10 November, 2014

10 November 2014

Dawn, the coldest hour, Einar shivering under his shelter-tree, no insulation on his body, bones turning to ice, damp leaves and needles with which he had attempted to insulate himself hardly doing a thing anymore and he was all out of energy to keep up the regimented movements that had got him through the night, dizzy and nauseated as his body searched for any source of fuel within itself, and found nothing.  No good crouching there any longer.  Cramping up so badly that he knew quick movement would soon prove impossible, if he didn’t do something to reverse the situation.  

Had to get up, move a little, but in making the attempt he found his body impossibly heavy, unresponsive, gravity, when he really pressed the matter, rising up to slam him into the frozen soil beneath his shelter-tree.  Shattered vision, dawn-dim world falling away in shards before him, swimming, shimmering, making no sense, blackness, and then the taste of blood between his teeth.  Couldn’t seem to immediately gather himself for further movement so he lay there, waiting, dimly aware of the slow trickle of blood from some small rock-scrape on the side of his face.  Strangely, the stuff seemed to be reviving him some, bringing him back to something like full awareness, and that could only be good.

A hint of a twisted smile, eyes closed against the strengthening light.  Completely illogical, he knew, that he could survive thus on his own substance, sustain himself, but it seemed to be helping for the moment, the blood, and he stayed as he was, allowing it to trickle freely into the corner of his mouth until, between the cold and his rather advanced dehydration, it stopped of its own accord.  Einar might have slept then, much to his own detriment and dismay, had not the trend started by the action of gravity and the taste of his own blood been furthered by a persistent rustle and crunch in the vegetation slightly uphill of his position.

Suddenly quite wide awake Einar kept still for only a fraction of a second before rolling silently to his stomach and pushing himself to hands and knees, stalking into the sparse brush along the rim and using it to his best advantage as he sought to put some quick distance between himself and whoever might be moving around up above.  Not a small creature, he was certain, no bird, rodent or even a small canine such as a fox or coyote, and much as he might have wished to believe that his visitor could be a deer, elk or even a mountain lion—would have been welcome, just then, considering the alternative—he knew enough of the patterns and movements of different creatures to be quite sure he was dealing with a being of the two-legged variety.  More than one of them, in fact, for presently he picked up on a second set of movements some five or six yards beyond the spot where the first had made itself audible.  Moving very slowly they were, clearly attempting stealth, and doing a decent job of it. 

Making his way into some heavier vegetation and pausing there, feeling a good deal more well concealed, Einar considered his options.  With only two intruders seemingly present, he hesitated to attempt doing anything about them, lest the third—assuming these were the same whose camp he had been observing the previous night—see him act and either move in to surprise him, or leave the area with stories to tell, and return with friends.  He needed to account for that third person, and in the meantime, had to find a way out of the trap into which these intruders had boxed him, sheer cliffs on one side, they holding the high ground on the other.  Only one direction of travel remained to him, seeing as the canyon rim to the north was nearly devoid of vegetation, a limestone tundra wasteland which offered him no concealment.  His opponents—for that was how he knew he must view them—would surely know this, and might well have positioned that un accounted-for third man in the brush to the south, to intercept his flight.  Knife in hand as he crept along, Einar was ready. 

Nothing.  A very strong feeling that he was being watched, hair rising on the back of his neck, prickling, but no sound came from the brush near him, no sudden movement or unannounced blow to the base of the skull, so he kept moving, fighting down an urge to rise, run, make a break for it, knowing that would be the end of everything.  Slow movements, cautious, more than a minute passing, at times, between painstaking steps, no rustle or crunch to give away his incremental escape.  Whether because of his stealth or—though he would have entirely discounted the theory at the time—no one was really listening, Einar succeeded in extricating himself from the immediate area of his nighttime shelter, reaching at last a spot where the evergreens grew taller, canyon rim decaying in places, sheer cliffs broken by steep gullies that descended, precipitous but not entirely vertical, towards the flatness of the canyon floor far below.  It was this floor towards which Einar made, knowing he would remain somewhat trapped down between those walls, more thoroughly trapped, in some ways, than he was up there on top, but seeing little alternative.  His escape up on the surface seemed very tenuous indeed, seeing as his opponents held the high ground and he had been confined to the narrow strip of scraggly timber between the vast, open grass and snow meadows of the mesa behind him, and the sheer dropoff of the limestone cliffs. 

Down it was, then, Einar picking his way from rock to rock in the nearest gully, descent not quite as slow as had been his movements up top, but tremendously cautious, nonetheless.  Little room in his mind as he descended for thoughts other than those relevant to his immediate situation, Einar did spend a bit of time attempting to puzzle through the circumstances that had led him to this predicament, hoping thus to stumble upon some solution which might see the day ending some other way for him than dead, captured or on the run once more and closely pursued.  It was clear—unless his mind happened to be concocting an extraordinarily detailed and convincing false scenario based on a few scraps of available data, which he doubted—not only that he really had been spotted by the man that past night who had stood beside the creek scanning the canyon rim with binoculars, but that the man and at least one of his companions had spent the night climbing up out of the canyon after him.  The full meaning of this happening remained hidden to him, but it definitely did not represent the typical behavior of a group of causal hikers, hunters or fishermen enjoying a weekend in the backcountry.  He was being hunted.  Had known it the night before, known on some level that there was no other explanation for the long, lingering gaze of Binocular Man, the moment when their eyes had seemed beyond doubt to meet.  Though under other circumstances one might easily have explained away such an occurrence, Einar had known.  Had spent too many years both in the role of hunter and hunted to mistake what had happened for anything less sinister.  And had failed to act.

Well, he was acting now, and with any luck—ha!  Luck has absolutely nothing to do with it—he would live not only to remove himself from this situation, but would be able to return to Liz and Will, as well, rather than striking out on his own and effectively abandoning them in order to lead the threat in the opposite direction.  Was looking good, he thought, when he found himself after some time nearly two thirds of the way down to the canyon floor without incident and without dislodging any rocks or making any but the most insignificant of sounds in his travel. 

Gully curving some as it descended, Einar was before too much longer able to look back up at the spot where he had spent the night, stopping in a cluster of scraggly, crag-clinging limber pines to take a look.  Nothing at first, save the bare limestone and low-growing evergreen mat with which he had become so intimately acquainted in the night, but he knew not to give up so easily, letting his eyes wander slightly, vision go wide and stay that way, rim something of a blur.  There!  Movement!  He was sure of it, did not immediately attempt to better focus his eyes, knowing from long experience that this softer focus would allow him to more effectively pick up on slight movements in the distance.  Strategy succeeded.  There it was again, the quick, stealthy movements of a human who did not want to be seen, and if he was not mistaken it was coming from almost precisely the spot where he had passed the night.  Not good.  Not good at all, for these people, whoever they might be, would know by now that he had been there, that someone had, and were perhaps even then beginning to work out his trail, come for him…

Not good, but perhaps not as bad as it had initially sounded, either, for he had a tremendous head start on the, was already quite well on his way to being in the canyon, where he could make far better time than could they, as they worked their careful way down the treacherous bowling alley of that loose, rocky gully.  By the time they reached the canyon floor, he could be several miles away, up another gully and out of there, watching them in their confusion and eventually returning, if all went well, to Liz.  Maybe even before another night came around.  That sounded good.  Very good.  Now that he’d quite moving for a few minutes, he was really freezing again, feeling the absence of food, of something warm to drink…  Looking good, all of it, until, starting to move again, there came a sudden if rather subdued sound from somewhere only feet from his position.

02 November, 2014

2 November 2014

Down in the canyon, no flickering point of orange appeared with the coming of darkness to tell Einar that the three visitors had settled in for the night, no glow of a lantern or headlamp, even, to illuminate the great cloth globe of the dome tent he’d spotted through the trees.  Watching from his own nighttime refuge beneath a close cluster of stunted, wind-bent firs, Einar sat with chin on his knees and arms pressed close against his body for warmth, and wondered.  Had the trio packed up and moved on?  Did not seem likely, as the tent had still been standing when last it had been light enough for him to get a look, no one seeming in a hurry to do anything besides stand near the creek and attempt to catch fish.  Unless that had all been a cover designed to get him off his guard so they could move under cover of darkness, scale the canyon walls and assail him in his sleep…  Not looking too likely.  

He shivered, drew bent knees closer to his chest in an attempt to conserve more heat and leaned forward until his ribs dug painfully into the bones of his upper legs, and he had to back off a bit.  Half wished he’d brought something to eat.  Would have made it a bit easier to get through the night.  It was alright, though. He was used to the hunger, and the cold.  Too used to them, Liz would say, for his own good, but he knew what to do with them, and was certain to find himself glad of this, before morning made its appearance.

Though the snow was fast disappearing, winter, he soon discovered, had not entirely released its grip on the high country, and with night winds sweeping sharp and increasingly bitter down from the peaks, he knew he needed some insulation to help him make it through the night.  Had not been able to find anything dry to stuff between his shirt and jacket, when he’d searched earlier.  Everything was damp with melting snow.  Again he searched, feeling about in the darkness, dismayed to discover that his hands had gone too numb to be able to reliably differentiate between wet and dry.  Paused and attempted to warm then under his arms, against his stomach, but to little avail.  Didn’t seem to be a whole lot of warmth left in his body, and certainly none that near the surface, skin all icy as his body sought to conserve its remaining heat near the core, where it would hopefully prove enough to keep major organs functioning through the night.  Well.  No worries.  He’d use damp insulation if he had to.  Stuff would still trap some heat, be better than nothing at all, and he figured he’d better get busy with the project, too, before he really was left with nothing.  No heat to trap. 

Searching about beneath his cluster of trees and judging the resulting detritus more by the way it sounded than by feel—crunchy was good, soft and soggy less so—Einar managed to get a good bit of the stuff tucked in between his shirt and jacket, some in the legs of his pants, also, hoping by the added insulation to preserve a bit of mobility in his legs should he need to scramble up in the night and depart with little notice.  Slightly warmer for the work he rested at the end of the process, again scanning the dark, yawning void of the canyon for any sign of life or light, but again seeing nothing. 

As the dark hours progressed Einar thought he caught the occasional whiff of smoke rising from below when the wind let up and air could rise again from the canyon, but still saw no glow on either trees or rock faces, uninvited guests and their camp seemingly swallowed up by the darkness of the canyon, hidden in the void below.  Too well hidden.  He knew the effort required to conceal a camp, particularly if one is to have a fire, and these folks had clearly gone to that effort.  Not the sort of thing that would cross the minds of your average backcountry adventurer, fisherman or birdwatcher.  A concealed fire.  Something he would have done, had done, on more than one occasion, he, and the people with whom he had so long ago trained and worked… Who were these people, then, these uninvited guests?  Searchers who’d somehow got a tip about his presence in the area and had come for him?  Hadn’t fit the visual profile, for sure, but he supposed that could have been part of their cover…  If not searchers, then who?  Kilgore and company, come to seek him out?  Hoped not.  Hoped no one, including the tracker, had any idea of his present location.  Was their only hope of staying safe and undetected, really.  He wanted to get in closer, observe the camp in the night and settle the question, but knew the risk involved in his attempting to descend the canyon wall by darkness, the sort of noise he might end up making should he dislodge a rock or two on his way down.  Better to observe from above.

Rising, moving carefully there near the cliff-edge, Einar ducked out from beneath his shelter-tree and stood up straight, stretching, pounding numbed arms in an attempt to restore some circulation.  Was used to spending long hours—days, even—in a well-concealed hide watching in patient stillness prey that had more often than not been human, gathering information, waiting until the moment was right, and this situation, he told himself, ought to be no different.  But it was, largely due to the fact that Liz remained back at camp, unaware of the situation and surely wondering, by this time, where he had gone.  Very much wished he had some way to let her know, but he did not.  Further complicating the present situation was the simple reality that, unlike anytime he could remember in the past, lying on the ground for hours on end tended to bring consequences which he was increasingly doubting his ability to survive.  The cold soaked in so quickly and thoroughly, and he, having never minded its presence and normally finding it a welcome companion, even, seldom recognizing that he was in trouble until it was nearly too late.  Couldn’t be risking such things just then, with strangers nearby in the canyon and Liz not knowing where he had gone.

Finally warm enough to sit down again after a good ten minutes of pacing and swinging his arms Einar carefully approached the canyon rim instead of curling up beneath his tree, lowering himself flat on his belly at its brink and peering into the blackness below.  Still no light down there, no fire-flicker, and only the sighing wind to be heard.  Now that he’d managed to warm himself a bit, the improvised leaf-and-needle insulation seemed to be helping some, trapping the heat he’d generated and allowing him a longer period of stillness before more movement would be required.

Through the night Einar maintained this wearying routine, watching, resting, moving when he felt himself slipping too far into a hypothermic haze from which waking might be doubtful, and when at last the first paling of dawn began showing behind the straight-combed ranks of distant black spruces on the far horizon-ridge, he was ready to act on a plan whose details he’d spent the greater part of the night creating, refining, and reviewing.  No more waiting, no more days spent hoping Liz wouldn’t choose to follow him, find him; he would move in close, determine the identity of these invaders, and from there, choose his course of action.

22 October, 2014

22 October 2014

Frozen in the moment with the instinct of a wild creature long accustomed to avoiding detection, motionless beneath his mat of evergreen, Einar met the man’s eye.  No doubt about it, binoculars lingering on his shadowy shelter before moving on, but even more certain than the directional probability was an unmistakable sense of contact on Einar’s part, something passing between the two distant figures before the man went on, scanning past him along the rim.  Too casual, it was, to deliberate the unconcern with which his gaze moved on, actions further confirming to Einar that he had been seen, had been recognized, if not necessarily as himself—the man, after all, could be there for any of a dozen reasons which had nothing to do with hunting him—as an object of interest, and one which must not be made to feel suspicion, and to flee.    Einar did not flee, greatly as his instincts were urging him to do so, did not so much as move an elbow or lower his head from the position in which they had sat been when he believed he’d been spotted.  If the other man was going to adopt a casual, caution-allaying attitude, well, so could he.  Neither would acknowledge having seen, or been seen by, the other.

A good fifteen minutes later, and Einar’s ribs hurt where they dug into the rock on one side, right hip and leg numb from prolonged contact with the unyielding limestone and his shivers becoming progressively more difficult to control.  The sun was gone from his legs, dipping below the solid phalanx of black-limbed spruce on the low hill behind him, his body heat seeping away into the vast expanse of stone below, and he was growing very cold.  Still, he must not move, for the man had not yet completed his study of the canyon rim and begun tracing his way back towards the spot where Einar lay concealed.  He certainly was making a thorough job of the inspection, and once more Einar began growing heavy-eyed with waiting, only this time it was exhaustion and the cold which pushed him towards sleep, rather than the good, restful feeling that comes of having the sun on one’s back.

Well.  You didn’t go to sleep then, and you’re certainly not doing it now.  Way things feel though, you’d better think of fixing it so you can’t, just in case.  Though assailed by the brief thought that perhaps a hot drink and a good meal would be by far the best way to ward off the sort of weariness that was stalking him so closely that afternoon, he soon consigned all such considerations to the realm of the unattainable, and positioned his previously-injured leg in such a way as to render sleep, even the beyond-weary, cold-induced kind, quite an impossibility.

Wide awake once more, Einar scanned the canyon floor, quickly spotting the three intruders.  The first two remained beside the creek, for all appearances attempting to obtain fish for their supper, while the third…had changed position, and Einar could no longer find him!  Searching somewhat frantically lest the man already be partway up the canyon wall somewhere on his way to the rim, and to reaching his own position, Einar at last locate the man, who appeared to have moved only because the shadows had shifted, and sunlight was now falling on the spot from which he had previously scrutinized the rim.  Made sense.  The sun would have interfered with his search.  Speaking of which, the man’s glasses appeared to be once more trained directly upon him, Einar using every ounce of restraint available to prevent himself shimmying backwards and disappearing into the brush, out of sight.  Must not move.  Must not let the picture change, from down below.  He kept still.  Looked away.  Didn’t want to let the man know he’d been seen, though by now he must assume as much.

It seemed a long time that the stranger’s eyes were on Einar before they continued their search of the rim, far too long, and when finally the man lowered his binoculars and joined the pair at the creek, Einar let his head rest on the ground in a brief moment of relief before stiffly pulling himself backwards away from the rim, fully concealed, finally, beneath his evergreen mat.  Good to change position, to move, after so very long a time of stillness on the cold limestone, but movement did not come easily, legs cramping up and refusing, at first, to support him when he attempted to stand.  Persisting, he got himself at last to his feet, glanced over towards the rim and was glad to discover that he could not see beyond the timber. 

Now that he was entirely out of sight of the group in the canyon and well concealed, Einar was beginning to doubt the veracity of the rather firmly-held belief that he had, indeed, been spotted.  Though the man had certainly appeared to focus on him, on his precise location, he knew from long experience how difficult it could be to catch sight of on object as small and well-camouflaged as he would have presented, flattened as he had been beneath the evergreen mat and entirely in shadow.  Would have been nearly impossible, really, for the man to spot him, even had he been slowly and deliberately scanning the rim with the intention of discovering some hidden presence.  Was probably just his weary mind playing tricks on him, this notion that he had been seen.  Thus it was, afternoon shadows lengthening into evening and he finding it almost impossible to begin warming up after his time in contact with the limestone, that Einar nearly convinced himself to ignore his misgivings, turn his back on the canyon, and head for home. 

Trying too hard.  You know you’re trying too hard, here.  Something isn’t right with this whole situation.  Folks camping up here this time of year with snowmelt really under way and the ground all mucky and slushy, that real odd choice of campsites down on the boggy ground near the creek, and then this fellow with the glasses.  You know what that was, not just what you saw, but what you felt.  His eyes were on you.  He made contact.  You’d be a fool to ignore that.

Which left the question, now what?  If he left now and returned home he would have to wonder if the man had allayed his curiosity by finding a way up out of the canyon and inspecting the rim in person, perhaps discovering the spot where he had lain and from there, possibly picking up and following his trail…but should he stay and watch until the little party broke camp and move on, there was a near certainty that Liz would at some point come out looking for him, putting her, and little Will, in danger should they find their way to the steep, rocky couloir through which he had descended and possibly even getting them spotted, should they reach the rim before he could intercept them.  Einar shifted from one foot to the other, wrapped stiff arms around his middle and clamped his jaw to stop his teeth beginning to chatter.  Wished the answer might be clearer.

One thing did seem clear, which was that he must not let these intruders out of his sight, at least until they’d broken camp and begun heading—hopefully—back down the canyon, again.  Much as he might have liked to return home and tell Liz what was happening, prevent her needlessly wandering about in search of him, this seemed too great a risk.  The task would take a long time, and the probability that he would knock loose additional rocks in navigating the couloir—twice—and alerting the trio to his presence, seemed awfully high.  He would have to stay, to watch and wait, to hope that if she came, her path would cross his before she too nearly approached the rim, and danger, herself.

Evening settling in, last of the sunlight disappearing from the distant fir-tops, and a thin, sharp breeze was blowing, and he had nothing but the clothes on his back, and the few items he always carried on his belt, around his neck and in pockets.  Had better start looking for some dry leaves or evergreen needles to stuff in between layers of clothing, to provide a bit of insulation.  It was going to be a long night.

11 October, 2014

11 October 2014

Working his way out carefully to the edge of the water-roughened limestone Einar kept low to the ground, creeping on his belly lest he risk skylining himself and perhaps being seen from below.  Not much vegetation right there on the edge where the earth dropped away into the canyon some four hundred feet below—canyon was not as deep here at its head as out along the rim in other places—but he did find a small growth of matted fir shrubs, ground-hugging, wind, dwarfed, excellent home for pikas or chipmunks, but hardly shelter or concealment for a full-sized human.  Well, good thing I’m kind of flat at the moment, kind of short on physical substance, because looks like I can worm my way in under these things and still get a view down over the wall, without leaving myself so exposed. 

Slow going, Einar having to be very cautious not to knock loose limestone pebbles down over the edge, containing them with one arm and carefully sweeping them aside while using his other elbow to inch himself forward.  There.  Could get a look over the cliff, finally, world dropping away beneath him as he realized he had worked his way out onto a bit of an overhang, nothing but air beneath.  The smoke was coming from down there, alright, though he saw no immediate and obvious point of origin, dispersed as it was by the boughs of numerous evergreens whose pointy green-black tops jutted up at him like braced lances.  Watching, studying, something caught his eye, a little flash of movement some distance from what appeared to be the greatest concentration of smoke, something light-colored down there amongst the somber tones of the timber.  The movement did not come again, but it gave Einar a starting point and from this he scanned outwards, looking for any further anomalies which might provide clues as to the nature of the person or people who were camped down on the canyon floor

Some ten minutes later, Einar had located the camp.  Camouflaged tent tucked under the trees, well-concealed enough that it might have escaped his notice entirely, had it not been for the sleeping bag spread to air out in the sun on a boulder not far from the little camp.  Pretty well camouflaged itself, it was a single patch of yellow cloth near the foot of the bag which betrayed to Einar its presence.  Seeing the bag, recognizing its shape and once more scanning outwards Einar did make out the shape of the tent, seeing not the object itself but its shadow in the slanting spring light.  So.  He had identified the source of the smoke, but now what?  Wished he’d brought the binoculars so he could have a better look, but that was not an option.  Best stay right where he was, well concealed beneath his evergreen mat, and watch for a while.  Perhaps even with his distant view, something would become obvious as time went on, some series of clues from which he might piece together the intentions of these intruders. 

Stillness down below, sun falling in patches on Einar’s back where it found its way through the prickly fir mat, shining on his legs where they stuck out behind the vegetation, and in its warmth he began growing sleepy, muscles relaxing and the shivering which was almost always with him now slacking off and finally disappearing.  No good.   Mustn’t sleep.  Wasn’t going to be able to manage a lot of watching if he was fast asleep under the tree-mats, and besides, should he wake and start moving about before he remembered exactly where he was, the results could be disastrous, a shower of little limestone pebbles raining down the canyon wall and alerting the camp to his presence—or worse.  Might take the tumble, himself, and then there he would be, critically injured and at the mercy of whoever might be down there, having brought down a bunch of rocks with him and almost inevitably alerted them to his presence.  He shuddered, momentarily clamped his eyes shut as if to banish the vision.  Not the way he wanted things to end.  These thoughts going a long way to banish the sleep that wanted to creep over him, Einar kept his field of view wide, eyes searching more for movement than for detail so he could cover a broader area, and after nearly half an hour of waiting, his patience was finally rewarded.

Attention drawn by a little flash of movement Einar focused his gaze on the creek where it emerged ice-edged and trickling from the timber, almost out of sight against the canyon wall down to his right.  As he watched, two figures emerged from the trees, followed the creek for a time before stopping and appearing to crouch beside it.  For quite some time they did not appear to move at all, Einar blinking heavily in the afternoon sun and again drifting dangerously close to sleep.  Focus, Einar.  No time for this nonsense.   Shifting position slightly so that his hipbones came into contact with the limestone he hoped to be able to count on the discomfort to keep him awake.  Doggone things were always bruised up anyway just from living and moving through the woods, all of his bones bruised and sore most of the time from being so near the surface, so what were a few more bruises, if they helped him stay awake?  A worthwhile trade, for sure. 

Still no movement from the pair beside the creek, strange, he thought, that they would crouch there for so long with no movement, and he tilted his head, squinted in an attempt to get a clearer picture and perhaps make some sense of what he was seeing.  Ah.  There.  One of the figures, he was pretty sure, held a fishing rod, and in the next moment he was certain, for he saw the man (woman?  Too far away to begin guessing on that one) rise from his crouch and make a motion as if to cast a line.  Fishing, then.  Not a very likely-seeming spot, what with the sluggishness of the icy creek, its waters not yet having begun to really wake for spring.  In a few weeks it would, he knew, be a roaring torrent both there in the canyon and where it tumbled down the rough cut in the wall, making its way in a series of waterfalls and steep cascades down from the high lake above. 

That lake, he expected, was probably stocked by fish in the summer by the Forest Service; he hadn’t ever ventured close enough to determine this for sure, but had caught glimpses of the body of water from a distance on his previous reconnaissance of the canyon rim.  So, not entirely unreasonable that this pair should be fishing, but what had brought them to the canyon in the first place?  Nothing too nefarious, surely, if they were willing to expose themselves thus along the creek bank.  Probably just a couple of outdoorsmen exploring the early spring backcountry, and likely not a threat to himself or his family, so long as they took reasonable precautions with smoke and noise, for a few days.  Not ready to leave yet, though. Wanted to watch for at least a few more minutes, see what might come up.

Cold now that he was no longer insulated from the ground by the branches which had been under him Einar soon found himself shivering again despite the patchy sunlight, fighting hard to hold himself still enough to get a good view of the canyon floor, wanted to edge backwards so that the sun might fall on him slightly more fully, but what he saw the next moment was enough to banish both this notion and any sleepiness that might have remained.

*   *   * 
Down on the canyon floor a third joined the pair by the creek, camouflaged jacket unzipped in the warmth of the still air and binoculars around his neck, raising them, scanning the rim.

28 September, 2014

28 September 2014

His willow-gathering expedition put on hold by the smoke rising from below, Einar paused for a long minute, torn between slipping down the slope to investigate the source of the intrusion, and hurrying back up to the basin to warn Liz and make sure she, herself, did not have a fire going which might betray their presence to whoever was camped in the valley.  Quickly seeking a spot from which he might have a better view back up the slope, he scrambled partway up a scrawny spruce, branches mostly dead but providing him good grip, seeing no sign of smoke from above and slightly reassured by the fact.  The smoking tent was not finished, needed racks, still, and so he doubted Liz would have a reason to start a fire until the time came to heat an evening meal.  Good.  That gave him several hours, and practically falling out of his spruce-top lookout, he shook his head in an attempt to clear his vision, got to his feet and set a course for canyon.  Though he had not as yet caught sight of the smoke and lacked knowledge of a precise location from which it might be rising, the direction of the breeze gave him a starting place.  Warm and rising it came from the canyon, sweet-sharp with willows and water, meaning that the smoke must come from the canyon, too.

Whoever might be camped along the thawing creek, Einar had every reason to believe that their mission in the canyon did not involve his own presence or that of his family.  Had the intruder been part of some search, surely he would have wished to be more mindful of his security practices, smoke, light and noise kept to a barely-detectable minimum.  The campers likely believed they were alone, and it was best, by far, to leave things that way.  No approaching the camp too closely to investigate.  Not this time.  All he wanted was a good fix on the location of the camp, a count of its occupants and some sense of what might be their purpose in the area.  For this, he should not have to draw too near or risk giving away his own presence.  Momentarily, working his way down through the timber, he considered returning to the shelter to let Liz know his intentions and destination, but hoped by continuing to make short work of the reconnaissance, and return home, himself, before nightfall. 

Corner of his mouth twisting up in a hint of an ironic smile at that thought, Einar increased his pace.  Back before nightfall, is it?  Since when have you made it back before nightfall from one of these scouting expeditions, even when the snow wasn’t rotten and barely-navigable and your legs were working a bit more normally than they are, now?  Well.  He knew the answer, knew that one could not very well put a strict time-limit on such an information-gathering trip, but believed at the same time that his chances would be pretty good of making quick work of it, this time.  Hopefully the situation wouldn’t even demand that he descend below the canyon rim.  If it did…well, all bets were off and he would end up wishing he’d gone and consulted with Liz before setting out.  In any case, enough pondering and debating with himself; time to go.

Day warmer than those that had come before, Einar struggled to find footing on the rotten snow, still-sore leg quickly tiring as he fell through numerous times and had to extract himself, climbing gingerly from the crumbly remains of ice and crust as he strove to avoid breaking it further.  Not good.  Didn’t like leaving so much sign, yet with temperatures creeping up above freezing, not even in the shade could he find solid footing, anymore.  He could, though, reduce the visible trail he was leaving from the air if he did his best to keep beneath the trees, so this he did, down the narrow spine of a craggy, spruce-spiked ridge and into the tumbling confines of the rock-choked couloir which took off from its terminal end, sweeping down the mountainside.  No rotten snow in there, not much snow of any kind, really, and he crept carefully but with as much speed as he could muster from boulder to boulder, testing the tenuous hold of each on the mountain.  Most held, but a few did not, movement beneath his hands and once a desperate scramble to prevent a quarter ton chunk of lichen-encrusted granite from coming loose beneath him and thundering down the remaining three hundred vertical feet of the couloir.  His weight quickly removed from the unstable behemoth Einar jammed his back against one side of the rocky chute, feet pressed hard against the other and hands behind him for stability, silent, breath held as he waited to see what the boulder would do.  A heavy grating, the illusion of stillness, broken when he tore his gaze away from the massive granite piece below him and glanced at the side of the chute… 

Nothing he could do, not once that thing started to gain momentum, and though he briefly considered throwing himself beneath the boulder and attempting to wedge it with a stout length of broken spruce trunk he saw lying on a ledge beneath it, the idea was quickly dismissed.  A sure way to die, that one, and then how would he finish his reconnaissance of the smoke in the canyon?  No need, as it turned out, for any heroic action on Einar’s part, boulder grinding to a slow halt before it could really gain any momentum and he—legs trembling with the strain of so long holding his position there above it—soon on his way again.

More cautious than ever after his incident with the boulder—it was one thing to risk losing one’s footing on the glassy sections of water ice that lay so smoothly contoured as to be all but invisible in some of the steep shadows of the couloir, but quite another to chance setting off a rockslide which would inevitably draw the attention of whoever camped down there in the canyon—Einar took the remainder of the descent quite slowly, testing each step and trusting nothing to sight, alone.  Down at the bottom, then, ground opening up around him in a broad shelf of mixed spruce and aspen, last respite before the plunging steepness of the canyon wall, itself.  Several more times on the descent Einar had caught a whiff of smoke, faint but unmistakable, and though he had hoped to have a more definite fix on the location of the camp by the time he began nearing the dropoff down into the canyon, such was not the case.

Afternoon light.  Already he had been traveling for some time.  Needed answers, so he could report back to Liz.  So he could return to her before she really started wondering where he had gone, and—a moment of panic at the thought—perhaps even tried to follow him.  Last thing he wanted was for her, with Will on her back, to end up in between the treacherous walls of that couloir, just waiting for the first freeze-loosened boulder to ease its way loose from its icy moorings and come tumbling down from above…  This thought nearly turned him back, but he shook his head, carried on.  Had come too far to return without at least some basic information regarding their uninvited guests.  Must make a good effort to pin down the origin of that smoke, and put his eyes on the individuals who sat around the fire.

To the rim, then,  and avoiding the more open ground beneath the aspens he zigzagged down the remaining dozen or two yards of forested slope, glad to see that he had happened to come out at a place where the walls fell away in a near-vertical drop beneath him, rather than a more gradual descent which would have allowed for the growth of trees and shrubs that might have obscured his view.  He would be able to see.

18 September, 2014

18 September 2014

Softening of ice, slipping of the rock beneath, and through that afternoon Einar and Liz continued to hear occasional rumbles from the canyon, but they were by now reasonably certain of the sounds’ source, and were not overly disturbed by them.  Once assured that no helicopters were involved in the racket he was hearing, Einar devoted all his attention to the construction of the smoking tent.  Choosing a group of closely-growing spruces with heavy, smoke-dispersing boughs, he set to work suspending the parachute which had carried Liz and Will safely to the ground.  Scrambling up into one of the spruces and bracing himself securely between it and the trunk of an adjacent tree, he tied the top of the canopy in several places so as to keep an opening at the top, a place for excess smoke to escape.

Working, he almost hated the thought of soiling that clean, white fabric with smoke residue, but they still had his chute which would remain clean, snow camouflage for future missions.  Finished securing the top of the tent, Einar lowered himself down from his perch, Will watching him all the way from the spruce bough enclosure which, if not serving entirely to contain him, acted as both a visual barrier and slight roadblock should the little one choose to take off on his own.  It would, at least, give Liz or Einar time to see what was happening, and, if needed, intercept the intrepid explorer.

“Well Snorri, that ought to do it, don’t you think?  For the top, at least.  That’s where the smoke’s going to come out.  Smoked elk jerky, that’s what we’re aiming for, here.  I know you don’t have enough teeth yet to appreciate anything like that, but the time is coming.  Ok.  Better get back to work on this thing.  Still have to do the lower edges, and then put a rack of some sort in there so we’ll have something to hang the meat strips on.  Should have done that first, huh?  Would have been easier.  But I didn’t have any willows, and kind of wanted to wait for willows, since they’re smaller, smoother and don’t leave spruce sap in the jerky.  Will have to go hunting for some willows, when the tent is all done.” 

Will chortled in agreement, firmly and repeatedly banging his little hand against one of the branches of his enclosure.  This gesture, as Einar had noted previously, seemed to serve a catch-all attempt at communication, sometimes denoting agreement, others indicating displeasure and on occasion simply a call for attention.  Einar found it fascinating to watch this growing development of his son’s communication abilities, a mystery and a delight to witness.

Stopping briefly to catch his breath after climbing down out of the trees, Einar began work on the bottom of the tent, securing the chute to adjoining trees to make a fairly wide canopy, its lower edge less than a foot from the ground.  Inside, sunlight seemingly magnified as it filtered through the white cloth, the air itself appeared to glow, dancing tree-shadows playing across the canopy.   Not wanting Will to miss out on this experience and knowing that the tent would be no place for him once filled with elk strips and smoke, Einar ducked out and retrieved the little one, rolling back under the billowing fabric and depositing him in the circle of dancing light.

Here Liz found them some minutes later, Einar lying on his back with the child reclining against his raised knees, father fast asleep and son staring in rapt fascination at the changing patterns of sunlight and shadow.  Sun’s warmth trapped by the fabric and wind largely excluded, the air was already a good ten degrees warmer in the little tent than outside, Liz quietly slipping in beside Einar and motioning to Will to be silent, let his father sleep.  She needn’t have bothered, Will so caught up in watching the shadows that he hardly noticed her arrival.  For some time the three of them remained together in this little cocoon of warmth and light, Einar soon waking but finding himself in no great hurry to move, hating to disturb the peace of the moment.  Perhaps, he thought to himself, they would have to make a second tent with the remaining parachute, leave it uncontaminated by smoke and visit it every sunny day for a few quiet minutes, just for the delight of doing so.  A silly idea, and not one he would likely pursue, but the thought had been a pleasant one.

Shaking the sleep from his eyes and blinking in the brilliant white light, Eianr ducked out of the tent, and began searching for the best branches to which he could secure the lower ends of the smoking tent, better channeling the smoke and preventing its blowing away on a windy day.  Finished constructing and securing the tent, he set off in search of the willow wands they would need in the construction of a good, lightweight rack for smoking and drying jerky.  No willows grew in the immediate area of the shelter, but this did not disturb Einar, wanting as he did to clear the remaining confusion of sleep from his head with a walk.  Liz and Will remained behind in the tent, enjoying the sunlight, stillness and warmth of the place and finding themselves rather reluctant to leave.

Up out of the tiny basin Einar climbed, air from the canyon almost warm against his face when he reached the summit of the small ridge which sheltered their home, rich with the odors of thawing ground and awakening vegetation.  Closing his eyes for a moment and allowing the smells to drift past and through him, Einar tried to pick out the sharp, sweet tang of willows, but could not find it.  No surprise, as he knew they must be some distance away, down lower where there was more water.  He had no intention of going as far as the canyon floor, not a wise expenditure of energy when they had other branches at the shelter which would suffice for drying jerky, but he did want to make a thorough search of the more immediate area before giving up on the idea of willows. 

Lower.  He had to travel lower if he was to find his willows, and though knowing the return climb would be something of a challenge, weary as he was feeling, Einar continued to descent, enjoying the signs of spring all around him and a mellow breeze which increased in strength and sweetness as he emerged from the heavier timber surrounding their tiny basin home.  Smiling, Einar enjoyed the unfamiliar sweetness, but then he caught scent of something else, and it stopped him in his tracks.  Smoke.  Faint but unmistakable it rose to join the other odors, and though his first thought was that perhaps Liz had decided to try out the new jerky-smoking setup, he knew this could not be so.  The air that flowed past him was rising warm from the canyon, no eddy or gust of wind which could conceivably carry smoke down from the basin, and Einar, turning his head this way and that in an attempt to get a better fix on the direction from which the smoke might be coming, knew they were no longer alone.

10 September, 2014

10 September 2014

The remainder of that morning passed quietly for Einar and Liz, Will playing happily in his new spruce enclosure while the two of them worked at thinly slicing the remains of one elk quarter and draping the results over the dry, barkless branches of a nearby dead spruce to dry.  Einar wanted to build a proper jerky drying rack, set it out in the sun where drying would take place at a better rate, but lacking any nearby willows he contented himself with the spruce, confident that it was still too early in the year to have to worry about flies, an extra day or two of drying time no disaster.  Beyond his desire to preserve the meat against the coming of warm weather and insect pests was a need on Einar’s part to produce a quantity of more easily portable travel food against a time when more mobility might be required.  

The tiny basin with its wind-sheltering terrain and surrounding timber had offered them a refuge, a concealed spot in which to quietly live out the remainder of the winter, but he knew it might not contain resources sufficient to recommend itself as a more permanent location.  This they would not know for certain until the snow was gone for good and they observed the summer patterns of the elk and deer, but even should the spot turn out to be a long-term home for them, the life they were living demanded a constant readiness to pick up and move on. 

These things were not spoken as the pair worked, words not needed and an easy silence settling over the clearing, Einar seeming to know right when to hand Liz another slab of partially frozen elk and she working in concert to help him fill empty branches with thin, already-drying slices.  The only interruptions came in the form of Will’s occasional demands for food, these desires heralded now not only by his accustomed grunting and squealing, but increasingly put into words, or something like them.  Somewhat early, Liz thought, for a little one to be doing much speaking, but she was not surprised.  The boy’s father, when not in one of his silent moods, had quite a bit to say, himself, once he got going on a subject.  Must be something of an inherited trait.  She smiled, shook her head and glanced about in search of Einar, who had disappeared while she was watching Will.

Soon returning from inside the shelter, Einar deposited a carefully-tied bundle of cloth in the snow at Liz’s feet.  She glanced it over, squinting skeptically at Einar.  “What’s this?  You’re planning on doing some parachuting?  Base jumping from the canyon rim, perhaps?”

Einar laughed, flashed her a wild look which seemed to say, hey, not a bad idea…!  And for a moment she almost regretted making the suggestion.  “Not with this rig, I’m not!  No, just wanted to see how this chute would do for a jerky-smoking tent.  Figured with a little smoke and just a little warmth, we could really speed up the process, add some flavor at the same time.  I’d wanted to do this for the moose, back when we were staying down in the canyon, but never really got the chance.  White chute will blend right in against the snow, too.  We’ll have to be careful about the smoke, maybe only do it after dusk just to minimize the chances of anyone spotting it, but once we get the tent set up we’ll be all ready for other game, too.  Ready to process stuff for the warmer weather.”

“Oh, yes.  I like that idea.  It really will help things to dry faster, and will keep the flies away once things start to warm up.  Where do you want to build it?  Right here by the shelter?”

Leaning back and inspecting the over-arching ceiling of spruce and fir boughs, Einar shook his head.  “Let’s put it over in that cluster of spruces near where we’ve been hanging the meat.  Not as convenient because we have to carry the jerky strips over there, and will need to build a rack since there’s not a good, dead tree to hang the strips on, but I like the way the branches are so thick over there and will help disperse any smoke we may make during the daytime hours.  Just don’t want to risk doing it out in the open here in the clearing.” 

Still studying the evergreen canopy overhead, Einar managed to get himself slightly out of balance and momentarily lose his place in the world, reeling and falling hard into a sitting position before he could catch himself.  This so delighted Will that Einar quite forgot to be irritated with himself for the oversight, remaining there in the snow for a good two minutes as the child laughed, waved his arms in an exaggerated imitation of his father’s failed attempts to prevent the fall, and plopped himself repeatedly down in the spruce needles.  Seeing Will’s delight Einar repeated the process, this time falling harder and meeting rather uncomfortably with a rock that lurked just beneath the surface of the crusty snow and nearly knocked his breath out with its impact, but Will laughed nonetheless, and so did Einar.

Liz finally put an end to these antics, scooping Will up out of his spruce enclosure and taking Einar by the arm.  “Enough, you two!  You’d better stop this before you both end up all soaking wet and black and blue with bruises.”

Einar struggled to his feet, brushing the snow from pants and elbows and pausing for a moment to catch his breath.  “Oh, we were just learning to fall.  A person has got to learn to fall, sooner or later.”

“Well, it looks like you’re both becoming experts, in that case!  Let’s have some lunch before we get back to processing that elk, ok?  There’s still some squirrel stew from last night.  I’ll heat it up.”

Sometime not long after noon—squirrel stew having been enjoyed and work resumed—the pleasant monotony of elk-drying was disturbed by a distant rumble which Liz mistook at first for thunder and Einar heard as the approach of several large helicopters.  Eyes wide and white as they met Liz’s, he scrambled without hesitation into the shelter and slid the ever-present flat rock over their shallow fire pit, cutting off all further air to whatever coals might linger and precluding a flareup which might have given away their position. By the time he made it back outside the sound had subsided entirely, leaving behind and anxious silence into which the two of them stared, ears straining for any further clue as to the origin of the commotion.  Nothing.  Too long and sustained for thunder, and if the rumblings had been airborne in origin, the craft must have changed direction and disappeared.  Or—Einar reflexively lowered himself to the ground at the thought—dropped below the canyon rim and continued their approach.  If that was the case they would know soon enough, and not waiting to find out, he hurriedly motioned for Liz to follow him beneath Will’s spruce tree, crouching at its base and waiting.

Nothing.  No further sound, save, after several good minutes of silence, Liz’s voice, soft and steady, unsure as she was what Einar might be thinking, how far away she might find him.  “I think it was rocks.  Falling rocks, in the canyon.  It wasn’t helicopters.”

Silence, Einar thinking.  The pattern fit, the tone of the rumbling.  Springtime.  Thawing.  Lots of things started moving, rocks, even, freed up by the freeze-and-thaw of fall, early spring, broken, waiting only for a softening of the ice that held them.