The tracks were not fresh. Einar had been sure of that much as soon as he’d seen them, their depth and definition not in the least resembling the faint scratches and scrapings made by his boots and Liz’s as they traversed the hard-frozen snow that morning, and he supposed the fact ought to be reassuring, but it wasn’t. Meant the intruder must have passed by sometime during the previous day, late morning or early afternoon, judging from the slight melting and expansion around the edges of the tracks, had made his way along through the timber not terribly far below the cabin and might well have smelled their smoke, if not seen it. And now he was gone, long gone by the looks of things and beyond their reach had they wanted to stop him. Which Einar very much did, wanted to track him down, observe him and measure his intentions, and he certainly would have done so had the man not possessed such a solid lead.
As it was, Liz following him at a careful distance and keeping a sharp eye out for any sign that they were being watched, Einar stalked the trail down through the willow-clearing, keeping to the timber and observing it from a distance as it pursued a rather straight course, straighter than he would have normally walked and, as confirmed for him by long experience with such matters, straighter than most other men would have traveled as well, unless pressed for time and bent on covering ground as quickly as possible in pursuit of one mission or another. The man had at times behaved oddly though, wandering from his straight course with footsteps that appeared erratic, stumbling, tripping around for half a minute or so before standing stalk-still, turning one way and another as if attempting to regain his bearings or, Einar could not help but think, trying to remember where he was, and why he had come to be there. Which could mean one of several things, could indicate anything from a wayward and weary hunter--more than weary I’d have to say; fella looks like he’s half dead and mighty confused…wonder if he’s gonna make it down at all?--anxious to be down out of the snowy backcountry to a traveler who had observed some sign of their presence, drawn his conclusions and was moving cautiously, stopping to listen for signs of trouble as he made his way out to report the sighting to the feds. Crouched there studying the man’s track where they disappeared into the spruces he shook his head, wishing he could answer with some certainty the riddle, discern the man’s purpose and intentions. Without some measure of certainty he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of their remaining in the area, starting to fear the prospect of returning to the cabin, even, lest they find that an ambush had been laid in their absence. Liz seemed to sense his growing doubt, crouched beside him and put a hand on his knee.
“A hunter, do you think?”
“He wasn’t carrying much of a pack by the looks of his stride, certainly not any portion of a deer or elk. Not a very heavy fellow for the size of the boots, either. And he was limping, dragging a heel now and then, breaking that real straight, purposeful stride of his and wandering like he was lost…looks like he must have been awful tired.”
“An unsuccessful hunter? Tired and sore-footed and maybe even slightly injured? It’s easy to slip and twist an ankle on the snowy rocks, and with all this new snow, the elk have probably almost all gone down lower, so it’s not unreasonable to imagine he might have been unsuccessful.”
“Yes, as every hunter would know, which is part of what concerns me. Why was he up this high right now? And what did he see?”
“Our smoke, maybe.”
Einar nodded, silent, eyes grave, and Liz knew what he was thinking, shook her head.
“I don’t want to leave.”
“Neither do I, but if it’s between that and waiting around to be captured…”
“We only have the one cache that’s far enough from the cabin. It wouldn’t be much to start a winter on. Let’s not be hasty about it. Let’s try and figure out what this guy was doing up here.”
Einar nodded, went back to studying the tracks.
“Looks like his boots were pretty close to being worn out…see here how the tread’s all broken down along the outer edge? Bet he was anxious to get down out of the high country with these ratty old boots, once the snow started. But there’s a pretty good chance he might have spotted our smoke on his way past, even if he was a lousy hunter with bad boots. And though it’ll probably take him longer to make it down out of the mountains than it might someone who was better equipped, he’ll get there eventually. Seeing how badly he was limping though, looks like I’ve got a better chance than I first thought of catching up to him if I really hustle. Better do it, better have you wait over at our cache--just in case he’s already made it out and reported this--while I…”
“Einar, sit down!”
“Right here on this log--sit down.” He sat, still puzzled but recognizing the urgency in her voice and Liz crouched beside him, pulling off his right boot, holding it sole-side up beside one of the tracks.
“When you were out collecting bark for shingles the other day--yesterday! That was yesterday!--did you come down this far?”
Einar shook his head, rested it on his knees as he placed a hand in the nearest track. Didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, understanding where Liz was going with her question and knowing she was right. He rose, relieved, ashamed and terribly angry with himself--probably would have been frightened, too, had he not been so mad--took her pack as well as his own and started up the slope towards the cabin, grim, silent, unable to meet Liz’s eye when she came up beside him and kept pace but then she stopped and he stopped too, leaning on his spear and staring at the ground until she took his face in her hands--dear, dear Einar, don’t do this to yourself--still trying to persuade him to look at her. Which finally he did, only to find her eyes glowing, full of life and something that could easily have been mistaken for joy.
“It’s alright. It was only part of a day, and now we get to keep our cabin and everything we’ve set aside for the baby…Einar, I’m so glad it was just your tracks we were following all this time, and I know you’re unhappy that you were able to make that kind of mistake but it’s one any of us could make under the right circumstances, so let’s just leave it, go home and get on with the day. I can’t wait to get home! So glad we get to see that place again…”
No, things are not Ok, not with me anyway. I’ve lost it, lost just about everything that was keeping me going out here and now it seems I’ve lost my tracking skills and my mind both, in addition to everything else. “Yeah. Me too. Glad we can go home, and I’m gonna get us some more caches set up so we’ll be better off if this ever happens again. Happens for real. This was a good opportunity to assess our state of readiness I guess, though it never should have happened. I’m just sorry the little one’s got a lousy hunter with bad boots, a limp and a head full of mush for a father. Guess he ought to have better than that.”
“We can fix it! All of it. New boots are next on the list for both of us, and all you need to do to get the mush out of your head is eat, eat more than once or twice in a week and maybe allow yourself a bit of rest now and then, and your head will be just fine. Now. It’s a beautiful fall day, sunny and warming up and the snow’s starting to melt off, so what do you say we go home and do the next step in getting that goat hide tanned?” Reluctantly Einar took the hand Liz was offering him--didn’t deserve it, or her, or any of it, grace, gift freely given and sometimes so terribly difficult to accept--and they started up the slope together.