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.