Hunkered down beneath the scanty cover of the low-growing timber as the storm continued to scour the ridge around them, Einar and Liz watched as the rain-grey of the valley far below turned to white, adjacent ridge disappearing behind a rapidly advancing curtain of what looked almost like snow, and though it was certainly feeling almost cold enough to snow, Einar knew better, had some inkling of what they were in for and got the deer hide pulled up over his head, sheep hide protecting Liz’s, would have said something to her but already the wind was keening so through the branches that his words would have been lost, and then it was upon them. Sweeping up from the valley, swallowing ridge after timbered ridge as it came, the wall of white descended upon them; they could hear it coming, hail rattling in the rocks and across the tundra grass, bouncing off the sandstone just outside their shelter and very soon finding its way through the gnarly fir boughs that sheltered them, stinging backs and legs even through their clothing, and Liz found herself very grateful that Einar had insisted on pulling that sheep hide up over her head. For what seemed a very long time the hailstorm continued, punctuated by lightening so close that it left them wondering whether they ought perhaps to have made a run for the draw despite not being alone there on the ridge, but it was too late by then to do anything about it, probably a good thing, as they would very likely have been seen had they made that dash.
As the storm went on, increasing in fury, not even the overhanging tangle of timber was enough to keep the hail--rather large stuff, for that elevation--from pounding them, and they huddled with faces bowed to the ground, waiting for it to end. Which it did, eventually, the wall of white that had swept up at them from the valley moving on over the ridge and bringing behind it a hard, driving rain that pelted the yellow grass and turned little patches of remaining snow to slush, sending rivulets of melting snow and melting hail and fresh rainwater beneath Einar and Liz’s little shelter to soak the portions of their clothing that they had managed to keep dry during the hailstorm. Thirsty and having used up the last of their water hours previously, the two of them cupped hands and collected the water, gratefully swallowing the icy, lichen-tasting stuff until they were shivering at its chill within them, after which Liz fumbled in her pack until she found some of the remaining pemmican squares, nibbling one herself and pressing another upon Einar until he did the same, knowing how badly they were to need the energy if they were to stay reasonably warm that afternoon.
Rain continuing in a steady downpour with the leaving of the hail, Liz squinted out between fir branches, just barely able to make out the low bulk of the tent not far up the ridge from them. The wildlife men must be, she had little doubt, snugly ensconced in their roomy and waterproof cocoon by that time, probably beginning to think about some supper, and the thought gave her hope that they might soon be free to leave their own soggy refuge there in the timber, head for lower ground where they, too, could begin to dry and warm themselves once again. Even if it meant walking in the rain, movement, she was sure, would help. Just about anything would be better than lying immobile in their icy, squishy clothes in a puddle of melted hail, and she glanced over at Einar, hoping he might be having similar thoughts. No such luck. Einar appeared thoroughly resigned to their situation, chin resting on a folded arm and eyes half open as he studied the ridge around the tent, apparently oblivious to his own discomfort and looking ready and willing--content, even; safety in sight, escape route plain with the fading of the day--to wait there all night, if he had to. Which wouldn’t do, not at all. You may never wake up, if you try a thing like that.
“Surely they’re in the tent by now, don’t you think…?”
Took a while for Einar to pull himself out of the waiting, find some words and figure out how to assemble them. “I…would be! In tent, I mean. But no way to know for sure, and as quick as that storm came on…seems just about as likely that one of them might have ended up hunkered down in the taller timber over there where the elk were this morning, might not have had time to make it back to the tent.”
“We have to wait, then?”
“Afraid so. I know it’s awful cramped and cold and wet in here, but we’ll be alright. Head down the hill as soon as it’s dark…can’t be many hours until dark, I don’t think…get down in the draw where there’s lots of timber, then find a good sheltered spot to have a little fire, get ourselves warmed up some. Just a few more hours. We can wait.”
Which Liz knew made sense, and, though distinctly chilly and uncomfortable in her wet clothes, she knew she could indeed wait, and would, but worried for Einar if they ended up stuck right where they were until dark, soaking wet and all but immobile. Already his face was showing an unmistakable shade of purple-blue about the lips and nose, and she could see that he was having to work hard not to shiver as he spoke. He needed to move, get some blood flowing, but it would just have to wait, and she pressed another lump of pemmican into his hand.
“Eat. It’ll help you stay warm.”
Two more hours of waiting, then, as the rain tapered off to a steady, soaking drizzle and Liz warmed herself by swinging arms and pressing hands together, using their opposing force to generate warmth. Einar--between times of intent watching during which he scanned the entire ridge, checking the tent and ended by staring into the timber at the ridge’s edge--tried the same thing but with limited success, injured ribs making any such exercise intensely painful and terribly tiring, and Liz, seeing his struggle, attempted to work her way in closer to him so they might be able to share warmth together, but the tangle of branches made it all but impossible and they continued their solitary waiting. Sometime well before dark in the dim, rain-heavy evening they began noticing light in the tent, its side glowing a soft blue as someone hung a flashlight or headlamp from a string near its top, and watching the light, Einar was able to make out two forms inside, two shadows, and he knew they could now with reasonable safety leave their hiding place, take off for the draw, and better shelter. Liz had, over the past while, curled up into something of a warmth-conserving ball, head and shoulders beneath the doubled-over sheep hide for warmth, and he grabbed her shoulder.
“Let’s go. Both in the tent. Never see us if we stick to this side of the rocks, head straight down.”
Scrambling, running, striving at the same time not to slip in the rain-softened soil and leave marks that would be obvious later, Einar and Liz made for the safety of the timbered draw some three hundred feet below their shelter, Einar having a terrible time at first keeping to his feet, but the movement warmed him a bit, and after the first hundred feet of descent he was doing better, falling less and finding himself able to keep up with Liz and even take the lead at times. There it was, the timber, and together they tumbled into that first stand of mixed firs and spruces, clinging to one another and gasping for breath. Einar was hurting, right foot--the toeless one--aching where he had slammed it into an uplift of sandstone and side a mass of searing fire where he had been forced to ignore the ribs and run for all he was worth, not wanting to spend any more time than necessary out on the open expanse of that ridge, but when he looked up at Liz he was grinning, rainwater dripping from his hair and eyes glowing with a fierce conglomeration of agony and pure, unbounded joy.
It was all he had the energy to say, but no more was needed, and Liz squeezed his hand, helped him up and started down through the timber. Before long they found themselves on a rough elk trail, its zigzagging contours giving them something to follow, some hope of keeping their footing and they negotiated the steepness of the slope, but after a time, light fading and the rain having returned with full fury, they lost it amongst a tangle of wind-felled timber, and were once more on their own.
The wind would not stop. Sweeping down with incredible force from the cirque and the ridge above, it blasted them as they struggled through the nightmare tangle of downed spruces and aspens and tried to find purchase on the steep, slick-muddy base of saturated soil that lurked just below its thin covering of needles to leave their footing treacherous at best, falls not uncommon as the light faded and they traveled more by feel than by sight. They were both cold, rain soaked, mud-plastered and battered by that terrible wind, but were managing reasonably well, generating heat through the constant movement that they knew they must keep up until they reached some sort of shelter, safety, a place where they could hole up for the night and have a fire--wouldn’t be any good trying to make it through this night without a fire, and they ought to be able to have one if they put enough distance between themselves and that ridge--and the thought of the fire kept Liz going, moving almost excitedly towards that goal. She didn’t even realize at first when she pulled ahead of Einar, stopping, finally, to wait for him when she realized that he was no longer by her side and starting back up the trail when after a good minute or two of waiting--too cold; she was way too cold to stand still, resorted to jumping up and down and running in place to keep the blood moving as she waited--she had seen no sign of him.