Shivering against a large, overhanging boulder in the dim half-light of early morning Einar studied what he could see of the surrounding horizon, close, heavily timbered and not terribly distinct in the way one might hope for when attempting to orient one’s self in several million acres of ridge, valley and peak, and he breathed slowly, pressing the map to the rock and attempting to still his trembling so he could get a better look.
Really wanted to be up on the ridge from whose crest Liz had seen her river, get a look for himself and hopefully settle the matter, but a great heaviness lay upon him after his climb of the previous day, a weariness on which sleep seemed to have little mitigating effect, and he knew he’d better make it count, this next attempt, if he really intended to do it. It was then that things began appearing a good deal plainer to Einar, plan already half-formed in his mind as he folded the map, stowed it in a pocket and headed back for camp
If, he now realized, he was once more to use up all the energy remaining to him as he had done on the climb, he might as well use it getting somewhere. Already they had lingered far too many days in the area of the drop zone, a practice which he knew from both experience and common sense was surely setting them up for discovery and disaster, and while they might wait around for several days more, seeking to solve the puzzle of exactly where they might be on the map, better by far was to get moving.
Even if Liz was wrong about their current location, and therefore the existence of that cave system, they would be moving, putting some distance between themselves and their last known location, and that could only be a good thing—if approached with caution and care. The possibility still remained that they might be walking right into a worse situation, civilization of some sort, for example, but if they took it slow and stopped frequently to re-assess things, it ought to work out. Ha! Slow is the only way you’re likely to be taking it here for a while Einar, like it or not. This leg hasn’t seemed to take too kindly so far to your attempts at overcoming its trouble through sheer willpower, has it? Thing’s determined to slow you to a crawl. Well. All the more reason to get out of here without too much more delay. Better to find a safe place unknown to anyone at all, where you can all hole up for a while.
He was, in addition to finding himself understandably worn out from climbing through deep snow with a badly wrenched leg, undeniably showing the signs of the insidious sickness which had stalked him previously when he’d come out of long periods of eating next to nothing, body struggling to adjust to the change. The temptation at such times had always been to return in a hurry to past habits—his natural inclination, anyway; starvation had always worked for him—in search of some relief, but he knew he must not do so in this case, knew he must instead work at getting strong for his family, for the life they must lead together out there in the hills. Which meant sticking with it and struggling through the inevitable difficulties of the following weeks, and he wanted a safe where he could secure and protect his family while doing that. The caves would perhaps be ideal, and if they were there, he meant to find them.
Liz was awake, had fed Will, stowed him warmly in the hood of her parka and had been about to come looking for him. She rose with a smile when he stepped out of the timber, hurried to him and was about to gently chide him for going wandering before she’d had a chance to prepare his breakfast, but was stopped by something she saw in his eyes.
“What is it?”
“You ready to go? Leave here?”
“Where are we going?”
“Going to your caves. So about six miles, probably eight by the time we climb up and down all the little draws and gulleys between here and there, but I figure a good solid day’s travel, and we ought to be there.”
“I don’t even know for sure that the caves exist, though. Or that we’re anywhere near them, I guess I mean. I thought you weren’t even sure about which river I’d been looking at…”
“Let’s go to the caves, Liz. Will you come with me to the caves?”
“I’ll come with you.”
“We need to be out of here, one way or the other. Been here way too long. Surprised they haven’t come and dropped stuff on us already.”
She took hold of his shoulders, tried to get a look at his eyes, but he just stared at the ground, not particularly wanting her to see the depth of his weariness. “Dropped stuff on us…? Are you Ok this morning? Did you get any sleep?”
He looked at her then, resting his forehead against hers. “Just fine, Lizzie. Ready to get moving, find us a place to settle down.”
“Should we cache some things, whatever won’t go on our backs?”
“Don’t want to have to come back here. Let’s drag it, what we can’t carry. Rig up a harness like we did before, and drag it like a sled.”
“It looked like some pretty steep terrain between here and the canyon that might hold those caves…
“Yeah, it did! We’ll lower the bag when we have to, lower it over the side and go down after it. Might take a while, this trip, but if we have to camp somewhere between here and there, well, we’re equipped to do that, too.”
“You’re really excited about this, aren’t you?”
“I’m ready to be moving. Way past time to be moving.”
And, retrieving the bag from its spot in the spruce, she helped him pack.