Hundreds of pounds of meat, all frozen, safe and preserved high in its spruce tree cache, and Einar couldn’t get at any of it. At least, not in his dreams. Daylight had now arrived, was strong by that time with a hint of sunshine behind the high, thin clouds which had delayed the coming of dawn, and squinting out into the morning Einar could see no obvious signs of recent human activity around the cave where he and his family had sheltered upon first reaching that side of the canyon, no blatant trails where the unwary or inexperienced might have wallowed through snow grown rotten with warm spring days and only superficially stable after the cold of a recently passed night, but none of this was enough to assure him that the place had not been visited. Someone else could have done it, someone with more knowledge of moving in the high country, someone who might have deliberately come in the early morning, when the snow was still crusted over and barely a mark would be left by human passage.
Not that they would have cared about leaving marks, these bat-scientists. Not that they should care, as they had no cause to fear being tracked, discovered, taken. Yet still they might have visited the cliff-side cave in the morning, as he would have done, if for no other reason than the ease with which one could travel over hard-frozen spring snow in the morning. As he ought to be doing, and pretty promptly, before the sun found its way out from behind those clouds and he found himself leaving great, wallowing trenches that would show from miles away. Best be moving, then, and get it done, but—moving stiffly if with a fair amount of speed, now that he was up and on his feet—he stopped at the edge of the evergreen cluster which had concealed him for the night, pondering, shaking his head.
What did he expect to find there at the mouth of the cave or inside, on its ageless, dusty floors? Footprints? The tracks of several strangers? Then what? What would this tell him, other than the obvious? And how would this alter his course of action? Seemed, thinking about it now by the light of day, that he would surely be taking a bigger risk by exposing himself on the open slope which lay between timber than cave than he would be doing by skipping the cave altogether, and returning home. Might well leave sign that would get the wildlife people—if they had not yet visited the place—to wondering even more than they would over any evidence he and Liz had left the first time around. And worst of all, they might use it to follow him as he made his way back home. Nothing much to be gained by such an endeavor. Nothing, certainly, that could be seen as justifying the additional risks it would bring him, and his family.
Einar swayed dizzily, caught himself against the rough-barked trunk of the nearest spruce. What, then? Give the whole thing up and make his way home by the quickest and most thoroughly concealed route he could invent? Probably wisest. He had, after all, done what he came to do, discovered the purpose and intentions of the intruders and their planes, knew now that they posed little threat—at least directly—to himself or to his family, and ought, in time, to move on and leave them at peace to live their lives on the tangled slopes of deadfall and timber several miles distant. The more he thought about it—difficult to think much at all just then, hard as he was shaking as his body sought to drive off the vice-grip chill of the night—the more it seemed that he really ought to steer clear of that cave, leave the plateau-top camp and make his way home. Difficult to change course now when he had been so intent on inspecting the cave for sign, but with a distinctly less-than-agile gait at the moment and eyes upon which he knew he could hardly rely to pick out every little detail as they could usually do, he might well leave behind more sign of his own than he would discover.
Einar turned, walked back into the timber. Home, then. Which only left the question of which was the safest and most efficient route. Could retrace his steps along the canyon rim and then up and over the series of ridges by which he had come to the place, but long practice told him that only the man who wants to get ambushed makes a habit of retracing his steps. Best and safest—and most likely to keep him out of contact with the wildlife folks—seemed to be to drop down into the canyon and more or less repeat the journey he, Liz and Will had made some days prior. A journey which could, if properly planned, take him past the moose and an opportunity both to harvest some meat to take back to the shelter for Liz, and to obtain for himself a bit of fuel, also.
Though not much caring to admit as much, Einar knew he was in pretty desperate need of some serious nutrition, all the food sent by Liz long since eaten and his body struggling mightily to find the energy to keep itself functionally warm, let alone perform the tasks he knew he would be asking of it over the coming hours and days. Moose meat seemed a pretty good solution, if he could get to it without alerting the men on the plateau, and drawing their interest. No reason, so far as he knew, for them to be down in the canyon at all. Geology was all wrong down there for caves, not limestone at all, but granite. The limestone layer, he knew from observing it from the canyon’s opposite rim, extended only two hundred feet or so below the rim itself. Still, the situation demanded caution, and it was with caution he moved as he set out, descending slowly between the trees and hoping the narrow, rocky couloir which was his current path would continue to the canyon floor and not leave him stranded amongst the cliffs hundreds of feet above his objective.