Alone in the shelter, for he could hear no soft, sleeping breaths which would have indicated the presence of Liz and Will, and Einar struggled to bring himself all the way awake so he could investigate, but without success. Couldn’t seem to get his eyes open, and any attempt at raising his head only brought a swift, rushing darkness which he knew with certainty was darker than that of the night-darkened shelter. If indeed it was still night, at all. Seemed—looking back only on the dreams he could remember; knew there were others, as well—he’d been sleeping for so many hours that daylight ought to have come, and gone, and perhaps come again. The smells in the place were strange, magnified, old woodsmoke, sweet willows and drying meat competing with several he could not quite identify. Ought to be able to identify everything. Not making sense.
Thirsty. Needed water, felt around with one hand but could find none, no snow to scrape up and melt in his mouth, which, considering that he was in the shelter, had to be considered a good thing…but he could tell that nothing was likely to make a lot of sense until he’d got some water, and he needed things to make sense. Needed to understand the change in the air, in the smell of things. Needed to know how long he’d been asleep.
When finally Einar did manage to fight his way back to a slightly more wakeful state, it was to realize that his warm spring air was not so warm after all, place sharply chilly in the absence of fire and he shivering soon after working out from beneath the parka. Well. That, at least, had to be a good thing. Would have hated to find he’d been out for several weeks and missed the coming of spring. Must simply be the change in the wind that was allowing things to thaw a bit and smell strangely. But, where were Liz and Will? Must be outside. He listened, quieting his breaths, but could pick up no sounds from outside save the wind in the spruces. Howling, it was, and he could picture the lithe, blue-grey forms of the trees as they bowed and parted before it. Storm coming. And then he remembered the elk, and was on his feet, body stiff, unwilling and head swimming with dizziness at the suddenness of the thing. Too dark to see the door, and somehow he seemed to have forgotten in his sleep how to find it, tripped over the firepit and crawled the rest of the way.
Outside the strange, warm smells were even stronger than they had been in the shelter, Einar bracing himself against the wall and blinking, somewhat dazzled, into the brilliant blankness of a near whiteout. The sky was bright, clouds clearly thin even as they let forth their frozen torrents, snow soft and wet and falling in big conglomerated flakes which occasionally hit the spruce-trunks with audible splats. Not what he had expected to see, and certainly not the conditions to be hoped for when one must return to the high ridge for the better part of an elk, but at least, he told himself, this new snow would do something to obscure the great wallowing trenches of his earlier passing. Would, at least, mask them to the extent that a person might, from the air, have trouble telling whether they were made by man or beast. That would be enough. Would have to be enough. Of course, they would leave fresh tracks going up to retrieve the rest of the meat, but perhaps the snow would continue.
A sound over there in the timber, soft, muffled by the snow, but Einar recognized it as human footsteps, and was glad. Had not liked the thought of his family lost and wandering out there in the whiteness. He took a few steps towards the sound, slow, hampered somewhat by his sore leg, which seemed to have stiffened up rather significantly during the night, and Liz materialized rather suddenly from the swirling snow, flakes sticking to her parka hood and eyelashes, cheeks rosy and a smile on her face. Will, snug on her back, squealed his greeting.
“Will was getting restless, and we wanted to let you sleep so we came out here. We’ve been collecting more usnea. See? Almost got another bag filled.”
Einar saw, put a hand to Will’s cheek and brushed the wind-blown snow from his nose. “Turned warmer in the night, didn’t it? This is some mighty soft snow.”
“Yes! It’s the kind that doesn’t last, the kind that comes right before things start thawing in earnest. I think springtime is very near!”
Quiet, Einar allowed that yes, this was indeed the sort of snow that usually heralded a major thaw, but he knew also that it presented its own set of difficulties, chief amongst which was the fact that unlike the dry powder of winter, or even the sun-rotted crust with which they had been contending over past weeks, this heavy, wet snow would soak a person’s boots and clothing in minutes, seep its way through roofs which had held just fine all winter and generally complicate a person’s existence. These things he did not speak aloud, for Liz had lived through other springs in the high country, and would know. “Yes. Spring. Once the sun comes out again, this stuff will go real quickly, and so will what was under it. All this water will soak right down and really hasten the melting. Things are about to start looking real different around here.”
“Oh, I’m ready for it. This winter has been long. I can’t wait to see what Will thinks of having his toes in the grass. And helping me did avalanche lilies and spring beauty bulbs!”
Though liking the sound of that, too—nothing better than seeing young critters testing their legs in the springtime, the whole world full of wonder and every sight a new discovery—Einar’s thoughts were more on the present day than on the coming spring. He was puzzled, for the light, what he could see of it through the melee of giant, wind-tossed snowflakes, did not look like morning light. The angle was all wrong. He looked at Liz, trying to ascertain what she might know of this mystery. Couldn’t tell. Best just to ask.
“How long have you guys been out here? Something makes me think it isn’t morning anymore.”
“I knew you’d end up wondering. Please don’t be upset that I didn’t wake you. You really needed the sleep…”
“I’d say the afternoon is more than half over. We’ve been in and out of the shelter several times. It didn’t really start snowing until a couple hours ago, but it was terribly windy all morning. I could tell something was coming in.”
Dismayed, Einar kicked at a clump of sticky snow. “Doggone lazy critter I’ve become. Got no business sleeping the day away like that. I was supposed to be up there hauling down the rest of that elk. Didn’t really secure it too well, should anything come along.”
“I doubt much of anything will be out in a storm like this, and it’s probably just as well that we aren’t, either. Wouldn’t it be pretty easy to get turned around up there in the timber, when we can’t see a foot past our faces?”
He shrugged. “Could happen. But the snow would do at least a little to cover our tracks. How about one trip, before it gets too much later and we’re running up against darkness?”