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.”