22 April, 2015

22 April 2015

With the smoking fire to attend and his body soon chilled and uncomfortable where it pressed raw-boned and un-insulated against the aspen trunk, Einar’s sleep did not last long.  Probably a good thing, considering the dreams which seemed to assail him as soon as his eyes began closing, bamboo ridges hard against his ribs, humid, stifling stench rising from the fetid water beneath his cage as shoulders and hips burned with an agony which seemed certain to tear the limbs from their sockets and the interrogator shouting, shouting, repeating his demands, adding weight to his prisoner’s back when the man did not speak, and the man, though Einar tried to break contact, send his mind off in another direction and observe the scene from a distance, was himself. 

More weight on his back, breath crushed from him, sinews tearing, he could feel it, tried to resist, lash out, failing, attempting once more to distance himself, but he could not; trapped in the moment he screamed, a wordless cry of animalistic rage, terror, and Liz held him, spoke quiet words, waited for his struggling to cease.  It did not cease, grew more violent, so she held him tighter, speaking his name, calling to him, scooping up a handful of crusty snow and pressing it to the back of his neck, his face, keeping at it until at last he stopped fighting, sank to the ground with forehead pressed tightly against his bent knees and seemed to sleep, trembling, exhausted.  Liz added a few sticks to the smoking fire, curled herself around him and tried to get them both warm.

Bud, Roger and Susan had been aware of the commotion, Susan wanting to go to Liz and help if she could, but Bud had shaken his head, whispered to give ‘em time to sort it out, and Susan had waited, glad when things quieted down. 

By morning, Einar and Liz having taken turns through the night adding wood to the smoldering fire, the jerky was thoroughly smoked and dry enough to pack away for storage.  They were up before the others, having spent a fairly chilly night out in the open, Liz preparing a breakfast of buckwheat ash cakes with some of the flour and other ingredients Susan had packed in while Einar began checking over the other jerky drying racks, removing what was ready and repositioning other strips to speed their drying.

Going about his work that morning Einar was beset by a strangeness which would not leave him, remnants, perhaps, of the previous night’s dream, everything seeming too loud, too busy, motions of those around him too quick and no quiet anywhere, even—or perhaps especially—inside him.  No getting away from it.  Busy with the jerky, checking, turning and removing it from racks as it dried and stashing it away he kept himself under careful control, tried hard not to let any of the strangeness show to their guests or even to Liz, and with a fair measure of success, but he could feel himself slipping, losing contact, becoming increasingly frantic and frenzied behind the deceptively expressionless mask into which he had disciplined his face.

Before the world could finish going strange around him and he entirely lose his place—and, incidentally, before Liz had time to serve breakfast—he slipped quietly off into the timber, knowing he needed to be alone.

Laughter in camp as Einar stalked up into the timber, Susan singing to Will as she carried him on her hip, Bud and Roger engaged in an animated conversation about some past adventure as they moved drying racks to take advantage of the soon-to-be-rising morning sun; quietly, Muninn left the lively scene and glided on silent wings after Einar.

Not until Liz set out her breakfast of molasses-smothered buckwheat cakes and called everyone for the meal did anyone—other than Bud, who noticed everything—become aware of Einar’s absence.  Susan suggested perhaps someone ought to go after him, but Liz, having some idea of the cause of his absence, insisted they let him be.  Not an easy thing for her to do, considering the way he had passed the night, and the strange distance she’d seen in his face that morning, but she knew that was the way it must be.  Muninn was gone, too; Liz knew he had gone with Einar, was somewhat reassured by the fact, and soon joined the others and did her best to enjoy the breakfast.

All day the little group worked, talked and stashed away batch after batch of jerky, a pleasant way to pass the hours, all things considered, but towards late afternoon Liz began to seriously worry about Einar, who had taken no provisions for a night spent out in the cold.

Bud finally went after Einar with Liz’s permission, found him high above the camp, pressed down between the trunks of two fallen evergreens, staring but not seeming to see.  Kilgore could see that something was not quite right with him, face unnaturally pale and blood smeared along one cheekbone where he’d apparently swiped a hand across his face at some point.  Bud hardly needed a close inspection to read the remainder of the story, wounds on Einar’s wrists and the frayed remains of  a length of nettle cord trailing from one arm telling him what the man had been about. 

The ropes were, Kilgore knew, Asmundson’s way of handling things when the memories got to being too much, a bit unorthodox, perhaps, arguably rather harsh, but the memories were harsh ones, and he had no grounds on which to dispute the man’s methods.  They’d kept him alive so far, even if sometimes just barely.  Only it appeared as though something had gone a bit wrong this time, the precise control with which Asmundson normally carried out these sessions perhaps failing him some, and now he was in a bad way, having apparently lost a lot of blood and not even realizing it.  The cords, Kilgore could see, had cut into his wrists and ankles, and his blood, depleted by lack of nutrition, had refused to clot as it should have done.  Bud sat down on a log at a respectful distance, pointed out the fact, and Einar, looking down as if seeing the scene for the first time, realized that he was right, that something had to be done.  He moved to rise, got halfway to his feet and slumped back down between the tree trunks, world starting to go black around him.

“What’d you do here, Asmundson?  Kinda lose track of things?”

Einar opened his mouth as if to speak, shut it again, uncertain how to form his thoughts into words.  The tracker moved closer, pressed his stocking cap to the most profusely bleeding of the wounds.  Einar watched him for a moment before getting the idea, taking the hat and applying pressure.

“It…ropes usually…kinda help get things back in balance again, give me some sort of…control over the whole thing, but this time…”  He shrugged, looked away.

“Didn’t work out so well this time?”

“Didn’t work at all.  I…instead of directing things myself and finding the exercise useful I just completely lost my place, ended up in the jungle with no idea of where I really was, broke the ropes, took off running and…”  he stopped, eyes looking wild and tormented in his white face.  “It’s all I’ve got, Bud.  Only way I have to manage things, keep on top of the memories and all the stuff that comes with them.  If I can’t rely on the ropes anymore, can’t know what to expect from them…”  He let out his breath in a great rush, looking empty, hollow in a way Kilgore had not seen before, and did not at all like.  “Well, kinda lost, here.”

“Yeah, Asmundson, you sure  are.  But I know the way back to camp, so what do you say we head on down there together?”

29 March, 2015

29 March 2015

Will diverted from his elk-stealing and the pirated meat recovered, work progressed on the filling of the racks, smoker soon full and Bud and Roger stepping away to lash together a third drying rack, seeing that they had more meat slices than rack space, as things stood.  Quite a supply it would be, by the time they got it all done.  The smoker fire they would not light until after dark, Einar not wanting to risk such a smoke signature by daylight and the meat, he knew, quite capable of beginning to dry all on its own, even in the absence of the warmth and smoke of the fire.  Wanting to prevent the raven from so easily robbing the racks, he began skewering the meat on spare willow wands whose ends he sharpened to ease the task, sticking these into the lashing which held together the racks.

Einar worked quietly beside Liz, each simply enjoying the presence of the other, no words needed.  Spring, things coming alive, budding, waiting, wanting to burst forth in a riot of green, new life reaching for the sun, and Einar felt it, too.  Wanted it.  Wanted life.  Was interrupted in his quiet musings by Bud, who had finished assembling his new rack and rejoined the group gathered around the current project.

 “So.  About comin’ down with us when we go.  Given it any more thought?”


“You’d be just what we need though, Asmundson, with things picking up momentum down there and folks getting serious about resistance to the way things are going, politically.  If you don’t think you’re cut out for leadership—a point on which you know the two of us disagree—you could always train.  Teach.  You know, like you did during your SERE days.”

“SERE?”  Liz asked.

“Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.  This wayward fella of yours never told you about that?  About how he spent several years teaching after stepping away from his job with the travel agency, or wherever the heck he worked after coming back from Rhodesia?”

“No, he never told me.  Travel agency?  What…?”

“Huh.  Figured he would have told you.  Yeah, travel agency or something.  Sure did travel a lot, anyhow.  All over the world, real fast-paced life, five or six different passports...  Right, Asmundson?

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Kilgore.”

“Ha!  That’s right.  You know nothing.  Nothing at all...  You know, for a guy who’s spent years on the run downing federal helicopters, blowing stuff up doing all manner of other unconventional and downright illegal things to avoid capture over that time…well, you sure do take that ancient Nondisclosure Agreement of yours seriously, don’t you?”

Einar shrugged, turned away before the tracker could see the hint of a smile that crept across his face.  Did seem a bit ironic, come to think about it…  But he’d never minded a bit of irony in his life.

“Well,” Kilgore boomed, “guess you’ll just have to ask him about it, sometime, since he won’t talk about it with us ‘intruders’ about.  But, back to SERE.  That isn’t a secret.  We can talk about that, can’t we, Asmunson?”

Einar shrugged again, set another completed skewer on the nearest drying rack and busied himself with filling a third.  Didn’t particularly like Kilgore’s line of questioning, this delving into a past whose details he did not always like to recall.  The tracker seemed to get the hint, for once, and let the matter drop, though Einar knew he hadn’t heard the last of any of it.

For the remainder of the afternoon the four of them worked away, all racks filled with elk strips before the sun set and a fire prepared and ready to light in the smoker as darkness approached.  Will spent a fair amount of time on his mother’s back and on Susan’s, adding his own lively commentary to the conversation as everyone worked.

Evening, smoker started, supper eaten and everyone retreating to tent and shelter, with the exception of Einar, who was taking the first watch with the smoker, adding wood when necessary to keep the process going through the night, and Liz, who after feeding Will and getting the child tucked snugly into the sleeping bag, decided to join him.

“So, tell me about these survival and evasion classes you taught, that Bud mentioned.  That sounds like an interesting job.”

“Yeah, it was an interesting job alright.  Was kind of refreshing after the jungle, and Rhodesia, and then the assignment I took after coming back from Africa, the ‘travel agency’ job Bud kept trying to get me to talk about.  It was awfully interesting, too, but at times felt like I was fighting another losing war, another one that the political powers-that-be had already decided we would be losing…  SERE was different.  I knew that each of those guys I helped to train would have a far better chance of coming through…well, a situation like the one I’d faced in the jungle, if they ever encountered such, after the training was complete.  That was something real, something solid that nobody could take away from them, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

“So, it was mostly survival training?  Skills like you’ve taught me, out here?”

Einar laughed softly, a sound like the wind in dead-dry oak leaves, nearly devoid of humor.  “Oh yeah, there was a lot of that.  Lot of other stuff, too.  We had to prepare them for what they would face if the evasion part didn’t work out, and they ended up being captured, too.  I was good at that part, because I’d been there.  The interrogations.  Too good, maybe, but nobody said so at the time.  In fact, I ended up running that part of the courses more often than not, because they knew I would keep it true to life.  We tried to keep everything very real, replicate situations as well as we could, prepare people…

“Your fellow instructors…did they know that part of what you’d been through in the jungle?”

“Oh, no.  Not sure I could have done it if they’d known.  At that time…well, think I was pretty good at keeping everything stashed away in separate little boxes in my mind, as far as the memories and my own experience.  Keeping it real separate from the present, almost like it had been someone else back there in that cage.  Was the only way I could keep it together, doing work like that.  There were people who knew, of course, which is part of what got me the job, but they weren’t the ones I was working with every day.”

“It was weird sometimes, because a lot of the training is based off of the experiences of people who’d been captured and held in various conflicts, interrogated, and sometimes that would get talked about, but I never let them know, never talked about my own experiences, though I’m pretty sure some of the guys must have guessed.  We did have to test the scenarios, we instructors, some of us standing in for the students to kind of get things refined and ready for them, and after a while I ended up being the one everything was tested out on, all these different…interrogation techniques, because everyone knew I could take it.  Would take it.  Interesting times.”

Einar…”  She was quiet for a minute, held him tight where they leaned together against an aspen beside the smoker tent.  “What do you think about all of that, now?  Do you think it was a good idea?”

“Sure it was.  Sure.  Was doing something worthwhile.  Just like I am now…”  And he was asleep.

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.