Danger in the Wilderness
While hiking in the mountains, Jesse meets a strange trio. He befriends Maria, but he’s suspicious of the men with her. Still, charmed by Maria, Jesse promises not to tell anyone that he met them. But his new friends have deadly secrets, and Jesse uncovers them. It will take all his wilderness skills, and all his courage, to survive.
Readers who enjoyed Gary Paulsen's Hatchet will love Bandits Peak. This heart-pounding adventure tale is full of danger and excitement.
Jesse glanced out the kitchen window. A perfect day for hiking. The early dawn looked gray, but the high, thin clouds were the type to burn off in an hour or two. Bad weather wouldn’t have kept him inside – slogging through a gray drizzle was still better than being at home. But sunny skies were a bonus.
He stuck his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a plastic baggie and took one last long look at the mountain, offering peace and freedom. It called to him.
The shout came at Jesse’s shoulder. He jumped, then winced at showing any reaction. His older brother, Simon, laughed and plopped down at the kitchen table. He spread the local weekly paper out in front of him as Jesse snapped a banana from the bunch on the counter.
“Ooh, big news this week!” Simon said.
Jesse pulled his water bottle from the dish rack and filled it at the tap. He knew Simon was waiting for him to ask what the news was – so he could refuse to tell.
“Hmm, verrry interesting,” Simon said. “Biggest news all year.” When Jesse still didn’t respond, Simon leaned back in his chair. “You should read this. Oh wait, I forgot. You don’t read.”
Jesse glared, but before he could speak, their mother walked in. Simon turned an innocent face to her. “Don’t you think Jesse should read the paper? It might help him.”
“It would be good practice, Jesse,” she said. “Why don’t you give it a try?”
“It’s summer,” Jesse grumbled. “I don’t have to read.” Summer was for hiking, fishing, being outside, not for laboring over books.
She got her disappointed look. Before she could start on her usual lecture about how summer reading would help him in the fall, he turned away. “I’m going fishing. I’ve got lunch.” He stuffed the sandwich and banana in one jacket pocket, the water bottle in the other, and grabbed the fishing pole leaning near the door.
“Be careful, honey,” his mother called as he slipped through the door.
“Yeah, sure.” Jesse closed the door behind him and took a deep breath. At least he got out of the house before his father and sisters were up, causing more chaos. He looked at the mountain. His mountain, where he could get away from everything.
A dog barked as Jesse hurried through the empty streets. Soon people would be coming out of their houses, leaving for work. He’d be on the mountain by then. Morning dew glistened on every blade of grass, another promise of clear skies ahead. He had food, his fishing pole, and his pocketknife. He felt ready for anything.
After half a mile he stepped off the pavement onto a narrow dirt road. In another half mile he jumped the ditch alongside the road and ducked under a bigleaf maple tree onto an overgrown trail. Blackberry brambles stretched along the path. The thorns scratched across his jeans as Jesse slipped past.
The trail was only an old game trail, used by a few hunters during deer season. He wouldn’t meet anybody, no hikers or early morning mountain joggers, nobody to ask questions or tell him he was too young to be out alone. He probably wouldn’t see another person all day long. He smiled and his tension drained.
For a moment he thought of the days when he would hike and fish with his father. He shook the thought away. That was like another lifetime, when his father was a different person. It didn’t bear thinking about now.
An hour later he reached the top of the mountain. He knew it was really a big hill, only 1200 feet high, but it was the tallest piece of land nearby. Down in the valley Jesse could see Main Street stretched in a straight line, heading past farmland and forests to other small towns.
Jesse turned, and the scene changed. Twenty miles to the east, Washington State’s Cascade Mountains spread out across the horizon, some peaks still white with snow. You could lose yourself for weeks in mountains like those. Maybe he should try it. Just grab his camping gear and take off. Would anybody even miss him?
Jesse headed down a gully, scrambling over loose rocks and broken branches. Halfway down the mountain, he crawled over a tangle of fallen logs and met up with another trail.
He stopped and crouched beside the narrow dirt path. Footprints. Recent ones – not something he expected to see. Three sets of shoes. One large pair, probably a man’s, made by hiking boots. One medium, tennis shoes, a smaller man or fairly large woman. Man, most likely, from the width. The other shoes were small, a woman or even a child, with narrow rubber soles that had slipped in the mud.
One group of tracks led up toward the river. They were softened from last night’s rain, the edges blurred and the bottoms soft where rain had pooled. The woman – or child – had walked between the two men; her prints lay over the hiking boots but under the tennis shoes. They were probably together, since the tracks were about the same age. However, they might have come separately, within a few hours of each other.
The returning tracks were more recent. The edges of the prints were clean and sharp, the shoes’ tread clear, without any damage from rain. Hiking Boots and Tennis Shoes had gone back toward town this morning. The tracks to the river looked deeper, with the weight evenly distributed across the sole. The tracks down the mountain seemed lighter, the imprint clearer under the ball of the foot. At a guess, Jesse would say they’d come in with heavy packs, but gone out without a load.
Jesse couldn’t find the little footprints going downhill. He crawled down the path a few paces, looking for them, but no. They only went on toward the river. He did find fresher-looking tennis shoe prints going back up again. So Hiking Boots had gone up and down. Tennis Shoes had gone up, down, and back up again. Maybe. There were so many of those prints it was hard to tell for sure where the person had ended up. The little footprints only went up.
Was the woman or child up there waiting, alone, while the men went exploring? They couldn’t be fishing, since the most recent tracks led away from the river. They might be hunting – though they shouldn’t be, not here, not now. If guys with guns were roaming the mountain, Jesse had to be careful. Some hunters shot anything that moved.
Jesse walked up the path a few more paces, looking for the clue that would make everything fall into place. It didn’t really matter. This was simply a game he played, trying to read the signs. Like a detective, or an Indian tracker. But he liked to understand what was going on.
A rock stuck out of the path ahead, as big as a dinner plate, with a rough surface. Some dark liquid had smeared across it.
Jesse crouched and stared at the dark red, almost-black stain. His stomach clenched. He reached out, hesitated, and touched the stain. It was dry. He scratched with his thumbnail until he dislodged a flake. He couldn’t think of anything of that color, besides dried blood.
He had no way of telling how much the person had bled. The stain smeared faintly over the rock, darker where it had pooled in crevices. The person could have been bleeding on the ground, too. That would disappear in the mud. The footprints were all jumbled together there. That suggested the accident had happened there, and the other two had stopped to help. But with all the confusion, Jesse couldn’t tell who had been hurt, or how.
Was the accident why the woman or child hadn’t come back down? Had the woman/child been injured, or grown tired, and been carried down by the men? Had Tennis Shoes gone back for their gear? Or had he just backtracked a few paces for some reason?
But if they’d carried someone out, the downhill prints should be deeper from carrying her weight. And a few feet ahead, he saw the small prints, still going up. All the signs suggested that the group had split up.
The injured person might still be at the river. Waiting for help? Abandoned? Jesse took a step up the path, then paused. He didn’t want to meet anybody; the day was supposed to be his alone. This wasn’t his problem. But if someone needed help, he couldn’t turn away. He had to explore this mystery, and see if he was needed.