A brief mountain mystery

“They trick you. Draw you off your guard.”

Park Ranger Jared Masterson raised his binoculars and scanned the undulating land. “What does?”

His partner Tess White breathed in the cool air and released it slowly. “The mountains.”

Masterson studied the steep, rocky slopes and the mist pouring through the pass and spilling down ravines. That mist concealed scores of dangers from precipices to bears. Rescue situations arose all too often out here, but this wasn’t one of them. A mystery confronted them now.

Tess came to his side. “This place especially. Don’t you think?”

He hazarded a glance at her. She belonged here, with that raven hair and those smoky eyes as beautiful as a twilight sky. She could lower his guard further than any distraction nature might dish up. Keep it professional, he reminded himself. He took up the binoculars again. “Maybe. But something more is at work here. Seven experienced hikers fall to their deaths in one month, all along this stretch of trail? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Come on, Jared. Look at this place. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?” She spread out her arms as if to embrace the land, then hugged herself, her face a study in bliss. “The rock, the forest, the broken sky. And that fog, like a feather-soft burial shroud wrapping the valley.” She closed her eyes and inhaled, face tilted sunward. “Mmm, don’t you just love the mountains in the morning?”

Her enthusiasm seduced him. Jared watched enraptured as she reveled in nature’s caress. He couldn’t look away, for yes, he had indeed seen something more beautiful, standing right beside him.

Tess opened her eyes and favored him with a coy smile.

Jared swallowed, turned away, and scrutinized the rocky ground beneath his feet. This was a bad place for distraction. Half a yard off, the land tipped into a five hundred foot drop boiling with cloud. “Morning? It’s two in the afternoon.”

She sidled up to him and set a delicate hand on his shoulder. “Who cares about the time?”

He inched away to free himself from her touch.

“Don’t pretend, Jared. You’re no good at it.” She closed in again, ran a finger down his arm and across his chest.

He took her hand in his to stop her. “Are you saying…you really want… “

He couldn’t finish, but she understood. “You can’t tell?”

He looked into her eyes and saw the answer. “But our work.”

“Look where we are, Jared. It’s so perfect. Work will wait.”

Jared couldn’t look at anything but her. She was more perfection than he could absorb. Yet as much as he wanted her, he couldn’t. People had died here. He had to understand why before fate claimed another victim. He shook his head and gently pushed her back.

Tess sighed. “All business, aren’t you? Fine.” She scuffled to the rock ledge and peered into the depths. “So what do you think happened?”

He studied the ground here, there, before, behind. It neither revealed nor hid anything. “I don’t know. Every incident took place in good weather. The ground doesn’t look that treacherous, so probably not a simple misstep. Chased off the edge by a bear? Once maybe, but not seven times.” He turned and found Tess inches away again, still smiling with hope.

“Distracted, maybe?” she suggested.

“By what?” He tried to back away, but she slipped her arms around his waist.

“Natural beauty?”

Jared nudged her off again and backed another step, checking with a glance his distance from the drop. If he wasn’t careful, he’d journey into oblivion himself.

“Okay,” she said. “I have a theory” She closed on him, voice whispering like a summer breeze in his ears. “Over there.” She pointed across the void to the next ridge.

He looked but saw nothing strange, nothing that explained anything.

Her lips brushed his cheek. “Don’t you see?”

He didn’t, of course, he didn’t because nothing was there. Just an expanse of air, the fog below, the ridge across the way. It occurred to him that Tess wasn’t quite right in the head today.

“Let me show you.”

Her fist slammed into his gut and knocked the wind from him. As he doubled over, she shoved him toward the brink. His arms flew wide, grappling for balance. His feet stepped into empty space and he plummeted, silent, into the soft embrace of the mist.

Tess watched him vanish in the gray, her eyes sparkling, her lips parted in awe, her breath caught in her throat. Jared, she thought, you’re wrapped in cloud! She sank to her knees and wiped away a tear. “So beautiful. So, so beautiful. Can you see it, Jared? Can you see it now?” She inhaled long and deep, eyes closed, willing the gentle fog to envelop her body and lift her, carry her through the pass, up, up, higher than the peaks. She felt herself drift away on the clouds. “Yes,” she breathed. “Oh my, yes! Don’t you just love the mountains in mourning?”

“The Mountains in Morning” started life as a 250-word flash fiction story. I felt it needed a bit more development, so I’ve expanded it here to just over 830 words. You can read the shorter version here.

Dale E. Lehman is a software developer, writer, publisher, amateur astronomer, and bonsai artist in training. He writes mysteries, science fiction, and whatnot. Visit Dale at DaleELehman.com.
Dale E. Lehman is a software developer, writer, publisher, amateur astronomer, and bonsai artist in training. He writes mysteries, science fiction, and whatnot. Visit Dale at DaleELehman.com.

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