31 December, 2014

31 December 2014

Sitting together in the little bubble of warm, still air beneath the parachute canopy and passing around a pot of Liz’s spruce-needle tea, everyone began relaxing after their long climb, Susan holding Will and delighting in becoming reacquainted with the little one as Bud began explaining their presence in the canyon.

“Knew you wouldn’t be too happy to see us here, Asmundson, and had a heck of a time actually figuring out how to start looking for you, but there’s stuff we figured you ought to know.”

Einar was skeptical, but silent.  Bud couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“It’s springtime in the valley, man, and they’re not lookin’ for you anymore!  Packed up and gone home, all of them, after so many months of hearing nothing from you.  Rumor is they figure an avalanche must’ve got you.  All but declared you dead—a third time!”    

“They’ve done that before, and it hasn’t stuck.  Shouldn’t have risked leaving a trail just to come and tell us that.”

“Nah, they got lots of other irons in the fire this time  That’s the other thing I came to tell you.  History going on, down there.  It’s been quite a year.  The tax protests up in New York and New Jersey—never thought we’d see those folks stand up, but guess some of them finally had enough of their Bolshevik rulers—folks up in Washington State refusing en masse to follow some really onerous new gun laws that went into effect this year, and showing up by the thousands on the grounds of the State Capitol to commit newly-illegal acts, right in front of the State Troopers.  Troopers just watched.  Were none too pleased with the laws themselves, most of them, and sure weren’t gonna be the ones to deliberately spark some sort of armed conflict right there on the Governor’s front lawn.  Ha!  And the big one…guess you would have had no way to hear about the Ranch Rebellion, as folks’re calling it now, but the feds got tangled up with a couple of old ranchers and their families over property disputes, went in with guns and tried to seize land, round up cattle—and failed.”

“Was there shooting?”

“Nah, but there would have been, if they hadn’t decided to stand down.  Couple thousand citizens showed up, armed and ready.  Moms and dads with a couple of their half-grown kids ready to be a part of history, local folks, out of state, vets from half a dozen wars, snipers up on the Interstate overpass...  Remarkable restraint on both sides, I would say.  All it would have taken was one jumpy trigger finger on either side, and this thing would have got started.  Feds thought they’d be able to strong-arm everybody, had the Hostage Rescue Team on standby a few miles away, but there came a point, a very particular point when they saw that folks were going to stand, and they knew they had to either back down, or commit to a real shooting war.  And they backed down, and they went home.  It was a beautiful thing.  Beautiful.”

“You were there?”

“Yes sir, I was there.  Proud to say it.  Me and my bride, both.  Roger flew us down.  We didn’t jump this time, but maybe in the future, if circumstances require…”

“Yep,” Roger finished off the pot of spruce tea, passed the empty vessel back to Liz for a re-fill, “me and my little green-and-white will definitely have a job to do, as things progress down there.  Did some aerial surveillance after dropping Bud and Sue off at the rally, got some real good photos of the crowd facing off the feds, and almost tangled with a little FBI chopper that figured I was in its airspace.  Fun times!”

“Yeah, Roger, I know you miss the action,” the tracker boomed.  “Don’t we all, sometimes?  Kinda surprised you weren’t dropping stuff on the feds’ camp down there, just for the fun of it!  Sheriff Watts was there too, with his wife and two grown sons.  Remember him?  Always knew he was a fine man, but now I’ve got no doubts.”

Susan nodded.  “They camped with us.  There was a whole Culver Falls/Clear Springs contingent that showed up.  People who used to come to our weekly meetings when Bill was living…some that I hadn’t seen for years.”

“Right,” Bud added, “that’s for sure!  Half expected to see you there, Asmundson.”

“I was a little busy.”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s the last sort of place you need to be showing up right now.  I’m sure the feds had eyes and ears in that crowd, looking out for just such appearances.  But later, if things get a little hotter…well, let me just say that you’re already no longer anywhere near their top priority, and I can certainly conceive of a time when you could probably come out into the World again, if you wanted to.  I still say we could use you down there.  Train folks, give them young guys a little of the grit-in-your-gut or whatever it is has kept you going, over the years.  Only a little of it, though.  Too much of it’ll kill a fella.”

“I’m still here, Kilgore.”


Uncomfortable silence, Liz passing out elk jerky to everyone, including the raven, who had not left Einar’s shoulder the entire time.  Sun was still shining on the top foot or so of the chute, and it was providing enough warmth that both Bud and Susan had shed their down coats, Will having squirmed about in his furs until Liz had freed him of their excessive insulation.  The warmth didn’t seem to be having much effect on Einar, who, Liz knew from long experience, ought to be shaking quite noticeably as he thawed out.  Instead he sat, cross-legged and still, arms folded against his stomach and the ice barely beginning to melt in his beard as he listened intently to Bud’s narrative with huge, quiet eyes and the occasional hint of a faraway smile.  Liz wished he’d move around, make some noise, get mad, even.  His stillness was scaring her. 

The conversation turned, then, to events in the valley, Susan’s work to prepare for the spring season at the greenhouse and other news of the outside world, another pleasant half hour passing as the sun finally sank behind the spruces and everyone—with the exception of Einar, who seemed unwilling or unable to move from the position he had held since sitting down—enjoyed generous helpings of Liz’s elk stew, which had been simmering by the fire in the shelter since shortly after their return.

Despite the relative warmth of the little tent, which had increased rather beyond that provided by the sinking sun due to the number of people it currently enclosed, Einar was still an unfortunate shade of purple by the time the sun went down, struggling now to stay aware and part of the conversation, though doing a remarkably good job, Liz thought, of concealing the fact.  The only best answer seemed to be to head to bed and hope he would follow, which proved no problem, as their guests were quite weary after their long climb, ready to head to their improvised tents.  Einar, though, proved less ready to settle in for the night, quietly insisting that he first had to make one final circuit of the little ridge above the basin, satisfy himself that the tracker had not been followed up from the canyon.

Einar finally slid into bed sometime after dark, still not entirely reasonably well assured that no trouble was coming that night, at least, and knowing that without a bit of sleep he would be too weary to do much about such an eventuality, should it come.  Liz moved close, tried to start warming him, and Einar held himself rigid against the shivers that were trying to come, in awe at the contrast in temperature, at her existence.

“You’re so warm…”

“No, it’s just that you’re frozen, still.  You feel like a block of ice.”

He moved away.  “I’m sorry.  Can go back outside and…”

“No, don’t you dare!  That’s not what I meant.”  She got her arms around him, clasping her hands where they crossed the deeply furrowed ridges of the ribs just above his sternum, trapping him.  He could have escaped with enough effort, but he was tired, and did not want to go anywhere.  Liz could feel his relenting, his acceptance, and was glad.  “You stay right here until you’re something like a normal human temperature, again.  I don’t know how you survive being so cold all the time.”

He smiled in the darkness, stopped struggling, relaxed against her and allowed the shivering to take over.  “Practice.”

26 December, 2014

26 December 2014

Liz had heard them coming.  Finally convinced that Einar must lack the ability to return on his own she had set out once more to search for him, Will on her back and the shelter closed up tight with the expectation that she might not return for many days.  Einar had given her no reason for his leaving, no clue in speech or action, in the days leading up to his disappearance, as to where he might have gone.  Which lead her to believe that he had likely met with some accident or other misfortune out there, and would be, by now, almost certainly gone.  She tried not to think it, tried to remind herself that he had many times come through circumstances that ought to have ended his life, and surely would be capable of doing so again, whatever had happened out there, but she was having a difficult time believing. 

More likely, he had been lying face-down in a snowdrift somewhere out there for the past two days, finally having well and truly reached the end of his strength and died on his feet as he had always wanted.  Doing her best to banish such thoughts she had set out for one final search, winding her way down through deadfall timber and around the remains of the winter’s snow, melting, seeping, the sound of spring, of new life, and some quarter of the way through the band of deadfall, she began hearing another sound, too.

Footsteps, and then voices, and Liz froze.  Concealing herself behind the nearest cluster of still-bare serviceberry scrub she crouched, listening, praying that Will would make no sound, for the voice was not Einar’s.  Her hand went to the pistol Einar had left for her, body low against the ground and Will beginning a silent, squirming protest.  Had they taken him, some intruder, some federal search party, captured him and followed his trail up through the deadfall?  Could be.  Anything could be, but her mind told her this was a very unlikely scenario, seeing as she had, herself, been unable to find more than a few feet of discernable trail in her entire time of searching.  What, then?  He was showing them the way?  He would never.  Then, she heard another voice, a female voice, and this one she recognized.  Susan!  Still, she did not rise from her hiding place, wanting to be more than certain as to the identity of their guests before she risked exposing Will to any danger.  Squirming so that she had a better view through the tangle of serviceberry trunks near the ground she found Susan, Bud beside her.  Other footsteps then, nearer ones, and she scrambled to her feet just in time to avoid tripping Einar as he stepped around the cluster of brush which had concealed her.

Einar barely even had time to be startled before Liz grabbed him, he recognizing her at once and little Will squealing in delight at the sight of his father.  For a moment no one spoke, Bud and his little group hanging back to allow the family a bit of time together.  Liz didn’t know what to say first, whether to question Einar about his long absence or try to figure out where he’d managed to acquire Bud and Susan, so she ended up saying nothing at all, simply pressing him to her, overjoyed that they were all together again.

“Saw their smoke,” he tried to explain.  “Down in the canyon.  Was just going for some willows but had to find out who was down there.  Ended up stalking them for two days before being sure.  Had no way to let you know…”

“I know now.  It’s ok.  I know now.”  She let him go then, Einar quickly reclaiming the sticks he’d been using to keep himself upright during the climb and she waving to Bud and Susan, who hurried to join the family there beneath the serviceberry scrub, Roger a few paces behind.  Returning from some scouting mission of his own above the timbered slopes to the east, Muninn the raven circled once, dived in through the trees and settled himself on Einar’s shoulder.  Will lost all interest in the human visitors, then, remembering the bird and reaching for the iridescent sheen of his feathers with both hands, nearly succeeding in escaping from the hood of Liz’s parka before she could stop him.

“You brought Muninn!”  Liz greeted Susan.  “How did you do that?”

“Oh, he follows Bud everywhere.  Has since you left.  I think he believes Bud knew where Einar went, and intended to find him.”

“How did you find us?”

“Oh, it wasn’t easy,” Bud bellowed, “the way this man of yours heads for the highest, roughest country like a wounded bull elk and hunkers down to wait for spring, or death, or whatever comes first.  Not easy at all, and in the end it was him found us, anyway.  Closest we came was the bottom of the canyon.”

Einar cast a dark look at the tracker, wishing, Liz was certain, that they had never come at all, but she was more than glad to see them—so long as their coming did not bring with it too much risk of discovery and of having to run, again.  Afternoon well underway and temperatures already beginning to drop on that north-facing slope, everyone seemed in favor when Liz suggested they head for the shelter.

After a good hour’s additional travel the party reached the little basin which concealed Einar and Liz’s winter home, the visitors looking relieved to be through all the deadfall and able to rest, at last.  Einar showed everyone around the clearing, pointing out here and there spots where overhanging evergreens had kept snow accumulation to a minimum thorough the winter, and which thus presented dry and good locations to set up a tent.  Or to sleep under the stars, as the case might be, for everyone, as Bud pointed out, had left their tents down in the canyon… 

“You’d be welcome in the shelter,” Einar allowed, “but it’s no cabin, like we had before.  We’d be sleeping stacked on top of each other in there.  You folks have any tarps or plastic of any sort in your packs?”

Tarps they did have, and an ample supply of cordage, and the three of them went to see what could be done to secure nighttime lodging.

While their guests set up camp Liz brought water and elk jerky for Einar, wanted him to sit with her on the fallen aspen that served as bench in front of the shelter, but he remained doggedly standing, balanced between his two walking sticks as he smiled tiredly at Will, answering the little one’s babbling inquiries as seriously and attentively as if they had come from an adult and were not composed of at least as many unintelligible words as they were intelligible.  Liz liked that about him, the way he seemed to regard their son as a little person with a fully-formed mind and the ability to understand far more than he could communicate.  Already she could see that the two of them were developing a special understanding of one another, and supposed the very things that made Einar so different and her interactions with him at times so very difficult must be an advantage when it came to his ability to understand and communicate with the child.

Einar wasn’t eating, and she insisted, trying to press a piece of jerky into his hand.  He looked hungrily at the food and appeared anxious enough to eat it, but seemed unwilling to loose his iron grip on the two sticks he’d brought with him, and she Liz was pretty sure she knew why.

While thoroughly convinced that he had succeeded at concealing his condition from Bud, Susan and the pilot—lots of people used sticks to improve balance while getting around in the mountains, after all, and they had been working too hard, themselves, to give him much notice—there was no hiding it from Liz.  She knew he didn’t use a stick for balance, not unless it was a spear that he happened to be carrying, anyway, and never had she known him to use two of them.  No sense delaying the matter.  Perhaps there would be some way she could improve things, for him.

“What’s wrong with your legs?  Did you fall…?” 

Einar looked away.  “Fell plenty, but I always got back up.  Don’t know what’s wrong.  It will pass.”

Despite Einar’s easy confidence, Liz could see from the hard lines on his face and the distance in his eyes that he was in pain, struggling to stay on his feet and afraid to sit down lest he find himself unable to rise again.  She gently pulled him down beside her on the log.

 “Maybe it won’t pass.  Maybe your body is just done.  The muscles.  They’ve all been consumed just to keep you alive and going.” 

He wished she wouldn’t talk about that, not now, with the possibility that their guests might hear.  “Been that way for a long time,” he quietly replied, fidgeting on the bench and wishing to be back on his feet, “and I’ve been getting by.”

“Well, now you’re not.  It seems like you’d better think about eating more, or maybe next time it won’t be your legs that are wanting to give out, but your heart.  It’s a muscle, too, you know….” 

He did know, easy as he found it most times to ignore the fact.  “Yeah.  I am eating, though.” 

“Barely enough to keep you alive, and certainly not enough so that you can start gaining a little weight.  You’re still losing.  I can see it.  You need more.  Need to get really serious about it.”

Einar just shrugged, got painfully back to his feet, but she wouldn’t let it go.

“I would hate to lose you now, you know.  When we’ve just about got through the winter and spring is here, Will’s first spring, and he’s about to start walking…”

“Oh, I have no intention of dying in the springtime”—he grinned, a mischievous glint returning to his eyes and a bit of  a spring to his step as he headed to the shelter to put away his pack—“if I have anything to do with it.  Wouldn’t want that.  Would much rather go in the fall, in the first big snowstorm of the season, maybe climb up to the top of a peak and stand there where the wind breaks over the rocks, become part of a cornice or something, or better still find a big, windswept saddle up near the divide where the Jetstream is sweeping across smelling like broken granite and eternity and endless distance, snow coming down sideways, and just…”

“Stop it!  I don’t want to hear that.”

He was silent—she had brought it up, and he’d only been trying to answer her; the woman really puzzled him, at times—and Liz let it go.

Guests finished setting up their improvised camp and perhaps an hour of angled sunlight remaining before the cold of evening really set in, Liz invited everyone to join her in the parachute-tent eventually destined to hold the jerky-smoking rack, remembering the pleasant afternoon she, Einar and Will had several days prior enjoyed in the pocket of warm, still air trapped beneath its fabric and thinking perhaps there everyone could rest, Einar could finally warm up a bit and Bud and Susan might hopefully explain the purpose of their visit.

22 December, 2014

22 December 2014

“Enemy’s not following us,” Kilgore bellowed, lowering himself onto a fallen aspen and hoping Einar would join him, as the man appeared about to fall over.  “We made real sure of that.  I’m returning your bird, that’s what I’m doing up here.  Critter can be a real nuisance, you know?  Blamed me for your disappearance I’m pretty sure, and never would let me forget it.”

Einar remained standing, balanced precariously between his two sticks but growing increasingly steady.  He had no response for Kilgore, knew the tracker would not make such a journey simply to return the raven, but knew just as well that he wouldn’t be getting the true answer just then.  It would come, with time.  Right now, he needed to be getting back to Liz, and as the intruders had already found his trail and would have followed it even had he not shown himself, the best option seemed to involve taking them all along.  Not wanting to try and articulate all of this—now that he’d stopped moving, his exhaustion was catching up with him, making itself difficult to ignore—he started off up his trail without another word. 

Kilgore was having none of it.  “Where are you taking us, you old wolverine?  Up to some cliffs where you can lure us out to the edge, push us over and no one will ever be the wiser?”

“Not a bad idea.  But no.  I’m going home.  You folks might as well come along, so I can keep an eye on you.  Anybody flies over, they’ll see your tents down on the canyon floor and think you’re still down there, fishing, or whatever you were doing.”

“See our tents?  Who do you think you’re dealing with here, Asmundson?  Nobody’s gonna see our doggone tents, not the way we’ve got the all tucked in under the timber like that.”

“I saw them.”

“Oh, you don’t count.  And besides, I meant nobody would see them from the air.  And they won’t.”

Einar shrugged, turned to continue his climb, and this time, Kilgore followed.  Visiting, it was clear, would have to wait.  The fugitive was in no mood for conversation.  Or perhaps simply lacked the breath for it.  He suspected the latter, but still found himself struggling to keep pace as the man stalked up through the steepening timber.

Base of the rocky chute by which Einar had two days prior come to reach the edge of the rim, and here he paused for a minute, waiting for the others to catch up.  Not used to the elevation, he supposed, after a winter spent down in the valley.  They soon caught up, Roger leading and Bud traveling with Susan, who was a few yards behind the pilot.  The tracker slogged up beside Einar, bracing hands on his knees and puffing for air.

“Trying to kill us all with this breakneck pace, or what, Asmundson?”

“I didn’t invite you.  This is my speed.  Only one I’ve got.”

“No, it’s not.  Pretend you’re stalking something.  Or someone.  I know you can take three days to cover a quarter of a mile, if you need to.”

“I don’t need to right now.  Need to get back up there to Liz.  I was only supposed to be going to get some willows.  Two days ago.  She’ll be wondering.”

“Yeah, she’ll be wondering.  But a short break here at the bottom of this steep stuff won’t delay us much at all, and will probably really increase our speed, especially if we have a quick fire and brew up some tea for everybody.”

“No fire.”

“Come on man, it’s just us here.  Nobody else in the entire canyon, or we would have seen sign of ‘em.  Let’s stop for a little bit and make a fire, warm you up some for the rest of the climb.”

“No, I’m fine.  And you’re fine too, because you’re wearing expedition-quality down all over your bodies.  Like geese.”

“Yeah, we’re fine, but you’re frozen,” the tracker responded, grabbing Einar’s arm and pressing two fingers against the exposed portion near the wrist, nodding as the resulting white marks stayed stark and unchanging on the purple-mottled canvas of his flesh.  “Look at that.  Barely got any blood moving through there, at all.  Gonna start losing fingers and toes here before too long, if this keeps up.  You haven’t got too many toes left to lose, if I’m remembering correctly.  And looks like you’re only on your feet because your legs are too stiff to let you fall down, too.” 

Einar laughed.  “Maybe.  Kind of works.”

“Yeah, it works great.  I can tell.  Now you have a seat right here while I build a fire, or I’ll knock you down and have Roger sit on you, ya big dunderhead.”

Einar did not stop moving, and neither Kilgore nor Roger appeared inclined to carry out the threat.  Susan half wished they would.  Quickly catching up to Einar, she offered him some tea from her thermos, still warm from the morning’s brew, and he drank, first a sip and then a series of gulps by which he would have quickly drained the vessel, had he not restrained himself.  She looked away so as not to embarrass him, wondering when he’d last remembered to consume any fluids.  Looking him over, she wouldn’t have been too surprised to learn that it had been days.  Reclaiming the thermos from Einar she stowed it back in her pack, continued without a word.  He’d been finding his own way for a long time, and certainly didn’t need her help to do it now, no matter how things might look.

At Einar’s insistence everyone stayed close in the steep chute, falling rocks dislodged by the lead climber being a real danger to those following behind, should they allow distance for said rocks to begin bounding and bouncing.  The day being a good deal colder than the one on which Einar had descended this same chute and he having so recently—if not intentionally—cleaned it of its loose rocks, they all made it to the top without major incident, catching their breath amongst the spruces before following Einar over the first of several acres of deadfall that lay between the spot and the little basin which held the shelter—and his family.

14 December, 2014

14 December 2014

Though reasonably well assured now as to the identity of the intruders and doubting any ill intent on their part, Einar was determined that the first contact between them, if such was inevitable, should take place on his terms.  Not wanting to return the way he had come, lest they be waiting for him at the top, he scoured the walls for other options, knowing they existed as he had previously used a different couloir to climb up and out, but seeing nothing anywhere near his present location.  No great trouble for he could simply reverse his descent, splitting off where the chute divided and taking the branch he had not previously traveled.  Not ideal, but likely to keep him out of an ambush, at least.

It was good to be climbing again, Einar having grown so cold while stalking the camp on the canyon floor that it took him a good half hour to begin feeling hands and feet again, Muninn hopping and flapping from outcropping to outcropping as he made upward progress, patiently waiting for his human friend to catch up.  The raven’s presence concerned Einar, for he knew that as he approached the trio up on the rim, the bird’s appearance might give him away before he was ready to reveal himself.  Not a problem under most circumstances, as people would not normally suspect anything unusual about the appearance of a raven, but Kilgore and his companions would likely know the meaning, should the bird appear.  A chance he would have to take.  The bird was staying quite close so far, and perhaps could be persuaded to continue as he neared the top.

Though in something of a hurry to move things along so he could eventually return to Liz and let her know what had been going on, Einar could not seem to make very good time on his return climb, legs just not working well at all and threatening to spill him to the ground in some very inopportune places.  A long way down if one was to take a fall in that couloir, and determined to avoid any such incident he was able to keep moving so long as he really pushed himself, but whenever he eased off on that effort a bit and took a break his legs hurt so badly that he was beginning to find it quite distracting.  With an ambush to conduct, and very possibly one to avoid, Einar did not want to be distracted… 

Steeper, then, grew the couloir, clear water ice sheathing the rock in places so that he had to maintain his hold here and there by applying counter-pressure with knees, elbows and back simply to avoid losing his hold and taking a fall which would have almost certainly spelled the end of his movements for the day, if not longer…

Finally, the top.  No great clattering of rockfall, nothing which ought to have betrayed his presence to those above, and it was with great care an stealth that he started into the timber just back from the rim, making his way towards the spot where he had spent the previous night.  Faltering, failing were his legs, frustration as he fought to stiffen their collapsing sinews, remain on his feet.  Partial success, and he carried on, expecting at any minute to run across his quarry.  Wouldn’t let them see him like this, must not, and he found a stick to aid his balance, let his arm take some of the load for a while so perhaps his legs might prove less ready to betray him. 

The stick helped, and somewhere along the way he acquired a second, moving with a bit less clumsiness as he neared the spot where he had last seen the trio.  Chances of them remaining there on the rim seemed fairly slight, the more he thought about it.  More likely was the possibility that Kilgore would have found and chosen to follow his backtrail, knowing it would lead eventually to whatever shelter they were currently calling home, and, if she wasn’t with him, to Liz.  The tracker would know by now that he was not alone, would know a lot of other things, too, including more than he wanted known about his physical condition, thoughts and current planning process.  Well.  Nothing to do about any of that, for the story was already written there in the snow for anyone with enough experience to decipher and read.  He could only influence the future.

Which future, Einar realized with a start, was about to begin in earnest, for from somewhere not too far ahead, he heard voices.  This sudden materialization of humanity where he had expected to find only long-cold tracks was a startlement to Einar, but surprise did not hold him back for long, soon giving way to a level of stealth and caution above even that which had brought him safely and undetected up the great loose ice-glazed chute of the couloir.  Closer, moving at a slow stalk, he moved until within several yards of the small party, lowering himself to the snow in the dark shade of a stand of small, wind-gnarled firs.  The raven, seeming to sense a need for quiet, perched shiny-eyed and silent on a single dead branch just above his head.  Someone—Einar was pretty sure it must be the tracker—was speaking, and he raised his head to be better able to make out the man’s words.

“…up here through the trees, see?  He was tryin’ to be sneaky, and did a pretty good job of it, too, but I see where he came from.  We can follow this thing, and probably should, before that old coyote shows up here and puts a couple atlatl darts through our rib cages…”

So.  It was clear that Kilgore had discovered his nighttime hide, confirmed his presence and found the path by which he had initially come to the rim, and would end up leading his companions up the timbered slopes and to the shelter, and Liz, if he did nothing to prevent it.  No sense delaying the inevitable, he figured.  Might as well meet them now.  Closer, then, he crept beneath the firs, moving with barely more speed than the moss which grew green and waiting for the full coming of spring beneath the sparse cover of remaining snow, until at last he was satisfied with the twelve feet which separated him from Kilgore, Susan and Roger Kiesl—for he had now confirmed without doubt the identity of the other two interlopers.

Waiting for a momentary lull in the conversation Einar rose and stepped out of the firs then, wild, white-streaked black hair and snow-matted beard framing his gaunt features like the mane of some weird, emaciated lion, limbs too long for its body and a fierce grin adding to the savagery of the picture.  Kilgore, showing only a moment’s alarm, burst out laughing.

“Well if it ain’t the old wolverine himself, crawled out of his cave to come say hello!  Wondered when you’d be showing up.  Been feelin’ your eyes on the back of my neck for a day now, and was hoping they weren’t watching through a rifle scope..”

The raven settled on Einar’s shoulder, and his wild grin faded.

“What are you doing here, Kilgore?  Besides ruining our cover and giving the enemy a clear path right to our front door…”

03 December, 2014

3 December 2014

Up on the rim the hunter crouched, inspecting the spot where his quarry had lain, seeing in the small scuff marks and tiny displacements of rock and vegetation more than simply the position and movements of the man’s body, reading there a good deal about the man’s intentions, his habits, his physical condition and, in the way of all good trackers, something of his soul, as well.  Rising, straightening, stepping back from the rim so as to avoid being spotted from below, the hunter smiled, turned away, assured of his eventual success.

*   *    *
Wet and slushy was the ground beneath the willows, slush in his eyes, caked in his nose as he tried to draw a breath, but this did not trouble Einar for long, rolling quickly to he did to one side and coming back upright all in a fraction of a second, instinct demanding that he meet his assailant on his feet.  Shadows.  Nothing solid with which to contend, Einar turning this way and that in search of his opponent before it could strike him a third time.  Nothing, no sign of his attacker, and, much to his surprise, no third assault, either, Einar crouching, freeing in place with his back to the carcass of a solitary spruce that stood black and moisture-rotted amongst the sea of winter-yellow willows.  Then, from the bare branches of the tree far above him came a slight stirring, a ruffle of air and a chorus of sort, chortling sounds whose tone and meaning were familiar to him.  Knife still held at the ready lest his senses prove to be deceiving him Einar cautiously looked up, still fearing a trap but spotting in the branches above a familiar form, blacker than the blackened spruce-boughs, and moving, swooping down. 

This time he was ready, bracing himself as the bird landed hard on his shoulder, Muninn the raven, full-grown now and rather larger than the last time Einar had seen him, some months before.  Starting to shake now with unspent adrenaline after the sudden dissolution of the threat Einar sank to the ground, bird still on his shoulder, knife in hand.

“Well now, that’s a fine way to say hello.  How come all of my friends seem to have such abrupt manners when it comes greeting a fellow?  Is it something about me?  That’s the only way you feel safe approaching, or what?  Probably wise, in that case.”

No words by way of answer, but the raven did grab a loose strand of hair from beneath Einar’s hat, twisting, chortling his delight at having discovered a long-lost friend.  Einar nodded, putting away the knife.  “Yeah, kind of missed you too, you old buzzard.  We got a problem though, don’t we?  Problem and an answer, all in one, because we can be pretty sure now whose camp this is we’ve stalking.  No way you found us all by yourself, not over all those miles and with no idea where to go, much as you may have wanted to do it.  Question is, how did they know?  How did they find us?  And why on this good green, half-frozen, slush-covered earth did they want to come poking around in our new territory and putting us all at risk like this?  Can’t have been just to bring you home, can it?  No, I’m sure that’s not it.   Not even you can be that much trouble.  Half tempted to round up all their tents and gear while they’re up on the rim and make that stuff disappear…”

Still somewhat shaky Einar rose, keeping close to the spruce-carcass and the small degree of concealment it provided, and taking stock of his situation.  Not too far from the camp now—a few feet of travel through the low willows and he was fairly certain he would have it in view, and though assured by the presence of the raven as to the identity of at least two of the intruders, he was too wary to walk out into the open and approach the site.  No telling exactly why the party of three had ventured up into his high country realm, and though he more or less trusted Kilgore and his motivation, there was too much at stake to place too much trust in anyone, any group.  Circumstances down there in civilization were simply too changeable, individuals too subject to influence, entrapment or worse and the enemy—assuming he was still out there and still looking; one must always assume thus—too clever in his surveillance and tracking abilities.  Was always a chance that Kilgore and his companions had been followed, some item of their gear fitted with a transponder, too many potential ways this could all go very bad. 

Which left Einar with only one good choice regarding the camp, and that was to turn around and retrace his steps before any more closely approaching it.  Quite a shame, and the decision grated on his very nature, reappearance of the raven having reawakened in him, it seemed, something of the nature of the trickster, and he wanting very badly to stalk into the camp and work some form of mischief before retreating back to his mountain lair, but dutifully he turned, picked his way back into the shelter of the little band of subalpine firs which had covered his approach, and then into the heavier brush beyond.  Stopping here, raven perching beside him as if unwilling to again allow him out of its sight, he again considered his options.

Best of all would be to avoid contact entirely, work his way by some roundabout route back to the shelter and warn Liz of the situation so they could be without fire for a few days and keep their location secret and secure…but he knew it was a little late for such possibilities, for several reasons.  Chief among these was the fact—and he was sure it was indeed fact—that Kilgore already knew he was there in the canyon, had spotted or at least him on the rim and was even now locating and perhaps preparing to follow his backtrail up to the little basin, to the shelter, and to his family.  A problem, for sure.  Looking as though contact of some sort was more or less an inevitability, then, but he could at least strive to have it happen on his own terms, and on the ground of his choosing. 

An important advantage, that one, if he could pull it off,  “and I know Sun Tzu would agree with me, you old vulture, and so would you, if you could express yourself in words.  Yep, expect you know a lot more about the principles of warfare than you’d ever let on, don’t you?”

The raven was silent, and Einar began his climb.

22 November, 2014

22 November 2014

Morning at the shelter, Will sleepily finishing his meal and then, quite suddenly wide awake, waiting somewhat impatiently as Liz dressed him in woolen underthings and parka before rising, balancing himself against the wall and enjoying the ever-increasing balance with which he moved about his world.  Liz dressed quickly, stirred the fire to life and set the remainder of that previous night’s elk soup to thaw and re-heat.  Watching Will as she fed small, dry spruce sticks into the growing flames, she tried to plan her day.  Wanted to go out searching for Einar again, but did not know where to look.  Sometimes she hated them, the instincts that lent an almost indecipherable stealth to his every move, even when he was not consciously aware of practicing such.  Two days before, missing him after several hours’ absence—he had, after all, only been going after willow wands to make jerky-drying racks in their little parachute-smoker, and how long could that take—she had slid Will onto her back and scouted about for some sign of his path, hoping to find him at the end of it and beginning to feel just the faintest prickle of fear, as the sun slipped below the spruces of their high horizon, that he might have met with some disaster out there, fallen and hit his head or simply run out of the energy to keep going and lost consciousness in the snow.  He was never far from it, those days, despite the sure movements and usually-cheerful demeanor with which he conducted himself, and in his absence, she could not help but worry.

Nothing.  For a distance she had  been able to find and follow his trail, though with difficulty, he keeping as much as possible to the bare, frozen patches of ground and the places where sun and warming temperatures had sent the snow from fallen aspen and spruce, creating trackless paths for a stealthy man with the instincts of a tracker—and of the hunted.  After some distance even the small signs which had kept her on his trail disappeared, almost as if he had seen something, made some decision, and gone to another level of caution.  Not long after that point she had turned back, darkness approaching, Will becoming restless on her back and she knowing her chances of locating him under such conditions.

Now it was morning again, and Liz did not know what to do.  Wanted to go out searching again, travel, perhaps, in ever-expanding circles around the camp until she found him, or some sign of him, but something told her she would not have success on this path.  The place seemed so quiet, somehow, gave her no sense of his presence, and she knew he had gone further.  Only wished she knew why.  Knew him well enough to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that he would not simply choose to abandon his family with no intent of returning—though his work with preserving the elk over the past several days did give her pause; perhaps, knowing he would be leaving, he had been making certain their immediate needs were provided for?—but could not puzzle out his intentions in wandering so far.

*   *   *
Pebble tumbling into snow just below, not an alarming sound in itself, and something likely to happen quite spontaneously in the warming weather of spring on such terrain, but Einar’s instinct told him this was not a spontaneous happening.  Perfectly still for a fraction of a second, he weighed his options, seeking the source of the sound, searching for avenues of escape.  Not many of the latter, not when one is balanced precariously between clumps of rotting ice and unstable rock in a rather narrow, vertical-walled gully, but there was one, and it was all Einar needed.  More concealment than escape, really, but he took it, ducking behind an upright fin of granite and pulling himself into the blackness of its shadow when he saw the horizon clear above him, no one in sight.

Unmoving, barely breathing lest he miss something, Einar waited, three more small rocks coming loose and clattering down past his position, and then a brief flash of shadow passed over the wall in front of him, shape of a man’s boot, and then Einar knew for sure.  So.  Third man had indeed climbed up with the other two, had probably been waiting there in the gully to ambush him when he tried to retreat down its steep, slippery course, but the man had miscalculated, choosing to conceal himself in the northerly branch of the couloir.  Which meant that there was hope, as far Einar could tell, that his passage had not been detected, as the two channels were separated by a solid if narrow fin of granite.  Not yet safe to move, though, to attempt to complete his descent.  Some eight feet above his present position the fin tapered out, channels joining and the couloir continuing down as a single entity, which feature had allowed him to spot the man’s shadow and hear so clearly the tumbling rocks dislodged by his climb.

Still for the time, pressing himself into the rock-shadows at his back, Einar waited, listening.  A small scrape, the grating sound of a larger rock trying to come loose but being held into place, he was sure, by the climber, and then nothing for a long time.  Shivers becoming more insistent, hands under his arms to still their motion, jaws clamped against teeth whose rattling would have otherwise interfered with his listening, his hearing.  Climbing once again, the man was, for now from far above Einar could hear the occasional scrape of rock upon rock and then, after a good ten minutes more, silence.  Needed to get down, needed to get moving, more than anything, before the cold rendered him even less able than he currently found himself to move efficiently on that near-vertical terrain, but still he waited, giving it several more good minutes before he so much as shifted position in the cramped little alcove which had provided his concealment. 

Down.  Working his way carefully and pausing to listen as frequently as the tricky terrain would allow, Einar finished the descent, coming at last to the oak brush-choked slope which marked the end of the couloir and the final slope down to the canyon floor, itself, and it was with a nearly-audible sigh of relief that he sunk down on bent knees to a snow-free patch of soil and rested for a brief moment before going on.

Keeping to the heaviest brush available and closely monitoring the terrain above him for the route which would best conceal him from anyone who might be watching from the canyon rim, Einar made his way towards the camp, meaning to inspect it in the absence of its occupants, learn what he might about their purpose and intention up in the high country.  It would not, he knew, be a reasonable risk to approach the camp too closely or with too much exposure to open areas; he remembered well the thoroughness of the man with binoculars who he’d witnessed the evening before, the way his gaze had lingered here and there as he inspected the rim.  These were no sportsmen or backcountry adventurers.  Of that, he was certain, and he knew the sorts of surprises that might be left behind by people such as these. 

Studying the terrain, certain of the position of the camp, Einar reduced his pace even further, creeping through a stand of tangled little sub-alpine firs and bringing himself, after some time, out to their edge, peering through the willows and over red osier dogwoods at one of the dome tents, just on the other side of the creek.  A decent plan, well-executed and appearing near to success—until something rather forcefully came out of nowhere and slammed him in the left shoulder.  Einar tried to respond, got his knife into his hand but before he could bring it to bear the thing hit him again, this time knocking him to the ground, face-first into the willow-marsh.

10 November, 2014

10 November 2014

Dawn, the coldest hour, Einar shivering under his shelter-tree, no insulation on his body, bones turning to ice, damp leaves and needles with which he had attempted to insulate himself hardly doing a thing anymore and he was all out of energy to keep up the regimented movements that had got him through the night, dizzy and nauseated as his body searched for any source of fuel within itself, and found nothing.  No good crouching there any longer.  Cramping up so badly that he knew quick movement would soon prove impossible, if he didn’t do something to reverse the situation.  

Had to get up, move a little, but in making the attempt he found his body impossibly heavy, unresponsive, gravity, when he really pressed the matter, rising up to slam him into the frozen soil beneath his shelter-tree.  Shattered vision, dawn-dim world falling away in shards before him, swimming, shimmering, making no sense, blackness, and then the taste of blood between his teeth.  Couldn’t seem to immediately gather himself for further movement so he lay there, waiting, dimly aware of the slow trickle of blood from some small rock-scrape on the side of his face.  Strangely, the stuff seemed to be reviving him some, bringing him back to something like full awareness, and that could only be good.

A hint of a twisted smile, eyes closed against the strengthening light.  Completely illogical, he knew, that he could survive thus on his own substance, sustain himself, but it seemed to be helping for the moment, the blood, and he stayed as he was, allowing it to trickle freely into the corner of his mouth until, between the cold and his rather advanced dehydration, it stopped of its own accord.  Einar might have slept then, much to his own detriment and dismay, had not the trend started by the action of gravity and the taste of his own blood been furthered by a persistent rustle and crunch in the vegetation slightly uphill of his position.

Suddenly quite wide awake Einar kept still for only a fraction of a second before rolling silently to his stomach and pushing himself to hands and knees, stalking into the sparse brush along the rim and using it to his best advantage as he sought to put some quick distance between himself and whoever might be moving around up above.  Not a small creature, he was certain, no bird, rodent or even a small canine such as a fox or coyote, and much as he might have wished to believe that his visitor could be a deer, elk or even a mountain lion—would have been welcome, just then, considering the alternative—he knew enough of the patterns and movements of different creatures to be quite sure he was dealing with a being of the two-legged variety.  More than one of them, in fact, for presently he picked up on a second set of movements some five or six yards beyond the spot where the first had made itself audible.  Moving very slowly they were, clearly attempting stealth, and doing a decent job of it. 

Making his way into some heavier vegetation and pausing there, feeling a good deal more well concealed, Einar considered his options.  With only two intruders seemingly present, he hesitated to attempt doing anything about them, lest the third—assuming these were the same whose camp he had been observing the previous night—see him act and either move in to surprise him, or leave the area with stories to tell, and return with friends.  He needed to account for that third person, and in the meantime, had to find a way out of the trap into which these intruders had boxed him, sheer cliffs on one side, they holding the high ground on the other.  Only one direction of travel remained to him, seeing as the canyon rim to the north was nearly devoid of vegetation, a limestone tundra wasteland which offered him no concealment.  His opponents—for that was how he knew he must view them—would surely know this, and might well have positioned that un accounted-for third man in the brush to the south, to intercept his flight.  Knife in hand as he crept along, Einar was ready. 

Nothing.  A very strong feeling that he was being watched, hair rising on the back of his neck, prickling, but no sound came from the brush near him, no sudden movement or unannounced blow to the base of the skull, so he kept moving, fighting down an urge to rise, run, make a break for it, knowing that would be the end of everything.  Slow movements, cautious, more than a minute passing, at times, between painstaking steps, no rustle or crunch to give away his incremental escape.  Whether because of his stealth or—though he would have entirely discounted the theory at the time—no one was really listening, Einar succeeded in extricating himself from the immediate area of his nighttime shelter, reaching at last a spot where the evergreens grew taller, canyon rim decaying in places, sheer cliffs broken by steep gullies that descended, precipitous but not entirely vertical, towards the flatness of the canyon floor far below.  It was this floor towards which Einar made, knowing he would remain somewhat trapped down between those walls, more thoroughly trapped, in some ways, than he was up there on top, but seeing little alternative.  His escape up on the surface seemed very tenuous indeed, seeing as his opponents held the high ground and he had been confined to the narrow strip of scraggly timber between the vast, open grass and snow meadows of the mesa behind him, and the sheer dropoff of the limestone cliffs. 

Down it was, then, Einar picking his way from rock to rock in the nearest gully, descent not quite as slow as had been his movements up top, but tremendously cautious, nonetheless.  Little room in his mind as he descended for thoughts other than those relevant to his immediate situation, Einar did spend a bit of time attempting to puzzle through the circumstances that had led him to this predicament, hoping thus to stumble upon some solution which might see the day ending some other way for him than dead, captured or on the run once more and closely pursued.  It was clear—unless his mind happened to be concocting an extraordinarily detailed and convincing false scenario based on a few scraps of available data, which he doubted—not only that he really had been spotted by the man that past night who had stood beside the creek scanning the canyon rim with binoculars, but that the man and at least one of his companions had spent the night climbing up out of the canyon after him.  The full meaning of this happening remained hidden to him, but it definitely did not represent the typical behavior of a group of causal hikers, hunters or fishermen enjoying a weekend in the backcountry.  He was being hunted.  Had known it the night before, known on some level that there was no other explanation for the long, lingering gaze of Binocular Man, the moment when their eyes had seemed beyond doubt to meet.  Though under other circumstances one might easily have explained away such an occurrence, Einar had known.  Had spent too many years both in the role of hunter and hunted to mistake what had happened for anything less sinister.  And had failed to act.

Well, he was acting now, and with any luck—ha!  Luck has absolutely nothing to do with it—he would live not only to remove himself from this situation, but would be able to return to Liz and Will, as well, rather than striking out on his own and effectively abandoning them in order to lead the threat in the opposite direction.  Was looking good, he thought, when he found himself after some time nearly two thirds of the way down to the canyon floor without incident and without dislodging any rocks or making any but the most insignificant of sounds in his travel. 

Gully curving some as it descended, Einar was before too much longer able to look back up at the spot where he had spent the night, stopping in a cluster of scraggly, crag-clinging limber pines to take a look.  Nothing at first, save the bare limestone and low-growing evergreen mat with which he had become so intimately acquainted in the night, but he knew not to give up so easily, letting his eyes wander slightly, vision go wide and stay that way, rim something of a blur.  There!  Movement!  He was sure of it, did not immediately attempt to better focus his eyes, knowing from long experience that this softer focus would allow him to more effectively pick up on slight movements in the distance.  Strategy succeeded.  There it was again, the quick, stealthy movements of a human who did not want to be seen, and if he was not mistaken it was coming from almost precisely the spot where he had passed the night.  Not good.  Not good at all, for these people, whoever they might be, would know by now that he had been there, that someone had, and were perhaps even then beginning to work out his trail, come for him…

Not good, but perhaps not as bad as it had initially sounded, either, for he had a tremendous head start on the, was already quite well on his way to being in the canyon, where he could make far better time than could they, as they worked their careful way down the treacherous bowling alley of that loose, rocky gully.  By the time they reached the canyon floor, he could be several miles away, up another gully and out of there, watching them in their confusion and eventually returning, if all went well, to Liz.  Maybe even before another night came around.  That sounded good.  Very good.  Now that he’d quite moving for a few minutes, he was really freezing again, feeling the absence of food, of something warm to drink…  Looking good, all of it, until, starting to move again, there came a sudden if rather subdued sound from somewhere only feet from his position.

02 November, 2014

2 November 2014

Down in the canyon, no flickering point of orange appeared with the coming of darkness to tell Einar that the three visitors had settled in for the night, no glow of a lantern or headlamp, even, to illuminate the great cloth globe of the dome tent he’d spotted through the trees.  Watching from his own nighttime refuge beneath a close cluster of stunted, wind-bent firs, Einar sat with chin on his knees and arms pressed close against his body for warmth, and wondered.  Had the trio packed up and moved on?  Did not seem likely, as the tent had still been standing when last it had been light enough for him to get a look, no one seeming in a hurry to do anything besides stand near the creek and attempt to catch fish.  Unless that had all been a cover designed to get him off his guard so they could move under cover of darkness, scale the canyon walls and assail him in his sleep…  Not looking too likely.  

He shivered, drew bent knees closer to his chest in an attempt to conserve more heat and leaned forward until his ribs dug painfully into the bones of his upper legs, and he had to back off a bit.  Half wished he’d brought something to eat.  Would have made it a bit easier to get through the night.  It was alright, though. He was used to the hunger, and the cold.  Too used to them, Liz would say, for his own good, but he knew what to do with them, and was certain to find himself glad of this, before morning made its appearance.

Though the snow was fast disappearing, winter, he soon discovered, had not entirely released its grip on the high country, and with night winds sweeping sharp and increasingly bitter down from the peaks, he knew he needed some insulation to help him make it through the night.  Had not been able to find anything dry to stuff between his shirt and jacket, when he’d searched earlier.  Everything was damp with melting snow.  Again he searched, feeling about in the darkness, dismayed to discover that his hands had gone too numb to be able to reliably differentiate between wet and dry.  Paused and attempted to warm then under his arms, against his stomach, but to little avail.  Didn’t seem to be a whole lot of warmth left in his body, and certainly none that near the surface, skin all icy as his body sought to conserve its remaining heat near the core, where it would hopefully prove enough to keep major organs functioning through the night.  Well.  No worries.  He’d use damp insulation if he had to.  Stuff would still trap some heat, be better than nothing at all, and he figured he’d better get busy with the project, too, before he really was left with nothing.  No heat to trap. 

Searching about beneath his cluster of trees and judging the resulting detritus more by the way it sounded than by feel—crunchy was good, soft and soggy less so—Einar managed to get a good bit of the stuff tucked in between his shirt and jacket, some in the legs of his pants, also, hoping by the added insulation to preserve a bit of mobility in his legs should he need to scramble up in the night and depart with little notice.  Slightly warmer for the work he rested at the end of the process, again scanning the dark, yawning void of the canyon for any sign of life or light, but again seeing nothing. 

As the dark hours progressed Einar thought he caught the occasional whiff of smoke rising from below when the wind let up and air could rise again from the canyon, but still saw no glow on either trees or rock faces, uninvited guests and their camp seemingly swallowed up by the darkness of the canyon, hidden in the void below.  Too well hidden.  He knew the effort required to conceal a camp, particularly if one is to have a fire, and these folks had clearly gone to that effort.  Not the sort of thing that would cross the minds of your average backcountry adventurer, fisherman or birdwatcher.  A concealed fire.  Something he would have done, had done, on more than one occasion, he, and the people with whom he had so long ago trained and worked… Who were these people, then, these uninvited guests?  Searchers who’d somehow got a tip about his presence in the area and had come for him?  Hadn’t fit the visual profile, for sure, but he supposed that could have been part of their cover…  If not searchers, then who?  Kilgore and company, come to seek him out?  Hoped not.  Hoped no one, including the tracker, had any idea of his present location.  Was their only hope of staying safe and undetected, really.  He wanted to get in closer, observe the camp in the night and settle the question, but knew the risk involved in his attempting to descend the canyon wall by darkness, the sort of noise he might end up making should he dislodge a rock or two on his way down.  Better to observe from above.

Rising, moving carefully there near the cliff-edge, Einar ducked out from beneath his shelter-tree and stood up straight, stretching, pounding numbed arms in an attempt to restore some circulation.  Was used to spending long hours—days, even—in a well-concealed hide watching in patient stillness prey that had more often than not been human, gathering information, waiting until the moment was right, and this situation, he told himself, ought to be no different.  But it was, largely due to the fact that Liz remained back at camp, unaware of the situation and surely wondering, by this time, where he had gone.  Very much wished he had some way to let her know, but he did not.  Further complicating the present situation was the simple reality that, unlike anytime he could remember in the past, lying on the ground for hours on end tended to bring consequences which he was increasingly doubting his ability to survive.  The cold soaked in so quickly and thoroughly, and he, having never minded its presence and normally finding it a welcome companion, even, seldom recognizing that he was in trouble until it was nearly too late.  Couldn’t be risking such things just then, with strangers nearby in the canyon and Liz not knowing where he had gone.

Finally warm enough to sit down again after a good ten minutes of pacing and swinging his arms Einar carefully approached the canyon rim instead of curling up beneath his tree, lowering himself flat on his belly at its brink and peering into the blackness below.  Still no light down there, no fire-flicker, and only the sighing wind to be heard.  Now that he’d managed to warm himself a bit, the improvised leaf-and-needle insulation seemed to be helping some, trapping the heat he’d generated and allowing him a longer period of stillness before more movement would be required.

Through the night Einar maintained this wearying routine, watching, resting, moving when he felt himself slipping too far into a hypothermic haze from which waking might be doubtful, and when at last the first paling of dawn began showing behind the straight-combed ranks of distant black spruces on the far horizon-ridge, he was ready to act on a plan whose details he’d spent the greater part of the night creating, refining, and reviewing.  No more waiting, no more days spent hoping Liz wouldn’t choose to follow him, find him; he would move in close, determine the identity of these invaders, and from there, choose his course of action.

22 October, 2014

22 October 2014

Frozen in the moment with the instinct of a wild creature long accustomed to avoiding detection, motionless beneath his mat of evergreen, Einar met the man’s eye.  No doubt about it, binoculars lingering on his shadowy shelter before moving on, but even more certain than the directional probability was an unmistakable sense of contact on Einar’s part, something passing between the two distant figures before the man went on, scanning past him along the rim.  Too casual, it was, to deliberate the unconcern with which his gaze moved on, actions further confirming to Einar that he had been seen, had been recognized, if not necessarily as himself—the man, after all, could be there for any of a dozen reasons which had nothing to do with hunting him—as an object of interest, and one which must not be made to feel suspicion, and to flee.    Einar did not flee, greatly as his instincts were urging him to do so, did not so much as move an elbow or lower his head from the position in which they had sat been when he believed he’d been spotted.  If the other man was going to adopt a casual, caution-allaying attitude, well, so could he.  Neither would acknowledge having seen, or been seen by, the other.

A good fifteen minutes later, and Einar’s ribs hurt where they dug into the rock on one side, right hip and leg numb from prolonged contact with the unyielding limestone and his shivers becoming progressively more difficult to control.  The sun was gone from his legs, dipping below the solid phalanx of black-limbed spruce on the low hill behind him, his body heat seeping away into the vast expanse of stone below, and he was growing very cold.  Still, he must not move, for the man had not yet completed his study of the canyon rim and begun tracing his way back towards the spot where Einar lay concealed.  He certainly was making a thorough job of the inspection, and once more Einar began growing heavy-eyed with waiting, only this time it was exhaustion and the cold which pushed him towards sleep, rather than the good, restful feeling that comes of having the sun on one’s back.

Well.  You didn’t go to sleep then, and you’re certainly not doing it now.  Way things feel though, you’d better think of fixing it so you can’t, just in case.  Though assailed by the brief thought that perhaps a hot drink and a good meal would be by far the best way to ward off the sort of weariness that was stalking him so closely that afternoon, he soon consigned all such considerations to the realm of the unattainable, and positioned his previously-injured leg in such a way as to render sleep, even the beyond-weary, cold-induced kind, quite an impossibility.

Wide awake once more, Einar scanned the canyon floor, quickly spotting the three intruders.  The first two remained beside the creek, for all appearances attempting to obtain fish for their supper, while the third…had changed position, and Einar could no longer find him!  Searching somewhat frantically lest the man already be partway up the canyon wall somewhere on his way to the rim, and to reaching his own position, Einar at last locate the man, who appeared to have moved only because the shadows had shifted, and sunlight was now falling on the spot from which he had previously scrutinized the rim.  Made sense.  The sun would have interfered with his search.  Speaking of which, the man’s glasses appeared to be once more trained directly upon him, Einar using every ounce of restraint available to prevent himself shimmying backwards and disappearing into the brush, out of sight.  Must not move.  Must not let the picture change, from down below.  He kept still.  Looked away.  Didn’t want to let the man know he’d been seen, though by now he must assume as much.

It seemed a long time that the stranger’s eyes were on Einar before they continued their search of the rim, far too long, and when finally the man lowered his binoculars and joined the pair at the creek, Einar let his head rest on the ground in a brief moment of relief before stiffly pulling himself backwards away from the rim, fully concealed, finally, beneath his evergreen mat.  Good to change position, to move, after so very long a time of stillness on the cold limestone, but movement did not come easily, legs cramping up and refusing, at first, to support him when he attempted to stand.  Persisting, he got himself at last to his feet, glanced over towards the rim and was glad to discover that he could not see beyond the timber. 

Now that he was entirely out of sight of the group in the canyon and well concealed, Einar was beginning to doubt the veracity of the rather firmly-held belief that he had, indeed, been spotted.  Though the man had certainly appeared to focus on him, on his precise location, he knew from long experience how difficult it could be to catch sight of on object as small and well-camouflaged as he would have presented, flattened as he had been beneath the evergreen mat and entirely in shadow.  Would have been nearly impossible, really, for the man to spot him, even had he been slowly and deliberately scanning the rim with the intention of discovering some hidden presence.  Was probably just his weary mind playing tricks on him, this notion that he had been seen.  Thus it was, afternoon shadows lengthening into evening and he finding it almost impossible to begin warming up after his time in contact with the limestone, that Einar nearly convinced himself to ignore his misgivings, turn his back on the canyon, and head for home. 

Trying too hard.  You know you’re trying too hard, here.  Something isn’t right with this whole situation.  Folks camping up here this time of year with snowmelt really under way and the ground all mucky and slushy, that real odd choice of campsites down on the boggy ground near the creek, and then this fellow with the glasses.  You know what that was, not just what you saw, but what you felt.  His eyes were on you.  He made contact.  You’d be a fool to ignore that.

Which left the question, now what?  If he left now and returned home he would have to wonder if the man had allayed his curiosity by finding a way up out of the canyon and inspecting the rim in person, perhaps discovering the spot where he had lain and from there, possibly picking up and following his trail…but should he stay and watch until the little party broke camp and move on, there was a near certainty that Liz would at some point come out looking for him, putting her, and little Will, in danger should they find their way to the steep, rocky couloir through which he had descended and possibly even getting them spotted, should they reach the rim before he could intercept them.  Einar shifted from one foot to the other, wrapped stiff arms around his middle and clamped his jaw to stop his teeth beginning to chatter.  Wished the answer might be clearer.

One thing did seem clear, which was that he must not let these intruders out of his sight, at least until they’d broken camp and begun heading—hopefully—back down the canyon, again.  Much as he might have liked to return home and tell Liz what was happening, prevent her needlessly wandering about in search of him, this seemed too great a risk.  The task would take a long time, and the probability that he would knock loose additional rocks in navigating the couloir—twice—and alerting the trio to his presence, seemed awfully high.  He would have to stay, to watch and wait, to hope that if she came, her path would cross his before she too nearly approached the rim, and danger, herself.

Evening settling in, last of the sunlight disappearing from the distant fir-tops, and a thin, sharp breeze was blowing, and he had nothing but the clothes on his back, and the few items he always carried on his belt, around his neck and in pockets.  Had better start looking for some dry leaves or evergreen needles to stuff in between layers of clothing, to provide a bit of insulation.  It was going to be a long night.