30 September, 2013

30 September 2013

Long seemed the way back to camp, Einar increasingly weary as he went, starting to stumble, canyon walls going all shimmery and translucent until he almost began believing he could step right through them if he tried—would be less wind in there, and he could feel the wind rapidly sapping his strength; would be ok to have some shelter as he walked—strange, but he’d seen stranger things in his day, and found himself not tremendously concerned with the development.  Until he tried to act on this new discovery, this less-than-solid state of the walls…and ran face-first into hard, cold limestone, slightly bloodying his nose. 

Well.  Not so real after all, he had to conclude, and apparently one cannot always fully trust one’s eyes.  Too bad, because he sure couldn’t much count on his other senses, head all numb and strange and a hissing in his ears, dizziness churning in his stomach and threatening always to throw him off balance and to the ground… 

He kept going though, stayed on his feet until he saw the boulders bulking huge and solid against the ephemeral light of the stars, picked up a whiff of pine smoke and stood stalk-still until he was able, from amidst the soft and distant gurgling of the mostly-frozen creek and the sighing of the wind through bare branches, to discern the soft sounds of breathing from amongst the boulders.  Feeling his way, creeping lest he wake anyone, he eased into camp and curled up against a rock several feet from his family, content, for the moment, simply to be in Liz’s presence again, not wanting to wake or disturb her, entirely exhausted and already nearly asleep before he finished drawing knees up to chest for warmth.

Einar did not remain long there freezing against the boulder for Liz had heard him come back into camp, went to him, laid a careful hand on his shoulder and when it was clear that he was awake, knew her, she helped him to his feet.

“Come to bed, Einar.  It’s cold.”

“Ok here.  Too…I’m too cold for bed.  Don’t want to make you guys cold.”
“Silly, come on in here.  No way I’m going to make you spend the rest of the night over against that cold chunk of rock.  Come in the sleeping bag with me.  Will’s wrapped in a blanket so it won’t bother him, and you’ll be warm soon enough.”

“Think I’m…kind of a mess.”

“We’ll clean you up.  Let me get the fire going again, heat a little water.  It’ll be good to have some tea, too.  I’d like to have some tea.”

“Just want to sleep, Lizzie.  All done, home, can sleep now.”

“Soon.  Sit here by the fire, we’ll get you fixed up, and then you can sleep.”

Liz’s insistence turned out to be a good thing in the end, Einar having bled a fair amount where the ropes had dug in and the bleeding still going on, a situation to which he had, himself, been wholly oblivious; he’d attributed the growing weakness and vertigo he’d felt on the return walk entirely to his situation and to the cold.  Liz did not say a word as she helped clean and bandage his arms, wrapped his canteen cup in cloth to prevent it scalding frost-nipped fingers and sat with him as he drank peppermint tea, honey-sweetened, energy-giving, enough energy, perhaps, to see him through the night.  As he drank, his mind was on the morning, the caves, darkness of the past hours behind him, its work done, accomplished, and when finally he crept—all shivery and stiff, but warm enough to make it through the remaining night and finally headed in the right direction—into the bag with Liz, sleep was good.  Body hurting but soul satisfied, quiet, he passed the remainder of the night, Liz holding him tight as if afraid she might otherwise wake to find him gone again and Will sleeping happy and oblivious, dreaming of fire, of snow-laden spruces, of all the wonders yet to be discovered in his small but expanding world.

It was not the cold that woke Einar sometime just before daylight, nor was it the persistent twisting ache in back and shoulders where they protested the past night’s treatment, though those things  were certainly present.  Instead, it was a softly willow-scented breath of air, warm, humid and entirely out of place which roused him from his slumber.  Thinking at first that he was simply waking and becoming aware, again, of Liz’s close presence, he did not bother immediately opening his eyes.  It wasn’t Liz, though, for the breath came again, dank and damp and smelling as much of fermented vegetation as anything, and with it came a great moist snort.  Liz did not snort.

Einar’s eyes came open, body held rigidly still in response to a deeply-ingrained instinct designed to prevent giving himself away should an enemy be present, and there in the half-light Einar found himself staring up the ponderous length of a deep brown hairy nose and into the slow, placid eyes of an enormous moose.  Wisely, he kept still, waiting for the behemoth to finish its inspection of his face, hand inching almost imperceptibly upwards all the while and towards the spot just outside the bag where he had left his pistol.  By the time he’d reached it the moose had raised its head, apparently satisfied that the strange creature presented no immediate threat, required no action, and for the moment Einar took no action, either. 

Wanted to shoot the creature, add its meat to the sizeable but dwindling supply of food in the drop bag, but it did not take a lot of figuring to see that if he felled the beast while it stood in its present position, its bulk would almost certainly slump forward between the two boulders, and come to rest squarely on himself—and the sleeping Liz and Will.  The possibility of being crushed beneath such an enormous mountain of food was a risk he, himself certainly would have been willing to take, but as he wasn’t about to do any such thing to Liz and especially not to someone so small as Will, he had for the moment to let the moose go.

Going, meandering slowly between the camp boulders and out into the willows the creature lumbered, Einar wriggling free of Liz’s grasp and pursuing on hands and knees through the snow with the pistol, wishing he’d had time to grab the rifle instead but not wanting to give the moose time to get away and knowing he could do the job with the weapon at hand, so long as he could get in close enough and place the shot well.  Hands hurt, stiff and strange with the past night’s frost damage, but they were more or less working, which was all that mattered to him just then. 

There.  In a nearby cluster of willows the moose had stopped, head down, eating, and whether it was due to his own innate stealth or because the animal had already inspected and dismissed the man it would be difficult to say, but it seemed not to notice as he crept nearer and nearer, fifteen yards and then ten, until he lay stomach down and trembling with cold no more than eight feet from the feeding creature, looking straight up at its belly.

27 September, 2013

27 September 2013

Liz and Will, alone together in the shelter of stone and snow, sat well-protected from the fury of wind and driven snow-swirl without, fire reflecting from the limestone that all but surrounded them and soon lending the place a fair amount of warmth, as well as its light and cheer.  Einar had taken his leave before eating, had gone to face his ordeal in the snow, and though temporarily without appetite, herself, at the thought of what the following hours held in store for him, Liz soon took her portion of the soup and ate, sharing bites with Will and telling him lively stories of the caves they would find on the morrow, of the life they would begin there.  The little one smiled at her words, laughing and pointing at the flames, “Fi!  Fi!”  The joy of discovery, of a life just beginning, and Liz held him close as the wind howled outside and darkness became complete.

Einar, never looking back, journeyed up and around the canyon’s bend until he could no longer make out the glow of the fire on the walls far above, climbed up some distance from the creekbed and canyon floor until he found a tee, not the familiarly twisted, blackened skeleton of a pine that had many time served him so well up at the dropoff above the cabin, but perhaps a reasonable substitute…

Later, hanging limply forward with arms behind him and the cold wind already noticeably sapping what little stamina he had left, Einar wished he had the strength to push himself farther, really test himself, do more, needed more, need to quit needing it, you big fool, or one of these days Liz is gonna be right, and you’re not going to come back to them. 

Maybe.  Maybe, he told himself, leaning into the ropes.  But not this time.  This time he had a cave to find, bag to haul, family to get established and on their feet at the new place, traplines set up and the entire area thoroughly reconnoitered both for potential danger and for the things which would sustain them for as long as they might end up staying.  Difficult for a dead man to do any of those things, difficult—tried to flex his fingers, but couldn’t feel them—for a man with no hands to be particularly useful on the trapline, and as he had no intention of turning his back on his duties, he knew that night’s meeting with the ropes and the elements could only go so far.

Had come mighty close to going too far already, Einar realized with a start some minutes later, shaking from his head a bit of the cold-induced lethargy which long since had begun its steady advance, squinting into the darkness and trying hard to remember exactly in which direction the camp lay.  Liz, he realized, had no idea where he’d gone, no way to find him should things go wrong and he find himself without the strength to get free or to make the return walk; had meant to do it that way, normally would have been little concerned about any potential consequences—the striving, the struggle were, after all, only genuine if endured alone and without the possibility of ready assistance—but this time he found a bit of doubt creeping in, a bit of question. 

Which meant either that he was managing to keep himself a good deal more connected to the present than usually proved possible during such experiences, a good deal more aware of possible implications and of his duties to others—or that he’d finally gone soft and cowardly and was looking for a reason to end the challenge early.  Thought it was the first, but by way of precluding the second possibility he swung to the side where the slope dropped sharply away, feet out from under him and the full weight of his body—what weight remained—supported by his bound arms. 

A silent cry then—always silent, mustn’t let them hear—from Einar, eyes staring blankly up at the ribbon of star-sprinkled sky that snaked its way like the reflection of some ghostly river between the deeper darkness that was the canyon walls, and when things settled down some and he was able to start thinking again, using his mind just a bit, he was aware of a great weariness that seemed to envelope him even more thoroughly than the pain, a wish to be done, and to rest—meant that he wasn’t done yet, must endure until it passed.  Which he did, struggling with the desire to free himself, to end, by whatever means necessary, whatever means possible—even talking, if that was still what they wanted, if only they would show up and tell him—this torment that seemed to be growing steadily less bearable, more than he could take.  Took it, remained quiet, as always, time slipping past and Einar only occasionally fully aware of his surroundings.

Though seeing the thing through to the end he managed somehow, without really trying, to keep from slipping nearly as deeply as usually would have happened into the murky haze between past and present, the place where snowy canyon walls and high country timber always became ephemeral, distant, gave way to the steaming stench and humidity of that cramped little bamboo cage, and his real work began.   

This time the jungle was out there as always, pressing in on him with an undeniable and inexorable strength and never far from the front of his mind—how could it be, considering the physical sensations to which he was subjecting himself?—but always before him, between himself and that reality, lay the sight of Mother and Son, warm together in the shelter of the rocks and awaiting his return.  Must return, and at the end, when finally body and mind had stopped resisting the torment and demanding relief—a demand to which, for the exercise to be successful, he knew he must never acquiesce—he was grateful, breathing a prayer of thanksgiving as he lowered himself and lay face down on the snowy earth waiting for some circulation to return to hands and arms, for had he lost himself as thoroughly as he was used to doing in the jungle, he would almost certainly have passed the entire night in the company of that tree and the ropes, and might very well never have seen the morning…

Morning.  Appeared, sky an inky, light-prickled black when he rolled to his back and looked up, that morning must remain at least several hours distant, and working to free his arms from their remaining wraps of rope he struggled into his coat—felt no warmth, only a lessening of the force of the wind; warmth would take time—glad that he would be able to return to the camp, and to Liz, before morning came and she really began to worry.

Standing, shaky, hollow-eyed and halting with lingering horror and fatigue but at the same time quietly triumphant and inexpressibly grateful, Einar headed for home.

25 September, 2013

25 September 2013

Canyon floor wasn’t much to see, when finally they did reach it.  In fact, they recognized the place as much by smell as by sight at first, sweet-sharp tang of the willows rising to meet them even before the slope finished leveling out.  Then they were pushing their way through tangles of the stuff, willow interspersed with red osier dogwood to form thickets nearly impenetrable by creatures so large as themselves but not, Einar saw, entirely so, for there in the soft snow-mud beside the creek were a series of tracks too large to belong to any creature other than a female moose and her yearling young.  

Warily then he stood casting about for any sign of the beast, tracks fresh and country so closed-in and brushy down there that the pair could have been ten yards from them and they never would have seen a sign, but there was nothing, no crackle of willow or wet slurping of half frozen mud, and gradually Einar relaxed a bit, signaled to Liz that they could resume moving.

“Stay right behind me, here,” he spoke low and near her face.  “Let’s be real careful about this until we’re sure she’s not nearby.  Real fresh tracks.”

That moose, should they end up remaining long enough in the area to take advantage of its presence, offered the possibility of a bounty of meat to eat and preserve, but must in the meantime be treated with respect and caution, Einar not at all liking the idea of the angry mother charging Liz and Will as they wound their way through the dense thickets of willow and dogwood which so clogged the canyon floor. 

The creek itself was barely running, a mere trickle between banks of brittle ice, but they could see from jumbled deposits of debris and mud two and three feet high on especially tight clumps of vegetation that it must is some seasons roar through the narrow canyon with a force fearsome to behold.  Einar, seeing the sheerness of the walls surrounding them and their distance from any quick way up out of the canyon, found himself glad for the moment that it was winter. 

Cold though, awfully cold, for though one might have expected the canyon walls to block some of the force of the wind, they seemed that day to be channeling and concentrating it, instead, so that the gusts howled and sang down through the willows with a force nearly sufficient to knock Einar from his feet, Liz leaning into it with one hand on the back of her neck in an attempt to keep the hood in place and shield Will from its bitter strength.   All around, when those gusts came through, the supple and springy wetland vegetation bowed and danced before the hand of the wind, paths opening, little family passing through before momentarily they closed again behind them.  This, Einar knew, they could not keep up.  Not even in the better clothes left them by Bud and Susan, for the sheer force and power of those gusts was exhausting them, sending blinding skiffs of snow skyward and confusing their path.

Silent, struggling for air, Einar pushed himself to catch up with Liz, who had taken a turn at the front after the moose tracks had turned clearly away from their path.  Hand on her arm, he waited until she stopped, spoke, leaning into the drop bag webbing to prevent himself being leveled by the wind.

“Caves can wait.  Got to find some shelter.  This is…”  Lost his footing as another gust came through, taking him somewhat by surprise, had to spit out a mouthful of snow before he could speak again.  “This isn’t getting any better.  May not be able to find the right draw, one with the caves in it, anyway, with the snow blowing in our faces like this.  What do you say…hunker down for the night if we can find some shelter.”

Liz, herself more worn out than she had realized from the long, taxing descent, nodded in silent agreement, took the webbing and helped him pull the bag, stopping to lift it over stubborn clumps of willow when they rose up to tangle the traces and halt progress.  Shelter came in the form of a series of limestone boulders, castoffs, no doubt, from some long-fallen spur on the canyon wall, three of the rough, water-pitted remnants having fallen so close together as to form nearly a completely closed roof at the top, space inside quiet, still and nearly devoid of wind due to the position of the automobile-sized rocks and their proximity to the wall, itself.

While Einar worked on scraping an area more or less free of snow with his boots, Liz took tarp and foam sleeping pads from the drop bag, working to construct an expedient shelter to block out even more of the wind and insulate them from the cold ground.  A long silence then as all caught their breath and Will had his first meal since the harrowing descent down the walls, Einar drifting towards sleep and Liz deciding it was time to eat.  Already dusk was encroaching down in the canyon’s narrow depths, hours having passed in puzzling out the intricacies of their descent.  Einar, rousing himself with more difficulty than he would have liked from his near-stupor, balanced himself against one of the rocks and went in search of dry branches to use for firewood while Liz scraped together a meal.

Einar’s mind was not on food as Liz heated water for a packet of freeze-dried chili over the fire, but on the thing which had haunted him during his wakeful hours the previous night and which now weighed with increasing heaviness on his mind as dusk cast its long shadows across the snow-encrusted evergreens visible far above on the canyon’s rim.  Taking out the long coil of nettle cordage which stayed always with him in pocket or around his waist, he straightened it, tugging, testing, measuring its strength.  Not greater, he could only hope, than his own.  When Liz sat down beside him there was little need to speak to her his thoughts.  She already knew.

“I know you’ve been needing to go.  Could see it last night, and I’m glad you decided not to do it, then.  Now I won’t try to stop you.  But I would like to know—well, with Will and all, it seems reasonable that I should know your intentions…”

“Intentions?  No different than ever, really.”

“It’s cold.  You’re still—well, you know how you are.    I don’t need to tell you.  With that in mind, I want to know if you intend to come back to us.”

“Of course I do!  I always do this so that I can come back to you.  Stay with you.  Besides, the cold would be…it’s far too gentle for me, too peaceful.  Not the way I should go.  If I was to go.”

“But you might anyway, if you’re not careful.  Might not notice in time to make a choice, and turn back.”

“Oh, we’re old friends, the cold and I.  Know how to talk to each other.   I’ll come back.”


And he went.

24 September, 2013

First Snow

Here is where I've been, the past few days.  Great to see the first snow of the season!

Will still work on having a chapter ready for this evening.

21 September, 2013

21 September 2013

I'm heading out for a few days, and will be back with another chapter on Tuesday.

Hope you all have a good weekend, and thanks for reading!

19 September, 2013

19 September 2013

Night, and Einar lay wide awake beside Liz as he tried to picture in minute detail the probable course their climb would take once they reached the canyon floor and began ascending again.  From the rim, he had studied the possible avenues of approach, worked out in his mind which would provide the best cover, which seemed least likely to end in cliffs, trapping them before they reached the series of broken, sparsely timbered gulleys near the top, near the caves, and when he closed his eyes to shut out the still-dancing orange of the dying coals, he could still see that picture clearly as when he’d been looking right at it.  Should go, if they were able to find the right course from the limited perspective they’d have at the bottom of the canyon, and stick to it.  Needed a landmark, something they would be able to spot from the bottom.  Would be sure and look for one in the morning before they went anywhere.  

With which thought he probably should have let go and allowed himself to sleep in preparation for the exertions of the coming day, but something was bothering him.  Tried to push it aside, think of other things, and for a while it worked, smiling as he remembered Liz’s efforts at getting Will to say another word, any other word, after his somewhat tenuous but unmistakable naming of fire, little one stubbornly refusing to try, his interest having moved on to other matters and Liz in her excitement doing enough talking for the three of them… 

But then the memory faded, silence of the night pressing in all around him once again and there it was, the call of the snowy rock and timber outside, his need to answer it—to leave everything behind and spend a night alone in the elements with a length of nettle cordage, testing himself, repenting, in some small measure, for the ease, the luxury, the food and warmth he had allowed himself over that past day in the cave—nearly too strong to resist.  Resist he did, though, turning to face the rock wall and forcing himself to keep still, to stay.   Would need all the strength and stamina he could muster just to get himself, his gear and his family to the bottom of those cliffs the following day, and knew he had no business spending it all on simply getting himself through the night.

Liz, sensing his restlessness, woke and stirred up the fire, saw it in his eyes, the need, the struggle, recognized the thing she saw, silently pleading with him not to go—not tonight, not up here on this wild, windy cliff face; we’d never see you again—and not realizing that his decision had already been made.  After a while she moved closer, held him, and he, though wanting desperately to be alone, allowed it, stillness of the night eventually creeping in, both of them sleeping.

With the coming of day the wind eased; inside, Einar could hear the change as he lay wide awake and trying not to shiver at Liz’s side, warmth of the coals gone and temperatures outside falling fast with the departure of the storm.  Already, that past night before sleeping, they had largely made ready their gear, stowing everything as securely as possible in the drop bag and cinching it down tight against what both knew would likely be a difficult and at times complicated descent.  Little remained to do beside make one final check of the place, stash the sleeping bag, secure Will in Liz’s parka hood and take their leave, but Einar was restless, pacing from back of the little grotto to cave mouth, crouching, staring out into the unfamiliar stillness that had fallen over cliff face and canyon, rising, returning to the back of the cave to stare again into the darkness of the tunnel beyond.  No decision to make, really.  They must leave, had settled it in their conversations the day before, and now was the time.  No reason for the sense of uncertainty that had come over him.  He was not staying behind.  The tunnel was not an option for him.  Had to lead his family off that cliff, and seek for them a new home amongst the broken rock, black timber and sheltering caves of the canyon’s other side, and for the last time he turned from the tunnel, blinking into the brightening, dazzling light of day and gently stirring Liz from her sleep.

“Better get going, if we want to have a full day of it.  Got some breakfast ready for us, just some bars that Susan sent, but this seemed a good time for them.”

Liz was out of the bag and on her feet in seconds, crouching beside Einar as they shared their hurried breakfast, cold but satisfying, she immensely glad to see him finishing his portion and he striving to stay singly focused on the task before them.  Bag would be the hard part, safely lowering it over the more vertical sections, preventing it pulling them off the wall; given time and proper equipment he could have rigged a system to assist with this, but equipment was in short supply, and time—well, the less time they spent out on that wall where they would, with the departure of the storm, be visible to any who might pass by, the better.  Seemed about the best he could do was to make sure that he, and not Liz, was the one managing the bag, minimize her risk and Will’s, should something go wrong.  These thoughts he did not share with Liz.  He’d seen her previous unease with that narrow, snow-covered ledge, and did not want to do anything to increase it, before they set out.  Soon—Lord willing—they would be on the canyon floor, laughing about their near-misses and planning the climb up to what would hopefully be more permanent shelter.

Time to go.  Cave checked and rechecked, empty, good shelter from a storm which would surely have scoured them from the wall without its discovery, and they left with grateful hearts, Einar leading the way back along the ledge, looking, now that daylight was full and the snow no longer swirling, for a feature in the severe terrain of that wall which might allow them passage.  They had not traveled long before he found it, what started as a mere brokenness in the rock quickly opening up into a good-sized cut in the wall, steep but not impassable, and studded here and there with stunted vegetation to give them some additional handholds, twisted frames of the tiny, tenacious subalpine fir and limber pine each older than the combined ages of the two adults in the party, if barely taller than the youngest. 

No way they could have seen this route in the storm which had driven them to the cave, even smaller chance that they would have survived an attempted descent under those conditions, blinded by storm and already dangerously exhausted and chilled as they had been, but now, belaying Liz through a particularly steep and exposed section with a length of parachute cord, he gave thanks for the means of escape which had been provided them. 

Though the descent was by no means easy for him, Einar did find himself feeling a good deal stronger than he remembered doing for some time, body starting to come back, a bit of the muscle tone and agility with which he had for so long been used to meeting the world, and though he knew he still had an awfully long way to go, things were beginning to look hopeful.  Which, for reasons not wholly known to him, only increased his need to retreat off into the snowy woods, meet with the ropes and spend a night thus challenging himself.  Half wished he didn’t need to it, but knew that he must, if he wished to stay in this world. 

Which—Will loudly practicing his words on Liz’s back and Liz answering him with delight in her voice as the two of them came along behind him—he certainly did, and a successful descent being their first and most immediate priority, the rest of it could wait for some other time.  Grinning, Einar plowed ahead through the snow, spruce scent sharp and life-giving in his nostrils, all the world seeming tremendously alive and full of promise around him.

Movement grew easier as they descended, gully opening up and the trees becoming more numerous, until after a time they found themselves walking with relative ease over a snowy boulder field, still steep, a struggle, especially for Einar, who was burdened with the bag, but definitely walking rather than climbing, and below them through the timber, the canyon floor was in sight.

16 September, 2013

16 September 2013

The day passed in relative leisure for the little family in the cave, wind raging so outside that neither Einar nor Liz found themselves much inclined to try their footing on the steep descent, spin-drift creating near whiteout conditions even when the snow itself abated, and travel largely out of the question until the wind managed to subside, some.

Several times Liz took advantage of the smoldering fire---pleasant; just enough warmth for that small space—to cook up additional treats from the supplies Susan had left the, Einar having some of everything she prepared but doing so with caution, finally having admitted to himself that a good deal of the weakness and other troubles he’d been experiencing over the past several days could be directly traced to the insidious and sometimes dangerous sickness he had experienced several times in the past when his body struggled to adjust to eating a bit more, after extended periods of near-nothing.  The trouble would pass, but only if he worked cautiously to find some balance until the adjustment was complete—enough to give him the energy he needed and keep him headed in the right direction, but not so much that his physical systems would find themselves unable to cope, and begin betraying him.  Or finish doing it.

Late that morning and after having helped Liz finish their second warm snack of the day—not counting breakfast; what’s got into her?—Einar roused himself from a heavy and encroaching near-sleep, raised himself on a bony elbow.

“You know, we really do have to leave here sometime.  No easy access to hunting, trapping or much of anything else here—even firewood.  Once we’ve used up all the branches from that old dead pine, there’s no more easily available, not that I’ve seen, and the food from Bud and Susan won’t last forever…”

“No, and I’d hate to use it all up.  The storm seems to be slowing a little.  It seems a shame to leave this place, but you’re right that there isn’t much here for us.  Are you wanting to head for the bottom of the canyon soon?”

Einar stretched, rose, squinted out at the whiteness beyond the cave mouth.  “Not entirely sure that I want to, but think it’s about time.  When the wind slows and we can see where we’re going, that is.  Maybe this afternoon, and if not, first thing tomorrow morning.  Need to get someplace where we can set up a bit more of a long term shelter, and this just isn’t it.”

“No, I guess it wouldn’t be much of a life, over here.  But it does have the advantage of not being on the map.  Those other places are on the map.  What do you think the chances are that they may be places people come to explore…”

“Possible, of course.  But as remote as they are, as far as this place is from any sort of road or even a Jeep track, I don’t think it’s too terribly likely, especially not this time of year.  We’ll take a look when we get over there.  Will be tracks to show us, of course, if anyone’s been there during the winter and once we get a look inside a cave or two, I’ll be able to tell you for sure.  No matter how careful a fellow may be, he always leaves signs in a cave, marks of his passage.  Makes an impact.  I’ll be able to tell if anyone’s been in there, and roughly how many of them and how frequently, too.  Then we can make our decisions.”

“Well.  If we’re going tomorrow, I guess we’d better do it before too much of the day goes by.  This camp worked out just fine, but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of getting ourselves stuck on narrow shelves halfway down cliff faces with night approaching, and having to search with our hands in the dark in the desperate hope of maybe finding some rock feature that will let us hang on for the night without being scoured off the rock by the wind…”

“Oh, it wasn’t as bad as all that!  Not nearly.”

“It was worse.  You just don’t remember.  You nearly walked right past this cave, and probably would have kept going until you finally fell off the wall from sheer exhaustion, wouldn’t you?”

“Maybe.  Ok, first thing in the morning, it is.  Should give us plenty of time to work our way to the bottom of the canyon even if things get complicated, and from there we can decide whether to camp for a night, or go ahead and make the climb, figure on camping in one of the caves when we reach them.”

Will, bored after a time with the monotony of eating, resting in the sleeping bag and watching the fire and tiring at long last of listening to the adults converse—a process which normally held endless fascination for him, and seeing the intensity in his eyes as he listened, seldom looking directly at either speaker but clearly focusing with undivided attention their words nonetheless, Einar wondered sometimes if the little one understood far more than he let on—he wriggled free of Liz’s grasp and set out at a gallop-crawl to investigate a particularly sparkly patch of white calcite near the back of their little grotto.  Already out of the sleeping bag and not wanting the little one to journey too far into one of the tunnels at the back of the grotto, Einar followed.  “What do you see there?  Rocks really reflect the light of the fire, don’t they?”

Knowing he was about to be scooped up Will made a sudden change in direction, evading Einar’s grasp and heading straight for the fire.  Stopping just short of the coals he stared in silent wonder at the living red-orange that danced and glowed in their centers, light reflecting on his face.  “Fi.  Fi!”  He whispered and then shouted, holding out a little hand so that Liz was afraid he might be burned, but pulling it back in time.  “Fi!”

“Did you hear that?”  She exclaimed, swooping in and moving him back a few feet before he could again reach for the coals.  “He said ‘fire!’”

“He said ‘fi.’”

“It’s close enough, for his first try!  He meant ‘fire.’  He was looking straight at it.  Your son is talking, Einar!”

“Well, it’s about time he said something, I guess.  I can see him thinking every time he looks my way.  Lot of stuff going on behind those big grey eyes of his.  Wouldn’t be surprised if he understands every word we say, and has for a while, now.  I could.  I remember.”

“You remember things from when you were six month old?”

“Oh, maybe eight.  Hard to say for sure.  But around that time.  I just know a person should never underestimate the capacity of these little critters to hear and understand.  Because it aggravates the heck out of them, when you do.  I remember that, too.  Best to always take them real seriously.”

“I do take him seriously.  Between you and Will, I’ve learned to take everything very seriously!  But I may not mean that in exactly the way you do, so you’ll have to help me out now and then, as he gets older.”

“Oh, I don’t know anything about little humans, really.  Except that they are little humans, with fully-formed if still-growing human minds, and ought to be treated that way.”

“Yes.  And this little human is hungry at the moment—guess speaking must require a lot of energy—so I’d better take care of that.  How about his father?  Are you hungry too?”


15 September, 2013

15 September 2013

Folks, it's been a very busy few days around here, and I just haven't managed to get a chapter together despite wanting to.  I'm very sorry, and will definitely have one for tomorrow.

Thanks for your patience. 

12 September, 2013

12 September 3013

With nothing to eat that morning and the storm still raging on, Einar knew they would have to go for the bag, knew also that Liz with her entirely reasonable fear of the snow-slick ledge might not be the one to suggest it, and after a time he cinched down the hood of his coat, took reluctant leave of the fire and headed out into the storm.  Liz wanted to go with him, almost had Will secured in her parka by the time he left, but he shook his head, reminded her that someone need to tend the fire, and was out the door before she had too much time to argue.  

Travel was not easy on that snow-drifted ledge, but Einar kept at it, balancing gingerly against the rock, careful lest he shift too much of his weight in close to the wall, and cause his feet to slip out from under him...   The bag was heavy, difficult to manage with footing so tenuous and the wind scouring snow into his eyes; finally he had to give up trying to drag it along the ledge beside him, and resort to dangling it down in the free air, cautious lest he lose his grip and painfully conscious of the abrasiveness of the limestone, the fact that he could sever the rope and lose it altogether, if he wasn't careful.  When he'd made something over half the distance back to the cave he spotted Liz picking her way along the ledge, Will in her parka and hood drawn tight against the storm; wordlessly she came to him, took hold of the rope and helped him hold its weight as carefully they worked their way back to the shelter, and inside, securing the bag with several wraps of the rope around a rock projection, struggling, straining, hauling it in.

Exhausted but jubilant they collapsed in the blessed, windless relief of the place, grinning at one another and brushing wind-driven snow from faces, clothing, Will laughing as Einar lifted him from his mother’s hood, but he was cold, they all were, so as Einar worked to bring the fire back to life, Liz retrieved the sleeping bags, happy to find them dry, folded one of the parachutes not too far from the fire, and spread the bags on it, ready for use.  It took some talking to get Einar into the sleeping bags in the middle of the morning like that, but not too much, and soon all were warmer as they sat with shoulders out of the bags, sorting through the treasures packed for them by Bud and Susan and entertaining Will with all the fresh sights.

Suddenly Einar found himself missing Muninn.  The raven, too, would have enjoyed discovering the bag’s contents, exclaiming over each one as Will was doing and attempting, no doubt, to make off with more than one of the treasures.  Will, having taken a liking to the shiny foil wrapper of one of the granola bars sent by Susan, had snatched it, stuck it in his mouth and was crawling quickly for the back of the cave; Einar followed, stopped him before he could get too far and brought him back.

“Looks pretty neat, doesn’t it little one?   Bet you’d just love to take it off into a corner somewhere, dissect it and learn all about it.  Lot shinier than most of the things we find out here, except for the mica flakes in some of the granite, and the white calcite we’ve got all around us here.  Look at that.  Look at the wall, here.  See how it shines?  Looks all orange in the fire, doesn’t it?  But really it’s just white.  I’ve seen it all different colors though, even purple.  Don’t know which mineral makes it that way, but it can be quite a sight, that’s for sure!  Curtains of purple and white, all streaked and shining in the beam of your headlamp.  Yep, you’ll get to see all of that pretty soon here I think, if we spend much time around these caves.  Real good way to grow up.”

With Will’s fascination transferred solidly to the shining, sparkling cave walls, Liz was able to retrieve the granola bar without any protest on his part, stowing it safely back in the bag for later use.  Or for present use, if Liz was to have her way, for they could all use breakfast after the exertion and cold of the past day, and first seeing that Einar and Will were warm near the fire—which they were, father and son both admiring in silent fascination a series of calcite structures that flowed in frozen splendor along the cave wall—she put together a breakfast of oatmeal, Nutella and dried cherries from the food items so carefully chosen and packed by Susan, a lump coming into her throat at the realization that she might have seen her friend for the last time.  Well.  At least the three of them were together, warm, safe from the immediate clutches of the enemy—and about to eat!

“Alright you guys, if you can tear yourselves away from the wall long enough to look this way, you’ll see that some breakfast is ready…”

“Been smelling it for the last ten minutes,” Einar laughed, “but figured I must be daydreaming.    What have you got there, anyway?  Sure smells good!”

“It is!  Come and see.  Here, just get back in the bag, and we’ll eat right here—like people do when they’re climbing big peaks, so as not to waste any warmth.”

“More likely to be a snow cave in that case!  But yeah, nobody leaves the bag when they don’t have to during a storm on a big peak, not even to cook and eat.  Good thing we’ve got some firewood here.  Maybe I should go look for some more, so we don’t…”

“Hey!  Don’t you be letting this breakfast get cold.  In the bag, and eat!  Then after that if we need more firewood, I’ll come help you.”

“Ok, ok!  What’s next?  You going at me with that rabbit stick of yours?  Do you even have the rabbit stick anymore?  Huh.  Guess not.  Guess you lost it when I lost my spear, and we’d better each be looking for a replacement, because we’re just not the same without it.  Though my head does seem to do a rather better job of staying intact when you don’t have the stick…”

“Oh, I’d find something.  Now.  No more waiting around, or else.”

Einar was laughing as he climbed back into the sleeping bag, handing Will to his mother and knowing from a certain glint in her eyes that she had been entirely serious about the “or else” bit.  Still chuckling, he half wanted to head outside just to find out what the result might have been, but thought better of testing her.  Better just eat his breakfast, for they had a long descent ahead of them whenever the time came to leave that place, a long climb up to the caves on the canyon’s opposite wall, and he would be needing his strength.

09 September, 2013

9 September 2013

Morning, and despite the protection of the cave and the slight if fading warmth of the past night’s fire they woke cold, Einar pressing himself into the ground and attempting to get back to sleep but Liz rising, coaxing the coals back to life and adding sticks until the fire climbed fresh and orange and lively for the ceiling.  This sudden infusion of light served to rouse Einar sufficiently that he sat up, arms wrapped around his bent knees for warmth as he stared out at the almost-darkness beyond the cave mouth, snow still falling, and then began studying its interior, finally rising taking a flaming brand from the fire and doing a bit of exploring.  He was not gone long, tunnel lowering and bending so that soon he could no longer see the light of Liz’s fire when he looked back; with his own improvised torch sputtering, the night’s strangeness beginning to noticeably close in around him and no other source of light close to hand, he did not wish to risk becoming separated from his family.

When Einar returned to the fire and sat down, Liz saw the shadow in his eyes, wondered at its origin.

“What did you find down there?

“Just more tunnel.  This place is an awful lot like the caves I used to explore when I was growing up, sheer limestone cliffs just riddled with caves, used to think they must have all been connected down underneath there, and they probably were, too, if I could have just found the passages.  Too small to squeeze through, a lot of them, but sometimes you’d feel the air coming through, moving, and know they went somewhere.  Met the surface.”

“You spent a lot of time in caves, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yeah.  Always was one of my favorite places to be.  Underground.  Like a whole different world just waiting to be explored, and I always felt very much at home in a cave.  Except…  Well, when I first came back from overseas and tried to get back to caving, it didn’t go so great, at first.  Was really looking forward to getting back out there, thought it would be something I could do where I’d be away from my family some, because as much as I know they were trying to help me in those first couple months back, I really just needed more space.  Lot of space in a cave.  Lot of solitude, anyway, which I guess is what I wanted more than anything, and I really planned that first trip, was excited as I decided where to go and packed my gear, had no idea it would be anything other than the way it used to be, but once I got down there…  Well, I was about half an hour into it, cave I’d never explored before, some interesting chimneying problems complete with slippery mud on one of the walls, having a great time but then I got down to a spot where there was some water in the passage, just a little bit, not even enough to hardly come up over my boots, but that was all it took, and I was back in between the walls of that red-brown burnished clay tunnel where they took me, just absolutely certain it was about to happen again.”

“The water made you think so?  Reminded you of coming up out of that tunnel where you had to dive, and being captured?”

“Yeah, guess that must have been it.  Anyhow, I turned around and started running—which you never, ever do in a cave—and of course ended up in a passage other than what I’d started in, heading deeper into the mountain instead of out towards daylight, which I might have realized, had I been able to use my light…”

“You lost your light?”

“Nope.  And I had backup, anyway.  Never gone into a cave without at least two backup lights...until being on the run, that is.  Just couldn’t use it, because ‘they’ would have seen me.  Stumbled around for three days down there in the dark, near as I could figure afterwards.”

“Three days.  How did you find your way back out?”

“Don’t know for certain, but do know that it sure wasn’t entirely my doing.  I was lost.  In more ways than one.  Remember just seeing the daylight, this little blur of daylight as I crawled along checking for tripwires and such, headed for it…still took me what must have been the better part of that day to reach it, because it was starting to get dimmer by the time I got near, was just sure that it was some sort of trap, that they’d be waiting for me just outside…but they weren’t.  Took me until after dark just to decide everything was ok and work my way out into the open air.”

“Still wasn’t so sure about things, but it was the trees that finally kind of brought me back, made me realize where I was.  Smell of the firs, sound of them bending in the wind and their shapes against the stars…   Found my way to the truck and went down, but headed back up there the very next week and did it again, same cave, determined to make things go differently that time.”

“Did they?”

“Not a lot, not at first.  Things started going all strange soon as I was in there where the tunnel started closing in and things got really dark, but I hung on, just determined not to let it get me.”

“What did you do?  How did you keep it from getting you?”  Because those same tactics might, one would think, do you some good these days when things start getting strange, if you could remember to use them…

“Oh, mostly just bashed my head against the cave wall.  Not much fun, but it helped.  Took a lot, those first few times back underground, but I got better at it with experience.”

Well.  Forget that idea!  Sometimes I just don’t know about you, Einar…  “Better at bashing your head?”

“Ha!  Better at keeping my place in the world.  Wasn’t too many months before I was actually enjoying caving again, maybe not exactly as I’d used to as a kid—nothing ever looks quite the same, after you’ve met reality the way I met it over there—but close.”

“I’m glad.  And today?  How is life in this cave, today?”

He grinned, crouching beside the fire and glancing over at the still-sleeping Will.  “Awful lot better than it would be out on the cliff face in that storm, that’s for sure!  Good thing you spotted this place.  Looks like we’re going to be here for a little while, at least.”

06 September, 2013

6 September 2013

Liz stopped him before he could leave the shelter of the cave, a good thing, probably, the way he was stumbling about and considering the narrowness of the ledge which had given them passage. “No!  I didn’t mean you needed to go after the bag.  Not in the dark, and with the wind blasting and blowing like it is.  I just wanted you to stay awake until you could warm up a little.  That’s all.”

Somewhat confused, Einar crouched staring out into the darkness.  “Need the bag, though.  All our…warm stuff, food…”

“It’ll be safe for the night where it is, don’t you think?  And we can make do with what we’ve got, if we can make a little fire in here.  That ledge was getting awfully slick as the snow drifted against it.  Just don’t want us to risk a fall, not knowing exactly what’s down beneath us…”

“Cliff is down there.  Air.”

“Yes, I know.  Thank you.  Guess I was kind of trying not to think about that…”

“Cliff bothers you?”

“Only when the ledge is all slippery with snow and it’s too dark to see where you’re putting your feet!”

“Doesn’t scare me.  I’ll go.”

“In the morning.  All we need is a little fire, and we’ll be fine.”

“Bag might show from the other side.  Can’t risk having it seen.”

“It was behind that thick clump of currant brush.  I don’t think it would show much, and besides, it’s going to be all covered in snow.”

Made some sense, the things she was saying, and though still half of a mind to go out and finish the task—would be your last task, likely as not, and then what a fix you’d be leaving her in, stuck here in this cave without any of her gear or food—he decided it could wait for morning.  With which decision, suddenly unable to keep his eyes open, he might well have curled up right then and gone to sleep, except that she had said something about a fire, and that, at least, was something he could and should do, far less frightened of the void than Liz seemed to be, and without the constant and ongoing duty of feeding a growing child.  Will had just settled down.  No need to disturb him by sending Liz after firewood.

Dark outside, just as it was dark in the cave, but colder for the force of the wind, and Einar braced himself against it as he felt his way hand-over-hand forward along the wall, feet carefully exploring the slick and uneven rock of the ledge, headed for a spot where he dimly remembered seeing the snowy ruins of a long-fallen limber pine, found it, recognizing by feel its rough, barkless contours, did his best to warm numbed hands against his stomach so that he could tie up a bundle of branches for dragging back.  Long way.  Leg hurting, but he had to use it, and he did, couldn’t risk losing his balance just then.  Liz was waiting for him when he returned, took hold of both arms and pulled him inside, not a bad thing, for he’d been swaying, about to fall…

When Einar woke, she had a fire going, flames making weird shadows on the pitted limestone with its white calcite adornments, curtains, he could now see, frozen waterfalls of the stuff trickling in stony stillness down one side of the tunnel; had it been liquid instead of living stone, slow, deliberate, each wonder the work of a thousand years, the place would have very soon been flooded, overwhelmed with water.  Closed his eyes, world spinning around him.  Fire was growing.  Already he could feel its warmth, reflected and retained by the surrounding mass of rock, wanted to tell her to put it out, must not damage the delicate, humidity-dependent structures of mineral and moisture which grew in such stunning plenty from wall and ceiling, but he kept the thought to himself.  Other concerns must take priority just then, and, brain slowly beginning to warm and function just a bit better, he knew he ought to be terribly grateful to her for starting and tending that fire.

Will was awake, happy, himself, at the newfound warmth and light, babbling excitedly as he crawled from one side of the tunnel to the other, marveling at the crystalline reflections of flame and shadow as they added their own ornate patterns to the already-intricate design of the walls.  Einar smiled, sat up.

“Beautiful place you’ve got here, Lizzie.”

“You’re awake!  Oh, good.  I think Will was starting to get worried…  Are you feeling any warmer?”

Einar considered the question, flexing his hands, or trying to, and just then becoming aware of the shivering which seemed to be trying its best to shake him apart, limb from limb.   “Guess I feel…good bit colder, actually.  But that’s a good thing.  Means I’m starting to get warm.”

“Yes, it heats up nicely in here, doesn’t it?  I’m afraid we don’t really have anything to cook in—or anything to cook—but I do have one water bottle, and if we’re careful, I think we can warm that near the fire and have some warm water to drink, at least…”

Without answering, Einar crept over to the cave mouth, reaching out and coming away with a handful of fir needles from a tiny, gnarled tree against which he’d bumped his head in leaving the cave, last time.  “Can add these to the water.  Make some tea.”

Needed to make something else, too, and creeping over nearer the mouth of the cave he began stacking rocks from the floor, having to squeeze hard with both cold hands to keep a grip on things but managing, after some time, to  construct a barrier some two and a half feet high across the entire opening.  Would help keep out some of the wind as they slept and, more importantly, would prevent Will from quickly and without too much effort crawling away from them and exploring out onto the ledge, where he did not yet have anywhere near the experience of life and the world to be safe.  This task done he wanted to explore, take a flaming stick and crawl a bit deeper into the recesses of the cave, see what might await them there, but before he could get himself together to go make this exploration Liz was pressing the bottle of warmed, fir-infused water into his hand and insisting he drink.  After which, further warmed by the tea and almost unbearably drowsy, he made no argument when Liz suggested they curl up by the coals of their fire, and sleep.

Soundly and reasonably warm the little family slept in the folds of the mountain as outside the spring storm raged on, spending its fury, subsiding; Einar, too, slept at first, but in the night, in his dreams, the shadows came, calcite and limestone fading, in the dim and dying light of the coals, to the burnished red of long-ago tunnels so that after a time he struggled to wake, wished to wake, but could not.

04 September, 2013

4 September 2013

The sky was a flat, iron grey as Einar and Liz struggled through the deep snow, fallen timber and sometimes-heavy brush of the rim, wind picking up so that the bare-white aspen trunks creaked and clanked together and a few of last year’s leaves, oak, mostly, which had been tenaciously clinging to their branches throughout the long winter, came loose and skittered restlessly across the thaw-rotted surface of the snow.  Stopping to glance up nervously at the sky Einar turned, face into the wind and eyes scanning the clouds.

No reason to be bothered by the approach of a storm.  Snow, if it should come, would be a welcome development, would help cover their tracks, erase evidence of their presence at the drop zone and further cement their break with all things past, their future freedom.  Yet the feel of things definitely had him on edge, lending quickness to his steps and helping to mitigate, for the time at least, the exhaustion which had been stalking him since his initial climb of the ridge.  He wanted off of that rim, and in a hurry, but knew they must find just the right spot, lest they end up cliffed out and stranded somewhere a few hundred feet below their current position, with nowhere to go but back up.

A small cluster of aspens, different from most of the others through which they had traveled in that they were somewhat taller and straighter, gave the first clue that they might be nearing the sort of draw they had been seeking.  These trees, obviously more well-watered than their surrounding relatives, indicated a spot where snowmelt and perhaps even rainfall, when it was heavy enough, concentrated and remained, giving the trees time to take advantage of the extra moisture, and Einar knew from past experience that in cliff and canyon country, this often indicated the head of a draw. 

Descending somewhat in order to get a look at the rim where it fell away beneath the aspens, Einar discovered that they had, indeed, come upon the sort of draw which had the potential to conduct them safely all the way to the canyon floor—or to leave them stranded halfway, but without the ability to look back and see it from the other side, there was no way to be certain.  The map proved somewhat helpful when, with Liz’s help, he got it spread out and held down against an increasingly restless and gusty wind, draw appearing as a deep, narrow cut which—if he was looking at the correct one; difficult to be entirely sure without a better perspective and some more definitive landmarks—looked as if it ought to go.  The reality, once they got down in that draw, was somewhat different, as is often the case, than it had appeared on the map.

Steeper than it had first appeared, the draw did indeed provide, at least there in its early stages, passage for the fugitive family, blocking slightly the effects of the wind and providing ample vegetation on which to catch themselves when an unseen steepening would otherwise have threatened a fall, but before long the brush thinned out, rock became more exposed and it was no longer either feasible or safe to go on dragging the bag containing all their possessions, and it had to be lowered down ahead of them, step by step.

Einar fell a time or two on this section—because of the leg, he told himself, but knew in reality the falls could be attributed nearly as much to the systemic weakness which had been plaguing him for days as it could the injured leg—but managed to recover himself each time before going too far, once having to make a grueling twenty foot ascent back up to the line they had been following, lifting himself up over icy limestone crags, breathing a silent prayer of thanks that it had been Liz’s turn with the bag at the moment he’d fallen—thing would have dragged him all the way…down.  Off, out into the void--and determining to be a good bit more careful, after that one…

Cold but more or less managing it with the effort of constant movement over that difficult terrain Einar carried on in his own little world after a time, picking his steps, taking the bag when his turn came and praying that the draw would not run out before the wall did, noticing an encroaching darkness as day drew to a close and knowing they would be alright if they could just get down off that wall where the canyon would give them some shelter and they could hole up for the night.  The draw was becoming steeper though, more exposed until, light failing, they found themselves picking their way against an unrelenting wind and snow that was beginning to swirl quite heavily down what might almost have been described as the cliff face itself, broken here and there by less vertical sections and dotted, thankfully, with shallow-rooted currant and oak scrub which provided handholds—if one was careful and didn’t trust them with too much weight.

It was with great relief, then, that they reached the ledge, a narrow thing, and angled somewhat downwards, which slashed across the face of the increasingly steep and trackless wall.  In contrast to the terrain over which they had just descended, this meager ledge seemed a blessed haven of security and respite, and without question Einar tied off the bag, securing it to a spur of rock for later retrieval, and led them forward, picking his way gingerly over the slick, partially snow-covered rock and pausing frequently to make sure Liz was still behind him.

Einar, weary beyond words and half blinded by flying snow and his own blurring vision, very nearly walked right past it, might actually have done so had not Liz been close enough behind him to take hold of his arm and pull him inside.  The first thing he noticed was a sudden stillness, absence of the wind, and though too stupefied with cold and exhaustion to immediately question its origin, he was grateful as he lay with limbs sprawled out, head back, eyes closed, just breathing, and it was enough.  Not for long, though, for an awareness of their peril soon returned to him, dim but insistent through the fog, roused him to sit up—cautious, one never knows where the edge might lie, and it would not do to slip over—and look for Liz.  She was right there beside him, shivering in the darkness as she tried to comfort little Will, who had somehow ended up cold and  slightly wet even in the protective folds of her parka hood, and he took hold of her arm, immensely relieved to find her safe, whole, unclaimed by the yawning void that lay like a palpable and malignant force beneath them, pulling, attempting to draw them in.


“It’s a cave, Einar!  There must be some on this side, too!  In the band of limestone.  It was blowing so hard that I almost missed it and walked right past, but here we are, and I think it would be a very good idea to stay for the night.  We really need to stop for the night.  Don’t you think?”

“Yeah, stay here…  Real good idea.  Should have known…might be some caves…this side, too.”  With which he again collapsed back against the rough, water-pitted limestone wall, relieved and thankful that his family was, for the time, safe and out of the elements, and quite beyond ready for sleep, himself.  Liz wouldn’t let him, kept talking and moving and hurting his battered body with her insistent pulls and tugs—didn’t know exactly what she wanted and couldn’t seem to make any sense of her words, but did his best to guess at their intent—until finally he drew all his limbs in close for protection, rolled over and sat up.

“Yeah, I know. Left all our stuff out there hanging from the cliff in that bag.  I’ll go back for it…”

02 September, 2013

2 September 2013

Amazing how an elevation gain of only a dozen feet or so can make such a difference in what is visible at times, but often this is the case, as it was  for Liz and then for Einar, too, when he joined her atop the limestone boulder.  Rough and grippy, the kind of stuff climbers—those who aren’t too busy complaining about its tendency to abrade and tear up one’s hands, at least—will often seek out, the massif presented ample opportunities for safe traction, even drifted as it was in places with remaining snow, and though Einar  struggled some with his injured leg on the climb, he managed the feat fairly quickly and stood panting beside Liz, hands on his knees, breath coming rough and hard after the effort as he squinted off across the great gulf of air which opened empty and yawning before them.

“Found the…rim, Lizzie!  This is good news.  Real good news.  Had no idea we were…this close.”

“I know!  I was just climbing this rock in the hopes of seeing something, anything other than this endless sea of aspens, and boy, was I surprised to find myself looking right down over the edge like this!  But that’s not the best of it.  Look!”   

Standing upright he scanned the distance, trying to spot the thing that had her so excited, but the world swam and blurred before him until, dizzy, he had to sit down in a hurry to keep from pitching forward and taking one incredible tumble right down the canyon wall.  Rubbed his eyes, shook his head and accepted the water Liz was trying to press into his hands, vision a bit clearer after that, world steadying down some.  He almost had another encounter with the great gulf of the canyon when, seeing at last the sight to which she had been trying to direct him, he leapt to his feet and did a spontaneous little half-circle dance around her, grinning all the while.

Liz caught his hand, pulling him hastily away from the edge.  “Whoa, hey, settle down there!  I know we have parachutes, but without one actually strapped to your back, I don’t think straight ahead is the best way to get over there!  Do you?”

Laughing, he sat back down, this time at a respectful distance.  “No.  Fastest for sure, but not the best.  But Lizzie, you’ve found them.  Those are the caves, for sure.  No doubt about it.  See where the rock changes color there beneath that cluster of dark spots?  Like a big streak or iron running own over the grey?  Well, those’re minerals from the caves.  Some of those are pretty exposed, probably too exposed to be a good idea for us, but where there’s one there’s almost bound to be more, and you see that timber over there, where it stretches down into the deep gully-like cut just to the left of that group of caves?  Well, those trees are probably concealing another one or two, and maybe in one of those we can find the sort of shelter we’ve been looking for.  Good find!”

“The only problem now is how best to get from here to there.  You may be able to walk on air or soar to the bottom without a chute and come away with nothing more than a twisted leg…but I’m pretty sure I can’t do that!”

“I can’t do it either,” he growled, wondering at her motive for continuing to bring up his failed landing and half wanting to remind her that its consequences had by no means been limited to his bum leg, but thinking better of that entire line of conversation.  “Best way, I’m thinking, is going to involve traversing the thing.  Heading up around the canyon itself, to the spot where things level out and we can walk right on around to the place where the caves are.  May take us a day or two, but it’s a whole lot better than flying!”

“Yes.  I wonder though…what about working our way down the cliff face?”

He laughed softly.  “Paracord rappel?”

“No!  Technically possible, I know, but not if we can help it.  I meant if we could find a gully like that timbered one you were pointing out to me, and work our way down that.  It might save us a lot of travel, and keep us from leaving tracks all along the canyon rim for somebody to maybe see from a plane…”

“Good thinking.  Sure, we might find something like that.  And it might run out halfway down, like the one opposite us here appears to do.  I’ve seen that plenty of times.  But maybe worth a try anyway, because you sure are right about it being more secure, and as far as saving the travel…well, I hate to say it, but that might not be a bad idea.”

“You don’t have to say it.  I know.  I can see how things are, right now.  We need to find a place to hole up.”

He shrugged, looked away.  So.  It was that obvious.  She was right, though.  He was about done in, had barely been able to get himself to his feet that morning—feet?  You could barely open your eyes there for a long while; not a good sign—knew it had little to do with the leg and sure didn’t want the trouble to be going any further before they’d reached a safe shelter where they could hope to stay for a while and from which it would be easier to provide for their ongoing needs.  If they could indeed find a way down through the cliffs to the canyon floor and climb out the other side to the area of the caves—then he was all for it.  Already he could begin to pick out potential routes on the far side up which they might hope to climb, cliffs present but not, it appeared, insurmountable obstacles.  The entire plan appeared worth a try.

“Let’s do it.  May get rough hauling everything with us when we come to the real steep parts, both descent and later on the climb back out, but we’ll find ways.  Can hook it up to some of the lines, lower it, raise it on the ascent…what do you say?”

Liz nodded slowly, liking the sparkle in his eye, the eagerness to be about a plan, knowing the risks posed by such a descent but considering them less than those inherent in continuing on their present course.  She hoped.  “Yes.  Let’s go.  I guess we’d better start by getting down off this rock, and exploring the rim for a cut that will take us down…”

Not necessarily a quick search, and anxious to begin before the day could grow any later, they scrambled down from the boulder and set off through the aspens, paralleling the rim as they began their quest.