Einar was moving as quickly as he could, trying his hardest, as he saw Liz disappearing into the timber ahead of him, to increase his pace, not wanting to lose her, but it felt as if he was swimming through thick mud, half frozen mud, it must have been, and his body just wouldn’t move any faster. He knew he was in trouble when finally he got to the point where he couldn’t lift his leg up high enough to get it over one of the fallen aspens that blocked his path, couldn’t really even seem to feel his legs, come to think of it, battered foot having gone numb and quit hurting some time back, and he shook his head, grabbed the leg just above the knee with stiff, purple-cold hands and lifted it over the tree, hauled the rest of him after it. Next tree was no better, and so began an exhausting series of movements that left Einar relying nearly as heavily on his arms as his legs to carry himself forward, having to lift the numbed, insensible bulk of his lower limbs up and over everything that presented more than a few inches’ obstacle, swaying and tottering and rather unsure of his legs’ ability to go on supporting him between times, and he would have laughed at himself, had he not been so certain that he was probably about to die. Knew he’d got to find a way to increase his pace if he was to have any hope of beginning to reverse the iron grip the cold appeared to have gained on him, but the trouble was that every attempt to do so seemed to leave him face down in the cold, slick mud, blinking slowly at his own hands where they lay stretched out before him in the failing light and wondering how he’d got there. After which began the terribly difficult and painful process of picking himself up again, and after the third or fourth such fall--who was keeping count?--he quite gave up on the idea of moving faster, putting all his energy into keeping up the slow grind over what seemed like acre after acre of steep, slick fallen timber and mud and rock.
Some time later, storm having unleashed a new deluge of wind-driven rain and darkness almost complete, Einar thought he heard something, a sound that resembled the crashing and crunching of a large animal through the timber and he stopped, tried to ready a dart but couldn’t get his fingers to close around the thing, and then he heard the voice, Liz’s voice, and it was one of the most welcome sounds that had ever reached his ears. His response was little more than a croak that he knew the wind would have carried away as soon as it had left his lips so he grabbed a nearby aspen branch, pinching the thing between his palms and slamming it into the barkless trunk of the long-fallen spruce he’d been struggling to get himself across, and she heard, came, took him in her arms and helped him across the tree.
“I’ve been looking for you…”
“We need a fire. How about we stop and make a fire right here, under some of those trees over there? They’re big enough to keep most of the rain off…”
“Too close…ridge. If…if they see us…”
“You think we’re still too close? It seems like we’ve come a long way, but it’s hard to tell with the weather and the dark, and I guess the way the smell of smoke carries…” He nodded, and they went on, Einar wanting desperately to stop as Liz had suggested, feeling himself dangerously near the limits of his endurance and wanting nothing more than he wanted to lie down right where he was and not move for a very long time, but they couldn’t stop, not until they could have a fire--wasn’t too attached to the idea of the fire, himself; he was way beyond feeling the cold and didn’t much care either way, but knew Liz and the baby would be needing one, intended to see that they had it--and they couldn’t have a fire until they were a good bit lower, further from the two men in their tent on the ridge who would smell their smoke and possibly even see a faint trace of their fire-glow if they happened to look in the right direction, so he kept himself going, one foot in front of the other, following Liz.
While the fallen timber seemed to thin out slightly after that and make the going a bit easier, the slope steepened at the same time, open, muddy areas becoming more common and, once more following the elk trail they had earlier lost--thing was flowing in places with water, not the best route, perhaps, but at least it seemed to be allowing them to skirt around the bulk of the quagmire of tangled, wind-felled timber that had been their bane on the first half of the descent--and the thing was slick, Einar clinging to his spear for support and doing his best to keep up with Liz as she moved with seeming ease down the side of the trail, but it wasn’t enough and he slipped, went down hard and slid a good distance, grating over a band of protruding rock and coming up short in a tangle of currant bushes, bruised, hip sore and aching but otherwise seemingly uninjured, not that he would have been able to tell for sure, numb as he had become… Back on your feet, Einar. Would be way too easy to go on lying here, and you know you’d just be putting Liz in greater danger by doing that…
Standing still for a moment assessing his injuries--not too bad, really, aside from the ribs, which never benefited from sudden movement, let alone falls and tumbles in the rocky mud--Einar found that his body was soon shaking convulsively as it tried to warm itself in the absence of movement, the shivering so forceful that it made his steps somewhat unsteady, more unsteady than they had already been, and it must have been working to some extent because he was still awake and capable of movement, such as it was, but he was getting awfully tired, and he knew if he fell again then, hurt an ankle or twisted a leg in some way on that steep section of hillside, he’d be terribly hard-pressed to get himself up out of the cold, flowing mud of the path and go on. Hoped at that point Liz would have the sense to leave him, hurry on down to shelter and warm herself rather than wasting her time and strength and risking injury trying to get him back to his feet and down that impossibly long, steep descent, but he knew she’d never go for that, and the knowledge kept him on his feet, moving as carefully as he could if not as quickly as he might have wished.
Several hundred feet lower in elevation down the draw and nearly a mile from the ridgline Einar finally became convinced they could safely have a fire, struggling to catch up to Liz and tell her. The they chose a spot shortly thereafter, a patch of ground beneath the much larger timber of the draw, not an ideal spot, being still somewhat open and windy, but it would have to do, for they weren’t either one of them interested in going too much farther without a rest and the chance to warm up and dry their clothes, some. Not if it could be helped. Liz was weary, chilled and ready to be off her feet, but for Einar, she could tell that the situation was a good bit more dire. He needed some warmth, and in a hurry. Shedding her pack and helping Einar out of his, Liz felt around beneath the timber until she found a relatively dry spot, shoving aside the damp needles with her foot and taking the handful of small dead spruce twigs Einar had somehow managed to round up, breaking them, propping them on a rock and placing beneath them a precious bundle of milkweed down for tinder. Working by feel and having to use his teeth to do a task for which his hands proved quite unequal he pulled a few chunks of pitch-infused bark from one of the nearby spruces, bringing them to Liz so she could incorporate them into the fire. Those bits of pitch ended up being the only thing that guaranteed them a fire that night, wood damp from the blowing rain, air damp and both of them far too cold to be particularly dexterous when it came to arranging and lighting the fire. The pitch gave them more leeway, held the flame and burned hot and crackling until the slight dampness could be driven from their kindling, fire well established by the time it all burnt away.
Liz couldn’t find Einar. She had been so focused on the fire, giving it air and making sure it stayed alive that she’d failed to notice his absence, and when she called for him there was, much to her alarm, no answer. She found him several minutes later just outside the circle of firelight, hands full of dry dead branches, elbow pressed hard against his injured ribs and eyes blank as he stared into the flames, having apparently gone in search of more firewood and then forgotten what he had intended to do with it. She led him over to the fire, got him out of his drenched clothes and set a pot of water to heat, sitting close beside him as steam began to rise from the pot. Everything was wet, clothes, boots, the hides that had shielded them from the worst of the hail, and Liz did her best to spread the wet things out on branches and rocks near the fire to begin drying, Einar trying to help her but stopping at her insistence after he dropped one of her socks into the flames while trying to hang it above them. The sock was rescued in time, but Einar did see the wisdom of allowing Liz to do the rest of the clothes hanging, at least until he regained a bit of flexibility in his hands, which, holding them over the heat of the flames, he was working hard to do, watching Liz as she spread out the deer and sheep hides for drying.
“It’s a good thing we smoked these hides when we did, isn’t it? Or they’d just dry stiff and useless, and they’re the only blankets we’re going to have tonight…”
“Yeah. Real good. Better be…focusing on…just drying one of them, because we’ll never…get both done before daylight, and if we want any sleep tonight…”
“Yes. I’ll work on the deer hide, try to get it dry, but as cold as we both are…what do you think about letting the fire burn for a while, scraping it aside and sleeping on the warmed ground for tonight?”
Einar nodded, bowed his head and pressed his ribs until an especially violent fit of shivering passed--good news it was, meant he was beginning to warm but the movement hurt his ribs, crushed the breath out of him--and looked up at her. “For tonight, very good idea. Clothes won’t be…much use and it’s…gonna be a cold one I think. Need to heat rocks, too. Lots of rocks, pile them around us when we sleep. We’ll be fine. Gonna be a fine night.