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.