When Matthew told her that he had found an ancient burial, while exploring the unknown path, Lili darkened.
Immediately he felt so stupid for not having remembered that Chinese people are always very sensitive when the dead are involved and the respect and fear of the hereafter is one of the most important traits of their culture.
Almost apologetically, he reassured her saying that, when they would ride down the track with the trials bikes, they would have ridden slowly and shown the due respect.
Lili had not appeared happy at all with the clarification that seemed, strangely to him, not having hit the mark.
When the following week-end Matthew and Stephane climbed the hill of the tiger, by the usual track, everything was perfect.
It was really hot and it rained just a little bit the night before. This makes excellent grip for the tires but also raised humidity to almost 90%.
They arrived easily at the top of the hill. The Tian lu hu Park was nothing exceptional when compared to Alpine landscapes where Matthew was raised and to the Canadian ones from whom Stephane came from. However, living in Hong Kong and been able to ride in a desert place with a nice view, was something that made the two trial riders happy.
Technically, the Tiger’s Hill was perfect for trial bikes, with very steep paths but rather “smooth” to allow climbing them with motorbikes.
In addition, the hill was periodically burned down, as it happens since centuries to the hills of Guangdong. Therefore the trails were free from high vegetation that would have made the area impracticable to bikes.
The slopes were sometimes remarkably steep. In fact, when Matthew walked down the path to the bottom and then walked it up again, in his reconnaissance of the previous week, he was quite surprised at how steep it was.
The modern trials bikes and especially the latest generation of tires have reached a very high level of performance that allows climbing up and down, provided of course the rider knows the riding technique, slopes that were unthinkable a decade earlier.
They rode down the path and Stephane seemed hesitant. – Are you sure that here later we will ride back up? –
I do not believe my ears – said Matthew pretending to speak to an audience listening, – the guy has new tires… What do you complain for? I do not recognize you, where is the tough man of the Extreme Enduro gone? –
Stephane looked down, shaking his head, saying nothing and carried on downhill.
Once at the base of the trail, 600 meters in altitude lower, they turned the bikes upward and looked at the climb that awaited them.
It was not an uninterrupted climb. The trail was hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old, following the same logical progression of Alpine trails that Mathew knew well; along the ridge, where this progression was convenient, then moving to the right or left of it, to overcome sections too steep, circling around them. All in the name of efficiency and safety, taking into account the adverse weather conditions that could occur.
-Men did things in the right way for a long time, – thought Matthew watching that piece of art of engineering and experience.
There was only a section perhaps not technically feasible for their skill level.
It was a short gully, which followed the bed of a dry stream.
The ground was made up of stable and big rocks but then, as if this was not tough enough, it literally reared up for 15-20 meters.
Steep slopes and ground very irregular was a combination acceptable for a biped being but disastrous for a two-wheeled vehicle.
However, there was a solution that Matthew had already checked it out during his exploratory descent the previous week.
At the point of maximum steepness, when the bikes had stopped or tipped over, it was possible to cut horizontally to the left, and then to continue to climb along the ridge, passing to the right of a Chinese tomb and by-passing in this fashion the bastard gully.
Well, it was not something to be proud of. It was cheating for good, something to scandalize Mike, the best trial rider of the club.
But Mike was not there today and a cut of 20 meters, on a climb of two kilometers, was not the end of the world.
They started the climb, Stephane in front and Matthew behind, as they overcame the various technical sections without too much trouble.
When they arrived to the difficult gully that “wants to see the men in the face,” as the toscanaccio Gianfranco used to say, they stopped to drink and to take a breath.
-So far so good, – said Stephane.
-It was you, looser, to doubt of my skills as a ”seguidor”, – said Matthew.
-If you were right or wrong, we’ll see after getting over the gully, Mr. Italian macho, – concluded Stephane wearing back his helmet.
Matthew explained him the line to follow and Stephane launched.
– He’ll arrive there, or he will tip over there- were Matthew predictions.
It was the second option to come true. Stephane went in trouble, lost his balance, insisted, the front wheel raised too much in the air and the speed went too low. Finally he jumped back and his poor faithful bike miserably concluded its run, unharmed, lying on the slope, while Stephane grabbed it to prevent it to slide down.
He turned the bike across, set in motion, traversed for about 10 meters and turning up skillfully he arrived easily a few meters from the beginning of the gully and at the end of the difficulties.
Matthew lifted the thumb to the Canadian and covered the same route, stopping, however, a moment before repeating the same tipping over of Stephane, who, in his heart, hoped for the opposite to have a laugh too.
The Italian turned his bike and was about to mount onto it again when he had a strange feeling.
Like when, at the last moment, you realize that you have someone too close to you and this immediately triggers an instinctive mechanism of reaction, he turned his head toward where he felt this sensation originating and saw, it was less than a blink, something flickering against his side. He had no time to move but only to contract his muscles and felt a heavy blow to the right side of his torso.
A moment later he lost his breath as he leaned his elbows to his sides to endure better the pain that was growing rapidly.
Stephane saw the scene but did not understand what had happened.
Or rather, he understood, because he had seen it, that a large stone had hit Matthew but not from where it came from.
A stone seldom falls without an evident cause. Stephane was away from the falling line and the impact was very violent, therefore the speed implied a certain space of acceleration. However he did not see the stone bounce, neither to roll. It was as it had appeared only a moment before hitting the poor Matthew.
Stephane reached him in a few seconds, he look at Matthew who, with the first breath that he could use, after finally had filled his lungs, told him – What the hell…-
-How are you… what do we do now… I have not moved the rock … –
-It’s ok, – said Matthew – let me just take a breath,
-OK? – replied Stephane – how can you be ok, you must have broken ribs or worse, that rock was huge and … –
-I tell you it’s ok, I can breathe and there are no fractures, as you can see – he said as he looked to his side.
Three large red lines showed the point of impact on the ribs but there seemed not to be fractures. This did not mean that there could not have been damage to internal organs…
They looked at the stone. It was really big, like a rugby ball.
– Luckily I was not hit with the pointed part, – said Matthew who seemed to breathe deeply and regularly.
– Right, but she was not so lucky – replied Stephane observing Matthew’s bike.
The stone, after hitting the side of Matthew, rebounded and ended up against his bike, hitting the collector of the cooling tube, where this leaves the pump and had it sliced open cleanly. A large shiny stain was spreading under the bike resting on the slope.
-Perfect, – said Matthew, – perfect. At least we are lucky and the sky today is cloudy. Last week, with the sunshine, it was hot like hell here and without a broken bike to push… – uttering these words as to give himself courage, as he watched his poor bike.
At the same moment, it exploded with light, like a room when you pull a curtain at noon.
-Can you please shut up! –
Matthew started to walk, holding his ribs, while Stephane pushed with fatigue the bike for that short stretch sideways.
A moment later, Matthew, all of a sudden, froze.
– Are you ok? -Stephane cried running toward him – I knew it… we need to call someone… you have to go to the hospital-
Matthew was still, frozen, in front of the tomb. Stephane came and stopped too.
– I did not move that stone-
– I know. Although I am not an engineer like you, I’m smart enough to know that stones fall downwards, not upward. –
Still dazed by the impact, Matthew had seen that Stephane was out of the falling line of the gully and therefore could not have been him to move the stone. Because sometimes stones fall because it’s time for them to fall, he had not considered other reasons.
But now that his mind was clearing up, he thought again to that strange feeling, of a nearby presence and to the fact that, up in the mountains, he had seen many times falling stones but if the slope is not vertical, there was always time to hear and see them. The two stared in silence.
They were both convinced rationalists and every idea of supernatural and occult had always provoked desecrating reactions in them, especially on the part of Matthew. But there was none of this. The strange sensation they felt just before started to appear again and they both looked around scared. Then the feeling disappeared.
They looked at each other again and Stephane whispered: – Let’s go –