Moving carefully down the steep, sparsely timbered slope that led to the little basin which had drawn Muninn’s interest, Einar did his best to keep them concealed, hurrying from one little spit of firs to another and taking advantage of the occasional cluster of stunted, snow-twisted aspens to work their way in a bit closer to the clearing down below. It was slow going, the slope cut here and there with shallow draws full of loose, rotten sandstone that threatened to give way and go clattering down under the pressure of their feet, and Einar, not yet having a clear idea what might await them down in the clearing, was determined to make their approach a quiet one. A precaution for which, as it turned out, there had been little need, for the ruckus reached their ears even before they made the ring of taller, more robust aspens that sheltered the clearing, a chorus of yips and snarls giving them a pretty clear indication of why the raven had thus far been unwilling to descend and make a landing, despite obviously having found something in that clearing to hold his interest. Coyotes. A good number of them from the sound of things, and Einar motioned to Liz to cross the slope, approach the clearing from the side opposite his own.
Reaching the edges of the clearing nearly simultaneously and crouching amongst the low-growing vegetation that flourished beneath the aspens, Liz and Einar made visual contact with on another, Einar pointing to a spot where three coyotes--had sounded like a good many more--stood snarling and tearing at what appeared to be the well picked-over remains of an elk carcass. Cautious, Einar studied the scene, trying to determine how the animal might have died and finding his answer in a length of frayed orange baling twine that hung swaying gently in the breeze from a head-high branch on one of the nearby aspens. Hunters had clearly been in the area, had--judging by the boldness of the coyotes--clearly left some time ago, too, yet still he was cautious, suddenly fearing the entire thing a trap and not wanting risk walking straight up to the carcass without further investigation. Catching Liz’s eye once more he made a circular motion to indicate his intention to make a circuit of the clearing, silently gesturing for her to wait for him where she was. Liz understood, took up a position against one of the larger aspens in the area where she could watch and cover him with the bow--the coyotes did not especially worry her, but something clearly had him spooked, and she wondered if he might have caught a glimpse of something that aroused his suspicions…not that it took much--until he returned.
Moving at a low crouch as he carefully surveyed the clearing, searching for any irregularity in the surrounding trees, any indication that the hunters might have been after more than elk during their time there, Einar worked his way around the borders of the clearing, testing the air, listening, hearing nothing aside from the rustling of wind in fall-yellowing aspens, the occasional muted growl and grunt from the feeding coyotes, and far overhead, Muninn’s harsh rasping as he made yet another circuit of the area. Easing over to the spot where the length of baling twine still hung quite noticeably from its aspen branch he searched for any further signs of human presence, seeing only what appeared to be a series of week-old tracks, or older--two individuals, both somewhere near six feet high but one a good bit heavier than the other--beneath the tree where the hunters had skinned and gutted the elk. Einar let out a guarded sigh, stepped out into the clearing, one eye on the coyotes and the other watching the sky, dart in place and atlatl ready for action.
Nothing happened. No sudden rush of armed men emerging from the trees to take him, no orange-feathered dart sticking into his shoulder, no distant but fast-approaching rumble emerging from behind the next ridge. Not even the coyotes seemed to be paying him much mind. Apparently didn’t regard him as much of a threat, which Einar did not take as a good sign, and he charged at them with a roar that very quickly changed their minds, left them scattering into the trees like shadows, disappearing. He waved to Liz and she joined him, standing with him over the much beleaguered carcass of what had once been a large bull elk. The head had been taken, hindquarters gone and only the smallest shreds remaining in the neck area, ribs and on the legs where the coyotes had not yet entirely decimated it, only the stinking, picked-over paunch remaining of the gut pile, but the thing that drew Einar’s eye was the animal’s hide, cast carelessly aside beneath an aspen and, dried out and somewhat chewed in one spot by the scavenging coyotes, but still quite useable. The skinning had been executed with a considerable amount of skill, little meat or fat remaining to either tempt scavengers or promote spoilage of the hide. Struggling to manipulate the stiff, drying leather Einar folded it up, lashed it to his pack and knew the day would, because of the raven's help, be counted as a success even if they did not put their eyes on live elk. Which there seemed a reasonably good chance they might, considering that a herd clearly frequented the area, and had put in an appearance no more than a week ago when their scavenged kill was made. Muninn, growing more comfortable in the absence of the coyotes, found his way down to the clearing and took a seat in the great hollow ribcage of the deceased elk, picking at bits of meat and generally acting very proud of himself.
“Good find, critter,” Einar congratulated him, slicing a bit of meat from the elk’s neck area and holding it out to the bird. “Guess you can stick with us for the moment, if you’re gonna be showing us things like this. We’d have walked right past it, for sure.”
Liz, also, offered the bird a token shred of meat, which he accepted. “It helps to have our own eyes in the sky for once, doesn’t it?”
“Ha! Yeah, unless he ends up leading them to us with his strange behavior, circling over our camp or something until folks take a notion to come and investigate…we’ll have to watch him real close here for a while, but he’s looking more and more like an asset, for sure.”
“The hide’s still good, isn’t it?”
“Yep! Big one, with only a bit of damage here and there…should go a long way towards making us that second parka, or a pair of fur-lined snow pants.”
“It looks heavy. What do you say to hanging it way up in one of these trees here, and picking it up on our way back down?”
Einar looked doubtful. Or worse. Looked downright suspicious, actually, though he hadn’t necessarily meant for Liz to see it, as it wasn’t directed at her. “Nope, I don’t want us coming within a ridge or two of this place anytime again soon. Looks like a real straightforward situation, hunter took an elk, skinned it out and packed the meat and head down the hill, but…no. We need to take the hide with us right now, if we want to have it. Can cache it once we get back up on the route to the ridge, maybe, leave it under the rocks--since there aren’t really any trees to speak of up there--where we can pick it back up on our way down…some risk in that, but the thing must weight somewhere near forty five, fifty pounds, and we’d be moving a lot faster without it. Guess I really would like to minimize the time we’re gonna spend up on the ridge, as exposed as it is up there. Yep, let’s cache it on our route. I’ll carry it up the hill ‘til we find the right spot.”
The climb was a long one, Einar keeping himself going with some difficulty until they reached the slope that would be their likely return route, upon which he sat down rather suddenly and began burying the hide beneath the largest rocks he, with Liz’s help, could drag over it. Up that high there was very little danger of bears happening along, and they were both confident that no coyote could move the granite slabs with which they were protecting their prized hide. Hide secured as well as they were able they started once again up the slope, sun beginning to sink lower in the sky and red ridge-top still some fifteen hundred feet above. It did not take Einar long to find his pace once more, a rhythm that carried him up over the rocks, ordered his breathing and kept him moving.
Einar, reaching the ridge top somewhat over an hour later, found himself elated, skipping from rock to rock with a lightness and ease that belied his physical condition and finding the world--the entire thing, every detail of their stark, rocky windswept surroundings, peaks streaked with white in the distance and anywhere from six to eight layers of rugged, spruce-prickling ridges lying folded in a jumbled yet somehow strangely orderly fashion to fill the intervening space--unbelievably, incomprehensibly beautiful, right, good. Liz, arriving breathless a few steps behind him and staring out at the panorama that awaited her view was similarly pleased to have reached the summit, an important landmark in their quest for elk, but it was with an understandable bit of caution that she viewed the sudden change in Einar's demeanor; he clearly wasn't getting enough oxygen, and the fact that it had not only ceased to bother him but left him rather more exuberant than usual did not strike her as particularly reassuring. Not much to do about it, though, and she followed him as he took off across the great expanse of tilted, tundra-grassed, quartz-pebbled red sandstone, hanging back slightly as he danced and skipped like a madman along its far and fractured edge, great glacial bowls sweeping down in unbroken expanses of shattered rock and lingering snow to the timber some two thousand feet below, dancing on the edge of the world, arms uplifted to the sky.
They sighted their first elk near sundown, a barely perceived flicker of motion in a patch of grass that stood all brown and billowy like a cloud-shadow amongst lingering snowbanks catching Liz's eye. When they sat down and pulled out binoculars it was to find that while the movement had indeed been that of an elk, the creatures so far away as to be difficult to make out, a good half mile away and far out of either atlatl or bow range--though I’d make the shot with a good rifle, Einar thought to himself, too bad I don’t have one of my rifles--and they decided to work their way in closer, moving carefully and planning on spending the night in one of the large clusters of stunted sub alpine firs that lay black and matted--for truly they were little more than mats of ground cover, at that elevation--closing in on the creatures just after daybreak the next morning.