Pressing himself into the ground and inching forward until he could see around the shoulder of the last rock in the long, low wall of red sandstone, Einar tried once more to catch sight of the moving object that had halted his would-be dash across the open area of tundra grass, found it in the soaring, shimmering form of Muninn the raven, sunlight reflecting off his feathers. Letting his breath out in a great sigh--not spotted, then, by the enemy, if there is any enemy--but knew better than to let his guard down. The raven was behaving oddly, circling and swooping over an area of low-growing timber just on the far side of the large snow patch that lay behind the elk-bed meadow, and Einar watched him, following his movements and finally seeing--blood ran cold at the sight--the cause of the bird’s alarm. Two men stood partially hidden by a scraggly little stand of firs, one of them scanning the area of broken rocks and timber at the edge of the ridge with binoculars--the very spot to which Einar had been going to lead them after their dash across the open area, and he shivered at the cold shock of what he had almost done.
Thank you Lord for that raven and his strange ways, doggone fool bird just saved our necks…now, what are you fellas up to? Hunting, it would appear, just what might your target be? And how did you manage to spook thirty elk into leaving their beds without taking one? I sure didn’t hear a gunshot at all, and would have, unless…yep. Bet that was it. Bet a few of those elk critters were sleeping down on the other side of the ridge, and you took a shot at one, scared the rest off and the rocks kept ups from hearing the shot. Unless you’re bow hunting just like we are, but I’m pretty sure that season’s long come and gone, which would make you poachers of one sort or another, now wouldn’t it?
Regardless of the details--and not having even considered yet in more than passing detail the very real possibility that the pair might be up there hunting not elk, but more human prey--the threat to them was obvious, as was the fact that they wouldn’t be going anywhere until those men moved on, not unless they wanted to run serious risk of being seen. The ridge was far too open to allow for a safe egress, the only good quick way down into some cover being the one that lay immediately before them, useless now because of the proximity of those two camouflage-clad men. All they could do, so far as Einar could see, was to very carefully make their way back along the rocks to their tree-island sleeping spot, conceal themselves and wait. Inching backwards on his belly, digging into the ground with boot toes and elbows for a little traction, Einar wormed his was back to Liz, spoke into her ear in a barely-whisper.
“Two men up there, behind us and about two hundred yards away on the other side of that big snow patch. Hunters. Can’t tell if they got an elk, but they seem to be watching the ones in the trees. Got to go back. Get yourself turned around, keep real low and watch the rocks under you. Don’t let them clank together, scrape together. Can’t make any noise.”
With which he began the slow, painstaking process of turning himself around without allowing any part of his anatomy to stick up above the rocks, a fair challenge for someone with a good bit more flexibility than he was currently blessed with, and a terribly painful near-impossibility, considering his ribs. Einar hardly noticed the grating hurt in his side, the catch that took his breath, focused entirely on safely accomplishing the maneuver, making it and starting off at the low, slow crawl that represented their only chance of regaining the timber undetected. Liz followed his example, having to drag herself along on her side because of the baby, but making it, the two of them arriving back at the tree island out of breath and sweating in the strengthening sunlight of the morning. Easing himself up by inches at a time until he could peer between mats of vegetation and get a look in the direction of the two intruders Einar found that they had not moved, still studying the timber into which the elk herd had retreated. Well. At least they’re not looking in our direction… Could be worse.
“Who are they?” Liz breathed into his ear. “Are they here for us? What if they start checking the little evergreen patches? There are only three or four on this whole section of ridge, and we’re in one of them…”
“We take them, that’s what. But hopefully it won’t come to that. If they’re here after elk they got no reason to go poking around in the evergreens, and more likely than not, that’s exactly why they’re here. So we wait. Keep watch on them, and hope they either get their elk soon and head down, or give up for the morning and leave. At which point we’ll drop down off of here into the draw that we opted not to cross on the way over here, where all the trees’ll hide us, let us put this ridge behind us.”
Which sounded just fine, except that the men seemed rather disinclined to leave. Instead, the two of them climbed on a low rock outcropping near the spot where Einar had first sighted them, taking seats against the rocks and, always keeping a bit of timber between them and the spot where Einar and Liz lay waiting, continually scanning the ridge with their binoculars as morning slipped on towards noon. If they were elk hunters they certainly were behaving strangely, and as the hours passed a horrible, cold-sick feeling began growing in the pit of Einar’s stomach, crawling up his spine and setting him to jumping at every little whisper of wind through the yellowing grass, every distant rasp of the raven as he scoured the ridge, one side to the other, unceasingly. If the men were not simply innocent hunters, if they were part of some new search effort that might mean the coming of aircraft to assist in their scouring of the nearby ridges and basins…Einar shuddered, glanced up at the sky and strained his ears for any hint of an approaching rumble, but heard nothing. Totally exposed they would be, trapped with nowhere to go and little to do other than wait for the ground team to close in, take as many as they could and end things right then and there on the barren, windswept ridge. Not the way he wanted it to go, especially not for Liz and the baby, and it suddenly seemed rather urgent that they get in beneath what little cover was available to them, lest they be sitting ducks for any aircraft that might happen along. His other concern was that they didn’t have a tremendous amount of water left between them, the snow banks that could easily have replenished their supply as hopelessly out of reach as the creek way down in the valley at the moment, and with this in mind it seemed fairly urgent that they get out of the open, out of the sun here they would not only be shielded from aerial and ground observation but would be better able to conserve what water they did have.
Liz followed him as he crawled in beneath the largest cluster of tiny, stunted trees available to them there where they’d spent the night, the space small, cramped and tangled with the dead, twisted iron-strong branches of those hardy evergreen specimens and every move taking minutes to complete with the knowledge that any unnatural bending or swaying of the trees might well draw the attention of the enemy--for the men were indeed enemies, whether or not part of the official search--but after a time they got themselves worked into place beneath the dense mat of timber, secure in the black shade, ready to wait things out.
And wait they would.