Liz was up first that following morning, leaving Will to sleep beside Einar, who showed no sign of rousing, even when she carefully exited the nest that had kept them warm through the night. Must have been the midnight snack, she supposed, which had allowed him to rest a bit easier through the early morning hours, but after watching him for a time and seeing no movement at all, she had to check just to be sure he was still breathing. Which he was, very slowly but steadily, and he even seemed reasonably warm. Good enough, and making sure water and a bit of food were within his easy reach, she set off to climb a small rise just above their camp, from which she remembered their previously having good view of the canyonlands beyond. A wild, broken country it appeared by the morning light, this land to which they were journeying, not an easy one through which to travel, but surely as good a place as any in which to lose a small tribe, to disappear. She hoped. Hoped there would be adequate shelter for the remainder of the winter, enough game to keep them going after the food supplies sent by Bud and Susan began wearing thin.
Brief survey of the land complete and all appearing well with the morning—Einar had managed to successfully instill in her an almost constant need, heightened by circumstance, to keep watch, to check for danger; the habit had served her well—Liz returned to camp, surprised that she had not yet seen Einar up and about. Almost without exception he was always the first to be up in the morning, sleep often an elusive thing and dawn—and the hours immediately preceding it—a time when extra care must always be taken—but when she eased her way into the little thicket which had sheltered them for the night, he showed no sign of having moved. A situation which changed as soon as she spoke to him, but not with the speed she had come to expect.
Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion for Einar that morning, limbs heavy and unwilling when he tried to move them, head not wanting to come up off the ground and mind, it seemed, even slow to respond, to tell him where they were, and how they’d come to be there. The sight of his parachute where it sat lashed to the top of the bag jarred his memory some, sent him scrambling with some effort out of the sleeping bag and up to face the day.
“Slept too long. Sorry. You heard anything come over here? Any…planes, choppers, anything like that?”
He looked relieved. “Good thing, us sleeping out in the open like this. Be glad to find one of those caves where we can really hole up and be hidden.”
“Maybe we can get there before another night comes. What do you think?”
Einar was standing, trying out his injured leg and not particularly liking how it reacted to the application of a bit of weight. “Yep. Think we can probably do that. Real hard to say once you get into cliffs and canyons like these, hard to know when you hit an obstacle that’ll either send you eight miles out of your way while you look for the head of the canyon and go around the thing, or lowering your gear and then rappelling down an eight hundred foot limestone wall in several steps…but barring anything like that, we ought to be there by tonight, for sure!”
After which, fully meaning to finish securing the hauling harness before helping Liz get Will all tucked down cozily into the hood of her parka, he instead sank to his knees in the snow, eyes half closed and head sagging. Liz was beside him, hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, you ready to get going? How about a little food, and then we’ll go see how much ground we can cover.”
Einar shook himself, scrubbing hands across his face as if in the hopes of wiping away some of the weariness, got to his feet and finished hitching himself to the bag. “Yep, ready.” Ready for more sleep, really, the urge almost too strong to resist but he did resist it, kept on his feet and soon had Will tucked in, the camp all cleared and was leading the way down from the pass, heading out on a course which he believed ought to take them before too long to an area bordering the rim of the nearest canyon, from which perspective they could perhaps expect a better view of the surrounding landscape.
Liz hurried along behind, meaning to remind him that he had, in his haste, quite forgotten to have any breakfast, but was glad to see, upon finally drawing up beside him, that he’d just finished the jar of Nutella, eating as he walked. The thing had lasted him three days when really, she knew he ought to have been taking in the contents of three or four of those containers for each day of travel and living in the cold, but at least he’d been doing it willingly and for the most part without her urging, which she took as progress. The rest could come gradually, the addition of a more substantial quantity of food and hopefully some variety, as well. For now, it would have to be enough.
Only it was not enough, things not going very well for Einar at all, and soon Liz returned to his side, stopping him beneath a grove of soaring, white-flanked aspens and wordlessly freeing him from the harness; her turn, and he made no objection, resting with bowed head until she’d put a few steps between them before rising, plodding along behind.
Pain and hunger were not a problem for him most of the time; often he had welcomed or even sought them out, valued them for their ability to help keep things well ordered in his mind, life often times more liveable with these challenges than it would have been without them, but for some reason this was different, this weakness which had come over him since leaving Bud and Susan’s—went soft, didn’t you, staying in a house like that and having your every need at your fingertips? That must have been what did it—and being dropped in this valley to make their new start.
He had at first attributed the growing difficulty to the trouble given him by the leg, and indeed moving about did present something of a mechanical challenge most of the time, and would until the thing decided to finish healing up, but this seemed to be something more, an insidious force which crept up on him after a few hours or sometimes even a few minutes of being on his feet and threatened to leave him face-down in the snow, unable to move any further and uninterested in even trying.
That was the worst part, the part which—if he was to be entirely honest—he feared just a bit. The ambivalence. The encroaching inertia of despair. Could feel it out there stalking him, and in defiance of its presence he increased his pace, silently snarling as he hefted the sled up and over the final obstacle—a fallen, snow-covered aspen trunk—before reaching a raised area of windswept snow and exposed limestone. He’d faced injury before, illness, the ravages of prolonged starvation, had met them and had kept going, so it made little sense to fear that this one, whatever its origin, would be able to stop him. Yet, he feared. Prayed for the strength and the desire to keep going, concentrating so hard that he almost jumped out of the harness when Liz approached from the side and laid a hand on his shoulder.
Ah, well. No need to trouble her with any of this. Best try and put it aside, whatever the cause, push onward to the shelter of the cave or caves which were—hopefully—awaiting their discovery just over the next ridge or two. Or three. Or maybe not so far as that, even, for Liz was gesturing excitedly as she pointed to something in the distance, motioning for him to follow up onto a pitted and water-worn boulder of limestone from which she had apparently made an important sighting. Dropping the harness, he went.