Despite the ongoing storm, last press of winter before finally it would yield to gentler weather, Einar did know exactly where he was going when he set out from camp that afternoon, and he made good time up the side of the ridge, and over. Underfoot the new snow was soft and sticky, and had done nothing to improve the condition of the rotten crush through which he had struggled the day before, but Einar, after a time, found his old trail and was largely able to stick to it, moving nearly as much by feel as by sight. At times, terrain changing around him or the snow blowing with particular fury, he would lose this trail, fumbling about in search of it and once taking too long at this hunt, slowing down, getting cold and nearly forgetting to start moving again when at last he did rediscover his previous path. No more of that. Knew he could not afford to lose momentum, not that day. Would have to keep moving, hope, in the future, to rediscover the trail as he went, should he lose it again.
Pushing himself at a pace which had seemed quite out of his reach while seeking and stalking the elk, Einar managed somehow to mostly ignore the nagging hurt of his injured leg and the press of his own weariness, and make the ridge crest before dark. There, snow slightly less heavy and visibility no longer limited to the toes of his own boots, he allowed himself the first short rest since somewhere far below in the timber. Muffled silence of the heavily falling snow; it became noticeable as his breaths quieted, stilled, creeping in around him until he felt himself wrapped in a cocoon of silence, safe, hidden, surrounded by snow. It was a good feeling, and Einar, smiling, hurt of the climb leaving and a great warm drowsiness sweeping over him, had to fight hard to remain awake. Standing.
Moving again, for he knew the peril. Knew that only in movement, with all its weariness and struggle, could he find sustainment, if not safety that evening. Must not lose momentum, and he did not, pressing on up the ridge towards the place where he, and the elk, had crossed its crest during the chase. Or, the place where he believed they had done so, for long ago he had lost his trail, and that of the elk, and with all the blowing snow and newly-formed drifts, had not succeeded in finding either of them again. The drifts, at least, worked in places to slightly ease his passage, for the wind had packed them so that he could at times walk carefully astride their angled contours, remaining on the surface rather than falling through. This represented a tremendous savings of energy over the flopping, floundering course which had of necessity taken him first to the ridge’s crest, the work of extricating himself repeatedly from the rotten snow requiring more effort than the climbing, itself. A good thing, for he knew the afternoon’s work was not even half done. Must find that elk, and haul down the remaining quarter before he could really rest, so he plodded on.
Some half hour later, warm again, and he knew it wasn’t right. He’d been shivering not long ago, and had not significantly increased his pace, since. Ought to be freezing, and probably was. Really should do something about it, stop and try to figure out what was happening, but instead he just laughed wildly into the wind, carried on.
High on the ridge, spruces shaking snow from heavy-laden limbs overhead, breath hard and metallic in his lungs, rasping, and he wanted to rest, but must not. Kept going. Had forgotten why. Knew only that he must move.
Movement. Mechanical, and no longer very effective. Light, already heavily filtered through the falling snow, growing dim around him.
On hands and knees, staring at the ground. Dusk in the sky, snow in his hair. Really should cut that hair, get rid of it. Just collected snow, got in his way and didn’t do much to keep him warm. Must not be doing much, for he could not feel his hands. Got out his knife, pinched it between the heels of his hands and hacked at the icy clumps that hung in front of his eyes, but could not seem to exert enough force to cut them away. Oh, well. Who needed to see, anyway? Wasn’t much to see up there, what with the blowing, swirling snow and the endless white of the ground. Not much at all. Couldn’t see his knife. Not good. Needed the knife. Or would, once he found…it. The thing that had brought him up here, in the first place. What was it? Who knew? Who cared? Didn’t matter. One mustn’t be without a knife, regardless. A knifeless man is lifeless man, so they said, and because he knew the concept rang true—not to be taken entirely literally, because I’ve been without a knife out here more than once, and am still alive…more or less—he began shoving and sifting the snow, searching. Stumbled upon it, pressing the object in grateful silence between his hands before struggling to secure it, carry on.
Lost. He was sure of it, now. Had no idea where he was, and little memory of how he had come to be there. Took two more steps and came up hard against something solid beneath the snow, went to his knees and crouched there staring dazedly at the white-plastered lump that had ended his ascent. Might have gone on staring at the thing until he fell asleep, sleep being very near, but it had a funny smell, iron and damp hair and something else which his weary brain could not quite identify, but it made his stomach hurt, cramping up with hunger, and the hunger brought a restless feeling which disturbed his almost-sleep. A good thing.
Hungry. Now that he had recognized the feeling it nearly overwhelmed him, crowded out the sensations of exhaustion and cold, the hurt of his injured leg and left him digging, digging through the snow, brushing the stuff aside until he had exposed…the elk! Remains of the elk, and now he knew where he was, and why—though how he had managed to keep on track would later baffle him—leaped to his feet and did a clumsy, stumbling little dance of joy around the carcass, thankful tears in his eyes and knife soon in hand.
Cold, fingers stiff and nearly insensible, and the work was difficult, knife several times falling from his hand as he worked to separate the second quarter, but he kept at it, a cheerful little song in his heart as he worked and occasional broken fragments finding their way out between chattering teeth to scatter on the wind, incongruous, perhaps, but life is a series of incongruities, and one must find joy where appears, seize it, sing with it.
The meat, much to Einar’s relief, was frozen only on the outside, making his job possible if very difficult, and finally he succeeded at freeing the quarter, dragging it aside and preparing to set off with it down the slope. Trouble was that he could not get his feet under him. Couldn’t get them to stay there, anyhow, no strength in his legs, and though quite willing to crawl home, dragging the elk behind him, he knew it might not be necessary, should he allow himself to stop for a few minutes, and eat. Should have thought of it before, and might have, had he been more in the habit. Well, he was thinking of it now. Nice to have a fire, warm himself, cook the meat, but the whole procedure seemed too complicated at the moment, and superfluous, besides, with all that elk sushi sitting there before him…
Gnawing, tearing, he got a good portion of the stuff down, shivering harder at first with the introduction of so much partially frozen meat and feeling quite immobilized with cold but then beginning to warm, eating more, rising, far steadier on his feet.
Strong as his body began digesting the much-needed nourishment, he rejoicing at the turn of events, Einar shouldered the quarter, started off for home.