Equipped with a few items out of Kilgore’s supply bag and quite anxious to learn more about their surroundings, Einar and Liz set off through the timber which lay between their camp and the nearest ridge, Einar finding the entire thing rather a slow prospect with his leg still unwilling to support even a reasonable portion of his weight. For the first few hundred yards he tried simply keeping most of the weight off the leg with the use of his aspen staff, but no sooner had they begun climbing a bit than this strategy ceased doing him any good.
The terrain was simply too steep for a one-legged man to make much headway without actually resorting to crawling, and as he was not yet willing to do this—slows a fellow down too much, and folks tend to look at you funny—he simply gritted his teeth and tried his best to use the leg. Some four hundred feet higher in elevation Liz, who was in the lead, stopped for a break, making her way out to the edge of a rocky outcropping which allowed them something of a view over the timber and back down to the area of their camp.
“Well, what do you think? I don’t see any sign of civilization, at least, and that has to be a good thing…”
Einar wormed his way through the brush—a tangle of serviceberry and scrub oak—until he was beside her, stood panting for a minute until he’d got his breath. “Yeah, real good thing. At least we do seem to be alone out here, wherever he’s dropped us. Well. Onward?”
“How’s your leg?”
An understatement, she could see, the way he stood white-knuckled and grim-faced as he hung onto that aspen stick, willing himself to remain upright but appearing close to toppling over. “Should we call this good for today, and come back another time?”
“It’s not good. Not high enough to get any perspective yet, see where we might be on this map. If we’re on this map at all.”
“It did seem we flew an awfully long way…”
“Oh, that was part of Kiesl’s plan, no doubt. Fly far out of the way just to confuse anyone who might have been trying to keep an eye on him. For all I know, he may have flown straight south for two of those hours, then turned around and brought us back past the airstrip and right into our own country again—where the map shows him intending to drop us. It’s just that I don’t recognize this place, and really need to get a better idea of where we are. Got to keep climbing.”
“Alright, we can keep climbing. How high do you think we’ll need to get, before we have a better view?”
Shading his eyes, Einar peered up the slope. Saw nothing but trees. “Don’t know. Probably all the way to the top, which was about twelve, fifteen hundred feet off the valley floor, if I’m remembering the map correctly. Would really like to be able to see down over the other side, if we can. Better get moving.”
The terrain grew steeper as they climbed, Einar taking the lead for a while and pausing now and then to turn and peer down the slope behind them, but for the most part, the trees and brush were too thick to allow for much of a view. He hoped there might be an area at the top where things would be more open, some combination of rockier ground and persistent wind having prevented the crest from becoming too heavily timbered. He had in the past observed this often to be the case with saddles such as the one to which they were headed, lower areas along the ridge crest between two distinct rises, which provided natural channel for the wind.
As they climbed, the vegetation changed from evergreens interspersed with thickets of serviceberry and chokecherry brush to a vast slope of aspens, large trees, far taller than any they might have expected to find around their high basin, and it soon became clear to Einar that in the not-too-distant past, a great wind had indeed blasted its way up and over the saddle of the ridge, leaving in its wake hundreds of fallen trees which now lay barely covered in the diminishing snow, most of them right at knee or calf height where they provided perfect traps for any unwary humans who might find themselves stumbling along the surface and periodically breaking through the rotten snow.
Einar’s leg just couldn’t take it. If travel had been difficult before, it was rendered all but impossible for him after a few stumbles and twists amongst those concealed tree trunks, and before long he was doing well just to hop along on one leg, struggling to lift the injured one out of holes in the snow and drag it along behind him. Besides which, he was really beginning to feel the chill in his bones, despite the ski suit with which Kilgore had provided him, too worn out to do a lot of shivering, but knowing he’d be in serious trouble if forced to stop moving for any significant length of time without some source of heat. Still in the lead he stopped, motioning for Liz to pass him and take a turn, but instead she stopped beside him, helped free his trapped leg and wrapped her scarf around his neck.
“Pretty rough going, isn’t it?”
Quiet for a minute, breath rasping in his throat, he took a bit of snow and let it melt in his mouth in an attempt to ease its dryness. Not too much. Was cold enough, already. “Yeah. Lot of trees down. Looks like we’re…more than halfway to the top, though.”
“Let’s take a break.”
He nodded, didn’t want to do it—leg would only stiffen up further, he was pretty sure, if he stopped moving, and besides, the cold would get him—but supposed she must be tired from lugging Will up the mountain. Couldn’t do too much harm to let her catch her breath, so long as they were soon moving again. But Liz had other ideas.
“How about if you wait here with Will, and I hurry up to the top and see what can be seen? I can give you a full report, maybe even make a sketch on the margins of one of the maps, if you’ll send them with me. Think I could get up there pretty quickly…”
“Doggone leg. Sorry it’s slowing us down so much.”
“I didn’t want to say anything, but it’s getting worse, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. “Is what it is, but looks like it will be taking me a while to get to the top. If you’re willing…”
“Of course! I’ll be as quick as I can, so we can get back to camp.”
“One thing though. Better take Will with you. Not gonna go so well if you’re delayed a little and he gets hungry. I’d do my best, but there’s no substitute for Mom, in that case.”
Liz saw the logic in his suggestion, but sensed something else behind it, as well, something she did not entirely understand and definitely did not like. In any case, it made sense for Will to go with her, and practically, his presence would not dramatically slow his progress. Making sure Einar had a good spot to wait—together they had scooped and brushed all the snow from one of the buried aspen trunks, piling it in a semi-circle and creating a dry seat surrounded by something of a windbreak—she took the maps and set off up the slope.