Both creatures—the two-footed and the four—were rapidly nearing exhaustion as they worked their way higher up the ridge, elk increasingly struggling to make headway through the drifts and Einar picking his way gingerly along behind, not wanting to allow the animal out of his sight but half afraid to move lest he fall through the crust again and find himself even further slowed as he thrashed his way out of the quagmire. Wasn’t entirely sure he could do it again, or that he would have anything left with which to continue the chase if he did manage such a feat, and did not want to test the matter. Elk was still moving pretty well though, one hoof after the other as it broke trail through the crust, and he knew he would lose it if he stopped the active pursuit, allowed it time to rest and regain its strength. Onward, pursuing, breath coming with a harsh, metallic-tasting rasp and air burning in his lungs, not seeming to contain much oxygen, not nearly enough, but he was beyond heeding, beyond caring, entire focus on that elk and on closing the distance.
Ridge crest. World spreading away beneath him on both sides, colors deep, vivid, timber-detail sharp before his eyes, every needle defined and air crackling with life as he moved through it. Blood singing in his ears, feet moving of their own accord, and he could go on forever. Good thing, for the elk was still moving, gaining ground. Faster. Feet falling through with each step, stumbling, and he realized he’d drifted over into the damaged snow of the elk’s trail, steered himself to one side where the crust would still support him. Most of the time.
Fell hard as the surface gave way, shins bruised against the hard, icy crust-edge, bleeding. Blood in the snow. His, and the elk’s. Could hear it breathing not far ahead. Panting. His own blood hissing in his ears, no longer singing now but roaring, drowning out all other sounds. He could feel the blackness near. Nearing. Gaining ground faster than he was gaining on the laboring animal. Tried to breathe it away, but his lungs were already at capacity. Doing all they could do. Keep moving, and he did. Closed his eyes and went on. Bile at the back of his throat. Chest tight, hurting. Couldn’t get a breath. Kept moving.
Silence. The elk was down, Einar on his knees in the snow. Fifty yards. Seemed close enough to touch, thick hair of its neck glinting red-brown in the sun, but he only had thirty feet of rope, and that was not counting the lasso coil. On his feet. Animal not moving, not until it caught a glimpse of his motion out of the corner of its eye and then the chase was on again, everything in slow motion, neither man nor beast possessing the energy or the wind for fast movements. Terrain changing. Leveling out. Snow worse up there, more rotten for the angle at which the sun had been hitting, no longer sound enough to support even Einar’s modest weight. Elk went down, he went down and then he was crawling, scooting forward on hands and knees and hips in an attempt to stay atop the uncertain surface, but the elk could not crawl, and Einar at last closed the gap.
Could have simply crept up to the animal, but he did not dare. Knew he didn’t have another sprint in him, should it somehow manage to gain its feet once more and take off. Parachute cord lasso in hand he stood, swung, got a rhythm going and lost it, tried again. Success. Caught the upper two points on the animal’s left antler, elk jerking, pulling, rising, desperation giving it the strength to run. Einar was desperate too, cord behind his back and wrapped several times around his left arm as he hung on, leaning back, digging into the snow, stumbling forward before regaining his footing. Feeling his own strength failing as he fought, he knew he must end this thing in a hurry if he wanted much chance of living through it, much less bringing home that elk…
Animal fighting him, making for a stand of aspens, and in doing so, making its last and fatal mistake. Allowing himself to be dragged forward without resistance, running to keep up until they reached the trees, Einar threw himself around the trunk of a fair-sized aspen, snubbing the elk up short and quickly giving the cord another quick wrap before the animal could change direction and free itself. Over. Going nowhere, and the elk went down again, did not rise. Quickly tying the cord around the aspen Einar scrambled forward, knife in hand. Seeing him, eyes rolled partway back in their sockets and sides heaving for breath, the elk lowered its head, lunged, sharp tines driven towards him, seeking to drive him into the snow, into the earth, but Einar rolled aside, escaped untouched. Knife to its throat, blood on the snow, the elk’s struggle was soon ended.
Einar, too, felt near his end and indeed might have been, had he allowed himself to slump forward in the snow and give in to unconsciousness as his body and mind so wanted him to do. Rest, just rest, let the blackness claim him for a while, at least until his heart ceased its furious, erratic leaping and pounding and he could begin to get a full breath again. Instead, instinctively knowing what was at stake and not yet finished with the job he had started, he braced himself against the antlers of the deceased elk, arms shaking with the effort of supporting his body, dead weight, going down, but he managed to drape himself over one antler before the sudden icy tingle at the back of his neck spread to envelop him.
Waking, a band of white-hot pain across his ribs and sternum where the flat branch of the antler dug into his bones, and it kept him from drifting off again, kept him present. Mostly. World not making much sense, trees growing downwards towards an azure earth, everything inverted, and he blinked, struggled to right himself. Half succeeded, arms and shoulders still draped over the massive antlers but head more or less upright, terrain taking on a more familiar appearance, and he stared at the snow before him, red with the blood of the departed animal. Red, but fading to black every time he attempted more than the slightest movement, and that would not do. Not if he was going to clean and skin the creature, secure some of the meat and haul the rest home to his family in the little basin.
Needed something. Needed… snow. Some of that red snow, rapidly fading to pink just beyond his reach, and he eased himself forward on the antler, closed his hand on the stuff. The first attempt gagged him, icy snow catching in his dry throat but he tried again when the dry heaves had stopped, this time succeeding in getting some of the stuff to melt and trickle down his throat, a bit of hydration and some crucial minerals beginning to revive him so he could carry on with his work.