the boy standing below. Grox gripped it firmly. Nathan grimaced as Grox made his way up the rock, huffing and puffing. When the last part of his body had surfaced, Grox let out a loud, “Whew!” and stood up, hands on his hips.
“What do you say to that?!” he shouted, looking around at the scenery.
Nathan, indeed, had nothing to say to “that.” He retrieved his binoculars and gloomily resumed his task.
“I mean, this is really something! Really something, Nathan! Wish they let us up here before! I mean, just look at that view.”
Grox flung out his hands to gesture to the forest. Several of his fingers appeared in Nathan’s field of vision. He removed the binoculars and cleared his throat. Grox didn’t hear. He cleared his throat a second time.
“Hmm? Oh, sorry. All business, you are. Allrighty, then. I’ll take the mountains. I have that knack for finding things hidden in that gray mess.” He empathized the last two words by wiggling his fingers.
Glad that Grox was finally working, Nathan began to scan the edge of the forest with his binoculars. Then he doubled back and covered the area immediately next to it. He fell into a rhythm, back and forth, back and forth. The periodic remarks of his companion annoyed him less and less until he began to fall into oblivion.
Then something caught his eye.
“Grox, come here.”
Nathan pointed down to the spot where he had seen the person, only a few hundred yards away from the trees. He realized that there was no way Grox would able to see it on his own, so with extreme reluctance he handed the young man his binoculars.
“To the right. More. More. Stop. Ok, can you see it?”
“Sorry, no. I don’t think there-”
“There is!” Both Grox and himself were startled at the volume of his voice.
“There is someone” Nathan repeated. A person.”
“Nathan, I- Wait, wait! I see it! I see it!”
Grox wrenched the binoculars away from his face and stared wide-eyed at Nathan.
“Stay here and keep watch,” Nathan ordered. He felt the weight of what he was doing- usurping Grox’s senior authority over him.
“Nathan...” Grox said, nearly whining.
He grabbed his backpack and started down the other side of the rock, a gentle slope that opened out where the forest met the grass. He evaded every tree root and rock, taking in possible dangers at all times. The ground evened out, and he increased his speed. He knew exactly where he was going.
The person started out as a dot in his vision. Then it was blue bubble. When he was within twenty feet of the hunched figure, he finally realized that it was a young woman. The unmoving girl was wearing a fluorescent blue jacket and jeans, both of which looked like they had never been washed. Mud-colored brown hair peeked out from the hood of her jacket. One of her arms was lifted, but her hand was hidden. She was facing away from him. He circled around her.
She was holding a gun.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” Natan said, terrified. He forced himself to stay in place. He had been taught that if he ran from an newbie, he would only frighten it into hurting him. He had never thought that the lesson would be so difficult to follow.
The girl said nothing, and he noted that the angle of the gun had not changed. Instead, she kept it aimed directly at her head.
“Hey, its ok. Just set it down. I just want to talk.”
She didn’t appear to hear him. Her eyes, the color of her jacket, stared past him. Nathan wondered how long she had been standing this way. She hadn’t moved since he first spotted her.
Her finger moved, triggering a clicking noise. The noise was oddly familiar to him, although Nathan was sure he had never been near a gun before. At least, he was fairly sure. Then he knew what the noise meant.
“Calm down, everything’s ok. Just set it down.”
The strange thing, the girl didn’t seemed to be ruffled by his presence at all. It was if she was going to do this all along. She moved her finger to the trigger.
Something in her face changed, something nearly imperceptible, and it sent a shudder through Nathan. He closed the distance between them in a matter of seconds. Her eyes flickered to his face for a split second, and she pulled the trigger. But his hand was on the gun first. It flew past her head and into a nearby tree. The blast nearly deafened him.
“Nathan! Nathan! What’s going on?!” Grox’s voice sounded through the trees, much too loud for him to be anywhere but within a few hundred feet from him.
Nathan ignored his voice, for the girl had wrenched the gun away from him and reloaded.
“Stop! What are you doing?” He shouted.
He grabbed at the gun, but the girl jolted back just in time. She had nearly succeeded in shooting herself when Nathan tackled her. Another boom shattered the air. He held her wrist tightly and twisted it away from her head. She attempted to free herself by wrenching off his hand, but she was unsuccessful. After struggling against him for several painful seconds, she lay limp.
“Please, just drop it,” Nathan pleaded.
She eyed him with a face of stone.
“Fine. Let go of my hand,” she said. Her voice was thicker than any female voice Nathan had ever heard before.
He gave her a strong look and loosened his grip. She rolled away from him and frantically reloaded.
“No!” Nathan shouted.