21 March, 2015

21 March 2015

The drying and smoking project had come none too soon, a fact which became obvious to all with the arrival of morning, a soft breeze rolling up from the valley and clear skies promising the warmest day of the young year.  Liz, rising early to get the fires going, doubted it had even frozen in the night.  Surely the elk would not have lasted much longer in its current state, for even with the hard rind which had formed on the meat over its weeks of freezing in the trees, the flies would soon have found it and begun staking their claims.  Time to finish the work of preservation, and remembering how hard Einar had worked for that elk, tracking it through the rotten snow of early spring and nearly losing his life to the elements while carrying back the first quarter through a snow squall, she found herself tremendously grateful that they had not lost any of the meat.

Despite the warming temperatures Einar had once again endured a rather cold night, results of his splash in the icy cave spring remaining with him and body still mottled purple and deeply chilled when he crawled out of the sleeping bag to join Liz at the fire.  As usual, he was far less troubled by this situation than were those around him, finding it, if anything, quite routine and not seeming in the least alarmed when his usual routine of swinging arms and stomping feet did little to restore circulation to his numbed extremities.

Kilgore was up, also, had been crouching against the trunk of an aspen some distance from the shelter studying a map, and soon found his way over to the fire, also.

“You kids sure do choose some high, desolate places to settle, don’t you?  Looks like this spot is right smack in the middle of one of the largest solid expanses of black, tangled timber this side of the Continental Divide, and that’s saying a lot!”

“Trying to avoid unwanted visitors.  Looks like we didn’t get out nearly far enough…”  Einar’s voice was dry, raspy, and Liz put on a pot of spruce needle tea to heat, hoping he would drink.

“Nah, you’re plenty far out.  I might joke about it, but you and I both know that it’s the only reason you’ve made this thing work for so long, this evading business.  They’d have had you years ago, if you’d insisted on hanging around the edges of civilization, sneaking into town now and then for the stuff you thought you couldn’t live without.  That’s how they end up getting folks, every time.  You made this thing work, you mangy old buzzard.”

Einar shrugged.  “We’re still here.”

“Right.  Yes, you are.  Which brings us to the point I’ve been trying to make, about how you really can expand your territory now, if you want to.  Give yourselves more room, more elevation variation and access to more game this summer, more berries and all the other food plants that make life so much better, out here!”

A slow shake of Einar’s head as he rose, left the fire and prepared to start the day’s work.  “Not got me convinced on that one.  Sure, they may have taken most of their resources off this search, but there’ll still be plenty of folks out there who would very much like to resolve this case one way or another, and no way do I want to take my family down there where they’re more likely to be exposed to that.  Looking like we may be pretty permanent residents of the high country, up here.”

A quiet little half smile from Kilgore, who was almost never quiet, and Einar might have realized its significance, had he been looking at the tracker as he spoke, instead of studying his own hands.  “Well, we’ll see,” and Kilgore joined him in trimming the previous day’s harvest of willow wands, lashing them together to make drying and smoking racks for the remaining elk meat.

Will was not content to ride on his mother’s back that morning, nor to be held by Susan as she worked, striving at every opportunity to go off on his own exploring, or, when no one was watching, balancing on his ever-more-steady legs and competing with Muninn to snatch bits of meat before they could be hung on the racks.   Finally both raven and little mountain man were shooed away by the adults as they worked to finish their task, Liz settling Will on a blanket in front of the shelter and providing him with what she hoped would be enough fascinating objects to hold his attention for a good while.

Some minutes later, everyone working quickly to get the job finished up, Liz realized that she had not heard from Will in several minutes, growing a bit alarmed and glancing around in search.  Not where she had left him, busy as he had been sorting, stacking and chewing on a pile of spruce cones on a blanket in the patch of sunlight just out front of the shelter, and Einar, seeing her dismay, joined in the search.  They did not have far to look, Einar putting a silent hand on Liz’s arm and pointing.  There on a bare patch of ground behind a stand of stunted, shaded little subalpine firs sat little Will, looking proud as could be at the size of the pile of elk strips lying on the ground before him, one dangling half -chewed and covered with slobber out of his mouth and the raven, even as they watched, landing nearby and hopping up to deliver his latest contribution to the top of the heap.  Liz wanted to rush forward and amend the situation, but Einar, shaking with silent laughter, stopped her.

“Quite a scheme those two have going, isn’t it?  That old vulture.  Now he’s got an excuse for his thieving ways, and little Snorri comes out ahead on the deal, because he’s got something real solid to sink those brand new teeth into.”

“Yes, raw elk.  Our son is teething on raw elk.”

“A lot chewier than the cooked kind, if you ask me.  Lot better for cutting teeth.”

At which Roger, Bud and Susan, who had paused in their work to watch the unfolding drama, could contain their hilarity no longer, and burst out laughing.

01 March, 2015

1 March 2015

The menfolk off on their willow-gathering expedition--this time, Liz could hope, the others would bring Einar back in good time should he stray and end up inclined to spend two or three more nights in the timber--Susan held Will and helped clean up after the jerky-slicing.  Far from being alarmed at the presence of additional humans when his world normally contained only two besides himself, Will appeared immensely curious about everything Susan did, following the motions of her hands as she helped his mother gather up knives, containers and the few remaining scraps of elk which had proven too small or too tough to turn into strips for drying.  Susan paused, handing him a feather that had been lost by the raven and smiling as his eyes grew large at the sight.

“This little guy sure seems to be doing well, doesn’t he?”

“Oh, he’s saying more and more words, walking all around the shelter and taking steps without holding onto anything, a lot of times, and getting into all sorts of trouble.  I just know as soon as the snow finishes melting out, he’s going to be running all over the place outside, just like his Dad.”

“And you?”

“Oh, I’ll be running around after him, no doubt.  After both of them.  In different directions!”

Susan nodded, let the topic go; had meant more by her question, wanted to give Liz the opportunity to speak, but she had spoken, and that was good enough.  Liz, though, knew what Susan had really been asking, waited until the older woman released the rather squirmy Will onto the patch of well-trampled and hard-packed snow in front of the shelter, sat down beside her on an aspen log to watch him play and explore.

“It’s the life I’ve chosen, you know,” and her voice was quiet, but resolute.  “May not always be exactly the way I would like it to be, but I knew it was sure to be a struggle going in, and I chose to be with him.  If he wants to stay up here…I’m in it for the long haul.”

“Oh, Lizzie.  I wasn’t suggesting anything else.”

“I know you weren’t.  It’s just that I’ve been thinking so much since you came, thinking of what our lives could be if we did like Bud proposed and came down, went someplace where the daily things would be just a little less challenging, and what that could mean for us.   So I was talking more to myself there than to you really, I guess.  Trying to remind myself.  It’s not that Will cares.  He’s happy anywhere right now so long as he’s with us, and as he gets older, he will be happy with what he knows, what’s familiar to him, I know that, and me…well, for the most part I enjoy our lives up here.  We have plenty really, most of the time, and I know we can go on providing for ourselves with hunting and trapping, digging roots in the summer. It’s a pretty good existence.  It’s just…I don’t want Will to have to grow up without his father, and sometimes when Einar disappears for a day or two the way he does, I get so scared that he’s just not going to make it back.  He fully intends to, I know, and so far he always has, but…well, you’ve seen him when he gets back from some of these things!  From sitting in the snow for a day or two, or whatever he does.  I try not to be afraid for him, but sometimes I just can’t help it.”

Susan put a gentle hand on her arm.  “Do you really think things would be much different if you moved down lower, like Bud was suggesting?”

Liz shrugged, a momentary look of desperation passing across her face before she regained her composure, reached down and handed Will his prized raven feather, which he had lost in the deeper snow at the edge of the clearing behind their log-bench.  “It would probably be worse, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m just remembering the last time you were at our house.”

“Oh, I’d rather not remember that.  How it was for him, I mean.  You’re right, I know. We’re better off up here, for a lot of different reasons.  Sometimes I just wish I knew what to do.  To make things different for him.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want you to do anything.  If things are going to be different for him…well, he has to want them to be.  That’s not something you can do for him, and I’m very sure he wouldn’t want you feeling responsible for the way he chooses to handle these things, either.  All you can do is what you’re already doing.  Just be there, treat him like a human being, be willing to listen to him when he wants to talk about any of it. I know you’re in a rough position, wanting to protect him but needing even more to make sure he’ll be there for this little boy…  There’s no easy solution, for him or for you.  But I do know what I’ve seen in him when he’s holding his son, watching him explore.  I see a man who will live up to the task, and who’s giving you all he knows how to give.”

“I know.”

With which the conversation ended, a rustling in the chokecherry scrub on the low ridge above the shelter letting them know they were no longer alone.  Bearing bundles of willows, Roger, Bud and Einar tromped down the ridge between islands of rotten snow, avoiding the stuff wherever they could so as not to leave any more sign than already crisscrossed the area.  To the women, it appeared they had harvested far more willows than could possibly be required for the construction of the single jerky-smoking rack, a fact whose reason became clear when they began picking up snatches of conversation from the returning trio.

“Gonna have to put them in under the trees so they don’t show up as big old weird geometrical shapes from the air,” Bud proclaimed, making a sweeping gesture at the nearby stands of timber, “but we’ve got plenty of room to do it.  Can have this whole doggone elk done in no time, two, three days at most, and you folks’ll be ready to be mobile again.”

“Always good to be ready.  No harm in being ready, but like I said, no plans to move on anytime soon, unless we have to.”

“I know it, I know it  But ‘have to’ can take a lot of different forms, especially out here, so we’d better be getting to work on that elk critter.  Even if you don’t go anywhere, the drying’ll keep the stuff from starting to rot and attract flies as these afternoons warm up. Unless  raising maggots was part of the plan, of course!”

“They have their uses.  Good for medicine if you’ve got a badly infected foot, good for food if all else fails, but no.  Rather have the elk, since we’ve got it.”

Relieving themselves of their bundles, Roger and Bud took a seat on the log-bench, Einar a bit slower to part with his burden, and looking more closely, Liz saw why.  While the other two had made the trip with little more than a few damp spots on boot toes and knees where they had crouched to cut the willows, Einar had somehow managed to end up drenched from head to foot in water which was already beginning to freeze in places on his clothing and in his hair as the sun san behind the ridge and cold settled into the basin, stiffening his movements and causing him to have to work hard not to shiver, now that he had finished climbing.  She went to him, took the willows and added them to the stack.

“What did you do, find a lake down there?”

“Better,” he grinned, knocking one stiff-frozen sleeve against an aspen to remove some of the ice.  “Found a little hollow in the limestone, in an outcropping we’d never even seen before.  Looks like it…might go in a good distance, might even turn into a cave, and…”

“And how about some dry clothes before you finish telling me?”

“Oh, these’ll be fine just as soon as I can…” whacked the other sleeve against the aspen, again scattering ice crystals, stomped around a bit in a barely-effective effort to begin restoring some flexibility to his pants, which had also begun freezing, “soon as I can get some of this…stuff to kind of…”

Roger, typically quiet and undemonstrative but under the circumstances unable to contain himself any longer, burst out laughing at Einar’s rather less-than-typical way of drying his clothes, Bud stepping in and offering to help the de-icing along with the help of a heavy aspen staff he’d picked up to help himself with the last half of the climb.  None of which was to prove necessary in the end, Liz shaking her head, hurrying away from the little group and starting a fire.

23 February, 2015

23 February 2015

Day warming rapidly as the sun climbed, the remaining snow was soon made soft and soggy, crust giving way as Bud, Roger and Einar made their way lower in search of willows for the elk drying rack.  Einar was able to stay on top of the snow longer than the others, still skipping lightly across the surface after the Roger and Bud had begun punching through, and after a time he had to stop and wait for them to catch up.  Crouching in a patch of sunlight between two aspens he caught his breath, moist, living smells of the awakening loam rising around him; springtime.  He smiled, inhaled deeply and could almost taste the new life waiting to burst forth from beneath the snowmelt-nourished ground, rock dust and time, minerals reaching roots, glacier springs seeping, soaking, and soon the avalanche lilies would emerge, bloom…

Voices, and Einar woke with a start, scrambled to his feet, dismayed at the realization that he’d managed to doze off after mere moments of stillness.  Hoped Bud and Roger had not noticed. 

If they had observed Einar’s lapse, the two did not let on, animated conversation as they struggled through the rotten snow and arrived at his location panting and out of breath, but appearing to thoroughly enjoy the excursion.

“Quite a mess you’ve got here, Asmundson.  What’s the big idea, anyway, with this snow that’ll let you pass, but traps and trips anyone who tries to follow you?  Quite a trick when even the snow is on your side.”

“Snow’s neutral, Kilgore.  You’ve just got to lose some weight if you don’t want to break through.”

“Ha!  And end up a scrawny old sack of bones like you?”

“Has its advantages.”

“Right, ‘till a fella starts nearly freezing to death every night because he’s got nothing to insulate his organs anymore and no energy to produce heat—and then he starts doing the same thing every time he stops moving and sits still for a couple minutes during the daytime.  Nah, I’ll just flounder.  Floundering’s fine.  Now, where are these willows?”

"Willows are near water, and water is in the gulleys, up here.  Or basins.  Ought to find some down in the bottom of that draw," he pointed, indicating a dark, evergreen-choked rift which cut the slope between their position and the adjoining ridge."

"Huh.  Long way down.  Let's get moving," Kilgore growled.  "At least the snow ought to be more solid in under those trees where the sun hasn't hit quite as much, shouldn't it?"

Einar nodded, starting off down the slope, Muninn lumbering into the air flapping ahead as if he already knew and approved of their destination.  The quest for willows, as it turned out, was not to take them all the way to the bottom of the gulley, Muninn discovering a small seep where snowmelt saturated the ground at the base of a series of low limestone cliffs.  Wheeling, descending, the bird stopped to investigate, Einar visually following his flight, motioning to the others to go after the bird.  He had learned, through previous months spent with the creature, to pay close attention when something caught his interest.  More than once the raven had, in this way, either led Einar to an object of interest, or alerted him to some approaching danger.  No danger this time, unless one were to count the fact that Einar came rather close to losing his footing in the brittle, crumbly snow at the upper rim of the low limestone wall. Stopping short just in time, Einar stepped back, searching for the best way down.

“Well look at this, you buzzard.  Found us some willows, didn’t you?  Nice little limestone formation, too.  Looks like cave country, right here.  Kinda surprised to see this sort of terrain up where most everything is some variation of shale or granite, but it’s a good thing to find.”

Reaching the bottom base of the outcropping before the others, who were still struggling though the rotten, collapsing snow, Einar began cutting willow wands, finding a number which were the right diameter to use in making the jerky drying rack.  Stooping to sever another of the lithe, flexible stems he paused, crouching lower for a better look.  There beneath a foot of so of overhanging limestone, nearly invisible in the current lighting because of the brilliance of sunlight on snow all around, lay a little pool of meltwater, black, cold, concealed, and Einar had to get a closer look.  Filtering, dripping, water from above caused a cacophony of sounds to echo about the small space as Einar drew nearer, small, but not so small as he had at first thought, for what had from a distance appeared to be merely an overhang of rock soon showed itself as a limestone grotto, walls white with time-deposited calcite. 

Squinting into the dimness beyond the little pool, Einar thought he saw the hint of a continuing passage, promise of more space to explore, might have crept around the water on the little rim of surrounding evaporate and sought out the mysteries concealed by those shadows…except that not far behind him now he heard voices, the others coming.  Instinct telling him to remain hidden, concealed, he hesitated to move, waiting, watching from the darkness of his little overhang. They would find him, no doubt; Kilgore the tracker could not be so easily thrown off, even had he been trying, but Einar could not suppress a grin at the momentary confusion of the pair upon their reaching the boggy, snowless willow seep, and losing his trail.

“Found his willows,” Kilgore growled, poking with the toe of one boot at several cut stems which would have clearly marked his passage even if his tracks had been entirely indiscernible.  “But looks like the old buzzard is playin’ some sort of trick on us, here.  What’s your deal, Asmundson? Think you can lose us here in the timber, slip away and never hear from us again? Hmm.  Forgot who you’re dealing with, if that’s the way it is.”

Which statement produced a sudden response from somewhere beyond the willows, feather-shafted atlatl dart flying out of the darkness to stick into the moist ground only inches from Kilgore’s boot, Einar emerging dripping and grinning from his grotto hiding place to find both Roger and the tracker flat on their bellies in the willow-marsh, weapons drawn and not appearing nearly as jovial as he might have expected, considering that his dart had hit exactly where he had intended.

“Last time I ever come help you cut willows,” the tracker grumbled, rolling stiffly to his feet and doing his best to brush the bits of mud and broken ice from his clothing.  Roger, though, was grinning right along with Einar, glad to see that the fugitive’s aim remained true and his arm good, despite the man’s rather harried appearance and the fact that he was presently shaking so from the cold and damp that it seemed nearly unbelievable he’d been able to hit anything, at all.

“Have to teach me to use one of those dart-thrower things sometime, if you’re willing.”  The pilot pulled Einar’s dart out of the ground, closely examining its construction before returning it.  “Used a lot of different weapons over the years, but this isn’t one of them.”

“Pretty basic, really,” Einar wrung some of the water out of his sleeves, vigorously shook his hands  to restore some circulation and secured both darts and thrower to his pack, “but takes some practice to master the throw.  If you’re here long enough, we can do some target practice.”

“Yeah, you’ve done plenty of target practice already there, Asmundson.  Never did care for being a target, myself.”

“Me either. And who was hunting who, just now?  I’d call this self-defense.”

“Right…  Speaking of self-defense, I’m thinking we’d better hurry up with these willows and get on back up to camp, or I know two ladies who will be on the war path about our being late.  They’re waiting on us to finish drying that elk meat, aren’t they?  And I saw the way your lady looked at us as we were leaving.  She’ll have my hide if I keep you out here too long.  I’ve seen how she wields that rabbit stick of hers, too, so it’s no joking matter!

Einar just shook his head, returned to cutting willows.

31 January, 2015

31 January 2015

Sun coming up over the ridge as Einar, Liz and their guests worked to slice mostly frozen elk meat for jerky, pile of prepared slices quickly growing on the slab of clean granite Liz had provided for the purpose.  Will, not yet quite old enough to be handed a knife of his own so he could participate in the work but clearly wishing to help, balanced his way from one person to the next, occasionally taking an unsupported step when the next knee or shoulder was a bit too far away.  This greatly delighted Susan, who set aside her work and encouraged the little one to let go and walk to her.  Four wobbly steps, but he did it, changing course at the last minute to pursue Muninn, who sat watching the jerky-slicing with great interest from his perch on Einar’s shoulder.  Will could not quite reach the bird, stood on tiptoe against his father’s side and made a well-controlled lunge for a handful of tail feathers, but missed when the raven saw what was happening and took a timely hop to the side.  Tumbling to the floor beside Einar, Will squealed in delight as the raven hopped down beside him and gently twisted a bit of hair in his beak.

Susan laughed. “It looks like the raven remembers his job here.  You know, he never would approach either of us after you folks left.  Just sat in the spruce outside by the deck and watched through the windows late in the afternoon and in the evenings, trying to catch a glimpse of you.  During the day he would be gone.  I’d always see him flying off in the same direction about daylight, and returning from a different one, so I think he had a big circuit he was making, probably up to the mine and over the ridge.  Bud and I thought as springtime really got started down there some kind of instinct might kick in and he’d go off in search of other ravens, start a family, but he never did deviate from that routine of his.  You folks are his family now, it seems, and he sure is glad to be home.”

Einar held out an arm, and the bird hopped up onto it, settling on his shoulder.  “Kinda glad to have the old buzzard back here with us.  Thanks.”

“Yeah,” Bud chimed in, “but as you said, no way we’d come up here just to bring back the bird.  Come to take you folks out of here, Asmundson.  If you’ll go.  Take you down the hill.”

Eyes going dark at the suggestion, Einar focused intently for a time on the meat he was slicing, cold-tremors disappearing from his hands as he added several neat, precise strips to the pile before answering with a shake of his head.  “You know we can’t do that.  Search may have tapered off, feds moved their focus to other matters, but the minute we put ourselves down there where random contacts with other people are more likely…well, you know that’s how this sort of thing ends.  No.  Got a lot to teach our little boy, up here.  Lot of life for him to live.”

“Hey, I know it.  Not suggesting you folks move on into town and start parading around in the streets with your buckskins and atlatls and all and wait for the feds to notice, or anything like that.  Simply suggesting a little drop in elevation, maybe a place with a few more resources so you’re not having to fight so hard to get by, all the time.  Which would have the added advantage of confusing the heck out of anybody who’s still lookin’ for you, because it would be such a break in the pattern!”

“It’d be the end, Kilgore.”

“Yeah, end of you always having to look over your shoulder, keep watch at night and scramble inside to put out the fire whenever you hear a plane in the distance.  Wouldn’t have to be the end of anything else.  Could be a new start.”

Einar just shook his head, kept slicing jerky, and the tracker let it go for the moment, silently musing as he worked.  You wouldn’t know what to do with it, would you?  With the end of the search, a chance to live what most folks would consider a more normal, settled life.  It’d probably kill ya before a year was out.  You need the running, don’t you?  The struggle.  I get it.  Don’t know about your Lizzie, though.  Seems she might appreciate a break from all this, just a year or two while the little one does some growing.  Got to be some way to make it work for everyone…

By the time the sun had reached an angle where it really began to warm the little tent—and thaw the meat they were trying to slice, rendering the work more difficult—the job was nearly finished.  As they worked, Susan had further detailed goings-on in the valley, start of the season for her greenhouse business, local politics in Culver Falls—Sheriff Watts had, because of his vocal opposition to the former federal occupation of the town, become a very popular local figure and probably could have reached state or even national office, had he been inclined to give up his post as Sheriff—and the latest news about her grandchildren. 

Liz found the conversation quite pleasant, these little scenes of a quiet, settled life as told by Susan; Einar was just glad he didn’t have to be any closer than he currently was to the crowd and bustle she was describing.  Three guests were plenty to deal with, and the more seldom they could put in their appearances, the better.   He did however, find a fair amount of intelligence value in Susan’s telling of local events down in the valley.  Seemed Kilgore must have been close to right when he described not only an end to the active search that has been based just outside the town, but a general loss of interest on the part of the feds,  This, had he allowed himself to indulge, would have brought to Einar a significant degree of relief, as it meant the various planes, choppers and ground operations they spotted from time to time more than likely bore no relation to any sort of ongoing search, and that they could, with the taking of reasonable precautions—no building of three-story split-log mansions out in the middle of forty acre meadows paving the driveway with mud-and-pine-needle bricks and putting up fences to keep a herd of seventy or eighty mountain goats, for instance, and he laughed silently at the thought—likely live out their lives in the high country not only free of actual interference, but of the constant need to be on their toes and expecting attack, all the time.  A tempting vision, but he knew better.  Down that path lay only complacency, discovery and eventual capture.  Not going that way.  Not with his family, and not had he been alone.  Not a good way for all of this to end.  Liz was staring at him, apparently waiting for him to answer something, and he realized that being lost in thought, he had failed to hear the question.  He looked at her, smiled, hoped she might repeat it.

“Don’t you think it sounds like something we can consider?  Expanding our territory, maybe moving down a little lower where we’ll have access to a wider variety of plants and critters through the summer, and a little less struggle when winter comes?  Maybe this is the time for it.”

Frustration.  Of course she hadn’t heard him, the silent words in his head, but he would have hoped there to be no need, hoped she was thinking similarly.  “We’ll talk about it.”

That, she understood.  The conversation could wait.  “Well, let’s get this jerky hung up and drying, then!”  Susan exclaimed, rising from her eat by the tent wall.  “It looks like we’ve got quite a pile of it.  What are you going to use for racks?”

A sheepish grin from Einar as he remembered his failed willow-gathering mission several days prior.  “Was going to use willows.  Started out to find some a few days ago, and instead found smoke in the canyon, and at the end of the smoke, you folks.  Never did get around to cutting the willows.  So looks like you three’ll have to stand in here and hold the jerky while it dries. Link hands maybe, and form a circle. You’ll kinda freeze at night, but will thaw out when the sun comes up.  At these temperatures, the whole process may take a few days…”

“Huh.  You can forget that!”  Bud bellowed.  “Come on, Rog.  Let’s go find the fella some willows.  On your feet, Asmundson.  If we do the finding, you got to do the carrying.  

Susan laughed and began helping Liz gather up the sliced jerky strips as the three men set off, Muninn flapping delightedly along beside Einar.

16 January, 2015

16 January 2015

A clear night up in the little basin, stars wheeling slowly overhead and no gust of wind coming to disturb the improvised tents beneath which Roger, Bud and Susan had taken shelter for the night.  Though the night air was chilly at that high elevation, cold enough, certainly, to form on the sun-softened snow the rock-hard crust which made spring travel so easy and so trackless on spring mornings in the high country.  But even through the frigid night hours rose the warm, living smells of thawing ground and awakening vegetation which heralded spring as surely as did the lengthening hours of daylight.  Susan smiled in her sleep as these living and life-giving smells rode the slightest whisper of wind as it passed down the spruce-laden slopes and through her open-sided tent, dreaming of Will, walking, exploring a meadow of Indian paintbrush rimmed with skunk cabbages while the aspens, leaves still the new, brilliant yellow-green of spring, rustled their water-song overhead.

Too tired to dream after his days out on the canyon rim and the long climb back to the basin, Einar lay enfolded in the welcome blackness of sleep, more than ready for a few hours without movement.  Despite his willingness to stay in the bed and leave further frozen wanderings for the morning, he did not seem to be getting much warmer after an hour or so in the sleeping bag, and Liz was starting to shiver, herself, after being there with him for a while.  His body seemed to be radiating the cold, and she was doubtful of her ability to produce enough heat for both of them.  

Will, at least, was warm in his own little nest of furs off to the side, and was sleeping, so she waited, hoping things would improve so she could join him in sleep.  Not happening, and not a particularly useful situation for anyone, she finally decided, though Einar himself seemed perfectly content with the arrangement.  Content, or perhaps simply too exhausted to notice, and it was the latter which had her a bit worried.  Creeping over to the smoldering coals of the previous evening’s fire she fanned them to life, choosing a few smooth granite stones and rolling them into the resulting bed of living, glowing orange.  Crouching there and warming herself over the coals Liz waited as the rocks heated, quickly wrapping several of them in bits of flannel when she decided they were ready, and hurrying back to bed.

Einar had curled up into a little ball during her absence, still not fully awake—good thing, she could only assume, or he might well have decided that his best course of action involved leaving the bed, and the shelter, and lying in the snow for the remainder of the night to increase his cold tolerance, or some such—and she had some difficulty in persuading him to change his position.  Succeeding at last, she rolled one of the hot rocks down to the foot of the sleeping bag and nestled the others in the hollow of Einar’s stomach where he lay curled up on his side.  He only shook harder at the introduction of this new heat source, but Liz was hopeful that the rocks would do the job.  Already they seemed to be countering the chill that had pervaded the place since his coming to bed, and after a time Einar stirred, seemed to be waking, stirring, trying once more to leave the bed, so that she had to hold him in place over his objections.

“I’ll keep you up all night with this.  Going to…take a while before I can…”

“It’s ok.  I’ve been up at night anyway these past few nights, wondering where you were, and at least now I know.  I’m sure we’ll both get some sleep.”  Which seemed to suit Einar just fine, he far too weary to mind the continued chill in his body, and drifting quickly back towards sleep.  Liz, though, found herself less ready.

“Einar, you have to stop this.”

“Uh…trying.  May take a while.  Said I’d…I’d go outside so I wouldn’t…be bothering you so much, but you…”

“No, you big goof, I don’t mean you’ve got to stop shivering.  Don’t stop that!  You have to finish getting warm.  I mean you’ve got to stop freezing yourself like this all the time, in the first place.  It’s spring.  No sense freezing to death in the springtime, and don’t say you can’t help it because of where we live…you could always wear more clothes.  Or eat more, or both.  It’s a choice.  Isn’t it?”


There seemed little more to say, so she did her best to go to sleep
Liz woke at daylight to the sound of conversation outside, momentarily disoriented and thinking Einar must be carrying on a lively discussion with himself, before remembering the happenings of the past day and realizing that he and Bud must be taking a look at the meat-smoking tent.

“What is this thing, Asmundson?  A sauna?  Radar dome?  Snow camouflage so planes won’t spot you folks when you’re lounging around out here in your brightly-colored Hawaiian shirts?”

Einar laughed at that, a relief to Liz after his strained silence the night before and the long, cold night, and she pulled Will into the bag with her, wanting to feed him before she got up.

“Yeah, camouflage, Einar retorted, “so we can spend some time outside without being spotted by every lost tourist that wanders by looking for a place to camp.”

“You calling us lost tourists?  We’re not lost.  Took a lot of effort to find you folks, you know.”

“How did you do it?”

“Roger had a starting point, because he knew where he’d dropped you.  We flew over that, took a look, then I spent some time with maps and tried to figure what made the most sense.  What you would do.  I’m a tracker, and you know real well that a tracker doesn’t just follow marks in the snow or dirt.  His job is to get inside the head of his quarry, strip everything away and take a good long look at his soul.  That’s the only way to know a human-critter’s intentions, or his likely path.  Came pretty doggone close this time, I’d have to say.”

“For a lost tourist…”

Bud took a playful swing at Einar with the stout spruce stick he was using that morning to alleviate the soreness of knee and hip left behind by the previous day’s climb, surprised at the speed of the man’s reaction as he dodged, dropped to one knee and seized the stick in both hands.  Kilgore could have pressed the matter, thrown the fugitive to the ground with his greater weight, but instead loosed his hold and took a step back, not liking the dead-calm, faraway look in the man’s eye. 

“Whoa, take it easy there Asmundson.  Just checking your response time, making sure you were still on top of things.”

Einar didn’t answer, right away, crouching against the trunk of a spruce and watching the tracker with wary eyes until after a space of several minutes he grinned, relaxed and handed the stick back to Bud.  “Yeah, I know it.”

Roger, Susan and Liz were up by that time, joining them beside the white canopy of the jerky-smoking tent as they waited somewhat anxiously for the sun to come up over the ridge.  Cold that morning, and Einar, still not entirely trusting that their guests had not been observed somewhere along their journey, did not want a fire just yet.  

At Susan’s suggestion they all moved beneath the canopy, taking with them sections of the remaining frozen elk to slice for jerky.

31 December, 2014

31 December 2014

Sitting together in the little bubble of warm, still air beneath the parachute canopy and passing around a pot of Liz’s spruce-needle tea, everyone began relaxing after their long climb, Susan holding Will and delighting in becoming reacquainted with the little one as Bud began explaining their presence in the canyon.

“Knew you wouldn’t be too happy to see us here, Asmundson, and had a heck of a time actually figuring out how to start looking for you, but there’s stuff we figured you ought to know.”

Einar was skeptical, but silent.  Bud couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“It’s springtime in the valley, man, and they’re not lookin’ for you anymore!  Packed up and gone home, all of them, after so many months of hearing nothing from you.  Rumor is they figure an avalanche must’ve got you.  All but declared you dead—a third time!”    

“They’ve done that before, and it hasn’t stuck.  Shouldn’t have risked leaving a trail just to come and tell us that.”

“Nah, they got lots of other irons in the fire this time  That’s the other thing I came to tell you.  History going on, down there.  It’s been quite a year.  The tax protests up in New York and New Jersey—never thought we’d see those folks stand up, but guess some of them finally had enough of their Bolshevik rulers—folks up in Washington State refusing en masse to follow some really onerous new gun laws that went into effect this year, and showing up by the thousands on the grounds of the State Capitol to commit newly-illegal acts, right in front of the State Troopers.  Troopers just watched.  Were none too pleased with the laws themselves, most of them, and sure weren’t gonna be the ones to deliberately spark some sort of armed conflict right there on the Governor’s front lawn.  Ha!  And the big one…guess you would have had no way to hear about the Ranch Rebellion, as folks’re calling it now, but the feds got tangled up with a couple of old ranchers and their families over property disputes, went in with guns and tried to seize land, round up cattle—and failed.”

“Was there shooting?”

“Nah, but there would have been, if they hadn’t decided to stand down.  Couple thousand citizens showed up, armed and ready.  Moms and dads with a couple of their half-grown kids ready to be a part of history, local folks, out of state, vets from half a dozen wars, snipers up on the Interstate overpass...  Remarkable restraint on both sides, I would say.  All it would have taken was one jumpy trigger finger on either side, and this thing would have got started.  Feds thought they’d be able to strong-arm everybody, had the Hostage Rescue Team on standby a few miles away, but there came a point, a very particular point when they saw that folks were going to stand, and they knew they had to either back down, or commit to a real shooting war.  And they backed down, and they went home.  It was a beautiful thing.  Beautiful.”

“You were there?”

“Yes sir, I was there.  Proud to say it.  Me and my bride, both.  Roger flew us down.  We didn’t jump this time, but maybe in the future, if circumstances require…”

“Yep,” Roger finished off the pot of spruce tea, passed the empty vessel back to Liz for a re-fill, “me and my little green-and-white will definitely have a job to do, as things progress down there.  Did some aerial surveillance after dropping Bud and Sue off at the rally, got some real good photos of the crowd facing off the feds, and almost tangled with a little FBI chopper that figured I was in its airspace.  Fun times!”

“Yeah, Roger, I know you miss the action,” the tracker boomed.  “Don’t we all, sometimes?  Kinda surprised you weren’t dropping stuff on the feds’ camp down there, just for the fun of it!  Sheriff Watts was there too, with his wife and two grown sons.  Remember him?  Always knew he was a fine man, but now I’ve got no doubts.”

Susan nodded.  “They camped with us.  There was a whole Culver Falls/Clear Springs contingent that showed up.  People who used to come to our weekly meetings when Bill was living…some that I hadn’t seen for years.”

“Right,” Bud added, “that’s for sure!  Half expected to see you there, Asmundson.”

“I was a little busy.”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s the last sort of place you need to be showing up right now.  I’m sure the feds had eyes and ears in that crowd, looking out for just such appearances.  But later, if things get a little hotter…well, let me just say that you’re already no longer anywhere near their top priority, and I can certainly conceive of a time when you could probably come out into the World again, if you wanted to.  I still say we could use you down there.  Train folks, give them young guys a little of the grit-in-your-gut or whatever it is has kept you going, over the years.  Only a little of it, though.  Too much of it’ll kill a fella.”

“I’m still here, Kilgore.”


Uncomfortable silence, Liz passing out elk jerky to everyone, including the raven, who had not left Einar’s shoulder the entire time.  Sun was still shining on the top foot or so of the chute, and it was providing enough warmth that both Bud and Susan had shed their down coats, Will having squirmed about in his furs until Liz had freed him of their excessive insulation.  The warmth didn’t seem to be having much effect on Einar, who, Liz knew from long experience, ought to be shaking quite noticeably as he thawed out.  Instead he sat, cross-legged and still, arms folded against his stomach and the ice barely beginning to melt in his beard as he listened intently to Bud’s narrative with huge, quiet eyes and the occasional hint of a faraway smile.  Liz wished he’d move around, make some noise, get mad, even.  His stillness was scaring her. 

The conversation turned, then, to events in the valley, Susan’s work to prepare for the spring season at the greenhouse and other news of the outside world, another pleasant half hour passing as the sun finally sank behind the spruces and everyone—with the exception of Einar, who seemed unwilling or unable to move from the position he had held since sitting down—enjoyed generous helpings of Liz’s elk stew, which had been simmering by the fire in the shelter since shortly after their return.

Despite the relative warmth of the little tent, which had increased rather beyond that provided by the sinking sun due to the number of people it currently enclosed, Einar was still an unfortunate shade of purple by the time the sun went down, struggling now to stay aware and part of the conversation, though doing a remarkably good job, Liz thought, of concealing the fact.  The only best answer seemed to be to head to bed and hope he would follow, which proved no problem, as their guests were quite weary after their long climb, ready to head to their improvised tents.  Einar, though, proved less ready to settle in for the night, quietly insisting that he first had to make one final circuit of the little ridge above the basin, satisfy himself that the tracker had not been followed up from the canyon.

Einar finally slid into bed sometime after dark, still not entirely reasonably well assured that no trouble was coming that night, at least, and knowing that without a bit of sleep he would be too weary to do much about such an eventuality, should it come.  Liz moved close, tried to start warming him, and Einar held himself rigid against the shivers that were trying to come, in awe at the contrast in temperature, at her existence.

“You’re so warm…”

“No, it’s just that you’re frozen, still.  You feel like a block of ice.”

He moved away.  “I’m sorry.  Can go back outside and…”

“No, don’t you dare!  That’s not what I meant.”  She got her arms around him, clasping her hands where they crossed the deeply furrowed ridges of the ribs just above his sternum, trapping him.  He could have escaped with enough effort, but he was tired, and did not want to go anywhere.  Liz could feel his relenting, his acceptance, and was glad.  “You stay right here until you’re something like a normal human temperature, again.  I don’t know how you survive being so cold all the time.”

He smiled in the darkness, stopped struggling, relaxed against her and allowed the shivering to take over.  “Practice.”

26 December, 2014

26 December 2014

Liz had heard them coming.  Finally convinced that Einar must lack the ability to return on his own she had set out once more to search for him, Will on her back and the shelter closed up tight with the expectation that she might not return for many days.  Einar had given her no reason for his leaving, no clue in speech or action, in the days leading up to his disappearance, as to where he might have gone.  Which lead her to believe that he had likely met with some accident or other misfortune out there, and would be, by now, almost certainly gone.  She tried not to think it, tried to remind herself that he had many times come through circumstances that ought to have ended his life, and surely would be capable of doing so again, whatever had happened out there, but she was having a difficult time believing. 

More likely, he had been lying face-down in a snowdrift somewhere out there for the past two days, finally having well and truly reached the end of his strength and died on his feet as he had always wanted.  Doing her best to banish such thoughts she had set out for one final search, winding her way down through deadfall timber and around the remains of the winter’s snow, melting, seeping, the sound of spring, of new life, and some quarter of the way through the band of deadfall, she began hearing another sound, too.

Footsteps, and then voices, and Liz froze.  Concealing herself behind the nearest cluster of still-bare serviceberry scrub she crouched, listening, praying that Will would make no sound, for the voice was not Einar’s.  Her hand went to the pistol Einar had left for her, body low against the ground and Will beginning a silent, squirming protest.  Had they taken him, some intruder, some federal search party, captured him and followed his trail up through the deadfall?  Could be.  Anything could be, but her mind told her this was a very unlikely scenario, seeing as she had, herself, been unable to find more than a few feet of discernable trail in her entire time of searching.  What, then?  He was showing them the way?  He would never.  Then, she heard another voice, a female voice, and this one she recognized.  Susan!  Still, she did not rise from her hiding place, wanting to be more than certain as to the identity of their guests before she risked exposing Will to any danger.  Squirming so that she had a better view through the tangle of serviceberry trunks near the ground she found Susan, Bud beside her.  Other footsteps then, nearer ones, and she scrambled to her feet just in time to avoid tripping Einar as he stepped around the cluster of brush which had concealed her.

Einar barely even had time to be startled before Liz grabbed him, he recognizing her at once and little Will squealing in delight at the sight of his father.  For a moment no one spoke, Bud and his little group hanging back to allow the family a bit of time together.  Liz didn’t know what to say first, whether to question Einar about his long absence or try to figure out where he’d managed to acquire Bud and Susan, so she ended up saying nothing at all, simply pressing him to her, overjoyed that they were all together again.

“Saw their smoke,” he tried to explain.  “Down in the canyon.  Was just going for some willows but had to find out who was down there.  Ended up stalking them for two days before being sure.  Had no way to let you know…”

“I know now.  It’s ok.  I know now.”  She let him go then, Einar quickly reclaiming the sticks he’d been using to keep himself upright during the climb and she waving to Bud and Susan, who hurried to join the family there beneath the serviceberry scrub, Roger a few paces behind.  Returning from some scouting mission of his own above the timbered slopes to the east, Muninn the raven circled once, dived in through the trees and settled himself on Einar’s shoulder.  Will lost all interest in the human visitors, then, remembering the bird and reaching for the iridescent sheen of his feathers with both hands, nearly succeeding in escaping from the hood of Liz’s parka before she could stop him.

“You brought Muninn!”  Liz greeted Susan.  “How did you do that?”

“Oh, he follows Bud everywhere.  Has since you left.  I think he believes Bud knew where Einar went, and intended to find him.”

“How did you find us?”

“Oh, it wasn’t easy,” Bud bellowed, “the way this man of yours heads for the highest, roughest country like a wounded bull elk and hunkers down to wait for spring, or death, or whatever comes first.  Not easy at all, and in the end it was him found us, anyway.  Closest we came was the bottom of the canyon.”

Einar cast a dark look at the tracker, wishing, Liz was certain, that they had never come at all, but she was more than glad to see them—so long as their coming did not bring with it too much risk of discovery and of having to run, again.  Afternoon well underway and temperatures already beginning to drop on that north-facing slope, everyone seemed in favor when Liz suggested they head for the shelter.

After a good hour’s additional travel the party reached the little basin which concealed Einar and Liz’s winter home, the visitors looking relieved to be through all the deadfall and able to rest, at last.  Einar showed everyone around the clearing, pointing out here and there spots where overhanging evergreens had kept snow accumulation to a minimum thorough the winter, and which thus presented dry and good locations to set up a tent.  Or to sleep under the stars, as the case might be, for everyone, as Bud pointed out, had left their tents down in the canyon… 

“You’d be welcome in the shelter,” Einar allowed, “but it’s no cabin, like we had before.  We’d be sleeping stacked on top of each other in there.  You folks have any tarps or plastic of any sort in your packs?”

Tarps they did have, and an ample supply of cordage, and the three of them went to see what could be done to secure nighttime lodging.

While their guests set up camp Liz brought water and elk jerky for Einar, wanted him to sit with her on the fallen aspen that served as bench in front of the shelter, but he remained doggedly standing, balanced between his two walking sticks as he smiled tiredly at Will, answering the little one’s babbling inquiries as seriously and attentively as if they had come from an adult and were not composed of at least as many unintelligible words as they were intelligible.  Liz liked that about him, the way he seemed to regard their son as a little person with a fully-formed mind and the ability to understand far more than he could communicate.  Already she could see that the two of them were developing a special understanding of one another, and supposed the very things that made Einar so different and her interactions with him at times so very difficult must be an advantage when it came to his ability to understand and communicate with the child.

Einar wasn’t eating, and she insisted, trying to press a piece of jerky into his hand.  He looked hungrily at the food and appeared anxious enough to eat it, but seemed unwilling to loose his iron grip on the two sticks he’d brought with him, and she Liz was pretty sure she knew why.

While thoroughly convinced that he had succeeded at concealing his condition from Bud, Susan and the pilot—lots of people used sticks to improve balance while getting around in the mountains, after all, and they had been working too hard, themselves, to give him much notice—there was no hiding it from Liz.  She knew he didn’t use a stick for balance, not unless it was a spear that he happened to be carrying, anyway, and never had she known him to use two of them.  No sense delaying the matter.  Perhaps there would be some way she could improve things, for him.

“What’s wrong with your legs?  Did you fall…?” 

Einar looked away.  “Fell plenty, but I always got back up.  Don’t know what’s wrong.  It will pass.”

Despite Einar’s easy confidence, Liz could see from the hard lines on his face and the distance in his eyes that he was in pain, struggling to stay on his feet and afraid to sit down lest he find himself unable to rise again.  She gently pulled him down beside her on the log.

 “Maybe it won’t pass.  Maybe your body is just done.  The muscles.  They’ve all been consumed just to keep you alive and going.” 

He wished she wouldn’t talk about that, not now, with the possibility that their guests might hear.  “Been that way for a long time,” he quietly replied, fidgeting on the bench and wishing to be back on his feet, “and I’ve been getting by.”

“Well, now you’re not.  It seems like you’d better think about eating more, or maybe next time it won’t be your legs that are wanting to give out, but your heart.  It’s a muscle, too, you know….” 

He did know, easy as he found it most times to ignore the fact.  “Yeah.  I am eating, though.” 

“Barely enough to keep you alive, and certainly not enough so that you can start gaining a little weight.  You’re still losing.  I can see it.  You need more.  Need to get really serious about it.”

Einar just shrugged, got painfully back to his feet, but she wouldn’t let it go.

“I would hate to lose you now, you know.  When we’ve just about got through the winter and spring is here, Will’s first spring, and he’s about to start walking…”

“Oh, I have no intention of dying in the springtime”—he grinned, a mischievous glint returning to his eyes and a bit of  a spring to his step as he headed to the shelter to put away his pack—“if I have anything to do with it.  Wouldn’t want that.  Would much rather go in the fall, in the first big snowstorm of the season, maybe climb up to the top of a peak and stand there where the wind breaks over the rocks, become part of a cornice or something, or better still find a big, windswept saddle up near the divide where the Jetstream is sweeping across smelling like broken granite and eternity and endless distance, snow coming down sideways, and just…”

“Stop it!  I don’t want to hear that.”

He was silent—she had brought it up, and he’d only been trying to answer her; the woman really puzzled him, at times—and Liz let it go.

Guests finished setting up their improvised camp and perhaps an hour of angled sunlight remaining before the cold of evening really set in, Liz invited everyone to join her in the parachute-tent eventually destined to hold the jerky-smoking rack, remembering the pleasant afternoon she, Einar and Will had several days prior enjoyed in the pocket of warm, still air trapped beneath its fabric and thinking perhaps there everyone could rest, Einar could finally warm up a bit and Bud and Susan might hopefully explain the purpose of their visit.