Standing together in the snow as they scrutinized the distant light, Einar and Liz looked for a pattern, trying to understand the potential purpose of two men scouring the canyon rim in the darkness. None of the likely answers seemed good ones, not when it came to their situation at the cave and in the canyon, as all carried risk of having their tracks seen, followed, their location exposed. Einar wanted to leave. Take the small packs they’d brought with them, pick up and leave, never look back. And do it without any delay, before the men on that far rim could have any more time than had already been allowed them to become curious, start to puzzle things out and maybe even radio in about their discoveries, depending on who they were and what might be their original purpose for stalking the snowy high country so late in the night.
So much to lose if they were to walk away…hundreds of pounds of by-then frozen moose meat hanging in the trees, nearly the entire contents of the drop bag, the potential of shelter and security there in one of the well-hidden caves to whose elevation they had at last managed to climb—but so much more to lose, potentially, if they did stay, and were discovered. The light had not moved for some time, and when Liz reached down and took his hand, he realized that she’d been repeating a question, waiting for his answer.
“Do you think they’ve seen our tracks?”
“Can’t say for sure. Just can’t say. Didn’t appear to stop at the place where we came down over the rim, but they had to cross it, no way around that. And would have almost certainly seen our trail. Now whether they paid it any attention or not…”
“I guess that would depend on their reason for being up here, wouldn’t it?”
He nodded silently, still staring at the light, which remained unmoving. “Know you’re not gonna like to hear it, but how about we clear the area real quick?”
“You mean leave the canyon?”
“But the meat…”
“No good to us if they follow our trail, find it, maybe set up an ambush down there…”
“If they were out to ambush us, do you really think they’d be giving themselves away with that light? Surely if they were part of some search, they would have turned that off at the first sign of us, gone quiet, maybe even called in a helicopter or something. I don’t think they have anything to do with us, really.”
“Maybe not. But that could change. Even if they were up here for some other reason initially, seeing the tracks might change that.”
“But we’re so far from the search area. No one knows we’re here. Surely we wouldn’t be the first thing on someone’s mind, even if they had seen our tracks! They wouldn’t have any particular reason to be interested or concerned.”
“Well, we hope no one knows we’re here.”
“How could they?”
A long silence. "Roger, Bud, Susan...things happen."
“Bud and Susan didn’t even know where he was taking us.”
“Well, whoever they are, at least they won’t have been able to see our fire, the way we’ve got it hidden down in the cave. So we ought to be safe here for right now. Even if they took some kind of interest in our tracks, fact is they didn’t follow them, they stayed up there on the rim doing whatever it is they’re doing with that light. And it’s too dangerous for us to try and move in the night anyway, up on this cliff face. So how about we watch them until they’re out of sight, then spend the rest of the dark hours tucked away in this cave, deciding what to do. Good plan?”
Einar wasn’t sure whether it was a good plan or not, fighting the fever with all he had but feeling as though he was losing, losing alertness, losing the ability to consider all the factors and make a quick decision which would be best for his family, losing his grip, and silently, swaying, hand on the trunk of a limber pine in a bid to say upright, he prayed, wordlessly pleading for protection, for wisdom, for things to start making sense again.
Instead of making sense—prayers are seldom answered immediately or exactly as we might have had in mind, though always with a timing more perfect than we could have ourselves imagined—they took on a decidedly less defined look, swirling, swaying as the ground went out from under Einar, and he fell. Might have gone over had not Liz been there to catch him, but she was, hastily dragging him back out of danger, away from the sheer wall of rock that dropped away below their lookout, and up into the safety of the small cluster of pines that concealed the cave entrance.
The snow, she thought, ought to wake him, its good clean chill seeping up through his clothing, but it did not, and for a time she debated between getting him quickly back inside where he could stop losing warmth, and watching the lights until they vanished, but it did not take her long to give immediate priority to the lights; it was exactly what Einar would have done, and she would have hated to have him wake and ask about the progress of their unwelcome nighttime visitors, only to be forced to explain that she had given up watching, in order to get him inside. That would not do, so instead she rolled him quickly to one side and slid a few pine boughs beneath him by way of insulation, draped her coat over him and returned to her vigil.
The light was moving again, more slowly this time and in a different direction, men doubling back, it appeared, in their own tracks, heading back for the spot where Einar had first spied them.