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 Not too surprising, he supposed, as he was inevitably several years out-of-date on all such technology and the many forms it might take.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…