28 April, 2014

28 April 2014

Glad he had not in his half-dazed state wandered out into the more open, aspen-covered ground that lay between his current position in the heavier timber and the tower he’d almost picked as his next landmark towards which to strive, Einar forced himself to crouch, wait, consider his next move before taking another step.  The various antennae affixed to the tower remained as mysterious to him as the day he’d watched the men on snowmobiles put them up, not exactly like anything he’d seen before.  Not too surprising, he supposed, as he was inevitably several years out-of-date on all such technology and the many forms it might take.  Perhaps these were some new form of cell phone antenna, or even devices used by the bat researchers to increase their ability to track study subjects.  Or perhaps not.  Fact was, he really had no way to be certain, and without more information dared pass nowhere near the series of towers.  Was too close already.  Yet, curiosity called to him, told him thee would never be a better opportunity to assess the installations and hopefully determine something of their purpose, the level of threat they presented to should he and Liz return at some time to the canyon.

Without knowing the purpose of the towers or the abilities possessed by any sensors that might exist alongside their strange array of antennae, though, it was difficult to know how best to approach the things.  One wrong move, and he could find himself in far more trouble than he’d already got into down in the canyon.  Did not need that.  Could not afford it, especially as he was now hoping to begin working his way closer to the shelter, and his family.  Not an easy decision, yet he certainly couldn’t stay here in the timber all day, crouching on the damp ground and finding himself increasingly weighed down by his own pack, pressed into the ground.  He rose, hauling himself up with the help of two spruces and standing there for what must have been several minutes peering out at the nearest tower, debating with himself, and winning.

Ha!  Winning, is it?  How can you tell?  Surely winning would involve both remaining undetected and getting a real close look at that tower over there, settling as well as you could what it means.  Instead here you are backing down from a challenge and planning a route that will keep you as far from the thing as possible.  Doesn’t sound a whole lot like winning, to me.

Unwilling to start the debate all over again—it was a risk vs. benefit thing, and the risk of approaching the towers was too great in this case—he shook his head, started off into the black timber which stretched away from the rim, the towers, and the open area which lay between.  He would skirt around the thing, around all of them, give them a wide berth and hope to avoid detection in a place which would give his pursuers, if indeed there ended up being pursuers, a definite clue as to his chosen course after the sighting in the canyon.  Only trouble with this plan—well, aside from the fact that it added many miles to his trek and took him through an area where the snow had not begun melting out in the spring sunshine and would in places remain quite deep—was that it severed his contact with the canyon, his ability to lie periodically on its rim and check for activity down below, for any sign that things had been stirred up, additional men arrived after being contacted on the biologists’ radio, and that a search had commenced.

Well.  Couldn’t have everything.  He’d just have to make the best possible time through the timber, get past the towers and then work his way once again close to the rim where he could get a look.  Entire thing was looking pretty tenuous, anyway, the way his muscles kept betraying him and leaving him all but immobile for minutes at a time until he could somehow manage to scrape together a bit more energy, but at least this way, he would be reducing his chances of being seen.  That, he told himself, was the important thing.  The one that really counted.  Food might also count.  If he could find some.  Might give him a better chance of actually getting home again, rather than simply avoiding detection and dying out in the timber after a few days, too exhausted to raise his body from the ground for more walking and rather too far gone to know the difference.  

Yeah.  It’s come to that.  May not have a few days, even.  May be talking about hours, the way things are going.  May happen the next time you sit down.  Which would not do, and the thought of it—impediment that the possibility of such an end presented to his securing the canyon and returning to his family—angered him just enough to clear his mind some and lend a solid if surely temporary strength to his failing limbs.  Had to find food.  Shouldn’t be so difficult.  This was what he did, what he’d done for years, and the mountain always provided, one way or another.  If one was truly looking, rather than…whatever he’d been doing, for so long.

So, Einar looked.  Not much in the immediate area, no sign of recent rabbit or squirrel activity, and even had he seen such, he hardly had time to stop and do any hunting or trapping.  Which left the trees.  He had, in the past—desperate times that first winter when he’d had little else for a while—stripped spruces for the slightly sweet, minimally nourishing inner bark layer, the cambium which carried sap and which he had rendered slightly more digestible by first roasting it to crispness over a fire.  Spruce bacon, he’d jokingly called the stuff, and he was pretty sure it had helped to sustain him through those difficult times.  Not even spruce bacon, though, was looking like much of an option.  He could hardly afford leaving scars on the trees which might be seen by any potential pursuer, and a fire for roasting any bark he did manage to obtain was quite thoroughly out of the question.

Nothing, then, but now he’d made up his mind to find something to eat, Einar was not willing to accept that nothing could be found.  He looked up.  Got dizzy, lost his place and fell hard against the nearest spruce, scrabbling at its bark with his hands in an attempt to avoid going all the way down.  Failed, fell, lay on his back on the damp earth, laughing silently until the tears began rolling down his cheeks and he could hardly get his breath, for one hand was full of the wiry, light green strands of a large clump of usnea lichen.  Of  course.  He’d eaten the stuff before, had repeatedly filled his stomach with it that first winter and a few times since, and could do so again.  Probably even less digestible than the inner bark of a spruce in its un-soaked, un-cooked state, at least the pale green, hair-like lichen had the advantage of appearing in great abundance and being easily collectible, as demonstrated by his accidental gathering of the stuff.

Starting with what he already had in his hand, Einar began his dubious if filling feast, letting the lichen sit in his mouth to soften before even attempting any chewing.  Bitingly bitter and the texture of steel wool if, thankfully, at least not metallic, the stuff was not immediately satisfying, but he knew that with enough quantity of it would come at least a few carbohydrates and the energy, he could only hope, to continue his journey.  Which continuation, he knew, must start with his somehow managing to get up off his back.  No success at this simple endeavor and a good deal of frustration after several failed attempts, but finally after rolling over onto his stomach and using all his strength he succeeded, hurrying to fill his pockets with the wispy strands of usnea lichen that hung in great abundance from nearby spruce branches and trunks. 

Time to move on.  Must work his way around those towers, and if he kept working away at his new supply of food as he went, things might just work out, it seemed.  Especially if he could find some secondary source of energy to supplement the dry, bitter lichen…

25 April, 2014

25 April 2014

Dusk having fallen and a small fire well concealed inside the shelter, Liz and Will enjoyed the rabbit, Liz savoring the meat and Will having little tastes of the broth in which it had been boiled.  He was old enough, she had decided, for an introduction to such things, now that he had begun sprouting teeth.  Will could not have been more delighted—unless she’d given him the entire rabbit on which to gnaw. 

“Later, little guy.  Give it some time.  You need a few more teeth before you’re ready to tackle a whole rabbit, don’t you think?”

Will shrieked in reply, a happy sound if perhaps not one of complete agreement, turned his attention from the rabbit, which was by that time largely reduced to bones, to the fire.  Fi, fi, he repeated, watching with fascination the dancing, changing light of its flames.  The fire, Liz was not certain Einar would have approved.  The decision had not been made lightly or without some trepidation, as she knew the planes—quiet now for a day and a half—might return in the night and possibly see the heat signature, but in the end she had decided the risk worth taking.  

Not only would the fire provide them some much-appreciated relief from the cold which still held the high country fairly firmly in its grasp, it would allow her to prepare a good broth from the rabbit bones, which could be saved in a cooler part of the shelter for another day.  For Einar’s return, she hoped.  Soon.  Stretching her palms over the flames she felt a bit badly for wanting the fire’s warmth, for enjoying it, when Einar was without doubt spending another cold night under a tree somewhere.  Silly, she knew.  He would want her to enjoy the fire, if she was to have it in the first place, would want her to take full advantage of its flames for cooking, heat and any other tasks that needed doing.  Like heating water to wash Will’s diapers, and filling the second, smaller pot with snow and adding a bit of water to get it started melting, she began doing just that.  The task had been difficult at times, especially when they’d been on the move, but she’d got the routine down reasonably well and no longer found it overwhelming.  It paid to keep everything very simple in the kind of life they were living, and so long as she made sure to always have a couple diapers drying on the outside of her parka or Einar’s pack, she found that she could keep up with the job, even while traveling.  Good to know.  If she could do that, she figured she could do most anything, really.

*  *  *  *

Einar’s doubt about his ability to continue with the trek was not long-lived.  He had never sat down and refused to continue with a journey once started, and this was to be no exception, no matter the apparent weakness of limb and exhaustion of body which were stalking him, aggravating as those things might be, and much as they might push a man towards a sense of despair, even if he consciously rejected any such surrender.

Just have to deal with this stuff.  Shouldn’t come as any surprise.  It’s the natural result of…starving one’s self to the degree you’ve done.  Body has been forced to consume a lot of its skeletal muscle for energy just to stay alive, and now you don’t have a whole lot left.  You knew that, have watched it happen.  Where did you think that would lead, in the end?

This, he said silently but with great vehemence, refuting himself, is not the end.  Doesn’t get to be the end, because you’ve got a watch to keep and then when your real sure you’re not being followed, a lot of miles to cover.  Situation is what it is.  Might have hoped it would be a little better after all those meals you were having before leaving on this little adventure, but fact is they just weren’t enough to really get you headed in the right direction, and now you’ve been traveling and climbing and living out in the cold pretty much non-stop for the last…what is it?  Three days? And so here you are, and you’re just going to have to find a way to keep moving, keep going.

A rabbit would help, he figured.  If he had time to stop and try to take one.  So would a few pounds of that moose meat.  Too bad he’d been in such a hurry to leave the canyon that morning, with no time to stop at the cache site and fill his pack.  Or even hack off more of the quarter he’d had by his sleeping spot the night before.  Had barely dared return for pack and pistol with those men close on his heels as he’d thought they might be, and the moose quarter would have slowed him down and perhaps meant his capture, had he insisted on trying to pack it out.  Wished he’d at least had the foresight to carve off some of the meat and stow it in his pack before falling asleep that past evening, but seemed such tasks—let alone the planning required to carry them out—had been rather beyond him at that time.

He shivered, caught himself against a nearby aspen.  Had been about to fall.  Must not fall.  Must not stand there lost in thought any longer, either.  What he needed was movement.  Needed to take another look at the canyon floor first though, and keeping to the evergreens he approached the rim, lowered himself to a crouch which—considering the rising ground behind him—would keep his silhouette well below the skyline without his having to lie down and struggle for the next several minutes to rise again.

No movement in the canyon, nothing amiss either to the naked eye or through binoculars, and hoping he was right in taking this as a sign that he was not presently being pursued.  Seemed reasonably safe to move on, so long as he paused frequently to survey the valley and his own back trail.  Which was another matter he’d better be watching very closely.  Mustn’t leave a trail at all, with the possibility that men might, sooner or later, be looking for one.  Was doing pretty well so far, he believed, having been able to keep mostly to the resilient, needle-covered ground beneath the evergreens and leaving little mark as he passed.  Once he worked his way up higher into the still-snowy country, this task would take on additional difficulty.  Well.  One step at a time.  Was about all he could seem to manage just then, anyhow.

Stumbling.  Stopping.  Losing momentum.  What you need, he told himself, is a goal.  Landmark.  Pick one.  Now.  That scraggly, sideways-leaning spruce perched on a rocky outcropping some two hundred yards beyond his current position looked like a good landmark, so he chose it, glancing up every few steps to make sure it was still in his field of view.  Helped, having that solid object as his destination, and when he reached it, placed his hands on its rough trunk and rested for a moment, it was with a great sense of gratitude, and of hope. 

Almost dusk.  Time to stop soon, lest he risk leaving tracks and not even knowing it, traveling in the dark.   Not quite that dark yet.  Give it a few minutes.  Next landmark, then.  That tower up there, with all the antennas.  That was distinctive.  That was…  Einar started as if wakened from a dream.  That was a problem, that’s what it was!

21 April, 2014

21 April 2014

Several miles Einar had traveled in his quest to get up and out of the canyon without being detected by anyone who might have responded to the bat scientists’ radio call, and though he had as of yet seen no sign of any such presence, his caution was not diminished.  Last thing he wanted was to lead anyone back towards the shelter, and his family.  Now, flat on his belly on a slab of sun-warmed limestone he studied the canyon floor with binoculars, careful to keep the glasses well beneath the shade of an overhanging limber pine so there would be no chance of giving away his existence—let alone his position—with a flash.

 Nothing.  Nothing but the slow, meandering course of the creek as it threaded its way between clumps of still-leafless willow and red osier dogwood, blinking and flashing occasionally as it foamed over rocks and beaver-felled trees.  Quiet down there, no movement save the wind in the marsh-grasses that were already springing up green and impossibly brilliant along the watercourse, waves of white as it passed through their midst.  The sight was mesmerizing, sun warm on his back and Einar kept his watch for quite some time, muscles relaxing under the gentle and persistent ministrations of the sun and body finally warming to a degree that it no longer needed to tremble just to generate sufficient heat to keep vital systems operating.  Tired.  Didn’t let himself feel it very often, didn’t dare, but now the full force of the thing hit him and before long it was all he could do to keep the binoculars steady and prevent his head from drooping, eyes closing, sleep coming.  Like a reptile, you are.  Big goofy lizard soaking up the sun.  Quit it.  Can’t be falling asleep now. 

Rolling to his side he sat up, scooted over into the shade of the limber pine, not trusting himself to remain awake should he stay in the sun.  It was then, changing position so that he was looking down from a bit higher perspective, that the movement caught his eye. At first he thought it was simply an unusually strong gust of wind parting the shiny, light-reflecting stems of the swam grasses along the creek, but when he took a second look it was plain that the movement originated somewhat beyond both the creek and the boundary of the grass, in the scrub oak up the other side of the canyon. 

Binoculars quickly settled the matter, two human forms coming sharply into focus as they struggled up through the brush, heading for a steep rockslide that extended some hundred and fifty feet up from the canyon floor.  He could not tell at first whether these were the two who had surprised him upon waking, could not, he was somewhat alarmed to discover, call up in his mind the exact detail of the clothing worn by those two, but several minutes’ observation and a better look at their packs and gear confirmed their identities.  Good news, he could only surmise, that there did not appear to be additional people in the canyon.  The pair had perhaps decided it was too difficult to climb out of the canyon on the side they’d been trying, and were returning to camp to go about it another day, or another way, or both. 

Seemed then that he might be safe to begin the long walk which would take him up along the entire length of the rim and back to the shelter, and his family.  Einar, weary, aching and by then having been without food for rather longer than he could really afford under present circumstances, would have liked to take the situation at face value and start walking, but he knew better, considering what was at stake.  Really ought to devote two or three days to keeping watch on his back trail and on the situation back at the rim-camp, make sure no helicopters were brought in, no search dogs in the canyon, and only after that time decide he was safe to head home without worrying about pursuers on his trail.  Fact remained that he had been seen, and even if the scientists had not realized just who they’d stumbled across in the canyon that morning—must not have, or the choppers would already be swarming the place—someone else might realize later, when they told the story back in camp.

Which, if you think about it, is a real strong argument for getting out of here without further delay, getting out while you still can.  Be way too easy to get boxed in here in this sort of terrain, especially if they somehow run you back down into the canyon.  Could be the end of you, and even if you know you’d put up a good fight, make a good end and don’t mind the idea too much…well, Liz and that little boy are kinda counting on you to come back.  That’s how you left things with them.  That you’d come back.  In the interest of making it back, you’d better be moving pretty quickly here, taking reasonable precautions about your backtrail but not waiting around for a search to start.

Uninterested in spending any more time arguing with himself, Einar retreated from his limestone ledge, and started out.  Knew he’d have to be careful traversing the rim on that side, both because of the camp full of people on the opposite rim who might spot him if he didn’t keep himself well back from the horizon, and the as-yet unidentified towers with their mysterious antennae that he and Liz had seen spring up during their first visit to the canyon.  Would have to work his way between the rim and the area potentially covered by the towers, careful not to pass too close to either danger.

Much of the rest of the day was taken up with travel, Einar not moving with tremendous speed due to the necessity of caution, but making good progress nonetheless, so that by the time the sun began dipping towards the horizon, he was no more than a mile from being parallel to the biologists’ camp.  Here beneath a cluster of limber pines he sat down for his first real rest since being startled awake that morning and ending up momentarily immobile in the presence of his potential enemies.  A shudder at the memory, knuckles pressed to his temple as if to push back the persistent headache which remained as souvenir of the unpleasant incident as he slid the pack from his back and took a seat, back to one of the trees.  Quiet.  Everything quiet around him as he rested, and his thoughts turned to Liz, and to Will, a weary smile creeping over his face.  Would be seeing them soon.  If all went well.

Must have been the miles covered that day.  Or the time spent lying under the rocks as he observed the camp two days prior, or on the limestone ledge that morning.  Couldn’t know for sure but Einar did know that his legs just weren’t working properly when he got up to move on from his rest spot, to cover another mile or two before dark.  Had for the past hour or so been resorting to physically lifting his legs up and over logs and other obstacles with his arms at times, an exhausting routine whose necessity he had tried at first to avoid by simply applying more focus to the act of walking, had hoped that, and the rest, would be enough to set him straight.  It had not worked, muscles simply refusing to respond in the way he would have expected and he falling more than once when his upper body ended up traveling forward more quickly than his legs could manage to keep up with.  Frustrating, especially when his arms, too, began wearing out, shaking uncontrollably from the effort of lifting his legs time after time.  Not working.  Not the way a person was intended to move, and though he kept telling himself the trouble had to be almost entirely in his head, laziness of some form, failure to apply himself and surely something he could overcome with enough effort, his efforts seemed to be producing no appreciable results.

Needed water.  Had forgotten about water since the events of that morning, and perhaps this could explain in large measure his current difficulty.  No water up there on the rim, not that he had yet discovered, but there was snow, and choosing a clean-looking bank in the partial shadow of a stark-branched aspen grove he lowered himself to his belly on the ground before it, pressing cupped palms into the soft, mossy soil and waiting for them to fill with melt-water.  Did not take long, and the stuff tasted good, so good that he repeated the process several times, pausing between just to breathe and to rest his forehead against the good cool, damp ground.  Smelled of life, that ground did, awakening life as things thawed and seeped and the soil came alive with shoots and plants and growing things, and he grinned at the thought of it, took another long drink and got up.

Tried to get up.  Leg muscles apparently weren’t the only ones not wanting to cooperate, and it took him several minutes and a bit of quick strategizing before he was able to get his legs under him, and rise.  Well.  Simple solution to that one.  He simply wouldn’t do any more lying down.  Mustn’t do any more, and though he did his best to put the thought aside as he started off along the rim once more, he really didn’t know if he had it in him to make that return trip, now.

17 April, 2014

17 April 2014

Watching the sun rise that morning, brush the distant timber and work its way down towards the shelter, Liz knew spring had arrived.  Out checking the trapline with Will on her back, she walked easily on top of the hard-crusted snowbanks that lingered several feet deep in the shaded areas beneath the spruces, but elsewhere, in the more open areas, the rot and ruin were apparent, snowpack slowly sinking into the soil.  That morning, for the first time since the cold had settled in so many months ago, the breeze that breathed up out of the canyon felt almost warm, carrying with it new and delightful smells of exposed soil and awakening plants.  Will, too, noticed the change, winter child scenting spring for the first time, and Liz could feel him squirming on her back, craning his neck to better catch the breeze.

“What do you think about that, little guy?  New stuff to explore out there?  Things are starting to change, for sure.  Won’t be too long now before you’re crawling on the grass and helping me dig spring beauty roots, will it?”

Will answered with a delighted squeal as he pushed with his toes and tried mightily to launch himself right out of Liz’s hood, not discouraged by his lack of immediate success, continuing to try.  “Hold on there, for a minute.  I know you want to get out and move, but you’re just not big enough yet to keep up with me on the trapline. You’ll have to keep growing for a year or two, first.  Just be patient, let me finish this loop and then we’ll go back home where you can scurry around the shelter and use up some of that energy you’ve got so much of this morning!”

Nothing in the first five snares Liz checked, no sign of animal activity near them at all, save a few rabbit droppings in the brush, but at the sixth snare, her persistence was rewarded by a large rabbit that had tripped one of Einar’s spring triggers.  The creature’s fur was not quite as nice as those she’d been used to seeing all winter—another sign that spring was near—but it appeared to have been eating well, and would provide them a good meal.

“Too bad your daddy’s not here to share it with us, though,” she lamented to Will.  “I’ll make a nice stew and there really would be plenty for all of us, especially since you’re not eating it directly yet.  You’re well on your way to that though, aren’t you?  With your three teeth, and more soon to show up.  Yep, getting big.  You’ll be helping us set snares and prepare furs, before long now.”

Will responded with more gurgling and giggling as he tried once again to launch himself from Liz’s hood and go explore for himself the wide, fascinating world beyond.  Soon.  Soon enough, and then he’d doubtlessly be wandering like his father, with his father, she could only hope, if the man would only return from his latest adventure in one piece, and stay that way for a while.  The lack of information bothered her, the waiting and the not knowing.  At least there had not been further air activity.  Had he been found and…she could hardly bring herself to say it.  Captured.  Had he been captured, well, she could only assume they would have brought in a helicopter to take him out of there, and no helicopter had appeared, so she could hope he was safe.  From the people on the rim, at least.  The way things looked to her, they were hardly the greatest threat to his safe return.

Einar had always been patient man, when patience was required.  Had no problem spending the better part of three days immobile in a little dugout beneath a slab of granite or under a grass hummock waiting for the enemy to come into position, for the time to be right, but he was beginning to grow dreadfully short with those two bat scientists and their maps. Seemingly not content with their first look they’d got the things out again after a long, drawn-out pause for a snack and some coffee, which was prepared over a camp stove and with no particular haste, and now crouched there together not fifteen yards from him with maps spread out in a large rock slab, pointing, gesturing and apparently planning the activities of the coming day.  

Einar hunched his shoulders against a stiff breeze that seemed to be following the creek—smelled of spring, he could not help but notice, of green, growing things, even if it didn’t feel very spring-like—clamped his jaw hard to prevent the intruders overhearing the rattling of his teeth, and waited.  Might have chanced a careful exit from the area, had he not been so stiff and clumsy already from sitting immobile in the cold.  As it was, he could not risk such a move.  Would probably stumble over something and give himself away.  Well.  No problem with waiting, so long as the men would remain alone, and were not waiting for reinforcements from the rim.  At least they did not seem preoccupied with the strange, wild-looking man they had surprised from his sleep.  Weren’t even talking about him, though the older of the pair did pull his eyes away from the map to take the occasional wary glance at the surrounding woods from time to time, as if half sensing that he was being watched.  Einar looked away, not wanting to strengthen that notion to the point that the man would get nervous and come looking for him. 

Wind was gusting so hard now that he could no longer make out many of the words exchanged by the men, but it appeared they were still talking about bats, and about their need to get up on the opposite wall and inspect the small caves whose entrances showed plainly there, difficult to reach from either direction.  In which case you really ought to get moving, hadn’t you?  Never going to find any bats just camping out here along the creek all day.  Almost as if having heard him—Einar crouched a bit lower, half expecting them to start looking his way—the men began folding and stowing maps, put the stove away and set out on a winding course that took them through the willows and towards the far canyon wall.  Heading up, it appeared, to seek some of the caves near that rim.  Good news for Einar, a possible reprieve, though he did not yet entirely trust it.  Could still be men coming from the camp.  And the departure of the scientists—though he did not at all get this sense—might be a ruse designed to lure him out of hiding so he could be taken.  Must not move immediately, and he did not, waiting motionless while the crunching, swishing footsteps of the scientists grew more distant and the sun crept further down into the canyon.  Still not reaching him.  Still awfully cold.

Fifteen minutes later Einar had assured himself that no one was coming, that the biologists were, indeed, headed up the opposite wall—he could get the occasional glimpse of them fighting their way up through the oak brush towards a steep couloir, if he looked closely—and he could move on.  Travel was slow, cautious, Einar warming slowly as he went, and it was with great relief that he met the sun when finally it peeked up over the rim and flooded into the cold, black recesses of the canyon.  He wanted to stop, revel in its brilliance and warmth, but did not.  Must make better time, leave behind anyone who might be searching for him and find a place where he could safely begin the return journey to Liz.

An hour later, he had made significant progress, and had as of yet seen no sign of pursuit.  Down there the ground was warmer, more exposed, snow remaining only in icy, compacted banks and here and there on a shady slope, and as Einar walked, the smells of sun-warmed soil rose to meet him, combining deliciously with the impossibly sweet odor of cottonwood buds about to open and reveal the season’s new leaves.  Spotting a small branch that had been blown down in the wind Einar stooped and picked it up, pressing one of the buds between his fingers and smearing the sticky orange resin that oozed from between its layers and beaded in amber-colored droplets on the outside.  Balm of Gilead, a powerful antiseptic and healer which he had used so long ago to save several of his frostbitten toes, and had found immeasurably helpful a number of times since.  He wanted to stop and collect as many of the buds as he could find, carry then back to Liz, but the pauses seemed an unwise use of time, under present circumstances.  He settled for stripping the small branch of its bounty and stashing the buds in a pocket of his pack.  Better than nothing.

Further downstream, moving with even more caution and keeping well inside the dense brush as he neared the canyon mouth, Einar came to a tiny meadow where the recently-receded snow had left in its wake a brilliant carpet of green, dotted here and there with the brilliant and delicate yellow of blooming avalanche lilies.  Listening, neither seeing nor sensing danger, he dropped to his belly in the brush at the edge of the clearing and lying there ate the vibrant new grass like a winter-hungry rabbit or deer desperate for a taste of fresh greens, and no less grateful for them than one of these creatures would have been, grinning, wishing to jump up and do a delighted dance around the perimeter of the meadow, but restraining himself.  Had to keep concealed, and had more distance to cover, too, before he could find the roundabout path that would eventually take him back to his family without risking their discovery. 

Better be moving on, then.   Had to get back to Liz, tell her that he had found spring, and that it was coming.

13 April, 2014

13 April 2014

Quiet in the canyon as Einar picked his way down through the willows, knife in hand and the walls soaring above him, seeming to hem him, making him feel trapped.  Might well be trapped, if he didn’t work this just right.  Might regardless, should reinforcements be on the way after whoever those men had contacted by radio.  He must act quickly if he was to retrieve any portion of his gear ahead of those additional men.  Wished his head was feeling a bit clearer, less bogged down in the remains of whatever unpleasantness had grabbed him upon waking, and his apparent inability to do make it so angered him some.  The anger helped, brought a sharpening of senses and a quickening of his step, and he took full advantage of the moment, knowing it might not last. 

Low through the willows and up into the timber near the place where he’d slept, no sign of the men but he knew they had to be out there, perhaps lying in ambush at some natural chokepoint in the canyon or—which seemed more likely, given their actions in first encountering him—continuing with the work that had originally brought them to the canyon floor, and not giving him too much mind.  He could hope for this, but must take nothing for granted, especially after he’d seen them make radio contact.  Well.  At least there were no helicopters.  Yet.

Right group of trees, plain to see now in the full daylight, and Einar slowed his pace, expecting the ambush but not seeing an obvious spot from which the men would be likely to make their move.  He had chosen his sleeping spot well.  If only he’d been awake when trouble had come.  Before it had come.  No one home, area clear, best as he could determine, and there was his pack exactly as he’d left it, moose haunch even appearing undisturbed save for his hacking and shaving of meat the previous evening, and when he probed carefully with a foot there was the pistol as well, hidden in the spruce needles beside his bed.  A quick inspection told him they had never discovered it.  A relief, and he took his leave of the place, slipping in to the timber and heading down the canyon.   

After several minutes of careful travel he stopped, puzzled at his lack of contact with the two men and not entirely trusting the situation.  Seemed he should have run across them by then, or they across him, and the fact that neither of these had to his knowledge happened left him suspicious, expecting an ambush.  Perhaps they had been following him the entire time.

He stopped, crouching low behind a knot of wild rosebushes, and waited.  Feet hurt.  He wondered why, realizing only when he inspected his boots that they were soaked through with water from his escape that morning, when he’d run through the swampy willows.  Boots were mostly frozen, and he knew if not for their good felt linings, his feet surely wouldn’t have been far behind.  Might not be, anyhow, the way things were going.  He needed to move, generate some speed to warm himself, but that was not an option just then.  Had to find his pursuers, if indeed the men were pursuing, figure out their strategy and counter it.  Not long to wait, on the first count.  Heard them before they became visible, feet crunching through a remaining bank of snow seemingly without the slightest heed of the racket they were making, unaware, too, of the armed man watching them from behind the brambles.  Their actions did not make a lot of sense to Einar.  Just walking casually down along the creek—meant he’d unknowingly passed them in his own flight, which he found immensely unsettling—and stopping out in a little clearing not twenty yards from his own position.

Entirely oblivious to their precarious situation the two men carried on an animated conversation in the clearing, one pointing and gesturing at the canyon wall where it rose orange and vertical above the nearer phalanxes of yellow-green hued spring willows and the dark timber just above them.  Apparently unsatisfied with verbal descriptions the man’s companion pulled out a map and spread it on the driest portion of a nearby granite boulder.  

The men were near enough for Einar to pick up snatches of conversation, something about the limestone layer which extended some two hundred feet down from the canyon rim before giving way to granite, and how they needed to get up to there to explore a particularly interesting-looking cave entrance that had been spotted from up at the camp.  Einar, struggling to catch all the details as the wind picked up, wondered if this cave might have been the one in which he and Liz had briefly taken refuge upon first dropping down into the canyon, driven by that storm and needing a wind-free place to pass the night.  There had, as he remembered, been a fair amount of bat sign in the place, and this might have been observed from the other side.

The wind really came up then, snatching away the scientists’ words and nearly taking their map, too, before they got it folded away, Einar able to make out no more of the conversation.  Neither could he very well leave, sparse timber not providing enough concealment should he leave the cover of the brambles, so he waited, crouching, huddling against gusts which seemed to tear straight down the canyon, funneled and intensified by its high, sheer walls.

Sun was up on the far canyon rim.  Hours before it would reach the floor.  Einar shivered, shifted his weight to allow the blood to return to his left foot and wished the men would move on, so he could do the same.  Couldn’t feel the toes anymore.  Wished he had something to eat.  That would have helped.  But he had nothing.  Chewed experimentally at the shriveled remains of last year’s rose hip on one of the bushes behind which he had concealed himself. Had to stop with one, because the thing was so dry that it threatened to set him to coughing, which would have been a real problem, close as those men remained.  Picked a handful and stashed them in his pocket for later. 

Needed to move, and not just because he was freezing.  Barely noticed that anymore, to tell the truth.  Which he knew was not good, but it was the truth.  Needed to move because every minute he spent pinned down there was more time for the enemy, or the rest of the bat biologists, or whoever on earth they had contacted with that radio, to make their way down into the canyon and cut him off from escape.  He couldn’t go up.  Couldn’t risk leaving a trail that would ultimately lead them closer to Liz, couldn’t climb the walls where he was because they were far too exposed, no good chutes full of timber and tumbled rock to conceal his exit.  Best plan appeared to involve getting out ahead of these men, below them, and making for the lower reaches of the canyon.  From there he could hope to find a route up and out which would offer more cover, hide out near the rim for a couple of days to make sure he hadn’t been followed, and carefully work his way back home.  If only the men would move.

12 April, 2014

12 April 2014

Sorry folks, no chapter tonight.

Busy times.

Hope to have one for tomorrow.

Thanks for reading!

09 April, 2014

9 April 2014

Einar kept waking in the night, cold and with such an intense feeling of hunger that he wanted to gnaw on the moose quarter, scrape off bits of frozen meat with his teeth, and he probably would have done it, had he been able to rouse himself thoroughly enough to find the thing…  At other times, half aware as he drew knees in closer to chest in an attempt to conserve warmth and did his best to ignore a series of vicious leg cramps that seemed determined to wrench him out of sleep every time he started drifting off, Einar knew he had messed up in choosing a spot to spend the night.  He had not taken himself far enough from the canyon floor or into dense enough timber to be certain he was off the beaten path, both of humans who might be passing through and the hungry scavengers which would inevitably be attracted by the smell of the moose quarter he had failed to adequately secure before settling in for the night.  Ought to get up and do something about it, tried a time or two, but something was wrong with his balance, darkened woods whirling crazily around him and the moose quarter beyond his ability to locate, let alone secure high in a tree.  Not a good situation, and not really what he had expected, after feasting on moose.  Not the result he had hoped to see.  Well.  Not much to do about it just then, and as for the discomfort, he always had been rather good at ignoring such things, pushing them aside and going on.  Better do that now.  Perhaps things would be better in the morning.

Daylight, Einar waking from an hour’s cold sleep, and he tried to get up but something was wrong, couldn’t seem to move his legs.  Finally succeeded after much effort, but the world seemed to have become a very strange place overnight, drifting and distorting around him as he rose, stood, and then it bucked up and hit him in the side of the head, left him lying all stiff-legged and open-mouthed on the pine needles, fully aware of his surroundings but seemingly unable to interact with them in any way.  Which turned out to be a very bad thing indeed, for what had begun upon waking as a vague sense of dread—he’d dismissed it at first as being associated with his sudden and rather unfortunate inability to move his body; big mistake—now materialized as the rapidly approaching sound of human footsteps, boots crunching through the remaining snow and frozen vegetation, breaking sticks as they made directly for his position, speaking quietly.

Certain that he had been seen Einar tried to get up, tried to reach for the pistol, which lay no more than a foot from where he had fallen, lightly concealed beneath a layer of pine needles and when that failed tried to go for his knife, but nothing happened.  Body just wouldn’t respond.  The men had clearly seen him by that time, approaching with a casual air and a lack of caution which told Einar, even in his rather desperate state, that they couldn’t possibly be part of any organized search.  One of them knelt beside him and pulled a radio from his vest pocket, spoke into it, the second setting aside a device Einar recognized as the sort of antenna and receiver people used to pick up pings from wildlife radio collars.

“Good thing we came along when we did.  Looks like this fella’s not too far from freezing to death, doesn’t it?”

“Don’t know.  Something’s not right with him, for sure.  Hey man, can you hear me?  You know where you are?  What’s your name?  Hey!  Can you say something?  Let us know you’re ok?

Einar just stared, body still gripped in the throes of the episode that had started all the trouble, and though he desperately wanted to make a move, change the course events while this was still possible, he seemed frozen in place.  The men did not appear to find his lack of response too reassuring, crouching on either side of him, poking, prodding, speaking, attempting to get some sort of  answer from him, taking his pulse and rifling through his pack as if in search of something.  Not good. 

The worst of the episode had passed then and Einar found himself regaining some control over his movements but his head seemed dreadfully heavy, confused, waves of nausea coming over him so that after a time he turned to the side, lost the meat that he’d so eagerly consumed the evening before.  In the aftermath of this, feeling confused and dreadfully cold, he once again struggled to rise, and probably would have made it had not one of the men been physically holding him down, speaking quietly and trying to talk him into keeping still, resting.  All Einar heard were the questions.  Do you know where you are?  What is your name?  Questions, the man growing more insistent until he was barking them in his heavily accented, sing-song voice, interrogating, demanding answers.

It was then that Einar fought, limbs lent a berserk strength by the situation, threw off his would-be rescuers and made a dash for it, legs weak and wobbly and head still thick with confusion but long habit and more than a hint of the horror that tended to come over him at the thought that he might be captured combining to lend to his limbs a speed which soon left the men behind, Einar tearing up along the creek, through the swamp, through the jungle, running for his life…

Panting and trembling, mouth so dry that he could barely get it open again when he shut it for a moment, he stopped inside a tight little cluster of serviceberry shrubs and willow, crouching up to his ankles in partially frozen water as he grabbed up a handful of crusty ice and stuffed it into his mouth, struggling to get some portion down.  Confused.  Tried to slow down, make himself think, make some sense of it.  Had been slipping there for a minute, slipping into the jungle, but here the smell of the willows was sharp and sweet and strong, and he knew where he was.  In  the canyon still, and the men who had found him were…he struggled to remember their apparel, the equipment they’d been carrying…they were probably bat scientists who had descended into the canyon searching for bats they had previously tagged, and they’d happened across him when he was having…one of those episodes he’d been having from time to time some months ago, before going down to Bud and Susan’s, and had probably just been trying to help when they’d held him down and questioned him. 

Right.  Help.  He shuddered, rubbed his arms where they’d been holding him.  Had they recognized him?  And what had they said to the people on the other end of the radio?  Had they even reached anyone?  He couldn’t piece it together in his mind.  Details just weren’t there, weren’t cooperating.  For a moment he held his breath, tried to quiet the painfully irregular bounding and stuttering of his heart, and listen.  Nothing.  At least they weren’t close.  He might have some time.  Had little else, everything but his knife and the other things which had been secured to his person for the night left behind under the camp-tree, lost, including the moose quarter, the entire moose, for now he could not go back to that place…  Must go somewhere, and quickly.  Couldn’t lead them to Liz, must not do that, and he changed course, turning away from the head of the canyon, and freedom, and heading down. 

Thinking of those two men he wanted to go hunting, would have done it, done what was necessary to protect Liz and Will and his own life, had he not realized the likely futility of such a move.  They’d already contacted someone on that radio, doubtless told them about him and while he could take on two men or even a party that might make its way down from the canyon rim to assist them, he had no intention of sticking around to fight the entire strength of whatever agency would be brought in to investigate the unexplained disappearance of the two men who had discovered him.  Which rendered an immediate hunting expedition futile, or even worse, considering the possibility that he had not been recognized, that if he could avoid further contact, the entire incident might end right there, his presence dismissed as that of some eccentric wanderer who need not be further troubled.  Maybe.  But only if he could accomplish a few things, first.

Needed to get the pistol, his pack, and if the men were indeed bat biologists and not federal agents chances seemed fair that they would have left these things, might never have discovered the pistol at all, and he might well be able to retrieve them if he went back. Might walk right into a trap, too, if they had waited for him there rather than following, but realizing the sort of information the enemy—the real enemy, the one with access to a lab and samples of his DNA— would be able to glean from that pack should it fall into their hands, the decision was quickly settled.

06 April, 2014

6 April 2014

The main problem, as Einar saw it, with approaching the moose that evening was the rapid descent of darkness. Sure, it would provide him some cover should anyone be watching by conventional means and not with infrared...but it would also prevent his thoroughly examining the area for the signs which might warn him of recent human presence. He might end up walking right into a trap, falling asleep with a belly full of moose and waking up in federal custody. Not a difficult decision for Einar, usually, given the odds. The need to remain undetected and therefore free far outweighed nearly every other consideration which might have been a factor in such a decision, but in this case he could tell that he would be in some serious trouble should he attempt to pass the night without first finding himself a bit of fuel.

Lying down to sleep in his current state--wet with melted snow and rather beyond exhausted--was out of the question, and while a solution would usually have been found in traveling all night and thus keeping himself warm through exercise, this was less than practical under present circumstances, largely because of his need to tread carefully and watch for signs of recent human presence as he traveled up the canyon. Besides which--would have been loath to admit the fact, but knew it, nonetheless--he very likely lacked the energy to keep himself moving through the night, even should he decide to try. Already he could feel himself slowing down, beginning to stumble more frequently, misjudge his steps, and though he might have liked to attribute this entirely to the cold-induced numbness in his leg, he knew better, knew there would be no real improvement until he secured himself some energy.

So. Moose. And he'd better hurry, too, if he wanted any chance of getting there ahead of full dark so he could have a look around.

The place of the moose Einar remembered well, the two tall, snaggle-topped dead spruces which he had set in his mind as landmarks, and now, moving carefully but with the speed required by the situation through the timber at the base of the cliffs, he searched for them. Light failing and a damp cold descending on the canyon Einar restrained himself with some difficulty when at last he spotted the landmark-trees, some part of him wishing very strongly to rush ahead and lower a moose quarter so his feasting would be delayed no longer than necessary. Restrain himself he did, though, caution taking over and his approach slowing to a wary stalk as he closed the last two hundred yards. Too dim to get a really good look at the ground or the surrounding terrain—should have been enough to stop him, right there, to turn him around—Einar not liking the fact, knowing how easy it would be for him to overlook a hidden camera or sensor even in full daylight. But, with his decision made and with no solid reason to suspect the place had been discovered, he at last gave up his watching, and made for the two dead trees.

Scalp tingling as if anticipating the sniper’s bullet that seemed fairly likely to come when he stepped out into the relatively open area before the trees which concealed the moose, Einar moved quickly, keeping himself low to the ground and thinking all the time that if anyone was watching, they were sure to be suspicious now if they had not been before, the way he was acting… Reached the place, crouching in the deeper shadows beneath the cache-tree, taking a moment to listen and hearing nothing, Einar rose, head briefly swimming with vertigo as his heart struggled to catch up after the rapid sprint of movement.

All appeared—best as he could see in the uncertain light—to be as he and Liz had left it at the moose cache, meat hanging in its tree apparently undisturbed and the only tracks showing in the spring-rotted snow those of a coyote and his mate--creatures had circled and circled the tree, rearing up against its trunk and even lunging as if attempting to begin a climb--and several weasel-family creatures, these last difficult to definitively identify because of the melting that had occurred since their imprinting. Looked as though nothing, either animal or human, had managed to get at the meat, and Einar was somewhat reassured of this supposition when he found the knots holding the moose-cords to be exactly as he had tied them. No certainty in that. If they’d been here, they would of course have tied the knots back exactly as they’d found them, or the trap would never work. Don’t underestimate them. Underestimate your enemy, and you’re done for.

Hands shook as he stood over the lowered moose quarter, all the old fears of poisoned food and traps baited with his own supplies returning so that he could barely bring himself to touch the stuff, but he gritted his teeth and did it anyway, acting hurriedly before the pressing notions of danger and doom could really begin to take hold. Must do it, he told himself. Took the risk of coming here and now you must do it, give yourself the energy to make it through the night, make it back home and hopefully to carry a lot of this stuff with you, too...if it turns out to be safe. Only one way to find out, and crouching like a wary animal beside the frozen moose quarter, prepared to eat.

When finally Einar did eat, the meal hardly resembled feasting, frozen slivers of moose haunch carved off with his knife and swallowed whole to leave him shivering at their icy chill in his stomach, but he was grateful for the food, immensely, unspeakably grateful, a noticeable surge of energy going through his body as it began digesting the stuff, and he had more, shaving with the knife and gulping down the results until he feared to have any more lest he develop problems of another sort which would slow down the morning's travels. Rising, standing perfectly still for a long moment, listening and hearing nothing out of place, Einar hoisted the remainder of the quarter onto his shoulder and retreated some distance up the timbered slope in search of a place to pass the night.

Einar's search did not take long, body weary nearly to the point of immobility with the effort of digesting all that newly-introduced food, and as soon as he'd found a place which seemed sufficiently distant from the moose cache to allow him to observe any activity that might take place around the hanging-tree but near enough to gather information about the same, he stopped for the night. The tree, a spruce, was not a particularly large one, but its boughs were low, dense and spreading, which was exactly what Einar needed both for shelter and concealment, and the deep bed of fallen needles below gave him some hope of protection from the still mostly frozen soil. Making one final check of the area, such as he could in the dim starlight that lay outside his dense shelter, he curled up under the tree to sleep, arms wrapped around his knees for warmth, still damp and shivering after his long descent through the snow and his frozen meal, but with a belly full of meat to digest and a dry place to spend the night, he knew he would make it.

Unless…but he was asleep before the thought could complete itself.

03 April, 2014

3 April 2014

When Einar had been gone for two days and Liz finished doing all she could to improve the shelter roof and further insulate its walls she began growing restless, wishing she might have gone with him and convincing herself only with difficulty that she ought not attempt to catch up with him, now.  No telling what dangers and difficulties might have accosted him out in the rough country that lay between their shelter and the canyon rim to which he had been headed, but of several she was sure. 

Fallen, tangled timber, high winds and the extreme cold of the night she knew, would have been his lot even had things gone well, and she worried that in his focus on reaching the meadows the food she had sent might well go unnoticed, uneaten, he growing colder and colder at night until he before long—it wouldn’t take long—used up any meager supply of energy his body had managed to stock away over the past days of better eating, and he found himself again entirely exhausted, fighting simply to stay alive, let alone to make the return journey.  She shook her head, retrieved Will, who having galloped away on hands and knees and boosted himself to his feet against the door, was doing his best to get it open.  Einar had wanted to make the journey alone, had successfully returned from many similar in the past, and she must simply have faith that he would do so again.  Not an easy wait, but she’d get through it.  Could keep busy on the trapline—if she was careful not to leave too much sign, the passing of more planes still remaining a very immediate threat.

Slow going through the bent, gnarled timber and steep rock of the narrow little couloir, Einar having to choose each step with caution lest he send a cascade of small loose stones—or, in some places, bigger ones—skittering down the rocky channel to bounce and echo and alert anyone in the vicinity to the passage of a large creature.  He laughed silently at the thought of his being mistaken for a bighorn sheep—no doubt you’ll be that agile again someday, but not until this leg finishes healing up.  Figure you’re moving a lot more like a giant sloth or something, at the moment.  Those bat scientists might mistake you for a Sasquatch and really think they’d made the discovery of the decade!—kept moving down the steepness, pausing now and then to survey the area around the cave and glance back up at the canyon rim itself to make sure no human form was silhouetted there.  Would be foolish for anyone to linger for more than a fraction of a second in such a position, exposing themselves to detection and worse against the harsh light of the horizon, but he had learned in observing people over the years that few take such matters into consideration unless they had, themselves, been in a situation where such cautions could quite literally make the difference between life and death.  Foolish oversight.  Sometimes he wondered how the species went on surviving. 

Scanning the horizon he saw nothing that appeared out of the ordinary, twisted skeletons of the occasional ancient and wind-battered limber pine rising black and sharply outlined against the midday light, but no human form showing itself, no movement giving away a watcher.  He had reason to hope that he had, at the least, managed to slip away unnoticed after his surveillance of the camp and his near miss with the early-returning scientists.  Wished there had been a better way to approach the cave and determine for certain whether or not it had been recently entered, but now, looking back up two hundred feet of steep slope at the area and still able to see the spot where he knew the cave mouth lay, he knew he’d made the right decision in staying away.  Too much chance of his being spotted out on that open ground, and even had he taken the risk and found evidence that the scientists had been inside the cave, there seemed little chance that the discovery would have significantly altered his course of action.  Any information they might have gained from entering that cave could have already been spread to the four winds, and short of returning to the camp, capturing someone and hoping they could tell him whether such information might pose a threat to him and to his family—absurd plan for several reasons, not even a consideration—all he could really do was to avoid leaving further sign on the way back home.

Which means you really ought to be avoiding that moose, you know.  Not only because you risk leaving fresh tracks and sign in the area, but think about it.  What if that thing’s already been discovered by some hiker, big cat hunter, by the guys up on the other rim who were putting up those funny antennas….and they reported it to the Forest Service.  Or worse, to whoever’s now in charge of any ongoing search?  What’s to say either of those parties wouldn’t have set up camera sand other sensors all around that thing just to catch you—or some supposed poacher—when you return? Talk about risk.  That moose is probably the biggest risk you could take, out here.  Well, except for snooping around those tents maybe, but that’s done.

Getting too cold standing still he started downwards again, matter of the moose not solved, but he still had time.  More time than he would have thought, in fact, for the lower he descended the more soggy and rotten grew the snow, he no longer able to stay on top of the crust as he eased his way down between the trees, clinging to their flexible boughs in a desperate attempt to support most of his weight and prevent himself falling through up to his waist with every third or fourth step, but with limited success.  When he did fall through it was exhausting work freeing himself, wrapping an arm around the nearest available spruce bough and using it to try and hoist himself out of the hole, worrying all the time about the marks he was leaving in the snow, great pits which would surely be visible from the air as well as from the far rim of the canyon, but short of turning around and going back up the way he had come, there was no help for it. 

Fifteen hundred feet and four hours later Einar, bleary-eyed with weariness and soaking wet from the chest down, realized that he was nearing the canyon floor.  In addition to poor snow conditions which had required him to push his way through rotten drifts and stop every so often to extricate himself from a deep pit whose sides kept collapsing as he tried to hoist himself up and out, he had been forced to contend with several bands of sheer cliffs which had almost stopped his descent altogether.  Traversing sometimes many yards to either side he had found his way around these obstacles one by one, but each effort had cost him time, and now it was nearly dark.  A cold, clear night it was to be by the look of things, and Einar, long out of food, no way to get dry before nightfall and with fire out of the question, was at last faced with decision time about the moose.