When they reached the first of the caves, it came as a surprise to Einar, who had himself convinced that they’d still a good bit of climbing to do. There is was, though, mineral-streaked limestone wall looming up unmistakably before them out of the fog and at its base, concealed by a cluster of stunted limber pines and sub-alpine firs, yawned the entrance to the first cave. This one they had not seen from the opposite side of the canyon, its opening entirely hidden by the timber, and Einar had to admit that it didn’t look like much, this low, jagged crack in the rock. Looked as though it might not go anywhere at all, but he knew better than to make any such assumptions simply based upon the appearance of the outside of a cave, and when he crouched down and put his face to the opening, he could feel warm air gently moving up from inside. He rose, searching for Liz’s hand in the still-dense fog.
“Think we found one.”
“Have to go in and take a look, but it’s hopeful. I used to find new caves this way, you know.”
“Stumbling around in the fog until you hit a rock wall?”
He laughed. “No. Though seems I’ve done my fair share of that, too. Noticing differences in air temperature, I meant. I’d go out in winter--the colder the morning the better, and some humidity was helpful, too—and look for places where frost or ice had built up on the vegetation in canyons where I knew the terrain was right for caves, but hadn’t spotted any yet. Every now and again it would pay off, and I’d discover something new.”
“I don’t see any ice around this one, but there is a temperature difference, for sure. I can feel it all the way from here. Let’s go inside!”
“Let me take the light and go first, see what we’ve got here. Could be a sheer drop inside there, water, any number of things.”
He looked at her a bit strangely. “Probably not dragons. Air would be a lot warmer coming out of there, if there were dragons.”
“Hey, I was kidding about the…are you ok? You weren’t serious about the dragons, were you?”
“Weren’t you?” And he laughed again, shedding his pack and disappearing into the foot-high crack of jagged darkness that waited at the base of the wall.
A long while passed before Liz, squinting into the darkness, again caught a glimmer from Einar’s light, and then she heard him as he shouted the “all clear,” beckoning for her to join him. Inside the air was noticeably warmer, walls a grey, pitted limestone and lacking, at least there at the entrance, the spectacular color and vibrancy of those in the tunnel which had sheltered them over on the other side of the canyon, but Liz did not mind at all. It was so good simply to be out of the wind and persistent damp cold of the foggy day that the looks of the place hardly concerned her as she caught her breath and slipped Will from her hood, sliding him around to the front for a quick meal. Einar had gone silent, crouched unmoving against one wall of the cave and staring off into space for so long that she wondered if he’d managed to go to sleep with his eyes closed.
“Well, is this the one? What do you think?”
The question puzzled Einar some at first, brain struggling to make sense of her words and leaving him unsure how to reply, fever again creeping in and doing its best to muddle his thoughts. Oh, well. At least he wasn’t shivering anymore, had, for the moment, the dexterity to remove his pack and search out the candle he’d earlier stashed in one of the pockets. Needed to save the headlamp batteries for explorations deeper into that and other caves. Fumbling a bit with the candle he at last got it lighted, setting it close to a wall where the light-colored limestone would reflect some light.
“For us to settle in. Spend the rest of the winter.”
“Oh. Don’t know yet. Need to do some more looking at the area. Nothing wrong with this cave, that I can see. Good shelter, entrance real well hidden, but need to know how close it is to the others, the ones we could see from the other side. Would hate to settle in one that’s too near where other people might come, cavers…”
“A couple of these are on the map, yes.”
“Hoping…hoping this one is…” never finished the thought, eyes drooping, drifting shut and the rest of his body following until he lay in a jumbled heap in the dust of the cave floor, and instead of waking him Liz let him be for a few minutes, knowing how badly he must need the rest. After a time Einar woke on his own, heat ebbing and the chill of the floor seeping up through his clothing to set him shivering again, sitting up slowly and attempting to rub a bit of the stiffness from arms and legs.
Liz had met his confused glance with a smile. “You were just telling me what you hoped, about this cave. And no, I don’t think it had anything to do with dragons…”
“Dragons? I should think not! Just going to say that I’m hoping this cave is one you can’t easily get to from above, not without some serious rappelling, because in that case it may very well be that we’re some of the only ones to know about it, and will be safe here. And alone.”
“Ah. That would be a very good thing. It’s going to be quite a job getting that moose up here though, even piece-by-piece, like we’ve got it now.”
“Well, we don’t really want the meat in this cave, anyway. Too warm in here. Need to keep that stuff frozen just as long as we can, hopefully long enough to let us turn most of it into jerky. Would be great if we could find some sort of a little grotto that’s not entirely enclosed, has a lot of air circulating and stays close to the outside temperature. Could hang the meat in there to give it some protection, then if we still have any left when things start getting too warm out there, bring those in deeper. Kind of like to go and see if we can find a place like that. We know this isn’t the only cave over here.”
“That sounds like a good idea, but how about we stay here for the night, kind of try the place out, and go do some scouting of the area in the morning. How does that sound?”
No answer, Einar having fallen asleep again, and taking his silence as agreement, Liz headed outside to collect a few sticks for a small fire. Though she knew they would have to be careful about smoking themselves out of the place, the behavior of the candle flame—flickering and dancing towards the entrance, instead of away from it—told her that there must be a fairly powerful if subtle air current breathing through the cave, which ought to carry the smoke outside and allow them to cook, be warm and have a bit of light without too much concern. It was looking like a decent place—at least for the night, if not for the remainder of the winter.