A brisk hour's climb brought them to a high mountain plateau with a path intersecting the clearing. Wooden tables and benches were assembled near where a small stone fireplace had been built for cooking. The hikers removed their packs, piling them on one of the tables.
A few yards away, a thin stream bubbled merrily through the clearing. Rory and Charles knelt at the stream, drinking and splashing the cold water onto their hot faces. Mike had removed his boots and socks, dipping his bare toes in the cooling water.
“Hey, Jenna,” Charles called, “What’s for lunch?”
Jenna was at one of the tables quickly laying out some of their provisions.
“Ham sandwiches, lemonade, and Aunt Hannah’s chocolate chip cookies for dessert, if you’re a good boy.”
“I’m always a good boy.” Rory chimed in, as Mike snorted his disagreement.
The cookies were a treat Skylar knew he would miss once he returned home. Not that he was likely to be home at any time in the immediate future. With a slight sigh, Skylar catalogued the obstacles in his path back to the Aubria. First he had to find Rantek, then there was the small problem of a damaged ship and no way to fix it. It didn’t help that the radio was one of the broken parts.
His glance flickered across Jenna. He had to know whose weapon she'd seen: Cavalier or Klodfon? The one possibility was cheering, the other chilling.
After the meal the group relaxed to let their lunch settle a bit. Skylar stood silently at the edge of the woods, the problems of his mission uppermost in his mind. Preoccupied, he was almost unaware of his surroundings.
"Do you like it here?" He hadn't heard her approach and Jenna's quiet but musical voice startled Skylar. He jumped slightly and turned toward her. Looking into her eyes, he sensed the question held a deeper meaning than simply asking if he liked this particular mountain spot. The earnest tone underlying her words gave him pause for thought.
"It's very beautiful here," he said with a smile, a dimple creasing his cheek. "There are few places I've been that come anywhere close."
"Do you travel much?" she asked.
"A bit," he replied, watching her face. "Have you traveled much yourself?"
The sudden light in her eyes revealed her reactions before she spoke her answer. "I used to travel extensively with my uncle, but haven't done much of anything these past five years."
"What happened to make you settle? Tired of traveling?"
"Oh, no," she said quickly. "I..." a veil dropped over her eyes.
"You what?" he prompted
"I...I'd best put the food and gear away," she said, moving hurriedly away.
"Jenna!" he called after her.
She went quickly to the table, ignoring him.
"Skylar!" Rory called to him just then. "Come and look at this!" With a frustrated look at Jenna's back he headed toward where Rory and Mike were examining the ground on the far side of the clearing.
The ground was soft due to the proximity of the stream and recent rains. Pine needles were almost non-existent here and animal tracks could be clearly seen in the damp earth.
The one Rory pointed to was larger than the rest, the indentation deeper from a heavier weight. Skylar had seen nothing like it before.
"Wow, that looks like a big cat!" The awe in Mike's voice was evident.
Charles, joining them, gasped audibly. "It must be huge!" he said, his eyes widening a bit with fear.
Glen joined them. The others stepped back, allowing him to examine the print carefully. Kneeling beside it, Glen measured it against his hand and looked up into the faces around him. "This must be the great grand pappy," he said with a grimly. "The size of that thing...he must weigh 150-175 pounds, easily." Glen stood up, brushing the dirt from his knee. The only thing that bothers me," he continued, "is the track is fairly fresh, probably made this morning."
"How big a danger does this cat pose for us?" Skylar asked.
"Are you kidding? They'll eat a man for lunch!" Charles said.
Skylar looked at Charles, trying to judge the truth of his statement. Seeing the fear still in his eyes, Skylar looked back at Glen.
"Is it likely to attack a man?"
"Not generally," Glen replied slowly, "unless cornered or provoked."
"Or very hungry," Mike added.
"Cripes, do you think it'll come after us?" Rory asked.
Jenna, joining them spoke up. "Do you think what will come after us?" She looked at each man in turn, her eyes questioning.
"A mountain lion, my dear," Glen said mildly. "Rory, here, found a fairly large track. We get a move on, and get to where we’re camping tonight quickly while we have plenty of daylight to search that area for tracks. If we find none, we'll stay there. Otherwise, we'll move to a second place I know. In the meantime, stay close together. It won't be in a hurry for lunch if there are several of us." Turning, he headed for his pack and the horses.
The next two hours slipped by quickly, as the hunters hurried along the trail, nervously keeping the gaps between them small.
They arrived at the clearing designated for their overnight stay. All hands made a diligent search of the surrounding area but found no prints. The ground was a little soft, but not as damp as the lower site had been. Each person chose their spot and began to set up their tents. Mike pulled a pop-out dome tent from his bag and shook it open. He quickly staked it down snugly and dropped his gear inside.
Skylar went to the edge of the clearing and searched for two sturdy, likely-looking trees, close enough to each other for his purposes. Opening his pack, he removed a small packet containing a gauzy-looking material and some thin twine. He tied the twine around each of the trees, stretching his hammock between them. Mike came over to see what he was doing.
"That hammock looks mighty flimsy, Skylar. Sure it'll hold your weight?"
Skylar grinned. “The fabric is a lot stronger than it looks.” The hammock was standard-issue Fellowship survival gear and he was well-familiar with it.
“It better be strong, or you’ll wind up flat on the ground.”
"It held me in a tree-top during a windstorm on...a real stormy night." Skylar barely stopped himself from naming the planet he'd been on at the time. "I suppose it'll hold me up one more night."
Mike reached out and examined the thin material between his fingers. "I sure hope so. What's it made of, anyway? I've never seen anything like it."
"Ah…it's an experimental fabric I'm lucky enough to get to field test. I'm not really sure what it's made of. I don't think it even has a name yet." He turned back to his pack and pulled out some more twine and tied it between the trees above the hammock.
Mike persisted, "But where'd you get it? What company makes it? I'd like to test one."
Skylar said, "I'm not supposed to talk about it too much. It's some new secret material." He made his voice dismissive, in an attempt to quell Mike’s questions, if not his curiosity.
"Oh," said Mike, his voice showing his disappointment.
Skylar reached into his pack and pulled out a silver-colored tarp. He unfolded it and draped it over the line he had just tied.
Mike spoke up again, "That twine’s awfully thin. Betcha it sags and you have your tarp on your face in the morning."
"It won't sag. It's stronger than it looks."
"You got it at the same place...experimental stuff, right?"
"Right." He tied shorter lengths of twine through the grommets in the edges of the silver fabric, then removed several small stakes from his pack. He proceeded to fasten the tarp to the ground, spreading the edges out to make a triangular shelter. Skylar reached once again into his pack, and removed a smaller piece of silvery fabric which he laid on the hammock.
"No sleeping bag?" asked Mike, incredulous. "Nights get pretty cold up here.”
Skylar nodded at the blanket. "It will keep me warm. It re-cycles body heat."
"Let me guess," Mike drawled, folding his arms across his chest. "It's experimental and it's warmer than it looks."
"You got it!" Skylar chuckled.
"What else have you got in that pack?" Mike stepped closer, craning his neck to see.
Skylar looked inside, deliberately blocking Mike’s view while listing most of the contents. “Cleaning kit for my weapon, spare ammunition, a hatchet, compass, soap, cooking gear, a wire saw, medical kit, canteen, spare clothing."
"It sounds pretty complete, Mike said, “I guess you know a little about camping after all. I wasn't too sure when I saw your reaction to that cat's track today."
“I used to go a lot as a boy,” Skylar said. “I've taken a course in how to survive in...strange and hostile environments. I've just never seen a cat's print that large before."
"It sure was big!” Mike grinned. “It even scared Charles; did you see the look on his face? It's amazing that even the big guys aren't all that tough. Are you done setting up? Glen wants us to get a big pile of wood for dinner, and extra in case we decide to keep the fire going all night."
"Will that be necessary?" Skylar asked.
"It might be, if the cat decides to put in an appearance. Wild animals generally tend to avoid fires."
"That makes sense." Skylar picked up his pack and hung it on a convenient limb stub about four feet from the ground where a branch had broken off of the tree his hammock was tied to. "I'm ready. Let's go."
"I'll gather the wood and you can keep watch," Mike offered, hefting a hatchet. Skylar nodded his agreement and, as they moved off into the denser undergrowth together, his hand lightly dropped to the comforting weight of his laser pistol.
Mike was very nearly as curious about his camp gear as Jenna had been about his pistol. Which one of them had Rantek been investigating? Or was it neither of them? Skylar mentally cussed Rantek out for taking his mission logs with him, wherever he went. It had made tracking him that much more difficult.