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.”