The darkening spot in the sky could have been a cloud forming. It could have been a waft of smoke, although smoke signals wouldn’t have been much more comforting. But the sky’s shaded patch was an army’s worth of arrows, raining down on the adventurers, three of whom were still playing the deer in the headlights.
When the soldiers yelled “incoming,” it had only served to make the three friends look up. Rose and Gylden were already safely behind stone outcroppings, but the others were not moving. Rose made a bullhorn with his hands and lips and shouted, “Run!” While the first cry froze them in the path of certain death, the second one shook them from their fixation.
Asia pushed hard on Chris and sprang backward, tumbling into a cartwheel-double backflip sort of thing that propelled her out of harms way. Chris, finding himself falling anyway, thanks to Asia’s push, went with the motion and rolled like it was the third step after stopping and dropping. Jose, still hindered by a gimpy ankle, went armadillo, pulling into the tightest ball he could manage and hoping to squeeze between the arrows. With his arms covering his head, sound was muffled, but he could have sworn he heard his name.
When the first arrow landed in dry dirt, Jose felt it more than he heard it. And then the second pierced the earth, and a third, and a fourth, and through the pitter-patter of wooden rain, he could have sworn he heard his name again.
Asia kept screaming, but she didn’t know what she wanted to come of it. If he moved, he might get hit, but the same could happen if he stayed put. She was torn, and she screamed again.
From the outcroppings, Rose and Gylden fired at shadows, but none of the bowmen ever showed their faces. They looked and waited for a second volley. At least then they would know where to point their guns. Rocks were beginning to slide again, but at least this time the mercenaries were careful not to bring the avalanche down on themselves.
As soon as the last arrow fell, Chris and Asia sprinted toward their friend. He still hadn’t moved from that ball he curled into when the attack started. Their strides kicked loose the arrows, snapping most of them, leaving the heads lodged in the ground. They kept their hands raised to protect their faces from splinters. They reached Jose together, and Asia tried to pull his arms away from his face.
She gripped his wrists and tried to ease them apart. They didn’t move. She tugged, but his arms stayed put. With as much strength as she could muster without hurting him, Asia pried at Jose’s arms, but they didn’t budge. Giving up any thought of harming him, Asia yanked as hard as she could, but this time there was no reluctance. Jose’s arms gave way easily, and, free from the nuisance of resistance, Asia hurtled backward. As she fell, she felt the sting of arrows snapping underneath her. Behind the scratches, her beauty and anger still shined from her face. She raised her head to see Jose laughing at her.
“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were Latakia.”
Jose sat up and patted down his body, looking for holes or leaks. Finding none, he pushed himself to his feet, finally getting a chance to test his newly bandaged ankle. Liking the results, he reached for his boot, only to find the shaft of an arrow emerging from the shaft of the boot. He slid his embattled footwear past the fletching to freedom and fingered the hole the arrow left behind.
“Air conditioning,” he said, shrugging and smirking.
With what seemed like reluctance, Jose plucked the arrow from the ground and removed his other boot. Carefully, he lined them up and shoved the arrow through both boots, through the original hole, making the pair match again.
“I didn’t want to be lopsided,” he said, putting his shoes back on.
Chris laughed heartily from deep in his gut. He laughed until he doubled over, gasping for breath between guffaws.
“I knew you loved me,” he said. “You still love me, Asia Craft.”
She glared at him.
“You pushed me out of the way,” Latakia said, still grasping at his sides. “You shoved me away from danger.”
Now Asia laughed. “I pushed myself away from danger. I didn’t care what happened to you.”
The soldiers started edging away from their barricades, their guns still aimed at every shadow in sight.
“You’re glowing the same way you used to,” Chris said. “Every time you’re around us it happens.”
“That’s not a glow, Christopher Billows. It’s me trying to hold in my vomit.”
“The only thing you’re holding in is that you’re still crazy about me.”
“You got the crazy part right, but you picked the wrong person to accuse of it.”
“We just got shot at by an army of Aztecs, and you’re both standing here arguing,” Jose interrupted. “Now tell me who’s crazy.”
The two ex-lovebirds took a quick look around them to remember there was a good reason to move along.
Chris reached into his pocket for the mapstone, but he realized something else was missing.
“Where’s my tobacco?” Latakia yelled, reaching into all his pockets and coming up empty. He had his machete, the map, a revolver and his pipe, but his tin of Squadron Leader was gone.
“It’s not like you could ever light that thing anyway,” he caught Asia saying under her breath.
Jose laughed, and Chris spun around to hit him with a wry, sarcastic retort, but Jose was holding his tin, kind of. He was holding it shish kebab style on the end of an arrow.
“Looks like their shooting was twice as good as we thought at first,” Jose said, holding in his laughter about as well as that tin would hold in tobacco.
Chris shoved Jose as he grabbed the tin, plugging it with his fingers and demanding a handkerchief that he tied like a diaper around the tin, tight enough to keep the tobacco from leaking out.
“What are we waiting for?” he asked, starting to march off ahead of his companions.
Asia grabbed the mapstone from Latakia and scowled at it. If she was reading it correctly, and she was rarely wrong about anything that old, their journey was about to turn vertical. Lit brilliantly by the setting sun behind them, the mountain glowed like a chalice, like the Holy Grail itself, and, as she would for any sacred relic, Asia trembled before it. She tried to focus on each next step, but her thoughts were all overlaid with an image of her falling off that first cliff. Rose and Gylden reached the rock wall first and began finding hand and footholds, but Latakia called them back.
“If we’re going to be hanging on the side of a mountain for target practice, I want to make sure someone can shoot back,” he said.
Jose was six feet up, already, and Chris wasted no time in joining him. The lone woman on the journey, however, had yet to set hand or foot on the rock. The surface felt icy or oily, whatever it was, it kept her from getting a secure enough grip for her tastes.
“Come on, slowpoke,” Latakia yelled from a few feet above her.
She closed her eyes, trying to shut him out of her head. Jose swung his hand at Chris but, still being comfortably in the lead, didn’t even brush Latakia’s hat. So Jose kicked him. Chris fell the few feet between himself and the ground with relative grace and put his hands on the mountain to start again. Jose was climbing back down. Asia still had her eyes closed when Jose touched level earth again, and she didn’t see him take a rope out of his satchel and wrap it around himself, securing it with a knot that left plenty loose to attach to something else. She did notice when he started wrapping the loose end around her. She stared at his hands as he looped the rope around her waste and her shoulders and her legs, tight enough that she wouldn’t slip free, but lax enough to give her freedom to move. With a gentle hand, Jose lifted her gaze to his.
“We get to the top together,” he said.
It wasn’t the words, and it wasn’t really the rope. If Asia could have articulated her thoughts, she might have said it was a sense of responsibility, the fact that someone else’s life depended on her, that got her climbing. She found her grip and thought about Jose. She lifted her feet off the ground and thought about the rope. She pulled herself higher and higher, thinking the whole time about what might happen to Jose, not her, should she not make it to the top.
Latakia was shocked just to see Asia climbing. He never expected she would pass him. She didn’t notice this feat, however, so Latakia started to point it out, ready to say something like, “Wow, it’s a long way down,” in his typically sarcastic delivery. His mouth was open, and he had drawn the breath needed to get it all out, and then he saw Jose’s eyes, wide and focused and frightened and angry. Latakia closed his mouth and returned to climbing.
Without the distraction from Chris, Asia’s climb went quickly. She and Jose left Latakia well behind in their determination not to be hanging from the side of a cliff as soon as possible. Jose knew they were close to the top when he started feeling the wind, blowing from above as it topped the mountain. It felt refreshing against his sweat-drenched face, and he allowed himself just a moment to relish the breeze. Then Asia screamed.
Luck or destiny or sheer will had kept her from losing her grip for the first 95 percent of the climb, but her hand gave way before she could reach the top. Her left hand and both feet were still firmly attached to the mountainside, but the rocks crumbling from under the fingertips on her right hand were enough to force her to put a stranglehold on the mountain. Jose knew she wasn’t going anywhere unless he could help her. If he was lucky, there was just enough rope between them for him to reach the top and pull her to safety. Asia kept testing new places to grip, hoping to find one that would keep her from falling no matter what, and Jose didn’t want to distract her with yet another concern, so he silently continued his climb.
He found the climb easy. “A little too easy,” he said to himself, laughing inside his head.
He reached up and felt nothing but air. This was the end, the last pull. He just needed to find a place to sink his fingers. He found nothing but smooth stone., no ledges, no dirt to dig into. He was almost ready to backtrack and find a new place to try, but he didn’t want to give up just yet. He reached one more time, but this time, he found help. Someone grabbed his hand and began to pull him up. Jose lifted himself as much as he could so he could see his helper. On top of that mountain, the setting sun painting him orange and red, was an Indian in full war paint holding a large bow.
With a horrified yell, Jose pulled himself away from the figure that had been haunting him since he arrived in Arizona. Desperation to escape the Apache warrior removed his other plight from his mind. He forgot he was thousands of feet above the ground. Pulling wasn’t working quickly enough, so he pushed. He pushed with enough strength to free himself from the grip of that hand.
He also pushed hard enough to free himself from the mountain.
As he fell, he passed Asia, still clinging to her rocks, and he knew he was about to pull her to her death. And then the rope between them pulled taut.
All content and characters are the property of the author and may not be republished or recreated without prior written consent.