Footing by Scotty Williams
No firearms were allowed on these expeditions. That was the number one rule and we searched their packs to make sure it adhered to.
“Shoot all you want, just do it with a camera,” I\'d say with, what Jim described as my shit-eating grin.
The party had swelled to eight clients, with our usual two guides: Linda and myself. I knew it too many, but our reputation had gained momentum. We delivered in the past and were no longer required to croak our own praises on the blogs. While this unsolicited publicity was good for business, in time it would destroy it. We were to guide services what pro wrestling is to sports and eventually this would be discovered.
These eight represented a guaranteed $30,000 payday, $50,000 if we encountered anything beyond the typical plaster casts, odors and screams. We would do that. So $50,000 split three ways, for a week\'s work.
Our first two days in the Sierra Nevada Mountains went as scheduled. We pushed the group hard to cover the plotted thirty miles over country known for its dense pine forests, trout fishing and the most famous act of cannibalism in our nation\'s history. They have to be tired. The reasons for this are numerous.
The first two days were uneventful, but on the morning of the third day the group discovered tracks, a possible bedding site and some hair fibers. Jim wasn\'t needed for this. Linda and I could manage. Linda was Jim\'s girlfriend, except on these trips, where we pretended to be a couple: some of it an act, some of it not and me never quite knowing where I stood.
Jim earned his keep the third night with shrill screams, a toppled tent and our food supply ransacked. This last act would keep us on schedule.
The fourth day, at dusk, we earned our bonus. In the pale light, they snapped away at the apelike figure on the other side of the gorge, which stalked into the timberline and paused to give them a backwards glance. But even such a perfect moment can create a want for more.
“Fifty more,” said their leader. “Fifty more for one day.”
I followed the script: explained we were four days in, that we now needed to cover the same ground in three. I noted the lack of food, that our permit would expire.
He mistook my words. I wasn\'t trying to negotiate. But when he said “one-hundred thousand” Linda and I looked at each other. And by the look she gave me, I knew it was my call. I knew what Jim would do, would have done for an extra fifty. I knew too what he would do with his share: start that travel agency, marry Linda—the two things he always talked about. I knew what I would do as well, or at least try: go legit—not necessarily in terms of how I made my money, but in my relationship with Linda. It was Linda I had no idea about. She kept her dreams and feelings to herself. More than once, Jim complained about this part of her nature to me. I could not reciprocate and share the strange mixture of emotions I felt: the claustrophobic fear of being discovered when with Linda, the longing when she was with Jim and the ever present loneliness.
“Let us sleep on it,” I said, knowing maybe is the same as yes when speaking to a child or someone used to buying what they want.
We selected this spot because someone would be crazy to try and cross in the dark, insane to do it without a flashlight, but I couldn\'t risk being spotted.
“I fell while taking a leak last night,” I said to explain my cuts and bruises. I grinned and added, “You\'ve bought one day. And you understand there are no guarantees of any kind.”
They understood. Of course we knew we had to give them something for their money.
If half the tracker the blogs claimed, I would have noticed someone following. And perhaps if I wasn\'t so exhausted from my all-night trek and my mind racing with questions about what Linda would do, I might have noticed the leader\'s sudden tendency to lag behind.
Again at dusk when we came to another gorge and in the dying light they snapped away. It was closer this time. I slipped my hand into Linda\'s. She squeezed and I fantasized about a legitimate life with her: began to frame the words I would use on the trek back.
Something exploded behind us. Time slowed. And I swear I saw the bullet in the air and stood amazed not because it found its target, but because Jim did not simply give it the slip.
I don\'t remember barreling down the gorge, just being beside him on my knees with tattered hands sticky with blood. I pulled off the mask, Jim\'s face wet with sweat. Blood soaked through the chest of the suit and his legs were twisted under his body: bent in directions that defied their design. He looked like a mascot who had fallen into the hands of the rival.
Jim often described how itchy and hot it became inside the suit and that sometimes he thought his body would suffocate. He could never be sure what time we would arrive, so he spent hours inside panting, waiting and fighting off the claustrophobia. In my own way, I understood his affliction. He had said during these hours he focused on Linda: their future together. As I held his fluttering hand in the darkness I realized Linda was not at his side and wondered if she would be at mine. Jim gasped for air and tried to speak. I leaned in to hear, but his last utterances were drowned out by the shouts behind me.
“What the hell is this? What the hell is going on here? What the hell . . .