Dark and early Einar was awake, daylight still hours away as he lay staring up at the stars as he silently oriented himself, not moving a muscle until he was sure of his position, of the world around him, Liz and Will breathing quietly in sleep, wind soughing almost inaudibly in the treetops and no other sound to disturb the quiet of the night. Thinking back, he could find no memory of creeping over to their fir-branch bed beneath the spruce, wondered exactly how he had come to be there and supposed Liz might be able to provide him with answers. When she woke, which, night still heavy on the land, ought not be for some time. Though his sleep had been brief it had been sound, warmer than any he’d had in some time, despite the cold of the night, and before even trying to move he could sense that some of his earlier weakness seemed abated, if not entirely gone. The Nutella jar remained securely grasped in one hand where it had apparently been all through the night—goofy critter, no better than a squirrel with its stash of acorns, are you?—and, somewhat surprised that he was even able to use his fingers after so many hours of stillness, he retrieved himself a generous helping of the stuff, having to pry with his knife because of its texture in the early morning chill.
Liz stirred in her sleep, half-turned and put a gentle hand on his face, feeling, without entirely waking, down where neck met shoulder, checking to see that he was warm and sinking back into sounder sleep upon apparently finding his temperature satisfactory. Einar waited until her breathing became once again deeper, more regular, before easing his way out of the bed and creeping over beneath a nearby tree to spend some more time with the map. Hadn’t been as aware as he would have liked upon their return to camp that previous evening, effects of the cold and of a long day spent dragging his injured leg up and down near-vertical slopes of snow and timber having taken their toll, and now with a few hours of warm, decent sleep behind him, he needed another look.
Not that the look could be terribly informative, without the ability to independently orient the map and have a look at some landmarks. All he had to go on just then was Liz’s description of what she’d seen, and so, for the sake of argument and not wanting to entirely waste the opportunity to learn more of their (potential) surroundings, he decided to accept not only that the river she had seen was the one she believed it to be, but that she had accurately recognized a particular bend in said river as lying somewhere almost directly below their position. An awful lot of assuming, there, but he had to start somewhere, and without taking off and climbing the ridge, it seemed the best he could do, just then.
So. Bend in the river. Switching on the small headlamp Kilgore had sent them, he studied the map. That would place them in a long, narrow valley which ran parallel to a ridge that looked as though it could be the one they had climbed, river on its far side and another ridge, steep, rocky and cut with numerous gulleys that probably ran with snowmelt in certain seasons, directly opposite their camp, on the other side of the valley. Too dark to see anything of this ridge at the moment, but the image did fit with what he remembered seeing on the descent, and later, as they had left the meadow and headed for shelter in the timber. As he remembered, little was visible from the valley other than those two ridges and a bunch of timber, little more from the spot to which he’d climbed that past evening, the ridge on the opposite valley being several hundred feet higher than the one they’d climbed, and blocking any view of the land beyond. This elevation difference, too, was reflected by the map in the area where Liz had decided they must be. So, plausible, all of it, but nothing more, not until he’d seen for himself.
If Liz was right, there did indeed appear to be a cluster of caves in what must be a band of limestone near the top of the wall of a very steep canyon not far at all from their present position, this canyon splitting off from the one which contained the “big river.” He’d seen such places in the past, had scaled similar walls in search of entry to the caves they concealed, or, failing at this, had rappelled down from above, once having to set up a swinging motion when down near the right elevation, just to get himself over to a place where he could grab hold of a cluster of currant shrubs making a tenuous life for themselves in a crevice in the rock, and pull himself over to the narrow ledge by which he finally gained entrance to the cave. Leaving had been a bit more difficult, would have been a real challenge, indeed, had he not remembered to secure the rope to those little bushes, so it would be waiting for him when he exited… Such a place, if they could locate one, might provide them the shelter they needed to live out the remainder of the cold, snowy weeks in relative safety and even comfort, concealed from the outside world as they worked to become established in this new place.
Thinking about it, Einar was tempted to stash the heavier portions of their gear when daylight came and set out on an expedition to see if they could find this canyon with its limestone band and caves, as—if Liz was correct about their location—it ought only be a few miles distant. The risks in this were many, including the possibility that they might in so exploring run across some trail or other place where people could be, and chance being seen, but he was sure that with the proper level of caution this danger could be minimized, and besides, if such areas existed nearby, better that they come to know of them sooner, and while proactively exploring, rather than later and perhaps under far less favorable circumstances. The other risk—one of them—was, though he did not like to admit it, that he might find himself unable to complete several miles’ reconnaissance, let alone manage to return to their current camp at the end of it to help Liz haul the remainder of their gear. Had barely made it back down that ridge, and realistically, did not know how many miles he had left in him, until the leg had seen a bit of healing.
And what if you do run into somebody over there, some trail, a couple of backcountry skiers, folks on snowshoes, and you have to move quickly to get out of the area? What then? You’re a hazard, that’s what. Hazard to your family, the way you’ll be slowing them down. He rubbed the leg, once again twisting, probing and trying to figure out just what might be the matter, but things were so swollen up after the previous day’s climb that such investigations proved all but useless. Would simply have to give it time.
Time. He’d spent enough of it crouching still against the trunk of the spruce, that was for sure, and he rose, catching himself against the tree before heading out for a short walk around the area of the shelter. No moonlight, but with the sky beginning to go grey, he would be able to get a look at the shape of the horizon, if nothing more, perhaps compare it to the things he’d been seeing on the map, begin to settle the question of whether or not Liz was correct in her estimation.