Frosty and decidedly cold was the morning when Einar, having checked for coals--there were none; they’d gone to bed and quit tending the fire pretty early--eased out the door, crouching out front of the cabin, listening, and his first thought was that the new stove had proven remarkably effective at keeping the temperature up in the cabin, overnight. He closed the door behind him, shivering, hurrying over to the timber at the edge of the clearing and skirting around behind the cabin, heading for the rocky outcrop behind it, meaning to climb, look, listen. Easier said than done, the way his ribs were hurting, and by the time he hauled himself up the last few feet of steep rock and onto the narrow little plateau at the top, his face was beaded with sweat despite the chill of the morning. Couldn’t pick out anything unusual as he scanned what he could see of the valley floor far below, no smoke or movement giving him an indication of his enemy’s position, for anyone who was up there discharging firearms within earshot of their basin was indeed his enemy, regardless of their intent. Which was probably to hunt elk, he figured--very deliberately pushing aside the voice that was trying to tell him that the shots had been something more, a deliberate attempt to lure him away from camp so he could be captured and then Liz; they’d found the place, knew where he was, and it had probably happened when they backtracked Kilgore after his recent visit--as the time of day and approximate elevation from which the shots seemed to have come were certainly right, as was the time of year. If he had the date figured correctly, it would that morning be sometime just after the start of the first rifle season.
The three shots coming in such quick succession had him puzzled, and he would have questioned his hearing of them, had he not been so certain. Counting and keeping track of gunshots was something his brain did rather automatically, and he knew there was little chance of his having misinterpreted the sounds. What, then? Hunter separated from his party and trying to re-connect? Several men shooting at the same animal? Lousy aim with a semi-auto rifle? Could be any of the above, he supposed, and while it did matter which, as each situation had different implications for their situation, the most important thing was that they were not alone up there, were going to have to be awfully careful not to attract the attention of whoever was making themselves at home in the area. The shots had definitely come from somewhere down lower, which was a slight comfort to Einar; perhaps they would never find their way up as high as the basin. He knew, though, that the hunters, or others, might very well travel all the way up to and over the red ridge in search of that big bull. They wouldn’t be safe again until the snow fell and drove most of the elk down out of the high country, and the hunters with them. Life in the meantime would have to be a very cautious thing indeed, movements measured and weighed against the risk they would bring, and this coming at a time when they really needed to be putting all of their energy into the race to get ready for winter. Certainly didn’t need anything to come along and slow them down, but Einar had known this was coming, was inevitable, and they’d get through it. Just have to lie low for a while, go about their season of harvest and preparation with eyes and ears wide open and a weapon never far from hand. He could live that way. Was accustomed to living that way. They’d be fine, but even as he said it, he could feel a shadow passing over him, icy hands tightening around his throat, and he knew things would be tight. They barely had time to get ready as it was, could no more afford to lose additional days than could a bear afford a pause in the frenzied eating that allowed him to pack on the fat that would see him safely through his winter sleep. That slowdown could kill them. Would kill them, if he didn’t play it just right, and he shook his head, prayed that he would have the wisdom to make everything balance out, keep them from discovery and capture while simultaneously not wasting too much time holed up safely in the cabin or under the trees somewhere as the days passed them by. Was going to be mighty challenging.
Einar was cold lying there on the bare granite of the outcropping, hands aching and body stiffening up as the untimely sweat of the climb began drying on him, and he rolled to the side, rose and headed for the break in the rocks that marked the start of the descent route, somewhat afraid that he might find himself too frozen up to manage the task if he lingered much longer up there in the rocks. Might fall. That wouldn’t do. Had to get down there and warn Liz, make sure she didn’t rekindle the fire in that new stove. Too bad. He really could have used it just then. Liz was awake when he got back to the cabin--the warmth of the place hit him as a tangible force when he opened the door; his insulation job had definitely proven somewhat effective, at least at the temperatures they were presently seeing, and he shivered harder at the change, struggled to suppress it so he’d be able to talk to her--was kneeling in front of the stove with the bear hide draped over her for warmth as she split sticks for kindling, and Einar put a hand on her shoulder, shook his head.
“Hunters. Heard three shots over towards the valley this morning. No fire.”
On her feet immediately at the grave, strained quality in his voice she got the bear hide over him, led him to the bed. He was holding his ribs, face pale and sweaty, looked to be having a hard time breathing. “You’re freezing. How long were you out there?”
Einar shrugged. “Since just after dawn, I guess. Couldn’t see anything. No smoke, nothing down in the valley, but they’re out there. One man at least, and I’m thinking he’s not alone, based on the way those shots went. Three right in a row, almost like he might have been signaling someone. We’re gonna have to…next few weeks are gonna have to be different. No more fires during the day when the smoke has a chance of being seen, and we’ve got to watch how much noise we make. Even something like chopping wood could give us away, if a person happened to be close enough. Don’t figure those shots sounded quite that close, couple miles away would be my guess, but folks are definitely in the area. We’ve done this before you know, had to limit our use of fire. We’ll do fine. Just have to…to plan…little differently.”
“Yes. Like you said, we’ve done it before…here. You stay here under the hide, and let me get you something to drink. Even if we can’t have hot tea or soup, a little honey water seems like a very good idea. And some pudding. Wish I’d got a bigger batch of pudding made last night. If I’d have thought about hunting season starting, I would have put aside a huge batch of it, bear fat, serviceberries, powdered jerky and honey so we’d have something to eat that didn’t require any heating, but at least we have a little of it left from our trip down to the valley. Here. Have some. I’ll make more the first time we can have a fire.”
Einar thanked her, took the food and set it aside for later. For the moment, they had some serious planning and talking to do.