Gathering a few items, Einar and Liz started up towards the red ridge together, knowing that time was somewhat short and wanting to make the best of it, to have plenty of opportunity to scout for sheep before dusk began falling. Looked like they had several hours. Climbing, Liz beside him, Einar’s mind wandered back over the events of the past several days, looking for clues, trying to figure out how he had come to the conclusion that remaining there at the basin was a reasonable thing to do, a reasonable risk, after they had been compromised by the recent visit. Wasn’t entirely sure, could, he knew, still quite easily talk himself into an urgent need to move on. Place was no longer safe, no longer really theirs, and while Kilgore had been there previously, had apparently kept their secret and Susan had done the same during and after their brief stay at her house, there was no guarantee that they would go on doing so, if circumstances changed drastically. Well, Bud would, would make his best effort at it at least, of that, Einar was sure. Susan was a bit more of an unknown, though Liz certainly did seem to trust her wholly. And, there was no guarantee that the pair, even if taking every precaution and acting with the best of intentions, would not be backtracked, inadvertently lead the searchers right to their little home in the basin. All of which--any of which--were reasons to abandon the place as quickly as possible, make themselves scarce in the timber and never look back, yet he found himself willing to stay. Wanting to stay. Hoped he wasn’t making the wrong decision in allowing for it. Would just have to see. Give it some time, and see. Trouble was, the way these things went, he wouldn’t likely know there was a problem until it was too late. Would have no way to know.
Yet, there they were. Staying. Building a stove, chimney, woodshed, caches, adding to their meat supply. He shrugged, hoped he wasn’t making a big mistake. Last mistake he’d ever get the chance to make, or close to it. Were risks either way, serious ones, and had he been alone…but he wasn’t alone. Would, he knew, probably be dead by then had he been alone, dead, or living in an old mine or cave somewhere like a wild thing, creeping around in the dirt and subsisting on the raw meat of rabbits or martens or whatever he could get his hands on and sometimes going for months at a time without a fire because he didn’t dare make the smoke, wouldn’t dare even if it had been months since he’d heard the last low plane or watched the last chopper work its search pattern over one of the distant ridges, half freezing at night as he lay on the ground, perhaps protected by a hide or two, a pile of spruce needles, perhaps not, but not much caring either way. Getting back down to the basic elements, skin and bone and sinew and sheer, dogged determination, becoming, with the passing of time, more and more like the ornery old loner of a wolverine whose still-bloody claws--dried blood, long dried, but still there in some of the grooves--he wore about his neck. A simpler life, and not a bad one as far as he was concerned--he’d lived it before, more than once and not always because he had no other choice, had taken solace in its struggle and simplicity, the very uncertainty of his day-to-day existence, of the continued existence of essential things needed to keep a man’s physical being going, seeming somehow right to him, oddly reassuring. A life he could and would willingly live once again, if the circumstances were right for it. Yet, here he was. Wife, child soon, house to stock for the winter, and it was good. Was worth protecting, worth dying for and, perhaps more significantly, for there were in his world few such things, worth living for, too.
They would, for the time, stay. Continue with their preparations for the coming child, continue, also, to expand their other options--caches, alternate shelter, a way out, should they suddenly find themselves in need. For the moment, they were in need of more meat for jerky, more hides. Especially the hides. Were way behind when it came to preparing warm clothing for the winter, even with the items left them by Bud and Susan. Two pair of socks, wool and very nearly new, especially in comparison to the threadbare rags that they’d so carefully been washing and using for the past many months, a fleece vest from Susan and from Kilgore, a pair of gloves. The rest of it Liz and Einar had insisted they keep, as it really had been a minimal load for the three days of backcountry travel that lay between them and civilization. Had tried to insist, anyway, for--Einar didn’t know it yet--that morning after breakfast when Liz had gone into the timber to round up a few additional twigs for boiling up a pot of tea she had found something hanging in a tree, a package of some sort covered in black plastic, and when she had lowered it and unwound the plastic covering, she found it to be Bud Kilgore’s sleeping bag. She had not yet told Einar of her discovery. All he knew was that they were woefully behind on obtaining hides. At least they had the bear, would sleep warm in the cabin, all three of them, but without good, fur-lined parkas and leggings, new boots, travel over any great distance would be a major challenge. A danger. For himself, Einar did not much care. Not as much, perhaps, as he should have. Was used to freezing, knew how to get through it, how to live with it, knew in no uncertain terms where his limits were, for often he had sought them, pushed himself until he ran up against them and knew their features well, knew their face almost as that of an old friend, and to some extent so did Liz, but the thought of her having to do anything like that as a new mother, and of possibly seeing the little one suffer because of it, was not something he even wanted to contemplate. Though of course he had to. Was doing so, even at that moment. Well. He’d have those hides. Would be ready, and they would be warm, his little family, Liz and the baby snug as a mother bear and her cub in their den, when the time came.
Up through the varied bands of timber they traveled then, aspen, fir, the darker slashes of almost-blue spruce, gaining elevation as they sought out the rocky heights where previously they had seen sheep, and signs of sheep, stopping from time to time to study the rocky outcroppings, scan them with binoculars and watch for movement, for anything that might look out of place in the least, but seeing nothing. Wrong time of day. The sheep, it seemed to Einar, must come through that area in the morning, for their large squarish tracks were plentiful there in the soft soil at the base of one of the scree slides that lay at the base of a long, steep couloir, fairly fresh tracks, but no sheep. Considering the creatures, picturing how they moved, how they typically spent their days, Einar found himself suddenly led to investigate a nearby cluster of low-growing firs, discovering that yes, in fact, the creatures had been there, had bedded down amongst the sheltering trees, and had, by all appearances, made a frequent thing of it. Which discovery made the entire climb worthwhile, gave him a place to which to return and lie in wait as the sheep rose and sought out the higher reaches of the ridge where they liked to pass the hours browsing the little patches of grass that grew green and vibrant in the damp spots between rockslides and scree fields. He would come, would wait and, when the time was right, perched on one of the escarpments that overlooked the slope, would take one. There near the trees just as the creature emerged, there where it would have no cliffs in the immediate vicinity to topple over and give him a near-impossible task in retrieving its carcass. The density of the timber just below the spot might mean he’d be in for a long and somewhat difficult track should his hit be less than solid, but Einar was sure of his ability to follow the creature until it met its end, to hopefully direct it down-slope in doing so, leaving him with less distance to cover in carrying it, later. Doubtful, since the animal’s first instinct when hit would be to seek the safety of the heights where few predators could follow its agile feet, but he could hope. Pointed out to Liz the bedding area, indicated, touching a finger to his nose, the strong ammonia-fennel scent of sheep urine that spoke of the amount of time the creatures spent in the area, and she understood, inspecting the off-round depressions in the yellowing grass and tracing with a finger the outline of one of the tracks.
Tell me about it! I want to hear about it, she wanted to shout at him. Miss hearing you go on and on about one thing or another, giving me the entire natural history of the bighorn sheep species in and around the Rocky Mountains when I ask a simple question about why their tracks are more square than those of deer, but I hesitate to ask right now, because you wouldn’t say anything, would you? You’d just smile and nod--I’m glad you’re smiling, at least--and do something with your hands that I wouldn’t understand, and that would be it, wouldn’t it? What’s happened to you? What’s going on? Was it something Kilgore did, or is this just a continuation of the…trouble…you were having the other day when I found you up in the rocks above the cabin? I don’t know, and you won’t tell me, so I guess I’ll just have to be patient, wait, give you some more time and see if you come out of it. And if not…well, I may just have to start carrying on conversations with myself--out loud! Which might just aggravate you so much that you’d start talking again before long, anyway…
A theory she was not to have time to test just then, for something had caught Einar’s eye up in the rocks that soared rugged and nearly vertical above them, and, crouching, he motioned for her to be silent, to follow him.