By the time they finished loading and sealing the cache basket, Einar could smell the smoke from the camp down near the valley, winds having shifted upslope as the day warmed, and he was half inclined to put off placing the cache in favor of scouting the camp, but shook his head at the idea. Had to keep his priorities straight. Be ready to leave, if it came to that. The basket, loaded down with food and supplies--they’d had no opportunity to make pemmican as had been the intention, so had simply added extra portions of fat and jerky, instead--was fairly heavy and Einar worked quickly to devise a pair of straps so it could be worn like a pack, snaking lengths of cordage in through some of the looser weaves of willow on the outside of the basket, passing them around the back and grunting as he slid his arms into the resulting loops. A little heavy, but he could do it. Would do it. Would have done it, had Liz not taken the basket from him as he struggled to rise, and he turned on her with a bit of annoyance, not terribly happy about the fact that he’d have to repeat the difficult process of getting into those straps. She seemed determined to carry it herself, but he shook his head, working hard to get enough breath, put out a hand to stop her.
“You’ve got little Snorri to carry , and we’re gonna be traversing some pretty rough ground here, lots of downed timber. This is mine to lug. How about you help me get this thing back on, now?”
Liz didn’t want to do it, could see the struggle he was having simply remaining on his feet, but he was clearly determined, wouldn’t likely respond too well to her attempts at persuasion, and besides, he did have a point. It was becoming a fair challenge for her simply to navigate some of the rougher terrain of late, even without a heavy, bulky basket on her back, and while she was quite certain of her ability to carry out the task, she knew it might well slow them down, possibly even lead to a nasty fall on her part, if she tried to move too quickly through a section of downed timber. The weight of the pack hurt Einar, she could see it in the deepening of the lines at the corners of his mouth as she eased it onto his back, but he wasn’t letting on, eyes clear and still, jaw set as he took off towards the lower portion of the basin, keeping to the heaviest timber he could find and glancing about warily for the source of the smoke they were both smelling.
Moving carefully, listening all the time for signs that they might not be alone but hearing nothing, aside from the crashing of a startled deer as it bounded off through the trees, gone too quickly for him to be able to get a dart into place, Einar led them on a gentle arc down and across the slope that stretched away steep and heavily timbered below the basin, hundreds of acres of spruce and fir, thousands of them, probably, all straight-standing and pointing upwards like they had been carefully combed, trimmed, made uniform. A great place in which to lose one’s self, and that was exactly what Einar was counting on, should they ever find themselves in need of retrieving that cache. After a good hour of walking--no sense having the cache too close to the home place, in this case, as the occasion of its use would likely be nothing less than a major breach of security up there, so farther was better--they reached the small, rocky-sided draw that Einar had chosen as a landmark to help them find the cache in the future, its trickle of a creek alerting them to its presence even before the close-growing spruces allowed them a glimpse of the change in terrain.
Good. Right where he’d remembered it being, and every bit as rough and wild, difficult to traverse. A temporary barrier to anyone who might be actively on their trail. Now to find the best spot--a spot that could be remembered, recognized by them, summer or winter, without drawing the attention of anyone who might in the meantime pass by--place the cache and get out of there. Climbing, following the draw as it clawed its way up through the timber, narrow, rocky slash through what appeared an endless sea of trees, Einar searched for the place, studying potential cache trees and looking for a spot that might provide them the opportunity for a slightly easier crossing of the obstacle. The air there along the steeply-falling little creek was cool and damp with mist, moss growing in great green mats over the cascade of partially polished granite chunks and exposed spruce roots, and Einar, though working hard to keep himself climbing with the heavy burden of the basket on his back, was finding that it went down a good bit more readily than the typically dry high altitude air of the basin, didn’t catch so in his throat and thus eased the searing ache of moving his ribs with each breath, and he wanted to stay, choose a rock and plant himself there for a good while, leaning out over the falling water, breathing, resting, but he went on. Had to get that cache set up, and then--there--he saw the tree, and it was perfect.
The fir was a large one for that elevation, trunk narrow and straight for the first fifteen or twenty feet but after that it split, grew strangely twisted, one half dead and the other having grown all bushy and branchy as if to compensate, and when Einar looked closely, he saw that it had at some point been struck by lightning. The great overgrown portion of the tree’s top half, branches so thick and twisted in places that those underneath had died for lack of air and sunlight, offered them the perfect place to conceal the basket, and Einar stopped, lowered it from his back and slumped to the ground for a brief moment of exhausted rest. Liz offered him water and he took it, pressing a hand to one of the nearby moss sponges and swiping at the sweat on his forehead. Glancing up at Liz, he saw that she, too, was breathing hard from the climb, but appeared to be doing alright.
“Pretty steep going up here, but that’s good. If we ever have to use it, we’ll be real glad of the steepness. Buy us some time.”
“Yes, it surely will. This funny tree here, is it the one you’ve got in mind?”
He nodded, stumbled to his feet and caught himself against the fir. “Yep, this is the one. Figure if we can get a rope up over one of those branches in the real tangled area, raise this thing up there and secure it in that mess, it ought to blend in real well! Got to stick a few branches in and around it first though, that squirrel’s nest effect we were talking about earlier…”
With which Einar sank back to the ground, legs folding under him, suddenly too dizzy to trust himself with standing any longer there on the edge of the steep dropoff to the creek. Sleepy. Ridiculously sleepy all of a sudden, and he shook his head, felt for the pad of moss and this time ripped it up, pressed it to his face, somewhat revived by the cold shock as water oozed from it and trickled away into his beard. What was that? Back on your feet, before you fall asleep and topple over into all those rocks, into the creek. That’d wake you up real good, alright! Liz, by the time he got himself sorted out and on his feet again, was studiously focused on adding branches to the cache basket, wanting to help Einar, to ask him what was happening with him, but knowing he wouldn’t like her to have noticed. While Liz camouflaged the basket, Einar uncoiled the longest bit of cordage he’d brought, tied a rock to one end and began working to get it tossed up and over a favorable branch, something that would hold the weight of the cache, keep it out of the easy reach of bears and provide it some concealment from the ground. Finally made it, got the rock up and over, rope untangled from the broken branch that had snagged it partway down and ready for the basket, which Liz held up, finished.
“Looks like a squirrel’s nest to me! That ought to do just fine. Let’s get this thing raised up there, see how it looks.”
Together--Einar having securely wound and tied the pack straps to the longer rope--they raised the basket, Einar snubbing it around a branch low on the tree and concealing the rope behind a screen of live branches. Little sign remained of either the basket or the rope, basket blending almost flawlessly with its surrounding cover of branches, a mix of live and dead that rather efficiently swallowed up the well-camouflaged vessel, and rope pulled tight against the tree’s trunk, hidden. A job well done.
Little did Einar and Liz know, turning to leave the creek, that one of them would have need of the items in that cache sooner than they might have imagined.