31 May, 2011

31 May 2011

Hurrying to pack up and be on their way to the cache before the snow had time to taper off--not that it appeared particularly inclined to do so, at the moment--Einar and Liz rounded everything up and got it into the pack, Einar struggling to roll up the cold-stiffened elk hide, beating from its hair side as much accumulated moisture as he was able. The thing had been heavy to begin with, but now, even after their removal of every available shred of remaining meat, seemed doubly so. It had, he guessed, absorbed a lot of melting snow around the edges during their long slog through the snow, but he knew his own weariness was a large part of the trouble, also. Dangerously large part, but not something that could really concern him just then, as he had a goal in mind, and a rather finite amount of time in which to reach it. For several reasons. The snow, at least, seemed to be holding out admirably well; already it was beginning to fill their tracks as they set out, blowing over them, erasing, obscuring. Einar shifted the weight of the elk hide on his shoulders, strengthened his grip on the spear that was acting almost as a third leg to help bear his weight and improve his balance, and began leading the way towards the gully beside which stood their cache-tree.

Unlike the previous day when the snow, starting as rain, had soaked their clothing and left them very quickly contending with bodies grown dangerously chilled, the snow was a bit drier that morning, allowing them to travel in comparative comfort for the first leg of their journey, at least as far as having dry clothes to wear. After that, after a good hour or so of struggling up and over dozens of small outcroppings and spine-ridges of granite, the warmth of their bodies began melting the snow on them, and once again their clothes grew sodden and chill, wind cutting mercilessly through them as it increased in fury. After a good while of this Einar, realizing they were in trouble, made a supreme effort to catch up to Liz, who had somehow got ahead of him there within the last little while. She didn’t appear to have heard him approach, kept moving, and he put a hand on her shoulder, shouting through numbed lips to make himself heard over the howling of the wind.

“Stop. Wait for…minute or two. Under those trees. Help me with the elk hide. Have to get out of …wind for a while.” Liz understood, nodded vigorously and all but dragged Einar, who, having stopped moving, was sagging dangerously towards the ground, over beneath the little cluster of spruces he had indicated. Together the two of them fumbled at the tie with which he had held the elk hide in place around his neck, got it off and unrolled the massive hide, hair-side down to keep it from the weather, crawling beneath it. Wasn’t enough just to be out of the wind, Einar had thought it might be but it wasn’t, not in their wet clothes, and he got into Liz’s pack, found the candle and set it on a rock there beneath the hide. Liz stopped him as he was about to try and strike sparks into a wad of milkweed down, meaning to get flame and light the candle.

“The heat…what if they’re watching? You know, from up above the clouds. I thought you said…”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re…we’re dead if we don’t…” Which was more than likely true, and Liz knew it, but she thought it rather unlike him to make decisions based on such facts, if doing so might increase their risk of capture. What she didn’t know was that Einar had meant to say also that he didn’t believe they were being watched, that the storm was too heavy and them too far from the spot where that camera had been, that if they’d been tracked by some sort of high-altitude electronic surveillance from the camera site up to their shelter of the previous night, the enemy probably would have put a rocket into the mountainside before they had the chance to move on, again, but it was too many words, the concept too complicated for him to communicate, just then, so he stuck to simple terms of life, death and freezing in the wind. That, Liz understood, and understanding, happy to see him being suddenly so reasonable, was glad to help him get the candle going. The rising heat from the lone flame didn’t do a tremendous amount when it came to allowing them to begin drying their clothes, but did in pretty short order usefully raise the temperature of the air beneath the elk hide, allowing their shivering to be a bit more effective at warming them. As soon as Einar could see that Liz was beginning to do better, he allowed himself to let go just a bit and have what he had intended to be a few moments of exhausted stillness, staring into the flame of the candle and drifting somewhere near sleep for a good while longer than he had planned. Liz realized the trouble and pulled him out of it, all but having to come at him with the rabbit stick to get his attention but he finally sat up a bit straighter, listened to what she was trying to tell him.

“Got to move on. We can’t stay here like this. We’ve either got to have a fire so we can really start drying out, or move to generate some heat. You keep falling asleep and…no, you don’t! Not again! Do I really have to use this war club on you? Because I will…”

Einar jumped, scrubbed an arm across his face. “Yeah, guess you…maybe you better do it, just to be sure. I could use a…good whack or two with that thing. Probably earned it, anyway.”

“Oh, that wasn’t the point, you goofy guy. I was just trying to tell you that we need to make a decision. Move on, or have a fire.”

“Move. Right. We better move. Fire’s…too much. Still too close to the federal…the…the place where they’ve got all those cameras, infrared sensors and all that, good thing we’re too cold to be picked up by infrared, or they’d…ha! Have us by now, but we got away. Froze ourselves half to death, and got away…good plan, but we still got to be real careful, because they…”

“No! Stop it! I really am going to start knocking you around with this stick if you don’t stop it. There was one camera, only one, remember? And we decided it was almost certainly just the hunters scouting for more elk. Now get up. We’re going to the cache, and you have to lead the way, because you’ve done more wandering down in here than I have, and you know the place better.”

Cold and still a little confused, Einar complied, trying to picture in his mind just where that gully might be, but able to come up with little besides the image of a grouse roasting and crackling over a lively fire, beautiful, warm and smelling so good that his stomach cramped up with wanting it, but not particularly useful. Right. The gully. It’s…you got to follow these little firs where they dip down towards the valley, because there where they get really thick ought to be the edge of the gully, just over there on the edge of sight where the snow starts getting too thick and obscuring everything… The place wasn’t far, two hundred yards, at most, and if they had happened to hit the gully at anywhere near the approximate elevation of the cache, things would have been going pretty well for them. Trouble was, with all that blowing snow it was nearly impossible for Einar to be sure where they were, even once they reached the steep-sided gully, whether they needed to climb or to descend in order to come across the oddly misshapen tree that marked their cache. Up. You’ve got to go up…was his initial reaction, but he wasn’t sure, couldn’t see far enough to get a reliable perspective on where they were, and he knew that a wrong move just then could prove fatal to them both. All three. Just didn’t have the energy to climb several hundred feet over that slippery and incredibly rugged ground, only to discover that they’d been wrong about the direction of the cache and must descend again before eating. It would more than likely be the end, at least for him. Liz, having caught up to him, saw his hesitation, but mistook it for concern over how they were to safely descend the steep, slippery side of the ravine, fifteen feet of snow and shale with little to break a fall, should one of them slip.

“Which way? Are we going up, or down, and I’ll go ahead to see if I can find a better place to cross.”

He shook his head, shouted over the wind. “Don’t know. Can’t see anything…”

“You could see last night. And this morning! Think about it. Remember what you saw when you went to scout this morning between snowstorms, to look back down towards the place where we found the elk hide…how high were we? Above the cache, or below it?”

When she put it that way, things became a good bit more clear to him, and Einar no longer had any doubts. “Below. We’re still a good bit below. Need to head up.”

“Good. So we’ll head up along the side of the ravine, here, look for a better place to cross and before you know it, we’ll be there!” A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but at least they had somewhere to start from, and Einar gave Liz a thankful smile, once again leading the way as they searched for a good place to cross the ravine.

30 May, 2011

30 May 2011

Wind-driven rain blasting against the kitchen window, pot of tea and a plate of freshly baked peanut butter cookies--Nutella, actually, rather than peanut butter; she’d done it in honor of Einar, wishing very much he and Liz might be there to share the treat--sitting between them, they faced each other across the table, a moment of awkward silence broken only by the crackle of the wood stove in the other room. Bud Kilgore didn’t know what to do with the silence, with the moment, interrupted it by taking a sip of slightly too-hot tea. Really would have preferred coffee--she’d have prepared it had she known, but he hadn’t told her, and didn’t intend to do so; wouldn’t have been polite, he figured, and he was working on being polite--but sipped the steaming beverage slowly, reflectively, cradling Susan’s antique violet-patterned teacup awkwardly in his big hand. Didn’t figure he’d ever get used to the doggone things, no matter how many times he visited. Speaking of which, he realized with a hint of something that might have almost been embarrassment, but wasn’t, quite, that this was the third time he’d called on Susan since their return from the high country two weeks prior, first time he hadn’t brought Roger Kiesl along with him. Scouting, he’d called it. Building rapport with the locals, working his way in amongst them, looking for information. Right. But his employers had bought it, anyway, had seemed to think it a very good idea indeed, as it was an approach with which they had themselves experienced dismally little success. Which, Bud could not help but think, probably had a good bit to do with the way they’d gone about alienating themselves from the local population as soon as they stepped off the boat, so to speak, and successfully increasing that distance with every day they spent in the county. Would have thought they’d have learned, after a while…but since they hadn’t, he was more than glad to have an excuse to keep on periodically dropping in on Susan.

They’d been talking about Rhodesia--well, he had, and Susan had been listening; she was a good listener, seemed genuinely interested in some of his stories, engaged, asking questions, and truly she was interested, for her husband Bill had spoken little of such matters, and always she’d had questions that she never quite got around to asking, because she hadn’t known if he would have liked to give the answers--but Bud was quiet now, listening intently to the rain.

“Figure this’ll be snow up there?”

She nodded, forehead furrowing and a bit of a distant, wistful look coming into her eyes. “Possibly. If not, it’ll be real close. It’s early, but not terribly early. Not unheard of. Sometimes I wish we were still…”

“Yeah, me too, lot of times. But that’s not their way. Not his, anyhow. He’s got to do this alone, this business of facing the winter and living and dying and all. Been pretty good so far at keeping things on the ‘living’ side, especially considering…”

“But he’s not alone.”

“Oh, she’s a willing participant.”

“Yes. Very much so. But with the baby coming…I just wish I could be up there for them. And what if he’s still like he was when we left? Still not talking at all…that would be awfully hard on her, I would think.”

“He’s fine. Just needed a little time after our visit up in the woods, that’s all. I’m sure he’s talking again by now, though wouldn’t be too surprised if she had to knock him upside the head one day with that ‘rabbit stick’ of hers to get him to take up the habit, again. Kid’s been through a lot, but he’s gonna do just fine. They both are. I saw it in his eyes before we left. Saw the life there. He’ll have ’em ready for winter.”

“Well, I certainly hope so. And what about you, Mr. Kilgore? What are your plans for the winter Are you intending to stay on at the Task Force for a while, until…”

“Aw now, I’ve told you not to call me that. I’m not ‘Mr. Kilgore’ and I sure ain’t ‘sir,’ at least not to you, Ma’am, and I’m afraid until you get that straight, I just won’t be able to answer any more of your questions. Ok? None of ’em! Though I know you’re not gonna let me leave here until I do answer some of them questions…”

“Ok. I understand.” She nodded, turned away to prevent his seeing the irrepressible hint of a smile that was twisting up the corner of her mouth at his antics, hiding her silent laughter with the empty teapot. “I’ll go make us some more tea, Mr. Kilgore…”

· · · ·

Sweeping down from the red ridge far above, the snow returned in full force as Einar and Liz lay discussing the best way to reach their cache without leaving too much sign, wind howling and blasting against the trees that shielded them and finding its way in beneath the shelter of the elk hide--stiffening, increasingly difficult to manage as it begun drying, or freezing; they weren’t entirely sure which, but the effect was the same--and reaching out with icy tendrils that left the two of them shivering and pressing more closely together in a half-successful attempt to avoid its fury. Though thoroughly buried beneath the hide, Einar sensed the change in the weather, smelled it, smelled the return of the snow and crept out for a look, snow stinging his face as he stood and looked over the top of their granite-wall wind break. Good. This is so good. Thank You! And he collapsed rather dizzily back to the ground, telling himself that it had been intentional, that he’d simply been ready to get out of the wind, but knowing better. Liz had seen him, was holding open the elk hide, and he crawled beneath it, lying flat on his face for a minute catching his breath before he could speak.

“Not trapped anymore, Liz. That snow’s blowing as hard as ever out there, and this is our chance to get to the cache. Hopefully can make it before night if we hurry, find the gully, follow it until we get to that big old twisted tree that marks the thing, pull down the food and all and hole up nearby somewhere for the night. Will be an easier night. At least we’ll have plenty to eat.” Liz nodded, almost as glad to see the snow again as she was afraid to venture back out in it, poorly equipped as they were and without another set of dry clothes to change into at the other end of the journey. At least they wouldn’t be spending another night hungry and freezing there backed up against that granite wall. Time to go find the cache.

29 May, 2011

29 May 2011

No chapter today, but here are some pictures from wandering in the desert:

Back with another chapter tomorrow--thanks to all of you for reading!

28 May, 2011

28 May 2011

Wasn’t much for them to do that morning, confined as they were to the small space between the outcropping and the firs, and when Einar returned from his scouting--hadn’t seen anything of interest, a heavy fog having settled over the mountains--Liz convinced him without too much difficulty to rejoin her beneath the elk hide. Her hopes of getting some snares set out had been rather thoroughly dampened by the fact that, in exploring the confines of their shelter and the timber directly surrounding it, she’d seen no sign of small game, no tracks or droppings atop the snow; without venturing out across the slope in search of some better territory, she wasn’t going to be snaring them any supper. Well. They had things to eat. Would be fine. In the meantime they were there together beneath the hide, Einar for once seeming willing to cooperate and keep still--major warning sign right there, and she ought not have overlooked that as she did, at first--and Liz, still weary from their climb the previous day, did her best to relax and make the most of their situation.

She would have been gladder to see Einar finally keeping still and resting for a significant stretch of time, had he not been so visibly struggling with the cold. Both of them were struggling, actually, would have benefited tremendously from a fire over which to warm themselves, dry still-damp clothing layers so they would once again be available for wearing and perhaps heat a good pot or two of tea or soup. With no such luxury available to them they made the best of the situation, huddling close together beneath the driest portion of the hide and taking turns--the day seeming to grow colder as it wore on, instead of warming--creeping out from beneath its shelter to shave off bits of raw meat, of which there was still a fair amount, in the neck area and crawling back beneath it to warm chilled hands and bodies and nibble at the half-frozen fare as they shivered in the raw, damp chill of the first significant snowfall of the season, but it wasn’t enough, wasn’t working, and they soon consumed nearly all of the bear fat and dried berries in their attempt to keep warm. Liz, at Einar’s insistence, ended up eating the greater portion of the food by far. Seeing that he was drastically shorting himself on rations, she tried several times to insist that she wasn’t going to eat unless he did, but each time relented when he mentioned the baby, her need to eat and keep warm so that the baby could continue to grow and thrive within her; had she not of necessity been so focused those days on the baby, he never would have got away with it. Would have been facing the wrath of her rabbit stick.

Einar--who really might have eaten more had he felt particularly hungry, but his body seemed once again to have passed into the realm just beyond hunger, wasn’t reliably giving him signals that he needed to eat, which made it easier for him to ignore the fact, leave most of his portion to Liz--had hoped the snow would melt, as the day was at least partially sunny at times, but it didn’t, the cold that had set in overnight staying to keep it on the ground, and them trapped. Mustn’t leave yet, lest they also leave too much sign, but Einar knew they’d have to move pretty soon, have to do something about improving their food situation, if they wanted any hope of keeping reasonably warm without a fire… He’d done his best to conceal it from Liz, the increasingly desperate struggle in which he was engaged that day with the elements, the fact that he was having a terrible time keeping himself awake and maintaining anything close to a workable body temperature, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to go on hiding it much longer, would have to either address the matter or quite seriously risk losing a lot more than the already-lost day. He’d known for months that such would be a major challenge for him, come winter, if he hadn’t by that time managed to put on a good bit more weight--which he hadn’t, somehow slipping in the other direction, instead--but even with that knowledge, had not expected it to hit him quite as hard as it was doing that day. Should have anticipated the trouble, he supposed, seeing as he’d spent all those hours down at the hunters’ camp several days prior lying staring up at the wide, beautiful sky without really meaning to, without wanting to, mind drifting along in a happy euphoric haze as his body began edging its way rather unceremoniously through the final stages of starvation. Well. Had pulled out of it, that time, must make the best of it once again, and he was glad to see that Liz seemed to be handling the situation with a good bit more ease than he was; would have really hated to see her in that kind of distress, would have been so very much more difficult than enduring it, himself.

Ok. Move, Einar. Time to go see if there’s any more meat you can shave off the hide, and this time better try having a little of it, yourself. Wasn’t much left, not much at all, and as he crouched there, chin on his knees and arms braced against the sides of his legs in an attempt to still the shaking of his hands, he tried to think, to find some solution to their present dilemma but he couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t involve a significant amount of track and trail-making, and that’s out. Wait. You’re just gonna have to wait. Made it through one night of this, so you can do another one if you have to, if the snow doesn’t either melt or start falling again before nightfall. Which it’s looking like it may not. Sure, it’s gonna be a little rough without anything to eat, but at least you’re starting out pretty much dry this time, won’t have spent the morning slogging through the rain and snow and getting all soaked and frozen. We’ll be alright…ha! Who’re you kidding? Not much chance you’re gonna make it through another one like this, Einar, not unless you get real serious about generating some heat, here before too long. Getting awful tired. Awful close to taking that final nap. Accidentally. Just gonna lie down if you don’t watch it, close your eyes and that’ll be it, unless Liz happens to notice in time and pull you out of it, which isn’t likely, ‘cause she seems to be taking advantage of this time to catch up on rest for her and the baby, a fine thing in her case, but you don’t have that luxury. Crouched there for a minute--knife in one hand and the little pile of elk scraps he’d managed to scrape up in the other--contemplating it, a long minute, too long, and Liz, who was keeping a much closer watch on his situation than he realized, poked her head out from beneath the elk hide to see what was the matter.

“What’s the matter? You coming back in?”

Einar muttered something unintelligible, pressed the elk scraps into her hand and rose, limping over to the granite wall and supporting himself against it with both hands, leaning his head against it as he shuffled his feet back and forth, slowly at first but with increasing speed as he warmed a bit. Right. Move. Keep at it. Liz thought briefly of joining him, but she had just finally got fairly warm there beneath the hide, and hated to disturb things unnecessarily. Several minutes more of the forced activity and Einar was doing a bit better, his shivering less and a prickle of feeling beginning to return to cold hands and feet, so he kept it up, kept at it until he was entirely exhausted and beginning to be in danger of collapse--which is the trouble one eventually runs into when attempting to maintain slipping body temperature by expending energy one doesn’t really have--at which he rolled back beneath the hide where Liz was holding it open for him, suddenly feeling very light headed.

She watched him for a minute, held him, warmed his hands against her stomach. “Einar, we need to go to the cache. We have to eat.”

He stared dully at her for a long minute, closed his eyes, nodding.

27 May, 2011

27 May 2011

Their supper, when Einar got through working on the elk hide, consisted of large, thin shavings of fresh elk meat wrapped around narrow slabs of bear fat and heaps of dried serviceberries, a meal the likes of which Liz had never seen before, but which she had to admit was rather tasty--though has circumstances allowed, she would have preferred to cook it prior to eating--and probably would have been even had her hunger not been so great. It surprised her, then, when Einar seemed to be having a hard time finishing his portion of the meal, and she supposed his ribs must be troubling him a good bit more than he was willing to let on. Recognized that look of distance and concentration in his eyes, his breathing careful and controlled, wished she could help but the lamb skin with which they had been wrapping his ribs was soaked along with the rest of their clothes, would have only made him colder if he’d put it back on, and it didn‘t look like he needed to be any colder that evening. He’d simply have to manage as well as he could without it for the night, and she knew he was perfectly capable of doing so. Just wished he’d finish his supper before giving it a try.

Einar, though definitely troubled some by his ribs and having to exert a good deal of control to prevent himself from grumbling and groaning and curling up into a little ball against the wall of granite--not something he had any intention of doing--was preoccupied that evening by far more than his physical difficulties or their present uncertain circumstances. Winter was undeniably on the way, they weren’t ready, and he knew it was his duty to change that in a hurry. Which had to start with their not losing any more time to the search, not being discovered by whoever had left the camera down in that clearing. Bad enough that they were being forced to spend that night away from the cabin--could count that as the price of the elk hide, he supposed, and a fairly reasonable price at that--but if they managed to get caught up in an actual search and had to spend who knows how many days evading it, the results could be nothing short of disastrous.

Dark. Liz had brought a candle, but Einar wouldn’t let her use it. Said it would create too much of a heat signature if they were being watched from above, from up there beyond the clouds where drones could be circling, trying to pick them up, and she wanted to tell him that while perhaps he was right, none of it would matter too much in the long run if they didn’t find some way to ensure that the two of them were still creating heat signatures of their own, come morning, and some source of heat would certainly help with that, candle under the elk hide creating a tent of warm air…but she kept the remark to herself. Could feel that Einar was already a good deal colder than she, and supposed there was no need to keep pointing out the obvious or taunting him with things he believed he could not have. Must not have, and perhaps he was right to be so cautious. At least--more than he would have done even a few weeks prior, she was quite certain--he had allowed them to hole up against the wind, spending the night under fairly dry shelter instead of pushing all night through the storm, up and over the ridge and away, never to look back… The candle could wait. Could definitely wait. Einar was laying out his weapons, spear, atlatl, darts, knife, beside the pallet of fir boughs in preparation for the night, silent, hadn’t hardly said a word since their arrival at the shelter, and she joined him, helping him to unroll the heavy elk hide and tuck it around the two of them as well as possible while keeping out of contact with the wet areas; inadequate cover for such a night as they faced, perhaps, but so very much better than nothing. They slept.

Through the night the snow went on falling, early, wet, heavy enough to break branches from some of the aspens which had only just begun to shed their leaves for the fall, and Einar dreamed restless dreams as huddled against the wind, hurry and hunger and the coming of winter. Too early. Too soon. Beneath them the ground was rocky and uneven, fir bough mattress not quite adequate to keep them from either the cold of the stone or its roughness, elk hide a good bit damper than they had thought and only adding to their trouble, but travel-weary and reasonably well adapted to such conditions, they still managed some reasonably long stretches of sleep between shivering spells.

Morning came, and the snow, when Einar hauled himself out from under the hide to take a look, was a good four or five inches deep outside the shelter of the trees, and had stopped falling. The sky remained heavily overcast, wind sharp and unrelenting and the air cold, but he got the sense that the snow was through. Which wasn’t necessarily good news. Creeping through the firs, Liz joined him, blinking at the brightness of the newly fallen snow.

“Is it over?”

“Afraid so. Looks like we’re stuck here for a while. Was hoping the sun would come out this morning and melt the stuff, but it isn’t looking too cooperative. Don’t want to risk leaving a trail in all this fresh snow that could be picked up from the air if anyone’s watching, if that camera does turn out to have been part of a search,” and how could it not be part of the search? You were a fool to allow yourself to entertain the idea that it was anything but part of the search… “so we’ll need to stick around here for awhile, hope either the sun comes out and melts this stuff off, or it starts snowing again to cover our tracks when we leave. Until one of those things happens…well, this is home.”

Liz nodded. A dismal prospect--would have been a lot less daunting had they been able to have a fire…and some more food, and the bear hide--but they’d come through it just fine. Meantime, it looked as though Einar intended to go on standing there all day, just staring out at the rugged landscape around them and waiting for the snow to melt, watching it happen, returning flake by flake to its liquid form and seeping away between the rocks, and she put a hand on his arm. “You’re shivering.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Well, I’m cold too, and that matters a little, at least to me, and to little Hildegard…”

“Better go get back under that hide, then. I’ll join you in a minute. Want to get out to the edge of that next outcropping, it’s not far and I won’t leave too much sign because I’ll be crawling through the heavy timber all the time, see what kind of a view it gives me downslope. Don’t think I’ll be able to see that clearing, but need to check for smoke, any sounds that might be carrying…”

“Want me to come with you?”

“No. More sign if we both go. Better go get warm, wait in the shelter.”

Which she did, crawling back through the trees and huddling under the cold-stiff elk hide and sorting once more through the few items they had brought with them. Not much, should they end up stuck there for long, and waiting for Einar to return, she was already turning lengths of nettle cordage into snares, knowing she had to try and do something to increase their meager food supply but knowing just as well that the snares would almost certainly prove of little benefit unless they were free to leave the confines of their little shelter-grove, and wander.

26 May, 2011

26 May 2011

Evening was well underway by the time the rain, as rain tends to do, that time of year, turned to snow, and at first Einar rejoiced in the change--come on, snow, cover our tracks and baffle the enemy, if he’s out there--but after a time he noticed that Liz was falling further and further behind, leaving him with increasing frequency to have to stop and wait for her. Quite a shift from earlier in the day when his ribs had been making it difficult for him to keep up with her, and he stopped under a tree, crouching there until she joined him.

“Need a little rest?”

“No, I’m Ok. It’s just getting…so slippery out here. Hard for me to navigate some of these rocks, with my balance not quite what it ought to be, but it’s working. How far do you figure we’ll go?”

Liz was exhausted. He could hear it in her voice, wasn’t any better off, himself, though he’d managed to rather forcefully put the fact out of his mind for the last hour or so, knowing that if he allowed himself to take it into consideration, he’d be through. She wanted to stop. Needed to, probably, and really, he saw little point in traveling too much further that evening. They’d put a good bit of distance behind them already, between them and that camera, and he didn’t want to get so far out of the area that they would miss signs of activity down there, of such ended up occurring. That would be the signal that they really did need to abandon the basin once and for all, that the place had been compromised, their presence discovered. Might as well find a place to settle in for the night. One thing was for sure: they couldn’t stay as they were for too long, huddled there in the half-protection of that tree in their rain-sodden and now half frozen clothes as the wind howled thin and piercing up the slope at them. Already Einar was trembling with the lack of motion, and he could see that Liz wouldn’t be far behind him. If they were going to stop, they must do it right, find some real shelter, get into the dry clothes that Liz had thankfully thought to pack, and rig the elk hide so they would have a good chance of remaining dry though the night. Wouldn’t be able to have a fire--that was a chance he absolutely wasn’t willing to take, considering the uncertain situation with the camera and the hunters…if they were really hunters--but at least they could be dry and out of the wind. Liz was waiting for his answer.

“Not much further. Don’t figure we’ll go much further at all. Time to hole up for the night, just as soon as we find a good spot.”

The relief in her face was obvious, even to Einar, who was no good at all at reading faces, and he knew he’d made the right decision. For a number of reasons. Shelter, then. They had to find shelter, and the tree beneath which they had paused was definitely not it. Wasn’t thick enough to have prevented snow from accumulating already beneath it, blown in on the wind to cover the ground in a thin, damp layer; a most inhospitable place, and Einar got himself to his feet, helped Liz up and once again began climbing. Movement felt good, once he managed to push himself through those agonizing first few steps, ribs protesting all the way and legs threatening to give out. Felt awfully good. He was freezing, needed to get his heart rate up again, warm himself.

Shelter. Wasn’t much of it up there in those rocks he’d led them to, desolate landscape of steep outcroppings grown thick with low, stunted clumps of timber an excellent one for throwing off pursuers, but not so good when it came to spending a stormy night. Well. One can’t have everything, but can, if he looks hard enough, almost always find what he needs to keep alive, keep going, and with this in mind Einar looked, scouring the little sheltered spots on the leeward side of some of the outcroppings until, not far from dark, he finally found one that seemed as though it might offer them some of what they needed, including immediate relief from the wind. Together they fell into the little space, protected on one side by a five foot high granite wall and closely surrounded by the dense, hardy little firs that were ubiquitous up on that slope, trunks growing so closely that Liz had to take off her pack before she could push her way through them. Good. It felt safe, protected, relatively still, if not very much warmer than the open slope had been. Einar knew dry clothes would go a long way towards making them feel warmer, slowing further loss of heat, and he shrugged out of the heavy elk hide, let it fall to the ground beside the wall of granite where its hair wouldn’t become any further soaked, knelt there for a minute just breathing, relieved to be rid of its rather significant weight. Liz was working to get out of the pack and he helped her, began pulling items out and lining them up along the wall, glad to see that she’d packed the clothes at the bottom where they had remained mostly dry, rolled up tightly and tied with bits of nettle cordage.

Once they were out of their sodden clothes and into dry ones the world was beginning to look like a much better place to both Einar and Liz, snow falling softly around them and only the occasional flake finding its way through their thick cover of intertwined fir boughs. Liz, only just beginning to catch her breath after the climb and their hurried changing of clothes, crouched with her back to the granite, sorting through the few possessions they’d brought with them.

“It came quickly, didn’t it? The snow…”

“Yep. Happens this time of year. Won’t stay. It’s too early. Probably be gone within a day or two, all but a few little drifts in the shadows, but for tonight, looks like we’re in for kind of a rough one. Need to…” he stood, legs stiff, unsteady, not responding too well, “to shake out this hide, get the snow off of it so it’ll be as dry as possible for tonight, because it’s not gonna be real comfortable to huddle under a soaking wet elk hide on a near-freezing night…” he paused, gave Liz a mischievous, lopsided grin that she did not entirely understand, “though if it comes to that, I can tell you I have done it, and lived… Here. Thing’s pretty heavy. You take one end, and help me unroll it.”

To their relief--Liz’s especially, as Einar’s almost-cheerful description of his night spent huddled wet and freezing beneath a sodden elk hide had struck her as a bit unnerving, especially as he had come across as almost eager to repeat the experience--the hide had remained largely dry due to the way Einar had rolled it, edges quite damp but a good sized area in the center not bad at all. They would have cover for the night. Needed something for the floor, though, some fir boughs to sit on, as the ground cover was quite sparse there in the shelter, a function, Einar supposed, of the slope’s steepness. Most of the ground cover having apparently ended up somewhere further downslope, they found themselves sitting on rock with a thin cover of fir needles, not particularly insulating or comfortable, and Einar wriggled his way through the trees that formed the outer wall of their little refuge, wanting to cut boughs for a ground cover, but not wishing in doing so to diminish the natural protection afforded them by those nearby trees.

Returning with an armload of freshly cut boughs, pulling the bundle with difficulty in between the mess of trees that shielded them, he shook off the bits of moisture that had accumulated on the return crawl, began arranging the soft, fragrant boughs on the floor of their shelter, piling them two layers thick until he had created a very adequate barrier against the insidious, seeping cold of the rock below. Liz tested the mattress--too short for her, let alone Einar, but that hardly mattered, as she was sure they’d be spending the night curled up against the cold--and found it to be so comfortable that she wanted to go to sleep right then and there, but knew there was more work to do. They had to eat. She was feeling all hungry and hollow inside, herself, and knew it must be worse for Einar, though he wasn’t letting on. From their gear she gathered the bag of jerky, the bear fat and dried serviceberries they had brought as travel rations, intending to do her best at making them a cold supper from the items--not a bad supper at all, compared to some of the things they had eaten, at times--but Einar, having spread part of the elk hide out flesh side up, had other ideas.

25 May, 2011

25 May 2011

Soaked and slippery with the increasingly heavy rain, the elk hide proved a difficult thing to neatly package and sling for carrying, Einar, when finally they got it rolled, tied and placed over his shoulders, bowing under its weight as he struggled to his feet. Liz wanted to carry it for him, had already offered and of course he’d refused, insisting that she already had plenty to carry, between the little one and both their packs, lightly loaded though they were. She hadn’t argued with him, hoping he might allow her a turn at carrying it, partway through the ascent. For the moment it was clear that he just wanted to get out of there, and the feeling was beginning to rub off on her just a bit, the gnarled, twisted forms of the rain-soaked oaks appearing suddenly rather spooky in the flat light of the heavily overcast day and everything taking on a doubtful, dangerous feel, as if something not at all good was about to happen.

Laboring under his heavy load as they turned to head back up into the timber, Einar almost missed it, the small camouflage-painted box strapped to a small spruce at the edge of the clearing, almost, but not quite, and he froze, dropped to the ground, eyes darting from one end of the clearing to the other in search of any further trouble. Not that they needed more. Had missed the thing on the way in because of the concealing timber around it, had, he realized with a slight flash of relief, been out of the camera’s view their entire time near the clearing, as it was positioned not far from the gut pile, aimed in the other direction, out into the clearing itself. Which they had never entered. Liz had settled into a half crouch, was watching him strangely, not understanding the sudden alarm that had come over him, and he motioned for her to join him on the ground, pointed out the camera, barely visible from their position but for the black nylon strap that bound it to the tree.

“There. Someone’s watching this place, watching us, or trying to. See it?”

Liz nodded, suddenly very white-faced, spoke directly in his ear, her voice barely a whisper. “Do you think there are more? That one won’t have seen us…”

“Don’t know. Don’t see any more, and we can sure hope not, but…got to assume we’ve been seen. It’s time to go.”

Something in the way he said it, and she knew.

“Go? From the basin, you mean? Leave the basin.”

“Yeah. We’ll stop by the cache on our way out, grab that stuff and…not a good situation at all, but not seeing we have much choice, here. If this thing is broadcasting--well, not this one, because it didn’t see us, but if there are others that’re broadcasting--they could be here in a matter of minutes, could have stuff in the air and if we went back to the cabin right now, we’d just be leading them there.”

Einar had been working his way to his feet as he spoke, backing away from the clearing as if he expected something to charge them before they could get to the really heavy timber, but nothing did, and soon Liz was following him up into the trees, his pace belying the fiery claws that tore at his side as he climbed, ribs acting up again. Heavy, dragging him down, the hide very nearly got dumped at that point--travel light and cover ground, it may be our only chance--but he hung onto it, lives once again quite uncertain and that hide representing their only shelter for nights that promised to be getting colder all the time. He wouldn’t, come to think of it, be at all surprised to see the rain turn to snow by night, and the heavy weather was his one comfort as he pressed on up into the timber; at least they wouldn’t be likely to see too much air activity, while the storm kept up like that. Hide was shifting, slipping, he was going to lose it and he stopped, fumbled in his pocket for one of the bits of cordage he always kept there, tied the two rolled ends of the hide tightly together about midway down his chest, hoping to make the thing sit better for travel.

Einar was about to take off climbing again, but he thought of something, and it made him stop. He had observed it down at the clearing, but it’s meaning had not fully registered with him at the time: the strap. It had been black, the strap that bound the camera to the little spruce, and no apparent attempt had been made to camouflage its presence. Not an oversight that would be made by the sorts of men who would be sent after him, not likely at all; they would have hidden that strap. But hunters, wishing simply to get an idea of the elk activity in a given area, would not bother. Which meant--don’t let yourself listen to this nonsense just because you’re too tired to run, Einar…you know that camera was for you, almost certainly had to be for you--that there was a chance, just a chance that they were not in nearly as much trouble as he’d thought. Might not have been discovered at all, not even suspected. If the camera had been set out by hunters, outfitters, people wishing to get a better sense of wildlife habits in the area, chances were very good that the one they’d seen had been the extent of it, as he was certain by its angle that it would have covered the entirety of the clearing, would have served the hunters’ purpose. Reasonable doubt.

Not good enough. Still got to act as though we’re certain they’ve seen us, are working on getting stuff up in the air and sending folks in on the ground right now. Anything less is gonna get us killed. Or worse. Ha! Running right now’s probably gonna get you killed, too, you and Liz and the baby all three, even if it doesn’t happen right away. You’ve got…what? The one cache, and winter on the way in a pretty big hurry? You lose that cabin now, and you’re in real trouble. They are, anyway. You’d make it, but…right. Not sure you’d really want to, if it came to that. Now. Sure can’t go back to the cabin today, not with the possibility we’ve been spotted--would be every bit as foolish to do so as to take off and never look back, as you were planning to do, so it seems the wisest thing to do is to keep climbing, make your tracks real scarce, and give it some time. Best of all would be to get to a spot where you can watch your back trail, or part of it, maybe even get a look down at that clearing, if that’s at all possible. Watch for activity down there. Keep an eye on the sky for anything unusual. Will mean a kinda cold night or two camping out under the thick timber until we get this figured out, but we would have had that anyway…lots of nights of it, a winter of it, probably…if we took off running right away. Really think we can make this work, especially the way the weather’s looking. Would be surprised if this rain doesn’t turn to snow overnight. Liz was standing beside him, a question in her eyes.

“Can’t go back to the cabin, have to detour way around it so as not to risk leading anyone up there and losing the place for good, if anybody ends up following, but I want us to stay in the area for now. Got to be real careful of the sign we’re leaving, keep it to an absolute minimum and hope for snow tonight, and this just may work. Willing to try it with me?”

She was willing to try it, so very willing that she didn’t dare let him see the extent of it, lest her enthusiasm should somehow cause him to change his mind, so she simply nodded. “Yes. I’ll do it.”

For the next several hours they climbed steadily, Einar leading them in a wide arc away from the cabin as they ascended, across the gully beside which--some five hundred feet higher up--stood their cache, beyond it into a wild landscape of small, steep outcroppings heavily timbered with sub alpine fir and limber pine. Difficult country through which to travel, but an even more daunting prospect for anyone who might be trying to track them, and as they went, Einar’s confidence grew. Plan ought to work, at least as far as them leaving behind anyone who might attempt to follow them from the camera site. He would have preferred that they could get a look back down in the area of the clearing, see if there was any movement, but even had the terrain allowed it, the weather had closed in to the degree that it was difficult to make out the next ridge, let alone anything so distant as that clearing. Turning to face the wind, he smelled snow.

24 May, 2011

24 May 2011

Intending to travel light--shouldn’t take them more than a couple of hours, according to Einar’s figuring from what Liz could remember of the sound and direction of the shot, but he knew the way sounds could be distorted by the hills, knew they might be in for a long search--they secured the cabin, hoisted some of the food up into trees against the possible encroachments of bears, they packed a small bag of jerky, bear fat and dried berries, filled water carriers and headed out, Einar armed with his atlatl, darts and spear, Liz with her rabbit stick and bow.

By the time they began nearing the area from which Liz estimated that morning’s shot to have come, it was raining, a soft, soaking drizzle that misted down from the ridgetops and found its way through the timber to give the ground--and their clothing--a slight dampness as they traveled. Einar welcomed the rain, the muted echoes of their movements as they descended over carpets of sodden spruce needles, golden-dappled here and there with the season’s first-to-fall aspen leaves, their rain-washed brilliance standing out in almost phosphorescent contrast to the soft browns of the forest floor and the air alive and dripping--quite literally--with the sharp-sweet scent of spruces in the rain, their tang mingled, in places, with the good solid reassuring earthiness of aspen. Which beauty, while not lost on Einar, was certainly not his primary reason for enjoying the rain. He valued, above all, its silence. The silence it allowed them as they moved across the ground, wary, listening, almost sure to pick up on any sign of human company before said individual became aware of their existence; it was Einar’s kind of day. The pair covered ground reasonably quickly for a man with broken ribs and a woman who would be ready to give birth within a few months, but as they began nearing the area from which Liz guessed the shot to have come, Einar got out in front, deliberately slowing their pace so he could listen, reach out ahead of them--feel, he supposed would be the best way to describe it, for his ability to thus detect, at times, the existence of an imminent threat relied neither on sight nor hearing nor on a combination of the two, best as he could tell--for the presence of any other human, but could find nothing.

Below them things opened up a bit, and he motioned for Liz to get down, keep still while he crept forward to observe. Creeping hurt his ribs. Bad. He gritted his teeth and ignored it, focused on that little swath of meadow below them through the spruces. Narrow, perhaps fifteen feet of open, grassy space, but long, its greenness stretching probably fifty yards from one end to the other, arcing horizontally across the hillside in a rare break from the otherwise uniform steepness of the slope. Beyond it on the downhill side there was a slight rise in the ground before things dropped away steeply once again, a slight ridge of perhaps fifteen total feet in elevation, covered largely with a low-growing screen of scrub oak, the stuff gnarly and twisted and oxygen-starved there at the upper limit of its elevation range. A perfect spot, Einar could not help but think, for elk to bed down. And, pulling out the binoculars for a quick inspection, he saw that they had been doing just that, the large, round depressions in the yellowing grass obvious even from that distance. As they would have been to any hunter who might have observed the place from above, and Einar wondered whether one or two of them might have lain not far from where he did just then, observing, waiting, perhaps, for morning, for the stirring of the elk, and for the perfect shot. Seemed plausible, at the very least, and he had all but decided to go in for a closer look when a raven confirmed his suspicions. Circling, swooping, that bird was certainly interested in something down there just beyond the clearing, and when it swooped one final time and disappeared amongst the scrub oaks, he was left with little doubt as to what might have caught its attention. Liz had waited right where he’d left her, hunkered down behind the ancient, moss-encrusted hulk of a partially rotted granite boulder, and he beckoned to her, silent until she was right beside him.

“Down there. Raven’s interested in something just the other side of that clearing, and I’m guessing it may be your elk. What’s left of him. I don’t want us crossing the open space. Got to skirt around it there to the right where the timber’s the heaviest, and then into the oaks. Will be harder to move silently once we’re in all those little oaks, but we’ve got to give it our best. Feels pretty safe down there, pretty empty, but I don’t want to be taking it for granted. Got it?”

Liz nodded, followed him down into the dense timber that separated them from the little sliver-moon meadow. Rain coming harder, soaking them as they emerged from the timber, began their slow approach through the tangled, grabbing almost-impenetrability of the stunted little oaks, their fall-browning leaves damp and silent like everything else, and a good thing, too, considering the terrible racket they could make when dry, no matter how slowly one moved. Birds overhead. The raven, others, three in all, startled aloft by the approach of the two humans, but soon settling back in to their feasting, no threat detected. Their behavior told Einar that if there were humans in the area, they must have been there for a good while, must have been keeping quite still to give the ravens time to become accustomed to them to that extent, and he wasn’t entirely sure whether to be reassured by the knowledge, or alarmed by it. Could go either way. And of course, the birds could not tell him whether the supposed hunters, if this was indeed the spot where they’d made their kill, might have left cameras, motions sensors, infrared detectors sending live feeds back to… Quit it. You’re right, no way to know for sure, but remember? Went through this already--twice--and decided it’s real unlikely they’d to go to any such effort, not here and not now. Just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now go get that hide, if it’s here. The more time you spend down near this clearing, the worse it’s gonna be, if they do turn out to be waiting out there, watching

Following the ravens to the place where they were doing the majority of their swooping, Einar and Liz found the spot. Wasn’t much left, and Einar thought, of course. They have the horses. Took everything back to camp to work on. Down there is where we’d find the carcass, whatever they leave of it. They had left the hide, though, gutted the critter, skinned it out and though the ravens had done a pretty thorough job on whatever might have been left in that gut pile, picking apart everything but the paunch with its stinking load of half-digested leaves and grass, the hide appeared virtually untouched. It was a big one. Covered, when he spread it out there beside the clearing, well over thirty five square feet, by his estimation. Big bull elk, and the hide was still quite soft, hadn’t begun drying at all, over the cool morning. Would be a major job to get it scraped, brained, softened, but represented an invaluable addition to their supply of hides for the winter. Would have been even better if they’d got the meat that went with it, but one can’t have everything, especially when living as much as a scavenger as a hunter, and the hide was a real prize. Now--Einar’s scalp prickling, a frantic feeling starting to come over him at the amount of time they’d already spent in that suspect place, half out in the open because of the scanty cover of the low scrub oaks; he swallowed it, focused on the task at hand--to get it back up to the cabin. Gonna be a heavy one, especially with the bits of meat and stuff this guy left attached to it…we could lighten it by scraping that stuff off right here, but I don’t want to take the time. Don’t want to spend any more time here than we already have, on the chance that we’re not as alone as we think

“Help me, Liz. Got to roll this thing up real neat, get it up on my back, drape it across my shoulders and I’ll be able to carry it.”

23 May, 2011

23 May 2011

Having finished cutting the softened hide from its frame, Einar handed it to Liz to inspect and admire, temporarily delaying her intended attempts at persuading him to come with her in a search for whatever the hunters might have left behind from their kill that morning. Taking a seat on one of the aspen logs upon which they had propped the stretching frame, he took the opportunity to loosen the wrap around his ribs, remove it as he knew he’d better be doing regularly and force himself to take a series of deep breaths, expanding his lungs more fully than he was able while wearing the wrap. Slowly, deliberately, two breaths, three--doggone ribs feel like they’re cutting me up, tearing something in my side every time I do this, hope that’s not really what’s going on--finally stopping at six, hoping it would be enough. Figured so, just as long as he made a regular habit of it. Liz wanted to ask him something. He could see it in her eyes when he looked up, hoped it wasn’t about the ribs or any of the other troubles he was having, because he was not in any mood to discuss such things, just then. He was relieved when she started talking about elk, but the relief was to be short lived.

“Elk hides are bigger than sheep hides,” she started out, “and a couple of them sure would put us a lot closer to having what we need for the parkas, the other winter gear…”

Einar nodded a bit wearily. An obvious fact. Guessed he’d better try and get her a couple elk, before too long. Was about to assure her of his intentions in that direction, but she wasn’t done.

“Well, the hunters are probably back down at camp by now, and that first hide sure isn’t going to be as easy to work with once the coyotes have had time to chew and tear at it for a few hours, and if it stays overnight…”

“Oh, no Lizzie, I see where this is going!”

“Just down there to where their gut pile probably is, no further. To see if they left the hide. We’ll go together, keep close together to help each other make sure no one is still in the area, and if they’re not, we’ll bring the hide back with us. How about it?”

“Good way to walk right into a trap, that’s what I think about it. Walk into a trap and get ourselves killed.”

“You don’t think they’d have gone from the spot by now?”

“I don’t know. If they’re just up here to hunt elk…sure. Probably. But I’m not convinced of it. Not after seeing that guy down at camp this morning, the one who had stayed behind…never did get that figured out, but it was strange.”

“The one whose horse you took?”

He narrowed his eyes, still not at all proud of his actions down there at the camp, nodded. “Yeah. That one. Fifth hunter. Figure since he wasn’t going around with the other hunters, wasn’t acting like them, maybe he’s up here for some other purpose. And we don’t know who it was shot that elk. If they even hit an elk. May all be a setup designed to lure us in, let them get a look at us, get us on camera, maybe, give them a place to start from in tracking us back up here so they can surprise us in the night, send in a team, hit this place with a rocket, something like that. Doubt they’d chance that, come to think of it. Chance having us figure out their game, get away into the timber. Probably take us right then and there, soon as we step out into the open to take a look at the gut pile, hide, whatever they’ve left to bait us. Especially if we both show up down there together. No reason to wait and follow one of us back to camp, if we both show up together.”

Liz just shook her head, looked away. Now that sounds a lot like the old Einar, the one who was hanging around here from time to time before that last visit with Bud Kilgore and who kept seeing threats in every shadow and wanting to pack up and move on at the slightest provocation…I’d really hoped you were past that, at least for a while, but who, after all, is to say you aren’t right in this case? And I haven’t forgotten that it was the “old Einar” who kept us from capture for so long, even if he was taking things a little far in recent months, and causing us just about as much trouble as he was saving us from… All that aside, she wanted to point out to him that he had no evidence whatsoever to support the nefarious intentions he was attributing to that fifth hunter; most likely seemed that the man had simply preferred to go out hunting a bit later in the morning, and alone, so had remained behind when the others left, but she could no more prove that there was no reason for suspicion than Einar could that there was, and as he did tend, most of the time, to have a better sense for such things, she supposed she ought to simply count the hides as a loss. Which--the matter already resolved in her head, no more questions, no arguing, settled; they’d get their hides the old fashioned way-led to her reacting with perhaps a good deal more surprise than she might have intended to Einar’s next question.

“You be able to guide me down there? I didn’t hear that shot.”

“Guide you down…what? Down to the…oh, no! What are you planning to do? Go in there and ambush them, or something?”

“Just planning on retrieving that hide, if there is a hide. Don’t figure anyone’s really down there, just have to go over all the possibilities, you know, expect the worst, but the more I think about it, the less I expect anyone’s really down there. Too wide a net to cast. If they knew to within so close a distance where we were holed up, they’d already have us. Wouldn’t mess around leaving hides and gut piles as bait, sending in fake hunters to risk spooking us and having us take off before they could put an operation together…nope, don’t figure there’s too much real danger in fetching that hide, as long as we take reasonable precautions, keep in mind that folks may still be in the area and make doggone sure we see them a real long while before they see us.”

“You don’t? But you said…”

“I said we got to consider all the possibilities. We ever quit doing that, and they’ll have us pretty quick, or ought to. So, I considered them. Happened to do my considering out loud this time, so you could consider along with me. Ha! You should hear some of the considering that goes on in here in my head, from time to time…it’d turn your hair grey, some of it!”

Oh! I think it already has! Lucky for you I don’t have my rabbit stick within reach, right now… You’re serious about looking for that hide, then?”

“Yep. And you were right about doing it before dark, if we’re gonna do it, because while I’ve certainly seen hides in fine shape a day, two, even longer after being dumped like that, I’ve just as often seen ‘em seriously chewed up by one critter or another, and that just gives one of us more sewing to do, and a real rough tanning job, if we let the thing get torn up when we don’t have to. Guess we ought to get things cleaned up some out here, gather all of the scraps where I cut the hide out of the frame and get everything inside, since it’s looking more and more like rain again and we don’t have the hide smoked yet to protect it from moisture, and then we can head down there.”

Liz was already busy with the scraps, freeing them from the cordage that had bound them to the frame, rolling them up to save for later use, anxious to get started before Einar changed his mind about going after the elk hide.

22 May, 2011

22 May 2011

No chapter today, but there should be one for tomorrow.

Hope everyone is having a good weekend, and thanks for reading!

21 May, 2011

21 May 2011

Once his ribs were wrapped--the poultice, Liz realized, would have to wait until evening when they could have a fire to heat some water--Einar found himself moving a good more freely than he had been before, more quickly, too, for there’s only so much that can be accomplished through stone-faced determination and willpower when one can’t really get a full breath, and the wrap seemed to be helping a good bit when it came to breathing. Reduced the hurt of it some, let him think about other things. Like stretching that hide. He was ready to jump right into the task but Liz had some breakfast ready--soaked dried serviceberries, honey and some finely-chopped chunks of bear fat, an unusual meal, but a good one, considering their self-imposed lack of fire--and he could tell he was going to be in some trouble with Liz, and probably with his own body, too, if he bypassed that breakfast to begin work immediately. Good stuff. He was glad Liz had insisted they sit and eat before starting the day’s work.

Einar was glad, considering present circumstances, that they’d gone to the trouble several days prior of stretching and lashing it in the aspen-wood frame, as it greatly increased their options when it came to the stretching process. Together they rubbed the hide with its last application of brain solution--in this case, lacking actual brains, simply a mixture of softened bear fat and ash from the stove--beginning the stretching with a pair of carefully smoothed and dulled sheep scapulas, pressing, stretching, separating the fibers to help the hide dry soft and supple. As the hide began drying and the pressing and stretching became more and more difficult--Einar was struggling despite the rib wrap, dismissing the matter with a grin and a shake of his head whenever Liz asked if he needed a break, but unable to entirely conceal what the effort was costing him--he took the frame and started easing it down onto the ground, Liz puzzled, but helping.

“Time to try this another way for a while. Here. Help me get the frame propped up on those logs, propped about a foot or so off the ground and set so it’ll be real stable. Yep, looks good. Now, take off your boots and come dance with me!”

“Dance? Since when could you dance?

“Hey now, there’s a lot you don’t know about me. Give me your hand, I’ll help you up.”

“I’m sure there is a lot I don’t know about you, and there probably always will be, but I seriously doubt any of it has to do with dancing!”

Balancing precariously on the edge of the frame in her sock feet, Liz was reluctant to step out onto the hide, afraid her weight might tear it, but Einar was already standing on it, bouncing up and down almost like he thought he was on a trampoline, and the goofy grin he gave Liz, taking both her hands and pulling her out into the softening, flexible surface of the hide, was enough to erase all her doubts. For a time they worked their way all around the edges of the hide, Einar occasionally venturing out into the middle but Liz afraid to follow him, as she was fairly certain she and Hildegard together weighed a good deal more than he, at the moment, and still somewhat afraid of ruining the hide.

“No worries, we lashed it real tight, and the thing’s sturdy, real sturdy…” Einar panted breathlessly as he leapt from one side to the other, bouncing, landing on his bad foot and going down, nearly taking her with him but letting go at the last moment, lying there in a grinning, laughing heap in the center of the hide as Liz tried desperately to halt her own movement in time to avoid trampling him. She made it, flopped down heavily beside him and tried to get him back to his feet, but he was laughing too hard, holding his ribs and fighting for breath.

“Pretty fun way to…you got to admit this beats…beats standing there for three hours pressing and rubbing the hide with a deer shoulder, doesn’t it? Lot more fun this way.”

“It must be, because it’s got you acting like a little kid at an amusement park, or something! What’s got into you?”

Einar gritted his teeth--ribs were better, but sure weren’t right yet, were continually making their presence known--took her hand and rose. “Nothing. Just wanted to get the hide finished, and this is the quickest way. Best way sometimes, with a big one like this. We’ll still have quite a bit of work to do by hand around the edges if we want them soft and supple, but this’ll give us a real good start, at least. Save a good bit of time.”

They got back to the stretching then, flipping the frame over to go at it from the other side, Einar a good bit more subdued, exhausted, hurting, some of the bounce gone from his step, but still diligently doing his part until the hide was thoroughly dry, and the time came to stop. Much to his surprise and delight--hadn’t done that many sheep hides, really--even the edges had grown soft under the repeated stretching of their steps. The job was done.

“Time to cut this thing out of here, looks like! Good dancing. You did real good. Guess this was little Snorri’s first hide, first of many he’ll help us process, since he really did help out, some.”

“It’s done, then?”

“All but the smoking, and that’ll have to wait ‘till the hunters have cleared out of here for good. That, or I guess we could do it at night, if one of us wants to stay up to watch the fire, make sure it keeps producing enough smoke without getting too hot. Come to think of it, we’re gonna have to do the smoking at night regardless of what the hunters do. Just can’t be making that much smoke during daylight hours with the possibility that folks are gonna be in the area…hunting, scouting, doesn’t matter. We just can’t risk it. No problem. I’ll stay up with the fire.”

“We’ll take turns. Looks like it’s going to be a good hide! I never knew bighorn sheep hides were so thin and flexible--so much more than deer, even--but incredibly sturdy, too.”

“Yep, that’s a big part of their value. Lots of tribes used them for clothing, boots, even, with the hair left on, hair side out to give some traction. Believe it was Lewis and Clark who described seeing the Sheep Eaters--Shoshones--in the Yellowstone area wearing boots like that, knee-length things that laced way up to keep the snow out. This one won’t be boots, of course, but might be a good start for one of those parkas you keep talking about… Good start. And I’ll be getting us more real soon.”

Which--Einar crouched beside the hide, carefully cutting it from the frame--seemed to Liz like an excellent opportunity to broach the subject of the hunters, of the possibility that they might leave behind a hide or two that could add to their still meager supply.

20 May, 2011

20 May 2011

Their planning did not get too far that night, as Einar kept drifting off to sleep mid-sentence while trying to describe to Liz the hunting camp, and she kept him going only long enough to get a pretty good idea, herself, that the place and its occupants weren’t a major threat to them--not an intentional one, anyway--before giving up and allowing him to remain asleep. He clearly needed it so very badly, and they could just as well do the planning in the morning. That night was a fairly quiet one for the pair in the cabin, Liz weary from a long day of work and wondering about Einar’s absence, and Einar so exhausted after the previous cold, sleepless night and his rather difficult climb that not even his dreams--horses and helicopters and the hot, acrid smell of charred aluminum and burning flesh, smoke in his lungs and a burning in his eyes as he ran--could wake him. Which was somewhat unfortunate, but did allow both of them several hours of much-needed sleep…

Early morning, and Liz wakened once again to the sound of a distant rife shot--a single one only this time, they must have hit their target--tightening her grasp around Einar as she heard it, hoping to be able to prevent him from jumping to his feet and further aggravating his ribs. He barely even responded, twitching in his sleep and pressing himself further into the ground, but not waking. A bit surprising, but she knew he’d been dreaming, had, herself, been briefly wakened several times during the night by his thrashing and flailing, the mumbling of half-intelligible words--Warning. They were always of warning, and never directed at her--so she supposed the shot must have blended right in with whatever else was going on in his head, that morning.

Just as well. We’re doing all we can to keep hidden from them, avoiding fires even at night when we probably could have them and not--aside from his little expedition--roaming too far from the cabin, so he’s probably better off sleeping through as much of this as he can. Though I will have to tell him about the shot, when he wakes. Hard to tell here in the mountains, but it seemed to be coming from somewhere over to the north of the basin, down in the timber almost in the direction of our cache, but lower in elevation. He’ll probably want to check the spot out later, I expect, see if there’s any sign that they got their elk. I sure hope they got their elk, so we can be rid of them! Hunting season is not going to be my favorite time of year up here, I see. Which is too bad, because the aspens sure are pretty this morning. What I can see of them through that little crack above the door. I guess we’d better be thinking about filling that in, somehow. Mud and spruce needles, maybe, like Einar used to plaster the stove and chimney. It’s going to let a lot of heat out, and we’re definitely approaching a time when we won’t want to be letting too much heat out. Could use some heat in here this morning, actually. Einar could. Seems I’m always warmer now than I would expect to be, with little Hildegard getting so big, but he’s just the opposite, and even though he insists that he prefers to be cold--and I believe him!--he’d surely be gaining weight back more quickly if he wasn’t freezing most of the time. It takes a lot of energy to keep warm, a lot of fuel. And besides, even if he doesn’t care, for himself, the baby will do better if it’s warm and not too drafty in here, at least for her first few weeks…

So. That’s one project for today. Fill the crack over the door. And we need to do the second braining on that sheep hide, start stretching it and moving it towards being done, so I can start making us a couple of rabbit lined parkas for the cold months! One of them, anyway. Going to need a lot more hides--three per parka, it looks like, to finish the job, and then come the fur-lined pants… This is going to be a much better winter for us, if we can just get those hides. Those hunters might leave us a hide or two, if we can find the spots where they got their elk, and if Einar can be talked into doing it…

At which thought a bit of a shudder passed through her, the memory of her first time raiding a gut pile near a hunting camp returning fresh as the day it had happened, how the action--a foolish, careless thing at the time, and not something she ought to have attempted--had alerted the outfitter Pete Jackson--the less trustworthy of the two Jackson brothers; Jeff had risked everything to help Einar evade capture that first year he’d been out there, was still in hiding over what he’d done--set him on her trail and ultimately led to his death when she stabbed him during his attempt to bring her in, to capture her, make her tell him where Einar was hiding… Without thinking, she rubbed her hands together there beneath the bear hide, the slick, sticky feel of Pete’s blood not seeming entirely gone from them, and she didn’t suppose it ever would. Terrible, terrible days, as had been the ones that had followed, as they were forced to flee their good, secure home in the sheltering rock crevices of the Bulwarks, Einar with his recently broken leg and she having to carry most of their gear as they left ahead of the search they knew would be coming as soon as Pete’s body was found, fleeing into the first major storm of winter, which had covered their tracks and enabled their escape, but had very nearly killed them, in the process. Would in all likelihood end up killing their child, if they had to do anything like that in the near future, with winter coming. The child, and probably Einar, too.

Can’t let that happen. If I go looking for the remains of that elk--assuming they actually got an elk this morning--I will only do it after thoroughly discussing it with Einar, and only if he thinks it’s a good idea…which probably rules out the possibility of getting ahold of that hide! Not a good thing, because lack of good warm clothes can end up killing us the same as having to flee at a bad time might, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our hunting efforts, and rely more on the trapline, too. It takes a lot of martens to make a coat, but maybe if I cover enough miles with these snares and traps, I can come up with enough to significantly add to the furs we already have, and make up for our lack, so far, of larger hides… It would all have to wait, though, until the hunters moved on out of the area, ought to wait, at least, lest she risk running into one of the hunters as she set out her snares. Doubted they’d make it up as high as the basin, but one never knew, and she supposed the red ridge, itself, actually might make a fairly tempting target for the hunters, a good spot to lie up in the early morning and watch for elk as they made their way along its broad, somewhat grassy summit, ready to head down in search of water and a place to browse for the day. Yes, she could definitely see it. The trapline would have to wait, and the knowledge increased the feeling of danger that had been stalking her all morning, the almost-too-lateness that was threatening to leave them woefully unprepared to face the winter, the coming of the child, and there was little they could do about it. Except to stop lazing around in bed all morning, and get started on that sheep hide, of course! It’s high time we were up and out of bed, wouldn’t you say, Hildegard? We’ll leave daddy--wow, that sure sounds strange to say, and I can only imagine how it’s going to sound to him, at first!--here to sleep as long as he can, and go get started on the hide.

The tightening of her stomach upon crawling out of bed--a fairly routine thing upon rising in the mornings, by that point; practice contractions, just your body getting ready for the big event, preparing itself for something it’s never done before but was definitely made to do, knows how to do, as Susan had most reassuringly told her during the recent visit--seemed far more pronounced that morning, made her stop and have to catch her breath before rising, and if she hadn’t been so set on letting Einar sleep just as long as he was able, she would have wakened him, told him…well, she didn’t know just what, but it seemed she ought to tell him, ask him if it was alright, this strange new occurence...as if he would know…but still she would have liked his reassurance. He was asleep, though, face still looking terribly tired and drawn, but finally fairly peaceful after the long night of dream, and she let him be, and soon the contraction eased, her stomach going soft again, and she finished rising to begin her day.

Einar woke at the soft creak of Liz easing the door closed behind her, hurried out of bed with the distinct feeling that he had missed something, had slept through a warning of some kind and left Liz to deal with whatever threat waited out there, and it wasn’t at all a good feeling, left him scrambling for his knife and atlatl, pausing briefly by the door to listen before joining Liz out in the clearing. At the edge of the clearing, in a little flicker of sunlight that was creeping its way up over the ridge and through the aspens, for he would not venture out into it, and could see that she did not appear inclined to do so, either. Confirmation of the warning he had felt upon waking.

“What is it? You heard something?”

Liz gave him a big smile, shook her head and joined him in the little patch of sunlight. “Just the wind in the aspens and the Stellar’s jays making a fuss over the fox that just ran through the clearing…and a rifle shot, just a single one.”

“Rifle shot?” He scrubbed a hand over his face, winced at a too-fast movement that caused his ribs to bite into his side. “How long ago?”

“Half hour, I’d say. Just before the sun started showing on the red ridge.”

Einar grimaced, snarled at himself and shook his head. Really slipping, here. Don’t like that you could sleep through a thing like that. Don’t like it at all. Guess you’re just gonna have to…guess you don’t get to sleep, from now on. Not while she sleeps, anyway. Have to take turns. “Down in the direction of the shots we heard the other day? Yesterday?”

“No, off to the north, and lower. Only one shot, so maybe they got one, this time…”

A nod from Einar, a moment of blank-eyed staring--the look all too familiar to her--during which Liz worried that he might be about to do something foolish, insist on taking off in the direction of that shot to investigate, to neutralize the threat, but after a time he glanced up at her, shrugged, smiled. “Good. If they got one, maybe they’ll be clearing out of here soon. What’s on the agenda for today? Stretch that sheep hide?”

“Yes! Give it another braining--have to soften the bear fat in our hands I guess, and over the candle, since we can’t have a fire--then stretch it! We’re getting close to done with it, and then I can start on our first parka…”

Another nod from Einar, and he rose, pressed his ribs. “Guess I’d better do something about these. Try a hound's tongue poultice couple times a day maybe, see if it might help speed up the knitting of the bones like comfrey does, wrap them so I’ll be more useful on the scraping job. Got to be sure to take it off real regularly so I can do some deep breathing, avoid lung troubles, so maybe you can help me remember to do that.”

“Absolutely I’ll help you remember. Let me go get that little lamb hide I tanned out a while back. I was saving it for the baby, but it would make a great wrap, and that won’t harm it, any,” and Liz hurried to the cabin to find the dried hound's tongue and lamb hide, glad that Einar was finally willing to take those simple steps to help himself heal, but wondering why it had taken him so long.

19 May, 2011

19 May 2011

Liz didn’t care about the bad thing, had no interest whatsoever in hearing Einar’s confession as he stood there shivering and clearly well past the beginning stages of hypothermia in the sharp, damp wind that had been buffeting the cabin with increasing force since sundown, and she grabbed him, led him inside over his protests--can’t go in yet, got to tell you, afraid I’ll fall asleep once I get in where it’s warm, and I’ve got to tell you, first--and helped him out of the sodden flannel shirt which, tied as tightly as he had been able to manage around his middle, had served as makeshift sling to hold his arm in place and minimize movement of his ribs on the climb.

“You’re back, that’s all I care about. You can tell me about this bad thing later. Now. I know we can’t have a fire because of those hunters, but I figured a candle would be safe, and I’ll have you some tea heated up pretty soon here. In the meantime, eat this.”

Einar shook his head, gently pushed aside her hand with its offering of honey, the sweet, sticky stuff filling the bowl of a coal-burnt spoon. Exactly what he needed, but not yet. “Took a horse. Shouldn’t have done it and I got no excuse. Should have found another way to make things work down there…”

“What do you mean you took a horse? Where is it?”

“Back with the hunter by now, I’m sure. He stayed behind when the others left, surprised me this morning when I was trying to leave the place where I’d watched them all night and…it’s a shameful thing, Lizzie, and I don’t like having to tell you, but the truth is I was getting pretty desperate down there about sunrise this morning. Dizzy. Seeing things. Couldn’t stand up for long, and when that hunter left his horse and went into the tent after some gear…” He shrugged, hung his head, and she put a hand on his shoulder. Alright. It’s alright. But she didn’t say it out loud, because she knew he wouldn’t want her to.

“He didn’t see me. I was quick. Gone out of there before he could hear the horse and duck his head back out of that tent, but you know he had to wonder why his horse would just take off like that… I should have waited. Just lay there and waited ‘till he left. Would have been Ok. I’m sorry.”

“Einar, you…” She stopped herself, had been about to say you don’t need to be sorry, dear, dear Einar, you’re so strong all the time, please don’t be sorry if your humanness shows through just a little, every now and then, but she knew he did need it, had not lived up to his own standards, was ashamed of himself and had, in fact done a pretty foolish thing in taking that horse, and her assurance to the contrary would do little to convince him otherwise. “You’re all worn out. Please take the honey. It’ll help.”

His confession made and the world beginning to fade fast around him--sleep beckoning, and oh, how he wanted it, a black velvet nothingness that spoke to him in soft whispers, persistent, calling, calling, but he knew he must resist, for the time--Einar finally accepted the honey, choked it down with sips from the pot of barely lukewarm but still incredibly welcome tea Liz had been heating over the candle, amazed at the instant surge of energy it brought him, able to sit up a bit straighter and look at Liz with clear eyes for the first time since finishing his climb. She looked worn, tired, concerned, and the sight made him sad. Knew he’d caused it, or part of it, and he was about to say something, to try in some way to make it better, but she was speaking, and he had to make a conscious effort to focus on her words, to decipher them and get them into the proper order in his brain. Not as wide awake as he had thought, apparently…

“Do you think he’ll track you? From the place where you left the horse, I mean? Do you think he’d be able?”

“No. He’s not following me. Thought of spending another night down there to make sure, but I am sure. Didn’t leave anything he could follow, not unless he’d brought tracking dogs…”

“Dogs? You think this man is up here looking for us?”

“I think…I sure thought so, at the time. Don’t know, now. He seemed to be behaving pretty strangely, staying behind like that when everyone else left in the morning to hunt, leaving his horse separate from the others all night so I couldn’t see it, didn’t know it was there…but he might have had his own reasons, I guess. Was trying to find out when I…I panicked a little because I couldn’t stay on my feet and he was coming, and I took the horse…”

Liz nodded sadly, wanted to say something about being human, how we’re all human and sometimes make those sorts of mistakes, especially when we go for months without enough to eat and stay up all night freezing in the rain watching hunters’ camps, but she could hear his answer already, so refrained. “Have some more honey. You look awfully cold still. Do you want to get warm?”

“Yeah, guess so. Kinda like to…stop shaking. Hurts the ribs.”

“Well, come on then, get in under this bear hide and you’ll soon be warm, even without a fire.”

Sounded like a good idea to Einar, either that, or talking Liz into packing up all of their essentials and fleeing the place that night before the fake “hunter” could find it and radio for air support, land a team there and take them in their sleep…but he didn’t expect he’d have much luck talking her into the second option, and wasn’t even sure he believed it the best one, himself. To bed, then, and Liz crawled in with him, wrapping her arms around him--he was amazed at her warmth, grateful--and gently feeling for the spot where the tenderness was worst--it was obvious, from his involuntary reaction--firmly pressing with the palms of both hands, hoping to give him some relief. It hurt him at first and he stiffened up, felt as though he must try and get away from her, but forced himself to keep still, and after several minutes of it he relaxed, his breathing evening out just a bit as the compression eased the sharp, gnawing hurt in his side and the warmth of Liz’s body began to thaw him some. Shivering got worse as he warmed, that was the way it always worked when he became as thoroughly chilled as he had on the last leg of that climb, cold blood from the extremities circulating once again to mix with the warmer stuff at the core, and the shivering pulled and twisted at his ribs, but Liz just pressed more firmly, holding the ribs in place, and it helped.

“Thanks, Liz…feels real good. Can breathe again.”

“Breathe, then. Breathe. Come on, deep breaths. I know it hurts to do it, but you’ve got to clean your lungs out, or you’re going to end up in trouble again. And don’t keep yourself from coughing. I can feel you straining not to cough, but you’d better just go ahead and let yourself do it.”

Which he did, was getting too tired to keep on resisting the coughs, anyway, and he knew she was right, knew also that it was going to hurt, but at least with Liz pressing his ribs like that, the coughing was more or less bearable. Good. It was a lot easier to breathe after the coughing, and he wanted to relax, to sleep, but fought it, wanting first to discuss with Liz what he had seen down near the valley, make a plan for the following day.

18 May, 2011

18 May 2011

Step, step, one after the other, moving as carefully as he could to avoid leaving sign, trying but failing to spare the ribs, because really, how can one climb through steep, dark timber without moving one’s torso…and before long he had to stop again, take off his shirt and tie it as well as he could around his middle, compressing things, holding them together so he could breathe again without being in danger of crying out at every breath, and while the wrap further reduced his flexibility and restricted his breathing a bit--have to be real careful about that, not liking that sludgy feeling in the lungs these past few days--it did seem to make his movements a bit less strained, faster. Good.

Doubts. Long way up to the cabin, and he wondered--each step costing rather dearly, the frequent high steps to navigate over fallen trees and those during which he had to duck under some obstacle or other coming with the highest cost, damaged ribs seeming to cut into him, then, tear at his side until he wanted to slam himself into a tree to make it stop--could he make himself do it? Dismissed that particular doubt pretty quickly, because he’d been through worse, lots worse over the years, so of course he could do it. The second doubt was far more persistent, troubling, and that was, should I do it? Should I even try to go back, today? Seemed it might be wisest to spend another night away, perhaps even backtrack himself some to make certain he wasn’t being tracked before risking leading someone up to the cabin, their Refuge. Didn’t think he was, but recognized that there existed at least a small chance that the horseman, once re-united with his animal, would be curious enough about its strange behavior that he would follow its tracks in an attempt to puzzle things out, might, in doing so, come upon the place where he had tumbled from the animal’s back and end up on his trail. Not a project to which he would expect the average hunter to devote too much time or energy, but he did not know for certain that he was dealing with an average hunter, and not a man who was there for the purpose of hunting him. Had seen things there at camp in the man’s behavior which definitely made him wonder, though he’d since found no confirmation for his suspicions.

And how could you, running off like that on his horse before you had a chance to see what he really was up to? Bad idea, that one. You’re getting desperate, man, making mistakes and you know you can’t afford to be doing that. Now. Slow down, give this next move of yours some consideration and…well, I think you’d better try and eat a little something, too, because it seems straight-out lack of energy has to be half your problem here, or pretty close to it, and Liz did send you with some jerky and such… Crouching there against a tree with his left elbow and arm pressed firmly against his damaged ribs Einar picked at a piece of jerky, tried to get some of it down but it wouldn’t soften in his mouth, nearly choked him when he tried to swallow until finally he took it back out again and stared at the half-chewed mess there in his hand, shaking his head and wondering briefly how he’d come to let himself slip so far that he couldn’t even physically manage to do the one thing that might make an improvement in his situation. Disgusted. You’re a fool, Einar, and you’re gonna eat this stuff now, one way or another. Stuck a small lump of the half mashed jerky back into his mouth, forced it down with a gulp of water and though he gagged on it--swallowing seemed to be a problem that day, even if it was mostly water--the stuff stayed where he’d put it, and he kept going until the entire mass had been consumed. Good. That’s got to help. Now you get yourself up and moving again, either towards the cabin or along your back trail if you’re determined to wait around and make sure the Fifth Hunter isn’t a manhunter, after all, but whatever you do, you absolutely cannot go on sitting here all day.

Which of course he didn’t, hauling himself to his feet and staring down through the timber behind him as if hoping to see his pursuer so the problem could be taken care of right then and there, but he saw no one, heard nothing but the wind in the trees and the too-loud rasp of his own breathing. No one back there. He’d been careful of his trail. It was time to go home.

Hours later, near darkness, Liz in the cabin preparing supper, Einar at the end of his rope, or past it, after that climb--he’d quite ceased keeping track--and he stood at the door, swaying, bracing himself against the logs to keep from falling, but would not go in, despite her rather urgent urging. Not just yet. Not before he told her.

“Done a bad thing, Liz. Real bad thing, and I ought to have known better.”

17 May, 2011

17 May 2011

The horse stopped not far from Einar; he could hear its soft breathing, the low voice of the man urging it to further movement, and he wondered how he had come to make so large a miscalculation. He was certain he had counted accurately the number of horses and men that had ridden in shortly before dark, had managed to keep track of them, but had entirely overlooked the presence of the fifth horse and his rider. Well. No wonder, really. He probably came in while you were sleeping, Einar. Bad idea to have slept, you lying here and dreaming about that far, beautiful sky while the one man who probably really is here for less than straightforward purposes sneaks in and makes himself at home. And right in front of you, too. He and his horse, and I'm surprised the critter hasn't seen you, yet. Smelled you. Maybe it has, and just doesn't think you're far enough from being a dead critter to be any sort of a threat. Well, think again, horsey, because if either of you takes another step closer...nothing. It was not a threat he would or could act on, not unless truly left with no other choice at all, and Einar was not one to make idle threats, so he quieted his thoughts, did his best to leave his mind blank, empty, listening. They weren't moving. He waited. Cold. Couldn't keep himself from shivering, not any longer, no matter how much breath and willpower and half-desperate concentration he used. Hoped they wouldn't see. Lord, don't let them see. And they didn't, made their way slowly over to the tents, horse following right along behind the man and waiting in the slightly grassy clearing, grazing, as he ducked into the tent.

Sensing his chance, Einar hurriedly freed himself from the mat of spruce needles that had shielded him, got to his hands and knees and, meaning to take off into the timber before the man could return to see him, scrambled to his feet. Or tried to. Made it after much struggle, would have been gone within seconds, melting away into the damp, silent timber, but he couldn't seem to keep his feet under him, listed dangerously to the side and would have toppled over had he not caught himself against the trunk of his concealment tree.

That was it, all the time he had, for he could hear the tent-canvas rustling; the man was coming, and glancing wildly about, Einar's gaze fell on the horse, who had clearly seen him, was watching curiously but without too much obvious alarm. A fairly mild-mannered creature, clearly, closer by far to him than to the tent, and still the man had not emerged, had apparently discovered some last-minute item in there that needed tending, and he was on his feet, whistling softly to the horse, and somewhat to his amazement--it was a fairly desperate act on his part--the creature came, stood, and he was on its back, hanging on, feet digging into the rather surprised animal's sides. Very quickly they were off, horse spooked by its rider's sudden change in demeanor and a certain feel to him, the way he held on, the smell of desperation, trotting up through the timber, Einar holding on for all he was worth.

Einar knew speed was the key, knew he absolutely had to be out of sight of the tent before the man came out, and he made it, the horse at a dead run now, and knowing he was safe for the moment he sought to slow the creature a bit, knowing the terrain was all wrong for such speed unless he wanted it to break a leg, which he didn’t, really, wanted it, actually, to be found in fine shape in an hour or so by its would-be rider, after he’d had plenty of time to clear the area. Dizzy, clinging--critter sure can travel faster than me, just now--he thought briefly of taking the horse with him, keeping it, allowing it to be his conveyance back up to the cabin and the rest that awaited him there, but he knew it could be too easily tracked across at least part of the ground he must cover, the heavily timbered portion that was less rocky, and besides, they could never hope to keep a horse alive up there through the winter, and though of course they could turn it into food when the time came--stomach should have growled hungrily at that, and it didn’t; he knew he was still in some trouble, not far from ending up on his back again staring up at that wide, beautiful sky and waiting for the end, if he didn’t watch out--best of all seemed to be to stick to his original plan and release it soon to return to its owner.

Still the question remained of why the man had stayed behind while the others went out hunting that morning, why he was heading out so much later than was ideal, if his goal was to go for an elk, and Einar hoped that by releasing the horse, he would not be returning to his would-be captor a needed means of transportation. Captor. Well, the man--what Einar had seen of him, which hadn’t been much, lying largely covered in spruce duff as he had been and fighting the multitude of black, billowing shapes that ought to obscure his vision--had not looked tremendously different from the others who had been at the camp, except that for some reason he seemed to have slept in a separate place, had definitely kept his horse apart from the others, and Einar could not figure why, but he didn’t like it. Nothing on the horse--critter had slowed down a bit, now, was picking its way deftly around a section of especially heavy deadfall; a decent mountain horse, for sure--to indicate what the man’s mission might have been, nothing on the horse at all, actually, save the saddle and saddle blanket--grey and white; looks warm--which, still shivering from his long, damp night, he really wanted, but of course could not have, and he wondered somewhat at the animal’s lack of gear, but then he remembered that the man had, after all, left the horse to duck into the tent, and supposed he might have been retrieving his gear from there. Which made the whole thing seem slightly less odd, but only slightly. Well. Enough speculation; it was high time to get off that horse, let it begin finding its way home before he created too much work for himself by urging it further down and away from the basin--as he’d been doing for the past several minutes--with him on its back. That, or passing out on its back, which he felt dangerously close to doing, and being dragged for a distance or even unwittingly carried right back up to the camp, and certain trouble.

Horse didn’t particularly want to stop, was still spooked at the strange presence on its back and Einar, though trying all the persuasion of which he was capable to halt the fleeing animal, finally had to resort to freeing his hands--grabbing, for the moment, the mare’s mane--sliding one leg up and over its back and launching himself off into the brush for what he hoped might be something of a soft landing. Wasn’t, might not have been, even had he been at his full strength and agility, but as it was he found himself with alarmingly little control of his limbs, and ended up crumpled over the rough bark of a fallen spruce, breath knocked out. By the time he got himself picked up again, the horse was long gone. Good. Go back to the camp. Some wild cat or other spooked you real bad, but it’s gone now. And you, Einar…whew! You sure don’t know how to come in for a soft landing, now do you? Seems nothing’s broken that wasn’t already--doggone ribs!--so guess you came out of this one Ok, and made a real clean break from that camp, besides. Now, on your feet and…yeah, there you go. Try a step or two. It’s just the ribs, nothing that should keep you from walking, and you’ve got a long climb ahead of you before you’ll be home.

Einar, before he had been climbing for ten minutes, found himself wishing most sincerely that he had been able to hang onto that horse, let it take him home to Liz--wanted so badly to be there, to let go and to sleep--before he released it. Wouldn’t have been a good idea at all, of course, and he wondered at the lapse in discipline that had allowed for even the momentary wanting of it, rebuked himself and insisted that he’d spend a week of nights sleeping unprotected out in the cold to make up for it, to toughen himself back up and ensure such thoughts didn’t have an inch of ground in which to take root, and meant it, too, but that didn’t much diminish the wishing. Ribs hurt. Seemed he must have done something to them in the fall, and any movement that involved flexing his torso brought with it an agony that took his breath, left him white-faced, sweating and wishing terribly that he might be able to quit, just lie down, find the position which brought him the least pain and stay that way for a very long time, so long, perhaps, that he would begin disappearing into the ground itself, one with the moss and leaf-rot and the myriad of little green growing things that graced those slightly lower slopes, giving life, in his demise, to those who probably had far more business than he to go on living, but he was living, at the moment, so he did not lie down, made himself keep to his feet and continue the climb.