No way to retrieve the parachute from down on the ground, and Einar—my fault it’s up there in the first place, instead of down here on the ground with yours—wanted to be the one to make the climb, but Liz didn’t want to see him up there, effectively limited as he was to the use of a single leg. “Let me do it. Will needs you. If I fall out of that tree…” he shrugged. “But if you do, he doesn’t eat. Little guy still needs his mom. Doing fine with the leg. I can make the climb.”
“If you fall out of the tree, I have to drag or carry you all the way to wherever we’re going, and then we’re really in trouble! We could just leave it…”
“Can’t leave it. Some hunter stumbles across it next season, or even two seasons from now, if we’re still anywhere in the area, and there’s the potential for real trouble. No, it’s got to come down, come with us. Besides, the material is awfully useful, the cord. We need that stuff. Would take an awful lot of hours of work to begin replicating all that cordage and material, lot of nettles and elk hides.”
Liz saw that he did have a point, several points, actually, but still didn’t want him leaving the ground. She had seen how he’d struggled simply to keep himself on his feet as they traveled, leaning into the traces so hard that they were at times nearly supporting him as he fought to pull that bag through the snow and standing with bad leg bent and hanging limp whenever they stopped. Just didn’t seem a good candidate for tree climbing operations such as the one needed to retrieve that chute. She, on the other hand, could be up that tree in no time and…
Einar was no longer beside her, already some six feet from the ground and climbing with a speed and agility which she would have thought quite beyond his reach just then, had she not seen such in the past. Once, just halfway to the required branch and starting to see black spots before his vision at the effort of climbing, he lost his footing and nearly fell, catching himself hard on a branch and struggling to get an elbow up and over it, sensing that he would not be able to hang on for too long, the way he was. Frustrated him, some. Ought to have been able to hang from that branch for a long time with one hand behind his back, do a couple of complete pull-ups just for fun and then swing to the next branch, but as it was, he settled for awkwardly flopping himself up and over the bough which had saved him from the fall, his own limbs dangling straight down like those of some big, exhausted cat as he laughed silently but almost hysterically at the absurdity of his plight.
Finally, in response to Liz’s shouted questions—sure, he was alright, just couldn’t immediately move, lest the blackness become complete and he really take a tumble—he raised his head and began looking for the best way up to his destination. Not too far above him now, and he was moving again, reaching the branch and stretching himself out along it as far as he could go while still maintaining a hold on something solid, something he was sure would not break under his weight. Not working, couldn’t reach, and moving slowly he inched out along the bare, dead bough on which the chute had snagged, almost within reach when he heard the thing begin to creak and snap, slow fall, more tired than it was brittle, and before it went all the way he was able to get one foot down onto something a bit more solid, balancing, falling back against the trunk when finally the weight of the parachute overcame the branch’s last resistance and sent it tumbling for the ground.
Einar was not far behind the chute and not moving with a good deal less speed or more grace than the falling object, either, when he reached the ground, fall fortunately broken somewhat by the spruce’s proliferation of somewhat springy, giving boughs and no immediately obvious harm done save a series of angry-looking scrapes across his left cheekbone. Blinking hard he sat up, managed to pull himself to his feet before Liz, who had been waiting at a safe distance lest she put Will at risk from falling objects of various sizes, could reach him.
“Too bad there were so many branches in the way, or I might have actually been able to use this thing on the way down!” With which they were both laughing, Liz shaking her head in relief, disbelief, Einar feeling a good deal more battered and bruised than he was willing to let on, but glad simply to be alive and breathing, present mission completed.
After securing the parachute to the bag they moved on, travel slow through the snowy timber as they headed for what Einar hoped would be a low pass or saddle, providing exit from the valley. When sometime in the evening they reached just such a land feature, climbed it and saw from its aspen-covered summit an expanse of snowy hills, cliffs and canyons stretching out before them, it greatly increased in Einar’s mind the likelihood that Liz had been correct in placing them on the map. A half hour of study confirmed this and, weary from their travels, they decided to make camp some distance below the saddle in a generous clustering of firs, continue on towards the caves in the morning.
Liz woke sometime in the night, sleepy and comfortably warm, herself, but aware that Einar, despite being right there with her in the sleeping bag, was not feeling particularly warm at all, struggling with the cold and increasingly losing ground, body feeling stiff and chilled against her own. She could tell he was fighting to keep still.
"Einar, what's going on? Are you really that cold? Can't you stop shaking?"
He tried, managed it for a short time but then lost control and the shivering seized him again. "No, guess...guess not. Sorry. I can get up so...not keeping you awake."
She tightened her grip, rubbed his shoulders, arms where they were crossed hard on his chest, attempting to bring him some warmth. "No, no don't go anywhere. You're just fine here. Do we need to get up and make you a fire though? You're freezing."
"Be ok. Just so hungry all night. Trying not to…let it get me, but just…hurts.”
“Oh, why didn’t you say something sooner? You ought to be hungry. I’m sure you used up all your energy climbing that tree, and you're still nothing but skin and bones. Believe me, I can feel every one of them. Let’s get up and find you something to eat.”
“No, need to get it…under control. Do it myself. Ought to go out in…snow until I…”
“No, you don’t. That way of thinking doesn’t get you anywhere at all. You just need to eat, that’s all. Your body is just starting to get used to it again, and that’s why you’re feeling the hunger. It’s been there all along. You just got so good at ignoring it. Try to see this change as a good thing. Come on, I know you’ve got the Nutella tucked in with you over there somewhere. You haven’t let that stuff out of your sight since we found it in the drop bag. Just have some of that.”
A barely-audible groan from Einar, who wanted nothing more than to dig in and finish the jar, had wanted it all night, seen it in his dreams and awakened numerous times all cramped and twisted with hunger, but so far he’d done nothing about it aside from endlessly reminding himself that everything was off-limits until morning. Had to be that way. Had to keep some semblance of order.
Liz was not nearly as concerned with Einar’s idea of order as she was with his simply making it through the night and having the energy to go on in the morning, and feeling around until she found the Nutella jar, she opened it for him. “Have some. You’ve been doing pretty well with this. Your body is asking for energy. Just give it what it wants.”
Reasonable enough, and simple, too, but she did not know the cost… And does not need to know, he snarled at himself, because not only is that what you need to do, it’s what you’ve been intending to do, and if it gets a little difficult now and then, well, when did you ever turn away from things when they started getting difficult? Go for it. Can deal with the consequences later. After we’ve found some more permanent shelter, and got ourselves set up there.
He ate, and finally, though really not feeling much warmer, had the energy to go back to sleep. Strange thing, that one, he thought to himself as he drifted off. That sometimes it can require more energy to go to sleep than to stay awake, and he was pretty sure he was close to pondering out exactly why this might be—made sense, under present circumstances—but sleep, itself, interrupted the completion of his thought on the matter.