Jerry stood in the doorway and looked nervously at the unfriendly terrain far below. The heart was safe in the cooler he had attached securely to his belt along with the flare gun and one flare he could find. Whoever that had been on the radio had been right about one thing —it was foolish to wait this long to jump, he thought —there were ridges, and cliffs and far below a ribbon of water cutting through the deep canyon floor. Between the whirling winds and jagged rocks, he would be lucky to survive.
But there was no choice. The plane was bearing fast directly into the mountain ahead where the imminent impact would surely be both violent and fatal. Leaning forward, he closed his eyes, moaned and fell forward, tumbling out of the plane, plunging into the canyon below.
Cold air rushed around him as he plummeted. With shaking fingers, Jerry yanked hard on the cord, and the chute opened with a jerk. The abrupt motion was more intense than he suspected and he felt the three flares he had slipped into his belt come loose and fall away into the emptiness below.
He turned and watched just as the jet smashed directly into the mountain with a huge explosion. The impact sent flames, smoke and debris shooting out into the air all around.
Pieces of debris rained down the mountainside. Teetering in the mountain gusts, Jerry tried to steer his drift away from the rock faces and toward a mountain ridge plateau, but the wind was too strong and a blast took him instead toward a craggy ridge. He hit it hard and bounced off and down a steep down-slope. Kicking his heels into the rock face, he skipped and tumbled over another edge and slid downward at a terrifying rate toward a sheer cliff.
Jerry grabbed frantically at some scraggy brush as he sped past, cutting his hands. His velocity was too great. Clawing at nothing, he shot over the edge and into open space.
Suddenly, above, the parachute hooked on some brush on the cliff edge and held. Jerry jerked and spun around like a broken marionette, hanging and swinging out over the precipice, a dizzying 5,000 feet above the canyon floor.
Breathing hard, with his heart pounding in his chest, he tried to calm his fear. Eventually the swaying slowed until he hung perfectly still suspended above the canyon depths. Gently he started to struggle, swinging his legs back and forth, in an attempt to reach the rock face.
Stretching out his foot; his toe touched rock. The lines suddenly slipped and he fell a few feet further before the chute caught again. Again he waited while the swaying stilled and his heart calmed down.
Moving slowly, he tried again to swing up to the top. The lines groaned; Jerry tried not to look down. Panicking, he swung harder, trying desperately to reach a hold, when suddenly the parachute silk ripped with a sickening shredding sound. A couple of lines snapped and he fell again, only to stop with a jerk a few feet lower, swinging wildly.
Hanging upside down, he opened his eyes and looked down from the dizzying heights. Terrifyingly far below him he could see the river, a tiny thread, running through the valley of the canyon. Still spinning violently he hit the rock wall and bounced off. A second time, he reached and touched rock, but could not grasp a hold. He swayed out again over the void and held his breath, waiting for another, last ripping sound.
But the chute held, and this time when he hit the wall, he jammed a finger into a small crack. The pain shot through his whole arm as his index finger withheld the force of his body weight in motion. Grimacing, he worked another finger into the crack and found another for his other hand.
Pulling his legs over, his feet scrambled to find footholds, until his right foot found a precarious hold and he was able to lift his body up a couple feet. Hugging the cliff face with all his might, he worked his fingers out of the crack and reached above to a hanging rock. Using this rock to pull his weight, he found a hold for his left foot and pushed up. The rock trembled, but held.
Painstakingly, he climbed another two feet upward; sweat dripping off his body in sheets. On the overhang, he grasped a rock and pulled. The rock crumbled in his hand, and his left foot slipped off of the edge he was balanced on. Grabbing the parachute lines as he fell, he found himself lying horizontal, perpendicular to the cliff face. His right foot was wedged into a crevasse and bent at a painful angle. Sharp pain ran up his ankle from the foot as the granite cut through his sock nearly to the bone.
Using all of his strength, Jerry pulled himself back to an upright position. Grunting out loud, his innate drive for survival and adrenaline surging, he pushed his battered body over the top of the cliff to where, laughing insanely, he collapsed in an exhausted heap.
After resting himself for a few minutes, Jerry staggered to his feet. He was a mess. His face bruised and his lip split, his hands cut and bloody, his ankle torn. He took a deep breath and started to unhook the chute harness.
Suddenly, a rush of wind blasted him in the face. Catching the parachute off of where it had been caught, the fresh of wind lifted the nylon into the air with a swift and powerful motion. Jerry felt himself being lifted backwards off the cliff and into nothingness again.
The final belt on the harness unsnapped as the chute took off like a wayward kite in a violent windstorm, and Jerry tumbling free, fell again off the cliff. This time, his hands grasped the brushy growth and it held firm.
Swinging himself back up, he watched as his parachute rode the wind currents downward until it became a speck on a rock outcrop far below. Shuddering, he turned and made his way off his perilous landing place and down into a rock enclave that was somewhat sheltered from the wind.
From his vantage point, Jerry surveyed the surrounding area. Jesus, where am I? he thought. As far as he could see was wilderness all around him. The mountains were thick with brush and pine forest in some areas and dry and barren in others.
Far below, he saw something that he thought could be a road and decided his best option was to make for it. In any case, it would be quite a hike. He found a stick and using it to help steady his tired body began his descent.
Jerry came across a drift of snow, in Mexico, no less! and slipped and fell. While lying down with ice crystals on his face, an idea came to him and he grabbed a handful of the cold material and stuffed it into the cooler before continuing his downward trek.
After stumbling down a ridge and sliding painfully down a shale mountain-slide, Jerry entered a thicket of pine. As he trudged through the dark trees, he reveled in the coolness, but as he traversed further, began to feel nervous, as though someone was watching him. He was relieved as he entered a clearing and the sunlight beat down on his weary body again.
Finding a boulder in the middle of the meadow, he sat and rested. The cooler was still hooked to his belt and was rubbing a sore on his hip. He took it off and opened it. As far as he could tell, everything still looked okay, but the snow had melted into water and the ice packs were no longer cold to his touch, but merely cool. Damn, he thought, he would just rest a few more minutes. He had to get the heart someplace where he could cool it soon or…
The growl behind him was so sudden that Jerry did not have time to feel fear. As he spun around, a mountain lion leapt onto him, sending the open cooler sprawling. Crying in pain as the lion’s claws raked across his back, he tumbled backward, while the animal somersaulted a few feet away and regrouped for another attack. The huge cat tensed its’muscles and pounced again, but Jerry broke his stick in two across the lion’s face. The lion leapt away and slowly circled, licking its lips and eying its foe.
Then the lion paused and sniffed the air. It turned its attention to the open cooler with the heart in it sitting several feet away from where Jerry had landed. The lion hissed once before launching itself toward the case.
Almost without thinking, Jerry pulled the flare gun from his belt and blasted it directly into the beast. The cat cried out and fell on its side —its skin scorched. The flare exploded in the grove. With a howl of pain and surprise, the wounded cat righted itself and took a bounding leap, disappearing into the shadowy cover of the trees, leaving behind an odor of burned flesh and fur.
Shaking, Jerry collected the heart and hurriedly ran downhill on shaky legs. Not only had he shot his only flare, he now had a wounded cougar lurking in the woods behind him. And to top it all off, the strange men trying to kill him now knew exactly where he was.