A clear night up in the little basin, stars wheeling slowly overhead and no gust of wind coming to disturb the improvised tents beneath which Roger, Bud and Susan had taken shelter for the night. Though the night air was chilly at that high elevation, cold enough, certainly, to form on the sun-softened snow the rock-hard crust which made spring travel so easy and so trackless on spring mornings in the high country. But even through the frigid night hours rose the warm, living smells of thawing ground and awakening vegetation which heralded spring as surely as did the lengthening hours of daylight. Susan smiled in her sleep as these living and life-giving smells rode the slightest whisper of wind as it passed down the spruce-laden slopes and through her open-sided tent, dreaming of Will, walking, exploring a meadow of Indian paintbrush rimmed with skunk cabbages while the aspens, leaves still the new, brilliant yellow-green of spring, rustled their water-song overhead.
Too tired to dream after his days out on the canyon rim and the long climb back to the basin, Einar lay enfolded in the welcome blackness of sleep, more than ready for a few hours without movement. Despite his willingness to stay in the bed and leave further frozen wanderings for the morning, he did not seem to be getting much warmer after an hour or so in the sleeping bag, and Liz was starting to shiver, herself, after being there with him for a while. His body seemed to be radiating the cold, and she was doubtful of her ability to produce enough heat for both of them.
Will, at least, was warm in his own little nest of furs off to the side, and was sleeping, so she waited, hoping things would improve so she could join him in sleep. Not happening, and not a particularly useful situation for anyone, she finally decided, though Einar himself seemed perfectly content with the arrangement. Content, or perhaps simply too exhausted to notice, and it was the latter which had her a bit worried. Creeping over to the smoldering coals of the previous evening’s fire she fanned them to life, choosing a few smooth granite stones and rolling them into the resulting bed of living, glowing orange. Crouching there and warming herself over the coals Liz waited as the rocks heated, quickly wrapping several of them in bits of flannel when she decided they were ready, and hurrying back to bed.
Einar had curled up into a little ball during her absence, still not fully awake—good thing, she could only assume, or he might well have decided that his best course of action involved leaving the bed, and the shelter, and lying in the snow for the remainder of the night to increase his cold tolerance, or some such—and she had some difficulty in persuading him to change his position. Succeeding at last, she rolled one of the hot rocks down to the foot of the sleeping bag and nestled the others in the hollow of Einar’s stomach where he lay curled up on his side. He only shook harder at the introduction of this new heat source, but Liz was hopeful that the rocks would do the job. Already they seemed to be countering the chill that had pervaded the place since his coming to bed, and after a time Einar stirred, seemed to be waking, stirring, trying once more to leave the bed, so that she had to hold him in place over his objections.
“I’ll keep you up all night with this. Going to…take a while before I can…”
“It’s ok. I’ve been up at night anyway these past few nights, wondering where you were, and at least now I know. I’m sure we’ll both get some sleep.” Which seemed to suit Einar just fine, he far too weary to mind the continued chill in his body, and drifting quickly back towards sleep. Liz, though, found herself less ready.
“Einar, you have to stop this.”
“Uh…trying. May take a while. Said I’d…I’d go outside so I wouldn’t…be bothering you so much, but you…”
“No, you big goof, I don’t mean you’ve got to stop shivering. Don’t stop that! You have to finish getting warm. I mean you’ve got to stop freezing yourself like this all the time, in the first place. It’s spring. No sense freezing to death in the springtime, and don’t say you can’t help it because of where we live…you could always wear more clothes. Or eat more, or both. It’s a choice. Isn’t it?”
There seemed little more to say, so she did her best to go to sleep
Liz woke at daylight to the sound of conversation outside, momentarily disoriented and thinking Einar must be carrying on a lively discussion with himself, before remembering the happenings of the past day and realizing that he and Bud must be taking a look at the meat-smoking tent.
“What is this thing, Asmundson? A sauna? Radar dome? Snow camouflage so planes won’t spot you folks when you’re lounging around out here in your brightly-colored Hawaiian shirts?”
Einar laughed at that, a relief to Liz after his strained silence the night before and the long, cold night, and she pulled Will into the bag with her, wanting to feed him before she got up.
“Yeah, camouflage, Einar retorted, “so we can spend some time outside without being spotted by every lost tourist that wanders by looking for a place to camp.”
“You calling us lost tourists? We’re not lost. Took a lot of effort to find you folks, you know.”
“How did you do it?”
“Roger had a starting point, because he knew where he’d dropped you. We flew over that, took a look, then I spent some time with maps and tried to figure what made the most sense. What you would do. I’m a tracker, and you know real well that a tracker doesn’t just follow marks in the snow or dirt. His job is to get inside the head of his quarry, strip everything away and take a good long look at his soul. That’s the only way to know a human-critter’s intentions, or his likely path. Came pretty doggone close this time, I’d have to say.”
“For a lost tourist…”
Bud took a playful swing at Einar with the stout spruce stick he was using that morning to alleviate the soreness of knee and hip left behind by the previous day’s climb, surprised at the speed of the man’s reaction as he dodged, dropped to one knee and seized the stick in both hands. Kilgore could have pressed the matter, thrown the fugitive to the ground with his greater weight, but instead loosed his hold and took a step back, not liking the dead-calm, faraway look in the man’s eye.
“Whoa, take it easy there Asmundson. Just checking your response time, making sure you were still on top of things.”
Einar didn’t answer, right away, crouching against the trunk of a spruce and watching the tracker with wary eyes until after a space of several minutes he grinned, relaxed and handed the stick back to Bud. “Yeah, I know it.”
Roger, Susan and Liz were up by that time, joining them beside the white canopy of the jerky-smoking tent as they waited somewhat anxiously for the sun to come up over the ridge. Cold that morning, and Einar, still not entirely trusting that their guests had not been observed somewhere along their journey, did not want a fire just yet.
At Susan’s suggestion they all moved beneath the canopy, taking with them sections of the remaining frozen elk to slice for jerky.
31 December, 2014
Sitting together in the little bubble of warm, still air beneath the parachute canopy and passing around a pot of Liz’s spruce-needle tea, everyone began relaxing after their long climb, Susan holding Will and delighting in becoming reacquainted with the little one as Bud began explaining their presence in the canyon.
“Knew you wouldn’t be too happy to see us here, Asmundson, and had a heck of a time actually figuring out how to start looking for you, but there’s stuff we figured you ought to know.”
Einar was skeptical, but silent. Bud couldn’t contain himself any longer.
“It’s springtime in the valley, man, and they’re not lookin’ for you anymore! Packed up and gone home, all of them, after so many months of hearing nothing from you. Rumor is they figure an avalanche must’ve got you. All but declared you dead—a third time!”
“They’ve done that before, and it hasn’t stuck. Shouldn’t have risked leaving a trail just to come and tell us that.”
“Nah, they got lots of other irons in the fire this time That’s the other thing I came to tell you. History going on, down there. It’s been quite a year. The tax protests up in New York and New Jersey—never thought we’d see those folks stand up, but guess some of them finally had enough of their Bolshevik rulers—folks up in Washington State refusing en masse to follow some really onerous new gun laws that went into effect this year, and showing up by the thousands on the grounds of the State Capitol to commit newly-illegal acts, right in front of the State Troopers. Troopers just watched. Were none too pleased with the laws themselves, most of them, and sure weren’t gonna be the ones to deliberately spark some sort of armed conflict right there on the Governor’s front lawn. Ha! And the big one…guess you would have had no way to hear about the Ranch Rebellion, as folks’re calling it now, but the feds got tangled up with a couple of old ranchers and their families over property disputes, went in with guns and tried to seize land, round up cattle—and failed.”
“Was there shooting?”
“Nah, but there would have been, if they hadn’t decided to stand down. Couple thousand citizens showed up, armed and ready. Moms and dads with a couple of their half-grown kids ready to be a part of history, local folks, out of state, vets from half a dozen wars, snipers up on the Interstate overpass... Remarkable restraint on both sides, I would say. All it would have taken was one jumpy trigger finger on either side, and this thing would have got started. Feds thought they’d be able to strong-arm everybody, had the Hostage Rescue Team on standby a few miles away, but there came a point, a very particular point when they saw that folks were going to stand, and they knew they had to either back down, or commit to a real shooting war. And they backed down, and they went home. It was a beautiful thing. Beautiful.”
“You were there?”
“Yes sir, I was there. Proud to say it. Me and my bride, both. Roger flew us down. We didn’t jump this time, but maybe in the future, if circumstances require…”
“Yep,” Roger finished off the pot of spruce tea, passed the empty vessel back to Liz for a re-fill, “me and my little green-and-white will definitely have a job to do, as things progress down there. Did some aerial surveillance after dropping Bud and Sue off at the rally, got some real good photos of the crowd facing off the feds, and almost tangled with a little FBI chopper that figured I was in its airspace. Fun times!”
“Yeah, Roger, I know you miss the action,” the tracker boomed. “Don’t we all, sometimes? Kinda surprised you weren’t dropping stuff on the feds’ camp down there, just for the fun of it! Sheriff Watts was there too, with his wife and two grown sons. Remember him? Always knew he was a fine man, but now I’ve got no doubts.”
Susan nodded. “They camped with us. There was a whole Culver Falls/Clear Springs contingent that showed up. People who used to come to our weekly meetings when Bill was living…some that I hadn’t seen for years.”
“Right,” Bud added, “that’s for sure! Half expected to see you there, Asmundson.”
“I was a little busy.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s the last sort of place you need to be showing up right now. I’m sure the feds had eyes and ears in that crowd, looking out for just such appearances. But later, if things get a little hotter…well, let me just say that you’re already no longer anywhere near their top priority, and I can certainly conceive of a time when you could probably come out into the World again, if you wanted to. I still say we could use you down there. Train folks, give them young guys a little of the grit-in-your-gut or whatever it is has kept you going, over the years. Only a little of it, though. Too much of it’ll kill a fella.”
“I’m still here, Kilgore.”
Uncomfortable silence, Liz passing out elk jerky to everyone, including the raven, who had not left Einar’s shoulder the entire time. Sun was still shining on the top foot or so of the chute, and it was providing enough warmth that both Bud and Susan had shed their down coats, Will having squirmed about in his furs until Liz had freed him of their excessive insulation. The warmth didn’t seem to be having much effect on Einar, who, Liz knew from long experience, ought to be shaking quite noticeably as he thawed out. Instead he sat, cross-legged and still, arms folded against his stomach and the ice barely beginning to melt in his beard as he listened intently to Bud’s narrative with huge, quiet eyes and the occasional hint of a faraway smile. Liz wished he’d move around, make some noise, get mad, even. His stillness was scaring her.
The conversation turned, then, to events in the valley, Susan’s work to prepare for the spring season at the greenhouse and other news of the outside world, another pleasant half hour passing as the sun finally sank behind the spruces and everyone—with the exception of Einar, who seemed unwilling or unable to move from the position he had held since sitting down—enjoyed generous helpings of Liz’s elk stew, which had been simmering by the fire in the shelter since shortly after their return.
Despite the relative warmth of the little tent, which had increased rather beyond that provided by the sinking sun due to the number of people it currently enclosed, Einar was still an unfortunate shade of purple by the time the sun went down, struggling now to stay aware and part of the conversation, though doing a remarkably good job, Liz thought, of concealing the fact. The only best answer seemed to be to head to bed and hope he would follow, which proved no problem, as their guests were quite weary after their long climb, ready to head to their improvised tents. Einar, though, proved less ready to settle in for the night, quietly insisting that he first had to make one final circuit of the little ridge above the basin, satisfy himself that the tracker had not been followed up from the canyon.
Einar finally slid into bed sometime after dark, still not entirely reasonably well assured that no trouble was coming that night, at least, and knowing that without a bit of sleep he would be too weary to do much about such an eventuality, should it come. Liz moved close, tried to start warming him, and Einar held himself rigid against the shivers that were trying to come, in awe at the contrast in temperature, at her existence.
“You’re so warm…”
“No, it’s just that you’re frozen, still. You feel like a block of ice.”
He moved away. “I’m sorry. Can go back outside and…”
“No, don’t you dare! That’s not what I meant.” She got her arms around him, clasping her hands where they crossed the deeply furrowed ridges of the ribs just above his sternum, trapping him. He could have escaped with enough effort, but he was tired, and did not want to go anywhere. Liz could feel his relenting, his acceptance, and was glad. “You stay right here until you’re something like a normal human temperature, again. I don’t know how you survive being so cold all the time.”
He smiled in the darkness, stopped struggling, relaxed against her and allowed the shivering to take over. “Practice.”
26 December, 2014
Liz had heard them coming. Finally convinced that Einar must lack the ability to return on his own she had set out once more to search for him, Will on her back and the shelter closed up tight with the expectation that she might not return for many days. Einar had given her no reason for his leaving, no clue in speech or action, in the days leading up to his disappearance, as to where he might have gone. Which lead her to believe that he had likely met with some accident or other misfortune out there, and would be, by now, almost certainly gone. She tried not to think it, tried to remind herself that he had many times come through circumstances that ought to have ended his life, and surely would be capable of doing so again, whatever had happened out there, but she was having a difficult time believing.
More likely, he had been lying face-down in a snowdrift somewhere out there for the past two days, finally having well and truly reached the end of his strength and died on his feet as he had always wanted. Doing her best to banish such thoughts she had set out for one final search, winding her way down through deadfall timber and around the remains of the winter’s snow, melting, seeping, the sound of spring, of new life, and some quarter of the way through the band of deadfall, she began hearing another sound, too.
Footsteps, and then voices, and Liz froze. Concealing herself behind the nearest cluster of still-bare serviceberry scrub she crouched, listening, praying that Will would make no sound, for the voice was not Einar’s. Her hand went to the pistol Einar had left for her, body low against the ground and Will beginning a silent, squirming protest. Had they taken him, some intruder, some federal search party, captured him and followed his trail up through the deadfall? Could be. Anything could be, but her mind told her this was a very unlikely scenario, seeing as she had, herself, been unable to find more than a few feet of discernable trail in her entire time of searching. What, then? He was showing them the way? He would never. Then, she heard another voice, a female voice, and this one she recognized. Susan! Still, she did not rise from her hiding place, wanting to be more than certain as to the identity of their guests before she risked exposing Will to any danger. Squirming so that she had a better view through the tangle of serviceberry trunks near the ground she found Susan, Bud beside her. Other footsteps then, nearer ones, and she scrambled to her feet just in time to avoid tripping Einar as he stepped around the cluster of brush which had concealed her.
Einar barely even had time to be startled before Liz grabbed him, he recognizing her at once and little Will squealing in delight at the sight of his father. For a moment no one spoke, Bud and his little group hanging back to allow the family a bit of time together. Liz didn’t know what to say first, whether to question Einar about his long absence or try to figure out where he’d managed to acquire Bud and Susan, so she ended up saying nothing at all, simply pressing him to her, overjoyed that they were all together again.
“Saw their smoke,” he tried to explain. “Down in the canyon. Was just going for some willows but had to find out who was down there. Ended up stalking them for two days before being sure. Had no way to let you know…”
“I know now. It’s ok. I know now.” She let him go then, Einar quickly reclaiming the sticks he’d been using to keep himself upright during the climb and she waving to Bud and Susan, who hurried to join the family there beneath the serviceberry scrub, Roger a few paces behind. Returning from some scouting mission of his own above the timbered slopes to the east, Muninn the raven circled once, dived in through the trees and settled himself on Einar’s shoulder. Will lost all interest in the human visitors, then, remembering the bird and reaching for the iridescent sheen of his feathers with both hands, nearly succeeding in escaping from the hood of Liz’s parka before she could stop him.
“You brought Muninn!” Liz greeted Susan. “How did you do that?”
“Oh, he follows Bud everywhere. Has since you left. I think he believes Bud knew where Einar went, and intended to find him.”
“How did you find us?”
“Oh, it wasn’t easy,” Bud bellowed, “the way this man of yours heads for the highest, roughest country like a wounded bull elk and hunkers down to wait for spring, or death, or whatever comes first. Not easy at all, and in the end it was him found us, anyway. Closest we came was the bottom of the canyon.”
Einar cast a dark look at the tracker, wishing, Liz was certain, that they had never come at all, but she was more than glad to see them—so long as their coming did not bring with it too much risk of discovery and of having to run, again. Afternoon well underway and temperatures already beginning to drop on that north-facing slope, everyone seemed in favor when Liz suggested they head for the shelter.
After a good hour’s additional travel the party reached the little basin which concealed Einar and Liz’s winter home, the visitors looking relieved to be through all the deadfall and able to rest, at last. Einar showed everyone around the clearing, pointing out here and there spots where overhanging evergreens had kept snow accumulation to a minimum thorough the winter, and which thus presented dry and good locations to set up a tent. Or to sleep under the stars, as the case might be, for everyone, as Bud pointed out, had left their tents down in the canyon…
“You’d be welcome in the shelter,” Einar allowed, “but it’s no cabin, like we had before. We’d be sleeping stacked on top of each other in there. You folks have any tarps or plastic of any sort in your packs?”
Tarps they did have, and an ample supply of cordage, and the three of them went to see what could be done to secure nighttime lodging.
While their guests set up camp Liz brought water and elk jerky for Einar, wanted him to sit with her on the fallen aspen that served as bench in front of the shelter, but he remained doggedly standing, balanced between his two walking sticks as he smiled tiredly at Will, answering the little one’s babbling inquiries as seriously and attentively as if they had come from an adult and were not composed of at least as many unintelligible words as they were intelligible. Liz liked that about him, the way he seemed to regard their son as a little person with a fully-formed mind and the ability to understand far more than he could communicate. Already she could see that the two of them were developing a special understanding of one another, and supposed the very things that made Einar so different and her interactions with him at times so very difficult must be an advantage when it came to his ability to understand and communicate with the child.
Einar wasn’t eating, and she insisted, trying to press a piece of jerky into his hand. He looked hungrily at the food and appeared anxious enough to eat it, but seemed unwilling to loose his iron grip on the two sticks he’d brought with him, and she Liz was pretty sure she knew why.
While thoroughly convinced that he had succeeded at concealing his condition from Bud, Susan and the pilot—lots of people used sticks to improve balance while getting around in the mountains, after all, and they had been working too hard, themselves, to give him much notice—there was no hiding it from Liz. She knew he didn’t use a stick for balance, not unless it was a spear that he happened to be carrying, anyway, and never had she known him to use two of them. No sense delaying the matter. Perhaps there would be some way she could improve things, for him.
“What’s wrong with your legs? Did you fall…?”
Einar looked away. “Fell plenty, but I always got back up. Don’t know what’s wrong. It will pass.”
Despite Einar’s easy confidence, Liz could see from the hard lines on his face and the distance in his eyes that he was in pain, struggling to stay on his feet and afraid to sit down lest he find himself unable to rise again. She gently pulled him down beside her on the log.
“Maybe it won’t pass. Maybe your body is just done. The muscles. They’ve all been consumed just to keep you alive and going.”
He wished she wouldn’t talk about that, not now, with the possibility that their guests might hear. “Been that way for a long time,” he quietly replied, fidgeting on the bench and wishing to be back on his feet, “and I’ve been getting by.”
“Well, now you’re not. It seems like you’d better think about eating more, or maybe next time it won’t be your legs that are wanting to give out, but your heart. It’s a muscle, too, you know….”
He did know, easy as he found it most times to ignore the fact. “Yeah. I am eating, though.”
“Barely enough to keep you alive, and certainly not enough so that you can start gaining a little weight. You’re still losing. I can see it. You need more. Need to get really serious about it.”
Einar just shrugged, got painfully back to his feet, but she wouldn’t let it go.
“I would hate to lose you now, you know. When we’ve just about got through the winter and spring is here, Will’s first spring, and he’s about to start walking…”
“Oh, I have no intention of dying in the springtime”—he grinned, a mischievous glint returning to his eyes and a bit of a spring to his step as he headed to the shelter to put away his pack—“if I have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t want that. Would much rather go in the fall, in the first big snowstorm of the season, maybe climb up to the top of a peak and stand there where the wind breaks over the rocks, become part of a cornice or something, or better still find a big, windswept saddle up near the divide where the Jetstream is sweeping across smelling like broken granite and eternity and endless distance, snow coming down sideways, and just…”
“Stop it! I don’t want to hear that.”
He was silent—she had brought it up, and he’d only been trying to answer her; the woman really puzzled him, at times—and Liz let it go.
Guests finished setting up their improvised camp and perhaps an hour of angled sunlight remaining before the cold of evening really set in, Liz invited everyone to join her in the parachute-tent eventually destined to hold the jerky-smoking rack, remembering the pleasant afternoon she, Einar and Will had several days prior enjoyed in the pocket of warm, still air trapped beneath its fabric and thinking perhaps there everyone could rest, Einar could finally warm up a bit and Bud and Susan might hopefully explain the purpose of their visit.
22 December, 2014
“Enemy’s not following us,” Kilgore bellowed, lowering himself onto a fallen aspen and hoping Einar would join him, as the man appeared about to fall over. “We made real sure of that. I’m returning your bird, that’s what I’m doing up here. Critter can be a real nuisance, you know? Blamed me for your disappearance I’m pretty sure, and never would let me forget it.”
Einar remained standing, balanced precariously between his two sticks but growing increasingly steady. He had no response for Kilgore, knew the tracker would not make such a journey simply to return the raven, but knew just as well that he wouldn’t be getting the true answer just then. It would come, with time. Right now, he needed to be getting back to Liz, and as the intruders had already found his trail and would have followed it even had he not shown himself, the best option seemed to involve taking them all along. Not wanting to try and articulate all of this—now that he’d stopped moving, his exhaustion was catching up with him, making itself difficult to ignore—he started off up his trail without another word.
Kilgore was having none of it. “Where are you taking us, you old wolverine? Up to some cliffs where you can lure us out to the edge, push us over and no one will ever be the wiser?”
“Not a bad idea. But no. I’m going home. You folks might as well come along, so I can keep an eye on you. Anybody flies over, they’ll see your tents down on the canyon floor and think you’re still down there, fishing, or whatever you were doing.”
“See our tents? Who do you think you’re dealing with here, Asmundson? Nobody’s gonna see our doggone tents, not the way we’ve got the all tucked in under the timber like that.”
“I saw them.”
“Oh, you don’t count. And besides, I meant nobody would see them from the air. And they won’t.”
Einar shrugged, turned to continue his climb, and this time, Kilgore followed. Visiting, it was clear, would have to wait. The fugitive was in no mood for conversation. Or perhaps simply lacked the breath for it. He suspected the latter, but still found himself struggling to keep pace as the man stalked up through the steepening timber.
Base of the rocky chute by which Einar had two days prior come to reach the edge of the rim, and here he paused for a minute, waiting for the others to catch up. Not used to the elevation, he supposed, after a winter spent down in the valley. They soon caught up, Roger leading and Bud traveling with Susan, who was a few yards behind the pilot. The tracker slogged up beside Einar, bracing hands on his knees and puffing for air.
“Trying to kill us all with this breakneck pace, or what, Asmundson?”
“I didn’t invite you. This is my speed. Only one I’ve got.”
“No, it’s not. Pretend you’re stalking something. Or someone. I know you can take three days to cover a quarter of a mile, if you need to.”
“I don’t need to right now. Need to get back up there to Liz. I was only supposed to be going to get some willows. Two days ago. She’ll be wondering.”
“Yeah, she’ll be wondering. But a short break here at the bottom of this steep stuff won’t delay us much at all, and will probably really increase our speed, especially if we have a quick fire and brew up some tea for everybody.”
“Come on man, it’s just us here. Nobody else in the entire canyon, or we would have seen sign of ‘em. Let’s stop for a little bit and make a fire, warm you up some for the rest of the climb.”
“No, I’m fine. And you’re fine too, because you’re wearing expedition-quality down all over your bodies. Like geese.”
“Yeah, we’re fine, but you’re frozen,” the tracker responded, grabbing Einar’s arm and pressing two fingers against the exposed portion near the wrist, nodding as the resulting white marks stayed stark and unchanging on the purple-mottled canvas of his flesh. “Look at that. Barely got any blood moving through there, at all. Gonna start losing fingers and toes here before too long, if this keeps up. You haven’t got too many toes left to lose, if I’m remembering correctly. And looks like you’re only on your feet because your legs are too stiff to let you fall down, too.”
Einar laughed. “Maybe. Kind of works.”
“Yeah, it works great. I can tell. Now you have a seat right here while I build a fire, or I’ll knock you down and have Roger sit on you, ya big dunderhead.”
Einar did not stop moving, and neither Kilgore nor Roger appeared inclined to carry out the threat. Susan half wished they would. Quickly catching up to Einar, she offered him some tea from her thermos, still warm from the morning’s brew, and he drank, first a sip and then a series of gulps by which he would have quickly drained the vessel, had he not restrained himself. She looked away so as not to embarrass him, wondering when he’d last remembered to consume any fluids. Looking him over, she wouldn’t have been too surprised to learn that it had been days. Reclaiming the thermos from Einar she stowed it back in her pack, continued without a word. He’d been finding his own way for a long time, and certainly didn’t need her help to do it now, no matter how things might look.
At Einar’s insistence everyone stayed close in the steep chute, falling rocks dislodged by the lead climber being a real danger to those following behind, should they allow distance for said rocks to begin bounding and bouncing. The day being a good deal colder than the one on which Einar had descended this same chute and he having so recently—if not intentionally—cleaned it of its loose rocks, they all made it to the top without major incident, catching their breath amongst the spruces before following Einar over the first of several acres of deadfall that lay between the spot and the little basin which held the shelter—and his family.
14 December, 2014
Though reasonably well assured now as to the identity of the intruders and doubting any ill intent on their part, Einar was determined that the first contact between them, if such was inevitable, should take place on his terms. Not wanting to return the way he had come, lest they be waiting for him at the top, he scoured the walls for other options, knowing they existed as he had previously used a different couloir to climb up and out, but seeing nothing anywhere near his present location. No great trouble for he could simply reverse his descent, splitting off where the chute divided and taking the branch he had not previously traveled. Not ideal, but likely to keep him out of an ambush, at least.
It was good to be climbing again, Einar having grown so cold while stalking the camp on the canyon floor that it took him a good half hour to begin feeling hands and feet again, Muninn hopping and flapping from outcropping to outcropping as he made upward progress, patiently waiting for his human friend to catch up. The raven’s presence concerned Einar, for he knew that as he approached the trio up on the rim, the bird’s appearance might give him away before he was ready to reveal himself. Not a problem under most circumstances, as people would not normally suspect anything unusual about the appearance of a raven, but Kilgore and his companions would likely know the meaning, should the bird appear. A chance he would have to take. The bird was staying quite close so far, and perhaps could be persuaded to continue as he neared the top.
Though in something of a hurry to move things along so he could eventually return to Liz and let her know what had been going on, Einar could not seem to make very good time on his return climb, legs just not working well at all and threatening to spill him to the ground in some very inopportune places. A long way down if one was to take a fall in that couloir, and determined to avoid any such incident he was able to keep moving so long as he really pushed himself, but whenever he eased off on that effort a bit and took a break his legs hurt so badly that he was beginning to find it quite distracting. With an ambush to conduct, and very possibly one to avoid, Einar did not want to be distracted…
Steeper, then, grew the couloir, clear water ice sheathing the rock in places so that he had to maintain his hold here and there by applying counter-pressure with knees, elbows and back simply to avoid losing his hold and taking a fall which would have almost certainly spelled the end of his movements for the day, if not longer…
Finally, the top. No great clattering of rockfall, nothing which ought to have betrayed his presence to those above, and it was with great care an stealth that he started into the timber just back from the rim, making his way towards the spot where he had spent the previous night. Faltering, failing were his legs, frustration as he fought to stiffen their collapsing sinews, remain on his feet. Partial success, and he carried on, expecting at any minute to run across his quarry. Wouldn’t let them see him like this, must not, and he found a stick to aid his balance, let his arm take some of the load for a while so perhaps his legs might prove less ready to betray him.
The stick helped, and somewhere along the way he acquired a second, moving with a bit less clumsiness as he neared the spot where he had last seen the trio. Chances of them remaining there on the rim seemed fairly slight, the more he thought about it. More likely was the possibility that Kilgore would have found and chosen to follow his backtrail, knowing it would lead eventually to whatever shelter they were currently calling home, and, if she wasn’t with him, to Liz. The tracker would know by now that he was not alone, would know a lot of other things, too, including more than he wanted known about his physical condition, thoughts and current planning process. Well. Nothing to do about any of that, for the story was already written there in the snow for anyone with enough experience to decipher and read. He could only influence the future.
Which future, Einar realized with a start, was about to begin in earnest, for from somewhere not too far ahead, he heard voices. This sudden materialization of humanity where he had expected to find only long-cold tracks was a startlement to Einar, but surprise did not hold him back for long, soon giving way to a level of stealth and caution above even that which had brought him safely and undetected up the great loose ice-glazed chute of the couloir. Closer, moving at a slow stalk, he moved until within several yards of the small party, lowering himself to the snow in the dark shade of a stand of small, wind-gnarled firs. The raven, seeming to sense a need for quiet, perched shiny-eyed and silent on a single dead branch just above his head. Someone—Einar was pretty sure it must be the tracker—was speaking, and he raised his head to be better able to make out the man’s words.
“…up here through the trees, see? He was tryin’ to be sneaky, and did a pretty good job of it, too, but I see where he came from. We can follow this thing, and probably should, before that old coyote shows up here and puts a couple atlatl darts through our rib cages…”
So. It was clear that Kilgore had discovered his nighttime hide, confirmed his presence and found the path by which he had initially come to the rim, and would end up leading his companions up the timbered slopes and to the shelter, and Liz, if he did nothing to prevent it. No sense delaying the inevitable, he figured. Might as well meet them now. Closer, then, he crept beneath the firs, moving with barely more speed than the moss which grew green and waiting for the full coming of spring beneath the sparse cover of remaining snow, until at last he was satisfied with the twelve feet which separated him from Kilgore, Susan and Roger Kiesl—for he had now confirmed without doubt the identity of the other two interlopers.
Waiting for a momentary lull in the conversation Einar rose and stepped out of the firs then, wild, white-streaked black hair and snow-matted beard framing his gaunt features like the mane of some weird, emaciated lion, limbs too long for its body and a fierce grin adding to the savagery of the picture. Kilgore, showing only a moment’s alarm, burst out laughing.
“Well if it ain’t the old wolverine himself, crawled out of his cave to come say hello! Wondered when you’d be showing up. Been feelin’ your eyes on the back of my neck for a day now, and was hoping they weren’t watching through a rifle scope..”
The raven settled on Einar’s shoulder, and his wild grin faded.
“What are you doing here, Kilgore? Besides ruining our cover and giving the enemy a clear path right to our front door…”
03 December, 2014
Up on the rim the hunter crouched, inspecting the spot where his quarry had lain, seeing in the small scuff marks and tiny displacements of rock and vegetation more than simply the position and movements of the man’s body, reading there a good deal about the man’s intentions, his habits, his physical condition and, in the way of all good trackers, something of his soul, as well. Rising, straightening, stepping back from the rim so as to avoid being spotted from below, the hunter smiled, turned away, assured of his eventual success.
* * *
Wet and slushy was the ground beneath the willows, slush in his eyes, caked in his nose as he tried to draw a breath, but this did not trouble Einar for long, rolling quickly to he did to one side and coming back upright all in a fraction of a second, instinct demanding that he meet his assailant on his feet. Shadows. Nothing solid with which to contend, Einar turning this way and that in search of his opponent before it could strike him a third time. Nothing, no sign of his attacker, and, much to his surprise, no third assault, either, Einar crouching, freeing in place with his back to the carcass of a solitary spruce that stood black and moisture-rotted amongst the sea of winter-yellow willows. Then, from the bare branches of the tree far above him came a slight stirring, a ruffle of air and a chorus of sort, chortling sounds whose tone and meaning were familiar to him. Knife still held at the ready lest his senses prove to be deceiving him Einar cautiously looked up, still fearing a trap but spotting in the branches above a familiar form, blacker than the blackened spruce-boughs, and moving, swooping down.
This time he was ready, bracing himself as the bird landed hard on his shoulder, Muninn the raven, full-grown now and rather larger than the last time Einar had seen him, some months before. Starting to shake now with unspent adrenaline after the sudden dissolution of the threat Einar sank to the ground, bird still on his shoulder, knife in hand.
“Well now, that’s a fine way to say hello. How come all of my friends seem to have such abrupt manners when it comes greeting a fellow? Is it something about me? That’s the only way you feel safe approaching, or what? Probably wise, in that case.”
No words by way of answer, but the raven did grab a loose strand of hair from beneath Einar’s hat, twisting, chortling his delight at having discovered a long-lost friend. Einar nodded, putting away the knife. “Yeah, kind of missed you too, you old buzzard. We got a problem though, don’t we? Problem and an answer, all in one, because we can be pretty sure now whose camp this is we’ve stalking. No way you found us all by yourself, not over all those miles and with no idea where to go, much as you may have wanted to do it. Question is, how did they know? How did they find us? And why on this good green, half-frozen, slush-covered earth did they want to come poking around in our new territory and putting us all at risk like this? Can’t have been just to bring you home, can it? No, I’m sure that’s not it. Not even you can be that much trouble. Half tempted to round up all their tents and gear while they’re up on the rim and make that stuff disappear…”
Still somewhat shaky Einar rose, keeping close to the spruce-carcass and the small degree of concealment it provided, and taking stock of his situation. Not too far from the camp now—a few feet of travel through the low willows and he was fairly certain he would have it in view, and though assured by the presence of the raven as to the identity of at least two of the intruders, he was too wary to walk out into the open and approach the site. No telling exactly why the party of three had ventured up into his high country realm, and though he more or less trusted Kilgore and his motivation, there was too much at stake to place too much trust in anyone, any group. Circumstances down there in civilization were simply too changeable, individuals too subject to influence, entrapment or worse and the enemy—assuming he was still out there and still looking; one must always assume thus—too clever in his surveillance and tracking abilities. Was always a chance that Kilgore and his companions had been followed, some item of their gear fitted with a transponder, too many potential ways this could all go very bad.
Which left Einar with only one good choice regarding the camp, and that was to turn around and retrace his steps before any more closely approaching it. Quite a shame, and the decision grated on his very nature, reappearance of the raven having reawakened in him, it seemed, something of the nature of the trickster, and he wanting very badly to stalk into the camp and work some form of mischief before retreating back to his mountain lair, but dutifully he turned, picked his way back into the shelter of the little band of subalpine firs which had covered his approach, and then into the heavier brush beyond. Stopping here, raven perching beside him as if unwilling to again allow him out of its sight, he again considered his options.
Best of all would be to avoid contact entirely, work his way by some roundabout route back to the shelter and warn Liz of the situation so they could be without fire for a few days and keep their location secret and secure…but he knew it was a little late for such possibilities, for several reasons. Chief among these was the fact—and he was sure it was indeed fact—that Kilgore already knew he was there in the canyon, had spotted or at least him on the rim and was even now locating and perhaps preparing to follow his backtrail up to the little basin, to the shelter, and to his family. A problem, for sure. Looking as though contact of some sort was more or less an inevitability, then, but he could at least strive to have it happen on his own terms, and on the ground of his choosing.
An important advantage, that one, if he could pull it off, “and I know Sun Tzu would agree with me, you old vulture, and so would you, if you could express yourself in words. Yep, expect you know a lot more about the principles of warfare than you’d ever let on, don’t you?”
The raven was silent, and Einar began his climb.
22 November, 2014
Morning at the shelter, Will sleepily finishing his meal and then, quite suddenly wide awake, waiting somewhat impatiently as Liz dressed him in woolen underthings and parka before rising, balancing himself against the wall and enjoying the ever-increasing balance with which he moved about his world. Liz dressed quickly, stirred the fire to life and set the remainder of that previous night’s elk soup to thaw and re-heat. Watching Will as she fed small, dry spruce sticks into the growing flames, she tried to plan her day. Wanted to go out searching for Einar again, but did not know where to look. Sometimes she hated them, the instincts that lent an almost indecipherable stealth to his every move, even when he was not consciously aware of practicing such. Two days before, missing him after several hours’ absence—he had, after all, only been going after willow wands to make jerky-drying racks in their little parachute-smoker, and how long could that take—she had slid Will onto her back and scouted about for some sign of his path, hoping to find him at the end of it and beginning to feel just the faintest prickle of fear, as the sun slipped below the spruces of their high horizon, that he might have met with some disaster out there, fallen and hit his head or simply run out of the energy to keep going and lost consciousness in the snow. He was never far from it, those days, despite the sure movements and usually-cheerful demeanor with which he conducted himself, and in his absence, she could not help but worry.
Nothing. For a distance she had been able to find and follow his trail, though with difficulty, he keeping as much as possible to the bare, frozen patches of ground and the places where sun and warming temperatures had sent the snow from fallen aspen and spruce, creating trackless paths for a stealthy man with the instincts of a tracker—and of the hunted. After some distance even the small signs which had kept her on his trail disappeared, almost as if he had seen something, made some decision, and gone to another level of caution. Not long after that point she had turned back, darkness approaching, Will becoming restless on her back and she knowing her chances of locating him under such conditions.
Now it was morning again, and Liz did not know what to do. Wanted to go out searching again, travel, perhaps, in ever-expanding circles around the camp until she found him, or some sign of him, but something told her she would not have success on this path. The place seemed so quiet, somehow, gave her no sense of his presence, and she knew he had gone further. Only wished she knew why. Knew him well enough to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that he would not simply choose to abandon his family with no intent of returning—though his work with preserving the elk over the past several days did give her pause; perhaps, knowing he would be leaving, he had been making certain their immediate needs were provided for?—but could not puzzle out his intentions in wandering so far.
* * *
Pebble tumbling into snow just below, not an alarming sound in itself, and something likely to happen quite spontaneously in the warming weather of spring on such terrain, but Einar’s instinct told him this was not a spontaneous happening. Perfectly still for a fraction of a second, he weighed his options, seeking the source of the sound, searching for avenues of escape. Not many of the latter, not when one is balanced precariously between clumps of rotting ice and unstable rock in a rather narrow, vertical-walled gully, but there was one, and it was all Einar needed. More concealment than escape, really, but he took it, ducking behind an upright fin of granite and pulling himself into the blackness of its shadow when he saw the horizon clear above him, no one in sight.
Unmoving, barely breathing lest he miss something, Einar waited, three more small rocks coming loose and clattering down past his position, and then a brief flash of shadow passed over the wall in front of him, shape of a man’s boot, and then Einar knew for sure. So. Third man had indeed climbed up with the other two, had probably been waiting there in the gully to ambush him when he tried to retreat down its steep, slippery course, but the man had miscalculated, choosing to conceal himself in the northerly branch of the couloir. Which meant that there was hope, as far Einar could tell, that his passage had not been detected, as the two channels were separated by a solid if narrow fin of granite. Not yet safe to move, though, to attempt to complete his descent. Some eight feet above his present position the fin tapered out, channels joining and the couloir continuing down as a single entity, which feature had allowed him to spot the man’s shadow and hear so clearly the tumbling rocks dislodged by his climb.
Still for the time, pressing himself into the rock-shadows at his back, Einar waited, listening. A small scrape, the grating sound of a larger rock trying to come loose but being held into place, he was sure, by the climber, and then nothing for a long time. Shivers becoming more insistent, hands under his arms to still their motion, jaws clamped against teeth whose rattling would have otherwise interfered with his listening, his hearing. Climbing once again, the man was, for now from far above Einar could hear the occasional scrape of rock upon rock and then, after a good ten minutes more, silence. Needed to get down, needed to get moving, more than anything, before the cold rendered him even less able than he currently found himself to move efficiently on that near-vertical terrain, but still he waited, giving it several more good minutes before he so much as shifted position in the cramped little alcove which had provided his concealment.
Down. Working his way carefully and pausing to listen as frequently as the tricky terrain would allow, Einar finished the descent, coming at last to the oak brush-choked slope which marked the end of the couloir and the final slope down to the canyon floor, itself, and it was with a nearly-audible sigh of relief that he sunk down on bent knees to a snow-free patch of soil and rested for a brief moment before going on.
Keeping to the heaviest brush available and closely monitoring the terrain above him for the route which would best conceal him from anyone who might be watching from the canyon rim, Einar made his way towards the camp, meaning to inspect it in the absence of its occupants, learn what he might about their purpose and intention up in the high country. It would not, he knew, be a reasonable risk to approach the camp too closely or with too much exposure to open areas; he remembered well the thoroughness of the man with binoculars who he’d witnessed the evening before, the way his gaze had lingered here and there as he inspected the rim. These were no sportsmen or backcountry adventurers. Of that, he was certain, and he knew the sorts of surprises that might be left behind by people such as these.
Studying the terrain, certain of the position of the camp, Einar reduced his pace even further, creeping through a stand of tangled little sub-alpine firs and bringing himself, after some time, out to their edge, peering through the willows and over red osier dogwoods at one of the dome tents, just on the other side of the creek. A decent plan, well-executed and appearing near to success—until something rather forcefully came out of nowhere and slammed him in the left shoulder. Einar tried to respond, got his knife into his hand but before he could bring it to bear the thing hit him again, this time knocking him to the ground, face-first into the willow-marsh.