Many years, spring comes slowly to the high country, slowly, and late. Others it arrives in a great rush, warm winds bringing down the snowpack virtually overnight and rocks beginning to emerge, patches of ground bared of their cover to greet the sun, brown, vegetation flattened, crisscrossed with fine white networks of snow fungus that looked like the oversized webs of great spiders. Green was never far behind, plants anxious to send forth new shoots to the sunshine, blossom, drop their seed and begin storing away energy for the following winter, which was never long in coming.
That spring was to be one of the latter, the riot which marks the changing of the seasons following on the heels of a brief snow squall and bringing with it precipitous changes which would muddy the ground and send snowmelt roaring down from the heights to fill creeks and muddy larger streams, rivers choked with rolling rocks and shattered trees.
* * *
There was to be no second trip to the elk that night, for Einar did not stir from his spot by the fire and Liz had no intention of trying to wake him. Was glad to see him resting after what she knew must have been a tremendously trying journey through the rotten snow, and the night, besides, was sounding increasingly stormy outside the shelter, wind wailing through the trees. Not a night on which she looked forward to traveling with Will, the three of them likely as not ending up lost and floundering in whatever storm seemed to be on its way. Morning would come, and with it, plenty of opportunity to return for the rest of that elk. Meanwhile Einar, fast asleep by the fire and slumped over now so that he was lying nearly flat on the floor, seemed not to be warming much at all, shivering and looking so drained of color that she found herself wondering whether she had mistaken unconsciousness for sleep.
Hoping to hasten the warming process she slid beneath the spread-out parka and lay down behind him, fire on one side and she on the other, hoping it would be enough. He felt like ice. The shirt he’d been wearing beneath his parka was basically dry but she could feel the cold radiating through it as if coming from inside of him. She got her arms around his sharp shoulders, tried to rub some warmth into them but with seemingly little effect. Wished he had been able to stay awake long enough to consume more of the sweetened tea she’d made and eat some liver, for without this additional energy his body was seeming quite incapable of warming itself. Couldn’t be helping, she realized, that he was still in his snow-crusted boots, which had begun to thaw and become quite damp. She remedied the situation, checking his feet and wishing the light were a bit less uncertain so she could be sure whether the discoloration she was seeing could meant frostbite, or might simply represent the normal color of his feet and toes, which those days was a decided shade of mottled purple.
Frostbite, she was pretty sure, though between his boots and the fact that the day had not really been terribly cold, there seemed reason to hope it would be mild. In any case his remaining toes—this is one situation where it might actually be advantageous for a person to have fewer toes, she told herself. Not as many left to freeze—weren’t waxy and frozen, and needed no immediate attention besides the dry socks she was about to give them. Having done all she could really do for the moment Liz checked on the still-sleeping Will before adding another log to the fire, wrapped cloth around a warm rock from the fire ring, pressed it to Einar’s chest and went to sleep beside him, satisfied that he would continue warming.
Einar was not nearly so satisfied with this arrangement as Liz, dimly aware of the passage of time and struggling mightily in his dreams to bring himself back to wakefulness, to motion, but to no avail. Needed to go after that meat, had meant to stop at the shelter for no more time than it took to explain the situation to Liz and prepare little Will for the journey, and then he was to be off again, all three of them hopefully, but if Liz had not been able or willing to come that night, he’d been quite prepared to make a second trip on his own…
Was still willing. If only he could move. Tried to tell her, to find some words with which to plead for a kick in the side of the head, a bucket of ice water, anything that might get his rather uncooperative body going again, but he found the words no more compliant than his wooden, disconnected limbs, objects rather beyond his rapidly shrinking sphere of influence. Soon, struggling as he was to hold on, even that most persistent of thoughts faded, vanished, swallowed in darkness. Dreams, then. Only dreams were left him, and when he woke what after what seemed a very long time it was with some confusion, for the air that met him was soft and warm, and he was sure spring must have come.