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…”