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.