With the day warm and nearly windless Einar had managed to avoid further damaging his frostbitten fingertips while out tracking himself, Liz glad when she inspected them during a short break on the return trip and found only a small blister or two. They would heal. Einar did not seem to share her relief and excitement at the discovery, hardly appeared to care about the fingers at all, simply nodding, shrugging and continuing the climb when she told him they’d better put together an ointment of hound’s tongue and bear grease upon returning to the cabin, dress the fingers with it and allow them a couple days’ healing before he ran the morning trapline again in the cold.
Once back at the cabin Einar attacked the task of preparing additional caches with a single-minded fury that would have frightened Liz somewhat had she not still been so thoroughly awash in relief at their being able to return home. Leaving him to his work--was no sense getting in his way when he was like that, and she knew it--she started a batch of stew simmering, unpacked the everyday use items they’d crammed into their packs before their hasty departure that morning, and thoroughly swept every square inch of the cabin floor with a rough broom she’d constructed of dozens of willow twigs, tied and bound to a straight aspen stick. It was good, so awfully, terribly good to be home, good to have the place clean, warm, looking fresh and beginning to smell of stew once again, so good that Liz found her heart fairly bursting with joy even as she sorrowed for Einar, who crouched out on the cold, slushy ground before the cabin bloodying frostbitten fingers in his hurry to weave several of the large willow containers that would hold their additional caches. Good work and necessary, the need for several such arrangements having been made painfully clear by their almost-evacuation that morning, both of them knowing even more surely than they had known before how much trouble they’d find themselves in should they be forced to abandon the cabin suddenly in the winter, baby on the way or having already arrived, without a backup plan or three already in place, rehearsed, tested and found to be practicable. Good work, but she wished he might slow down a bit, allow himself a break every once in a while, a bite to eat, perhaps do the things that might have some chance of preventing his getting into the sort of situation--hungry, exhausted and not seeing the world terribly clearly--that had led to the track scare that morning, in the first place.
Despite appearances to the contrary Einar was indeed contemplating the events of the day, still furious with himself for having allowed such an oversight. What if those tracks had been real? Had not been your own, and you too disconnected and blind to notice them on your first trip through, this morning? Could have been the end of it for both of you, all three of you, and with your job being to watch out for these folks…well, that’s just beyond inexcusable. Got to wake up, find a way to…to get your head out of this doggone fog and back where it needs to be, Einar. Liz is counting on you and if you’re not gonna be able to follow through on that…well, then she and the little one really would be better off down there with Susan, and you’d better just give up on everything here and start planning that hike. Hike out. End it. Give them a chance. Which thoughts--though of course he’d been the one to bring them up, and no other--would ordinarily have left Einar fuming, grumbling and silently ranting to himself about the foolishness of any such plan, but that day they merely made him sad. Doubtful. Questioning it, all of it, the wisdom of bringing a child into the world under such harsh conditions--he’d never questioned that one before, really, and neither had Liz at least within his hearing; others had done it in the past, and so could they--the chances that they could remain one step ahead of their pursuers long enough to give the child any sort of a reasonable start in life, his ability to provide for their little family as they strove to do that…
Don’t know, Einar, just don’t know how you think you’re gonna be fit not only to provide for them but protect them--as is your duty, and as you’ve always done--if you can’t even recognize your own tracks when you stumble across them on the trapline some morning. You’re slipping, missing things, overlooking them and one of these times that oversight’s gonna be fatal or worse, and not just to you most likely--wouldn’t be so bad if that was all…I could accept it that way, gonna happen to each of us, eventually, that we leave our bones out amongst the rocks and provide a little meal for the birds, and this isn’t a bad place to do it--but to Liz and the kid, too. By default. Because those’re awful steep odds, a woman and a new baby all on their own out here in the dead of winter. Might make it, but you know the chances aren’t all that great. Got to do better, see that it doesn’t happen that way, but I just don’t know…how to get things turned around at this point. Finding myself to be pretty lost here, and I just…Lord, I got to do better by them. Got to be here to provide, got to be worth something to them--which I hardly am right now, hard as I work and scramble and try to convince myself otherwise--and I just don’t know how to get there from here. Don’t know.
Liz knew. Came to him with a steaming pot of goat stew, enriched with bear fat, serviceberries and the starch of several carefully pounded lily corms and served with a strong, sweet tea of honey and nettle, laying the meal carefully on a flat stone near where he was working and taking the mostly completed cache basket from his bloody, battered fingers, gently cleaning them, drying, applying bits of freshly made salve until their throbbing grew slightly less and he was able, with the aid of several soft wraps of rabbitskin on his right hand where it had seen the worst of the damage, to take the pot she held out to him. A good start.
“Eat, Einar, and then I’ll help you finish the caches. It’s looking like a clear day, and as fast as this snow is melting, maybe tomorrow will be a good time to place one of them.”