With the snow grown heavier and blown nearly sideways by a wind that gusted and tore through the low, stunted ranks of firs lining the ravine, Einar and Liz had a very difficult time determining which spot might be better than another to try their descent down into the steepness of the gully, and finally, growing a bit desperate to get out of the wind, they made the almost-simultaneous decision to go ahead and give it a try, right there where they were and without further delay. On the other side the timber was heavier, and would, they very much hoped, offer them more protection from the weather. Liz, who had ended up in front, slipped on the rotten, snow-covered shale of the ravine-side with her second step, almost went down but Einar caught her, grabbed her pack and hung on until she’d managed to get her feet beneath her once more. She was afraid to move after that, clung precarious and shaking to the little ledge that had somewhat broken her slide, knowing that each step she took on that fragmented, snow-cemented rock would perhaps be the one that sent her sliding and tumbling once more for the bottom. Which might not have been quite such a frightening prospect had she been able to see the bottom, but, snow in her eyes and in the air blown thick and white like a living, moving fog, she couldn’t. It might be anywhere. Might be sixty feet down, instead of the fifteen she’d estimated back where they had first encountered the gully. She couldn’t do it. Einar could, though, slung the tied loop of the elk hide over his shoulder and across his neck for greater stability, eased his way past her and felt below with his feet, bracing himself on a spur of more solid-feeling rock and taking a firm hold on her hand.
“Come with me. Easy now, just…put your foot where mine is, that’s right, just above it, and I’ll keep you from sliding. Now the other one. Nasty stuff, isn’t it, this rotten shale? But we’ll be down off it real soon…”
Liz was still terrified--inexplicably, and she would be somewhat embarrassed about it later, as she had routinely been up, and down, far more challenging slopes, and had seldom had any qualms about it; she would suppose later that the trouble must be related to her changing balance as the pregnancy advanced, though she wasn’t thinking in those terms, at the moment--but she followed Einar, one step after another, reluctant, still feeling as though she was about to take off sliding, but trusting him, gaining a bit of confidence as they went. There it was at last, the bottom. She knew because she was standing in water, the slow, show-choked gurgle of the little creek--reduced to a trickle that time of year--that marked the ravine’s floor, slithering around the rocks instead of leaping over them in a boisterously crashing white foam as it had, earlier in the summer, and quickly she stepped out of it, not wanting her boots to grow any wetter than they were, already. Einar was standing in the water too, and she pulled him out, tried to get him to look her in the eye so they could talk about climbing up out of the ravine. He looked bad, eyes distant, face immensely weary and body trembling once more with cold at the relaxation of the sharply-focused concentration that had got the two of them safely down the slope, elbow pressed into his ribs in an attempt to ease the stabbing hurt they had been bringing him with every breath on the climb, and she prayed that the cache might be close, so he could rest, and eat. If he would eat. Well, she’d see to it that he did. The wind was less down there between the two shale slopes, less, but not absent, and Liz knew they must resist the temptation to remain where they were, huddle down on those rocks and enjoy the less-windiness as they drifted dangerously towards sleep. Einar, it appeared, was already well on his way, and she pulled him to his feet, ignoring the pleading in his eyes--a minute, just another minute to catch my breath…please--and pointing up the opposite slope. Einar nodded, began the ascent.
Because of the swirling snow he almost missed it, the tree whose oddly-shaped top marked the location of their cache, wasn’t sure why--passing, eyes fixed on the ground--he looked up but he did, knew the tree, hurried in its direction with Liz following. Snow had plastered itself against the cord by which the basket was meant to be lowered, and together they scraped it away, freed the frozen nettle fibers and unwound from its branch-stub the end of the cord. Einar gave the cord a few tugs to shake loose the accumulated snow from the basket, laughing--a cracked, crazy sound, and Liz half wished he would stop, but instead ended up joining him--when portions of it hit him square in the face. The basket came down without a hitch, dumping more snow as they eased it to the ground, and Liz took it, hurried off into the timber in search of a good, sheltered spot to stop. Found it in a nearly dry, snowless alcove where several spruces came together, branches overlapping so as to almost entirely shield the ground beneath. Einar followed her into the shelter, shrugged out of the elk hide and began fumbling with its tie while Liz chipped away at the pitch seal that held the cache-basket’s lid in place. The seal had done its job; inside, the basket’s contents were as clean and dry as the day they had packed them, and Liz pulled out slabs of bear fat, the bag of jerky and, perhaps most important of all for their immediate needs, the tiny wax-coated basket she had woven and filled with honey.
Cutting away the wax that held its lid in place she took a finger-full of the cup or so of honey contained in the vessel, feeling an instant surge of energy as it hit her stomach. Einar was still struggling with the elk hide and she took it from him, handed him the basket of honey and worked to get the bulky hide unrolled so they could take advantage of its shelter. Einar set the pot aside, helped her stretch the hide over the entire sheltered area beneath the group of trees--had to roll the edges under somewhat, as the hide was so large--and got down on hands and knees to scrape up great piles of spruce duff, shoving it beneath the hide for them to huddle in and dumping other loads along its edges to help keep out the wind. Shelter finished and his hands having grown nearly too numb to be of much further use-- the exertion of the climb, it seemed, had been the only thing keeping him mobile--Einar struggled out of his snow-soaked sweater and crept beneath the hide, Liz following with the basket of food, the two of them lying there together in exhausted silence for a time before Liz stirred herself to reach for the honey, pressed it into Einar’s hand.
“Eat. You need the sugar. It’ll give you energy.” Which he knew was true, meant to follow through on it but fell asleep instead, honey basket clasped in both hands and his face buried in spruce needles as he drifted off into a tremendously pleasant dream of food and warmth, pair of ptarmigan over the stove in the cabin, skin crisp and brown and crackling as he brushed on another layer of honey, basting them, Liz and the baby--looked to be a good three or four months old, and cozy as could be all wrapped in Liz’s woven rabbitskin blanket--sitting all dozy and comfortable on a pile of soft, warm bear and sheep hides against one wall of the cabin while the wind howled furiously outside, blowing up a storm but not finding its way in, beautiful, beautiful sight, smiling in his sleep, and he was at first rather cross when Liz shook him out of it, rough hand on his shoulder and a stick coated with honey shoved into the corner of his mouth before he could do anything about it. Spluttering and coughing, spitting out the stick he sat up, would have thrown the elk hide aside and taken off into the snow had Liz not grabbed him and hung on, spoken rather forcefully.
“Einar--stop! You were asleep, and it isn’t a good time to sleep. Stay awake and have some more of this honey. You hear me?”
Nodding, slightly confused still but beginning to remember where he was he lay back down, took the honey basket and scooped up a small portion of its sticky, sweet contents. Just what he needed, and not a moment too soon, from the feel of things. He’d been getting lost there for a minute, letting sleep take him when he ought to have known better. “Yep, I hear you. Was an awful good dream, though…you and the little one all cozy in the cabin this winter and me tending a couple ptarmigan on the stove, whole place filled with that incredible smell and the sound of our supper crackling, almost time to eat…”
“Well, let’s make sure that has some chance of happening, Ok? And that means we’ve both got to stay awake right now, have to do some more eating and had better have a fire, too.”
“No…no fire. Storm gave us a chance to get way far off their radar, if they were ever watching, and I don’t want to risk messing that up with a big old fire down this close to the camera. No. We can…rest for a few minutes, eat, see about getting a little strength back and then it’s on to the cabin. If we don’t rest too long, can get there by nightfall. Have a fire tonight, dry clothes…the bear hide.”
Liz couldn’t believe her ears. “The cabin? Einar, you’ll kill yourself trying that right now. Have you already forgotten what a struggle it was just getting here? As great as it sounds to be home, have our stove and dry things and bear hide…I really think we just need to call it a day, get a fire going and work on drying our clothes.”
“Can’t have a fire here, or we may lose the cabin altogether. It’ll be one long cold night if we choose to stay here without a fire, and even if we made it through that alright, we’d have the problem of leaving tracks in the morning if the snow happened to quit. Might end up stranded again like at the last place, just huddling under the elk hide and waiting for the snow to either melt or start up again, while we ate up all our food and started freezing like before. Now. I’m alright, or will be in a minute, and you’re doing better than me, looks like. So we’ll do alright with that walk. It’s the only thing that makes sense, really…”
A series of arguments that Liz knew she could not effectively refute, so she turned her attention to the remaining food in the cache, determined to see that the two of them got a good meal before starting out.