Having managed to warm themselves slightly between the consumption of significant amounts of bear fat, jerky and honey and the absence of the wind in their shelter, Einar and Liz worked together to pack up the remainder of the food. Einar wanted to leave nearly all of it there in the cache should they have need of it in the future while Liz, still hungry and knowing they had a fairly long climb ahead of them still before they would near the cabin, wished to pack much of it along with them. They compromised in the end, Liz slipping half of the jerky and two good-sized slabs of bear fat into her pack, but leaving the remainder of it there along with the honey, berries and dried spring beauty corms that made up the entirety of the food portion of the cache. A satisfactory solution for both of them, and as Liz packed up to go, Einar used the candle’s flame to melt bits of pitch, resealing the cache basket. That was it, then, time to head back out into the storm, and lying there for one final minute contemplating it, Liz found herself wishing very much that they’d had an extra set of clothes each to leave in that cache.
Dry clothes would have done more than almost anything else--food included--to improve their situation just then, as it is very difficult to get warm when in constant contact with masses of wet cloth, no matter how much one has to eat, but they simply hadn’t had anything to spare, when establishing the cache. Had barely owned enough to keep themselves warm and covered, from day to day, and now that winter seemed to have arrived, they were woefully short on protection. Not as short--she reminded herself--as they had been from time to time, though, and hopefully the current snow would be melting and a few weeks more of Indian summer--or at least autumn--intervening before the next serious storm. They’d have time. Would be ready. For the moment, their focus had to be on simply making it back up to the cabin so they could get dry, have a proper meal and sleep. Sleep. Sounded awfully good to her just then, and she knew Einar had been struggling harder than she against its advances, could see in his eyes just how badly he needed the rest, needed it even more desperately, perhaps, than he needed relief from the cold that was convulsing his body and leaving fingers increasingly stiff and useless as he tried to finish the cache. He was, or course, working hard to keep her from realizing the extent of his trouble, even then, to keep himself from acknowledging it, even, from the looks of things, and she knew he was simply doing what must be done to keep himself going. He had nearly completed the sealing of the cache basket, and she crept closer to him there beneath the elk hide, helped him smooth the last bits of pitch into place.
“Everything’s ready, I think. If you’re still thinking of heading for the cabin today…” By which she meant, I really hope you’ve changed your mind, decided we can stay here and have a fire, stay out of the wind, because it’s just going to kill us in these wet clothes… but she had not expected anything other than the answer he gave.
“Yep. Ready. Couple hours, and we should be there.”
Climbing, despite Liz’s concerns, was actually a relief, the wind’s force broken somewhat by the density of the timber through which they ascended and the effort warming them in a way that they could not have hoped to accomplish while lying still beneath the hide in their sodden clothes, and before long they were in familiar territory once again, zigzagging up through the vast expanse of timber just below the tarn-meadow--too far, they’d gone too far, could have walked more directly to the cabin if they’d realized earlier where they were, but at least they hadn’t passed it up by too much--and stepping out at last to the edge of the grassy expanse of the lower basin. Less than half a mile more of walking, and they’d be home. Good thing, too. Einar was really dragging, pausing now and then to stare for far too long at the sight of snow plastered against the side of an aspen trunk, gold leaves showing in patches up above through its whiteness, nearly asleep on his feet despite his best efforts. Kept himself awake though, kept going with only the occasional reminder from Liz, and then there they were at the tarn, in the trees about to start for it, Einar suddenly realizing that they were about to head out into the open when really they ought to be keeping to the timber, minimizing their sign in case the snow stopped before their tracks could be covered, and he grabbed Liz’s hand, sat down before she could take another step. A rather abrupt way to communicate, but, voice somewhat less than reliable, he hadn’t been able to think of another that would be sure to work in time.
“Trees. Need to keep to the trees,” he finally managed to get out, and she understood, re-directing their path up through the steep timber that would lead them to the cabin. Darkness was near as they made that final climb, darkness, and no letup in the storm.
There at last, snow piled in a wind-drift against the door and they kicked it aside, pushed their way in, breath sounding incredibly loud in the absence of the wind, bodies dripping melted snow and they might have wept with relief had they possessed the energy for it but they did not, hastily deposited their wet clothing on the floor and rolled up together in the bear hide. For a long time they lay there, exhausted, silent, bodies struggling to shiver themselves warm but it wasn’t enough, the good dry warmth of that fur; Liz could see that Einar was still losing ground and so was she, actually, pressed up against his icy frame like that, didn’t have as much warmth to give as he would need to begin heading in the right direction, and she left the bed, struck sparks into the gathering of sticks and tinder that she had wisely arranged before their departure, coaxing the little fire to life and tending it until the rocks of the stove began warming. Einar was awake, was struggling to rise as he thought it his duty to go out and retrieve more wood for the fire, and Liz helped him over to the stove, got him seated in front of it, ewe hide draped over his shoulders, chin on his knees and arms wrapped around them as he watched the flames grow, climb, begin reducing branches to coals, beautiful, living things of pulsating orange, and it seemed they had plenty of wood after all, no need for him to go out in search of more, as the stuff was stacked all along one wall, and then he remembered doing it, thinking it might come in handy at some point, which indeed it had…
Liz woke him some time later, pressing a pot of soup into his hands and nearly burning him before she realized that he might not be quite as wide awake as she had thought, but he was awake after that, alright, set the soup aside and got to his feet, blinking at the dimness of the cabin and looking about to dive at the stove in an attempt to extinguish it. Caught himself just in time, remembering where they were. Home. He sat back down in front of the stove, smiling at Liz.
“You made a fire.”
“It’s safe here, isn’t it?”
“Yep, sure think so. If anyone was back there, we should have left them quite a distance behind and with no idea of where to turn, in this storm…bet they’re on their way back down the mountain by now. And we got our elk hide.”
“It was a pretty costly elk hide. I’m sorry.”
Einar nodded--“Yeah. Was. But no need to be sorry, I agreed to go after it…”--closed his eyes and would have gone back to sleep, but Liz wouldn’t let him, not until he’d had something to eat, and they shared the hastily-made stew together in silence, its rich warmth a tremendous help in beginning to reverse the hold that the long hours of exposure to the snow and wind had gained on their bodies. Finishing the meal they spread snow-soaked clothing out to dry near the stove, crept back beneath the bear hide and slept for a very long time…