31 March, 2014

31 March 2014

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.

27 March, 2014

27 March 2014

In a low crouch some three feet from the fabric wall Einar quickly scanned the camp, seeing no one and seconds from hurrying to his feet and leaving the circle of tents when he heard the second zipper, flattening himself against the ground in what appeared to be his only hope of avoiding detection, and a rather poor one at that.  Nothing nearby under or behind which to effectively conceal himself, the entire area consisting of trampled-down  grass and little else, and Einar had the pistol in his hand, hoping there were only two, and that he could, if need be, take at least one of them by surprise. 

Footsteps.  He could hear them rustling in the grass, approaching, and then a swish of fabric as the individual entered the wall tent.  There was a quiet greeting and then conversation, but Einar did not stick around to hear its nature, bolting for the rocks as soon as he was certain he would not be seen.  Once there, out of breath and head swimming with a sudden dizziness from the exertion, he rolled into the deep shadows between two boulders, eye scanning the camp for any sign that there might be a third party present, that he might have been seen.  Nothing.  All appeared still, the muted tones of conversation still rising and falling in the wall tent, the two returnees seeming unaware that an intruder had been in their midst, unconcerned by how close they had come to a likely-deadly meeting with the same.

Success, then, escape, freedom, but Einar could hardly rejoice in it as he would have liked to do, going over in his mind the grid layout he had seen on the map, careful canvas of each and every cave and crevice in the cliffs above that lake, and he could not help but think that these bat scientists would almost inevitably stumble across the cave where he and his family had, even if only for a few days, taken refuge upon first arriving at the canyon.  Should they do this, they would hardly be able to miss the signs of recent human habitation, tracks, remains of the fire, and they, as curious people, would wonder, would want to know…

The potential implications of such a discovery were, he knew, enormous.  He must make certain no trail existed between that cave and their current shelter amongst the deadfall, several miles distant.  Must also, he was coming to realize, find a spot from which he could watch to see if they did, indeed, discover that particular cave in their searching, what their reaction seemed to be should they enter, and take action accordingly.  Of course, they might already have discovered it.  They had taken those bat samples from somewhere, after all, and if they were currently searching the caves in the cliffs near that big lake on the map, perhaps they had already finished with those near the canyon rim.  Only way to know for sure was to visit the cave, himself, and check for sign, and obvious risk lest he either meet someone there or unwittingly leave sign of his own that could be found and followed, but if he kept his distance he ought, he knew, to be able to determine whether the place had recently been visited, without leaving too much nearby sign of his own.  The intruders were, after all, biologists and not trackers.  Their focus was bats, not human fugitives or the tiny signs they might leave on the land.  Which could all change in a real hurry if these guys see something suspicious, and put in a call to one agency or another, so you’d better be awfully careful out there, Einar…

Moving, scooting backwards on his belly and leaving the rocks before the rest of the men could return and make such a move terribly risky until after dark, Einar took his leave of the camp, retreating into the timber which had sheltered his approach.  Safest, it seemed, would be to follow the canyon rim, keeping to the timber until he found a place where he could descend to the area of the cave where they had first sheltered.  Which assumed he would be able to recognize it from up here, from above.  Landmarks.  He remembered how the land opposite had looked from the cave mouth, and it was that view he knew he must seek.  That view and the strange, low tower erected by the men on the snowmobile as he and Liz had taken their leave of the place. 

Once he’d got some distance behind him and the adrenalin of his near-discovery in camp began wearing off, Einar found himself rather suddenly and without warning feeling the full effects of his past several days of travel and cold nights, stomach hurting and hollow, limbs going numb and all the strength seeming to leave him so that he was forced to take a step, take a breath, pause before repeating, sometimes standing there in a daze for a minute or two between steps before he could summon the energy and drive to start moving again.  The third time this happened, he found himself sagging for the ground, body swaying and knees giving way beneath him.  No good.  Snapped himself back upright, shifting his full weight to the injured leg by way of getting his attention and chasing away a bit of the sleepiness.  It worked.  Wake up.  Can’t be doing this.  You can sleep when you get back to Liz.  Just gonna freeze if you try to sleep here, anyway.  Even if you could do it.  If it was safe, people-wise.  Which it isn’t.  Have to get further from this camp, find a way down to where you can see that cave, look for sign, maybe keep a watch on it for a while in case they’re still headed this way.

Moving again, picking his way around the remaining banks of snow and sticking, whenever possible, to frozen ground in the shadows rather than risk leaving marks in the mud where the snow slowly turned to liquid on the sunny sides of things and seeped into the ground, Einar made progress through the trees, reaching, at last, a spot from which he almost recognized the view across the canyon, picturing how it would look had he been two hundred feet lower and relieved to see a timber-choked gully, steep, but far more passable—and concealed—than the cliff face, cutting its way down in the direction he needed to travel.  Good.  Making progress.  Keep moving.

Down the gully, terrain steeper than it had looked, but he made it, shape of the land all wrong to allow him to see the area immediately around the cave, but he was close, knew he would, with some effort, be able to get the desired perspective.  Only, the light was fading.  He pictured everyone returning to camp on the plateau above, straggling in by twos and threes as they had done the evening before, beginning to cook their supper…

Darkness.  Not good to keep moving on this steep terrain now that darkness had fallen, could end up falling, himself, or leaving sign.  Best to stop for the night, and he did.  Resting, lying down on the uphill side of a low-sweeping spruce to conserve energy, a mistake, but he let his exhaustion speak to him, talk him into it, and within seconds he was sleeping, blackness, drifting, Liz beside him and he was aware of being dreadfully cold, rolled closer to her for warmth but after a time did not seem to be warming at all, might have discounted the fact—can take an awfully long time to effect significant changes in body temperature, after all—had not a dull ache in his back gone on increasing until it practically screamed at him with every slow, dull thump of his heart.  No way to sleep under such conditions, and with a great reluctance he rolled over, doing his best not to disturb Liz…only to find that she was not there at all, the presence he had mistaken for hers belonging to a rather solid chunk of snow-encrusted, knobby-branched fallen spruce.  One of its broken branches had been digging into the ribs on his back as he lay, explaining the backache.

Good thing for the tree, he told himself, or who knows how long you might have gone on sleeping? Too long.  Anything is too long right now.  Too much going on.  You want one of those bat people following a limestone band down here, and stumbling over you in the process?  You’d make one strange-looking bat, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be interested…you might end up in a little plastic bag in that cooler just like the rest of their hapless sample animals, all labeled, dated and categorized, ready for future study.  And they wouldn’t even need to add extra ice to preserve you, because you’d likely as not already be frozen.

On his feet then, body stiff and unwilling, Einar doing his best to swing arms and stomp feet, drive away a bit of the chill of the night and warm himself, but the chill, as so many times of late, seemed almost to be coming from inside, from his bones, and the exercise only served to make him dizzy.  So he sat back down, drew his knees up inside the parka, and rested, counting stars in an attempt to stay awake and pressing an elbow into the hungry, hurting hollow of his stomach.

It was then, freezing in the night and with no prospect of ready food to sustain him over the miles which remained ahead, that Einar’s thoughts turned to the moose…

24 March, 2014

24 March 2014

No sign of any camera, or of men remaining in camp, either, but Einar was wary, moving quickly across the open space between his shelter-rock and the first tent, a good-sized wall tent which had appeared to be the center of operations and a place where everyone gathered.  Without hesitation—he who hesitates gets seen and identified—he slipped into the tent, blinking at the strange, blue-filtered light inside and hastily confirming that he was alone.  A folding table, coolers lining the walls, apparently used for gear and food storage and doubling as seats, but it was the maps spread out on the table which really caught his attention, sectionals of the area, sharp drop into the canyon clearly showing and large areas of the mesa highlighted in blue and green.  He could see the lake they must have been talking about, but the thing that really caught his eye was the band of cliffs that reared high and sheer above the far side of the water.

There, laid out in blue highlighter marker, was a tight grid which seemed to effectively confine itself to a section of rock no more than a hundred feet in height, and traversing nearly half the span of the cliffs.  Each little square had been assigned a number, and on the edge of the map these numbers were listed, each matched with a name.  The names, he presumed, of the people at the camp, and he quickly glanced down the list to see if he might recognize any of the names.  Which he did not, until nearly the bottom.  Darren.  A local man he had known in in his caving days.  That name hadn’t come to mind for several years, not since early on in the manhunt when the feds had contracted with the well-known caver to show them around the limestone bands and cliffs of the high country.  That relationship had ended badly, as Einar recalled, and he rather doubted the two parties would be working together again.   

This has almost got to involve caves though, if Darren is along. What are they doing, scouting for new caves in those cliffs  Can’t be as simple as that, not the way I heard them talking about “picking up the signal,” and things coming down from the west and such.  Got to be tracking critters, here.  Or people.  Don’t think they’re tracking us.  None of this setup makes a lot of sense if they’re up here tracking dangerous human-critters, the lack of security, nobody armed, the casual way they’re conducting it all.  Looking like some sort of wildlife operation, and I’d better be getting out of here in a pretty big hurry as soon as I can confirm that, so it doesn’t accidentally progress to something more!  Like it would if they happened to find me raiding one of their tents, and I had to take some quick evasive action…

Wanting some slightly more conclusive proof that the intruders were, indeed, simply in search of wildlife—some new species of cave-dwelling salamander, perhaps, though he had a hard time salamanders being fitted with devices which emitted a signal, and the men had spoken of picking up a signal—he carefully inspected the row of coolers that lined one wall of the tent, choosing one at random and using his sleeve to open it, wary of leaving prints.  Well.  Wrong one.  His chosen cooler proved to be two thirds full of egg cartons and packages of bacon, with ice packs beneath.  The odor of the chilled meat assailed him with an almost physical force, and he closed the lid in a hurry before the temptation could become too great.  The crew was apparently eating quite well, but that discovery—though interesting Einar more than he might have liked admitting, at the moment—did not solve the riddle of their being on the high plateau, in the first place.

The next cooler yielded no better clues, packed to the brim with what appeared to be the remainder of the crew’s food supplies, and Einar shut it with equal haste, pressing an elbow into his grumbling stomach and moving on.  The third one—some distance from the others, as he didn’t particularly want to keep finding more food—looked a good bit more promising, its contents packed in plastic and ice and not appearing in keeping with the sort of fare the camp-dwellers apparently preferred to eat.  Bats.  Dead, frozen bats, at least a dozen of them, each carefully wrapped and labeled with date and location of collection, and—still using his sleeve so as not to risk leaving prints—Einar glanced quickly at each one, purpose of the camp becoming more clear.   Tiny radio tags existed, he knew, that could be fitted on birds; there were even GPS tags smaller than a dime which had been used to track the movements of bats, in the past.  If these researchers were seeking signals while at the same time apparently giving special attention to the possibility of discovering as-yet unknown caves or limestone features, bats seemed an almost certain answer. 

Einar’s theory was confirmed when, easing the bat cooler closed and moving on—wished he might take a frozen bat or two with him for his travels, if he could not help himself to a dozen of the eggs in the first cooler, being at the moment quite hungry enough to devour it raw, wings and fur and all, but he knew he must leave things exactly as he’d found them—he discovered on a clipboard beneath a stack of maps a document entitled, Colony Interaction and its Role in the Spread of White Nose Syndrome.  Ah.  That was it, then.  His intruders appeared to be a group of scientists attempting to link the spread of the often-deadly white nose disease among bats to interaction between various colonies, which explained their need to seek out new caves in order to catalog their occupants.  Bats.  The planes had all been because of bats, and bat researchers, and barring some chance sighting that happened to strike one of them as suspicious enough to report—great billowing plumes of smoke from the area of the shelter, or some such—he figured they had little to fear from these people or their operation.  Unless they were to return and find him in their tent…

Time to leave, and he was in the process of doing it, making one final sweep of the room to insure that he had not left anything out of place, when he heard the sound.  Freezing in his tracks, hand on the pistol in his belt he listened, heard the noise again and this time recognized it as a tent zipper, not, thankfully, on the wall tent but not too far distant, either.  Someone, he realized, must have returned early. He took one final glance at the cooler full of bacon and eggs, suppressing a wild urge to grab some of its contents and stuff the down his parka before flattening himself against the ground and breathing a silent prayer of thanks that the wall tent did not have an integrated floor, which would have prevented his leaving through the side as he was about to do.  Had to do, for the tent door—closed behind him, and he was glad he’d attended to that little detail upon entering—lay on the side from which the sounds had come, and he knew he mustn’t attempt to leave that way.  Could only hope that the early arrival was alone, no one out there to see him as he left.  No speaking, so he had reason to hope, gingerly pried up the bottom of the tent wall and turned his head to the side for the best view.  Saw no one, knew he mustn’t wait lest the returning party decide to pop into the wall tent for a snack or to do some record-keeping.

Speaking of which, there was the zipper again, footsteps approaching the wall tent and without another moment’s hesitation Einar was under the wall and out, rolling quickly to the side to attain a distance from which his form would no longer cast a shadow on the fabric and again freezing, scanning the camp and seeing no one.  At first.

21 March, 2014

21 March 2014

Voices, near and clear and they were speaking English.  This stood in sharp contrast to the hushed, lilting whispers of the night, his past day’s musings on Andy and Hyon and the rest of it having brought the jungle to the fore of mind and memory, and in the night—cold and sleepless, but his weariness had served to distort things a bit more than he would have liked under the circumstances—the rocks kept taking on a strange appearance in the moonlight, bamboo over his head, pressing in around him, voices of his captors whispering between the stones and through the gustings of the wind, and he was trapped, had to fight hard to keep from clawing and shoving his way out from under there and take off running for the timber, and freedom…

Now he was awake, terror of the night fading and real danger only feet from the spot where he lay concealed.  There were three of them, near as he could tell from a hasty count of legs and feet.  From his position beneath the rock he could see no more, work boots, khaki pants and blue jeans not telling him a tremendous amount about the interlopers, but as he struggled to quiet his breathing and still the shivers that had seized him upon waking and were now doing their best to drown out all information coming in from outside, the conversation proved to be quite another matter.  Two men and a woman, from their voices, and it seemed they must be looking at a map of some sort.  Their words were at first unintelligible because of the wind, but then it calmed down and he could begin picking up snatches of conversation.

“…make another pass over to the West where we spotted…”

“Yes, we have to make sure we’ve covered all possibilities before we  move on to the area beyond the lake, because once we move all our ground resources over there it will be hard to…”

Wind picked up again then, and when it again subsided sufficiently the woman was speaking, seeming to have a slightly differing plan which involved “splitting up and leaving four or five of us here, while you move the rest of the camp up to the lake.  That way if they come down through here we won’t miss them, but the rest of you can be focusing on the lake, which we’ve all agreed is probably where we’ll end up picking up the signal.”

They moved on then, map rustling in the wind as one of the men struggled to fold it and Einar straining his ears after them, but unable to pick up any more shreds of conversation.  Find them.  That’s what he’d heard.  These people were trying to find them, thought they must be up at some lake but wanted to leave a camp there near the canyon rim, in case they came through…  All very easy for a wanted man to interpret as clearly pertaining to his immediate situation, and there were times when Einar would have done so, and acted without hesitation on the notion, but that day was fortunately not one of those times. 

Question was, who or what were they looking for.  The camp did not have the look or feel of earlier federal search efforts he had seen—and he had seen plenty.  All parties seemed too causal, camp left apparently unguarded during the day and quiet at night, giving no sense that its occupants believed themselves the potential targets of an armed and deadly fugitive, as they well might, were they seeking him.  What, then?  And what sort of danger did the operation, even if unrelated to his presence and Liz’s, pose to their remaining hidden at the new shelter?  Would these people, in seeking…whatever it was they sought on canyon rim and at a high lake, be likely to happen upon clues which told them some far more interesting and elusive quarry might be in the area?  A whiff of smoke, some sign of human passage seen from above by one of the planes…that was the way things happened.  The way they ended, and he knew he must know more about these people and their intentions, before taking his leave.  Knew how he had to do it, too.

Having observed the camp through part of a day and an entire night and seen what appeared to be its complete lack of security, Einar found himself leaning strongly towards attempting a quick and very efficient incursion into the place, just far enough and long enough to determine with some certainty the nature and intent of their mission.  It would be risky, but not, he was becoming convinced, more risky than returning home without more information. 

While he would have much preferred to do it at night, Einar was leaning towards making his raid during the daytime hours when everyone would—hopefully—be out of camp.  Should the place be protected by cameras, said devices would almost certainly have nighttime capabilities anyway, and should they be linked to any sort of device which would alert the camp’s occupants upon their being tripped, he might well be unable to make his exit in time.  Not without shooting, at least, and if anything would give away his identity and begin an intensive new search, it had to be that!  Besides which, he had eaten up almost all his food already, and without anything to help keep his temperature up as he waited under the cold rocks, he knew he would almost certainly find himself too cold and stiff by dark to be remotely quick or agile as he inspected the camp.

Better, then, to do his trespassing during the daytime, if it appeared everyone had again left the camp.  Things were looking hopeful, whole place mobilizing with daylight as breakfast was cooked on several camp stoves brought in for the purpose, Einar’s stomach cramping painfully at the smell of bacon and pancakes.   He could even smell the maple syrup, imitation, no doubt, a strange concoction of corn syrup, caramel color and synthetic maple flavor, hardly even qualifying as food, but just then he would have been more than happy to lie there under his limestone boulder and drink the entire bottle…

Eighteen, in all, were the camp occupants Einar managed to count after squirming around into a better position and slightly raising his head, none of them appearing too official, with the exception of two men who wore what appeared to be Forest Service uniforms.  He found it odd that these two men, far from directing things, appeared merely to be along for the ride.  The trio who had conversed near his hiding place first thing that morning—he recognized them by their boots and the bottom foot-and-a-half of pant leg—definitely seemed to be in charge, spreading out maps on a folding table and pointing out to all present some key landmarks which Einar greatly wished he was near enough to observe.  A brief time of preparation then, Einar learning-valuable bit of information—that one of the men who had been over near the plane and who seemed one of the three directing the day was indeed the plane’s pilot, for he returned to make a few routine checks on the craft before joining the others and departing off into the tall grass of the high meadow.

Einar was alone then, or hoped he was, not daring to move for quite some time as he lay listening and watching for any sign that someone might have been left behind.  After an hour or so—smell of breakfast fading, but Einar remaining hollow and hungry after his long, cold night—he was satisfied that so long as no one remained asleep in one of the tents, the place was indeed empty for the day.   He wanted to waste no time, aware that some part of the group might return during the day, and taking his pack along should he have to make a hasty and unplanned departure from the area, he eased out from beneath the boulder, stretching and shivering in the sun while he waited for a bit of feeling to return to numbed extremities. 

Wouldn’t do to go stumbling and staggering about as he inspected the camp, making a racket and possibly getting himself seen.  Wouldn’t do to be seen at all, he lacking any means to reasonably disguise the fact that he was a scraggly-haired, long-bearded mountain dweller who wore animal skins and ate a decent meal perhaps once every two months—though he did try his best, tucking hair up under his hat and beard into the neck of his parka and keeping his head down as he hurried towards the little knot of tents and tarps, meaning to keep any cameras whose presence he might have overlooked from getting a good image of his face.   

18 March, 2014

18 March 2014

Binoculars under a rock, himself positioned carefully back from the daylight so as to prevent any possibility of a flash or reflection from the lenses giving him away, Einar studied the camp, learning its every visible detail and waiting for the return of its occupants from whatever urgent business currently had them out in the field.  What he really wanted was to enter a tent or two and get a look at the gear these people had brought with them, thus gaining, he would imagine, some very solid idea of their intentions up on the high plateau.  Such action, however, considering the fact that he had so far gone undetected, carried with it a risk which he deemed unacceptable under the circumstances.  Suppose the activity had nothing to do with a search for him or for his family?  Well, that would certainly change, after his image was captured on some hidden, motion-activated camera the visitors might have placed near one of those tents, intended, perhaps, to capture images of wildlife or weather, but instead revealing the presence of a strange wild man who fairly closely resembled a wanted fugitive…

Einar chuckled silently to himself at the irony of such a situation, should it happen, but he knew there was nothing funny about the possibility.  Such an incident could spell the end for him, his capture or death, and terribly hard times for his family up there waiting for him in the shelter.  Staying hidden was and must remain his only course of action, at least until he was able to determine the intentions of the unwelcome campers.  Wished he could see more of their gear from his position, but as everything was under tents or tarps, he settled in to wait for the return of the people, themselves.

Waiting, and Einar’s injured leg, aggravated by the long climb, made the stillness difficult as minutes stretched into an hour and beyond, thing freezing up on him so that after a time of lying still on the chilly, damp ground he could barely move it, and he just had to hope that a need for sudden movement would not come without warning…  Rest of him seemed to be freezing up, too, not so much from stiffness as from the cold itself, great shivers racking his body after a time and leaving him unable to keep the binoculars usefully steady. 

He laid the glasses aside, shifting position in an attempt to get more of his body out of contact with the damp and partially frozen soil, but it was difficult there in the close confines of the space beneath the rocks.  The only way he could accomplish much was to press himself up into the limestone, which, besides requiring an exhausting effort and eliminating his view of the meadow, did little to mitigate the chill.  Would just have to live with it, but already he was growing sleepy, having already been nearing exhaustion after his trek through the downed timber and snow, what little energy might have remained accessible to him being rapidly consumed by his shivering.  Just one solution, really, that did not involve fire, movement or other means which were solidly out of his reach, and knowing the urgency of the situation he dug into his pack and pulled out some of the jerky Liz had sent with him, breaking off a piece and setting it to soften in his mouth. 

Only then—would-be meal not softening at all, just sitting there like a strip of aspen bark on his leathery-dry tongue—did Einar realize how far behind he must have allowed himself to get on water while traveling to this place, but when he tried to take a drink it was to discover that his water had frozen solid.  Hmm.  Must be colder than he’d realized out there, and slightly dismayed but not too concerned he rolled the water bottle beneath his body to hopefully begin thawing.  All this effort had so exhausted him that he now felt more inclined to lie down and sleep than to keep watch, and might have succumbed to the notion, had he not been so focused on his mission.

No sign yet of current human activity around the camp, and with dusk coming he wished they’d hurry and return, so he might have some time to observe before it got dark and they went to bed.  Wished…well, couldn’t remember what else he wished, tried to swallow the jerky that had been sitting in his mouth waiting to soften for far longer than such a thing should have taken, nearly choked trying to get it down.  What is this, Einar?  What on earth are you thinking?  Pulled the water bottle from the concave spot beside his hip bone where he’d put it to begin thawing, and where it had been rapidly robbing what little heat he had left circulating in his blood, staring at the ice inside. 

No sense pretending, here.  You’re gonna freeze to death in the night under this rock if you don’t find a way to get hydrated and give yourself some serious energy.   I mean, really.  Look at it.  Already too cold to feel your limbs after lying here for…what?  Maybe an hour?  And no wonder, either, with your knees and elbows being by far the widest points on your arms and legs these days and so of course nothing left to insulate all the blood running through them…they’re just acting as big long radiators, radiating all your body heat right out there into the icy air, and before long you’re not gonna have any warmth left in your core, either, and you’ll just fall asleep.  And that will be it.  How about trying to be sensible for once, and give yourself enough to eat?  Some peanut butter, or something.  Didn’t Liz send along a bunch of peanut butter?

Wasn’t easy getting to the pack where he’d stashed it behind him in the crevice under the rock, but after some cautious struggling and manipulating—couldn’t afford to scrape rock against rock, make a sound that might be heard by the men who would surely soon be returning to the camp—he managed it, found the peanut butter and lay there scooping it up on his finger, the warmth noticeably flowing through him as he ate.  Still nothing going on at camp, and resigning himself to go on waiting, Einar figured he could now afford to use a bit of body heat on thawing the ice for some water, tucked the bottle back beneath him.  What seemed like another long hour later—but could not have been, for it was not yet dark—several swallows of water had collected in the bottle, ice beginning to melt.  Einar drank them thirstily, swallowing only with difficulty until he’d got some of the water down and hoping he might, in the future, remember never to consume half a jar of peanut butter when he was so dry and far behind on water.  Not a pleasant experience!  Not that he would be particularly likely ever to encounter peanut butter again in his life in the mountains, anyway…

It was nearly full dark by the time the camp’s mystery occupants began trickling back in, headlamps blinking in the distance, and when they came it was not as a single group but in twos and threes, individuals—men, mostly, but Einar was able to make out one or two women, as well—dressed casually and for the cold, layers of down and fleece, a conspicuous absence of any sort of uniforms leading him to hope they might prove to have nothing to do with a search of any sort.  Raising his head off the ground and straining to listen Einar was able to pick up only the occasional snatch of conversation, most of it seemingly to do with weather conditions, terrain and the state of a large open field that lay somewhere a mile or two distant, and which some of them seemed to have visited that day.  What might be their interest in this spot he could not tell for sure, but wondered if they might be looking for a better landing zone, perhaps to bring something in which was not equipped with tundra tires.  Before he could glean too much information everyone retreated to their tents, cooked hasty suppers whose odors reached him and twisted his still-hungry stomach in knots, and went to bed.

Einar, shivering under the rocks as night swept down over the plateau and brought with it a wind which rustled tent flies and tarps and pried crept with icy tendrils into his meager shelter, considered retracing his steps and leaving as everyone slept.  Trouble was, he didn’t yet know enough, knew he needed to observe the morning’s activities, hopefully catch a bit more conversation and perhaps even follow one of the parties when they left the camp, before he could say for sure what the planes and their passengers intended by being in this place.  No sense leaving before he hand answered that question to his satisfaction.  Staying, then.

Growing cold again in the wind he finished the peanut butter, checked to make sure the pistol was tucked in close to his body where it would be easily accessible in the night and took one last glance out at the dimly-moonlit silhouettes of the tents before curling up in his parka and drawing limbs in as close to his torso as possible in the confined space beneath the rocks.

17 March, 2014

17 March 2014

I'm sorry, there will be no chapter tonight, but I will have one ready for tomorrow.

Thank you all for reading!

14 March, 2014

14 March 2014

Before he could go searching for the plane which he was sure must have remained somewhere in the meadow, Einar knew he must do his best to try and identify the locations of the people who must surely be associated with this large, sprawling camp.  One mystery, at least, had been solved for him, a strip of old roofing tin secured somewhat precariously to a frame of two-by-fours and old pallets providing explanation for the metallic flexing and popping sounds which had earlier caught his attention.  The entire ramshackle structure appeared from a different time to the crisp new tents and tarps which made up the remainder of the structures, some old hunting camp, perhaps, that these new people had used as the base of their operation until they could get something better set up.  But, to what purpose?  Surely not hunting, not this time of year.  The only thing that would be in season, so far as he could remember, would be big cats, and no one set up expansive camps at the edge of hundred acre meadows to go in search of mountain lions…  Terrain wasn’t right, and neither were the tactics.  Everything looked too new, too fresh-out-of-the-box, to be associated with a hunting trip.  Besides which, he saw no sign of horses.  Smelled none, either.  Something very odd about the entire setup, and he intended to discover its nature.

Squirming carefully through the heavy brush just inside the treeline, Einar worked his way around camp to the right, reaching an area where the brush was interspersed with large, lichen-spotted boulders of yellow-grey limestone, their surfaces pockmarked with myriad craters ranging from the size of tiny pinpricks all the way up to depressions in which Einar could have curled up and hidden himself for the night, had he been of a mind to do it.  Between and beneath these rocks he concealed himself as he crept along, ground muddy now beneath him, snow all but gone.  It was largely gone out in the meadow, entire swaths bare and—for he now saw the improvised landing strip—apparently solid enough in some places to support tundra tires.  Looked, from the series of muddy streaks and tracks worn into the thick grass of the meadow, that the strip had seen a fair amount of use in recent days, which would be in line with the numbers of trips they’d been seeing from the aircraft that had passed over their shelter.

A few more cautious feet, then, and he saw it, not too far from a group of jutting limestone escarpments—wings, he would have called them, sticking right out of the ground as if to announce that yes, of course, here one must land and leave one’s plane—which closely adjoined his own group of boulders.  So near that he could have crept up and touched its tail, had he wished.

Would have been a good way to begin gathering more information about the group that—somewhere out of sight—was making itself at home in this meadow far too close for comfort to his home and his family’s, element of surprise on his side, but he knew that to go out in the open was to risk possible face-to-face confrontation with whoever might be up there, and that was something he wanted to avoid for the time, if at all possible.  Such a meeting would almost surely result in someone not coming away alive, Einar, through necessity, forced to protect himself and by extension his family from discovery and the renewed search that would follow, and though reasonably confident both in his ability to come out ahead in any such conflict and to prevent the others from knowing what had become of their missing companion…he wished if at all possible to avoid such potential loss of life.

He had certainly killed before, both in the jungle and after, firearms—faces through the scope, watched for days, sometimes, until the time was right—explosives, a knife once, his own hands, that sharp sliver of bamboo that had been the only weapon available when he’d slipped out of his cage in the swamp…but it wasn’t their faces he saw when he closed his eyes, not the memory of those men that troubled his conscience.  He had, in those situations, done what he had to do to go on living, or to protect his unit, and he did not regret his actions.  The faces that plagued his dreams were, instead, those of the young man he had left behind in the adjoining bamboo cage to die a horrible and prolonged death at the hands of the enemy, his, and that of the little Montagnard girl at whose birth he had been present and who he had later been powerless to save after an NVA raid on her village.

He had tried when, returning from a patrol on which the girl’s father had somewhat reluctantly acted as local guide, they had found among the smoking ruins of his and several other huts the bodies of mother and child.  The mother was clearly gone, shot several times in the neck before the place had been torched, but that little girl…Einar shuddered, wished the images were not so very vivid before his eyes, even after all those years.  The father had come running out of the smoking remains of his hut with little Hyon, barely a year old, stiff and dreadfully disfigured in his arms, had brought her to Einar who, as semi-official medic in his very small unit, had helped out at the child’s somewhat complicated birth, had laid her across his lap and insisted that he do something.  The girl had been beyond help, Einar nearly gagging, even now in memory, at the smell of charred hair and human flesh…not the first time he’d experienced them, or the last, but it was different, somehow, in battle, the horror mitigated by action…

No breath left in the little body but the father had kept insisting and Einar did try, gentle compressions on the tiny chest even as the horribly blackened flesh came away on his hands, exposing ribs…  When it became clear that there was no hope the father had taken her and sat with her beside her mother, eyes on the ground, unwilling or unable to leave with Einar and his team when the time had come for them to go.  It was Hyon’s face, and Andy’s, that Einar saw at night when the sleepless hours grew long, theirs that appeared, at times, when he looked on those he loved, Liz, Will, especially Will, as he began approaching the age at which that little girl had been lost, those memories, he was sure, the source of the cold, sick dread he felt at times behind the smile he tried to wear when his son’s eyes met his own.  The ones he had not been able to save.

Einar shut his eyes and pressed a fist to his forehead, burying his face in the moist, half frozen leaf mold—scrub oak, and he guessed the leaves must have blown in from somewhere and become trapped under the rocks—beneath him in an attempt to close out the lingering smell of charred flesh, swallowed the nausea that threatened to well up in his throat and tried to return his attention to the present.  To the plane.  Still no activity around the aircraft, and once more he swallowed a wild urge to dash out there and take the thing, head up and find a landing spot in a meadow near the shelter and quickly transport Liz and Will far from this place before any danger could come to them…  Not the way.   Not that day.  Hidden, he possessed the advantage, and needed to keep it that way.  So instead of dashing for the plane he retreated back beneath the rocks, searching until he found a spot from which he had a commanding view of nearly the entire area around the camp, and prepared to watch, and to wait.   

11 March, 2014

11 March 2014

Moving with relative ease over the morning’s hard-frozen crust of snow and spurred on by a pressing need to generate some warmth after getting back into his icy clothing, Einar hurried down across the narrow, semi-open saddle that lay beneath his sleeping spot, breathing a sigh of relief when he could once more enter the dark timber and begin his ascent up the steep, timbered slope beyond.  Had not cared for the thought of encountering one of those planes while not under what he considered to be adequate cover, and hoped very much that as he neared his target area, the trees would continue to offer him the concealment he needed.  A period of quiet as Einar climbed, the planes, it seemed, having completed their task for a time and taking a respite, but their recent nearness and the knowledge that the last one had never made its return flight and so must remain on the ground somewhere down beyond the summit of the timbered rise kept him moving with a speed and alertness approaching what he had been able to manage in previous years.

Topping out on the rise, Einar remained frustrated in his quest for a clear view, timber and terrain conspiring to block him, but at least he was that much closer to his goal, and knew it.  Could remember enough of the surrounding territory to know that, should he keep to the high ground while heading in the direction of the canyon’s head, he would have to either reach the meadows or run into the canyon, itself, at which point his intended direction would be clear.
All good news, for it meant he could keep moving, and without movement, he could feel that he was going to be in real trouble, at least until he got those clothes dried out.  Not waiting around to find out just what form that trouble might take or how serious its nature—had a pretty good idea, from past experience—Einar took off through the timber, this time angling downwards slightly as he traveled, plotting his course in keeping with where he believed the canyon to lie.

Some time later—difficult to tell exactly how long, as high, thin clouds had swept in to conceal the sun—his movement was halted by a series of weird metallic popping sounds not at all in keeping with the type of woods through which he currently traveled, and far too near for comfort. 

Stopping, crouching behind the nearest concealment—a cluster of bare, leafless wild rose canes; better than nothing—he got his knife into his hand, kept quiet and waited to hear it again.  At first all was quiet, soft sounds of seeping meltwater in the moss and an occasional sigh of wind through the spruce tops unbroken by harsh, unnatural outbursts such as had first seized his attention, and after several minutes of stillness Einar found himself beginning to wonder if the entire thing might have been the unfortunate and all-too-realistic creation of his overly tired and still under-nourished brain, an auditory illusion of the sort that had from time to time been known to plague him in the past under such circumstances. 

He doubted it.  For one thing, he’d been eating far more regularly and a greater amount of late than he’d done in months, and ought as a result to be seeing fewer such incidents, if anything.  And, despite passing the night in fairly significant discomfort due to his damp surroundings and inadequate cover, he had actually managed a fair amount of sleep, which two facts taken together really ought to make any odd sounds he heard external in origin.  And thus a mystery which must be solved, before he continued too much further. 

No solving the mystery by remaining crouched behind his little cluster of thorn bushes, not unless the thing intended on stepping out of the timber and walking his way, waving a white flag, and seeing as this had not yet occurred—and that his injured leg was beginning to ache and cramp terribly in his current position—he carefully rose, keeping the knife at the ready, and slipped into the denser timber that stood in the direction from which the sound had seemed to emanate.

If Einar had retained any doubts as to the external origin of the strange sounds which had halted his travel, these doubts were quickly dispelled when a gust of wind, stronger than those which had come before, flattened the lithe spruce tops and brought with it an unmistakable flexing and popping which reminded Einar of a tin roof being torn apart by the wind.  Metal, for sure, and certain now that he was on the right track, Einar kept low as he moved through the trees, slipping like a shadow from boulder to boulder and pausing frequently to listen, like a deer that’s got wind of some danger but is not yet certain of its position or exact nature.  There, ahead, lay a gap in the trees, and Einar’s pace slowed even further, body dropping and his posture resembling that of an animal stalking its prey, moving in to cover the final few yards. 

No prey in sight, however, and no danger either, once he painstakingly made it to the edge of the trees and looked out across what must have been hundreds of acres of snow-splotched grassland, its flattened, muddied surface appearing in wide swaths where action of the sun and wind had only recently set the snow to melting.  Very recently, Einar could see, for still there remained the whitish spider web pattern of fungus which grew beneath the snow and never survived its passing by more than a few weeks.  The meadows, then, but in them no hint of the planes or any human activity which might hint at the purpose of the aircraft in making so many trips back and forth, but neither did he see anything which might have begun to explain the strange metallic sounds he had been hearing whenever the wind came up, so he knew further exploration was in order.

There is was again, the sound coming this time from a place far closer and just off to his left, so that Einar went to the ground again and began scrambling silently through the brush, stomach and elbow as he sought to stay low and avoid leaving marks which would give away his presence or his passing should the enemy later end up in that spot to investigate

Several dozen yards to the right and nearly half an hour later, Einar’s efforts were rewarded with the first glimpse of a sight which might begin to explain both the strange sounds of the afternoon, and the planes which had originally brought him to the area, a series of tents, tarps and even a small generator all neatly arranged neatly within a half circle of large limestone boulders in a shallow depression some hundred yards from the timber’s edge.  A natural place for a camp of its size, sheltered somewhat by its unique terrain from the winds which otherwise whipped and howled unbroken across these vast meadows of snow and grass, and Einar could not help but admire the abilities of whatever person had chosen the spot. 

No one seemed to be around, a fact which puzzled Einar as he lay studying the camp from his position just inside the timber and half beneath the rotted remains of an ancient log, and he fought off a strong and sudden urge to dash out across the open space separating him from the camp, and quickly explore the place before its absent occupants could return.  He would be doing nothing of the sort, would, he knew, now have to begin a slow and painstaking process of scouting and surveillance which he could only hope would lead to answers about the place and the sort of threat it might or might not represent to his little family some eight miles distant in their basin shelter.  Besides which, the place presented him with one immediate mystery to solve, which was the location of the last plane to have flown over, the plane that had not returned.  As yet, he had seen no sign of the aircraft.

08 March, 2014

8 March 2014

With the coming of full dark a silence settled over the ridge and the long, sweeping slopes of timber and rock below, and so complete did it seem that Einar found himself wondering after a time about the safety of having a very small fire.  The idea was dismissed almost immediately.  Too much risk should one of those planes choose to return, and he was, beside, now too close to the area where he believed them to have been landing to risk either the light of a fire or the scent of its smoke.  Could have used a fire, lower half still damp from struggling through the snow and the cold really starting to get to him now that he had stopped moving.  He’d found a decent place in which to pass the night, a sheltered little depression on the leeward side of a massive if gnarled old limber pine, its wide trunk and root system providing good protection from the winds that whispered icy and persistent up along the ridgeline and beneath its spreading boughs a fair-sized area where the snow had already melted out, leaving masses of somewhat dry needles which would serve to insulate him from the earth beneath.

None of this, however, solved the problem of his wet clothes or the way they were beginning to freeze on his body, and not wanting things to progress any further in that direction he stripped from the waist down, hanging everything in the tree for a little freeze-drying overnight and hurrying into a pair of dry socks—the only spare clothing he had brought along—before curling up inside his mostly-dry parka.  Resting, warming a bit, now that he’d got out of contact with his wet clothes, Einar was grateful that he could make himself small enough to use the parka as a sort of sleeping bag, a very useful ability under present circumstances—though at the same time he knew that he would be a good deal warmer, regardless of the situation, had he possessed a bit more natural insulation on his body, a bit more bulk. 

Though able to curl into a rather compact bundle when need be, the position made Einar’s injured leg cramp dreadfully after a time, but when he in his half-sleep sought to straighten it enough to ease the cramps, frigid night air was allowed into his little cocoon and he soon found himself wide awake and shivering uncontrollably.  Not working so well, and he shifted position slightly so that he could look out from under his parka hood and see the stars where they arced sharp, white and unblinking above the canopy of spruce boughs which were his concealment for the night.  Bright they seemed, dazzlingly bright and near, and he wondered if the starlight might allow him enough sight to begin making his way once more towards the lands above the canyon rim. 

Movement would be good, seemed, in fact, the only real option if he wanted to start getting warm again.  Which he knew he had better do.  Current situation was growing increasingly untenable as the cold crept in and finished numbing his legs, leaving the rest of his body aching and straining as it sought to maintain a useful degree of warmth.  Yet, lifting his head and taking a better look at the night landscape, Einar knew he must wait for a lessening of the darkness before he moved too far.  Any major travel undertaken now would bring with it a serious risk of ending off far off course come the morning, and having to backtrack.  He did not have time to backtrack.  And if he was waiting for daylight, might as well do it right where he was.  Tempting as movement sounded, he knew that unless he was ready to really travel, cover some distance and get his blood moving, the endeavor would only leave him colder, more worn out and still needing to find someplace to pass a few nighttime hours.  Nothing wrong with his current location.  Best stay right where he was.  Had to stop that cold air, though, and ignoring the cramps that gripped calf and upper leg he brought both knees up to his chest, rolling the backpack over the opening thus left at the bottom of his parka and sealing himself more effectively into his good dry cocoon of skins and fur.

Took Einar a long time to begin warming up, and in fact he never did really manage it, but did at least succeed in halting the rapid loss of heat which had previously been threatening his ability to hold out until the morning.  Perhaps not ideal conditions, but they would keep him alive, and that was the only thing which really counted, that night.  Drifting somewhere near sleep, Einar found himself glad that Liz was not there to disagree.  Though of course, would have been a lot warmer had she been present…

Dawn, and the first flight of the day, took him by surprise.  Rigid and unmoving as the sound droned overhead he struggled with eyelids frosted in the night by his breath, finally got them open to see just the faintest hint of daylight through the spruces, not yet bright, but it was enough.  Time to be moving, but the task was a bit easier said than done, at first.  He’d quit shivering sometime in the night, whether because the parka-cocoon had done its job reasonably well or because his body had simply run out of the limited resources necessary to keep up such intensive activity, he could not be sure, and he found the realization mildly disturbing considering the distance he had to cover that day, figured he’d better try and eat something.  Just as soon as he’d got himself untangled from the jumble of elbows and knees in which he’d spent the night, and all of which now seemed tremendously stiff and unwilling to change position.

Success after a bit of struggle, Einar pounding on numbed legs as he half crouched, half leaned against the gnarled, wind-twisted bulk of the night’s shelter-tree, working to get some blood moving.  Not much response from his body, and he knew there probably wouldn’t be until he’d given it some energy with which to work.  Fumbling with the backpack, finding food that Liz had sent with him, he ate, putting aside the thought that it was compromise, surrender, to thus give in to bodily needs and demands when he ought instead to have been using the occasion as another opportunity to exercise his resolve, increase his ability to resist…  No need for such thoughts that morning.  He had to find those planes, determine the level of threat presented his family by their continued presence in the area, and act quickly on a plan to mitigate it.  Which reminded him.  He hadn’t yet even bothered to stand up and peek around the wide, rambling base of his shelter-tree, and have a look at the view as light strengthened on the land.

If Einar had hoped to have a useful view of his future route from the ridge-crest, the coming of dawn found him sorely disappointed.  Though the ridge was high and his vantage theoretically good, any view he might have managed of the meadows above the canyon rim, or even the forest surrounding them, was entirely blocked by a rise of timbered land which lay off to the south of his present position, and whose bulk he had been unable to discern in the previous night’s darkness.  No grand vista, then, no way to visually plan his route to the last detail as he would have liked to do, and without detailed sectional maps of the area, he was left to remember, and to guess.  Guess, mostly, because he had never really got a good look at the area to which he was headed, save from the opposite wall of the canyon, and at that time, he had not been studying it with such an approach as he would now be trying in mind.

Well.  He rose, stashed in his pack the few items he had removed in preparing breakfast, and slipped into his icy pants and boots.  Better get moving, see what I can see from the top of that big timbered rise, over there.  Know I have to cross it to get where I’m headed, one way or the other.

05 March, 2014

5 March 2014

When Einar left the little basin he did not waste any time, not wanting to be too near the shelter should one of those planes make another pass.  Ahead of him, he knew, lay an arduous scramble through all the downed timber they had navigated to reach the place, no way around it so far as he had been able to determine, and he was anxious to put that terrain behind him.  Intending to summit the ridge that rose high, rocky and timbered beyond the slopes of downed trees he angled upwards as he went, quickly pushing through the more navigable sections of tiny, gnarled aspen and larger spruce and fir which lay just beyond the low basin-ridge and slowing significantly as he began hauling himself up and over one wind-felled evergreen after another. 

Slow work, frustrating as his legs fell time after time into crevices at whose existence he could only guess due to the depth of the snow and the way that, in many places, it completely concealed the existence of the logs which created the weaknesses in the snow’s surface.  Rotten snow, spring snow, and as he traveled the winds came, pushing the frigid cold of the night out ahead of them and leaving the snow soggy on its surface wherever the sun happened to hit, rotten, in places, beneath, spring snow, and spring, Einar realized, was indeed coming.

Coming, but not yet here, and before long he was soaked to the skin from the waist down with struggling through that wet snow, clothing that had worked well during the colder months failing him now that the many feet of Styrofoam-like powder over and through which he had made his way all winter were beginning to go wet and rotten around him.  Some two hours—and not even a mile in distance—from the shelter he stopped, arms crossed on the partially exposed carcass of a large fallen aspen and breath rasping in his throat as he strove to drive back the increasingly pervasive black bulk that billowed up at him from all sides, threatening to obscure his vision entirely.  He had known the journey would not be easy, remembered, in some shadowy sense, the amount of work it had required of them the first time around, but now with the changing snow conditions the task had taken on an air of near-impossibility which might ordinarily have challenged Einar in a way he both enjoyed and needed, but that day it only stood in the way of his reaching his goal.

Resting, forehead on the snowy aspen trunk and breaths beginning to return to normal, Einar counted in his mind the number of times he’d heard the planes between the shelter and that spot.  Four, it seemed.  Two by each plane.  The first time he’d dived beneath a tight-growing cluster of firs, pressing himself into the ground as the aircraft buzzed overhead and waiting for a full minute after its sound died away into the distance before rising again and continuing, repeating the action each time and praying he was as well-concealed as he believed.  The planes continued to puzzle him, their purpose remaining a mystery.  Had they been directly related to some renewed search effort, he would have expected to see helicopters by that point, which to his great relief he had not done.  Yet they certainly had some major project underway over on the canyon rim, and it was there he knew he must journey, and without further delay.  Yeah.  Get moving, you and your lazy bones.  Can rest when you get there.  Lots of chance to rest while you’re lying low and watching them, but this is really getting out of control, here.  Too many trips in and out.  Something major going on, and you need to know what it is. 

With which he did indeed begin moving once more, leg giving out with the first step, but he very soon had it back under him again and was making good progress through the tangled mess that served as barrier between himself and faster travel towards his objective.  Leg had, as Liz had noted, been bothering him some ever since the jump, and as he continued through the windfall area it ached and twisted and generally made a nuisance of itself, but he did not allow the fact to slow his progress.  Too much.  Doggone thing sure did hurt, though. 

Several hours and three additional plane-passes later—that last one had never returned, odd, not fitting with the previous pattern—Einar finally reached a place where the deadfall timber really began tapering off, movement not nearly as cumbersome and slow, and though he had by then been at it most of the day, and a long day, at that, he found himself overjoyed and not a little surprised at what he considered to be his quick progress.  He remembered slogging through that deadfall the first time, when he and Liz had just completed their arduous climb up out of the canyon, and had known he would be doing very well indeed if he managed to repeat it before darkness set in.  And here he was with at least two hours of daylight remaining!  A silent prayer—too weary for words, and besides, he seemed to have lost his voice; probably something to do with his throat being so parched—breathed from his lips at the realization, Einar going to his knees on the hard-crusted snow beneath a good-sized spruce.  The first time, he realized, that he’d let himself get off his feet since leaving the shelter.  And probably not a good way to remain for more than moments, if he meant to make good use of his remaining daylight. 

Up again, pausing only for a swallow of water from the supply he’d packed—must remember to keep adding snow to that bottle so it could melt as he walked, ensuring a continuing supply of water—Einar set his course more steeply up the slope that swept long and timber-studded to the sky above him, its crest invisible for the closeness of the trees and the nature of such terrain, but definitely there, looming above him, calling.  Meant to make that crest before dark, if he could, hoping to be able to see something of the large meadows above the canyon rim from that vantage, come morning.  Einar’s speed, as he made his way up the ridge in a series of tight little switchbacks, surprised him somewhat, weary and—though he hated admitting it—physically weak as he had been feeling, of late.  Must be all that good food Liz kept doing her best to keep him eating, he reasoned.  That, or the sheer pressing urgency of the thing that drove him on, reinforced at semi-regular intervals by the passing of the planes.  Or some combination of the two.  

Whatever the cause, he was thankful for his speed, for the somewhat unaccustomed strength that he felt in limb and lung as he climbed, and it was with a gladness approaching elation that he reached the ridge’s crest slightly ahead of full dark, knowing the place both by the abrupt ending of the steep ascent which had until then been his constant companion, and by the stars he now could see gleaming off in the distance—below his feet.  The top, for sure, and despite a wild urge to keep moving, to go until his objective was reached and some plan of action solidified in his mind, he knew wisdom dictated that he go no further that night.  Likely as not he would, without better lighting, end up dreadfully off course, finding himself upon the coming of dawn with a good deal of backtracking to do, simply to return to a spot from which he might see the land and get some idea of which direction he needed to go.

The end, then, at least for that day, and taking one backwards glance over his shoulder at the slopes below him, blackness-swallowed, indiscernable, he raised his hand in temporary farewell to Liz and Will, protect them, bring them safely though the night, and dropped down over the ridge crest to find a place where he might pass the dark hours.

02 March, 2014

2 March 2014

Six.  That was the number of plane-passes Einar counted, and that before daylight grew full in its strength.  Wasn’t all the same plane, either.  He could tell them apart by the sound of their engines, keeping tally on his fingers as he stared up at the dark ceiling, three in, three out for each plane, and something in the way they banked each time and the changing engine sounds told him they were not simply making overflights, but were landing.

The plane first had come while he was still sound asleep, having managed only in the dark hours of the early morning to slip into slumber, and in his dreams it had been not a single plane, but a  convoy of heavy transport planes, and he knew exactly where they were going, and what their cargo would be…  The thought had awakened him, left him lying there covered in sweat and ready for the action that he knew would soon and inevitably come, but so silent and unmoving that Liz had never even been aware of the situation, and it had taken him some time to realize where he really was, and the true nature of the planes. Only that did not help too much, for their real mission was still a mystery to him, some very focused and intensive thing which apparently involved repeated trips over to the big meadows on the far side of the canyon rim.  Who or what were the delivering to their chosen spot, and with what purpose in mind?  Now there was no question.  He had to know, had to make that reconnaissance trip and, if the sudden activity presented a threat, to deal with it in one way or another.  Even if that simply involved knowing which direction to move his family so they would not be in the path of whatever plans the enemy—if indeed these planes represented the enemy; they certainly represented a threat— might have in store.

Up and moving, then, Einar slipping quietly and with a speed and grace of movement possible for him those days only when inspired by the direst of circumstances, and he was out the door and into the timber before Liz became aware of his having stirred.  Snow hard-crusted in the cold, he skimmed lightly over its surface, stopping beneath a cluster of firs and stilling his breath so he might hear any plane that was then approaching.  Heard nothing, letting his breath out in a sigh of relief, tempered by the knowledge that the quiet was almost certain to be short-lived.  Wasn’t sure what he had hoped to gain by leaving the shelter.  Some better perspective, perhaps, on where the planes were going or what might be their intention.  Not finding it, but the sharp, frigid air was a relief after feeling so stifled and breathless beneath those layers of log and parachute cloth, and he stood still for a full minute, breathing, slowing his mind and trying to discern which direction he needed to go.  Not much question in his mind, really.  Not after the activity of that morning.  But he couldn’t just go.  Had to discuss it with Liz.  Which meant returning to the shelter, if only for a short time.

Liz was up when he got there, fire judiciously left cold and already a hasty breakfast prepared, broth from the night before, slightly icy but nourishing, and as Einar crouched beside the quiet firepit she draped his parka around his shoulders, offering him a bowl of the stuff.  “You’d better eat.  It’s going to be a busy day, isn’t it?”

Silence from Einar, face grim and angular in the uncertain light that crept in beneath the door.  She hadn’t even lit a candle.  Good move.  Couldn’t risk it.  “You heard them?”

“I heard four of them.  How many were there?”

“Six.  Six passes, two planes, I’m pretty sure.  Lots of return trips, and just enough time in between to land and drop something, or someone, off on the canyon rim.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“Was going to wait, but I’ve got got make a trip over there now.  We have to know whether this has anything to do with us or not, whether it presents a threat beyond having the planes fly over and maybe casually spot something we’d rather not have them see…  Got to know.”

She nodded.  “Yes.  I know we do.  Will and I would should come with you.”

“You’re safer here.”

“I could help you carry some moose, on the way back…”

“Not going after moose.  Not this time.  This is a quick trip over to the rim and along it in the trees, reconnaissance only, nothing more.  Two days, maybe three, and I’ll be back here with you and Will, running the trapline.”

“Or packing to get out of here…”

“I sure hope not, but if it has to happen, it has to happen.  Better to know that than to get caught off guard.  If the planes quit coming, maybe you could run my trapline while I’m away?  The tracks aren’t very deep with how crusty the snow has been, but they’re there.  You’ll be able to follow them.”

“Yes, of course I can do that.  Would still rather come, though.”

“It’s Will.  Quiet as he tends to be when it really matters, we can’t count on that at his age, and the last thing we need is to have some camp full of wildlife guys or Forest Service men wonder why a baby is crying in the timber…”

“We could come most of the way and then hang back if it gets to the point where we actually find them and you need to get in close for a good look.”

“It’d be better for you to just stay here, where you’ve got good solid shelter, food, everything you need.  For Will’s sake.  I’m coming back.  Not leaving you.  Just need to go check this out.”

He had been working as he spoke, slipping into parka and hat and stowing a few things in the light day pack Bud had included in the drop bag, packing very lightly, Liz noted, in every category save weapons and ammunition…  She sorter through their food supplies, added to the few items he had already packed.

“Yes, I know that will be best.  Just don’t forget to eat, ok?  Please.  Don’t let yourself get back into those habits.  You’re going to need your strength if you want to make it there and back, especially with all that downed timber you’ve got to cross.”

He smiled, gently laid a hand on her cheek, an unusual gesture for him.  “I won’t forget.  Serious business out there.  Got to be ready for it.”

“What about your leg, though?  It really hasn’t been right since the jump.  I see how you limp, still.”

“Well, guess if they end up spotting any of my tracks, it should give them an interesting puzzle, make ‘em wonder if they got the right guy.  Could be an advantage!”

“Einar!  That’s not what I meant.”

“I know it.  Leg’s fine.  Won’t slow me down hardly at all.”

She wasn’t so sure about that, but saw no purpose in belaboring the point.  “When do you plan to leave?”

“Right now.  No sense delaying it.  Think you’ll be ok here without a fire for two, three days?”

“We’ll manage just fine.  I’ve got a lot of peanut butter and jerky and other things that don’t need cooking, and we have plenty of warm clothes, and the sleeping bag.  Though I was hoping you might take it…”

Einar shook his head, briefly laid one hand on the still-sleeping Will, the other on her shoulder, and was out the door.