Morning, clear weather holding and dawn coming with a biting chill that made Liz very glad they were permitted to have a fire once more, for she could plainly see her breath in the dim light of the cabin, stiff, prickly ice crusted thickly on the long hairs of the bear hide where their warm breath had escaped in the night, and she hurried into her parka, crouching before the stove and breathing the still-glowing coals back to life, small sticks broken and leaned in a bundle, nurtured to flame. Almost out of wood, the pile they kept near the stove down to a few scattered sticks, and Einar, having come wide awake at Liz’s first stirring, saw the trouble, got himself out into the grey, sunless stillness of the morning and began gathering an armload of wood. Halfway through the task something stopped him, the faintest scraping, perhaps, of tiny feet on a spruce trunk, and he paused, almost holding his breath lest its billowing clouds too greatly obscure his vision, looking about for the source of the disturbance. All about the clearing snow lay smooth and white and wholly undisturbed, save for the spots where wind had knocked it from the spruces to leave irregular indentations in the smoothness, and even these were few and far between for the stillness which had prevailed since the ending of the storm, and everywhere clumps and clods of snow clung to the trees, plastering trunks and bowing branches, a world painted in white, its brilliance sharply contrasting with the almost-black of the evergreens beneath.
That sound again, Einar slowly turning his head as he scanned the clearing, timber beyond, and then a slow smile spread across his faced, grip relaxing somewhat on his spear, which was never far from hand when he left the cabin. The ermines, fully white in their winter coats, were so intent on following one another up and around the base of one spruce trunk and into a snow bank beside another that they did not even see Einar, or if they had, deemed him no threat, continuing with their games, round little black eyes and dark noses standing out sharply amidst the sea of white whenever they looked his direction and long, slender bodies moving with an amazing quickness. Though not surprised to see the creatures up around the basin in winter--the place represented their ideal habitat, or quite nearly so--it was the first time he’d seen such so close to the cabin, and he was glad to have them there. Guess we haven’t scared all the critters away from the immediate area, and that’s a good thing. Means this place is blending in, becoming part of the surroundings, and that can only be good for us. Not that these little weasels are the shyest critters in the timber, not by a long shot, the curious little things, but at least it’s a start. Lost in his contemplation Einar realized that he’d lost track of the pair of lithe little animals, too, searching for any sign of movement and seeing it when the smaller of the two--the female, he was pretty sure--poked its head up out of the snow and just as quickly disappeared again, body bending nearly double as it whisked itself back down into the tunnel. Too late, the second creature having seen it, pursuing, and Einar shook his head, laughing silently at their antics. The two were, it appeared, enjoying a short reprieve from what he knew was a life of hard work and frequent hunger, tunneling beneath the snow in search of mice, voles and other small, creeping creatures--including the occasional pika, as he’d observed--by whose capture they hoped to keep themselves fed for the winter.
Which reminded him. The trapline. While still cautious about the possible return of the helicopter or observation by other future aircraft, he knew they needed, before too long, to be out there adding to their food supply rather than simply living off of what they’d stored aside for the winter. Winter was long at that elevation, long and cold and snowy, and before it was over he had little doubt that they’d need not only everything they had hung from trees and turned into jerky during the fall months, but a steady supply from a series of traps and snares, as well. Took a lot of energy to keep a person going in the sort of cold they would be seeing, had already seen, to a limited extent, and if he wasn’t always able to bring himself to consume the needful amount, Liz certainly was, and would continue to have extra demands throughout the winter, as she would be feeding the baby. Time to get that trapline going again, though I really may re-think the route, given the likelihood of future flyovers, keep a lot more carefully to the timber rather than skirting around the edges of meadows here and there where the walking is indeed easier, but our tracks a lot more visible. Think I’ll make a little trip up into the timber above the place later today, see what I can get set up. Liz may not like it, and I…yeah, I know my legs could be working better than they are, feet hurting less but it’s been what? Two, three days since I’ve really got out and covered any distance out there, and it’s way past time. I’ll take it a little slow if I have to, wear the parka so I don’t freeze but the thing’s got to be done, both so we don’t start getting too far behind on our food procurement and so I don’t just start rotting away or going mad sitting around the cabin all day…both of which may well happen if I don’t get out and stirring here pretty soon.
The ermines had moved on, and Einar--coming out of his contemplation with a start as he began listing to one side, slightly dizzy and perhaps a bit unsure as to the ground’s location--don’t tell me you’re worn out already this is ridiculous; you haven’t done anything yet--was growing quite cold standing there loaded down with firewood, couldn’t feel his fingers anymore and was beginning to shake pretty badly; time to go back in. For now. But something tells me that in addition to working the trapline, you and the winter woods are gonna have some words here pretty soon, gonna be getting to know each other real well once again. Been spending too much time all warm and cozy in the cabin these past few days, Einar. Gone and let yourself start getting a little soft, and that sure won’t do. Yep, seems you’re way overdue for some serious visiting with the snow and cold. Tonight, maybe. Tonight perhaps, but not just then, for Liz, noting his prolonged absence and beginning to worry lest he have fallen asleep out there in the snow--not part of his usual morning routine, but she’d seen the difficulty with which he’d been keeping himself awake the night before, knew his body appeared to be stealing bits of rest here and there wherever it was able, and could hardly blame it--opened the door just then, steered him in through it and relieved him of his load of firewood.
“Come get warm. What were you doing out there?”
“Just getting…firewood. Not out there long.”
“Well, I’d say it’s been at least half an hour…long enough for me to make breakfast, at least!” And just look at yourself! You’re all purple. You’re going to be freezing for hours now, and it’ll take all the energy you gain from eating this breakfast just to get you warm again. How do you ever expect to start putting on the layer of insulation you so badly need, at this rate?
Einar shrugged, grinned, took in a great breath of rising steam from the pot simmering on the stove and sat down heavily on the side of the bed, legs suddenly unwilling to go on supporting him. Didn’t want to tell Liz about his trapline decision, not just yet. Not until he could reliably keep to his feet while telling her. Best stick to the ermines, for the moment. “Was watching a pair or ermine out there in the snow tunneling and diving and generally having a real good time out on the snow. Good to see them around.”