Morning at the shelter, Will sleepily finishing his meal and then, quite suddenly wide awake, waiting somewhat impatiently as Liz dressed him in woolen underthings and parka before rising, balancing himself against the wall and enjoying the ever-increasing balance with which he moved about his world. Liz dressed quickly, stirred the fire to life and set the remainder of that previous night’s elk soup to thaw and re-heat. Watching Will as she fed small, dry spruce sticks into the growing flames, she tried to plan her day. Wanted to go out searching for Einar again, but did not know where to look. Sometimes she hated them, the instincts that lent an almost indecipherable stealth to his every move, even when he was not consciously aware of practicing such. Two days before, missing him after several hours’ absence—he had, after all, only been going after willow wands to make jerky-drying racks in their little parachute-smoker, and how long could that take—she had slid Will onto her back and scouted about for some sign of his path, hoping to find him at the end of it and beginning to feel just the faintest prickle of fear, as the sun slipped below the spruces of their high horizon, that he might have met with some disaster out there, fallen and hit his head or simply run out of the energy to keep going and lost consciousness in the snow. He was never far from it, those days, despite the sure movements and usually-cheerful demeanor with which he conducted himself, and in his absence, she could not help but worry.
Nothing. For a distance she had been able to find and follow his trail, though with difficulty, he keeping as much as possible to the bare, frozen patches of ground and the places where sun and warming temperatures had sent the snow from fallen aspen and spruce, creating trackless paths for a stealthy man with the instincts of a tracker—and of the hunted. After some distance even the small signs which had kept her on his trail disappeared, almost as if he had seen something, made some decision, and gone to another level of caution. Not long after that point she had turned back, darkness approaching, Will becoming restless on her back and she knowing her chances of locating him under such conditions.
Now it was morning again, and Liz did not know what to do. Wanted to go out searching again, travel, perhaps, in ever-expanding circles around the camp until she found him, or some sign of him, but something told her she would not have success on this path. The place seemed so quiet, somehow, gave her no sense of his presence, and she knew he had gone further. Only wished she knew why. Knew him well enough to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that he would not simply choose to abandon his family with no intent of returning—though his work with preserving the elk over the past several days did give her pause; perhaps, knowing he would be leaving, he had been making certain their immediate needs were provided for?—but could not puzzle out his intentions in wandering so far.
* * *
Pebble tumbling into snow just below, not an alarming sound in itself, and something likely to happen quite spontaneously in the warming weather of spring on such terrain, but Einar’s instinct told him this was not a spontaneous happening. Perfectly still for a fraction of a second, he weighed his options, seeking the source of the sound, searching for avenues of escape. Not many of the latter, not when one is balanced precariously between clumps of rotting ice and unstable rock in a rather narrow, vertical-walled gully, but there was one, and it was all Einar needed. More concealment than escape, really, but he took it, ducking behind an upright fin of granite and pulling himself into the blackness of its shadow when he saw the horizon clear above him, no one in sight.
Unmoving, barely breathing lest he miss something, Einar waited, three more small rocks coming loose and clattering down past his position, and then a brief flash of shadow passed over the wall in front of him, shape of a man’s boot, and then Einar knew for sure. So. Third man had indeed climbed up with the other two, had probably been waiting there in the gully to ambush him when he tried to retreat down its steep, slippery course, but the man had miscalculated, choosing to conceal himself in the northerly branch of the couloir. Which meant that there was hope, as far Einar could tell, that his passage had not been detected, as the two channels were separated by a solid if narrow fin of granite. Not yet safe to move, though, to attempt to complete his descent. Some eight feet above his present position the fin tapered out, channels joining and the couloir continuing down as a single entity, which feature had allowed him to spot the man’s shadow and hear so clearly the tumbling rocks dislodged by his climb.
Still for the time, pressing himself into the rock-shadows at his back, Einar waited, listening. A small scrape, the grating sound of a larger rock trying to come loose but being held into place, he was sure, by the climber, and then nothing for a long time. Shivers becoming more insistent, hands under his arms to still their motion, jaws clamped against teeth whose rattling would have otherwise interfered with his listening, his hearing. Climbing once again, the man was, for now from far above Einar could hear the occasional scrape of rock upon rock and then, after a good ten minutes more, silence. Needed to get down, needed to get moving, more than anything, before the cold rendered him even less able than he currently found himself to move efficiently on that near-vertical terrain, but still he waited, giving it several more good minutes before he so much as shifted position in the cramped little alcove which had provided his concealment.
Down. Working his way carefully and pausing to listen as frequently as the tricky terrain would allow, Einar finished the descent, coming at last to the oak brush-choked slope which marked the end of the couloir and the final slope down to the canyon floor, itself, and it was with a nearly-audible sigh of relief that he sunk down on bent knees to a snow-free patch of soil and rested for a brief moment before going on.
Keeping to the heaviest brush available and closely monitoring the terrain above him for the route which would best conceal him from anyone who might be watching from the canyon rim, Einar made his way towards the camp, meaning to inspect it in the absence of its occupants, learn what he might about their purpose and intention up in the high country. It would not, he knew, be a reasonable risk to approach the camp too closely or with too much exposure to open areas; he remembered well the thoroughness of the man with binoculars who he’d witnessed the evening before, the way his gaze had lingered here and there as he inspected the rim. These were no sportsmen or backcountry adventurers. Of that, he was certain, and he knew the sorts of surprises that might be left behind by people such as these.
Studying the terrain, certain of the position of the camp, Einar reduced his pace even further, creeping through a stand of tangled little sub-alpine firs and bringing himself, after some time, out to their edge, peering through the willows and over red osier dogwoods at one of the dome tents, just on the other side of the creek. A decent plan, well-executed and appearing near to success—until something rather forcefully came out of nowhere and slammed him in the left shoulder. Einar tried to respond, got his knife into his hand but before he could bring it to bear the thing hit him again, this time knocking him to the ground, face-first into the willow-marsh.