22 November, 2014

22 November 2014

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.

10 November, 2014

10 November 2014

Dawn, the coldest hour, Einar shivering under his shelter-tree, no insulation on his body, bones turning to ice, damp leaves and needles with which he had attempted to insulate himself hardly doing a thing anymore and he was all out of energy to keep up the regimented movements that had got him through the night, dizzy and nauseated as his body searched for any source of fuel within itself, and found nothing.  No good crouching there any longer.  Cramping up so badly that he knew quick movement would soon prove impossible, if he didn’t do something to reverse the situation.  

Had to get up, move a little, but in making the attempt he found his body impossibly heavy, unresponsive, gravity, when he really pressed the matter, rising up to slam him into the frozen soil beneath his shelter-tree.  Shattered vision, dawn-dim world falling away in shards before him, swimming, shimmering, making no sense, blackness, and then the taste of blood between his teeth.  Couldn’t seem to immediately gather himself for further movement so he lay there, waiting, dimly aware of the slow trickle of blood from some small rock-scrape on the side of his face.  Strangely, the stuff seemed to be reviving him some, bringing him back to something like full awareness, and that could only be good.

A hint of a twisted smile, eyes closed against the strengthening light.  Completely illogical, he knew, that he could survive thus on his own substance, sustain himself, but it seemed to be helping for the moment, the blood, and he stayed as he was, allowing it to trickle freely into the corner of his mouth until, between the cold and his rather advanced dehydration, it stopped of its own accord.  Einar might have slept then, much to his own detriment and dismay, had not the trend started by the action of gravity and the taste of his own blood been furthered by a persistent rustle and crunch in the vegetation slightly uphill of his position.

Suddenly quite wide awake Einar kept still for only a fraction of a second before rolling silently to his stomach and pushing himself to hands and knees, stalking into the sparse brush along the rim and using it to his best advantage as he sought to put some quick distance between himself and whoever might be moving around up above.  Not a small creature, he was certain, no bird, rodent or even a small canine such as a fox or coyote, and much as he might have wished to believe that his visitor could be a deer, elk or even a mountain lion—would have been welcome, just then, considering the alternative—he knew enough of the patterns and movements of different creatures to be quite sure he was dealing with a being of the two-legged variety.  More than one of them, in fact, for presently he picked up on a second set of movements some five or six yards beyond the spot where the first had made itself audible.  Moving very slowly they were, clearly attempting stealth, and doing a decent job of it. 

Making his way into some heavier vegetation and pausing there, feeling a good deal more well concealed, Einar considered his options.  With only two intruders seemingly present, he hesitated to attempt doing anything about them, lest the third—assuming these were the same whose camp he had been observing the previous night—see him act and either move in to surprise him, or leave the area with stories to tell, and return with friends.  He needed to account for that third person, and in the meantime, had to find a way out of the trap into which these intruders had boxed him, sheer cliffs on one side, they holding the high ground on the other.  Only one direction of travel remained to him, seeing as the canyon rim to the north was nearly devoid of vegetation, a limestone tundra wasteland which offered him no concealment.  His opponents—for that was how he knew he must view them—would surely know this, and might well have positioned that un accounted-for third man in the brush to the south, to intercept his flight.  Knife in hand as he crept along, Einar was ready. 

Nothing.  A very strong feeling that he was being watched, hair rising on the back of his neck, prickling, but no sound came from the brush near him, no sudden movement or unannounced blow to the base of the skull, so he kept moving, fighting down an urge to rise, run, make a break for it, knowing that would be the end of everything.  Slow movements, cautious, more than a minute passing, at times, between painstaking steps, no rustle or crunch to give away his incremental escape.  Whether because of his stealth or—though he would have entirely discounted the theory at the time—no one was really listening, Einar succeeded in extricating himself from the immediate area of his nighttime shelter, reaching at last a spot where the evergreens grew taller, canyon rim decaying in places, sheer cliffs broken by steep gullies that descended, precipitous but not entirely vertical, towards the flatness of the canyon floor far below.  It was this floor towards which Einar made, knowing he would remain somewhat trapped down between those walls, more thoroughly trapped, in some ways, than he was up there on top, but seeing little alternative.  His escape up on the surface seemed very tenuous indeed, seeing as his opponents held the high ground and he had been confined to the narrow strip of scraggly timber between the vast, open grass and snow meadows of the mesa behind him, and the sheer dropoff of the limestone cliffs. 

Down it was, then, Einar picking his way from rock to rock in the nearest gully, descent not quite as slow as had been his movements up top, but tremendously cautious, nonetheless.  Little room in his mind as he descended for thoughts other than those relevant to his immediate situation, Einar did spend a bit of time attempting to puzzle through the circumstances that had led him to this predicament, hoping thus to stumble upon some solution which might see the day ending some other way for him than dead, captured or on the run once more and closely pursued.  It was clear—unless his mind happened to be concocting an extraordinarily detailed and convincing false scenario based on a few scraps of available data, which he doubted—not only that he really had been spotted by the man that past night who had stood beside the creek scanning the canyon rim with binoculars, but that the man and at least one of his companions had spent the night climbing up out of the canyon after him.  The full meaning of this happening remained hidden to him, but it definitely did not represent the typical behavior of a group of causal hikers, hunters or fishermen enjoying a weekend in the backcountry.  He was being hunted.  Had known it the night before, known on some level that there was no other explanation for the long, lingering gaze of Binocular Man, the moment when their eyes had seemed beyond doubt to meet.  Though under other circumstances one might easily have explained away such an occurrence, Einar had known.  Had spent too many years both in the role of hunter and hunted to mistake what had happened for anything less sinister.  And had failed to act.

Well, he was acting now, and with any luck—ha!  Luck has absolutely nothing to do with it—he would live not only to remove himself from this situation, but would be able to return to Liz and Will, as well, rather than striking out on his own and effectively abandoning them in order to lead the threat in the opposite direction.  Was looking good, he thought, when he found himself after some time nearly two thirds of the way down to the canyon floor without incident and without dislodging any rocks or making any but the most insignificant of sounds in his travel. 

Gully curving some as it descended, Einar was before too much longer able to look back up at the spot where he had spent the night, stopping in a cluster of scraggly, crag-clinging limber pines to take a look.  Nothing at first, save the bare limestone and low-growing evergreen mat with which he had become so intimately acquainted in the night, but he knew not to give up so easily, letting his eyes wander slightly, vision go wide and stay that way, rim something of a blur.  There!  Movement!  He was sure of it, did not immediately attempt to better focus his eyes, knowing from long experience that this softer focus would allow him to more effectively pick up on slight movements in the distance.  Strategy succeeded.  There it was again, the quick, stealthy movements of a human who did not want to be seen, and if he was not mistaken it was coming from almost precisely the spot where he had passed the night.  Not good.  Not good at all, for these people, whoever they might be, would know by now that he had been there, that someone had, and were perhaps even then beginning to work out his trail, come for him…

Not good, but perhaps not as bad as it had initially sounded, either, for he had a tremendous head start on the, was already quite well on his way to being in the canyon, where he could make far better time than could they, as they worked their careful way down the treacherous bowling alley of that loose, rocky gully.  By the time they reached the canyon floor, he could be several miles away, up another gully and out of there, watching them in their confusion and eventually returning, if all went well, to Liz.  Maybe even before another night came around.  That sounded good.  Very good.  Now that he’d quite moving for a few minutes, he was really freezing again, feeling the absence of food, of something warm to drink…  Looking good, all of it, until, starting to move again, there came a sudden if rather subdued sound from somewhere only feet from his position.

02 November, 2014

2 November 2014

Down in the canyon, no flickering point of orange appeared with the coming of darkness to tell Einar that the three visitors had settled in for the night, no glow of a lantern or headlamp, even, to illuminate the great cloth globe of the dome tent he’d spotted through the trees.  Watching from his own nighttime refuge beneath a close cluster of stunted, wind-bent firs, Einar sat with chin on his knees and arms pressed close against his body for warmth, and wondered.  Had the trio packed up and moved on?  Did not seem likely, as the tent had still been standing when last it had been light enough for him to get a look, no one seeming in a hurry to do anything besides stand near the creek and attempt to catch fish.  Unless that had all been a cover designed to get him off his guard so they could move under cover of darkness, scale the canyon walls and assail him in his sleep…  Not looking too likely.  

He shivered, drew bent knees closer to his chest in an attempt to conserve more heat and leaned forward until his ribs dug painfully into the bones of his upper legs, and he had to back off a bit.  Half wished he’d brought something to eat.  Would have made it a bit easier to get through the night.  It was alright, though. He was used to the hunger, and the cold.  Too used to them, Liz would say, for his own good, but he knew what to do with them, and was certain to find himself glad of this, before morning made its appearance.

Though the snow was fast disappearing, winter, he soon discovered, had not entirely released its grip on the high country, and with night winds sweeping sharp and increasingly bitter down from the peaks, he knew he needed some insulation to help him make it through the night.  Had not been able to find anything dry to stuff between his shirt and jacket, when he’d searched earlier.  Everything was damp with melting snow.  Again he searched, feeling about in the darkness, dismayed to discover that his hands had gone too numb to be able to reliably differentiate between wet and dry.  Paused and attempted to warm then under his arms, against his stomach, but to little avail.  Didn’t seem to be a whole lot of warmth left in his body, and certainly none that near the surface, skin all icy as his body sought to conserve its remaining heat near the core, where it would hopefully prove enough to keep major organs functioning through the night.  Well.  No worries.  He’d use damp insulation if he had to.  Stuff would still trap some heat, be better than nothing at all, and he figured he’d better get busy with the project, too, before he really was left with nothing.  No heat to trap. 

Searching about beneath his cluster of trees and judging the resulting detritus more by the way it sounded than by feel—crunchy was good, soft and soggy less so—Einar managed to get a good bit of the stuff tucked in between his shirt and jacket, some in the legs of his pants, also, hoping by the added insulation to preserve a bit of mobility in his legs should he need to scramble up in the night and depart with little notice.  Slightly warmer for the work he rested at the end of the process, again scanning the dark, yawning void of the canyon for any sign of life or light, but again seeing nothing. 

As the dark hours progressed Einar thought he caught the occasional whiff of smoke rising from below when the wind let up and air could rise again from the canyon, but still saw no glow on either trees or rock faces, uninvited guests and their camp seemingly swallowed up by the darkness of the canyon, hidden in the void below.  Too well hidden.  He knew the effort required to conceal a camp, particularly if one is to have a fire, and these folks had clearly gone to that effort.  Not the sort of thing that would cross the minds of your average backcountry adventurer, fisherman or birdwatcher.  A concealed fire.  Something he would have done, had done, on more than one occasion, he, and the people with whom he had so long ago trained and worked… Who were these people, then, these uninvited guests?  Searchers who’d somehow got a tip about his presence in the area and had come for him?  Hadn’t fit the visual profile, for sure, but he supposed that could have been part of their cover…  If not searchers, then who?  Kilgore and company, come to seek him out?  Hoped not.  Hoped no one, including the tracker, had any idea of his present location.  Was their only hope of staying safe and undetected, really.  He wanted to get in closer, observe the camp in the night and settle the question, but knew the risk involved in his attempting to descend the canyon wall by darkness, the sort of noise he might end up making should he dislodge a rock or two on his way down.  Better to observe from above.

Rising, moving carefully there near the cliff-edge, Einar ducked out from beneath his shelter-tree and stood up straight, stretching, pounding numbed arms in an attempt to restore some circulation.  Was used to spending long hours—days, even—in a well-concealed hide watching in patient stillness prey that had more often than not been human, gathering information, waiting until the moment was right, and this situation, he told himself, ought to be no different.  But it was, largely due to the fact that Liz remained back at camp, unaware of the situation and surely wondering, by this time, where he had gone.  Very much wished he had some way to let her know, but he did not.  Further complicating the present situation was the simple reality that, unlike anytime he could remember in the past, lying on the ground for hours on end tended to bring consequences which he was increasingly doubting his ability to survive.  The cold soaked in so quickly and thoroughly, and he, having never minded its presence and normally finding it a welcome companion, even, seldom recognizing that he was in trouble until it was nearly too late.  Couldn’t be risking such things just then, with strangers nearby in the canyon and Liz not knowing where he had gone.

Finally warm enough to sit down again after a good ten minutes of pacing and swinging his arms Einar carefully approached the canyon rim instead of curling up beneath his tree, lowering himself flat on his belly at its brink and peering into the blackness below.  Still no light down there, no fire-flicker, and only the sighing wind to be heard.  Now that he’d managed to warm himself a bit, the improvised leaf-and-needle insulation seemed to be helping some, trapping the heat he’d generated and allowing him a longer period of stillness before more movement would be required.

Through the night Einar maintained this wearying routine, watching, resting, moving when he felt himself slipping too far into a hypothermic haze from which waking might be doubtful, and when at last the first paling of dawn began showing behind the straight-combed ranks of distant black spruces on the far horizon-ridge, he was ready to act on a plan whose details he’d spent the greater part of the night creating, refining, and reviewing.  No more waiting, no more days spent hoping Liz wouldn’t choose to follow him, find him; he would move in close, determine the identity of these invaders, and from there, choose his course of action.