28 November, 2013

28 November 2013

Snow curled down heavily from a leaden sky with the coming of a muted dawn, Einar feeling all hollow and heavy after the cold, sleepless hours of the night, in no hurry to move.  Moved anyway, eventually, no sign of stirring from Liz, who had herself only recently drifted off to sleep, and the realization weighing heavily on him that if they were to be getting through this storm, they would need a place where they could have a fire. 

Freeing himself from Liz’s grasp and from the confines of the sleeping bag—just beginning to feel a little warm in there, and he half hated to leave—he crept out from beneath the lean-to tarp which had, in combination with the heavy spruce boughs above, served to keep them almost entirely out of the snow for the night, standing, swaying, squinting and shaking his head in an attempt to chase away some of the dizziness.  Didn’t work too well, but there were plenty of trees to use for support whenever he began losing his place, and with their help he made reasonable progress.  By daylight, such as it was, the place looked even more bleak and dismal than it had done at twilight the evening before, tumbled masses of downed timber interspersed with hulking, black-sided boulders that looked as though they might have been ejected from some long-dead volcano to tumble down the mountain before coming to rest on this forsaken slope.  Not true, Einar knew, for the boulders were some close relative of granite and therefore not volcanic at all, but still the impression remained, adding to the feeling of mystery that hung heavily about the place. 

Snow increasing, visibility narrowed down to a few yards and Einar found himself stopping frequently to look back in search of landmarks, not wanting to go too far and end up unable to return to Liz, and their camp.  It was a real danger given the circumstances, and the last thing he wanted was for her to come out looking for him, and lose her place, too.  Could be disastrous.  He was careful. Between looming boulders, swirling snow, tree-skeletons that rose seemingly out of nowhere to bruise shins, trap legs and send him sprawling, it was no easy task, this keeping of landmarks and remembering his path, but he did it, and when at last he stumbled down a fairly steep decline and into a tiny basin where the force of the wind was noticeably less and little timber had fallen, he did know how to get back to Liz.

The place was a singular one, oddly sheltered from the ravages of wind and weather both by a sharp rise of ground on the downhill side which made it, in effect, a pocket, and by the heavier-than-usual fringe of black timber, spruce and sublpine fir, which rimmed it on all sides.  Crouching against one of the few stunted aspens that graced the hidden basin’s floor, Einar bowed his head and fought to catch his breath, thankful for the near-absence of the wind and noticing for the first time since leaving camp how very cold he had managed to become.  Could barely feel hands or feet, crop of fresh bruises on shins and hips from his many slips amongst the fallen timber present only as a dull ache, barely noticeable.  Not a particularly good sign, he told himself, not if he wanted to make it back to the spot where Liz and little Will lay sleeping, and wanting to stave off the drowsiness that he knew would soon be stalking him if he remained there immobile in the cold—sweet, comforting, and almost certain to prove deadly, under present circumstances—he rose, kicked a stout aspen branch free from its resting spot in the crusty snow and worked at his shins and legs until some feeling had been restored and there was no mistaking the bruises, no chance of drifting off to sleep where he stood.  Was noticing them then, for sure, and raising his eyes to the shelter-slope above, he noticed something else, too.  While largely shielding the place from the wind, that rocky rise would serve another function, too.  Would protect them entirely from visual detection by anyone in the canyon or on its rim, provide a barrier dense and thick enough to conceal any fire they might have from detection by any instruments those newly-erected towers might support, and, he could not help but think, rendered the place quite a viable consideration in their search for more permanent shelter.

Permanent or not, he knew they would be needing such shelter simply to get them through the remaining fury of the storm, lessening of the wind no small thing when dealing with low temperatures and wet weather, and the prospect of being able to safely have a fire perhaps the most important thing of all.  Well, don’t just stand here thinking about it, because your legs are already starting to go numb again, and unless you want to keep whacking them with that stick just to keep yourself awake, better be moving on.

Moving back, rather, and wearily climbing up and over the rise which sheltered the tiny basin he began one by one searching out the landmarks he had set, counting the steps between one and the next simply to give his brain something concrete on which to focus, hopefully prevent his getting lost inside himself, sitting down and sleeping.  Strategy must have worked, for there, after what seemed a very long time, he recognized the spruces in which they had slept, stumbled forward on wooden feet and parted their boughs, anxious to tell Liz what he had found and relieved beyond words that he had managed successfully to retrace his steps in that storm.  Only to be met by more downed timber, emptiness and a wall of swirling white. 

Nothing there amongst those trees, no black boulder, no tarp and worst of all no Liz, which meant—on hands and knees now, all the strength seeming to have gone out of him—that he had no idea where he was, where they were, or how to reconcile the two.  Had to try, couldn’t simply sit there and let the cold take him, which he knew it was even then in the active process of doing, and forcing himself to his feet he went on, stumbling across the little clearing—and right into something which crinkled and protested under his hands, gave way, unable to support him. Confused, Einar sat for a moment where he had fallen, trying to make some sense of this strange substance, but he was not to be left long in suspense, the whole mess moving, rustling, rising and from its center emerging a heavily armed and somewhat irate human, ready to do battle with whatever creature had so suddenly and inconsiderately intruded on the shelter where she had been sleeping with her small son.

Liz.  Einar fell back in the snow, shaking with silent laughter and with cold and the exhaustion of his trek through the storm, no words to explain when Liz came to him, raised him and hurried to brush some of the snow from his face, but he went back with her to the half-ruined shelter—tarp!  Of course, it was the tarp I ran into, couldn’t see it for the snow and couldn’t see the boulder, either, whitened as it was—and crept somewhat unwillingly into the sleeping bag at her rather sharp insistence, not feeling cold in the least, everything right with the world, now that he had found his way back.

Only it wasn’t quite right, for still there remained the task of moving camp to the sheltered spot he had found, and before they could do that he must tell Liz about the place, let her know that there, they could have a fire, hot soup, all the things she had been wanting…but still, the words would not come.  Honey, she was offering him honey, insisting he have some and though his mouth seemed stuck shut and he couldn’t make himself swallow when he tried, he did take the honey, cramming a bit of snow in his mouth to help it go down, and he would have added more had Liz not stopped him, pointed out that they had water which had been kept unfrozen overnight in the sleeping bag.  Much better alternative, and he drank, resting for a minute, finding his voice.

“Found us a shelter up there.  Good place.  Can have a fire, and everything.  Let’s pack everything up, and I’ll show you the way.”

Liz could only hold him, hold back the tears, realizing how long he must have been gone and knowing that once again, she had come close to losing him.

Moving slowly in the snow, carefully lest it drift into the sleeping bag as they worked, Einar and Liz packed up the small camp, loaded everything into the drop bag and set out for the spot Einar had found for them.  Though his tracks were mostly drifted over Einar was, by some not-quite-definable sense, able to lead them straight to the little sheltered spot behind the rocky rise, Liz immediately noting the easing of the wind when they dropped down over its rim and Einar, dropping his end of the bag beneath a tree, grinning back at her as if to say, here it is, our home for now, maybe for later, too… but Einar did not stay long standing with Liz as she surveyed the place, some slight movement having caught his eye and then he was moving towards it, knowing, recognizing, stealthy steps bringing him within striking distance and he made his move, heavy stout aspen stick flying, taking the bird right in the midsection and knocking it from its branch.  A good, fat grouse with which to feast and celebrate their coming to this new place.

25 November, 2013

25 November 2013

While their long term plans remained for the moment uncertain, it was soon clear to Einar, wind sweeping down through the timber and bringing with it icy pellets of hard spring snow which stung exposed flesh and took the breath from him when he turned to face its forceful blast, knew that they would be going no farther that night.  If travel through that broken and snow-slippery landscape of fallen trees had been challenging by daylight, it would prove all but impossible in the dark, way fraught with hidden dangers waiting to trap and twist an ankle, break a leg…  He shuddered at the thought of trying to help Liz through the remaining deadfall with a broken leg, yards of it, acres, anyone’s guess, really.  Certainly time to stop, and he nodded to her, rising.

“Yes, better look for a place to shelter for the night.  Best if we can find it before dark.”

“Something out of the wind, hopefully.  Maybe beside one of these big boulders?  It would act as a windbreak and also give us some protection if the wind really picks up and more of these trees decide to fall…”

“Doubtful.  Whatever came through here a few years ago probably took down anything that was in the least inclined to go.  This area should be safer than most when it comes to falling timber, but no harm in taking some precautions.  It’s certainly a natural path for the winds, that’s for sure.  Something about the terrain just channels them right through here.”

“Yes.”  Liz shivered, saw that Einar was doing the same and got back to her feet.  “Well, let’s not just sit here talking about it while we freeze in the wind!  Come on.  The light’s fading fast.  Let’s find this camp.”

Everything was snow-covered and slippery, no prospect immediately offering itself which might give them a bit of comfort for the night, and for a good quarter hour Einar and Liz wandered somewhat aimlessly through the timber, Einar once catching himself with eyes drooping as he walked, sleep near.  Wouldn’t do, and he scrubbed snow across his face, staring up at a sky full of heavy, scudding clouds and holding himself rigid against a chill that wanted to unsteady his steps and send him sinking to the ground in a heat-conserving huddle.  Not yet.  Had to find something a little better.

Boulder up ahead, bulking black in the stormy twilight, and he headed for it, picking his way slowly over yet more fallen, tangled trees as Liz followed along behind with her end of the pole.  Behind the boulder stood a grouping of spruces, spared, somehow, from the worst ravages of the wind which had leveled so many, and there beneath them was a small spot which had been largely shielded by interlocking boughs from any significant accumulation of snow.  Looked good to Einar, as good as anything they were likely to find before the light left them entirely, and, stumbling a bit, supporting himself against the lichen-covered flank of the boulder, he led the way into the shelter, sinking involuntarily to his knees.  All done, at least for that day.  Liz joined him, and he gave her a weary grin.

“Look alright?”

“It looks great!  Do you feel how much less the wind is, in here?”

He hadn’t, went ahead and nodded anyway, not really wanting to have to explain.  Couldn’t feel much of anything by that point, but observing, he did note that small branches within the shelter area seemed little moved by the wind, blocked as it was by the boulder from one side, angle of the hill and density of the evergreens on the other. 

Fine place to pass a night, and without waiting—could tell it wouldn’t be long before he rather thoroughly lost the use of his hands, if he waited—he began unfastening the straps around the bag.  Liz would want to eat.  He wished only to sleep.  To stop moving, and to sleep.  But it was not to be, must not be, until provisions had been made which might help see them through the worst part of whatever storm seemed to be coming.  Already snow spat down from a now-blackening sky outside the dense branches of their shelter, flakes still icy an hard but more substantial than the pellets which had earlier stung them as they walked, and he pulled out the tarp which had been included in the bag, anchoring two of its corners to the ground several feet out from the boulder and securing its top by jamming sticks into crevices in the granite itself, and fastening the tarp to these. 

Rough lean-to completed he turned to Liz, who had pulled out the sleeping bags and was making an attempt to open them up without allowing any blowing snow to get inside.  By then the wind was nearing gale force on the hillside, howling and blasting behind the boulder, both Einar and Liz tremendously grateful for the breaking of its force, for the relative hush which reigned behind the rock.  Still, Liz had to lean in close before he could make our her words when she spoke.

“How about a fire?  Do you think we could have a fire tonight?  It’s certainly still enough back here, and sure would be nice to get some heat reflecting off that rock before we go to sleep!”

Clamping his jaw to prevent the teeth rattling inside, Einar shook his head.  “Not yet.  Better to…give it some more time.  Let the storm settle in.  Men on the rim…”

“They’re miles away!  And surely not out in this storm, either.  It has to be terrible over there, as open as that rim is!”

“May not be out, but the towers…”

“You’re really concerned about it, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.  Give it one more day, let us put something more substantial than this one boulder between us and that rim.”

“Ok.  We can manage, but in that case let’s hurry up and get into some dry clothes and in the sleeping bags before we can get any colder, or it’s going to be a long night.  Will is even a little chilly I think, the way this wind has been blowing.”

Wordlessly Einar followed her lead, not bothering to zip the bags together as they had been doing, but slipping into his own just as soon as he’d got out of his snow-crusted clothing, sleep near as soon as he let his head rest on the ground.  Liz would not let him sleep, raising herself on one elbow as she fed a warming and now-contented Will and fixing them a hasty supper in the near-darkness, insisting that he have his portion.  No philosophical objections on Einar’s part, not this time, memory of the past night’s dream returning strongly to him with the advance of darkness and his determination to go forward and make a life for his little Will stronger than ever, but still he ate sparingly, having suffered the consequences of the morning’s ample repast in an aggravatingly frequent need to take breaks throughout the day and scurry off behind trees, a process which had left him terribly drained and dehydrated by the time they reached their evening shelter.  Not such an easy thing to just start up eating again after so long without, and he knew he’d better be giving some attention to the process if he wanted to get through it successfully.  Tomorrow.  To weary to think any more about it that, night, to think about anything, and he was asleep.

Despite Einar’s weariness his sleep that night was brief, cold creeping in without any regard for the sleeping bag until soon he felt like he was freezing from the inside out, knew it was an illusion as he lay curled in a ball with knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around them and fingers stuck down between the painfully protruding ribs on his back, something to hang onto as he shook and stared out into the windy darkness, half-wishing some urgent matter might arise which would send them scrambling to their feet and on the move again, just so he could warm up a bit.  Knew in reality that it would only take more out of him though, that wind.  Better off right where he was.  Would get through the night, even if he did not at the moment especially feel like it.

Liz, too, woke in the night to the sound of the wind and of Einar breathing in the cold.  Lying still for a moment only, she hurried to find him and zip the bags together, shivering at bitter draft that entered during the process and at the icy chill that had crept so quickly into Einar’s bones, did her best to warm him, but that night, it did little good.

22 November, 2013

22 November 2013

Noon, or thereabouts, when finally they found themselves on more level footing, harrowing ascent behind them and thick streamers of cloud drifting across an increasingly silver sky to obscure the sun.  Wallowing, faltering it vanished, swallowed in cloud.  Breathing hard as he braced himself against the trunk of an aspen for balance, Einar was glad of the change, glad, especially, of the potential precipitation promised by the color of the clouds, the way they gathered with heavy bellies and arms outstretched to the horizon.  Snow, should it materialize, would be a very good thing, help to obscure the trail they’d left in the canyon and give him a bit of assurance as to the safety of the new shelter-spot he hoped soon to find them.  The climb had not been an easy thing, had left him more than once wondering very sincerely if they would be able to complete it all, let alone with the drop bag in tow. 

They’d had to abandon the use of the pole because of the steepness of the slope, rocky drop-offs some eight to ten feet high often demanding to be negotiated and the bag having to be hauled up on a short rope that Einar would sometimes wrap around the smooth trunk of a stout chokecherry shrub for additional leverage while the two of them pulled with all their might, eventually dragging the thing up and over the obstacle of the moment.  A number of times Liz had been sorry she’d tried so hard to convince Einar to take the bag along, had wanted, seeing his struggle, to suggest that they find a suitable ledge on which to secure it against some future return, but seeing the enthusiasm and energy with which he’d thrown himself into working it up that slope, she hadn’t had the heart to make any such suggestion.

And now here they were, scraggly, snow-bent aspens and tangled chokecherry brush giving way to a dense growth of subalpine fir and blue spruce, the safety and concealment they had been seeking.  Scanning the canyon where it stretched out grey and winding below them, a deep, snaking cut in the surrounding thousands of acres of timberland and meadow, Einar allowed himself to settle into a weary crouch for the first time since starting the ascent.  Would have done it sooner had he been certain he’d be able to rise again, but he’d had his doubts.  Now, timber reached and the canyon below them, he was grateful simply to be able to stop moving for a few minutes, and to breathe.  Liz crouched beside him, freeing Will from her hood for a much-needed snack.

“I doubt many people have taken that path before us!”

“Doubt many will after, either.  Good thing.  Good to leave the canyon behind.  Now we’ve just got to…”

Einar never finished his sentence, Liz following his gaze and thinking at first that he must have spotted something in the canyon or on its rim, but it did not take her long to realize that he wasn’t seeing much, was, in fact, drifting not too far from sleep.  Beginning to sag forward, Einar roused himself before Liz had time to try, took in a big gulp of air as if he’d stopped breathing for a time, scrubbed a quick handful of snow across his face and stared wide-eyed up at the sky.

“Got to put a little more distance between us and the head of the canyon, here, and then find some good shelter before the storm starts.  Feels like it could be a big one.”

“Yes, the sky sure is looking heavy, isn’t it?  Should we try and find another pole so we can carry the drop bag instead of drag it.  That seemed to be working pretty well really, until we hit the steep stuff…”

Hauling himself to his feet with a great deal more enthusiasm than speed, Einar began searching for the appropriate branch, one which would support the weight of the bag without adding too greatly to their burden.  “Wouldn’t hurt.  Dense as this timber’s looking, it’s going to be difficult to maneuver the bag through it, no matter how it’s carried.  But even with a storm coming, fewer tracks are better!”

Agreeing, Liz retrieved some food from the bag—jerky, almonds and a chunk of the cheese Susan had sent them—as Einar worked to secure it to the branch he’d chosen, and when she gave him his share, he ate without hesitation.  A bit strange, she could not help but think, rather out of character for him of late, but surely a good sign.

Einar was not giving a lot of thought to his eating of the food as he finished lashing the bag in place and prepared to lift his end of the pole—sharp end this time, it was his turn—but only of the need to find and secure a new home for his son, a spot safe from the ravages of wind and weather and concealed, as well as possible, from the eyes of any enemies who might still be seeking their discovery and capture.  If he was to keep on his feet long enough to do this, he knew he would be needing energy, and needing energy, he ate.  It really was, for once, as simple as that.

Other things were not so simple, timber closing in so that before long not only did they have to once more abandon the carrying-pole, but could not drag the bag, either.  Beneath a thin and spring-rotted layer of snow lay so many deadfall trees, crisscrossed and stacked atop one another, that movement of any sort with the bag proved tremendously difficult, the simple act of staying on their feet and preventing legs from slipping down between hidden deadfall requiring of Einar and Liz all the focus they could muster.  After half an hour of such travel, each taking turns with the bag and helping the other to lift it up and over when they came to a particularly high pile of rubble, both were exhausted, ready for a break.  It was Liz who insisted they stop, simply sitting down and refusing, for the time, to go any further.  Both were silent for a time, catching their breath and rubbing tree-bruised shins, Liz tightening her parka hood against a thin, piercing wind that had begun to snake its way between the trees.

“How long do you think it goes on like this?”

Einar blinked wearily at the great expanse of tangled trunks around them, main event clearly a number of years ago, for trees which must have been quite small when it happened had grown up quite well to cover the destruction.  Here and there enormous, moss and lichen-covered granite boulders reared up out of the slope, many of them surrounded to varying degrees with the fallen, leaning trunks of wind-killed trees.  He shrugged.  “Acres of it, probably.  When these winds come through, there’s no telling how far the effects will reach, really.  Probably goes on until some terrain feature stopped it.  Just have to keep going, and see.”

“The storm’s going to be here soon, and in a few hours, it will start getting dark…”

“You want to camp in this stuff?”

“Maybe we should be looking for a place.”

“Thought had occurred to me.  Actually, it went a good deal beyond camping.  Look around us, here.  Look at all these building materials!  A lot of this deadfall has ended up propped off the ground in a way that it’s mostly been kept from rotting.  Has just dried.  Cured.  In time, we could turn some of it into a cabin that would rival our last one, and the location’s not too bad, either.  Think of it.  Who would venture into the middle of this stuff?  No causal hiker or hunter, that’s for sure.”

19 November, 2013

19 November 2013

Moving in the moonlight they left their hasty camp, drop bag secured once more to its carrying pole and everything sharply outlined in the stark silver light, willows bristling in harsh definition and the creek taking on a hard-edged, metallic tone beneath its brittle sheath of ice.

As they walked—Liz in the lead this time, her turn, she’d said, and he had not wanted to argue—world black and white and silver-shadowed around them in the moonlight, Einar’s mind returned to the jungle, and his dream.  Hard reality—whatever the dream-vision had mercifully if unrealistically shown him—was that Andy had almost certainly not died that day, happy and at peace, had lingered for who knew how long and had almost certainly suffered dreadfully as a result of his own escape, interrogated for details about which he knew nothing, could know nothing, but it wouldn’t have made any difference to them, and Andy, the man who had never talked, would have borne it all wordlessly and in silence until at last the end had come for him.  The thought of it was very nearly more than Einar could bear, tears freezing on his parka-collar in the moonlight and world losing its definition around him so that he had to squint and stare in a rather desperate attempt to stay in the present and regain some focus, keep from stumbling on the rough creekbed terrain beneath his feet. 

When at last he steadied some and was able to look up there was Will again, little mittened hand reaching out from the cozy compartment on his mother’s back to grab at passing willows, and as if knowing, the boy squirmed, turned, looked at him, and Einar could not help but allow a smile to creep across his face in response to the child’s own.   Life, joy and the strength to carry on.

They saw the rim-lights no more than night as they traveled, trees perhaps obscuring their view in places but even when the way was clear they could catch no glimpse, and were left to assume that the men had either moved on, or had moved back sufficiently from the rim itself as to be concealed by the intervening terrain, and though curious as to the meaning of the nightly visits, neither Einar nor Liz minded the thought that they were well and thoroughly concealed from one another, their little family and these mysterious men.  Up the canyon they traveled, mile after mile of winding willow-path, red osier dogwood and the occasional tangle of chokecherry or serviceberry that had grown down and into the bed of the creek. 

Ground rising, Einar knew they must be nearing the head of the canyon, and none too soon, for though the moon was near sinking below the high limestone rim, light slowly strengthened as dawn neared.  He did not want to be caught in the canyon after daylight, knew there would be more cover up in the dark timber which hopefully awaited them and considering the uncertainty of the towers, very much wanted to gain that higher ground.  Not that darkness had been any guarantee of safety, of course, considering the uncertain purpose of those towers and their potential means of infrared or other detection, but it was with a great sigh of relief that at last he caught sight of the tumbled rock and broken spires which marked the end of the canyon.  No gentle rise to timbered slopes greeted them, however. 

Squinting in the uncertain light, Einar searched for a draw which might allow them passage, some steep, rocky gully between spires, but instead it appeared they had found their way to the end of a box canyon, and become trapped.  Frantic for a moment at the thought of it he dropped his end of the willow pole and hurried down to the bottom of the creekbed, boots crunching in the ice as he followed the water, seeking the spot from whence it came.  Couldn’t be a waterfall, not quite, or he would have heard it, and if it wasn’t a waterfall, perhaps they might find passage up whatever channel the water was descending.  Its broken surface glinting in the last light of the setting moon Einar found and followed the water, which seemed to be coming from several places at once, creek having split as it bounded and gurgled down from the heights above.  Following the liveliest channel with his eyes he soon lost it amongst the rocks, but not so quickly as to rule it out as a potential avenue of escape.  Liz, too, had set down the pole and joined him.

“Is there a way out?”

“Got to be.  Just don’t know which one of these leads out, and don’t want to get up halfway up one of these gullies only to have to turn back after daylight because we get cliffed out up there.  Should have known it would be like this.  Should have been able to tell from the map.”

“The map did show a lot of jumbled terrain and close-together lines up here, but I thought there would be some way around it, too.  It really looked like there would.”

“There will.  Gonna be hard to get the bag up this, though.  Any of it.”

“What if we drag it behind us again?”

“Up the cliffs?”

“Up the gully.  And if it gets too steep, we can hide it somewhere, and come back.”

“This stuff is going to be too exposed once it really gets light.  Just in case somebody’s watching from the rim over there.  Once we’re off the cliffs and out of the gullies, I want us to be out for good.  Not come back this way, at least not anytime soon.  I know we need the stuff in the bag, if there’s a way to keep it.  Will really help up get our new start up there.  How about we keep on like we have been for now, carrying it between us.  Maybe things will open up sooner than we think, and we’ll be able to get it all the way up the draw that way.  And if not…well, just have to stop and see how much we can carry on our backs, I guess.”

Sounded better than anything else Liz could come up with, and a good deal better than what she had expected from Einar, whose first inclination almost always seemed to lean towards abandoning everything in order to make better time—and who needs things, anyway?  Certainly not a man who doesn’t eat, doesn’t care if he’s dressed warmly and half the time would choose to sleep out in the weather on a cold, damp rock or some such if left to his own devices, instead of in a sleeping bag under shelter like a sensible person—so she was quick to agree.

“Yes, let’s give that a try.  It’s difficult to tell exactly how things are above us in this light, so all we can do is to try.”

Trying, taking the pole and starting up the centermost and largest of the craggy draws, Einar and Liz slowly ascended, Einar once more in the lead and the going becoming steadily more difficult as the terrain demanded more and more contact simply to prevent their coming loose and tumbling back down the way they’d come.  Limited to one hand each, one devoted as it was to keeping hold of the pole, this considerably slowed their pace so that a dusky but rising daylight soon overtook them, making more plain their steps if increasing the urgency of the climb.

15 November, 2013

15 November 2013

Handing Will to his mother he quickly followed her through the timber to a spot just before the creek, where only a few lithe, leafless willows stood to block their view.  Though having to look far off to one side and move his eyes rapidly back and forth in order to catch a glimpse, Einar did see the lights, agreed with Liz that they appeared to be located rather close to those they had seen the previous night.  Too far away now, even with binoculars, to get any idea of what might be going on back there, but the continued activity certainly did cement Einar’s determination to put a good deal more distance behind them, before sheltering for any length of time.  He would have perhaps insisted that they pack up and move on that night and without any further delay, had not the discussion with Liz been still fresh in his mind.  Moon would be up in a few short hours, greatly assisting their travel and—most importantly—allowing them to pick routes on which they would leave the least sign.  Patience was in order.  He handed the binoculars to Liz, crouched against a tree and waited to see if the lights would move on.

“Don’t know what to tell you.  Two nights in a row.  Might have called it a good sign, something they do regularly and that has nothing at all to do with us, except that we didn’t cross any snowmobile tracks on our way to the canyon rim. So it’s a mystery, and the sooner we can put this place behind us, the better.”

“I know.  I don’t like it either, but so long as we don’t have a fire or make a lot of noise, we ought to be as safe here as anywhere, at least for a few hours.  Don’t you think?”

Einar rose, rubbing cold hands and squinting at the far rim.  “Don’t know what to think, but do know there’s not a lot of sense in stumbling over willows in the darkness for the next few hours and leaving a big, floundering mess for someone to follow.”

“No.  But it’s not that bad, is it?  The pole-carrying idea, I mean.  I know it’s not the easiest thing to do when we’re going through brush and timber, but it mostly seems to be working, doesn’t it?”

“Sure it does!  That’s not what I meant.  Think it’s working real well, all things considered.  Really cutting down on the sign we do leave.  Just meant with it being as dark as it is, we’d be doing a lot of stumbling and scrambling, no matter what we are or aren’t trying to carry through all those willows.  The moon should solve that for us.  I’ll wait.”

Would sleep, too, threat a distant thing and not nearly so immediate as it had been during the previous night, and it was not long before—cold snack of jerky and moose liver eaten and Liz’s insistence—he was drowsing in the sleeping bag, struggling and then failing to stay awake.  Wished he had succeeded.  Warm in the sleeping bag, far too warm before long, as his resting body made one final effort against the infection that still lingered in his arm and the fever returned with full force to leave him dreaming, drifting, jungle vegetation dark and close around him, water up to his calves as he turned, hurried as quickly as he could back in the direction from which he had come, slipping on some bit of rotting plant matter under the water and going down.

Gasping for breath when he managed to raise himself again, hands and arms still weak and mostly lacking sensation from his treatment in that cage, struggling to breathe without coughing, choking, giving himself away, and he managed it, if just barely, scrambled forward with his eyes on Andy’s enclosure, meaning to return, to make one more effort, wrench the side off that cage and drag the man if he had to, carry him, anything to get him out of their hands and up into the densely-vegetated and in places nearly vertical karst crags that would give him a chance.  Some chance, at least, to die free, but Einar did not mean for either of them to die that day, not if he could help it, and there was the cage not fifty yards ahead of him but already men were coming, shouting excitedly at the discovery of the dead guard he had left behind and rapidly scattering to search the area. 

No way to go back now, no hope of anything but death—and probably not a particularly rapid one, either—should he try, and he was running, exhaustion and blood loss making his head swim, injured leg collapsing beneath him so that he was at times slithering through the muck as much as he was running, going under, losing his place, back of his neck bristling with the certainty that one of them was about to grab him, have him, firmer ground, leaving the swamp behind and he was on his feet again, breath harsh and metallic in his throat as he pushed himself up the nearest slope, dodging, weaving, changing direction in the hopes of confusing his pursuers, but he could hear them back there, coming, could feel his body failing him, far past its capacity for such work but somehow he managed to keep on his feet, keep going, for it was the only way… 

There, ahead, crest of the ridge and some hope, could he gain it, that he might lose them on what he knew would be the even more densely-vegetated backside of the mountain, must hurry but before dropping down to the other side he paused, looked back and saw Andy there watching him through a space in the wall of his cage, a spot where the woven mat had been torn away from the bamboo bars—impossible, no way he could still be visible over that great, tangled distance, but there he was—and the young man was smiling, urging him on, light in his eyes and a strange, transfiguring joy easing away the hard lines of suffering that had been etched in his face, raising a hand in farewell before sinking out of sight, resting, at peace…

Over the crest and down, then, falling hard as his bad leg went out from beneath him, and Einar woke with wild eyes staring into Will’s face in the moonlight, radiant where it peeked out from the hood of his mother’s parka and graced with the smile of some carefree dream, a child’s dream, entire life before him, and for the first time Einar—tears in his eyes as he reached out with trembling hand to caress the child’s cheek—did not want to go back.

Instead he rose, quiet, careful not to disturb mother or child, ate, made ready their things in the brilliant moonlight, silver moonlight spilling down the canyon, teeth rattling in the deep pre-dawn chill, all prepared for their departure before he gently woke Liz and offered her some food.

“Time to go, Lizzie.  Go find our home.”

12 November, 2013

12 November 2013

On the map, it had appeared to Einar that some eighteen miles of canyon floor lay between the place where they had taken the moose, and the canyon’s head where he hoped to find them concealment in the dark timber, and that distance had seemed doable, a good long day’s walk, but no more. Reality, burdened as they were with the drop bag and taking into account the many twistings and turnings of the canyon floor which were only hinted at by the map, was proving somewhat different. Despite walking all day at a pace somewhat beyond the physical limits reasonably imposed upon them by terrain, the weight of their burden and Einar’s own semi-frequent bouts with dizziness and fever, dusk found them still well enveloped by the canyon walls, sun setting early because of their closeness and Einar debating silently the wisdom of continuing on through the night.

If Einar was debating such matters, Liz certainly was not, already searching for a sheltered spot where they might spend the night and—having insisted some distance back upon taking the lead for a while—guiding them towards the first likely-looking place she saw in the failing light. Easing her end of the willow pole to the ground and waiting for Einar to do the same, she studied the area, looking for possible dangers and for the features—chief amongst them being access to more than one exit route from the spot—which she knew would increase the likelihood of Einar finding it an acceptable place to pass the night. Not bad, sheer rock wall at their back but a draw—appeared passable, but one could not be sure until it was tried—running along that to one side, dense stand of stunted little evergreens populating a low hummock that stood between the potential camp spot and the more open willow-ground of the canyon floor and creek…not a bad place at all, in her estimation.

“It’s getting dark. How about we stop here for a few hours?”

Einar let his end of the pole drop unceremoniously to the ground, squinting at their surroundings and slowly shaking his head. “Looks like a fine spot, but I’d sure prefer to keep moving. Can’t really rest easy until we’re up out of here, and into the trees.”

“I know, but we’re really starting to stumble as it gets darker, and you know if one of use goes down, the other will too, the way it works with this pole. We’re just going to leave more sign, floundering around like that.”

A good point, but still he was hesitant, thinking. “Yeah. Just for a few hours though, until the moon comes up and we can see again. Can’t have a fire down in here, not the way it would reflect off that rock and act as a beacon for those guys up on the rim if they come back, or for whatever instruments they may have left on the towers.”

“No, I guess we can’t. But it would be good to stop moving for a few hours, get warm if we can and have something to eat. I know it won’t be too long before the moon starts peeking up over the rim, and then we can move again.”

Plan reasonably agreeable to both parties—Will did not yet have a say, but based on the enthusiasm with which he squirmed to get to the ground when Liz slipped him from her hood, he, too, was ready for a break—they set about making the place ready for use as a very temporary bivouac, Einar putting down tarp and sleeping bag while Liz dug out some food and the last of their water. So intent had they been on covering ground that day that they had not even stopped to renew their water supply, and now, fire not an option, were faced with either making a quick trip down to the creek, or melting snow with their body heat as they rested. Liz definitely preferred the first option, figuring they--and especially Einar--were not likely to have much body heat to spare, sleeping as they planned to do without fire.

"Heading over to the creek for some more water before it finishes getting dark," she told Einar, handing Will to him and taking off before he could object or insist that he must be the one to do it. Last thing he needed, she could not help but think, was to start out the night with his clothes soaking wet as so often seemed to be the result when he ventured anywhere near water those days, and at least with Will in his charge, he would be reasonably certain to remain dry and in camp while she was away.

Shaking his head and grinning into his sleeve to keep her from seeing--he knew exactly what she was about, and could not help but find a bit of humor in her efforts--he took Will on his knee, balancing the little guy a bit precariously as he launched into a long-winded--or perhaps just winded, for he was finding that speaking required a major effort, all of a sudden--exposition on the dangers of wise, wily women like his mother, and how they would stop at nothing to see their plans carried out. Will just laughed, Einar laughing with him, a fortunate thing as Liz was then returning and would have otherwise overheard him. Crouching beside the sleeping bag and taking Will, Liz spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, her tone instantly silencing Einar's laughter.

"The lights are back. I could see them way behind us on the rim, just little blinks here and there, but I'm sure they're in the same place as last night..."

10 November, 2013

10 November 2013

Much as that drop bag weighed with all its contents, Einar knew they might have been better off finding two stout willow poles rather than one, and carrying the thing liter-style.  This, though, would serve to further restrict their movements, as well as keeping both hands occupied rather than just one, a major disadvantage should they unexpectedly run into enemies on the trail.  One stick it would be, then, and they’d just have to see how it went, both carrying the weight and navigating the sort of terrain that lay ahead of them, burdened with such a potentially cumbersome load.  Keeping close together as they searched, neither wanting to risk being separated from the other in that dense thicket and with the unknown threat of those newly-built towers hanging over their heads, Einar and Liz spotted it an nearly the same moment, a long, straight willow pole which ought to prove adequate to their purpose.

Liz held while Einar cut, using his knife to fell the willow and remove its branches so they were left with one long, straight pole.  The work of lashing the drop bag in place then began, Einar making use of its own straps to secure it in place.  Ready to test the system, he took his place at the front of the line—had to keep an eye on things up there, at least starting out—and Liz prepared to lift her end.

“Ok, let’s give it a try.” He spoke softly, as if half-convinced that someone might be listening.  “If it works alright, let’s go ahead and get moving. Been here way too long.”

Liz nodded, lifting at his signal, a bit of a struggle getting things coordinated and then they were moving, willow pole bowing precariously but not breaking, strong, supple and definitely up to the task.  Movement was difficult at first, Einar misjudging the length of the pole and trying to go too tightly around a corner so that Liz was left doing her best to avoid being mashed against a tree or a cluster of brush, but gradually they adjusted to the arrangement and began coordinating things a bit more smoothly, stumbling less often and beginning to make better time.  Better, certainly, than Einar had been able to make while dragging the bag behind him, sled-style, as he’d done up on the rim, and without doubt better than they would have been able to manage if attempting to drag it through the tangled willow and dogwood brush that matted the canyon floor.

Feeling slightly more confident with every step they took further from the caves, antennas and the strange men who had come in the night, Einar would have happily kept trudging ahead until they’d put the entire length of the canyon behind them, reached its head and climbed up into the dark timber which he believed—and the map somewhat confirmed—ought to be awaiting them there, but after nearly two hours of solid walking, Liz called a halt beneath a small stand of fir trees that crowded down close to the creek.  She did not like the way Einar had been periodically stumbling for the last half hour or so, did not care for the rough, ragged sound of his breathing, and when he turned to see what the matter might be, what had caused her to stop moving, the look in his eyes confirmed to her that it was long past time for a rest.

“Can we stop here for a few minutes?  These firs ought to give us some cover, and Will really needs to eat.”

Squinting hard against a strange and aggravating blur which had been increasingly creeping in to obscure his vision as the hours went on, Einar studied Will, who appeared to be fast asleep.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.  You wouldn’t want him to wake crying later because he’s hungry, and possibly give us away…”

No, of course Einar would not want that, and arguing no further he nodded, leg his end of the pole drop to the ground and sank down beside it, attempting to keep the process somewhat orderly in the hopes of concealing his weariness, but only half succeeding.  When Liz—not appearing in any particular hurry now to feed the soundly-sleeping Will—offered him water and some almonds from the things Susan had sent them, he did not refuse. 

Only after Einar had eaten did Liz settle in to feed Will, who had by then awakened and was attempting mightily to escape from her hood and explore the fir grove.  The offer of food was, at the moment, more captivating yet, and while he ate, Einar took out notepad and pencil and began sketching, to the best of his memory, the towers and apparatus they had observed on the canyon rim.  He still hadn’t decided what they could be, and doubted the sketch would help him figure it out, but wanted to make it while his memory was fresh, should the information become pressingly relevant in the future.  Which he certainly hoped it would not do—at least not without a good deal of warning.

Sketch done and body beginning to stiffen with the cold—he’d barely felt it while moving, but could not sit long without its iron fingers finding their way in and beginning to tighten their grip on him, it seemed—he rose, stretched and scanned the rather limited bit of evergreen grove and willow thicket which made up their immediate surroundings.  The day had been quiet so far, no hint of human presence either along the canyon floor or its rim, no sound of distant engines or aircraft, and though Einar would have liked to be reassured by this silence, it somehow only added to his unease. 

Wished greatly that he might be free to take off for the canyon rim, make the climb and find some secluded high ground from which to observe, watch for the return of the past night’s intruders, try once more to puzzle out what could have been their purpose and, should it turn out to be a sinister one—do something about it.  Such action, however greatly it might align with his instincts and past habits, was all but precluded by the situation, by that round little face with its joyful and piercingly curious eyes which were even then studying him, asking some unspoken question—and by his mother.  Until they were safely out of the area and well established somewhere hidden and secure, his first focus must be on making their exit from the canyon and whatever unknown dangers lurked on its far rim, and to this end he took up his end of the pole, waiting for Liz to get Will situated once more in her parka hood, and started walking.

Liz had not quite been ready, held back.  “Hey, how’s it going for you?  You’re awfully quiet.  You doing ok?”

Einar just shrugged, grinned and started walking again, yeah, be just fine as soon as we’re out of this canyon…  Place is starting to feel like a trap.

07 November, 2013

7 November 2013

Picking their way carefully down the draw which had the day before led them to the cave-ledge, Einar and Liz kept diligently to the timber, wary glances cast at regular intervals towards the strange devices on the canyon rim and ears—especially Einar’s—sharp for any hint of approaching aircraft.  The descent passed fairly uneventfully, no tracks in the gully to indicate that anyone had been scouting the area in the night, and, best as they could tell, no further activity on the canyon rim, either.  Maintaining a reasonable speed was not proving an easy thing for Einar even on that steep downhill slope, head still thick and confused at times and body dragging from the lingering effects of the previous day’s fever, but driven by the uncertainty of their situation and the need to find a better place of concealment he surprised Liz by leading then down to an area just above the canyon floor several hours before midday. 

Resting briefly against the smooth trunk of an aspen he studied the opening expanse of terrain below them, scattered aspens casting their winter-bare shadows over low-growing clusters of serviceberry and scrub oak but this fairly open ground rapidly giving way, down where the shallow creek meandered quietly between its banks of ice, to the dense thickets of willow and red osier dogwood which had two mornings prior concealed the moose.  Einar did not want to cross that open ground, searched for a path which would allow them to keep to the heavier timber until they could lose themselves beneath those willows, but could see none.  Squinting up at the spot where the canyon rim ought to have been he could hardly see that, either, trees obscuring its lines and he taking some reassurance from this fact. 

Nodding to Liz he pushed himself wearily away from the aspen, trotting from one cluster of brush to the next as he quickly traversed fifty yards of more open ground and disappeared into the willows.  Liz was at his side within seconds, automatically turning to watch their back trail when he stopped, scanning what he could see of the ground ahead.  Could not see far at all, which under the circumstances proved every bit as reassuring as it was distressing, for neither could they be seen.  Unless someone was watching from up on the rim, using motion or heat sensing instruments—or perhaps some combination—to track their every move.  For the moment he pushed the thought aside.  They had decisions to make.

“Pretty sure we’re only about a ten minute walk from where we left the moose and drop bag.  Want to go pick some things up before we head up the canyon, and out of here?”

Yes, of course she wanted to do that, did not, in fact, want to leave at all until they’d found some way to take the entire contents of the drop bag and as much of the moose as they could reasonably carry, but already she could see that Einar’s focus was going to be speed, lightness, a quick evacuation of the canyon.  She nodded.  “Yes.  Better take whatever we can.”

“We’ll have to go slow, make sure there’s no sign of anyone having been around there.  Good thing for the snow.  We’ll see tracks, if they have been.  Don’t want us to get separated just now, but I need to go out front, really look for sign.”

Liz nodded, silently following when Einar took a snaking path off through the willows, heading for their previous camp, for the place where they had worked so hard to butcher the moose and hang its meat and hide securely in the timber.  Instead of making straight for the spot Einar led them on a wide, circling path which crossed the creek, circled far around the moose cache and up onto the hillside before finally he had assured himself that no one had been in the area since their departure, closed the circle and headed for the hanging-trees, Liz thinking all the while that he was acting just like a wolf investigating a trap, and that it was probably a good thing, too. 

Meat, hide and bag were exactly as they had been left, a fact, they both realized on seeing the plethora of coyote tracks in the snow beneath the trees, which could be attributed only to their careful stowing of the goods far out of reach of creatures which had not been blessed with the ability to either climb or fly.  Lowering first the drop bag and then one of the moose quarters, Einar and Liz worked to load whatever they could into their packs.  Frustrated at the limited space in her small pack, Liz emptied everything out and started again.  Einar was intently focused on hacking frozen chunks from the elk quarter and stuffing them into his pack, never even looked up when she stopped work, so she had to interrupt him.

“How about we just take the whole drop bag?  We managed to get it all the way down from the canyon rim without anything worse than a near-disaster, so surely we can move it to wherever we’re going, now…”

“No time, Lizzie.  We’ve got to make this move quick, get to someplace a whole lot more secluded where—hopefully—we’ll be able to keep an eye on the canyon and see if this business with the antennas seems to have anything to do with us, and a wider search, or not.  Then, after we’ve proven to ourselves that it doesn’t and that the place is still real quiet, we can come back for things.  Our trail is the other problem.  That bag leaves a real noticeable trail when we drag it through the snow, and I don’t know about you, but it’s a heavier thing than I can carry on my back, just now.”

“Me too, with Will there.  But how about if we lash it to a stout tree trunk, maybe a willow or something else light and sturdy, and carry it between us?  Then nothing drags, we aren’t slowed down too much, and we don’t have to abandon the supplies that were going to help us get a fresh start out here.”

Einar did not immediately answer, pondering as he continued working on the moose.  “Could work, and would solve the track problem…but it would really slow us down.  Change how we could move, especially on steep slopes or in heavy brush like those willows.  And if we did run into trouble and have to take off we’d be leaving it behind, where someone who might be pursuing us could find it and see just who we were, what we’d been doing and maybe even who had been helping us…doesn’t sound like a real good risk.”

“Yes, those things could happen, but there’s always a chance that someone could find it if we leave it here, too.  It might slow us down a little, but I think we can manage, especially if we keep the stick fairly short so we can go around corners and through the brush more easily.  Chances are everything will go fine, and we’ll be glad not to have left most of our supplies behind, once again.  And if it doesn’t work out, we can always find another place to stash the bag, somewhere along the way. That might be better anyway.  Because we’d be splitting things up, not leaving all our eggs in one basket…”

A frustrated sigh from Einar, who was out of good arguments and already scanning the nearby willow thickets for a good pole.  Sounded like they would be giving the idea a try.

04 November, 2013

4 November 2013

Squinting into the daylight, Einar crouched just outside the mouth of the cave, waiting for his eyes to adjust and hoping his still somewhat dazzled eyes were playing tricks on him. Could be, as they felt all crusty and heavy, only able to open about halfway after a night which he was sure must have left him rather thoroughly dehydrated, despite Liz’s efforts, and he pressed a lump of snow between his hands, waiting until it was hard and icy with most of the air squeezed out before sticking it in his mouth. Snow eased the dryness that had been sticking his tongue to the roof of his mouth, helped his thirst some, but did not, unfortunately, change the sight that greeted him on the far side of the canyon.

The towers—three, in all—were somewhat under twenty feet tall, not particularly substantial and reminded him at first of the sort one might see in the backyard of a ham radio enthusiast, but the antennas were all wrong, were not, in fact, something with which he was at all familiar, even when he held his breath to steady things down, and studied them with the binoculars. A distance which he estimated to be just over two miles stood between the two outlying towers, third one roughly centered between them and all perched rather precariously on the canyon rim, as if in a bid for maximum range. He’d seen enough, at least for the moment, easing back into the dark security—false security, and you’d better be thinking of a way out of here without too much delay—of the cave. Inside, Liz had lit a candle and was in the process of building a morning fire, coals from the previous night having finally finished dying. With a gentle hand on her arm, he stopped her.

“Can’t have a fire this morning. There’s something you need to see.”

“What I need to see is your arm. Let me get this going so there’s more light, and then I’ll have a look. How is it feeling this morning?”

She tried to put a hand to his forehead to check for fever, but he dodged to the side. “Arm’s fine this morning, everything’s fine with that. It’s the towers that are the problem. Three towers over there on the canyon rim, and I know it had to be the guys with the lights last night, because…”

“Hey, listen. I don’t know if you remember it, but you spent most of the night passed out because of that fever, and while I’m so glad it seems to have left you this morning, let’s just take things slow for a while. Give yourself some time to adjust to being awake again, alright?”

“No, probably not alright. Not until we know what those towers are about. Don’t recognize the antennas they’ve got on there, don’t know if they have anything to do with us, but we sure can’t be sticking around too long to find out.”

“What antennas? I don’t understand what you’re talking about. I wish you’d sit down and drink some water.”

He handed her the binoculars. “Go have a look, and you’ll see. Those guys on the snowmobile last night…well, now we know what they were up to.”

While Liz was gone, Einar packed, working by the light of a single candle and doing his best to get all their bedding efficiently rolled, stowed and ready for travel. The food he left out, knowing Liz would be wanting some breakfast before their departure. Where they would be going, he was not sure. Assuming the towers held some sort of monitoring equipment which might conceivably detect their presence, the wisest course seemed to have them heading quickly back down into the canyon where terrain would prevent its working, but how to get there without leaving them exposed on the way was a thing that would need some puzzling. He wasn’t even entirely sure that there existed another way down that did not involve retracing their steps through the draw by which they had ascended. Oh, there would be other ways, were always other ways, but in this case, they might require a good deal of rope.

Maps spread on the cave floor Einar studied them, looking for options, looking to buy some time should the appearance of the towers herald something more immediate to come. Did not appear to be too many options at all, as far as leaving the little shelf which held the entrance to their current cave. No going up, for sure, not without some serious climbing, and while traversing might have been an option, the map told him that they would likely as not end up cliffed-out and forced to descend to a point near the canyon floor, if they were to try it for too far. Down, then, back down the way they’d come, and he’d have to hope the narrowness of that rocky, timbered draw would do enough to shield them from any threat posed by the towers and the instruments they might support.

Liz was back, and looking pale in the candlelight. “What are those things? They weren’t there yesterday…”

“I don’t know what they are, and have no way to tell if they’re involved with any sort of renewed search…but you know that we have to assume they are. Have to get out of here.”

“But the drop bag, and the meat…?”

“I don’t know. But since the only good way out is down, we’ll be back down in that area before we head off to wherever it is we’re going. Can pick some things up on our way by, if it doesn’t look like anyone else has been around there, yet.”

“It’s happening again, you think? The search? I don’t see how they could have found us!”

“Don’t know that it’s happening again, but if we let our guard down, and it is… Got to find another place. Cave would have been snug and dry against the weather, would have given us a real good head start on keeping warm through the rest of the cold weeks, but at this point, it’s just not worth it. Maybe never was, I don’t know. Could be I was thinking wrongly to ever bring us here to the rim, where people might be expected to explore now and then, and near caves that might be known by others.”

“I don’t know. It’s a pretty remote-looking place. Where do you have in mind for us to go, if we can’t stay here?”

A long silence, Einar securing the sleeping bag under his pack and stashing most of the food in Liz’s, leaving out only a few pieces of jerky for breakfast. “Don’t know yet, I’m sorry to say. Still working on that one. On the map, looks like there’s an area of real heavy timber up beyond the head of this canyon, and if we can get there while staying out of sight of those towers-things, I think that’s where we ought to head.”