She didn’t like it at all, the idea of him taking off into that storm for any reason after their long trek to the cache site, let alone for the purpose of prowling down near some unknown camp and possibly risking being seen or--worse, and probably a lot more likely--getting the wrong idea about its occupants and their intentions and insisting they must abandon the cabin with all haste. Didn’t know how to tell him that without seeming to question his judgment, which--though perhaps it ought to have been--really wasn’t her intention, and finally gave up thinking about it and decided to simply speak her mind.
“It seems things sometimes end badly when we separate and you go scouting after groups of hunters…can’t I come with you this time, if you’ve got to do this?”
“No, two people are so much more likely than one to get spotted. I can move real silently in the rain, go in for a look and confirm that they look like hunters, check to see if they’ve made any forays up in our direction here, and come back without them ever having so much as a hint that they’re being watched. Let me go. You stay here and be the human presence at the cabin so the bears and such don’t get the wrong idea about it being a good spot to raid. Give me some time to do this, and I’ll be back.”
Liz couldn’t deny that the idea of having Einar down there between their home and the unknown interlopers at that camp was something of a comforting one; they’d never get past him, of that she had no doubt. Still, she would have liked to go along and help. Be there with him, try and ensure with her presence that things didn’t go terribly wrong as they had when he tracked the elk scout the time before Bud and Susan had come. And that time with the wildlife watchers who’d been up on the adjoining ridge photographing mountain goats. That one had gone terribly, terribly wrong, and while Einar seemed to her to be doing a good bit better since that last visit with Kilgore, far less inclined to wake in the night unsure of where he was or with whom and a good bit more steady during the daytime, too, she hated to think what a night or two--these things always seemed to take longer than anticipated--freezing and hungry out there in the timber as he observed the hunter’s camp might do to that apparent progress. Well. She supposed they’d both be finding out before too long, because already he was making his preparations to leave, seemed determined to do it and she couldn’t say for sure that he was wrong, let alone hope to convince him of it.
Outside, the rain had increased from pattering and whispering to a steady, soaking downpour, the stick-spout that filled their water barrel beginning to drip steadily. It was a pleasant sound, and Liz could not help think that it would have made a pleasant thing to listen to--almost like music, especially when combined with the rustling, dancing song of the aspen leaves outside--as afternoon slipped towards evening and the two of them sat in front of the stove, sharing a big pot of tea and sleepily discussing the details of their upcoming winter. Sounded great, especially after the day’s long trek, but it was looking like she’d have to do the sitting and tea-drinking all by herself, if it was to happen. Einar had quickly changed his socks and got his boots back on, was crouched there holding his ribs and listening anxiously to the dripping of the rain, almost as if he was afraid it might quit before he was able to take advantage of its presence. Liz wished it would.
The rain did not quit, and after taking his leave of Liz--she’d wanted him to stay and have a quick supper, but he hadn’t wanted to lose any more daylight, and the missing of that meal was to be something he found himself badly regretting, later--Einar set out for the lower slopes above the creek-valley, carrying a very minimal load and moving at a good pace over the soft, soaked ground, the motions familiar to him, coming with increasing ease as he settled into the hunt. Quiet. Everything was quiet, save the gentle patter of rain in the aspens, a whispering hiss in the evergreens and the soft pop and gurgle of the ground absorbing moisture, and Einar hardly added to the noise as he passed, descending, shadowy figure in a world of shadow, and soon very nearly as damp and dripping as anything else in the forest, too. No matter. It helped him blend in, the wetness, made him more a part of things and allowed him to focus all of his attention on the intricacies of his surroundings, rather than wasting energy striving to delay the inevitable advance of the enveloping moisture. A familiar place for him to be, and before he knew it he had descended half that slope, wriggling under fallen trees as often as he stepped up and over them, soaking wet, muddy and fighting the burning ache in his ribs with every movement of his torso, but grinning fiercely as he went and quite frankly enjoying himself rather more than he had in a good while, in his own strange and--to others--often incomprehensible manner.
The camp. Two small canvas wall tents, smoke coming from both chimneys but no sound emanating from their interiors, no one home it seemed, and Einar wanted a look at the men, wanted to get more of a sense for who they were, what their purpose might be up there only a few miles from his home. Liz’s home. Probably hunting elk. That was the most obvious answer, but still he waited, didn’t want to approach the camp and risk running into a straggler, camp cook, didn’t want the chance that he might leave an inadvertent track or some other sign of his passage that would almost certainly be overlooked by a group of wet, weary hunters returning after a long day in the field, but which could spell his doom if the men were something…other. Wait. Get your eyes on them, and you’ll know. The place where he currently crouched, somewhat shielded from the rain but not entirely from view, was not a good one, and he moved, slowly and with great effort--had to move slowly, he told himself, so as to avoid making any unnecessary noise, but he knew it was something else--picking his way around the camp, keeping to the timber as he sought the best spot from which to keep his watch. Everything hurt. It wasn’t just his ribs this time, the familiar ache in his shoulders that had been his constant companion since the encounter with Kilgore. This time, cold and immensely, crushingly weary--not a good time for this, put it aside, can deal with it later, but his body wasn’t listening--his his entire being seemed affected, bones aching and muscles cramping up as he circled the camp, lower legs strangely swollen as they had been following the beestings, ankles appearing entirely out of proportion to his scrawny legs. Well. You’re still on your feet. It will have to do. Should be back up at the cabin by midnight, anyway, if they hurry back so you can get done here, and it’ll all be fine.
Noises over there, over in the timber just above the camp near the place from which he had first caught sight of it, and quickly he flattened himself against the ground beneath a low-boughed spruce, digging down in the duff with his legs until they were covered, pulling the stuff up and over his torso for better concealment. A bit close to the clearing, only feet from a little grassy area that bordered the tents but it afforded him a good view of the camp, and would have to do. Already they were showing themselves in the clearing, and he held his breath, peering through his spruce needle concealment as he counted them. Four horses, and four men. Looked legitimate, looked just like any of the other elk hunters he’d worked with over the years, hunted with over the years, and he felt a bit foolish in that moment for his insistence on coming down to spy on them. No need to feel foolish. He hadn’t known. Best to know for sure. Something inside him relaxed a little as he waited for them to picket the horses and retreat to the tents for the evening--for indeed it was evening, was, the overcast heavy and low, only minutes from dark--and allow him to make his retreat. He missed Liz, wanted the warmth of the cabin, a night of good rest. And something to eat. Really needed something to eat.
As he waited, listening, for the men to move on, to go somewhere other than right there where he was, the slow realization came over Einar that perhaps he’d made a mistake. Big one. Had concealed himself mere feet from the spot where the hunters intended to leave their horses for the night, and in the rapidly dimming light he could make out four pairs of legs, one set black, one buckskin, the rest chestnut. Too close, and staying there, too, for the voices had retreated to the tents, dimmed with distance, and he heard the sounds of supper being prepared. Wanted to get away, almost got up and made a break for it right then and there, but made himself keep still. Any untimely movement on his part would, he knew, lead the horses to alert everyone to his presence, bring probably-armed men hurrying over to see what the trouble might be, what manner of creature might be harassing the horses, and he couldn’t risk that. Couldn’t risk having them pick up on his trail, take an interest and follow it. Couldn’t go anywhere at all just then, not unless he was prepared to take one of the horses, make his escape on it and loose the others, drive them off…which could work, would work and would be just the thing to do, in a pinch, only he wasn’t in that sort of pinch, not yet, not quite, and it was far better to keep his presence entirely unknown. Which meant waiting until they came and moved the horses, early morning, probably, when they went out to hunt. He could wait for early morning, could lie right there in the spruce needles, and wait. Which he did, sleeping after a time, even though he’d meant to stay awake, watch and wait.
Morning, and Einar was cold. The horses had awakened him, soft sounds as the men came for them, saddled up and prepared to ride out, and he lay there very still, listening, odors of breakfast in camp all around him, and they ought to have been making his stomach cramp up with hunger, with desire, only they weren’t. Distant, amusing, fodder for the imagination, perhaps, but hardly relevant they seemed that morning, as did his own body, actually, so cold that it was stiff and shaking beneath its covering of sodden spruce needles and equally damp wool and buckskin, but hardly seeming a part of him at all. Darkness again then as he drifted back towards sleep, a blur of light when next he was aware of his surroundings, the wet thump of receding hooves in the timber, and he knew they had gone. And so could he. Must he. But he did not move, lay instead smiling up at the sky, still cloudy, blurring, blending with the usually-sharp forms of the evergreens, and the sight was oddly fascinating to him.
The merciful euphoria of near starvation--it surprised him some, as he hadn’t realized he was that close, but it seemed he was always very much on the edge, those days, just a meal or two away from being in real trouble, and now here he was, again--pain leaving, a peace settling over his mind, a certain quiet, the absence of internal strife, a rare and precious thing, and Einar loved it, loved everything, come to think of it, the soft gauzy grey of the heavily overcast September sky through the spruces, the pair of crows that wheeled slowly overhead--over the faint dusting of snow that graced the treetops, frosted the ground, whitened his hair--each feather seeming to stand out to his eyes in stark, slightly iridescent detail, the gentle singing of the trees all around him, beautiful, beautiful world, and he wanted to embrace it, this thing that had come over him, to simply rejoice in its presence and be still, but something was interfering, a voice that might have been his own, but he wasn’t entirely sure. Closing his eyes he tried to ignore it, this voice, this unwelcome intrusion on his newfound peace, but it was persistent, harsh, and finally he had to listen.
What is this? You can’t do this. Can’t leave Lizzie this way. You know where this leads if you let it go, where it has to lead, and I’m telling you, you’ve got no right at all to go there just now. Not if you’ve got any choice at all in the matter, and you do. Fight it. Get on your feet, and fight it. Didn’t want to listen, to disturb the absurdly beautiful, radiant joy that had come over him, and he knew too much movement would surely disturb it, would leave him right back where he’d been before, beyond it, actually, cold, slow, hurting and flat out of energy. At the end. His end. Yet he had to disturb it, knew it for the imposter it was, knew he’d die if he didn’t fight it all the way. Would just lie there smiling up at the sky--beautiful, beautiful sky, wish Lizzie could see this the way I’m seeing it right now, wish everyone could--until finally he got too weak to fight it even if he wanted to, and, assuming he was even still conscious by that point, which was assuming quite a lot, would drift off to sleep. His last sleep. In the night--if not before--the cold would creep in and take him. Ok. He groaned, got to his elbows. Can’t be doing that. Fight it. Right.
When he tried to fight it, though, by standing--seemed a good way to start--the results were less than he might have hoped for, legs giving way beneath him and his body rolling heavily sideways against the carcass of a long-fallen aspen, knocking loose a long section of half-rotted bark, which landed on him, nearly covering him. Finding that very funny for some reason he lay there laughing as he spit out bits of bark, silently, for he knew the hunters might still be close, but laughing nonetheless until the tears streamed down his face and onto his neck and started making him cold in the chilly morning breeze, colder than he already was--everything seemed to be making him cold that day, just as everything was making him laugh--but somehow that was funny, too, enormously funny, and he laughed and shivered and would soon have tried getting up again--got to do it, don’t want to do it but got to--had he not heard the unmistakable crunch and swish of footsteps in the nearby grass. The laughing stopped then of its own accord but the shivering did not, and he needed it to stop, willed himself still, breathed himself still until he was confident that he wasn’t giving any sign of his presence, and then he waited. Horses. The man was leading horses. Two of them, by the sound of things, and very close. Not good. He’d thought all the horses had departed that morning with the hunting party, but apparently two of them had been picketed in a different area for the night, had stayed behind, and a man with them. Why?