Silent, huddling, the little group rested out of the wind, Liz taking advantage of the momentary respite to feed Will, who had over the past hour or so become increasingly insistent about his needs and who, she hoped, would sleep for several hours after his meal, allowing her to complete the descent without further need to stop. She wanted to be out of that gully, its fearsome black rock rising around her in the darkness, slick snow and at times even ice underfoot; she found them a good deal more alarming with Will on her back than they would have been under other circumstances, but every time she wanted to protest the route, she reminded herself where they were going, and why, and that it was worth the hardship…
Kilgore had a few bars of trioxane fuel in his pack and he lit one on the rocky surface beneath them, heating over its low flame a small pot of water and throwing in a bit of orange drink mix he had been carefully saving for just such an occasion, everyone enjoying a gulp of the warm, syrupy stuff that resulted. Instant energy and a bit of warmth, and they were certainly going to need it. Back onto the trail, then, into the gulley and down, and when at last they emerged from its rocks embrace and out into a wider valley through which ran an ice-choked creek, everyone, Einar included, breathed a huge sigh of relief. They gully had been a mistake, and one that could easily have cost them their lives. Must be more careful about route choice in the future, since little Will was with them. Had to take him into consideration, limit the risk where possible. Which was absurd, really. Whole thing was one giant risk, ending, if successful, in the valley, where… Quit it, Einar. Onward.
It was difficult to find cache locations in the dark and the swirling snow, locations, that is, which they would have some chance of remembering and being able to find again upon their return, but glancing back up at the gully in the beam of Kilgore’s headlamp, a dark, nearly vertical-appearing slash down the mountainside, he figured it was a place they would not be forgetting anytime soon. Best leave something near its base. The others nearly bumped into him when he stopped. Liz was at his side.
“What is is?”
“Good place to leave some of this stuff, I think.”
“Yes. Let me help you. Where are you thinking? Up against the rocks, where the snow isn’t so deep?”
“Looks good. Got to try and…would be good if we can get it up off the ground, out of reach of critters but also keep it from human sight. If humans happen along here. Which doesn’t seem too likely.”
Liz agreed, not too likely at all, but one could never be too careful, helped him toss a length of weighted nettle cordage up and over a spruce bough some eight or nine feet from the ground, aided by the beam of Kilgore’s powerful headlamp. Cargo tied off and the job finished, Liz asked Einar to check on Will, which he did, finding the little one warm and sleeping peacefully. He told her as much, and she nodded, ready to carry on.
Out across a narrow opening they traveled, then, high meadow which would have sheltered deer and provided a fitting bed for elk, had the snow been gone and grass green, but to the weary travelers it proved an obstacle, sinking them up to their hips in freshly drifted snow and leaving Einar, still in the lead, gasping for breath and tasting iron as he pushed himself forward, breaking trail. Watching, Kilgore could see that he’d had enough, was just about to pull ahead and demand a turn in the lead when the snow suddenly became less deep, rocks pushing up from beneath, windswept, nearly bare. They were topping out on a ridge of sorts, land falling away sharply beneath them. They could not see far for the intensity of the snow, but it did appear that by keeping far to the right they could skirt the dropoff, traverse a steeply-angled slope and, after several hundred yards of exposed chute, regain the trees, and easier travel. Sounded to everyone like the best idea, and, Juni this time taking the lead, they started out.
That slope made Einar nervous, spooky feel to the snow that made the hair stand on end on his neck and left him glancing apprehensively upwards in the darkness, wishing he could see what sort of terrain lay above them. He had the impression of vastness, a great slope rising up above their position, and the thought of this expanse of almost certainly unstable snow, likely as not topped by cornices and ready to let go with all the new weight added to it by the storm, left him wishing they were moving faster as they crossed. Still, he saw no good way around, and Juni was doing pretty well in the lead, so he kept moving, Liz immediately behind him and Kilgore taking up the rear.
No one saw it coming, but Einar heard it, instantly recognized the sound and shouted at Liz to stay where she was, knowing the jutting spur of rock he had just crossed beneath would protect her, made a flying leap at Juni in an attempt to knock her out of the path of the barreling onslaught of countless tons of snow and broken trees that he could hear quickly overtaking them, but it was too late, and they both went down, full force of the thing catching them, taking them, gone in a battering, tumbling fury of destruction …
Suddenly as it had started the thing was over, and before the great echoing hollowness Liz stood in horror, shaking, staring out into the silence and clinging to the little fir beside her on the rock outcropping which had shielded them from the fury of the slide, and to Kilgore, who still had a firm hand on her arm, restraining, preventing her from following Einar as she otherwise would have done.
Silence. Powder in the air, beginning to settle. Kilgore swept the wreckage with his light. Nothing, they saw nothing but a landscape of weird shadows cast by broken, cement-like chunks of snow where they had been tossed and left, whole ground solidified in the path of the slide, and amongst that chaos of surreal snow hillocks, the ruined carcasses of trees, splintered, tossed, jumbled, no sign of life. They were gone, those two. On her back,Will began to whimper, and she turned to him.