Studying the landscape with their soon-to-be trapline in mind as they struggled over what soon came to seem like endless acres of downed timber, the return journey went as quickly as could have been expected for Einar and Liz, which meant that by the time they had closed all but the last half mile of distance, the tree-shadows were beginning to grow long, sun sinking towards its eventual disappearance behind that high horizon. Einar, out in the lead, showed no indication of stopping until he reached his final goal, had not so much as paused--other than to inspect the occasional rabbit run or deer track--since they’d left the cache tree, and finally, near exhaustion and knowing that he had to be worse off, Liz took things into her own hands, plopping down on a fallen aspen and waiting to see if he would take notice. Which--ears still sharp for the possibility that one of those hunters might find his way up into their area--he immediately did, stopping, turning.
“I need a little rest, and some water. Come sit with me?”
Einar gave an exasperated little gesture with his hands, was about to protest, but he saw that she really did appear weary, and well she might be, having had to crawl up and over one fallen tree after another for the past several hours, and she a good bit shorter than himself, and carrying a baby, besides. If only she wouldn’t insist that he sit with her, but she was insisting most insistently, and he nodded in resignation, headed her way.
“Sure. Break sounds good.” What he really meant was no! No, I don’t want to sit, last thing I want to do is to sit, because I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to drag myself up again if I do, just not sure at all, and besides, I don’t want to go through the motions of it, the sitting, the rising, it’s gonna hurt something awful, and it’s hurting enough the way I have to move to get over all this timber, lifting my knees, flexing my ribs like that with each step, it’s been about all I can do to make myself keep at it, step after step, so for goodness’ sake won’t you please just be satisfied with my resting standing up for a minute, and then we can get on with this, get it over with? But of course he said none of that, didn’t even like to see himself thinking it, as it sounded like whining, which was something for which he had very little tolerance in himself, even if its expression was confined to the inside of his own head… Which is how Liz came to misinterpret the look on his face as he eased himself down to sit next to her as one of disgust for her slowness, when if anything it was very nearly the opposite, and their rest was a silent one, Einar--ribs stabbing and biting at his side with every breath--because he didn’t particularly trust himself not to snarl if he spoke, and Liz out of confusion at his response.
By the time the two of them reached the cabin clearing once more the clouds, which had started out as long, thin streamers of wind-torn grey that morning, closing in to obscure the sky’s blue as they took their break, had gathered and lowered and were appearing nearly ready to let loose with a downpour. The wind they had brought with them was chill and sharp, and Einar was sure he could smell snow somewhere off in the distance, up in the peaks. Which, he hardly needed remind himself, were not terribly far above their own little basin. It would be an interesting night, and he wouldn’t be terribly surprised to wake to a dusting of snow on the trees. One good thing about the storm, he supposed, was that they ought to be able to safely use the stove for a little while, cook up some supper and warm the place some, as the hunting party down near the valley would almost certainly be doing the same. That, or, if they were smart, possibly even packing up and leaving, heading down lower before the weather had the chance to close in and trap them as always seemed to happen to five or six unwary--and usually out of state--hunters every fall, a sudden snowstorm stranding vehicles and men and leaving them to walk out or, as more frequently happened, to wait for rescue. Well. He could only hope that this bunch would be wiser about the weather, because the last thing they needed was another aerial search to contend with! In all likelihood the snow, if it came at all, wouldn’t be nearly that heavy, anyway. Seemed a bit early in the season for anything but a skiff of it, though one never could be sure. Until it happened, which, the way things were feeling, it would have by morning. He shivered, joined Liz in the cabin and helped her push the door closed against a rather forceful gust of wind, thin and icy and starting to feel damp.
“It looks like we’ve got some weather moving in. It should give us a good chance to refill this rain barrel, maybe, so we don’t have to be making so many trips up to the spring for water. If it really ends up raining.”
“Oh, it’ll rain alright. Gonna start raining in…hmm, give it a minute or two, I’d say. No more than three. I can smell it.”
“Three minutes it is, then, and I’ll expect to be hearing the patter of little…raindrops! Hey, I hear them! I guess you called that one pretty close!” And she turned to him with laughter in her eyes, excited at the start of the storm, for she hoped it might mean they no longer had to wait for dark to have a fire. Einar’s face was grave though, unreadable. Something on his mind as he listened intently to the growing rustle and rattle of raindrops in the aspen leaves outside, its soft hiss on the roof. Recalling his occasional need to take off and test himself for a few hours by that blackened shell of a dead tree at the edge of the plateau above the spring, she was half afraid to ask.
“What? Did you hear something? Besides the rain…”
Einar was quiet, didn’t answer for a long time. The storm presented the perfect opportunity, he knew, to go reconnoiter the camp near the valley, make certain the hunters were simply hunters of elk, and not hunters of men. Should have done it before then, hurried down there that morning as soon as Liz had seen the smoke, and he could hardly believe his negligence in waiting. Slipping, Einar. You’re slipping, getting tired, letting these injuries get to you, I guess, getting content to just drift along and see what life brings, and you can’t afford to do that. Not out here. Not anywhere, or this is all gonna be over before you know it, and in a real unpleasant way, too. Alright. It was alright, because he knew very well how to move in the rain, how to use it for his advantage, slipping entirely unnoticed from tree to tree on the soft, damp-silent forest floor, and while he knew the best policy is often to leave well enough alone, minimize one’s exposure to the human contact that would almost inevitably prove disastrous, he did not like the thought of simply sitting up there in the basin and waiting, counting on the likelihood that the party’s presence both had nothing to do with them and would not lead to their eventual discovery. Better to be proactive, be the one to make the first move. Better to know for sure. Guessed he’d better tell Liz what he had in mind.