Continuing its work amongst the numerous small draws and basins that swept down from the heights of the red ridge, the helicopter’s hum, the popping of its rotors when banking sharply or moving from one drainage to the next was a constant reminder to Einar that they were not alone that day, not nearly as alone as he would have liked, and the sound of it wore on him, left him jumpy and silent, driving himself as hard as he was able and almost certainly harder than was wise up the side of one ridge and down another, working to get away from that menace. Liz saw what he was doing, might, under other circumstances, have tried to talk him into taking a break and tried to reason with him, convince him that the threat was not what he was making it to be, but that day it seemed the sooner they could make it back over to their own basin, the better. Even if their speed was driven by Einar’s perhaps less than proportional (she hated to say less than rational, but that would probably have applied, also) reaction to the presence of the chopper. He was struggling, had been since they’d left the cabin--since he’d hurt his ribs, really--and she knew a time had to be coming when he would find himself for a time unable to go on any longer, body forcing him into the rest his mind still seemed unwilling to allow him, and as far as she was concerned, both their chances were looking a lot better if that could happen once back at the cabin, rather than out on the trail. Which made her, in a strange, roundabout way--she didn’t like the sound of it either, the constant buzzing whine that reminded her they were hunted creatures, and probably always would be, they and their children--appreciative of the helicopter’s presence. It was keeping him going, and at a pace better than he could have likely forced himself to maintain otherwise, even if making his best effort. At times, Liz found herself struggling to keep up. Still she wished they might try her idea of doing away with the heavy packs and carrying the entire load suspended between them, but could see that Einar had probably been right about any such attempt only slowing them further, making progress across the downed timber that seemed their lot that day even more difficult and treacherous, and as he had apparently managed alright so far without twisting the wrong way and puncturing a lung under the weight of his pack, she could only hope the rest of the trip might go as well. Perhaps the ribs were beginning to heal a bit, after all.
Einar was operating under no such illusions. Wasn’t much thinking about the ribs, actually, not in such an objective manner as Liz, at least. His only real thought--other than of the terribly persistent ever-presence of that cursed Jet Ranger--was of the tracks the two of them were--or weren’t--leaving, and how to minimize said trail. Beyond that the world was a great emptiness for him, a hot, hissing whiteness in which the struggle to breathe took every ounce of concentration and energy he could throw at it, the hurt of continuing to force an adequate volume of air past the burning constriction of the injured ribs leaving him half blind at times and sweating, and he would have wished desperately for an end to it all, had he possessed the spare brain power to consider the possibility of such a thing. But--perhaps fortunately--he did not, and so kept going. Liz caught up to him beneath a stand of golden-leafed aspens where he had taken a short pause, did not want to break his concentration but could see that he must have water, pressed it upon him until he saw her, accepted. They had by that time covered well over half the distance to the cabin; home was at last looking like a real possibility, something they could hope to achieve before nightfall. Something to take care of first, though--a couple of things, really--and she began trying to help Einar out of his pack, but he shook his head and gently pushed her hand aside, struggled back to his feet.
“Einar, what about the elk hide? I think it’s almost directly above us here, up this draw a ways. Should I go get it?”
No, he wanted to tell her, got to keep going, can’t stop, I’m gonna be worse than useless if I stop right now, been here in one place too long already, and besides, we can’t risk going up there where the timber runs out and we might be seen, but he knew it made sense to bring the hide along with them, save themselves another trip out onto the ridge and perhaps risk losing the hide altogether--at least until the next spring--if a big storm should come and cause the drifts to pile high against the rocks beneath which they had cached it. They needed that hide, needed every one they were able to get their hands on, and might as well retrieve it while in the area. Was a long way up to treeline though, and now that his almost mechanical headlong march for the cabin had been interrupted, he wasn’t so sure he had it in him to make the extra climb. No matter. He’d have to make it happen, one way or another, and was about to tell her so, but she spoke first.
“There’s no sense in lugging all the meat up there, since it’s higher than we need to go just to get back to the basin, so why don’t you wait here with all the meat, and I’ll run up there real quick and get the hide, meet you back here and we can figure out the best way to divide everything up for the rest of the walk?”
“The helicopter and…”
“I know. I’ll watch for it, only go out in the open when--and if--it’s well down behind a ridge. It seems to be spending most of its time down behind the ridges anyway, looking at the elk.”
“I should come with you. Not separate.”
“You need to guard the meat, and this marvelous goat hide. The trees here aren’t big enough to safely hang them in, and it would be just awful if we came back to find that the coyotes had been at them…”
She had a point and he nodded, allowed her to finish helping him out of his pack, sinking to the ground beside it and hoping desperately that he was consenting to the idea because it made most sense, and not simply because his own weakness was finally getting the better of him…felt like the latter, and he didn’t like it one bit, but wasn’t quite getting enough oxygen, it seemed, to do anything about the fact. Seemed suddenly to be having a hard time keeping his eyes open, even. Liz was moving her pack closer to him, helping him scoot back so that he was supported by one of the larger aspens and handing him his spear, making sure the atlatl and darts and his water were within easy reach, saying something he couldn’t quite get his brain around and then she was gone, moving quickly up the mixed talus and scrub of the draw, up towards the ridge, and the elk hide. Come back. I didn’t understand. Needed to say something to you…but he couldn’t remember what, and couldn’t make himself shout after her even when he tried, so soon gave the entire thing up, trying to focus on watching for threats to the meat and hide, but ending up instead rather fascinated with studying the patterns of moving light made by the wind in the aspens, golden, shifting light that fell across his legs and kept changing the color of his hands from white to golden to grey when the shadows fell across them, and back again, rhythmical but not entirely predictable, and he could have gone right on watching it all day long, had not the droning of the distant helicopter changed sharply in tone, grown louder and more insistent, dragging him back to the present.
Time had passed. A good bit of time, judging from the angle of the light and the fact that his hands weren’t golden anymore, or even white or grey as they had been in the sunshine and shadow, but quite purple, and the sun was gone and he was cold. Evening, and the helicopter seemed to be leaving for the night; far down the valley he could hear it clattering away, sound growing fainter. Liz was still gone. Should have been back and he tried to rise, look for her--perhaps she had returned some time ago and decided to take a nap amongst the aspens--but his legs wouldn’t work. Wouldn’t respond at all, and he rubbed them, beat them with clenched fists until finally he could begin to feel their ache--something, at least it was something, had to be better than nothing at all--but still they remained useless, stiff, wouldn’t support his weight when finally he managed to haul himself upright with his arms, clinging to the branches of two trees. No matter. Guessed he’d just let himself sit for too long, get too cold and cramped up after the long climb, would be alright in a few minutes. And Liz…Liz would know what to do, would give him some of that wonderful sweet-tart bear fat, venison and chokecherry pemmican she was always carrying around, maybe a bit of liver or… But there was no Liz, she was nowhere to be seen and in a moment of near panic he remembered the receding sound of the chopper, wondered if they were leaving not because it was evening, but because they had seen her up there, somehow managed to capture her…which must have been their mission all along, the wildlife survey merely a ruse to put them a bit more at ease, make them easier to approach, and to take…