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.