Large bundle of willows slung haphazardly over her shoulder, Liz came into the clearing very nearly at a run, glancing around in search of Einar and finding him there in the cabin door, hurrying to him.
“I saw smoke. Down below the basin, over the rim, looked like it might be coming from the valley, but I don’t think it was quite that far down. Wouldn’t have been visible from up here if it was that far down, not with this breeze.”
Einar nodded, relieved her of her willow bundle and eased it to the ground. “Probably the hunters from this morning. Bet they’re camped in the timber just up from the valley. That would be a fine place to go after elk, those meadows down there, the acres and acres of steep timber above them. Between them and our basin… Well. Looks like we may be getting this cache together just in time. Don’t have any reason to expect they’ll find their way up here, but we’ve got to be ready. Let’s get that basket made. I’ll help.”
Liz immediately began untying the willows, spreading them out on the mix of short grass and spruce needles beside the woodshed, surprised that Einar had not immediately insisted on taking off alone to scout out the “enemy” camp, and not quite trusting that he wasn’t still about to do so. He had a certain quiet, unreadable look about him that she had learned often came before action, eyes distant and mind busy with something, but he seemed serious about helping with the basket, so she decided to take things at face value, for the moment. Quickly laying out the long, sturdy willow wands that would serve as the foundation of the basket, the supports on which the weaving was to begin, Liz started in the middle, securing the crossed wands together with a few quick wraps of the lithe, supple branches, adding more to widen the basket’s base. Einar, meanwhile, had pulled the ends of the starting wands together at the top, tied them loosely and was trying to start from the top with the weaving and work down to Liz, but it wasn’t going too well, each of them needing the basket in a different position for the most effective weaving and neither making as much progress as they probably would have, alone. Finally Einar quit, left Liz to complete the basket and retreated to the cabin, spreading out the deer hide and piling on it all the goods they intended to cache, securing it at the top with nettle cordage and lifting the bundle, testing it, finding it tight and easy to carry. Would have been easy, anyway, if not for his ribs, but he was doing his best to ignore them. And to ignore the growing tightness in his chest, lungs feeling sludgy and uncomfortable, making him wish he could cough, only he couldn’t, not unless he wanted to end up doubled over in pain and all but useless for a few minutes. He’d already tried. Well. He’d seen worse. Was getting along alright.
Lugging his parcel out into the clearing he set it beside Liz where she worked quickly to finish the basket. Amazing lot of progress she’d made during his short absence; they’d be adding the pitch soon. Only they had no way to melt the pitch without a fire, and fire was absolutely out of the question at least until darkness would come to mask any smoke that might escape. Not good. He wanted to get the cache put out that day, wanted it more than ever, after Liz’s discovery of their unwanted company, but he knew it would be foolish to put so much of their food out in the weather like that without protection. They had to have that pitch. And could. He’d forgotten about the candle stubs they still had left, forgotten the fact that they could surely be extended with clumps of beeswax from their recent harvest. It was still in its raw state, not melted down and poured and solidified, but he figured that by working bits of it in his hands, softening and shaping and wrapping it onto those candle stubs, he could extend their life long enough to heat the surface of a rock and melt the pitch they’d need. Almost time to give it a try, because Liz appeared nearly finished with the basket. She certainly does work quickly when there’s a need. The pitch melting ought to take place in the cabin, he figured, just to further minimize any chance that smoke might be seen if a glob of the stuff managed to catch afire and get away from him for a second. Candles fortified with beeswax and lit, Einar positioned a thin flake of granite over them so as to best heat it, angling it slightly back when it was hot to the touch and sticking to it the freshest gobs of pitch he could find, knowing that they would tend to liquefy more quickly than the harder, drier sort. As the pitch began melting and running, Einar caught it on a second rock, heated also over the candles, waiting for Liz to be finished with the basket so they could begin coating it but then he realized that he’d forgotten to tell her about his melting of the pitch, didn’t want to shout and couldn’t leave the operation at that stage without having the still-melting pitch run all over the cabin floor and be partially wasted, so he waited, working feverishly to catch everything as it ran down the granite flake. Liz, as it turned out, came to him, glancing up suddenly from her work and realizing that she did not know where he’d gone, hurrying about the camp half afraid he might have gone out to find the source of the smoke without letting her know he was leaving. Immensely relieved to find him there in the cabin she showed him the basket, which she had for no particular reason carried with her on her frantic search.
“Got it done, all but the lid.”
“Whew! Sure am glad you showed up when you did, because I’ve got hot pitch running all over the place and no way to contain too much more of it. Ready to start coating this thing?”
“Well, I’m glad you were here when I showed up! I didn’t know where you had gone. Yes, let’s coat it. I thought we’d have to wait for tonight’s fire, but looks like you’ve got that solved. You’re wanting to go ahead and get the cache out there pretty quickly, aren’t you?”
Einar nodded, silent, already pouring the molten pitch into the tightly woven interior of the large basket, spreading it with his fingers, barely even appearing to feel the sting of its heat through his intense concentration. There. Done. Only he hadn’t melted enough of it, set several more clumps on the angled granite flake to liquefy. Needed to waterproof the entire vessel, then have enough left over to seal the lid in place. Which lid Liz, seeing his focus and knowing it better not to interrupt him when so absorbed in a task, had begun constructing, spreading the remaining willows out in the patch of sunlight that fell through the open door, creating the lid in the same way she had the base of the basket. By the time she had finished it, Einar was finally satisfied with the job he’d done on the cache basket, its entire inside brown and shining with a layer of hardening pitch. More than adequate to keep the moisture out, and though they would not have the opportunity to add another layer on the outside and cement evergreen boughs into it for concealment, Einar knew they could achieve a similar squirrel’s nest camouflage effect by simply sticking the ends of some small branches into the outer weavings of the basket. Squirrel’s nest. That reminded him. In all the excitement, he’d clean forgotten to ask Liz how many she’d ended up finding and measuring in her attempt to ensure that their mock nest stayed within the “reasonable parameters” he had requested.
Didn’t matter, not anymore. Their focus had to be on simply finishing the cache and getting it placed as soon as possible, in case the hunters whose smoke Liz had seen ended up becoming a direct danger to them, forcing them to leave before their presence could be reported and the full force of the search brought down on their heads once again. The thought of it angered him, the possibility of losing everything to some casual encounter like that, so senseless yet so potentially unavoidable, and he wanted it to be the hunters who were forced to leave, if anyone. Too close. They had ventured too close to his little mountain fortress, were endangering everything with their presence, but he could think of no good way to chase them off without adding to their risk of discovery, no way which left them alive and breathing, that was, and while his first inclination was to go down there and eliminate the threat, do a little hunting of his own--one thing he could definitely do well, no doubt about it, and a plan already existed nearly fully formed in his mind for disposal of the bodies, for misleading and redirecting any searchers who might come looking for the overdue party, had existed since shortly after hearing Liz’s report of the smoke--he knew first inclinations aren’t necessarily always the best ones. Sometimes they are, though, and he wanted, at the very least, to get in close and have a look at whatever camp might be down there near the valley floor, make sure the men were legitimate elk hunters and not a search party merely disguised as such. He was certain he’d be able to tell. That night, perhaps. For the moment, they must get the cache basket finished and concealed along a likely escape route, get everything ready, pay the dues that they must go on paying, if they wanted a chance of being able to hang onto the life they had carved out for themselves. Mustn’t get behind on those payments.