From the ridge-crest itself, nothing was visible. So choked with brush was the spot where Liz had finally emerged that Einar himself was not entirely certain he was on the true crest, until he’d fought his way through the gnarly, clawing arms of some fifteen yards’ worth of oak brush, and started down the other side. No wonder she had not been able to make her observations from this point, and head back down. Naturally she would have continued on up the ridge until things opened up and she was able to get a better look, which is exactly what her tracks told him she had done. Still, Einar could not help feeling an instant’s dismay at the discovery, a momentary crossness at the prospect of more climbing as he stood resting the slightly bent knee of his bad leg on the snow, shaking with exhaustion and wishing, despite himself, that Liz might show up before he had a chance to get moving again.
Liz did not come, and soon Einar was, indeed, moving, climbing, seeing no sense in heading down at that point, near as he must be to the spot from which Liz had finally got a view of things. Figured he might as well have a look, too, and—perhaps more pressing reason, but one which he found himself a good deal less anxious to acknowledge—should he return to the waiting-spot and she prove further delayed, he knew he didn’t have another climb in him. Not that day. Would be pretty hard pressed just to make it down to camp before dark, the way things were currently going. So, he trudged on, following Liz’s trail but still not able to take long enough steps to fully utilize her tracks, themselves, making some of his own and discovering along the way that though done for the time with the menace presented by the fallen timber of the slope, buried oak brush can itself present quite the series of catching, snagging obstacles for a one-legged man…
After a time, doing his best to make speed through the deep snow and brush, Einar ceased particularly caring about or really even noticing the difficulty of the climb, mind wandering quite without his prompting over a varied and turbulent landscape of dark mine tunnel, paved highway with loudly-passing traffic, and silent, eerie airstrip where he expected every moment to hear the screech of tires and the staccato burst of semi-auto gunfire.
And then, after a time trapped in these worlds, contending with invisible foes in the damp darkness of tunnels the likes of which he knew one could never expect to find in the hard-rock mining country of the high Rockies, making a rolling leap at highway speeds from the back of Roger Keisl’s borrowed pickup truck with Liz and baby in tow and fighting with all his might to avoid being dragged onto a plane he was falling, free air all around him and the ground coming quickly beneath his feet. This time, unlike the last, he really was trying to pull his cord at a sensible altitude, but something was wrong, chute gone, no reserve, nothing, couldn’t see Liz but knew she was already drifting safely somewhere above him, and with nothing left to do he tucked arms in close to body, ducked his head and prepared for impact, watching as the trees took on definition, every detail of bark and cone clear to his vision and more beautiful than he had ever remembered seeing them, sweet scent of snow-laced evergreen needles rising to meet him, and somehow managing to avoid striking and becoming impaled upon one of those myriad tree-lances that lay beneath, he hit the ground grinning, not bad, not bad at all…
Thus it was that Liz found him on her descent, lying face down in the snow not far below the spot where she had finally won her way to a clear and distant view, still as a stone and without obvious sign of life or breath. When she got him turned over he was still grinning, sight made somewhat horrible by the shade of purple to which his face had been darkened by its contact with the snow, but in response to her efforts he opened his eyes, took a big, gasping breath and sat up.
“Kind of a…rough impact but…” Moved arms, legs, shrugged his shoulders and stiffly turned his head, apparently satisfied with his physical condition, if a bit surprised to find everything still more or less in working order.
“How’d it…how’d it go…landing?”
“Landing?” She looked up, half expecting to find a tall aspen out of which he might have fallen after climbing up in the hopes of a view, but there was nothing save a cluster of barely-six-foot-high oak brush. “I haven’t been doing any landing today. How about you?”
Einar blinked slowly as he searched for an answer, really beginning to feel the cold as he stared at the surrounding brush, at Liz with the map case in her hands, Will asleep on her back, and he thought better of saying anything more. Liz saw the change in his eyes, the growing awareness, let it go. Gave him a drink of water, a piece of dried fruit which she’d brought along and did her best to warm the snow-chilled portions of his face with a gloveless hand, hoping he hadn’t been lying there too long.
“Sorry I took so long up here. The brush is very thick, and I couldn’t see anything. It’s better up there a little higher, big open area, and I think I know where we are now. Let’s get back to camp, and I’ll show you. You’re going to like it, I think!”
Einar nodded, struggled to his feet, wanted to know right then, without any delay, but couldn’t find the words to tell her so, and when she started down the slope, he did his best to follow. Will was awake, kept pulling aside the fur ruff on Liz’s hood and craning his neck to look back at Einar, making eye contact, giggling and quickly looking away, and it was this game which kept Einar going, prevented him slipping back entirely into the shadowy world which had claimed him on the latter portion of his climb.
Despite this solid and rather lively tie with reality in the form of little Will, Einar did several times on the descent find himself caught up again in the act of falling, the feel of it, spruces rising beneath his feet as the ground rushed up at him and impact always coming, but for some reason unknown to him he survived it every time, snow soft beneath his body and apparently no further harm done, except that each time it was a bit more difficult to find the energy to pick himself up out of the snow, and to rise. Rise he did, though, and trudge onward, for what else is there to do, when one has not yet reached the destination and darkness is coming?
Has come, for the next time he was jolted to awareness by a sudden impact with the ground—how come I keep getting back in the doggone plane, knowing how this is going to go?—the world had grown almost entirely dark around him, and when at last he managed to struggle to his feet, he found himself navigating almost solely by the sound of Liz’s boots in the snow. How she knew where to go was a puzzlement to him, for sure, but he supposed she must be following their earlier trail in the snow, by feel if not by sight.
Home, such as it was, both of them dreadfully glad to see it, and Liz was lighting a fire. Einar, standing all stiff-kneed as he braced himself against collapse outside the glowing ring of its light, guessed he didn’t mind, though he would have liked to himself see and scrutinize the maps with their present location in mind, first. No seeing the maps without some source of light, though, and wanting to do his part he stared up at the surrounding trees until he managed to locate their stashed gear, freeing the rope and lowering the bag. Liz was keeping the fire small, but appeared to have it going well and steadily, and hauling the bag, he joined her beside it.