A great gully cut across the most direct route between Einar and Liz and the high, open ridge top that held the elk herd, and for a time they sat together on their red rock perch, studying the terrain and trying to decide whether they would be better off heading straight down and across the draw, or cutting far out of their way to the left, adding perhaps as much as a mile to their journey but avoiding the additional descent and climb that would be necessary to traverse the draw. Einar was all for taking the most direct line, striking off across the draw, down and then back up but Liz, wanting very much to spare him the additional climbing and thinking it wasteful of their energy to lose elevation when they would only have to gain it again, advocated for sticking to the ridge. After a bit of back-and-forth conversation Einar, who having sat for a bit and lost some of the animated vigor that had buoyed him along and kept him thus far moving more quickly than he perhaps reasonably ought to have been able, agreed to stick to the ridge top. Knew he would have been hard pressed to physically make it up the far side of the draw that evening, had they chosen that route. Ridge would give them a better view, too, allowing them to look down into the valleys on either side of the ridge and scout for the potential hazards posed by other hunters who might be camped down in the nearby basins or at one of the small, sheltered lakes that dotted the timber far below on the ridge’s far side.
Leaving the red rocks from which they had first spotted the elk the two of them returned to the ridge’s sharply fractured edge, following it around the head of the timbered draw and making their way towards the sandstone and tundra grass spur where the elk appeared close to settling in for the night, some of them already lying down. A good sign, so far as Einar was concerned, for it appeared they would still be there in the morning, hopefully giving the two of them the opportunity to work their way in close enough to make a good shot. A low escarpment of sandstone, they were able to see in the dimming post-sunset light as they neared the spot, stood not twenty yards from the area of the vast meadow where the elk had settled in for the night, and Einar spoke in hushed, excited tones as he detailed the night they would spend in the low evergreen vegetation some distance back from those rocks, stalking closer just before dawn and choosing an elk or two. Liz had already gone through the sequence in her mind but nodded enthusiastically at Einar’s telling of it, glad to see that he appeared to have regained a bit of the energy that had got him up the slope and onto the ridge in the first place, despite an obvious and ongoing struggle with the thin air.
As they traversed the ridge top together in the fading light of evening, Liz found herself increasingly confident in Einar’s ability not only to survive the expedition--she had at times been somewhat skeptical, though of course she’d never let on to him--but to help her carry out a successful hunt and return with the elk whose meat and hide would leave them much more well set to face the coming winter. He was, as usual, finding ways to adapt to his situation and to keep going, scraping together his strength and somehow finding it adequate to the task, but still Liz found herself a bit sad as she watched him, knowing that a good bit of his struggle was self-imposed and, from her perspective at least, avoidable. Wished she had some way to get him talking about it, perhaps help him through some of his present difficulties. If he wanted help, which it appeared he most likely did not, and she would have thought herself unkind and selfish for wanting so badly to interfere with his way of handling what was obviously a very personal matter, had it not appeared so likely that his way was going to leave their child without a father. That possibility, it seemed, gave her the right--if not the duty--to try and interfere in ways which she would not ordinarily have considered.
Well. Perhaps they would have such a talk in the near future, but not that night. Had plenty on their plate already for that night, with darkness coming on quickly, camp to set up and supper to eat--not that Einar would be likely to want any, and she shook her head at the thought, hoped she was wrong--and Liz shook herself from her contemplation, hurried to catch up to Einar, who had once again pulled ahead and was nearing the little smear of evergreen vegetation which was to be their camp for the night. Muninn, having already flown ahead and circled the elk herd a time or two, was settling himself in the topmost branches of one of the little firs that jutted up scrawny and stunted from the ground-creeping mats of the same species, little tree bowing and swaying under his weight, but holding.
That night, cold in a fireless camp, for they had not wanted to do anything to spook the elk herd where they lay sleeping not five hundred yards distant, Einar lay shivering in the freshly smoked deer hide on their springy, somewhat soft bed of living evergreen mat, his earlier elation vanished, all the brittle joy of the afternoon crumbled and gone black around him, leaving only the hurt of his ribs as he sucked in the thin, high altitude air and a hunger that grated and twisted and left him pressing an elbow into his stomach, feeling disconcertingly weak and ready to do just about anything to experience a bit of relief, get a good quiet night for once. He fought it, that weakness, knew it was at such times when he must make his greatest effort and, though with difficulty, he overcame. Lay there still and uncomplaining--even, finally, quieting the would-be complaints that wanted to trip over one other in his mind, speaking all at once in a cacophony of anger and frustration and hungry, hurting yearning anguish, a great challenge indeed and a difficult one--as the last light faded and overhead a great arc of stars began appearing one by one to pierce the sky with their cold, unblinking light.
Liz, weary from the day’s climbing and herself reasonably comfortable on what felt rather like a soft and supportive hammock of living vegetation, was unable to quite settle in and give herself over to sleep, sensing Einar’s struggle and wanting so badly to ease things for him that at last she felt her way over to the spot where he had curled up near her on the fir mat, hand on his ankle so as not to take him by surprise. When he did not react she curled herself around him, draping her blanket--the freshly smoked sheep hide, for those of the bears had been too heavy to reasonably carry--over the two of them, for his was clearly proving inadequate. For a time Einar lay stiff and unmoving, trying not to shiver and disturb her as he stared up wide-eyed and wrinkle-browed at the stars overhead but she was insistent, working some warmth back into his shoulders, smoothing the strained furrows from his forehead and wrapping an arm around his middle, holding his ribs until his breathing grew a bit easier, and at last he yielded, relaxing against her and taking her hand.
“Tomorrow, Lizzie, we get our elk…”