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.