Einar was not the only one out taking advantage of the improved snow conditions that morning, as he soon discovered. Rabbits, squirrels and other small creatures had been able to move across the surface with little difficulty even when the snow was at its most rotten, but animals even slightly larger than these had been struggling, along with everyone else. Now Einar saw the sign of fox and coyote, tracks not showing on the hard crust of the snow but the spots where they had taken their prey giving them away, fox piercing the crust to pounce on a mouse and coyote lying under a spruce to enjoy his meal of rabbit. Only a few shreds of fur remained from the coyote’s repast, and these Einar tucked into a pocket, thinking to use them in making a bobcat lure for one of his snares, someday. Up the ridge, still staying easily atop the snow, and then Einar was near its crest, sparse firs around him and a wide, sweeping view opening up as he looked down its less heavily-timbered far side.
The elk was struggling, too heavy to stay on top of the crust which that morning supported all the smaller mammals, and when Einar first spotted it out in the open some distance down the slope, there was a trail of blood on the snow where the animal had been breaking through. Ragged and raw-boned after a long winter spent up high, the bull was missing hair in patches, head down as he fought to free himself from the clutches of a rotten snowdrift. Too far away to risk a shot with the pistol, but Einar knew he would be able to track the animal down, if he returned with the rifle. For that matter, why risk a shot at all? He knew that in the Altay Mountains of Mongolia, tribesmen had for thousands of years hunted elk in winter by running them down on skis, pursuing them through the deep snow until they reached exhaustion and could be approached, lassoed and taken with spears or even a knife.
There in those snowy mountains, not too different in either climate or flora and fauna from his own high country world, petroglyphs of hunters on skis had been dated to at least three thousand years old, and it was widely believed that skiing as a mode of winter transportation might well have been invented in the Altay. Einar did not have skis, but he did, he reminded himself, have the advantage of being able to run across the surface of the snow while the elk broke through with each step and had to struggle to break trail through the impossibly crunchy, rotten snowpack. The elk appeared exhausted already, surely wouldn’t be able to move more quickly than he could, himself.
Well, Einar kept moving toward the elk, keeping well hidden in the firs, I’d kind of hate to lose my chance at this fellow by going back for the rifle, especially when I probably won’t be willing to risk the sound of the shot, anyway. Got thirty feet of parachute cord here in my trapping pack, more or less, and that ought to be plenty to lasso the critter by the antlers, snub him against a tree and make my move. Could use the pistol, but will probably find the knife adequate.
Right... he laughed silently to himself. At himself. And just how much experience do you have lassoing anything at all, let alone an angry and terrified bull elk who won’t be any more than twenty feet from you at the time? Which is assuming you can even get that close. Snow may not hold your weight by the time you work your way in close enough, or he may head deeper into the timber when he realizes he’s being pursued, which means the crust won’t be as hard and you’ll have one heck of a time swinging that rope. And seriously, paracord? It’s rated to hold weight like that and all, but how likely is it that you’ll be able to hang onto your end, with that elk struggling and straining and taking off running in the opposite direction? You’ll only lose him, and the rope, and go home empty-handed. He doesn’t look like that much meat, anyway. Half-starved after this winter, and was probably in pretty bad shape before that, to be off by himself like this in a place that’s so far from ideal. Surely you can do better, for meat.
Einar was not sure that he could do better, though. Not anytime particularly soon. Knew he must do his best to take advantage of the opportunity before him, and careful to keep downwind of the struggling elk he moved down the ridge, beginning to close the distance. Sun still over an hour from peeking over the horizon, he hoped to be able to complete the stalking and lassoing portion of the hunt, at least, before its rays would have time to soften the crust and render him as badly crippled as the elk. No way he would be able to get the creature skinned out and a quarter carried home before the sun began interfering with travel, no way at all, but he could aim to at least have the chase done by that time. Might have, too, had one slight misstep not sent him sprawling in the snow where he caught himself against the extended branch of a small dead fir. Snapping under his weight, the branch gave him away. The elk stopped, looked up sharply in his direction and did its best to take off at a run, hooves plunging deep into a drift and body brought up short. Fighting the deep snow, going down once but quickly righting itself, the elk made for the nearest stand of timber, Einar scrambling to keep up and not lose sight of the creature. Sure, tracking would be easy through the rotten snow, but he wanted to keep the animal in sight if at all possible, hopefully manage to get a sense of where it was headed and save himself any unnecessary travel.
Headed for the ridgetop, it appeared, wily old bull instinctively acting to save itself by gaining elevation and seeking protection in the heavier timber, and Einar took off straight up the slope instead of following directly behind, wanting to cut out some steps and arrive in the timber shortly after the elk. Watching the creature jump-trot through the deep snow he could see its strength; it was not going to be a quick thing, this chase. Already the elk had disappeared into a close-growing grove of firs, Einar slipping every few feet on the hard, icy crust until he broke off a sharp-pointed spruce stick to function as an ice ax as he climbed. Good thing for the sharp-pointed staff, for, snow softening as temperatures warmed for the day, it wasn’t long before he hit a patch of crust that would not support his weight, going down hard before he realized the trouble, stuck up to his knees in hard-fractured fragments of icy snow and sinking deeper with every move into the quicksand-like remains of the winter’s snowpack beneath. Stop. Don’t struggle, you fool. You’re only going deeper, breaking up more of the surface. Now. Use the stick, get on your hands and knees and pull yourself up out of this. Elk’s gonna get away if you don’t start moving again pretty quick, here.
Staff did the trick, allowed Einar to spread out his weigh so he could successfully extricate himself from the area of broken crust and get gingerly back to his feet, sliding one boot in front of the other and testing carefully before ever trusting the ground beneath him. Better. Crust harder with a slight change in the angle of the slope, sun’s rays hitting it just differently enough to allow more soundness to remain, and he picked up a bit of speed, encouraged by the sound of the elk stomping and crashing in the timber not far above, blowing for breath after the steep climb.
Up then, quickly, for here was his chance to close some of the distance. Moving over the surface like a spider, weight spread evenly between feet and staff Einar made quick progress, up and over one drift after another, surface sometimes beginning to crack beneath him but he quicker than the spreading fractures, moving on ahead. Until, wanting to get a better look at the terrain above, he made the mistake of standing upright for a brief moment and then taking a step without first testing the ground. Down he went, falling in up to his elbows before he realized he had a problem, and every time he moved to climb back out the coarse, sugary snow only broke around him, beginning to fill in the hole but allowing his feet no purchase. Tried jumping, digging, thrashing arms and legs as if attempting to swim, but to no avail. Out of breath but unwilling to stop until he’d freed himself and was on course again he probed about for the spruce staff, found it, stomping and kicking until he’d reached the solid soil beneath. Bracing the staff he used it for leverage, half-climbing, half springing until at last he managed to extricate himself.
Solid surface beneath his body, solid but beginning to give, and he rolled over twice to get away from the bad section of crust, sprawling on his side in the snow as he fought for breath, nauseated at the effort, vision going dark. Not dark for long, as he woke a moment later staring straight up into the sun, squinted, looked away. Sun was high overhead. Too high. He sat up, testing the snow with his staff. Losing the crust, and with it any advantage he might have had over his would-be prey, but he didn’t want to give up, not with success so close, appearing so possible… On his feet, elk trail clear before him, Einar went on.